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PHOEBE IN POLITICS


BY ANNE O'HAGAN

AUTHOR OF "THE DOWNFALL OF FOGERTY," "THE MADNESS OF LUIS," ETC.


LONG before the feud between Heronside and Heronside Hills was begun—while yet, indeed, Heronside Hills lay stationless, roadless, nameless, and houseless in the bosom of the future—the whole affair was presaged across Dr. Finley's barberry hedge.

"You," declared Phœbe Symonds, whose summer estate was separated from Jimmy Finley's year-round one by the hedge, and who delivered her opinion from her own side of the division, "you are nothing but a village boy, anyway! A country boy, that's what you are! I am a little city lady!"

Phœbe's cheeks were dyed deep with ire as she retailed this bit of differentiation, which was borrowed from the cook. Her sunbonnet had fallen back upon her shoulders, its strings lying in the creases of her fat neck, bare above the untrimmed edge of her blue apron. Rage flashed from her brown eyes, and her bosom heaved with defiance and scorn. She was breathless after she had flung the taunt to stolid Jimmy glaring at her across the hedge.

"And you," he asserted, "are just nobody at all! You don't belong here, and nobody wants you here, but you keep on coming every summer. You haven't any real home, or you'd stay in it. You haven't any right to anything here in Heronside—no, not to one thing, because you don't belong here. And I'll take the telephone I made out of your house."

"You sha'n't! It's mine! I gave the cord!" screamed Phœbe.

"You can have your cord back again," retorted Jimmy magnificently superior. "You could never do anything with it alone, except make cat's-cradles, maybe!"

The patience of Phœbe at nine years was a negligible quantity in the analysis of her disposition. She gave a fierce yell and made at Jimmy through the barberry-hedge, to the detriment of her apron, her face, and her fingers. Jimmy stood his contemptuous ground on the other side, his hands in his pockets.

"Bah!" he said, while the little termagant floundered in the midst of the spiky barrier between the two yards. "Bah, who wants to play with girls, anyhow?"

Phœbe's nursery governess brought the battle to an inglorious close by suddenly appearing and snatching the belligerent young lady back to the house; and Jimmy Finley strolled away in search of the masculine society whose high attractions he had vauntingly insinuated.

That was the very season in which Heronside Hills was conceived in the fecund mind of Phœbe Symonds' uncle and guardian. Heronside itself stood compact about its Revolutionary landmarks: its church, its pump, its common, and its cannon. Beyond it, northeast along the broken, rocky coast and thence inland for some distance, lay territory scarcely touched. A few scattered farms, fertile in boulders, dotted its extent, but that was all.

Mr. Symonds, with the imagination of the capitalist, had one day a vision of the bay beyond the shore dotted with gleaming yachts, of the bluffs crowned with lordly "cottages," of straight roads built where paths now wandered, and of all manner of rich equipages, making these brilliant through the long summer. He had always liked the climate. Its fresh, tingling, salty flavor had induced him to buy the square house in the village, next to his old classmate's, quite as much as his uncomprehending affection for that classmate—the affection of a man of material ambitions and restless energies for a good and gentle dreamer. When his imagination had built up Heronside Hills for him, however, he piously perceived a special Providence in the sentiment which had led to the purchase of the place the other side of the barberry-hedge.

Ten days from the time the idea occurred to him, he was enrolled in the county registry as the purchaser, for one dollar and other good and valuable consideration, of a tract of land in Heronside township as large as the village itself. In two weeks architects were looking over the sites. By the next July there stood above one of the bluffs a wonderful structure of wood and stone, with turrets and balconies, conservatories and portes cocheres, lodges, stables, and what not. Within five years a succession of such dwellings looked insolently across the crags and the foam and the infrequent beaches to the island-dotted bay and on to the other side of the world. Macadamized roads led to the stately houses. The railroad had built a new and cheerfully ornate station, and had called it Heronside Hills. The summer settlement was established, and Jimmy Finley, the doctor's son, no longer fought across the barberry hedge with Phœbe Symonds, the great man's niece.

Their meetings had become social events of painful import to them both. Jimmy hated the two or three afternoons a season when, with his mother, he drove the doctor's ambling mare over the gay roads to Heronside Hills and up to Brierbank, as the Symonds place was called, though Jimmy had not been able to learn why. He was not interested in the starched and curled Phœbe who was led forth on these occasions. He felt his three years' seniority; a man's interests engrossed him. Would he make the freshman football team when he entered college? That was the real question, to answer which the earth revolved, the sun shone. Phœbe found the return visits under the charge of her governess—her uncle was a widower—equally dreary occasions.

"What queer ornaments the Finleys have in their sitting-room, don't they?" she was accustomed to ask in incipient snobbery, after a visit in the plain, old-fashioned house where a sampler hung upon the wall, pink shells flanked the fireplace, and birchbark frames held family photographs.

Then came the years when Jimmy was at college—where he triumphantly achieved not only the freshman team, but the 'varsity—and then the years when he was in the law school. Meantime Phœbe was being put through all manner of elegant experiences. Like the pussy cat of famous memory she went to London to see the queen; she spoke in divers tongues, and wore silks, furs, and jewels that came from the uttermost parts of the earth. She rode and she fenced and she danced. She was pretty, and she was as imperious as pretty. At an age which the dowagers declared disgracefully early, she swept the last of the governesses from her uncle's house and became herself its social head.

By the time Heronside Hills was sixteen years old, and Phœbe Symonds twenty-five, she was a spoiled, attractive, difficult young woman. She had entirely lost sight of her old companion, Jimmy Finley. Once, riding through the town, and noting the absence of the doctor's sign from the old house, she vaguely remembered that her uncle had told her of his friend's death after one of her European jaunts.

Heronside Hills was also feeling its oats, as one of the mere townspeople somewhat vulgarly put it. Heronside Hills was quite sufficient to itself, and it began to inquire why it should be taxed as part of the dull, plebeian town. Why, when it had not the slightest interest in the Heronside schools, should it be levied upon for their support? Why, when its confines were forever sacred from the vulgar mob, should it pay for a police force to keep the vulgar mob in order? The factories which had been building in Heronside had brought an influx of foreigners to the village; the town was a candidate for cityhood, with all the increased expenses of that condition—more sidewalks, more street lights, sewers, a fire department. Why should Heronside Hills submit to the increased taxation which these things would require?


II

At the earliest dinner party of the season Phœbe Symonds was presiding when the subject was broached. It enlisted her interest immediately. She had no very settled views on the subject of taxation, but at the time she happened to be without absorbing interests. She had finally rejected Gerald Waterman, and no new aspirant for her hand had appeared. Life was a little stale.

"Why don't we secede at once?" she Inquired with animation.

The men laughed, and some of the women smiled with a little acidity.

"Do you know how much we put into their treasury each year, Miss Symonds?" asked one of them. Phœbe shook her charming head and hung upon his enlightenment. "Well, more than all the rest of the citizens put together, even the factory owners. You see, ours is the most improved and the most valuable property in the township."

"What a shame!" said Phœbe. "When we could get along so perfectly without them, too! Why, now that the Colonial Provisioners have established a branch down here at the Hills station, one never needs to go to Heronside for anything."

"Of course they'd make the dickens of a row, the townspeople," said her uncle in a tone of debate.

"Of course. You know it has been rumored that we might try to get such a measure through, and the Heronsiders are watching us like hawks. I believe they've got a native lawyer primed to keep tab on us, and to look out for their interests."

"Who is he?" asked Mr. Symonds.

"A young fellow—Finley is his name, I believe.

Mr. Symonds sighed.

"Poor old Jim Finley's son, I suppose," he said. "He's an impracticable fellow, if he resembles his father."

"I have never heard that of him," said the other man, with a grim little smile. "Quite the contrary."

"I used to know him when we were children." said Phœbe, smiling also. Vividly there ran across her memory the day when the doctor's son had taunted her as a dweller on sufferance in Heronside. "He wasn't any too gentle in those days. If I remember, there used to be fisticuffs—but perhaps that was altogether my part of it."

The more she thought the situation over the more alluring seemed to her the prospect of interfering in a matter as weighty as taxation. She was idle. No real interest had ever absorbed her since her technical education had been finished, years before. Flirtation had palled upon her, and love had not happened to come her way. She was not yet quite old or quite bored enough to think seriously of one of those worthy missions with which idle women sometimes contrive to spice their lives. A little game of politics appealed to her—the more because she had so often been convinced that her ennui arose from her intellectual superiority to her set.

The talk among the men of her uncle's circle grew more and more of the possibility of escaping the duties of residence in Heronside. James Finley's name was constantly mentioned as that of the watchdog of the town's interests, so to speak. Phœbe, consulting her mirror, her wardrobe, and her recollections of young men, decided to save her country by wining over the enemy. She told her uncle to invite James to dinner.

She made herself as charming as ivory lace and pink roses and pearls could render a young woman to whose appearance nature had already been kind. She was waiting in the library beside a fireplace heaped with woodland plunder when her uncle brought the young man in. There were to be no other guests—not this time!

She turned to meet him, and felt suddenly ashamed of the guile with which she had robed herself. For it was her old, determined, good-hearted, bad-tempered playfellow that looked out at her from James Finley's clear, quizzical gray eyes, smiled at her from his firm lips, declared himself unalterable in square jaw, square shoulders, and square forehead.

"Ah," he cried. "I should have known you! You look exactly as you did when you used to spend the summers next door and fight with me across the hedge!"

Phœbe remembered the blue apron and the sunbonnet, but she did not undervalue the compliment, and she found the part of deliberate fascinator, which she had set out so gaily to play, forgotten in the pleasure of talk with this old comrade.

She decided that affairs of this sort must be managed with due tact and care. One must first obtain a standing in order to appeal to it. She spent most of the summer in establishing a position with Jim. It was not easy, for he was busy and he was proud. Yachts and polo ponies and endless leisure were not his, and he did not care to consort too much with those who possessed them.

He had mapped out rather a serious career for himself, Phœbe learned. His lawyer's shingle hung from the second-story office in Heronside.

On certain afternoons and evenings he was to be found there. His mornings he spent in a Boston office, where he had desk-room. He was busy with local politics; he meant to run for local office. He was full of interest in his profession, and an interest in politics was to him merely an expression of good citizenship. It was amazing how deeply Phœbe was concerned in his career before she reached the point of trying to influence him in favor of the division of Heronside.

When he learned her desires he threw his head back and laughed loudly, boyishly. Phœbe's color mounted beneath her fine skin.

"Why do you laugh?" she asked sharply.

"At your ideas—they're so deliciously naïve," he unwisely explained.

"Do they seem so to you?"

"Seem? They are. My dear young woman, do these rich property owners of yours presume to say to New York that they withdraw from the city because they don't send their children to the public schools, and won't be taxed for them? Do they ask to have Beacon Street set aside from Boston? They own valuable property in a certain place ; they spend a large part of their time in that place; and they say that the place may go to the devil for all they care, since they are comfortable, anyway. It's—you'll pardon me—it's the attitude of the trough!"

Jimmy spoke with a fatuous notion that he was instructing Miss Symonds, and that she had only to hear to be convinced. Her reply undeceived him.

"I am sorry, of course, that we seem hoggish—I think you implied hoggish—but I'm pledged to do all that I can for the division."

Jimmy stared at her for a second, his eyes slightly glazed, his jaw heavy. Then he smiled again.

"Are all the young women of the Hills pledged to this effort?"

His voice was a whole volume of satire on woman's influence in politics.

"I speak for myself alone," said Phœbe evenly and angrily.

Again the fatuous Jimmy smiled. It was his smile that fixed Phœbe's resolution to do all that she could to bring about the division. Jimmy, rising to depart, had an illuminating moment when he saw that he had made a mistake. Politics suddenly dropped out of the universe. He looked at an implacably angry face, and realized how much its implacability hurt him. And to realize that was to know how much he cared for Phœbe Symonds.

Back in the city Phœbe worked desperately for the measure. She would show the scoffer what she could do in politics! She sought introductions to members of the Legislature in a way quite incomprehensible to them. She dined the committee on townships, and she called in quarters hitherto quite outside her range. Her uncle had always allowed her her own way; now he merely smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He had done his practical best to assure the division of Heronside and Heronside Hills—he had made a contribution to a lobbyist less theoretical than Phœbe, who would know what use to make of it; for his part he could not inquire. Neither would the other Heronside Hills men who had made similar contributions. Meantime Phœbe was amusing herself. He was sorry that she did not seem to derive more pleasure from the process. Her temper was unpardonably uncertain lately.

She did not see Jimmy often after they went back to the city. She was glad of it. His attitude of tolerant amusement, as at the antics of a kitten, had been insulting; its change to questioning disapproval was harder to bear. But it was noticeable that no other man's attitude stood the test of comparison with his in her estimation. Sometimes she wanted to give up the whole affair, to drop the legislative dinners and the dinner to legislative wives, and to go to Jimmy and tell him that she was a fool. But Jimmy's increasingly distant look, his increasingly frigid manner, did not invite confession of any sort.


III

Finally the day came when the bill to split Heronside township in two was to be reported or to be quashed in the committee-room. When the cheerful voice of one of her State House satellites saluted her over the telephone to say that the bill had been recommended, she thought impatiently that his manner was almost dapper—she hated it. Then she had her moment of elation. Perhaps Jimmy would admit, now, that she could do things! Phœbe did not know of the practical work of the practical lobbyist.

But the moment of triumph was brief. She sat down and considered the defeat of Jimmy Finley, and that thought was bitter to her. Why, why had she meddled? Why had she interfered between Jimmy Finley and his work?

She could see him when that decision was reported to him. About his firm lips a tiny rim of white would show—she had seen it there sometimes when he was putting restraints upon himself. He would shake those broad shoulders of his, and square them to the burden of defeat. Then he would go quietly from the State House back to his office; some idiot would punctuate his going with a "Better luck next time, Finley," and he would nod and force a smile.

At the office where he hired desk-room they would have heard; they would utter a sympathetic banality or two, and he would put some books and papers into his queer green bag—why did he carry that?—and he would walk to the station. Heronside, gray, dingy, busy, with the smoke from its factories thickening the thick air, would receive him. He would go to that busy town, not rich, save in its summer settlement, grappling with many new problems born of its new industries and citizens. And they—the self-satisfied group of the penurious wealthy—had been unwilling to help. Ah, it was disgusting, as Jimmy had said!

He would go to his little office, he would see his friends and clients. He would tell them that the bill was to be recommended, that he had failed to keep it out of the Legislature, that he couldn't do what he had undertaken to do. And he wanted to run for office out there; he had told her so. And by and by he would go home and up the walk by the barberry hedge——

She forgot that James Finley had laughed at her influence, that he had needed a lesson, that he had smiled superior at her excitements. She only saw him going into his mother's house in the gray gloom of the evening, beaten in an early fight, and by her foolish machinations.

Phœbe was not a consistent person, or a patient. She had a sudden inspiration. She would go down to Heronside and tell him that she was sorry. She would go down on her knees to him for his forgiveness; then she would go down on her knees to the Governor of the State and beg him to veto the measure.

By the time she alighted at the dingy station in Heronside, instead of the ornate one to which she was accustomed, she began to have doubts as to the entire feasibility of her plan. Vain and mistaken in one thing, was she not likely to be vain and mistaken in all? What real warrant had she for believing that he would care to hear her prayers for forgiveness? And certainly Mrs. inley would be surprised to see her!

She dawdled about the station. It was late afternoon; the factories, stark and ugly on the low lands near by, blazed at a thousand windows in the gloom. She could see figures at the machines; some of them were girls and boys. And Jimmy fought for them, while she opposed.

Finally she took the station carriage, and, mumbling something about having mistaken her station, ordered the driver to take her to Brierbank.

The feminine passion to heal the hurt she had caused consumed her. She could scarcely wait to reach the telephone in the gloomy house; she paid no attention to the voluble regrets of the farmer's wife that no notice had been given of her arrival. She wanted to make it up to Jimmy.

He answered the telephone from his house. He was full of alarm at her unexpected presence at Brierbank. She reassured him as to her health and the family fortunes. Then she paced the room, on the hearth of which a fire had finally been kindled, until he came.

"What is it, Phœbe? What is it, dear girl?" he cried, forgetful of their estrangement, and indifferent to the conventional horror of the farmer's wife, who admitted him. "What can have brought you? What——"

"Oh, Jim, Jim, don't you know? The bill for division is reported—and I did it—and you didn't want it done—and I wish——"

An illumination broke across Mr. Finley's mind.

"Because you were sorry for my defeat you came down?" he asked triumphantly.

By a mighty effort of intellect he was able to refrain from pointing out to her how little she had to do with the reporting of the bill. There were more important things to be attended to, and he proceeded to attend to them.

"Yes, that is why. Oh, no, Jim, not yet—not until I tell you what I mean to do to defeat that bill yet——"

Nevertheless Jim's ideas on the respective order of conversation and events ruled, and it was not for some minutes that the discussion of the bill was resumed. Then almost as much amusement as tenderness shone in Jim's eyes.

"And how are you going to save me now, little briber and corrupter?" he inquired.

"Briber?"

"Well, your side has been bribing. No, no, of course, I never really believed that you knew, but it did make me sick to have you mixed up with the thing. Anyway, how is it that you propose to save me?"

"The Governor shall veto it!" declared Phœbe superbly. "I will beg him to—he likes me."

Jim laughed again.

"You won't have to, dearest," he said. "The Governor has already seen a petition from the voting factory hands, and their unions have declared themselves on the effort to deprive the workingman of the benefits of equal taxation. The Governor wants reelection. He's pledged to veto that bill if it reaches him. That's what I've been doing while you played with your committees. Oh, I'm something of a politician myself!"


 

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.