A Competent Judge Of Poetry
There were times when Mr. Cresta Morris was called by that name; there were other moments when he was "Mr. Staleyborn." His wife, a placid and trusting woman, responded to either name, having implicit faith in the many explanations which her husband offered to her, the favourite amongst them being that business men were seldom known by the names they were born with.
Thus the eminent firm of drapers Messrs. Lavender & Rosemary were--or was--in private life one Isadore Ruhl, and everybody knew that the maker of Morgan's Superfatted Soap--"the soap with foam"--was a certain member of the House of Lords whose name was not Morgan.
Mrs. Staleyborn, or Morris, had a daughter who ran away from home and became the secretary to Augustus Tibbetts, Managing Director of Schemes Limited, and there were odd moments of the day when Mrs. Staleyborn felt vaguely uneasy about her child's future. She had often, indeed, shed tears between five o'clock in the afternoon and seven o'clock in the evening, which as everybody knows, is the most depressing time of the day.
She was, however, one of those persons who are immensely comforted by the repetition of ancient saws which become almost original every time they are applied, and one of these sayings was "Everything is for the best." She believed in miracles, and had reason, for she received her weekly allowance from her erratic husband with monotonous regularity every Saturday morning.
This is a mere digression to point the fact that Mr. Morris was known by many names. He was called "Cress," and "Ike," and "Tubby," and "Staley," according to the company in which he found himself.
One evening in June he found himself in the society of friends who called him by names which, if they were not strictly original, were certainly picturesque. One of these companions was a Mr. Webber, who had worked more swindles with Morris than had any other partner, and the third, and most talkative, was a gentleman named Seepidge, of Seepidge & Soomes, printers to the trade.
Mr. Seepidge was a man of forty-five, with a well-used face. It was one of those faces which look different from any other angle than that from which it is originally seen. It may be said, too, that his colouring was various. As he addressed Mr. Morris, it varied between purple and blue. Mrs. Morris was in the habit of addressing her husband by endearing titles. Mr. Seepidge was not addressing Mr. Morris in a way which, by any stretch of imagination, could be described as endearing.
"Wait a bit, Lew," pleaded Mr. Morris. "Don't let's quarrel. Accidents will occur in the best of regulated families."
"Which you're not," said the explosive Mr. Seepidge, violently. "I gave you two hundred to back Morning Glory in the three o'clock race. You go down to Newbury with my money, and you come back and tell me, after the horse has won, that you couldn't get a bookmaker to take the bet!"
"And I give you the money back," replied Mr. Morris.
"You did," reported Mr. Seepidge meaningly, "and I was surprised to find there wasn't a dud note in the parcel. No, Ike, you double-crossed me. You backed the horse and took the winnings, and come back to me with a cock-and-bull story about not being able to find a bookmaker."
Mr. Morris turned a pained face to his companion.
"Jim," he said, addressing Mr. Webber, "did you ever in all your born days hear a pal put it across another pal like that? After the work we've done all these years together, me and Lew--why, you're like a serpent in the bush, you are really!"
It was a long time, and there was much passing of glasses across a lead-covered bar, before Mr. Seepidge could be pacified--the meeting took place in the private bar of "The Bread and Cheese," Camden Town--but presently he turned from the reproachful into the melancholy stage, explained the bad condition of business, what with the paper bills and wages bills he had to pay, and hinted ominously at bankruptcy.
In truth, the firm of Seepidge was in a bad way. The police had recently raided the premises and nipped in the bud a very promising order for five hundred thousand sweepstake tickets, which were being printed surreptitiously, for Mr. Seepidge dealt in what is colloquially known as "snide printing."
Whether Mr. Cresta Morris had indeed swindled his partner of many crimes, and had backed Morning Glory at a remunerative price for his own profit, is a painful question which need not be too closely examined. It is certain that Seepidge was in a bad way, and as Mr. Morris told himself with admirable philosophy, even if he had won a packet of money, a thousand or so would not have been sufficient to get Mr. Seepidge out of the cart.
"Something has got to be done," said Mr. Cresta Morris briskly.
"Somebody," corrected the taciturn Webber. "The question is, who?"
"I tell you, boys, I'm in a pretty bad way," said Seepidge earnestly. "I don't think, even if I'd backed that winner, I could have got out of trouble. The business is practically in pawn; I'm getting a police inspection once a week. I've got a job now which may save my bacon, if I can dodge the 'splits'--an order for a million leaflets for a Hamburg lottery house. And I want the money--bad! I owe about three thousand pounds."
"I know where there's money for asking," said Webber, and they looked at him.
His interesting disclosure was not to follow immediately, for they had reached closing-time, and were respectfully ushered into the street.
"Come over to my club," said Mr. Seepidge.
His club was off the Tottenham Court Road, and its membership was artistic. It had changed its name after every raid that had been made upon it, and the fact that the people arrested had described themselves as artists and actresses consolidated the New Napoli Club as one of the artistic institutions of London.
"Now, where's this money?" asked Seepidge, when they were seated round a little table.
"There's a fellow called Bones----" began Mr. Webber.
"Oh, him!" interrupted Mr. Morris, in disgust. "Good Heavens! You're not going to try him again!"
"We'd have got him before if you hadn't been so clever," said Webber. "I tell you, he's rolling in money. He's just moved into a new flat in Devonshire Street that can't cost him less than six hundred a year."
"How do you know this?" asked the interested Morris.
"Well," confessed Webber, without embarrassment, "I've been working solo on him, and I thought I'd be able to pull the job off myself."
"That's a bit selfish," reproached Morris, shaking his head. "I didn't expect this from you, Webbie."
"Never mind what you expected," said Webber, unperturbed. "I tell you I tried it. I've been nosing round his place, getting information from his servants, and I've learned a lot about him. Mind you," said Mr. Webber, "I'm not quite certain how to use what I know to make money. If I'd known that, I shouldn't have told you two chaps anything about it. But I've got an idea that this chap Bones is a bit sensitive on a certain matter, and Cully Tring, who's forgotten more about human men than I ever knew, told me that, if you can get a mug on his sensitive spot, you can bleed him to death. Now, three heads are better than one, and I think, if we get together, we'll lift enough stuff from Mr. Blinking Bones to keep us at Monte Carlo for six months."
"Then," said Mr. Seepidge impressively, "let us put our 'eads together."
In emotional moments that enterprising printer was apt to overlook the box where the little "h's" were kept.
Bones had indeed moved into the intellectual atmosphere of Devonshire Street. He had hired a flat of great beauty and magnificence, with lofty rooms and distempered walls and marble chimney-pieces, for all the world like those rooms in the catalogues of furniture dealers which so admirably show off the fifty-pound drawing-room suite offered on the easiest terms.
"My dear old thing," he said, describing his new splendours to Hamilton, "you ought to see the jolly old bathroom!"
"What do you want a bath for?" asked Hamilton innocently. "You've only got the place for three years."
"Now, dear old thing, don't be humorous," said Bones severely. "Don't be cheap, dear old comic one."
"The question is," said Hamilton, "why the dickens do you want a new flat? Your old flat was quite a palatial establishment. Are you thinking of setting up housekeeping?"
Bones turned very red. In his embarrassment he stood first upon one leg and then the other, lifting his eyebrows almost to the roof of his head to let in his monocle, and lifted them as violently to let it out again.
"Don't pry, don't pry, dear old Ham," he said testily. "Great Heavens and Moses! Can't a fellow take a desirable flat, with all modern conveniences, in the most fashionable part of the West End, and all that sort of thing, without exciting the voice of scandal, dear old thing? I'm surprised at you, really I am, Ham. I am, Ham," he repeated. "That sounds good," he said, brightening up. "Am Ham!"
"But what is the scheme?" persisted Hamilton.
"A bargain, a bargain, dear old officer," said Bones, hurriedly, and proceeded to the next business.
That next business included the rejection of several very promising offers which had arrived from different directors of companies, and people. Bones was known as a financier. People who wanted other people to put money into things invariably left Bones to the last, because they liked trying the hard things first. The inventor and patentee of the reaping machine that could be worked by the farmer in his study, by means of push keys, was sure, sooner or later, to meet a man who scratched his chin and said:
"Hard luck, but why don't you try that man Tibbetts? He's got an office somewhere around. You'll find it in the telephone book. He's got more money than he knows what to do with, and your invention is the very thing he'd finance."
As a rule, it was the very thing that Bones did not finance.
Companies that required ten thousand pounds for the extension of their premises, and the fulfilment of the orders which were certain to come next year, drafted through their secretaries the most wonderful letters, offering Bones a seat on their board, or even two seats, in exchange for his autograph on the south-east corner of a cheque. These letters usually began somehow like this:
"At a moment when the eyes of the world are turned upon Great Britain, and when her commercial supremacy is threatened, it behoves us all to increase production...." And usually there was some reference to "the patriotic duty of capital."
There was a time when these appeals to his better nature would have moved Bones to amazing extravagance, but happily that time was before he had any money to speak about.
For Bones was growing in wisdom and in wiliness as the days passed. Going through the pile of correspondence, he came upon a letter which he read thoughtfully, and then read again before he reached to the telephone and called a number. In the City of London there was a business-like agency which supplied him with a great deal of useful information, and it was to these gentlemen that he addressed his query: "Who are Messrs. Seepidge & Soomes?"
He waited for some time with the receiver at his ear, a far-away look in his eyes, and then the reply came:
"A little firm of printers run by a rascal named Seepidge, who has been twice bankrupt and is now insolvent. His firm has been visited by the police for illegal printing several times, and the firm is in such a low condition that it has a job to pay its wages bill."
"Thank you," said Bones. "Thank you, dear old commercial guardian. What is the business worth?"
"It's worth your while to keep away from it," said the humorous reply, and Bones hung up the receiver.
"Ham, old dear," he said, and Hamilton looked up. "Suppose," said Bones, stretching out his legs and fixing his monocle, "suppose, my jolly old accountant and partner, you were offered a business which was worth"--he paused--"which was worth your while keeping away from it--that's a pretty good line, don't you think, old literary critic?"
"A very good line," said Hamilton calmly; "but you have rather a loud-speaking telephone, and I think I have heard the phrase before."
"Oh, have you?" said Bones by no means abashed. "Still, it's a very good line. And suppose you were offered this printing business for fifteen thousand pounds, what would you say?"
"It depends on who was present," said Ham, "and where I was. For example, if I were in the gorgeous drawing-room of your wonderful flat, in the splendid presence of your lovely lady wife to be----"
Bones rose and wagged his finger.
"Is nothing sacred to you, dear old Ham?" he choked. "Are the most tender emotions, dear old thing, which have ever been experienced by any human being----"
"Oh, shut up," said Hamilton, "and let's hear about this financial problem of yours."
Bones was ruffled, and blinked, and it was some time before he could bring himself back to sordid matters of business.
"Well, suppose this jolly old brigand offered you his perfectly beastly business for fifteen thousand pounds, what would you do?"
"Send for the police," said Hamilton.
"Would you now?" said Bones, as if the idea struck him for the first time. "I never have sent for the police you know, and I've had simply terrible offers put up to me."
"Or put it in the waste-paper basket," said Hamilton, and then in surprise: "Why the dickens are you asking all these questions?"
"Why am I asking all these questions?" repeated Bones. "Because, old thing, I have a hump."
Hamilton raised incredulous eyebrows.
"I have what the Americans call a hump."
"A hump?" said Hamilton, puzzled. "Oh, you mean a 'hunch.'"
"Hump or hunch, it's all the same," said Bones airily. "But I've got it."
"What exactly is your hunch?"
"There's something behind this," said Bones, tapping a finger solemnly on the desk. "There's a scheme behind this--there's a swindle--there's a ramp. Nobody imagines for one moment that a man of my reputation could be taken in by a barefaced swindle of this character. I think I have established in the City of London something of a tradition," he said.
"You have," agreed Hamilton. "You're supposed to be the luckiest devil that ever walked up Broad Street."
"I never walk up Broad Street, anyway," said Bones, annoyed. "It is a detestable street, a naughty old street, and I should ride up it--or, at least, I shall in a day or two."
"Buying a car?" asked Hamilton, interested.
"I'll tell you about that later," said Bones evasively, and went on:
"Now, putting two and two together, you know the conclusion I've reached?"
"Four?" suggested Hamilton.
Bones, with a shrug ended the conversation then and there, and carried his correspondence to the outer office, knocking, as was his wont, until his stenographer gave him permission to enter. He shut the door--always a ceremony--behind him and tiptoed toward her.
Marguerite Whitland took her mind from the letter she was writing, and gave her full attention to her employer.
"May I sit down, dear young typewriter?" said Bones humbly.
"Of course you can sit down, or stand up, or do anything you like in the office. Really," she said, with a laugh, "really, Mr. Tibbetts, I don't know whether you're serious sometimes."
"I'm serious all the time, dear old flicker of keyboards," said Bones, seating himself deferentially, and at a respectful distance.
She waited for him to begin, but he was strangely embarrassed even for him.
"Miss Marguerite," he began at last a little huskily, "the jolly old poet is born and not----"
"Oh, have you brought them?" she asked eagerly, and held out her hand. "Do show me, please!"
Bones shook his head.
"No, I have not brought them," he said. "In fact, I can't bring them yet."
She was disappointed, and showed it.
"You've promised me for a week I should see them."
"Awful stuff, awful stuff!" murmured Bones disparagingly. "Simply terrible tripe!"
"Tripe?" she said, puzzled.
"I mean naughty rubbish and all that sort of thing."
"Oh, but I'm sure it's good," she said. "You wouldn't talk about your poems if they weren't good."
"Well," admitted Bones, "I'm not so sure, dear old arbitrator elegantus, to use a Roman expression, I'm not so sure you're not right. One of these days those poems will be given to this wicked old world, and--then you'll see."
"But what are they all about?" she asked for about the twentieth time.
"What are they about?" said Bones slowly and thoughtfully. "They're about one thing and another, but mostly about my--er--friends. Of course a jolly old poet like me, or like any other old fellow, like Shakespeare, if you like--to go from the sublime to the ridiculous--has fits of poetising that mean absolutely nothing. It doesn't follow that if a poet like Browning or me writes fearfully enthusiastically and all that sort of thing about a person... No disrespect, you understand, dear old miss."
"Quite," she said, and wondered.
"I take a subject for a verse," said Bones airily, waving his hand toward Throgmorton Street. "A 'bus, a fuss, a tram, a lamb, a hat, a cat, a sunset, a little flower growing on the river's brim, and all that sort of thing--any old subject, dear old miss, that strikes me in the eye--you understand?"
"Of course I understand," she said readily. "A poet's field is universal, and I quite understand that if he writes nice things about his friends he doesn't mean it."
"Oh, but doesn't he?" said Bones truculently. "Oh, doesn't he, indeed? That just shows what a fat lot you know about it, jolly old Miss Marguerite. When I write a poem about a girl----"
"Oh, I see, they're about girls," said she a little coldly.
"About a girl," said Bones, this time so pointedly that his confusion was transferred immediately to her.
"Anyway, they don't mean anything," she said bravely.
"My dear young miss"--Bones rose, and his voice trembled as he laid his hand on the typewriter where hers had been a second before--"my dear old miss," he said, jingling with the letters "a" and "e" as though he had originally put out his hand to touch the keyboard, and was in no way surprised and distressed that the little hand which had covered them had been so hastily withdrawn, "I can only tell you----"
"There is your telephone bell," she said hurriedly. "Shall I answer it?" And before Bones could reply she had disappeared.
He went back to his flat that night with his mind made up. He would show her those beautiful verses. He had come to this conclusion many times before, but his heart had failed him. But he was growing reckless now. She should see them--priceless verses, written in a most expensive book, with the monogram "W.M." stamped in gold upon the cover. And as he footed it briskly up Devonshire Street, he recited:
"O Marguerite, thou lovely flower,
I think of thee most every hour,
With eyes of grey and eyes of blue,
That change with every passing hue,
Thy lovely fingers beautifully typing,
How sweet and fragrant is thy writing!
He thought he was reciting to himself, but that was not the case. People turned and watched him, and when he passed the green doorway of Dr. Harkley Bawkley, the eminent brain specialist, they were visibly disappointed.
He did not unlock the rosewood door of his flat, but rang the silver bell.
He preferred this course. Ali, his Coast servant, in his new livery of blue and silver, made the opening of the door something only less picturesque than the opening of Parliament. This intention may not have been unconnected with the fact that there were two or three young ladies, and very young at that, on the landing, waiting for the door of the opposite flat to open.
Ali opened the door. The lower half of him was blue and silver, the upper half was Oxford shirt and braces, for he had been engaged in cleaning the silver.
"What the deuce do you mean by it?" demanded Bones wrathfully. "Haven't I given you a good uniform, you blithering jackass? What the deuce do you mean by opening the door, in front of people, too, dressed like a--a--dashed naughty boy?"
"Silverous forks require lubrication for evening repast," said Ali reproachfully.
Bones stalked on to his study.
It was a lovely study, with a carpet of beautiful blue. It was a study of which a man might be proud. The hangings were of silk, and the suite was also of silk, and also of blue silk. He sat down at his Louis XVI. table, took a virgin pad, and began to write. The inspiration was upon him, and he worked at top speed.
"I saw a litle bird--a litle bird--a litle bird, floating in the sky," he wrote. "Ever so high! Its pretty song came down, down to me, and it sounded like your voice the other afternoon at tea, at tea. And in its flite I remembered the night when you came home to me."
He paused at the last, because Marguerite Whitland had never come home to him, certainly not at night. The proprieties had to be observed, and he changed the last few lines to: "I remember the day when you came away to Margate on the sea, on the sea."
He had not seen his book of poems for a week, but there was a blank page at the end into which the last, and possibly the greatest, might go. He pulled the drawer open. It was empty. There was no mistaking the fact that that had been the drawer in which the poems had reposed, because Bones had a very excellent memory.
He rang the bell and Ali came, his Oxford shirt and braces imperfectly hidden under a jersey which had seen better days.
"Ali"--and this time Bones spoke rapidly and in Coast Arabic--"in this drawer was a beautiful book in which I had written many things."
"Master, that I know, for you are a great poet, and I speak your praises whenever I go into the café, for Hafiz did not write more beautifully than you."
"What the dooce," spluttered Bones in English, "do you mean by telling people about me--eh, you scoundrel? What the dooce do you mean by it, you naughty old ebony?"
"Master," said All "eulogistic speechification creates admiration in common minds."
He was so unruffled, so complacent, that Bones, could only look at him in wonder. There was, too, about Ali Mahomet a queer look of guilty satisfaction, as of one who had been surprised in a good act.
"Master," he said, "it is true that, contrary to modest desires of humble poets, I have offered praises of your literature to unauthorised persons, sojourning in high-class café 'King's Arms,' for my evening refreshment. Also desiring to create pleasant pleasure and surprise, your servant from his own emoluments authorised preparation of said poems in real print work."
"You were going to get my things printed? Oh, you ... oh, you...."
Ali was by no means distressed.
"To-morrow there shall come to you a beautiful book for the master's surprise and joyousness. I myself will settle account satisfactorily from emoluments accrued."
Bones could only sit down and helplessly wag his head. Presently he grew calmer. It was a kindly thought, after all. Sooner or later those poems of his must be offered to the appreciation of a larger audience. He saw blind Fate working through his servitor's act. The matter had been taken out of his hands now.
"What made you do it, you silly old josser?" he asked.
"Master, one gentleman friend suggested or proffered advice, himself being engaged in printery, possessing machines----"
A horrible thought came into Bones's head.
"What was his name?" he asked.
Ali fumbled in the capacious depths of his trousers pocket and produced a soiled card, which he handed to Bones. Bones read with a groan:
MESSRS. SEEPIDGE & SOOMES,
Printers to the Trade.
Bones fell back in the padded depths of his writing chair.
"Now, you've done it," he said hollowly, and threw the card back again.
It fell behind Ali, and he turned his back on Bones and stooped to pick up the card. It was a target which, in Bones's then agitated condition, he could scarcely be expected to resist.
Bones spent a sleepless night, and was at the office early. By the first post came the blow he had expected--a bulky envelope bearing on the flap the sign-manual of Messrs. Seepidge & Soomes. The letter which accompanied the proof enclosed merely repeated the offer to sell the business for fifteen thousand pounds.
"This will include," the letter went on, "a great number of uncompleted orders, one of which is for a very charming series of poems which are now in our possession, and a proof-sheet of which we beg to enclose."
Bones read the poems and they somehow didn't look as well in print as they had in manuscript. And, horror of horrors--he went white at the thought--they were unmistakably disrespectful to Miss Marguerite Whitland! They were love poems. They declared Bones's passion in language which was unmistakable. They told of her hair which was beyond compare, of her eyes which rivalled the skies, and of her lips like scarlet strips. Bones bowed his head in his hands, and was in this attitude when the door opened, and Miss Whitland, who had had a perfect night and looked so lovely that her poems became pallid and nauseating caricatures, stepped quietly into the room.
"Aren't you well, Mr. Tibbetts?" she said.
"Oh, quite well," said Bones valiantly. "Very tra-la-la, dear old thing, dear old typewriter, I mean."
"Is that correspondence for me?"
She held out her hand, and Bones hastily thrust Messrs. Seepidge & Soomes's letter, with its enclosure, into his pocket.
"No, no, yes, yes," he said incoherently. "Certainly why not this is a letter dear old thing about a patent medicine I have just taken I am not all I was a few years ago old age is creeping on me and all that sort of stuff shut the door as you go in."
He said this without a comma or a full-stop. He said it so wildly that she was really alarmed.
Hamilton arrived a little later, and to him Bones made full confession.
"Let's see the poems," said Hamilton seriously.
"You won't laugh?" said Bones.
"Don't be an ass. Of course I won't laugh, unless they're supposed to be comic," said Hamilton. And, to do him justice, he did not so much as twitch a lip, though Bones watched his face jealously.
So imperturbable was Hamilton's expression that Bones had courage to demand with a certain smugness:
"Well, old man, not so bad? Of course, they don't come up to Kipling, but I can't say that I'm fearfully keen on Kipling, old thing. That little one about the sunset, I think, is rather a gem."
"I think you're rather a gem," said Hamilton, handing back the proofs. "Bones, you've behaved abominably, writing poetry of that kind and leaving it about. You're going to make this girl the laughing-stock of London."
"Laughing-stock?" snorted the annoyed Bones. "What the dickens do you mean, old thing? I told you there are no comic poems. They're all like that."
"I was afraid they were," said Hamilton. "But poems needn't be comic," he added a little more tactfully, as he saw Bones's colour rising, "they needn't be comic to excite people's amusement. The most solemn and sacred things, the most beautiful thoughts, the most wonderful sentiments, rouse the laughter of the ignorant."
"True, true," agreed Bones graciously. "And I rather fancy that they are a little bit on the most beautiful side, my jolly old graven image. All heart outpourings you understand--but no, you wouldn't understand, my old crochety one. One of these days, as I've remarked before, they will be read by competent judges ... midnight oil, dear old thing--at least, I have electric light in my flat. They're generally done after dinner."
"After a heavy dinner, I should imagine," said Hamilton with asperity. "What are you going to do about it, Bones?"
Bones scratched his nose.
"I'm blessed if I know," he said.
"Shall I tell you what you must do?" asked Hamilton quietly.
"Certainly, Ham, my wise old counsellor," said the cheerful Bones. "Certainly, by all means, Why not?"
"You must go to Miss Whitland and tell her all about it."
Bones's face fell.
"Good Heavens, no!" he gasped. "Don't be indelicate, Ham! Why, she might never forgive me, dear old thing! Suppose she walked out of the office in a huff? Great Scotland! Great Jehoshaphat! It's too terrible to contemplate!"
"You must tell her," said Hamilton firmly. "It's only fair to the girl to know exactly what is hanging over her."
Bones pleaded, and offered a hundred rapid solutions, none of which were acceptable to the relentless Hamilton.
"I'll tell her myself, if you like," he said. "I could explain that they're just the sort of things that a silly ass of a man does, and that they were not intended to be offensive--even that one about her lips being like two red strips. Strips of what--carpet?"
"Don't analyse it, Ham, lad, don't analyse it!" begged Bones. "Poems are like pictures, old friend. You want to stand at a distance to see them."
"Personally I suffer from astigmatism," said Hamilton, and read the poems again. He stopped once or twice to ask such pointed questions as how many "y's" were in "skies," and Bones stood on alternate feet, protesting incoherently.
"They're not bad, old boy?" he asked anxiously at last. "You wouldn't say they were bad?"
"Bad," said Hamilton in truth, "is not the word I should apply."
Bones cheered up.
"That's what I think, dear ex-officer," he smirked. "Of course, a fellow is naturally shy about maiden efforts, and all that sort of thing, but, hang it all, I've seen worse than that last poem, old thing."
"So have I," admitted Hamilton, mechanically turning back to the first poem.
"After all"--Bones was rapidly becoming philosophical--"I'm not so sure that it isn't the best thing that could happen. Let 'em print 'em! Hey? What do you say? Put that one about young Miss Marguerite being like a pearl discovered in a dustbin, dear Ham, put it before a competent judge, and what would he say?"
"Ten years," snarled Hamilton, "and you'd get off lightly!"
Bones smiled with admirable toleration, and there the matter ended for the moment.
It was a case of blackmail, as Hamilton had pointed out, but, as the day proceeded, Bones took a more and more lenient view of his enemy's fault. By the afternoon he was cheerful, even jocose, and, even in such moments as he found himself alone with the girl, brought the conversation round to the subject of poetry as one of the fine arts, and cunningly excited her curiosity.
"There is so much bad poetry in the world," said the girl on one such occasion, "that I think there should be a lethal chamber for people who write it."
"Agreed, dear old tick-tack," assented Bones, with an amused smile. "What is wanted is--well, I know, dear old miss. It may surprise you to learn that I once took a correspondence course in poetry writing."
"Nothing surprises me about you, Mr. Tibbetts," she laughed.
He went into her office before leaving that night. Hamilton, with a gloomy shake of his head by way of farewell, had already departed, and Bones, who had given the matter very considerable thought, decided that this was a favourable occasion to inform her of the amusing efforts of his printer correspondent to extract money.
The girl had finished her work, her typewriter was covered, and she was wearing her hat and coat. But she sat before her desk, a frown on her pretty face and an evening newspaper in her hand, and Bones's heart momentarily sank. Suppose the poems had been given to the world?
"All the winners, dear old miss?" he asked, with spurious gaiety.
She looked up with a start.
"No," she said. "I'm rather worried, Mr. Tibbetts. A friend of my step-father's has got into trouble again, and I'm anxious lest my mother should have any trouble."
"Dear, dear!" said the sympathetic Bones. "How disgustingly annoying! Who's the dear old friend?"
"A man named Seepidge," said the girl, and Bones gripped a chair for support. "The police have found that he is printing something illegal. I don't quite understand it all, but the things they were printing were invitations to a German lottery."
"Very naughty, very unpatriotic," murmured the palpitating Bones, and then the girl laughed.
"It has its funny side," she said. "Mr. Seepidge pretended that he was carrying out a legitimate order--a book of poems. Isn't that absurd?"
"Ha, ha!" said Bones hollowly.
"Listen," said the girl, and read:
"The magistrate, in sentencing Seepidge to six months' hard labour, said that there was no doubt that the man had been carrying on an illegal business. He had had the effrontery to pretend that he was printing a volume of verse. The court had heard extracts from that precious volume, which had evidently been written by Mr. Seepidge's office-boy. He had never read such appalling drivel in his life. He ordered the confiscated lottery prospectuses to be destroyed, and he thought he would be rendering a service to humanity if he added an order for the destruction of this collection of doggerel."
The girl looked up at Bones.
"It is curious that we should have been talking about poetry to-day, isn't it?" she asked. "Now, Mr. Tibbetts, I'm going to insist upon your bringing that book of yours to-morrow."
Bones, very flushed of face, shook his head.
"Dear old disciple," he said huskily, "another time ... another time ... poetry should be kept for years ... like old wine..."
"Who said that?" she asked, folding her paper and rising.
"Competent judges," said Bones, with a gulp.