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   Chapter 5 THE PARTING OF THE WAYS

Mr. Crewe's Career -- Complete By Winston Churchill Characters: 27544

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


The next time Austen visited the hospital Mr. Meader had a surprise in store for him. After passing the time of day, as was his custom, the patient freely discussed the motives which had led him to refuse any more of Victoria's fruit.

"I hain't got nothing against her," he declared; "I tried to make that plain. She's as nice and common a young lady as I ever see, and I don't believe she had a thing to do with it. But I suspicioned they was up to somethin' when she brought them baskets. And when she give me the message from old Flint, I was sure of it."

"Miss Flint was entirely innocent, I'm sure," said Austen, emphatically.

"If I could see old Flint, I'd tell him what I thought of him usin' wimmen-folks to save 'em money," said Mr. Meader. "I knowed she wahn't that kind. And then that other thing come right on top of it."

"What other thing?"

"Say," demanded Mr. Meader, "don't you know?"

"I know nothing," said Austen.

"Didn't know Hilary Vane's be'n here?"

"My father!" Austen ejaculated.

"Gittin' after me pretty warm, so they be. Want to know what my price is now. But say, I didn't suppose your fayther'd come here without lettin' you know."

Austen was silent. The truth was that for a few moments he could not command himself sufficiently to speak.

"He is the chief counsel for the road," he said at length; "I am not connected with it."

"I guess you're on the right track. He's a pretty smooth talker, your fayther. Just dropped in to see how I be, since his son was interested. Talked a sight of law gibberish I didn't understand. Told me I didn't have much of a case; said the policy of the railrud was to be liberal, and wanted to know what I thought I ought to have."

"Well?" said Austen, shortly.

"Well," said Mr. Mender, "he didn't git a mite of satisfaction out of me. I've seen enough of his kind of folks to know how to deal with 'em, and I told him so. I asked him what they meant by sending that slick Mr. Tooting 'raound to offer me five hundred dollars. I said I was willin' to trust my case on that crossin' to a jury."

Austen smiled, in spite of his mingled emotions.

"What else did Mr. Vane say?" he asked.

"Not a great sight more. Said a good many folks were foolish enough to spend money and go to law when they'd done better to trust to the liberality of the railrud. Liberality! Adams' widow done well to trust their liberality, didn't she? He wanted to know one more thing, but I didn't give him any satisfaction."

"What was that?"

"I couldn't tell you how he got 'raound to it. Guess he never did, quite. He wanted to know what lawyer was to have my case. Wahn't none of his affair, and I callated if you'd wanted him to know just yet, you'd have toad him."

Austen laid his hand on the farmer's, as he rose to go.

"Zeb," he said, "I never expect to have a more exemplary client."

Mr. Mender shot a glance at him.

"Mebbe I spoke a mite too free about your fayther, Austen," he said; "you and him seem kind of different."

"The Judge and I understand each other," answered Austen.

He had got as far as the door, when he stopped, swung on his heel, and came back to the bedside.

"It's my duty to tell you, Zeb, that in order to hush this thing up they may offer you more than you can get from a jury. In that case I should have to advise you to accept."

He was aware that, while he made this statement, Zeb Meader's eyes were riveted on him, and he knew that the farmer was weighing him in the balance.

"Sell out?" exclaimed Mr. Meader. "You advise me to sell out?"

Austen did not get angry. He understood this man and the people from which he sprang.

"The question is for you to decide-whether you can get more money by a settlement."

"Money!" cried Zeb Meader, "I have found it pretty hard to git, but there's some things I won't do for it. There's a reason why they want this case hushed up, the way they've be'n actin'. I ain't lived in Mercer and Putnam County all my life for nothin'. Hain't I seen 'em run their dirty politics there under Brush Bascom for the last twenty-five years? There's no man has an office or a pass in that county but what Bascom gives it to him, and Bascom's the railrud tool." Suddenly Zeb raised himself in bed. "Hev' they be'n tamperin' with you?" he demanded.

"Yes," answered Austen, dispassionately. He had hardly heard what Zeb had said; his mind had been going onward. "Yes. They sent me an annual pass, and I took it back."

Zeb Meader did not speak for a few moments.

"I guess I was a little hasty, Austen," he said at length.

"I might have known you wouldn't sell out. If you're' willin' to take the risk, you tell 'em ten thousand dollars wouldn't tempt me."

"All right, Zeb," said Austen.

He left the hospital and struck out across the country towards the slopes of Sawanec, climbed them, and stood bareheaded in the evening light, gazing over the still, wide valley northward to the wooded ridges where Leith and Fairview lay hidden. He had come to the parting of the ways of life, and while he did not hesitate to choose his path, a Vane inheritance, though not dominant, could not fail at such a juncture to point out the pleasantness of conformity. Austen's affection for Hilary Vane was real; the loneliness of the elder man appealed to the son, who knew that his father loved him in his own way. He dreaded the wrench there.

And nature, persuasive in that quarter, was not to be stilled in a field more completely her own. The memory and suppliance of a minute will scarce suffice one of Austen's temperament for a lifetime; and his eyes, flying with the eagle high across the valley, searched the velvet folds of the ridges, as they lay in infinite shades of green in the level light, for the place where the enchanted realm might be. Just what the state of his feelings were at this time towards Victoria Flint is too vague-accurately to be painted, but he was certainly not ready to give way to the attraction he felt for her. His sense of humour intervened if he allowed himself to dream; there was a certain folly in pursuing the acquaintance, all the greater now that he was choosing the path of opposition to the dragon. A young woman, surrounded as she was, could be expected to know little of the subtleties of business and political morality: let him take Zeb Meader's case, and her loyalty would naturally be with her father,-if she thought of Austen Vane at all.

And yet the very contradiction of her name, Victoria joined with Flint, seemed to proclaim that she did not belong to her father or to the Rose of Sharon. Austen permitted himself to dwell, as he descended the mountain in the gathering darkness, upon the fancy of the springing of a generation of ideals from a generation of commerce which boded well for the Republic. And Austen Vane, in common with that younger and travelled generation, thought largely in terms of the Republic. Pepper County and Putnam County were all one to him-pieces of his native land. And as such, redeemable.

It was long past the supper hour when he reached the house in Hanover Street; but Euphrasia, who many a time in days gone by had fared forth into the woods to find Sarah Austen, had his supper hot for him. Afterwards he lighted his pipe and went out into the darkness, and presently perceived a black figure seated meditatively on the granite doorstep.

"Is that you, Judge?" said Austen.

The Honourable Hilary grunted in response.

"Be'n on another wild expedition, I suppose."

"I went up Sawanec to stretch my legs a little," Austen answered, sitting down beside his father.

"Funny," remarked the Honourable Hilary, "I never had this mania for stretchin' my legs after I was grown."

"Well," said Austen, "I like to go into the woods and climb the hills and get aired out once in a while."

"I heard of your gettin' aired out yesterday, up Tunbridge way," said the Honourable Hilary.

"I supposed you would hear of it," answered Austen.

"I was up there to-day. Gave Mr. Flint your pass did you?"

"Yes."

"Didn't see fit to mention it to me first-did you? Said you were going up to thank him for it."

Austen considered this.

"You have put me in the wrong, Judge," he replied after a little. "I made that remark ironically. I I am afraid we cannot agree on the motive which prompted me."

"Your conscience a little finer than your father's-is it?"

"No," said Austen, "I don't honestly think it is. I've thought a good deal in the last few years about the difference in our ways of looking at things. I believe that two men who try to be honest may conscientiously differ. But I also believe that certain customs have gradually grown up in railroad practice which are more or less to be deplored from the point of view of the honour of the profession. I think they are not perhaps-realized even by the eminent men in the law."

"Humph!" said the Honourable Hilary. But he did not press his son for the enumeration of these customs. After all the years he had disapproved of Austen's deeds it seemed strange indeed to be called to account by the prodigal for his own. Could it be that this boy whom he had so often chastised took a clearer view of practical morality than himself? It was preposterous. But why the uneasiness of the past few years? Why had he more than once during that period, for the first time in his life, questioned a hitherto absolute satisfaction in his position of chief counsel for the Northeastern Railroads? Why had he hesitated to initiate his son into many of the so-called duties of a railroad lawyer? Austen had never verbally arraigned those duties until to-night.

Contradictory as it may seem, irritating as it was to the Honourable Hilary Vane, he experienced again the certain faint tingling of pride as when Austen had given him the dispassionate account of the shooting of Mr. Blodgett; and this tingling only served to stiffen Hilary Vane more than ever. A lifelong habit of admitting nothing and a lifelong pride made the acknowledgment of possible professional lapses for the benefit of his employer not to be thought of. He therefore assumed the same attitude as had Mr. Flint, and forced the burden of explanation upon Austen, relying surely on the disinclination of his son to be specific. And Austen, considering his relationship, could not be expected to fathom these mental processes.

"See here, Judge," he said, greatly embarrassed by the real affection he felt, "I don't want to seem like a prig and appear to be sitting in judgment upon a man of your experience and position especially since I have the honour to be your son, and have made a good deal of trouble by a not irreproachable existence. Since we have begun on the subject, however, I think I ought to tell you that I have taken the case of Zeb Meader against the Northeastern Railroads."

"Wahn't much need of telling me, was there?" remarked the Honourable Hilary, dryly. "I'd have found it out as soon as anybody else."

"There was this need of telling you," answered Austen, steadily, "although I am not in partnership with you, I bear your name. And in-as-much as I am to have a suit against your client, it has occurred to me that you would like me to move-elsewhere."

The Honourable Hilary was silent for a long time.

"Want to move-do YOU? Is that it?"

"Only because my presence may embarrass you."

"That wahn't in the contract," said the Honourable Hilary; "you've got a right to take any fool cases you've a mind to. Folks know pretty well I'm not mixed up in 'em."

Austen did not smile; he could well understand his father's animus in this matter. As he looked up at the gable of his old home against the stars, he did not find the next sentence any easier.

"And then," he continued, "in taking, a course so obviously against your wishes and judgment it occurred to me-well, that I was eating at your table and sleeping in your house."

To his son's astonishment, Hilary Vane turned on him almost truculently.

"I thought the time'd come when you'd want to go off again,-gypsying," he cried.

"I'd stay right here in Ripton, Judge. I believe my work is in this State."

The Honour could see through a millstone with a hole in it. The effect of Austen's assertion on him was a declaration that the mission of the one was to tear down what the other had so laboriously built up. And yet a growing dread of Hilary Vane's had been the loneliness of declining years in that house should Austen leave it again, never to return.

"I knew you had this Meader business in mind," he said. "I knew you had fanciful notions about-some things. Never told you I didn't want you here, did I?"

"No," said Austen, "but-"

"Would have told you if I hadn't wanted you-wouldn't I?"

"I hope so, Judge," said Austen, who understood something of the feeling which underlay this brusqueness. That knowledge made matters all the harder for him.

"It was your mother's house-you're entitled to that, anyway," said the Honourable Hilary, "but what I want to know is, why you didn't advise that eternal fool of a Meader to accept what we offered him. You'll never get a county jury to give as much."

"I did advise him to accept it," answered Austen.

"What's the matter with him?" the Honourable Hilary demanded.

"Well, judge, if you really want my opinion, an honest farmer like Meader is suspicious of any corporation which has such zealous and loyal retainers as Ham Tooting and Brush Bascom." And Austen thought with a return of the pang which had haunted him at intervals throughout the afternoon, that he might almost have added to these names that of Hilary Vane. Certainly Zeb Meader had not spared his father.

"Life," observed the Honourable Hilary, unconsciously using a phrase from the 'Book of Arguments,' "is a survival of the fittest."

"How do you define 'the fittest?'" asked Austen. "Are they the men who have the not unusual and certainly not exalted gift of getting money from their fellow creatures by the use of any and all weapons that may be at hand? who believe the acquisition of wealth to be exempt from the practice of morality? Is Mr. Flint your example of the fittest type to exist and survive, or Gladstone or Wilberforce or Emerson or Lincoln?"

"Emerson!" cried the Honourable Hilary, the name standing out in red letters before his eyes. He had never read a line of the philosopher's writings, not even the charge to "hitch your wagon to a star" (not in the "Book of Arguments"). Sarah Austen had read Emerson in the woods, and her son's question sounded so like the unintelligible but unanswerable flashes with which the wife had on rare occasions opposed the husband's authority that Hilary Vane found his temper getting the best of him-The name of Emerson was immutably fixed in his mind as the synonym for incomprehensible, foolish habits and beliefs. "Don't talk Emerson to me," he exclaimed. "And as for Brush Bascom, I've known him for thirty years, and he's done as much for the Republican party as any man in this State."

This vindication of Mr. Bascom naturally brought to a close a conversation which had already continued too long. The Honourable Hilary retired to rest; but-if Austen had known it-not to sleep until the small hours of the morning.

It was not until the ensuing spring that the case of Mr. Zebulun Meader against the United Northeastern Railroads came up for trial in Bradford, the county-seat of Putnam County, and we do not wish to appear to give it too great a weight in the annals of the State. For one thing, the weekly newspapers did not mention it; and Mr. Paul Pardriff, when urged to give an account of the proceedings in the Ripton Record, said it was a matter of no importance, and spent the afternoon writing an editorial about the domestic habits of the Aztecs. Mr. Pardriff, however, had thought the matter of sufficient interest personally to attend the trial, and for the journey he made use of a piece of green cardboard which he habitually carried in his pocket. The editor of the Bradford Champion did not have to use his yellow cardboard, yet his columns may be searched in vain for the event.

Not that it was such a great event, one of hundreds of railroad accidents that come to court. The son of Hilary Vane was the plaintiff's counsel; and Mr. Meader, although he had not been able to work since his release from the hospital, had been able to talk, and the interest taken in the case by the average neglected citizen in Putnam proved that the weekly newspaper is not the only disseminator of news.

The railroad's side of the case was presented by that genial and able practitioner of Putnam County, Mr. Nathaniel Billings, who travelled from his home in Williamstown by the exhibition of a red ticket. Austen Vane had to pay his own way from Ripton, but as he handed back the mileage book, the conductor leaned over and whispered something in his ear that made him smile, and Austen thought he would rather have that little drop of encouragement than a pass. And as he left the car at Bradford, two grizzled and hard-handed individuals arose and wished him good luck.

He needed encouragement,-what young lawyer does not on his first important case? And he did not like to think of the future if he lost this. But in this matter he possessed a certain self-confidence which arose from a just and righteous anger against the forces opposing him and a knowledge of their tactics. To his mind his client was not Zeb Meader alone, but the host of victims who had been maimed and bought off because it was cheaper than to give the public a proper protection.

The court room was crowded. Mr. Zeb Meader, pale but determined, was surrounded by a knot of Mercer neighbours, many of whom were witnesses. The agate eyes of Mr. Brush Bascom flashed from the audience, and Mr. Nat Billings bustled forward to shake Austen's hand. Nat was one of those who called not infrequently upon the Honourable Hilary in Ripton, and had sat on Austen's little table.

"Glad to see you, Austen," he cried, so that the people might hear; and added, in a confidentially lower tone, "We lawyers understand that these little things make no difference, eh?"

"I'm willing to agree to that if you are, Nat," Austen answered. He looked at the lawyer's fleshy face, blue-black where it was shaven, and at Mr. Billings' shifty eyes and mouth, which its muscles could not quite keep in place. Mr. Billings also had nicked teeth. But he did his best to hide these obvious disadvantages by a Falstaffian bonhomie,-for Mr. Billings was growing stout.

"I tried it once or twice, my friend, when I was younger. It's noble, but it don't pay," said Mr. Billings, still confidential. "Brush is sour-look at him. But I understand how you feel. I'm the kind of feller that speaks out, and what I can't understand is, why the old man let you get into it."

"He knew you were going to be on the other side, Nat, and wanted to teach me a lesson. I suppose it is folly to contest a case where the Railroad Commission has completely exonerated your client," Austen added thoughtfully.

Mr. Billings' answer was to wink, very slowly, with one eye; and shortly after these pleasantries were over, the case was called. A fragrant wind blew in at the open windows, and Nature outside was beginning to array herself in myriad hues of green. Austen studied the jury, and wondered how many points of his argument he could remember, but when he had got to his feet the words came to him. If we should seek an emblem for King David's smooth, round stone which he flung at Goliath, we should call it the truth-for the truth never fails to reach the mark. Austen's opening was not long, his words simple and not dramatic, but he seemed to charge them with something of the same magnetic force that compelled people to read and believe "Uncle Ton's Cabin" and the "Song of the Shirt." Spectators and jury listened intently.

Some twenty witnesses appeared for the plaintiff, all of whom declared that they had heard neither bell nor whistle. Most of these witnesses had been in the grove, two or three in the train; two, residents of the vicinity, testified that they had complained to the Railroad Commission about that crossing, and had received evasive answers to the effect that it was the duty of citizens to look out for themselves. On cross-examination they declared they had no objection to grade crossings which were properly safeguarded; this crossing was a death-trap. (Stricken out.) Mr. Billings made the mistake of trying to prove that one of these farmers-a clear-eyed, full-chested man with a deep voice-had an animus against the railroad dating from a controversy concerning the shipping of milk.

"I have an animus, your Honour," said the witness, quietly. "When the railrud is represented by the kind of politicians we have in Putnam, it's natural I should hain't it?"

This answer, although stricken out, was gleefully received.

In marked contrast to the earnestness of young Mr. Vane, who then rested, Mr. Billings treated the affair from the standpoint of a man of large practice who usually has more weighty matters to attend to. This was so comparatively trivial as not to be dignified by a serious mien. He quoted freely from the "Book of Arguments," reminding the jury of the debt of gratitude the State owed to the Northeastern Railroads for doing so much for its people; and if they were to eliminate all grade crossings, there would be no dividends for the stockholders. Besides, the law was that the State should pay half when a crossing was eliminated, and the State could not afford it. Austen had suggested, in his opening, that it was cheaper for the railroad as well as the State to kill citizens. He asked permission to inquire of the learned counsel for the defence by what authority he declared that the State could not afford to enter into a policy by which grade crossings would gradually be eliminated.

"Why," said Mr. Billings, "the fact that all bills introduced to this end never get out of committee."

"May I ask," said Austen, innocently, "who has been chairman of that particular committee in the lower House for the last five sessions?"

Mr. Billings was saved the embarrassment of answering this question by a loud voice in the rear calling out:-"Brush Bascom!"

A roar of laughter shook the court room, and all eyes were turned on Brush, who continued to sit unconcernedly with his legs crossed and his arm over the back of the seat. The offender was put out, order was restored, and Mr. Billings declared, with an injured air, that he failed to see why the counsel for the plaintiff saw fit to impugn Mr. Bascom.

"I merely asked a question," said Austere; "far be it from me to impugn any man who has held offices in the gift of the people for the last twenty years."

Another gale of laughter followed this, during which Mr. Billings wriggled his mouth and gave a strong impression that such tactics and such levity were to be deplored.

For the defence, the engineer and fireman both swore that the bell had been rung before the crossing was reached. Austen merely inquired whether this was not when they had left the station at North Mercer, two miles away. No, it was nearer. Pressed to name the exact spot, they could only conjecture, but near enough to be heard on the crossing. Other witnesses-among them several picnickers in the grove-swore that they had heard the bell. One of these Austen asked if he was not the member from Mercer in the last Legislature, and Mr. Billings, no longer genial, sprang to his feet with an objection.

"I merely wish to show, your Honour," said Austen, "that this witness accepted a pass from the Northeastern Railroads when he went to the Legislature, and that he has had several trip passes for himself and his family since."

The objection was not sustained, and Mr. Billings noted an exception.

Another witness, upon whose appearance the audience tittered audibly, was Dave Skinner, boss of Mercer. He had lived, he said, in the town of Mercer all his life, and maintained that he was within a hundred yards of the track when the accident occurred, and heard the bell ring.

"Is it not a fact," said Austen to this witness, "that Mr. Brush Bascom has a mortgage on your farm?"

"I can show, your Honour," Austen continued, when Mr. Billings had finished his protest, "that this man was on his way to Riverside to pay his quarterly instalment."

Mr. Bascom was not present at the afternoon session. Mr. Billings' summing up was somewhat impassioned, and contained more quotations from the "Book of Arguments." He regretted, he said, the obvious appeals to prejudice against a railroad corporation that was honestly trying to do its duty-yes, and more than its duty.

Misjudged, misused, even though friendless, it would continue to serve the people. So noble, indeed, was the picture which Mr. Billings' eloquence raised up that his voice shook with emotion as he finished.

In the opinion of many of the spectators Austen Vane had yet to learn the art of oratory. He might with propriety have portrayed the suffering and loss of the poor farmer who was his client; he merely quoted from the doctor's testimony to the effect that Mr. Meader would never again be able to do physical labour of the sort by which he had supported himself, and ended up by calling the attention of the jury to the photographs and plans of the crossing he had obtained two days after the accident, requesting them to note the facts that the public highway, approaching through a dense forest and underbrush at an angle of thirty-three degrees, climbed the railroad embankment at that point, and a train could not be seen until the horse was actually on the track.

The jury was out five minutes after the judge's charge, and gave Mr. Zebulun Meader a verdict of six thousand dollars and costs,-a popular verdict, from the evident approval with which it was received in the court room. Quiet being restored, Mr. Billings requested, somewhat vehemently, that the case be transferred on the exceptions to the Supreme Court, that the stenographer write out the evidence, and that he might have three weeks in which to prepare a draft. This was granted.

Zeb Meader, true to his nature, was self-contained throughout the congratulations he received, but his joy was nevertheless intense.

"You shook 'em up good, Austen," he said, making his way to where his counsel stood. "I suspicioned you'd do it. But how about this here appeal?"

"Billings is merely trying to save the face of his railroad," Austen answered, smiling. "He hasn't the least notion of allowing this case to come up again-take my word for it."

"I guess your word's good," said Zeb. "And I want to tell you one thing, as an old man. I've been talkin' to Putnam County folks some, and you hain't lost nothin' by this."

"How am I to get along without the friendship of Brush Bascom?" asked Austen, soberly.

Mr. Meader, who had become used to this mild sort of humour, relaxed sufficiently to laugh.

"Brush did seem a mite disgruntled," he remarked.

Somewhat to Austen's embarrassment, Mr. Mender's friends were pushing forward. One grizzled veteran took him by the hand and looked thoughtfully into his face.

"I've lived a good many years," he said, "but I never heerd 'em talked up to like that. You're my candidate for governor."

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