Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 21

JIMMIE HIGGINS ENTERS SOCIETY

I

When Jimmie took an interest in life again he was lying in a bed: a bed that actually was still, that did not rise with a leaping motion to the ceiling, and then sink like a swift elevator into the basement. Better yet was the fact that this bed had clean sheets, and a lovely angel in spotless white hovering about it. You who read of Jimmie Higgins's adventures have perhaps been blessed with some of the good things of life, and may need to have it explained to you that never before had Jimmie known what it was to sleep between sheets--to say nothing of clean sheets; never had he known what it was to sleep in a night-gown; never had he had hot broth fetched to him by a snow-white angel with a bright smile and an aureole of golden-brown hair. This marvellous creature waited on his slightest nod, and when she was not busy running errands for him, she sat by his bedside and chatted, asking him all sorts of questions about himself and his life. She thought he was a soldier, and he, shameless wretch, discovered what she thought, and delayed to tell her that he was a common repairer of motor-cycles!

This was a war-hospital, and there were terrible sights to be seen here, terrible sounds to be heard; but Jimmie for a long time missed them almost entirely--he was so comfortable! He lay like a nice dozy cat; he ate good things and drank good things, and then he fell asleep, and then he opened his eyes in the sunshine of a golden brown aureole. It was only gradually that he realized that somewhere in the ward a man was choking and gasping all night, because the inside of his lungs had been partly eaten out with poisonous acids.

Jimmie inquired and was told that more than a hundred people on the transport had lost their lives, including several women; the nurse brought a paper with a list of the casualties, among which he read the name of Mike Angoni--his friend the "wobbly" from the far West! Also the name of Peter Toms--the seaman from Cornwall, caught at the eighth attempt! Jimmie read that the submarine which had sunk the transport had been shattered by a depth-charge, and the sea all strewn with the wreckage of it; and strange and terrible as it might seem, Jimmie, the pacifist, the Socialist, experienced a thrill of satisfaction! Not once did he stop to reflect that on board this under-water craft might have been some German comrade, some poor, enslaved, unhappy internationalist like himself! Jimmie wanted the sneaking, treacherous terrors of the sea exterminated, regardless of everything!

The nurse with the halo of golden-brown hair got interested in her American patient, and would sit and talk with him every chance she got. She learned about Eleeza Betooser and the babies who had been blown to pieces in the explosion. Also she learned about Jimmie's being a Socialist, and asked him questions about it. Wasn't he just a little hard on the leisure classes? Might it not be that some of the capitalists would be as glad as he to know about a better social system? The young lady pronounced the word "capitalists" with the accent on the "it", which puzzled Jimmie for a time; also she assured him that "wage schedules" would never go back to what they were before the war, and Jimmie had to ask what a "schedule" might be. He did not have to ask what she meant by a "tart", because there it was on his tray--a delicious little strawberry pie.

II

This meant that the destroyer had come to an English port; the nurse was a Britisher. If Jimmie had had tact, he would have remembered that Britishers have an outfit of earls and dukes and lords and things, to which they are sentimentally attached. But tact is not the leading virtue of Socialists; in fact, Jimmie made a boast of scorning it--if people asked his opinion, he "gave it to 'em straight". So now he caused this white angel to understand that he regarded the effete aristocracies of the old world with abysmal contempt; he meant to put them out of business right off the bat. In vain the white angel pleaded that some of them might be useful people, or at any rate well-meaning: Jimmie pronounced them a bunch of parasites and grafters; the thing to do was to make a clean sweep of them.

"You won't cut off their heads?" pleaded the nurse. "Surely they ought to have a chance to reform!"

"Oh, sure!" answered Jimmie. "All I mean is, everybody's got to go to work--the dooks an' aristercrats like the rest."

The nurse went off, carrying Jimmie's chamber to be emptied; and while she was gone, the man in the next bed, a gun-pointer from an American destroyer with his head bandaged up so that he looked like a Hindu swami, turned his tired eyes upon Jimmie and drawled: "Say, you guy, you better can that line o' talk!"

"Whaddyer mean?" demanded Jimmie, scenting controversy with some militarist.

"I mean that there young lady belongs to the nobility herself."

"Go on!" said Jimmie.

"Straight!" said the other. "Her father's the earl of Skye-terrier, or some such damn place."

"Aw, cut it out!" growled the little machinist--for you never knew in dealing with these soldier-boys whether you were being "kidded" or not.

"Did you ask her name?"

"She told me it was Miss Clendenning."

"Well, you ask her if she ain't the Honourable Beatrice Clendenning, and see what she says."

But Jimmie could not get up the nerve to ask. When the young lady came back, carrying his chamber washed clean, her pet patient was lying still, but so red in the face that she suspected that he had been trying to get out of bed without permission.

III

Nor was that the end of wonders. Next day there ran a murmur of excitement through the ward, and everything was cleaned up fresh, though there was really nothing that needed cleaning. Flowers were brought in, and each nurse had a flower pinned on her waist. When Jimmie asked what was "up", the Honourable Beatrice looked at him with a quizzical smile. "We're going to have some distinguished visitors," she said. "But you won't be interested--a class-conscious proletarian like you."

And she would not tell him; but when she went out, the fellow in the next bed told. "It's the king and queen that's comin'," said the gun-pointer.

"Aw, ferget it!" said Jimmie--quite sure he was being "kidded" this time.

"Comin' to see the submarine victims," said the gun-pointer. "You cut out your Socialist rough stuff for to-day."

Jimmie asked the nurse when she came back; and sure enough it was true--the king and queen were to visit the hospital, and pay their respects to the victims of the U-boat. But that wouldn't interest Jimmie Higgins. Would he not rather be carried away and put in a private room somewhere, so that his revolutionary eyes would not be offended? Or would he stay, and make a soap-boxer of His Majesty?

"Sure, he won't have no time to talk to a feller like me!" said Jimmie.

"Don't you be too sure," replied the other. "He's got nothing to do but talk, you know!"

Jimmie didn't venture any farther, because he knew that the Honourable Beatrice was laughing at him, and he had never been laughed at by a woman before, and didn't know quite how to take it. He could not have been expected to understand that the Honourable Beatrice was a suffragette, and laughed at all men on general principles. Jimmie lay quietly in his bed and concealed the unworthy excitement in his soul. Wasn't that the devil now? Him, a little runt of a working man from nowhere in particular, that had been brought up on a charity-farm, and spent a good part of his life as a tramp--him to be meeting the king of England! Jimmie had a way of disposing of kings that was complete and final; he called them "kinks" and when he had called them that he had settled them, wiped them clean out. "None o' them kinks for me!" he had said to the Honourable Beatrice.

But now a "kink" was coming to the hospital! And what was Jimmie going to do? How the devil did you talk to 'em? Did you have to say, "Your Majesty"? Jimmie gripped his hands under the bed-covers. "I'll be damned if I do!" He summoned his revolutionary fervour, he called up the spirits of his "wobbly" friends, "Wild Bill" and "Strawberry" Curran and "Flathead Joe" and "Chuck" Peterson. What would they do under these circumstances? What would the Candidate do? Somehow, Jimmie's revolutionary education had been neglected--nothing had ever been said in any Socialist local as to how a comrade should behave when a "kink" came to visit him!

Jimmy was naturally a kindly human being; he was ready to respond to the kindness of other human beings. But was it in accord with revolutionary ethics to be polite to a "kink"? Was it not his duty to do something to show his contempt for "kinks"? Maybe his Royal Nibs never had anybody to "stand up to him" in all his life before. Well, let him have it to-day!

IV

A nurse rushed into the ward in great excitement, and whispered, "They're coming!" And after that the nurses all stood round, twisting their hands together nervously, and the patients lay with their eyes glued on the door where the apparition was to appear.

At last there came in sight a man dressed in uniform, who Jimmie would never have dreamed could be a king--except that he had seen his picture in the illustrated papers. He was a medium-sized, rather stoop-shouldered little gentleman, decidedly commonplace-looking, with a closely-trimmed brown beard turning grey, and rosy cheeks such as all Englishmen have. He was escorted by the head of the hospital staff; and behind him came a lady, a severe-looking lady dressed in black, with a couple more doctors escorting her, and behind them several officers in uniform.

The king and queen stopped at the head of the room, and looked down the rows of beds. Each of them wore a friendly smile, and nodded, and said: "How do you do?" And, of course, everybody smiled back, and the nurses curtsied and said, "How do you do, Your Majesties?"

And then His Majesty said: "I hope everybody is doing well?" And the doctor called the head nurse in charge of the ward, who came up smiling and bowing and answered that everybody was doing beautifully, thank you; at which both His Majesty and Her Majesty declared that they were so pleased. The queen looked about, and seeing a man with many bandages, went to him and sat by his bedside and began to ask him questions; the king moved down the centre of the room, until suddenly his eye happened on the Honourable Beatrice.

She had not moved; she stood at her place like the other nurses. But Jimmie, watching, saw a smile come upon the king's face, and he moved towards her saying: "Oh! how do you do?" The young lady went to meet him, quite as if she were used to meeting kings every day.

"How are your patients doing?" inquired His Majesty.

"Beautifully," said she; and His Majesty said that he was pleased--just as if he had not said the same words only a minute before. He looked at the patients with benevolent but tired-looking eyes; and the Honourable Beatrice, by those subtle methods known to women, brought it about that he looked especially at her favourite. She knew that he would wish to talk to some of the patients, and by ever so slight a movement she brought it about that it was towards Jimmie Higgins he advanced.

"What is your name?" he asked, and then, "Well, Higgins, how are you feeling?"

"Sure, I'm all right," said Jimmie sturdily; "I wanner get up, only she won't let me."

"Well," said His Majesty, "the time was when the king was the tyrant, but now it's the nurse." He smiled at the Honourable lady. "Are you an American soldier?"

"Naw," replied Jimmie, "I'm only a machinist."

"This is a war of machines," replied His Majesty, graciously.

"I'm a Socialist!" exclaimed Jimmie, right off the bat.

"Indeed!" said His Majesty.

"You bet!" was the reply.

"But you're not one of those Socialists who oppose their country, I see."

"I done it for a long time," said Jimmie. "I didn't see we had no business in this here war. But I been changin'--a bit."

"I'm glad to hear that," remarked His Majesty. "Doubtless your recent experience has helped you to change."

"Sure," replied Jimmie. "But I'm still a Socialist, don't you make no mistake about that, Mr. King."

"I won't," said His Majesty; and he looked at the Honourable Beatrice, and between them there flashed one of those subtle messages which highly sophisticated people know how to give and to catch--entirely over the heads of Socialist machinists from Leesville, U.S.A. To the Honourable Beatrice the message conveyed. "How perfectly delicious!" To His Majesty it conveyed, "I knew you'd enjoy it!"

Jimmie's mind was, of course, occupied entirely with the idea of propaganda. He must make the most of this strange opportunity! "Things is goin' to be changed after this here war!" said he. "Fer the workin' people, I mean."

"They'll be changed for all of us," said His Majesty. "The dullest of us know that."

"The workin' people got to get what they earn!" persisted Jimmie. "Why, Mr. King--back home where I come from a feller could work twelve hours a day all his life, an' not have enough saved up to bury himself with. An' they say it was worse here in England."

"We have had terrible poverty," admitted His Majesty. "We shall have to find some way of getting rid of it."

"There ain't no way but Socialism," cried Jimmie. "Look into it, an' you'll see! We gotter get rid o' the profit-system. The feller that does the work has gotter get what he produces."

"Well," said His Majesty, "you'll agree with me this far at least--we must beat the Germans first." And then he turned to the Honourable Beatrice. "We shall learn much from our American visitors," he said, and flashed her another of those subtle messages, which indicated that perhaps it was not a good thing for patients in hospitals to become excited over Socialist propaganda! So the Honourable Beatrice turned to the man in the other bed, and His Majesty turned also; he ascertained that the man's name was Deakin, and that he came from Cape Cod. His Majesty remarked how badly England needed good Yankee gun-pointers, and how grateful he was to those who came to help the British Navy. Jimmie listened, just a tiny bit jealous--not for himself, of course, but because he knew that Socialism was so much more important than gun-pointing!

V

At the foot of the bed there stood a military officer. He had been there for some time, but Jimmie did not notice him till the king rose and moved away. The officer was just the sort of hand-made aristocrat that Jimmie imagined all officers to be; smooth-shaven, except for a little toy moustache, with serene, impassive features, a dapper and immaculate uniform, and a queer little fancy stick in his hand, to show that he never did anything resembling work. He was eyeing the machinist with what the machinist suspected to be a superior air. "Well, my good man," said he, "you had a talk with the king!"

That seemed obvious enough. "Sure!" said Jimmie.

"Generally," continued the officer, "when one talks with the king, one addresses him as 'Your Majesty'--not as 'Mr. King'."

Jimmie was tired now, and not looking for controversy; so he did not bridle as he might otherwise have done. "Nobody told me," said he.

"Also," continued the other, "one is not supposed to volunteer opinions. One waits for the king to ask a question, and then one answers."

Jimmie's eyes were closed, and he only half-opened them as he answered. "They been tellin' me this here is a war for Democracy!" said he.

Upton Sinclair

Sorry, no summary available yet.