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No. V.—BLUFF.

MR. CHARLES MADENHAM BOYS, aged fifty-one, is now wearing his hair absurdly short; otherwise he is a man of decidedly attractive appearance. He has a pleasing address, an excellent education, and considerable literary taste. At present he is doing seven years' penal servitude.

But for the purposes of this story it is idle to inquire for what particular offence he is at present secluded. We have to go much further back in his history, though not to the beginning of it. We may pass over the period of his infancy and youth. We need not dwell on the two years when he was the animating spirit of a Cottage Home at Campton-on-Sea, supported entirely by voluntary contributions, or his successful tour in the provinces with a lecture entitled, "The Lost Tribes," or his enterprise in establishing the "Bayswater Matrimonial Agency," and selling the business when it began to get too hot for him. We have to deal with him at the next stage, when at the age of thirty-two he suddenly became Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams, publishers, of 62, Cordery Street, London, E.C. The firm sprang up suddenly, out of the night, as it were, but its name had an honest, old-established look about it. It began to get to work at once with an advertisement which appeared frequently in local papers and sometimes in more important organs. It ran as follows:—

 

NEW TALENT.—Required, for immediate publication: essays, poems, sermons, works of travel, short stories, and novels in two or three volumes; preferably from authors who have not yet submitted their work to the appreciation of the public. The publishers' large staff of expert readers will deal with all work submitted with as little delay as possible. In every case a copy of their opinion may be obtained. Terms: Cash on acceptance. Apply by letter to Messrs'. Parsley, Bashlove & Williams, Publishers, 62, Cordery Street, London, E.C.

 

Mr. Boys, who was not only the entire firm, but the large staff of expert readers as well, thought highly of this advertisement. The young and unpublished author found his vanity gently tickled by this appeal to "New Talent." These publishers evidently knew their business and did not want to have anything to do with the men who had written themselves out. The request for poems and sermons must, one would think, have surprised even the youngest and least published of authors. But there it was, clearly printed in the advertisement; theirs not to reason why, but merely to forward their little collections of heart-sobs and take the cash on acceptance. Money down and no waiting—you could not have anything fairer than that. If the work was not accepted, our young author could have the benefit of an expert reader's opinion, and might in this way learn what was the trivial and easily corrected fault that stood between him and wealth and greatness. It was a beautiful advertisement, and in the good old days (or, if you prefer it, the bad old days) it worked profitably.

The young curate would find that advertisement in the local paper, and look thoughtful and stroke his chin. Then he would take counsel with a sister or a lady dearer than a sister. Buoyed up with hope, he would despatch a long letter to Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams, and forward with it a bulky parcel of manuscript. The fly was in the web. The spider began operations as follows:—

 

"Dear Sir,—We are in receipt of your letter and the collection of sermons accompanying it, entitled 'Sundays after Trinity,' for the offer of which we are greatly obliged. The demand for this class of work largely exceeds the supply, and we hope that we shall be able to make you an offer for the work which you will find satisfactory. On receipt of our registration fee of five shillings—a usual formality, to save us from dealing with dishonest or irresponsible persons—we will forward to you a copy of our preliminary agreement for your signature. When this is returned to us, we will place your manuscript at once in the hands of our readers.

"Faithfully yours,
"Parsley, Bashlove & Williams."

 

That was all right. The curate knew as much about the usual methods of respectable publishers as a Kaffir does about wireless telegraphy. Five shillings not a very large sum; and the curate had an idea that if he did not send it, Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams would think him dishonest and irresponsible. He sent it; he always sent it. He then obtained, and signed, the preliminary agreement. The point of this, put badly, was that if his manuscript should be lost, burnt, or otherwise destroyed while in the possession of the publishers, he should have no redress of any kind.

After that, everything depended on the opinion which Mr. Boys—to give the firm its shorter name—might have formed of that curate's financial position. There was never any cash on acceptance, because the readers never did accept outright. If it was thought that the curate had, or could raise money, the readers (who were Mr. Boys) would report to the publishers (who were also Mr. Boys) that the publication would be attended with considerable risk, owing to the daring originality of the work. Under these circumstances, Mr. Boys did not feel himself justified in accepting the book, but would be pleased to publish it on terms which he called facetiously a half-profit system. The details of this system need not be given here. In the hands of Mr. Boys it meant that the author paid Mr. Boys three times the proper price for something which in the end he never got. If the author was unwilling, or unable to pay for these luxuries, he might wish to see the expert reader's opinion; the advertisement had told him that a copy of it could be obtained. He r now received some additional information as to the terms on which it could be obtained. The terms varied from one to ten guineas; Mr; Boys asked what he thought he could get. He did not despise small sums; "little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land." Undoubtedly Mr. Boys had some of the qualities that make for commercial greatness.

But he had not all the qualities. His businesses prospered for a time, but they did not, as a good business should, improve with age. On the contrary, they all showed a tendency to get too hot for him. The Cottage Home, which was also the birthplace of the registration fee of five shillings, had grown very, very much too hot for him. The temperature in those counties which he had obliged with his lecturing tour had mounted, till a return visit would not have been good for his health. He had been driven to drop the Matrimonial Agency, for fear of burning his fingers. The same misfortune befell him later when he introduced to the notice of the invalid public that marvellous remedial agent, "Hampton's Electro-therapeutic Necklace." The necklace was a fanciful arrangements of glass beads, copper wire spirals, and tin discs. It could not be manufactured much under twopence, and it sold for a guinea. It did well for a time, but it scorched him before he could get it off.

Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams did well for a time. The fees came rolling in. Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams employed two clerks. The office was well and tastefully furnished. Mr. Bashlove (who was Mr. Boys) interviewed "New Talent" in a comfortable room on the first floor, and explained that old Mr. Parsley (who was nobody) took no active part in the business nowadays. If a point arose which Mr. Boys wished to think over, he spoke of the necessity of consulting Mr. Williams (who was the same as Mr. Parsley). It all looked solid, substantial, respectable; and it inspired confidence. Besides, you could not look in Mr. Boys' honest blue eyes and doubt his word; at least, " New Talent" could not. For a time all went smoothly.

But, one day, Mr. Boys had the misfortune to come to the office in a bad temper; as a rule, his temper was one of the most beautiful things about him. And that morning happened to be selected by the second clerk Barlow for a little unpunctuality. Mr. Boys gave Barlow a week's wages and dismissed him; and Barlow, before he left the office, was heard to remark that he was not done yet. He went straight to the office of the Lynx, and there he made statements which brought him at last into the august presence of the editor and proprietor, Mr. Desormeaux, and Mr. Desormeaux was much interested in what Barlow had to tell him. For the Lynx made a business of exposure, and its motto was, "No day without its libel action."

A fortnight later the Lynx had a couple of interesting pages on the subject of Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams, who, it will be remembered, were Mr. Boys. And the business of Mr. Boys fell off in consequence. Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams replied in the public prints that the attack in the Lynx was based on information supplied by a discharged servant. They challenged the Lynx to contradict this statement, and promised that if this were done they would treat the Lynx to a libel action. If the Lynx would not do this, it had merely produced an additional reason why it should be treated with contempt, and Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams were not inclined to waste powder and shot upon it or to give it a gratuitous advertisement. On the whole, a clever and dignified answer; the Lynx had not made a single statement about Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams which it was not prepared to prove; it had said nothing which was not absolutely true; but its information had been derived from a discharged servant, and the public distrusts discharged servants. But before its next issue the Lynx had got into communication with maddened curates and disappointed poets who had had dealings with the firm. Their statements were printed at length with grim and sarcastic comments. Mr. Desormeaux trailed his coat up and down the columns of his paper, and requested Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams to tread on the tail of it. He said that the man who skulked under this alias had never done any legitimate publishing business at all, and had never paid a single author one single penny. If he was wrong, Mr. Boys had his remedy, and he invited Mr. Boys to take it.

Mr. Boys did not propose to take that remedy. There were Cottage Homes and other things in his past which had taken away his taste for being cross-examined; even in his present business, though he had tried to keep just within the letter of the law, he was by no means sure that he had been successful. It seemed to him probable that if he entered the witness-box he would have to enter the dock shortly afterwards. He decided to treat Mr. Desormeaux with silent contempt, but that was not very satisfying. If a man kicks you steadily down three pairs of stairs—which was practically what Mr. Desormeaux had done to Mr. Boys—it is rather an insufficient revenge to treat that man with coldness the next time you meet him. Mr. Boys was much pained; these attacks were so unjust. It was, for instance, absolutely untrue to say that he had never paid an author a penny. Once he had paid an author ten pounds; for that sum he had purchased the copyright of Miss Lucia Dane's novel, "Beyond." It had only happened once, and it was not worth while to mention it; ten pounds is not a quixotically generous price to pay for the copyright of a long novel; Mr. Desormeaux would say that, but would put it more strongly. But the fact remained that Mr. Boys had once paid money for a work, and therefore he now felt like a Christian martyr, wrongly accused and shamefully ill-treated.

His solitary purchase of a book from an author had taken place a year before. One day, greatly to his surprise, he received a manuscript that was undoubtedly worth publishing. There was little literary skill or imagination about it; some fool of a girl had just blurted out her own love-story—emptied out her heart and life for the benefit of the public. The thing was a human document, absolutely true and convincing, and consequently of enthralling interest. Mr. Boys had judgment and could detect the quality of a book. Nothing in this vale of tears is absolutely certain, but it was extremely likely that a book of this type would bring in a fair profit. In that case the half-profit system was, from Mr. Boys' point of view, contra-indicated; it was only good in those cases where there was no possibility of a profit. Without actually making up his mind what he would do, Mr. Boys wrote a letter to Miss Lucia Dane, suggesting that if she were ever in London she should call at the office with reference to her book; it would be more easy to arrange matters at an interview than by letter. The fact is that Mr. Boys had been a good deal interested in the book himself, and was rather curious to see the author. He signed the letter Edmund Bashlove. The girl came. She was, as he had expected, a very young girl, probably not more than seventeen. She was beautiful, in a Blessed Damozel manner, and had the saddest eyes that Mr. Boys had ever seen. She said that she did not want any money, and from her appearance Mr. Boys was inclined to believe her. He might have had the book for nothing, but he paid ten pounds for it. To have taken it for nothing would have put Mr. Boys in the inferior position, and be wanted the girl to think well of him. As I said just now, she was beautiful, and Mr. Boys found her interesting; besides, it is for some perverse reason always easier to give to those who do not want.

At the time Mr. Boys had quite intended to publish the book. But the months had slipped by and nothing had been done; the other side of his business took all his time; the publication of "Beyond" was reserved as a luxury. Miss Lucia Dane wrote once or twice about it; but she had not written during the last few months, and the book had passed out of his memory, until this scandalous attack in the Lynx had recalled it.

As Mr. Boys read over and over again the attacks upon him in the Lynx, he became not only pained by their injustice, but also frightened at their possible rights. It was not only his business that was in danger; his personal liberty was threatened. For the moment he thought it better to lie low, and to do nothing which would be likely to attract further attention from the Lynx, The advertisement which extended an invitation from Messrs. Parsley, Bashlove and Williams to "New Talent" was withdrawn; when the editor of the Lynx had found somebody else to harry, and had forgotten Mr. Boys, the business might be pushed again under another name. At the same time, it was just as well to prevent further evidence coming in the way of Mr. Desormeaux. For the first time in his business career Mr. Boys answered the letters of the malcontents, people who had tasted the bitters of his special brand of half-profit system and were inclined to be pugnacious. He answered them politely, and explained that it was only from a blunder on the part of a clerk, who had since been discharged, that their complaints had not been brought to the notice of the firm before. And he not only answered the letters; in many cases be refunded a part of the money which he had received. The Lynx gave him a contemptuous paragraph in its next number, and then left him alone; it was useless to kick a dead man, and Mr. Boys was careful to give no sign of life. Besides, there were plenty of the living who required the attentions of Mr. Desormeaux; and his readers liked variety.

The Lynx had a good circulation, though of course there were many people who never saw it; and many who did see it, but did not attach very much importance to its sensational disclosures. It hit Mr. Boys very hard. "New Talent" became very shy and rare. The mention of a moderate registration fee of five shillings seemed to frighten it away at once. Sometimes, when everything seemed to be going most promisingly, "New Talent" would suddenly break off all negotiations, and have the impertinence to say that certain back numbers of the Lynx had been brought to its notice. Then Mr. Boys would send a letter after this manner:—

"We had imagined that the circumstances which provoked the absurd attack upon us in the Lynx were a matter of general knowledge, as they are a complete vindication of our character and position. But as the ravings of a dismissed clerk, published in a professedly scurrilous journal, seem to have some weight with you, we are more than ready to return your manuscript as you suggest."

This was all very well as far as it went, but it did not mean money. Things went from bad to worse. There was not enough work to keep one clerk busy, and Mr. Boys still kept two for the sake of appearances; office rents in Cordery Street are very high; Mr. Boys had also a house in Wimbledon, which was more in keeping with his love of style than with his income. On all sides money was flowing out, and the only money that was flowing in consisted of an occasional five shilling registration fee from an ambitious schoolgirl, or a rarer guinea for the expert reader's opinion from a disappointed governess. It irked him that he had repaid those sums to the recalcitrant; he ought to have seen before that the game was up, and not to have wasted money on trying to save it. However, he realised that the game was up now; he decided that it was not even worth while to try it on again under a different name. There were better fish in the sea, and he had just had that beautiful and profitable idea which was to materialise as "Hampton's Electro-therapeutic Necklace."

His aim was now to come out of the business with as much in hand as possible; you cannot get your Electro-therapeutic Necklace on the public without spending a good deal in pushing and advertising. And here I am afraid Mr. Boys showed a want of originality; his furniture and stock were insured, and he decided to have a fire. The fire broke out in the room at the back where the manuscripts were kept; but it was detected before it had done any very considerable damage. Mr. Boys, who had engineered that fire, was not detected, but he became an object of suspicion. the insurance company never disputed a claim if they could possibly help it, but they offered Mr. Boys one quarter of the sum that he demanded; and the tone of their letter was unpleasantly minatory; without actually saying so, they implied that if he did not like that, they would refuse to pay anything, and leave him to take what action he pleased. He replied with the vox anjelica stop out; he was, he said, too poor to fight a wealthy insurance company, and was compelled to accept their offer. It was not the loss which this caused him that pained him chiefly, though that was considerable; it was the thought that they probably suspected that he had tried to cheat them. He did not blame them in the least; he could see himself that there were circumstances connected with the fire that to a hard man of the world might seem suspicious. He could only tell them that he was guiltless; he added, with pathos, that it was not the first time in his life that he had been wronged. The company read his letter, paid up, and were extremely sorry that they had ever made him any offer at all.

The damage done by the fire was confined almost exclusively to a pile of authors' manuscripts; and as the authors had signed that preliminary agreement, they had no claim against him, and Mr. Boys took what there was. But he was a disappointed man; he had hoped for a longer and better fire altogether, and on the part of the insurance company for more of that spirit of genial confidence which makes business so pleasant.

A few days later, Mr. Boys, still bent on getting as much in hand as possible, and true to his policy of not despising small sums, bethought him of Miss Lucia Dane's novel, "Beyond." He did not now propose to publish that book, or any other book, himself, but he might be able to sell the copyright through an agent to another publisher at a reasonable profit. Mr. Boys told a clerk to bring him the manuscript. The clerk was away for some little time, and when he returned he brought with him a little stack of sheets of paper neatly fastened together with a pale blue riband. "It's only the third part, sir," he said apologetically. "The rest was destroyed in the fire."

Mr. Boys swore gently under his breath and told the clerk to go. There was a chance that Miss Dane might have made another copy for herself, but Mr. Boys did not think it likely. In that case——

At this point in his meditations the clerk knocked and entered again. Miss Dane had just called, and was in the waiting-room, and wished to see Mr. Bashlove. She said that her business was of importance. "Show her in," said Mr. Boys, and slipped the third part of "Beyond" into the drawer of his writing-table.

Miss Dane had changed a good deal in appearance. She was still beautiful, but she was no longer pathetic. She looked radiantly happy, and rather proud, and also very much ashamed of herself.

"About a year and a half ago," she said, "I sold to you a novel of mine. Do you remember it?"

"Perfectly," said Mr. Boys.

"I thought that perhaps, as you have not published it yet, you might have gone over it again and found that, after all, it was not good enough. And if you will let me have it back again, I will gladly return you the ten pounds. In fact, I have brought them with me on purpose."

Mr. Boys rose from his chair and paced the room. "May I ask," he said, "why you have changed your mind, and to which publisher you propose to transfer it?"

"I don't want it to be published at all. I want to destroy it."

That was all right. Then Miss Dane had not seen those unjust attacks by Mr. Desormeaux in the Lynx.

"But why?" he asked.

"The fact of the case is—oh, it's awfully difficult to explain how one has been silly! Well, most of the book is real. That girl in it, you know——"

"You mean the heroine?"

"Yes, the idiot who thinks she is in love with that nincompoop who sings—the hero, I suppose he would be called. She is going to be married to another man now, very happily; and it would hurt her feelings, terribly, to be reminded of all that old rubbish now; and very likely people would guess that it was meant for her, and everyone would know, and it would be horrid. I never ought to have written the stupid book at all. I am sure anyone who published it would lose a great deal of money by it. I want you to take my ten pounds, and burn the agreement and the book."

Mr. Boys took a few moments to reflect before he answered. He had guessed the facts now—that Miss Dane had been the heroine of her own book, and, as she was about to marry somebody who had not been the hero, did not want the old love affair publicly embalmed and exhibited. It was very natural; it was also, Mr. Boys thought, very promising.

"I cannot burn your book," he said. This was true, as he had burned two-thirds of it already; the rest of his remarks were, on the whole, less true. "I cannot burn it, because it will be published next month. Two-thirds of it are in type already, and as you came in I was on the point of sending off the third part to the printer." He took the third part out of the drawer and rang the bell. "My clerk may as well be sending it off while we are talking."

"Oh, don't! Oh, don't!" Miss Dane cried excitedly. "It must be stopped. I'll do anything to stop it."

The clerk entered. Mr. Boys cast his eye on the third part of "Beyond." Miss Dane suffered agonies. Then Mr. Boys shrugged his shoulders and gave his clerk a couple of letters to post.

"But this won't do at all," said Mr. Boys, when the clerk had gone. "You have no rights in that book whatever. It is my property, to do with just as I please. I do not want to do anything that might be unpleasant to you, but I do not see how I am to stay publication. The taste for books of the class has grown enormously of late, and the book is worth ten times as much now as it was when I bought it from you. Then the contracts with printers and binders are already made, and it will cost an enormous sum to break them. Then there are the advertising contracts, and—er—there are others. You could not find this sum yourself, I presume. If you went to your father——"

"You know I can't do that. I've not told anybody about the book yet, and I don't want to tell anybody. I could get thirty or forty pounds in a week by selling some things."

"That, of course, would be quite insufficient. If I can avoid actual loss, I would forego my profits; but I have partners, and my out-of-pocket expenses in connection with the book must be met, or else the book must be published."

It was arranged that Miss Dane should call again next week. But when next week came, it was not Miss Dane who called, but Sir James Hyles, Baronet. He brought a letter with him to Mr. Bashlove.

"I see, Sir James," said Mr. Boys, "that Miss Dane empowers you to act for her in this matter. You are, perhaps——"

"Yes," said Sir James bluntly, "I am going to marry Miss Dane. Now, look here. You've got her book, and she wants you not to publish it. Sign this paper, and you can't publish it or do anything else with it except destroy it—so my solicitor says."

Mr. Boys looked over the paper and nodded. "That is so."

"Well?" said Sir James.

"My out-of-pocket expenses in connection with the book are three hundred and forty-two pounds. Are you prepared to pay that?"

"Certainly, or twice that, if necessary; but as my solicitors know a little about you, Mr. Boys, the examination into your accounts will be strict. You will have to show that you have really expended that sum. I have here a banknote for fifty pounds. If you will accept that, and sign the document before you, there will be no questions."

After all, fifty pounds is a very fair price to get for not publishing a novel which you could not publish in any case. And Sir James had evidently mastered Mr. Bashlove's alias, and his solicitors might have other knowledge of an inconvenient nature.

So Mr. Boys smiled pleasantly, signed the paper, and put the banknote in his pocket. "I accept the fifty," he said, "and Miss Dane may consider that I have made her a present of the difference; and if you will give me the name of your solicitors, I will take such steps as I may be advised with regard to their slanderous statements about myself."

"Same people you had against you when you were running the Cottage Home. G'-mornin'." And Sir James passed out of the office.