His First Assignment by Ralph Henry Barbour
Tom Collins read again the inscription on the directory at the foot of the stairs:
glanced again toward the elevator, again drew his letter of introduction from his pocket, and--again retreated to the doorway. Once more his heart had failed him.
The result of the impending interview with the city editor of the Washington Evening World meant so much to him that he feared to meet it. Another failure and--what? Surely not starvation. To a youth of nineteen, normally healthy and hopeful, the idea of starvation in a great city, surrounded by thousands of human beings, seems preposterous. And yet when the few coins yet remaining in his pocket were gone he would be absolutely at the end of his resources; unless--unless fortune favored him in the next few minutes. He had tried every newspaper office in the city with disheartening results; every office save this one. He reread, perhaps for the twentieth time, the letter he held, then placed it back in its envelope with a sigh. The words sounded so empty and perfunctory, the World was such a big paper, his own ignorance was so great, and--and he was discouraged. However--
He thrust the letter back into his pocket, jammed his cap resolutely onto his head, and strode determinedly to the elevator.
"City editor," he announced gruffly.
Room 36 seemed acres big to Tom as he closed the door behind him. Some dozen men and youths occupied the apartments and to the nearest of these Tom applied. He was not much over Tom's age and was busily engaged in cutting a newspaper into shreds with a pair of extraordinarily large shears. When interrupted he looked up carelessly but good naturedly and pointed to a far corner of the room.
"That's the city ed; the fellow with the glasses."
Tom thanked him and went on.
The man with the glasses took no notice of his approach but continued his writing, puffing the while on a very black briar pipe. He was apparently about thirty-five years of age, had a fierce and bristling mustache, and rushed his pencil vindictively across the copy paper as though he were writing the death sentence of his worst enemy.
Tom started. The voice was as savage as the man's appearance, and Tom's heart sank within him.
"What do you want?" The editor's forehead was a mass of wrinkles and his eyes glared threateningly from behind his glasses. Tom found his voice and laid the letter on the desk.
"Humph," said the editor. He read the short message and tossed it aside. "Ever done newspaper work?" he asked.
"No, sir," Tom replied.
"Then what do you want to begin for?"
"To make a living."
"Oh," sneered the editor, "thought perhaps you wanted to elevate the press. You're a college graduate, of course?"
"I went to college for a year and a half, sir; I had to leave then."
The editor's face brightened.
"Did they throw you out?"
"No, I--I had no money left; my father died very suddenly, and--and so I had to leave."
"Too bad; if you'd been fired there might have been some hope for you." Tom tried to detect a smile somewhere on the frowning face; there was none. "So you think you can do newspaper reporting, do you?"
"Of course you do! I never found a college boy yet that wasn't plumb sure he could start right in on fifteen minutes' notice and beat Horace Greeley or old man Dana. It's so easy!"
"I don't think that," answered Tom, "but I think I could do reporting-- after a day or two. I'm ignorant as to the exact duties of a reporter, but I can learn, and I can write English."
"But can you find out what other reporters can't? Can you interview the last new senator in town and make him tell you what he wouldn't have printed for a year's salary? Can you do that?" Tom hesitated; but he was gaining courage, and the other's gibes were slowly arousing his resentment.
"If those things can be done by other fellows, I can do them."
"Well, you've got confidence," acknowledged the editor, grudgingly. "But we don't break new men in here on the World; we wait until they have learned somewhere else, then we offer them a better salary; those are our methods. You go to work on the Despatch or the Star, or somewhere, and when you prove that you can do as good work as three or four men on our staff you'll hear from us."
The city editor went back to his pencil. Plainly the interview was at an end. Tom turned away. "Good day, sir," he muttered. There was a lump in his throat and his hand, seeking refuge in his pocket, closed on the half dozen coins. He turned suddenly and faced the city editor again.
"Look here," he said doggedly, "I've got a right to better treatment than you have given me. I handed you a letter of introduction that ought to have a little weight, and--and even if it hasn't, it entitles me to common courtesy from you. I'm not a beggar asking for alms. All I want is a chance to show that I can do your work decently. I don't even ask any pay, I--I--"
Tom's words died away. After all, what was the use? He had his answer and there could be no benefit gained from prolonging the interview. But the city editor was looking at him curiously now.
"Here, hold on there," he commanded, and when Tom again faced him: "If you'd brought me a letter from Queen Victoria or the Angel Gabriel you'd have gotten the same treatment. I talk to an average of ten men like you every day of my life; young chaps who don't know what a newspaper's run for; who don't care, either. They think reporting or editing is a nice easy way to make a living, and so they come here expecting to fall into a position. They don't get it. But when a fellow shows sense I give him a chance. And I'll give you one. Hold on," he continued as Tom opened his mouth to thank him, "I'm not offering you a place; I'm not even giving you a fair deal."
He paused and took a card from a drawer, scowling more than ever.
"Write your name there and send it up to Senator August at the Hotel Torrence. If he sees you, interview him on the decision of last night's conference; find out whether they agreed on a nominee. You read the papers? Then you'll know what we're after. Now there's your chance, just a bare fighting chance; do you want it?" The card held the single line "For The Washington Evening World." Tom put it in his pocket.
"I know how desperate the chance is, sir, and I'll take it. And--and thank you."
"All right. And remember that the last edition goes to press at five o'clock," he added grimly.
As Tom passed out the youth by the railing had stopped cutting up newspapers and was writing as though his very life depended upon it. When he reached the street Tom remembered that he might have used the elevator.
"Senator August left ten minutes ago," said the hotel clerk affably as he caught sight of the inscription on the card which Tom Collins held. "A new reporter," he added to himself.
"Left?" echoed Tom in dismay. "Where has he gone?"
"New York, I think. Went to the depot for the 2.20."
Tom glanced at the clock. Another moment and he was boarding a passing car. He had six minutes to catch the 2.20. His chances of success were slim. For that matter, thought Tom, the whole undertaking was the merest forlorn hope; not even the fighting chance that the city editor of the World had called it. For supposing that he found Senator August and got speech with him, was it likely that he would tell an inexperienced chap like Tom what the best reporters in Washington had failed to worm out of him?
The Democratic National Convention to nominate a candidate for the presidency was but a month away. On the preceding evening, in a little room in the Hotel Torrence, Senator August, representing the sentiment of the Eastern democracy, and Senator Goodman, possessing full power to act for his party in the great West, had met to decide on a Democratic nominee. Dissension threatened. The East favored a man of moderate views on the subject of currency reform; the West and the greater portion of the South stood unanimous for a politician whose success in the coming battle would presage the most radical of measures. Final disagreement between the Democrats of East and West meant certain victory for the Republican Party. And to-day all the country was asking: Have the leaders agreed on a nominee; if so, which one? Senator Groodman, as uncommunicative as a statue, was already speeding back to the far West; and Senator August, equally silent, was on his way home. The newspapers were hysterical in their demands for information; all day the wires leading to Washington had borne message after message imploring news, but only baseless rumors had sped back. And Tom Collins, knowing all this, realized the hopelessness of his task.
At the depot he left the car at a jump and dashed into the station. A train on the further track was already crawling from the shed. There was no time for inquiries. He ran for it and swung himself onto the platform of the Pullman. A porter was just closing the vestibule door.
"Is Senator August on board?" gasped Tom. The porter didn't know. But he assured Tom that that was the train for New York and so the latter entered the Pullman. The car held seven men and an elderly lady. Tom's idea of a senator was a big man dressed in a black frock coat, a black string tie and a tall silk hat. But there was no one in sight attired in such fashion and Tom paused at a loss. Perhaps it was chance that led him halfway down the aisle and caused him to question a military, middle-aged gentleman who wore a quiet suit of gray tweeds and was deep in a magazine. The face that looked up was shrewd but kindly, albeit it frowned a little at the interruption.
"I am Senator August," was the unexpected reply.
"Oh!" exclaimed Tom blankly. Then he pushed aside a small valise on the opposite seat and took its place. The frown on the senator's face grew.
"Reporter?" he asked laconically.
"Yes," answered Tom. "I'm from the Washington World. I just missed you at the hotel so I took the liberty of following you to the train." Tom thought that sounded pretty well and paused to see what impression it had created. The result was disappointing.
"Well?" asked the senator coldly.
"The World would like to know what decision was reached at last night's conference, senator."
"I don't doubt it," answered the senator dryly. "Look here," he continued with asperity, "I've refused to talk to at least two dozen reporters and correspondents to-day. The results of last night's conference will be made public by Senator Goodman and myself at the proper time and place; and not until then. And that is all that I can tell you."
"But--" began Tom.
"Understand me, please; I will say nothing more on the subject."
"Will you give me some idea as to when the proper time will be?" asked Tom respectfully.
"No, I can't do that either. Perhaps to-morrow; perhaps not for several days."
"Are you going to New York, sir?"
"I am on my way to my home in Massachusetts."
"Thank you. Have you any objection to my accompanying you on the same train?" Senator August opened his eyes a little.
"Is that necessary? The announcement will be made to the Associated Press and, unless I am mistaken, the World is a member of it."
"Very true, sir, but I was assigned to get the result of the conference and I've got to do it--that is, if I can."
"Very well, I have no objection to your traveling on the same train with me, just as long as you don't bother me. Will that do?"
"Yes, sir, thank you. I am sorry that I have troubled you."
"You're what?" asked the other.
"Sorry to have troubled you, sir."
"Hm; you're the first one to-day that has expressed such a feeling. You must be new at the business."
"I am," answered Tom. "I've been a reporter only half an hour. In fact I'm not certain that I am one at all."
"How's that?" asked the senator, turning his magazine face down on the seat beside him.
And Tom told him. Told about his three weeks of dreary search for a position, of his interview with the city editor of the Evening World, and of the forlorn hope upon which he was entered. And when he had finished his story, Senator August was no longer frowning; the boy's tale had interested him.
"Well, he did put you up against a hard task; doesn't seem to me to have been quite fair. He knew that every reporter had failed and he must have known that you would fail as well. Seems to have been merely a neat way of getting rid of you. What do you think?"
Tom hesitated a moment.
"I don't think it was quite that. And, anyhow, I knew what I was doing, and so it was fair enough, I guess."
"But surely you had no idea of success?"
"I ought not to have," answered Tom hesitatingly, "but I'm afraid I did."
The senator looked out of the window and was silent for a moment while the express sped on through the afternoon sunlight. When he turned his face toward Tom again he was smiling.
"Well, you appear to have pluck, my lad, and that is pretty certain to land you somewhere in the end even if you miss it this time. I'm very sorry that I am obliged to be the means of destroying your chance with the World; but I have no choice in the matter, I----"
Blank dismay overspread Tom's countenance as he looked up at the conductor.
"I--I haven't any."
"Where do you want to go?"
Tom put his hand into his pocket and brought out all his money; less than two dollars. He held it out to the gaze of the conductor.
"How far can I go for that?" he asked.
"Is that all you have?" asked the senator. Tom nodded. "All right conductor; we'll arrange this; come around again later, will you?" The conductor went on. Tom stared helplessly at his few coins and Senator August looked smilingly at Tom.
"How about following me home?" he asked.
"I--I'd forgotten," stammered Tom.
"Well, never mind. I'll loan you enough to reach the first stop and to return to Washington. Nonsense," he continued, as Tom began a weak objection, "I haven't offered to give it to you; you may repay it some day." He pressed a bill into the boy's hand. "At Blankville Junction you can get a train back before long, I guess. Never mind that cold-blooded editor on the World; try the other papers again; keep at it; that's what I did; and it pays in the end. Hello, are we stopping here?"
The train had slowed down and now it paused for an instant beside a little box of a station. Then it started on again and a train man appeared at the far end of the car holding a buff envelope in his hand.
"Senator August in this car?" he asked.
The telegram was delivered and its recipient, excusing himself to the sad-hearted youth on the opposite seat, read the contents hurriedly. Then he glanced queerly at Tom, while a little smile stole out from under the ends of his grizzled mustache.
"You are lucky," he said. Tom looked a question, and the senator thrust the message into his hands. "Read that," he said; "it is from my secretary in Washington." He pressed the electric button between the windows and waited impatiently for the porter. Tom was staring hard at the yellow sheet before him; he reread it slowly, carefully, that there might be no mistake. It was as follows:
"Senator Harrison M. August, "On train 36, Waverly, Md.
"Following telegram just received: 'Chicago, 8, 1.45 P.M. Have just learned reliable source Republican managers using our silence regarding conference to advance W's candidacy in Middle West and have published report that we have agreed on compromise candidate. If report goes undenied many votes will be lost, especially in Iowa and Wisconsin. Advise immediate publication of our statement to press. Answer Auditorium, Chicago. Goodman.' Have advised Goodman of delay in reaching you.
"Do you understand what that means?" asked Senator August. Tom could only nod; he was too astounded to speak. The senator handed a message to the porter. "Get that off as soon as we reach Baltimore and bring me a receipt for it." Then he turned again to Tom and thrust the pad of Western Union message blanks toward him.
"We reach Blankville Junction in eight minutes. Write what I dictate to you as fast as you can. You know shorthand? All the better."
The senator leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he began to speak, rapidly but distinctly, and Tom's pencil flew over the pages, while the train sped on toward the junction.
The hands of the office clock pointed to twenty minutes after five when Tom reached the World building. There was no hesitancy now; he pushed open the little gate and hurried toward the city editor, who had already placed his hat on his head and was bundling up some papers to carry home. He met Tom's advance with a frown.
"Well?" he asked coldly.
For answer Tom placed a little package of copy before him.
"What's this?" he demanded. But there was no necessity for reply for he was already reading the sheets. Halfway through he paused and lifted a tube to his mouth. "Brown? Say, Joe, get a plate ready for an extra in a hurry; about half a column of stuff going right up." Then he turned again to his reading. At the end he gathered the copy together and placed it on his desk.
"Where'd you get this?"
"On the New York express."
"I left the train at Blankville Junction."
The city editor dated the copy with a big black pencil, ran three strokes the length of each sheet, wrote a very long and startling head over it and thrust it into the hands of a waiting boy.
"Copy-cutter," he said. And as the boy sped off the editor turned to Tom. "How'd you do it?" he asked, frowning tremendously.
But the city editor's frowns no longer struck terror into Tom's heart, and he told the story briefly, while his hearer puffed rapidly at his pipe. Only once was he interrupted.
"Hold on there," said the editor. "Are you certain he said he'd not give out the statement again until he reached New York?"
"Quite certain," was the reply. Something almost resembling pleasure appeared on the city editor's face.
"He'll not get there until 8.30; too late for the evening papers. The biggest beat of the year, by George!" For a moment the glasses and the frown were lost in a cloud of smoke. Then "Go on," he commanded.
Tom finished his story in a few words; told how he had found a train already waiting at the Junction, how he had written out his copy on the way back to Washington; and how, had it not been for a long delay just outside the city, he would have reached the office in time for the regular edition. And when he had finished he waited for a word of commendation. But none came. Instead, the city editor nodded his head once or twice, thoughtfully, frowningly, and said: "Well, you needn't wait around any longer; there's nothing else to be done."
Tom arose, looking blankly at the speaker. Had he failed after all! Surely he was not being turned away? But the city editor's next words dispelled all doubt.
"We go to work on this paper at eight o'clock, Mr. Collins; and by eight I mean eight, and not ten minutes past. I can't have any man working for me who cannot be prompt. You understand?"
As Tom clattered happily downstairs a deep reverberation that shook the building from top to bottom told him that the presses were already printing the result of his first assignment.