"The mad expedition" came at length in the shape of a fight with the townspeople, in which Austen, of course, was the ringleader. If he had inherited his mother's eccentricities, he had height and physique from the Vanes, and one result was a week in bed for the son of the local plumber and a damage suit against the Honourable Hilary. Another result was that Austen and a Tom Gaylord came back to Ripton on a long suspension, which, rumour said, would have been expulsion if Hilary were not a trustee. Tom Gaylord was proud of suspension in such company. More of him later. He was the son of old Tom Gaylord, who owned more lumber than any man in the State, and whom Hilary Vane believed to be the receptacle of all the vices.
Eventually Austen went back and graduated--not summa cum laude, honesty compels me to add. Then came the inevitable discussion, and to please his father he went to the Harvard Law School for two years. At the end of that time, instead of returning to Ripton, a letter had come from him with the postmark of a Western State, where he had fled with a classmate who owned ranch. Evidently the worldly consideration to be derived from conformity counted little with Austen Vane. Money was a medium only--not an end. He was in the saddle all day, with nothing but the horizon to limit him; he loved his father, and did not doubt his father's love for him, and he loved Euphrasia. He could support himself, but he must see life. The succeeding years brought letters and quaint, useless presents to both the occupants of the lonely house,--Navajo blankets and Indian jeweler and basket-work,--and Austen little knew how carefully these were packed away and surreptitiously gazed at from time to time. But to Hilary the Western career was a disgrace, and such meagre reports of it as came from other sources than Austen tended only to confirm him in this opinion.
It was commonly said of Mr. Paul Pardriff that not a newspaper fell from the press that he did not have a knowledge of its contents. Certain it was that Mr. Pardriff made a specialty of many kinds of knowledge, political and otherwise, and, the information he could give--if he chose- -about State and national affairs was of a recondite and cynical nature that made one wish to forget about the American flag. Mr. Pardriff was under forty, and with these gifts many innocent citizens of Ripton naturally wondered why the columns of his newspaper, the Ripton Record, did not more closely resemble the spiciness of his talk in the office of Gales' Hotel. The columns contained, instead, such efforts as essays on a national flower and the abnormal size of the hats of certain great men, notably Andrew Jackson; yes, and the gold standard; and in times of political stress they were devoted to a somewhat fulsome praise of regular and orthodox Republican candidates,--and praise of any one was not in character with the editor. Ill-natured people said that the matter in his paper might possibly be accounted for by the gratitude of the candidates, and the fact that Mr. Pardriff and his wife and his maid- servant and his hired man travelled on pink mileage books, which could only be had for love--not money. On the other hand, reputable witnesses had had it often from Mr. Pardriff that he was a reformer, and not at all in sympathy with certain practices which undoubtedly existed.
Some years before--to be exact, the year Austen Vane left the law school- -Mr. Pardriff had proposed to exchange the Ripton Record with the editor of the Pepper County Plainsman in afar Western State. The exchange was effected, and Mr. Pardriff glanced over the Plainsman regularly once a week, though I doubt whether the Western editor ever read the Record after the first copy. One day in June Mr. Pardriff was seated in his sanctum above Merrill's drug store when his keen green eyes fell upon the following:--
"The Plainsman considers it safe to say that the sympathy of the people of Pepper County at large is with Mr. Austen Vane, whose personal difficulty with Jim Blodgett resulted so disastrously for Mr. Blodgett. The latter gentleman has long made himself obnoxious to local ranch owners by his persistent disregard of property lines and property, and it will be recalled that he is at present in hot water with the energetic Secretary of the Interior for fencing government lands. Vane, who was recently made manager of Ready Money Ranch, is one of the most popular young men in the county. He was unwillingly assisted over the State line by his friends. Although he has never been a citizen of the State, the Plainsman trusts that he may soon be back and become one of us. At last report Mr. Blodgett was resting easily."
This article obtained circulation in Ripton, although it was not copied into the Record out of deference to the feelings of the Honourable Hilary Vane. In addition to the personal regard Mr. Pardriff professed to have for the Honourable Hilary, it maybe well to remember that Austen's father was, among other, things, chairman of the State Committee. Mr. Tredway (largest railroad stockholder in Ripton) pursed his lips that were already pursed. Tom Gaylord roared with laughter. Two or three days later the Honourable Hilary, still in blissful ignorance, received a letter that agitated him sorely.
"DEAR FATHER: I hope you don't object to receiving a little visit from a prodigal, wayward son. To tell the truth, I have found it convenient to leave the Ready Money Ranch for a while, although Bob Tyner is good enough to say I may have the place when I come back. You know I often think of you and Phrasie back in Ripton, and I long to see the dear old town again. Expect me when you see me.
While Euphrasia, in a frenzy of anticipation, garnished and swept the room which held for her so many memories of Austen's boyhood, even beating the carpet with her own hands, Hilary Vane went about his business with no apparent lack of diligence. But he was meditating. He had many times listened to the Reverend Mr. Weightman read the parable from the pulpit, but he had never reflected how it would be to be the father of a real prodigal. What was to be done about the calf? Was there to be a calf, or was there not? To tell the truth, Hilary wanted a calf, and yet to have one (in spite of Holy Writ) would seem to set a premium on disobedience and riotous living.