Moonbeams From the Larger Lunacy by Stephen Leacock
XVI--The First Newspaper. A Sort of Allegory
How likes it you, Master Brenton?" said the brawny journeyman, spreading out the news sheet on a smooth oaken table where it lay under the light of a leaded window.
"A marvellous fair sheet," murmured Brenton Caxton, seventh of the name, "let me but adjust my glasses and peruse it further lest haply there be still aught in it that smacks of error."
"It needs not," said the journeyman, "'tis the fourth time already from the press."
"Nay, nay," answered Master Brenton softly, as he adjusted his great horn-rimmed spectacles and bent his head over the broad damp news sheet before him. "Let us grudge no care in this. The venture is a new one and, meseems, a very parlous thing withal. 'Tis a venture that may easily fail and carry down our fortunes with it, but at least let it not be said that it failed for want of brains in the doing."
"Fail quotha!" said a third man, who had not yet spoken, old, tall and sour of visage and wearing a printer's leather apron. He had moved over from the further side of the room where a little group of apprentices stood beside the wooden presses that occupied the corner, and he was looking over the shoulder of Master Brenton Caxton.
"How can it do aught else? 'Tis a mad folly. Mark you, Master Brenton and Master Nick, I have said it from the first and let the blame be none of mine. 'Tis a mad thing you do here. See then," he went on, turning and waving his hand, "this vast room, these great presses, yonder benches and tools, all new, yonder vats of ink straight out of Flanders, how think you you can recover the cost of all this out of yonder poor sheets? Five and forty years have I followed this mystery of printing, ever since thy grandfather's day, Master Brenton, and never have I seen the like. What needed this great chamber when your grandfather and father were content with but a garret place, and yonder presses that can turn off four score copies in the compass of a single hour,--'Tis mad folly, I say."
The moment was an interesting one. The speakers were in a great room with a tall ceiling traversed by blackened beams. From the street below there came dimly through the closed casements the sound of rumbling traffic and the street cries of the London of the seventeenth century. Two vast presses of such colossal size that their wooden levers would tax the strength of the stoutest apprentice, were ranged against the further wall. About the room, spread out on oaken chairs and wooden benches, were flat boxes filled with leaden type, freshly molten, and a great pile of paper, larger than a man could lift, stood in a corner.
The first English newspaper in history was going to press. Those who in later ages,--editors, printers, and workers--have participated in the same scene, can form some idea of the hopes and fears, the doubts and the difficulties, with which the first newspaper was ushered into the world.
Master Brenton Caxton turned upon the last speaker the undisturbed look of the eye that sees far across the present into the years to come.
"Nay, Edward," he said, "you have laboured over much in the past and see not into the future. You think this chamber too great for our purpose? I tell you the time will come when not this room alone but three or four such will be needed for our task. Already I have it in my mind that I will divide even this room into portions, with walls shrewdly placed through its length and breadth, so that each that worketh shall sit as it were in his own chamber and there shall stand one at the door and whosoever cometh, to whatever part of our task his business appertains, he shall forthwith be brought to the room of him that hath charge of it. Cometh he with a madrigal or other light poesy that he would set out on the press, he shall find one that has charge of such matters and can discern their true value. Or, cometh he with news of aught that happens in the realm, so shall he be brought instant to the room of him that recordeth such events. Or, if so be, he would write a discourse on what seemeth him some wise conceit touching the public concerns, he shall find to his hand a convenient desk with ink and quills and all that he needeth to set it straightway on paper; thus shall there be a great abundance of written matter to our hand so that not many days shall elapse after one of our news sheets goes abroad before there be matter enough to fill another."
"Days!" said the aged printer, "think you you can fill one of these news sheets in a few days! Where indeed if you search the whole realm will you find talk enough in a single week to fill out this great sheet half an ell wide!"
"Ay, days indeed!" broke in Master Nicholas, the younger journeyman. "Master Brenton speaks truth, or less than truth. For not days indeed, but in the compass of a single day, I warrant you, shall we find the matter withal." Master Nicholas spoke with the same enthusiasm as his chief, but with less of the dreamer in his voice and eye, and with more swift eagerness of the practical man.
"Fill it, indeed," he went on. "Why, Gad Zooks! man! who knoweth what happenings there are and what not till one essays the gathering of them! And should it chance that there is nothing of greater import, no boar hunt of his Majesty to record, nor the news of some great entertainment by one of the Lords of the Court, then will we put in lesser matter, aye whatever comes to hand, the talk of his Majesty's burgesses in the Parliament or any such things."
"Hear him!" sneered the printer, "the talk of his Majesty's burgesses in Westminster, forsooth! And what clerk or learned person would care to read of such? Or think you that His Majesty's Chamberlain would long bear that such idle chatter should be bruited abroad. If you can find no worthier thing for this our news sheet than the talk of the Burgesses, then shall it fail indeed. Had it been the speech of the King's great barons and the bishops 'twere different. But dost fancy that the great barons would allow that their weighty discourses be reduced to common speech so that even the vulgar may read it and haply here and there fathom their very thought itself,--and the bishops, the great prelates, to submit their ideas to the vulgar hand of a common printer, framing them into mere sentences! 'Tis unthinkable that they would sanction it!"
"Aye," murmured Caxton in his dreaming voice, "the time shall come, Master Edward, when they will not only sanction it but seek it."
"Look you," broke in Master Nick, "let us have done with this talk? Whether there be enough happenings or not enough,"--and here he spoke with a kindling eye and looked about him at the little group of apprentices and printers, who had drawn near to listen, "if there be not enough, then will I make things happen. What is easier than to tell of happenings forth of the realm of which no man can know,--some talk of the Grand Turk and the war that he makes, or some happenings in the New Land found by Master Columbus. Aye," he went on, warming to his words and not knowing that he embodied in himself the first birth on earth of the telegraphic editor,--"and why not. One day we write it out on our sheet 'The Grand Turk maketh disastrous war on the Bulgars of the North and hath burnt divers of their villages.' And that hath no sooner gone forth than we print another sheet saying, 'It would seem that the villages be not burnt but only scorched, nor doth it appear that the Turk burnt them but that the Bulgars burnt divers villages of the Turk and are sitting now in his mosque in the city of Hadrian.' Then shall all men run to and fro and read the sheet and question and ask, 'Is it thus?' And, 'Is it thus?' and by very uncertainty of circumstances, they shall demand the more curiously to see the news sheet and read it."
"Nay, nay, Master Nick," said Brenton, firmly, "that will I never allow. Let us make it to ourselves a maxim that all that shall be said in this news sheet, or 'news paper,' as my conceit would fain call it, for be it not made of paper (here a merry laugh of the apprentices greeted the quaint fancy of the Master), shall be of ascertained verity and fact indisputable. Should the Grand Turk make war and should the rumour of it come to these isles, then will we say 'The Turk maketh war,' and should the Turk be at peace, then we will say 'The Turk it doth appear is now at peace.' And should no news come, then shall we say 'In good sooth we know not whether the Turk destroyeth the Bulgars or whether he doth not, for while some hold that he harasseth them sorely, others have it that he harasseth them not, whereby we are sore put to it to know whether there be war or peace, nor do we desire to vex the patience of those who read by any further discourse on the matter, other than to say that we ourselves are in doubt what be and what be not truth, nor will we any further speak of it other than this.'"
Those about Caxton listened with awe to this speech. They did not,--they could not know,--that this was the birth of the Leading Article, but there was something in the strangely fascinating way in which their chief enlarged upon his own ignorance that foreshowed to the meanest intelligence the possibilities of the future.
Nicholas shook his head.
"'Tis a poor plan, Master Brenton," he said, "the folk wish news, give them the news. The more thou givest them, the better pleased they are and thus doth the news sheet move from hand to hand till it may be said (if I too may coin a phrase) to increase vastly its 'circulation'--"
"In sooth," said Master Brenton, looking at Nicholas with a quiet expression that was not exempt from a certain slyness, "there I do hold thou art in the wrong, even as a matter of craft or policie. For it seems to me that if our paper speaketh first this and then that but hath no fixed certainty of truth, sooner or later will all its talk seem vain, and no man will heed it. But if it speak always the truth, then sooner or later shall all come to believe it and say of any happening, 'It standeth written in the paper, therefore it is so.' And here I charge you all that have any part in this new venture," continued Master Brenton, looking about the room at the listening faces and speaking with great seriousness, "let us lay it to our hearts that our maxim shall be truth and truth alone. Let no man set his hand to aught that shall go upon our presses save only that which is assured truth. In this way shall our venture ever be pleasing to the Most High, and I do verily believe,"--and here Caxton's voice sank lower as if he were thinking aloud,--"in the long run, it will be mighty good for our circulation."
The speaker paused. Then turning to the broad sheet before him, he began to scan its columns with his eye. The others stood watching him as he read.
"What is this, Master Edward," he queried presently, "here I see in this first induct, or column, as one names it, the word King fairly and truly spelled. Lower down it standeth Kyng, and yet further in the second induct Kynge, and in the last induct where there is talk of His Majesty's marvelous skill in the French game of palm or tennis, lo the word stands Quhyngge! How sayeth thou?"
"Wouldst have it written always in but one and the same way?" asked the printer in astonishment.
"Aye, truly," said Caxton.
"With never any choice, or variation to suit the fancy of him who reads so that he who likes it written King may see it so, and yet also he who would prefer it written in a freer style, or Quhyngge, may also find it so and thus both be pleased."
"That will I never have!" said Master Brenton firmly, "dost not remember, friend, the old tale in the fabula of Aesopus of him who would please all men. Here will I make another maxim for our newspaper. All men we cannot please, for in pleasing one belike we run counter to another. Let us set our hand to write always without fear. Let us seek favour with none. Always in our news sheet we will seek to speak dutifully and with all reverence of the King his Majesty: let us also speak with all respect and commendation of His Majesty's great prelates and nobles, for are they not the exalted of the land? Also I would have it that we say nothing harsh against our wealthy merchants and burgesses, for hath not the Lord prospered them in their substances. Yea, friends, let us speak ever well of the King, the clergy, the nobility and of all persons of wealth and substantial holdings. But beyond this"--here Brenton Coxton's eye flashed,--"let us speak with utter fearlessness of all men. So shall we be, if I may borrow a mighty good word from Tacitus his Annals, of a complete independence, hanging on to no man. In fact our venture shall be an independent newspaper."
The listeners felt an instinctive awe at the words, and again a strange prescience of the future made itself felt in every mind. Here for the first time in history was being laid down that fine, fearless creed that has made the independent press what it is.
Meantime Caxton continued to glance his eye over the news sheet, murmuring his comments on what he saw,--"Ah! vastly fine, Master Nicholas,--this of the sailing of His Majesty's ships for Spain,--and this, too, of the Doge of Venice, his death, 'tis brave reading and maketh a fair discourse. Here also this likes me, 'tis shrewdly devised," and here he placed his finger on a particular spot on the news sheet,--"here in speaking of the strange mishap of my Lord Arundel, thou useth a great S for strange, and setteth it in a line all by itself whereby the mind of him that reads is suddenly awakened, alarmed as it were by a bell in the night. 'Tis good. 'Tis well. But mark you, friend Nicholas, try it not too often, nor use your great letters too easily. In the case of my Lord Arundel, it is seemly, but for a mishap to a lesser person, let it stand in a more modest fashion."
There was a pause. Then suddenly Caxton looked up again.
"What manner of tale is this! What strange thing is here! In faith, Master Nicholas, whence hast thou so marvelous a thing! The whole world must know of it. Harken ye all to this!
"'Let all men that be troubled of aches, spavins, rheums, boils, maladies of the spleen or humours of the blood, come forthwith to the sign of the Red Lantern in East Cheap. There shall they find one that hath a marvelous remedy for all such ailments, brought with great dangers and perils of the journey from a far distant land. This wonderous balm shall straightway make the sick to be well and the lame to walk. Rubbed on the eye it restoreth sight and applied to the ear it reviveth the hearing. 'Tis the sole invention of Doctor Gustavus Friedman, sometime of Gottingen and brought by him hitherwards out of the sheer pity of his heart for them that be afflicted, nor shall any other fee be asked for it save only such a light and tender charge as shall defray the cost of Doctor Friedman his coming and going.'"
Caxton paused and gazed at Master Nicholas in wonder. "Whence hadst thou this?"
Master Nicholas smiled.
"I had it of a chapman, or travelling doctor, who was most urgent that we set it forth straightway on the press."
"And is it true?" asked Caxton; "thou hast it of a full surety of knowledge?"
Nicholas laughed lightly.
"True or false, I know not," he said, "but the fellow was so curious that we should print it that he gave me two golden laurels and a new sovereign on the sole understanding that we should set it forth in print."
There was deep silence for a moment.
"He payeth to have it printed!" said Caxton, deeply impressed.
"Aye," said Master Nicholas, "he payeth and will pay more. The fellow hath other balms equally potent. All of these he would admonish, or shall I say advert, the public."
"So," said Caxton, thoughtfully, "he wishes to make, if I may borrow a phrase of Albertus Magnus, an advertisement of his goods."
"Even so," said Nicholas.
"I see," said the Master, "he payeth us. We advert the goods. Forthwith all men buy them. Then hath he more money. He payeth us again. We advert the goods more and still he payeth us. That would seem to me, friend Nick, a mighty good busyness for us."
"So it is," rejoined Nicholas, "and after him others will come to advert other wares until belike a large part of our news sheet,--who knows? the whole of it, perhaps, shall be made up in the merry guise of advertisements."
Caxton sat silent in deep thought.
"But Master Caxton"--cried the voice of a young apprentice, a mere child, as he seemed, with fair hair and blue eyes filled with the native candour of unsullied youth,--"is this tale true!"
"What sayest thou, Warwick?" said the master printer, almost sternly.
"Good master, is the tale of the wonderous balm true?"
"Boy," said Caxton, "Master Nicholas, hath even said, we know not if it is true."
"But didst thou not charge us," pleaded the boy, "that all that went under our hand into the press should be truth and truth alone?"
"I did," said Caxton thoughtfully, "but I spoke perhaps somewhat in overhaste. I see that we must here distinguish. Whether this is true or not we cannot tell. But it is paid for, and that lifts it, as who should say, out of the domain of truth. The very fact that it is paid for giveth it, as it were, a new form of merit, a verity altogether its own."
"Ay, ay," said Nicholas, with a twinkle in his shrewd eyes, "entirely its own."
"Indeed so," said Caxton, "and here let us make to ourselves another and a final maxim of guidance. All things that any man will pay for, these we will print, whether true or not, for that doth not concern us. But if one cometh here with any strange tale of a remedy or aught else and wishes us to make advertisement of it and hath no money to pay for it, then shall he be cast forth out of this officina, or office, if I may call it so, neck and crop into the street. Nay, I will have me one of great strength ever at the door ready for such castings."
A murmur of approval went round the group.
Caxton would have spoken further but at the moment the sound of a bell was heard booming in the street without.
"'Tis the Great Bell," said Caxton, "ringing out the hour of noon. Quick, all of you to your task. Lay me the forms on the press and speed me the work. We start here a great adventure. Mark well the maxims I have given you, and God speed our task."
And in another hour or so, the prentice boys of the master printer were calling in the streets the sale of the first English newspaper.