HE was a little rat-like man with a sort of limpid fear in his face. He seemed at the same time awry and dried, a very sad rag that had been thoroughly wrung. And he was half asleep; and kept mumbling over and over, “I wonder . . . I wonder.”
Now, I am not going to tell you where this happened, except so far as to say it was in a Press Club where newspaper men and dramatists and critics and the palaverers on perishable things came and gathered and went. But if you will take a compass and jab on leg of it into New York and swing the other within six hours of New York, the town will lie within your circle.
He kept on saying: “I wonder . . . I wonder about myself . . . may be . . I wonder”; and he screwed up one eye at me and took me in. There was calmness about his alcoholic survey, as if he carefully sought an effect. There was also a limp garrulousness about his mouth. He seemed a sensitive man who set much store by his choice of words and confoundedly little by his choice of deeds. Of course he must have been a newspaper man of some sort, or he would not have been at this club. I had a look at him, put a dry cigar into my mouth, took “The Hound of Heaven” out of my pocket, and sat down to read.
An important waiter came with a match-box.
“I wonder ... I wonder ... may be that’s my fm-m-m-m ---” He said something indistinctly, something that I could not quite catch.
“E always is that way,” whispered the waiter, to my eyebrows of inquiry. “Name’s Josephson, sir.”
“I wonder . . . probably me, too . . . maybe it’ll be the same way with my fm-m-m-m,” wabbled the thin, maudlin voice behind my shoulder.
I laid Thompson aside and wheeled around. “Say, tell me,” I said. Then waited. “Huh?”
He screwed up his left eye again.
“Yes—me,” I went on, and waited again.
His chin and hand trembled. It was one-thirty in the morning. “You want to hear?"
I nodded and called the waiter. “Give Mr. Josephson a drink.”
He drew himself up with an epileptic movement, as a pantomimist in a cinematograph, and poured himself a glass against which his teeth chattered.
“You have the advantage of me. I see you know my name. Maybe you know my story, too." He ran his thin fingers to his cheekbone and licked his lips, weakly. “Most of ’em do. They come and sit here; and I, I tell it to them, over and over again.”
The strong electric light in the room beat down on him hotly; the chemicals in it seemed to suck the color out of him, taking along his nerve and his muscle and his blood. He blinked, and it made me think of something in a cellar. But I waved my hand cheerily, and he went on :
“Well, you don’t know me. You know my name, but you don’t know where I came from. And I don’t propose to tell you; and you won’t find out, because a man can come from anywhere to this town. I’m a genius. I’m a newspaper genius . . . without any backbone. I guess that sounds cowardly, don’t it. That sounds cowardly. Very well. That sounds cowardly. But I am not going to apologize for what I did. It’s done, and what’s done done. And I may be a coward, but I admit— you heard me say I admit?”—he nodded his head his head emphatically—“what I did.” Again he drew his thin shoulders up and gazed at me with superfluous earnestness. “No backbone—but I admit what I’ve done,” he commented.
“Some fellows dig at a story. I’ve always faked. Came natural to me, anyway, and I’m a genius and so I always faked my stuff. You’ve heard newspaper men brag about themselves, just like actors, I suppose? Well you won’t hear it tonight. I’m drunk. And I’m through . . . almost through. I can write leads, that’s all. I always could write good leads, human interest dope . . . ‘man-on-the-street . . . anything except the facts. Look at me. Don’t ever fake your stuff. That is, it’s all right once in a while; but not week in and week out. It don’t go. They get wise to you. Nothing on earth wiser than a city editor . . . is there? Is there? I guess you’d say no. But you haven’t heard what I did. No. You haven’t listened to me . . . Josephson. Pardon me.” He poured himself another drink.
“There was a senator in our city —United States senator—and he was about to die. I had the hotel run. It was easy. And you know how a fellow gets when he’s got a job that’s easy. He ... he takes liberties with himself. I loafed and did a lot of other things, some of which you’ll hear about in a few minutes. Principally, I loafed. I loafed because I knew everybody, and when I was too ‘tired’ ”—here he winked with effort—“or busy about something else, or wanted to sit in at a little game, I’d just pipe off the visitors in town I happened to know, fix it with ’em, and fake stuff about ’em. The city editor went home about eleven. I turned my stuff in to Ward. Rememeber that, will you? . . . Ward. All O.K. Lemme see—where was I? ... Oh, yes! There was a senator in our town, and he was about to die.
“The man on the city desk was a red-headed Irishman named Flanagan. He used to have heart trouble, I ’member . . . gastritis . . kept a box of baking soda in his top drawer and used to eat it with a spoon. Does this bore you? Am I boring you? Tell me, friend, if I bore you. All right. Flanagan says to me, right at the beginning . . .he says : ‘Josephson, stay on Bellows. Whatever you do, cover that.’. . . Bellows was the senator, y’know, that was about to kick the bucket. I said, ‘Sure ... all right.’ Every few days he’d tell me, ‘Don’t forget the Bellows assignment, Mr. Josephson.’ And I’d answer him, ‘Sure.’ I went on that way for about a week. We had the obituary all framed up, cut, black-rule, and all . . just waiting. All I had to write was a couple of sticks of lead. Seems easy, don’t it?” His fingers ran deftly around his glass and he lowered his eyes. “Seems a mighty little thing, don’t it, when you look at it now? I’m damned if it don’t ... almost nothing. Almost nothing.”
He licked his lips and waited. I waited. He sat quiet.
Finally I said, “Huh?”
“ . . . Ward—I told you about Ward. He was a tall, skinny guy . . . bald-head . . . near-sighted. He was about forty—over forty, I guess. He’d come on the paper when he was a kid and had been there ever since. But he just naturally wasn’t a newspaper man, that’s all . . . you know the kind.
They let ’em handle exchanges and get up the literary page on Sunday you know the kind. He wasn’t wise to anything. Simple, purblind, helpless as an owl. Half the time he didn’t know what the boys were talking about, because he wasn’t up on their slang. He went around behind his specks like a toad in a hole. He didn’t know there was another paper on earth, he’d been there so long; and he was the only man in the place that dared to call the chief ‘Charlie.’ Ward got forty dollars a week. He had a wife and two children; lived ’way out in the suburbs somewhere. It was a long ride from the shop out to his house, down to work and back, and he used to lose sleep; so he slept now and then in his chair at the office . . Now and then, did I say? Almost regular. I remember he used to sit in the city editor’s chair and throw his head back and snore. When he did that his Adam’s apple stuck out sort o’ grotesquely, for he had an Adam’s apple like a fish’s back. He was a sick, nervous man; drank a food coffee.”
Then something incongruously comic happened—something quite indecent. Josephson began weeping . . . sobbing with a sort of fierce pathos, as a man horribly compelled. He wiped his wavering knuckles around his eyes.
“I had no idea there was so much misery in a food coffee,” I said, with a laugh.
But there was no resentment in Josephson. He looked at me pitifully and said: “You don’t understand. Wait a minute.” He nodded at me meaningly.
“You see, Flanagan got his paper pretty well made up and went home every night about eleven. Then this fellow Ward used to take the city desk until the presses started. Then he went home.” He licked his lips, poured himself another drink, and breathed at me huskily, his eyes dilated, his nervous hand half extended toward mine. “Bellows” died.”
He went back over it again: “Bellows died.” The excitement of a dozen years came out with the words—a subtle, fearful human excitement, stirring him like a poison. He could not keep, did not try to keep, his shocking frenzy out of his voice. His little shoulders twitched; his tongue ran lightly along his lip from corner to corner; he burned as if he had whispered a miracle.
“Damn it . . . you see . . . Bellows died.” Then his mouth performed a horrible smirk and he threw up his hands as a Frenchman would. He seemed to take it for granted that I understood what that meant, that abrupt, mystic shrug of his hands. He seemed to take it for granted that he and I were cronies, full of a mutual wisdom. It was some tacit secret, patent to us, utterly unintelligible to the outside world . . Bellows had died!
I looked into his watery eyes noncommittally. The smirk seemed pasted onto Josephson’s face. For a moment I thought him idiotic. Then he screwed up his eyes and said to me out of the corner of his mouth, in a bitter, slangy fashion.
"Where do you suppose I was when I found it out? Huh, friend? On the level, where do you suppose I was when I found it out ? I was standing in the side entrance of a cafe at half-past one in the morning—and I read it in a first edition of another paper.” He nodded, almost proudly. “That’s where I was was . . . been bumming . . . some theatrical friends of mine.” He nodded again. “Wasn’t that abominable?” he asked, smilingly, with the expression of a man who has been chewing a bitter weed.
Then, all at once, his features flamed up with excitement. It seemed a new excitement, not the other, not warmed over. It seemed as if Josephson went back bodily to that former situation. His eyes glowed and his speech cleared.
“Half-past one—and in another paper. That very night Flanagan had warned me. He had left early, and Ward had gone on early. I called a cab and went lickety-split for the shop. I crept in on tiptoe, scared to death. It was dark in there. The city room was lighted by only two drop-lights. The rest were out . . .
“Nobody in the place! Flanagan’s desk was in a little room no bigger than a cubby-hole, right off the city 100m to the left—just before you go into the telegrapher’s room. I was edging along as softly as I could on my toes, when all of a sudden I heard a slight rustle. I jumped, but my heart stood still. Then I saw. A window was open a little from the bottom, and the breeze had rustled through a few loose papers. That was all—so I sneaked up to the door and peaked in. Ward was there . . . asleep ! Asleep as usual. Papers were all over the desk in front of him. The drop-light was on, but his face was thrown back in the shadow. I almost choked. Once I thought his eyes opened and he looked at me. But he didn’t. He slept. I kept standing there, looking at him for a long, long time. I must have been fascinated. My nerves were shaking like strings, and for a minute or two—maybe three minutes—I had to stand there and just look at him. Then I tiptoed back to the far end of the room to my desk and scribbled my lead to the obituary. You couldn’t hear a single, solitary sound in that whole building except my pencil scratching . . . and it was a very soft pencil, too, I remember. I jumped once more when a window-shade flapped. I couldn’t have felt more frightened if I had been robbing a safe! Then I sneaked back and looked in. Ward was still asleep. I came up easy . . . easy . . . soft as a cat alongside of him, without making a noise. I moved a few pieces of copy-paper that had some writing on it. Just over in the corner, they were. What did I do? Honest to God, although I’d planned it all out as I came up the stairs, I hardly knew what I was doing ! . . .
“I slipped my story under ’em, just the least bit. Some of it stuck out where you could see it. Ward never moved.
“I got out of the room. The sweat was rolling off me when I sprang into the hall. When I reached the outside door I ran down the steps. I felt as if I was in a nightmare. When I reached the air I ran to the nearest saloon.” Josephson stopped.
Again I took it for granted that words were unnecessary between us. But this time he did not smirk. He seemed, instead, to slump off into a pensive melancholy. He looked at his long finger-nails and began doing fancy, dainty offices about them. He picked lint from his clothes with his uncertain fingers, in intense concern.
“Yes?” I said, as a bridge over the gap.
He screwed up his eye and nodded. “Living, breathing hell broke lose the next morning . . . of course. But I stuck to my story. I didn’t say he was asleep. I didn’t need to say he was asleep . . . see? - 'I turned in my story a little before twelve.’ That’ll all. Then they fumbled around among the papers on the desk and found it there . . . of course.
“When Ward came down he’d already seen the Gazette and the Leader—the other two papers—and he knew. And when they showed him my story on his desk yes, he knew that time, too. The whole thing . What I’d done, and all. He didn’t say anything, though. He just went red and closed his face. They panned him good and hard for losing the story; everybody, from the Old Man on down, roasted him. And he took it. He’d been on the paper fifteen years and never made a mistake before. One of those exact, scrupulous, ‘faithful dog’ old fixtures around the place. In one way he didn’t know how to take it. He could have thrown it off. He could have promised. He could have kidded back at the boys. If he just hadn’t closed his mouth and sat there and let it all sink in—all that bitter, miserable stuff! Couldn’t he? Couldn’t he? But what’s the use! He wasn’t that kind. He was some other kind . . . the kind of fellow that kept his scissors on that nail, and his paste-pot there, and his pile of exchanges just here, and his pen-points in this little box, and his coat-hanger on that hook . . . and so on. Hell, it seems like a little thing, don’t it . . . Simply a—trivial incident . . . something that any newspaper man . . . any newspaper office . . . could easily do, and get over, and forget. Worse things have certainly happened. But the way they handed it to this guy was something fierce. Everybody around the shop came around and stuck the gaff into him, and broke it off. They didn’t know at the time what they were doing. They didn’t know anything about this man’s people, or what kind of a home he had, or this man’s life outside of the office. Some of them didn’t even know he had a wife and children! You see, a good many of the boys were new men. And I had to watch ’em do it. Of course. Of course, I did.
“He got to be the office joke. They found that they could aggravate him; so it got to be part of the day’s fun to stroll around past his desk and throw the harpoon into him. One of the guys brought up a big poster, ‘Asleep at the Switch,’ and set it on his desk one morning. He began to go about his work as if he was nervous about it. See? I ... I watched him . . . very, very closely. I used to sit and watch him. He’d make little mistakes, and they’d get past him . . . little things that in the old days would have been corrected, you know, and nothing thought of it. It wasn’t that way now. He’d come up all sick and moist . . . he’d stutter and mumble apologies. His hand would shake when he took back a piece of his copy to make the corrections. He had never been a proud man. Now his humility was sickening . . . almost degrading.
Sometimes it was a little thing like an initial wrong; and the city editor would get sore over it, and yell at him the office rule about the importance of correct initials.
“ 'I know it, Ed.,’ he would say.
“ ‘If course you do. But you’re dead on your feet. What’s the matter with you, anyway?’
“It went on that way for a couple of months, one thing and another, slow but sure. Out at his home he must have had trouble. He didn’t look like a man who was getting pleasure out of his home. I remember every Saturday in the old days he used to bring his kids down to the office. But now he didn’t any more.
“They reduced his pay to thirty a week . . . then to twenty-five. He used to rush at his stuff in a sort of frenzy; then he’d sit for an hour afterwards, going over it line by line like a book-keeper, seeing if he could find his own mistakes before anybody else caught them and called his attention to them. You know how a fellow gets, that way. He worked longer than anybody else. He got down early in the morning and stayed at it all day and half the night. . . . He didn’t sleep any more. I used to sit and watch him.” Josephson’s little intricate mind went hunting for details like a ferret.
“Bill collectors came to the office, looking for him—a thing they’d never done before. He had always kept his accounts as straight as a pin. I imagine. One day it was the insurance collector, and he came a good many times. Finally he gave it up.
“What went on in his mind I don’t know. I imagine it finally got so it was just a general sort of bewilderment—newspaper work all mixed up with wife and kids and bills and mistakes and his sick stomach. If he’d only been a drinking man, like me, it might have been different! But he wasn’t. Instead, he’d take half-days off for long walks in the open air. When he’d ask for these, Flanagan would say: Oh, yes, go ahead. I don’t make much difference anyway, I suppose; Josephson or Gray can do your work, if there is any.’ And Ward would mumble something to himself and smile in a sort of sickly fashion.
“One day one of the boys came in and said something around the office about seeing Ward’s wife ‘demonstrating’ a new tea in a department store. Thank God, nobody told Ward about our knowing it! I—I looked her up . . . some time afterward . . . and found her working in a laundry. Yes, at a mangle in a laundry, two years ago. Lemme see . . . where was I? Oh, yes!
“His eyes got so they used to stare and stare and stare. They weren’t drowsy any more. He would sit and stare at a piece of blank copy-paper by the hour as if it was something absolutely new and . . . and abnormal. The one thing, I imagine, that kept him going about his work was a kind of sweating frenzy of . . . fear. Fear that he would make mistakes. Fear that his editors would jump onto them before he did. Fear that his nerve was broken. Fear, by God, that he himself was . . . afraid!”
“That went on nine months. See? Nine months. One night this man Ward stepped over to Flanagan’s desk and said in an ordinary way :
“ ‘Let me have a sheet or two of paper, will you, Ed.?’
“He got it and went back to his own desk and wrote something, lie folded it up and put it under Flanagan’s paper-weight. Then he went out to the lavatory and killed himself with a revolver.
“ . . Afterwards Flanagan read the note :
“ 'I can’t stand this. One of you fellows will know why.’ ”
Josephson looked at me with a certain intrepid hardness in his weak face, his one eye screwed up tight, the other searching me insistently, as if after a verdict, an opinion, an expression, an exclamation. I did not move. The hot chemical electric blaze sucked away at him avidly till he moved before my eyes, impressionistically, as a thing of paint. For one queer moment it seemed a monstrous impossibility that he was alive. Then he thrust his face closer and whispered :
“That happened ten years ago. See?” He affirmed with his head. “Ten years. Now . . . I’m getting so ... as the years go by . . . thinking of Mrs. Ward in that laundry, and of Ward . . and of what I did . . . and of what he did . . . I wonder ... I wonder if that won’t be my finish, too! Too!” He broke off, his eyes heedless of the insignificant room, ignoring me completely. His little trembling hand crept up mechanically and felt of his thin lips. He mumbled, half aloud, and all unconsciously: “I wonder ... I wonder ... if that won’t be the way I fm-m-m-m . . . "
I sat back entranced, mesmerized, fascinated at his fate. Then I reflected, and spoke.
“Yes, it will. You’re not a man —you’re a baby, Josephson.”
He came back to me. “I’m a baby,” he repeated mechanically, pathetically. “I’m a baby. A good many of us are babies, even after we’re supposed to be grown up. And what, in God’s name, are you going to do with us? For us? Tell me."