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   Chapter 4 “TIMEO DANAOS”

Mr. Crewe's Career -- Complete By Winston Churchill Characters: 28168

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


The proverbial little birds that carry news and prophecies through the air were evidently responsible for an official-looking letter which Austen received a few mornings later. On the letter-head was printed "The United Northeastern Railroads," and Mr. Austen Vane was informed that, by direction of the president, the enclosed was sent to him in an entirely complimentary sense. "The enclosed" was a ticket of red cardboard, and its face informed him that he might travel free for the rest of the year. Thoughtfully turning it over, he read on the back the following inscription:-"It is understood that this pass is accepted by its recipient as a retainer."

Austen stared at it and whistled. Then he pushed back his chair, with the pass in his hand, and hesitated. He seized a pen and wrote a few lines: "Dear sir, I beg to return the annual pass over the Northeastern Railroads with which you have so kindly honoured me"-when he suddenly changed his mind again, rose, and made his way through the corridors to his father's office. The Honourable Hilary was absorbed in his daily perusal of the Guardian.

"Judge," he asked, "is Mr. Flint up at his place this week?"

The Honourable Hilary coughed.

"He arrived yesterday on the three. Er-why?"

"I wanted to go up and thank him for this," his son answered, holding up the red piece of cardboard. "Mr. Flint is a very thoughtful man."

The Honourable Hilary tried to look unconcerned, and succeeded.

"Sent you an annual, has he? Er-I don't know as I'd bother him personally, Austen. Just a pleasant note of acknowledgment."

"I don't flatter myself that my achievements in the law can be responsible for it," said Austen. "The favour must be due to my relationship with his eminent chief counsel."

Hilary Vane's keen eyes rested on his son for an instant. Austen was more than ever an enigma to him.

"I guess relationship hasn't got much to do with business," he replied. "You have be'n doing-er-better than I expected."

"Thank you, Judge," said Austen, quietly. "I don't mind saying that I would rather have your approbation than-this more substantial recognition of merit."

The Honourable Hilary's business was to deal with men, and by reason of his ability in so doing he had made a success in life. He could judge motives more than passably well, and play upon weaknesses. But he left Austen's presence that morning vaguely uneasy, with a sense of having received from his own son an initial defeat at a game of which he was a master. Under the excuse of looking up some precedents, he locked his doors to all comers for two hours, and paced his room. At one moment he reproached himself for not having been frank; for not having told Austen roundly that this squeamishness about a pass was unworthy of a strong man of affairs; yes, for not having revealed to him the mysteries of railroad practice from the beginning. But frankness was not an ingredient of the Honourable Hilary's nature, and Austen was not the kind of man who would accept a hint and a wink. Hilary Vane had formless forebodings, and found himself for once in his life powerless to act.

The cost of living in Ripton was not so high that Austen Vane could not afford to keep a horse and buggy. The horse, which he tended himself, was appropriately called Pepper; Austen had found him in the hills, and he was easily the finest animal in Ripton: so good, in fact, that Mr. Humphrey Crewe (who believed he had an eye for horses) had peremptorily hailed Austen from a motorcar and demanded the price, as was Mr. Crewe's wont when he saw a thing he desired. He had been somewhat surprised and not inconsiderably offended by the brevity and force of the answer which he had received.

On the afternoon of the summer's day in which Austen had the conversation with his father just related, Pepper was trotting at a round clip through the soft and shady wood roads toward the town of Tunbridge; the word "town" being used in the New England sense, as a piece of territory about six miles by six. The fact that automobiles full of laughing people from Leith hummed by occasionally made no apparent difference to Pepper, who knew only the master hand on the reins; the reality that the wood roads were climbing great hills the horse did not seem to feel. Pepper knew every lane and by-path within twenty miles of Ripton, and exhibited such surprise as a well-bred horse may when he was slowed down at length and turned into a hard, blue-stone driveway under a strange granite arch with the word "Fairview" cut in Gothic letters above it, and two great lamps in wrought-iron brackets at the sides. It was Austen who made a note of the gratings over the drains, and of the acres of orderly forest in a mysterious and seemingly enchanted realm. Intimacy with domains was new to him, and he began to experience an involuntary feeling of restraint which was new to him likewise, and made him chafe in spite of himself. The estate seemed to be the visible semblance of a power which troubled him.

Shortly after passing an avenue neatly labelled "Trade's Drive" the road wound upwards through a ravine the sides of which were covered with a dense shrubbery which had the air of having always been there, and yet somehow looked expensive. At the top of the ravine was a sharp curve; and Austen, drawing breath, found himself swung, as it were, into space, looking off across miles of forest-covered lowlands to an ultramarine mountain in the hazy south,-Sawanec. As if in obedience to a telepathic command of his master, Pepper stopped.

Drinking his fill of this scene, Austen forgot an errand which was not only disagreeable, but required some fortitude for its accomplishment. The son had this in common with the Honourable Hilary-he hated heroics; and the fact that the thing smacked of heroics was Austen's only deterrent. And then there was a woman in this paradise! These gradual insinuations into his revery at length made him turn. A straight avenue of pear-shaped, fifteen-year-old maples led to the house, a massive colonial structure of wood that stretched across the shelf; and he had tightened the reins and started courageously up the avenue when he perceived that it ended in a circle on which there was no sign of a hitching-post. And, worse than this, on the balconied, uncovered porch which he would have to traverse to reach the doorway he saw the sheen and glimmer of women's gowns grouped about wicker tables, and became aware that his approach was the sole object of the scrutiny of an afternoon tea party.

As he reached the circle it was a slight relief to learn that Pepper was the attraction. No horse knew better than Pepper when he was being admired, and he arched his neck and lifted his feet and danced in the sheer exhilaration of it. A smooth-faced, red-cheeked gentleman in gray flannels leaned over the balustrade and made audible comments in a penetrating voice which betrayed the fact that he was Mr. Humphrey Crewe.

"Saw him on the street in Ripton last year. Good hock action, hasn't he?-that's rare in trotters around here. Tried to buy him. Feller wouldn't sell. His name's Vane-he's drivin' him now."

A lady of a somewhat commanding presence was beside him. She was perhaps five and forty, her iron-gray hair was dressed to perfection, her figure all that Parisian art could make it, and she was regarding Austen with extreme deliberation through the glasses which she had raised to a high-bridged nose.

"Politics is certainly your career, Humphrey," she remarked, "you have such a wonderful memory for faces. I don't see how he does it, do you, Alice?" she demanded of a tall girl beside her, who was evidently her daughter, but lacked her personality.

"I don't know," said Alice.

"It's because I've been here longer than anybody else, Mrs. Pomfret," answered Mr. Crewe, not very graciously, "that's all. Hello." This last to Austen.

"Hello," said Austen.

"Who do you want to see?" inquired Mr. Crewe, with the admirable tact for which he was noted.

Austen looked at him for the first time.

"Anybody who will hold my horse," he answered quietly.

By this time the conversation had drawn the attention of the others at the tables, and one or two smiled at Austen's answer. Mrs. Flint, with a "Who is it?" arose to repel a social intrusion. She was an overdressed lady, inclining to embonpoint, but traces of the Rose of Sharon were still visible.

"Why don't you drive 'round to the stables?" suggested Mr. Crewe, unaware of a smile.

Austen did not answer. He was, in fact, looking towards the doorway, and the group on the porch were surprised to see a gleam of mirthful understanding start in his eyes. An answering gleam was in Victoria's, who had at that moment, by a singular coincidence, come out of the house. She came directly down the steps and out on the gravel, and held her hand to him in the buggy, and he flushed with pleasure as he grasped it.

"How do you do, Mr. Vane?" she said. "I am so glad you have called. Humphrey, just push the stable button, will you?"

Mr. Crewe obeyed with no very good grace, while the tea-party went back to their seats. Mrs. Flint supposed he had come to sell Victoria the horse; while Mrs. Pomfret, who had taken him in from crown to boots, remarked that he looked very much like a gentleman.

"I came to see your father for a few moments-on business," Austen explained.

She lifted her face to his with a second searching look.

"I'll take you to him," she said.

By this time a nimble groom had appeared from out o a shrubbery path and seized Pepper's head. Austen alighted and followed Victoria into a great, cool hallway, and through two darkened rooms, bewilderingly furnished and laden with the scent of flowers, into a narrow passage beyond. She led the way simply, not speaking, and her silence seemed to betoken the completeness of an understanding between them, as of a long acquaintance.

In a plain white-washed room, behind a plain oaken desk, sat Mr. Flint-a plain man. Austen thought he would have known him had he seen him on the street. The other things in the room were letter-files, a safe, a long-distance telephone, and a thin private secretary with a bend in his back. Mr. Flint looked up from his desk, and his face, previously bereft of illumination, lighted when he saw his daughter. Austen liked that in him.

"Well, Vic, what is it now?" he asked.

"Mr. Austen Vane to see you," said Victoria, and with a quick glance at Austen she left him standing on the threshold. Mr. Flint rose. His eyes were deep-set in a square, hard head, and he appeared to be taking Austen in without directly looking at him; likewise, one felt that Mr. Flint's handshake was not an absolute gift of his soul.

"How do you do, Mr. Vane? I don't remember ever to have had the pleasure of seeing you, although your father and I have been intimately connected for many years."

So the president's manner was hearty, but not the substance. It came, Austen thought, from a rarity of meeting with men on a disinterested footing; and he could not but wonder how Mr. Flint would treat the angels in heaven if he ever got there, where there were no franchises to be had. Would he suspect them of designs upon his hard won harp and halo? Austen did not dislike Mr. Flint; the man's rise, his achievements, his affection for his daughter, he remembered. But he was also well aware that Mr. Flint had thrown upon him the onus of the first move in a game which the railroad president was used to playing every day. The dragon was on his home ground and had the choice of weapons.

"I do not wish to bother you long," said Austen.

"No bother," answered Mr. Flint, "no bother to make the acquaintance of the son of my old friend, Hilary Vane. Sit down-sit down. And while I don't believe any man should depend upon his father to launch him in the world, yet it must be a great satisfaction to you, Mr. Vane, to have such a father. Hilary Vane and I have been intimately associated for many years, and my admiration for him has increased with every year. It is to men of his type that the prosperity, the greatness, of this nation is largely due,-conservative, upright, able, content to confine himself to the difficult work for which he is so eminently fitted, without spectacular meddling in things in which he can have no concern. Therefore I welcome the opportunity to know you, sir, for I understand that you have settled down to follow in his footsteps and that you will make a name for yourself. I know the independence of young men-I was young once myself. But after all, Mr. Vane, experience is the great teacher, and perhaps there is some little advice which an old man can give you that may be of service. As your father's son, it is always at your disposal. Have a cigar."

The thin secretary continued to flit about the room, between the letter-files and the desk. Austen had found it infinitely easier to shoot Mr. Blodgett than to engage in a duel with the president of the United Railroad.

"I smoke a pipe," he said.

"Too many young men smoke cigars-and those disgusting cigarettes," said Mr. Flint, with conviction. "There are a lot of worthless young men in these days, anyhow. They come to my house and loaf and drink and smoke, and talk a lot of nonsense about games and automobiles and clubs, and cumber the earth generally. There's a young man named Crewe over at Leith, for instance-you may have seen him. Not that he's dissipated-but he don't do anything but talk about railroads and the stock market to make you sick, and don't know any more about 'em than my farmer."

During this diatribe Austen saw his opening growing smaller and smaller. If he did not make a dash for it, it would soon be closed entirely.

"I received a letter this morning, Mr. Flint, enclosing me an annual pass-"

"Did Upjohn send you one?" Mr. Flint cut in; "he ought to have done so long ago. It was probably an oversight that he did not, Mr. Vane. We try to extend the courtesies

of the road to persons who are looked up to in their communities. The son of Hilary Vane is at all times welcome to one."

Mr. Flint paused to light his cigar, and Austen summoned his resolution. Second by second it was becoming more and more difficult and seemingly more ungracious to return a gift so graciously given, a gift of no inconsiderable intrinsic value. Moreover, Mr. Flint had ingeniously contrived almost to make the act, in Austen's eyes, that of a picayune upstart. Who was he to fling back an annual pass in the face of the president of the Northeastern Railroads?

"I had first thought of writing you a letter, Mr. Flint," he said, "but it seemed to me that, considering your relations with my father, the proper thing to do was to come to you and tell you why I cannot take the pass."

The thin secretary paused in his filing, and remained motionless with his body bent over the drawer.

"Why you cannot take it, Mr. Vane?" said the railroad president. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

"I appreciate the-the kindness," said Austen, "and I will try to explain." He drew the red cardboard from his pocket and turned it over. "On the back of this is printed, in small letters, 'It is understood that this pass is accepted by the recipient as a retainer.'"

"Well," Mr. Flint interrupted, smiling somewhat blandly, "how much money do you think that pass would save an active young lawyer in a year? Is three hundred dollars too much? Three hundred dollars is not an insignificant sum to a young man on the threshold of his practice, is it?"

Austen looked at Mr. Flint.

"Any sum is insignificant when it restricts a lawyer from the acceptance of just causes, Mr. Flint. As I understand the matter, it is the custom of your railroad to send these passes to the young lawyers of the State the moment they begin to give signs of ability. This past would prevent me from serving clients who might have righteous claims against your railroads, and-permit me to speak frankly-in my opinion the practice tends to make it difficult for poor people who have been injured to get efficient lawyers."

"Your own father is retained by the railroad," said Mr. Flint.

"As their counsel," answered Austen. "I have a pride in my profession, Mr. Flint, as no doubt you have in yours. If I should ever acquire sufficient eminence to be sought as counsel for a railroad, I should make my own terms with it. I should not allow its management alone to decide upon the value of my retainer, and my services in its behalf would be confined strictly to professional ones."

Mr. Flint drummed on the table.

"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.

"I mean that I would not engage, for a fee or a pass, to fight the political battles of a railroad, or undertake any political manipulation in its behalf whatever."

Mr. Flint leaned forward aggressively.

"How long do you think a railroad would pay dividends if it did not adopt some means of defending itself from the blackmail politician of the State legislatures, Mr. Vane? The railroads of which I have the honour to be president pay a heavy tag in this and other States. We would pay a much heavier one if we didn't take precautions to protect ourselves. But I do not intend to quarrel with you, Mr. Vane," he continued quickly, perceiving that Austen was about to answer him, "nor do I wish to leave you with the impression that the Northeastern Railroads meddle unduly in politics."

Austen knew not how to answer. He had not gone there to discuss this last and really great question with Mr. Flint, but he wondered whether the president actually thought him the fledgling he proclaimed. Austen laid his pass on Mr. Flint's desk, and rose.

"I assure you, Mr. Flint, that the spirit which prompted my visit was not a contentious one. I cannot accept the pass, simply because I do not wish to be retained."

Mr. Flint eyed him. There was a mark of dignity, of silent power, on this tall scapegrace of a son of Hilary Vane that the railroad president had missed at first-probably because he had looked only for the scapegrace. Mr. Flint ardently desired to treat the matter in the trifling aspect in which he believed he saw it, to carry it off genially. But an instinct not yet formulated told the president that he was face to face with an enemy whose potential powers were not to be despised, and he bristled in spite of himself.

"There is no statute I know of by which a lawyer can be compelled to accept a retainer against his will, Mr. Vane," he replied, and overcame himself with an effort. "But I hope that you will permit me," he added in another tone, "as an old friend of your father's and as a man of some little experience in the world, to remark that intolerance is a characteristic of youth. I had it in the days of Mr. Isaac D. Worthington, whom you do not remember. I am not addicted to flattery, but I hope and believe you have a career before you. Talk to your father. Study the question on both sides,-from the point of view of men who are honestly trying, in the face of tremendous difficulties, to protect innocent stockholders as well as to conduct a corporation in the interests of the people at large, and for their general prosperity. Be charitable, young man, and judge not hastily."

Years before, when poor Sarah Austen had adorned the end of his table, Hilary Vane had raised his head after the pronouncement of grace to surprise a look in his wife's eyes which strangely threw him into a white heat of anger. That look (and he at intervals had beheld it afterwards) was the true presentment of the soul of the woman whose body was his. It was not-as Hilary Vane thought it-a contempt for the practice of thanking one's Maker for daily bread, but a contempt for cant of one who sees the humour in cant. A masculine version of that look Mr. Flint now beheld in the eyes of Austen Vane, and the enraging effect on the president of the United Railroads was much the same as it had been on his chief counsel. Who was this young man of three and thirty to agitate him so? He trembled, though not visibly, yet took Austen's hand mechanically.

"Good day, Mr. Vane," he said; "Mr. Freeman will help you to find your horse."

The thin secretary bowed, and before he reached the door into the passage Mr. Flint had opened another at the back of the room and stepped out on a close-cropped lawn flooded with afternoon sunlight. In the passage Austen perceived a chair, and in the chair was seated patiently none other than Mr. Brush Bascom-political Duke of Putnam. Mr. Bascom's little agate eyes glittered in the dim light.

"Hello, Austen," he said, "since when have you took to comin' here?"

"It's a longer trip from Putnam than from Ripton, Brush," said Austen, and passed on, leaving Mr. Bascom with a puzzled mind. Something very like a smile passed over Mr. Freeman's face as he led the way silently out of a side entrance and around the house. The circle of the drive was empty, the tea-party had gone-and Victoria. Austen assured himself that her disappearance relieved him: having virtually quarrelled with her father, conversation would have been awkward; and yet he looked for her.

They found the buggy and Pepper in the paved courtyard of the stables. As Austen took the reins the secretary looked up at him, his mild blue eyes burning with an unsuspected fire. He held out his hand.

"I want to congratulate you," he said.

"What for?" asked Austen, taking the hand in some embarrassment.

"For speaking like a man," said the secretary, and he turned on his heel and left him.

This strange action, capping, as it did, a stranger experience, gave Austen food for thought as he let Pepper take his own pace down the trade's road. Presently he got back into the main drive where it clung to a steep, forest-covered side hill, when his attention was distracted by the sight of a straight figure in white descending amidst the foliage ahead. His instinctive action was to pull Pepper down to a walk, scarcely analyzing his motives; then he had time, before reaching the spot where their paths would cross, to consider and characteristically to enjoy the unpropitious elements arrayed against a friendship with Victoria Flint.

She halted on a flagstone of the descending path some six feet above the roadway, and stood expectant. The Rose of Sharon, five and twenty years before, would have been coy-would have made believe to have done it by accident. But the Rose of Sharon, with all her beauty, would have had no attraction for Austen Vane. Victoria had much of her mother's good looks, the figure of a Diana, and her clothes were of a severity and correctness in keeping with her style; they merely added to the sum total of the effect upon Austen. Of course he stopped the buggy immediately beneath her, and her first question left him without any breath. No woman he had ever known seized the essentials as she did.

"What have you been doing to my father?" she asked.

"Why?" exclaimed Austen.

"Because he's in such a bad temper," said Victoria. "You must have put him in it. It can't be possible that you came all the way up here to quarrel with him. Nobody ever dares to quarrel with him."

"I didn't come up to quarrel with him," said Austen.

"What's the trouble?" asked Victoria.

The humour of this question was too much for him, and he laughed. Victoria's eyes laughed a little, but there was a pucker in her forehead.

"Won't you tell me?" she demanded, "or must I get it out of him?"

"I am afraid," said Austen, slowly, "that you must get it out of him-if he hasn't forgotten it."

"Forgotten it, dear old soul!" cried Victoria. "I met him just now and tried to make him look at the new Guernseys, and he must have been disturbed quite a good deal when he's cross as a bear to me. He really oughtn't to be upset like that, Mr. Vane, when he comes up here to rest. I am afraid that you are rather a terrible person, although you look so nice. Won't you tell me what you did to him?"

Austen was non-plussed.

"Nothing intentional," he answered earnestly, "but it wouldn't be fair to your father if I gave you my version of a business conversation that passed between us, would it?"

"Perhaps not," said Victoria. She sat down on the flagstone with her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand, and looked at him thoughtfully. He knew well enough that a wise general would have retreated-horse, foot, and baggage; but Pepper did not stir.

"Do you know," said Victoria, "I have an idea you came up here about Zeb Meader."

"Zeb Meader!"

"Yes. I told my father about him,-how you rescued him, and how you went to see him in the hospital, and what a good man he is, and how poor."

"Oh, did you!" exclaimed Austen.

"Yes. And I told him the accident wasn't Zeb's fault, that the train didn't whistle or ring, and that the crossing was a blind one."

"And what did he say?" asked Austen, curiously.

"He said that on a railroad as big as his something of the kind must happen occasionally. And he told me if Zeb didn't make a fuss and act foolishly, he would have no cause to regret it."

"And did you tell Zeb?" asked Austen.

"Yes," Victoria admitted, "but I'm sorry I did, now."

"What did Zeb say?"

Victoria laughed in spite of herself, and gave a more or less exact though kindly imitation of Mr. Meader's manner.

"He said that wimmen-folks had better stick to the needle and the duster, and not go pokin' about law business that didn't concern 'em. But the worst of it was," added Victoria, with some distress, "he won't accept any more fruit. Isn't he silly? He won't get it into his head that I give him the fruit, and not my father. I suspect that he actually believes my father sent me down there to tell him that."

Austen was silent, for the true significance of this apparently obscure damage case to the Northeastern Railroads was beginning to dawn on him. The public was not in the best of humours towards railroads: there was trouble about grade crossings, and Mr. Meader's mishap and the manner of his rescue by the son of the corporation counsel had given the accident a deplorable publicity. Moreover, if it had dawned on Augustus Flint that the son of Hilary Vane might prosecute the suit, it was worth while taking a little pains with Mr. Meader and Mr. Austen Vane. Certain small fires have been known to light world-wide conflagrations.

"What are you thinking about?" asked Victoria. "It isn't at all polite to forget the person you are talking to."

"I haven't forgotten you," said Austen, with a smile. How could he-sitting under her in this manner?

"Besides," said Victoria, mollified, "you haven't an answered my question."

"Which question?"

She scrutinized him thoughtfully, and with feminine art made the kind of an attack that rarely fails.

"Why are you such an enigma, Mr. Vane?" she demanded. "Is it because you're a lawyer, or because you've been out West and seen so much of life and shot so many people?"

Austen laughed, yet he had tingling symptoms because she showed enough interest in him to pronounce him a riddle. But he instantly became serious as the purport of the last charge came home to him.

"I suppose I am looked upon as a sort of Jesse James," he said. "As it happens, I have never shot but one man, and I didn't care very much for that."

Victoria got up and came down a step and gave him her hand. He took it, nor was he the first to relinquish the hold; and a colour rose delicately in her face as she drew her fingers away.

"I didn't mean to offend you," she said.

"You didn't offend me," he replied quickly. "I merely wished you to know that I wasn't a brigand."

Victoria smiled.

"I really didn't think so-you are much too solemn. I have to go now, and-you haven't told me anything."

She crossed the road and began to descend the path on the other side. Twice he glanced back, after he had started, and once surprised her poised lightly among the leaves, looking over her shoulder.

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