MR. CREWE'S CAREER, Complete
By WINSTON CHURCHILL
THE HONOURABLE HILARY VANE SITS FOR HIS PORTRAIT
I may as well begin this story with Mr. Hilary Vane, more frequently addressed as the Honourable Hilary Vane, although it was the gentleman's proud boast that he had never held an office in his life. He belonged to the Vanes of Camden Street,—a beautiful village in the hills near Ripton,—and was, in common with some other great men who had made a noise in New York and the nation, a graduate of Camden Wentworth Academy. But Mr. Vane, when he was at home, lived on a wide, maple-shaded street in the city of Ripton, cared for by an elderly housekeeper who had more edges than a new-fangled mowing machine. The house was a porticoed one which had belonged to the Austens for a hundred years or more, for Hilary Vane had married, towards middle age, Miss Sarah Austen. In two years he was a widower, and he never tried it again; he had the Austens' house, and that many-edged woman, Euphrasia Cotton, the Austens' housekeeper.
The house was of wood, and was painted white as regularly as leap year. From the street front to the vegetable garden in the extreme rear it was exceedingly long, and perhaps for propriety's sake—Hilary Vane lived at one end of it and Euphrasia at the other. Hilary was sixty-five, Euphrasia seventy, which is not old for frugal people, though it is just as well to add that there had never been a breath of scandal about either of them, in Ripton or elsewhere. For the Honourable Hilary's modest needs one room sufficed, and the front parlour had not been used since poor Sarah Austen's demise, thirty years before this story opens.
In those thirty years, by a sane and steady growth, Hilary Vane had achieved his present eminent position in the State. He was trustee for I know not how many people and institutions, a deacon in the first church, a lawyer of such ability that he sometimes was accorded the courtesy-title of "Judge." His only vice—if it could be called such—was in occasionally placing a piece, the size of a pea, of a particular kind of plug tobacco under his tongue,—and this was not known to many people. Euphrasia could not be called a wasteful person, and Hilary had accumulated no small portion of this world's goods, and placed them as propriety demanded, where they were not visible to the naked eye: and be it added in his favour that he gave as secretly, to institutions and hospitals the finances and methods of which were known to him.
As concrete evidence of the Honourable Hilary Vane's importance, when he travelled he had only to withdraw from his hip-pocket a book in which many coloured cards were neatly inserted, an open-sesame which permitted him to sit without payment even in those wheeled palaces of luxury known as Pullman cars. Within the limits of the State he did not even have to open the book, but merely say, with a twinkle of his eyes to the conductor, "Good morning, John," and John would reply with a bow and a genial and usually witty remark, and point him out to a nobody who sat in the back of the car. So far had Mr. Hilary Vane's talents carried him.
The beginning of this eminence dated back to the days before the Empire, when there were many little principalities of railroads fighting among themselves. For we are come to a changed America. There was a time, in the days of the sixth Edward of England, when the great landowners found it more profitable to consolidate the farms, seize the common lands, and acquire riches hitherto undreamed of. Hence the rising of tailor Ket and others, and the leveling of fences and barriers, and the eating of many sheep. It may have been that Mr. Vane had come across this passage in English history, but he drew no parallels. His first position of trust had been as counsel for that principality known in the old days as the Central Railroad, of which a certain Mr. Duncan had been president, and Hilary Vane had fought the Central's battles with such telling effect that when it was merged into the one Imperial Railroad, its stockholders —to the admiration of financiers—were guaranteed ten per cent. It was, indeed, rumoured that Hilary drew the Act of Consolidation itself. At any rate, he was too valuable an opponent to neglect, and after a certain interval of time Mr. Vane became chief counsel in the State for the Imperial Railroad, on which dizzy height we now behold him. And he found, by degrees, that he had no longer time for private practice.
It is perhaps gratuitous to add that the Honourable Hilary Vane was a man of convictions. In politics he would have told you—with some vehemence, if you seemed to doubt—that he was a Republican. Treason to party he regarded with a deep-seated abhorrence, as an act for which a man should be justly outlawed. If he were in a mellow mood, with the right quantity of Honey Dew tobacco under his tongue, he would perhaps tell you why he was a Republican, if he thought you worthy of his confidence. He believed in the gold standard, for one thing; in the tariff (left unimpaired in its glory) for another, and with a wave of his hand would indicate the prosperity of the nation which surrounded him,—a prosperity too sacred to tamper with.
One article of his belief, and in reality the chief article, Mr. Vane would not mention to you. It was perhaps because he had never formulated the article for himself. It might be called a faith in the divine right of Imperial Railroads to rule, but it was left out of the verbal creed. This is far from implying hypocrisy to Mr. Vane. It was his foundation-rock and too sacred for light conversation. When he allowed himself to be bitter against various "young men with missions" who had sprung up in various States of the Union, so-called purifiers of politics, he would call them the unsuccessful with a grievance, and recommend to them the practice of charity, forbearance, and other Christian virtues. Thank God, his State was not troubled with such.
In person Mr. Hilary Vane was tall, with a slight stoop to his shoulders, and he wore the conventional double-breasted black coat, which reached to his knees, and square-toed congress boots. He had a Puritan beard, the hawk-like Vane nose, and a twinkling eye that spoke of a sense of humour and a knowledge of the world. In short, he was no man's fool, and on occasions had been more than a match for certain New York lawyers with national reputations.
It is rare, in this world of trouble, that such an apparently ideal and happy state of existence is without a canker. And I have left the revelation of the canker to the last. Ripton knew it was there, Camden Street knew it, and Mr. Vane's acquaintances throughout the State; but nobody ever spoke of it. Euphrasia shed over it the only tears she had known since Sarah Austen died, and some of these blotted the only letters she wrote. Hilary Vane did not shed tears, but his friends suspected that his heart-strings were torn, and pitied him. Hilary Vane fiercely resented pity, and that was why they did not speak of it. This trouble of his was the common point on which he and Euphrasia touched, and they touched only to quarrel. Let us out with it—Hilary Vane had a wild son, whose name was Austen.
Euphrasia knew that in his secret soul Mr. Vane attributed this wildness, and what he was pleased to designate as profligacy, to the Austen blood. And Euphrasia resented it bitterly. Sarah Austen had been a young, elfish thing when he married her,—a dryad, the elderly and learned Mrs. Tredway had called her. Mr Vane had understood her about as well as he would have understood Mary, Queen of Scots, if he had been married to that lady. Sarah Austen had a wild, shy beauty, startled, alert eyes like an animal, and rebellious black hair that curled about her ears and gave her a faun-like appearance. With a pipe and the costume of Rosalind she would have been perfect. She had had a habit of running off for the day into the hills with her son, and the conventions of Ripton had been to her as so many defunct blue laws. During her brief married life there had been periods of defiance from her lasting a week, when she would not speak to Hilary or look at him, and these periods would be followed by violent spells of weeping in Euphrasia's arms, when the house was no place for Hilary. He possessed by matrimony and intricate mechanism of which his really admirable brain could not grasp the first principles; he felt for her a real if uncomfortable affection, but when she died he heaved a sigh of relief, at which he was immediately horrified.
Austen he understood little better, but his affection for the child may be likened to the force of a great river rushing through a narrow gorge, and he vied with Euphrasia in spoiling him. Neither knew what they were doing, and the spoiling process was interspersed with occasional and (to Austen) unmeaning intervals of severe discipline. The boy loved the streets and the woods and his fellow-beings; his punishments were a series of afternoons in the house, during one of which he wrecked the bedroom where he was confined, and was soundly whaled with an old slipper that broke under the process. Euphrasia kept the slipper, and once showed it to Hilary during a quarrel they had when the boy was grown up and gone and the house was silent, and Hilary had turned away, choking, and left the room. Such was his cross.
To make it worse, the boy had love his father. Nay, still loved him. As a little fellow, after a scolding for some wayward prank, he would throw himself into Hilary's arms and cling to him, and would never know how near he came to unmanning him. As Austen grew up, they saw the world in different colours: blue to Hilary was red to Austen, and white, black; essentials to one were non-essentials to the other; boys and girls, men and women, abhorred by one were boon companions to the other.
Austen made fun of the minister, and was compelled to go church twice on Sundays and to prayer-meeting on Wednesdays. Then he went to Camden Street, to live with his grandparents in the old Vane house and attend Camden Wentworth Academy. His letters, such as they were, were inimitable if crude, but contained not the kind of humour Hilary Vane knew. Camden Wentworth, principal and teachers, was painted to the life; and the lad could hardly wait for vacation time to see his father, only to begin quarreling with him again.
I pass over escapades in Ripton that shocked one half of the population and convulsed the other half. Austen went to the college which his father had attended,—a college of splendid American traditions,—and his career there might well have puzzled a father of far greater tolerance and catholicity. Hilary Vane was a trustee, and journeyed more than once to talk the matter over with the president, who had been his classmate there.
"I love that boy, Hilary," the president had said at length, when pressed for a frank opinion,—"there isn't a soul in the place, I believe, that doesn't,—undergraduates and faculty,—but he has given me more anxious thought than any scholar I have ever had."
"Trouble," corrected Mr. Vane, sententiously.
"Well, yes, trouble," answered the president, smiling, "but upon my soul, I think it is all animal spirits."
"A euphemism for the devil," said Hilary, grimly; "he is the animal part of us, I have been brought up to believe."
The president was a wise man, and took another tack.
"He has a really remarkable mind, when he chooses to use it. Every once in a while he takes your breath away—but he has to become interested. A few weeks ago Hays came to me direct from his lecture room to tell me about a discussion of Austen's in constitutional law. Hays, you know, is not easily enthused, but he declares your son has as fine a legal brain as he has come across in his experience. But since then, I am bound to admit," added the president, sadly, "Austen seems not to have looked at a lesson."
"'Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel,'" replied Hilary.
"He'll sober down," said the president, stretching his conviction a little, "he has two great handicaps: he learns too easily, and he is too popular." The president looked out of his study window across the common, surrounded by the great elms which had been planted when Indian lads played among the stumps and the red flag of England had flown from the tall pine staff. The green was covered now with students of a conquering race, skylarking to and fro as they looked on at a desultory baseball game. "I verily believe," said the president, "at a word from your son, most of them would put on their coats and follow him on any mad expedition that came into his mind."
Hilary Vane groaned more than once in the train back to Ripton. It meant nothing to him to be the father of the most popular man in college.
"The mad expedition" came at length in the shape of a fight with the townspeople, in which Austen, of course, was the ringleader. If he had inherited his mother's eccentricities, he had height and physique from the Vanes, and one result was a week in bed for the son of the local plumber and a damage suit against the Honourable Hilary. Another result was that Austen and a Tom Gaylord came back to Ripton on a long suspension, which, rumour said, would have been expulsion if Hilary were not a trustee. Tom Gaylord was proud of suspension in such company. More of him later. He was the son of old Tom Gaylord, who owned more lumber than any man in the State, and whom Hilary Vane believed to be the receptacle of all the vices.
Eventually Austen went back and graduated—not summa cum laude, honesty compels me to add. Then came the inevitable discussion, and to please his father he went to the Harvard Law School for two years. At the end of that time, instead of returning to Ripton, a letter had come from him with the postmark of a Western State, where he had fled with a classmate who owned ranch. Evidently the worldly consideration to be derived from conformity counted little with Austen Vane. Money was a medium only—not an end. He was in the saddle all day, with nothing but the horizon to limit him; he loved his father, and did not doubt his father's love for him, and he loved Euphrasia. He could support himself, but he must see life. The succeeding years brought letters and quaint, useless presents to both the occupants of the lonely house,—Navajo blankets and Indian jeweler and basket-work,—and Austen little knew how carefully these were packed away and surreptitiously gazed at from time to time. But to Hilary the Western career was a disgrace, and such meagre reports of it as came from other sources than Austen tended only to confirm him in this opinion.
It was commonly said of Mr. Paul Pardriff that not a newspaper fell from the press that he did not have a knowledge of its contents. Certain it was that Mr. Pardriff made a specialty of many kinds of knowledge, political and otherwise, and, the information he could give—if he chose —about State and national affairs was of a recondite and cynical nature that made one wish to forget about the American flag. Mr. Pardriff was under forty, and with these gifts many innocent citizens of Ripton naturally wondered why the columns of his newspaper, the Ripton Record, did not more closely resemble the spiciness of his talk in the office of Gales' Hotel. The columns contained, instead, such efforts as essays on a national flower and the abnormal size of the hats of certain great men, notably Andrew Jackson; yes, and the gold standard; and in times of political stress they were devoted to a somewhat fulsome praise of regular and orthodox Republican candidates,—and praise of any one was not in character with the editor. Ill-natured people said that the matter in his paper might possibly be accounted for by the gratitude of the candidates, and the fact that Mr. Pardriff and his wife and his maid-servant and his hired man travelled on pink mileage books, which could only be had for love—not money. On the other hand, reputable witnesses had had it often from Mr. Pardriff that he was a reformer, and not at all in sympathy with certain practices which undoubtedly existed.
Some years before—to be exact, the year Austen Vane left the law school —Mr. Pardriff had proposed to exchange the Ripton Record with the editor of the Pepper County Plainsman in afar Western State. The exchange was effected, and Mr. Pardriff glanced over the Plainsman regularly once a week, though I doubt whether the Western editor ever read the Record after the first copy. One day in June Mr. Pardriff was seated in his sanctum above Merrill's drug store when his keen green eyes fell upon the following:—"The Plainsman considers it safe to say that the sympathy of the people of Pepper County at large is with Mr. Austen Vane, whose personal difficulty with Jim Blodgett resulted so disastrously for Mr. Blodgett. The latter gentleman has long made himself obnoxious to local ranch owners by his persistent disregard of property lines and property, and it will be recalled that he is at present in hot water with the energetic Secretary of the Interior for fencing government lands. Vane, who was recently made manager of Ready Money Ranch, is one of the most popular young men in the county. He was unwillingly assisted over the State line by his friends. Although he has never been a citizen of the State, the Plainsman trusts that he may soon be back and become one of us. At last report Mr. Blodgett was resting easily."
This article obtained circulation in Ripton, although it was not copied into the Record out of deference to the feelings of the Honourable Hilary Vane. In addition to the personal regard Mr. Pardriff professed to have for the Honourable Hilary, it maybe well to remember that Austen's father was, among other, things, chairman of the State Committee. Mr. Tredway (largest railroad stockholder in Ripton) pursed his lips that were already pursed. Tom Gaylord roared with laughter. Two or three days later the Honourable Hilary, still in blissful ignorance, received a letter that agitated him sorely.
"DEAR FATHER: I hope you don't object to receiving a little visit from a prodigal, wayward son. To tell the truth, I have found it convenient to leave the Ready Money Ranch for a while, although Bob Tyner is good enough to say I may have the place when I come back. You know I often think of you and Phrasie back in Ripton, and I long to see the dear old town again. Expect me when you see me.
"Your aff. son, "AUSTEN."
ON THE TREATMENT OF PRODIGALS
While Euphrasia, in a frenzy of anticipation, garnished and swept the room which held for her so many memories of Austen's boyhood, even beating the carpet with her own hands, Hilary Vane went about his business with no apparent lack of diligence. But he was meditating. He had many times listened to the Reverend Mr. Weightman read the parable from the pulpit, but he had never reflected how it would be to be the father of a real prodigal. What was to be done about the calf? Was there to be a calf, or was there not? To tell the truth, Hilary wanted a calf, and yet to have one (in spite of Holy Writ) would seem to set a premium on disobedience and riotous living.
Again, Austen had reached thirty, an age when it was not likely he would settle down and live an orderly and godly life among civilized beings, and therefore a fatted calf was likely to be the first of many follies which he (Hilary) would live to regret. No, he would deal with justice. How he dealt will be seen presently, but when he finally reached this conclusion, the clipping from the Pepper County Plainsman had not yet come before his eyes.
It is worth relating how the clipping did come before his eyes, for no one in Ripton had the temerity to speak of it. Primarily, it was because Miss Victoria Flint had lost a terrier, and secondarily, because she was a person of strong likes and dislikes. In pursuit of the terrier she drove madly through Leith, which, as everybody knows, is a famous colony of rich summer residents. Victoria probably stopped at every house in Leith, and searched them with characteristic vigour and lack of ceremony, sometimes entering by the side door, and sometimes by the front, and caring very little whether the owners were at home or not. Mr. Humphrey Crewe discovered her in a boa-stall at Wedderburn,—as his place was called,—for it made little difference to Victoria that Mr. Crewe was a bachelor of marriageable age and millions. Full, as ever, of practical suggestions, Mr. Crewe proposed to telephone to Ripton and put an advertisement in the Record, which—as he happened to know—went to press the next day. Victoria would not trust to the telephone, whereupon Mr. Crewe offered to drive down with her.
"You'd bore me, Humphrey," said she, as she climbed into her runabout with the father and grandfather of the absentee. Mr. Crewe laughed as she drove away. He had a chemical quality of turning invidious remarks into compliments, and he took this one as Victoria's manner of saying that she did not wish to disturb so important a man.
Arriving in the hot main street of Ripton, her sharp eyes descried the Record sign over the drug store, and in an astonishingly short time she was in the empty office. Mr. Pardriff was at dinner. She sat down in the editorial chair and read a great deal of uninteresting matter, but at last found something on the floor (where the wind had blown it) which made her laugh. It was the account of Austen Vane's difficulty with Mr. Blodgett. Victoria did not know Austen, but she knew that the Honourable Hilary had a son of that name who had gone West, and this was what tickled her. She thrust the clipping in the pocket of her linen coat just as Mr. Pardriff came in.
Her conversation with the editor of the Record proved so entertaining that she forgot all about the clipping until she had reached Fairview, and had satisfied a somewhat imperious appetite by a combination of lunch and afternoon tea. Fairview was the "summer place" of Mr. Augustus P. Flint, her father, on a shelf of the hills in the town of Tunbridge, equidistant from Leith and Ripton: and Mr. Flint was the president of the Imperial Railroad, no less.
Yes, he had once been plain Gus Flint, many years ago, when he used to fetch the pocket-handkerchiefs of Mr. Isaac D. Worthington of Brampton, and he was still "Gus" to his friends. Mr. Flint's had been the brain which had largely conceived and executed the consolidation of principalities of which the Imperial Railroad was the result and, as surely as tough metal prevails, Mr. Flint, after many other trials and errors of weaker stuff, had been elected to the place for which he was so supremely fitted. We are so used in America to these tremendous rises that a paragraph will suffice to place Mr. Flint in his Aladdin's palace. To do him justice, he cared not a fig for the palace, and he would have been content with the farmhouse under the hill where his gardener lived. You could not fool Mr. Flint on a horse or a farm, and he knew to a dot what a railroad was worth by travelling over it. Like his governor-general and dependent, Mr. Hilary Vane, he had married a wife who had upset all his calculations. The lady discovered Mr. Flint's balance in the bank, and had proceeded to use it for her own glorification, and the irony of it all was that he could defend it from everybody else. Mrs. Flint spent, and Mr. Flint paid the bills; for the first ten years protestingly, and after that he gave it up and let her go her own gait.
She had come from the town of Sharon, in another State, through which Mr. Flint's railroad also ran, and she had been known as the Rose of that place. She had begun to rise immediately, with the kite-like adaptability of the American woman for high altitudes, and the leaden weight of the husband at the end of the tail was as nothing to her. She had begun it all by the study of people in hotels while Mr. Flint was closeted with officials and directors. By dint of minute observation and reasoning powers and unflagging determination she passed rapidly through several strata, and had made a country place out of her husband's farm in Tunbridge, so happily and conveniently situated near Leith. In winter they lived on Fifth Avenue.
One daughter alone had halted, for a minute period, this progress, and this daughter was Victoria—named by her mother. Victoria was now twenty-one, and was not only of another generation, but might almost have been judged of another race than her parents. The things for which her mother had striven she took for granted, and thought of them not at all, and she had by nature that simplicity and astonishing frankness of manner and speech which was once believed to be an exclusive privilege of duchesses.
To return to Fairview. Victoria, after sharing her five o'clock luncheon with her dogs, went to seek her father, for the purpose (if it must be told) of asking him for a cheque. Mr. Flint was at Fairview on the average of two days out of the week during the summer, and then he was nearly always closeted with a secretary and two stenographers and a long-distance telephone in two plain little rooms at the back of the house. And Mr. Hilary Vane was often in consultation with him, as he was on the present occasion when Victoria flung open the door. At sight of Mr. Vane she halted suddenly on the threshold, and a gleam of mischief came into her eye as she thrust her hand into her coat pocket. The two regarded her with the detached air of men whose thread of thought has been broken.
"Well, Victoria," said her father, kindly if resignedly, "what is it now?"
"Money," replied Victoria, promptly; "I went to Avalon this morning and bought that horse you said I might have."
"What horse?" asked Mr. Flint, vaguely. "But never mind. Tell Mr. Freeman to make out the cheque."
Mr. Vane glanced at Mr. Flint, and his eyes twinkled. Victoria, who had long ago discovered the secret of the Honey Dew, knew that he was rolling it under his tongue and thinking her father a fool for his indulgence.
"How do you do, Mr. Vane?" she said; "Austen's coming home, isn't he?" She had got this by feminine arts out of Mr. Paul Pardriff, to whom she had not confided the fact of her possession of the clipping.
The Honourable Hilary gave a grunt, as he always did when he was surprised and displeased, as though some one had prodded him with a stick in a sensitive spot.
"Your son? Why, Vane, you never told me that," said Mr. Flint. "I didn't know that you knew him, Victoria."
"I don't," answered Victoria, "but I'd like to. What did he do to Mr. Blodgett?" she demanded of Hilary.
"Mr. Blodgett!" exclaimed that gentleman. "I never heard of him. What's happened to him?"
"He will probably recover," she assured him.
The Honourable Hilary, trying in vain to suppress his agitation, rose to his feet.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Victoria," he said, but his glance was fixed on the clipping in her hand.
"Haven't you seen it?" she asked, giving it to him.
He read it in silence, groaned, and handed it to Mr. Flint, who had been drumming on the table and glancing at Victoria with vague disapproval. Mr. Flint read it and gave it back to the Honourable Hilary, who groaned again and looked out of the window.
"Why do you feel badly about it?" asked Victoria. "I'd be proud of him, if I were you."
"Proud of him" echoed Mr. Vane, grimly. "Proud of him!"
"Victoria, what do you mean?" said Mr. Flint.
"Why not?" said Victoria. "He's done nothing to make you ashamed. According to that clipping, he's punished a man who richly deserved to be punished, and he has the sympathy of an entire county."
Hilary Vane was not a man to discuss his domestic affliction with anybody, so he merely grunted and gazed persistently out of the window, and was not aware of the fact that Victoria made a little face at him as she left the room. The young are not always impartial judges of the old, and Victoria had never forgiven him for carrying to her father the news of an escapade of hers in Ripton.
As he drove through the silent forest roads on his way homeward that afternoon, the Honourable Hilary revolved the new and intensely disagreeable fact in his mind as to how he should treat a prodigal who had attempted manslaughter and was a fugitive from justice. In the meantime a tall and spare young man of a red-bronze colour alighted from the five o'clock express at Ripton and grinned delightedly at the gentlemen who made the station their headquarters about train time. They were privately disappointed that the gray felt hat, although broad-brimmed, was not a sombrero, and the respectable, loose-fitting suit of clothes was not of buckskin with tassels on the trousers; and likewise that he came without the cartridge belt and holster which they had pictured in anticipatory sessions on the baggage-trucks. There could be no doubt of the warmth of their greeting as they sidled up and seized a hand somewhat larger than theirs, but the welcome had in it an ingredient of awe that puzzled the newcomer, who did not hesitate to inquire:—"What's the matter, Ed? Why so ceremonious, Perley?"
But his eagerness did not permit him to wait for explanations. Grasping his bag, the only baggage he possessed, he started off at a swinging stride for Hanover Street, pausing only to shake the hands of the few who recognized him, unconscious of the wild-fire at his back. Hanover Street was empty that drowsy summer afternoon, and he stopped under the well-remembered maples before the house and gazed at it long and tenderly; even at the windows of that room—open now for the first time in years—where he had served so many sentences of imprisonment. Then he went cautiously around by the side and looked in at the kitchen door. To other eyes than his Euphrasia might not have seemed a safe person to embrace, but in a moment he had her locked in his arms and weeping. She knew nothing as yet of Mr. Blodgett's misfortunes, but if Austen Vane had depopulated a county it would have made no difference in her affection.
"My, but you're a man," exclaimed Euphrasia, backing away at last and staring at him with the only complete approval she had ever accorded to any human being save one.
"What did you expect, Phrasie?"
"Come, and I'll show you your room," she said, in a gutter she could not hide; "it's got all the same pictures in, your mother's pictures, and the chair you broke that time when Hilary locked you in. It's mended."
"Hold on, Phrasie," said Austen, seizing her by the apron-strings, "how about the Judge?" It was by this title he usually designated his father.
"What about him?" demanded Euphrasia, sharply.
"Well, it's his house, for one thing," answered Austen, "and he may prefer to have that room—empty."
"Empty! Turn you out? I'd like to see him," cried Euphrasia. "It wouldn't take me long to leave him high and dry."
She paused at the sound of wheels, and there was the Honourable Hilary, across the garden patch, in the act of slipping out of his buggy at the stable door. In the absence of Luke, the hired man, the chief counsel for the railroad was wont to put up the horse himself, and he already had the reins festooned from the bit rings when he felt a heavy, hand on his shoulder and heard a voice say:—"How are you, Judge?"
If the truth be told, that voice and that touch threw the Honourable Hilary's heart out of beat. Many days he had been schooling himself for this occasion: this very afternoon he had determined his course of action, which emphatically did not include a fatted calf. And now surged up a dryad-like memory which had troubled him many a wakeful night, of startled, appealing eyes that sought his in vain, and of the son she had left him flinging himself into his arms in the face of chastisement. For the moment Hilary Vane, under this traitorous influence, was unable to speak. But he let the hand rest on his shoulder, and at length was able to pronounce, in a shamefully shaky voice, the name of his son. Whereupon Austen seized him by the other shoulder and turned him round and looked into his face.
"The same old Judge," he said.
But Hilary was startled, even as Euphrasia had been. Was this strange, bronzed, quietly humorous young man his son? Hilary even had to raise his eyes a little; he had forgotten how tall Austen was. Strange emotions, unbidden and unwelcome, ran riot in his breast; and Hilary Vane, who made no slips before legislative committees or supreme courts, actually found himself saying:—"Euphrasia's got your room ready."
"It's good of you to take me in, Judge," said Austen, patting his shoulder. And then he began, quite naturally to unbuckle the breechings and loose the traces, which he did with such deftness and celerity that he had the horse unharnessed and in the stall in a twinkling, and had hauled the buggy through the stable door, the Honourable Hilary watching him the while. He was troubled, but for the life of him could find no adequate words, who usually had the dictionary at his disposal.
"Didn't write me why you came home," said the Honourable Hilary, as his son washed his hands at the spigot.
"Didn't I? Well, the truth was I wanted to see you again, Judge."
His father grunted, not with absolute displeasure, but suspiciously.
"How about Blodgett?" he asked.
"Blodgett? Have you heard about that? Who told you?"
"Never mind. You didn't. Nothing in your letter about it."
"It wasn't worth mentioning," replied Austen. "Tyner and the boys liked it pretty well, but I didn't think you'd be interested. It was a local affair."
"Not interested! Not worth mentioning!" exclaimed the Honourable Hilary, outraged to discover that his son was modestly deprecating an achievement instead of defending a crime. "Godfrey! murder ain't worth mentioning, I presume."
"Not when it isn't successful," said Austen. "If Blodgett had succeeded, I guess you'd have heard of it before you did."
"Do you mean to say this Blodgett tried to kill you?" demanded the Honourable Hilary.
"Yes," said his son, "and I've never understood why he didn't. He's a good deal better shot than I am."
The Honourable Hilary grunted, and sat down on a bucket and carefully prepared a piece of Honey Dew. He was surprised and agitated.
"Then why are you a fugitive from justice if you were acting in self-defence?" he inquired.
"Well, you see there were no witnesses, except a Mexican of Blodgett's, and Blodgett runs the Pepper County machine for the railroad out there. I'd been wanting to come East and have a look at you for some time, and I thought I might as well come now."
"How did this—this affair start?" asked Mr. Vane.
"Blodgett was driving in some of Tyner's calves, and I caught him. I told him what I thought of him, and he shot at me through his pocket. That was all."
"All! You shot him, didn't you?"
"I was lucky enough to hit him first," said Austen.
Extraordinary as it may seem, the Honourable Hilary experienced a sense of pride.
"Where did you hit him?" he asked.
It was Euphrasia who took matters in her own hands and killed the fatted calf, and the meal to which they presently sat down was very different from the frugal suppers Mr. Vane usually had. But he made no comment. It is perhaps not too much to say that he would have been distinctly disappointed had it been otherwise. There was Austen's favourite pie, and Austen's favourite cake, all inherited from the Austens, who had thought more of the fleshpots than people should. And the prodigal did full justice to the occasion.
CONCERNING THE PRACTICE OF LAW
So instinctively do we hark back to the primeval man that there was a tendency to lionize the prodigal in Ripton, which proves the finished civilization of the East not to be so far removed from that land of outlaws, Pepper County. Mr. Paul Pardriff, who had a guilty conscience about the clipping, and vividly bearing in mind Mr. Blodgett's mishap, alone avoided young Mr. Vane; and escaped through the type-setting room and down an outside stairway in the rear when that gentleman called. It gave an ironical turn to the incident that Mr. Pardriff was at the moment engaged in a "Welcome Home" paragraph meant to be propitiatory.
Austen cared very little for lionizing. He spent most of his time with young Tom Gaylord, now his father's right-hand man in a tremendous lumber business. And Tom, albeit he had become so important, habitually fell once more under the domination of the hero of his youthful days. Together these two visited haunts of their boyhood, camping and fishing and scaling mountains, Tom with an eye to lumbering prospects the while.
After a matter of two or three months bad passed away in this pleasant though unprofitable manner, the Honourable Hilary requested the presence of his son one morning at his office. This office was in what had once been a large residence, and from its ample windows you could look out through the elms on to the square. Old-fashioned bookcases lined with musty books filled the walls, except where a steel engraving of a legal light or a railroad map of the State was hung, and the Honourable Hilary sat in a Windsor chair at a mahogany table in the middle.
The anteroom next door, where the clerks sat, was also a waiting-room for various individuals from the different parts of the State who continually sought the counsel's presence.
"Haven't seen much of you since you've be'n home, Austen," his father remarked as an opening.
"Your—legal business compels you to travel a great deal," answered Austen, turning from the window and smiling.
"Somewhat," said the Honourable Hilary, on whom this pleasantry was not lost. "You've be'n travelling on the lumber business, I take it."
"I know more about it than I did," his son admitted.
The Honourable Hilary grunted.
"Caught a good many fish, haven't you?"
Austen crossed the room and sat on the edge of the desk beside his father's chair.
"See here, Judge," he said, "what are you driving at? Out with it."
"When are you—going back West?" asked Mr. Vane.
Austen did not answer at once, but looked down into his father's inscrutable face.
"Do you want to get rid of me?" he said.
"Sowed enough wild oats, haven't you?" inquired the father.
"I've sowed a good many," Austen admitted.
"Why not settle down?"
"I haven't yet met the lady, Judge," replied his son.
"Couldn't support her if you had," said Mr. Vane.
"Then it's fortunate," said Austen, resolved not to be the necessary second in a quarrel. He knew his father, and perceived that these preliminary and caustic openings of his were really olive branches.
"Sometimes I think you might as well be in that outlandish country, for all I see of you," said the Honourable Hilary.
"You ought to retire from business and try fishing," his son suggested.
The Honourable Hilary sometimes smiled.
"You've got a good brain, Austen, and what's the use of wasting it chasing cattle and practising with a pistol on your fellow-beings? You won't have much trouble in getting admitted to the bar. Come into the office."
Austen did not answer at once. He suspected that it had cost his father not a little to make these advances.
"Do you believe you and I could get along, Judge? How long do you think it would last?"
"I've considered that some," answered the Honourable Hilary, "but I won't last a great while longer myself."
"You're as sound as a bronco," declared Austen, patting him.
"I never was what you might call dissipated," agreed Mr. Vane, "but men don't go on forever. I've worked hard all my life, and got where I am, and I've always thought I'd like to hand it on to you. It's a position of honour and trust, Austen, and one of which any lawyer might be proud."
"My ambition hasn't run in exactly that channel," said his son.
"Didn't know as you had any precise ambition," responded the Honourable Hilary, "but I never heard of a man refusing to be chief counsel for a great railroad. I don't say you can be, mind, but I say with work and brains it's as easy for the son of Hilary Vane as for anybody else."
"I don't know much about the duties of such a position," said Austen, laughing, "but at all events I shall have time to make up my mind how to answer Mr. Flint when he comes to me with the proposal. To speak frankly, Judge, I hadn't thought of spending the whole of what might otherwise prove a brilliant life in Ripton."
The Honourable Hilary smiled again, and then he grunted.
"I tell you what I'll do," he said; "you come in with me and agree to stay five years. If you've done well for yourself, and want to go to New York or some large place at the end of that time, I won't hinder you. But I feel it my duty to say, if you don't accept my offer, no son of mine shall inherit what I've laid up by hard labour. It's against American doctrine, and it's against my principles. You can go back to Pepper County and get put in jail, but you can't say I haven't warned you fairly."
"You ought to leave your fortune to the railroad, Judge," said Austen. "Generations to come would bless your name if you put up a new station in Ripton and built bridges over Bunker Hill grade crossing and the other one on Heath Street where Nic Adams was killed last month. I shouldn't begrudge a cent of the money."
"I suppose I was a fool to talk to you," said the Honourable Hilary, getting up.
But his son pushed him down again into the Windsor chair.
"Hold on, Judge," he said, "that was just my way of saying if I accepted your offer, it wouldn't be because I yearned after the money. Thinking of it has never kept me awake nights. Now if you'll allow me to take a few days once in a while to let off steam, I'll make a counter proposal, in the nature of a compromise."
"What's that?" the Honourable Hilary demanded suspiciously.
"Provided I get admitted to the bar I will take a room in another part of this building and pick up what crumbs of practice I can by myself. Of course, sir, I realize that these, if they come at all, will be owing to the lustre of your name. But I should, before I become Mr. Flint's right-hand man, like to learn to walk with my own legs."
The speech pleased the Honourable Hilary, and he put out his hand.
"It's a bargain, Austen," he said.
"I don't mind telling you now, Judge, that when I left the West I left it for good, provided you and I could live within a decent proximity. And I ought to add that I always intended going into the law after I'd had a fling. It isn't fair to leave you with the impression that this is a sudden determination. Prodigals don't become good as quick as all that."
Ripton caught its breath a second time the day Austen hired a law office, nor did the surprise wholly cease when, in one season, he was admitted to the bar, for the proceeding was not in keeping with the habits and customs of prodigals. Needless to say, the practice did not immediately begin to pour in, but the little office rarely lacked a visitor, and sometimes had as many as five or six. There was an irresistible attraction about that room, and apparently very little law read there, though sometimes its occupant arose and pushed the visitors into the hall and locked the door, and opened the window at the top to let the smoke out. Many of the Honourable Hilary's callers preferred the little room in the far corridor to the great man's own office.
These visitors of the elder Mr. Vane's, as has been before hinted, were not all clients. Without burdening the reader too early with a treatise on the fabric of a system, suffice it to say that something was continually going on that was not law; and gentlemen came and went—fat and thin, sharp-eyed and red-faced—who were neither clients nor lawyers. These were really secretive gentlemen, though most of them had a hail-fellow-well-met manner and a hearty greeting, but when they talked to the Honourable Hilary it was with doors shut, and even then they sat very close to his ear. Many of them preferred now to wait in Austen's office instead of the anteroom, and some of them were not so cautious with the son of Hilary Vane that they did not let drop certain observations to set him thinking. He had a fanciful if somewhat facetious way of calling them by feudal titles which made them grin.
"How is the Duke of Putnam this morning?" he would ask of the gentleman of whom the Ripton Record would frequently make the following announcement: "Among the prominent residents of Putnam County in town this week was the Honourable Brush Bascom."
The Honourable Brush and many of his associates, barons and earls, albeit the shrewdest of men, did not know exactly how to take the son of Hilary Vane. This was true also of the Honourable Hilary himself, who did not wholly appreciate the humour in Austen's parallel of the feudal system. Although Austen had set up for himself, there were many ways—not legal —in which the son might have been helpful to the father, but the Honourable Hilary hesitated, for some unformulated reason, to make use of him; and the consequence was that Mr. Hamilton Tooting and other young men of a hustling nature in the Honourable Hilary's office found that Austen's advent did not tend greatly to lighten a certain class of their labours. In fact, father and son were not much nearer in spirit than when ode had been in Pepper County and the other in Ripton. Caution and an instinct which senses obstacles are characteristics of gentlemen in Mr. Vane's business.
So two years passed,—years liberally interspersed with expeditions into the mountains and elsewhere, and nights spent in the company of Tom Gaylord and others. During this period Austen was more than once assailed by the temptation to return to the free life of Pepper County, Mr. Blodgett having completely recovered now, and only desiring vengeance of a corporal nature. But a bargain was a bargain, and Austen Vane stuck to his end of it, although he had now begun to realize many aspects of a situation which he had not before suspected. He had long foreseen, however, that the time was coming when a serious disagreement with his father was inevitable. In addition to the difference in temperament, Hilary Vane belonged to one generation and Austen to another.
It happened, as do so many incidents which tend to shape a life, by a seeming chance. It was a Tune evening, and there had been a church sociable and basket picnic during the day in a grove in the town of Mercer, some ten miles south of Ripton. The grove was bounded on one side by the railroad track, and merged into a thick clump of second growth and alders where there was a diagonal grade crossing. The picnic was over and the people preparing to go home when they were startled by a crash, followed by the screaming of brakes as a big engine flew past the grove and brought a heavy train to a halt some distance down the grade. The women shrieked and dropped the dishes they were washing, and the men left their horses standing and ran to the crossing and then stood for the moment helpless, in horror at the scene which met their eyes. The wagon of one—of their own congregation was in splinters, a man (a farmer of the neighbourhood) lying among the alders with what seemed a mortal injury. Amid the lamentations and cries for some one to go to Mercer Village for the doctor a young man drove up rapidly and sprang out of a buggy, trusting to some one to catch his horse, pushed, through the ring of people, and bent over the wounded farmer. In an instant he had whipped out a knife, cut a stick from one of the alders, knotted his handkerchief around the man's leg, ran the stick through the knot, and twisted the handkerchief until the blood ceased to flow. They watched him, paralyzed, as the helpless in this world watch the capable, and before he had finished his task the train crew and some passengers began to arrive.
"Have you a doctor aboard, Charley?" the young man asked.
"No," answered the conductor, who had been addressed; "my God, not one, Austen."
"Back up your train," said Austen, "and stop your baggage car here. And go to the grove," he added to one of the picnickers, "and bring four or five carriage cushions. And you hold this."
The man beside him took the tourniquet, as he was bid. Austen Vane drew a note-book from his pocket.
"I want this man's name and address," he said, "and the names and addresses of every person here, quickly."
He did not lift his voice, but the man who had taken charge of such a situation was not to be denied. They obeyed him, some eagerly, some reluctantly, and by that time the train had backed down and the cushions had arrived. They laid these on the floor of the baggage car and lifted the man on to them. His name was Zeb Meader, and he was still insensible. Austen Vane, with a peculiar set look upon his face, sat beside him all the way into Ripton. He spoke only once, and that was to tell the conductor to telegraph from Avalon to have the ambulance from St. Mary's Hospital meet the train at Ripton.
The next day Hilary Vane, returning from one of his periodical trips to the northern part of the State, invaded his son's office.
"What's this they tell me about your saving a man's life?" he asked, sinking into one of the vacant chairs and regarding Austen with his twinkling eyes.
"I don't know what they tell you," Austen answered. "I didn't do anything but get a tourniquet on his leg and have him put on the train."
The Honourable Hilary grunted, and continued to regard his son. Then he cut a piece of Honey Dew.
"Looks bad, does it?" he said.
"Well," replied Austen, "it might have been done better. It was bungled. In a death-trap as cleverly conceived as that crossing, with a down grade approaching it, they ought to have got the horse too."
The Honourable Hilary grunted again, and inserted the Honey Dew. He resolved to ignore the palpable challenge in this remark, which was in keeping with this new and serious mien in Austen.
"Get the names of witnesses?" was his next question.
"I took particular pains to do so."
"Hand 'em over to Tooting. What kind of man is this Meagre?"
"He is rather meagre now," said Austen, smiling a little. "His name's Meader."
"Is he likely to make a fuss?"
"I think he is," said Austen.
"Well," said the Honourable Hilary, "we must have Ham Tooting hurry 'round and fix it up with him as soon as he can talk, before one of these cormorant lawyers gets his claw in him."
Austen said nothing, and after some desultory conversation, in which he knew how to indulge when he wished to conceal the fact that he was baffled, the Honourable Hilary departed. That student of human nature, Mr. Hamilton Tooting, a young man of a sporting appearance and a free vocabulary, made the next attempt. It is a characteristic of Mr. Tooting's kind that, in their efforts to be genial, they often use an awkward diminutive of their friends' names.
"Hello, Aust," said Mr. Tooting, "I dropped in to get those witnesses in that Meagre accident, before I forget it."
"I think I'll keep 'em," said Austen, making a note out of the Revised Statutes.
"Oh, all right, all right," said Mr. Tooting, biting off a piece of his cigar. "Going to handle the case yourself, are you?"
"I'm just as glad to have some of 'em off my hands, and this looks to me like a nasty one. I don't like those Mercer people. The last farmer they ran over there raised hell."
"I shouldn't blame this one if he did, if he ever gets well enough," said Austen. Young Mr. Tooting paused with a lighted match halfway to his cigar and looked at Austen shrewdly, and then sat down on the desk very close to him.
"Say, Aust, it sometimes sickens a man to have to buy these fellows off. What? Poor devils, they don't get anything like what they ought to get, do they? Wait till you see how the Railroad Commission'll whitewash that case. It makes a man want to be independent. What?"
"This sounds like virtue, Ham."
"I've often thought, too," said Mr. Tooting, "that a man could make more money if he didn't wear the collar."
"But not sleep as well, perhaps," said Austen.
"Say, Aust, you're not on the level with me."
"I hope to reach that exalted plane some day, Ham."
"What's got into you?" demanded the usually clear-headed Mr. Tooting, now a little bewildered.
"Nothing, yet," said Austen, "but I'm thinking seriously of having a sandwich and a piece of apple pie. Will you come along?"
They crossed the square together, Mr. Tooting racking a normally fertile brain for some excuse to reopen the subject. Despairing of that, he decided that any subject would do.
"That Humphrey Crewe up at Leith is smart—smart as paint," he remarked. "Do you know him?"
"I've seen him," said Austen. "He's a young man, isn't he?"
"And natty. He knows a thing or two for a millionaire that don't have to work, and he runs that place of his right up to the handle. You ought to hear him talk about the tariff, and national politics. I was passing there the other day, and he was walking around among the flowerbeds. 'Ain't your name Tooting?' he hollered. I almost fell out of the buggy."
"What did he want?" asked Austen, curiously. Mr. Tooting winked.
"Say, those millionaires are queer, and no mistake. You'd think a fellow that only had to cut coupons wouldn't be lookin' for another job, wouldn't you? He made me hitch my horse, and had me into his study, as he called it, and gave me a big glass of whiskey and soda. A fellow with buttons and a striped vest brought it on tiptoe. Then this Crewe gave me a long yellow cigar with a band on it and told me what the State needed, —macadam roads, farmers' institutes, forests, and God knows what. I told him all he had to do was to get permission from old man Flint, and he could have 'em."
"What did he say to that?"
"He said Flint was an intimate friend of his. Then he asked me a whole raft of questions about fellows in the neighbourhood I didn't know he'd ever heard of. Say, he wants to go from Leith to the Legislature."
"He can go for all I care," said Austen, as he pushed open the door of the restaurant.
For a few days Mr. Meader hung between life and death. But he came of a stock which had for generations thrust its roots into the crevices of granite, and was not easily killed by steam-engines. Austen Vane called twice, and then made an arrangement with young Dr. Tredway (one of the numerous Ripton Tredways whose money had founded the hospital) that he was to see Mr. Meader as soon as he was able to sustain a conversation. Dr. Tredway, by the way, was a bachelor, and had been Austen's companion on many a boisterous expedition.
When Austen, in response to the doctor's telephone message, stood over the iron bed in the spick-and-span men's ward of St. Mary's, a wave of that intense feeling he had experienced at the accident swept over him. The farmer's beard was overgrown, and the eyes looked up at him as from caverns of suffering below the bandage. They were shrewd eyes, however, and proved that Mr. Meader had possession of the five senses—nay, of the six. Austen sat down beside the bed.
"Dr. Tredway tells me you are getting along finely," he said.
"No thanks to the railrud," answered Mr. Meader; "they done their best."
"Did you hear any whistle or any bell?" Austen asked.
"Not a sound," said Mr. Meader; "they even shut off their steam on that grade."
Austen Vane, like most men who are really capable of a deep sympathy, was not an adept at expressing it verbally. Moreover, he knew enough of his fellow-men to realize that a Puritan farmer would be suspicious of sympathy. The man had been near to death himself, was compelled to spend part of the summer, his bread-earning season, in a hospital, and yet no appeal or word of complaint had crossed his lips.
"Mr. Meader," said Austen, "I came over here to tell you that in my opinion you are entitled to heavy damages from the railroad, and to advise you not to accept a compromise. They will send some one to you and offer you a sum far below that which you ought in justice to receive, You ought to fight this case."
"How am I going to pay a lawyer, with a mortgage on my farm?" demanded Mr. Meader.
"I'm a lawyer," said Austen, "and if you'll take me, I'll defend you without charge."
"Ain't you the son of Hilary Vane?"
"I've heard of him a good many times," said Mr. Meader, as if to ask what man had not. "You're railroad, ain't ye?"
Mr. Meader gazed long and thoughtfully into the young man's face, and the suspicion gradually faded from the farmer's blue eyes.
"I like your looks," he said at last. "I guess you saved my life. I'm —I'm much obliged to you."
When Mr. Tooting arrived later in the day, he found Mr. Meader willing to listen, but otherwise strangely non-committal. With native shrewdness, the farmer asked him what office he came from, but did not confide in Mr. Tooting the fact that Mr. Vane's son had volunteered to wring more money from Mr. Vane's client than Mr. Tooting offered him. Considerably bewildered, that gentleman left the hospital to report the affair to the Honourable Hilary, who, at intervals during the afternoon, found himself relapsing into speculation.
Inside of a somewhat unpromising shell, Mr. Zeb Meader was a human being, and no mean judge of men and motives. As his convalescence progressed, Austen Vane fell into the habit of dropping in from time to time to chat with him, and gradually was rewarded by many vivid character sketches of Mr. Meader's neighbours in Mercer and its vicinity. One afternoon, when Austen came into the ward, he found at Mr. Meader's bedside a basket of fruit which looked too expensive and tempting to have come from any dealer's in Ripton.
"A lady came with that," Mr. Meader explained. "I never was popular before I was run over by the cars. She's be'n here twice. When she fetched it to-day, I kind of thought she was up to some, game, and I didn't want to take it."
"Up to some game?" repeated Austen.
"Well, I don't know," continued Mr. Meader, thoughtfully, "the woman here tells me she comes regular in the summer time to see sick folks, but from the way she made up to me I had an idea that she wanted something. But I don't know. Thought I'd ask you. You see, she's railrud."
"She's Flint's daughter."
"I shouldn't worry about that," he said. "If Mr. Flint sent his daughter with fruit to everybody his railroad injures, she wouldn't have time to do anything else. I doubt if Mr. Flint ever heard of your case."
Mr. Meader considered this, and calculated there was something in it.
"She was a nice, common young lady, and cussed if she didn't make me laugh, she has such a funny way of talkin'. She wanted to know all about you."
"What did she want to know?" Austen exclaimed, not unnaturally.
"Well, she wanted to know about the accident, and I told her how you druv up and screwed that thing around my leg and backed the train down. She was a good deal took with that."
"I think you are inclined to make too much of it," said Austen.
Three days later, as he was about to enter the ward, Mr. Meader being now the only invalid there, he heard a sound which made him pause in the doorway. The sound was feminine laughter of a musical quality that struck pleasantly on Austen's ear. Miss Victoria Flint was sated beside Mr. Meader's bed, and qualified friendship had evidently been replaced by intimacy since Austen's last visit, for Mr. Meader was laughing, too.
"And now I'm quite sure you have missed your vocation, Mr. Meader," said Victoria. "You would have made a fortune on the stage."
"Me a play-actor!" exclaimed the invalid. "How much wages do they git?"
"Untold sums," she declared, "if they can talk like you."
"He kind of thought that story funny—same as you," Mr. Meader ruminated, and glanced up. "Drat me," he remarked, "if he ain't a-comin' now! I callated he'd run acrost you sometime."
Victoria raised her eyes, sparkling with humour, and they met Austen's.
"We was just talkin' about you," cried Mr. Meader, cordially; "come right in." He turned to Victoria. "I want to make you acquainted," he said, "with Austen Vane."
"And won't you tell him who I am, Mr. Meader?" said Victoria.
"Well," said Mr. Meader, apologetically, "that was stupid of me—wahn't it? But I callated he'd know. She's the daughter of the railrud president—the 'one that was askin' about you."
There was an instant's pause, and the colour stole into Victoria's cheeks. Then she glanced at Austen and bit her lip-and laughed. Her laughter was contagious.
"I suppose I shall have to confess that you have inspired my curiosity, Mr. Vane," she said.
Austen's face was sunburned, but it flushed a more vivid red under the tan. It is needless to pretend that a man of his appearance and qualities had reached the age of thirty-two without having listened to feminine comments of which he was the exclusive subject. In this remark of Victoria's, or rather in the manner in which she made it, he recognized a difference.
"It is a tribute, then, to the histrionic talents of Mr. Meader, of which you were speaking," he replied laughingly.
Victoria glanced at him with interest as he looked down at Mr. Meader.
"And how is it to-day, Zeb?" he said.
"It ain't so bad as it might be—with sech folks as her and you araound," admitted Mr. Meader. "I'd almost agree to get run over again. She was askin' about you, and that's a fact, and I didn't slander you, neither. But I never callated to comprehend wimmen-folks."
"Now, Mr. Meader," said Victoria, reprovingly, but there were little creases about her eyes, "don't be a fraud."
"It's true as gospel," declared the invalid; "they always got the better of me. I had one of 'em after me once, when I was young and prosperin' some."
"And yet you have survived triumphant," she exclaimed.
"There wahn't none of 'em like you," said Mr. Meader, "or it might have be'n different."
Again her eyes irresistibly sought Austen's,—as though to share with him the humour of this remark,—and they laughed together. Her colour, so sensitive, rose again, but less perceptibly this time. Then she got up.
"That's unfair, Mr. Meader!" she protested.
"I'll leave it to Austen," said Mr. Meader, "if it ain't probable. He'd ought to know."
In spite of a somewhat natural embarrassment, Austen could not but acknowledge to himself that Mr. Meader was right. With a womanly movement which he thought infinitely graceful, Victoria leaned over the bed.
"Mr. Meader," she said, "I'm beginning to think it's dangerous for me to come here twice a week to see you, if you talk this way. And I'm not a bit surprised that that woman didn't get the better of you."
"You hain't a-goin'!" he exclaimed. "Why, I callated—"
"Good-by," she said quickly; "I'm glad to see that you are doing so well." She raised her head and looked at Austen in a curious, inscrutable way. "Good-by, Mr. Vane," she said; "I—I hope Mr. Blodgett has recovered."
Before he could reply she had vanished, and he was staring at the empty doorway. The reference to the unfortunate Mr. Blodgett, after taking his breath away, aroused in him an intense curiosity betraying, as it did, a certain knowledge of past events in his life in the hitherto unknown daughter of Augustus interest could she have in him? Such a Flint. What question, from similar sources, has heightened the pulse of young men from time immemorial.
The proverbial little birds that carry news and prophecies through the air were evidently responsible for an official-looking letter which Austen received a few mornings later. On the letter-head was printed "The United Northeastern Railroads," and Mr. Austen Vane was informed that, by direction of the president, the enclosed was sent to him in an entirely complimentary sense. "The enclosed" was a ticket of red cardboard, and its face informed him that he might travel free for the rest of the year. Thoughtfully turning it over, he read on the back the following inscription:—"It is understood that this pass is accepted by its recipient as a retainer."
Austen stared at it and whistled. Then he pushed back his chair, with the pass in his hand, and hesitated. He seized a pen and wrote a few lines: "Dear sir, I beg to return the annual pass over the Northeastern Railroads with which you have so kindly honoured me"—when he suddenly changed his mind again, rose, and made his way through the corridors to his father's office. The Honourable Hilary was absorbed in his daily perusal of the Guardian.
"Judge," he asked, "is Mr. Flint up at his place this week?"
The Honourable Hilary coughed.
"He arrived yesterday on the three. Er—why?"
"I wanted to go up and thank him for this," his son answered, holding up the red piece of cardboard. "Mr. Flint is a very thoughtful man."
The Honourable Hilary tried to look unconcerned, and succeeded.
"Sent you an annual, has he? Er—I don't know as I'd bother him personally, Austen. Just a pleasant note of acknowledgment."
"I don't flatter myself that my achievements in the law can be responsible for it," said Austen. "The favour must be due to my relationship with his eminent chief counsel."
Hilary Vane's keen eyes rested on his son for an instant. Austen was more than ever an enigma to him.
"I guess relationship hasn't got much to do with business," he replied. "You have be'n doing—er—better than I expected."
"Thank you, Judge," said Austen, quietly. "I don't mind saying that I would rather have your approbation than—this more substantial recognition of merit."
The Honourable Hilary's business was to deal with men, and by reason of his ability in so doing he had made a success in life. He could judge motives more than passably well, and play upon weaknesses. But he left Austen's presence that morning vaguely uneasy, with a sense of having received from his own son an initial defeat at a game of which he was a master. Under the excuse of looking up some precedents, he locked his doors to all comers for two hours, and paced his room. At one moment he reproached himself for not having been frank; for not having told Austen roundly that this squeamishness about a pass was unworthy of a strong man of affairs; yes, for not having revealed to him the mysteries of railroad practice from the beginning. But frankness was not an ingredient of the Honourable Hilary's nature, and Austen was not the kind of man who would accept a hint and a wink. Hilary Vane had formless forebodings, and found himself for once in his life powerless to act.
The cost of living in Ripton was not so high that Austen Vane could not afford to keep a horse and buggy. The horse, which he tended himself, was appropriately called Pepper; Austen had found him in the hills, and he was easily the finest animal in Ripton: so good, in fact, that Mr. Humphrey Crewe (who believed he had an eye for horses) had peremptorily hailed Austen from a motorcar and demanded the price, as was Mr. Crewe's wont when he saw a thing he desired. He had been somewhat surprised and not inconsiderably offended by the brevity and force of the answer which he had received.
On the afternoon of the summer's day in which Austen had the conversation with his father just related, Pepper was trotting at a round clip through the soft and shady wood roads toward the town of Tunbridge; the word "town" being used in the New England sense, as a piece of territory about six miles by six. The fact that automobiles full of laughing people from Leith hummed by occasionally made no apparent difference to Pepper, who knew only the master hand on the reins; the reality that the wood roads were climbing great hills the horse did not seem to feel. Pepper knew every lane and by-path within twenty miles of Ripton, and exhibited such surprise as a well-bred horse may when he was slowed down at length and turned into a hard, blue-stone driveway under a strange granite arch with the word "Fairview" cut in Gothic letters above it, and two great lamps in wrought-iron brackets at the sides. It was Austen who made a note of the gratings over the drains, and of the acres of orderly forest in a mysterious and seemingly enchanted realm. Intimacy with domains was new to him, and he began to experience an involuntary feeling of restraint which was new to him likewise, and made him chafe in spite of himself. The estate seemed to be the visible semblance of a power which troubled him.
Shortly after passing an avenue neatly labelled "Trade's Drive" the road wound upwards through a ravine the sides of which were covered with a dense shrubbery which had the air of having always been there, and yet somehow looked expensive. At the top of the ravine was a sharp curve; and Austen, drawing breath, found himself swung, as it were, into space, looking off across miles of forest-covered lowlands to an ultramarine mountain in the hazy south,—Sawanec. As if in obedience to a telepathic command of his master, Pepper stopped.
Drinking his fill of this scene, Austen forgot an errand which was not only disagreeable, but required some fortitude for its accomplishment. The son had this in common with the Honourable Hilary—he hated heroics; and the fact that the thing smacked of heroics was Austen's only deterrent. And then there was a woman in this paradise! These gradual insinuations into his revery at length made him turn. A straight avenue of pear-shaped, fifteen-year-old maples led to the house, a massive colonial structure of wood that stretched across the shelf; and he had tightened the reins and started courageously up the avenue when he perceived that it ended in a circle on which there was no sign of a hitching-post. And, worse than this, on the balconied, uncovered porch which he would have to traverse to reach the doorway he saw the sheen and glimmer of women's gowns grouped about wicker tables, and became aware that his approach was the sole object of the scrutiny of an afternoon tea party.
As he reached the circle it was a slight relief to learn that Pepper was the attraction. No horse knew better than Pepper when he was being admired, and he arched his neck and lifted his feet and danced in the sheer exhilaration of it. A smooth-faced, red-cheeked gentleman in gray flannels leaned over the balustrade and made audible comments in a penetrating voice which betrayed the fact that he was Mr. Humphrey Crewe.
"Saw him on the street in Ripton last year. Good hock action, hasn't he?—that's rare in trotters around here. Tried to buy him. Feller wouldn't sell. His name's Vane—he's drivin' him now."
A lady of a somewhat commanding presence was beside him. She was perhaps five and forty, her iron-gray hair was dressed to perfection, her figure all that Parisian art could make it, and she was regarding Austen with extreme deliberation through the glasses which she had raised to a high-bridged nose.
"Politics is certainly your career, Humphrey," she remarked, "you have such a wonderful memory for faces. I don't see how he does it, do you, Alice?" she demanded of a tall girl beside her, who was evidently her daughter, but lacked her personality.
"I don't know," said Alice.
"It's because I've been here longer than anybody else, Mrs. Pomfret," answered Mr. Crewe, not very graciously, "that's all. Hello." This last to Austen.
"Hello," said Austen.
"Who do you want to see?" inquired Mr. Crewe, with the admirable tact for which he was noted.
Austen looked at him for the first time.
"Anybody who will hold my horse," he answered quietly.
By this time the conversation had drawn the attention of the others at the tables, and one or two smiled at Austen's answer. Mrs. Flint, with a "Who is it?" arose to repel a social intrusion. She was an overdressed lady, inclining to embonpoint, but traces of the Rose of Sharon were still visible.
"Why don't you drive 'round to the stables?" suggested Mr. Crewe, unaware of a smile.
Austen did not answer. He was, in fact, looking towards the doorway, and the group on the porch were surprised to see a gleam of mirthful understanding start in his eyes. An answering gleam was in Victoria's, who had at that moment, by a singular coincidence, come out of the house. She came directly down the steps and out on the gravel, and held her hand to him in the buggy, and he flushed with pleasure as he grasped it.
"How do you do, Mr. Vane?" she said. "I am so glad you have called. Humphrey, just push the stable button, will you?"
Mr. Crewe obeyed with no very good grace, while the tea-party went back to their seats. Mrs. Flint supposed he had come to sell Victoria the horse; while Mrs. Pomfret, who had taken him in from crown to boots, remarked that he looked very much like a gentleman.
"I came to see your father for a few moments—on business," Austen explained.
She lifted her face to his with a second searching look.
"I'll take you to him," she said.
By this time a nimble groom had appeared from out o a shrubbery path and seized Pepper's head. Austen alighted and followed Victoria into a great, cool hallway, and through two darkened rooms, bewilderingly furnished and laden with the scent of flowers, into a narrow passage beyond. She led the way simply, not speaking, and her silence seemed to betoken the completeness of an understanding between them, as of a long acquaintance.
In a plain white-washed room, behind a plain oaken desk, sat Mr. Flint—a plain man. Austen thought he would have known him had he seen him on the street. The other things in the room were letter-files, a safe, a long-distance telephone, and a thin private secretary with a bend in his back. Mr. Flint looked up from his desk, and his face, previously bereft of illumination, lighted when he saw his daughter. Austen liked that in him.
"Well, Vic, what is it now?" he asked.
"Mr. Austen Vane to see you," said Victoria, and with a quick glance at Austen she left him standing on the threshold. Mr. Flint rose. His eyes were deep-set in a square, hard head, and he appeared to be taking Austen in without directly looking at him; likewise, one felt that Mr. Flint's handshake was not an absolute gift of his soul.
"How do you do, Mr. Vane? I don't remember ever to have had the pleasure of seeing you, although your father and I have been intimately connected for many years."
So the president's manner was hearty, but not the substance. It came, Austen thought, from a rarity of meeting with men on a disinterested footing; and he could not but wonder how Mr. Flint would treat the angels in heaven if he ever got there, where there were no franchises to be had. Would he suspect them of designs upon his hard won harp and halo? Austen did not dislike Mr. Flint; the man's rise, his achievements, his affection for his daughter, he remembered. But he was also well aware that Mr. Flint had thrown upon him the onus of the first move in a game which the railroad president was used to playing every day. The dragon was on his home ground and had the choice of weapons.
"I do not wish to bother you long," said Austen.
"No bother," answered Mr. Flint, "no bother to make the acquaintance of the son of my old friend, Hilary Vane. Sit down—sit down. And while I don't believe any man should depend upon his father to launch him in the world, yet it must be a great satisfaction to you, Mr. Vane, to have such a father. Hilary Vane and I have been intimately associated for many years, and my admiration for him has increased with every year. It is to men of his type that the prosperity, the greatness, of this nation is largely due,—conservative, upright, able, content to confine himself to the difficult work for which he is so eminently fitted, without spectacular meddling in things in which he can have no concern. Therefore I welcome the opportunity to know you, sir, for I understand that you have settled down to follow in his footsteps and that you will make a name for yourself. I know the independence of young men—I was young once myself. But after all, Mr. Vane, experience is the great teacher, and perhaps there is some little advice which an old man can give you that may be of service. As your father's son, it is always at your disposal. Have a cigar."
The thin secretary continued to flit about the room, between the letter-files and the desk. Austen had found it infinitely easier to shoot Mr. Blodgett than to engage in a duel with the president of the United Railroad.
"I smoke a pipe," he said.
"Too many young men smoke cigars—and those disgusting cigarettes," said Mr. Flint, with conviction. "There are a lot of worthless young men in these days, anyhow. They come to my house and loaf and drink and smoke, and talk a lot of nonsense about games and automobiles and clubs, and cumber the earth generally. There's a young man named Crewe over at Leith, for instance—you may have seen him. Not that he's dissipated —but he don't do anything but talk about railroads and the stock market to make you sick, and don't know any more about 'em than my farmer."
During this diatribe Austen saw his opening growing smaller and smaller. If he did not make a dash for it, it would soon be closed entirely.
"I received a letter this morning, Mr. Flint, enclosing me an annual pass—"
"Did Upjohn send you one?" Mr. Flint cut in; "he ought to have done so long ago. It was probably an oversight that he did not, Mr. Vane. We try to extend the courtesies of the road to persons who are looked up to in their communities. The son of Hilary Vane is at all times welcome to one."
Mr. Flint paused to light his cigar, and Austen summoned his resolution. Second by second it was becoming more and more difficult and seemingly more ungracious to return a gift so graciously given, a gift of no inconsiderable intrinsic value. Moreover, Mr. Flint had ingeniously contrived almost to make the act, in Austen's eyes, that of a picayune upstart. Who was he to fling back an annual pass in the face of the president of the Northeastern Railroads?
"I had first thought of writing you a letter, Mr. Flint," he said, "but it seemed to me that, considering your relations with my father, the proper thing to do was to come to you and tell you why I cannot take the pass."
The thin secretary paused in his filing, and remained motionless with his body bent over the drawer.
"Why you cannot take it, Mr. Vane?" said the railroad president. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"I appreciate the—the kindness," said Austen, "and I will try to explain." He drew the red cardboard from his pocket and turned it over. "On the back of this is printed, in small letters, 'It is understood that this pass is accepted by the recipient as a retainer.'"
"Well," Mr. Flint interrupted, smiling somewhat blandly, "how much money do you think that pass would save an active young lawyer in a year? Is three hundred dollars too much? Three hundred dollars is not an insignificant sum to a young man on the threshold of his practice, is it?"
Austen looked at Mr. Flint.
"Any sum is insignificant when it restricts a lawyer from the acceptance of just causes, Mr. Flint. As I understand the matter, it is the custom of your railroad to send these passes to the young lawyers of the State the moment they begin to give signs of ability. This past would prevent me from serving clients who might have righteous claims against your railroads, and—permit me to speak frankly—in my opinion the practice tends to make it difficult for poor people who have been injured to get efficient lawyers."
"Your own father is retained by the railroad," said Mr. Flint.
"As their counsel," answered Austen. "I have a pride in my profession, Mr. Flint, as no doubt you have in yours. If I should ever acquire sufficient eminence to be sought as counsel for a railroad, I should make my own terms with it. I should not allow its management alone to decide upon the value of my retainer, and my services in its behalf would be confined strictly to professional ones."
Mr. Flint drummed on the table.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
"I mean that I would not engage, for a fee or a pass, to fight the political battles of a railroad, or undertake any political manipulation in its behalf whatever."
Mr. Flint leaned forward aggressively.
"How long do you think a railroad would pay dividends if it did not adopt some means of defending itself from the blackmail politician of the State legislatures, Mr. Vane? The railroads of which I have the honour to be president pay a heavy tag in this and other States. We would pay a much heavier one if we didn't take precautions to protect ourselves. But I do not intend to quarrel with you, Mr. Vane," he continued quickly, perceiving that Austen was about to answer him, "nor do I wish to leave you with the impression that the Northeastern Railroads meddle unduly in politics."
Austen knew not how to answer. He had not gone there to discuss this last and really great question with Mr. Flint, but he wondered whether the president actually thought him the fledgling he proclaimed. Austen laid his pass on Mr. Flint's desk, and rose.
"I assure you, Mr. Flint, that the spirit which prompted my visit was not a contentious one. I cannot accept the pass, simply because I do not wish to be retained."
Mr. Flint eyed him. There was a mark of dignity, of silent power, on this tall scapegrace of a son of Hilary Vane that the railroad president had missed at first—probably because he had looked only for the scapegrace. Mr. Flint ardently desired to treat the matter in the trifling aspect in which he believed he saw it, to carry it off genially. But an instinct not yet formulated told the president that he was face to face with an enemy whose potential powers were not to be despised, and he bristled in spite of himself.
"There is no statute I know of by which a lawyer can be compelled to accept a retainer against his will, Mr. Vane," he replied, and overcame himself with an effort. "But I hope that you will permit me," he added in another tone, "as an old friend of your father's and as a man of some little experience in the world, to remark that intolerance is a characteristic of youth. I had it in the days of Mr. Isaac D. Worthington, whom you do not remember. I am not addicted to flattery, but I hope and believe you have a career before you. Talk to your father. Study the question on both sides,—from the point of view of men who are honestly trying, in the face of tremendous difficulties, to protect innocent stockholders as well as to conduct a corporation in the interests of the people at large, and for their general prosperity. Be charitable, young man, and judge not hastily."
Years before, when poor Sarah Austen had adorned the end of his table, Hilary Vane had raised his head after the pronouncement of grace to surprise a look in his wife's eyes which strangely threw him into a white heat of anger. That look (and he at intervals had beheld it afterwards) was the true presentment of the soul of the woman whose body was his. It was not—as Hilary Vane thought it—a contempt for the practice of thanking one's Maker for daily bread, but a contempt for cant of one who sees the humour in cant. A masculine version of that look Mr. Flint now beheld in the eyes of Austen Vane, and the enraging effect on the president of the United Railroads was much the same as it had been on his chief counsel. Who was this young man of three and thirty to agitate him so? He trembled, though not visibly, yet took Austen's hand mechanically.
"Good day, Mr. Vane," he said; "Mr. Freeman will help you to find your horse."
The thin secretary bowed, and before he reached the door into the passage Mr. Flint had opened another at the back of the room and stepped out on a close-cropped lawn flooded with afternoon sunlight. In the passage Austen perceived a chair, and in the chair was seated patiently none other than Mr. Brush Bascom—political Duke of Putnam. Mr. Bascom's little agate eyes glittered in the dim light.
"Hello, Austen," he said, "since when have you took to comin' here?"
"It's a longer trip from Putnam than from Ripton, Brush," said Austen, and passed on, leaving Mr. Bascom with a puzzled mind. Something very like a smile passed over Mr. Freeman's face as he led the way silently out of a side entrance and around the house. The circle of the drive was empty, the tea-party had gone—and Victoria. Austen assured himself that her disappearance relieved him: having virtually quarrelled with her father, conversation would have been awkward; and yet he looked for her.
They found the buggy and Pepper in the paved courtyard of the stables. As Austen took the reins the secretary looked up at him, his mild blue eyes burning with an unsuspected fire. He held out his hand.
"I want to congratulate you," he said.
"What for?" asked Austen, taking the hand in some embarrassment.
"For speaking like a man," said the secretary, and he turned on his heel and left him.
This strange action, capping, as it did, a stranger experience, gave Austen food for thought as he let Pepper take his own pace down the trade's road. Presently he got back into the main drive where it clung to a steep, forest-covered side hill, when his attention was distracted by the sight of a straight figure in white descending amidst the foliage ahead. His instinctive action was to pull Pepper down to a walk, scarcely analyzing his motives; then he had time, before reaching the spot where their paths would cross, to consider and characteristically to enjoy the unpropitious elements arrayed against a friendship with Victoria Flint.
She halted on a flagstone of the descending path some six feet above the roadway, and stood expectant. The Rose of Sharon, five and twenty years before, would have been coy—would have made believe to have done it by accident. But the Rose of Sharon, with all her beauty, would have had no attraction for Austen Vane. Victoria had much of her mother's good looks, the figure of a Diana, and her clothes were of a severity and correctness in keeping with her style; they merely added to the sum total of the effect upon Austen. Of course he stopped the buggy immediately beneath her, and her first question left him without any breath. No woman he had ever known seized the essentials as she did.