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An American Politician By F. Marion Crawford Characters: 22757

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Fate, the artist, mixes her own colors. She grinds them with a pestle in the fashion of the old masters, and out of the most strange pigments she produces often only soft neutral tints for background and shadow, kneading a vast deal of bright colors away among the grays and browns; but now and then she takes a palette loaded with strong paint, and a great brush, and splashes a startling full length portrait upon the canvas, without much regard for drawing or general composition, but with very startling effect. To paint well needs life-long study; to paint so as merely to attract attention needs courage and a heart hardened against artistic sensitiveness.

John Harrington was a high light against the mezzotint of his surroundings. He was a constant source of interest, and not infrequently of terror, to the good town of Boston. True, he was a Bostonian himself, a chip of the old block, whose progenitors had lived in Salem, and whose very name breathed Pilgrim memories. He even had a teapot that had come over in the Mayflower. This was greatly venerated, and whenever John Harrington said anything more than usually modern, his friends brandished the teapot, morally speaking, in his defense, and put it in the clouds as a kind of rainbow–a promise that Puritan blood could not go wrong. Nevertheless, John Harrington continued to startle his fellow-townsmen by his writings and sayings, so that many of the grave sort shook their heads and swore that he sympathized with the Irish and believed in Chinese labor.

As a matter-of-fact, he did not mince matters. Endowed with unbounded courage and an extraordinary command of language, when he got upon his feet he spoke his mind in a way that was good to hear. Moreover, he had the strong oratorical temperament that forces attention and commands men in a body. He said that things were wrong and should be put right; and when he had said so for half an hour to a couple of thousand people, most of them were ready to follow him out of the hall and go and put things right on the spot, with their own hands. As yet the opportunity had not offered for proceeding in so simple a manner, but the aforesaid Bostonians of the graver sort said that John Harrington would some day be seen heading a desperate mob of socialists in an assault upon the State House. What he had to do with socialism, or to what end he should thus fiercely invade the headquarters of all earthly respectability, was not exactly apparent, but the picture thus evoked in the minds of the solemn burghers satisfactorily defined for them the personality of the man, and they said it and said it again.

It was somewhat remarkable that he had never been called clever. At first he was regarded as a fool by most of his own class, though he always had friends who believed in him. By and by, as it came to be seen that he had a purpose and would be listened to while he stated it, Boston said there was something in him; but he was never said to be clever or "bright"–he was John Harrington, neither more nor less. He was never even called "Jack."

He was a friend of Mrs. Wyndham's; her keen instincts had long ago recognized the true metal in the man, and of all who came and went in her house there was none more welcome than he. Sam Wyndham utterly disagreed with him in politics, but always defended him in private, saying that he would "calm down a lot when he got older," and that meanwhile he was "a very good fellow if you did not stir him up."

He was therefore very intimate at the Sam Wyndham establishment; in fact, at the very hour when Pocock Vancouver was drinking Mrs. Sam's tea, John had intended to be enjoying the same privilege. Unfortunately for his intention he was caught elsewhere and could not get away. He was drinking tea, it is true, but the position in which he found himself was not entirely to his taste.

Old Miss Schenectady, whose niece, Miss Josephine Thorn, had lately come over from England to pass the winter, had asked John Harrington to call that afternoon. The old lady believed in John on account of the Mayflower teapot, and consequently thought him a desirable acquaintance for her niece. Accordingly, John went to the house, and met Miss Sybil Brandon just as she was leaving it; which he regretted, suspecting that her society would have been more interesting than that of Miss Thorn. As it turned out, he was right, for his first impression of the young English girl was not altogether agreeable; and he found himself obliged to stay and talk to her until an ancient lady, who had come to gossip with Miss Schenectady, and was fully carrying out her intentions, should go away and make it possible for him to take his leave without absolutely abandoning Miss Thorn in the corner of the room she had selected for the tête-à-tête.

"All that, of course, you know," said Miss Thorn, in answer to some remark of John's, "but what sort of things do you really care for?"

"People," answered John without hesitation.

"Of course," returned his companion, "everybody likes people. It is not very original. One could not live without lots of society, could one?"

"That depends on the meaning of society."

"Oh, I am not in the least learned about meanings," answered Miss Thorn. "I mean what one means by society, you know. Heaps of men and women, and tea-parties, and staying in the country, and that."

"That is a sketch indeed," said John, laughing. "But then it is rather different here. We do not relapse into the country as you do in England, and then come back to town like lions refreshed with sleep."

"Why not?"

"Because once in society here one is always in it. At least, most people are. As soon as heat begins Boston goes to New York; and by-and-by New York goes to Saratoga, and takes Boston with it; and then all three go to Newport, and the thing begins again, until there is a general rush to Lenox, to see the glories of the autumn; and by the time the glories are getting a little thin it is time to be in Beacon Street again."

"But when do people shoot and ride?–do they ever hunt?" asked Miss Thorn, opening her wide brown eyes in some astonishment at John Harrington's description of society life in America.

"Oh yes, they hunt at Newport with a drag and a bagged fox. They do it in July and August, when it is as hot as it can be, and the farmers turn out with pitchforks and stones to warn them off the growing crops."

"How ridiculous!" exclaimed Miss Josephine.

"It is absurd, of course," said Harrington, "and cruel. But I must say they ride as though there were no hereafter, and it is a stiff country."

"They must, I should think; no one who believed in a hereafter would hunt in summer."

"I will wager that if you go to Newport this summer you will hunt, just like everybody else," said John boldly.

Josephine Thorn knew in her heart that it was true, but she did not like the tone in which John said it. There was an air of certainty about his way of talking that roused her opposition.

"I would do nothing so foolish," said she. "You do not know me. And do you mean to tell me that you like these people who rush madly about the country and hunt in summer, and those sort of things?"

"No," said John, "not always."

"But you said you liked people. How awfully inconsistent you are!"

"Excuse me, I think not. I meant that I liked people and having to do with them–with men and women–better than I like things."

"What are 'things'?" inquired Josephine, sarcastically. "You are not very clear in your way of expressing yourself."

"I will be as clear as you please," answered John, looking across the room at Miss Schenectady and her ancient friend, and devoutly wishing he could get away. "I mean by 'things' the study of the inanimate part of creation, of such sciences as are not directly connected with man's thoughts and actions, and such pursuits as hunting, shooting, and sporting of all kinds, which lead only to the amusement of the individual. I mean also the production of literature for literature's sake, and of works of art for the mere sake of themselves. When I say I like 'people,' I mean men and women, their opinions and their relations to each other."

"I should think you would get very tired of them," said Miss Thorn scornfully. "They are all dreadfully alike."

She never forgot the look Harrington turned upon her as he answered. His calm, deep-set gray eyes gazed steadily at her, and his square features assumed an air of gravity that almost startled her.

"I am never tired of men and women," he said. "Has it ever struck you, Miss Thorn, that the study of men and women means the study of government, and that a knowledge of men and women may give the power to influence the destiny of mankind?"

"I never thought of it like that," said Josephine, very quietly. She was surprised at his manner, and she suddenly felt that he was no ordinary man.

To tell the truth, her aunt had informed her that John Harrington was coming that afternoon, and had told her he was an exceedingly able man, a statement which at once roused Josephine's opposition to its fiercest pitch. She thoroughly hated to be warned about people, to be primed as it were with a dose of their superiority beforehand. It always prepared her to dislike the admirable individual when he appeared. It seemed as though it were taken for granted that she herself had not enough intelligence to discover wit in others, and needed to be told of it with great circumstance in order to be upon her good behavior. Consequently Josephine began by disliking John. She thought he was a Philistine; his hair was too straight, and besides, it was red; he shaved all his face, whereas the men she liked always had beards; she liked men with black eyes, or blue– John's were gray and hard; he spoke quietly, without expression, and she liked men who were enthusiastic. After all, too, the things he said were not very clever; anybody could have said them.

She meant to show her Boston aunt that she had no intention of accepting Boston genius on faith. It was not her way; she liked to find out for herself whether people were able or not, without being told, and if she ascertained that John Harrington enjoyed a fictitious reputation for genius it would amuse her to destroy it–or at all events to write a long letter home to a friend, expressing her supreme opinion on that and other matters.

John, on his part, did not very much care what impression he produced. He never did on such occasions, and just now he was rendered doubly indifferent by the fact that he was wishing himself somewhere else. True, there was a certain novelty in being asked point-blank questions about his tastes. Boston people knew what he liked, and generally only asked him about what he did. Perhaps, if he had met Josephine by daylight, instead of in the dim shadows of Miss Schenectady's front drawing-room, he might have been struck by her appearance and interested by her manner. As it was, he was merely endeavoring to get through his visit with a proper amount of civility, in the hope that he might get away in time to see Mrs. Sam Wyndham before dinner.

Josephine thought John dull, probably well informed, and utterly without interest in anything. She felt inclined to do something desperate–to throw the cushions at him, to d

o anything, in short, to rouse him from his calmness. Then he made that remark about government, and his voice deepened, and his gray eyes shone, and she was aware that he had a great and absorbing interest in life, and that he could be roused in one direction at least. To do her justice, she had quick perceptions, and the impression on her mind was instantaneous.

"I never thought of it like that," she said. "Do you know?" she added in a moment, "I should not have thought you took much interest in anything at all."

John laughed. He was amused at the idea that he, who knew himself to be one of the most enthusiastic of mortals, should be thought indifferent; and he was amused at the outspoken frankness of the girl's remark.

"You know that is just like me," continued Miss Thorn quickly. "I always say what I think, you know. I cannot help it a bit."

"What a pity all the world is not like you!" said John. "It would save a great deal of trouble, I am sure."

"The frump is going at last," said Josephine, in an undertone, as the ancient friend rose and showed signs of taking leave of Miss Schenectady.

"There is certainly no mistake about the frankness of that speech," said John, rising to his feet and laughing again.

"There is no mistaking its truth," answered Josephine. "She is the real thing–the real old-fashioned frump–we have lots of them at home."

"You remind me of Heine," said John. "He said he called a spade a spade, and Herr Schmidt an ass."

Miss Thorn laughed. "Exactly," she answered, "that is the knowledge of men which you say leads to power."

She rose also, and there was a little stir as the old lady departed. Josephine watched John as he bowed and opened the door of the room to let the visitor out. She wondered vaguely whether she would like him, whether he might not really be a remarkable man–a fact she doubted in proportion as her aunt assured her of its truth; she liked his looks and tried to determine whether he was handsome or not, and she watched closely for any awkwardness or shyness of manner, that being the fault in a man which she never pardoned.

He was very different from the men she had generally known, and most completely different from those she had known as her admirers. In fact she had never admired her admirers at all,–except dear Ronald, of course. They competed with her on her own ground, and she knew well enough she was more than a match for any of them. Ronald was different; she had known him all her life. But all those other men! They could ride–but she rode as well, or better. They could shoot, but so could she, and allowing for the disadvantages of a woman in field sports, she was as good a shot as they. She knew she could do anything they could do, and understood most things they understood. All in all, she did not care for the average young Englishman. He was great fun in his own way, but there were probably more interesting things in the world than pheasants and fences. Politics would be interesting, she thought; she had known three or four men who were young and already prominent in Parliament, and they were undeniably interesting; but they were generally either ugly or clumsy,–the unpardonable sin,–or perhaps they were vain. Josephine could not bear vain men. John Harrington probably had some one or more of these defects. He was certainly no "beauty man," to begin with, nevertheless, she wondered whether he might not be called handsome by stretching a point. She rather hoped, inwardly and unconsciously, that her ultimate judgment would decide in favor of his good looks. She always judged; it was the first thing she did, and she was surprised, on the present occasion, to find her judgment so slow. People who pride themselves on being critical are often annoyed when they find themselves uncertain of their own opinion. As for his accomplishments, they were doubtful, to say the least. Miss Thorn was not used to considering American men as manly. She had read a great many books which made game of them, and showed how unused they were to all those good things which make up the life of an English country gentleman; she had met one or two Americans who turned up their noses in impotent scorn of all field sports except horse-racing, which they regarded from a financial point of view. Probably John Harrington had never killed a pheasant in his life. Lastly, he might be vain. A man with such a reputation for ability would most likely be conceited.

And yet, despite probability, she could not help thinking John interesting. That one speech of his about government had meant something. He was a man with a strong personality, with a great interest in the world led by a dominant aspiration of some sort; and Josephine, in her heart, loved power and admired those who possessed it. Political power especially had that charm for her which it has for most English people of the upper class. There is some quality in the English race which breeds an inordinate admiration for all kinds of superiority: it is certain that if one class of English society can be justly accused of an over-great veneration for rank, the class which is rank itself is not behindhand in doing homage to the political stars of the day. In favor of this peculiarity of English people it may fairly be said that they love to associate with persons of rank and power from a disinterested love of those things themselves, whereas in most other countries the society of noble and influential persons is chiefly sought from the most cynical motives of personal advantage.

Politics–that is, the outward and appreciable manifestations of political life–must always furnish abundant food for the curiosity of the many and the intelligent criticism of the few. There is no exception to that rule, be the state great or small. But politics in England and politics in America, so far as the main points are concerned, are as different as it is possible for any two social functions to be. Roughly, Government and the doings of Government are centripetal in England, and centrifugal in America. In England the will of the people assists the workings of Providence, whereas in America devout persons pray that Providence may on occasion modify the will of the people. In England men believe in the Queen, the Royal Family, the Established Church, and Belgravia first, and in themselves afterwards. Americans believe in themselves devoutly, and a man who could "establish" upon them a church, a royalty, or a peerage, would be a very clever fellow.

Josephine Thorn and John Harrington were fair examples of their nationalities. Josephine believed in England and the English; John Harrington believed in America and the Americans. How far England and America are ever likely to believe in each other, however, is a question of future history and not of past experience, and any reasonable amount of doubt may be cast upon the possibility of such mutual confidence.

But as Josephine stood watching John Harrington while he opened the drawing-room door for the visitor to go out, she thought of none of these things. She certainly did not consider herself a type of her nation–a distinction to which few English people aspire–and she as certainly would have denied that the man before her was a type of the modern American.

John remained standing when the lady was gone.

"Do sit down," said Miss Schenectady, settling herself once more in her corner.

"Thank you, I think I must be going now," answered John. "It is late." As he spoke he turned toward Miss Thorn, and for the first time saw her under the bright light of the old-fashioned gas chandelier.

The young girl was perhaps not what is called a great beauty, but she was undeniably handsome, and she possessed that quality which often goes with quick perceptions and great activity, and which is commonly defined by the expression "striking." Short, rather than tall, she was yet so proportioned between strength and fineness as to be very graceful, and her head sat proudly on her shoulders–too proudly sometimes, for she could command and she could be angry. Her wide brown eyes were bright and fearless and honest. The faint color came and went under the clear skin as freely as the heart could send it, and though her hair was brown and soft, there were ruddy tints among the coils, that flashed out unexpectedly here and there like threads of red gold twined in a mass of fine silk.

John looked at her in some astonishment, for in his anxiety to be gone and in the dimness of the corner where they had sat, he had not realized that Josephine was any more remarkable in her appearance than most of the extremely young women who annually make their entrance into society, with the average stock of pink and white prettiness. They call them "buds" in Boston–an abbreviation for rosebuds.

Fresh young roses of each opening year, fresh with the dew of heaven and the blush of innocence, coming up in this wild garden of a world, what would the gardener do without you? Where would all beauty and sweetness be found among the thorny bushes and the withering old shrubs and the rotting weeds, were it not for you? Maidens with clean hands and pure hearts, in whose touch there is something that heals the ills and soothes the pains of mortality, roses whose petals are yet unspotted by dust and rain, and whose divine perfume the hot south wind has not scorched, nor the east wind nipped and frozen–you are the protest, set every year among us, against the rottenness of the world's doings, the protest of the angelic life against the earthly, of the eternal good against the eternal bad.

John Harrington looked at Miss Thorn, and looked at her with pleasure, for he saw that she was fair–but in spite of her newly discovered beauty he resisted Miss Schenectady's invitation to sit down again, and departed. Any other man would have stayed, under the circumstances.

"Well, Josephine," said Miss Schenectady, when he was gone, "now you have seen John Harrington."

Josephine looked at her aunt and laughed a little; it seemed to her a very self-evident fact, since John had just gone.

"Exactly," said she. "Won't you call me Joe, aunt Zoruiah? They all do at home–even Ronald."

"Joe? Boy's name. Well, if you insist upon it. As I was saying, you have seen John Harrington, now."

"Exactly," repeated Joe.

"But I mean, how does he strike you?"

"Clever I should think," answered the young lady. "Clever, you know–that sort of thing. Not bad looking, either."

"I told you so," said Miss Schenectady.

"Yes–but I expected ever so much more from what you said," returned Joe, kneeling on the rug before the fire and poking the coals with the tongs. Miss Schenectady looked somewhat offended at the slight cast upon her late guest.

"You are very difficile, Josephi–I mean Joe, I forgot."

"Ye–es, very diffyseal–that sort of thing," repeated Josephine, mimicking her aunt's pronunciation of the foreign word, "I know I am, I can't possibly help it, you know." A dashing thrust with the tongs finally destroyed the equilibrium of the fire, and the coals came tumbling down upon the hearth.

"Goodness gracious me!" exclaimed the old lady in great anxiety, "you will have the house on fire in no time! Give me the tongs right away, my dear. You do not understand American fires!"

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