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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 18359

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


DAYS of strain followed: days of a thousand engagements, a thousand interviews, a thousand journeyings, a thousand speeches; days in which he was reduced to an unresisting automaton, mechanically uttering the same formulas; days in which the irresistible force of the campaign swept him along without volition. And day followed day and not a sign came from the Princess Zobraska either of condonation or resentment. It was as though she had gathered her skirts around her and gone disdainfully out of his life for ever. If speaking were to be done, it was for her to speak. Paul could not plead. It was he who, in a way, had cast her off. In effect he had issued the challenge: "I am a child of the gutter, an adventurer masquerading under an historical name, and you are a royal princess. Will you marry me now?" She had given her answer, by walking out of the room, her proud head in the air. It was final, as far as he was concerned. He could do nothing-not even beg his dearest lady to plead for him. Besides, rumour had it that the Princess had cancelled her town engagements and gone to Morebury. So he walked in cold and darkness, uninspired, and though he worked with feverish energy, the heart and purpose of his life were gone.

As in his first speech, so in his campaign, he failed. He had been chosen for his youth, his joyousness, his magnetism, his radiant promise of great things to come. He went about the constituency an anxious, haggard man, working himself to death without being able to awaken a spark of emotion in the heart of anybody. He lost ground daily. On the other hand, Silas Finn, with his enthusiasms, and his aspect of an inspired prophet, made alarming progress. He swept the multitude. Paul Savelli, the young man of the social moment, had an army of helpers, members of Parliament making speeches, friends on the Unionist press writing flamboyant leaders, fair ladies in automobiles hunting for voters through the slums of Hickney Heath. Silas Finn had scarcely a personal friend. But hope reigned among his official supporters, whereas depression began to descend over Paul's brilliant host.

"They want stirring up a bit," said the Conservative agent despondently. "I hear old Finn's meetings go with a bang. They nearly raised the roof off last night. We want some roof-raising on this side."

"I do my best," said Paul coldly, but the reproach cut deep. He was a failure. No nervous or intellectual effort could save him now, though he spent himself to the last heartbeat. He was the sport of a mocking Will o' the Wisp which he had taken for Destiny.

Once on coming out of his headquarters he met Silas, who was walking up the street with two or three of his committee-men. In accordance with the ordinary amenities of English political life, the two candidates shook hands, and withdrew a pace or two aside to chat for a while. This was the first time they had come together since the afternoon of revelation, and there was a moment of constraint during which Silas tugged at his streaked beard and looked with mournful wistfulness at his son.

"I wish I were not your opponent, Paul," said he in a low voice, so as not to be overheard.

"That doesn't matter a bit," Paul replied courteously. "I see you're putting up an excellent fight."

"It's the Lord's battle. If it weren't, do you think I would not let you win?"

The same old cry. Through sheer repetition, Paul began almost to believe in it. He felt very weary. In his father's eyes he recognized, with a pang, the glow of a faith which he had lost. Their likeness struck him, and he saw himself, his old self, beneath the unquestioning though sorrowful eyes.

"That's the advantage of a belief in the Almighty's personal interest," he answered, with a touch of irony: "whatever happens, one is not easily disillusioned."

"That is true, my son," said Silas.

"Jane is well?" Paul asked, after an instant's pause, breaking off the profitless discussion.

"Very well."

"And Barney Bill?"

"He upbraids me bitterly for what I have said."

Paul smiled at the curiously stilted phrase.

"Tell him from me not to do it. My love to them both."

They shook hands again, and Paul drove off in the motor car that had been placed at his disposal during the election, and Silas continued his sober walk with his committee-men up the muddy street. Whereupon Paul conceived a sudden hatred for the car. It was but the final artistic touch to this comedy of mockery of which he had been the victim.... Perhaps God was on his father's side, after all-on the side of them who humbly walked and not of them who rode in proud chariots. But his political creed, his sociological convictions rose in protest. How could the Almighty be in league with all that was subversive of social order, all that was destructive to Imperial cohesion, all that which inevitably tended to England's downfall?

He turned suddenly to his companion, the Conservative agent.

"Do you think God has got common sense?"

The agent, not being versed in speculations regarding the attributes of the Deity, stared; then, disinclined to commit himself, took refuge in platitude.

"God moves in a mysterious way, Mr. Savelli."

"That's rot," said Paul. "If there's an Almighty, He must move in a common-sense way; otherwise the whole of this planet would have busted up long ago. Do you think it's common sense to support the present Government?"

"Certainly not," said the agent, fervently.

"Then if God supported it, it wouldn't be common sense on His part. It would be merely mysterious?"

"I see what you're driving at," said the agent. "Our opponent undoubtedly has been making free with the name of the Almighty in his speeches. As a matter of fact he's rather crazy on the subject. I don't think it would be a bad move to make a special reference to it. It's all damned hypocrisy. There's a chap in the old French play-what's his name?"

"Tartuffe."

"That's it. Well, there you are. That speech of his yesterday-now why don't you take it and wring religiosity and hypocrisy and Tartuffism out of it? You know how to do that sort of thing. You can score tremendously. I never thought of it before. By George! you can get him in the neck if you like."

"But I don't like," said Paul. "I happen to know that Mr. Finn is sincere in his convictions."

"But, my dear sir, what does his supposed sincerity matter in political contest?"

"It's the difference between dirt and cleanliness," said Paul. "Besides, as I told you at the outset, Mr. Finn and I are close personal friends, and I have the highest regard for his character. He has seen that his side has scrupulously refrained from personalities with regard to me, and I insist on the same observance with regard to him."

"With all due deference to you, Mr. Savelli, you were called only the day before yesterday 'the spoiled darling of Duchesses' boudoirs.'"

"It wasn't with Mr. Finn's cognizance. I've found that out."

"Well," said the agent, leaning back-in the luxurious limousine, "I don't see why somebody, without your cognizance, shouldn't call Mr. Finn the spoiled minion of the Almighty's ante-chamber. That's a devilish good catch-phrase," he added, starting forward in the joy of his newborn epigram: "Devilish good. 'The spoiled minion of the Almighty's ante-chamber.' It'll become historical."

"If it does," said Paul, "it will be associated with the immediate retirement of the Conservative candidate."

"Do you really mean that?"

It was Paul's turn to start forward. "My dear Wilson," said he, "if you or anybody else thinks I'm a man to talk through his hat, I'll retire at once. I don't care a damn about myself. Not a little tuppenny damn. What the devil does it matter to me whether I get into Parliament or not? Nothing. Not a tuppenny damn. You can't understand. It's the party and the country. For myself, personally, the whole thing can go to blazes. I'm in earnest, dead earnest," he continued, with a vehemence incomprehensible to Wilson. "If anybody doesn't think so, I'll clear out at once"-he snapped his fingers. "But while I'm candidate everything I say I mean. I mean it intensely-with all my soul. And I say that if there's a single insulting reference to Mr. Finn during this election, you'll be up against the wreck of your own political career."

The agent watched the workings of his candidate's dark clear-cut face. He was very proud of his candidate, and found it difficult to realize that there were presumably sane people who would not vote for him on sight. A lingering memory of grammar school days flashed on him when he told his wife later of the conversation, and he likened Paul to a wrathful Apollo. Anxious to appease the god, he said humbly:

"It was the merest of suggestions, Mr. Savelli. Heaven knows we don't want to descend to personalities, and your retirement would be an unqualifiable disaster. But-you'll pardon my mentioning it-you began this discussion by asking me whether the Almighty had common sense."

"Well, has He or not?"

"Of course," said Wilson.

"Then we're going to win this election," said Paul.

If he

could have met enthusiasm with enthusiasm, all would have been well. The awakener of England could have captivated hearts by glowing pictures of a great and glorious future. It would have been a counter-blaze to that lit by his opponent, which flamed in all the effulgence of a reckless reformer's promise, revealing a Utopia in which there would be no drunkenness, no crime, no poverty, and in which the rich, apparently, would have to work very hard in order to support the poor in comfortable idleness. But beyond proving fallacies, Paul could do nothing-and even then, has there ever been a mob since the world began susceptible to logical argument? So, all through the wintry days of the campaign, Silas Finn carried his fiery cross through the constituency, winning frenzied adherents, while Paul found it hard to rally the faithful round the drooping standard of St. George.

The days went on. Paul addressed his last meeting on the eve of the poll. By a supreme effort he regained some of his former fire and eloquence. He drove home exhausted, and going straight to bed slept like a dog till morning.

The servant who woke him brought a newspaper to the bedside.

"Something to interest you, sir."

Paul looked at the headline indicated by the man.

"Hickney Heath Election. Liberal Candidate's Confession. Extraordinary Scene."

He glanced hurriedly down the column and read with amazement and stabbing pain the matter that was of interest. The worst had happened-the thing which during all his later life Silas Finn had feared. The spectre of the prison had risen up against him.

Towards the end of Silas Finn's speech, at his last great meeting, a man, sitting in the body of the hall near the platform, got up and interrupted him. "What about your own past life? What about your three years' penal servitude?" All eyes were turned from the man-a common looking, evil man-to the candidate, who staggered as if he had been shot, caught at the table behind him for support and stared in greyfaced terror. There was an angry tumult, and the interrupter would have fared badly, but for Silas Finn holding up his hand and imploring silence.

"I challenge the candidate to deny," said the man, as soon as he could be heard, "that his real name is Silas Kegworthy, and that he underwent three years' penal servitude for murderously assaulting his wife."

Then the candidate braced himself and said: "The bare facts are true. But I have lived stainlessly in the fear of God and in the service of humanity for thirty years. I have sought absolution for a moment of mad anger under awful provocation in unremitting prayer and in trying to save the souls and raise the fortunes of my fellow-men. Is that all you have against me?"

"That's all," said the man.

"It is for you, electors of Hickney Heath, to judge me."

He sat down amid tumultuous cheers, and the man who had interrupted him, after some rough handling, managed to make his escape. The chairman then put a vote of confidence in the candidate, which was carried by acclamation, and the meeting broke up.

Such were the essential facts in the somewhat highly coloured newspaper story which Paul read in stupefied horror. He dressed quickly and went to his sitting-room, where he rang up his father's house on the telephone. Jane's voice met his ear.

"It's Paul speaking," he replied. "I've just this moment read of last night. I'm shaken to my soul. How is my father?"

"He's greatly upset," came the voice. "He didn't sleep all night, and he's not at all well this morning. Oh, it was a cruel, cowardly blow."

"Dastardly. Do you know who it was?"

"No. Don't you?"

"I? Does either of you think that I-?"

"No, no," came the voice, now curiously tearful. "I didn't mean that. I forgot you've not had time to find out."

"Who does he think it was?"

"Some old fellow prisoner who had a grudge against him."

"Were you at the meeting?"

"Yes. Oh, Paul, it was splendid to see him face the audience. He spoke so simply and with such sorrowful dignity. He had their sympathy at once. But it has broken him. I'm afraid he'll never be the same man again. After all these years it's dreadful."

"It's all that's damnable. It's tragic. Give him my love and tell him that words can't express my sorrow and indignation."

He rang off. Almost immediately Wilson was announced. He came into the room radiant.

"You were right about the divine common-sensicality," said he. "The Lord has delivered our adversary into our hands with a vengeance."

He was a chubby little man of forty, with coarse black hair and scrubby moustache, not of the type that readily appreciates the delicacies of a situation. Paul conceived a sudden loathing for him.

"I would give anything for it not to have happened," he said.

Wilson opened his eyes. "Why? It's our salvation. An ex-convict-it's enough to damn any candidate. But we want to make sure. Now I've got an idea."

Paul turned on him angrily. "I'll have no capital made out of it whatsoever. It's a foul thing to bring such an accusation up against a man who has lived a spotless life for thirty years. Everything in me goes out in sympathy with him, and I'll let it be known all through the constituency."

"If you take it that way," said Wilson, "there's no more to be done."

"There's nothing to be done, except to find out who put up the man to make the announcement."

"He did it on his own," Wilson replied warmly. "None of our people would resort to a dirty trick like that."

"And yet you want me to take advantage of it now it's done."

"That's quite a different matter."

"I can't see much difference," said Paul.

So Wilson, seeing that his candidate was more unmanageable than ever, presently departed, and Paul sat down to breakfast. But he could not eat. He was both stricken with shame and moved to the depths by immense pity. Far removed from him as Silas Finn was in mode of life and ideals, he found much in common with his father. Each had made his way from the slum, each had been guided by an inner light-was Silas Finn's fantastic belief less of an ignis fatuus than his own?-each had sought to get away from a past, each was a child of Ishmael, each, in his own way, had lived romantically. Whatever resentment against his father lingered in his heart now melted away. He was very near him. The shame of the prison struck him as it had struck the old man. He saw him bowed down under the blow, and he clenched his hands in a torture of anger and indignation. And to crown all, came the intolerable conviction, in the formation of which Wilson's triumphant words had not been necessary, that if he won the election it would be due to this public dishonouring of his own father. He walked about the room in despair, and at last halted before the mantelpiece on which still stood the photograph of the Princess in its silver frame. Suddenly he remembered that he had not told her of this incident in his family history. She too would be reading her newspaper this morning. He saw her proud lips curl. The son of a gaol-bird! He tore the photograph from its frame and threw it into the fire and watched it burn. As the paper writhed under the heat, the lips seemed to twist into sad reproach. He turned away impatiently. That romantic madness was over and done with. He had far sterner things to do than shriek his heart out over a woman in an alien star. He had his life to reconstruct in the darkness threatening and mocking; but at last he had truth for a foundation; on that he would build in defiance of the world.

In the midst of these fine thoughts it occurred to him that he had hidden the prison episode in his father's career from the Winwoods as well as from the Princess. His cheeks flushed; it was one more strain on the loyalty of these dear devoted friends. He went downstairs, and found the Colonel and Miss Winwood in the dining-room. Their faces were grave. He came to them with outstretched arms-a familiar gesture, one doubtless inherited from his Sicilian ancestry.

"You see what has happened. I knew all the time. I didn't tell you. You must forgive me."

"I don't blame you, my boy," said Colonel Winwood. "It was your father's secret. You had no right to tell us."

"We're very grieved, dear, for both your sakes," Ursula added. "James has taken the liberty of sending round a message of sympathy."

As ever, these two had gone a point beyond his anticipation of their loyalty. He thanked them simply.

"It's hateful," said he, "to think I may win the election on account of this. It's loathsome." He shuddered.

"I quite agree with you," said the Colonel. "But in politics one has often to put up with hateful things in order to serve one's country. That's the sacrifice a high-minded man is called upon to make."

"Besides," said Miss Winwood, "let us hope it won't affect votes. All the papers say that the vote of confidence was passed amid scenes of enthusiasm."

Paul smiled. They understood. A little while later they drove off with him to his committee room in the motor car gay with his colours. There was still much to be done that day.

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