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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter7,part2)

2006-08-28 23:26

    PART 2

    Two days before the election Big Tim's detective wired from Shelby, Tennessee, the outline of a story that got two front page columns in both the _Advocate_ and the _Herald._ Jefferson Davis Farnum was the son of a thief, of a rebel soldier who had spent seven years in the penitentiary for looting the bank of which he was cashier. In addition to featuring the news story both papers handled the subject at length in their editorial columns. They wanted to know whether the people of this beautiful state were willing to hand over the Commonwealth to be plundered by the reckless gang of which this son of a criminal was the head.

    The paper reached Jeff at his rooms in the morning. He had lately taken the apartments formerly occupied by his cousin, James moving to Mrs. Anderson's until after the election. The exchange had been made at the suggestion of the editor, who gave as a reason that he wanted to be close to his work until the winter was past. It happened that James was just now very glad to get a cheaper place. He was very short of funds and until after the election had no time for social functions. All he needed with a room was to sleep in it.

    Jeff was still reading the story from Shelby when his cousin came in hurriedly. James was excited and very white.

    "My God, Jeff! It's come at last. I knew it would ruin me some day," the lawyer cried, after he had carefully closed the door of the bedroom.

    "It won't ruin you, James. Your name isn't mentioned yet. Perhaps it may not be. It can't hurt you, even if it is."

    "I tell you it will ruin me both socially and politically. Once it gets out

    nobody will trust me. I'll be the son of a thief," James insisted wildly.

    "You're the son of a man who made a slip and has paid for it," answered Jeff steadily. "Don't let your ideas get warped. This town is full of men who have done wrong and haven't paid for it."

    "That's one of your fool socialist theories." James spoke sharply and irritably. "No man's guilty till the law says so. They haven't been in the penitentiary. He has. That's what damns me if it gets out."

    Jeff laid a hand affectionately on his cousin's shoulder. "Don't you believe it for a moment. There's no moral distinction between the man who has paid and the man who hasn't paid for his sins toward society. There is good and there is bad in all of us, closely intertwined, knit together into the very warp and woof of our lives. We're all good and we're all bad."

    It was with James a purely personal equation. He could not forget its relation to himself.

    "My name is to be voted on at the University Club next month. I'll be blackballed to a dead certainty," he said miserably.

    "Probably, if the story gets out. It's tough, I know." Jeff's eyes gleamed angrily. "And why should they? You're just as good a man to-day as you were yesterday. But there's nothing so fettering, so despicable as good form. It blights. Let a man bow down to the dead hand of custom and he can never again be true to what he thinks and knows. His judgment gets warped. Soon Madame Grundy does his thinking for him, along well-grooved lines."

    "Oh, well! That's just talk. What am I to do?" James broke out nervously.

    "I know what I would do in your case."

    "What?"

    "Come out with a short statement telling the exact facts. I'd make no apologies or long explanation. Just the plain story as simply as you can."

    "Well, I'll not," the lawyer broke out. "Easy enough for you to say what I ought to do. Look at who my friends are——the Fromes and the Merrills and the Gilmans. Best set in town. I strained a point when I broke loose from them to take up this progressive fight. They'd cut me dead if a

    story like this came out."

    "I daresay. Communities are loaded to the guards with respectable cowards. But if you stand on your own feet like a man they'll think more of you for it. Most of them will be glad to know you again inside of five years. For you're going to be successful, and people like the Merrills and the Gilmans bow down to success."

    The lawyer shook his head doggedly. "I'm not going to tell a thing I don't have to tell. That's settled." He hesitated a moment before he went on. "I've got a reason why I want to stand well with the Fromes, Jeff. I'm not in a position to risk anything."

    Jeff waited. He thought he knew that reason.

    "I'm going to marry Alice Frome if I can."

    "You've asked her." Jeff's voice sounded to himself as if it belonged to another man.

    "No. Not yet. Ned Merrill's in the running. Strong, too. He's being backed by his father and old P. C. Frome. The idea is to consolidate interests by this marriage. But I've got a fighting chance. She likes me. Since I went into this political fight against her father she's taken pains to show me how friendly she feels. But if this story gets out——I'm smashed. That's all."

    "Go to her. Tell her the truth. She'll stand by you," his cousin urged.

    "You don't understand these people, Jeff. I do. Even if she wanted to stand by me she couldn't. They wouldn't let her. Right now I'm carrying all the handicap I can."

    Jeff walked to the window and stood looking out with his hands in his pockets. The hum of the busy street rose to his ears, but he did not hear it. Nor did he see the motor cars whizzing past, the drays lumbering along, the thronged sidewalks of Powers Avenue. A door that had for years been ajar in his heart had swung to with a crash. The incredible folly of his dream was laid bare to him. Despised, distrusted and disgraced, there was no chance that he might be even a friend to her. She moved in another world, one he could not reach if he would and would not if he could. All that he believed in she had been brought up to disregard. Much that was dear to her he must hammer down so long as there was life in him.

    But James——he had fought his way up to her. Why shouldn't he have his chance? Better——far better James than Ned Merrill. He had heard the echoes of a disgraceful story about that young man in his college days, the story of how he had trampled down a working girl for his pleasure. James was clean and honorable . . . and she loved him. Jeff's mind fastened on that last as a thing assured. Had he not seen her with starry eyes fixed on her hero, held fast as a limed bird? She too was entitled to her chance, and there was a way he could give it to her.

    He turned back to James, who was sitting despondently at the managing editor's desk, jabbing at the blotting sheet with a pencil.

    Jeff touched the _Advocate_ he still held in his hand. "Did you read this story carefully?"

    "No. I just ran my eye down it. Why?"

    "Whoever dug it up has made a mistake. He has jumped to the conclusion that I'm Uncle Robert's son. Why not let it go at that?"

    His cousin looked up with a flash of eager hope. "You mean——"

    "I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Let it go the way they have it."

    The lawyer's heart leaped, but he could not let this go without a protest. "No, I——I couldn't do that. It's awfully good of you, Jeff."

    The managing editor smiled in his whimsical way. "My reputation has long been in tatters. A little more can't hurt it."

    James conceded a reflective assent with a manner of impartiality. "Of course your friends wouldn't think any the less of you. They're not so——so-"

    "respectable as yours," Jeff finished for him.

    "I was going to say so hidebound."

    "All the same, isn't it?"

    "But it would be a sacrifice for you. I recognize that. And I'm not sure that I could accept it. I will have to think that over," the lawyer concluded magnanimously.

    "You'll find it is best. But I think I would tell Miss Frome, even if I didn't tell anybody else. She has a right to know."

    "You may depend upon me to do whatever is best about that."

    James was hardly out of the office before Captain Chunn blew in like a small tornado. He was boiling with rage.

    "What's this infernal lie about you being the son of a convict, David?" he demanded, waving a copy of the Herald.

    "Sit down, Captain. I'll tell you the story because you're entitled to it. But I shall have to speak in confidence."

    "Confidence! Dad burn it, what are you talking about? Are you trying to tell me that Phil Farnum was a thief and a convict?"

    Jeff's steel-blue eyes looked straight into his. "Nothing so impossible as that, Captain. I'm going to tell you the story of his brother."

    Jeff told it, but he and the owner of the _World_ disagreed radically about the best way to answer the attack.

    "Why must you always stand between that kid glove cousin of yours and trouble? Let him stand the gaff himself. It will do him good," Chunn stormed.

    But Jeff had his way. The _World_ made no denial of the facts charged. In a statement on the front page that covered less than three sticks he told the simple story of the defalcation of Robert Farnum. One thing only he added to the account given in the opposition papers. This was that during the past two years the shortage of the bank cashier had been paid in full to the Planters' First National at Shelby.

    There were many forecasts as to what the effect of the Farnum story would be on the election returns. It is enough to say that the ticket supported by the _World_ was chosen by a small majority. James was elected to the legislature by a plurality of fifteen hundred votes over his antagonist, a majority unheard of in the Eleventh District.

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