I guess I’ve been what you might call kind of an assistant boss pretty much all my life; at least, ever since I could vote; and I was something of a ward-heeler even before that. I don’t suppose there’s any way a man of my disposition could have put in his time to less advantage and greater cost to himself. I’ve never got a thing by it, all these years, not a job, not a penny—nothing but injury to my business and trouble with my wife. She begins going for me, first of every campaign.
Plenty of men go to pot horse-racing and stock gambling; and I guess this has just been my way of working off some of my nature in another fashion. There’s a good many like me, too; not out for office or contracts, nor anything that you can put your finger on in particular—nothing except the game. Of course, it’s a pleasure, knowing you’ve got more influence than some, but I believe the most you ever get out of it is in being able to help your friends, to get a man you like a job, or a good contract, something he wants, when he needs it.
I tell you then’s when you feel satisfied, and your time don’t seem to have been so much thrown away. You go and buy a higher-priced cigar than you can afford, and sit and smoke it with your feet out in the sunshine on your porch railing, and watch your neighbour’s children playing in their yard; and they look mighty nice to you; and you feel kind, and as if everybody else was.
But that wasn’t the way I felt when I helped to hand over to a reformer the nomination for mayor; then it was just selfish desperation and nothing else. We had to do it. You see, it was this way: the other side had had the city for four terms, and, naturally, they’d earned the name of being rotten by that time. Big Lafe Gorgett was their best. “Boss Gorgett,” of course our papers called him when they went for him, which was all the time; and pretty considerable of a man he was, too. Most people that knew him liked Lafe. I did. But he got a bad name, as they say, by the end of his fourth term as Mayor—and who wouldn’t? Of course, the cry went up all round that he and his crowd were making a fat thing out of it, which wasn’t so much the case as that Lafe had got to depending on humouring the gamblers and the brewers for campaign funds and so forth. In fact, he had the reputation of running a disorderly town, and the truth is, it was too wide open.
But we hadn’t been much better when we’d had it, before Lafe beat us and got in; and everybody remembered that. The “respectable element” wouldn’t come over to us strong enough for anybody we could pick of our own crowd; and so, after trying it on four times, we started in to play it another way, and nominated Farwell Knowles, who was already running on an independent ticket, got out by the reform and purity people. That is: we made him a fusion candidate, hoping to find some way to control him later. We’d never have done it if we hadn’t thought it was our only hope. Gorgett was too strong, and he handled the darkeys better than any man I ever knew. He had an organization for it which we couldn’t break; and the coloured voters really held the balance of power with us, you know, as they do so many other places near the same size, They were getting pretty well on to it, too, and cost more every election. Our best chance seemed to be in so satisfying the “law-and-order” people that they’d do something to counterbalance this vote—which they never did.
Well, sir, it was a mighty curious campaign. There never really was a day when we could tell where we stood, for certain. As anybody knows, the “better element” can’t be depended on. There’s too many of ‘em forget to vote, and if the weather isn’t just right they won’t go to the polls. Some of ‘em won’t go anyway—act as if they looked down on politics; say it’s only helping one boodler against another. So your true aristocrat won’t vote for either. The real truth is, he don’t care. Don’t care as much about the management of his city, State, and country as about the way his club is run. Or he’s ignorant about the whole business, and what between ignorance and indifference the worse and smarter of the two rings gets in again and old Mr. Aristocrat gets soaked some more on his sewer assessments. Then he’ll holler like a stabbed hand-organ; but he’ll keep on talking about politics being too low a business for a gentleman to mix in, just the same!
Somebody said a pessimist is a man who has a choice of two evils, and takes both. There’s your man that don’t vote.
And the best-dressed wards are the ones that fool us oftenest. We’re always thinking they’ll do something, and they don’t. But we thought, when we took Farwell Knowles, that we had ‘em at last. Fact is, they did seem stirred up, too. They called it a “moral victory” when we were forced to nominate Knowles to have any chance of beating Gorgett. That was because it was their victory.
Farwell Knowles was a young man, about thirty-two, an editorial writer on the Herald, an independent paper. I’d known him all his life, and his wife—too, a mighty sweet-looking lady she was. I’d always thought Farwell was kind of a dreamer, and too excitable; he was always reading papers to literary clubs, and on the speech-making side he wasn’t so bad—he liked it; but he hadn’t seemed to me to know any more about politics and people than a royal family would. He was always talking about life and writing about corruption, when, all the time, so it struck me, it was only books he was really interested in; and he saw things along book lines. Of course he was a tin god, politically.
He was for “stern virtue” only, and everlastingly lashed compromise and temporizing; called politicians all the elegant hard names there are, in every one of his editorials, especially Lafe Gorgett, whom he’d never seen. He made mighty free with Lafe, referred to him habitually as “Boodler Gorgett”, and never let up on him from one year’s end to another.
I was against our adopting him, not only for our own sakes—because I knew he’d be a hard man to handle—but for Farwell’s too. I’d been a friend of his father’s, and I liked his wife—everybody liked his wife. But the boys overruled me, and I had to turn in and give it to him.
Not without a lot of misgivings, you can be sure. I had one little experience with him right at the start that made me uneasy and got me to thinking he was what you might call too literary, or theatrical, or something, and that he was more interested in being things than doing them. I’d been aware, ever since he got back from Harvard, that I was one of his literary interests, so to speak. He had a way of talking to me in a quizzical, condescending style, in the belief that he was drawing me out, the way you talk to some old book-peddler in your office when you’ve got nothing to do for a while; and it was easy to see he regarded me as a “character” and thought he was studying me. Besides, he felt it his duty to study the wickedness of politics in a Parkhurstian fashion, and I was one of the lost.
One day, just after we’d nominated him, he came to me and said he had a friend who wanted to meet me. Asked me couldn’t I go with him right away. It was about five in the afternoon; I hadn’t anything to do and said, “Certainly,” thinking he meant to introduce me to some friend of his who thought I’d talk politics with him. I took that for granted so much that I didn’t ask a question, just followed along up street, talking weather. He turned in at old General Buskirk’s, and may I be shot if the person he meant wasn’t Buskirk’s daughter, Bella! He’d brought me to call on a girl young enough to be my daughter. Maybe you won’t believe I felt like a fool!
I knew Buskirk, of course (he didn’t appear), but I hadn’t seen Bella since she was a child. She’d been “highly educated” and had been living abroad a good deal, but I can’t say that my visit made me for her—not very strong. She was good-looking enough, in her thinnish, solemn way, but it seemed to me she was kind of overdressed and too grand. You could see in a minute that she was intense and dreamy and theatrical with herself and superior, like Farwell; and I guess I thought they thought they’d discovered they were “kindred souls,” and that each of them understood (without saying it) that both of them felt that Farwell’s lot in life was a hard one because Mrs. Knowles wasn’t up to him. Bella gave him little, quiet, deep glances, that seemed to help her play the part of a person who understood everything—especially him, and reverenced greatness—especially his. I remember a fellow who called the sort of game it struck me they were carrying on “those soully flirtations.”
Well, sir, I wasn’t long puzzling over why he had brought me up there. It stuck out all over, though they didn’t know it, and would have been mighty astonished to think that I saw. It was in their manner, in her condescending ways with me, in her assumption of serious interest, and in his going through the trick of “drawing me out,” and exhibiting me to her. I’ll have to admit that these young people viewed me in the light of a “character.” That was the part Farwell had me there to play.
I can’t say I was too pleased with the notion, and I was kind of sorry for Mrs. Knowles, too. I’d have staked a good deal that my guess was right, for instance: that Farwell had gone first to this girl for her congratulations when he got the nomination, instead of to his wife; and that she felt—or pretended she felt—a soully sympathy with his ambitions; that she wanted to be, or to play the part of, a woman of affairs, and that he talked over everything he knew with her. I imagined they thought they were studying political reform together, and she, in her novel-reading way, wanted to pose to herself as the brilliant lady diplomat, kind of a Madam Roland advising statesmen, or something of that sort. And I was there as part of their political studies, an object-lesson, to bring her “more closely in touch” (as Farwell would say) with the realities he had to contend with. I was one of the “evils of politics,” because I knew how to control a few wards, and get out the darkey vote almost as well as Gorgett. Gorgett would have been better, but Farwell couldn’t very easily get at him.
I had to sit there for a little while, of course, like a ninny between them; and I wasn’t the more comfortable because I thought Knowles looked like a bigger fool than I did. Bella’s presence seemed to excite him to a kind of exaltation; he had a dark flush on his face and his eyes were large and shiny.
I got out as soon as I could, naturally, wondering what my wife would say if she knew; and while I was fumbling around among the knick-knacks and fancy things in the hall for my hat and coat, I heard Farwell get up and cross the room to a chair nearer Bella, and then she said, in a sort of pungent whisper, that came out to me distinctly:
“My knight!” That’s what she called him. “My knight!” That’s what she said.
I don’t know whether I was more disgusted with myself for hearing, or with old Buskirk who spent his whole time frittering around the club library, and let his daughter go in for the sort of soulliness she was carrying on with Farwell Knowles.
Trouble in our ranks began right away. Our nominee knew too much, and did all the wrong things from the start; he began by antagonizing most of our old wheel-horses; he wouldn’t consult with us, and advised with his own kind. In spite of that, we had a good organization working for him, and by a week before election I felt pretty confident that our show was as good as Gorgett’s. It looked like it would be close.
Just about then things happened. We had dropped onto one of Lafe’s little tricks mighty smartly. We got one of his heelers fixed (of course we usually tried to keep all that kind of work dark from Farwell Knowles), and this heeler showed the whole business up for a consideration. There was a precinct certain to be strong for Knowles, where the balloting was to take place in the office-room of a hook-and-ladder company. In the corner was a small closet with one shelf, high up toward the ceiling. It was in the good old free and easy Hayes and Wheeler times, and when the polls closed at six o’clock it was planned that the election officers should set the ballot-box up on this shelf, lock the closet door, and go out for their suppers, leaving one of each side to watch in the room so that nobody could open the closet-door with a pass-key and tamper with the ballots before they were counted. Now, the ceiling over the shelf in the closet wasn’t plastered, and it formed, of course, part of the flooring in the room above. The boards were to be loosened by a Gorgett man upstairs, as soon as the box was locked in; he would take up a piece of planking—enough to get an arm in—and stuff the box with Gorgett ballots till it grunted. Then he would replace the board and slide out. Of course, when they began the count our people would know there was something wrong, but they would be practically up against it, and the precinct would be counted for Gorgett.
They brought the heeler up to me, not at headquarters (I was city chairman) but at a hotel room I’d hired as a convenient place for the more important conferences and to keep out of the way of every Tom-Dick-and-Harry grafter. Bob Crowder, a ward committee-man, brought him up and stayed in the room, while the fellow—his name was Genz—went over the whole thing.
“What do you think of it?” says Bob, when Genz finished. “Ain’t it worth the money? I declare, it’s so neat and simple and so almighty smart besides, I’m almost ashamed some of our boys hadn’t thought of it for us.”
I was just opening my mouth to answer, when there was a signal knock at the door and a young fellow we had as a kind of watcher in the next room (opening into the one I used) put his head in and said Mr. Knowles wanted to see me.
“Ask him to wait a minute,” said I, for I didn’t want him to know anything about Genz. “I’ll be there right away.”
Then came Farwell Knowles’s voice from the other room, sharp and excited. “I believe I’ll not wait,” says he. “I’ll come in there now!”
And that’s what he did, pushing by our watcher before I could hustle Genz into the hall through an outer door, though I tried to. There’s no denying it looked a little suspicious.
Farwell came to a dead halt in the middle of the room.
“I know that person!” he said, pointing at Genz, his brow mighty black. “I saw him and Crowder sneaking into the hotel by the back way, half an hour ago, and I knew there was some devilish—”
“Keep your shirt on, Farwell,” said I.
He was pretty hot. “I’ll be obliged to you,” he returned, “if you’ll explain what you’re doing here in secret with this low hound of Gorgett’s. Do you think you can play with me the way you do with your petty committee-men? If you do, I’ll show you! You’re not dealing with a child, and I’m not going to be tricked or sold out of this elec—”
I took him by the shoulders and sat him down hard on a cane-bottomed chair. “That’s a dirty thought,” said I, “and if you knew enough to be responsible I reckon you’d have to account for it. As it is—why, I don’t care whether you apologize or not.”
He weakened right away, or, at least, he saw his mistake. “Then won’t you give me some explanation,” he asked, in a less excitable way, “why are you closeted here with a notorious member of Gorgett’s ring?”
“No,” said I, “I won’t.”
“Be careful,” said he. “This won’t look well in print.”
That was just so plumb foolish that I began to laugh at him; and when I got to laughing I couldn’t keep up being angry. It was ridiculous, his childishness and suspiciousness. Right there was where I made my mistake.
“All right,” says I to Bob Crowder, giving way to the impulse. “He’s the candidate. Tell him.”
“Do you mean it?” asks Bob, surprised.
“Yes. Tell him the whole thing.”
So Bob did, helped by Genz, who was more or less sulky, of course; and is wasn’t long till I saw how stupid I’d been. Knowles went straight up in the air.
“I knew it was a dirty business, politics,” he said, jumping out of his chair, “but I didn’t realize it before. And I’d like to know,” he went on, turning to me, “how you learn to sit there so calmly and listen to such iniquities. How do you dull your conscience so that you can do it? And what course do you propose to follow in the matter of this confession?”
“Me?” I answered. “Why, I’m going to send supper in to our fellows, and the box’ll never see that closet. The man upstairs may get a little tired. I reckon the laugh’s on Gorgett; it’s his scheme and—”
Farwell interrupted me; his face was outrageously red. “What! You actually mean you hadn’t intended to expose this infamy?”
“Steady,” I said. I was getting a little hot, too, and talked more than I ought. “Mr. Genz here has our pledge that he’s not given away, or he’d never have—”
“Mister Genz!” sneered Farwell. “Mister Genz has your pledge, has he? Allow me to tell you that I represent the people, the honest people, in this campaign, and that the people and I have made no pledges to Mister Genz. You’ve paid the scoundrel—”
“Here!” says Genz.
“The scoundrel!” Farwell repeated, his voice rising and rising, “paid him for his information, and I tell you by that act and your silence on such a matter you make yourself a party to a conspiracy.”
“Shut the transom,” says I to Crowder.
“I’m under no pledge, I say,” shouted Farwell, “and I do not compound felonies. You’re not conducting my campaign. I’m doing that, and I don’t conduct it along such lines. It’s precisely the kind of fraud and corruption that I intend to stamp out in this town, and this is where I begin to work.”
“How?” said I.
“You’ll see—and you’ll see soon! The penitentiaries are built for just this—”
“Sh, sh!” said I, but he paid no attention.
“They say Gorgett owns the Grand Jury,” he went on. “Well, let him! Within a week I’ll be mayor of this town—and Gorgett’s Grand Jury won’t outlast his defeat very long. By his own confession this man Genz is party to a conspiracy with Gorgett, and you and Crowder are witnesses to the confession. I’ll see that you have the pleasure of giving your testimony before a Grand Jury of determined men. Do you hear me? And tomorrow afternoon’s Herald will have the whole infamous story to the last word. I give you my solemn oath upon it!”
All three of us, Crowder, Genz, and I, sprang to our feet. We were considerably worked up, and none of us said anything for a minute or so, just looked at Knowles.
“Yes, you’re a little shocked,” he said. “It’s always shocking to men like you to come in contact with honesty that won’t compromise. You needn’t talk to me; you can’t say anything that would change me to save your lives. I’ve taken my oath upon it, and you couldn’t alter me a hair’s breadth if you burned me at a slow fire. Light, light, that’s what you need, the light of day and publicity! I’m going to clear this town of fraud, and if Gorgett don’t wear the stripes for this my name’s not Farwell Knowles! He’ll go over the road, handcuffed to a deputy, before three months are gone. Don’t tell me I’m injuring you and the party by it. Pah! It will give me a thousand more votes. I’m not exactly a child, my friends! On my honour, the whole thing will be printed in to-morrow’s paper!”
“For God’s sake—” Crowder broke out, but Knowles cut him off.
“I bid you good-afternoon,” he said, sharply. We all started toward him, but before we’d got half across the room he was gone, and the door slammed behind him.
Bob dropped into a chair; he was looking considerably pale; I guess I was, too, but Genz was ghastly.
“Let me out of here,” he said in a sick voice. “Let me out of here!”
“Sit down!” I told him.
“Just let me out of here,” he said again. And before I could stop him, he’d gone, too, in a blind hurry.
Bob and I were left alone, and not talking any.
Not for a while. Then Bob said: “Where do you reckon he’s gone?”
“Reckon who’s gone?”
“To see Lafe.”
“Of course he has. What else can he do? He’s gone up any way. The best he can do is to try to square himself a little by owning up the whole thing. Gorgett will know it all any way, tomorrow afternoon, when the Herald comes out.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Bob. “We’re done up along with Gorgett; but I believe that idiot’s right, he won’t lose votes by playing hob with us. What’s to be done?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “You can’t head Farwell off. It’s all my fault, Bob.”
“Isn’t there any way to get hold of him? A crazy man could see that his best friend couldn’t beg it out of him, and that he wouldn’t spare any of us; but don’t you know of some bludgeon we could hang up over him?”
“Nothing. It’s up to Gorgett.”
“Well,” said Bob, “Lafe’s mighty smart, but it looks like God-help-Gorgett now!”
Well, sir, I couldn’t think of anything better to do than to go around and see Gorgett; so, after waiting long enough for Genz to see him and get away, I went. Lafe was always cool and slow; but I own I expected to find him flustered, and was astonished to see right away that he wasn’t. He was smoking, as usual, and wearing his hat, as he always did, indoors and out, sitting with his feet upon his desk, and a pleasant look of contemplation on his face.
“Oh,” says I, “then Genz hasn’t been here?”
“Yes,” says he, “he has. I reckon you folks have ‘most spoiled Genz’s usefulness for me.”
“You’re taking it mighty easy,” I told him.
“Yep. Isn’t it all in the game? What’s the use of getting excited because you’ve blocked us on one precinct? We’ll leave that closet out of our calculations, that’s all.”
“Almighty Powers, I don’t mean that! Didn’t Genz tell you—”
“About Mr. Knowles and the Herald? Oh, yes,” he answered, knocking the ashes off his cigar quietly. “And about the thousand votes he’ll gain? Oh, yes. And about incidentally showing you and Crowder up as bribing Genz and promising to protect him—making your methods public? Oh, yes. And about the Grand Jury? Yes, Genz told me. And about me and the penitentiary. Yes, he told me. Mr. Knowles is a rather excitable young man. Don’t you think so?”
“Well, what’s the trouble?”
“Trouble!” I said. “I’d like to know what you’re going to do?”
“What’s Knowles going to do?”
“He’s sworn to expose the whole deal, as you’ve just told me you knew; one of the preliminaries to having us all up before the next Grand Jury and sending you and Genz over the road, that’s all!”
Gorgett laughed that old, fat laugh of his, tilting farther back, with his hands in his pockets and his eyes twinkling under his last summer’s straw hat-brim.
“He can’t hardly afford it, can he,” he drawled, “he being the representative of the law and order and purity people? They’re mighty sensitive, those folks. A little thing turns ‘em.”
“I don’t understand,” said I.
“Well, I hardly reckoned you would,” he returned. “But I expect if Mr. Knowles wants it warm all round, I’m willing. We may be able to do some of the heating up, ourselves.”
This surprised me, coming from him, and I felt pretty sore. “You mean, then,” I said, “that you think you’ve got a line on something our boys have been planning—like the way we got onto the closet trick—and you’re going to show us up because we can’t control Knowles; that you hold that over me as a threat unless I shut him up? Then I tell you plainly I know I can’t shut him up, and you can go ahead and do us the worst you can.”
“Whatever little tricks I may or may not have discovered,” he answered, “that isn’t what I mean, though I don’t know as I’d be above making such a threat if I thought it was my only way to keep out of the penitentiary. I know as well as you do that such a threat would only give Knowles pleasure. He’d take the credit for forcing me to expose you, and he’s convinced that everything of that kind he does makes him solider with the people and brings him a step nearer this chair I’m sitting in, which he regards as a step itself to the governorship and Heaven knows what not. He thinks he’s detached himself from you and your organization till he stands alone. That boy’s head was turned even before you fellows nominated him. He’s a wonder. I’ve been noticing him long before he turned up as a candidate, and I believe the great surprise of his life was that John the Baptist didn’t precede and herald him. Oh, no, going for you wouldn’t stop him—not by a thousand miles. It would only do him good.”
“Well, what are you going to do? Are you going to see him?”
“No, sir!” Lafe spoke sharply.
“Well, well! What?”
“I’m not bothering to run around asking audiences of Farwell Knowleses; you ought to know that!”
“Given it up?”
“Not exactly. I’ve sent a fellow around to talk to him.”
“What use will that be?”
Gorgett brought his feet down off the desk with a bang.
“Then he can come to see me, if he wants to. D’you think I’ve been fool enough not to know what sort of man I was going up against? D’you think that, knowing him as I do, I’ve not been ready for something of this kind? And that’s all you’ll get out of me, this afternoon!”
And it was all I did.
It may have been about one o’clock, that night, or perhaps a little earlier, as I lay tossing about, unable to sleep because I was too much disturbed in my mind—too angry with myself—when there came a loud, startling ring at the front-door bell. I got up at once and threw open a window over the door, calling out to know what was wanted.
“It’s I,” said a voice I didn’t know—a queer, hoarse voice. “Come down.”
“Who’s ‘I’?” I asked.
“Farwell Knowles,” said the voice. “Let me in!”
I started, and looked down.
He was standing on the steps where the light of a street-lamp fell on him, and I saw even by the poor glimmer that something was wrong; he was white as a dead man. There was something wild in his attitude; he had no hat, and looked all mixed-up and disarranged.
“Come down—come down!” he begged thickly, beckoning me with his arm.
I got on some clothes, slipped downstairs without wakening my wife, lit the hall light, and took him into the library. He dropped in a chair with a quick breath like a sob, and when I turned from lighting the gas I was shocked by the change in him since afternoon. I never saw such a look before. It was like a rat you’ve seen running along the gutter side of the curbstone with a terrier after it.
“What’s the matter, Farwell?” I asked.
“Oh, my God!” he whispered.
“It’s hard to tell you,” said he. “Oh, but it’s hard to tell.”
“Want some whiskey?” I asked, reaching for a decanter that stood handy. He nodded and I gave him good allowance.
“Now,” said I, when he’d gulped it down, “let’s hear what’s turned up.”
He looked at me kind of dimly, and I’ll be shot if two tears didn’t well up in his eyes and run down his cheeks. “I’ve come to ask you,” he said slowly and brokenly, “to ask you—if you won’t intercede with Gorgett for me; to ask you if you won’t beg him to—to grant me—an interview before to-morrow noon.”
“Will you do it?”
“Certainly. Have you asked for an interview with him yourself?”
He struck the back of his hand across his forehead—struck hard, too.
“Have I tried? I’ve been following him like a dog since five o’clock this afternoon, beseeching him to give me twenty minutes’ talk in private. He laughed at me! He isn’t a man; he’s an iron-hearted devil! Then I went to his house and waited three hours for him. When he came, all he would say was that you were supposed to be running this campaign for me, and I’d better consult with you. Then he turned me out of his house!”
“You seem to have altered a little since this afternoon.” I couldn’t resist that.
“This afternoon!” he shuddered. “I think that was a thousand years ago!”
“What do you want to see him for?”
“What for? To see if there isn’t a little human pity in him for a fellow-being in agony—to end my suspense and know whether or not he means to ruin me and my happiness and my home forever!”
Farwell didn’t seem to be regarding me so much in the light of a character as usual; still, one thing puzzled me, and I asked him how he happened to come to me.
“Because I thought if anyone in the world could do anything with Gorgett, you’d be the one,” he answered. “Because it seemed to me he’d listen to you, and because I thought—in my wild clutching at the remotest hope—that he meant to make my humiliation more awful by sending me to you to ask you to go back to him for me.”
“Well, well,” I said, “I guess if you want me to be of any use you’ll have to tell me what it’s all about.”
“I suppose so,” he said, and choked, with a kind of despairing sound; “I don’t see any way out of it.”
“Go ahead,” I told him. “I reckon I’m old enough to keep my counsel. Let it go, Farwell.”
“Do you know,” he began, with a sharp, grinding of his teeth, “that dishonourable scoundrel has had me watched, ever since there was talk of me for the fusion candidate? He’s had me followed, shadowed, till he knows more about me than I do myself.”
I saw right there that I’d never really measured Gorgett for as tall as he really was. “Have a cigar?” I asked Knowles, and lit one myself. But he shook his head and went on:
“You remember my taking you to call on General Buskirk’s daughter?”
“Quite well,” said I, puffing pretty hard.
“An angel! A white angel! And this beast, this boodler has the mud in his hands to desecrate her white garments!”
“Oh,” says I.
The angel’s knight began to pace the room as he talked, clinching and unclinching his hands, while the perspiration got his hair all scraggly on his forehead. You see Farwell was doing some suffering and he wasn’t used to it.
“When she came home from abroad, a year ago,” he said, “it seemed to me that a light came into my life. I’ve got to tell you the whole thing,” he groaned, “but it’s hard! Well, my wife is taken up with our little boy and housekeeping,—I don’t complain of her, mind that—but she really hasn’t entered into my ambitions, my inner life. She doesn’t often read my editorials, and when she does, she hasn’t been serious in her consideration of them and of my purposes. Sometimes she differed openly from me and sometimes greeted my work for truth and light with indifference! I had learned to bear this, and more; to save myself pain I had come to shrink from exposing my real self to her. Then, when this young girl came, for the first time in my life I found real sympathy and knew what I thought I never should know; a heart attuned to my own, a mind that sought my own ideals, a soul of the same aspirations—and a perfect faith in what I was and in what it was my right to attain. She met me with open hands, and lifted me to my best self. What, unhappily, I did not find at home, I found in her—encouragement. I went to her in every mood, always to be greeted by the most exquisite perception, always the same delicate receptiveness. She gave me a sister’s love!”
I nodded; I knew he thought so.
“Well, when I went into this campaign, what more natural than that I should seek her ready sympathy at every turn, than that I should consult with her at each crisis, and, when I became the fusion candidate, that I should go to her with the news that I had taken my first great step toward my goal and had achieved thus far in my struggle for the cause of our hearts—reform?”
“You went up to Buskirk’s after the convention?” I asked.
“No; the night before.” He took his head in his hands and groaned, but without pausing in his march up and down the room. “You remember, it was known by ten o’clock, after the primaries, that I should receive the nomination. As soon as I was sure, I went to her; and I found her in the same state of exaltation and pride that I was experiencing myself. There was always the answer in her, I tell you, always the response that such a nature as mine craves. She took both my hands and looked at me just as a proud sister would. ‘I read your news,’ she said. ‘It is in your face!’ Wasn’t that touching? Then we sat in silence for a while, each understanding the other’s joy and triumph in the great blow I had struck for the right. I left very soon, and she came with me to the door. We stood for a moment on the step—and—for the first time, the only time in my life—I received a—a sister’s caress.”
“Oh,” said I. I understood how Gorgett had managed to be so calm that afternoon.
“It was the purest kiss ever given!” Farwell groaned again.
“Who was it saw you?” I asked.
He dropped into a chair and I saw the tears of rage and humiliation welling up again in his eyes.
“We might as well have been standing by the footlights in a theatre!” he burst out, brokenly. “Who saw it? Who didn’t see it? Gorgett’s sleuth-hound, the man he sent to me this afternoon, for one; the policeman on the beat that he’d stopped for a chat in front of the house, for another; a maid in the hall behind us, the policeman’s sweetheart she is, for another! Oh!” he cried, “the desecration! That one caress, one that I’d thought a sacred secret between us forever—and in plain sight of those three hideous vulgarians, all belonging to my enemy, Gorgett! Ah, the horror of it—what horror!”
Farwell wrung his hands and sat, gulping as if he were sick, without speaking for several moments.
“What terms did the man he sent offer from Gorgett?” I asked.
“No terms! He said to go ahead and print my story about the closet; it was a matter of perfect indifference to him; that he meant to print this about me in their damnable party-organ tomorrow, in any event, and only warned me so that I should have time to prepare Miss Buskirk. Of course he don’t care! I’ll be ruined, that’s all. Oh, the hideous injustice of it, the unreason! Don’t you see the frightful irony of it? The best thing in my life, the widest and deepest; my friendship with a good woman becomes a joke and a horror! Don’t you see that the personal scandal about me absolutely undermines me and nullifies the political scandal of the closet affair? Gorgett will come in again and the Grand Jury would laugh at any attack on him. I’m ruined for good, for good and all, for good and all!”
“Have you told Miss Buskirk?”
He uttered a kind of a shriek. “No! I can’t! How could I? What do you think I’m made of? And there’s her father—and all her relatives, and mine, and my wife—my wife! If she leaves me—”
A fit of nausea seemed to overcome him and he struggled with it, shivering. “My God! Do you think I can face it? I’ve come to you for help in the most wretched hour of my life—all darkness, darkness! Just on the eve of triumph to be stricken down—it’s so cruel, so devilish! And to think of the horrible comic-weekly misery of it, caught kissing a girl, by a policeman and his sweetheart, the chambermaid! Ugh! The vulgar ridicule—the hideous laughter!” He raised his hands to me, the most grovelling figure of a man I ever saw.
“Oh, for God’s sake, help me, help me....”
Well, sir, it was sickening enough, but after he had gone, and I tumbled into bed again, I thought of Gorgett and laughed myself to sleep with admiration.
When Farwell and I got to Gorgett’s office, fairly early the next morning, Lafe was sitting there alone, expecting us, of course, as I knew he would be, but in the same characteristic, lazy attitude I’d found him in, the day before; feet up on the desk, hat-brim tilted ‘way forward, cigar in the right-hand corner of his mouth, his hands in his pockets, his double-chin mashing down his limp collar. He didn’t even turn to look at us as we came in and closed the door.
“Come in, gentlemen, come in,” says he, not moving. “I kind of thought you’d be along, about this time.”
“Looking for us, were you?” I asked.
“Yes,” said he. “Sit down.”
We did; Farwell looking pretty pale and red-eyed, and swallowing a good deal.
There was a long, long silence. We just sat and watched Gorgett. I didn’t want to say anything; and I believe Farwell couldn’t. It lasted so long that it began to look as if the little blue haze at the end of Lafe’s cigar was all that was going to happen. But by and by he turned his head ever so little, and looked at Knowles.
“Got your story for the Herald set up yet?” he asked.
Farwell swallowed some more and just shook his head.
“Haven’t begun to work up the case for the Grand Jury yet?”
“No,” answered Farwell, in almost a whisper, his head hanging.
“Why,” Lafe said, in a tone of quiet surprise; “you haven’t given all that up, have you?”
“Well, ain’t that strange?” said Lafe. “What’s the trouble?”
Knowles didn’t answer. In fact, I felt mighty sorry for him.
All at once, Gorgett’s manner changed; he threw away his cigar, the only time I ever saw him do it without lighting another at the end of it. His feet came down to the floor and he wheeled round on Farwell.
“I understand your wife’s a mighty nice lady, Mr. Knowles.”
Farwell’s head sank lower till we couldn’t see his face, only his fingers working kind of pitifully.
“I guess you’ve had rather a bad night?” said Gorgett, inquiringly.
“Oh, my God!” The words came out in a whisper from under Knowles’s tilted hat-brim.
“I believe I’d advise you to stick to your wife,” Gorgett went on, quietly, “and let politics alone. Somehow I don’t believe you’re the kind of man for it. I’ve taken considerable interest in you for some time back, Mr. Knowles, though I don’t suppose you’ve noticed it until lately; and I don’t believe you understand the game. You’ve said some pretty hard things in your paper about me; you’ve been more or less excitable in your statements; but that’s all right. What I don’t like altogether, though, is that it seems to me you’ve been really tooting your own horn all the time—calling everybody dishonest and scoundrels, to shove yourself forward. That always ends in sort of a lonely position. I reckon you feel considerably lonely, just now? Well, yesterday, I understand you were talking pretty free about the penitentiary. Now, that ain’t just the way to act, according to my notion. It’s a bad word. Here we are, he and I”—he pointed to me—“carrying on our little fight according to the rules, enjoying it and blocking each other, gaining a point here and losing one there, everything perfectly good-natured, when you turn up and begin to talk about the penitentiary! That ain’t quite the thing. You see words like that are liable to stir up the passions. It’s dangerous. You were trusted, when they told you the closet story, to regard it as a confidence—though they didn’t go through the form of pledging you—because your people had given their word not to betray Genz. But you couldn’t see it and there you went, talking about the Grand Jury and stripes and so on, stirring up passions and ugly feelings. And I want to tell you that the man who can afford to do that has to be mighty immaculate himself. The only way to play politics, whatever you’re for, is to learn the game first. Then you’ll know how far you can go and what your own record will stand. There ain’t a man alive whose record will stand too much, Mr. Knowles—and when you get to thinking about that and what your own is, it makes you feel more like treating your fellow-sinners a good deal gentler than you would otherwise. Now I’ve got a wife and two little girls, and my old mother’s proud of me (though you wouldn’t think it) and they’d hate it a good deal to see me sent over the road for playing the game the best I could as I found it.”
He paused for a moment, looking sad and almost embarrassed. “It ain’t any great pleasure to me,” he said, “to think that the people have let it get to be the game that it is. But I reckon it’s good for you. I reckon the best thing that ever happened to you is having to come here this morning to ask mercy of a man you looked down on.”
Farwell shifted a little in his chair, but he didn’t speak, and Gorgett went on:
“I suppose you think it’s mighty hard that your private character should be used against you in a political question by a man you call a public corruptionist. But I’m in a position where I can’t take any chances against an antagonist that won’t play the game my way. I had to find your vulnerable point to defend myself, and, in finding it, I find that there’s no need to defend myself any longer, because it makes all your weapons ineffective. I believe the trouble with you, Mr. Knowles, is that you’ve never realized that politicians are human beings. But we are: we breathe and laugh and like to do right, like other folks. And, like most men, you’ve thought you were different from other men, and you aren’t. So, here you are. I believe you said you’d had a hard night?”
Knowles looked up at last, his lips working for a while before he could speak. “I’ll resign now—if you’ll—if you’ll let me off,” he said.
Gorgett shook his head. “I’ve got the election in my hand,” he answered, “though you fellows don’t know it. You’ve got nothing to offer me, and you couldn’t buy me if you had.”
At that, Knowles just sank into himself with a little, faint cry, in a kind of heap. There wasn’t anything but anguish and despair to him. Big tears were sliding down his cheeks.
I didn’t say anything. Gorgett sat looking at him for a good while; and then his fat chin began to tremble a little and I saw his eyes shining in the shadow under his old hat-brim.
He got up and went over to Farwell with slow steps and put his hand gently on his shoulder.
“Go on home to your wife,” he said, in a low voice that was the saddest I ever heard. “I don’t bear you any ill-will in the world. Nobody’s going to give you away.”
– by Booth Tarkington. First published in Everybody’s Magazine, December 1903.