The cabinet, or whatever I am to call it, has looked stolidly at me from the corner of the library for years. It is nothing more than a row of pigeon-holes in which I keep my secret papers. At least, the man who sold it to me recommended it for this purpose, dwelling lovingly as he did so upon the strength of the lock. So I bought it–in those first days (how far away!) when I came to London to set the Thames on fire.
It was not long before I lost the key. I made one or two half-hearted efforts to get into it with a button-hook; but, finding that the lock lived up to its reputation, I resigned myself to regarding it for the future as an article for ornament, not for use. In this capacity it has followed me about from house to house. As an ornament it is without beauty, and many people have urged me to throw it away. My answer has been that it contained my secret papers. Some day I would get a locksmith to open it, and we should see what we should see.
The war being over, I came into the library and sat down at my desk. Perhaps it was not too late, even now, to set the Thames on fire. I would write an incendiary article on–what? The cabinet caught my eye. I went idly up to it and pulled at the drawers, before I remembered that it was locked. And suddenly I was annoyed with it for being locked; the more I pulled at it, the more I was annoyed; and I ended up by telling it with some heat that, if it persisted in its defiant attitude, I would shoot it down with my revolver. (This is how the hero breaks his way into the room wherein the heroine is immured, and I have often envied him.)
However, the revolver was not necessary. The lock surrendered, after a short struggle, to the poker. For the first time for seventeen years my secret papers were before me. Can you not imagine how eagerly I went through them?
They were a strange collection, these trifles which had (I suppose) seemed so important to me seventeen years ago. There was the inevitable dance programme, covered with initials which must have stirred me delightfully once, but now left me cold. There was a receipt from a Cambridge tailor, my last outstanding Cambridge bill, perhaps–preserved as a sign that I was now free. There was a notice of a short-story competition, stories not to exceed 5000 words; another of a short-sketch competition, sketches not to exceed 1200 words. Apparently I was prepared to write you anything in those days. There was an autograph of a famous man; “Many thanks” and the signature on a postcard, I suppose I had told him that I admired his style, or that I proposed to model myself on him, or had bought his last book, or–who knows? At any rate, he had thanked me.
There were letters from editors; editors whom I know well now, but who in those distant days addressed me as “Sir,” and were mine faithfully. They regretted that they could not use the present contribution, but hoped that I would continue to write. I continued to write. Trusting that I would persevere, they were mine very truly. I persevered. Now they are mine ever. From what a long way off those letters have come. “Dear Sir,” the Great Man wrote to me, and overawed I locked the precious letter up. Yesterday I smacked him on the back.
There was a list of my first fifteen contributions to the Press. Three of them were accepted; two of the three appeared in a paper which immediately went bankrupt. For the fifteenth I seem to have received fifteen shillings. A shilling an attempt, you see, for those early efforts to set the Thames on fire. Reading the titles of them, I am not surprised. One was called (I blush to record it) “The Diary of a Free-Lance.” Was there ever a literary aspirant who did not begin with just such an article on just such a subject?–a subject so engagingly fresh to himself, so hackneyed to the editor. I have returned a hundred of them since without a word of encouragement to the writers, blissfully forgetful of the fact (now brought to light) that I, too, had begun like that.
And last of all, in this locked cabinet I came upon an actual contribution, one of the fifteen which had gone the rounds and had been put away, perhaps for a re-writing…. Dear, dear! I must have been very hopeful in those days. Youth and hope–I am afraid that those were my only qualifications for setting the Thames on fire.
Yet I was very scornful of editors seventeen years ago. The outsider, I held forth, was not given a chance; the young writer with fresh ideas was cold-shouldered. Well, well! Reading this early contribution of mine seventeen years later, reading again what editors had to say about it, I am no longer scornful of them. I can only wonder why they hoped that I would go on writing.
But I shall not throw the broken cabinet away, even though it is no longer available for secret papers. It must continue to sit in a corner of the library, a corrective against secret pride.