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Banneker's induction into journalism was unimpressive. They gave him a desk, an outfit of writing materials, a mail-box with his name on it, and eventually an assignment. Mr. Mallory presented him to several of the other "cubs" and two or three of the older and more important reporters. They were all quite amiable, obviously willing to be helpful, and they impressed the observant neophyte with that quiet and solid esprit de corps which is based upon respect for work well performed in a common cause. He apprehended that The Ledger office was in some sort an institution.
None of his new acquaintances volunteered information as to the mechanism of his new job. Apparently he was expected to figure that out for himself. By nature reticent, and trained in an environment which still retained enough of frontier etiquette to make a scrupulous incuriosity the touchstone of good manners and perhaps the essence of self-preservation, Banneker asked no questions. He sat and waited.
One by one the other reporters were summoned by name to the city desk, and dispatched with a few brief words upon the various items of the news. Presently Banneker found himself alone, in the long files of desks. For an hour he sat there and for a second hour. It seemed a curious way in which to be earning fifteen dollars a week. He wondered whether he was expected to sit tight at his desk. Or had he the freedom of the office? Characteristically choosing the more active assumption, he found his way to the current newspaper files. They were like old friends.
"Mr. Banneker." An office boy was at his elbow. "Mr. Greenough wants you."
Conscious of a quickened pulse, and annoyed at himself because of it, the tyro advanced to receive his maiden assignment. The epochal event was embodied in the form of a small clipping from an evening paper, stating that a six-year-old boy had been fatally burned at a bonfire near the North River. Banneker, Mr. Greenough instructed him mildly, was to make inquiries of the police, of the boy's family, of the hospital, and of such witnesses as he could find.
Quick with interest he caught up his hat and hurried out. Death, in the sparsely populated country wherefrom he hailed, was a matter of inclusive local importance; he assumed the same of New York. Three intense hours he devoted to an item which any police reporter of six months' standing would have rounded up in a brace of formal inquiries, and hastened back, brimful of details for Mr. Greenough.
"Good! Good!" interpolated that blandly approving gentleman from time to time in the course of the narrative. "Write it, Mr. Banneker! write it."
"How much shall I write?"
"Just what is necessary to tell the news."
Behind the amiable smile which broadened without lighting up the sub-Mongol physiognomy of the city editor, Banneker suspected something. As he sat writing page after page, conscientiously setting forth every germane fact, the recollection of that speculative, estimating smile began to play over the sentences with a dire and blighting beam. Three fourths of the way through, the writer rose, went to the file-board and ran through a dozen newspapers. He was seeking a ratio, a perspective. He wished to determine how much, in a news sense, the death of the son of an obscure East-Side plasterer was worth. On his return he tore up all that he had written, and substituted a curt paragraph, without character or color, which he turned in. He had gauged the value of the tragedy accurately, in the light of his study of news files.
Greenough showed the paragraph (which failed to appear at all in the overcrowded paper of next morning) to Mr. Gordon.
"The new man doesn't start well," he remarked. "Too little imaginative interest."
"Isn't it knowledge rather than lack of interest?" suggested the managing editor.
"It may come to the same thing. If he knows too much to get really interested, he'll be a dull reporter."
"I doubt whether you'll find him dull," smiled Mr. Gordon. "But he may find his job dull. In that case, of course he'd better find another."
Indeed, that was the danger which, for weeks to follow, Banneker skirted. Police news, petty and formal, made up his day's work. Had he sought beneath the surface of it the underlying elements, and striven to express these, his matter as it came to the desk, however slight the technical news value might have been, would have afforded the watchful copy-readers, trained to that special selectiveness as only The Ledger could train its men, opportunity of judging what potentialities might lurk beneath the crudities of the "cub." But Banneker was not crude. He was careful. His sense of the relative importance of news, acquired by those weeks of intensive analysis before applying for his job, was too just to let him give free play to his pen. What was the use? The "story" wasn't worth the space.
Nevertheless, 3 T 9901, which Banneker was already too cognoscent to employ in his formal newsgathering (the notebook is anathema to the metropolitan reporter), was filling up with odd bits, which were being transferred, in the weary hours when the new man sat at his desk with nothing to do, to paper in the form of sketches for Miss Westlake's trustful and waiting typewriter. Nobody could say that Banneker was not industrious. Among his fellow reporters he soon acquired the melancholy reputation of one who was forever writing "special stuff," none of which ever "landed." It was chiefly because of his industry and reliability, rather than any fulfillment of the earlier promise of brilliant worth as shown in the Sunday Sphere articles, that he got his first raise to twenty dollars. It surprised rather than gratified him.
He went to Mr. Gordon about it. The managing editor was the kind of man with whom it is easy to talk straight talk.
"What's the matter with me?" asked Banneker.
Mr. Gordon played a thoughtful tattoo upon his fleshy knuckles with the letter-opener. "Nothing. Aren't you satisfied?"
"No. Are you?"
"You've had your raise, and fairly early. Unless you had been worth it, you wouldn't have had it."
"Am I doing what you expected of me?"
"Not exactly. But you're developing into a sure, reliable reporter."
"A routine man," commented Banneker.
"After all, the routine man is the backbone of the office." Mr. Gordon executed a fantasia on his thumb. "Would you care to try a desk job?" he asked, peering at Banneker over his glasses.
"I'd rather run a trolley car. There's more life in it."
"Do you see life, in your work, Mr. Banneker?"
"See it? I feel it. Sometimes I think it's going to flatten me out like a steam-roller."
"Then why not write it?"
"It isn't news: not what I see."
"Perhaps not. Perhaps it's something else. But if it's there and we can get a gleam of it into the paper, we'll crowd news out to make a place for it. You haven't been reading The Ledger I'm afraid."
"Like a Bible."
"Not to good purpose, then. What do you think of Tommy Burt's stuff?"
"It's funny; some of it. But I couldn't do it to save my job."
"Nobody can do it but Burt, himself. Possibly you could learn something from it, though."
"Burt doesn't like it, himself. He told me it was all formula; that you could always get a laugh out of people about something they'd been taught to consider funny, like a red nose or a smashed hat. He's got a list of Sign Posts on the Road to Humor."
"The cynicism of twenty-eight," smiled the tolerant Mr. Gordon. "Don't let yourself be inoculated."
"Mr. Gordon," said Banneker doggedly; "I'm not doing the kind of work I expected to do here."
"You can hardly expect the star jobs until you've made yourself a star man."
Banneker flushed. "I'm not complaining of the way I've been treated. I've had a square enough deal. The trouble is with me. I want to know whether I ought to stick or quit."
"If you quit, what would you do?"
"I haven't a notion," replied the other with an indifference which testified to a superb, instinctive self-confidence. "Something."
"Do it here. I think you'll come along all right."
"But what's wrong with me?" persisted Banneker.
"Too much restraint. A rare fault. You haven't let yourself out." For a space he drummed and mused. Suddenly a knuckle cracked loudly. Mr. Gordon flinched and glared at it, startled as if it had offended him by interrupting a train of thought. "Here!" said he brusquely. "There's a Sewer-Cleaners' Association picnic to-morrow. They're going to put in half their day inspecting the Stimson Tunnel under the North River. Pretty idea; isn't it? Suppose I ask Mr. Greenough to send you out on the story. And I'd like a look at it when you turn it in."
Banneker worked hard on his report of the picnic; hard and self-consciously. Tommy Burt would, he knew, have made a "scream" of it, for tired business men to chuckle over on their way downtown. Pursuant to what he believed Mr. Gordon wanted, Banneker strove conscientiously to be funny with these human moles, who, having twelve hours of freedom for sunshine and air, elected to spend half of it in a hole bigger, deeper, and more oppressive than any to which their noisome job called them. The result was five painfully mangled sheets which presently went to the floor, torn in strips. After that Banneker reported the picnic as he saw, felt, and smelt it. It was a somber bit of writing, not without its subtleties and shrewd perceptions; quite unsuitable to the columns of The Ledger, in which it failed to appear. But Mr. Gordon read it twice. He advised Banneker not to be discouraged.
Banneker was deeply discouraged. He wanted to resign.
Perhaps he would nave resigned, if old Mynderse Verschoyle had not died at eight o'clock on the morning of the day when Banneker was the earliest man to report at the office. A picturesque character, old Mynderse, who had lived for forty-five years with his childless wife in the ancient house on West 10th Street, and for the final fifteen years had not addressed so much as a word to her. She had died three months before; and now he had followed, apparently, from what Banneker learned in an interview with the upset and therefore voluble secretary of the dead man, because, having no hatred left on which to center his life, he had nothing else to live for. Banneker wrote the story of that hatred, rigid, ceremonious, cherished like a rare virtue until it filled two lives; and he threw about it the atmosphere of the drear and divided old house. At the end, the sound of the laughter of children at play in the street.
The article appeared word for word as he had written it. That noon Tommy Burt, the funny man, drawing down his hundred-plus a week on space, came over and sat on Banneker's desk, and swung his legs and looked at him mournfully and said:
"You've broken through your shell at last."
"Did you like it?" asked Banneker.
"Like it! My God, if I could write like that! But what's the use! Never in the world."
"Oh, that's nonsense," returned Banneker, pleased. "Of course you can. But what's the rest of your 'if'?"
"I wouldn't be wasting my time here. The magazines for me."
"Is that better?"
"Depends on what you're after. For a man who wants to write, it's better, of course."
"Gives him a larger audience. No newspaper story is remembered overnight except by newspaper men. And they don't matter."
"Why don't they matter?" Banneker was surprised again, this time rather disagreeably.
"It's a little world. There isn't much substance to it. Take that Verschoyle stuff of yours; that's literature, that is! But you'll never hear of it again after next week. A few people here will remember it, and it'll help you to your next raise. But after you've got that, and, after that, your lift onto space, where are you?"
The abruptly confidential approach of Tommy Burt flattered Banneker with the sense that by that one achievement of the Verschoyle story he had attained a new status in the office. Later there came out from the inner sanctum where sat the Big Chief, distilling venom and wit in equal parts for the editorial page, a special word of approval. But this pleased the recipient less than the praise of his peers in the city room.
After that first talk, Burt came back to Banneker's desk from time to time, and once took him to dinner at "Katie's," the little German restaurant around the corner. Burt was given over to a restless and inoffensively egoistic pessimism.
"Look at me. I'm twenty-eight and making a good income. When I was twenty-three, I was making nearly as much. When I'm thirty-eight, where shall I be?"
"Can't you keep on making it?" asked Banneker.
"Doubtful. A fellow goes stale on the kind of stuff I do. And if I do keep on? Five to six thousand is fine now. It won't be so much ten years from now. That's the hell of this game; there's no real chance in it."
"What about the editing jobs?"
"Desk-work? Chain yourself by the leg, with a blue pencil in your hand to butcher better men's stuff? A managing editor, now, I'll grant you. He gets his twenty or twenty-five thousand if he doesn't die of overstrain, first. But there's only a few managing editors."
"There are more editorial writers."
"Hired pens. Dishing up other fellows' policies, whether you believe in 'em or not. No; I'm not of that profession, anyway." He specified the profession, a highly ancient and dishonorable one. Mr. Burt, in his gray moods, was neither discriminating nor quite just.
Banneker voiced the question which, at some point in his progress, every thoughtful follower of journalism must meet and solve as best he can. "When a man goes on a newspaper I suppose he more or less accepts that paper's standards, doesn't he?"
"More or less? To what extent?" countered the expert.
"I haven't figured that out, yet."
"Don't be in a hurry about it," advised the other with a gleam of malice. "The fellows that do figure it out to the end, and are honest enough about it, usually quit."
"You haven't quit."
"Perhaps I'm not honest enough or perhaps I'm too cowardly," retorted the gloomy Burt.
Banneker smiled. Though the other was nearly two years his senior, he felt immeasurably the elder. There is about the true reporter type an infinitely youthful quality; attractive and touching; the eternal juvenile, which, being once outgrown with its facile and evanescent enthusiasms, leaves the expert declining into the hack. Beside this prematurely weary example of a swift and precarious success, Banneker was mature of character and standard. Nevertheless, the seasoned journalist was steeped in knowledge which the tyro craved.
"What would you do," Banneker asked, "if you were sent out to write a story absolutely opposed to something you believed right; political, for instance?"
"I don't write politics. That's a specialty."
"Does he believe in everything The Ledger stands for?"
"Certainly. In office hours. For and in consideration of one hundred and twenty-five dollars weekly, duly and regularly paid."
"Outside of office hours, then."
"Ah; that's different. In Harlem where he lives, the Parson is quite a figure among the reform Democrats. The Ledger, as you know, is Republican; and anything in the way of reform is its favorite butt. So Gale spends his working day poking fun at his political friends and associates."
"Out West we'd call that kind of fellow a yellow pup."
"Well, don't call the Parson that; not to me," warned the other indignantly. "He's as square a man as you'll find on Park Row. Why, you were just saying, yourself, that a reporter is bound to accept his paper's standards when he takes the job."
"Then I suppose the answer is that a man ought to work only on a newspaper in whose policies he believes."
"Which policies? A newspaper has a hundred different ones about a hundred different things. Here in this office we're dead against the split infinitive and the Honest Laboring Man. We don't believe he's honest and we've got our grave doubts as to his laboring. Yet one of our editorial writers is an out-and-out Socialist and makes fiery speeches advising the proletariat to rise and grab the reins of government. But he'd rather split his own head than an infinitive."
"Does he write anti-labor editorials?" asked the bewildered Banneker.
"Not as bad as that. He confines himself to European politics and popular scientific matters. But, of course, wherever there is necessity for an expression of opinion, he's anti-socialist in his writing, as he's bound to be."
"Just a moment ago you were talking of hired pens. Now you seem to be defending that sort of thing. I don't understand your point of view."
"Don't you? Neither do I, I guess," admitted the expositor with great candor. "I can argue it either way and convince myself, so far as the other fellow's work is concerned. But not for my own."
"How do you figure it out for yourself, then?"
"I don't. I dodge. It's a kind of tacit arrangement between the desk and me. In minor matters I go with the paper. That's easy, because I agree with it in most questions of taste and the way of doing things. After all The Ledger has got certain standards of professional conduct and of decent manners; it's a gentleman's paper. The other things, the things where my beliefs conflict with the paper's standards, political or ethical, don't come my way. You see, I'm a specialist; I do mostly the fluffy stuff."
"If that's the way to keep out of embarrassing decisions, I'd like to become a specialist myself."
"You can do it, all right," the other assured him earnestly. "That story of yours shows it. You've got The Ledger touch--no, it's more individual than that. But you've got something that's going to stick out even here. Just the same, there'll come a time when you'll have to face the other issue of your job or your--well, your conscience."
What Tommy Burt did not say in continuation, and had no need to say, since his expressive and ingenuous face said it for him, was, "And I wonder what you'll do with that!"
A far more influential friend than Tommy Burt had been wondering, too, and had, not without difficulty, expressed her doubts in writing. Camilla Van Arsdale had written to Banneker:
... I know so little of journalism, but there are things about it that I distrust instinctively. Do you remember what that wrangler from the Jon Cal told Old Bill Speed when Bill wanted to hire him: "I wouldn't take any job that I couldn't look in the eye and tell it to go to hell on five minutes' notice." I have a notion that you've got to take that attitude toward a reporting job. There must be so much that a man cannot do without loss of self-respect. Yet, I can't imagine why I should worry about you as to that. Unless it is that, in a strange environment one gets one's values confused.... Have you had to do any "Society" reporting yet? I hope not. The society reporters of my day were either obsequious little flunkeys and parasites, or women of good connections but no money who capitalized their acquaintanceship to make a poor living, and whom one was sorry for, but would rather not see. Going to places where one is not asked, scavenging for bits of news from butlers and housekeepers, sniffing after scandals--perhaps that is part of the necessary apprenticeship of newspaper work. But it's not a proper work for a gentleman. And, in any case, Ban, you are that, by the grace of your ancestral gods.
Little enough did Banneker care for his ancestral gods: but he did greatly care for the maintenance of those standards which seemed to have grown, indigenously within him, since he had never consciously formulated them. As for reporting, of whatever kind, he deemed Miss Van Arsdale prejudiced. Furthermore, he had met the society reporter of The Ledger, an elderly, mild, inoffensive man, neat and industrious, and discerned in him no stigma of the lickspittle. Nevertheless, he hoped that he would not be assigned to such "society news" as Remington did not cover in his routine. It might, he conceived, lead him into false situations where he could be painfully snubbed. And he had never yet been in a position where any one could snub him without instant reprisals. In such circumstances he did not know exactly what he would do. However, that bridge could be crossed or refused when he came to it.
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