A Minor Author




To-night nearly everything is happening in Mile End Road that possibly can happen. Scarce four minutes since an earnest young constable arrested and took off to the police-station a vagrant, dissolute naphtha lamp which he had found sprawling with no visible means of subsistence across the pavement, H 053 and his prisoner being followed by a mob of delighted infants; infants full of words of encouragement to H 053, recommending him variously to 'andcuff it and give it the frawg's march. Since then a quack (with a voice that almost bruised one to listen to it) has had an argument with a dissatisfied patient which came as near to blows as either of the parties desired. And now, pour comble de joie, here in a side street, is a mysterious scarlet-faced boy standing on a chair, Scotch cap in hand, and carefully blindfolded with a blue-spotted handkerchief. By his side a thin, melancholy man, with a black wisp of a tie, his frock-coat buttoned awry, is gazing hard as one lost in thought at the placard in a shop window at the corner—

"Never say Die;
Come and our Shop try."

In his hand he holds a thick sheaf of long narrow papers, and these he now and again flicks absently. The crowd increases.

"What's the oidea, guvnor?"

The thin, melancholy man does not answer.

"Anyfing wrong with the kid, mister?"

The bandaged boy grins, and is growled at by the melancholy man.

"It's a 'ave of some kind, Mrs. Moriarty. You may bet your boots on that." The woman in the crape bonnet shakes her head as she speaks. "I've seen too much of the world, I 'ave."

The melancholy man sighs. He turns to the mysterious boy, unties the knot of the handkerchief, and the boys grins without restraint.

"Now we shall see what's up," prophesies the crape bonnet.

She pants with excitement as the boy jumps off the chair, and the man takes his place.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" He coughs with an important air, and rubs his nose. "Ladies and gentlemen!"

"’Ear! 'Ear!"

"Allow me, in a few words, to explain and set forth the motives of my being here to-night. I am what is termed an author, or, in other words, a writer, and I am here to-night to dispose of my works and others. Some will be sung by myself; some will be sung by my young friend—— Where the dev—? Oh, there you are—whose voice is one that will at once engage, and, I think I may venture to say, enchain your kind attention. The price of the works is one penny each; only one penny, or three for twopence. Three, as I say, for twopence. Here they are!" (Producing the packet in his hands.) "Three at the price of two. Several of them have not been written by me, but these are equally good, and I wouldn't offer you anything, ladies and gentlemen, that wasn't, to use a common expression, strictly up to the mark. I shall first of all sing—let me see, what shall I—oh, I know! ' The Fireman's Doom!’"

"Stand back a bit there, please," urges the boy, shrilly. "Don't scrowge. And keep as quiet as you can, too."

The author hands over a dozen of the slips to the boy. Then, looking up at the shining gilded title at the top of the grocer's shop, he, in a gusty voice, and to a popular air, sings—

"The house is burning brightly,
The ruddy flame is deep,
Such things, friends, happen nightly
When London is asleep.
But 'ark here comes the engine;
Oh!, 'Eavens——"

It is long as the size of the papers which the boy offers for sale testify, and it is strong, too. The front row of the crescent-shaped crowd watches the author's lips, and all the time moves its own in unconscious imitation. The boy has a row at the back of the crowd with another boy who has called him "Bagpipes," and returns presently flushed with success and his Scotch cap awry.

"There's always one bright picture
That 'angs up in that room;
It's one that gives the drawing
Of the gallant Fireman's doom!"

"My next, ladies and gentlemen, is not a song!"

Some murmurs.

"It is not a song, and" (frankly) "it's only fair to say so at once. It is a piece now out of print, written by myself, some years ago, now; suitable for recitation by children and others. Its title—its title, I say, is 'The Countess's Crime.’"

Return of satisfaction. Mrs. Moriarty says prophetically to Mrs. Crape Bonnet that she wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be worth all the rest of um put together.

"‘The Countess's Crime.’" (The author coughs and puts one hand between the buttons of his coat; Thomas wets a thumb, and sorts a few specimens from the other slips.)

"It was a night in June," shouts the author, "when the Countess Desmond, reclining in her boudoir in Park Lane, saw suddenly at the window the face of—" (a pause) "—of a man. At first she saw it but indistinctly. Gradually the outline grew clearer, and she—no, it could not be—yes, it was her old lover, Ambrose Fitzgerald."

"Ph'what name's that?" interrupts Mrs. Moriarty swiftly. The crowd says to Mrs. Moriarty, "S—s—h can't you."

"Ambrose Fitzgerald! She knew him at once by his black, deceitful eyes and——"

"Oi've known a powerful lot of Fitzgeralds in me time." remarks Mrs. Moriarty, "but I'll be hanged if I iver heard of this wan! It's probably a pack of lies from beginning to end."

True or not the author goes on with it. There is poison in the selection, and sudden death, kidnapping, and wrongful accusations, and the Countess at the Old Bailey, everything coming right in the end by the reappearance of Ambrose Fitzgerald and full confession. Ambrose Fitzgerald acknowledges that he, and he alone, committed the crimes, and mentions, excusingly, that he did them in a moment of pique. It is a tribute to the author that nobody leaves the crowd during the delivery of this piece.

Thomas going eel-like among the group offers various copies and sells four, and coming back at the end, jingles the coppers with so encouraging an air that the author almost smiles. Thomas nearly sells five copies, but Mrs. Crape Bonnet hesitates a moment and eventually replaces the penny in her corsage and says she'll hear the next and then see. The four coppers are paid over to the author (thus avoiding the profits of a middleman) and Thomas takes one of the sheets and asks whether he shall 'ave a shy at this. An affirmative nod in reply. Thomas begins. He has sung but one line when his master stops him.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is not by me, but it is called 'The Railway Smash.' Specially interesting to those of you who are in the 'abit, or whose friends" are in the 'abit, of travelling by train. Copies at usual price. Fire away, Thomas."

Thomas sings shrilly one verse; when he reaches the refrain the crowd joins shyly:—

"After the smash was over,
After the wreck was done,
Oh, 'ear the screams of wounded,
'Elp to assist there was none.
Many are infant children,
Over the engines dash.
They will ne'er more see their loved ones
Af—ter the smash."

Mrs. Crape Bonnet prevents herself from buying this song only by the exercise of tremendous self-control.

"Me knowing the toon, Mrs. Moriarty, d'you see it'd be so easy to get 'old of it. See what I mean, don't you?"

Mrs. Moriarty asks discouragingly "Ph'what's the use of spinding your money on annything if you can't drink ut," and Mrs. Crape Bonnet confesses that there certainly is something in that argument. The penny goes back once more.

Three more selections and then the little crowd tires. It is helped to this state by the fact that the author suddenly turns extremely acid of speech, because they cease buying the works he has for sale. So the crowd shifts to a stall near, to shoot dancing dolls at a halfpenny for three shots. Prize for crack shots, a packet of best patent West-end Club cough lozenges.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1930, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.