THE MORNING ARGUS CREATES A SENSATION—A NEW EDITOR; MR. SLIMMER THE POET—AN OBITUARY DEPARTMENT—MR. SLIMMER ON DEATH—EXTRAORDINARY SCENE IN THE SANCTUM OF COLONEL BANGS—INDIGNANT ADVERTISERS—THE COLONEL VIOLENTLY ASSAILED—OBSERVATIONS OF THE POET—THE FINAL CATASTROPHE—MYSTERIOUS CONDUCT OF BOB PARKER—THE ACCIDENT ON MAGRUDER'S PORCH—MRS. ADELER ON THE SUBJECT OF OBITUARY POETRY IN GENERAL.
RATHER unusual sensation has been excited in the village by The Morning Argus within a day or two; and while most of the readers of that wonderful sheet have thus been supplied with amusement, the soul of the editor has been filled with gloom and wrath and despair. Colonel Bangs recently determined to engage an assistant to take the place made vacant by the retirement of the eminent art-critic, Mr. Murphy, and he found in one of the lower counties of the State a person who appeared to him to be suitable. The name of the new man is Slimmer. He has often contributed to the Argus verses of a distressing character, and I suppose Bangs must have become acquainted with him through the medium of the correspondence thus begun. No one in the world but Bangs would ever have selected such a poet for an editorial position. But Bangs is singular—he is exceptional. He never operates in accordance with any known laws, and he is more than likely to do any given thing in such a fashion as no other person could possibly have adopted for the purpose. As the Argus is also sui generis, perhaps Bangs does right to conduct it in a peculiar manner. But he made a mistake when he employed Mr. Slimmer.
The colonel, in his own small way, is tolerably shrewd. He had observed the disposition of persons who have been bereaved of their relatives to give expression to their feelings in verse, and it occurred to him that it might be profitable to use Slimmer's poetical talent in such a way as to make the Argus a very popular vehicle for the conveyance to the public of notices of deaths. That kind of intelligence, he well knew, is especially interesting to a very large class of readers, and he believed that if he could offer to each advertiser a gratuitous verse to accompany the obituary paragraph, the Argus would not only attract advertisements of that description from the country round about the village, but it would secure a much larger circulation.
When Mr. Slimmer arrived, therefore, and entered upon the performance of his duties, Colonel Bangs explained his theory to the poet, and suggested that whenever a death-notice reached the office, he should immediately write a rhyme or two which should express the sentiments most suitable to the occasion.
"You understand, Mr. Slimmer," said the colonel, "that when the death of an individual is announced I want you, as it were, to cheer the members of the afflicted family with the resources of your noble art. I wish you to throw yourself, you may say, into their situation, and to give them, f'r instance, a few lines about the deceased which will seem to be the expression of the emotion which agitates the breasts of the bereaved."
"To lighten the gloom in a certain sense," said Mr. Slimmer, "and to—"
"Precisely," exclaimed Colonel Bangs. "Lighten the gloom. Do not mourn over the departed, but rather take a joyous view of death, which, after all, Mr. Slimmer, is, as it were, but the entrance to a better life. Therefore, I wish you to touch the heart-strings of the afflicted with a tender hand, and to endeavor, f'r instance, to divert their minds from contemplation of the horrors of the tomb."
"Refrain from despondency, I suppose, and lift their thoughts to—"
"Just so! And at the same time combine elevating sentiment with such practical information as you can obtain from the advertisement. Throw a glamour of poesy, f'r instance, over the commonplace details of the every-day life of the deceased. People are fond of minute descriptions. Some facts useful for this purpose may be obtained from the man who brings the notice to the office; others you may perhaps be able to supply from your imagination."
"I think I can do it first rate," said Mr. Slimmer.
"But, above all," continued the colonel, "try always to take a bright view of the matter. Cause the sunshine of smiles, as it were, to burst through the tempest of tears; and if we don't make The Morning Argus hum around this town, it will be queer."
Mr. Slimmer had charge of the editorial department the next day during the absence of Colonel Bangs in Wilmington. Throughout the afternoon and evening death-notices arrived; and when one would reach Mr. Slimmer's desk, he would lock the door, place the fingers of his left hand among his hair and agonize until he succeeded in completing a verse that seemed to him to accord with his instructions.
The next morning Mr. Slimmer proceeded calmly to the office for the purpose of embalming in sympathetic verse the memories of other departed ones. As he came near to the establishment he observed a crowd of people in front of it, struggling to get into the door. Ascending some steps upon the other side of the street, he overlooked the crowd, and could see within the office the clerks selling papers as fast as they could handle them, while the mob pushed and yelled in frantic efforts to obtain copies, the presses in the cellar meanwhile clanging furiously. Standing upon the curbstone in front of the office there was a long row of men, each of whom was engaged in reading The Morning Argus with an earnestness that Mr. Slimmer had never before seen displayed by the patrons of that sheet. The bard concluded that either his poetry had touched a sympathetic chord in the popular heart, or that an appalling disaster had occurred in some quarter of the globe.
He went around to the back of the office and ascended to the editorial rooms. As he approached the sanctum, loud voices were heard within. Mr. Slimmer determined to ascertain the cause before entering. He obtained a chair, and placing it by the side door, he mounted and peeped over the door through the transom. There sat Colonel Bangs, holding The Morning Argus in both hands, while the fringe which grew in a semicircle around the edge of his bald head stood straight out, until he seemed to resemble a gigantic gun-swab. Two or three persons stood in front of him in threatening attitudes. Slimmer heard one of them say:
"My name is McGlue, sir!—William McGlue! I am a brother of the late Alexander McGlue. I picked up your paper this morning, and perceived in it an outrageous insult to my deceased relative, and I have come around to demand, sir, WHAT YOU MEAN by the following infamous language:
"'The death-angel smote Alexander McGlue,
And gave him protracted repose;
He wore a checked shirt and a Number Nine shoe,
And he had a pink wart on his nose.
No doubt he is happier dwelling in space
Over there on the evergreen shore.
His friends are informed that his funeral takes place
Precisely at quarter-past four.'
"This is simply diabolical! My late brother had no wart on his nose, sir. He had upon his nose neither a pink wart nor a green wart, nor a cream-colored wart, nor a wart of any other color. It is a slander! It is a gratuitous insult to my family, and I distinctly want you to say what do you mean by such conduct?"
"Really, sir," said Bangs, "it is a mistake. This is the horrible work of a miscreant in whom I reposed perfect confidence. He shall be punished by my own hand for this outrage. A pink wart! Awful! sir—awful! The miserable scoundrel shall suffer for this—he shall, indeed!"
"How could I know," murmured Mr. Slimmer to the foreman, who with him was listening, "that the corpse hadn't a pink wart? I used to know a man named McGlue, and he had one, and I thought all the McGlues had. This comes of irregularities in families."
"And who," said another man, addressing the editor, "authorized you to print this hideous stuff about my deceased son? Do you mean to say, Bangs, that it was not with your authority that your low comedian inserted with my advertisement the following scandalous burlesque? Listen to this:
"'Willie had a purple monkey climbing on a yellow stick,
And when he sucked the paint all off it made him deathly sick;
And in his latest hours he clasped that monkey in his hand,
And bade good-bye to earth and went into a better land.
'Oh! no more he'll shoot his sister with his little wooden gun;
And no more he'll twist the pussy's tail and make her yowl, for fun.
The pussy's tail now stands out straight; the gun is laid aside;
The monkey doesn't jump around since little Willie died.'
"The atrocious character of this libel will appear when I say that my son was twenty years old, and that he died of liver complaint."
"Infamous!—utterly infamous!" groaned the editor as he cast his eyes over the lines. "And the wretch who did this still remains unpunished! It is too much!"
"And yet," whispered Slimmer to the foreman, "he told me to lighten the gloom and to cheer the afflicted family with the resources of my art; and I certainly thought that idea about the monkey would have that effect, somehow. Bangs is ungrateful!"
Just then there was a knock at the door, and a woman entered, crying.
"Are you the editor?" she inquired of Colonel Bangs, Bangs said he was.
"W-w-well!" she said, in a voice broken by sobs, "wh-what d'you mean by publishing this kind of poetry about m-my child? M-my name is Sm-Smith; and wh-when I looked this m-morning for the notice of Johnny's d-death in your paper, I saw this scandalous verse:
"'Four doctors tackled Johnny Smith—
They blistered and they bled him;
With squills and anti-bilious pills
And ipecac. they fed him.
They stirred him up with calomel,
And tried to move his liver;
But all in vain—his little soul
Was wafted o'er The River.'
It's false! false! and mean! Johnny only had one doctor. And they d-didn't bl-bleed him and b-blister him. It's a wicked falsehood, and you're a hard-hearted brute f-f-for printing it!"
"Madam, I shall go crazy!" exclaimed Bangs. "This is not my work. It is the work of a villain whom I will slay with my own hand as soon as he comes in. Madam, the miserable outcast shall die!"
"Strange! strange!" said Slimmer. "And this man told me to combine elevating sentiment with practical information. If the information concerning the squills and ipecac. is not practical, I have misunderstood the use of that word. And if young Smith didn't have four doctors, it was an outrage. He ought to have had them, and they ought to have excited his liver. Thus it is that human life is sacrificed to carelessness."
At this juncture the sheriff entered, his brow clothed with thunder. He had a copy of The Morning Argus in his hand, He approached the editor, and pointing to a death-notice, said,
"Read that outrageous burlesque, and tell me the name of the writer, so that I can chastise him."
The editor read as follows:
"We have lost our little Hanner in a very painful manner,
And we often asked, How can her harsh sufferings be borne?
When her death was first reported, her aunt got up and snorted
With the grief that she supported, for it made her feel forlorn.
"She was such a little seraph that her father, who is sheriff,
Really doesn't seem to care if he ne'er smiles in life again.
She has gone, we hope, to heaven, at the early age of seven
(Funeral starts off at eleven), where she'll nevermore have pain."
"As a consequence of this, I withdraw all the county advertising from your paper. A man who could trifle in this manner with the feelings of a parent is a savage and a scoundrel!"
As the sheriff went out, Colonel Bangs placed his head upon the table and groaned.
"Really," Mr. Slimmer said, "that person must be deranged. I tried, in his case, to put myself in his place, and to write as if I was one of the family, according to instructions. The verses are beautiful. That allusion to the grief of the aunt, particularly, seemed to me to be very happy. It expresses violent emotion with a felicitous combination of sweetness and force. These people have no soul—no appreciation of the beautiful in art."
While the poet mused, hurried steps were heard upon the stairs, and in a moment a middle-aged man dashed in abruptly, and seizing the colonel's scattered hair, bumped his prostrate head against the table three or four times with considerable force. Having expended the violence of his emotion in this manner, he held the editor's head down with one hand, shaking it occasionally by way of emphasis, and with the other hand seized the paper and said,
"You disgraceful old reprobate! You disgusting vampire! You hoary-headed old ghoul! What d'you mean by putting such stuff as this in your paper about my deceased son? What d'you mean by printing such awful doggerel as this, you depraved and dissolute ink-slinger—you imbecile quill-driver, you!
"’Oh! bury Bartholomew out in the woods,
In a beautiful hole in the ground,
Where the bumble-bees buzz and the woodpeckers sing,
And the straddle-bugs tumble around;
So that, in winter, when the snow and the slush
Have covered his last little bed,
His brother Artemas can go out with Jane
And visit the place with his sled'
"I'll teach you to talk about straddle-bugs! I'll instruct you about slush! I'll enlighten your insane old intellect on the subject of singing woodpeckers! What do you know about Jane and Artemas, you wretched buccaneer, you despicable butcher of the English language? Go out with a sled! I'll carry you out in a hearse before I'm done with you, you deplorable lunatic!"
At the end of every phrase the visitor gave the editor's head a fresh knock against the table. When the exercise was ended, Colonel Bangs explained and apologized in the humblest manner, promising at the same time to give his assailant a chance to flog Mr. Slimmer, who was expected to arrive in a few moments.
"The treachery of this man," murmured the poet to the foreman, "is dreadful. Didn't he desire me to throw a glamour of poesy over commonplace details? But for that I should never have thought of alluding to woodpeckers and bugs, and other children of Nature. The man objects to the remarks about the sled. Can the idiot know that it was necessary to have a rhyme for 'bed'? Can he suppose that I could write poetry without rhymes? The man is a lunatic! He ought not to be at large!"
Hardly had the indignant and energetic parent of Bartholomew departed when a man with red hair and a ferocious glare in his eyes entered, carrying a club and accompanied by a savage-looking dog.
"I want to see the editor," he shouted.
A ghastly pallor overspread the colonel's face, and he said,
"The editor is not in."
"Well, when will he be in, then?"
"Not for a week—for a month—for a year—for ever! He will never come in any more!" screamed Bangs. "He has gone to South America, with the intention to remain there during the rest of his life. He has departed. He has fled. If you want to see him, you had better follow him to the equator. He will be glad to see you. I would advise you, as a friend, to take the next boat—to start at once."
"That is unfortunate," said the man; "I came all the way from Delaware City for the purpose of battering him up a lot with this club."
"He will be sorry," said Bangs, sarcastically. "He will regret missing you. I will write to him, and mention that you dropped in.
"My name is McFadden," said the man. "I came to break the head of the man who wrote that obituary poetry about my wife. If you don't tell me who perpetrated the following, I'll break yours for you. Where's the man who wrote this? Pay attention:
"'Mrs. McFadden has gone from this life;
She has left all its sorrows and cares;
She caught the rheumatics in both of her legs
While scrubbing the cellar and stairs.
They put mustard-plasters upon her in vain;
They bathed her with whisky and rum;
But Thursday her spirit departed, and left
Her body entirely numb.'"
"The man who held the late Mrs. McFadden up to the scorn of an unsympathetic world in that shocking manner," said the editor, "is named James B. Slimmer. He boards in Blank street, fourth door from the corner. I would advise you to call on him and avenge Mrs. McFadden's wrongs with an intermixture of club and dog-bites."
"And this," sighed the poet, outside the door, "is the man who told me to divert McFadden's mind from contemplation of the horrors of the tomb. It was this monster who counseled me to make the sunshine of McFadden's smiles burst through the tempest of McFadden's tears. If that redheaded monster couldn't smile over that allusion to whisky and rum, if those remarks about the rheumatism in her legs could not divert his mind from the horrors of the tomb, was it my fault? McFadden grovels! He knows no more about poetry than a mule knows about the Shorter Catechism."
The poet determined to leave before any more criticisms were made upon his performances. He jumped down from his chair and crept softly toward the back staircase.
The story told by the foreman relates that Colonel Bangs at the same instant resolved to escape any further persecution, and he moved off in the direction taken by the poet. The two met upon the landing, and the colonel was about to begin his quarrel with Slimmer, when an enraged old woman who had been groping her way up stairs suddenly plunged her umbrella at Bangs, and held him in the corner while she handed a copy of the Argus to Slimmer, and pointing to a certain stanza, asked him to read it aloud. He did so in a somewhat tremulous voice and with frightened glances at the enraged colonel. The verse was as follows:
"Little Alexander's dead;
Jam him in a coffin;
Don't have as good a chance
For a fun'ral often.
Rush his body right around
To the cemetery;
Drop him in the sepulcher
With his Uncle Jerry."
The colonel's assailant accompanied the recitation with such energetic remarks as these:
"Oh, you willin! D'you hear that, you wretch? What d'you mean by writin' of my grandson in that way? Take that, you serpint! Oh, you wiper, you! tryin' to break a lone widder's heart with such scand'lus lies as them! There, you willin! I kemmere to hammer you well with this here umbreller, you owdacious wiper, you! Take that, and that, you wile, indecent, disgustin' wagabone! When you know well enough that Aleck never had no Uncle Jerry, and never had no uncle in no sepulchre anyhow, you wile wretch, you!"
When Mr. Slimmer had concluded his portion of the entertainment, he left the colonel in the hands of the enemy and fled. He has not been seen in New Castle since that day, and it is supposed that he has returned to Sussex county for the purpose of continuing in private his dalliance with the Muses. Colonel Bangs appears to have abandoned the idea of establishing a department of obituary poetry, and the Argus has resumed its accustomed aspect of dreariness.
It may fairly boast, however, that once during its career it has produced a profound impression upon the community.
Mr. Bob Parker came home at a very late hour last night; and when I opened the front door to let him in, he muttered something to the effect that he was "sorry for being out so late." Then he pushed by me suddenly and went up stairs in a very odd fashion, keeping his face as much as possible toward the door, where I remained standing, astonished at his very strange behavior. When I closed the door and went to my room, it occurred to me that something of a serious nature might have happened; and impelled partly by curiosity and partly by a desire to be of service, I knocked at Bob's door.
"Anything the matter?" I inquired.
"Oh no. I was detained down town," replied Bob.
"I can't do anything for you, then?"
"No; I'll be in bed in a couple of minutes."
"You acted so peculiarly when you came in that I thought you might be ill."
"I was never better in my life. I went up stairs that way because I was tired."
"A very extraordinary effect of fatigue," I said.
"I say!" cried Bob, "don't say anything to your wife about it. There's no use of getting up an excitement about nothing."
I went to bed convinced that something was wrong, and determined to compel Bob to confess on the morrow what it was. After breakfast we sat smoking together on the porch, and then I remarked:
“Bob, I wish you to tell me plainly what you meant by that extraordinary caper on the stairs last night. I think I ought to know. I don't want to meddle with your private affairs, but it seems to me only the proper thing for you to give me a chance to advise you if you are in trouble of any kind. And then you know I am occupying just now a sort of a parental relation to you, and I want to overhaul you if you have been doing anything wrong."
"I don't mind explaining the matter to you," replied Bob. "It don't amount to much, anyhow, but it's a little rough on a fellow, and I'd rather not have the whole town discussing it."
"You know old Magruder's? Well, I went around there last night to see Bessie; and as it was a pleasant evening, we thought we would remain out on the porch. She sat in a chair near the edge, and I placed myself at her feet on one of the low wooden steps in front. We stayed there talking about various things and having a pretty fair time, as a matter of course, until about nine o'clock, when I said I thought I'd have to go."
"You came home later, I think."
"Well, you know, some mutton-headed carpenter had been there during the day mending the rustic chairs on the porch, and he must have put his glue-pot down on the spot where I sat, for when I tried to rise I found I couldn't budge."
"You and Cooley's boy seem to have a fondness for that particular kind of adventure."
"Just so. And when I made an effort to get upon my feet, Bessie said; 'Don't be in a hurry; it's early yet,' and I told her I believed I would stay a little while longer. So I sat there for about two hours, and during the frightful gaps in the conversation I busied myself thinking how I could get away without appearing ridiculous. It hurts a man's chances if he makes himself ridiculous before a woman he is fond of. So you see I didn't know whether to ask Bessie to go in the house while I partially disrobed and went home in Highland costume, or whether to give one terrific wrench and then proceed down the yard backward. I couldn't make up my mind; and as midnight approached, Bessie, who was dreadfully sleepy, said, at last, in utter despair, she would have to excuse herself for the rest of the evening.
"Then, you understand, I was nearly frantic, and I asked her suddenly if she thought her father would lend me his front steps for a few days. She looked sort of scared, and went in after old Magruder. When he came out, I made him stoop down while I explained the situation to him. He laughed and hunted up a hatchet and saw, and cut away the surrounding timber, so that I came home with only about a square foot of wood on my trousers. Very good of the old man, wasn't it, to smash up his steps in that manner? And the reason why I kind of sidled up stairs was that I feared you'd see that wooden patch and want to know about it. That's all. Queer sort of an affair, wasn't it?"
Then Mr. Parker darted off for the purpose of overtaking Miss Magruder, who at that moment happened to pass upon the other side of the street.
As Mr. Parker disappeared, Mrs. Adeler came out upon the porch from the hall, and placing her hand upon my shoulder, said,
"You are not going to publish that story of the attempt of the Argus to establish a department of obituary poetry, are you?"
"Of course I am. Why shouldn't I?"
"Don't you fear it might perhaps give offence? There are some people, you know, who think it right to accompany a notice of death with verses. Besides, does it seem precisely proper to treat such a solemn subject as death with so much levity?"
"My dear, the persons who use those ridiculous rhymes which sometimes appear in the papers for the purpose of parading their grief before the public cannot have very nice sensibilities."
"Are you sure of that? At any rate, is it not possible that a verse which appears to you and me very silly may be the attempt of some bereaved mother to give in that forlorn fashion expression to her great agony? I shouldn't like to ridicule even so wretched a cry from a suffering heart."
"The suggestion is creditable to your goodness. But I would like to retain the story of Slimmer's folly, and I'll tell you what I will do: I will publish your opinions upon the subject, so that those who read the narrative may understand that the family of Adeler is not wholly careless of propriety." So here are the story and the protest; and those to whom the former is offensive may find what consolation can be obtained from the fact that the latter has been offered in advance of any expression of opinion by indignant readers whose grief for the departed tends to run into rhyme.