THE MAN WHO NEARLY WENT UNDER
At midnight a man sat writing at a desk in a corner of a great room full of hanging lights, a hive of industry. All around him was the clicking of typewriters, the monotonous dictation of reporters, the tinkling of telephone bells. When they had set him down here, they had asked him whether the noises would disturb him, but he had only smiled grimly. They brought him pen and paper and a box of cigarettes—which he ignored. Then they left him alone, and no sound in the great room was more constant than the scratching of his pen across the paper.
As the first page fluttered from his fingers he bent for a moment his head, and his pen was held in nerveless fingers. Since he had come to London, sanguine, buoyant, light-hearted, this was the first time he had written a line for which he expected payment. The irony of it was borne in upon him with swift, unresisting agony. This was the first fruit of his brain, this passionate rending aside of the curtain, which hung like a shroud before the grim horrors of that seething lower world of misery. In his earlier work there had been a certain delicate fancifulness, an airy grace of diction and description, a very curious heritage of a man brought up in the narrowest of lines, where every influence had been a constraint. There was nothing of that in the words which were leaping now hot from his heart. Yet he knew very well that he was writing as a man inspired.
That was his only pause. Midnight struck, one and two o’clock, but his pen only flew the faster. Many curious glances were cast upon him, the man in rags with the burning eyes, who wrote as though possessed by some inexorcisable demon. At last Rawlinson came softly to his side and took up a handful of the wet sheets. He was smoking a cigarette, for his own labours were nearly over, but as he read it burned out between his fingers. He beckoned to another man, and silently passed him some of the sheets. They drew a little on one side.
“Wonderful,” the other man whispered, in a tone of rare enthusiasm. “Who on earth is he?”
Rawlinson shook his head.
“No idea. He came here like that—nearly fainted before my eyes—wanted to write something in Austin’s line—looked as though he could do it too. I gave him half a sovereign to get something to eat, and told him to come back. There he’s been ever since—nearly three hours. What a study for one of those lurid sketches of Forbes’ as he sits now.”
“I never read anything like it,” the newcomer said. “He’s a magnificent find. How on earth did a man who can do work like that get into such a state?”
Rawlinson shrugged his shoulders.
“Who can tell. Not drink, I should say. Laziness perhaps, or ill-luck. I only know that to-night he has written his way on to the staff of this paper.”