When A Man’s Single by James Matthew Barrie


One evening, nearly a month after Rob Angus became ‘single,’ Mr. George Frederick Licquorish, editor and proprietor of the Silchester Mirror, was sitting in his office cutting advertisements out of the Silchester Argus, and pasting each on a separate sheet of paper. These advertisements had not been sent to the Mirror, and, as he thought this a pity, he meant, through his canvasser, to call the attention of the advertisers to the omission.

Mr. Licquorish was a stout little man with a benevolent countenance, who wrote most of his leaders on the backs of old envelopes. Every few minutes he darted into the composing-room, with an alertness that was a libel on his genial face; and when he returned it was pleasant to observe the kindly, good-natured manner in which he chaffed the printer’s devil who was trying to light the fire. It was, however, also noticeable that what the devil said subsequently to another devil was—’But, you know, he wouldn’t give me any sticks.’

The Mirror and the Argus are two daily newspapers published in Silchester, each of which has the largest circulation in the district, and is therefore much the better advertising medium. Silchester is the chief town of an English midland county, and the Mirror’s business notepaper refers to it as the centre of a population of half a million souls.

The Mirror’s offices are nearly crushed out of sight in a block of buildings, left in the middle of a street for town councils to pull down gradually. This island of houses, against which a sea of humanity beats daily, is cut in two by a narrow passage, off which several doors open. One of these leads up a dirty stair to the editorial and composing-rooms of the Daily Mirror, and down a dirty stair to its printing-rooms. It is the door at which you may hammer for an hour without any one’s paying the least attention.

During the time the boy took to light Mr. Licquorish’s fire, a young man in a heavy overcoat knocked more than once at the door in the alley, and then moved off as if somewhat relieved that there was no response. He walked round and round the block of buildings, gazing upwards at the windows of the composing-room; and several times he ran against other pedestrians on whom he turned fiercely, and would then have begged their pardons had he known what to say. Frequently he felt in his pocket to see if his money was still there, and once he went behind a door and counted it. There was three pounds seventeen shillings altogether, and he kept it in a linen bag that had been originally made for carrying worms in when he went fishing. When he re-entered the close he always drew a deep breath, and if any persons emerged from the Mirror office he looked after them. They were mostly telegraph boys, who fluttered out and in.

When Mr. Licquorish dictated an article, as he did frequently, the apprentice-reporter went into the editor’s room to take it down, and the reporters always asked him, as a favour, to shut George Frederick’s door behind him. This apprentice-reporter did the police reports and the magazine notices, and he wondered a good deal whether the older reporters really did like brandy and soda. The reason why John Milton, which was the unfortunate name of this boy, was told to close the editorial door behind him was that it was close to the door of the reporters’ room, and generally stood open. The impression the reporters’ room made on a chance visitor varied according as Mr. Licquorish’s door was ajar or shut. When they heard it locked on the inside, the reporters and the sub-editor breathed a sigh of relief; when it opened they took their legs off the desk.

The editor’s room had a carpet, and was chiefly furnished with books sent in for review. It was more comfortable, but more gloomy-looking than the reporters’ room, which had a long desk running along one side of it, and a bunk for holding coals and old newspapers on the other side. The floor was so littered with papers, many of them still in their wrappers, that, on his way between his seat and the door, the reporter generally kicked one or more into the bunk. It was in this way, unless an apprentice happened to be otherwise disengaged, that the floor was swept.

In this room were a reference library and an old coat. The library was within reach of the sub-editor’s hand, and contained some fifty books, which the literary staff could consult, with the conviction that they would find the page they wanted missing. The coat had hung unbrushed on a nail for many years, and was so thick with dust that John Milton could draw pictures on it with his finger. According to legend, it was the coat of a distinguished novelist, who had once been a reporter on the Mirror, and had left Silchester unostentatiously by his window.

It was Penny, the foreman in the composing-room, who set the literary staff talking about the new reporter. Penny was a lank, loosely-jointed man of forty, who shuffled about the office in slippers, ruled the compositors with a loud voice and a blustering manner, and was believed to be in Mr. Licquorish’s confidence. His politics were respect for the House of Lords, because it rose early, enabling him to have it set before supper-time.

The foreman slithered so quickly from one room to another that he was at the sub-editor’s elbow before his own door had time to shut. There was some copy in his hand, and he flung it contemptuously upon the desk.

‘Look here, Mister,’ he said, flinging the copy upon the sub-editor’s desk, ‘I don’t want that.’

The sub-editor was twisted into as little space as possible, tearing telegrams open and flinging the envelopes aside, much as a housewife shells peas. His name was Protheroe, and the busier he was the more he twisted himself. On Budget nights he was a knot. He did voluntarily so much extra work that Mr. Licquorish often thought he gave him too high wages; and on slack nights he smiled to himself, which showed that something pleased him. It was rather curious that this something should have been himself.

‘But—but,’ cried Protheroe, all in a flutter, ‘it’s town council meeting; it—it must be set, Mr. Penny.’

‘Very well, Mister; then that special from Birmingham must be slaughtered.’

‘No, no, Mr. Penny; why, that’s a speech by Bright.’

Penny sneered at the sub-editor, and flung up his arms to imply that he washed his hands of the whole thing, as he had done every night for the last ten years, when there was pressure on his space. Protheroe had been there for half of that time, yet he still trembled before the autocrat of the office.

‘There’s enough copy on the board,’ said Penny, ‘to fill the paper. Any more specials coming in?’

He asked this fiercely, as if of opinion that the sub-editor arranged with leading statesmen nightly to flood the composing-room of the Mirror with speeches, and Protheroe replied abjectly, as if he had been caught doing it—’Lord John Manners is speaking to-night at Nottingham.’

The foreman dashed his hand upon the desk.

‘Go it, Mister, go it,’ he cried; ‘anything else? Tell me Gladstone’s dead next.’

Sometimes about two o’clock in the morning Penny would get sociable, and the sub-editor was always glad to respond. On those occasions they talked with bated breath of the amount of copy that would come in should anything happen to Mr. Gladstone; and the sub-editor, if he was in a despondent mood, predicted that it would occur at midnight. Thinking of this had made him a Conservative.

‘Nothing so bad as that,’ he said, dwelling on the subject, to show the foreman that they might be worse off; ‘but there’s a column of local coming in, and a concert in the People’s Hall, and——’

‘And you expect me to set all that?’ the foreman broke in. ‘Why, the half of that local should have been set by seven o’clock, and here I’ve only got the beginning of the town council yet. It’s ridiculous.’

Protheroe looked timidly towards the only reporter present, and then apologetically towards Penny for having looked at the reporter.

‘The stuff must be behind,’ growled Tomlinson, nicknamed Umbrage, ‘as long as we’re a man short.’

Umbrage was very short and stout, with a big moon face, and always wore his coat unbuttoned. In the streets, if he was walking fast and there was a breeze, his coat-tails seemed to be running after him. He squinted a little, from a habit he had of looking sideways at public meetings to see if the audience was gazing at him. He was ‘Juvenal’ in the Mirror on Friday mornings, and headed his column of local gossip which had that signature, ‘Now step I forth to whip hypocrisy.’

‘I wonder,’ said the sub-editor, with an insinuating glance at the foreman, ‘if the new man is expected to-night.’

Mr. Licquorish had told him that this was so an hour before, but the cunning bred of fear advised him to give Penny the opportunity of divulging the news.

That worthy smiled to himself, as any man has a right to do who has been told something in confidence by his employer.

‘He’s a Yorkshireman, I believe,’ continued the crafty Protheroe.

‘That’s all you know,’ said the foreman, first glancing back to see if Mr. Licquorish’s door was shut. ‘Mr. George Frederick has told me all about him; he’s a Scotsman called Angus, that’s never been out of his native county.’

‘He’s one of those compositors taken to literature, is he?’ asked Umbrage, who by literature meant reporting, pausing in the middle of a sentence he was transcribing from his note-book. ‘Just as I expected,’ he added contemptuously.

‘No,’ said the foreman, thawing in the rays of such ignorance; ‘Mr. George Frederick says he’s never been on a newspaper before.’

‘An outsider!’ cried Umbrage, in the voice with which outsiders themselves would speak of reptiles. ‘They are the ruin of the profession, they are.’

‘He’ll make you all sit up, Mister,’ said Penny, with a chuckle. ‘Mr. George Frederick has had his eye on him for a twelvemonth.’

‘I don’t suppose you know how Mr. George Frederick fell in with him?’ said the sub-editor, basking in Penny’s geniality.

‘Mr. George Frederick told me everythink about him—everythink,’ said the foreman proudly. ‘It was a parson that recommended him.’

‘A parson!’ ejaculated Umbrage, in such a tone that if you had not caught the word you might have thought he was saying ‘An outsider!’ again.

‘Yes, a parson whose sermon this Angus took down in shorthand, I fancy.’

‘What was he doing taking down a sermon?’

‘I suppose he was there to hear it.’

‘And this is the kind of man who is taking to literature nowadays!’ Umbrage cried.

‘Oh, Mr. George Frederick has heard a great deal about him,’ continued Penny maliciously, ‘and expects him to do wonders. He’s a self-made man.’

‘Oh,’ said Umbrage, who could find nothing to object to in that, having risen from comparative obscurity himself.

‘Mr. George Frederick,’ Penny went on, ‘offered him a berth here before Billy Tagg was engaged, but he couldn’t come.’

‘I suppose,’ said Juvenal, with the sarcasm that made him terrible on Fridays, ‘the Times offered him something better, or was it the Spectator that wanted an editor?’

‘No, it was family matters. His mother or his sister, or—let me see, it was his sister’s child—was dependent on him, and could not be left. Something happened to her, though. She’s dead, I think, so he’s a free man now.’

‘Yes, it was his sister’s child, and she was found dead,’ said the sub-editor, ‘on a mountain-side, curiously enough, with George Frederick’s letter in her hand offering Angus the appointment.’

Protheroe was foolish to admit that he knew this, for it was news to the foreman, but it tries a man severely to have to listen to news that he could tell better himself. One immediate result of the sub-editor’s rashness was that Rob Angus sank several stages in Penny’s estimation.

‘I dare say he’ll turn out a muff,’ he said, and flung out of the room, with another intimation that the copy must be cut down.

The evening wore on. Protheroe had half a dozen things to do at once, and did them.

Telegraph boys were dropping the beginning of Lord John Manners’s speech through a grating on to the sub-editorial desk long before he had reached the end of it at Nottingham.

The sub-editor had to revise this as it arrived in flimsy, and write a summary of it at the same time. His summary was set before all the speech had reached the office, which may seem strange. But when Penny cried aloud for summary, so that he might get that column off his hands, Protheroe made guesses at many things, and, risking, ‘the right hon. gentleman concluded his speech, which was attentively listened to, with some further references to current topics,’ flung Lord John to the boy, who rushed with him to Penny, from whose hand he was snatched by a compositor. Fifteen minutes afterwards Lord John concluded his speech at Nottingham.

About half-past nine Protheroe seized his hat and rushed home for supper. In the passage he nearly knocked himself over by running against the young man in the heavy top-coat. Umbrage went out to see if he could gather any information about a prize-fight. John Milton came in with a notice of a concert, which he stuck conspicuously on the chief reporter’s file. When the chief reporter came in, he glanced through it and made a few alterations, changing ‘Mr. Joseph Grimes sang out of tune,’ for instance, to ‘Mr. Grimes, the favourite vocalist, was in excellent voice.’ The concert was not quite over yet, either; they seldom waited for the end of anything on the Mirror.

When Umbrage returned, Billy Kirker, the chief reporter, was denouncing John Milton for not being able to tell him how to spell ‘deceive.’

‘What is the use of you?’ he asked indignantly, ‘if you can’t do a simple thing like that?’

‘Say “cheat,”‘ suggested Umbrage.

So Kirker wrote ‘cheat.’ Though he was the chief of the Mirror’s reporting department, he had only Umbrage and John Milton at present under him.

As Kirker sat in the reporters’ room looking over his diary, with a cigarette in his mouth, he was an advertisement for the Mirror, and if he paid for his velvet coat out of his salary, the paper was in a healthy financial condition. He was tall, twenty-two years of age, and extremely slight. His manner was languid, though his language was sometimes forcible, but those who knew him did not think him mild. This evening his fingers looked bare without the diamond ring that sometimes adorned them. This ring, it was noticed, generally disappeared about the middle of the month, and his scarf-pin followed it by the twenty-first. With the beginning of the month they reappeared together. The literary staff was paid monthly.

Mr. Licquorish looked in at the door of the reporters’ room to ask pleasantly if they would not like a fire. Had Protheroe been there he would have said ‘No’; but Billy Kirker said ‘Yes.’ Mr. Licquorish had thought that Protheroe was there.

This was the first fire in the reporters’ room that season, and it smoked. Kirker, left alone, flung up the window, and gradually became aware that some one with a heavy tread was walking up and down the alley. He whistled gently in case it should be a friend of his own, but, getting no response, resumed his work. Mr. Licquorish also heard the footsteps, but though he was waiting for the new reporter, he did not connect him with the man outside.

Rob had stopped at the door a score of times, and then turned away. He had arrived at Silchester in the afternoon, and come straight to the Mirror office to look at it. Then he had set out in quest of lodgings, and, having got them, had returned to the passage. He was not naturally a man crushed by a sense of his own unworthiness, but, looking up at these windows and at the shadows that passed them every moment, he felt far away from his saw-mill. What a romance to him, too, was in the glare of the gas and in the Mirror bill that was being reduced to pulp on the wall at the mouth of the close! It had begun to rain heavily, but he did not feel the want of an umbrella, never having possessed one in Thrums.

Fighting down the emotions that had mastered him so often, he turned once more to the door, and as he knocked more loudly than formerly, a compositor came out, who told him what to do if he was there on business.

‘Go upstairs,’ he said, ’till you come to a door, and then kick.’

Rob did not have to kick, however, for he met Mr. Licquorish coming downstairs, and both half stopped.

‘Not Mr. Angus, is it?’ asked Mr. Licquorish.

‘Yes,’ said the new reporter, the monosyllable also telling that he was a Scotsman, and that he did not feel comfortable.

Mr. Licquorish shook him warmly by the hand, and took him into the editor’s room. Rob sat in a chair there with his hat in his hand, while his new employer spoke kindly to him about the work that would begin on the morrow.

‘You will find it a little strange at first,’ he said; ‘but Mr. Kirker, the head of our reporting staff, has been instructed to explain the routine of the office to you, and I have no doubt we shall work well together.’

Rob said he meant to do his best.

‘It is our desire, Mr. Angus,’ continued Mr. Licquorish, ‘to place every facility before our staff, and if you have suggestions to make at any time on any matter connected with your work, we shall be most happy to consider them and to meet you in a cordial spirit.’

While Rob was thanking Mr. Licquorish for his consideration, Kirker in the next room was wondering whether the new reporter was to have half-a-crown a week less than his predecessor, who had begun with six pounds a month.

‘It is pleasant to us,’ Mr. Licquorish concluded, referring to the novelist, ‘to know that we have sent out from this office a number of men who subsequently took a high place in literature. Perhaps our system of encouraging talent by fostering it has had something to do with this, for we like to give every one his opportunity to rise. I hope the day will come, Mr. Angus, when we shall be able to recall with pride the fact that you began your literary career on the Mirror.’

Rob said he hoped so too. He had, indeed, very little doubt of it. At this period of his career it made him turn white to think that he might not yet be famous.

‘But I must not keep you here any longer,’ said the editor, rising, ‘for you have had a weary journey, and must be feeling tired. We shall see you at ten o’clock to-morrow?’

Once more Rob and his employer shook hands heartily.

‘But I might introduce you,’ said Mr. Licquorish, ‘to the reporting-room. Mr. Kirker, our chief, is, I think, here.’

Rob had begun to descend the stairs, but he turned back. He was not certain what you did when you were introduced to any one, such formalities being unknown in Thrums; but he held himself in reserve to do as the other did.

‘Ah, Mr. Kirker,’ said the editor, pushing open the door of the reporting-room with his foot, ‘this is Mr. Angus, who has just joined our literary staff.’

Nodding genially to both, Mr. Licquorish darted out of the room; but before the door had finished its swing, Mr. Kirker was aware that the new reporter’s nails had a rim of black.

‘What do you think of George Frederick?’ asked the chief, after he had pointed out to Rob the only chair that such a stalwart reporter might safely sit on.

‘He was very pleasant,’ said Rob.

‘Yes,’ said Billy Kirker thoughtfully, ‘there’s nothing George Frederick wouldn’t do for any one if it could be done gratis.’

‘And he struck me as an enterprising sort of man.’

‘”Enterprise without outlay” is the motto of this office,’ said the chief.

‘But the paper seems to be well conducted,’ said Rob, a little crestfallen.

‘The worst conducted in England,’ said Kirker cheerfully.

Rob asked how the Mirror compared with the Argus.

‘They have six reporters to our three,’ said Kirker, ‘but we do double work and beat them.’

‘I suppose there is a great deal of rivalry between the staffs of the two papers?’ Rob asked, for he had read of such things.

‘Oh no,’ said Kirker, ‘we help each other. For instance, if Daddy Walsh, the Argus chief, is drunk, I help him; and if I’m drunk, he helps me. I’m going down to the Frying Pan to see him now.’

‘The Frying Pan?’ echoed Rob.

‘It’s a literary club,’ Kirker explained, ‘and very exclusive. If you come with me I’ll introduce you.’

Rob was somewhat taken aback at what he had heard, but he wanted to be on good terms with his fellow-workers.

‘Not to-night,’ he said. ‘I think I’d better be getting home now.’

Kirker lit another cigarette, and saying he would expect Rob at the office next morning, strolled off. The new reporter was undecided whether to follow him at once, or to wait for Mr. Licquorish’s reappearance. He was looking round the office curiously, when the door opened and Kirker put his head in.

‘By the bye, old chap,’ he said, ‘could you lend me five bob?’

‘Yes, yes,’ said the new reporter.

He had to undo the string of his money-bag, but the chief was too fine a gentleman to smile.

‘Thanks, old man,’ Kirker said carelessly, and again withdrew.

The door of the editor’s room was open as Rob passed.

‘Ah, Mr. Angus,’ said Mr. Licquorish, ‘here are a number of books for review; you might do a short notice of some of them.’

He handed Rob the two works that happened to lie uppermost, and the new reporter slipped them into his pockets with a certain elation. The night was dark and wet, but he lit his pipe and hurried up the muddy streets to the single room that was now his home. Probably his were the only lodgings in his street that had not the portrait of a young lady on the mantelpiece. On his way he passed three noisy young men. They were Kirker and two reporters on the Argus trying which could fling his hat highest in the rain.

Sitting in his lonely room Rob examined his books with interest. One of them was Tennyson’s new volume of poems, and a month afterwards the poet laureate’s publishers made Rob march up the streets of Silchester with his chest well forward by advertising ‘The Silchester Mirror says, “This admirable volume.”‘ After all, the great delight of being on the Press is that you can patronise the Tennysons. Doubtless the poet laureate got a marked copy of Rob’s first review forwarded him, and had an anxious moment till he saw that it was favourable. There had been a time when even John Milton felt a thrill pass through him as he saw Messrs. Besant and Rice boasting that he thought their Chaplain of the Fleet a novel of sustained interest, ‘which we have read without fatigue.’

Rob sat over his empty grate far on into the night, his mind in a jumble. As he grew more composed the Mirror and its staff sank out of sight, and he was carrying a dead child in his arms along the leafy Whunny road. His mouth twitched, and his head drooped. He was preparing to go to bed when he sat down again to look at the other book. It was a novel by ‘M.’ in one thin volume, and Rob thought the title, The Scorn of Scorns, foolish. He meant to write an honest criticism of it, but never having reviewed a book before, he rather hoped that this would be a poor one, which he could condemn brilliantly. Poor Rob! he came to think more of that book by and by.

At last Rob wound up the big watch that neighbours had come to gaze at when his father bought it of a pedlar forty years before, and took off the old silver chain that he wore round his neck. He went down on his knees to say his prayers, and then, remembering that he had said them already, rose up and went to bed.


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