The piece was originally published in the May 1916 edition of The Century Magazine, and was later included in Beerbohm's anthology, Seven Men (1919). It is a comic-tragedy, involving elements of both fantasy and science fiction; well known for its clever and humorous use of the concepts of time travel and pacts with the Devil.
The author uses a complex combination of fact and fiction to create a sense of realism. Although Mr. Soames is a fictional character, Beerbohm includes himself in the story, which he also narrates; and writes it as the reminiscences of a series of actual events which he witnessed and participated in as a younger man. The work also contains a written portrait of the real-life artist William Rothenstein, as well as countless references to contemporary-to-1897 events and places. In addition, Rothenstein actually drew the "portrait" of Soames which is mentioned in the text; although the work was probably created closer to the date of publication, than to the 1895-date given in the story. Beerbohm himself also drew a cartoon-sketch of Soames, and the two pictures are recognisably of the same "person".
Writing as a narrator describing events from his own past, Beerbohm presents himself as a moderately successful young English essayist and writer during the 1890s. He then purports to relate the tragic history of a friend and colleague of his named Enoch Soames. Soames is a contemporary of the younger Beerbohm; a fellow-Englishman of secure but moderate means, living off an inherited annuity, and an utterly obscure, forgettable, miserable, and unknown aspiring poet. Over the course of the story, he is the author and publisher of a succession of unsuccessful books of poems. His appearance is described as "dim" and leaving little impression, except for his persistent habit of always wearing a particular grey waterproof cape and soft black hat.
On the afternoon of 3 June 1897, Soames and Beerbohm are having lunch in the Soho-based "Restaurant du Vingtieme Siecle". Soames is self-obsessed and deeply depressed; consumed with the belief that he is an unrecognised great author of literature and poetry, unhappy about his current obscurity and failure, and keenly curious about his "certain" fate of posthumous fame. Despairing and desperate for assurance of the eventual recognition of his works and talent, Soames agrees to a contract offered by the Devil, who introduces himself from a neighbouring table. In exchange for the future possession of his soul, Soames will be transported exactly 100 years forward in time; to spend one afternoon (from 2:10 PM to 7 PM) in the Reading Room of the British Museum, a world-renowned centre for bibliographic research, to discover what judgement posterity will make on himself and his works. After the allotted time has expired, Soames will be returned to their present date and location, but at the same time of evening as his departure from the future; and the Devil will then collect his payment.
After the agreement is made, Soames vanishes; then reappears in the café at the designated hour, where Beerbohm has returned to meet him.
Soames description of the world of future is, like himself, vague and nondescript; while there he had focussed primarily on his own concerns. He tells Beerbohm that the only mention he could find of himself was in a single scholarly article, of which Soames produces a facsimile-copy. It is printed in English, but in a phonetic spelling and with modified pronunciation; both of which had apparently evolved during the intervening century. The article discusses a fictional story written by one Max Beerbohm "in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld "Enoch Soames"—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im!" ("in which he portrayed an imaginary character called "Enoch Soames"—a third-rate poet who believes himself a great genius and makes a bargain with the Devil to know what posterity thinks of him!"). With characteristic delicacy, Beerbohm quotes the author as saying "It is a somewhat labud sattire" and adds "And 'labud'—what on earth was that? (To this day I have never made out that word.)" ("labud" here means laboured).
Beerbohm, shocked, denies that he would ever write such a thing. While the two are debating this point, the Devil returns.
Before being taken to Hell, Soames scornfully requests that Beerbohm at least try and make people believe that he, Soames, actually existed. Beerbohm concludes his narrative by calling down the author of the scholarly article in question for shoddy work; he notes that T.K Nupton must not have finished reading Beerbohm's story, otherwise he would have noticed Soames's (through Beerbohm) flawless predictions about the future and realised the story was not fiction.
Beerbohm then notes Soames had mentioned that his presence in the reading room caused a great stir, and writes "I assure you that in no period could Soames be anything but dim. The fact that people are going to stare at him, and follow him around, and seem afraid of him, can be explained only on the hypothesis that they will somehow have been prepared for his ghostly visitation. They will have been awfully waiting to see whether he really would come. And when he does come, the effect will of course be – awful."
The Reading Room of the British Museum was in fact still in operation in June 1997, although it was closed later that year and its functions were transferred to the new British Library. This move had been intended to occur long before that time, but construction and completion of the new British national library building were repeatedly delayed. The "old" Reading Room was subsequently renovated; its original interior decoration was restored and it reopened in 2000, but the space is now used for different purposes and it no longer serves its former purpose as a research library.
An article written by Teller, "A Memory of the Nineteen-Nineties" ("Being a faithful account of the events of the designated day, when the man who had disappeared was expected briefly to return"), was published in the November 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The piece claims to describe actual events, witnessed by Teller and a small group of other people; fans of Beerbohm's story, who had come to the Reading Room on the date specified, in time for Soames' afternoon "visit". According to this account, at 2:10 PM, on 3 June 1997, a person meeting Soames description mysteriously appeared, and began searching through the catalogues and various biographical dictionaries. A few dozen minutes later, he slipped out of sight of the watching crowd, and disappeared among the stacks.
See too Terry L. Meyers, review of Mark Samuels Lasner, A Bibliography of Enoch Soames, 1862–1897, Victorian Poetry, 37:4 (Winter 1999), 555.