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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Survivor - Chapter 12. The Man Who Nearly Went Under
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The Survivor - Chapter 12. The Man Who Nearly Went Under Post by :anitaandeverett Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :820

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The Survivor - Chapter 12. The Man Who Nearly Went Under

CHAPTER XII. THE MAN WHO NEARLY WENT UNDER

At midnight a man sat writing at a desk in a corner of a great room full of hanging lights, a hive of industry. All around him was the clicking of typewriters, the monotonous dictation of reporters, the tinkling of telephone bells. When they had set him down here, they had asked him whether the noises would disturb him, but he had only smiled grimly. They brought him pen and paper and a box of cigarettes--which he ignored. Then they left him alone, and no sound in the great room was more constant than the scratching of his pen across the paper.

As the first page fluttered from his fingers he bent for a moment his head, and his pen was held in nerveless fingers. Since he had come to London, sanguine, buoyant, light-hearted, this was the first time he had written a line for which he expected payment. The irony of it was borne in upon him with swift, unresisting agony. This was the first fruit of his brain, this passionate rending aside of the curtain, which hung like a shroud before the grim horrors of that seething lower world of misery. In his earlier work there had been a certain delicate fancifulness, an airy grace of diction and description, a very curious heritage of a man brought up in the narrowest of lines, where every influence had been a constraint. There was nothing of that in the words which were leaping now hot from his heart. Yet he knew very well that he was writing as a man inspired.

That was his only pause. Midnight struck, one and two o'clock, but his pen only flew the faster. Many curious glances were cast upon him, the man in rags with the burning eyes, who wrote as though possessed by some inexorcisable demon. At last Rawlinson came softly to his side and took up a handful of the wet sheets. He was smoking a cigarette, for his own labours were nearly over, but as he read it burned out between his fingers. He beckoned to another man, and silently passed him some of the sheets. They drew a little on one side.

"Wonderful," the other man whispered, in a tone of rare enthusiasm. "Who on earth is he?"

Rawlinson shook his head.

"No idea. He came here like that--nearly fainted before my eyes--wanted to write something in Austin's line--looked as though he could do it too. I gave him half a sovereign to get something to eat, and told him to come back. There he's been ever since--nearly three hours. What a study for one of those lurid sketches of Forbes' as he sits now."

"I never read anything like it," the newcomer said. "He's a magnificent find. How on earth did a man who can do work like that get into such a state?"

Rawlinson shrugged his shoulders.

"Who can tell. Not drink, I should say. Laziness perhaps, or ill-luck. I only know that to-night he has written his way on to the staff of this paper."

The other man was watching Douglas as though fascinated.

"He has written his way into greater things," he murmured. "It makes one feel like a hackneyed 'penny-a-liner' to read work like that."

"He's about done up," Rawlinson said. "Do you think I ought to stop him?"

"Not likely. If there's such a thing in the world as inspiration he's got it now. Don't miss a line. Let him write till he faints, but have some one watch him and give him a stiff whiskey and soda directly he stops."

"I shall stay myself," Rawlinson said. "It's an 'off' day to-morrow, anyhow. Come and have a drink."

From behind and below came the roar of machinery, rolls of wet proofs came flooding into the room at every moment. Now and then a hansom set down a belated reporter, who passed swiftly in to his work, taking off his coat as he went. Outside the sparrows began to chirp, dawn lightened the sky, and strange gleams of light stole into the vast room. Then suddenly from Douglas's desk came a sound.

Rawlinson rushed up too late to save him. Douglas had swayed for a moment and then fallen over sideways. He lay upon the ground a huddled heap, white and motionless.

They laid him flat upon his back, undid his clothing, and sent for a doctor. A window a few yards away was thrown up and a rush of cold, fresh air streamed into the room. But for all they could do Douglas never moved, and his face was like the face of a dead man. Rawlinson stood up, horribly anxious, and gave way to the doctor, who felt his heart and looked grave. For an hour the pendulum swung backwards and forwards between life and death. Then the doctor stood up with a sigh of relief.

"He'll do now," he said; "but it was a narrow squeak."

"Exhaustion?" Rawlinson asked.

"Starvation," the doctor answered grimly. "The man has been sober all his life, and a careful liver, or he would be dead now. What are you going to do with him? It'll take him a day or two to pull round."

"Whatever you advise," Rawlinson answered.

"Has he any money?"

"You can treat him as though he were a millionaire," Rawlinson answered. "Give him every chance. The _Daily Courier pays cheerfully."

* * * * *

They moved him into the private ward of a great hospital, where patients with complicated disorders and bottomless purses were sometimes treated, but where never before a man had come suffering from starvation. Everything that science and careful nursing could do, was done for him, and in a few days be astonished them all by sitting up in bed suddenly and demanding to know what had happened. He listened without emotion, he heard the generous message from the _Daily Courier which, a month ago, would have set every pulse in his body tingling with excitement, without comment. He grew rapidly stronger, but side by side with his physical improvement came a curious mental lassitude, a weariness of mind which made him content to lie and watch the housetops and the clouds, with never a desire to move nor to step back once more into life. The old enthusiasms seemed chilled out of him. They showed him his work in print, told him that he had stirred millions of his fellow-creatures as nothing of the sort had ever done before, that everywhere people were talking of him and his wonderful work. He only smiled faintly and looked once more at the clouds. They left paper and pens upon his table. He looked at them without interest, and they remained untouched, Rawlinson himself called daily to inquire, and one day the doctor sent for him.

"Your _protege is physically all right now," he said. "He is suffering simply from shock. I should say that he had a fearful time struggling before he went down, and it will be a matter of time before he's himself again.

"All right," Rawlinson said. "Do all you can for him."

"I was going to suggest," the doctor said, "that one of us puts it delicately to him that he's a considerable expense to you. It needs something like that to stir him up. He could put on his hat and walk out of the place to-morrow if he liked."

"Not for the world," Rawlinson answered promptly. "If he was costing us fifty guineas a week instead of ten, we should be perfectly satisfied. Let him stay till he feels like moving. Then we'll send him to the sea, if he'll go."

The doctor laughed.

"You're great people, Rawlinson," he said. "Not many philanthropists like you."

"It's not philanthropy," the sub-editor answered. "If you asked me to put into L. s. d. what those articles were worth to us, I couldn't tell you. But I can tell you this. We've paid thousands down more than once, for an advertisement which wasn't worth half so much as those few sheets of manuscript. We've an endless purse, but there's a short supply of what we want to buy--originality. If we come across it we don't let it go easily, I can tell you."

So Douglas was left undisturbed. Then one morning he woke up to find his room a bower of roses, roses whose perfume and beauty took his breath away. The nurse, who had tended a prince, said she had never seen anything like them before. Douglas looked at them for a while fascinated, stooped down and bathed his face in the blossoms. When he spoke there was a change. One sense at least was revived in him--his love for things beautiful.

"Where did they come from?" he asked.

The nurse smiled.

"A lady heft them yesterday," she said. "She drove up and stayed for some time with the doctor. I believe that she is coming again to-day."

Douglas made no remark. Only the nurse smiled as she noticed him linger a little over his dressing, and look for the first time with interest at the clothes which had been sent in for him. Towards midday he grew restless. Early in the afternoon there was a soft tap at the door.

"May I come in?"

The nurse opened the door. There was a rustle of draperies, and to Douglas it seemed as though the room was suddenly full of wonderful colour. A new life flowed in his veins. It was Emily de Reuss who came towards him with outstretched hands.

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