By MORLEY ROBERTS.
"VERY well, I'll do it for you," said Gurdon. "I'd just as soon you should have it as Parsons, for he is always kicking about prices."
"All right, then," said Fredericks in a preoccupied way; "let me see it as soon as you have it done, or you might send in part."
And as he turned to his desk Gurdon nodded, shoved a half-burnt cigar between his big teeth, and went out to his club in the purlieus of St. James's. He chuckled joyfully as he went.
"Landed my fish rather neatly that time," he said as he stayed at a corner and struck a match on a much scratched brick.
"I might have had more trouble in placing it. But now I must do it. Six weeks' hard labour, and, I suppose, one hundred pounds. That was the implied price."
He went into the club familiarly known as the Paste and Scissors Arms; and ordering a large gin-and-bitters, sat down to consider matters and methods. But presently Rivers came in. He was the very antithesis of Gurdon, who bulked large and red and fiery, and could look murderous after three drunks, for Rivers was thin and dark and small, and deliberate with the choicest Oxford deliberation, and by no means given to any form of violence. It was reported that he understood the Alps, and a rumour once gained considerable credence that after a late supper in his rooms he undertook to demonstrate the glissade by tobogganing in a tea-tray down the stairs. But this may have been invention, for Rivers denied it consistently, and he might well have forgotten what none of his guests were in any state to remember.
"Is there anything new, Gurdon?" asked Rivers, as he sat down.
"Tea-trays are at a discount," said Gurdon gravely, "but embrocations are firm."
Rivers smiled wearily.
"That is not new, Gurdon. Have you done any work lately?"
"I never work," said Gurdon. "Work as I take it is a reasonable and regular application of one's energies to definite ends, and I only go in for unreasonable and irregular bursts of chaotic mental activity. Now, I understand you work. I often hear you say you are going to do so. Believing that you speak the truth, I respect your industry, and mourn my own incapacity for continued exertion."
"You are cheerful this morning," said Rivers, "and keep up your pose. But what do you do when you disappear for three months at a time?"
"I consider the lilies," said Gurdon gravely, "until I am in immediate danger of starvation. Then I work for a week fifteen hours a day and smoke fifteen cigars and some pipes, and drink a bucket of tea and a bottle of whisky. And I come back to town with fifty thousand words of miscellaneous matter, which I dispose of during the next three months. I have no nerves left, and am a perfect wreck, an empty bottle, a stove-in cask, a dried-up spring, the shadow of my full self. I am amorphous, blotched, bleared, gibbous, gastado, wasted. Then I come and look at you, and sit here and grow again. I am nearly ready now "
"I see the energy coming up in you," said Rivers. "But you are a full-sized idiot to work like that."
"Every man to his method," cried Gurdon, touching the bell. "Have a gin-and-bitters, Rivers?"
They drank together, and Gurdon expanded: his red beard glowed.
"I'm going to do a good month's work for Fredericks," said he.
"Mind what you are doing," said Rivers.
"What do you mean?"
"Stamp his letters."
"It's a verbal agreement."
"Then you'll quarrel, and he'll do you."
Gurdon looked ugly.
"I'll bash his brains out if he tries. But he won't. It is too clear for him to get out of it."
"What are you doing for him?" asked Rivers.
"Seven long articles on Seven Popular Asses," said Gurdon indiscreetly. "But I have liberty to serve them as if I were an intoxicated humorist of a costermonger knocking his donkey in the Old Kent Road. He will edit the libellous matter with a Big Blue Pencil."
"Give it them," said Rivers. "I wish I was in a position to be one of them."
"So do I," said Gurdon softly, as a gentle prospect of n per cent, on xn copies opened out to him. "For I would sling journalism—yea, and all writing—and go out into the unsophisticated universe and be a man. I must have another drink."
"With me," said Rivers.
He ordered it, and Gurdon continued.
"What luck a man has! I should have made a most sweet pirate—an amiable and intelligent filibuster. And here I am leading forlorn hopes against the Seven Champions of Bourgeoisdom. Good-bye. I'm off."
He departed swiftly, and for a long month was not seen of men.
But in five weeks a gaunt wreck swung into the Harbour of Refuge, and went ashore heavily in a big arm-chair.
"Bring me a gin-and-bitters," said the wreck. "And have you seen Mr. Rivers to-day?"
"He's usually in to lunch, Sir," replied the waiter. Sure enough Rivers came in at half-past one.
"The devil!" said he, when he caught sight of Gurdon, "so you're back. Glad to see you! Have you smitten the Seven Asses?"
"I've done it, man, finished last night. And to think of all the rot I've read in order to get through. I've been at it seven to ten hours a day for a month. I stayed at a little inn down at Shoreham, but I don't think I wandered further than the bar. Yes, I once went to the stables with a drunken visitor to inspect a horse. I've had a deuce of a time."
"So I should think." said Rivers seriously, "and doesn't it ever occur to you that it's suicide to go on like that?"
"What's the odds? Now I've to badger Fredericks. It's a new form of hard labour."
"Let me hear how you get on," said Rivers. "I'm curious to know if he pays up."
"He'll pay," said Gurdon. "I shall write every other day till he does."
But he wrote every other day for a week, and then every day for another week before a cheque came.
That night Rivers met Gurdon coming west down the Strand like a fire-ship in a tideway. He loomed gigantic, and his ragged red beard looked like flame; women stared at him and laughed half nervously when he had passed, but men got out of his way, and nothing less than a City policeman, used to regulating traffic, would have stopped him. His eyes glittered, and he was cursing in a thick dry whisper. He saw Rivers, and halting, laid his big paw on his shoulder and swept him off down the street.
"What the devil's gone wrong?" asked Rivers calmly.
"He sent me fifty pounds," said Gurdon in a voice that would have split a fog like a gunshot. "Now what I want is advice, my boy—nice cool, wise advice, with an iceberg of due deliberation in it. Shall I catch him and sweep the Strand with him, or shall I wreck his office and set it on fire, or shall I wring his neck and plead public benefit, or what shall I do?"
Rivers gave him a slight sheer which sent him out of the Strand into King William Street, and they drifted past Toole's Theatre like a big blundering barge and little river tug.
"You will do none of these things, Gurdon," he said quietly. "I should recommend your calmly pointing out to him that he has only sent half, and then, if he doesn't cash up, sue him."
"Sue him?" roared Gurdon. "Can I catch his sweet breath of a month ago and pay the penalty and stick a sixpenny stamp on it? If he's a mean hound, why he is, and verbal agreements without witnesses don't count for much. He would set up custom and common rates, and I should get County Court justice, and have to pay costs. No, no; I'll catch him, and knock the stuffing out of him."
"He's as big and strong as you are," said Rivers, "and you might get the worst of it, and go to jail too."
"I tell you, Rivers, I could lick a church full of such. I could; you bet I could."
And letting out suddenly he hit a shop shutter such a crack with his huge fist that the street resounded.
"Don't." said Rivers; "come up to my rooms and we'll talk it over."
And about two o'clock in the morning he put an intoxicated but mollified giant into a stray hansom, and sent him home.
But Gurdon did no other work than write letters to Fredericks. He kept up a continual bombardment of them till the editor grew sick and angry. He wanted to punch his contributor's head just as much as the contributor desired to punch his. But public opinion on one side and Rivers on the other kept them both from an open scandal.
"What am I to do with this fellow?" he asked his chief clerk in' despair. The clerk might have suggested "Pay him," but did not. He was quite accustomed to Fredericks' getting something for nothing or much for a little. So, at last, he thought of arbitration.
"If he sues me he's certain not to get a full verdict, but he'll be nasty," said Fredericks, "and, besides, the advertisement would be worth the money to him. If I get Harden, or Siblock, or Grayson to arbitrate, they'll see how absurd the price is. They wouldn't get more themselves than what I sent him."
So he wrote and suggested that as the matter in dispute was so small, arbitration would be a good way to settle it. Gurdon pondered over the letter, and took Rivers' advice again.
"Take him on," said Rivers; "you're sure to land something."
Gurdon brought his fist down on the table.
"If I didn't believe I should get the full amount, I wouldn't arbitrate!" he roared. "He's a swindler, a ruffian, a mean, sneaking, crawling, beastly journalistic parasite."
"If you think that way you shouldn't arbitrate," suggested Rivers. But Gurdon was torrential, blind, blundering, and would not listen. He wrote and asked who was to act as arbitrator.
Fredericks suggested Grayson, a very popular man of letters, who, having come into considerable money, rarely did any work.
"He's the very man," said Rivers when he heard of it.
"But I don't know him," said Gurdon; "and he's such a general favourite, I know I sha'n't like him. And if I don't like him, and he goes against me, I shall carry on most shamefully."
Rivers rebuked him.
"Of all the absurd, impossible creatures I ever saw, Gurdon," he said severely, "you are the most absurd and impossible."
So he calmed Gurdon down, and got him to accept Grayson as arbitrator. And that night Gurdon spent ten pounds of the full fifty which he was to get, as he firmly believed. And Fredericks gambled away the best part of the fifty which he believed he had saved. His losses made him smart, and he lost his temper and swore in the card-room. A man who was no friend of his threatened to report him to the committee, and this set Fredericks on a regular tear. He was as much given to that kind of thing as Gurdon, and he was to the full as reckless a fool. It was good luck they did not meet that night, or there would have been flaring head-lines for the evening papers the next day.
In the afternoon Grayson came to see Gurdon at his chambers, and the journalist found him very pleasant and genial, and quite as clever as his reputation would have led him to suppose. He listened to Gurdon's wild denunciations of his editor, and to his theory of the agreement.
"I'm sorry I undertook this, Mr. Gurdon," said Grayson gloomily, "it looks as if I had to believe that either you or Fredericks must be a liar."
Gurdon intimated cheerfully that he hadn't the least objection to his thinking as badly as he liked of Fredericks. But that did not quite settle it.
"I don't see that I can take either your account or his into consideration," said Grayson; "if I fix a price it must be on the general grounds of fair journalistic prices for such signed work."
So Gurdon grunted and they shook hands, and Grayson went to inspect the seven articles on the Seven Asses.
He reported to Fredericks that he considered a fair price would be another twenty-five pounds—making in all seventy-live. He sent a note to this effect to Gurdon as well, and washed his hands of the matter with a resolution never to act as arbitrator again.
He pleased neither; indeed, both were furious.
For this call of another twenty-five pounds struck Fredericks in a tender spot. His account was overdrawn, and his magazine was moribund, or, at the least, very sadly ailing. Worn-of all kinds had driven him half crazy, and now his overcharged nerves went off in an explosion.
As for Gurdon, who was relying on that fatal fifty pounds to pay his rent and his club subscription, he fairly tore his hair and beard. But all his wrath was now directed against the unfortunate arbitrator.
"He evidently thought I was the liar," he said, "for how could any man not see that my tale was the only credible one?"
He went out and started drinking at a terrible rate. And when he drank fast he never became obviously intoxicated. His appearance was that of a madman. It was a pity that Rivers wasn't at hand with his nice deliberate manner and as carefully enunciated common w[isdom to] drop a little cold water into this bubbling, boiling pot. But Rivers was at work. If he had guessed what was happening he would have left a chapter unfinished and have come down to look after this gunpowder barge once more adrift in the fairway. However, he knew nothing, and he could not stop or order differently the course of coming events.
By eleven o'clock that night Fredericks, too, had drunk sufficient champagne and mixed liquors to lose what was left of his discretion, never at any time over-much.
"Confound Grayson!" he swore to himself. "I wonder if he has told Gurdon? Isn't there anything which I forgot, anything I ought to have let him know? I'll go and see the cursed fool! I wish I had never let it go to arbitration!"
He stood in the hall of the club pondering. The porter came up to him.
"Was it you ordered a hansom, Sir?"
That decided Fredericks.
"Yes," he declared, and getting in, he drove off to Grayson's rooms.
The night was fine and brilliant, the streets crowded. But there was just that touch of cold in it which catches a man who has not been over-careful in his dinner and after-dinner drinks. He entered the cab passably sober, and came out intoxicated. He quarrelled with the cabman; he returned abuse with abuse, and finally offered to fight the man.
"You're three stone over my weight," said the driver, "and I should get hauled up and lose my license. You're no gentleman, that's what you ain't."
And Fredericks went up the stairs in a towering rage. He put it all down to Grayson, and cursed him in the common language understanded of the people. He found the arbitrator's oak unsported, and he knocked loudly and knocked again.
Then he listened, and was answered with a snore. He turned the handle and went in, to find the room in utter darkness.
"Grayson, is that you?" he said. Advancing a step, he tripped up, and in an instant was locked in a strong embrace.
"Let go!" he shouted; and the next moment he was loosed, and got a crack which half stunned him. His self-restraint was gone. He went for his opponent, whose figure he now saw dimly by the gas-light outside the opened door, and pounded for all he was worth. He never gave Grayson so much credit for being a fighter. "I'll murder you!" he muttered. "You immortal idiot, I'll arbitrate you!"
And grappling with him, they reeled over the room, capsizing chairs and table, and generally reducing the whole place to a perfect wreck. But suddenly they fell across the sofa, and he got such a blow on the side of his head that he lost consciousness.
The room was still dark when he came to, and he found himself lying on top of his opponent, whose breathing he could scarcely discern. He was now a bit sobered.
"By Jove! I hope I haven't killed him," he said, and getting clear of the sofa he took a match from his pocket and lighted the gas. As he turned round he saw Grayson in front of him, looking perfectly thunderstruck. The arbitrator was so neat and in such good trim that Fredericks for a moment felt that it was all a dream.
"I thought I'd killed you," said he.
"What have you been doing to the room?" said the arbitrator.
"What did you strike me for?" said Fredericks, plucking up a bit.
"You're mad," said Grayson, "what do you mean?"
Fredericks shrugged his shoulders.
"I've been punching you for this last ten minutes," he muttered.
"Confound you!" said the arbitrator angrily; "you have smashed a hundred pounds' worth of china and furniture; you're drunk, Sir. This comes of doing something to oblige you. Get out of this."
And poor Fredericks, who was still stupid with the blow which made him insensible, obeyed like a child. Grayson saw him off, and sported his oak. Coming back, he looked ruefully at the mischief which had been done, and tried to arbitrate on that. He cursed as he went into his bed-room; but he heard a noise behind him and came back. Gurdon was standing in the middle of the room looking absolutely ghastly, with blood running down his face from a cut in head.
"What the blazes are you in my in room for?" said Grayson, who began to believe he was dreaming.
"What did you strike me for and kick me?" said Gurdon in a confused and foolish voice. "I was quiet enough [till] you did that. I only just wanted to [talk] to you. I thought I had killed you."
Grayson sat down and whistled.
"When did you come here?"
"I don't know," said Gurdon plaintively.
"How did you get in?"
"I knocked and came in and sat down to wait a bit for you. And then you struck me."
Grayson laughed scornfully.
"No, I didn't; it was Fredericks, and a pretty mess you've made of him," said he. "He won't be able to show up for a month."
Gurdon wiped his face with a handkerchief and looked happier.
"Then I'm all right," said he. "I was afraid it was you. And I'm [afraid] we've hurt your furniture. I'm very sorry, Grayson."
"Who's going to pay for this?" said Grayson. "My place is wrecked."
"You will have to settle it with me and that beast Fredericks," suggested Gurdon dolefully, who began to see that a cheque for twenty-five pounds would look very small against so much damage.
But Grayson smiled, and rising, unlocked his door in a very suggestive way.
"What!" said he, "settle anything with money in it between you and Fredericks? Not very much. Good-night, Mr. Gurdon."