Peeps at People
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After recovering from the attack of nervous prostration which was the natural result of my short visit to Gloomster Abbey, acting on my physician's advice I left England for a time. Finding myself, some weeks later, in Berlin, I resolved to call upon his Imperial Highness William the Second, better known as the Yellow Kid of Potsdam.
I experienced some difficulty at first in reaching the Emperor. Royalty is so hedged about by etiquette that it seemed almost impossible that I should get an audience with him at all. He was most charming about the matter, but, as he said in his note to me, he could not forget the difference in our respective stations in life. For an Emperor to consent to receive a plain American newspaper woman was out of the question. He could be interviewed incog., however, as Mr. William Hohenzollern, if that would suit my wishes.
I replied instantly that it was not Mr. William Hohenzollern that I wished to interview, but the German Emperor, and unless I could see him as Emperor I did not wish to see him at all. I added that I might come incog. myself if all that was necessary to make the whole thing regular was that I should appear to be on a social level with him, and instead of calling as Miss Witherup I could call as the Marchioness of Spuyten Duyville, or, if he preferred, Princess of Haarlem Heights, to both of which titles, I assured him, I had as valid a claim as any other lady journalist in the world – in fact, more so, since they were both of my own invention.
Whether it was the independence of my action or the novelty of the situation that brought it about I do not know, but the return mail brought a command from the Emperor to the Princess of Haarlem Heights to attend a royal f?te given in her honor at the Potsdam Palace the next morning at twenty minutes after eleven.
I was there on the stroke of the hour, and found his Imperial Highness sitting on a small gilt throne surrounded by mirrors, having his tintype taken. This is one of the Emperor's daily duties, and one which he has never neglected from the day of his birth. He has a complete set of these tintypes ranged about the walls of his private sanctum in the form of a frieze, and he frequently spends hours at a time seated on a step-ladder examining himself as he looked on certain days in the past.
He smiled affably as the Grand High Chamberlain announced "The Princess of Haarlem Heights," and on my entrance threw me one of his imperial gloves to shake.
"Hoch!" he cried as he did so.
"Ditto hic," I answered, with my most charming smile. "I hope I do not disturb you, my dear Emperor?"
"Not in the least," he replied. "Nothing disturbs us. We are the very centre of equanimity. We are a sort of human Gibraltar which nothing can move. It is a nice day out," he added.
"Most charming," said I. "Indeed, a nicer day out than this no one could wish for."
"We are glad you find it so, madame."
"Excuse me, sire," I said, firmly – "Princess."
"Indeed yes.We had forgotten," he replied, with a courteous wave of his hand. "It could not be otherwise. We are glad, Princess, that you find the day nice out. We ordered it so, and it is pleasant to feel that what we do for the world is appreciated. We shall not ask you why you have sought this interview," he continued. "We can quite understand, without wasting our time on frivolous questions, why any one, even a beautiful American like yourself, should wish to see us in person. Are you in Berlin for long?"
"Only until next Thursday, sire," I replied.
"What a pity!" he commented, rising from the throne and stroking his mustache before one of the mirrors. "What a tremendous pity! We should have been pleased to have had you with us longer."
"Emperor," said I, "this is no time for vain compliments, however pleasing to me they may be. Let us get down to business. Let us talk about the great problems of the day."
"As you will, Princess," he replied. "To begin with, we were born – "
"Pardon me, sire," I interrupted. "But I know all about your history."
"They study us in your schools, do they? Ah, well, they do rightly," said the Emperor, with a wink of satisfaction at himself in the glass. "They indeed do rightly to study us. When one considers
what we are the result of! Far back, Princess, in the days of Thor, the original plans for William Second were made. This person, whom we have the distinguished and sacred honor to be, was contemplated in the days when chaos ruled. Gods have dreamed of him; goddesses have sighed for him; epochs have shed bitter tears because he was not yet; and finally he is here, in us – incarnate sublimity that we are!"
The Emperor thumped his chest proudly as he spoke, until the gold on his uniform fairly rang.
"Are we – ah – are we appreciated in America?" he asked.
"To the full, Emperor – to the full!" I replied, instantly. "I do not know any country on the face of this grand green earth where you are quoted more often at your full value than with us."
"And – ah," he added, with a slight coyness of manner – "we are – ah – supposed to be at what you Americans call par and a premium, eh?"
"Emperor," said I, "you are known to us as yourself."
"Madame – or rather Princess," he cried, ecstatically, "you could not have praised us more highly."
He touched an electric button as he spoke, and instantly a Buttons appeared.
"The iron cross!" he cried.
"Not for me – oh, sire – not for me?" said I, almost swooning with joy.
"No, Princess, not for you," said the Emperor. "For ourself. We shall give you one of the buttons off our imperial coat. It is our habit every morning at this hour to decorate our imperial self, and we have rung for the usual thing just as you Americans would ring for a Manhattan cocktail."
"What!" I cried, wondering at the man's marvellous acquaintance with the slightest details of American life. "You know the – Manhattan cocktail?"
"Princess," said the Emperor, proudly, "we know everything."
And this was the man they call Willie-boy in London!
"Emperor," said I, "about the partition of China?"
"Well," said he, "what of the partition of China?"
"Is it to be partitioned?"
The Emperor's eye twinkled.
"We have not yet read the morning papers, Princess," he said. "But we judge, from what we saw in the society news of last night's Fliegende Choynal, that there will be a military ball at Peking shortly, and that the affair will end brilliantly with a – ah – a German."
"Good!" said I. "And you will really fight England?"
"Why not?" said he, with a smile at the looking-glass.
"Your grandmother?" I queried, with a slight shake of my head, in deprecation of a family row.
"She calls us Billie!" he cried, passionately. "Grandmothers can do a great many things, Princess, but no grandmother that Heaven ever sent into this world shall call us Billie with impunity."
I was silent for a moment.
"Still, Emperor," I said, at last, "England has been very good to you. She has furnished you with all the coal your ships needed to steam into Chinese waters. Surely that was the act of a grandmother. You wouldn't fight her after that?"
"We will, if she'll lend us ammunition for our guns," said the Emperor, gloomily. "If she won't do that, then of course there will be no war. But, Princess, let us talk of other things. Have you heard our latest musical composition?"
I frankly confessed that I had not, and the imperial band was called up and ordered to play the Emperor's new march. It was very moving and made me somewhat homesick; for, after all, with all due respect to William's originality, it was nothing more than a slightly Prussianized rendering of "All Coons Look Alike to Me." However, I praised the work, and added that I had heard nothing like it in Wagner, which seemed to please the Emperor very much. I have since heard that as a composer he resents Wagner, and attributes the success of the latter merely to that accident of birth which brought the composer into the world a half-century before William had his chance.
"And now, Princess," he observed, as the music ceased, "your audience is over. We are to have our portrait painted at mid-day, and the hour has come. Assure your people of our undying regard. You may kiss our little finger."
"And will not your Majesty honor me with his autograph?" I asked, holding out my book, after I had kissed his little finger.
"With pleasure," said he, taking the book and complying with my request as follows:
"Faithfully your War Lord and Master,
Wasn't it characteristic!
MR. ALFRED AUSTIN
It was on a beautiful March afternoon that I sought out the Poet-Laureate of England in his official sanctum in London. A splendid mantle of fog hung over the street, shutting out the otherwise all too commercial aspect of that honored by-way. It was mid-day to the stroke of the hour, and a soft mellow glare suffused the perspective in either direction, proceeding from the gas-lamps upon the street corners, which, like the fires of eternal youth, are kept constantly burning in the capital city of the Guelphs.
I approached the lair of England's first poet with a beating heart, the trip-hammer-like thudding of which against my ribs could be heard like the pounding of the twin screws of an Atlantic liner far down beneath the folds of my mackintosh. To stand in the presence of Tennyson's successor was an ambition to wish to gratify, but it was awesome, and not a little difficult for the nervous system. However, once committed to the enterprise, I was not to be baffled, and with shaking knees and tremulous hand I banged the brazen knocker against the door until the hall within echoed and re-echoed with its clangor.
Immediately a window on the top story was opened, and the laureate himself thrust his head out. I could dimly perceive the contour of his noble forehead through the mist.
"I am an American lady journalist," I cried up to him, making a megaphone of my two hands so that he might not miss a word, "and I have come to offer you seven dollars a word for a glimpse of you at home."
"How much is that in ? s. d.?" he asked, eagerly.
"One pound eight," said I.
"I'll be down," he replied, instantly, and drawing his noble brow in out of the wet, he slammed the window to, and, if the squeaking sounds I heard within meant anything, slid down the banisters in order not to keep me waiting longer than was necessary. He opened the door, and in a moment we stood face to face.
said he, cordially grasping me by the hand.
"Come right up and make yourself perfectly at home, and I'll give you an imitation of my daily routine, and will answer whatever questions you may see fit to ask. Of course you must be aware that I am averse to this sort of thing generally. The true poet cannot permit the searchlight of publicity to be turned upon his home without losing something of that delicate – "
"Hold on, Mr. Austin," said I. "I don't wish to be rude, but I am not authorized to pay you seven dollars apiece for such words as these you are uttering. If you have any explanations to offer the public for condescending to let me peep at you while at work, you must do it at your own expense."
A shade of disappointment passed over his delicate features.
"There's a hundred guineas gone at a stroke," he muttered, and for an instant I feared that I was to receive my cong?. By a strong effort of the will, however, the laureate pulled himself together.
said he. And then he added, courteously: "I am sorry the elevator isn't running. It's one of these English elevators, you know."
"Indeed?" said I. "And what is the peculiarity of an English elevator?"
he explained. "It's very annoying, too, particularly when you have to carry poems up and down stairs."
"You should let your poems do their own walking, Mr. Austin," said I.
"I beg your pardon," said he. "But how can they?"
"Those I've seen have had feet enough for a centipede," said I, as dryly as I could, considering that I was still dripping with fog.
The laureate scratched his head solemnly.
"Quite so," he said, at length. "But come, let us hasten."
We hastened upward, and five minutes later we were in the sanctum. It was a charming room. A complete set of the British Poets stood ranged in chronological sequence on the table. A copy of Hood's Rhymster, well thumbed, lay open on the sofa, and a volume of popular quotations lay on the floor beside the poet's easy-chair.
A full-length portrait of her Majesty the Queen, seven inches high and sixteen wide, hung over the fireplace, and beneath it stood a charming bust of the late Lord Tennyson with the face turned towards the wall.
"A beautiful workshop," said I. "Surely one sees now the sources of your inspiration."
he answered. "That's why I live under the roof instead of hiring chambers on the ground-floor. Up here I am not bothered by what in one of my new poems I shall call 'Mundane Things.' Rather good expression that, don't you think? The first draft reads:
"Rather clever, to be tossed off on a
scratch pad while taking a shower-bath, eh?"
"Yes," said I. "What suggested it?"
"The merest accident. I got some soap in my eye and was about to give way to my temper, when I thought to myself that the true poet ought to rise above petty annoyances of that nature – in other words, above mundane things."
"Wonderfully interesting," I put in. "Was your appointment a surprise to you, Mr. Austin?"
he replied. "You see, as a newspaper man I knew what rates the other poets were getting. There was Swinburne getting seven bob a line, and Sir Edwin Arnold asking a guinea a yard, and old Kipling grinding it out for one and six per quatrain, and Watson doing sonnets on the Yellow North, and the Red, White, and Blue East, and the Pink Sow'west, at five pounds a dozen. So when Salisbury rang me up on the 'phone and said I'd better put in a bid for the verse contract, I knew just how to arrange my rates to get the work."
"You had a great advantage over the others," said I.
"Which shows the value of a newspaper training. Newspaper men know everything," he said. "I had but one fear, and that was your American poets. They are hustlers, and I didn't know but that some enterprising American like Russell Sage or Barnum & Bailey would form a syndicate and corner America's poem-supply, and bowl my wickets from under me. Working together, they could have done it, but they didn't know their power, thank Heaven! – if I may borrow an Americanism."
"Well, Mr. Austin," said I, rising, "I am afraid I shall have to go. I fear your words have already exceeded the appropriation. Ah – how much do I owe you?"
The laureate took from beneath his chin a small golden object that looked like a locket. Opening it, he scanned it closely for a moment.
"My chinometer says nine hundred and sixty-three words. Let us call it a thousand – I don't care for trifles," said he.
"Very well," I replied. "That is $7000 I owe you."
"Yes," he said. "But of course I allow you the usual discount."
"For what?" said I.
"Cash," said he. "Poole does it on clothes, and I've adopted the system. It pays in the end, for, as I say in my next ode to the Queen, to be written on the occasion of her Ruby Jubilee, 'A sovereign in hand is worth two heirs-presumptive in the bush.'"
"In other words, cash deferred maketh the heart sick."
"Precisely. I'll put that motto down in my note-book for future use."
"I thank you for the compliment," said I, as I paid him $5950. "Good-bye, Mr. Austin."
"Good-bye, Miss Witherup," said he. "Any time when you find you have a half hour and ?1000 to spare come again.
said he, ushering me down-stairs and bowing me out into the fog, which by this time had lightened so that I could see the end of my nose as I walked along.
Several days after the exhilarating interview with the Poet-Laureate of England, I was honored by a dinner given to me by the Honorable Company of Lady Copy-Mongers at their guildhall in Piccadilly Circus, S.W. It was a delightful affair, and I met many ladies of prominence in literary fields. Miss Braddon and John Oliver Hobbes were there, and one rather stout old lady, of regal manner, who was introduced as Clara Guelph, but whom I strongly suspected to be none other than the authoress of that famous and justly popular work, Leaves from My Diary in the Highlands, or Sixty Years a Potentate. She was very gracious to me, and promised to send me an autograph copy of her publisher's circular.
Most interesting of all the persons encountered at the banquet, however, was Miss Philippa Phipps-Phipps, forewoman of the Andrew Lang Manuscript-Manufacturing Company, from whom I gained much startling information which I am certain will interest the public.
In the course of our conversation I observed to Miss Phipps-Phipps, of whom I had never heard before, that nothing in modern letters so amazed me as the output of Andrew Lang, for both its quality and its quantity. The lady flushed pleasurably, and said, modestly:
"We try to keep up to the standard, Miss Witherup. As a worker in literary fields, you perhaps realize how hard it is to do this, but of one thing I assure you – we have never in the last ten years allowed a bit of scamp work of any description to go out of our factory. Of course we have grades of work, but the lower grades do not go out with the Lang mark upon them."
I looked at Miss Phipps-Phipps in a puzzled way, for the full import of her words did not dawn upon me instantly.
"I don't quite understand," said I. "We? Who are we?"
"The Lang Manuscript-Manufacturing Company," explained the young woman. "You are aware, of course, that Andrew Lang is not an individual, but a corporation?"
"I certainly never dreamed it," said I, with a half-smile.
"How could it be otherwise?" asked Miss Phipps-Phipps. "No human being could alone turn out an average of 647,000,000 words a year, Miss Witherup, not even if he could run two type-writers at once, and write with his feet while dictating to a stenographer. It would be a physical impossibility."
"Dear me!" I cried in amazement. "I know that there were thousands of articles from Lang every year, but 647,000,000 words! Why, it is incredible!"
"That is only the average, you know,"
said Miss Phipps-Phipps, proudly. "In good years we have run as high as 716,000,346 words; and this year, if all goes well and our operatives do not strike, we expect to turn out over 800,000,000. We have signed contracts to deliver 111,383,000 words in the month of June alone – mostly Christmas stuff, you know, to be published next November. Last month we turned out 39,000 lines of poetry a day for twenty-five working-days, and our essay-mill has been running over-time for sixteen weeks."
"Well, I am surprised!" said I. "Yet, when I come to think of it, there is no reason why I should be. This is an age of corporations."
"Precisely," said Miss Phipps-Phipps. "Furthermore, ours had a philanthropic motive at the bottom of it all. Here was Mr. Lang simply killing himself with work, and some 700 young men and women of an aspiring turn of mind absolutely out of employment. The burdens of the one, we believed, could be made to relieve the necessities of the other, and we made the proposition to Mr. Lang to make himself over to us, promising to fill his contracts and relieve him of the necessity of doing any further literary work for the rest of his life. We incorporated him on a basis of ?2,000,000, giving him ?1,000,000 in shares. The rest was advertised as for sale, and was oversubscribed ten to one. Workshops were built at Woking, and as a starter 600 operatives were employed. Working night and day, at the end of the first year we were just three months behind our orders. We immediately doubled our force to 1200, and so it has gone until to-day, and the business is constantly increasing. Our stock is at a premium of 117 %, and we keep 3750 people, with a capacity of 10,000 words a day each, constantly employed."
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