The Shoulders of Atlas

‘MISTER JIM’ MCELROY stood ready to have his seventy-five a week raised to one hundred, because, in two years of bridge-building on the new Colorado Central, he had succeeded in reducing the accident claims one third, and so saved the Rocky Mountain Construction Company a good many thousand dollars damages. Good luck had been Mister Jim’s uncle: for three months he had had nothing worse than crushed legs to report to the Complaint Department. But now he did have a deathclaim on his hands.

‘They’ll rise a rumpus this trip, Mister Jim,’ Steve remarked. Steve Johnson, baptized Stefan Ivanoff in Macedonian Krivolak, drew fifteen dollars a week for being able to hear in English and talk in Bulgarian. ‘They’ll sure rise a rumpus this trip,’ he repeated. ‘ On first place every one seen it happen plain as ace in spades; on second place — the young chap’s father. You don’t know nothing about that old fellow, Mister Jim. He makes himself that he don’t understand, but the boys will swear anything to get for him some thousand dollar damage for his son.’

‘Think so, Steve?’ McElroy grunted.

‘Sure as you have been born, Mister Jim!’ the Bulgar answered. ‘And real, you know I am all times on your side, but sure this was one rotten business ! ’

‘Don’t you say rotten to me!’ McElroy snapped. ‘ How was any one to prevent the clumsy bat from slipping into the shell just after releasing a load of crushed rock over his own head ? Didn’t I stop work the moment I saw him fall? What do you hunkies want, anyway? Let some one slide ninety feet down to the bottom of the shell and crack his own skull trying to scratch the poor devil’s pieces out of the rock and cement? Take it from me: the fellow was as dead as a door-nail the minute he struck the bottom of the shell. Saves him funeral expenses.’

‘Now, please, Mister Jim, don’t talk them words. You know I am all times on your side, but, you know —’

‘ Shut up, Steve, and listen to me. Do you want some extra coin?’

‘Sure thing.’

‘ Get that fellow’s father to sign this paper, and bring it to me. For every dollar under five hundred that you do the job, I’ll give you fifteen cents. But do it to-night. I want this bridge built, and I can’t have a strike on my hands.’

Steve shook his head and started up the path to the cook-tent, where the gang of Bulgar-Macedonian laborers were lolling about, waiting for supper.

The sun had just disappeared behind the bald head of Sugarloaf Mountain, and long sheaves of yellow and orange played against the dull lichened rocks on the eastern bank of Six-Mile Canyon. Here and there, in deep-cut fissures, packed snow still glistened like veins of old tarnished silver. On the lower meadow slopes of Sugarloaf, blue monk’s-hood and scarlet fireweed nodded lazily in the sleepy evening breeze, while here and there saucy Rocky Mountain jays — camp-robbers, the miners call them — darted down to the very door of the cook-tent, pecking at morsels of food, ready to snatch the slice of bread out of your hand. The roaring, endless rhythm of Six-Mile Creek was shattered by distant reports of explosions from the gang blasting the rock farther up the trail. In front of the tent a lively exchange of bitter civilities was going on, in racy Bulgarian, interspersed with choice, untranslatable profanities.

‘Well, and so we left Macedonia,’ a dark, bushy-browed young fellow was holding forth to the rest, expertly spitting through his teeth as he spoke; ‘we did leave the cursed old bleeding motherland, to come and drink American milk and honey, get rich and buy us patent-leather shoes and a derby hat out of the second envelope, eh, Zasho?’

‘Oh, give your jaw a day off, Kolio!’ a short-necked, thick-lipped chap in blue overalls and muddy boots replied from inside. ‘You get your nine dollars every Saturday, don’t you?’

‘Nine dollars, Zasho? Sure I get my nine dollars, and I’d get yours too if I could. But where’s the equal chance for everybody that leech-mouth steamship agent was sermonizing about? I suppose Dobry would have got his nine dollars next Saturday night — if he had n’t slipped into the shell. If Mister Jim, or that fat president with the white vest, had missed his footing, do you think they’d have let him stay there, and pile up the rock and cement over his carcass to-morrow morning? I spit upon the nine dollars, Zasho! So long as you are on the job, they keep tab on you every minute, for fear you won’t earn five times your wages; and when you die they stick you into the ground without priest or pall, so you won’t smell up the place. And another soft believer that’s crossed the ocean to become God’s cousin takes your pick and shovel, and it’s amen to you. I’d rather eat good garlic in Macedonia than rotten ham in Colorado.’

‘Hush!’ a low voice cautioned. ‘ Here comes Dobry’s father. Did he see it happen? ’

Kolio shook his head. ‘ He was working farther down, where I was. We did n’t see anything, but some of the fellows higher up yelled to us. Old Uncle Dimo could n’t get it through his head at first; then he set on a run up the path to see for himself. They were just stopping the crane when he got there. He gave one look into the shell, then he scrambled up the mountainside like a wild goat. Mister Jim called after him, but he did n’t turn around, and that second-hand American, Steve, yelled to let him go. I thought the uncle might do himself harm and wanted to follow him, but I turned back after all. If the old man wants to die, I’m not going to tie his hands. Dobry was all he had in this world. I have n’t any son to lend him, have you, Zasho?’

The men hushed; a few crossed themselves piously as the rusty figure of Uncle Dimo drew near. His face was wrinkled with sorrow, but he held his shoulders erect. Uncle Dimo was a stubborn Macedonian Bulgar; he had never doffed his pepper-gray homespun breeches and rawhide sandals for the overalls and tan shoes of the new world. On this evening a patriarchal atmosphere enveloped his massive frame. His hair and beard seemed to have grown whiter during the afternoon as, ragged and long, they hung over his shoulders and chest, and his deep black eyes burned under their shaggy brows. The workmen lowered their heads, awkward and silent in the presence of his grief.

‘God greet you, Uncle Dimo.’

‘Let him be greeted indeed,’ was the old man’s answer; and he put on his cap.

He was about to pass into the tent, but Kolio could not restrain himself.

‘We’re all with you, Uncle Dimo,’ he burst out. ' Curses on the man that robs Dobry of Christian burial!’

Uncle Dimo fixed his smouldering eyes on him, but did not answer.

‘Yes, on him, and on every leech that sucks our blood and thinks we are only so many picks and so many envelopes. You’ve lost your son on this cursed job, and like as not they’ll hand you a blue envelope and be rid of you next Saturday! I spit upon their nine dollars!’

The old man listened with dull composure to the excited youth, and then shook his head sadly.

‘You are young, my boy,’ he said,

‘although you swear and spit enough for a grandfather. You don’t know a workman’s glory When you see it!’

‘A workman’s glory, Uncle Dimo,—’ Kolio began; but the graybeard cut him short.

‘You’ve left Macedonia too early, lad. She has n’t taught you enough. It’s so with most of you young fellows these days. But my Dobry, — he knew the workman’s glory!’

Dimo crossed himself.

Silence fell on the group; the old man was obviously hesitating whether or not to ask something. Finally he did ask, directing his question to Zasho.

‘Zasho, you have been here longer than I; tell me this thing. I don’t understand. What is written on that iron plate at the bottom of the big pillar?’

‘I don’t know for sure, Uncle Dimo, but Steve says it is about the president of the company that is paying us. You remember the fat fellow with the white vest and that gold chain in both pockets who came and watched us work? It’s for him this bridge will be named.’

‘But he is still alive, is n’t he?’

‘Sure he is.’

‘Then I don’t understand, — how can it be his bridge and Dobry’s too? This is a strange country,’ he concluded; and noticing Steve Johnson, who was calling to him in an uncertain voice, he turned in his direction.

‘Perhaps Stefan will tell me,’ he said, leaving the group before the cook-tent.

‘I wonder how much he will be offering Uncle Dimo for his son ? ’ Kolio commented grimly. ‘May the itch get the second-hand American!’ He spat in disgust.

‘It’s an awful pity, Uncle Dimo, an awful pity,’ said Steve, seated on a spool of steel cable in the tool-shack.

‘He was a fine lad, God rest his soul’ Uncle Dimo crossed himself. ' You know, his mother died years ago, and then the Turks burned our village and we ran away to Bulgaria. There Dobry made up his mind to come to America. Everybody said it was easy to get rich over here. Well, he did not get rich, but he did send me money every little while, and last summer, you know, he wrote me to come over. We were getting on so friendly, the two by ourselves — and now here comes this thing! Lord God, no man knows whom Thou wilt select!’ he murmured piously.

‘So it is, Uncle Dimo, so it is,’ Steve felt his way. ‘It will be hard for you, and lonesome too, now, without him, and the company will be so very sorry, Mister Jim was telling me, for this accident — for, of course, it was quite an unavoidable accident, — unpreventable, you understand, no one to blame, that is.’

‘Who could be to blame?’ Uncle Dimo was puzzled. ‘ It is God’s work.’

‘ Certainly, God’s work,’ Steve agreed. ‘God’s own work. But, as I was saying, the company is sorry for you personally, and would — would help you, you understand. They want to give you a hundred — or a hundred and fifty dollars.’

‘ What for? What more could I want? Such a bridge: there is not one like it in all Macedonia — and it is my son’s bridge!’

‘I don’t get you,’ Steve was beginning, but checked himself. ‘ Well, take fifty dollars anyway, and — sign this paper, so the company would know you bear them no ill will.’

‘ You talk so strangely, my lad. Why should I bear them ill will, and why should I sign any papers? God has signed the papers already, in the bottom of that concrete shell.’

Something in the old man’s voice made the Americanized young Bulgar’s heart tremble a little.

‘ I don’t know what you mean.’

‘You don’t know,’ Dimo muttered. ‘ No one of the boys seems to know this thing. For you have not built bridges in Macedonia. Still I thought that you, knowing English, might have heard it from some old bridge-builder here.’

‘Heard what, Uncle Dimo?’ Steve asked, puzzled.

‘ What? Why, what gives strength to a bridge to stand the force of the water. Water can dissolve anything that’s mixed with just water.’

The young man was silent.

‘ Perhaps I’d better tell you how it happened once in Macedonia,’ Dimo decided. ‘ Then you will understand about my Dobry. And then I can ask you something you must find out from Mister Jim.’

And so Uncle Dimo told his story.

‘ First, there was Bogdan the mason. His mother left him an orphan of three months, and before he grew up the Turks burned his father’s house near the Cherna River. The two of them ran to a well that was half-dry, and the boy jumped down all right, but the old man broke his back and died before sundown. Bogdan covered him up with stones and mud and crawled out of the well, managed to cross the river somehow, — there was a bad drought that summer, — and wandered into Zavoy village.

‘ Elder Gosheff took him to work for his bread and cheese, and at first sweated him like a Greek innkeeper, but by and by he took a liking to the lad, and ended by marrying him to his daughter Radda. That is how I come to my story, Stefan. Now you just listen and don’t talk until I get through.

‘ There were no Turks in Zavoy village. The elders had drawn up a paper with the kaimakam of Prilep to send some one with the taxes every autumn, and to watch and keep in repair the bridge over the Cherna. It was a horsetrader’s bargain for the Turks. Every wagon, ox, donkey, and sheep that went from the Prilep country down to Salonica, had to cross the Zavoy bridge; you just had to look after it. And the Cherna, — you have n’t seen it, — all quicksands and eddies and whirlpools. An ox could n’t find a ford at less than a day’s journey downstream. And if you did cross her in the morning, a cloud would burst at the top of Koom Tepee, sweep down the valley, and bury the ford under a couple of elbow-lengths of muddy water by sundown. There simply had to be a bridge at Zavoy.

‘But every spring freshet swelled the Cherna, hammered the log-piles to pieces, and sent bridge and all downstream. Year after year the same cursed business; all the saints in the liturgy could n’t have built that bridge to last. Folks from other villages called Zavoy men fools for not spitting at it all and moving across the river toward Salonica.

‘One spring the elders chose Bogdan to manage the bridge-building. He was a man born with a trowel in his hand. Past Easter, you know, the dry weather sets in. Zavoy men curse and spit and work day and night to get their share done so they can go back to their ploughing. About noon the wives bring their hot givetch and clabbered milk in wooden bowls, and stand knitting while the men gulp and lick their fingers. All this happened, Stefan, when your grandfather’s uncle was in swaddles.

‘ Of all the wives in Zavoy village, Bogdan’s Radda, they say, was the fairest: a tall and slender aspen, hair you could braid in a rope, and eyes like black cherries. Bogdan was a bit foolish about his wife and never beat her. You see folks like that now and then.

‘Every day old Pope Cyril limped down to the river and watched them at work. He’d pull at his beard and chant, “Fools and babes unborn! Think you can cement these rocks with plain mortar? Man labors in straw and his work is chaff. Only God makes stones and real mortar to hold stones together.”

‘Day after day the men heard him. One afternoon Bogdan could n’t stand it any longer. “ What kind of mortar is this mortar of God, Holy Father?”

‘The old priest looks at him with eyes like fishhooks and tells him,—

‘“Thou knowest full well, thou son of Babylon, — building towers without offering to God any sacrifices. Thee I have told, and thy bride’s father before thee. A mighty force is water, dark and unfathomable, more restless, stronger, more stubborn, and altogether more irresistible than logs and stones and mortar. Man’s soul alone, God-given, can conquer that force. For verily and verily no bridge can be built to withstand its wrath save a bridge with the soul of man at its foundation. Gospody pomiluy.”

‘The men listen to him, cross themselves, and spit over their left shoulders. Who is going to put his own soul on a trowel?

‘“Better build it every spring,” you ’d hear them say. Yet a few wobbled a little sometimes; men get sick of an endless business like that. Bogdan stood his ground as is proper to a manager.

‘“You know your liturgy asleep, Holy Father,” he tells the priest, tells Bogdan, “ but bridge-building is a layman’s trade. Bridges are built only one way: come next week and see if my mortar will stick or not.”

‘“The Lord God will mortar your blasphemy in your throat, you son of Ishmael!” the priest thunders at him, and strides away. That very night, Stefan, the sky rips itself open. Ugly clouds, with forked lightning inside, split and flood Koom Tepee. Zavoy folk cross themselves under their blankets, but it is too late for crossing.

‘In the morning they all rubbed their eyes and peered through the fog and rain. You could n’t have built a pigsty of what was left of the bridge. Even the huge stone pillar, built twenty years before, the only part that had whistled at every flood, was shattered from top to bottom.

‘Down from the church-hill, clump, clump with his cane, limps Father Cyril. All bareheaded, with his beard uncombed, the wind twirls his gray hair like cobwebs in a granary door.

‘“Behold and verily,” he calls out, “do you believe now?”

‘“The lightning struck it,” Bogdan answers back. “No mortar is proof against lightning.”

‘ But the other men cross themselves and spit over their left shoulders.

‘“God forgive us all, Pope Cyril,” they beg him. “Tell us what to do.”

‘“Gospody pomiluy!” he chants, and runs his fingers through his beard, the holy man. “A human soul we must have in the cornerstone. A man’s soul cannot be spared; we need every one to protect the village, for the Lord God knows when Turks may come our way too. To hold such a bridge, a child’s soul is not strong enough; so a woman’s soul must be mixed with our mortar.”

‘Bogdan protested, but the men listened to the priest.

‘“Behold and verily,” he goes on, “the manner in which we shall select her, saith the Lord. One week from this day, she, the one who first brings her husband’s dinner to the bridge, she shall be the matron honored above all Zavoy women. He who breathes so much as a syllable of this to a woman, him the Lord God will curse, him and his wife, and his daughters unto countless generations! Gospody pomiluy! Amen!” So they all swore they would keep it secret.

‘Radda waited all day for her man; she even dared the storm to look for him by the river; but she could n’t find him. So she put a candle in the windowsill and set her down to watch. When she did hear his step on the cobblestones and ran out to meet him, he pushed her aside as if she were a beggar-woman.

‘“Don’t be running always after me like that,” he growled at her, but kept looking at the ground. “You shame me with your ways. Folks clear their throats halfway across the road when you go by.”

“Radda’s heart wavered. “What have I done?” she cried.

‘“Psst with your questions!” he snarled. “Mind your child, tend your spinning, your weaving, keep to your housework — that’s a woman’s business. Don’t lick your lips at me like a lovesick silly at a horovodnik.”

‘“What ails you, Bogdan?” she wept out loud.

‘But he stretched himself crosswise over the bedclothes and would n’t say another word to her; so what was she, poor woman, to do? She wrapped herself in a blanket and lay in a corner.

‘“He’s drunk with grief,” she excused him, God’s little cow. “He’s drunk with grief,” she says, “for he does n’t smell of drink.”

‘In the morning she was up and out before light to prepare his breakfast, but he shoved her aside. “Tend your baby, I’ll get my own breakfast, yes, and dinner too, from Stavry’s tavern.

‘“And don’t leave the child alone in the house,” he called back as he slammed the door. “Wait till high noon before you come to the bridge. It makes me a laughing-stock to have you lugging me dinner in the middle of the morning, before any other woman gets there.”

‘But womankind is a puzzle, Stefan. The more he scolded her, the more anxious she was to please him, the better dinners she cooked him. Of course she tried not to be loving with him before the others, and stood aside knitting stockings while he ate; but she worried over his ways, and on the fourth night, she gathered up her courage.

‘“I want to call in the priest,” she says.

‘“Leave the priest alone,” he shouts at her. “If you tell a living soul anything about me, you’ll burn candles for my return till the cuckoo’s summer.”

‘So a whole week dragged by, and every day Radda, of her very sorrow, came later and later with his dinner. She was sick with grief and could hardly drag her feet down the road. As Bogdan saw her coming later and later, his heart warmed up with joy.

‘“A week’s weeping? Ei!” he says to himself, “what is a week’s weeping? Once let this cursed business be done and I’ll make it all up to her!”

‘The last morning Radda heard him get up, but she did not stir, or open an eye, so bitter did she find her life.

‘“Seven days and seven nights I have heard only curses from him,” she groaned to herself.

‘Bogdan went about the house dressing; she pretended to be asleep. If she did n’t open her eyes, he would go away without swearing at her, she thought.

‘Just before he started to go, he opened the sleeping room and looked at the white face of her. Her bosom swelled sleepily enough, but now and then her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks. Ei, Bogdan — he saw how thin and pale she had grown, and how the veins stood out on her neck. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead and a hot tear rolled from his eye on to her cheek. Radda quivered and Bogdan said to himself, ‘ “ If she wakes, I’ll tell her. Then we’ll leave this accursed bridge and river for good.”

‘But Radda did n’t wake up, and Bogdan turned to the holy icon over the cradle, crossed himself and the baby, and tiptoed out of the house. When she was sure he was well gone, Radda jumped out of bed.

‘“Why did n’t I open my eyes?”

she kept wondering; and she hurried to feed the baby and prepare dinner, and put on her new red sukman with the silk braidwork and gilt embroidery.

‘Ei, Stefan, is n’t it a terrible day, this day of God’s choosing! Every Zavoy man was at work trimming the stones or planing logs, and every one had his back to the road. All at once Bogdan felt a touch on his arm.

‘“Here is your dinner, my husband!”

‘He just stood and looked at her. Down the path, hobbling along, came old Donna, the saddler’s wife. Not another woman was in sight.

“Radda,” Bogdan groaned, “ what’s God got to do with you, my skylark?”

‘But old Pope Cyril was already in front of her, sprinkling her head with holy water. It fell on the red overskirt and glistened in the sunlight like drops of blood.

The men had stopped their work; the priest picked up a rope, measured out her shadow on the ground, cut off the right length, and sprinkled it too with holy water.

Radda gaped at them, awestruck.

“‘What is all this about, Bogdan?” she whispered.

‘But he did n’t answer, threw his tools in the river, put his arm around her shoulders, and led her back to the village. When the two had turned around a bend in the road, the elders chopped the rope to little bits and mixed it with the mortar.

‘“Behold and verily is Radda’s soul now mortared into the foundation!” Father Cyril pronounced. “All the floods of the Cherna will henceforth and forevermore be unavailing. Gospody pomiluy!

‘Now that their own womenfolk were safe, the men spat on their hands and got dowm to work to finish the bridge. But Bogdan did not return. He spent all his time tending and loving his wife: he would n’t let her lift a finger; he swept, he cooked, he carried wood and water. But what is wood and water? A strange ailment had taken hold of her: like a lily of the valley after a frost, she faded and withered up, and died in a few weeks. They buried her at the base of the great pillar of the new bridge.

‘And now, Stefan, listen. That was over a hundred years ago,’ Uncle Dimo concluded, brushing back his gray hair, ‘but you can go to Zavoy village and there stands the old bridge as it has stood against a hundred spring floods. Radda’s soul is holding it firm. They call it Radda’s Bridge.’

It had grown dark in the tool-shack. Outside, the night-sheen of moon and star and gleaming water and water-polished rock played about tents and cabins. Gusts of snow-kissed air whisked around the camp and fanned the smoky fire in front of the cook-tent, where crouching and sprawling figures and bent heads were still outlined. Farther down the track glowed dingily the lantern-lit window of Mister Jim’s cabin. The two men waited silently, in almost complete darkness. Uncle Dimo evidently expected a word from the young man, but the latter did not speak.

‘It is God’s plan with us workingmen,’ the old man took it up again; ‘there is no kicking against the pricks. What are we? Sweaty, ill-smelling bodies. Yet God chooses from among us some one to strengthen every work of man. You are young, you do not know yet; but be sure, Stefan, there is not one bridge, there is not one big building, if it is to last, that does not have some human soul at its foundation to give it strength and life. I’ve told you just one story; there are a thousand more. It is God’s way. The rich man, he comes and orders and pays with his money; but money cannot buy this honor. God must elect you to it, if you are a good workman, as he elected Radda, as he has elected Dobry.’

And Uncle Dimo crossed himself piously. The Americanized Bulgar involuntarily followed the old man’s example. He felt uneasy, stupid. After what he had heard, to persist in offering the bereaved father money seemed sacrilegious.

Once more Dimo broke the silence.

‘I was going to ask you one thing. The iron plate at the foot of the big pillar, that plate with the writing on it — what is it about?’

‘It has the names of the company’s directors, Uncle Dimo, the directors and chief engineers and so forth.’

‘But, Zasho, you know, told me it was about some president, that fellow with the gold chain in both pockets.’

‘Yes, President Addison Van Allen Goldman, of the Directors of the Rocky Mountain Construction Company. The bridge will be named for him.’

‘So they had picked him out? But see, God has chosen my Dobry first. It is for God to choose, not for man.’

Steve shuffled his feet uneasily.

‘It is for God to choose and honor, Stefan, tell Mister Jim that. If a man scorns that choice, God brings damnation to that man. They must change the plate, make it right, as God wills it. Of course, as soon as they hear about Dobry, they themselves will want to do it, for the sake of the bridge.

‘ I don’t know English, but when they ask, you tell them; let them write it simply, “The Bridge of Dobry.” It needs nothing more; God will remember Dobry when He sees it.’

‘I will tell them, Uncle Dimo.’

But the old man still hesitated.

‘You know,’ he added, ‘I am not sure about this next thing; you tell them not to do it if they think it is vain in God’s sight — but perhaps they might add: “Dobry, only son of Dimo of Zavoy village, grandson of Radda’s child.” Let them put that too, if they don’t think it vain in God’s sight.’