At last the college days were over. Dudley was sent to the university of the State; Tom Bassett and Bernard Battle soon followed, and Nicholas, still plodding and still hopeful, was left in Kingsborough.
Then, upon his nineteenth birthday, the judge, who had left the bench and resumed his legal practice, sent for him and offered to take him into his office while he prepared himself for the bar.
When Nicholas descended the judge’s steps he lingered for a moment in the narrow walk. His head was bent, and the books which he carried under his arm were pressed against his side. They seemed to contain all that was needed for the making of his future—those books and his impatient mind. His success was as assured as if he held it already in the hollow of his hand—and with success would come honour and happiness and all that was desired of man. It seemed to him that his lot was the one of all others which he would have chosen of his free and untrammelled will. To strive and to win; to surmount all obstacles by the determined dash of ambition; to rise from obscurity unto prominence through the sheer forces that make for power—what was better than this?
Still plunged in thought, he passed the church and followed the street to the Old Stage Road. From the college dormitories a group of students sang out a greeting, and he responded impulsively, tossing his hat in the air. In his face a glow had risen, harmonising his inharmonious features. He felt as a man feels who stands before a closed door and knows that he has but to cross the threshold to grasp the fulness of his aspiration. Yes, to-day he envied no one—neither Tom Bassett nor Dudley Webb, neither the general nor the judge. He held the books tightly under his arm and smiled down upon the road. His clumsy, store-made boots left heavy tracks in the dust, but he seemed to be treading air.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon of a murky day in early November, and the clouds were swollen with incoming autumnal rains. The open country stretched before him in monotonous grays, the long road gleaming pallid in the general drab of the landscape. As he passed along, holding his hat in his hand, his uplifted head struck the single, high-coloured note in the picture—all else was dull and leaden.
A farmer driving a cow to market neared him, and Nicholas stopped to remark upon the outlook. The farmer, a thick-set, hairy man, whose name was Turner, gave a sudden hitch to the halter to check the progress of the cow, and nodded ominously.
“Bad weather’s brewin’,” he said. “The wind’s blowin’ from the northeast; I can tell by the way that thar oak turns its leaves. It’s a bad sign, and if thar ain’t a-shiftin’ ‘fore mornin’, we’re likely to hev a spell.”
“There hasn’t been much rainfall lately,” he added. “I reckon it has come at last and for a long stretch.” His eyes swept the western horizon, where the clouds hung heavily above the pines.