JIMMIE HIGGINS DALLIES WITH CUPID
The strike was over when Jimmie came out of jail; it had been settled by the double-barrelled device of raising the wages of the men and putting their leaders behind bars. Jimmie presented himself at his old place of working, and the boss told him to go to hell; so Jimmie went to Hubbardtown, and stood in the long line of men waiting at the gate of the engine company. Jimmie knew about black-lists, so when his time came to be questioned, he said his name was Joe Aronsky, and he had last worked in a machine-shop in Pittsburg; he had come to Hubbardtown because he had heard of high pay and good treatment. While he was answering these questions, he noticed a man sitting in the corner of the room studying his face, and he saw the boss turn and glance in that direction. The man shook his head, and the boss said: "Nothin' doin'." So Jimmie understood that the Hubbard Engine Company was taking measures to keep its shops clear of the agitators from Leesville.
He spent a couple of days trying other places in his home town, but all in vain--they had him spotted. At the brewery they were slower than elsewhere--they took him on for two hours. Then they found out his record, and "fired" him; and Jimmie "kidded" the boss, saying that they were too late--he had already given a Socialist leaflet to every man in the room!
On Jefferson Street, an out of the way part of the town, was a bicycle-shop kept by an old German named Kumme. One of the comrades told Jimmie that he wanted a helper, and Jimmie went there and got a job at two dollars a day. That was poor pay at present prices, but Jimmie liked the place, because his boss was a near-Socialist, a pacifist--for all countries except Germany. He got round it by saying that every nation had a right to defend itself; and Germany was the nation which had been attacked in this war. A good part of the energies of the old man went into proving this to his customers; if there were any customers who did not like it, they could go elsewhere.
Those who came were largely Germans, and so Jimmie was kept fully supplied with arguments against the munitions industry, which they called a trade in murder, and in favour of the programme of "Feed America First". Among those who frequented the place was Jerry Coleman, who was still on the job, and as well supplied with ten-dollar bills as ever. He had now revealed himself as an organizer for a new propaganda society, called "Labour's National Peace Council". Inasmuch as Labour and Peace were the phrases upon which Jimmie lived, he saw no reason why he should not back this organization. Coleman assured Jimmie he hated the Kaiser, but that the German "people" must be defended. So Jimmie became, without having the least idea of it, one of the agencies whereby the Kaiser was subsidizing social discontent in America.
But Jimmie was more careful now in his agitations. He had brought such distress into his home by his jail sentence, that he had been forced to make promises to Lizzie. Her anxiety for her children could no longer be kept to herself; and this caused a certain amount of friction between them, and sent Jimmie out grumbling at his lot in life. What was the use of trying to educate a woman, who could see no farther than her own kitchen-stove? When you wanted to be a world-saviour, to walk tip-toe on the misty mountain-tops of heroism, she dragged you down and chained you to the commonplace, taking all the zest and fervour out of your soul! The memories of "seam-squirrels" and of thin coffee and ill-smelling and greasy soup had slipped somewhat into the background of Jimmie's mind, and he lived again the sublime hour when he had confronted the court and stood for the fundamental rights of an American citizen. He wanted to have that act of daring appreciated at its true value. Poor, blind, home-keeping Lizzie, who could not fulfil these deeper needs of her husband's soul!
Jimmie had been, so far in his married life, as well domesticated as could be expected of a proletarian propagandist. He had yearned to own a home of his own, and meantime had manifested his repressed wish by getting a big packing-box and some broken shingles, and building a model play-house for Jimmie Junior in the back yard. He had even found time on his tired and crowded Sundays to start a garden in midsummer, the season when the local was least active. But now, of course, the war had come to obsess his mind, driving him to terror for the future of humanity, tempting him to martyrdoms and domestic irritations.
It was at this critical period in Jimmie's life that there appeared in Leesville a vivid young person by the name of Evelyn Baskerville. Evelyn was no tired kitchen slave--with her fluffy brown hair, her pert little dimples, her trim figure, her jaunty hat with a turkey feather stuck on one side of her head. Evelyn was a stenographer and proclaimed herself an advanced feminist; at her first visit she set the local upside down. It happened to be "social evening", when all the men smoked, and this "free" young thing took a cigarette from her escort and puffed it all over the place. This, of course, would not have made a stir in great centres of culture such as London and Greenwich Village; but in Leesville it was the first time that the equality of women had been interpreted to mean that the women should adopt the vices of the men.
Then Evelyn had produced from her handbag some leaflets on Birth Control, and proposed that the local should undertake their distribution. This was a new subject in Leesville, and while the members supposed it was all right, they found it embarrassing to have the matter explained too fully in open meeting. Evelyn wanted a "birth strike", as the surest means of ending the war; she wanted the Worker to take up this programme, and did not conceal her contempt for reactionaries in the movement who still wanted to pretend that babies were brought by storks. The delicate subject was finally "tabled", and when the meeting adjourned and the members walked home, everyone was talking about Miss Baskerville--the men mostly talking with the men, and the women with the women.
Pretty soon it became evident that the vivid and dashing young person was setting her cap for Comrade Gerrity, the organizer. As Gerrity was an eligible young bachelor, that was all right. But then, a little later, it began to be suspected that she had designs upon Comrade Claudel, the Belgian jeweller. Doubtless she had a right to make her choice between them; but some of the women were of the opinion that she took too long to choose; and finally one or two malicious ones began to say that she had no intention of choosing--she wanted both.
And then fell a thunderbolt into Jimmie's life. It was just after his arrest when fame still clung to him; and after the meeting Comrade Baskerville came up and engaged him in conversation. How did it feel to be a jailbird? When he told her that it felt fine, she bade him not be too proud--she had served thirty days for picketing in a shirt-waist strike! As she looked at him, her pretty brown eyes sparkled with mischief, and her wicked little dimples lost no curtain-calls. Poor, humble Jimmie was stirred to his shoe-tips, for he had never before received the attentions of such a fascinating creature--unless perchance it had been to sell her a newspaper, or to beg the price of a sandwich in his tramp days. Here was one of the wonderful things about the Socialist movement, that it broke down the barriers of class, and gave you exciting glimpses of higher worlds of culture and charm!
Comrade Baskerville continued to flash her dimples and her wit at Jimmie, despite the fact that Comrade Gerrity and Comrade Claudel and several other moths were hovering about the candle-flame, and all the women in the local watching out of the corners of their eyes. Finally, to Jimmie's unutterable consternation, the vivid young goddess of Liberty inquired, "Wouldn't you like to walk home with me, Comrade Higgins?" He stammered, "Yes"; and they went out, the young goddess plying him with questions about conditions in the jail, and displaying most convincing erudition on the subject of the economic aspects of criminology--at the same time seeming entirely oblivious to the hoverings of the other moths, and the disgust of the unemancipated ladies of Local Leesville.
They walked down the street together, and first Comrade Baskerville shivered with horror at the "seam-squirrels", and then exclaimed with delight over the conversion of "Dead-eye Mike" to Socialism, and then made merry over the singing of the Internationale in the police-station. Had she discovered a "character" in this seemingly insignificant little machinist? At any rate, she plied him with questions about his past life and his ideas. When he told her of his starved and neglected childhood, she murmured sympathetically, and it seemed to the fascinated Jimmie that here was a woman who understood instinctively all the cravings of his soul. She laid her hand on his arm, and it was as if an angel were touching him--strange little thrills ran like currents of electricity all over him.
Yes, Comrade Baskerville could appreciate his sufferings, because she had suffered too. She had had a stepmother, and had run away from home at an early age and fought her own way. That was why she stood so firmly for woman's emancipation--she knew the slavery of her sex through bitter experience. There were many men who believed in sex-equality as a matter of words, but had no real conception of it in action; as for the women--well, you might see right here in the local the most narrow, bourgeois ideas dominating their minds. Jimmie did not know what ideas Comrade Baskerville meant, but he knew that her voice was musical and full of quick changes that made him shiver.
He was supposed to be taking her home; but he had no idea where she lived, and apparently she had no idea either, for they just wandered on and on, talking about all the wonderful new ideas that were stirring the minds of men and women. Did Comrade Higgins believe in trial marriages? Comrade Higgins had never heard of this wild idea before, but he listened, and bravely concealed his dismay. What about the children? The eager feminist answered there need not be any children. Unwanted children were a crime! She proposed to get the working-class women together and instruct them in the technique of these delicate matters; and meantime, lacking the women, she was willing to explain it to any inwardly embarrassed and quaking man who would lend his ear.
Suddenly she stopped and cried, "Where are we?" And there came a peal of merry laughter, as she discovered they had gone far astray. They turned and set off in the right direction, and meantime the lecture on advanced feminism continued. Poor Jimmie was in a panic--tumbled this way and that. He had considered himself a radical, because he believed in expropriating the expropriators; but these plans for overthrowing the conventions and disbanding the home--these left him aghast. And trilled into his ear by a vivid and amazing young thing with a soft hand upon his arm and a faint intoxicating perfume all about her! Why was she telling these things to him? What did she mean? What? WHAT?
They came to the house where she lived. It was late at night, and the street was deserted. It was up to Jimmie to say good night, but somehow he did not know how to say it. Comrade Evelyn gave him her hand, and for some reason did not take it away again. Of course it would not have been polite for Jimmie to have pushed it away. So he held it, and looked at the shadowy form before him, and felt his knees shaking. "Comrade Higgins," said the brave, girlish voice, "we shall be friends, shall we not?" And of course, Jimmie answered that they would--always! And the girlish voice replied, "I am GLAD!" And then suddenly it whispered, "Good night!" and the shadowy form turned and flitted into the house.
Jimmie walked away with the strangest tumult in his soul. It was something which the poets had been occupied for centuries in trying to portray, but Jimmie Higgins had no acquaintance with the poets, and so it was a brand new thing to him, he was left to experience the shock of it and to resolve the problems of it all alone. To be rolled and tossed about like a man in a blanket at a college ragging! To be a prey to bewilderment and fear, hope and longing, despair and rebellion, delicious excitement, angry self-contempt and tormenting doubt! Truly did that poet divine who first conceived the symbol of the mischievous little god, who steals upon an unsuspecting man and shoots him through the heart with a sharp and tormenting arrow!
The worst of it was, Jimmie couldn't tell Lizzie about it. The first time in four years that he had had a trouble he could not tell Lizzie! He even felt ashamed, as he came home and crawled into bed--as if he had done some dreadful wrong to Lizzie; and yet, he would have been puzzled to tell just what the wrong was, or how he could have avoided it. It was not he who had made the young feminist so delicious and sweet and frank and amazing. It was not he who had made the little god, and brewed the poison for the arrow's tip. No, it was some power greater than himself that had prepared this situation, some power cruel and implacable, which plots against domestic tranquillity; perhaps it was some hireling of capitalism, which will not permit a propagandist of social justice to do his work in peace of soul.
Jimmie tried to hide what was going on; and of course--poor, naive soul--he had never learned to hide anything in his life, and now was too late to begin. The next time the local met, the women were saying that they were disappointed in Comrade Higgins; they had thought he was really devoted to the cause, but they saw now he was like all the rest of the men--his head had been turned by one smile on a pretty face. Instead of attending to his work, he was following that Baskerville creature about, gazing at her yearningly, like a moon-calf, making a ninny of himself before the whole room. And he with a wife and three babies at home, waiting for him and thinking he was hustling for the cause. When the meeting adjourned, and the Baskerville creature accepted the invitation of Comrade Gerrity to escort her home, the dismay of Comrade Higgins was so evident as to be ludicrous to the whole room.
In the interest of common decency it was necessary for the women of the local to take action on this matter. At least, a couple of them thought so, and quite independently and without pre-arrangement they called on Lizzie next day and told her that she should come more frequently to meetings, and keep herself acquainted with the new ideas of advanced feminism. And so when Jimmie came home that night, he found his wife dissolved in tears and there was a most harrowing scene.
For poor Elizabeth Huszar, pronounced Eleeza Betooser, had had no chance whatever to familiarize herself with the new ideas of advanced feminism. Her notions of "free unions" had been derived from a quite different world, whose ideas were not new, but on the contrary very, very old, and were "advanced" only on the road to perdition. She judged Jimmie's behaviour according to thoroughly old standards, and she was broken-hearted, overwhelmed with grief and shame. He was like all the rest of men--and when she had fondly thought he was different! He despised her and spit upon her--a woman he had picked up in a brothel.
Poor Jimmie was stunned. He was conscious of no disrespect for Lizzie, it had not occurred to him to think that she might take the matter that way. But so she had taken it, beyond doubt, and with intensity that frightened him. He would not have believed that so many tears could stream from one woman's eyes--nor that his good, broad-faced, honest wife could be so abject in her misery. "Oh, I knowed it, I knowed it all along--it would be that way! I hadn't never ought to married you--you know I told you so?"
"But, Lizzie!" pleaded the husband. "You're mistaken. That hadn't nothin' to do with it."
She turned upon him wildly, her fingers stuck out as if she would claw him. "You mean to tell me if you hadn't 'a married a woman off the street, you'd 'a gone chasin' a fluffy-haired girl? If you'd 'a had a decent wife, that you knowed had some rights--"
"Lizzie!" he protested in consternation. "Listen here--"
But she was not to be stopped. "Everybody said I was a fool; but I went an' done it, 'cause you swore you'd never hold it up to me! An' I went an' had them children"--Lizzie swept her arm at the children, as if to wipe them off the earth, to which they had come by a cruel mistake.
Jimmie Junior, who was old enough to know that something serious was happening, and whose instinct was all against being wiped off the earth, began to howl wildly; and that set off the little ones--soon they were all three of them going at the top of their lungs. "Boo-hoo-hoo!"
It was truly a terrible climax to a romance. Jimmie, almost distracted, seized the hand of his injured spouse. "It's all nonsense!" he cried. "What they been tellin' you! I ain't done a thing, Lizzie! I only walked home with her one night."
But Lizzie answered that one night was plenty enough--she knew that from intimate and hateful experience. "And I know them fluffy-headed kind that frizzes their hair. What does she want to walk home at night with married men fer? And talkin' about the things she does--"
"She don't mean no harm, Lizzie--she's tryin' to help workin' women. It's what's called birth control--she wants to teach women--"
"If she wants to TEACH women, why don't she TALK to the women! What's she all the time talkin' to MEN fer? You think you can tell me tales like that--me, that's been what I have?" And Lizzie went off into another fit, worse than ever.
Jimmie found that it was with romance as with martyrdom--there was a lot of trouble about it which the romancers did not mention. He really felt quite dreadful, for he had a deep regard for this mother of his little ones, and he would not have made her suffer for anything. And she was right, too, he had to admit--her shots went deep home. "How'd you feel, if you was to find out I'd been walkin' home with some man?" When it was put to him that way, he realized that he would have felt very badly indeed.
A flood of old emotions came back to him. He went in memory with his group of roystering friends to the house of evil where he had first met Elizabeth Huszar, pronounced Eleeza Betooser. She had taken him to her room, and instead of making herself agreeable in the usual way, had burst into tears. She had been ill-treated, and was wretchedly lonely and unhappy. Jimmie asked why she did not quit the life, and she answered that she had tried more than once, but she could not earn a living wage; and anyhow, because she was big and handsome, the bosses would never let her alone, and what was the difference, if you couldn't keep away from the men?
They sat on the bed and talked, and Jimmie told her a little about his life, and she told about hers--a pitiful and moving story. She had been brought to America as an infant; her father had been killed in an accident, and her mother had supported several children by scrub-work. Lizzie had grown up in a slum on the far east side of New York, and she could not remember a time when she had not been sexually preyed upon; lewd little boys had taught her tricks, and men would buy her with candy or food. And yet there had been something in her struggling for decency; of her own volition she had tried to go to school, in spite of her rags; and then, when she was thirteen she had answered an advertisement for work as a nursemaid. That story had made an especial impression upon Jimmie--it was truly a most pitiful episode.
Her place of employment had been a "swell" apartment, with a hall-boy and an elevator--the most wonderful place that Lizzie had ever beheld; it was like living in Heaven, and she had tried so hard to do what she was told, and be worthy of her beautiful mistress and the lovely baby. But she had been there only two days when the mistress had discovered vermin on the baby, and had come to Lizzie and insisted on examining her head. And of course she had found something. "Them's only nits!" Lizzie had said; she had never heard of anybody who did not have "nits" in their hair. But the beautiful lady had called her a vile creature, and ordered her to pack up her things and get out of the house at once. And so Lizzie had had to wait until she became an inmate of a brothel before anybody took the trouble to teach her how to get the "nits" out of her hair, and how to bathe, and to clean her finger-nails and otherwise be physically decent.
Jimmie recalled all that, and he fell on his knees before his wife, and caught her two hands by main force, and swore to her that he had not done any wrong; he went on to tell her exactly what wrong he had done, which was the best way to convince her that he had not done any worse. He vowed again and again that he would never, never dally with Cupid again--he would see Comrade Baskerville at once and tell her it was "all off".
And so Lizzie looked up through her tears. "No," she said, "you don't need to see her at all!"
"What shall I do, then?'"
"Just let her alone--don't tell her nothin'. She'll know it's off all right."
But when you have a dead romance, you cannot leave it to rot on the highway; you are driven irresistibly to bury it decently. In spite of his solemn promises, Jimmie found himself thinking all the time about Comrade Baskerville, and how he would act when he met her next time--all the noble and dignified speeches he would make to her. He must manage to be alone with her; for of course he could not say such things with the jealous old hags of the local staring at him. The best thing, he decided, would be to tell her the frank and honest truth; to tell her about Lizzie, and how good and worthy she had been, and how deeply he realized his duty to her. And then tears would come into Comrade Baskerville's lovely eyes, and she would tell him that she honoured his high sense of marital responsibility. They must renounce; but of course they would be dear and true friends--always, always. Jimmie was holding her hands, in his fancy, as he said these affecting words: Always! Always! He knew that he would have to let go of the hands, but he was reluctant to do so, and he had not quite got to the point of doing it when, walking down Jefferson Street on his way home from work--behold, in front of him a trim, eager little figure, tripping gaily, with a jaunty hat with a turkey-feather stuck on one side! Jimmie knew the figure a block away, and as he saw it coming nearer, his heart leaped up and hit him in the bottom part of his neck, and all his beautiful speeches flew helter-skelter out of his head.
She saw him, and the vivid, welcoming smile came upon her face. She came up to him, and their hands clasped. "Why!" she cried. "What a pleasant meeting!"
Jimmie gulped twice, and then began, "Comrade Baskerville--" And then he gulped again, and began, "Comrade Baskerville--"
She stopped him. "I'm not Comrade Baskerville," she declared.
He could not get the meaning of these unexpected words.
"What?" he said.
"Haven't you heard the news?" she said, and beamed on him. "I'm Comrade Mrs. Gerrity."
He stared at her, utterly bewildered. "I've been that for twenty-four whole hours! Congratulate me!"
Little by little the meaning of the words began to dawn in Jimmie's stupid head. "Comrade Mrs. Gerrity!" he echoed. "But--but--I thought you didn't believe in marriage."
There came the most bewitching smile, a smile decorated with two rows of pearly white teeth. "Don't you understand, Comrade Higgins? No woman believes in marriage--until she meets the right man."
This was much too subtle. Jimmie was still gaping open-mouthed. "But then, I thought--I thought--" he stopped again; for in truth, he had not known quite what he thought, and anyway, it seemed futile to try to formulate it now.
But, of course, she knew, without his telling her; she knew the meaning of his look of dismay, and of his stammering words. Being a kind little creature, she laid her hand on his arm. "Comrade Higgins," she said, "don't think I'm too mean!"
"Mean?" he cried. "Why, no! What? How--"
"Try to imagine you were a girl, Comrade Higgins. You can't propose to a man, can you?"
"Why, no--that is--"
"That is, not if you want him to accept! You have to make him do it. And maybe he's shy, and don't do it, and you have to put the idea in his head for him. Or maybe he's not sure he wants you, and you have to make him realize how very desirable you are! Maybe you have to scare him, making him think you're going to run off with somebody else! Don't you see how it is with a girl?"
Jimmie was still bady dazed, but he saw enough to enable him to stammer, "Yes." And Comrade Baskerville--that is, Comrade Mrs. Gerrity--gave him her hand again.
"Comrade Higgins," she said, "you're a dear, sweet fellow, and you won't be too angry with me, will you? We'll be friends, won't we, Comrade Higgins?"
And Jimmie clasped the soft, warm hand, and gazed into the shining brown eyes, and he made a part of the wonderful speech which he had been planning as he walked. He said: "Always! Always!"