Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of A. A. Milne > Text of John Penquarto, A Tale Of Literary Life In London

A short story by A. A. Milne

John Penquarto, A Tale Of Literary Life In London

Title:     John Penquarto, A Tale Of Literary Life In London
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

(Modelled on the hundred best Authors.)


John Penquarto looked round his diminutive bed-sitting-room with a feeling of excitement not unmixed with awe. So this was London! The new life had begun. With a beating heart he unpacked his bag and set out his simple belongings.

First his books, his treasured books; where should he put them? It was comforting to think that, wherever they stood, they would be within reach of his hand as he lay in bed. He placed them on the window-sill and read their titles again reverently: "Half-Hours with our Water-Beetles," "The Fretworker's Companion" and "Strenuous Days in Simla." He owed everything to them. And what an air they gave the room!

But not such an air as was given by his other treasure--the photograph of Mary.

Mary! He had only met her once, and that was twenty years ago, at his native Polwollop. He had gone to the big house with a message for Mr. Trevena, her ladyship's butler: "Mother's respects, and she has found the other shirt-front and will send it up as soon as it is dry." He had often taken a similar message, for Mrs. Penquarto did the washing for the upper servants at the Hall, but somehow he had known that to-day was going to be different.

There, just inside the gates, was Mary. He was only six, but even then he knew that never would he see again anything so beautiful. She was five; but there was something in her manner of holding herself and the imperious tilt of her head which made her seem almost five-and-a-half.

"I'm Mary," she said.

He wanted to say that he was John, but could not. He stood there tongue-tied.

"I love you," she went on.

His heart beat tumultuously. He felt suffocated. He longed to say, "So do I," but was afraid that it was not good English. Even then he knew that he must be a writer when he grew up.

She leant forward and kissed him. He realized suddenly that he was in love. The need for self-expression was strong upon him. Shyly he brought out his last acid-drop and shared it with her. He had never seen her since, but even now, twenty years after, he could not eat an acid-drop without emotion, and a whole bag of them brought the scene back so visibly as to be almost a pain.

Yes, he was to be a writer; there could be no doubt about that. Everybody had noticed it. The Vicar had said, "Johnny will never do any good at Polwollop, I fear"; and the farmer for whom John scared rooks had said, "Thiccy la-ad seems daft-like," and one after another of Mrs. Penquarto's friends had given similar testimony. And now here he was, at twenty-six, in the little bed-sitting-room in Bloomsbury, ready to write the great novel which should take London by storm. Polwollop seemed a hundred years away.

Feverishly he seized pen and paper and began to wonder what to write.



It was near the Albert Memorial that the great inspiration came to him some weeks later. Those had been weeks of mingled hope and despair; of hope as he had fondled again his treasured books and read their titles, or gazed at the photograph of Mary; of despair as he had taken off his belt and counted out his rapidly-decreasing stock of money, or reflected that he was as far from completing his novel as ever. Sometimes in the search for an idea he had frequented the restaurants where the great Samuel Johnson himself had eaten, and sometimes he had frequented other restaurants where even the great Samuel Johnson himself had been unable to eat. Often he had gone into the British Museum and leant against a mummy-case, or taken a 'bus to Chelsea and pressed his forehead against the brass-plate which marked Carlyle's house, but no inspiration had come. And then suddenly, quite close to the Albert Memorial, he knew.

He would write a novel about a boy called William who had lived in Cornwall, and who came to London and wrote a novel, a novel of which "The Westminster Gazette" said: "This novel undoubtedly places the author in the front rank of living novelists." William's novel would be a realistic account of--yes, that was it--of a boy called Henry, who had lived in Cornwall, and who came to London and wrote a novel, a novel of which "The Morning Post" said: "By this novel the author has indubitably established his claim to be reckoned among the few living novelists who count." But stay! What should this novel of Henry's be about? It would be necessary to describe it. For an hour he wrestled with the problem, and then he had another inspiration. Henry's novel would be about a boy called Thomas who had lived in Cornwall and who came to London and wrote a novel {about a boy called Stephen who had lived in Cornwall, and who came to London and wrote a novel (about a boy called Michael who had lived in Cornwall, and who came to London and wrote a novel (about a boy called Peter, who had lived in Cornwall, and ...) ...

And so on.

And every one of the novels would establish the author's right to be reckoned, etc., and place him undoubtedly in the very front rank.

It was a stupendous idea. For a moment John was almost paralysed at contemplation of it. There seemed to be no end to his novel as he had planned it. Was it too much for his powers?

There was only one way to find out. He hurried back to his bed-sitting-room, seized a pen and began to write.



It was two years later. For the last fortnight John Penquarto had stopped counting the money in his belt. There was none left. For a fortnight now he had been living on the belt itself.

But a great hope had always sustained him. One day he would hear from the publisher to whom he had sent his novel a year ago.

And now at last the letter had come, and he was seated in the office of the great Mr. Pump himself. His heart beat rapidly. He felt suffocated.

"Well, Mr. Penquarto," said the smiling publisher, "I may say at once that we like your novel. We should have written before, but we have only just finished reading it. It is a little long--about two million eight hundred thousand words, I reckon it--but I have a suggestion to make which will meet that difficulty. I suggest that we publish it in half a dozen volumes, stopping, for the first volume, at the Press notices of (say) Peter's novel. We find that the public likes these continuous books. About terms. We will send an agreement along to-morrow. Naturally, as this is a first book, we can only pay a nominal sum on account of royalties. Say ten thousand pounds. How will that suit you?"

With a heart still beating John left the office five minutes later and bought a new belt. Then he went to a restaurant where Goldsmith had never been and ordered a joint and two veg. Success had come!



I should like to dwell upon the weeks which followed. I should like to tell of John's emotion when he saw his first proofs and of the printer's emotion when he saw what a mess John had made of them. I should like to describe how my hero's heart beat during the anxious days of waiting; to picture to you his pride at the arrival of his six free copies, and his landlady's surprise when he presented her with one. Above all, I should like to bring home to you the eagerness with which he bought and opened "The Times Literary Supplement" and read his first review:

"'William Trewulliam--The First Phase.' By John Penquarto, 7-1/2 by 5-1/4, 896 pp., Albert Pump. 9s. n."

I have no time to go into these matters, nor have I time in which to give at length his later Press cuttings, in which there was displayed a unanimity of opinion that John Penquarto was now in the front rank of living novelists, one of the limited number whose work really counted. I must hurry on.

It was a week after the publication of "William Trewulliam," the novel which had taken all London by storm. In all the drawing-rooms of Mayfair, in all the clubs of Pall Mall, people were asking each other, "Who is John Penquarto?" Nobody knew--save one.

Lady Mary knew. It was not the name Penquarto which had told her; it was--yes, you have guessed--the scene at the beginning of the book, when William Trewulliam meets the little Anne and shares his last raspberry-drop with her. Even under this disguise she recognized that early meeting. She pierced beneath the imagination of the novelist to the recollection of the man. John Penquarto--of course! Now she remembered the name.

It had always been a mystery to her friends why Lady Mary had never married. No girl in Society had been more eagerly courted. It was whispered that already she had refused more than one Archbishop, three Newspaper Proprietors and a couple of Dukes. Something, she scarcely knew what, told her that this was not love. She must wait. As she dressed to go to the Duchess of Bilberry's "At Home," she wondered if she would ever meet John Penquarto again, and if he had altered.


It was John speaking. He had seen her the moment she came in at the door. Something--was it the Duchess's champagne at dinner?--had reminded him of the acid-drop they had eaten together and this had brought back his memories in a flood. To-night he would meet her again. He knew it instinctively. Besides, it was like this that William Trewulliam had met Anne again, and Henry Polhenery had met Sarah, and Thomas Pentummas had met Alice, and--well, anyhow he knew.


It was Mary speaking. Perhaps you had guessed.

"You knew me?" (This is John. It was his turn.)

"I knew you." (Said Mary.)

"Do you remember--"

Mary blushed, and John did not deviate from the healthy red colour which he had maintained throughout the conversation. In spite of his success he was never quite at ease in society at this period of his life. Nor were Henry Polhenery and Thomas Pentummas. They remained handsome but awkward, which was why women loved them so.

"I love you," (John speaking.)

"I think I must have always loved you." (Mary going it.)

He took her hand in his.

Nobody noticed them. They were as much alone as if they had been at the National Gallery together. Many of the guests were going through similar scenes of recognition and love-making; others were asking each other if they had read "William Trewulliam" yet, and lying about it others again were making for the buffet. John and Mary had the world to themselves....



They were married a month later. John, who did not look his best in a frock-coat, had pleaded for a quiet wedding, and only the Duchess of Bilberry and Mr. Pump were present at the simple ceremony which took place at the Bloomsbury registry-office. Then the happy couple drove away.

And where are they spending the honeymoon?

Ah, do you need to ask?

"At Greenwich?" No, fathead, not at Greenwich.

"At Clacton-on-Sea?" Look here, I don't believe you're trying. Have another shot....

Yes, dear reader, you are right. They are going back to Polwollop.

It might be a good plan to leave them there.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: John Penquarto, A Tale Of Literary Life In London