"The Finest Story in the World"
With the Main Guard
Wee Willie Winkie
The Rout of the White Hussars
The Courting of Dinah Shadd
The Story of Muhammad Din
In Flood Time
My Own True Ghost Story
The Big Drunk Draf'
By Word of Mouth
The Drums of the Fore and Aft
The Sending of Dana Da
On the City Wall
The Broken-link Handicap
On Greenhow Hill
To Be Filed for Reference
The Man Who Would Be King
The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows
The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney
His Majesty the King
The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes
In the House of Suddhoo
The Taking of Lungtungpen
The Phantom Rickshaw
On the Strength of a Likeness
Private Learoyd's Story
Wressley of the Foreign Office
The Solid Muldoon
The Three Musketeers
Beyond the Pale
The God from the Machine
The Daughter of the Regiment
The Madness of Private Ortheris
"THE FINEST STORY IN THE WORLD"
"Or ever the knightly years were gone
With the old world to the grave
I was a king in Babylon
And you were a Christian slave"
His name was Charlie Mears; he was the only son of his mother who was a
widow and he lived in the north of London coming into the City every day
to work in a bank. He was twenty years old and suffered from aspirations.
I met him in a public billiard-saloon where the marker called him by his
given name and he called the marker "Bullseyes." Charlie explained a
little nervously that he had only come to the place to look on and since
looking on at games of skill is not a cheap amusement for the young I
suggested that Charlie should go back to his mother.
That was our first step toward better acquaintance. He would call on me
sometimes in the evenings instead of running about London with his
fellow-clerks; and before long speaking of himself as a young man must
he told me of his aspirations which were all literary. He desired to make
himself an undying name chiefly through verse though he was not above
sending stories of love and death to the drop-a-penny-in-the-slot
journals. It was my fate to sit still while Charlie read me poems of many
hundred lines and bulky fragments of plays that would surely shake the
world. My reward was his unreserved confidence and the self-revelations
and troubles of a young man are almost as holy as those of a maiden.
Charlie had never fallen in love but was anxious to do so on the first
opportunity; he believed in all things good and all things honorable but
at the same time was curiously careful to let me see that he knew his way
about the world as befitted a bank clerk on twenty-five shillings a week.
He rhymed "dove" with "love" and "moon" with "June" and devoutly believed
that they had never so been rhymed before. The long lame gaps in his plays
he filled up with hasty words of apology and description and swept on
seeing all that he intended to do so clearly that he esteemed it already
done and turned to me for applause.
I fancy that his mother did not encourage his aspirations and I know that
his writing-table at home was the edge of his washstand. This he told me
almost at the outset of our acquaintance; when he was ravaging my
bookshelves and a little before I was implored to speak the truth as to
his chances of "writing something really great you know." Maybe I
encouraged him too much for one night he called on me his eyes flaming
with excitement and said breathlessly:
"Do you mind--can you let me stay here and write all this evening? I won't
interrupt you I won't really. There's no place for me to write in at my
"What's the trouble?" I said knowing well what that trouble was.
"I've a notion in my head that would make the most splendid story that was
ever written. Do let me write it out here. It's _such_ a notion!"
There was no resisting the appeal. I set him a table; he hardly thanked
me but plunged into the work at once. For half an hour the pen scratched
without stopping. Then Charlie sighed and tugged his hair. The scratching
grew slower there were more erasures and at last ceased. The finest
story in the world would not come forth.
"It looks such awful rot now" he said mournfully. "And yet it seemed so
good when I was thinking about it. What's wrong?"
I could not dishearten him by saying the truth. So I answered: "Perhaps
you don't feel in the mood for writing."
"Yes I do--except when I look at this stuff. Ugh!"
"Read me what you've done" I said.
"He read and it was wondrous bad and he paused at all the specially
turgid sentences expecting a little approval; for he was proud of those
sentences as I knew he would be.
"It needs compression" I suggested cautiously.
"I hate cutting my things down. I don't think you could alter a word here
without spoiling the sense. It reads better aloud than when I was writing
"Charlie you're suffering from an alarming disease afflicting a numerous
class. Put the thing by and tackle it again in a week."
"I want to do it at once. What do you think of it?"
"How can I judge from a half-written tale? Tell me the story as it lies in
Charlie told and in the telling there was everything that his ignorance
had so carefully prevented from escaping into the written word. I looked
at him and wondering whether it were possible that he did not know the
originality the power of the notion that had come in his way? It was
distinctly a Notion among notions. Men had been puffed up with pride by
notions not a tithe as excellent and practicable. But Charlie babbled on
serenely interrupting the current of pure fancy with samples of horrible
sentences that he purposed to use. I heard him out to the end. It would be
folly to allow his idea to remain in his own inept hands when I could do
so much with it. Not all that could be done indeed; but oh so much!
"What do you think?" he said at last. "I fancy I shall call it 'The Story
of a Ship.'"
"I think the idea's pretty good; but you won't be able to handle it for
ever so long. Now I"----
"Would it be of any use to you? Would you care to take it? I should be
proud" said Charlie promptly.
There are few things sweeter in this world than the guileless hot-headed
intemperate open admiration of a junior. Even a woman in her blindest
devotion does not fall into the gait of the man she adores tilt her
bonnet to the angle at which he wears his hat or interlard her speech
with his pet oaths. And Charlie did all these things. Still it was
necessary to salve my conscience before I possessed myself of Charlie's
"Let's make a bargain. I'll give you a fiver for the notion" I said.
Charlie became a bank-clerk at once.
"Oh that's impossible. Between two pals you know if I may call you so
and speaking as a man of the world I couldn't. Take the notion if it's
any use to you. I've heaps more."
He had--none knew this better than I--but they were the notions of other
"Look at it as a matter of business--between men of the world" I
returned. "Five pounds will buy you any number of poetry-books. Business
is business and you may be sure I shouldn't give that price unless"----
"Oh if you put it _that_ way" said Charlie visibly moved by the thought
of the books. The bargain was clinched with an agreement that he should at
unstated intervals come to me with all the notions that he possessed
should have a table of his own to write at and unquestioned right to
inflict upon me all his poems and fragments of poems. Then I said "Now
tell me how you came by this idea."
"It came by itself" Charlie's eyes opened a little.
"Yes but you told me a great deal about the hero that you must have read
"I haven't any time for reading except when you let me sit here and on
Sundays I'm on my bicycle or down the river all day. There's nothing wrong
about the hero is there?"
"Tell me again and I shall understand clearly. You say that your hero went
pirating. How did he live?"
"He was on the lower deck of this ship-thing that I was telling you
"What sort of ship?"
"It was the kind rowed with oars and the sea spurts through the oar-holes
and the men row sitting up to their knees in water. Then there's a bench
running down between the two lines of oars and an overseer with a whip
walks up and down the bench to make the men work."
"How do you know that?"
"It's in the tale. There's a rope running overhead looped to the upper
deck for the overseer to catch hold of when the ship rolls. When the
overseer misses the rope once and falls among the rowers remember the
hero laughs at him and gets licked for it. He's chained to his oar of
"How is he chained?"
"With an iron band round his waist fixed to the bench he sits on and a
sort of handcuff on his left wrist chaining him to the oar. He's on the
lower deck where the worst men are sent and the only light comes from the
hatchways and through the oar-holes. Can't you imagine the sunlight just
squeezing through between the handle and the hole and wobbling about as
the ship moves?"
"I can but I can't imagine your imagining it."
"How could it be any other way? Now you listen to me. The long oars on the
upper deck are managed by four men to each bench the lower ones by three
and the lowest of all by two. Remember it's quite dark on the lowest deck
and all the men there go mad. When a man dies at his oar on that deck he
isn't thrown overboard but cut up in his chains and stuffed through the
oar-hole in little pieces."
"Why?" I demanded amazed not so much at the information as the tone of
command in which it was flung out.
"To save trouble and to frighten the others. It needs two overseers to
drag a man's body up to the top deck; and if the men at the lower deck
oars were left alone of course they'd stop rowing and try to pull up the
benches by all standing up together in their chains."
"You've a most provident imagination. Where have you been reading about
galleys and galley-slaves?"
"Nowhere that I remember. I row a little when I get the chance. But
perhaps if you say so I may have read something."
He went away shortly afterward to deal with booksellers and I wondered
how a bank clerk aged twenty could put into my hands with a profligate
abundance of detail all given with absolute assurance the story of
extravagant and bloodthirsty adventure riot piracy and death in unnamed
seas. He had led his hero a desperate dance through revolt against the
overseers to command of a ship of his own and ultimate establishment of
a kingdom on an island "somewhere in the sea you know"; and delighted
with my paltry five pounds had gone out to buy the notions of other men
that these might teach him how to write. I had the consolation of knowing
that this notion was mine by right of purchase and I thought that I could
make something of it.
When next he came to me he was drunk--royally drunk on many poets for the
first time revealed to him. His pupils were dilated his words tumbled
over each other and he wrapped himself in quotations. Most of all was he
drunk with Longfellow.
"Isn't it splendid? Isn't it superb?" he cried after hasty greetings.
"Listen to this--
"'Wouldst thou'--so the helmsman answered
'Know the secret of the sea?
Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery.'"
"'Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery'"
he repeated twenty times walking up and down the room and forgetting me.
"But _I_ can understand it too" he said to himself. "I don't know how to
thank you for that fiver And this; listen--
"'I remember the black wharves and the ships
And the sea-tides tossing free
And the Spanish sailors with bearded lips
And the beauty and mystery of the ships
And the magic of the sea.'"
I haven't braved any dangers but I feel as if I knew all about it."
"You certainly seem to have a grip of the sea. Have you ever seen it?"
"When I was a little chap I went to Brighton once; we used to live in
Coventry though before we came to London. I never saw it
"'When descends on the Atlantic
Storm-wind of the Equinox.'"
He shook me by the shoulder to make me understand the passion that was
"When that storm comes" he continued "I think that all the oars in the
ship that I was talking about get broken and the rowers have their chests
smashed in by the bucking oar-heads. By the way have you done anything
with that notion of mine yet?"
"No. I was waiting to hear more of it from you. Tell me how in the world
you're so certain about the fittings of the ship. You know nothing of
"I don't know. It's as real as anything to me until I try to write it
down. I was thinking about it only last night in bed after you had loaned
me 'Treasure Island'; and I made up a whole lot of new things to go into
"What sort of things?"
"About the food the men ate; rotten figs and black beans and wine in a
skin bag passed from bench to bench."
"Was the ship built so long ago as _that_?"
"As what? I don't know whether it was long ago or not. It's only a notion
but sometimes it seems just as real as if it was true. Do I bother you
with talking about it?"
"Not in the least. Did you make up anything else?"
"Yes but it's nonsense." Charlie flushed a little.
"Never mind; let's hear about it."
"Well I was thinking over the story and after awhile I got out of bed
and wrote down on a piece of paper the sort of stuff the men might be
supposed to scratch on their oars with the edges of their handcuffs. It
seemed to make the thing more lifelike. It _is_ so real to me y'know."
"Have you the paper on you?"
"Ye-es but what's the use of showing it? It's only a lot of scratches.
All the same we might have 'em reproduced in the book on the front page."
"I'll attend to those details. Show me what your men wrote."
He pulled out of his pocket a sheet of note-paper with a single line of
scratches upon it and I put this carefully away.
"What is it supposed to mean in English?" I said.
"Oh I don't know. Perhaps it means 'I'm beastly tired.' It's great
nonsense" he repeated "but all those men in the ship seem as real as
people to me. Do do something to the notion soon; I should like to see it
written and printed."
"But all you've told me would make a long book."
"Make it then. You've only to sit down and write it out."
"Give me a little time. Have you any more notions?"
"Not just now. I'm reading all the books I've bought. They're splendid."
When he had left I looked at the sheet of note-paper with the inscription
upon it. Then I took my head tenderly between both hands to make certain
that it was not coming off or turning round. Then ... but there seemed to
be no interval between quitting my rooms and finding myself arguing with a
policeman outside a door marked _Private_ in a corridor of the British
Museum. All I demanded as politely as possible was "the Greek antiquity
man." The policeman knew nothing except the rules of the Museum and it
became necessary to forage through all the houses and offices inside the
gates. An elderly gentleman called away from his lunch put an end to my
search by holding the note-paper between finger and thumb and sniffing at
"What does this mean? H'mm" said he. "So far as I can ascertain it is an
attempt to write extremely corrupt Greek on the part"--here he glared at
me with intention--"of an extremely illiterate--ah--person." He read
slowly from the paper "_Pollock Erckmann Tauchnitz Henniker_"-four
names familiar to me.
"Can you tell me what the corruption is supposed to mean--the gist of the
thing?" I asked.
"I have been--many times--overcome with weariness in this particular
employment. That is the meaning." He returned me the paper and I fled
without a word of thanks explanation or apology.
I might have been excused for forgetting much. To me of all men had been
given the chance to write the most marvelous tale in the world nothing
less than the story of a Greek galley-slave as told by himself. Small
wonder that his dreaming had seemed real to Charlie. The Fates that are so
careful to shut the doors of each successive life behind us had in this
case been neglectful and Charlie was looking though that he did not
know where never man had been permitted to look with full knowledge since
Time began. Above all he was absolutely ignorant of the knowledge sold to
me for five pounds; and he would retain that ignorance for bank-clerks do
not understand metempsychosis and a sound commercial education does not
include Greek. He would supply me--here I capered among the dumb gods of
Egypt and laughed in their battered faces--with material to make my tale
sure--so sure that the world would hail it as an impudent and vamped
fiction. And I--I alone would know that it was absolutely and literally
true. I--I alone held this jewel to my hand for the cutting and polishing.
Therefore I danced again among the gods till a policeman saw me and took
steps in my direction.
It remained now only to encourage Charlie to talk and here there was no
difficulty. But I had forgotten those accursed books of poetry. He came to
me time after time as useless as a surcharged phonograph--drunk on Byron
Shelley or Keats. Knowing now what the boy had been in his past lives
and desperately anxious not to lose one word of his babble I could not
hide from him my respect and interest. He misconstrued both into respect
for the present soul of Charlie Mears to whom life was as new as it was
to Adam and interest in his readings; and stretched my patience to