The room in which John Shorely edited the Weekly Sponge was not luxuriously furnished, but it was comfortable. A few pictures decorated the walls, mostly black and white drawings by artists who were so unfortunate as to be compelled to work for the Sponge on the cheap. Magazines and papers were littered all about, chiefly American in their origin, for Shorely had been brought up in the editorial school which teaches that it is cheaper to steal from a foreign publication than waste good money on original contributions. You clipped out the story; changed New York to London; Boston or Philadelphia to Manchester or Liverpool, and there you were.
Shorely's theory was that the public was a fool, and didn't know the difference. Some of the greatest journalistic successes in London proved the fact, he claimed, yet the Sponge frequently bought stories from well-known authors, and bragged greatly about it.
Shorely's table was littered with manuscripts, but the attention of the great editor was not upon them. He sat in his wooden armchair, with his gaze on the fire and a frown on his brow. The Sponge was not going well, and he feared he would have to adopt some of the many prize schemes that were such a help to pure literature elsewhere, or offer a thousand pounds insurance, tied up in such a way that it would look lavishly generous to the constant reader, and yet be impossible to collect if a disaster really occurred.
In the midst of his meditations a clerk entered and announced--"Mr. Bromley Gibberts."
"Tell him I'm busy just now--tell him I'm engaged," said the editor, while the perplexed frown deepened on his brow.
The clerk's conscience; however, was never burdened with that message, for Gibberts entered, with a long ulster coat flapping about his heels.
"That's all right," said Gibberts, waving his hand at the boy, who stood with open mouth, appalled at the intrusion. "You heard what Mr. Shorely said. He's engaged. Therefore let no one enter. Get out."
The boy departed, closing the door after him. Gibberts turned the key in the lock, and then sat down.
"There," he said; "now we can talk unmolested, Shorely. I should think you would be pestered to death by all manner of idiots who come in and interrupt you."
"I am," said the editor, shortly.
"Then take my plan, and lock your door. Communicate with the outer office through a speaking-tube. I see you are down-hearted, so I have come to cheer you up. I've brought you a story, my boy."
"My dear Gibberts," he said, "we have now----"
"Oh yes, I know all about that. You have matter enough on hand to run the paper for the next fifteen years. If this is a comic story, you are buying only serious stuff. If this be tragic, humour is what you need. Of course, the up-and-down truth is that you are short of money, and can't pay my price. The Sponge is failing--everybody knows that. Why can't you speak the truth, Shorely, to me, at least? If you practiced an hour a day, and took lessons--from me, for instance--you would be able in a month to speak several truthful sentences one after the other."
The editor laughed bitterly.
"You are complimentary," he said.
"I'm not. Try again, Shorely. Say I'm a boorish ass."
"Well, you are."
"There, you see how easy it is! Practice is everything. Now, about this story, will you----"
"I will not. As you are not an advertiser, I don't mind admitting to you that the paper is going down. You see it comes to the same thing. We haven't the money as you say, so what's the use of talking?"
Gibberts hitched his chair closer to the editor, and placed his hand on the other's knee. He went on earnestly--
"Now is the time to talk, Shorely. In a little while it will be too late. You will have thrown up the Sponge. Your great mistake is trying to ride two horses, each facing a different direction. It can't be done, my boy. Make up your mind whether you are going to be a thief or an honest man. That's the first step."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. Go in for a paper that will be entirely stolen property, or for one made up of purely original matter."
"We have a great deal of original matter in the Sponge."
"Yes, and that's what I object to. Have it all original, or have it all stolen. Be fish or fowl. At least one hundred men a week see a stolen article in the Sponge which they have read elsewhere. They then believe it is all stolen, and you lose them. That isn't business, so I want to sell you one original tale, which will prove to be the most remarkable story written in England this year."
"Oh, they all are," said Shorely, wearily. "Every story sent to me is a most remarkable story, in the author's opinion."
"Look here, Shorely," cried Gibberts, angrily, "you mustn't talk to me like that. I'm no unknown author, a fact of which you are very well aware. I don't need to peddle my goods."
"Then why do you come here lecturing me?"
"For your own good, Shorely, my boy," said Gibberts, calming down as rapidly as he had flared up. He was a most uncertain man. "For your own good, and if you don't take this story, some one else will. It will make the fortune of the paper that secures it. Now, you read it while I wait. Here it is, typewritten, at one-and-three a thousand words, all to save your blessed eyesight."
Shorely took the manuscript and lit the gas, for it was getting dark. Gibberts sat down awhile, but soon began to pace the room, much to Shorely's manifest annoyance. Not content with this, he picked up the poker and noisily stirred the fire. "For Heaven's sake, sit down, Gibberts, and be quiet!" cried Shorely, at last.
Gibberts seized the poker as if it had been a weapon, and glared at the editor.
"I won't sit down, and I will make just as much noise as I want to," he roared. As he stood there defiantly, Shorely saw a gleam of insanity in his eyes.
"Oh, very well, then," said Shorely, continuing to read the story.
For a moment Gibberts stood grasping the poker by the middle, then he flung it with a clatter on the fender, and, sitting down, gazed moodily into the fire, without moving, until Shorely had turned the last page.
"Well," said Gibberts, rousing from his reverie, "what do you think of it?"
"It's a good story, Gibberts. All your stories are good," said the editor, carelessly.
Gibberts started to his feet, and swore.
"Do you mean to say," he thundered, "that you see nothing in that story different from any I or any one else ever wrote? Hang it, Shorely, you wouldn't know a good story if you met it coming up Fleet Street! Can't you see that story is written with a man's heart's blood?"
Shorely stretched out his legs and thrust his hands far down in his trousers' pockets.
"It may have been written as you say, although I thought you called my attention a moment ago to its type-written character."
"Don't be flippant, Shorely," said Gibberts, relapsing again into melancholy. "You don't like the story, then? You didn't see anything unusual in it--purpose, force, passion, life, death, nothing?"
"There is death enough at the end. My objection is that there is too much blood and thunder in it. Such a tragedy could never happen. No man could go to a country house and slaughter every one in it. It's absurd."
Gibberts sprang from his seat and began to pace the room excitedly. Suddenly he stopped before his friend, towering over him, his long ulster making him look taller than he really was.
"Did I ever tell you the tragedy of my life? How the property that would have kept me from want has----"
"Of course you have, Gibberts. Sit down. You've told it to everybody. To me several times."
"How my cousin cheated me out of----"
"Certainly. Out of land and the woman you loved."
"Oh! I told you that, did I?" said Gibberts, apparently abashed at the other's familiarity with the circumstances. He sat down, and rested his head in his hands. There was a long silence between the two, which was finally broken by Gibberts saying--
"So you don't care about the story?"
"Oh, I don't say that. I can see it is the story of your own life, with an imaginary and sanguinary ending."
"Oh, you saw that, did you?"
"Yes. How much do you want for it?"
"L50, I tell you. Are you deaf? And I want the money now."
"Bless your innocent heart, I can buy a longer story than that from the greatest author living for less than L50. Gibberts, you're crazy."
Gibberts looked up suddenly and inquiringly, as if that thought had never occurred to him before. He seemed rather taken with the idea. It would explain many things which had puzzled both himself and his friends. He meditated upon the matter for a few moments, but at last shook his head.
"No, Shorely," he said, with a sigh. "I'm not insane, though, goodness knows, I've had enough to drive me mad. I don't seem to have the luck of some people. I haven't the talent for going crazy. But to return to the story. You think L50 too much for it. It will make the fortune of the paper that publishes it. Let me see. I had it a moment ago, but the point has escaped my memory. What was it you objected to as unnatural?"
"The tragedy. There is too much wholesale murder at the end."
"Ah! now I have it! Now I recollect!"
Gibberts began energetically to pace the room again, smiting his hands together. His face was in a glow of excitement.
"Yes, I have it now. The tragedy. Granting a murder like that, one man a dead shot, killing all the people in a country house; imagine it actually taking place. Wouldn't all England ring with it?"
"Of course it would. Now, you listen to me. I'm going to commit that so-called crime. One week after you publish the story, I'm going down to that country house, Channor Chase. It is my house, if there was justice and right in England, and I'm going to slaughter every one in it. I will leave a letter, saying the story in the Sponge is the true story of what led to the tragedy. Your paper in a week will be the most-talked-of journal in England--in the world. It will leap instantaneously into a circulation such as no weekly on earth ever before attained. Look here, Shorely, that story is worth L50,000 rather than L50, and if you don't buy it at once, some one else will. Now, what do you say?"
"I say you are joking, or else, as I said just now, you are as mad as a hatter."
"Admitting I am mad, will you take the story?"
"No, but I'll prevent you committing the crime."
"By giving you in charge. By informing on you."
"You can't do it. Until such a crime is committed, no one would believe it could be committed. You have no witnesses to our conversation here, and I will deny every assertion you make. My word, at present, is as good as yours. All you can do is to ruin your chance of fortune, which knocks at every man's door. When I came in, you were wondering what you could do to put the Sponge on its feet. I saw it in your attitude. Now, what do you say?"
"I'll give you L25 for the story on its own merits, although it is a big price, and you need not commit the crime."
"Done! That is the sum I wanted, but I knew if I asked it, you would offer me L12 10s. Will you publish it within the month?"
"Very well. Write out the cheque. Don't cross it. I've no bank account."
When the cheque was handed to him, Gibberts thrust it into the ticket- pocket of his ulster, turned abruptly, and unlocked the door. "Good- bye," he said.
As he disappeared, Shorely noticed how long his ulster was, and how it flapped about his heels. The next time he saw the novelist was under circumstances that could never be effaced from his memory.
The Sponge was a sixteen-page paper, with a blue cover, and the week Gibberts' story appeared, it occupied the first seven pages. As Shorely ran it over in the paper, it impressed him more than it had done in manuscript. A story always seems more convincing in type.
Shorely met several men at the Club, who spoke highly of the story, and at last he began to believe it was a good one himself. Johnson was particularly enthusiastic, and every one in the Club knew Johnson's opinion was infallible.
"How did you come to get hold of it?" he said to Shorely, with unnecessary emphasis on the personal pronoun.
"Don't you think I know a good story when I see it?" asked the editor, indignantly.
"It isn't the general belief of the Club," replied Johnson, airily; "but then, all the members have sent you contributions, so perhaps that accounts for it. By the way, have you seen Gibberts lately?"
"No; why do you ask?"
"Well, it strikes me he is acting rather queerly. If you asked me, I don't think he is quite sane. He has something on his mind."
"He told me," said the new member, with some hesitation--"but really I don't think I'm justified in mentioning it, although he did not tell it in confidence--that he was the rightful heir to a property in----"
"Oh, we all know that story!" cried the Club, unanimously.
"I think it's the Club whiskey," said one of the oldest members. "I say, it's the worst in London."
"Verbal complaints not received. Write to the Committee," put in Johnson. "If Gibberts has a friend in the Club, which I doubt, that friend should look after him. I believe he will commit suicide yet."
These sayings troubled Shorely as he walked back to his office. He sat down to write a note, asking Gibberts to call. As he was writing, McCabe, the business manager of the Sponge, came in.
"What's the matter with the old sheet this week?" he asked.
"Matter? I don't understand you."
"Well, I have just sent an order to the printer to run off an extra ten thousand, and here comes a demand from Smith's for the whole lot. The extra ten thousand were to go to different newsagents all over the country who have sent repeat orders, so I have told the printer now to run off at least twenty-five thousand, and to keep the plates on the press. I never read the Sponge myself, so I thought I would drop in and ask you what the attraction was. This rush is unnatural.
"Better read the paper and find out," said Shorely.
"I would, if there wasn't so much of your stuff in it," retorted McCabe.
Next day McCabe reported an almost bewildering increase in orders. He had a jubilant "we've-done-it-at-last" air that exasperated Shorely, who felt that he alone should have the credit. There had come no answer to the note he had sent Gibberts, so he went to the Club, in the hope of meeting him. He found Johnson, whom he asked if Gibberts were there.
"He's not been here to-day," said Johnson; "but I saw him yesterday, and what do you think he was doing? He was in a gun-shop in the Strand, buying cartridges for that villainous-looking seven-shooter of his. I asked him what he was going to do with a revolver in London, and he told me, shortly, that it was none of my business, which struck me as so accurate a summing-up of the situation, that I came away without making further remark. If you want any more stories by Gibberts, you should look after him."
Shorely found himself rapidly verging into a state of nervousness regarding Gibberts. He was actually beginning to believe the novelist meditated some wild action, which might involve others in a disagreeable complication. Shorely had no desire to be accessory either before or after the fact. He hurried back to the office, and there found Gibberts' belated reply to his note. He hastily tore it open, and the reading of it completely banished what little self-control he had left.
"Dear Shorely,--I know why you want to see me, but I have so many affairs to settle, that it is impossible for me to call upon you. However, have no fears; I shall stand to my bargain, without any goading from you. Only a few days have elapsed since the publication of the story, and I did not promise the tragedy before the week was out. I leave for Channor Chase this afternoon. You shall have your pound of flesh, and more.--Yours,
Shorely was somewhat pale about the lips when he had finished this scrawl. He flung on his coat, and rushed into the street. Calling a hansom, he said--
"Drive to Kidner's Inn as quickly as you can. No. 15."
Once there, he sprang up the steps two at a time, and knocked at Gibberts' door. The novelist allowed himself the luxury of a "man," and it was the "man" who answered Shorely's imperious knock.
"He's just gone, sir."
"To Euston Station, I believe, sir; and he took a hansom. He's going into the country for a week, sir, and I wasn't to forward his letters, so I haven't his address."
"Have you an 'ABC'?"
"Yes, sir; step inside, sir. Mr. Gibberts was just looking up trains in it, sir, before he left."
Shorely saw it was open at C, and, looking down the column to Channor, he found that a train left in about twenty minutes. Without a word, he dashed down the stairs again. The "man" did not seem astonished. Queer fish sometimes came to see his master.
"Can you get me to Euston Station in twenty minutes?"
The cabman shook his head, as he said--
"I'll do my best, sir, but we ought to have a good half-hour."
The driver did his best, and landed Shorely on the departure platform two minutes after the train had gone.
"When is the next train to Channor?" demanded Shorely of a porter.
"Just left, sir."
"The next train hasn't just left, you fool. Answer my question."
"Two hours and twenty minutes, sir," replied the porter, in a huff.
Shorely thought of engaging a special, but realised he hadn't money enough. Perhaps he could telegraph and warn the people of Channor Chase, but he did not know to whom to telegraph. Or, again, he thought he might have Gibberts arrested on some charge or other at Channor Station. That, he concluded, was the way out--dangerous, but feasible.
By this time, however, the porter had recovered his equanimity. Porters cannot afford to cherish resentment, and this particular porter saw half a crown in the air.
"Did you wish to reach Channor before the train that's just gone, sir?"
"Yes. Can it be done?"
"It might be done, sir," said the porter, hesitatingly, as if he were on the verge of divulging a State secret which would cost him his situation. He wanted the half-crown to become visible before he committed himself further.
"Here's half a sovereign, if you tell me how it can be done, short of hiring a special."
"Well, sir, you could take the express that leaves at the half-hour. It will carry you fifteen miles beyond Channor, to Buley Junction, then in seventeen minutes you can get a local back to Channor, which is due three minutes before the down train reaches there--if the local is in time," he added, when the gold piece was safe stowed in his pocket.
While waiting for the express, Shorely bought a copy of the Sponge, and once more he read Gibberts' story on the way down. The third reading appalled him. He was amazed he had not noticed before the deadly earnestness of its tone. We are apt to underrate or overrate the work of a man with whom we are personally familiar.
Now, for the first time, Shorely seemed to get the proper perspective. The reading left him in a state of nervous collapse. He tried to remember whether or not he had burned Gibberts' letter. If he had left it on his table, anything might happen. It was incriminating evidence.
The local was five minutes late at the Junction, and it crawled over the fifteen miles back to Channor in the most exasperating way, losing time with every mile. At Channor he found the London train had come and gone.
"Did a man in a long ulster get off, and----"
"For Channor Chase, sir?"
"Yes. Has he gone?"
"Oh yes, sir! The dog-cart from the Chase was here to meet him, sir."
"How far is it?"
"About five miles by road, if you mean the Chase, sir."
"Can I get a conveyance?"
"I don't think so, sir. They didn't know you were coming, I suppose, or they would have waited; but if you take the road down by the church, you can get there before the cart, sir. It isn't more than two miles from the church. You'll find the path a bit dirty, I'm afraid, sir, but not worse than the road. You can't miss the way, and you can send for your luggage."
It had been raining, and was still drizzling. A strange path is sometimes difficult to follow, even in broad daylight, but a wet, dark evening adds tremendously to the problem. Shorely was a city man, and quite unused to the eccentricities of country lanes and paths.
He first mistook the gleaming surface of a ditch for the footpath, and only found his mistake when he was up to his waist in water. The rain came on heavily again, and added to his troubles. After wandering through muddy fields for some time, he came to a cottage, where he succeeded in securing a guide to Channor Chase.
The time he had lost wandering in the fields would, Shorely thought, allow the dog-cart to arrive before him, and such he found to be the case. The man who answered Shorely's imperious summons to the door was surprised to find a wild-eyed, unkempt, bedraggled individual, who looked like a lunatic or a tramp.
"Has Mr. Bromley Gibberts arrived yet?" he asked, without preliminary talk.
"Yes, sir," answered the man.
"Is he in his room?"
"No, sir. He has just come down, after dressing, and is in the drawing- room.
"I must see him at once," gasped Shorely. "It is a matter of life and death. Take me to the drawing-room."
The man, in some bewilderment, led him to the door of the drawing-room, and Shorely heard the sound of laughter from within. Thus ever are comedy and tragedy mingled. The man threw the door open, and Shorely entered. The sight he beheld at first dazzled him, for the room was brilliantly lighted. He saw a number of people, ladies and gentlemen, all in evening dress, and all looking towards the door, with astonishment in their eyes. Several of them, he noticed, had copies of the Sponge in their hands. Bromley Gibberts stood before the fire, and was very evidently interrupted in the middle of a narration.
"I assure you," he was saying, "that is the only way by which a story of the highest class can be sold to a London editor."
He stopped as he said this, and turned to look at the intruder. It was a moment or two before he recognised the dapper editor in the bedraggled individual who stood, abashed, at the door.
"By the gods!" he exclaimed, waving his hands. "Speak of the editor, and he appears. In the name of all that's wonderful, Shorely, how did you come here? Have your deeds at last found you out? Have they ducked you in a horse-pond? I have just been telling my friends here how I sold you that story, which is making the fortune of the Sponge. Come forward, and show yourself, Shorely, my boy."
"I would like a word with you," stammered Shorely.
"Then, have it here," said the novelist. "They all understand the circumstances. Come and tell them your side of the story."
"I warn you," said Shorely, pulling himself together, and addressing the company, "that this man contemplates a dreadful crime, and I have come here to prevent it."
Gibberts threw back his head, and laughed loudly.
"Search me," he cried. "I am entirely unarmed, and, as every one here knows, among my best friends."
"Goodness!" said one old lady. "You don't mean to say that Channor Chase is the scene of your story, and where the tragedy was to take place?"
"Of course it is," cried Gibberts, gleefully. "Didn't you recognise the local colour? I thought I described Channor Chase down to the ground, and did I not tell you you were all my victims? I always forget some important detail when telling a story. Don't go yet," he said, as Shorely turned away; "but tell your story, then we will have each man's narrative, after the style of Wilkie Collins."
But Shorely had had enough, and, in spite of pressing invitations to remain, he departed out into the night, cursing the eccentricities of literary men.