Stephen Vincent Benét.

The beginning of wisdom online

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money.''

And at breakfast next morning in the diner, Philip
found the train plunging south and west through un-
familiar country, and New Haven, and the last four
years, and Milly, out of sight behind the careless sun-
rise, like a ship, hull-down, gone over the edge of the
world.



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BOOK rv-

COLD MOTTNTAINrS
(1916-1917)



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Phil and Lnda met him at Frickett and stayed there
with him for a week. When they left Philip found him-
self enriched by the memory of Lucia's presence, an
absurdly warm, and expensive sweater, six pairs of the
best wool socks, a hot-water bag, which he threw down
a canon, and a quantity of intense good adyice from
Phil on the " Pull yourself together and be a man! *'
order that acted upon him as mustard would on a bum.
Casual life — the casualness even of his own fairly con-
siderable success in investing inherited money — ^had
shaken youth's audacious elasticity out of Phil, he had
grown a little hard, a little crumbling, like the rubber
on the butt of an old pencil, Philip was still in the
stage of grief in which loss, though borne, is as every-
where as light and shadow, and the combination of
Phil's hearty appetite and bracing words of consola-
tion made him mentally seasick with a nausea of gro-
tesque fancies. Moreover, he could never have Lucia
to himself, Phil was constantiy coming around the
comer or into the room with a strong cigar and a quota-
tion from Shakespeare or the Bible, his voice soothingly
low, his eye alert as a dentist's. Philip was not relieved
when they went — ^f or tiiat took away Lucia's healing-
ness — ^but he said good-by with equanimity and spent
the rest of the evening grilling himself in his bunk of
a room with the feeling that he was a very ungrateful
son.

153



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154 THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

What he thought of Frickett he put into letters to
John Castine; his epistles home were dutiful but deodor-
ized and hence of a good deal less value. " Ah, John/*
he begau, "and what was the first thing I saw as I
marched up and down the windy platform of Frickett
Junction, provoking the clerk in the pink shirt and
baby-blue sleeve garters and a face that looked as if it
had been badly whittled out of yellow pine to dry gasps
of laughter at my childish attempts to walk on one of
the rails? (The train service between Frickett and
its spawn is every hour and a half and I had arrived at
the wrong half.) It was — ^hold your breath, my Kipling
subaltern! — ^a Cowboy, a real Cowboy with feather-bed
chaps and a Hex. saddle and a yellow-eyed cayuse. I
rubbed my eyes — ^I gathered my satiric soul in my hands
— ^ Avaunt Douglas Fairbanks, Bill Hart, Diamond
Dick, the Daredevil of Demon Gulch, I know you too
well,* I cried, or would have if my lungs hadn*t been full
of alkali dust ' Go back to the movies, you five-reel
mammoth feature and leave me to Frickett Junction
and coughs and peace!*, but it didn't evaporate — ^it
stayed — ^while I watched it it rolled a punk cigarette
with one hand. I felt like Annie Oakley — ^this is the
bad, bad six-shooter West, John, though indeed it's al-
most effete East fromi the place where I belong. You
will hear of me next branding bullocks with the Lazy
lit. Triangle or eloping on a calico pony with Mamie,
the Dance Hall Queen . . • **

" You ask about Frickett and the country around it —
•the only simile I can think of is the more horizontal



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COLD MOUNTAINS 155

part of the Bump the Bumps at Coney Island, much the
eame configuration and exactly the same dirty red or
light-beer-colored ground. The only tennis-court in the
place — at one of the young Sons of the Mine's grand-
pianoed, mission-fumitured. Long Island bungalows —
slants' up hill about twenty degrees and if you paste a
ball over one of the backstops it rolls down two hun-
dred feet into a gully. They have had to build the base-
ball-park at Frickett Junction, five miles down, on
the only piece of comparatively flat ground in three
counties, and that piece is due to an earthquake or some
such natural jest and was never intended by the De-
signing Architect. . . . The town is a sand-pitted half-
mile of frame shacks and tents, nothing over two stories,
but a pressed-brick bank and a graft post-office whose
imitation marble pillars glitter at the eternal sun like
a set of false teeth. Take San Esteban, where I come
from — ^you've seen it — ^pull it out like an accordion,
abolish most of the churches and one or two of the
saloons, and throw it down like a necklace of brown
wooden beads in a cup between a lot of tall, cold moun-
tains — ^and there is Frickett, Arizona. The married
miners' section is small and pretty decent — rows and
rows of unpainted, sun-cracked, one or one-and-a-halfr
story doll houses all turned out by the lot and as like as
checkers but clean and with perambulators and dusty
geraniums on the short front porches; also miners' feet
in the evening in blue and- white socks, a continual in-
cense to the lares of the American home. The major-
ity of the single miners live in boarding houses, tough
or tame according to districts, though some, as in West-



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156 THE BEGINNING OP WISDOM

em novels, camp out in tents. I'm in one of the tamer
boarding-houses occupied mostly by foremen and other
non-coms and lesser lights of the Co.

^^Up past the mine, approachable on foot, is Eed
Light Town, bustling at all times and lit at night by a
venomous shine of unshaded electrics. Farther up, oh, a
good deal farther up, and you go by a different road so aa
not to be solicited by battered Cleopatras in kimonos, lies
Valhalla, the abode of the gods, cool bungalows mainly,
but a very few nice imitation Spanish ranches with
open courts and red-tiled roofs. These hold the 61ite
— ^the lusciously-wealthy offspring of the Busty Moun-
tain Co., who wear tucks or bare shoulders for dinner —
the Young Harvard superintendents and managers — ^a
few rich casuals, lungers like myself, who are well and
fat as seals out here but can only go back East undet sen-
tence of death, and to whom> consequently, everything
from Chicago to Boston is as dear ^ as to cadets in Hin-
dostan, the fading remnant of their liver.' They are
as strangely assorted as things sold at a church-bazaar,
and most of ihem quite amusing and companionable
with the spontaneous free-masonry of the confirmed
T. B. One admirable silvery antique of a doctor, who
can recite pages out of BoswelFs ^ life of Johnson ' and
thinks Pope the greatest poet that ever contributed to
the paper-shortage, and is always in a stew about the
unnatural healthiness of Prickett — ^Ke was a gynaecologi-
cal expert before he came here and most of the rare
births roundabout are accomplished with the ease and
celerity known to rabbits. There is also an Assyrian-
nosed friendly Jew, who made a fortune in the N. Y.



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COLD MOUNTAINS 157

thaater and got T. B. along with it; and his tales of
various stars and asteroids are purple in the extreme.
But he is a generous cuss^ has the only stock of French
cognac in town and a period victrola with God knows
how many good records in it So I go up to the doc for
an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail and medical advice
and wild arguments on Pope vs. Shelley; and to Sam
Cohen for liqueur brandy and Chopin and more Chopin
till the room starts to sail away like a genteel balloon
into a sky full of gold-colored fluflBness and I forget
I ever had lungs or lights that were used for anything
but breathing . . .*'

*' . . . Every time I draw a pay-dieck, and that^s
as frequently as they'll let me, Vm astonished honestly
and heartily at the lax munificence of Big and Bloated
Corporations. Why, thejr^re giving me ninely-eight dol-
lars and some odd cents each month — and, as wages
more or less run with the price of copper, if copper only
goes up enough, they will shortly hand me out yet more.
I don't see how in God's name I can be worth that much
real money to anybody outside my family during the
obligatory years. Then I go down town and pay a
quarter for a shave and ten cents for a New York paper
and notice that my board costs nearly as much as if I
were eating at Mor/s. (These are 1917 prices —
8. V. B.) and feel like the down-trod wage-slave that it
is not so awful much after all. However, I can live on
it with comfort though without particular enjojrment or
gust — ^the latter ceased when you know.

''Considering the work I do, yes, it is gratuitously



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158 THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

liberal. I told you I was suryeying and you say you
picture me wandering saw-toothed hills with a ball and
dhain and a vague, inefficient smile. You are clair-
voyantly correct. I think I have climbed every hill
within ten miles of Prickett — I am beginning to know
the lot of them like my pajamas. Also, as I am a sort
of a general errand-boy and handy-man, I have dug
poet holes, paid off men, checked ore cars, twice gone
down into the mines with a crew, but the last was ac-
cidental for I am a delicate plant and must be kept out
in the open air and well-fertilized. Also excavating
mysterious diggings in earth's bowels and helping erect
barbed-wire fences are my specialties.

'* I never knew anything about the eight, ten or twelve-
hour day before or the effect of hard work, not games,
but work that actually takes all the pith and sense out
of you. Now I claim' to be an authority on it all. I
know the lead, stupid, somnolent effort that gets nothing
done in the last twenty ininutes before knocking off at
noon — ^the virtuous brightness and speed of early morn-
ing — ^the death-in-weariness attack that comes just in
front of the final whistle. Also the bed at 8 :30 P. M.,
because you are too drunk-tired to hold your eyes open,
and the cheated feeling at six the next morning when
youVe just shut off the alarm-clock that yesterday you
didn't do one damn thing but work, and sleep went by
so fast and hard you knew nothing about it. Now my
muscles are hardening, and my hands — I am a Piece
of the Cuticle of the Calloused Proletariat. I eat with
the zest of a cougar, I brown like toast And, John, even
at nights, I am too damn sleepy to read !.•.*'



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COLD MOUNTAINS 159

'^. . . Your letters are infrequent and eo are mine
— and it is unavoidable, for such is the blasting effect
of continuous hard labor on the finer sensibilities. How-
ever, I have good news for little Philip — ^the Doc says
that while there's evidently something old and fruity
the matter with my internals, it's the queerest case of
threatened T. B. he ever diagnosed and sometimes he's
tempted to think it's something else entirely. Long life
to his stethoscope — I only hope he doesn't saddle me
with leprosy or botts instead. Sellaby the Muscular
Muse of Molokai, the title is tripping enough, but I'd
just as soon shirk the fact

** By a course of judicious silences and a little pyro-
technic cursing in your own best manner, I have man-
aged to get quite chummy with some of the miners. The
Harvard lads and the Qods of the Mountain in general
(except for the Doc and Sam Cohen) hold aloof and
don't seem to be haled into bliss by my winning smile.
So with them I cultivate the Higher Interior Snottiness.
But the work-gangs are good boys— everything from
sour Scotch to indeterminate Hunky and the Irish to
fizz up the mixture in their usual ways. Some of them
belong to the I. W. W. and its h^idquarters, over a
pool parlor and run as ' The Prickett Mutual Benefit
Association,' has the only good modem library and most
of the ioteresting talk in town. While there I, for the
most part, preserve a discreet and absorbent silence —
except once when I got into a mixup with an old line
Marxist on Pabian methods as opposed to sabotage and
was routed by more quotations than you ever saw on
an English exam., much to the stealthy amusement of



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160 THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

those listening in. I started inventing authorities my-
self but he spotted me at once and took down names and
titles, sober as church, till I finally brought up Vin-
cente Aneurism, the terrorist who strangled the King of
Bavaria by substituting pieces of fried white rubber
hose for H. M. H/s favorite evening dish of noodles,
and then he laughed like a defective air-brake — ^he was
Scotch — and came over and put his paw on my shoulder
and said : * Lad, lad, but ye have the preecious gift of
the gran' leel' So for that night, at least, I got
away . . . '*

"... You ask me about my interior circumetances
and feelings, since my exteriors seem both to please and
to amuse you. It is a question that could only be put
by a perfect fool or one of you four — ^you will realize
that I am not being uncomplimentary. Well, they get
along, that is all there is to be said. Certain things in
me — a bright casualness, complete confidence in the uni-
verse and in myself ; carelessness of soul ; possessed rap-
ture of mdnd, as I had, as you have, if I judge rightly,
now, in flying — ^these are finished. Their places have
been taken in a m:easure by fear, in a measure by revolt,
in a measure by irony. I have ceased being stunned or
dazed — ^the body is a human mechanism and reacts.
That it should react is the sick disgust of the idealist
and the sentimentalist, but react it does, and that, too,
is weight to be carried. I can carry it better from the
fact that I have utterly lost resilience — ^I walk like a
man with broken arches, but at least I walk firm, feet
on the ground. I have even been, for hours at a time



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COLD MOUNTAINS IW

out here, endurably if vegetably Iiappy. But even such
cow-happiness as that I find that I hoard with the sedu-
lous patience and concealments of a conspirator — I am
afraid about it and that somiething will take it away
from me. Also at times I rebel — about as effectively
as an ant alone in the middle of a stove. This realized,
for the unbearable sensation of bound powerlessness that
follows — ^no, not bound for no one is enough concerned
with you even to bind you, there is no crack open for
escape and even if there were the above would still stare
at that hopeless attempt with the saine bright enormous
indifference with which it regards your crippled gyra-
tions now — for this pinioning of spirit and mind, like
a chicken sent to the butcher^e, there is no cure at all
but irony, that ineffable clear attar of scorn and pain.
Irony suffereth long and is kiad, is not puffed up.
Blessed are the ironists for none of them want to iu-
herit the earth. Irony believeth nothing, endureth all
things. Oh, all ye works of a persistent Irony, bless ye
that Irony, praise It and magnify It forever. And so
on with the rest of the Litany and Beatitudes.

^' This is not a complaint and it is not as a complahit
that you will take it — ^it is a medical statement of facts
in reply to your query. All that is implied in it I know
you will recognize without need for re-reading — our
moods are too kin for you ever to fail me in a major
matter. As for work of another kind from the one that
gives you a healthy sweat, I don't know when I'll be fit
for it, not now certainly, never perhaps. I have cer-
tain talents, as we both have had to admit, and I have
played with them and made toy-trains of them as we



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162 THE BEGINNING OP WISDOM

both know. If I am ever let really use them again^ I
shall not be particularly surprised — ^but I shall be
thankful. It is all on the day knees of the Ironic
Spirii

" Your talk about Oxford and the shaved lawns ^and
the flying men dining in Hall makes me spiritually
homesick or greensick or both. Lord Lucifer, will we
ever get drunk on English ale in a tavern together?
Yes^ by Baal, and take cockshies at dons and intellectual
poets with pewter tankards and write hedge-verse under
a hedge with the tinkers who remember about George
Borrow. I tried the red-eye native to Prickett with a
new acquaintance the other evening — the hairiest man
I ever saw, a chest like a yak's or a doormat Eesult,
passed out cold at 10 P. M. in a manor dive quoting
the ^Shropshire Lad,' woke up 2 A. M. and walked
home to Mrs. Grady's with a head that seemed full of
lighted pinwheels through a freezing bath of blue night.
Got up 6 A. M. as usual and worked ten hours, feeling
like a burnt out wick the while and ready to put my
lunch most of the time. Man I was helper to, Mac
Gregory, the Marxist Scotchman, very sympathetic, let
me sleep an hour at noon, and kept telling me of his
wild young days in Edinbro' and a party he and some
friends had with milk and eggs and three cans of
shellac ..."

*' You to be at Oxford — ^you score, blast your tortoise-
shell grin, you score 1 Oh, go pipeclay your silly wings I
I bet you look like a Cockney T. G. in your baggy, beery,
bloody English uniform ! Think of me as an inefficient



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COLD MOUNTAINS 163

specter among a host of efficient specters on a copper-
colored mountain . . . ^'

"... My I. W. W. friends get more interesting and
informative all the time. They split into three classes —
the sweets, the sours, and the half-and-halfs. The sweets
are the Utopians, the theorists, all varieties from my
modernized Highland cateran of a Scotch Marxist to
an animal of a Polish Jew, the ^bright,' greasy kind,
who is Secretary of the local branch here and has all
the latest direct-action, gory-revolution palaver at the
ends of his long, ecrimy finger-nails. Some are just
unbearable wind-bags, all constant arguers, most as
stodgily, solidly Socialists and Anarchists as other
people are Bepublicans or Quakers or Benevolent In-
dians. They propound large theories of indiscriminate
massacre but take it out in talk — ^they are as ready to
squabble and fire off long set speeches and bicker till
they fall asleep in their seats over the pettiest details
of the plumbing of Arcadia as ever a congress of Ph-D.'s
is over a disputed spelling in a worthless Elizabethan
play — ^they duel about the pure commune as opposed
to the soviet with the acid strife of close relatives over
a rich uncle's will. I like to listen to them — ^they are
in general so heavily respectable and so set in their ideas
and the Semites so convinced that they are dangerously
advanced.

" The sours, on the other hand, are the real hard-boiled
boys, the men with grievances eating them up, the
fighting core and elan of the I. W. W. Some are mere
filibusters and f rondeurs but most, at one timje or an-



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164 THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

other, have suffered very definite injustice and are ready
to come back at Those on Top with djmamite or any-
thing else that's handy. They are the Faubourg St
Antoine of the country and mostly recruited from the
two-fisted, brass-knuckled class of floating skilled or
semi-skilled workers, structural iron men, miners, rivet-
ers, and all such other Dekes of the laboring world. The
Masses, I think, had a story about one of them. Hop-
fields worker gets pinched and beat up as I. W. W.
They find his red membership card. 'Will you quit
the I. W. W.?' 'No.' 'We'll tear up this card.'
' (Jo ahead — I can get another one from headquarters.'
'We'll tear up that!' 'Tear and be damned — ^youll
never tear what's on it out of my heart! ' Bather bom-
bastic and over-fluent for a genuine sour but — ^it gets
the spirit quite admirably. The sours believe in the
approaching class-war and the ultimate victory of 'the
One Big Union,' as Peter the Hermit did in his Cru-
sade. They make up about 15 per cent. — even in the
I. W. W. which is the Jacobin Club of the present labor
movement. The sweets come possibly to 15 per cent.
The rest, the loitering majority, is half-and-half, the
dough of the bread where the sweets are crust and the
sours yeast. They are just like the rank-and-file good
sheep of any party, they take the kicks, believe in the
platform, subscribe the funds and in general come when
called. Pardon this long digression on superficial data
— it's all getting important here, especially as the sours
are increasing their percentage and more of the half-
and-half are turning sour, for which both special con-
ditions at Frickett and the wide labor ferment all over



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COLD MOUNTAINS 165

the country are responsible. The sonrs are the cream
of the lot to talk to ... I am having a desultory
nibble at all brands of socialism ..."

"... I took a walk the other evening up past Prosti-
tutes^ Eow, in which you might be interested. No, it
was not for purposes your ofiEensive mind will instantly
leap to, you with your E. F. C. commission and half a
dozen assorted Countesses and bar-maids to serve your
immoral ends. But the spectacle was indeed a curious
one and worth recording.

'^ I sauntered slowly up the road away from Frickett
as lonely and eerily sad as a coyote in full moonlight
except that I did not express myself in howls. There
were other men ahead, two boisterous, one furtive, so
I stopped and sat down on a stone till they had gone
out of sight. The Aight was lazy and warm as a sleeping
dog and the mountains in front of me stood up like a
scene cut out of black paper against the liquid welling
billow of white-silver behind them where the moon had
not yet risen but only trickled through in spurts and
crevices of dripping light like quicksilver running over
black cloth. I regarded the moon with an eye as cold
as hers, an eye full of irony. Then I proceeded, the
friends of Venus having passed out of vision, walked
five minutes, turned a comer and came out into a glow-
ing street.

"It was raw with lights and lined on either side by
houses about the size and shape of box-cars. Occasion-
ally there was a larger hut or middle-sized tent, pre-
liminary dance-halls I surmise, for from them proceeded



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166 THE BEGINNING OP WISDOM

music, shrieking and thin, and the thump of feet.
Sometimies the box-cars were diversified by names —
*Josy,' ^Mexique' and ^Little ETelyn' - one had
^ Idlewild,' ah, there was a spiritual soul ! — ^but in gen-
eral they were without name or number. In many the
blind of the front-window was drawn and yellow. In
others, one viewed inhabitauts before a mirror, refresh-
ing the paint no doubt. In other still the inhabitants
walked the porch in kimonos or rocked, and with them
all, as with Pater's Mona Lisa, the eyelids were a little
weary. They called at me, they displayed charms and
moved about. ' Come up and see me, dearie ! ^ * I'm
Eosie, I'm an awful nice friend to you boys.' * Won't
you come in, honey?' ^ Say, sweetneas, whafs your
hurry?' and all such banter. I promenaded the street
imperturbably, a chill goblin in a forest of cawing gob-
lins. At its end I smoked a cigarette and looked at the
mounting huge cheese of the moon.

*^ Once I saw a man come out of ' Idlewild,' a man in
a white Panama hat. He looked as ridiculously out of
place as he would have at a formal wedding or in hell.
He had all the satisfied sleekness of a cat as he made off
down the road. I examined him for pad-feet and a
waving tail. If I didn't sleep so wearily hard at night
that hat of his would mix unfortunately with my
dreams.

^^ When I had looked enough at the moon, I went back,
tasting my mouth and finding it bitter. This time the
cries that pursued me were more insistent, even a little
strained. I was spoiling trade apparently by my demure
behavior. A mulatto, purplish with powder, even rose



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COLD MOUNTAINS 167

from her rocker and followed me a couple of steps down
her stairs. I went down the shelving road again, that
was full of the moon, smoking bad cigarettes — ^no good
ones, they are thirty cents a package here — and my mind
was salt the while with such pitiful irony as I have
seldom known . . . '^

^^ . . Had a tummy-ache the other day, too much
canned com, I guess, and in the day oflE thus made neces-
sary managed to write a poem which I enclose for what
it is worth. Not Plato but Pluto is the inspiration of
the gastric-stricken bard.

QXHTS

Pale riders of the stumbling road
With the eyes of beaten men.
Who are you, that the youth in me
Should ache like wounds again?

Are you dumb devils made of air


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Online LibraryStephen Vincent BenétThe beginning of wisdom → online text (page 10 of 22)