Chapter 27




THE HARVEST.


Through all his scheming and shifting Howard had kept the News-Record in the main an "organ of the people." Coulter and Stokely had on many occasions tried to persuade him to change, but he had stood out. He did not confess to them that his real reason was not his alleged principles but his cold judgment that the increases in circulation which produced increases in advertising patronage were dependent upon the paper's reputation of fearless democracy.

In the fourth year of his ownership he felt that the time had come for the change, that he could safely slip over to the other side--the side of wealth and power, the winning side, the side with offices and privileges to distribute. His debt was so far reduced that he had nothing to fear from it. A presidential campaign was coming on and was causing unusual confusion, a general shift of party lines. And he had put the News-Record in such a position that it could move in any direction without shock to its readers.

The "great battle" was on--the battle he had in his younger days looked forward to and longed for--the battle against Privilege and for a "restoration of government by the people." The candidates were nominated, the platforms put forward and the issue squarely joined.

The same issue had been involved in previous campaigns; but the statement of the case by the party opposed to "government of, by and for plutocracy" had been fantastic, extreme, entangled with social, economic and political lunacies. And Howard had strengthened the News-Record by refusing to permit it to "go crazy." Now, however, there was in honesty no reason for refusing support to the advocates of his professed principles.

But the News-Record was silent. Howard and Marian went away to their cottage at Newport, and he left rigid instructions that no political editorials were to be published except those which he might send. There he got typhoid fever and was at the point of death for two weeks.

Marian gave herself to nursing him, stayed close beside him, read books and the newspapers to him throughout his convalescence. They were more intimate than they had been for years. A feeling bearing a remote resemblance to the love he had once had for her arose out of his weakness and dependence and his seclusion from the instruments and objects of his ambition. And she swept aside the barriers she had erected between herself and him and returned, as nearly as one may, to the love and interest of their early days together.

In the first week of September came Stokely with Senator Hereford, the chairman of the "Plutocracy" campaign committee.

"I shall not annoy you with evasions," said Hereford, "as Mr. Stokely assures me that I may speak freely to you, that you personally are with us. The fact is, our campaign is in a bad way, especially in New York State, and there especially in New York City."

"You surprise me," said Howard. "All my information has come from the newspapers which my wife reads me. I had gathered that the victory was all but won."

"We encourage that impression. You know how many weak-kneed fellows there are who like to be on the winning side. We've been pouring out the money and stand ready to pour it out like water. But these damned reform ballot-laws make it hard for us to control the vote. We buy, but we fear that the goods will not be delivered. Feeling is high against us. Even our farmers and shopkeepers are acting queerly. And the other fellows have at last put up a safe man on a conservative platform."

Howard turned his face away. There was still the memory, the now quickened memory, of his former self to make him wince at being included in such an "us."

"You can't afford to keep silent any longer," Hereford continued. "You've done the cause a world of good by your silence thus far. You have the reputation of being the leading popular organ, and your keeping quiet has meant thousands of votes for us. But the time has come to attack. And you must attack if we are to carry New York. You can turn the tide in the state, and--well, we have a very high regard for your genius for making your points clearly and interestingly. We need your ideas for our editors and speakers as much as we need your influence."

"I cannot discuss it to-day," Howard answered after a moment's silence. "It would be a grave step for the News-Record to take. I am not well, as you see. To-morrow or next day I'll decide. You'll see my answer in the paper, I think." He closed his eyes with significant weariness.

Hereford looked at him uneasily. Just outside the door Stokely whispered, "Don't be alarmed. You've got him. He's with us, I tell you."

"I must make sure," whispered Hereford. "I wish to speak to him alone for a moment."

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Howard," he said as he re-entered the room. "I forgot an important part of my mission. Our candidate authorized me to say to you on his behalf that he felt sure you would see your duty; that he esteemed your character and judgment too highly to have any doubts; and that he intends to show his appreciation of the conscientious, independent vote which is rallying to his support; in the event of his election, he feels that he could not do so in a more satisfactory manner than by offering you either a place in his cabinet or an ambassadorship as you may prefer."

As soon as Howard saw Hereford returning, he knew the reason. He had never before been offered a bribe; but he could not mistake the meaning of Hereford's bold yet frightened expression. He kept his eyes averted during the delivery of the long, rambling sentence. At the end, he looked at Hereford frankly and said in his most gracious manner:

"Thank him for me, will you? And express my appreciation of so high a compliment from such a man."

Hereford looked relieved, delighted. "I'm glad to have met you, Mr. Howard, and to have had so satisfactory an interview."

Again outside the door, he muttered gleefully: "Yes, we've him. Otherwise he would have had his servants kick me down stairs. Gad, no wonder ---- is on his way to the Presidency, I had a sneaking fear that this fellow might be sincere. But he saw through him without ever having seen him. I suppose two men of that stripe instinctively understand each other."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

That was on a Sunday afternoon. On the following Wednesday, as Marian came into Howard's sitting-room with the newspapers, she laughed: "I've been reading such a speech from your candidate, you radical! I must say I liked to read it. It was so like you, your very phrases in many places, the things you used to talk to me before you gave me up as hopeless. Just listen."

And she read him the oration--a reproduction of the Howard she first saw, the Howard she admired and loved and had never lost. "Isn't it superb?" she asked at the end. "You must have written it for him. Don't you like it?"

"Very able," was Howard's only comment.

Marian continued to read the paper, glancing from column to column, giving him the substance of the news. Soon she reached the editorial page. He was stealthily watching her face. He saw her glance through a few lines of the leader, start, read on, look in a terrified way at him, and then skip abruptly to the next page.

"Read me the leader, won't you?" he asked.

"My voice is tired," she pleaded. "I'll read it after awhile."

"Please," he insisted. "I'm especially anxious to hear it."

"I think," she almost stammered, "that somebody has taken advantage of your illness. I didn't want to tell you until I'd had a chance to think."

"Please read it." His tone was abrupt. She had never heard that tone before.

She read. It was an assertion of that which her Howard most disbelieved, most protested against; a defense of the public corruption she had heard him denounce so often; an attack upon the ideas, the principles, the elements she had so often heard him eulogize. It was as adroit as it was detestable, as plausible as it was unprincipled.

When she had done, there was a long silence which he broke. "What do you think of it?"

"Only a wretch, an enemy of yours could have written it. Who can it have been?" Her eyes were ablaze and her voice trembled with anger.

"I wrote it," he said.

He did not dare to look at her for a few seconds. Then, with a flimsy mask of pretended calmness only the more clearly revealing self-contempt and cowardice, he faced her amazed eyes, her pale cheeks, her parted lips--and dropped his gaze to the floor.

"You?" she whispered. "You?"

"Yes, I."

She sat so still that he reached over and touched her hand. It was cold. She shivered and drew it away. They were silent for a long time--several minutes. She was looking at his face. It was old and sad and feeble--pitiful, contemptible. She had never seen those lines of weakness about his mouth before. She had never before noted that his features had lost the expression of exalted character, the light of free and independent manhood which made her look again the first time she saw him. When had the man she loved departed? When had the new man come? How long had she been giving herself to a stranger--and such a stranger?

"Yes--I," he repeated. "I have come over to your side." He laughed and she shivered again. "Well--what do you think?"

"Think?--I?--Oh, I think----"

She burst into tears, flung herself down at his feet and buried her head in his lap.

"I think nothing," she sobbed, "except that I--I love you."

He fell to smoothing her hair, slowly, gently, patronisingly. His face was composed and he was looking down at her trembling head and agitated shoulders with an absent-minded smile. How easily this once dreaded crisis had passed! How he had overestimated her! How he had underestimated himself!

His glance and his thoughts soon fastened upon the copy of his newspaper which she had thrown aside--his newspaper indeed, his creation and his creature, the epitome of his intellect and character, of his strength and his weakness. Half a million circulation daily, three quarters of a million on Sunday--how mighty as a direct influence upon the people! Its clearness and vigour, its intelligence, its truth-like sophistry--how mighty as an indirect influence upon the minds of other editors and of public men! "Power--Success," he repeated to himself in an exaltation of vanity and arrogance.

Marian lifted her head and, turning, put it against his knee. She reached out for his hand. He began to speak at once in a low persuasive voice:

"Trust me, dear, can't you? You do not--have not been reading the paper until recently. You are not interested in politics. There have been many changes in the few last years. And I too have changed. I am no longer without responsibilities. They have sobered me, have given me an appreciation of property, stability, conservatism. Youth is enthusiastic, theoretical. I have--"

"Ah, but I do trust you," she interrupted eagerly, fearful lest his explanations would make it the more difficult for her to convince herself of what she felt she must believe if life were to go on. "And you--I don't want you to excite yourself. You must be quiet--must get well."

Each avoided meeting the other's eyes as she arranged the pillows for him before leaving him alone to rest.

The longer she juggled with her discovery the less appalling it seemed. His line of action fitted too closely to her own ambitions of social distinction, social leadership. If he had been her lover, the shock would have killed love and set up contempt in its stead. But he was not her lover, had not been for years; and to find that her husband was doing a husband's duty, was winning position and power for himself and therefore for his wife--that was a disclosure with mitigating aspects at least. Besides, might she not be in part mistaken? Surely any course so satisfactory in its results could not be wholly wrong, might perhaps be the right in an unexpected, unaccustomed form.




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