Hector by Booth Tarkington

Story type: Literature

It isn’t the party manager, you understand, that gets the fame; it’s the candidate. The manager tries to keep his candidate in what the newspapers call a “blaze of publicity”; that is, to keep certain spots of him in the blaze, while sometimes it is the fact that a candidate does not know much of what is really going on; he gets all the red fire and sky-rockets, and, in the general dazzle and nervousness, is unconscious of the forces which are to elect or defeat him. Strange as it is, the more glare and conspicuousness he has, the more he usually wants. But the more a working political manager gets, the less he wants. You see, it’s a great advantage to keep out of the high lights.

For my part, not even being known or important enough to be named “Dictator,” now and then, in the papers, I’ve had my fun in the game very quietly. Yet I did come pretty near being a famous man once, a good while ago, for about a week. That was just after Hector J. Ransom made his great speech on the “Patriotism of the Pasture” which set the country to talking about him and, in time, brought him all he desired.

You remember what a big stir that speech made, of course–everybody remembers it. The people in his State went just wild with pride, and all over the country the papers had a sort of catch head-line: “Another Daniel Webster Come to Judgment!” When the reporters in my own town found out that Ransom was a second cousin of mine, I was put into a scare-head for the only time in my life. For a week I was a public character and important to other people besides the boys that do the work at primaries. I was interviewed every few minutes; and a reporter got me up one night at half-past twelve to ask for some anecdotes of Hector’s “Boyhood Days and Rise to Fame.”

I didn’t oblige that young man, but I knew enough. I was always fond of my first cousin, Mary Ransom, Hector’s mother; and in the old days I never passed through Greenville, the little town where they lived, without stopping over, a train or two, to visit with her, and I saw plenty of Hector! I never knew a boy that left the other boys to come into the parlour (when there was company) quicker than Hector, and I certainly never saw a boy that “showed off” more. His mother was wrapped up in him; you could see in a minute that she fairly worshipped him; but I don’t know, if it hadn’t been for Mary, that I’d have praised his recitations and elocution so much, myself.

Mary and I wouldn’t any more than get to tell each other how long since we’d heard from Aunt Sue, before Hector would grow uneasy and switch around on the sofa and say: “Ma, I’d rather you wouldn’t tell cousin Ben about what happened at the G. A. R. reunion. I don’t want to go through all that stuff again.”

At that, Mary’s eyes would light up and she’d say: “You must, Hector, you must! I want him to hear you do it; he mustn’t go away without that!” Then she’d go on to tell me how Hector had recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech at a meeting of the local post of the G. A. R. and how he was applauded, and that many of the veterans had told him if he kept on he’d be Governor of his State some day, and how proud she was of him and how he was so different from ordinary boys that she was often anxious about him. Then she would urge him to let me have it–and he always would, especially if I said: “Oh, don’t make the boy do it, Mary!”

He would stand out in the middle of the floor and thrust his chin out, knitting his brow and widening his nostrils, and shout “Of the people, By the people, and For the people” at the top of his lungs in that little parlour. He always had a great talent for mimicry, a talent of which I think he was absolutely unconscious. He would give his speeches in exactly the boy-orator style; that is, he imitated speakers who imitated others who had heard Daniel Webster. Mary and he, however, had no idea that he imitated anybody; they thought it was creative genius.

When he had finished Lincoln, he would say: “Well, I’ve got another that’s a good deal better, but I don’t want to go through that today; it’s too much trouble,” with the result that in a few minutes Patrick Henry would take a turn or two in his grave. Hector always placed himself by a table for “Liberty or Death,” and barked his knuckles on it for emphasis. Little he cared, so long as he thought he’d got his effect! You could see, in spite of the intensity of his expression, that he was perfectly happy.

When he’d worked us through that, and perhaps “Horatius at the Bridge” and the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius and was pretty well emptied, he’d hang about and interrupt in a way that made me restless. Neither Mary nor I could get out two sentences before the boy would cut in with something like: “Don’t tell cousin Ben about that day I recited in school; I’m tired of all that guff!”

Then Mary would answer: “It isn’t guff, precious. I never was prouder of you in my life.” And she’d go on to tell me about another of his triumphs, and how he made up speeches of his own sometimes, and would stand on a box and deliver them to his boy friends, though she didn’t say how the boys received them. All the while, Hector would stare at me like a neighbour’s cat on your front steps, to see what impression it made on me; and I was conscious that he was sure that I knew he was a wonderful boy. I think he felt that everybody knew it. Hector kind of palled on me.

When he was about sixteen, Mary wrote me that she was in great distress about him because he had decided to go on the stage; that he had written to John McCullough, offering to take the place of leading man in his company to begin with. Mary was sure, she said, that the life of an actor was a hard one; Hector had always been very delicate (I had known him to eat a whole mince pie without apparent distress afterward) and she wanted me to write and urge him to change his mind. She felt sure Mr. McCullough would send for him at once, because Hector had written him that he already knew all the principal Shakespearian roles, could play Brutus, Cassius, or Mark Antony as desired; and he had added a letter of recommendation from the Mayor of their city, declaring that Hector was a finer elocutionist and tragedian than any actor he had ever seen.

The dear woman’s anxiety was needless, for she wrote me, with as much surprise as pleasure, two months later, that for some reason Mr. McCullough had not answered the letter, and that she was very happy; she had persuaded Hector to go to college.

How she kept him there, the first two years, I don’t know, for her husband had only left her about four hundred dollars a year. Of course, living in Greenville isn’t expensive, but it does cost something, and I honestly believe Mary came near to living on nothing. It was a small college that she’d sent the boy to, but it was a mother’s point with her that Hector should be as comfortable as anyone there.

I stopped off at Greenville, one day, toward the end of his second year, but before he’d come home, and I saw how it was. Mary seemed as glad as ever to see me–it was the same old bright greeting that she’d always given me. She saw me from the dining-room window where she was eating her supper, and she came out, running down to the gate to meet me, like a girl; but she looked thin and pale.

I said I’d go right in and have some supper with her, and at that the roses came back quickly to her cheeks. “No,” she said, “I wasn’t really at supper; only having a bite beforehand; I’m going up-town now to get the things for supper. You smoke a cigar out on the porch till I get back, and–“

I took her by the arm. “Not much, Mary,” I said. “I’m going to have the same supper you had for yourself.”

So I went straight out to the dining-room; and all I found on the table was some dry bread toasted and a baked apple without cream or sugar. It gave me a pretty good idea of what the general run of her meals must have been.

I had a long talk with her that night, and I wormed it out of her that Hector’s college expenses were about twenty-five dollars a month, which left her six to live on. The truth is, she didn’t have enough to eat, and you could see how happy it made her. She read me a good many of Hector’s letters, her voice often trembling with happiness over his triumphs. The letters were long, I’ll say that for Hector, which may have been to his credit as a son, or it may have been because he had such an interesting subject. There was no doubt that he had worked hard; he had taken all the chief prizes for oratory and essay writing and so forth that were open to him; he also allowed it to be seen that he was the chief person in the consideration of his class and the fraternity he had joined. Mary had a sort of humbleness about being the mother of such a son.

But I settled one thing with her that night, though I had to hurt her feelings to do it. I owned a couple of small notes which had just fallen due, and I could spare the money. I put it as a loan to Hector himself; he was to pay me back when he got started, and so it was arranged that he could finish his course without his mother’s living on apples and toast.

I went over to his Commencement with Mary and we hadn’t been in the town an hour before we saw that Hector was the king of the place. He had all the honours; first in his class, first in oratory, first in everything; professors and students all kow-towed and sounded the hew-gag before him. Most of Mary’s time was put in crying with happiness. As for Hector himself, he had changed in just one way: he no longer looked at people to see his effect on them; he was too confident of it.

His face had grown to be the most determined I have ever seen. There was no obstinacy in it–he wasn’t a bull-dog–only set determination. No one could have failed to read in it an immensely powerful will. In a curious way he seemed “on edge” all the time. His nostrils were always distended, the muscles of his lean jaw were never lax, but continually at tension, thrusting the chin forward with his teeth hard together. His eyebrows were contracted, I think, even in his sleep, and he looked at everything with a sort of quick, fierce, appearance of scrutiny, though at that time I imagined that he saw very little. He had a loud, rich voice, his pronunciation was clipped to a deadly distinctness; he was so straight and his head so high in the air that he seemed almost to tilt back. With his tall figure and black hair, he was a boy who would have attracted attention, as they say, in any crowd, so that he might have been taken for a young actor. His best friend, a kind of Man Friday to him, was another young fellow from Greenville, whose name was Joe Lane. I liked Joe. I’d known him? since he was a boy. He was lazy and pleasant-looking, with reddish hair and a drawling, low voice. He had a humorous, sensible expression, though he was dissipated, I’d heard, but very gentle in his manners. I had a talk with him under the trees of the college campus in the moonlight, Commencement night. I can see the boy lying there now, sprawling on the grass with a cigar in his mouth.

See also  Turning The Tables by Eugenia Dunlap Potts

“Hector’s done well,” I said.

“Oh, Lord, yes!” Joe answered. “He always will. He’s going ‘way up in the world.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because he’s so sure of it. It only needs a little luck to make him a great man. In fact, he already is a great man.”

“You mean you think he has a great mind?”

“Why, no, sir; but I think he has a purpose so big and so set, that it might be called great, and it will make him great.”

“What purpose?”

Joe answered quietly but very slowly, pulling at his cigar after each syllable: “Hec–tor–J. Ran–som!”

“I declare,” I put in, “I thought you were his friend!”

“So I am,” the young fellow returned. “Friend, admirer, and doer-in-ordinary to Hector J. Ransom, that’s my quality. I’ve done errands and odd jobs for him all my life. Most people who meet him do; though it might be hard to say why. I haven’t hitched my wagon to a star; nobody’ll get to do that, because this star isn’t going to take anything to the zenith but itself.”

“Going to the zenith, is he?”


“You mean,” said I, “that he’s going to make a fine lawyer?”

“Oh, no, I think not. He might have been called one in the last generation, but, as I understand it, nowadays a lawyer has to work out business propositions more than oratory.”

“And you think Hector has only his oratory?”

“I think that’s his vehicle; it’s his racing sulky and he’ll drive it pretty hard. We’re good friends, but if you want me to be frank, I should say that he’d drive on over my dead body if it lay in the road to where he was going.” Lane rolled over in the grass with a little chuckle. “Of course,” he went on, “I talk about him this way because I know what you’ve done for him and I’d like to help you to be sure that he’s going to be a success. He’ll do you credit!”

“What are you going to do, yourself, Joe?” I asked.

“Me?” He sat up, looking surprised. “Why, didn’t you know? I didn’t get my degree. They threw me out at the eleventh hour for getting too publicly tight–celebrating Hector’s winning the works of Lord Byron, the prize in the senior debate! I’ll never be a credit to anybody; and as for what I’m going to do–go back to Greenville and loaf in Tim’s pool-room, I suppose, and watch Hector’s balloon.”

However, Hector’s balloon seemed uninclined to soar, at the set-off–though Hector didn’t. The next summer began a presidential campaign, and Hector, knowing that I was chairman of my county committee, and strangely overestimating my importance, came up to see me: he asked me to use my influence with the National Committee to have him sent to make speeches in one of the doubtful States; he thought he could carry it for us. I explained that I had no wires leading up so far as the National Committee. There were other things I might have explained, but it didn’t seem much use. Hector would have thought I wanted to “keep him down.”

He thought so anyway, because, after a crestfallen moment, he began to look at me in his fierce eye-to-eye way with what seemed to me a dark suspicion. He came and struck my desk with his clinched fist (he was always strong on that), and exclaimed:

“Then by the eternal gods, if my own flesh and blood won’t help me, I’ll go to Chicago myself, lay my credentials before the committee, unaided, and wring from them–“

“Hold on, Hector,” I said. “Why didn’t you say you had credentials? What are they?”

“What are they?” he answered in a rising voice. “You ask me what are my credentials? The credentials of my patriotism, my poverty, and my pride! You ask me for my credentials? The credentials of youth!” (He hit the desk every few words.) “The credentials of enthusiasm! The credentials of strength! You ask for my credentials? The credentials of red blood, of red corpuscles, of young manhood, ripest in the glorious young West! The credentials of vitality! Of virile–“

“Hold on,” I said again, but I couldn’t stop him. He went on for probably fifteen minutes, pacing the room and gesticulating and thundering at me, though we two were all alone. I felt mighty ridiculous, but, of course, I’d been through much the same thing with one or two candidates and orators before. I thought then that he was practising on me, but I came afterward to see that I was partly wrong. “Oratory” was his only way of expressing himself; he couldn’t just talk, to save his life. All you could do, when he began, was to sit and take it till he got through, which consumed some valuable time for me that afternoon. I suppose I was profane inside, for having given him that cue with “credentials.” Finally I got in a question:

“Why not begin a little more mildly, Hector? Why don’t you make some speeches in your own county first?”

“I have consented to make the Fourth of July oration at Greenville,” he answered.

Before he could go on, I got up and slapped him on the back. “That’s right!” I said. “That’s right! Go back and show the home folks what you can do, and I’ll come down to hear it!”

And so I did. Mary was, if possible, more flustered and upset than at Hector’s Commencement. She and Joe Lane and I had a bench close up to the stand, and on the other side of Mary sat a girl I’d never seen before. Mary introduced me to her in a way that made me risk a guess that Hector liked her more than common. Her name was Laura Rainey, and she’d come to Greenville, a year before, to teach in the high-school. She was young, not quite twenty, I reckoned, and as pretty and dainty a girl as ever I saw; thin and delicate-looking, though not in the sense of poor health; and she struck me as being very sweet and thoughtful. Joe Lane told me, with his little chuckle, that she’d had a good deal of trouble in the school on account of all the older boys falling in love with her.

Something in the way he spoke made me watch Joe, and I was sure if he’d been one of her pupils he wouldn’t have lightened her worries much in that direction. He had it himself. I saw it, or, I should say, I felt it, in spite of his never seeming to look at her. She looked at him, however, and pretty often, too; and there was a good deal of interest in her eyes, only it was a sad kind, which I understood, I thought, when I found that Joe had been on a long spree and had just sobered up the day before.

Hector sat above us on the platform, with the Mayor and the County Judge, and when the latter introduced him, and the same old white pitcher and glass of water on a pine table, the boy came forward with slow and impressive steps, and, setting his left fist on his hip, allowed his right arm to hang straight by his side till his hand rested on the table, like a statesman of the day standing for a photograph. His brow contained a commanding frown, and he stood for some moments in that position, while, to my astonishment, the crowd cheered itself hoarse.

There was no mistaking the genuine enthusiasm that he evoked, though I didn’t feel it myself. I suppose the only explanation is that he had a great deal of what is called “magnetism.” What made it I don’t know. He was good-looking enough, with his dark eyes and hair, and white, intense face and black clothes; but there was more in the cheering than appreciation of that. I could not doubt that he produced on the crowd, by his quiet attitude, an apparition of greatness. There was some kind of hypnotism in it, I suppose.

The speech was about what I was looking for: bombastic platitudes delivered with such earnestness and velocity that “every point scored” and the cheering came whenever he wanted it.

For instance: he would retire a few steps toward the rear, and, pointing to the sky, adjure it in a solemn voice which made every one lean forward in a dead hush:

“Tell me, ye silent stars, that seem to slumber ‘neath the auroral coverlet of day, tell me, down what laurelled pathways among ye walk our dead, the heroes whose blood was our benison, bequeathing to us the heritage of this flower-strewn land; they who have passed to that bourne whence no traveller returns? Answer me: Are not theirs the loftiest names inscribed on your marble catalogues of the nations?” He let his voice out startlingly and shouted: “CREEPS there a creature of the earth with spirit so sordid as to doubt it, to doubt who heads those gilded rolls! If there be, then I say to him, ‘Beware!’ For the names I see written above me to-day on the immemorial canopy of heaven begin with that of the spotless knight, the unsceptred and uncrowned king, the godlike and immaculate”–(here he turned suddenly, ran to the front of the stage, and, with outstretched fist shaking violently over our heads, thundered at the full power of his lungs): “GEORGE WASHINGTON!”

He did the same for Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, and four or five governors and senators of the State; and at every name the crowd went wild, worked up to it by Hector in the same way. But what surprised me was his daring to conclude his list with a votive offering laid at the feet of Passley Trimmer. Trimmer was the congressional representative of that district and one of the meanest men and smartest politicians in the world. He was always creeping out of tight places and money-scandals by the skin of his teeth; and yet, by building up the finest personal machine in the State, he stuck to his seat in Congress term after term, in spite of the fact that most of the intelligent and honest men in his district despised him. It was a proof of the power Hector held over his audience that, by his tribute to Trimmer, he was able to evoke the noisiest enthusiasm of the afternoon.

See also  Old Aeson by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Nevertheless, what really tickled me most was the boy’s peroration. It gave me a pretty clear insight into his “innard workings.” He led up to it in his favourite way: stepping backward a pace or two and sinking his voice to a kind of Edwin Booth quiet; gradually growing a little louder; then suddenly turning on the thunder and running forward.

“You ask me for our credentials?” he roared. (Nobody had, this time.) “In the Lexicon of the Peoples, you ask me for my country’s credentials? The credentials of our pastures, our population and our pride! You ask me for my country’s credentials? I reply: ‘The credentials of our youth and our enthusiasm! Of red corpuscles! Of red blood! The credentials of the virility and of the magnificent manhood of the Columbian Continent!’ You ask for my country’s credentials and I answer: ‘The credentials of Glory! By right of the eternal and Almighty God!’”

Of course there was a great deal more, but that’s enough to show how he had polished it.

* * * * *

I walked back to Mary’s with Joe Lane, while Hector followed, making a kind of Royal Progress through the crowds, with his mother and Miss Rainey.

“You see it now, yourself, don’t you?” Joe said to me.

“You mean about his doing well?”

“What else? He’s just shown what he can do with people. The day will come when you’ll have to take him at his own valuation.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Well, Joe,” I said, “that sounds as if you, at least, already took Hector at his own valuation.”

“In some things,” he answered, “I think I do. Don’t you take him for an ass, sir. Sometimes I believe he’s guided by a really superior intelligence–“

“Must be a sub-consciousness, then, Joe!”

“Exactly,” he said seriously. “He doesn’t make a single mistake. He’s trained his manner so that, while a very few people laugh at him, he does things that the town would resent in any one else. He doesn’t go round with the boys, and they look up to him for it. He isn’t pompous, but he’s acquired a kind of stateliness of manner that’s made Greenville call him ‘Mister Ransom’ instead of ‘Hec.’ You probably think that his request to the National Committee only shows he’s got all the nerve in the world; but I believe, on my soul, that if it had been granted he could have made good.”

“What did he want to run Passley Trimmer into his Pantheon for, to-day?” I asked.

Joe’s honest face looked a little dark at this. “It’s only another proof of the shrewdness that directs him, though it was, maybe, a little bit sickening. He talks gold and stars and eternal gods, about sweetness and light and pure politics and reform, but he wants Passley Trimmer’s machine to take him up. Passley Trimmer and his brother, Link, are a good-sized curse to this district, I expect you know, but Hector’s courting them. Link is the dirtiest we’ve ever had here, and he holds all the rottenest in this county solid for Passley. He’s overbearing; ugly, too; shot a nigger in the hip a year ago, and crippled him for life on account of a little back-talk, and got off scot-free. I had a row with him in a saloon last week; I was tight, I suppose, though there’s always been bad blood between us, anyway, drunk or sober, and I didn’t know much what happened, except that I refused to drink in his company and he cursed me out and I blacked an eye for him before they separated us. Well, sir, next day, here was Hector demanding that I go and apologize to Link. I said I’d as soon apologize to a rattlesnake, and Hector upbraided me in his rhetoric, but with a whole lot of real feeling, too. He was even pathetic about it: put it on the ground that I owed it to morality, by which he meant Hector. I was known to be his most intimate friend; I had done him an irrecoverable injury with the Trimmers, who would extend their retaliation and let him have a share of it, as my friend. He ended by declaring that he should withhold the light of his countenance from me until I had repaired the wrong done to his cause, and had apologized to Link!”

“Did you do it?”

The good fellow answered with his little chuckle: “Of course! Don’t you see that he gets everybody to do what he wants? It’s almost sheer will, and he’s a true cloud-compeller.”

I wanted to understand something else, and I didn’t know how much Mary could tell me; that is, I was sure that she would think that Miss Rainey was in love with Hector. Mary wouldn’t be able to see how any girl could help it.

“Joe,” I said, “does Hector seem much taken with this Miss Rainey?”

We had come to the gate, and Lane stopped to relight a cigar before he answered. He kept the match at the stub until it burned out, half hiding his face from me with his hands, shielding the flame from a breeze that wasn’t blowing.

“Yes,” he said finally, “as much as he could be with anybody–at least he wants her to be taken with him.”

“Do you think she is?”

He swung the gate open, and stood to let me pass in first. “She could be of great help to him. We’ve all got to help Hector.”

I was going on: “You believe she will–“

“Did you ever hear,” he interrupted, “of Jane Welsh Carlyle?”

I thought about that answer of Joe’s most of the evening, and it struck me he was right. It was one of those things you couldn’t possibly explain to save your life, but you knew it: everybody had got to help Hector. Everybody had to get behind him and push. Hector took it for granted in a way that passed the love of woman!

And yet, as we sat at Mary’s supper-table, that evening, I don’t know that I ever felt less real liking for any of my kin than I felt for Hector, though, perhaps, that was because he seemed to keep rubbing it in on me in indirect ways that I had done him an injury by not helping him with the National Committee, and that I ought to know it, after his triumph of the afternoon. I could see that Mary agreed with him, though in her gentle way.

Young Lane and Miss Rainey stayed for supper, too, and were very quiet. Miss Rainey struck me as a quiet girl generally, and Joe never talked, anyway, when in Hector’s company. For that matter, nobody else did; there was mighty little chance. The truth is, Hector had an impediment of speech: he couldn’t listen.

Of course he talked only about himself. That followed, because it was all there was in him. Not that it always seemed to be about himself. For instance, I remember one of his ways of rubbing it into me, that evening. He had been delivering himself of some opinions on the nature of Genius, fragments (like his “credentials”–I had a sneaking idea) of some undeveloped oration or other. “Look at Napoleon!” he bade us, while Mary was cutting the pie. “Could Barras with all his jealous and malevolent opposition, could Barras with all his craft, all his machinations, with all the machinery of the State, could Barras oppose the upward flight of that mighty spirit? No! Barras, who should have been the faithful friend, the helper, the disciple and believer, Barras, I say, set himself to destroy the youth whose genius he denied, and Barras was himself destroyed! He fell, for he had dared to oppose the path of one of the eternal stars!”

That was a sample, and I don’t exaggerate it. I couldn’t exaggerate Hector; it’s beyond me; he always exaggerated himself beyond anybody else’s power to do it. But I loved to hear Joe Lane’s chuckle and I got one out of him when I offered him a cigar as we went out on the porch.

“Take one,” I said. “It’s one of Barras’s best.”

“Better get in line,” was all he added to the chuckle.

* * * * *

A good many visitors dropped in, during the evening, Greenville’s greatest come to congratulate Hector on the speech. Everybody in the county was talking about him that night, they said. Hector received these people in his old-fashioned-statesman manner, though I noticed that already he shook hands like a candidate. He would grasp the caller’s hand quickly and decidedly, instead of letting the other do the gripping. And I could see that all those who came in, even hard-headed men twice his age, treated him deferentially, with the air of intimate respect that he somehow managed to exact from people. Perhaps I don’t do him justice: he was a “mighty myster’us” boy!

I sat and smoked, lounging in one of Mary’s comfortable porch-chairs. I managed without trouble to be in the background and I couldn’t help putting in most of my time studying Joe Lane and Miss Rainey. Those two were sitting, on the side-steps of the porch, a little apart from the rest of us–and a little apart from each other, too. Lord knows how you get such strong impressions, but I was very soon perfectly sure that these two young people were in love with each other and that they both knew it, but that they had given each other up. I was sure, too, that they were both under Hector’s spell, and preposterous as it may seem, that they were under his will, and that Hector’s plans included Miss Rainey for himself.

It was a mighty pretty evening; full of flower-smells and breezes from the woods, which began just across the village street. Joe sat in a sort of doubled-up fashion he had, his thin hands clasped like a strap round his knees. She sat straight and trim, both of them looking out toward where the twilight was fading. As the darkness came on I could barely make them out, a couple of quiet shadows, seemingly as far away from the group about the lamp-lit doorway where Hector sat, as if they were alone on big Jupiter who was setting up to be the whole thing, far out yonder in the lonely sky.

See also  Barber Him And The Tigers by Anonymous

By and by, the moon oozed round from behind the house and leaked through the trees and I could see them plainer, two silhouettes against the foliage of some bright lilac-bushes. Joe hadn’t budged, but the back of Miss Rainey’s head wasn’t toward me as it had been before; it was her profile. She was leaning back a little, against a post, and looking at Joe–just looking at him. Neither of them spoke a word the whole time, and somehow I felt they didn’t need to, and that what they had to say to each other had never been spoken and never would be. It was mighty pretty–and sad, too.

I felt so sorry for them, but it made me more or less impatient with Hector, and with Joe–especially with Joe, I think. It seemed to me he needn’t have taken his temperament so hopelessly. But what’s the use of judging? When a man has a temperament like that, people who haven’t can’t tell what he’s got to contend with.

That Fourth of July speech gave Hector his chance. His district managers and the Trimmer faction saw they could use him; and they sent him round stumping the district. Two campaigns later the State Committee was using him, and parts of his speeches were being printed in all the party papers over the State. Locally, I suppose you might say, he had become a famous man; at least he acted like one–not that there was any essential change in him. His style had undergone a large improvement, however; his language was less mixed-up, and he seemed clear-headed enough on “questions of the day,” showing himself to be well-informed and of a fine judgment.

In these things I thought I saw the hand of Laura Rainey. The teacher was helping him. The seriousness of his face had increased, he had always entirely lacked humour; yet the spell he managed to cast over his audiences was greater. He never once failed to “get them going,” as they say. At twenty-nine he was no longer called “a rising young orator”; no, he was usually introduced as the “Hon. Hector J. Ransom, the Silver-tongued Lochinvar of the West.”

Things hadn’t changed much at Greenville. Mary had always been so proud of Hector that she hadn’t inflated any more on account of his wider successes. She couldn’t, because she hadn’t any room left for it.

Joe Lane still went on his periodical sprees quite regularly, about one week every three months, and he was the least offensive tippler I ever knew. He came up to the city during one of his lapses, and called at my office. He was dressed with unusual care (he was always a good deal of a dandy), and he did not stagger nor slush his syllables; indeed, the only way I could have told what was the matter with him, at first, was by the solemn preoccupation of his expression. A little black pickaninny followed him, grinning and carrying a big bundle, covered with a new lace window-curtain.

“I am but a bearer of votive flowers,” Joe said, bowing. Then turning to the little darky, he waved his hand loftily. “Unveil the offering!”

The pickaninny did so, removing the lace curtain to reveal a shiny new coal-bucket in which was a lump of ice, whereon reposed a pair of white kid gloves and a large wreath of artificial daisies.

“With love,” said Joe. “From Hector.” And he stalked majestically out.

There was a card on the wreath, which Joe had inscribed: “To announce the betrothal. No regrets.”

Sure enough, the next morning I had a letter from Mary, telling me that Hector and Miss Rainey were engaged, that they had been so without announcing it, for several years, and she feared the engagement must last much longer before they could be married. So did I, for all of Hector’s glittering had brought him very little money. While he had some law practice, of course it was small, in Greenville, and what he had he neglected. Nor was he a good lawyer. I knew him to be heavily in debt to Lane, whose father had died lately, leaving Joe fairly well off; and I knew also that this debt sat very lightly on Hector. I judged so, because in the matter of the advances I had made for his education, I never heard him refer to them. Probably he forgot all about it, having so many more important things to think of.

Mary was right: it was a very long engagement. It had lasted seven years in all, when Passley Trimmer declared himself a candidate for the nomination for Governor and gave Hector the great chance he had been waiting for. Hector “came out” for Trimmer, and came out strong. He worked for him day and night, and he was one of the best cards in Trimmer’s hand.

It was easy enough to understand: Trimmer’s nomination would leave his seat in Congress vacant and the Trimmer crowd would throw it to Hector.

You could see that the “young Lochinvar” was really a power, and I think they counted on him almost as much as on the personal machine Trimmer had built up. Most of all, they counted on Hector’s speech, nominating Trimmer, to stampede the convention. If it was to be done, Hector was the man to do it. There’s no doubt in the world of the extraordinary capacity he had for whirling a crowd along into a kind of insane enthusiasm. He could make his audience enthusiastic about anything; he could have brought them to their feet waving and cheering for Ben Butler himself, if he had set out to do it. I believe that most of us who were against Trimmer were more afraid of Hector’s stampeding the convention than of Trimmer’s machine and all the money he was spending.

I was working all I knew for another man, Henderson, of my county, and our delegation would go into the convention sixty-three solid for Henderson, first, last, and all the time. On that account I had to play Barras again to the young Napoleon. He came to see me, and made one of his orations, imploring me to swing half of our delegation for Trimmer on the first ballot, and all of it on the second.

“But they count on me!” he declaimed. “They count on me to turn you! Is a man to be denied by his own flesh and blood? Are the ties of relationship nothing? Can’t you see that my whole future is put in jeopardy by your refusal? Here is my opportunity at last and you endanger it. My marriage and my fortune depend on it; the cup is at my lips. My long years of toil and preparation, the bitter, bitter waiting–are these things to go for nothing? I tell you that if you refuse me you may blast the most sacred hopes that ever dwelt in a human breast!”

I only smoked on, and so he did “the jury pathetic,” and he was sincere in it, too.

“Have you no heart?” he inquired, his voice shaking. “Can you think calmly of my mother? Remember the years she has waited to see this recognition come to her son! Am I to go back to her and tell her that your answer was ‘No’? I ask you to think of her, I ask you to put self out of your thoughts, to forget your own interests for once, and to think of my mother, waiting in the old home in the quiet village street where you knew her in her bright girlhood. Remember that she awaits your answer; forget me if you will, but remember what it means to her, I say, and then if there is a stone in your breast, instead of a human heart, speak the word ‘No’!”

I spoke it, and, as he had to catch his train, he departed more in anger than in sorrow, leaving me to my conscience, he told me. At the door he turned.

“I warn you,” he said, “that this faction of yours shall go down to defeat! Trimmer will win this fight, and I shall take his seat in Congress! That is my first stepping-stone, and I will take it! I have worked too hard and waited too long, for such as you to successfully oppose me. I tell you that we shall meet in the convention, and you and your machine will be broken! The rewards, then, to us, the victors!”

“Why, of course,” I said, “if you win.”

The Trimmer people were strong with the State Executive Committee, and, in spite of us, worked things a good deal their own way. They took the convention away from the State Capital to Greenville, which was, of course, a great advantage for Trimmer. The fact is, that most of the best people in that district didn’t like him, but you know how we all are: he was one of them, and as soon as it seemed he had a chance to beat men from other parts of the State, they began to shout themselves black in the face for their own. When I went down there, the day before the convention, the place was one mass of Trimmer flags, banners, badges, transparencies, buttons, and brass bands.

I went around to see Mary right away, and while she wasn’t exactly cold to me–the dear woman never could be that to anybody–she was different; her eyes met mine sadly and her old, sweet voice was a little tremulous, as if she were sorry that I had done something wrong.

I didn’t stay long. I started back to the Henderson headquarters in the hotel, but on my way I passed a big store-room on a corner of the Square, which Trimmer had fitted up as his own headquarters. There was quite a crowd of the boys going in and out, looking cheerful, fresh cigars in their mouths, and a drink or two inside, band coming down the street, everything the way an old-timer likes to see it.

Passley Trimmer himself came out as I was going by, and with him were his brother, Link, and two or three other men, among them a weasel-faced little fellow named Hugo Siffles, who kept a drug-store on the next corner. Hugo wasn’t anybody; nobody ever paid any attention to him at all; but he was one of those empty-headed village talkers who are always trying to look as if they were behind the scenes, always trying to walk with important people. Everybody knows them. They whisper to the undertaker at funerals; and during campaigns they have something confidential to communicate to United States Senators. They meddle and intrude and waste as much time for you as they can.

When Trimmer saw me, he held out his hand. “Hello, Ben! I hear you’re not for me!” he said cordially.

See also  Our Country Neighbours by Harriet Beecher Stowe

“How are you running?” I came back at him, laughing.

“Oh, we’re going to beat you,” he answered, in the same way.

“Well, you’ll see a good run, first, I expect!”

He walked along with me, Link and the others following a little way behind; but Hugo Siffles, of course, walking with us, partly to listen and tell at the drug-store later, and partly to look like state secrets.

“Sorry you couldn’t see your way to join us,” Trimmer said. “But we’ll win out all right, anyway. I shouldn’t think that would be much of a disappointment to you, though. It will be a great thing for one of your family.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “Hector.”

Trimmer took on a little of his benevolent statesman’s manner, which they nearly all get in time. “I have the greatest confidence in that young man’s future,” he said. “He may go to the very top. All he needs is money. I speak to you as a relative: he ought to drop that school-teacher and marry a girl with money. He could, easily enough.”

That made me a little ugly. “Oh, no,” I said. “He can make plenty in Congress outside of his salary, can’t he? I understand some of them do.”

Of course Trimmer didn’t lose his temper; instead, he laughed out loud, and then put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look here,” he said. “I’m his friend and you’re his cousin. He’s one of my own crowd and I have his best interests at heart. That isn’t the girl for him. He tells me that, for a long while, she used to advise him against having too much to do with me, until he showed her that winning my influence in his favour was his only chance to rise. Now, if you have his best interests at heart, as I have, you’ll help persuade him to let her go. Why shouldn’t he marry better? She’s not so young any longer, and she’s pretty much lost her looks. And then, you know people will talk–“

“Talk about what?” I said.

“Well, if he goes to Congress, and, with his prospects, throws himself away on a skinny little old-maid school-teacher in the backwoods, one that he’s been making love to for years, they might say almost anything. Why can’t he hand her over to Joe Lane? I’m sure–“

“That’ll do,” I interrupted roughly. “I suppose you’ve been talking that way to Hector?”

“Why, certainly. I have his best interests at–“

“Good-day, sir!” I said, and turned in at the hotel and left him, with Hugo Siffles’s little bright pig’s eyes peeking at me round Trimmer’s shoulder.

Sore enough I was, and cursing Trimmer and Hector in my heart, so that when some one knocked on my door, while I was washing up for supper, I said “Come in!” as if I were telling a dog to get out.

It was Joe Lane and he was pretty drunk. He walked over to the bed and caught himself unsteadily once or twice. I’d never seen him stagger before. He didn’t speak until he had sat down on the coverlet; then he shaded his eyes with his hand and stared at me as if he wanted to make sure that it was I.

“I’ve just been down to Hugo Siffles’s drugstore,” he said, speaking very slowly and carefully, “and Hugo was telling a crowd about a conver–conversation between you and Passley Trimmer. He said Trimmer said Hector Ransom ought to drop Miss Rainey–and ‘hand her over to Joe Lane,’ Is that true?”

“Yes,” I answered. “The beast said that.”

“There was more,” Joe said heavily. “More that im–implied–might be taken to imply scandal, which I believe Trimmer did not seriously intend–but thought–thought might be used as an argument with Hector to persuade him to jilt her?”


“What was said ex—actly? It is being repeated about town in various forms. I want to know.”

Like a fool I told him the whole thing. I didn’t think, didn’t dream, of course, what was in that poor, drunken, devoted head, and I wanted to blow off my own steam, I was so hot.

He sat very quietly until I had finished; then he took his head in both hands and rocked himself gently to and fro upon the bed, and I saw tears trickling down his cheeks. It was a wretched spectacle in a way, he being drunk and crying like a child, but I don’t think I despised him.

“And she so true,” he sobbed, “so good, so faithful to him! She’s given him her youth, her whole sweet youth–all of it for him!” He got to his feet and went to the door.

“Hold on, Joe,” I said, “where are you going?”

“‘Nother drink!” he said, and closed the door behind him.

After supper I went to work with Henderson and three or four others in a little back-room in our headquarters; and we were hard at it when one of the boys held up his hand and said: “Listen!”

The sounds of a big disturbance came in through the open windows: shouting and yelling, and crowds running in the streets below. The town had been so noisy all evening that I thought nothing of it. “It’s only some delegation getting in,” I said. “Go on with the lists.”

But I’d no more than got the words out of my mouth than the noise rolled into the outer rooms of our headquarters like a wave, and there was a violent hammering on the door of our room, some one calling my name in a loud frightened voice. I threw open the door and Hugo Siffles fell in, his pig’s eyes starting out of his pale, foolish face.

“Come with me!” he shouted, all in one breath, and laying hold of me by the lapel of my coat, tried to drag me after him. “There’s hell to pay! Joe Lane came into Trimmer’s headquarters, drunk, twenty minutes ago, and slapped Passley Trimmer’s face for what he said to us this afternoon. Link Trimmer came in, a minute later, drunk too, and heard what had happened. He followed Joe to Hodge’s saloon and shot him. They’ve carried him to the drug-store and he’s asked to speak to you.”

I had the satisfaction of kicking that little cuss through the door ahead of me, though I knew it was myself I ought to have kicked.

It was true that Joe had asked to speak to me, but when I reached the drug-store the doctor wouldn’t let me come into the back-room where he lay, so I sat on a stool in the store. They’d turned all the people out, except four or five friends of Joe’s; and the glass doors and the windows were solid with flattened faces, some of them coloured by the blue and green lights so that it sickened me, and all staring horribly. After about four years the doctor’s assistant came out to get something from a shelf and I jumped at him, getting mighty little satisfaction, you can be sure.

“It seems to be very serious indeed,” was all he would say. I knew that for myself, because one of the men in the store had told me that it was in the left side.

Half-an-hour after this–by the clock–the young man came out again and called us in to carry Joe home. It was not more than a hundred yards to the old Lane place, and six of us, walking very slowly, carried him on a cot through the crowd. He was conscious, for he thanked us in a weakish whisper, when we lifted him carefully into his own bed. Then the doctor sent us all out except the assistant, and we went to the front porch and waited, hating the crowd that had lined up against the fence and about the gate. They looked like a lot of buzzards; I couldn’t bear the sight of them, so I went back into the little hall and sat down near Joe’s door.

After a while the assistant opened the door, holding a glass pitcher in his hand.

“Here,” he said, when he saw me, “will you fill this with cold water from the well?”

I took it and hurried out to the kitchen, where four or five people were sitting and glumly whispering around an old coloured woman, Joe’s cook, who was crying and rocking herself in a chair. I hushed her up and told her to show me the pump. It was in an orchard behind the house, and was one of those old-fashioned things that sound like a siren whistle with the hiccups.

It took me about five minutes to get the water up, and when I got back to Joe’s room, a woman was there with the doctors. It was Miss Rainey. She had her hat off, her sleeves were rolled up and, though her face was the whitest I ever saw, she was cool and steady. It was she who took the water from me at the door.

I heard low voices in the parlour, where a lamp was lit, and I went in there. Mary was sitting on a sofa, with a handkerchief hard against her eyes, and Hector was standing in the middle of the room, saying over and over, “My God!” and shaking. I went to the sofa and sat by Mary with my hand on her shoulder.

“To think of it!” Hector moaned. “To think of its coming at such a time! To think of what it means to me!”

His mother spoke to him from behind her handkerchief: “You mustn’t do it; you can’t Hector–oh, you can’t, you can’t.”

For answer he struck himself desperately across the forehead with the palm of his hand.

“What is it,” I asked, “that your mother wants you not to do?”

“She wants me to give up Trimmer–to refuse to make the nominating speech for him to-morrow.”

“You’ve got to give him up!” cried his mother; and then went on with reiterations as passionate as they were weak and broken in utterance. “You can’t make the speech, you can’t do it, you can’t–“

“Then I’m done for!” he said. “Don’t you see what a frightful blow this pitiful, drunken folly of poor Joe’s has dealt Trimmer’s candidaoy? Don’t you see that they rely on me more than ever, now? Are you so blind you don’t see that I am the only man who can save Trimmer the nomination? If I go back on him now, he’s done for and I’m done for with him! It’s my only chance!”

“No, no,” she sobbed, “you’ll have other chances; you’ll have plenty of chances, dear; you’re young–“

“My only chance,” he went on rapidly, ignoring her, “and if I can carry it through, it will mean everything to me. The tide’s running strong against Trimmer to-night, and I am the only man in the world who can turn it the other way. If I go into the convention for him, faithful to him, and, out of the highest sense of justice, explain that, even though Lane has been my closest friend, he was in the wrong and that–“

See also  Waging War

Mary rose to her feet and went to her son and clung to him. “No, no!” she cried; “no, no!”

“I’ve got to!” he said.

“What is that you must do, Hector?” It was Miss Rainey’s voice, and came from just behind me. She was standing in the doorway that led from the hall, and her eyes were glowing with a brilliant, warm light. We all started as she spoke, and I sprang up and turned toward her.

“He’s going to get well,” she said, understanding me. “They say it is surely so!”

At that Mary ran and threw her arms about her and kissed her–and I came near it! Hector gave a sort of shout of relief and sank into a chair.

“What is that you must do, Hector?” Miss Rainey said again in her steady voice.

“Stick to Trimmer!” he explained. “Don’t you see that I must? He needs me now more than ever, and it’s my only chance.”

Miss Rainey looked at him over Mary’s shoulder. She looked at him a long while before she spoke. “You know why Mr. Lane struck that blow?”

“Oh, I suppose so,” he answered uneasily. “At least Siffles–“

“Yes,” she said. “You know. What are you going to do?”

“The right thing!” Hector rose and walked toward her. “I put right before all. I shall be loyal and I shall be just. It might have been a terribly hard thing to carry through, but, since dear old Joe will recover, I know I can do it.”

The girl’s eyes widened suddenly, while the warm glow in them flashed into a fiery and profound scrutiny.

“You are going to make the nominating speech,” she said. It was not a question but a declaration, in the tone of one to whom he stood wholly revealed.

“Yes,” he answered eagerly. “I knew you would see: it’s my chance, my whole career–“

But his mother, turning swiftly, put her hand over his mouth, though it was to Miss Rainey that she cried:

“Oh, don’t let him say it–he can’t; you mustn’t let him!”

The girl drew her gently away and put an arm about her, saying: “Do you think I could stop him?”

“But do you wish to stop me?” asked Hector sadly, as he stepped toward her. “Do you set yourself not only in the way of my great chance, but against justice and truth? Don’t you see that I must do it?”

“It is your chance–yes. I see the truth, Hector.” Her eyes had fallen and she looked at him no more, but, with a little movement away from him, offered her hand to him at arm’s length. It was done in a curious way, and he looked perplexed for a second, and then frightened. He dropped her hand, and his lips twitched.

“Laura,” he said, and could not go on.

“You must go now,” she said to all three of us. “The house should be very quiet. I shall be his nurse, and the doctor will stay all night. Isn’t it beautiful that Joe is going to get well!”

She went out quickly, before Hector could detain her, back to the room where Lane was.

* * * * *

There’s no need my telling you the details of that convention: Henderson was beaten from the start, and Hector’s speech was all that happened. If he hadn’t made it, there might have been a consolidation on a dark horse, for feeling was high against Trimmer. It isn’t an easy thing to go into a convention with a brother locked up in jail on a charge of attempted murder!

I’ll never forget Hector’s rising to make that speech. There wasn’t any cheering, there was a dead, cold hush. This wasn’t because his magnetism had deserted him; indeed, I don’t think it had ever before been felt so strongly. He was white as white paper, and his face had a look of suffering; altogether I believe I couldn’t give a better notion of him than saying that he somehow made me think of Hamlet.

He began in a very low but very penetrating voice, and I don’t think anybody in the farthest corner missed a single clear-cut syllable from the first. As I may have indicated, I had never been a warm admirer of his, but with all my prejudice, I think I admired him when he stood up to his task that day. For the effect he intended, his speech was a masterpiece, no less. I saw it before he had finished three sentences. And he delivered it, knowing that even while he did so he was losing the woman he loved; for Hector did love Laura Rainey, next to himself, and she had been part of his life and necessary to him. But though the heavens fell, he stuck to what he had set out to do, and did it masterfully.

Not that what he said could bear the analysis of a cool mind: nothing that Hector ever did or said has been able to do that. But for the purpose, it was perfect. For once he began at the beginning, without rhetoric, and he made it all the more effective by beginning with himself.

“Doubtless there are many among you who think it strange to see me rise to fulfil the charge with which you know me to be intrusted. My oldest and most intimate friend lies wounded on a bed of suffering, stricken down by the hand of another friend whose heart is in the cause for which I have risen. Therefore, you might well question me; you might well say: ‘To whom is your loyalty?’ Well might I ask myself that same question. And I will give you my answer: ‘There are things beyond the personal friendship of man and man, things greater than individual differences and individual tragedies, things as far higher and greater than these as the skies of God are higher than the roof of a child’s doll-house. These higher things are the good of the State and the Law of Justice!’”

That brought the first applause; and Trimmer’s people, seeing the crowd had taken Hector’s point, sprang to their feet and began to cheer. At a tense moment, such as this, cheering is often hypnotic, and good managers know how to make use of it on the floor. The noise grew thunderous, and when it subsided Hector was master of the convention. Then, for the first time, I saw how far he would go–and why. I had laughed at him all my life, but now I believed there was “something in him,” as they say. The Lord knows what, but it was there; and as I looked at him and listened it seemed to me that the world was at his feet.

He was infinitely daring, yet he skirted the cause of the quarrel with perfect tact: “The misinterpretation of a few careless and kindly words, said in passing, and repeated, with garbling additions, to a man who was not himself…. The brooding of a mind most unhappily beset with alcohol…. A blow resented by a too devoted but too violent kinsman….”

Then, with the greatest skill, and rather quietly, he passed to a eulogium of Trimmer’s public career, gradually increasing the warmth of his praise but controlling it as perfectly as he controlled the enthusiasm and excitement which followed each of his points. For myself, I only looked away from him once, and caught a glimpse of Henderson looking sick.

Hector finished with a great stroke. He went back to the original theme. “You ask me where my duty lies!” His great voice rose and rang through the hall magnificently: “I reply–‘first to my State and her needs’! Is that answer enough? If it be necessary that I should answer for my personal loyalty to one man or another then I ask you: Shall it go to the friend who, without cause, struck the first blow? Shall it go to that other friend who went out hot-headed and struck back to avenge a brother’s wrongs? Is it only between these that I–and many of you–are to choose to-day? Is there not a third?‘ I tell you that I have chosen, and that my loyalty and all my strength are devoted to that other, to that man who has suffered most of all, to him who received a blow and did not avenge it, because in his greatness he knew that his assailant knew not what he did!”

That carried them off their feet. Hector had turned Trimmer’s greatest danger into the means of victory. The Trimmer people led one of those extraordinary hysterical processions round the aisles that you see sometimes in a convention (a thing I never get used to), and it was all Trimmer, or rather, it was all Hector. Trimmer was nominated on the first ballot.

There was a recess, and I hurried out, meaning to slip round to Joe Lane’s for a moment to find out how he was. I’d seen the doctor in the morning and he said his patient had passed a good night and that Miss Rainey was still there. “I think she’s going to stay,” he added, and smiled and shook hands with me.

Joe’s old darkey cook let me in, and, after a moment, came to say I might go into Mr. Lane’s room; Mr. Lane wanted to see me.

Joe was lying very flat on his back, but with his face turned toward the door, and beside him sat Laura Rainey, their thin hands clasped together. I stopped on the threshold with the door half opened.

“Come in,” said Joe weakly. “Hector made it, I’m sure.”

“Yes,” I answered, and in earnest. “He’s a great man.”

Joe’s face quivered with a pain that did not come from his hurt. “Oh, it’s knowing that, that makes me feel like such a scoundrel,” he said. “I suppose you’ve come to congratulate me.”

“Yes,” I said, “the doctor says it’s a wonderful case, and that you’re one of the lucky ones with a charmed life, thank God!”

Joe smiled sadly at Miss Rainey. “He hasn’t heard,” he said. Then she gave me her left hand, aot relinquishing Joe’s with her right.

“We were married this morning,” she said, “just after the convention began.”

The tears came into Joe’s eyes as she spoke. “It’s a shame, isn’t it?” he said to me. “You must see it so. And I the kind of man I am, the town drunkard–“

Then his wife leaned over and kissed his forehead.

“Even so it was right–and so beautiful for me,” she said.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *