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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 31. Ida Shows Bradley The Way Out
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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 31. Ida Shows Bradley The Way Out Post by :Jeff_Carter Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1386

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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 31. Ida Shows Bradley The Way Out

CHAPTER XXXI. IDA SHOWS BRADLEY THE WAY OUT

He did not see her again till the next afternoon. She came out into the ante-room in the hotel looking so lovely he could hardly believe his good fortune.

"Now you are in my hands, Mr. Talcott."

He noticed that she did not call him "Brother" Talcott. He was as boyish and timid as ever, quite subdued by her presence, and followed her out to the omnibus in a daze of delight. He had forgotten all he knew, but he was very content to listen.

She, however, did not seem at all self-conscious. She wore a large cloak and warm gloves, and under the wide rim of her black hat her face was like silver and her eyes like stars. A delicate perfume came from her dress, and reached him across the carriage.

"It takes about an hour to go down," she said, as they alighted and stood waiting on the platform, "and then the 'college' is some distance away from the station."

It was an unspeakable pleasure to sit beside her in the train and listen to her talk. It was one of the things he had dreamed of so many times, but had really never dared to expect.

"The reason I want you to attend this meeting is because the schoolhouse, after all, is the place where a real reform among the farmers must have its base. I'd like to see you working with us," she said, turning suddenly towards him.

"I would if I felt as you do about it, but I can't."

"Why not? You're really one of us. Your letters showed me that. Why can't you work with us?"

"Well, I'll tell you: because it looks like a last resort. It would look as though, after having been kicked out of both parties, I had gone into the third party out of revenge."

"Well, I see some force in that. But you can't be idle. You are too strong and fine to be beaten so. Do you know, I think it was providential that you were defeated." She turned to him now, and there was something in the nearness of her face that awed him. "Your letters to me told me more than you knew. I read beneath the lines; I saw how nearly the atmosphere of Congress had ruined you. The greed of office had got hold of you--now hadn't it?"

He dropped his eyes. "Something got hold of me," he said at length.

She went on in a voice which moved him so deeply he could not reply. "I've wanted to see you. I believed in you, and it made my heart ache to hear your despondent words yesterday. Life is a battle at best. You can't afford to surrender so early. The way of the thinker is always hard. Take up your sword again. Oh, it's glorious to be in such a revolution! I never was so happy in my life. Happy and sad too! I never was so sad. Now _that's like a woman, isn't it? What I really mean is that I never saw so clearly the poverty and helplessness of the people before, and it makes me happy to think I can do something for them."

Bradley sat silently looking at her with his big brown eyes. He was thrilling with the vibration of her voice and the touch of her hand on his arm.

She colored a little, and dropped her eyes suddenly. "There I go again! I _must keep the oratorical tone out of my voice. Don't mind my preaching at you, will you?"

"I like it," said Bradley, smiling. He had a beautiful smile, she noticed; and he looked so big and strong and thoughtful, she suddenly grew a little timid before him.

The warning whistle of the engine announced they were nearing a crossing, and she said, "I think this is our station."

The wind was strong and cold as they stepped out upon the platform. It was nearly six o'clock, and quite dark. They stood for a few moments in the lee of the one-room depot, looking about in the obscurity.

"Well, what are we to do now?" Bradley inquired.

She seemed at a loss. "Really, I don't know. Colonel Barker was to meet me here, I believe."

Bradley took her arm. "There's a light up there in the cold," he said. "Let's go for that; and if you'll tell me the name of the schoolhouse, I'll see that we get a team, and get out there."

In the cold and darkness she lost something of her imperiousness, and yielded herself to his guidance with a delicious return to woman's weakness in the face of practical material details. To Bradley this seemed vastly significant and his spirits rose. He grew quite facetious and talkative for him.

"It seems to me that's a store up there; must be a town near by. Perhaps _this is the town. Two houses on one side and three houses on the other make a town in the West. We must get some supper, too; any provision for that?"

"No, I left the whole matter in Colonel Barker's hands."

The road ran up the huge treeless swell of prairie toward the lighted windows of a grocery store.

Together they climbed the hill, and opposite the store they came upon a gate on which was a battered sign, "Hotel; meals twenty-five cents." Bradley knocked on the door, but there was no reply.

After waiting a decent while, he said, "If it's a hotel, we might as well go right in without knocking."

They entered a bare little room whose only resemblance to a hotel bar-room was in its rusty cannon stove set in the midst of a box of sawdust, and a map of Kansas hanging on the wall. Bradley knocked on the inner door, and it was opened by a faded little woman with a sad face.

"We'd like supper for two," Bradley said.

"All right!" she replied, moving forward to the stove, which she rattled in order to give her time to scrutinize Ida, who sat on the lounge by the window. "Lay off your things, won't ye?"

Bradley helped Ida to lay off her cloak. It was incredible what pleasure it gave him to do these little things for her. He left her a few minutes to go out and look up the matter of the team. When he returned he found Ida leaning back wearily in a big chair, her face very grave and pale. He told her that a team would be ready soon.

"You can come right out to supper," announced the landlady; and they went out into the kitchen, where the table sat. It was lighted with a kerosene lamp that threw dull-blue shadows among the dishes, and dazzled the eyes of the eaters with its horizontal rays of light. The table had a large quantity of boiled beef and potatoes and butter, which each person was evidently expected to hew off for himself. The dessert was pumpkin-pie, which they both greeted with smiles.

"Ah, that looks like the pie mother used to make," Ida said, as the landlady put it down.

"Waal, I'd know. Seems to me the crust is a leetle too short. I've ben havin' pretty good luck lately; but this pumpkin weren't just the very best. It was one of them thin-rinded ones, you know. Pumpkins weren't extry good; weren't thunder enough, I reckon, this summer."

After supper Bradley went out, leaving Ida with the landlady, who was delighted with her listener.

"Here's our team," called Bradley, coming to Ida's relief a few minutes later. "It ain't a very gay rig; but it's the best I could do," he explained, as he helped her in and tucked the quilts about her. "I had to skirmish in two or three houses to get these quilts, for the wind is sharp; you'll need them."

"Thank you; I'm afraid you've given me more than my share."

There was only one seat, and Bradley took his place beside Ida, while the driver crouched on the bottom of the clattering old democrat wagon. Ida was concerned for him.

"Haven't you another seat?" she inquired.

"No m'm. I don't need any," he replied, in a slow drawl. "I tried to borrow one from Sam Smalley, but they're all usin' theirs. I'd jest as soon set here."

There was something singularly attractive in his voice--a simplicity and candor like a child's, and a suggestion of weakness that went straight to Ida's tender heart.

"But you'll get cold."

"Oh, no m'm; I'm used to it. Half the time I don't wear no gloves in winter 'less I'm handlin' things with snow on 'em," he said, to reassure her.

They moved off down the ravine to the north, the keen wind in their faces. There was no moon, and it was very dark, notwithstanding the light of the stars.

"How beautiful the sky is to-night!" said Ida, in a low voice.

"Magnificent!" Bradley replied; but he thought of her, not the stars. The team started up, and the worn old seat swayed from side to side so perilously that Bradley with incredible audacity put his arm around, and grasped the end of the seat on the other side of Ida.

"I'm afraid you'll fall out," he hastened to explain. She made no reply, and if she smiled he did not know it.

They climbed the slope on the other side of the bridge, and entered upon the vast rolling prairie, whose dim swells rose and fell against the stars. The roads were frightful--gullied with rain, and full of bowlders on the hillsides. The darkness added a certain wild charm and mystery to it all.

"How lonesome it seems! What a terrible place to live!" said Ida with a shudder.

"Civilization hasn't made much of an impress here, that's sure. How long has this prairie been settled?"

"'Bout twenty-two years," answered the driver; and, being started, he prattled away, telling the story of his pitiful, tragic life--a life of incessant toil and hardship. Men cheated and trampled upon him; society and government ignored him; science and religion never knew him, and cared nothing for him--and yet this atom bore it all with unapplauded heroism.

There was something in his voice which made the hearts of his hearers ache. Ida glanced up at Bradley now and then, at the most dramatic points, and they seemed to grow nearer together in their sympathy.

"There's the schoolhouse," said the driver joyously, pointing at a dim red light ahead. They had been riding for nearly an hour across the treeless swells of prairie, and the wind had penetrated their very blood. Ida was shivering, and Bradley was suffering with her out of sympathy. He longed to fold her close in his arms and shield her from the wind.

Suddenly the schoolhouse loomed upon their eyes. It was a bare little box, set on the wind-swept crest of a hill, not a tree to shelter it from the winds of winter or the sun of summer. Teams were hitched about at the fences, and others could be heard on the hard ground, clattering along the lanes. Men coming across the fields on foot could be heard talking. The plain seemed cold and desolate and illimitable.

Bradley helped Ida to alight, and hurried her towards the open door, from which the hum of talk came forth. They found the room crammed with men and women--the women all on one side of the room and the men as decorously on the other, or standing about the huge cannon stove, that was filled with soft coal, and sending out a flood of heat and gas. They stopped talking when they saw the strangers enter, and gazed at them curiously.

Then a tall man, with a military cut of beard, pushed his way forward.

"Good-evenin', Sisto' Wilboo, I'm right glad to see you."

"I am glad to see you, Brother Barker."

"I must apologize fo' not coming myself."

"This is Mr. Talcott," Ida interrupted, introducing Bradley.

"Glad to meet you, Brotho' Talcott. As I was sayin', Sisto' Wilboo, I was late, and so I sent Brotho' Williams. I am ver' sawry"--

"Oh, no matter; we got here."

Colonel Barker introduced them to the people who stood near. The crowded condition of the room did not allow of a general introduction, although they all looked longingly at Ida, whom they knew by reputation.

At first glance the effect was unpromising. Most of the men had their hats on. All of them were fresh from the corn-fields, and their hands were hard as leather, and cracked and seamed, and lumpy with great muscles. Every man wore cots upon his fingers, which were rasped to the quick with husking. Everyone had a certain unkempt look, and everywhere color was in low tones: browns, grays, drabs; nothing light and gay about dress or bearing. Bradley noticed a few girls in the middle seats, but only a few.

It looked like an uncouth audience for Ida to address.

Colonel Barker called the meeting to order, and made an astonishingly able and dignified speech. He then asked Brother Williams to say a word.

Brother Williams was a middle-aged farmer with unkempt hair. His clothes were faded to a russet brown; his collarless neck was like wrinkled leather, and his fingers were covered with cots; but he was a most impressive orator. His words were well chosen, and his gestures dignified and appropriate. He spoke in a conversational way, but with great power and sincerity. He ended by introducing "Sister Wilbur."

Ida began to speak in a low voice, as if talking to friends: "Brothers and sisters, this is not the first time I've driven across the Western prairies in a wagon to speak at such a meeting as this, and it isn't the last time. I expect to continue to speak just as long as there is a wrong to be righted, just as long as it does you good to have me come."

"That will be while you live," said the colonel gallantly.

"I hope not," she replied quickly. "I hope to see our reforms established before the gray comes into my hair. If we are true to ourselves; if our leaders are true to themselves; if they do not become spoils of office"--she looked at Bradley, and the others followed her glance; she saw her mistake, and colored a little as she went on--"if they are true to their best convictions, and speak the new thoughts that come to them, poverty will not increase her dominion."

She closed by saying: "We have with us tonight a very distinguished young Congressman from Iowa,--the Honorable Mr. Talcott. I hope he will feel like saying something to you."

While the people stamped and clapped hands, Ida went over to Bradley and said: "You _must talk to them. Tell them just what you think."

Bradley rose. He would have done more had she asked it. He began by speaking of the Grange and its decline, and of the apparent hopelessness of expecting the farmers to remain united.

"I am not quite convinced the time has come for a political movement. If I were, I'd join it, even though some of the planks in your platform were objectionable, for I am a farmer. My people for generations have been tillers of the soil. They have always been poor. All the blood in my heart goes out, therefore, towards the farmer and the farmers' movement. It seems a hopeless thing to fight the privileged classes, with all their power and money. It can be done, but it can be done only by union among all the poor of every class. Since coming to your State, since day before yesterday, my mind has been changed. If I thought--if I could believe--" As he paused he caught Ida's eyes shining into his, and at the moment the one thing in all the world worth doing was to follow her wish. "I do believe, and I'm with you from this time forward." He ended there, but he stood for a moment numb, and tingling with emotion. He had uttered a resolution which changed the course of his life.

The people seemed to realize the importance of this confession on the part of the speaker. There was a vibrant intensity in the tone of his voice, which every listener felt, and they broke out in wild applause as he abruptly ended and sat down.

Ida, with her eyes shining and wet, reached forward over the seat, and clasped his hand and held it. "Glorious! Now you're with us, heart and soul!" In their exaltation it did not occur to either of them what a strange place this little schoolhouse was for such a far-reaching compact.

* * * * *

Out under the coruscating skies again, into the crisp air! Bradley turned and looked back upon the little schoolhouse, packed to suffocation; it would always remain a memorable place in this wide land.

"Oh, you've done them good--more than you can tell!" Ida said.

"I begin to believe it is the beginning of the greatest reform movement in history," he said at last. "They are searching for the truth; and whenever any great body of men search for the truth, they find it, and the finding of it is tremendous. Its effect reaches every quarter of the earth."

They mounted to their perilous seat once more, and moved out into the night. The wind seemed to have gone down. There was a deep hush in the air, as if the high stars listened in their illimitable spaces. The plain seemed as lonely and as unlighted as the Arctic Ocean. Even the barking of a farm-yard dog had a wolfish and savage suggestiveness.

They rode in silence. Ida sighed deeply. At last she said: "It's only an incident with us. We go back to our pleasant and varied lives; they go back to their lonely homes, and to their bleak corn-fields."

"But you have given them something to hope for, something to think of," Bradley said, seeking to comfort her.

"Yes, that is the only consolation I can get out of it. This movement has come into their lives like a new religion. It _is a new religion--the religion of humanity. It does help them to forget mud and rain and cold and monotony."

Again Bradley's arm seemed necessary to her safety, but this time it closed around her, strong and resolute, yet he dared not say a word. He was not sure of her. It seemed impossible that this wonderful, beautiful, and intellectual woman should care for him; and yet, when he was speaking, her eyes had pleaded for him.

The driver talked on about the meeting, but his passengers were silent. Under cover of listening they were both dreaming. Bradley was forecasting his life, and wondering how much she would make up of it; wondering if she would make more of it than she had of his past life. How far off she had always seemed to him, and yet she had always been a part of his inner life. Now she sat beside him, in the circle of his arm, and yet she seemed hopelessly out of his reach. She liked him as a friend and brother reformer--that was all. Besides, he had no right to hope now, when his fortunes had become failures.

She was thinking of him. She was deeply gratified to think he had entered the great movement, and that she had been instrumental in converting him. Her heart warmed to him strangely for his honesty and his sincerity; and then he was so fine and earnest and strong-limbed! The pressure of his arm at her side moved her, and she smiled at herself. Unlike Bradley, she was self-analytical; she knew what all these things meant.

"There's the station," the driver broke out, indicating some colored lights in the valley below them. "We're 'most home."

At his word a vision of the plain, and the significance of its life, rushed over Ida--the serene majesty of the stars, the splendor and unused wealth of the prairies, the barriers to their use, the limitless robbery of the poor, in both city and country, the pathetic _homes of the renter.

"Oh, the pathos, the tragedy of it all! Nature is so good and generous, and poverty so universal. Can it be remedied? It _must be remedied. Every thinking, sympathizing soul must help us."

Bradley's voice touched Ida deeply as he said, slowly: "Henceforward I shall work for these people and all who suffer. My life shall be given to this work."

A great, sudden resolution flashed into Ida's eyes. She lifted her face to his and laid her hand on his and clasped it hard. There was a little pause, in which, as if by some occult sense, their minds read each other.

"We'll work _together_, Bradley," she said; and the driver did not see the timid caress which Bradley put upon her lips as a sign of his unspeakable great joy.

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