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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 23889

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


HICKNEY HEATH blazed with excitement. It is not every day that a thrill runs through a dull London borough, not even every election day. For a London borough, unlike a country town, has very little corporate life of its own. You cannot get up as much enthusiasm for Kilburn, say, as a social or historical entity, as you can for Winchester or Canterbury. You may perform civic duties, if you are public-spirited enough, with business-like zeal, and if you are borough councillor you may be proud of the nice new public baths which you have been instrumental in presenting to the community. But the ordinary man in the street no more cares for Kilburn than he does for Highgate. He would move from one to the other without a pang. For neither's glory would he shed a drop of his blood. Only at election times does it occur to him that he is one of a special brotherhood, isolated from the rest of London; and even then he regards the constituency as a convention defining geographical limits for the momentary range of his political passions. So that the day when an electric thrill ran through the whole of Hickney Heath was a rare one in its uninspiring annals.

The dramatic had happened, touching the most sluggish imaginations. The Liberal candidate for Parliament, a respected Borough Councillor, a notorious Evangelical preacher, had publicly confessed himself an ex-convict. Every newspaper in London-and for the matter of that, every newspaper in Great Britain-rang with the story, and every man, woman and child in Hickney Heath read feverishly every newspaper, morning and evening, they could lay their hands on. Also, every man, woman and child in Hickney Heath asked his neighbour for further details. All who could leave desk and shop or factory poured into the streets to learn the latest, tidings. Around the various polling stations the crowd was thickest. Those electors who had been present at Silas Finn's meeting, the night before, told the story at first-hand to eager groups. Rumours of every sort spread through the mob. The man who had put the famous question was an agent of the Tories. It was a smart party move. Silas Finn had all the time been leading a double life. Depravities without number were laid to his charge. Even now the police were inquiring into his connection with certain burglaries that had taken place in the neighbourhood. And where was he that day? Who had seen him? He was at home drunk. He had committed suicide. Even if he hadn't, and was elected, he would not be allowed to take his seat in Parliament.

On the other hand, those in whose Radical bosoms burned fierce hatred for the Tories, spoke loud in condemnation of their cowardly tactics. There was considerable free-fighting in the ordinarily dismal and decorous streets of Hickney Heath. Noisy acclamations hailed the automobiles, carriages and waggonettes bringing voters of both parties to the polls. Paul, driving in his gaily-decked car about the constituency, shared all these demonstrations and heard these rumours. The latter he denied and caused to be denied, as far as lay in his power. In the broad High Street, thronged with folk, and dissonant with tram cars and motor 'buses, he came upon a quarrelsome crowd looking up at a window above a poulterer's shop, from which hung something white, like a strip of wall paper.

Approaching, he perceived that it bore a crude drawing of a convict and "Good old Dartmoor" for legend. White with anger, he stopped the car, leaped out on to the curb, and pushing his way through the crowd, entered the shop. He seized one of the white-coated assistants by the arm. "Show me the way to that first-floor room," he cried fiercely.

The assistant, half-dragged, half-leading, and wholly astonished, took him through the shop and pointed to the staircase. Paul sprang up and dashed through the door into the room, which appeared to be some business office. Three or four young men, who turned grinning from the window, he thrust aside, and plucking the offending strip from the drawing-pins which secured it to the sill, he tore it across and across.

"You cads! You brutes!" he shouted, trampling on the fragments. "Can't you fight like Englishmen?"

The young men, realizing the identity of the wrathful apparition, stared open-mouthed, turned red, and said nothing. Paul strode out, looking very fierce, and drove off in his car amid the cheers of the crowd, to which he paid no notice.

"It makes me sick!" he cried passionately to Wilson, who was with him. "I hope to God he wins in spite, of it!"

"What about the party?" asked Wilson.

Paul damned the party. He was in the overwrought mood in which a man damns everything. Quagmire and bramble and the derision of Olympus-that was the end of his vanity of an existence. Suppose he was elected-what then? He would be a failure-the high gods in their mirth would see to that-a puppet in Frank Ayres' hands until the next general election, when he would have ignominiously to retire. Awakener of England indeed! He could not even awaken Hickney Heath. As he dashed through the streets in his triumphal car, he hated Hickney Heath, hated the wild "hoorays" of waggon-loads of his supporters on their way to the polls, hated the smug smiles of his committee-men at polling stations. He forgot that he did not hate England. A little black disk an inch or two in diameter if cunningly focussed can obscure the sun in heaven from human eye. There was England still behind the little black disk, though Paul for the moment saw it not.

Wilson pulled his scrubby moustache and made no retort to Paul's anathema. To him Paul was one of the fine flower of the Upper Classes to which lower middle-class England still, with considerable justification, believes to be imbued with incomprehensible and unalterable principles of conduct. The grand old name of gentleman still has its magic in this country-and is, by the way, not without its influence in one or two mighty republics wherein the equality of man is very loudly proclaimed. Wilson, therefore, gladly suffered Paul's lunatic Quixotry. For himself he approved hugely of the cartoon. If he could have had his way, Hickney Heath would have flamed with poster reproductions of it. But he had a dim appreciation of, and a sneaking admiration for, the aristocrat's point of view, and, being a practical man, evaded a discussion on the ethics of the situation.

The situation was rendered more extraordinary because the Liberal candidate made no appearance in the constituency. Paul inquired anxiously. No one had seen him. After lunch he drove alone to his father's house. The parlour-maid showed him into the hideously furnished and daub-hung dining-room. The Viennese horrors of plaster stags, gnomes and rabbits stared fatuously on the hearth. No fire was in the grate. Very soon Jane entered, tidy, almost matronly in buxom primness, her hair as faultless as if it had come out of a convoluted mould, her grave eyes full of light. She gave him her capable hand.

"It's like you to come, Paul."

"It's only decent. My father hasn't shown up. What's the matter with him?"

"It's a bit of a nervous breakdown," she said, looking at him steadily. "Nothing serious. But the doctor-I sent for him-says he had better rest-and his committee people thought it wiser for him not to show himself."

"Can I see him?"

"Certainly not." A look of alarm came into her face. "You're both too excited. What would you say to him?"

"I'd tell him what I feel about the whole matter."

"Yes. You would fling your arms about, and he would talk about God, and a precious lot of good it would do to anybody. No, thank you. I'm in charge of Mr. Finn's health."

It was the old Jane, so familiar. "I wish," said he, with a smile-"I wish I had had your common sense to guide me all these years."

"If you had, you would now be a clerk in the City earning thirty shillings a week."

"And perhaps a happier man."

"Bosh, my dear Paul!" she said, shaking her head slowly. "Rot! Rubbish! I know you too well. You adding up figures at thirty shillings a week, with a common sense wife for I suppose you mean that-mending your socks and rocking the cradle in a second-floor back in Hickney Heath! No, my dear"-she paused for a second or two and her lips twitched oddly-"common sense would have been the death of you."

He laughed in spite of himself. It was so true.

Common sense might have screwed him to a thirty shillings-a-week desk: the fantastic had brought him to that very house, a candidate for Parliament, in a thousand-guinea motor car. On the other hand-and his laughter faded from his eyes-the fantastic in his life was dead. Henceforward common sense would hold him in her cold and unstimulating clasp. He said something of the sort to Jane. Once more she ejaculated "Rot, rubbish and bosh!" and they quarrelled as they had done in their childhood.

"You talk as if I didn't know you inside out, my dear Paul," she said in her clear, unsmiling way. "Listen. All men are donkeys, aren't they?"

"For the sake of argument, I agree."

"Well-there are two kinds of donkeys. One kind is meek and mild and will go wherever it is driven. The other, in order to get along, must always have a bunch of carrots dangling before its eyes. That's you."

"But confound it all!" he cried, "I've lost my carrots-can't you see? I'll never have any carrots again. That's the whole damned tragedy."

For the first time she smiled-the smile of the woman wiser in certain subtle things than the man. "My dear," she said, "carrots are cheap." She paused for an instant and added, "Thank God!"

Paul squeezed her arms affectionately and they moved apart. He sighed. "They're the most precious things in the world," said he.

"The most precious things in the world are those which you can get for nothing," said Jane.

"You're a dear," said he, "and a comfort."

Presently he left her and returned to his weary round of the constituency, feeling of stouter heart, with a greater faith in the decent ordering of mundane things. A world containing such women as Jane and Ursula Winwood possessed elements of sanity. Outside one of the polling stations he found Barney Bill holding forth excitedly to a knot of working-men. He ceased as the car drove up, and cast back a broad proud smile at the candidate's warm greeting.

"I got up the old 'bus so nice and proper, with all your colours and posters, and it would have been a spectacular Diorama for these 'ere poor people; but you know for why I didn't bring it out to-day, don't you, sonny?"

"I know, dear old friend," said Paul.

"I 'adn't the 'cart to."

"What were you speechifying about when I turned up?"

Barney Bill jerked a backward thumb. "I was telling this pack of cowardly Radicals that though I've been a Tory born and bred for sixty odd years, and though I've voted for you, Silas Finn, for all he was in prison while most of them were sucking wickedness and Radicalism out of Nature's founts, is just as good a man as what you are. They was saying, yer see, they was Radicals, but on account of Silas being blown upon, they was going to vote for you. So I tells 'em, I says, 'Mr. Savelli would scorn your dirty votes. If yer feel low and Radical, vote Radical. Mr. Savelli wants to play fair. I know both of 'em,' I says, 'both of 'em intimately.' And they begins to laugh, as if I was talking through my hat. Anyway, they see now I know you, sonny."

Paul laughed and clapped the loyal old man on the shoulder. Then he turned to the silent but interested group. "Gentlemen," said he, "I don't want to inquire on which side you are; but you can take it from me that whatever my old friend Mr. Simmons says about Mr. Finn and myself is the absolute truth. If you're on Mr. Finn's side in politics, in God's name vote for him. He's a noble, high-souled man and I'm proud of his private fr

iendship."

He drew Barney Bill apart. "You're the only Tory in the place who can try to persuade people not to vote for me. I wish you would keep on doing it."

"I've been a-doing of it ever since the polls opened this morning," said Barney Bill. Then he cocked his head on one side and his little eyes twinkled: "It's an upside-down way of fighting an election to persuade people not to vote for you, isn't it?"

"Everything is topsy-turvy with me, these days," Paul replied: "so we've just got to stand on our heads and make the best of it."

And he drove off in the gathering dusk.

Night found him in the great chamber of the Town Hall, with his agent and members of his committee. Present too were the Liberal Agent and the members of the Liberal Committee. At one end of the room sat the Mayor of the Borough in robe and chain of office, presiding over the proceedings. The Returning Officer and his staff sat behind long tables, on which were deposited the sealed ballot boxes brought in from the various polling stations; and these were emptied and the votes were counted, the voting papers for each candidate being done up in bundles of fifty. Knots of committee-men of both parties stood chatting in low voices. In an ordinary election both candidates would have chatted together, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred about golf, and would have made an engagement to meet again in milder conflict that day week. But here Paul was the only candidate to appear, and he sat in a cane-bottomed chair apart from the lounging politicians, feeling curiously an interloper in this vast, solemn and scantily-filled hall. He was very tired, too tired in body, mind and soul to join in the small-talk of Wilson and his bodyguard. Besides, they all wore the air of anticipated victory, and for that he held them in detestation. He had detested them the whole day long. The faces that yesterday had been long and anxious to-day had been wreathed in smirks. Wherever he had gone he had found promise of victory in his father's disgrace. Passionately the young man, fronting vital issues, longed for his own defeat.

But for the ironical interposition of the high gods, it might have been so different. Any other candidate against him, he himself buoyed up with his own old glorious faith, his Princess, dazzling meteor illuminating the murky streets-dear God! what would not have been the joy of battle during the past week, what would not have been the intense thrill, the living of a thousand lives in these few hours of suspense now so dull with dreariness and pain! He sat apart, his legs crossed, a hand over his eyes. Wilson and his men, puzzled by his apparent apathy, left him alone. It is not much use addressing a mute and wooden idol, no matter how physically prepossessing.

The counting went on slowly, relentlessly, and the bundles of fifty on each side grew in bulk, and Paul's side bulked larger than Silas Finn's.

At last Wilson could stand it no longer. He left the group with which he was talking, and came to Paul. "We're far ahead already," he cried excitedly. "I told you last night would do the trick."

"Last night," said Paul, rising and stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets, "my opponent's supporters passed a vote of confidence in him in a scene of tumultuous enthusiasm."

"Quite so," replied Wilson. "A crowd is generous and easily swayed. A theatrical audience of scalliwags and thieves will howl applause at the triumph of virtue and the downfall of the villain; and each separate member will go out into the street and begin to practise villainy and say 'to hell with virtue.' If last night's meeting could have polled on the spot, they would have been as one man. To-day they're scattered and each individual revises his excited opinion. Your hard-bitten Radical would sooner have a self-made man than an aristocrat to represent him in Parliament; but, damn it all, he'd sooner have an aristocrat than an ex-convict."

"But who the devil told you I'm an aristocrat?" cried Paul.

Wilson laughed. "Who wants to be told such an obvious thing? Anyhow, you've only got to look and you'll see how the votes are piling up."

Paul looked and saw that Wilson spoke truly. Then he reflected that Wilson and the others who had worked so strenuously for him had no part in his own personal depression. They deserved a manifestation of interest, also expressions of gratitude. So Paul pulled himself together and went amongst them and was responsive to their prophecies of victory.

Then just as the last votes were being counted, an official attendant came in with a letter for Paul. It had been brought by messenger. The writing on the envelope was Jane's. He tore it open and read.

Mr. Finn is dying. He has had a stroke. The doctor says he can't live through the night. Come as soon as you can. JANE.

Outside the Town Hall the wide street was packed with people. Men surged up to the hollow square of police guarding the approach to the flight of steps and the great entrance door. Men swarmed about the electric standards above the heads of their fellows. Men rose in a long tier with their backs to the shop-fronts on the opposite side of the road. In spite of the raw night the windows were open and the arc lights revealed a ghostly array of faces looking down on the mass below, whose faces in their turn were lit up by the more yellow glare streaming from the doors and uncurtained windows of the Town Hall. In the lobby behind the glass doors could be seen a few figures going and coming, committee-men, journalists, officials. A fine rain began to fall, but the crowd did not heed it. The mackintosh capes of the policemen glistened. It was an orderly crowd, held together by tense excitement: all eyes fixed on the silent illuminated building whence the news would come. Across one window on the second floor was a large white patch, blank and sphinx-like. At right angles to one end of the block ran the High Street and the tall, blazing trams passed up and down and all eyes in the trams strained for a transient glimpse of the patch, hoping that it would flare out into message.

Presently a man was seen to dash from the interior of the hall into the lobby, casting words at the waiting figures, who clamoured eagerly and disappeared within, just as the man broke through the folding doors and appeared at the top of the steps beneath the portico. The great crowd surged and groaned, and the word was quickly passed from rank to rank.

"Savelli. Thirteen hundred and seventy majority." And then there burst out wild cheers and the crowd broke into a myriad little waves like a choppy sea. Men danced and shouted and clapped each other on the back, and the tall facade of the street opposite the hall was a-flutter. Suddenly the white patch leaped into an illumination proclaiming the figures.

Savelli-6,135.

Finn-4,765.

Again the wild cheering rose, and then the great double windows in the centre of the first floor of the Town Hall were flung open and Paul, surrounded by the mayor and officials, appeared.

Paul gripped the iron hand-rail and looked down upon the tumultuous scene, his ears deafened by the roar, his eyes dazed by the conflicting lights and the million swift reflections from moving faces and arms and hats and handkerchiefs. The man is not born who can receive unmoved a frenzied public ovation. A lump rose in his throat. After all, this delirium of joy was sincere. He stood for the moment the idol of the populace. For him this vast concourse of human beings had waited in rain and mud and now became a deafening, seething welter of human passion. He gripped the rail tighter and closed his eyes. He heard as in a dream the voice of the mayor behind him: "Say a few words. They won't hear you-but that doesn't matter."

Then Paul drew himself up, facing the whirling scene. He sought in his pockets and suddenly shot up his hand, holding a letter, and awaited a lull in the uproar. He was master of himself now. He had indeed words to say, deliberately prepared, and he knew that if he could get a hearing he would say them as deliberately. At last came comparative calm.

"Gentlemen," said he, with a motion of the letter, "my opponent is dying."

He paused. The words, so unexpected, so strangely different from the usual exordium, seemed to pass from line to line through the crowd.

"I am speaking in the presence of death," said Paul, and paused again.

And a hush spread like a long wave across the street, and the thronged windows, last of all, grew still and silent.

"I will ask you to hear me out, for I have something very grave to say." And his voice rang loud and clear. "Last night my opponent was forced to admit that nearly thirty years ago he suffered a term of penal servitude. The shock, after years of reparation, of spotless life, spent in the service of God and his fellow-creatures, has killed him. I desire publicly to proclaim that I, as his opponent, had no share in the dastardly blow that has struck him down. And I desire to proclaim the reason. He is my own father; I, Paul Savelli, am my opponent, Silas Finn's son."

A great gasp and murmur rose from the wonder-stricken throng, but only momentarily, for the spell of drama was on them. Paul continued.

"I will make public later on the reasons for our respective changes of name. For the present it is enough to state the fact of our relationship and of our mutual affection and respect. That I thank you for electing me goes without saying; and I will do everything in my power to advance the great cause you have enabled me to represent. I regret I cannot address you in another place to-night, as I had intended. I must ask you of your kindness to let me go quietly where my duty and my heart call me to my father's death-bed."

He bowed and waved a dignified gesture of farewell, and turning into the hall met the assemblage of long, astounded faces. From outside came the dull rumbling of the dispersing crowd. The mayor, the first to break the silence, murmured a platitude.

Paul thanked him gravely. Then he went to Wilson. "Forgive me," said he, "for all that has been amiss with me to-day. It has been a strain of a very peculiar kind."

"I can well imagine it," said Wilson.

"You see I'm not an aristocrat, after all," said Paul.

Wilson looked the young man in the face and saw the steel beneath the dark eyes, and the Proud setting of the lips. With a sudden impulse he wrung his hand. "I don't care a damn!" said he. "You are."

Paul said, unsmiling: "I can face the music. That's all." He drew a note from his pocket. "Will you do me a final service? Go round to the Conservative Club at once, and tell the meeting what has happened, and give this to Colonel Winwood."

"With pleasure," said Wilson.

Then Paul shook hands with all his fellow-workers and thanked them in his courtly way, and, pleading for solitude, went through the door of the great chamber and, guided by an attendant, reached the exit in a side street where his car awaited him. A large concourse of people stood drawn up in line on each side of the street, marshalled by policemen. A familiar crooked figure limped from the shadow of the door, holding a hard felt hat, his white poll gleaming in the shaft of light. "God bless you, sonny," he said in a hoarse whisper.

Paul took the old man by the arm and drew him across the pavement to the car. "Get in," said he.

Barney Bill hung back. "No, sonny; no."

"It's not the first time we've driven together. Get in. I want you."

So Barney Bill allowed himself to be thrust into the luxurious car, and Paul followed. And perhaps for the first time in the history of great elections the successful candidate drove away from the place where the poll was declared in dead silence, attended only by the humblest of his constituents. But every man in the throng bared his head.

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