The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XVI. Two Visitors to the Office
There was once an editor of a paper in the Far West who was sitting at his desk, musing pleasantly on life, when a bullet crashed through the window and imbedded itself in the wall at the back of his head. A happy smile lighted up the editor's face. "Ah!" he said complacently, "I knew that personal column of ours would make a hit!"
What the bullet was to the Far West editor, the visit of Mr. Martin Parker to the offices of Peaceful Moments was to Smith.
It occurred shortly after the publication of the second number of the new series, and was directly due to Betty's first and only suggestion for the welfare of the paper.
If the first number of the series had not staggered humanity, it had at least caused a certain amount of comment. The warm weather had begun, and there was nothing much going on in New York. The papers were consequently free to take notice of the change in the policy of Peaceful Moments. Through the agency of Smith's newspaper friends, it received some very satisfactory free advertisement, and the sudden increase in the sales enabled Smith to bear up with fortitude against the numerous letters of complaint from old subscribers who did not know what was good for them. Visions of a large new public which should replace these Brooklyn and Flatbush ingrates filled his mind.
The sporting section of the paper pleased him most. The personality of Kid Brady bulked large in it. A photograph of the ambitious pugilist, looking moody and important in an attitude of self-defense, filled half a page, and under the photograph was the legend, "Jimmy Garvin must meet this boy." Jimmy was the present holder of the light-weight title. He had won it a year before, and since then had confined himself to smoking cigars as long as walking sticks and appearing nightly in a vaudeville sketch entitled, "A Fight for Honor." His reminiscences were being published in a Sunday paper. It was this that gave Smith the idea of publishing Kid Brady's autobiography in Peaceful Moments, an idea which won the Kid's whole-hearted gratitude. Like most pugilists he had a passion for bursting into print. Print is the fighter's accolade. It signifies that he has arrived. He was grateful to Smith, too, for not editing his contributions. Jimmy Garvin groaned under the supervision of a member of the staff of his Sunday paper, who deleted his best passages and altered the rest into Addisonian English. The readers of Peaceful Moments got their Brady raw.
"Comrade Brady," said Smith meditatively to Betty one morning, "has a singularly pure and pleasing style. It is bound to appeal powerfully to the many-headed. Listen to this. Our hero is fighting one Benson in the latter's home town, San Francisco, and the audience is rooting hard for the native son. Here is Comrade Brady on the subject: 'I looked around that house, and I seen I hadn't a friend in it. And then the gong goes, and I says to myself how I has one friend, my old mother down in Illinois, and I goes in and mixes it, and then I seen Benson losing his goat, so I gives him a half-scissor hook, and in the next round I picks up a sleep-producer from the floor and hands it to him, and he takes the count.' That is what the public wants. Crisp, lucid, and to the point. If that does not get him a fight with some eminent person, nothing will."
He leaned back in his chair.
"What we really need now," he said thoughtfully, "is a good, honest, muck-raking series. That's the thing to put a paper on the map. The worst of it is that everything seems to have been done. Have you by any chance a second 'Frenzied Finance' at the back of your mind? Or proofs that nut sundaes are composed principally of ptomaine and outlying portions of the American workingman? It would be the making of us."
Now it happened that in the course of her rambles through the city Betty had lost herself one morning in the slums. The experience had impressed itself on her mind with an extraordinary vividness. Her lot had always been cast in pleasant places, and she had never before been brought into close touch with this side of life. The sight of actual raw misery had come home to her with an added force from that circumstance. Wandering on, she had reached a street which eclipsed in cheerlessness even its squalid neighbors. All the smells and noises of the East Side seemed to be penned up here in a sort of canyon. The masses of dirty clothes hanging from the fire-escapes increased the atmosphere of depression. Groups of ragged children covered the roadway.
It was these that had stamped the scene so indelibly on her memory. She loved children, and these seemed so draggled and uncared-for.
Smith's words gave her an idea.
"Do you know Broster Street, Mr. Smith?" she asked.
"Down on the East Side? Yes, I went there once to get a story, one red-hot night in August, when I was on the News. The Ice Company had been putting up their prices, and trouble was expected down there. I was sent to cover it."
He did not add that he had spent a week's salary that night, buying ice and distributing it among the denizens of Broster Street.
"It's an awful place," said Betty, her eyes filling with tears. "Those poor children!"
"Some of those tenement houses are fierce," he said thoughtfully. Like Betty, he found himself with a singularly clear recollection of his one visit to Broster Street. "But you can't do anything."
"Why not?" cried Betty. "Oh, why not? Surely you couldn't have a better subject for your series? It's wicked. People only want to be told about them to make them better. Why can't we draw attention to them?"
"It's been done already. Not about Broster Street, but about other tenements. Tenements as a subject are played out. The public isn't interested in them. Besides, it wouldn't be any use. You can't tree the man who is really responsible, unless you can spend thousands scaring up evidence. The land belongs in the first place to some corporation or other. They lease it to a lessee. When there's a fuss, they say they aren't responsible, it's up to the lessee. And he, bright boy, lies so low you can't find out who it is."
"But we could try," urged Betty.
Smith looked at her curiously. The cause was plainly one that lay near to her heart. Her face was flushed and eager. He wavered, and, having wavered, he did what no practical man should do. He allowed sentiment to interfere with business. He knew that a series of articles on Broster Street would probably be so much dead weight on the paper, something to be skipped by the average reader, but he put the thought aside.
"Very well," he said. "If you care to turn in a few crisp remarks on the subject, I'll print them."
Betty's first instalment was ready on the following morning. It was a curious composition. A critic might have classed it with Kid Brady's reminiscences, for there was a complete absence of literary style. It was just a wail of pity, and a cry of indignation, straight from the heart and split up into paragraphs.
Smith read it with interest, and sent it off to the printer unaltered.
"Have another ready for next week, Comrade Brown," he said. "It's a long shot, but this might turn out to be just what we need."
And when, two days after the publication of the number containing the article, Mr. Martin Parker called at the office, he felt that the long shot had won out.
He was holding forth on life in general to Betty shortly before the luncheon hour when Pugsy Maloney entered bearing a card.
"Martin Parker?" said Smith, taking it. "I don't know him. We make new friends daily."
"He's a guy wit' a tall-shaped hat," volunteered Master Maloney, "an' he's wearing a dude suit an' shiny shoes."
"Comrade Parker," said Smith approvingly, "has evidently not been blind to the importance of a visit to Peaceful Moments. He has dressed himself in his best. He has felt, rightly, that this is no occasion for the flannel suit and the old straw hat. I would not have it otherwise. It is the right spirit. Show the guy in. We will give him audience."
Mr. Martin Parker proved to be a man who might have been any age between thirty-five and forty-five. He had a dark face and a black mustache. As Pugsy had stated, in effect, he wore a morning coat, trousers with a crease which brought a smile of kindly approval to Smith's face, and patent-leather shoes of pronounced shininess.
"I want to see the editor," he said.
"Will you take a seat?" said Smith.
He pushed a chair toward the visitor, who seated himself with the care inspired by a perfect trouser crease. There was a momentary silence while he selected a spot on the table on which to place his hat.
"I have come about a private matter," he said, looking meaningly at Betty, who got up and began to move toward the door. Smith nodded to her, and she went out.
"Say," said Mr. Parker, "hasn't something happened to this paper these last few weeks? It used not to take such an interest in things, used it?"
"You are very right," responded Smith. "Comrade Renshaw's methods were good in their way. I have no quarrel with Comrade Renshaw. But he did not lead public thought. He catered exclusively to children with water on the brain and men and women with solid ivory skulls. I feel that there are other and larger publics. I cannot content myself with ladling out a weekly dole of predigested mental breakfast food. I--"
"Then you, I guess," said Mr. Parker, "are responsible for this Broster Street thing?"
"At any rate, I approve of it and put it in the paper. If any husky guy, as Comrade Maloney would put it, is anxious to aim a swift kick at the author of that article, he can aim it at me."
"I see," said Mr. Parker. He paused. "It said 'Number one' in the paper. Does that mean there are going to be more of them?"
"There is no flaw in your reasoning. There are to be several more."
Mr. Parker looked at the door. It was closed. He bent forward.
"See here," he said, "I'm going to talk straight, if you'll let me."
"Assuredly, Comrade Parker. There must be no secrets, no restraint between us. I would not have you go away and say to yourself, 'Did I make my meaning clear? Was I too elusive?'"
Mr. Parker scratched the floor with the point of a gleaming shoe. He seemed to be searching for words.
"Say on," urged Smith. "Have you come to point out some flaw in that article? Does it fall short in any way of your standard for such work?"
Mr. Parker came to the point.
"If I were you," he said, "I should quit it. I shouldn't go on with those articles."
"Why?" enquired Smith.
"Because," said Mr. Parker.
He looked at Smith, and smiled slowly, an ingratiating smile. Smith did not respond.
"I do not completely gather your meaning," he said. "I fear I must ask you to hand it to me with still more breezy frankness. Do you speak from purely friendly motives? Are you advising me to discontinue the series because you fear that it will damage the literary reputation of the paper? Do you speak solely as a literary connoisseur? Or are there other reasons?"
Mr. Parker leaned forward.
"The gentleman whom I represent--"
"Then this is no matter of your own personal taste? There is another?"
"See here, I'm representing a gentleman who shall be nameless, and I've come on his behalf to tip you off to quit this game. These articles of yours are liable to cause him inconvenience."
"Financial? Do you mean that he may possibly have to spend some of his spare doubloons in making Broster Street fit to live in?"
"It's not so much the money. It's the publicity. There are reasons why he would prefer not to have it made too public that he's the owner of the tenements down there."
"Well, he knows what to do. If he makes Broster Street fit for a not-too-fastidious pig to live in--"
Mr. Parker coughed. A tentative cough, suggesting that the situation was now about to enter upon a more delicate phase.
"Now, see here, sir," he said, "I'm going to be frank. I'm going to put my cards on the table, and see if we can't fix something up. Now, see here. We don't want any unpleasantness. You aren't in this business for your health, eh? You've got your living to make, same as everybody else, I guess. Well, this is how it stands. To a certain extent, I don't mind owning, since we're being frank with one another, you've got us--that's to say, this gentleman I'm speaking of--in a cleft stick. Frankly, that Broster Street story of yours has attracted attention--I saw it myself in two Sunday papers--and if there's going to be any more of them--Well, now, here's a square proposition. How much do you want to stop those articles? That's straight. I've been frank with you, and I want you to be frank with me. What's your figure? Name it, and if you don't want the earth I guess we needn't quarrel."
He looked expectantly at Smith. Smith, gazing sadly at him through his monocle, spoke quietly, with the restrained dignity of some old Roman senator dealing with the enemies of the Republic.
"Comrade Parker," he said, "I fear that you have allowed your intercourse with this worldly city to undermine your moral sense. It is useless to dangle rich bribes before the editorial eyes. Peaceful Moments cannot be muzzled. You doubtless mean well, according to your somewhat murky lights, but we are not for sale, except at fifteen cents weekly. From the hills of Maine to the Everglades of Florida, from Portland, Oregon, to Melonsquashville, Tennessee, one sentence is in every man's mouth. And what is that sentence? I give you three guesses. You give it up? It is this: 'Peaceful Moments cannot be muzzled!'"
Mr. Parker rose.
"Nothing doing, then?" he said.
Mr. Parker picked up his hat.
"See here," he said, a grating note in his voice, hitherto smooth and conciliatory, "I've no time to fool away talking to you. I've given you your chance. Those stories are going to be stopped. And if you've any sense in you at all, you'll stop them yourself before you get hurt. That's all I've got to say, and that goes."
He went out, closing the door behind him with a bang that added emphasis to his words.
"All very painful and disturbing," murmured Smith. "Comrade Brown!" he called.
Betty came in.
"Did our late visitor bite a piece out of you on his way out? He was in the mood to do something of the sort."
"He seemed angry," said Betty.
"He was angry," said Smith. "Do you know what has happened, Comrade Brown? With your very first contribution to the paper you have hit the bull's-eye. You have done the state some service. Friend Parker came as the representative of the owner of those Broster Street houses. He wanted to buy us off. We've got them scared, or he wouldn't have shown his hand with such refreshing candor. Have you any engagements at present?"
"I was just going out to lunch, if you could spare me."
"Not alone. This lunch is on the office. As editor of this journal I will entertain you, if you will allow me, to a magnificent banquet. Peaceful Moments is grateful to you. Peaceful Moments," he added, with the contented look the Far West editor must have worn as the bullet came through the window, "is, owing to you, going some now."
* * * * *
When they returned from lunch, and reentered the outer office, Pugsy Maloney, raising his eyes for a moment from his book, met them with the information that another caller had arrived and was waiting in the inner room.
"Dere's a guy in dere waitin' to see youse," he said, jerking his head towards the door.
"Yet another guy? This is our busy day. Did he give a name?"
"Says his name's Maude," said Master Maloney, turning a page.
"Maude!" cried Betty, falling back.
"Old John Maude!" he said. "Great! I've been wondering what on earth he's been doing with himself all this time. Good-old John! You'll like him," he said, turning, and stopped abruptly, for he was speaking to the empty air. Betty had disappeared.
"Where's Miss Brown, Pugsy?" he said. "Where did she go?"
Pugsy vouchsafed another jerk of the head, in the direction of the outer door.
"She's beaten it," he said. "I seen her make a break for de stairs. Guess she's forgotten to remember somet'ing," he added indifferently, turning once more to his romance of prairie life. "Goils is bone-heads."