MoboReader> Literature > The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography

   Chapter 15 THE CORNHILL

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 50599

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My editorship of the Cornhill, to which I always look back with great pleasure, came as a complete surprise to me. Among the many new friends my marriage brought me was Mr. George Smith, the head of the firm of Smith & Elder, a man very well known in the London of the 'fifties, 'sixties, and 'seventies as the most enterprising of publishers, the discoverer of Charlotte Bronte, the friend and adviser of Thackeray, and, above all, the founder of the first cheap, popular, literary magazine, the Cornhill. It was in the editorship of the Cornhill that Thackeray found pecuniary if not editorial ease, and during the first ten years of its life it was the natural home of much of the best writing of the time. Tennyson on one side of the republic of Parnassus and Swinburne on the other were contributors to its pages. But pre-eminently it was the place to which was drawn the best fiction of the age. The planning, the enterprise, and very often the inspiration of the Cornhill came from Mr. George Smith. Though primarily a man of business, he had an extraordinary flair for literature. He was the last person in the world to have claimed the title of a man of letters, or, again, that of critic, and yet he had an appreciation of good literature and a capacity for finding it in unlikely places which was sometimes almost uncanny. Just as some of the greatest connoisseurs in the Arts know a good picture or an important piece of china when they see it, though they are often ignorant of the history or of the technique of any art, so Mr. George Smith had an almost unfailing eye for good copy when it came his way.

Nowadays, there is comparatively little difficulty in running a literary monthly on sound lines either here or in America. But that is because the world has learnt Mr. George Smith's lesson. All can raise the flower now, for all have got the seed, but at the beginning of the 'sixties the Cornhill had the quality of originality. It exactly hit the popular taste; and in a very short time it was selling by the hundred thousand, a tremendous achievement at that epoch. But though the Cornhill did so well and though Mr. George Smith's energies remained as great as ever up till his death, the magazine had to own the fate of many publications of its kind before and since. It met with competition, and I cannot help thinking that it also suffered from its proprietor getting interested in other things, especially in his magnificent and public-spirited venture-for such it was, rather than a business venture-the National Dictionary of Biography. Mr. George Smith himself always looked upon the National Dictionary as a piece of public service, and he put a great deal of his own time and energy into it. The Cornhill, though always maintaining a high literary standard, greatly altered its character after Mr. Leslie Stephen's editorship came to an end. Its price was altered to sixpence, and for a time it was purely a magazine of fiction, in which the firm of Smith & Elder ran in serial form novels of which they had bought the book rights. There were, besides the two serial novels, only a few short stories and light essays, but these were only a kind of stuffing for the fiction.

In the year '96, however, it occurred to Mr. Smith that it would be interesting to revive the Cornhill and show that there was still life and force in the magazine which had published some of Thackeray's best essays, and his later novels-the magazine in which had appeared novels like Romola, with Leighton's illustrations, and in which Louis Stevenson had given to the world those first and most delightful of his essays, afterwards collected in Virginibus Puerisque. Once more, determined George Smith, it should become the home of good literature as a whole, and not merely of readable fiction.

For his new series-the price reverted to sixpence-Mr. Smith wanted a new editor. He was not one of those people who waste time over that mysterious process known as "sounding" people, a process that seems to connote a great deal of farsightedness, caution, arid discrimination in the sounder, but which, as a matter of fact, is almost always a cloak for indecision. That was not Mr. George Smith's way. He wrote me a plain, straightforward letter, telling me what his plans for the Cornhill were, adding without any flummery that he thought I was the man to give what he wanted, and asking me whether I would become Editor. I got the letter during my first visit to Cairo, in November, 1895. I at once replied that if my chiefs at The Spectator saw no objection, I should be delighted to try my hand. My chiefs saw no objection, and I set to work.

When I say "delighted," I am using the term in no conventional sense. My head had long been filled with plans for the editing of a literary magazine, and here was the chance to bring them to fruition. Besides, as every young man should, I longed for something in which I should have a show of my own and be able to try every sort of experiment-a thing which you can only do when you are either starting a new paper, or making, as was to be the case with the new series of the Cornhill, an entirely new departure.

If I remember rightly, I actually stipulated with Mr. George Smith for a free hand, but the stipulation was quite unnecessary. I saw during my first talk with him that a free hand was exactly what he intended to give me. No editor ever had a more delightful proprietor. Though he was, I suppose, very nearly forty years my senior, he was as young as I was, quite as full of enterprise, quite as anxious to make new departures, and quite as willing to run risks and to throw his cap over the hedge. Nominally I had to deal with Mr. Reginald Smith, one of the partners in the firm and the son-in-law of Mr. George Smith. (It was a mere accident that a Smith had married a Smith.) Reginald Smith was a good scholar, had done very well at Eton, at Cambridge, and had gone to the Bar, but he had not got his father-in-law's fire or his flair for literature, nor, again, his father-in-law's boldness. I was on the best of terms with him and he was the most kind and friendly of publishers. It often happened, however, in going over my plans for the new Cornhill, he thought this or that proposal on my part might prove too expensive, too risky, too radical, or too unconventional. In such cases he always said that we had better take the decision to Mr. George Smith. On the first occasion I was a little alarmed as to what the result might be. I felt that Mr. Smith might naturally support his son- in-law in the direction of caution, and that the appeal to Caesar might go against me. The first example, however, was enough to convince me that my anxieties had no foundation. I remember well how Mr. Smith at once out-dared my daring, saying that he entirely agreed with me, and not only thought that I ought to have my way, but enthusiastically declared that it was the best way. After that I had no more trouble, and it was I who in future suggested an appeal to the head, for I knew that the result would always be a decision on the side of enterprise. Mr. George Smith was never the man to be frightened by such phrases as "dangerous innovation which might be very much resented by the readers" Dangerous innovations were just what he liked, the things out of which he had made his fame and his money, and he backed them to the end like the true sportsman that he was.

There is nothing, perhaps, more interesting and more attractive than the planning and putting together of the first number of a magazine. I had a blank sheet of paper upon which to draw up my Table of Contents, except for an instalment of a novel. What I was determined to make the Cornhill under my editorship was a place of belles-lettres. And besides good prose, if I could get it, I wanted good poetry. In the prose I naturally aimed at short stories, memoirs (as long as these were really worth having) and inspiring literary and historical criticism. I always felt that there was very good copy to be found in anniversary studies, that is, studies of great men whose births or deaths happened to fall within the month of publication and so might reasonably be supposed to be in the public mind. Another direction in which I felt sure there was good copy, if I could get the right man to do it in the right way, was in the great criminal trials of former ages. Every journalist knows that a trial sells his paper better than any other event. The daily newspaper could always forestall the magazine in the matter of trials of the day, but there remained open to me the whole field of State trials.

Besides these features, I realised how much the ordinary Englishman likes natural history, if it is dealt with in the proper way, and likes also to hear of what is newest and most taking in the worlds of science and philosophy and in the things of the spirit generally. These, perhaps, were fairly obvious features, but there was one other in which I may claim a certain originality. In the 'nineties we were all talking and writing about "human documents," by which we meant memoirs, autobiographies, and, above all, diaries which, when written, were not meant to see the light, and in which the naked human heart was laid bare for inspection. It occurred to me that, though I could not get, except by some accident, a human document of this kind, it might be rather fun to manufacture one. I could not get a Marie Bashkirtseff to intrigue my readers as the young Russian lady in question had intrigued Mr. Gladstone and the rest of us, but I thought I could get hold of some one who could write a similar sort of diary, which, though it might not be so introspective, would be a good deal more witty. I therefore turned over in my mind the people I could ask to write a "journal intime." While I was in bed, experiencing the mental state that Sir Walter Scott used to call "simmering," i.e., thinking about my work in a half- hypnotic condition, I remember that the idea occurred to me. The man to do what I wanted was, I suddenly felt, the wisest and wittiest of my Balliol contemporaries, Dean Beeching. But he was not then a Dean, or even a Canon or a Reader at Lincoln's Inn, but simply a country clergyman. I wrote at once to him, telling him that I had become Editor of the new Cornhill, and asking him to write for me, under the seal of secrecy, a monthly article in Diary form, which was to be called "Pages from a Private Diary" In it he was to put all the best things he could think of in the way of good stories, criticism of matters old and new, comments upon life, literature, and conduct, accounts of historical figures and historical events, all informed with verve and interest and all presented in that inimitable style, half-serious, half- quizzical, of which Beeching was a master.

Beeching wrote back to tell me how much he liked the idea, and how sure he was that he could not do anything of the kind worth my taking. It was quite beyond him. I replied that this was nonsense, that I was quite sure from his answer that he understood exactly what I wanted, that he could do it, and that I should want the first instalment by the middle of May. I further charged him solemnly that he was not to write the thing like an essay but that he must make it a real diary, writing it day by day, and making it in this way genuine reality and not an essay with dates in it. In the end he consented to try his best. He realised at once that it would be quite necessary to keep the diary as a true diary-that is, write it spasmodically. I then again enjoined the utmost secrecy upon him, saying that it was not only a case of "omne ignotum pro magnifico," but also that secrecy was the best possible advertisement. I knew that his copy would be extraordinarily attractive, and I wanted people at London dinner-parties and in club smoking-rooms to ask each other, "Have you guessed yet who the Cornhill diarist is?" I may say that my prophecy was exactly fulfilled, for not only did the Private Diary get a great deal of praise on its merits, which were truly memorable, but also on what I may call "guessing competition" grounds-a vice or a virtue of human nature which I was quite determined to exploit for all it was worth. I still recall my excitement when Beeching's copy arrived. It was written in a beautifully neat hand (we did not type much in those days) and accompanied by a heart-broken letter in regard to the author and his supposed failure. I had only to read two pages to see that, with his wonderful instinct for humour as well as his scholarship and knowledge of English and classical literature, he had given me exactly what I wanted. I wrote at once to him, telling him what I thought of the Diary and that there was to be no talk of his abandoning it. I should expect it regularly once a month, for at least nine months or a year. Once more I enjoined secrecy. The "Pages from a Private Diary" were, of course, afterwards republished and did exceedingly well as a book. They may still be read with pleasure by anyone who cares for good literature and a good laugh. All I need add about the Diary is that I told Beeching to envisage himself, not as a country clergyman, for that would give away the secret, but as a retired Anglo-Indian who had come to live in a village in the south of England. This kind of man might be as interested in the villagers as he was in history and literature, and would be able to look upon them with new eyes. A little anti-clericalism might, I suggested, put the reader off the track and help maintain the secret. In a word, I rather suggested the idea of a Berkshire Xenophon, a man who had fought battles in his own day, but was now studying economics or philosophy amid rural scenes. Nobly did Beeching respond. I think in the first instalment, if not, in the second, he told a delightful story of a Berkshire labourer looking over a sty at a good litter of Berkshire grunters and remarking, "What I do say is this. We wants fewer of they black parsons and more of they black pigs." Be that as it may, no person of discernment ever wanted fewer Beechings, or fewer pages from his Private Diary.

Another innovation which I was very keen to follow up, and in which I was backed by Mr. George Smith, was the habit of placing an editorial note to most of the articles, in which I said something as to what the writer was at and conveyed a suggestion (a very proper thing for an editor to do) that the article was of unusual merit and deserved looking into, and so on. For example, in the case of the "Pages from a Private Diary" I put the following:

There are as good private and "intimate" journals being kept at this moment as any that were kept in the last century. Unfortunately, however, the public will not see them, in the course of nature, till forty or fifty years have elapsed; till, that is, half their charm has evaporated. The Cornhill has been lucky enough, however, to secure one of the best of these, but only on conditions. The chief of these is absolute anonymity. But, after all, anonymity only adds the pleasure of guessing. All that can be said of the Cornhill Diarist is that he lives in the country, and that, like the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, he is paucis notus paucioribus ignotus.

As a proof of the delightful things which Beeching wrote in his Diary, out of his own head, as children say, I may quote the following:

8th.-My old gardener has at last condescended to retire. He has been on the place, I believe, for sixty years man and boy; but for a long time he has been doing less and less; his dinner-hour has grown by insensible degrees into two, his intercalary luncheons and nuncheons more and more numerous, and the state of the garden past winking at. This morning he was rather depressed, and broke it to me that I must try to find someone to take his place. As some help, he suggested the names of a couple of his cronies, both well past their grand climacteric. When I made a scruple of their age, he pointed out that no young man of this generation could be depended upon; and, further, that he wished to end his days in his own cottage (i.e. my cottage), where he had lived all his life, so that there would be a difficulty in introducing anyone from outside. I suppose I must get a young fellow who won't mind living for the present in lodgings. I make a point, as far as possible, of taking soldiers for servants, feeling in duty bound to do so; besides, I like to have well set-up men about the place. When they are teetotallers they do very well. William, my coachman, is a teetotaller by profession, but, as the phrase goes, not a bigot. He was a gunner, and the other night-I suppose he had been drinking delight of battle with his peers- he brought me home from --, where I had been dining, in his best artillery style, as though the carriage was a field-piece.

He was equally delightful when raking in with both hands from old and new sources good stories and good sayings. Take, for example, though this was not in the first number, the following story of a young Presbyterian:

Jack has a Scotch cousin, Donald, who is of a more metaphysical turn of mind, as becomes a Shorter Catechumen. The following little dialogue will show that he inherits the faith of his fathers:

Donald: Mother, was Jesus Christ a Jew? Mother: Yes, Donald. Donald: But how could He be, when God the Father is a Presbyterian?

The "Pages from a Private Diary" were a very great success, in spite of their author being ultimately discovered by Mr. Bain, the well-known bookseller. Partly by accident and partly from a printer friend, who told him where the proofs went, he guessed that Beeching was the author.

But proud as I was of the Diary, I am not sure that my greatest find was not a wonderful short series entitled "Memoirs of a Soudanese Soldier." It happened that while I was up the Nile I came across an old Soudanese soldier-a lieutenant who had just risen from the ranks, and so avoided having to leave the Soudanese regiment to which he belonged on a rather exiguous pension. The officer in question, Ali Effendi Gifoon, was a typical Soudanese in face and figure. He looked like a large, grave, elderly monkey, but he was as brave as a lion and as courteous, as chivalrous, and as loyal as an Arthurian knight-errant. All the time there was in him a touch of the pathos that belongs to some noble animal. Slavery made him sad just as freedom made him loyal and grateful. I have seen many strange and picturesque people in my time, but of them all AH Effendi Gifoon was the strangest. To begin with, he was a slave-soldier, which seemed to carry one back to Xerxes or some other of the great Babylonian or Persian rulers and their armies. He was caught when a young man high up the Nile by one of the great Arab slave- dealers and raiders of Egypt. The dealer sold him to Mehemet AH the Pasha. He, like most tyrants of Turkish extraction, believed in slave- soldiers if you could get the right breed, and, therefore, he was always ready to buy the right type of man for his Soudanese battalions. In order to keep his ranks full, the dealers caught young Soudanese for him as one might catch young badgers or any other fighting animal "for a gent what wanted them very particular." A village was surrounded, and the children and young men pounced upon, and the rest who were not wanted were either killed or allowed to die of starvation.

His origin was strange enough, but still stranger was a fact which I soon learnt after I made the acquaintance of Gifoon, and travelled up the Nile with him for three days. We sat talking late into the night, on the top deck of the stern-wheeler mail boat, with a British officer acting as interpreter. Gifoon knew only two cities besides Cairo. They were Paris and the City of Mexico, It makes one's head whirl, but it is the truth. It reminds me of a New Zealand patient in our War Hospital. He made from our house his visit to London, and our Sister-in-charge warned him of the dangers and temptations of the metropolis. He assured her that he was all right, for he knew Wollaranga (his native town) and Cairo intimately, and that he was "salted" to the life of great cities.

Gifoon's knowledge of Mexico came about in this way. Napoleon III had no sooner entered upon his Mexican campaign than he found that his French troops died like flies in the piece of swampy country between the coast and the City of Mexico. Yet that fever-haunted track must be held, or communication would have been cut between the French troops on the Mexican plateau and the sea. In his difficulty Napoleon III appealed to his brother tyrant, the Khedive of Egypt. Ismail, wishing to please the Emperor, who could influence the French financiers, from whom he was always borrowing, instantly produced a battalion of Soudanese soldiers who were warranted to stand anything in the way of climate, or, if not, it did not much matter. There would be no complaints if they all died in Mexico, because they would leave nobody behind them with any right to complain. Slaves have no relations. Accordingly the Soudanese were shipped off to Vera Cruz, and there fought for the French. When the war came to an end the remaining Africans were brought back to Paris to grace Napoleon's spectacular effort to get out of his failure. Just as Napoleon gilded the dome of the Invalides when he came home from Russia in order to keep people's tongues off Borodino, so Napoleon III showed a sample of his black contingent on the Boulevards, and awarded Gifoon, the leading black hero, a medal given under the same conditions as the Victoria Cross.

When Gifoon got back to Cairo, one of those strange things happened to him which happen only in Eastern countries. The Khedive made the black man of valour his coachman-partly to show what esteem he had for the French ruler, partly to show how small was any achievement compared with the honour of doing personal service to "Effendina," and partly, perhaps, in order to show off his picturesque hero to stray European visitors, for Ismail on the one side of his head had the instinct of the company-promoter. He liked, as it were, good human copy for his Prospectuses. When, however, Ismail's troubles ending, abdication began and the re-making of the Egyptian Army, the coachman V. C. drifted back to the army and was found there by the British officers who were turning the Soudanese soldiers into some of the best fighting troops in the world.

Captain Machell, who was foremost in the making of the Soudanese, by a lucky accident happened upon Gifoon, saw his worth, made a friend of him, and brought him forward. When I saw Machell in Egypt he not only told me his friend's history, but added that in the leisure of a desert camp he had got Gifoon to write down the story of his life. The old man talked, and the young English soldier, who knew Arabic, or, rather, the broken-down form which Gifoon talked, translated into English, giving the meaning of what was said as clearly as possible, not in literary English but in the straightforward style in which an English officer in the wilds makes out his Reports. For example, when Gifoon talked about regiments, or battalions, or corps, using in his Arabic dialect the nearest word, Machell put down the expression which was most appropriate, such, for example, as "cadre." This fact gave rise to a very curious example of how easily plain people get bemused in matters of style.

It happened that at the time my first number came out, I had a friend at the Reform Club who, as a Civil Engineer, had spent a good deal of time in the 'fifties and 'sixties in the Turkish Empire, and knew, or thought he knew, the East by heart. He was fond of me and greatly interested in my venture in the Cornhill, and also in all I told him about my good luck in getting the memoirs of a genuine Soudanese fighting-man. When I saw him after my new number had come out, I hastened to ask his verdict on the memoirs. I found him very sad and distracted. "Strachey, you have been 'had'-entirely taken in. The memoirs are not genuine. I assure you they are not. They are the most obvious fake. Anyone who has been in the East can see that at a glance." "But," I replied, "I know they are not a fake. I have seen the man myself, and talked with him for hours. I know also that Machell is a perfectly straight man and took down exactly what Ali Effendi Gifoon said. The idea of his trying to take me in is impossible." But he would not be moved. He was certain that the thing was a fake, and said he could convince me. As an infallible proof he pointed to a passage in which Gifoon used the regular military technical language to describe the organization of the troops under the Khedive. For example, the translator made the Soudanese soldier in the British version talk about "military operations," "regimental cadres," "seconded," and so forth." You don't know the Orientals as I do," said the old gentleman over and over again. "They would no more be able to talk like that, Strachey, than you could talk like the Khoran." It was no use for me to point out that nobody suggested for a moment that he used the

English words in dispute. How could he? He knew no English. The phrases which were supposed to show the fake were simply Machell's rough-and-ready method of getting through to English readers the ideas that the Soudanese soldier intended to convey. He used some Arabic or Central African phrase which meant "war," or "a body of men," and so forth, and Machell fitted them with the nearest technical phrase at his command. No doubt a more artistic effect would have been produced by using the Arabic word, or finding some primitive Anglo-Saxon equivalent, and then explaining in a note that what was meant was, in fact, a "battalion," "company," or "section." But Machell, not being able to write in what the Americans call the "hath doth" style, boldly used the only language he knew-the language of the Reports, Schedules, and Forms of the British Army. To my mind, and to the mind of anyone with literary instinct, the very fact that made my old friend think the memoirs were a fake made me sure that they were genuine. If Machell had written like Walter Scott, or still more like Kipling, I should have had great doubts as to whether he was not making things up and taking me in. As it was, I felt perfectly happy.

The memoirs, though they never attracted the public attention they deserved, were full of extremely curious and interesting things, and showed, indeed, not only the oriental, but primitive tribesman's mind with a wonderful intimacy. The most curious thing in the memoirs was a prophecy made by a Mohammedan saint. Though I cannot quite expect people of the present generation to realise the full poignancy of this prophecy, I think I can make the chief point clear. The memoirs, which were written down in 1895 and published in 1896, contained the following prophecy:

I remember the great Sayid Hassan el Morghani of Kassala uttering the prophecies which were generally ridiculed then, but which are rapidly being justified as events go on. Sayid Hassan was the father of Sayid Ali el Morghani, who was at Suakin with us, and who is now so greatly respected as the representative of this powerful sect of Moslems.

Sayid Hassan was undoubtedly possessed of second-sight and I implicitly believe him to have been a Ragil Kashif, i.e., a man who could penetrate the mysteries of the future. Wild and improbable as his prophecies must have appeared to most of those who heard them at Kassala, yet his every utterance was received with profound respect, and gradually we saw one after another of his statements borne out by facts.

The burden of the Morghani's prophecies was that evil times were in store for the Soudan. He warned us all "El marah illi towlid me takhodhash" (Take not unto thyself a wife who will bear thee children), for a crisis was looming over the near future of the Soudan, when those who wish to support the Dowlah, or Government, must fly, and they will be lucky if they escape with their lives. Kassala would be laid waste four times, and on the fourth or last occasion the city would begin to live once more.

Mahomed Noor, who was Emir of Kassala at that time, openly ridiculed these prophecies; upon which the Morghani replied that all he had foretold would undoubtedly come to pass, but that, as Mahomed Noor had but a very short time to live, and would die a violent death, he would not have an opportunity of seeing it himself. Being pressed to say upon what he based his prophecies regarding the Emir's death, he said that his end was near, and that Mahomed Noor and his son would shortly be killed by the Abyssinians on the same day. The flame of fitna, or insurrection, would not first appear in the Soudan, but the fire would be kindled in Egypt itself. Then the whole Soudan would rise, and the people would not be appeased until the land had been deluged in blood and entire tribes had disappeared off the face of the earth. The work of re-conquest and re-establishment of order would fall upon the Ingleez, who, after suppressing the revolt in Egypt, and gradually having arranged the affairs of that country, would finally occupy the Soudan, and would rule the Turk and the Soudanese together for a period of five years. The idea of the Turk being ruled by anyone was received with special incredulity, and on his being pressed to explain who and what these mighty Ingleez were, he said they were a people from the North, tall of stature and of white complexion. The English regeneration would place the Soudan on a better footing than it had ever been on before, and he used to say that the land of Kassala between El Khatmieh and Gebel um Karam would ultimately be sold for a guinea a pace. The final struggle for the supremacy in the Soudan would take place on the great plain of Kerrere, to the north of Omdurman; and, pointing to the desert outside Kassala, which is strewn with large white stones, he said: "After this battle has been fought, the plain of El Kerrere will be strewn with human skulls as thickly as it is now covered with stones." When the Soudan had been thoroughly subdued, the English occupation would be extended to Abyssinia. Then there would no longer be dissension between the people of that country and the Egyptians, who would intermarry freely, and would not allow the difference in their religion to remain a barrier between them.

The passage about the Ingleez in this prophecy, though striking and picturesque, might be explained away by the fact that the Effendi later became so strongly impressed by the power of the English that everything in his mind was tinctured by this fact. Any vaticinations of changes to be wrought by some great and mysterious external power would, after our occupation of Egypt, naturally suggest the English.

What, however, is much more striking is the prophecy that the final struggle for the supremacy of the Soudan would take place on the great plain of Kerrere, to the north of Omdurman. When I first read that prophecy in proof, the great plain outside the north of Omdurman meant nothing to me. Not only did the re-conquest of the Soudan appear anything but imminent, in the spring of 1896, but one was inclined to believe that the advance to Khartoum would very probably be made by water, or, again, would come from Suakin and the Red Sea. Lord Kitchener, as it happened, made the advance by the Nile Valley, i.e., by land and rail, and so had to cross the plain to the north of Omdurman.

Though the plain of El Kerrere was in fact strewn first with the white djibbas, or tunics, of the dead Soudanese, and later with their skulls and bones, as thickly as a piece of sandy desert with stones-Lord Kitchener's army had not sufficient men to bury the vast mass of dead Dervishes till several years after-this might be put down as the commonplace of picturesque prophecy. It was, however, a distinctly good hit on the prophet's part to suggest that the Dervish rule would literally be swallowed up by the casualties in one great battle at the point indicated. That was exactly what happened. I remember well, years after the prophecy, reading in the account of the special correspondents that the field of Omdurman some few days after the battle looked exactly like a plain covered with patches of white snow. Anyway, though interested by the prophecy, it seemed to me at the time to be much too remote and too vague to take much interest in it. When, however, two years later, I read the passage about the patches of snow, I suddenly remembered the prophecy, looked it up, and was greatly impressed.

One of the things which I am proudest of as regards the Cornhill is the fact that I was able to discover three or four new writers who later made names for themselves. One of these was Mr. Patchett Martin, who, in a series of books, Deeds that Won the Empire, showed himself extraordinarily adept at carrying on the Macaulay tradition of readableness and picturesqueness in the handling of historical events. Another "find" was Mr. Bullen, a man really inspired with the spirit of the sea, and a man with a sense of literature. I remember, for example, early in my acquaintance with him,-an acquaintance due solely to the fact that I accepted his MS. on its merits and without knowing the least who he was-talking to him about Herman Melville's Moby Dick-the story of the mysterious White Whale which haunts the vast water spaces of the South Pacific-a story about which I note with interest that of late certain American and English writers have become quite mystical, or, as the Elizabethans would have put it, "fond."

The story of how Bullen's MS. was accepted, and, therefore, how Bullen became within a very few months, from an absolutely unknown ex-seaman struggling to keep himself and his family from starvation, a popular writer and lecturer, is worth recording. It shows how great a part pure luck plays in a man's life, and especially in the lives of men of letters. It is more agreeable, no doubt, to think that we are the sole architects of our careers, but the facts are often otherwise. We are as much, if not more beholden to luck than skill.

After the first number of the Cornhill had been got out, we became so snowed under with copy that I had to give instructions that, though all the MSS. should be gone through, none could be accepted. I told my staff that they must harden their hearts even to good short stories and good essays, as we had already accepted enough stuff to carry us on for three or four months. I was determined that I would not start water-logged, or, rather, ink-logged! "All we can do is to send the MSS. back, but give a word of blessing and encouragement to the good ones."

Somewhat to my annoyance, as I was about to leave the office one evening, Mr. Graves, who was my chief helper, forced a MS. upon me with the words, "I know what you said about showing you nothing more; but I simply won't take the responsibility of rejecting this. You must do it, if anyone has to. It is too good a piece of work for anyone except an Editor to reject." When I got home I very unwillingly began to read it. I felt I should be in a difficulty, whatever happened. If it was as good as Graves said, I should have to take it. But that would mean dislodging somebody else whose MS. I had already accepted. I had, however, only to read four or five pages to see that Mr. Graves was perfectly right and that, whatever else happened, this MS. had got to be accepted.

Happily, I did not wait, but wrote at once a letter of congratulation to the unknown Mr. Bullen, and told him I would take his story, which proved to be the first instalment of a book. Smith & Elder, when acquainted with what had happened, saw the value of the copy, got in touch with Bullen at once, and very soon agreed to publish his first Whaling book. He told me afterwards that when the letter arrived he was in the direst of straits. He had practically no money on which to keep himself, his wife, and his children alive. His health was in a bad state, as was that of his wife, and he was in the hands of a money- lender who was pressing for payment and was about to sell him up. He had, of course, put nothing of this into his covering letter, but somehow or other I had an instinct that the man was in trouble. Somehow or other, his emotional struggle had transferred itself to me along the wire of the letter. Subconsciousness spoke to subconsciousness. Curiously enough, a similar impulse founded on no evidence has come to me on one or two other occasions, and they have always proved substantial. Anyway, I think I either sent Bullen a cheque in advance, or asked him whether he would like to have one, and so the situation was saved.

The discovery of Bullen was always a pleasure, but still greater was my delight in the discovery of one of whom I may now say without exaggeration that he has become one of the leading men of letters of our time. The author I mean is Mr. Walter De La Mare. My friend, Mr. Ingpen, who was then on the staff of Smith & Elder, and was detailed to help me in getting up and getting out the Cornhill, came to me, after I had been in office for about three weeks, and asked me whether as a personal favour I would look at an article by a relation of his called De La Mare, a youth who was then on the staff of a business house in the City, but who had literary leanings and was married to Mr. Ingpen's sister. I told him that I should, of course, be delighted, but that I had outrun the constable terribly in the way of accepting MSS., as he knew, for he wrote most of the letters of acceptance. I was afraid, therefore, that however good his brother-in-law's work, I could only give one verdict. He told me that he fully realised the situation, but that he would be glad if I would read the MS. all the same, and tell him what I thought of it.

Accordingly I stuck the MS. in my pocket. With a certain feeling of dread that I might be forced to accept it, I took it out on the following Sunday, at Newlands, and began to read. I shall never forget my delight. I had been pleased at the Bullen find, but here was something quite different. When I laid down Mr. De La Mare's MS. - signed Walter Ramal, an anagram of De La Mare-I am proud to say that I fully realised that a new planet had swum into my ken. I had had the good luck to be the literary astronomer first to notice that the Host of Heaven had another recruit. That is an experience as thrilling as it is rare. The story was entitled "A Mote," and I am delighted to think I had the prescience to pass it on to my readers with the following note, for, as I have said before, I insisted, somewhat to the horror of conventional people, in decorating the contributions of any new writer with an explanation or comment. Here was my guess at De La Mare's story. I do not mean to say that it contains the whole truth, but, at any rate, it was a good shot considering the facts before me. Here it is:

Those who hold the doctrine of transmigration will hardly fail, after they have read this story, to think that the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is once more abroad.-Ed. Cornhill.

Here I may add that these notes had a curiously irritating effect upon the older and more rigid readers of the magazine. Mr. Reginald Smith, for example, was quite terrified by the passionate way in which old gentlemen at his club attacked him on the way in which the pages of the Cornhill were defiled by the Editor's "horrible little notes." Nobody wanted to read them. They were either futile or patronising, or both. They utterly spoilt the magazine, and so forth and so on. Mr. Reginald Smith, though kindness itself in the matter, was inclined to yield to the storm and to think that I had perhaps made a mistake in breaking away from the established custom. I appealed to Mr. George Smith, quite certain that he would support me and the innovation. He did so; and I continued, though, perhaps, with a little more reticence, to put up directing-posts for my readers. I am sure I was right. After all, the ordinary man gets very much confused by new writers and is very likely to miss a good thing merely because he is put off by the title or the first few sentences. Yet all the time, the essay or short story at which he shies is the very thing he would like to read if only it had been properly introduced to him. In Mr. De La Mare's case, however, there was no fear of being put off by reading the first few sentences. If you had once read these you were quite certain to finish. I never remember a better opening:

I awoke from a dream of a gruesome fight with a giant geranium. I surveyed, with drowsy satisfaction and complacency, the eccentric jogs and jerks of my aunt's head.

The performance is even better than this promise of strange things strangely told. In the end it is not "my aunt" but "my uncle" who sees visions, and visions whose subtlety and originality it would be hard to beat. I will tantalise my readers with a quotation:

My uncle stopped dead upon the gravel, with his face towards the garden.

I seemed to feel the slow revolution of his eyes.

"I see a huge city of granite," he grunted; "I see lean spires of metal and hazardous towers, frowning upon the blackness of their shadows. White lights stare out of narrow window-slits; a black cloud breathes smoke in the streets. There is no wind, yet a wind sits still upon the city. The air smells like copper. Every sound rings as it were upon metal. There is a glow-a glow of outer darkness-a glow imagined by straining eyes. The city is a bubble with clamour and tumult rising thin and yellow in the lean streets like dust in a loam-pit. The city is walled as with a finger-ring. The sky is dumb with listeners. Far down, as the crow sees ears of wheat, I see that mote of a man, in his black clothes, now lit by flaming jets, now hid in thick darkness. Every street breeds creatures. They swarm gabbling, and walk like ants in the sun. Their faces are fierce and wary, with malevolent lips. Each mouths to each, and points and stares. On I walk, imperturbable and stark. But I know, oh, my boy, I know the alphabet of their vile whisperings and gapings and gesticulations. The air quivers with the flight of black winged shapes. Each foot-tap of that sure figure upon the granite is ticking his hour away." My uncle turned and took my hand. "And this, Edmond, this is the man of business who purchased his game in the City, and vied with all in the excellence of his claret. The man who courted your aunt, begot hale and whole children, who sits in his pew and is respected. That beneath my skull should lurk such monstrous things! You are my godchild, Edmond. Actions are mere sediment, and words-froth, froth. Let the thoughts be clean, my boy; the thoughts must be clean; thoughts make the man. You may never at any time be of ill repute, and yet be a blackguard. Every thought, black or white, lives for ever, and to life there is no end."

"Look here, Uncle," said I, "it's serious, you know; you must come to town and see Jenkinson, the brain man. A change of air, sir." "Do you smell sulphur?" said my uncle. I tittered and was alarmed.

Anyone who reads this and knows anything of literature will understand the feelings of a young editor in publishing such matter, especially in publishing it in 1896. At the present time the refrain that "All can raise the flower now, for all have got the seed" is a reality. In the 'nineties work like "The Mote" was rare. Connoisseurs of style will recognise what I mean when I say that what endeared "Walter Ramal" to me was that, in spite of the fact that Stevenson at that very time was at his best, and so was Kipling, there was not a trace of either author's influence in Mr. De La Mare's prose. The very occasional appearances of Stevensonianism were in truth only examples of common origin. He at once made me feel that he was destined for great things. When there are two such influences at work, happy is the man who can resist them, and resist them in the proper way, by an alternative of his own, and not by a mere bald and hungry reticence.

Mr. Walter De La Mare's second article was called "The Village of Old Age." It was a charming piece of what I simply cannot and will not call "elfish" writing. The word in me, foolishly, no doubt, produces physical nausea. If, however, someone with a stronger stomach in regard to words called it elfish I should understand what he meant, and agree. But, good as were these two essays, they were nothing compared to De La Mare's marvellous story, "The Moon's Miracle." That was a piece of glorious fantasy in which the writer excelled himself, not only as regards the mechanism of his essay-story, but as to its substance, and, most of all, its style. He prefaced it by this quotation from Paradise Lost:

As when, to warn proud cities, war appears Waged in the troubled sky, and armies rush To battle in the clouds; before each van Prick forth the faery knights, and couch their spears, Till thickest legions close; with feats of arms From either end of heaven the welkin burns.

The following was his short synopsis of the story:

How the Count saw a city in the sky and men in harness issuing thereout- Of the encampment of the host of the moons-men-Of how the battle was joined-The Count's great joy thereat and of how the fight sped.

The first sentences were these:

The housekeeper's matronly skirts had sounded upon the staircase. The maids had simpered their timid "Good-night, sir," and were to bed. Nevertheless, the Count still sat imperturbable and silent. A silence of frowns, of eloquence on the simmer; a silence that was almost a menace. This enough for any man of adventure to know that he is in for a good time-in for something big. What he was in for in this case was a great aerial battle seen from Wimbledon Common-an admirable locale for such an event, as I have always thought. I can best prove the depth of the impression made upon me by the fact that twenty years afterwards, when on some summer evening one knew that an air raid had begun, I never failed, when I watched the skies, to think of the little group on Wimbledon Common. It had actually come true. They were scouring the fields of air in the story of fight. No doubt what one saw there was not as exquisite a spectacle as that seen by the Count. Still, there was always something thrilling and so delightful in scanning the vast battle-field of Heaven in order to find a Zeppelin, or, later, an aeroplane squadron. Here is the passage describing what the Count and his friends saw, when they discerned a city in the sky, and round it the tents of the moonsmen:

The tents were of divers pale colours, some dove-grey, others saffron and moth-green, and those on the farther side, of the colour of pale violets, and all pitched in a vast circle whose centre was the moon. I handed the mackintosh to the Count and insisted upon his donning of it. "The dew hangs in the air," said I, "and unless the world spin on too quick, we shall pass some hours in watching." "Ay," said he in a muse, "but it seems to me the moon-army keeps infamous bad watch. I see not one sentinel. Those wings travel sure as a homing bird; and to be driven back upon their centre would be defeat for the-lunatics. Give me but a handful of such cavalry, I would capture the Southern Cross. Magnificent! magnificent! I remember, when I was in it-" For, while he was yet deriding, from points a little distant apart, single, winged horsemen dropped from the far sky, whither, I suppose, they had soared to keep more efficient watch; and though we heard no whisper of sound, by some means (inaudible bugle-call, positively maintains the Count) the camp was instantly roused and soon astir like seething broth. Tents were struck and withdrawn to the rear. Arms and harness, bucklers and gemmy helms sparkled and glared. All was orderly confusion.

I could go on for many more pages than I am afraid my readers would approve to chronicle the joys of my editorship, and especially the joys of discovery. I will only, however, mention two or three more names. One is that of the late Mr. Bernard Capes. I think I am right in saying that my story of "The Moon-stricken," which was published in the Cornhill, was one of his first appearances before the English public. Another author whom, I am glad to say, I and those who helped me "spotted" as having special qualities of readability was Mr. Hesketh Prichard. In this case my wife did what Mr. Graves had done in the case of Mr. Bullen. After I had charged her, as she valued the peace of the family, to accept nothing, but to return all the MSS. which I gave her, she insisted upon my reading Hesketh Prichard's story. My judgment confirmed hers, and in spite of the difficulties of congestion, which was becoming greater and greater but which, of course, was my proof of success, I accepted the story. There was, of course, nothing novel in this experience. It is what always happens, and must happen, in journalism. An editor is like a great fat trout, who is habitually thoroughly well gorged with flies. It is the business of the young writer who wants to make his way, to put so inviting a fly upon his line and to fling it so deftly in front of the said trout's nose that, though the trout has sworn by all the Gods, Nymphs, and Spirits of River and Stream that he won't eat any more that day, he cannot resist the temptation to rise and bite. You must take the City of Letters by Storm. It will never yield to a mere summons to surrender.

The Cornhill, though so agreeable an experience, did not last long. The Spectator soon claimed me for its own. I had to resign the Cornhill in order, first, to find more time for The Spectator, and then, to carry the full weight of editorship which came to me with Mr. Hutton's death. Mr. Hutton's death was quickly followed by Mr. Townsend's retirement. This made me, not only sole Editor, but sole Proprietor, of the paper.

Before I proceed to describe the task I set myself in The Spectator when I obtained a free hand, and to record my journalistic aims and aspirations, I desire to describe Mr. Townsend-a man whose instinctive genius for journalism has, to my mind, never been surpassed.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top