Stephen Vincent Benét.

The beginning of wisdom online

. (page 11 of 22)
Online LibraryStephen Vincent BenétThe beginning of wisdom → online text (page 11 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Or pictures out of the mind?
For both of you look like Despair
And you are not humankind.

The first one lifted up a head
No thunders could have bowed.
His voice was foolish as the wind
And gladder than the cloud.

The drench of that satiric rain
Ran on his face like tears.
*' I am the thing you were,^' he said,
" When you had twenty years.

Digitized by



*' I am your golden corpse, my friend,
A corpse that you have seen.
Never again youll make me live
Nor ever kill me clean/'

The next was hot and galloping,
A skull within a cloak.
His fingers were like clicking bones.
He coughed before he spoke.

*' To see What Was, my empty boy.
Has sacked you like a town !
And dare you look at me, at me.
And stare What Will Be down?

*^ I am the shadow at your soul.
The nightmare that you see.
When all your fires are silly ash
Men will remember me.

'* Drink to the poison you must be I ^
And, shrieking out like birds.
The two swept back along the track
While I fought long for words.

" Though broken up like Folly's speech
And vainer than her boasts,
I have one shield I shall not yield
For any troop of ghosts !

" A bloody taste is in my mouth,
A black sardonic smart.
Sweet is the wine of honest men,
But this wine's from my heart.

'* The mind that has such gall to drain
No torments can dismay.
And there is bitter peace for him
Who drinks his heart away.

Digitized by



** Pass on like foam before the wave.

Lost specters of a youth !

For though that draught grows old with pain.

Its least bleak drop is Truth/^

They dimmed like water in the sun.
They faded with a cry.
And left me like an angry tree
That surges at the Bky.

I tossed my hat above the boughs
And spat and swaggered South.
The black hearf s blood within my lips,
The verses on my mouth.

". . • Wilson's last note to Germany is over all the
papers— I suppose America will be in it in a month now
at most, in spite of the ideas of my wiciouser colleagues
in the I. W. W. on the subject. Well, in five more years,
if the war drags out that long, I may even pilot a Spad
myself, who knows? Then watch out, you Daredevil of
the Clouds, you Yale Face !...'*

So Philip got through the winter and the spring
and a multitude of puzzled consultations with his doc-
tor. The day after America declared war he tried to
enlist and was rejected with what he complained of as
almost indecent haste. April passed and May — ^it was
very nearly a year since Milly had died. ' He kept her
feasts still and always and carefully, and pain would
come in a recurrent stroke, squeezing down over his
heart like a hand, but in him, as in a city that has been
rocked to its foundations by earthquake, tiie major shock

Digitized by



was past^ and a noise of building began. He began to
put out tentacles in a dozen diflEerent directions — ^to-
ward the miners and tiie I. W. W. till he dreamed him-
self, with the blasting facility of the writing tempera-
ment, as everything from a lesser John Leitsch to an
American Danton. Toward his work in the Rusty
Mountain Company and vague visions of becoming a
bearded, patriarchal copper king, a cross between Abra-
ham and Andrew Carnegie. Toward a Wellsian intel-
lectual aristocracy — it was about this time he read " The
Eesearch Magnificent '^ — a samurai order of science rul-
ing the world from aeroplanes with the lucent unintel-
ligence of a chemical law. Toward a Whitmanesque
submergence in ^^The People,^' largely connected with
heartier hand-shakes and fewer baths. Toward the Se-
cret Service and a deg,th like Nathan Hale's with
Cambronne's repartee at Waterloo spat out at a care-
fully-posed panorama of stout German generals — toward
anything and everything, and, in most cases, toward
something wildly impossible — ^but at least they were
stirrings toward action and connected thought and you
cannot remain a shadow among shadows if you are
troubled by such noisy and active dreams. It is true
that often he felt extraordinarily empty, and empty in
the sense of a used paper drinking-cup rather than that
of a goblet waiting for wine.

And from art and anything connected with the mak-
ing of it he was inhibited by a restraint almost physical
in its strength. He was sick of himself and putting
himself with ink on paper or with paint on canvas ; and
as himself is the only person the jejune artist knows with

Digitized by



any degree of certainty, it followed that canvas and
paper were, where he was concerned, to stay blank. And
if he couldn't write with his arterial blood he wouldn't
write with anything else and make tushery or costume-
romance. And so much is probably too much about his
moods — ^the progress of a mental or physical convales-
cent is a genuine saga enough but apt to be a stupid one
as well, if minutely recorded, unless the convalescent in
question is one of those two fascinating people, myself —
or you.

Philip got aS hard as a brickbat and astonishingly
healthy, except for rare spasms that left him weak and
rancid with nerves; so healthy in fact that his doctor in-
sisted on calling in various specialists. He was given a
raise by the Company, and the raise was not wholly due
to the skying price of copper. They were losing men
and he was spoken of in weary conferences between
divisional superintendents as a " steady young chap with
a chance.'^

The I. W. W. and Sam Cohen took fewer of his ofiE
hours, the ^^ doc '' and an elegant young Princeton pro-
consul with a Farmington wife, boisterous year-old baby,
and something mysterious the matter with his pancreas,
more. " Pm afraid I'm gradually being made a respect-
able citizen, John," he wrote, '^ and, Lord, as the story
goes, how I do dread it! But ifs good to have some-
body to talk football and the New York deb. gossip with
and have them give you tea out of luster china and real
marmalade full of orange-strings with fat pieces of
toast. Also whiskey that isn't alcohol plus caramel and
pure spirits of wildfire. But why should I tell these

Digitized by



things to you when you are buying Pol Roger at some
absurd number of depreciated francs a case ? '*

Meanwhile the mines began to grow sultry and rest-
less, little clumps of men gathered in the street after
the knock-ofiE whistle, there was much loud talking in
saloons, and the words that went through the mass of
the miners like a fuse through a bunch of fire-crackers
were " Six a day or quit,^' " Two men on a machine,'*
*' Strike/* The grievances were real enough — ^most
other mines in the state worked two men on a machine,
a proceeding that made for safety on the men's part
and expense on that of the company; six dollars a day
with war-prices bought no more than three-and-a-half
two years before. On the other hand the American Army
private was getting thirty dollars a month. But neither
worker or employer had perspective — ^both saw the im-
mediate thing and nothing beyond it, the miner the
extra nickel on the price of a can of beans, the boss the
extra dollars spread like grit over his payroll to cut his
war-profits. It must be remembered that the country
at large was still in the ^^ Business as Usual '* period of
the second month after the declaration of war. And
through the bungalows of Valhalla was trotted a rustling
Bed bogey-man and "ifs all these dirty foreigners —
they aren't Americans — and that damn I. W. W. crowd."
And between the sunburnt rows of shacks that made up
Frickett went the word by grapevine telegraph, ^'The
big stiffs are going to get a bunch of gunmen up from
the city and freeze us out." So the pot seethed and
simmered and began to boil over — and there appeared to
stir it one of those '^strong" men in authority who

Digitized by



eeem born for the purpose of making colossal mistakes.
Philip was down at I. W. W. headquarters two nights
before the strike vote was taken. It was sweltering
June and the tin roof over the " Frickett Mutual Bene-
fit Association '^ radiated heat like the lid of a steaming
kettle, but the three long rooms like bath-houses put end
to end were packed and sweaty with men. Philip had
come with Mac Gregory and saw a few known faces in
the jam; Sour Scattergood, the philosophical anarchist
who had once taken part in a riot led by William Morris
and still carried two white welts from his cheek to his
jaw from an aflEray with the Liverpool police; Izzy
Wicez, the Polish secretary, dirty and scented, nuzzling
about the crowd like a cur-dog picking up scraps ; Bud
Egan, a kicking colt of a twenty-year-old, the best
rough and tumble fighter in town; Honest Louis, the
steady, peaceable Swiss who read the Appeal to Eeason
as if it were a direct revelation from the Creator and
settled the various little disputes that were brought to
him to judge with the even-handed justice of Justinian ;
twenty or thirty of the keenest and most intelligent men
in their gangs; a sprinkling of fire-eaters and trouble-
makers; a host of the vast indifferent. The crowd had
the heaving restlessness of oily water, they talked little
and mostly about big-league baseball, the war, the prices.
^^ The fules, the silly bits of fules, they dinna ken what
they're here for," grunted Gregory.
*^Well, what are they here for, Mac?*'
^'A parcel of nonsense. The strike commeettee's in
session yon^' — ^he waved his stubby hand at the front
room — ^^ but what gude can they do the commeettee by

Digitized by



crackin^ wi^ other fules like themsel'? All they need is
some word to tell their wives, the f ushless people 1 "

"Will the strike come ofiE, do you think?''

" I dinna ken. If s a cuddy's trick, strikin' the noo.**

Bud Egan wormed over toward them.

" Mac, Phil," but his eyes were wary as he glanced
at the latter.

^' Think theyTl put it across to-night, Mac ? '^ he asked

" I dinna ken, lad. I dinna ken.*' But he cracked
knotty fingers, calloused and scarred from the handles
of tools, against each other and his eyes were bright
blinks of gray.

" Aye, but I'd like fine to be in a strike, a real strike,
just the one more time." His mouth set rigid as the
lips of a vise. " A real strike wi' heads broken in the
streets." He repeated, " A real strike. Mon ! "

"I haf seen too many strikes bust into half," came
a deep boom over his shoulder. Honest Louis, " they are
no good. The Company bring up their scaps and the
bulls they lift up their clups, and that is all. And
then your name is on the black-list and the next time you
get a job and you strip your clothes for them to look
at your sveet pretty self — ^the doctor peeks through his
four eyes at you and says, ' Bum heart ! No good I Ged
oudt ! ' And you — uproot ! " He exhaled a balloon of blue
tobacco smoke. Mac chuckled creakingly — ^the i^hysi-
cal examination required by the companies and its
use to disqualify undesirables was an open joke at the

" Say, I'd like to see them try tiiat business on mel "

Digitized by



lipped Bud Egan. " Say, Td like to see any Tfise guy
teU me Vm sick!''

" They'll tell you you're sick enough any time. Bud,
and prove it, if you don't act sweet and nice to every
stinking scissors-bill of a foreman that's too good to
eat lunch with his own gang," put in Sour Scattergood
and " Sour, Sour, my vriendt, you are not the lad that
should tell the boy to be sveet," from Honest Louis.
*^ When we have the One Big Union, Sour, ve will make
you eat six kinds of sveet pie a day," and the four went
off into a discussion of the crimes of the A. F. of L., the
bosses, and Gompers. " He iss a jellyfish, that Sam, a
jellyfish with glasses," while Philip scrouged back
against the wall and looked around him. Everywhere
was the same queasy whisper of question and answer,
the same talk, drifting and purposeless as seaweed, the
same uneasy milling to and fro like cattle before a

A starchy voice burst out of a group across from him,
shrill as a tin whistle. "The war? To hell with the
war ! The bosses get fat on it and the poor boobs who
enlist get a ^ Gates Ajar ' — ^that's all ! Oh, America's the
hell of a fine country for the guy with a million iron
men but if s the hell of a punk country — ^" A leather-
faced miner was talking to a friend who kept chewing
a wedge of tobacco over and over like a cow with a
familiar cud. " And Joe he writes me from camp and
says he's been made a corporal. Pretty fine, Buck?"
" Sure." " Well, I write and tell him what the hell
does that mean and how high is a corporal, for it just
seems like it was a minute ago when me and Molly put

Digitized by



the little sneezer into his first pair of long britches, eh,
Buck?*^ " Sure/' ^' An' he sends me a postcard back
and says a corporal ranks a K.P. but is way down below
a shavetail like the wheels is under a tin lizzie. Why,
Molly and me thought we'd split when we got that post-
card, wouldn't you. Buck?" "Sure." Mutual wheez-
ings of mirth and expectoration. A saloonkeeper in a
flopping white vest went nosing from one bunch of
talk to the next like a little, mild, worried rat. " Say,
boys, now don't you go and strike on us — ^you'll do us
all dirt if you strike. Why, I was just going to get a
nice big plate-glass mirror up from Phoenix to put over
the bar in my place, and now if you boys go and strike
on us, ifU go and bust business wide open and 1 won't
be able to get a thing, not a thing. My God, why did I
ever locate in a mining town, anyhow? I've done a
lot of nice things for you boys, you know — ^"

But such high spots of chatter were infrequent. Most
of the random constituents of the Irish stew of humanity
just stared about, whittled at the window-sills, smoked
steadily or spat inaccurately toward th^ three tin cus-
pidors. The minutes perspired away, Philip dripped
and leaned against the wall. The reentrance of Izzy
Wicez, full of unpleasant importance, shut off the vague
growling hum of the talk completely. Izzy flapped his
arms like wings for perfect silence — ^he mounted on top
of a bookcase.

"Men," he yelled in a high whine — ^and the room
grew suddenly electric and thick and tense — ^^'men — ^I
have an announcement to make to you. For the strike
committee." Mac Gregory was knocking one fist against

Digitized by



the other fist. Sour Scattergood had the beatific eyes of
a saint before a judgment. Honest Louis looked puzzled
and hot and scared.

*^ The strike committee has not yet been able to de-
cide anjrthing. They will meet here to-morrow at ti^e
same time. Thank you.'^ He jumped down, disinflated,
and an explosion of laughter followed his words. All
tension evaporated instantly like a bubble stuck through
with a straw. The crowd started to dribble away, a
few humorous and indecent comments on Izzy spotting
the general disgusted noise of talk and feet.

'^ Ah, Christ,'' said Bud Egan peevishly, '' thaf s the
way it always is. Wouldn't you know it? "

^^No strike,'' murmured Honest Louis inside his
throat. ^^ No strike — that is gudt. Now I can buy the
express-wagon for my kid." He smiled immensely.
Sour Scattergood fell into the unprintable and Mac
Gregory relapsed to dialect Philip felt as relieved as
if he had been hauled up again to firm earth after
swinging on frajring ropes in a bosun's chair slung
over the edge of a precipice.

Nevertiieless, eight days later, the miners struck.

Philip heard talk about trouble, saw straws of trouble
floating and dipping in the soup of every-day conversa-
tion, but trouble, in any capitalized or carnivorous form,
materialized not at all. He had been sent on a week's
trip, half-survey, half-inspection, to an undeveloped
property of the Company's some fifty miles up state as
aide to the Princeton proconsul. Smoking beside a
camp-fire with the intense night stars above them crowd-

Digitized by



ing the plushy sky for place, all the concerns of Prickett
and the universe in general seemed as far removed and
unimportant as a dance of midges in June. When he
got back, two-thirds of the miners were out, the streets
filled with them as if every day were Sunday. There
was no real disorder, only a few loose threats from
boys or drunks. His boarding-house was largely ten-
anted by foremen and shift-bosses, loudly confident of
the strike's collapse inside a month. There was picket-
ing at the mouths of the mine and mine oflBces, and
guards around the mine-properties, but both bosses
and workers were disciplined except now and then in

The whole town had the atmosphere of a poker game
with two pat-hands trying to bluff each other out.

Once, going over to the mine-oiflSce for his pay, Philip
passed Mac Gregory on picket. A sour and friendly
grin came over the man's face.

" Come on over and join the party, laddie I '' he yelled
companionably; and Philip, ^^ Sorry, Mac, but you guys
are holding up the war.'^ All the sympathies of his
mind were with the Company as long as they played
fair — ^the fact at issue now was to beat Germany, that
effort the strike retarded and so must be broken as soon
as possible. On the other hand, his feelings and emo-
tions ranged completely beside the men — ^what fair wages
and decent living and working conditions they had, had
been, in general, battered out of unwilling companies by
force and the one weapon of the strike. Also an uneasy
thought kept humming inside his head wondering if it
were wholly worth while to abolish injustice abroad, if

Digitized by



twldle doing so, injustice was set steadier in the saddle
at home.

*' These loudmouths who talk about the damn ignorant
laborers are gradually dyeing me carmine/* he wrote
John. " Their only solution for the labor-problem is a
machine gun— oh, when will anybody show up Amurri-
canism? Amurricanism is subscribing $10,000 to the
Liberty Loan and ditching the Government out of $50,-
000 on streaky contracts. It is marching in Prepared-
ness parades and saying you can't look out for employees
who enlist. It is calling 'Spy* and 'Traitor' and
* Bolshevik ' like a bad little boy on a street-comer and
then breaking food-regulations in private like a bad
little boy stealing candy. All Amurricans wear the
Amurrican flag on their collars and have tricolor ice-
cream on the Fourtii of July. They want blank lettres-
de-cachet and clean cells in a mammoth Bastille for

'' Socialists (every kind from Charles Edward Russell
to Bill Heywood),

"Writers (except of cheerful, patriotic stories about
Pershing's Sammies),

" Purriners,

" Suffragists (damn hens!)

'' Cripples,

'' Opponents of the President,

'' Admirers of the President,

" Personal Enemies,

"People Who Can't Support Selves or Family on
What They're Paid,

"Free Speakers,

Digitized by



" Art (except piecrust movies and smutty magazines),

*^ Interesting People.

^' Some day you and I will write a history of the Amur-
ricans. It will begin with the Congress that badgered
and baited Washnigton, go down through ^To the
Victors Belong the Spoils ! \ the Carpet-baggers and
the Wavers of the Bloody Shirt, past the Pure Brass
and Bad Canned Meat or Hanna Epoch and end up
with Anthony Comstock and the Committee on Public
Information. And, oh dear, it will make the 'Inno-
cents Abroad ' seem as humorless as the book of Jere-
miah. Not that I donH dislike the milk-shake Nihilist
and the poison-ivy professional walking delegate of the
t3rpe that ruled when the Unions tyrannized San Fran-
cisco just as much. I do. But the latter are fewer,
right now at least, and the Amurrican ramps about unas-

The draft came and Philip registered for it. The
specialists summoned by his doctor and paid by Phil
had arrived, looked respectable through pince-nez and
delivered an opinion. The tuberculosis diagnosis was,
though tempting, false. The trouble was peculiar, con-
nected with the canals of the ear and a once-infected
tooth. Philip thought they had the attitude of Pro-
bation OflBcers with a wayward but attractive girl as
they spoke tenderly of the canals of his ears. He must
have an operation. He must be drained — " The whole
thing makes me sound like a piece of marsh they want
to reclaim for cultivation,*' is the tag-end of a letter.
He would certainly not be fit for military service for
two years, probably not for five, and the operation had

Digitized by



best be postponed a month or two that the system might
be still further built up.

When they had left the room with the stateliness of
departing penguins, Philip executed three steps of a
double-shuflBe and started chanting the chorus of
"Christopher Colombo'* before he remembered where
he was. He had not recognized how binding and leaden
the sentence of permauent disablement had been upon
him, until now it was suddenly lifted at a touch. It
was like walking after walking in armor — ^like waking
out of the racing disquiet of fever aud looking at the
sun on the wall and feeling cool and knowing you were
going to get well.

" If they only hadnH looked so blessed important I'd
have bought them all the liquor there was in town ! '' he
confided to his Princeton friend. The other shook hands

" Which is the cue for—? ''

"Well, really, I think you owe me one. You don't
get cured of T. B. every twenty-four hours."

"It would have about the same effect on my
Scotch, Phil, if you did," sighed Princeton. "Now
where on earth does Louise think she keeps the ice-

"By the way," said Princeton, later in the evening,
"I think they're going to pull off a trick play in a
couple of days that will bust this strike into little

"So? What's the idea?"

" Well, I really don't know very much about it — some
stunt. of that filmhhero sheriff of ours. What I do know

Digitized by



is confidential. You won't spread it to the scarlet com-
rades ?''

^^ Not unless it's anjrthing important/'

"Maybe so, maybe not. Except that the Company
and a lot of the substantial people in town are getting
pretty sick of the present mess. If s holding up our
government shipments, you know. And everybody's
scared out of their shoes if you go and say ^Boo!
I. W. W.l'to'em."

" I know that, good Lord, the strike's been peaceable
enough so far."

" Well, it's going to stay peaceable. The sheriff's up
on his ear and the thing's to be settled, one way or
t'other, before the end of the week."

"Federal troops?"

"Nothing as drastic as that. Phil, has anybody in
the Company ever called you for being so thick with
the hard-boileder of the miners?"

"No," stiffly; "didn't know I was so important to
the Company."

" Now don't go off your head. But I've heard some
imgodly things and stopped them as well as I could —
from hearing that you were one of the big guns in the
National I. W. W. to having told me confidentially
that you and Bennet Starbox were planning to wreck
the mines with TNT."

"Well, I don't even belong to the I. W. W.— for
one thing I don't agree with them about the war. And
Bennet Starbox is the best lawyer in town and doesn't
know me by sight. But, good Lord, how screamingly

Digitized by



"It is, but you know how people get. Look here,
Fve got a job I want done up Cripple Canon this week —
will you go up and do it? *'

"And have all the poor fools youVe been talking
about say that I fled from whatever vague wrath you're
prophesying to come? Not for this child/'

" It isn't that— it'll show where you stand, that's all."

"On the fence?"

"No-^with us."

"But suppose I'm not with you?" The little red
devil of argument is cakewalking around in Philip's

"You're bound to be. Look here — ^there may be
trouble — ^there may not be. If there is, are you going
to act like a simp or not? "

" Like a simp, Peter, whatever happens."

Peter laughs in spite of himself.

" Oh, damn it all ! I can talk myself dry but I sup-
pose you will."

In a black early morning Philip is stirred into half-
aliveness by many feet going past under his window.
The feet do not have the casual clop and shuflBe of a

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryStephen Vincent BenétThe beginning of wisdom → online text (page 11 of 22)