ONE MAN IN HIS TIME
"One man in his time plays many parts."
No character in this book was drawn from any actual person past or present.
I. THE SHADOW
II. GIDEON VETCH
III. CORINNA OF THE OLD PRINT SHOP
IV. THE TRIBAL INSTINCT
VII. CORINNA GOES TO WAR
VIII. THE WORLD AND PATTY
IX. SEPTEMBER ROSES
X. PATTY AND CORINNA
XI. THE OLD WALLS AND THE RISING TIDE
XII. A JOURNEY INTO MEAN STREETS
XIII. CORINNA WONDERS
XIV. A LITTLE LIGHT ON HUMAN NATURE
XV. CORINNA OBSERVES
XVI. THE FEAR OF LIFE
XVII. MRS. GREEN
XIX. THE SIXTH SENSE
XX. CORINNA FACES LIFE
XXI. DANCE MUSIC
XXII. THE NIGHT
XXIII. THE DAWN
XXIV. THE VICTORY OF GIDEON VETCH
The winter's twilight, as thick as blown smoke, was drifting through the Capitol Square. Already the snow covered walks and the frozen fountains were in shadow; but beyond the irregular black boughs of the trees the sky was still suffused with the burning light of the sunset. Over the head of the great bronze Washington a single last gleam of sunshine shot suddenly before it vanished amid the spires and chimneys of the city, which looked as visionary and insubstantial as the glowing horizon.
Stopping midway of the road, Stephen Culpeper glanced back over the vague streets and the clearer distance, where the approaching dusk spun mauve and silver cobwebs of air. From that city, it seemed to him, a new and inscrutable force—the force of an idea—had risen within the last few months to engulf the Square and all that the Square had ever meant in his life. Though he was only twenty-six, he felt that he had watched the decay and dissolution of a hundred years. Nothing of the past remained untouched. Not the old buildings, not the old trees, not even the old memories. Clustering traditions had fled in the white blaze of electricity; the quaint brick walks, with their rich colour in the sunlight, were beginning to disappear beneath the expressionless mask of concrete. It was all changed since his father's or his grandfather's day; it was all obvious and cheap, he thought; it was all ugly and naked and undistinguished—yet the tide of the new ideas was still rising. Democracy, relentless, disorderly, and strewn with the wreckage of finer things, had overwhelmed the world of established customs in which he lived.
As he lifted his face to the sky, his grave young features revealed a subtle kinship to the statues beneath the mounted Washington in the drive, as if both flesh and bronze had been moulded by the dominant spirit of race. Like the heroes of the Revolution, he appeared a stranger in an age which had degraded manners and enthroned commerce; and like them also he seemed to survey the present from some inaccessible height of the past. Dignity he had in abundance, and a certain mellow, old-fashioned quality; yet, in spite of his well-favoured youth, he was singularly lacking in sympathetic appeal. Already people were beginning to say that they "admired Culpeper; but he was a bit of a prig, and they couldn't get really in touch with him." His attitude of mind, which was passive but critical, had developed the faculties of observation rather than the habits of action. As a member of the community he was indifferent and amiable, gay and ironic. Only the few who had seen his reserve break down before the rush of an uncontrollable impulse suspected that there were rich veins of feeling buried beneath his conventional surface, and that he cherished an inarticulate longing for heroic and splendid deeds. The war had left him with a nervous malady which he had never entirely overcome; and this increased both his romantic dissatisfaction with his life and his inability to make a sustained effort to change it.
The sky had faded swiftly to pale orange; the distant buildings appeared to swim toward him in the silver air; and the naked trees barred the white slopes with violet shadows. In the topmost branches of an old sycamore the thinnest fragment of a new moon hung trembling like a luminous thread. The twilight was intensely still, and the noises of the city fell with a metallic sound on his ears, as if a multitude of bells were ringing about him. While he walked on past the bald outline of the restored and enlarged Capitol, this imaginary concert grew gradually fainter, until he heard above it presently the sudden closing of a window in the Governor's mansion—as the old gray house was called.
Pausing abruptly, the young man frowned as his eyes fell on the charming Georgian front, which presided like a serene and spacious memory over the modern utilitarian purpose that was devastating the Square. Alone in its separate plot, broad, low, and hospitable, the house stood there divided and withdrawn from the restless progress and the age of concrete—a modest reminder of the centuries when men had built well because they had time, before they built, to stop and think and remember. The arrested dignity of the past seemed to the young man to hover above the old mansion within its setting of box hedges and leafless lilac shrubs and snow-laden magnolia trees. He saw the house contrasted against the crude surroundings of the improved and disfigured Square, and against the house, attended by all its stately traditions, he saw the threatening figure of Gideon Vetch. "So it has come to this," he thought resentfully, with his gaze on the doorway where a round yellow globe was shining. Ragged frost-coated branches framed the sloping roof, and the white columns of the square side porches emerged from the black crags of magnolia trees. In the centre of the circular drive, invaded by concrete, a white heron poured a stream of melting ice from a distorted throat.
The shutters were not closed at the lower windows, and the firelight flickered between the short curtains of some brownish muslin. As Stephen passed the gate on his way down the hill, a figure crossed one of the windows, and his frown deepened as he recognized, or imagined that he recognized, the shadow of Gideon Vetch.
"Gideon Vetch!" At the sound of the name the young man threw back his head and laughed softly. A Gideon Vetch was Governor of Virginia! Here also, he told himself, half humorously, half bitterly, democracy had won. Here also the destroying idea had triumphed. In sight of the bronze Washington, this Gideon Vetch, one of "the poor white trash," born in a circus tent, so people said, the demagogue of demagogues in Stephen's opinion—this Gideon Vetch had become Governor of Virginia! Yet the placid course of Stephen's life flowed on precisely as it had flowed ever since he could remember, and the dramatic hand of Washington had not fallen. It was still so recent; it had come about so unexpectedly, that people—at least the people the young man knew and esteemed—were still trying to explain how it had happened. The old party had been sleeping, of course; it had grown too confident, some said too corpulent; and it had slept on peacefully, in spite of the stirring strength of the labour leaders, in spite of the threatening coalition of the new factions, in spite even of the swift revolt against the stubborn forces of habit, of tradition, of overweening authority. His mother, he knew, held the world war responsible; but then his mother was so constituted that she was obliged to blame somebody or something for whatever happened. Yet others, he admitted, as well as his mother, held the war responsible for Gideon Vetch—as if the great struggle had cast him out in some gigantic cataclysm, as if it had broken through the once solid ground of established order, and had released into the world all the explosive gases of disintegration, of destruction.
For himself, the young man reflected now, he had always thought otherwise. It was a period, he felt, of humbug radicalism, of windbag eloquence; yet he possessed both wit and discernment enough to see that, though ideas might explode in empty talk, still it took ideas to make the sort of explosion that was deafening one's ears. All the flat formula of the centuries could not produce a single Gideon Vetch. Such men were part of the changing world; they answered not to reasoned argument, but to the loud crash of breaking idols. Stephen hated Vetch with all his heart, but he acknowledged him. He did not try to evade the man's tremendous veracity, his integrity of being, his inevitableness. An inherent intellectual honesty compelled Stephen to admit that, "the demagogue", as he called him, had his appropriate place in the age that produced him—that he existed rather as an outlet for political tendencies than as the product of international violence. He was more than a theatrical attitude—a torrent of words. Even a free country—and Stephen thought sentimentally of America as "a free country"—must have its tyrannies of opinion, and consequently its rebels against current convictions. In the older countries he had imagined that it might be possible to hold with the hare and run with the hounds; but in the land of opportunity for all there was less reason to be astonished when the hunted turned at last into the hunter. Where every boy was taught that he might some day be President, why should one stand amazed when the ambitious son of a circus rider became Governor of Virginia? After all, a fair field and no favours was the best that the most conservative of politicians—the best that even John Benham could ask.
Yes, there was a cause, there was a reason for the miracle of disorder, or it would not have happened. The hour had called forth the man; but the man had been there awaiting the strokes, listening, listening, with his ear to the wind. It had been a triumph of personality, one of those rare dramatic occasions when the right man and the appointed time come together. This the young man admitted candidly in the very moment when he told himself that he detested the demagogue and all his works. A man who consistently made his bid for the support of the radical element! Who stirred up the forces of discontent because he could harness them to his chariot! A man who was born in a circus tent, and who still performed in public the tricks of a mountebank! That this man had power, Stephen granted ungrudgingly; but it was power over the undisciplined, the half-educated, the mentally untrained. It was power, as John Benham had once remarked with a touch of hyperbole, over empty stomachs.
There were persons in Stephen's intimate circle (there are such persons even in the most conservative communities) who contended that Vetch was in his way a rude genius. Judge Horatio Lancaster Page, for instance, insisted that the Governor had a charm of his own, that, "he wasn't half bad to look at if you caught him smiling," that he could even reason "like one of us," if you granted him his premise. After the open debate between Vetch and Benham—the great John Benham, hero of war and peace, and tireless labourer in the vineyard of public service—after this memorable discussion, Judge Horatio Lancaster Page had remarked, in his mild, unpolemical tone, that "though John had undoubtedly carried off the flowers of rhetoric, there was a good deal of wholesome green stuff about that fellow Vetch." But everybody knew that a man with a comical habit of mind could not be right.
Again the figure crossed the firelight between the muslin curtains, and to Stephen Culpeper, standing alone in the snow outside, that large impending presence embodied all that he and his kind had hated and feared for generations. It embodied among other disturbances the law of change; and to Stephen and his race of pleasant livers the two sinister forces in the universe were change and death. After all, they had made the world, these pleasant livers; and what were those other people—the people represented by that ominous shadow—except the ragged prophets of disorder and destruction?
Turning away, Stephen descended the wide brick walk which fell gradually, past the steps of the library and the gaunt railing round a motionless fountain, to the broad white slope of the Square with its smoky veil of twilight. Farther away he saw the high iron fence and heard the clanging of passing street cars. On his left the ugly shape of the library resembled some crude architectural design sketched on parchment.
As he approached the fountain, a small figure in a red cape detached itself suddenly from the mesh of shadows, and he recognized Patty Vetch, the irrepressible young daughter of the Governor. He had seen her the evening before at a charity ball, where she had been politely snubbed by what he thought of complacently as "our set." From the moment when he had first looked at her across the whirling tulle and satin skirts in the ballroom, he had decided that she embodied as obviously as her father, though in a different fashion, the qualities which were most offensive both to his personal preferences and his inherited standards of taste. The girl in her scarlet dress, with her dark bobbed hair curling in on her neck, her candid ivory forehead, her provoking blunt nose, her bright red lips, and the inquiring arch of her black eyebrows over her gray-green eyes, had appeared to him absurdly like a picture on the cover of some cheap magazine. He had heartily disapproved of her, but he couldn't help looking at her. If she had been on the cover of a magazine, he had told himself sternly, he should never have bought it. He had correct ideas of what a lady should be (they were inherited from the early eighties and his mother had implanted them), and he would have known anywhere that Patty Vetch was not exactly a lady. Though he was broad enough in his views to realize that types repeat themselves only in variations, and that girls of to-day are not all that they were in the happy eighties—that one might make up flashily like Geraldine St. John, or dance outrageously like Bertha Underwood, and yet remain in all essential social values "a lady"—still he was aware that the external decorations of a chorus girl could not turn the shining daughter of the St. Johns for an imitation of paste, and, though the nimble Bertha could perform every Jazz motion ever invented, one would never dream of associating her with a circus ring. It was not the things one did that made one appear unrefined, he had concluded at last, but the way that one did them; and Patty Vetch's way was not the prescribed way of his world. Small as she was there was too much of her. She contrived always to be where one was looking. She was too loud, too vivid, too highly charged with vitality; she was too obviously different. If a redbird had flown into the heated glare of the ballroom Stephen's gaze would have followed it with the same startled and fascinated attention.
As the girl approached him now on the snow-covered slope, he was conscious again of that swift recoil from chill disapproval to reluctant attraction. Though she was not beautiful, though she was not even pretty according to the standards with which he was familiar, she possessed what he felt to be a dangerous allurement. He had never imagined that anything so small could be so much alive. The electric light under which she passed revealed the few golden freckles over her childish nose, the gray-green colour of her eyes beneath the black eyelashes, and the sensitive red mouth which looked as soft and sweet as a carnation. It revealed also the absurd shoes of gray suede, with French toes and high and narrow heels, in which she flitted, regardless alike of danger and of common sense, over the slippery ground. The son of a strong-minded though purely feminine mother, he had been trained to esteem discretion in dress almost as highly as rectitude of character in a woman; and by no charitable stretch of the imagination could he endow his first impression of Patty Vetch with either of these attributes.
"It would serve her right if she fell and broke her leg," he thought severely; and the idea of such merited punishment was still in his mind when he heard a sharp gasp of surprise, and saw the girl slip, with a frantic clutch at the air, and fall at full length on the shining ground. When he sprang forward and bent over her, she rose quickly to her knees and held out what he thought at first was some queer small muff of feathers.
"Please hold this pigeon," she said, "I saw it this afternoon, and I came out to look for it. Somebody has broken its wings."
"If you came out to walk on ice," he replied with a smile, "why, in Heaven's name, didn't you wear skates or rubbers?"
She gave a short little laugh which was entirely without merriment. "I don't skate, and I never wear rubbers."
He glanced down at her feet in candid disapproval. "Then you mustn't be surprised if you get a sprained ankle."
"I am not surprised," she retorted calmly. "Nothing surprises me. Only my ankle isn't sprained. I am just getting my breath."
She had rested her knee on a bench, and she looked up at him now with bright, enigmatical eyes. "You don't mind waiting a moment, do you?" she asked. To his secret resentment she appeared to be deliberately appraising either his abilities or his attractions—he wasn't sure which engaged her bold and perfectly unembarrassed regard.
"No, I don't mind in the least," he replied, "but I'd like to get you home if you have really hurt yourself. Of course it was your own fault that you fell," he added truthfully but indiscreetly.
For an instant she seemed to be holding her breath, while he stood there in what he felt to be a foolish attitude, with the pigeon (for all symbolical purposes it might as well have been a dove) clasped to his breast.
"Oh, I know," she responded presently in a voice which was full of suppressed anger. "Everything is my fault—even the fact that I was born!"
Shocked out of his conventional manner, he stared at her in silence, and the pigeon, feeling the strain of his grasp, fluttered softly against his overcoat. What was there indeed for him to do except stare at a lack of reticence, of good-breeding, which he felt to be deplorable? His fine young face, with its characteristic note of reserve, hardened into sternness as he remembered having heard somewhere that the girl's mother had been killed or injured when she was performing some dangerous act at a country fair. Well, one might expect anything, he supposed, from such an inheritance.
"May I help you?" he asked with distant and chilly politeness.
"Oh, can't you wait a minute?" She impatiently thrust aside his offer. "I must get my breath again."
It was plain that she was very angry, that she was in the clutch of a smothered yet violent resentment, which, he inferred with reason, was directed less against himself than against some abstract and impersonal law of life. Her rage was not merely temper against a single human being; it was, he realized, a passionate rebellion against Fate or Nature, or whatever she personified as the instrument of the injustice from which she suffered. Her eyes were gleaming through the web of light and shadow; her mouth was trembling; and there was the moisture of tears—or was it only the glitter of ice?—on her round young cheek. And while he looked, chilled, disapproving, unsympathetic, at the vivid flower-like bloom of her face, there seemed to flow from her and envelop him the spirit of youth itself—of youth adventurous, intrepid, and defiant; of youth rejecting the expedient and demanding the impossible; of youth eternally desirable, enchanting, and elusive. It was as if his orderly, complacent, and tranquil soul had plunged suddenly into a bath of golden air. Vaguely disturbed, he drew back and tried to appear dignified in spite of the fluttering pigeon. He had no inclination for a flirtation with the Governor's daughter—intuitively he felt that such an adventure would not be a safe one; but if a flirtation were what she wanted, he told himself, with a sense of impending doom, "there might be trouble." He didn't know what she meant, but whatever it was, she evidently meant it with determination. Already she had impressed him with the quality which, for want of a better word, he thought of as "wildness." It was a quality which he had found strangely, if secretly, alluring, and he acknowledged now that this note of "wildness," of unexpectedness, of "something different" in her personality, had held his gaze chained to the airy flutter of her scarlet skirt. He felt vaguely troubled. Something as intricate and bewildering as impulse was winding through the smoothly beaten road of his habit of thought. The noises of the city came to him as if they floated over an immeasurable distance of empty space. Through the spectral boughs of the sycamores the golden sky had faded to the colour of ashes. And both the empty space and the ashen sky seemed to be not outside of himself, but a part of the hidden country within his mind.
"You were at the ball," she burst out suddenly, as if she had been holding back the charge from the beginning.
"At the ball?" he repeated, and the words were spoken with his lips merely in that objective world of routine and habit. "Yes, I was there. It was a dull business."
She laughed again with the lack of merriment he had noticed before. Though her face was made for laughter, there was an oddly conflicting note of tragedy in her voice. "Was it dull? I didn't notice."
"Then you must have enjoyed it?"
"But you were there. You saw what happened. Every one must have seen." Her savage candour brushed away the flimsy amenities. He knew now that she would say whatever she pleased, and, with the pigeon clasped tightly in his arms, he waited for anything that might come.
"You pretend that you don't know, that you didn't see!" she asked indignantly.
As she looked at him he thought—or it may have been the effect of the shifting light—that her eyes diffused soft green rays beneath her black eyelashes. Was there really the mist of tears in her sparkling glance?
"I am sorry," he said simply, being a young man of few words when the need of speech was obvious. The last thing he wanted, he told himself, was to receive the confidences of the Governor's daughter.
At this declaration, so characteristic of his amiable temperament, her anger flashed over him. "You were not sorry. You know you were not, or you would have made them kinder!"
"Kinder? But how could I?" He felt that her rage was making her unreasonable. "I didn't know you. I hadn't even been introduced to you." It was on the tip of his tongue to add, "and I haven't been yet—" but he checked himself in fear of unchaining the lightning. It was all perfectly true. He had not even been introduced to the girl, and here she was, as crude as life and as intemperate, accusing him of indifference and falsehood. And after all, what had they done to her? No one had been openly rude. Nothing had been said, he was sure, absolutely nothing. It had been a "charity entertainment," and the young people of his set had merely left her alone, that was all. The affair had been far from exclusive—for the enterprising ladies of the Beech Tree Day Nursery had prudently preferred a long subscription list to a limited social circle—and in a gathering so obscurely "mixed" there were, without doubt, a number of Gideon Vetch's admirers. Was it maliciously arranged by Fate that Patty Vetch's social success should depend upon the people who had elected her father to office?
"As if that mattered!"
Her scorn of his subterfuge, her mocking defiance of the sacred formula to which he deferred, awoke in him an unfamiliar and pleasantly piquant sensation. Through it all he was conscious of the inner prick and sting of his disapprobation, as if the swift attraction had passed into a mental aversion.
"As if that mattered!" he echoed gaily, "as if that mattered at all!"
Her face changed in the twilight, and it seemed to him that he saw her for the first time with the peculiar vividness that came only in dreams or in the hidden country within his mind. The sombre arch of the sky, the glimmer of lights far away, the clustering shadows against the white field of snow, the vague ghostly shapes of the sycamores—all these things endowed her with the potency of romantic adventure. In the winter night she seemed to him to exhale the roving sweetness of spring. Then she spoke, and the sharp brightness of his vision was clouded by the old sense of unreality.
"They treated me as if I were a piece of bunting or a flower in a pot," she said. "They left me alone in the dressing-room. No one spoke to me, though they must have known who I was. They know, all of them, that I am the Governor's daughter."
With a start he brought himself back from the secret places. "But I thought you carried your head very high," he answered, "and you did not appear to lack partners." Some small ironic demon that seemed to dwell in his brain and yet to have no part in his real thought, moved him to add indiscreetly: "I thought you danced every dance with Julius Gershom. That's the name of that dark fellow who's a politician of doubtful cast, isn't it?"
She made a petulant gesture, and the red wings in her hat vibrated like the wings of a bird in flight. There flashed though his mind while he watched her the memory of a cardinal he had seen in a cedar tree against the snow-covered landscape. Strange that he could never get away from the thought of a bird when he looked at her.
"Oh, Julius Gershom! I despise him!"
She shivered, and he asked with a sympathy he had not displayed for mental discomforts: "Aren't you dreadfully chilled? This kind of thing is a risk, you know. You might catch influenza—or anything."
"Yes, I might, if there is any about," she replied tartly, and he saw with relief that her petulance had faded to dull indifference. "I was obliged to dance with somebody," she resumed after a minute, "I couldn't sit against the wall the whole evening, could I? And nobody else asked me,—but I don't like him any the better for that."
"And your father? Does he dislike him also?" he asked.
"How can one tell? He says he is useful." There was a playful tenderness in her voice.
"Useful? You mean in politics?"
She laughed. "How else in the world can any one be useful to Father? It must be freezing."
"No, it is melting; but it is too cold to play about out of doors."
"Your teeth are chattering!" she rejoined with scornful merriment.
"They are not," he retorted indignantly. "I am as comfortable as you are."
"Well, I'm not comfortable at all. Something—I don't know what it was—happened to my ankle. I think I twisted it when I fell."
"And all this time you haven't said a word. We've talked about nothing while you must have been in pain."
She shook her head as if his new solicitude irritated her, and a quiver of pain—or was it amusement?—crossed her lips. "It isn't the first time I've had to grit my teeth and bear things—but it's getting worse instead of better all the time, and I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to help me up the hill. I was waiting until I thought I could manage it by myself."
So that was why she had kept him! She had hoped all the time that she could go on presently without his aid, and she realized now that it was impossible. Insensibly his judgment of her softened, as if his romantic imagination had spun iridescent cobwebs about her. By Jove, what pluck she had shown, what endurance! There came to him suddenly the realization that if she had learned to treat a sprained ankle so lightly, it could mean only that her short life had been full of misadventures beside which a sprained ankle appeared trivial. She could "play the game" so perfectly, he grasped, because she had been obliged either to play it or go under ever since she had been big enough to read the cards in her hand. To be "a good sport" was perhaps the best lesson that the world had yet taught her. Though she could not be, he decided, more than eighteen, she had acquired already the gay bravado of the experienced gambler with life.
"Let me help you," he said eagerly, "I am sure that I can carry you, you are so small. If you will only let me throw away this confounded bird, I can manage it easily."
"No, give it to me. It would die of cold if we left it." She stretched out her hand, and in silence he gave her the wounded pigeon. Her tenderness for the bird, conflicting as it did with his earlier impression of her, both amused and perplexed him. He couldn't reconcile her quick compassion with her resentful and mocking attitude toward himself.
At his impulsive offer of help the quiver shook her lips again, and stooping over she did something which appeared to him quite unnecessary to one gray suede shoe. "No, it isn't as bad as that. I don't need to be carried," she said. "That sort of thing went out of fashion ages ago. If you'll just let me lean on you until I get up the hill."
She put her hand through his arm; and while he walked slowly up the hill, he decided that, taken all in all, the present moment was the most embarrassing one through which he had ever lived. The fugitive gleam, the romantic glamour, had vanished now. He wondered what it was about her that he had at first found attractive. It was the spirit of the place, he decided, nothing more. With every step of the way there closed over him again his natural reserve, his unconquerable diffidence, his instinctive recoil from the eccentric in behaviour. Conventions were the breath of his young nostrils, and yet he was passing through an atmosphere, without, thank Heaven, his connivance or inclination, where it seemed to him the hardiest convention could not possibly survive. When the lights of the mansion shone nearer through the bared boughs, he heaved a sigh of relief.
"Have I tired you?" asked the girl in response, and the curious lilting note in her voice made him turn his head and glance at her in sudden suspicion. Had she really hurt herself, or was she merely indulging some hereditary streak of buffoonery at his expense? It struck him that she would be capable of such a performance, or of anything else that invited her amazing vivacity. His one hope was that he might leave her in some obscure corner of the house, and slip away before anybody capable of making a club joke had discovered his presence. The hidden country was lost now, and with it the perilous thrill of enchantment.
He rang the bell, and the door was opened by an old coloured butler who had been one of the family servants of the Culpepers. How on earth, Stephen wondered, could the Governor tolerate the venerable Abijah, the chosen companion of Culpeper children for two generations? While he wondered he recalled something his mother had said a few weeks ago about Abijah's having been lured away by the offer of absurd wages. "You needn't worry," she had added shrewdly, "he will return as soon as he gets tired of working."
"I hurt my ankle, Abijah," said the girl.
"You ain't, is you, Miss Patty?" replied Abijah, in an indulgent tone which conveyed to Stephen's delicate ears every shade of difference between the Vetchs' and the Culpepers' social standing.
"How are you, Abijah?" remarked the young man with the air of lordly pleasantry he used to all servants who were not white. Beyond the fine old hall he saw the formal drawing-room and the modern octagonal dining-room at the back of the house.
"Howdy, Marse Stephen," responded the negro, "I seed yo' ma yestiddy en she sutney wuz lookin well an' peart."
He opened the door of the library, and while Stephen entered the room with the girl's hand on his arm, a man rose from a chair by the fire and came forward.
"Father, this is Mr. Culpeper," remarked Patty calmly, as she sank on a sofa and stretched out her frivolous shoes.
In the midst of his embarrassment Stephen wondered resentfully how she had discovered his name.
"Your daughter slipped on the ice," explained the young man, while the thought flashed through his mind that Patty's father was accepting it all, with ironical humour, as some queer masquerade.
It was the first time that Stephen had come within range of the Governor's personal influence, and he found himself waiting curiously for the response of his sympathies or his nerves. Once or twice he had heard Vetch speak—a storm of words which had played freely from the lightning flash of humorous invective to the rolling thunder of passionate denunciation. Such sound and fury had left Stephen the one unmoved man in the audience. He had been brought up on the sonorous rhetoric and the gorgeous purple periods of the classic orations; and the mere undraped sincerity—the raw head and bloody bones eloquence, as he put it, of Vetch's speech had been as offensive to his taste as it had been unconvincing to his intelligence. The man was a mountebank, nothing more, Stephen had decided, and his strange power was simply the reaction of mob hysteria to the stage tricks of the political clown.
Yes, the man was a mountebank—but was he nothing more than a mountebank? Like most men of his age, Stephen Culpeper was inclined to swift impressions rather than hasty judgments of people; and he was conscious, while he listened in silence to the murmuring explanations of the girl, that the immediate effect was a sensation, not an idea. At first sight, the Governor appeared merely ordinary—a tall, rugged figure, built of good bone and muscle and sound to the core, with the look of arrested energy which was doubtless an inheritance from the circus ring. There was nothing impressive about him; nothing that would cause one to turn and look back in a crowd. What struck one most was his air of extraordinary freshness and health, of sanguine vitality. His face was well-coloured and irregular in outline, with a high bulging forehead and thick sandy hair which was already gray on the temples. In the shadow his eyes did not appear remarkably fine; they seemed at the first glance to be of an indeterminate colour—was it blue or gray?—and there was nothing striking in their deep setting under the beetling sandy eyebrows. All this was true; and yet while Stephen looked into them over the Governor's outstretched hand, he told himself that they were the most human eyes he had ever seen. Afterward, when he groped through his vocabulary for a more accurate description, he could not find one. There was shrewdness in Gideon Vetch's eyes; there was friendliness; there was the blue sparkle of contagious humour—a ripple of light that was like visible laughter—but above all there was humanity. Though Stephen did not try to grasp the vivid impressions that passed through his mind, he felt intuitively that he had learned to know Gideon Vetch through his look and manner as well as he should have known another man after weeks or months of daily intercourse. Whatever the man's private life, whatever his political faults may have been, there was magic in the clasp of his hand and the cordial glow of his smile. He was always responsive; he stood always on the same level, high or low, with his companion of the moment: he was as incapable of looking up as he was of looking down; he was equally without reverence and without condescension. It was the law of his nature that he should give himself emphatically to the just and the unjust alike.
"He came home with me because I hurt my foot," Patty was saying.
Had she forgotten already, Stephen asked himself cynically, that it was not her foot but her ankle? His suspicions returned while he looked at her blooming face, and he hoped earnestly that she would not feel impelled to relate any irrelevant details of the adventure. Like Gideon Vetch on the platform she seemed incapable of withholding the smallest fragment of a fact; and the young man wondered if it were characteristic either of "the plain people," as he called them, or of circus riders as a class, that their minds should go habitually unclothed yet unashamed.
"Thank you, sir," said the Governor without effusion; and he asked: "Did you hurt yourself, Patty?" while he bent over and laid his hand on her ankle.
A note of tenderness passed into his voice as he turned to the girl; and when she answered after a minute, Stephen recognized the same tone of affectionate playfulness that she used when she spoke of him.
"Not much," she replied carelessly. Then she held out the drooping pigeon. "I found this bird. Is there anything we can do for it?"
The Governor took the bird from her, and examined it under the light with the manner of brisk confidence which directed his slightest action. The man, for all his restless activity, appeared to be without excess or exaggeration when it was a matter of practical detail. He apparently employed his whole efficient and enterprising mind on the incident of the bird.
"The wings aren't broken," he said presently, lifting his head, "but it is weak from hunger and exhaustion," and he rang the bell for Abijah. "Rice and water and a warm basket," he ordered when the old negro appeared. "You had better keep it in the house until it recovers." Then dismissing the subject, he turned back to Stephen.
"Well, I am glad to see you, Mr. Culpeper," he said. "You had a hard beginning, but, as they used to tell me when I was a kid, a hard beginning makes a good ending."
For the first time a smile softened his face, and the roving blue gleam danced blithely in his eyes. A moment before the young man had thought the Governor's face harsh and ugly. Now he remembered that the Judge had said "the man was not half bad to look at if you caught him smiling." Yes, he had a charm of his own, and that charm had swept him forward over every obstacle to the place he had reached. A single gift, indefinable yet unerring—the ability to make men believe absurdities, as John Benham had once said—and the material disadvantages of poverty and ignorance were brushed aside like trivial impediments. A strange power, and a dangerous one in unscrupulous hands, the young man reflected.
"I remember your face," pursued the Governor, while his smile faded—was brevity, after all, the secret of its magic? "You were at one of my speeches last autumn, and you sat in the front row, I think. I recall you because you were the only person in the audience who looked bored."
"I was." Frankness called for frankness. "I am not keen about speeches."
"Not even when Benham speaks?" The voice was gay, but through it all there rang the unmistakable tone of authority, of conscious power. There was one person, Stephen inferred, who had never from the beginning disparaged or ridiculed Gideon Vetch, and that person was Gideon Vetch himself. John Benham had once said that the man was a mere posturer—but John Benham was wrong.
"Oh, well, you see, Benham is different," replied the young man as delicately as he could. "He is apt to say only what I think, you know."
So far there had been no breach of good taste in the Governor's manner, no warning reminder of an origin that was certainly obscure and presumably low, no stale, dust-laden odours of the circus ring. He had looked and spoken as any man of Stephen's acquaintance might have done, facetiously, it is true, but without ostentation or vulgarity. When the break came, therefore, it was the more shocking to the younger man because he had been so imperfectly prepared for it.
"And because he is different, of course you think he'd make a better Governor than I shall," said Gideon Vetch abruptly. "That is the way with you fellows who have ossified in the old political parties. You never see a change in time to make ready for it. You wait until it knocks you in the head, and then you wake up and grumble. Now, I've been on the way for the last thirty years or so, but you never once so much as got wind of me. You think I've just happened because of too much electricity in the air, like a thunderbolt or something; but you haven't even looked back to find out whether you are right or wrong. Talk about public spirit! Why, there isn't an ounce of live public spirit left among you, in spite of all the moonshine your man Benham talks about the healing virtues of tradition and the sacred taboo of your political Pharisees. There wasn't one of you that didn't hate like the devil to see me Governor of Virginia—and yet how many of you took the trouble to find out what I am made of, or to understand what I mean? Did you even take the trouble to go to the polls and vote against me?"
Though Stephen flushed scarlet, he held his ground bravely. It was true that he had not voted—he hated the whole sordid business of politics—but then, who had ever suspected for a minute that Gideon Vetch would be elected? His brief liking for the man had changed suddenly to exasperation. It seemed incredible to him that any Governor of Virginia should display so open a disregard of the ordinary rules of courtesy and hospitality. To drag in their political differences at such a time, when he had come beneath the other's roof merely to render him an unavoidable service! To stoop to the pettifogging sophistry of the agitator simply because his opponent had reluctantly yielded him an opportunity!
"Well, I heard you speak, but that didn't change me!" he retorted with a smile.
The Governor laughed, and the sincerity of his amusement was evident even to Stephen. "Could anything short of a blasting operation change you traditional Virginians?" he inquired.
His face was turned to the fire, and the young man felt while he watched him that a piercing light was shed on his character. It was as if Stephen saw his opponent from an entirely fresh point of view, as if he beheld him for the first time with the sharp clearness which the flash of his anger produced. The very absence of all sense of dignity impressed him suddenly as the most tremendous dignity a human being could attain—the unconscious dignity of natural forces—of storms and fire and war and pestilence. Because the man never thought of how he appeared, he appeared always impregnable.
"I shall not argue," said the young man, with a smile which he endeavoured to make easy and natural. "The time for argument is over. You played trumps."
Vetch laughed. "And it wasn't my last card," he answered bluntly.
"The game isn't finished." Though Stephen's voice was light it held a quiver of irritation. "He laughs best who laughs last." The other had started the row, and, by Jove, he would give him as much as he wanted! He recalled suddenly the charges that there was more than the customary political log-rolling—that there were mysterious "discreditable dealings" in the Governor's election to office.
But it appeared in a minute that Gideon Vetch was adequate to any demand which the occasion might develop. Already Stephen was beginning to regard him less as a man than as an energetic idea, as activity incarnate.
"If you mean to imply that the laugh may be on me at the last," he returned, while the points of blue light seemed to pierce Stephen like arrows—no, like gimlets, "well, you're wrong about one part of it—for if that ever happens, I'll laugh with you because of the sheer rotten irony."
For the first time the other noticed how the Governor was dressed—in a suit of some heavy brown stuff which looked as if it had been sprinkled and needed pressing. He wore a green tie and a striped shirt of the conspicuous kind that Stephen hated. Though the younger man was keenly critical of clothes, and perseveringly informed himself regarding the smallest details of fashion, he acknowledged now that he had at last met a man who appeared to wear his errors of dress as naturally as he wore his errors of opinion. The fuzzy brown stuff, the green tie with red spots, the striped shirt—was it blue or purple?—all became as much a part of Gideon Vetch as the storm-ruffled plumage was part of an eagle. If the misguided man had attired himself in a toga, he would have carried the Mantle without dignity perhaps, but certainly with picturesqueness.
"I'll hold you to your promise—or threat," said Stephen lightly, as he turned from the Governor to his daughter. Why, in thunder, he asked himself, had he stayed so long? What was there about the fellow that held one in spite of oneself? "I hope you will be all right again in a few days," he said formally as his eyes met Patty's upraised glance. In the warm room all the glamour of the twilight—and of that hidden country within his mind—had faded from her. She looked fresh and blooming and merely commonplace, he thought. A brief half hour ago he had felt that he was in danger of losing his head; now his rational part was in the ascendant, and his future appeared pleasantly tranquil. Then the girl smiled that faint inscrutable smile of hers, and the disturbing green rays shot from her eyes. A thrill of interest stirred his pulses while something held him there against his will and his better judgment, as if he were caught fast in the steel spring of a trap.
"Oh, that's nothing," replied Patty, with her air of mockery. "If there were no worse things than that!"
He did not hold out his hand, though there was a flutter toward him of her fingers—pretty fingers they were for a girl with no blood that one could mention in public. There was a faint hope in his mind that he might still vanish unthanked and undetained. The one quality in father and daughter which had arrested his favourable attention—the quality of "a good sport"—would probably aid in his escape.
"Drop in some evening, and we'll have a talk," said the Governor in his slightly theatrical but extremely confident manner, "there are things I'd like to say to you. You are a lawyer, if I remember, in Judge Horatio Page's firm, and you were in the war from the beginning."
Stephen smiled. "Not quite." They were at the front door, and all hope of escaping into the desirable obscurity from which he had sprung fled from his mind.
"He is a great old boy, the Judge," resumed Gideon Vetch blandly, "I had a talk with him one day before the elections, when you other fellows were sitting back like a lot of lunatics and waiting for the Democratic primaries to put things over. He is the only one in the whole bunch of you who stopped shouting long enough to hear what I had to say. I like him, sir, and if there is one thing you will never find me doing it is liking the wrong man. I may not know Greek, but I can read men."
The front door was open, and the blast of cold air dispersed all the foolish fancies that had gathered in Stephen's brain. Beyond the fountain and the gate he could see the broad road through the Square and the dark majestic figure of Washington on horseback. The electric signs were blazing on the roofs of the shops and hotels which had driven the original dwelling houses out of the neighbouring streets.
Turning as he was descending the steps, the young man looked into the Governor's face. "Are you sure that you read Julius Gershom correctly?" he inquired.
For a minute—it could not have been longer—the Governor did not reply. Was he surprised for once into open discomfiture, or was his nimble wit engaged in framing a plausible answer? Within the house, where so much was disappointing and incongruous, Stephen had not felt the lack of harmony between Gideon Vetch and his surroundings; but against the fine proportions and the serene stateliness of the exterior, the Governor's figure appeared aggressively modern.
"Julius Gershom!" repeated Vetch. "Well, yes, I think I know my Julius. May I ask if you do?" The ironical humour which flashed like a sharp light over his countenance played with the idea.
"Not by choice." Stephen looked back laughing. There was one thing to be said in the Governor's favour—he invited honesty and he knew how to receive it. "But I read of him in the newspapers when I cannot avoid it. He does some dirty work, doesn't he?"
Again the Governor paused before replying. There was a curious gravity about his consideration of Gershom in spite of the satirical tone of his responses. Was it possible that he was the one man in town who did not treat the fellow as a ridiculous farce?
"If by dirty work you mean the clearing away of obstacles—well, somebody has to do it, hasn't he?" asked Gideon Vetch. "If you want a clean street to walk on, you must hire somebody to shovel away the slush. It is true that we put Gershom to shovelling slush—and you complain of his methods! Well, I admit that he may have been a trifle too zealous about it; he may have spattered things a bit more than was necessary, but after all, he got some of the mud out of the way, didn't he? There are people," he added, "who believe that the wind he raised swept me into office."
"I object to his methods," insisted Stephen, "because they seem to me dishonest."
"Perhaps." The blue eyes—how could he have thought them gray?—had grown quizzical. "But he wasn't moving in the best company, you know. He who sups with the Devil must fish with a long spoon."
"You mean that you defend that sort of thing—that you openly stand for it?"
"I stand for nothing, sir," replied Gideon Vetch sharply, "except justice. I stand for a square deal all round, and I stand against the exploitation or oppression of any class. This is what I stand for, and I have stood for it ever since I was a small, gray, scared rabbit of a creature dodging under hedgerows."
It was the bombastic sophistry again, Stephen told himself, but he met it without subterfuge or evasion. "And you believe that such people as Gershom can serve the cause of justice through dishonest means?" he demanded.
"I'll answer that some day; but it's a long answer, and I can't speak it out here in the cold," responded the Governor, while his blustering manner grew sober. "Gershom is a politician, you see, and I am not. You may laugh, but it is the Gospel truth. I am a reformer, and all I care about is pushing on the idea. I use any tools that I find; and one of the greatest of reformers has said that he was sometimes obliged to use bad ones. If I find good ones, so much the better; if bad—well, it is all in the day's job. But the cause is what matters—the thing you are making, not the implements with which it is made. You dislike my methods of work, but you must admit that by the only test that counts, the test of achievement, they have proved to be sound. I have got somewhere; not all the way; but still somewhere. Without advertisement, without patronage, without a cent I could call my own, I put my wares on the market. I became Governor of Virginia in spite of everything you did, or did not do, to prevent it." There was a strange effectiveness in the simplicity of the man's speech. It was natural; it was racy; it was like nothing that Stephen had ever heard before. He wondered if it could be traced back to the phraseology of the circus? "Of course you think I am an extremist," concluded Gideon Vetch abruptly, "but before you are as old as I am you will have learned that the only way to get half a loaf is to ask for a whole one. Come again, and I'll talk to you."
"Yes, I'll come again," Stephen answered, and he knew that he should. Whether he willed it or not he would be drawn back by the Governor's irresistible influence. The man had aroused in him an intense, a devouring curiosity. He wanted to know his thoughts and his life, the mystery of his birth, of his upbringing, of his privations and denials. Above all he wanted to know why he had succeeded, what peculiar gift had brought him out of obscurity, and had given him the ability to use men and circumstances as if they were tools in his hands.
When the young man ran down the steps there was a pleasant excitement tingling in his veins, as if he were feeling the glow of forbidden wine. Turning beside the fountain, he glanced back as the Governor was closing the door, and in his vision of the lighted interior he saw Patty Vetch darting airily across the hall. So it was nothing more than a hoax! She hadn't hurt herself in the least. She had merely made a laughing-stock of him for the amusement doubtless of her obscure acquaintances! For an instant anger held him motionless; then turning quickly he walked rapidly past the fountain to the open gate.
The snow was dimly lighted on the long slope to the library; and straight ahead, in the circle beneath the statue of Washington, the bronze silhouette of a great Virginian stood sharply cut against the luminous haze of the street. From the chimney-stack of a factory near the river a wreath of gray smoke was flung over the tree-tops, where it broke and drifted in feathery garlands. Across the road a group of three trees was delicately etched, with each separate branch and twig, on the slate-coloured evening sky.
He had passed through the gate when a voice speaking suddenly at his side caused him to start and stop short in his walk. A moment before he had fancied himself alone; he had heard no footsteps; and the place from where the words came was a mere vague blur in the shadows. There was something uncanny in the muffled approach, and the sensation it produced on his nerves was like the shock he used to feel as a child when his hand was unexpectedly touched in the dark.
"I beg your pardon," he said to the vague shape at the foot of a tree. "Did you speak to me?"
The shadows divided, and what seemed to him the edge of darkness moved forward into the dimly lighted space at his side. He saw now that it was the figure of a woman in a long black cloak, with the dilapidated remains of a mourning veil hanging from her small bonnet. As she came toward him he was stirred first by an impulse of pity and immediately afterward by a violent repulsion. In her whole figure there were the tragic signs of poverty and desperation; but it was the horror of her eyes, he told himself, that he should never forget. They were eyes that would haunt his sleep that night like the face of the drowned man in the nursery rhyme.
"Will you tell me," asked the woman hurriedly, "who lives in this house?"
It was a queer question, he thought, for any one to ask in the Square; but she was probably a stranger.
"This is the Governor's house," he answered courteously. "I suppose you are a stranger in town."
"I got here a few hours ago, and I came out for a breath of air. I was four days and nights on the way."
To this he made no reply, and he was about to pass on again, when her voice arrested him.
"You wouldn't mind telling me, would you, the Governor's name?"
"Not in the least. His name is Gideon Vetch."
"Gideon Vetch?" She repeated the name slowly, as if she were impressing it on her memory. "That's a queer name for a Governor. Was he born in this town?"
"I think not."
"And who lives with him? I saw a girl come out awhile ago. Is she his daughter, perhaps—or his wife—though she looked young for that."
"It must have been his daughter. His wife is not living."
"Is she his only child? Or has he others?" There was a quiver of suspense in her voice, and turning he looked at her more closely. Was it possible that she had known Gideon Vetch in his obscure past?
"She is his only child," he replied.
"Well, that's nice for her. Is she pretty?" An odd question if it had been put by a man; but he had been trained to accept the fact that women are different.
"Yes, you would call her pretty." As he spoke the words there flashed through his mind the picture of Patty Vetch as he had seen her that afternoon, in her red cape and her small hat with the red wings, against the snowy hill under the overhanging bough of the sycamore. Was she really pretty, or was it only the witchery of her surroundings? Now that he was out of her presence the attraction had faded. He was still smarting from the memory of that dancing figure.
"Well, it's a fine house," said the woman, "and it looks large for just two people. I thank you for telling me."
The pathos of her words appealed to the generous chivalry of his nature. He felt sorry for her and wondered if he might offer her money.
"I hope you found lodgings," he said.
"Yes, I've found a room near here—on Governor Street, I think they call it."
"And you are not in want? You do not need any help?"
She shook her head while the rusty mourning veil shrouded her features. "Not yet," she answered. "I'm not a beggar yet." Though her tone was not well-bred, he realized that she was neither as uneducated nor as degraded as he had at first believed.
"I am glad of that," he responded; and then lifting his hat again, he hurried quickly away from her up the road beneath the few old linden trees that were left of an avenue. Glancing back as he reached the Capitol building, he saw her black figure moving cautiously over the snow toward one of the gates of the Square.
"That was a nightmare," he thought, "and now for the pleasant dream. I'll go to the old print shop and see my Cousin Corinna."
CORINNA OF THE OLD PRINT SHOP
As Stephan left the Square there floated before him a picture of the old print shop in Franklin Street, where Corinna Page (still looking at forty-eight as if she had stepped out of a portrait by Romney) sat amid the rare prints which she never expected to sell. After an unfortunate early marriage, her husband had been Kent Page, her first cousin, she had accepted her recent widowhood, if not with relief, well, obviously with resignation. For years she had wandered about the world with her father, Judge Horatio Lancaster Page, who had once been Ambassador to Great Britain. Now, having recently returned from France, she had settled in a charming country house on the Three Chopt Road, and had opened the ridiculous old print shop, a shop that never sold an engraving, in a quaint place in Franklin Street. She had rented out the upper floors to a half-dozen tenants, had built a couple of rooms beside the kitchen for the caretaker, and had planted two pyramidal cedars and a hedge of box in the short front yard. "A shop is the only place where you may have calls from people who haven't been introduced to you," she had said; and of course as long as she had money to throw away, what did it matter, Stephen reflected, whether she ever sold a picture or not? At forty-eight she was lovelier, he thought, than ever; she would always be lovelier than any one else if she lived to be ninety. There wasn't a girl in his set who could compare with her, who had the glow and charm, the flame-like inner radiance; there wasn't one who had the singing heart of Corinna. Yes, that was the phrase he had been trying to remember, trite as it was—the singing heart—that was Corinna. She had had a hard life, he knew, in spite of her beauty and her wealth; yet she had never lost the quality of youth, the very essence of gaiety and adventure. When he thought of her, Patty Vetch appeared merely cheap and common, though he felt instinctively that Corinna would have liked Patty if she had seen her in the Square with the pigeon. It was a part of Corinna's charm perhaps, certainly a part of her enjoyment of life that she liked almost every one—every one, that is, except Rose Stribling, whom she quite frankly hated. But, then, people said that Rose Stribling, twelve years younger than Corinna and as handsome as a Red Cross poster, had run too often across Kent Page in the first year of the war. Kent Page had died in Prance of Spanish influenza before he ever saw a trench or a battlefield; and Rose Stribling, all blue eyes and white linen, had nursed him at the last. At that time Corinna was in America, and she hadn't so much as looked at Kent for years; but a woman has a long memory for emotions, and she is capable of resenting the loss of a husband who is no longer hers. Rumour, of course, nothing more; yet the fact remained that Corinna, who liked all the world, hated Rose Stribling. It was the one flaw in Corinna's perfection; it was the black patch on the stainless cheek, which had always made her adorable to Stephen. Like the snow-white lock waving back from her forehead, it intensified the youth in her face. He had often wondered if she could have been half so lovely when she was a girl, before the faint shadows and the tender little lines lent depth and mystery to her eyes, and the single white lock swept back amid the powdered dusk of her hair.
While the young man walked rapidly up Franklin Street, he saw before him the long delightful room beyond the pyramidal cedars and the hedge of box. He saw the ruddy glow of the fire mingling with the paler light of amber lamps, and this mingled radiance shining on the rich rugs, the few old brocades, and the rare English prints which covered the walls. He saw wide-open creamy roses in alabaster bowls which were scattered everywhere, on tables, on stools, on window-seats, and on the rich carving of the Spanish desk in one corner. Against the curtains of gold silk there was the bough of twisted pine he had broken, and against the pine branch stood the figure of Corinna in her gown of soft red, which melted like a spray of autumn foliage into the colours of the room. She was a tall woman, with a glorious head and eyes that reminded Stephen of a forest pool in autumn. Who had first said of her, he wondered, that she looked like an October morning?
As he approached the shop the glow shone out on him through the dull gold curtains, and he traced the crooked pine bough sweeping across the thin silk background like the bold free sketch of a Japanese print. When he rang the bell a minute later, the door was opened by Corinna, who was holding a basket of marigolds.
"We were just going," she said, "as soon as I had put these flowers in water."
She drew back into the room, bending over the low brown bowl that she was filling, while Stephen went over to the fire, and greeted the two old men who were sitting in deep arm chairs on either side of the hearth. It was like stepping into another world, he thought, as he inhaled a full breath of the warmth and the fragrance of roses; it was as if a door into a dream had suddenly opened, and he had passed out of the night and the cold into a place where all was colour and fragrance and pleasant magic. The other was real life—life for all but the happy few, he found himself thinking—this was merely the enchanted fairy-ring where children played at making believe.
"I hoped I'd catch you," he said, stretching out his hands to the log fire. "I felt somehow that you hadn't gone, late as it is." While he spoke he was thinking, not of Corinna, but of the strange woman he had left in the Square. Queer how that incident had bitten into his mind. Try as he might he couldn't shake himself free from it.
"Father is going to some dreadful public dinner," answered Corinna. "I stayed with him here so he wouldn't have to wait at the club. It won't matter about me. The car is coming for me, and I don't dine until eight. Stay awhile and we'll talk," she added with her cheerful smile. "I haven't seen you for ages, and you look as if you had something to tell me."
"I have," he said; and then he turned from her to the two old men who were talking drowsily in voices that sounded as far off to Stephen as the murmuring of bees in summer meadows. He knew that it was real, that it was the life he had always lived, and yet he couldn't get rid of the feeling that Corinna and the two old men and the charming surroundings were all part of a play, and that in a little while he should go out of the theatre and step back among the sordid actualities.
"The General and I are having our little chat before dinner," said Judge Page, a sufficiently ornamental old gentleman to have decorated any world or any fireside—imposing and distinguished as a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, with a crown of silvery hair and the shining dark eyes of his daughter. He still carried himself, for all his ironical comment, like an ambassador of the romantic school. "It is a sad day for your fighting man," he concluded gaily, "when the only stimulant he can get is the conversation of an old fogy like me."
"Your fighting man," old General Powhatan Plummer, who hadn't smelt powder for more than half a century, chuckled as he always did at the shrewd and friendly pleasantries of the Judge. He was a jocular, tiresome, gregarious soul, habitually untidy, creased and rumpled, who was always thirsty, but who, as the Judge was accustomed to reply when Corinna remonstrated, "would divide his last julep with a friend." The men had been companions from boyhood, and were still inseparable. For the same delusion makes strange friendships, and the General, in spite of his appearance of damaged reality, also inhabited that enchanted fairy-ring where no fact ever entered.
With the bowl of marigolds in her hands, Corinna came over to the tea-table and stood smiling dreamily at Stephen. The firelight dancing over her made a riot of colour, and she looked the image of happiness, though the young man knew that the ephemeral illusion was created by the red of her gown and the burnished gold of the flowers.
"John Benham sent them to me because I praised his speech," she said. "Wasn't it nice of him?"
"He always does nice things when one doesn't expect them," he answered.
Corinna laughed. "Is it because they are nice that he does them?" she inquired with a touch of malice. "Or because they are not expected?"
"I didn't mean that." There was a shade of confusion in Stephen's tone. "Benham is my friend—my best friend almost though he is so much older. There isn't a man living whom I admire more."
"Yes, I know," replied Corinna; and then—was it in innocence or in malice?—she asked sweetly: "Have you seen Alice Rokeby this winter?"
For an instant Stephen gazed at her in silence. Was it possible that she had not heard the gossip about Benham and Mrs. Rokeby? Was she trying to mislead him by an appearance of flippancy? Or was there some deeper purpose, some serious attempt to learn the truth beneath her casual question?
"Only once or twice," he answered at last. "She is looking badly since her divorce. Freedom has not agreed with her."
Corinna smiled; but the transient illumination veiled rather than revealed her obscure motives.
"Perhaps, like our Allies, she was making the future safe for further entanglements," she observed. "I always thought—everybody thought that she got her divorce in order to marry John Benham."
Frankly perplexed, he gazed wonderingly into her eyes. He knew that she saw a great deal of Benham; he believed that their friendship had developed into a deeper emotion on Benham's side at least; and it seemed to him unlike Corinna, who was, as he told himself, the most loyal soul on earth, to turn such an association into a cynical jest.
"I heard that too," he replied guardedly, "but of course nobody knows."
There was really nothing else that he could answer. Though he could discuss Alice Rokeby, one of those vague, sweet women who seem designed by Nature to develop the sentiment of chivalry in the breast of man, he felt that it would be disloyal to speak lightly of his hero, John Benham. "You could never guess where I've been," he said with relief because he had got rid of the subject. "I might as well tell you in the beginning that I have just left the Governor."
"Gideon Vetch!" exclaimed Corinna, as she dropped into a chair at his side. "Why, I thought you were as far apart as the poles!"
"So we were until ten minutes—no, until exactly an hour ago."
"It makes my blood boil when I think of that circus rider in the Governor's mansion," said the General indignantly. "Do you know what my father would have called that fellow? He would have called him a common scalawag—a common scalawag, sir!"
The Judge laughed softly. There was nothing, as he sometimes observed, that flavoured life so deliciously as a keen appreciation of comedy. "Now, I should call him a decidedly uncommon one," he remarked. "The trouble with you, my dear Powhatan, is that you are still in the village stage of the social instinct. In your proper period, when we Virginians were merely one of the several tribes in these United States, you may have served an excellent purpose; but the tribal instinct is dying out with the village stage. If we are going to exist at all outside of the archaeological department of a museum, we must learn to accept—. We must let in new blood."
"Do you mean to tell me, Horatio," blustered the General, "that I've got to let in the blood of a circus rider, sir?"
"Well, that depends. I haven't made up my mind about Vetch. He may be only froth, or he may be the vital element that we need. I haven't made up my mind, but I've met him and I like him. Indeed, I think I may say that Gideon and I are friends. We have come to the same point of view, it appears, by travelling on opposite roads. I had a long talk with him the other day, and I found that we think alike about a number of things."
"Think alike about fiddlesticks!" spluttered the General, while he spilled over his waistcoat the water Corinna had given him. "Why, the fellow ain't even in your class, sir!"
"I said we had thoughts, not habits, in common, Powhatan," rejoined the Judge blandly. "The same habits make a class, but the same thoughts make a friendship."
"He told me he had talked to you," said Stephen eagerly, "and I wanted to know what your impression was. He called you a great old boy, by the way."
The Judge, who could wear at will the face either of Brutus or of Antony, became at once the genial friend of humanity. "That pleases me more than you realize," he said. "I have a suspicion that Gideon knows human nature about as thoroughly as our General here knows the battles of the Confederacy."
"I confess the man rather gripped me," rejoined Stephen. "There's something about him, personality or mere play-acting, that catches one in spite of oneself."
The Judge appeared to acquiesce. "I am inclined to think," he observed presently, "that the quality you feel in Vetch is simply a violent candour. Most people give you truth in small quantities; but Vetch pours it out in a torrent. He offers it to you as Powhatan used to take his Bourbon in the good old days before the Eighteenth Amendment—straight and strong. I used to tell Powhatan that he'd get the name of a drunkard simply because he could stand what the rest of the world couldn't—and I'll say as much for our friend Gideon."
"Do you mean, my dear," inquired Corinna placidly, "that the Governor is honestly dishonest?"
The Judge's suavity clothed him like velvet. "I know nothing about his honesty. I doubt if any one does. He may be a liar and yet speak the truth, I suppose, from unscrupulous motives. But I am not maintaining that he is entirely right, you understand—merely that like the rest of us he is not entirely wrong. I am not taking sides, you know. I am too old to fight anybody's battles—even distressed Virtue's."
"Then you think—you really think that he is sincere?" asked Stephen.
"Sincere? Well, yes, in a measure. Nothing advertises one so widely as a reputation for sincerity; and the man has a positive genius for self-advertisement. He has found that it pays in politics to speak the truth, and so he speaks it at the top of his voice. It takes courage, of course, and I am ready to admit that he is a little more courageous than the rest of us. To that extent, I should say that he has the advantage of us."
"Do you mean to imply," demanded the General wrathfully, "that a common circus rider like that, a rascally revolutionist into the bargain, is better than this lady and myself, sir?"
"Well, hardly better than Corinna," replied the Judge. "Indeed, I was about to add that the two most candid persons I know are Corinna and Vetch. There is a good deal about Vetch, by the way, that reminds me of Corinna."
"Father!" gasped Corinna. "Stephen, do you think he has gone out of his mind?"
"That is the first sign that wisdom has broken its cage," commented her father. "No, my dear, I did not mean that you look like him; you are far handsomer. I meant simply that you both habitually speak the truth, and because you speak the truth the world mistakes you for a successful comedian and Vetch for a kind of political Robin Hood."
"Well, he is trying to hold us up in highwayman fashion, isn't he?" asked Corinna.
"Does it look that way?" inquired the Judge, with his beaming smile which cast an edge of genial irony on everything that he said. "On the contrary, it seems to me that Vetch is telling us the things we have known about ourselves for a very long time. He says the world might be a better place if we would only take the trouble to make it so; if we would only try to live up to our epitaphs, I believe he once remarked. He says also, I understand, that he is trying to climb to the top over somebody else; and when I say 'he' I mean, of course, his order or his class, whatever the fashionable phrase is. Now, unfortunately, there appears to be but one way of reaching the top of the world, doesn't there?—and that is by climbing up on something or somebody. Even you, my dear Stephen, who occupy that high place, merely inherited the seat from somebody who scrambled up there a few centuries ago. Somebody else probably got broken shoulders before your nimble progenitor took possession. Of course I am willing to admit that time does create in us the sense of a divine right in anything that we have owned for a number of years, as if our inheritance were the crown of some archaic king. I myself feel that strongly. If it came to the point, though I have said that I am too old to fight for distressed Virtue, I should very likely die in the last ditch for every inch of land and every worthless object I ever owned. When Vetch talks about taxing property more heavily I am utterly and openly against him because it is my instinct to be. I refuse to give up my superfluous luxuries in the cause of equal justice for all, and I shall fight against it as long as there is a particle of fight left in my bones. But because I am against him there is no reason, I take it, why I shouldn't enjoy the pleasure of perceiving his point of view. It is an interesting point of view, perhaps the more interesting because we think it is a dangerous one. To approach it is like rounding a sharp curve at high speed."
As he rose to his feet and reached for his walking stick, Stephen remembered that in England the Judge was supposed to have the fine presence and the flashing eagle eyes of Gladstone. Were they alike also, he wondered, in their fantastic mental processes?
"It's time for me to go, Corinna," said the old man, stooping to kiss his daughter, "so I shan't see you until to-morrow." Then turning to Stephen, he added with a whimsical smile, "If you are so much afraid of Vetch, why don't you fight him with his own weapons? What were you doing, you and John, when the people voted for him?"
"To tell the truth nobody ever dreamed that he would be elected," replied Stephen, flushing. "Who would have thought that an independent candidate could win over both parties?"
The Judge had moved to the door, and he looked back, as Stephen finished, with a dramatic flourish of his long white hand. "Well, remember next time, my dear young sir," he answered, "that in politics it is always the impossible that happens." The long white hand fell caressingly on the shoulders of old Powhatan Plummer, and the two men passed out of the door together.
When Stephen turned to Corinna, she was resting languidly against the tapestry-covered back of her chair, while the firelight flickering in her eyes changed them to the deep bronze of the marigolds on the table. With her slenderness, her grace, her brilliant darkness, she seemed to him to belong in one of the English mezzotints on the wall.
"Did you buy that print because it is so much like you?" he asked, pointing to an engraving after Hoppner's portrait of the Duchess of Bedford.
She laughed frankly. "Every one asks me that. I suppose it was one of my reasons."
As he sat down again in front of the fire, his eyes travelled slowly over the walls; over the stipple engravings of Bartolozzi, over the rich mezzotints of Valentine Green and John Raphael Smith, over the bewitching face of Lady Hamilton as it shone back at him from the prints of John Jones, of Cheesman, of Henry Meyer. Was not Corinna's place among those vanished beauties of a richer age, rather than among the sour-faced reformers and the Gideon Vetches of to-day? The wonderful tone of the old prints, the silvery dusk, or the softly glowing colours that were like the sunset of another century; the warmth and splendour of the few brocades she had picked up in Italy; the suave religious feeling of the worn red velvet from some church in Florence; the candles in wrought-iron sconces, the shimmering firelight and the dreamy fragrance of tea roses—all these things together made him think suddenly of sunshine over the Campagna and English gardens in the month of May and the burning reds and blues and golden greens of the Middle Ages. Corinna with her unfading youth became a part of all the loveliness that he had ever seen—of all beauty everywhere.
"I haven't had a chance to tell you," she said, "that I am going to meet the Governor."
"Where? At the Berkeleys'?"
"Yes, at the Berkeleys' dinner on Thursday. Are you going?"
He laughed. "Mrs. Berkeley called me up this morning and asked me if I would take somebody's place. She didn't say whose place it was, but she did divulge the fact that the dinner is given to Vetch. I told her I'd come—that I was so used to taking other people's places I could fill six at the same time. But a dinner to Vetch! I wonder why she is doing it?"
"That's easy. Mr. Berkeley wants something from the Governor. I don't know what he wants, but I do know that whatever it is he wants it very badly."
"And he thinks he'll get it by asking him to dinner? There seems to me an obvious flaw in Berkeley's reasoning. I doubt if Vetch is the kind of man who follows when you hold out an apple. He appears to be exactly the opposite, and I think he's more likely to dash off than to come when he is called. I wonder, by the way, if they are going to have Mrs. Stribling?"
"Rose Stribling?" A gleam of anger shone in Corinna's eyes. "Why should that interest you?"
"Oh, they say—at least Mrs. Berkeley says, and if there is any misinformation abroad she ought to be aware of it—that Mrs. Stribling's latest attachment to her train is the Governor himself."
He had expected his gossip to arouse Corinna, and in this he was not mistaken. Springing up from her relaxed position, she sat straight and unbending, with her indignant eyes on his face. "Why, I thought the war had cured her."
"The war was not a cure; it was merely a temporary drug for our vanity," he rejoined gaily. "It didn't cure me, so you could hardly regard it as a remedy for Mrs. Stribling's complaint. I imagine coquetry is a more obstinate malady even than priggishness, and, Heaven knows, I tried hard enough to get rid of that."
"I hoped you would," admitted Corinna. "But, dear boy, the way to make you human—and you've never been really human all through, you know—was not with a uniform and glory." She was talking flippantly, for they made a pretence now of alluding lightly to his years in France—he had gone into the war before his country—and to the nervous malady, the disabled will, he had brought back. "What you need is not to win more esteem, but to lose some that you've got. Your salvation lies in the opposite direction from where flags are waving. If you could only deliberately arrange to do something that would lower your reputation in the eyes of gouty old gentlemen or mothers with marriageable daughters! If you could manage to get your nose broken, or elope with a chorus girl, or commit an unromantic murder, I should begin to have hopes of you."
"I may do something as bad some day and surprise you."
"It would surprise me. But I'm not sure, after all, that I don't like you better as you are, with your fine air of superiority. It makes one believe, somehow, in human perfectibility. Now, I can never believe in that when I realize how I feel about Rose Stribling. There is nothing perfectible in such emotions."
"Rose Stribling! Beside you she is like a pumpkin in the basket with a pomegranate!"
Corinna laughed with frank pleasure. "There are a million who would prefer the pumpkin to the pomegranate," she answered. "Rose Stribling, you must admit, is the type that has been the desire of the world since Venus first rose from the foam."
"Can you imagine Mrs. Stribling rising from foam?" Stephen retorted impertinently.
"No, Venus has grown fatter through the ages," assented Corinna, "but the type is unchanged. Now, among all the compliments that have been paid me in my life, no one has ever compared me to the Goddess of Love. I have been painted with the bow of Diana, but never with the doves of Venus."
Because he felt that her gaiety rippled over an undercurrent of pain, Stephen bent forward and touched her hand with an impulse of tenderness.
"You are more beautiful than you ever were in your life," he said. "There isn't a woman in the world who can compare with you." Then he laughed merrily. "I shall watch you two to-morrow evening, you and Rose Stribling."
"I am sorry," replied Corinna in a troubled voice. "I may tell you the truth since Father says it is the last thing any one ever believes—and the truth is that she makes me savage—yes, I mean it—she makes me savage."
"I know what the Judge means when he says you are like Vetch," returned Stephen abruptly. Then, without waiting for her reply, he added in an impulsive tone: "Triumph over her to-morrow night, Corinna. Go out to fight with all your weapons and seize the trophies from Mrs. Stribling."
"You funny boy!" exclaimed Corinna, but the sadness had left her voice and her eyes were shining. "Why, I am twelve years older than Rose Stribling, and those twelve years are everything."
"Those twelve years are nothing unless you imagine that you are in a novel. It is only in books that there is a chronology of the emotions."
"She is a fat blonde without a heart," insisted Corinna, "and they are invulnerable."
"Well, snatch Vetch away from her. He deserves something better than that combination."
"Oh, she can't hurt him very much, even though she no longer has a husband to get in her way. Have you ever wondered how George Stribling stood her? It must have been a relief to find himself safely dead."
"He stood her as one stands sultry weather probably, but with less hope of a change. He had that slow and heavy philosophy that wears well. I think it even dawned upon him now and then that there was something funny about it."
"Of course he knew that she married him for his money," said Corinna, "but that is the last thing the natural man appears to resent."
Stephen rose and bent over her. "Promise me that you will save Vetch," he implored mockingly.
"Why this sudden interest in Vetch?" Corinna rose also and reached for her fur coat. "It makes me curious to meet him. Yes, I promise you that I will go to-morrow night attired as for a carnival in all the mystery of a velvet mask. I may not save Vetch, but I think at least that I can eclipse Rose Stribling. My motive may not be admirable, but it is as feminine as a string of beads."
He kissed her hand. "Bless your heart because you are both human and my cousin." For an instant he hesitated, and then as they reached the door together, he turned with his hand on the knob, and looked into her eyes. "The Governor has a daughter. Did you know it?" he asked.
"Why, of course I know it. Isn't Patty Vetch as well advertised as the newest illustrated weekly?"
"I was wondering," again he hesitated over the words, "if you had seen her and what you think of her?"
"I have seen her twice. She was in here the other day to look at my prints, and," her brilliant eyes grew soft, "well, I feel sorry for her."
"Sorry? But do you like her?"
"Haven't you always told me that I like everybody?"
He laughed. "With one exception!"
"With one particular exception!"
"But honestly, Corinna." His tone was insistent. "Do you like Patty Vetch?"
"Honestly, my dear Stephen, I do. There is something—well, something almost pathetic about the girl; and I think she is genuine. One day last week she came here and made me tell her everything I could about my prints. I don't mean really that she made me, you know. There wasn't anything forward about her then, though I hear there is sometimes. She seemed to me a restless, lonely, misdirected intelligence hungry to know things. That is the only way I can describe her, but you will understand. She has had absolutely no advantages; she doesn't even know what culture means, or social instinct, or any of the qualities you were born with, my dear boy; but she feels vaguely that she has missed something, and she is reaching out gropingly and trying to find it. I like the spirit. It strikes me as American in the best sense—that young longing to make up in some way for her deficiencies and lack of opportunities, that gallant determination to get the better of her upbringing and her surroundings. A fight always appeals to me, you know. I like the courage that is in the girl—I am sure it is courage—and her straightforward effort to get the best out of life, to learn the things she was never taught, to make herself over if need be."
"Is this Patty Vetch, Corinna, or your own dramatic instinct?"
"Oh, it's Patty Vetch! I had no interest in her whatever. Why should I have had? But I liked the way she went straight as a dart at the thing she wanted. There was no affectation about her, no pretence of being what she was not. She asked about prints because she saw the name and she didn't know what it meant. She would have asked about Browning, or Swinburne, or Meredith in exactly the same way if this had been a book-shop. She wanted to know the difference between a mezzotint and a stipple print. She wanted to know all about the portraits too, and the names of the painters and who Lady Hamilton was and the Duchess of Bedford and the Ladies Waldegrave and 'Serena,' and if Morland's Cottagers were really as happy as they were painted? She asked as many questions as Socrates, and I fear got as inadequately answered."
"Well, she didn't strike me as in the least like that; but you can be a great help to her if she is really in earnest."
"She didn't strike you like that, my dear, simply because you are a man, and some girls are never really themselves with men; they are for ever acting a part; a vulgar part, I admit, but one they have learned before they were born, the instinctive quarry eluding the instinctive hunter. The girl is naturally shy; I could tell that, and she covers it with a kind of boldness that isn't—well, particularly attractive to one of your fastidious mind. Yet there is something rather taking about her. She reminds me of a small, bright tropical bird."
"Of a Virginia redbird, you mean."
"A redbird? Then you have seen her?"
"Yes, I've seen her—only twice—but the last time she indulged her sense of humour in a practical joke about a sprained ankle."
"I suppose she would joke like that. Even the modern girl that we know isn't in the best possible taste. And you must remember that Patty Vetch is something very different from the girls that you admire. I hope she'll let me help her, but I doubt it. She is the sort that wouldn't come if you tried to call and coax her. You said her father was like that, didn't you? Well, with that kind of wildness, or shyness, one can't put out a cage, you know. The only way is to scatter crumbs on the window-sill and then stand and wait. Will you let me take you home?"
They had crossed the pavement to her car, and she waited now with her smile of whimsical gaiety.
"If you will. It is only a few blocks, but I want to hear about the gown you will wear for your triumph."
It seemed to him that there was the chime of silver bells in her laughter. "Oh, my dear, must every victory of my life end in a forlorn hope!"
THE TRIBAL INSTINCT
The spirit of the age, the worship of the many-headed god of magnitude, was holding carnival in the town. Faster and faster buildings were rising; the higher and more flimsily built, the better it seemed, for it is easier to demolish walls that have been lightly erected. Everywhere people were pushing one another into the slums or the country. Everywhere the past was going out with the times and the future was coming on in a torrent. Two opposing principles, the conservative and the progressive, had struggled for victory, and the progressive principle had won. To add more and more numbers; to build higher and higher; to push harder and harder; and particularly to improve what had been already added or built or pushed—these impulses had united at last into a frenzied activity. And while the building and the pushing and the improving went on, the village grew into the town, the town grew into the city, and the city grew out into the country. Beneath it all, informing the apparent confusion, there was some crude belief that the symbol of material success is size, and that size in itself, regardless of quality or condition, is civilization. For the many-headed god is a god of sacrifice. He makes a wilderness of beauty and calls it progress.
Long ago the village had disappeared. Long ago the spacious southern homes, with their walled gardens of box and roses and aromatic shrubs in spring, had receded into the shadowy memories of those whom the modern city pointed out, with playful solicitude, as "the oldest inhabitants." None except the very oldest inhabitants could remember those friendly and picturesque streets, deeply shaded by elms and sycamores; those hospitable houses of gray stucco or red brick which time had subdued to a delicate rust-colour; those imposing Doric columns, or quaint Georgian doorways; those grass-grown brick pavements, where old ladies in perpetual mourning gathered for leisurely gossip; those wrought-iron gates that never closed; those unshuttered windows, with small gleaming panes, which welcomed the passer-by in winter; or those gardens, steeped in the fragrance of mint and old-fashioned flowers, which allured the thirsty visitor in summer. These things had vanished years ago; yet beneath the noisy commercial city the friendly village remained. There were hours in the lavender-tinted twilights of spring, or on autumn afternoons, while the shadows quivered beneath the burnished leaves and the sunset glowed with the colour of apricots, when the watcher might catch a fleeting glimpse of the past. It may have been the drop of dusk in the arched recess of a Colonial doorway; it may have been the faint sunshine on the ivy-grown corner of an old brick wall; it may have been the plaintive melody of a negro market-man in the street; or it may have been the first view of the Culpeper's gray and white mansion; but, in one or all of these things, there were moments when the ghost of the buried village stirred and looked out, and a fragrance that was like the memory of box and mint and blush roses stole into the senses. It was then that one turned to the Doric columns of the Culpeper house, standing firmly established in its grassy lawn above the street and the age, and reflected that the defeated spirit of tradition had entrenched itself well at the last. Time had been powerless against that fortress of prejudice; against that cheerful and inaccessible prison of the tribal instinct. Poverty, the one indiscriminate leveller of men and principles, had never attacked it, for in the lean years of Reconstruction, when to look well fed was little short of a disgrace in Virginia, an English cousin, remote but clannish, had died at an opportune moment and left Mr. Randolph Byrd Culpeper a moderate fortune. Thanks to this event, which Mrs. Culpeper gratefully classified as the "intervention of Providence," the family had scarcely altered its manner of living in the last two hundred years. To be sure there were modern discomforts which related to the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of whiskey; but since the Culpepers had been indulgent masters and light drinkers, they had come to regard these deprivations as in the nature of blessings. Solid, imposing, and as richly endowed as an institution of learning, the Culpeper generations had weathered both the restraints and the assaults of the centuries. The need to make a living, that grim necessity which is the mother of democracy, had brushed them as lightly as the theory of evolution. Saturated with tradition as with an odour, and fortified by the ponderous moral purpose of the Victorian age, they had never doubted anything that was old and never discovered anything that was new. About them as about the hidden village, there was the charm of mellowness, of unruffled serenity. Some ineradicable belief in things as they have always been had preserved them from the aesthetic derangement of the Mid-Victorian taste; and in standing for what was old, they had stood, inadvertently but courageously, for what was excellent. Security, permanence, possession—all the instincts which blend to make the tribe and the community, all the agencies which work for organized society and against the wayward experiment in human destiny—these were the stubborn forces embodied in the Culpeper stock.