Scribner's Magazine/Volume 27/The Mercy of Death
THE MERCY OF DEATH
By William Allen White
WITH the reporter it was only the matter of a Sunday story. If Congressman Thomas Wharton had not been elected United States Senator the day before, the story that Sunday would have been a sanitary article under the head "A Little Italy is a Dangerous Thing." But with Senator-elect Wharton it was a matter of some moment to have a city reporter come down to one's home on the eight o'clock train in the morning and stay until the six-thirty train in the evening, taking an inventory of one's goods and chattels, intellectual equipment, moral endowment, and previous condition of servitude. In his capacity of cataloguer the reporter made mental note of the masterpieces of art in Wharton's library—the campaign picture of Blaine and Logan, a dust-stained steel engraving representing the Lincoln family, apparently glued about a marble-topped centre-table; also portraits of Hereford royalty by Cecil Palmer, and of Berkshire royalty of unknown artisanship. During the morning Wharton took the reporter over the wide, tame grass fields and showed off the royal originals.
As the two men walked in the fields Wharton explained that his father was a Pennsylvanian and his mother pure-bred Donegal Irish. While he was relating the details of his early life, his struggles for an education with the appurtenances of the log school-house, the pine-knot and the blue Webster Speller, the reporter was condensing the narrative into a paragraph in which the phrase "the short and simple annals of the poor" should find a place.
After the noonday dinner, and when the reporter had secured photographs of Mrs. Wharton and of the children—the two married daughters in the little town of Baxter, the daughter in the high-school, and the boy who was running the farm—also five likenesses of Wharton, including an army daguerreotype, the newly made senator was in a talkative mood. He was sprawling, rather than sitting, in a huge leather chair in front of the fire; his feet were wide apart. One hand kept ruffing his iron-gray hair, the other hand held a cigar. As he talked the reporter wondered just how much of Wharton's double chin and crescent-shaped vest the managing editor would leave in the copy if the reporter told the truth about them. Wharton was saying:
"The trouble with the East is, they're getting flabby. They don't get enough hard knocks. Take the Eastern fellows in Congress. Why, not one in ten of the younger set ever went barefooted. They've lived in steam-heated flats and ridden around in street-cars all their lives. They can't stick to a fight. They're what you fellows call effete. Look at the pickle that Harvard puts on a boy. You can spot a boy from Harvard as far as you can see him. He has a kind of highty-tighty air, sniffs at his country, and tolerates his universe. If I ever had a boy come home with that Harvard pickle on him I'd put him into the chamber-work department of a livery stable till he got so he could say his prayers and take off his hat to the flag."
Wharton threw a leg over the low arm of his chair, opened his half-shut eyes, grinned at the reporter, and added:
"Don't you put that in the paper. There's a little bunch of Harvard in the Senate, and I may need it in my business." The reporter assented and Wharton cut in with:
"Yep, son, sugar catches more flies than vinegar."
"Do you want to talk Civil Service, Senator?" questioned the reporter, as he mentally stored away Wharton's epigram to use in some other part of the interview.
Wharton rose and paced the room twice, with his cigar in his teeth and his hands deep in his trousers pockets.
"I dunno—anything wrong with this: say that the thing that threatens this country is political apathy. Citizens pay too much attention to business and not enough to politics—and then ask how you're going to get more interest in politics by taking all the offices away from the people and putting them in cold-storage. Get my idea? "
The reporter nodded.
"Well, if you think it's any good, trim it up. Tell 'em it's all right to holler about a public office being a private snap, but ask how the registration is going to be kept up in the ward if mansions in the skies are to be the only reward for the fellows who drive the hacks. Of course, don't use those words, but you understand my point."
When the interview and the Sunday story were printed they appeared under the head "A Tribune of the People," and the story told how Thomas Wharton had risen from an humble farmer boy, step by step, office upon office, from school-teacher to county superintendent, from that to State legislator, upward into the National Congress, where he served six terms; and how, by trusting in the people, he had weathered every political storm and had finally anchored in the United States Senate. The reporter made a good story. The managing editor said so, and Wharton bought ten copies of the paper, an unusually large number of copies to buy for any story, if the papers are not ordered in advance. But the story had its limitations. There was much that it did not tell, and in the nature of things, could not tell. For instance, to lay bare Wharton's ambition would be interesting, of course, but perhaps libellous; for it was fearfully and wonderfully made, that ambition—and it was constantly changing. Yet Wharton had worshipped it for forty years, observing no variation in it. When he came home from the Civil War and taught country school, his ambition beckoned him to be a statesman, to serve his country, to thwart corruption in high places, and to stand for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. He made a good record in the State legislature, and when the best element in his party sent him to Congress, in his speech at the ratification meeting he shed tears of joyful gratitude that his opportunity had come to him. He chose to forget certain irregularities of the ballot in a doubtful county, for he had an earnest faith that the end justified the means. The insincerity, corruption, the pulling and hauling for place and power which he saw during his first term in Congress, shocked him. But in his second term he began to count that sort of thing as part of the game. During his third term he accepted deals and jobs and sly, legalized official steals as matters of fact and of course. Later he took Indian supply contracts himself. The women lobbyists, who provoked Wharton's disgust as a young congressman, ceased to interest him at all in his fifth term. The justification of his means by faith, being needed less and less frequently to salve his conscience, was no longer an act of volition with Wharton. He lived in hotels at Washington, while his family lived at home on the farm in the outskirts of Baxter. Wharton grew mellow and cynical in his cast of thought, yet there were times when he recalled his youthful visions and hoped against hope that the day would come when he might realize them. In the meantime he controlled his district machine, and his party's national organization oiled the machine well with fat fried from concerns east of the Alleghanies which were affected by Wharton's attitude upon important congressional committees.
For Wharton was a power in the House. He was known as an efficient man, which being translated means that he was a proficient log-roller and that he had reduced mutual back-scratching to a fine art. His strong hold as a congressman was in pensions. He framed a pension law which made his name hated in the East, but made it sacred at the camp-fires and bean-dinners in the West, where the soldiers took their free homesteads after Appomattox.
In his last congressional fight he spent $2,300 to buy some refractory delegations in the nominating convention, and the end was nebulous and hazy while the means were palpable to an important degree. So palpable, indeed, that, when Tom Wharton defeated Senator Gardner and the Wharton machine won, the element in his party that first sent Wharton to Congress opposed him most bitterly in the senatorial contest.
When Senator-elect Wharton went back to Washington, it was not into a strange country. He had measured swords with many of the Senators when he and they had been members of the lower house of Congress together. He had been on conference committees at the end of two sessions of Congress, and, being a member of the steering committee of his party's caucus, knew the kind of timber of which every Senator was made. On the other hand, Wharton knew that the Senate knew Tom Wharton. So, when he was cartooned by Coffin, in the Washington Post, as an Agrarian Hercules, in a breech-clout and a straw hat, cleaning out the Augean stables of senatorial flub-dub, Wharton's cup of satisfaction brimmed.
When Wharton took the oath of office he walked down the middle aisle of the Senate Chamber in a gray sack coat and a lay-down collar, with one hand in his trouser's pocket. His only sign of nervousness was manifested when he bit at his bristly, close-cropped mustache as the informal ceremony proceeded. He lounged hulkily back to his seat with his thumbs in his vest holes, sucking his teeth and holding his head at an angle which seemed to him to proclaim his composure.
A year later Wharton was walking alone up and down the red-carpeted lobby of the Senate, his eyes on the floor, his hands clasped behind him, his cigar trailing a white wraith over his shoulder. Senator Felt, from a New England State, nudged a companion and said:
"See Tom Wharton over there?"
"Well, he thinks he's thinking."
That remark came to Wharton's ears and opened a most cordial and interesting enmity, an enmity bred of physical, mental, moral, and political antipathies, so marked that descriptive writers doing the Senate always linked the two men, Wharton and Felt, in beautifully balanced sentences, which made Wharton swear in English, Spanish, and Missouri Valley.
Wharton still foraged in pensions. He kept four clerks, besides his private secretary, busy answering letters from pensioners, or from those who would, could, should, or might be pensioners. He attended camp-fires and contributed money to soldiers' societies without stint. Before he had been in the Senate a year Wharton's old army friends began to appear as messengers and guards and guides, until the Senate pay-roll became almost a copy of Tom Wharton's company roster. He would help other Senators with bills, general bills, or local bills, and in return for his services required that his cohorts be cared for.
Early in his first senatorial term he edged into the Committee of the District of Columbia and traded everything for good standing there. He retained certain ideals of honesty. He was, as he said, as honest as the times would permit; and his standard of political honor in others only drew the line at taking money from both sides of an issue. Personally Wharton made it a point never to take money at all, but he made propitious investments in real estate, in Massachusetts Avenue Extended, and in street railway stock. He reasoned, however, that his constituents were none the worse off for his foresight, and because no one accused him of taking bribes his conscience did not prick. During his first term in the Senate, Wharton spoke vehemently and voted for all laws which expanded the currency and curtailed what he called "the money power." The day after one of his denunciations of the railroads he returned all his passes, and a friend from Baxter who was in Wharton's committee-room when the Senator was dictating letters to the railroads, told at home that Tom said he was rich enough to afford the luxury of being honest; and the remark passed into the proverbial literature of the State.
Shortly after this proverb became public property, Senator Wharton, who, in his congressional days, had been tempted by the devil in various disguises, began to hunt up the devil and to employ a broker. Now it is a long jump from taking a little $5,000 nibble at an Indian supply contract or munching a $10,000 bit of public land grazing lease, when these things come one's way, to grabbing for plums right and left and standing at the pantry door demanding that nothing shall go to the table until it is divided. The devil helped Wharton to make the jump. After he took the jump Wharton concerned himself with the interests of Wharton first, and considered his constituents afterward. The creeping moral paralysis, which had been atrophying his nature for a dozen years, began to manifest itself in various ways. When a circuit judge in Wharton's neighborhood, ambitious for promotion, appointed a receiver for a railroad in Wharton's State, Wharton managed to own profit-bearing stock in the concerns which furnished the receiver with supplies. When a railroad desired an extension of time for earning its land grant, Wharton's broker and the law department of the railroad had to discuss a great many things which came under the head of "that matter." It happened sometimes that Wharton's broker bought sugar felicitously, and sold silver with unusual luck. And the devil, whom Wharton had found in a mask, used to pull it aside frequently and wink gayly at the Senator, who would pat his rotund vest and smile, seemingly to himself but really at the Old Boy, and say to his private secretary, "Well, Bob, we seem to be able to keep the wolf from scratching all the varnish off the front door! Eh?"
For Wharton had become a financier, and was known in New York banking circles as "the business man of the senate." His introduction to the New Yorkers was brilliant, and admitted him to the inner circle of brigands at once. Wharton and a group of New York bankers got hold of a controlling interest in a Western railroad, the H. & 2 O's, when the stock was selling at 70. The H. & 2 O's ran, as Wharton succinctly put it, "from hell to breakfast, over two streaks of rust, through a four-acre mortgage." Senator Felt put $50,000 of his wife's money into the scheme on the advice of his bankers. Wharton organized a $100,000 pool among the stock-holders to keep the stock of the road at par, the pool agreeing to buy up all the stock on the market offered below par. Felt borrowed money of the pool to buy up several little blocks of stock that came floating his way, slightly below par. But Wharton sold to the pool through his broker at nearly par all of the stock which he had bought at 70. Then he faced Felt and the New Yorkers down with uproarious laughter, and asked them if they saw any hayseed in his hair. He thought the joke was too good to keep and told it after the eighth glass of raw whiskey at the senatorial poker parties which Senator Felt always avoided. Men of Wharton's stripe gazed at him with fond admiration, and he was revered as Captain Kidd was in his time for less profitable and more daring enterprises.
Nature began to brand Tom Wharton in the fifth year of his first senatorial term. Little hair-line wrinkles spread over his face, radiating from his eyes and mouth. His brow cracked in a hundred places. Under his eyes deep, lateral, fatty wrinkles gathered and insolence leered from behind the bloated lids. The skin of his neck began to hang loose. Nature was marking her danger-signals on his face to tell the world that Tom Wharton's soul was rotting out. He took heed of wherewithal he should be clothed, and his raiment, which once had been of coarse, gray Scotch cheviot, became broadcloth. He swathed himself in fancy vests, and the poker set said that the Thompson woman had persuaded him to get his high silk hat. For the Thompson woman was noted for her clothes, and when she walked down an aisle in the pension office, treading firmly on her heels and hiking her skirt up in the back, one could hear her silk petticoats rustle all over the room, and the girls who held their jobs on their merits pretended not to notice her. But whether or not the Thompson woman was the inspiration of Wharton's silk hat, he wore it only in the East. When he went home that year he donned some familiar togs and went under the old black felt that was well known to the people of his State.
During his first senatorial term Wharton mixed in a score of local fights in his State and built a State machine of iron. County officers were his assistant foremen in the political organization that he conducted as one would conduct a great factory, wherein no detail was too trivial for the owner's personal attention. When he helped his friends with money in a political transaction Senator Wharton took their notes, thus mixing business with politics and keeping his allies true—Congressman Wharton had never done this. When the machine sent him back to Washington without opposition to serve a second senatorial term, Tom Wharton was a power of the first class. Although the men in the Senate whom he called the Good, the True, and the Beautiful might ignore him socially, when these men needed help for a local bill they had to consult Senator Wharton. For his political savings bank, where record is kept of services to political associates, was full to overflowing. He was wary and drew on his account but sparingly. And the Thompson woman kept her own hours in the pension office, and one day, in a sportive moment, she told the assistant commissioner, under whom she was supposed to work, that if she could ever remember his name she would have him dismissed. Her speech was unwise, for she forgot—if she ever knew—that when a man passes his fortieth year his moral lapses are not for the woman, but for a woman, and he is easily irritated.
Tom Wharton's business interests grew. Whatever he touched he gilded. He worked far into the night, and reached the point where it took four glasses of whiskey to steam up his boilers for work in the morning. He ate breakfast dictating letters across his egg, and had little time for speech-making. But his secretary sent out three or four extracts from the Congressional Record every year, in which were Wharton's speeches demanding a tariff on hides and butter, or sounding the alarm against the trusts. Occasionally he fanned one of these out of the thin air of the lonesome Senate chamber, but usually asked leave to print and went about his business. His fortune crept past one million, jumped past two, and a chalky pallor stole into his face.
Still, for all his success, Tom Wharton recognized his limitations. He cherished a venomous envy for Senator Felt, who, Wharton fancied, knew the difference between brands of champagne and understood what Wharton called the "time-table of a wine-list" at dinner. So, naturally, Wharton boasted of the superiority of whiskey and reviled those who did not appreciate the intricate points of its quality.
"Bob," said Wharton to his private secretary one day, when the Senate galleries were filled to hear Felt discourse upon a minor clause in the tariff bill under consideration, "what a poser that fellow is—always before the public, always on dress parade. I'd strangle with surprise if I'd ever see that long-tailed coat of his unbuttoned. Do you suppose he sleeps in it? Can you imagine him in his night-shirt?"
The secretary laughed, and Wharton, who was looking over the stenographer's work before signing his letters, went on:
"What I don't see is how he holds his job. He can't do anything. I'll bet he don't know the fourth assistant postmaster-general from Adam's off ox. He hasn't got a bill through, except some local bills, since he came. That sophomore twaddle he's reciting this afternoon will have about as much to do with the passage of the tariff bill as a painted toot from one of the painted angels over there in that gingerbread library building that he struts around so much about. And yet a lot of old hens cluck and scratch worms for the Great Senator Felt whenever he stretches his neck and hollers."
To which Senator Felt made fair return in kind. To a crony in a Boston club Senator Felt said: "He is a thrifty fellow, that Wharton. He has saved from his salary of $5,000 a year a fortune reaching into the millions." The two men laughed. The mask of Felt's face did not wrinkle or quiver as he added: "He is a subject for the biologist, for he retains the strength of a mastodon, revives the manners of a cave man, and preserves the morals of a hyena."
Ostensibly Felt and Wharton were friends. Yet their mutual politeness was inspired by the jealousy that breeds punctiliousness in men more surely than it is bred by friendship or esteem. The fires of jealousy between Wharton and Felt could never be quenched, for Felt had youth and culture, and Wharton had power and courage.
One year well along in the nineties there arose in Wharton's State a political movement which puzzled him. The first shock of the movement made the little bolts and screws and cogs of the Wharton machine quiver, and the second shock, coming as it did in a presidential year, snapped a hundred levers. The defeated candidates filled Wharton's mail with letters, asking for repairs and damages and for expert opinion. The constant habit of considering the affairs of the wracked machine gave to Wharton's mind after six months a color of anxiety. In meditative moments this anxiety sometimes deepened into tenor. For because Tom Wharton's heart had no solace save in the use of power, in the soul of him Tom Wharton was an abject coward. He had hypnotized himself into the belief that his luck was infallible; but the low burring, the shrill rasping, and the irregular clicking of the machine got upon his nerves and filled him with alarm. He hammered away ineffectually at the money power. He wrenched and jacked unavailingly at the trusts. Then Senator Wharton got his trip-hammer and started to pound the people into plumb by the promise of a service pension law. The promise backed by Wharton's power to fulfil it brought consternation to the East, where most of the nation's taxes to pay the pensions would be gathered, and where but a small portion of the pensions would be distributed. Wharton saw this Eastern consternation and chuckled, for he believed that it would be matched by rejoicing in the West. In congratulating himself upon the probable success of his pension plans Wharton found another pleasure and perhaps a keener one. All New England turned toward Senator Felt as its hope in the struggle against the Wharton bill. If Felt failed to thwart Wharton, the East and his State and his party would have none of him. So Tom Wharton changed his tobacco quid from one jaw to the other and exhaled a curse upon Felt from the worm-eaten caverns of his soul.
The god of business is an exacting god, and he puts all sorts of warning signs at the mile-posts of the years in men's lives. At the sixtieth mile-post there is a danger sign which warns men against new enterprises. The penalties for disregarding this sign are severe. But sinful pride having tilted Wharton's nose he could not see the warning on his third-score mile-post. So he began to dabble in wheat. Of course he scalded his fingers. A Chicago packer tempted him, and the two old fellows went on to the market as bears. Wharton's name was not known in the deal; but, little by little, while wheat kept going up, his available collateral went into his broker's hands and was dumped upon the New York market. The Chicago packer could have commanded securities representing twenty million dollars in a few hours. But Wharton's poor little two millions began to shrink when he turned it into bankable paper, and evaporated before his eyes. One day late in May a small financial tornado struck Wall Street. It began in R. B. T. and spread to every industrial stock on the market. Wharton's collateral at that time had been reduced to its lowest terms, and he had nothing but the industrial stocks to offer. When the day closed wheat had gone skyward, and not a banking concern in Wall Street, New Street, Exchange Place, or lower Broadway would accept as collateral a single stock that Wharton had put in his broker's hands. The New York broker could not reach Wharton during the mad hour when industrial stocks were being pounded down. The broker had to protect himself. Wharton's stocks were thrown under the hammer. They did not realize enough to pay the margins on his wheat orders. His note went to protest, and when the day closed Tom Wharton's fortune was gone.
The latter years of Wharton's life had been spent out of partnerships and away from close companions. His very greed had isolated him, and so when misfortune befell him he could turn to no friendly hand for help. His family had departed from him in all but the outer semblance, and he was absolutely alone in his calamity. When he had learned the worst that the broker had to tell, Wharton locked himself in his private room with a flask of whiskey, and when he came out his pallid face was the only sign of his perturbation. For his daring was not lessened; he never played "old maid" or "penny ante," and he loved the game best when the forfeit was high. He believed that wheat had reached its summit, and he had figured it out that with $75,000 to operate upon he could regain everything. But he decided that he must have that amount. He rejected a dozen plans to get it, and only one was left. It was a desperate plan, but Wharton did not hesitate to follow it. He left that night on the midnight train for the West. Ike Russell, the treasurer of Wharton's State, was made of clay with Wharton's own hand. When Wharton arrived at his State capital there was an ugly three minutes in the State treasurer's office and then it was over. Russell went out of the room, and Wharton went into the vault and filled his little valise with school bonds. Wharton had no trouble in floating them. He deposited them with a Washington bank where he had done all his business for twenty years. The money he realized went into the wheat pit in New York, and he glorified Tom Wharton and prepared to enjoy him forever. For it is the chief end of some self-made men to confuse their deities.
Ten days later wheat shot into the nineties, turning nimble hand-springs over the fractional points. And Senator Thomas Wharton went to the safety deposit box for even a bone to feed the dogs of the pit which were gnawing his margins. When he got there the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dogs had to lick their chops over the memory of the feasts Wharton had thrown to them. Wharton did not expect to find anything in his box when he went, and yet, until he had looked over all his plunder there and found not one scrap of paper negotiable for a dollar, he did not realize that the end had come absolutely.
Wharton fumbled for nearly a minute, taking the key from the box. The close air of the room seemed to stifle him, and he hurried—almost staggered—into the fresh air, which he breathed deeply. His tremor came from mental causes partly—induced by the maddening grip of the taut tether of his fate, but his nerves were rioting because they knew no master save whiskey. As Wharton walked back to the Shoreham, a distance of ten blocks, he lighted and threw away four cigars. And cigar-ashes fell on the immaculate vest. He raged because he could not see his way, but his mind's eyes were blinded by dust from the apples of Sodom. His isolation among his fellows smote him when he saw that he was afraid to advise with his banker and ashamed to talk with his lawyer. Way back deeply in his submerged consciousness was the concept of the penitentiary, conceived hardly as a possibility—much less a probability; yet the thing stuck there like a thorn in the flesh. After pacing the diagonal lines of his room in the hotel for half an hour, Wharton went to the telephone and asked the local banker who held the stolen bonds to hold them off the market for twenty-four hours. The request was granted, for Wharton had done many hundred thousand dollars' worth of business at the bank. With a twenty-four hours' reprieve Wharton thought he could find some ford that would lead him back over the fatal Rubicon he had crossed. He decided to direct all his legislative force for a few hours away from the Wharton pension bill and into another channel. The dead wall of a prison seemed to bar his path; but the jaws that hung loose while he walked from the safety deposit vault to his hotel were set when he went forth to burrow under his barrier.
Now there were in Washington two electric light and power companies contesting for business—one, old and established, with wires strung all over the city; the other a suburban concern, with a city franchise, but without wires in the city. For several months an innocent-looking bill, which provided that all electric light wires be buried twenty inches under ground, had rested in a pigeon-hole of Wharton's desk in the committee-room of the District of Columbia. To make this bill a law would be in effect to put the new electric company on an equal footing with the old company. Wharton himself had quietly urged the organization of the new company. He had pushed the bill through the lower house of Congress, and shortly thereafter he found $150,000 worth of the new company's stock in his safety deposit box. When the Wharton pension bill should become a law it had been Wharton's purpose to push the underground electric wire bill through the senate and unload the stock he owned for a fortune. Two hours after Wharton left his hotel the House underground wire bill had been recommended for passage by the Senate committee of the District of Columbia and had been advanced on the calendar for consideration on the following day. For the old company was rich and Wharton believed that it would not see five years' dividends eaten up by trench-diggers without a struggle. He did not go to his hotel that night, and Mrs. Wharton went to sleep with a familiar suspicion by her side that for once in its long hateful life was false. For Wharton, greedy, desperate, bold, and cunning, was prowling about the town in a carriage, routing men out of bed at unseemly hours, seeking whom he might devour. When he lay down at three o'clock on his office lounge the war of the two electric lighting companies was waging and he was prepared to loot. With his booty he was going to redeem the stolen school bonds. He was so sure of winning his game that he spent the closing minutes of consciousness before sleep in malevolent anticipation of the hour when he would annihilate Senator Felt by passing the pension bill over his opposition.
He woke from the horror of a nightmare with the horror of reality upon him. And the thought of the reality made his hand tremble as he put the first four glasses of his morning's whiskey to his lips. Until he had consumed nearly a pint of liquor he could not muster courage to review the details of the day's campaign. It was Wharton's intention to galvanize his shares in the new company, so that he could sell his stock immediately, or—but the old company had stuck at $50,000 the night before and the stolen school bonds were in pawn for $75,000, to be redeemed that day. So it was that or nothing. When the steam of the morning's whiskey had sent his drivers to pounding, Wharton took a car for the Capitol. When he left the car his face was haggard and he walked across the asphalt with a physical curse of hatred for mankind in every rap of his heavy foot. He did not veer a fraction of an inch from a straight line as he walked, and he snubbed the man brutally who ran the elevator. In an upper corridor Wharton met Curt, the agent for the old electric company—Curt, whose bed-room Wharton had left at three that morning. Curt had promised to confer with some one whom he called "his people " to see if they would meet Wharton's $75,000 ultimatum.
"Well," asked Curt festively of Wharton as the two men walked down the corridor, "have you concluded to be decent?"
Wharton tried to see into the recesses of the lobbyist's mind as he replied, gruffly: "I'm right where I was. It's that or nothing. I'm going to make a speech to-day that will fix you fellows so you'll wish I'd sunk your wires six miles in —— instead of twenty inches under the street level. Come up and hear it," he snapped over his shoulder.
"All right, Senator," laughed Curt, "Blaze away. Tell Bob Dunning to come up to the gallery and we'll enjoy it together."
Wharton turned into his committee room. Dunning, the private secretary, was there. He greeted Wharton with a look that matched all of the Senator's anxiety. Wharton nodded and said: "You're to go up in the gallery with Curt. I think he's going to come to time. But I'm going on with my speech unless he does—I'll show 'em. It's the first thing up this morning."
Wharton swung into the senate chamber like a bull into the pit. He feared treachery in his closest allies. He scowled at his fellows from under heavy eyelids and peered furtively around for some knowledge of his financial condition to show upon their faces. Then he brushed away the pages that swarmed around him with other people's business, and his pen scratched incessantly and angrily until he rose to make his speech. Foreboding and a sense of danger mingled in him until he sickened, as the look down the sheer drop of the ladder makes a man's knees tremble before he starts down. Wharton mumbled through his preliminary speech. Then he saw his private secretary sitting by Curt shake a dubious head, and with a rush of courage Wharton fell to his subject. And soon the old electric company was withering in the hot wind of his oratory. He kept his eyes on Curt and Dunning in the gallery. Wharton was about to finish his climax when he saw, as a drowning man sees a rope, Curt lean over to Dunning and Dunning smile and nod an affirmative head to Wharton. His hand fell to his side. His shoulders collapsed and he said, before he dropped to his seat:
"Gentlemen, I see I've trespassed too long upon your time already to-day; but there are a few more remarks I wish to submit on this subject at another time, so I ask that this bill take its former place on the calendar."
He heaved a deep sigh, as one returning to consciousness. He caught Senator Felt's eyes returning from the pair in the gallery, and Wharton's eyes met the twinkle in Felt's with a glare that forced the twinkle into a laugh.
When Wharton met his private secretary in the committee-room, to Wharton's implied question the secretary nodded and said: "I gave him the key; he hasn't brought it back yet."
The Senator's safety deposit box had been the trysting-place for many of his affairs before. On occasion he had found there stocks and bonds and all sorts of booty. Half an hour later a messenger boy brought Dunning a package. It contained the key to the Senator's safety deposit box. Wharton took the key and hurried away. It seemed to him that if he could but get the bonds again he would never put them down until he replaced them in the State treasurer's vault. Sheer fear came upon him and quickened his pace almost to a trot. But when he walked out of the bank with the valise containing the stolen bonds in his hands he was bearing down upon his heels and not upon his toes, and planning to take the midnight train for the West. He was atremble and felt a revulsion for the routine of the day. His lips were dry, his feet were heavy, and he loathed the sight of his associates. It was nearly three o'clock when he hailed a green car and rode for ten minutes with eyes half shut, planning a score of things. He viewed the wreck of his fortune with something like composure. He believed that with four years more in the Senate he could find opportunities to rebuild most of the crumbled structure, and he pinned a complacent faith to his service pension bill to add at least one more term to his service. In ten years—Tom Wharton had blind faith in his power to do anything he pleased in that time. Indeed, he felt himself so fully restored to his day-dreams that he took from his pocket-book a well-worn clipping from the Davenport, Iowa, Democrat and Gazette, and read, for the hundredth time in the two years that he had carried it, the editorial which announced Senator Wharton, the Tribune of the People, as a presidential possibility in 1900. He knew the piece by heart and it was manna to his ravening soul in times of trouble. The conductor stopped the car with a "Here you are, Senator." Wharton walked to a flat-house near by and entered with a latch-key. No one greeted him, and he lay down on a couch in the parlor with his hand-satchel for a pillow. Wharton slept like a log. At six o'clock a servant, bringing in the last edition of the Stat', awakened him. Glancing over the heads on the news page this item attracted him:
Two Electric Light Companies consolidated this Morning.
NEW COMPANY SWALLOWED BY OLD.
Capitalization over $1,000,000 and Politics Caused the Union.
An Investigation Likely.
Wharton's vision skipped nervously down the column. He saw that the consolidation had been accomplished before the hour of his speech. Then his eyes stopped roaming as he read these words under a sub-head:
HINT AT A HOLD-UP.
"To a reporter for the Star, President Williams gave out the following statement, which he had dictated to his stenographer and revised before letting it pass out of his hands: 'There is room for but one electric company here. For some time the matter of consolidation has been talked of. During the last twenty-four hours, however, it has become imperative. The situation this morning is this: either to unite and fight the bandits who had planned to rifle our treasury, or being separate to stand and deliver to every brigand with a legislative club who chooses to come out on a dark night. The books of the old company contain some interesting entries, and I believe that no confidence is violated by the assertion that the wires will not be laid underground.' "
When Wharton finished the paragraph his mouth was open and his eyes distended. A pulse in his head was beating madly, and he breathed like a stunned ox. He saw his face in the mirror. It was purple and it seemed bloated. A terror seized him. He tried to rise. He summoned control of his nerves, and, holding to his chair-arm, rose and poured a glass of water from a sweating silver pitcher in the room. When the Thompson woman came in five minutes later Wharton's wrinkle-scratched face was ashen gray and his voice shook. His hat was on and he was about to go. He knew that what he did to hush the scandal must be done quickly, and that with all the work before him for the coming five hours he could not be handicapped with the bonds. He pointed to the valise and said to the woman, huskily: "I'll leave that here. Take it to your room and keep it locked up. It's got some valuable papers in it. Don't let any one touch it."
He started away and answered her protesting gesture with: "Yes, I got to." She noticed that he tottered a little at first, but seemed to walk steadily when he reached the sidewalk, and boarded the car before it had fully stopped.
By half-past eight that night Senator Wharton had done several important things, to wit: He had made an engagement by telephone with Williams, the president of the new Consolidated Electric Company; sent a messenger-boy to his wife telling her not to expect to see him that night; devoured a thick and greasy porterhouse steak garnished with an enormous quantity of Saratoga chips; and consumed a pint of whiskey. As the clock was marking the half-hour the bartender at Chamberlain's was mixing for Wharton his second absinthe cocktail, and the liquor had put the Senator into fine form and high spirits. It was a beautiful June night when he got into a landau and directed the driver to a house in Chevy Chase. Wharton lolled in the seat with his two arms sprawled over the cushion, his hat tilted back and the cigar in his mouth angling upward reflectively. He intended to play his favorite game, and by the force of arrogant insistence and domineering threats of utter destruction he expected to bring the president of the Consolidated Company to terms. Wharton's terms were these: First, the interview in the Star must be denied; second, the Wharton shares in the Suburban Company must be recognized in the consolidation; third, as a reparation for damages done by the Star's interview Wharton must be given at least a temporary place in the Consolidated Company's directorate. It was an old game with Wharton, and he had learned long since that the higher the stakes the more likelihood he had of winning. He jabbed the electric button in the door of Williams's house with a stiff, fat forefinger, and tried to put some of his boiling rage into this greeting. A servant explained that Mr. Williams was busy, and took Wharton into a reception-parlor. Wharton fancied, as he sat waiting on the edge of a chair, that he could hear men laughing in some distant room of the house. The iron rattle of a voice that sounded like Felt's invaded the recesses of Wharton's consciousness and hurt him like a sword twisting in his vitals. Five minutes, ten minutes passed; twenty minutes dragged by, and he began pacing the floor like a caged jackal. The room was close, and as Wharton's rage mounted his collar wilted. He turned to leave the house in a fury. He saw the servant and sent up a second card to Williams. The servant brought back word that Mr. Williams would be at leisure in fifteen minutes.
Wharton entered Williams's smoking-room with a burst of profanity. Williams, who was alone in the room writing a letter, did not look up, but said:
"Be careful, sir, there are women in the house."
In the minute that followed Wharton executed a sort of war-dance before his host and chanted a bill of wrongs and a defy. He ended by thumping the writing-table and glaring at Williams.
"Won't you sit down?" asked Williams as he folded his letter and addressed the envelope. Wharton dropped into a chair and Williams continued: "I fancied you'd be out to-night, Senator, even before you telephoned. I broke a social engagement this afternoon that I might be with you to-night."
"I'm sorry I spoiled any of your infernal drop-the-handkerchief orgies," retorted Wharton, unbuttoning his vest and changing his position in the leather chair.
Williams was a small, gray-haired man, with a sallow skin at least three sizes too large for his face. His beady, black eyes glittered as he went on, ignoring Wharton's demands: "We thought you were good for that $75,000, when we arranged the matter this morning. You probably value your reputation a little higher than $75,000, and we knew it would be safe to let you have the money temporarily without security. We also desired to have a public record of your perfidy, and in your speech to-day you furnished it. But we are arranging our books now, and we need that money to make the cash balance."
Wharton started to speak, but Williams's soft velvety voice went on: "I beg pardon—but as I was about to say, what I want to-night is to know whether you will give us a check, or"—he smiled pleasantly and added: "Will you send us the key to your safety deposit box?"
Wharton's face blanched a little. His voice did not rise to the oratorical pitch of his opening challenge as he replied:
"Mr. Williams, this is what I call a dishonorable trick. I have always conidered you a gentleman before now." Williams did not reply. "Yes, sir," continued Wharton; "I always thought you was a man of honor, but I find you're a dirty, contemptible little pup, and I'll see you —— before I 'll give you any $7 5,000."
Williams looked up quickly and caught Wharton's eye, which dropped. "Is that final?" snapped Williams like the click of a trigger. Wharton gazed at Williams for a moment before replying. Wharton took off his coat and vest, with a mumbled apology about the heat. He paced the floor, occasionally running his fingers through his hair. A slump of all his powers was upon him. He answered:
"I just don't see how I can. I invested every dollar I had to-day in a little scheme, and I'm in the red at the bank clear up to the limit now."
"Give me your note then, sir," returned Williams. Wharton saw that he must gain time and said: "Lookee here, let's settle this thing up in the morning. We're both excited now, and we better cool off."
Williams shook his head and Wharton asked, "Why not?" Williams spoke:
"Senator Wharton, there must be a definite settlement of this thing right now. The Post wants an interview with me about this matter, and I am to answer them to-night at eleven o'clock. If the books don't balance then, I shall explain why they don't balance." He tore a sheet of paper from a pad upon which he was writing and said to Wharton:
"There's the note."
Wharton hesitated and still playing a game for time replied, sulkily:
"Gimme your pen."
When Wharton had signed the note, Williams explained: "You need not send your collateral over until to-morrow, but we shall insist upon it then as a matter of form." Wharton's mind reverted to the school bonds as a help in last resort. He assented tacitly and rose to go. As he put on his vest Williams exclaimed: "Hold on, Senator," and addressed a servant who entered, "Show Senator Felt in now, John."
Wharton's anger returned with a rush. He started for the door, crying, "I'm not in on any of your private theatricals." But Felt in the doorway blocked the passage. Felt was tall. His closely cropped beard and glinting nose-glasses gave him a hard, metallic guise, and his unyielding monotonous voice carried on the similitude. He faced Wharton, who was coatless, flushed, and glistening with perspiration, and the two men surveyed one another as pugilists in the ring. Wharton burst out first:
"Aw, you long-nosed, canting hypocrite! So you ain't above a little blackmailing trick yourself." Felt removed his glasses and wiped them, looking fairly at Wharton, who bawled on: "This is your size! Just about your size! To get a man in a rat-trap and then bleed him. Oh, you ——, cowardly, psalm-singing cur! You're in on the rake off, are you? How much do you want?"
Felt put on his glasses, lighted a match for his cigar on his shoe-sole, and smiled, showing a set of beautiful white teeth of unusual size. When Wharton lost breath and finished, Felt spoke to Williams gayly:
"The Senator's vocabulary seems to be well spiced up this evening—at any rate." Felt's rasping little laugh cut the thread of the sentence. "Plenty of condiment, as my grandmother used to say of the pudding."
Wharton had regained his breath and said, as he grunted into his coat: "Now what in the devil are you doing here, anyhow!"
Felt seemed to pull himself together. The smile died out of his face in a flash. His jaw began to chop out the words—not loudly, but with remarkable precision, as his eyes through his glasses appeared to flick the blood from the purpling face of Wharton:
"I came here," said Felt, "to give you full and fair notice that day after to-morrow in the Senate I shall ask for an investigation of this electric wire deal of yours, and offer in evidence the affidavits of a number of citizens, and such other exhibits and documents as may be needed to prove the justice of my request."
"You think I won't pay the note?" inquired Wharton, whose hand shook and whose facial muscles quivered above his mouth and about his nose. "Well, sir, I'm going to secure it with collateral."
"That,"' returned Felt, contemptuously, "is immaterial and irrelevant. I know nothing of the arrangement you may have made with Williams. Neither do I care. But I do know that you're a bribe-taker and a corrupt scoundrel, and I am going to do my duty by the American people and prove it to them." Felt paused an instant and looked at Wharton absently, then finished,—"Submitting some outward and visible signs of my inward and spiritual faith."
Wharton stared at Williams and asked: "My collateral is good, A No. 1 school- bonds—why do you hold this club over me? Call off your dog! How much does he want?" A silence fell. Then Wharton turned to Felt and spoke in a calmer voice, but with his face still twitching: "Lookee here, Felt, let's you and me fix this thing up. If you want anything, ask for it like a man." Felt did not answer, and Wharton walked around the room with his hands behind him for nearly a minute. He took a cigar from the desk in front of Williams and lighted it mechanically, striking the match on the side of his leg. Felt and Williams watched him in silence as he paced the longitude of the room three times. He stopped and cast his blood-shot eyes on Felt and said: "Of course I hain't got no blue stripe down my belly, and a lot of you fellows back here who have think I'm a social leper." Wharton shook his head majestically at Felt as he continued: "But out West, sir—out in God's country—there are several million people who believe in Tom Wharton. They give me reason to hope for something bigger than the United States Senate. The time may come before long when I can help you a good deal. But that's neither here nor there now. Come right down to first principles—what you got agin me? Say what you want right out and you can have it. If there's anything you don't like in any of my bills on the calendar, say so." The sound of his voice assured him; he had faith in his persuasive power.
"You might as well try to teach a rattlesnake the Beatitudes as to show you your shortcomings, sir," answered Felt. "Everything you've got on the calendar, from your demagogic pension bill to your electric wire steal, is dead wrong."
"All right then, Senator, let's agree to drop the pension bill—does that suit you?" Wharton knew that his words put the bars across his political career, but he was fighting for life then and re-election seemed a little matter, comparatively.
"My God! what a treacherous cur you are," exclaimed Felt. "I had hoped you believed at least in that!"
Wharton sat down facing Felt, who was leaning against the door-jamb. Wharton drew in deep breaths at long intervals apart, and because the alcohol was leaving his head he was having trouble to keep a coherent train of thought. After he had gazed at Felt for a long time rather stupidly he said:
"Damn it Felt—what you want to go and persecute me for? You've got me, maybe—but if I'd got you, do you think I'd grind you to death. Don't be a Shylock—be a man. I'll pay this outfit their notes all right, and I'll give 'em good collateral. What's more, I'll let you in with me in a little Western Pacific deal I've got, that there's a hundred thousand in—if you'll let up."
There was a whine in Wharton's voice that maddened Felt. He walked up to Wharton and bent over him. "Tom Wharton, I wasn't in the civil war because I was not old enough," began Felt in his musketry voice, which filled the room, but was so well controlled that it did not slip through the door-cracks. "But I believe I have a duty to my country now, as sacred as that which called my grandfather to Lexington, and my father to Bull's Run. That duty is to crush the political life out of one of the most powerful and dangerous influences menacing this nation to-day—the incarnation of political cowardice, corruption, and demagoguery. My forebears didn't shrink, and I'll not. With every talent God has given me I intend to fight you, to fight you until I shall strangle the last vestige of vitality from your rotten political carcass. Do you understand that, sir? I'll show you whether or not you'll shake your scarlet rags of presidential ambition before me! Why, man," and here Felt's voice grew husky with repressed wrath—"why, man, I'm going to drive you out of the United States Senate into oblivion, with the doors of the penitentiary banging at your heels."
Felt's voice must have got into Wharton's soul, for he grew paler and paler as Felt proceeded. When he closed there was a deep silence. In it Wharton began to slough off his identity. He became a fear-stricken animal. His wrinkles made his face look like a dirty cracked china plate. The trembling creature that had been Wharton spoke with Wharton's mouth and said:
"My—good—God—Felt. Do—you realize what this—m-m-means. Think of my family—my wife. You—are not——"
The Thing put its hands to its head in a tremor of pain, and something akin to a sob broke from its wracking frame. It was a horrible sight for men's eyes to see. Williams looked away. His eyes met Felt's and saw no mercy.
When Wharton finally got hold of his nerves he said, weakly:
"You're young, Senator Felt. You're an educated man. You have the advantage of me—for I am old. I am an ignorant old man, and you can make fine speeches against me. All right, go ahead; ruin me; but is it such a great thing to whip an old man? " Felt did not reply and dropped into a chair near Williams. Wharton rose heavily. "Is there no way I can make you see this—like I do?" he asked. Felt shook his head. Wharton looked appealingly at Williams, whose eyes were downcast. The silence grew painful. Wharton's hand groped for the door-knob. He hesitated for a moment, then said, awkwardly:
"Well, gentlemen, I guess I'll have to bid you good-night."
Before midnight Wharton stumbled into a Turkish bath with the daze of the combat upon him. By ten o'clock the next morning, after he had deadened an agonizing headache with antipyrine, a maudlin logic had convinced him that Senator Felt was a stockholder in the Consolidated Electric Light Company, and that his greed as a stockholder to get the $75,000 back was stimulated by his ambition as a senator to get a new lease of life by defeating the Wharton service pension bill. Wharton was satisfied with his own shrewdness, but the stupid smile he wore at the thought of his penetration of Felt's business acumen faded into a frightened stare as the recollection of Felt's voice swept over Wharton. In the hotel corridors and in the street he fancied that he heard his name spoken in derision, and imagined that his back was the target at which every eye was shooting curious and malicious darts. He hurried through the Capitol building and into his committee-room like a coward under fire.
"Bob," mumbled Wharton to his private secretary, "did you see that piece in the Star last night?"
Wharton's heavy fingers were cluttering the mail upon his desk as he spoke. When Dunning replied affirmatively, Wharton questioned:
"Anything more in the morning papers about it?"
"Nothing very much—about the same," answered Dunning.
"Mention any names?" asked Wharton, quickly.
"Not exactly. Want to see the Post? It has the most to say."
Wharton answered with a negative grunt and tried in vain to call the Thompson woman at three different telephone numbers. For the inebriated syllogisms of his logic had persuaded him that if he could get the school bonds to Williams, to secure the note, Felt would be placated and the threatened blow averted. This conviction grew upon him until it became a mania, and at noon he sent Dunning out to the house on the green-car line for the valise containing the bonds. When he returned empty-handed, and when Wharton could not find the Thompson woman by telephone again, he damned her and her kind almost vigorously. At lunch he put into the coal-box of his physical machine an astonishingly large quantity of soft-shell crabs and much whiskey—even much for Senator Wharton, to whom half a pint in an hour was an adult's dose. All the morning he had dreaded to enter the Senate Chamber as a condemned man dreads to look at his gallows. But Wharton was shrewd enough to know that he must not skulk. The liquor made him reckless even as he hoped it would. He stalked into the Senate Chamber with his mind made up that it would take a bigger man than Senator Felt, backed by cartloads of affidavits, to make Tom Wharton flinch. His large frame suggested the unwieldy bulk and power of a marine creature as he flung himself into his seat.
Ordinarily pages buzzed around Wharton like flies, during the first few minutes of his presence at his desk. But that day none came. No brother senator leaned over Wharton to confer with him, as was the custom. Wharton rose and joined a group of his associates in the back part of the room. The group melted in a few moments. He repeated his experiment twice with similar results. Scandal hissed through the place, and everyone feared to help Wharton lest he should spread his infection. At four o'clock Wharton's head was a pandemonium of furies, and his face was livid with rage. The swollen arteries in his wrinkled neck pumped the fires of the seventh pit into his brain. He tried to quench them with more whiskey. The only thought that helped him was the belief that he had the bonds and could secure the notes, and thereby stop Felt's investigation. He hugged that comfort with drunken affection, and reminded his more bibulous associates of the poker party that had been arranged for the approaching night at the house where he had left the valise with the bonds. Because a subconscious fear was upon Wharton he telephoned to Williams many times that afternoon between four and six to assure him that the bonds would be delivered that evening. But the house on the green-car line did not answer the telephone, and at dusk Wharton took Dunning to get the valise and deliver the bonds to Williams.
While Dunning waited in the hall of the Thompson woman's house he heard this dialogue upstairs: what the preliminaries were he did not know, but when the voice of the woman rose he heard her say:
"Well, if I needed the money I needed it. The bonds were here, so I soaked 'em."
Then the man's voice—Wharton's voice—spoke unpleasant things. Dunning could not see Wharton's face, nor could he tell what Wharton did. But the woman's strident voice broke in:
"You drunken old coward! Don't you raise your hand again. It will be better for you to lose twice the $50,000 that I got on 'em than to try that trick on me."
Other things passed which need not be set down here, and when Tom Wharton descended to the hall he was dizzy and felt for his steps cautiously. But he said to Dunning:
"You needn't wait, Bob, I'll fix it up in the morning."
He knew that with the bonds he had stolen from his State treasury, pawned by a woman like the Thompson woman and unredeemed by him, whatever Senator Felt might say about the electric company's bribery case could not matter much. So Wharton gripped his consciousness by the roots of it and averted a panic. But over and over rang Felt's parting words: "with the doors of the penitentiary banging at your heels." In Wharton's ears they clanged like the din of some monster gong, as he played the cards that night. Fear twisted his nerves tighter and tighter. When a telephone-bell tinkled he was abject with terror until it had rung off. When he caught other players peering into his face, as is the habit of poker players, Wharton winced and the gong in his head clamored louder than ever.
It was long after midnight, and the champagne-bucket had come and gone many times. But the cut-glass decanter with the brown liquor did not leave Wharton's elbow, and by three o'clock his face was a sickly white, and his eyes were sparkling. Wharton was dealing the cards. He had passed around once, when suddenly he tossed a card into the air, then threw his face upward, with an indescribable look of resentful anger upon his features. But his eyes were wild and staring, and his head dropped to the table with a thump. When they wiped the froth from his mouth Tom Wharton was dead.