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   Chapter 20 PRESS AND PUBLIC

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11580

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


At length arrived the eve of the consummation of Mr. Onions Winter's mercantile labours. Forty thousand copies of A Question of Cubits (No. 8 of the Satin Library) had been printed, and already, twenty-four hours before they were to shine in booksellers' shops and on the counters of libraries, every copy had been sold to the trade and a second edition was in the press. Thus, it was certain that one immortal soul per thousand of the entire British race would read Henry's story. In literature, when nine hundred and ninety-nine souls ignore you, but the thousandth buys your work, or at least borrows it-that is called enormous popularity. Henry retired to bed in Dawes Road that night sure of his enormous popularity. But he did not dream of the devoted army of forty thousand admirers. He dreamt of the reviews, some of which he knew were to appear on the day of publication itself. A hundred copies of A Question of Cubits had been sent out for review, and in his dreams he saw a hundred highly-educated men, who had given their lives to the study of fiction, bending anxiously over the tome and seeking with conscientious care the precise phrases in which most accurately to express their expert appreciation of it. He dreamt much of the reviewer of the Daily Tribune, his favourite morning paper, whom he pictured as a man of forty-five or so, with gold-rimmed spectacles and an air of generous enthusiasm. He hoped great things from the article in the Daily Tribune (which, by a strange accident, had completely ignored Love in Babylon), and when he arose in the morning (he had been lying awake a long time waiting to hear the scamper of the newsboy on the steps) he discovered that his hopes were happily realized. The Daily Tribune had given nearly a column of praise to A Question of Cubits, had quoted some choice extracts, had drawn special attention to the wonderful originality of the plot, and asserted that the story was an advance, 'if an advance were possible,' on the author's previous book. His mother and Aunt Annie consumed the review at breakfast with an excellent appetite, and lauded the insight of the critic.

What had happened at the offices of the Daily Tribune was this. At the very moment when Henry was dreaming of its reviewer-namely, half-past eleven p.m.-its editor was gesticulating and shouting at the end of a speaking-tube:

'Haven't had proof of that review of a book called A Question of Cubits, or some such idiotic title! Send it down at once, instantly. Do you hear? What? Nonsense!'

The editor sprang away from the tube, and dashed into the middle of a vast mass of papers on his desk, turning them all over, first in heaps, then singly. He then sprang in succession to various side-tables and served their contents in the same manner.

'I tell you I sent it up myself before dinner,' he roared into the tube. 'It's Mr. Clackmannan's "copy"-you know that peculiar paper he writes on. Just look about. Oh, conf--!'

Then the editor rang a bell.

'Send Mr. Heeky to me, quick!' he commanded the messenger-boy.

'I'm just finishing that leaderette,' began Mr. Heeley, when he obeyed the summons. Mr. Heeley was a young man who had published a book of verse.

'Never mind the leaderette,' said the editor. 'Run across to the other shop yourself, and see if they've got a copy of A Question of Cubits-yes, that's it, A Question of Cubits-and do me fifteen inches on it at once. I've lost Clackmannan's "copy."' (The 'other shop' was a wing occupied by a separate journal belonging to the proprietors of the Tribune.)

'What, that thing!' exclaimed Mr. Heeley. 'Won't it do to-morrow? You know I hate messing my hands with that sort of piffle.'

'No, it won't do to-morrow. I met Onions Winter at dinner on Saturday night, and I told him I'd review it on the day of publication. And when I promise a thing I promise it. Cut, my son! And I say'-the editor recalled Mr. Heeley, who was gloomily departing-'We're under no obligations to anyone. Write what you think, but, all the same, no antics, no spleen. You've got to learn yet that that isn't our speciality. You're not on the Whitehall now.'

'Oh, all right, chief-all right!' Mr. Heeley concurred.

Five minutes later Mr. Heeley entered what he called his private boudoir, bearing a satinesque volume.

'Here, boys,' he cried to two other young men who were already there, smoking clay pipes-'here's a lark! The chief wants fifteen inches on this charming and pathetic art-work as quick as you can. And no antics, he says. Here, Jack, here's fifty pages for you'-Mr. Heeley ripped the beautiful inoffensive volume ruthlessly in pieces-and here's fifty for you, Clementina. Tell me your parts of the plot I'll deal with the first fifty my noble self.'

Presently, after laughter, snipping out of pages with scissors, and some unseemly language, Mr. Heeley began to write.

'Oh, he's shot up to six foot eight!' exclaimed Jack, interrupting the scribe.

'Snow!' observed the bearded man styled Clementina. 'He dies in the snow. Listen.' He read a passage from Henry's final scene, ending with 'His spirit had passed.' 'Chuck me the scissors, Jack.'

Mr. Heeley paused, looked up, and then drew his pen through what he had written.

'I say, boys,'he almost whispered, 'I'll praise it, eh? I'll take it seriously. It'll be simply delicious.'

'What about the chief?'

'Oh, the chief won't notice it! It'll be just for us three, and a few at the club.'

Then there was hard scribbling, and pasting of extracts into blank spaces, and more laughter.

'"If an advance were possible,"' Clementina read, over Mr. Heeley's shoulder. 'You'll give the show away, you fool!'

'No, I shan't, Clemmy, my boy,' said Mr. Heeley judicially. 'They'll stand simply any

thing. I bet you what you like Onions Winter quotes that all over the place.'

And he handed the last sheet of the review to a messenger, and ran off to the editorial room to report that instructions had been executed. Jack and Clementina relighted their pipes with select bits of A Question of Cubits, and threw the remaining débris of the volume into the waste-paper basket. The hour was twenty minutes past midnight....

The great majority of the reviews were exceedingly favourable, and even where praise was diluted with blame, the blame was administered with respect, as a dentist might respectfully pain a prince in pulling his tooth out. The public had voted for Henry, and the press, organ of public opinion, displayed a wise discretion. The daring freshness of Henry's plot, his inventive power, his skill in 'creating atmosphere,' his gift for pathos, his unfailing wholesomeness, and his knack in the management of narrative, were noted and eulogized in dozens of articles. Nearly every reviewer prophesied brilliant success for him; several admitted frankly that his equipment revealed genius of the first rank. A mere handful of papers scorned him. Prominent among this handful was the Whitehall Gazette. The distinguished mouthpiece of the superior classes dealt with A Question of Cubits at the foot of a column, in a brief paragraph headed 'Our Worst Fears realized.' The paragraph, which was nothing but a summary of the plot, concluded in these terms: 'So he expired, every inch of him, in the snow, a victim to the British Public's rapacious appetite for the sentimental.'

The rudeness of the Whitehall Gazette, however, did nothing whatever to impair the wondrous vogue which Henry now began to enjoy. His first boom had been great, but it was a trifle compared to his second. The title of the new book became a catchword. When a little man was seen walking with a tall woman, people exclaimed: 'It's a question of cubits.' When the recruiting regulations of the British army were relaxed, people also exclaimed: 'It's a question of cubits.' During a famous royal procession, sightseers trying to see the sight over the heads of a crowd five deep shouted to each other all along the route: 'It's a question of cubits.' Exceptionally tall men were nicknamed 'Gerald' by their friends. Henry's Gerald, by the way, had died as doorkeeper at a restaurant called the Trianon. The Trianon was at once recognised as the Louvre, and the tall commissionaire at the Louvre thereby trebled his former renown. 'Not dead in the snow yet?' the wits of the West End would greet him on descending from their hansoms, and he would reply, infinitely gratified: 'No, sir. No snow, sir.' A music-hall star of no mean eminence sang a song with the refrain:

'You may think what you like,

You may say what you like,

It was simply a question of cubits.'

The lyric related the history of a new suit of clothes that was worn by everyone except the person who had ordered it.

Those benefactors of humanity, the leading advertisers, used 'A Question of Cubits' for their own exalted ends. A firm of manufacturers of high-heeled shoes played with it for a month in various forms. The proprietors of an unrivalled cheap cigarette disbursed thousands of pounds in order to familiarize the public with certain facts. As thus: 'A Question of Cubits. Every hour of every day we sell as many cigarettes as, if placed on end one on the top of the other, would make a column as lofty as the Eiffel Tower. Owing to the fact that cigarettes are not once mentioned in A Question of Cubits, we regret to say that the author has not authorized us to assert that he was thinking of our cigarettes when he wrote Chapter VII. of that popular novel.'

Editors and publishers cried in vain for Henry. They could get from him neither interviews, short stories, nor novels. They could only get polite references to Mark Snyder. And Mark Snyder had made his unalterable plans for the exploitation of this most wonderful racehorse that he had ever trained for the Fame Stakes. The supply of chatty paragraphs concerning the hero and the book of the day would have utterly failed had not Mr. Onions Winter courageously come to the rescue and allowed himself to be interviewed. And even then respectable journals were reduced to this sort of paragraph: 'Apropos of Mr. Knight's phenomenal book, it may not be generally known what the exact measure of a cubit is. There have been three different cubits-the Scriptural, the Roman, and the English. Of these, the first-named,' etc.

So the thing ran on.

And at the back of it all, supporting it all, was the steady and prodigious sale of the book, the genuine enthusiasm for it of the average sensible, healthy-minded woman and man.

Finally, the information leaked out that Macalistairs had made august and successful overtures for the reception of Henry into their fold. Sir Hugh Macalistair, the head of the firm, was (at that time) the only publisher who had ever been knighted. And the history of Macalistairs was the history of all that was greatest and purest in English literature during the nineteenth century. Without Macalistairs, English literature since Scott would have been nowhere. Henry was to write a long novel in due course, and Macalistairs were to have the world's rights of the book, and were to use it as a serial in their venerable and lusty Magazine, and to pay Henry, on delivery of the manuscript, eight thousand pounds, of which six thousand was to count as in advance of royalties on the book.

Mr. Onions Winter was very angry at what he termed an ungrateful desertion. The unfortunate man died a year or two later of appendicitis, and his last words were that he, and he alone, had 'discovered' Henry.

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