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The Clarion By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 14995

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Mr. Belford Couch was a man of note. You might search vainly for the name among the massed thousands of "Who's Who in America," or even in those biographical compilations which embalm one's fame and picture for a ten-dollar consideration. Shout the cognomen the length of Fifth Avenue, bellow it up Walnut and down Chestnut Street, lend it vocal currency along the Lake Shore Drive, toss it to the winds that storm in from the Golden Gate to assault Nob Hill, and no answering echo would you awake. But give to its illustrious bearer his familiar title; speak but the words "Certina Charley" within the precincts of the nation's capital and the very asphalt would find a viscid voice wherewith to acclaim the joke, while Senate would answer House, and Department reply to Bureau with the curses of the stung ones. For Mr. Belford Couch was least loved where most laughed at.

From the nature of his profession this arose. His was a singular career. He pursued the fleeting testimonial through the mazy symptoms of disease (largely imaginary) and cure (wholly mythical). To extract from the great and shining ones of political life commendations of Certina; to beguile statesmen who had never tasted that strange concoction into asseverating their faith in the nostrum's infallibility for any and all ailments; to persuade into fulsome print solemnly asinine Senators and unwarily flattered Congressmen-that was the touchstone of his living. Some the Demon Rum betrayed into his hands. Others he won by sheer personal persuasiveness, for he was a master of the suave plea. Again, political favors or "inside information" made those his debtors from whom he exacted and extracted the honor of their names for Dr. Surtaine's upholding. Blackmail, even, was hinted at. "What does it matter?" thought the deluded or oppressed victim. "Merely a line of meaningless indorsement to sign my name to." And within a fortnight advertising print, black and looming, would inform the reading populace of the whole country that "United States Senator Gull says of Certina: 'It is, in my opinion, unrivaled as a never-failing remedy for coughs and colds,'" with a picture, coarse-screen, libelously recognizable.

Certina Charley was not a testimonial-chaser alone. Had he been, Dr. Surtaine would not have retained him at a generous salary, but would have paid him, as others of his strange species are paid, by the piece; one hundred dollars for a Representative, two hundred and fifty dollars for a Senator, and as high as five hundred for a hero conspicuous in the popular eye. The special employee of Certina was a person of diverse information and judicious counsel. His chief had not incorrectly described him as the diplomat of the trade.

No small diplomacy had been required for the planning of the Emergency Committee scheme, the details of which Mr. Couch had worked out, himself. It was, as he boasted to Dr. Surtaine, "a clincher."

"Look out for the medicos," he had said to Dr. Surtaine in outlining his great idea. "They're mean to handle. You can always buy or bluff a newspaper, but a doctor is different. Some of 'em you can grease, but they're the scrubs. The real fellers won't touch money, and the worst of 'em just seem to love trouble. Merritt's that kind. But we can fix Merritt by raising twenty or thirty thousand dollars and handing it over to him to organize his campaign against the epidemic. From all I can learn, Merritt has got the goods as a health officer. He knows his business. There's no man in town could handle the thing better, unless it's you, Chief, and you don't want to mix up in the active part of it. Merritt'll be crazy to do it, too. That's where we'll have him roped. You say to him, 'Take this money and do the work, but do it on the quiet. That's the condition. If you can't keep our secret, we'll have you fired and get some man that can.' The Mayor will chuck him if the committee says so. But it won't be necessary, if I've got Merritt sized up. He wants to get into this fight so bad that he'll agree to almost anything. His assistants we can square.

"So much for the official end of it. But what about the run of the medical profession? If they go around diagnosing typhus, the news'll spread almost as fast as through the papers. So here's how we'll fix them. Recommend the City Council to pass an ordinance making it a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, and revocation of license to practice, for a physician to make a diagnosis of any case as a pestilential disease. The Council will do it on the committee's say-so."

"Whew!" whistled the old charlatan. "That's going pretty strong, Bel. The doctors won't stand for that."

"Believe me, they will. It's been tried and it worked fine, on the Coast, when they had the plague there. That's where I got the notion: but the revocation of the license is my own scheme. That'll scare 'em out of their wits. You'll find they don't dare peep about typhus. Especially as there aren't a dozen doctors in town that ever saw a case of it."

"That's so," agreed his principal. "I guess you're right after all, Bel."

"Sure, am I! You say you've got the newspapers fixed."

"Sewed up tight."

"Keno! Our programme's complete. You and Mr. Pierce and the Mayor see Merritt and get him. Call the meeting for next week. Make some good-natured, diplomatic feller chairman. Send out the call to about three hundred of your solidest men. Then we'll elect you permanent chairman, you can pick your Emergency Committee, put the resolution about pest-diagnosis up to the City Council-and there you are. My job's done. I shall not be among those present."

"Done, and mighty well done, Bel. You'll be going back to Washington?"

"No, I guess I better stick around for a while-in case. Besides, I want a little rest."

Like so many persons of the artistic temperament, Certina Charley was subject to periods of relaxation. With him these assumed the phase of strong drink, evenly and rather thickly spread over several days. On the afternoon before the carefully planned meeting, ten days after Norman Hale was taken to the hospital, the diplomat of quackery, his shoulders eased of all responsibility, sat lunching early at the Hotel Dunston. His repast consisted of a sandwich and a small bottle of well-frappéd champagne. To him, lunching, came a drummer of the patent medicine trade; a blatant and boastful fellow, from whose methods the diplomat in Mr. Belford Couch revolted. Nevertheless, the newcomer was a forceful person, and when, over two ponies of brandy ordered by the luncher in the way of inevitable hospitality, he launched upon a criticism of some of the recent Certina legislative strategy as lacking vigor (a reproach by no means to be laid to the speaker's language), Mr. Couch's tenderest feelings were lacerated. With considerable dignity for one in his condition, he bade his guest go farther and fare worse, and in mitigation of the latter's Parthian taunt, "Kid-glove fussing, 'bo," called Heaven and earth and the whole café to witness that, abhorrent though self-trumpeting was to him, no man had ever handled more delicately a prickly proposition than he had handled the Certina legislative interests. Gazing about him for sympathy he espied the son of his chief passing between the tables, and hailed him.

Two casual meetings with Certina Charley had inspired in Hal a mildly amused curiosity. Therefore, he readily enough accepted an invitation to sit dow

n, while declining a coincident one to have a drink, on the plea that he was going to work.

"Say," appealed Charley, "did you hear that cough-lozenge-peddling boob trying to tell me where to get off, in the proprietary game? Me!"

"Perhaps he didn't know who you are," suggested Hal tactfully.

"Perhaps he don't know the way from his hand to his face with a glass of booze, either," retorted the offended one, with elaborate sarcasm. "Everybody in the trade knows me. Sure you won't have a drink?"

"No, thank you."

"Don't drink much myself," announced the testimonial-chaser. "Just once in a while. Weak kidneys."

"That's a poor tribute from a Certina man."

"Oh, Certina's all right-for those that want it. The best doctor is none too good for me when I'm off my feed."

"Well, they call Certina 'the People's Doctor,'" said Hal, quoting an argument his father had employed.

"One of the Chief's catchwords. And ain't it a corker! He's the best old boy in the business, on the bunk."

"Just what do you mean by that?" asked Hal coldly.

But Certina Charley was in an expansive mood. It never occurred to him that the heir of the Certina millions was not in the Certina secrets: that he did not wholly understand the nature of his father's trade, and view it with the same jovial cynicism that inspired the old quack.

"Who's to match him?" he challenged argumentatively. "I tell you, they all go to school to him. There ain't one of our advertising tricks, from Old Lame-Boy down to the money-back guarantee, that the others haven't crabbed. Take that 'People's Doctor' racket. Schwarzman copied it for his Marovian Mixture. Vollmer ran his 'Poor Man's Physician' copy six months, on Marsh-Weed. 'Poor Man's Doctor'! It's pretty dear treatment, I tell you."

"Surely not," said Hal.

"Sure is it! What's a doctor's fee? Three dollars, probably."

"And Certina is a dollar a bottle. If one bottle cures-"

"Does what? Quit your jollying," laughed Certina Charley unsteadily.

"Cures the disease," said Hal, his suspicions beginning to congeal into a cold dread that the revelation which he had been unconfessedly avoiding for weeks past was about to be made.

"If it did, we'd go broke. Do you know how many bottles must be sold to any one patron before the profits begin to come in? Six! Count them, six."

"Nonsense! It can't cost so much to make as-"

"Make? Of course it don't. But what does it cost to advertise? You think I'm a little drink-taken, but I ain't. I'm giving you the straight figures. It costs just the return on six bottles to get Certina into Mr. E.Z. Mark's hands, and until he's paid his seventh dollar for his seventh bottle our profits don't come in. Advertising is expensive, these days."

"How many bottles does it take to cure?" asked Hal, clinging desperately to the word.

"Nix on the cure thing, 'bo. You don't have to put up any bluff with me. I'm on the inside, right down to the bottom."

"Very well. Maybe you know more than I do, then," said Hal, with a grim determination, now that matters had gone thus far, to accept this opportunity of knowledge, at whatever cost of disillusionment. "Go ahead. Open up."

"A real cure couldn't make office-rent," declared the expert with conviction. "What you want in the proprietary game is a jollier. Certina's that. The booze does it. You ought to see the farmers in a no-license district lick it up. Three or four bottles will give a guy a pretty strong hunch for it. And after the sixth bottle it's all velvet to us, except the nine cents for manufacture and delivery."

"But it must be some good or people wouldn't keep on buying it," pursued Hal desperately.

"You've got all the old stuff, haven't you! The good ol' stock arguments," said Certina Charley, giggling. "The Chief has taught you the lesson all right. Must be studyin' up to go before a legislative committee. Well, here's the straight of it. Folks keep on buying Certina for the kick there is in it. It's a bracer. And it's a repeater, the best repeater in the trade."

"But it must cure lots of them. Look at the testimonials. Surely they're genuine."

"So's a rhinestone genuine-as a rhinestone. The testimonials that ain't bought, or given as a favor, are from rubes who want to see their names in print."

"At least I suppose it isn't harmful," said Hal desperately.

"No more than any other good ol' booze. It won't hurt a well man. I used to soak up quite a bit of it myself till my doc gave me an option on dyin' of Bright's disease or quittin'."

"Bright's disease!" exclaimed Hal.

"Oh, yes, I know: we cure Bright's disease, don't we? Well, if there's anything worse for old George W. Bright's favorite ailment than raw alcohol, then my high-priced physizzian don't know his business."

"Let me get this straight," said Hal with a white face. "Do I understand that Certina-"

"Say, wassa matter?" broke in Certina Charley, in concern; "you look sick."

"Never mind me. You go on and tell me the truth about this thing."

"I guess I been talkin' too much," muttered Certina Charley, dismayed. He gulped down the last of his champagne with a tremulous hand. "This's my second bottle," he explained. "An' brandy in between. Say, I thought you knew all about the business."

"I know enough about it now so that I've got to know the rest."

"You-you won't gimme away to the Chief? I didn't mean to show up his game. I'm-I'm pretty strong for the old boy, myself."

"I won't give you away. Go on."

"Whaddye want to know, else?"

"Is there anything that Certina is good for?"

"Sure! Didn't I tell you? It's the finest bracer-"

"As a cure?"

"It's just as good as any other prup-proprietary."

"That isn't the question. You say it is harmful in Bright's disease."

"Why, looka here, Mr. Surtaine, you know yourself that booze is poison to any feller with kidney trouble. Rheumatism, too, for that matter. But they get the brace, and they think they're better, and that helps push the trade, too."

"And that's where my money came from," said Hal, half to himself.

"It's all in the trade," cried Certina Charley, summoning his powers to a defense. "There's lots that's worse. There's the cocaine dopes for catarrh; they'll send a well man straight to hell in six months. There's the baby dopes; and the G-U cures that keep the disease going when right treatment could cure it; and the methylene blue-"

"Stop it! Stop it!" cried Hal. "I've heard enough."

Alcohol, the juggler with men's thoughts, abruptly pressed upon a new center of ideation in Certina Charley's brain.

"D'you think I like it?" he sniveled, with lachrymose sentimentality. "I gotta make a living, haven't I? Here's you and me, two pretty decent young fellers, having to live on a fake. Well," he added with solacing philosophy, "if we didn't get it, somebody else would."

"Tell me one thing," said Hal, getting to his feet. "Does my father know all this that you've been telling me?"

"Does the Chief know it? Does he? Why, say, my boy, Ol' Doc Surtaine, he wrote the proprietary medicine business!"

Misgivings beset the optimistic soul of Certina Charley as his guest faded from his vision; faded and vanished without so much as a word of excuse or farewell. For once Hal had been forgetful of courtesy. Gazing after him his host addressed the hovering waiter:-

"Say, Bill, I guess I been talkin' too much with my face. Bring's another of those li'l bo'ls."

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