The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories/The Stolen Story
The Stolen Story
THEY had warned Billy Woods so often before and had not yet asked him to resign that the rest of the staff believed they never would. This was reasonable, because there was only one Billy Woods, and the newspapers that wanted geniuses were many.
Woods wore glasses that slid down his nose, and he was a born reporter. He had an absent-minded manner that went well with the glasses, but his nose for news was the best on Park Row.
The first impression he gave was of unpractical guilelessness, but he could ask a greater number of intelligent questions about a greater variety of interests than three average reporters, and they are all pretty good at it. He had the power of making anybody talk. The busiest bank presidents and the crustiest lawyers opened their mouths for him quite as readily as East Side saloon-keepers. If there was news to be had Woods could dig it out; and after he got it he knew how to handle it. These two qualities don't always go together.
Woods had been taken on the staff of The Day as a cub reporter, younger, and even more ignorant of the meaning of the word "news" than most cub reporters. Since then he had learned a good deal, but had never seen fit to leave off reporting for a place at the copy-reading desk, or even to become assistant city editor, because reporting was not only more pleasurable but decidedly more profitable. He led as unmonotonous a life as anyone in town, and his space bills averaged nearly three times as much as an ordinary copy-reader's salary and fully twice that of the assistant city editor—not to speak of his fame as the star reporter of The Day.
Many other newspapers wanted him to be their star man. There was a very large standing offer from one of these, The Earth, but he always refused because it would be such a bother to overhaul and clear out the drawers of his desk, and also because The Day was the best newspaper in the country to stick to. There was a saying along the Row, borne out by fact, that a Day man was fixed for life if he minded his business and kept sober till the paper went to press. But this latter was very difficult for Billy Woods, and that was the reason dust was on his desk and the men were talking about him this morning. This morning meant 12.30 P.M., and the reporters were arriving for the day's work. Some of them were just out of bed and were waiting to be sent off on their first assignments before getting breakfast.
"There'll be the devil to pay when he comes back this time," said the man with the high collar.
"Oh, I don't know," said the one on the desk, swinging his legs. "This is only the fourth day. That time last year he was gone a week, and they told him they would have to fire him, and Billy bobbed his head and looked pathetic, and agreed with all they said about him; and, as usual, they told him——"
"Yes, but don't you see," the high collar went on, knowingly, "Billy never let the paper get beaten before. I don't understand it; no matter how absent-minded he was he never fell down on his story. At first they thought he had merely forgotten that we go to press early on Saturday nights—he has to be reminded every time, you know—but when it got later and later, everybody began to guess what was the matter, though nobody wanted to say so. You ought to have heard them swear—I was doing the long wait that night—when they finally locked up and went to press with only the 'flimsy' story that had it five killed instead of nine." In newspaper offices flimsy means News Bureau reports. "Of course," the reporter added, "they correct ed that in the later editions with a lift from The Press, but you know what a botch of a story it was. They sent me out for the steamboat company's end of it, but everybody had gone to bed and didn't know any boiler had exploded till I woke 'em up and told them."
The leg-swinger remarked: "He was all right all the afternoon and evening. In fact, he'd been trying so hard to be good for several months, poor old Billy—but then you know his way. Probably began by deciding it was cold going down the bay on the tug."
"You're mistaken," said somebody in a confident tone from a near-by desk. This was Sampson, one of the older men, who was clipping his space from the morning paper, and had not been in the conversation before. "Billy Woods did not start in on the way down. He never drinks when out on an assignment. You know that. What's more, I've good reason for believing that a certain cur from a certain paper got him drunk on the way home after Billy had written his story in the cabin—deliberately. Let me tell you what The Herald man on that tug said to me last night." But he did not tell, for just then the city editor called out "Sampson," and this reporter tossed down his scissors and went up to the desk to take an assignment.
"Good-morning. Who's that you're talking about?" Another reporter had joined the group, taking off his coat.
"Why, I saw him a minute ago in the drug store drinking bromo-seltzer. Here he is now."
Woods was bending over the latch of the little gate that kept those who had no right to go inside from those who had.
The gate shut with a click behind him, and, looking scholarly and dignified, he marched straight up the room for the city editor's desk, rapping the floor with his cane at every two steps. His glasses were tipped forward at an angle so that he had to elevate his chin to focus through them, and he did not even see his friends as he strode up between the rows of desks, hurrying with his whole body.
"R-E-morse," said Jones, with the high collar.
Sampson was still standing beside the city editor, listening to instructions as to the style of story wanted about the sanitary condition of Ludlow Street Jail; so Woods had to wait. The men down at the other end of the room observed him frowning as though just in with an important piece of news instead of the remnants of a four days' spree. Jones and one of the others, pretending to look for mucilage, sauntered up the room to hear what would take place.
As soon as Sampson started off, without waiting for Mr. White, the city editor, to turn to him, Billy Woods said, "Well, there were nine persons killed there down the bay, sir."
News that is four days old is rather ancient history for a city editor to recall immediately and, at first, Mr. White looked puzzled. Then he stopped a smile and said, "Mr. Woods, Mr. Manning wants to see you, I believe," and bent over his clippings again. He did not usually call Billy "Mr. Woods."
Woods knew what that meant, but he only said, "Yes, sir," and, holding his body very erect, walked over to the managing editor's desk. It was in the same room.
Mr. Manning spoke a few brief sentences which the other reporters could not distinguish, though they could hear Billy saying, "Yes, sir," every now and then; "That's so," "Yes, I agree with you," while his head nodded attentively, and then, "Good-by, sir;" and in a little over a minute Billy Woods marched down the room and out of the gate, no longer a member of The Day's staff. Newspaper editors have no superfluous time to spend, even upon geniuses.
Woods was now completely sober for the first time in four days.
He could turn either up or down the Row, he knew, and get a position in the first newspaper office he came to. But to be "discharged for intoxication" meant more to Woods than even his intimate friends imagined. It had made him a great deal soberer than he cared to be, and before he reached the foot of the stairs he had made up his mind what to do about it. It was not to a newspaper office that he turned. He still had some money left. But, as it chanced, he did not carry out his intention.
Things move so quickly in Newspaper Row. The news of Wood's dismissal had permeated the entire room before he was quite out of it. Before he was down the stairs a certain mature-faced office-boy had stolen unobserved to the telephone closet, carefully closed the door and called up the city editor of The Earth.
"Is that you, Mr. McCarthy?" said the boy in The Day office, glancing behind him to see that no one was watching him through the sound-proof glass door—"Hello, Mr. McCarthy, you know who this is—yes. Well, B. W. turned up, and dey give him de grand t'row down—what?—Yes, just now, just dis minute—what? I don't know where he went.—Naw, I couldn't sneak downstairs after him. I'm scared to death now—I say I'm scared to death now dat dey's getting onto me here. No, he was sober—Yes, if you hurry. All right, yes, sir. Good-by."
Then the office-boy rang off, and walked out and began throwing spit-balls, made of copy paper, at the other office-boys, while in the city room of The Earth Mr. McCarthy was speaking rapidly to two men hastily summoned to his desk:
"You'll find him some place along the Row. Maybe he hasn't any money; in that case he won't get drunk, but I think he'll wander 'round awhile before he looks for a job. Let's see—if he's plenty of money he'll probably go to the café, you know; but more likely you'll find him at Andy's. Munson, you go to Andy's. Murphy, you go to the other place. Jolly him up if he doesn't want to join us—promise him any amount of money (I hope he's hard up); he can't hold you to it, you know—anything to get him here before he's gobbled up by somebody else. Now, then, hurry on. Wait a minute. See here, don't make him drunk unless necessary. I've got a big story waiting for him."
It was just four minutes later that Munson was saying, effusively, "Why, hello, Billy, glad to see you, old man; didn't expect to see you in here this time of day. Great old time coming up on the tug last Saturday night—hey? Say, what're you doing, eating breakfast here all alone?"
It was very lonely. Everyone else in town was busy and Woods had had but one drink.
In less than half an hour from the time Woods was dismissed from The Day's staff he was a member of The Earth's, and it took but one more round of drinks, for which Woods himself paid, though Munson put down in his next week's expense account: "To getting Woods in condition to join staff, $1.75," which was O. K.'d without question.
This newspaper hated The Day with loud, outspoken hatred, as bad boys hate. But it loved The Day's men. That may have been one of the reasons.
When it could The Earth lured away The Day's crack men with golden promises, gave them unlimited space and Earthly assignments, thereby demoralizing their English and their self-respect until they became ordinary reporters, and then they were used like ordinary reporters.
It was not a nice newspaper, but it was an exceedingly enterprising one. Perhaps it did not always overhaul every item of news as carefully as The Day, but it had more occasions for congratulating itself on "exclusive news," as they call beats in the editorial column.
It so happened that a valuable tip had just come into the office which, if worked in the right way, would result in an "article" on the first page calculated to make the public set down its coffee-cup and pick up the paper with both hands. And, what would be a source of greater delight to McCarthy and his crew, it would make all the rest of Newspaper Row writhe in impotent fury at being so badly beaten.
It was such a precious gem of a tip that the city editor fairly trembled as he whispered about it. There was reason for his being excited. The newly appointed municipal official that gave out the tip—in the form of a twenty-word statement—to an Earth reporter, did so, only because he believed the latter when he promised to tell all the other newspapers about it. This shows what a new official he was. It also suggests that a great deal of carefulness would be required to work up the story.
"There isn't a man here that can handle that story right," the managing editor said. That was five minutes before Woods left The Day office. About three minutes after he came to The Earth's office, McCarthy was saying: "Well, Mr. Woods, what do you think of that for a story to begin with!"
The instant McCarthy left off promising him great things and began to tell about this piece of news Woods had left off sullenly comparing this city editor with Mr. White, and began listening in his tense, absorbed manner, and now could have repeated McCarthy's every word and intonation. "Is that tip absolutely straight?" he asked, scowling.
"You see who it's from. There's the Commissioner's name."
Billy Woods reached for his hat and stick with his right hand, and some copy paper with his left. "Then it'll make the biggest local story this year," he said.
"Cover it thoroughly, Mr. Woods. Make one of your artistic stories of it. Don't try to round it up by to-night. Take two days to it. The Commissioner's out of town, so none of the other papers will——"
But Woods was half way down the room, and his head was tipped back. It was less than an hour since he had stalked out of The Day office with the same gait, but he had forgotten all about that now. He had forgotten how he had intended to make himself forget. He was keenly and joyously alive, and every faculty was hot for work and glowing with the delicious excitement of one hurrying to perform a big feat that he is confident of doing well. This thing is a form of intoxication, too, though it is not usually called that.
First he ran across to the City Hall and sauntered into the Mayor's office and had a talk with the Mayor's private secretary, who called him Billy, and asked what he could do for him to-day. Here Woods talked arrogantly and found out what had been the Mayor's attitude at a certain hearing a month before. Then he jumped on a Broadway cable-car and went down to Wall Street to catch the president of a certain large corporation before he went out to luncheon. It was nearly two o'clock, but Woods knew something of the habits of all prominent New Yorkers, and this one lunched late.
"Just gone a few minutes ago," said the boy, and then Woods slammed the door and remembered that this was Wednesday and that the old gentleman had to finish his luncheon in time for the meeting of the Rapid Transit Commission at three o'clock. "I could have caught him on the way into the club," he whispered to himself, and cursed his stupidity all the way back to the Equitable and up the elevator to the Lawyers' Club.
There were several other men in the neighborhood of The Street to be seen, but he did not stop now because the whole story hung on this president's statement. And it was necessary to bag him before the Rapid Transit Commission meeting, because immediately after it the old gentleman would take a train for his place in the country and play golf.
But of course he did not interrupt the president at luncheon. That would have killed the story. He sent his card to the steward, whom he knew well and who, at Wood's request, sent out the head waiter of the white and gold room. From him Woods found out that the president had a friend lunching with him, that he had sent down a larger order than usual to-day, with claret instead of ale, and was now only finishing the oysters. So Woods knew he had no other engagement before the Rapid Transit meeting at three and it would be safe to leave him for three-quarters of an hour.
He hurried down to Wall Street again and called upon five lawyers. Woods hated lawyers. But he was lucky enough to find on the first trial two of them unengaged as well as in, and on the second trial he caught a third and he found out just what he wanted. Most reporters would have secured nothing. It required talent.
With the first, he did what his friends used to call his "refined ingénue" act. The lawyer who thought, as most lawyers do, that he knew all about the ways of newspapers had growled out, "I have nothing to say," but he looked up again when he heard Woods's gentle, well-modulated voice saying, "Certainly. I think I appreciate your position in the matter exactly. Of course you cannot talk about the company's private affairs. But this is all I wanted to know—that is if it is not unprofessional in you to tell me—is it so that"—and in a few minutes Billy bowed himself out of the private office with a half-column of interview and the good-will of the interviewed, and was looking for the next lawyer.
This time he saw that he must employ the friendly slangy manner which a few years ago would have made him despise himself, but he was used to it now. The third man he bullied outright. "Don't try to be so mysterious," he sneered. "It doesn't impress me at all. I'm merely asking you a civil question, and if you don't care to answer it all you have to do is to say so, and I'll go away. But you know as well as I do that this thing is bound to come out, that it's something which concerns the public more than a little, and something the citizens of New York ought to know. What's more, I am going to tell them. It's all a matter of whether you want me to get your client's side of it or not."
And the little, bald-headed lawyer scowled and said, "There's nothing in it, at all. Sit down. It's simply this way," and told Billy what he already knew but now had authority for, which made it good news. It was not good news before. It would be poor stuff if published as "it is said," or " there is reason for thinking," etc. And if printed as a fact without quotation marks it would invite a libel suit.
It was a quarter before three at the Lawyers' Club when the president lighted a black cigar and signed a check for it. Billy Woods, waiting for him by the elevator, had the satisfaction of seeing the man that had lunched with him step across the reception-room to the library, and the further satisfaction of noting by the clock that the president would not have to hurry to the meeting. Little things of this sort often mean a column or two.
The dignified president was feeling benign after his luncheon and his success at making his guest see the wisdom of a certain plan of reorganization. He shook Billy's hand almost jovially and said, "Well, my boy," to him. They walked up Broadway together. The old gentleman was deaf and Billy shouted at him.
After spending the time between the Equitable and Maiden Lane in trying apparently to make the pleasant-mooded old gentleman admit a certain state of affairs in regard to a certain franchise, which he wouldn't, Woods employed the remainder of their walk in extracting a number of strong, emphatic statements from him to the contrary, which was exactly what Woods wanted. And he naïvely said so as they bade each other good-by, "only they claim, you know, sir, that they have a perfect legal right to do it."
"They claim! the damned lying thieves! they'd claim the whole of Manhattan Island if they could." Only, this remark Billy was considerate enough to leave out of his interview, for it would not have looked well in type with this benevolent old gentleman's quotation marks about it. Besides, the president had been stirred to indigestion as it was, and deserved to be spared further discomfort out of gratitude. For from him Woods had obtained a succinct statement of facts—which he was now rapidly writing down, word for word, by a Broadway corner lamp-post—a perfect crowbar of a statement it was, with which Billy could prod and pry out the whole of the story, and with out which he could have done nothing. The story was practically secured now. The rest was only a matter of time, for Woods.
There were nearly a dozen persons, up and down town, of various walks of life and degrees of importance that he had to see, and it was now three o'clock. He had not heard what McCarthy said about taking two days to the story, and would not have done so if he had. He gulped a cup of coffee and a sandwich, stepped into a cigar-store, turned the pages of the directory over rapidly several times and then started out.
At ten o'clock that evening he sighed and said, "Well, that's the last. That covers it." He had just hurried down some stone steps in Seventieth Street and was making for the Seventy-second Street "L" station. He had forgotten to dine.
He outlined his story on the half-hour trip downtown. He was so intent that he did not hear the guard call out the stations. When the train turned the sharp little curve into Murray Street, he arose automatically, walked to the door, then stepped out when the train stopped at Park Place, loped down the stairs just as he had done hundreds of times before, and hurried up toward City Hall Park. He was planning his introduction now. He prided himself on the reserve of his introductions. He did not hear a few belated newsboys crying sporting editions in the park or see the indigent and sleepy ones on the benches about the fountain. He hurried across the street and mechanically dodged a clanging Third Avenue cable-car, smiling to himself as a fetching opening sentence flashed into his mind. Then, like a homing pigeon, he darted in at the familiar doorway of The Day, just as he had always done; ran up the stairs two stepsa at a time, unlatched the gate, hurried down to his old desk, swore at somebody's coat lying there, threw it upon another desk, sat down and began to write like nothing in the world but a reporter with a tremendous beat, who knows only that the paper goes to press within three hours.
Meanwhile Mr. Stone, the night city editor of The Day, had come on at 5.30 o'clock to take the desk, and the first thing Mr. White said to him was, "Billy's gone at last."
Stone took out his pipe and said, "Too bad," which was a good deal for the night city editor to say; then he put it back again and went over the assignment list with White.
The copy-editors began gathering in now and they also said " Too bad." But they had considerably more to say than that; for Sampson, the old reporter, had by this time related to the whole staff what The Herald man had told him about the trip up the bay in the tug. He said it was only one of a series of attempts on the part of The Earth office at making Billy Woods drunk—not merely in order to get The Day beaten on the news, but to get hold of The Day's best reporter.
"And that is the only way they ever could get Billy to join their dirty sheet," somebody remarked.
"Well," said Bascom, the ancient copy-reader, sadly, "I see his finish in that pretty crowd. ... I suppose they'll hunt him up as soon as he's sober."
"That won't be for a week," said somebody else. Then each sat down before a little pile of copy and began his night's work. This was about the time most of the town was sitting down to its dinner.
At twenty minutes before eleven the Police Head-quarters man sent in by telephone a bunch of precinct returns arrests, accidents, and so on. Mr. Stone turned his glistening eye-glasses down the room over the even rows of reporters' desks to see whom to send out on one of these stories. Most of the men were still scattered about over the town and adjacent country on assignments; those in the office were all, except one of the new reporters, busily writing, with coats off and the incandescent lights gleaming on shirt-sleeves and copy paper.
Just then a man entered the room in a hurry. Stone turned to the assistant night city editor. "Haskill," he said, "who's that sitting down in Woods's old place?" One cannot have the best eyesight and the best copy-reading ability in town at the same time.
"Why, it's Billy himself," said Haskill.
"I thought so," said Stone; "what's he doing here?"
"Lord knows," said Haskill, running his pencil through a half page of some poor space-grabber's copy. "Guess he's going to write a note to leave for someone."
Stone called up Linton, the cub, handed him the Head-quarters report, said, "Hurry," and bent over the Senator Platt interview he was "reading" for the first page.
It was not good Park Row form for a man to walk into the office from which he had so recently been dismissed, but it was getting on toward midnight and there were more important things to think about. At least Stone and Haskill thought so. Meanwhile Woods, looking intense, began to fill many sheets of paper with good writing.
A few minutes later the man came in who had been sent out to Hasbrouck Heights to get up a humorous family-quarrel story which did'nt turn out to be so funny as he had hoped. He walked up to the desk and began to tell Mr. Stone, who kept on reading copy, what he had found out. When he finished Stone looked up with his usual cynical, bored expression long enough to say, "About two sticks keep it inside quarter of a column anyway." But when he looked up, he once more spied Woods down there. He bent over his work again, but said, "He's still there, Haskill."
"Woods. Here, boy," ringing the bell, "copy. Haskill, will you find out what Jevins wants at the 'phone, please?"
"Still writing, too," said Haskill, arising. "Must be writing letters to the whole staff."
Haskill went down the room and took a story off the telephone from the man who had been sent up to Poughkeepsie to find out about a murder and could not get down before the paper went to press. This required ten minutes and Woods kept on writing furiously. Thus far no one else had noticed him except the office-boys, who wondered.
On the way from the telephone closet Haskill walked around by Woods's desk. Quite from force of editorial habit he glanced over the writer's shoulder, and then he stopped short. He leaned over, ran his eye rapidly down the rest of the page, then turned and fairly ran up the room with a scared look on his face. He grabbed Stone by the shoulder and whispered a few quick, excited words in his ear.
The editor instantly straightened up in his chair.
"What's that? Are you sure? The aldermen!" Then, at the rate of four hundred words to the minute, "Why, that means a million dollar steal—who are the aldermen when were they going to put the plot through—Haskill, where did Woods get this story?"
"I tell you I only saw that one page," returned Haskill, excitedly starting down the room again. "I'll ask——"
"Wait a minute."
Haskill turned around. Stone was looking puzzled. "Why is he writing this story for us?"
"Stone, how do I know! but, this story is tremendous, man—tremendous! I'll go——"
Stone took him by the arm. "Sit down. Certainly it's a big story, but listen: If you were in his place and had picked up a beat, would you come here with it? Under the circumstances, you'd think he'd go to any other office in town first. Haskill, I don't understand this thing——"
"That's Billy Woods you're talking about, isn't it?" Harwood, the assistant theatrical man, had just come in and was taking off his coat to write unkind words about a first night. "You needn't look so excited about it. It's easy enough to understand. They offered him $150 a week guarantee—that's the reason he didn't go to any other office first." He had overheard only the last words.
Stone turned quickly and looked at Harwood. "What are you talking about?"
"About Billy Woods. Why, haven't you heard the latest—about his going to The Earth just after he left us?"
Haskill gasped out a "What!" and looked at Stone. Stone said nothing and gazed at Harwood.
"It's so, though." Harwood's voice was lazy and gossipy. "Two of their men told me about it uptown at dinner."
"Harwood," whispered Haskill, taking him impressively by the shoulder. "Look down there! He's been here we don't know how long."
"Great Scott! What's he doing in this office?"
"Shss—writing the biggest beat of the year—Good heavens, Stone, what's the matter?" The night city editor had suddenly jumped out of his chair.
"Great Scott! what is it?" from Harwood.
But Stone, with an unusual look in his face, only started down the room with Haskill running behind him, saying, in a low, beseeching tone, "What's the matter, Stone, what's the matter?"
"No," muttered Stone, suddenly stopping. "That would only wake him up and make him realize—— Haskill, how shall we work it? Quick!" he snarled, angrily; "something is liable to happen that will——"
"Work what! what're you talking about, man?"
Stone started toward Woods again, then, stopping so abruptly that Haskill bumped into him, he fairly screamed, "Jones! Jones! Jones! Come up to the desk," and started up the room himself sidewise, as if to draw Jones away from Woods (Haskill trotting along behind). For Jones had just finished writing, and, being idle, had spied Billy Woods, had started around toward his desk and had gone as far as "Why, hello, Billy," when Stone cut him off.
The rest of the reporters had heard the impatient calling and wondered for a second or two what big piece of news had come in, but did not look up from their work. But one of the copy-readers exclaimed, "Hello! there's Billy Woods."
"Come here, Mr. Harwood," Stone was saying in a quick voice. Haskill was already there, looking with dumb amazement in his superior's face. Jones was there too.
"Now listen," said Stone. He had formed his plan and now sat on the edge of the desk. "Woods left our staff to-day, as you know. Since then he has run across the beat of the year and has walked into our office and is writing it now——"
"Oh, you mean——" exclaimed Haskill, with intelligence and then alarm running into his eyes.
"Exactly. Now listen."
"Great Scott!" said Harwood, the theatrical man, in a low solemn voice, "from force of habit, you mean."
"Yes," whispered Haskill, "in his old, absent-minded way." They both looked down toward Woods, but Jones was asking, mystified, "What's this, what's this?"
Haskill and Harwood dashed the idea at him like cold water in his face, while at the same time Stone went on incisively: "Now, though Woods is not a member of our staff, he has just as much right to sit here and write as any free lance that brings in stories."
"But say, Stone," whispered Harwood.
"Please keep still. I tell you this is the exposure that was rumored was coming; and you know as well as I do that the Commissioners never give things of this sort out, except in the form of a public statement. There's only one way McCarthy could get that tip exclusively. Here's our chance to teach him his lesson. Please keep still, Haskill. That story is not to get out of this office except in print. Jones, your duty for the rest of this night is to see to it that no one speaks a word to Woods so long as he is here. Don't let anybody get within ten feet of his desk, except me. Don't let them say anything or do anything that is likely to remind him where he is. Please, keep still, Haskill. He's liable to wake up any moment. Understand?"
Haskill put in, "Catch everyone as he comes into the office and put him on to the thing."
It was unnecessary to say anything more to Jones. He was a newspaper man. He hurried toward the gate where a couple of reporters were entering the room.
"Now, Haskill," said Stone, "you go around and tell all the desk men in the office. And Mr. Harwood, will you please——"
But Stone broke off abruptly.
"Heavens!" whispered Haskill.
Woods had arisen from his chair and was looking straight up at them. Then he turned and walked rapidly down the room toward the gate.
Stone and Haskill and Harwood bolted down on tiptoe after him. But he wheeled off to the right, passed the newspaper files, stepped up to the water-cooler and filled a glass. He always looked around the room before getting a drink and they ought to have remembered it. They did now. Haskill was turning over an afternoon paper, as if in a great hurry for something. Harwood was standing by the telephone-box trying to look as if he had never thought of Billy Woods. But Stone calmly turned back and walked across to Woods's desk.
There lay some pages of finely written copy. His experienced eye skimmed over a paragraph. It made him lust for the rest. It was risky, but he reached over, whisked up the closely written sheets, all but the last one, and hurried up to the desk with them just as Woods put down the glass, emitting a wet-lipped "Ah!" and started back, wiping his hand on his trousers. As he passed Haskill he was humming a little, tuneless tune. He sat down, ran his hand through his hair a moment, then, leaning over, began to write rapidly again, putting the next finished page on top of the one sheet left as unquestioningly as a hen goes to laying over one nest egg.
Meanwhile, Stone, reading the copy as rapidly as he alone could, hastily scrawled (Nonp. Double lead—Rush) across the first page and sent it up to the composing-room, where the foreman, dividing it into several "takes," gave them to several compositors, who put them in type as fast as they knew how. In a few minutes the galley proofs were down on Stone's desk, with Haskill bending over Stone's shoulder saying, "Isn't it beautiful! Isn't it beautiful!"
Stone made a printer's sign on the margin to turn a "u" right side up and said: "This much is ours, anyway."
Haskill said, "Think we'll get it all?"
Stone glanced down at Woods. "Hello," he said, "what's that boy up to?"
A few minutes before, one of the numerous office-boys had brought in some copy from the man covering a spiritualist convention uptown. Now he was walking slowly up and down behind Billy Woods. Presently he turned and walked up to the desk. He was an odd-looking boy with a peculiar, matured face. He looked very solemn. "Please, Mr. Stone," he said, "kin I go home now? My old mother is sick and I promised her——"
"Well, I'm afraid you lied to her if you're not lying to me, for you're to stay here till we go to press to-night."
"Nah, I won't," said the boy, sullenly, "I'll t'row up me job, foist. I got to go home."
"You can throw up your job if you want to, but you can't go home till the paper goes to press. Run on down to the end of the room where you belong."
But Stone followed after him.
"John," he said to the head boy by the gate, "no boy can get out of this office to-night on any excuse till after we go to press—not even on errands, without my permission. Understand?"
John said, "Yes, sir," and was excited. So were all the other boys. The very buzzing of the electric fans was abnormal to-night. There was suppressed excitement in the scurrying cockroaches when the reporters opened their desk-drawers. Stone returned to the other end of the room.
"That youngster," he said to Haskill, "is the one we are after. I've thought so all along."
"Then why didn't you drop him long ago?"
"There would be another here inside of a week. Well catch this one red-handed. That may stop their dirty work."
The reporters were rounding up with the late stories. Everyone that came into the room, no matter how important his news, was first halted at the gate by Jones. Woods kept on writing uninterruptedly. The men only looked over at him in awe; then went up to the desk to tell their news.
"Haskill," said Stone ("go on talking," to one of the reporters), "the room is getting too full of people thinking about the same thing. If they keep on looking at Woods they'll hypnotize him into realization of everything—no matter how intense he is. Clear out the room." ("Go on talking, Lee. I can hear you." Lee went on.) "Tell Smith to start up a poker game in the back room."
"Stone," whispered Haskill, as he started to go, "what's the matter with him now?"
"Needs copy-paper," said Stone. ("That's no good, Lee, don't write anything.") And grabbing a bunch of paper himself, the editor walked down and tossed it in front of Woods, who growled, "Thanks, boy," without lifting his eyes.
Stone hurried on down the room. "Boys, come here," he said "all you boys." He sat down on a desk. They gathered about him. Their faces were almost ghastly, it was so horrifyingly unusual to be recognized by Mr. Stone, except as he recognized the bell he punched or the floor he threw copy upon.
"You boys," he said, "there's a big beat in this office to-night." They knew that, and he knew they did. "If it gets out of here you all get out, too—every one of you. Understand? You are all to be discharged unless we beat the town on this story." Then he left them. They even kept silent for several seconds. But that may have been because Stone had turned over to where Woods was writing. Jones saw this and Jones's jaw dropped.
There was Billy, tapping with his fingers on the desk as if waiting for a word, and as Stone came near he looked up and smiled amiably. It was a sweet, childlike smile, and those watching never forgot it. Stone looked straight back at him. It was the only thing to do. The mere lowering of his eyes might kill the grandest beat of the year.
By telepathy, perhaps, nearly everyone in the room let go his work for the moment and was now watching these two smile at each other. The whole room held its breath as it saw Stone stop, close beside Woods. Its heart ceased beating as it heard him ask, "How much more of this is there, Woods?" It was his normal tone, too.
"Oh, well, I'm over half through, I think." It was the first time in four days, for some of them, that Woods's voice had been heard. It was quite natural.
"Hurry it along," said Stone, and then he had the audacity to hold out his hand.
"Yes, sir," said Billy, and from force of habit handed Stone the written sheets of copy, then leaned over and started in writing intensely again, and The Day staff thanked Heaven.
When Stone reached the desk Haskill looked admiringly at him a moment before saying, "My! you've got nerve."
"He's as safe as a man without a memory," said Stone, as he marked on the copy (Add Aldermen Swindle). But the fingers he did it with trembled.
The hands of the clock went on around and Woods went on scowling and throwing off page after page of copy. The night editor came down from the composing-room, where he was making up, and whispered to Stone, "He'll soon be through, Stone, won't he?"
Stone did not answer, for he saw one of the boys stealing hastily up toward the desk. "Mr. Stone," said the boy, looking ashamed, "Tommy Donovan's up to some game at the 'phone. He's been runnin' in an' out of the box for half an hour. We think he's givin' up Mr. Woods's beat. He's in there again an'——"
"All right," said Stone, "let him get them." Then turning to Haskill, "I thought they would be able to tell us something if they tried. Now you watch Woods, Haskill."
Stone stepped into the adjoining room, walked past the night editorial writer and into the chief's room, picked up the private telephone and turned on the switch in time to hear, "Well, you tell the man at the desk it's T. D.—in a hurry."
Mr. Stone pulled down the switch and shut off the circuit of the Day's outer office, ran out into the main room again, tiptoed down to the telephone-box where he found Tommy sending boyish oaths at Central for cutting him off.
Stone reached in and put a hand over his mouth. "You needn't swear, boy," he said. "It's against the rules of the company. Besides, they can't hear you. Come, I'll show you why."
Through an avenue of big-eyed other boys Stone led Tommy into the private room. "You see I cut you off." He pushed the switch back again. "Now you could talk with The Earth office again if you were there. Come, we'll go into this nice little room over here. Now, then, this is to be your private office until we go to press. Then your resignation will be voted upon. It may prove better for you, though, if you tell me what you were going to tell the man at the desk."
Just then Haskill's excited voice was heard. "Stone! Stone! for Heaven's sake, where are you?"
"Right here. What's the matter?"
Haskill appeared at the threshold, panting: "Stone, Billy's through writing! He's standing up by his desk looking over the last pages. But he's running his hand through his hair; so I think he must be going to add a little more, don't you?"
Impulsively Stone grasped his assistant by the arm. " Haskill, listen. We lose our boat if Woods leaves this office before we go to press."
"Because, soon as he's finished writing——"
"He'll get drunk, Stone."
"No, he'll come to himself first—realize everything, soon as the tension is off his nerves—then, don't you see what'll happen——"
"Why, first he'll have a spasm or something at realizing what he's done, then I tell you, Stone, he'll go and get——"
"You don't know Woods. He'll go like the devil over to his new bosses and confess the whole thing."
"They'll give him——"
"But not till they've made him sit down and dictate the whole story to a relay of stenographers—there's still time for it— Then where's our beat, Haskill!"
"We've got to keep him here then."
"But if he suddenly comes to now, here in this office, Haskill?"
"Then hold him anyway, Stone!"
"But we can't, man; he's no office-boy." They both looked at the boy in Stone's grasp. He had been quietly taking in all they said; also several features about the room that pleased him.
"Here," said Stone, "you lock up this boy—lock him up tight. I'll fix Woods somehow." And he ran back to the outer room in time to see Billy, who had decided not to write any more after all, tap the collected sheets of copy even against the desk top and start, rather gayly it seemed, up the room. Stone almost ran to beat him to the desk.
Woods put his copy down upon the desk. "Here's the rest of it," he said, briskly.
Stone apparently paid no attention.
Woods picked the sheets up again and planked them down directly under Stone's eyes. "That winds her up," he said.
The editor made no sign.
"Good-night," said Woods.
Stone picked up the copy in silence, wondering what to do.
"Good-night, I said, Mr. Stone. I'm going home." He started off.
"Er—oh, say Woods—hold up. We don't want you to go yet."
Woods stopped ten feet away. He turned around slowly. "But I'm nearly dead," he said, smiling, and he looked it. "I'd like to get something to eat and go to bed."
"Wait till I read your copy."
Stone thought he saw the tense lines fading out of his countenance. That would never do. "Besides, Woods," he said, "you haven't enough here. You don't seem to realize what a big story this is."
But Woods was realizing that he was tired. It was like asking a man to run just one more lap at the end of a mile race. He said, in a hurt tone, "I've covered the story, I think."
Stone knew that in a moment more he might realize everything. An inspiration came to him. "Why, see here, Woods, why don't you round up your story with some detailed personal history of the people concerned and——" He was stopped by a gleam that suddenly came into Woods's face.
"Say, Mr. Stone," said the reporter, reaching up and running his hand through his hair—and now his tone was tense and eager once more—"I've just done that, but I'll tell you: A few sticks about similar attempts in the past would be good stuff. Here, give me some copy-paper. Dan, run and get me the back files of the Tribune for the years—here, I'll write 'em down—there, for those years. Be quick about it." Woods was a born reporter.
Hurrying back to his desk again, and looking happy, he began throwing off sheets of copy with one hand, holding open an old bound volume of the Tribune with the other, while two office boys were hastily stacking up other dusty volumes before him. Stone, at the other end of the room, was mopping his brow.
A few minutes later the gate clicked and the managing editor himself came hurrying into the office. He had been dining out. Stone dived at him.
The managing editor showed no astonishment, because nothing ever astonished him, but at the conclusion he whispered, gravely, "Say, Stone, perhaps I'd better hide in the closet. Woods may look up and wonder at my dress suit."
Stone, who was watching Woods like a delicate machine, growled abstractedly to his superior: "Talk to Haskill," and ran to Billy, saying: "Better say something now about future possibilities—you know what I mean."
Woods bobbed his head. "Here's another batch," he said.
Stone brought the copy back to where Mr. Manning and Haskill were standing. " Just look at that good English," he whispered, throwing it on the floor. The story itself was all in type and locked up in the form now, and Stone had put a head on it, one of his characteristic heads—a big, black-lettered head that would in a few hours make the now sleeping town buzz with astonishment and the newsboys rich selling Days alone if——
It was less than half an hour from the time of going to press. Most of the office was getting up and sitting down again, or stepping about the room, or looking at the clock.
Mr. Manning wet his lips and said, "Stone, Woods will know we can't take copy much longer. Then he will commence wondering, then he will wake up, then he'll run over to the Earth office and——"
"Haskill," said Stone, "you're fat; go down and stand in front of Woods, with your back toward him."
Haskill walked down the room. Stone jumped up on the "Jersey" desk, jerked back the glass door of the clock, shoved the hands back twenty minutes, slammed the door shut and jumped down again. Five minutes later Billy called up, "How much more can you take?"
Stone called back in the ghastly stillness, "Keep on writing till we tell you to stop. Write fast." Then, in a low tone, "That'll keep you from thinking."
It was so silent that the whole room heard Billy muttering "Oh, I didn't know I had so much time." He had looked at the clock.
Another minute had dragged by in which the clock ticked and Woods's pen scratched and the rest of the room waited. Haskill sighed and for the seventh time was whispering to anybody, "Oh, we've surely got them beaten, don't you think so?" when two office-boys came scurrying in through the gate and up the room with looks on their young faces that made Stone start up and say, "What's coming, now?"
He had just sent these boys out to see why the shipping news bureau did not send in anything about the overdue Lucania, two boys instead of one, so they would watch each other. They ran up to Stone, holding out a letter.
"I found this," panted one of them.
"No, I found it," panted the other; "it fluttered down from some place upstairs here. It hit Dan on the head."
Stone had snatched it up, the others eagerly bending over it with him. It was addressed to "The night editor of The Earth—Rush," and the envelope was one of the regular office envelopes with "The Day" printed in the corner.
"What does this mean?" asked Mr. Manning.
"Keep Woods writing," said Stone, over his shoulder, for he had started on a run for the private office now occupied by Tommy Donovan.
It was a front room and Tommy was leaning out of the window. Stone grasped him firmly by the trousers. "What are you doing, boy?"
"Nuthin'." He was unperturbed.
"Let's see your fingers—the other hand. How did you get that ink-mark?"
"What. This?" showing the envelope.
The boy waited a minute, then grinned. "Yep," he said.
"What does it say inside?"
The boy looked up at Stone and then said, calmly, "It says 'Billy Woods is here with a big beat. Yer gotter hustle if yer want it.'" Then, grinning again, "Might's well tell yer, long as yer on."
"I believe you this time," said the editor, "though I haven't opened it. See? It was not addressed to me."
The boy sniffed contemptuously, either at himself or at Stone, or both. Then he impudently looked in Stone's eyes and asked, " Why don't yer send it to The Eart', then?"
Stone had a sense of humor and laughed.
"I shall, in the morning," he said, "with a note."
"Huh," said the boy. "They was six other envelopes on the table when I come in here. Some of 'em ought to got there by now."
Stone only said: "Some day you'll make a first-class crook and we'll have column stories about you, with your picture."
The boy almost blushed at this prediction of greatness, but Stone did not notice that, for a strange voice came in from the other room, saying: "I tell you I've got to see him." Stone locked the door and ran out.
The head office-boy was shouting, excitedly, "See him—nuthin'! You'll have to wait till he's trew writin'."
A number of the men, hearing the loud voices, were coming down toward the gate.
"Give him this note then, I tell you."
"Give nuthin'—not till he's trew writin'."
Now another stranger came in. He had been waiting in the hallway. To him the first young man turned and said, "He's in here, Munson, but they won't bring him out, and they won't give him the note."
"Here, let me take it," said Munson, the new arrival.
Jones, the reporter, who had been standing by the gate with his back toward it, as if not listening, now turned around.
But Munson, looking past Jones, exclaimed, dramatically, "Mr. Stone, give this to Woods if you dare!"
Stone, who had been passing by, apparently oblivious, stopped and looked at Munson a moment. "Young man," he said, "what is the occasion for so much emotion? Here, boy, take that note to Mr. Woods."
The boy looked at Mr. Stone.
"Hurry," said the editor. "This person seems to be impatient."
"Yes, sir," said the boy, dazedly, and carried the envelope over to Woods, who nodded impatiently, stuck the thing hastily in his pocket with his left hand, and with his right kept on writing.
"He seems to be occupied," Jones remarked, affably. "But he will be at leisure shortly. You see it's nearly time to go to press."
But Munson cried, "Well, then, I'll go in and speak to him."
Jones stood by the gate. "Sorry, but it's against the rules of the office." Stone, behind him, was filling a pipe and remarked, aloud: "This is one place where an Earth reporter cannot go," which made some of the others laugh. Nearly the whole staff had moved down by the gate now.
Munson looked at them. He did not know what tack to take, and time was flying. He tried being civil. "But, see here, gentlemen," he said, earnestly, "I've simply got to see Woods before we go to press." He looked up at the office clock. "We go to press in about twenty-five minutes."
"Well, there he is, look at him," put in Jones.
Then, for the first time, it suddenly occurred to Munson to call to Billy Woods. "Oh, Woods!" he shouted in a loud voice, "Billy Woods, come here a minute."
Woods shook his head, but no one heard him call back, "Just a second," for Mr. Manning now came down the room, saying, with some heat:
"See here, Jones, tell that young man to stop making a disturbance in this office;" which Jones began to do, assisted by several others, in loud tones.
Meanwhile, Billy, reaching the end of the page, made a double X mark to show that it was the end of the story, and said, "Here, boy," to the one that had brought him the note, "take this up to the desk," and walked down to the gate, saying: "Well, well, what's all this rumpus about. Who wants me——" just in time to hear Munson's high voice, almost screaming above the others: "Billy Woods, I was sent to ask you why you joined our staff this morning, and then sneaked over here with our beat to night! What have you got to say for yourself?"
And now, like fools, every one shut up and turned to look at Billy Woods. They all stood there in silence and watched him as the thing came over him.
He stopped short before reaching the gate, and opened his mouth. First, a look of childish dread came over his face. He looked at Munson. Then he looked around at the staff. Then he turned his face away and sat down at the nearest desk. He was a born reporter, and he had grasped the whole situation from beginning to end.
And just then the floor began to shake and there came up the deep, heavy rumbling of the mighty presses from far below. The story was a beat now.
Munson knew that sound, and looked up at the clock in alarm.
Stone was puffing his pipe contentedly. "Twenty minutes slow you'll find."
Then Munson knew that his paper was beaten, and that the best it could do was to lift a stick or two of the story from The Day for the later editions. This would be done immediately and without him. So he decided to stay here a minute and say something. He was wrought up.
He slapped the gate-post with his hand. "This is the lowest trick ever perpetrated in this city," he began.
"Yes?" said Stone, who had his hands in his pockets.
"And I'd like to state that the man that would do such a thing——"
"Say," put in Haskill, "you needn't heap any abuse on Billy Woods. We aren't in the humor to hear it. He came up here from force of habit, and you're in hard luck; that's all. He forgot that he had been inveigled into joining your dirty sheet, until you reminded him of it just now. Didn't you, Billy?"
Woods made no reply. It would have been a good thing altogether if he could have fallen over in a dramatic faint at this point, or, say, when the presses began. But he did not know how. So he only sat there behind the others, with his glasses sliding down, listening to everything and holding tight to the desk.
Munson had laughed scornfully at Haskill's explanation. "Who do you think will believe that fairy story? " he asked. "Oh," he went on, "you have beaten us all right on this story—we acknowledge that."
Stone blew smoke. "Good of you," he said.
"But we'll have a story to-morrow that you won't have, that you won't care to print."
"It won't be the first time," replied Stone, who then remembered something and left the gate for the private office.
Munson was going on, "It'll be a three-column expose of The Day's 'upright journalistic methods,' describing this whole traitorous performance. We can get affidavits that we gave that man Woods——"
Billy Woods's foot tapped on the floor and at the same time Haskill interrupted: "In the first place, no one would believe Woods was on your staff for ten minutes to-day; no one believes you, you know; and besides, how did you people get that tip anyway, I'd like to know——"
"As for affidavits," put in Sampson, the old reporter, "a few striking ones might be secured about other things you've been giving Woods; for instance, on that trip up the bay Sunday night—you ought to remember that, Munson."
"Then, too, we might make pretty good reading out of this interesting young man," this from Stone, who was leading in young Tommy Donovan by the arm. " Did you ever see this lad before? Yes, they seem to recognize each other. And by the way, did you ever see handwriting like this?" He held up the envelope. "Ah, I wouldn't make a very big scare head about this interesting evening if I were you. Oh, no, don't swear at this little boy. What's that—break his neck? Well, if you must, why, we'll have to cover the story at the police station and make a front page spread of it, and tell all we know about the motives. What, are you going so soon? Well, good-night. The cool air will do you good."
Meanwhile, the others were getting ready to leave.
"Come, Woods," said Stone, "put on your coat."
Billy arose slowly. Haskill, who was fussing around him like a man that wants to be useful in a nursery and doesn't know how, said, "What he needs is a lot of good, nourishing food. Then I'll take him home to bed with me and to-morrow I'll put him in a Turkish bath. He better stay there all day, too, and not come down to work at all to-morrow. I suppose the office can let him have a day off. Don't you think so, Mr. Manning?"
They were helping Billy put on his coat. He looked up, timidly. "What do you mean?" he said.
"Better ask Mr. Manning," said Haskill, smiling.
"Come on, that's all right," said Mr. Manning, starting for the stairs, "we're all going to have some supper together."