Lotta Schmidt, by Anthony Trollope

The Adventures Of Fred Pickering.

THERE was something almost grand in the rash courage with which Fred Pickering married his young wife, and something quite grand in her devotion in marrying him. She had not a penny in the world, and he, when he married her, had two hundred and fifty pounds, and no profession. She was the daughter of parents whom she had never seen, and had been brought up by the kindness of an aunt, who died when she was eighteen. Distant friends then told her that it was her duty to become a governess; but Fred Pickering intervened, and Mary Crofts became Mary Pickering when she was nineteen years old. Fred himself, our hero, was six years older, and should have known better and have conducted his affairs with more wisdom.

His father had given him a good education, and had articled him to an attorney at Manchester. While at Manchester he had written three or four papers in different newspapers, and had succeeded in obtaining admission for a poem in the “Free Trader,” a Manchester monthly magazine, which was expected to do great things as the literary production of Lancashire. These successes, joined, no doubt, to the natural bent of his disposition, turned him against the law; and when he was a little more than twenty-five, having then been four years in the office of the Manchester attorney, he told his father that he did not like the profession chosen for him, and that he must give it up. At that time he was engaged to marry Mary Crofts; but of this fact he did not tell his father. Mr. Pickering, who was a stern man, one not given at any time to softnesses with his children, when so informed by his son, simply asked him what were his plans. Fred replied that he looked forward to a literary career, that he hoped to make literature his profession. His father assured him that he was a silly fool. Fred replied that on that subject he had an opinion of his own by which he intended to be guided. Old Pickering then declared that in such circumstances he should withdraw all pecuniary assistance; and young Pickering upon this wrote an ungracious epistle, in which he expressed himself quite ready to take upon himself the burden of his own maintenance. There was one, and only one, further letter from his father, in which he told his son that the allowance made to him would be henceforth stopped. Then the correspondence between Fred and the ex-governor, as Mary used to call him, was brought to a close. Most unfortunately there died at this time an old maiden aunt, who left four hundred pounds a-piece to twenty nephews and nieces, of whom Fred Pickering was one. The possession of this sum of money strengthened him in his rebellion against his father. Had he had nothing on which to begin, he might probably even yet have gone to the old house at home, and have had something of a fatted calf killed for him, in spite of the ungraciousness of his letter. As it was he was reliant on the resources which Fortune had sent to him, thinking that they would suffice till he had made his way to a beginning of earning money. He thought it all over for full half an hour, and then came to a decision. He would go to Mary, his Mary, to Mary who was about to enter the family of a very vulgar tradesman as governess to six young children with a salary of twenty-five pounds per annum, and ask her to join him in throwing all prudence to the wind. He did go to Mary; and Mary at last consented to be as imprudent as himself, and she consented without any of that confidence which animated him. She consented simply because he asked her to do so, knowing that she was doing a thing so rash that no father or mother would have permitted it.

“Fred,” she had said, half laughing as she spoke, “I am afraid we shall starve if we do.”

“Starving is bad,” said Fred; “I quite admit that; but there are worse things than starving. For you to be a governess at Mrs. Boullem’s is worse. For me to write lawyers’ letters all full of lies is worse. Of course we may come to grief. I dare say we shall come to grief. Perhaps we shall suffer awfully, be very hungry and very cold. I am quite willing to make the worst of it. Suppose that we die in the street! Even that, the chance of that with the chance of success on the other side, is better than Mrs. Boullem’s. It always seems to me that people are too much afraid of being starved.”

“Something to eat and drink is comfortable,” said Mary. “I don’t say that it is essential.”

“If you will dare the consequences with me, I will gladly dare them with you,” said Fred, with a whole rhapsody of love in his eyes. Mary had not been proof against this. She had returned the rhapsody of his eyes with a glance of her own, and then, within six weeks of that time, they were married. There were some few things to be bought, some little bills to be paid, and then there was the fortnight of honeymooning among the lakes in June. “You shall have that, though there were not another shot in the locker,” Fred had said, when his bride that was to be had urged upon him the prudence of settling down into a small lodging the very day after their marriage. The fortnight of honeymooning among the lakes was thoroughly enjoyed, almost without one fearful look into the future. Indeed Fred, as he would sit in the late evening on the side of a mountain, looking down upon the lakes, and watching the fleeting brightness of the clouds, with his arm round his loving wife’s waist and her head upon his shoulder, would declare that he was glad that he had nothing on which to depend except his own intellect and his own industry. “To make the score off his own bat; that should be a man’s ambition, and it is that which nature must have intended for a man. She could never have meant that we should be bolstered up, one by another, from generation to generation.”

“You shall make the score off your own bat,” Mary had said to him. Though her own heart might give way a little as she thought, when alone, of the danger of the future, she was always brave before him. So she enjoyed the fortnight of her honeymooning, and when that was over set herself to her task with infinite courage. They went up to London in a third-class carriage, and, on their arrival there went at once to lodgings which had been taken for them by a friend in Museum Street. Museum Street is not cheering by any special merits of its own; but lodgings there were found to be cheap, and it was near to the great library by means of which, and the treasures there to be found, young Pickering meant to make himself a famous man.

He had had his literary successes at Manchester, as has been already stated, but they had not been of a remunerative nature. He had never yet been paid for what he had written. He reaped, however, this reward, that the sub-editor of a Manchester newspaper gave him a letter to a gentleman connected with a London periodical, which might probably be of great service to him. It is at any rate a comfort to a man to know that he can do something towards the commencement of the work that he has in hand, that there is a step forward which he can take. When Fred and Mary sat down to their tea and broiled ham on the first night, the letter of introduction was a great comfort to them, and much was said about it. The letter was addressed to Roderick Billings, Esq., office of the Lady Bird, 99, Catherine Street, Strand. By ten o’clock on the following morning Fred Pickering was at the office of the Lady Bird, and there learned that Mr. Billings never came to the office, or almost never. He was on the staff of the paper, and the letter should be sent to him. So Fred Pickering returned to his wife; and as he was resolved that no time should be lost, he began a critical reading of Paradise Lost, with a note-book and pencil beside him, on that very day.

They were four months in London, during which they never saw Mr. Billings or any one else connected with the publishing world, and these four months were very trying to Mrs. Pickering. The study of Milton did not go on with unremitting ardour. Fred was not exactly idle, but he changed from one pursuit to another, and did nothing worthy of note except a little account of his honeymooning tour in verse. In this poem the early loves of a young married couple were handled with much delicacy and some pathos of expression, so that Mary thought that her husband would assuredly drive Tennyson out of the field. But no real good had come from the poem by the end of the four months, and Fred Pickering had sometimes been very cross. Then he had insisted more than once or twice, more than four or five times, on going to the theatre; and now at last his wife had felt compelled to say that she would not go there with him again. They had not means, she said, for such pleasures. He did not go without her, but sometimes of an evening he was very cross. The poem had been sent to Mr. Billings, with a letter, and had not as yet been sent back. Three or four letters had been written to Mr. Billings, and one or two very short answers had been received. Mr. Billings had been out of town. “Of course all the world is out of town in September,” said Fred; “what fools we were to think of beginning just at this time of the year!” Nevertheless he had urged plenty of reasons why the marriage should not be postponed till after June. On the first of November, however, they found that they had still a hundred and eighty pounds left. They looked their affairs in the face cheerfully, and Fred, taking upon his own shoulders all the blame of their discomfiture up to the present moment, swore that he would never be cross with his darling Molly again. After that he went out with a letter of introduction from Mr. Billings to the sub-editor of a penny newspaper. He had never seen Mr. Billings; but Mr. Billings thus passed him on to another literary personage. Mr. Billings in his final very short note communicated to Fred his opinion that he would find “work on the penny daily press easier got.”

For months Fred Pickering hung about the office of the Morning Comet. November went, and December, and January, and he was still hanging about the office of the Morning Comet. He did make his way to some acquaintance with certain persons on the staff of the Comet, who earned their bread, if not absolutely by literature, at least by some work cognate to literature. And when he was asked to sup with one Tom Wood on a night in January, he thought that he had really got his foot upon the threshold. When he returned home that night, or I should more properly say on the following morning, his wife hoped that many more such preliminary suppers might not be necessary for his success.

At last he did get employment at the office of the Morning Comet. He attended there six nights a week, from ten at night till three in the morning, and for this he received twenty shillings a week. His work was almost altogether mechanical, and after three nights disgusted him greatly. But he stuck to it, telling himself that as the day was still left to him for work he might put up with drudgery during the night. That idea, however, of working day and night soon found itself to be a false one. Twelve o’clock usually found him still in bed. After his late breakfast he walked out with his wife, and then; well, then he would either write a few verses or read a volume of an old novel.

“I must learn shorthand-writing,” he said to his wife, one morning when he came home.

“Well, dear, I have no doubt you would learn it very quickly.”

“I don’t know that; I should have begun younger. It’s a thousand pities that we are not taught anything useful when we are at school. Of what use is Latin and Greek to me?”

“I heard you say once that it would be of great use to you some day.”

“Ah, that was when I was dreaming of what will never come to pass; when I was thinking of literature as a high vocation.” It had already come to him to make such acknowledgments as this. “I must think about mere bread now. If I could report I might, at any rate, gain a living. And there have been reporters who have risen high in the profession. Dickens was a reporter. I must learn, though I suppose it will cost me twenty pounds.”

He paid his twenty pounds and did learn shorthand-writing. And while he was so doing he found he might have learned just as well by teaching himself out of a book. During the period of his tuition in this art he quarrelled with his employers at the Morning Comet, who, as he declared, treated him with an indignity which he could not bear. “They want me to fetch and carry, and be a menial,” he said to his wife. He thereupon threw up his employment at the Comet office. “But now you will get an engagement as a reporter,” his wife said. He hoped that he might get an engagement as a reporter; but, as he himself acknowledged, the world was all to begin again. He was at last employed, and made his first appearance at a meeting of discontented tide-waiters, who were anxious to petition parliament for some improvement in their position. He worked very hard in his efforts to take down the words of the eloquent leading tide-waiter; whereas he could see that two other reporters near him did not work at all. And yet he failed. He struggled at this work for a month, and failed at last. “My hand is not made for it,” he said to his wife, almost in an agony of despair. “It seems to me as though nothing would come within my reach.”

“My dear,” she said, “a man who can write the Braes of Birken” — the Braes of Birken was the name of his poem on the joys of honeymooning — “must not be ashamed of himself because he cannot acquire a small mechanical skill.”

“I am ashamed of myself all the same,” said Fred.

Early in April they looked their affairs in the face again, and found that they had still in hand something just over a hundred pounds. They had been in London nine months, and when they had first come up they had expressed to each other their joint conviction that they could live very comfortably on forty shillings a week. They had spent nearly double that over and beyond what he had earned, and after all they had not lived comfortably. They had a hundred pounds left on which they might exist for a year, putting aside all idea of comfort; and then and then would come that starving of which Fred had once spoken so gallantly, unless some employment could in the meantime be found for him. And, by the end of the year, the starving would have to be done by three, a development of events on which he had not seemed to calculate when he told his dearest Mary that after all there were worse things in the world than starving.

But before the end of the month there came upon them a gleam of comfort, which might be cherished and fostered till it should become a whole midday sun of nourishing heat. His friend of the Manchester Free Trader had become the editor of the Salford Reformer, a new weekly paper which had been established with the view of satisfying certain literary and political wants which the public of Salford had long experienced, and among these wants was an adequate knowledge of what was going on in London. Fred Pickering was asked whether he would write the London letter, once a week, at twenty shillings a week, Write it! Ay, that he would. There was a whole heaven of joy in the idea. This was literary work. This was the sort of thing that he could do with absolute delight. To guide the public by his own wit and discernment, as it were from behind a mask, to be the motive power and yet unseen, this had ever been his ambition. For three days he was in an ecstasy, and Mary was ecstatic with him. For the first time it was a joy to him that the baby was coming. A pound a week earned would of itself prolong their means of support for two years, and a pound a week so earned would surely bring other pounds. “I knew it was to be done,” he said in triumph, to his wife, “if one only had the courage to make the attempt” The morning of the fourth day somewhat damped his joy, for there came a long letter of instruction from the Salford editor, in which there were hints of certain difficulties. He was told in this letter that it would be well that he should belong to a London club. Such work as was now expected from him could hardly be done under favourable circumstances unless he did belong to a club. “ But as everybody now-a-days does belong to a club, you will soon get over that difficulty.” So said the editor. And then the editor in his instructions greatly curtailed that liberty of the pen which Fred specially wished to enjoy. He had anticipated that in his London letter he might give free reins to his own political convictions, which were of a very Liberal nature, and therefore suitable to the Salford Reformer. And he had a theological bias of his own, by the putting forward of which, in strong language, among the youth of Salford, he had intended to do much towards the clearing away of prejudice and the emancipation of truth. But the editor told him that he should hardly touch politics at all in his London letter, and never lay a finger on religion. He was to tell the people of Salford what was coming out at the different theatres, how the prince and princess looked on horseback, whether the Thames Embankment made proper progress, and he was to keep his ears especially open for matters of social interest, private or general. His style was to be easy and colloquial, and above all things he was to avoid being heavy, didactic, and profound. Then there was sent to him, as a model, a column and a half cut out from a certain well-known newspaper, in which the names of people were mentioned very freely. “If you can do that sort of thing,” said the editor, “we shall get on together like a house on fire.”

“It is a farrago of ill-natured gossip,” he said, as he chucked the fragment over to his wife.

“But you are so clever, Fred,” said his wife. “You can do it without the ill-nature.”

“I will do my best,” he said; “but as for telling them about this woman and that, I cannot do it. In the first place, where am I to learn it all?” Nevertheless, the London letter to the Salford Reformer was not abandoned. Four or five such letters were written, and four or five sovereigns were paid into his little exchequer in return for so much work. Alas! after the four or five there came a kindly-worded message from the editor to say that the articles did not suit. Nothing could be better than Pickering’s language, and his ideas were manly and for the most part good. But the Salford Reformer did not want that sort of thing. The Salford Reformer felt that Fred Pickering was too good for the work required. Fred for twenty-four hours was broken-hearted. After that he was able to resolve that he would take the thing up in the right spirit. He wrote to the editor, saying that he thought that the editor was right. The London letter required was not exactly within the compass of his ability. Then he enclosed a copy of the Braes of Birken, and expressed an opinion that perhaps that might suit a column in the Salford Reformer, one of those columns which were furthest removed from the corner devoted to the London letter. The editor replied that he would publish the Braes of Birken if Pickering wished; but that they never paid for poetry. Anything being better than silence, Pickering permitted the editor to publish the Braes of Birken in the gratuitous manner suggested.

At the end of June, when they had just been twelve months in London, Fred was altogether idle as far as any employment was concerned. There was no going to the theatre now; and it had come to that with him, in fear of his approaching privations, that he would discuss within his own heart the expediency of taking this or that walk with reference to the effect it would have upon his shoes. In those days he strove to work hard, going on with his Milton and his notebook, and sitting for two or three hours a day over heavy volumes in the reading-room at the Museum. When he first resolved upon doing this there had come a difficulty as to the entrance. It was necessary that he should have permission to use the library, and for a while he had not known how to obtain it. Then he had written a letter to a certain gentleman well know in the literary world, an absolute stranger to him, but of whom he had heard a word or two among his newspaper acquaintances, and had asked this gentleman to give him, or to get for him, the permission needed. The gentleman having made certain enquiry, having sent for Pickering and seen him, had done as he was asked, and Fred was free of the library.

“What sort of a man is Mr. Wickham Webb?” Mary asked him, when he returned from the club at which, by Mr. Webb’s appointment, the meeting had taken place.

“According to my ideas he is the only gentleman whom I have met since I have been in London,” said Fred, who in these days was very bitter.

“Was he civil to you?”

“Very civil. He asked me what I was doing up in London, and I told him. He said that literature is the hardest profession in the world. I told him that I thought it was, but at the same time the most noble.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He said that the nobler the task it was always the more difficult; and that, as a rule, it was not well that men should attempt work too difficult for their hands because of its nobility.”

“What did he mean by that, Fred?”

“I knew what he meant very well. He meant to tell me that I had better go and measure ribbons behind a counter; and I don’t know but what he was right”

“But yet you liked him?”

“Why should I have disliked him for giving me good advice? I liked him because his manner was kind, and because he strove hard to say an unpleasant thing in the pleasantest words that he could use. Besides, it did me good to speak to a gentleman once again.”

Throughout July not a shilling was earned, nor was there any prospect of the earning of a shilling. People were then still in town, but in another fortnight London would have emptied itself of the rich and prosperous. So much Pickering had learned, little as he was qualified to write the London letter for the Salford Reformer. In the last autumn he had complained to his wife that circumstances had compelled him to begin at the wrong period of the year in the dull months when there was nobody in London who could help him. Now the dull months were coming round again, and he was as far as ever from any help. What was he to do? “You said that Mr. Webb was very civil,” suggested his wife; “could you not write to him and ask him to help us?”

“He is a rich man, and that would be begging,” said Fred.

“I would not ask him for money,” said Mary; “but perhaps he can tell you how you can get employment.”

The letter to Mr. Webb was written with many throes and the destruction of much paper. Fred found it very difficult to choose words which should describe with sufficient force the extreme urgency of his position, but which should have no appearance of absolute begging.

“I hope you will understand,” he said, in his last paragraph, “that what I want is simply work for which I may be paid, and that I do not care how hard I work, or how little I am paid, so that I and my wife may live. If I have taken an undue liberty in writing to you, I can only beg you to pardon my ignorance.”

This letter led to another interview between our hero and Mr. Wickham Webb. Mr. Webb sent his compliments and asked Mr. Pickering to come and breakfast with him. This kindness, though it produced some immediate pleasure, created fresh troubles. Mr. Wickham Webb lived in a grand house near Hyde Park, and poor Fred was badly off for good clothes.

“Your coat does not look at all amiss,” his wife said to him, comforting him; “and as for a hat, why don’t you buy a new one?”

“I sha’n’t breakfast in my hat,” said Fred; “but look here;” and Fred exhibited his shoes.

“Get a new pair,” said Mary.

“No,” said he; “I’ve sworn to have nothing new till I’ve earned the money. Mr. Webb won’t expect to see me very bright, I dare say. When a man writes to beg for employment, it must naturally be supposed that he will be rather seedy about his clothes.” His wife did the best she could for him, and he went out to his breakfast.

Mrs. Webb was not there. Mr. Webb explained that she had already left town. There was no third person at the table, and before his first lamb-chop was eaten, Fred had told the pith of his story. He had a little money left, just enough to pay the doctor who must attend upon his wife, and carry him through the winter; and then he would be absolutely bare. Upon this Mr. Webb asked as to his relatives. “My father has chosen to quarrel with me,” said Fred. “I did not wish to be an attorney, and therefore he has cast me out.” Mr. Webb suggested that a reconciliation might be possible; but when Fred said at once that it was impossible, he did not recur to the subject.

When the host had finished his own breakfast he got up from his chair, and standing on the rug spoke such words of wisdom as were in him. It should be explained that Pickering, in his letter to Mr. Webb, had enclosed a copy of the Braes of Birken, another little poem in verse, and two of the London letters which he had written for the Salford Reformer, “Upon my word, Mr. Pickering, I do not know how to help you. I do not, indeed.”

“I am sorry for that, Sir.”

“I have read what you sent me, and am quite ready to acknowledge that there is enough, both in the prose and verse, to justify you in supposing it to be possible that you might hereafter live by literature as a profession; but all who make literature a profession should begin with independent means.”

“That seems to be hard on the profession as well as on the beginner.”

“It is not the less true; and is, indeed, true of most other professions as well. If you had stuck to the law your father would have provided you with the means of living till your profession had become profitable.”

“Is it not true that many hundreds in London live on literature?” said our hero.

“Many hundreds do so, no doubt. They are of two sorts, and you can tell yourself whether you belong to either. There are they who have learned to work in accordance with the directions of others. The great bulk of what comes out to us almost hourly in the shape of newspapers is done by them. Some are very highly paid, many are paid liberally, and a great many are paid scantily. There is that side of the profession, and you say that you have tried it and do not like it. Then there are those who do their work independently; who write either books or articles which find acceptance in magazines.”

“It is that which I would try if the opportunity were given me.”

“But you have to make your own opportunity,” said Mr. Wickham Webb. “It is the necessity of the position that it should be so. What can I do for you?”

“You know the editors of magazines?”

“Granted that I do, can I ask a man to buy what he does not want because he is my friend?”

“You could get your friend to read what I write.”

It ended in Mr. Webb strongly advising Fred Pickering to go back to his father, and in his writing two letters of introduction for him, one to the editor of the International, a weekly gazette of mixed literature, and the other to Messrs. Brook and Boothby, publishers in St. James’s Street. Mr. Webb, though he gave the letters open to Fred, read them to him with the view of explaining to him how little and how much they meant. “I do not know that they can do you the slightest service,” said he; “but I give them to you because you ask me. I strongly advise you to go back to your father; but if you are still in town next spring, come and see me again.” Then the interview was over, and Fred returned to his wife, glad to have the letters; but still with a sense of bitterness against Mr. Webb. When one word of encouragement would have made him so happy, might not Mr. Webb have spoken it? Mr. Webb had thought that he had better not speak any such word. And Fred, when he read the letters of introduction over to his wife, found them to be very cold.

“I don’t think I’ll take them,” he said. But he did take them, of course, on the very next day, and saw Mr. Boothby, the publisher, after waiting for half-an-hour in the shop. He swore to himself that the time was an hour and a half, and became sternly angry at being so treated. It did not occur to him that Mr. Boothby was obliged to attend to his own business, and that he could not put his other visitors under the counter, or into the cupboards, in order to make way for Mr. Pickering. The consequence was that poor Fred was seen at his worst, and that the Boothbyan heart was not much softened towards him. “There are so many men of this kind who want work,” said Mr. Boothby, “and so very little work to give them!”

“It seems to me,” said Pickering, “that the demand for the work is almost unlimited.” As he spoke, he looked at a hole in his boot, and tried to speak in a tone that should show that he was above his boots.

“It may be so,” said Boothby; “but if so, the demands do not run in my way. I will, however, keep Mr. Webb’s note by me, and if I find I can do anything for you, I will. Good— morning.”

Then Mr. Boothby got up from his chair, and Fred Pickering understood that he was told to go away. He was furious in his abuse of Boothby as he described the interview to his wife that evening.

The editor of the International he could not get to see; but he got a note from him. The editor sent his compliments, and would be glad to read the article to which Mr. W. W had alluded. As Mr. W. W had alluded to no article, Fred saw that the editor was not inclined to take much trouble on his behalf. Nevertheless, an article should be sent. An article was written to which Fred gave six weeks of hard work, and which contained an elaborate criticism on the Samson Agonistes. Fred’s object was to prove that Milton had felt himself to be a superior Samson blind, indeed, in the flesh, as Samson was blind, but not blind in the spirit, as was Samson when he crushed the Philistines. The poet had crushed his Philistines with all his intellectual eyes about him. Then there was a good deal said about the Philistines of those days as compared with the other Philistines, in all of which Fred thought that he took much higher ground than certain other writers in magazines on the same subject. The editor sent back his compliments, and said that the International never admitted reviews of old books.

“Insensate idiot!” said Fred, tearing the note asunder, and then tearing his own hair, on both sides of his head. “And these are the men who make the world of letters! Idiot! thick-headed idiot!”

“I suppose he has not read it,” said Mary.

“Then why hasn’t he read it? Why doesn’t he do the work for which he is paid? If he has not read it, he is a thief as well as an idiot.”

Poor Fred had not thought much of his chance from the International when he first got the editor’s note; but as he had worked at his Samson he had become very fond of it, and golden dreams had fallen on him, and he had dared to whisper to himself words of wondrous praise which might be forthcoming, and to tell himself of enquiries after the unknown author of the great article about the Philistines. As he had thought of this, and as the dreams and the whispers had come to him, he had rewritten his essay from the beginning, making it grander, bigger, more eloquent than before. He became very eloquent about the Philistines, and mixed with his eloquence some sarcasm which could not, he thought, be without effect even in dull-brained, heavy-livered London. Yes; he had dared to hope. And then his essay such an essay as this was sent back to him with a notice that the International did not insert reviews of old books. Hideous, brainless, meaningless idiot! Fred in his fury tore his article into a hundred fragments; and poor Mary was employed, during the whole of the next week, in making another copy of it from the original blotted sheets, which had luckily been preserved.

“Pearls before swine!” Fred said to himself, as he slowly made his way up to the library of the Museum on the last day of that week.

That was in the end of October. He had not then earned a single shilling for many months, and the nearer prospect of that starvation of which he had once spoken so cheerily was becoming awfully frightful to him. He had said that there were worse fates than to starve. Now, as he looked at his wife, and thought of the baby that was to be added to them, and counted the waning heap of sovereigns, he began to doubt whether there was in truth anything worse than to starve. And now, too, idleness made his life more wretched to him than it had ever been. He could not bring himself to work when it seemed to him that his work was to have no result; literally none.

“Had you not better write to your father?” said Mary.

He made no reply, but went out and walked up and down Museum Street.

He had been much disgusted by the treatment he had received from Mr. Boothby, the publisher; but in November he brought himself to write to Mr. Boothby, and ask him whether some employment could not be found.

“You will perhaps remember Mr. Wickham Webb’s letter,” wrote Fred, “and the interview which I had with you last July.”

His wife had wished him to speak more civilly, and to refer to the pleasure of the interview. But Fred had declined to condescend so far. There were still left to them some thirty pounds.

A fortnight afterwards, when December had come, he got a reply from Mr. Boothby, in which he was asked to call at a certain hour at the shop in St. James’s Street. This he did, and saw the great man again. The great man asked him whether he could make an index to an historical work. Fred of course replied that he could do that that or anything else. He could make the index; or, if need was, write the historical work itself. That, no doubt, was his feeling. Ten pounds would be paid for the index if it was approved. Fred was made to understand that payment was to depend altogether on approval of the work. Fred took away the sheets confided to him without any doubt as to the ultimate approval. It would be odd indeed if he could not make an index.

“That young man will never do any good,” said Mr Boothby to his foreman, as Fred took his departure. “He thinks he can do everything, and I doubt very much whether he can do anything as it should be done.”

Fred worked very hard at the index, and the baby was born to him as he was doing it. A fortnight, however, finished the index, and if he could earn money at the rate of ten pounds a fortnight he might still live. So he took his index to St. James’s Street, and left it for approval. He was told by the foreman that if he would call again in a week’s time he should hear the result. Of course he called on that day week. The work had not yet been examined, and he must call again after three days. He did call again; and Mr. Boothby told him that his index was utterly useless, that, in fact, it was not an index at all.

“You couldn’t have looked at any other index, I think,” said Mr. Boothby.

“Of course you need not take it,” said Fred; “but I believe it to be as good an index as was ever made.”

Mr. Boothby, getting up from his chair, declared that there was nothing more to be said. The gentleman for whom the work had been done begged that Mr. Picker should receive five pounds for his labour, which unfortunately had been thus thrown away. And in saying this Mr. Boothby tendered a five-pound note to Fred. Fred pushed the note away from him, and left the room with a tear in his eye. Mr. Boothby saw the tear, and ten pounds was sent to Fred on the next day, with the gentleman’s compliments. Fred sent the ten pounds back. There was still a shot in the locker, and he could not as yet take money for work that he had not done.

By the end of January Fred had retreated with his wife and child to the shelter of a single small bed-room. Hitherto there had been a sitting-room and a bed-room; but now there were but five pounds between him and that starvation which he had once almost coveted, and every shilling must be strained to the utmost. His wife’s confinement had cost him much of his money, and she was still ill. Things were going very badly with him, and among all the things that were bad with him, his own idleness was probably the worst. When starvation was so near to him, he could not seat himself in the Museum library and read to any good purpose. And, indeed, he had no purpose. Milton was nothing to him now, as his lingering shillings became few, and still fewer. He could only sit brooding over his misfortunes, and cursing his fate. And every day, as he sat eating his scraps of food over the morsel of fire in his wife’s bed-room, she would implore him to pocket his pride and write to his father.

“He would do something for us, so that baby should not die,” Mary said to him. Then he went into Museum Street, and bethought himself whether it would not be a manly thing for him to cut his throat. At any rate there would be much relief in such a proceeding.

One day as he was sitting over the fire while his wife still lay in bed, the servant of the house brought up word that a gentleman wanted to see him. “A gentleman! what gentleman?” The girl could not say who was the gentleman, so Fred went down to receive his visitor at the door of the house. He met an old man of perhaps seventy years of age, dressed in black, who with much politeness asked him whether he was Mr. Frederick Pickering. Fred declared himself to be that unfortunate man, and explained that he had no apartment in which to be seen. “My wife is in bed up stairs, ill; and there is not a room in the house to which I can ask you.” So the old gentleman and Fred walked up Museum Street and had their conversation on the pavement. “I am Mr. Burnaby, for whose book you made an index,” said the old man.

Mr. Burnaby was an author well-known in those days, and Fred, in the midst of his misfortunes, felt that he was honoured by the visit.

“I was sorry that my index did not suit you,” said Fred.

“It did not suit at all,” said Mr. Burnaby. “Indeed it was no index. An index should comprise no more than words and figures. Your index conveyed opinions, and almost criticism.”

“If you suffered inconvenience, I regret it much,” said Fred. “I was punished at any rate by my lost labour.”

“I do not wish you to be punished at all,” said Mr. Burnaby, “and therefore I have come to you with the price in my hand. I am quite sure that you worked hard to do your best.” Then Mr. Burnaby’s fingers went into his waistcoat pocket, and returned with a crumpled note.

“Certainly not, Mr. Burnaby,” said Fred. “I can take nothing that I have not earned.”

“Now my dear young friend, listen to me. I know that you are poor.”

“I am very poor.”

“And I am rich.”

“That has nothing to do with it. Can you put me in the way of earning anything by literature? I will accept any such kindness as that at your hand; but nothing else.”

“I cannot. I have no means of doing so.”

“You know so many authors and so many publishers.”

“Though I knew all the authors and all the publishers, what can I do? Excuse me if I say that you have not served the apprenticeship that is necessary.”

“And do all authors serve apprenticeships?”

“Certainly not. And it may be that you will rise to wealth and fame without apprenticeship; but if so you must do it without help.”

After that they walked silently together half the length of the street before Fred spoke again. “You mean,” said he, “that a man must be either a genius or a journey-man.”

“Yes, Mr. Pickering; that, or something like it, is what I mean.”

Fred told Mr. Burnaby his whole story, walking up and down Museum Street, even to that early assurance given to his young bride that there were worse things in the world than starvation. And then Mr. Burnaby asked him what were his present intentions. “I suppose we shall try it,” said Pickering with a forced laugh. “Try what?” said Mr. Burnaby. “Starvation,” said Fred.

“What! with your baby, with your wife and baby? Come; you must take my ten-pound note at any rate. And while you are spending it write home to your father. Heaven and earth! is a man to be ashamed to tell his father that he has been wrong?” When Fred said that his father was a stern man, and one whose heart would not be melted into softness at the tale of a baby’s sufferings, Mr. Burnaby went on to say that the attempt should at any rate be made. “There can be no doubt what duty requires of you, Mr. Pickering. And, upon my word, I do not see what other step you can take. You are not, I suppose, prepared to send your wife and child to the poor-house.” Then Fred Pickering burst into tears, and Mr. Burnaby left him at the corner of Great Russell Street, after cramming the ten-pound note into his hand.

To send his wife and child to the poor-house! In all his misery that idea had never before presented itself to Fred Pickering. He had thought of starvation, or rather of some high-toned extremity of destitution, which might be borne with an admirable and perhaps sublime magnanimity. But how was a man to bear with magnanimity a poor-house jacket, and the union mode of hair-cutting? It is not easy for a man with a wife and baby to starve in this country, unless he be one to whom starvation has come very gradually. Fred saw it all now. The police would come to him, and take his wife and baby away into the workhouse, and he would follow them. It might be that this was worse than starvation, but it lacked all that melodramatic grandeur to which he had looked forward almost with satisfaction.

“Well,” said Mary to him, when he returned to her bedside, “who was it? Has he told you of anything? Has he brought you anything to do?”

“He has given me that,” said Fred, throwing the bank-note on to the bed, “out of charity! I may as well go out into the streets and beg now. All the pride has gone out of me.” Then he sat over the fire crying, and there he sat for hours.

“Fred,” said his wife to him, “if you do not write to your father tomorrow I will write.”

He went again to every person connected in the slightest degree with literature of whom he had the smallest knowledge; to Mr. Roderick Billings, to the teacher who had instructed him in shorthand-writing, to all those whom he had ever seen among the newspapers, to the editor of the International, and to Mr. Boothby. Four different visits he made to Mr. Boothby, in spite of his previous anger, but it was all to no purpose. No one could find him employment for which he was suited. He wrote to Mr. Wickham Webb, and Mr. Wickham Webb sent him a five-pound note. His heart was, I think, more broken by his inability to refuse charity than by anything else that had occurred to him.

His wife had threatened to write to his father, but she had not carried her threat into execution. It is not by such means that a young wife overcomes her husband. He had looked sternly at her when she had so spoken, and she had known that she could not bring herself to do such a thing without his permission. But when she fell ill, wanting the means of nourishment for her child, and in her illness begged of him to implore succour from his father for her baby when she should be gone, then his pride gave way, and he sat down and wrote his letter. When he went to his ink-bottle it was dry. It was nearly two months since he had made any attempt at working in that profession to which he had intended to devote himself.

He wrote to his father, drinking to the dregs the bitter cup of broken pride. It always seems to me that the prodigal son who returned to his father after feeding with the swine suffered but little mortification in his repentant submission. He does, indeed, own his unworthiness, but the calf is killed so speedily that the pathos of the young man’s position is lost in the hilarity of the festival. Had he been compelled to announce his coming by post; had he been driven to beg permission to return, and been forced to wait for a reply, his punishment, I think, would have been more severe. To Fred Pickering the punishment was very severe, and indeed for him no fatted calf was killed at last. He received without delay a very cold letter from his father, in which he was told that his father would consider the matter. In the mean-while thirty shillings a week should be allowed him. At the end of a fortnight he received a further letter, in which he was informed that if he would return to Manchester he would be taken in at the attorney’s office which he had left. He must not, however, hope to become himself an attorney; he must look forward to be a paid attorney’s clerk, and in the meantime his father would continue to allow him thirty shillings a week. “In the present position of affairs,” said his father,” I do not feel that anything would be gained by our seeing each other.” The calf which was thus killed for poor Fred Pickering was certainly by no means a fatted calf.

Of course he had to do as he was directed. He took his wife and baby back to Manchester, and returned with sad eyes and weary feet to the old office which he had in former days not only hated but despised. Then he had been gallant and gay among the other young men, thinking himself to be too good for the society of those around him; now he was the lowest of the low, if not the humblest of the humble.

He told his whole story by letters to Mr. Burnaby, and received some comfort from the kindness of that gentleman’s replies. “I still mean,” he said, in one of those letters, “to return some day to my old aspirations; but I will endeavour first to learn my trade as a journeyman of literature.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01