Ernest William Hornung

An Idle Sinner

Published by Good Press, 2021
EAN 4064066315238

Table of Contents


An Idle Sinner

Table of Contents


"I HAVE it!' cried the Editor suddenly.

Adeane, who was spoken to, looked up quickly, but a little mechanically, for his mind was inconveniently preoccupied with the sestett of an unwritten sonnet; and 'it' was merely the subject of his prose contribution to the Christmas Number of the Spider. Still, as this contribution meant as many sovereigns in Adeane's pocket as the sonnet would fetch shillings, he was compelled to roll down from poetic heights, to trump up a look of acute personal interest, and to ask what 'it' was to be after all.

The Editor of the Spider—who was the Spider—got up from his chair and went into a corner where a small table stood stacked with new books. He chuckled as he found the book he wanted, and he handed it to Adeane with an air of occult humour.

'The Lesser Man,' Adeane read aloud from the cover. 'But I don't see who it's by?'

'Anonymous—some woman, in spite of the title.'

Adeane glanced at the title-page, but it was innocent of previous record: this was a first conviction.

'All right,' said he, tucking the volume under his arm, and letting his soul soar back to the sestett. 'I suppose you aren't in a great hurry for the review?'

'Review! I didn't say anything about a review, did I?' The Spider spoke rather sharply; and really Adeane was very absent. 'We were talking about your thing for the Christmas Number. I want you to fill a couple of pages with your smartest stuff—something in story shape, but topical. And you say you can't get a subject. Very good, here's your subject: write me a smart, tart skit on The Lesser Man, and it'll be the very thing—the very thing!'

'Is it so popular?' asked Adeane, who worked too hard to keep quite abreast of the literary current.

'Now my dear Mr. Adeane!' said the Spider, with a kind of fatherly compassion for his youthful contributor, 'both press and public are idiotic about this book; I'm surprised you haven't heard of it. I haven't read it, but I've glanced at it, and it looks pretty good, though plainly feminine; it's highly impassioned, and a little embittered; and the title's ironical—one for us. There's humour in the title before you touch it! I saw no humour anywhere else, but that's all the better; you'll extract lots. Popularity apart, from what I've seen and heard of it, the book was made to burlesque; some books are. Mind you mangle the title; it's a pity there's no author's name to hash up as well; but you must just do your best, Mr. Adeane.'

'I'll certainly try to,' Adeane said earnestly, with the timorous humility with which he treated all his editors in those days. But he had just skimmed half a page of The Lesser Man and seen a phrase that pleased him, and he could not help adding, a little nervously: 'It does seem a bit unkind, though!'

'Unkind!' The Spider seized on the word with evident glee. 'That's it exactly; you must make it so. Unkindness is the soul of parody, and we may as well own it. Good nature is insipid, Mr. Adeane, too insipid for the Spider. As for parody, why it is the greatest flattery there is, and a far sincerer sort than imitation; besides which, it's the best advertisement a book can have. But don't try to do the thing by halves. Laugh loud if you laugh at all. Make fun of the whole thing, and of the public that reads it. That's it. Show up the British public and their precious taste. That's the touch! Copy by the twentieth, and your weekly stuff as usual. Good afternoon, Mr. Adeane, and glad to have seen you.'

Those were the days of Adeane's apprenticeship. The particular day on which he carried home a copy of The Lesser Man, for what he euphemistically described to a man in the street as 'a professional purpose,' occurred in the second year of Adeane's sojourn in London, and in the twenty-third of his age. He was at this time beating round the financial Horn, and not yet out of dangerous waters; in fact, his income was trembling between two and three figures a year. He was a literary free lance, and more or less a poet; more by inclination, by necessity less. At present he could afford to mix very little verse with his assorted prose. Verse supplied but a doubtful tithe of that extremely doubtful hundred a year. On the other hand, more than half of this income was derived from the Spider.

There is little to be said about the Spider. It dealt with most things, and it seldom dealt gently. It cost a piece of silver, it was nicely printed, its wrapper suggested respectability and good taste, and from some points of view the paper may have justified its publication. Certainly the Christmas and Summer Numbers were in fair demand; but these were something special. In the ordinary way it was written by a clever, if a slightly lawless, crew; and Adeane was glad enough to be one of them; though if he found one paper absolutely unreadable (with the exception of his own things, over which he was inclined to gloat when they were in type) that paper was the Spider.