Read CHAPTER XIII. - BRADLEY SEES IDA AGAIN. of A Spoil of Office A Story of the Modern West , free online book, by Hamlin Garland, on ReadCentral.com.

Bradley felt that the world was widening for him, as he took the train for Iowa City a few days later.  He was now very nearly thirty years of age, and was maturing more rapidly than his friends and neighbors knew, for the processes of his mind, like those of an intricate coil of machinery, were hidden deep away from the casual acquaintance.

He had secured, in the two years at the seminary, a fairly good groundwork of the common English branches, and his occasional reading, and especially his attendance upon law-suits, had given him a really creditable understanding of common law.  The Judge always insisted that law was simple, but it wasn’t as profitable as ­chicanery.

“Any man, from his fund of common sense, can settle nine tenths of all law-suits, but that aint what we’re here for.  A successful lawyer is the fellow who tangles things up and keeps common law and common sense subordinated to chicanery and precedent.  Damn precedent, anyway.  It means referring to a past that didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, what justice was.”

In the atmosphere of lectures like these, Bradley had unconsciously absorbed a great deal of radical thought about law-codes, and now went about the study of the history of enactments and change of statutes without any servile awe of the past.  The Judge’s irreverence had its uses, for it put a law on its merits before the young student.

He found the law-school a very congenial place to study.  He passed the examinations quite decently.

His life there was quiet and studious, for he felt that he had less time than the younger men.  His age seemed excessive to him, by contrast.  He was very generally respected as a quiet, decent fellow, who might be a fine consulting lawyer, but not a good man in the courts.  They changed this opinion very suddenly upon hearing him present his first plea.

His life consisted for the most part of passing to and fro from his boarding-place to his recitation-room, or to long hours of digging in the library.  He saw from time to time notices of Miss Wilbur’s lectures in the interests of the grange and upon literary topics.  He determined to hear her if she came into any neighboring city.  There was no one to spy upon him, if he made an expedition of that sort.

One beautiful winter day he read in the weekly paper of the town that she was about to appear at the Congregational church in a lecture entitled, “The Real Woman-question.”  He had an impulse to sing, which he wisely repressed, for he couldn’t sing ­that is, nothing which the hearer would recognize as singing.  The Fates seemed working in his favor.

He had preserved a marked sweetness and purity of thought through all his hard life that made him a good type of man.  His clear, steady eyes never gave offence to any woman, for nothing but sympathy and admiration ever looked out of them.  The very thought that she was coming so near brought a curious numbness into his muscles and a tremor into his hands.  He looked forward now to the evening of the lecture with the keenest interest he had ever felt.

The dazzling winter day seemed more radiant than ever before, when he heard some ladies in the post-office say Ida was in town.  The blue shadows lay on the new-fallen snow vivid as steel.  The warm sun showered down through the clear air a peculiar warmth that made the eaves begin to drop in the early morning.  Sleighs were moving to and fro in the streets, and bright bits of color on the girls’ hoods and in the broad knit scarfs which the young men wore, formed pleasing reliefs from the dazzling blue and white.  Bells filled the air with jocund music.

Bradley walked straight away into the country.  He wanted to be alone.  It seemed so strange and sweet to be thus shaken by the coming of a woman.  In the first few minutes he gave himself up to the thought that she was near and that he was going to hear her speak again.  It made his hand shake and his heart beat quick.

He wondered if she would be changed.  She would be older a little, but she would look just the same.  He saw her stand again under the waving branches of the oaks, the flickering shadow on her brown hair, speaking again the words which had become the measure of his ambition, the prophecy of a social condition: 

“I want to have everything I do to help us all on toward that time when the country will be filled with happy young people, and hale and hearty old people, when the moon will be brighter, and the stars thicker in the skies.”

This was his thought.  He had not risen yet to the conception of the real barrenness and squalor of the life he had lived.

His studies had made him a little more self-analytical, but there were inner deeps where he did not penetrate and there was one sacred place which he dared not enter.  A whirl of thought confused him, but out of it all he returned constantly to the thought that he should hear her speak again.

That evening he dressed himself with as much care as if he were to call upon her alone, and he dressed very well now.  His clothes were substantial and fitted him well.  His year’s immunity from hard work had left his large hands supple and delicate of touch, and his face had attained refinement and mobility.  His eyes had become more introspective and had lost entirely the ox-like roll of the country-born man.  He was a handsome and dignified young man.  His bearing on the street was noticeably manly and unaffected.

The lecture was in the church and the seats were all filled.  It gratified him, at the same time that it hopelessly abased him to observe all this evidence of her power.  As he waited for her to appear that tremor came into his hands again, and that breathlessness, and curiously enough he felt that horrible familiar sinking of the heart which he always felt just before he himself rose to speak.

Somebody started to clap hands, and the rest joined in, as two or three ladies entered the back part of the church and passed up the aisle.  He looked up as they went by him, and caught a glimpse of a stately head of brown hair, modestly bent in acknowledgment of the applause, and he caught a whiff of the delicate odor of violets.  His eyes followed the strong, firm steps of the young woman who walked between the two older women.  There was something fine and dignified in her walk, and the odor of her dress as she passed lingered with him, but he did not feel that this was the same woman, till she turned and faced him on the platform.

He sat impassively, but his pulse leaped when her clear brown eyes running calmly over the audience seemed to fall upon him.  She was the same woman, his ideal and more.  She was fuller of form and the poise of her head was more womanly, but she was the same spirit that had come to be such a power and inspiration in his life.

As a matter of fact she had grown also.  If she had not, she would have seemed girlish to him now; growing as he grew, she seemed the same distance beyond him.  Her self-possession in the face of the audience appealed to him strongly.  Something in her manner of dress pleased him, it was so individual, so like her simple, dignified, beautiful self in every line.

She spoke more quietly, more conversationally than when he heard her before, but her voice made him shudder with associated emotions.  Its cadences reached deep, and the words she spoke opened long vistas in his mind.  She was defending the right of women to live as human beings, to act as human beings, and to develop as freely as men.

“I claim the right to be an individual human being first and a woman afterward.  Why should the accident of my sex surround me with conventional and arbitrary limitations?  I claim the same right to find out what I can do and can’t do that a man has.  Who is to determine what my sphere is ­men and men’s laws or my own nature?  These are vital questions.  I deny the right of any man to mark out the path in which I shall walk.  I claim the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that men are demanding.

“It is not a question of suffrage merely ­suffrage is the smaller part of the woman-question ­it is a question of equal rights.  It is a question of whether the law of liberty applies to humanity or to men only.  Absolute liberty bounded only by the equal liberties of the rest of humanity is the real goal of the race ­not of man only, but woman too.”

The ladies dimly feeling that liberty was a safe thing to cheer, clapped their hands softly under the cover of the nosier clapping of a few radicals who knew what the speaker was really saying.  Bradley did not cheer ­he was thinking too deeply.

“The woman question is not a political one merely, it is an economic one.  The real problem is the wage problem, the industrial problem.  The real question is woman’s dependence upon man as the bread-winner.  So long as that dependence exists there will be weakness.  No individual can stand at their strongest and best while leaning upon some other.  I believe with Browning and Ruskin that the development of personality is the goal of the race.”

The ladies took it for granted that this was true as it was bolstered by two great names.  A few, however, sat with wrinkled brows scenting something heretical in all that.

“The time is surely coming when women can no longer bear to be dependent, to be pitied or abused by men.  They will want to stand upright and independent by their husbands, claiming the same rights to freedom of action, and demanding equal pay for equal work.  She must be able to earn her own living in an honorable way at a moment’s notice.  Then she will be a free woman even if she never leaves her kitchen.”

It was trite enough to a few of the audience, but, to others, it was new, and to many it was revolutionary.  She was destined to again set a stake in Bradley’s mental horizon.  The woman question had not engaged his attention; at least not in any serious way.  He had not thought of woman as having any active part in living.  In the thoughtless way of the average man, he had ignored or idealized women according as they appealed to his eye.  He had not risen to the point of pitying or condemning, or in any way consciously placing them in the social economy.

The speaker had appealed to his imagination before, and now again he sat absolutely motionless while great new thoughts and impersonal emotions sprang up in his brain.  He saw women in a new light, and the aloofness of the speaker grew upon him again.  He felt that she was holding her place as his teacher.  Around him he heard the rustle of approval upon the gown she wore, upon her voice, and some few favorable comments upon her ideas.  He saw some of the people crowd forward to shake her hand, while others went out talking excitedly.

He lingered as long as he dared, longing to go forward to greet her, but he went slowly out at last, home to his boarding place and sat down in his habitual attitude when in deep thought, his elbow on his knee, his chin in his palm.  He wanted to see her, he must see her and tell her how much she had done for him.

How to do it was the question which absorbed him now.  He got away from the noisy merriment of the house, out into the street again.  The stars were more congenial company to him now; under their passionless serenity he could think better.  He felt that he must come to an understanding with himself soon, but he put it off and turned his attention to his future, and more immediately to the plans which must be carried out, of seeing her.

When he came in he was desperately resolved.  He would go to see her on the next day in her hotel.  He justified himself by saying that she was a lecturer, a person before the public, and that she would not think it strange; anyhow, he was going to do it.

In the broad daylight, however, it was not so easy as it seemed under the magic of the moon.  The conventions of the world always count for less in the company of the moon and the stars.  He heard during the morning that she was going away in the afternoon, and he was made desperate.  He started out to go straight to the hotel, and he did, but he walked by it, once, twice, a half dozen times, each time feeling weaker and more desperate in his resolution.

At length he deliberately entered and astonished himself by walking up to the clerk and asking for Miss Wilbur.

The clerk turned briskly and looked at the pigeon-holes for the keys.  “I think she is.  Send up a card?”

True, he hadn’t thought of that.  He had no cards.  He received one from the clerk that looked as if it had done duty before, and scrawled his name upon it, and gave it to the insolent little darky who served as “Front.”

“Tell her I’d like to see her just a few minutes.”

On the stairs he tried to prepare what he should say to her.  His mouth already felt dry, and his brain was a mere swirl of gray and white matter.  Almost without knowing how, he found himself seated in the ladies’ parlor, to which the boy had conducted him.  It was a barren little place, in spite of its excessively florid gilt and crimson paper, and its ostentatious harsh red-plush furniture.

His heart sent the blood into his throat till it ached with the tension.  His lips quivered and turned pale as he heard the slow sweep of a woman’s dress, and there she stood before him, with smiling face and extended hand.  “Are you Mr. Talcott?  Did you want to see me?”

She had the frank gesture and ready smile a kindly man would have used.  Instantly his brain cleared, his heart ceased to pound, and the numbness left his limbs.  He forgot himself utterly.  He only saw and heard her.  He found himself saying: 

“I wanted to come in and tell you how much I liked your speech last night, and how much I liked a speech you made up at Rock River, at the grange picinic.”

“Oh, did you hear me up there?  That was one of my old speeches.  I’ve quite outgrown that now.  You’ll be shocked to know I don’t believe in a whole lot of things that I used to believe in.”  As she talked, she looked at him precisely as one man looks at another, without the slightest false modesty or coquettishness.  She evidently considered him a fellow-student on social affairs.  “I’m glad you liked my talk on the woman question.  It was dreadfully radical to the most of my audience.”

“It was right,” Bradley said, and their minds seemed to come together at that point as if by an electrical shock.  “I never thought of it before.  Women have been kept down.  We do claim to know better what she ought to do than she knows herself.  The trouble is we men don’t think about it at all.  We need to have you tell us these things.”

“Yes, that’s true.  As soon as I made that discovery I began talking the woman question.  One radicalism opened the way to the other.  Being a radical is like opening the door to the witches.  Are you one?” she asked, with a sudden smile, “I mean a radical, not a witch.”

“I don’t know,” he replied simply, “I’m a student.  I know I can’t agree with some people on these things.”

Some people!  Sometimes I feel it would be good to meet with a single person ­a single one ­I could agree with!  But tell me of yourself ­are you in the grange movement?”

“Well, not exactly, but I’ve helped all I could.”

“What is the condition of the grange in your county?”

“It seems to be going down.”

She was silent for some time.  Her face saddened with deep thought.  “Yes, I’m afraid it is.  The farmers can’t seem to hold together.  Strange, aint it?  Other trades and occupations have their organizations and stand by each other, but the farmer can’t seem to feel his kinship.  Well, I suppose he must suffer greater hardships before he learns his lesson.  But God help the poor wives while he learns!  But he must learn,” she ended firmly.  “He must come some day to see that to stand by his fellow-man is to stand by himself.  That’s what civilization means, to stand by each other.”

Bradley did not reply.  He was looking upon her, with eyes filled with adoration.  He had never heard such words from the lips of anyone.  He had never seen a woman sit lost in philosophic thought like this.  Her bent head seemed incredibly beautiful to him, and her simple flowing dress, royal purple.  Her presence destroyed his power of thought.  He simply waited for her to go on.

“The farmer lacks comparative ideas,” she went on.  “He don’t know how poor he is.  If he once finds it out, let the politicians and their masters, the money-changers, beware!  But while he’s finding it out, his children will grow up in ignorance, and his wife die of overwork.  Oh, sometimes I lose heart.”  Her voice betrayed how strongly she perceived the almost hopeless immensity of the task.  “The farmer must learn that to help himself, he must help others.  That is the great lesson of modern society.  Don’t you think so?”

“I don’t know.  I’m losing my hold on things that I used to believe in.  I’ve come to believe the system of protection is wrong.”  He said this in a tone absurdly solemn as if he had somehow questioned the law of gravity.

“Of course it is wrong,” she said.  “The moment I got East, I found free-trade in the air, and my uncle, who is a manufacturer, admitted it was all right in theory, but it wouldn’t do as a practical measure.  That finished me.  I’m a woman, you know, and when a thing appears right in theory, I believe it’ll be right in practice.  Expediency don’t count with me, you see.  But tell me, do you still live in Rock River?”

“Yes, I’m only studying law down here.”

“Oh, I see.  I suppose you know many of the people at Rock River.”  She asked about Milton, whom she remembered, and about Mr. Deering.  Then she returned again to the subject of the grange.  “Yes, it has been already a great force, but I begin to suspect that the time is coming when it must include more or fail.  I don’t know just what ­I aint quite clear upon it ­but as it stands now, it seems inadequate.”

She ended very slowly, her chin in her palm, her eyes on the floor.  She made a grand picture of thought, something more active than meditation.  Her dress trailed in long, sweeping lines, and against its rich dark purple folds her strong, white hands lay in vivid contrast.  The most wonderful charm of her personality was her complete absorption in thought, or the speech of her visitor.  She was interested in this keen-eyed, strong-limbed young fellow as a possible convert and reformer.  She wanted to state herself clearly and fully to him.  He was a fine listener.

“I’m afraid I see a tendency that is directly away from my ideal of a farming community.  There is a force operating to destroy the grange and all other such movements.”

“You mean politics?”

“No, I mean land monopoly.  I believe in thickly settled farming communities, communities where every man has a small, highly cultivated farm.  That’s what I’ve been advocating and prophesying, but I now begin to see that our system of ownership in land is directly against this security, and directly against thickly-settled farming communities.  The big land owners are swallowing up the small farmers, and turning them into renters or laborers.  Don’t you think so?”

“I hadn’t though of it before, but I guess that’s so ­up in our county, at least.”

“It’s so everywhere I’ve been.  I don’t understand it yet, but I’m going to.  In the meantime I am preaching union and education.  I don’t see the end of it, but I know” ­Here she threw off her doubt ­“I know that the human mind cannot be chained.  I know the love of truth and justice cannot be destroyed, and marches on from age to age, and that’s why I am full of confidence.  The farmer is beginning to compare his mortgaged farm with the banker’s mansion and his safe, and no one can see the end of his thinking.  The great thing is his thinking.”

She arose and gave him her hand.  “I’m glad you came in.  Give my regards to Mr. Deering and other friends, won’t you?  Tell them not to think I’m not working because I’m no longer their lecturer.  You ought to be in the field.  Will you read something which I’ll send?” she asked, the zeal of the reformer getting the upper hand again.

“Certainly.  I should be very glad to.”

“I’ll send you some pamphlets I’ve been reading.”  Her voice seemed to say the interview was ended, but Bradley did not go.  He was struggling to speak.  After a significant pause, he said in a low voice: 

“I’d ­I’d like to write to you ­if you don’t ­mind.”

Her eyes widened just a line, but they did not waver.  “I should like to hear from you,” she said cordially.  “I’d like to know what you think of those pamphlets, which I’ll surely send.”

He had the courage to look once more into her brown eyes, with their red-gold deeps, as he shook hands.  The clasp of her hand was firm and frank.

“Good-by!  I hope I shall see you again.  My address is always Des Moines, though I’m on the road a great deal.”

Out into the open air again he passed like a man sanctified.  It seemed impossible that he had not only seen her, but had retained his self-possession, and had actually dared to ask permission to write to her!

The red-gold sunlight was flaming across the snow, and the shadows stood out upon the shining expanse vivid as stains in ink.  The sky, aflame with orange and gold clouds, was thrown into loftier relief by the serrate blue rim of trees that formed the western horizon.  As he walked, he had a reckoning with himself.  It could not longer be delayed.

He had been a boy to this day, but that hour made him a man, and he knew he was a lover.  Not that he used that word, for like the farm-born man that he was, he did not say, “I love her,” but he lifted his face to the sky in an unuttered resolution to be worthy her.

He had come under the spell of her womanly presence.  He had seen her in her house-dress, and his admiration for her intellect and beauty had added to itself a subtle quality, which rose from the potential husbandship and fatherhood within him.

Now that he was out of her immediate presence, thoughts came thick and fast.  Every word she had spoken seemed to have a magical power of arousing long trains of speculation.  He walked far out into the quiet evening, walked until he grew calmer, and the emotion of the hour faded to a luminous golden dusk in his mind as the day changed into the beautiful winter night.

As he sat down at his desk, an hour later, he saw a letter lying there.  It was one of Nettie’s poor little school-girl love letters.  A feeling of disgust and shame seized him.  He crumpled the letter in his hands, and was on the point of throwing it away, when his mood changed, and he softened.  By the side of Miss Wilbur poor little Nettie was a willful child.

A few days after there came to him a pamphlet directed in a woman’s hand.  Its title page struck him as something utterly new, but it was only the first of a flood of similar publications.

“The Coming Conflict.  A Series of Lectures prophetic of the Coming Revolution of the Poor, when they will rise against the National Banks and against all Indirect Taxation.”

Its dedication was marked with a pencil and he read it over and over:  “To the Toiling Millions who produce all the wealth, yet because they have never controlled legislation, have been impoverished by unjust laws made in the interests of the Land-holder and the Money-changer, who seize upon and hold the surplus wealth of the nation by the same right that the slave-master held his slave, legal right and that alone, this tract is inscribed by the author.”

It was Bradley’s first intimation of the mighty forces beginning to stir in the deeps of American society.  He found the pamphlet filled with great confusing thoughts.  He confessed frankly in his letter to Miss Wilbur that he got nothing satisfactory out of it, though it made him think.

It was astonishing to himself to find his thoughts flowing out to her upon paper with the greatest ease.  He was stricken with fear after he had mailed his letter, it was so bulky.  He was appalled at the length of time which must pass before he might reasonably expect to hear from her.  He counted the days, the hours that intervened.  Her note came at last, and it made his blood leap as the clerk flung it out with a grin.  “She’s blessed yeh this time!” It was a red-headed clerk, and his grin, by reason of a quid of tobacco in his thin cheek, was particularly offensive.  Bradley felt an impulse to call him out of his box and whip him.

When he opened the letter in his own room he felt a sort of fear.  How would she reply?  The letter gave out a faint perfume like that he remembered floated with her dress.  It was a rather brief note, but very kind.  She called his attention to two or three passages in the pamphlet, and especially asked him to read the chapters touching on the land and money questions.  But the part over which he spent the most time was the paragraph at the close: 

“I liked your letter very much.  It shows a sincere desire for the truth.  You will never stop short of the truth, I’m sure, but you will have sacrifices to make ­you must expect that.  I shall take great interest in your work.

    “Very sincerely,

    “IDA WILBUR.”