“Oh, I don’t want jest in answer to that, sir,” protested the General. “I am in earnest.” But his tone was still a bit whimsical. “You know, even so great a man as Caesar consulted the oracle and the omens and the soothsayers. Why should not I practice a little divination? Now answer me, young man—or I’ll say, young men of the State?”
“Yet I can’t think you really mean that, General,” protested Harlan, wholly confused by this persistent banter.
“Call it in fun, call it in earnest, still I demand my answer.” General Waymouth was serious now. “I came here resolved to tell Thelismer, face to face, that I could not sacrifice the last strength of my life in the way he has asked. But when you met me at the station all my ambitions for this newer generation, as I have dreamed them, came up in me. My boy, this State of ours is in a bad way. In one respect it is especially bad. We have one solemn law in our constitution that is made our own political football and the laughing-stock of the nation. We forbid the sale of liquor. Look at that saloon we are passing at this moment! It is a law that affects nearly every person in our State—comes near to every one, directly or indirectly. The manner of its breaking, publicly and protected by politics, has bred disrespect for all law in the boys who are growing up. And they are the ones who will run our State when we oldsters are gone. I’ll not say anything about the other reforms that conditions are calling for. There’s one—the big one that flaunts itself in our faces. I’m of the old school, Mr. Thornton. I don’t believe in the prohibitory principle as applied to the liquor question. It hasn’t the right spirit behind it—it is invoked by bigots and fanatics who refuse helpful compromise. But it’s a law—our law! Every day that passes under present conditions adds its little to the damnation of the moral principle in our boys and girls, growing up with eyes and ears open. God, I wish I were twenty years younger! But I’m old enough to have fantastic notions; old enough to insist on an answer to my question, in spite of what you may think of my mental condition. Will you release me from that promise? I made it to the young men of this State—in my disgust at conditions, in my passion to do something to clean out this nest!”
The lights from the brilliant shop-windows shone into the carriage. Harlan leaned forward. The General’s face was serious.
“Still, I can’t understand it!” he cried. “I’m only—”
“I tell you, you typify for me at this moment the young men of my State! I choose to decide in this fashion. Do you feel that an honest Governor would help your self-respect?”
“I can answer that question, sir. I believe in you. Ever since you promised my grandfather that you would accept the nomination I have depended on that promise. I know what you can do for our State. If you are not to be our next Governor the heart has gone out of me, and the young men of this State have lost their best hope.”