The Clarion by Samuel Hopkins Adams - HTML preview

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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."

 "All right," agreed Hal listlessly. "I suppose you know," he added, "before we close the subject, that I've ordered the Relief Pills advertising out of the 'Clarion.'"

 "You needn't have bothered. It won't be offered again."

Silence fell between them. "I've about decided to quit that line," the charlatan resumed with an obvious effort. "Not that it isn't strictly legal," he added, falling back upon his reserve defense. "But it's too troublesome. The copy is ticklish; I've had to write all those ads. myself. And, at that, there's some newspapers won't accept 'em and others that want to edit 'em. Belford Couch and I have been going over the whole matter. He's the diplomat of the concern. And we've about decided to sell out. Anyway," he added, brightening, "there ain't hardly money enough in a side-line like the Pills to pay for the trouble of running it separate."

If Dr. Surtaine had looked for explicit approval of his virtuous resolution, he was disappointed. Yet Hal experienced, or tried to believe that he experienced, a certain factitious glow of satisfaction at this proof that his father was ready to give up an evil thing even without being fully convinced of its wrongfulness. This helped the son to feel that, at least, his sacrifice had been made for a worthy affection. Still, he had no word to say except that he must get to the office. The Doctor left with gloom upon his handsome face.

With McGuire Ellis, Hal's association had become even more difficult than with the Doctor. Since his abrupt and unceremonious departure from the room of death, in the belief in Hal's guilt, Ellis had maintained a purely professional attitude toward his employer. For a time, in his wretchedness and turmoil of spirit, Hal had scarcely noticed Ellis's withdrawal of fellowship, vaguely attributing his silence to unexpressed sympathy. But later, when he broached the subject of Milly's death, he was met with a stony avoidance which inspired both astonishment and resentment. Sub-normal as he now was in nervous strength and tension, he shrank from having it out with Ellis. But he felt, for the first time in his life, forlorn and friendless.

On his part McGuire Ellis brooded over a deep anger. He was not a man to yield lightly of his best; but he had given to Hal, first a fine loyalty, and later, as they grew into closer association, a warm if rather reticent affection. For the rough idealist had found in his employer an idealism not always as clear and intelligent as his own, yet often higher and finer; and along with the professional protectiveness which he had assumed over the younger man's inexperience had come an honest admiration and far-reaching hopes. Now he saw in his chief one who had betrayed his cause through a weak and selfish indulgence. The clear-sighted journalist knew that the newspaper owner with a shameful secret binds his own power in the coils of that secret. And fatally in error as he was as to the nature of the entanglement in which Hal was involved, he foresaw the inevitable effect of the situation upon the "Clarion." Moreover, he was bitterly disappointed in Hal as a man. Had his superior "gone on the loose" and contracted a liaison with some woman of the outer world, Ellis would have passed over the abstract morality of the question. But to take advantage of a girl in his own employ, and then so cruelly to leave her to her fate,—there was rot at the heart of the man who could do that. The excision of the offending "Relief Pills" ad. after the culmination of the tragedy, was simply a sop to hypocrisy.

Only once had Ellis made any reference to Milly's death. On the day of her funeral Max Veltman had disappeared, without notice. A week later he reported for duty, shaken and pallid.

 "Do you want to take him back?" Ellis inquired of Hal.

 Hal's first impulse was to say "No"; but he conquered it, remembering Milly Neal's pitiful generosity toward her lover.

 "Where has he been?" he asked.

 "Drunk, I guess."

 "What do you think?"

 "I think yes."

 "All right, if he's sobered up. Tell him it mustn't happen again."

 There was a gleam in McGuire Ellis's eye. "Suppose you tell him that it mustn't happen again. It would come with more force from you."

 Hal whirled in his chair. "Mac, what's the matter with you?"

 "Nothing. I was just thinking of 'Kitty the Cutie.'"

 "What were you thinking of her?"

 "Only that Max Veltman would have gone through hell-fire for her. And, from his looks, he's been through and had the heart burned out of him."

 With that he resumed his proof-reading in a dogged silence.

To Hal's great relief Veltman kept out of his way. The man seemed dazed with misery, but did his work well enough. Rumors reached the office that he was striving to gain a refuge from his sufferings by giving all his leisure hours to work in the Rookeries district, under the direction of the Reverend Norman Hale. Ellis was of the opinion that his mind was somewhat affected, and that he would bear watching a bit; and was the more disturbed in that Veltman shared the secret of the great epidemic "spread," now practically completed for the "Clarion's" publishing or suppressing. Ellis held the belief that, now, Hal would order it suppressed. The man who had shirked his responsibility to Milly Neal could hardly be relied on for the stamina necessary to such an exploitation. The time was at hand for the decision to be made. The two physicians, Elliot and Merritt, pressed for publication. Every day, they pointed out, not only meant a further risk of life, but also increased the impending danger of a general outburst which would find the city wholly unprepared. On the other hand, the journalists, Ellis and Wayne, held out for delay. They perceived the one weak point in their case, that neither a dead body nor a living patient had as yet come to the hands of the constituted authorities for diagnosis. The sole determination had been made on corpses carried across the line and now probably impossible of identification. The committee fund was doing its work of concealment effectually. But Fate tripped the strategy board at last, using the Reverend Norman Hale as its agent.

Since Milly Neal's death, the Reverend Norman had tried to find time to call on Hal Surtaine, and had failed. He wished to talk with him about Veltman. Three days after the funeral he had hauled the "Clarion's" foreman out of the gutter, stood between him and suicide for one savage night of struggle, and listened to the remorse of a haunted soul. Being a man and a brother, the Reverend Norman forbore blame or admonition; being a physician of the inner being, he devised work for the wreck in his slums, and had driven him relentlessly that he might find peace in the service of others. Slowly the man won back to sanity. One obsession persisted, however, disturbing to the clergyman. Veltman was willing to do penance himself, in any possible way, but he insisted that, since the Surtaines shared his guilt, they, too, must make amends, before his dead mistress could rest in her grave. Apprised by Veltman of the whole wretched story, Hale secretly sympathized with this view of the Surtaines' responsibility. But he was concerned lest, in Veltman, it take some form of direct vengeance. When he learned that Veltman had returned to the "Clarion" composing-room to work, the minister, unable to spare time for a call from his almost sleepless activities, sent an urgent request to Hal to meet him at the Recreation Club. Hal being out, Ellis got the note, observed the "Immediate and Important" on the envelope, read the contents, and set out for the rendezvous.

 He never got there. For at the corner of Sperry Street he was met by a messenger who knew him.

 "The back room at McManey's," said the urchin. "He's in there, waitin'."

Ellis entered the place. At a table sat the Reverend Norman Hale, with an expression of radiant happiness on his gaunt face. The barkeeper, who, on his own initiative, had just brought in a steaming hot drink, stood watching him with unfeigned concern. Hale welcomed Ellis warmly, and drew a chair close for him.

 "You sent for Mr. Surtaine," said Ellis.

 "Did I?" asked the other vaguely. "I forget. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters, now. Ellis, I've found out the secret."

"What secret?"

"The great secret. The solution," replied the young minister, buoyantly. "All that is necessary is to get the bodies."

 "Yes, of course," agreed the other, with rising uneasiness. "But they smuggle them out as fast—"

 "They won't when I've told them. McGuire Ellis,"—he gripped his companion suddenly with fingers that clamped like a burning vise,—"I can bring the dead back to life."

 "Tell me about it. But take a swallow of this first." Ellis pushed the hot drink toward him. "You're cold."

 "Nothing but excitement. The glory of it! All this suffering and grief and death—"

 "Wait a minute. I want a drink myself."

 He turned to the bartender. "Get an auto," he whispered. "Quick!"

 "There's a rig outside," said the man. "I seen he was sick when he came in, so I sent for it."

"Good man!" said Ellis. "Telephone to Dr. Merritt at the Health Office to meet me instantly at the hospital. Tell him why. Now, Mr. Hale," he added, "come on. Let's get along. You can tell me on the way."

Still rapt with his vision the minister rose, and permitted himself to be guided to the carriage. Once inside he fell into a semi-stupor. Only at the hospital, where Dr. Merritt was waiting to see him safe within the isolation ward, did he come to his rightful senses, cool, and, as ever, thoughtful of everything but himself.

 "You've got your chance for a diagnosis at last, Doctor," he whispered to the health officer.

 Half an hour later, Dr. Merritt came out to the waiting journalist.

 "Typhus," he said, with grievous exultation. "Unmistakably and officially typhus. We've got our case. Only, I wish to God it had been any of the rest of us."

 "Will he die?" queried Ellis.

 "God knows. I should say his chance was worse than even. He's worn out from overwork."

For assurance, Dr. Elliot was sent for and added his diagnosis. Ellis got authoritative interviews with both men, and the "Clarion's" great, potential sensation was now fully ripe for print. Denton the reporter had done the previous work well. His "story," leaded out and with subheads, ran flush to two pages of the paper, and every paragraph of it struck fire. It would, as Ellis said, set off a ton of dynamite beneath sleepy Worthington. That night Veltman "pulled" a proof, and Ellis stayed far into the morning, pasting up a dummy of the article for Hal's inspection and final judgment.

 It was on Thursday that Norman Hale was taken to the hospital. Friday noon McGuire Ellis laid before his principal the carefully constructed dummy with the brief comment:

 "There's the epidemic story."

 Hal accepted and read it in silence. Once or twice he made a note. When he had finished, he turned to find Ellis's gaze fixed upon him.

 "We ought to run it Monday," said Ellis. "We can round it all up by then."

Monday is the dead day of journalism, the day for which news articles which do not demand instant production are reserved, both to liven up a dull paper and because the sensation produced is greater. However, the sensation inevitable to the publishing of this article, as Hal instantly realized, would be enormous on any day.

 "It's big stuff," said he, with a long breath.

 Ellis nodded. "Shall I release it for Monday?"

 "N-n-no," came the dubious reply.

 "It's been held already for ten days."

 "Then what does it matter if we hold it a little longer?"

 "Human lives, maybe. Isn't that matter enough?"

 "That's only a guess. I've got to have time on this," insisted Hal. "It's the most vital question of policy that the paper has had to face."

 "Policy!" grunted Ellis savagely.

 "Besides, I've given my word to the Chamber of Commerce Committee that we wouldn't publish any epidemic news without due warning to them."

 "Then it's to be killed?"

"'Wait for orders' proof," said Hal stonily.

 "I might have known," sneered Ellis, with an infinite depth of scorn, and went to bear the bitter message to Wayne.

While the "Clarion" policy trembled in the balance, Dr. Surtaine's Committee on Suppression was facing a new crisis brought about by the striking down of Norman Hale, of which they received early information. Should he die, as was believed probable, the news, whether or not the full facts got into print, would surely become a focus for the propagation of alarmist rumors. In their distress, the patriots of commerce paid a hasty visit to their chief, craving counsel. Having foreseen the possibility of some such contingency, Dr. Surtaine was ready with a plan. The committee would enlarge itself, call a meeting of the representative men of the town, organize an Emergency Health Committee of One Hundred, and take the field against the onset of pernicious malaria. This show of fighting force would allay public alarm, a large fund would be raised, the newspapers would be kept in thorough subjection, and the disease could be wiped out without undue publicity or the imperiling of Old Home Week.

 "What about the 'Clarion'?" inquired Hollenbeck, of the committee. "They're still holding off."

 "Safe as your hat," Dr. Surtaine assured the questioner with a smile.

 "At the meeting you told us you couldn't answer for your son's paper," Stensland recalled.

 "I can now," said the confident quack. "Just you leave it to me."

He went direct to the "Clarion" office, revolving in his mind the impending interview. For the first time since the tragedy he anticipated a meeting with his son without embarrassment, for now he had a definite topic to talk about, difficult though it might be.

 Finding Hal at the editorial desk he went direct to the point.

 "Boy-ee, the epidemic is spreading."

 "I know it."

 "I'm going to take hold of the matter personally, from now on."

 "In what way?"

 "By organizing a committee of one hundred to cover the city and make a scientific campaign."

"Are you going to let people know that it's typhus?"

"Sh-sh-sh! So you know, do you? Well, the important thing now is to see that others don't find out. Don't even whisper the word. Malaria's our cue; pernicious malaria. What's the use of scaring every one to death? We'll call a public meeting for next week—"

 "Publicity is the last thing you want, I should think."

"Semi-public, I should have said. The epidemic has gone so far that people are beginning to take notice. We've got to reassure them and the right kind of an Emergency Health Committee is the way to do it, Belford Couch is working up the meeting now. I've kept him over on purpose for it. He's the best little diplomat in the proprietary business. And Yours Truly will be elected Chairman of the Committee. It'll cost us a ten-thousanddollar donation to the fund, but it's worth it to the business."

 "To the business? I don't quite see how."

"Simple as a pin! When it's all over and we're ready to let the account of it get into print, Dr. Surtaine, proprietor of Certina, will be the principal figure in the campaign. What's that worth in advertising to the year's business? Not that I'm doing it for that. I'm doing it to save Old Home Week."

 "With a little profit on the side."

 Dr. Surtaine deemed it politic to ignore the tone of the commentary.

 "Why not? Nobody's hurt by it. You'll be on the Central Committee, Boy-ee."

 "No; I don't think so."

 "Why not?"

 "I think I'd better keep out of the movement, Dad."

 "As you like. And you'll see that the 'Clarion' keeps out of it, too?"

 "So that's it."

 "Yes, Boy-ee: that's it. You can see, for yourself, that a newspaper sensation would ruin everything just now—and also ruin the paper that sprung it."

 "So I heard from Elias M. Pierce sometime since."

 "For once Pierce is right."

"Are you asking me to suppress the epidemic story?"

"To let us handle it our own way," substituted the Doctor. "We've got our campaign all figured out and ready to start. Do you know what the great danger is now?"

 "Letting the infection go on without taking open measures to stop it."

 "You're way wrong! Starting a panic that will scatter it all over the place is the real danger. Have you heard of a single case outside of the Rookeries district, so far?"

 Hal strove to recall the death-list on the proof. "No," he admitted.

"You see! It's confined to one locality. Now, what happens if you turn loose a newspaper scare? Why, those poor, ignorant people will swarm out of the Rookeries and go anywhere to escape the quarantine that they know will come. You'll have an epidemic not localized, but general. The situation will be ten times as difficult and dangerous as it is now."

 Struck with the plausibility of this reasoning, Hal hesitated. "That's up to the authorities," he said.

"The authorities!" cried the charlatan, in disdain. "What could they do? The damage would be done before they got ready to move. You see, we've got to handle this situation diplomatically. Look here, Boyee; what's the worst feature of an epidemic? Panic. You know the Bible parable. The seven plagues came to Egypt and ten thousand people died. The Grand Vizier said to the plagues, 'How many of my people have you slain?' The plagues said, 'A thousand.' 'What about the other nine thousand?' said the Grand Vizier. 'Not guilty!' said the plagues. 'They were slain by Fear.' Maybe it was in 'Paradise Lost' and not the Bible. But the lesson's the same. Panic is the killer."

 "But the disease is increasing all the time," objected Hal. "Are we to sit still and—"

"Is it?" broke in the wily controversialist. "How do you account for this, then?" He drew from his pocket a printed leaflet. "Take a peek at those figures. Fewer deaths in the Rookeries this last week than in any week since March."

This was true. Not infrequently there comes an inexplicable subsidence of mortality in mid-epidemic. No competent hygienist is deceived into mistaking this phenomenon for an indication of the end. Not being a hygienist Hal was again impressed.

 "The Health Bureau's own statistics," continued the argumentator, pushing his advantage. "With Dr. Merritt's signature at the bottom."

 "Dr. Merritt says that the epidemic is being fostered by secrecy, suppression, and lying."

 "All sentimentalism. Merritt would turn the city upside down if he had his way. Was it him that told you it was typhus?"

 "No. We've got a two-page story in proof now, giving the whole facts of the epidemic."

 "You can't publish it, Boy-ee," said his father firmly.

 "Can't? That sounds like an order."

 Adroitly Dr. Surtaine caught at the word. "An order drawn on your word of honor."

 "If there's any question of honor to the 'Clarion,' it's to tell the truth plainly and take the consequences."

 "Who said anything about the 'Clarion's' honor? This is between you and me."

 "You'll have to speak more plainly," said Hal with a dawning dread.

"Boyee, I hate to do this, but I've got to, to save the city. You gave me your word that the day you had to suppress news for your own sake, you'd quit this Don Quixotic business and treat others as decently and considerately as you treated yourself."

 "Go on," said Hal, in a half whisper.

"Well—Milly Neal." Dr. Surtaine wet his lips nervously. "You saved yourself there by keeping the story out of the papers. Of course you were right. You were dead right. You'd have been a fool to do anything else. But there you are. And there's your promise."

A nausea of the soul sickened Hal. That his father, whom he had so loved and honored, should make of the loyalty which had, at the cost of principle, protected the name of Surtaine against open disgrace, a tool wherewith to tear down his professional standards—it was like some incredible and malign jocosity of a devilish logic. Of what was going on in the quack's mind he had no inkling. He could not know that his father saw in the suppression of the suicide news, only a natural and successful effort on the part of Hal to conceal his own guilt in Milly's death. No more could Dr. Surtaine comprehend that it was the dreadful responsibility of the Surtaine quackery for which Hal had unhesitantly sacrificed the declared principle of the "Clarion." So they gazed darkly at each other across the chasm, each seeing his opponent in the blackest colors.

 "You hold me to that?" demanded Hal, half choked.

 "I have to, Boy-ee."

To Dr. Surtaine the issue which he had raised was but the distasteful means to a necessary end. To Hal it meant the final capitulation to the forces against which he had been fighting since his first enlightenment.

"I might as well sell the 'Clarion' now, and be done with it," he declared bitterly. "Nonsense! If you stuck to this foolishness you'd have to sell it or lose it. You'd be ruined, both in influence and in money. How would you feel when Mac Ellis, and Wayne, and all the fellows that stuck by you found themselves out of a job because of your pig-headedness? And what harm are you doing by dropping the story, anyway? We've got this thing beaten, right now. It isn't spreading. It's dropping off. What'll the 'Clarion' look like when its great sensation peters out into thin air? But by that time the harm'll be done and the whole country will think we're a plague-stricken city. Don't do all that damage and spoil everything just for a false delusion, Boyee."

 But Hal's mind was brooding on the fatal promise which he had so confidently made his father. One way out there was.

 "Since it's a question of my word to you," he said, "I could still publish the truth about Milly Neal."

 "No. You couldn't do that, Boyee," said his father in a tone, half sorrowful, half shamed.

 "No. You're right. I couldn't—God help me!"

To proclaim his own father a moral criminal in his own paper was the one test which Hal lacked the power to meet. It was the world-old conflict between loyalty and principle—in which loyalty so often and so tragically wins the first combat.

After all, Hal forced himself to consider, he was not serving his public ill by this particular sacrifice of principle. The official mortality figures helped him to persuade himself that the typhus was indeed ebbing. For himself, as the price of silence, there was easy sailing under the flag of local patriotism, and with every success in prospect. Yet it was with sunken eyes that he turned to the tempter.

 "All right," he said, with a half groan, "I give in. We won't print it."

Dr. Surtaine heaved a great sigh of relief. "That's horse sense!" he cried jovially. "Now, you go ahead on those lines and you'll make the 'Clarion' the best-paying proposition in Worthington. I'll drop a few hints where they'll do the most good, and you'll see the advertisers breaking their necks to come in. Journalism is no different from any other business, Boy-ee. Live and let live. Bear and forbear. There's the rule for you. The trouble with you, Boy-ee, has been that you've been trying to run a business on pink-tea principles."

 "The trouble with me," said his son bitterly, "is that I've been trying to reform a city when I ought to have been reforming myself."

"Oh, you're all right, Boy-ee," his affectionate and admiring father reassured him. "You're just finding yourself. As for this reform—" And he was launched upon the second measure of the Pæan of Policy when Hal cut him short by ringing a bell and ordering the boy to send McGuire Ellis to him. Ellis came up from the city room.

 "Kill the epidemic story, Mr. Ellis," he ordered.

 Red passion surged up into Ellis's face.

 "Kill—" he began, in a strangled voice.

 "Kill it. You understand?" The associate editor's color receded. He looked with slow contempt from father to son.

 "Oh, yes, I understand," he said. "Any other orders to-day?"

Hal made no reply. His father, divining that this was no time for further speech, took his departure. McGuire Ellis went out with black despair at his heart, a soldier betrayed by his captain. And the proprietor of the "Clarion," his feet now set in the path of success and profit, turned back to his work in sodden disenchantment, sighing as youth alone sighs, and as youth sighs only when it foregoes the dream of ideals which is its immortal birthright.