The shock of it! He kept his face from them as he toiled up the steps of the old house. Tears sparkled in his eyes, sudden tears that astonished him. For a moment he felt old and broken and childish, and was not surprised that they had detected the weakness of a failing old man. He would have gone into “The Barracks” without showing them his face, but on the porch he was forced to turn. Some one had arrived, and arrived tempestuously. It was the Hon. Luke Presson, Chairman of the State Committee. He stepped down out of his automobile and walked around the crowd, spatting his gloved hands together, and looking them over critically. So he came to Thelismer Thornton, waiting on the steps, and shook his hand.
Mr. Presson was short and fat and rubicund, and, just now, plainly worried.
“This was the last place I expected to have to jump into, Thelismer,” he complained. “I know the bunch has been wanting to get at you, but I didn’t believe they’d try. I see that you and your boys here realize that you’re up against a fight!”
Ha shuttled glances from face to face, and the general gloom impressed him. But it was plain that he did not understand that he was facing declared rebels.
“They’ve slipped five thousand dollars in here, Thelismer,” he went on, speaking low. “They’d rather lug off this caucus than any fifty districts in the State.”
“I don’t believe there’s men here that’ll take money to vote against me,” insisted Thornton. “But they’ve been lied to—that much I’ll admit.”
“You’ve been king here too long, Thelismer. You take too much for granted. They’re bunching their hits here, I tell you. There are fifty thousand straddlers in this State ready to jump into the camp of the men that can lick the Duke of Fort Canibas—it gives a h——l of a line on futures! I thought you had your eye out better.”
The deeper guile had masked itself behind such characters as Ivus Niles, and now Thornton realized it, and realized, too, to what a pass his trustful serenity, builded on the loyalty of the years, had brought him.
That strained, strange look of grieved surprise went out of his face. He lighted a cigar, gazing at his constituents over his scooped hands that held the match.
They stared at him, for his old poise had returned.
“This is the chairman of our State Committee, boys,” he said, “come up to look over the field. He says there’s a rumor going that Thornton can’t carry his caucus this year.” The Duke dropped into his quizzical drawl now. “I was just telling my friend Luke that it’s queer how rumors get started.” He walked to the porch-rail and leaned over it, his shaggy head dominating them. And then he threw the challenge at them. “The caucus is going to be held in the other end of the village—not here in my front dooryard. You’d better get over there. I don’t need any such clutter here. Get there quick. There may be some people that you’ll want to warn. Tell ’em old Thornton hasn’t lost his grip.”