Chapter XVIII - The Treachery Of H. Fisbee
An Indiana town may lie asleep a long time, but there always comes a day when it wakes up; and Plattville had wakened in August when the "Herald" became a daily and Eph Watts struck oil. It was then that history began to be made. The "Herald" printed News, and the paper was sold every morning at stands in all the towns in that section of the State. Its circulation tripled. Parker talked of new presses; two men were added to his staff, and a reporter was brought from Rouen to join Mr. Fisbee. The "Herald" boomed the oil-field; people swarmed into town; the hotel was crowded; strangers became no sensation whatever. A capitalist bought the whole north side of the Square to erect new stores, and the Carlow Bank began the construction of a new bank building of Bedford stone on Main Street. Then it was whispered, next affirmed, that the "Herald" had succeeded in another of its enterprises, and Main Street was to be asphalted. That was the end of the "old days" of Plattville.
There was a man who had laid the foundation upon which the new Plattville was to be built; he who, through the quiet labor of years, had stamped his spirit upon the people, as their own was stamped upon him; but he lay sick in his friend's house and did not care. One day Meredith found him propped up in bed, reading a letter--reading it listlessly, and with a dull eye.
"PLATTVILLE, September 1st.
"Dear Mr. Harkless: Yours of the 30th received. Every one here is very glad to know that your health is so far improved as to admit of your writing; and it is our strongest hope that you will soon be completely recovered.
"New subscriptions are coming in at a slightly advanced rate since my last letter; you will see they are distributed over several counties, when you examine the books on your return; and I am glad to state that with our arrangement for Gainesville the 'Herald' is now selling every morning at a prominent store in all the towns within the radius we determined on. Our plan of offering the daily with no advance on the price of the former tri-weekly issue proves a success. I now propose making the issue a quarto every day (at the same price) instead of once a week. I think our experience warrants the experiment. It is my belief that our present circulation will be increased forty per cent. Please advise me if you approve. Of course this would mean a further increase of our working force, and we should have to bring another man from Rouen--possibly two more--but I think we need not fear such enlargements.
"I should tell you that I have taken you at your word entrusting me with the entire charge of your interests here, and I had the store-room adjoining the office put in shape, and offered it to the telegraph company for half the rent they were paying in their former quarters over the post-office. They have moved in; and this, in addition to giving us our despatches direct, is a reduction of expense.
"Mr. Watts informs me that the Standard's offer is liberal and the terms are settled. The boom is not hollow, it is simply an awakening; and the town, so long a dependent upon the impetus of agriculture or its trade, is developing a prosperity of its own on other lines as well. Strangers come every day; oil has lubricated every commercial joint. Contracts have been let for three new brick business buildings to be erected on the east side of the Square. The value of your Main Street frontage will have doubled by December, and possibly you may see fit to tear away the present building and put up another, instead; the investment might be profitable. The 'Herald' could find room on the second and third floors, and the first could be let to stores.
"I regret that you find your copy of the paper for the 29th overlooked in the mail and that your messenger could find none for you at the newspaper offices in Rouen. Mr. Schofield was given directions in regard to supplying you with the missing issue at once.
"I fear that you may have had difficulty in deciphering some of my former missives, as I was unfamiliar with the typewriter when I took charge of the 'Herald'; however, I trust that you find my later letters more legible.
"The McCune people are not worrying us; we are sure to defeat them. The papers you speak of were found by Mr. Parker in your trunk, and are now in my hands.
"I send with this a packet of communications and press clippings indicative of the success of the daily, and in regard to other innovations. The letters from women commendatory of our 'Woman's Page,' thanking us for various house-keeping receipts, etc., strike me as peculiarly interesting, as I admit that a 'Woman's Page' is always a difficult matter for a man to handle without absurdity.
"Please do not think I mean to plume myself upon our various successes; we attempted our innovations and enlargements at just the right time--a time which you had ripened by years of work and waiting, and at the moment when you had built up the reputation of the 'Herald' to its highest point. Everything that has been done is successful only because you paved the way, and because every one knows it is your paper; and the people believe that whatever your paper does is interesting and right.
"Trusting that your recovery will be rapid, I am
Harkless dropped the typewritten sheets with a sigh.
"I suppose I ought to get well," he said wearily.
"Yes," said Meredith, "I think you ought; but you're chock full of malaria and fever and all kinds of meanness, and----"
"You 'tend to your own troubles," returned the other, with an imitation of liveliness. "I--I don't think it interests me much," he said querulously. He was often querulous of late, and it frightened Tom. "I'm just tired. I am strong enough--that is, I think I am till I try to move around, and then I'm like a log, and a lethargy gets me--that's it; I don't think it's malaria; it's lethargy."
"Lethargy comes from malaria."
"It's the other way with me. I'd be all right if I only could get over this--this tiredness. Let me have that pencil and pad, will you, please, Tom?"
He set the pad on his knee, and began to write languidly:
"ROUEN, September 2d.
"Dear Mr. Fisbee: Yours of the 1st to hand. I entirely approve all arrangements you have made. I think you understand that I wish you to regard everything as in your own hands. You are the editor of the 'Herald' and have the sole responsibility for everything, including policy, until, after proper warning, I relieve you in person. But until that time comes, you must look upon me as a mere spectator. I do not fear that you will make any mistakes; you have done very much better in all matters than I could have done myself. At present I have only one suggestion: I observe that your editorials concerning Halloway's renomination are something lukewarm.
"It is very important that he be renominated, not altogether on account of assuring his return to Washington (for he is no Madison, I fear), but the fellow McCune must be so beaten that his defeat will be remembered for twenty years. Halloway is honest and clean, at least, while McCune is corrupt to the bone. He has been bought and sold, and I am glad the proofs of it are in your hands, as you tell me Parker found them, as directed, in my trunk, and gave them to you.
"The papers you hold drove him out of politics once, by the mere threat of publication; you should have printed them last week, as I suggested. Do so at once; the time is short. You have been too gentle; it has the air of fearing to offend, and of catering, as if we were afraid of antagonizing people against us; as though we had a personal stake in the convention. Possibly you consider our subscription books as such; I do not. But if they are, go ahead twice as hard. What if it does give the enemy a weapon in case McCune is nominated; if he is (and I begin to see a danger of it) we will be with the enemy. I do not carry my partisanship so far as to help elect Mr. McCune to Congress. You have been as non-committal in your editorials as if this were a fit time for delicacy and the cheaper conception of party policy. My notion of party policy--no new one--is that the party which considers the public service before it considers itself will thrive best in the long run. The 'Herald' is a little paper (not so little nowadays, after all, thanks to you), but it is an honest one, and it isn't afraid of Rod McCune and his friends. He is to be beaten, understand, if we have to send him to the penitentiary on an old issue to do it. And if the people wish to believe us cruel or vengeful, let them. Please let me see as hearty a word as you can say for Halloway, also. You can write with ginger; please show some in this matter.
"My condition is improved.
"I am, very truly yours,
When the letter was concluded, he handed it to Meredith. "Please address that, put a 'special' on it, and send it, Tom. It should go at once, so as to reach him by to-night."
"Yes; H. Fisbee."
"I believe it does you good to write, boy," said the other, as he bent over him. "You look more chirrupy than you have for several days."
"It's that beast, McCune; young Fisbee is rather queer about it, and I felt stirred up as I went along." But even before the sentence was finished the favor of age and utter weariness returned, and the dark lids closed over his eyes. They opened again, slowly, and he took the others hand and looked up at him mournfully, but as it were his soul shone forth in dumb and eloquent thanks.
"I--I'm giving you a jolly summer, Tom," he said, with a quivering effort to smile. "Don't you think I am? I don't--I don't know what I should have --done----"
"You old Indian!" said Meredith, tenderly.
Three days later, Tom was rejoiced by symptoms of invigoration in his patient. A telegram came for Harkless, and Meredith, bringing it into the sick room, was surprised to find the occupant sitting straight up on his couch without the prop of pillows. He was reading the day's copy of the "Herald," and his face was flushed and his brow stern.
"What's the matter, boy?"
"Mismanagement, I hope," said the other, in a strong voice. "Worse, perhaps. It's this young Fisbee. I can't think what's come over the fellow. I thought he was a rescuing angel, and he's turning out bad. I'll swear it looks like they'd been--well, I won't say that yet. But he hasn't printed that McCune business I told you of, and he's had two days. There is less than a week before the convention, and--" He broke off, seeing the yellow envelope in Meredith's hand. "Is that a telegram for me?" His companion gave it to him. He tore it open and read the contents. They were brief and unhappy.
"Can't you do something? Can't you come down? It begins to look the other way. "K. H."
"It's from Halloway," said John. "I have got to go. What did that doctor say?"
"He said two weeks at the earliest, or you'll run into typhoid and complications from your hurts, and even pleasanter things than that. I've got you here, and here you stay; so lie back and get easy, boy."
"Then give me that pad and pencil." He rapidly dashed off a note to H. Fisbee:
"Editor 'Carlow Herald.'
"Dear Sir: You have not acknowledged my letter of the 2d September by a note (which should have reached me the following morning), or by the alteration in the tenor of my columns which I requested, or by the publication of the McCune papers which I directed. In this I hold you grossly at fault. If you have a conscientious reason for refusing to carry out my request it should have been communicated to me at once, as should the fact--if such be the case--that you are a personal (or impersonal, if you like) friend of Mr. Rodney McCune. Whatever the motive, ulterior or otherwise, which prevents you from operating my paper as I direct, I should have been informed of it. This is a matter vital to the interests of our community, and you have hitherto shown yourself too alert in accepting my slightest suggestion for me to construe this failure as negligence. Negligence I might esteem as at least honest and frank; your course has been neither the one nor the other.
"You will receive this letter by seven this evening by special delivery. You will print the facts concerning McCune in to-morrow morning's paper.
"I am well aware of the obligations under which your extreme efficiency and your thoughtfulness in many matters have placed me. It is to you I owe my unearned profits from the transaction in oil, and it is to you I owe the 'Herald's' extraordinary present circulation, growth of power and influence. That power is still under my direction, and is an added responsibility which shall not be misapplied.
"You must forgive me if I write too sharply. You see I have failed to understand your silence; and if I wrong you I heartily ask your pardon in advance of your explanation. Is it that you are sorry for McCune? It would be a weak pity that could keep you to silence. I warned him long ago that the papers you hold would be published if he ever tried to return to political life, and he is deliberately counting on my physical weakness and absence. Let him rely upon it; I am not so weak as he thinks. Personally, I cannot say that I dislike Mr. McCune. I have found him a very entertaining fellow; it is said he is the best of husbands, and a friend to some of his friends, and, believe me, I am sorry for him from the bottom of my heart. But the 'Herald' is not.
"You need not reply by letter. To-morrow's issue answers for you. Until I have received a copy, I withhold my judgment.
The morrow's issue--that fateful print on which depended John Harkless's opinion of H. Fisbee's integrity--contained an editorial addressed to the delegates of the convention, warning them to act for the vital interest of the community, and declaring that the opportunity to be given them in the present convention was a rare one, a singular piece of good fortune indeed; they were to have the chance to vote for a man who had won the love and respect of every person in the district--one who had suffered for his championship of righteousness--one whom even his few political enemies confessed they held in personal affection and esteem--one who had been the inspiration of a new era--one whose life had been helpfulness, whose hand had reached out to every struggler and unfortunate--a man who had met and faced danger for the sake of others--one who lived under a threat for years, and who had been almost overborne in the fulfilment of that threat, but who would live to see the sun shine on his triumph, the tribute the convention would bring him as a gift from a community that loved him. His name needed not to be told; it was on every lip that morning, and in every heart.
Tom was eagerly watching his companion as he read. Harkless fell back on the pillows with a drawn face, and for a moment he laid his thin hand over his eyes in a gesture of intense pain.
"What is it?" Meredith said quickly.
"Give me the pad, please."
"What is it, boy?"
The other's teeth snapped together.
"What is it?" he cried. "What is it? It's treachery, and the worst I ever knew. Not a word of the accusation I demanded--lying praises instead! Read that editorial--there, there!" He struck the page with the back of his hand, and threw the paper to Meredith. "Read that miserable lie! 'One who has won the love and respect of every person in the district!'--'One who has suffered for his championship of righteousness!' Righteousness! Save the mark!"
"What does it mean?"
"Mean! It means McCune--Rod McCune, 'who has lived under a threat for years'--my threat! I swore I would print him out of Indiana if he ever raised his head again, and he knew I could. 'Almost overborne in the fulfilment of that threat!' Almost! It's a black scheme, and I see it now. This man came to Plattville and went on the 'Herald' for nothing in the world but this. It's McCune's hand all along. He daren't name him even now, the coward! The trick lies between McCune and young Fisbee--the old man is innocent. Give me the pad. Not almost overborne. There are three good days to work in, and, by the gods of Perdition, if Rod McCune sees Congress it will be in his next incarnation!"
He rapidly scribbled a few lines on the pad, and threw the sheets to Meredith. "Get those telegrams to the Western Union office in a rush, please. Read them first."
With a very red face Tom read them. One was addressed to H. Fisbee:
"You are relieved from the cares of editorship. You will turn over the management of the 'Herald' to Warren Smith. You will give him the McCune papers. If you do not, or if you destroy them, you cannot hide where I shall not find you.
The second was to Warren Smith: "Take possession 'Herald.' Dismiss H. Fisbee. This your authority. Publish McCune papers so labelled which H. Fisbee will hand you. Letter follows. Beat McCune.
The author of the curt epistles tossed restlessly on his couch, but the reader of them stared, incredulous and dumfounded, uncertain of his command of gravity. His jaw fell, and his open mouth might have betokened a being smit to imbecility; and, haply, he might be, for Helen had written him from Plattville, pledging his honor to secrecy with the first words, and it was by her command that he had found excuses for not supplying his patient with all the papers which happened to contain references to the change of date for the Plattville convention. And Meredith had known for some time where James Fisbee had found a "young relative" to be the savior of the "Herald" for his benefactor's sake.
"You mean--you--intend to--you discharge young Fisbee?" he stammered at last.
"Yes! Let me have the answers the instant they come, will you, Tom?" Then Harkless turned his face from the wall and spoke through his teeth: "I mean to see H. Fisbee before many days; I want to talk to him!"
But, though he tossed and fretted himself into what the doctor pronounced a decidedly improved state, no answer came to either telegram that day or night. The next morning a messenger boy stumbled up the front steps and handed the colored man, Jim, four yellow envelopes, night messages. Three of them were for Harkless, one was for Meredith. Jim carried them upstairs, left the three with his master's guest, then knocked on his master's door.
"What is it?" answered a thick voice. Meredith had not yet risen.
"A telegraph. Mist' Tawm."
There was a terrific yawn. "O-o-oh! Slide it--oh--under the--door."
Meredith lay quite without motion for several minutes, sleepily watching the yellow rhomboid in the crevice. It was a hateful looking thing to come mixing in with pleasant dreams and insist upon being read. After a while he climbed groaningly out of bed, and read the message with heavy eyes, still half asleep. He read it twice before it penetrated:
"Suppress all newspapers to-day. Convention meets at eleven. If we succeed a delegation will come to Rouen this afternoon. They will come.
Tom rubbed his sticky eyelids, and shook his head violently in a Spartan effort to rouse himself; but what more effectively performed the task for him were certain sounds issuing from Harkless's room, across the hall. For some minutes, Meredith had been dully conscious of a rustle and stir in the invalid's chamber, and he began to realize that no mere tossing about a bed would account for a noise that reached him across a wide hall and through two closed doors of thick walnut. Suddenly he heard a quick, heavy tread, shod, in Harkless's room, and a resounding bang, as some heavy object struck the floor. The doctor was not to come till evening; Jim had gone down-stairs. Who wore shoes in the sick man's room? He rushed across the hall in his pyjamas and threw open the unlocked door.
The bed was disarranged and vacant. Harkless, fully dressed, was standing in the middle of the floor, hurling garments at a big travelling bag.
The horrified Meredith stood for a second, bleached and speechless, then he rushed upon his friend and seized him with both hands.
"Mad, by heaven! Mad!"
"Let go of me, Tom!"
"Don't stop me one instant!"
Meredith tried to force him toward the bed. "For mercy's sake, get back to bed. You're delirious, boy!"
"Delirious nothing. I'm a well man."
"Go to bed--go to bed."
Harkless set him out of the way with one arm. "Bed be hanged!" he cried. "I'm going to Plattville!"
Meredith wrung his hands. "The doctor----"!
"Doctor be damned!"
"Will you tell me what has happened, John?"
His companion slung a light overcoat, unfolded, on the overflowing, misshapen bundle of clothes that lay in the bag; then he jumped on the lid with both feet and kicked the hasp into the lock; a very elegantly laundered cuff and white sleeve dangling out from between the fastened lids. "I haven't one second to talk, Tom; I have seventeen minutes to catch the express, and it's a mile and a half to the station; the train leaves here at eight fifty, I get to Plattville at ten forty-seven. Telephone for a cab for me, please, or tell me the number; I don't want to stop to hunt it up."
Meredith looked him in the eyes. In the pupils of Harkless flared a fierce light. His cheeks were reddened with an angry, healthy glow, and his teeth were clenched till the line of his jaw stood out like that of an embattled athlete in sculpture; his brow was dark; his chest was thrown out, and he took deep, quick breaths; his shoulders were squared, and in spite of his thinness they looked massy. Lethargy, or malaria, or both, whatever were his ailments, they were gone. He was six feet of hot wrath and cold resolution.
Tom said: "You are going?"
"Yes," he answered, "I am going."
"Then I will go with you."
"Thank you, Tom," said the other quietly.
Meredith ran into his own room, pressed an electric button, sprang out of his pyjamas like Aphrodite from the white sea-foam, and began to dive into his clothes with a panting rapidity astonishingly foreign to his desire. Jim appeared in the doorway.
"The cart, Jim," shouted his master. "We want it like lightning. Tell the cook to give Mr. Harkless his breakfast in a hurry. Set a cup of coffee on the table by the front door for me. Run like the deuce! We've got to catch a train.--That will be quicker than any cab," he explained to Harkless. "We'll break the ordinance against fast driving, getting down there."
Ten minutes later the cart swept away from the house at a gait which pained the respectable neighborhood. The big horse plunged through the air, his ears laid flat toward his tail; the cart careened sickeningly; the face of the servant clutching at the rail in the rear was smeared with pallor as they pirouetted around curves on one wheel--to him it seemed they skirted the corners and Death simultaneously--and the speed of their going made a strong wind in their faces.
Harkless leaned forward.
"Can you make it a little faster, Tom?" he said.
They dashed up to the station amid the cries of people flying to the walls for safety; the two gentlemen leaped from the cart, bore down upon the ticket-office, stormed at the agent, and ran madly at the gates, flourishing their passports. The official on duty eyed them wearily, and barred the way.
"Been gone two minutes," he remarked, with a peaceable yawn.
Harkless stamped his foot on the cement flags; then he stood stock still, gazing at the empty tracks; but Meredith turned to him, smiling.
"Won't it keep?" he asked.
"Yes, it will keep," John answered. "Part of it may have to keep till election day, but some of it I will settle before night. And that," he cried, between his teeth, "and that is the part of it in regard to young Mr. Fisbee!"
"Oh, it's about H. Fisbee, is it?"
"Yes, it's H. Fisbee."
"Well, we might as well go up and see what the doctor thinks of you; there's no train."
"I don't want to see a doctor again, ever--as long as I live. I'm as well as anybody."
Tom burst out laughing, and clapped his companion lightly on the shoulder, his eyes dancing with pleasure.
"Upon my soul," he cried, "I believe you are! It's against all my tradition, and I see I am the gull of poetry; for I've always believed it to be beyond question that this sort of miracle was wrought, not by rage, but by the tenderer senti--" Tom checked himself. "Well, let's take a drive."
"Meredith," said the other, turning to him gravely, "you may think me a fool, if you will, and it's likely I am; but I don't leave this station except by train. I've only two days to work in, and every minute lessens our chances to beat McCune, and I have to begin by wasting time on a tussle with a traitor. There's another train at eleven fifty-five; I don't take any chances on missing that one."
"Well, well," laughed his friend, pushing him good-humoredly toward a door by a red and white striped pillar, "we'll wait here, if you like; but at least go in there and get a shave; it's a clean shop. You want to look your best if you are going down to fight H. Fisbee."
"Take these, then, and you will understand," said Harkless; and he thrust his three telegrams of the morning into Tom's hand and disappeared into the barber-shop. When he was gone, Meredith went to the telegraph office in the station, and sent a line over the wire to Helen:
"Keep your delegation at home. He's coming on the 11.55."
Then he read the three telegrams Harkless had given him. They were all from Plattville:
"Sorry cannot oblige. Present incumbent tenacious. Unconditionally refuses surrender. Delicate matter. No hope for K. H. But don't worry. Everything all right.
"Harkless, if you have the strength to walk, come down before the convention. Get here by 10.47. Looks bad. Come if it kills you.
"You entrusted me with sole responsibility for all matters pertaining to 'Herald.' Declared yourself mere spectator. Does this permit your interfering with my policy for the paper? Decline to consider any proposition to relieve me of my duties without proper warning and allowance of time.