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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesKennedy Square - Chapter 7
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Kennedy Square - Chapter 7 Post by :shedevil13 Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :1581

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Kennedy Square - Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

The secrecy enjoined upon everybody conversant with the happenings at Moorlands did not last many hours. At the club, across dinner tables, at tea, on the street, and in the libraries of Kennedy Square, each detail was gone over, each motive discussed. None of the facts were exaggerated, nor was the gravity of the situation lightly dismissed. Duels were not so common as to blunt the sensibilities. On the contrary, they had begun to be generally deplored and condemned, a fact largely due to the bitterness resulting from a famous encounter which had taken place a year or so before between young Mr. Cocheran, the son of a rich landowner, and Mr. May--the circumstances being somewhat similar, the misunderstanding having arisen at a ball in Washington over a reigning belle, during which Mr. May had thrown his card in Cocheran's face. In this instance all the requirements of the code were complied with. The duel was fought in an open space behind Nelson's Hotel, near the Capitol, Mr. Cocheran arriving at half-past five in the morning in a magnificent coach drawn by four white horses, his antagonist reaching the grounds in an ordinary conveyance, the seconds and the two surgeons on horseback. Both fired simultaneously, with the result that May escaped unhurt, while Cocheran was shot through the head and instantly killed.

Public opinion, indeed, around Kennedy Square, was, if the truth be told, undergoing many and serious changes. For not only the duel but some other of the traditional customs dear to the old regime were falling into disrepute--especially the open sideboards, synonymous with the lavish hospitality of the best houses. While most of the older heads, brought up on the finer and rarer wines, knew to a glass the limit of their endurance, the younger bloods were constantly losing control of themselves, a fact which was causing the greatest anxiety among the mothers of Kennedy Square.

This growing antipathy had been hastened and solidified by another tragedy quite as widely discussed as the Cocheran and May duel--more so, in fact, since this particular victim of too many toddies had been the heir of one of the oldest residents about Kennedy Square--a brilliant young surgeon, self-exiled because of his habits, who had been thrown from his horse on the Indian frontier--an Iowa town, really--shattering his leg and making its amputation necessary. There being but one other man in the rough camp who had ever seen a knife used--and he but a student--the wounded surgeon had directed the amputation himself, even to the tying of the arteries and the bandages and splints. Only then did he collapse. The hero--and he was a hero to every one who knew of his coolness and pluck, in spite of his recognized weakness--had returned to his father's house on Kennedy Square on crutches, there to consult some specialists, the leg still troubling him. As the cripple's bedroom was at the top of the first flight of stairs, the steps of which--it being summer--were covered with China matting, he was obliged to drag himself up its incline whenever he was in want of something he must fetch himself. One of these necessities was a certain squat bottle like those which had graced the old sideboards. Half a dozen times a day would he adjust his crutches, their steel points preventing his slipping, and mount the stairs to his room, one step at a time.

Some months after, when the matting was taken up, the mother took her youngest boy--he was then fifteen--to the steps:

"Do you see the dents of your brother's crutches?--count them. Every one was a nail in his coffin." They were--for the invalid died that winter.

These marked changes in public opinion, imperceptible as they had been at first, were gradually paving the way, it may be said, for the dawn of that new order of things which only the wiser and more farsighted men--men like Richard Horn--were able to discern. While many of the old regime were willing to admit that the patriarchal life, with the negro as the worker and the master as the spender, had seen its best days, but few of them, at the period of these chronicles, realized that the genius of Morse, Hoe, and McCormick, and a dozen others, whose inventions were just beginning to be criticised, and often condemned, were really the chief factors in the making of a new and greater democracy: that the cog, the drill, the grate-bar, and the flying shuttle would ere long supplant the hoe and the scythe; and that when the full flood of this new era was reached their old-time standards of family pride, reckless hospitality, and even their old-fashioned courtesy would well-nigh be swept into space. The storm raised over this and the preceding duel had they but known it, was but a notch in the tide-gauge of this flood.

"I understand, St. George, that you could have stopped that disgraceful affair the other night if you had raised your hand," Judge Pancoast had blurted out in an angry tone at the club the week following. "I did raise it, judge," replied St. George, calmly drawing off his gloves.

"They don't say so--they say you stood by and encouraged it."

"Quite true," he answered in his dryest voice. "When I raised my hand it was to drop my handkerchief. They fired as it fell."

"And a barbarous and altogether foolish piece of business, Temple. There is no justification for that sort of thing, and if Rutter wasn't a feudal king up in his own county there would be trouble over it. It's God's mercy the poor fellow wasn't killed. Fine beginning, isn't it, for a happy married life?"

"Better not have any wife at all, judge, than wed a woman whose good name you are afraid to defend with your life. There are some of us who can stand anything but that, and Harry is built along the same lines. A fine, noble, young fellow--did just right and has my entire confidence and my love. Think it over, judge," and he strolled into the card-room, picked up the morning paper, and buried his face in its columns, his teeth set, his face aflame with suppressed disgust at the kind of blood running in the judge's veins.

The colonel's treatment of his son also came in for heated discussion. Mrs. Cheston was particularly outspoken. Such quixotic action on the ground of safeguarding the rights of a young drunkard like Willits, who didn't know when he had had enough, might very well do for a self-appointed autocrat like Rutter, she maintained, but some equally respectable people would have him know that they disagreed with him.

"Just like Talbot Rutter," she exclaimed in her outspoken, decided way--" no sense of proportion. High-tempered, obstinate as a mule, and a hundred years--yes, five hundred years behind his time. And he-- could have stopped it all too if he had listened to me. Did you ever hear anything so stupid as his turning Harry--the sweetest boy who ever lived--out of doors, and in a pouring rain, for doing what he would have done himself! Oh, this is too ridiculous--too farcical. Why, you can't conceive of the absurdity of it all--nobody can! Gilbert was there and told me every word of it. You would have thought he was a grand duke or a pasha punishing a slave--and the funniest thing about it is that he believes he is a pasha. Oh--I have no patience with such contemptible family pride, and that's what is at the bottom of it."

Some of the back county aristocrats, on the other hand--men who lived by themselves, who took their cue from Alexander Hamilton, Lee, and Webb, and believed in the code as the only means of arbitrating a difficulty of any kind between gentlemen--stoutly defended the Lord of Moorlands.

"Rutter did perfectly right to chuck the young whelp out of doors. Outrageous, sir--never is done--nothing less than murder. Ought to be prosecuted for challenging a man under his own roof--and at night too. No toss-up for position, no seconds except a parcel of boys. Vulgar, sir--infernally vulgar, sir. I haven't the honor of Colonel Rutter's acquaintance--but if I had I'd tell him so--served the brat right-- damn him!"

Richard Horn was equally emphatic, but in a far different way. Indeed he could hardly restrain himself when discussing it.

"I can think of nothing my young boy Oliver would or could do when he grows up," he exclaimed fiercely--his eyes flashing, "which would shut him out of his home and his dear mother's care. The duel is a relic of barbarism and should be no longer tolerated; it is mob law, really, and indefensible, with two persons defying the statutes instead of a thousand. But Rutter is the last man in the world to take the stand he has, and I sincerely regret his action. There are many bitter days ahead of him."

Nor were the present conditions, aspirations, and future welfare of the two combatants, and of the lovely girl over whom they had quarrelled, neglected by the gossipers. No day passed without an extended discussion of their affairs. Bearers of fresh news were eagerly welcomed both to toddy and tea tables.

Old Morris Murdoch, who knew Willits's father intimately, being a strong Clay man himself, arrived at one of these functions with the astounding information that Willits had called on Miss Seymour, wearing his hat in her presence to conceal his much-beplastered head. That he had then and there not only made her a most humble apology for his ill-tempered outbreak, which he explained was due entirely to a combination of egg-and-brandy, with a dash of apple-toddy thrown in, but had declared upon his honor as a gentleman that he would never again touch the flowing bowl. Whereupon--(and this excited still greater astonishment) --the delighted young lady had not only expressed her sympathy for his misfortunes, but had blamed herself for what had occurred!

Tom Tilghman, a famous cross-country rider, who had ridden in post haste from his country seat near Moorlands to tell the tale--as could be seen from his boots, which were still covered with mud--boldly asserted of his own knowledge that the wounded man, instead of seeking his native shore, as was generally believed, would betake himself to the Red Sulphur Springs (where Kate always spent the summer)--accompanied by three saddle horses, two servants, some extra bandages, and his devoted sister, there to regain what was left of his health and strength. At which Judge Pancoast had retorted--and with some heat--that Willits might take a dozen saddle horses and an equal number of sisters, and a bale of bandages if he were so minded, to the Springs, or any other place, but he would save time and money if he stayed at home and looked after his addled head, as no woman of Miss Seymour's blood and breeding could possibly marry a man whose family escutcheon needed polishing as badly as did his manners. That the fact--the plain, bold fact--and here the judge's voice rose to a high pitch--was that Willits was boiling drunk until Harry's challenge sobered him, and that Kate hated drunkenness as much as did Harry's mother and the other women who had started out to revolutionize society.

What that young lady herself thought of it all not even the best-posted gossip in the club dared to venture an opinion. Moreover, such was the respect and reverence in which she was held, and so great was the sympathy felt for her situation, that she was seldom referred to in connection with Harry or the affair except with a sigh, followed by a "Too bad, isn't it?--enough to break your heart," and such like expressions.

What the Honorable Prim thought of it all was apparent the next day at the club when he sputtered out with:

"Here's a nice mess for a man of my position to find himself in! Do you know that I am now pointed out as the prospective father-in-law of a young jackanapes who goes about with a glass of grog in one hand and a pistol in the other. I am not accustomed to having my name bandied about and I won't have it--I live a life of great simplicity, minding my own business, and I want everybody else to mind theirs. The whole affair is most contemptible and ridiculous and smacks of the tin-armor age. Willits should have been led quietly out of the room and put to bed and young Rutter should have been reprimanded publicly by his father. Disgraceful on a night like that when my daughter's name was on everybody's lips."

After which outburst he had shut himself up in his house, where, so he told one of his intimates, he intended to remain until he left for the Red Sulphur Springs, which he would do several weeks earlier than was his custom--a piece of news which not only confirmed Tom Tilghman's gossip, but lifted several eyebrows in astonishment and set one or two loose tongues to wagging.

Out at Moorlands, the point of view varied as the aftermath of the tragedy developed, the colonel alone pursuing his daily life without comment, although deep down in his heart a very maelstrom was boiling and seething.

Mrs. Rutter, as fate would have it, on hearing that Kate was too ill to go back to town, had gone the next morning to her bedside, where she learned for the first time not only of the duel--which greatly shocked her, leaving her at first perfectly limp and helpless--but of Harry's expulsion from his father's house--(Alec owned the private wire)--a piece of news which at first terrified and then keyed her up as tight as an overstrung violin. Like many another Southern woman, she might shrink from a cut on a child's finger and only regain her mental poise by a liberal application of smelling salts, but once touch that boy of hers--the child she had nourished and lived for--and all the rage of the she-wolf fighting for her cub was aroused. What took place behind the closed doors of her bedroom when she faced the colonel and flamed out, no one but themselves knew. That the colonel was dumfounded--never having seen her in any such state of mind--goes without saying. That he was proud of her and liked her the better for it, is also true--nothing delighted him so much as courage;--but nothing of all this, impressive as it was, either weakened or altered his resolve.

Nor did he change front to his friends and acquaintances: his honorable name, he maintained, had been trailed in the mud; his boasted hospitality betrayed; his house turned into a common shamble. That his own son was the culprit made the pain and mortification the greater, but it did not lessen his responsibility to his blood. Had not Foscari, to save his honor, in the days of the great republic, condemned his own son Jacopo to exile and death? Had not Virginius slain his daughter? Should he not protect his own honor as well? Furthermore, was not the young man's father a gentleman of standing--a prominent man in the State--a friend not only of his own friend, Henry Clay, but of the governor as well? He, of course, would not have Harry marry into the family had there been a marriageable daughter, but that was no reason why Mr. Willits's only son should not be treated with every consideration. He, Talbot Rutter, was alone responsible for the honor of his house. When your right hand offends you cut it off. His right hand HAD offended him, and he HAD cut it off. Away, then, with the spinning of fine phrases!

And so he let the hornets buzz--and they did swarm and buzz and sting. As long as his wrath lasted he was proof against their assaults--in fact their attacks only confirmed him in his position. It was when all this ceased, for few continued to remonstrate with him after they had heard his final: "I decline to discuss it with you, madame," or the more significant: "How dare you, sir, refer to my private affairs without my permission?"--it was, I say, when all this ceased, and when neither his wife, who after her first savage outbreak had purposely held her peace, nor any of the servants--not even old Alec, who went about with streaming eyes and a great lump in his throat--dared renew their entreaties for Marse Harry's return, that he began to reflect on his course.

Soon the great silences overawed him--periods of loneliness when he sat confronting his soul, his conscience on the bench as judge; his affections a special attorney:--silences of the night, in which he would listen for the strong, quick, manly footstep and the closing of the door in the corridor beyond:--silences of the dawn, when no clatter of hoofs followed by a cheery call rang out for some one to take Spitfire:--silences of the breakfast table, when he drank his coffee alone, Alec tip-toeing about like a lost spirit. Sometimes his heart would triumph and he begin to think out ways and means by which the past could be effaced. Then again the flag of his pride would be raised aloft so that he and all the people could see, and the old hard look would once more settle in his face, the lips straighten and the thin fingers tighten. No--NO! No assassins for him--no vulgar brawlers--and it was at best a vulgar brawl--and this too within the confines of Moorlands, where, for five generations, only gentlemen had been bred!

And yet, product as he was of a regime that worshipped no ideals but its own; hide-bound by the traditions of his ancestry; holding in secret disdain men and women who could not boast of equal wealth and lineage; dictatorial, uncontradictable; stickler for obsolete forms and ceremonies--there still lay deep under the crust of his pride the heart of a father, and, by his standards, the soul of a gentleman.

What this renegade son of his thought of it all; this disturber of his father's sleeping and waking hours, was far easier to discover. Dazed as Harry had been at the parental verdict and heart-broken as he still was over the dire results, he could not, though he tried, see what else he could have done. His father, he argued to himself, had shot and killed a man when he was but little older than himself, and for an offence much less grave than Willits's insult to Kate: he had frequently boasted of it, showing him the big brass button that had deflected the bullet and saved his life. So had his Uncle George, five years before--not a dead man that time, but a lame one--who was still limping around the club and very good friends the two, so far as he knew. Why then blame HIM? As for the law of hospitality being violated, that was but one of the idiosyncrasies of his father, who was daft on hospitality. How could Willits be his guest when he was his enemy? St. George had begged the wounded man to apologize; if he had done so he would have extended his hand and taken him to Kate, who, upon a second apology, would have extended her hand, and the incident would have been closed. It was Willits's stubbornness and bad breeding, then, that had caused the catastrophe--not his own bullet.

Besides no real harm had been done--that is, nothing very serious. Willits had gained strength rapidly--so much so that he had sat up the third day. Moreover, he had the next morning been carried to one of the downstairs bedrooms, where, he understood, Kate had sent her black mammy for news of him, and where, later on, he had been visited by both Mrs. Rutter and Kate--a most extraordinary condescension on the young girl's part, and one for which Willits should be profoundly grateful all the days of his life.

Nor had Willits's people made any complaint; nor, so far as he could ascertain, had any one connected with either the town or county government started an investigation. It was outside the precincts of Kennedy Square, and, therefore, the town prosecuting attorney (who had heard every detail at the Chesapeake from St. George) had not been called upon to act, and it was well known that no minion of the law in and about Moorlands would ever dare face the Lord of the Manor in any official capacity.

Why, then, had he been so severely punished?

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