The Last Sixty Minutes by Susan Glaspell
"Nine--ten--" The old clock paused as if in dramatic appreciation of the situation, and then slowly, weightily, it gave the final stroke, "Eleven!"
The Governor swung his chair half-way round and looked the timepiece full in the face. Already the seconds had begun ticking off the last hour of his official life. On the stroke of twelve another man would be Governor of the State. He sat there watching the movement of the minute hand.
The sound of voices, some jovial, some argumentative, was borne to him through the open transom. People were beginning to gather in the corridors, and he could hear the usual disputes about tickets of admission to the inaugural.
His secretary came in just then with some letters. "Could you see Whitefield now?" he asked. "He's waiting out here for you."
The old man looked up wearily. "Oh, put him off, Charlie. Tell him you can talk to him about whatever it is he wants to know."
The secretary had his hand on the knob, when the Governor added, "And, Charlie, keep everybody out, if you can. I'm--I've got a few private matters to go over."
The younger man nodded and opened the door. He half closed it behind him, and then turned to say, "Except Francis. You'll want to see him if he comes in, won't you?"
He frowned and moved impatiently as he answered, curtly: "Oh, yes."
Francis! Of course it never occurred to any of them that he could close the door on Francis. He drummed nervously on his desk, then suddenly reached down and, opening one of the drawers, tossed back a few things and drew out a newspaper. He unfolded this and spread it out on the desk. Running across the page was the big black line, "Real Governors of Some Western States," and just below, the first of the series, and played up as the most glaring example of nominal and real in governorship, was a sketch of Harvey Francis.
He sat there looking at it, knowing full well that it would not contribute to his peace of mind. It did not make for placidity of spirit to be told at the end of things that he had, as a matter of fact, never been anybody at all. And the bitterest part of it was that, looking back on it now, getting it from the viewpoint of one stepping from it, he could see just how true was the statement: "Harvey Francis has been the real Governor of the State; John Morrison his mouthpiece and figurehead."
He walked to the window and looked out over the January landscape. It may have been the snowy hills, as well as the thoughts weighing him down, that carried him back across the years to one snowy afternoon when he stood up in a little red schoolhouse and delivered an oration on "The Responsibilities of Statesmanship." He smiled as the title came back to him, and yet--what had become of the spirit of that seventeen-year-old boy? He had meant it all then; he could remember the thrill with which he stood there that afternoon long before and poured out his sentiments regarding the sacredness of public trusts. What was it had kept him, when his chance came, from working out in his life the things he had so fervently poured into his schoolboy oration?
Someone was tapping at the door. It was an easy, confident tap, and there was a good deal of reflex action in the Governor's "Come in."
"Indulging in a little meditation?"
The Governor frowned at the way Francis said it, and the latter went on, easily: "Just came from a row with Dorman. Everybody is holding him up for tickets, and he--poor young fool--looks as though he wanted to jump in the river. Takes things tremendously to heart--Dorman does."
He lighted a cigar, smiling quietly over that youthful quality of Dorman's. "Well," he went on, leaning back in his chair and looking about the room, "I thought I'd look in on you for a minute. You see I'll not have the entree to the Governor's office by afternoon." He laughed, the easy, good-humoured laugh of one too sophisticated to spend emotion uselessly.
It was he who fell into meditation then, and the Governor sat looking at him; a paragraph from the newspaper came back to him: "Harvey Francis is the most dangerous type of boss politician. His is not the crude and vulgar method that asks a man what his vote is worth. He deals gently and tenderly with consciences. He knows how to get a man without fatally injuring that man's self-respect."
The Governor's own experience bore out the summary. When elected to office as State Senator he had cherished old-fashioned ideas of serving his constituents and doing his duty. But the very first week Francis had asked one of those little favours of him, and, wishing to show his appreciation of support given him in his election, he had granted it. Then various courtesies were shown him; he was let in on a "deal," and almost before he realised it, it seemed definitely understood that he was a "Francis man."
Francis roused himself and murmured: "Fools!--amateurs."
"Leyman?" ventured the Governor.
"Leyman and all of his crowd!"
"And yet," the Governor could not resist, "in another hour this same fool will be Governor of the State. The fool seems to have won."
Francis rose, impatiently. "For the moment. It won't be lasting. In any profession, fools and amateurs may win single victories. They can't keep it up. They don't know how. Oh, no," he insisted, cheerfully, "Leyman will never be re-elected. Fact is, I'm counting on this contract business we've saved up for him getting in good work." He was moving toward the door. "Well," he concluded, with a curious little laugh, "see you upstairs."
The Governor looked at the clock. It pointed now to twenty-five minutes past eleven. The last hour was going fast. In a very short time he must join the party in the anteroom of the House. But weariness had come over him. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
He was close upon seventy, and to-day looked even older than his years. It was not a vicious face, but it was not a strong one. People who wanted to say nice things of the Governor called him pleasant or genial or kindly. Even the men in the appointive offices did not venture to say he had much force.
He felt it to-day as he never had before. He had left no mark; he had done nothing, stood for nothing. Never once had his personality made itself felt. He had signed the documents; Harvey Francis had always "suggested"--the term was that man's own--the course to be pursued. And the "suggestions" had ever dictated the policy that would throw the most of influence or money to that splendidly organised machine that Francis controlled.
With an effort he shook himself free from his cheerless retrospect. There was a thing or two he wanted to get from his desk, and his time was growing very short. He found what he wanted, and then, just as he was about to close the drawer, his eye fell on a large yellow envelope.
He closed the drawer; but only to reopen it, take out the envelope and remove the documents it contained; and then one by one he spread them out before him on the desk.
He sat there looking down at them, wondering whether a man had ever stepped into office with as many pitfalls laid for him. During the last month they had been busy about the old State-house setting traps for the new Governor. The "machine" was especially jubilant over those contracts the Governor now had spread out before him. The convict labour question was being fought out in the State just then--organised labour demanding its repeal; country taxpayers insisting that it be maintained. Under the system the penitentiary had become self-supporting. In November the contracts had come up for renewal; but on the request of Harvey Francis the matter had been put off from time to time, and still remained open. Just the week before, Francis had put it to the Governor something like this:
"Don't sign those contracts. We can give some reason for holding them off, and save them up for Leyman. Then we can see that the question is agitated, and whatever he does about it is going to prove a bad thing for him. If he doesn't sign, he's in bad with the country fellows, the men who elected him. Don't you see? At the end of his administration the penitentiary, under you self-sustaining, will have cost them a pretty penny. We've got him right square!"
The clock was close to twenty minutes of twelve, and he concluded that he would go out and join some of his friends he could hear in the other room. It would never do for him to go upstairs with a long, serious face. He had had his day, and now Leyman was to have his, and if the new Governor did better than the old one, then so much the better for the State. As for the contracts, Leyman surely must understand that there was a good deal of rough sailing on political waters.
But it was not easy to leave the room. Walking to the window he again stood there looking out across the snow, and once more he went back now at the end of things to that day in the little red schoolhouse which stood out as the beginning.
He was called back from that dreaming by the sight of three men coming up the hill. He smiled faintly in anticipation of the things Francis and the rest of them would say about the new Governor's arriving on foot. Leyman had requested that the inaugural parade be done away with--but one would suppose he would at least dignify the occasion by arriving in a carriage. Francis would see that the opposing papers handled it as a grand-stand play to the country constituents.
And then, forgetful of Francis, and of the approaching ceremony, the old man stood there by the window watching the young man who was coming up to take his place. How firmly the new Governor walked! With what confidence he looked ahead at the State-house. The Governor--not considering the inconsistency therein--felt a thrill of real pride in thought of the State's possessing a man like that.
Standing though he did for the things pitted against him, down in his heart John Morrison had all along cherished a strong admiration for that young man who, as District Attorney of the State's metropolis, had aroused the whole country by his fearlessness and unquestionable sincerity. Many a day he had sat in that same office reading what the young District Attorney was doing in the city close by--the fight he was making almost single-handed against corruption, how he was striking in the high places fast and hard as in the low, the opposition, threats, and time after time there had been that same secret thrill at thought of there being a man like that. And when the people of the State, convinced that here was one man who would serve them, began urging the District Attorney for chief executive, Governor Morrison, linked with the opposing forces, doing all he could to bring about Leyman's defeat, never lost that secret feeling for the young man, who, unbacked by any organisation, struck blow after blow at the machine that had so long dominated the State, winning in the end that almost incomprehensible victory.
The new Governor had passed from sight, and a moment later his voice came to the ear of the lonely man in the executive office. Some friends had stopped him just outside the Governor's door with a laughing "Here's hoping you'll do as much for us in the new office as you did in the old," and the new Governor replied, buoyantly: "Oh, but I'm going to do a great deal more!"
The man within the office smiled a little wistfully and with a sigh sat down before his desk. The clock now pointed to thirteen minutes of twelve; they would be asking for him upstairs. There were some scraps of paper on his desk and he threw them into the waste-basket, murmuring: "I can at least give him a clean desk."
He pushed his chair back sharply. A clean desk! The phrase opened to deeper meanings.... Why not clean it up in earnest? Why not give him a square deal--a real chance? Why not sign the contracts?
Again he looked at the clock--not yet ten minutes of twelve. For ten minutes more he was Governor of the State! Ten minutes of real governorship! Might it not make up a little, both to his own soul and to the world, for the years he had weakly served as another man's puppet? The consciousness that he could do it, that it was not within the power of any man to stop him, was intoxicating. Why not break the chains now at the last, and just before the end taste the joy of freedom?
He took up his pen and reached for the inkwell. With trembling, excited fingers he unfolded the contracts. He dipped his pen into the ink; he even brought it down on the paper; and then the tension broke. He sank back in his chair, a frightened, broken old man.
"Oh, no," he whispered; "no, not now. It's--" his head went lower and lower until at last it rested on the desk--"too late."
When he raised his head and grew more steady, it was only to see the soundness of his conclusion. He had not the right now in the final hour to buy for himself a little of glory. It would only be a form of self-indulgence. They would call it, and perhaps rightly, hush money to his conscience. They would say he went back on them only when he was through with them. Oh, no, there would be no more strength in it than in the average deathbed repentance. He would at least step out with consistency.
He folded the contracts and put them back into the envelope. The minute hand now pointed to seven minutes to twelve. Some one was tapping at the door, and the secretary appeared to say they were waiting for him upstairs. He replied that he would be there in a minute, hoping that his voice did not sound as strange to the other man as it had to himself.
Slowly he walked to the door leading into the corridor. This, then, was indeed the end; this the final stepping down from office! After years of what they called public service, he was leaving it all now with a sense of defeat and humiliation. A lump was in the old man's throat; his eyes were blurred. "But you, Frank Leyman," he whispered passionately, turning as if for comfort to the other man, "it will be different with you! They'll not get you--not you!"
It lifted him then as a great wave--this passionate exultation that here was one man whom corruption could not claim as her own. Here was one human soul not to be had for a price! There flitted before him again a picture of that seventeen-year-old boy in the little red schoolhouse, and close upon it came the picture of this other young man against whom all powers of corruption had been turned in vain. With the one it had been the emotional luxury of a sentiment, a thing from life's actualities apart; with the other it was a force that dominated all things else, a force over which circumstances and design could not prevail. "I know all about it," he was saying. "I know about it all! I know how easy it is to fall! I know how fine it is to stand!"
His sense of disappointment in his own empty, besmirched career was almost submerged then as he projected himself on into the career of this other man who within the hour would come there in his stead. How glorious was his opportunity, how limitless his possibilities, and how great to his own soul the satisfaction the years would bring of having done his best!
It had all changed now. That passionate longing to vindicate himself, add one thing honourable and fine to his own record, had altogether left him, and with the new mood came new insight and what had been an impulse centred to a purpose.
It pointed to three minutes to twelve as he walked over to his desk, unfolded the contracts, and one by one affixed his signature. In a dim way he was conscious of how the interpretation of his first motive would be put upon it, how they would call him traitor and coward; but that mattered little. The very fact that the man for whom he was doing it would never see it as it was brought him no pang. And when he had carefully blotted the papers, affixed the seal and put them away, there was in his heart the clean, sweet joy of a child because he had been able to do this for a man in whom he believed.
The band was playing the opening strains as he closed the door behind him and started upstairs.