An Edited Story  (1896) 
by Morley Roberts

Extracted from 'The English Illustrated, Vol 14, pp. 541-546. Accompanying illustrations by R A Brownslie omitted.

An Edited Story

BY Morley Roberts

"I HAVE a rather singular story here," said the editor-in-chief as he lay back in his chair and picked his teeth with a new quill.

"Yes?" said the sub-editor absently. He was uncommonly busy just then, for it was already the sixteenth of the month, and only things in type interested him in the least.

"It is singular," said the editor, this time half to himself; "there's a touch of genius in it, and yet the end is not done right. It wants a touch, just a touch, and then I think it would do."

He turned over the typewritten copy, and finally slung it across to the sub.

"Read it when you get time, Jevons, and say if you don't think it a bit out of the way."

And Jevons jammed the script into a pigeon-hole

"I think I'll clear out now," said the editor, rolling a cigarette slowly.

"For the Lord's sake do," cried the sub to himself, "and then I may get done."

And as Whittaker Ellis rubbed his hat on his sleeve, preparatory to departure, he muttered again, "Yes, it is damned singular. Damned singular is what it is.

He shook his head and sauntered into the Strand. Getting into a Piccadilly 'bus he disappeared into club-land. But Jevons, whom he had left, pulled out the script and read part of it. Every now and again the sub-editor burst into a shout of laughter, which made the big bare room ring. Yet he went on slaving like a lunatic, even as he grinned.

"Not at all singular, but damned funny," said Jevons. "By the Lord, but it is funny."

When he put his hat on he mimicked Whittaker Ellis, and stalked out of the room.

"Yes, it is damned funny, damned funny is what it is," he said in Ellis's very voice

And instead of eating he went, like a worn-out fool, and took the bitter edge off his appetite with an abnormal amount of whisky. But the liquor smoothed an odd little tremor out of his face and his hands, and made him go easier and feel less keenly.

His club was a tavern in the Shaftesbury Avenue, haunted by a peculiar set of rank failures. They were the quality of literary diamond that gets put to cutting and polishing instead of being itself polished and set; and many of them had a diseased opinion of their own powers. But some were sombre, abject, down-trodden, and half-crown-seeking men of letters. Once and again was found there a real man of genius gone to hell, and among them such a one looked like a wrecked and sunken ship, full of beautiful dead human thoughts. But mostly they were mere decadents decayed, and Henry Jevons was the man among them yet. For he had steady employment still, and his vices left him squeezable of odd silver. He would praise produced sonnets, and kindly lament that he was but sub-editor. They swore he ought to be editor—nay, better, sought by editors—and they told newcomers loud enough for Jevons to hear that he was a man of rare and neglected talents.

"Sometimes he is enormous," said one. "But I fear he drinks too much to write now or even to talk as he can talk."

For some of them praised him truthfully and without the incentive of possible whisky.

He was in no form this night to be brilliant; but he was oddly and unusually good tempered. He laughed easily.

"What luck, Jevons?" said the Poet of the establishment, whose hair and trousers were ragged. "What luck have you had to make you so jolly?"

"Nothing much, Gray," answered Jevons; "but it's funny when you feel that way. And I just feel funny. Singular—damned singular, ain't it!"

And there was such an odd look in his quick, unnaturally bright eye that the Poet felt uncomfortable, and retreated a pace. If he had been leading up to a drink or sixpence he had no chance to renew his attack, for Cator, who was Jevons's chief friend there, came in and monopolised him.

"How goes it?" said Cator.

"So so," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

"And is there any chance of a better thing yet? How's Ellis go on?"

Jevons looked down and drew odd figures and mystic Mason signs on the bar counter as he puffed hard at his pipe.

"A beast as usual, and out of beasts comes beastliness," he said; "he has little devilish ways of annoying me, and he looks at me insultingly, and often when I am turned round he laughs. I don't say anything about his being selfish. He knows he gets more work out of me than he would out of a fresh-run German whose English was still Ollendorf; and yet he keeps me on the same pay. No; I say nothing of that; but he's a devil, and makes faces and jeers in a polite, gentlemanly way till he fills me with fury.

"Yes," said Cator rather absently, for to tell the truth he often found Jevons on Ellis a trifle heavier than Byles on Bills. And as a discounter's clerk he often had to look up Byles. "I daresay he's a hard 'un. But, then, he's the oof bird as far as you are concerned, so stick to him while you can."

Jevons nodded, and then laid his hand on Cator's arm.

"You remember that damned wet night up at Billy's?" he asked mysteriously in a half whisper.

"Um," assented Cator.

"And the story I told him and you—that he took down?"

"Why, of course," said Cator with a little shiver. "It was a wild, whacky, flabby, devilish odd story, and [it gave me] the shivers just as if I'd waked and found a cross between a live cuttle-fish and a dead flounder on my chest. Did you ever finish it?"

"No, no," said Jevons, whose mind seemed to have run off the rails; "no, I never finished it. I think I shall, though, some day."

"Well, what of it?" asked Cator. "You asked if I remembered it."

Jevons looked at him half suspiciously, and winked, and laid his finger to his nose.

"It's a damned singular story. Damned singular is the word."

"I believe you," said Cator; "but what of it?"

Jevons looked round,

"I believe I've sold it," he said with a grim chuckle,

Cator slapped him on the back.

"Good old man: if you'd only really follow up your bent you'd be a genius yet. And well paid geniuses are nowadays. Lord, how the bird lays for 'em! But I suppose you'll take the money you get and bust it here in threes of whisky for a crowd like this—not worth a protested bill accepted by a dead policeman."

And one part of Jevons's mind went on in futile talk with a thick-brained, good-natured ass, while another part slaved over piles of futile manuscripts, and another part strove curiously to finish the story of which he had spoken to Cator.

"Have another!" said the Public-House Jevons thickly.

"Still a stack of rotten idiocy," groaned the sub-editorial Jevons. "I shall be dreaming of it to-night."

"Which the devil shall I kill, and how in the name of the Devil of True Art am I to end it?" said the wrecked Genius Jevons down among the dead men of the slums of art.

And the three men of a split Ego went out at last visibly drunk, and to men were as one man. But the Genius saw himself on the left as a goat, and on the right as a sheep. He went arm-in-arm with two persons to his chambers, and consulted with them over the true end of his singular story. And they quarrelled foolishly and made it up more foolishly, and, embracing, fell in a heap. And when the daylight came Jevons was patched up for a bit, and went to work just as though the Genius did not live at all. Hut when Ellis came down to the office at half-past eleven he shook his head.

"I'm sadly afraid that Jevons is going to the deuce very fast," he said. "I've given him many a hint. I wonder how the poor chap would take a straight talking to?"

From one or two rather acid remarks of his sub-editor, Ellis came to the conclusion that he had better leave him alone.

"For if he were to turn nasty I should have to give him the sack," said Ellis, "and he'd never get another job in London, or, for that matter, anywhere else."

He spoke truly, for Jevons had been out of any kind of employment for nearly a year when this last editor gave him another chance. And his soaked wits could not produce even an eighteenpenny paragraph. Ellis saved him for the time, at any rate. And perhaps One of Jevons was not ungrateful.

The morning wore away pretty easily. But when Jevons came in from lunch Ellis remembered the story he had given him the night before.

"Did you read that story, Jevons?" he asked.

Jevons started and clutched his desk till the muscles in his hands stood up. He waited so long before he answered that Ellis half turned round.

"Yes, I read it," said Jevons nervously, as if he did not like to meet the editor's eye.

"And what did you think of it? Isn't it a singular story?"

"Yes," said Jevons, after another pause. "It is rather odd perhaps."

"Gruesome," said Ellis.

"Perhaps gruesome," said Jevons.

Ellis drummed with his blue pencil on his blotting-pad.

"Do you know the name of the writer?" he asked.

"I never saw it except on the copy," said Jevons.

"He's clever, and I daresay hard up, and very likely a bit off," said Ellis, half to himself. "But what did you think of the end?" he added, turning to his assistant.

"It's not an end," said Jevons, looking at the window.

"To be sure it isn't," said Ellis; "that's what makes me say he must be a bit cracked, even if the story itself didn't give him away. And yet it's really too good to be lost. You had better send it back to him, suggesting that he should finish it one way or another. Offer him five pounds for it."

"It's a long story," said Jevons.

"Five pounds is quite enough," answered the editor. "I must keep expenses down."

Jevons, while the editor talked almost automatically, made a shorthand note of what he said. For that was part of his work.

"And if he won't alter it?" he suggested.

"Let him keep it," said Ellis, a little crossly. "But he'll do it fast enough. An unknown man doesn't get a chance in my magazine every day."

Jevons grinned savagely, and then laughed a little dry crackle of a laugh.

"Yes?" said Ellis, half absently.

"Nothing," replied Jevons. And then he wrote in the editor's name to the author of that very singular story.

That night, after Jevons left the Decadents and the Bill Discounter, with whom he had had a grand evening, he went home to his lonely chambers. He lighted his lamp and sat down on his chair, from which he presently slipped to the floor. Then the three Jevons held a consultation together with the Devil, and talked for many hours. A square spirit-bottle was umpire.

"No, thank you," said the Devil, very politely. "I don't drink, it's against my principles and the doctor's orders. A warm climate, you know, plays the very—I mean, it renders one's liver touchy. But pray don't let me interfere with any of the other gentlemen."

"Very good of you, I'm sure," said the Genius, who had far too good manners to press any friend to drink.

"All the more for me," said the Sub-Editor, who was naturally not strong in courtesy.

"And me," said the Sot, clawing rudely at the Umpire.

"But let us get to business," said the Devil. "What about the matter in hand?"

"Yes," said the Genius, "that is what I was thinking of."

"Kill him," said the Devil.

"It's crude," objected the Genius.

"My dear Sir, it all depends on how it is done," replied the Devil.

"I object to bloodshed," said the Sot. "Make him rot like me."

But the Sub-Editor voted thickly for murder, and there was a long argument without any conclusion.

"To-night," said the Genius, "I am the chief person to be considered, and as the Umpire has no vote I do not think we can decide it. I shall let the man decide it himself. That is the true artistic way to look at it."

And the Sub-Editor growled, but, staggering to a type-writer, he clicked off a letter. The Sot went out to post it, and when he came back he swore horribly to find the Umpire played out. He was lying on the hearthrug, and no persuasion could get anything out of him.

The next morning Jevons woke as if he had never been asleep. He trembled, and yet was very keen, and when the tremor went away he was strung to an extreme and peculiar tension. But he went to the office as usual, and did all that came to his hands with unusual care. About eleven o'clock Whittaker Ellis came in smiling. He hung up his hat—his respectable hat—by Jevons's, which was not respectable, and it seemed to Jevons that he had done it to make his own shinier by comparison. But Ellis was very jolly. However, he came to business at last, and Jevons went through the letters with him.

"Here's an answer from Mr. Grimshaw," he said.

"Grimshaw, Grimshaw, who's he?" asked Ellis. "Oh, yes, I remember. He's answered quickly enough. And what has he to say?"

"He says that he can't find an end; that the story ends there."

"Nonsense," said Ellis. "There's surely a limit to this artistic-end business. Some of them will finish by not beginning soon."

"But he says," added Jevons, "that you can edit the story if you like, and that if you can suggest an end he'll take your suggestion."

Ellis nodded.

"Come now, that's reasonable. He's not so mad, after all," he said cheerfully.

And Jevons, going back to his desk, took up his heavy ebony ruler and made round marks with its carved end in the leather of his writing slope.

"As I said," went on Ellis, "it's too good a story to be lost, even if we have to do a bit to it."

"Why should you say the writer is mad?" asked Jevons.

"Only from the tone," said Ellis; "but anyhow, that doesn't matter. What end do you think would be the best? Only a line or two is wanted."

"What do you think is wanted?" asked Jevons.

"It's obviously either suicide or a murder. One of them must go," said Ellis, rubbing his chin.

"Do you think suicide then?" asked Jevons, putting down the ruler and picking up his penknife.

Ellis pondered for a minute.

"I don't think a madman of the type he draws would commit suicide," said he, looking up inquiringly.

"Perhaps not," said Jevons hoarsely. He put the knife down and opened and shut his big hands with a nervous motion. "Then it must be—murder."

"I suppose so—I suppose so," said Ellis pondering. "It certainly seems the logical end, doesn't it?"

Jevons laughed.

"So far as I can see," he answered, and his face twitched. He made a step towards Ellis, but the sunlight came in and brightened up the dull room. Jevons saw the glow upon a green branch of the one tree outside.

"No," he said, almost pleadingly. "Don't let it be that. Don't you—don't you think you are too fond of having murders? There was one in the May number."

"That doesn't matter," said Ellis. "It can't go in just yet. We're full up till August. We can smash all the Ten Commandments before then. A good murder will come in quite fresh."

"Yes," said Jevons as the sun died out behind a cloud. He went to the window and saw the futile mass of humanity in the ugly street. The golden branch of that tree was, after all, nothing beautiful. There were almost as many leaves on the gallows. He turned away, and stopping behind Ellis, grinned queerly.

"No, no," he said in a thin, hard voice, "don't let it be a murder. I—I——"

"I say it must be one!" cried Ellis cheerfully. "What other end is possible? Now, just think."

And he recapitulated the logical points, marking them with a pencil on his blotting-pad. But Jevons's face was dreadful to behold.

"What kind of a murder?" he asked thickly.

"Strangling," said Ellis.


"Strangling," repeated the editor.

And turning, the smile died out of him, for he saw Jevons close. The man's face was ashy, but a red blaze burnt in either cheek, and the eyes were live coals.

"Ah!" said Ellis, but that moment Jevons caught him by the plump white throat.

"I wrote it," said Jevons.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1957, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 65 years or less. This work may 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.

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