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Chapter 10

JIMMIE HIGGINS MEETS THE OWNER

I

It was late at night when Jimmie left the Socialist local, and took the trolley out into the country. He had to walk nearly two miles from where he got off, and a thunder-storm had come up; he got out and started to trudge through the darkness and the floods of rain. Several times he slipped off the road into the ditch, and once he fell prone, and got up and washed the mud from his eyes and nose with the stream of fresh water pouring about his head. While he was thus occupied he heard the sound of a horn, and saw a glare of light rushing up. He jumped into the ditch again, and a big automobile went by at a fast pace, spattering showers of mud all over him. He plodded on, swearing to himself. Some of them munition- millionaires, no doubt--tearing over the country at night honking their horns like they owned the roads, and covering poor walking people with their splashings!

And so on, until Jimmie came round a turn of the road and saw the white glare of light again, this time standing still. It seemed to be pointing up into the trees; and when he got nearer he made out the reason--it had run off the road into the ditch, and then up the other slope, and there rolled over on to its side.

"Hello!" said a voice, as Jimmie came slopping up.

"Hello!" he answered.

"How far is it to the nearest house?"

"Maybe half a mile."

"Who lives there?"

"I do."

"Have you got a horse and buggy?"

"There's one at the big house, just a piece beyond."

"Do you suppose we could get enough men to turn this car over?"

"I dunno; there ain't many about here."

"Damn!" muttered the man to himself. Then, after a moment, "Well, there's no use staying here." This to his companion, whom Jimmie made out to be a woman. She was standing still, with the cold rain pouring over her. The man put his arm about her, and said to Jimmie, "Lead the way, please." So Jimmie set out, slopping through the mud as before.

Nothing more was said until they reached the "tenant-house" where the Jimmies lived. But meantime the little Socialist's mind was busy; it seemed to him that the man's voice was familiar, and he was trying to recall where and how he had heard it before. They came to the house, which was dark, and the couple stood on the porch while Jimmie went in and groped for a match and lighted the single smoky oil-lamp on which the household depended. Carrying it in his hand, he went to the door and invited the couple in. They came; and so Jimmie got a glimpse of the face of the man, and almost dropped the lamp right there where he stood. It was Lacey Granitch!

II

The young lord of Leesville was too much occupied with his own affairs to notice the look on the face of the yokel before him; or perhaps he was so used to being recognized, and to being stared at by yokels. He looked about the room and saw a stove. "Can you get us a fire, so this lady can get dry?"

"Y--yes," said Jimmie. "I--I suppose so." But he made no move; he stood rooted to the spot.

"Lacey," put in the woman, "don't stop for that. Get the car started, or get another." And Jimmie looked at her; she was rather small, and very beautiful--quite the most beautiful human creature that Jimmie had ever looked at. One could see that she was expensively dressed, even though everything she had on was soaked with rain.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Lacey. "You can't travel till you get dry--you'd be ill." And he turned upon Jimmie. "Get a fire, won't you?" he exclaimed. "A big fire. I'll make it worth while to you for whatever you do. Only don't stand there gaping all night," he added impatiently.

Jimmie leaped to obey; partly because he had been in the habit of leaping to obey all his life--but also partly because he was sorry for the beautiful wet lady, and because, if he stood and stared any longer, Lacey Granitch might recognize him. The moment when Jimmie had been singled out in the herd of strikers and cursed by the young master of the Empire Machine Shops was one of the most vivid memories of Jimmie's rebellious life, and it did not occur to him that the incident might not have equally impressed the other participant.

In a few minutes the stove was hot; and urged by her escort, the lady took off her driving-coat and hat, and hung them over a chair. Everything underneath was wet, and the man urged her to take off her skirt and blouse. "What does he matter?" he argued, referring to Jimmie; but the lady would not do it. She stood by the stove, shivering slightly, and pleading with her escort to make haste, to find some way to get the car running again. They might be followed--

"Oh, nonsense, Helen!" cried Lacey. "You are tormenting yourself with nightmares. Be sensible and get dry." He piled the wood into the stove, and ordered Jimmie to get another armful; and Jimmie obeyed with his hands and feet--but meantime his rebellious little brain was taking in every detail of the situation, putting this and that together.

The talking had waked up Lizzie, so Jimmie rushed into the next room and whispered, "Lacey Granitch is here!" If he had told her that the Angel Gabriel was there, or Jehovah with all his thunders and his retinue of seraphim, poor Lizzie could not have been more stunned. Jimmie ordered her to get up, and get on her dress and shoes, and get a cup of coffee for the lady; the dazed woman obeyed--though she would rather have crawled under the bed than face the celestial personages who had taken possession of her home.

III

Lacey ordered Jimmie to accompany him, to find some help to get the car into travelling condition. They went out together, and on the porch, before they braved the rain again, young Granitch stopped and spoke: "See here, my man; I want you to help me get a gang together, and I want you to keep quiet, please--say nothing about who was in the car. If any other people come along and ask questions, keep your mouth shut, and I'll make it worth while to you--well worth while. Do you understand?"

Every instinct in Jimmie Higgins was ready to answer, "Yes, sir." That was what he had always answered to such commands--he, and his father, and his father's fathers before him. But something else within him resisted this instinct--the new revolutionary psychology which he had so painfully acquired, and which made continual war upon his old-time docilities. It seemed that this was the moment, if ever in his life, to show the stuff he was made of. He clenched his hands, and everything in him turned to iron. "WHO IS THAT LADY?" he demanded.

Lacey Granitch was so taken aback that he started visibly. "What do you mean?"

"I mean--is she your wife? Or is she some other man's wife?"

"Why you damned--" And the young lord of Leesville stopped, speechless. Jimmie fell back a couple of steps, as a matter of precaution, but he did not weaken in his rigid resolve.

"I know you, Mr. Granitch," he said; "and I know what you're doing. You might as well know you ain't foolin' nobody."

"What the hell is it to you?" cried the other; but then he stopped again, and Jimmie heard him breathing hard. Evidently he made an effort to keep his self-control; when he spoke again, his voice was quieter. "Listen, my good fellow," he said. "You have a chance to make a good deal of money to-night--"

"I don't want your money!" broke in Jimmie. "I wouldn't touch your filthy money, that you get by murdering men!"

"My God!" said Lacey Granitch; and then, weakly: "What have you got against me?"

"What have I got? I was workin' in the Empire, an' I went on strike for my rights, an' you cursed me like I was a dog, an' you sent the police an' had me arrested, an' they smashed Wild Bill's nose, an' sent me up for ten days when I hadn't done nothin'--"

"Oh! So that's it, is it?"

"Yes, that's it; but I wouldn't mind that so much--if it wasn't for them shells you're makin' to kill men over in Europe. And you spendin' the money drinkin' champagne with chorus-girls, an' runnin' off with other men's wives!"

"You--" and Lacey uttered a foul oath, and leaped at Jimmie; but Jimmie had expected that, he was looking out for himself. There was no railing to the little porch on which he stood, and he leaped off to the ground and away. Because he knew the lay of the land, he could run faster in the darkness than his pursuer.

He sped down the path and out into the road--and there was the headlight of an automobile, almost upon him. The vehicle came to an instant stop, and a startled voice cried, "Hey, there!"

"Hey, there!" answered Jimmie, and stopped in the light; for he did not believe that his enemy would dare pursue him there.

The voice from the car spoke again. "There's an automobile off the road a ways back here. Do you know anything about who the people are that were driving it?"

"Sure I do!" answered Jimmie promptly.

"Where are they?"

"They're up in that house--Lacey Granitch an' a lady named Helen--"

And instantly the door of the car was flung open. A man leaped out, and another man, and another; they kept coming--Jimmie would not have believed that an automobile could have held so many people. Not one of them said a word, but all started on the run for Jimmie's house as if they were charging in a battle.

IV

Jimmie followed behind. He heard sounds of a scuffle on the lawn, and screams from inside. At first the little farm-hand could not make up his mind what to do, but finally he ran to the house; and there in the front room he saw the beautiful lady, with her wet hair streaming down her back, and the tears streaming down her face, sunk on her knees, before the man who had hailed Jimmie from the automobile. She had caught his coat with her two hands, and clung to it with such desperation that when he tried to draw away he dragged her along the floor. "Paul!" she was screaming. "What are you going to do?"

"Be quiet! Be quiet!" commanded the man. He was young, tall and superhumanly handsome; his face had the white light of a passionate resolve, his lips were set like those of a man who is marching to his death in battle. "Answer me!" cried the woman again and again; until finally he said: "I shan't kill him; but I mean to teach him his lesson."

"Paul, Paul, have mercy!" sobbed the woman; she went on pleading hysterically, in the most dreadful distress that Jimmie had ever seen or heard. "It wasn't his fault, Paul, it was mine! I did it all! Oh, for Christ's sake! You are driving me mad!" She moaned, she implored, she sobbed till she choked herself; and when the man tried to tear her hands loose she fought with him, he could not get free of her.

"You're not going to move me, Helen," he declared. "You might as well get that clear."

"But I tell you it was my fault, Paul! I ran away with him!"

"All right," answered the man, grimly. "I'll fix him so no other man's wife will ever run away with him."

Her clamour continued more wildly than ever, until two other men came into the room. "Joe," said Paul, to one of them, "take her down to the car and keep her there. Don't let her call for help--if anybody comes along, keep her quiet, keep your hand tight over her mouth."

"Paul, you're a fiend!" shrieked the woman. "I'll kill you for this!"

"You're welcome to," answered the man. "I shouldn't care--but I'm going to do this job before I die." And he tore the woman's hands away from him, and by his stern anger he gave the other two men the necessary resolution. They carried her, half-fainting, out of the room.

All this time Jimmie Higgins had been standing like one turned to stone; and Lizzie had shrunk into a far corner of the room, all but paralysed with terror. Now the man turned to them. "My good people," he said, "we want to borrow your room for a half-hour or so. We'll pay you well for it--enough to buy the whole house if you want to."

"W--w--what are you goin' to do?" stammered Jimmie.

"We're going to teach a little fundamental morality to a young man whose education has been neglected," replied the other. That somehow did not tell Jimmie very much, but he forebore to speak again, for never in all his life had he seen a man who conveyed to him the impression of such resistless force as this man. He was truly a superhuman creature, terrifying, panoplied in lightnings of wrath.

The door of the house opened again, and Lacey Granitch came in, with a man on each side holding him by the arms and a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. Of all the dreadful spectacles that Jimmie had seen that dreadful night, the worst was the face of the young master of the Empire Machine Shops. It was green--absolutely and literally green. His knees trembled so that he seemed about to sink to the floor, and his dark eyes were those of an animal in a trap.

There came another man behind him carrying two black cases in his hands. He opened one, and took out some instrument with wires attached, and hung part of it to a hook on the wall; he pressed a switch, and a soft white radiance flooded the room. The man who was in command, the one whom the lady had called "Paul", now turned to Jimmie and his wife. "You may take your lamp," he said. "Go into the other room and stay there till we call you, please."

"W--w--what are you goin' to do?" Jimmie found courage to stammer again. But the other merely bade him to go into the other room and stay, and it would be all right, and he would be well paid for his time and trouble. There was no use trying to interfere; no use trying to get away, for the house would be watched.

V

Jimmie Junior had been wakened by the uproar, and was whimpering; so Lizzie hurried to quiet him, and Jimmie set the little smoky lamp on the dresser, and went and sat on the bed beside her, holding her hand in his. Both their hands were shaking in a way that was amazing.

Every sound from the other room was plainly audible. Lacey was pleading, and "Paul" commanded him to hold his tongue. There was a scuffle, and then terrified moans, which died away. There began to steal into the Higgins's bedroom a most ghastly odour; they could not imagine what it was. And then they began to hear wild clamour from Lacey Granitch, as if he were suffering in hell. It was awful beyond words; the perspiration came out in beads on the faces of the listeners, and Jimmie was just about making up his mind that it was his duty to rush in and protest, or perhaps to climb out of the window and make an effort to steal away and summon help, when the door opened and the man called "Paul" came in, closing the door behind him.

"It's all right," said he. "People always make a fuss when they're given an anaesthetic, so don't let it frighten you." And he stood there waiting, rigid, grim, while the sounds went on. Finally they died away and silence fell--a long, long silence. He opened the door and went back into the other room, and the two Jimmies were left holding each other's shaking hands.

Now and then they heard a man speak in a low voice, or someone move across the room; and always that ghastly, overpowering odour kept creeping in, making them think they would die of suffocation, and their three babies also. The suspense and horror had become almost unbearable--when finally they began to hear Lacey Granitch again, moaning, sobbing--most harrowing sounds. "My God! My God!" whispered Lizzie, "What are they doing?" And when Jimmie did not answer, she whispered again. "We ought to stop them! We ought to get help!"

But then once more the door opened, and "Paul" came in. "It's all right now," he said. "He's coming out." Neither of the Jimmies had the least idea what "coming out" meant, but they were reassured to know that the masterful person at least was satisfied. They waited; they heard Lacey vomiting, as it seemed--and then they heard him cursing, in between his feeble gasps. He called the men the same foul name that he had called Jimmie; and that somehow made the whole affair seem better--it brought one down to earth again!

"Paul" went out and stayed for a while, and when he came back, he said, "We're going now; and understand, there's nothing for you to worry about. We shall leave the patient here, and as soon as we get to a telephone, we'll notify the hospital to send an ambulance. So all you have to do is to wait, and keep quiet and don't worry. And here's something for the use of your house--"The man put out his hand with a roll of bills, which Jimmie mechanically took--"and if anybody asks you about what happened to-night, just say you didn't see anything and don't know anything whatever about it. I'm sorry to have troubled you, but it couldn't be helped. And now, good night."

And so the masterful young man went out, and they heard him and his companions tramping down the porch-steps. They listened, until they heard the automobile start up and disappear in the darkness. Then from the next room they heard a moan.

Trembling with terror, Jimmie got up and stole to the door, and opened it a tiny crack. The room was in utter darkness. "Get me some water!" the voice of Lacey groaned; and Jimmie tiptoed back and got the little smoky lamp, and came to the door again. He peered in, and saw that Lacey was lying on the floor with a sheet over him--everything but his head, which was resting on a pillow. His face was yellow and twisted with pain. "Water! Water!" he sobbed; and Jimmie rushed to get a glass and fill it from the pail. When he brought it, Lacey first tried to drink, and then began to vomit; then he lay, sobbing softly to himself. He saw Jimmie staring at him, and his eyes filled with sudden hate and he whispered, "This is what you got me in for, you damned little skunk!"

Upton Sinclair

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