THE Penny-Dreadfuls lived in the slums, far away from the Library Shelf, and the literary aristocrats who dwell there. They were a hardy family, and they multiplied and increased until there was not room enough for them in the slums, and some were perforce crowded into better surroundings. For instance, occasionally one would be found nestling under the pillow of some guileless Future President, or tucked carefully away under Sweet Sixteen’s best party gown !
Many of them attained eminence in the great Underworld in which they lived. There was The Hero of the Bloody Butcher Knife, whose supremacy as a curdler of the blood has never been disputed, as well as Bloodthirsty Bill, and that truly charming woman, Teresa, the Terror of the Gulch. The last two were supposed to have the power of freezing the marrow in your bones. This may or may not have been true, but at any rate the Penny - Dreadfuls were a vigorous clan, and went their way hacking and shooting right and left in a manner that would have exterminated any but a fictitious population.
At last, one day, the thing which happens sooner or later in all families, high or low, occurred. An Ambitious Child was born to them. A little later on, it so happened that this particular member of the Penny-Dreadfuls found himself in a musty second-hand bookshop, where many of the family before him had found an asylum. But being a Child of Destiny this one made the discovery that there were books and books. He noticed that the shelves were covered with rows of books in stiff covers, while he and his kind were thrown upon a table, under a card which bore the legend “ 3 for 5 cts.,” and he resented it. He continued to look about him, — or, as he would have said in those days, to “ rubber,”— with the usual results. He aspired ; and with a Penny-Dreadful, to aspire is to attain. He liked the idea of standing there with other books to hold him up, and his name in gilt letters on his back.
“ Help me up there, you fellows ! ” he bawled, not being restrained by any false delicacy. But the books only shrank more closely within their covers, looked straight ahead and pretended not to hear him.
Penny - Dreadful’s wrath boiled and seethed, and he started to pour forth a volley of billingsgate, when a dapper little man appeared before him and lifted a protesting hand.
“ If you want to get up there,” he said, in the crisp, clear accents of business, “ I can help you. But this is not the way to go about it.” There was an air of authority about him, and young Penny-Dreadful found himself listening respectfully.
“ I am a Publisher,” he continued tersely. “ You want to gain admission to the Four Hundred, to the Library Shelf. Then listen to me.
“ They,” with a comprehensive wave of the hand toward the volumes on the shelves, “ are only aristocrats by consent of the Gentle Reader. And between you and me, the Gentle Reader is beginning to be a trifle weary of them.”
He bestowed a droll wink upon young Penny-Dreadful, who felt a twinge of wicked satisfaction.
“ The Gentle Reader of to-day wants something lively and exciting. Your family will please him to death, once you are in the charmed circle. But in order to get there you must tone yourself down a bit,” he concluded warningly.
All the undisciplined fury of his kind flared up in Penny-Dreadful at this, and he remarked that he would — etc., etc., etc. — if he did anything of the sort! The Publisher remained cool and undisturbed at his outburst.
“ You are only stooping to conquer, you know,” he hinted calmly. “ You can be thoroughly yourself, but you must cultivate diplomacy. For instance, you will have to sacrifice your checked suit and diamond studs. But what is that, so long as you reserve the privilege of waging continual battle and meting out sudden death with a lavish hand ?” and he folded his arms, threw back his head, and waited defiantly for Penny-Dreadful’s reply.
“ G’won! ”
The Publisher descended from heroics to business, with a dull thud.
“ First you must secure a publisher with a reputation for conservatism. For thirty years,” he continued rapidly, “ I have been editor and owner of the most sedate monthly published in America. Your elemental exuberance needs the restraint of my reputation.”
“ What you givin’ me ? ” inquired his listener darkly.
The Publisher hesitated for a second ; then a light dawned upon him.
“ I see, I see,” he murmured. “You understand English only ‘ as she is spoke.’ Very well, my boy. I mean that you must put up a good front if you want to reach high places.”
“ I’m on,” replied Penny - Dreadful succinctly.
“ What you need is simply form. You may roar and slash, you may wade in gore, but you must mind your G’s and O’s.”
“ My what?” asked his listener, with anxious interest.
“ Your grammar and oaths,” retorted the Publisher impatiently. “ You must swear by strange gods or by your halidom, or say, ‘ By gar ! ’ The more weird your oaths, the greater your success will be. Also be careful to say, ‘ It is I ’ ” —
“ But suppose it ain’t ? ” inquired Penny-Dreadful flippantly.
The Publisher looked scornful, but did not otherwise notice the interruption.
“ Then in the matter of names. You Penny-Dreadfuls have always been your own enemies there. Only a publisher knows what’s in a name,” he added to himself, with a touch of bitterness.
“ The Gentle Reader will not stand it to have a spade called a spade ! Why,” he exclaimed vehemently, “ you could n’t sell six copies of Dutch the Slugger to Gentle Readers ; but revise the story a bit, change the dates, and bring it out in cloth as The Iron Hand of the Last Patroon, A Tale of New Amsterdam, and it would sell like hot cakes.”
He finished speaking. Young PennyDreadful arose, with a shining face. He had caught the idea, and tingled to carry it to his tribe.
“ I must away ! ” he exclaimed, in ringing tones. But first he took off his hat (in which the plume had already sprouted), and bowing to the Publisher said, in agitated tones, “ Sire, I kiss your hand ! ”
A gratified smile lighted up the Publisher’s face.
Six months later, under the title Launcelot of the Shining Shield the youngest of the Penny-Dreadfuls was elevated to the Library Shelf by acclamation.
But blood will tell!
Not long afterward the Cultivated Person was browsing lovingly about the library, when he was startled by a voice, — the thin, rasping voice of a gamin. It was Launcelot, alias Young PennyDreadful, addressing one of the old noblesse who had occupied that shelf for a quarter of a century or more.
“Go w-a-a-a-a-y back, my friend!” it said tauntingly. “ Go w-a-a-a-a-y back and sit down ! I ’m in my second hundred thousand ! ”