JIMMIE HIGGINS DODGES TROUBLE
War or no war, the soil had to be ploughed and seed sown; so John Cutter came to his tenant and proposed that he should resume his job as farm-hand. Only he must agree to shut up about the war, for while Cutter himself was not a rabid patriot, he would take no chances of having his tenant-house burned down some night. So there was another discussion in the Higgins family. Lizzie remembered how, during the previous summer, Jimmie had worked from dawn till dark, and been too tired even to read Socialist papers, to say nothing of carrying on propaganda; which seemed to the distracted wife of a propagandist the most desirable condition possible! Poor Eleeza Betooser--twice again she had been compelled to take down the stocking from her right leg, and unsew the bandage round her ankle, and extract another of those precious yellow twenty-dollar bills; there were only seven of them left now, and each of them was more valuable to Lizzie than her eye-teeth.
Jimmie finally agreed that he would gag himself, so far as concerned this country-side. What was the use of trying to teach anything to these barnyard fools? They wanted war, let them go to war, and be blown to bits, or poisoned in the trenches! If Jimmie had propaganding to do, he would do it in the city, where the working-men had brains, and knew who their enemies were. So once more Jimmie harnessed up John Cutter's horses to the plough, and went out into John Cutter's field to raise another crop of corn for a man whom he hated. All day he guided the plough or the harrow, and at night he fed and cared for the horses and the cows, and then he came home and ate his supper, listening to the rattling of the long freight-train that went through his backyard, carrying materials for the making of TNT.
For the great explosives plant was now working day and night, keeping the war in Jimmie's thoughts all the time, whether he would or not. In the midnight hours the trains of finished materials went out, making Jimmie's windows rattle with their rumble and clatter, and bearing his fancies away to the battle-line across the seas, where men were soon to be blown to pieces with the contents of these cars. One night something went wrong on the track, and the train stopped in his backyard, and in the morning he saw the cars, painted black, with the word "danger" in flaming red letters. On top of the cars walked a man with a club in his hand and a bulge on his hip, keeping guard.
It appeared that someone had torn up a rail in the night, evidently for the purpose of wrecking the train; so there came a detective to Jimmie, while he was working in the field, to cross-question him. They had Jimmie's record, and suspected him of knowing more than he would tell. "Aw, go to hell!" exclaimed the irate Socialist. "D'you suppose, if I'd wanted to smash anything, I'd done it on the place where I work?" And then, when he went home to dinner, he found that they had been after Lizzie, and had frightened her out of her wits. They had threatened to turn them out of their home; Jimmie saw himself hounded here and there by this accursed war--until it finished by seizing him and dragging him to the trenches!
The new Congress had met, and declared a state of war with Germany, and the whole country was rushing into arms. Men were enlisting by hundreds of thousands; but that was not enough for the militarists--they wanted a conscription-law, so that every man might be compelled to go. If they were so sure of themselves and their wonderful war, why weren't they satisfied to let those fight it who wanted to? So argued the rebellious Jimmie and his anti-militarist associates. But no! the militarists knew perfectly well that the bulk of the people did not want to fight, so they proposed to make them fight. Every energy of the Socialist movement was now concentrated on the blocking of this conscription scheme.
Local Leesville hired the Opera-house again, organizing a mass-meeting of protest, and the capitalist papers of the city began clamouring against this meeting. Was the patriotism and loyalty of Leesville to be affronted by another gathering of sedition and treason? The Herald told all over again the story of the gallant old Civil War veteran who had risen in his seat and shouted his protest against the incitements of "Jack" Smith, the notorious "red" editor. The Herald printed a second time the picture of the gallant old veteran in his faded blue uniform, and the list of battles in which he had fought, from the first Bull Run to the last siege of Richmond. Some farmer passing by handed a copy of this paper to Lizzie, adding that if there was any more treason-talk in this locality there was going to be a lynching bee. So Jimmie found his wife in tears again. She was absolutely determined that he should not go to that meeting. For three days she wept and argued with him, and for a part of three nights.
It would have been comical if it had not been so tragic. Jimmie would use the old argument, that if he did not succeed in stopping the war, he would be dragged into the trenches and killed. So, of course, Lizzie would become a pacifist at once. What right had the war to take Jimmie from her? The little Jimmies had a right to their father! All children had a right to their fathers! But then, after Lizzie had expressed these tearful convictions, Jimmie would say, "All right, then, he must go to that meeting, he must do what he could to prevent the war." And poor Lizzie would find herself suddenly confronting the terrors of the police with their clubs and the patriots with their buckets of tar and bags of feathers! No, Jimmie must not carry on any propaganda, Jimmie must not go to the meeting! Poor Jimmie would try to pin her down; which way did she want him killed, by the Germans, or by the police and the mobs? But Lizzie did not want him killed either way! She wanted him to go on living!
Jimmie would try to arrange a compromise for the present. He would go to the meeting, but he would promise not to say a word. But that did not console Lizzie--she knew that if anything happened, her man would get into it. No, if he were determined to go, she would go, too,--even if they had to load the three babies into the perambulator, and push them two or three miles to the trolley! If Jimmie tried to make a speech, she would hang on to his coat-tails, she would clasp her hands over his mouth, she would throw herself between him and the clubs of the policemen!
So matters stood, when on the afternoon before the meeting there came a heavy rain, and the road to the trolley was rendered impossible for a triple-loaded baby-carriage. So there were more hysterics in the family; Jimmie took his wife's hand in his and solemnly swore to her that she might trust him to go to this meeting, he would not do anything that could by any possibility get him into trouble. He would not try to make a speech, he would not get up and shout--no matter what happened, he would not say a word! He would merely sell pamphlets, and show people to their seats, as he had done at a hundred meetings before. To make sure of his immunity, he would even leave off the red badge which he was accustomed to display on Socialist occasions! By these pledges repeated over and over, he finally succeeded in pacifying his weeping spouse, and gently removed her clutch on his coat-tails, and departed, waving his hand to her and the kids.
The last thing he saw through the rain was Jimmie Junior, flourishing a red handkerchief which Lizzie at the last moment had extracted from her husband's pocket. The last sound he heard was Jimmie Junior's voice, shouting:
"You be good now! You shut up!" Jimmie went off, thinking about this little tike; he was five years old, and growing so that you could notice the difference overnight. He had big black eyes like his mother, and a grin full of all the mischief in the world. The things he knew and the questions he asked! Jimmie and Lizzie never got tired of talking about them; Jimmie recalled them one by one, as he trudged through the mud--and, as always, he set his lips and clenched his hands, and took up anew the task of making the world a fit place for a working-man's child to grow up in!
The principal orator of the evening was a young college professor who had been turned out of his job for taking the side of the working-class in his public utterances, and who was therefore a hero to Jimmie Higgins. This young man had the facts of the war at his finger-tips; he made you see it as a gigantic conspiracy of capitalists the world over to complete their grip on the raw materials of wealth, and on the bodies and souls of the workers. He bitterly denounced those who had forced the country into the war; he denounced the Wall Street speculators and financiers who had made their billions already, and would be making their tens of billions. He denounced the plan to force men to fight who did not wish to fight, and his every sentence was followed by a burst of applause from the throng which packed the Opera-house. If you judged by this meeting, you would conclude that America was on the verge of a revolution against the war.
The young professor sat down, wiping the perspiration from his pale forehead; and then the Liederkranz sang again--only it was not called the Liederkranz now, it had become known as the "Workers' Singing Society", out of deference to local prejudice. Then arose Comrade Smith, editor of the Worker, and announced that after the collection the orator would answer questions; then Comrade Smith launched into a speech of his own, to the effect that something definite ought to be done by the workers of Leesville to make clear their opposition to being dragged into war. For his part he wished to say that he would not yield one inch to the war-clamour--he was on record as refusing to be drafted in any capitalist war, and he was ready to join with others to agree that they would not be drafted. The time was short--if anything were to be done, they must act at once--
And then suddenly came an interruption--this time not from an old soldier, but from a sergeant of police, who had been standing at one side of the stage, and who now stepped forward, announcing, "This meeting is closed."
"What?" shouted the orator.
"This meeting is closed," repeated the other. "And you, young man, are under arrest."
There was a howl from the audience, and suddenly from the pit in front of the stage, whence ordinarily the orchestra dispensed sweet music, there leaped a line of blue-uniformed men, distributing themselves between the public and the speaker. At the same time down the centre aisle came a dozen soldiers marching, with guns in their hands and bayonets fixed.
"This is an outrage!" shouted Comrade Smith.
"Not another word!" commanded the police official; and two policemen who had followed him grabbed the orator by each arm and started to lead him off the stage.
Comrade Gerrity leaped to the front of the platform. "I denounce this proceeding!" he shouted. "We are holding an orderly meeting here--"
A policeman laid hold of him. "You are under arrest."
Then came Comrade Mabel Smith, sister of the editor of the Worker. "For shame! For shame!" she cried. And then, to a policeman, "No, I will not be silent! I protest in the name of free speech! I declare--" And when the policeman seized her by the arm, she continued to shout at the top of her lungs, driving the crowd to frenzy.
There were disturbances all over the audience. Mrs. Gerrity, wife of the organizer, sprang up in her seat and began to protest. It happened that Jimmie Higgins was in the aisle not far from her, and his heart leaped with strange, half-forgotten emotions as he saw this trim little figure, with the jaunty hat and the turkey feather stuck on one side. Comrade Evelyn Baskerville, of Greenwich Village, she of the fluffy brown hair and the pert little dimples and the bold terrifying ideas, she who had so ploughed up the soul of Jimmie Higgins and almost broken up the Higgins' home--here she was, employing a new variety of coquetry, by which she compelled three soldiers with rifles and bayonets to devote their exclusive attention to her!
And then Comrade Mary Allen, the Quaker lady, who believed in moral force applied through the ear-drums. She stood in the aisle with her armful of pamphlets and her red sash over her shoulder, proclaiming, "In the name of liberty and fair play I protest against this outrage! I will not see my country dragged into war without asserting my right of protest! I stand here, in what is supposed to be a Christian city; I speak in the name of the Prince of Peace--" and so on, quite a little speech, while several embarrassed young men in khaki were trying to find out how to hold their rifles and a shouting Quakeress at the same time.
And then Comrade Schneider, the brewer. He had been up on the stage with the singers, and now got somehow to the front. "Haf we got no rights in America left?" he shouted. "Do we in this audience--"
"Shut up, you Hun!" roared someone on the front of the crowd, and three policemen at once leaped for Comrade Schneider, and grabbed him by the collar, twisting so hard that the German's face, always purple when he was excited, took on a dark and deadly hue.
Poor Jimmie Higgins! He stood there with his armful of "War, What For?"--trembling with excitement, itching in every nerve and sinew to leap into this conflict, to make his voice heard above the uproar, to play his part as a man--or even as a Comrade Mabel Smith, or a Comrade Mary Alien, or a Comrade Mrs. Gerrity, nee Baskerville. But he was helpless, speechless--bound hand and foot by those solemn pledges he had given to Eleeza Betooser, the mother of babies.
He looked about, and near him in the aisle he saw another man, also bound hand and foot--bound by the memory of the smash in the face which had broken his nose and knocked out three of his front teeth! "Wild Bill" saw a policeman watching him now, eager for another pretext to leap on him and pound him; so he was silent, like Jimmie. The two of them had to stand there and see the fundamental constitutional rights of American citizens set at naught, to see liberty trampled in the dust beneath the boots of a brutal soldiery, to see justice strangled and raped in the innermost shrine of her temple. At least, that was what you had seen if you read the Leesville Worker; if on the other hand you read the Herald--which nine out of ten people did--then you learned that the forces of decency and order had at last prevailed in Leesville, the propaganda of the Hun was stifled for ever, the mouthers of sedition had felt the heavy hand of public indignation.
Outside, a crowd gathered to jeer while the prisoners were loaded into the patrol-wagon; but the police drove them away, keeping everybody moving, and breaking up several attempts at street-oratory. Jimmie found himself with half a dozen other comrades, wandering aimlessly down Main Street, talking over and over what had happened, each explaining why and how he had not shared the crown of martyrdom. Some had shouted as loud as the rest, but had been missed by the police; some had thought it wiser to run away and live to shout another day; some wanted to start that very night to print a leaflet and call another mass-meeting. They adjourned to Tom's "Buffeteria" to talk things over; they took possession of a couple of tables, and got their due quotas of coffee and sandwiches, or pie and milk, and had just got fairly started on the question of raising bail without the help of Comrade Dr. Service--when suddenly something happened which drove all thoughts of the meeting out of their minds.
It was like a gigantic blow, striking the whole world at once; a cosmic convulsion, quite indescribable. The air became suddenly a living thing, which leaped against your face; the windows of the little eating-place flew inward in a shower of glass, and the walls and tables shook as if with palsy. The sound of it all was a vast, all-pervasive sound, at once far off and near, tailing away in the clatter and crash of innumerable panes of glass falling from innumerable windows. Then came silence, a sinister, frightful silence, it seemed; men stared at one another, crying, "My God! What's that?" The answer seemed to dawn upon everyone at once: "The powder-plant!"
Yes, that must be it, beyond doubt. For months they had been talking about it and thinking about it, speculating as to the probabilities and the consequences. And now it had happened. Suddenly one of the company gave a cry, and they turned and stared at his white face, and realized the terror that clutched his heart. Comrade Higgins, whose home was so near the place of peril!
"Gee, fellers, I gotta go!" he gasped; and several of the comrades jumped up and ran with him into the street. If there was a single pane of glass left intact in Leesville, you would not have thought it as you trod those pavements.
If Jimmie had been trained in efficiency, and accustomed to spending money more freely, he might perhaps have found out something by the telephone or by inquiry at the newspaper offices; but the one thing he thought of was to take the trolley and get to his home. The comrades ran with him, speculating with eager excitement, trying to reassure him--it could be nothing worse than some glass and some dishes smashed. Some had thought of going all the way with him, but they remembered they would be too late for the last trolley back, and they had their jobs in the morning. So they put him on the car and bade him good-bye.
The trolley was packed with people going out to see what had happened, so Jimmie had plenty of company and conversation on the way. But when he came to his stop, he got off and walked alone, for the others were going to the explosives plant, and they rode a mile or so farther on the car.
Never would Jimmie forget that journey--that walk of nightmares. The road was pitch-dark, and before he had gone more than half the distance, he stumbled over something, and fell head-foremost. He got up, and groped, and discovered that it was a tree, lying prone across the road. He searched his mind, and remembered a great dead tree that stood at that spot. Could the explosion have knocked it down?
He went on, feeling his way more cautiously, yet goaded to greater speed by his fears. A little way further was a farm-house, and he went into the yard and shouted, but got no reply. The yard was covered with shingles, apparently blown from the roof. He went on, more frightened than ever.
He came to a turn in the road which he knew was less than half a mile from his home; and here there were several horses and wagons tied, but no one to answer his calls. The road passed through a wood; but apparently there was no road any more--the trees had been picked up bodily and thrown across it. Jimmie had to grope this way and that, and he ran a piece of broken branch into his cheek, and by that time was almost ready to cry with fright. He knew that his home was two miles from the explosives plant, and he could not conceive how an explosion could have done such damage at such a distance.
He saw a lantern ahead, bobbing this way and that, and he shouted louder than ever, and finally succeeded in persuading the bearer of the lantern to wait for him. It proved to be a farmer who lived some way back; he knew no more than Jimmie did, and they made their way together. Beyond the woods, the road was littered with loose dirt, bushes, bits of fence and rubbish, burned black. "It must have been near here," declared the man, and added words which caused Jimmie's heart almost to stand still. "It must have been on the railroad track!"
They came to a little rise, from which in day-time the line of the railroad was visible. They saw lanterns, many of them, moving here and there like a swarm of fire-flies. "Come this way," Jimmie begged of the farmer, and ran towards his home. The road was buried under masses of earth, as if thousands of steam-shovels had emptied their contents on it. When they came to where the fence of Jimmie's house ought to have been, they found no fence, but a slide of loose earth that had never been there before. Where the apple-tree had been there was nothing; where the lawn had been there was a pitch down a hill, and where the house had been was a huge valley, seeming in the darkness a bottomless abyss!
Jimmie was distracted. He grabbed the lantern from the other man, and ran this way and that, looking for some of the familiar landmarks of his home--the chicken-house, the pig-sty, the back fence with the broken elm tree in the corner, the railroad beyond. He could not believe that he had come to the place at all--he could not credit the reality of such nightmare sights as his eyes reported to him. He rushed about, stumbling over mountains of upheaved brown dirt, sliding down into craters that were filled with a strange, penetrating odour which caused his eyes to smart; and then clambering out again and running after men with lanterns, shouting questions at them and not waiting for an answer. It seemed to him that if he ran just a little farther he must surely find the house and the other things he was looking for; but he found nothing but more craters and more mountains of dirt; and little by little the horrible truth became clear to him, that all the way down the railroad track, as far as he could see or run, this gigantic trough extended, a valley of raw dirt with mountains on each side, crowned here and there with wheels and axles and iron trucks of blown-up freight-cars, and filled in the bottom with the deadly fumes of trinitrotoluol!
Jimmie cried out to the men and women with lanterns, asking had they seen his wife and babies. But no one had seen them--no one had notified them of the impending explosion! Jimmie was sobbing, calling out distractedly; he ran out to the road, and after much searching found a charred tree-stump which gave him his precise bearings, so that he knew where the house should have been, and could assure himself that it was precisely where that frightful slope started down into the abyss. He slid around on this slope, calling aloud, as if he expected the spirits of his loved ones might have remained there, defying all the power of suddenly expanding gases. He ran back across the road and called, as if they might have fled that way.
At last he ran into Mr. Drew; old Mr. Drew, who a couple of weeks before had taken Eleeza Betooser and her three little ones driving in his buggy! That memory was the nearest Jimmie could get to them, and so he clutched the old soldier's arm, and held on to it, weeping like a little child.
The old man tried to draw him away, to get him to his home. But Jimmie must stay on the spot, he was held by a spell of horror. He wandered about, dragging Mr. Drew with him, pleading with people to no purpose; now and then he would break out with curses against war-makers, and especially those who made explosives and transported them in freight-trains through other men's back-yards. For once people heard him without threats of lynching.
So on through this night of anguish. Jimmie lost old man Drew in the darkness, and was all alone when the dawn came, and he could see the sweep of desolation about him, and the awe-stricken faces of the spectators. Soon afterwards came the climax. He saw a crowd gathered, and as he came up, this crowd parted for him. Nobody seemed to want to speak, but they all watched, as if curious to see what he would do. One of the men bore a burden, wrapped in a horse-blanket; Jimmie gazed, and after a moment's hesitation the man threw back part of the blanket and there before Jimmie's eyes was a most horrible sight--a human leg, a large white leg, the lower half covered with a black stocking tied at the top with a bit of tape. It was such a leg as you see in the windows of stores where they sell pretty things for ladies; only this leg was soft, mangled at the top, smeared with blood, and partly charred black. One glance was enough for Jimmie, and he put his hands over his eyes and turned and ran--out to the road and away, away--anywhere from this place of nightmares!
Jimmie's whole world was wiped out, ended. He had no place to go, no care what became of him. He stumbled on till he came to the trolley-track, and got on the first car which came along. It was pure chance that it happened to be going back to Leesville, for Jimmie had no longer any interest in that city. When the car came to the barn, he got out and wandered aimlessly, until he happened to pass a saloon where he had been accustomed to meet Jerry Coleman, distributor of ten-dollar bills. Jimmie went in and ordered a drink of whisky; he did not tell the saloon-keeper what had happened, but took the drink to a table and sat down by himself. When he had finished, he ordered another, because it helped him not to think; he sat there at the table, drinking steadily for an hour or more. And so upon his confused mind there dawned a strange, a ghastly idea, climax of all that night of horror. Which leg of Lizzie was it the man had been carrying wrapped in a horse-blanket? The right leg or the left? If it was the left leg, why, nothing; but if it was the right, why then, under the stocking was sewed a bandage, and in that bandage was wrapped a package containing seven faded yellow twenty-dollar bills!
And what would they do about it? Would they bury the leg without investigation? Or would the man who had found it happen to undress it? And what was Jimmie to do? A hundred and forty dollars was not to be sneezed at by a working-man--it was more money than he had ever had in his life before, or might ever have again. But could he go to the man and say, "Did you find any money on my wife's leg?" Could he say, "Please give me my wife's leg, so that I can undress it and unsew the bandage and get the money that I was paid for keeping quiet about the surgical operation on Lacey Granitch, that was done in my house before it was blown to pieces by the explosion."
Jimmie thought it all over while he took a couple more drinks, and finally settled it to himself: "Aw, hell! What do I want with money? I ain't a-goin' to live no more!"