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   Chapter 12 THE THIN EDGE

The Clarion By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 18567

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Across the fresh and dainty breakfast table, Dr. Miles Elliot surveyed his even more fresh and dainty niece and ward with an expression of sternest disapproval. Not that it affected in any perceptible degree that attractive young person's healthy appetite. It was the habit of the two to breakfast together early, while their elderly widowed cousin, who played the part of Feminine Propriety in the household in a highly self-effacing and satisfactory manner, took her tea and toast in her own rooms. It was further Dr. Elliot's custom to begin the day by reprehending everything (so far as he could find it out) which Miss Esmé had done, said, or thought in the previous twenty-four hours. This, as he frequently observed to her, was designed to give her a suitably humble attitude toward the scheme of creation, but didn't.

"Out all night again?" he growled.

"Pretty nearly," said Esmé cheerfully, setting a very even row of very white teeth into an apple.

"Humph! What was it this time?"

"A dinner-dance at the Norris's."

"Have a good time?"

"Beautiful! My frock was pretty. And I was pretty. And everybody was nice to me. And I wish it were going to happen right over again to-night."

"Whom did you dance with mostly?"

"Anybody that asked me."

"Dare say. How many new victims?" he demanded.

"Don't be a silly Guardy. I'm not a man-eating tiger or tigress, or the Great American Puma-or pumess. Don't you think 'pumess' is a nice lady-word, Guardy?"

"Did you dance with Will Douglas?" catechised the grizzled doctor, declining to be shunted off on a philological discussion. Next to acting as legal major domo to E.M. Pierce, Douglas's most important function in life was apparently to fetch and carry for the reigning belle of Worthington. His devotion to Esmé Elliot had become stock gossip of the town, since three seasons previous.

"Almost half as often as he asked me," said the girl. "That was eight times, I think."

"Nice boy, Will."

"Boy!" There was a world of expressiveness in the monosyllable.

"Not a day over forty," observed the uncle. "And you are twenty-two. Not that you look it"-judicially-"like thirty-five, after all this dissipation."

Esmé rose from her seat, walked with great dignity past her guardian, and suddenly whirling, pounced upon his ear.

"Do I? Do I?" she cried. "Do I look thirty-five? Quick! Take it back."

"Ouch! Oh! No. Not more'n thirty. Oo! All right; twenty-five, then. Fifteen! Three!!!"

She kissed the assaulted ear, and pirouetted over to the broad window-seat, looking in her simple morning gown like a school-girl.

"Wonder how you do it," grumbled Dr. Elliot. "Up all night roistering like a sophomore-"

"I was in bed at three."

"Down next morning, fresh as a-a-"

"Rose," she supplied tritely.

"-cake o' soap," concluded her uncle. "Now, as for you and Will Douglas, as between Will's forty-"

"Marked down from forty-five," she interjected.

"And your twenty-two-"

"Looking like thirty-something."

"Never mind," said Dr. Elliot in martyred tones. "I don't want to finish any sentence. Why should I? Got a niece to do it for me."

"Nobody wants you to finish that one. You're a matchmaking old maid," declared Esmé, wrinkling her delicate nose at him, "and if you're ever put up for our sewing-circle I shall blackball you. Gossip!"

"Oh, if I wanted to gossip, I'd begin to hint about the name of Surtaine."

The girl's color did not change. "As other people have evidently been doing to you."

"A little. Did you dance with him last night?"

"He wasn't there. He's working very hard on his newspaper."

"You seem to know a good deal about it."

"Naturally, since I've bought into the paper myself. I believe that's the proper business phrase, isn't it?"

"Bought in? What do you mean? You haven't been making investments without my advice?"

"Don't worry, Guardy, dear. It isn't strictly a business transaction. I've been-ahem-establishing a sphere of influence."

"Over Harrington Surtaine?"

"Over his newspaper."

"Look here, Esmé! How serious is this Surtaine matter?" Dr. Elliot's tone had a distinct suggestion of concern.

"For me? Not serious at all."

"But for him?"

"How can I tell? Isn't it likely to be serious for any of the unprotected young of your species when a Great American Pumess gets after him?" she queried demurely.

"But you can't know him very well. He's been here only a few weeks, hasn't he?"

"More than a month. And from the first he's gone everywhere."

"That's quite unusual for your set, isn't it? I thought you rather prided yourselves on being careful about outsiders."

"No one's an outsider whom Jinny Willard vouches for. Besides every one likes Hal Surtaine for himself."

"You among the number?"

"Yes, indeed," she responded frankly. "He's attractive. And he seems older and more-well-interesting than most of the boys of my set."

"And that appeals to you?"

"Yes: it does. I get awfully bored with the just-out-of-college chatter of the boys. I want to see the wheels go round, Guardy. Real wheels, that make up real machinery and get real things done. I'm not quite an ingénue, you know."

"Thirty-five, thirty, twenty-five, fifteen, three," murmured her uncle, rubbing his ear. "And does young Surtaine give you inside glimpses of the machinery of his business?"

"Sometimes. He doesn't know very much about it himself, yet."

"It's a pretty dirty business, Honey. And, I'm afraid, he's a pretty bad breed."

"The father is rather impossible, isn't he?" she said, laughing. "But they say he's very kindly, and well-meaning, and public-spirited, and that kind of thing."

"He's a scoundrelly old quack. It's a bad inheritance for the boy. Where are you off to this morning?"

"To the 'Clarion' office."

"What! Well, but, see here, dear, does Cousin Clarice approve of that sort of thing?"

"Wholly," Esmé assured him, dimpling. "It's on behalf of the Recreation Club. That's the Reverend Norman Hale's club for working-girls, you know. We're going to give a play. And, as I'm on the Press Committee, it's quite proper for me to go to the newspapers and get things printed."

"Humph!" grunted Dr. Elliot. "Well: good hunting-Pumess."

After the girl had gone, he sat thinking. He knew well the swift intimacies, frank and clean and fine, which spring up in the small, close-knit social circles of a city like Worthington. And he knew, too, and trusted and respected the judgment of Mrs. Festus Willard, whose friendship was tantamount to a certificate of character and eligibility. As against that, he set the unforgotten picture of the itinerant quack, vending his poison across the countryside, playing on desperate fears and tragic hopes, coining his dollars from the grimmest of false dies; and now that same quack,-powerful, rich, generous, popular, master of the good things of life,-still draining out his millions from the populace, through just such deadly swindling as that which had been lighted up by the flaring exploitation of the oil torches fifteen years before. Could any good come from such a stock? He decided to talk it out with Esmé, sure that her fastidiousness would turn away from the ugly truth.

Meantime, the girl was making a toilet of vast and artful simplicity wherewith to enrapture the eye of the beholder. The first profound effect thereof was wrought upon Reginald Currier, alias "Bim," some fifteen minutes later, at the outer portals of the "Clarion" office.

"Hoojer wanter-" he began, and then glanced up. Almost as swiftly as he had aforetime risen under Hal's irate and athletic impulsion, the redoubtable Bim was lifted from his seat by the power of Miss Elliot's glance. "Gee!" he murmured.

The Great American Pumess, looking much more like a very innocent, soft, and demurely playful kitten, accepted this ingenuous tribute to her charms with a smile. "Good-morning," she said. "Is Mr. Surtaine in?"

"Same t'you," responded the courteous Mr. Currier. "Sure he is. Walk this way, maddim!"

They found the editor at his desk. His absorbed expression brightened as he jumped up to greet his visitor.

"You!" he cried.

Esmé let her hand rest in his and her glance linger in his eyes, perhaps just a little longer than might have comported with safety in one less adept.

"How is the paper going?" she inquired, taking the chair which he pulled out for her.

"Completely to the dogs," said Hal.

"No! Why I thought-"

"You haven't given any advice to the editor for six whole days," he complained. "How can you expect an institution to run, bereft of its presiding genius? Is it your notion of a fair partnership to stay away and let your fellow toilers wither on the bough? I only wonder that the presses haven't stopped."

"Would this help at all?" The visitor produced from her shopping-bag the written announcement of the Recreation Club play.

"Undoubtedly it will save the day. Lost Atlantis will thrill to hear, and deep-sea cables bear the good news to unborn generations. What is it?"

She frowned upon his levity. "It is an interesting item, a very interesting item of news," she said impressively.

"Bring one in every day," he directed: "in person. We can't t

rust the mails in matters of such vital import." And scrawling across the copy a single hasty word in pencil, he thrust it into a wire box.

"What's that you've written on it?"

"The mystic word 'Must.'"

"Does it mean that it must be printed?"

"Precisely, O Fountain of Intuition. It is one of the proud privileges which an editor-in-chief has. Otherwise he does exactly what the city desk or the advertising manager or the head proof-reader or the fourth assistant office boy tells him. That's because he's new to his job and everybody in the place knows it."

"Yet I don't think it would be easy for any one to make you do a thing you really didn't want to do," she observed, regarding him thoughtfully.

"When you lift your eyebrows like that-"

"I thought you weren't to make pretty speeches to me in business hours," she reproached him.

"Such a stern and rock-bound partner! Very well. How does the paper suit your tastes?"

"You've got an awfully funny society column."

"We strive to amuse. But I thought only people outside of society ever read society columns-except to see if their names were there."

"I read all the paper," she answered severely. "And I'd like to know who Mrs. Wolf Tone Maher is."

"Ring up 'Information,'" he suggested.

"Don't be flippant. Also Mr. and Mrs. B. Kirschofer, and Miss Amelia Sproule. All of which give teas in the society columns of the 'Clarion.' Or dances. Or dinners. And I notice they're always sandwiched in between the Willards or the Vanes or the Ellisons or the Pierces, or some of our own crowd. I'm curious."

"So am I. Let's ask Wayne."

Accordingly the city editor was summoned and duly presented to Miss Elliot. But when she put the question to him, he looked uncomfortable. Like a good city editor, however, he defended his subordinate.

"It isn't the society reporter's fault," he said. "He knows those people don't belong."

"How do they get in there, then?" asked Hal.

"Mr. Shearson's orders."

"Is Mr. Shearson the society editor?" asked Esmé.

"No. He's the advertising manager."

"Forgive my stupidity, but what has the advertising manager to do with social news?"

"A big heap lot," explained Wayne. "It's the most important feature of the paper to him. Wolf Tone Maher is general manager of the Bee Hive Department Store. We get all their advertising, and when Mrs. Maher wants to see her name along with the 'swells,' as she would say, Mr. Shearson is glad to oblige. B. Kirschofer is senior partner in the firm of Kirschofer & Kraus, of the Bargain Emporium. Miss Sproule is the daughter of Alexander Sproule, proprietor of the Agony Parlors, three floors up."

"Agony Parlors?" queried the visitor.

"Painless dentistry," explained Wayne. "Mr. Shearson handles all that matter and sends it down to us."

"Marked 'Must,' I suppose," remarked Miss Elliot, not without malice. "So the mystic 'Must' is not exclusively a chief-editorial prerogative?"

The editor-in-chief looked annoyed, thereby satisfying his visitor's momentary ambition. "Hereafter, Mr. Wayne, all copy indorsed 'Must' is to be referred to me," he directed.

"That kills the 'Must' thing," commented the city editor cheerfully. "What about 'Must not'?"

"Another complication," laughed Esmé. "I fear I'm peering into the dark and secret places of journalism."

"For example, a story came in last night that was a hummer," said Wayne; "about E.M. Pierce's daughter running down an apple-cart in her sixty-horse-power car, and scattering dago, fruit, and all to the four winds of Heaven. Robbins saw it, and he's the best reporter we have for really funny stuff."

"Kathleen drives that car like a demon out on a spree," said Esmé. "But of course you wouldn't print anything unpleasant about it."

"Why not?" asked Wayne.

"Well, she belongs to our crowd,-Mr. Surtaine's friends, I mean,-and it was accidental, I suppose, and so long as the man wasn't hurt-"

"Only a sprained shoulder."

"-and I'm sure Agnes would be more than willing to pay for the damage."

"Oh, yes. She asked the worth of his stock and then doubled it, gave him the money, and drove off with her mud guards coquettishly festooned with grapes. That's what made it such a good story."

"But, Mr. Wayne"-Esmé's eyes were turned up to his pleadingly: "those things are funny to tell. But they're so vulgar, in the paper. Think, if it were your sister."

"If my sister went tearing through crowded streets at forty miles an hour, I'd have her examined for homicidal mania. That Pierce girl will kill some one yet. Even then, I suppose we won't print a word of it."

"What would stop us?" asked Hal.

"The fear of Elias M. Pierce. His 'Must not' is what kills this story."

"Let me see it."

"Oh, it isn't visible. But every editor in town knows too much to offend the President of the Consolidated Employers' Organization, let alone his practical control of the Dry Goods Union."

"You were at the staff breakfast yesterday, I believe, Mr. Wayne."

"What? Yes; of course I was."

"And you heard what I said?"

"Yes. But you can't do that sort of thing all at once," replied the city editor uneasily.

"We certainly never shall do it without making a beginning. Please hold the Pierce story until you hear from me."

"Tell me all about the breakfast," commanded Esmé, as the door closed upon Wayne.

Briefly Hal reported the exchange of ideas between himself and his staff, skeletonizing his own speech.

"Splendid!" she cried. "And isn't it exciting! I love a good fight. What fun you'll have. Oh, the luxury of saying exactly what you think! Even I can't do that."

"What limits are there to the boundless privileges of royalty?" asked Hal, smiling.

"Conventions. For instance, I'd love to tell you just how fine I think all this is that you're doing, and just how much I like and admire you. We've come to be real friends, haven't we? And, you see, I can be of some actual help. The breakfast was my suggestion, wasn't it? So you owe me something for that. Are you properly grateful?"

"Try me."

"Then, august and terrible sovereign, spare the life of my little friend Kathie."

Hal drew back a bit. "I'm afraid you don't realize the situation."

The Great American Pumess shot forth a little paw-such a soft, shapely, hesitant, dainty, appealing little paw-and laid it on Hal's hand.

"Please," she said.

"But, Esmé,"-he began. It was the first time he had used that intimacy with her. Her eyes dropped.

"We're partners, aren't we?" she said.

"Of course."

"Then you won't let them print it!"

"If Miss Pierce goes rampaging around the streets-"

"Please. For me,-partner."

"One would have to be more than human, to say no to you," he returned, laughing a little unsteadily. "You're corrupting my upright professional sense of duty."

"It can't be a duty to hold a friend up to ridicule, just for a little accident."

"I'm not so sure," said Hal, again. "However, for the sake of our partnership, and if you'll promise to come again soon to tell us how to run the paper-"

"I knew you'd be kind!" There was just the faintest pressure of the delicate paw, before it was withdrawn. The Great American Pumess was feeling the thrill of power over men and events. "I think I like the newspaper business. But I've got to be at my other trade now."

"What trade is that?"

"Didn't you know I was a little sister of the poor? When you've lost all your money and are ill, I'll come and lay my cooling hand on your fevered brow and bring wine jelly to your tenement."

"Aren't you afraid of contagious diseases?" he asked anxiously. "Such places are always full of them."

"Oh, they placard for contagion. It's safe enough. And I'm really interested. It's my only excuse to myself for living."

"If bringing happiness wherever you go isn't enough-"

"No! No!" She smiled up into his eyes. "This is still a business visit. But you may take me to my car."

On his way back Hal stopped to tell Wayne that perhaps the Pierce story wasn't worth running, after all. Unease of conscience disturbed his work for a time thereafter. He appeased it by the excuse that it was no threat or pressure from without which had influenced his action. He had killed the item out of consideration for the friend of his friend. What did it matter, anyway, a bit of news like that? Who was harmed by leaving it out? As yet he was too little the journalist to comprehend that the influences which corrupt the news are likely to be dangerous in proportion as they are subtle.

Wayne understood better, and smiled with a cynical wryness of mouth upon McGuire Ellis, who, having passed Hal and Esmé on the stairs, had lingered at the city desk and heard the editor-in-chief's half-hearted order.

"Still worrying about Dr. Surtaine's influence over the paper?" asked the city editor, after Hal's departure.

"Yes," said Ellis.

"Don't."

"Why not?"

"Did you happen to notice about the prettiest thing that ever used eyes for weapons, in the hall?"

"Something of that description."

"Let me present you, in advance, to Miss Esmé Elliot, the new boss of our new boss," said Wayne, with a flourish.

"God save the Irish!" said McGuire Ellis.

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