JIMMIE HIGGINS SEES THE OTHER SIDE
But these exultations and glory-thoughts were reserved for a later stage of Jimmie Higgins's life. At present he was weak, and his head was splitting, and his left arm burning like fire. And on top of this came a happening so strange that it drove the whole battle from his thoughts. He was walking on a path with his French companions, when one of them noticed a man in a French uniform lying on the ground a little way to one side. He was not a soldier, but a hospital-orderly or stretcher-bearer, as you could tell by the white bandage with a red cross on his arm. He had been shot through the shoulder, and someone had plugged up the wound and left him; so now the French soldiers helped him to his feet and started to lead him back. Jimmie watched them, and when he saw the man's face, the conviction stole over him that he had seen that face before. He had seen it, or one incredibly like it--and under circumstances of intense emotion. The old emotion stirred in the depths of his subconsciousness, and suddenly it burst to the surface, an explosion of excitement. It could not be! The idea was absurd! But--it must be! It was! The wounded French stretcher-bearer was Lacey Granitch!
The young heir of the Empire Machine Shops might never have known the little Socialist machinist; but recognition was so evident on Jimmie's face, that Lacey was set groping in his own mind. Now and then as the party walked along he stole an uneasy glance at his fellow-countryman; and presently when they struck a road, and sat down to rest and wait for a vehicle of some sort, Lacey put himself beside Jimmie and began: "You're the fellow that was in the house that night, aren't you?"
Jimmie nodded; and the young lord of Leesville looked at him uneasily, looked away, and then looked back. "I've got something I want to ask you," he said.
"Don't give me away."
"How do you mean?"
"Don't tell who I am: There's no reason why anybody should know. I'm trying to get away from it."
"I see," said Jimmie. "I won't tell."
Then was a silence. Then suddenly, with no reason that Jimmie could see, the other exclaimed: "You'll tell!"
"But I won't!" protested Jimmie. "What makes you say so?"
"You hate me!"
Jimmie hesitated, as if investigating his own mind. "No," he said, "I don't hate you--not any more."
"God!" exclaimed the other. "You don't need to--I've paid all I owe!"
Jimmie studied his face. Yes, you could see that was true. Not merely was Lacey haggard, his features drawn with the pain he was enduring; there were lines in his face that had not been put there by a few days of battle, nor even by a couple of years of war. He looked twenty years older than the insolent young aristocrat whom Jimmie had seen hurling defiance at the Empire strikers.
His eyes were searching Jimmie's anxiously, pleadingly. "I had to get away," he said. "I couldn't face it--everybody staring at me, grinning at me behind my back! I tried to enlist in the American army, but they wouldn't have me--not to do any sort of work. So I came to France, where they need men badly--they let me carry a stretcher. I've been through it all now--more than a year. I've been wounded twice before, but I can't seem to get killed, no matter where I go. It's the fellows that want to live that get killed--damn it!"
The speaker paused, as if seeing visions of the men whom he had seen die when they wanted to live. When he went on, it was in a voice of humble entreaty. "I've tried to pay for my blunders. All I ask now is to be let alone, and not have everybody gossiping about me. That's fair, isn't it!"
Jimmie answered: "I give you my word--I won't tell a soul about it."
"Thank you," said Lacey; and then, after a moment's pause, "My name is Peterson. Herbert Peterson."
A truck came along and gave them a lift to the nearest dressing-station: a couple of tents with big red crosses on them, and a couple more being put up, and motor-cars bringing nurses and supplies, and others with loads of wounded, French and American. Jimmie was so weak now that he hardly cared about anything; he took his place in a row of wounded men, waiting patiently, trying not to make a fuss, because this was war, and the Hun had to be licked, and everybody was doing his best. He lay down on the ground, and shut his eyes; and gradually there came to him a familiar odour. At first he thought it was the product of his imagination--because he had just met Lacey Granitch, and had been reminded of the night when he and Lizzie had crouched in the room of the lonely farm-house and listened to the sounds and smelled the odour through the door. And presently Jimmie heard the very same sounds from the tent--moans and shrieks, babbling as of insane men. How strange that both times when he smelt this odour and heard these cries he should be with the young master of the Empire Shops!
Jimmie's turn came, and they led him into the tent, making short work of him--merely ascertaining that no artery was cut and that he would not bleed to death, and then tagging him for the brigade hospital. They loaded him into a truck with a score of other "sitting cases", including Lacey Granitch, and treated him to a long ride which he did not at all enjoy. At the hospital, which was a big group of tents, now swarming with activity, Jimmie waited his turn again--so many wounds all at once, and so few to tend them!
At last he was led into the operating-place; the first sight that greeted his eyes being a couple of orderlies carrying out a tub filled with sawed-off arms and legs and miscellaneous fragments of men. There was a surgeon with a white costume smeared with blood, and a white mask over his face, and several nurses with white masks also. Nobody greeted him, or stopped for preliminaries--they laid him on the operating-table, and covered all but his shattered arm with a rubber sheet, and slit off his bandages, and then a nurse put someting over his face and said, "Breathe deeply, please."
It was that ghastly odour again, but overpowering now. Jimmie breathed, and everything began to rock and swim, his head began to roar, worse than when he had fought the machine-gun. He could not stand any more of it; he cried and struggled to get loose, but they had strapped his feet, and someone held his other arm, so his frantic efforts were of no avail.
He began to fall; head over heels he went tumbling, into vast bottomless abysses-down, down, down. He heard a strange voice saying: "Their collars are too tight." The words rang in his ears, they assumed monstrous and overwhelming significance, they became a whole universe by themselves--"Their collars are too tight!" All the rest of creation ceased, the lamp of being went out; there remained only a voice, pronouncing amid whirling infinities: "Their collars are too tight!"
Somewhere in the vast spaces of chaos was a snore. Then ages afterwards, out of the void there arose a mysterious forgotten effort to get something out of a choking throat. After several such unaccountable manifestations, the feeble flame of consciousness that called itself Jimmie Higgins flickered up, and he realized that it was he who was trying desperately not to be choked. Also he realized that he was become one horrible pain; somebody had driven a nail through his arm, and fastened him tight to the ground by it; also they had blown up his stomach, so that it was threatening to burst, and when he choked, it was an agony. He gasped for help, but no one paid any attention to him; he was all alone in the dungeon-house of pain, buried and forgotten for ever.
Gradually he emerged from the misty regions of anaesthesia, and realized that he was on a stretcher, and being carried. He moaned for water, but no one would give it to him. He pleaded that there was something dreadful wrong with him, he was going to burst inside; but they told him that was only ether gas, and not to worry, he would soon be all right. They laid him on a cot in a room, one of a long row, and left him to wrestle with demons all alone. This was war, and a man who had only a shattered arm might count himself among the lucky.
So through a night and a day Jimmie lay and made the best of a bad situation. There were two nurses in this tent, and Jimmie, having nothing to do but watch them, conceived a bitter rage at them both. One was lean and angular and sallow; she went about her duties grimly, with no nonsense, and Jimmie did not realize that she was ready to drop with exhaustion. The other was pretty, with fluffy yellow hair, and was flirting shamelessly with a young doctor. Perhaps Jimmy should have reflected that men were being killed rapidly these days, and it was necessary that some should concern themselves with supplying the future generations; but Jimmie was in no mood to probe the philosophy of flirtation--he remembered the Honourable Beatrice Clendenning, and wished he was back in Merrie England. Also he remembered his pacifist principles, and wished he had kept out of this hellish war!
But his pain became somewhat less, and they loaded him into an ambulance and took him farther back, to a big base hospital. Here, before long, he was able to sit up, and to be wheeled out into the sunshine, and to discover the unguessed raptures of convalescence--the amazing continuous appetite, the amazing continuous supply of good things to eat and drink; the bliss of looking at trees and flowers, and listening to the singing of birds, and telling other people how you rode out on a motor-cycle to look for "Botteree Normb Cott"--what the hell was that, anyhow?--and ran into the whole Hun army, and held it up for a couple of hours, and won the battle of Chatty Terry all alone!
One of the first persons Jimmie saw was Lacey Granitch, and Lacey took him off to a corner of the park and said, "You haven't told anyone?"
"No, Mr. Granitch," said Jimmie.
"My name is Peterson," said Lacey.
"Yes, Mr. Peterson," said Jimmie.
It was a strange acquaintance between these two, chosen from the opposite poles of social life, and brought together in the democracy of pain. Jimmie had the young lord of Leesville down, and might have walked on his face; but strange as it might seem, Jimmie took towards him an attitude of timid humility. Jimmie felt that he had betrayed him to a cruel and hideous vengeance; moreover, in spite of all his revolutionary fervours, Jimmie could not forget that he was talking to one of the masters of the world. You might hate with all your soul the prestige and power that went with the Granitch millions, but you couldn't be indifferent to it, you could never feel natural in the presence of it.
As for Lacey, he was no longer the proud, free, rich young aristocrat; he had suffered, and learned respect for his fellowmen, regardless of money. He heard how this little Socialist machinist, whom once he had cursed in a herd of strikers, had ridden into the jaws of death and helped to nail the Beast through the snout. So he wanted to know about him, and these two sat conversing for hours, each of them discovering a new world.
Just now all Europe and America were engaged in furious argument on the subject of the Bolsheviki. Had they betrayed democracy to the Hun, or were they, as they claimed, leading the way for mankind to a newer and broader kind of democracy? Lacey, of course, believed the former--everyone in the American army believed it, and in fact everybody in France, except a few dyed-in-the-wool reds. When Lacey found that Jimmie was one of these reds, he questioned him, and they had it hot and heavy for days. How could men have done what Lenin and Trotzky had done, unless they were paid German agents? So Jimmie had to set forth the theory of internationalism; the Bolsheviki were making propaganda in Germany, they were doing more to break the power of the Kaiser than even the Allied armies. How did Jimmie know that? He didn't know the details, of course, but he knew the soul of internationalism; he could tell what Lenin and Trotzky were doing, because he knew what he would be doing, were he in their place!
They talked on and on, and the young lord of Leesville, who would some day fall heir to an enormous fortune, and had been trained to think of it as his by every right, human and divine, heard a little runt of a machinist from the shops explain how he was going to seize that mass of property--he and the rest of his fellows combined into one big union--and how they were going to run it, not for Lacey's benefit, but for the benefit of all society. Jimmie forgot all respect for persons when he got on this theme; this was his dream, this was the proletariat expropriating the expropriators, and he told about it with shining eyes. In time past the young lord of Leesville would have answered him with insolent serenity, perhaps with a threat of machine-guns; but now he said hesitatingly that it was a large programme, and he feared it couldn't be made to work.
He was moved to question Jimmie about his past life, so as to understand how such fanaticism had come to be. So Jimmie told about starvation and neglect, about overwork and unemployment, about strikes and jails and manifold oppressions. The other listened, nodding his head. "Yes, of course, that was enough to drive any man to extremes." And then, thinking further, "I wonder", said he, "which of us two got the worse deal from life."
Jimmie was without means of understanding that remark, Lacey had had everything, hadn't he? To which Lacey answered, "I had too much, and you had too little; and which is worse for a man?"
By way of making clear what was in his mind, he told Jimmie a little about his own life. He pictured a big household, with a father beset by business cares, and turning over the managing of his home to employees. "My mother was a fool," said Lacey. "I suppose it sounds bad for a man to say that, but I've known it all my life. Maybe the old man was too busy to look up a woman with sense--or maybe he didn't believe there were any. Anyhow, my mother's idea was to be seen spending more money than any other woman in town; that was her 'position', and her children were part of the show--we must wear more clothes and bully more servants than anybody else's children. I've thought it all out--I've had lots of opportunity for thinking of late. I can't remember when I didn't hit my nurse in the face if she tried to take away a toy from me. I never had to ask for anything twice--if I did, I went into a tantrum and got it. I learned to smoke and to drink wine, and then came the women--the women finished me, as you know."
He paused; and Jimmie nodded sympathetically, remembering the story of the eight chorus-girls about whom "Wild Bill" had read out in the local.
"It's hell for a boy to have a lot of money," said Lacey, "and to be preyed on by women. You have your human emotions, of course--you're absolutely compelled to believe in some women; and they're all perfectly cold-blooded--at least the kinds that a rich boy meets. I don't mean only adventuresses--I mean the society-girls, the ones you're supposed to marry. Their damned old harpies of mothers are pushing behind them, of course--laying out everything they own for clothes, and not knowing how they can pay the bills for last season. They set out to catch you, they're mad with the determination, they don't care about reputation, they'll do any damned thing. You take them out in your car, and then they want to get out and pick flowers, and they draw you into the woods, and presently you've got hold of their hands, and then you're hugging and kissing them, and then you go the limit. But then you've got to marry them; and when they find you won't, they have hysterics, and say they're going to shoot their heads off; only they don't shoot their heads off, they kiss you some more, and borrow your diamond scarf-pin and forget to return it."
The young lord of Leesville fell silent. Sombre memories possessed him, and Jimmie, darting a swift glance at him, saw the look of weary age on his face. "I've never talked with anybody about what happened at the end," said he, "and I never mean to; but I'll say this much--the time I loved a married woman was the only honest love I ever had, because she was the only woman who wasn't looking to marry me!"
That was, of course, too subtle for a man like Jimmie Higgins. But
this much the little Socialist got--that the heir of the Granitch
fortune had been in truth a miserably unhappy mortal. And this was
an extraordinary revelation to Jimmie, who had taken it for granted
that the rich were the lucky ones of earth. He had hated them on the
supposition that they were without care; they were the Lotus-eaters,
of whom the poet wrote that they
"live and lie reclined On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind, For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl'd Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl'd Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world:
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands, Blight of famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands, Clanging fights and flaming towns, and sinking ships and pray- ing hands. But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong. Like a tale of little meaning tho' the words are strong; Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil, Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil, Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil.
But now Jimmie had crossed the social chasm, he had seen the other side of the problem of riches and poverty. After that revelation, he would be more merciful in his judgements of his fellow-mortals; he would understand that the system in which we are trapped makes true happiness impossible--for those who have too much as well as for those who have too little.