The Clarion by Samuel Hopkins Adams - HTML preview
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Nation-wide sped the news, branding Worthington as a pest-ridden city. Every newspaper in the country had a conspicuous dispatch about it. The bulletin of the United States Public Health Service, as in duty bound, gave official and statistical currency to the town's misfortune. Other cities in the State threatened a quarantine against Worthington. Commercial travelers and buyers postponed their local visits. The hotel registers thinned out notably. Business drooped. For all of which the "Clarion" was vehemently blamed by those most concerned.
Conversely, the paper should have received part credit for the extremely vigorous campaign which the health authorities, under Dr. Merritt, set on foot at once. Using the "Clarion" exposure as a lever, the health officer pried open the Council-guarded city tills for an initial appropriation of ten thousand dollars, got a hasty ordinance passed penalizing, not the diagnosing of typhus, but failure to diagnose and report it,—not a man from the Surtaine army of suppression had the temerity to oppose the measure,— organized a medical inspection and detection corps, threw a contagion-proof quarantine about every infected building, hunted down and isolated the fugitives from the dangerpoints who had scattered at the first alarm, inspired the county medical society to an enthusiastic support, bullied the police into a state of reasonable efficiency, and with a combined volunteer and regular force faced the epidemic in military form. Not least conspicuous among the volunteers were Miss Esmé Elliot and Miss Kathleen Pierce, who had been released from quarantine quite as early as the law allowed, because of the need for them at the front.
"We could never have done our job without you," said Dr. Merritt to Hal, meeting him by chance one morning ten days after the publication of the "spread."
"If the city is saved from a regular pestilence, it'll be the Clarion's' doing."
"That doesn't seem to be the opinion of the business men of the place," said Hal, with a rather dreary smile. He had just been going over with the lugubrious Shearson a batch of advertising cancellations.
"Oh, don't look for any credit from this town," retorted the health officer. "I'm practically ostracized, already, for my share in it."
"But are you beating it out?"
"God knows," answered the other. "I thought we'd traced all the foci of infection. But two new localities broke out to-day. That's the way an epidemic goes."
And that is the way the Worthington typhus went for more than a month. Throughout that month the "Clarion" was carrying on an anti-epidemic campaign of its own, with the slogan "Don't Give up Old Home Week." Wise strategy this, in a double sense. It rallied public effort for victory by a definite date, for the Committee on Arrangements, despite the arguments of the weak-kneed among its number, and largely by virtue of the militant optimism of its chairman, had decided to go on with the centennial celebration if the city could show a clean bill of health by August 30, thus giving six weeks' leeway.
Furthermore, it put the "Clarion" in the position of champion of the city's commercial interests and daily bade defiance to those who declared the paper an enemy and a traitor to business. In editorials, in interviews, in educational articles on hygiene and sanitation, in a course of free lectures covering the whole city and financed by the paper itself, the "Clarion" carried on the fight with unflagging zeal. Slowly it began to win back general confidence and much of the popularity which it had lost. One of its reporters in the course of his work contracted the fever and barely pulled through alive, thereby lending a flavor of possible martyrdom to the cause. McGuire Ellis's desperate fight for life also added to the romantic element which is so potent an asset with the sentimental American public. Business, however, still sulked. The defiance to its principles was too flagrant to be passed over. If the "Clarion" pulled through, the press would lose respect for the best interests and the vested privileges of commercial Worthington. Indeed, others of the papers, since the "Clarion's" declaration of independence, had exhibited a deplorable tendency to disregard hints hitherto having the authority of absolutism over them.
In withholding advertising patronage from the Surtaine daily, the business men were not only seeking reprisals, but also following a sound business principle. For according to information sedulously spread abroad, it was doubtful whether the "Clarion" would long survive. Elias M. Pierce's boast that he would put it out of business gained literal interpretation, as he had intended that it should. Contrary to his accustomed habit of reticence, he had sought occasion to inform his friends that he expected verdicts against the libeler of his daughter which would throw the concern into bankruptcy, and, perhaps, its proprietor into jail. No advertiser cares to put money into a publication which may fail next week. Hence, though the circulation of the "Clarion" went up pretty steadily, the advertising patronage did not keep pace. Hal found himself hard put to it, at times, to cling to his dogged hopes. But it was worth while fighting it out to the last dollar. So much he was assured of by the messages of praise and support which began to come in to him, not from "representative citizens," but from the earnest, thoughtful, and often obscure toilers and thinkers of the city: clergymen, physicians, laboring-men, workingwomen, sociological workers—his peers.
Then, too, there was the profound satisfaction of promised victory over the pest. For at the end of six weeks the battle was practically won; by what heroisms, at the cost of what sacrifices, through what disappointments, reversals, and set-backs, against the subtleties of what underground opposition of political influence and twelve per cent finance, is not to be set down here. The government publications tell, in their brief and pregnant records, this story of one of the most complete and brilliant victories in the history of American hygiene. My concern is with the story, not of the typhus epidemic, but of a man who fought for and surrendered and finally retrieved his own manhood and the honor of the paper which was his honor. His share, no small one, in the wiping-out of the pestilence was, to him, but part of the war for which he had enlisted.
But though the newspapers, with one joyous voice, were able to announce early in August, on the authority of the federal reports, "No new case in a week," the success of Old Home Week still swayed in the balance. Outside newspapers, which had not forgotten the scandal of the smallpox suppression years before, hinted that the record might not be as clear as it appeared. The President of the United States, they pointed out, who was to be the guest of honor and the chief feature of the celebration, would not be justified in going to a city over which any suspicion of pestilence still hovered. In fact, the success or failure of the event practically hung upon the Chief Executive's action. If, now, he decided to withdraw his acceptance, on whatever ground, the country would impute it to a justified caution, and would maintain against the city that intangible moral quarantine which is so disastrous to its victim. Throughout, Hal Surtaine in his editorial columns had vigorously maintained that the President would come. It was mostly "bluff." He had nothing but hope to build on.
Two more "clean" weeks passed. At the close of the second, Hal stopped one day at the hospital to see McGuire Ellis, who was finally convalescent and was to be discharged on the following week. At the door of Ellis's room he met Dr. Elliot. Somewhat embarrassed, he stepped aside. The physician stopped.
"Er—Surtaine," he said hesitantly.
"I've had time to think things over. And I've had some talks with Mac. I—I guess I was wrong."
"You were right enough from your point of view."
"Think so?" said the other, surprised.
"Yes. And I know I was right, from mine."
"Humph!" There was an uncomfortable pause. Then: "I called names. I apologize."
"That's all right, then," returned Hal heartily.
"Woof!" exhaled the physician. "That's off my chest. Now, I've got an item for you."
"For the 'Clarion'?"
"Yep. The President's coming."
"Coming? To Old Home Week?"
"To Old Home Week."
"An item! Great Cæsar! A spread! A splurge!! A blurb!!! Where did you get it?"
"From Washington. Just been there."
"Tell me all of it."
"Know Redding? He and I saw some tough service together in the old M.H.S. That's the United States Public Health Service now. Redding's the head of it; Surgeon-General. First-class man, every way. So I went to see him and told him we had to have the President, and why. He saw it in a minute. Knew all about the 'Clarion's' fight, too. He went to the White House and explained the whole business. The President said that a clean bill of health from the Service was good enough for him, and he'd come, sure. Here's his letter to the Surgeon-General. It goes out for publication to-morrow. There's a line in it speaking of the 'Clarion's' good work."
"Great Cæsar!" said Hal again, rather weakly.
"Does that square accounts between us?"
"More! A hundred times more! That's the biggest indorsement any paper in this town ever had. Old Home Week's safe. Did you tell Mac?"
"Yes. He's up there cursing now because they won't let him go to the office to plan out the article."
To the "Clarion," the presidential encomium was a tremendous boom professionally. Financially, however, it was of no immediate avail. It did not bring local advertising, and advertising was what the paper sorely needed. Still, it did call attention to the paper from outside. A few good contracts for "foreign" advertising, a department which had fallen off to almost nothing when Hal discarded all medical "copy," came in. With these, and a reasonable increase in local support which could be counted upon, now that commercial bitterness against the paper was somewhat mollified, Hal reckoned that he could pull through—if it were not for the Pierce suits. There was the crux of the situation. Nothing was being done about them. They had been postponed more than once, on motion of Pierce's counsel. Now they hung over Hal's head in a suspense fast becoming unbearable. At length he decided that, in fairness to his staff, he should warn them of the situation.
He chose, for the explanation, one of the Talk-It-Over Breakfasts, the first one which McGuire Ellis, released temporarily from the hospital for the occasion, had attended since his wound. He sat at Hal's right, still pale and thin, but with his look of bulldog obstinacy undiminished; enhanced, rather, by the fact that one ear had been sharpened to a canine pointedness by the missile which had so narrowly grazed his life. Ellis had been goaded to a pitch of high exasperation by the solicitude and attentions of his fellows. It was his emphatically expressed opinion that the whole gathering lay under a blight of superlative youthfulness. In his mind he exempted Hal, over whose silence and distraction he was secretly worried. The cause was explained when the chairman rose to close the meeting.
"There is something I have to say," he said. "I've put it off longer than I should. I may have to give up the 'Clarion.' It depends upon the outcome of the libel suits brought by E.M. Pierce. If, as we fear, Miss Cleary, the nurse who was run over, testifies for the prosecution, we can't win. Then it's only a question of the size of the damages. A big verdict would mean the ruin of the paper, I'm telling you this so that you may have time to look for new jobs."
There was a long silence. Then a melancholy, musing voice said: "Gee! That's tough! Just as the paper pulled off the Home Week stunt, too."
"How much of a verdict would bust us?" asked another.
"Twenty-five thousand dollars," said Hal, "together with lawyers' fees. I couldn't go on."
"Say, I know that old hen of a nurse," said one of the sporting writers, with entire seriousness. "Wonder if it'd do any good to marry her?"
A roar went up from the table at this, somewhat relieving the tension of the atmosphere.
Shearson, the advertising manager, lolling deep in his chair, spoke up diffidently, as soon as he could be heard:
"I ain't rich. But I've put a little wad aside. I could chip in three thou' if that'd help."
"I've got five hundred that isn't doing a stitch of work," declared Wainwright.
"Some of my relations have wads of money," suggested young Denton. "I wouldn't wonder if—"
"No, no, no!" cried Hal, in a shaken voice. "I know how well you fellows mean it. But—"
"As a loan," said Wainwright hopefully. "The paper's good enough security."
"Not good enough," replied Hal firmly. "I can't take it, boys. You—you're a mighty good lot, to offer. Now, about looking for other places—"
"All those that want to quit the 'Clarion,' stand up," shouted McGuire Ellis.
Not a man moved. "Unanimous," observed the convalescent. "I thought nobody'd rise to that. If anybody had," he added, "I'd have punched him in the eye."
The gathering adjourned in gloom.
"All this only makes it harder, Mac," said Hal to his right-hand man afterward. "They can't afford to stick till we sink."
"If a sailor can do it, I guess a newspaper man can," retorted the other resentfully. "I wish I could poison Pierce."
At dinner that night Hal found his father distrait. Since the younger man's return, the old relations had been resumed, though there were still, of necessity, difficult restraints and reservations in their talk. The "Clarion," however, had ceased to be one of the tabooed subjects. Since the publication of the President's letter and the saving of Old Home Week, Dr. Surtaine had become an avowed Clarionite. Also he kept in personal touch with the office. This evening, however, it was with an obvious effort that he asked how affairs were going. Hal answered listlessly that matters were going well enough.
"No, they aren't, Boy-ee. I heard about your talk to-day."
"Did you? I'm sorry. I don't want to worry you."
"Boy-ee, let me back you."
"I can't, Dad."
"Because of that old agreement?"
"Call it a loan, then. I can't stand by and see the paper licked by Pierce. Fifty thousand won't touch me. And it'll save you."
"Please, Dad, I can't do it."
"Is it because it's Certina money?"
Hal turned miserable eyes on his father. "Hadn't we better keep away from that?"
"I don't get you at all on that," cried the charlatan. "Why, it's business. It's legal. If I didn't sell 'em the stuff, somebody else would. Why shouldn't I take the money, when it's there?"
"There's no use in my trying to argue it with you, Dad. We're miles apart."
"That's just it," sighed the older man. "Oh, well! You couldn't help my paying the damages if Pierce wins," he suggested hopefully.
"Yes. I could even do that."
"What do you want me to do, Boy-ee?" cried his father, in desperation. "Give up a business worth half a million a year, net?"
"I'm not asking anything, sir. Only let me do the best I can, in the way that looks right to me. I've got to go back to the office now. Good-night, Dad."
The arch-quack looked after his son's retreating figure, and his big, animal-like eyes were very tender.
"I don't know," he said to himself uncertainly,—"I don't know but what he's worth it."