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   Chapter 22 PATRIOTS

The Clarion By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 18476

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Worthington's Old Home Week is a gay, gaudy, and profitable institution. During the six days of its course the city habitually maintains the atmosphere of a three-ringed circus, the bustle of a county fair, and the business ethics of the Bowery. Allured by widespread advertising and encouraged by special rates on the railroads, the countryside for a radius of one hundred miles pours its inhabitants into the local metropolis, their pockets filled with greased dollars. Upon them Worthington lavishes its left-over and shelf-cluttering merchandise, at fifty per cent more than its value, amidst general rejoicings. As Festus Willard once put it, "There is a sound of revelry by night and larceny by day." But then Mr. Willard, being a manufacturer and not a retailer, lacks the subtler sympathy which makes lovely the spirit of Old Home hospitality.

This year the celebration was to outdo itself. Because of the centennial feature, no less a person than the President of the United States, who had spent a year of his boyhood at a local school, was pledged to attend. In itself this meant a record crowd. Crops had been good locally and the toil-worn agriculturist had surplus money wherewith to purchase phonographs, gold teeth, crayon enlargements of self and family, home instruction outfits for hand-painting sofa cushions, and similar prime necessities of farm life. To transform his static savings into dynamic assets for itself was Worthington's basic purpose in holding its gala week. And now this beneficent plan was threatened by one individual, and he young, inexperienced, and a new Worthingtonian, Mr. Harrington Surtaine. This unforeseen cloud upon the horizon of peace, prosperity, and happiness rose into the ken of Dr. Surtaine the day after the appearance of the sewing-girl editorial.

Dr. Surtaine hadn't liked that editorial. With his customary air of long-suffering good nature he had told Hal so over his home-made apple pie and rich milk, at the cheap and clean little luncheon place which he patronized. Hal had no defense or excuse to offer. Indeed, his reference to the topic was of the most casual order and was immediately followed by this disconcerting question:

"What about the Rookeries epidemic, Dad?"

"Epidemic? There's no epidemic, Boyee."

"Well, there's something. People are dying down there faster than they ought to. It's spread beyond the Rookeries now."

This was no news to the big doctor. But it was news to him that Hal knew it.

"How do you know?" he asked.

"I've been down there and ran right upon it."

The father's affection and alarm outleapt his caution at this. "You better keep away from there, Boyee," he warned anxiously.

"If there's no epidemic, why should I keep away?"

"There's always a lot of infection down in those tenements," said Dr. Surtaine lamely.

"Dad, when you made your report for the 'Clarion' did you tell us all you knew?"

"All except some medical technicalities," said the Doctor, who never told a lie when a half-lie would serve.

"I've just had a talk with the health officer, Dr. Merritt."

"Merritt's an alarmist."

"He's alarmed this time, certainly."

"What does he think it is?"

"It?" said Hal, a trifle maliciously. "The epidemic?"

"Epidemic's a big word. The sickness."

"How can he tell? He's had no chance to see the cases. They still mysteriously disappear before he can get to them. By the way, your Dr. De Vito seems to have a hand in that."

"Hal, I wish you'd get over your trick of seeing a mystery in everything," said his father with a mild and tempered melancholy. "It's a queer slant to your brain."

"There's a queer slant to this business of the Rookeries somewhere, but I don't think it's in my brain. Merritt says the Mayor is holding him off, and he believes that Tip O'Farrell, agent for the Rookeries, has got the Mayor's ear. He wants to force the issue by quarantining the whole locality."

"And advertise to the world that there's some sort of contagion there!" cried Dr. Surtaine in dismay.

"Well, if there is-"

"Think of Old Home Week," adjured his father.

"The whole thing would be stamped out long before then."

"But not the panic and the fear of it. Hal, I do hope you aren't going to take this up in the 'Clarion.'"

"Not at present. There isn't enough to go on. But we're going to watch, and if things get any worse I intend to do something. So much I've promised Merritt."

The result of this conversation was that Dr. Surtaine called a special meeting of the Committee on Arrangements for Old Home Week. In conformity with the laws of its genus, the committee was made up of the representative business men of the city, with a clergyman or two for compliment to the Church, and most of the newspaper owners or editors, to enlist the "services of the press."

Its chairman was thoroughly typical of the mental and ethical attitude of the committee. He felt comfortably assured that as he thought upon any question of local public import, so would they think. Nevertheless, he didn't intend to tell them all he knew. Such was not the purpose of the meeting. Its real purpose, not to put too fine a point on it, was to intimidate the newspapers, lest, if the "Clarion" broke the politic silence, others might follow; and, as a secondary step, to furnish funds for the handling of the Rookeries situation. Since Dr. Surtaine designed to reveal as little as possible to his colleagues, he naturally began his speech with the statement that he would be perfectly frank with them.

"There's more sickness than there ought to be in the Rookeries district," he proceeded. "It isn't dangerous, but it may prove obstinate. Some sort of malarious affection, apparently. Perhaps it may be necessary to do some cleaning up down there. In that case, money may be needed."

"How much?" somebody asked.

"Five thousand dollars ought to do it."

"That's a considerable sum," another pointed out.

"And this is a serious matter," retorted the chairman. "Many of us remember the disastrous effect that rumors of smallpox had on Old Home Week, some years back. We can't afford to have anything of that sort this time. An epidemic scare might ruin the whole show."

Now, an epidemic to these hard-headed business men was something that kept people away from their stores. And the rumor of an epidemic might accomplish that as thoroughly as the epidemic itself. Therefore, without questioning too far, they were quite willing to spend money to avert such disaster. The sum suggested was voted into the hands of a committee of three to be appointed by the chair.

"In the mean time," continued Dr. Surtaine, "I think we should go on record to the effect that any newspaper which shall publish or any individual who shall circulate any report calculated to inspire distrust or alarm is hostile to the best interests of the city."

"Well, what newspaper is likely to do that?" demanded Leroy Vane, of the "Banner."

"If it's any it'll be the 'Clarion,'" growled Colonel Parker, editor of the "Telegram."

"The newspaper business in this town is going to the dogs since the 'Clarion' changed hands," said Carney Ford, of the "Press," savagely. "Nobody can tell what they're going to do next over there. They're keeping the decent papers on the jump all the time, with their yellowness and scarehead muckraking."

"A big sensational story about an epidemic would be great meat for the 'Clarion,'" said Vane. "What does it care for the best interests of the town?"

"As an editor," observed Dr. Surtaine blandly, "my son don't appear to be over-popular with his confrères."

"Why should he be?" cried Parker. "He's forever publishing stuff that we've always let alone. Then the public wants to know why we don't get the news. Get it? Of course we get it. But we don't always want to print it. There's such a thing as a gentleman's understanding in the newspaper business."

"So I've heard," replied the chairman. "Well, gentlemen, the boy's young. Give him time."

"I'll give him six months, not longer, to go on the way he's been going," said John M. Gibbs, with a vicious snap of his teeth.

"Does the 'Clarion' really intend to publish anything about an epidemic?" asked Stickler, of the Hotel Stickler.

"Nothing is decided yet, so far as I know. But I may safely say that there's a probability of their getting up some kind of a sensational story."

"Can't you control your own son?" asked some one bluntly.

"Understand this, if you please, gentlemen. Over the Worthington 'Clarion' I have no control whatsoever."

"Well, there's where the danger lies," said Vane. "If the 'Clarion' comes out with a big story, the rest of us have got to publish something to save our face."

"What's to be done, then?" cried Stickler. "This means a big loss to the hotel business."

"To all of us," amended the chairman. "My suggestion is that our special committee be empowered to wait upon the editor of the 'Clarion' and talk the matter over with him."

Embodied in the form of a motion this was passed, and the chair appointed as that committee three merchants, all of whom were members of the Publication Committee of the Retail Union; a

nd, as such, exercised the most powerful advertising control in Worthington. Dr. Surtaine still pinned his hopes to the dollar and its editorial potency.

Unofficially and privately these men invited to go with them to the "Clarion" office Elias M. Pierce, who had not been at the meeting. At first he angrily refused. He wished to meet that young whelp Surtaine nowhere but in a court of law, he announced. But after Bertram Hollenbeck, of the Emporium, the chairman of the subcommittee, had outlined his plan, Pierce took a night to think it over, and in the morning accepted the invitation with a grim smile.

Forewarned by his father, who had begged that he consider carefully and with due regard to his own future the proposals to be set before him, Hal was ready to receive the deputation in form. Pierce's presence surprised him. He greeted all four men with equally punctilious politeness, however, and gave courteous attention while Hollenbeck spoke for his colleagues. The merchant explained the purpose of the visit; set forth the importance to the city of the centennial Old Home Week, and urged the inadvisability of any sensationalism which might alarm the public.

"We have sufficient assurance that there's nothing dangerous in the present situation," he said.

"I haven't," said Hal. "If I had, there would be nothing further to be said. The 'Clarion' is not seeking to manufacture a sensation."

"What is the 'Clarion' seeking to do?" asked Stensland, another of the committee.

"Discover and print the news."

"Well, it isn't news until it's printed," Hollenbeck pointed out comfortably. "And what's the use of printing that sort of thing, anyway? It does a lot of people a lot of harm; but I don't see how it can possibly do any one any good."

"Oh, put things straight," said Stensland. "Here, Mr. Editor; you've stirred up a lot of trouble and lost a lot of advertising by it. Now, you start an epidemic scare and kill off the biggest retail business of the year, and you won't find an advertiser in town to stand by you. Is that plain?"

"Plain coercion," said Hal.

"Call it what you like," began the apostle of frankness, when Hollenbeck cut in on him.

"No use getting excited," he said. "Let's hear Mr. Surtaine's views. What do you think ought to be done about the Rookeries?"

In anticipation of some such question Hal had been in consultation with Dr. Elliot and the health officer that morning.

"Open up the Rookeries to the health authorities and to private physicians other than Dr. De Vito. Call Tip O'Farrell's blockade off. Clean out and disinfect the tenements. If necessary, quarantine every building that's suspected."

"Why, what do you think the disease is?" cried Hollenbeck, taken aback by the positiveness of Hal's speech.

"Do you tell me. You've come here to give directions."

"Something in the nature of malaria," said Hollenbeck, recovering himself. "So there's no call for extreme measures. The Old Home Week Committee will look after the cleaning-up. As for quarantine, that would be a confession. And we want to do the thing as quietly as possible."

"You've come to the wrong shop to buy quiet," said Hal mildly.

"Now listen to me." Elias M. Pierce sat forward in his chair and fixed his stony gaze on Hal's face. "This is what you'll do with the 'Clarion.' You'll agree here and now to print nothing about this alleged epidemic."

Hal turned upon him a silent but benign regard. The recollection of that contained smile lent an acid edge to the magnate's next speech.

"You will further promise," continued Pierce, "to quit all your muckraking of the business interests and business men of this town."

Still Hal smiled.

"And you will publish to-morrow a full retraction of the article about my daughter and an ample apology for the attack upon me."

The editorial expression did not change.

"On those conditions," Pierce concluded, "I will withdraw the criminal proceedings against you, but not the civil suit. The indictment will be handed down to-morrow."

"I'm ready for it."

"Are you ready for this? We have two unbiased witnesses-unbiased, mind you-who will swear that the accident was Miss Cleary's own fault. And-" there was the hint of an evil smile on the thin lips, as they released the final words very slowly-"and Miss Cleary's own affidavit to that effect."

For the moment the words seemed a jumble to Hal. Meaning, dire and disastrous, informed them, as he repeated them to himself. Providentially his telephone rang, giving him an excuse to go out. He hurried over to McGuire Ellis.

"I'm afraid it's right, Boss," said the associate editor, after hearing Hal's report.

"But how can it be? I saw the whole thing."

"E.M. Pierce is rich. The nurse is poor. That is, she has been poor. Lately I've had a man keeping tabs on her. Since leaving the hospital, she's moved into an expensive flat, and has splurged out into good clothes. Whence the wherewithal?"

"Bribery!"

"Without a doubt."

"Then Pierce has got us."

"It looks so," admitted Ellis sorrowfully.

"But we can't give in," groaned Hal. "It means the end of the 'Clarion.' What is there to do?"

"Play for time," advised the other. "Go back there with a stiff upper lip and tell 'em you won't be bulldozed or hurried. Then we'll have a council."

"Suppose they demand an answer."

"Refuse. See here, Hal. I know Pierce. He'd never give up his revenge, for any good he could do to the cause of the city by holding off the 'Clarion' on this Old Home Week business if there weren't something else. Pierce isn't built that way. That bargain offer is mighty suspicious. There's a weak spot in his case somewhere. Hold him off, and we'll hunt for it."

None could have guessed, from the young editor's bearing, on his return, that he knew himself to be facing a crucial situation. With the utmost nonchalance he insisted that he must have time for consideration. Influenced by Pierce, who was sure he had Hal beaten, the committee insisted on an immediate reply to their ultimatum.

"You go up against this bunch," advised Stensland, "and it's dollars to doughnuts the receiver'll have your 'Clarion' inside of six months."

Hal leaned indolently against the door. "Speaking of dollars and doughnuts," he said, "I'd like to tell you gentlemen a little story. You all know who Babson is, the biggest stock-market advertiser in the country. Well, Babson's vanity is to be a great man outside of his own line. He owns a big country place down East, near the old town of Singatuck; one of the oldest towns on the coast. Babson is as new as Singatuck is old. The people didn't care much about his patronizing ways. Nevertheless, he kept doing things to 'brace the town up,' as he put it. The town needed it. It was about bankrupt. The fire department was a joke, the waterworks a farce, and the town hall a ruin. Babson thought this gave him a chance to put his name on the map. So he said to his local factotum, 'You go down to the meeting of the selectmen next week, shake a bagful of dollars in front of those old doughnuts, and make 'em this proposition: I'll give five thousand dollars to the fire department, establish a water system, rebuild the town hall, pay off the town debt and put ten thousand dollars into the treasury if they'll change the name of the town from Singatuck to Babson.'

"The factotum went to the meeting and presented the proposition. Now Singatuck is proud of its age and character with a local pride that is quite beyond the Babson dollars or the Babson type of imagination. His proposition aroused no debate. There was a long silence. Then an old moss-farmer who hadn't had money enough to buy himself a new tooth for twenty years arose and said: 'I move you, Mister Chairman, that this body thank Mr. Babson kindly for his offer and tell him to go to hell.'

"The motion was carried unanimously, and the meeting proceeded to the consideration of other business. I cite this, gentlemen, merely as evidence that the disparity between the dollar and the doughnut isn't as great as some suppose."

The third member of the committee, who had thus far spoken no word, peered curiously at Hal from above a hooked nose. He was Mintz, of Sheffler and Mintz.

"Do I get you righd?" he observed mildly; "you're telling us to go where the selectmen sent Misder Babson."

"Plumb," replied Hal, with his most amiable expression. "So far as any immediate decision is concerned."

"Less ged oud," said Mr. Mintz to his colleagues. They got out. Mintz was last to go. He came over to Hal.

"I lyg your story," he said. "I lyg to see a feller stand up for his bizniz against the vorlt. I'm a Jew. I hope you lose-but-goot luck!"

He held out his hand. Hal took it. "Mr. Mintz, I'm glad to know you," said he earnestly.

Nothing now remained for the committee to do but to expend their allotted fund to the best purpose. Their notion of the proper method was typically commercial. They thought to buy off an epidemic. Many times this has been tried. Never yet has it succeeded. It embodies one of the most dangerous of popular hygienic fallacies, that the dollar can overtake and swallow the germ.

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