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The winter's twilight, as thick as blown smoke, was drifting through the Capitol Square. Already the snow covered walks and the frozen fountains were in shadow; but beyond the irregular black boughs of the trees the sky was still suffused with the burning light of the sunset. Over the head of the great bronze Washington a single last gleam of sunshine shot suddenly before it vanished amid the spires and chimneys of the city, which looked as visionary and insubstantial as the glowing horizon.
Stopping midway of the road, Stephen Culpeper glanced back over the vague streets and the clearer distance, where the approaching dusk spun mauve and silver cobwebs of air. From that city, it seemed to him, a new and inscrutable force—the force of an idea—had risen within the last few months to engulf the Square and all that the Square had ever meant in his life. Though he was only twenty-six, he felt that he had watched the decay and dissolution of a hundred years. Nothing of the past remained untouched. Not the old buildings, not the old trees, not even the old memories. Clustering traditions had fled in the white blaze of electricity; the quaint brick walks, with their rich colour in the sunlight, were beginning to disappear beneath the expressionless mask of concrete. It was all changed since his father's or his grandfather's day; it was all obvious and cheap, he thought; it was all ugly and naked and undistinguished—yet the tide of the new ideas was still rising. Democracy, relentless, disorderly, and strewn with the wreckage of finer things, had overwhelmed the world of established customs in which he lived.
As he lifted his face to the sky, his grave young features revealed a subtle kinship to the statues beneath the mounted Washington in the drive, as if both flesh and bronze had been moulded by the dominant spirit of race. Like the heroes of the Revolution, he appeared a stranger in an age which had degraded manners and enthroned commerce; and like them also he seemed to survey the present from some inaccessible height of the past. Dignity he had in abundance, and a certain mellow, old-fashioned quality; yet, in spite of his well-favoured youth, he was singularly lacking in sympathetic appeal. Already people were beginning to say that they "admired Culpeper; but he was a bit of a prig, and they couldn't get really in touch with him." His attitude of mind, which was passive but critical, had developed the faculties of observation rather than the habits of action. As a member of the community he was indifferent and amiable, gay and ironic. Only the few who had seen his reserve break down before the rush of an uncontrollable impulse suspected that there were rich veins of feeling buried beneath his conventional surface, and that he cherished an inarticulate longing for heroic and splendid deeds. The war had left him with a nervous malady which he had never entirely overcome; and this increased both his romantic dissatisfaction with his life and his inability to make a sustained effort to change it.
The sky had faded swiftly to pale orange; the distant buildings appeared to swim toward him in the silver air; and the naked trees barred the white slopes with violet shadows. In the topmost branches of an old sycamore the thinnest fragment of a new moon hung trembling like a luminous thread. The twilight was intensely still, and the noises of the city fell with a metallic sound on his ears, as if a multitude of bells were ringing about him. While he walked on past the bald outline of the restored and enlarged Capitol, this imaginary concert grew gradually fainter, until he heard above it presently the sudden closing of a window in the Governor's mansion—as the old gray house was called.
Pausing abruptly, the young man frowned as his eyes fell on the charming Georgian front, which presided like a serene and spacious memory over the modern utilitarian purpose that was devastating the Square. Alone in its separate plot, broad, low, and hospitable, the house stood there divided and withdrawn from the restless progress and the age of concrete—a modest reminder of the centuries when men had built well because they had time, before they built, to stop and think and remember. The arrested dignity of the past seemed to the young man to hover above the old mansion within its setting of box hedges and leafless lilac shrubs and snow-laden magnolia trees. He saw the house contrasted against the crude surroundings of the improved and disfigured Square, and against the house, attended by all its stately traditions, he saw the threatening figure of Gideon Vetch. "So it has come to this," he thought resentfully, with his gaze on the doorway where a round yellow globe was shining. Ragged frost-coated branches framed the sloping roof, and the white columns of the square side porches emerged from the black crags of magnolia trees. In the centre of the circular drive, invaded by concrete, a white heron poured a stream of melting ice from a distorted throat.