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THE VISION SPLENDID (5)

2006-08-28 22:51

    Lies need only age to make them respectable. Given that, they become traditions and are put upon a pedestal. Then the gentlest word for him who attacks them is traitor. ——From the Note Book of a Dreamer.

    THE REBEL FOLLOWS THE RAMIFICATIONS OF BIG BUSINESS AND FINDS THAT THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY ARE NOT IN POLITICS FOR THEIR HEALTH

    "Hmp! Want to be a reporter, do you?"

    Warren, city editor on the Advocate, leaned back in his chair and looked Jeff over sharply.

    "Yes."

    "It's a hell of a life. Better keep out."

    "I'd like to try it."

    "Any experience?"

    "Only correspondence. I've had two years at college."

    The city editor snorted. He had the unreasoning contempt for college men so often found in the old-time newspaper hack.

    "Then you don't want to be a reporter. You want to be a journalist," he jeered.

    "They kicked me out," Jeff went on quietly.

    "Sounds better. Why?"

    Jeff hesitated. "I got drunk."

    "Can't use you," Warren cut in hastily.

    "I've quit——sworn off."

    The city editor was back on the job, his eyes devouring copy. "Heard that before. Nothing to it," he grunted.

    "Give me a trial. I'll show you."

    "Don't want a man that drinks. Office crowded with 'em already."

    Jeff held his ground. For five minutes the attention of Warren was focused on his work. Suddenly he snapped out, "Well?"

    He met Farnum's ingratiating smile. "You haven't told me yet what to start doing."

    "I told you I didn't want you."

    "But you do. I'm on the wagon."

    "For how long?" jeered the city editor.

    "For good."

    Warren sized him up again. He saw a cleareyed young fellow without a superfluous ounce of flesh on him, not rugged but with a look of strength in the slender figure and the thin face. This young man somehow inspired confidence.

    "Sent in that Colby story to us, didn't you?"

    "Yes."

    "Rotten story. Not half played up. Report to Jenkins at the City Hall."

    "Now?"

    "Now. Think I meant next year?"

    The city editor was already lost in the reading of more copy.

    Inside of half an hour Jeff was at work on his first assignment. Some derelict had committed suicide under the very shadow of the City Hall. Upon the body was a note scrawled on the bask of a dirty envelope.

    Sick and out of work. Notify Henry Simmons,  River Street, San Francisco.

    Jenkins, his hands in his pockets, looked at the body indifferently and turned the story over to the cub with a nod of his head.

    "Go to it. Half a stick," he said.

    From another reporter Jeff learned how much half a stick is. He wrote the account. When he had read it Jenkins glanced sharply at him. Though only the barest facts were told there was a sob in the story.

    "That ain't just how we handle vag suicides, but we'll let 'er go this time," he commented.

    It did not take Jeff long to learn how to cover a story to the satisfaction of the city editor. He had only to be conventional, sensational, and in general accurate as to his facts. He fraternized with his fellow reporters at the City Hall, shared stories with them, listened to the cheerful lies they told of their exploits, and lent them money they generally forgot to return. They were a happy-go-lucky lot, full of careless generosities and Bohemian tendencies. Often a week's salary went at a single poker sitting. Most of them drank a good deal.

    After a few months' experience Jeff discovered that while the gathering of news tends to sharpen the wits it makes also for the superficial. Alertness, cleverness, persistence, a nose for news, and a surface accuracy were the chief qualities demanded of him by the office. He had only to look around him to see that the profession was full of keen-eyed, nimble-witted old-young men who had never attempted to synthesize the life they were supposed to be recording and interpreting. While at work they were always in a hurry, for to-day's news is dead tomorrow. They wrote on the run, without time for thought or reflection. Knowing beyond their years, the fruit of their wisdom was cynicism. Their knowledge withered for lack of roots.

    The tendency of the city desk and of copy readers is to reduce all reporters to a dead level, but in spite of this Jeff managed to get himself into his work. He brought to many stories a freshness, a point of view, an optimism that began to be noticed. From the police run Jeff drifted to other departments. He covered hotels, the court house, the state house and general assignments.

    At the end of a couple of years he was promoted to a desk position. This did not suit him, and he went back to the more active work of the street. In time he became known as a star man. From dramatics he went to politics, special stories and feature work. The big assignments were given him.

    It was his duty to meet famous people and interview them. The chance to get behind the scenes at the real inside story was given him. Because of this many reputations were pricked like bubbles so far as he was concerned. The mask of greatness was like the false faces children wear to conceal their own. In the one or two really big men he met Jeff discovered a humility and simplicity that came from self-forgetfulness. They were too busy with their vision of truth to pose for the public admiration.

    It was while Jeff was doing the City Hall run that there came to him one night at his rooms a man he had known in the old days when he had lived in the river bottom district. If he was surprised to see him the reporter did not show it.

    "Hello, Burke! Come in. Glad to see you." Farnum took the hat of his guest and relieved his awkwardness by guiding him to a chair and helping him get his pipe alight.

    "How's everything? Little Mike must be growing into a big boy these days. Let's see. It's three years since I've seen him."

    A momentary flicker lit the gloomy eyes of the Irishman. "He's a great boy, Mike is. He often speaks of you, Mr. Farnum.

    "Glad to know it. And Mrs. Burke?"

    "Fine."

    "That leaves only Patrick Burke. I suppose he hasn't fallen off the water wagon yet."

    The occupation of Burke had been a threadbare joke between them in the old days. He drove a street sprinkler for the city.

    "That's what he has. McGuire threw the hooks into me this mor- rning. I've drove me last day."

    "What's the matter?"

    "I'm too damned honest. . . . or too big a coward. Take your choice."

    "All right. I've taken it," smiled the reporter.

    Pat brought his big fist down on the table so forcefully that the books shook. "I'll not go to the penitentiary for an-ny man. . . . He wanted me to let him put two other teams on the rolls in my name. I wouldn't stand for it. That was six weeks ago. To-day he lets me out."

    Jeff began to see dimly the trail of the serpent graft. He lit his pipe before he spoke.

    "Don't quite get the idea, Pat. Why wouldn't you?"

    "Because I'm on the level. I'll have no wan tellin' little Mike his father is a dirty thief. . . .It's this way. The rolls were to be padded, understand."

    "I see. You were to draw pay for three teams when you've got only one."

    "McGuire was to draw it, all but a few dollars a month." The Irishman leaned forward, his eyes blazing. "And because I wouldn't stand for it I'm fired for neglecting my duty. I missed a street yesterday. If he'd been frientlly to me I might have missed forty. . . . But he can't throw me down like that. I've got the goods to show he's a dirty grafter. Right now he's drawing pay for seven teams that don't exist."

    "And he doesn't know you know it?"

    "You bet he don't. I've guessed it for a month. To-day I went round and made sure."

    Jeff asked questions, learned all that Burke had to tell him. In the days that followed he ran down the whole story of the graft so secretly that not even the city editor knew what he was about. Then he had a talk with the "old man" and wrote his story.

    It was a red-hot exposure of one of the most flagrant of the City Hall gang. There was no question of the proof. He had it in black and white. Moreover, there was always the chance that in the row which must follow McGuire might peach on Big Tim himself, the boss of all the little bosses.

    Within twenty-four hours Jeff was summoned to a conference at which were present the city editor and Warren, now managing editor.

    "We've killed your story, Farnum," announced the latter as soon as the door was closed.

    "Why? I can prove every word of it."

    "That was what we were afraid of."

    "It's a peach of a story. With the spring elections coming on we need some dynamite to blow up Big Tim. I tell you McGuire would tell all he knows to save his own skin."

    "My opinion, too," agreed Warren dryly. "My boy, it's too big a story. That's the whole trouble. If we were sure it would stop at McGuire we'd run it. But it won't. The corporations are backing Big Tim to win this spring. It won't do to get him tied up in a graft scandal."

    "But the _Advocate_ has been out after his scalp for years."

    "Well, we're not after it any more. Of course, we're against him on the surface still." Jeff did some rapid thinking. "Then the program will be for us to nominate a weak ticket and elect Big Tim's by default. Is that it?"

    "That's about it. The big fellows have to make sure of a Mayor who will be all right about the Gas and Electric franchise. So we're going to have four more years of Big Tim."

    "Will Brownell stand for it?"

    Brownell was the principal owner of the _Advocate._

    "Will he?" Warren let his eyelash rest for a second upon the cheek nearest Jeff. "He's been seen. My orders come direct from the old man."

    The story was suppressed. No more was heard about the McGuire graft scandal exposure. It had run counter to the projects of big business.

    Burke had to be satisfied without his revenge.

    He got a job with a brewery and charged the McGuire matter to profit and loss.

    As for Jeff the incident only served to make clearer what he already knew. More and more he began to understand the forces that dominate our cities, the alliance between large vested interests and the powers that prey. These great corporations were seekers of special privileges. To secure this they financed the machines and permitted vice and corruption. He saw that ultimately most of the shame for the bad government of American cities rests upon the Fromes and the Merrills.

    As for the newspapers, he was learning that between the people and an independent press stand the big advertisers. These make for conservatism, for an unfair point of view, for a slant in both news recording and news interpretation. Yet he saw that the press is in spite of this a power for good. The evil that it does is local and temporary, the good general and permanent.

    The spirit of commercialism that dominated America during the nineties and the first years of the new century never got hold of Jeff. The air and the light of his land were often the creation of a poet's dream. The delight of life stabbed him, so, too, did its tragedy. Not anchored to conventions, his mind was forever asking questions, seeking answers. He would come out from a theater into a night that was a flood of illumination. Electric signs poured a glare of light over the streets. Motor cars and electrics whirled up to take away beautifully gowned women and correctly dressed men. The windows of the department stores were filled with imported luxuries. And he would sometimes wonder how much of misery and trouble was being driven back by that gay blare of wealth, how many men and women and children were giving their lives to maintain a civilization that existed by trampling over their broken hearts and bodies.

    Preventable poverty stared at him from all sides. He saw that our social fabric is thrown together in the most haphazard fashion, without scientific organization, with the greatest waste, in such a way that non-producers win all the prizes while the toilers do without. Yet out of this system that sows hate and discontent, that is a practical denial of brotherhood, of God, springs here and there love like a flower in a dunghill.

    He felt that art and learning, as well as beauty and truth, ought to walk hand in hand with our daily lives. But this is impossible so long as disorder and cruelty and disease are in the world unnecessarily. He heard good people, busy with effects instead of causes, talk about the way out, as if there could be any way out which did not offer an equality of opportunity refused by the whole cruel system of to-day.

    But Jeff could be in revolt without losing his temper. The men who profited by present conditions were not monsters. They were as kind of heart as he was, effects of the system just as much as the little bootblack on the corner. No possible good could come of a blind hatred of individuals.

    His Bohemian instinct sent Jeff ranging far in those days. He made friends out of the most unlikely material. Some of the most radical of these were in the habit of gathering informally in his rooms about once a week. Sometimes the talk was good and pungent. Much of it was merely wild.

    His college friend, Sam Miller, now assistant city librarian, was one of this little circle. Another was Oscar Marchant, a fragile little Socialist poet upon whom consumption had laid its grip. He was not much of a poet, but there burnt in him a passion for humanity that disease and poverty could not extinguish.

    One night James Farnum dropped in to borrow some money from his cousin and for ten minutes listened to such talk as he had never heard before. His mind moved among a group of orthodox and accepted ideas. A new one he always viewed as if it were a dynamite bomb timed to go off shortly. He was not only suspicious of it; he was afraid of it.

    James was, it happened, in evening dress. He took gingerly the chair his cousin offered him between the hectic Marchant and a little Polish Jew.

    The air was blue with the smoke from cheap tobacco. More than one of those present carried the marks of poverty. But the note of the assembly was a cheerful at-homeness. James wondered what the devil his cousin meant by giving this heterogeneous gathering the freedom of his rooms.

    Dickinson, the single-taxer, was talking bitterly. He was a big man with a voice like a foghorn. His idea of emphasis appeared to be pounding the table with his blacksmith fist.

    "I tell you society doesn't want to hear about such things," he was declaiming. "It wants to go along comfortably without being disturbed. Ignore everything that's not pleasant, that's liable to harrow the feelings. The sins of our neighbors make spicy reading. Fill the papers with 'em. But their distresses and their poverty! That's different. Let's hear as little about them as possible. Let's keep it a well-regulated world."

    Nearly everybody began to talk at once. James caught phrases here and there out of the melee.

    ". . . Democratic institutions must either decay or become revitalized. . . .To hell with such courts. They're no better than anarchy. . . .In Verden there are only two classes: those who don't get as much as they earn and those who get more. . . . Tell you we've got to get back to the land, got to make it free as air. You can't be saved from economic slavery till you have socialism. . . ."

    Suddenly the hubbub subsided and Marchant had the floor. "All of life's a compromise, a horrible unholy giving up as unpractical all the best things. It's a denial of love, of Christ, of God."

    A young preacher who was conducting a mission for sailors on the water front cut in. "Exactly. The church is radically wrong because——" "Because it hasn't been converted to Christianity yet. Mr. Moneybags in the front pew has got a strangle hold on the parson. Begging your pardon, Mifflin. We know you're not that kind."

    Marchant won the floor again. "Here's the nub of it. A man's a slave so long as his means of livelihood is dependent on some other man. I don't care whether it's lands or railroads or mines. Abolish private property and you abolish poverty."

    They were all at it again, like dogs at a bone. Across the Babel James caught Jeff's gay grin at him.

    By sheer weight Dickinson's voice boomed out of the medley.

    ". . . just as Henry George says: 'Private ownership of land is the nether mill-stone. Material progress is the upper mill-stone. Between them, with an increasing pressure, the working classes are being ground.' We're just beginning to see the effect of private property in land. Within a few years. . . ."

    "What we need is to get back to Democracy. Individualism has run wild. . . ."

    "Trouble is we can't get anywhere under the Constitution. Every time we make a move——check. It was adopted by aristocrats to hold back the people and that's what it's done. Law——"

    Apparently nobody got a chance to finish his argument. The Polish Jew broke in sharply. "Law! There iss no law."

    "Plenty of it, Sobieski, Go out on the streets and preach your philosophic anarchy if you don't believe it. See what it will do to you. Law's a device to bolster up the strong and to hammer down the weak."

    James had given a polite cynical indulgence to views so lost to reason and propriety. But he couldn't quite stand any more. He made a sign to Jeff and they adjourned to the next room.

    "Your friends always so——so enthusiastic?" he asked with the slightest lift of his upper lip.

    "Not always. They're a little excited to-night because Harshaw imprisoned those fourteen striking miners for contempt of court."

    "Don't manufacture bombs here, do you?"

    Jeff laughed. "We're warranted harmless." James offered him good advice. "That sort of talk doesn't lead to anything——except trouble. Men who get on don't question the fundamentals of our social system. It doesn't do, you know. Take the constitution. Now I've studied it. A wonderful document. Gladstone said."

    "Yes, I know what Gladstone said. I don't agree with him. The constitution was devised by men with property as a protection against those who had none."

    "Why shouldn't it have been?"

    "It should, if vested interests are the first thing to consider. In there"-with a smiling wave of his hand——"they think people are more important than things. A most unsettling notion!"

    "Mean to say you believe all that rant they talk?"

    "Not quite," Jeff laughed.

    "Well, I'd cut that bunch of anarchists if I were you," his cousin suggested. "Say, Jeff, can you let me have fifty dollars?"

    Jeff considered. He had been thinking of a new spring overcoat, but his winter one would do well enough. From the office he could get an advance of the balance he needed to make up the fifty.

    "Sure. I'll bring it to your rooms to-morrow night."

    "Much obliged. Hate to trouble you," James said lightly. "Well, I won't keep you longer from your anarchist friends. Good-night."

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