"I dunno," he said, with a bewildered look. "It mebbe. Summat to make her live, I think,—like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way."
The young man laughed again. Mitchell flashed a look of disgust somewhere,—not at Wolfe.
"May," he broke out impatiently, "are you blind? Look at that woman's face! It asks questions of God, and says, 'I have a right to know' Good God, how hungry it is!"
They looked a moment; then May turned to the mill-owner: -
"Have you many such hands as this? What are you going to do with them? Keep them at puddling iron?"
Kirby shrugged his shoulders. Mitchell's look had irritated him.
"Ce nest pas mon affaire. I have no fancy for nursing infant geniuses. I suppose there are some stray gleams of mind and soul among these wretches. The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out their own salvation. I have heard you call our American system a ladder which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social ladders, and put us all on a flat table-land,—eh, May?"
The Doctor looked vexed, puzzled. Some terrible problem lay hid in this woman's face, and troubled these men. Kirby waited for an answer, and, receiving none, went on, warming with his subject.
"I tell you, there's something wrong that no talk of 'Liberté' or 'Egalité' will do away. If I had the making of men, these men who do the lowest part of the world's work should be machines,—nothing more,—hands. It would be kindness. God help them! What are taste, reason, to creatures who must live such lives as that?" He pointed to Deborah, sleeping on the ash-heap. "So many nerves to sting them to pain. What if God had put your brain, with all its agony of touch, into your fingers, and bid you work and strike with that?"
"You think you could govern the world better?" laughed the Doctor.
"I do not think at all."
"That is true philosophy. Drift with the stream, because you cannot dive deep enough to find bottom, eh?"
"Exactly," rejoined Kirby. "I do not think. I wash my hands of all social problems,—slavery, caste, white or black. My duty to my operatives has a narrow limit,—the pay-hour on Saturday night. Outside of that, if they cut korl, or cut each other's throats, (the more popular amusement of the two,) I am not responsible."
The Doctor sighed,—a good honest sigh, from the depths of his stomach.
"God help us! Who is responsible?"
"Not I, I tell you," said Kirby, testily. "What has the man who pays them money to do with their souls' concerns, more than the grocer or butcher who takes it?"
"And yet," said Mitchell's cynical voice, "look at her! How hungry she is!"
Kirby tapped his boot with his cane. No one spoke. Only the dumb face of the rough image looking into their faces with the awful question, "What shall we do to be saved?" Only Wolfe's face, with its heavy weight of brain, its weak, uncertain mouth, its desperate eyes, out of which looked the soul of his class, only Wolfe's face turned towards Kirby's. Mitchell laughed,—a cool, musical laugh.
"Money has spoken!" he said, seating himself lightly on a stone with the air of an amused spectator at a play. "Are you answered? "—turning to Wolfe his clear, magnetic face.
Bright and deep and cold as Arctic air, the soul of the man lay tranquil beneath. He looked at the furnace-tender as he had looked at a rare mosaic in the morning; only the man was the more amusing study of the two.
"Are you answered? Why, May, look at him! 'De profundis clamavi.' Or, to quote in English, 'Hungry and thirsty, his soul faints in him.' And so Money sends back its answer into the depths through you, Kirby! Very clear the answer, too!—I think I remember reading the same words somewhere—washing your hands in Eau de Cologne, and saying, 'I am innocent of the blood of this man. See ye to it!'"
Kirby flushed angrily.
"You quote Scripture freely."
"Do I not quote correctly? I think I remember another line, which may amend my meaning: 'Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto me.' Deist? Bless you, man, I was raised on the milk of the Word. Now, Doctor, the pocket of the world having uttered its voice, what has the heart to say? You are a philanthropist, in a small way,—n'est ce pas? Here, boy, this gentleman can show you how to cut korl better,—or your destiny. Go on, May!"
"I think a mocking devil possesses you to-night," rejoined the Doctor, seriously.
He went to Wolfe and put his hand kindly on his arm. Something of a vague idea possessed the Doctor's brain that much good was to be done here by a friendly word or two: a latent genius to be warmed into life by a waited-for sunbeam. Here it was: he had brought it. So be went on complacently: -
"Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great man?—do you understand?"(talking down to the capacity of his hearer: it is a way people have with children, and men like Wolfe,)—"to live a better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby here? A man may make himself anything he chooses. God has given you stronger powers than many men,—me, for instance."
May stopped, heated, glowing with his own magnanimity. And it was magnanimous. The puddler had drunk in every word, looking through the Doctor's flurry, and generous heat, and self-approval, into his will, with those slow, absorbing eyes of his.
"Make yourself what you will. It is your right."
"1 know," quietly. "Will you help me?"
Mitchell laughed again. The Doctor turned now, in a passion, -
"You know, Mitchell, I have not the means. You know, if I had, it is in my heart to take this boy and educate him for" -
"The glory of God, and the glory of John May."
May did not speak for a moment; then, controlled, he said, -
"Why should one be raised, when myriads are left?—I have not the money, boy," to Wolfe, shortly.
"Money?" He said it over slowly, as one repeats the guessed answer to a riddle, doubtfully. "That is it? Money?"
"Yes, money,—that is it," said Mitchell, rising, and drawing his furred coat about him. "You've found the cure for all the world's diseases.—Come, May, find your good-humor, and come home. This damp wind chills my very bones. Come and preach your Saint-Simonian doctrines to-morrow to Kirby's hands. Let them have a clear idea of the rights of the soul, and I'll venture next week they'll strike for higher wages. That will be the end of it."
"Will you send the coach-driver to this side of the mills?" asked Kirby, turning to Wolfe.
He spoke kindly: it was his habit to do so. Deborah, seeing the puddler go, crept after him. The three men waited outside. Doctor May walked up and down, chafed. Suddenly he stopped.
"Go back, Mitchell! You say the pocket and the heart of the world speak without meaning to these people. What has its head to say? Taste, culture, refinement? Go!"
Mitchell was leaning against a brick wall. He turned his head indolently, and looked into the mills. There hung about the place a thick, unclean odor. The slightest motion of his hand marked that he perceived it, and his insufferable disgust. That was all. May said nothing, only quickened his angry tramp.
"Besides," added Mitchell, giving a corollary to his answer, "it would be of no use. I am not one of them."
"You do not mean"--------said May,facing him.
"Yes, I mean just that. Reform is born of need, not pity. No vital movement of the people's has worked down, for good or evil; fermented, instead, carried up the heaving, cloggy mass. Think back through history, and you will know it. What will this lowest deep—thieves, Magdalens, negroes—do with the light altered through ponderous Church creeds, Baconian theories, Goethe schemes? Some day, out of their bitter need will be thrown up their own light-bringer,—their Jean Paul, their Cromwell, their Messiah."
"Bah!" was the Doctor's inward criticism. However, in practice; he adopted the theory; for, when, night and morning afterwards, he prayed that power might be given these degraded souls to rise, he glowed at heart, recognizing an accomplished duty.
Wolfe and the woman had stood in the shadow of the works as the coach drove off. The Doctor had held out his hand in a frank, generous way, telling him to "take care of himself, and to remember it was his right to rise." Mitchell had simply touched his hat, as to an equal, with a quiet look of thorough recognition. Kirby had thrown Deborah some money, which she found, and clutched eagerly enough. They were gone now, all of them. The man sat down on the cinder-road, looking up into the murky sky.
"'T be late, Hugh. Wunnot hur come?"
He shook his head doggedly, and the woman crouched out of his sight against the wall. Do your remember rare moments when a sudden light flashed over yourself, your world, God? when you stood on a mountain-peak, seeing your life as it might have been, as it is? one quick instant, when custom lost its force and every-day usage? When your friend,
wife, brother, stood in a new light? your soul was bared, and the grave,—a foretaste of the nakedness of the Judgment Day? So it came before him, his life, that night. The slow tides of pain he had borne gathered themselves up and surged against his soul. His squalid daily life, the brutal coarseness eating into his brain, as the ashes into his skin: before, these things had been a dull aching into his consciousness; to-night, they were reality. He griped the filthy red shirt that clung, stiff with soot, about him, and tore it savagely from his arn. The flesh beneath was muddy with grease and ashes—and the heart beneath that! And the soul? God knows.