The Lieutenant-Governor/Chapter VII
Chapter VII. The Mirage of Power
Barclay was conscious of a feeling of exhilaration such as he had not known for many weeks, as he swung into Bradbury Avenue late that afternoon on his way to the Rathbawne residence. The duties of the day had been inordinately petty and vexatious, but he had dispatched them one and all with something approaching enthusiasm, — a touch of the old Quixotic energy with which he had taken office. The morning conversation in Governor Abbott’s room had braced and toned him. He forgot its inauspicious opening, and even his distress at the attempt to force him into the position of mediator between Peter Rathbawne and the Union, in the solid satisfaction of having been able to speak his mind to McGrath, and call that worthy a blackguard to his face. He was a man who despised a quarrel, but, for its own sake, loved a square, hard fight.
Back, however, of this somewhat inadequate excuse for cheerfulness lay the Governor’s assurance that in the matter of the strike his lieutenant was to have free rein. It was the first time since the beginning of their official association that Elijah Abbott had placed an actual responsibility in Barclay’s hands. A corner-stone laying, a banquet here and there, the opening of a trolley line, or a library, or a sewer, — these were the major calls upon the Lieutenant-Governor’s time. The main current of routine was a hopeless monotony of official correspondence, investigations, statistics, reading and reporting on the interminable and flatulent maunderings of the Legislature, — duties heart-breaking in their desperate tedium and maddening inutility.
But at last here was responsibility, actual and deeply significant, calling for the exercise of tact, courage, and immutable firmness. The particular task was not one which he would have coveted, and yet he welcomed it. Anything, — anything to assuage in him that sense of ineptitude, of being ignored, a titled nonentity!
With this vast lightening of spirit came, not only gratitude, but a sense of lenity toward Governor Abbott. He encouraged himself to believe that the note between them had been one of misunderstanding merely. It might not be too late, after all! Gradually, he began to form a mental picture of a growing sympathy and affiliation between them, large with possibilities of improvement for Alleghenia. As he turned into the Rathbawnes’ gateway, he could have laughed aloud for very lightness of heart. His optimism was not even impaired by running, in the hall, full against Mrs. Rathbawne.
“Good gracious! Lieutenant-Governor, is that you?”
Repeated and earnest endeavor on Barclay’s part had never dissuaded her from this form of address.
“What is the use of having such a title, if one can’t call you by it?” she would say, when he remonstrated. “Do you suppose that, if Natalie were engaged to a prince, I should be going around, calling him Tom, Dick, or Harry, instead of ‘Your Royal Highness’? You ought to be proud of your title. I am!”
“But, Mrs. Rathbawne” —
“Now, please not, Lieutenant-Governor, please not! I like it best that way.”
The north wind was attentive and amenable to the voice of persuasion, in comparison with Josephine Rathbawne.
“Of course you know the strike is on!” she continued now, without waiting for an assurance from Barclay that he was indeed none other than himself. “Isn’t it awful? I expect to hear the roar of the mob at any moment! Come into the drawing-room. Natalie was there, only half an hour ago.”
And she swept through the doorway, Barclay following.
“Natalie,” she began, “here’s the Lieu — why, Dorothy! I took you for Natalie. And — er — oh! Why, Mr. — er — how de do? I didn’t see you at first. Oh, do turn on the switch, my dear. The place is as black as pitch.”
The electric light, flooding the room, revealed young Nisbet, one vast, consuming blush, and Dorothy, with a dangerous light in her eyes, and her lips tightly compressed. It was plain that Mrs. Rathbawne had fallen foul of Dan Cupid’s machinery once more!
“Why, Mr. Nisbet! I thought you were in New York.”
“I had a telegram this morning, calling the date off,” said young Nisbet in pitiable confusion; “that is, I didn’t have to go, you know. So I just fell in here to explain. I thought some of you might spot me on the street, and after I’d said” —
He began to flounder hopelessly, and cast a glance of mute appeal at Dorothy. That facile young lady marched directly into the breach.
“If you and John are looking for Natalie,” she said, “you’ll find her in the library with Dad. How do you do, John?”
“Pretty well, I thank you, Flibbertigibbet. It is really your husband whom I came to see, Mrs. Rathbawne. I’ve a little business with him, so, for the moment, I’ll have to give Natalie the cold shoulder.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Rathbawne, lifting her fat hands. “Of course, Lieutenant-Governor! I understand perfectly. Business before pleasure, always. Go right in, won’t you, and send Natalie here to me. I’ll stay here. Aren’t we going to have tea, Dorothy? Oh, do try to sit up straight, my dear!”
Natalie and her father were bending low over a great portfolio, their heads close together in the yellow glow of the table-lamp, which was the only light in the room. Rathbawne looked up with a grim smile, as the Lieutenant-Governor entered.
“Pottering over my autographs, again, you see,” he remarked. “I’ve been neglecting them shamefully, of late — eh, Natalie? Didn’t have the time. It looks just now as if I wouldn’t have to complain again of lack of leisure for quite a while!”
“It was that I dropped in to see you about,” said Barclay, striving, with only partial success, to keep the exultation out of his voice. “You may not be in for so much leisure as you imagine, Mr. Rathbawne. You may not get much of a holiday, after all.”
Without for an instant losing the Lieutenant-Governor’s eye, Rathbawne reached out and touched his daughter on the arm.
“Oh, Dad!” she said reproachfully.
“There’s no need for her to go, sir,” added Barclay, “unless you wish it. I bring only good news.”
Acquiescing, Rathbawne drew Natalie close to him, passing one arm across her shoulders, so that his gnarled hand rested firmly on the delicate fabric of her sleeve. Between these two there had always lain a sympathy, an affection, a mutuality of comprehension, more like the relation of husband and wife than that of child and parent.
“Nothing but good news?” answered Rathbawne. Go on. What is it?”
“News not so much of actual happenings as of potentialities,” said the Lieutenant-Governor. “Last night I had to say to you that in the cause of right I was as powerless to aid you as a baby. To-night, I have come to tell you that I am in a position to see justice done, and that I will.”
In detail, his voice ringing with enthusiasm and confidence, he described the interview of that morning, his statement of Rathbawne’s position, his passage at arms with McGrath, finally, the Governor’s announcement that the strike was to be supervised by his lieutenant in his stead.
“I had almost lost hope,” he concluded. “I thought my opportunity would never come, and here it is, after all — the chance to act! And, somehow, I feel that it is only the beginning — that, as he gets to understand me better” —
Rathbawne suddenly left his daughter’s side, and in three steps was directly before the Lieutenant-Governor. As he interrupted him, his fingers closed upon the lapels of the other’s coat, and he punctuated his words with little tugs at these, his knuckles coming together with tiny muffled thuds. He spoke with a gravity that was vibrant with suppressed anger and slow with sincere regret.
“My boy,” he said, “it’s not a gracious thing to do to spoil an enthusiasm like yours, but don’t deceive yourself. Elijah Abbott as a trickster is alone in his class. You were never more powerless to act for the right than you are at this moment.”
“But I have his assurance” —
“Oh, his assurance! It isn’t worth the ash off your cigar. What, give you a chance to interfere with the will of the Union which made him, and owns him, body and soul? Never in God’s world! Listen to me. I spent an hour in his office this very afternoon, discussing the strike — and he never so much as mentioned your name!”
The Lieutenant-Governor winced as if the words had been the touch of a lancet. Then he closed his eyes.
“And I was in the next room,” he said, almost as if to himself, — “planning — my — control — of the situation! Good God!”
“I went directly to him,” continued Rathbawne, “because I knew that it would be purely and simply a waste of time to parley with the lesser officials who are either helpless or frankly his tools. I knew, too, that no satisfactory result would come of appealing to him, but I wanted to give him the chance. All I asked of him was an assurance that the mills would have proper police protection, and that, if necessary, the militia would be called out in support of order. The outcome was exactly what I expected. Governor Abbott rubbed his hands, and smiled, and said: ‘All in good time, Mr. Rathbawne, all in good time. When the conditions seem to warrant it, we can discuss these measures.’ That means that they are free to blow the mills to kingdom come, before a finger will be raised by the authorities to prevent them. And what’s more, they’ll do it! Do you think I don’t know McGrath?”
As he had intended it should, this speech had given the other a chance to recover himself. The Lieutenant-Governor’s habitual poise was already restored, and his voice, as he answered, was quite steady, but eloquent of his desperate discouragement and weariness.
“I hope it’s not as bad as all that, Mr. Rathbawne. It’s not necessary to tell you, that for me there can never again be such a thing as trusting the word of Governor Abbott; but, at the same time, I can hardly bring myself to believe that he would openly countenance the practical existence of anarchy in the capital city of Alleghenia.”
“Well, I can, then!” declared Rathbawne. “I can believe anything of him! Mark my words, John, he’s as sleek a scoundrel as you’ll find outside of the State’s Prison. He cares less for Alleghenia and her capital city than you do for one of the hairs on his rascally head. I tell you, the Union has bought him, body and soul, and unless a miracle comes down from heaven, I’m a beaten man!”
Barclay bit his lips without replying. In his heart of hearts, he knew that Peter Rathbawne’s words were true.
“He’ll be impeached, sooner or later,” continued the old man, “if there’s a speck of decency left in the Legislature — which I doubt. But long before that, John, long before that, I’ll be down and out. I would to God you were Governor of Alleghenia, my boy. You’re the only ray of hope I can see for her.”
The Lieutenant-Governor fell back a step, and covered his face with his hands. For a full minute there was absolute silence. Rathbawne had returned to the table, and, with his fore-arms across the back of a chair, and one foot on the lower cross-bar, was staring vacantly at his autographs, his hands moulding and remoulding each other into an infinity of forms. Natalie was at the window, her face in the crevice between the curtains. The same impulse had prompted both father and daughter. There are some things which it is better not to watch.
They turned at the sound of his voice, to find him with his head flung back, his hands clenched at his sides, his right foot planted firmly in advance of his left, his whole bearing one of passionate earnestness. And, though he was seemingly addressing Rathbawne, there was that in his voice and in his words which was meant for every ear in the state!
“Governor of Alleghenia!” he said, “I would to God I were! Sometimes I almost — yes, sometimes I wholly despair. I love this state, Mr. Rathbawne, as I love nothing else on earth — not even my girl there, not even Natalie. You two are the only ones in the world who can understand what it means when I say that. It has always been so, ever since I was big enough to know what Alleghenia meant, and more than ever since I have come to understand her shame, and her vital peril, and her dire need. I’ve never tried to explain the feeling; I’ve never found any one who seemed to share it with me. I hear other men talk of national patriotism, and the flag, and all that, and I understand it, and honor them for it. But — while it may be only a fancy of mine — for me Kenton City comes even before Washington, and even before these United States of America the sovereign state of Alleghenia! I would have her courts incorruptibility itself, her government the perfect commingling of equity and mercy; her press the vehicle of verity, intelligence, and watchfulness; her public servants the faithful exponents of loyalty and diligence; her people, one and all, whatever is best in our interpretation of the word American — and then, something more! — Alleghenians! — citizens, not only of the Republic, but of the state which I would have shine brightest in the field of stars, and be quoted, from Maine to California, and from Florida to Washington, as the synonym for law and order, truth, integrity, and justice. You know how far the dream is from the reality. We are held up to ridicule and contempt as law breakers, time-servers, and bribe-takers — and we deserve it! I can’t see help on any hand. I don’t believe our people, as a class, are actually vicious and corrupt — only callous and indifferent, accustomed so long to the spectacle of political chicanery and depravity that they have lost their ability to appreciate its significance. But, so far as results are concerned, it all amounts to the same thing. Once, I hoped I should be able to do something. But now — I’m a nonentity, Mr. Rathbawne, as you know, and not only that, but a man who has taken a false step, from which he can never recover. I’m dead, politically speaking — as dead as Benjamin Butler!”
He paused, drawing a deep breath.
“We were speaking of your interview,” he added, more evenly. “What was the result?”
“Nothing, beyond what I’ve told you,” answered Rathbawne, shaking his head. “All I can do is to keep my mouth shut, await developments, and trust in a Providence which it takes a good bit of obstinacy to believe hasn’t deserted the state of Alleghenia for good and all. It isn’t for my own sake alone, John, that I pray the Union will give in before my people begin to think of violence. You remember ’94 in Chicago? Well, we don’t want anything like that in Kenton City. It would be the last straw! Alleghenia has a big enough burden of disgrace to carry, as it is.”
A servant entered, even as he was speaking, to summon him to the telephone, and with an exclamation of impatience he left the room. Immediately, Natalie stepped from her post at the window, and came toward Barclay with outstretched hands.
“Oh, Johnny boy,” she said, “I’m so sorry. How you’ve been hurt, dear, and disappointed, and cruelly wronged!”
The Lieutenant-Governor’s hands clenched again at the sound of sorrow in her voice, and he strove in vain to control the tremor of his lip. Tenderly he put his arms about her.
“I’m sorry, too, little girl — sorry you were here to see me make a fool of myself and then squeal when I got hurt as I deserved. I shouldn’t have done that. But I was so proud — so grateful — I thought I was going to be able” —
“Johnny — Johnny!”
They held to each other rigidly for an instant, her face against his sleeve, in an agony which no tears came to soothe.
“There!” said Barclay presently. “I’m better already. It does one good to blow off steam, now and again.”
His tone lightened perceptibly.
“And look here,” he added, “what’s most important, after all, is that I have news for you, and ought to be delivering it.”
As yet, they did not dare to meet each other’s eyes, but Natalie took the cue.
“You can spare yourself the trouble, my lord,” she retorted, sweeping him a curtsy. “I can guess what it is, without your aid. You’ve found him!”
“How did you know?”
“I didn’t. But you will remember that I asked you to find him. The inference is as plain as a pikestaff.”
“Arrogance! But you’re right. I have. He has been at my rooms since last night. He was frightfully shaky, and utterly despondent, but he’s taking something to settle his nerves, and I’ve no doubt a week or so of good food and straight living will bring him around into something like his old form.”
“Boy dear! And you’re taking care of him?”
“Oh, just directing the cure, that’s all! I’ll tell you more when I can report definite progress. Do you suppose there is a single secluded corner in all this mansion which has not already been preëmpted by Dorothy and Nisbet?”
He slipped his arm about her again, and together they went out, across the wide hall, toward the drawing-room. Rathbawne was standing at the telephone under the stairway, but, as they approached him, he replaced the receiver, and stepped forth under the light of the chandelier. They both halted, shocked into speechlessness by the look on his face. The past ten minutes seemed to have added a decade to his age. His cheeks were white and drawn, and with his hands he groped before him, as if he had been stricken blind. As he came close to them, he lifted his head, and peered first at his daughter, and then at Barclay, seeming barely to recognize them.
“Dad! What is it?” said the girl, in a voice just above a whisper.
Rathbawne raised his hand, and pushed back the hair from his forehead.
“A message — from Payson — of the ‘Sentinel,’” he mumbled. “It seems there’s a fire — a fire on Charles Street — near the mills — one of my buildings — a shop — a shop. Some one in the crowd — threw a torch in at the window — there is a great crowd — a throng of strikers — watching — cheering the flames — hissing the firemen. They’ve begun early — and this is only the beginning! My people — my people” —
He stumbled forward, and would have fallen, but that his daughter caught him. To his dying day Barclay remembered how, as he sprang to aid her, her hands gleamed, white and slender, against the black of Peter Rathbawne’s coat.
The hush that followed was broken presently by the sound of the old man’s choking sobs, and the low, soothing tones of Natalie, murmuring against his ear. From the drawing-room came indeterminate scraps of Mrs. Wynyard’s gay chatter, as she regaled Mrs. Rathbawne with the gossip gleaned in a round of calls. She herself was partly visible, drawing off her gloves before the fire. From the music-room beyond issued the chords of Dorothy’s none-too-sure accompaniment, and young Nisbet’s superb, full tenor:—
“‘Ah, love, could you and I with fate conspire
To grasp the sorry scheme of things entire’”—
But, in the Lieutenant-Governor’s imagination, another sound mingled with and dominated these, — the voice of Michael McGrath, as he had heard it that morning, through the open door of Governor Abbott’s room:—
“It won’t be a strike like other strikes, not so long as I’m running it, that is. It’s going to mean business from the word go!”