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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 18. "Don't Blow Out The Gas"
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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 18. 'Don't Blow Out The Gas' Post by :jorgemv Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :3107

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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 18. "Don't Blow Out The Gas"

CHAPTER XVIII. "DON'T BLOW OUT THE GAS"

Des Moines appeared to Bradley to be very great and very noisy. It was the largest city he had ever seen. He was born in Eastern Wisconsin on a farm, and his early life had been spent far from any populous centre; very largely, indeed, in the timber-lands. He had been in Lacrosse, that is to say, he changed cars there, and Rock River and Iowa City were the only towns he had ever lived in.

He had the preconception that Des Moines was a fine city, but its streets seemed endless to him that cold, clear night that he got off the train and walked up the sidewalk. He had been told to go right to the Windom House, because there was the legislative headquarters. He walked, carrying his valise in his hand, and looking furtively about him. He knew he ought not to do so, but the life about him and the endless rows of vast buildings fascinated him--drew his attention constantly.

The portico of the hotel awed him with its red sandstone magnificence, and he moved timidly on toward the centre of the rotunda with hesitating and uncertain steps. It seemed to be the realization of his imaginings of Chicago. It subdued him into absolute clownishness; and the porter who rushed toward him and took his valise from his hands, classified him off-hand as another one of those country fellows who must be watched and prevented from blowing out the gas. Bradley signed his name on the book without any flourishes, and without writing the "Honorable" before his name, as most of the other members had done.

"Front!" yelled the clerk, in an imperative voice. Bradley started, and then grew hot over his foolishness. "Show this gentleman to No. 30. Like dinner?" the clerk asked, in a kindly interest. Bradley nodded, suddenly remembering that in fashionable life dinner came at six o'clock. "All ready in about ten minutes," the clerk said, looking at the clock.

Bradley followed the boy to the elevator. He noticed that the darkey did not enter with him, but ran up the stairs. He could see him rushing around the curves, his hands sliding on the railings. He met him at the door of the elevator and motioned to him--"This way, suh." There was something in his tone that puzzled Bradley; and as he walked along the hall, he thought of the soft carpet under his feet (it must have been two inches thick) and of that tone in the boy's voice.

A dull fire of soft coal was burning on the grate, and the boy punched it up, and said, "'Nother gent jes' left. I git some mo' coal."

The room, like all hotel rooms, was a desolate place, notwithstanding its one or two elaborate pieces of furniture, its fine carpet, and its easy chair. It had a distinctly homeless quality. Bradley sat down in the big chair before the fire, and took time to think it all over. He was really here as a legislator for a great State. The responsibility and honor of the position came upon him strongly as he sat there alone in this great hotel looking at the fire. That he, of all the men in his county, should have been selected for this office, was magnificent. He drew a long sigh, and said inwardly:

"I'll be true to my trust." And he meant, in addition, to be so dignified and serious that he would not seem young to the other legislators.

He was reading, from a little frame on the wall, the rules of the house when the boy knocked on the door, and started away toward the fire so that the boy should not suspect what he had been doing. He returned to the reading, however, after the boy had gone out. He read "Don't Blow out the Gas," without feeling it an impertinence, and went over to read the code of signals posted above the bell punch.


RING ONCE FOR BELL BOY.
RING TWICE FOR ICE WATER.
RING THREE FOR FIRE.
RING FOUR FOR CHAMBERMAID.


His mind went off in a pursuit of trivial matters concerning this code. What would happen if he rang three times--which he thought stood for alarm of fire. In imagination he heard the outcries throughout the various floors and rooms of the house. Then his mind went back to the fact that the boy was not allowed to ride in the elevator. He wondered if this touch of southern feeling would ever get any farther north. For the first time in his life he had met the question of caste.

He went down to supper, as he called it himself, in the dining-room, which he found to be a very large and splendid apartment. A waiter in a dress coat (he had never seen a live figure in a dress coat before) met him at the door, and with elaborate authority called another darkey, in a similar dress coat, to show him to a chair.

The second darkey led his way down the polished floor (which Bradley walked with difficulty), his coat tails wagging in a curious fashion, by reason of the action of his bow legs. He was obliged to take the uncomprehending Bradley by the arm, while he shoved the chair under him; but he did it so courteously that no one noticed it. He was accustomed to give this silent instruction in ceremonials. Bradley noticed that, notwithstanding the splendor of his shirt-front, collar and dress-coat, his shoes were badly broken, though highly polished.

A man sat at the opposite side of the table reading a paper over his coffee. He attracted Bradley's attention because he had a scowl on his face, and his hair was tumbled picturesquely about his forehead. Even his brown moustache contrived to have an oddly dishevelled look.

They ate in silence for some time, or rather Bradley did; the other man read and sipped his coffee, and continued to frown and swear under his breath. At length he burst forth in a suppressed exclamation: "Well, I'll be damned." When he looked at Bradley, his eyes were friendly, and he seemed to require some one to talk to.

"These devilish railroads will own the country, body and breeches yet."

"What are they up to now?" said Bradley.

"They've secured Joe Manley as their attorney, one of the best lawyers in the State. It's too cussed bad." He looked sad. "I can't account for it. I suppose he got hard up, and couldn't stand the pressure. I wonder if you know how these infernal corporations capture a State!"

"No, but I'd like to know. I'm down here to fight 'em."

"That so? From where?"

"From Rock County. I'm the representative; Talcott is my name," Bradley said, seizing an excuse to announce himself.

"_Is that so! Well, now, I'm an old cock in the pit, and I want to warn you. I've known many a fine, honest fellow to get involved. Now I'll tell you how it's done. Before you have been here a week, some of these railroads will send for you, and tell you they've heard of you as a prominent young lawyer of the State. Oh, they've heard of you, we've all heard of your canvass; and as they are in need of an attorney in your county, they'd like very much to have you take charge, etc., of any legislation that may arise there, and so on. There may not be a week's work during the year, and there may be a great deal, etc., but they will be glad to pay you six hundred dollars or eight hundred dollars, if you will take the position.

"Well, we'll suppose you take it. You go back to Rock, there is very little business for the railroad, but your salary comes in regularly. You say to yourself that, in case any work comes in which is dishonorable, you'll refuse to take hold of it. But that money comes in nicely. You marry on the expectations of its continuance. You get to depending upon it. You live up to it. You don't find anything which they demand of you really dishonest, and you keep on; but really cases of the railroad against the people do come up, and your sense of justice isn't so acute as it used to be. You manage to argue yourself into doing it. If you don't do it, somebody else will, etc., and so you keep on."

After an impressive pause, during which the speaker gazed in his face, he finished: "Suddenly the war of the corporation against the people is on us, and you find you are the paid tool of the corporation, and that the people are distrustful of you, and that you are practically helpless."

The man spoke in a low voice, but somehow his words had the quality of exciting the imagination. Bradley thrilled at the picture of moral disintegration hinted at. The imaginative tragedy was brought very close to him.

"Do they really do that?" he asked.

"That's a part of their plan. The proof of it will be in the offer which they'll make to you in less than ten days. They're always on the lookout for such men, especially men who have the confidence of the farmers. The next war in this State and in the nation is to be a railway war."

"You think so. I think the tariff"--

"What is the tariff, compared to the robbery that makes Gould and Sage and Vanderbilt? I tell you, young man, the corporations in this country are eating the life out of it. This power of three men to get together, steal the privilege from the people, and by their joint action to produce a fourth body (_corpus_), behind which they hide and push their schemes--an intangible something which outlives them all--that is the power that is undermining this government. It's against the Constitution. Old Chief Justice Marshall in his verdict (which ushered in the reign of corporations, in this country) distinctly said that it was based on usurpation, dating back to the Stuarts or the Georges; and the hint in that was, that it was un-American and un-Constitutional."

Bradley perceived that he was in the presence of another reformer like himself. He wondered if he seemed so cranky to other men. He was interested by the man's evident thought and honesty of purpose and by the sympathy of a city man with a farmer's fight.

"You're with us in our fight against the railroads?"

The man threw one arm back over the top of his chair and looked at Bradley out of his half-closed eyes. "Of course. Only you're so damned narrow. Excuse me. You don't see that you've got to kill _every corporation. _Every corporation is an infringement of individual rights. When three men go into business as a firm, they should every one be liable for every contract which they make. The creation of an intangible corporate personality is a trick to evade liability. Make war against the whole system," he said, rising. "Don't go fooling about with regulating fares and forming commissions. Declare corporations illegal, and let the people know their practices."

They went down to the rotunda floor together. The electric lights flooded the brilliant marbles with a dazzling light. Groups of men were gathered around spittoons, talking earnestly, gesticulating with fists and elaborate broad-hand, free-arm movements--political gestures, as Bradley recognized.

"These are your colleagues and their parasites," said Bradley's companion, whose name was Cargill. "Know any of 'em?"

"No; I don't know any of the legislators."

Cargill led Bradley up to a group which surrounded a gigantic old man who leaned on a cane and gesticulated with his powerful left hand.

"Senator Wood, let me introduce Hon. Bradley Talcott, of Rock."

"Ah, glad to see you, sir. Glad to see you. Gentlemen, this is the young man who made that gallant fight up in Rock. This is the Hon. Jones of Boone, Mr. Talcott, and this is Sam Wells of Cerro Gordo, one of the most remorseless jokers in the House. Look out for him!"

After shaking hands all about, Bradley hastened to say, "Don't let me interrupt. Go on, senator. I want to listen." This made a fine impression on the senator, who loved dearly to hear the sound of his own voice. He proceeded to enlarge upon his plan for gerrymandering the state--to the advantage of the Democratic party, of course.

In the talk which followed, Bradley was brought face to face with the fact that these men were more earnest in maintaining the hold of their parties upon the offices than principles of legislation. They were not legislators in any instances; they were gamesters.

"Now, let me tell you something more," said Cargill, as he led his way back to a settee near the wall. He drew up a chair for his feet, lighted his cigar, pulled his little soft hat down to the bridge of his nose, put one thumb behind his vest, and began in a peculiarly sardonic tone: "Now, here is where the legislation really takes place--here and at the Iowa House. See those fellows?" He waved his hand in a circle around the rotunda, now filled with stalwart men laughing loudly or talking in confidential, deeply interested groups, with their heads close together. "There are the supposed law-makers of the State. What do you think of them, anyway?"

Bradley was silent. He was so filled with new sensations and ideas that he could not talk.

Cargill mused a little. "I suppose it all appears to you as something very fine and very important. Now, don't make a mistake. The most of these fellows are not even average men. I have a theory that, take it one ten years with another, the legislatures of our country must be necessarily beneath the average, because the man who is a thinker or a moralist necessarily represents a minority. Anyhow, these men support my theory, don't they?"

There was a distinct bitterness in his tone that made his words sink deep. There was a touch of literary grace also in his phrases, quite unlike anything Bradley had ever heard. "You imagine these men honest. You say 'they differ from me' honestly. But I know there is no question of principle in their action. They simply say No. 1 first, party next, and principle last of all. I remember how awe-struck I was during my first term. Now, don't waste any nervous energy on admiring these men or standing in awe of them. Jump right in and take care of yourself. Vote for party, but make arrangements before you vote--no; I forgot. You stand for a real principle, and success may lie for you in standing by it. Yes, on the whole, I believe I would stand by principle; it will bring you out in greater relief from the rest of them, and then the people may begin to think. I doubt it, however."

"You are a pessimist, then," said Bradley, feeling that there was an undercurrent of dark philosophy in Cargill's voice.

"I am. The whole damned thing is a botch, in my opinion. You may find it different," he said, with a mocking gleam in his eyes as he rose and walked away. Bradley did not believe the man meant half he said, and yet his bitterness had thrown a sombre shadow over his heart. The vista ahead was not quite so bright as it had been except where Miss Wilbur seemed to walk. He longed to go out and find her, and tried to content himself with walking up and down the street, which seemed incredibly brilliant with its lighted windows and streams of gay young people coming and going.

At last he came to a corner where he saw the name of her street upon the lamp post, and the hunger to see her was irresistible. He rushed up the street with desperate haste. He wished he had started sooner. It was eight o'clock and there was danger that she might be gone out. The electric cars hardly diverted him as they came floating weirdly down the line--the trolley invisible, the wheels emitting green sheets of light at the crossings.

The street grew more quiet as it climbed the hill, and at last became quite like Rock River, with its rows of small wooden houses on each side of the maple-lined streets, through which the keen wind went hissing. The stars glittered through the clear cold air like crystals of green and gold and white fire. As he walked along, his newly acquired honors fell away from him, together with his war for the grange, and his ambitious plans displayed their warmer side. He began to feel that all he was and was to do must be shared with a woman in order that he could enjoy it himself, and he had known for a long time that Ida was that woman.

His face lifted to the stars as he implored their aid in a vast and dangerous enterprise. It meant all or nothing to him. He was in the mood to risk all his life and plans that night if she had been with him. The strangeness of the city had exalted him to the mood where his timidity was gone.

When he came to the house, he found it all dark save a dim light in the rear, and it made him shiver with a premonition of failure. A servant girl answered his ring. He had the hope that this was the wrong house after all.

"Can you tell me if Miss Wilbur lives here?"

"Yassir, but she nat haar," answered the girl, with the Norwegian accent.

"Where is she?"

"Ay nat know. Ay tank she ees good ways off; her moder she ees gawn to churtz."

Bradley no longer looked at the stars as he walked along the street. All his doubts and fears and his timidity and his reticence came back upon him, and something warm and sweet seemed to go out of the far vista of his life. He felt that he had lost her.

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