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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Voice Of The People - Book 5. The Hour And The Man - Chapter 2
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The Voice Of The People - Book 5. The Hour And The Man - Chapter 2 Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2712

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The Voice Of The People - Book 5. The Hour And The Man - Chapter 2

BOOK V. THE HOUR AND THE MAN
CHAPTER II

One afternoon in early May, Dudley Webb came out upon his front steps and paused to light a cigar before descending to the street. A spring of happy promise was unfolding, for overhead the poplars bloomed against an enchanted sky. In the shadow of the church across the way, children were romping, their ecstatic trebles floating like bird-song on the air.

With the cigar between his teeth, Dudley heaved a sudden reminiscent sigh--the sigh of a man who possesses an excellent digestion and a complacent conscience. Things had gone well with him of late--the fact that a trivial domestic interest darkened for the moment his serene horizon proved it to be the solitary cloud of a clear day. The cloud in question had gathered in the shape of no less a person than Mrs. Jane Dudley Webb. She had been on a visit to Richmond, and he had seen her only two hours before safely started on her homeward journey. The truth was that Mrs. Webb and Eugenia had asserted for the past two days an implacable hostility, and Dudley's genial efforts at pacification had resulted merely in diverting a share of the unpleasantness upon his own head. It was a lamentable fact that Eugenia, who was amiable to the point of weakness where members of the Battle family were concerned, found it impossible to harmonise with the elder Mrs. Webb. They had disagreed upon such important subjects as Miss Chris's housekeeping and Dudley's moral welfare, until Eugenia, after an inglorious defeat, had relapsed into silence--a silence broken only upon Dudley's return from the station, when she had unbosomed herself of the declaration that she "couldn't stand his mother, and it was as much as she could do to stand him." Dudley had met this alarming outburst with its logical retort, "Hadn't you better see a doctor, Eugie?" whereupon Eugenia had protested that "if she wasn't fit for an asylum, he needn't thank Mrs. Webb," and had dissolved in tears.

At the moment Dudley had experienced a warm recognition of his generosity in refraining from the use of his own endurance of many Battles, as an illustration of the opposite and virtuous course; but upon later reflection he frankly admitted that the cases were by no means similar. It had not occurred to him, he recalled, to deny that Mrs. Webb was singularly trying, though he wondered, half resentfully, why Eugenia could not be brought to regard that lady's foibles from his own gently humorous point of view. He was not in the least disconcerted by his mother's solicitude as to the condition of his soul, or by the fact that she still felt constrained to allude to the governor of the State as "a person of low antecedents." Personally, he was inclined to admire--and frankly to admit it--the ability which had brought Burr into prominence from a position of evident obscurity, while he regarded Mrs. Webb's eccentric attitude as a kind of antedated comedy. What he objected to was his wife's inability to grasp the keynote of the situation.

It was pleasant to reflect, however, as he leisurely descended the steps, that he had brought Eugenia round by less heroic measures than an assault upon her family altars. He was glad to think that he had given her a cup of tea instead.

Crossing slowly to Franklin Street, he hesitated an instant on the corner, and turned finally in the direction of his office. There was a nearer way down town, but he always chose this one because experience had taught him that if pretty women were abroad here they would be found. With the same instinct of enjoyment he might have gone out of his way daily to pass the window of a florist.

As he walked on in the spring sunshine he held his handsome head erect, blowing the smoke of his cigar in the scented air. He moved leisurely, finding life too good to be wasted in rushing. The soft atmosphere; the fragrance of his fine cigar; the beauty of the women he passed--these sufficed to bring the glow of animation to his smooth, full face.

Once he stopped to shake hands with pretty Emma Carr, detaining her by a jest and a laugh--and again he paused to exchange a word with Juliet Galt, who was at her window. It was only when he turned into the business street again that he brought his mind to bear upon less engaging subjects.

Then it was that he remembered he had delivered the evening before his most successful oration. He had spoken to a large audience upon "Personal Morality in Politics," and he had received an appreciation that was prolonged and thundering. When it was over some one had called him a "greater orator than Withers," to add quickly, "and a better Democrat than Burr." He could still see the whimsical smile Burr had turned upon the speaker, and he could still feel his own sense of elation.

Well, as for that matter, he was a better Democrat than Burr--if to be a better Democrat meant to place the party will above his personal opinion. After all, what was a party for if not to unite individual effort and to combine individual differences? If organisation was not worth the sacrifice of personal prejudices it might as well dissolve before the next election day. It was, of course, a pity that a man like Burr should dissent from the views of important politicians, but one might as well talk of a ship without officers as of a party without organised leaders. It was a pity from Burr's point of view, he was willing to admit, but so long as Burr would make trouble it was just as well that the ill wind should blow his own side good--he was honestly glad that it had blown Rann's influence in his direction. He had never felt more hopeful of anything in his life than he now felt of the senatorship. Indeed, he was inclined to think that he might have something very like a "walk over."

"Hold on, Webb," a voice called behind him, and a moment later he was joined by Diggs, who congratulated him upon his speech of the evening before. Webb tossed back the congratulations with a laugh. "Yes, it's a popular subject just now," he said. "Since the negroes have stopped voting in large numbers we're even going in for honest elections."

"Well, I reckon it's as well," admitted Diggs. "We used to have some rampant rascality under the old system, I dare say; it took clever trickery to bring in the white rule sometimes. We have a large negro majority down my way, that obliged us to devise original methods of disposing of it. It was fighting the devil with fire, I suppose; but self-preservation was a law long before Universal Suffrage was heard of. At any rate, I had my hand in it now and then. Once, I remember, on an election day when every darkey in the neighbourhood had turned out to vote, I hit on the idea that the man who was to carry the returns across the river should pretend to get drunk and upset the boat. It was a pretty scheme and would have worked all right, but, will you believe it, the blamed fool got drunk in earnest, and when the boat upset he was caught under it and drowned." He paused an instant and complacently added: "But we lost those returns, all the same."

Webb threw his cigar stump in the gutter and turned to Diggs with a laugh. "That reminds me," he began, and started a story which he finished on his office steps.

When he went home some hours later he found that Eugenia had regained her high good-humour. She was sitting before the fire in her bedroom, her hair flowing in the hands of Delphy, who had moved up from Kingsborough, and was doing a thriving trade as a shampooer. It was her fortnightly custom to pass from head to head in a round of the Kingsborough colony, promoting an intimate trend of gossip among her patrons.

As Dudley entered, she was seeking to induce Eugenia to consent to an application from one of the many bottles she carried in an ancient travelling bag, which had long since descended to her from General Battle.

"Lawd, Miss Euginny, dis yer ain' gwineter hu't you. Hit ain' nuttin but ker'sene oil nohow. Miss Sally Burwell des let me souse her haid in it de udder day. Hit'll keep you f'om gittin' gray, sho's I live."

"You shan't touch me with it, Delphy. And you ought to be ashamed--I haven't a gray hair. Have I, Dudley?"

Delphy returned the bottle with a sigh, and applied herself to a vigorous brushing of Eugenia's hair.

"You sho is filled out sence I see you, Marse Dudley," she observed at last.

"Yes, I'm getting fat, Delphy," returned Dudley with a laugh. "It's old age, you know. It's a long time since the days when you spanked me with a heavy hand."

"Go 'way f'om yer, Marse Dudley; you know I ain' never spank you none ter hu't. En you ain' er bit too fat ter fit yo' skin, nohow."

Dudley regarded her with a kindly, patriarchal eye as he straightened himself against the mantel. "Any news from down your way, Delphy?" he inquired with interest. "What's become of Moses? Moses was always a friend of mine. He used to bring me a pocketful of peanuts from every picking he went to."

Delphy shook her head, her huge lips tightening. "He's down wid de purple headache," she replied gloomily, "twel he can't smell de diff'ence between er 'possum en er polecat. Yes, suh, Mose he's moughty low down, en' ter dis yer day he ain' never got over Marse Nick Burr's ous'in' you en Miss Euginny outer de cheer you all oughter had down yonder at de cap'tol. I ain' got much use fer Marse Nick myse'f. He's monst'ous hard on po' folks. I ain' been able to rent out mo'n oner my rooms sence he's been down dar. Dat's right, Miss Euginny, yo' hyar's des es dry es I kin git it."

When Delphy had gone, Dudley leaned down and put his arm about Eugenia as he kissed her. "All right, Eugie?" he asked cheerfully. Eugenia returned his caress with a startled pleasure, looking up at him affectionately, fascinated by the glow which hung about him.

"Oh, I really don't think I could do without you, Dudley," she said quickly.

"Well, it's a good thing you don't have to," responded Dudley as he kissed her again.

It was several days after this that Eugenia came to him one evening as he stood before the fire and laid her cool cheek against his arm.

"Oh, Dudley," she said breathlessly, "I am so happy--so absurdly happy."

She raised her head and Dudley, looking at her in the firelight, found her more beautiful than she had been even in the radiant days of her girlhood. He had seen that high resolve in her face but once before, and he grasped the meaning now as then--it was the dawn of motherhood that enveloped her. She had heard the call of the generations in the end--the appeal of the race that moved her nature more profoundly than did the erratic ardours of the individual. There was a clear light in her eyes, and her features had taken an almost marble-like nobility. The look in her face reminded him of moments in the old days at Battle Hall, when she had wrapped the wandering general in a tenderness that was maternal. With a sudden penetrant insight into her heart, he realised that her natural emotions were her nobler ones--that as child and mother the greatness of her nature assumed its visible form. He drew her closer, the best in him responding to the mystery he beheld dimly in her eyes. For ten years they had not touched natures so nearly; it was the vital breath needed to vivify a union which was not rooted in the permanence of an enduring passion.

And as the months went on the wonder deepened in Eugenia's eyes. The old restlessness was gone; she was like one who, having looked into the holy of holies, keeps the inward memory clear. She was in the supreme mental state--attained only by religious martyrs or maternal, yet childless, women long married--when physical pain loses its relative values before the exaltation of an abiding vision. And, above all, she was what each woman of her race had been before her--a mother from her birth?

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