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   Chapter 31 THE VOICE OF THE PROPHET

The Clarion By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 17375

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Two hundred and fifty representative citizens, mostly of the business type, with a sprinkling of other occupations not including physicians, sat fanning themselves into a perspiration in the Chamber of Commerce assembly rooms, and wondering what on earth an Emergency Health Meeting might be. Congressman Brett Harkins, a respectable nonentity, who was presiding, had refrained from telling them: deliberately, it would appear, as his speech had dealt vaguely with the greatness of Worthington's material prosperity, now threatened-if one might credit his theory-by a combination of senseless panic and reckless tongues; and had concluded by stating that Mr. William Douglas, one of the leaders of our bar, as all the chairman's hearers well knew, would explain the situation and formulate a plan for the meeting's consideration.

Explanation, however, did not prove to be Mr. William Douglas's forte. Coached by that practiced diplomat, Certina Charley, he made a speech memorable chiefly for what it did not say. The one bright, definite gleam, amidst rolling columns of oratory, was the proposal that an Emergency Committee of One Hundred be appointed to cope with the situation, that the initial sum of twenty-five thousand dollars be pledged by subscription, and that their distinguished fellow citizen, Dr. L. André Surtaine, be permanent chairman of said committee, with power to appoint. Dr. Surtaine had generously offered to subscribe ten thousand dollars to the fund. (Loud and prolonged applause; the word "thousand" preceding the word "dollars" and itself preceded by any numeral from one to one million, inclusive, being invariably provocative of acclaim in a subscription meeting of representative citizens.) Mr. Douglas took pride in nominating that Midas of Medicine, Dr. Surtaine. (More and louder applause.) The Reverend Dr. Wales, of Dr. Surtaine's church, sonorously seconded the nomination. So did Hollis Myers, of the Security Power Products Company. So, a trifle grumpily, did Elias M. Pierce. Also Col. Parker, editor of the "Telegram," Aaron Scheffler, of Scheffler and Mintz, and Councilman Carlin. The presiding officer inquired with the bland indifference of the assured whether there were any further nominations. There were not. But turning in his second-row seat, Festus Willard, who was too important a figure commercially to leave out, though Dr. Surtaine had entertained doubts of his "soundness," demanded of McGuire Ellis, seated just behind him, what it was all about.

"Ask the chairman," suggested Ellis.

"I will," said Willard. He got up and did.

The Honorable Brett Harkins looked uncomfortable. He didn't really know what it was all about. Moreover, it had been intimated to him that he'd perhaps better not know. He cast an appealing glance at Douglas.

"That is not exactly the question before the meeting," began Douglas hastily.

"It is the question I asked," persisted Willard. "Before we elect Dr. Surtaine or any one else chairman of a committee with a fund to spend, I want to know what the committee is for."

"To cope with the health situation of the city."

"Very well. Now we're getting somewhere. Where's Dr. Merritt? I think we ought to hear from him on that point."

Murmurs of assent were heard about the room. Dr. Surtaine rose to his feet.

"If I may be pardoned for speaking to a motion of which I am a part," he said in his profound and mellow voice.

"I think I can throw light upon the situation. Quite a number of us have observed with uneasiness the increase of sickness in Worthington. Sensationalists have gone so far as to whisper that there is an epidemic. I have myself made a rigid investigation. More than this, my son, Mr. Harrington Surtaine, has placed the resources of the 'Clarion' staff at our disposal, and on the strength of both inquiries, I am prepared to assure this gathering that nothing like an epidemic exists."

"Well, I am damned!" was McGuire Ellis's astounded and none too low-voiced comment upon this bold perversion of the "Clarion" enterprise. Stretching upward from his seat he looked about for Hal. The young editor sat in a far corner, his regard somberly intent upon the speaker.

"Alarm there has undoubtedly been, and is," pursued Dr. Surtaine. "To find means to allay it is the purpose of the meeting. We must remove the cause. Both our morbidity and our mortality rate, though now retrograding, have been excessive for several weeks, especially in the Rookeries district. There has been a prevalence of malaria of a severe type, which, following last winter's epidemic of grip, has proven unusually fatal. Dr. Merritt believes that he can wipe out the disease quietly if a sufficient sum is put at his disposal."

This was not authoritative. Merritt had declined to commit himself, but Dr. Surtaine was making facts of his hopes.

"In this gathering it is hardly necessary for me to refer to the municipal importance of Old Home Week and to the damage to its prospects which would be occasioned by any suspicion of epidemic," continued the speaker. "Whatever may be the division of opinion as to methods, we are surely unanimous in wishing to protect the interests of the centennial celebration. And this can best be done through a committee of representative men, backing the constituted health authorities, without commotion or disturbance. Have I answered your doubts, Mr. Willard?" he concluded, turning a brow of benign inquiry upon that gentleman.

"Not wholly," said Festus Willard. "I've heard it stated on medical authority that there is some sort of plague in the Rookeries."

A murmur of inquiry rose. "Plague? What kind of plague?"-"Who says so?"-"Does he mean bubonic?"-"No doctor that knows his business-"-"They say doctors are shut out of the Rookeries."-"Order! Order!"

Through the confusion cleaved the edged voice of E.M. Pierce, directed to the chairman:

"Shut that off."

A score took the cue. "Question! Question!" they cried.

"Do I get an answer to my question?" persisted Willard.

"What is your question?" asked the harassed chairman.

"Is there a pestilence in the Rookeries? If so, what is its nature?"

"There is not," stated Dr. Surtaine from his seat. "Who ever says there is, is an enemy to our fair and healthy city."

This noble sentiment, delivered with all the impressiveness of which the old charlatan was master, roused a burst of applause. To its rhythm there stalked down the side aisle and out upon the rostrum the gaunt figure of the Reverend Norman Hale.

"Mr. Chairman," he said.

"How did that fellow get here?" Dr. Surtaine asked of Douglas.

"We invited all the ministers," was the low response. "I understood he was seriously ill."

"He is a trouble-maker. Tell Harkins not to let him talk."

Douglas spoke a word in the chairman's ear.

"There's a motion before the house-I mean the meeting," began Congressman Harkins, when the voice behind him cut in again, hollow and resonant:

"Mr. Chairman."

"Do you wish to speak to the question?" asked the chairman uncertainly.

"I do."

"No, no!" called Douglas. "Out of order. Question!"

Voices from the seats below supported him. But there were other calls for a hearing for the newcomer. Curiosity was his ally. The meeting anticipated a sensation. The chairman, lacking a gavel, hammered on the stand with a tumbler, and presently produced a modified silence, through which the voice of the Reverend Norman Hale could be heard saying that he wished but three minutes.

He stepped to the edge of the platform, and the men below noticed for the first time that he carried in his right hand a wreath of metal-mounted, withered flowers. There was no mistaking the nature of the wreath. It was such as is left lying above the dead for wind and rain to dissipate. Hale raised it slowly above his head. The silence in the hall became absolute.

"I brought these flowers from a girl's grave," said the Reverend Norman Hale. "The girl had sinned. Death was the wage of her sin. She died by her own hand. So her offense is punished. That account is closed."

"What has all this to do-" began the chairman; but he stopped, checked by a wave of sibilant remonstrance from the audience.

The speaker went on, with relentless simplicity, still holding the mortuary symbol aloft:-

"But there is another account not yet closed. The girl was deceived. Not by the father of her unborn child. That is a different guilt, to be reckoned with in God's own time. The deception for which she has paid with her life was not the deception of hot passion, but of cold greed. A man betrayed her, as he has betrayed thousands of

other unfortunates, to put money into his own pockets. He promised her immunity. He said to her and to all women, in print, that she need not fear motherhood if she would buy his medicine. She believed the promise. She paid her dollar. And she found, too late, that it was a lie.

"So she went to the man. She knew him. And she determined either that he should help her or that she would be revenged on him. All this she told me in a note, to be opened in case of her death. He must have refused to help. He had not the criminal courage to produce the abortion which he falsely promised in his advertisements. What passed between them I do not know. But I believe that she attempted to kill him and failed. She attempted to kill herself and succeeded. The blood of Camilla Neal is on every cent of Dr. Surtaine's ten-thousand-dollar subscription."

He tossed the wreath aside. It rolled, clattering and clinking, and settled down at the feet of the Midas of Medicine who stared at it with a contorted face.

The meeting sat stricken into immovability. It seemed incredible that the tensity of the silence should not snap. Yet it held.

"I shall vote 'No' on the motion," said the Reverend Norman Hale, still with that quiet and appalling simplicity. "I came here from a hand-to-hand struggle with death to vote 'No.' I have strength for only a word more. The city is stricken with typhus. It is no time for concealment or evasion. We are at death-grips with a very dreadful plague. It has broken out of the Rookeries district. There are half a dozen new foci of infection. In the face of this, silence is deadly. If you elect Dr. Surtaine and adopt his plan, you commit yourself to an alliance with fraud and death. You deceive and betray the people who look to you for leadership. And there will be a terrible price to pay in human lives. I thank you for hearing me patiently."

No man spoke for long seconds after the young minister sat down, wavering a little as he walked to a chair at the rear. But through the representative citizenship of Worthington, in that place gathered, passed a quiver of sound, indeterminate, obscure, yet having all the passion of a quelled sob. Eyes furtively sought the face of Dr. Surtaine. But the master-quack remained frozen by the same bewilderment as his fellows. Perhaps alone in that crowd, Elias M. Pierce remained untouched emotionally. He rose, and his square granite face was cold as abstract reason. There was not even feeling enough in his voice to give the semblance of a sneer to his words as he said:

"All this is very well in its place, and doubtless does credit to the sentimental qualities of the speaker. But it is not evidence. It is an unsupported statement, part of which is admittedly conjecture. Allowing the alleged facts to be true, are we to hold a citizen of Dr. Surtaine's standing and repute responsible for the death of a woman caused by her own immorality? The woman whose death Mr. Hale has turned to such oratorical account was, I take it, a prostitute-"

"That is a damned lie!"

Hal Surtaine came down the aisle in long strides, speaking as he came.

"Milly Neal was my employee and my father's employee. If she went astray once, who are you to judge her? Who are any of us to judge her? I took part of that blood-money. The advertisement was in my paper, paid for with Surtaine money. What Mr. Hale says is the living truth. No man shall foul her memory in my hearing."

"And what was she to you? You haven't told us that yet?" There was a rancid sneer in Pierce's insinuation.

Hal turned from the aisle and went straight for him. A little man rose in his way. It was Mintz, who had given him the heartening word after the committee meeting. In his blind fury Hal struck him a staggering blow. But the little Jew was plucky. He closed with the younger man, and clinging to him panted out his good advice.

"Don'd fighd 'im, nod here. It's no good. Go to the pladform an' say your say. We'll hear you."

But it was impossible to hear any one now. Uproar broke loose. Men shouted, stormed, cursed; the meeting was become a rabble. Above the din could be distinguished at intervals the voice of the Honorable Brett Harkins, who, in frantic but not illogical reversion to the idea of a political convention, squalled for the services of the sergeant-at-arms. There was no sergeant-at-arms.

Mintz's pudgy but clogging arms could restrain an athlete of Hal's power only a brief moment; but in that moment sanity returned to the fury-heated brain.

"I beg your pardon, Mintz," he said; "you're quite right. I thank you for stopping me."

He returned to the aisle, pressing forward, with what purpose he could hardly have said, when he felt the sinewy grasp of McGuire Ellis on his shoulder.

"Tell 'em the whole thing," fiercely urged Ellis. "Be a man. Own up to the whole business, between you and the girl."

"I don't know what you mean!" cried Hal.

"Don't be young," groaned Ellis; "you've gone halfway. Clean it up. Then we can face the situation with the 'Clarion.' Tell 'em you were her lover."

"Milly's? I wasn't. It was Veltman."

"Good God of Mercy!"

"Did you think-"

"Yes;-Lord forgive me! Why didn't you tell me?"

"How could I tell you suspected-"

"All right! I know. We'll talk it out later. The big thing now is, what's the paper going to do about this meeting?"

"Print it."

Into Ellis's face flashed the fervor of the warrior who sees victory loom through the clouds of hopeless defeat.

"You mean that?"

"Every word of it. And run the epidemic spread-"

Before he could finish, Ellis was fighting his way to a telephone.

Hal met his father's eyes, and turned away with a heartsick sense that, in the one glance, had passed indictment, conviction, a hopeless acquiescence, and the dumb reproach of the trapped criminal against avenging justice. He turned and made for the nearest exit, conscious of only two emotions, a burning desire to be away from that place and a profound gladness that, without definite expression of the change, the bitter alienation of McGuire Ellis was past.

As Hal left, there arose, out of the turmoil, one clear voice of reason: the thundering baritone of Festus Willard moving an adjournment. It passed, and the gathering slowly dispersed. Avoiding the offered companionship of Congressman Harkins and Douglas, Dr. Surtaine took himself off by a side passage. At the end of it, alone, stood the Reverend Norman Hale, leaning against the sill of an open window. The old quack rushed upon him.

"Keep off!" warned the young minister, throwing himself into an attitude of defense.

"No, no," protested Dr. Surtaine: "don't think I meant that. I-I want to thank you."

"Thank me?" The minister put his hand to his head. "I don't understand."

"For leaving my boy out of it."

"Oh! That. I didn't see the necessity of dragging him in."

"That was kind. You handled me pretty rough. Well, I'm used to rough work. But the boy-look here, you knew all about this Milly Neal business, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Maybe you could tell me," went on the old quack miserably. "I can understand Hal's getting into a-an affair with the girl-being kinda carried away and losing his head. What I can't get is his-his quittin' her when she was in trouble."

"I still don't understand," protested the minister. "My head isn't very good. I've been ill, you know."

"You let him off without telling his name to-night. And that made me think maybe he wasn't in wrong so far as I thought. Maybe there were-what-ye-call-'em?-mitigating circumstances. Were there?"

A light broke in upon the Reverend Norman Hale. "Did you think your son was Milly Neal's lover? He wasn't."

"Are you sure?" gasped the father.

"As sure as of my faith in Heaven."

The old man straightened up, drawing a breath so profound that it seemed to raise his stature.

"I wouldn't take a million dollars for that word," he declared.

"But your own part in this?" queried the other in wonderment. "I hated to have to say-"

"What does it matter?"

"You have no concern for yourself?" puzzled the minister.

"Oh, I'll come out on top. I always come out on top. What got to my heart was my boy. I thought he'd gone wrong. And now I know he hasn't."

The old charlatan's strong hand fell on his assailant's shoulder, then slipped down supportingly under his arm.

"You look pretty shaky," said he with winning solicitude. "Let me take you home in my car. It's waiting outside."

The Reverend Norman Hale accepted, marveling greatly over the complex miracle of the soul of man-who is formed in the image of his Maker.

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