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Chapter 4

JIMMIE HIGGINS STRIKES IT RICH

I

It was some time before Jimmie understood the nature of the new machinery he was helping to set up. It was nobody's business to explain, for he was only a pair of hands and a strong back; he was not supposed to be a brain--while as for a soul or a conscience, nobody was supposed to be that. Russian agents had come to Leesville with seventeen millions of the money which the Paris bankers had put up; and so overnight whole blocks of homes were swept out of existence, and a huge new steel structure was rising, and on the spot where for four years Jimmie had made certain motions of the hands, they were preparing to manufacture new machinery for the quantity production of shell-casings.

When Jimmie had definitely learned what was in process, he was brought face to face with a grave moral problem. Could he, as an international Socialist, spend his time making shells to kill his German comrades? Could he spend his time making the machinery to make the shells? Would he take the bribe of old man Granitch, a working man's share of the hideous loot--an increase of four cents an hour, with the prospect of another four when the works got started? Jimmie had to meet this issue, just when it happened that one of his babies was sick, and he was cudgelling his head to think how he could ever squeeze out of his scanty wage the money to pay the doctor!

The answer was easy to Comrade Schneider, the stout and sturdy brewer, who stood up in the local and spoke with bitter scorn of those Socialists who stayed on in the pay of that old hell-devil, Granitch. Schneider wanted a strike in the Empire Machine Shops, and he wanted it that very night! But then rose Comrade Mabel Smith, whose brother was a bookkeeper for the concern. It was all very well for Schneider to talk, but suppose someone were to demand that the brewery-workers should strike and refuse to make beer for munition-workers? That was a mere quibble, argued Schneider; but the other denied this, declaring that it was an illustration of what the worker was up against, with no control of his own destiny, no voice as to what use should be made of his product. A man might say that he would have nothing to do with munition-work, and go out into the fields as a farmer--to raise grain, to be shipped to the armies! The solidarity of capitalist society was such that nowhere could a man find work that would not in some way be helping to kill his fellow-workers in other lands.

Jimmie Higgins talked solemnly to Lizzie of moving to Hubbardtown--tempted thereto by the signs he saw in an agency which had been set up in a vacant store on Main Street. The Hubbard Engine Company was trying to steal old man Granitch's workers, and was offering thirty-two cents an hour for semi-skilled labour! Jimmie made inquiry and learned that the company was extending its plant for gas-engines; for what purpose was not told, but men suspected that the engines were to go into motor-boats and be used for the sinking of submarines. So Jimmie decided that Comrade Mabel Smith was right; he might as well stay where he was. He would take as much money as he could get and use his new-found prosperity to make trouble for the war-profiteers. It was the first time in his life that Jimmie had ever been free from money-fear. He could now get a job anywhere at good wages, and so he did not care a hang what the boss might say. He would talk to his fellow-workers, and explain the war to them; a war of the capitalists at present, but destined perhaps to turn into another kind of war, which the capitalists would not find to their taste!

II

It was wonderful, incredible, the thing which had befallen Leesville. Full of hatred for the system as Jimmie Higgins was, he could not but be thrilled by what he saw. Thousands of men pouring into the once commonplace little city--men of a score of races and creeds, men old and young, white and black--even a few yellow ones! It was a boom like San Francisco in '49; the money which the Paris bankers had paid to the Russian government, and which the Russian government had paid to old man Granitch, spread out in a golden flood over the city. The speculators raised the price of land, the house-owners raised rents, the hotels doubled their prices, and even so, had to put people to bed on pool tables! Even Tom Callahan of the "Buffeteria"' had to hire two assistants, and build an extension, and move his kitchen into the back yard.

At night the hordes of strangers roamed the streets, and Lipsky's "Picture Palace" was packed to the doors, and the "Bon Marche Shoe Stores" had a new bankruptcy sale every week, and the swinging doors of the saloons were never still for hours on end. Of course, where so many men were gathered, there came women--swarms of women--of as many races as the men. Leesville had some two score churches, and had kept hitherto a careful pretence of decency; but now all barriers went down, the police-force of the city was overwhelmed by the new population--or was it by the golden flood from Paris by way of Russia? Anyway, you saw sights on Main Street which confirmed your distrust of war.

Never had there been such an opportunity for Socialist propaganda! All these hordes of men, collected from the ends of the earth, torn loose from home ties, from religion, from old habits of every sort, thrown together promiscuously, living in any old way, ready for any old thing that might come along! In former days these men had taken what was handed out to them by their newspaper editors and preachers and politicians; they had engaged in commonplace and respectable activities, had lived tame and unadventurous lives. But now they were making munitions; and you might say what you pleased, but there was a certain psychological condition incidental to the making of munitions. An employer could look pious and talk about law and order, so long as he was setting his men to hoeing weeds or shingling roofs or grading track; but what could he say to his men when he was making shells to be used in blowing men to pieces?

So came the Socialist and the Anarchist and the Syndicalist and the Industrial Unionist. Look at these masters, look at this civilization they have produced! In the world's oldest centres of culture ten or twenty millions of wage-slaves have been hurled together--and then the Socialist or Anarchist or Syndicalist or Industrial Unionist would describe in detail the bloody and bestial operations which these ten or twenty millions of men were performing. And each day's papers would bring fresh details for them to cite--famine and pestilence, fire and slaughter, poison gas, incendiary bombs, torpedoed passenger-ships. Look at these pious hypocrites, the masters, with their refinement, their culture, their religion! These are the people you are asked to follow, it is for such as these that you have been chained to the machines all these weary, toil-crowded years!

III

On every street corner, in every meeting-room, in every spot where the workers gathered at the noon hour, you would hear such arguments; and you would find men listening to them--men who perhaps had never listened to such arguments before. They would nod, and their faces would become grim--yes, the people up on top must be a rotten lot! Here in America, supposed to be a land of liberty and all that--here they were just the same, they were crowding to the trough to drink the blood that was poured out in Europe. Of course, they covered their greed with a camouflage of sympathy for the Allies; but did anybody believe that old man Granitch loved the Russian government? Certainly nobody in Leesville did; they knew that he was "getting his", and their hearts hardened with a grim resolve to "get theirs".

At first they thought they were succeeding. Wages went up, almost for the asking; never did the unskilled man have so much money in his pocket, while the man who could pretend to any skill at all found himself in the plutocratic class. But quickly men discovered the worm in this luscious war-fruit; prices were going up almost as fast as wages--in some places even faster. The sums you had to pay to the landlord surpassed belief; a single working man would be asked two or three dollars a week for twelve hours' use of a mattress and blanket, which in the old days he might have got for fifty cents. Food was scarce and of poor quality; before long you found yourself being asked to pay six cents for a hunk of pie or a cup of coffee--and then seven cents, and then ten. If you kicked, the proprietor would tell you a long tale about what he had to pay for rent and labour and supplies; and you could not deny that he was probably right. About the only thing that did not go up was a postage-stamp; and the Socialist would point to this and explain that the Post Office was run by Uncle Sam, instead of by Abel Granitch!

Every rise in price was a fresh stick of fuel for the Socialist machine, and gave new power to their propaganda of "Starve the War and Feed America!" The Socialist saw millions of tons of goods being loaded into steamships and sent to Europe to be destroyed in war; he saw the workers of Europe becoming enslaved by a bonded debt to a class of parasites in America, he saw America being drawn closer and closer to the abyss of the strife. The Socialist loved no part of this process. He clamoured for an embargo--not merely on munitions, but on food and everything, until the war-lords of Europe came to their senses. He urged the workers to strike, and thus force the politicians to declare the embargo.

Especially, of course, he urged this if he were a German or an Austrian, a Hungarian or a Bohemian. The latter were subject races, but they could not in these early days see beyond the fact that their fathers and brothers and cousins were being killed by the shells that were made in the Empire Machine Shops. With them stood also the Jews, who hated the Russian government so bitterly that nothing else mattered; also the Irish, whose first idea in life was to pay back John Bull for his sins of several centuries, and whose second idea was to take part in any sort of shivaree that was going. It was quite bewildering to Jimmie Higgins; he had wrestled with Catholics of several nations and got nothing but hard words for his pains, but now all of a sudden Tom Callahan of the "Buffeteria" and Pat Grogan of the grocery on the corner made the discovery that maybe he was not such a fool after all!

IV

As a result of this ferment among the workers, the local had doubled its membership, and was holding soap-box meetings on a corner off Main Street on two evenings every week. The plans for the weekly paper, however, still hung fire. Comrade Dr. Service had lost his two brothers-in-law, one in the battle of Mons, and the other in the first frightful gas-attack at Ypres, where whole regiments of men were caught unprepared and died in awful torments. Also two of his wife's cousins had paid the price--one was blind, and the other a prisoner at Ruhleben, the worst fate of all. So Dr. Service made one last indignant speech in the local, and took his five hundred dollars to start a chapter of the Red Cross!

But now the Germans and the war-haters in the local were asking themselves, was Socialism to languish in the city of the Empire Machine Shops, just because one rich man with an English wife had proved a renegade? Such a question answered itself! The work of collecting subscription lists was taken up more vigorously than ever; and already more than half the lost five hundred had been made up, when one evening John Meissner came home with a most amazing story.

It was his custom to stop at Sandkuh's for one glass of beer on his way home in the evening; and when anybody in the saloon got to arguing about the war, he would take his chance to put in a little propaganda. This time he had made a regular speech, declaring that the workers would soon put an end to the munition-business; and a fellow had got to talking with him, asking him all sorts of questions about himself, and about the local. How many members did it have? How many of them felt as Meissner did? What were they doing about it? Pretty soon the man had drawn Meissner to a table in the back part of the place, asking about the proposed paper, and what its policy was to be; also about the unions in the city, and their policy, and the personalities of the leaders.

The man had said he was a Socialist, but Meissner did not believe him. Meissner thought he must be some kind of union organizer. There had been talk of various unions making an effort to break into the domain of old man Granitch; and, of course, there was always the I. W. W. trying to break in everywhere with its programme of the "one big union".

Meissner went on to tell how this mysterious stranger had stated to him that it would be possible to get plenty of money to back the proposition of a strike in the Empire Shops. The new plant was just ready to start up, and fresh swarms of men were coming in; what was wanted was some live fellows to get in with them and agitate for an eight hour day and a minimum wage scale of sixty cents an hour. Men who were willing to do that could get good money, and plenty of it; if the Leesville Worker would advocate such a policy, there was no reason why it should not start up the very next week, and publish a big edition and flood the town. The one essential was that arrangements should be made secretly. Meissner must trust no one save dyed-in-the-wool "reds", who would be willing to hustle, and not say where the pay came from. As earnest of his intentions, the stranger pulled out a roll of bills, and casually drew off half a dozen and slipped them into Meissner's hands. They were for ten dollars each--more money than a petty boss at the glass-works had ever got into his hands at one time in all his life!

Meissner exhibited the roll, and Jimmie stared with wide-open eyes. Here indeed was a new development of the war--ten dollar bills for Socialist propaganda to be picked up in the back rooms of saloons! What was this fellow's name? And where did he hang out? Meissner offered to take Jimmie to meet him, and so the two bolted their suppers and set out at top speed.

V

Jerry Coleman had mentioned several saloons where he was known, and in one of these they found him, a smooth-faced, smooth-spoken young fellow whom Jimmie would have taken for a detective or "spotter"--having had dealings with such in his days "on the road". The man wore good clothes, and his finger-nails were cared for, something which, as we know, is seldom permitted to working-men. But he did not put on airs, and he bade them call him by his first name. He talked to Jimmie a while, enough to make sure of his man, and then he peeled off some more bills, and told Jimmie to find more fellows who could be trusted. It wouldn't do for any one person to have too much money, for that would excite suspicion; but if they would go to work and spend that much for dodgers to be distributed among the munition-workers, and for street-meetings, and for the proposed radical paper--well, there was plenty more money in the place where this had come from.

Where was that place? Jimmie asked; and Jerry Coleman looked wise and winked. Then, after further consideration, he decided it might be well to tell them, provided they would pledge themselves not to mention it to others without his permission. This pledge they gave, and Jerry stated that he was a national organizer for the American Federation of Labour, which had resolved to unionize these munition-plants, and to establish the eight hour day. But it was of the utmost importance that the bosses should not get wind of the matter; it must not be revealed to anyone save those whom Coleman saw fit to trust. He was trusting Jimmie and Meissner, and they might know that the great labour organization was behind them, and would see them through regardless of expense. Of course, it would be expected that they would use the money honestly.

"Gee!" exclaimed Jimmie. "What do you take us for? A bunch of crooks?"

No, said the other, he was not such a poor judge of character. And Jimmie remarked grimly that anybody who was looking for easy money did not go into the business of Socialist agitation. If there was anything a Socialist could boast of, it was that their workers and elected officials never touched any graft. Mr. Coleman--that is, Jerry--would be handed a receipt for every dollar they spent.

It chanced that that same night there was a meeting of the Propaganda Committee of the local, which consisted of half a dozen of the most active members. Jimmie and Meissner hurried to this place, with their new-found wealth burning a hole in their pockets. They informed the committee that they had been collecting money for the propaganda fund, and produced before the eyes of the astounded comrades the sum of one hundred dollars.

It happened that the chairman of the committee had just received from the National Office of the party in Chicago a sample of a new leaflet entitled "Feed America First"; this leaflet could be had in quantities for a very low price, a dollar or two per thousand; as a result of Jimmie's contribution, a telegram was sent for ten thousand of the leaflets to be shipped by express. And then there was a proposition from the state office for Comrade Seaman, author of a book against war, to speak every night for two weeks in Leesville. The local had voted to turn down his proposition for lack of funds; but now, with the new contributions, the propaganda committee felt equal to the fifty dollars involved. And then there was the idea of Comrade Gerrity, the organizer, who was conducting street meetings every Wednesday and Saturday nights; if he could have an assistant, at fifteen a week, the soap-boxing could go on every night. John Meissner here put in--he was sure that contributions could be got for that purpose, provided the decision was made without delay. So the decision was made.

VI

The meeting was adjourned, and then Meissner and Jimmie went into conference with Gerrity, the organizer, and Schneider, the brewer, and Comrade Mary Allen, all three of whom happened to be on the committee entrusted with the affairs of the Worker. Jimmie explained that they had met a union organizer--they could not tell about him, but the committee would have a chance to meet him--who would put up the balance of the money needed, provided that the paper would be willing to call at once for a strike of the Empire employees. Could that promise be made? And Comrade Mary Allen laughed, indicating her scorn for anybody who could cherish a doubt on that question! Comrade Mary was a Quaker; she loved all mankind with religious fervour--and it is astonishing how bitter people can become in the cause of universal love. Her sharp, pale face flushed, and her thin lips set, as she answered that the Worker would most surely fight the war-profiteers, so long as she was on the managing committee!

It was finally decided that Comrade Mary should call on Jerry Coleman in the morning, and satisfy herself that he really meant business; if so, she would get the full committee together on the following evening. The committee had authority to go ahead, as soon as the necessary fund was made up, so if Coleman was all right, there was no reason why the first issue of the paper should not appear next week. Comrade Jack Smith, a reporter on the Herald, the capitalist paper of Leesville, was to resign and become editor of the Worker, and he already had his editorials written--had been showing them about in the local for the past month!

Jimmie and Meissner set out for home, happy in the feeling that they had accomplished more for Socialism on that one night than in all the rest of their lives. But then, as they walked, there came suddenly a clamour of bells on the night air; a fire! They knew the signals, and counted the strokes, and made the discovery that it was in the neighbourhood of their own home! An engine went by on the gallop, with sparks streaming out behind, and they broke into a run. Before they had gone a couple of blocks, they saw a glare in the sky, and their hearts were in their throats; poor Meissner panted that he had neglected to pay his last month's insurance!

But as they ran, in the ever-growing throng of people, they realized that the fire was too near for their own home; also, it was a bigger blaze than could have been made by any number of shacks. And presently there were shouts in the crowd, "It's the Empire! The Old Shops!" There came a hook and ladder truck, rushing by with shrieking siren, and then the fire-chief in his automobile with a fiercely clanging bell; they turned the corner, and far down the street before them was the building in which for four years Jimmie had tended the bolt-making machine. They saw that one whole end of it was a towering, leaping, sweeping pillar of flames!

Upton Sinclair

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