Mr. Crewe's Career


The storm was over, and the bare trees, when the moon shone between the hurrying clouds, cast lacelike shadows on the white velvet surface of the snow as Austen forged his way up the hill to the Widow Peasley's in keeping with his promise to Mr. Redbrook. Across the street he paused outside the picket-fence to gaze at the yellow bars of light between the slats of the windows of the Duncan house. It was hard to realize that she was there, within a stone's throw of where he was to sleep; but the strange, half-startled expression in her eyes that afternoon and the smile—which had in it a curious quality he could not analyze—were so vivid in his consciousness as to give him pain. The incident, as he stood there ankle-deep in the snow, seemed to him another inexplicable and uselessly cruel caprice of fate.

As he pictured her in the dining room behind Mr. Crewe's silver and cut glass and flowers, it was undoubtedly natural that he should wonder whether she were thinking of him in the Widow Peasley's lamp-lit cottage, and he smiled at the contrast. After all, it was the contrast between his life and hers. As an American of good antecedents and education, with a Western experience thrown in, social gulfs, although awkward, might be crossed in spite of opposition from ladies like the Rose of Sharon,—who had crossed them. Nevertheless, the life which Victoria led seemingly accentuated—to a man standing behind a picket-fence in the snow—the voids between.

A stamping of feet in the Widow Peasley's vestibule awoke in him that sense of the ridiculous which was never far from the surface, and he made his way thither in mingled amusement and pain. What happened there is of interest, but may be briefly chronicled. Austen was surprised, on entering, to find Mrs. Peasley's parlour filled with men; and a single glance at their faces in the lamplight assured him that they were of a type which he understood—countrymen of that rugged New England stock to which he himself belonged, whose sons for generations had made lawyers and statesmen and soldiers for the State and nation. Some were talking in low voices, and others sat silent on the chairs and sofa, not awkwardly or uncomfortably, but with a characteristic self-possession and repose. Mr. Redbrook, towering in front of the stove, came forward.

"Here you be," he said, taking Austen's hand warmly and a little ceremoniously; "I asked 'em here to meet ye."

"To meet me!" Austen repeated.

"Wanted they should know you," said Mr. Redbrook.

"They've all heard of you and what you did for Zeb."

Austen flushed. He was aware that he was undergoing a cool and critical examination by those present, and that they were men who used all their faculties in making up their minds.

"I'm very glad to meet any friends of yours, Mr. Redbrook," he said. "What I did for Meader isn't worth mentioning. It was an absolutely simple case."

"Twahn't so much what ye did as how ye did it," said Mr. Redbrook. "It's kind of rare in these days," he added, with the manner of commenting to himself on the circumstance, "to find a young lawyer with brains that won't sell 'em to the railrud. That's what appeals to me, and to some other folks I know—especially when we take into account the situation you was in and the chances you had."

Austen's silence under this compliment seemed to create an indefinable though favourable impression, and the member from Mercer permitted himself to smile.

"These men are all friends of mine, and members of the House," he said, "and there's more would have come if they'd had a longer notice. Allow me to make you acquainted with Mr. Widgeon of Hull."

"We kind of wanted to look you over," said Mr. Widgeon, suiting the action to the word. "That's natural ain't it?"

"Kind of size you up," added Mr. Jarley of Wye, raising his eyes. "Callate you're sizable enough."

"Wish you was in the House," remarked Mr. Adams of Barren. "None of us is much on talk, but if we had you, I guess we could lay things wide open."

"If you was thar, and give it to 'em as hot as you did when you was talkin' for Zeb, them skunks in the front seats wouldn't know whether they was afoot or hossback," declared Mr. Williams of Devon, a town adjoining Mercer.

"I used to think railrud gov'ment wahn't so bad until I come to the House this time," remarked a stocky member from Oxford; "it's sheer waste of money for the State to pay a Legislature. They might as well run things from the New York office—you know that."

"We might as well wear so many Northeastern uniforms with brass buttons," a sinewy hill farmer from Lee put in. He had a lean face that did not move a muscle, but a humorous gray eye that twinkled.

In the meantime Mr. Redbrook looked on with an expression of approval which was (to Austen) distinctly pleasant, but more or less mystifying.

"I guess you ain't disappointed 'em much," he declared, when the round was ended; "most of 'em knew me well enough to understand that cattle and live stock in general, includin' humans, is about as I represent 'em to be."

"We have some confidence in your judgment, Brother Redbrook," answered Mr. Terry of Lee, "and now we've looked over the goods, it ain't set back any, I callate."

This observation, which seemed to meet with a general assent, was to Austen more mystifying than ever. He laughed.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I feel as though some expression of thanks were due you for this kind and most unexpected reception." Here a sudden seriousness came into his eyes which served, somehow, only to enhance his charm of manner, and a certain determined ring into his voice. "You have all referred to a condition of affairs," he added, "about which I have thought a great deal, and which I deplore as deeply as you do. There is no doubt that the Northeastern Railroads have seized the government of this State for three main reasons: to throttle competition; to control our railroad commission in order that we may not get the service and safety to which we are entitled,—so increasing dividends; and to make and maintain laws which enable them to bribe with passes, to pay less taxes than they should, and to manipulate political machinery."

"That's right," said Mr. Jarley of Wye, with a decided emphasis.

"That's the kind of talk I like to hear," exclaimed Mr. Terry.

"And nobody's had the gumption to fight 'em," said Mr. Widgeon.

"It looks," said Austen, "as though it must come to a fight in the end. I do not think they will listen to reason. I mean," he added, with a flash of humour, "that they will listen to it, but not act upon it. Gentlemen, I regret to have to say, for obvious reasons, something which you all know, that my father is at the head of the Northeastern machine, which is the Republican party organization."

There was a silence.

"You went again' him, and we honour you for it, Austen," said Mr. Redbrook, at length.

"I want to say," Austen continued, "that I have tried to look at things as Mr. Vane sees them, and that I have a good deal of sympathy for his point of view. Conditions as they exist are the result of an evolution for which no one man is responsible. That does not alter the fact that the conditions are wrong. But the railroads, before they consolidated, found the political boss in power, and had to pay him for favours. The citizen was the culprit to start with, just as he is the culprit now, because he does not take sufficient interest in his government to make it honest. We mustn't blame the railroads too severely, when they grew strong enough, for substituting their own political army to avoid being blackmailed. Long immunity has reenforced them in the belief that they have but one duty to pay dividends. I am afraid," he added, "that they will have to be enlightened somewhat as Pharaoh was enlightened."

"Well, that's sense, too," said Mr. Widgeon; "I guess you're the man to enlighten 'em."

"Moderate talk appeals to me," declared Mr. Jarley.

"And when that fails," said Mr. Terry, "hard, tellin' blows."

"Don't lose track of the fact that we've got our eye on you," said Mr. Emerson of Oxford, who had a blacksmith's grip, and came back to renew it after he had put on his overshoes. He was the last to linger, and when the door had closed on him Austen turned to Mr. Redbrook.

"Now what does all this mean?" he demanded.

"It means," said Mr. Redbrook, "that when the time comes, we want you to run for governor."

Austen went to the mantelpiece, and stood for a long time with his back turned, staring at a crayon portrait of Colonel Peasley, in the uniform in which he had fallen at the battle of Gettysburg. Then he swung about and seized the member from Mercer by both broad shoulders.

"James Redbrook," he said, "until to-night I thought you were about as long-headed and sensible a man as there was in the State."

"So I be," replied Mr. Redbrook, with a grin. "You ask young Tom Gaylord."

"So Tom put you up to this nonsense."

"It ain't nonsense," retorted Mr. Redbrook, stoutly, "and Tom didn't put me up to it. It's the' best notion that ever came into my mind."

Austen, still clinging to Mr. Redbrook's shoulders, shook his head slowly.

"James," he said, "there are plenty of men who are better equipped than I for the place, and in a better situation to undertake it. I—I'm much obliged to you. But I'll help. I've got to go," he added; "the Honourable Hilary wants to see me."

He went into the entry and put on his overshoes and his coat, while James Redbrook regarded him with a curious mingling of pain and benevolence on his rugged face.

"I won't press you now, Austen," he said, "but think on it. For God's sake, think on it."

Outside, Austen paused in the snow once more, his brain awhirl with a strange exaltation the like of which he had never felt before. Although eminently human, it was not the fact that honest men had asked him to be their governor which uplifted him,—but that they believed him to be as honest as themselves. In that hour he had tasted life as he had never yet tasted it, he had lived as he might never live again. Not one of them, he remembered suddenly, had uttered a sentence of the political claptrap of which he had heard so much. They had spoken from the soul; not bitterly, not passionately, but their words had rung with the determination which had made their forefathers and his leave home, toil, and kindred to fight and die at Bunker Hill and Gettysburg for a principle. It had bean given him to look that eight into the heart of a nation, and he was awed.

As he stood there under the winter moon, he gradually became conscious of music, of an air that seemed the very expression of his mood. His eyes, irresistibly drawn towards the Duncan house, were caught by the fluttering of lace curtains at an open window. The notes were those of a piano,—though the instrument mattered little,—that with which they were charged for him set the night wind quivering. It was not simple music, although it had in it a grand simplicity. At times it rose, vibrant with inexpressible feeling, and fell again into gentler, yearning cadences that wrung the soul with a longing that was world-old and world-wide, that reached out towards the unattainable stare—and, reaching, became immortal. Thus was the end of it, fainting as it drifted heavenward.

Then the window was closed.

Austen walked on; whither, he knew not. After a certain time of which he had no cognizance he found himself under the glaring arc-light that hung over Main Street before the Pelican Hotel, in front of what was known as the ladies' entrance. He slipped in there, avoiding the crowded lobby with its shifting groups and its haze of smoke,—plainly to be seen behind the great plates of glass,—went upstairs, and gained room Number. Seven unnoticed. Then, after the briefest moment of hesitation, he knocked. A voice responded—the Honourable Hilary's. There was but one light burning in the room, and Mr. Vane sat in his accustomed chair in the corner, alone. He was not reading, nor was he drowsing, but his head was dropped forward a little on his breast. He raised it slowly at his son's entrance, and regarded Austen fixedly, though silently.

"You wanted to see me, Judge?" said Austen.

"Come at last, have you?" said Mr. Vane.

"I didn't intend to be late," said Austen.

"Seem to have a good deal of business on hand these days," the Honourable Hilary remarked.

Austen took a step forward, and stopped. Mr. Vane was preparing a piece of Honey Dew.

"If you would like to know what the business was, Judge, I am here to tell you."

The Honourable Hilary grunted.

"I ain't good enough to be confided in, I guess," he said; "I wouldn't understand motives from principle."

Austen looked at his father for a few moments in silence. To-night he seemed at a greater distance than ever before, and more lonely than ever. When Austen had entered the room and had seen him sitting with his head bowed forward, the hostility of months of misunderstanding had fallen away from the son, and he had longed to fly to him as he had as a child after punishment. Differences in after life, alas, are not always to be bridged thus.

"Judge," he said slowly, with an attempt to control his voice, "wouldn't it have been fairer to wait awhile, before you made a remark like that? Whatever our dealings may have been, I have never lied to you. Anything you may want to know, I am here to tell you."

"So you're going to take up lobbying, are you? I had a notion you were above lobbying."

Austen was angered. But like all men of character, his face became stern under provocation, and he spoke more deliberately.

"Before we go any farther," he said, "would you mind telling me who your informant is on this point?"

"I guess I don't need an informant. My eyesight is as good as ever," said the Honourable Hilary.

"Your deductions are usually more accurate. If any one has told you that I am about to engage in lobbying, they have lied to you."

"Wouldn't engage in lobbying, would you?" the Honourable Hilary asked, with the air of making a casual inquiry.

Austen flushed, but kept his temper.

"I prefer the practice of law," he replied.

"Saw you were associatin' with saints," his father remarked.

Austen bit his lip, and then laughed outright,—the canonization of old Tom Gaylord being too much for him.

"Now, Judge," he said, "it isn't like you to draw hasty conclusions. Because I sat down to supper with the Gaylords it isn't fair to infer that they have retained me in a legislative case."

The Honourable Hilary did not respond to his son's humour, but shifted the Honey Dew to the left cheek.

"Old Tom going in for reform?"

"He may bring it about," answered Austen, instantly becoming serious again, "whether he's going in for it or not."

For the first time the Honourable Hilary raised his eyes to his son's face, and shot at him a penetrating look of characteristic shrewdness. But he followed in conversation the same rule as in examining a witness, rarely asking a direct question, except as a tactical surprise.

"Old Tom ought to have his railroad, oughtn't he?"

"So far as I can see, it would be a benefit to the people of that part of the State," said Austen.

"Building it for the people, is he?"

"His motive doesn't count. The bill should be judged on its merits, and proper measures for the safeguarding of public interests should be put into it."

"Don't think the bill will be judged on its merits, do you?"

"No, I don't," replied Austen, "and neither do you."

"Did you tell old Tom so?" asked Mr. Vane, after a pause. "Did you tell old Tom so when he sent for you to take hold?"

"He didn't send for me," answered Austen, quietly, "and I have no business dealings with him except small suits. What I did tell him was that he would never get the bill through this session or next by lobbying."

The Honourable Hilary never showed surprise. He emitted a grunt which evinced at once impatience and amusement.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Well, Judge, I'll tell you what I told him—although you both know. It's because the Northeastern owns the Republican party machine, which is the lobby, and because most of the twenty State senators are dependent upon the Northeastern for future favours."

"Did you tell Tom Gaylord that?" demanded Mr. Vane. "What did he say?"

Austen braced himself. He did not find the answer easy.

"He said he knew about Number Seven as well as I did."

The Honourable Hilary rose abruptly—perhaps in some secret agitation—Austen could not discern. His father walked as far as the door, and turned slowly and faced him, but he did not speak. His mouth was tightly closed, almost as in pain, and Austen went towards him, appealingly.

"Judge," he said, "you sent for me. You have asked me questions which I felt obliged in honesty to answer. God knows I don't wish to differ with you, but circumstances seem always against us. I will talk plainly, if you will let me. I try to look at things from your point of view. I know that you believe that a political system should go hand in hand with the great commercial system which you are engaged in building. I disagree with your beliefs, but I do not think that your pursuit of them has not been sincere, and justified by your conscience. I suppose that you sent for me to know whether Mr. Gaylord has employed me to lobby for his bill. He has not, because I refused that employment. But I will tell you that, in my opinion, if a man of any ability whatever should get up on the floor of the House and make an argument for the Pingsquit bill, the sentiment against the Northeastern and its political power is so great that the House would compel the committee to report the bill, and pass it. You probably know this already, but I mention it for your own good if you do not, in the hope that, through you, the Northeastern Railroads may be induced to relax their grip upon the government of this State."

The Honourable Hilary advanced, until only the marble-topped table was between himself and his son. A slight noise in the adjoining room caused him to turn his head momentarily. Then he faced Austen again.

"Did you tell Gaylord this?" he asked.

Austen made a gesture of distaste, and turned away.

"No," he said, "I reserved the opinion, whatever it is worth, for your ears alone."

"I've heard that kind of calculation before," said the Honourable Hilary. "My experience is that they never come to much. As for this nonsense about the Northeastern Railroads running things," he added more vigorously, "I guess when it's once in a man's head there's no getting it out. The railroad employs the best lawyers it can find to look after its interests. I'm one of 'em, and I'm proud of it. If I hadn't been one of 'em, the chances are you'd never be where you are, that you'd never have gone to college and the law school. The Republican party realizes that the Northeastern is most vitally connected with the material interests of this State; that the prosperity of the road means the prosperity of the State. And the leaders of the party protect the road from vindictive assaults on it like Gaylord's, and from scatterbrains and agitators like your friend Redbrook."

Austen shook his head sadly as he gazed at his father. He had always recognized the futility of arguments, if argument on this point ever arose between them.

"It's no use, Judge," he said. "If material prosperity alone were to be considered, your contention would have some weight. The perpetuation of the principle of American government has to be thought of. Government by a railroad will lead in the end to anarchy. You are courting destruction as it is."

"If you came in here to quote your confounded Emerson—" the Honourable Hilary began, but Austen slipped around the table and took him by the arm and led him perforce to his chair.

"No, Judge, that isn't Emerson," he answered. "It's just common sense, only it sounds to you like drivel. I'm going now,—unless you want to hear some more about the plots I've been getting into. But I want to say this. I ask you to remember that you're my father, and that—I'm fond of you. And that, if you and I happen to be on opposite sides, it won't make any difference as far as my feelings are concerned. I'm always ready to tell you frankly what I'm doing, if you wish to know. Good-by. I suppose I'll see you in Ripton at the end of the week." And he pressed his father's shoulder.

Mr. Vane looked up at his son with a curious expression. Perhaps (as when Austen returned from the shooting of Mr. Blodgett in the West) there was a smattering of admiration and pride in that look, and something of an affection which had long ceased in its strivings for utterance. It was the unconscious tribute, too,—slight as was its exhibition,—of the man whose life has been spent in the conquest of material things to the man who has the audacity, insensate though it seem, to fling these to the winds in his search after ideals.

"Good-by, Austen," said Mr. Vane.

Austen got as far as the door, cast another look back at his father,—who was sitting motionless, with head bowed, as when he came,—and went out. So Mr. Vane remained for a full minute after the door had closed, and then he raised his head sharply and gave a piercing glance at the curtains that separated Number Seven from the governor's room. In three strides he had reached them, flung them open, and the folding doors behind them, already parted by four inches. The gas was turned low, but under the chandelier was the figure of a young man struggling with an overcoat. The Honourable Hilary did not hesitate, but came forward with a swiftness that paralyzed the young man, who turned upon him a face on which was meant to be written surprise and a just indignation, but in reality was a mixture of impudence and pallid fright. The Honourable Hilary, towering above him, and with that grip on his arm, was a formidable person.

"Listening, were you, Ham?" he demanded.

"No," cried Mr. Tooting, with a vehemence he meant for force. "No, I wasn't. Listening to who?"

"Humph!" said the Honourable Hilary, still retaining with one hand the grip on Mr. Tooting 's arm, and with the other turning up the gas until it flared in Mr. Tooting's face. "What are you doing in the governor's room?"

"I left my overcoat in here this afternoon when you sent me to bring up the senator."

"Ham," said Mr. Vane, "it isn't any use lying to me."

"I ain't lying to you," said Mr. Tooting, "I never did. I often lied for you," he added, "and you didn't raise any objections that I remember."

Mr. Vane let go of the arm contemptuously.

"I've done dirty work for the Northeastern for a good many years," cried Mr. Tooting, seemingly gaining confidence now that he was free; "I've slaved for 'em, and what have they done for me? They wouldn't even back me for county solicitor when I wanted the job."

"Turned reformer, Ham?"

"I guess I've got as much right to turn reformer as some folks I know."

"I guess you have," agreed the Honourable Hilary; unexpectedly. He seated himself on a chair, and proceeded to regard Mr. Tooting in a manner extremely disconcerting to that gentleman. This quality of impenetrability, of never being sure when he was angry, had baffled more able opponents of Hilary Vane than Mr. Hamilton Tooting.

"Good-night, Ham."

"I want to say—" Mr. Tooting began.

"Good-night, Ham," said Mr. Vane, once more.

Mr. Tooting looked at him, slowly buttoned up his overcoat, and departed.

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