The slave of the lamp, p.5
The Slave of the Lamp,
Half-way down Fleet Street, on the left-hand side, stands the church ofSt. Dunstan-in-the-West. Around its grimy foundations there seethes astruggling, toiling race of men--not only from morning till night, butthroughout the twenty-four hours. Within sound of this church bell ahundred printing-presses throb out their odorous broadsheets to bedespatched to every part of the world. Day and night, week in week out,the human writing-machines, and those other machines which are almosthuman (and better than human in some points) hurry through theirallotted tasks, and ignore the saintly shadow cast upon them by thespire of St. Dunstan. This is indeed the centre of the world: the hubfrom whence spring the spokes of the vast wheel of life. For to thispoint all things over the world converge by a vast web of wire,railroad, coach road, and steamer track. Upon wings that boast ofgreater speed than the wind can compass come to this point the voices ofour kin in farthest lands. News--news--news. News from the East ofevents occurring in the afternoon--scan it over and flash it westward,where it will be read on the morning of the same day! News in everytongue to be translated and brought into shape--while the solemn churchclock tells his tale in deep voice, audible above the din and scurry.
From hurried scribbler to pale compositor, and behold, the news isbawled all over London! Such work as this goes on for ever around thechurch of St. Dunstan. Scribblers come and scribblers go; compositorscome to their work young and hopeful, they leave it bent and poisoned,yet the work goes on. Each day the pace grows quicker, each day some newmeans of rapid propagation is discovered, and each day life becomesharder to live. One morning, perhaps, a scribbler is absent from hispost--"Brain-fever, complete rest; a wreck." For years his writings havebeen read by thousands daily. A new man takes the vacant chair--he hasbeen waiting more or less impatiently for this--and the thousands arenone the wiser. One night the head compositor presses his black hand tohis sunken chest, and staggers home. "And time too--he's had his turn,"mutters the second compositor as he thinks of the extra five shillings aweek. No doubt he is right. Every dog his day.
Nearly opposite to the church stands a tall narrow house of dirty redbrick, and it is with this house that we have to do.
At seven o'clock, one evening some years ago--when heads now grey werebrown, when eyes now dim were bright--the Strand was in its usual stateof turmoil. Carriage followed carriage. Seedy clerks hustled past portlymerchants--not their own masters, _bien entendu_, but those ofother seedy clerks. Carriages and foot-passengers were alike goingwestward. All were leaving behind them the day and the busy city--someafter a few hours devoted to the perusal of _Times_ and_Gazette_; others fagged and weary from a long day of dusty books.
Ah! those were prosperous days in the City. Days when men of but a fewyears' standing rolled out to Clapham or Highgate behind a pair ofhorses. Days when books were often represented by a bank-book and aroughly-kept day-book. What need to keep mighty ledgers when profits aregreat and returns quick in their returning?
As the pedestrians made their way along the narrow pavement some of themglanced at the door of the tall red-brick house and read the inscriptionon a brass plate screwed thereon. This consisted of two mystic words:_The Beacon_. There was, however, in reality, no mystery about it.The _Beacon_ was a newspaper, published weekly, and the clock ofSt. Dunstan's striking seven told the end of another week. Thepublishing day was past; another week with its work and pleasure was tobe faced.
From early morning until six o'clock in the evening this narrow doorwayand passage had been crowded by a heaving, swearing, laughing mass ofmore or less dilapidated humanity interested in the retail sale ofnewspapers. At six o'clock Ephraim Bander, a retired constable, now onthe staff of the _Beacon_, had taken his station at the door, inorder to greet would-be purchasers with the laconic and discouragingwords: "Sold hout!"
During the last two years ex-constable Bander had announced the selling"hout" of the _Beacon_ every Tuesday evening.
At seven o'clock Mrs. Bander emerged from her den on the fourth floor,like a portly good-natured spider, and with a broom proceeded to attackthe dust shaken from the boots of the journalistic fraternity, withnoisy energy. After that she polished the door-plate; and peace reignedwithin the narrow house.
On the second floor there was a small room with windows looking out intoa narrow lane behind the house. It was a singularly quiet room; the dooropened and shut without sound or vibration; double windows insuredimmunity from the harrowing cries of such enterprising merchants asexercised their lungs and callings in the narrow lane beneath. A certainsense of ease and comfort imperceptibly crept over the senses of personsentering this tiny apartment. It must have been in the atmosphere; forsome rooms more luxuriously furnished are without it. It certainly doesnot lie in the furniture--this imperceptible sense of companionship; itdoes not lurk in the curtains. Some mansions know it, and many cottages.It is even to be met with in the tiny cabin of a coasting vessel.
This diminutive room, despite its lack of sunlight, was such as onemight wish to sit in. A broad low table stood in the middle of thefloor, and on it lay the mellow light of a shaded lamp. At this tabletwo men were seated opposite to each other. One was writing, slowly andeasily, the other was idling with the calm restfulness of a man who hasnever worked very hard. He was rolling his pencil up to the top of hisblotting-pad, and allowing it to come down again in accordance with therules of gravity.
This was Mr. Bodery's habit when thoughtful; and after all, there was nogreat harm in it. Mr. Bodery was editor and proprietor of the_Beacon_. The amusing and somewhat satirical article which appearedweekly under the heading of "Light" was penned by the chubby hand atthat moment engaged with the pencil.
Mr. Morgan, sub-editor, was even stouter than his chief. Laughter washis most prominent characteristic. He laughed over "Light" when in itsembryo state, he laughed when the _Beacon_ sold out at six o'clockon Tuesday evenings. He laughed when the printing-machine went wrong onMonday afternoon, and--most wonderful of all--he laughed at his ownjokes, in which exercise he was usually alone. His jokes were not of thefirst force. Mr. Morgan was the author of the slightly laboured andweighty Parliamentary articles on the first page. He never joked onpaper, which is a gift apart.
These two gentlemen were in no way of brilliant intellect. They hadtheir share of sound, practical common-sense, which is in itself asplendid substitute. Fortune had come to them (as it comes to most menwhen it comes at all) without any apparent reason. Mr. Bodery hadsupplied the capital, and Mr. Morgan's share of the undertaking wasadded in the form of a bustling, hollow energy. The _Beacon_ waslighted, so to speak. It burnt in a dull and somewhat flickering mannerfor some years; then a new hand fed the flame, and its light spreadafar.
It was from pure good nature that Mr. Bodery held out a helping hand tothe son of his old friend, Walter Vellacott, when that youth appearedone day at the office of the _Beacon_, and in an off-hand mannerannounced that he was seeking employment. Like many actions performedfrom a similar motive, Mr. Bodery's kindness of heart met with itsreward. Young Christian Vellacott developed a remarkable talent forjournalistic literature--in fact, he was fortunate enough to have found,at the age of twenty-two, his avocation in life.
Gradually, as the years wore on, the influence of the young fellow'ssuperior intellect made itself felt. Prom the position of a meresupernumerary, he worked his way upwards, taking on to his shoulders oneduty after another--bearing the weight, quietly and confidently, of oneresponsibility after another. This exactly suited Mr. Bodery and hissub-editor. There was very little of the slave in the composition ofeither. They delighted in an easy, luxurious life, with just enough workto impart a pleasant feeling of self-satisfaction. It suited ChristianVellacott also. In a few weeks he found his level--in a few months hebegan rising to higher levels.
He was an only son; the only child of a brilliant father whose name wasknown in every court in Europe as that of a harum-scarum diplomatist,who could have done great things i
Unsparingly he devoted the whole of his exceptional energies to the workbefore him. He lived in and for it. Each night he went home fagged andweary; but each morning saw him return to it with undaunted spirit.
Human nature, however, is exhaustible. The influence of a strong mindover a strong body is great, but it is nevertheless limited. The_Beacon_ had reached a large circulation, but its slave was wornout. Two years without a holiday--two years of hurried, hard brain-workhad left their mark. It is often so when a man finds his avocation tooearly. He is too hurried, works too hard, and collapses; or he becomesself-satisfied, over-confident, and unbearable. Fortunately forChristian Vellacott he was devoid of conceit, which is like thescaffolding round a church-spire, reaching higher and falling first.
There was also a "home" influence at work. When Christian passed out ofthe narrow doorway, and turned his face westward, his day's work was byno means over, as will be shown hereafter.
As Mr. Bodery rolled his pencil up and down his blotting-pad, he wasslowly realising the fact that something must be done. Presently helooked up, and his pleasant eyes rested on the bent head of hissub-editor.
"Morgan," he said, "I have been thinking--Seems to me Vellacott wants arest! He's played out!"
Mr. Morgan wiped his pen vigorously upon his coat, just beneath theshoulder, and sat back in his chair.
"Yes," he replied; "he has not been up to the mark for some time. Butyou will find difficulty in making him take a holiday. He is a devil forworking--ha, ha!"
This "ha, ha!" did not mean very much. There was no mirth in it. It wasa species of punctuation, and implied that Mr. Morgan had finished hisremark.
"I will ring for him now and see what he says about it."
Mr. Bodery extended his chubby white hand and touched a small gong.Almost instantaneously the silent door opened and a voice from withoutsaid, "Yess'r." A small boy with a mobile, wicked mouth stood atattention in the doorway.
"Has Mr. Vellacott gone?"
"No--sir!" In a tone which seemed to ask: "Now _is_ it likely?"
"Where is he?"
"In the shop, sir."
"Ask him to come here, please."
The small boy closed the door. Once outside he placed his hand upon hisheart and made a low bow to the handle, retreating backwards to the headof the stairs. Then he proceeded to slide down the banister, to thetrifling detriment of his waistcoat. As he reached the end of hisperilous journey a door opened at the foot of the stairs, and a man'sform became discernible in the dim light.
"Is that the way you generally come downstairs, Wilson?" asked a voice.
"It is the quickest way, sir!"
"Not quite; there is one quicker, which you will discover some day ifyou overbalance at the top!"
"Mr. Bodery wishes to see you, please sir!" The small boy's manner wasvery different from what it had been outside the door upstairs.
"All right," replied Vellacott, putting on the coat he had been carryingover his arm. A peculiar smooth rapidity characterised all hismovements. At school he had been considered a very "clean" fielder. Thecleanness was there still.
The preternaturally sharp boy--sharp as only London boys are--watchedthe lithe form vanish up the stairs; then he wagged his head very wiselyand said to himself in a patronising way:
"He's the right sort, he is--no chalk there!"
Subsequently he balanced his diminutive person full length upon thebalustrade, and proceeded to haul himself laboriously, hand over hand,to the top.
In the meantime Christian Vellacott had passed into the editor's room.The light of the lamp was driven downwards upon the table, but thereflection of it rose and illuminated his face. It was a fairly handsomeface, with eyes just large enough to be keen and quick without beingdreamy. The slight fair moustache was not enough to hide the mouth,which was refined, and singularly immobile. He glanced at Mr. Bodery, ashe entered, quickly and comprehensively, and then turned his eyestowards Mr. Morgan. His face was very still and unemotional, but it waspale, and his eyes were deeply sunken. A keen observer would havenoticed, in comparing the three men, that there was something about theyoungest which was lacking in his elders. It lay in the direct gaze ofhis eyes, in the carriage of his head, in the small, motionless mouth.It was what is vaguely called "power."
"Sit down, Vellacott," said Mr. Brodery. "We want to have aconsultation." After a short pause he continued: "You know, of course,that it is a dull season just now. People do not seem to read the papersin August. Now, we want you to take a holiday. Morgan has been away; Ishall go when you come back. Say three weeks or a month. You've beenover-working yourself a bit--burning the candle at both ends, eh?"
"Hardly at both ends," corrected Vellacott, with a ready smile whichentirely transformed his face. "Hardly at both ends--at one end in adraught, perhaps."
"Ha, ha! Very good," chimed in Mr. Morgan the irrepressible. "At one endin a draught--that is like me, only the draught has got inside my cheeksand blown them out instead of in like yours, eh? Ha, ha!" And he pattedhis cheeks affectionately.
"I don't think I care for a holiday just now, thanks," he said slowly,without remembering to call up a smile for Mr. Morgan's benefit.Unconsciously he put his hand to his forehead, which was damp with theheat of the printing-office which he had just left.
"My dear fellow," said Mr. Bodery gravely, emphasising his remarks withthe pencil, "you have one thing in life to learn yet--no doubt you havemany, but this one in particular you must learn. Work is not the onlything we are created for--not the only thing worth living for. It is anecessary evil, that is all. When you have reached my age you will cometo look upon it as such. A little enjoyment is good for every one. Thereare many things to form a brighter side to life.Nature--travelling--riding--rowing----"
"And love," suggested the sub-editor, placing his hand dramatically onthe right side of his broad waistcoat instead of the left. He couldafford to joke on the subject now that the grass grew high in the littlecountry churchyard where he had laid his young wife fifteen yearsbefore. In those days he was a grave, self-contained man, but thatsorrow had entirely changed his nature. The true William Morgan onlycame out on paper now.
Mr. Bodery was right. Christian had yet to learn a great lesson, andunconsciously he was even now beginning to grasp its meaning. His wholemind was full of his work, and out of those earnest grey eyes his soulwas looking at the man who was perhaps saving his life.
"We can easily manage it," said the editor, continuing his advantage. "Iwill take over the foreign policy article. The reviewing you can doyourself, as we can always send you the books, and there is no pressinghurry about them. The general work we will manage somehow--won't we,Morgan?"
"Of course we will; as well as and perhaps better than he could do ithimself, eh? Ha, ha!"
"But seriously, Vellacott," continued Mr. Bodery, "things will go onjust as well for a time. When I was young I used to make that mistaketoo. I thought that no one could manage things like myself, but in timeI realised (as you will do some day) that things went on as smoothlywhen I was away. Depend upon it, my boy, when a man is put on the shelf,worn out and useless, another soon fills his place. You are too young togo on the shelf yet. To please me, Vellacott, go away for three weeks."
"You are very kind, sir--" began the young fellow, but Mr. Boderyinterrupted him.
"Well, then, that is settled. Shall we say this day week? That will giveyou time to make your plans."
With a few words of thanks Christian left the room. Vaguely andmechanically he wandered upstairs to his own particular den. It was
"That young fellow is worth you and me rolled into one."
"I recognised that fact some years ago," replied the sub-editor, wipinghis pen on his coat. "It is humiliating, but true. Ha, ha!"
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes