'Up to the Good Man': An Episode in the Life of Mr. Squem
PETER B. SQUEM, representative of Mercury tires, was on a trip with his car — an Ariel roadster, blindingly yellow save for the broad purple streak about its body, and with red-rimmed wheels. He enjoyed using this vehicle, which the Ariel people advertised as ‘the uttermost expression of modernity,’ and whose coloring was Mr. Squem’s own idea. ‘ I guess it will make the yaps sit up,’ the sales-agent had remarked on delivering the car; and he was right. It made everybody sit up, and the more after the purchaser had added a pink top, with the final happy touch of a portrait of himself looking out of the oval window at the back. ‘They get me coming and going, you see,’ said Mr. Squem. Below the portrait was a line or two apropos of the merits of Mercury tires.
At the hotel he had persuaded a breakfast-table acquaintance to ride with him to a town some twenty miles distant, instead of waiting an hour for a train; and the gentleman, after a startled look at the car, — it occurred to him that a camel would be considerably less conspicuous, — had tucked himself in and the two had got under way. The host had an agreeable sense of rhyming with his car. A Sunday paper had shown him illustrations of the very latest in automobile togs, and as a consequence his coat, goggles, and cap were all strictly contemporaneous if not, indeed, a little more so.
He had a good deal of pleasure in ‘letting her out.’ It was not enough that the car should be a thing of unique — of almost piercing — beauty. It must be there with the goods. Mr. Squem had received from a ‘lady friend ’ at Christmas, a gift of cigars — individually wrapped in silver paper and reposing in a mistletoe-emblemed box, with ‘The Season’s Greetings’ in gold tracery on top. A dainty thing, yet those cigars when lighted — so Mr. Squem imparted to a friend — tasted like something long dead.
He was glad now, as always, to demonstrate the Ariel as being no such proposition. So he ‘let her rip,’ and they came, a yellow flash, doing a full mile a minute over the pike, and with the culverts through which they passed clashing like cymbals in their ears. And then — a sudden cave in a summer road down at the side, a swift whirl of the wheel, and the car desperately ploughing at right angles off into a field, shaking like a Newfoundland, rearing like a broncho, heavily smashing at last into a stump.
The two sat motionless for five seconds after the jar. Then Mr. Squem said with feeling, —
‘You want to hump yourself and be damn sure to thank the Lord for this — same as you rap on wood. I always do.’ To which curious bidding to prayer, his companion, after a moment’s pause, unsteadily rejoined, — ‘A close — close — call! It might have been death.’
‘Sure, just what I meant,’ said Mr. Squem, ‘Thank the Lord and get it over. Some crimp in the car, all right. Look at that radiator. We’ll have to hoof it for help.’
There was two miles of the hoofing.
‘I’ve got a hunch,’ said Mr. Squem, as they began to step off, ‘that I don’t sell tires to-day. This siding we ’re coming to, well, they’ll flag something they call a train at about eleven, and you can get out; but it’s on the cards for me to telephone the Dutch town for some kind of a car-tink, and then roost here till he comes. Some picnic! You know those community mausoleums? They got the idea for ’em from this burg I ’m going to be hung up in.’
He paused to light a stogy, then added, —
‘Thank Pratt, I can do something besides fight flies.’ And rummaging in the pockets of his billowing automobile coat, he produced, to the considerable surprise of his companion, a copy of the Contemporary Review. ‘A fellow was telling me in Poughkeepsie last week,’ he said, ‘that this has some class. It sure ought to have. They want four bones a year for it, and it has n’t got a smell of a picture in it — not a smell.’
‘I want to take off my hat,’ said the other, ‘to your nerve, your wonderful spring back from the shock we’ve just had. You know I’m all shaken up. It’s going to last a long while with me — that awful pitching down the field and the car on the edge of going over. And then that gully— did you see it? — showing just beyond that stump that saved us. We were mighty close to eternity. We were within an ace of death.’
‘It was up to the Good Man,’ said Mr. Squem with an air of dismissal, ‘and we’re here.’
‘But it was death, you know,’ persisted the other; ‘death just as close as death comes to the trenches. That was what we were against. How can you pass it off as you do?’
‘ Same as I passed off the small-pox I skipped last year, ’answered Mr. Squem, ‘the time I got into the pest-house at Keokuk by mistake. What’s the good of going around and thinking about it? What I ’m thinking about is how to get out of this mess — that’s the job, not thinking about, death.’
‘But heavens, man, we’ve had something to make us think about it! Just make us think about it! Lots of people think about it without anything at all to make them, and here you are with your nerves as steady as a clock.’
‘Nothing doing,’ interrupted Mr. Squem.
‘Well, lots do,’ said the other, apparently glad to talk. ‘Anyway, don’t you have to sometimes, if you think at all? It’s only thin, surface living that doesn’t sometimes. I remember a poem, whose writer, being full of thoughts of his own death, ends two of the verses, —
I wonder what month of the year? ’
Mr. Squem’s reception of this was laconic. ‘Some nut,’ he said. Then, emitting a yell, he caught the other by the collar and violently dragged him to the middle of the road, pointing in explanation, a second later, to a rattlesnake, in coil and ready to strike, perilously close to the path.
‘Good God!’ exclaimed the guest. ‘Can anything more happen to-day?’
Mr. Squem volunteered no opinion on this head, but with deliberation and coolness proceeded to dispatch the ugly reptile with stones, after which he evidently considered the incident entirely closed, and remarked, —
‘ I don’t know if you ’re a preacher — ’ ‘Lawyer,’said the other, his voice shaking.
‘I was n’t going to say anything if you was a preacher — people don’t. We got to have men around to believe things the rest of us can’t, and then bat ’em out to us, overdose us—see?
— with things we ought to believe some. Yes, we just call them “Reverend” and let them talk. It’s all tommy-rot, thinking about death, and it’s the best horse-sense not to ever think about it, at least until it gets here — and then a quick deal. I was to see Mack Leonard before he died last week,
— it was cancer, — and he says to me, “I’ve just shook hands with God, and I’m ready when He is.” That’s all right — just business, you understand. But until the time sure comes, I figure the job is my business, and nothing else — and the rest is up to the Good Man.’
‘A new euthanasia,’ said the lawyer.
‘What’s the name of a sleeping-car got to do with it?’ queried Mr. Squem.
The guest, whose name was Robinson, very decently insisted upon waiting for Mr. Squem, so they did not flag the train. The two put in the morning smoking and playing cards in the office of the New Aldine Hotel — the most out-at-elbows of all the dingy buildings of the settlement. During the forenoon the entire population, save one sorely disappointed bedridden man, filtered in to see the visitors and speculate as to why in the world they were there, one native conjecturing to another that Mr. Squem might perhaps be Mr. Schwab, minded to buy the town. The dinner, when it came, was not exactly an orgy, the ham being quite salt, the potatoes quite hard, the coffee quite indefinite in flavor, and the pie quite popular with numerous energetic flies. This last circumstance woke an old memory in Mr. Squem.
‘Makes you think,’ he said, ‘of that guy at the railroad eating-joint. “What kind of pie?” they says; and he says, “Blackberry.” “Oh,” they says, “that ain’t blackberry,” and blew on it. And, believe me, it wasn’t. It was custard! ’
With such table-talk and with pleasantries at the expense of the frowzled waitress, — Mr. Squem demanding chilled grape-fruit and other such delicacies, and making up for her perturbation with a dollar bill at the end, — the meal passed, and at two a car-tink arrived in a large automobile from the Dutch town. The distance to the invalid Ariel was soon covered, such of the population as could walk footing it in wake of the car — it was not every day that such things happened. The expert went over the roadster and said it could travel to the hospital on its own wheels, and a farmer’s team dragged it slowly, and with many a bump, back to the road.
Seven dollars was the fee for this service. ‘Dirt cheap,’ the farmer had assured Mr. Squem, who, in answer, remarked, ‘You got everything, every darned thing, but the bristles.’
Then the automobile man attached the roadster by chains to his own car and the start was made.
On the journey, pursued at something more than twenty miles an hour, but characterized by Mr. Squem as ‘Some toad funeral,’ Mr. Robinson did some thinking. He was still inwardly rocking from what had happened — the ‘close-up’ to death of the morning, and the weaving head of a rattlesnake, which insisted on getting into his field of view, had repeatedly made gooseflesh rise upon him through the day. He was much put out by the collapse of his philosophy before the situation. He remembered — and did not like to remember — a paper on ‘The Cultivation of Self-Sufficingness,’ which he had recently read before a group of cool and emancipated spirits like himself, its upshot and burden being that, to the soul stripped of superstitious fancies and firmly grasping life, the soul reposing upon itself and its strength, nothing could really happen. He had drawn freely upon Emerson and the Upanishads in the representation of this view, which had immensely regaled all the cool and balanced spirits on the premises — elect samples of the poised who had regarded it as a tribute to themselves.
And now — it made him sick — he had been shaken and beaten down and pulled about. He had lost balance, and been afraid — was still afraid! It was rough on the self-sufficingness theory, and especially rough on Eustace Robinson. And it had all been so different with this Mr. Squem, an entirely unreflective, not to say absurd, being, of at most twelve mental years, who had been not the least thrown off balance, not the least afraid; who, using the most primitive materials, seemed somehow to have fashioned a weather-proof cosmos — one that met test by acting and working like a cosmos, and not like a bad umbrella.
Of course one might be amused — Mr. Robinson had been considerably amused — by the naivete of the man and by the architecture of his shantytown cosmos.
‘The Good Man!’ thought the lawyer. ‘Ridiculous! The Good Man! and smiled. But the smile did not stay. Something told Mr. Robinson, suddenly jolting again toward death, suddenly seeing again something hideously weaving in his path, that Peter Squem was not ridiculous; that what was ridiculous was himself.
It may be that this nettled him.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said as they lurched along, ‘of what you said this morning about some things being up to the Good Man.’
Mr. Squem took a look at the Ariel trailing along behind. ‘Who the devil would they be up to?’ he asked.
‘That’s just it — just it. Who? That’s where the trouble comes in. Some of us think that it’s really that that’s behind the War.’
‘All you got to do,’ said Mr. Squem cheerfully, ‘is to use the brains God gave you, and not be a quitter. Speaking of the War — ’
‘Wait a minute. You know, of course, that there can’t be a fortymillion-mile-high giant — a big good man — running things down here. We can’t think that sort of thing — that sheer, childish anthropomorphism — any more.’
‘I know a nigger barber in Paoli,’ said Mr. Squem, ‘who’d give you five dollars — five anyway — for that word! What’s the reason you can’t think that? The underpinning is sure a man — or something like a man. Everybody says, “He,” don’t they?’
Mr. Robinson suddenly reflected that Mr. H. G. Wells was doing just this very thing.
‘Sure, it stands to reason,’ continued Mr. Squem; then, ‘Ease her up, George, here’s a bridge.’
‘Well, counting that out,’ said Mr. Robinson, ‘and letting the man part go, what is there to prove that He’s good? Look at the world! (a bright woman said to me not a week ago that a cow could have arranged a better universe than this); think of the horrible snake you killed this morning!’
’He’s up to the Good Man for fair,’ said Mr. Squem with something like pity in his voice. ‘Nobody else can take care of him.’
‘Do you know,’ queried Mr. Robinson, ‘that Flammarion, the astronomer, said, not long ago, that this is a world not much worth fighting for any way — ’
‘Quitter!’ interrupted Mr. Squem. ‘Look here, let’s get down to brass tacks. I’m not living in a world that has n’t got the best that’s in me behind it — see? If that is n’t so, everything’s bug-house! I’m not letting anything smaller ’n that get back of things and run the works, understand? I’ll ask some gent to kick me — and real hard
— when I do, though honest I ’d be too punk for anybody to kick. Things don’t look good? What does that flimflam man know about ’em? I know — come on the road a week with me, just one little week, and see. A quitter bets the boss is no good, — anybody can lay down and squeal, — I’m playing up — I’ve got to, to have any use for myself. Either the boss is all right or everything’s bug-house. And I’m no quitter, and no fooling with the works for me! Think that and you’re bug-house. I say He’s all right — no, the boss of these works is no bonehead and I put every cent of my pile on the Good Man.’
Then the perfectly tragic thing happened. A mite of a child — she could not have been more than three — darted through the gate of a yard they were passing and out into the road. She was a winsome thing, dainty and fairy like
— Titian’s Virgin of the Presentation grown small. Her hair streamed behind her, her white frock fluttered in the breeze she was making, as she chased a scrap of a kitten. The kitten frolicked toward the centre of the road, and the child, with eyes for nothing else, headed suddenly full on the car. There was no time, — no way, — only the gleam of a tiny white object in front, and then a quiver of the heavy machine.
In another moment three horrorstricken men leaped from their seats, and, a few feet behind, Peter Squem gathered in his arms a most lovely but no longer living thing.
‘Poor Lambie!’ he said, with his face torn into depths whose wonder the lawyer felt in the thick of the horror. ‘Poor Lambie!’
‘Some one must take her in there,’ said Robinson, pointing to the house behind the trees; ‘take her in and tell them. God knows I can’t — I can’t!’
‘I never could,’ said the driver shaking like an aspen; ‘I’ve got one her age. I’d die.’
Peter Squem bore the little burden through the gate and up the path. He did not knock at the door, but turned the knob and entered. A sweet-faced woman came down the hall.
‘I’ve got the baby,’ he said. ‘She ran into the car. I wish it had been me—but it was her. You’ve got to take on, and you’re going to ache to die — for a long, long time — just ache to die. But you want to remember,’— and the reeling mother, looking into his eyes, had the feel of arms beneath her in an overwhelming flood, — ‘you want to remember that it’s going to be all right somehow —all right someway. It’s up to the Good Man.’