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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter7,part1)

2006-08-28 23:26

    CHAPTER 7

    "Spirits of old that bore me, And set me, meek of mind, Between great deeds before me, And deeds as great behind,

    Knowing Humanity my star As forth of old I ride, 0 help me wear with every scar Honor at eventide."

    THE REBEL DISCOVERS THAT ADHESION IS A PROPERTY OF MUD; ALSO THAT A SOLDIER MUST SOMETIMES TURN HIS BACK AND BURN THE BRIDGES BEHIND HIM

    PART 1

    The fight for the control of the state developed unprecedented bitterness. The big financial interests back of the political machines poured out money like water to elect a ticket that would be friendly to capital. An eight-hour-day bill to apply to miners and underground workers had been passed by the last legislature and a supreme court must be elected to declare this law unconstitutional. Moreover, a United States senator was to be chosen, so that the personnel of the assembly was a matter of great importance.

    Through the subsidized columns of the _Advocate_ and the _Herald_ all the venom of outraged public plunder was emptied on the heads of Jeff Farnum and Captain Chunn. They were rebels, blackmailers, and anarchists. Jeff's life was held up to public scorn as dissolute and licentious. He had been expelled from college and consorted only with companions of the lowest sort. A free thinker and an atheist, he wanted to tear down the pillars which upheld society. Unless Verden and the state repudiated him and his gang of trouble breeders the poison of their opinions would infect the healthy fabric of the community.

    There was about Jeff a humility, a sort of careless generosity, that could take with a laugh a hit at himself. But in the days that followed he was often made to wince when good men drew away from him as from a moral pervert. Twice he was hissed from the stage when he attempted to talk, or would have been, if he had not quietly waited until the indignant

    protesters were exhausted. It amused him to see that his old college acquaintance "Sissie" Thomas and Billy Gray, the ballot box stuffer of the Second Ward, were among the most vehement of those who thus scorned him. So do the extremes of virtue and vice find common ground when the blasphemer raises his voice against intrenched capital.

    The personal calumny of the enemy showed how hard hit the big bosses were, how beneath their feet they felt the ground of public opinion shift. It had been only a year since Big Tim O'Brien, boss of the city by permission of the public utility corporations, had read Jeff's first editorial against ballot box stuffing. In it the editor of the _World_ had pledged that paper never to give up the fight for the people until such crookedness was stamped out. Big Tim had laughed until his paunch shook at the confidence of this young upstart and in impudent defiance had sent him a check for fifty dollars for the Honest Election League.

    Neither Big Tim nor the respectable buccaneers back of him were laughing now. They were fighting with every ounce in them to sweep back the wave of civic indignation the _World_ had gathered into a compact aggressive organization.

    Young Ned Merrill, who represented the interests of the allied corporations, had Big Tim on the carpet. The young man had not been out of Harvard more than three years, but he did not let any nonsense about fair play stand in his way. In spite of the clean- cut look of him——he was broadshouldered and tall, with an effect of decision in the square cleft chin that would some day degenerate into fatness——Ned Merrill played the game of business without any compunctions.

    "You're making a bad fight of it, O'Brien. Old style methods won't win for us. These crank reformers have got the people stirred up. Keep your ward workers busy, but don't expect them to win." He leaned forward and brought his fist down heavily on the desk. "We've got to smash Farnum-discredit him with the bunch of sheep who are following him."

    "What more do youse want? We're callin' him ivery black name under Hiven."

    Merrill shook his head decisively. "Not enough. Prove something. Catch him with the goods."

    "If youse'll show me how?"

    "I don't care how, You've got detectives, haven't you? Find out all about him, where he comes from, who his people were. Rake his life with a fine tooth comb from the day he was born. He's a bad egg. We all know that. Dig up facts to prove it."

    Within the hour detectives were set to work. One of them left next day for Shelby. Another covered the neighborhoods where Jeff had lived in Verden. Henceforth wherever he went he was shadowed.

    It was about this time that Samuel Miller lost his place in the city library on account of his political opinions. For more than a year he and Jeff had roomed together at a private boarding house kept by a Mrs. Anderson. Within twentyfour hours of his dismissal Miller was on the road, sent out by the campaign committee of his party to make speeches throughout the state.

    Jeff himself was speaking nearly every night now that the day of election was drawing near. This, together with the work of editing the paper and the strain of the battle, told heavily on a vitality never too much above par. He would come back to his rooms fagged out, often dejected because some friend had deserted to the enemy.

    One cold rainy evening he met Nellie Anderson in the hall. She had been saying good-bye to some friends who had been in to call on her.

    "You're wet, Mr. Farnum," the young woman said.

    "A little."

    She stood hesitating in the doorway leading to the apartment of herself and her mother, then yielded shyly to a kindly impulse.

    "We've been making chocolate. Won't you come in and have some? You look cold."

    Jeff glimpsed beyond her the warm grate fire in the room. He, too, yielded to an impulse. "Since you're so good as to ask me, Miss Nellie."

    She took charge of his hat and overcoat, making him sit down in a big armchair before the fire. He watched her curiously as she moved lightly about waiting on him. Nellie was a soft round little person with constant intimations of a childhood not long outgrown. Jeff judged she must be nineteen or twenty, but she had moments of being charmingly unsure of

    herself. The warm color came and went in her clear cheeks at the least provocation.

    "Mother's gone to bed. She always goes early. You don't mind," she asked naively.

    Jeff smiled. She was, he thought, about as worldly wise as a fluffy kitten. "No, I don't mind at all," he assured her.

    Nor did he in the least. His weariness was of the spirit rather than the body, and he found her grace, her shy sweetness, grateful to the jaded senses. It counted in her favor that she was not clever or ultra-modern. The dimpling smiles, the quick sympathy of this innocent, sensuous young creature, drew him out of his depression. When he left the pleasant warmth of the room half an hour later it was with a little glow at the heart. He had found comfort and refreshment.

    How it came to pass Jeff never quite understood, but it soon was almost a custom for him to drop into the living room to get a cup of chocolate when he came home. He found himself looking forward to that half hour alone with Nellie Anderson. Whoever else criticized him, she did not. The manner in which she made herself necessary to his material comfort was masterly. She would be waiting, eager to help him off with his overcoat, hot chocolate and sandwiches ready for him in the cozy living-room. To him, who for years had lived a hand-to-mouth boarding house existence, her shy wholesome laughter made that room sing of home, one which her personality fitted to a dot. She was always in good humor, always trim and neat, always alluring to the eye. And she had the pretty little domestic ways that go to the head of a bachelor when he eats alone with an attractive girl.

    Their intimacy was not exactly a secret. Mrs. Anderson, who was rather deaf and admitted to being a heavy sleeper, knew that Jeff dropped in occasionally. He suspected she did not know how regularly, but she was one of that large class of American mothers who let their daughters arrange their own love affairs and would not have interfered had she known.

    Once or twice it flashed upon Jeff that this ought not to go on. Since he had no intention of marrying Nell he must not let their relationship reach

    the emotional climax toward which he guessed it was racing. But his experience in such matters was limited. He did not know how to break off their friendship without hurting her, and he was eager to minimize the possibility of danger. His modesty made this last easy. Out of her kindness she was good to him, but it was not to be expected that so pretty a girl would fall in love with a man like him.

    The most potent argument for letting things drift was his own craving for her. She was becoming necessary to him. Whenever he thought of her it was with a tender glow. Her soft long-lashed eyes would come between him and the editorial he was writing. A dozen times a day he could see a picture of the tilted little coaxing mouth. The gurgle of her laughter called to him for hours before he left the office.

    He got into the habit of talking to her about the things that were troubling him——the tactics of the enemy, the desertion of friends, the dubious issue of the campaign. Curled up in a big chair, her whole attention absorbed in what he was saying Nellie made a good listener. If she did not show a full understanding of the situation, he could always sense her ready sympathy. Her naive, indignant loyalty was touching.

    "I read what the _Advocate_ said about you today," she told him one night, a tide of color in her cheeks. "It was horrid. As if anybody would believe it."

    "I'm afraid a good many people do," he said gravely.

    "Nobody who knows you," she protested stoutly.

    "Yes, some who know me."

    He let his eyes dwell on her. It was easy to see how undisciplined of life she was, save where its material aspects had come into impact with her on the economic side.

    "None of your real friends."

    "How many real friends has a man——friends who will stand by him no matter how unpopular he is?"

    "I don't know. I should think you'd have lots of them."

    He shook his head, a hint of a smile in his eyes. "Not many. They keep their chocolate and sandwiches for folks whose trolley do'esn't fly the wire."

    "What wire?" she asked, her forehead knitted to a question.

    "Oh, the wire that's over the tracks of respectability and vested interests and special privilege."

    She had been looking at him, but now her gaze went to the fire with that slow tilt of the chin he liked. Another color wave swept the oval of the soft cheeks.

    "You've got more friends than you think," she said in a low voice.

    "I've got one little friend I wouldn't like to lose."

    She did not speak and his hand moved forward to cover hers. Instantly a wild and insurgent emotion tingled through him. He felt himself trembling and could not steady his nerves.

    Without a word Nellie looked up and their eyes met. Something electric flashed from one to another. Her shy fear of him was adorable.

    "Oh, don't, don't!" she murmured. "What will you think of me now?"

    He had leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.

    Jeff sprang to his feet, the muscles in his lean cheeks standing out. Some bell of warning was ringing in him. He was a man, young and desirous, subject to all the frailties of his sex, holding experiences in his past that had left him far from a puritan. And she was a woman, of unschooled impulses, with unsuspected banked passions, an innocent creature in whom primeval physical life rioted.

    He moved toward the door, his left fist beating into the palm of his right hand. He must protect her, against himself——and against her innocent affection for him.

    She fluttered past him, barring the way. Her cheeks were flaming with shame.

    "You despise me. Why did I let you?" A sob swelled up into her soft round throat.

    "You blessed lamb," he groaned.

    "You're going to leave me. You——you don't want me for a friend any longer."

    Her lips trembled——the red little lips that always reminded him of a baby's with its Cupid's bow. She was on the verge of breaking down. Jeff could not stand that. He held out his hands, intending to take hers and

    explain that he was not angry or disappointed at her. But somehow he found her in his arms instead, supple and warm, vital youth flowing in the soft cheeks' rich coloring and in the eyes quick and passionate with the tender abandon of her sex.

    He set his teeth against the rush of desire that flooded him as her soft body clung to his. The emotional climax he had vaguely feared had leaped upon them like an uncaged tiger. He fought to stamp down the fires that blazed up in him. Time to think——he must have time to think.

    "You don't despise me then," she cried softly, a little catch in her breath.

    "No," he protested, and again "No."

    "But you think I've done wrong."

    "No. I've been to blame. You're a dear girl——and I've abused your kindness. I must go away——now."

    "Then you——you do hate me," she accused with a quivering lip.

    "No . . . no. I'm very fond of you."

    "But you're going to leave me. It's because I've done wrong."

    "Don't blame yourself, dear. It has been all my fault. I ought to have known."

    Her hands fell from him. The life seemed to die out of her whole figure. "You do despise me."

    Desire of her throbbed through him, but he spoke very quietly. "Listen, dear. There is nobody I respect more . . . and none I like so much. I can't tell you how. . . fond of you I am. But I must go now. You don't understand."

    She bit her lip to repress the sobs that would come and turned away to hide her shame. Jeff caught her in his arms, kissed her passionately on the lips, the eyes, the soft round throat.

    "You do . . . like me," she purred happily.

    Abruptly he pushed her from him. Where were they drifting? He must get his anchors down before it was too late.

    Somehow he broke away, leaving her there hurt and bewildered at his apparent fickleness, at the stiffness with which he had beaten back the sweet delight inviting them.

    Jeff went to his rooms, his mind in a blind chaotic surge. He sat before the table for hours, fighting grimly to persuade himself he need not put away this joy that had come to him. Surely friendship was a good thing . . . and love. A man ought not to turn his back on them.

    It was long past midnight when he rose, took his father's sword from the wall where it hung, and unsheathed it. A vision of an open fireplace in a log house rose before him, his father in the foreground looking like a picture of Stonewall Jackson. The kind brave eyes that were the soul of honor gazed at him.

    "You damned scoundrel! You damned scoundrel!" Jeff accused himself in a low voice.

    He knew his little friend was good and innocent, but he knew too she had inherited a temperament that made her very innocence a anger to her. Every instinct of chivalry called upon him to protect her from the weakness she did not even guess. She had given him her kindness and her friendship, the dear child! It was up to him to be worthy of them. If he failed her he would be a creature forever lost to decency.

    There was a sob in his throat as Jeff pushed the blade back into the worn scabbard and rehung the sword upon the wall. But the eyes in his lifted face were very bright. He too would keep his sword unstained and the flag of honor flying.

    All through the next day and the next his resolution held. He took pains not to see her alone, though there was not an hour of the day when he could get away from the thought of her. The uneasy consciousness was with him that the issue was after all only postponed, that decisions of this kind must be made again and again so long as opportunity and desire go together. And there were moments of reaction when his will was like a rope of sand, when the longing for her swept over him like a great wave.

    As Jeff slipped quietly into the hall the door of her room opened. Their eyes met, and presently hers fell. She was troubled and ashamed at what she had done, but plainly eager in her innocence to be forgiven.

    Jeff spoke gently. "Nellie."

    Her eyes suddenly filled with tears. "Aren't we ever going to be friends again?"

    Through the open door he could see the fire glowing in the grate and the chocolate set on the little table. He knew she had prepared for his coming and how greatly she would be hurt if he rejected her advances.

    "Of course we're friends."

    "Then you'll come in, just for a few minutes."

    He hesitated.

    "Please," she whispered. "Or I'll know you don't like me any more."

    Jeff followed her into the room and closed the door behind him.

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