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- Elder Conklin and Other Stories - 30/33 -
"He'll get well soon, I reckon; but after taking a perscription from Gulmore, he's mighty bad and can't leave the house."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Hutchings has withdrawn his candidature as Mayor. I mean that the 'Herald' has the announcin' of it. I mean it's a put-up job between him and Gulmore to ruin the Democratic party in this town. I mean--"
As the Professor drew back in amazement, young Cartrell stepped in front of him and addressed Simpson:
"What proof have you of what you say?"
"Proof! Proof enough. Does an honest man resign a candidature on the morning of an election, and give the other side the news before his own party?"
The interruption had given Roberts time for reflection. He felt that Simpson's facts must be right. It was characteristic of him that his first thought was, Had Hutchings withdrawn in order to save him from further attacks? No. If he had he'd have told him before the event. A sort of nausea overpowered him as he remembered that Hutchings had related how Gulmore had bought Patrick Byrne--and now he, too, had sold himself. As in a flash Hutchings' weakness of fibre was laid bare to him. "That's the reason I couldn't find him yesterday." His heart sank within him. "How could Hutchings have been so--?" With the belief in the lawyer's guilt came the understanding that he too was concerned, suspected even. Disgust of traitorism, conscious innocence impelled him to clear himself--but how? To his surprise he found that companionship with these men had given him some insight into their character. He put the question to Simpson:
"Can anything be done now?"
The steadiness of the tone, the resolve in his face, excited a certain curiosity. Shrugging his shoulders, Simpson replied:
"We've not got a candidate. It's too late to get the party together. New tickets'd have to be printed. I--"
"Will you accept the candidature?" Reading the man at once, Roberts turned to the others: "Gentlemen, I hope some one will second me; I nominate Mr. Simpson as Mayor, and propose that his name should be substituted for that of Mr. Hutchings. To show that I'm in earnest I'll contribute five hundred dollars towards the expense of printing the tickets."
The Professor's offer of money seemed to exercise a magical influence upon the crowd; the loud tones, the provocative rudeness of speech and bearing, disappeared at once; the men began to show him the respect of attention, and Mr. Simpson was even quicker than the rest in changing his attitude--perhaps because he hoped to gain more than they did.
"I had no idee," he began, "but if the Committee thinks I oughter run I've no objection. I hain't ever cared for office, but I'm a party-man, an' what the party wants me to do I'll do every time. I'm a Democrat right through. I guess Lawyer Hutchin's has gone back on us, but that's not your fault, Professor, and five hundred dollars--an' your work will do a pile. The folk all like you an'--respect you an'--"
Roberts looked at the man; his offer had been a movement of indignant contempt, and yet it had succeeded. He could have laughed; the key to the enigma was in his hands; these men answered to the motive of self- interest as a ship answers to the helm, and yet--how revolting it all was! The next moment he again banished reflection.
"I'll go and get the money, and return as soon as possible. In the meantime, perhaps you, Mr. Simpson, will see that the printing is begun without delay. Then if you'll tell us what polling-stations need superintendence, my friends and I will do our best."
The appeal found an immediate response--in a few minutes order and energetic work had taken the place of the former angry excitement and recrimination.
To Professor Roberts the remainder of the day was one whirl of restless labour; he hastened from one polling-station to another, and when the round was completed drove to the Central Rooms, where questions had to be answered, and new arrangements made without time for thought. Then he was off again on his hurried round as canvasser. One incident, however, made a definite impression upon him. Returning for the second or third time to the Central Rooms he found himself in a crowd of Irish labourers who had come in deference to priestly bidding to record their votes. Mr. Hutchings' retirement had excited their native suspiciousness; they felt that they had been betrayed, and yet the peremptory orders they had received must be followed. The satisfaction of revolt being denied to them, their anger became dangerous. Professor Roberts faced them quietly; he soon saw that they were sincere, or were playing the part of sincerity; he therefore spoke for the cause, for the party to which they belonged; surely they wouldn't abandon the struggle because a leader had deserted them! His words and manner; his appeal to their combativeness; his earnestness and good temper were successful. The storm of invective gradually subsided, and although one or two, for the sake of a row, sought to insult him, they did not go to extremes in face of the resolute disapprobation of the American party-leaders. Loyalty to their shibboleth was beginning to draw them, still grumbling and making use of expressive imprecations, on the way to the nearest polling-station, when one of their leaders drew Professor Roberts aside, and asked him:
"Are the bhoys to have nothin' for their throuble? Half a day they'll lose, so they will--a dollar each now would be no more than fair--"
The Professor shook his head; he was not rich, he said, and had already spent more money in the contest than he could afford.
"Be gob, it's poor worruk this talkin' an' votin' for us that gets nothin' by it"--the phrase stuck in his memory as illustrating the paltry baseness of the whole affair. It was with a sense of relief that he threw himself again into the turmoil that served to deaden thought. As the day wore towards evening he became conscious of fatigue, a weariness that was not of the body alone, but of the head and heart. After the closing of the polls he returned to the Central Rooms. They were filled with an enthusiastic crowd, most of whom professed to believe that the Democratic party had won all along the line. Roberts found it hard to bear their self-gratulation and the exuberance of their triumph, but when Simpson began to take the liberties of comradeship with him, the cup ran over. He cut the man short with a formally polite phrase, and betook himself to his house. He would not think even of May; her image brought him face to face with her father; and he wanted rest.
In the morning the Professor awoke with a feeling of utter depression. Before he opened the paper he was sure that his hopelessness had been justified. He was right--Gulmore had carried his whole ticket, and Simpson had been beaten by a majority of more than a thousand. The Democratic organ did not scruple to ascribe the defeat to the fact that Lawyer Hutchings had sold his party. The simulated indignation of the journalist found expression in phrases which caricatured the simplicity of sincere condemnation. "Never did shameless corruption...." Roberts could not read the stuff. Yet the feigned passion and tawdry rhetoric in some way stirred up his bile; he would see Hutchings and--but if he unpacked his heart's bitterness upon her father, he would hurt May. He must restrain himself; Hutchings would understand from his manner, and May would be sympathetic--as she always was.
Another thought exasperated him afresh. His idealism had made him ridiculous in the eyes of the townsfolk. He had spent money he could ill spare in a hopeless cause, which was not even a worthy one. And now everybody was laughing at him or sneering--he grew hot with shame. That his motives were honourable only heightened the ludicrousness of his action: it seemed as if he had made a fool of himself. He almost wished that he had left the Democrats to their own devices. But no! he had done the right, and that was the main point. The sense of failure, however, robbed him of confidence in regard to the future. How should he act? Since high motives were ineffectual, Quixotic, ought he to discard them and come down to the ordinary level? 'Twould be better not to live at all. The half-life of a student, a teacher, dwelling apart from the world, would be preferable to such degradation; but----
The situation appeared to him to be so difficult that as soon as he had taken his breakfast he went out for a walk away from the town in order to avoid importunate visits, and to decide upon a course of conduct. The air and exercise invigorated him; the peace and solitude of the prairie, the beauty of earth and sky, the unconsciousness of nature consoled him, reduced his troubles to relative unimportance, and allowed him to regain his equanimity.
Even his ideas in regard to Hutchings underwent a change. After all it was not his part to condemn; his indignation owed its heat to baffled egotism and paltry vanity. When the personal element was abstracted from the causes of his vexation, what remained? Were Hutchings a figure in history, would he judge him with the same intolerance? No; weakness, corruptibility even, would then excite no harsher feeling than a sort of amused contempt. The reflection mitigated his anger. He began to take an intellectual pleasure in the good-humoured acceptance of the wrong inflicted upon him. Plato was right, it was well to suffer injustice without desiring to retaliate. He had yet to learn that just as oil only smoothes the surface of waves, so reason has merely a superficial effect upon character.
Early in the afternoon he made his way to May's home. According to his habit he passed by the servant-girl and entered the study--to find himself face to face with the lawyer.
The shock of disappointment and a certain latent antagonism caused him to speak with a directness which was in itself discourteous.
"Is Miss May in? I wished to see her." After a momentary pause he added, with a tinge of sarcasm, "Your illness wasn't serious, I see."
Mr. Hutchings was not taken by surprise; he had prepared for this meeting, and had resolved to defend himself. The task, he believed, would be easy. He had almost persuaded himself that he had acted in the Professor's interest. Roberts was singularly unworldly; he might accept the explanation, and if he didn't--what did it matter? His own brighter prospects filled him with a sense of triumph; in the last three days his long-repressed vanity had shot up to self-satisfaction, making him callous to what Roberts or any one else might think. But the sneer in his visitor's words stung him, induced him to throw off the mask of illness which he had intended to assume. He replied with an indifference that was defiant:
"No; I wasn't well yesterday, but I'm better now, though I shall keep indoors for a day or two. A chill, I suppose."
Receiving no answer, he found relief in complete boldness.
"You see my prediction as to the result of the election has been justified?"
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