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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Voice Of The People - Book 4. The Man And The Times - Chapter 3
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The Voice Of The People - Book 4. The Man And The Times - Chapter 3 Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2440

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The Voice Of The People - Book 4. The Man And The Times - Chapter 3


The successful man was returning to Kingsborough. He had spent the week in Richmond, where he had lived for the past ten years, and he was now going back to receive the congratulations of the judge--as he would have gone twice the distance.

It was the ordinary car of a Southern railroad, and leaning his head against the harsh, bristly plush of the seat, he had before him the usual examples of Southern passengers.

Across the aisle a slender mother was holding a crying baby, two small children huddling beside her. In the seat in front of him slouched a mulatto of the new era--the degenerate descendant of two races that mix only to decay. Further off there were several men returning from business trips, and across from them sat a pretty girl, asleep, her hand resting on a gilded cage containing a startled canary. At intervals she was aroused by the flitting figure of a small boy on the way to the cooler of iced water. From the rear of the car came the amiable drawl of the conductor as he discussed the affairs of the State with a local drummer, whose feet rested upon a square leathern case.

Nicholas Burr leaned back and closed his eyes, crossing his long legs which were cramped by the limited space. He had already exchanged pleasantries with the conductor, and he had chatted for twenty minutes with a farmer, who had gone back at last to the smoking-car.

The low, irregular landscape was as familiar to him as his own face. He knew it so well that he could see it with closed eyes--could note each change of expression where the daylight shifted, could tell where the thin cornfields ended and the meadows rolled fresh and green, could smell the stretch of young pines above the smoke of the engine, and could follow to their ends the rain-washed roads that crawled with hidden heads into the blue blur of the distance. He knew it all, but he was not thinking of it now.

He was thinking of the day, fifteen years ago, when he had left Kingsborough to throw himself and his future into the service of his State. He had told himself then, fresh from the influence of Jefferson and the traditions of Kingsborough, that he had but one love remaining--the love of Virginia. Now, with the bitterer wisdom of experience, that youthful romance showed half foolish, half pathetic. To the man of twenty-three it had been at once the inspiration and the actuality. His personal life had turned to ashes in an hour, and he had told himself that his public one, at least, should remain vital. He had pledged himself to success, and it came to him now that the cause had been won by his single-heartedness--by the absolute oneness of his desire. There had been a sole divinity before him, and he had not wandered in the way of strange gods. He had given himself, and after fifteen years he was gaining his recompense--a recompense for more work than most men put into a lifetime.

He smiled slightly as he thought of the beginning. In the beginning his sincerity, had been laughed at, his ardour had met rebuff. He had gone to Richmond to meet an assembly of statesmen; he had found a body of well-intentioned, but unprofitable servants. They were men to be led, this he saw; and as soon as his vision was adjusted he had determined within himself to become their leader. The day when a legislator meant a statesman was done with; it meant merely a man like other men, to be juggled with by shrewder politicians or to be tricked by more dishonest ones. They plunged into errors, and lived to retrieve them; they walked blindfold into traps, and with open eyes struggled out again. For he found them honest and he found them faithful where their lights led them. He remembered, with a laugh, a New Englander who, after a fruitless winter spent in scenting the iniquities of the ruling party, had angrily exclaimed that "if politicians were made up of knaves and fools, Mason and Dixon's was the geographical line dividing the species." Nicholas had retorted, "If to be honest means to be a fool, we are fools!" and the New Englander had chuckled homeward.

That was his first winter and he had been nobody. Ah, it was hard work, that beginning. He had had to fight party plans and personal prejudices. He had had to fight the recognised leaders of the legislature, and he had had to fight the men who pulled the strings--the men who stood outside and hoodwinked the consciences of the powers within. He had had to fight, and he had fought well and long.

He recalled the day of his first decisive victory--the day when he had stood alone and the people--the great, free people, the beginning and the end of all democracies--had rallied to his standard. He had won the people on that day, and he had never lost them.

But he was of the party first and last. In his youth he had believed in the divine inspiration of the Jeffersonian principles as he believed in God. On the Democratic leaders he had thought to find the mantle of Apostolic Succession. He had believed as the judge believed--with the passionate credulity of an older political age. Time had tempered, but it had not dissipated, his fiery partisanship. He sat to-day with the honours of a party upon him--honours that a few months would see ratified by a voice nominally the people's. He laughed now as he remembered that Galt had said that in five years Dudley Webb would be the most popular man in the State. "When Senator Withers stops delivering orations, there'll be a call for an orator, and Webb will arise," he had prophesied. "They don't need him now because the senator gets off speeches like hot cakes; but mark my words, the first time Webb is asked to make an address at the unveiling of a Confederate statue, there won't be a man to stand up against him in Virginia. He's a better speaker than Withers--only the public doesn't know it, and there'll be hot times when it finds it out."

The train was slackening for a wayside station. Outside a man was driving a plough across a field where grain had been harvested. Nicholas followed with his eyes the walk of the horses, the purple-brown trail of the plough, the sturdy, independent figure of the driver as he passed, whistling an air. Over the Virginian landscape--the landscape of a country where each ragged inch of ground wears its strange, distinctive charm, where each rotting "worm fence" guards a peculiar beauty for those who know it--lay the warm hush of full-blown summer.

The man at the plough aroused in Nicholas Burr a sudden exhilaration as of physical exertion. It brought back his boyhood which had brightened as he had passed farther from it, and he felt that it would be good on such an afternoon to follow the horses across fields that were odorous of the upturned earth.

The train went on slowly, with the shiftless slouch of Southern trains, the man at the plough vanished, and Nicholas returned to his thoughts.

The years had been almost breathless in their flight. He had put himself to a purpose, and he had lost sight of all things save its fulfilment. The success that men spoke of with astonished eyes--the transformation of the barefooted boy into the triumphant politician, had a firm foundation, he knew, though others did not. It was his capacity for toil that had made him--not his intellect, but his ability to persevere--the power which, in the old days, had successfully carried him through Jerry Pollard's store. As chairman of the Democratic Party, men had called his campaigns brilliant. He alone knew the tedious processes, the infinite patience from which these triumphs had evolved--he alone knew the secret and the security of his success.

The train stopped with a lurch.

"Kingsborough, sir!" said the conductor with a friendly touch upon his arm.

He started abruptly from his reverie, lifted his bag, and left the car. On the platform outside a group of stragglers recognised him, and there was a hearty cheer followed by frantic handshakes. The incident pleased him, and he spoke to each man singly, calling him by name. The sheriff was one of them, and the clerk of the court, and the old negro sexton of the church. There was a fervour in their congratulations which brought the warmth to his eyes. He was glad that the men who had known him in his poverty should rise so cordially to approve his success.

He left the station, walking rapidly to the judge's house. He had frequently returned to Kingsborough, but to-day the changes of the last fifteen years struck him with a sensation of surprise. The wide, white street, half in sunshine, half in shadow, trailed its drowsy length into the open country where the roads were filled with grass and dust. He noticed with a pang that the ivy had been torn from the church and that the glazed brick walls flaunted a nudity that was almost immodest. He had remembered it as a bower of shade--a gigantic bird's nest. He saw that ancient elms were rapidly decaying, and when he reached the judge's garden he found that the syringa and the lilacs had vanished. The garden had faced the destroyer in the plough, and trim vegetables thrived where gaudy blossoms had once rioted.

As he opened the gate he saw old Caesar bending above the mint bed, and he went over to him.

"Dar ain' nuttin better ter jedge er gent'mun by den his mint patch," the old negro was muttering, "an' dis yer one's done w'ar out all dose no 'count flow'rs, des' like de quality done w'ar out de trash. Hi! Marse Nick, dat you?" he shook the proffered hand, his kindly black face wrinkling with hospitality. "Marse George hev got de swelled foot," he said in answer to a question, "an' he ain' tech his julep sence de day befo' yestiddy. Dis yer's fur you," he added, looking at the bunch in his hand.

"You're a trump, Caesar!" exclaimed Nicholas as he ascended the steps and entered the wide hall, through which a light breeze was blowing.

The library door was open and he went in softly, lightening instinctively his heavy tread. The judge was sitting in his great arm-chair, his white head resting against the cushioned back, his bandaged foot on a high footstool.

"Is it you, my boy?" he asked, without turning.

Nicholas crossed the room and gripped the outstretched hand which trembled slightly in the air, the usual rugged composure of his face giving place to frank tenderness.

"I'm sorry to see the gout's troubling you again," he said.

The judge laughed and motioned to a chair beside his desk. His fine dark eyes were as bright as ever, and there was a youthful ring in his voice.

"I'm paying for my pleasures like the rest of us," he responded. "The truth is, Caesar makes me live too high, the rascal--and I go on a bread-and-milk diet once in a while to spite him." Then his tone changed; he pushed aside a slender vase of "safrano" roses which shadowed Nicholas's face and regarded him with genuine delight. "It's good news you bring me," he exclaimed. "I haven't had such news since they told me the Democratic Party had wiped out Mahonism. And it was a surprise. We thought Dudley Webb was too secure for the chances of the 'dark horse.' Well, well, I'm sorry for Dudley, though I'm glad for you. How did you do it?"

Nicholas laughed, but his face was grave. "Ben Galt says I worked up a political 'revival,'" he replied. "He declares my methods were for all the world the counterpart of those employed in a Methodist camp meeting, but he's joking, of course. It was a distinct surprise to me, as you know. I had declined to offer myself as a candidate for the nomination, because I believed Webb to be assured of victory. However, the Crutchfield party proved stronger than we supposed, and they came over to my side. I was the 'dark horse,' as you say."

"It's very good," commented the judge. "Very good."

"Galt is afraid that what he calls 'the political change of heart' won't last," Nicholas went on, "but he knows, as I know, that I am the choice of the people and that, though a few of the leaders may distrust me, the Democratic Party as a body has entire confidence in me. You will understand that, had I doubted that the decision was free and untrammelled, I should not have accepted the nomination."

The judge nodded with a smile. "I know," he said, "and I also know that you were not born to be a politician. You will bear witness to it some day. You should have stuck to law. But have you seen Dudley?"

The younger man's face clouded. When he spoke there was a triumphant zest in his voice. His deeply-set eyes, which had at times a peculiarly opaque quality, were now charged with light. The thick red locks flared above his brow.

"He spoke pleasantly to me after the convention," he answered. "It was a disappointment to him, I know--and I am sorry," he finished in a forced, exclamatory manner, and was silent.

The judge looked at him for a moment before he went on in his even tones.

"His wife was telling me," he said. "She was down here a week or two before the convention. It seems that they are both anxious to return to Richmond to live. She's a fine girl, is Eugie. It was a terrible thing about that brother of hers, and she's never recovered from it. I can't understand how the boy came to commit such a peculiarly stupid forgery."

A flash of bitterness crossed the other's face; his voice was hard.

"He has missed his deserts," he returned harshly.

"Oh, I don't know, poor fellow," murmured the judge, flinching from a twinge of gout and settling his foot more carefully upon the stool. "He has been a fugitive from the State for years and a stranger to his wife and children. There was always something extraordinary in the fact that he escaped after conviction, and I suppose there was a kind of honour in his not breaking his bail. At least, that's the way Eugie seems to regard it--and it is such a pitiful consolation that we might allow her to retain it. She tells me that Bernard's wife has been in destitute circumstances. It's a pity! it's a pity! I had always hoped that Tom Battle's boy would turn out well."

The younger man met his eyes squarely and spoke in an emotionless voice.

"I should like to see him serving his sentence," he said.

An hour later he left the judge's house and walked out to his old home. Since his father's death the place had undergone repairs and improvements. The lawn had been cleared off and sown in grass, the fences had been mended, and the house had been painted white. It could never suggest prosperity, but it had assumed an appearance of comfort.

In the little room next the kitchen he heard his stepmother scolding a small negro servant, and he broke in good-humouredly upon her discourse.

"All right, ma?" he called.

Marthy Burr turned and came towards him. She had aged but little, and her gaunt figure and sharp face still showed the force of her indomitable spirit.

"I declar' if 'tain't you, Nick!" she exclaimed.

He took her in his arms and kissed her perfunctorily, for he was chary of caresses. Then he lifted Nannie's baby from the floor and tossed it lightly.

"Nannie's spending the day," explained his stepmother with an attempt at conversation. "She would name that child Marthy, an' it's the best lookin' one she's got."

The baby, a pink-cheeked atom in a blue gingham frock, made a frantic clutch at the vivid hair of the giant who held her, and set up a tearful disclaimer. Nicholas returned her to the rug, where she attempted to swallow a string of spools, and looked at his stepmother.

"Where's that dress I sent you?" he demanded.

Marthy Burr sat down and smoothed out the creases in her purple calico.

"Laid away in camphor," she replied with a diffidence that was rapidly waning. "Marthy, if you swallow them spools, you won't have anything to play with."

Nicholas looked about the common little room--at the coarse lace curtains, the crude chromos, the distorted vases--and returned to his question.

"You promised me you'd wear it," he went on.

"Wear my best alpaca every day?" she demanded suspiciously. "I wouldn't have it on more'n an hour befo' one of them worthless niggers would have spilt bacon gravy all over it. There ain't been no peace in this house since you sent those no 'count darkies here to help me. If yo' pa was 'live, he'd turn them out bag an' baggage befo' sundown. Lord, Lord, when I think of what yo' poor pa would say if he was to walk in now an' find them creeturs in the kitchen."

Her stepson smiled.

"Now, if you'll sit still a moment, I'll tell you a piece of news," he said.

"You ain't thinkin' of gettin' married, air you?" inquired Marthy Burr with sudden keenness.

"Married!" He laughed aloud. "I've no time for such nonsense. Listen--no, let the baby alone, she isn't choking. If the Powers agree, and the Democratic Party triumphs in November, I shall be Governor of Virginia on the first of January."

His stepmother looked at him in a dazed way, her glance wandering from his face to the baby with the string of spools. There was a pleased light in her eyes, but he saw that she was striving in vain to grasp the full significance of his words.

"Well, well," she said at last. "I al'ays told Amos you wa'nt no fool--but who'd have thought it!"

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