JIMMIE HIGGINS FACES THE WAR
The ambulance arrived, and the two attendants who came with it brought in a stretcher and carried young Granitch away. Jimmie opened the windows to get rid of the odour of ether, and meantime he and Lizzie sat for hours discussing every aspect of the dreadful scene they had witnessed, and speculating as to its meaning. When Jimmie investigated the roll of bills which had been slipped into his hand, he found that there were ten of them, new, crisp, and bright yellow, each having the figure twenty printed upon it. It was more money than these two humble little people had ever had or expected to have in all their lives. It was literally blood-money they felt, but it would be hard to see who would be benefited if they rejected it. Certainly the deed which had been done that night could not be undone--not for all the money that old Granitch had heaped up in his vaults.
Jimmie kept quiet, as he had been bidden, and apparently no one told about his part in the affair--no reporters came out to his country home to ask for interviews. But when he went to the cross-roads store a couple of nights later he found that the storm was all over--nobody was talking or thinking about anything else. The news, in fact, had gone by telegraph all over the world, and wherever people read it they shuddered with horror, and the Socialists had a choice illustration of the effect of excessive wealth upon morals.
There were half a dozen versions of the story, Jimmie found; some declared that the outraged husband had caught young Granitch in his home and had fetched a surgeon there; others that he had taken him to a hospital; others that the operation had been performed in a road-house near by. But none mentioned the tenant-house on the farm of John Cutter, and Jimmie wrapped himself in his pride of superior knowledge, and let the loungers in the country store chatter on. He would go back each night for new gossip; and first he heard that old man Granitch was meaning to have all the conspirators arrested and sent to jail; but then it was said that young Lacey had left the hospital and vanished, no one knew where. And they never knew; never again did he appear to curse the strikers at the Empire, nor to break the hearts of chorus-girls on the Great White Way! His grim old father's hair turned grey in a few weeks; and while he went on to fill his contracts with the Russian government, all men knew that his heart was eaten out with grief and rage and shame.
Jimmie and his wife held numerous confabulations over those twenty-dollar bills. What should they do with their fortune? The Worker, always in need of funds, was just now issuing bonds in small denominations, and Jimmie could not imagine any better financial investment than a working-class paper; but Lizzie, alas, could not be made to see it. And then his eye was caught by an advertisement of an oil-company, published in a Socialist paper, which lifted it above suspicion. But again Lizzie blocked the way. She begged her visionary husband to turn the money over to her; she argued that half of it belonged to her anyhow--had she not done her part to earn it? "What part?" Jimmie asked; and she answered that she had kept quiet--and what more had he done?
Eleeza Betooser wanted that treasure to insure safety for the children through whatever troubles might come to their propagandist father. And finally the propagandist father gave way, and the woman proceeded to secure the money in the ancient way of her sex. She took the ten crisp bills and sewed them in a layer of cloth, and wound the cloth about the ankle of her right leg, and sewed it there, and put a stocking over it to hide it. And that apparatus would stay there--day or night, winter or summer, it would never part from its owner. She would be a walking bank, a bank that she knew was safe from panic or crisis; the feeling of the two hundred dollars about her ankle would be communicated to every part of Lizzie--warming her heart, delighting her brain, and stimulating her liver and digestion.
And soon the chances of life caused Jimmie to be glad of the innate conservatism of the feminine nature. The giant British offensive was drowned in mud and blood on the Somme, and the Russian offensive went to pieces before Lemberg; and meantime John Cutter stowed his barrels of apples in the cellar, and got the last of his corn-crop husked, and drove his load of pumpkins to market; and then one Saturday night, after the cows had come in, wet and steaming with November rain, he informed his hired man that he would not need his services after that month, he would no longer be able to afford "help".
Jimmie stared at him in consternation--for he had thought that he had a permanent job, having learned the work and having heard no serious complaints.
"But," explained Cutter, "the work's all done. Do you expect me to pay you to sit round? I'll be glad to take you on next spring, of course."
"And what'll I do in the meantime?" Jimmie glared, and all his hatred of the villainous profit-system welled up in his heart. So much food he had helped to raise and store away--and not a pound of it his! "Say," he remarked, "I know what you want! Some kind of a trained bear, that'll work all summer, and go to sleep in winter an' not eat nothin'!"
The little Socialist was all the crosser, because he knew that his boss had just made a lucky stroke--they were running a spur on the railroad out to the vast explosives plant they were constructing in the country, and Cutter had got the price of his mortgage for a narrow strip of land that was nothing but wood-lot. Jimmie had seen the deal made, and had put in a useful word as to the value of that "timber", but now he had no share in the deal. He must be content with an offer of the tenant-house for five dollars a month through the winter, and a job with the rail-road company, grading track.
There came rain and snow and blizzards, but the rail-road construction stopped for nothing. It went on in three shifts, day and night; for half the world was clamouring for the means to blow itself up, and the other half must work like the devil to furnish the means. At least that was the way the matter presented itself to Jimmie Higgins, who took it as a personal affront the way this diabolical war kept pursuing him. He had fled into the country from it, bringing his little family to a tenant-house on an obscure, worn-out farm, several miles from the nearest town; but here all of a sudden came a gang of Dagoes with picks and shovels. They lifted up and set to one side the chicken-house where Lizzie kept her eleven hens and one rooster, and the pig-sty where one little hog gobbled up their table-scraps; and two days later came a huge machine, driven by steam, creeping on a track, picking up rails and ties from a car behind it, swinging them round and laying them in front of it, and then rolling ahead over the bed it had made. So the railroad just literally walked out into the country, and before long whole train-loads of cement and sand and corrugated iron walls and roofing came rattling and banging past the Higgins's back-door. Day and night this continued; and a little way beyond they knew that a two-mile square of scrubby waste was being laid out with roads and tracks and little squat buildings, set far apart from each other. In a few months the frightened family would lie awake at night and listen to trains rattling past, coming out from the explosives plant, piled to the tops with loads of trinitrotoluol, and such unpronounceable instruments of murder and destruction. And this was the fate which capitalism had handed out to an ardent anti-militarist, a propagandist of international fraternity!
Jimmie Higgins went into the Socialist local now and then, to pay his dues and to refresh his soul on pacifist speeches. Just before Christmas the President of the United States wrote a letter to all the warring nations pleading with them to end the strife; intimating that all the belligerents were on a par as to badness, and stating explicitly that America had nothing to do with their struggle. This, of course, brought intense satisfaction to the members of Local Leesville of the Socialist party; it was what they had been proclaiming for two years and four months! They had never expected to have a capitalist President in agreement with them, but when the opportunity came, they made the most of it; clamouring that the capitalist President should go farther--should back up his words by actions. If the warring nations would not make peace, let America at least clear her skirts by declaring an embargo, refusing to furnish them with the means of self-destruction!
But for some reason incomprehensible to Jimmie Higgins, the capitalist President would not take this further step; and time moved on, and at the end of January fell a thunder-bolt, in the shape of a declaration from the German government that beginning next day it rescinded its agreement to visit and search steamers, and declared war to the death against all vessels sailing in barred zones. Jimmie went to a meeting of the local a few days after that, and found the gathering seething with excitement. The President had appeared before Congress that day and made a speech calling for war; and the Germans and Austrians in the local were wild with indignation, shaking their fists and clamouring against the unthinkable outrage of an attack upon the Fatherland. There was a new edition of the Worker just out, filled with bitter protests, and the Germans and the pacifists wanted to pledge the local to a movement for a general strike of labour throughout the country. Street-meetings had been resumed--for, of course, since the strike in the Empire had been settled, the police had had no pretext to prevent them. The extremists now wanted anti-war speakers on every corner, and anti-war leaflets shoved under every doorstep; they were willing to put up the money and to pledge their time for these activities.
Lawyer Norwood rose and revealed the split that was now full-grown in the party. For the United States to lie down before that insolent declaration of the German government would be to imperil everything which a lover of liberty held dear. It would mean that Britain would be starved out of the war, and British sea-power shattered--that British sea-power upon which free government had based itself throughout the world. Norwood was unable to get any further for the tempest of jeering and ridicule that overwhelmed him. "Freedom in Ireland!" shrieked Comrade Mary Allen. "And in India! And in Egypt!" bellowed Comrade Koeln, the glass-blower, whose mighty lungs had been twenty years preparing for this emergency.
It was hard to stop the laughter--it seemed so funny that a man who called himself a Socialist should be defending British battleships! But Comrade Gerrity, the chairman, pounded with his gavel, and insisted that the meeting should give fair play, that every speaker should be heard in his turn. So Norwood went on. He understood that no government in this world was perfect, but some were better than others, and it was a fact of history, whether or not they chose to admit it, that such freedom as had already been secured in the world--in Britain and Canada and Australia and New Zealand and the United States--had rested under the protection of British battleships. If those battleships went down, it would mean that every one of those free communities would begin building up a military force many times as strong as they had now. If the United States did not maintain the established customs of sea-commerce in the present crisis, it would mean one thing and one only--that America would spend the next thirty years devoting her energies to preparing for a life-and-death struggle with German Imperialism. If we were not to fight later, we must fight now--
"All right, you fight!" shouted Comrade Schneider, the brewer, his purple face more purple than ever before in the history of Local Leesville.
"I'm going to fight all right," answered the young lawyer. "This is my last speech here or anywhere else--I'm leaving for an officers' training-camp to-morrow. I have come here to do my duty, to warn you comrades--even though I know it will be in vain. The time for debate has passed--the country is going into war--"
"I'm not going into war!" roared Schneider.
"Be careful," answered the other. "You may find yourself in before you know it."
And the big brewer laughed to shake the plaster off the walls. "I'd like to see them send me! To fight for the British sea-power! Ho! Ho! Ho!"
It was a stormy speech young Norwood made, but he persisted to the end, so that, as he said, his conscience might be clear, he might know that he had done what he could to protect the movement from its greatest blunder. He warned them that the temper of the country was rising; you could see it rising hour by hour, and things which had been tolerated in the past would be tolerated no longer. Democracy would protect its life--it would show that in a crisis it was as strong as militarism--
"Yes, and turn itself into militarism to do it!" cried Comrade Mary Allen. The Quaker lady was almost beside herself; she, more even than the Germans, saw in what was transpiring the violation of her most sacred convictions.
America, her own country, was giving itself to war, making ready to turn its resources to the wholesale mutilation of men! Comrade Mary's thin face was white; her lips were tight with resolve, but her feelings betrayed themselves by the quivering of her nostrils. And oh, what a speech she made! Such torrents of furious hatred in the cause of universal love! Comrade Mary quoted a Socialist writer who had said that just as gladiatorial combats had continued until Christian monks were willing to throw themselves into the arena, so war would continue until Socialists were willing to throw themselves beneath the hoofs of the cavalry. And in this Quaker spinster you saw one Socialist who was ready to go out that very night and throw herself beneath the hoofs of cavalry, infantry, or artillery, or even of a police automobile.
And that was the sentiment of the meeting as a whole. If America entered the European strife, it would be because the Socialist organization had exhausted its means of protest in vain. They would call meetings, they would distribute literature, they would voice their convictions on the streets and in the shops and wherever the people might be reached. They would have no part in this wicked strife, either now or later; they would continue in the future, as in the past, to denounce and to expose the capitalist politicians and the capitalist newspapers who caused war and thrived upon war. And in proportion to the intensity of their feelings would be their bitterness and contempt for the few renegades who in this hour of crisis, this test of manhood and integrity, were deserting the movement and going to enrol themselves in officers' training-camps!
And so when Jimmie went home that night he carried with him an armful of revolutionary literature, which during the noon-hour he proceeded to distribute among the workers on the construction-job, which was now inside the preserves of the explosives company. So naturally in the course of the afternoon he was summoned before the boss and discharged; they escorted him to the limits of the property, and told him that if he ever returned he would be shot on sight. And then at night he went up to the cross-roads store and tried to give out his literature there, and got into a controversy with some of the cracker-box loungers, one of whom jumped up and shook his fist in Jimmie's face, shouting, "Get out of here, you dirty little louse! If you don't stop talking your treason round here, we'll come down some night and ride you out of the country on a rail!"