JIMMIE HIGGINS WORKS FOR HIS UNCLE
They gave Jimmie Higgins a couple of days to lie about in the grounds of the hospital, and make the acquaintance and hear the experiences of men who had lost arms and legs in battle, or had been burned by flame-throwers, or ruined for life by poison-gases. Strange as it might seem, Jimmie found among these men not a few with whom he could talk, whose point of view was close to his own. These Britishers had been through the mill; they knew. None of the glory stuff for them! Leave that for the newspaper scribblers, the bloody rascals who stayed at home and beat on tomtoms, driving other men to march in and die. You went and got yourself battered up, ruined for life--and then what would they do for you? It was a hard world to a man who was crippled and helpless. Yes, said Jimmie; the same hard world that it was to a Socialist, a dreamer of justice.
But there was the old dilemma, from which he had never been able to find escape, whether in Leesville, U.S.A., or on the high seas, or here in old England. What were you going to do about the Huns? To hold out your hand to them was like putting it into a tiger's cage. No, by God, you had to fight them, you had to lick them, cost what it might! And the speaker would go on and tell of things he had seen: a Prussian officer who had shot a British surgeon in the back, after this surgeon had bound up his wounds; a commandant of a prison-camp who had withdrawn all medical aid in a typhus epidemic, and allowed his charges to perish like rats.
So, hell though it was, you had to go through with it; if you were a man, you had to set your teeth and grip your hands and take your share of the horror, whatever it might be. And Jimmie, being something of a little man in his way, would set his teeth and grip his hands and take in imagination, the share of the particular human wreck who happened to be talking to him. So Jimmie Higgins was battered back and forth, like a tennis-ball, between the two forces of Militarism and Revolution.
Just now was another crisis--the Huns had begun a furious drive in Flanders, the third battle of Ypres, and the British were falling back, not in rout, but in retreat which might become rout at any hour. The bulletins came in several times a day, and people in the streets would stop and read them, their faces full of fear. When the wind was right you could hear the guns across the Channel; Jimmie would lie at night and listen to the dull, incessant thunder--a terrific, man-made storm, in which showers of steel were raining down upon the heads of soldiers hiding in shell-holes and hastily-dug trenches. The war seemed very near indeed when the wind was right!
Still, a fellow has to live. Jimmie was in a foreign land for the first time in his life, and when they turned him loose, he and a couple of other American chaps went wandering about the streets, staring at the sights of this town, which had been a small harbour before the war, but now was a vast centre of the world's commerce, one of the routes by which large sections of Britain were moved across the Channel every day.
You saw in the streets no men out of uniform, except a few old ones; you saw nobody at all idle, except the young children. The women were driving the trucks, and operating the street-cars, which were called "trams", and the elevators, which were called "lifts". Everybody's face was sober and drawn, but they lightened up when they saw the Americans, who had come so far to help them in their trouble. In the cake-shops, and the queer little "pubs" where rosy-cheeked girls sold very thin beer, they could not be polite enough to the visitors from overseas; even the haughtiest-looking "bobby" would stop to tell you the way about the streets. "First to the roight, third to the left," he would say, very fast; and when you looked bewildered, he would say it again, as fast as ever.
But they needed motor-cycles so badly in the new American armies that they didn't give Jimmie much time to be a hero; he got his orders and a new outfit, and bade farewell to the Honourable Beatrice, promising to write to her now and then, and not to be too hard on the aristocracy. He crossed the Channel, alive with boats like the Hudson River with its ferries, and came to another and still bigger port, which the Americans had taken and made over new for the war. Long vistas of docks had been built since the fighting began; Jimmie saw huge cranes that dipped down into the hold of a ship, and pulled out whole locomotives, or maybe half a dozen automobile trucks in one swoop.
Behind these docks was a tangle of railroad yards and tracks, and miles upon miles of sheds, piled to the top with stores of every sort you could imagine. A whole encampment-city covered the surrounding hills, crowned by an old, creaking, moss-grown windmill--the Middle Ages looking in dismay upon these modern times.
Nobody took the trouble to invite Jimmie to inspect these marvels, but he got glimpses here and there, and men with whom he chatted told him more. One man had been directing the unloading of canned tomatoes; for six months he had seen nothing but crates upon crates and car-loads upon car-loads of canned tomatoes, coming into one end of a shed and going out at the other. Somewhere in the higher regions dwelt a marvellous tomato-brain, which knew exactly how many cans a division of dough-boys in a training-camp would consume each day, how many would be needed by patients in hospitals, by lumbermen in French forests, by revellers in Y.M.C.A. huts. Every now and then a ship brought another supply, and the man who told Jimmie about it bossed a gang of negroes who piled the crates on trucks.
And then Jimmie met a Frenchman, who had been a waiter in a Chicago hotel, and now was bossing a gang of wire-haired Korean labourers. Jimmie had thought he knew all the races of the earth in the shops and mills and mines of America; but here he heard of new kinds of men--Annamese and Siamese, Pathans and Sikhs, Madagascans and Abyssinians and Algerians. All the British empire was here, and all the French colonies. There were Portuguese and Brazilians and West Indians, bushmen from Australia and Zulus from South Africa; and these not having proven enough, America was now pouring out the partly melted contents of her pot--Hawaiians and Porto Ricans, Filipinos and "spiggoties", Eskimos from Alaska, Chinamen from San Francisco, Sioux from Dakota, and plain black plantation niggers from Louisiana and Alabama! Jimmie saw a gang of these latter mending a track which had been blown out of place by a bomb from an aeroplane; their black skins shining with sweat, their white teeth shining with good-nature as they swung their heavy crow-bars, a long row of them moving like a machine chanting to keep in unison, "Altogether--heave!" the officer would call, and the line would swing into motion--
"Get a MULE! An' a JACK! No SLOW! No SLACK! Put the HUMP! In yo' BACK--"
For nearly four years Jimmie had been reading about France, and now he was here, and could see the sights with his own eyes. People with wooden shoes, for example! It was worth coming across the seas to see women and kids going clatter, clatter along the cobbled streets. And the funny little railroad-coaches, with rows of doors like rabbit-pens. It was a satisfaction to notice that the train had a real man-sized engine, with U.S.A. painted thereon. Jimmie owned a share in that engine, and experienced Socialistic thrills as he rode behind it.
He had got separated from his "unit", thanks to the submarine and the sojourn in the hospital. They had given him a pass, with orders to proceed to a certain town, travelling on a certain train. Now Jimmie sat looking out of the window, as happy as a boy out of school. A beautiful country, the fresh green glory of spring everywhereupon it; broad, straight military highways lined with poplars, and stone houses with queer steep roofs, and old men and women and children toiling in the fields.
Jimmie chattered with the men in the compartment, soldiers and workers, each a cog in the big machine, each bound upon some important errand. Each had news to tell--tales of the fighting, or of the progress of preparation. For more than a year now America had been getting ready, and here, in the most desperate crisis of the war, what was she going to do? Everybody was on tip-toe with excitement, with impatience to get into the scrap, to make good in the work upon which his soul was set. Every man knew that the "dough-boys" would show themselves the masters of "Fritz"; they knew it as religious people know there is a God in Heaven--only, unlike most religious people, they were anxious to get to this heaven and meet this God at the earliest possible moment. Next to Jimmie sat a Wisconsin farmer-boy, German in features, in name, even in accent; yet he was ready to fight the soldiers of the Kaiser--and quite sure he could lick them! Had he not lived since childhood in a free country, and been to an American public-school?
Everybody had funny stories to tell about the adventures of soldiers in a foreign land. The French were all right, of course, especially the girls; but the shop-keepers were frugal, and you had better count your change, and bite the coins they offered you. As for the language--holy smoke! Why did civilized people want to talk a lingo that made you grunt like a pig--or like a penful of pigs of all sizes? Across the way sat a Chicago street-car conductor with a little lesson book, and now and then he would read something out loud. AN, IN, ON, UN, and many different sizes of pigs! When you wanted bread, you asked for a pain, and when you wanted a dish of eggs, you asked for a cat-roof omelette. How was this for a tongue-twister--say five hundred and fifty-five francs in French!
Fortunately you didn't have to say that many--not on the pay of a dough-boy, put in a plumber from up-state in New York. For his part, he did not bother to grunt--he would make drinking motions or eating motions, and they would bring him things till they found what he wanted. One time he had met a girl that he thought was all right, and he wanted to treat her to a feed, so he drew a picture of a chicken, thinking he would get it roasted. She had chattered away to the waiter, and he had come back with two soft-boiled eggs. That was the French notion of taking a girl out to dinner!
They loaded Jimmie into a motor-lorry and whirled him away. You knew you were going to the war then, by heck; there were two almost solid processions of wagons and trucks, loaded with French soldiers and materials going, and damaged French soldiers returning. It was like Broadway at the most crowded hour; only here everything went by in a whirl of dust--you got quick glimpses of drivers with tense faces and blood-shot eyes. Now and then there would be a blockade, and men would swear and fume in mixed languages; staff-cars in an extra hurry would go off the road and bump along across country, while gangs of negro labourers, French colonials, seized the opportunity to fill up the ruts worn in the highway.
They put Jimmie off at a village where his motor-unit was located, in a long shed made of corrugated iron, the sort of shed which the army threw up overnight. Here were a score of men working at repairs, and Jimmie stopped for no formalities, but took off his coat and pitched in. There was plenty of work he could see; the machines came, sometimes whole truck-loads of them, damaged in every way he had ever seen before, and in new ways not dreamed of in Kumme's bicycle-shop--tyres torn to shreds by fragments of shrapnel, frames twisted out of shape by explosions, and nasty splotches of blood completing the story.
It was one of the many places where American units had been taken to plug the damaged French lines. There was a reserve battalion near by, and outside this village a group of men were at work, putting up tents for a hospital. Some thirty miles ahead was the front, and you heard the guns off and on, a low sullen roar, punctuated with hammer-strokes f big fellows. Millions of dollars every hour were being blown to nothingness in that fearful inferno; a gigantic meat-mill that was grinding up the bodies of men and had never ceased day or night for nearly four years. You could be a violent pacifist in sound of those guns, or you could be a violent militarist, but you could not be indifferent to the war, you could not be of two minds about it.
And yet--Jimmie Higgins was of two minds! He wanted to beat back the Huns, who had made all this fearful mess; but also he wanted to beat the profiteers who were making messes at home. It happened that Jimmie had reached the army at a trying moment, when there were no American big guns, and when promises of machine-guns and aeroplanes had failed. There was wild excitement in the home papers, and not a little grumbling in the army. It was graft and politics, men said; and Jimmie caught eagerly at this idea. He pointed out how the profiteers at home were entrenching themselves, making ready to exploit the soldiers returning without jobs. That was a line of talk the men were ready for, and the little machinist rejoiced to see the grim look that came upon their faces. They would attend to it, never fear; and Jimmie would go on to tell them exactly how to attend to it!
But that was only now and then, when the wind was the other way, and you did not hear the guns. For the most part Jimmie's thoughts were drawn irresistibly to the front; about him were thousands of other men, all their thoughts at the front, their hands clenched, their teeth set, their beings centred upon the job of holding the Beast at bay. Jimmie saw the grey ambulances come in, and the wounded lifted out on stretchers, their heads bandaged, their bodies covered with sheets, their faces a ghastly waxen colour. He saw the poilus, fresh from the trenches, after God alone knew what siege of terror. They came staggering, bent double under a burden of equipment. The first time Jimmie saw them was a day of ceaseless rain, when the dust ground up by the big lorries was turned into ankle-deep mud; the Frenchmen were plastered with it from head to foot; you saw under their steel helmets only a mud-spattered beard, and the end of a nose, and a pair of deep-sunken eyes. They stopped to rest not far from the place where Jimmie worked; they sank down in the wet, they fell asleep in pools of water, where not even beasts could have slept. You did not have to know any French to understand what these men had been through. Good God! Was that what was going on up there?
Jimmie thanked his stars he was no nearer. But that coward's comfort did not last him long, for Jimmie was not a coward, he was not used to letting other men struggle and suffer for him. His conscience began to gnaw at him. If that was what it cost to beat down the Beast, to make the world safe for democracy, why should he be escaping? Why should he be warm and dry and well-fed, while working-men of France lay out in the trenches in the rain?
Jimmie went back and worked overtime without extra pay--something that old man Granitch had never got out of him, you bet, nor old man Kumme either. For three whole days he stayed a militarist, forgetting his life-long training in rebellion. But then he got into an argument with a red-headed Orangeman in his unit, who expressed the opinion that every Socialist was a traitor at heart, and that after the war the army should be used to make an end of them all. Jimmie in his rage went farther than he really meant, and again got a "calling down" from his superior officer; so for several days his proletarian feelings blazed, he wanted the revolution right away, Huns or no Huns.
But most of the time now the spirit of the herd mastered Jimmie; he wanted what all the men about him wanted--to hold back the Beast from these fair French fields and quaint old villages, and these American hospitals and rest-camps and Y.M.C.A. huts--to say nothing of motor-cycle repair-sheds with Jimmie Higgins in them! And the trouble was that the Beast was not being held back; he was coming nearer and nearer--one bull rush after another! Jimmie's village was near the valley of the Marne, and that was the road to Paris; the Beast wanted to get to Paris, he really expected to get to Paris!
The sound of guns grew louder and louder, and rumour flew wild-eyed and wild-tongued about the country. The traffic in the roads grew denser, but moving more slowly now, for the Germans were shelling the road ahead, and blockades were frequent; one huge missile had fallen into a French artillery-train only a couple of miles away. "They'll be moving us back, if this keeps up," said Jimmie's sergeant; and Jimmie wondered: suppose they didn't move them! Suppose they forgot all about it? Was there any person whose particular duty it was to remember to see that motor-cycle units got moved in the precise nick of time? And what if the Germans were to break through and sweep over all calculations? This was a little more than Jimmie Higgins had bargained for when he entered the recruiting-office in Leesville, U.S.A.!
They gave out gas-masks to everyone in Jimmie's unit, and put an alarm bell in the shed, and made everybody practise putting on the masks in a hurry. Jimmie was so scared that he thought seriously of running away; but--such is the perversity of human nature--what he did was to run in the opposite direction! His officer in command came into the shed and demanded, "Can any of you men ride?" And imagine any fellow who worked at repairing motor-cycles admitting that he couldn't ride! "I can!" said Jimmie. "I can!" said every other workman in the place.
"What is it!" asked Jimmie--always of the forward and pushing sort.
"The French ask for half a dozen men in a rush. They've had several motor-cycle units wiped out or captured."
"Gee!" said Jimmie. "I'll go!"
"And me!" said another. "And me!" "And me!"
"All right," said the officer, and told them off: "You and you and you. And you, Cullen, take command. Report to French headquarters at Chatty Terry. You know where it is!"
"Sure, Mike!" said Cullen. "I been there." Jimmie hadn't been to "Chatty Terry", but he knew it was somewhere across the Marne. The officer gave him a map, showing the villages through which he would go. Jimmie and his companions named these villages, using sensible language, without concession to the fool notions of the natives. Wipers, Reems, Verdoon, Devil Wood, Arm-in-tears, Saint Meal--all these Jimmie had heard about; also a place where the Americans had won their first glorious victory a week ago, and which they called, sometimes Cantinny, sometimes Tincanny. And now Jimmie was going to "Chatty Terry", in charge of a red-headed Orangeman who a few days ago had expressed the opinion that all Socialists were traitors and should be shot!
The officer gave them passes, one for each man, in case they got separated, and they started towards the place where the new machines were lined up. On the way Jimmie had a moment of utter panic. What was this he was getting himself in for, idiot that he was? Going up there where the shells were falling, wiping out motor-cycle units! And shells that were full of poison gases, most of them! Of all the fool things he had done in his life this was the crown and climax! His knees began to shake, he turned sick inside. But then he glanced about, and caught Pat Cullen's menacing blue eye; Jimmie returned the glare, and the spirit of battle flamed up in him, he laid hold of the handles of a motor-cycle and strode towards the door. Was any Irish mick going to catch him in a funk, and "bawl him out" before this crowd, and put the Socialist movement to shame? Not much!