JIMMIE HIGGINS MEETS THE CANDIDATE
"Jimmie," said Lizzie, "couldn't we go see the pictures?"
And Jimmie set down the saucer of hot coffee which he was in the act of adjusting to his mouth, and stared at his wife. He did not say anything; in three years and a half as a married man he had learned that one does not always say everything that comes into one's mind. But he meditated on the abysses that lie between the masculine and feminine intellects. That it should be possible for anyone to wish to see a movie idol leaping into second-story windows, or being pulled from beneath flying express trains, on this day of destiny, this greatest crisis in history!
"You know, Lizzie," he said, patiently, "I've got to help at the Opera-house."
"But you've got all morning!"
"I know; but it'll take all day."
And Lizzie fell silent; for she too had learned much in three years and a half of married life. She had learned that working men's wives seldom get all they would like in this world; also that to have a propagandist for a husband is not the worst fate that may befall. After all, he might have been giving his time and money to drink, or to other women; he might have been dying of a cough, like the man next door. If one could not have a bit of pleasure on a Sunday afternoon--well, one might sigh, but not too loud.
Jimmie began telling all the things that had to be done that Sunday morning and afternoon. They seemed to Lizzie exactly like the things that were done on other occasions before meetings. To be sure, this was bigger--it was in the Opera-house, and all the stores had cards in the windows, with a picture of the Candidate who was to be the orator of the occasion. But it was hard for Lizzie to understand the difference between this Candidate and other candidates--none of whom ever got elected! Lizzie would truly rather have stayed at home, for she did not understand English very well when it was shouted from a platform, and with a lot of long words; but she knew that Jimmie was trying to educate her, and being a woman, she was educated to this extent--she knew the way to hold on to her man.
Jimmie had just discovered a new solution of the problem of getting the babies to meetings; and Lizzie knew that he was tremendously proud of this discovery. So long as there had been only one baby, Jimmie had carried it. When there had come a second, Lizzie had helped. But now there were three, the total weight of them something over sixty pounds; and the street-car line was some distance away, and also it hurt Jimmie in his class-consciousness to pay twenty cents to a predatory corporation. They had tried the plan of paying something to a neighbour to stay with the babies; but the first they tried was a young girl who got tired and went away, leaving the little ones to howl their heads off; and the second was a Polish lady whom they found in a drunken stupor on their return.
But Jimmie was determined to go to meetings, and determined that Lizzie should go along. It was one of the curses of the system, he said, that it deprived working-class women of all chance for self-improvement. So he had paid a visit to the "Industrial Store", a junk-shop maintained by the Salvation Army, and for fifteen cents he had obtained a marvellous broad baby-carriage for twins, all finished in shiny black enamel. One side of it was busted, but Jimmie had fixed that with some wire, and by careful packing had shown that it was possible to stow the youngsters in it--Jimmie and Pete side by side, and the new baby at the foot.
The one trouble was that Jimmie Junior couldn't keep his feet still. He could never keep any part of him still, the little jack-in-the-box. Here he was now, tearing about the kitchen, pursuing the ever-receding tail of the newest addition to the family, a half-starved cur who had followed Jimmie in from the street, and had been fed into a semblance of reality. From this treasure a bare, round tail hung out behind in tantalizing fashion; Jimmie Junior, always imagining he could catch it, was toddling round and round and round the kitchen-table, clutching out in front of him, laughing so that after a while he sat down from sheer exhaustion.
And Jimmie Senior watched enraptured. Say, but he was a buster! Did you ever see a twenty-seven months' old kid that could get over the ground like that? Or make a louder noise? This last because Jimmie Junior had tried to take a short cut through the kitchen range and failed. Lizzie swooped down, clasping him to her broad bosom, and pouring out words of comfort in Bohemian. As Jimmie Senior did not understand any of these words, he took advantage of the confusion to get his coat and cap and hustle off to the Opera-house, full of fresh determination. For, you see, whenever a Socialist looks at his son, or even thinks of his son, he is hotter for his job of propagandist. Let the world be changed soon, so that the little fellows may be spared those sufferings and humiliations which have fallen to the lot of their parents!
"Comrade Higgins, have you got a hammer?" It was Comrade Schneider who spoke, and he did not take the trouble to come down from the ladder, where he was holding up a streamer of bunting, but waited comfortably for the hammer to be fetched to him. And scarcely had the fetcher started to climb before there came the voice of a woman from across the stage: "Comrade Higgins, has the Ypsel banner come?" And from the rear part of the hall came the rotund voice of fat Comrade Rapinsky: "Comrade Higgins, will you bring up an extra table for the literature?" And from the second tier box Comrade Mary Allen spoke: "While you're downstairs, Comrade Higgins, would you mind telephoning and making sure the Reception Committee knows about the change in the train-time?"
So it went; and Jimmie ran about the big hall with his face red and perspiring; for this was midsummer, and no breeze came through the windows of the Leesville Opera-house, and when you got high up on the walls to tie the streamers of red bunting, you felt as if you were being baked. But the streamers had to be tied, and likewise the big red flag over the stage, and the banner of the Karl Marx Verein, and the banner of the Ypsels, or Young People's Socialist League of Leesville, and the banner of the Machinists' Union, Local 4717, and of the Carpenters' Union, District 529, and of the Workers' Co-operative Society. And because Comrade Higgins never questioned anybody's right to give him orders, and always did everything with a cheerful grin, people had got into the habit of regarding him as the proper person for tedious and disagreeable tasks.
He had all the more on his hands at present, because the members of this usually efficient local were half-distracted, like a nest of ants that have been dug out with a shovel. The most faithful ones showed a tendency to forget what they were doing, and to gather in knots to talk about the news which had come over the cables and had been published in that morning's paper. Jimmie Higgins would have liked to hear what the rest had to say; but somebody had to keep at work, for the local was in the hole nearly three hundred dollars for to-night's affair, and it must succeed, even though half the civilized world had gone suddenly insane. So Jimmie continued to climb step-ladders and tie bunting.
When it came to lunch-time, and the members of the Decorations Committee were going out, it suddenly occurred to one of them that the drayman who was to bring the literature might arrive while there was nobody to receive it. So Comrade Higgins was allowed to wait during the lunch hour. There was a plausible excuse--he was on the Literature Committee; indeed, he was on every committee where hard work was involved--the committee to distribute leaflets announcing the meeting, the committee to interview the labour unions and urge them to sell tickets, the committee to take up a collection at the meeting. He was not on those committees which involved honour and edification, such as, for example, the committee to meet the Candidate at the depot and escort him to the Opera-house. But then it would never have occurred to Jimmie that he had any place on such a committee; for he was just an ignorant fellow, a machinist, undersized and undernourished, with bad teeth and roughened hands, and no gifts or graces of any sort to recommend him; while on the Reception Committee were a lawyer and a prosperous doctor and the secretary of the Carpet-weavers' Union, all people who wore good clothes and had education, and knew how to talk to a Candidate.
So Jimmie waited; and when the drayman came, he opened up the packages of books and pamphlets and laid them out in neat piles on the literature tables, and hung several of the more attractive ones on the walls behind the tables; so, of course, Comrade Mabel Smith, who was chairman of the Literature Committee, was greatly pleased when she came back from lunch. And then came the members of the German Liederkranz, to rehearse the programme they were to give; and Comrade Higgins would have liked first rate to sit and listen, but somebody discovered the need of glue, and he chased out to find a drug-store that was open on Sunday.
Later on there was a lull, and Jimmie realized that he was hungry. He examined the contents of his pockets and found that he had seventeen cents. It was a long way to his home, so he would step round the corner and have a cup of coffee and a couple of "sinkers" at "Tom's". He first conscientiously asked if anybody needed anything, and Comrade Mabel Smith told him to hurry back to help her put out the leaflets on the seats, and Comrade Meissner would need help in arranging the chairs on the stage.
When you went from the Leesville Opera-house and turned West in Main Street, you passed Heinz's Cafe, which was a "swell" eating-place, and not for Jimmie; and then the "Bijou Nickelodeon", with a mechanical piano in the entrance; and the "Bon Marche Shoe Store", which was always having a fire-sale or a removal sale or a bankruptcy clearing-out; and then Lipsky's "Picture Palace", with a brown and yellow cowboy galloping away with a red and yellow maiden in his arms; then Harrod's "Fancy Grocery" on the corner. And in each of these places there was a show-card in the window, with a picture of the Candidate, and the announcement that on Sunday evening, at eight o'clock, he would speak at the Leesville Opera-house on "War, the Reason and the Remedy". Jimmie Higgins looked at the cards, and a dignified yet joyful pride stirred in his bosom; for all of them were there because he, Jimmie, had interviewed the proprietors and obtained their more or less reluctant consent.
Jimmie knew that on this Sunday, in cities all over Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and England, the workers were gathering by millions and tens of millions, to protest against the red horror of war being let loose over their heads. And in America too--a call would go from the new world to the old, that the workers should rise and carry out their pledge to prevent this crime against mankind. He, Jimmie Higgins, had no voice that anybody would heed; but he had helped to bring the people of his city to hear a man who had a voice, and who would show the meaning of this world-crisis to the working-people.
It was the party's Candidate for President. At this time only congressional elections were pending, but this man had been Candidate for President so often that every one thought of him in that role. You might say that each of his campaigns lasted four years; he travelled from one end of the land to the other, and counted by the millions those who heard his burning, bitter message. It had chanced that the day which the War-lords and Money-lords of Europe had chosen to drive their slaves to slaughter was the day on which the Candidate had been scheduled to speak in the Leesville Opera-house. No wonder the Socialists of the little inland city were stirred!
Jimmie Higgins turned into "Tom's Buffeteria", and greeted the proprietor, and seated himself on a stool in front of the counter, and called for coffee, and helped himself to "sinkers"--which might have been called "life-preservers", they were blown so full of air. He filled his mouth, at the same time looking up to make sure that Tom had not removed the card announcing the meeting; for Tom was a Catholic, and one of the reasons that Jimmie went to his place was to involve him and his patrons in arguments over exploitation, unearned increment and surplus value.
But before a discussion could be started, it chanced that Jimmie glanced about. In the back part of the room were four little tables, covered with oil-cloth, where "short orders" were served; and at one of those tables a man was seated. Jimmie took a glance at him, and started so that he almost spilled his coffee. Impossible; and yet-- surely--who could mistake that face? The face of a medieval churchman, lean, ascetic, but with a modern touch of kindliness, and a bald dome on top like a moon rising over the prairie. Jimmie started, then stared at the picture of the Candidate which crowned the shelf of pies. He turned to the man again; and the man glanced up, and his eyes met Jimmie's, with their expression of amazement and awe. The whole story was there, not to be misread--especially by a Candidate who travels about the country making speeches, and being recognized every hour or so from his pictures which have preceded him. A smile came to his face, and Jimmie set down the coffee-cup from one trembling hand and the "sinker" from the other, and rose from his stool.
Jimmie would not have had the courage to advance, save for the other man's smile--a smile that was weary, but candid and welcoming. "Howdy do, Comrade?" said the man. He held out his hand, and the moment of this clasp was the nearest to heaven that Jimmie Higgins had ever known.
When he was able to find his voice, it was only to exclaim, "You wasn't due till five-forty-two!"
As if the Candidate had not known that! He explained that he had missed his sleep the night before, and had come on ahead so as to snatch a bit during the day. "I see," said Jimmie; and then, "I knowed you by your picture."
"Yes?" said the other, patiently.
And Jimmie groped round in his addled head for something really worth while. "You'll want to see the Committee?"
"No," said the other, "I want to finish this first." And he took a sip from a glass of milk, and a bite out of a sandwich, and chewed.
So utterly rattled was Jimmie he sat there like a num-skull, unable to find a word, while the man finished his repast. When it was over, Jimmie said again--he could do no better--"You want to see the Committee?"
"No," was the reply, "I want to sit here--and perhaps talk to you, Comrade--Comrade--?"
"Higgins," said Jimmie.
"Comrade Higgins--that is, if you have time."
"Oh, sure!" exclaimed Jimmie. "I got all the time there is. But the Committee--"
"Never mind the Committee, Comrade. Do you know how many Committees I have met on this trip?"
Jimmie did not know; nor did he have the courage to ask.
"Probably you never thought how it is to be a Candidate," continued the other. "You go from place to place, and make the same speech every night, and it seems as if you slept in the same hotel every night, and almost as if you met the same Committee. But you have to remember that your speech is new to each audience, and you have to make it as if you had never made it before; also you have to remember that the Committee is made up of devoted comrades who are giving everything for the cause, so you don't tell them that they are just like every other committee, or that you are tired to death, or maybe have a headache--"
Jimmie sat, gazing in awe-stricken silence. Not being a man of reading, he had never heard of "the head that wears a crown". This was his first glimpse into the soul of greatness.
The Candidate went on: "And then, too, Comrade, there's the news from Europe. I want a little time. I can't bring myself to face it!"
His voice had grown sombre, and to Jimmie, gazing at him, it seemed that all the sorrows of the world were in his tired grey eyes. "Perhaps I'd better go," said Jimmie.
"No no," replied the other, with quick self-recovery. He looked and saw that Jimmie had forgotten his meal. "Bring your things over here," he said; and the other fetched his cup and saucer and plate, and gulped the rest of his "sinkers" under the Candidate's eyes.
"I oughtn't to talk," said the latter. "You see how hoarse I am. But you talk. Tell me about the local, and how things are going here."
So Jimmie summoned his courage. It was the one thing he could really talk about, the thing of which his mind and soul were full. Leesville was a typical small manufacturing city, with a glass bottle works, a brewery, a carpet-factory, and the big Empire Machine Shops, at which Jimmie himself spent sixty-three hours of his life each week. The workers were asleep, of course; but still you couldn't complain, the movement was growing. The local boasted of a hundred and twenty members, though of course, only about thirty of them could be counted on for real work. That was the case everywhere, the Candidate put in--it was always a few who made the sacrifice and kept things alive.
Then Jimmie went on to tell about to-night's meeting, the preparations they had made, the troubles they had had. The police had suddenly decided to enforce the law against delivering circulars from house to house; though they allowed Isaac's "Emporium" to use this method of announcement. The Leesville Herald and Evening Courier were enthusiastic for the police action; if you couldn't give out circulars, obviously you would have to advertise in these papers. The Candidate smiled--he knew about American police officials, and also about American journalism.
Jimmie had been laid off for a couple of days at the shop, and he told how he had put this time to good use, getting announcements of the meeting into the stores. There was an old Scotchman in a real estate office just across the way. "Git oot!" he said. "So I thought I'd better git oot!" said Jimmie. And then, taking his life into his hands, he had gone into the First National Bank. There was a gentleman walking across the floor, and Jimmie went up to him and held out one of the placards with the picture of the Candidate. "Would you be so good as to put this in your window?" he inquired; and the other looked at it coldly. Then he smiled--he was a good sort, apparently. "I don't think my customers would patronize your business," he said; but Jimmie went at him to take some tickets and learn about Socialism--and would you believe it, he had actually shelled out a dollar! "I found out afterwards that it was Ashton Charmers, the president of the bank!" said Jimmie. "I'd a' been scared, if I'd a' known."
He had not meant to talk about himself; he was just trying to entertain a tired Candidate, to keep him from brooding over a world going to war. But the Candidate, listening, found tears trying to steal into his eyes. He watched the figure before him--a bowed, undernourished little man, with one shoulder lower than the other, a straggly brown moustache stained with coffee, and stumpy black teeth, and gnarled hands into which the dirt and grease were ground so deeply that washing them would obviously be a waste of time. His clothes were worn and shapeless, his celluloid collar was cracked and his necktie was almost a rag. You would never have looked at such a man twice on the street--and yet the Candidate saw in him one of those obscure heroes who are making a movement which is to transform the world.
"Comrade Higgins," said the Candidate, after a bit, "let's you and me run away."
Jimmie looked startled. "How?"
"I mean from the Committee, and from the meeting, and from everything." And then, seeing the dismay in the other's face: "I mean, let's take a walk in the country."
"Oh!" said Jimmie.
"I see it through the windows of the railroad-cars, but I don't set foot on it for months at a time. And I was brought up in the country. Were you?"
"I was brought up everywhere," said the little machinist.
They got up, and paid each their ten cents to the proprietor of the "Buffeteria." Jimmie could not resist the temptation to introduce his hero, and show a pious Catholic that a Socialist Candidate had neither hoofs nor horns. The Candidate was used to being introduced for that purpose and had certain spontaneous and cordial words which he had said not less than ten thousand times before; with the result that the pious Catholic gave his promise to come to the meeting that night.
They went out; and because some member of the Committee might be passing on Main Street, Jimmie took his hero by an alley into a back street; and they walked past the glass-factory, which to the outsider was a long board fence, and across the Atlantic Western railroad tracks, and past the carpet-factory, a huge four-story box made of bricks; after which the rows of wooden shacks began to thin out, and there were vacant lots and ash-heaps, and at last the beginning of farms.
The Candidate's legs were long, and Jimmie's, alas, were short, so he had almost to run. The sun blazed down on them, and sweat, starting from the Candidate's bald head stole under the band of his straw hat and down to his wilting collar; so he took off his coat and hung it over his arm, and went on, faster than ever. Jimmie raced beside him, afraid to speak, for he divined that the Candidate was brooding over the world-calamity, the millions of young men marching out to slaughter. On the placards which Jimmie had been distributing in Leesville, there were two lines about the Candidate, written by America's favourite poet:
As warm heart as ever beat Betwixt here and judgement seat.
So they went on for perhaps an hour, by which time they were really in the country. They came to a bridge which crossed the river Lee, and there the Candidate suddenly stopped, and stood looking at the water sliding below him, and at the vista through which it wound, an avenue of green trees with stretches of pasture and cattle grazing. "That looks fine," he said. "Let's go down." So they climbed a fence, and made their way along the river for a distance, until a turn of the stream took them out of sight of the road.
There they sat on a shelving bank, and mopped the perspiration from their foreheads and necks, and gazed into the rippling current. You couldn't exactly say it was crystal clear, for when there is a town every ten miles or so along a stream, with factories pouring various kinds of chemicals into it, the job becomes too much for the restoring forces of Mother Nature. But it would take a dirty stream indeed not to look inviting in midsummer after a four-mile walk. So presently the Candidate turned to Jimmie, with a mischievous look upon his face. "Comrade Higgins, were you ever in a swimmin' hole?"
"Sure I was!" said Jimmie.
"Everywhere. I was on the road off an' on ten years--till I got married."
"Well," said the Candidate, still smiling, "what do you say?"
"I say sure!" replied Jimmie.
He was almost beside himself with awe, at this unbelieveable strange fortune, this real comradeship with the hero of his dreams. To Jimmie this man had been a disembodied intelligence, a dispenser of proletarian inspiration, a supernatural being who went about the country standing upon platforms and swaying the souls of multitudes. It had never occurred to Jimmie that he might have a bare body, and might enjoy splashing about in cool water like a boy playing "hookey" from school. The saying is that familiarity breeds contempt, but for Jimmie it bred rapture.
They walked home again, more slowly. The Candidate asked Jimmie about his life, and Jimmie told the story of a Socialist--not one of the leaders, the "intellectuals", but of the "rank and file". Jimmie's father was a working man out of a job, who had left his family before Jimmie had joined it; Jimmie's mother had died three years later, so he did not remember her, nor could he recall a word of the foreign language he had spoken at home, nor did he even know what the language was. He had been taken in charge by the city, and farmed out to a negro woman who had eight miserable starvelings under her care, feeding them on gruel and water, and not even giving them a blanket in winter. You might not think that possible--
"I know America," put in the Candidate.
Jimmie went on. At nine he had been boarded with a woodsaw man, who worked him sixteen hours a day and beat him in addition; so Jimmie had skipped out, and for ten years had lived the life of a street waif in the cities and a hobo on the road. He had learned a bit about machinery, helping in a garage, and then, in a rush-time, he had got a job in the Empire Machine Shops. He had stayed in Leesville, because he had got married; he had met his wife in a brothel, and she had wanted to quit the life, and they had taken a chance together.
"I don't tell that to everybody," said Jimmie. "You know--they mightn't understand. But I don't mind you knowin'."
"Thank you," replied the Candidate, and put his hand on Jimmie's shoulder. "Tell me how you became a Socialist."
There was nothing special about that, was the answer. There had been a fellow in the shop who was always "chewing the rag"; Jimmie had laughed at him--for his life had made him suspicious of everybody, and if there was any sort of politician, it was just another scheme of somebody to wear a white collar and live off the workers. But the fellow had kept pegging away; and once Jimmie had been laid off for a couple of months, and the family had near starved, and that had given him time to think, and also the inclination. The fellow had come along with some papers, and Jimmie had read them, and it dawned upon him that here was a movement of his fellow-workers to put an end to their torments.
"How long ago was that?" asked the Candidate, and Jimmie answered three years. "And you haven't lost your enthusiasm?" This with an intensity that surprised Jimmie. No, he answered, he was not that kind. Whatever happened, he would keep pegging away at the task of freeing labour. He would not see the New Day, perhaps, but his children would see it; and a fellow would work like the devil to save his children.
So they came to the city; and the Candidate pressed Jimmie's arm. "Comrade," he said, "I want to tell you how much good this little trip has done me. I owe you a debt of gratitude."
"Me?" exclaimed Jimmie.
"You have given me fresh hope and courage, and at a time when I felt beaten. I got into town this morning, and I'd had no sleep, and I tried to get some in the hotel and couldn't, because of the horror that's happening. I wrote a dozen telegrams and sent them off, and then I was afraid to go back to the hotel-room, because I knew I'd only lie awake all afternoon. But now--I remember that our movement is rooted in the hearts of the people!"
Jimmie was trembling. But all he could say was: "I wish I could do it every Sunday."
"So do I," said the Candidate.
They walked down Main Street, and some way ahead they saw a crowd gathered, filling the pavement beyond the kerb. "What is that?" asked the Candidate, and Jimmie answered that it was the office of the Herald. There must be some news.
The other hastened his steps; and Jimmie, striding alongside, fell silent again, knowing that the gigantic burden and woe of the world was falling upon his hero's shoulders once more. They came to the edge of the crowd, and saw a bulletin in front of the newspaper office. But it was too far away for them to read. "What is it?" they asked.
"It says the Germans are going to march into Belgium. And they've shot a lot of Socialists in Germany."
"WHAT?" And the Candidate's hand clutched Jimmie's arm.
"That's what it says."
"My God!" exclaimed the man. And he began pushing his way into the crowd, with Jimmie in his wake. They got to the bulletin, and stood reading the typewritten words--a bare announcement that more than a hundred leading German Socialists had been executed for efforts to prevent mobilization. They continued staring, until people pushing behind them caused them to draw back. Outside the throng they stood, the Candidate gazing into space, and Jimmie gazing at the Candidate, both of them dumb. It was a fact that they could not have been more shocked if the news had referred to the members of Local Leesville of the Socialist Party of America.
The pain in the Candidate's face was so evident that Jimmie groped about in his head for something comforting to say. "At least they done what they could," he whispered.
The other suddenly burst forth: "They are heroes! They have made the name Socialist sacred for ever!" He rushed on, as if he were making a speech-so strong becomes a life-time habit. "They have written their names at the very top of humanity's roll of honour! It doesn't make any difference what happens after this, Comrade--the movement had vindicated itself! All the future will be changed because of this event!"
He began to walk down the street, talking more to himself than to Jimmie. He was borne away on the wings of his vision; and his companion was so thrilled that he honestly did not know where he was. Afterwards, when he looked back upon this scene, it remained the most wonderful event of his life; he told the story, sooner or later, to every Socialist he met.
Presently the Candidate stopped. "Comrade," he said, "I must go to the hotel. I want to write some telegrams. You explain to the Committee--I'd rather not see anyone till time for the meeting. I'll find the way myself."