Peeps at People
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It was in the early part of February last that, acting under instructions from headquarters, I set forth from my office in London upon my pilgrimage to the shrines of the world's illustrious. Readers everywhere are interested in the home life of men who have made themselves factors in art, science, letters, and history, and to these people I was commissioned to go. But one restriction was placed upon me in the pursuit of the golden Notoriety, and that was that I should spare no expense whatever to attain my ends. At first this was embarrassing. Wealth suddenly acquired always is. But in time I overcame such difficulties as beset me, and soon learned to spend thousands of dollars with comparative ease.
And first of all I decided to visit Nansen. To see him at home, if by any possibility Nansen could be at home anywhere, would enable me to open my series interestingly. I remembered distinctly that upon his return from the North Pole he had found my own people too cold for comfort. I called to mind that, having travelled for months seeking the Pole, he had accused my fellow-countrymen of coming to see him out of "mere curiosity," and I recalled at the same time that with remarkable originality he had declared that we heated our railway trains to an extent which suggested his future rather than his past. Wherefore I decided to visit Nansen to hear what else he might have to say, while some of the incidents of his visit were fresh in our minds.
The next thing to discover, the decision having been reached, was as to Nansen's whereabouts. Nobody in London seemed to know exactly where he might be found. I asked the manager of the house in which I dwelt, and he hadn't an idea – he never had, for that matter. Then I asked a policeman, and he said he thought he was dancing at the Empire, but he wasn't sure. Next I sought his publishers and asked for his banker's address. The reply included every bank in London, with several trust companies in France and Spain. To my regret, I learned that we Americans hold none of his surplus.
"But where do you send his letters?" I demanded of his publisher, in despair.
"Dr. Nansen has authorized us to destroy them unopened," was the reply. "They contain nothing but requests for his autograph."
"But your letters to him containing his royalties – where do they go?" I demanded.
"We address them to him in our own care," was the answer.
"And then?" I queried.
"According to his instructions, they are destroyed unopened," said the publisher, twisting his thumbs meditatively.
It seemed hopeless.
Suddenly an idea flashed across my mind. I will go, I thought, to the coldest railway station in London and ask for a ticket for Nansen. A man so fastidious as he is in the matter of temperature, I reasoned, cannot have left London at any one of their moderately warm stations.Where the temperature is most frigid, there Nansen must have gone when leaving, he is such a stickler for temperature. Wherefore I went to the Waterloo Station – it is the coldest railway station I know – and I asked the agent for a ticket for Nansen.
He seemed nonplussed for a moment, and, to cover his embarrassment, asked:
"Second or third class?"
"First," said I, putting down a five-pound note.
"Certainly," said he, handing me a ticket to Southampton. "Do you think you people in the States will really have war with Spain?"
I will not dilate upon this incident. Suffice it to say that the ticket man sent me to Southampton, where, he said, I'd be most likely to find a boat that would carry me to Nansen. And he was right. I reached Sjwjcktcwjch within twenty-four hours, and holding, as I did, letters of introduction from President McKinley and her Majesty Queen Victoria, from Richard Croker and Major Pond, Mr. Nansen consented to receive me.
He lived in an Esquimau hut on an ice-floe which was passing the winter in the far-famed Maelstrom. How I reached it Heaven only knows. I frankly confess that I do not. I only know that under the guidance of Svenskjold Bjonstjon I boarded a plain pjine rjaft, such as the Norwegians use, and was pjaddjled out into the seething whirlpool, in the midst of which was Nansen's more or less portable cottage.
When I recovered I found myself seated inside the cottage, which, like everything else in the Maelstrom, was waltzing about as if at a military ball or Westchester County dance.
"Well," said my host, looking at me coldly. "You are here. Why are you here?"
"Mr. Nansen?" said I.
"The very same," said he, taking an icicle out of his vest pocket and biting off the end of it.
"The Polar Explorer?" I added.
"There is but one Nansen," said he, brushing the rime from his eyebrows. "Why ask foolish questions? If I am Nansen, then it goes without saying that I am the Polar Explorer."
"Excuse me," I replied. "I merely wished to know." And then I took a one-dollar bill from my purse. "Here, Mr. Nansen, is my dollar. That is, I understand, the regular fee for seeing you. I should like now to converse with you. What is your price per word?"
"Have you spoken to my agents?" he asked.
"No," said I.
"Then it will only cost you $160 a word. Had you arranged through them, I should have had to charge you $200. You see," he added, apologetically, "I have to pay them a commission of twenty per cent."
"I understand that," said I. "I have given public readings myself, and after paying the agent's commission and travelling expenses I have invariably been compelled to go back and live with my mother for six months."
"Miss Witherup," said Nansen, rising, "you did not intend to do it, and I therefore forgive you, but for the moment you have made me feel warmly towards you. Please do not do it again. Frigidity is necessary to my business. What can I do for you?"
"Talk to me," said I.
He immediately froze up again. "What about?" said he. "The Pole?"
"No," said I. "About America."
"I cannot!" he cried, despairingly.
"I do not wish to dwell upon my sufferings. If I told about my American experience, people would not believe; they would rank me with Munchausen, my sufferings were so intense. Let me tell of how I lived on Esquimau dog-chops and ice-cream for nineteen weeks."
"Pardon me, Mr. Nansen," said I, "but I can't do that. We Americans know all about the North Pole. Few of us, on the other hand, know anything about America, and we wish to be enlightened. What did you think of Chicago?"
"Chicago? H'm! Let me see," said Nansen, tapping his forehead gently with an ice-pick. "Chicago! Oh yes, I remember; it was a charmingly cold city, full of trolley-cars, and having a newly acquired subway and a public library. I found it a beautiful city, madam, and the view from the Bunker Hill Statue of Liberty was superb, looking down over Blackwell's Island through the Golden Gate out into the vast, trackless waste of Lake Superior. Yes, I thought well of it. If I remember rightly, we took in $1869 at the door."
I was surprised at his command of details, and resolved further to test his memory.
"And Philadelphia, Mr. Nansen?"
"A superb city, considering its recency, as you say in English. I met many delightful people there. Senator Tom Reed received me at his palace on Euclid Avenue, if I remember the street aright; the Mayor of the city, Mr. McKinley, gave me a dinner, at which I sat down with Mr. Cleveland and Mr. Van Wyck, and Mr. Bryan and Mr. Pulitzer, and other members of his cabinet; and in my leisure hours I found the theatres of Philadelphia most pleasing, with Mr. Jefferson singing his nigger songs, Mr. Mansfield in his inimitable skirt-dancing, and, best of all, Mr. Daly's Shakespearian revivals of 'Hamlet' and 'Othello,' with Miss Rehan in the title-r?les. Oh yes, Miss Witherdown – "
"Witherup!" I snapped, coldly.
"Excuse me, Witherup," said the great explorer. "Oh yes, Miss Witherup, I found America a most delightful country, especially your capital city of Philadelphia."
"Herr Nansen," said I, "are you as accurate in your observations of the North Pole as in your notes of the States, as expressed to me?"
"Neither more nor less so," said he, somewhat uneasily, I thought.
"But you have drawn a most delightful picture of the States," said I. "I think all Americans will be pleased by your reference to the Bunker Hill Monument at Chicago, and Mayor McKinley's cabinet at Philadelphia. On the other hand, you spoke of intense suffering while with us."
"Yes," said he, "I did – because I suffered. Have you ever travelled in your own country, madam?"
"I am an American," said I. "Therefore when I travel I travel abroad."
"Then you do not know of the privations of American travel," he cried. "Consider me, Nansen, compelled, after the delightful discomfort of the Fram, to have to endure the horrid excellence of your Pullman service. Consider me, Nansen, after having subsisted on dogs and kerosene oil for months, having to eat a breakfast costing a dollar at one of your American hotels, consisting of porridge, broiled chicken, deviled kidney, four kinds of potatoes, eggs in every style, real coffee, and buckwheat cakes! Consider me – "
"Nansen?" I inquired.
"Yes, Nansen," said he. "Consider me, Nansen, used to the cold of the Arctic regions, the Arctic perils, having to wake up every morning in an American hotel or an American parlor-car, warm, without peril, comfortable, without anything whatsoever to growl about."
"It must have been devilish," said I.
"It was," said he.
"Well, Mr. Nansen," I put in, rising, "you can stand it. You are cold enough
to stay in Hades for forty-seven years without losing your outside garments. How much do I owe you?"
"Fifteen thousand dollars, please," said he.
I gave him the money and swam away.
"Good-bye," he cried, as I reached the outer edge of the Maelstrom. "I hope, next time I go to America, that I shall meet you."
"Many thanks," said I. "When do you expect to come?"
"Never," he replied, "Deo volente!"
Charming chap, that Nansen. So warm, you know.
MR. HALL CAINE
I do not know why it should have happened so, but it did happen that after my interview with Nansen I felt gloomy in my soul, and hence naturally sought congenial company. My first inclination was to run down to Greece and take luncheon with King George, but when I came to look over my languages, the only bit of Greek I could speak fluently turned out to be hoi polloi, and from private advices I gather that that is the only bit of Greek that his honor the King has no use for. Therefore I bought a ticket straight through to Gloomster Abbey, Isle of Man – the residence of Hall Caine.
Appropriately enough, it was midnight when I arrived. It was a moonlight night, but there were a dozen clouds on the horizon and directly in the wake of the moon's rays, so that all was dark. From the abbey itself no single ray of light gleamed, and all was still, save the croaking of the tree-toads in the moat, and the crickets on the roof of the parapet.
Any one else would have been chilled to the marrow; but I, having visited Nansen, had to use a fan to overcome the extreme cordiality of the scene. With the thermometer at 32° I nearly swooned with the heat.
"Is this Gloomster Abbey?" I asked of my hackman.
"Yes," said he; "and, for Humanity's sake, pay your fare and let me go. I am the father of seven orphans, and the husband of their widowed mother. If I stay here ten minutes I'll die, and my wife will marry again, Heaven help her!"
I paid him ?6 10s. 6d. and let him go. He was nothing to me, but his family had my sympathy.
Then I knocked on the portcullis with all my might, and was gratified to find that, like a well-regulated portcullis, it fell, and with a loud noise withal.
An intense silence intervened, and then out of the blackness of the blue above me there came a voice with a reddish tinge to it.
"Who's there?" said the voice. "If you are a burglar, come in and rob. If you are a friend, wait a minute. If you are an interviewer from an American Sunday newspaper, accept my apologies for keeping you waiting, turn the knob, and walk in. I'll be down as soon as I can get there."
It was Hall Caine himself who spoke.
I turned the knob and walked in. All was still, dark, and cold, but I did not mind, for it fitted into my mood exactly.
In the darkness of the corridor within I barked what if I were a man I should call my shins. As it happened, being a woman, I merely bruised my ankles, when he appeared – Hall Caine himself. There
was no gas-light, no electric light. Nothing but the blackness of the night, and He Appeared! I suppose it was all due to the fact that he is a brilliant man, who would shine anywhere. However it may have been, I suddenly became conscious of a being that walked towards me as plainly discernible as an ocean steamship at sea at night, with every electric light burning in the saloon, and the red and green lanterns on the starboard and port sides of its bow.
"Mr. Caine?" said I, addressing his starboard side.
"That's I," said he, grammatically and with dignity. A man less great would have said "That's me," which is why in the darkness I knew it was Mr. Caine and not his hired man I was speaking to – or with, as your style may require.
"Mr. Caine," said I, not without nervousness, "I have come – "
"So I perceive," said he; and then an inspiration came to me.
" – to lay my gloom at your feet," I said, with apparent meekness. "It is all I have, but such as it is you are welcome to it. Some people would have brought you rich gifts in gold and silver; some would have come with compliments and requests for your autograph; I bring you only a morbid heart bursting with gloom. Will you take it?"
"I appreciate the courtesy, madame," replied the great man, wiping a tear from the end of his nose, which twinkled like a silver star in the blackness of the corridor, "but I cannot accept your offering. I have more gloom on hand than I know what to do with. I am, however, deeply touched, and beg to offer you the hospitality of the moat, unless you have further business with me at my regular rates."
A dreadful, blood-curdling wail, like that of a soul in torment, interrupted my answer. It seemed to come from the very centre of the earth directly beneath my feet. I was frozen with horror, and my host, with a muttered imprecation, turned and ran off.
"I haven't time to see you now," he cried, as he disappeared down the steps of a yawning hole at the far end of the corridor. "I can't afford to miss the experiment for anything so small and cheap as a morbid heart bursting with gloom."
I followed closely after, although he had not granted permission. I didn't feel that I could afford to miss the experiment either, and ere he had time to slam to the door of the dungeon which we ultimately reached, I was inside his workshop.
If it was chill without, it was deadly within, save that the darkness was not so intense, red lights burning dimly in each of the four corners of the dungeon. The walls were covered with a green trickling ooze from the moat, and under foot the ground was dank and almost mushy.
In the very centre of the place was a huge rack, a relic of some by-gone age of torture, and stretched at full length upon it was a man of, I should say, about forty years of age. Two flunkies in livery – red plush trousers and powdered wigs – now and then turned the screw, and with each turn horrid shrieks would come from the victim, mingled with alternate prayers and curses.
"What on earth is the meaning of this?" I cried, in horror.
"It means, madame," replied the famous author, calmly, "that I never fake. All my situations, all my passages descriptive of human emotions and sufferings, are drawn from life, and not from the imagination."
"You work from living models?" I gasped. "Why would not a lay figure do as well for torture?"
"Because lay-figures do not shriek and pray and curse. I am surprised that you should be so dull. James, turn the thumb-screw three times; and, Grimmins, take your cricket-bat and give the patient a bastinado on his right foot."
"It is a pitiless shame!" I cried.
"It is in the interest of art, madame," said the novelist, shrugging his shoulders. "Just as our surgeons have to vivisect for
the advancement of science, so must I conduct experiments here in the interest of letters. My new novel has a stirring episode in it based upon the capture and torture of a newspaper correspondent in Thibet. I might, I suppose, have imagined the whole thing, but this so far surpasses the imagination that I am convinced it is the better way of getting my color."
"There isn't any doubt about that," said I; "but consider this man here, whose limbs you are stretching beyond all endurance – "
"He should regard it as a splendid sacrifice," vouchsafed the novelist, lighting a cigarette and winking pleasantly at his victim.
"Is his a voluntary sacrifice?" I demanded.
"Rather good joke that, eh, Rogers?" laughed Mr. Caine, addressing the sufferer. "This simple-minded little American girl asks if you are there because you like it. Ha! ha! What a droll idea! Thinks you do this for pleasure, Rogers. Has an idea you tied yourself on there and racked yourself at first, so she has. Thinks you shriek so as to smother your laughter, which would be very inappropriate to the occasion."
The sufferer groaned deeply, and the novelist, turning to me, observed:
"No, madame. My poor unhappy friend Rogers is here against his will, I regret to say. It would be far pleasanter for me when I hear him bastinadoed to know that he derived a certain amount of personal satisfaction from it in spite of the pain, but it must be otherwise. Furthermore, in the story the newspaper man who is tortured is not supposed to like it, so that accuracy requires that I should have a man, like Rogers, who dislikes it intensely."
"And do you mean to say, sir, that you deliberately went out into the street and seized hold of this poor fellow, carried him in here, and subjected him to all this? Why, it's a crime!"
"Not at all," replied Mr. Caine, nonchalantly. "I am no common kidnapper. I do not belong to a literary press-gang. I have simply exercised my rights as the owner of this castle. This man came here on his own responsibility, just as you have come. I never asked him any more than I asked you, and he has had to take the consequences, just as you will have to abide by whatever may result from your temerity. Rogers is a newspaper man, and he tried to get a free interview out of me by deceit, knowing that I no longer do a gratis business. It so happened that I was at that moment in need of just such a person for my experiment. I gave him the interview, and now he is paying for it."
The novelist paused, and after eying me somewhat closely for a moment, turned to his notes, lying on his desk alongside the rack, while a tremor of fear passed over me.
"Curious coincidence," he remarked, looking up from an abstract of his story. "In my very next chapter I take up the sufferings in captivity of a young and beautiful American girl who is languishing and starving in a loathsome cell, full of reptiles and poisonous beasts, like Gila monsters and centipedes. She is to be just your height and coloring and age."
I grew rigid with horror.
"You wouldn't – " I began.
"Oh yes, I would," replied the author, pleasantly. "Would you like to see the cell?"
"I would like to see the outside of your castle!" I cried, turning to the stairs.
The novelist laughed hollowly at the expression of hopelessness that came over my face as I observed that a huge iron grating had slid down from above and cut off my retreat.
"I am sorry, Miss Witherup, but I haven't got the outside of my castle in here. If I had I'd show it to you at once," he said.
"I beg of you, sir," I cried, going down on my knees before him. "Do let me go. I – "
"Don't be emotional, my dear," he replied, in a nice, fatherly way. "You will have an alternative. When I have receipted this," he added, writing out a bill and tossing it to me – "when I have receipted this, you can go."
I glanced at the paper. It called for ?1500 for an interview of an hour and a half, at ?1000 an hour.
"If you will give me your check for that amount, you may go. Otherwise I am afraid I shall have to use you for a model."
"I have only ?1200 in the bank," I replied, bursting into tears.
"It will suffice," said he. "Your terror will be worth ?300 to me in a short story I am writing for the Manx Sunday Whirald."
Whereupon I wrote him a check for ?1200 and made my escape.
"I'll expose you to the world!" I roared back at him in my wrath as I walked down the path to the road.
"Do," he cried. "I never object to a free advertisement. By-bye."
With that I left him, and hastened back to London to stop payment on the check; but in some fashion he got the better of me, for it happened to be on a bank holiday that I arrived, and ere I could give notice to the cashier to refuse to honor my draft it had been cashed.
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