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MR. MEESON'S WILL.

CHAPTER I.

AUGUSTA AND HER PUBLISHER.

EVERYBODY who has any connection with Birmingham will be acquainted with the vast publishing establishment still known by the short title of "Meeson's," which is perhaps the most remarkable institution of the sort. in Europe. There are or rather there were, at the date of the beginning of this history-three partners in Meeson's-Meeson himself, the managing partner; Mr. Addison, and Mr. Roscoe--and people in Birmingham used to say that there were others interested in the affair, for Meeson's was a company.

However this may be, Meeson & Co. were undoubtedly a commercial marvel. The firm employed more than two thousand hands; and its works, lit throughout with the electric light, cover two acres and a quarter of land. One hundred commercial travellers, at three pounds a week and a commission, went forth east and west, and north and south, to sell the books

of Meeson (which were largely religious in their nature) in all lands; and five-and-twenty tame authors (who were illustrated by thirteen tame artists) sat—at salaries ranging from one to five hundred a year-in vault-like hutches in the basement, and week by week poured out that hat-work for which Meeson's was justly famous. Then there were editors and vice-editors, and heads of the various departments, and sub-heads, and financial secretaries, and readers, and many managers; but what their names were no man knew, because at Meeson's all the employés of the great house were known by numbers; personalities and personal responsibility being the abomination of the firm. Nor was it allowed to any one having dealings with these items ever to see the same number twice, presumably for fear lest the number should remember that he was a man and a brother, and his heart should melt towards the unfortunate, and the financial interests of Meeson's should suffer. In short, Meeson's was an establishment created for and devoted to money-making, and the fact was kept studiously and even insolently before the eyes of everybody connected with it—which was, of course, as it should be, in this happy land of commerce. After all that has been written, the reader will not be surprised to learn that the partners in Meeson's were rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Their palaces would have been a wonder even in ancient Babylon, and would

* Hat-work, it is perhaps necessary to explain, is work with no head in it.

have excited admiration in the corruptest and most luxurious days of Rome. Where could one see such horses, such carriages, such galleries of sculpture, or such collections of costly gems as at the palatial halls of Messrs. Meeson, Addison, and Roscoe?

"And to think," as the mighty Meeson himself would

say, with a lordly wave of his right hand, to some astonished wretch of author whom he has chosen to overwhelm with the sight of this magnificence, "to think that all this comes out of the brains of chaps like you! Why, young man, I tell you that if all the money that has been paid to you scribblers since the days of Elizabeth were added together it would not come up to my little pile; but, mind you, it ain't so much fiction that has done the trick-it's religion. It's piety as pays, especially when it's printed."

Then the unsophisticated youth would go away, his heart too full for words, but pondering how these things were, and by-and-by he would pass into the Meeson melting-pot and learn something about it.

One day King Meeson sat in his counting-house counting out his money, or, at least, looking over the books of the firm. He was in a very bad temper, and his heavy brows were wrinkled up in a way calculated to make the counting-house clerks shake on their stools. Meeson's had a branch establishment at Sydney, in Australia, which establishment had, until lately, been paying-it is true not as well as the English one, but still fifteen or twenty per cent. But now a wonder had

Mr. Meeson's Will.

2

come to pass. A great American publishing firm had started an opposition house in Melbourne, and their "cuteness" was more than the "cuteness" of Meeson. Did Meeson's publish an edition of the works of any standard author at threepence per volume, the opposition company brought out the same work at twopencehalfpenny; did Meeson's subsidise a newspaper to puff their undertakings, the opposition firm subsidised two to cry them down, and so on. And now the results of all this were becoming apparent: for the financial year just ended the Australian branch had barely earned a beggarly net dividend of seven per cent.

No wonder Mr. Meeson was furious, and no wonder that the clerks shook upon their stools.

"This must be seen into, No. 3," said Mr. Meeson, bringing his fist down with a bang on to the balancesheet.

No. 3 was one of the editors: a mild-eyed little man with blue spectacles. He had once been a writer of promise; but somehow Meeson's had got him for its own, and turned him into a publisher's hack.

"Quite so, sir," he said humbly. "It is very bad it is dreadful to think of Meeson's coming down to seven per cent.-seven per cent.!" and he held up his hands.

"Don't stand there like a stuck pig, No. 3," said Mr. Meeson fiercely; "but suggest something."

"Well, sir," said No. 3 more humbly than ever, for he was terribly afraid of his employer; "I think, perhaps,

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