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Some degree of triumph would perhaps have been excusable in the new owner. Most signally had he turned the tables on his enemies. Yet it was with no undue swagger that he seated himself upon a chair of problematical stability, and began to study the pages of the morning's issue. Sterne regarded him dubiously.
"This isn't a bluff, I suppose?" he asked.
"Ask your lawyers."
"Mac, get Rockwell's house on the 'phone, will you, and find out if we've been sold."
Presently the drawl of Mr. Ellis was heard, pleading with a fair and anonymous Central, whom he addressed with that charming impersonality employed toward babies, pet dogs, and telephone girls, as "Tootsie," to abjure juvenility, and give him 322 Vincent, in a hurry.
"You'll excuse me, Mr. Surtaine," said Sterne, in a new and ingratiating tone, for which Hal liked him none the better, "but verifying news has come to be an instinct with me."
"It's straight," said Ellis, turning his heavy face to his principal, after a moment's talk over the wire. "Bought and sold, lock, stock, and barrel."
"Have you had any newspaper experience, Mr. Surtaine?" inquired Sterne.
"Not on the practical side."
"As owner I suppose you'll want to make changes."
"They all do," sighed Sterne. "But my contract has several months--" "Yes: I've been over the contracts with a lawyer. Yours and Mr. Ellis's. He says they won't hold."
"All newspaper contracts are on the cheese," observed McGuire Ellis philosophically. "Swiss cheese, at that. Full of holes."
"I don't admit it," protested Sterne. "Even so, to turn a man out--"
A snort of disgust from Ellis interrupted the plea. The glare with which that employee favored his boss fairly convicted the seamed and graying editor of willful and captious immaturity.
"Contract or no contract, you'll both be fairly treated," said the new owner shortly.
"Who, me?" inquired Ellis. "You can go rapidly to hell and take my contract with you. I know when I'm fired."
"Who fired you?"
"I did. To save you the satisfaction."
"Very good of you, I'm sure," drawled Hal in a tone of lofty superiority, turning away. Out of the corner of his eye, however, he could see McGuire Ellis making pantomime as of one spanking a baby with fervor. Amusement helped him to the recovery of his temper.
"Working under an amateur journalist will just suit Sterne," observed Ellis, in a tone quite as offensive as Hal's.
"Cut it out, Mac," suggested his principal. "There's no occasion for hard words."
"Amateur isn't the hardest word in the dictionary," said Hal quietly. "Perhaps I'll become a professional in time."
"Buying a newspaper doesn't make a newspaper man."
"Well, I'm not too old to learn. But see here, Mr. Ellis, doesn't your contract hold you?"
"The contract that you said was no good? Do you expect it to work all one way?"
"Well, professional honor, then, I should suppose--"
"Professional honor!" cut in Ellis, with scathing contempt. "You step in here and buy a paper out of a freak of revenge--"
"Hold on, there! How can you know my motive?"
"What else could it be?"
Hal was silent, finding no answer.
"You see! To feed your mean little spite, you've taken over control of the biggest responsibility, for any one with any decent sense of responsibility, that a man could take on his shoulders. And what will you make of it? A toy! A rich kid's plaything."
"Well, what would you make of it, yourself?" asked Hal.
"A teacher and a preacher. A force to tear down and to build up. To rip this old town wide open, and remould it nearer to the heart's desire! That's what a newspaper might be, and ought to be, and could be, by God in Heaven, if the right man ever had a free hand at it."
"Don't get profane, my boy," tittered Sterne.
"You think that's swearing?" retorted Ellis. "Yes; you would. But I was nearer praying then than I've ever been since I came to this office. We'll never live to see that prayer answered, you and I."
"Perhaps," began Hal.
"Oh, perhaps!" Ellis snatched the word from his lips. "Perhaps you're the boy to do it, eh? Why, it's your kind that's made journalism the sewer of the professions, full of the scum and drainings of every other trade's failures. What chance have we got to develop ideals when you outsiders control the whole business?"
"Hullo!" observed Sterne with a grin. "Where do you come in on the idealist business, Mac? This is new talk from you."
"New? Why wouldn't it be new? Would I waste it on you, Dave Sterne?"
"You certainly never have since I've known you."
"Call it easing up my mind if you like. I can afford that luxury, now that you 're not my boss any longer. Not but what it's all Greek to you."
"Had a drink to-day, Mac?"
"No, damn you. But I'm going out of here and take a hundred. First, though, I'm going to tell young Bib-and-Tucker over there a thing or two about his new toy. Oh, yes: you can listen, too, Sterne, but it won't get to your shelled-in soul."
"You in'trust muh, strangely," said Sterne, and looked over to Hal for countenance of his uneasy amusement.
But the new owner did not appear amused. He had faced around in his chair and now sat regarding the glooming and exalted Ellis with an intent surprise.
"A plaything! That's what you think you've bought, young Mr. Harrington Surtaine. One of two things you'll do with it: either you'll try to run it yourself, and you'll dip deeper and deeper into Poppa's medicine-bag till he gets sick of it and closes you up; or you'll hire some practical man to manage it, and insist on dividends that'll keep it just where it is now. And that's pretty low, even for a Worthington paper."
"It won't live on blackmail, at any rate," said Hal, his mind reverting to its original grievance.
"Maybe it will. You won't know it if it does. Anyhow, it'll live on suppression and distortion and manipulation of news, because it'll have to, if it's going to live at all."
"You mean that is the basis of the newspaper business as it is to-day?"
"Generally speaking. It certainly is in Worthington."
"You're frank, at any rate. Where's all your glowing idealism now?"
"Vanished into mist. All idealism goes that way, doesn't it?"
"Not if you back it up with work. You see, Mr. Ellis, I'm something of an idealist myself."
"The Certina brand of idealism. Guaranteed under the Pure Thought and Deed Act."
"Our money may have been made a little--well, blatantly," said Hal, flushing. "But at least it's made honestly." He was too intent on his subject to note either Sterne's half-wink or Ellis's stare of blank amazement. "And I'm going to run this newspaper on the same high principles. I don't quite reconcile your standards with the practices of this paper, Mr. Ellis--"
"Mac has nothing to do with the policy of the paper, Mr. Surtaine," put in Sterne. "He's only an employee."
"Then why don't you get work on some paper that practices your principles?"
"Hard to find. Not having been born with a silver spoon, full of Certina, in my mouth, I have to earn my own living. It isn't profitable to make a religion of one's profession, Mr. Surtaine. Not that I think you need the warning. But I've tried it, and I know."
"Do you know, it's rather a pity you don't like me," said Hal, with ruminative frankness. "I think I could use some of that religion of yours."
"Not on the market," returned Ellis shortly.
"You see," pursued the other, "it's really my own money I've put into this paper: half of all I've got."
"How much did you pay for it?" inquired Ellis: "since we're telling each other our real names."
"Two hundred and thirty thousand dollars."
"Whee-ee-ee-ew!" Both his auditors joined in the whistle.
"They asked two-fifty."
"Half of that would have bought," said Sterne.
Hal digested that information in silence for a minute. "I suppose I was easy. Hurry never yet made a good bargain. But, now that I've got this paper I'm going to run it myself."
"On the rocks," prophesied McGuire Ellis. "Utter and complete shipwreck. I'm glad I'm off."
"Is it your habit, Mr. Ellis, to run at the first suggestion of disaster?"
Ellis looked his questioner up and down. "Say the rest of it," he barked.
"Why, it seems to me you're still an officer of this ship. Doesn't it enter into your ethics somewhere that you ought to stick by her until the new captain can fill your place, and not quit in the face of the shipwreck you foresee?"
"Humph," grunted McGuire Ellis, "I guess you're not quite as young as I thought you were. How long would you want me to stay?"
"About a year."
"On an unbreakable contract. To be editorial manager. You see, I'm prepared to buy ideals."
"What about my opinion of amateur journalism?"
"You'll just have to do the best you can about that."
"Give me till to-morrow to think it over."
Ellis put down the hat and cane which he had picked up preparatory to his departure.
"Not going out after those hundred drinks, eh, Mac?" laughed Sterne.
"Indefinitely postponed," replied the other.
"The first thing to do," said Hal decisively, "is to make amends. Mr. Sterne, the 'Clarion' is to print a full retraction of the attacks upon my father, at once."
"Yes, sir," assented Sterne, slavishly responsive to the new authority.
Not so McGuire Ellis. "If you do that you'll make a fool of your own paper," he said bluntly.
"Make a fool of the paper by righting a rank injustice?"
"Just the point. It isn't a rank injustice."
"See here, Mr. Sterne: isn't it a fact that this attack was made because my father doesn't advertise with you?"
The editor twisted uneasily in his chair. "A newspaper's got to look out for its own interests," he asserted defensively.
"Please answer my question."
"Well--yes; I suppose it is so."
"Then you're simply operating a blackmailing scheme to get the Certina advertising for the 'Clarion.'"
"The Certina advertising?" repeated Sterne in obvious surprise.
"Certina doesn't advertise locally. Most patent medicines don't. It's a sort of fashion of the trade not to," explained Ellis.
"What on earth is all this about, then?"
The two newspaper men exchanged a glance. Obviously the new boss understood little of his progenitor's extensive business interests. "Might as well know sooner as later," decided Ellis, aloud. "It's the Neverfail Company of Cincinnati that we got turned down on."
"What is the Neverfail Company?"
"One of Dr. Surtaine's alia--one of the names he does business under. Every other paper in town gets their copy. We don't. Hence the roast."
"What sort of business is it?"
"Relief Pills. Here's the ad. in this morning's 'Banner.'"
The name struck chill on Hal's memory. He stared at the sinister oblong of type, vaguely sensing in its covert promises the taint, yet failing to apprehend the full villainy of the lure.
"Whatever the advertising is," said he, "the principle is the same."
"Precisely," chirped Ellis.
"And you call that decent journalism?"
"No: my extremely youthful friend, I do not. What's more, I never did."
"If you want a retraction published," said Sterne, spreading wide his hands as one offering fealty, "wouldn't it be just as well to preface it with an announcement of the taking-over of the paper by yourself?"
"That itself would be tantamount to an announced reversal of policy," mused Hal.
Again Sterne and Ellis glanced at each other, but with a different expression this time. The look meant that they had recognized in the intruder a flash of that mysterious sense vaguely known as "the newspaper instinct," with which a few are born, but which most men acquire by giving mortgages on the blest illusions of youth.
"Cor-rect," said Ellis.
"Let the retraction rest for the present. I'll decide it later."
The door was pushed open, and a dark man of perhaps thirty, with a begrimed and handsome face, entered. In one hand he held a proof.
"About this paragraph," he said to Sterne in a slightly foreign accent. "Is it to run to-morrow?"
"What paragraph is that?"
"The one-stick editorial guying Dr. Surtaine."
"Kill it," said Sterne hastily. "This is Mr. Harrington Surtaine. Mr. Surtaine, this is Max Veltman, foreman of our composing-room."
Slowly the printer turned his fine, serious face from one to the other. "Ah," he said presently. "So it is arranged. We do not print this paragraph. Good!"
Impossible to take offense at the tone. Yet the smile which accompanied it was so plainly a sneer that Hal's color rose.
"Mr. Surtaine is the new owner of the 'Clarion,'" explained Ellis.
"In that case, of course," said Veltman quietly. "Good-night, gentlemen."
"Good-looking chap," remarked Hal. "But what a curious expression."
"Veltman's a thinker and a crank," said Ellis. "If he had a little more balance he'd make his mark. But he's a sort of melancholiac. Ill-health, nerves, and a fixed belief in the general wrongness of creation."
"Well. I'll get to know more about the shop to-morrow," said Hal. "I'm for home and sleep just now. See you at--what time, by the way?"
"Noon," said Sterne. "If that suits you."
Arrived at home, Hal went straight to the big ground-floor library where, as the light suggested, his father sat reading.
"Dad, do you want a retraction printed?"
"Of the 'Clarion' article?"
"From 'Want' to 'Get' the road runs rocky," said the senior Surtaine whimsically.
"I've just come from removing a few of the rocks at the 'Clarion' office."
"Go down to lick the editor?" Dr. Surtaine's eyes twinkled.
"There may have been some such notion in the back of my head."
"Expensive exercise. Did you do it?"
"No. He had a club."
"If I were running a slander-machine like the 'Clarion' I'd want six-inch armor-plate and a quick-fire battery. Well, what did you do?"
"Bought the paper."
"You needn't have gone down town to do that. It comes to the office."
"You don't understand. I've bought the 'Clarion,' presses, plant, circulation, franchise, good-will, ill-will, high, low, jack, and the game."
"You! What for?"
"Why," said Hal thoughtfully; "mainly because I lost my temper, I believe."
"Sounds like a pretty heavy loss, Boy-ee."
"Two hundred and thirty thousand dollars. Oh, the prodigal son hasn't got anything on me, Dad, when it comes to scattering patrimonies," he concluded a little ruefully.
"What are you going to do with it, now you've got it?"
"Run it. I've bought a career."
"Now you're talking." The big man jumped up and set both hands on Hal's shoulders. "That's the kind of thing I like to hear, and in the kind of way it ought to be said. You go to it, Hal. I'll back you, as far as you like."
"No, sir. I thank you just the same: this is my game."
"Want to play it alone, do you?"
"How else can I make a career of it?"
"Right you are, Boyee. But it takes something behind money to build up a newspaper. And the 'Clarion' 'll take some building up."
"Well, I've got aspiration enough, if it comes to that," smiled Hal.
"Aspiration's a good starter: but it's perspiration that makes a business go. Are you ready to take off your coat and work?"
"I certainly am. There's a lot for me to learn."
"There is. Everything. Want some advice from the Old Man?"
"I most surely do, Dad."
"Listen here, then. A newspaper is a business proposition. Never forget that. All these hifalutin' notions about its being a palladium and the voice of the people and the guardian of public interests are good enough to talk about on the editorial page. Gives a paper a following, that kind of guff does. But the duty of a newspaper is the duty of any other business, to make money. There's the principle, the policy, the politics, ethics, and religion of the newspaper in a nutshell. Now, how are you going to make money with the 'Clarion'?"
"By making it a better paper than the others."
"Hm! Better. Yes: that's all right, so long as you mean the right thing by 'better.' Better for the people that want to use it and can pay for using it."
"The readers, you mean?"
"The advertisers. It's the advertisers that pay for the paper, not the readers. You've got to have circulation, of course, to get the advertising. But remember this, always: circulation is only a means to an end. It never yet paid the cost of getting out a daily, and it never will."
"I know enough of the business to understand that."
"Good! Look at the 'Clarion,' as it is. It's got a good circulation. And that lets it out. It can't get the advertising. So it's losing money, hand over fist."
"Why can't it?"
"It's yellow. It doesn't treat the business interests right."
"Sterne says they always look after their own advertisers."
"Oh, that! Naturally they have to. Any newspaper will do that. But they print a lot of stuff about strikes and they're always playing up to the laboring man and running articles about abuses and pretending to be the friend of the poor and all that slush, and the better class of business won't stand for it. Once a paper gets yellow, it has to keep on. Otherwise it loses what circulation it's got. No advertiser wants to use it then. The department stores do go into the 'Clarion' because it gets to a public they can't reach any other way. But they give it just as little space as they can. It isn't popular."
"Well, I don't intend to make the paper yellow."
"Of course you don't. Keep your mind on it as a business proposition and you won't go wrong. Remember, it's the advertiser that pays. Think of that when you write an editorial. Frame it and hang it where every sub-editor and reporter can't help but see it. Ask of every bit of news, 'Is this going to get me an advertiser? Is that going to lose me an advertiser?' Be on the lookout to do your advertisers favors. They appreciate little things like special notices and seeing their names in print, in personals, and that kind of thing. And keep the paper optimistic. Don't knock. Boost. Business men warm up to that. Why, Boy-ee, if you'll just stick to the policy I've outlined, you'll not only make a big success, but you'll have a model paper that'll make a new era in local journalism; a paper that every business man in town will swear by and that'll be the pride of Worthington before you're through."
Fired by the enthusiasm of his fair vision of a higher journalism, Dr. Surtaine had been walking up and down, enlivening, with swinging arms, the chief points of his Pćan of Policy. Now he dropped into his chair and with a change of voice said:
"Never mind about that retraction, Hal."
"No. Forget it. When do you start in work?"
"You must save to-morrow evening."
"You're invited to the Festus Willards'. Mrs. Willard was particularly anxious you should come."
"But I don't know them, Dad."
"Doesn't matter. It's about the most exclusive house in town. A cut above me, I can tell you. I've never so much as set foot in it."
"Then I won't go," declared his son, flushing.
"Yes: you must," insisted his father anxiously. "Don't mind about me. I'm not ambitious socially. I told you some folks don't like the business. It's too noisy. But you won't throw out any echoes. You'll go, Boyee?"
"Since you want me to, of course, sir. But I shan't find much time for play if I'm to learn my new trade."
"Oh, you can hire good teachers," laughed his father. "Well, I'm sleepy. Good-night, Mr. Editor."
"Good-night, Dad. I could use some sleep myself." But thought shared the pillow with Hal Surtaine's head. Try as he would to banish the contestants, Dr. Surtaine's Pćan of Policy and McGuire Ellis's impassioned declaration of faith did battle for the upper hand in his formulating professional standards. The Doctor's theory was the clean-cut, comprehensible, and plausible one. But something within Hal responded to the hot idealism of the fighting journalist. He wanted Ellis for a fellow workman. And his last waking notion was that he wanted and needed Ellis mainly because Ellis had told him to go to hell.
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