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   Chapter 2 ON THE TREATMENT OF PRODIGALS

Mr. Crewe's Career -- Complete By Winston Churchill Characters: 17205

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


While Euphrasia, in a frenzy of anticipation, garnished and swept the room which held for her so many memories of Austen's boyhood, even beating the carpet with her own hands, Hilary Vane went about his business with no apparent lack of diligence. But he was meditating. He had many times listened to the Reverend Mr. Weightman read the parable from the pulpit, but he had never reflected how it would be to be the father of a real prodigal. What was to be done about the calf? Was there to be a calf, or was there not? To tell the truth, Hilary wanted a calf, and yet to have one (in spite of Holy Writ) would seem to set a premium on disobedience and riotous living.

Again, Austen had reached thirty, an age when it was not likely he would settle down and live an orderly and godly life among civilized beings, and therefore a fatted calf was likely to be the first of many follies which he (Hilary) would live to regret. No, he would deal with justice. How he dealt will be seen presently, but when he finally reached this conclusion, the clipping from the Pepper County Plainsman had not yet come before his eyes.

It is worth relating how the clipping did come before his eyes, for no one in Ripton had the temerity to speak of it. Primarily, it was because Miss Victoria Flint had lost a terrier, and secondarily, because she was a person of strong likes and dislikes. In pursuit of the terrier she drove madly through Leith, which, as everybody knows, is a famous colony of rich summer residents. Victoria probably stopped at every house in Leith, and searched them with characteristic vigour and lack of ceremony, sometimes entering by the side door, and sometimes by the front, and caring very little whether the owners were at home or not. Mr. Humphrey Crewe discovered her in a boa-stall at Wedderburn,-as his place was called,-for it made little difference to Victoria that Mr. Crewe was a bachelor of marriageable age and millions. Full, as ever, of practical suggestions, Mr. Crewe proposed to telephone to Ripton and put an advertisement in the Record, which-as he happened to know-went to press the next day. Victoria would not trust to the telephone, whereupon Mr. Crewe offered to drive down with her.

"You'd bore me, Humphrey," said she, as she climbed into her runabout with the father and grandfather of the absentee. Mr. Crewe laughed as she drove away. He had a chemical quality of turning invidious remarks into compliments, and he took this one as Victoria's manner of saying that she did not wish to disturb so important a man.

Arriving in the hot main street of Ripton, her sharp eyes descried the Record sign over the drug store, and in an astonishingly short time she was in the empty office. Mr. Pardriff was at dinner. She sat down in the editorial chair and read a great deal of uninteresting matter, but at last found something on the floor (where the wind had blown it) which made her laugh. It was the account of Austen Vane's difficulty with Mr. Blodgett. Victoria did not know Austen, but she knew that the Honourable Hilary had a son of that name who had gone West, and this was what tickled her. She thrust the clipping in the pocket of her linen coat just as Mr. Pardriff came in.

Her conversation with the editor of the Record proved so entertaining that she forgot all about the clipping until she had reached Fairview, and had satisfied a somewhat imperious appetite by a combination of lunch and afternoon tea. Fairview was the "summer place" of Mr. Augustus P. Flint, her father, on a shelf of the hills in the town of Tunbridge, equidistant from Leith and Ripton: and Mr. Flint was the president of the Imperial Railroad, no less.

Yes, he had once been plain Gus Flint, many years ago, when he used to fetch the pocket-handkerchiefs of Mr. Isaac D. Worthington of Brampton, and he was still "Gus" to his friends. Mr. Flint's had been the brain which had largely conceived and executed the consolidation of principalities of which the Imperial Railroad was the result and, as surely as tough metal prevails, Mr. Flint, after many other trials and errors of weaker stuff, had been elected to the place for which he was so supremely fitted. We are so used in America to these tremendous rises that a paragraph will suffice to place Mr. Flint in his Aladdin's palace. To do him justice, he cared not a fig for the palace, and he would have been content with the farmhouse under the hill where his gardener lived. You could not fool Mr. Flint on a horse or a farm, and he knew to a dot what a railroad was worth by travelling over it. Like his governor-general and dependent, Mr. Hilary Vane, he had married a wife who had upset all his calculations. The lady discovered Mr. Flint's balance in the bank, and had proceeded to use it for her own glorification, and the irony of it all was that he could defend it from everybody else. Mrs. Flint spent, and Mr. Flint paid the bills; for the first ten years protestingly, and after that he gave it up and let her go her own gait.

She had come from the town of Sharon, in another State, through which Mr. Flint's railroad also ran, and she had been known as the Rose of that place. She had begun to rise immediately, with the kite-like adaptability of the American woman for high altitudes, and the leaden weight of the husband at the end of the tail was as nothing to her. She had begun it all by the study of people in hotels while Mr. Flint was closeted with officials and directors. By dint of minute observation and reasoning powers and unflagging determination she passed rapidly through several strata, and had made a country place out of her husband's farm in Tunbridge, so happily and conveniently situated near Leith. In winter they lived on Fifth Avenue.

One daughter alone had halted, for a minute period, this progress, and this daughter was Victoria-named by her mother. Victoria was now twenty-one, and was not only of another generation, but might almost have been judged of another race than her parents. The things for which her mother had striven she took for granted, and thought of them not at all, and she had by nature that simplicity and astonishing frankness of manner and speech which was once believed to be an exclusive privilege of duchesses.

To return to Fairview. Victoria, after sharing her five o'clock luncheon with her dogs, went to seek her father, for the purpose (if it must be told) of asking him for a cheque. Mr. Flint was at Fairview on the average of two days out of the week during the summer, and then he was nearly always closeted with a secretary and two stenographers and a long-distance telephone in two plain little rooms at the back of the house. And Mr. Hilary Vane was often in consultation with him, as he was on the present occasion when Victoria flung open the door. At sight of Mr. Vane she halted suddenly on the threshold, and a gleam of mischief came into her eye as she thrust her hand into her coat pocket. The two regarded her with the detached air of men whose thread of thought has been broken.

"Well, Victoria," said her father, kindly if resignedly, "what is it now?"

"Money," replied Victoria, promptly; "I went to Avalon this morning and bought that horse you said I might have."

"What horse?" asked Mr. Flint, vaguely. "But never mind. Tell Mr. Freeman to make out the cheque."

Mr. Vane glanced at Mr. Flint, and his eyes twinkled. Victoria, who had long ago discovered the secret of the Honey Dew, knew that he was rolling it under his tongue and thinking her father a fool for his indulgence.

"How do you do, Mr. Vane?" she said; "Austen's coming home, isn't he?" She had got this by feminine arts out of Mr. Paul Pardriff, to whom she had not confided the fact of her possession of the clipping.

The Honourable Hilary gave a grunt, as he always did when he was surprised and displeased, as though some one had prodded him with a stick in a sensitive spot.

"Your son? Why, Vane, you never told me that," said Mr. Flint. "I didn't know that you knew him, Victoria."

"I don't," answered Victoria, "but I'd like to. What did he do to Mr. Blodgett?" she demanded of Hilary.

"Mr. Blodgett!" exclaimed that gentleman. "I never heard of him. What's happened to him?"

"He will probably recover," she assured him.

The Honourable Hilary, trying in vain to suppress his agitation, rose to his feet.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Victoria," he said, but his glance was fixed on the clipping in her hand.

"Haven't you seen it?" she asked, giving it to him.

He read it in silence

, groaned, and handed it to Mr. Flint, who had been drumming on the table and glancing at Victoria with vague disapproval. Mr. Flint read it and gave it back to the Honourable Hilary, who groaned again and looked out of the window.

"Why do you feel badly about it?" asked Victoria. "I'd be proud of him, if I were you."

"Proud of him" echoed Mr. Vane, grimly. "Proud of him!"

"Victoria, what do you mean?" said Mr. Flint.

"Why not?" said Victoria. "He's done nothing to make you ashamed. According to that clipping, he's punished a man who richly deserved to be punished, and he has the sympathy of an entire county."

Hilary Vane was not a man to discuss his domestic affliction with anybody, so he merely grunted and gazed persistently out of the window, and was not aware of the fact that Victoria made a little face at him as she left the room. The young are not always impartial judges of the old, and Victoria had never forgiven him for carrying to her father the news of an escapade of hers in Ripton.

As he drove through the silent forest roads on his way homeward that afternoon, the Honourable Hilary revolved the new and intensely disagreeable fact in his mind as to how he should treat a prodigal who had attempted manslaughter and was a fugitive from justice. In the meantime a tall and spare young man of a red-bronze colour alighted from the five o'clock express at Ripton and grinned delightedly at the gentlemen who made the station their headquarters about train time. They were privately disappointed that the gray felt hat, although broad-brimmed, was not a sombrero, and the respectable, loose-fitting suit of clothes was not of buckskin with tassels on the trousers; and likewise that he came without the cartridge belt and holster which they had pictured in anticipatory sessions on the baggage-trucks. There could be no doubt of the warmth of their greeting as they sidled up and seized a hand somewhat larger than theirs, but the welcome had in it an ingredient of awe that puzzled the newcomer, who did not hesitate to inquire:-"What's the matter, Ed? Why so ceremonious, Perley?"

But his eagerness did not permit him to wait for explanations. Grasping his bag, the only baggage he possessed, he started off at a swinging stride for Hanover Street, pausing only to shake the hands of the few who recognized him, unconscious of the wild-fire at his back. Hanover Street was empty that drowsy summer afternoon, and he stopped under the well-remembered maples before the house and gazed at it long and tenderly; even at the windows of that room-open now for the first time in years-where he had served so many sentences of imprisonment. Then he went cautiously around by the side and looked in at the kitchen door. To other eyes than his Euphrasia might not have seemed a safe person to embrace, but in a moment he had her locked in his arms and weeping. She knew nothing as yet of Mr. Blodgett's misfortunes, but if Austen Vane had depopulated a county it would have made no difference in her affection.

"My, but you're a man," exclaimed Euphrasia, backing away at last and staring at him with the only complete approval she had ever accorded to any human being save one.

"What did you expect, Phrasie?"

"Come, and I'll show you your room," she said, in a gutter she could not hide; "it's got all the same pictures in, your mother's pictures, and the chair you broke that time when Hilary locked you in. It's mended."

"Hold on, Phrasie," said Austen, seizing her by the apron-strings, "how about the Judge?" It was by this title he usually designated his father.

"What about him?" demanded Euphrasia, sharply.

"Well, it's his house, for one thing," answered Austen, "and he may prefer to have that room-empty."

"Empty! Turn you out? I'd like to see him," cried Euphrasia. "It wouldn't take me long to leave him high and dry."

She paused at the sound of wheels, and there was the Honourable Hilary, across the garden patch, in the act of slipping out of his buggy at the stable door. In the absence of Luke, the hired man, the chief counsel for the railroad was wont to put up the horse himself, and he already had the reins festooned from the bit rings when he felt a heavy, hand on his shoulder and heard a voice say:-"How are you, Judge?"

If the truth be told, that voice and that touch threw the Honourable Hilary's heart out of beat. Many days he had been schooling himself for this occasion: this very afternoon he had determined his course of action, which emphatically did not include a fatted calf. And now surged up a dryad-like memory which had troubled him many a wakeful night, of startled, appealing eyes that sought his in vain, and of the son she had left him flinging himself into his arms in the face of chastisement. For the moment Hilary Vane, under this traitorous influence, was unable to speak. But he let the hand rest on his shoulder, and at length was able to pronounce, in a shamefully shaky voice, the name of his son. Whereupon Austen seized him by the other shoulder and turned him round and looked into his face.

"The same old Judge," he said.

But Hilary was startled, even as Euphrasia had been. Was this strange, bronzed, quietly humorous young man his son? Hilary even had to raise his eyes a little; he had forgotten how tall Austen was. Strange emotions, unbidden and unwelcome, ran riot in his breast; and Hilary Vane, who made no slips before legislative committees or supreme courts, actually found himself saying:-"Euphrasia's got your room ready."

"It's good of you to take me in, Judge," said Austen, patting his shoulder. And then he began, quite naturally to unbuckle the breechings and loose the traces, which he did with such deftness and celerity that he had the horse unharnessed and in the stall in a twinkling, and had hauled the buggy through the stable door, the Honourable Hilary watching him the while. He was troubled, but for the life of him could find no adequate words, who usually had the dictionary at his disposal.

"Didn't write me why you came home," said the Honourable Hilary, as his son washed his hands at the spigot.

"Didn't I? Well, the truth was I wanted to see you again, Judge."

His father grunted, not with absolute displeasure, but suspiciously.

"How about Blodgett?" he asked.

"Blodgett? Have you heard about that? Who told you?"

"Never mind. You didn't. Nothing in your letter about it."

"It wasn't worth mentioning," replied Austen. "Tyner and the boys liked it pretty well, but I didn't think you'd be interested. It was a local affair."

"Not interested! Not worth mentioning!" exclaimed the Honourable Hilary, outraged to discover that his son was modestly deprecating an achievement instead of defending a crime. "Godfrey! murder ain't worth mentioning, I presume."

"Not when it isn't successful," said Austen. "If Blodgett had succeeded, I guess you'd have heard of it before you did."

"Do you mean to say this Blodgett tried to kill you?" demanded the Honourable Hilary.

"Yes," said his son, "and I've never understood why he didn't. He's a good deal better shot than I am."

The Honourable Hilary grunted, and sat down on a bucket and carefully prepared a piece of Honey Dew. He was surprised and agitated.

"Then why are you a fugitive from justice if you were acting in self-defence?" he inquired.

"Well, you see there were no witnesses, except a Mexican of Blodgett's, and Blodgett runs the Pepper County machine for the railroad out there. I'd been wanting to come East and have a look at you for some time, and I thought I might as well come now."

"How did this-this affair start?" asked Mr. Vane.

"Blodgett was driving in some of Tyner's calves, and I caught him. I told him what I thought of him, and he shot at me through his pocket. That was all."

"All! You shot him, didn't you?"

"I was lucky enough to hit him first," said Austen.

Extraordinary as it may seem, the Honourable Hilary experienced a sense of pride.

"Where did you hit him?" he asked.

It was Euphrasia who took matters in her own hands and killed the fatted calf, and the meal to which they presently sat down was very different from the frugal suppers Mr. Vane usually had. But he made no comment. It is perhaps not too much to say that he would have been distinctly disappointed had it been otherwise. There was Austen's favourite pie, and Austen's favourite cake, all inherited from the Austens, who had thought more of the fleshpots than people should. And the prodigal did full justice to the occasion.

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