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Chapter 10 TWO BIRDS OF PASSAGE

  • ON the same busy night when the  _Lileth_  flashed her red signal and Mis_abrielle Rose arrived with a package of letters that screamed for a CotreU, two strangers invaded San Marco by means of the eight-nineteen freight south.
  • Frayed, fatigued and famished as they were, it would hardly have been kind t_tudy them as they strolled up San Sebastian Avenue toward the plaza. But ha_ou been so unkind, you would never have guessed that frequently, in variou_orners of the little round globe, they had known prosperity, the weekly pa_nvelope, and the buyer's crook of the finger summoning a waiter.
  • One of the strangers was short, with flaming red hair and in his eye th_winkle without which the collected works of Bernard Shaw are as soundin_rass. He twinkled about him as he walked—at the bright lights and spuriou_aiety under the spell of which San Marco sought to forget the rates per da_ith bath.
  • "The French," he mused, "are a volatile people, fond of light wines an_ancing. So, it would seem, are the inhabitants of San Marco. White flannels, Harry, white flannels. They should encase that leaning tower of Pisa you cal_our manly form."
  • The other—long, cadaverous, immersed in a gentle melancholy—groaned.
  • "Another tourist hothouse! Packed with innocents abroad, and everybod_leeding 'em but us. Everything here but a real home, with chintz table-cover_nd a cold roast of beef in the icechest. What are we doing here? We shoul_ave gone north."
  • "Ah, Harry, chide me no more," pleaded the little man. "I was weak, I know, but all the freights seemed to be coming south, and I have always longed for _inter amid the sunshine and flowers. Look at this fat old duffer coming!
  • Alms! For the love of Allah, alms!"
  • "Shut up," growled the thin one. "Save your breath till we stand hat in han_n the office of the local newspaper. A job! Two jobs! Good lord, there aren'_wo newspaper jobs in the entire South. Well—we can only be kicked out int_he night again. And perhaps staked to a meal, in the name of the guild i_hich we have served so long and liquidly."
  • "Some day," said the short man dreamily, "when I am back in the haunts o_ivilization again, I am going to start something. A Society for Melting th_tone Hearts of Editors. Motto: 'Have a heart—have a heart!' Emblem, a roas_eef sandwich rampant, on a cloth of linen. Ah, well—the day will come."
  • They halted in the plaza. In the round stone tub provided, the town alligato_ozed. Above him hung a warning sign:
  • "Do not feed or otherwise annoy the alligator."
  • The short man read, and drew back with a tragic groan.
  • "Feed or otherwise annoy!" he cried. "Heavens, Harry, is that the way the_ook at it here? This is no place for us. We'd better be moving on to the nex_own."
  • But the lean stranger gave no heed. Instead he stepped over and entered int_arnest converse with a citizen of San Marco. In a moment he returned to hi_ompanion's side.
  • "One newspaper," he announced. "The  _Evening Chronicle._  Suppose the offic_s locked for the night—but come along, let's try."
  • "Feed or otherwise annoy," muttered the little man blankly. "For the love o_llah—alms I"
  • They traversed several side streets, and came at last to the office of th_Chronicle._  It was a modest structure, verging on decay. One man sat alon_n the dim interior, reading exchanges under an electric lamp.
  • "Good evening," said the short man genially. "Are you the editor?"
  • "Uh, huh," responded the  _Chronicle_  man without enthusiasm, from under hi_reen eye-shade.
  • "Glad to know you. We just dropped in—a couple of newspaper men, you know.
  • This is Mr. Harry Howe, until recently managing editor of the Mobile  _Press._y own name is Robert O'Neill—a humble editorial writer on the same sheet."
  • "Uh, huh. If you had jobs for God's sake why did you leave them?"
  • "Ah, you may well ask." The red-haired one dropped, uninvited, into a chair.
  • "Old man, it's a dramatic story. The chief of police of Mobile happened to b_ crook and a grafter, and we happened to mention it in the  _Press._  Nigh_efore last twenty-five armed cops invaded the peace and sanctity of ou_anctum. Harry and I—pure accident—landed in the same general heap at the foo_f the fire-escape out back. And here we are! Here we are!"
  • "My newspaper instinct," said the  _Chronicle_  man, "had already enabled m_o gather that last."
  • Sarcasm. It was a bad sign. But blithely Bob O'Neill continued.
  • "Here we are," he said, "two experienced newspaper men, down and out. W_hought there might possibly be a vacancy or two on the staff of your paper—"
  • The editor threw off his eye-shade, revealing a cynical face.
  • "Boys," he said, "I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I've been runnin_his alleged newspaper for two long dreary years, and this laugh you've jus_anded me is the first I've had during that time. Vacancies! There is one—_ig one. See my pocket for particulars. Two years, boys. And all the tim_oping—praying—that some day I'd make two dollars and sixty cents, which i_he railroad fare to the next town."
  • Howe and O'Neill listened with faces that steadily grew more sorrowful.
  • "I'd like to stake you to a meal," the editor went on. "But a man's first dut_s to his family. Any burglar will tell you that."
  • "I suppose," ventured O'Neill, most of the flash gone from his manner, "ther_s no other newspaper here?"
  • "No, there isn't. There's a weird thing here called the  _San Marco Mail_ —_orning outrage. It's making money, but by different methods than I'd care t_se. You might try there. You look unlucky. Perhaps they'd take you on."
  • He rose from his chair, and gave them directions for reaching the  _Mail_ffice.
  • "Good night, boys," he said. "Thank you for calling. You're the firs_ewspaper men I've seen in two years, except when I've looked in the glass.
  • And the other day I broke my lookingglass. Good night, and bad luck go wit_ou to the extent of jobs on the  _Mail."_
  • "Cynic," breathed O'Neill in the street. "A bitter tongue maketh a sour face.
  • I liked him not. A morning outrage called the  _Mail._  Sounds promising—lik_mallpox in the next county."
  • "We shall see," said Howe, "that which meets our vision. Forward, march!"
  • "The alligator and I," muttered O'Neill, "famished, perishing. For the love o_llah, as I remarked before, alms!"
  • In the dark second-floor hallway where the  _Mail_  office was suspected o_eing, they groped about determinedly. No sign of any nature proclaimed Sa_arco's only morning paper. A solitary light, shining through a transom, beckoned. Boldly O'Neill pushed open the door.
  • To the knowing nostrils of the two birds of passage was wafted the odor the_oved, the unique inky odor of a newspaper shop. Their eyes beheld a rathe_are room, a typewriter or two, a desk. In the center of the room was a smal_able under an electric lamp. On this table was a bottle and glasses, and a_t two silent men played poker. One of the men was burly and bearded; th_ther was slight, pale, nervous. From an inner room came the click o_inotypes—lonesome linotypes that seemed to have strayed far from their nativ_aunts.
  • The two men finished playing the hand, and looked up.
  • "Good evening," said O'Neill, with a smile that had drawn news as a magne_raws steel in many odd corners. "Gentlemen, four newspaper men meet in _trange land. I perceive you have on the table a greeting unquestionabl_uitable."
  • The bearded man laughed, rose and discovered two extra glasses on a near-b_helf.
  • "Draw up," he said heartily. "The place is yours. You're as welcome as pay- day."
  • "Thanks." O'Neill reached for a glass. "Let me introduce ourselves." And h_entioned his own name and Howe's.
  • "Call me Mears," said the bearded one. "I'm managing editor of the  _Mail._nd this is my city editor, Mr. Elliott."
  • "Delighted," breathed O'Neill. "A pleasant little haven you have found here.
  • And your staff —I don't see the members of your staff running in and out?"
  • "Mr. O'Neill," said Mears impressively, "you have drunk with the staff of th_Mail."_
  • "You two?" O'Neill's face shone with joy. "Glory be—do you hear that, Harry?
  • These gentlemen all alone on the premises." He leaned over, and poured ou_loquently the story of the tragic flight from Mobile. "I call this luck," h_inished. "Here we are, broke, eager for work. And we find you minus a—"
  • O'Neill stopped. For he had seen a sickly smile of derision float across th_ace of the weary city editor. And he saw the bearded man shaking his grea_ead violently.
  • "Nothing doing," said the bearded man firmly. "Sorry to dash your hopes—alway_eady to pour another drink. But—there are no vacancies here. No, sir. Two o_s are plenty and running over, eh, Bill?"
  • "Plenty and running over," agreed the city editor warmly.
  • Into their boots tumbled the hearts of the two strangers in a strange land.
  • Gloom and hunger engulfed them. But the managing editor of the  _Mail_  wa_ontinuing—and what was this he was saying?
  • "No, boys—we don't need a staff. Have just as much use for a manicure set.
  • But—you come at an opportune time.  _IVanderlust_ —it tickles the soles o_our feet to-night, and those four feet are editorial feet on the  _Mail._omething tells us that we are going away from here. Boys— how would you lik_ur jobs?"
  • He stared placidly at the two strangers. O'Neill put one hand to his head.
  • "See me safely to my park bench, Harry," he said. "It was that drink on a_mpty stomach. I'm all in a daze. I hear strange things."
  • "I hear 'em, too," said Howe. "See here"— he turned to Mears—"are you offerin_o resign in our favor?"
  • "The minute you say the word."
  • "Both of you?"
  • "Believe me," said the city editor, "you can't say the word too soon."
  • "Well," said Howe, "I don't know what's the matter with the place, but you ca_onsider the deal closed."
  • "Spoken like a sport!" The bearded man stood up. "You can draw lots t_etermine who is to be managing editor and who city editor. It's an excellen_cheme—I attained my proud position that way. One condition I attach. Ask n_uestions. Let us go out into the night unburdened with your interrogatio_oints."
  • Elliott, too, stood. The bearded man indicated the bottle. "Fill up, boys. _ropose a toast. To the new editors of the  _Mail._  May Heaven bless them an_ring them safely back to the North when Florida's fitful fever is past."
  • Dizzily, uncertainly, Howe and O'Neill drank. Mr. Mears reached out a grea_ed hand toward the bottle.
  • "Pardon me—private property," he said. He pocketed it. "We bid you good-by an_ood luck. Think of us on the choo-choo, please. Riding far—riding far."
  • "But—see here—" cried O'Neill.
  • "But me no buts," said Mears again. "Nary a question, I beg of you. Take ou_obs, and if you think of us at all, think of gleaming rails and a speedin_rain. Once more—good-by."
  • The door slammed. O'Neill looked at Howe.
  • "Fairies," he muttered, "or the D. T's. What is this—a comic opera or a town?
  • You are managing editor, Harry. I shall be city editor. Is there a city t_dit? No matter."
  • "No," said Howe. He reached for the greasy pack of cards. "We draw for it.
  • Come on. High wins."
  • "Jack," announced Mr. O'Neill.
  • "Deuce," smiled Howe. "What are your orders, sir?"
  • O'Neill passed one hand before his eyes.
  • "A steak," he muttered. "Well done. Mushroom sauce. French fried potatoes.
  • I've always dreamed of running a paper some day. Hurry up with that steak."
  • "Forget your stomach," said Howe. "If a subordinate may make a suggestion, w_ust get out a newspaper. Ah, whom have we here?"
  • A stocky, red-faced man appeared from the inner room and stood regarding them.
  • "Where's Mears and Elliott?" he demanded.
  • "On a train, riding far," said O'Neill. "I am the new managing editor. Wha_an I do for you?"
  • "You can give me four columns of copy for the last page of to-morrow'_Mail,"_  said the stocky man calmly. "I'm foreman of something in there w_all a composing-room. Glad to meet you."
  • "Four columns," mused O'Neill. "Four columns of what?"
  • The foreman pointed to a row of battered books on a shelf.
  • "It's been the custom," he said, "to fill up with stuff out of tha_ncyclopedia there."
  • "Thanks," O'Neill answered. He took down a book. "We'll fix you up in te_inutes. Mr. Howe, will you please do me two columns on— er—mulligatawny—murder—mushrooms. That's it. On mushrooms. The life-story o_he humble little mushroom. I myself will dash off a column or so on th_limate of Algeria."
  • The foreman withdrew, and Howe and O'Neill stood looking at each other.
  • "Once," said O'Neill, "I ran an editorial page in Boston, where you can alway_ill space by printing letters from citizens who wish to rewrite Lincoln'_ettysburg Address, and do it right. But I never struck anything like thi_efore."
  • "Me either," said Howe. "Mushrooms, did you say?"
  • They sat down before typewriters.
  • "One thing worries me," remarked O'Neill. "If we'd asked the president of th_irst National Bank for jobs, do you suppose we'd be in charge there now?"
  • "Write, man, write," said Howe. The clatter of their fingers on the key_illed the room.
  • They looked up suddenly ten minutes later to find a man standing between them.
  • He was a little man, clad all in white, suit, shoes, stockings. His sly ol_ace was a lemon yellow, and his eyes suggested lights flaming in the dar_oods at night.
  • "Beg pardon," said the little man.
  • "Ah, and what can we do for you?" inquired O'Neill.
  • "Nothing. Mr. Mears? Mr. Elliott?"
  • "Gone. Vamosed. You are now speaking to the managing editor of the  _Mail."_
  • "Ah. Indeed?"
  • "We are very busy. If you'll just tell me what you want—"
  • "I merely dropped in. I am Manuel Gonzale, owner of the  _Mail."_
  • "Good lord!" cried O'Neill.
  • "Do not be disturbed. I take it you gentlemen have replaced Mears and Elliott.
  • I am glad. Let them go. You look like bright young men to me—quite brigh_nough. I employ you."
  • "Thanks," stammered the managing editor.
  • "Don't mention it. Here is Madame On Dit's column for to-morrow. It runs o_he first page. As for the rest of the paper, suit yourselves."
  • O'Neill took the copy, and glanced through it.
  • "Are there no libel laws down here?" he asked.
  • "The material in that column," said the little man, his eyes narrowing,
  • "concerns only me. You must understand that at once."
  • "The Madame writes hot stuff," ventured O'Neill.
  • "I am the Madame," said the owner of the  _Mail_  with dignity.
  • He removed the copy from O'Neill's hand, and glided with it into the othe_oom. Scarcely had he disappeared when the door was opened furiously and _anting man stood inside. Mr. Henry Trimmer's keen eye surveyed the scene.
  • "Where's Mears—Elliott?" he cried.
  • "You're not the cashier, are you?" asked O'Neill with interest.
  • "Don't try to be funny," roared Trimmer. "I'm looking for the editor of thi_aper."
  • "Your search is ended," O'Neill replied. "What is it?"
  • "You mean you— Say! I've got a front-page story for to-morrow's issue tha_ill upset the town."
  • "Come to my arms," cried O'Neill. "What is it?"
  • "The real Lord Harrowby has been kidnaped."
  • O'Neill stared at him sorrowfully.
  • "Have you been reading the Duchess again?" he asked. "Who the hell is Lor_arrowby?'"
  • "Do you mean to say you don't know? Where have you been buried alive?"
  • Out of the inner room glided Manuel Gonzale, and recognizing him, Mr. Trimme_oured into his ear the story of George's disappearance. Mr. Gonzale rubbe_is hands.
  • "A good story," he said. "A very good story. Thank you, a thousand times. _yself will write it."
  • With a scornful glance at the two strangers, Mr. Trimmer went out, and Manue_onzale sat down at his desk. O'Neill and Howe returned to their encyclopedi_espatches.
  • "There you are," said Gonzale at last, standing. "Put an eight column head o_hat, please, and run it on the front page. A very fine story. The paper mus_o to press"— he looked at a diamond studded watch—"in an hour. Only fou_ages. Please see to the make-up. My circulation manager will assist- you wit_he distribution." At the door he paused. "It occurs to me that your excheque_ay be low. Seventy-five dollars a week for the managing editor. Fifty for th_ity editor. Allow me— ten dollars each in advance. If you need more, pra_emind me."
  • Into their hands he put crinkling bills. And then, gliding still like the fo_e looked, he went out into the night.
  • "Sister," cried O'Neill weakly, "the fairies are abroad to-night. I hear th_ustle of their feet over the grass."
  • "Fairies," sneered Howe. "I could find another and a harsher name for them."
  • "Don't," pleaded O'Neill. "Don't look a gift bill in the treasury number.
  • Don't try to penetrate behind the beyond. Say nothing and let us eat. How ar_ou coming with the mushroom serial?"
  • An hour later they sent the paper to press, and sought the grill room of th_otel Alameda. As they came happily away from that pleasant spot, O'Neil_pied a fruit-stand. He stopped and made a few purchases.
  • "Now," said Howe, "let us go over and meet the circulation manager. Here—wher_re you going, Bob?"
  • "Just a minute," O'Neill shouted back. "Come along, Harry. I'm going over t_he plaza! I'm going over to feed that alligator!"