A Far Country
This was not my first visit to the state capital. Indeed, some of that recondite knowledge, in which I took a pride, had been gained on the occasions of my previous visits. Rising and dressing early, I beheld out of the car window the broad, shallow river glinting in the morning sunlight, the dome of the state house against the blue of the sky. Even at that early hour groups of the gentlemen who made our laws were scattered about the lobby of the Potts House, standing or seated within easy reach of the gaily coloured cuspidors that protected the marble floor: heavy-jawed workers from the cities mingled with moon-faced but astute countrymen who manipulated votes amongst farms and villages; fat or cadaverous, Irish, German or American, all bore in common a certain indefinable stamp. Having eaten my breakfast in a large dining-room that resounded with the clatter of dishes, I directed my steps to the apartment occupied from year to year by Colonel Paul Barney, generalissimo of the Railroad on the legislative battlefield,—a position that demanded a certain uniqueness of genius.
"How do you do, sir," he said, in a guarded but courteous tone as he opened the door. I entered to confront a group of three or four figures, silent and rather hostile, seated in a haze of tobacco smoke around a marble-topped table. On it reposed a Bible, attached to a chain.
"You probably don't remember me, Colonel," I said. "My name is Pared, and I'm associated with the firm of Watling, Fowndes, and Ripon."
His air of marginality,—heightened by a grey moustache and goatee a la Napoleon Third,—vanished instantly; he became hospitable, ingratiating.
"Why—why certainly, you were down heah with Mr. Fowndes two years ago." The Colonel spoke with a slight Southern accent. "To be sure, sir. I've had the honour of meeting your father. Mr. Norris, of North Haven, meet Mr. Paret—one of our rising lawyers..." I shook hands with them all and sat down. Opening his long coat, Colonel Varney revealed two rows of cigars, suggesting cartridges in a belt. These he proceeded to hand out as he talked. "I'm glad to see you here, Mr. Paret. You must stay awhile, and become acquainted with the men who—ahem—are shaping the destinies of a great state. It would give me pleasure to escort you about."
I thanked him. I had learned enough to realize how important are the amenities in politics and business. The Colonel did most of the conversing; he could not have filled with efficiency and ease the important post that was his had it not been for the endless fund of humorous anecdotes at his disposal. One by one the visitors left, each assuring me of his personal regard: the Colonel closed the door, softly, turning the key in the lock; there was a sly look in his black eyes as he took a chair in proximity to mine.
"Well, Mr. Paret," he asked softly, "what's up?"
Without further ado I handed him Mr. Gorse's letter, and another Mr. Watling had given me for him, which contained a copy of the bill. He read these, laid them on the table, glancing at me again, stroking his goatee the while. He chuckled.
"By gum!" he exclaimed. "I take off my hat to Theodore Watling, always did." He became contemplative. "It can be done, Mr. Paret, but it's going to take some careful driving, sir, some reaching out and flicking 'em when they r'ar and buck. Paul Varney's never been stumped yet. Just as soon as this is introduced we'll have Gates and Armstrong down here—they're the Ribblevale attorneys, aren't they? I thought so,—and the best legal talent they can hire. And they'll round up all the disgruntled fellows, you know,—that ain't friendly to the Railroad. We've got to do it quick, Mr. Paret. Gorse gave you a letter to the Governor, didn't he?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well, come along. I'll pass the word around among the boys, just to let 'em know what to expect." His eyes glittered again. "I've been following this Ribblevale business," he added, "and I understand Leonard Dickinson's all ready to reorganize that company, when the time comes. He ought to let me in for a little, on the ground floor."
I did not venture to make any promises for Mr. Dickinson.
"I reckon it's just as well if you were to meet me at the Governor's office," the Colonel added reflectively, and the hint was not lost on me. "It's better not to let 'em find out any sooner than they have to where this thing comes from,—you understand." He looked at his watch. "How would nine o'clock do? I'll be there, with Trulease, when you come,—by accident, you understand. Of course he'll be reasonable, but when they get to be governors they have little notions, you know, and you've got to indulge 'em, flatter 'em a little. It doesn't hurt, for when they get their backs up it only makes more trouble."
He put on a soft, black felt hat, and departed noiselessly...
At nine o'clock I arrived at the State House and was ushered into a great square room overlooking the park. The Governor was seated at a desk under an elaborate chandelier, and sure enough, Colonel Varney was there beside him; making barely perceptible signals.
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Paret," said Mr. Trulease. "Your name is a familiar one in your city, sir. And I gather from your card that you are associated with my good friend, Theodore Watling."
I acknowledged it. I was not a little impressed by the perfect blend of cordiality, democratic simplicity and impressiveness Mr. Trulease had achieved. For he had managed, in the course of a long political career, to combine in exact proportions these elements which, in the public mind, should up the personality of a chief executive. Momentarily he overcame the feeling of superiority with which I had entered his presence; neutralized the sense I had of being associated now with the higher powers which had put him where he was. For I knew all about his "record."
"You're acquainted with Colonel Varney?" he inquired.
"Yes, Governor, I've met the Colonel," I said.
"Well, I suppose your firm is getting its share of business these days," Mr. Trulease observed. I acknowledged it was, and after discussing for a few moments the remarkable growth of my native city the Governor tapped on his desk and inquired what he could do for me. I produced the letter from the attorney for the Railroad. The Governor read it gravely.
"Ah," he said, "from Mr. Gorse." A copy of the proposed bill was enclosed, and the Governor read that also, hemmed and hawed a little, turned and handed it to Colonel Varney, who was sitting with a detached air, smoking contemplatively, a vacant expression on his face. "What do you think of this, Colonel?"
Whereupon the Colonel tore himself away from his reflections.
"What's that, Governor?"
"Mr. Gorse has called my attention to what seems to him a flaw in our statutes, an inability to obtain testimony from corporations whose books are elsewhere, and who may thus evade, he says, to a certain extent, the sovereign will of our state."
The Colonel took the paper with an admirable air of surprise, adjusted his glasses, and became absorbed in reading, clearing his throat once or twice and emitting an exclamation.
"Well, if you ask me, Governor," he said, at length, "all I can say is that I am astonished somebody didn't think of this simple remedy before now. Many times, sir, have I seen justice defeated because we had no such legislation as this."
He handed it back. The Governor studied it once more, and coughed.
"Does the penalty," he inquired, "seem to you a little severe?"
"No, sir," replied the Colonel, emphatically. "Perhaps it is because I am anxious, as a citizen, to see an evil abated. I have had an intimate knowledge of legislation, sir, for more than twenty years in this state, and in all that time I do not remember to have seen a bill more concisely drawn, or better calculated to accomplish the ends of justice. Indeed, I often wondered why this very penalty was not imposed. Foreign magistrates are notoriously indifferent as to affairs in another state than their own. Rather than go into the hands of a receiver I venture to say that hereafter, if this bill is made a law, the necessary testimony will be forthcoming."
The Governor read the bill through again.
"If it is introduced, Colonel," he said, "the legislature and the people of the state ought to have it made clear to them that its aim is to remedy an injustice. A misunderstanding on this point would be unfortunate."
"Most unfortunate, Governor."
"And of course," added the Governor, now addressing me, "it would be improper for me to indicate what course I shall pursue in regard to it if it should come to me for my signature. Yet I may go so far as to say that the defect it seeks to remedy seems to me a real one. Come in and see me, Mr. Paret, when you are in town, and give my cordial regards to Mr. Watling."
So gravely had the farce been carried on that I almost laughed, despite the fact that the matter in question was a serious one for me. The Governor held out his hand, and I accepted my dismissal.
I had not gone fifty steps in the corridor before I heard the Colonel's voice in my ear.
"We had to give him a little rope to go through with his act," he whispered confidentially. "But he'll sign it all right. And now, if you'll excuse me, Mr. Paret, I'll lay a few mines. See you at the hotel, sir."
Thus he indicated, delicately, that it would be better for me to keep out of sight. On my way to the Potts House the bizarre elements in the situation struck me again with considerable force. It seemed so ridiculous, so puerile to have to go through with this political farce in order that a natural economic evolution might be achieved. Without doubt the development of certain industries had reached a stage where the units in competition had become too small, when a greater concentration of capital was necessary. Curiously enough, in this mental argument of justification, I left out all consideration of the size of the probable profits to Mr. Scherer and his friends. Profits and brains went together. And, since the Almighty did not limit the latter, why should man attempt to limit the former? We were playing for high but justifiable stakes; and I resented the comedy which an hypocritical insistence on the forms of democracy compelled us to go through. It seemed unworthy of men who controlled the destinies of state and nation. The point of view, however, was consoling. As the day wore on I sat in the Colonel's room, admiring the skill with which he conducted the campaign: a green country lawyer had been got to introduce the bill, it had been expedited to the Committee on the Judiciary, which would have an executive session immediately after dinner. I had ventured to inquire about the hearings.
"There won't be any hearings, sir," the Colonel assured me. "We own that committee from top to bottom."
Indeed, by four o'clock in the afternoon the message came that the committee had agreed to recommend the bill.
Shortly after that the first flurry occurred. There came a knock at the door, followed by the entrance of a stocky Irish American of about forty years of age, whose black hair was plastered over his forehead. His sea-blue eyes had a stormy look.
"Hello, Jim," said the Colonel. "I was just wondering where you were."
"Sure, you must have been!" replied the gentleman sarcastically.
But the Colonel's geniality was unruffled.
"Mr. Maker," he said, "you ought to know Mr. Paret. Mr. Maker is the representative from Ward Five of your city, and we can always count on him to do the right thing, even if he is a Democrat. How about it, Jim?"
Mr. Maker relighted the stump of his cigar.
"Take a fresh one, Jim," said the Colonel, opening a bureau drawer.
Mr. Maker took two.
"Say, Colonel," he demanded, "what's this bill that went into the judiciary this morning?"
"What bill?" asked the Colonel, blandly.
"So you think I ain't on?" Mr. Maker inquired.
The Colonel laughed.
"Where have you been, Jim?"
"I've been up to the city, seem' my wife—that's where I've been."
The Colonel smiled, as at a harmless fiction.
"Well, if you weren't here, I don't see what right you've got to complain. I never leave my good Democratic friends on the outside, do I?"
"That's all right," replied Mr. Maker, doggedly, "I'm on, I'm here now, and that bill in the Judiciary doesn't pass without me. I guess I can stop it, too. How about a thousand apiece for five of us boys?"
"You're pretty good at a joke, Jim," remarked the Colonel, stroking his goatee.
"Maybe you're looking for a little publicity in this here game," retorted Mr. Maker, darkly. "Say, Colonel, ain't we always treated the Railroad on the level?"
"Jim," asked the Colonel, gently, "didn't I always take care of you?"
He had laid his hand on the shoulder of Mr. Maker, who appeared slightly mollified, and glanced at a massive silver watch.
"Well, I'll be dropping in about eight o'clock," was his significant reply, as he took his leave.
"I guess we'll have to grease the wheels a little," the Colonel remarked to me, and gazed at the ceiling....
The telegram apropos of the Ward Five leader was by no means the only cipher message I sent back during my stay. I had not needed to be told that the matter in hand would cost money, but Mr. Watling's parting instruction to me had been to take the Colonel's advice as to specific sums, and obtain confirmation from Fowndes. Nor was it any surprise to me to find Democrats on intimate terms with such a stout Republican as the Colonel. Some statesman is said to have declared that he knew neither Easterners nor Westerners, Northerners nor Southerners, but only Americans; so Colonel Varney recognized neither Democrats nor Republicans; in our legislature party divisions were sunk in a greater loyalty to the Railroad.
At the Colonel's suggestion I had laid in a liberal supply of cigars and whiskey. The scene in his room that evening suggested a session of a sublimated grand lodge of some secret order, such were the mysterious comings and goings, knocks and suspenses. One after another the "important" men duly appeared and were introduced, the Colonel supplying the light touch.
"Why, cuss me if it isn't Billy! Mr. Paret, I want you to shake hands with Mr. Donovan, the floor leader of the 'opposition,' sir. Mr. Donovan has had the habit of coming up here for a friendly chat ever since he first came down to the legislature. How long is it, Billy?"
"I guess it's nigh on to fifteen years, Colonel."
"Fifteen years!" echoed the Colonel, "and he's so good a Democrat it hasn't changed his politics a particle."
Mr. Donovan grinned in appreciation of this thrust, helped himself liberally from the bottle on the mantel, and took a seat on the bed. We had a "friendly chat."
Thus I made the acquaintance also of the Hon. Joseph Mecklin, Speaker of the House, who unbent in the most flattering way on learning my identity.
"Mr. Paret's here on that little matter, representing Watling, Fowndes and Ripon," the Colonel explained. And it appeared that Mr. Mecklin knew all about the "little matter," and that the mention of the firm of Watling, Fowndes and Ripon had a magical effect in these parts. The President of the Senate, the Hon. Lafe Giddings, went so far as to say that he hoped before long to see Mr. Watling in Washington. By no means the least among our callers was the Hon. Fitch Truesdale, editor of the St. Helen's Messenger, whose editorials were of the trite effectiveness that is taken widely for wisdom, and were assiduously copied every week by other state papers and labeled "Mr. Truesdale's Common Sense." At countless firesides in our state he was known as the spokesman of the plain man, who was blissfully ignorant of the fact that Mr. Truesdale was owned body and carcass by Mr. Cyrus Ridden, the principal manufacturer of St. Helen's and a director in several subsidiary lines of the Railroad. In the legislature, the Hon. Fitch's function was that of the moderate counsellor and bellwether for new members, hence nothing could have been more fitting than the choice of that gentleman for the honour of moving, on the morrow, that Bill No. 709 ought to pass.
Mr. Truesdale reluctantly consented to accept a small "loan" that would help to pay the mortgage on his new press....
When the last of the gathering had departed, about one o'clock in the morning, I had added considerably to my experience, gained a pretty accurate idea of who was who in the legislature and politics of the state, and established relationships—as the Colonel reminded me—likely to prove valuable in the future. It seemed only gracious to congratulate him on his management of the affair,—so far. He appeared pleased, and squeezed my hand.
"Well, sir, it did require a little delicacy of touch. And if I do say it myself, it hasn't been botched," he admitted. "There ain't an outsider, as far as I can learn, who has caught on to the nigger in the wood-pile. That's the great thing, to keep 'em ignorant as long as possible. You understand. They yell bloody murder when they do find out, but generally it's too late, if a bill's been handled right."
I found myself speculating as to who the "outsiders" might be. No Ribblevale attorneys were on the spot as yet,—of that I was satisfied. In the absence of these, who were the opposition? It seemed to me as though I had interviewed that day every man in the legislature.
I was very tired. But when I got into bed, it was impossible to sleep. My eyes smarted from the tobacco smoke; and the events of the day, in disorderly manner, kept running through my head. The tide of my exhilaration had ebbed, and I found myself struggling against a revulsion caused, apparently, by the contemplation of Colonel Varney and his associates; the instruments, in brief, by which our triumph over our opponents was to be effected. And that same idea which, when launched amidst the surroundings of the Boyne Club, had seemed so brilliant, now took on an aspect of tawdriness. Another thought intruded itself,—that of Mr. Pugh, the president of the Ribblevale Company. My father had known him, and some years before I had traveled halfway across the state in his company; his kindliness had impressed me. He had spent a large part of his business life, I knew, in building up the Ribblevale, and now it was to be wrested from him; he was to be set aside, perhaps forced to start all over again when old age was coming on! In vain I accused myself of sentimentality, and summoned all my arguments to prove that in commerce efficiency must be the only test. The image of Mr. Pugh would not down.
I got up and turned on the light, and took refuge in a novel I had in my bag. Presently I grew calmer. I had chosen. I had succeeded. And now that I had my finger at last on the nerve of power, it was no time to weaken.
It was half-past six when I awoke and went to the window, relieved to find that the sun had scattered my morbid fancies with the darkness; and I speculated, as I dressed, whether the thing called conscience were not, after all, a matter of nerves. I went downstairs through the tobacco-stale atmosphere of the lobby into the fresh air and sparkly sunlight of the mild February morning, and leaving the business district I reached the residence portion of the little town. The front steps of some of the comfortable houses were being swept by industrious servant girls, and out of the chimneys twisted, fantastically, rich blue smoke; the bare branches of the trees were silver-grey against the sky; gaining at last an old-fashioned, wooden bridge, I stood for awhile gazing at the river, over the shallows of which the spendthrift hand of nature had flung a shower of diamonds. And I reflected that the world was for the strong, for him who dared reach out his hand and take what it offered. It was not money we coveted, we Americans, but power, the self-expression conferred by power. A single experience such as I had had the night before would since to convince any sane man that democracy was a failure, that the world-old principle of aristocracy would assert itself, that the attempt of our ancestors to curtail political power had merely resulted in the growth of another and greater economic power that bade fair to be limitless. As I walked slowly back into town I felt a reluctance to return to the noisy hotel, and finding myself in front of a little restaurant on a side street, I entered it. There was but one other customer in the place, and he was seated on the far side of the counter, with a newspaper in front of him; and while I was ordering my breakfast I was vaguely aware that the newspaper had dropped, and that he was looking at me. In the slight interval that elapsed before my brain could register his identity I experienced a distinct shock of resentment; a sense of the reintrusion of an antagonistic value at a moment when it was most unwelcome....
The man had risen and was coming around the counter. He was Hermann Krebs.
"Paret!" I heard him say.
"You here?" I exclaimed.
He did not seem to notice the lack of cordiality in my tone. He appeared so genuinely glad to see me again that I instantly became rather ashamed of my ill nature.
"Yes, I'm here—in the legislature," he informed me.
"Exactly." He smiled. "And you?" he inquired.
"Oh, I'm only a spectator. Down here for a day or two."
He was still lanky, his clothes gave no evidence of an increased prosperity, but his complexion was good, his skin had cleared. I was more than ever baked by a resolute good humour, a simplicity that was not innocence, a whimsical touch seemingly indicative of a state of mind that refused to take too seriously certain things on which I set store. What right had he to be contented with life?
"Well, I too am only a spectator here," he laughed. "I'm neither fish, flesh nor fowl, nor good red herring."
"You were going into the law, weren't you?" I asked. "I remember you said something about it that day we met at Beverly Farms."
"Yes, I managed it, after all. Then I went back home to Elkington to try to make a living."
"But somehow I have never thought of you as being likely to develop political aspirations, Krebs," I said.
"I should say not! he exclaimed.
"Yet here you are, launched upon a political career! How did it happen?"
"Oh, I'm not worrying about the career," he assured me. "I got here by accident, and I'm afraid it won't happen again in a hurry. You see, the hands in those big mills we have in Elkington sprang a surprise on the machine, and the first thing I knew I was nominated for the legislature. A committee came to my boarding-house and told me, and there was the deuce to pay, right off. The Railroad politicians turned in and worked for the Democratic candidate, of course, and the Hutchinses, who own the mills, tried through emissaries to intimidate their operatives."
"And then?" I asked.
"Well,—I'm here," he said.
"Wouldn't you be accomplishing more," I inquired, "if you hadn't antagonized the Hutchinses?"
"It depends upon what you mean by accomplishment," he answered, so mildly that I felt more rued than ever.
"Well, from what you say, I suppose you're going in for reform, that these workmen up at Elkington are not satisfied with their conditions and imagine you can help to better them. Now, provided the conditions are not as good as they might be, how are you going to improve them if you find yourself isolated here, as you say?"
"In other words, I should cooperate with Colonel Varney and other disinterested philanthropists," he supplied, and I realized that I was losing my temper.
"Well, what can you do?" I inquired defiantly.
"I can find out what's going on," he said. "I have already learned something, by the way."
"And then?" I asked, wondering whether the implication were personal.
"Then I can help—disseminate the knowledge. I may be wrong, but I have an idea that when the people of this country learn how their legislatures are conducted they will want to change things."
"That's right!" echoed the waiter, who had come up with my griddle-cakes. "And you're the man to tell 'em, Mr. Krebs."
"It will need several thousand of us to do that, I'm afraid," said Krebs, returning his smile.
My distaste for the situation became more acute, but I felt that I was thrown on the defensive. I could not retreat, now.
"I think you are wrong," I declared, when the waiter had departed to attend to another customer. "The people the great majority of them, at least are indifferent, they don't want to be bothered with politics. There will always be labour agitation, of course,—the more wages those fellows get, the more they want. We pay the highest wages in the world to-day, and the standard of living is higher in this country than anywhere else. They'd ruin our prosperity, if we'd let 'em."
"How about the thousands of families who don't earn enough to live decently even in times of prosperity?" inquired Krebs.
"It's hard, I'll admit, but the inefficient and the shiftless are bound to suffer, no matter what form of government you adopt."
"You talk about standards of living,—I could show you some examples of standards to make your heart sick," he said. "What you don't realize, perhaps, is that low standards help to increase the inefficient of whom you complain."
He smiled rather sadly. "The prosperity you are advocating," he added, after a moment, "is a mere fiction, it is gorging the few at the expense of the many. And what is being done in this country is to store up an explosive gas that some day will blow your superstructure to atoms if you don't wake up in time."
"Isn't that a rather one-sided view, too?" I suggested.
"I've no doubt it may appear so, but take the proceedings in this legislature. I've no doubt you know something about them, and that you would maintain they are justified on account of the indifference of the public, and of other reasons, but I can cite an instance that is simply legalized thieving." For the first time a note of indignation crept into Krebs's voice. "Last night I discovered by a mere accident, in talking to a man who came in on a late train, that a bill introduced yesterday, which is being rushed through the Judiciary Committee of the House—an apparently innocent little bill—will enable, if it becomes a law, the Boyne Iron Works, of your city, to take possession of the Ribblevale Steel Company, lock, stock, and barrel. And I am told it was conceived by a lawyer who claims to be a respectable member of his profession, and who has extraordinary ability, Theodore Watling."
Krebs put his hand in his pocket and drew out a paper. "Here's a copy of it,—House Bill 709." His expression suddenly changed. "Perhaps Mr. Watling is a friend of yours."
"I'm with his firm," I replied....
Krebs's fingers closed over the paper, crumpling it.
"Oh, then, you know about this," he said. He was putting the paper back into his pocket when I took it from him. But my adroitness, so carefully schooled, seemed momentarily to have deserted me. What should I say? It was necessary to decide quickly.
"Don't you take rather a—prejudiced view of this, Krebs?" I said. "Upon my word, I can't see why you should accept a rumour running around the lobbies that Mr. Watling drafted this bill for a particular purpose."
He was silent. But his eyes did not leave my face.
"Why should any sensible man, a member of the legislature, take stock in that kind of gossip?" I insisted. "Why not judge this bill by its face, without heeding a cock and bull story as to how it may have originated? It is a good bill, or a bad bill? Let's see what it says."
I read it.
"So far as I can see, it is legislation which we ought to have had long ago, and tends to compel a publicity in corporation affairs that is much needed, to put a stop to practices which every decent citizen deplores."
He drew the paper out of my hand.
"You needn't go on, Paret," he told me. "It's no use."
"Well, I'm sorry we don't agree," I said, and got up. I left him twisting the paper in his fingers.
Beside the clerk's desk in the Potts House, relating one of his anecdotes, I spied Colonel Varney, and managed presently to draw him upstairs to his room. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"Do you know a man named Krebs in the House?" I said.
"From Elkington? Why, that's the man the Hutchinses let slip through,—the Hutchinses, who own the mills over there. The agitators put up a job on them." The Colonel was no longer the genial and social purveyor of anecdotes. He had become tense, alert, suspicious. "What's he up to?"
"He's found out about this bill," I replied.
"I don't know. But someone told him that it originated in our office, and that we were going to use it in our suit against the Ribblevale."
I related the circumstances of my running across Krebs, speaking of having known him at Harvard. Colonel Varney uttered an oath, and strode across to the window, where he stood looking down into the street from between the lace curtains.
"We'll have to attend to him, right off," he said.
I was surprised to find myself resenting the imputation, and deeply. "I'm afraid he's one of those who can't be 'attended to,'" I answered.
"You mean that he's in the employ of the Ribblevale people?" the Colonel inquired.
"I don't mean anything of the kind," I retorted, with more heat, perhaps, than I realized. The Colonel looked at me queerly.
"That's all right, Mr. Paret. Of course I don't want to question your judgment, sir. And you say he's a friend of yours."
"I said I knew him at college."
"But you will pardon me," the Colonel went on, "when I tell you that I've had some experience with that breed, and I have yet to see one of 'em you couldn't come to terms with in some way—in some way," he added, significantly. I did not pause to reflect that the Colonel's attitude, from his point of view (yes, and from mine,—had I not adopted it?) was the logical one. In that philosophy every man had his price, or his weakness. Yet, such is the inconsistency of human nature, I was now unable to contemplate this attitude with calmness.
"Mr. Krebs is a lawyer. Has he accepted a pass from the Railroad?" I demanded, knowing the custom of that corporation of conferring this delicate favour on the promising young talent in my profession.
"I reckon he's never had the chance," said Mr. Varney.
"Well, has he taken a pass as a member of the legislature?"
"No,—I remember looking that up when he first came down. Sent that back, if I recall the matter correctly." Colonel Varney went to a desk in the corner of the room, unlocked it, drew forth a black book, and running his fingers through the pages stopped at the letter K. "Yes, sent back his legislative pass, but I've known 'em to do that when they were holding out for something more. There must be somebody who can get close to him."
The Colonel ruminated awhile. Then he strode to the door and called out to the group of men who were always lounging in the hall.
"Tell Alf Young I want to see him, Fred."
I waited, by no means free from uneasiness and anxiety, from a certain lack of self-respect that was unfamiliar. Mr. Young, the Colonel explained, was a legal light in Galesburg, near Elkington,—the Railroad lawyer there. And when at last Mr. Young appeared he proved to be an oily gentleman of about forty, inclining to stoutness, with one of those "blue," shaven faces.
"Want me, Colonel?" he inquired blithely, when the door had closed behind him; and added obsequiously, when introduced to me, "Glad to meet you, Mr. Paret. My regards to Mr. Watling, when you go back.
"Alf," demanded the Colonel, "what do you know of this fellow Krebs?"
Mr. Young laughed. Krebs was "nutty," he declared—that was all there was to it.
"Won't he—listen to reason?"
"It's been tried, Colonel. Say, he wouldn't know a hundred-dollar bill if you showed him one."
"What does he want?"
"Oh, something,—that's sure, they all want something." Mr. Young shrugged his shoulder expressively, and by a skillful manipulation of his lips shifted his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other without raising his hands. "But it ain't money. I guess he's got a notion that later on the labour unions'll send him to the United States Senate some day. He's no slouch, either, when it comes to law. I can tell you that."
"No—no flaw in his—record?" Colonel Varney's agate eyes sought those of Mr. Young, meaningly.
"That's been tried, too," declared the Galesburg attorney. "Say, you can believe it or not, but we've never dug anything up so far. He's been too slick for us, I guess."
"Well," exclaimed the Colonel, at length, "let him squeal and be d—d! He can't do any more than make a noise. Only I hoped we'd be able to grease this thing along and slide it through the Senate this afternoon, before they got wind of it."
"He'll squeal, all right, until you smother him," Mr. Young observed.
"We'll smother him some day!" replied the Colonel, savagely.
Mr. Young laughed.
But as I made my way toward the State House I was conscious of a feeling of relief. I had no sooner gained a front seat in the gallery of the House of Representatives when the members rose, the Senate marched gravely in, the Speaker stopped jesting with the Chaplain, and over the Chaplain's face came suddenly an agonized expression. Folding his hands across his stomach he began to call on God with terrific fervour, in an intense and resounding voice. I was struck suddenly by the irony of it all. Why have a legislature when Colonel Paul Varney was so efficient! The legislature was a mere sop to democratic prejudice, to pray over it heightened the travesty. Suppose there were a God after all? not necessarily the magnified monarch to whom these pseudo-democrats prayed, but an Intelligent Force that makes for righteousness. How did He, or It, like to be trifled with in this way? And, if He existed, would not His disgust be immeasurable as He contemplated that unctuous figure in the "Prince Albert" coat, who pretended to represent Him?
As the routine business began I searched for Krebs, to find him presently at a desk beside a window in the rear of the hall making notes on a paper; there was, confessedly, little satisfaction in the thought that the man whose gaunt features I contemplated was merely one of those impractical idealists who beat themselves to pieces against the forces that sway the world and must forever sway it. I should be compelled to admit that he represented something unique in that assembly if he had the courage to get up and oppose House Bill 709. I watched him narrowly; the suggestion intruded itself—perhaps he had been "seen," as the Colonel expressed it. I repudiated it. I grew impatient, feverish; the monotonous reading of the clerk was interrupted now and then by the sharp tones of the Speaker assigning his various measures to this or that committee, "unless objection is offered," while the members moved about and murmured among themselves; Krebs had stopped making notes; he was looking out of the window. At last, without any change of emphasis in his droning voice, the clerk announced the recommendation of the Committee on Judiciary that House Bill 709 ought to pass.
Down in front a man had risen from his seat—the felicitous Mr. Truesdale. Glancing around at his fellow-members he then began to explain in the impressive but conversational tone of one whose counsels are in the habit of being listened to, that this was merely a little measure to remedy a flaw in the statutes. Mr. Truesdale believed in corporations when corporations were good, and this bill was calculated to make them good, to put an end to jugglery and concealment. Our great state, he said, should be in the forefront of such wise legislation, which made for justice and a proper publicity; but the bill in question was of greater interest to lawyers than to laymen, a committee composed largely of lawyers had recommended it unanimously, and he was sure that no opposition would develop in the House. In order not to take up their time he asked: therefore, that it be immediately put on its second and third reading and allowed to pass.
He sat down, and I looked at Krebs. Could he, could any man, any lawyer, have the presumption to question such an obviously desirable measure, to arraign the united judgment of the committee's legal talent? Such was the note Mr. Truesdale so admirably struck. As though fascinated, I continued to gaze at Krebs. I hated him, I desired to see him humiliated, and yet amazingly I found myself wishing with almost equal vehemence that he would be true to himself. He was rising,—slowly, timidly, I thought, his hand clutching his desk lid, his voice sounding wholly inadequate as he addressed the Speaker. The Speaker hesitated, his tone palpably supercilious.
"The gentleman from—from Elkington, Mr. Krebs."
There was a craning of necks, a staring, a tittering. I burned with vicarious shame as Krebs stood there awkwardly, his hand still holding the desk. There were cries of "louder" when he began; some picked up their newspapers, while others started conversations. The Speaker rapped with his gavel, and I failed to hear the opening words. Krebs paused, and began again. His speech did not, at first, flow easily.
"Mr. Speaker, I rise to protest against this bill, which in my opinion is not so innocent as the gentleman from St. Helen's would have the House believe. It is on a par, indeed, with other legislation that in past years has been engineered through this legislature under the guise of beneficent law. No, not on a par. It is the most arrogant, the most monstrous example of special legislation of them all. And while I do not expect to be able to delay its passage much longer than the time I shall be on my feet—"
"Then why not sit down?" came a voice, just audible.
As he turned swiftly toward the offender his profile had an eagle-like effect that startled me, seemingly realizing a new quality in the man. It was as though he had needed just the stimulus of that interruption to electrify and transform him. His awkwardness disappeared; and if he was a little bombastic, a little "young," he spoke with the fire of conviction.
"Because," he cried, "because I should lose my self-respect for life if I sat here and permitted the political organization of a railroad, the members of which are here under the guise of servants of the people, to cow me into silence. And if it be treason to mention the name of that Railroad in connection with its political tyranny, then make the most of it." He let go of the desk, and tapped the copy of the bill. "What are the facts? The Boyne Iron Works, under the presidency of Adolf Scherer, has been engaged in litigation with the Ribblevale Steel Company for some years: and this bill is intended to put into the hands of the attorneys for Mr. Scherer certain information that will enable him to get possession of the property. Gentlemen, that is what 'legal practice' has descended to in the hands of respectable lawyers. This device originated with the resourceful Mr. Theodore Watling, and if it had not had the approval of Mr. Miller Gorse, it would never have got any farther than the judiciary committee. It was confided to the skillful care of Colonel Paul Varney to be steered through this legislature, as hundreds of other measures have been steered through,—without unnecessary noise. It may be asked why the Railroad should bother itself by lending its political organization to private corporations? I will tell you. Because corporations like the Boyne corporation are a part of a network of interests, these corporations aid the Railroad to maintain its monopoly, and in return receive rebates."
Krebs had raised his voice as the murmurs became louder. At this point a sharp-faced lawyer from Belfast got to his feet and objected that the gentleman from Elkington was wasting the time of the House, indulging in hearsay. His remarks were not germane, etc. The Speaker rapped again, with a fine show of impartiality, and cautioned the member from Elkington.
"Very well," replied Krebs. "I have said what I wanted to say on that score, and I know it to be the truth. And if this House does not find it germane, the day is coming when its constituents will."
Whereupon he entered into a discussion of the bill, dissecting it with more calmness, with an ability that must have commanded, even from some hostile minds, an unwilling respect. The penalty, he said, was outrageous, hitherto unheard of in law,—putting a corporation in the hands of a receiver, at the mercy of those who coveted it, because one of its officers refused, or was unable, to testify. He might be in China, in Timbuctoo when the summons was delivered at his last or usual place of abode. Here was an enormity, an exercise of tyrannical power exceeding all bounds, a travesty on popular government.... He ended by pointing out the significance of the fact that the committee had given no hearings; by declaring that if the bill became a law, it would inevitably react upon the heads of those who were responsible for it.
He sat down, and there was a flutter of applause from the scattered audience in the gallery.
"By God, that's the only man in the whole place!"
I was aware, for the first time, of a neighbour at my side,—a solid, red-faced man, evidently a farmer. His trousers were tucked into his boots, and his gnarled and powerful hands, ingrained with dirt, clutched the arms of the seat as he leaned forward.
"Didn't he just naturally lambaste 'em?" he cried excitedly. "They'll down him, I guess,—but say, he's right. A man would lose his self-respect if he didn't let out his mind at them hoss thieves, wouldn't he? What's that fellow's name?"
I told him.
"Krebs," he repeated. "I want to remember that. Durned if I don't shake hands with him."
His excitement astonished me. Would the public feel like that, if they only knew?... The Speaker's gavel had come down like a pistol shot.
One "war-hoss"—as my neighbour called them—after another proceeded to crush the member from Elkington. It was, indeed, very skillfully done, and yet it was a process from which I did not derive, somehow, much pleasure. Colonel Varney's army had been magnificently trained to meet just this kind of situation: some employed ridicule, others declared, in impassioned tones, that the good name of their state had been wantonly assailed, and pointed fervently to portraits on the walls of patriots of the past,—sentiments that drew applause from the fickle gallery. One gentleman observed that the obsession of a "railroad machine" was a sure symptom of a certain kind of insanity, of which the first speaker had given many other evidences. The farmer at my side remained staunch.
"They can't fool me," he said angrily, "I know 'em. Do you see that fellow gettin' up to talk now? Well, I could tell you a few things about him, all right. He comes from Glasgow, and his name's Letchworth. He's done more harm in his life than all the criminals he's kept out of prison,—belongs to one of the old families down there, too."
I had, indeed, remarked Letchworth's face, which seemed to me peculiarly evil, its lividity enhanced by a shock of grey hair. His method was withering sarcasm, and he was clearly unable to control his animus....
No champion appeared to support Krebs, who sat pale and tense while this denunciation of him was going on. Finally he got the floor. His voice trembled a little, whether with passion, excitement, or nervousness it was impossible to say. But he contented himself with a brief defiance. If the bill passed, he declared, the men who voted for it, the men who were behind it, would ultimately be driven from political life by an indignant public. He had a higher opinion of the voters of the state than those who accused him of slandering it, than those who sat silent and had not lifted their voices against this crime.
When the bill was put to a vote he demanded a roll call. Ten members besides himself were recorded against House Bill No. 709!
In spite of this overwhelming triumph my feelings were not wholly those of satisfaction when I returned to the hotel and listened to the exultations and denunciations of such politicians as Letchworth, Young, and Colonel Varney. Perhaps an image suggesting Hermann Krebs as some splendid animal at bay, dragged down by the hounds, is too strong: he had been ingloriously crushed, and defeat, even for the sake of conviction, was not an inspiring spectacle.... As the chase swept on over his prostrate figure I rapidly regained poise and a sense of proportion; a "master of life" could not permit himself to be tossed about by sentimentality; and gradually I grew ashamed of my bad quarter of an hour in the gallery of the House, and of the effect of it—which lingered awhile—as of a weakness suddenly revealed, which must at all costs be overcome. I began to see something dramatic and sensational in Krebs's performance....
The Ribblevale Steel Company was the real quarry, after all. And such had been the expedition, the skill and secrecy, with which our affair was conducted, that before the Ribblevale lawyers could arrive, alarmed and breathless, the bill had passed the House, and their only real chance of halting it had been lost. For the Railroad controlled the House, not by owning the individuals composing it, but through the leaders who dominated it,—men like Letchworth and Truesdale. These, and Colonel Varney, had seen to it that men who had any parliamentary ability had been attended to; all save Krebs, who had proved a surprise. There were indeed certain members who, although they had railroad passes in their pockets (which were regarded as just perquisites,—the Railroad being so rich!), would have opposed the bill if they had felt sufficiently sure of themselves to cope with such veterans as Letchworth. Many of these had allowed themselves to be won over or cowed by the oratory which had crushed Krebs.
Nor did the Ribblevale people—be it recorded—scruple to fight fire with fire. Their existence, of course, was at stake, and there was no public to appeal to. A part of the legal army that rushed to the aid of our adversaries spent the afternoon and most of the night organizing all those who could be induced by one means or another to reverse their sentiments, and in searching for the few who had grievances against the existing power. The following morning a motion was introduced to reconsider; and in the debate that followed, Krebs, still defiant, took an active part. But the resolution required a two-thirds vote, and was lost.
When the battle was shifted to the Senate it was as good as lost. The Judiciary Committee of the august body did indeed condescend to give hearings, at which the Ribblevale lawyers exhausted their energy and ingenuity without result with only two dissenting votes the bill was calmly passed. In vain was the Governor besieged, entreated, threatened,—it was said; Mr. Trulease had informed protesters—so Colonel Varney gleefully reported—that he had "become fully convinced of the inherent justice of the measure." On Saturday morning he signed it, and it became a law....
Colonel Varney, as he accompanied me to the train, did not conceal his jubilation.
"Perhaps I ought not to say it, Mr. Paret, but it couldn't have been done neater. That's the art in these little affairs, to get 'em runnin' fast, to get momentum on 'em before the other party wakes up, and then he can't stop 'em." As he shook hands in farewell he added, with more gravity: "We'll see each other often, sir, I guess. My very best regards to Mr. Watling."
Needless to say, I had not confided to him the part I had played in originating House Bill No. 709, now a law of the state. But as the train rolled on through the sunny winter landscape a sense of well-being, of importance and power began to steal through me. I was victoriously bearing home my first scalp,—one which was by no means to be despised.... It was not until we reached Rossiter, about five o'clock, that I was able to get the evening newspapers. Such was the perfection of the organization of which I might now call myself an integral part that the "best" publications contained only the barest mention,—and that in the legislative news,—of the signing of the bill. I read with complacency and even with amusement the flaring headlines I had anticipated in Mr. Lawler's 'Pilot.'
"The Governor Signs It!"
"Special legislation, forced through by the Railroad Lobby, which will drive honest corporations from this state."
"Ribblevale Steel Company the Victim."
It was common talk in the capital, the article went on to say, that Theodore Watling himself had drawn up the measure.... Perusing the editorial page my eye fell on the name, Krebs. One member of the legislature above all deserved the gratitude of the people of the state,—the member from Elkington. "An unknown man, elected in spite of the opposition of the machine, he had dared to raise his voice against this iniquity," etc., etc.
We had won. That was the essential thing. And my legal experience had taught me that victory counts; defeat is soon forgotten. Even the discontented, half-baked and heterogeneous element from which the Pilot got its circulation had short memories.