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2006-08-28 22:51

    For once the machine had overplayed its hand. Caught unexpectedly by Jeff's return, no effective counter attack was possible. Dunn's story in the _World_ swept the city and the state like wildfire. It was a crouched dramatic narrative and its effect was telling. From it only one inference could be drawn. The big corporations, driven to the wall, had attempted a desperate coup to save the day. It was all very well for Big Tim to file a libel suit. The mind of the public was made up.

    The mass meeting at the State House drew an enormous crowd, one so great that overflow meetings had to be held. Every corridor in the building was full of excited jostling people. They poured into the gallery of the Senate room and packed the rear of the floor itself. Against such a demonstration the upper house did not dare pass the Garman bill immediately. It was held over for a few days to give the public emotion a chance to die. Instead, the resentment against machine and corporate domination grew more bitter. Stinging resolutions from the back counties were wired to members who had backslidden. Committees of prominent citizens from up state and across the mountains arrived at Verden for heart-to- heart talks with the assemblymen from their districts.

    At a hurried meeting of the managers of the public utilities companies it was decided that the challenge of the _World_ must be accepted. For many who had believed in the total depravity of Jefferson Farnum were beginning to doubt. Unless the man's character could be impeached successfully the day was lost. And with four witnesses against him how could the trouble maker escape?

    The committee of investigation consisted of Senator Frome; Clinton Rogers, the shipbuilder; Thomas Elliott, a law partner of Hardy; James Moran, a wholesale wheat shipper, and the leading clergyman of Verden. It sat behind locked doors, adjourning from one office to another to obtain secrecy.

    For the defense appeared as witnesses Marchant, Miller, Mrs. Anderson and Nellie. To doubt the truth of the young wife's story was impossible. The agony of shyness and shame that flushed her, the simple broken words of her little tragedy, bore the stamp of minted gold. It was plain to see that she was a victim of betrayal, being slowly won back to love of life by her husband and her child.

    The committee in its report told the facts briefly without giving names. Even P. C. Frome could find no excuse for not signing it.

    The effect was instantaneous. On this one throw the machine had staked everything. That it had lost was now plain. In a day Jeff was the hero of Verden, of the state at large. His long fight for reform, the dramatic features of the shanghaing and his return, the collapse of the charges against his character, all contributed to lift him to dizzy popularity. He was the very much embarrassed man of the hour.

    All the power of the Transcontinental, of the old city hall gang, of the money that had been spent to corrupt the legislature, was unable to roll back the tide of public determination. White-faced assemblymen sneaked into offices at midnight to return the bribe money for which they dared not deliver the goods. Two days after the report of the investigating committee Jeff's bill passed the Senate. Within three hours it was signed by Governor Hawley. That it would be ratified by a vote of the people and so become a of the state constitution was a foregone conclusion.

    Jeff and his friends had forged the first of the tools they needed to rescue the government of the state from the control of the allied plunderers.

    In the days following her return to Verden Alice Frome devoured the newspapers as she never had before. They were full of the dramatic struggle between Jeff Farnum and the forces which hitherto had controlled the city and state. To her the battle was personal. It centered on the attacks made upon the character of her friend and his pledge to refute them.

    When she read in the _Advocate_ the report of the committee Alice wept. It was like her friend, she thought, to risk his reputation for some poor lost wanderer of the streets. Another man might have done it for the girl he loved or for the woman he had married. But with Jeff it would be for one of the least of these. There flashed into her mind an old Indian proverb she had read. "I met a hundred men on the road to Delhi, and they were all my brothers." Yes! None were too deep sunk in the mire to be brothers and sisters to Jeff Farnum.

    Ever since her return Alice had known herself in disgrace with her father and that small set in which she moved. Her in the big _World_ story had been "most regrettable." It was felt that in letting her name be mentioned beside that of one who was a thoroughly disreputable vagabond she had compromised her exclusiveness and betrayed the cause of her class. Her friends recalled that Alice had always been a queer girl.

    Her father and Ned Merrill agreed over a little luncheon at the Verden Club that girls were likely to lose themselves in sentimental foolishness and that the best way to stop such nonsense was for one to get married to a safe man. Pending this desirable issue she ought to be diverted by pleasant amusements.

    The safe man offered to supply these.

    The farthest thing from Merrill's thoughts had been to discuss with her the confounded notions she had somehow absorbed. The thing to do, of course, was to ignore them and assume everything was all right. After all, of what importance were the opinions of a girl about practical things?

    How the thing cropped up he did not afterward remember, but at the thirteenth green he found himself mentioning that all reformers were out of touch with facts. They were not practical.

    The smug finality of his verdict nettled her. This may or may not have been the reason she sliced her ball, quite unnecessarily. But it was probably due to her exasperation at the wasted stroke that she let him have it.

    "I'm tired of that word. It means to be suicidally selfish. There's not another word in the language so abused."

    "Didn't catch the word that annoys you," the young man smiled.

    "Practical! You used it yourself. It means to tear down and not build up, to be so near-sighted you can't see beyond your reach. Your practical man is the least hopeful member of the community. He stands only for material progress. His own, of course!"

    "You sound like a Farnum editorial, Alice."

    "Do I?" she flashed. "Then I'll give you the rest of it. He——your practical man——is rutted to class traditions. This would not be good form or respectable. That would disturb the existing order. So let's all do nothing and agree that all's well with the world."

    Merrill greeted this outburst with a complacent smile. "It's a pretty good world. I haven't any fault to find with it——not this afternoon anyhow."

    But Alice, serious with young care and weighted with the problems of a universe, would have none of his compliments.

    "Can't you see that there's a——a " She groped and found a fugitive phrase Jeff had once used——"a want of adjustment that is appalling?"

    "It doesn't appall me. I believe in the survival of the fittest."

    Her eyes looked at him with scornful penetration. They went through the well-dressed, broad-shouldered exterior of him, to see a suave, gracious Pharisee of the modern world. He believed in the God-of-thingsas-they-are because he was the man on horseback. He was a formalist because it paid him to be one. That was why he and his class looked on any questioning of conditions as almost atheistic. They were born to the good things of life. Why should they doubt the ethics of a system that had dealt so kindly with them?

    She gave him up. What was the use of talking about such things to him? He had the sense of property ingrained in him. The last thing he would be likely to do was to let any altruistic ideas into his head. He would play safe. Wasn't he a practical man?

    She devoted herself to the game. To see her play was a pleasure to the eye. The long lines and graceful curves of her supple young body never appeared to better advantage than at golf. Her motions showed the sylvan freedom of the woods. Ned Merrill appreciated the long, light tread of her, the harmony of movement as of a perfect young animal, together with the fine spiritual quality that escaped her personality so unconsciously.

    At the fifteenth hole he continued her education. "This country is founded upon individualism. It stands for the best chance of development possible to all its citizens. When you hamper enterprise you stop that development."

    She took him up dryly. "I see. So you and father and Uncle Joe have developed your individualism at the expense of a million other people's. You have gobbled up franchises, forests, ore lands, coal mines, and every other opportunity worth having. As a result you're making them your slaves and crushing out all individuality."

    "Not at all. We're really custodians for the people. We administer these things for their benefit because we are more fit to do it."

    "How do you know you are?"

    "The very fact that we have succeeded in getting what we have is evidence of it."

    "All I can see is that our getting it and keeping it——you and I and Uncle Joe and a thousand like us——is responsible for all the poverty in the world. We're helping to make it every time we eat a dinner we didn't work to get."

    Alice made a beautiful approach that landed her ball within four feet of the hole. Presently Merrill joined her.

    "That was a dandy shot," he told her, and watched Alice hole out. "I don't agree with you. For instance, I work as hard as other men."

    "But you're not working for the common good."

    His impatience reached words. "That sort of talk is nonsense, Alice. I don't know what has come over you of late."

    She smiled provokingly and changed the subject. Why argue with him? The slant with which they got at things was different. Like her father, he had the mental rigidity that is death to open- mindedness.

    Briskly she returned to small talk. "You're only three up."

    On their way back to the club house the safe man recurred to one phase of their talk.

    "You ought not to need any telling as to why I work, Alice."

    She shot one swift annoyed glance at him. When Ned Merrill tried the sentimental she liked him least.

    "Oh, all men like to work, I suppose. Uncle Joe says it's half the fun of life."

    "Most men work for some woman. I'm working for you," he told her solenmly.

    A little giggle of laughter floated across to him.

    "What are you laughing about?" he demanded.

    "Oh, the things I notice. Just now it's you, Ned."

    "If you'll explain the joke."

    "You wouldn't understand it. Dear me, what are you so stiff about?"

    Merrill brought things to an issue. "Look here, Alice! What's the use of playing fast and loose? I'd like to know where we're at."

    "Would you?"

    "Yes, I would. You know all about the arrangement just as well as I do. I haven't pushed you. I've stood back and let you have your good times. Don't you think it's about time for us to talk business?"

    "Just as soon as you like, Ned."

    "Well, then, let's announce it."

    "That we're not engaged to be married and never will be! Is that what you want to announce?"

    He flushed angrily. "What's the use of talking that way? You know it has been arranged for years."

    "I'm not going through with it. I told Father so. The thing is outrageous," she flamed.

    "I don't see why. Our people want it. We are fond of each other. I never cared for any girl but you."

    "Let's stick to the business reasons, Ned."

    "Hang it, you're so acid about it! I do care for you " Her dry anger spurted out. "That's unfortunate, since I don't care for you."

    "I know you do. Just now you're vexed at me."

    "Yes, I am," she admitted, nodding her head swiftly. "But it doesn't make any difference whether I am or not. I've made up my mind. I'm not going through with it."

    "You promised."

    "I didn't, not in so many words. And I was pushed into it. None of you gave me a fair chance. But I'll not go on with it."

    "But, why?"

    "Because I'm an American girl, and here we don't have to marry to amalgamate business interests. I won't do it. I'd rather be " She gave a little shrug of her shoulders. The passion died out of her voice. "Oh, well! No need getting melodramatic about it. Just the same, I won't do it. My mind's made up."

    "A pretty figure I'll cut, after all these years," he complained sulkily. "Everyone will know you jilted me."

    Alice turned to him, mischief sparkling in her eyes. "I wouldn't stand it if I were you. Show your spunk."

    He stared. "What do you mean?"

    "Why don't you jilt ME?"

    "Jilt you?"

    Her head went up and down in a dozen little nods of affirmation. "Yes. Marry Pauline Gillam. You know you'd like to, but you haven't had the courage to give me up. Now that you've got to give me up anyhow——"

    "I'm very much obliged, Miss Frome. But I don't think it will be necessary for you to select another wife for me."

    "Have you been married once. I didn't know it."

    "You know what I mean?" He was stiff as a poker.

    "I believe I do." She was in a perfectly good humor again now. "But you better take my advice, Ned. Think what a joke it will be on me. Everybody will say you could have had me."

    "We'll not discuss the subject if you please."

    Nevertheless Alice knew that she had dropped a seed on good ground.

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