The Old Squire
THE OLD SQUIRE
BY HUGH PENDEXTER
ILLUSTRATED BY F. X. CHAMBERLIN
THE old squire gazed stolidly at the kitchen hearth, and elevated his boots above the oven door, but ventured no reply to his spinster sister's observation. She, a thin, disappointed-looking woman, the old squire's housekeeper, viciously ran a knife around a newly made pie, and repeated:
"I tell ye, Squire Tumley, no good ever come of tryin' to help Eliab Wheeven better himself."
Her brother—whom she always addressed by his title—attempted to mollify her without retreating from his position.
"Lurinda, I'll admit he strikes some as a worthless cuss, jest because he's unfortunate. If good luck, with a brass band, was gunning for him on the new State road, he'd miss meeting her, and wander off and fall down in front of a fast freight train. But it's my duty as a man and a neighbor to give him a lift when I can. In a way, he's a kind of a genius."
"Huh! I guess geniuses are like beets. Plant 'em too near together, an' ye git nothin' but greens. With Mose Tibbets inventin' churns, there ain't room for another genius in this neighborhood."
Then, as she waved him away and slid the pie into the oven: "He's onthankful, don't appreciate nothin', and is two-faced, or I miss my guess."
The old squire was always loyal—loyal even to every stray tramp he had ever fed.
"Why, Lurinda, there ain't enough venom in Eliab's whole body to embitter the nature of a wood-tick. He's all right. The post-office will pay him seven hundred dollars a year, and that will be clover to him. Yes, he must have it."
"Thought he was a Democrat," she sniffed sarcastically.
The old squire's blue eyes twinkled mischievously as they surveyed his vinegary relative, but his voice was grave as he explained:
"Eliab can't afford new clothes, but he's a regular dude when it comes to politics. New rig every year! But he's a Republican now; so it will be all regular. Remember what the Good Word says about fetching back the one stray sheep?"
"He's a muttonhead, certainly," she replied bitterly. "The idea of puttin' him in for postmaster when our minister's brother would like it! Guess the Bible don't say we sha'n't do nothin' for the ninety and nine."
"Ho, ho!" chuckled the squire. "So you and the elder and his brother have been playing politics, eh?"
"We ain't never favored a man because we was once foolish enough to be in love with the girl he married," she retorted.
"Tut, tut," he remonstrated shortly. "Dorcas Wheeven had lots of us chaps after her when we's young: but that's no reason why we should turn agin her husband now."
Yet the old squire's sister knew she had touched a tender spot by the way he stamped from the kitchen. She seldom reminded him of his boyish dreams. That was a grim pleasure to be saved for the more weighty occasions. In her innermost heart she had a great deal of admiration and crabbed affection for her brother, and ever since Eliab Wheeven won away his young sweetheart she had cherished a radical dislike for the successful suitor and his spouse. With all her pessimism, she had measured Eliab almost correctly. Through all the years the old squire had helped his boyhood rival to earn a livelihood. Of late he had seen a worried look stealing into Wheeven's eyes, as one after another of the man's visionary prospects faded, and credit became hard to obtain. Although younger than the squire, Eliab was run down. He had stopped.
But he had played a final card. He asked Squire Tumley to get him the post-office appointment.
At first the squire hesitated. Eliab's political vagaries had made the thing well-nigh impossible. He had set both Republicans and Democrats against him. And it was not until he clinched his entreaty with "Dorcas would be so pleased," that the old squire relented and promised to do what he could.
He had made no open move in the matter when his sister upbraided him in the kitchen, and as he stamped from the room he appreciated more fully than ever the task before him. As the leader of the Republican organization in his town, it seemed almost treachery to his party even to propose it. Thus far he had been content to defeat his natural enemies, the Democrats, and ask nothing for himself. Now that he was to make his first requisition, his ruddy face turned, if possible, a deeper red, and a sneaking inclination to try diplomacy crept into his open soul.
By the time he had reached Tibbets' store, he had found the germ of an idea; and when Joshua Philbrick drew him aside, he began to think it might work.
"Squire," hoarsely whispered Mr. Philbrick, affectionately securing a finger-hold in the squire's buttonhole, "I want the post-office. Stigley has had it two tarms, an' don't need it longer."
"Wal, Josh, of course I can't be arbitrary." replied the squire solemnly. "The best thing for ye to do is to hustle around and git all the signers ye can. We caucus next week, and the man that can show most strength gits it. I think that Stigley ought to step aside now."
He did not call for his mail until he knew the small post-office would be cleared of the afternoon crowd. Then, true to his anticipation, Stigley pressed his face against the small grated window and whispered:
"I hear Philbrick is after the office." The old squire, with a blush suffusing his ears, looked cautiously about and replied:
"He is; and he's showing some strength. Ye know, Stig, there are them that say ye've had it long enough."
"I don't keer a darn about the office; I can go back to my farm. But I hate like sin to see that man git it!" growled Stigley, slapping the squire's weekly paper under the grate. Any one but him. He let a note I'd indorsed for him go to protest once."
"I don't think, Stig, ye could beat him out, man to man, as ye've had it eight years. Of course, if ye joined forces with a dark hoss ye probably might," remarked the squire carelessly.
"Think so? I vum, but that's what I've been thinking on myself," declared the postmaster, closing one eye with a world of cunning.
"O-ho!" murmured the old squire, closing one eye in return, but more slowly. "So ye're in the game, eh?"
"What game?" asked the postmaster, deeply puzzled and trying to hide it with a knowing leer.
"Why, this move to ring in Eliab Wheeven. Is it true that Lawyer Fox is backing him, and intends to oust me as leader of the organization?"
Several thoughts, new ones, lumbered laboriously through Stigley's slow mind at this suggestion. He had not heard that the young lawyer had ever avowed his intention of supplanting the squire; but it was quite likely, and if the old leader was to be deposed the postmaster did not intend that the falling pedestal should nip him. One thing he could not understand—why should Eliab be used in effecting the change?
"Of course, squire, you've got to give way some time," was his non-committal answer, after he had thoroughly absorbed the suggestion. "But we ain't fully decided on Eliab yet. I thought he was a Bryan man."
"He was," affirmed the squire, smiling inwardly at the other's use of the pronoun; "but he's a Republican now. Tried 'em all, and finds our party best."
This was also new food for reflection, and the postmaster looked a bit dubious as he replied:
"Well, anything to beat Philbrick. Are you going to be active in the fight?"
The old squire fidgeted a moment, and then suddenly saw the position to take without violating his conscience.
"No, I shall take no active part," he at last announced. "I'll be honest and admit I'd rather see Eliab git it than Philbrick—if he can show the proper strength. But Lawyer Fox will probably run the campaign. I'm gitting 'most too old, I guess. Anyway, I think I'll take a vacation."
An hour later Lawyer Fox was surprised and pleased to receive a visit from Postmaster Stigley. The postmaster's intelligence was fully in accord with the other's plans—plans that no one but the old squire had hitherto fathomed.
"I want a seat on your band wagon, Mr. Fox," the postmaster announced.
"What wagon?" the young lawyer inquired, mystified, but hiding behind an ambiguous smile.
"Oh, I know all about your ousting the old squire. We all know it. I like the old squire, but there ain't no sentiment in politics. A man never gits assaulted by prosperity unless he gits in line with the winners. Only I don't see why it wouldn't be better to make the fight on some one other than Wheeven."
The young lawyer peered intently into the bottom of his ink-well and began to suspect that he saw the truth.
"So you think you'd stand more of a chance than Wheeven, eh?" he said, and then asked himself: "Chance for what?"
"I kind of think so," slowly decided the postmaster. "Of course, as the old squire says, I've had the office for eight years, and there are lots in the party that want to see it passed around. But I don't think Philbrick is very strong."
At last it was out. Beneath his enigmatical smile the young lawyer had a great deal of respect for the old squire's political strategy, and as he mused over what had been told him he saw the light full and strong.
"They'd beat you," he said. "Philbrick might not get it, but some one else would. And if you stick in the race I really think Philbrick would win. What did the squire say about Wheeven?"
"Oh, he said he supposed you'd make the winning fight on him, as he's so neutral. Been in so many dickers no one knows just where he does stand. Well, anything to beat Philbrick! He let my indorsement go to protest once."
Truth is, Eliab was the last man the young lawyer would have picked as a vehicle to draw him ahead of the machine; but here was the Stigley faction ready to accept Wheeven, and there would be some among the Democrats who would push his canvass. Verily, the old squire was a shrewd one. He had anticipated the situation perfectly.
"I think, Mr. Stigley, we'd better make a strong stand together and be sure of it. If we take Eliab, as I'd originally planned, there will be lots of other good things for you to choose from. There's the sheriff in two years, and the Legislature next year; meantime there are several smaller plums, such as highway commissioner, superintendent of schools, and so on. Now, are you with me?"
The postmaster silently extended his hand, and a strong clasp cemented the inception of the new organization. At about this time the old squire met Eliab near his home, and drawing him to one side, said:
"Eliab. I think ye'll git it. Only remember this—don't make a move yerself. Unless ye want to lose it, don't show yerself in the open. Better go fishing for a week. Remember, not a word, even to Dorcas!"
"Supper 's been waitin' a hour," snapped Miss Tumley as her brother, with mouth drawn down a bit, entered the room with slow steps. "Where've ye been?"
"Up to the village," he replied gloomily. "I guess, Lurinda, ye won't be troubled with my being in politics after this. I guess a new man will run the machine."
"Well, I never!" she ejaculated. For, although given to decrying her brother's activity in politics as being immoral, she could no more conceive of his abandoning his party leadership than of his losing his title of "the old squire."
"Will the new man give the post-office to the elder's brother?"
"I don't think so," replied the squire, with a faint smile. "Both Philbrick and Stigley want it."
"Who'll git it? I hope I won't have to see that Philbrick's smug face every time I go to the office. And I'm tired of lookin' at Stigley and his squinty eyes. Why is it that they always pick out such men to read yer postal cards?"
"I don't know," he mumbled. "But the new man, Lawyer Fox, will fix all that."
The next day rumors began to creep lamely about, then to fly, that Squire Tumley had been ousted by the energetic newcomer. Stigley did not want the post-office again. Philbrick did. On the second day several other citizens discovered that they had as much right to the position as Philbrick had, and Mr. Fox received many callers. And each and every one of the prospective candidates left him declaring:
"Wal, if I can't have it, why should Philbrick? If we're to take a new start, let's not use any old timber. Philbrick has had all the town offices."
Before the week was out the new leader announced his position. He believed in giving the heretofore unrecognized a show. Under present conditions, with so many candidates and so many cross-purposes, he wanted all his friends to unite on the one available citizen, the one who had made no bid for the job—Eliab Wheeven.
The town had not recovered from its astonishment when caucus day arrived. At the very outset, Mr. Fox made a ringing speech, showing just why Eliab was the only choice. It was a sad thing to see the grand old party split in twain on such a minor question. The G. O. P. should be united. The Stigley faction were opposed to the Hon. Mr. Philbrick, and the Hon. Mr. Philbrick and his many friends were as strongly opposed to the Hon, Mr. Stigley, or any of his friends. Should the G. O. P. remain in a hopeless muddle, and allow the Democrats to steal the indorsement of either faction and to ring in an enemy? Never! Unite! Unite on Eliab Wheeven. well known, well liked, and a life-long resident of the county.
As a result of this effort the caucus unanimously voted to instruct the local Congressman to obtain the appointment of Eliab.
Mrs. Wheeven was naturally elated. The dormant qualities of her husband had at last been recognized. And Eliab, returning from his fishing-trip, called on the young lawyer and thanked him warmly.
"I had hoped," he said in leaving, and his right hand mechanically sought his double chin, "that my worth would have been discovered by a neighbor, and not left for a stranger to point out."
The young lawyer winced. He wanted to be regarded as one of the mainstays of the town, not as an interloper.
"I had expected," continued Eliab, turning in the doorway, "that such an old friend as Squire Tumley would have worked for me. But I guess old friends ain't always the best. Why, attorney, that man actually discouraged me at the start. And when he saw I was bound to git it, what does he do but advise me to keep shut and go fishing! And I trusted him and went, when I ought to have been here fighting my own fight."
Eliab shook his head in sorrow as he passed down the stairs. A cloud passed over Mr. Fox's face, and he gave a low whistle. Again he peered into his ink-well, and again he found truth.
"Told you to go fishing, eh?" he murmured. Then he meekly bowed his head over his book and mumbled: "Sly old fellow! Had heard I was to boom Wheeven, eh? Going to oust him as leader, eh? I wonder if he has any more cards he wants me to play!"
The appointment was speedily made, and at last Mrs. Wheeven enjoyed the supreme satisfaction of standing at the small window when her husband was away on a fishing-trip, which was very often, and handing out the mail. It made all the difference in the world in her social status, she found, on which side of the window she stood. On the inside, accosted by the high and the low, she became a person of consequence. She was invited to take a prominent part in all church affairs, much to Miss Tumley's disgust, and was appointed to the ladies' auxiliary committees. It was very sweet, and she felt very kindly toward the young lawyer who had made it all possible.
As she handed out the old squire's mail she was a bit more precise and a bit more expeditious than usual. But if she reflected on his failure to help her husband's fight for the office, she showed it not. And he, when buying a stamp, or receiving his weekly paper, never congratulated her on Eliab's victory. At such times they stood so near that he could not help but notice her whitening hair and her pale and pinched cheeks; yet in her eyes he caught the glance that carried him back to his far-away youth. Although he smiled a bit sadly, he could not help but live over the old times, and see only a face full of girlish beauty.
One day he met the young attorney at the door, and cordially saluted him.
"Young folks will take the reins in their own hands every now and then, and drive wherever they please," he smiled genially, crooking his thumb toward the little window with the least perceptible motion. "They must feel very grateful to you."
The young attorney looked his appreciation, but concluded by eying the old man furtively as he said:
"We young folks would feel better if the old driver were to return and take the reins again."
"Trying to let me down easy, eh?" grinned the old squire. "And me dumped!"
"And you on a vacation, you mean," whispered the young lawyer, a bit shamefaced. "Oh, I knew it was only a vacation! I've tired of driving. Just give me any old kind of a seat when you return."
"Tut, tut!" expostulated the squire.
The effect of the office on Eliab was pronounced. He dressed better, and recovered much of his old elasticity. He repaired his house on a scale that many thought his salary scarcely warranted.
He grew haughty to the squire. He had so long been accustomed to seek the old man's aid that he enjoyed the novelty of being brusk. And he could not forget that the squire had advised him to go fishing when his appointment was at stake. Once, when the squire's box-rent, twenty-five cents, was a day overdue, he wrote him a caustic note calling attention to the fact. The old squire smiled in his whimsical fashion and shook his head sorrowfully. He would almost prefer the old order of things. He had grown so accustomed to aiding his needy neighbor that he rather missed the signals of distress.
"Thank goodness," cried his sister, giving her bonnet a sharp twitch as she prepared to leave for a church sewing-circle, "ye ain't been called on to help them Wheevens for nine months now. I guess we're shut of 'em for good. That is, if he can git the office another term. An', Lordy, how precise we are when we meet! Dorcas always calls me 'Miss Tumley' now. She'll be there to-night, an' like as not will talk about us if she gits there first. Now, where's them mits?"
"In the right hand," reminded the squire. Then he added: "But don't say that, Lurinda. Dorcas never talks about no one. She's a good, clever woman."
"Man call me clever an' I'd scratch him," she replied over her thin shoulder. "Sounds if I was a boss. Leave the porch door unbolted."
Alone with his reveries, the squire lighted a pipe and leaned back to enjoy tracing out his days from his earliest remembrance. Now he was a boy, and could smell the apple-blossoms on the old place. Why had he never hunted up the old swimming-hole? He would do it before another snow.
Now he was a young man, experiencing his first thoughts of love. It was a pleasure to go to the academy, even when all outdoors called him to be a companion. Across the first aisle—no, it was the second; he was getting forgetful—sat Dorcas. How sweetly pretty she was: What a world of laughter in her eyes as she stole a timid glance at him! What a wealth of music in her voice!
"Alone, squire?" she asked.
He sat motionless for a few seconds with his old head bowed, bent to catch the voice again. Then he slowly wheeled, and—yes, it was Dorcas. She had been hastening; for there was a hint of color in her face.
"Why, Dorcas," he mumbled, half expecting the schoolmaster, so long dead and dust, to correct him—"why, Dorcas, I—I guess I was asleep. Sit down."
"I saw you smoking through the window," she explained rapidly. "Lurinda out? I'm glad. Squire, I'm in a hurry, and in trouble. Trouble on Eliab's account. And he ain't to blame, either. Just his carelessness."
"What is it, Dorcas?" he inquired kindly, laying aside his pipe.
"Why, he had a hundred dollars paid in to-day for money orders, and he's either mislaid it in the office or lost it out of his coat," she cried hurriedly. "He can't remember whether he slipped it in his coat for safe-keeping, or left it in the office. I've been there alone all the afternoon, and ain't seen it."
"But he'll probably find it in the morning," said the squire, smiling to think that they still brought him troubles.
"Oh, but he must have it to-night," she cried, wringing her hands. "The post-office inspector is over to Whitneyville, so the stage-driver just told us, and will be here to-morrow morning."
The squire jumped from his chair, and began searching for his hat. He realized what it meant if the office was found short. And a hundred dollars lost or—well, a hundred dollars missing—would be as hard for Eliab to replace as a thousand. His hat found, he began a search for money. By borrowing a little from his sister's purse he could make it.
"Come!" he said, and for the first time since the old academy days she clung to his arm and passed out into the dark road.
She gave a little sigh of relief as they neared the post-office, and she rested more heavily on him for support.
"First, put this in the till," he told Eliab, who was pawing over some newspapers with trembling hands.
The postmaster drew a deep breath as he clutched the precious notes.
"That saves me!" he panted, wiping the sweat from his pallid face.
"Mebbe we'll find it in the morning, dear," soothed his wife.
He stole one furtive glance at the reproachful face of the old squire, and then stepped back from the rays of the dim lamp.
"I don't think so," he mumbled. "I'm afraid I slipped it into my coat pocket and lost it outside. But I'll make this up quick, squire. If Fox got me the office, you've saved it for me!"
As Mrs. Wheeven preceded them to the door, the old squire laid a hand gently on the other's shoulder, and whispered:
"Don't do it again, Eliab. Don't slip office money into your coat again. If you ever need any ready money come to me, but don't ever have to send that woman out into the night searching for help again! Thank God to-night that she does not know. But remember, Eliab, never again. Promise me!"
"So help me God, squire, never again."
When the squire's sister returned home that night she found him searching his pockets, while a poor simulation of perplexity wreathed his cheery face.
"I can't find it, Lurinda. Plumb lost it—a hunderd dollars. Made me a little short until I can git to the bank, so I've borrowed ten dollars of your egg money."
"First ye lose the leadership of the machine, as the elder calls it; and now ye lose yer money!" she sniffed.
"I guess I've lost the money for a while," he chuckled, slapping his empty pocket. "But the elder's mistook. I'm still boss of the machine!"