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   Chapter 13 The Tocsin

The Two Vanrevels By Booth Tarkington Characters: 19162

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

Tom Vanrevel always went to the post-office soon after the morning distribution of the mail; that is to say, about ten o'clock, and returned with the letters for the firm of Gray and Vanrevel, both personal and official. Crailey and he shared everything, even a box at the post-office; and in front of this box, one morning, after a night of rain, Tom stood staring at a white envelope bearing a small, black seal. The address was in a writing he had never seen before, but the instant it fell under his eye he was struck with a distinctly pleasurable excitement.

Whether through some spiritual exhalation of the writer fragrant on any missive, or because of a hundred microscopic impressions, there are analysts who are able to select, from a pile of letters written by women (for the writing of women exhibits certain phenomena more determinably than that of men) those of the prettiest or otherwise most attractive. And out upon the lover who does not recognize his mistress's hand at the first glimpse ever he has of it, without post-mark or other information to aid him! Thus Vanrevel, worn, hollow-eyed, and sallow, in the Rouen post-office, held the one letter separate from a dozen (the latter not, indeed, from women), and stared at it until a little color came back to his dark skin and a great deal of brightness to his eye. He was no analyst of handwritings, yet it came to him instantly that this note was from a pretty woman. To see that it was from a woman was simple, but that he knew-and he did know-that she was pretty, savors of the occult. More than this: there was something about it that thrilled him. Suddenly, and without reason, he knew that it came from Elizabeth Carewe.

He walked back quickly to his office with the letter in the left pocket of his coat, threw the bundle of general correspondence upon his desk, went up to the floor above, and paused at his own door to listen. Deep breathing from across the hall indicated that Mr. Gray's soul was still encased in slumber, and great was its need, as Tom had found his partner, that morning at five, stretched upon the horsehair sofa in the office, lamenting the emptiness of a bottle which had been filled with fiery Bourbon in the afternoon.

Vanrevel went to his own room, locked the door, and took the letter from his pocket. He held it between his fingers carefully, as though it were alive and very fragile, and he looked at it a long time, holding it first in one hand, then in the other, before he opened it. At last, however, after examining all the blades of his pocketknife, he selected one brighter than the others, and loosened the flap of the envelope as gently and carefully as if it had been the petal of a rose-bud that he was opening.

"Dear Mr. Vanrevel:

"I believed you last night, though I did not understand. But I understand, now-everything-and, bitter to me as the truth is, I must show you plainly that I know all of it, nor can I rest until I do show you. I want you to answer this letter-though I must not see you again for a long time-and in your answer you must set me right if I am anywhere mistaken in what I have learned.

"At first, and until after the second time we met, I did not believe in your heart, though I did in your mind and humor. Even since then, there have come strange, small, inexplicable mistrustings of you, but now I throw them all away and trust you wholly, Monsieur Citizen Georges Meilbac!-I shall always think of you in those impossible garnishments of my poor great-uncle, and I persuade myself that he must have been a little like you.

"I trust you because I have heard the story of your profound goodness. The first reason for my father's dislike was your belief in freedom as the right of all men. Ah, it is not your pretty exaggerations and flatteries (I laugh at them!) that speak for you, but your career, itself, and the brave things you have done. My father's dislike flared into hatred because you worsted him when he discovered that he could not successfully defend the wrong against you and fell back upon sheer insult.

"He is a man whom I do not know-strange as that seems as I write it. It is only to you, who have taught me so much, that I could write it. I have tried to know him and to realize that I am his daughter, but we are the coldest acquaintances, that is all; and I cannot see how a change could come. I do not understand him; least of all do I understand why he is a gambler. It has been explained to me that it is his great passion, but all I comprehend in these words is that they are full of shame for his daughter.

"This is what was told me: he has always played heavily and skillfully-adding much to his estate in that way-and in Rouen always with a certain coterie, which was joined, several years ago, by the man you came to save last night.

"Your devotion to Mr. Gray has been the most beautiful thing in your life. I know all that the town knows of that, except the thousand hidden sacrifices you have made for him, those things which no one will ever know. (And yet, you see, I know them after all!) For your sake, because you love him, I will not even call him unworthy.

"I have heard-from one who told unwillingly-the story of the night two years ago, when the play ran so terribly high; and how, in the morning when they went away, all were poorer except one, their host!-how Mr. Gray had nothing left in the world, and owed my father a great sum which was to be paid in twenty-four hours; how you took everything you had saved in the years of hard work at your profession, and borrowed the rest on your word, and brought it to my father that afternoon; how, when you had paid your friend's debt, you asked my father not to play with Mr. Gray again; and my father made that his excuse to send you a challenge. You laughed at the challenge-and you could afford to laugh at it.

"But this is all shame, shame for Robert Carewe's daughter. It seems to me that I should hide and not lift my head; that I, being of my father's blood, could never look you in the face again. It is so unspeakably painful and ugly. I think of my father's stiff pride and his look of the eagle,-and he still plays with your friend, almost always 'successfully!' And your friend still comes to play!-but I will not speak of that side of it.

"Mr. Gray has made you poor, but I know it was not that which made you come seeking him last night, when I found you there in the hail. It was for his sake you came-and you went away for mine. Now that I know, at last-now that I have heard what your life has been (and oh I heard so much more than I have written!)-now that my eyes have been opened to see you as you are, I am proud, and glad and humble that I can believe that you felt a friendship for me strong enough to have made you go 'for my sake.' You will write to me just once, won't you? and tell me if there was any error in what I listened to; but you must not come to the garden. Now that I know you, I cannot meet you clandestinely again. It would hurt the dignity which I feel in you now, and my own poor dignity-such as it is! I have been earnestly warned of the danger to you. Besides, you must let me test myself. I am all fluttering and frightened and excited. You will obey me, won't you?-do not come until I send for you. Elizabeth Carewe."

Mr. Gray, occupied with his toilet about noon, heard his partner descending to the office with a heavy step, and issued from his room to call a hearty greeting. Tom looked back over his shoulder and replied cheerily, though with a certain embarrassment; but Crailey, catching sight of his face, uttered a sharp ejaculation and came down to him.

"Why, what's the matter, Tom? You're not going to be sick? You look like the devil and all!"

"I'm all right, never fear!" Tom laughed, evading the other's eye. "I'm going out in the country on some business, and I dare say I shall not be back for a couple of days; it will be all up and down the county." He set down a travelling-bag he was carrying, and offered the other his hand. "Good-by."

"Can't I go for you? You don't look able."

"No, no. It's something I'll have to attend to myself."

"Ah, I suppose," said Crailey, gently, "I suppose it's important, and you couldn't trust me to handle it. Well-God knows you're right! I've shown you often enough how incompetent I am to do anything but write jingles!"

"You do some more of them-without the whiskey, Crailey. They're worth more than all the lawing Gray and Vanrevel have ever done or ever will do. Good-by--and be kind to yourself."

He descended to the first landing, and then, "Oh, Crailey," he called, with the air of having forgotten something he had meant to say.

"Yes, Tom?"

"This morning at the post-office I found a letter addressed to me. I opened it and-" He hesitated, and uneasily shifted his weight from one foot to the other, with a feeble, deprecatory laugh.

"Yes, what of it?"

"Well-there seemed to be a mistake. I think it must have been meant for you. Somehow, she-she's picked up a good many wrong impressions, and, Lord knows how, but she's mixed our names up and-and I've left the letter for you. It's on my table."

He turned and calling a final good-by over his shoulder, went clattering noisily down to the street and vanished from Crailey's sight.

Noon found Tom far out on the National Road, creaking along over the yellow dust in a light wagon, between bordering forests that smelt spicily of wet underbrush and May-apples; and, here and there, when they would emerge fro

m the woods to cleared fields, liberally outlined by long snake-fences of black walnut, the steady, jog-trotting old horse lifted his head and looked interested in the world, but Tom never did either. Habitually upright, walking or sitting, straight, keen, and alert, that day's sun saw him drearily hunched over, mile after mile, his forehead laced with lines of pain. He stopped at every farm-house and cabin, and, where the young men worked in the fields, hailed them from the road, or hitched his horse to the fence and crossed the soft furrows to talk with them. At such times he stood erect again, and spoke stirringly, finding eager listeners. There was one question they asked him over and over:

"But are you sure the call will come?"

"As sure as that we stand here; and it will come before the week is out. We must be ready!"

Often, when he left them, they would turn from the work in hand, leaving it as it was, to lie unfinished in the fields, and make their way slowly and thoughtfully to their homes, while Tom climbed into his creaking little wagon once more, only to fall into the same dull, hunched-over attitude. He had many things to think out before he faced Rouen and Crailey Gray again, and more to fight through to the end with himself. Three days he took for it, three days driving through the soft May weather behind the kind, old jog-trotting horse; three days on the road, from farm-house to farm-house and from field to field, from cabin of the woods to cabin in the clearing. Tossing unhappily at night, he lay sleepless till dawn, though not because of the hard beds; and when daylight came, journeyed steadily on again, over the vagabond little hills that had gypsied it so far into the prairie-land in their wanderings from their range on the Ohio, and, passing the hills, went on through the flat forest-land, always hunched over dismally in the creaking wagon.

But on the evening of the third day he drove into town, with the stoop out of his shoulders and the lustre back in his eyes. He was haggard, gray, dusty, but he had solved his puzzle, and one thing was clear in his mind as the thing that he would do. He patted the old horse a hearty farewell as he left him with the liveryman from whom he had hired him, and strode up Main Street with the air of a man who is going somewhere. It was late, but there were more lights than usual in the windows and more people on the streets. Boys ran shouting, while, here and there, knots of men argued loudly, and in front of the little corner drug-store a noisily talkative, widely gesticulative crowd of fifty or more had gathered. An old man, a cobbler, who had left a leg at Tippecanoe and replaced it with a wooden one, chastely decorated with designs of his own carving, came stumping excitedly down the middle of the street, where he walked for fear of the cracks in the wooden pavement, which were dangerous to his art-leg when he came from the Rouen House bar, as on the present occasion. He hailed Tom by name.

"You're the lad, Tom Vanrevel," he shouted. "You're the man to lead the boys out for the glory of the State! You git the whole blame Fire De-partment out and enlist 'em before morning! Take 'em down to the Rio Grande, you hear me?

"And you needn't be afraid of their puttin' it out, if it ketches afire, neither!"

Tom waved his hand and passed on; but at the open doors of the Catholic Church he stopped and looked up and down the street, and then, unnoticed, entered to the dim interior, where the few candles showed only a bent old woman in black kneeling at the altar. Tom knew where Elizabeth Carewe knelt each morning; he stepped softly through the shadowy silence to her place, knelt, and rested his head upon the rail of the bench before him.

The figure at the altar raised itself after a time, and the old woman limped slowly up a side aisle, mumbling her formulas, courtesying to the painted saints, on her way out. The very thinnest lingerings of incense hung on the air, seeming to Tom like the faint odor that might exhale from a heavy wreath of marguerites, worn in dark-brown hair. Yet, the place held nothing but peace and good-will. And he found nothing else in his own heart. The street was quiet when he emerged from that lorn vigil; the corner groups had dissolved; shouting youths no longer patrolled the sidewalks. Only one quarter showed signs of life: the little clubhouse, where the windows still shown brightly, and whence came the sound of many voices settling the destinies of the United States of America. Thither Tom bent his steps, thoughtfully, and with a quiet mind. There was a small veranda at the side of the house; here he stood unobserved to look in upon his noisy and agitated friends.

They were all there, from the old General and Mr. Bareaud, to the latter's son, Jefferson, and young Frank Chenoweth. They were gathered about a big table upon which stood a punch-bowl and Trumble, his brow as angry red as the liquor in the cup he held, was proposing a health to the President in a voice of fury.

"In spite of all the Crailey Grays and traitors this side of hell!" he finished politely.

Crailey emerged instantaneously from the general throng and mounted a chair, tossing his light hair back from his forehead, his eyes sparkling and happy. "You find your own friends already occupying the place you mentioned, do you, General?" he asked.

General Trumble stamped and shook his fist.

"You're a spawn of Aaron Burr!" he vociferated. "There's not a man here to stand by your infernal doctrines. You sneer at your own State, you sneer at your own country, you defile the sacred ground! What are you, by the Almighty, who attack your native land in this, her hour of peril!"

"Peril to my native land!" laughed Crailey. "From Santa Anna?"

"The General's right, sir," exclaimed the elder Chenoweth indignantly, and most of the listeners appeared to agree with him. "It's a poor time to abuse the President when he's called for volunteers and our country is in danger, sir!"

"Who is in danger?" answered Crailey, lifting his hand to still the clamor of approbation that arose. "Is Polk in danger? Or Congress? But that would be too much to hope! Do you expect to see the Greasers in Washington? No, you idiots, you don't! Yet there'll be plenty of men to suffer and die; and the first should be those who thrust this war on us and poor little Mexico; but it won't be they; the men who'll do the fighting and dying will be the country boys and the like of us from the towns, while Mr. Polk sits planning at the White House how he can get elected again. I wish Tom were here, confound you! You listen to him because he always has the facts and I'm just an embroiderer, you think. What's become of the gaudy campaign cry you were all wearing your lungs out with a few months ago? 'Fifty-four-forty or fight!' Bah! Polk twisted the lion's tail with that until after election. Then he saw he had to make you forget it, or fight England and be ruined, so he forces war on Mexico, and the country does forget it. That's it: he asks three regiments of volunteers from this State to die of fevers and get shot, so that he can steal another country and make his own elect him again. And you ask me to drink the health of the politician who sits at home and sends his fellowmen to die to fix his rotten jobs for him?" Crailey had persuaded himself into such earnestness, that the depth of his own feeling almost choked him, but he finished roundly in his beautiful, strong voice: "I'll drink for the good punch's sake-but that health?-I'll see General Trumble in heaven before I'll drink it!"

There rose at once a roar of anger and disapproval, and Crailey became a mere storm centre amid the upraised hands gestulating madly at him as he stood, smiling again, upon his chair.

"This comes of living with Tom Vanrevel!" shouted the General furiously. "This is his damned Abolition teaching! You're only his echo; you spend half your life playing at being Vanrevel!"

"Where is Vanrevel?" said Tappingham Marsh.

"Ay, where is he!" raged Trumble, hammering the table till the glasses rang. "Let him come and answer for his own teaching; it's wasted time to talk to this one; he's only the pupil. Where is the traitor?"

"Here," answered a voice from the doorway; and though the word was spoken quietly it was nevertheless, at that juncture, silencing. Everyone turned toward the door as Vanrevel entered. But the apoplectic General, whom Crailey's speech had stirred to a fury beyond control, almost leaped at Tom's throat.

"Here's the tea-sipping old Granny," he bellowed hoarsely. (He was ordinarily very fond of Tom.) "Here's the master! Here's the man whose example teaches Crailey Gray to throw mud at the flag. He'll stay here at home with Crailey, of course, and throw more, while the others boys march out to die under it."

"On the contrary," answered Tom, raising his voice, "I think you'll find Crailey Gray the first to enlist, and as for myself, I've raised sixty men in the country, and I want forty more from Rouen, in order to offer the Governor a full company. So it's come to 'the King, not the man'; Polk is a pitiful trickster, but the country needs her sons; that's enough for us to know; and while I won't drink to James Polk "-he plunged a cup in the bowl and drew it out brimming-"I'll empty this to the President!"

It was then that from fifty throats the long, wild shout went up that stirred Rouen, and woke the people from their midnight beds for half a mile around.

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