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THE FACE OF THE MAN FROM SATURN

 

CHAPTER I

 

“ON THE CARPET”

 

IT WAS one minute to four in the afternoon when Jimmie Kentland sprang from a Madison Street car on the west fringe of Chicago’s great Loop. He shot up Market Street to the dingy building at No. 10, took the weather-beaten steps three at a time, and entered the city room of the morning Sun just as the big, wooden clock on the wall struck four.

Presently he dropped into the rickety chair in front of his typewriter. “Nearly late again,” he said to himself. “Can’t seem to figure out these Chicago street-car schedules to save my li—” He stopped abruptly, his eyes falling on a long, official Sun envelope that lay on top of the rubber cover of his writing machine.

Gingerly he picked it up, stared at it a second, tore off the end slowly and withdrew the single white card it contained. Its one side bore the engraved words: “August L. Fornhoff, Proprietor and Editor-in-Chief the Sun, Chicago’s only Socialist Newspaper.”

He turned it quickly over. On the other side a few brief words had been scrawled in pencil. They ran: “Mr. Kentland: Kindly step into my office as soon as you reach the Sun—Fornhoff.”

“Good—night!” he groaned, after he had taken it in with one sweeping glance. “It’s come! Here’s where little old yours truly goes up—on the carpet!”

He gazed uneasily down the small city room with its few typewriting stands, its editor’s ink-spattered desk at one end, its floor covered by scraps of papers, its air of utter, complete confusion. Then his eyes ran along the outer corridor to the ground-glass partition at the other end which housed Fornhoff—owner, editor-in-chief and high dictator of the Socialistic policies of the Sun. Without a look toward the three other individuals in the city room, he arose slowly and stepped to the cracked mirror on the adjoining wall. There he smoothed down a mop of rumpled brown hair that overtopped a pair of steel-gray eyes. Then he spun on his heel and made his way down the corridor to the door of the ground-glass cage.

His energetic rap brought forth a deep “Come in.” He stepped in and closed the door behind him. At a mahogany table near the window sat a big, corpulent—even beefy—man, of slightly bald head, blue eyes and great jowls. In front of him stood a half-opened, black traveling bag, partly filled with papers, and strewn over the surface of the table itself were miscellaneous papers of all colors, sizes and descriptions.

“Sit down, Mr. Kentland,” said the chief.

Kentland dropped stiffly into a chair at the side of the desk and waited. It seemed to him, somehow, that there was an intensely worried look on the other’s face—a look that he had not seen there before. The older man closed up the black traveling bag with a sharp snap and swung around in his swivel chair.

“Mr. Kentland, I leave for Cincinnati on the six o’clock Monon Airways plane, and allowing for time to skip home in a taxi to Drexel Boulevard and thence out to Central Air Field, I won’t have much time to say what I’ve got to tell you. The Cincinnati Herald is up for sale, and I’ve decided at the last minute to run down there and get in a certified check with five per cent cash before midnight when the bids close. I shall take the Monon train back, so I can sleep, and get back here by morning.” Under his heavy eyebrows he looked at the younger man. “Think a Socialist newspaper would go well in that town, Mr. Kentland?”

The other cheered up at once. He had thought at first that he was in for a severe lecture—if not a discharge—on account of the two news stories he had “fallen down on” in his first week with the Sun, here in this gargantuan and many-sided city so rightly termed “The London of the West.” But by the trend of Fornhoff’s present talk, it looked as if he were about to be consulted as to the big man’s business plans.

“Ought to go fine, Mr. Fornhoff. Cincinnati, with the return of beer to America, has certainly become one huge brewing center, and employs a devil of a lot of people in that industry. And people with the same trend of mind that the Milwaukeeans had, around the time beer departed from the U.S.A. Real beer, that is! And it—you see, I happen to know something about Cinci—it has nothing like a New-Socialist newspaper at present.”

“Um!” Fornhoff nodded absent-mindedly; Again that worried, distraught look crept over his face. For a few seconds he seemed to forget his visitor, his surroundings, even the business on hand on which he had summoned Kentland to his office. But suddenly he caught himself up with a start and spoke:

“Mr. Kentland, it won’t take me long to tell you what I’ve got to say. It’s simply this: One week ago you landed here from Omaha and asked for a job with the Sun; said you’d been night city editor on the Omaha Courier under the old management.” Kentland nodded, wondering if it was coming now. “I hired you. First night here you fell down on a big story, with the result that the Sun went to press scooped by the other papers. Last night you repeated the performance. Now——”

Fornhoff stopped suddenly and pressed a button imbedded in the side of his desk. The summons was answered by a red-haired youth who looked as though he would have danced a jig before the Director-General of Russia’s G. P. U., so exuberant were his spirits. Fornhoff jerked out a twenty-dollar bill, and a ten: “Here, boy; skip over to the Monon ticket office on Clark and Adams and buy me one round-trip ticket for Cincinnati—going on the plane leaving Chicago at six o’clock, and returning on the train leaving Cincinnati at midnight. Lower berth, of course, on the train passage. And—are you listening? What are you supposed to get?”

“One round trip, Chicago-Cincinnati,” parrotted the boy, “on the six o’clock Monon plane, returning to Chi—Chicago—on the Monon train leaving Cincinnati at midnight. Lower berth.”

“Correct. Now skip.”

The boy disappeared, and Fornhoff turned to Kentland once more.

“Now, the point of the matter is simply this, Kentland: The Sun, a Socialist newspaper, is a new venture, and it’s got to have news, above all, if it’s to be a success. Remember that. While it’s a political organ to a big extent, catering to those who believe that Franklin D. doesn’t represent the truly new deal the world needs, nor Technocracy either, it’s a newspaper. And this shop can’t afford to hire men who are unlucky enough or inefficient enough to fall down flat on hot news stories.” He paused. “You get me on that, do you?”

Kentland nodded silently. He might have entered into an explanation of the unlucky incidents which had caused him to make a failure of those same two stories, but an extended experience with men and newspaper offices had taught him that silence and acquiescence go further than excuses.

“And so,” Fornhoff went on, chewing abstractedly on a big black cigar he had taken from his vest pocket, “the ironclad law of this shop will have to take its course with you, just the same as with any young cub that strolls in and gets a fifteen dollar job. Either bring me in a big, exclusive story within the next seven nights, to show me you’re all you claimed you were, or—”

“Or sever my connection with the paper,” put in Kentland.

Fornhoff nodded. “Exactly.” He glanced at his watch. Outside, the big clock in the city room toned forth the hour of four-thirty. The sun dropped back of the tops of the dingy buildings on Newspaper Row, with the result that the shining panes of glass across the way on Market Street became suddenly dark, and the whole interior of the tiny office took on a dismal and cheerless aspect quite in keeping with Kentland’s spirit.

“Now—two more things,” the big man went on. “Mr. Boltman,—the night city editor of the Sun—just now telephoned that he’s laid up with gastric cramps—at least he calls ’em gastric cramps—I call ’em just a bellyache—but anyway, he just now telephoned that he’s laid up with such and won’t leave his room tonight. My usual substitute for Mr. Boltman is on his vacation. The rest of the few men on night duty know Chicago pretty well—while you don’t. Then, too, you’ve had this desk experience with the Omaha Courier. So, I’m going to put you down in Boltman’s chair tonight—and I want you to watch that telephone and everything else and stick here until the paper goes to press at three a.m. On any tips from police or fire you can send out the boys—and they’ll take care of the rest.” He paused. “You’ll be able to handle it all right, will you?”

“Easily, Mr. Fornhoff,” Kentland replied, bright­ening.

“Now for point No. 3.” Fornhoff consulted a memorandum pad at his elbow. “You’ll probably see Jeffrich tonight. I understand he comes in about nine o’clock with his stuff. You know him when you see him?”

Kentland pondered a moment. Then it came to him whom Fornhoff meant. Jeffrich, he recalled, was the Sun’s one outside contributor—a dilapidated specimen of humanity who evidently belonged to the army of free-lance writers who besiege the city papers for space work. Where he had come from not even Boltman seemed to know. But it was rumored in the office that his masterly analyses of the rapidly shifting war situations in the so-called 2nd Chino-Jap war, as well as his recent 2,000-word prognostication of a deliberate declaration of war against Russia by France, pre­cipitated by a hypothetical diplomatic “incident” on the Russo-Rumanian frontier that would first bring an army of 600,000 Poles, Rumanians and Jugo-Slavs marching into Russia, not to omit his recent scathing political diatribes against capital, were beginning to win him a tight place in Fornhoff’s esteem. At any rate, they had won him a regular unsigned column in the morning Sun. At 9 o’clock each night on which he himself had not been out on an assignment, Kentland recollected, Jeffrich had drifted jauntily into the Sun offices, his threadbare suit brushed and carefully mended, his heavy cane swinging airily, his lean face carrying the pronounced sneer that invariably brands the writer who considers his work too good for the publication in which it appears.

Each time, he had deposited his next morning’s copy and military diagrams on the 2nd Chino-Jap war with Boltman for use on page 3 and then drifted out again—probably into the Bohemian haunts that knew his type the best.

Kentland nodded in the affirmative, at which Fornhoff, his face darkening for an instant, went on:

“Well, I want you to tell him that he’s got to remain more neutral in those Chino-Jap military articles of his—or the Sun will have to dispense with his stuff. That previous analysis of his of an inevitable French invasion of Soviet Russia was a fine thing from a technical standpoint—but even it was too confoundedly pro-Russian—and we must remember that even though we, here, are to some extent pro-Bolshevik, pro-Soviet, at least pro-Socialism—everything, in fact, but pro-Communism—we can’t slop our policies over into matter that should be as impersonal to us as a write-up of an auction bridge tournament. And—but while I’m on the subject of France, tell Jeffrich that if this last Moroccan uprising by Abd el Hazar against France continues to grow, we’ll want a daily 200 words on the African campaign and at least an occasional diagram. I have it from confidential sources that the Foreign Legion is now recruited from the regular French Army to three times its usual strength solely because of el Hazar’s activities. And—but I’m getting way off the track. I was speaking of Jeffrich’s daily Chino-Jap war articles. In them, he’s pro-Jap—whereas if he had to be anything he should at least be pro-Chinese—for China is sure to become Socialistic during the next ten years, whereas Japan becomes more imperialistic every year. However, I’m not asking him to align himself with any particular political views if he hasn’t got ’em, but do kindly impress on his mind, Kentland, that the Sun is a neutral paper wherever outside wars go—an American paper, first, last and all the time. I won’t stand for articles that are so biased as his are in favor of this or that or the other country. Tell him that in a political article, he’s free to go as far as he likes against capital and big business—without becoming an agitator. But tell him that so far as the military articles go, he can either discuss and analyze the new Chino-Jap situations each day impersonally or cut off his stuff altogether, and we’ll get somebody else to do it.” He pointed to a stack of letters held down by a brass paper weight. “There are the kicks of the last few days from various people who have business connections in China. If this stuff keeps up its present tone, we’ll be known as a Jap newspaper instead of a Socialist organ. I won’t have it; that’s all. Please tell Jeffrich tonight without fail.”

He stood up, glancing sourly at his watch. That, Kentland knew, was an indisputable sign that a Fornhoffian interview was at an end. So he, too, rose.

“I thank you for your confidence in me on the matter of the city editorship tonight—” he began. But the older man waved a hand. The Sun was not one of the great Chicago dailies; its proprietor was not taking a chance in putting this man of doubtful ability in charge for the night.

“Save your thanks,” Fornhoff remarked, dryly. “It’s merely a case of reserving my better men—the ones that don’t fall down—for the news trails.” A wave of resentment suddenly rolled over Kentland, and his face flushed. But he made no retort, for jobs in Chicago, in spite of the much ballyhooed “Prosperity Return Era,” were scarcer than broiled lobsters in bread lines—which bread lines still existed! And he needed the job he had. “But kindly remember this, Mr. Kentland,” Fornhoff continued, glancing at his watch again. “Within seven nights following tonight—I don’t count this one—either bring in a live, exclusive story for the Sun columns, so that I’ll know what you’re made of, or resign from the staff. That’s final.... Good night, Mr. Kentland.”

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