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27. The Greater Tempting
Journalistic Worthington ran true to type in the Milly Neal affair. No newspaper
published more than a paragraph about the "sudden death." Suicide was not even hinted
at in print. But newspaperdom had its own opinion, magnified and colored by the
processes of gossip, over which professional courtesy exercised no control. That the girl
had killed herself was generally understood: that there had been a shooting, previous to
her death, was also current. Eager report recalled and exaggerated the fact that she had
been seen with Hal Surtaine at a dubious road-house some months previous. The popular
"inside knowledge" of the tragedy was that Milly had gone to the Surtaine mansion to
force Hal's hand, failing in which she had shot him, inflicting an inconsiderable wound,
and then killed herself; and that Dr. Surtaine had thereupon turned his son out of the
house. Hal's removal to the hotel served to bear out this surmise, and the Doctor's
strategic effort to cover the situation by giving it out that his son's part of the mansion
was being remodeled—even going to the lengths of actually setting a force of men to
work there—failed to convince the gossips.
Between the two men, the situation was now most difficult. Quite instinctively Hal had
fallen in with his father's theory that the primal necessity, after the tragedy, was to keep
everything out of print. That by so doing he wholly subverted his own hard-won policy
did not, in the stress of the crisis, occur to him. Later he realized it. Yet he could see no
other course of action as having been possible to him. The mere plain facts of the case
constituted an accusation against Dr. Surtaine, unthinkable for a son to publish against his
father. And Hal still cozened himself into a belief in the quack's essential innocence,
persuading his own reason that there was a blind side to the man which rendered it
impossible for him to see through the legal into the ethical phases of the question. By this
method he was saving his loyalty and affection. But so profound had been the shock that
he could not, for a time, endure the constant companionship of former days.
Consequently the frequent calls which Dr. Surtaine deemed it expedient to make for the
sake of appearances, at Hal's hotel, resulted in painful, rambling, topic-shifting talks,
devoid of any human touch other than the pitiful and thwarted affection of two
personalities at hopeless odds. "Least said soonest mended" was a favorite aphorism of
the experienced quack. But in this tangle it failed him. It was he who first touched on the
poisoned theme.
"Look here, Boy-ee," said he, a week after the burial. "We're both scared to death of what
each of us is thinking. Let's agree to forget this until you are ready to talk it out with me."
"What good will talk do?" said Hal drearily.
"None at present." His father sighed. He had hoped for a clean breast of it, a confession
of the intrigue that should leave the way open to a readjustment of relations. "So let's put
the whole thing aside."