Midnight and the Man
Midnight and the Man
By C. N. & A. M. Williamson
[ Illustration ]
MR. STAFFORD wishes to speak with you for a moment, sir."
The Editor of the Thunderer raised his eyebrows. Having reflected for a moment, he said that Mr. Stafford might be shown in.
Sixty seconds later a young man entered the room. He was a tall, thin young man, with a remarkably well-shaped forehead, a determined chin, and an introspective look in his eyes. It was this look, and what it meant, that the Editor disapproved. He was also alive to the fact—not unconnected, in his opinion, with the other—that Mr. Stafford's frock-coat, though carefully preserved, had been worn through several seasons.
"Good day," said the great man. "I am sorry for this, Mr. Stafford; but really it could not be helped, in the circumstances."
The man who was not great appeared surprised. "I beg your pardon?" said he, inquiringly.
"I supposed that you had come to speak with me about the—er—the change in your position. But——"
"No, sir. For the moment I had forgotten that I had been dismissed. You see, I was thinking in any event of resigning my berth on the Thunderer. I didn't suit it; it didn't suit me, though I have much kindness and consideration from you and all the members of the staff to be grateful for. What I came to see you about this evening was quite another matter, though also personal."
Perhaps the Editor of the most important newspaper in England was to be pardoned if he did not entirely believe that the young man had intended of his own accord to throw away the enviable position which had been his. Still, almost anything eccentric might he credited of Robert Stafford. The great man glanced at his watch. "I have still five minutes, which I can spare you with pleasure," he said. "After that, I am afraid——"
"Five minutes will do, sir," said the young man. "It is a mere question of 'yes' or 'no.' I want to marry your daughter."
"Good heavens, you must be out of your senses!" exclaimed the Editor.
"If to be very much in lore is to be out of one's senses, I plead guilty."
"Good heavens!" remarked the Editor again. "What confounded business is this? I had no idea that you had met my daughter except at the one evening party I believe you were invited at my house."
"That was the first time I saw her. I knew what I wanted from that moment, but I didn't see much chance of getting it."
"Ah! And now you do? Having just been discharged on account of incompetency from the post you held on my paper, and having no other prospects so far as I know, you take the opportunity of coming to me and proposing to marry my daughter, whom you seem to have continued to meet in some underhand way."
"You hardly state the case fairly, sir—certainly not from her side. She visits rather often at the house of an aunt of mine, Mrs. D'Arcy, where I also have been in the habit of going when I could get away from work. As for your accusation that I have acted in an underhand way, I deny it, and assert the contrary. I came to you before speaking to your daughter. I wished to tell you something about myself which might make you look at my future differently. I——"
"Have you come into a fortune?" The question was asked drily.
"You expect to do so?"
"Not quite that."
"What then? Some mad scheme of yours?"
"You might call it mad, sir."
"If you think I might,I am certain I should, so we won't waste time in discussing ir, if you please. I shall regard it as a most dishonourable act if you attempt to disturb my daughter's mind with this nonsense, and I depend upon you not to do so."
"Not without your consent. May I ask whether your objection is only to my lack of prospects, or is it also personal?"
The Editor looked at the young man critically through his pince-nez. "My sole objection to you personally is that you are mad," he replied.
"A number of persons who eventually proved successful were called mad in their time," returned Mr. Stafford.
"They happened to be geniuses."
The young man smiled at the emphasis.
"If you were not mad, and if you had an income of ten thousand a year, you might come to me again and ask for my daughter," said the Editor of the Thunderer. "Then, I should be inclined to give you a different answer. You cannot cite such an income?"
"Not to-day," admitted Mr. Stafford.
"Then, for to-day, shall we consider the subject closed? Another day, when you can re-open it on the basis I suggest—my daughter being at that time still unmarried—call on me again and remind me of this interview."
"Thank you; I will." Mr. Stafford rose, took the large white hand which his former "chief," with returning good nature in the twinkle of his eye, patronizingly held out, and departed.
The interview had occupied very little more than the allotted five minutes; nevertheless, it filled the Editor's thoughts more than once during his working hours. Several times he ejaculated "By Jove!" without any apparent relevance. Once or twice he frowned and once or twice he laughed.
Next morning at breakfast he gazed at his exceedingly pretty daughter with reflective eyes. She would be a considerable heiress, but was so popular and charming that no man need be suspected of wanting her for what she would have rather than for what she was. A number of men had wanted her, and were probably wanting her at the present time. Almost any one among these applicants, selected at random, would be more eligible than Robert Stafford. The Editor did not think that there was a man in England, under Royal rank, who need look down upon this lovely and lovable young creature.
He marvelled at Stafford's impudence, but failed to admire it. For a moment he meditated speaking to the motherless girl about what had occurred, and putting one or two questions; but on second thoughts he decided to hold his peace and to watch. He did watch—as much as so busy and important a man was able—but saw nothing to excite alarm. One day he heard at the office that young Stafford had gone abroad, and gradually he forgot all about him.
So, more than a year passed. On a very hot night in early September, when things were just beginning to happen after the lull of the "Silly Season," the Editor was hard at work. There was still a great deal to do for which he was responsible; he was tired, irritable, and anxious to get home. Into the midst of this mood came a messenger with a card. The Editor looked at it impatiently. "Stafford, Stafford," he repeated twice before the name took a particular meaning for him. When it did, he flung the card aside with an uncomplimentary exclamation.
"Confound his impudence," he muttered. "Like the fellow's cheek to come at all, especially at this time of night when he knows I'm busiest. Go, tell this gentleman"—to the messenger—"that I can't see him."
"Yes, sir," responded the messenger. "He said his business was very urgent, sir, or I wouldn't have——"
"Hang his business; it's nothing to me," was the answer, extorted by impatience; and the messenger waited for no more.
After some moments of work the Editor hurriedly opened his door and strode out, with a long proof fluttering from his hand. He had taken a step or two down the corridor off which opened the rooms used by sub-editors, leader-writers, and reporters, when a voice—once familiar, now all but forgotten—hailed him.
There was Stafford, as quiet, as pale, the lower part of his face as determined, the upper part as dreamy as ever. The poor man had put himself in the great man's path, and the chief, too angry, too completely dumfounded to speak or move, was taken at a momentary disadvantage.
Stafford had his watch in his hand. It was a cheap Waterbury watch; and his frock-coat looked as if it might have been the frock-coat of last year. "Good evening, sir," he said to the Editor. "Pardon my lying in wait for you like this, but it's a matter of grave importance. Will you tell me the exact time by your watch?"
"Let me pass, sir," commanded the Editor of the Thunderer, "or it will he time to have you shown the way downstairs."
"I inquired because just half an hour ago the Sultan died in Yildiz Kiosk—very suddenly. Poison is suspected, but it will probably be given out that death was the result of a stroke. The news will he kept from the people in Constantinople for some hours, and it won't get over the wires to London until the Thunderer and all the other papers have gone to press. No morning paper—except yours, now that I've told you—can print the news, though of course to-morrow's evening papers will have it. Now, if you put it in, with the biography you of course have standing in type, you'll have about the biggest 'scoop' that's ever been done."
"I always thought you were mad," said the Editor. "Now I know it. Mr. Stafford, this is my busiest time. I'm in no mood for practical jokes. Have the kindness to leave this office, where you had no right to force yourself in."
"Allow me to point out that you are making a grave mistake, sir," persisted Stafford, provokingly unruffled. "But I have done my best to give you a good thing. You won't tell me the time by your watch? Then pray look at mine. Half-past eleven, English. That's nine-thirty in Constantinople. You will have cause to remember that to-morrow." He bowed and, turning, walked away.
[ Illustration: "THEN, PRAY, LOOK AT MINE." ]
"Of all the lunatics!" ejaculated the great man, glaring after the erect figure, departing with the air of a banished prince. And as the Editor was putting on his hat to go home, after seeing the paper to press, he mentioned to the assistant-editor, who remembered the discharged "sub" very well, the unexpected call and the absurd nature of Stafford's errand.
" 'Much learning hath made him mad,' " quoted the assistant. He also said that in his opinion if Stafford came again it would be well to send for the police, as such fellows really ought not to be at large.
Next day the Editor of the Thunderer slept late. As he was walking to keep a luncheon engagement at the Carlton Club at the Carlton Club he stared with astonishment at the contents bill of an evening journal just out, which in huge lines announced: "Sudden Death of the Sultan."
He bought the paper and hastily opened it.
"Died of an apoplectic stroke," he read, "at half past nine at night. Unavailing efforts to restore animation. Poison suggested, hut official announcement that the cause of death was apoplexy. News not made known publicly until this morning."
The Editor whistled to himself as he folded up the paper. At the Carlton everybody was talking of the event, and he was condoled with because the news had come too late to appear in the Thunderer as well as the lesser morning journals.
About five o'clock the Editor met his assistant at the office for the usual daily consultation. The two looked at each other queerly.
"I've told the printer to put the Sultan's obituary in page," said the younger man.
"Certainly; quite right," returned the chief.
"A little odd about that madman, Stafford," began the assistant, hesitating.
"Coincidence; mere coincidence. A lucky guess, that's all." The Editor waved the affair away with a sweep of the hand, though he thought of it all the same, and wondered in his heart what the world would have been saying to-day if the great Thunderer, alone among the dailies, had printed the news.
At midnight Stafford's card was handed to the Editor while his assistant was in the room. The "chief" passed it to the latter with a short, perplexed cough. "See him and hear what he has to say. It can't be in the least important, still——"
In five minutes the assistant-editor came back and closed the door carefully. "The Czarina has had a child, prematurely—a boy this time," he announced, "born half an hour ago in Gatschina." He smiled a little uneasily. The Editor stared.
"He says that?" he asked.
The assistant nodded. "Yes; and he asked me particularly to note the time."
[ Illustration: "HE BOUGHT THE PAPER AND HASTILY OPENED IT." ]
The Editor pushed back his chair and took a hasty turn up and down the room. "Why, it's pure bosh," he exclaimed, petulantly. "We should make ourselves the laughing-stock of Europe to print news like that if it wasn't true. And how can it be true? It's too absurd. This fellow wants to take us in and play a trick upon us for being dismissed. How can he possibly know what happened in Russia half an hour ago, when our own correspondent hasn't wired, when there's nothing from any of the news agencies? He made a lucky guess last night, and is playing on that."
The paper was sent to press as usual; the Editor went home, and the foreign editor who stayed an hour later in case anything of great importance should happen was about to follow him, when there came a telegram announcing the birth of an heir to the Russian Throne. The machines were stopped, a page altered, and part of the issue of neat morning's Thunderer contained the tidings. All the other morning papers had it also.
It was the Editor's custom to have a copy of the Thunderer brought to his bedside every morning with the other leading dailies. Before he got up he used to run through them all. Opening his own paper ffrst, he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the announcement with large headlines of the birth of the Russian heir.
"What on earth's the meaning of this?" he said to himself. "Can my people have been fools enough to believe that impostor and put the stuff in as soon as my back was turned?" Then he hastily opened the other papers, and was startled to see that hey also contained the same important item of news. "Can he have hoaxed the lot of them?" thought the Editor, as he tubbed and dressed with more than his usual haste. "Can he have run around to all the offices in a cab, and induced them to believe his story? And have they all been fools enough to trust him?"
The Editor's beautiful daughter was vastly astonished when her father hurriedly left home without breakfast. He took a swift cab, drove direct to Marlborough House, and was astonished into speechlessness on being assured that the happy event had undoubtedly happened, in the course of the preceding night, at about the hour of half-past eleven, English time, adding that the King had been waked soon after one in the morning to have the telegram handed to him.
[ Illustration: "THE EDITOR'S DAUGHTER WAS VASTLY ASTONISHED." ]
The Editor walked to his club, thinking deeply, and it was with some embarrassment that he exchanged greetings with his assistant about five o'clock at the office.
"Have we the address of that young man, Stafford?" asked the "chief." "It—er—might, perhaps, be worth while to send for and question him."
"I have tried already to find him," said the assistant, "but without success. He left no address when he called, and they know nothing at the lodgings he occupied more than a year ago when he was on the paper."
Something before midnight, when the pages would soon be passed finally for press, the great Editor was amazed at himself to find that he was becoming unaccountably fidgety. It was with a distinct sense of relief that he took from the hand of the messenger a card bearing the name, "Mr. Robert Stafford." "Show him in," said the Editor, promptly, and the young man entered with a grave bow and a courteous "Good evening, sir."
"You bring me, no doubt, some wonderful piece of news, Mr. Stafford?" questioned the "chief," with an air of condescending jocularity. "What is it to-night? The death of a great man, the discovery of the North Pole——"
"My news to-night' is certainly serious," replied the young man. "There is a rising en masse of the negroes of the Southern States against the whites. It has been secretly planned for months. A horrible massacre has begun; great parts of Alabama and Georgia are in the hands of the blacks. They first seized the telegraph offices and cut the wires——"
"Then, if the wires were cut to begin with, how can you know anything of what has taken place?" The Editor leaned forward and glared severely at the young man as he launched his crushing question. "Come, come, sir; this won't do! You go too fast! That twice already you have successfully tampered with telegraph clerks, bribing them to give you early information, I can understand—such things have been done before, though it's a risky game and a felony; but that you should come here pretending to know what is happening three thousand miles away, in the Southern States of America, when by your own confession you admit the wires are cut and the districts isolated——" He broke off abruptly and pressed an electric bell upon his table. A messenger came at once. "I wish to cable to New Orleans; telephone immediately to see if the wire's open." The Editor sat frowning and drumming with a paper-knife on the table, casting now and then a suspicious glance at his visitor, who stood calmly examining the pattern of the wall-paper. With a quick knock the messenger returned. "They can only take the cable at your risk, sir," he announced. "There's some unexplained interruption at the other end." The Editor dismissed him with a nod, rose to the full height of his imposing figure, and faced his visitor.
"Your extraordinary story seems so far confirmed," he said. "Kindly give me some further particulars."
"I do not know many details yet," was the quiet answer, "though further information will reach me soon. I can only tell you that the blacks are well armed, that there has been fighting in the streets in many places; that a gigantic negro named Joe Paterson, formerly a railway-shunter, seems to be the leading spirit; that whites have been mercilessly butchered in the remoter districts, to the number of many hundreds."
"I should be mad to print all this without the least indication as to how you received the intelligence."
The hint fell on stony ground. "As you will, sir." Stafford moved towards the door with the calm bearing of a Galileo before the council. The Editor had a deep knowledge of human nature, and the confident fire in the introspective eyes caused him a certain discomfort.
"Stay!" Stafford turned on the threshold. "I will publish something of this wonderful story," relented the chief; then, his scepticism re-awakening, he wagged a threatening forefinger. "But if you are deceiving me, mind, I shall have no mercy on you—none!" The young man smiled serenely, bowed to the forefinger, and departed.
Next morning the Editor waked at an unusually early hour with all his faculties on the stretch. Sitting up in bed, he opened the Thunderer and read the few cautious words in a conspicuous position of the middle page: "As we go to press a rumour reaches us of a rising of negroes in some of the Southern States of the Union, accompanied by sanguinary acts of violence. It is said that the rebellion has been long planned and has already attained alarming dimensions. The rumour is unconfirmed, and we publish it with all reserve." Not one of the other morning papers had any reference to the event.
All day the Editor went about in a mood of apprehension. At his club he was bombarded with questions; the contents bills of an evening paper bore in large letters the words: "Alarming statement in the Thunderer. Is it a hoax?" and when he reached his office he found that the American Ambassador and a messenger from the Foreign Office had been among the many callers to inquire into the extraordinary rumour. As the night wore on, to the selfish but infinite relief of the Editor, telegrams began to arrive confirming in the fullest particulars the details which Stafford had supplied the night before. Refugees fleeing to the sea-coast and into neighbouring States carried with them wild tales of a savage uprising of the oppressed blacks, of an awful revenge that was being taken for bloody acts of Lynch-law. United States troops were moving with all speed to the scene; but precise facts were difficult to obtain owing to the continued interruption of the wires. The Editor wiped his forehead, with a sigh of divided emotions. The Thunderer had had its "scoop"; but how much more dramatically complete would have been its success if he had dared to give in full, and with assurance, all the particulars with which Stafford had furnished him. In short, the Editor wished that he had "gone nap."
He found himself longing for midnight. For the last three nights midnight and a visit from Stafford had been synonymous. But this time the rule was broken. Midnight came and no Stafford. The "chief" made excuses for stopping late at the office, but at length he had to go home with a vague sense of flatness and disappointment. He was annoyed with himself for his neglect in not having secured the mysterious young man's address when he called last, though, of course, it would not have done to seem anxious; and he visited his annoyance on the assistant-editor.
Another day passed and still Stafford made no sign. A halfpenny daily published a bit of exclusive news, and the great man asked himself if the finger of his discharged "sub" was in it.
"I wonder if we've lost Stafford?" casually remarked the assistant on the third night. The Editor shrugged his shoulders as if the matter were of no importance, but he had never liked his subordinate less; and, at home and in bed, he dreamed of missing Stafford and a piece of news of world-wide importance. With this dream in his mind he somewhat shamefacedly gave orders that if Mr. Stafford should call that night he was to be at once shown in. Expecting the call he grew quite nervous, and attributed his condition to dyspepsia, but he expected in vain.
On the fifth night, however, he started at the sound of a rap on his door as the clocks had finished striking twelve. Stafford answered his "Come in," and he was only just able to restrain an exclamation of "At last!"
He changed it into a "How do you do?" of marked cordiality, and genially added, "I'm glad to see you again."
"Thank you, sir," replied Stafford. "I saw the advertisement in the Daily Record, requesting me to call at the office of the Thunderer."
"Oh, indeed—er—I wasn't aware—my assistant perhaps may have thought——" The great man was well-nigh reduced to stammering.
"I beg your pardon," said Stafford; "I supposed it possible that you wished to see me here again, and, not having my address, had adopted that means. Since you don't——" he took a step towards the door, but the Editor, half rising, arrested him with a gesture.
"I do," he admitted. "I do. Come, Mr. Stafford, the time for mystery has gone by. You have proved your point beyond a doubt. Do you want me to believe you a magician, or are you ready to explain by what method you are able to obtain earlier information than newspapers and Governments can command?"
"I've brought it with me in a cab," said Stafford, "in case you would like to see it?"
"In a cab?" The echo was almost a gasp, so extraordinary seemed the announcement. But the Editor controlled himself, emulating Stafford's coolness. "Oh, bring it in by all means," he murmured, and sank back in his chair.
Stafford went out and was gone for some minutes. Presently sounds of heavy footsteps, as of men carrying a burden, reached the ears of the "chief," and an instant later Stafford reappeared with a commissionaire. Between them they bore a large rosewood box, which they placed upon a table. When the commissionaire had left them alone Stafford asked permission to lock the door, which was granted. "You know all about Marconi?" he said, with his hand on the box. "Well, I've gone one better, that's all."
[ Illustration: "THE EDITOR, CURIOUSLY EXCITED, FOUND HIMSELF PEERING AT AN APPARATUS OF INTRICATE PARTS." ]
He lifted the lid from the box, and the Editor, curiously excited, found himself peering at an apparatus of intricate parts, with coiled wires, springs, and an automatic printing-machine like that of the familiar "ticker."
"Marconi's difficulty," Stafford went quietly on, "was in his coherer and relay. He used metallic filings in his coherer, which was a little tube, you know. He thought that the coherence was a sort of absolute quantity that was produced in all its completeness by the electric impulse. That was wrong. I have invented a new coherer" (he touched a small upright brass case, with an elaborate net-work of vibrating wires), "and with this I can receive, practically instantaneously, electric impulses transmitted from no matter what distance. The conversion of the electric impulses into visible writing is, of course, simplicity itself."
"Still, I don't understand," said the Editor. "The electric impulses don't reach you by chance. Someone must transmit them, and by a machine similar to this. Am I not right?"
"Perfectly. I patented this machine in every European country and in the States something less than a year ago, a little while after I left the Thunderer. I made no public announcement of it at the time, for I wanted to give tests that even you could not withstand. I have an aunt, Mrs. D'Arcy—your daughter's friend—who believes in me; she was the only person who did—and she gave me money. I made half-a-dozen transmitters, and took them to half-a-dozen foreign countries. They are in St. Petersburg, in Constantinople, in Berlin, in Paris, in New York, in Yokohama, in the hands of trustworthy persons all in a position to receive early news of important events. These persons are paid by me—they are my correspondents."
"That must cost you something!" murmured the Editor.
"It does, but thanks to the machine itself, I am able to afford it. The first test I made was to take advantage of a piece of early information I got from Wall Street, to go in for a little deal on the Stock Exchange. I cleared £20,000 in a couple of days."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the great man, meditatively, a marvellous vista opening before him.
"Yes. You can quite understand that the field there is practically unlimited; but that isn't much in my line, except in special cases. I leave it to those who care for it."
"And the news of the negro rising! How did you get that?"
"Chance favoured me there. My New York correspondent's a Southerner; he was called South by family business, took his transmitter with him, and sent me early news. You see this lever? It disconnects the machine. I press it down thus, and the apparatus is ready to receive messages." At the instant the "ticker" began to work. Eagerly the Editor watched the words that appeared, transmitted by invisible waves of electric energy straight from the Japanese capital, passing by the shortest path through a great portion of the solid earth itself, penetrating unnoticed, unsuspected, through brick walls or human bodies, able to record themselves on this machine, and on this machine only in the whole world, for it alone was tuned to vibrate sympathetically with the transmitting instrument.
"Yokohama," the message began. "Grave news has just arrived that the Russians have landed in force in Korea and have captured the capital by a coup de main. Intense indignation here. Frenzied crowds in the streets. The Japanese Government has declared war, and orders for mobilization of the entire forces of the country have been issued." Then, suddenly, the ticker was still.
When the business of sending the momentous news to press was over, and an enormous "scoop" assured for next morning's Thunderer (there were to be no doubts, no reservations this time), the Editor turned to Stafford, who stood thoughtfully beside his closed rosewood box.
"You're a wonderful fellow—a valuable man for England!" he enthusiastically exclaimed. "Now, how much will you take to give the Thunderer the exclusive use of this instrument? Shall we say ten thousand a year?"
"Money does not tempt me as it once might—a year ago, for instance," said Stafford.
"Twenty thousand, my dear fellow."
"You see, I can easily make five times that sum."
"But, look here, you came to me. You gave me news worth thousands. You must have had some object in doing that."
"I wanted to remind you, if I got the chance, that you had asked me to call again when I could prove that I wasn't mad and could make an income of ten thousand a year. You said then that when that was the case I might refer to a subject you wished closed for that day. It has been nearer to my heart ever since than anything else. Do you remember what it was, sir?"
"Good gracious, you wanted to marry my daughter!"
"And do want it, more than ever."
"Are you driving a bargain with me, my boy?"
"That would be about it, sir, if only I were at all sure of her. She—I think she liked me once. But 1 promised you to say nothing without your consent. And that's a year ago."
The Editor stroked his beard.
"H'm!" he ejaculated. "I—er—I've had you a good deal in my mind these last five days. I'd never spoken to my daughter about you before, but I did mention your name yesterday, quite—er—incidentally. I told her you were hack in town and had called at the office."
"What did she say?" asked Stafford, a flash of eagerness escaping his calm eyelids.
"She didn't say much, but—she got rather red. I never saw her look so pretty. When I went out she—kissed me twice, and ran up-stairs singing, some love song or other. I wondered what made her so demonstrative; she isn't like that as a rule. But—er—if one puts two and two together, it strikes me there mightn't be any great difficulty in our coming to terms. And, by Jove, I should be proud, Mr. Stafford, to have you for my son-in-law."
Stafford held out his hand. The Editor shook it.
[ Illustration: I TOLD HER YOU WERE BACK IN TOWN." ]