The Clarion by Samuel Hopkins Adams - HTML preview

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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 fivethousand-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."

 According to Elias M. Pierce, no mean judge of men, there was nothing to worry about in that direction. That snake, he considered, was scotched. It might take time for said snake, who was a young snake with a head full of poison (his uncomplimentary metaphor referred, I need hardly state, to Mr. Harrington Surtaine), to come to his serpentine senses; but in the end he must realize that he was caught. The committee wasn't so smugly satisfied. Time was going on and there was no word, one way or the other, from the "Clarion" office.

Inside that office more was stirring than the head of it knew about. On a warmish day, McGuire Ellis, seated at his open window, had permitted the bland air of early June to lull him to a nap, which was rudely interrupted by the intrusion of a harsh point amongst his waistcoat buttons. Stumbling hastily to his feet he confronted Dr. Miles Elliot.

 "Wassamatter?" he demanded, in the thick tones of interrupted sleep. "What are you poking me in the ribs for?"

 "McBurney's point," observed the visitor agreeably. "Now, if you had appendicitis, you'd have yelped. You haven't got appendicitis."

 "Much obliged," grumped Mr. Ellis. "Couldn't you tell me that without a cane?"

 "I spoke to you twice, but all you replied was 'Hoong!' As I speak only the Mandarin dialect of Chinese—"

 "Sit down," said Ellis, "and tell me what you're doing in this den of vice and crime."

 "Vice and crime is correct," confirmed the physician. "You're still curing cancer, consumption, corns, colds, and cramps in print, for blood money. I've come to report."

 McGuire Ellis stared. "What on?"

 "The Rookeries epidemic."

 "Quick work," the journalist congratulated him sarcastically. "The assignment is only a little over two months old."

 "Well, I might have guessed, any time in those two months, but I wanted to make certain."

 "Are you certain?"


 "What is it?"


"What's that? Something like typhoid?"

 "It bears about the same relation to typhoid," said the Doctor, eyeing the other with solemnity, "as housemaid's knee does to sunstroke."

 "Well, don't get funny with me. I don't appreciate it. Is it very serious?"

 "Not more so than cholera," answered the Doctor gravely.

 "Hey! Then why aren't we all dead?"

 "Because it doesn't spread so rapidly. Not at first, anyway."

 "How does it spread? Come on! Open up!"

"Probably by vermin. It's rare in this country. There was a small epidemic in New York in the early nineties. It was discovered early and confined to one tenement. There were sixty-three people in the tenement when they clapped on the quarantine. Thirty-two of 'em came out feet first. The only outside case was a reporter who got in and wrote a descriptive article. He died a week later."

 "Sounds as if this little affair of the Rookeries might be some story."

 "It is. There may have been fifty deaths to date; or maybe a hundred. We don't know."

 Ellis sat back in his chair with a bump. "Who's 'we'?"

 "Dr. Merritt and myself."

 "The Health Bureau is on, then. What's Merritt going to do about it?"

 "What can he do?"

 "Give out the whole thing, and quarantine the district."

 "The Mayor will remove him the instant he opens his mouth, and kill any quarantine. Merritt will be discredited in all the papers—unless the 'Clarion' backs him. Will it?"

 Ellis dropped his head in his hand. "I don't know," he said finally.

"Not running an honest paper this week?" sneered the physician lightly. "By the way, where's Young Hopeful?"

 "See here, Dr. Elliot," said Ellis. "You're a good old scout. If you hadn't poked me in the stomach I believe I'd tell you something."

 "Try it," encouraged the other.

"All right. Here it is. They've put it up to Hal Surtaine pretty stiff, this gang of perfectly honorable business men, leading citizens, pillars of the church, porch-climbers, and pickpockets who run the city. I guess you know who I mean."

 Dr. Elliot permitted himself a reserved grin.

"All right. They've got him in a clove hitch. At least it looks so. And one of the conditions for letting up on him is that he suppresses all news of the epidemic. Then they'll have the 'Clarion' right where they've got every other local paper."

 "Nice town, Worthington," observed Dr. Elliot, with easy but apparently irrelevant affability.

But McGuire Ellis went red. "It's easy enough for you to sit there and be righteous," he said. "But get this straight. If the young Boss plays straight and tells 'em all to go to hell, it'll be a close call of life or death for the paper."

 "And if he doesn't?"

 "Easy going. Advertising'll roll in on us. Money'll come so fast we can't dodge it. Are you so blame sure what you'd do in those conditions?"

 "Mac," said the brusque physician, for the first time using the familiar name: "between man and man, now: what about the boy?"

 From the ancient loyalty of his race sprang McGuire Ellis's swift word, "My hand in the fire for any that loves him."

 "But—stanch, do you think?" persisted the other.

 "I hope it."

 "Well, I wish it was you owned the 'Clarion.'"

 "Do you, now? I don't. How do I know what I'd do?"

 "Human lives, Mac: human lives, on this issue."

 "Who else knows it's typhus, Doc?"

 "Nobody but Merritt and me. You bound me in confidence, you know."

"Good man!"

 "There's one other ought to know, though."

 "Who's that?"

 "Norman Hale."

 "The Reverend Norman's all right. We could do with a few more ministers like him around the place. But why, in particular, should he know?"

"For one thing, he suspects, anyway. Then, he's down in the slums there most of the time, and he could help us. Besides, he's got some rights of safety himself. He's out in the reception room now, under guard of that man-eating office boy of yours."

 "All right, if you say so."

Accordingly the Reverend Norman Hale was summoned, sworn to confidence, and informed. He received the news with a quiver of his long, gaunt features. "I was afraid it was something like that," he said. "What's to be done?"

"I'll tell you my plan," said Ellis, who had been doing some rapid thinking. "I'll put the best man in the office on the story, and give him a week on it if necessary. How soon is the epidemic likely to break, Doctor?"

 "God knows," said the physician gravely.

"Well, we'll hurry him as much as we can. Our reporter will work independently. No one else on the staff will know what he's doing. I'll expect you two and Dr. Merritt to give him every help. I'll handle the story myself, at this end. And I'll see that it's set up in type by our foreman, whom I can trust to keep quiet. Therefore, only six people will know about it. I think we can keep the secret. Then, when I've got it all in shape, two pages of it, maybe, with all the facts, I'll pull a proof and hit the Boss right between the eyes with it. That'll fetch him, I think."

 The others signified their approval. "But can't we do something in the mean time?" asked Dr. Elliot. "A little cleaning-up, maybe? Who owns that pest-hole?"

"Any number of people," said the clergyman. "It's very complicated, what with ground leases, agencies, and trusteeships. I dare say some of the owners don't even know that the property belongs to them."

 "One of the things we might find out," said Ellis. "Might be interesting to publish."

"I'll send you a full statement of what I got about the burials in Canadaga County," promised Dr. Elliot. "Coming along, Mr. Hale?"

 "No. I want to speak to Mr. Ellis about another matter." The clergyman waited until the physician had left and then said, "It's about Milly Neal."

 "Well, what about her?"

 "I thought you could tell me. Or perhaps Mr. Surtaine."

 Remembering that encounter outside of the road house weeks before, Ellis experienced a throb of misgiving.

 "Why Mr. Surtaine?" he demanded.

 "Because he's her employer."

 Ellis gazed hard at the young minister. He met a straight and clear regard which reassured him.

 "He isn't, now," said he.

 "She's left?"


 "That's bad," worried the clergyman, half to himself.

 "Bad for the paper. 'Kitty the Cutie' was a feature."

 "Why did she leave?"

 "Just quit. Sent in word about ten days ago that she was through. No explanation."

"Mr. Ellis, I'm interested in Milly Neal," said the minister, after some hesitation. "She's helped me quite a bit with our club down here. There's a lot in that girl. But there's a queer, un-get-at-able streak, too. Do you know a man named Veltman?"

 "Max? Yes. He's foreman of our composing-room."

 "She's been with him a great deal lately."

 "Why not? They're old friends. No harm in Veltman."

"He's a married man."

"That so! I never knew that. Well, 'Kitty the Cutie' ought to be keen enough to take care of herself."

"There's the difficulty. She doesn't seem to want to take care of herself. She's lost interest in the club. For a time she was drinking heavily at some of the all-night places. And this news of her quitting here is worst of all. She seemed so enthusiastic about the work."

 "Her job's open for her if she wants to come back."

 "Good! I'm glad to hear that. It gives me something to work on."

"By the way," said McGuire Ellis, "how do you like the paper?" Sooner or later he put this question to every one with whom he came in contact. What he found out in this way helped to make him the journalistic expert he was.

 "Pretty well," hesitated the other.

 "What's wrong with it?" inquired Ellis.

 "Well, frankly, some of your advertising."

 "We're the most independent paper in this town on advertising," stated Ellis with conviction.

 "I know you dropped the Sewing Aid Society advertisement," admitted Hale. "But you've got others as bad. Yes, worse."

 "Show 'em to me."

 Leaning forward to the paper on Ellis's desk, the visitor indicated the "copy" of Relief Pills. Ellis's brow puckered.

 "You're the second man to kick on that," he said. "The other was a doctor."

"It's a bad business, Mr. Ellis. It's the devil's own work. Isn't it hard enough for girls to keep straight, with all the temptations around them, without promising them immunity from the natural results of immorality?"

 "Those pills won't do the trick," blurted Ellis.

 "They won't?" cried the other in surprise.

 "So doctors tell me."

"Then the promise is all the worse," said the clergyman hotly, "for being a lie."

"Well, I have troubles enough over the news part of the paper, without censoring the ads. When an advertiser tries to control news or editorial policy, I step in. Otherwise, I keep out. There's my platform."

 Hale nodded. "Let me know how I can help on the epidemic matter," said he, and took his leave.

"The trouble with really good people," mused McGuire Ellis, "is that they always expect other people to be as good as they are. And that's expensive," sighed the philosopher, turning back to his desk.

While Ellis and his specially detailed reporter were working out the story of the Rookeries epidemic in the light of Dr. Elliot's information, Hal Surtaine, floundering blindly, sought a solution to his problem, which was the problem of his newspaper. Indeed, it meant, as far as he could judge, the end of the "Clarion" in a few months, should he decide to defy Elias M. Pierce. Against the testimony of the injured nurse, he could scarcely hope to defend the libel suits successfully. Even though the assessed damages were not heavy enough to wreck him, the loss of prestige incident to defeat would be disastrous. Moreover, there was the chance of imprisonment or a heavy fine on the criminal charge. Furthermore, if he decided to print the account of the epidemic (always supposing that he could discover what it really was), practically every local advertiser would desert him in high dudgeon over the consequent ruin of the centennial celebration. Was it better to publish an honest paper for the few months and die fighting, or compromise for the sake of life, and do what good he might through the agency of a bound, controlled, and tremulous journalistic policy?

For the first time, now that the crisis was upon him, he realized to the full how profoundly the "Clarion" had become part of his life. At the outset, only the tool of a casual though fascinating profession, later, the lever of an expanding and increasing power, the paper had insensibly intertwined with every fiber of his ambition. To a degree that startled him he had come to think, feel, and hope in terms of this thought-machine which he owned, which owned him. It had taken on for him a character; his own, yet more than his own and greater. For it spoke, not of his spirit alone, but with a composite voice; sometimes confused, inarticulate, only semi-expressive; again as with the tongues of prophecy. His ship was beginning to find herself; to evolve, from the anarchic clamor of loose effort, a harmony and a personality.

With the thought came a warm glow of loyalty to his fellow workers; to the men who, knowing more than he knew, had yet accepted his ideals so eagerly and stood to them so loyally; to the spirit that had flashed to meet his own at that first "Talk-It-Over" breakfast, and had never since flagged; to Ellis, the harsh, dogged, uncouth evangel, preaching his strange mission of honor; to Wayne, patient, silent, laborious, dependable; to young Denton, a "gentleman unafraid," facing the threats of E.M. Pierce; even to portly Shearson, struggling against such dismal odds for his poor little principle of journalism— to make the paper pay. How could he, their leader, recant his doctrine before these men? Yet—and the qualifying thought dashed cold upon his enthusiasm—what did the alternative imply for them? The almost certain loss of their places. To be thrown into the street, a whole officeful of them, seeking jobs which didn't exist, on the collapse of the "Clarion." Could he do that to them? Did he not, at least, owe them a living? Some had come to the "Clarion" from other papers, even from other cities, attracted by its enterprise, by its "ginger," by the rumor of a fresh and higher standard in journalism. What of them? For himself he had only reputation, ethical standard, the intangible matter of existence to consider. For them it might be hunger and want. Here, indeed, was a conflicting ideal.

His mind reverted to the things he had been able to get done, in the few months of his editorial tenure; the success of some of his campaigns, the educational effect of them even where they had failed of their definite object, as had the fight for the Consumers' League. One article had put the chief gambler of the city on the defensive to an extent which seriously crippled his business. Another had killed forever the vilest den in town, a saloon back-room where vicious women gathered in young boys and taught them to snuff cocaine, and had led to an anti-cocaine ordinance, which the saloon element, who instinctively resented any species of "reform" as a threat against business, opposed. Whereupon, Hal, in an editorial on the prohibition movement, had tartly pointed out that where the saloons were openly vaunting themselves disdainful of public decency, the public was in immediate process of wiping out the saloons. Which citation of fact caused a cold chill to permeate the spines of the liquor interests, and led the large, sleek leader of that clan to make a surpassingly polite and friendly call upon Hal, who, rather to his surprise, found that he liked the man very much. They had parted, indeed, on hearty terms and the understanding that there would be no further objection to the "coke-law" from the saloon keepers. There wasn't. The liquor men kept faith.

Though aiming at independence in politics, the "Clarion" had been drawn into a number of local political fights, and more than once had gone wrong in advocating an apparently useful measure only to find itself serving some hidden politician's selfish ends. These same politicians, Hal came in time to learn, were not all bad, even the worst of them. The toughest and crookedest of the grafting aldermen felt a genuine interest and pride in his vice-sodden ward, and when the "Clarion" had helped to abate a notorious nuisance there, dropped in to see the editor.

"Mr. Surtaine," said he, chewing his cigar with some violence, "you and me ain't got much in common. You think I'm a grafter, and I think you're a lily-finger. But I came to thank you just the same for helping us out over there."

 "Glad to help you out when I can," said Hal, with his disarming smile: "or to fight you when I have to."

"Shake," said the heeler. "I guess we'll average down into pretty good enemies. Lemme know whenever I can do you a turn."

 Then there was the electric light fight. Since the memory of man Worthington had paid the most exorbitant gas rate in the State. The "Clarion" set out to inquire why. So insistent was its thirst for information that the "Banner" and the "Telegram" took up the cudgels for the public-spirited corporation which paid ten per cent dividends by overcharging the local public. Thereupon the "Clarion" pointed out that the president of the gas company was the second largest stockholder in the "Telegram," and that the local editorial writer of the "Banner" derived, for some unexplained reason, a small but steady income in the form of salary, from the gas company. This exposure was regarded as distinctly "not clubby" by the newspaper fraternity in general: but the public rather enjoyed it, and made such a fuss over it that a legislative investigation was ordered. Meantime, by one of those curious by-products of the journalistic output, the local university preserved to itself the services of its popular professor of political economy, who was about to be discharged for lèse majesté, in that he had held up as an unsavory instance of corporate control, the Worthington Gas Company, several of whose considerable stockholders were members of the institution's board of trustees. The "Clarion" made loud and lamentable noises about this, and the board reconsidered hastily. Louder and much more lamentable were the noises made by the president of the university, the Reverend Dr. Knight, a little brother of one of the richest and greatest of the national corporations, in denunciation of the "Clarion": so much so, indeed, that they were published abroad, thereby giving the paper much extensive free advertising.

Pleasant memories, these, to Hal. Not always pleasant, perhaps, but at least vividly interesting, the widely varying types with whom his profession had brought him into contact: McGuire Ellis, "Tip" O'Farrell, the Reverend Norman Hale, Dr. Merritt, Elias M.—

The mechanism of thought checked with a wrench. Pierce had it in his power to put an end to all this. He must purchase the right to continue, and at Pierce's own price. But was the price so severe? After all, he could contrive to do much; to carry on many of his causes; to help build up a better and cleaner Worthington; to preserve a moiety of his power, at the sacrifice of part of his independence; and at the same time his paper would make money, be successful, take its place among the recognized business enterprises of the town. As for the Rookeries epidemic upon which all this turned, what did he really know of it, anyway? Very likely it had been exaggerated. Probably it would die out of itself. If lives were endangered, that was the common chance of a slum.

Then, of a sudden, memory struck at his heart with the thrust of a more vital, more personal, dread. For one day, wandering about in the stricken territory, he had seen Esmé Elliot entering a tenement doorway.