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 25

JIMMIE HIGGINS ENTERS INTO DANGER

I

While Jimmie wandered through the streets of this French town, letting his broken arm get strong again, the death-grapple of the war continued. In mid-July the Germans made a last desperate lunge at the Marne; they were stopped dead in a couple of days by the French and Americans combined; and then the Allied commander-in-chief struck back, smashing in the side of the German salient, and driving the enemy, still fighting furiously, but moving back from the soil of France. All France caught its breath with excitement, with relief mingled with dread. So many times they had hoped, through these four weary, hideous years, and so many times their hopes had been dashed! But this time there was no mistake--it was really the turning of the tide. The enemy resisted at every step, but he went on moving out of the salient, and the Allies went on lunging--now here, now there, see--sawing back and forth, and keeping their opponents bewildered.

Jimmie read about it in the army paper, the Stars and Stripes; and now, for the first time in four years, Jimmie's mind was one mind on the war. Jimmie was on the field of every battle, his teeth set, his hands clenched, his whole soul helping at the job. He had got over the disorders of anaesthesia, and was forgetting the shock of his wound; he had realized that wounds, and even death, were something a man could bear--not cheerfully, of course, not lightly, but you could bear them, if only you knew that the Beast was being put out of business.

In the old days the word German had meant to Jimmie fellows like Meissner and Forster and Schneider; but now it meant a huge grey form looming over the edge of a shell-hole, its face distorted with hate, its bayonet poised to plunge. Perhaps the most vivid impression of Jimmie's whole life was the relief he had felt when he realized that some doughboy had shot a bullet into that looming figure. Let there be more doughboys, more and more, until the last figure had been shot! Jimmie knew, of course, that the policy he had been advocating in America had not tended to that end; if Jimmie in Leesville had had his way, there would have been no doughboys to rescue Jimmy at Chatty Terry! Jimmie was quite clear on that point now, and for the time being the pacifist was dead in him.

He listened to the talk of the men in this hospital. They had all been through the mill, they had got their wounds, light or severe, but it had not broken their spirit--not a bit of it; there was hardly one among them who was not hoping to get cured and to get back into the game before it was over. That was how they took it--a game, the most sensational, the most thrilling that a man would ever play. These boys had been brought up on football, the principal training and only real interest in life of some hundreds of thousands of young Americans every year. They had brought the spirit and the method of football with them into the army, and communicated it to those less fortunate millions who had been neither to college nor to high school: the team-work, the speed, the incessant, gruelling drill, the utter, unquestioning loyalty, the persistent searching of eager young minds for new combinations, new tricks; and above all the complete indifference to the possibility of a broken collar-bone or a damaged heart-valve, provided only that the game should be won!

This army was attacking a foe who relied on machine-guns to break formations and give time to withdraw stores and big guns to safety; so the life of young America for the moment had become a study of the arts of rushing machine-guns. Jimmie listened to the conversation of the new men, and saw the technique being worked out before his eyes. Tanks were all right, aeroplanes were all right, when you had them; but mostly you did not have them, in time, so the doughboy was learning to take machine-guns with the bayonet. You had a little squad, trained like a football team, with its own system of signals, its formations worked out by young heads put together at night. It was a costly game--you would be lucky if a third of the players came out alive; but if you could get one man to the machine-gun with a bayonet, you had won the game--because he would take the gun and turn it about on the retreating Germans, and could kill enough of them in a minute to make up for the losses of his squad.

II

Lacey Granitch's shoulder healed, and he went back to his job. He told Jimmie what it had meant to him to meet a Socialist; if he could believe what Jimmie believed, he wouldn't mind living, even with his shame. Jimmie gave him the names of books to read, and Lacey promised to read them; of course, Jimmie was proud and happy-- seeing a vision of the Empire Machine Shops turned over to the control of the workers, the capitalist system committing hari-kari in one American industry.

Jimmie got a letter from one of the working-men in the repair station where he had last worked, telling him that the Americans had taken over this sector, and now there was a big shop established, and when was he coming back? But Jimmie was not so eager to come back; working on motor-cycles did not seem a thrilling prospect to one who had held up the whole Hun army and won the battle of Chatty Terry. Having proven his mettle as a fighting man, Jimmie wondered if there mightn't be some way for him to get into the real army, and do a real man's work.

He wrote a letter to the officer in command of his motor-unit, telling what had happened to him, and couldn't it be arranged? In reply the officer said that he would have an investigation made, and if Jimmie's story could be verified, he would have honourable mention, and promotion of some sort. And sure enough, a month later, when Jimmie was ready to leave the hospital, came official notice that he was promoted to be a sergeant of motor-transport, and ordered to report to headquarters in a certain harbour on the English Channel for assignment. Sergeant Jimmie Higgins!

Jimmie reported, of course, and was put in charge of a dozen cyclists and repair men, newly arrived on a transport. These men looked up to Jimmie as a veteran and hero, and Jimmie, who had never enjoyed authority in his life before--except you count Jimmie Junior and the two kids--may have had his head turned just a little bit. But there was real work to be done, and no time for strutting. There was excitement in the air, wild rumour and speculation; this little unit of Jimmie's, composed of specially fit men, was going somewhere on a special errand--an expedition, evidently by sea. Nobody was told where--that wasn't the way in the army; but presently there were issued sheepskin-lined coats and heavy wool-lined boots--in the middle of August! So they knew that they were bound for the Far North, and for some time. Could it be a surprise attack in the Baltic? Either that, said the wiseheads, or else Archangel. Jimmie had never heard of this latter place, and had to ask about it. It appeared that the Allies had landed enormous masses of stores at this port in far Northern Russia; and now that the Russians had dropped out of the war, the Germans were threatening to take possession.

Jimmie was thrilled to the soles of his new wool-lined boots. He was going to Russia, going to see the revolution! Jimmie had but a vague idea of world-conditions now, for during the past three or four months he had been reading only official papers, which confined their attention to the job, and carefully omitted mention of difficulties and complications. The people with whom he talked insisted that it was necessary for the Allies to do something to counter the Brest-Litovsk treaty; if the Germans were allowed to take possession of helpless Russia and use it for their purposes, they might hold out for another hundred years. The Russian people themselves must realize this, and welcome Allied help! Jimmie wasn't sure on this latter point, but he remembered the Rabin brothers and their enthusiasm for the Allied cause, so he put his doubts to sleep, and helped get his motor-unit stowed on board a transport.

III

There came a passage across the North Sea and up the coast of Norway; a region of fogs and restless winds, and incessant deadly peril of submarine and mine. There were three transports in the expedition, and a couple of warships convoying them, and half a dozen destroyers weaving their foam patterns in and out. Every day the air grew colder, and the period of daylight shorter; they were entering the Land of the Midnight Sun, but at the time of year when midnight noons were approaching. The men had plenty of time for reading and talk; so Jimmie discussed the war from the Socialist point of view, defending the Russian revolutionists; and so, as usual, he made somebody angry, and got himself and his seditious opinions reported.

Lieutenant Gannet was the name of Jimmie's superior officer. He had been a clerk in a cotton-mill before the war, and had never had the exercise of authority. Now he had to learn suddenly to give orders, and his idea of doing it was to be extremely sharp and imperative. He was a deeply conscientious young man, keen on the war, and willing to face any hardship or peril in fulfilment of his duty; but Jimmie could not have been expected to appreciate that--all Jimmie knew was that his superior had a way of glaring from behind his spectacles as if he was sure that someone was lying to him.

Lieutenant Gannet didn't ask what Jimmie had said; he told Jimmie what he had said, and informed him that that kind of talk wasn't going on in the army while he was in hearing. Jimmie's business was to keep some motor-cycles in repair, and some cyclists on their job; about other matters let him hold his tongue, and not try to run the affairs of the nation. Jimmie ventured the remark that he had said nothing but what President Wilson was saying all along. To which the lieutenant replied that he was not interested in Sergeant Higgins's opinions of President Wilson's opinions--Sergeant Higgins was to keep his opinions to himself, or he would get into serious trouble, So Jimmie went away, seething with indignation, as much of a rebel as he had ever been in Local Leesville.

What were the rights of a soldier, anyway? Was he privileged to discuss political issues, and to agree with the utterances of the President of his country? Might he believe, as the President believed, in a just peace and the right of all peoples to freedom and self-determination, even though many of the officers of the army hated and despised such ideas? Jimmie didn't know, and there was nobody to tell him; but Jimmie knew that he hadn't meant to give up his rights as a citizen when he enlisted to fight for democracy, and if these rights were taken away from him, it would not be without a struggle.

IV

The transports came into the region of icebergs, and low-hanging mists, and rocky cliffs covered with snow, and flocks of seagulls flying over them. For days and nights on end they steamed in those Arctic waters, and came at last into the White Sea, and the harbour of Archangel.

The Allies had been here since the beginning of the war, building docks and sheds and railway yards; but they had never been able to build enough, and the transport department of the corrupt Russian government having gone to pieces, here were mountains of supplies of every sort you could think of for an army, piled high on the shores. At least, that was what Jimmie had been told; he had read in the newspapers that the statement was made officially in answer to questions in the British Parliament. Jimmie had understood that he was here to save those mountains of supplies from the Germans, and he was surprised when he looked about the harbour and saw no mountains of any sort.

Back in the interior were vast trackless forests of fir-trees, and moss-covered swamps in which in summertime a man would sink up to his neck. Now, in September, they were already frozen solid, and you travelled over them with a sledge and a team of reindeer, bundled up in furs and looking, except for the whiskers, like the pictures of Santa Claus you had seen when you were a kid. But most of the traffic of the army was upon the rivers which cut the forests and swamps, and the single railroad, which was being put back into commission.

This country had, of course, no roads on which motor-cycles could be used, even in summer. Jimmie found that his job would be confined to the city and the encampments near about. A few streets would be kept clear of snow, and the little band of messengers would scoot about them, now and then taking a slide into a snow-bank and smashing things up. That would have been all right, and Jimmie would have bossed the job and been happy as he knew how to be--had only his mind been at peace.

For the first few days, of course, he had no time to think, he was as busy as an ant, getting himself and his men ashore, and setting up their benches and tools in an iron shed, with a roaring stove at each end, and heaps of firewood which the peasants brought on heavy flat sledges dragged by reindeer. Jimmie and his unit worked, not merely during the hours of daylight, but most of the hours of darkness, not stopping for Sundays. There were five thousand men to be got ashore with their supplies--and in a desperate rush, as if the Germans were expected at any hour. It was some while before Jimmie found time to go about the city, to meet the "Tommies", who had been here a month before him, and to hear what they had done, and what they were expecting to do.

Jimmie had understood that this expedition was to fight the Germans; but now he became suspicious; apparently it was to fight the Bolsheviki! The social revolution had accomplished itself in Archangel, and a council of working-men and peasants had been in full control, when the British troops and sailors had made a surprise attack and seized the port, driving the revolutionists in confusion before them. Now they were sending an expedition up the railroad, and another on steamers up the North Dwina river, pursuing Russian Socialists and driving them back into frozen swamps! And here were American troops, being hurried ashore, and outfitted and made ready to join in what seemed to Jimmie to be warfare upon organized working-men!

Jimmie was almost beside himself with bewilderment. It was all so new and strange to him--and he had nobody to advise him. At home, if there were a Socialist problem to settle, he would take it to Meissner or Stankewitz, or Comrade Gerrity the organizer, or Comrade Mabel Smith, the chairman of the Literature Committee. But now, in all this expedition Jimmie did not know a single man who had any idea of radicalism; they looked upon the Bolsheviki as mad dogs, as traitors, criminals, lunatics, any word that seemed worst to you. The Bolsheviki had deserted the cause of the Allies, they had gone into league with Germany to betray Democracy; so now the Americans had come to teach them the lesson of law and order. The Americans looked upon themselves as an advance guard of a vast expedition which was to march to Petrograd and Moscow, and wipe the idea of Bolshevism off the map. And Jimmie Higgins was to help! Jimmie Higgins, bound and gagged, lashed to the chariot of Militarism, was to take part in destroying the first proletarian government in history!

The more Jimmie thought of it, the more indignant he became; he took it as a personal outrage--a scurvy trick that had been played upon him. He had swallowed their propaganda, he had filled himself up with their patriotism, he had dropped everything to come and fight for Democracy. He had gone into battle, had risked his life, had suffered wounds and agony for them. And now they had broken their bargain with him, they had brought him here and ordered him to fight working-men--just as if he had been a militiaman at home! Democracy indeed! Here they were marching in, glorying in their purpose to conquer the Russian Revolutionists!

And Jimmie Higgins, under martial law, must obey and hold his tongue! Jimmie thought of all his friends at home who had denounced the military machine; he thought of Comrade Mary Allen, of Comrade Mabel Smith, and Comrade Evelyn Baskerville and Comrade Gerrity; he had rejected their advice, and now, if they could see what he was doing, how they would spurn him! Jimmie writhed at the very thought; nor was he consoled when one of the men in his company gave him an "inside" story of what was happening here--that in order to persuade the British to submit their armies to the control of a French general, and thus to save the situation in France, the Americans had been forced to submit their own armies also; and now they found themselves ordered to march in and fight a revolutionary government which had repudiated its debt to France, and so had given offence to a naturally frugal people.

V

Jimmie met a man whom he might almost have taken for Deror Rabin, so much did he resemble the little Jewish tailor. A big, black-whiskered peasant brought a load of wood for the fires; and there was a Jew helping him--a chap with a sharp face and keen black eyes, his cheeks sunken as if he had not had enough to eat for years, and his chest racked by a cough. He had wrapped his feet and his hands in rags, because he had neither boots nor gloves; but he seemed cheerful, and presently, as he dumped down a load, he nodded and said, "Hello!"

"Hello yourself!" replied Jimmie.

"I speak English," said the fellow.

It didn't surprise Jimmie that anybody should speak English; he was only surprised when they didn't. So he smiled and said, "Sure!"

"I been in America," went on the other. "I vork by sveat-shop in Grand Street."

You could see that he preferred gossiping to carrying wood; he stood about and questioned, "Vere you vork in America?" When the peasant grumbled at him in Russian, he went back at his job; but as he went away, he said, "I talk vit you some time about America." To which, of course, Jimmie answered with a friendly assent.

A couple of hours later, when he went out from his work, he found the little Jew waiting for him in the darkness. "I git lonesome some time for America," he said; and walked down the street with Jimmie, beating his thin arms to keep warm.

"Why did you come back?" Jimmie inquired.

"I read about revolution. I tink maybe I git rich."

"Huh!" said Jimmie, and grinned. "What did you get?"

"You belong to union in America?" countered the other.

"You bet I do!" said Jimmie.

"Vat sort of union?"

"Machinists."

"You been on strike, maybe?"

"You bet I have!"

"You got licked, maybe?"

"You bet!"

"You don't never scab, hey?"

"Not much!"

"You vat you call class-conscious?"

"You bet! I'm a Socialist!"

The other turned upon him, his voice trembling with sudden excitement. "You got a red card?"

"You bet!" said Jimmie. "Right inside my coat."

"My God!" cried the other. "A comrade!" He stretched out his hands, which were bundled up with old gunny-sacking, to Jimmie. "Tovarish!" cried he. And standing there in the freezing darkness, these two felt their hearts leap into a hot glow. Here, under the Arctic Circle, in this wilderness of ice and desolation, even here the spirit of international fraternity was working its miracles!

But then, shaking with excitement, the little Jew pawed at Jimmie with his bundled hands. "If you are Socialist, vy you fight de Russian vorkers?"

"I'm not fighting them!"

"You vear de uniform."

"I'm only a motor-cycle man."

"But you help! You kill de Russian people! You destroy de Soviets! Vy?"

"I didn't know about it," pleaded Jimmie. "I wanted to fight the Kaiser, and they brought me here without telling me."

"Ah! So it iss vit militarism, vit capitalism! Ve are slaves! But we vill be free! And you vill help, you vill not kill de Russian vorkers!"

"I will not!" cried Jimmie, quickly.

And the little stranger put his arm through Jimmie's "You come vit me, quick! I show you someting, tovarish!"

VI

They threaded the dark streets till they came to a row of working-men's hovels, made of logs, the cracks stuffed with mud and straw--places in which an American farmer would not have thought it proper to keep his cattle. "So live de vorkers," said the stranger, and he knocked on the door of one of the hovels. It was unbarred by a woman with several children about her skirts, and the men entered a cabin lighted by a feeble, smoky lamp. There was a huge oven at one side, with a kettle in which cabbage was cooking. The man said nothing to the woman, but signed Jimmie to a seat before the oven, and fixed his sharp black eyes on his face.

"You show me de red card?" he said, suddenly.

Jimmie took off his sheepskin-lined overcoat, and unbuttoned his sweater underneath, and from an inside pocket of his jacket took out the precious card with the due-stamps initialled by the secretaries of Local Leesville and Local Hopeland and Local Ironton. The stranger studied it, then nodded. "Good! I trust you." As he handed back the card he remarked, "My name is Kalenkin. I am Bolshevik."

Jimmie's heart bounded--though he had guessed as much, of course. "We called our local in Ironton Bolshevik," said he.

"Dey drive us out from here," continued the Jew, "but I stay behind for propaganda. I look for comrades among de Americans, de British. I say, 'Do not fight de vorkers, fight de masters, de capitalists.' You understand?"

"Sure!" said Jimmie.

"If de masters find me, dey kill me. But I trust you."

"I'll not tell!" said Jimmie quickly.

"You help me," went on the other. "You go to de American soldiers, you say, 'De Russian people have been slaves so many years; now dey get free, and you come to kill dem and made dem slaves again!' Vy iss it? Vat vill dey say, tovarish?"

Jimmie answered: "They say they want to lick the Kaiser."

"But we help to lick de Kaiser! Ve fight him!"

"They say you've made peace with him!"

"Ve fight vit propaganda--de vay de Kaiser fear most of all. Ve spend millions of roubles, we print papers, leaflets--you know, comrade, vat Socialists do. Ve send dem into Germany, we drop dem by aeroplanes, we have printing-presses in--vat you call it, de Suisse, de Nederland--everyvere. De Germans read, dey tink, dey say. Vy do we fight for de Kaiser, vy do we not be free like de Russians? I know it, tovarish, I have talked vit many German soldiers. It goes like a fire in Germany. Maybe it take time--a year--two years--but some day people see de Bolsheviki vere right, dey know de vorkers, de heart of de vorkers--dey have de life, de fire dat cannot be put out in de heart!"

"Sure," said Jimmie. "But you can't tell things like that to the doughboys."

"My God!" said Kalenkin. "Don't I know! I vas in America! Dey tink dey are de people vat de good God made! Dey know everyting--you cannot teach dem. Dey are democracy; dey have no classes; vage-slaves--dat iss just foreign--vat you call it--scum, hey? Dey vill shoot us--I have seen how dey beat de vorkers ven dey strike on Grand Street."

"I've been through it all," said Jimmie. "What can we do?"

"Propaganda!" cried Kalenkin. "For de first time we have plenty money for propaganda--all de money in Russia for propaganda! Ever'vere in de vorld we reach de vorkers--everyvere we cry to dem: Rise! Rise and break your chains! You tink dey vill not hear us, tovarish! De capitalists know dey vill hear us, dey tremble, so dey send armies to beat us. Dey tink de armies vill obey--always--is it not so?"

"They think the Russian people will rise against you."

At which the little man laughed, a wild hilarious laugh. "Ve have got our own government! For de first time in Russia, de first time in de vorld, de vorkers rule; and dey tink we rise against ourselves! Dey put up--vat you call it--puppets, vat dey call Socialists, dey make a government here in Archangel, vat dey call Russian! Dey fool demselves, but dey don't fool de Russians!"

"They think this government will spread," said Jimmie.

"It vill spread just so far as de armies go--just so far. But in Russia, all de people come together--all are Bolsheviki, ven dey see de foreign armies coming. And vy, tovarish? Because dey know vat it means ven capitalists come to make new governments for Russia. It means bonds--de French, de British debt! You know?"

"Sure, I know," said Jimmie.

"It is billions, fifteen billions of roubles to France alone. De Bolsheviki have said, 'Ve do not pay dem so quick.' And for vy? Vat did dey do vit dat money! Dey loaned it to de Tsar, and for vat? To make slaves out of de Russian people, to put dem in armies and make dem fight de Japanese, to make police-force and send hundert thousand Russian Socialists to Siberia! Is it not so? And Russian Socialists pay such debts? Not so quick! Ve say, 'Ve had nothing to do vit such money! You loaned it to de Tsar, now you collect it from de Tsar! But dey say, 'You must pay!' And dey send armies, to take de land of Russia, to take de oil and de coal and de gold. So, tovarish! Dey vill put down de Soviets! But if so, dey must take ever' town, ever' village in Russia--and all de time we make propaganda vit de soldiers, we make it vit Frenchmen and Englishmen and Americans, just like we make it vit Germans!"

VII

The little man had made a long speech, and was exhausted; the coughing seized him, and he pressed his hands to his chest, and his white face flushed red in the firelight. The woman brought him water to drink, and stood by him with a hand on his shoulder; her broad peasant's face, deeply lined with care, quivered at every spasm of the man's. Jimmie quivered, too, sitting there watching, and facing in his own soul a mighty destiny. He knew the situation now, he knew his own duty. It was perfectly plain, perfectly simple--his whole life had been one long training for it. Something cried out in him, in the words of another proletarian martyr, "Let this cup pass from Me!" But he stilled the voice of his weakness, and after a while he said: "Tell me what to do, comrade."

Kalenkin asked, "You have made propaganda in America?"

"Sure," said Jimmie. "I went to jail once for makin' a speech on the street."

And the other went to a corner of the cabin, and dug under half a dozen cabbages, and brought out a packet. It contained leaflets, a couple of hundred perhaps, and the Jew handed one to Jimmie, explaining, "Dey ask me, 'How shall we make de Americans understand?' I say, 'Dey must know how ve make propaganda vit de Germans.' I say, 'Print de proclamations vat we give to de German troops, and make English translation, so de Americans and de Englishmen can read.' You tink dat help?"

Jimmie took the leaflet and moved the lamp a bit nearer and read:

"Proclamation of the Army Committee of the Russian Twelfth Army (Bolshevik), posted throughout the city of Riga during its evacuation by the Russians:

"German Soldiers!

"The Russian soldiers of the Twelfth Army draw your attention to the fact that you are carrying on a war for autocracy against Revolution, freedom and justice. The victory of Wilhelm will be death to democracy and freedom. We withdraw from Riga, but we know that the forces of the Revolution will ultimately prove themselves more powerful than the force of cannons. We know that in the long run your conscience will overcome everything, and that the German soldiers, with the Russian Revolutionary Army, will march to the victory of freedom. You are at present stronger than we are, but yours is only the victory of brute force. The moral force is on our side. History will tell that the German proletarians went against their revolutionary brothers, and that they forgot international working-class solidarity. This crime you can expiate only by one means. You must understand your own and at the same time the universal interests, and strain all your immense power against imperialism, and go hand-in-hand with us--toward life and liberty!"

Jimmie looked up.

"Vat you tink of it?" cried Kalenkin, eagerly.

"Fine!" cried Jimmie. "The very thing they need! Nobody can object to that. It's a fact, it's what the Bolsheviki are doing."

The other smiled grimly. "Tovarish, if dey find you vit dat paper, dey shoot you like a dog! Dey shoot us all!"

"But why?"

"Because it is Bolshevik."

Jimmie wanted to say. "But it's true!" However, he realized how naive that would sound. So he waited, while Kalenkin went on:

"You show it only to men you can trust. You hide de copies, you take vun and make it dirty, so you say, 'I find it in de street.' See, iss it so de Bolsheviki fight de Kaiser? If it iss so, vy do we need to fight dem? So you give dese; and some day I come vit someting new."

Jimmie agreed that that was the way to set about it. He folded up a score of the leaflets and stowed them in an inside pocket of his jacket, and put on his heavy overcoat and gloves, which he wished he could give to the sick, half-starved and half-frozen Bolshevik. He patted him reassuringly on the back, and said: "You trust me, comrade; I'll hand them out, and they'll bring results, too, I'll bet."

"You don't tell about me!" exclaimed Kalenkin with fierce intensity.

To which Jimmie answered. "Not if they boil me alive."

Upton Sinclair

Sorry, no summary available yet.