Even the strongest men have their weak moments.
Peter Quentin once wrote a book. Many young men do, but usually with more disastrous results. Moreover he did it without saying a word to anyone, which is perhaps even more uncommon; and even the Saint did not hear about it until after the crime had been committed.
‘Next time you’re thinking of being rude to me,’ said Peter Quentin, on that night of revelation, ‘please remember that you’re talking to a budding novelist whose work has been compared to Dumas, Tolstoy, Conan Doyle and others.’
Simon Templar choked over his highball.
‘Only pansies bud,’ he said severely. ‘Novelists fester. Of course, it’s possible to be both.’
‘I mean it,’ insisted Peter seriously. ‘I was keeping it quiet until I heard the verdict, and I had a letter from the publishers today.’
There was no mistaking his earnestness; and the Saint regarded him with affectionate gloom. His vision of the future filled him with overwhelming pessimism. He had seen the fate of other young men – healthy, upright young men who had had a book published.
He had seen them tread the downhill path of pink shirts, velvet coats, long hair, quill pens, cocktail parties and beards, until finally they sank into the awful limbos of Bloomsbury and were no longer visible to the naked eye. The prospect of such a doom for anyone like Peter Quentin, who had been with him in so many bigger and better crimes, cast a shadow of great melancholy across his spirits.
‘Didn’t Kathleen try to stop you?’ he asked.
‘Of course not,’ said Peter proudly. ‘She helped me. I owe—’
‘—it all to her,’ said the Saint cynically. ‘All right. I know the line. But if you ever come out with “My Work” within my hearing, I shall throw you under a bus... You’d better let me see this letter. And order me some more Old Curio while I’m reading it – I need strength.’
He took the document with his fingertips, as if it were unclean, and opened it out on the bar. But after his first glance at the letter-head his twinkling blue eyes steadied abruptly, and he read the epistle through with more than ordinary interest.
We have now gone into your novel THE GAY ADVENTURER, and our readers report that it is very entertaining and ably written, with the verve of Dumas, the dramatic power of Tolstoy, and ingenuity of Conan Doyle.
We shall therefore be delighted to set up same in best small pica type to form a volume of about 320 p.p., machine on good antique paper, bind in red cloth with title in gold lettering, and put up in specially designed artistic wrapper, at cost to yourself of only £600 (Six Hundred Pounds) and to publish same at our own expense in the United Kingdom at a net price of 15/ (Fifteen Shillings); and believe it will form a most acceptable and popular volume which should command a wide sale.
We will further agree to send you on date of publication twelve presentation copies and to send copies for review to all principal magazines and newspapers; and further to pay you a royalty of 25% (twenty-five per cent) on all copies sold of this Work.
The work can be put in hand immediately on receipt of your acceptance of these terms.
Trusting to hear from you at your earliest convenience,
We beg to remain, dear Sir, Faithfully yours, for
HERBERT G. PARSTONE & Co.
Herbert G. Parstone,
Simon folded the letter and handed it back with a sigh of relief.
‘Okay, Peter,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I bought that one. What’s the swindle, and can I come in on it?’
‘I don’t know of any swindle,’ said Peter puzzledly. ‘What do you mean?’
The Saint frowned. ‘D’you mean to tell me you sent your book to Parstone in all seriousness?’
‘Of course I did. I saw an advertisement of his in some literary paper, and I don’t know much about publishers—’
‘You’ve never heard of him before?’
Simon picked up his glass and strengthened himself with a deep draught.
‘Herbert G. Parstone,’ he said, ‘is England’s premier exponent of the publishing racket. Since you don’t seem to know it, Peter, let me tell you that no reputable publisher in this or any other country publishes books at the author’s expense, except an occasional highly technical work which goes out for posterity rather than profit. I gather that your book is by no means technical. Therefore you don’t pay the publisher: he pays you – and if he’s any use he stands you expensive lunches as well.’
‘But Parstone offers to pay—’
‘A twenty-five per cent royalty. I know. Well, if you were something like a bestseller you might get that; but on a first novel no publisher would give you more than ten, and then he’d probably lose money. After six months Parstone would probably send you a statement showing a sale of two hundred copies, you’d get a cheque from him for thirty-seven pounds ten, and that’s the last trace you’d see of your six hundred quid. He’s simply trading on the fact that one out of every three people you meet thinks he could write a book if he tried, one out of every three of ’em try it, and one out of every three of those tries to get it published.
‘The very fact that a manuscript is sent to him tells him that the author is a potential sucker, because anyone who goes into the writing business seriously takes the trouble to find out a bit about publishers before he starts slinging his stuff around. The rest of his game is just playing on the vanity of mugs. And the mugs – mugs like yourself, Peter – old gents with political theories, hideous women with ghastly poems, schoolgirls with nauseating love stories – rush up to pour their money into his lap for the joy of seeing their repulsive tripe in print. I’ve known about Herbert for many years, old lad, but I never thought you’d be the sap to fall for him.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Peter glumly.
An elderly mouse-like man who was drinking at the bar beside him coughed apologetically and edged bashfully nearer.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ he said diffidently, ‘but your friend’s telling the truth.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Peter suspiciously. ‘I can usually guess when he’s telling the truth – he makes a face as if it hurt him.’
‘He isn’t pulling your leg this time, sir,’ said the man. ‘I happen to be a proof-reader at Parstone’s.’
The surprising thing about coincidences is that they so often happen. The mouse-like man was one of those amazing accidents on which the fate of nations may hinge, but there was no logical reason why he should not have been drinking at that bar as probably as at any other hostel in the district. And yet there is no doubt that if Mr Herbert Parstone could have foreseen the accident he would have bought that particular public house for the simple pleasure of closing it down lest any such coincidence should happen; but unhappily for him Mr Herbert Parstone was not a clairvoyant.
This proof-reader – the term, by the way, refers to the occupation and not necessarily to the alcoholic content of the man –had been with Parstone for twelve years, and he was ready for a change.
‘I was with Parstone when he was just a small jobbing printer,’ he said, ‘before he took up this publishing game. That’s all he is now, really – a printer. But he’s going to have to get along without me. In the last three years I’ve taken one cut after another, till I don’t earn enough money to feed myself properly; and I can’t stand it any longer. I’ve got four more months on my contract, but after that I’m going to take another job.’
‘Did you read my book?’ asked Peter.
The man shook his head.
‘Nobody read your book, sir – if you’ll excuse my telling you. It was just put on a shelf for three weeks, and after that Parstone sent you his usual letter. That’s what happens to everything that’s sent in to him. If he gets his money, the book goes straight into the shop, and the proof-reader’s the first man who has to wade through it. Parstone doesn’t care whether it’s written in Hindustani.’
‘But surely,’ protested Peter half-heartedly, ‘he couldn’t carry on a racket like that in broad daylight and get away with it?’
The reader looked at him with a rather tired smile on his mouse-like features.
‘It’s perfectly legal, sir. Parstone publishes the book. He prints copies and sends them around. It isn’t his fault if the reviewers won’t review it and the booksellers won’t buy it. He carries out his legal undertaking. But it’s a dirty business.’
After a considerably longer conversation, in the course of which a good deal more Scotch was consumed, Peter Quentin was convinced. He was so crestfallen on the way home that Simon took pity on him.
‘Let me read this opus,’ he said, ‘if you’ve got a spare copy. Maybe it isn’t so lousy, and if there’s anything in it we’ll send it along to some other place.’
He had the book the next day; and after ploughing through the first dozen pages his worst fears were realised. Peter Quentin was not destined to take his place in the genealogy of literature with Dumas, Tolstoy and Conan Doyle. The art of writing was not in him. His spelling had a grand simplicity that would have delighted the more progressive orthographists, his grammatical constructions followed in the footsteps of Gertrude Stein, and his punctuation marks seemed to have more connection with intervals for thought and opening beer-bottles than with the requirements of syntax. Moreover, like most first novels, it was embarrassingly personal.
It was this fact which made Simon follow it to the bitter end, for the hero of the story was one ‘Ivan Grail, the Robbin Hood of modern crime,’ who could without difficulty be identified with the Saint himself, his ‘beutiful wife’, and ‘Frank Morris his acomplis whos hard-bitten featurs consealed a very clever brain and witt’. Simon Templar swallowed all the flattering evidences of hero-worship that adorned the untidy pages, and actually blushed. But after he had reached the conclusion – inscribed ‘FINNIS’ in triumphant capitals – he did some heavy thinking.
Later on he saw Peter again.
‘What was it that bit your features so hard?’ he asked. ‘Did you try to kiss an alligator?’
Peter turned pink. ‘I had to describe them somehow,’ he said defensively.
‘You’re too modest,’ said the Saint, after inspecting him again. ‘They were not merely bitten – they were thoroughly chewed.’
‘Well, what about the book?’ said Peter hopefully. ‘Was it any good?’
‘It was lousy,’ Simon informed him, with the privileged candour of friendship. ‘It would have made Dumas turn in his grave. All the same, it may be more readable after I’ve revised it for you. And perhaps we will let Comrade Parstone publish it after all.’
Peter blinked. ‘But I thought—’
‘I have an idea,’ said the Saint. ‘Parstone has published dud books too long. It’s time he had a good one. Will you get your manuscript back from him, Peter – tell him you want to make a few corrections, and that you’ll send him his money and let him print it. For anyone who so successfully conceals a very clever brain and wit,’ he added cruelly, ‘there are much more profitable ways of employing them than writing books, as you ought to know.’
For two weeks after that the Saint sat at his typewriter for seven hours a day, hammering out page after page of neat manuscript at astonishing speed. He did not merely revise Peter Quentin’s story – he re-wrote it from cover to cover, and the result would certainly not have been recognised by its original creator.
The book was sent in again from his own address, and consequently Peter did not see the proofs. Simon Templar read them himself; and his ribs were aching long before he had finished.
The Gay Adventurer, by Peter Quentin, was formally pushed out upon a callous world about two months later. The Times did not notice it, the library buyers did not refill their fountain pens to sign the order forms, the lynx-eyed scouts of Hollywood did not rush in with open contracts; but nevertheless it was possible for a man with vast patience and dogged determination to procure a copy, by which achievement Mr Parstone had fulfilled the letter of his contract.
Simon Templar did not need to exercise patience and determination to obtain his copy, because the author’s presentation dozen came to his apartment; and it happened that Peter Quentin came there on the same morning.
Peter noticed the open parcel of books, and fell on them at once, whinnying like an eager stallion. But he had scarcely glanced over the first page when he turned to the Saint with wrathful eyes.
‘This isn’t my book at all,’ he shouted indignantly.
‘We’ll call it a collaboration if you like,’ said the Saint generously. ‘But I thought you might as well have the credit. My name is so famous already—’
Peter had been turning the pages frantically.
‘But this – this is awful!’ he expostulated. ‘It’s – it’s—’
‘Of course it is,’ agreed the Saint. ‘And that’s why you must never tell anyone that I had anything to do with it. When the case comes to court, I shall expect you to perjure yourself blue in the face on that subject.’
After the revelations that have been made in the early stages of this story, no one will imagine that on the same morning Mr Herbert Parstone was pacing feverishly up and down his office, quivering with anxiety and parental pride, stopping every now and then to peer at the latest circulation figures rushed in by scurrying office-boys and bawling frantic orders to an excited staff of secretaries, salesmen, shippers, clerks, exporters and truck drivers.
As a matter of fact, even the most important and reputable publishers do not behave like that. They are usually too busy concentrating on mastering that loose shoulder and smooth follow-through which carries the ball well over that nasty bunker on the way to the fourteenth.
Mr Herbert Parstone was not playing golf, because he had a bad cold; and he was in his office when the Saint called. The name on the card that was sent in to him was unfamiliar, but Mr Parstone never refused to see anyone who was kind enough to walk into his parlour.
He was a short ginger-haired man with the kind of stomach without which no morning coat and gold watch-chain can be seen to their best advantage; and the redness of his prominent nose was not entirely due to his temporary affliction.
‘Mr Teblar?’ he said, with great but obstructed geniality. ‘Please sit dowd. I dode thig I’ve had the pleasure of beetig you before, have I?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said the Saint pleasantly. ‘But any real pleasure is worth waiting for.’ He took the precious volume which he was carrying from under his arm, and held it up. ‘Did you publish this?’
Mr Parstone looked at it. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that is one of our publicashuds. A bost excelledd ad ibportad book, if I bay perbid byself to say so. A book, I bight say, which answers problebs which are dear to every wud of us today.’
‘It will certainly have some problems to answer,’ said the Saint; ‘and I expect they’ll be dear enough. Do you know the name of the principal character in this book? Do you know who this biography is alleged to be about?’
‘Biography?’ stammered Mr Parstone, blinking at the cover. ‘The book is a dovel. A work of fickshud. It is clearly explaid—’
‘The book is supposed to be a biography,’ said the Saint. ‘And do you know the name of the principal character?’
Mr Parstone’s brow creased with thought.
‘Pridcipal character?’ he repeated. ‘Led be see, led be see. I ought to dough, oughtud I?’ He blew his nose several times, sniffed, sighed, and spread out his hand uncertainly. ‘Iddn it abazing?’ he said. ‘The dabe was od the tip of by tug, but dow I cadd rebember id.’
‘The name is Simon Templar,’ said the Saint grimly; and Mr Parstone sat up.
‘What?’ he ejaculated.
Simon opened the book and showed him the name in plain print. Then he took it away to a chair and lighted a cigarette.
‘Rather rude of you, wasn’t it?’ he murmured.
‘Well, by dear Bister Teblar,’ said Parstone winningly. ‘I trust you are dot thinkig that any uncomblibendary referedds was intended. Far frob id. These rebarkable coidcidedces will happud. Ad yet it is dot every yug bad of your age who fides his dabe preserved for posterity id such a work as that. The hero of that book, as I rebember him, was a fellow of outstaddig charb—’
‘He was a low criminal,’ said the Saint virtuously. ‘Your memory is failing you, Herbert. Let me read you some of the best passages.’
He turned to a page he had marked.
‘Listen to this, Herbert,’ he said. ‘“Simon Templar was never particular about how he made money, so long as he made it. The drug traffic was only one of his many sources of income, and his conscience was never touched by the thought of the hundreds of lives he ruined by his insatiable avarice. Once, in a night club, he pointed out to me a fine and beautiful girl on whose lovely face the ravages of dope were already beginning to make their mark. ‘I’ve had two thousand pounds from her since I started her on the stuff,’ he said gloatingly, ‘and I’ll have five thousand more before it kills her.’ I could multiply instances of that kind by the score, and refrain only from fear of nauseating my readers. Sufficient, at least, has already been said to show what an unspeakable ruffian was this man who called himself the Saint.”’
However hard it might have been for Mr Parstone to place the name of Simon Templar, he was by no means ignorant of the Saint. His watery eyes popped halfway out of their sockets, and his jaw hardened at the same time.
‘So you’re the Saind?’ he said.
‘Of course,’ murmured Simon.
‘Id your own words, a low cribidal—’
Simon shook his head.
‘Oh, no, Herbert,’ he said. ‘By no means as low as that. My reputation may be bad, but it’s only rumour. You may whisper it to your friends, but the law doesn’t allow you to put it in writing. That’s libel. And you couldn’t even get Chief Inspector Teal to testify that my record would justify anything like the language this book of yours has used about me.
‘My sins were always fairly idealistic, and devoted to the squashing of beetles like yourself – not to trading in drugs and grinding the faces of the poor. But you haven’t heard anything like the whole of it. Listen to some more.’
He turned to another selected passage.
‘“The Saint”,’ he read, ‘“always seemed to derive a peculiar malicious pleasure from robbing and swindling those who could least afford to lose. To my dying day, I shall be haunted by the memory of the fiendish glee which distorted his face when he told me that he had stolen five pounds from a woman with seven children, who had scraped and saved for months to get the money together. He accepted the money from her as a fee for trying to trace the grave of her father, who had been reported ‘missing’ in 1943. Of course he never made any attempt to carry out his share of the bargain. He played this cruel trick on several occasions, and always with the same sadistic pleasure, which I believe meant far more to him than the actual cash which he derived from it.”’
‘Is that id the book too?’ asked Parstone hoarsely.
‘Naturally,’ said the Saint. ‘That’s what I’m reading it from. And there are lots more interesting things. Look here. “The bogus companies floated by Templar, in which thousands upon thousands of widows and orphans were deprived—”’
‘Wait!’ interrupted Parstone tremblingly. ‘This is terrible – a terrible coidcideds. The book will be withdrawd at wuds. Hardly eddywud will have had tibe to read it. Ad if eddy sball cobbensation I cad give—’
Simon closed his book with a smile and laid it on Mr Parstone’s desk.
‘Shall we say fifty thousand pounds?’ he suggested affably.
Mr Parstone’s face reddened to the verge of an apoplectic stroke, and he brought up his handkerchief with shaking hands.
‘How buch?’ he whispered.
‘Fifty thousand pounds,’ repeated the Saint. ‘After all, that’s a very small amount of damages to ask for a libel like this. If the case has to go to court, I think it will be admitted that never in the whole history of modern law has such a colossal libel been put on paper. If there is any crime under the sun of which I’m not accused in that book, I’ll sit down right now and eat it. And there are three hundred and twenty pages of it – eighty thousand words of continuous and unbridled insult. For a thing like that, Herbert, I think fifty thousand pounds is pretty cheap.’
‘You could’n get it,’ said Parstone harshly. ‘It’s the author’s liability—’
‘I know that clause,’ answered the Saint coolly, ‘and you may be interested to know that it has no legal value whatever. In a successful libel action, the author, printer and publisher are joint tortfeasors, and none of them can indemnify the other. Ask your solicitor. As a matter of fact,’ he added prophetically, ‘I don’t expect I shall be able to recover anything from the author, anyway. Authors are usually broke. But you are both the printer and the publisher, and I’m sure I can collect from you.’
Mr Parstone stared at him with blanched lips.
‘But fifty thousad pouds is ibpossible,’ he whined. ‘It would ruid be!’
‘That’s what I mean to do, dear old bird,’ said the Saint gently. ‘You’ve gone on swindling a lot of harmless idiots for too long already, and now I want you to see what it feels like when it happens to you.’
He stood up, and collected his hat.
‘I’ll leave you the book,’ he said, ‘in case you want to entertain yourself some more. But I’ve got another copy; and if I don’t receive your cheque by the first post on Friday morning it will go straight to my solicitors. And you can’t kid yourself about what that will mean.’
For a long time after he had gone Mr Herbert Parstone sat quivering in his chair. And then he reached out for the book and began to skim through its pages. And with every page his livid face went greyer. There was no doubt about it. Simon Templar had spoken the truth. The book was the most monumental libel that could ever have found its way into print. Parstone’s brain reeled before the accumulation of calumnies which it unfolded.
His furious ringing of the bell brought his secretary running.
‘Fide me that proof-reader!’ he howled. ‘Fide be the dab fool who passed this book!’ He flung the volume on to the floor at her feet. ‘Sed hib to be at wuds! I’ll show hib. I’ll bake hib suffer. By God, I’ll—’
The other things that Mr Parstone said he would do cannot be recorded in such a respectable publication as this.
His secretary picked up the book and looked at the title.
‘Mr Timmins left yesterday – he was the man you fired four months ago,’ she said; but even then Mr Parstone was no wiser.