Story type: Literature
An Author was sitting at his Desk trying to pull himself together and grind out Any Old Thing that could be converted into Breakfast Food. It was his Off Day, however. His Brain felt as if some one had played a Mean Trick on him and substituted a Side-Order of Cauliflower. All he could do was to lean up against his Desk and make marks and Piffle his Time away. Between Scribbles he wrote a few Verses about, “When Willie Came to say Good Night.” It was a Sad Effort. He made it almost as Salty as a Mother Song and filled it with Papa and Mamma and the Patter of Baby Feet. He used Love-Light and the Evening Prayer and the Heart-Strings and other venerable Paraphernalia. He had to commit Infanticide to make it Weepy enough for the last Stanza. The Author wrote this Stuff merely to Get Back at himself and see how Sloppy he could be. He did not intend to Print it, because he was not a Vendor of Death-Beds, and he shrank from making any violent Assault on the Sensibilities. So he tossed the Idle Product into the Waste-Basket and wondered if he was biginning to lose his Mind. With that Poem in his Right Hand he could have walked into Bloomingdale and no Questions Asked.
While he was still Backing Up and Jockeying for a Fair Start at his Day’s Work, A Friend came in and sat on the Edge of the Desk, and told him to go right ahead and not pay any Attention.
Seeing the Crumpled Paper in the Basket, the Friend, who was Inquisitive, hooked it out and read the Lines. Presently, when the Author looked up, the Friend had big Tears rolling down his Cheeks and was Sniffling.
“This is the Best Thing you have ever done,” said the Friend. “My God, but it is Pathetic! It will certainly Appeal to any one who has lost a Child.”
“I have no desire to Manufacture any more Sorrow for the Bereaved,” said the Author. “They have had Trouble enough. If I have to deal in White Caskets or tap the Lachrymal Glands in order to thrash out an Income, I will cease being an Author and go back to Work.”
“But this Poem will touch any Heart,” insisted the Friend. “As soon as I got into it I began to Cry. You can get a Good Price for this.”
When it came down to a Business Basis, the Author Switched.
“Get what you can on it,” he said. “It seems a Shame to go and Market that kind of Scroll-Work; still if it hits you, it may be Bad enough to affect others having the same Shape of Head. I need the Money and I have no Shame.”
Thereupon the Friend sent the Verses to the Publisher of a Family Monthly that Percolates into every Postoffice in the Country. In a few Days there came a tear-stained Acceptance and a Check. The Author said it was just like Finding $22.50, and he thought that was the End of it.
But when the Verses came out in the Monthly he began to get Letters from all parts of the United States telling him how much Suffering and Opening of Old Wounds had been caused by his little Poem about Willie and how Proud he ought to be. Many who wrote expressed Sympathy for him, and begged him to Bear Up. These Letters dazed the Author. He never had owned any Boy named Willie. He did not so much as Know a Boy named Willie. He lived in an Office Building with a lot of Stenographers and Bill Clerks. If he had been the Father of a Boy named Willie, and Willie had ever come to tell him “Good Night” when he was busy at Something Else, probably he would have jumped at Willie and snapped a piece out of his Arm. Just the Same, the Correspondents wrote to him from All Over, and said they could read Grief in every Line of his Grand Composition.
That was only the Get-Away. The next thing he knew, some Composer in Philadelphia had set the Verses to Music and they were sung on the Stage with colored Lantern-Slide Pictures of little Willie telling Papa “Good Night” in a Blue Flat with Lace Curtains on the Windows and a Souvenir Cabinet of Chauncey Olcott on the What-Not. The Song was sold at Music Stores, and the Author was invited out to Private Houses to hear it Sung, but he was Light on his Feet and Kept Away.
Several Newspapers sent for his Picture, and he was asked to write a Sunday Article telling how and why he did it. He was asked to Contribute Verses of the same General Character to various Periodicals. Sometimes he would get away by himself and read the Thing over again, and shake his Head and Remark: “Well, if they are Right, then I must be Wrong, but to me it is Punk.”
He had his Likeness printed in Advertisements which told the Public to read what the Author of “Willie’s Good Night” had to say about their Lithia Water. Some one named a light, free-smoking Five-Cent Cigar after him, and he began to see Weird Paintings on the Dead Walls, and was Ashamed to walk along those Streets.
It came out that one of the Frohmans wanted to Dramatize the Masterpiece, and it was Rumored that Stuart Robson, Modjeska, Thomas Q. Seabrooke, Maude Adams, Dave Warfield, and Walker Whiteside had been requested to play the Part of Willie.
Every morning the Author would get up and say to himself that it could not go on much longer. He felt sure that the Public would come to its Senses some Day, and get after him with a Rope, but it didn’t. His Fame continued to Spread and Increase. All those Persons who had not Read it claimed that they had, so as to be in Line, and he had the same old Floral Tributes handed to him Day after Day.
It was Terrible. He had gone to College and spent a large amount of Money irrigating and fertilizing his Mind, and he had Dreamed of writing Something that would be Strong enough for Charles Dudley Warner’s Library of the World’s Warmest Copy, in a Limited Edition of 20,000; but instead of landing with the Heavy-Weights he seemed Destined to achieve Greatness as the Author of a Boy’s Size Poem, bearing about the same Relation to the Literature of the Ages that a May Howard Window Hanger does to Pure Art. He was Famous until he couldn’t rest, but it was not the Brand he had Coveted.
He decided to Live It Down. He would Produce something Serious and Meritorious that would throw “Willie’s Good Night” into the Shade. So he labored for Two Years on a Novel that analyzed Social Conditions, and every Reviewer said that here was a Volume by the Author of “Willie’s Good Night.” The Purchasers of the Book expected to take it Home and Read it and Weep. When they found that it did not contain any Dark Skies or Headstones, they felt that they had been Bilked out of $1.50 each. It was Suggested that the Author of “Willie’s Good Night” was losing his Grip and seemed to have Written Himself Out.
He was not wholly Discouraged. He went out Lecturing on the Occult, just to prove to People that he had been Misjudged. The Local Chairman always introduced him as the Celebrated Author of “Willie’s Good Night.” Frequently he was Dragged away to a Home to meet all the Big Guns of one of these Towns that call a Lecture a Show. After he had been on Exhibition for a Half Hour or so, the same as the Albino or the Man with the Elastic Skin in the Main Curio Hall, the Host would clear a Space in the Center of the Room and announce that he was about to spring a Delightful Surprise on their Distinguished Guest. Little Fern, the Daughter of the County Recorder, was going to Speak “Willie’s Good Night.”
There are Times and Times, but those were the Times when he suffered Agony that went beyond the Limit.
The Author always knew the Verses were Bad enough to be Wicked, but he never guessed how Yellow they really were until he heard them recited by Little Girls who made the Full Stop at the Comma instead of the Period. He used to lose a Pound a Minute, and when he would start back to the Hotel his Shoes would be Full of Cold Perspiration. Finally, when he began to decline Invitations, against the advice of his Manager, it was said of him that he was Eccentric and appeared to have a Case of the Swell Head.
He had to retire into a Suburb, where he built a Wall around his Premises and put up Signs against Trespassing. He had a Chinaman for a Servant, because the Chinaman did not know he was an Author, but supposed him to be a Retired Porch-Climber.
Thus he was enabled to Forget for an Hour or Two at a Time.
MORAL: Refrain from Getting Gay with the Emotions.