SHORT STORIES

The Entangled Church

Elliott Flower November 1 1908
SHORT STORIES

The Entangled Church

Elliott Flower November 1 1908

The Entangled Church

By Elliott Flower in the Sunset.

THE Stratford Avenue Church was not a church militant politically, as a general thing, but it went into the campaign to defeat Tom Haley for the legislature with all the ardor of an organization of crusaders. It even put aside temporarily its plan for a large, new church in order that it might give its whole attention to the fight for decency and an honest administration of public affairs.

In a general way Tom Haley’s record as a grafter was known of all men, but unfortunately it was not capable of legal proof, wherefore, Haley was running for the legislature instead of defending himself in the criminal court. Furthermore, everything pointed^to his election. There was opposition, but the opposition lacked cohesiveness, while his support was cohesive and well organized; the practical politicians were with him while his opponents lacked leaderchip, and there was a considerable part oi the district in which the practical politicians were powerful. It sometimes happens that the most antagonistic elements find themselves tied up in one district-package.

The decision to fight was reached at a meeting called to formulate plans for the building of the new structure. Feeling ran so high that the gathering resolved itself into a party of protest, and the ostensible object was almost forgotten. When one anxious member—a contractor with an eye to business—recalled the reason of their coming the excitement was so intense that he was almost hooted down for interfering with the more important business of the moment. The new church could be built any time, but llaley had to be defeated now.

1 lie Reverend Samuel Warner made a ringing speech on the disgrace of having their district represented in the legislature by such a notorious corruntionist as Haley, and he was followed by Jliram

Atwater and Joseph Stanton who repeat102

ed the common gossip as to misdeeds of this disreputable man. This was no question of politics, it was declared, but one of common honesty, and it was the duty of every decent man to show his good citizenship in a forceful and practical way.

“I do not believe/’ said Hiram Atwater, “in a church mixing itself up in a purely political fight, but it should assail evil wherever it finds it. Haley is the incarnation of all that is evil in public affairs. I do not know whether he is a Republican or a Democrat, but I do know, as everybody knows, that he is a grafter.”

“Let us be practical,” urged Joseph Stanton. “It does no good to tell each other what we all know; we must get out and fight in a vigorous and practical way—appoint a campaign committee and awaken public sentiment by holding mass meetings and arranging for aggressive action all along the line.”

The good people of the church were so stirred at the close of the meeting that they pledged themselves to do the utmost for the opposing candidate, although some of them had to ask who he was. No one cared particularly about him, all being interested merely in the downfall of Flaley, the notorious.

Of course the church as an organization did not take official action in the matter but the hottest campaign ever known in that district was born of a church meeting, the leading members of the congregation were active and aggressive, the pastor condescended T0 make some political addresses, and the church was credited with being the soul of that particular reform movement. Halev knew that, if defeated, his defeat would be due to the Stratford Avenue Church, but he did not expect to be defeated ; the circumstances compelled him to make an unusually hard and costly

fight, but he was fairly confident of winning.

Then certain significant facts came to the ears of Joseph Stanton, and Stanton conferred with Hiram Atwater. Later the two discussed the subject with other prominent members of the church, including the pastor, and a daring plan of action was evolved.

Tom Haley, before aspiring to an elective office, had been a street-paving inspector, and it was currently reported that certain contractors had made this a remunerative position for him, but in this, as in other matters connected with his record, there was an annoying lack of legal proof. Now, however, Stanton had learned of a specific case of wrongdoing—of bribery, to be exact. The sum paid was given and also the fact that the negotiations were conducted through a certain Alf. Carney who had since dropped out of sight. Inability to locate Carney was said to have given Haley some uneasy moments when his record was under fire.

The first impulse of the church people was to throw a verbal broadside into the Haley ranks. The Reverend Samuel Warner advocated this strongly, believing that he himself, if other champion were lacking, would be able to present the case in a way to carry consternation to the enemy, but Stanton objected and Atwater joined in the objection.

“The thing for us to do,” said Stanton, “is to play practical politics.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked the pastor.

“Well,” answered Stanton, “an unproved charge does not amount to much in this kind of a fight, and we lack the evidence to convict, but,” he added significantly, “he does not know that, and I think the information we have can be so handled as to force him to withdraw.”

“That seems like bargaining with the devil,” objected the pastor.

“Not at all,” argued Stanton ; “it is only playing practical politics—fighting the devil with fire, as you might say.”

“If we had the evidence to convict,” explained Atwater, “we would take him into court at once. Not having that we want to use what we have in the way that promises the most certain results. It is

the defeat of Haley that we are after. Now if Haley thinks we have got hold of this Alf. Carney, he will be scared to death, and we can startle him with details that will make him think just that. We can overwhelm him, I believe, and accomplish far more than by any sensational speech-making.

The pastor still demurred, but he was first overruled and then convinced of the advisability of playing the political game according to the practical method. After all it was not the exposure of Haley that was desired now, but his defeat. He had been exposed so often that it had become monotonous.

Haley was not a man to be easily bluffed, as a general thing, but there were reasons why he should be much worried about Carney; there had been a misunderstanding previous to Carney’s disappearance, in addition to which Carney was not a man who inspired his associates with confidence. Circumstances had made him a convenient and almost necessary agent in one case, but he never had been used in any other. There had been several occasions when Haley had feared that some unfriendly man or men might get hold of this weak and disgruntled fellow, but it was now so long since he had faded from sight that the danger seemed to be past. Nevertheless, the church had stumbled upon the very weakest spot in Haley’s defenses.

Stanton and Atwater, to whom the arrangements had been left, developed considerable skill in playing their points, considering that they were inexperienced in any such matters. They first sent for Haley, and Haley returned word that anyone desiring to see him could find him in his office. Whether they went to Haley or Haley came to them might seem to be a small matter, but Atwater shrewdly argued that the first who weakened would be at a great disadvantage, so this message went back to the candidate:

“Mr. Haley may save himself much trouble in the Carney case by keeping the appointment made for him.”

Haiey weakened and kept the appointment ; he could afford to take no chances in the Carney case.

“What do you want?” he demanded gruffly when he appeared.

“We want you to withdraw,” answered Stanton bluntly.

Haley laughed scornfully: “Have you been hitting the pipe?” he inquired. “You talk like you’ve been having funny dreams.”

“We thought,” persisted Stanton, “that you’d rather retire than have any trouble over the Carney affair.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” blustered Haley. “I never had any dealings with Carney.”

“Then why are you here?” asked Atwater quietly. “I notice you changed your mind about coming mighty sudden when Carney was mentioned.”

It was “first blood” for the church and Haley realized it; he had weakened his position by surrendering to a threat, but he still blustered. He was curious, he said, to learn what sort of an absurd story had been rigged up.

“Well,” returned Atwater, “we’ll satisfy your curiosity in some measure. The story relates to a considerable job of paving in the Third ward. It was done by the Thompson company, and there were reasons why the Thompson company wished the inspector to be blind. The inspector was blind for a consideration. Is that enough?”

“Nothing doing,” answered Haley with a scornful laugh. “Do you think you can scare me out with fairy tales?” However, he was inwardly worrying over where Carney came into the story.

“The company,” Atwater went on, “offered two hundred dollars but the inspector demanded five hundred dollars. A compromise on three hundred and fifty dollars was finally effected. Alf. .Carney carried on the negotiations and he paid the money into your hands after deducting his commission as agent. Am I right?”

“Where is Carney?” demanded Haley quickly.

“ 1 hat’s a detail that we don’t care to discuss,” answered Atwater.

“You can’t produce him,” declared Haley, although the story told was so accurate that it seemed certainly to have come from Carney himself.

“If you think so,” returned Atwater, you can easily settle the question definitely by refusing our proposition.

Have I stated the case fairly, Mr. Stanton ”

Stanton nodded approval. He was the one who had accidentally unearthed the story, but he realized that Atwater was a better man for the verbal sparring.

“It’s all a lie, anyhow,” insisted Haley. “Carney couldn’t tell anything about me.”

“You ought to know,” said Atwater, and his air of cool confidence was more disquieting than any argument could have been.

“I’ll think it over,” said Haley, weakening.

“No,” retorted Atwater sharply; “you’ll decide now or you’ll face the consequences.”

Haley threw away a half-burned cigar and lit another, thus endeavoring to cover his agitation, for he found his predicament a serious one. Even if they had not the necessary evidence to convict, he had reason to believe that the sensational exploiting of the affair would produce it. They knew enough to frighten some people who could talk, and Carney himself, if not already discovered, might easily be brought to light by the^ publicity of the charges. No man likes to linger in the shadow of the penitentiary.

“I won’t withdraw,” Haley announced finally.

“Very well,” said Atwater, with sharp decision, “we shall proceed at once-”

“I won’t withdraw,” repeated Haley, interrupting, “but I' will be defeated.” They looked at him with surprised inquiry. “I can’t withdraw without making things worse,” he explained, “but I can be beaten without much trouble.”

“That isn’t safe,” objected Stanton.

“Give me two days,” said Haley, “and I’ll put myself out of the running. You will still have your story if I fail.”

An agreement was reached on this basis. The story was to be buried and forgotten and Haley was to eliminate himself as a campaign possibility according to his own methods.

Haley’s task was easily accomplished. He disappointed three political meetings that night and it was reported that he was drunk. A little thing like that would not hurt his reputation among those who really knew him, but it could not fail to deprive him of some votes. Then the

rumor circulated that he had suffered a sudden attack of “cold feet,” and that was a much more serious matter. A closefisted campaign policy was something that the rank and file of his supporters simply would not stand; they were interested in political work as financial rather than a moral or physical proposition. In their own words Haley was “a dead one” as soon as his unexpected penuriousness became generally known.

The church returned to its building problem with the consciousness of a good job well done, although only a few knew just how it had been done. The majority thought the defeat of the notoriously unfit candidate had been due to the open fight made against him but the few knew better. Incidentally, the little incursion into practical politics seemed to have made the whole church more practical ; it refused to go blindly into debt for the new building, holding that the total cost must not exceed the sum now in hand or definitely pledged. This was certainly conservative for a church.

The first plans submitted by Mr. Benham, the architect, proved to be altogether too costly, so he tried again, and again the estimated cost exceeded what the church thought it could afford. The architect trimmed his figures a little and the wardens decided to eliminate for the present such features as could be added later, but the estimate was still unsatisfactory.

“I am especially anxious,” said the pastor, “that this church shall not put itself under a burden of debt, as so many others have done, but, nevertheless, we must build for the future and not merely for our immediate needs.”

This reflected the views of nearly all. The church was very practical.

“Where else can we shave the expense a little without modifying the plans too much?” asked Stanton.

“It might be possible,” returned the architect thoughtfully, “to save about six hundred dollars on the foundations.”

“Would it be safe?” asked Stanton.

“You mean the building?” queried Benham.

“Of course.”

“Oh, perfectly safe, in my judgment,” said Benham. “The plans call for founda-

tions of unnecessary depth and thickness.”

“Then that’s easy,” remarked Stanton, relieved.

“Not quite so easy,” returned Benham. “The building laws, unfortunately, call for such foundations for such a structure.”

“Do you mean,” demanded the Reverend Mr. Warner indignantly, “that the building laws of this city compel us to spend six hundred dollars unnecessarily?”

“No doubt the aldermen who passed it, in their inexperience, deemed this provision necessary to safety,” explained Benham, “but in the judgment of myself and other architects and builders the requirements are absurd. We have to put in foundations that would be strong enough for a building of twice the sHe and weight.”

“That is outrageous!” exclaimed Mr. Warner.

“But,” added tñe architect, “It is not always done. Some of the foolish requirements are neglected in many buildings. I have no doubt your alderman could arrange it ior you.”

“Oh, no!” protested Mr. Warner.

“We could not countenance even indirect bribery !” asserted Stanton.

“Oh, nothing of that sort at all,” the architect assured them. “As a matter of courtesy the alderman will get the Building Department to pass the plans. It is done all the time. The department quite understands the absurdity of some of the provisions, and in its discretion virtually modifies the law. I would suggest that you see your alderman. I shall be glad to go with you and give him my assurance of the absolute safety of the structure planned.”

“It will do no harm to see him,” admitted Stanton.

“I would not put up a building,” said the architect virtuously, “that I did not consider absolutely safe.”

“We seem to be drifting back into politics,” commented Atwater thoughtfully, but he agreed that it would do no harm to see the alderman. The idea of wasting six hundred doldars was as repugnant to him as to any of the others.

The committee that called unon Alios

derman Cayvan consisted of the pastor, the architect, and Atwater and Stanton. The alderman was very nice about it, and there being no taint of boodle in his record his assurance that the matter could be arranged easily had no sinister significance.

“Surely,” he said pleasantly, “the building of a church should be made as easy and economical as is consistent with safety, and our building laws admittedly go to extremes in many details. For that reason they are rather loosely enforced. It would seem to me that a building upon which Mr. Benham, your architect, is willing to risk his reputation is not likely to be a dangerous one.”

“We would not care to risk our own lives, either,” suggested Stanton.

“Of course not,” admitted the aiderman. “I can imagine no case in which a modification of the law in its enforcement is more justifiable, and it can be arranged easily.”

“And honestly,” interposed the pastor. “We wouldn’t pay a cent-”

The alderman turned on him sharply. “Sir,” he said, “if any question of bribery, direct or indirect, entered into this I would not listen to you for one moment.”

“Oh, not for you,” the pastor hastened to say.

“Or for anyone,” declared the aiderman. Surely that wasenough to satisfy the most particular.

“What’s to be done?” asked Stanton.

“Simply go ahead with your building,” answered the alderman ; “get your foundations started before you apply for your permit, and then let me file your application. It will be passed as a matter of courtesy, especially when the building is already started.”

“It does not seem quite straightfor ward,” objected Mr. Warner.

“I do not agree with you,” said Stanton. “ 1 here is nothing underhanded about it, for we state when we file our plans exactly what we intend to do, and we get the city’s permit in an entirely proper way.”

“One must be practical in business matters,” suggested the alderman.

‘‘Oh, yes, we must be practical,” conceded the pastor. “The main trouble 106

with churches is that they are too often impractical in what they attempt to do.” “And we shall save six hundred dollars,” added Atwater.

“The city,” reasoned the pastor, “has no right to compel us to throw away money. No doubt dishonest or careless people have to be restrained by law, but we are more interested than anyone else in the safety of our church.”

“The proceeding is not unusual,” the alderman assured them.

“I feared,” said Atwater, relieved, “that we might be getting back into politics, and only great public necessity would warrant that.”

“No politics about it,” said the aiderman.

So, after due consideration, the church proceeded to save the six hundred dollars. There was, however, considerable anxiety during the preliminary work. Secure in the integrity of its motives and methods, the committee planned with a clear, conscience, but the bare possibility that the building permit might be refused was distressing. Then Haley was discovered idly watching the work one day. Haley had been beaten for the legislature, but he still had strong local political affiliations, and it occurred to Stanton that this unscrupulous politician, if he knew the circumstances, might block the permit in some way. A man of his influence and devious practices doubtless could do it.

There was no interference, however. Haley was seen there only once, and il was more than likely that he merely stopped in passing. He had given Stanton a surly scowl, but had made no comment, and Atwater, with whom Stanton at once consulted, had pointed out that Haley, not being a practical builder and having no knowledge of their plans, would not be in a position to know whether the foundations met the technical requirements or not. However, they were not wholly at ease until the permit was finally issued.

“Because, somehow,” Atwater explained, “when you get into politics it isn’t always easy to get out, and politicians have so many ways of being annoying.” But all of this had been forgotten when they finally heard from Haley. In spite

of their precautions there had been financial difficulties, and work on the structure had progressed slowly with many interruptions. It was finally completed, however, and they held a jubilee service, to which the newspapers gave much attention. There were pictures of the church, of the pastor and of the leading members, and a laudatory account of the building of the splendid structure.

Then when the church was momentarily in the limelight, Haley sent for Atwater and Stanton to come to his office. Something in the tone of the message made them think of the time when they had commanded the presence of Haley, and even as Haley had done they indignantly refused to go.

“When Mr. Haley has any business with us,” was the message they returned, “he knows where to find us.”

To this came the insolent reply that “Messrs. Atwater and Stanton would save themselves much trouble in the matter of the church foundations by keeping the appointment made for them.” It was evident that Haley had preserved the note sent to him on the previous occasion.

“What does he mean by that?” asked Stanton anxiously.

“It looks to me,” returned Atwater gloomily, “as if we were getting back into politics, or else we never got out of it.”

“But our record is clear,” insisted Stanton with unnecessary vehemence ; “we got a city permit covering everything that we did, and our building is perfectly safe. That’s all that the building laws seek to provide.

“Nevertheless, I think we’d better see him,” said Atwater. “This is a most unfortunate moment to have any question about the church raised, no matter how clear our consciences may be. We’ll take Mr. Warner and Benham with us.

The committee on this occasion lacked the confidence that had been its strength before. While satisfied that its motives would stand the closest inspection, there was something in the situation that seemed to emphasize the fact that the building laws had been violated. Of course those laws were merely meant to restrain the dishonest and the crimin-

ally careless, among whom the good and cautious people of the Stratford Avenue Church could not be included, but it was not so stated in the code. In consequence the members of the committee were uncomfortable, while Haley seemed to have all the confidence that they lacked.

“You’re a nice bunch to talk to me about graft!” Haley began insultingly. “Mr. Haley,” expostulated the pastor,

“we did not come here to be-”

“Whoa! Back up!” interrupted Haley rudely. “You’re here to listen to what I have to say or I’ll tear the whole foundation of your church out and make a fresh start necessary!”

“Our building permit was issued in due form,” asserted Stanton.

“What of it?” demanded Haley. “Nobody can give you a permit to violate the law. It’s about the worst case of graft-——”

“We won’t listen to such talk!” cried Stanton.

“Then your church comes down!” threatened Haley. “You’ll have to put in new foundations.”

“There was no graft about it, Mr. Haley,” said the pastor with mild insistence. “No one was paid a cent.”

“That’s what you say,” retorted Haley, “but look at the facts: You were allowed to violate the law, and the Building Department don’t take those risks for fun. I don’t say you paid anything—I couldn’t prove you did, anyhow—but you’ll have a mighty hard time making the people believe you didn’t when the facts are known.” This was a new point of view, and it was a most distressing one. “You’d think that mighty strong evidence against me,” Haley added, which was true.

“We can prove our integrity in this matter by Alderman Cayvan,” suggested Atwater.

“Sure !” snorted Haley contemptuously; “he’s in it, too.”

“He looked after the permit.”

“That don’t help any.”

“He knows that there was absolutely no improper inducement offered.”

“That don’t save the church,” asserted Haley. “Nobody had a right to issue a permit on those plans.”

“It’s a common practice.”

“I’m considering only one case now,” said Haley significantly. “This thing will rip the Building Department up the back, but it will get your church.”

“It will make a frightful scandal,” remarked the pastor regretfully, “and will cost us a lot of money if this man is right.” He turned inquiringly to Benham.

“He can do it,” the architect responded. “There never has been any trouble over such things, but he can probably stir up a row in the Building Department that will compel us to conform to the most absurd requirements of the law.”

“And that isn’t the worst of it,” said Haley. “I can show you up as grafters.”

“This passes the bounds of forbearance!” cried Stanton angrily. “A foolish law may enable you to put a great hardship upon us, but to talk about grafting--”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Haley. “Just stop and think it over. What is graft? It’s the money that comes from evasion of the law, ain’t it? Grafting is breaking the law or permitting it to be broken for profit, ain’t it? What did you do?”

“There was no question of money,” protested Stanton.

“Six hundred dollars,” said Haley with deliberate emphasis.

“What?” The members of the committee were so startled that all spoke at once.

“Six hundred dollars,” repeated Haley. “That was your graft price ; that’s what it was worth to you. Oh, I’ve taken the trouble to get all the facts and I know where you stand. You tricked the law for a cash consideration. That’s graft— as surely graft as anything that was ever charged against me—it is nothing but graft.”

The architect was the only one who remained in his chair. The pastor’s face was white with anger; Atwater was both angry and anxious for he saw their predicament more clearly than the others; Stanton shook his fist at Haley but found no words to voice his indignation.

“You sold yourselves and your church for six hundred dollars !” thundered Haley, bringing his fist down on his desk. “You can’t make anything else out of it ! I can put you before the public as sanctimonious, hypocritical grafters.

“We’re in politics again,” said Atwater lugubriously.

“In addition to tearing out the foundations of your church,” persisted Haley, “I can make you the centre of a scandal that will rip this town wide open, but,” he added in a milder tone, “I won’t do it.”

An almost audible sigh of relief went up. Atwater alone seemed to lose none of his anxiety, for Atwater knew that a generous action in such circumstances was wholly foreign to Haley’s nature.

“Mr. Haley of course knows,” said the pastor gently, “that our motives - were wholly above suspicion.”

“What Mr. Haley knows cuts no ice,” retorted Halely roughly. “What the public will say and think is what counts. You’ve been caught grafting; you can’t get away from it ; you’re in the muck and it’s the worse for you because of your pretensions. I can tear down your reputations with your church; I-can put you in the public pillory, but,” he said again, “I won’t do it—unless I have to.”

“What do you mean?” demanded Atwater quickly.

Haley .favored them with an unpleasant smile.

“I am going to run for the legislature again at the approaching election,” he said, “and I expect to be let alone.”

A protest came to the lips of each member of the committee, but each member smothered it and there an uncomfortable silence. Graft had become suddenly a thing less remote than it had always seemed before, and they had a new and better understanding of it.

“Think it over, gentlemen,” said Haley, waving them to the door. “I’ll be a candidate for the legislature again and what are you going to do about it?”