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23. Creeping Flame
For sheer uncertainty an epidemic is comparable only to fire on shipboard. The wisest
expert can but guess at the time or place of its catastrophic explosion. It may thrust forth
here and there a tongue of threat, only to subside and smoulder again. Sometimes it
"sulks" for so protracted a period that danger seems to be over. Then, without warning,
comes swift disaster with panic in its train.
But one man in all Worthington knew, early, the true nature of the disease which quietly
crept among the Rookeries licking up human life, and he was well trained in keeping his
own counsel. In this crisis, whatever Dr. Surtaine may have lacked in scrupulosity of
method, his intentions were good. He honestly believed that he was doing well by his city
in veiling the nature of the contagion. Scientifically he knew little about it save in the
most general way; and his happy optimism bolstered the belief that if only secrecy could
be preserved and the fair repute of the city for sound health saved, the trouble would
presently die out of itself. He looked to his committee to manage the secrecy.
Unfortunately this particular form of trouble hasn't the habit of dying out quietly and of
itself. It has to be fought and slain in the open.
As Dr. Surtaine's committee hadn't the faintest notion of how to handle their five-
thousand-dollar appropriation, they naturally consulted the Honorable Tip O'Farrell,
agent for and boss of the Rookeries. And as the Honorable Tip had a very definite and
even eager notion of what might be done with that amount of ready cash, he naturally
volunteered to handle the fund to the best advantage, which seemed quite reasonable,
since he was familiar with the situation. Therefore the disposition of the money was left
to him. Do not, however, oh high-minded and honorable reader, be too ready to suppose
that this was the end of the five thousand dollars, so far as the Rookeries are concerned.
Politicians of the O'Farrell type may not be meticulous on points of finance. But they are
quite likely to be human. Tip O'Farrell had seen recently more misery than even his
toughened sensibilities could uncomplainingly endure. Some of the fund may have gone
into the disburser's pocket. A much greater portion of it, I am prepared to affirm, was
distributed in those intimate and effective forms of beneficence which, skillfully enough
managed, almost lose the taint of charity. O'Farrell was tactful and he knew his people.
Many cases over which organized philanthropy would have blundered sorely, were
handled with a discretion little short of inspired. Much wretchedness was relieved; much
suffering and perhaps some lives saved.
The main issue, nevertheless, was untouched. The epidemic continued to spread beneath
the surface of silence. O'Farrell wasn't interested in that side of it. He didn't even know
what was the matter. What money he expended on that phase of the difficulty was laid
out in perfecting his system of guards, so that unauthorized doctors couldn't get in, or
unauthorized news leak out. Also he continued to carry on an irregular but costly traffic
in dead bodies. Meantime, the Special Committee of the Old Home Week Organization,
thus comfortably relieved of responsibility and the appropriation, could now devote itself
single-mindedly to worrying over the "Clarion."