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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 20. At The State House
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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 20. At The State House Post by :jorgemv Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :2978

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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 20. At The State House

CHAPTER XX. AT THE STATE HOUSE

That the invitation to attend the Square Table Club over-shadowed the importance and significance of Bradley's entrance into public life, was an excellent commentary upon his real character. The State House, however, appealed to his imagination very strongly as he walked up its unfinished lawn, amid the heaps of huge limestone blocks, his eyes upon the looming facade of the west front. He walked the echoing rotunda with a timid air; and the beautiful soaring vault was so majestic in his eyes, he wondered if Washington could be finer. There were a few other greenhorns, like himself, looking the building over with the same minute scrutiny. He entered all of the rooms into which it was possible to penetrate, and at last into the library, a cheerful, rectangular room, into which the sun streamed plenteously.

There was hardly any one in either the Senate or the Representative Halls except farmer-like groups of people, sometimes a family group of four or five, including the grandmother or grandfather. They were mainly in rough best suits of gray, or ostentatiously striped cassimere. The young men wore wide hats, pushed back, in some cases, to display a smooth, curling wave of hair, carefully combed down over their foreheads. He was able to catalogue them by reference to his old companions, Ed Blackler, Shep Watson, Sever Anderson, and others.

Soon the crowds thickened, and groups of men entered, talking and laughing loudly. They were wholly at their ease, being plainly old and experienced members. They greeted each other with boisterous cries and powerful handshaking.

"Hello, Stineberg, I hoped you'd git snowed under. Back again, eh?"

"Well, I'll be damned! Aint your county got any more sense than to send such a specimen as you back? Why weren't you around to the caucus?"

Bradley stood around awkwardly alone, not knowing just what to do. Perhaps some of these men would be glad to see him if they knew him, but he could not think of going to introduce himself. Being new in politics, there was not a man there whose face he recognized. The few that he had met at the hotel were not in sight. He felt as if he had been thrust into this jovial company, and was unwelcome.

The House was called to order by one of the members of the capital county, and prayer was offered. He sat quietly in his seat as things went on. The session adjourned after electing temporary speaker, clerk, etc. Bradley felt so alien to it all that he scarcely took the trouble to vote; and when the committee on credentials was appointed, he felt nervously in his pocket to see that his papers were safe. He felt very much as he used to when, as a boy, he went to have his hair cut, and sat in torture during the whole operation, in the fear that his quarter (all he had with him) might be lost, and trembling to think what would happen in such a case.

That night he moved to a new boarding-place. He secured a room near the Capitol, and went to supper in a small private house near by, which had a most astonishing amplitude of dining-room. He felt quite at home there, for the food was put on the table in the good old way, and passed around from hand to hand. The mashed potato tasted better, piled high, with a lump of butter in the top of it; and the slices of roast beef, outspread on the platter, enabled him to get the crisp outside, if it happened to start from his end of the table. There were judges and generals and senators and legislators of various ranks all about him. Crude, rough, wholesome fellows, most of them, with big, brawny hands like his own, and loud, hearty voices. It was impossible to stand in awe of a judge who handled his knife more deftly than his fork, and spooned the potato out of the big, earthen-ware dish with a resounding slap. He began to see that these men were exactly like the people he had been with all his life. He argued, however, that they were perhaps the poorer and the more honorable part of the legislature.

He wrote a note to Judge Brown, telling him that he was settled, but was taking very little part in the organizing of the House. He did not say that he was disappointed in his reception, but he was; his vanity had been hurt. His canvass had attracted considerable attention from the Democratic press of the country, and he expected to be received with great favor by them. He had come out of Republicanism for their sake, and they ought to recognize him. He did not consider that no one knew him by sight, and that recognition was impossible.

He was at the Capitol again early the next morning, and found the same scene being re-enacted. Straggling groups of roughly-dressed farmers loitered timidly along the corridors, brisk clerks dashed to and fro, and streams of men poured in and out the doors of the legislative halls. Bradley entered unobserved, and took a seat at the rear of the hall on a sofa. He did not feel safe in taking a seat.

It was a solemn moment to the new legislator as he stood before the clerk, and, with lifted hand, listened to the oath of office read in the clerk's sounding voice. He swore solemnly, with the help of God, to support the Constitution, and serve his people to the best of his ability; and he meant it. It did not occur to him that this oath was a shuffling and indefinite obligation. The room seemed to grow a little dimmer as he stood there; the lofty ceiling, rich in its colors, grand and spacious to him, seemed to gather new majesty, just as his office as lawmaker gathered a vast and sacred significance.

But as he came back to his seat, he heard a couple of old members laugh. "Comin' down to save their country. They'll learn to save their bacon before their term is up. That young feller looks like one of those retrenchment and reform cusses, one of the fellers who never want to adjourn--down here for business, ye know."

Their laughter made Bradley turn hot with indignation.

The selection of seats was the next great feature. The names of all the members were written upon slips of paper and shaken together in a box, while the members stood laughing and talking in the back part of the house. A blind-folded messenger boy selected the slips; and as the clerk read, in a sounding voice, the name on each slip, the representative so called went forward and selected his seat.

Bradley's name was called about the tenth, and he went forward timidly, and took a seat directly in the centre of the House. He did not care to seem anxious for a front seat. The Democratic members looked at him closely, and he stepped out of his obscurity as he went forward.

A young man of about his own age, a stalwart fellow, reached about and shook hands. "My name is Nelson Floyd. I wanted to see you."

Floyd took the first opportunity to introduce him to two or three of the Democratic members, but he sat quietly in his seat during the whole session, and took very little interest in the speakership contest, which seemed to go off very smoothly. He believed the speaker implicitly, when he stated the usual lie about having no pledges to redeem, and that he was free to choose his committee with regard only to superior fitness, etc., and was shocked when Floyd told him that a written contract had been drawn up and signed, before the legislature met, wherein the principal clerkships had been disposed of to party advantage. It was his second introduction to the hypocrisy of officialism.

If he had been neglected before, he was not now; all sorts of people came about him with axes to grind.

"Is this Mr. Talcott? Ah, yes! I have heard of your splendid canvass--splendid canvass! Now--ahem!--I'd like you to speak a good word for my girl, for the assistant clerkship of the Ways and Means"; while another wanted his son, Mr. John Smith, for page.

He told them that he had nothing to say about those things. "I am counted with the Democrats, anyhow; I haven't any influence."

They patted him on the shoulder, and winked slyly. "Oh, we know all about that! But every word helps, you know."

Going out at the close of the session, he met Cargill.

"Well, legislator, how goes it?"

"Oh, I don't know; smoothly, I guess. I've kept pretty quiet."

"That's right. The Republicans have everything in their hands this session."

"Hello, Cargill!" called a smooth, jovial voice.

"Ah, Barney! Talcott, this is an excellent opportunity. This is Barney, the great railway lobbyist. Barney, here is a new victim for you--Talcott, of Rock."

"Glad to see you, Mr. Talcott."

Bradley shook hands with moderate enthusiasm, looking into Barney's face with great interest. The lobbyist was large and portly and smiling. His moustache drooped over his mouth, and his chin had a jolly-looking hollow in it. His hazel eyes, once frank and honest, were a little clouded with drink.

"Cargill is an infernal old cynic," he exclaimed, "and he is corporation mad. Don't size us up according to his estimate."

It did not seem possible that this man could be the great tool of the railway interest, and yet that was his reputation.

Cargill moralized on the members, as they walked on: "Barney's on his rounds getting hold of the new members. He scents a corruptible man as the buzzard does carrion. Every session young fellows like you come down here with high and beautiful ideas of office, and start in to reform everything, and end by becoming meat for Barney and his like. There is something destructive in the atmosphere of politics."

Bradley listened to Cargill incredulously. These things could not be true. These groups of jovial, candid-looking men could not be the moral wrecks they were represented. He had expected to see men who looked villainous in some way, with bloated faces--disreputable, beery fellows. He had not risen to the understanding that the successful villain is always plausible.

When he left the Capitol and went down the steps with Cargill, he felt that he had fairly entered upon the work of his term.

"Now, young man," said Cargill, as they parted, "let me advise you. The fight of this session is going to be the people against the corporations. There are two positions and only two. You take your choice. If you side with the corporation, your success will be instantaneous. You can rig out, and board at the Richwood, and be dined out, and taken to see the town Saturday nights, and retire with a nice little boost and a record to apologize for when you go back to Rock River; that is, you can go in for all that there is in it, or you can take your chances with the people."

"I will take the chances with the people."

"Well, now, hold on! Don't deceive yourself. The people are a mob yet. They are fickle as the flames o' hell. They don't know what they do want, but in the end the man that leads them and stands by them is sure of success."

The daily walk down from the Capitol was very beautiful. As the sun sank low it struck through the smoke of the city, and flooded the rotunda of the building with a warm, red light, which lay along the floor in great streams of gold, and warmed each pillar till it glowed like burnished copper. At such moments the muddy streets, the poor hovels, the ugly bricks, lost to sight beneath the majesty and mystery of the sun-transfigured smoke and the purple deeps of the lower levels (out of which the searching, pitiless light had gone), became a sombre and engulfing flood of luminous darkness.

"Here, here!" Cargill said one day, when Bradley called his attention to the view, "a man can swear and get drunk and be a politician; but when he likes flowers or speaks of a sunset, his goose is cooked. It is political death."

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