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   Chapter 25 STERN LOGIC

The Clarion By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 17827

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Between Dr. Surtaine and his son had risen a barrier built up of reticences. At the outset of their reunion, they had chattered like a pair of schoolboy friends, who, after long separation, must rehearse to each other the whole roster of experiences. The Doctor was an enthusiast of speech, glowingly loquacious above knife and fork, and the dinner hours were enlivened for his son by his fund of far-gathered business incidents and adventures, pointed with his crude but apt philosophy, and irradiated with his centripetal optimism. He possessed and was conscious of this prime virtue of talk, that he was never tiresome. Yet recently he had noted a restlessness verging to actual distaste on Hal's part, whenever he turned the conversation upon his favorite topic, the greatness of Certina and the commercial romance of the proprietary medicine business.

In his one close fellowship, the old quack cultivated even the minor and finer virtues. With Hal he was scrupulously tactful. If the boy found his business an irksome subject, he would talk about the boy's business. And he did, sounding the P?an of Policy across the Surtaine mahogany in a hundred variations supported by a thousand instances. But here, also, Hal grew restive. He responded no more willingly to leads on journalism than to encomiums of Certina. Again the affectionate diplomat changed his ground. He dropped into the lighter personalities; chatted to Hal of his new friends, and was met halfway. But in secret he puzzled and grieved over the waning of frankness and freedom in their intercourse. Dinner, once eagerly looked forward to by both as the best hour of the day, was now something of an ordeal, a contact in which each must move warily, lest, all unknowing, he bruise the other.

Of the underlying truth of the situation Dr. Surtaine had no inkling. Had any one told him that his son dared neither speak nor hear unreservedly, lest the gathering suspicions about his father, against which he was fighting while denying to himself their very existence, should take form and substance of unescapable facts, the Doctor would have failed utterly of comprehension. He ascribed Hal's unease and preoccupation to a more definite cause. Sedulous in everything which concerned his "Boyee," he had learned something of the affair with Esmé Elliot, and had surmised distressfully how hard the blow had been: but what worried him much more were rumors connecting Hal's name with Milly Neal. Several people had seen the two on the day of the road-house adventure. Milly, with her vivid femininity was a natural mark for gossip. The mere fact that she had been in Hal's runabout was enough to set tongues wagging. Then, sometime thereafter, she had resigned her position in the "Clarion" office without giving any reason, so Dr. Surtaine understood. The whole matter looked ugly. Not that the charlatan would have been particularly shocked had Hal exhibited a certain laxity of morals in the matter of women. For this sort of offense Dr. Surtaine had an easy toleration, so long as it was kept decently under cover. But that his son should become entangled with one of his-Dr. Surtaine's-employees, a woman under the protection of his roof, even though it were but the factory roof-that, indeed, would be a shock to his feudal conception of business honor.

Such dismal considerations the Doctor had suppressed during an unusually uncomfortable dinner, on a hot and thunder-breeding evening when both of the Surtaines had painfully talked against time. Immediately after the meal, Hal, on pretext of beating the storm to the office, left. His father took his forebodings to the club and attempted to lose them along with several rubbers of absent-minded bridge. Meantime the woman for whom his loyalty was concerned as well as for his son, was stimulating a resolution with the slow poison of liquor around the corner from the "Clarion" office.

Nine P.M. is slack tide in a morning newspaper office. The afternoon news is cleared up; the night wires have not yet begun to buzz with outer-world tidings of importance; the reporters are still afield on the evening's assignments. As the champion short-distance sleeper of his craft, which distinction he claimed for himself without fear of successful contradiction, McGuire Ellis was wont to devote half an hour or more, beginning on the ninth stroke of the clock, to the cultivation of Morpheus. Intruders were not popular at that hour.

To respect for this habitude, Reginald Currier, known to mortals as Bim, Guardian of the Sacred Gates, had been rigorously educated. But Bim had a creed of his own which mollified the rigidity of specific standards, and one tenet thereof was the apothegm, "Once a 'Clarion' man, always a 'Clarion' man," the same applying to women. Therefore, when Milly Neal appeared at the gate at 9.05 in the evening, the Cerberus greeted her professionally with a "How goes it, Miss Cutie?" and passed her in without question. She went straight to the inner office.

"Hoong!" grunted McGuire Ellis, rubbing his eyes in a desperate endeavor to disentangle dreams from actualities. "What are you doing here?"

"I want to see Mr. Surtaine."

Something in the girl's aspect put Ellis on his guard. "What do you want to see him about?" he asked.

"I don't see any Examination Bureau license pinned to you, Ellis," she retorted hardily.

"The Boss is out."

"I don't believe it."

"All right," said McGuire Ellis equably. "I'm a liar."

"Then you're the proper man for a 'Clarion' job," came the savage retort.

"Come off, Kitty. Don't be young!"

"I want to see Hal Surtaine," she said with sullen insistence.

Shaking himself out of his chair, the associate editor started across the room to the telephone at Hal's desk, but halted sharply in front of the girl.

"You've been drinking," he said.

"What's it to you if I have?"

The man's hand fell on her shoulder. There was no familiarity in the act; only comradeship. Comradeship in the voice, also, and concern, as he said, "Cut it, Neal, cut it. There's nothing in it. You're too good stuff to throw yourself away on that."

"Don't you worry about me." She shook off his hand, and seated herself.

"Still working at the Certina joint?"

"No. I'm not working."

"See here, Neal: what made you quit us?"

The girl withheld speech back of tight-pressed lips.

"Oh, well, never mind that. The point is, we miss you. We miss the 'Cutie' column. It was good stuff. We want you back."

Still silence.

"And I guess you miss us. You liked the job, didn't you?"

The girl gazed past him with ashen eyes. "Oh, my God!" she said under her breath.

"Your job back and no questions asked," pursued Ellis, with an outer cheerfulness which cost him no small effort in the face of his growing conviction of some tragic issue pending.

Now she looked directly at him, and there was a flicker of flame in her regard.

"Do you know what a Hardscrabbler is, Ellis?" she asked.

The other rubbed his head in puzzlement. "I don't believe I do," he confessed.

"Then you won't understand when I tell you that I'm one and that I'd see your 'Clarion' blazing in hell before I'd take another cent of your money." The fire died from her face, and in her former tone of dulled stolidity she repeated, "I want to see Mr. Surtaine."

With every word uttered, McGuire Ellis's forebodings had grown darker. That Hal Surtaine, carried away by the girl's vividness and allure, might have involved himself in a liaison with her was credible enough. He recalled the episode of the road-house, on that stormy spring day. That Hal would have deserted her afterward, Ellis could not believe. And yet-and yet-why otherwise should she come with the marks of fierce misery in her face, demanding an interview at this time? On one point Ellis's mind was swiftly made up: she should not see Hal.

"Miss Neal," he said quietly, "you can sit there all night, but you can't see the Boss unless you tell me your errand."

The girl rose, slowly. "Oh, I guess you all stand together here," she said. "Well, remember: I gave him his chance to square himself."

When Hal came up from a visit to the new press half an hour later, Ellis had decided to say nothing of the call. Later, he must have it out with his employer, for the sake of both of them and of the "Clarion." But it was an ordeal which he was glad to postpone. Nothing more, he judged, was to be feared that night, from Milly Neal; he could safely sleep over the problem. Having a certain sufficient religion of his own, McGuire Ellis still believes that a merciful Heaven forgives us our sins; but, looking back on that evening's decision, he sometimes wonders whether it ever fully pardons our mistakes.

While he sat reading proof on the status of a flickering foreign war, the Hardscrabbler's daughter, in a quiet back room fart

her down the block, slowly sipped more gin; and gin is fire and fury to the Hardscrabbler blood.

At eleven o'clock that evening, Dr. Surtaine, returning to that massive hybrid of architecture which he called home, found Milly Neal waiting in his study.

"Well, Milly: what's up?" he asked, cheerfully enough in tone, but with a sinking heart.

"I want to know what you're going to do for me?"

"Something wrong?"

"You've got a right to know. I'm in trouble."

"What kind of trouble?"

"The kind you make money out of with your Relief Pills."

"Milly! Milly!" cried the quack, in honest distress. "I wouldn't have believed it of you."

"Yes: it's terrible, isn't it!" mocked the girl. "What are you going to do about it? It's up to you."

"Up to me?" queried the Doctor, bracing himself for what was coming.

"Don't you promise, with your Relief Pills to get women out of trouble?"

Dr. Surtaine's breath came a little easier. Perhaps she was not going to force the issue upon him by mentioning Hal. If this were diplomacy, he would play the game.

"Certainly not! Certainly not!" he protested with a scandalized air. "We've never made such a claim. It would be against the law."

"Look at this." She held up in her left hand a clipping, showing a line-cut of a smiling woman, over the caption "A Happy Lady"; and announcing in wide print, "Every form of suppression relieved. The most obstinate cases yield at once. Thousands of once desperate women bless the name of Relief Pills."

"I don't want to look at it," said the Doctor.

"No, I guess you don't! It's from the 'Clarion,' that clipping. And the Neverfail Company that makes the fake abortion pills is you."

"It doesn't mean-that. You've misread it."

"It does mean just that to every poor, silly fool of a girl that reads it. What else can it mean? 'The most obstinate cases'-"

"Don't! Don't!" There was a pause, then:

"Of course, you can't stay in the Certina factory after this."

A bitter access of mirth seized the girl. The sound of it

"rang cracked and thin,

Like a fiend's laughter, heard in Hell,

Far down."

"Of course!" she mocked. "The pious and holy Dr. Surtaine couldn't have an employee who went wrong. Not even though it was his lies that helped tempt her."

"Don't try to put it off on me. You are suffering for your own sin, my girl," accused the quack.

"I'll stand my share of it; the suffering and the disgrace, if there is any. But you've got to stand your share. You promised to get me out of this and I believed you."

"I! Promised to-"

"In plain print." She tossed the clipping at him with her left hand. The other she held in her lap, under a light wrap which she carried. "And I believed you. I thought you were square. Then when the pills didn't help, I went to a doctor, and he laughed and said they were nothing but sugar and flavoring. He wouldn't help me. He said no decent doctor would. You ain't a decent doctor. You're a lying devil. Are you going to help me out?"

"If you had come in a proper spirit-"

"That's enough. I've got my answer." She rose slowly to her feet. "After I found out what was wrong with me, I went home to my father. I didn't tell him about myself. But I told him I was quitting the Certina business. And he told me about my mother, how you sent her to her death. One word from me would have brought him here after you. This time he wouldn't have missed you. Then they'd have hung him, I suppose. That's why I held my tongue. You killed my mother, you and your quack medicines; and now you've done this to me." Her hand jerked up out of the wrap. "I don't see where you come in to live any longer," said Milly Neal deliberately.

Dr. Surtaine looked into the muzzle of a revolver.

There was a step on the soft rug outside, the curtain of the door to Dr. Surtaine's right parted, and Hal appeared. He carried a light stick.

"I thought I heard-" he began. Then, seeing the revolver, "What's this! Put that down!"

"Don't move, either of you," warned the girl. "I haven't said my say out. You're a fine-matched pair, you two! Him with his sugar-pills and you, Hal Surtaine, with your lying promises."

Lying promises! The phrase, thus used in the girl's mouth against the son, struck to the father's heart, confirming his dread. It was Hal, then. For the moment he forgot his instant peril, in his sorrow and shame.

"I don't know why I shouldn't kill you both," went on the half-crazed girl. "That'd even the score. Two Surtaines against two Neals, my mother and me."

The light of slaying was in her eyes, as she stiffened her arm. Just a fraction of an inch the arm swerved, for a streak of light was darting toward her. Hal had taken the only chance. He had flung his cane, whirling, in the hope of diverting her aim, and had followed it at a leap.

The two shots were almost instantaneous. At the second, the quack reeled back against the wall. The girl turned swiftly upon Hal, and as he seized her he felt the cold steel against his neck. The touch seemed to paralyze him. Strangely enough, the thought of death was summed up in a vast, regretful curiosity to know why all this was happening. Then the weapon fell.

"I can't kill you!" cried the girl, in a bursting sob, and fell, face down, upon the floor.

Hal, snatching up the revolver, ran to his father.

"I'm all right," declared the quack. "Only the shoulder. Just winged. Get me a drink from that decanter."

His son obeyed. With swift, careful hands he got the coat off the bulky-muscled arm, and saw, with a heart-lifting relief, that the bullet had hardly more than grazed the flesh. Meantime the girl had crawled, still sobbing, to a chair.

"Did I kill him?" she asked, covering her eyes against what she might see.

"No," said Hal.

"Listen," commanded Dr. Surtaine. "Some one's coming. Keep quiet." He walked steadily to the door and called out, "It's nothing. Just experimenting with a new pistol. Go back to your bed."

"Who was it?" asked Hal.

"The housekeeper. There's just one thing to do for the sake of all of us. This has got to be hushed up. I'm going out to telephone. Don't let her get away, Hal."

"Get away! Oh, my God!" breathed the girl.

Hal walked over to her, his heart wrung with pity.

"Why did you come here to kill my father, Milly?" he asked.

She stooped to pick up the "Happy Lady" clipping from the floor.

"That's why," she said.

"Good God!" said Hal. "Have you been taking that-those pills?"

"Taking 'em? Yes, and believing in 'em, till I found out it was all damned lies. And your fine and noble and honest 'Clarion' advertises the lies just as your fine and noble and honest father makes the pills. They're no good. Do you get that? And when I came here and told your father he'd got to help me out of my trouble, what do you think he told me? That I'd lost my job at the factory!"

"Who is the man, Milly?"

"What business is that of yours?"

"I'll go after him and see that he marries you if it takes-"

"Oh, he'd be only too glad to marry me if he could. He can't. Poor Max has got a wife somewhere-"

"Max? It's Veltman!" cried Hal. "The dirty scoundrel."

"Oh, don't blame Max," said the girl wearily. "It isn't his fault. After you threw me down"-Hal winced-"I started to run wild. It's the Hardscrabbler in me. I took to drinking and running around, and Max pulled me out of it, and I went to live with him. I didn't care. Nothing mattered, anyway. And I wasn't afraid of anything like this happening, because I thought the pills made it all safe."

Here Dr. Surtaine reappeared. "I've got a detective coming that I can trust."

"A detective?" cried Hal. "Oh, Dad-"

"You keep out of this," retorted his father, in a tone such as his son had never heard from him before. "I guess you've done enough. The question is"-he continued as regardless of Milly as if she had been deaf-"how to hush her up."

"You've had your chance to hush me up," said the girl sullenly.

"Any money within reason-"

"I don't want your money."

"Listen here, then. You tried to murder me. That's ten years in State's prison. Now, if ever I hear of you opening your mouth about this, I'll send you up. I guess that will keep you quiet. Now, then, what's your answer?"

"Give me a glass of whiskey, and I'll tell you."

Hal poured her out a glass. She passed a swift hand above it.

"Here's peace and quiet in the proprietary medicine business," she said, and drank. "I guess that'll-make-some-stir," she added, with an effect of carefully timing her words.

Her body lapsed quite gently back into the chair. The two men ran and bent over her as the glass tinkled and rolled on the floor. There was an acrid, bitter scent in the air. They lifted their heads, and their eyes met in a haggard realization. No longer was there any need of hushing up Milly Neal.

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