Chapter XVI
 

When he had at last reached downtown after his late breakfast, Keith found it in a fair turmoil. Knots of men stood everywhere arguing, sometimes very heatedly. Eureka members were openly expressing their anger over what they called Taylor's "dirty trick" in putting hirelings on the brakes, men who did not belong to the Monumental organization at all. If it had not been for that the Monumentals could never have "sucked" at all. On the other hand, the Monumentals and their friends were vehemently asserting that they were well within their rights. Fists were brandished. Several fights started, but were stopped before they had become serious.

Keith avoided these storm centres, waving a friendly hand, but smilingly refusing to be drawn in. Near the Merchants' Exchange, however, he came on a quieter, attentive group, in the centre of which stood Calhoun Bennett. The Southerner's head was thrown back haughtily, but he was listening with entire courtesy to a violent harangue from a burly, red-faced man in rough clothes.

"And I tell you that sort of a trick won't go down with nobody, and the story of why you were washed won't wash itself. It's too thin."

"I have the honah, suh," said Bennett formally, "to info'm yo' that yo' do not know what yo' are talkin' about."

His silken tones apparently enraged the man.

"You silk-stockinged----of a----!" said he.

Without haste Calhoun Bennett rapped the man across the face with his light rattan cane. Venting a howl of rage, the Eureka partisan leaped forward. Calhoun Bennett, quick as a flash, drew a small derringer and fired; and the man went down in a heap. Superbly nonchalant, Bennett, without a glance at his victim, turned away, the ring of spectators parting to let him through. He saw Keith, and at once joined him, drawing the young man's arm through his own. Keith, looking back, saw the man already sitting up, feeling his shoulder and cursing vigorously.

Bennett was fairly radiating rage, which, however, he managed to suppress beneath a well-bred exterior calm.

"These hounds, suh," he told Keith, "profess not to believe us, suh! They profess, suh, that our explanation of how we were washed is a fabrication. You will oblige me, suh, by profferin' yo' personal testimony in the case."

He faced Keith resolutely toward the Eureka engine house. Keith spared a thought to wonder what he was being let in for by this handsome young fire- eater, but he went along unprotesting.

Around the Eureka engine house was a big crowd of men. These fell silent as Bennett and Keith approached. The Eurekas represented quite a different social order from the Monumentals. Its membership was recruited from those who in the East had been small farmers, artisans, or workingmen in the more skilled trades; independent, plain, rather rough, thoroughly democratic, a trifle contemptuous of "silk stockings," outspoken, with little heed for niceties of etiquette or conduct. Bennett pushed his way through them to where stood Carter, the chief, and several of the more influential. Keith, looking at them, met their eyes directed squarely into his. They were steady, clear-looking, solid, rather coarse-grained, grave men.

"I have brought Mr. Keith here, who was an eyewitness, to give his testimony as to the events of last evenin'," said Bennett formally.

Keith told his story. It was received in a blank noncommittal silence. The men all looked at him steadily, and said nothing. Somehow, he was impressed. This silence seemed to him, fancifully, more than mere lack of words--it conveyed a sense of reserve force, of quiet appraisal of himself and his words, of the experiences of men who have been close to realities, who have done things in the world. Keith felt himself to be better educated, to own a better brain, to have a wider outlook, to be possessed, in short, of all the advantages of superiority. He had never mingled with rough men, and he had always looked down on them. In this attitude was no condescension and no priggishness, Now he felt, somehow, that the best of these men had something that he had not suspected, some force of character that raised them above his previous conception. They might be more than mere "filling" in a city's population; they might well come to be an element to be reckoned with.

When he had quite finished his story, there ensued a slight pause. Then said Carter:

"We believe Mr. Keith. If Mr. Ward and Frank Munro were there, of course there can be no doubt." Somehow Keith could not resent the implication; it was too impersonally delivered. Carter went on with cold formality and emphasis; "Mr. Keith had a very narrow escape. It was lucky for him that your hired men had 'sucked' your waterbox. In view of that we can, of course, no longer regret the fact."

"It was a dirty trick just the same!" growled a voice out of the crowd.

Carter turned a deliberate look in that direction, and nothing more was said. Bennett ignored the interruption, bowed frigidly, and turned away. The Eureka leaders nodded. In dead silence Keith and Bennett withdrew.

"That settles that!" observed Bennett, when at a little distance. "A lot of cheap shopkeepers! It makes me disgusted every time I have anythin' to do with them!"

As they walked away, one of the hangers-on of the police court approached, touching his hat.

"For you, Mr. Bennett," he said most respectfully, proffering a paper.

"Me?" observed Bennett, surprised. He unfolded the paper, glanced at it, and laughed. "I'm arrested for wingin' that 'shoulder-striker' up the street a while back," he told Keith.

"Anything I can do?" asked Keith anxiously.

"Not a thing, thank you. There'll be no trouble at all--just a little nuisance. May call you for a witness later."

He went away with the officer, but shortly after Keith saw him on the street again. The matter had been easily arranged.

Keith went to his office. In spite of himself he could not entirely take Bennett's point of view. Several of the men at Eureka headquarters looked interesting--he would like to know them--perhaps more than interesting, the potentiality of a reasoning and directed power.