"I wouldn't have thought it possible," said the dictator, angrily, to his associates. "The thing is getting dangerous. The damned paper is out for the truth."
"And the public is finding it out," supplemented Gibbs, his brother-in-law.
"Wait till my libel suit comes on," said Pierce grimly. "I don't believe young Mr. Surtaine will have enough money left to indulge in the luxury of muckraking, after that."
"Won't the old man back him up?"
"Tells me that the boy is playing a lone hand," said Pierce with satisfaction.
Herein he spoke the fact. While the "Clarion's" various campaigns were still in mid-career, Dr. Surtaine had made his final appeal to his son in vain, ringing one last change upon his Paean of Policy.
"What good does it all do you or anybody else? You're stirring up muck, and you're getting the only thing you ever get by that kind of activity, a bad smell." He paused for his effect; then delivered himself of a characteristically vigorous and gross aphorism:
"Boyee, you can't sell a stink, in this town."
"Perhaps I can help to get rid of it," said Hal.
"Not you! Nobody thanks you for your pains. They take notice for a while, because their noses compel 'em to. Then they forget. What thanks does the public give a newspaper? But the man you've roasted—he's after you, all the time. A sore toe doesn't forget. Look at Pierce."
"Pierce has bothered me," confessed Hal. "He's shut me off from the banks. None of them will loan the 'Clarion' a cent. I have to go out of town for my money."
"Can you blame him? I'd have done the same if he'd roasted you as you roasted his girl."
"News, Dad," said Hal wearily. "It was news."
"Let's not go over that again. You'll stick to your policy, I suppose, till it ruins you. About finances, by the way, where do you stand?"
"Stand?" repeated Hal. "I wish we did. We slip. Downhill; and pretty fast."
"Why wouldn't you? Fighting your own advertisers."
"Some advertising has come in, though. Mostly from out of town."
"Foreign proprietary," said Dr. Surtaine, using the technical term for patent-medicine advertising from out of town, "isn't it? I've been doing a little missionary work among my friends in the trade, Hal; persuaded them to give the 'Clarion' a try-out. The best of it is, they're getting results."
"They ought to. Do you know we're putting on circulation at the rate of nearly a thousand a week?"
"Expensive, though, isn't it?"
"Pretty bad. The paper costs a lot more to get out. We've enlarged our staff. Now we need a new press. There's thirty-odd thousand dollars, in one lump."
"How long can you go on at this rate?"
"Without any more advertising?"
"You certainly aren't gaining, by your present policy."
"Well, I can stick it out through the year. By that time the advertising will be coming in. It's got to come to the paper that has the circulation, Dad."
"Hum!" droned the big doctor, dubiously. "Have you reckoned the Pierce libel suits in?"
"He can't win them."
"Can't he? I don't know. He intends to try. And he feels pretty cocky about it. E.M. Pierce has something up his sleeve, Boyee."
"That would be a body-blow. But he can't win," repeated Hal. "Why, I saw the whole thing myself."
"Just the same you ought to have the best libel lawyer you can get from New York. All the good local men are tied up with Pierce or afraid of him."
"Can't afford it."
To this point the big man had been leading up. "I've been thinking over this Pierce matter, Hal, and I've made up my mind. Pierce is getting to think he's the whole thing around here. He's bullied this town all his life, just as he's bullied his employees until they hate him like poison. But now he's gone up against the wrong game. Roast Certina, will he? The pup! Why, if he'd ever run his factories or his store or his Consolidated Employees' Organization one hundredth part as decently as I've run our business, he wouldn't have to stay in nights for fear some one might sneak a knife into him out of the dark."
This was something less than just to Elias M. Pierce, who, whatever his other faults, had never been a fearful man.
"Libel, eh?" continued the genius of Certina, quietly but formidably. "We'll teach him a few things about libel, before he's through. Here's my proposition, Boyee. You can fight Pierce, but you can't fight all Worthington. Every enemy you make for the 'Clarion' becomes an ally of Pierce. Quit all these other campaigns. Stop roasting the business men and advertisers. Drop your attack on the Mid and Mud: you've got 'em licked, anyway. Let up on the street railway: I notice you're taking a fall out of them on their overcrowding. Treat the theaters decently: they're entitled to a fair chance for their money. Cut out this Consumers' League foolishness (I'm surprised at Milly Neal—the way she's lost her head over that). Make friends instead of foes. And go after Elias M. Pierce, to the finish. Do this, and I'll back you with the whole Certina income. Come on, now, Boyee. Be sensible."
Hal's reply came without hesitation. "I'm sorry, Dad: but I can't do it. I've told you I'd stand or fall on what you've already given me. If I can't pull through on that, I can't pull through at all. Let's understand each other once and for all, Dad. I've got to try this thing out to the end. And I won't ask or take one cent from you or any one else, win or lose."
"All right, Boyee," returned his father sorrowfully. "You're wrong, dead wrong. But I like your nerve. Only, let me tell you this. You think you're going to keep on printing the news and the whole news and all that sort of thing. I tell you, it can't be done."
"Why can't it be done?"
"Because, sooner or later, you'll bump up against your own interests so hard that you'll have to quit."
"I don't see that at all, sir."
"No, you don't. But one of these days something in the news line will come up that'll hit you right between the eyes, if ever it gets into print. Then see what you'll do."
"I'll print it."
"No, you won't, Boyee. Human nature ain't built that way. You'll smother it, and be glad you've got the power to."
"Dad, you believe I'm honest, don't you?"
"Too blamed honest in some ways."
"But you'd take my word?"
"Oh, that! Yes. For anything."
"Then I put my honor on this. If ever the time comes that I have to suppress legitimate news to protect or aid my own interests, I'll own up I'm beaten: I'll quit fighting, and I'll make the 'Clarion' a very sucking dove of journalism. Is that plain?"
"Shake, Boyee. You've bought a horse. Just the same, I hate to let up on Pierce. Sure you won't let me hire a New York lawyer for the libel suit?"
"No. Thank you just as much, Dad. That's a 'Clarion' fight, and the 'Clarion's' money has got to back it."
It was the gist of this decision which, some days later, had reached E.M. Pierce, and caused him such satisfaction. With the "Clarion" depending upon its own resources, unbacked by the great reserve wealth of Certina's proprietor, he confidently expected to wreck it and force its suspension by an overwhelming verdict of damages. For, as Dr. Surtaine had surmised, he held a card up his sleeve.
THE LESSER TEMPTING
Seven days of the week did Mr. Harrington Surtaine labor, without by any means doing all his work. For to the toil which goes to the making of many newspapers there is no end; only ever a fresh beginning. Had he brought to the enterprise a less eager appetite for the changeful adventure of it, the unremitting demand must soon have dulled his spirit. Abounding vitality he possessed, but even this flagged at times. One soft spring Sunday, while the various campaigns of the newspaper were still in mid-conflict, he decided to treat himself to a day off. So, after a luxurious morning in bed, he embarked in his runabout for an exploration around the adjacent country.
Having filled his lungs with two hours of swift air, he lunched, none too delicately, at a village fifty miles distant, and, on coming out of the hotel, was warned by a sky shaded from blue to the murkiest gray, into having the top of his car put up. The rain chased him for thirty miles and whelmed him in a wild swirl at the thirty-first. Driving through this with some caution, he saw ahead of him a woman's figure, as supple as a willow withe, as gallant as a ship, beating through the fury of the elements. Hal slowed down, debating whether to offer conveyance, when he caught a glint of ruddy waves beneath the drenched hat, and the next instant he was out and looking into the flushed face and dancing eyes of Milly Neal.
"What on earth are you doing here?" he cried.
"Can't you see?" she retorted merrily. "I'm a fish."
"You need to be. Get in. You're soaked to the skin," he continued, dismayed, as she began to shiver under the wrappings he drew around her. "Never mind. I'll have you home in a few minutes."
But the demon of mischance was abroad in the storm. Before they had covered half a mile the rear tire went. Milly was now shaking dismally, for all her brave attempts to conceal it. A few rods away a sign announced "Markby's Road-House." Concerned solely to get the girl into a warm and dry place, Hal turned in, bundled her out, ordered a private room with a fireplace, and induced the proprietor's wife by the persuasions of a ten-dollar bill to provide a change of clothing for the outer, and hot drinks for the inner, woman.
Half an hour later when he had affixed a new tire to the wheel, he and Milly sat, warmed and comforted before blazing logs, waiting for her clothes to dry out.
"I know I look a fright," she mourned. "That Mrs. Markby must buy her dresses by the pound."
She gazed at him comically from above a quaint and nondescript garment, to which she had given a certain daintiness with a cleverly placed ribbon or two and an adroit use of pins. Privately, Hal considered that she looked delightfully pretty, with her provocative eyes and the deep gleam of red in her hair like flame seen through smoke.
"Do you often go out wading, ten miles from home?" he asked.
"Not very. I was running away."
"I didn't see any one in pursuit."
"They knew too much." Her firm little chin set rather grimly. "Do you want to hear about it?"
"Yes. I'm curious," confessed Hal.
"I went to lunch with another girl and a couple of drummers, out at Callender's Pond Hotel. She said she knew the men and they were all right. They weren't. They got too fresh altogether. So I told Florence she could do as she pleased, but I was for home and the trolley. I guess I could have made it with a life-preserver," she laughed.
Hal was surprisedly conscious of a rasp of anger within him. "You ought not to put yourself into such a position," he declared.
She threw him a covert glance from the corner of her sparkling eyes. "Oh, I guess I can take care of myself," she decided calmly. "I always have. When fresh drummers begin to talk private dining-room and cold bottles, I spread my little wings and flit."
"To another private room," mocked Hal. "Aren't you afraid?"
"With you? You're different." There sounded in her voice the purring note of utter content which is the subtlest because the most unconscious flattery of womankind.
A silence fell between them. Hal stared into the fire.
"Are you warm enough?" he asked presently.
"Do you want something to eat? Or drink? What did you have to drink?" he added, glancing at the empty glass on the table.
"Certina?" he queried, uncertain at first whether she was joking. "How could you get Certina here?"
"Why not? They keep it at all these places. There's quite a bar-trade in it."
"Is that so?" said Hal, with a vague feeling of disturbance of ideas. "Which job do you like best: the Certina or the newspaper, Miss Neal?"
"My other boss calls me Milly," she suggested.
"Very well,—Milly, then."
"Oh, I'm for the office. It's more exciting, a lot."
"Your stuff," said Hal, in the language of the cult, "is catching on."
"You don't like it, though," she countered quickly.
"Yes, I do. Much better than I did, anyway. But the point is that it's a success. Editorially I have to like it."
"I'd rather you liked it personally."
"Some of it I do. The 'Lunch-Time Chats'—"
"And some of it you think is vulgar."
"One has to suit one's style to the matter," propounded Hal. "'Kitty the Cutie' isn't supposed to be a college professor."
"I hate to have you think me vulgar," she insisted.
"Oh, come!" he protested; "that isn't fair. I don't think you vulgar, Milly."
"I like to have you call me Milly," she said.
"It seems quite natural to," he answered lightly.
"I've thought sometimes I'd like to try my hand at a regular news story," she went on, in a changed tone. "I think I've got one, if I could only do it right; one of those facts-behind-the-news stories that you talked to us about. Do you remember meeting me with Max Veltman the other night?"
"Did you think it was queer?"
"A girl I used to know back in the country tried to kill herself. She wrote me a letter, but it didn't get to me till after midnight, so I called up Max and got him to go with me down to the Rookeries district where she lives. Poor little Maggie! She got caught in one of those sewing-girl traps."
"Some kind of machinery?"
"Machinery? You don't know much about what goes on in your town, do you?"
"Not as much as an editor ought to know—which is everything."
"I'll bring you Maggie's letter. That tells it better than I can. And I want to write it up, too. Let me write it up for the paper." She leaned forward and her eyes besought him. "I want to prove I can do something besides being a vulgar little 'Kitty the Cutie.'"
"Oh, my dear," he said, half paternally, but only half, "I'm sorry I hurt you with that word."
"You didn't mean to." Her smile forgave him. "Maggie's story means another fight for the paper. Can we stand another?"
He warmed to the possessive "we." "So you know about our warfare," he said.
"More than you think, perhaps. The books you gave me aren't the only things I study. I study the 'Clarion,' too."
"Why?" he asked, interested.
"Because it's yours." She looked at him straightly now. "Can you pull it through, Boss?"
"I think so. I hope so."
"We've lost a lot of ads. I can reckon that up, because I had some experience in the advertising department of the Certina shop, and I know rates." She pursed her lips with a dainty effect of careful computation. "Somewhere about four thousand a week out, isn't it?"
"Four thousand, three hundred and seventy in store business last week."
The talk settled down and confined itself to the financial and editorial policies of the paper, Milly asking a hundred eager and shrewd questions, now and again proffering some tentative counsel or caution. Impersonal though it seemed, through it Hal felt a growing tensity of intercourse; a sense of pregnant and perilous intimacy drawing them together.
"Since you're taking such an interest, I might get you to help Mr. Ellis run the paper when I go away," he suggested jocularly.
"You're not going away?" The query came in a sort of gasp.
"For long?" Her hand, as if in protest against the dreaded answer, went out to the arm of his chair. His own met and covered it reassuringly.
"Not very. It's the new press."
"We're going to have a new press?"
"Hadn't you heard? You seem to know so much about the office. We're going to build up the basement and set the press just inside the front wall and then cut a big window through so that the world and his wife can see the 'Clarion' in the very act of making them better."
Both fell silent. Their hands still clung. Their eyes were fixed upon the fire. Suddenly a log, half-consumed, crashed down, sending abroad a shower of sparks. The girl darted swiftly up to stamp out a tiny flame at her feet. Standing, she half turned toward Hal.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"To New York."
"Take me with you."
So quietly had the crisis come that he scarcely realized it. For a measured space of heart-beats he gazed into the fireplace. As he stared, she slipped to the arm of his chair. He felt the alluring warmth of her body against his shoulder. Then he would have turned to search her eyes, but, divining him, she denied, pressing her cheek close against his own.
"No; no! Don't look at me," she breathed.
"You don't know what you mean," he whispered.
"I do! I'm not a child. Take me with you."
"It means ruin for you."
"Ruin! That's a word! Words don't frighten me."
"They do me. They're the most terrible things in the world."
She laughed at that. "Is it the word you're afraid of, or is it me?" she challenged. "I'm not asking you anything. I don't want you to marry me. Oh!" she cried with a sinking break of the voice, "do you think I'm bad?"
Freeing himself, he caught her face between his hands.
"Are you—have you been 'bad,' as you call it?"
"I don't blame you for asking—after what I've said. But I haven't."
"Now, I care. I never cared before. It was that, I suppose, kept me straight. Don't you care for me—a little, Hal?"
He rose and strode to the window. When he turned from his long look out into the burgeoning spring she was standing silent, expectant. Like stone she stood as he came back, but her arms went up to receive him. Her lips melted into his, and the fire of her face flashed through every vein.
"And afterward?" he said hoarsely.
There was triumph in her answering laughter, passion-shaken though it was.
"Then you'll take me with you."
"But afterward?" he repeated.
Lingeringly she released herself. "Let that take care of itself. I don't care for afterward. We're free, you and I. What's to hinder us from doing as we please? Who's going to be any the worse for it? Oh, I told you I was lawless. It's the Hardscrabbler blood in me, I guess."
Deep in Hal's memory a response to that name stirred.
"Somewhere," he said, "I have run across a Hardscrabbler before."
"Me. But you've forgotten."
"Have I? Let me see. It was in the old days when Dad and I were traveling. You were the child with the wonderful red hair, the night I was hurt. Were you?"
"And next day I tried to bite you because you wanted to play with a prettier little girl in beautiful clothes."
Esme! The electric spark of thought leaped the long space of years from the child, Esme, to the girl, in the vain love of whom he had eaten his heart hollow. For the moment, passion for the vivid woman-creature before him had dulled that profounder feeling almost to obliteration. Perhaps—so the thought came to him—he might find forgetfulness, anodyne in Milly Neal's arms. But what of Milly, taken on such poor terms?
The bitter love within him gave answer. Not loyalty to Esme Elliot whom he knew unworthy, but to Milly herself, bound him to honor and restraint; so strangely does the human soul make its dim and perilous way through the maze of motives. Even though the girl, now questing his face with puzzled, frightened eyes, asked nothing but to belong to him; demanded no bond of fealty or troth, held him free as she held herself free, content with the immediate happiness of a relation that, must end in sorrow for one or the other, yet he could not take what she so prodigally, so gallantly proffered, with the image of another woman smiling through his every thought. That, indeed, were to be unworthy, not of Esme, not of himself, but of Milly.
He made a step toward her, and her glad hands went out to him again. Very gently he took them; very gently he bent and kissed her cheek.
"That's for good-bye," he said. The voice in which he spoke seemed alien to his ears, so calm it was, so at variance with his inner turmoil.
"You won't take me with you?"
"I know." He was not concerned now with verbal differentiations. Truly, he had promised, wordlessly though it had been. "But I can't."
"You don't care?" she said piteously.
"I care very much. If I cared less—"
"There's some other woman."
Flame leaped in her eyes. "I hope she poisons your life."
"I hope I haven't poisoned yours," he returned, lamely enough.
"Oh, I'll manage to live on," she gibed. "I guess there are other men in the world besides you."
"Don't make it too hard, Milly."
"You're pitying me! Don't you dare pity me!" A sob rose, and burst from her. Then abruptly she seized command over herself. "What does it all matter?" she said. "Go away now and let me change my clothes."
"Are they dry?"
"I don't care whether they're dry or not. I don't care what becomes of me now." All the sullen revolt of generations of lawlessness was vocal in her words. "You wait and see!"
Somehow Hal got out of the room, his mind awhirl, to await her downstairs. In a few moments she came, and with eyes somberly averted got into the runabout without a word. As they swung into the road, they met McGuire Ellis and Wayne, who bowed with a look of irrepressible surprise. During the ride homeward Hal made several essays at conversation. But the girl sat frozen in a white silence. Only when they pulled up at her door did she speak.
"I'm going to try to forget this," she said in a dry, hard voice. "You do the same. I won't quit my job unless you want me to."
"Don't," said Hal.
"But you won't be bothered with seeing me any more. I'll send you Maggie Breen's letter and the story. I guess I understand a little better now how she felt when she took the poison."
With that rankling in his brain, Hal Surtaine sat and pondered in his private study at home. His musings arraigned before him for judgment and contrast the two women who had so stormily wrought upon his new life. Esme Elliot had played with his love, had exploited it, made of it a tinsel ornament for vanity, sought, through it, to corrupt him from the hard-won honor of his calling. She had given him her lips for a lure; she had played, soul and body, the petty cheat with a high and ennobling passion. Yet, because she played within the rules by the world's measure, there was no stain upon her honor. By that same measure, what of Milly Neal? In her was no trickery of sex; only the ungrudging, wide-armed offer of all her womanhood, reckless of aught else but love. Debating within himself the phrase, "an honest woman," Hal laughed aloud. His laughter lacked much of being mirthful, and something of being just. For he had reckoned two daughters of Eve by the same standard, which is perhaps the oldest and most disastrous error hereditary to all the sons of Adam.
THE POWER OF PRINT
Hal paid thirty-two thousand dollars for the new press. It was a delicate giant of mechanism, able not only to act, but also to think with stupendous accuracy and swiftness; lacking only articulate speech to be wholly superhuman. But in signing the check for it, Hal, for the first time in his luxurious life experienced a financial qualm. Always before there had been an inexhaustible source wherefrom to draw. Now that he had issued his declaration of pecuniary independence, he began to appreciate the perishable nature of money. He came back from his week's journey to New York feeling distinctly poorer.
Moreover there was an uncomfortable paradox connected with his purchase. That he should be put to so severe an expenditure merely for the purpose of incurring an increased current expense, struck him as a rather sardonic joke. Yet so it was. Circulation does not mean direct profit to a newspaper. On the contrary, it implies loss in many cases. For some weeks it had been costing the "Clarion," to print the extra papers necessitated by the increased demand, more than the money received from their sale. Until the status of the journal should justify a higher advertising charge, every added paper sold would involve a loss. True, an augmented circulation logically commands a higher advertising rate; it is thus that a newspaper reaps its harvest; and soon Hal hoped to be able to raise his advertising rate from fifteen to twenty-five cents a line. At that return his books would show a profit on a normal volume of advertising. Meantime he performed an act of involuntary philanthropy with every increase of issue, Nevertheless, Hal felt for his mechanical giant something of the new-toy thrill. To him it was a symbol of productive power. It made appeal to his imagination, typifying the reborn "Clarion." He saw it as a master-loom weaving fresh patterns, day by day, into the fabric of the city's life and thought. That all might view the process, he had it mounted high from the basement, behind a broad plate-glass show window set in the front wall, a highly unstrategic position, as McGuire Ellis pointed out.
"Suppose," said he, "a horse runs wild and makes a dive through that window? Or a couple of bums get shooting at each other, and a stray bullet comes whiffling through the glass and catches young Mr. Press in his delikit insides. We're out of business for a week, maybe, mending him up."
Shearson, however, was in favor of it. It suggested prosperity and aroused public interest. On Hal's return from New York, the fat and melancholious advertising manager had exhibited a somewhat mollified pessimism.
"The Boston Store is coming back," he visited Hal's sanctum to announce.
"Why, that's John M. Gibbs's store, isn't it?"
"And he's E.M. Pierce's brother-in-law. I thought he'd stick by his family in fighting the 'Clarion.'"
"Family is all right, but Grinder Gibbs is for business first and everything else afterwards. Our rates look good to him, with the circulation we're showing. And he knows we bring results. He's been using us on the quiet for a little side issue of his own."
"Some sewing-girls' employment thing. It's in the 'Classified' department. Don't amount to much; but it's proved to him that the 'Clarion' ad does the business. I've been on his trail for two weeks. So the store starts in Sunday with half-pages. They say Pierce is crazy mad."
"The best of it is that now the Retail Union won't fight us, as a body, for taking up the Consumers' League fight. They can't very well, with their second biggest store using the 'Clarion's' columns."
McGuire Ellis, too, was feeling quite cheerful over the matter.
"It shows that you can be independent and get away with it," he declared, "if you get out an interesting enough paper. By the way, that's a hot little story 'Kitty the Cutie' turned in on the Breen girl's suicide."
"It was only attempted suicide, wasn't it?"
"The first time. She had a second trial at it day before yesterday and turned the trick. You'll find Neal's copy on your desk. I held it for you."
From out of a waiting heap of mail, proof, and manuscript, Hal selected the sheets covered with Milly Neal's neat business chirography. She had written her account briefly and with restraint, building her "story" around the girl's letter. It set forth the tragedy of a petty swindle.
The scheme was as simple as it was cruel. A concern calling itself "The Sewing Aid Association" advertised for sewing-women, offering from ten to fifteen dollars a week to workers; experience not necessary. Maggie Breen answered the advertisement. The manager explained to her that the job was making children's underclothing from pattern. She would be required to come daily to the factory and sew on a machine which she would purchase from the company, the price, thirty dollars, being reckoned as her first three weeks' wages. To all this, duly set forth in a specious contract, the girl affixed her signature.
She was set to work at once. The labor was hard, the forewoman a driver, but ten dollars a week is good pay. Hoping for a possible raise Maggie turned out more garments than any of her fellow workers. For two weeks and a half all went well. In another few days the machine would be paid for, the money would begin to come in, and Maggie would get a really square meal, which she had come to long for with a persistent and severe hankering. Then the trap was sprung. Maggie's work was found "unsatisfactory." She was summarily discharged. In vain did she protest. She would try again; she would do better. No use; "the house" found her garments unmarketable. Sorrowfully she asked for her money. No money was due her. Again she protested. The manager thrust a copy of her contract under her nose and turned her into the street. Thus the "Sewing Aid Association" had realized upon fifteen days' labor for which they had not paid one cent, and the "installment" sewing-machine was ready for its next victim. This is a very pleasant and profitable policy and is in use, in one form or another, in nearly every American city. Proof of which the sufficiently discerning eye may find in the advertising columns of many of our leading newspapers and magazines.
To Maggie Breen it was small consolation that she was but one of many. Even her simple mind grasped the "joker" in the contract. She tore up that precious document, went home, reflected that she was rather hungry and likely to be hungrier, quite wretched and likely to be wretcheder; and so made a decoction of sulphur matches and drank it. An ambulance surgeon disobligingly arrived in time to save her life for once; but the second time she borrowed some carbolic acid, which is more expeditious than any ambulance surgeon.
This was the story which "Kitty the Cutie," while sticking close to the facts, had contrived to inform with a woman's wrath and a woman's pity. Reading it, Hal took fire. He determined to back it up with an editorial. But first he would look into the matter for himself. With this end in view he set out for Number 65 Sperry Street, where Maggie Breen's younger sister and bedridden mother lived. It was his maiden essay at reporting.
Sperry Street shocked Hal. He could not have conceived that a carefully regulated and well-kept city such as Worthington (he knew it, be it remembered, chiefly from above the wheels of an automobile) would permit such a slum to exist. On either side of the street, gaunt wooden barracks, fire-traps at a glance, reared themselves five rackety stories upward, for the length of a block. Across intersecting Grant Street the sky-line dropped a few yards, showing ragged through the metal cornice and sickly brick chimneys of a tenement row only a degree less forbidding than the first. The street itself was a mere refuse patch smeared out over bumpy cobbles. The visitor entered the tenement at 65, between reeking barrels which had waited overlong for the garbage cart.
He was received without question, as a reporter for the "Clarion." At first Sadie Breen, anaemic, hopeless-eyed, timorous, was reluctant to speak. But the mother proved Hal's ally.
"Let 'im put it in the paper," she exhorted. "Maybe it'll keep some other girl away from them sharks."
"Why didn't your sister sue the company?" asked Hal.
"Where'd we get the money for a lawyer?" whined Sadie.
"It's no use, anyway," said Mrs. Breen. "They've tried it in Municipal Court. The sharks always wins. Somebody ought to shoot that manager," she added fiercely.
"Yes; that's great to say," jeered Sadie, in a whine. "But look what happened to that Mason girl from Hoppers Hollow. She hit at him with a pair of scissors, an' they sent her up for a year."
"Better that than Cissy Green's way. You know what become of her. Went on the street," explained Mrs. Breen to Hal.
They poured out story after story of poor women entrapped by one or another of those lures which wring the final drop of blood from the bleakest poverty. In the midst of the recital there was a knock at the door, and a tall young man in black entered. He at once introduced himself to Hal as the Reverend Norman Hale, and went into conference with the two women about a place for Sadie. This being settled, Hal's mission was explained to him.
"A reporter?" said the Reverend Norman. "I wish the papers would take this thing up. A little publicity would kill it off, I believe."
"Won't the courts do anything?"
"They can't. I've talked to the judge. The concern's contract is water-tight."
The two young men went down together through the black hallways, and stood talking at the outer door.
"How do people live in places like this?" exclaimed Hal.
"Not very successfully. The death-rate is pretty high. Particularly of late. There's what a friend of mine around the corner—he happens to be a barkeeper, by the way—calls a lively trade in funerals around here."
"Is your church in this district?"
"My club is. People call it a mission, but I don't like the word. It's got too much the flavor of reaching down from above to dispense condescending charity."
"Charity certainly seems to be needed here."
"Help and decent fairness are needed; not charity. What's your paper, by the way?"
"Oh!" said the other, in an altered tone. "I shouldn't suppose that the 'Clarion' would go in much for any kind of reform."
"Do you read it?"
"No. But I know Dr. Surtaine."
"Dr. Surtaine doesn't own the 'Clarion.' I do."
"You're Harrington Surtaine? I thought I had seen you somewhere before. But you said you were a reporter."
"Pardon me, I didn't. Mrs. Breen said that. However, it's true; I'm doing a bit of reporting on this case. And I'm going to do some writing on it before I'm through."
"As for Dr. Surtaine—" began the young clergyman, then checked himself, pondering.
What further he might have had to say was cut off by a startling occurrence. A door on the floor above opened; there was a swift patter of feet, and then from overhead, a long-drawn, terrible cry. Immediately a young girl, her shawl drawn about her face, ran from the darkness into the half-light of the lower hall and would have passed between them but that Norman Hale caught her by the arm.
"Lemme go! Lemme go!" she shrieked, pawing at him.
"Quiet," he bade her. "What is it, Emily?"
"Oh, Mr. Hale!" she cried, recognizing him and clutching at his shoulder. "Don't let it get me!"
"Nothing's going to hurt you. Tell me about it."
"It's the Death," she shuddered.
The man's face changed. "Here?" he said. "In this block?"
"Don't you go," she besought. "Don't you go, Mr. Hale. You'll get it."
"Where is it? Answer me at once."
"First-floor front," sobbed the girl. "Mrs. Schwarz."
"Don't wait for me," said the minister to Hal. "In fact you'd better leave the place. Good-day."
Thus abruptly discarded from consideration, Hal turned to the fugitive.
"Is some one dead?"
"As good as. It's the Death," said the girl with a strong shudder.
"You said that before. What do you mean by the Death?"
"Don't keep me here talkin'," she shivered. "I wanta go home."
Hal walked along with her, wondering. "I wish you would tell me," he said gently.
"All I know is, they never get well."
"What sort of sickness is it?"
"Search me." The petty slang made a grim medium for the uncertainty of terror which it sought to express. "They've had it over in the Rookeries since winter. There ain't no name for it. They just call it the Death."
"The Rookeries?" said Hal, caught by the word. "Where are they?"
"Don't you know the Rookeries?" The girl pointed to the long double row of grisly wooden edifices down the street. "Them's Sadler's Shacks on this side, and Tammany Barracks on the other. They go all the way around the block."
"You say the sickness has been in there?"
"Yes. Now it's broken out an' we'll all get it an' die," she wailed.
A little, squat, dark man hurried past them. He nodded, but did not pause.
"I know him," said Hal. "Who is he?"
"Doc De Vito. He tends to all the cases. But it's no good. They all die."
"You keep your head," advised Hal. "Don't be scared. And wash your hands and face thoroughly as soon as you get home."
"A lot o' good that'll do against the Death," she said scornfully, and left him.
Back at the office, Hal, settling down to write his editorial, put the matter of the Rookeries temporarily out of mind, but made a note to question his father about it.
Milly Neal's article, touched up and amplified by Hal's pen, appeared the following morning. The editorial was to be a follow-up in the next day's paper. Coming down early to put the finishing touches to this, Hal found the article torn out and pasted on a sheet of paper. Across the top of the paper was written in pencil:
"Clipped from the Clarion; a Deadly Parallel."
The penciled legend ran across the sheet to include, under its caption a second excerpt, also in "Clarion" print, but of the advertisement style:
WANTED—Sewing-girls for simple machine work. Experience not necessary. $10 to $15 a week guaranteed. Apply in person at 14 Manning Street. THE SEWING AID ASSOCIATION.
Below, in the same hand writing was the query:
"What's your percentage of the blood-money, Mr. Harrington Surtaine?"
Hal threw it over to Ellis. "Whose writing is that?" he asked. "It looks familiar to me."
"Max Veltman's," said Ellis. He took in the meaning of it. "The insolent whelp!" he said.
"Insolent? Yes; he's that. But the worst of it is, I'm afraid he's right." And he telephoned for Shearson.
The advertising manager came up, puffing.
Hal held out the clipping to him.
"How long has that been running?"
"On and off for six months."
"Throw it out."
"Throw it out!" repeated the other bitterly. "That's easy enough said."
"And easily enough done."
"It's out already. Taken out by early notice this morning."
"That's all right, then."
"Is it all right!" boomed Shearson. "Is it! You won't think so when you hear the rest of it."
"Do you know who the Sewing Aid Association is?"
"It's John M. Gibbs! That's who it is!"
"Yell louder, Shearson. It may save you from apoplexy," advised McGuire Ellis with tender solicitude.
"And we lose every line of the Boston Store advertising, that I worked so hard to get back."
"That'll hurt," allowed Ellis.
"Hurt! It draws blood, that does. That Sewing Aid Association is Gibbs's scheme to supply the children's department of his store. Why couldn't you find out who you were hitting, Mr. Surtaine?" demanded Shearson pathetically, "before you went and mucksed everything up this way? See what comes of all this reform guff."
"Are you sure that John M. Gibbs is back of that sewing-girl ad?"
"Sure? Didn't he call me up this morning and raise the devil?"
"Thank you, Mr. Shearson. That's all."
To his editorial galley-proof Hal added two lines.
"What's that, Mr. Surtaine?" asked the advertising manager curiously.
"That's outside of your department. But since you ask, I'll tell you. It's an editorial on the kind of swindle that causes tragedies like Maggie Breen's. And the sentence which I have just added, thanks to you, is this:
"'The proprietor of this scheme which drives penniless women to the street or to suicide is John M. Gibbs, principal owner of the Boston Store.'"
Words failed Shearson; also motive power, almost. For reckonable seconds he stood stricken. Then slowly he got under way and rolled through the door. Once, on the stairs, they heard from him a protracted rumbling groan. "Ruin," was the one distinguishable word.
It left an echo in Hal's brain, an echo which rang hollowly amongst misgivings.
"Is it ruin to try and run a newspaper without taking a percentage of that kind of profits, Mac?" he asked.
"Well, a newspaper can't be too squeamish about its ads." was the cautious answer.
"Do all newspapers carry that kind of stuff?"
"Not quite. Most of them, though. They need the money."
"What's the matter with business in this town? Everything seems to be rotten."
Ellis took refuge in a proverb. "Business is business," he stated succinctly.
"And it's as bad everywhere as here? This is all new to me, you know. I rather expected to find every concern as decently and humanly run as Certina."
One swift, suspicious glance Ellis cast upon his superior, but Hal's face was candor itself. "Well, no," he admitted. "Perhaps it isn't as bad in some cities. The trouble here is that all the papers are terrorized or bribed into silence. Until we began hitting out with our little shillalah, nobody had ever dared venture a peep of disapproval. So, business got to thinking it could do as it pleased. You can't really blame business much. Immunity from criticism isn't ever good for the well-known human race."
Hal took the matter of the "Sewing Aid" swindle home with him for consideration. Hitherto he had considered advertising only as it affected or influenced news. Now he began to see it in another light, as a factor in itself of immense moral moment and responsibility. It was dimly outlined to his conscience that, as a partner in the profit, he became also a partner in the enterprise. Thus he faced the question of the honesty or dishonesty of the advertising in his paper. And this is a question fraught with financial portent for the honorable journalist.
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 confreres."
"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; and, 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?"
"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.
For sheer uncertainty an epidemic is comparable only to fire on shipboard. The wisest expert can but guess at the time or place of its catastrophic explosion. It may thrust forth here and there a tongue of threat, only to subside and smoulder again. Sometimes it "sulks" for so protracted a period that danger seems to be over. Then, without warning, comes swift disaster with panic in its train.
But one man in all Worthington knew, early, the true nature of the disease which quietly crept among the Rookeries licking up human life, and he was well trained in keeping his own counsel. In this crisis, whatever Dr. Surtaine may have lacked in scrupulosity of method, his intentions were good. He honestly believed that he was doing well by his city in veiling the nature of the contagion. Scientifically he knew little about it save in the most general way; and his happy optimism bolstered the belief that if only secrecy could be preserved and the fair repute of the city for sound health saved, the trouble would presently die out of itself. He looked to his committee to manage the secrecy. Unfortunately this particular form of trouble hasn't the habit of dying out quietly and of itself. It has to be fought and slain in the open.
As Dr. Surtaine's committee hadn't the faintest notion of how to handle their five-thousand-dollar appropriation, they naturally consulted the Honorable Tip O'Farrell, agent for and boss of the Rookeries. And as the Honorable Tip had a very definite and even eager notion of what might be done with that amount of ready cash, he naturally volunteered to handle the fund to the best advantage, which seemed quite reasonable, since he was familiar with the situation. Therefore the disposition of the money was left to him. Do not, however, oh high-minded and honorable reader, be too ready to suppose that this was the end of the five thousand dollars, so far as the Rookeries are concerned. Politicians of the O'Farrell type may not be meticulous on points of finance. But they are quite likely to be human. Tip O'Farrell had seen recently more misery than even his toughened sensibilities could uncomplainingly endure. Some of the fund may have gone into the disburser's pocket. A much greater portion of it, I am prepared to affirm, was distributed in those intimate and effective forms of beneficence which, skillfully enough managed, almost lose the taint of charity. O'Farrell was tactful and he knew his people. Many cases over which organized philanthropy would have blundered sorely, were handled with a discretion little short of inspired. Much wretchedness was relieved; much suffering and perhaps some lives saved.
The main issue, nevertheless, was untouched. The epidemic continued to spread beneath the surface of silence. O'Farrell wasn't interested in that side of it. He didn't even know what was the matter. What money he expended on that phase of the difficulty was laid out in perfecting his system of guards, so that unauthorized doctors couldn't get in, or unauthorized news leak out. Also he continued to carry on an irregular but costly traffic in dead bodies. Meantime, the Special Committee of the Old Home Week Organization, thus comfortably relieved of responsibility and the appropriation, could now devote itself single-mindedly to worrying over the "Clarion."
According to Elias M. Pierce, no mean judge of men, there was nothing to worry about in that direction. That snake, he considered, was scotched. It might take time for said snake, who was a young snake with a head full of poison (his uncomplimentary metaphor referred, I need hardly state, to Mr. Harrington Surtaine), to come to his serpentine senses; but in the end he must realize that he was caught. The committee wasn't so smugly satisfied. Time was going on and there was no word, one way or the other, from the "Clarion" office.
Inside that office more was stirring than the head of it knew about. On a warmish day, McGuire Ellis, seated at his open window, had permitted the bland air of early June to lull him to a nap, which was rudely interrupted by the intrusion of a harsh point amongst his waistcoat buttons. Stumbling hastily to his feet he confronted Dr. Miles Elliot.
"Wassamatter?" he demanded, in the thick tones of interrupted sleep. "What are you poking me in the ribs for?"
"McBurney's point," observed the visitor agreeably. "Now, if you had appendicitis, you'd have yelped. You haven't got appendicitis."
"Much obliged," grumped Mr. Ellis. "Couldn't you tell me that without a cane?"
"I spoke to you twice, but all you replied was 'Hoong!' As I speak only the Mandarin dialect of Chinese—"
"Sit down," said Ellis, "and tell me what you're doing in this den of vice and crime."
"Vice and crime is correct," confirmed the physician. "You're still curing cancer, consumption, corns, colds, and cramps in print, for blood money. I've come to report."
McGuire Ellis stared. "What on?"
"The Rookeries epidemic."
"Quick work," the journalist congratulated him sarcastically. "The assignment is only a little over two months old."
"Well, I might have guessed, any time in those two months, but I wanted to make certain."
"Are you certain?"
"What is it?"
"What's that? Something like typhoid?"
"It bears about the same relation to typhoid," said the Doctor, eyeing the other with solemnity, "as housemaid's knee does to sunstroke."
"Well, don't get funny with me. I don't appreciate it. Is it very serious?"
"Not more so than cholera," answered the Doctor gravely.
"Hey! Then why aren't we all dead?"
"Because it doesn't spread so rapidly. Not at first, anyway."
"How does it spread? Come on! Open up!"
"Probably by vermin. It's rare in this country. There was a small epidemic in New York in the early nineties. It was discovered early and confined to one tenement. There were sixty-three people in the tenement when they clapped on the quarantine. Thirty-two of 'em came out feet first. The only outside case was a reporter who got in and wrote a descriptive article. He died a week later."
"Sounds as if this little affair of the Rookeries might be some story."
"It is. There may have been fifty deaths to date; or maybe a hundred. We don't know."
Ellis sat back in his chair with a bump. "Who's 'we'?"
"Dr. Merritt and myself."
"The Health Bureau is on, then. What's Merritt going to do about it?"
"What can he do?"
"Give out the whole thing, and quarantine the district."
"The Mayor will remove him the instant he opens his mouth, and kill any quarantine. Merritt will be discredited in all the papers—unless the 'Clarion' backs him. Will it?"
Ellis dropped his head in his hand. "I don't know," he said finally.
"Not running an honest paper this week?" sneered the physician lightly. "By the way, where's Young Hopeful?"
"See here, Dr. Elliot," said Ellis. "You're a good old scout. If you hadn't poked me in the stomach I believe I'd tell you something."
"Try it," encouraged the other.
"All right. Here it is. They've put it up to Hal Surtaine pretty stiff, this gang of perfectly honorable business men, leading citizens, pillars of the church, porch-climbers, and pickpockets who run the city. I guess you know who I mean."
Dr. Elliot permitted himself a reserved grin.
"All right. They've got him in a clove hitch. At least it looks so. And one of the conditions for letting up on him is that he suppresses all news of the epidemic. Then they'll have the 'Clarion' right where they've got every other local paper."
"Nice town, Worthington," observed Dr. Elliot, with easy but apparently irrelevant affability.
But McGuire Ellis went red. "It's easy enough for you to sit there and be righteous," he said. "But get this straight. If the young Boss plays straight and tells 'em all to go to hell, it'll be a close call of life or death for the paper."
"And if he doesn't?"
"Easy going. Advertising'll roll in on us. Money'll come so fast we can't dodge it. Are you so blame sure what you'd do in those conditions?"
"Mac," said the brusque physician, for the first time using the familiar name: "between man and man, now: what about the boy?"
From the ancient loyalty of his race sprang McGuire Ellis's swift word, "My hand in the fire for any that loves him."
"But—stanch, do you think?" persisted the other.
"I hope it."
"Well, I wish it was you owned the 'Clarion.'"
"Do you, now? I don't. How do I know what I'd do?"
"Human lives, Mac: human lives, on this issue."
"Who else knows it's typhus, Doc?"
"Nobody but Merritt and me. You bound me in confidence, you know."
"There's one other ought to know, though."
"The Reverend Norman's all right. We could do with a few more ministers like him around the place. But why, in particular, should he know?"
"For one thing, he suspects, anyway. Then, he's down in the slums there most of the time, and he could help us. Besides, he's got some rights of safety himself. He's out in the reception room now, under guard of that man-eating office boy of yours."
"All right, if you say so."
Accordingly the Reverend Norman Hale was summoned, sworn to confidence, and informed. He received the news with a quiver of his long, gaunt features. "I was afraid it was something like that," he said. "What's to be done?"
"I'll tell you my plan," said Ellis, who had been doing some rapid thinking. "I'll put the best man in the office on the story, and give him a week on it if necessary. How soon is the epidemic likely to break, Doctor?"
"God knows," said the physician gravely.
"Well, we'll hurry him as much as we can. Our reporter will work independently. No one else on the staff will know what he's doing. I'll expect you two and Dr. Merritt to give him every help. I'll handle the story myself, at this end. And I'll see that it's set up in type by our foreman, whom I can trust to keep quiet. Therefore, only six people will know about it. I think we can keep the secret. Then, when I've got it all in shape, two pages of it, maybe, with all the facts, I'll pull a proof and hit the Boss right between the eyes with it. That'll fetch him, I think."
The others signified their approval. "But can't we do something in the mean time?" asked Dr. Elliot. "A little cleaning-up, maybe? Who owns that pest-hole?"
"Any number of people," said the clergyman. "It's very complicated, what with ground leases, agencies, and trusteeships. I dare say some of the owners don't even know that the property belongs to them."
"One of the things we might find out," said Ellis. "Might be interesting to publish."
"I'll send you a full statement of what I got about the burials in Canadaga County," promised Dr. Elliot. "Coming along, Mr. Hale?"
"No. I want to speak to Mr. Ellis about another matter." The clergyman waited until the physician had left and then said, "It's about Milly Neal."
"Well, what about her?"
"I thought you could tell me. Or perhaps Mr. Surtaine."
Remembering that encounter outside of the road house weeks before, Ellis experienced a throb of misgiving.
"Why Mr. Surtaine?" he demanded.
"Because he's her employer."
Ellis gazed hard at the young minister. He met a straight and clear regard which reassured him.
"He isn't, now," said he.
"That's bad," worried the clergyman, half to himself.
"Bad for the paper. 'Kitty the Cutie' was a feature."
"Why did she leave?"
"Just quit. Sent in word about ten days ago that she was through. No explanation."
"Mr. Ellis, I'm interested in Milly Neal," said the minister, after some hesitation. "She's helped me quite a bit with our club down here. There's a lot in that girl. But there's a queer, un-get-at-able streak, too. Do you know a man named Veltman?"
"Max? Yes. He's foreman of our composing-room."
"She's been with him a great deal lately."
"Why not? They're old friends. No harm in Veltman."
"He's a married man."
"That so! I never knew that. Well, 'Kitty the Cutie' ought to be keen enough to take care of herself."
"There's the difficulty. She doesn't seem to want to take care of herself. She's lost interest in the club. For a time she was drinking heavily at some of the all-night places. And this news of her quitting here is worst of all. She seemed so enthusiastic about the work."
"Her job's open for her if she wants to come back."
"Good! I'm glad to hear that. It gives me something to work on."
"By the way," said McGuire Ellis, "how do you like the paper?" Sooner or later he put this question to every one with whom he came in contact. What he found out in this way helped to make him the journalistic expert he was.
"Pretty well," hesitated the other.
"What's wrong with it?" inquired Ellis.
"Well, frankly, some of your advertising."
"We're the most independent paper in this town on advertising," stated Ellis with conviction.
"I know you dropped the Sewing Aid Society advertisement," admitted Hale. "But you've got others as bad. Yes, worse."
"Show 'em to me."
Leaning forward to the paper on Ellis's desk, the visitor indicated the "copy" of Relief Pills. Ellis's brow puckered.
"You're the second man to kick on that," he said. "The other was a doctor."
"It's a bad business, Mr. Ellis. It's the devil's own work. Isn't it hard enough for girls to keep straight, with all the temptations around them, without promising them immunity from the natural results of immorality?"
"Those pills won't do the trick," blurted Ellis.
"They won't?" cried the other in surprise.
"So doctors tell me."
"Then the promise is all the worse," said the clergyman hotly, "for being a lie."
"Well, I have troubles enough over the news part of the paper, without censoring the ads. When an advertiser tries to control news or editorial policy, I step in. Otherwise, I keep out. There's my platform."
Hale nodded. "Let me know how I can help on the epidemic matter," said he, and took his leave.
"The trouble with really good people," mused McGuire Ellis, "is that they always expect other people to be as good as they are. And that's expensive," sighed the philosopher, turning back to his desk.
While Ellis and his specially detailed reporter were working out the story of the Rookeries epidemic in the light of Dr. Elliot's information, Hal Surtaine, floundering blindly, sought a solution to his problem, which was the problem of his newspaper. Indeed, it meant, as far as he could judge, the end of the "Clarion" in a few months, should he decide to defy Elias M. Pierce. Against the testimony of the injured nurse, he could scarcely hope to defend the libel suits successfully. Even though the assessed damages were not heavy enough to wreck him, the loss of prestige incident to defeat would be disastrous. Moreover, there was the chance of imprisonment or a heavy fine on the criminal charge. Furthermore, if he decided to print the account of the epidemic (always supposing that he could discover what it really was), practically every local advertiser would desert him in high dudgeon over the consequent ruin of the centennial celebration. Was it better to publish an honest paper for the few months and die fighting, or compromise for the sake of life, and do what good he might through the agency of a bound, controlled, and tremulous journalistic policy?
For the first time, now that the crisis was upon him, he realized to the full how profoundly the "Clarion" had become part of his life. At the outset, only the tool of a casual though fascinating profession, later, the lever of an expanding and increasing power, the paper had insensibly intertwined with every fiber of his ambition. To a degree that startled him he had come to think, feel, and hope in terms of this thought-machine which he owned, which owned him. It had taken on for him a character; his own, yet more than his own and greater. For it spoke, not of his spirit alone, but with a composite voice; sometimes confused, inarticulate, only semi-expressive; again as with the tongues of prophecy. His ship was beginning to find herself; to evolve, from the anarchic clamor of loose effort, a harmony and a personality.
With the thought came a warm glow of loyalty to his fellow workers; to the men who, knowing more than he knew, had yet accepted his ideals so eagerly and stood to them so loyally; to the spirit that had flashed to meet his own at that first "Talk-It-Over" breakfast, and had never since flagged; to Ellis, the harsh, dogged, uncouth evangel, preaching his strange mission of honor; to Wayne, patient, silent, laborious, dependable; to young Denton, a "gentleman unafraid," facing the threats of E.M. Pierce; even to portly Shearson, struggling against such dismal odds for his poor little principle of journalism—to make the paper pay. How could he, their leader, recant his doctrine before these men?
Yet—and the qualifying thought dashed cold upon his enthusiasm—what did the alternative imply for them? The almost certain loss of their places. To be thrown into the street, a whole officeful of them, seeking jobs which didn't exist, on the collapse of the "Clarion." Could he do that to them? Did he not, at least, owe them a living? Some had come to the "Clarion" from other papers, even from other cities, attracted by its enterprise, by its "ginger," by the rumor of a fresh and higher standard in journalism. What of them? For himself he had only reputation, ethical standard, the intangible matter of existence to consider. For them it might be hunger and want. Here, indeed, was a conflicting ideal.
His mind reverted to the things he had been able to get done, in the few months of his editorial tenure; the success of some of his campaigns, the educational effect of them even where they had failed of their definite object, as had the fight for the Consumers' League. One article had put the chief gambler of the city on the defensive to an extent which seriously crippled his business. Another had killed forever the vilest den in town, a saloon back-room where vicious women gathered in young boys and taught them to snuff cocaine, and had led to an anti-cocaine ordinance, which the saloon element, who instinctively resented any species of "reform" as a threat against business, opposed. Whereupon, Hal, in an editorial on the prohibition movement, had tartly pointed out that where the saloons were openly vaunting themselves disdainful of public decency, the public was in immediate process of wiping out the saloons. Which citation of fact caused a cold chill to permeate the spines of the liquor interests, and led the large, sleek leader of that clan to make a surpassingly polite and friendly call upon Hal, who, rather to his surprise, found that he liked the man very much. They had parted, indeed, on hearty terms and the understanding that there would be no further objection to the "coke-law" from the saloon keepers. There wasn't. The liquor men kept faith.
Though aiming at independence in politics, the "Clarion" had been drawn into a number of local political fights, and more than once had gone wrong in advocating an apparently useful measure only to find itself serving some hidden politician's selfish ends. These same politicians, Hal came in time to learn, were not all bad, even the worst of them. The toughest and crookedest of the grafting aldermen felt a genuine interest and pride in his vice-sodden ward, and when the "Clarion" had helped to abate a notorious nuisance there, dropped in to see the editor.
"Mr. Surtaine," said he, chewing his cigar with some violence, "you and me ain't got much in common. You think I'm a grafter, and I think you're a lily-finger. But I came to thank you just the same for helping us out over there."
"Glad to help you out when I can," said Hal, with his disarming smile: "or to fight you when I have to."
"Shake," said the heeler. "I guess we'll average down into pretty good enemies. Lemme know whenever I can do you a turn."
Then there was the electric light fight. Since the memory of man Worthington had paid the most exorbitant gas rate in the State. The "Clarion" set out to inquire why. So insistent was its thirst for information that the "Banner" and the "Telegram" took up the cudgels for the public-spirited corporation which paid ten per cent dividends by overcharging the local public. Thereupon the "Clarion" pointed out that the president of the gas company was the second largest stockholder in the "Telegram," and that the local editorial writer of the "Banner" derived, for some unexplained reason, a small but steady income in the form of salary, from the gas company. This exposure was regarded as distinctly "not clubby" by the newspaper fraternity in general: but the public rather enjoyed it, and made such a fuss over it that a legislative investigation was ordered. Meantime, by one of those curious by-products of the journalistic output, the local university preserved to itself the services of its popular professor of political economy, who was about to be discharged for lese majeste, in that he had held up as an unsavory instance of corporate control, the Worthington Gas Company, several of whose considerable stockholders were members of the institution's board of trustees. The "Clarion" made loud and lamentable noises about this, and the board reconsidered hastily. Louder and much more lamentable were the noises made by the president of the university, the Reverend Dr. Knight, a little brother of one of the richest and greatest of the national corporations, in denunciation of the "Clarion": so much so, indeed, that they were published abroad, thereby giving the paper much extensive free advertising.
Pleasant memories, these, to Hal. Not always pleasant, perhaps, but at least vividly interesting, the widely varying types with whom his profession had brought him into contact: McGuire Ellis, "Tip" O'Farrell, the Reverend Norman Hale, Dr. Merritt, Elias M.—
The mechanism of thought checked with a wrench. Pierce had it in his power to put an end to all this. He must purchase the right to continue, and at Pierce's own price. But was the price so severe? After all, he could contrive to do much; to carry on many of his causes; to help build up a better and cleaner Worthington; to preserve a moiety of his power, at the sacrifice of part of his independence; and at the same time his paper would make money, be successful, take its place among the recognized business enterprises of the town. As for the Rookeries epidemic upon which all this turned, what did he really know of it, anyway? Very likely it had been exaggerated. Probably it would die out of itself. If lives were endangered, that was the common chance of a slum.
Then, of a sudden, memory struck at his heart with the thrust of a more vital, more personal, dread. For one day, wandering about in the stricken territory, he had seen Esme Elliot entering a tenement doorway.
A FAILURE IN TACTICS
Miss Eleanor Stanley Maxwell Elliot, home from her wanderings, stretched her hammock and herself in it between two trees in a rose-sweet nook at Greenvale, and gave herself up to a reckoning of assets and liabilities. Decidedly the balance was on the wrong side. Miss Esme could not dodge the unseemly conclusion that she was far from pleased with herself. This was perhaps a salutary frame of mind, but not a pleasant one. If possible, she was even less pleased with the world in which she lived. And this was neither salutary nor pleasant. Furthermore, it was unique in her experience. Hitherto she had been accustomed to a universe made to her order and conducted on much the same principle. Now it no longer ran with oiled smoothness.
Her trip on the Pierce yacht had been much less restful than she had anticipated. For this she blamed that sturdy knight of the law, Mr. William Douglas. Mr. Douglas's offense was that he had inveigled her into an engagement. (I am employing her own term descriptive of the transaction.) It was a crime of brief duration and swift penalty. The relation had endured just four weeks. Possibly its tenure of life might have been longer had not the young-middle-aged lawyer accepted, quite naturally, an invitation to join the cruise of the Pierce family and his fiancee. The lawyer's super-respectful attitude toward his principal client disgusted Esme. She called it servile.
For contrast she had the memory of another who had not been servile, even to his dearest hope. There were more personal contrasts of memory, too; subtler, more poignant, that flushed in her blood and made the mere presence of her lover repellent to her. The status became unbearable. Esme ended it. In plain English, she jilted the highly eligible Mr. William Douglas. To herself she made the defense that he was not what she had thought, that he had changed. This was unjust. He had not changed in the least; he probably never would change from being the private-secretary type of lawyer. Toward her, in his time of trial, he behaved not ill. Justifiably, he protested against her decision. Finding her immovable, he accepted the prevailing Worthingtonian theory of Miss Elliot's royal prerogative as regards the male sex, and returned, miserably enough, to his home and his practice.
Another difficulty had arisen to make distasteful the Pierce hospitality. Kathleen Pierce, in a fit of depression foreign to her usually blithe and easy-going nature, had become confidential and had blurted out certain truths which threw a new and, to Esme, disconcerting light upon the episode of the motor accident. In her first appeal to Esme, it now appeared, the girl had been decidedly less than frank. Therefore, in her own judgment of Hal and the "Clarion," Esme had been decidedly less than just. In her resentment, Esme had almost quarreled with her friend. Common honesty, she pointed out, required a statement to Harrington Surtaine upon the point. Would Kathleen write such a letter? No! Kathleen would not. In fact, Kathleen would be d-a-m-n-e-d, darned, if she would. Very well; then it remained only (this rather loftily) for Esme herself to explain to Mr. Surtaine. Later, she decided to explain by word of mouth. This would involve her return to Worthington, which she had come to long for. She had become sensible of a species of homesickness.
In some ill-defined way Harrington Surtaine was involved in that nostalgia. Not that she had any desire to see him! But she felt a certain justifiable curiosity—she was satisfied that it was justifiable—to know what he was doing with the "Clarion," since her established sphere of influence had ceased to be influential. Was he really as unyielding in other tests of principle as he had shown himself with her? Already she had altered her attitude to the extent of admitting that it was principle, even though mistaken. Esme had been subscribing to the "Clarion," and studying it; also she had written, withal rather guardedly, to sundry people who might throw light on the subject; to her uncle, to Dr. Hugh Merritt, her old and loyal friend largely by virtue of being one of the few young men of the place who never had been in love with her (he had other preoccupations), to young Denton the reporter, who was a sort of cousin, and to Mrs. Festus Willard, who, alone of the correspondents, suspected the underlying motive. From these sundry informants she garnered diverse opinions; the sum and substance of which was that, on the whole, Hal was fighting the good fight and with some success. Thereupon Esme hated him harder than before—and with considerably more difficulty.
On a late May day she had slipped quietly back into Worthington. That small portion of the populace which constituted Worthington society was ready to welcome her joyously. But she had no wish to be joyously welcomed. She didn't feel particularly joyous, herself. And society meant going to places where she would undoubtedly meet Will Douglas and would probably not meet Hal Surtaine. Esme confessed to herself that Douglas was rather on her conscience, a fact which, in itself, marked some change of nature in the Great American Pumess. She decided that society was a bore. For refuge she turned to her interest in the slums, where the Reverend Norman Hale, for whom she had a healthy, honest respect and liking, was, so she learned, finding his hands rather more than full. Always an enthusiast in her pursuits, she now threw herself into this to the total exclusion of all other interests.
To herself she explained this on the theory that she needed something to occupy her mind. Something else she really meant, for Mr. Harrington Surtaine was now occupying it to an inexcusable extent. She wished very much to see Harrington Surtaine, and, for the first time in her life, she feared what she wished. What she had so loftily announced to Kathleen Pierce as her unalterable determination toward the editor of the "Clarion" wasn't as easy to perform as to promise. Yet, the explanation of the partial error, into which the self-excusatory Miss Pierce had led her, was certainly due him, according to her notions of fair play. If she sent for him to come, he would, she shrewdly judged, decline. The alternative was to beard him in his office. In the strengthening and self-revealing solitude of her garden, this glowing summer day, Esme sat trying to make up her mind. A daring brown thrasher, his wings a fair match for the ruddy-golden glow in the girl's eyes, hopped into her haunt, and twittered his counsel of courage.
"I'll do it NOW," said Esme, and the bird, with a triumphant chirp of congratulation, swooped off to tell the news to the world of wings and flowers.
To the consequent interview there was no witness. So it may best be chronicled in the report made by the interviewer to her friend Mrs. Festus Willard, who, in the cool seclusion of her sewing-room, was overwhelmed by a rush of Esme to the heart, as she put it. Not having been apprised of Miss Elliot's conflicting emotions since her departure, Mrs. Willard's mind was as a page blank for impressions when her visitor burst in upon her, pirouetted around the room, appropriated the softest corner of the divan, and announced spiritedly:
"You needn't ask me where I've been, for I won't tell you; or what I've been doing, for it's my own affair; anyway, you wouldn't be interested. And if you insist on knowing, I've been revisiting the pale glimpses of the moon—at three o'clock P.M."
"What do you mean, moon?" inquired Mrs. Willard, unconsciously falling into a pit of slang.
"The moon we all cry for and don't get. In this case a haughty young editor."
"You've been to see Hal Surtaine," deduced Mrs. Willard.
"You have guessed it—with considerable aid and assistance."
"On a matter of journalistic import," said Miss Elliot solemnly.
"But you don't cry for Hal Surtaine," objected her friend, reverting to the lunar metaphor.
"Don't I? I'd have cried—I'd have burst into a perfect storm of tears—for him—or you—or anybody who so much as pointed a finger at me, I was so scared."
"Scared? You! I don't believe it."
"I don't believe it myself—now," confessed Esme, candidly. "But it felt most extremely like it at the time."
"You know I don't at all approve of—"
"Of me. I know you don't, Jinny. Neither does he."
"What did you do to him?"
"Me? I cooed at him like a dove of peace.
"But he was very stiff and proud He said, 'You needn't talk so loud,'"
chanted Miss Esme mellifluously.
"Well, if he didn't, he meant it. He wanted to know what the big, big D-e-v, dev, I was doing there, anyway."
"Norrie Elliot! Tell me the truth."
"Very well," said Miss Elliot, aggrieved. "You report the conversation, then, since you won't accept my version."
"If you would give me a start—"
"Just what he wouldn't do for me," interrupted Esme. "I went in there to explain something and he pointed the finger of scorn at me and accused me of frequenting low and disreputable localities."
"Well," replied the girl brazenly, "he said he'd seen me about the Rookeries district; and if that isn't a low—"
"Nothing more probable, though I didn't happen to see him there."
"What were you doing there?"
"Precisely what he wanted to know. He said it rather as if he owned the place. So I explained in words of one syllable that I went there to pick edelweiss from the fire escapes. Jinny, dear, you don't know how hard it is to crowd 'edelweiss' into one syllable until you've tried. It splutters."
"So do you," said the indignant Mrs. Willard. "You do worse; you gibber. If you weren't just the prettiest thing that Heaven ever made, some one would have slain you long ago for your sins."
"Pretty, yourself," retorted Esme. "My real charm lies in my rigid adherence to the spirit of truth. Your young friend Mr. Surtaine scorned my floral jest. He indicated that I ought not to be about the tenements. He said there was a great deal of sickness there. That was why I was there, I explained politely. Then he said that the sickness might be contagious, and he muttered something about an epidemic and then looked as if he wished he hadn't."
"I've heard some talk of sickness in the Rookeries. Ought you to be going there?" asked the other anxiously.
"Mr. Surtaine thinks not. Quite severely. And in elderly tones. Naturally I asked him what kind of an epidemic it was. He said he didn't know, but he was sure the place was dangerous, and he was surprised that Uncle Guardy hadn't warned me. Uncle Guardy had, but I don't do everything I'm warned about. So then I asked young Mr. Editor why, as he knew there was a dangerous epidemic about, he should warn little me privately instead of warning the big public, publicly."
"Meddlesome child! Can you never learn to keep your hands off?"
"I was spurring him to his editorial duties.
"But he was very proud and stiff ... He said that he would tell me, if—"
lilted Miss Esme, rising to do a pas seul upon the Willards' priceless Anatolian rug.
"Sit down," commanded her hostess. "If—what?"
"If nothing. Just if. That's the end of the song. Don't you know your Lewis Carroll?
"I sent a message to the fish, I told them, 'This is what I wish.' The little fishes of the sea, They sent an answer—"
"I don't want to know about the fish," disclaimed Mrs. Willard vehemently. "I want to know what happened between you and Hal Surtaine."
"And you the Vice-President of the Poetry Club!" reproached Esme. "Very well. He was very proud and—Oh, I said that before. But he really was, this time. He said, 'Our last discussion of the policy of the "Clarion" closed that topic between us.' Somebody called him away before I could think of anything mean and superior enough to answer, and when he came back—always supposing he isn't still hiding in the cellar—I was no longer present."
"Then you didn't give him the message you went for."
"No. Didn't I say I was scared?"
Mrs. Willard excused herself, ostensibly to speak to a maid; in reality to speak to a telephone. On her return she made a frontal attack:—
"Norrie, what made you break your engagement to Will Douglas?"
"Why? Don't you approve?"
"Did you break it for the same reason that drove you into it?"
"What reason do you think drove me into it?"
"He didn't!" she denied furiously.
"And you didn't break it because of him?"
"No! I broke it because I don't want to get married," cried the girl in a rush of words. "Not to Will Douglas. Or to—to anybody. Why should I? I don't want to—I won't," she continued, half laughing, half sobbing, "go and have to bother about running a house and have a lot of babies and lose my pretty figure—and get fat—and dowdy—and slow-poky—and old. Look at Molly Vane: twins already. She's a horrible example. Why do people always have to have children—"
She stopped, abruptly, herself stricken at the stricken look in the other's face. "Oh, Jinny, darling Jinny," she gasped; "I forgot! Your baby. Your little, dead baby! I'm a fool; a poor little silly fool, chattering of realities that I know nothing about."
"You will know some day, my dear," said the other woman, smiling valiantly. "Don't deny the greatest reality of all, when it comes. Are you sure you're not denying it now?"
The sunbeams crept and sparkled, like light upon ruffled waters, across Esme's obstinately shaken head.
"Perhaps you couldn't help hurting him. But be sure you aren't hurting yourself, too."
"That's the worst of it," said the girl, with one of her sudden accesses of sweet candor. "I needn't have hurt him at all. I was stupid." She paused in her revelation. "But he was stupider," she declared vindictively; "so it serves him right."
"How was he stupider?"
"He thought," said Esme with sorrowful solemnity, "that I was just as bad as I seemed. He ought to have known me better."
The older woman bent and laid a cheek against the sunny hair. "And weren't you just as bad as you seemed?"
"Worse! Anyway, I'm afraid so," said the confessional voice, rather muffled in tone. "But I—I just got led into it. Oh, Jinny, I'm not awfully happy."
Mrs. Willard's head went up and she cocked an attentive ear, like an expectant robin. "Some one outside," said she. "I'll be back in a moment. You sit there and think it over."
Esme curled back on the divan. A minute later she heard the curtains part at the end of the dim room, and glanced up with a smile, to face, not Jeannette Willard, but Hal Surtaine.
"You 'phoned for me, Lady Jinny," he began: and then, with a start, "Esme! I—I didn't expect to find you here."
"Nor I to see you," she said, with a calmness that belied her beating heart. "Sit down, please. I have something to tell you. It's what I really came to the office to say."
"About Kathleen Pierce."
Hal frowned. "Do you think there can be any use—"
"Please," she begged, with uplifted eyes of entreaty. "She—she didn't tell me the truth about that interview with your reporter. It was true; but she made me think it wasn't. She confessed to me, and she feels very badly. So do I. I believed that you had deliberately made that up, about her saying that she didn't turn back because she wanted to catch a train. I believed, too, that the editorial was written after our—our talk. I'm sorry."
Hal stood above her, looking rather stern, and a little old and worn, she thought.
"If that is an apology, it is accepted," he said with surface politeness.
To him she was, in that moment, a light-minded woman apologizing for the petty misdeed, and paying no heed to the graver wrong that she had done him. Jeannette Willard could have set him right in a word; could have shown him what the girl felt, unavowedly to herself but with underlying conviction, that for so great an offense no apology could suffice; nothing short of complete surrender. But Mrs. Willard was not there to help out. She was waiting hopefully, outside.
"And that is all?" he said, after a pause, with just a shade of contempt in his voice.
"All," she said lightly, "unless you choose to tell me how the 'Clarion' is getting on."
"As well as could be expected. We pay high for our principles. But thus far we've held to them. You should read the paper."
"To expect your approval would be too much, I suppose."
"No. In many ways I like it. In fact, I think I'll renew my subscription."
It was innocently said, without thought of the old playful bargain between them, which had terminated with the mailing of the withered arbutus. But to Hal it seemed merely a brazen essay in coquetry; an attempt to reconstitute the former relation, for her amusement.