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 9

JIMMIE HIGGINS RETURNS TO NATURE

I

Kumme's bicycle-shop went out of business, and its contents were sold at auction. Jimmie Higgins watched the process wistfully, reflecting how, if he had not wasted his substance on Socialist tracts, if he had saved a bit of his wages like any normal human being, he might have bought this little business and got a start in life. But alas, such hopes were not for Jimmie! He must remain in the condition which the President of his country described as "industrial serfdom"; he must continue to work for some other man's profit, to be at the mercy of some other man's whim.

He found himself a job in the railroad shops; but in a couple of weeks came an organizer, trying to start a union in the place. Jimmie, of course, joined; how could he refuse? And so the next time he went to get his pay he found a green slip in his envelope informing him that the Atlantic Western Railroad Company would no longer require his services. No explanation was given, and none sought--for Jimmie was old in the ways of American wage-slavery, euphemistically referred to as "industrial serfdom".

He got another start as helper to a truckman. It was the hardest work he had yet done--all the harder because the boss was a dull fellow who would not talk about politics or the war. So Jimmie was discontented; perhaps the spring-time was getting into his blood; at any rate, he hunted through his Sunday paper, and came on an advertisement of a farmer who wanted a "hand". It was six miles out in the country, and Jimmie, remembering his walk with the Candidate, treated himself to a Sunday afternoon excursion. He knew nothing about farm-work, and said so; but the munition-factories had drained so much labour from the land that the farmer was glad to get anybody. He had a "tenant-house" on his place, and on Monday morning Jimmie hired his former boss--and truckman--to move his few sticks of furniture; he bade farewell to his little friend Meissner, and next day was learning to milk cows and steer a plough.

So Jimmie came back to the bosom of his ancient Mother. But alas, he came, not to find joy and health, not as a free man, to win his own way and make a new life for himself; he came as a soil-slave, to drudge from dawn to dark for a hire that barely kept him going. The farmer was the owner of Jimmie's time, and Jimmie disliked him heartily, because he was surly-tempered and stingy, abusing his horses and nagging at his hired man. Jimmie's education in farm-economics was not thorough enough to enable him to realize that John Cutter was as much of a slave as himself--bound by a mortgage to Ashton Chalmers, President of the First National Bank of Leesville. John drudged from dawn to dark, just as Jimmie did, and in addition had all the worry and fear; his wife was a sallow and hollow-chested drudge, who took as many bottles of patent-medicine as poor Mrs. Meissner.

But Jimmie kept fairly cheerful because he was learning new things, and because he saw how good it was for the babies, who were getting fresh air and better food than they had ever had in their little lives before. All summer long he ploughed and harrowed and hoed, he tended horses and cows and pigs and chickens, and drove to town with farm produce to be sold. He would be too tired at night even to read his Socialist papers; for six months he let the world go its way unhindered--its way of desperate strife and colossal anguish. It was the time when the German hordes hurled themselves against the fortifications of Verdun. For five horrible months they came on, wave upon endless wave; the people of France set their teeth and swore, "They shall not pass!" and the rest of civilization waited, holding its breath.

II

The only chance Jimmie had to talk about these matters was of a Saturday night when he strolled up to the store at a near-by cross-roads. The men he met here were of a new type to him--as different from factory people as if they came from another planet. Jimmie had been taught to laugh at them as "hayseeds"; intellectually he regarded them as relics of a vanished age so, of course, he could not listen to their talk very long without "butting in". He began with the declaration that the Allies were as bad as the Germans. He got away with that, because they had all been taught to hate the "Britishers" in their school-books, and they didn't know very much about Frenchmen and "Eye-talians". But when Jimmie went on to say that the American government was as bad as the German government--that all governments were run by capitalists, and all went to war for foreign markets and such plunder--then what a hornet's nest he brought about his ears! "You mean to say American armies would do what them Proosians done in Belgium?" And when Jimmie answered "Yes," an indignant citizen rose from his seat on a cracker-box, and tapped him on the shoulder and said: "Look here, young feller, you better run along home. You'll git yerself a coat of tar and feathers if you talk too much round these parts."

So Jimmie shut up for a while; and when he went out with his armful of purchases, an aged, white-whiskered patriarch who had been listening got up and followed him out. "I'm going your way," he said. "Git in with me." Jimmie climbed into the buggy; and while the bony old mare ambled along through the summer night the driver asked questions about Jimmie's life. Where had he been brought up? How had it been possible for a man to live all his life in America, and know so little about his native land?

Peter Drew was this old farmer's name, and he had been in the first battle of Bull Run, and had fought with the Army of Northern Virginia all the way to Richmond. So he knew how American armies behave; he could tell Jimmie about a million free men who had rushed to arms to save their nation's integrity, and had made a clean job of it, and then gone quietly back to their work at farm and forge. Jimmie had heard Comrade Mary Allen, the Quaker, make the statement that "Force never settled anything". He repeated this now, and the other replied that an American ought to be the last person in the world to make such a statement, for his country had provided the best illustration in history of the importance of a good job of spanking. It was force that had settled the slavery question--and settled it so that now you might travel in the South and have a hard time to find a man that would want to unsettle it.

But Jimmie knew nothing about all that; he knew nothing about anything in America. The old man said it frightened him to realize that the country had let a man grow up in it with so little understanding of its soul. All that precious tradition, utterly dead so far as Jimmie was concerned! All those heroes who had died to make free the land in which he lived, and to keep it free--and he did not know their names, he did not even know the names of the great battles they had fought! The old man's voice trembled and he laid his hand on Jimmie's knee.

The little Socialist tried to explain that he had dreams of his own. He was fighting for international freedom--his patriotism was higher and wider than any one country. And that was all right, said the other, but why kick down the ladder by which you had climbed--and especially when you had perhaps not entirely finished climbing? Why not know the better side of your own country, and appeal to it? Peter Drew went on to tell of a speech he had heard Abraham Lincoln make, and to quote things Lincoln had said; could Jimmie doubt that Lincoln would have opposed the rule of the country by Wall Street? And when a country had been shaped and guided by such men as Lincoln, why trample its face and besmirch its good name--just because there were in it some evil men contending against its ideals of freedom and democracy?

This old soldier lived about a mile from Jimmie, and asked his new friend to come and see him. So the next afternoon, which was Sunday, Lizzie put on a newly starched dress, and Jimmie packed the two smallest infants in the double perambulator, and took Jimmie Junior's chubby hand and they trudged down the road to the farmhouse which the old man's father had built. Mrs. Drew was a sweet-faced, rather tired looking old lady, but her pale eyes seemed to smile with hospitality, and she brought out a basket of ripe peaches, and sat and chatted sympathetically with Lizzie about the care of babies, while Jimmie and the old man sat under the shade of an elm tree by the kitchen-door and discussed American history. Jimmie listened to stories of battle and imprisonment, of monster heroisms and self-immolations. Up to this time he had been looking at war from the outside, as it were; but now he got a glimpse of the soul of it, he began to understand how a man might be willing to leave his home and his loved ones, and march out to fight and suffer and die to save his country in which he believed.

And here was another new idea: this old fellow had been a soldier, had fought through four years of incessant battles, and yet he had not lost his goodness. He was kind, gentle, generous; he gave dignity to the phrases at which Jimmie had been taught to mock. It was impossible not to respect such a man; and so little by little Jimmie was made to reflect that there might be such a thing as the soul of America, about which Peter Drew was all the time talking. Perhaps there was really more to the country than Wall Street speculators and grafting politicians, policemen with clubs and militiamen with bayonets to stick into the bodies of working-men who tried to improve their lot in life!

III

In the course of the summer Jimmie had to take several days off and go into Leesville to attend the trial of the German plotters. He had to take the witness-stand and tell all he knew about Kumme and Heinrich and the other men who had frequented the bicycle-shop. It was a very serious experience, and before it was over Jimmie was heartily glad that he had rejected the invitation to help blow up the Empire Machine Shops. The trial ended with a sentence of six months for Jimmie's old employer, and of two years each for Heinrich and his pals. The law allowed no more--to the intense disgust of the Leesville Herald. The Herald was in favour of a life-sentence for anyone who interfered with the industry upon which the prosperity of the city depended.

Among those who came to the trial was Comrade Smith, editor of the Worker, and Jimmie sat with him in Tom's "Buffeteria", and heard an account of the latest developments in the Empire Shops. The movement of discontent had been entirely crushed; the great establishment was going at full blast, both day and night. They were taking on hundreds of new hands, mostly women and girls, speeding them faster and faster, turning out tens of thousands of shell-casings every day. And still they were not satisfied; new buildings were going up, the concern was spreading like a huge blot over the landscape. There was talk of an explosive factory near-by, so that shells might be filled as fast as they were made.

The "boom" conditions continued in Leesville; speculators were reaping harvests, it seemed as if the masters of the city were all on a spree. Comrade Smith advised Jimmie to stay where he was, for it was getting to be harder and harder for the workers in Leesville to get anything to eat. But out on the heights along the river front, the part of the city called "Nob Hill", new palaces were rising. And it was that way all over the Eastern part of the country, said the young editor; the rich no longer knew what to do with their millions.

On the day the trial ended, Jimmie stayed in town to attend a meeting of the local and pay his back dues. So he met all his old friends, and heard "Wild Bill" get up and deliver one of his tirades. Bill had in his hand a newspaper clipping telling of the amazing madness that had struck Wall Street. Munition stocks were soaring to prices beyond belief; "war-babies", men called them, with unthinkably cynical wit. On the "Great White Way", to which they rushed to celebrate these new Arabian Nights, there was such an orgy of dissipation as the world had never seen. "And is this what we have to slave for!" yelled "Wild Bill"--looking wilder than ever since the police had broken his nose and knocked out his three front teeth. "This is why we are chained to our jobs--shut up in jail if we so much as open our mouths! Piling up millions for old man Granitch, so that young Lacey can marry chorus-girls and divorce them--or steal away another man's wife, as they say he's doing just now!"

Then young Emil Forster spoke, explaining to Jimmie the inner significance of terrific world-events. Russia was in the midst of a gigantic offensive, which was meant to overwhelm Austria; England at the same time was hurling in her new armies on the Somme; for these two giant movements they wanted shells--millions and millions of shells from America, which alone could make enough of them. The railroads were clogged with them, they were piled mountain-high at the terminals and ports; whole fleets of steamers were loading up with them, and proceeding to England and France, and to Russia by way of Archangel. And, of course, the German submarines were out to stop them; the whole world was like a powder-magazine over the issue. The President, by his series of notes, had forced Germany to agree not to sink passenger-vessels; but this promise was not easy to keep--accidents kept happening, and the temper of the peoples was rising, America was being drawn nearer every hour to the vortex of this dreadful strife. Such was the picture which Jimmie carried back to the farm; you could hardly wonder if he missed that peace and joy which men are supposed to imbibe at the bosom of their Mother Nature!

Upton Sinclair

Sorry, no summary available yet.