THE EDITOR of the New York 'Flashlight' was not happy. For the last week the interesting and 'newsy' sheet over which he presided had had no sensation. Nothing seemed to be going on in any part of the world, the big Trusts were singularly quiet, and Tammany was doing nothing conspicuous just now. Van Decker, the editor, had a bright set of young men about him, men who suffered no lack of imagination, but they all seemed to be off colour at present.
Valentine Johnson came in listlessly, nodded to his chief, and helped himself to a cigarette. Then he tilted his chair back, and sighed gently.
"Nothing seems to be doing," he said.
"That's a fact," Van Decker responded shortly.
"Seems to me as we shall have to manufacture something," Johnson went on. "Suppose we go out and kill a man and discover his body in the cellar afterwards. Guess anything seems to have been done to death. Got any ideas?"
Van Decker intimated that he was out of stock for the moment. Johnson tilted his chair back to a more dangerous angle, and smoked dreamily. Van Decker began to have hopes.
Johnson somnolent always meant business sooner or later. Presently the latter spoke as a man from the heart of a vision.
"What's the matter with an interview with Norman Forbes?" he asked.
"Nothing," Van Decker responded, grimly, "except that you couldn't get it. The greatest and most petted novelist of our generation has never been interviewed, and he never will. I had four shots at him when I was on the 'Sun.' I followed him in a Cunarder from here to Liverpool, and I never got a paragraph. You see the beggar's been on the Press himself, and knows the ropes."
"Find him a bit standoffish at all?"
"Not a bit. Affable as they make 'em. Chatted as freely as you like. Eight of us tried him when he had that house in the Adirondacks two years ago. At the end of a week he had interviewed every one of us, and we didn't even gather the kind of baccy he smoked. You can drop that syndicate, Johnson."
"Never got inside the house?" asked the imperturbable Johnson.
"Inside his house," Van Decker said, scornfully. "Well, I should smile! You'll be telling me that you have been inside his house next."
"Not yet," Johnson said placidly. "But I am going there to-morrow."
Van Decker sat up and lighted a cigarette. For a genuine Simon Pure interview with Norman Forbes he would cheerfully have paid a thousand dollars. The most popular novelist in the world had never been run to earth. An interview with him illustrated with sketches—Johnson was no mean artist—would be worth anything on the paper. And the thing would be freely quoted in two hemispheres. But then the thing was impossible.
"You can't do it," Van Decker said breathlessly.
"I can, and I will," Johnson replied. "As you are aware, Norman Forbes has rented a house out New Jersey way for two years. He has brought most of his lares and penates, so that the place shall be as homelike as possible. No journalist has ever been under his roof tree, and in the ordinary course of business never will. But to-morrow afternoon I am going out to tea yonder with Norman Forbes. I shall spend two good hours in his company, and if my pocket Kodak and my memory, aided by my sketch-book, don't provide me with three columns, write me down Hollander."
"How the Dickens are you going to manage it," Van Decker demanded. "Forbes is a powerful man, and particularly handy with the gloves."
"My dear chap, I shall be welcomed," Johnson said. "I shall be expected. And, when the whole circus is printed, Forbes won't be able to contradict a single word. It is just possible there may be a shindy afterwards, but if the paper'll see me through I'll risk the rest."
Van Decker hastened to give the desired assurances. A smart thing was going to be accomplished, and any subsequent 'explanations' would merely serve to keep the sensation alive.
"How are you going to do it?" he asked.
Johnson winked solemnly. He had no disposition to show Van Decker too much. On the face of it he was going to work a miracle, and modern miracles, when they come to be expounded, have a way of appearing extremely commonplace.
"I'll keep that a secret if you don't mind," he said. "The idea is too good to give away; besides, if Norman Forbes chooses to lie low over the matter, the dodge will do for another time. So long."
Johnson brought himself to a perpendicular and lounged out of the office as if the mere act of living was utterly beyond his strength. Van Decker was alert and vigorous once more, and consumed with curiosity. The thing was almost too good to hope for, but Johnson was not given to idle vapouring. Short of the revelation of some important cabinet secret, no newspaper editor would have preferred anything to an interview with Forbes. Three columns on the front page. Splendid!
It was past 7 the next evening before Johnson reached the office. He was attired with immaculate good taste in a frock suit and white hat, his moustache and beard were gone, and he wore a pinc-nez that greatly added to his intellectual appearance. There was a quiet smile on his face that allayed Van Decker's rising fears.
"Well, you are changed," the editor exclaimed. "I'd give a trifle to know what game you have been up to. Have you managed it all right?"
Johnson nodded as he produced a bulky package from his tail pocket.
"A good three columns," he said in tones of quiet triumph; "to say nothing of a series of photographs just developed. 'Forbes in his study,' 'Forbes making a cigarette,' 'Forbes and his dogs,' 'Forbes romping with his children.' I tell you those detective cameras are a fine invention. I managed to get into three rooms and collect about fifteen photographs, which you had better put in hand in once. Not bad, are they?"
"Magnificent," said Van Decker, with a voice of awe. "How did you manage it?"
"And, I've got a lot of material here. You'll hug yourself presently when you see what Forbes has to say about English and American publishers. Also, I have discovered all his favourite authors, and a great deal about his boyhood. Oh, it's a real live interview, and every word as true as gospel."
"He gave it you at that?" Van Decker gasped.
"Not a bit of it," Johnson said, cheerfully. "He had no more idea than the dead that he was being interviewed. But I don't fancy he will mind. He's a humorous beggar, and I shouldn't wonder if he enjoyed the joke as well as the rest of us."
Van Decker was glaring down the copy now in a deeply grateful frame of mind. The thing could have suited him no better had Norman Forbes done it himself. It was so good that he had a hazy idea that Johnson was playing some colossal jest on him.
"I can't believe that it's real," he said.
Johnson rapped the photographs with a bony finger.
"You can see these are genuine," he said. "It's a thousand pities they can't be reproduced as they are. But if we wait till Forbes has discovered the racket we've put on him, he'll get an injunction or something like that, and knock the bottom out of our little scheme."
Van Decker nodded approvingly. He quite recognised the point. A couple of hours later and the whole thing was in type. Doors were locked to keep the precious thing from leaking out, and the 'Flashlight' was in for another big coup.
It was a little before midnight that a little clean-shaven man in eye-glasses, came clamouring to see Johnson. He had been vicariously told that Johnson was busy, that he was dead, that he was out of town for the next few days, but nothing seemed to shake his nervous temerity. He was not going to be put off, he said: if necessary, he would remain outside the office till the rascally Johnson emerged. All this Johnson heard with the calmness of the victor. He had corrected the last slip of the proofs, he had supped in the office, and now he was enjoying a cigarette.
"Show the little beggar up," he said, casually.
The stranger came, white, heated, furious. He was an Englishman, he said, and he was going to have redress for the outrage put up on him. For a time he was so incoherent that Van Decker had not the least idea what he was talking about. All the same he connected the stranger in some vague way with the Forbes coup.
Johnson stood with a look of deep feeling and sympathy on his face.
"Would you mind telling me who you are?" Van Decker asked, politely.
"Yes, sir," the other fumed. "Perhaps you have heard of Stephen Belt, the novelist."
Van Decker bowed, and intimated that the name was familiar to him as that of an English author who was coming prominently to the front.
"I came over here for a holiday," Belt proceeded. "I had several letters of introduction to prominent people here, amongst others one to my compatriot, Norman Forbes. That letter was given me by Lord Wellesley, the Foreign Secretary."
Van Decker choked slightly, and immediately apologised. Johnson's expression was one of deep sympathy.
"I am staying at the Washington Hotel, on Seventh Avenue," Belt went on, "where that scoundrel yonder is also residing. Yesterday I informed him of that letter which I said I had forwarded to Mr. Norman Forbes, and in response to which I received a letter from the great man, asking me to go and have tea with him to-day."
"I hope you enjoyed the tea," Van Decker said, with great politeness.
Belt was too angry to see the delicate badinage of the question.
"I never got there, I never had it," he wailed. "On the way out I was accosted by yonder fellow, who said he was walking in the same direction. It was very hot, we walked fast, and I was very thirsty. Your—your friend yonder proposed a cocktail, to which I gladly responded. We entered a bar of seemingly respectability, where the cocktails were produced. In ten minutes I was asleep—drugged, sir, drugged."
Van Decker was manfully trying to look sympathetic. As a matter of fact his prevailing emotion was one of admiration for Johnson's smartness.
"You look all right now," he murmured.
"I am all right, now," Belt said, pointedly. "I woke about eight, under the eye of a ribald bartender. Then I began to understand why I had been tricked. I went straight away to Mr. Forbes' residence and sent in my card. It was returned with the information that Mr. Belt had already been there, and that he had departed some time ago. When I protested and insisted, a stern intimation came that unless I took myself off I should be handed over to the police. I need not say that I have already posted a letter to Mr. Forbes, giving him the real facts of the case. And when you have discharged your reporter, and when I have prosecuted him—"
"Are you going to do that?" Van Decker asked, blandly.
"Why not?" Belt demanded. "Why not?"
"It all depends upon the point of view," Van Decker replied. He was thoughtfully punching holes in his blotting pad. "Over here they call it a smart trick. I dare say a good many people in England will say the same. And I am afraid it is a cold world without too much sympathy. If you lie low nobody will know anything about it. If you fight the case you will probably be laughed out of court and become an object of ridicule on both sides of the water. Now I need not point out to you, Mr. Belt, that it is no light matter for a popular novelist with a growing public to be laughed at. If you take my advice you will laugh with us, and leave everything to Forbes, who will never take the trouble to admit or deny the veracity of the interview which we are going to publish in the 'Flashlight' to-morrow. And look what a temptation you put in Johnson's way, when you told him Forbes had never seen you!"
Belt broke out furiously, but his anger faded away into faint murmurings. Usually he had a fine vivid humour of his own, and already he was coming to see the funny side of the situation. And there was a deal of sound common sense in what Van Decker said. In any case it would be merely advertising the man who had so despitefully used him.
"What would you do under the circumstances?" he asked.
"Be as dancing mad as yourself," said Van Decker, promptly, "and keep my tongue between my teeth. There's nothing else to do."
Belt seemed to think so too, for presently he departed. Two days later he walked into the office of the 'Flashlight' and laid a letter on Johnson's table.
Dear Mr. Belt (it ran),—
I am so sorry for your misfortune, and for the rascally trick played upon you, and incidentally upon myself, by that fellow Johnson. Will you come to tea to-morrow, and bring Johnson with you, unless you have wiped him off the face of creation. Personally I shall ignore the 'Flashlight,' but I should like to see Johnson again. Only this time he comes in a private capacity.
"I'll go," said Johnson: and added, half regretfully, "I'm afraid there's no 'copy' in it this time."