Read CHAPTER XXI - ALONE WITH NATURE of The Candidate A Political Romance , free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

When the party returned to the train after Jimmy Grayson’s thrilling defiance there was an air of relief, even joyousness, about them all. No more diplomacy, no more watching for blows in the dark, no more waiting, now they knew who their friends were, and they knew equally well their enemies. They could strike straight at Goodnight, Crayon, and all the others. Only in the heart of nearly every one of them there was still mourning for the lost leader, for “King” Plummer, whom a gust of passion had led astray.

“Well,” said Hobart, “I thank God that the split has come at last. Even if we are beaten out of our boots, I’ve got that defiance to remember, and the picture of Jimmy Grayson refusing either to be browbeaten or cajoled, even though the price was the Presidency.”

“We know where we stand,” said Mr. Heathcote, “and that at least is a gain.”

As for Sylvia, she was thrilling with pride. Her uncle’s high heroism, his superb truthfulness appealed to every quality in her woman’s soul, and with another impulse full as womanly she hated Goodnight, Crayon, and their associates with all her heart; she believed them capable of any crime, personal as well as political. She felt so intensely upon the subject that she wanted to speak of it to somebody else, but Mr. and Mrs. Grayson had withdrawn to the drawing-room, and all the correspondents were deep in their work, as it would be necessary to send very long despatches to the great cities that day.

Harley wrote five or six thousand words full of fire and zeal. As usual, he wrote from the “inside,” and his was not a bare record of facts; one reading it, though three thousand miles away, was upon the scene himself; everything passed before him alive; he saw the heroic figure of the candidate thundering forth his denunciation; he knew all that it cost, the full penalty, and he shared the stern impulse which such a speaker in such a situation must feel; he, too, saw the astonishment on the faces of the committee, astonishment followed by fear and rage, and he shared also the noble thrill that must come to a man who had lost all save honor, but was proud in the losing. Harley was always a good writer, but now as he wrote he saw every word burning before him, so intense were his feelings, and even across the United States he communicated the same thrill to those who read.

His despatch brought from his abrupt editor the one word “Splendid!” and it attracted marked attention not only wherever the Gazette went, but where also went the numerous journals into which it was copied. Everybody who read it said, “What a magnificent figure Jimmy Grayson is!” and the impression was deepened and widened by other writers on the train who were inferior in powers only to Harley. In this his day of great disaster the candidate was to find that there were friends who were truly bound to him with “hooks of steel.” Nor was he ungrateful. The moisture rose in his eyes when he first heard of their accounts, and in privacy he confided to his wife that he did not know how to thank them.

“If I were you I should not say anything,” she advised. “They will like it better if you don’t.”

And he did not.

Now the campaign took on a new phase. Even in the beginning it had differed from any other ever waged in America, and since the Philipsburg conference that difference, already great, increased. It was permeated throughout by the personal element, party platforms sank into the background, and in the foreground stood the titanic figure of Jimmy Grayson fighting single-handed against a host of foes.

His hero appealed more powerfully than ever to Harley; every sympathy within him was aroused by this lone figure who stood like Horatius at the bridge the old simile was always coming to him and under its influence his despatches took on a vivid coloring and a keen, searching quality that thrilled all who read. And many other newspapers gave the same lifelike impression.

The figure of the candidate, although he was admittedly a beaten man, loomed larger than ever to the whole country, and his enemies, although counting already the fruits of victory, began to feel a certain awe of him. They showed an anxiety to keep away from him, even in what they considered his dying moments, and no speaker dared to meet him on the platform, despite the recollections of his defeat at Egmont. The opposition often alluded to this “defeat,” and sought to make great capital of it, but the sensation that it had created at first faded. It was surrounded by too many brilliant triumphs; people would say that on the day of his defeat he was ill, like Napoleon at Leipsic; that he was giving daily proofs that he was without a match in the world, and one such little incident did not count.

The split in the party was made complete. Mr. Goodnight, Mr. Crayon, and eighteen of their associates, all men of wealth and influence, came out in a formal signed statement published first in the Monitor, stating their position in calmness and moderation and in measured language. They said that they had tried to support Mr. Grayson; they had given him every chance; they had always been ready with advice; they had sought to instil in him a full sense of his responsibility, and to impart to his mind the breadth and solidity so necessary in a Presidential nominee; they were strong in party loyalty, and they hesitated long before taking such a momentous step; but they knew that in every great crisis brave men who would not hesitate at great risk to lead must be found; therefore they stepped into the breach. Reluctantly and with much grief they announced that they could not support Mr. Grayson. He was a menace to the country, and they felt that they must remove this danger; hence they would support the other side, and they advised all the solid worth of the country, those who cared for the national honor, to do likewise.

The Monitor commented editorially in its finest vein upon this tribute to conscience. It was glad to know that there were yet brave and honest men; it was never worth while to despair of the republic so long as such lofty and heroic citizens as Mr. Goodnight and Mr. Crayon were vouchsafed to it. The American people were frivolous and superficial, but there was a saving remnant, men who might almost compare with the great statesmen of Europe, and in every emergency, every crisis, it was they who would make enormous sacrifice of private interest and save the state.

Churchill followed the lead, and in a long despatch made a ferocious attack upon Jimmy Grayson, the man. Then, with a concealed sense of importance, he waited until the paper arrived, and when the two hours that he thought necessary to make the impression deep had passed he went in to Mr. Grayson and announced with an air of great dignity that he was prepared to leave the train; he felt that as a keen and remorseless critic his presence would put a severe constraint upon the candidate; there was nothing personal in his course, and he did not wish to prevent anybody from doing his best; he was aware that he must be regarded with the greatest hostility and apprehension, and therefore he would retire, seeking his news either by going before or by following.

“Why, Mr. Churchill!” exclaimed the candidate, in surprise, “we do not dream of letting you go. You have been so long with us that your place could not be filled. I cannot consent to such a thing! You must stay with us to the end!”

Churchill felt that his shot had missed again, but he said:

“I spoke out of consideration. I thought that my continued presence here might have a somewhat disconcerting effect upon you.”

“Not at all! Not at all!” replied the candidate, courageously. “It’s a blow, but we prefer to bear it rather than lose you. Ah, here is my niece, Sylvia; perhaps she can persuade you. Sylvia, Mr. Churchill speaks of leaving us; he thinks that he ought to do so because he is a critic of us. Sylvia, I leave him in your hands, and I want you to persuade him that it is only his exaggerated sense of honor.”

Sylvia was not averse to the task. She was wholly feminine, and hence there was in her a trace of cajolery which she now used. She told Churchill that her uncle and all his friends felt the truth and edge of his criticisms, but they felt, too, that although he was in the opposition now, they might, nevertheless, profit by them. And there was the influence of his personal presence on the train his gravity of manner and his weighed and measured speech were a useful antidote to the flippancy and levity of his associates.

Sylvia said these things rather by indirection than by plain words, and under the influence of such soothing speech Churchill gradually melted and became forgiving; he would stay, but it was partly for the sake of Miss Morgan that he stayed, and later in the day he confided to Mr. Heathcote that he was surprised at the way Sylvia was coming out; she really had strong and attractive qualities; if she were to marry a man of refinement and knowledge of the world who would exercise a stimulating and also a corrective influence upon her, she might become a very fine woman. Mr. Heathcote bowed assent, but looked away from Churchill and out of the window. Churchill’s opinion of Mr. Heathcote also improved.

There was yet one element in the situation that was not clarified. Mr. Plummer not only failed to appear upon the scene, but did not communicate in any manner with either the Graysons or Sylvia. They heard of him as floating about the Northwest and full of hot talk, but no one could put his hand upon him, and they were puzzled, because they had expected decisive, straight-from-the-shoulder action from the “King.”

In this week Harley saw Sylvia almost every hour in the day, but never once did he speak of the subject that was nearest both their hearts. Sometimes he thought that it would have been better had the Graysons granted her request to go, because he could see that she was suffering from a constant nervous strain, and that her gayety with the group was often forced.

They came at last to Grafton, a village in the corner of North Dakota, where a sweep of low mountains opens out for a space and forms a wide valley. In that hollow lies Grafton, and to Harley it looked warm and inviting. The candidate was to speak here, and as Harley ascertained in advance that Mr. Grayson did not intend to say anything new, merely repeating a speech of the day before, he did not consider it necessary to be present; instead, he chose to take a walk through the town and its outskirts for the sake of fresh air, exercise, and some solitary musing.

The autumn was far advanced in that Northern latitude, but the chill of winter had not yet come. The wide sky of glittering blue hung high, and in the thin air the mountain-peaks that stood far away came near; the wooden houses of the new town were gilded and softened by the yellow sunshine.

Harley saw the usual audience the ranchmen, the sheep-herders, the miners, and the railroad-men all flocking towards the stand where the candidate would speak, and exchanging jocose or admiring comment, because this was to them both a holiday and a ceremony.

Only a minute or two sufficed to carry him to the outskirts of the little town, and he would have paid no further attention to the crowd, but he thought he saw on its fringe a broad, powerful back that he knew. When he undertook to take the second look and make sure the back was gone, and Harley went on, telling himself, as one is apt to do, that it was only his fancy. The echo of cheering came to his ears, and he knew that the candidate, as usual, held the audience in his grasp. Presently the echo died, and those that followed it did not come to him, as he had left the town behind; although from the low crest of a swell he could see the heads of the people surrounding Jimmy Grayson, and by the way they bobbed back and forth he knew that the enthusiasm was boiling.

He went down the far side of the swell, passed a clump of bushes, and came face to face with Sylvia Morgan. She, too, leaving the speech, had been walking, and the color of her face was deepened by the exercise and the crisp, bracing air. It had given her, also, an obvious exhilaration, probably physical, that Harley had not seen before in a long time, and her smile was of pure welcoming joy.

Harley’s was an answering smile, but his heart was full of a longing and an anger equally fierce. Never had she seemed to him more to be desired than on that morning; tall, straight, and young, instinct with the life and strength of the great upland reaches upon which she lived, her pure soul looking out of her pure eyes, she was a woman to be won by the man to whom her love was given, and he rebelled because he did not have the right. Temptation was strong within him, and he had excuse.

“Speeches, however good, do not appeal to you to-day?” he said.

“No, I prefer the mountains.”

She pointed to the line of peaks that formed a border of darker blue on the horizon.

“So do I,” said Harley, with emphasis, but he meant, at that moment, that he was glad to be alone with her.

“Since chance has brought us together,” he said, “why should we not continue in this way?”

They walked on, and he was very close to her, so close that when a wanton wind caught a stray ringlet of her hair it brushed lightly against his cheek. Faint and fleeting as was the touch, every nerve thrilled. He said fiercely to himself that she was his and should remain his.

They came to a little brook, a stream of ice-cold water flowing down from the distant mountains, and he helped her across, although a single step would have carried her from bank to bank. Then, too, he held her hand in his longer than the case warranted, and again he tingled. He said nothing, nor did she, but she glanced at him and she was a little afraid; his lips were closed in the firm fashion that she knew, and his eyes were on the distant mountains. Behind them came a broad shadow, but neither looked back.

Jimmy Grayson was a great man, but Caesar and his fortunes were now completely forgotten by both Harley and Sylvia; each was thinking only of the other, and though they were still silent, they wandered on and on, Sylvia content that Harley was by her side, and Harley happy to feel her so near that her hair blown in the wind had touched his face. Had they looked back they would have seen the shadow come a little nearer and raise its arm in an angry gesture. The town sank behind the swells, and before lay only a brown expanse of country that rolled away with unbroken monotony. A slight grayish tint, as of a mist, crept into the glittering blue of the sky, but Harley and Sylvia did not notice it.

Sylvia felt, in a way, as if she were in a state of suspended animation. The world had paused for a moment, and for that reason she knew that fate was impending; she, too, felt a thrill running through every nerve, and she felt the presence, so near her, of the man whom she loved, and would always love. He was master to-day, and she knew that she would do whatever he should ask her; all her resolves, all the long course of strengthening through which she might put herself would melt away in the heat of an emotion that was too strong for her; if he said that they should slip back to the town, take a train to the next station and get married there, forgetful of her promise, “King” Plummer, the campaign, her uncle, and everything else, she would go with him. But she remembered to pray that he would not say it.

Harley still did not speak. He, too, was struggling with himself, and saying, over and over under his breath, that he should remember his duty. Sylvia glanced at him covertly from time to time, and, while she yet felt a little fear, she admired the firm curve of his chin and the clear cut of his face. They came at last to a clump of dwarfed trees, sheltered between the swells, and they stopped.

“Sylvia,” said Harley, “I felt only joy when I met you, but I am sorry now that the chance brought us together this time, because it is a greater grief to see you go. I thought once that we might be together always, because I know that you are mine, mine in spirit at least, no matter to whom the law may give you, but now ”

He broke off and looked at her with longing.

“It is better that I should leave you and go alone,” she said.

She held out her hand.

“This is a good-bye,” she said.

“But it shall not be so cold a one!” he exclaimed.

He put his arms around her, and kissed her full upon the lips.

“Oh, John!” she cried, and when he released her she ran back upon their path, her face very red, although she was in no wise angry with him. Harley walked on, and he did not raise his head until the shadow that followed them stood across his way. Then, when he looked up, he found himself gazing into the muzzle of a very large revolver, held by a large, brown hand. Behind the hand, and lowering at him, was the inflamed and determined face of “King” Plummer.

In this crisis neither of the two wasted words. Each was a man of action, and each knew that long speech was vanity of vanities.

Harley was pale; life was sweet, never sweeter than when it seemed to be leaving, but he did not flinch.

“You have stolen her from me,” said the “King.” “I saw what you did there; you ought to be willing to pay the price.”

“I object to the word ‘stolen,’” said Harley, calmly. “The love of Sylvia Morgan is not a thing that could be stolen by anybody.”

“Words differ, but acts don’t. I’ve been a border man, and I’ve got to do things in the border way.”

“One of which is to come armed upon an unarmed man?”

Harley saw the “King” flinch, but the finger did not leave the trigger.

“You took from me when I wasn’t looking all that I love best, and I’ll take from you all I can.”

The red face of “King” Plummer suddenly turned gray, and Harley saw it, but he did not see what caused it. There was the light, swift tread of footsteps behind him, a warm breath upon his face, and then Sylvia’s arms were around his neck and she was upon his breast.

“Shoot if you want to,” she said to the “King,” “but your bullet will strike me first.”

Her eyes, for the first time in her life, sparkled defiance at him, and their gaze stabbed the “King” to the heart.

Harley strove to put her aside, but she clung to him with strong, young arms.

The “King’s” face, pale before, now became white. It was, perhaps, the first time in his life that all the blood had left it, and it showed the power of this new and sudden emotion. “King” Plummer, in a flash, saw many things. The finger that lay upon the trigger trembled, and then, with a cry of fear, this man who feared no other man threw his pistol to the earth.

“My God, Sylvia!” he exclaimed. “What do you think I am?”

“Not a murderer!”

“No, I am not; but I came very near to being one."’

He looked at the two, in each other’s arms as it were, and turned away, leaving the pistol upon the ground. “King” Plummer had seen enough for one day.

They watched him until the broad back passed over a swell and was lost. Then Sylvia, blushing, remembered, and took her arms from Harley’s neck.

“You have saved my life,” said Harley.

“I do not think that he would have fired.”

“You have saved it, anyhow. Now it is yours, and you must take it. He cannot claim you after this.”

The blush became brilliant.

“He has not given me up. He has not said so.”

“But he will give you up. He shall. You are mine now. Come!”

He took her unresisting hand in his, and again they walked side by side, so close that the strong wind once more brushed the little ringlet against his cheek.

It is a peculiarity of Grafton that the low swells around it, rolling away towards the mountains, look just alike everywhere. One has to be a resident, and an old-timer at that, to be able to tell one from another. Harley and Sylvia, hand-in-hand, had little thought of such things as these, nor were they anxious to reach Grafton quickly; yet the time when they must be there would come, and Harley at last interrupted a pleasanter occupation by exclaiming:

“Why, where is Grafton? We should have reached it long ago!”

Sylvia saw only the low swells, rolling away, one after the other; there was no glimpse of a house, no smoke on the horizon to tell where the village had hid itself so suddenly. Around them were the low ridges, and afar the circle of blue mountains. Save for themselves, it seemed a lone and desolate world. Sylvia became white; she knew their situation better than Harley.

“We have lost the town! We mistook the direction!” she said.

“We can easily find it again; it must be there.”

He pointed in the direction in which he thought Grafton lay, and continued:

“It will merely make our walk back to town the longer, and that is what I like.”

But she, who had lived her life on the plains and in the mountains, was not so sure. She knew that they had walked far, because not even the smoke of Grafton could be seen now. Yet he was with her.

“Suppose we try that direction,” she assented.

“And if it isn’t right, we will try another; our train stays at Grafton all day.”

They walked on, saying to each other the little things that mean nothing to others, but which lovers love, and Grafton yet lay hidden in its place between the swells. The skies, changing now from a bright to a steely gray, were unmarred by a single wisp of smoke.

Harley felt at last an uneasiness which increased gradually as they went on; the country was provokingly monotonous, one swell was like another, and the dips between were just the same; there were patches of brown grass eaten down by cattle, but mostly the soil was bare; it seemed to Harley, at that moment, a weary and ugly land, but it set off the star in the midst of it Sylvia like a diamond in the dust. He looked up; the mountains, before blue and distinct in the clear sky, were now gray and vague.

“We must have walked fast and far,” he said. “Look how that range of mountains has moved away.”

Sylvia looked, and her face whitened again.

“It is not distance, John,” she said. “It is a mist. See, the clouds are coming!”

The mountains moved farther away and became shadowy; the steel-gray of the skies darkened; up from the southwest rolled ugly brown clouds; there was a rush of chill air.

Harley understood all, and a shiver passed over him. But his fear was for her, not for himself.

“It is going to snow,” said Sylvia.

“And we are lost in this desert; it was I, too, who brought you here,” said Harley.

She looked up into his eyes, and her face was not pale.

“We are together,” she said.

He bent his head and kissed her, for the second time that day.

“You are the bravest woman in the world, Sylvia,” he said. “Now we live or die together, and we are not afraid.”

“We are not afraid.”

He put his arm around her waist, and she did not resist. Both expected to die, and they felt that they belonged to each other for eternity. A strange, spiritual exaltation possessed them; the world about them was unreal now they two were all that was real.

“The snow comes, dearest,” she said.

Up from the southwest the ugly brown clouds were still rolling, and the sky above them still darkened; the mountains were gone in the mist, the chill wind strengthened and shrieked over the plain. Harley kept his arm around Sylvia’s waist, and drew her more closely to him that he might shelter her.

“Let the snow come,” he said.

Great white flakes, borne upon the edge of the wind, fell damp upon their faces, and suddenly the air was filled with them as they came in blinding clouds; the wind ceased to shriek and died, and the brown clouds, now fused into one mass that covered all the heavens, opened and let down the snow in unbroken volume.

“We must go on, sweetheart,” said Harley, rousing himself. “To stand here is death. We may find some kind of shelter if we go; there is none in this place.”

They walked on, their heads bent a little, as the snow was coming straight down. They could not see twenty yards before them through the white cloud, and Harley was scarcely conscious whether they climbed the swells or descended into the dips between.

Sylvia covered her head with a small shawl that she wore. Harley wanted to take off his coat and wrap it around her, but she would not let him.

“I am not cold,” she said; “I think it is the walking that keeps me warm.”

It was partly that, but it was more the presence of Harley and the state of spiritual exaltation in which they remained. Both took it as a matter of course that they were to die in a few hours, but they had no fear of this death, and it was not even worth while to talk or think of it. Harley had spoken merely through habit and instinct of moving on lest they die, and it was these same unconscious motives that made them struggle, although they took no interest in their own efforts.

“We may come to a clump of trees,” said Sylvia, “or to a hollow in a rocky hill-side; that happens sometimes in this part of the Dakotas.”

“Maybe we shall,” said Harley, but he thought no more about it.

The wind rose again and swept over the plain with a shriek and a howl. Columns and cones of snow were whirled past them and over them; wind and snow together made it harder for them to keep their feet.

“If we don’t find that hollow soon, we won’t need it,” said Harley.

“No,” she said.

She was very close to him, and when she looked up he could see a smile on her face.

“Death is not terrible,” she said.

“Not with you.”

The shriek of the wind had now become a moan like the moan of a desolate world. They came to two or three dwarfed trees growing close to one an other, but they gave no shelter, and, Harley being in dread lest branches should be blown off and against Sylvia, they went on.

“What will they think has become of us?” said Sylvia.

But the only thought it brought into Harley’s mind at that moment was the interruption it would cause to the campaign. He was sorry for Jimmy Grayson. He felt that the girl’s step was growing less steady. Obviously she was becoming weaker.

“Lean against me,” he said; “I am strong enough for both.”

She said nothing, but he felt her shoulder press more heavily against him. He drew his hat-brim down that he might keep the whirling flakes from his eyes, and staggered blindly forward. His knee struck against something hard, and, putting out his hand, he touched stone and earth.

“Here is a hill,” he said, without joy, and he uncovered his eyes again to seek shelter. He did not find it there, but farther on, in another hill, was a rocky alcove that in earlier days had been the den of some wild animal. It was carpeted with old dead leaves, and it faced the east, while the wind and the snow came from the southwest. It was only a hollow, running back three or four feet, and one must crouch to enter; but except near the door there was no snow in it, and the storm drove by in vain.

“Here is our house, Sylvia,” exclaimed Harley, with a strong ring in his voice, and he drew her in. He raked up the old, musty, dead leaves in a heap, and made her sit upon them. He was the man now, the masculine animal who ruled, and she obeyed without protest.

“Hark to the storm! How the wind whistles!” he said.

Pyramids and columns of snow whirled by the mouth of their little hollow, and they crouched close together. Out upon the plain the shriek of the wind was weird and unearthly. Now and then some blast, fiercer and more tortuous than the rest, drove a fringe of snow so far into the hollow that it fell a wet skim across their faces.

Sylvia did not move or speak for a long time, and when Harley looked out again the snow was thinner but the wind was still high, and it was growing much colder. The blast lashed his face with a whip of ice.

He turned back in alarm, and took Sylvia’s hand in his. It was cold, and it seemed to him that the blood in it had ceased to run.

“Sylvia! Sylvia!” he cried in fear, and not knowing what else to say. “What is the matter?”

“This, I think, is death,” she replied, in sleepy content.

It was dark in the hollow, whether the darkness of coming night or the darkness of the storm Harley did not know nor care. He could not see her face, but he touched it; it, too, was cold.

He felt a pang of agony. When both expected to die he had neither fear nor sorrow; now she was about to die alone and leave him!

“Sylvia! Sylvia!” he cried. “It is not death! You cannot go!”

He rubbed her hands violently, and even her cheeks. He called to her over and over again, and she awoke from her numbing torpor.

“It was beginning to be like an easy sleep,” she said.

“That is what we must fight,” said Harley.

He brushed up all the leaves at the mouth of the hollow as a sort of barrier, and he believed that it gave help. Then he sat down on a small ledge of stone and leaned against the wall.

“Sylvia,” he said, “I want you to live, and you cannot live if this cold creeps into your body again. Sit here.”

She hesitated, and in the darkness he did not see her blush.

“Why should you not? It may be our last day.”

He drew her down upon his knees, then closer to him, and put his arms around her. Presently he could feel her face against his, and it was cold no longer. Neither spoke nor moved, but Harley could feel that she was warm, and he could hear her soft, regular breathing. After a while he stirred a little, and he found that she was asleep. Her hands and face were still warm. He did not move again. She spoke once in her sleep, and all that she said was his name.

Outside the plain was a vast sheet of snow, over which the cold wind moaned, and out of the east the night was coming.