Read CHAPTER XV. - HOME AGAIN WITH THE JUDGE. of A Spoil of Office A Story of the Modern West , free online book, by Hamlin Garland, on ReadCentral.com.

The day that came to close his work at Iowa City had something of an awakening effect in it.  The mere motion of the train brought back again in intensified form the feelings he had experienced on the day he left Rock River.  Life was really before him at last.  His studies were ended, and he was prepared for his entrance into law.  He looked forward to a political career indefinitely.  He left that in the hands of the Judge.

It was in June, and the country was very beautiful.  Groves heavy with foliage, rivers curving away into the glooms of bending elm and bass-wood trees, fields of wheat and corn alternating with smooth pastures where the cattle fed ­a long panorama of glorified landscape which his escape from manual labor now enabled him to see the beauty of, its associations of toil and dirt no longer acutely painful.

He thought of the June day in which he had first met Miss Wilbur ­just such a day!  Then he thought of Nettie with a sudden twinge.  She had not written for several weeks; he really didn’t remember just when she had written last.  He wondered what it meant; was she forgetting him?  He hardly dared hope for it; it was such an easy way out of his difficulty.

The Judge met him at the depot with a carriage.  There were a number of people he knew at the station, but they did not recognize him:  his brown beard had changed him so, and his silk hat made him so tall.

“Right this way, colonel,” said the Judge, in a calm nasal.  He was filled with delight at Bradley’s appearance.  He shook hands with dignified reserve, all for the benefit of the crowd standing about.  “You paralyzed ’em,” he chuckled, as they got in and drove off.  “That beard and hat will fix ’em sure.  I was afraid you wouldn’t carry out my orders on the hat.”

“The hat was an extravagance for your benefit alone.  It goes into a band-box to-morrow,” replied Bradley.  “How’s Mrs. Brown?”

“Quite well, thank you; little older, of course.  She caught a bad cold somewhere last winter, and she hasn’t been quite so well since.  We keep a girl now; I forced the issue.  Mrs. Brown had done her own work so long she considered it a sort of high treason to let any one else in.”

Mrs. Brown met him at the door; and she looked so good and motherly, and there was such a peculiar wistful look in her eyes, that he put his arm around her in a sudden impulse and kissed her.  It made her lips tremble, and she was obliged to wipe her glasses before she could see him clearly.  Supper was on the table for him, and she made him sit right down.

“How that beard changes you, Bradley!  I would hardly have known you.  What will Nettie think?”

“How is Nettie?”

“Haven’t you heard from her lately?”

“Not for some weeks.”

“Then I suppose the neighborhood gossip is true.”  He looked at her inquiringly, and she went on, studying his face carefully, “They say she’s soured on you, and is sweet on her father’s new book-keeper.”

Bradley took refuge in silence, as usual.  His face became thoughtful, and his eyes fell.

“I’ve hoped it was true, Bradley, because she was no wife for you.  You’d outgrown her, and she’d be a drag about your neck.  I see her out riding a good deal with this young fellow; he’s just her sort, so I guess she isn’t heart-broken over your absence.”

There was a certain shock in all this.  He recurred to his last evening with her, when in her paroxysm of agony she had thrown herself at his feet.  Much as he had desired such an outcome, it puzzled him to find her in love with some one else.  It was not at all like books.

“Well, Mrs. Brown, what do you think of my junior partner?” said the Judge, coming in and looking down on Bradley with a fatherly pride.

“I suppose, Mr. Brown, you refer to our adopted son.”

Bradley dressed for church the next day with a new sort of embarrassment.  He felt very conscious of his beard and of his tailor-made clothes, for he knew everybody would observe any change in him.  He knew he would be the object of greater attention than the service; but he determined to go, and have the whole matter over at once.

The windows were open, and the sound of the bell came in mingled with the scent of the sunlit flowers, the soft rustle of the maple leaves, and the sound of the insects in the grass.  His heart turned toward Miss Wilbur now whenever any keen enjoyment came to him; instinctively turned to her, with the wish that she might share his pleasure with him.  He sat by the open window, dreaming, until the last bell sounded through the heavy leaf-scented air.

“Won’t you go to church with me, Judge?” he said, going out.

The Judge turned a slow look upon him.  He was seated on the shady porch, his feet on the railing, a Chicago daily paper in his lap.  He said very gravely:  “Mrs. Brown, our boy is going to church.”

“Can’t you let him, Mr. Brown?  It’ll do him good, maybe,” said Mrs. Brown, who was at work near the window.

“Goes to see the girls.  Know all about it myself.  Go ahead, young man, and remember the text now, or we’ll put a stop to this” ­Bradley went off down the walk.  He passed by a tiny little box of a house where a man in his shirt sleeves was romping with some children.

“Hello, Milton,” called Bradley cheerily.

The young man looked up.  His face flashed into a broad smile.  “Hello!  Brad Talcott, by thunder!  Well, well.  When’d you get back?”

“Last night.  Yours?” he inquired, nodding toward the children.

“Yep.  Well, how are you, old man?  You look well.  Couldn’t fool me with that beard.  Come in and sit down, won’t yeh?”

“No, I’m on my way to church.  Can’t you come?”

“Great Cæsar, no! not with these young hyenas to attend to.”  He had grown fat, and his chin beard made him look like a Methodist minister; but his sunny blue eyes laughed up into Bradley’s face just as in the past.  “Say!” he exclaimed, “you struck it with the old Judge, didn’t you?  He’s goin’ to run you for governor one of these days.  County treasurer ain’t good enough for you.  But say,” he said, as a final word, “I guess you’d better not wear that suit much; it’s too soft altogether.  Stop in when you come back.  Eileen’ll be glad to see you,” he called after him.

The audience had risen to sing as he entered, and he took his place without attracting much attention.  As he stood there listening to the familiar Moody and Sankey hymn, there came again the touch of awe which the church used to put upon him.  He was not a “religious” man.  He had no more thought of his soul or his future state than a powerful young Greek.  His feeling of awe arose from the association of beauty, music, and love with a church.  It was feminine, some way, and shared his reverence for a beautiful woman.

The churches of the town were the only things of a public nature which had any touch of beauty or grace.  They were poor little wooden boxes at best; and yet they had colored windows, which seemed to hush the dazzling summer sun into a dim glory, transfiguring the shabby interior, and making the bent heads of the girls more beautiful than words can tell.  It was the one place which was set apart for purposes not utilitarian, and a large part of what these people called religious reverence was in fact a pathetic homage to beauty and poetry, and rest.

When they all took their seats, and while the preacher was praying, Bradley was absorbing the churchy smell of fresh linen, buoyant perfumes, (camphor, cinnamon, violets, rose) and the hot, sweet odor of newly-mown grass lying under the sun just outside of the windows.  The wind pulsed in through the half-swung window, a bee came buzzing wildly along, a butterfly rested an instant on the window sill, and the preacher prayed on in an oratorical way for the various departments of government.

Bradley felt a sharp eye fixed upon him, and, turning cautiously, caught Nettie looking at him.  She nodded and smiled in her audacious way.  Two or three of the young fellows saw him and nodded at him, but mainly the people sat with bowed heads, feeling some presence that was full of grace and power to banish, for a short time at least the stress of the struggle to live.

The young fellows were mainly in the back seats; and while they were decorously quiet, it was evident that they had very little interest in the prayer.  Death and hell and the grave!  Why should one trouble himself about such things when the red blood leaped in the heart, and the June wind was flinging a flickering flight of leaf shadows across the window pane?  There sat the girls with roguish eyes, the rounded outline of their cheeks (as tempting as peaches), displayed with miraculous skill at just their most taking angle.  Their Sunday gowns and gloves and hats transfigured them into something too dainty and fine to be touched, and yet every glance and motion was an invitation and a lure.

Here was the proper function of the church; to enable these young people to see each other at their best, and to bring into their sordid lives some hint, at least, of music and beauty.

Bradley did not hear the sermon.  He was wondering just what Nettie’s smile meant, and what he was going to say to her.  He was not subtle enough to take a half-way or an ambiguous stand.  He must either treat her tenderness as a forgotten thing or hold himself to his promise as something which he was under orders from his conscience to fulfill.

When the service was over he went out into the anteroom with the young fellows, who were anxious to meet him.  Quite a number of farmers were in from the country, and they all crowded about, shaking his hand with great heartiness.  He moved on with them to the sidewalk, where many of the congregation stood talking in groups.  The women came by in their starched neatness, leading rebellious boys in torturing suits of winter thickness topped with collars, stiff as sauce pans; while the little girls walked as upright as dolls, looking disdainfully at their sulking brothers.  Some of the merchants passing by discussed the sermon, some talked about crops with the farmers, and those around Bradley dipped into the political situation guardedly.

While he was talking to some of the town people, he saw Nettie come up and join a young man at the door whom he had recognized as the tenor in the choir; and they sauntered off together under the full-leafed maples ­she in dainty white and pink, he in a miraculously modish suit of gray, a rose in his lapel.  Bradley looked after them without special wonder.  It was only as he went back to his room that he began to see how fully Nettie had outgrown her passion for him.

He met her the next day as he was going home from the office.

“Hello, Bradley,” she said, without blushing, though her eyes wavered before his.

He held out his hand with a frank smile.  “Hello, Nettie, which way are you going?”

“Going home now, been up to the grocery.  Want to go ’long?”

“I don’t mind.  How are you, anyway?”

“Oh, I’m all right.  Say! that beard of yours makes you look as funny as old fun.”

“Does it?” he said.

“You bet!  It makes you look old enough to go to Congress.  Say! heard from Radbourn lately?” Bradley shook his head.  “Well, I haven’t, but Lily has.  He’s writing ­writing for the newspapers, she said.”

“Is that so?  I haven’t heard it.”

“E-huh!  Say, do you know Lily’s all bent on him yet!  Funny, ain’t it?  I ain’t that way, am I?” she ended, with her customary audacity.

“No, it’s out o’ sight, out o’ mind with you,” he replied, with equal frankness.

“Oh, not quite so bad as that.  Ain’t yeh comin’ in?” They were at the gate.

“Guess not.  You remember your father’s command; I must never darken his door.”

She laughed heartily.  “I guess that don’t count now.”

“Don’t it?  Well, some other time then.”

“All right, but gimme that basket.  Goin’ to lug that off with you?”