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   Chapter 34 VOX POPULI

The Clarion By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 26340

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


These were the days when Hal Surtaine worked with a sense of wild freedom from all personal bonds. He had definitely broken with his father. He had challenged every interest in Worthington from which there was anything to expect commercially. He had peremptorily banished Esmé Elliot from his heart and his hopes, though she still forced entrance to his thoughts and would not be denied, there, the precarious rights of an undesired guest. He was now simply and solely a journalist with a mind single to his purpose, to go down fighting the best fight there was in him. Defeat, he believed, was practically certain. He would make it a defeat of which no man need be ashamed.

The handling of the epidemic news, Hal left to his colleagues, devoting his own pen to a vigorous defense of the "Clarion's" position and assertion of its policy, in the editorial columns. Concealment and suppression, he pointed out, had been the chief factor in the disastrous spread of the contagion. Early recognition of the danger and a frank fighting policy would have saved most of the sacrificed lives. The blame lay, not with those who had disclosed the peril, but with those who had fostered it by secrecy; probing deeper into it, with those who had blocked such reform of housing and sanitation as would have checked a filth disease like typhus. In time this would be indicated more specifically. Tenements which netted twelve per cent to their owners and bred plagues, the "Clarion" observed editorially, were good private but poor public investments. Whereupon a number of highly regarded Christian citizens began to refer to the editor as an anarchist.

The "Clarion" principle of ascertaining "the facts behind the news" had led naturally to an inquiry into ownership of the Rookeries. Wayne had this specifically in charge and reported sensational results from the first.

"It'll be a corking follow-up feature," he said. "Later we can hitch it up to the Housing Reform Bill."

"Make a fifth page full spread of it for Monday."

"With pictures of the owners," suggested Wayne.

"Why not this way? Make a triple lay-out for each one. First, a picture of the tenement with the number of deaths and cases underneath. Then the half-tone of the owner. And, beyond, the picture of the house he lives in. That'll give contrast."

"Good!" said Wayne. "Fine and yellow."

By Sunday, four days after the opening story, all the material for the second big spread was ready except for one complication. Some involution of trusteeship in the case of two freeholds in Sadler's Shacks, at the heart of the Rookeries, had delayed access to the records. These two were Number 3 and Number 9 Sperry Street, the latter dubbed "the Pest-Egg" by the "Clarion," as being the tenement in which the pestilence was supposed to have originated. These two last clues, Wayne was sure, would be run down before evening. Already the net of publicity had dragged in, among other owners of the dangerous property, a high city official, an important merchant, a lady much given to blatant platform philanthropies, and the Reverend Dr. Wales's fashionable church. It was, indeed, a noble company of which the "Clarion" proposed to make martyrs on the morrow.

One man quite unconnected with any twelve per cent ownership, however, had sworn within his ravaged soul that there should be no morrow's "Clarion." Max Veltman, four days previously, had crawled home to his apartment after a visit to the drug store where he had purchased certain acids. With these he worked cunningly and with complete absorption in his pursuit, neither stirring out of his own place nor communicating with any fellow being. Consequently he knew nothing of the sensation which had convulsed Worthington, nor of the "Clarion's" change of policy. To his inflamed mind the Surtaine organ was a noxious thing, and Harrington Surtaine the guilty partner in the profits of Milly's death who had rejected the one chance to make amends.

Carrying a carefully wrapped bundle, he went forth into the streets on Sunday evening, and wandered into the Rookeries district. A red-necked man, standing on a barrel, was making a speech to a big crowd gathered at one of the corners. Dimly-heard, the word "Clarion" came to Veltman's ears.

"What's he saying?" he asked a neighbor.

"He's roastin' the ---- ---- 'Clarion,'" replied the man. "We ought to go up there an' tear the buildin' down."

To Veltman it seemed quite natural that popular rage should be directed toward the object of his hatred. He sat down weakly upon the curb and waited to see what would happen.

Another chance auditor of that speech did not wait. McGuire Ellis stayed just long enough to scent danger, and hurried back to the office.

"Trouble brewing down in the Rookeries," he told Hal.

"More than usual?"

"Different from the usual. There's a mob considering paying us a visit."

"The new press!" exclaimed Hal.

"Just what I was thinking. A rock or a bullet in its pretty little insides would cost money."

"We'd better notify Police Headquarters."

"I have. They gave me the laugh. Told me it was a pipe-dream. They're sore on us because of our attack on the department for dodging saloon law enforcement."

"I don't like this, Mac," said Hal. "What a fool I was to put the press in the most exposed place."

"Fortify it."

"With what?"

"The rolls."

Print-paper comes from the pulp-mills in huge cylinders, seven feet long by four in diameter. The highest-powered small arm could not send a bullet through the close-wrapped fabric. Ellis's plan offered perfect protection if there was enough material to build the fortification. The entire pressroom force was at once set to work, and in half an hour the delicate and costly mechanism was protected behind an impenetrable barrier which shut it off from view except at the south end. The supply of rolls had fallen a little short.

"Let 'em smash the window if they like," said Ellis. "Plate-glass insurance covers that. I wish we had something for that corner."

"With a couple of revolvers we could guard it from these windows," said Hal. "But where are we to get revolvers on a Sunday night?"

"Leave that to me," said Ellis, and went out.

Hal, standing at the open second-story window, surveyed the strategic possibilities of the situation. His outer office jutting out into a narrow L overlooked, from a broad window, the empty space of the street. From the front he could just see the press, behind its plate-glass. This was set back some ten feet from the sidewalk line proper, and marking the outer boundary stood a row of iron posts of old and dubious origin, formerly connected by chains. Hal had a wish that they were still so joined. They would have served, at least, as a hypothetical guard-line. The flagged and slightly depressed space between these and the front of the building, while actually of private ownership, had long been regarded as part of the thoroughfare. Overlooking it from the north end, opposite Hal's office, was another window, in the reference room. Any kind of gunnery from those vantage-spots would guard the press. But would the mere threat of firing suffice? That is what Hal wished to know. He had no desire to pump bullets into a close-packed crowd. On the other hand, he did not propose to let any mob ruin his property without a fight. His military reverie was interrupted by the entrance of Bim Currier, followed by Dr. Elliot.

"Why the fortification?" asked the latter.

"We've heard rumors of a mob attack."

"So've I. That's why I'm here. Want any help?"

"Why, you're very kind," began Hal dubiously; "but-"

"Rope off that space," cut in the brisk doctor, seizing, with a practiced eye, upon the natural advantage of the sentinel posts. "Got any rope?"

"Yes. There's some in the pressroom. It isn't very strong."

"No matter. Moral effect. Mobs always stop to think, at a line. I know. I've fought 'em before."

"This is very good of you, to come-"

"Not a bit of it. I noticed what the 'Clarion' did to its medical advertisers. I like your nerve. And I like a fight, in a good cause. Have 'em paint up some signs to put along the ropes. 'Danger.'-'Keep Out.'-'Trespassers Enter Here at their Peril'; and that sort of thing."

"I'll do it," said Hal, going to the telephone to give the orders.

While he was thus engaged, McGuire Ellis entered.

"Hello!" the physician greeted him. "What have you got there? Revolvers?"

"Count 'em; two," answered Ellis.

"Gimme one," said the visitor, helping himself to a long-barreled .45.

"Here! That's for Hal Surtaine," protested Ellis.

"Not by a jug-ful! He's too hot-headed. Besides, can he afford to be in it if there should be any serious trouble? Think of the paper!"

"You're right there," agreed Ellis, struck by the keen sense of this view. "If they could lay a killing at his door, even in self-defense-"

"Pree-cisely! Whereas, I don't intend to shoot unless I have to, and probably not then."

They explained the wisdom of this procedure to Hal, who reluctantly admitted it, agreeing to leave the weapons in the hands of Dr. Elliot and McGuire Ellis.

"Put Ellis here in this window. I'll hold the fort yonder." He pointed across the space to the reference room in the opposite L. "Nine times out of ten a mob don't really-" He stopped abruptly, his face stiffening with surprise, and some other emotion, which Hal for the moment failed to interpret. Following the direction of his glance, the two other men turned. Dr. Surtaine, suave and smiling, was advancing across the floor.

"Ellis, how are you? Good-evening, Dr. Elliot. Ah! Pistols?"

"Yes. Have one?" invited Ellis smoothly.

"I brought one with me." He tugged at his pocket, whence emerged a cheap and shiny weapon. Hal shuddered, recognizing it. It was the revolver which Milly Neal had carried.

"So you've heard?" asked Ellis.

"Ten minutes ago. I haven't any idea it will amount to much, but I thought I ought to be here in case of danger."

Dr. Elliot grunted. Ellis, suggesting that they take a look at the other defense, tactfully led him away, leaving father and son together. They had not seen each other since the Emergency Health Committee meeting. Something of the quack's glossy jauntiness faded out of his bearing as he turned to Hal.

"Boy-ee," he began diffidently, "there's been a pretty bad mistake."

"There's been worse than that," said Hal sadly.

"About Milly Neal. I thought-I thought it was you that got her into trouble."

"Why? For God's sake, why?"

"Don't be too hard on me," pleaded the other. "I'd heard about the road-house. And then, what she said to you. It all fitted in. Hale put me right. Boy-ee, I can sleep again, now that I know it wasn't you."

The implication caught at Hal's throat.

"Why, Dad," he said lamely, "if you'd only come to me and asked-"

"Somehow I couldn't. I was waiting for you to tell me." He slid his big hand over Hal's shoulder, and clutched him in a sudden, jerky squeeze, his face averted.

"Now, that's off our minds," he said, in a loud and hearty voice. "We can-"

"Wait a minute. Father, you saw the story in the 'Clarion,'-the story of Milly's death?"

"Yes, I saw that."

"Well?"

"I suppose you did what you thought was right, Boy-ee."

"I did what I had to do. I hated it."

"I'm glad to know that much, anyway."

"But I'd do it again, exactly the same."

The Doctor turned troubled eyes on his son. "Hasn't there been enough judging of each other between you and me, Boy-ee?" he asked sorrowfully.

In wretched uncertainty how to meet this appeal, Hal hesitated. He was saved from decision by the return of McGuire Ellis.

"No movement yet from the enemy's camp," he reported. "I just had a telephone from Hale's club."

"Perhaps they won't come, after all," surmised Hal.

"There's pretty hot talk going. Somebody's been helping along by serving free drinks."

"Now who could that be, I wonder?"

"Maybe some of our tenement-owning politician friends who aren't keen about having to-morrow's 'Clarion' appear."

"We ought to have a reporter down there, Mac."

"Denton's there. Well, as there's nothing doing, I'll tackle a little work." And seating himself at his desk beside the broad window Ellis proceeded to annihilate some telegraph copy, fresh off the wire. With the big tenement story spread, the morrow's paper would be straitened for space. Excusing himself to his father, Hal stepped into his private office-and recoiled in uttermost amazement. There, standing in the further doorway, lovely, palpitant, with the color flushing in her cheeks and the breath fluttering in her throat, stood Esmé Elliot.

"Oh!" she gasped, stretching out her hands to him. "I've tried so to get you by 'phone. There's a mob coming-"

"Yes, I know," said Hal gently. He led her to a chair. "We're ready for them."

"Are you? I'm so glad. I was afraid you wouldn't know in time."

"How did you find out?"

"I've been working with Mr. Hale down in the district. I heard rumors of it. Then I listened to what the people

said, and I hurried here in my car to warn you. They're drunk, and mean trouble."

"That was good of you! I appreciate it."

"No. It was a debt. I owed it to the 'Clarion.' You've been-splendid about the typhus."

"Worthington doesn't look at it that way," returned Hal, with a rather grim smile.

"When they understand, they will."

"Perhaps. But, see here, you can't stay. There may be danger. It's awfully good of you to come. But you must get away."

She looked at him sidelong. In her coming she had been the new Esmé, the Esmé who was Norman Hale's most unselfish and unsparing worker, the Esmé who thought for others, all womanly. But, now that the strain had relaxed, she reverted, just a little, to her other self. It was, for the moment, the Great American Pumess who spoke:-

"Won't you even say you're glad to see me?"

"Glad!" The echo leaped to his lips and the fire to his eyes as the old unconquered longing and passion surged over him. "I don't think I've known what gladness is since that night at your house."

Her eyes faltered away from his. "I don't think I quite understand," she said weakly; then, with a change to quick resolution:-

"There is something I must tell you. You have a right to know it. It's about the paper. Will you come to see me to-morrow?"

"Yes. But go now. No! Wait!"

From without sounded a dull murmur pierced through with an occasional whoop, jubilant rather than threatening.

"Too late," said Hal quietly. "They're coming."

"I'm not afraid."

"But I am-for you. Stay in this room. If they should break into the building, go up those stairs and get to the roof. They won't come there."

He went into the outer room, closing the door behind him.

From both directions and down a side street as well the dwellers in the slums straggled into the open space in front of the "Clarion" office. To Hal they seemed casual, purposeless; rather prankish, too, like a lot of urchins out on a lark. Several bore improvised signs, uncomplimentary to the "Clarion." They seemed surprised when they encountered the rope barrier with its warning placards. There were mutterings and queries.

"No serious harm in them," opined Dr. Elliot, to whom Hal had gone to see whether he wanted anything. "Just mischief. A few rocks maybe, and then they'll go home. Look at old Mac."

Opposite them, at his brilliantly lighted window desk, sat McGuire Ellis, in full view of the crowd below, conscientiously blue-penciling telegraph copy.

"Hey, Mac!" yelled an acquaintance in the street. "Come down and have a drink."

The associate editor lifted his head. "Don't be young," he retorted. "Go home and sleep it off." And reverted to his task.

"What are we doin' here, anyway?" roared some thirster for information.

Nobody answered. But, thus recalled to a purpose, the mob pressed against the ropes.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" A great, rounded voice boomed out above them, drawing every eye to the farthermost window where stood Dr. Surtaine, his chest swelling with ready oratory.

"Hooray!" yelled the crowd. "Good Old Doc!"-"He pays the freight."-"Speech!"

"Say, Doc," bawled a waggish soul, "I gotta corn, marchin' up here. Will Certina cure it?"

And another burst into the final lines of a song then popular; in which he was joined by several of his fellows:

"Father, he drinks Seltzer.

Redoes, like hell!

(Crescendo.) He drinks Cer-tee-nah!"

"Ladies and gentlemen," boomed the wily charlatan. "Unaccustomed as I am to extempore speaking, I cannot let pass this opportunity to welcome you. We appreciate this testimonial of your regard for the 'Clarion.' We appreciate, also, that it is a warm night and a thirsty one. Therefore, I suggest that we all adjourn back to the Old Twelfth Ward, where, if the authorities will kindly look the other way, I shall be delighted to provide liquid refreshments for one and all in which to drink to the health and prosperity of an enlightened free press."

The crowd rose to him with laughter. "Good old Sport!"-"Mine's Certina."-"Come down and make good."-"Free booze, free speech, free press!"-"You're on, Doc! You're on."

"He's turned the trick," growled Dr. Elliot to Hal. "He's a smooth one!"

Indeed, the crowd wavered, with that peculiar swaying which presages a general movement. At the south end there was a particularly dense gathering, and there some minor struggle seemed to be in progress. Cries rose: "Let him through."-"What's he want?"

"It's Max Veltman," said Hal, catching sight of a wild, strained face. "What is he up to?"

The former "Clarion" man squirmed through the front rank and crawled slowly under the ropes. Above the murmur of confused tones, a voice of terror shrilled out:

"He's got a bomb."

The mass surged back from the spot. Veltman, moving forward upon the unprotected south end of the press, was fumbling at his pocket. "I'll fix your free and enlightened press," he screamed.

Dr. Elliot turned on Hal with an imperative question.

"Is it true, do you think? Will he do it? Quick!"

"Crazy," said Hal.

"God forgive me!" prayed the ex-navy man as his arm whipped up.

There were two quick reports. At the second, Veltman stopped, half turned, threw his arms widely outward, and vanished in a blinding glare, accompanied by a gigantic snap! as if a mountain of rock had been riven in twain.

To Hal it seemed that the universe had disintegrated in that concussion. Blackness surrounded him. He was on the floor, half crouching, and, to his surprise, unhurt. Groping his way to the window he leaned out above an appalling silence. It endured only a moment. Then rose the terrible clamor of a mob in panic-stricken flight, above an insistent undertone of groans, sobs, and prayers.

"I had to kill him," muttered Dr. Elliot's shaking voice at Hal's ear. "There was just the one chance before he could throw his bomb."

Every light in the building had gone out. Guiding himself by the light of matches, Hal hurried across to his den. He heard Esmé's voice before he could make her out, standing near the door. "Is any one hurt?"

Hal breathed a great sigh. "You're all right, then! We don't know how bad it is."

"An explosion?"

"Veltman threw a bomb. He's killed."

"Boy-ee!" called Dr. Surtaine.

"Here, Dad. You're safe?"

"Yes."

"Thank God! Careful with that match! The place is strewn with papers."

Men from below came hurrying in with candles, which are part of every newspaper's emergency equipment. They reported no serious injuries to the staff or the equipment. Although the plate-glass window had been shattered into a million fragments and the inner fortification toppled over, the precious press had miraculously escaped injury. But in a strewn circle, outside, lay rent corpses, and the wounded pitifully striving to crawl from that shambles.

With the steadiness which comes to nerves racked to the point of collapse, Hal made the rounds of the building. Two men in the pressroom were slightly hurt. Their fellows would look after them. Wayne, with his men, was already in the street, combining professional duty with first aid. The scattered and stricken mob had begun to sift back, only a subdued and curious crowd now. Then came the ambulances and the belated police, systematizing the work.

Quarter of an hour had passed when Dr. Surtaine, Esmé Elliot, her uncle-much surprised at finding her there-and Hal stood in the editorial office, hardly able yet to get their bearings.

"I shall give myself up to the authorities," decided Dr. Elliot. He was deadly pale, but of unshaken nerve.

"Why?" cried Hal. "It was no fault of yours."

"Rules of the game. Well, young man, you have a paper to get out for to-morrow, though the heavens fall. Good-night."

Hal gripped at his hand. "I don't know how to thank you-" he began.

"Don't try, then," was the gruff retort. "Where's Mac?"

He turned to McGuire Ellis's desk to bid that sturdy toiler good-night. There, dimly seen through the flickering candlelight, the undisputed Short-Distance Slumber Champion of the World sat, his head on his arms, in his familiar and favorite attitude of snatching a few moments' respite from a laborious existence.

"Will you look at that!" cried the physician in utmost amazement.

At the sight a wild surge of mirth overwhelmed Hal's hair-trigger nerves. He began to laugh, with strange, quick catchings of the breath: to laugh tumultuously, rackingly, unendurably.

"Stop it!" shouted Dr. Elliot, and smote him a sledge-blow between the shoulders.

For the moment the hysteria was jarred out of Hal. He gasped, gurgled, and took a step toward his assistant.

"Hey, Mac! Wake up! You've spilled your ink."

"DON'T GO NEAR HIM. DON'T LOOK"

Before he could speak or move further, Esmé Elliot's arms were about him. Her face was close to his. He could feel the strong pressure of her breast against him as she forced him back.

"No, no!" she was pleading, in a swift half-whisper. "Don't go near him. Don't look. Please don't. Come away."

He set her aside. A candlelight flared high. From Ellis's desk trickled a little stream. Dr. Elliot was already bending over the slackened form.

"So it wasn't ink," said Hal slowly. "Is he dead, Dr. Elliot?"

"No," snapped the other. "Esmé, bandages! Quick! Your petticoat! That'll do. Get another candle. Dr. Surtaine, help me lift him. There! Surtaine, bring water. Do you hear? Hurry!"

When Hal returned, uncle and niece were working with silent deftness over Ellis, who lay on the floor. The wounded man opened his eyes upon his employer's agonized face.

"Did he get the press?" he gasped.

"Keep quiet," ordered the Doctor. "Don't speak."

"Did he get the press?" insisted Ellis obstinately.

"Mac! Mac!" half sobbed Hal, bending over him. "I thought you were dead." And his tears fell on the blood-streaked face.

"Don't be young," growled Ellis faintly. "Did-he-get-the-press?"

"No."

The wounded man's eyes closed. "All right," he murmured.

Up to the time that the ambulance surgeons came to carry Ellis away, Dr. Elliot was too busy with him even to be questioned. Only after the still burden had passed through the door did he turn to Hal.

"A piece of metal carried away half the back of his neck," he said. "And we let him sit there, bleeding his life away!"

"Is there any chance?" demanded Hal.

"I doubt if they'll get him to the hospital alive."

"The best man in Worthington!" said Hal passionately. "Oh!" He shook his clenched fists at the outer darkness. "I'll make somebody pay for this."

Esmé's hand fell upon his arm. "Do you want me to stay?" she asked.

"No. You must go home. It's been a terrible thing for you."

"I'll go to the hospital," she said, "and I'll 'phone you as soon as there is any news."

"Better come home with me, Hal," said his father gently.

The younger man turned with an involuntary motion toward the desk, still wet with his friend's blood.

"I'll stay on the job," he said.

Understanding, the father nodded his sympathy. "Yes; I guess that would have been Mac's way," said he.

Work pressing upon the editor from all sides came as a boon. The paper had to be made over for the catastrophe which, momentarily, overshadowed the typhus epidemic in importance. In hasty consultation, it was decided that the "special" on the ownership of the infected tenements should be set aside for a day, to make space. Hal had to make his own statement, not alone for the "Clarion," but for the other newspapers, whose representatives came seeking news and also-what both surprised and touched him-bearing messages of sympathy and congratulation, and offers of any help which they could extend from men to pressroom accommodations. Not until nearly two o'clock in the morning did Hal find time to draw breath over an early proof, which stated the casualties as seven killed outright, including Veltman who was literally torn to pieces, and twenty-two seriously wounded.

From his reading Hal was called to the 'phone. Esmé's voice came to him with a note of hope and happiness.

"Oh, Hal, they say there's a chance! Even a good chance! They've operated, and it isn't as bad as it looked at first. I'm so glad for you."

"Thank you," said Hal huskily. "And-bless you! You've been an angel to-night."

There was a pause: then, "You'll come to see me-when you can?"

"To-morrow," said he. "No-to-day. I forgot."

They both laughed uncertainly, and bade each other good-night.

Hal stayed through until the last proof. In the hallway a heavy figure lifted itself from a chair in a corner as he came out.

"Dad!" exclaimed Hal.

"I thought I'd wait," said the charlatan wistfully.

No other word was necessary. "I'll be glad to be home again," said Hal. "You can lend me some pajamas?"

"They're laid out on your bed. Every night."

The two men passed down the stairs, arm in arm. At the door they paused. Through the building ran a low tremor, waxing to a steady thrill. The presses were throwing out to the world once again their irrevocable message of fact and fate.

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