The Scarlet Orchid
by Ellis Parker Butler
Scene, a periodical publisher's office in New Zealand. It may be the office of a daily paper, or of a weekly chronicle, or of a monthly magazine. On the wall is a rottenly bad drawing, once used as an illustration in the periodical, framed, and a photograph of the President of New Zealand, signed. Desks, chairs, shears, blue pencils and other signs of sedentary occupation.
The characters are The Retiring Critic, who has just got a better job driving a horsecar on the Wellington Rapid Transit Railway; The Incoming Critic, not called Incoming because of any grossness of Income; The Advertising Solicitor, who has lines of joyful grin around the mouth and lines of carking care around the eyes, and Gladys, the stenographer. In the highly literary atmosphere of the office Gladys represents the World (not the New York World, but table d'hote dinners with wine, forty cents), the Flesh (the shirt waist cost $2.40, holes and all), and the Devil (at least that is the expression used by the Retiring Critic when looking over her typewritten transcriptions of his carefully dictated criticisms. And I don't blame him. How would you like to dictate "Miss Swan's bevy of six songs," and have it typed "Miss Seven's bury of sick sons"?) The Incoming Critic is discovered seated at a roll top desk, the edge of which is burned brown. The Retiring Critic is seated beside him in a chair, smoking a cigarette.
RETIRING CRITIC (Scornfully) -- Rats on your college education! What you want to know in this critic business is where to eat cheap. Bing's Dairy Lunch is good. Pie, five cents; six graham crackers and a bowl of milk, five cents; coffee, five cents. If you cut out the pie, you save thirty cents a week, and if you wear plain bosom shirts instead of plaited bosom you save ten cents a week more. That's forty cents, and you can take Gladys to Caffetti's for dinner Saturday night. A literary man has to have some excitement, and Gladys will expect it. I'll bequeath Gladys to you. She's Bohemia.
INCOMING CRITIC (Anxiously) -- But the -- the serious criticism -- the -- the --
RETIRING CRITIC -- Say, boy, this isn't a morgue. This is a live periodical. All you want to remember is what I told you. Every book that comes in is one of two kinds. It is either a coming Best Seller, or a Lemon. It gets a boost or a knock. In that left hand pigeonhole is the boost list, and in the right hand hole is the knock stuff. We have to be literary as the deuce in this critic game. It don't do to go on saying, "This book is a Lemon" and "This other book is a Lemon" and "This book is a Lemon." That ain't literary. You've got to vary. (He takes paper from right hand pigeonhole) Listen. All you need to do is to apply these to the books that need knocking. The boss stands for all of these. "Unfortunately this book lacks the necessary appeal --" "Much as it distresses us to do so, we can only predict failure for this effort --" And so on. And here -- (He takes paper from the other pigeonhole) "Sparkling and vivid, this novel is sure to be one of the season's leading --" "Written in a masterly style, around a thrilling plot, this novel will find instant approval --" So on.
INCOMING CRITIC -- But my studies in criticism? My ideals?
RETIRING CRITIC -- Put 'em away in mothballs, son.
INCOMING CRITIC -- But -- but what is the use reading the books that come for review if I am to use only the stock phrases.
RETIRING CRITIC -- Read the books! Listen to this, Gladys -- he thinks he has to read the books! Why, son, do you think any man could stand the strain of reading books for the wages you'll get?
GLADYS (Chewing gum vigorously) -- Huh!
INCOMING CRITIC (With suspicion) -- You don't mean -- It can't be -- I've heard that sometimes all the criticisms of books published by advertisers are good and all published by --"
RETIRING CRITIC -- (Looking toward the boss's office) -- No, sir! Not in this office! We treat all alike. That is a rule of --
VOICE (From Boss's office) -- Henderson!
RETIRING CRITIC -- See what he wants, Gladys. Tell him I'm busy. (Exit GLADYS.)
INCOMING CRITIC -- But, if you don't read --
GLADYS (Throwing a book on desk) -- Boss says review it. (INCOMING CRITIC takes the book in his hand, turns it over. GLADYS stands chewing her gum.)
RETIRING CRITIC (Taking the book. He reads title) -- The Scarlet Orchid, by Susan Sans Gene, Dobwell and Crutch, New York. (To INCOMING CRITIC) -- This is the way we do it. (To GLADYS) -- Take this dictation, will you? (GLADYS takes her notebook, pulls a pencil from her mass of hair, cocks one knee over the other, and takes dictation.)
RETIRING CRITIC (Putting the book on his desk and looking at the cover. He dictates) -- "Of the making of new authors there is no end. When we opened The Scarlet Orchid, by Susan Sans Gene, and had read the first twenty pages, we wondered why. Susan Who-ever-she-is -- for we take Sans Gene to be a nom de plume -- does well to hide her family name --" Got that, Gladys?
GLADYS -- "Does well to hide her family name --"
RETIRING CRITIC -- "for the only merit in The Scarlet Orchid lies in the cover of it. Lucky the reader who only looks at the cover and does not dip inside." That doesn't sound too much like praise, does it?
GLADYS (Looking at her finger tips) -- You might say that the colour comes off on the hands, Jacky. You haven't said that for several weeks.
RETIRING CRITIC -- That's right. Take this -- "But even the cover is not free from blame. It might be well enough in the mountains on dry days, but readers sojourning at the sea-side, or stay-at-homes in our damp New Zealand climate, should handle The Scarlet Orchid with care. The publishers might well have selected a cloth that would not stain the fingers and ruin gowns." How's that?
INCOMING CRITIC -- But you have not looked inside the book!
RETIRING CRITIC -- Oh, tush! As the prophet says "Mush -- mush -- mush!" They are all mush. Now, as -- (Enter ADVERTISING SOLICITOR, hurriedly and happily)
ADVERTISING SOLICITOR (Joyously) -- Hey, what! Is little Willie some ad man, or ain't he? Six hundred lines, nonpareil, on a muggy day and all is well! And a new one for us, at that. Going some? What?
RETIRING CRITIC -- Can that, Joe. Can't you see I'm breaking in the cub?
AD. SOLICITOR (Insistently) -- But I won't can it. Six hundred lines of book ad.
RETIRING CRITIC (In a different tone) -- Oh, book ad! That's different.
AD. SOLICITOR -- Different? I guess it is. And it is Dobwell and Crutch I got.
RETIRING CRITIC (Reaching for left hand pigeonhole) -- Dobwell and Grutch? Ah, Gladys, just cross out that dictation. (The INCOMING CRITIC stands open mouthed.) Take this, Gladys: "The tired critic, who, after wading through hundreds of inane novels, often thinks the position of street car driver would be preferable to that of guiding the public taste, sometimes has his happy days. One of these is when such a book comes to hand as the masterly novel by Susan Sans Gene, The Crimson Orchid --"
GLADYS -- It is Scarlet ain't it?
RETIRING CRITIC (looking at cover of book) -- "Scarlet Orchid." What did I say?
GLADYS -- You said "Crimson."
RETIRING CRITIC (To INCOMING CRITIC) -- You want to be careful about that. You might queer a deserving novel if you got the title wrong. (To GLADYS) Ah -- "Miss Sans Gene vainly seeks to hide her charming identity under a pretty nom de plume, but we have guessed her secret. We will not divulge it, however, but there will be some surprise when it is solved by the hundreds of thousands of readers we can safely predict for (refers to list of phrases) this cleverly written and ably composed novel. (Refers to list again.) Sparkling and vivid, this novel is sure to be one of the season's leading books, and (Refers to list) we venture to say that a month will see it at the head of the Six Best Sellers."
AD. SOLICITOR -- That's great stuff.
RETIRING CRITIC -- It ought to be. It's my swan song. Take this, Gladys: "If anything was needed to make the book a fortunate favourite the cover has added it. The brilliant scarlet in which it is bound will make a vivid spot against thousands of white summer dresses at sea shore and in mountain resorts. We predict --"
INCOMING CRITIC -- Don't you predict rather often?
RETIRING CRITIC -- It's good stuff. It shows we like the book. Go ahead, Gladys: "We predict that the scarlet cover of The Scarlet Orchid -- and what an unusual title that is! -- will long be remembered as the most vogueful sight of 1911." I rather like that "vogueful."
INCOMING CRITIC (Doubtfully) -- I hardly think there is such a word.
RETIRING CRITIC -- Who cares? If there wasn't, there is now. Take this wind up. Gladys: "So we heartily recommend The Scarlet Orchid to those who like a novel with well drawn characters, swift action, truth to nature and -- and
GLADYS -- "A telling heart appeal?"
RETIRING CRITIC -- Yes -- "And a telling heart appeal." There you are. That's the way to fix 'em up. Suit you, Joe?
AD. SOLICITOR -- Bully! Can you get it in the next issue?
RETIRING CRITIC -- Last wad of copy is just going to the printers. I'll drop this in the box as I go out. (He digs up a cigarette and lights it. GLADYS pounds out the copy on her typewriter, jerks the paper from the machine and hands it to THE RETIRING CRITIC, who has put on his hat and coat. GLADYS pats her hair, slaps her hat on her head, jabs a hatpin into it, sticks her gum on one corner of her typewriting machine, and is ready to go. A clock strikes the noon hour.)
RETIRING CRITIC -- Joe, I'm blowing Gladys to a farewell feed. Come along. (To INCOMING CRITIC) Will you come? Glad to have you.
INCOMING CRITIC (In a dazed, troubled manner) -- No, thank you, I -- I --
(Exeunt RETIRING CRITIC, ADVERTISING SOLICITOR and GLADYS)
THE INCOMING CRITIC sits and stares at the desk. From time to time he jerks spasmodically as his ideals slip from him. Finally he sighs, and takes The Scarlet Orchid in his hand. He opens it at random. At first he stares at the pages without seeing them, sighing like a porpoise.
INCOMING CRITIC (Sadly) -- And this is book criticism! (He starts, and looks at the page of the book closely.) What? What! (Reads) "Of all the great order of monocotyledonous plants, this microspermeae is, because of its scarlet colouring, the most beautiful. It is --" (He turns the pages rapidly. Reads) "The artificial rearing of the scarlet orchid in northern climes has been attended with failure until recently, when Professor Dudeny, of Harvard, by enclosing the entire plant in glass and inducing artificial air currents --" Why, this isn't a novel. It is a -- a nature book! (He looks about wildly.) I wonder what they do when they want to get back what has been sent to the printer? (He rushes to the various doors, and throws them open. All the offices are vacant. He returns to his desk, and drops limply into his chair.) And they'll think I wrote that!
(Enter ADVERTISING SOLICITOR hurriedly)
ADVERTISING SOLICITOR -- See my bundle of contract blanks. I left --
INCOMING CRITIC (Grasping him by the arm) -- There has been a mistake, an awful mistake. The Scarlet Orchid isn't a novel. It is a nature book. How can we get back the criticism from the printer?
AD. SOLICITOR (Grimly) -- We can't. It has gone to press by this time.
INCOMING CRITIC (With agony) -- Oh! Why didn't I look inside the book? Why didn't I read one line! I swear I'll never, never again let a review go to press without first looking inside the book. It is awful! The critical department will be a laughing stock.
AD. SOLICITOR (Deeply gloomy) -- It is worse than that. Dobwell and Crutch will cancel their contract. And I don't blame them. (Exit AD. SOLICITOR in anger.)
(INCOMING CRITIC arises with sudden resolution, takes his coat and hat and turns toward the door.)
INCOMING CRITIC (fiercely) -- I don't care! I don't care if I am throwing up seven dollars a week! I'm going to go away and stay away! (Exit.)
POST SCRIPT: -- That this is a tragedy may be seen by the fact that, because of the puff of The Scarlet Orchid as a novel, seven hundred copies were sold, when Dobwell and Crutch had not expected to sell a single copy, having published the book at the author's expense. This sale having reimbursed the author, she contracted with Dobwell and Crutch for the publication of another book. Dobwell and Crutch therefore increased their standing advertisement by three hundred lines, and the Advertising Solicitor had his salary raised. But the poor Incoming Critic locked himself in his hall bedroom, wrote a bitterly sarcastic essay which made him famous, and became a wealthy author.