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."_
"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!"