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THE VISION SPLENDID (14)

2006-08-28 22:51

    Only the man who is sheet-armored in a triple plate of selfishness can be sure that weak hands won't clutch at him and delay his march to success.——From the Note Book of a Dreamer.

    THE HERO, CONFRONTED WITH AN UNPLEASANT POSSIBILITY, PROVES HIS GREATNESS BY RISING SUPERIOR TO SENTIMENT

    James came down to the office one morning in his car with a smile of contentment on his handsome face. It had been decided that he was to be made speaker of the House after the next election, assuming that he and his party were returned to power. Jeff and the progressives were to stand back of him, and he felt sure that after a nominal existence the standpatters would accept him. He intended by scrupulous fair play to win golden opinions for himself. From the speakership to the governor's chair would not be a large step. After that——well, there were many possibilities.

    He did not for a moment admit to himself that there was anything of duplicity in the course he was following. His intention was to line up with the progressives during the campaign, to win his reelection on that platform, and to support a rational liberal program during the session. He would favor an initiative and referendum amendment not so radical as the one Jeff offered, a bill that would not cripple business or alarm capital. As he looked at it life was a compromise. The fusion of many minds to a practical result always demanded this. And results were more important than any number of theories.

    As James passed into his office the stenographer stopped him with a remark.

    "A man has been in twice to see you this morning, Mr. Farnum."

    "Did he leave his name?"

    "No. He said he would call again."

    James passed into his private office and closed the door. A quarter of an hour later his stenographer knocked. "He's here again, Mr. Farnum."

    "Who?"

    "The man I told you of."

    "Oh!" James put down the brief he was reading. "Show him in."

    A figure presently stood hesitating in the doorway. James saw an oldish man, gray and stooped with a rather wistful lost-dog expression on his face.

    "What can I do for you, sir?" he questioned.

    "Don't you know me?" the stranger asked with a quaver in his voice.

    The lawyer did not, but some premonition of disaster clutched at his heart. He rose swiftly and closed the door behind his caller.

    A faint smile doubtful of its right touched the weak face of the little old man. "So you don't know your own father——boy!"

    A sudden sickness ran through the lawyer and sapped his strength. He leaned against the desk uncertainly. It had come at last. The whole world would learn the truth about him. The Merrills, the Fromes, Valencia Van Tyle——all of them would know it and scorn him.

    "What are you doing here?" James heard himself say hoarsely.

    "Why, I——I——I came to see my son."

    "What for?"

    Before so harsh and abrupt a reception the weak smile went out like a blown candle.

    "I thought you'd be glad to see me——after so many years."

    "Why should I be glad to see you? What have you ever done for me but disgrace me?"

    Tears showed in the watery eyes. "That's right. It's gospel truth, I reckon."

    "And now, when I've risen above it, so that all men respect me, you come back to drag me down."

    "No——no, I wouldn't do that, son."

    "That's what you'll do. Do you think my friends will want to know a man who is the son of a convict? I've got a future before me. Already I've been mentioned for governor. What chance would I have when people know my father is a thief?"

    "Son," winced the old man.

    "Oh, well! I'm not picking my words," James went on with angry impatience. "I'm telling you the facts. I've got enemies. Every strong man has. They'll smash me like an empty eggshell."

    "They don't need to know about me. I'll not do any talking."

    "That's all very well. Things leak out," James grumbled a little more graciously. "Well, you better sit down now you're here. I thought you were living in Arkansas."

    "So I am. I've done right well there. And I thought I'd take a little run out to see you. I didn't know but what you might need a little help." He glanced aimlessly around the well-furnished office. "But I expect you don't, from the looks of things."

    "If you think I've got money you're wrong," James explained. "I'm just starting in my profession, and of course I owe a good deal here and there. I've been hard pressed ever since I left college."

    His father brightened up timidly. "I owe you money. We can fix that up. I've got a little mill down there and I've done well, though it was hard sledding at first."

    James caught at a phrase. What do you mean?"

    "Owe me money!

    "I knew it must be you paid off the shortage at the Planters' National. When I sent the money it was returned. You'd got ahead of me. I was THAT grateful to you, son."

    The lawyer found himself flushing. "Oh, Jeff paid that. He was earning money at the time and I wasn't. Of course I intended to pay him back some day."

    "Did Jeff do that? Then you and he must be friends. Tell me about him."

    "There's not much to tell. He's managing editor of a paper here that has a lot of influence. Yes. Jeff has been a staunch friend to me always. He recognizes that I'm a rising man and ought to be kept before the public."

    "I wonder if he's like his father."

    "Can't tell you that," his son replied carelessly. "I don't remember Uncle Phil much. Jeff's a queer fellow, full of Utopian notions about brotherhood and that sort of thing. But he's practical in a way. He gets things done in spite of his softheadedness."

    There was a knock at the door. "Mr. Jefferson Farnum, sir."

    James considered for a second. "Tell him to come in, Miss Brooks."

    The lawyer saw that the door was closed before he introduced Jeff to his father. It gave him a momentary twinge of conscience to see his cousin take the old man quickly by both hands. It was of course a mere detail, but James had not yet shaken hands with his father.

    "I'm glad to see you, Uncle Robert," Jeff said.

    His voice shook a little. There was in his manner that hint of affection which made him so many friends, the warmth that suggested a woman's sympathy, but not effeminacy.

    The ready tears brimmed into his uncle's eyes. "You're like your father, boy. I believe I would have known you by him," he said impulsively.

    "You couldn't please me better, sir. And what about James——would you have known him?"

    The old man looked humbly at his handsome, distinguished son. "No, I would never have known him."

    "He's becoming one of our leading citizens, James is. You ought to hear him make a speech. Demosthenes and Daniel Webster hide their heads when the Honorable James K. Farnum spellbinds," Jeff joked.

    "I've read his speeches," the father said unexpectedly. "For more than a year I've taken the _World_ so as to hear of him."

    "Then you know that James is headed straight for the Hall of Fame. Aren't you, James?"

    "Nonsense! You've as much influence in the state as I have, or you would have if you would drop your fight on wealth."

    "Bless you, I'm not making a fight on wealth," Jeff answered with good humor. "It's illicit wealth we're hammering at. But when you compare me to James K. I'll have to remind you that I'm not a silver-tongued orator or Verden's favorite son."

    The father's wistful smile grew bolder. Somehow Jeff's arrival had cleared the atmosphere. A Scriptural phrase flashed into his mind as applicable to this young man. Thinketh no evil. His nephew did not regard him with suspicion or curiosity. To him he was not a sinner or an outcast, but a brother. His manner had just the right touch of easy deference youth ought to give age.

    "Of course you're going to make us a long visit, Uncle Robert."

    The old man's propitiating gaze went to his son. "Not long, I reckon. I've got to get back to my business."

    "Nonsense! We'll not let you go so easily. Eh, James?"

    "No, of course not," the lawyer mumbled. He was both annoyed and embarrassed.

    "I don't want to be selfish about it, but I do think you had better put up with me, Uncle. James is at the University Club, and only members have rooms there. We'll let him come and see you if he's good," Jeff went on breezily.

    James breathed freer. "That might be the best way, if it wouldn't put you out, Jeff."

    "I wouldn't want to be any trouble," the old man explained.

    "And you won't be. I want you. James wants you, too, but he can't very well arrange it. I can. So that's settled."

    In his rooms that evening Jeff very gently made clear to his uncle that Verden believed him to be his son.

    "If you don't mind, sir, we'll let it go that way in public. We don't want to hurt the political chances of James just now. And there are other things, too. He'll tell you about them himself probably."

    "That's all right. Just as you say. I don't want to disturb things."

    "I adopted you as a father about a year ago without your permission. It won't do for you to give me away now," the nephew laughed.

    Robert Farnum nodded without speaking. A lump choked his throat. He had found a son after all, but not the one he had come to meet.

    At the ensuing election the progressives swept the state in spite of all that the allied corporations could do. James was returned to the legislature with an increased majority and was elected speaker of the House according to program. His speech of acceptance was the most eloquent that had ever been heard in the assembly hall. The most radical of his party felt that the committees appointed by him were in their personnel a little too friendly to the vested interests of Verden, but the _World_ took the high ground that he could render his party no higher service than absolute fair play, that the bills for the rights of the people ought to pass on their merits and not by tricky politics.

    Never before had there been seen at the State House a lobby like the one that filled it now. The barrel was tapped so that the glint of gold flowed through the corridors, into committee rooms, and to out of the way corners where legislators fought for their honor against an attack that never ceased. Sometimes the corruption was bold. More often it was insidious. To see how one by one men hitherto honest surrendered to bribery was a sight pathetic and tragic.

    The Farnum cousins were the centers around whom the reformers rallied. James directed their counsels in the House and Jeff pounded away in the _World_ with vital trenchant editorials and news stories. Every day that paper carried to the farthest corner of the state bulletins of the battle. Farmers and miners and laboring men watched its roll of honor to see if the local representatives were standing firm. As the weeks passed the fight grew more bitter. Now and again men fell by the wayside disgraced. But the pressure from their constituents was so strong that Jeff believed his bill would go through.

    His friends forced it through the committee and pushed it to a vote. House Bill , as the initiative and referendum amendment was called, passed the lower legislative body with a small majority. The pool rooms offered five to four that it would carry in the senate.

    It was on the night of the twenty-first of December that the amendment passed the House. On the morning of the twenty-third the _Herald_ sprang a front page sensation. It charged that the editor of the _World_ had ruined a girl named Nellie Anderson at a house where he had boarded and that she had subsequently disappeared. It featured also a story of how he had been seen to enter his rooms at midnight with a woman of the street, who remained there until morning reveling with him. Attached to this were the affidavits of two detectives, a police officer, and the druggist who had furnished the liquor.

    The story exploded like a bomb shell in the camp of the progressives. Rawson tried at once without success to get Jeff on the telephone. He was not at the office, nor had he reached his rooms at all after leaving the _World_ building on the previous night. None of his friends had seen or heard of him.

    The afternoon papers had a sensation of their own. Jefferson Farnum had left Verden secretly without leaving an address. Evidently he had been given a hint of the exposure that was to be made of his life and had decamped rather than face the charges.

    Rumor had a hundred tales to tell. The waverers at the State House chose to believe that Jeff had sold them out and fled with his price. It was impossible to deny the stories of his immorality, since it happened that Sam Miller, the only man who knew the whole story, was far up in the mountains arranging for a shipment of Rocky Mountain sheep to the state museum. Farnum's friends could only affirm their faith in him or surrender. Some gave way, some stood firm. The lobbyists and the opposition went about with confident, "I-told-you-so" smiles writ large on their faces. Within a few days it became apparent that the reform bill would be defeated in the senate. Its fate had been so long tied up with the people's belief in Jeff that with his collapse the general opinion condemned it to defeat. Its friends hung back, unwilling to risk a vote as yet.

    The situation called for a leader and developed one. James Farnum stepped into the breach and took command. In a ringing speech he called for a new alignment. He would yield to none in the devotion he had given to House Bill Number . But it needed no prophet to see that now this amendment was doomed. Better half a loaf than no bread. He was a practical man and wanted to see practical results. Rather than see the will of the people frustrated he felt that House Bill I should be passed. While not an ideal bill it was far better than none. The principle of direct legislation at least would be established.

    H. B. No. I was brought hurriedly out of committee. It had been introduced as a substitute measure to defeat the real reform. According to its provision legislation could be initiated by the people, but to make it valid as a law the legislature had to approve any bill so passed. The people could advise. They could not compel.

    The speech of the speaker of the House precipitated a bitter fight. The more eager friends of H. B. No.  accused him of treachery, but many felt that it was the best possible practical politics under the circumstances. For weeks the issue hung in doubt, but gradually James gathered adherents among both progressives and conservatives. It became almost a foregone conclusion that H. B. No. I would pass.

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