Professor's Progress. Vi: A Novel of Contemporaneous Adventure

A NOVEL OF CONTEMPORANEOUS ADVENTURE

I

(IT may not necessarily be a misfortune, but it is something of a dilemma, that, as he approaches the end of his task, the present chronicler should be confronted by an unexplainable blank in his field-notes. The temptation to substitute invention for fact is strong, but must be resisted. Perhaps, to the attentive reader of the earlier chapters, the gap in the narrative will not present insuperable difficulties.)

. . . ‘Not at all,’said Latimer, ‘there is, very emphatically, such a thing as the glory of war. If you know where to look for it.’

‘To be sure,’ said Dawson wearily. ‘The romance of war; the spirit of sacrifice; a nation rising as one man to the call of duty. There’s as much romance to a battle nowadays as to a coat-andpants factory.’

Latimer looked at Margaret and kept himself in hand.

‘I agree,’ he said sweetly. ‘But that is enough, is n’t it? Our contemporary magazine literature is aglow with the romance of Business. There is the Romance of Standard Oil and the Romance of Bethlehem Steel and the Romance of the Western Union and of the United States Biscuit Company. By which people mean the romance of very big things that were once very small. On the score of bigness there is something to be said for the war.’

‘ Big? Yes,’ laughed Dawson. ‘Twenty million men up to their waists in the mud, challenging vermin and pneumonia for a cause they know nothing about.’

‘Well, perhaps,’ said Latimer. ‘Assume that there is as little flaming enthusiasm in this war as there was, let us say, in the French Revolution or the Crusades or the battle of Marathon. Let us admit that the Idea, Duty, Liberty, Country, and all that sort of thing exist mainly in the newspapers which stir up war, and in the sculptors and painters who commemorate it. Probably the farmer of ’76 did not march to battle with quite the glow depicted in The Spirit of ’76; the French Revolutionary armies were undoubtedly conscripted; and the Crusades were nourished largely by a spirit of boredom and the hope of plunder. Let us admit that at all times the generality of men have been patriots because they have had to be. I will go so far even as to say that Mr. Dawson’s Social Revolution will be brought about by a popular army of indifferents and illiterates and cowards around a nucleus of red-blooded, twofisted men who love the excitement of the thing, and they in turn led by a few men who know what they are about.’

‘That is rather hard on Dawson,’ grinned Manning. ‘And what is more, I don’t believe you mean it.’

‘Besides,’ interrupted Hartmann, ‘I want to get into New York before midnight.’

‘I mean it very seriously within the limitations of the argument imposed upon me by Mr. Dawson,’ said Latimer. ‘That is, if there is no glory in the present war, then there has never been glory and never will be. Can’t you see, my dear Manning, how absurd it is to argue that there has been romance in the past and will be in the future, but that there is none to-day just because we are too close to the reek of the trenches, the mud, the pain, the monotony that drives men mad, and the ignoble tricks of the diplomats? War close at hand has always been like that; and not only war. What were the wirepullings and ignoble bargains, I wonder, that preceded Constantine’s conversion to Christianity? What was the process of petty bookkeeping and bribegiving that preceded the sailing of three small vessels from the harbor of Palos in 1402? What were the intrigues and the hypocrisies and egotisms that ushered in the first performance of Tristan? Either there is no glory to life at any time, or there is glory to life at all times: to the men who are now twisting with rheumatism and vermin around Verdun as to the men who hungered and scoffed and dragged their gangrened limbs under the banner of Joan of Arc. I don’t believe that the Maid of Orleans’s soldiers were any more holy or ardent than Joffre’s men.’

‘ I don’t quite understand,’ said Margaret, falling into the give and take of the scene. ‘Do you or don’t you believe that the soldiers to-day are inspired by an idea?’

‘Not consciously, my dear, so far as the great majority is concerned. It is only afterwards that the formula-maker looks over the facts and discovers that on the Somme or in the Carpathians half a million men gave their lives for an idea. It is not for the idea of Fatherland or Democracy that most of them stand in trenches, thinking only of food and sleep, pumping their rifles at an unseen foe whom they do not hate except as the cause that keeps them up to the waist in water and without food and sleep. They do it as a matter of course.’

‘Exactly,’ cried Dawson. ‘Just as before the war they shoveled coal or piled manure or posted up ledgers as a matter of course. Where is the glory in that?’

‘Only the glory that abides in fidelity to the job,’ said Latimer. ‘ That is the glory which attaches to the great mass of mankind in peace and in war. The more you make war mechanical, the more you reduce it to the technique of a biscuit-factory or a coatand-pants factory, by that much more you emphasize the essential glory of the common man’s instinct for seeing a job through. The glory of war stands out when you think of war, not as romance or duty or sacrifice or idea, but as Work. Bill and Tommy and Jean and Hans in the trenches may curse at the diplomats who have brought them into the mess, grumble at the officers who lead them into death-traps, at the commissariat that underfeeds them, at the orderlies who come too late with their stretchers and morphine; but that is precisely the same way in which a man responds to his employer, his foreman, and his grocer and butcher, in peace-time. Few of us, in the normal life, relish the particular job set for us, but the job as a whole is something which will not admit of question. Suppose we do ask the men in the trenches why they are fighting and they cannot tell us why. What then? They are fighting because for the time being war is Work.’

‘Latimer,’ said Hartmann, ‘I will now proceed outside to look over the car and I will sound the horn three times at five-minute intervals. After the third plast, I debart.’

He shook hands with Manning and went out.

‘ If you wish,’ said Latimer to Manning, ‘you may say that this is the tragedy as well as the glory of war; that men who would rather build are ordered to burn, men who would rather sow and reap are ordered to lay waste, men who would rather create are ordered to destroy. But whatever may be the spiritual condition of the men on top who issue the orders, there can be no doubt about the men who obey orders. It is the passion for work — misdirected, perverted, betrayed; but the passion is there. Precisely because war has been bereft of its glow, its adventure, its variety, and has been reduced to a monotone of mud and blood and suffering, it is a tribute to the spirit that will bend to the task. As between the man who says, “I die for France,” and the man who says, “It’s in the day’s work,’ it is the latter who expresses the higher and more permanent sentiment.’

’To be sure,’ sneered Dawson; ‘the dignity of labor.’

II

Latimer got to his feet with a lurch and strode close to Dawson. His face was flushed and his breath came in little puffs from his distended nostrils. Margaret jumped up, as much in alarm for Latimer as for Dawson. But it was not to be assault and battery except in a legal sense. Latimer’s heavy hand fell upon Dawson’s shoulder and forced that slender youth deep into his chair.

‘Young man,’ said Latimer, ‘we may as well have it out now and for all. Listen to me.’

‘But I assure you I have no quarrel with you, Dr. Latimer,’ cried the frightened young iconoclast. ‘Nothing except honest intellectual differences.’

For all her anxiety Margaret had to turn away and smile.

‘For some time,’ said Latimer, ‘I have, more or less consecutively, tried to classify you, Mr. Dawson. I have tried to place you as socialist, æsthete, anarchist, pagan, reformer, progressive, and have found it difficult to decide upon the exact category. But now I have it. You are essentially none of the things I have mentioned, Mr. Dawson. You are just a puppy.’

‘Hello!’ said Manning; and he fell to packing tobacco into his pipe at top speed.

‘That,’ said Dawson with a forced smile, ‘is one of the privileges which old age formerly was supposed to possess. As a substitute for reason, calling names is a traditional mode of attack.’

He tried to rise from the chair, but that solid hand pressed him down.

‘Listen to me,’ said Latimer. ‘I am going to presume a little further on this privilege you have mentioned. I am going to tell you why and how you are a puppy. This you are, not in your individual character, which I find rather attractive, but to the extent that you are the victim of an all too common attitude.’

I he first blare of the auto horn was hailed with silent relief by all but one in the room. It might interrupt a state of tension which was growing painful. Latimer alone failed to hear Hartmann’s signal.

’Now the outstanding attribute of the puppy psychology,’ said Latimer, ‘is its lack of piety for all things, including itself. I do not, for instance, ask you to reverence me or the things I believe in. But I might ask you not to slur the things you yourself profess to believe in. Take this Dignity of Labor.’

‘There is nothing to take,’ said Dawson.

’That was the meaning of your sneer,’ said Latimer. ‘You meant that it was a shoddy badge of honor, devised by the oppressors of labor to soothe the oppressed. You meant that we underpay the workman in wages and make it up in dignity. You meant that we speak of the dignity of labor while we, of the upper classes, would do almost anything in the world but labor. You meant that in our hearts we consider the workingman a footless idiot, and that we see no dignity in his stunted figure, or his rags, or in his meek submission to injustice.’

‘You have stated it admirably, Dr. Latimer,’ said Dawson.

‘Let me tell you, now,’said Latimer, ‘what the effect has been upon me of much reading in the literature of the wrongs of labor. And it is this: no exploiter of labor, in his inmost heart, has ever thought concerning the workingmen the disgusting, degrading things which are the commonplaces of your conversation and your oratory.'

‘Too harsh, too harsh !’ said Manning.

‘The simple truth,’ cried Latimer. ‘Unquestionably you have meant well, but there are the facts. Long before there was a “social conscience” in this country, you will recall, Manning, that the newspaper cartoonist had his type of Labor just as he had his type for Capital and Uncle Sam and Liberty, and what not. And how was Labor represented? As a splendid male, of thews and muscle, bare-armed, with leather apron and sledge-hammer, a figure the Greeks would have loved. This type of labor survives—in the capitalist press. But when your Radical and Socialist friends of Labor draw a cartoon, it is of a slave and a defective, a semi-Caliban. And when you begin to elaborate on your picture, good heavens, what is there that you have not said about the worker in the way of calumny! In order to drive home your case against the capitalist system, you have not hesitated — My dear Dawson, do you know what you have behaved like? Like the ingenious people who make a living by bringing accident suits against street-railway corporations. You are the fake doctors who swear to fictitious damage suffered by the plaintiff—backbone permanently wrenched, eyesight affected, nervous system shattered, in addition to that undeniable twisted ankle.’

‘That is just what exploitation has done for the worker,’ said Dawson.

‘Never as bad as you would make it out, my dear fellow. Say that we of the capitalist classes had our reason for speaking of the dignity of the laborer: still we did assign him a quality. You speak of him as a brute. We spoke of the laborer in his cottage. With you he never has a home, but a den; with you the worker is a slum-dweller. We used to draw chromos of the worker on Saturday night, with the children at his knee. You deny him the capacity for playing the father and the husband — because he is overworked, to be sure, but you deny him his humanity just the same. Strange, is n’t it? that good old mossbacks like our ancient balladwriters should have written of jolly millers on the Dee; that a fine crusted Whig like Macaulay should thrill to sturdy butchers who rush from the stall with cleaver in hand to hew down thrones and tyrants; that a cavalier like Walter Scott should have been fascinated by the gay apprentice lads of the mediæval towns; but that you, the champions of labor, should always be speaking of the laborer as a mean, joyless, abject, soulless, appetiteless brute.’

‘This is what the factory system has done for the free workers of former days,’ said Dawson.

‘Go to the head of the class, my boy. You have said your lesson perfectly,’ smiled Latimer. ‘But you know it is all nonsense, this chatter about the whir of the wheels and the monotony of the factory and the worker reduced to a cog in the machine. Do you really think that the peasant in the field, that slow, patient ox, gets more of the joy out of life, more variety, more human excitement, than your factory-worker?

Do you believe that the men and women who broke their backs over the spinning wheels, in the old cottages, had more freedom, more leisure, more creative impulse than your cotton operatives of to-day? Why are the young men and women crowding from the country into the towns? Is it for the gray life of the factory, or is it for the movies? My dear young man, there is more of the joy of life and more of health in the city-worker to-day than the workers have known at any time in the history of labor. But it is a big subject and does not concern me at present.'

The auto horn outside broke into a fury of protest. Manning walked to the window and with his arms semaphored to Hartmann for a few moments’ indulgence.

The plain fact is, of course, that your labor champions, with the best intentions in the world, have blackened the character of labor. What have you done for the women of the workers? This: in order to drive home your plea for minimum wages, for shorter hours, — just and inevitable, I feel, — you have not been ashamed to create the impression that every daughter of the workers is a potential recruit, a probable recruit, for prostitution; and some of your most ardent friends of the working-class have gone so far as to say that they do not blame the working-girl who sells herself in order to purchase the comforts which society has denied her. Pah!’

‘Easily verifiable by statistics,’ said Dawson.

’Ladimer!’ shouted Hartmann, looming up in the doorway: ‘is it your indention dot I perish of aboblexy on the open highway? Come!’

‘Away with your nasty formulas of the slum-dwellers! The father brutalized by toil; the mother incapable of affection and service to her children; the boy destined to grow up a criminal; the girl destined to walk the streets! I doubt if for the sake of your good intentions it will ever be forgiven you that you have degraded the worker to a position his worst oppressor has not assigned him. And the horror of it is in the magnificent opportunity you have missed!

‘Ladimer,’ wailed Hartmann.

‘What an argument you might have made of it! You might have said, “ Look: in the face of exhausting labor, of continuous anxiety about livelihood, of the permanent menace of ill health and old age, see how strong the worker is, how cheery, how capable of the elemental joys of parenthood, neighborliness, charity, unselfish devotion to the common interest! You might have shown that, whereas business is a combat in which friend does not spare friend, and brother brother, the unionized worker will not hesitate to endure starvation in defense of his class interests. And then you should have said, “If this treasure of fine manhood and clean womanhood can persist in spite of our iniquitous economic system, what would not the worker become if he received his due?” Instead of denying the dignity of labor you should have enhanced it, exaggerated it, and made it the title for greater claims and greater privileges. Everything, Dawson, can be forgiven except the sin against the spirit; against the spirit of the working masses whom you have reduced to slumdwellers and candidates for the brothel. Pah! Good-bye, Manning. I will write you. Good-bye, Margaret,’ — and he bent his lips to hers. ‘Good-bye, Dawson. Home, Hartmann.’

(The End)