The Echo (London), November 5, 1902

Lighter Vein





The kind-looking old gentleman with the dreamy eyes came out of the tobacconist’s and paused, as if meditating on the state of the streets. In his hand he held a package of tobacco.

“Give us the picture, guv’nor!”

A diminutive youth, picturesquely rather than neatly clad, had appeared from nowhere, and was eyeing the package of tobacco greedily. The kind-looking old gentleman focused on him with a benevolent pair of spectacles. “The picture?” he said. “Oh, ah, yes. You refer to the portrait enclosed in this package. Now this is remarkably interesting. Do you know, my child, that this interests me exceedingly?”

“My child” shuffled, and wished that the old gentleman would hurry up.

“In the first place,” went on that worthy, “I may preface my remarks with the statement (which I trust you will credit) that I have never, in the course of a long and hard-smoking existence, come out of a tobacconist’s shop without being asked by a lad of your description for the picture. Now, why is this? Why do you want the picture? Of what material profit is it to you? I have heard it said—I do not, you understand, vouch for the truth of the information—that you collect these portraits with a view to selling them at some future date. But who buys them? Tell me that, my dear lad.”

Pure Pleasure.

“My dear lad” kicked moodily at a passing dog, missed him, nearly put his knee out of joint, and wished the old gentleman would produce that picture, and get it over.

“Others,” continued the fortunate possessor of two ounces of prime smoking mixture (warranted cool and sweet), “maintain that you covet them for another reason. They state that you derive a pure pleasure from holding them between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, and flicking them sharply into the empyrean. I wonder if that is the case, my young friend?”

“My young friend” maintained a gloomy silence.

“For myself,” pursued the kind old gentleman, “I like to think that you treasure them up with no view to sordid profit, and do not squander them by flicking. I like to think that they bring romance into your cheerless existence. It gives me pleasure to imagine that, when you gaze on the fair features of some lady you have long worshipped from the gallery, and whom you hope, with the sanguine optimism of youth, some day to call your own, life becomes for you a better and brighter thing. ‘Omnia,’ says Ovid, ‘vincit amor.’1 I wonder. Possibly you could inform me lucidly and succinctly if I have conjectured aright upon the point, my peripatetic guttersnipe?”

“My peripatetic guttersnipe” looked at the old gentleman’s right shin as if it would be a luxury to him to kick it.

A Pain in the Feelings.

“Or, perhaps,” resumed the owner of the shin, slowly breaking the paper cover in which his tobacco was enclosed, “you have other reasons. It occurs to me—this is merely conjecture, you understand—that you exhibit these pictures to your young companions, and allege that you yourself have smoked the tobacco which once accompanied them. I wonder. It would be a bold scheme, worthy of a Machiavelli. Go to the free library, boy, and look up Machiavelli in a reference book. But you say you want this portrait. Well, well, let us see what we can do. I hope you are a nice, polite little boy, and will thank me for it. Once I gave a picture to a little boy, and all he said was ‘Got any more, guv’nor?’ which pained me excessively. Ah, my boy, it is better to have a pain in the jaw than a pain in the feelings. It is best of all, of course, to have no pain at all. But about this picture. Pardon me if I seem discursive. It is a weakness of mine. Now I open the package. What do I find? Will it be a portrait of Miss Tottie Fullobeans, or will it be a dull, but improving, view of London-bridge in a fog?”

He opened the package.

“Ahem,” he said, thoughtfully. “Er, I may say, not to beat about the bush, that this package unfortunately contains no picture of any sort. Strange! Remarkable! Extraordinary! But, perhaps a penny instead will—eh?”

The youth, with glistening eyes, intimated that it would. The old gentleman produced his purse. A look of surprise overspread his face.

“I fear,” he said, “that once again I must be found wanting. I have no money left. Only a button. Would a button be of any use to you, my lad? No? Then apologising for having wasted your time, and thanking you for a pleasant and most instructive conversation, I will leave you.”

As for the boy, he went straight home and kicked his little brother.



1     Translation: “Love conquers all”. More fully, Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori: “Love conquers all, let us too yield to love” (Virgil, Eclogues 10:69). Plum ascribes it to Ovid in this story, but we will never know if that was deliberate, or in error.