THE Rev. Theodore Pursen sat at breakfast. With his right hand he dallied with iced cantaloup. The season was young for cucumis melo; but who would desire a lean shepherd for a fat flock? Certainly not the Rev. Theodore Pursen. A slender, well-manicured left hand supported an early edition of the "Monarch of the Mornings," a sheet which quite made up in volume of sound and in color for any lack of similarity in other respects to the lion of poetry and romance.
On the table in his study were the two morning papers which the Rev. Pursen read and quoted in public--the Monarch was for the privacy of his breakfast table.
Across from the divine sat his young assistant, who shared the far more than comfortable bachelor apartments of his superior.
The Rev. Pursen laid down the paper with a sigh.
"Ah me," he said.
His assistant looked up in polite interrogation.
"This is, indeed, an ungrateful world," continued Mr. Pursen, scooping a delicious mouthful from the melon's heart.
"Here is an interview with an assistant State attorney in which he mentions impractical reformers seeking free advertising and cheap notoriety. In view of the talk I had with him yesterday I cannot but believe that he refers directly to me
"It is a sad commentary upon the moral perspective of the type of rising young men of to-day, which this person so truly represents, that ulterior motives should be ascribed to every noble and unselfish act. To what, indeed, are we coming?"
"Yes," agreed the assistant, "whither are we drifting?"
"But was it not ever thus? Have not we of the cloth been ever martyrs to the cause of truth and righteousness?"
"Too true," sighed the assistant, "we have, indeed."
"Yet, on the other hand," continued Mr. Pursen, "there is an occasional note of encouragement that makes the fighting of the battle worth while."
"For example?" suggested the assistant.
Mr. Pursen turned again to the "Monarch of the Mornings."
"Here is a quarter of a column devoted to an interview with me on the result of my investigation of conditions in supposedly respectable residence districts. The article has been given much greater prominence than that accorded to the misleading statements of the assistant State attorney. I am sure that thousands of people in this great city are even this minute reading this noticeable heading--let us hope that it will bear fruit, however much one may decry the unpleasant notoriety entailed."
Mr. Pursen held up the newspaper toward his assistant, who read, in type half an inch high:
''PURSEN PILLORIES POLICE.''
"The ointment surrounding the fly, as it were," suggested the assistant. Mr. Pursen looked quickly at the young man, but discovering no sign of levity in his expression, handed the paper across the table to him and resumed his attack upon the cantaloup. A moment later the telephone-bell sounded from the extension at Mr. Pursen's elbow.
"Yes?" inquired Mr. Pursen.
"Hello. Dr. Pursen?"
"This is Doarty."
"Oh, yes; good morning, officer," greeted Mr. Pursen.
Mr. Doarty came right to the point. He knew when to beat about the bush and when not to.
"You been tryin' to close up Farris's place for six months; but you ain't never been able to get the goods on him. I got 'em for you, now."
"Good," exclaimed Mr. Pursen. " Tell me about it."
Mr. Doarty unburdened himself.
"The girl will be in court this morning to appear against Farris," he concluded. "You'd better get to her quick, before they do, and stick until she's called. She'll need bolstering."
"I'll come down right away," replied Mr Pursen. "Good-by, and thank you."
"And say," said Doarty, "you can give it out that you tipped me off to the whole thing--I'd just as soon not appear in it any more than I can help."
"Just so," replied Mr. Pursen, and hung up the receiver.
As he turned back his assistant eyed him questioningly.
"My friend Mr. Doarty has started something which be is experiencing difficulty in terminating," guessed Mr. Pursen shrewdly.
At a quarter before ten the clergyman entered the court-room. He had no difficulty in locating the girl he sought, though the room was well filled with witnesses, friends, and relatives of the various prisoners who were to have their preliminary hearings, and the idle curious.
"I am the Rev. Mr. Pursen," he said with smiling lips as he took her hand.
The girl looked him squarely in the eyes.
"I come as a friend," continued Mr. Pursen. "I wish to help you. Tell me your story and we will see what can be done."
There were three young men with the clergyman. They had met him, by appointment, at the entrance to the courtroom. The girl eyed them.
"Reporters?" she asked.
"Representatives of the three largest papers," replied Mr. Pursen. "You will be quite famous by to-morrow morning," be added playfully.
When Mr. Pursen had introduced himself a great hope had sprung momentarily into the girl's heart--a longing that three months at Farris's had all but stifled. Vain regrets seldom annoyed her now. She had attained a degree of stoicism that three months earlier would have seemed impossible; but with contact with one from that other world which circumstances had forbidden her ever again to hope to enter--with the voicing of a kind word--with the play of a smile that was neither carnal nor condescending came a sudden welling of the desire she had thought quite dead--the desire to put behind her forever the life that she had been living.
For an instant a little girl had looked into the eyes of the Rev. Mr. Pursen, prepared to do and be whatever Mr. Pursen, out of the fulness of brotherly love, should counsel and guide her to do and be; but Mr. Pursen saw only a woman of the town, and to such were his words addressed with an argument which he imagined would appeal strongly to her kind. And it was a woman of the town who answered him with a hard laugh.
"Nothing doing," she said.
Mr. Pursen was surprised. He was pained. He had come to her as a friend in need. He had offered to help her, and she would not even confide in him.
"I had hoped that you might wish to lead a better life," he said, "and I came prepared to offer you every assistance in securing a position where you might earn a respectable living. I can find a home for you until such a position is forthcoming. Can you not see the horrors of the life you have chosen? Can you not realize the awful depths of degradation to which you have come, and the still blacker abyss that yawns before you if you continue along the downward path? Your beauty will fade quickly--its lifeblood sapped by the gnawing canker of vice and shame, and then what will the world hold for you? Naught but a few horrible years of premature and hideous old age."
"And the way to start a new and better life," replied the girl in a level voice, "is to advertise my shame upon the front pages of three great daily newspapers--that's your idea, eh?"
Mr. Pursen flushed, very faintly.
"You misunderstand me entirely," he said. "I abhor as much as any human being can the necessity which compels so much publicity in these matters; but it is for the greatest good of the greatest numbers that I labor--that all of us should labor. If the public does not know of the terrible conditions which prevail under their very noses, how can we expect it to rouse itself and take action against these conditions?
"No great reform is ever accomplished except upon the clamorous demand of the people. The police--in fact all city officials--know of these conditions; but they will do nothing until they are forced to do it. Only the people who elect them and whose money pays them can force them. We must keep the horrors of the underworld constantly before the voters and tax-payers until they rise and demand that the festering sore in the very heart of their magnificent city be cured forever.
"What are my personal feelings, or yours, compared with the great good to the whole community that will result from the successful fruition of the hopes of those of us who are fighting this great battle against the devil and his minions? You should rather joyfully embrace this opportunity to cast off the bonds of hell, and by enlisting with the legion of righteousness atone for all your sinful past by a self-sacrificing act in the interest of your fellow man."
The girl laughed, a rather unpleasant, mirthless laugh.
"My 'fellow man'!" She mimicked the preacher's oratorical style. "It was my fellow man who made me what I am; it was my fellow man who has kept me so! it is my fellow man who wished me to blazon my degradation to the world as a price for aid."
As she spoke, the vernacular of the underworld with its coarse slang and vile English slipped from her speech like a shabby disguise that has been discarded, and she spoke again as she had spoken in her other life, before constant association with beasts and criminals had left their mark upon her speech as upon her mind and morals; but as the first flush of indignation passed she slipped again into the now accustomed rut.
"To hell with you and your fellow men," she said. " Now beat it."
Mr. Pursen's dignity bad suffered a most severe shock. He glanced at the three young men. They were grinning openly. He realized the humiliating stories they would write for their respective papers. Not at all the kind of stories he had been picturing to himself, in which the Rev. Mr. Pursen would shine as a noble Christian reformer laboring for the salvation of the sinner and the uplift of the community. They would make horrid jokes of the occurrence, and people would laugh at the Rev. Mr. Pursen.
A stinging rebuke was upon his lips. He would make this woman realize the great gulf that lay between the Rev. Mr. Pursen and such as she. He would let her see the loathing with which a good man viewed her and her kind; but as he opened his mouth to speak, his better judgment came to his rescue. The woman would doubtless make a scene--her sort had a decided penchant for such things--she might even resort to physical violence.
In either event the resultant newspaper stories would be decidedly worse than the most glaring exaggerations which the three young men might concoct from the present unfortunate occurrence.
So the Rev. Mr. Pursen stifled his true emotions, and with a sorrowful shake of his head turned sadly from his thankless task; and, indeed, why should a shepherd waste his valuable time upon a worthless sheep that preferred to stay astray? It was evident that he had lost sight entirely of the greater good that would follow the conviction of Farris, for he had not even mentioned the case to the girl or attempted to encourage her to make the most of this opportunity to bring the man to justice.
Farris's case was called shortly after the clergyman left the court-room. The man had an array of witnesses present to swear that the girl had remained in his house of her own volition--that she could have left when she pleased; but the girl's story, coupled with the very evident fact that she was wholly indifferent as to the outcome of the case, resulted in the holding of Farris to the grand jury.
It was what the resort-keeper had anticipated, and as he was again released on bail he lost no time in seeking out the head of a certain great real-estate firm and laying before him a brief outline of the terrible wrong that was being contemplated against Mr. Farris, and, incidentally, against present real-estate rental values in the district where Mr. Farris held forth.
"You see," said Mr. Farris, "there ain't nothin' to this thing, anyway. It's just a case of the girl bein' sore on me because I had fired her, so she cooks up this story and gets me pinched. It's a shame, and me giving her a good home and a swell job when she didn't know nobody in the burg.
"It's too bad," and Mr. Farris heaved an oily sigh. "It's too damn bad when you think of what it'll mean to the property owners down there. Why, if the grand jury votes a true bill against me it'll start them fake reformers buzzin' around thick as flies in the whole district, and there won't be nothin' to it but a bunch of saloon licenses taken away by the mayor, and a string of houses closed up; and then where'll you be?
"Why, the best you can do for years 'll be to rent them places to furriners at six and eight dollars a month, and just look at the swell rents you're gettin' for 'em now. Yes, sir! Somethin's got to be done in the interests of property values down there, for after we go you couldn't get decent people to live in the neighborhood if you paid 'em, to say nothin' of gettin' rent from 'em--why, they can't even use 'em for business purposes! Customers wouldn't dare come into the neighborhood for fear some one would see them, and straight girls wouldn't work in no such locality.
"If I was you I'd get busy. See your principals this mornin', and get 'em to put it up straight to the State attorney that it ain't in the interests of public morality to push this reform game no further. Why, look what it'll do--close up the red-light district, an' you'll have them girls scattered all through the residence districts, wherever they can rent a little flat; maybe right next door to you an' your family. And then look at what that'll do to property everywhere. It won't be only the old levee values that 'll slump, but here and there through the residence districts North, South, and West them girls 'll get in and put whole blocks on the blink.
"Well, I guess you know as much about it as I do, anyway; so I'll blow along. I got to see my alderman, and if I had the front that you and your principals can put up I'd see "--and here Mr. Farris leaned forward and whispered a name into the real-estate agent's ear. "He can put the kibosh on this whole reform game if he wants to; and take it from me, there ain't nobody that can't be made to want to do anything on earth if you can find the way to get 'em where they live," and Mr. Farris slapped his right-hand trouser-pocket until the coins therein rang merrily.
The real-estate agent pursed his lips and shook his head.
"You cannot reach that man in any such way as that," he said.
Mr. Farris, rising, laughed. "Oh splash," he said, and started for the door. "Well, do what you can at your end, and I'll work from the bottom up: and say, don't forget that if you sugar-coat it, the best of 'em will grab for it."
Then he went and had a talk with his alderman, who, in turn, saw some one else, who saw some one else, who saw another party; and the real-estate agent saw several of his principals, and at luncheon he talked with many of his colleagues, who hastened forthwith to confer with the big men whose property they handled.
In a day or two there began to filter into the State attorney's office by mail, by phone, and by personal call a continuous stream of requests that he move with extreme caution in the fight against vice which the reformers were urging him to initiate.
The arguments all were similar. They harped upon the danger of scattering the vicious element throughout the city--they were pleas for the safety of the wives and daughters of the petitioners.
"Abolish the red light district," said one, "and the criminals and degenerates of the underworld will hunt our wives and daughters as the wolves of the North woods hunt their prey--there will be no safety for them upon the streets nor within their own homes. Banish the women of the levee, and a state of anarchy and rapine will follow. For the sake of the good women of the city I pray that you will stand firm against the fallacious arguments of paid reformers and notoriety seekers."
No one mentioned property values--the pill had been properly coated. The State attorney smiled. Mentally he had been roughly estimating the political influence of each petitioner. When an editorial appeared in one of the leading dailies under the caption, "Go Slow, Mr. State Attorney," in which all these arguments were rehashed and the suggestion made that another commission be appointed to investigate and recommend a solution of the vice problem, he laughed aloud, for did he not know that the uncles and aunts and sisters-in-law of that great paper owned nearly a third of the real estate in the segregated district?
But the State attorney knew that no man knew what would be the result of the adoption of the drastic suggestions of the reformers, so it was an easy matter for him to justify himself to himself when he waged his bitter war of words against vice, and gave private instructions to his assistants in the safety and seclusion of his own office--instructions that did not always exactly harmonize with the noble sentiments enunciated in the typewritten "statements" passed out impartially to the representatives of the press for publication.
The State attorney was far from being a corrupt man; but the vice problem had been the plaything of reformers and politicians for years; it was as old as the sexes; it never had been solved, and the chances were that it never would be. If he had spoken his mind he would probably have admitted that he was afraid of it, entirely from sociological reasons, and apart from its political aspect.
But the State attorney was in no position to speak his true mind on many subjects--he hoped, some day, to run for Governor.
And so it was that he called an assistant to his office and poured words of wisdom into his attentive ear.
"And what sort of a bunch have you got this month?" he concluded.
"Oh, just about as usual. A couple of bank presidents, some retired capitalists, several department managers, and one farmer. They're new now, but by the time that case reaches us they'll be tired of the grind and ready to jump through whenever I tell 'em to."
Thus spake the young assistant State attorney of the ancient and honorable grand jury.