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Ambition is the most conservative of influences upon a radical mind. No sooner had Tertius Marrineal formulated his political hopes than there were manifested in the conduct of The Patriot strange symptoms of a hankering after respectability. Essentially Marrineal was not respectable, any more than he was radical. He was simply and singly selfish. But, having mapped out for himself a career which did not stop short of a stately and deep-porticoed edifice in Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue (for his conception of the potential leverage of a great newspaper increased with The Patriot's circulation), he deemed it advisable to moderate some of the more blatant features, on the same principle which had induced him to reform the Veridian lumber mill abuses, lest they be brought up to his political detriment later. A long-distance thinker, Tertius Marrineal.
Operating through invisible channels and by a method which neither Banneker nor Edmonds ever succeeded in fathoming, his influence now began to be felt for the better tone of the news columns. They became less glaringly sensational. Yet the quality of the news upon which the paper specialized was the same; it was the handling which was insensibly altered. That this was achieved without adversely affecting circulation was another proof, added to those already accumulated, of Marrineal's really eminent journalistic capacities. The change was the less obvious, because The Patriot's competitors in the Great Three-Ringed Circus of Sensation had found themselves being conducted, under that leadership, farther along the primrose path of stimulation and salaciousness than they had realized, and had already modified their policies.
Even under the new policy, however, The Patriot would hardly have proven, upon careful analysis, more decent or self-respecting. But it was less obvious; cleverer in avoiding the openly offensive. Capron had been curbed in his pictorial orgies. The copy-readers had been supplied with a list of words and terms tabooed from the captions. But the influence of Severance was still potent in the make-up of the news. While Banneker was relieved at the change, he suspected its impermanency should it prove unsuccessful. To neither his chief editorial writer nor Russell Edmonds had the proprietor so much as hinted at the modification of scheme. His silence to these two was part of his developing policy of separating more widely the different departments of the paper in order that he might be the more quietly and directly authoritative over all.
The three men were lunching late at Delmonico's, and talking politics, when Edmonds leaned forward in his seat to look toward the entrance.
"There's Severance," said he. "What's the matter with him?"
The professional infuser of excitements approached walking carefully among the tables. His eyes burned in a white face.
"On one of his sprees," diagnosed Banneker. "Oh, Severance! Sit down here."
"I beg your p-p-pardon." Severance spoke with marked deliberation and delicacy, but with a faint stammer. "These not b-being office hours, I have not the p-pleasure of your acquaintance."
"The p-pale rictus of the damned," observed Severance. "As one damned soul to another, I c-confess a longing for companionship of m-my own sort. Therefore I accept your invitation. Waiter, a Scotch h-highball."
"We were talking of--" began Banneker, when the newcomer broke in:
"Talk of m-me. Of me and m-my work. I exult in my w-work. L-like Mr. Whitman, I celebrate myself. I p-point with pride. What think you, gentlemen, of to-day's paper in honor of which I have t-taken my few drinks?"
"If you mean the Territon story," growled Edmonds, "it's rotten."
"Precisely. I thank you for your g-golden opinion. Rotten. Exactly as intended."
"Put a woman's good name on trial and sentence it on hearsay without appeal or recourse."
"There is always the danger of going too far along those lines," pointed out Marrineal judicially.
"Pardon me, all-wise Proprietor. The d-danger lies in not going far enough. The frightful p-peril of being found dull."
"The Territon story assays too thin in facts, as we've put it out. If Mrs. Territon doesn't leave her husband now for McLaurin," opined Marrineal, "we are in a difficult position. I happen to know her and I very much doubt--"
"Doubt not at all, d-doubting Tertius. The very fact of our publishing the story will force her hand. It's an achievement, that story. No other p-paper has a line of it."
"Not more than one other would touch it, in its present form," said Banneker. "It's too raw."
"The more virtue to us. I r-regard that story as an inspiration. Nobody could have brought it off b-but me. 'A god, a god their Severance ruled,'" punned the owner of the name.
"Beelzebub, god of filth and maggots," snarled Edmonds.
"Bacchus, god of all true inspiration!" cried Severance. "Waiter, slave of B-Bacchus, where is my Scotch?"
"Severance, you're going too far along your chosen line," declared Banneker bluntly.
"Yes; we must tone down a little," agreed Marrineal.
The sensationalist lifted calmly luminous eyes to his chief. "Why?" he queried softly. "Are you meditating a change? Does the journalistic l-lady of easy virtue begin to yearn f-for the paths of respectability?"
"Steady, Severance," warned Edmonds.
At the touch of the curb the other flamed into still, white wrath. "If you're going to be a whore," he said deliberately, "play the whore's game. I'm one and I know it. Banneker's one, but hasn't the courage to face it. You're one, Edmonds--no, you're not; not even that. You're the hallboy that f-fetches the drinks--"
Marrineal had risen. Severance turned upon him.
"I salute you, Madam of our high-class establishment. When you take your p-price, you at least look the business in the face. No illusions for M-Madam Marrineal.... By the w-way, I resign from the house."
"Are you coming, Mr. Edmonds?" said Marrineal. "You'll sign the check for me, will you, Mr. Banneker?"
Left alone with the disciple of Bacchus and Beelzebub, the editor said:
"Better get home, Severance. Come in to-morrow, will you?"
"No. I'm q-quite in earnest about resigning. No further use for the damned j-job now."
"I never could see why you had any use for it in the first place. Was it money?"
"Oh, I see."
"You d-don't see at all. I wanted the m-money for a purpose. The purpose was a woman. I w-wanted to keep pace with her and her s-set. It was the set to which I rightly belonged, but I'd dropped out. I thought I p-preferred drink. I didn't after she got hold of me. I d-don't know why the d-devil I'm telling you all this."
"I'm sorry, Severance," said Banneker honestly.
The other raised his glass. "Here's to her," he said. He drank. "I wish her nothing w-worse than she's got. Her name is--"
"Wait a moment, Severance," cut in Banneker sharply. "Don't say anything that you'll regret. Naming of names--"
"Oh, there's no harm in this, n-now," said Severance wearily. "Hers is smeared in filth all over our third page. It is Maud Territon. What do you think of P-Patriotic journalism, anyway, Banneker?"
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