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Echoes of the Talk-it-Over Breakfast rang briskly in the "Clarion" office. It was suggested to Hal that the success of the function warranted its being established as a regular feature of the shop. Later this was done. One of the participants, however, was very ill-pleased with the morning's entertainment. Dr. Surtaine saw, in retrospect and in prospect, his son being led astray into various radical and harebrained vagaries of journalism. None of those at the breakfast had foreseen more clearly than the wise and sharpened quack what serious difficulties beset the course which Hal had laid out for himself.
Trouble was what Dr. Surtaine hated above all things. Whatever taste for the adventurous he may have possessed had been sated by his career as an itinerant. Now he asked only to be allowed to hatch his golden dollars peacefully, afar from all harsh winds of controversy. That his own son should feel a more stirring ambition left him clucking, a bewildered hen on the brink of perilous waters.
But he clucked cunningly. And before he undertook his appeal to bring the errant one back to shore he gave himself two days to think it over. To this extent Dr. Surtaine had become a partisan of the new enterprise; that he, too, previsioned an ideal newspaper, a newspaper which, day by day, should uphold and defend the Best Interests of the Community, and, as an inevitable corollary, nourish itself on their bounty. By the Best Interests of the Community--he visualized the phrase in large print, as a creed for any journal--Dr. Surtaine meant, of course, business in the great sense. Gloriously looming in the future of his fancy was the day when the "Clarion" should develop into the perfect newspaper, the fine flower of journalism, an organ in which every item of news, every line of editorial, every word of advertisement, should subserve the one vital purpose, Business; should aid in some manner, direct or indirect, in making a dollar for the "Clarion's" patrons and a dime for the "Clarion's" till. But how to introduce these noble and fortifying ideals into the mind of that flighty young bird, Hal?
Dr. Surtaine, after studying the problem, decided to employ the instance of the Mid-State and Great Muddy River Railroad as the entering wedge of his argument. Hal owned a considerable block of stock, earning the handsome dividend of eight per cent. Under attacks possibly leading to adverse legislation, this return might well be reduced and Hal's own income suffer a shrinkage. Therefore, in the interests of all concerned, Hal ought to keep his hands off the subject. Could anything be clearer?
Obviously not, the senior Surtaine thought, and so laid it before the junior, one morning as they were walking down town together. Hal admitted the assault upon the Mid-and-Mud; defended it, even; added that there would be another phase of it presently in the way of an attempt on the part of the paper to force a better passenger service for Worthington. Dr. Surtaine confessed a melancholious inability to see what the devil business it was of Hal's.
"It isn't I that's making the fight, Dad. It's the 'Clarion.'"
"The same thing."
"Not at all the same thing. Something very much bigger than I or any other one man. I found that out at the breakfast."
That breakfast! Socialistic, anarchistic, anti-Christian, were the climactic adjectives employed by Dr. Surtaine to signify his disapproval of the occasion.
"Sorry you didn't like it, Dad. You heard nothing but plain facts."
"Plain slush! Just look at this railroad accident article broad-mindedly, Boyee. You own some Mid-and-Mud stock."
"Thanks to you, Dad."
"Paying eight per cent. How long will it go on paying that if the newspapers keep stirring up trouble for it? Anti-railroad sentiment is fostered by just such stuff as the 'Clarion' printed. What if the engineer was worked overtime? He got paid for it."
"And seven people got killed for it. I understand the legislature is going to ask why, mainly because of our story and editorial."
"There you are! Sicking a pack of demagogues onto the Mid-and-Mud. How can it make profits and pay your dividends if that kind of thing keeps up?"
"I don't know that I need dividends earned by slaughtering people," said Hal slowly.
"Maybe you don't need the dividends, but there's plenty of people that do, people that depend on 'em. Widows and orphans, too."
"Oh, that widow-and-orphan dummy!" cried Hal. "What would the poor, struggling railroads ever do without it to hide behind!"
"You talk like Ellis," reproved his father. "Boyee, I don't want you to get too much under his influence. He's an impractical will-o'-the-wisp chaser. Just like all the writing fellows."
By this time they had reached the "Clarion" Building.
"Come in, Dad," invited Hal, "and we'll talk to Ellis about Old Home Week. He's with you there, anyway."
"Oh, he's all right aside from his fanatical notions," said the other as they mounted the stairs.
The associate editor nodded his greetings from above a pile of left-over copy.
"Old Home Week?" he queried. "Let's see, when does it come?"
"In less than six months. It isn't too early to give it a start, is it?" asked Hal Surtaine.
"No. It's news any time, now."
"More than that," said Dr. Surtaine. "It's advertising. I can turn every ad. that goes out to the 'Clarion.'"
"Last year we got only the pickings," remarked Ellis.
"Last year your owner wasn't the son of the committee's chairman."
"By the way, Dad, I'll have to resign that secretaryship. Every minute of my spare time I'm going to put in around this office."
"I guess you're right. But I'm sorry to lose you."
"Think how much more I can do for the celebration with this paper than I could as secretary."
"Some one at the breakfast," observed Hal, "mentioned the Rookeries, and Wayne shut him up. What are the Rookeries? I've been trying to remember to ask."
The other two looked at each other with raised eyebrows. As well might one have asked, "What is the City Hall?" in Worthington. Ellis was the one to answer.
"Hell's hole and contamination. The worst nest of tenements in the State. Two blocks of 'em, owned by our best citizens. Run by a political pull. So there's no touching 'em."
"What's up there now; more murders?" asked the Doctor.
"Somebody'll be calling it that if it goes much further," replied the newspaper man. "I don't know what the official alias of the trouble is. If you want details, get Wayne."
In response to a telephone call the city editor presented his lank form and bearded face at the door of the sanctum. "The Rookeries deaths?" he said. "Oh, malaria--for convenience."
"Malaria?" repeated Dr. Surtaine. "Why, there aren't any mosquitoes in that locality now."
"So the health officer, Dr. Merritt, says. But the certificates keep coming in. He's pretty worried. There have been over twenty cases in No. 7 and No. 9 alone. Three deaths in the last two days."
"Is it some sort of epidemic starting?" asked Hal. "That would be news, wouldn't it?"
At the word "epidemic," Dr. Surtaine had risen, and now came forward flapping his hand like a seal.
"The kind of news that never ought to get into print," he exclaimed. "That's the sort of thing that hurts a whole city."
"So does an epidemic if it gets a fair start," suggested Ellis.
"Epidemic! Epidemic!" cried the Doctor. "Ten years ago they started a scare about smallpox in those same Rookeries. The smallpox didn't amount to shucks. But look what the sensationalism did to us. It choked off Old Home Week, and lost us hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"I was a cub on the 'News' then," said Wayne. "And I remember there were a lot of deaths from chicken-pox that year. I didn't suppose people--that is, grown people--died of chicken-pox very often: not more often, say, than they die of malaria where there are no mosquitoes."
"Suspicion is one thing. Fact is another," said Dr. Surtaine decisively. "Hal, I hope you aren't going to take up with this nonsense, and risk the success of the Centennial Old Home Week."
"I can't see what good we should be doing," said the new editor.
"It's big news, if it's true," suggested Wayne, rather wistfully. "Suppression of a real epidemic."
"Ghost-tales and goblin-shine," laughed the big doctor, recovering his good humor. "Who's the physician down there?"
"Dr. De Vito, an Italian. Nobody else can get into the Rookeries to see a case. O'Farrell's the agent, and he sees to that."
"Tip O'Farrell, the labor politician? I know him. And I know De Vito well. In fact, he does part-time work in the Certina plant. I'll tell you what, Hal. I'll just make a little expert investigation of my own down there, and report to you."
"The 'Clarion's' Special Commissioner, Dr. L. André Surtaine," said Ellis sonorously.
"No publicity, boys. This is a secret commission. And here's your chance right now to make the 'Clarion' useful to the committee, Hal, by keeping all scare-stuff out of the paper."
"If it really does amount to anything, wouldn't it be better," said Hal, "to establish a quarantine and go in there and stamp the thing out? We've plenty of time before Old Home Week."
"No; no!" cried the Doctor. "Think of the publicity that would mean. It would be a year before the fear of it would die out. Every other city that's jealous of Worthington would make capital of it and thousands of people whose money we want would be scared away."
Ellis drew Wayne aside. "What does Dr. Merritt really think? Smallpox?"
"No. The place has been too well vaccinated. It might be scarlet fever, or diphtheria, or even meningitis. Merritt wants to go in there and open it up, but the Mayor won't let him. He doesn't dare take the responsibility without any newspaper backing. And none of the other papers dares tackle the ownership of the Rookeries."
"Then we ought to. A good, rousing sensation of that sort is just what the paper needs."
"We won't get it. There's too many ropes on the Boy Boss. First the girl and now the old man."
"Wait and see. He's got good stuff in him and he's being educated every day. Give him time."
"Mr. Wayne, I'd like to see the health office reports," called Hal, and the two went out.
Selecting one of his pet cigars, Dr. Surtaine advanced upon McGuire Ellis, extending it. "Mac, you're a good fellow at bottom," he said persuasively.
"What's the price," asked Ellis, "of the cigar and the compliment together? In other words, what do you want of me?"
"Keep your hands off the boy."
"Didn't I offer fair and square to match you for his soul? You insisted on fight."
"If you'd just let him alone," pursued the quack, "he'd come around right side up with care. He's sound and sensible at bottom. He's got a lot of me in him. But you keep feeding him up on your yellow journal ideas. What'll they ever get him? Trouble; nothing but trouble. Even if you should make a sort of success of the paper with your wild sensationalism it wouldn't be any real good to Hal. It wouldn't get him anywhere with the real people. It'd be a sheet he'd always have to be a little ashamed of. I tell you what, Mac, in order to respect himself a man has got to respect his business."
"Just so," said McGuire Ellis. "Do you respect your business, Doc?"
"Do I!! It makes half a million a year clear profit."
The associate editor turned to his work whistling softly.
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