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T. Michael Pope
I SUPPOSE that, after all, I am at heart a good deal of a snob, for I remember taking enormous pleasure in being seen in Captain Porritt’s company as we sauntered by British Headquarters, and passed along by the side of the quay until we reached the Café Roma. For Porritt was most decidedly a notability in Salonika. He would have attracted attention anywhere. He was dark and sudden, like a Spaniard. He had an air of distinction, even of disdain, and though his face was peculiarly animated, it never revealed anything. He looked what he was; an eager young aristocrat, absorbed in and hugely entertained by his surroundings. Every part of him had intuition: his hands knew.
Now, I must explain that Porritt had been in some little trouble. A lady, I think; certainly not drink. She was somebody else’s wife, and Somebody Else happened to be a millionaire merchant. So for three weeks Salonika had been closed to Porritt, and to-day was the first day of the ban’s lifting.
“I’d better go slow the first day, Old Thing,” he said; “we’ll go to the Roma instead of the White Tower, and after lunch, if that little room’s empty, you shall play Brahms to me—especially the Little Valse.”
We mounted the stone stairway that takes you so unexpectedly to the restaurant. As soon as the manager saw Porritt he came fussing towards us.
“Ah{162}, monsieur!” he exclaimed, delightedly; “you once more! Are you well? Yes?”
“Excessively. But how crowded you are!”
The manager gazed around at his cosmopolitan clients, and smiled reassuringly.
“There, in the corner—a table for two. True, it is engaged for somebody else, but you shall have it.”
He tangled fatly through the room, and, when at the table, turned about and smiled.
We sat down, and our guide handed a wine list to Porritt.
“It is some weeks since you were in Salonika?” he suggested, rather than asked.
“Yes; three. Very busy up-country. Very busy ... ve ... ry ... bu ... sy ...” Porritt’s eyes were among the champagnes.
“Ah: Indeed! Something important then?” (He had not heard of Somebody Else’s wife.)
Porritt looked up and winked knowingly. “Rather! You wait and see.” He lowered his voice, adding, confidentially: “There’s a move on.”
“Ah! The Big Push!”
His eyebrows shaped themselves into a question.
Porritt nodded gravely and impressively.
“The Big Push! The Big Push!” breathed the manager once more.
He murmured the words reverently and softly, and at once increased in stature a couple of inches, thus falsifying the spirit, if not the letter, of the Scriptural axiom. He was one of the Few who Knew. He was a personality.{163}
He tangoed away for a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Porritt grinned.
“You watch!” he said. “It’ll spread as quickly as a scandal in a cathedral city.”
And, really, the effect of this purely imaginary piece of news, deposited in the bosom of the manager, was electrical. He passed from table to table, and dropped a bomb on each. In five minutes the restaurant was seething with excitement.
“The Great Push at last!... In France as well, no doubt.... Every front.... Yes, the Great Push. I always said it would begin in May.”
At one table the manager lingered for some little time. He was talking with some animation to three journalists, correspondents of French newspapers. Two of them were busy writing in note-books. It appeared that the manager had no lack of news to impart: he spread out his plump hands, lifted his shoulders, and wrinkled his brows. And then he looked furtively towards us, and whispered something behind his hand. The journalists also looked, half rose, thought a second time, and sat down again.
“Damned funny, isn’t it?” said Porritt.
“I’m afraid you’re rather in for it,” I remarked.
“Oh, I’ll soon dispose of them.”
Only one table went on smoothly and systematically with its eating. Seated at it were two Fleet Street men, who had just come to Salonika to conduct The Balkan News. They had l{164}istened to the manager, but had remained unmoved. But, presently, one of them took a slip of paper from his pocket, wrote a few words, and sent it across to us by a waiter.
Porritt unrolled the slip. On it was written: “Is there anything in it?” He hesitated a moment, then wrote underneath: “Damfino.” “Which,” said he to me, “being interpreted, means: ‘I’m damned if I know.’” And that is all the English journalists got; as a matter of fact, it was all they wanted, and they sat back in their chairs, and watched the rumour grow.
Extraordinary our human love of the sensational! Extraordinary our inability to pass on a piece of news without adding to it! Extraordinary the credulity we give to impossible stories we desire to be true!
“Let’s have our coffee and liqueurs down at Floca’s,” suggested Porritt. “It’ll be rather jolly to see to what fantastic shapes my Yarn has grown down there.”
Floca’s, of course, is just underneath the Roma, but though only a floor and a ceiling divide them, they are as different in mental atmosphere as the gilt-mirrored lounge of the Café Royal, and the dining-room at Morley’s Hotel.
The word “seethes” is banal; nevertheless, Floca’s seethed. For the Yarn had grown. It now had many twisted forms, each fashioned according to the desires and fears of the individual gossiper. Porritt, the only begetter of this disturbance, leaned back with a gratified smile on his lips.{165}
“One must amuse oneself,” said he.
“Ah! Porritt! Porritt! Little do you know the mischief you have done! At this moment the news is on its way to Athens, thence to London, Berlin, Vienna—everywhere. At about seven o’clock this evening, just when the night editors are beginning to think of dinner, it will reach Fleet Street, perhaps by way of Zurich or Amsterdam. Even now, as I speak, the world is beginning to wake up to this great new event. Thousands of pounds will be spent on cables. Reputations will be lost. Perhaps Roumania will be induced to come in at last. Greece will stir uneasily, the Kaiser will wire to Hindenburg, the Stock Exchange....”
“Would it were all true!” interrupted Porritt. “Do you know, Cumberland, I have never felt so important in all my life? Look over there!”
He pointed to a neighbouring table. At it were seated two men, both of whom I knew well by sight. One a fat, hairy Greek Jew with a pendulous jaw, and great bags under his eyes, was a fabulously wealthy financier; the other his confidential clerk. They had been taken unawares by the news, and forgot that a dozen eyes were upon them. The financier was white and trembling, and time after time he tried to rise from his chair, only to sink back repeatedly in a condition of distressing exhaustion. Fear, a devastating fear, dwelt in his eyes.
“What is he afraid of?” I whispered to Porritt.{166}
“Only his clerk knows. But evidently he thinks he is ruined.”
“Tell him!” I urged; “tell him it’s not true—that it’s only your invention.”
“Why should I? If people will speculate in human lives, let them take the consequences.... And now,” added he, “I must go to the canteen to get those six cases of whiskey. I’ve a limber waiting for me just off Piccadilly Circus.”
It reached Fleet Street precisely at nine.
“I think we might have a leader on it—in any case, a short one,” said Hartley, Editor of the Trumpet, that powerful organ of democracy, to the night editor. “Tell Bisham to come along.”
Like a lizard, Bisham darted in, an unlit stump of a cigar between his thin, intelligent lips.
“Well, Bish, the Big Push is on at last. All fronts. Just through on the wire. Waiting for censor’s permish. No details. Let’s have a couple of sticks, in case. The news about Salonika; the wire itself—it comes from Zurich—will go in under any circs. And, you, Beale,” he added, turning to the night news editor, “wire Amsterdam, and do the necessary with Paris. Now, trot along both of you. I’m busy.”


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