The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories/The Old Reporter
The Old Reporter
TAKE a walk along Park Row with an old newspaper-man and make him talk about the fellow-craftsmen he meets along the way. Some of his comments may be like this:
"There goes Colonel Sanderson; used to be managing editor of The Globe. Remember how he covered the famous Hattie Harris murder-trial years ago? That was literature. All gone to pieces now; does the Centre Street Magistrates' Court, or some other small department, for a 'flimsy' bureau. … See that fellow in the broad-brimmed hat? Used to be a big man in the Scripps-McRae league out West, where they call a beat a 'scoop.' Wanted to come to New York, like so many of them, you know; left a good place, high up on a St. Louis paper—and now look at him; out of a job, too proud to go home—out there they think he's a big man. He sees me; let's hurry a little, if you don't mind; he owes me more than he'll ever pay back as it is. … Here comes young Doc. Jamison, son of ex-Governor Jamison; he's a hustler, too, becoming the star reporter of his paper, they tell me. Now if he'll just leave whiskey alone— Hello, there's Billy Woods. Haven't seen him for a long time. You've heard of him. The great Billy Woods. …"
If it were the right time of day, and he were the right kind of newspaper-man, you might pass a score of them between Broadway and the Bridge. Perhaps a half-dozen would have left a hard-luck story trailing behind them. There would be one main cause assigned for it by your experienced companion. In your walk you would have passed just about that number of places where the staple article of merchandise was dispensed in glasses. And yet these places alone are not to blame.
There are so many different sorts of men in this strange business, hurrying up and down and in and out of the big, teeming town and through the country and over the globe, gathering the history of to-day (while you are absorbed by your own more or less important part in it), printing it to-night while you sleep, and handing it to you, for a ridiculous price, fresh and inky-smelling, as soon as you awake in the morning. More varieties of mankind perhaps than in any of the other arts of peace, and they come from more parts of the world apd more strata of society.
Besides those who grow up in the life, from office-boys (through the press- or composing-room, or both, to become, very likely, good, old-fashioned "all-round newspaper men"), and besides those who come with more book-education to seek literary careers in the metropolis, there are older men, who, having made a failure of something else, are "engaged in newspaper-work temporarily," as they continue to say (unless they fail here, too), because it pays so much better than clerkships; and there are younger men, drawn into the life chiefly by the spirit of adventure, which a few generations ago would have taken them to sea, being sickened by the prospect of many monotonous days at a desk. There are cadet brothers of foreign nobility; young men from neighboring cities who have suddenly lost their in comes, or their social positions, or else their enjoyment in such possessions. There are teachers who have grown tired of academic monotony, and naval officers who have wait ed and waited; quick-tongued Irish editors who have burned their bridges behind them, and English lieutenants who talk interestingly of army life in India and tell different stories at different times of why they left it. There are Arizona miners and Australian sheep-raisers; country poets, country parsons, gamblers, Jesuits, European nihilists, men in the employ of foreign secret-service bureaus—all sorts of men, except the bovine male, with lethargic mind and lack-lustre eye. For more than its just share of the best of brains are drawn into the feeders of this great noisy, all-devouring machine that turns out the stuff called news. It is a fascinating machine, and has a way of getting more than its share of good blood also. It is a relentless machine, and is apt to squeeze the best out of strong men, throwing them forth again, when least expected, old and useless before they reach what should be the prime of life.
Occasionally you hear of a well-known correspondent who signs his initials, or of an editor who wins fame or else notoriety. No one tells of these others who, while they live, fill most of the paper, and are broken down before forty, having written on every sort of interest and every sort of person in the great seething city—except the one they know the most about.
There were several stories of why brilliant Billy Woods came North to become a newspaper man, and one of them was a love-story. The younger men on the staff used to say that the only reason he went into this work was that his father forbade it. The women in the office were inclined to believe the love-story. However, he would eventually have drifted into it; inevitably, because he was a born reporter.
No one would have thought him a born reporter from the way he handled his first assignment. It was to cover a monthly smoker of a university alumni association. "Being a college man, you may be interested in it," said the young city editor, smiling benignly at the bright-eyed boy, who bowed in a very grave way he had and marched down the office with the energetic walk which was to become a characteristic of that room—chin in the air, glasses sliding down his nose while pounding the floor with his walking-stick.
Now, young Woods was not a college man, and he had an exaggerated notion of the erudition of those who were. It was almost awe, and it persisted even after he had become the great Billy Woods. It amazed him afresh every time a new reporter that had an academic degree fell down on a story. "And that fellow's a college graduate," Billy would say, shaking his head.
The cubs of course were more or less in awe of the dashing star reporter of the paper, and turned to gaze after him when he stalked out of the room on his big stories, but he did not realize that; he suspected them of looking down upon him as an ignoramus, so he scowled arrogantly if he caught them glancing his way, unless, indeed, they got up courage to borrow his mucilage or ask him some question about the office rules for spelling.
Then he would open up, put them at their ease, discourse interestingly about the traditions of the office, and fascinate them, as he could anyone, man or woman, who came in his way. "No wonder Senators at the Fifth Avenue Hotel like to have Mr. Woods come up and slap them on the back!" "No wonder he can make anybody talk about everything," thought the new reporters, while the old one went on in his rapid style, "You'll soon assimilate the idea. Now, for instance, 'A dog bites a man'—that's a story; 'A man bites a dog'—that's a good story," etc., until in a lull there came the question—inevitable from very recent graduates:
"What college are you from, Mr. Woods?"
Billy always felt better when this was over. "I received my schooling abroad," he always took pains to add. "Spent most of my boyhood over there with relatives. Have to rely upon my forebears for my general culture, I reckon; though your Alma Mater's biological department holds that acquired characteristics are not transmitted, I believe. My family were nearly all lawyers and clergymen, or professors at the University—the University of Virginia, that is. That's where they wanted me to go, too, but—" and then he would quote a line of Horace. Billy always quoted Latin in his first conversation with "college men." Let us hope the collegians always understood him. …
The collegians in the young Billy Woods's first assignment looked like, for the most part, rather pleasant-looking down-town types. Some of them seemed to the older reporters to have smug faces with fat on their necks, and others to be of the narrow-shouldered, neurasthenic New York sort, who couldn't lean back and smoke calmly, and many were very good fellows. They were all mysterious and awful to the new reporter who sat in the back of the room with big eyes gazing at their greatness while he felt their degrees sticking out like halos.
The feature of this particular club smoker was a paper upon "The Decline of the Novel," by a rather immature alumnus of the university, who was now a complacent young professor of literature, with incipient side-whiskers and a pseudo-English accent which tripped and fell over "idea" and "law," which, he thought, ended in "r." He was the author of two anæmic novels which teemed with literary allusions, French phrases, and preternaturally precocious conversations. They bespoke an easy familiarity with various streets and scenes of the European capitals—or else with Baedeker—went skin-deep into life, and were greatly admired by a certain type of female, to whom they furnished an illusion of literature and did no more harm than playing an æolian.
The lecture was symmetrically composed and gracefully delivered, with many fine periods, filled with plump literary words—just as his text-book says they ought to be written. He spoke of "determining influenc-es" and "up-lift" and "envi-rone-ment" and used other interesting phrases, fashionable in literary circles at that time. He sprinkled in his usual number of quotations, which showed how well-read he was and that he considered his audience well-read too, so it made pleasant feeling all around.
And it was all impressing the boy with the bright eyes, who thought it must be fine to know so much, and applauded heartily until the professor began to pronounce the reason for the sad condition of our modern literature. "The unbridled, licentious news paper press—with its ignorant hordes of hack-writers, charlatans … the morbid curiosity of the modern ubiquitous reporter," etc., as usual.
Young Woods wondered how the other reporters stood it so calmly. They were used to such things, and yawned occasionally. They were quite as willing to write about this man's views of the press as anything else—and the more words they got in the bigger would be their space-bills. And some of them asked a few questions when they went up after the address to get the type-written selections of it which had carefully been manifolded for the licentious press by the young professor who thought he was a celebrity getting interviewed and tried to appear accustomed to it. But young Woods, red in the face, and indignant with everybody, wanted to tell them all that he was a newspaper man and glad, proud of it, hated them all for insulting his high and noble "calling" and strode out of the room with chin high. "Who is this man—what's his family, I'd like to know?" he exclaimed to his Southern self—though that would not seem to have much to do with it.
At the office he told the night city editor all about it with eloquence, while the nearby copy editor's shoulders shook.
It was the office's first introduction to the boy's full-grown vocabulary. The night city editor, Stone, listened to most of it, and then said, kindly, "I see. Write it."
Write it! The young Southerner "declared" he would not lose his self-respect. "You just ought to have heard him. He insulted all of us."
Then Stone looked distrait, and so the copy-readers poised pencils to listen; but, as if changing his mind, Stone asked, "What else did the professor say?" And now the office had its first exhibition of Woods's wondrous, sponge - like memory. … "Anything else? … Thank you. Go home to bed."
The next morning young Woods, whose sense of humor was as embryonic as his sense of news, had to read it twice before the thing took hold of him; then he saw some of the beauty of the story which Stone had written.
It was not sarcastic. It was a calm, dispassionate account, apparently, with many quotations from the little professor's paper, and no comment at all, leaving all that to the reader—the orthodox, the artistic "aloofness" attitude, for lacking which the young professor in his class-room was wont to patronize, heartlessly, a man by the name of Thackeray.
It taught young Billy volumes about news—as Stone meant it to. Also it set Billy to thinking about the great opportunity of "The Press" for pricking shams and presenting "The Truth," and he prayed that he might be able to present it sincerely and dispassionate and to "always get both sides of the story," as they told him he must," and not to give a damn for what he thought or felt about it."
That is a trivial story perhaps, but in the light of what is to be told later it seems worth while—just as the men in the office often related it (especially before Billy), because it seemed so odd to think of the keen Billy Woods who acquired such abnormal vision in seeing "fakes" in everybody and everything, the versatile Billy Woods, who tracked down Simpson the poisoner when all the detectives failed, and meanwhile continued, for a certain editorial page, his series of daily poems about children, which most of you must have read, though neither you nor many others knew who wrote them—the wonderful Billy Woods who "could do both Wall Street and politics"—and equally well—the adaptable, the convenient, the cynical Billy Woods, who held one kind of political belief and wrote so ardently for another; who saw and despised the littleness of big people, and then made them sound bigger and more interesting—it does seem odd to think of him as the lad to blush and back out. But in those early days he had feelings, and they used to get in his way. He had so many of them. They were what he worked with. He did not realize that. Perhaps the office did not realize it.
It was his personal feelings that made him keep up his acquaintances so long in the Southern Colony of the up-town life of the city. It helped him through the week, like many an other lonely hall-bed roomer, if a warm-voiced compatriot seized his hand and said—or shouted, "What! son of my dear old friend, Dr. Woods? Well, 'pon my word. Yes, I declare, you look just like him. My lands! how that old man can pray!" And so on, ending with "So we'll expect you Sunday evening. The girls 'll be mighty glad to see you."
He even went to dances and such things when he could get the night off, and the older generation gossiping around the edge of the floor pointed him out as "One of the Virginia Woods. Yes, they're all fine-looking. It was this boy's aunt who eloped with the Austrian, don't you recollect, that winter in Washington? When old Dr. Woods surprised everybody by marrying again she was so sorry for this boy—mere child then—that she took him over there with her and kept him until now that she has too many children of her own to look after …" And all this made the young newspaper man more interesting to some sorts of people; only he hated to have them ask, as so many of them did, looking at him as if he were a curiosity, "what department" he was in.
He did not like to say he was a reporter because nearly every one's conception of the reporter seemed to be gained from those singular creatures who scurried around on the outskirts of social functions and wrote down more or less interesting names "among those present."
"Because you are so seldom the source of more important news," Billy wanted to say, cuttingly, for he did not consider it a humorous situation at all. He always wanted to explain that there were two kinds, reporters and society reporters, that the latter were no more typical of the vigorous writers who took pride in their work of supplying over three-fourths of all that was read in Christendom, than those meek little lawyers across the room there, whom he frequently saw scudding in and out the court-house with papers in their hands, were the representative lights of the New York bar. And he wanted to explain that any how he had already had a chance to be a copy-editor, and that he had refused because he could not sit still at a desk for hours and read and tinker with other men's stuff and get impatient and nervous. Perhaps it was because he was an artist and must create "stuff" of his own, and would have done so even if he had kept out of newspaper work—a different sort of stuff, Southern verse, possibly, and then he would have won a different sort of fame.
But he became tired of explaining all this, before he became tired of wanting to explain it; while down in the other world there was nothing to explain, and his stories were becoming the talk of Printing House Square, and they told him he had a great career before him, and Billy said, "Really, do you think so?" smiling delightedly, "Isn't that fine!"
Thus the bond attaching him to the uptown organism became more and more stretched as time and his success as a newspaper-reporter went on. He soon became too valuable for the city editor to spare of ten, and even when an engagement was made it sometimes had to be broken, which hostesses quite naturally failed to understand. And when Billy's one "day off" in seven came around it seemed such a waste of time to spend it upon stupid conventional people who did not know what was going on in the world, and took so long to think that it made him nervous. The Southern cotillions were no longer simple and Southern, for the committee were trying to put on New York lugs, said Billy, who thought this absurd. … Until finally the cord was snapped entirely, in this way:
He went up to dine with some old friends of his family's who had some guests from Georgia; and Billy knew so many interesting things to tell about Bohemia, they said. He did not want to go, and though plenty of men and women, in New York, tried strenuously to be Bohemian, there was nothing very Bohemian in New York, as it seemed to Billy, who had had a glimpse of the real thing. However, when Bohemia was what they wanted, the young reporter would generally talk about it, improvising as he went along, and warming up to his art and enjoying it when he found the whole table-ful stopping to listen to him.
After this dinner, when they were smoking, Billy shut up and the other two men guests began to talk about the railroad deal for which they had come up to New York. Like many of these Southern fellows they talked too much. Woods, who with his training was becoming that agreeable thing, a good listener as well as talker, sat there looking impressed and impractical and said he thought it was all "mighty" interesting. The next morning The Day had some Wall Street news that no other paper had, and that made things hum over in one corner of the Exchange for a half-hour after the opening, and spoiled a daring scheme for his host's two friends and his own friendship with his host and other friendships also, when the tale went around the Southern Society, out of which Billy now dropped altogether.
The young newspaper man was penitent, pitifully so, and bobbed his head, and agreed with all that a mutual friend said to him. "And don't you see now what an awful thing you've done, my boy?"
"Yes, yes; why didn't I look at it that way! Isn't it awful, but—my! what a good story!"
Now, this news instinct means broadly an abnormal keenness in appreciating what is contemporaneously interesting to the public—a habit of mind acquired by those who deal in news, just as various other habits of mind are acquired by those who deal in various other goods.
Each one of these is different, but all have this in common: Every one of them is acquired, according to the laws of compensation, at the expense of certain other senses or sensibilities.
Young Billy Woods, with his shirt-bosom shaking as he saw the bigness of "the story" in what he was hearing, did not stop to see what the publication of it would mean to his host's friends. He did not see, because, though he looked at the same facts, it was not from the same point of view. They were business men and it was their job to make deals.
He was a newspaper man and it was his job to make interesting reading. It was their right to make deals, even though they would thereby render certain securities of other worthy men and women almost worthless. So, was it not his right to make interesting reading even though it would hurt the schemes of eminently solvent men for getting richer?
But, of course, he realized now, as he stayed awake at night, that it was outrageous to print facts related, very unwisely, at a friend's dinner-table, but he did not realize why he had not stopped to think of that.
It was because he was thinking so hard of the other thing. That shows the tendency of these acquired senses.
When, however, facts were seen by the reporter from the point of view of the reported, he could be as human, or as inhumane, as any other busy, ambitious young man. His experience, a year or two later, with the "white-mustached-high-living-lawyer" will show it.
Now Billy Woods by this time had learned something about everything in the big strenuous city, from Harlem to the Battery, and beyond and below. Perhaps he knew more than any youth of his age in it about the manifold interests of a metropolis and its various inhabitants; their personal characteristics and their office hours, their social positions and their business worth, their Christian beliefs and their heathen practices. That is the reason that nearly everybody he ran across fell into categories in the young man's mind. Whenever he found a new type it was a refreshing surprise. After awhile there were no more new ones.
He was as guileless looking as ever, but he sometimes had considerable fun with them when they undertook to patronize him, especially the young, dapper ones, who softly slide into positions made or left for them in the down-town world by wealth or influence, and thus miss a valuable life-lesson or two.
He usually let them think they were impressing him, when he conveniently could, looking innocent and awed, because they enjoyed it so much, and he did not mind now, any more than he resented the pity of kind women who thought he had sad eyes and insisted on giving him cake and lemonade at their conventions, and then considered him very ill-bred next morning up on seeing themselves gently ridiculed in the "article," which was written as Billy Woods's employer told him to write it.
It was one of this younger down-town type that Billy had first to deal with now, teeming with importance, as Woods could tell from the way he said "Well, sir."
The reporter, bowing in his suave Southern way, respectfully asked to see the head of the firm, the young man's father.
"Engaged at present," was the reply. "What do you want?"
"I'll wait, if I may make so bold," said Billy.
"I represent him," said the other, leaning back in his chair. "What is it?"
"Ah, I see," said Billy.
"What do you want—he has nothing to say to reporters anyway."
"Possibly; but if you don't mind I'd rather have his word for that."
"What's that! I tell you I represent him."
"Not very well, however."
"What do you mean!"
"He has better manners, for instance."
—"And a softer voice—and—really? Oh, please, don't do so much to me as all that. You see it would not do, really now, for me to leave, because your father has not yet talked to me. I think you'll find that he will come out and talk to me in a moment now. What's that? Oh, no, no, no, I wouldn't if I were you. In fact, if I were you I'd go back to my little desk, for really you're getting red in the face and making a scene, young man, before all your father's clerks. If you'd turn around suddenly you'd see them laughing at you. Ah, Colonel, how do you do"—for the father was now coming out of the inner office, saying, "What's this! what's this!"
"Your son was of the opinion that you did not care to talk to The Day. I have taken the liberty of differing with him," and then Billy stated his business, adding, emphatically, "But if you do not want to talk about this matter——" The Colonel did not want to talk, but he wanted to have some fun with the reporter, so he led him on.
He ought not to have done this, for reporters are apt to be as quick as lawyers even at thinking and speaking, and this particular reporter when he became excited, as he now was, could say off-hand what most people cannot think of until trying to go to sleep at night. "Well, Mr. Reporter," the white mustache was presently saying, sneeringly, "you seem to know so much about my brother and his affairs, why don't you go and ask him?"
The red-faced son was leering at Woods, who replied, "I don't know his address, do you?"
"Oh, ho! you can't lead me into telling you in that way. I'm a lawyer, young man," and the clerks laughed.
"You don't know where he is either," said Woods. "It's a matter of opinion now."
"You don't say so," remarked the other, scornfully; "and how is it a matter of opinion?"
"Your brother," said Billy, suddenly, "blew his brains out an hour ago, and that's the reason I'm down here." Then the lawyer flopped down flat upon the rug as Billy had never seen happen off the stage.
When he came to he wanted to know all that Woods knew; he was pitifully docile. Woods told him, but not without also extracting what he wanted to know.
It was not interesting to Woods—not as interesting as it might be to many of you. He was sick of dead, dissipated brothers with "horrible lessons" to young men newly rich. But he considered it his business to get the news, even though he had to adopt means not dissimilar to those employed in cross-examinations by this same successful lawyer, who was now realizing what he had let out and what it would mean if made public.
"I am sorry," said Billy, shaking his head. "But the next time"—opening the door—"you'll have more respect for The Day. If you do not care to talk, you should always say so. Then you will not be liable to mention things which, as you say, will disgrace your family and your firm when published. Little boy, why don't you see to your father. He's almost hysterical. I wish you all good-day," and Billy slammed the door, feeling dramatic.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, the white-mustached lawyer crept down-stairs in his bath-robe, opened the paper, which shook, and read that Colonel So-and-so when asked by a Day reporter to make a statement, replied "That he had nothing to say." … But he did not know how much of a sacrifice that lie meant to the impudent young reporter, nor the kind of a sacrifice, obviously, for later in the day a check came from the white-mustached lawyer with a note, which Billy, angrily ringing for a messenger, did not read through. It was just as well this did not come before the paper went to press.
"I suppose it serves me right," said the reporter when he had cooled down, "for letting my personal feelings come into my business relations. This lawyer never does; therefore he could not understand it in anyone else."
That was not the sort of experience to curb the news instinct. Very few of the reporter's experiences were.
And as he became an older and better reporter he naturally was less given to thinking of how the other fellow felt about it. That was not the reporter's job; it was to get the news, and he generally got it when once he saw his "story in it."
The men often said that the city editor always watched Billy's eyes when giving instructions about an assignment, and if the eyes did not brighten then he knew that Woods did not see his story in it and usually gave him something else. Not all members of the staff were so favored.
But when Woods did see his story, and had excitedly grabbed some copy-paper, and the cane which he never forgot, no matter how many overcoats and gloves he shed about town, and had marched eagerly out of the room with the grinning office-boys watching to see whether he put his hat on or carried it in his hand this time—nobody knew quite how he was so successful in scenting and flushing and retrieving the news. Perhaps he did not either. He was always half crazy until he finished his job, and had returned, sometimes on the run, to the office, where he wrote furiously and filed the copy, smiling excitedly and sighing joyfully.
He had no rules about holding peoples' eyes or studying their weaknesses or addressing them frequently by name. He never planned beforehand how he was going to approach a man or woman; he knew how automatically, the men in the office said. It is true that he did it automatically, but it was not from what he knew but what he felt.
The city editor had discovered a way of making Billy's eyes brighten, whether the owner wanted them to or not. That is the reason Woods had been handling so many of the "hard to get" assignments of late instead of the "color" descriptions at which he had made his first hit. "In fact, there is no one in town," the suave city editor would say, "that could handle this story as you could, if you care to take it."
"Well, let me try. I'll do what I can," for Billy was only human.
Not that he spent all his days pulling words out of unwilling people; quite as many fawned upon him and tried to be hail-fellow-well-met with him as did the other thing; as many lied to get themselves in print as to stay out. And he had heard so many of them say, with more or less dignity, "Oh, no, we do not wish you to mention us in the paper," and so often he had seen at the same time the sudden swelling of vanity at being approached by The Press that he seldom believed even the sincere ones any more, and idly speculated on how many extra copies they would buy though you would never dream it from the way he said, "Certainly; I appreciate your situation."
Nor were these latter experiences of a sort to discourage the growth of his professional instincts—which grow according to the laws of compensation.
Billy Woods was not the only boy in the big town who was getting his eyes opened.
The young son of the lawyer who attempted to reward the reporter was also learning considerable about the less admirable side of human nature—like everyone else in the active world—and possibly he was "losing his ideals," as they sometimes sadly say. But in place of the false and pretty ideals of boyhood, he acquired, or ought to have, a grown man's wholesome conception of approximate reality. For however much of the wrong, the abnormal side of life he came in contact with, he also saw plenty of the normal side in his business, or after office-hours, at least.
But the reporter had little to do with anyhing normal, because his job was to hunt and handle The News, which means the interesting, the unusual, surprising, shocking, remarkable, wonderful, wicked, horrible—not the commonplace, the expected, the normal.
He had very little to do with the ninety-nine worthy ministers of the gospel who were neither spectacular preachers jumping at a chance to be interviewed and advertised, nor puppet-like little curates with absurd voices and lady-like manners. He had very little to do with their solid church pillars who did not fall. He had very little to do with the parish's ninety-nine nice little married couples that did not get tired of each other.
The Day was no yellow journal, but it was not conducted for fun. It published what the intelligent classes of a great city would buy. This did not include such items as "John Smith is still living in peace and happiness with his wife and children at No. so-and-so-tieth Street," which is right and normal, but not news, nor very interesting reading to you.
Look at the head-lines of to-day's paper and you may see what sort of facts this bright-eyed boy was stuffing himself with all his long working day, which, also, was abnormal, extending far into the night intended for rest. When he had finished work it was time to go to bed, and when he got up next day it was time to go to work. And to-day's work was digging out, and feeling and handling more abnormality—with little chance to recuperate, like most of the other hard-workers of the city, by rubbing unprofessionally against fellow-humans with other ways of living and working and thinking.
How was he to guess at the mistake he was making? He saw in a week more bare reality, and more sorts of it, than most of you run across in a year. Therefore he thought he knew the truth about life and human nature, and smiled pityingly at the ignorance of dear old fools like his father. What the reporter knew was true indeed, but there were other things equally true, and these he did not know—even when he saw them, which was so seldom that he called them "fakes." He was not quite twenty-one.
He never told anyone about all this. There was no one to tell. What if there had been? You might remind a Cornwall lad in the bottom of a mine that there was a good, warm sun shining on the hill-side overhead. That would not cure his paleness.
When he got through working it was time to go to bed. He did not go immediately to bed. He would not have gone to sleep if he had. … And now I have told the true story of how young Billy got into the way of drinking more than was good for him. It was not to help him get news out of men, because conviviality, he thought, was too personal a thing to use it in business, where he dealt with people, few of whom he considered his social equals. It was not to make him write better copy, because he was an artist and strained with all that was in him after the ideal—which no one ever reaches, but which kept him keyed up all day, and then let him down so hard when the paper went to press.
He had always been too busy with exterior sights and sounds to be troubled with in-growing thoughts, but when midnight came, and he had wound up his last story, and had nothing else to be intense over—with nerves stretched and hand trembling—there came disquieting sensations which sometimes made him feel—but he knew a way to get rid of these feelings.
Billy Woods not only drank, but he got drunk. It was not that he did not know when to stop; of course he knew when to stop. Nor did a "demon" get into him, as they say in the temperance tracts; he did not want to stop. He got drunk because he liked it. It was glorious. And everything swung around, soothingly straightened out, and became sunny and warm. The world was beautiful and lovable, as when he was a kid down home; and he believed you to be worthy of his liking once more, and even of his respect, and he glowed and was glad, and gave his watch and pocket-book to the waiters.
He grew a little older. He digested some of his too suddenly acquired knowledge. As with other young men, his business became more of a business and less of a personal experience. It was an old story now, like death and disease to doctors.
Doctors can get an occasional respite. They dine out sometimes and meet healthy people and can, though not all do, keep normal and well-balanced.
Billy Woods also must have some sort of recreation, and his social instinct, too, was indestructible, like yours. By the time the theatres and music halls were dark, what kind of fun could he get and what sort of society had he to choose from? To go to a lonely club library and read while a loud clock ticked, after writing all day, was loathsome. He required something robust and exciting, like all the intense sort. There are only a few things to do after the paper goes to press. Billy did them.
The next day he reported—nearly always, at the office of the newspaper for which he was doing perhaps the most brilliant work of his sort in the Western hemisphere. He kept a packed suit-case down there now, for he never knew when he took his bath in the morning where he would take off his clothes—if at all—the following night. He was the great Billy Woods.
Mr. Woods, the American reporter (or "correspondent" as that sounds more impressive), who had penetrated a part of India—from which all the English journalists, it is said, held back—in order to write those memorable letters to The Day about the Plague; who had discovered a new tribe—at least, as to local color—in Patagonia; who had described oil-well booms in Ohio, Indian-uprisings in the Bad Lands, mountain feuds in Kentucky, was back at general work again in New York. He couldn't keep away. He said he liked the smell of The Day office, and had to look at Madison Square at least once in every twenty-four hours. Also, his dyspepsia was not so bothersome as when he was travelling.
"I should think," said one of his young friends, on Woods's return from one of these trips, "that you would go in for magazine work now—or write books——"
"And sign all four of my names in full?" returned Woods, "and write in the first person and say I did this and I said that? Why? Aren't newspapers and anonymity good enough for you? They are for me. So long as I can make people feel things—that's all I want. Magazines are so slow. It took that one two months to turn around on the Hawaiian stuff I did for them—even then they thought they were beating a rival magazine—Oh, Lord!"
But the young friend meant why didn't Woods write fiction, or try a play, "I think you could do it."
Others in the office thought he could. Woods thought so, too, but he did not see why anyone should want to write fiction, he said, who could handle news; he said that facts were the great romantic material of this unsuperstitious age, and there was just as much room for art in the proper portrayal of news as of imagined facts and, "It is as much more difficult as it is more useful," said Billy.
This was quoted by his little crowd of sycophants who flattered him and helped him spend his spacious space earnings, quite like the hangers-on of other great men.
But all that was a year or two ago. Of late older and wiser friends of Woods had been suggesting changes.
They urged him to get into some line of desk work, exchange, or telegraphic, or features. "It would be better for you," they said.
"Too slow," said Billy, "couldn't stand it a month."
"Why don't you take that offer of the Senator's?" the managing editor once asked him.
"Become a private secretary! be an underling and answer questions all day! Besides, I couldn't live on the salary."
"It's a good beginning for a political career."
Billy said he'd rather be a gentleman.
"It would be a good idea for you to get out of the newspaper life," said the managing editor at another time. "You've got a good all-around equipment now for——"
"I could no more settle down to a roll-top-desk life than Cherokee Indians can run farms," said Billy, thanking him.
The only thing they could get him interested in was a certain foreign correspondent's place, which was about to be vacant. "You can speak French and German so well," they said. "You've lots of friends over there, and you're just about cynical and superior enough for a correspondent." Billy became quite enthusiastic and excited, but forgot to keep his appointment with the chief in regard to it, and the chief said he was getting tired of doing so much for a man that did so little for himself. Billy was not so very sorry.
"Little, old New York is good enough for me," he said, "even though they do make me read copy occasionally. I wonder why they do." Formerly they said he was too good for it.
He still disliked reading copy as much as he loved to fly around the town, with his glasses sliding down his nose, after big news. "It's the only way to live," he said. "I expect to die out on a story."
It might seem strange that he enjoyed it all. He had seen so much that his personal zest in seeing things had worn out long ago. Every sort of occurrence, every sort of human situation, every sort of human character was as old and familiar to him as the streets of New York, which he knew so well that, looking out of an elevated window, between stations, no matter what part of the island it was or how long he might have been asleep and oblivious to the guard's voice, he could give you the name of the street "just by the feel of it," he said, and usually a reminiscence of some story he had worked up in that street, too.
Similarly, the manifestation of all human emotions seemed to him old, stale, and somewhat absurd.
Not that he was cynical. He was beyond that. Cynicism is more or less active. He had reached a sort of passive, premature mellowness. He had a way of bestowing benignant attention upon men and women and affairs. But the only personal interest things held for him now was their news possibility, just as many good business men can appreciate only real estate values or industrial possibilities in scenery.
But while his eye for news—" nose for news" is the technical term—was so keen, his ability to make other people feel the story he saw was a different matter. As different as sympathy is from knowledge.
Every sort of passion and situation had so long ceased to mystify, charm,or awe him that now he was forgetting how other people who had not lived so fast were mystified, charmed, repelled, or awed. That is what one writes with. He knew too much. He had forgotten his ignorance.
He did not know what he had lost.
All he knew was that they kept repeating at the office that his stories somehow lacked their former sparkle and human interest. "For Heaven's sake," said the managing editor, one day, "let up on those old worn-out phrases. Get some new stencils." Billy, whose pride had been stung much more than they imagined, had been trying to pour sparkle and human interest into his stuff by means of a few more drinks, hurriedly snatched on the way to the office, "just to get into the mood," he told himself. "My digestion is all off to-day, anyhow."
He knew the danger of this. He knew it as well as do some physicians. He could demonstrate with the technical terms very glibly just why it was especially to be avoided by a man with a temperament like his. He wrote a Sunday special upon this.
The time had come for Billy Woods to learn something he had never believed in since a boy; something that was to wipe out many of the effects of his ill-assorted knowledge, replace belief in other good things, putting him in tune with Nature once more and keeping him warm and normal—for life, perhaps … But she died … Maybe it was just as well.
For several months after he "left The Day" Billy Woods did not take a regular job on any staff, though plenty of city editors tried to get him. Along the Row Billy's reason for this was smilingly said to be fear that he would forget and absent-mindedly walk into The Day office from force of habit, as he had done once before with another paper's beat, after The Day had tried to discharge him. There are many tales about Billy Woods along the Row. The real reason was a sentimental one, as his old friends knew, a boyish, grand-stand, "true to my first love" sort of loyalty, and Billy was rather pleased with himself for it.
Many of those who left The Day, as soon as they had discovered from the perspective point of view that there were also other ways of regarding facts and writing about them than The Day's way, learned straightway to criticise their former paper, pointing out its complacent cock-sureness and snarling vindictiveness, meanwhile keeping on reading it till they died.
Billy never said a disparaging word about it, and if anyone else tried to in his presence, he would stand up like a son for the family that has banished him. He was almost childish about it. "No wonder," some of the men said, "The Day indulged him more than any paper ever did anyone else."
So now the ex-star of The Day was doing specials. "I ought to be able to get along well as a free lance," he said. His friends thought so, too. But he did not get along very well.
Free lancing is precarious for the most industrious. Billy was not lazy, but he had for so long been writing what he was told to write, in the way he was told to write it, that he did not know how to work now without a boss over him. He had subordinated his own personality to that of the paper's for so long that now his own was afraid to speak.
"How are you getting along, Billy?"
"Oh, first-rate. It's great to be independent," said Billy, assuming the jaunty manner of the prosperous and contented. To those who knew him well it was pathetically plain that he was not content, and they were soon made to learn that he was not prosperous. Billy was as likely to forget that he had borrowed as, in his affluent days, that he had loaned.
When he signified his willingness to do general work once more, he was seized and used by another paper, and he did some big things before he left it, but it was never with the spirit with which he worked for The Day. It was an eminently respectable sheet, but Billy had little respect for it. He patronized it, thought it was sleepy, told the desk they could not appreciate a Day story, and that they took all the life and sparkle out of his copy. They called it cheap flippancy.
He threatened to resign, but did not have a chance to. He came down to the office one morning and found a notice in his letter box. Ten other men and a woman received similar notes. It was nothing unusual, just a little bi-monthly shake-up, decided upon in ten minutes. That is the way it is done in many a newspaper office. Billy told the desk that that was not the way they discharged men from The Day. "You ought to know," said the city editor. And for once Billy had no reply to make.
To those who asked him what he was doing these days, Billy said he was still writing "that book," and to anyone that would stop to listen, he gave interesting accounts of how various publishers were fighting for it. "Look at this letter—oh, I find I left it at the room, on the mantelpiece, I think; no, in my other coat," but he would tell in detail what this one said and that one said. It was good, sprightly dialogue. "Look at some of the stuff that gets printed and bound and is called a book!" Billy would exclaim, excitedly, "I ought to be able to write a book. Don't you think so?" They thought he ought, and went on about their business. "Good-by," shouted Billy, "I'll send you a complimentary copy when it comes out."
Like many another newspaper man he had two or three unfinished novels in an old trunk, and it was on these that some of his friends had been urging him, not altogether disinterestedly, to get to work, in stead of loafing around, waiting for things to turn up. Billy used to say, "I don't feel like it to-day. Oh, they're no good, anyway."
When he had finally persuaded himself to write something, it seemed so poor and impossible as he looked up at the thing far above him at which he aimed and strained. He did not realize that it is not given to mere man to touch the thing he sighed for. He stared and stared, and then read and re-read what he had created until he loathed it. To run away from it was a necessity.
… Finally, when they said they could lend him no more money, they prevailed upon him to write and finish something. It was something quite different.
Did you ever hear who wrote those greasy little publications you have seen A. D. T. boys bending over in elevated trains—"Crack! and a rifle shot broke the Sabbath stillness of the air, and seven bronzed warriors lay stiff at the feet of Deadly Dick?" Newspaper men write many of them. Billy wrote one—just for fun—and the publisher asked for more, complimenting Woods on the way he did it. So with the next Billy foolishly began to take pains. He had all the time he wanted, and again the artist in him began to assert itself; he took it seriously, even though it was a burlesque, consequently became dissatisfied, began it over again in a different way, got discouraged, tore the thing up, burned the pieces and went out and borrowed a quarter. The artistic sense is very persistent, more so than the moral, it seems. He forgot to return the quarter.
Then at night, if he could get enough to drink, he would talk brilliantly about the great, beautiful, new sort of writing he was going to begin in the morning, or, equally interestedly, about your writing. He would be as sympathetic and responsive as only he could be, getting your meaning before you could express it, and then expressing it better than you could. Later in the night, he sought and often got the attention of the whole room, and would argue and hold forth on all sorts of topics of the town, as he loved to do, displaying an inner knowledge of men and things which, if it had been caught by a phonograph, could in some cases have been reeled off to stenographers and sold for enough to keep Billy Woods drunk for a week.
As it was, newspaper men of a certain sort used to get columns of Sunday space out of him, about all sorts of things, from Patagonian grasses to the social ambitions of the wife of the man who earned a living taking care of the bodies for the dissecting room of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Then when the papers came out—Billy always read all of them—he would scratch his head and say, "That's a good story. Say, do you know, I was going to do a special on that myself. Too late now."
If some one had taken him in hand, and assumed guardian- and manager-ship over him, on a per cent. basis—for Billy would have agreed—they might both have made a good thing of it. There was nobody to do this. Many of his old friends had quit the life entirely. Two of them were becoming well-known lawyers. One was editor of a country newspaper, raising chickens as a side issue. A number had died, and some had dropped out of sight. Others had gone into different lines of journalistic work. Others had remained newspaper men and more or less healthy, normal, balanced human beings, and were certainly good friends to Billy Woods. But these had children of their own to think about, or else staffs of reporters to control.
But he avoided most of his old associates of The Day now, even when drunk, for he had an idea that they would be ashamed to be seen with him; that they talked and laughed behind his back, and perhaps some of them did. He cherished no resentment; he thought it was quite natural and right, and that he deserved it. But he used to linger sometimes in an unobserved nook by the old familiar doorway, watching the younger, fresh-faced Day reporters as they came running out upon the street on assignments. He would beam a benediction on them.
No matter where he woke up, The Day was the first thing he asked for before a glass of ice-water even. He knew—few better—how to criticise each story, but he would laugh aloud at the humorous ones, and say, "By Jove, that's a pretty story," of the pathetic ones, and slap the paper with his hand and get nervous and excited. Then he would stop short and think. Anyone who knew him could tell what he was thinking.
"I saw old Dr. Woods's son down on Broadway to-day. I wonder why his people don't do something for him. There always was a wild streak in the Woodses. He's looking pretty seedy."
Billy did not mean to look seedy. He could not keep his neckties from fraying any more than the silk facing of his overcoat; and the latter he wore unbuttoned, just as he did the under coat, so he could put his hands in his trousers pockets. That was more comfortable. So was wearing his hat on the back of his head. And, when he could get it, there was a cigar in his mouth.
Billy drifted into regular work again in this way:
He was waiting one morning in the office of an afternoon paper to see a copy-reader he knew named Brown, probably to borrow some money from him. Brown was late. Billy waited at his seat. Twice the city editor, who was near-sighted, had been on the point of addressing Woods for the man that belonged there. The third time he snapped out, "Say, there, can you read copy?" He did not know who it was.
Billy said he thought he could. "Read these stories and keep the desk to-day."
Billy kept it for three months, and it is said that the headlines he wrote brought up the circulation of the paper.
He kept sober all that time. The indoor work was less of a strain on the nerves, and so there was less necessity to drink, and also he was not obliged to walk in front of places whence the peculiar smells called to him.
"Told you fellows," said Woods, "that I could quit it if I made up my mind to it. I am a gentleman. I'm not one of these Park Row bums. My people …" He was often talking about his people now, and how distinguished their history had been, and it used to make some men laugh, and Billy had two or three fights on that score.
Then one morning he did not come down to the office (this was an afternoon paper), nor the next, nor until a week later, when he suddenly ran into the room and made a scene, trying to throw out the man who had succeeded him at the desk.
The next day, when he was sober, he came in and apologized; he apologized profusely to the whole staff, and the office boys. He was almost abject. But there was no place for him there any longer.
He got occasional jobs here and there—often on some poor little paper of small importance, which many of you never read, which Billy, in the old days of his glory, used to feel sorry for. The other newspaper men along the Row who read all the papers (and seldom anything else) did not have to be told when and where Billy Woods was back at work again. They could see it in the columns of the paper, as plainly as though it were a photograph, and then, suddenly, the touch that they recognized as his had dropped out again, and they would say: "Too bad that fellow can't leave whiskey alone," for they knew that Billy had lost another job.
He would disappear from the Row entirely, and no one seemed to know certainly where he was until a week or so later he would turn up again, looking like a wreck, drop into an office and beg the city editor for a job or the loan of a dollar. Sometimes he would get the dollar, sometimes the job—perhaps because the city editor expected to get the latter back sooner.
Meanwhile he lived nobody knew how—how do you live, you ghosts of Printing House Square, that walk up and down the Row and stand around in certain hallways and bar-rooms, talking of the story of the day and trouble with The Times's policy—and the Lord knows what—most intelligently; how do you manage it, I wonder?
Some old friends of Billy Woods had decided to send him off to an alcoholism cure. They argued that it would not hurt him, and might prove less expensive for them selves. Woods was full of the idea, and said it would be just the thing.
Two of them went to the train with him, and he was as pleased and delighted as a boy starting off for a month's camping; he shook their hands effusively, even whimpered a little at how good they were to him, and then blinking his eyes said, solemnly, for the fifth time, that he sincerely believed he was going to be cured. "And if I'm not, you know," he suddenly called back, as the train started, "I'll write a special about the thing, showing it up for a fake and all that."
"I wonder," said one of his friends, as the rear car grew smaller, "if he would take the assignment to cover his father's funeral?"
"If he wasn't too drunk," said the other, and they both went back to their daily work in the noisy vortex of the city.
Billy, in a quiet place in the good, green country, experienced regular meals, regular hours, and normal nights' sleep for the first time in years. And for the first time in years he had a perspective view of Newspaper Row and himself. They made him take long walks through the quiet country, and he saw, as plainly as his friends, the inevitable conclusion of his story—unless he took himself sharply in hand, without any more delay.
As he began regaining his physical exuberance he began telling himself what he had never acknowledged to anyone before—that he could have stopped all along if he only wanted to—the trouble had been to want to. He used to tell his friends, with tears in his eyes, "What makes it so hard is that, no matter how hard I fight, there is always the absolute certainty of failure in the end, sooner or later." But he now believed that he could have kept from it all the while, just as he could have held back his spectacular tears, if he had only made up his mind. Even when she died he could have held off—but everybody said they did not blame him, and he did not blame himself, and there was so much satisfaction in letting go once more and getting recklessly, gloriously drunk.
Before he left the Sanitarium something else happened for the first time in years. His father came to see him; came all the way from Virginia to pray with him, as he told Billy, who almost blushed, and after the old gentleman had left, promising to return the next day, the reporter laughed, kindly. He laughed again the second day, and the third. The fourth time he cried. They weren't fake tears this time. They lasted so long. …
But Billy declined with very sincere thanks to go home and do the prodigal-son act. Once a newspaper man, always a newspaper man. But he was going to get some quiet indoor work, writing para graphs on some mild afternoon paper, or something of that sort.
Woods came out, pronounced cured, and he hurried back to Park Row and showed himself to the first one of his friends he could find. He was very quiet and serious now, and had a good, clean look about the eyes. "I believe I am a new man," he said, gravely. "Now I want to get to work."
The friend looked thoughtful, for, being a newspaper man, he was skeptical of many things, including gold cures, but he knew it was useless to advise, so he tried to help Woods get something to do.
But it was no longer easy to get even Billy Woods a job, notwithstanding his clean-shaven, grave face, backed up by a new suit of dark clothes and white linen. It had become the general belief along the Row that he could not be depended upon to keep sober till the paper went to press.
First they tried the big papers, but most of the city editors refused to even see Woods; one or two because they had been reporters with him in the old days, and it was easier to refuse Billy Woods if they did not see him, even though they were hardened city editors; but most of them because they were very busy men and had no time to waste on drunkards.
"There's no sense in being discouraged," said Billy Woods, smiling; "I'll try again to-morrow. What are my legs for? Say, wasn't that a well-written story The Day had this morning about the Board of Education!" Then he talked fascinatingly for half an hour about politics in the Board of Education.
The next day he started with the less desirable papers and began to work down the list.
"But I've quit drinking entirely," he exclaimed, straightening his glasses and trying to look intent, like the old Billy Woods. "How about the night exchange desk? You know what I can do."
The city editors smiled indulgently. They did not seem to understand that he had quit drinking entirely.
"Very well," said Woods, cheerily, "Good-by," smiled, bowed politely, and marched off to try to make some other office think it was worth while giving him a trial.
Then as Woods's cane thumped on out of the room, those who were waiting for assignments gathered in a group on tables and chairs, and the old reporters told stories of Woods's past greatness, which made the new reporters' eyes grow big, and instances of his absent-mindedness and drunken freaks, at which they all laughed together. … In a week or two it was, "Anything I can get. You know my abilities. I've hocked everything I own except the clothes I have on. Please give me just one chance. No, I don't care to borrow money, thank you. I can't say when I could ever pay you back."
This last was surprising, but you see he remembered that the old Billy Woods had had a great deal of self-respect. He was recalling all he could of the old Billy Woods.
"Well, Billy, still looking for that job?" said grinning young reporters, familiarly, as they passed by. A year or two ago they would have called him Mr. Woods, if they had presumed to address him at all, for the star reporter of The Day was a very exclusive young person.
Billy Woods's great chance came in this way: A big piece of news had come into existence, and the morning papers each had at least two columns about it. But none of them had been able to cover a most important point in it. So there was a good "second day" story for the afternoon papers, just the sort of story Billy Woods, the old Billy Woods, could have run down. Now at rare intervals the old Billy Woods cropped out. It was on that chance that the city editor of a certain afternoon paper was saying: "Now, Woods, you are a drunkard. I want you to understand me; you are not a member of the staff unless you run down this story. If you get the story you get the job. If you can't find the story you'll have to look for another job. That's plain." Billy knew he was considered a drunkard, so he thanked the kind editor for giving him a chance.
"Have you any change?" asked the city editor. "Well, here's an order on the cashier. There, that'll pay car-fare and a telephone, if you have to telephone. Now skip out and make your best time. Oh, say, Woods, don't forget this is an afternoon paper."
Billy did not like to be joked about his absent-mindedness, but he was too happy with the thought of going out on a story once more to feel any resentment. His eyes were glistening as he grabbed some copy-paper and dashed out of the room with something of his old vigorous stride, smiling to himself and humming a little tuneless tune of pleasure.
"I'll bet he gets drunk on that order you gave him, Mr. Hutchings," said a copy-reader, looking up.
"I have two other men out on the story, so it won't matter," said the city editor.
But Billy Woods had no thought of getting drinks with the money or even something to eat, which he would have relished much more just now. First he went to his old favorite barber-shop and got shaved. He remembered that the old Billy Woods was a well-dressed young man; besides it might be necessary to look like a gentleman, in order to work the story in the way he had instantly planned.
It was the sort of story Billy loved. A large mining and land company, well known and believed in by nearly everybody, had suddenly and quite unexpectedly come to grief. So much of the story, and very little else, by way of news, had been published that morning all over the globe. Why the company had met with disaster had not been published, because that could not be found out, as yet, not even by the cleverest reporters in the most enterprising newspaper centre of both hemispheres.
It was, indeed, just the sort of story the old Billy Woods could have handled. And as he walked energetically across City Hall Park, past the indigent and intoxicated on the benches, he was resolving again with all that was in him to be the old Billy Woods. As he ran up the L steps and boarded a train he swore never to drink again as long as he lived. This was where he usually swore never to drink again.
Nearly all the newspaper world—that is, men who represented the newspapers of the whole world—were buzzing around the office of the stranded firm. It was down in Wall Street. That was the reason Billy Woods went uptown. He went to the home of the president of the company and asked, mysteriously, to see him alone. He was informed that he was out. Billy knew that; that was the reason he asked for him. Of course other reporters had come to the house; they had been there every few hours of the last twenty-four, including midnight and two o'clock; they had not asked to see the master of the house alone, and they had been anything but mysterious; they endeavored to be as pleasant and conciliatory as possible. But of course they had not succeeded in seeing the inside of the vestibule, much less a member of the family.
"Are you quite certain he's out?" exclaimed Billy Woods excitedly to the servant. "Did he not leave a message for me? What! Why, this is most extraordinary, I'm sure; most extraordinary! Did he not tell you I was coming?" His vowels had become broad and the intonation in his questions was not American.
The servant explained that he had been instructed to admit no one. But he said so in an apologetic tone; and so Billy went on: "My good man, you're quite right. Pray do not admit anyone—not even me, but did he not tell you I was expected?"
The servant said he would inquire. "What name, sir?"
"My name? Don't you know me? If not it would hardly do to tell you my name. If he's in tell him H. P. is here from the West—or tell his daughter."
"Very good, sir; come into the reception-room, please."
When Woods put on his English accent and arrogant manner, it always went straight to English servants' hearts. He was the first reporter to get farther than the doorstep.
In a few minutes a young girl appeared at the portières. She had a great deal of brown hair and her hands were pretty. Billy did not notice the hands until afterward, but he had already taken in a great many more things than most persons would in fifteen minutes. Among them, that this young woman was romantic and emotional, and that she had been holding in tears and excitement—and, probably, facts—until her young head was almost reeling.
Billy automatically formed his plan before she had crossed the room; then he came forward to meet her, but not too suddenly. "Isn't your father here?" He asked this in a low tone of suppressed excitement.
"He's down town. Are you a reporter——"
"But he left a letter for me, did he not? Surely, surely he told you to expect me. I sent a telegram when I started and another on my way yesterday, at Chicago, saying I would call at the house, you know."
"Papa got a number of telegrams from the West, saying various men would be on to-day" (as Woods had easily guessed), "but I suppose he thought they would go directly to the office. May I ask your name?"
"But I told him distinctly—oh, Palmer, Palmer's my name. You've heard of me, I dare say," Billy said, in a matter-of-fact way, and went on, "I told him I would call here, if he was not at the office—oh, this is terrible! If you knew what it involves you would—ah—pardon the intrusion and and the way I am behaving, I'm sure. You have heard of me, have you not? Mr. Harold Palmer?" Billy smiled modestly at her, while he fumbled, apparently, for a card, which apparently he forgot.
"Very likely I have," said the girl, more graciously now, "but I don't recall——"
"One of the English members?" asked Woods. "You've heard your father speak of them?"
"Oh, yes, of course; he always spoke of them as——"
"The English crowd," laughed Billy, who had read the morning papers carefully, and also knew something of the history and working of this corporation, as he did of most big firms down town.
The girl was now smiling at him agreeably. "I thought you were an Englishman when you first spoke," she said.
Billy now saw by the large, young eyes that there was a new and a personal interest in him, and he surmised that she was recalling what her father had doubtless often told her about the group of well-born young Englishmen out there in the West, one or two of whom had left titles and stories in England, making them interesting to young girls. So now he began to talk. He talked well. He knew she would talk later on when he was ready for it.
First his talk was calm; it was merely to establish his fictitious identity in her mind, and win her confidence. This was easy for Woods, who was now warming up to his part like an actor when he feels he has the attention and good-will of the house. Then he began to work upon her sympathies. Soon he had her under-lip trembling at the picture of ruin which the failure of the firm was about to bring upon him, the sole support of that old mother he had described to her unless he found out whether or not her father … "But, of course," he interrupted himself, dropping his dark eyes, "I would not for the world have you tell even me about it unless you yourself feel that under the circumstances, the peculiar circumstances, I have a full right to know. I trust I am not asking too much? If I am you must frankly tell me so, but oh, Heavens, if I do not find out before the Stock Exchange closes—no! within half an hour——" He bit his lip.
Billy now had her talking, talking frankly and freely, with a nice little sympathetic look about the corners of her mouth, and wonder in her eyes, and some zest, for he seemed such a strange, romantic, fascinating foreigner, and the story he told was so pathetic, and he had such a sad, strong, distinguished face and bearing. She believed that he had had "a great sorrow" in his life, and all sorts of strange experiences, and that she was in the midst of a story.
"And what did your father say he would do in that case?" the interesting man was asking, beaming kindly at her, and adding: "You see, I don't exactly understand. I'm all knocked up—all these sudden worries—but never mind that," and he stopped himself with a grim smile, quite as they do in novels.
She repeated it all clearly, for she was an only daughter, and her father was a widower, and that was the reason Billy had guessed the girl would know. When in trouble, Woods generally found, a man has to talk to some woman, and Billy had reckoned on the right one.
"Then after your father learned that the Western bank wanted the securities after all?"
"Well, then, Mr. Palmer, you know what the directors decided to do. Indeed, you ought to know."
"Indeed, I ought," said the stranger, with a very bitter laugh. "And your father?"
"Well, Mr. Palmer—my father—it was too late then; it was simply a necessity, under the circumstances. Don't you see it was? How did papa know that the directors were not going to concur with him—they always had before—how was he to guess—oh, Mr. Palmer, isn't it awful! This whole thing—papa's nearly worried to death—but he thinks he will be able to tide it over by to-night—he's positive if he can only continue to keep the papers off the right scent, you know. Of course you won't talk to any reporters, will you, Mr. Palmer?"
"No," said Woods, rising from his seat, "I won't tell any of the reporters."
"They would like to know what you know," said the girl, earnestly, shaking her head.
"Yes," said Billy.
"You know it would ruin papa if the papers got hold of it—not only ruin him, but—well, you see how it would look to the public?"
"Yes," said Billy, who knew very well.
"Some of them are very clever, papa says. Are you sure you would understand how to deal with reporters?"
"Yes," said Billy, "I would understand. You're quite right," he added, picking up his hat; "don't let them inside the door; don't let anyone in—slam the door in their faces."
The girl even followed him to the door. She was holding out her hand now. It was a beautiful hand. "I have talked very freely to you," she said, her eyes looking frankly into his; "you are a comparative stranger to me, but I feel that I can trust you."
Woods looked at her a moment. "I'm glad you have," he said, and then he bowed low and quite gracefully, having been taught how many years ago by a mother who had a soft voice, and went down the steps, looking back once more at the girl with the brave, trustful look in her eyes. There was another once to whom he had made a promise long ago. She, too, had beautiful hands. He had written verses about them. He was starting off down the street now with facts which, if published, would ruin another man and make Billy Woods—just then another reporter came bustling up the steps. He had been waiting nearby, and had seen the door open and Woods come out.
The girl met him at the top of the stairs and shook her head decisively.
"I beg your pardon," insisted the new-comer, "but what one paper publishes you may as well let all publish," pointing down the street at Billy's disappearing back; "you talked a long time to that other reporter—" The door slammed in his face, and Billy, who had watched, went hurrying down the street, shaking all over his body so that people on the street stared at him and smiled.
All day the girl kept saying to herself: "I believe in him anyway; even if he is a reporter, I believe in the look in his face."
She sent for the first editions of the afternoon papers. They all contained frequent mention of her father's name and a column or two about the affair, but little that had not been printed in the morning papers, and nothing of what she had told the dark stranger. She looked through the successive editions of all the papers and could not find what she did not want to find. The next morning she woke up early, tiptoed down-stairs, looked through all the papers. Then she crept up to bed again, saying, "I told you so; I just knew that reporter was a gentleman," mentally begged his pardon for having felt even uneasy about it, and got a little much-needed sleep before breakfast.
But that wasn't the way of it exactly.
Woods had not telephoned to the office because there was plenty of time for a rapid writer, like himself, to catch the first edition. Besides, this was too good a story to risk over the telephone. There was no one in the office, he thought, who could handle that story in the masterful way he could. All he had to do was to pull himself together now, for this last final spurt, and then he'd be the winner, and all the Row would be talking about him once more, and perhaps The Day … But the trembling old reporter couldn't pull himself together, somehow. He had used up all he had in him, as it was. He called upon his will. But there wasn't very much of that any longer.
"I have demonstrated it for three solid months," he whispered to himself, pushing open a bamboo door, "and now is a time when I need it, if there ever was. It's not the use but the abuse—" The little yielding door shut silently behind him.
"What! You again? I haven't seen you for a long time," said the brisk young hospital surgeon that night as he jumped off his seat in the rear of the ambulance. "Tumble in—that's all right—you'll have time enough to tell me all about it before you get out of the hospital. Shut up now." Then to the big policeman: "They always have it worse when they haven't had proper nourishment for as long as this fellow. Sit on his legs, will you, please?"
The great corporation was on its feet once more and making money, and the great story was more or less of a blank to the old reporter by the time he was discharged from Bellevue, and came stumbling down toward Park Row again.
"Hello, there's Billy Woods. Every paper wanted that fellow once; none of 'em will have him now—look out, let's hurry by or he'll strike us for the price of a drink. Too bad he couldn't leave whiskey alone."