There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagrarian Eastern travellers, glancing from car-windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without. The landscape lies interminably level: bleak in winter, a desolate plain of mud and snow; hot and dusty in summer, in its flat lonesomeness, miles on miles with not one cool hill slope away from the sun. The persistent tourist who seeks for signs of man in this sad expanse perceives a reckless amount of rail fence; at intervals a large barn; and, here and there, man himself, incurious, patient, slow, looking up from the fields apathetically as the Limited flies by. Widely separated from each other are small frame railway stations--sometimes with no other building in sight, which indicates that somewhere behind the adjacent woods a few shanties and thin cottages are grouped about a couple of brick stores.
On the station platforms there are always two or three wooden packingboxes, apparently marked for travel, but they are sacred from disturbance and remain on the platform forever; possibly the right train never comes along. They serve to enthrone a few station loafers, who look out from under their hat-brims at the faces in the car-windows with the languid scorn a permanent fixture always has for a transient, and the pity an American feels for a fellow-being who does not live in his town. Now and then the train passes a town built scatteringly about a court-house, with a mill or two humming near the tracks. This is a county-seat, and the inhabitants and the local papers refer to it confidently as "our city." The heart of the flat lands is a central area called Carlow County, and the county-seat of Carlow is a town unhappily named in honor of its first settler, William Platt, who christened it with his blood. Natives of this place have sometimes remarked, easily, that their city had a population of from five to six thousand souls. It is easy to forgive them for such statements; civic pride is a virtue.
The social and business energy of Plattville concentrates on the Square. Here, in summer-time, the gentlemen are wont to lounge from store to store in their shirt sleeves; and here stood the old, red-brick court-house, loosely fenced in a shady grove of maple and elm--"slipp'ry ellum"--called the "Court-House Yard." When the sun grew too hot for the dry-goods box whittlers in front of the stores around the Square and the occupants of the chairs in front of the Palace Hotel on the corner, they would go across and drape themselves over the court-house fence, under the trees, and leisurely carve there initials on the top board. The farmers hitched their teams to the fence, for there were usually loafers energetic enough to shout "Whoa!" if the flies worried the horses beyond patience. In the yard, amongst the weeds and tall, unkept grass, chickens foraged all day long; the fence was so low that the most matronly hen flew over with propriety; and there were gaps that accommodated the passage of itinerant pigs. Most of the latter, however, preferred the cool wallows of the less important street corners. Here and there a big dog lay asleep in the middle of the road, knowing well that the easy-going Samaritan, in his case, would pass by on the other side.
Only one street attained to the dignity of a name--Main Street, which formed the north side of the Square. In Carlow County, descriptive location is usually accomplished by designating the adjacent, as, "Up at Bardlocks'," "Down by Schofields'," "Right where Hibbards live," "Acrost from Sol. Tibbs's," or, "Other side of Jones's field." In winter, Main Street was a series of frozen gorges land hummocks; in fall and spring, a river of mud; in summer, a continuing dust heap; it was the best street in Plattville.
The people lived happily; and, while the world whirled on outside, they were content with their own. It would have moved their surprise as much as their indignation to hear themselves spoken of as a "secluded community"; for they sat up all night to hear the vote of New York, every campaign. Once when the President visited Rouen, seventy miles away, there were only few bankrupts (and not a baby amongst them) left in the deserted homes of Carlow County. Everybody had adventures; almost everybody saw the great man; and everybody was glad to get back home again. It was the longest journey some of them ever set upon, and these, elated as they were over their travels, determined to think twice ere they went that far from home another time.
On Saturdays, the farmers enlivened the commercial atmosphere of Plattville; and Miss Tibbs, the postmaster's sister and clerk, used to make a point of walking up and down Main Street as often as possible, to get a thrill in the realization of some poetical expressions that haunted her pleasingly; phrases she had employed frequently in her poems for the "Carlow County Herald." When thirty or forty country people were scattered along the sidewalks in front of the stores on Main Street, she would walk at nicely calculated angles to the different groups so as to leave as few gaps as possible between the figures, making them appear as near a solid phalanx as she could. Then she would murmur to herself, with the accent of soulful revel, "The thronged city streets," and, "Within the thronged city," or, "Where the thronging crowds were swarming and the great cathedral rose." Although she had never been beyond Carlow and the bordering counties in her life, all her poems were of city streets and bustling multitudes. She was one of those who had been unable to join the excursion to Rouen when the President was there; but she had listened avidly to her friends' descriptions of the crowds. Before that time her muse had been sylvan, speaking of "Flow'rs of May," and hinting at thoughts that overcame her when she roved the woodlands thro'; but now the inspiration was become decidedly municipal and urban, evidently reluctant to depart beyond the retail portions of a metropolis. Her verses beginning, "O, my native city, bride of Hibbard's winding stream,"-- Hibbard's Creek runs west of Plattville, except in time of drought--"When thy myriad lights are shining, and thy faces, like a dream, Go flitting down thy sidewalks when their daily toil is done," were pronounced, at the time of their publication, the best poem that had ever appeared in the "Herald."
This unlucky newspaper was a thorn in the side of every patriot of Carlow County. It was a poor paper; everybody knew it was a poor paper; it was so poor that everybody admitted it was a poor paper--worse, the neighboring county of Amo possessed a better paper, the "Amo Gazette." The "Carlow County Herald" was so everlastingly bad that Plattville people bent their heads bitterly and admitted even to citizens of Amo that the "Gazette" was the better paper. The "Herald" was a weekly, issued on Saturday; sometimes it hung fire over Sunday and appeared Monday evening. In their pride, the Carlow people supported the "Herald" loyally and long; but finally subscriptions began to fall off and the "Gazette" gained them. It came to pass that the "Herald" missed fire altogether for several weeks; then it came out feebly, two small advertisements occupying the whole of the fourth page. It was breathing its last. The editor was a clay-colored gentleman with a goatee, whose one surreptitious eye betokened both indolence of disposition and a certain furtive shrewdness. He collected all the outstanding subscriptions he could, on the morning of the issue just mentioned, and, thoughtfully neglecting several items on the other side of the ledger, departed from Plattville forever.
The same afternoon a young man from the East alighted on the platform of the railway station, north of the town, and, entering the rickety omnibus that lingered there, seeking whom it might rattle to deafness, demanded to be driven to the Herald Building. It did not strike the driver that the newcomer was precisely a gay young man when he climbed into the omnibus; but, an hour later, as he stood in the doorway of the edifice he had indicated as his destination, depression seemed to have settled into the marrow of his bones. Plattville was instantly alert to the stranger's presence, and interesting conjectures were hazarded all day long at the back door of Martin's Dry-Goods Emporium, where all the clerks from the stores around the Square came to play checkers or look on at the game. (This was the club during the day; in the evening the club and the game removed to the drug, book, and wall-paper store on the corner.) At supper, the new arrival and his probable purposes were discussed over every table in the town. Upon inquiry, he had informed Judd Bennett, the driver of the omnibus, that he had come to stay. Naturally, such a declaration caused a sensation, as people did not come to Plattville to live, except through the inadvertency of being born there. In addition, the young man's appearance and attire were reported to be extraordinary. Many of the curious, among them most of the marriageable females of the place, took occasion to pass and repass the sign of the "Carlow County Herald" during the evening.
Meanwhile, the stranger was seated in the dingy office upstairs with his head bowed low on his arms. Twilight stole through the dirty window-panes and faded into darkness. Night filled the room. He did not move. The young man from the East had bought the "Herald" from an agent; had bought it without ever having been within a hundred miles of Plattville. He had vastly overpaid for it. Moreover, the price he had paid for it was all the money he had in the world.
The next morning he went bitterly to work. He hired a compositor from Rouen, a young man named Parker, who set type all night long and helped him pursue advertisements all day. The citizens shook their heads pessimistically. They had about given up the idea that the "Herald" could ever amount to anything, and they betrayed an innocent, but caustic, doubt of ability in any stranger.
One day the new editor left a note on his door; "Will return in fifteen minutes."
Mr. Rodney McCune, a politician from the neighboring county of Gaines, happening to be in Plattville on an errand to his henchmen, found the note, and wrote beneath the message the scathing inquiry, "Why?"
When he discovered this addendum, the editor smiled for the first time since his advent, and reported the incident in his next issue, using the rubric, "Why Has the 'Herald' Returned to Life?" as a text for a rousing editorial on "honesty in politics," a subject of which he already knew something. The political district to which Carlow belonged was governed by a limited number of gentlemen whose wealth was ever on the increase; and "honesty in politics" was a startling conception to the minds of the passive and resigned voters, who discussed the editorial on the street corners and in the stores. The next week there was another editorial, personal and local in its application, and thereby it became evident that the new proprietor of the "Herald" was a theorist who believed, in general, that a politician's honor should not be merely of that middling healthy species known as "honor amongst politicians"; and, in particular, that Rodney McCune should not receive the nomination of his party for Congress. Now, Mr. McCune was the undoubted dictator of the district, and his followers laughed at the stranger's fantastic onset.
But the editor was not content with the word of print; he hired a horse and rode about the country, and (to his own surprise) he proved to be an adaptable young man who enjoyed exercise with a pitchfork to the farmer's profit while the farmer talked. He talked little himself, but after listening an hour or so, he would drop a word from the saddle as he left; and then, by some surprising wizardry, the farmer, thinking over the interview, decided there was some sense in what that young fellow said, and grew curious to see what the young fellow had further to say in the "Herald."
Politics is the one subject that goes to the vitals of every rural American; and a Hoosier will talk politics after he is dead.
Everybody read the campaign editorials, and found them interesting, although there was no one who did not perceive the utter absurdity of a young stranger's dropping into Carlow and involving himself in a party fight against the boss of the district. It was entirely a party fight; for, by grace of the last gerrymander, the nomination carried with it the certainty of election. A week before the convention there came a provincial earthquake; the news passed from man to man in awe-struck whispers--McCune had withdrawn his name, making the hollowest of excuses to his cohorts. Nothing was known of the real reason for his disordered retreat, beyond the fact that he had been in Plattville on the morning before his withdrawal and had issued from a visit to the "Herald" office in a state of palsy. Mr. Parker, the Rouen printer, had been present at the close of the interview; but he held his peace at the command of his employer. He had been called into the sanctum, and had found McCune, white and shaking, leaning on the desk.
"Parker," said the editor, exhibiting a bundle of papers he held in his hand, "I want you to witness a verbal contract between Mr. McCune and myself. These papers are an affidavit and copies of some records of a street-car company which obtained a charter while Mr McCune was in the State legislature. They were sent to me by a man I do not know, an anonymous friend of Mr. McCune's; in fact, a friend he seems to have lost. On consideration of our not printing these papers, Mr. McCune agrees to retire from politics for good. You understand, if he ever lifts his head again, politically, We publish them, and the courts will do the rest. Now, in case anything should happen to me----"
"Something will happen to you, all right," broke out McCune. "You can bank on that, you black----"
"Come," the editor interrupted, not unpleasantly "why should there be anything personal, in all this? I don't recognize you as my private enemy --not at all; and I think you are getting off rather easily; aren't you? You stay out of politics, and everything will be comfortable. You ought never to have been in it, you see. It's a mistake not to keep square, because in the long run somebody is sure to give you away--like the fellow who sent me these. You promise to hold to a strictly private life?"
"You're a traitor to the party," groaned the other, "but you only wait----"
The editor smiled sadly. "Wait nothing. Don't threaten, man. Go home to your wife. I'll give you three to one she'll be glad you are out of it."
"I'll give you three to one," said McCune, "that the White Caps will get you if you stay in Carlow. You want to look out for yourself, I tell you, my smart boy!"
"Good-day, Mr. McCune," was the answer. "Let me have your note of withdrawal before you leave town this afternoon." The young man paused a moment, then extended his hand, as he said: "Shake hands, won't you? I--I haven't meant to be too hard on you. I hope things will seem easier and gayer to you before long; and if--if anything should turn up that I can do for you in a private way, I'll be very glad, you know. Good-by."
The sound of the "Herald's" victory went over the State. The paper came out regularly. The townsfolk bought it and the farmers drove in for it. Old subscribers came back. Old advertisers renewed. The "Herald" began to sell in Amo, and Gaines County people subscribed. Carlow folk held up their heads when journalism was mentioned. Presently the "Herald" announced a news connection with Rouen, and with that, and the aid of "patent insides," began an era of three issues a week, appearing on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The Plattville Brass Band serenaded the editor.
During the second month of the new regime of the "Herald," the working force of the paper received an addition. One night the editor found some barroom loafers tormenting a patriarchal old man who had a magnificent head and a grand white beard. He had been thrown out of a saloon, and he was drunk with the drunkenness of three weeks steady pouring. He propped himself against a wall and reproved his tormentors in Latin. "I'm walking your way, Mr. Fisbee," remarked the journalist, hooking his arm into the old man's. "Suppose we leave our friends here and go home?"
Mr. Fisbee was the one inhabitant of the town who had an unknown past; no one knew more about him than that he had been connected with a university somewhere, and had travelled in unheard-of countries before he came to Plattville. A glamour of romance was thrown about him by the gossips, to whom he ever proved a fund of delightful speculation. There was a dark, portentous secret in his life, it was agreed; an opinion not too well confirmed by the old man's appearance. His fine eyes had a pathetic habit of wandering to the horizon in a questioning fashion that had a queer sort of hopelessness in it, as if his quest were one for the Holy Grail, perhaps; and his expression was mild, vague, and sad. He had a look of race and blood; and yet, at the first glance, one saw that he was lost in dreams, and one guessed that the dreams would never be of great practicability in their application. Some such impression of Fisbee was probably what caused the editor of the "Herald" to nickname him (in his own mind) "The White Knight," and to conceive a strong, if whimsical, fancy for him.
Old Fisbee had come (from nobody knew where) to Plattville to teach, and had been principal of the High School for ten years, instructing his pupils after a peculiar fashion of his own, neglecting the ordinary courses of High School instruction to lecture on archaeology to the dumfounded scholars; growing year by year more forgetful and absent, lost in his few books and his own reflections, until, though undeniably a scholar, he had been discharged for incompetency. He was old; he had no money and no way to make money; he could find nothing to do. The blow had seemed to daze him for a time; then he began to drop in at the hotel bar, where Wilkerson, the professional drunkard, favored him with his society. The old man understood; he knew it was the beginning of the end. He sold his books in order to continue his credit at the Palace bar, and once or twice, unable to proceed to his own dwelling, spent the night in a lumber yard, piloted thither by the hardier veteran, Wilkerson.
The morning after the editor took him home, Fisbee appeared at the "Herald" office in a new hat and a decent suit of black. He had received his salary in advance, his books had been repurchased, and he had become the reportorial staff of the "Carlow County Herald"; also, he was to write various treatises for the paper. For the first few evenings, when he started home from the office, his chief walked with him, chatting heartily, until they had passed the Palace bar. But Fisbee's redemption was complete.
The old man had a daughter. When she came to Plattville, he told her what the editor of the "Herald" had done for him.
The journalist kept steadily at his work; and, as time went on, the bitterness his predecessor's swindle had left him passed away. But his loneliness and a sense of defeat grew and deepened. When the vistas of the world had opened to his first youth, he had not thought to spend his life in such a place as Plattville; but he found himself doing it, and it was no great happiness to him that the congressional representative of the district, the gentleman whom the "Herald's" opposition to McCune had sent to Washington, came to depend on his influence for renomination; nor did the realization that the editor of the "Carlow County Herald" had come to be McCune's successor as political dictator produce a perceptibly enlivening effect on the young man. The years drifted very slowly, and to him it seemed they went by while he stood far aside and could not even see them move. He did not consider the life he led an exciting one; but the other citizens of Carlow did when he undertook a war against the "White Caps." The natives were much more afraid of the "White Caps" than he was; they knew more about them and understood them better than he did.