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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesOne Man In His Time - Chapter 24. The Victory Of Gideon Vetch
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One Man In His Time - Chapter 24. The Victory Of Gideon Vetch Post by :ozzieoscar Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :3016

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One Man In His Time - Chapter 24. The Victory Of Gideon Vetch

CHAPTER XXIV. THE VICTORY OF GIDEON VETCH

That evening, when Corinna got out of her car before the Governor's house, Stephen Culpeper opened the door, and came down the steps.

"I waited for you," he said; and then as the car moved away, he took her hand and turned back to the porch.

"I couldn't come before," explained Corinna. "I had a headache all day, and it kept me in bed. Have you seen Patty?"

"I have seen her, but that is all. I can do nothing with her."

"But she cares for you."

"She doesn't deny it. That's not the trouble. Something about Vetch stands in the way. I can't make out what she means."

"Let me talk to her," responded Corinna reassuringly. "Is the Governor here?"

"No, he has gone to the strikers' meeting. They must reach some decision to-night it appears. I have talked with him, and I believe he will stand firm whatever happens. It means, I think, that his career is over."

"It is too late for him to win over the conservative forces?"

"It was always too late. In a battle of extremes the most dangerous position is in the centre."

"He told me something like that once. The trouble with him is that he hasn't a point of view, but a vision. He sees the whole, and politics is only a little part of it."

"Yes, he sees a human fight, while they are trying to make a political squabble. He may win them over to-night, but this is only the beginning. The real fight is against individual self-interest." He laughed in an undertone. "I remember he told me once that the only trouble with Christianity was the Christians. 'You can't have Christianity', he said, 'until Christians are different'. That's just as true, of course, of politics. The only trouble with politics is the politicians."

"Well, it's a muddle," she responded impatiently. "However you look at it. Come back in an hour or two, and I may be able to help you." Her cheerful smile shone on him for an instant; then she entered the house and closed the door after her.

In one of the worn leather chairs in the library, Patty was sitting perfectly still, with her eyes fixed on the orderly row of papers on the Governor's desk. She wore a white dress with a black ribbon at her waist, and in the dim light, with her pale face and her cloudy hair, she had a ghostly look as if she would turn to mist at a touch. When Corinna entered, she rose and held out her hands. "You are so good," she said. "I never dreamed that any body could be so good and so beautiful too!"

"My dear," began Corinna brightly, and while she spoke she drew the girl to the leather-covered couch by the window, and sat down still holding the cold hands in her warm ones. "So you are going to marry Stephen."

"I can't," replied Patty, and she turned her face slightly away as if she shrank from meeting Corinna's eyes. "I can't after what I know. I can't do it because of Father."

"Because of your father?" repeated Corinna. "But surely your father wishes you to be happy?"

"Oh, I know he does. It isn't that. But this will all come out. That is what Julius Gershom meant when he threatened. They are trying to do him some harm--Father, I mean--"

"I understand that, but still how in the world--"

Before she could finish her sentence Patty interrupted in an hysterical voice--the voice of youth that is always dramatic: "Nobody will ever mean as much to me as Father does," she cried. "I know that now. I've known it ever since I found out that he began it just out of kindness--that I had no claim on him of any kind--"

"That is natural, dear, but still I don't understand."

Rising from the couch, Patty moved to a chair in front of Corinna, and sinking into it, began nervously plaiting and unplaiting a fold of her white dress. "I can do anything with Julius Gershom if I am nice to him," she murmured. "If he stands by Father most of the others will also."

With a gasp Corinna sat up very straight and tried to see Patty's eyes in the obscurity. What sordid horror was the child facing now? What unspeakable degradation? "You can't think of marrying Gershom, Patty!" she exclaimed, with a gesture of loathing. "You must be out of your mind even to dream of it!"

"I can make him do anything I want if I will promise to marry him," she answered in a steady voice, though a shiver of aversion passed over her.

Corinna drew her breath sharply, restraining at the same time an impulse to laugh. Oh, the mock heroics of youth! Of youth with its fantastic heroism and its dauntless inexperience! "If you only knew," she breathed indignantly, "if you only knew what marriage means!"

Patty turned and gave her a long look. "I could do more than that for Father," she answered.

So this was the other side of Gideon Vetch--of that man of ignoble circumstances and infinite magnanimity! How could any one understand him? How, above all, could any one judge him? How could one fathom his power for good or for evil? She beheld him suddenly as a man who was inspired by an exalted illusion--the illusion of human perfectibility. In the changing world about her, the breaking up and the renewing, the dissolution and readjustment of ideals; in the modern conflict between the spirit that accepts and the spirit that rejects; in this age of destiny--was not an unconquerable optimism, an invincible belief in life, the one secure hope for the future? It is the human touch that creates hope, she thought; and the power of Gideon Vetch was revealed to her as simply the human touch magnified into a force.

She became aware after a minute that Patty was speaking. "I can never tell you--I can never tell any one what he used to be to me when I was a little girl, and he was very poor. Sometimes--for a long time--I couldn't have a nurse, and he would dress and undress me, and leave me with the neighbours when he went away to work. I can see him now heating milk for me over an old oil lamp. Once when I was ill he sat up night after night with me. Oh, I don't mean that he was perfect, but that he was kind--always. I know the quarrels he had--that he has still with the people who won't go his way. The one thing he can't forgive in people is that they never forget themselves, that they never think of anything except what they want. That angers him, and he flies out. I know that. But there's no use trying I can't make anybody, I can't make even you, know all that he did for me--" The words ended in tears; and she sat there, lost in memory, while the dim light seemed to absorb her white dress and her pale features and the small hand that lay on the fringe of her black sash.

"My dear, my dear," murmured Corinna because she could think of no words that sounded less ineffectual.

There was a ring at the doorbell while she spoke and after a pause which appeared to her interminable, she heard the shuffling tread of old Abijah, and then the clear tone of Stephen's voice, followed immediately by another speaker who sounded vaguely familiar, though she could not recall now where she had listened to him before. It was not Julius Gershom, she knew, though it might be some man that she had heard at a meeting.

"Let me speak to Mrs. Page first," said Stephen. "Ask her if she will come into the drawing-room."

For an instant Corinna hung back, with the chill of dread at her heart; and in that instant Patty flew past her like a startled spirit, while the ends of her black sash streamed behind her. With the penetrating insight of love the girl had surmised, had seen, had understood, before a word of explanation had reached her, before even the door had swung open, and she had met the blanched faces of the men in the hall. "It is Father," she said quietly. "They have hurt him. Oh, I knew all the time that they were going to hurt him!"

Corinna, standing close at her side without touching her, for some intuition told her that the girl did not wish any support, was aware of the faces of these men, flickering slowly, like glimmering ashen lights, out of the shadows in the hall--first Stephen's face, with its shocked compassionate eyes; then the face of old Darrow, rock-hewn, relentless; then the face of her father, which even tragedy could not startle out of its ceremonious reserve; and beyond these familiar faces, it seemed to her that the collective face of the crowd gazed back at her with an expression which was one neither of surprise nor terror, but of the stony fortitude of the ages. Beyond this there was the open door and the glamour of the spring night, and in the night another group with its dark burden.

"I met them just outside, and they told me," said Stephen. "Gershom thinks it was an accident, but we shall never know probably. Two opposing sides were fighting it out. A question had come up--nobody can remember what it was--nothing important, I think--but two men came to blows and he got in between them--he stood in the way--and somebody shot him--"

He was talking, Corinna realized, in an effort to hold Patty's gaze, to divert her eyes by the force of his look from the burden which the men were bringing slowly up the steps outside and into the hall.

"Nobody meant to harm him," said Gershom suddenly, speaking from the edge of the group. "The pistol went off by mistake. He got in the way before any one saw him--" But from his look, Corinna knew that it was not an accident, that they had shot him because he came between them and the thing that they wanted.

The slow steps crossed the hall into the library, and above the measured beat and pause of the sound, Corinna heard the voice of Vetch as distinctly as if he were standing there before her in the centre of the group. "The loneliest man on earth is the one who stands between two extremes." Yes, at the end as well as at the beginning, he had stood between two extremes! Then Patty's cry of anguish floated to her from the room across the hall into which they had taken him. "Father! Father!" Only that one word over and over again. "Father! Father!" Only that one word uttered steadily and softly in a tone of imploring helplessness like the wail of a frightened child. It never ceased, this piteous sobbing, until at last the doctor went out, and left Corinna alone with the girl and Gideon Vetch. Then Patty fell on her knees beside the couch where he lay, and a silence that was almost suffocating closed over the room.

The house had become very still. While Corinna waited there at Patty's side, the only noise came from the restless movement of the city, which sounded far off and vaguely ominous, like the disturbance in a nightmare from which one has just awakened. She had turned off the unshaded electric light; and for a few minutes Patty knelt alone in a merciful dimness, which left her white dress and the composed features of the dead man the only luminous spots in the room. It was as if these two pallid spaces were living things in the midst of inanimate darkness. For a moment only this impression lasted, for overcome by the pathos of it, Corinna crossed the room with noiseless footsteps and lighted the wax candles on the mantelpiece.

Death had come so suddenly that, lying there in the trembling light of the candles, Vetch appeared to be merely resting a moment in his energetic career. His rugged features still wore their look of exuberant vitality, of triumphant faith. There was about him even in death the radiance of his indestructible illusion. As Corinna looked down on him, it seemed incredible to her that he should not stretch himself in a moment, and rise and go out again into the struggle of living. It seemed incredible that his work should be finished for ever when he was still so unspent, so full of tireless activity. Was death always like this--a victory of material and mechanical forces? An accident, an automatic gesture, and the complex power which stood for the soul of Gideon Vetch was dissolved--or released. The crumbling of a rock, the falling of a leaf! Her eyes left the face of the dead man, left Patty's bowed head at her side, and travelled beyond the open window into the glamour and mystery of the night, and beyond the night into the sky--

There was a knock at the door, and she turned away and went out to join the men in the hall. What had it meant to them, she wondered. How much had they understood? How much had they ever understood of that symbol of a changing world which they had loved and hated under the name of Gideon Vetch?

"Give her a few minutes more," she said. "Leave her alone with him."

There were four men waiting--her father, Stephen, old Darrow, and Julius Gershom--and these four, she felt, were the men who had known Vetch best, and who, with the exception of Darrow, had perhaps understood least what he meant. No one had understood him, least of all, she saw now, had she herself understood him--

Gershom spoke first. "He was the biggest man we've ever had," he said, "and we never doubted it--" Yet he had never for an instant, Corinna knew, seen Vetch as he really was, or recognized the end for which he was fighting.

"He was the only one who could have held us together," sighed old Darrow, and his face looked as if a searing iron had passed over it. "This will put us back at least fifty years--"

The Judge was gazing through the open door out into the night, where lamps shone in the Square and a luminous cloud hung over the city, that city which was outgrowing its youth, outgrowing the barriers of tradition, outgrowing alike the forces of reaction and the forces of progress.

"A few months," he said slowly, "and nothing accomplished that one can point out and say that we owe directly to him. Yet I doubt if a single one of us will ever forget him. I doubt if a single one of us will ever be exactly, in every little way, just what we should have been if we had never known Vetch, or spoken to him. The merest ripple of change, perhaps, but it counts--it counts because in touching him we touched a humanity that is as rare as genius itself." Yet they had killed him, Corinna knew, because they could not understand him!

For a moment there was silence, and then Stephen spoke in a whisper: "There are some things that you can't see until you stand far enough away from them. I doubt if any of us really saw him until to-night. To-morrow he will begin to live." As he lifted his eyes to Corinna's face, she saw in them a fidelity that pledged itself to the future.

"Go to Patty," she whispered. "Go to her and repeat what you have said to us." Putting her hand on his arm, she led him into the room where the girl was kneeling, and then drew back while he went quickly forward. Watching from the threshold, she saw Patty look up uncertainly, and rise slowly from the floor where she had been kneeling; she saw Stephen put out his arms with a movement of love and pity; and she saw the girl hesitate for an instant, and then turn to his clasp as a hurt child turns for comfort. That was youth, that was the future, thought Corinna, and closing the door softly, she left them together. Yes, youth was for the future, and for herself, _she realized with a pang, were the things that she had never had in the past. Only the things that she had never had were really hers! Only the unfulfilled, she saw in that moment of illuminating insight, is the permanent.

Passing the group in the hall, she went out on the porch, and looked with swimming eyes over the fountain into the Square. Beyond the white streams of electricity and the black patterns of the shadows, she saw the sharp outlines of the city, and beyond that the immense blue field of the sky sown thickly with stars. Life was there--life that embraced success and failure, illusion and disillusion, birth and death. In the morning she would go back to it--she would begin again--in the morning she would will herself to pick up the threads of middle age as lightly as Stephen and Patty would pick up the threads of youth. To-morrow she would start living again--but to-night for a few hours she would rest from life; she would look back now, as she had looked back that morning, to where a man was standing in the bright grass with the sunrise above his head.


(THE END)
Ellen Glasgow's Novel: One Man in His Time

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