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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Voice Of The People - Book 4. The Man And The Times - Chapter 7
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The Voice Of The People - Book 4. The Man And The Times - Chapter 7 Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2963

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The Voice Of The People - Book 4. The Man And The Times - Chapter 7

BOOK IV. THE MAN AND THE TIMES
CHAPTER VII

The paper was still in his hand when the door behind him opened.

"A lady to see you, suh."

"A lady?" He turned impatiently to find himself facing Eugenia Webb. She had come so swiftly, with a silence so apparitional, that he fell back as from a blow between the eyes. For a moment he doubted her reality, and then the glow in her face, the mist on her furs, the fog of her breath, proclaimed that she had followed closely upon his footsteps. She must have been almost beside him when he hurried through the frost.

"You wish to speak to me?" he asked blankly, as he drew a chair to the hearth rug. "Will you not sit down?"

There was an unfriendly question in his eyes, and she met it boldly with the old dash of impulse.

"They told me that to-morrow would be too late," she said. "I went to Ben Galt's to ask him to come to you in my place, but he is out of town. I found you there instead. It is a matter of life and death to me, so I came."

She sat down in the chair he had drawn up for her, her muff fell to the floor, and he placed it upon the desk where the petition lay unrolled. As he did so he saw the list of names that presented the appeal--judge, jury, prosecuting attorney, all were there.

She followed his gaze and moved slightly towards him. "It can't be true that you--that you will not--" she said.

He was stirring the fire into flame, but as she broke off he turned squarely upon her.

"I have not looked into the case," he answered harshly.

He was standing beside his own hearthstone and he was at ease. There was no awkwardness about him now; his height endowed him with majesty, and in his inflexible face there was no suggestion of heaviness. He looked a man with a sublime self-confidence.

Her colour beat quickly back, warming her eyes.

"Oh, I am so glad," she said. "When you know all you will do as we ask you, because it is right and just. If he did not serve that two years' sentence he has served six years of poverty and sickness. He is a wreck--we should not know him, they say--and he has not seen his wife and children for--"

He raised his hand and stopped her. A rising anger clouded his face, and, as she met his eyes, she slowly whitened.

"And you ask me--me of all men--to show mercy to Bernard Battle? Was there not a governor of Virginia before me?"

She shook her head.

"Oh, it was different then--he did not know, and we did not know, everything. For years we had not heard from him--"

"So my predecessor refused?" he asked.

She bowed her head. "But it is so different now--every one is with us."

He was looking her over grimly in an anger that seemed an emotional reversion to the past--as he felt himself reverting with all his strength to the original savage of the race. The hour for which he had starved sixteen years ago was unfolding for him at last. He gloated over it with a passion that would sicken him when it was done.

"When you came to me," he said slowly, "did you remember--"

She had risen and was standing before him, her hands hidden in the fur upon her bosom. She was pleading now with startled eyes and cold lips--she who had turned from him when the first lie was spoken--she was pleading for the man who had blackened his friend's honour that he might shield his own--she was pleading though she knew his baseness. The very nobility of her posture--the nobility that he had found outwardly in no other woman--hardened the man before her. The cold brow, the fervent mouth, the fearless eyes, the lines with which Time had chastened into womanliness her girlish figure--these had become the expression of an invincible regret. As he faced her the iron of his nature held him as in a vise, for life, which had made him a just man, had not made him a gentle one.

But her spirit had risen to match with his. "He wronged you once," she said; "let it pass--we have all been young and very ignorant; but we do not make our lives, thank God."

He looked at her in silence.

Then, as he stood there, the walls of the room passed from before his eyes, and the gray light from the western window was falling upon the white road beyond the cedars. The vague pasture swept to the far-off horizon where hung the solitary star above the sunset. From the west a light wind blew, and into their faces dead leaves whirled from denuded trees far distant. But surest of all was this--he hated now as he hated then. "As for him--may God, in His mercy, damn him," he had said.

"Because he wronged you do not wrong yourself," she spoke fearlessly, but she fell back with an upward movement of her hands. The man was before her as the memory had been for years--she knew the distorted features, the convulsed, closed mouth, the furrow that cleft the forehead like a scar. She saw the savage as she had seen it once before, and she braved it now as she had braved it then.

"You are hard--as hard as life," she said.

"Life is as we make it," he retorted. He lifted her muff from the desk and she took it from him, turning towards the door. As he followed her into the hall he spoke slowly: "I shall read the papers that relate to the case," he said. "I shall do my duty. You were mistaken if you supposed that your coming to me would influence my decision. Personal appeal rarely avails and is often painful."

He unlatched the outer door and she passed out and descended the steps.

When he returned to the fire he was shivering from the draught let in by the opening doors, and, lifting the fallen poker, he attacked almost fiercely the slumbering coals. The physical shock had not tempered the rage within; he felt it gnawing upon his entrails like a beast of prey. Once only in his life had he found himself so powerless before a devouring passion, and then, as now, he had glutted it with wounded love. Then, as now, he had hated with a terrible desire.

The application lay upon his desk, and he pushed it out of sight. He could not read it now--he wondered if the time would ever come when he could read it. The thought smote him with the lash of fear--the fear of himself. He who an hour ago had held his assurance to be beyond assault was now watching for the death of his hate as he might have watched for the death of a wolf whose fangs he had felt.

Lifting his head, he could see through the curtained window the chill slopes of the square and the circular drive beneath the great bronze Washington. Beyond the distant gates rose the church spires of the city, suffused with the pink flush of sunset. The atmosphere glowed like a blush upon the perspective, which was shading through variations of violet remoteness. All was frozen save the winter sunset and the advancing twilight.

He turned from the window and faced the painting of the Confederate soldier. For a moment he regarded it blankly, then, pushing aside Eugenia's chair he threw himself into one across from it. He was thinking of Bernard Battle, and he remembered suddenly that he must have hated him always--that he had hated him long ago in his childhood when the weak-faced boy had headed a school faction against him. True, Dudley Webb had incited the attempt at social ostracism, but he bore no resentment against Dudley--on the contrary, he was convinced that he liked him in spite of all--in spite, even, of Eugenia. With the inflexible fairness that he never lost, he knew that, with Eugenia, Dudley had not wronged him. It had been a fight in open field, and Dudley had won. He had even liked the vigour of his wooing, and some years later, when they had met, he had given the victor a hearty handshake. He distrusted him as a politician, but he liked him as a man.

And Bernard Battle. That was an honest hate, and he hugged it to him. Before him still, so vivid that it seemed but yesterday, hovered the memory of that wild evening in the road, and the unforgotten sunset faced him as he hurried through the wood. In the acuteness of his remembered senses he could hear the dead leaves rustle in his pathway and could smell the vague scents of autumn drifting on the wind. Through all the years of public life and passionate endeavour he had not lost one colour of the painted clouds or missed one note from the sharp tangle of autumn odours. To this day the going down of the sun in red and gold awoke within him the impulse of revenge, and the effluvium of rotting flowers or the tang of pines revived the duller ache of his senseless rage.

On that evening he had buried his youth with his youthful passion. The hours between the twilight and the dawn had seen his emotions consumed and his softer side laid waste. Since then he had not played saint or martyr; he had gone his way among women, and he had liked some good ones and some bad ones--but the turn of Eugenia's head or the trick of her voice had haunted him in one and all. He had followed the resemblance and had found the vacancy; he had been from first to last a man of one ideal. His nature had broadened, hardened, rung metallic to the senses; but it had not yielded to the shock of fresh emotions. He had loved one woman from her childhood up.

And again she rose before him as in that Indian summer when he knew her best--her beauty flaming against the autumn landscape, "clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners." He saw her red or pale, quivering or cold, always passing from him in a splendour of colours that was like the clash of music.

That was sixteen years ago and it seemed but yesterday. He had lost her, and yet he had not been unhappy, for he had learned that it is not gain that makes happiness nor loss that kills it. Life had long since taught him the lesson all great men learn--that happiness is but one result of the adjustment of the individual needs to the Eternal Laws. A man had once said of him, "Burr must think a lot of life; he bears it so blamed well. He's the happiest man I know," and Burr, overhearing him, had laughed aloud:

"Am I? I have never thought about it."

He did not think about life, he lived it; this was the beginning and the end of his success.

The face of Eugenia faded slowly into the firelight, and he rose and shook himself like a man who awakes from a nightmare. There was work for him at his desk, and he settled to it with sudden determination.

A week later the papers were still in his desk. He told himself at first that he would send them to Kingsborough to Judge Bassett and abide by his decision; but the course struck him as cowardly and he put it from him. The work was his and he would do it. Then for a week longer he went on his way and did not think of them. His days were filled with work and it was easy to leave disturbing thoughts alone; what was not easy was to consider them judicially.

At last Galt spoke of the matter, and he could not refuse to listen.

"By the way, I am hearing a good deal about that Battle pardon," Galt said. "You are looking into the matter, I suppose?"

The other shook his head.

"I have not done so as yet," he answered. "I am waiting."

"Don't wait too long or the poor devil may apply higher. He's ill, I believe, and if he insists on returning to the State, as they say he will, the law can't help but arrest him. It's a sad case. So far as I can see he was a catspaw for the real criminal and didn't have sense enough to hold on to a share of the money after he sold himself. His sister has been to see you, hasn't she? She's a superb woman, and it was a good day for Dudley Webb when he married her."

He looked up inquiringly.

"Ah, what were you saying?" asked the governor.

That night he locked himself in with the papers and plunged into the case. He read and reread each written word until he was in possession of the minutest detail. In another instance he knew that the reasons for granting the pardon would have seemed sufficient, and he would probably have had it made out at once. As it was, he admitted the force of the appeal, but something stronger than himself held him back. Above the name before him he saw the girlish face of the man he hated--saw it accusing, defying, beseeching--and beyond it he saw the gray road and the solitary star above the sunset. In the silence his own voice echoed, "As for him--may God, in His mercy, damn him."

He locked the papers away again. "I cannot do it," he said.

Several days later he sent for a member of the legislature from the town where the crime was committed. He questioned him closely, but without result--the people up there were tired of it, the man said--at first they had been wrought up, but six years is a long time, and they didn't care much about it now. As the governor closed the interview he realised that he had hoped a bitter hope that his revenge might be justified. When the door had shut, he went back to the case again, and again he left it. "It ought to be done, but, God help me, I cannot do it," he said.

The next morning, while he was at work in his office in the Capitol, his secretary came in to tell him that Miss Christina Battle was in the anteroom. He rose hurriedly. "I will see her at once," he said, and he opened the door as Miss Chris came in, panting softly from her ascent in the elevator.

She had changed so little that he took her hand in sudden timidity, recalling the days when he had sold her chickens before her hen-house door. But when he had settled her in one of the cane rocking-chairs beside the stove, his confidence returned and he responded heartily to her beneficent beam. Her florid face, shining large and luminous above the stiff black strings of her bonnet, reminded him of illustrations he had seen in which the sun is endowed with human features and an enveloping smile.

"This is the greatest honour my office has brought me," he said with sincerity.

She laughed softly, smoothing her black kid glove above her plump wrist.

"I don't know what they mean by saying you aren't a lady's man, Governor Burr," she returned. "I am sure old Judge Blitherstone himself never turned a prettier compliment, and he lived to be upwards of ninety and did them better every day of his life. They used to say that when Mrs. Peachy Tucker dropped in to see him as he was breathing his last, and told him to look forward to the joys of heaven and the communion of saints, he replied, 'Madam, if you remain with me I shall merely pass from one heaven to another,' and they were his last words."

The governor smiled into her beautiful, girlish eyes. "Men have spoken worse ones," he said, her kindliness warming him like a cordial.

"It was good of you to come," he added.

"Not a bit of it," protested Miss Chris with emphasis. "It's all about that poor, foolish boy--he's still a boy to me, and so are you for that matter. You know how wicked he has been and how miserable he has made us all, for you can't stop loving people just because they are bad. Now you are a good man, Governor Burr, and that's why I came to you. You'll do right if it kills you, and whatever you do in this matter is going to be the right thing. You can't help being good any more than he can help being bad, and I hope the Lord understands this as well as I do--I don't know, I'm sure--sometimes it looks as if He didn't; but we'd just as well trust Him, because there's nothing else for us to do.

"Now the foolish boy wronged you more than he wronged us; but you'll forgive him as we forgave him, when you know what he's suffered. It's better to be sinned against than to sin, God knows."

Her eyes were moist and her lips trembled. The governor crossed to where she sat and took her hand.

"Dear Miss Chris," he said, "women like you make men heroes." And he added quickly, "The pardon is being made out. When it is ready I will sign it."

She looked at him an instant in silence; then she rose heavily to her feet, leaning upon his arm. "You're a great man, Nick Burr," she said softly.

An hour later Nicholas Burr looked calmly down upon his signature that meant freedom for Bernard Battle. He had won the victory of his life, and he was feeling with a glow of self-appreciation that he had done a generous thing.

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BOOK IV. THE MAN AND THE TIMES CHAPTER VIIt was one o'clock when the governor left Galt's house, and turning into Grace Street strolled leisurely in the direction of the Capitol Square. The night was sharp with frost and a rising wind drove the shadows on the pavement against darkened house-fronts, while behind a far-off church spire, a wizened moon shivered through a thin cloud. On the silence came the sound of fire bells ringing in the distance. The bronze Washington in the deserted square shone silver beneath the moonlight, and down the frozen slopes the trees stretched out stiffened limbs.
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