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Once Aboard the Lugger-- The History of George and his Mary By A. S. M. Hutchinson Characters: 11540

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Excursions In A Newspaper Office.

I.

Silent, white and stern of face, occupied with immense thoughts, the young men sat as the cab they had found outside Battersea Park station sped them towards Fleet Street.

They were upon the Embankment, rattling beneath Hungerford Bridge, when from the tangle of his plans Bill at last drew a thread; weaved it to words. "George, we mustn't tell the chief anything about your being mixed up with the other cat outrage-the Rose. It might be awkward."

George shifted the hand that firmly held Abishag on the seat between them; squeezed that fine creature's head to him with his arm; with his handkerchief wiped his sweating palms.

"It's going to be awkward," he said-"damned awkward! I see that. Oh, Bill!"

He groaned. This young man was in desperate agitation.

"Buck up," Bill told him. "This is a cert. Safe as houses."

"All very well for you, Bill. I seem to have been living one gigantic lie all the past week."

"Well, you have, you know," Bill granted. "By gum, you have! But you aren't now. You didn't steal this cat. You found it just as anyone else might have found it. All I tell you is: Don't say anything about the Rose. Don't open your mouth, in fact. Leave the gassing to me."

It was upon this repeated injunction that my poor George tottered up the stairs of the Daily office, cat in arm, in Bill's wake.

II.

Bill rapped upon Mr. Bitt's door; poked in his head at the answering call; motioned my trembling George to wait; stepped over the threshold.

Mr. Bitt sat behind a broad table; before him, deep in an armchair, smoking a cigarette, lay Mr. Vivian Howard.

"Ah! Wyvern," spoke Mr. Bitt. "Mr. Howard, this is Mr. Wyvern, one of my brightest young men. From to-day he takes in hand this business."

Mr. Vivian Howard did not rise; stretched a white hand to Bill. This man had an appreciation of the position he had won. This man stood for English literature. Within a wide estimate of public opinion, and within that immense estimate of him that was his own, this man stood for literature. In a manner worthy of his proud standing this man comported himself. The talents that were his belonged to the nation, and very freely he gave them to the people. This man did not deny himself to the crowd as another might have denied himself. Of him it never could be said that he missed opportunity to let the public feed upon him. This man made such opportunities. Where excitement was, there this man, pausing between his novels, would step in. If a murder-trial had the public attention this man would write upon that trial; if interest were fixed upon a trade dispute this man would by some means draw that interest upon himself. Nothing was too small for this man. Walking the public places he did not shrink from recognition; he gladly permitted it. Not once but many times, coming upon a stranger reading one of his novels, he had announced himself; autographed the copy. This man's character was wholly in keeping with his gifts.

Yet beautifully he could preserve the dignity that was his right. Preserving it now, he gave his hand to Bill but did not move his position.

"It is a great pleasure to me to meet you, sir," Bill told him.

"You have only lately joined the ranks of journalism, Mr. Bitt tells me," Mr. Vivian Howard graciously replied. "It is the stepping-stone to literature. Never forget that. Never lose sight of that. I shall watch your career with the greatest interest."

Mr. Bitt broke in a trifle impatiently: "Well, well, we must keep to business just now. Mr. Howard will kindly give us a daily interview, Wyvern, until the feuilleton starts, or until the cat is found. You'd better-"

Bill took a pace back; faced them both. "No need," he cried in bursting words. "The cat is found!"

The cigarette dropped from Mr. Vivian Howard's lip to his waistcoat. He brushed at it violently; burnt his fingers; brushed again; swore with a ferocity that would have astonished his admirers; sprang to his feet amid a little shower of sparks and cloud of ash. "Found!" he exclaimed; jabbed a burnt finger in his mouth and thickly repeated, "Found!"

Mr. Bitt simultaneously rose. "Found?" cried Mr. Bitt. "What the-"

"I have the finder here," Bill told them; stepped to the door.

On legs that shook my agitated George advanced.

Mr. Vivian Howard drew forth his suffering finger with a loud pop; made three hasty strides to George; took the cat. "Abishag!" he cried in ecstasy, "Abishag!"

In very gloomy tones Mr. Bitt announced that he was bust. "Well, I'm bust!" he said. "I'm bust. It is your cat, eh?"

Mr. Vivian Howard nodded the head he was bending over his Abishag.

Bill signalled to George a swift wink. George drew a handkerchief; wiped from his face the beaded agony.

Mr. Bitt dropped heavily into his seat. "Of course I'm very glad, Mr. Howard," he announced stonily. "Very glad. At the same time-at the same time-" He turned upon George with a note that was almost savage. "You, sir!" he cried.

George started painfully.

"How the-How did you come to find this cat?"

George forced his pocket handkerchief into his trousers pocket; rammed it down; cleared his throat; ran a finger round the inside of his collar; cleared again; said nothing.

Bill hurried to the rescue. "Like this, sir. Let me tell you. This gentleman was at Paltley Hill, a place on the South-Western. He used to live there. He found the cat in a deserted kind of hut, took charge of it. I happened to meet him and brought him along. By Jove, sir, only published this morning and found within a few hours! It's pretty good, isn't it?"

Mr. Bitt spoke with great disgust. "Pretty good!" he cried bitterly. "Pretty good!" He had no fit wo

rds in which to express his feeling. "Kindly step in there a moment," he addressed George.

George trembled into the adjoining room indicated; closed the door.

Mr. Bitt turned to Mr. Vivian Howard. "It will always be a great pleasure to me," he told the great novelist, "to think that the Daily was the means of restoring your cat."

"I never shall forget it," Mr. Vivian Howard assured him. The famous author placed himself upon the couch, caressed Abishag the Shunamite upon his lap. "Never shall forget it. It was more than good of you, Mr. Bitt, to take up the matter and offer so handsome a reward. It was public-spirited."

Mr. Bitt's deprecatory little laugh had a rueful note.

He nerved himself to step upon the delicate ground that lay between him and his purpose. This man had not known Mr. Vivian Howard sufficiently long to put to him directly that the reward was offered, and gladly agreed to by Mr. Howard, for purposes of respective self-advertisement agreeable at once to the paper and to the man who stood for English literature. He nerved himself:

"When you say public-spirited, Mr. Howard, you use the right term. I do not attempt to deny that I fully appreciated that this reward for your cat, and the interview you agreed to give us, would greatly benefit our paper. Why should I deny it? We editors must be business men first, nowadays; journalists afterwards. But I do ask you to believe me, Mr. Howard, that in offering this reward, in arousing this interest, I had in view also a matter that has been my aim since I was at College."

Mr. Bitt's college was Rosa Glen College, 156 Farmer Road, Peckham; but he preferred the briefer designation.

"The aim," he continued, gathering courage as he detected in Mr. Vivian Howard's face a look which seemed to show that the famous author was advancing upon the delicate ground to meet him, "the aim of attracting the people to good literature."

Mr. Vivian Howard, as standing for that literature, took the implied compliment with a bow. "I congratulate you, Mr. Bitt."

"Now, the Daily is young," Mr. Bitt earnestly continued. "The Daily has yet to make its way. If your 'Amy Martin' starts in normal circumstances a week hence, it will mean that this contribution to our highest literature will fall only to a comparatively small circle of people. But if-but if, as I had hoped, we had morning by morning attracted more and more readers by the great interest taken in your loss, 'Amy Martin' would then have introduced our best fiction to a public twice or thrice as large as our present circulation represents."

"You mean-?" the great author inquired.

"I mean," Mr. Bitt told him, "that for this reason I cannot but regret that the excitement aroused should disappear with our issue of to-morrow. I mean, Mr. Howard, that for the reason I have named I do think it is almost our duty-our duty, for the reason I have named-to conceal the cat's recovery for-er-for a day or so."

Mr. Bitt blew his nose violently to conceal his agitation. This man was now in the precise centre of the delicate ground; was in considerable fear that it might open and swallow him.

But Mr. Vivian Howard's reply made that ground of rock-like solidity.

"As you put the matter, Mr. Bitt, I must say I agree. It would be false modesty on my part to pretend I do not recognise the worth of 'Amy Martin,' and the desirability of introducing it as widely as possible. Certainly that could best have been accomplished by Abishag not having been recovered so soon. But as it is-I do not see what can be done. You do not, of course, suggest deliberate deception of the public?"

"Certainly not!" cried Mr. Bitt with virtuous warmth. Since this was precisely what he did suggest and most earnestly desired, he repeated his denial: "Certainly not! At the same time-"

"One moment," Mr. Vivian Howard interrupted. "This cat was obviously stolen by someone and placed in the hut where it was found. Very well. We prosecute. We prosecute, and I could give you every morning my views on the guilt or otherwise-"

Mr. Bitt shook his head. "I had thought of that. It won't do. It won't do, Mr. Howard. For one thing, a rigorous prosecution and sentence might create bad feeling against the paper. You have no idea how curious the public is in that way. For another, you, as the injured party, ought not to comment; and certainly I could not publish your views. The matter would be sub judice directly arrest was made; and I once got into very serious trouble over a sub judice matter-very serious trouble indeed. I shall not touch the law, Mr. Howard. It is unwise. At the same time, I think the thief should be made to suffer-be given a thorough fright. Now, if we inform the public that practically our Special Commissioner has his hand on the cat-which will be perfectly true-and is almost certain as to the identity of the thief-if we keep this up for the few days necessary for the publication of those magnificent articles of yours on 'What my Loss means to Me,' we shall be accomplishing three excellent objects. We shall be terrifying an evil-doer-we may take it for granted he reads the Daily; we shall be giving the public those articles which most certainly ought not to be lost to literature; and we shall be widening the sphere of influence of 'Amy Martin.'"

Mr. Vivian Howard did not hesitate. "It is impossible to override your arguments, Mr. Bitt. I think we shall be doing right."

Mr. Bitt concealed his immense joy. "I am convinced of it, Mr. Howard," he said. "Convinced. The modern editor and the man of letters of your standing have enormous responsibilities."

Impelled by the virtuous public duty they were performing, the two men silently grasped hands.

* * *

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