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THE GOOD FIGHT
Earthquake or armed invasion could scarce have shocked staid Worthington more profoundly than did the "Clarion's" exposure. Of the facts there could be no reasonable doubt. The newspaper's figures were specific, and its map of infection showed no locality exempt. The city had wakened from an untroubled sleep to find itself poisoned.
As an immediate result of the journalistic tocsin, the forebodings of Dr. Surtaine and his associates as to the effects of publicity bade fair to be justified. Undeniably there was danger of the disease scattering, through the medium of runaways from the stricken houses. But the "Clarion" had its retort pat for the tribe of "I-told-you-so," admitting the prospect of some primary harm to save a great disaster later. More than one hundred lives, it pointed out, giving names and dates, had already been sacrificed to the shibboleth of secrecy; the whole city had been imperiled; the disease had set up its foci of infection in a score of places, and there were some three hundred cases, in all, known or suspected. One method only could cope with the situation: the fullest public information followed by radical hygienic measures.
Of information there was no lack. So tremendous a news feature could not be kept out of print by the other dailies, all of whom now admitted the presence of the pestilence, while insisting that its scope had been greatly exaggerated, and piously deprecating the "sensationalism" of their contemporary. Thus the city administration was forced to action. An appropriation was voted to the Health Bureau. Dr. Merritt, seizing his opportunity, organized a quarantine army, established a detention camp and isolation hospital, and descended upon the tenement districts, as terrible (to the imagination of the frantic inhabitants) as a malevolent god. The Emergency Health Committee, meantime, died and was forgotten overnight.
Something not unlike panic swept the Rookeries. Wild rumors passed from mouth to mouth, growing as they went. A military cordon, it was said, was to be cast about the whole ward and the people pent up inside to die. Refugees were to be shot on sight. The infected buildings were to be burned to the ground, and the tenants left homeless. The water-supply was to be poisoned, to get rid of the exposed--had already been poisoned, some said, and cited sudden mysterious deaths. Such savage imaginings of suspicion as could spring only from the ignorant fears of a populace beset by a secret and deadly pest, roused the district to a rat-like defiance. Such of the residents as were not home-bound by the authorities, growled in saloon back rooms and muttered in the streets. Hatred of the "Clarion" was the burden of their bitterness. Two of its reporters were mobbed in the hard-hit ward, the day after the publication of the first article.
Nor was the paper much better liked elsewhere. It was held responsible for all the troubles. Though the actuality of the quarantine fell far short of the expectant fears, still there was a mighty turmoil. Families were separated, fugitives were chased down and arrested, and close upon the heels of the primary harassment came the threat of economic complications, as factories and stores all over the city, for their own protection, dismissed employees known to live within the near range of the pestilence. In the minds of the sufferers from these measures and of their friends, the "Clarion" was an enemy to the public. But it was read with avid impatience, for Wayne, working on the principle that "it is news and not evil that stirs men," contrived to find some new sensational development for every issue. Do what the rival papers might, the "Clarion" had and held the windward course.
Representative Business, that Great Mogul of Worthington, was, of course, outraged by the publication. Hal Surtaine was an ill bird who had fouled his own nest. The wires had carried the epidemic news to every paper in the country, and Worthington was proclaimed "unclean" to the ears of all. The Old Home Week Committee on Arrangements held a hasty meeting to decide whether the celebration should be abandoned or postponed, but could come to no conclusion. Denunciation of the "Clarion" for its course was the sole point upon which all the speakers agreed. Also there was considerable incidental criticism of its editor, as an ingrate, for publishing the article on Milly Neal's death which reflected so severely upon Dr. Surtaine. As the paper had been bought with Dr. Surtaine's hard cash, the least Hal could have done, in decency, was to refrain from "roasting" the source of the money. Such was the general opinion. The representative business intellect of Worthington failed to consider that the article had been confined rigidly to a statement of facts, and that any moral or ethical inference must be purely a derivative of those facts as interpreted by the reader. Several of those present at the meeting declared vehemently that they would never again either advertise in or read the "Clarion." There was even talk of a boycott. One member was so incautious as to condole with Dr. Surtaine upon his son's disloyalty. The old quack's regard fell upon his tactless comforter, dull and heavy as lead.
"My son is my son," said he; "and what's between us is our own business. Now, as to Old Home Week, it'll be time enough to give up when we're licked." And, adroit opportunist that he was, he urged upon the meeting that they support the Health Bureau as the best hope of clearing up the situation.
Amongst the panic-stricken, meanwhile, moved and worked the volunteer forces of hygiene, led by the Reverend Norman Hale. Weakened and unfit though he was, he could not be kept from the battle-ground, notwithstanding that Dr. Merritt, fearing for his life, had threatened him with kidnaping and imprisonment in the hospital. At Hale's right hand were Esmé Elliot and Kathleen Pierce. There had been one scene at Greenvale approaching violence on Dr. Elliot's part and defiance on that of his niece when her guardian had flatly forbidden the continuance of her slum work. It had ended when the girl, creeping up under the guns of his angry eyes, had dropped her head on his shoulder, and said in unsteady tones:--
"I--I'm not a very happy Esmé, Uncle Guardy. If I don't have something to do--something real--I'll--I'll c-c-cry and get my pretty nose all red."
"Quit it!" cried the gruff doctor desperately. "What d'ye mean by acting that way! Go on. Do as you like. But if Merritt lets anything happen to you--"
"Nothing will happen, Guardy. I'll be careful," promised the girl.
"Well, I don't know whatever's come over you, lately," retorted her uncle, troubled.
"Neither do I," said Esmé.
She went forth and enlisted Kathleen Pierce, whose energetic and restless mind was ensnared at once by what she regarded as the romantic possibilities of the work, and the two gathered unto themselves half a dozen of the young males of the species, who readily volunteered, partly for love and loyalty to the chieftainesses of their clan, partly out of the blithe and adventurous spirit of youth, and of them formed an automobile corps, for scouting, messenger service, and emergency transportation, as auxiliary to Hale and Merritt; an enterprise which subsequently did yeoman work and taught several of the gilded youth something about the responsibilities of citizenship which they would never have learned in any other school.
Tip O'Farrell was another invaluable aide. He had one brief encounter, on enlistment, with the health officer.
"You ought to be in jail," said Dr. Merritt.
"What fer?" demanded O'Farrell.
"Smuggling out bodies without a permit."
"Ferget it," advised the politician. "I tried my way, an' it wasn't good enough. Now I'll try yours. You can't afford to jug me."
"Why can't I?"
"I'm too much use to you."
"So far you've been just the other thing."
"Ain't I tellin' you I'm through with that game? On the level! Doc, these poor boobs down here know me. They'll do as I tell 'em. Gimme a chance."
So O'Farrell, making his chance, did his work faithfully and well through the dismal weeks to follow. It takes all kinds of soldiers to fight an epidemic.
Those two sturdy volunteers, Miss Elliot and Miss Pierce, were driving slowly along the fringe of the Rookeries,--yes, slowly, notwithstanding that Kathleen Pierce was acting as her own chauffeur,--having just delivered a consignment of emergency nurses from a neighboring city to Dr. Merritt, when the car slowed down.
"Did you see that?" inquired Miss Pierce, indicating, with a jerk of her head, the general topography off to starboard.
"See what?" inquired her companion. "I didn't notice anything except a hokey-pokey seller, adding his mite to the infant mortality of the district."
"Esmé, you talk like nothing human lately!" accused her friend. "You're a--a--regular health leaflet! I meant that man going into the corner tenement. I believe it was Hal Surtaine."
"And you needn't say, 'Was it?' in that lofty, superior tone, like an angel with a new halo, either," pursued her aggrieved friend. "You know it was. What do you suppose he's doing down here?"
"The epidemic is the 'Clarion's' special news. He spends quite a little time in this district, I believe."
"Oh, you believe! Then you've seen him lately?"
Miss Pierce stared rigidly in front of her and made a detour of magnificent distance to avoid a push-cart which wasn't in her way anyhow. "Esmé," she said.
"Did you give me away to him?"
"No. He didn't give me an opportunity."
"Oh!" There was more silence. Then, "Esmé, I was pretty rotten about that, wasn't I?"
"Why, Kathie, I think you ought to have written to him."
"I meant to write and own up, no matter if I did tell you I wouldn't. But I kept putting it off. Esmé, did you notice how thin and worn he looks?"
The other winced. "He's had a great deal to worry him."
"Well, he hasn't got our lawsuit to worry him any more. That's off."
"Off?" A light flashed into Esmé's face. "Your father has dropped it?"
"Yes. He had to. I told him the accident was my fault, and if I was put on the stand I'd say so. I'm not so popular with Pop as I might be, just now. But, Esmé, I didn't mean to run away and leave her in the gutter. I got rattled, and Brother was crying and I lost my head."
"That will save the 'Clarion,'" said Esmé, with a deep breath.
Kathleen looked at her curiously, and then made a singular remark. "Yes; that's what I did it for."
"But what interest have you in saving the 'Clarion'?" demanded Esmé, bewildered.
"The failure of the 'Clarion' would be a disaster to the city," observed Miss Pierce in copy-book style.
"Kathie! You should make two jabs in the air with your forefinger when you quote. Otherwise you're a plagiarist. Let me see." Esmé pondered. "Hugh Merritt," she decided.
Kathleen kept her eyes steady ahead, but a flood of color rose in her face.
"I had an awful fight over it with him before--before I gave in," she said.
"Are you going to marry Hugh?" demanded Esmé bluntly.
The color deepened until even the velvety eyes seemed tinged with it. "I don't know. He isn't exactly popular with Pop, either."
Esmé reached over and gave her friend a surreptitious little hug, which might have cost a crossing pedestrian his life if he hadn't been a brisk dodger.
"Hugh Merritt is a man," said she in a low voice: "He's brave and he's straight and he's fine. And oh, Kathie, dearest, if a man of that kind loves you, don't you ever, ever let anything come between you."
"Hello!" said Kathleen in surprise. "That don't sound much like the Great American Man-eating Pumess of yore. There's been a big change in you since you sidetracked Will Douglas, Esmé. Did you really care? No, of course, you didn't," she answered herself. "He's a nice chap, but he isn't particularly brave or fine, I guess."
A light broke in upon her:
"Esmé! Is it, after all--"
"No, no, no, no, NO!" cried the victim of this highly feminine deduction, in panic. "It isn't any one."
"No, of course it isn't, dear. I didn't mean to tease you. Hello! what have we here?"
The car stopped with a jar on a side street, some distance from the quarantined section. Seated on the curb a woman was wailing over the stiffened form of a young child. The boy's teeth were clenched and his face darkly suffused.
"Convulsions," said Esmé.
The two girls were out of the car simultaneously. The agonized mother, an Italian, was deaf to Esmé's persuasions that the child be turned over to them.
"What shall we do?" she asked, turning to Kathleen in dismay. "I think he's dying, and I can't make the woman listen."
Something of her father's stern decisiveness of character was in Kathleen Pierce.
"Don't be a fool!" she said briskly to the mother, and she plucked the child away from her. "Start the car, Esmé."
The woman began to shriek. A crowd gathered. O'Farrell providentially appeared from around a corner. "Grab her, you," she directed O'Farrell.
The politician hesitated. "What's the game?" he began. Then he caught sight of Esmé. "Oh, it's you, Miss Elliot. Sure. Hi! Can it!" he shouted, fending off the distracted mother. "They'll take the kid to the hospital. See? You go along quiet, now."
Speeding beyond all laws, but under protection of their red cross, they all but ran down Dr. Merritt and stopped to take him in. He confirmed Esmé's diagnosis.
"It'll be touch and go whether we save him," said he.
Esmé carried the stricken child into the hospital ward. The two volunteers waited outside for word. In an hour it came. The boy would probably live, thanks to their promptitude.
"But you ought not to be picking up chance infants around the district," he protested. "It isn't safe."
"Oh, we belong to the St. Bernard tribe," retorted Miss Pierce. "We take 'em as we find 'em. Hugh, come and lunch with us."
The grayish young man looked at her wistfully. "Haven't time," he said.
"No: I didn't suppose you'd step aside from the thorny path, even to eat," she retorted; and Esmé, hearing the new tone under the flippant words, knew that all was well with the girl, and envied her with a great and gentle envy.
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