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The Elusive Vote by Nellie McClung

 

AN UNVARNISHED TALE OF SEPTEMBER 21st, 1911

John Thomas Green did not look like a man on whom great issues might turn. His was a gentle soul encased in ill-fitting armour. Heavy blue eyes, teary and sad, gave a wintry droop to his countenance; his nose showed evidence of much wiping, and the need of more. When he spoke, which was infrequent, he stammered; when he walked he toed in.

He was a great and glorious argument in favor of woman suffrage; he was the last word, the piéce de résistance; he was a living, walking, yellow banner, which shouted "Votes for Women," for in spite of his many limitations there was one day when he towered high above the mightiest woman in the land; one day that the plain John Thomas was clothed with majesty and power; one day when he emerged from obscurity and placed an impress on the annals of our country. Once every four years John Thomas Green came forth (at the earnest solicitation of friends) and stood before kings.

The Reciprocity fight was on, and nowhere did it rage more hotly than in Morton, where Tom Brown, the well-beloved and much-hated Conservative member, fought for his seat with all the intensity of his Irish blood. Politics were an incident to Tom—the real thing was the fight! and so fearlessly did he go after his assailants—and they were many—that every day greater enthusiasm prevailed among his followers, who felt it a privilege to fight for a man who fought so well for himself.

The night before the election the Committee sat in the Committee Rooms and went carefully over the lists. They were hopeful but not hilarious —there had been disappointments, desertions, lapses!

Billy Weaver, loyal to the cause, but of pessimistic nature, testified that Sam Cowery had been "talkin' pretty shrewd about reciprocity," by which Billy did not mean "shrewd" at all, but rather crooked and adverse. However, there was no mistaking Billy's meaning of the word when one heard him say it with his inimitable "down-the-Ottaway" accent. It is only the feeble written word which requires explanation.

George Burns was reported to have said he did not care whether he voted or not; if it were a wet day he might, but if it were weather for stacking he'd stack, you bet! This was a gross insult to the President of the Conservative Association, whose farm he had rented and lived on for the last five years, during which time there had been two elections, at both of which he had voted "right." The President had not thought it necessary to interview him at all this time, feeling sure that he was within the pale. But now it seemed that some trifler had told him that he would get more for his barley and not have to pay so much for his tobacco if Reciprocity carried, and it was reported that he had been heard to say, with picturesque eloquence, that you could hardly expect a man to cut his throat both ways by voting against it!

These and other kindred reports filled the Committee with apprehension.

The most unmoved member of the company was the redoubtable Tom himself, who, stretched upon the slippery black leather lounge, hoarse as a frog from much addressing of obdurate electors, was endeavoring to sing "Just Before the Battle, Mother," hitting the tune only in the most inconspicuous places!

The Secretary, with the list in his hand, went over the names:

"Jim Stewart—Jim's solid; he doesn't want Reciprocity, because he sent to the States once for a washing-machine for his wife, and smuggled it through from St. Vincent, and when he got it here his wife wouldn't use it!

"Abe Collins—Abe's not right and never will be—he saw Sir Wilfrid once—

"John Thomas Green—say, how about Jack? Surely we can corral Jack. He's working for you, Milt, isn't he?" addressing one of the scrutineers.

"Leave him to me," said Milt, with an air of mystery; "there's no one has more influence with Jack than me. No, he isn't with me just now, he's over with my brother Angus; but when he comes in to vote I'll be there, and all I'll have to do is to lift my eyes like this" (he showed them the way it would be done) "and he'll vote—right."

"How do you know he will come, though?" asked the Secretary, who had learned by much experience that many and devious are the bypaths which lead away from the polls!

"Yer brother Angus will be sure to bring him in, won't he, Milt?" asked
John Gray, the trusting one, who believed all men to be brothers.

There was a tense silence.

Milt took his pipe from his mouth. "My brother Angus," he began, dramatically, girding himself for the effort—for Milt was an orator of Twelfth of July fame—"Angus Kennedy, my brother, bred and reared, and reared and bred, in the principles of Conservatism, as my poor old father often says, has gone over—has deserted our banners, has steeped himself in the false teachings of the Grits. Angus, my brother," he concluded, impressively, "is—not right!"

"What's wrong with him?" asked Jim Grover, who was of an analytical turn of mind.

"Too late to discuss that now!" broke in the Secretary; "we cannot trace Angus's downfall, but we can send out and get in John Thomas. We need his vote—it's just as good as anybody's."

Jimmy Rice volunteered to go out and get him. Jimmy did not believe in leaving anything to chance. He had been running an auto all week and would just as soon work at night as any other time. Big Jack Moore, another enthusiastic Conservative, agreed to go with him.

When they made the ten-mile run to the home of the apostate Angus, they met him coming down the path with a lantern in his hand on the way to feed his horses.

They, being plain, blunt men, unaccustomed to the amenities of election time, and not knowing how to skilfully approach a subject of this kind, simply announced that they had come for John Thomas.

"He's not here," said Angus, looking around the circle of light that the lantern threw.

"Are you sure?" asked James Rice, after a painful pause.

"Yes," said Angus, with exaggerated ease, affecting not to notice the significance of the question. "Jack went to Nelson to-day, and he ain't back yet. He went about three o'clock," went on Angus, endeavoring to patch up a shaky story with a little interesting detail. "He took over a bunch of pigs for me that I am shippin' into Winnipeg, and he was goin' to bring back some lumber."

"I was in Nelson to-day, Angus," said John Moore, sternly; "just came from there, and I did not see John Thomas."

Angus, though fallen and misguided, was not entirely unregenerate; a lie sat awkwardly on his honest lips, and now that his feeble effort at deception had miscarried, he felt himself adrift on a boundless sea. He wildly felt around for a reply, and was greatly relieved by the arrival of his father on the scene, who, seeing the lights of the auto in the yard, had come out hurriedly to see what was the matter. Grandpa Kennedy, although nearing his ninetieth birthday, was still a man of affairs, and what was still more important on this occasion, a lifelong Conservative. Grandpa knew it was the night before the election; he also had seen what he had seen. Grandpa might be getting on, but he could see as far through a cellar door as the next one. Angus, glad of a chance to escape, went on to the stable, leaving the visiting gentlemen to be entertained by Grandpa.

Grandpa was a diplomat; he wanted to have no hard feelings with anyone.

"Good-night, boys," he cried, in his shrill voice; he recognized the occupants of the auto and his quick brain took in the situation. "Don't it beat all how the frost keeps off? This reminds me of the fall, 'leven years ago—we had no frost till the end of the month. I ripened three bushels of Golden Queen tomatoes!" All this was delivered in a very high voice for Angus's benefit—to show him, if he were listening, how perfectly innocent the conversation was.

Then as Angus's lantern disappeared behind the stable, the old man's voice was lowered, and he gave forth this cryptic utterance:

"John Thomas is in the cellar."

Then he gaily resumed his chatter, although Angus was safe in the stable; but Grandpa knew what he knew, and Angus's woman might be listening at the back door. "Much election talk in town, boys?" he asked, breezily. They answered him at random. Then his voice fell again. "Angle's dead against Brown—won't let you have John Thomas—put him down cellar soon as he saw yer lights; Angie's woman is sittin on the door knittin'—she's wors'n him—don't let on I give it away—I don't want no words with her!—Yes, it's grand weather for threshin'; won't you come on away in? I guess yer horse will stand." The old man roared with laughter at his own joke.

John Moore and James Rice went back to headquarters for further advice. Angus's woman sitting on the cellar door knitting was a contingency that required to be met with guile.

Consternation sat on the face of the Committee when they told their story. They had not counted on this. The wildest plans were discussed. Tom Stubbins began a lengthy story of an elopement that happened down at the "Carp," where the bride made a rope of the sheets and came down from an upstairs window. Tom was not allowed to finish his narrative, though, for it was felt that the cases were not similar.

No one seemed to be particularly anxious to go back and interrupt Mrs.
Angus's knitting.

Then there came into the assembly one of the latest additions to the Conservative ranks, William Batters, a converted and reformed Liberal. He had been an active member of the Liberal party for many years, but at the last election he had been entirely convinced of their unworthiness by the close-fisted and niggardly way in which they dispensed the election money.

He heard the situation discussed in all its aspects. Milton Kennedy, with inflamed oratory, bitterly bewailed his brother's defection—"not only wrong himself, but leadin' others, and them innocent lambs!"—but he did not offer to go out and see his brother. The lady who sat knitting on the cellar door seemed to be the difficulty with all of them.

The reformed Liberal had a plan.

"I will go for him," said he. "Angus will trust me—he doesn't know I have turned. I'll go for John Thomas, and Angus will give him to me without a word, thinkin' I'm a friend," he concluded, brazenly.

"Look at that now!" exclaimed the member elect. "Say, boys, you'd know he had been a Grit—no honest, open-faced Conservative would ever think of a trick like that!"

"There is nothing like experience to make a man able to see every side," said the reformed one, with becoming modesty.

An hour later Angus was roused from his bed by a loud knock on the door. Angus had gone to bed with his clothes on, knowing that these were troublesome times.

"What's the row?" he asked, when he had cautiously opened the door.

"Row!" exclaimed the friend who was no longer a friend, "You're the man that's makin' the row. The Conservatives have 'phoned in to the Attorney-General's Department to-night to see what's to be done with you for standin' between a man and his heaven-born birthright, keepin' and confinin' of a man in a cellar, owned by and closed by you!"

This had something the air of a summons, and Angus was duly impressed.

"I don't want to see you get into trouble. Angus," Mr. Batters went on; "and the only way to keep out of it is to give him to me, and then when they come out here with a search-warrant they won't find nothin'."

Angus thanked him warmly, and, going upstairs, roused the innocent John from his virtuous slumbers. He had some trouble persuading John, who was a profound sleeper, that he must arise and go hence; but many things were strange to him, and he rose and dressed without very much protest.

Angus was distinctly relieved when he got John Thomas off his hands—he felt he had had a merciful deliverance.

On the way to town, roused by the night air, John Thomas became communicative.

"Them lads in the automobile, they wanted me pretty bad, you bet," he chuckled, with the conscious pride of the much-sought-after; "but gosh, Angus fixed them. He just slammed down the cellar door on me, and says he, 'Not a word out of you, Jack; you've as good a right to vote the way you want to as anybody, and you'll get it, too, you bet.'"

The reformed Liberal knitted his brows. What was this simple child of nature driving at?

John Thomas rambled on: "Tom Brown can't fool people with brains, you bet you—Angus's woman explained it all to me. She says to me, 'Don't let nobody run you, Jack—and vote for Hastings. You're all right, Jack—and remember Hastings is the man. Never mind why—don't bother your head—you don't have to—but vote for Hastings.' Says she, 'Don't let on to Milt, or any of his folks, or Grandpa, but vote the way you want to, and that's for Hastings!'"

When they arrived in town the reformed Liberal took John Thomas at once to the Conservative Hotel, and put him in a room, and told him to go to bed, which John cheerfully did. Then he went for the Secretary, who was also in bed. "I've got John Thomas," he announced, "but he says he's a Grit and is going to vote for Hastings. I can't put a dint in him—he thinks I'm a Grit, too. He's only got one idea, but it's a solid one, and that is 'Vote for Hastings.'"

The Secretary yawned sleepily. "I'll not go near him. It's me for sleep. You can go and see if any of the other fellows want a job. They're all down at a ball at the station. Get one of those wakeful spirits to reason with John."

The conspirator made his way stealthily to the station, from whence there issued the sound of music and dancing. Not wishing to alarm the Grits, many of whom were joining in the festivities, and who would have been quick to suspect that something was on foot, if they saw him prowling around, he crept up to the window and waited until one of the faithful came near. Gently tapping on the glass, he got the attention of the editor, the very man he wanted, and, in pantomime, gave him to understand that his presence was requested. The editor, pleading a terrific headache, said good-night, or rather good-morning, to his hostess, and withdrew. From his fellow-worker who waited in the shadow of the trees outside, he learned that John Thomas had been secured in the body but not in spirit.

The newspaper man readily agreed to labor with the erring brother and hoped to be able to deliver his soul alive.

Once again was John Thomas roused from his slumbers, and not by a familiar voice this time, but by an unknown vision in evening dress.

The editor was a convincing man in his way, whether upon the subject of reciprocity or apostolic succession, but John was plainly bored from the beginning, and though he offered no resistance, his repeated "I know that!" "That's what I said!" were more disconcerting than the most vigorous opposition. At daylight the editor left John, and he really had the headache that he had feigned a few hours before.

Then John Thomas tried to get a few winks of unmolested repose, but it was election day, and the house was early astir. Loud voices sounded through the hall. Innumerable people, it seemed, mistook his room for their own. Jack rose at last, thoroughly indignant and disposed to quarrel. He had a blame good notion to vote for Brown after all, after the way he had been treated.

When he had hastily dressed himself, discussing his grievances in a loud voice, he endeavored to leave the room, but found the door securely locked. Then his anger knew no bounds. He lustily kicked on the lower panel of the door and fairly shrieked his indignation and rage.

The chambermaid, passing, remonstrated with him by beating on the other side of the door. She was a pert young woman with a squeaky voice, and she thought she knew what was wrong with the occupant of 17. She had heard kicks on doors before.

"Quiet down, you, mister, or you'll get yourself put in the cooler— that's the best place for noisy drunks."

This, of course, annoyed the innocent man beyond measure, but she was gone far down the hall before he could think of the retort suitable.

When she finished her upstairs work and came downstairs to peel the potatoes, she mentioned casually to the bartender that whoever he had in number 17 was "smashin' things up pretty lively!"

The bartender went up and liberated the indignant voter, who by this time had his mind made up to vote against both Brown and Hastings, and furthermore to renounce politics in all its aspects for evermore.

However, a good breakfast and the sincere apologies of the hotel people did much to restore his good humor. But a certain haziness grew in his mind as to who was who, and at times the disquieting thought skidded through his murky brain that he might be in the enemy's camp for all he knew. Angus and Mrs. Angus had said, "Do what you think is right and vote for Hastings," and that was plain and simple and easily understood. But now things seemed to be all mixed up.

The committee were ill at ease about him. The way he wagged his head and declared he knew what was what, you bet, was very disquieting, and the horrible fear haunted them that they were perchance cherishing a serpent in their bosom.

The Secretary had a proposal: "Take him out to Milt Kennedy's. Milt said he could work him. Take him out there! Milt said all he had to do was to raise his eyes and John Thomas would vote right."

The erstwhile Liberal again went on the road with John Thomas, to deliver him over to the authority of Milt Kennedy. If Milt could get results by simply elevating his eyebrows, Milt was the man who was needed.

Arriving at Milt's, he left the voter sitting in the buggy, while he went in search of the one who could control John's erring judgment.

While sitting there alone, another wandering thought zig-zagged through John's brain. They were making a fool of him, some way! Well, he'd let them see, b'gosh!

He jumped out of the buggy, and hastily climbed into the hay-mow. It was a safe and quiet spot, and was possessed of several convenient eye-holes through which he could watch with interest the search which immediately began.

He saw the two men coming up to the barn, and as they passed almost below him, he heard Milt say, "Oh, sure, John Thomas will vote right—I can run him all right!—he'll do as I say. Hello, John! Where is he?"

They went into the house—they searched the barn—they called, coaxed, entreated. They ran down to the road to see if he had started back to town; he was as much gone as if he had never been!

"Are you dead sure you brought him?" Milt asked at last in desperation, as he turned over a pile of sacks in the granary.

"Gosh! ain't they lookin' some!" chuckled the elusive voter, as he watched with delight their unsuccessful endeavors to locate him. "But there's lots of places yet that they hain't thought of; they hain't half looked for me yet. I may be in the well for all they know." Then he began to sing to himself, "I know something I won't tell!"

It was not every day that John Thomas Green found himself the centre of attraction, and he enjoyed the sensation.

Having lost so much sleep the night before, a great drowsiness fell on John Thomas, and curling himself up in the hay, he sank into a sweet, sound sleep.

While he lay there, safe from alarms, the neighborhood was shaken with a profound sensation. John Thomas was lost. Lost, and his vote lost with him!

Milton Kennedy, who had to act as scrutineer at the poll in town, was forced to leave home with the mystery unsolved. Before going, he 'phoned to Billy Adams, one of the faithful, and in guarded speech, knowing that he was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, broke the news! Billy Adams immediately left his stacking, and set off to find his lost compatriot.

Mrs. Alex Porter lived on the next farm to Billy Adams, and being a lady of some leisure, she usually managed to get in on most of the 'phone conversations. Billy Adams' calls were very seldom overlooked by her, for she was on the other side of politics, and it was always well to know what was going on. Although she did not know all that was said by the two men, she heard enough to assure her that crooked work was going on. Mrs. Alex Porter declared she was not surprised. She threw her apron over her head and went to the field and told Alex. Alex was not surprised. In fact, it seems Alex had expected it!

They 'phoned in cipher to Angus, Mrs. Angus being a sister of Mrs. Alex
Porter. Mrs. Angus told them to speak out plain, and say what they
wanted to, even if all the Conservatives on the line were listening.
Then Mrs. Porter said that John Thomas was lost over at Milt Kennedy's.
They had probably drugged him or something.

Then Angus's wife said he was safe enough. Billy Batters had come and got him the night before. At the mention of Billy Batters there was a sound of suppressed mirth all along the line. Mrs. Angus's sister fairly shrieked. "Billy Batters! Don't you know he has turned Conservative!—he's working tooth and nail for Brown." Mrs. Angus called Angus excitedly. Everybody talked at once; somebody laughed; one or two swore. Mrs. Porter told Milt Kennedy's wife she'd caught her eavesdropping this time sure. She'd know her cackle any place, and Milt's wife told Mrs. Porter to shut up—she needn't talk about eavesdroppers,—good land! and Mrs. Porter told Mrs. Milt she should try something for that voice of hers, and recommended machine oil, and Central rang in and told them they'd all have their 'phones taken out if they didn't stop quarreling; and John Thomas, in the hay-mow, slept on, as peacefully as an innocent babe!

In the committee rooms, Jack's disappearance was excitedly discussed. The Conservatives were not sure that Bill Batters was not giving them the double cross—once a Grit, always a Grit! Angus was threatening to have him arrested for abduction—he had beguiled John Thomas from the home of his friends, and then carelessly lost him.

William Batters realized that he had lost favor in both places, and anxiously longed for a sight of John Thomas's red face, vote or no vote.

At four o'clock John Thomas awoke much refreshed, but very hungry. He went into the house in search of something to eat. Milton and his wife had gone into town many hours before, but he found what he wanted, and was going back to the hay-mow to finish his sleep, just as Billy Adams was going home after having cast his vote.

Billy Adams seized him eagerly, and rapidly drove back to town. Jack's vote would yet be saved to the party!

It was with pardonable pride that Billy Adams reined in his foaming team, and rushed John Thomas into the polling booth, where he was greeted with loud cheers. Nobody dare ask him where he had been—time was too precious. Milton Kennedy, scrutineer, lifted his eyebrows as per agreement. Jack replied with a petulant shrug of his good shoulder and passed in to the inner chamber.

The Conservatives were sure they had him. The Liberals were sure, too. Mrs. Angus was sure Jack would vote right after the way she had reasoned with him and showed him!

When the ballots were counted, there were several spoiled ones, of course. But there was one that was rather unique. After the name of Thomas Brown, there was written in lead pencil, "None of yer business!" which might have indicated a preference for the other name of John Hastings, only for the fact that opposite his name was the curt remark, "None of yer business, either!"

Some thought the ballot was John Thomas Green's.