THAT was its real name, and its nature was like unto it; but what else could I do? You must judge for me. They brought a card—the housemaid with the fan-teeth held it gingerly between black finger and blacker thumb—and it carried the name Mr. R. H. Hoffer in old Gothic letters. A hasty rush through the file of bills showed me that I owed nothing to any Mr. HoflFer, and assuming my sweetest smile, I bade Fan of the Teeth show him up. Enter stumblingly an entirely canary-coloured young person about twenty years of age, with a suspicious bulge in the bosom of his coat. He had grown no hair on his face; his eyes were of a delicate water-green, and his hat was a brown billycock, which he fingered nervously. As the room was blue with tobacco-smoke (and Latakia at that) he coughed even more nervously, ans began seeking for me. I hid behind the writing-table and took notes. What I most noted was the bulge in his bosom. When a man begins to bulge as to that portion of his anatomy, hit him in the eye, for reason which will be apparent lateron.
He saw me and advanced timidly. I invited him seductivley to the only other chair, and “What’s the trouble?” said I.
“I wanted to see you,” said he.
“I am me.” said I.
“I—I—I thought you would be quite otherwise,” said he.
“I am, on the contrary, completely this way,” said I. “Sit still, take your time and tell me all about it.”
He wriggled tremulously for three minutes, and coughed again. I surveyed him, and waited developments. The bulge under his bosom crackled. Then I frowned. At the end of three minutes he began.
“I wanted to see what you were like,” said he.
I inclined my head stiffly, as though all London habitually climbed the storeys on the same errand and rather worried me.
Then he delivered himself of a speech which he had evidently got by heart. He flushed painfully in the delivery.
“I am flattered,” I said at the conclusion. “It is beastly gratifying. What do you want?”
“Advice if you will be so good.” said the young man.
“Then you had better go somewhere else,” said I.
The young man turned pink. “But I thought, after I had read your works—all your works, on my word—I had hoped that you would understand me, and I really have come for advice.” The bulge crackled mre ominously than ever.
“I understand perfectly,” said I. “You are oppressed with vague and nameless longings, are you not?”
“I am terribly,” said he.
“You do not wish to be as other men are? You desire to emerge from the common herd, to make your mark, and so forth?”
“Yes,” said he in an awestricken whisper. “That is my desire.”
“Also,” said I, “you love, excessively, in several places at once cooks, housemaids, governesses, schoolgirls, and the aunts of other people.”
“But one only,” said he, and the pink deepened to beetroot.
“Consequently,” said I, “you have written much—you have written verses.”
“It was to teach me to write prose, only to teach me to write prose,” he murmured. “You do it yourself, because I have bought your works—all your works.”
He spoke as if he had purchased dunghills en bloc.
“We will waive that question,” I said loftily. “Produce the verses.”
“They—they aren’t exactly verses,” said the young man, plunging his hand into his bosom.
“I beg your pardon, I meant will you be good enough to read your five-act tragedy.”
“How—how in the world did you know?” said the young man, more impressed than ever.
He unearthed his tragedy, the title of which I have given, and began to read. I felt as though I were walking in a dream; having been till then ignorant of the fact that earth held young men who held five-act tragedies in their insides. The young man gave me the whole of the performance, from the preliminary scene, where nothing more than an eruption of Vesuvius occurs to mar the serenity of the manager, till the very end, where the Roman sentry of Pompeii is slowly banked up with ashes in the presence of the audience, and dies murmuring through his helmet-vizor: “S.P. Q.R.R.I.P.R.S.V.P.,” or words to that eflfect.
For three hours and one-half he read to me. And then I made a mistake.
“Sir,” said I, “who’s your Ma and Pa?”
“I haven’t got any,” said he, and his lower lip quivered.
“Where do you live?” I said.
“At the back of Tarporley Mews,” said he.
“How?” said I.
“On eleven shillings a week,” said he.
“I was pretty well educated, and if you don’t stay too long they will let you read the books in the Holywell Street stalls.”
“And you wasted your money buying my books,” said I with a lump the size of a bolster in my throat.
“I got them second-hand, four and sixpence,” said he, “and some I borrowed.”
Then I collapsed. I didn’t weep, but I took the tragedy and put it in the fire, and called myself every name that I knew.
This caused the yoimg man to sob audibly, partly from emotion and partly from lack of food.
I took off my hat to him before I showed him out, and we went to a restaurant and I arranged things generally on a financial basis.
Would that I could let the tale stop here. But I cannot.
Three days later a man came to see me on business, an objectionable man of uncompromising truth. Just before he departed he said: “D’ you know anything about the struggling author of a tragedy called ‘The Betrayal of Confidences’?”
“Yes,” said I. “One of the few poor souls who in the teeth of grinding poverty keep alight.”
“At the back of Tarporley Mews,” said he. “On eleven shillings a week.”
“On the mischief!” said I.
“He didn’t happen to tell you that he considered you the finest, subtlest, truest, and so forth of all the living so forths, did he?”
“He may have said something out of the fulness of an overladen heart. You know how unbridled is the enthusiasm of——”
“Young gentlemen who buy your books with their last farthing. You didn’t soak it all in by any chance, give him a good meal and half a sovereign as well, did you?”
“I own up,” I said. “I did all that and more. But how do you know?”
“Because he victimised me in the same way a fortnight ago.”
“Thank you for that,” I said, “but I burned his disgusting manuscripts. And he wept.”
“There, unless he keeps a duplicate, you have scored one.”
But considering the matter impartially, it seems to me that the game is not more than “fifteen all” in any light.
It makes me blush to think about it.