Only Bill and Me Does It

We had earned a long vacation. It had been a hard year; for conscience, keen to help in reconstruction after the war, devised burdens and prolonged hours. Results were disappointing. Body and mind cried for a rest; and, indeed, forethought in the winter had warned us to save, and to make the most of a month in summer.

Where should we go? Long before the turf on the terraces of my acre invited the lawn-mower, we contemplated maps of the Atlantic coast. The middle zone was best for sea-bathing, and we discovered a small hotel, with its own beach, remote from undesirables as well as from fashion. Yes, we could spend a month there, and I could relieve the possible tedium of a hotel by sailing and fishing. An old clientele, safe, sane, and highly respectable, assured the right companionship for the little one. So that was settled.

All but engaging the rooms. We were idling about the fringe of the garden, enjoying the sunset, when my eye caught sight of a dark pool of water. Where could it come from? The discovery led me to philosophize about the uncertainty of living in a village miles from the city, and in a house built in the second year of the Civil War. With no sewer, the ancient receptacle, forgotten under its stone slab, had filled up and demanded attention. I knew the villagers like a book. There was none prepared, mechanically, or even intellectually, for meeting this imperious need. It was not a subject that I could present for neighborly assistance. I was enmeshed in a set of those conditions in which the victim must mysteriously fly to the unknown, and consult pundits outside the pale of business or profession.

In the city my plumber raised his eyebrows: had he been a continental European, he would have shrugged his shoulders. If one will live in the country, he must take his medicine. No, no one did that sort of work now. A battered loafer in the office-chair was not so certain : Mike Hamblin might do it.

Where did Mike live? Plumber and loafer exchanged glances. ‘You might find him at Cobb’s Livery Stable.’

The livery stable was far from the centre of things, across unpaved streets and down malodorous alleys. A surly man, with nothing to do, sat stolidly through my appeal. But Mike’s brother, happening in, promised to take the word.

Next morning Mike and a man appeared. They both looked tired, and inspected conditions without interest. They then withdrew to the shade, and sat down. They talked in a low tone. Finally, after losing patience, I went over and asked their decision. They would do the job, and named their ‘price.’ I had heard that my old professor had been getting a hundred dollars a day for his technical skill, but here was skill, which I felt to be highly technical, asking twice that sum. Even granting that Mike and his partner had a special training compared with which my accomplishments as a philosopher seemed feeble, and in this impasse, irrational, I could not be a party to profiteering, and I split the sum in two. Again the men sought the shade, and debated.

They accepted my terms. Later in the day, when we were expecting guests, they returned. A wagon had been lengthened to accommodate twelve whiskey barrels. This they drove across the tender turf, and began their labors. People were coming and going, and a child’s birthday party was being danced and played through on the lawn; but the two strange men and their barrels were not to escape unnoticed. The wagon had looked suspiciously aged to me, and when they stopped, before a rise in the driveway, I saw that the hub of one wheel was out of plane with the rim. The men whipped up the horses, the wheel dished, spokes fell out, and the wagon-bed, with its freight, settled to the ground. Emotion in those men found outlet commonly in profanity. But with little girls about, — the collapse had put a stop to a dance, — even these night-prowlers could not swear. I believe, slightly less hardened, they could have cried with vexation and anger.

Mike stood looking at the spokeless hub. ‘I kind of hate to leave all this here over Sunday,’ he finally said.

I agreed that dispatch was desirable. He looked round at the wondering children, and unhitched the horses. Later in the day he returned with two wagons. Long after dark, so tired that he could hardly get into his buggy, he settled himself for the long drive home.

‘Only Bill and me does it, ’n’ it’s hard work. We hed to bury a horse las’ night — called up at one o’clock — fourteen miles down in the country — hard work.’ He folded the check mechanically, and drove off.

He took away two weeks of our seashore. Yet I felt a kind of revelation no resort could have inspired. I had plumbed the depths of one kind of human labor. Physical exhaustion, such as I had known nothing about, had completed that service; mental revulsion, such as I could not contemplate, must have accompanied that labor. What compensation could the man have, other than money? ‘Only Bill and me does it ’! What can money possibly bring to men so set apart from the normal life and labor of a community? I knew that I could not evade this question at the seashore. I knew that, while gazing at the surf, laced with the moon’s rays, and conscious of other lights and music within the hotel, I would still feel the intensity of this impression. ‘Only Bill and me does it.’

Necessary, exhausting, hateful, or even disagreeable labor — I cannot begrudge them what little comfort the workers of the world may find in a sense of solidarity in misery, or distress, or fatigue such as we who write or read these lines know nothing about. It was no anarchist, no pre-Bolshevist, who raised the toast, ‘ Die Sacheder Armen! ’ Rather, a great-hearted man, who had lived so close to the elemental forces of society as to know that money is an ironical token for some kinds of labor, and no release from poverty of soul.

In the social degradation, in the physical exhaustion, in the hopeless abasement of his solitary labors, the man who cleaned my cesspool did more than render a service and go off with my dollars. In modes of thought unfit for leisure by a summer sea, he made me think of all penalties exacted and bargains made respectable by business. If I regard the man and his labors symbolically, I am sentimental only as the case has rural limitations. Labor so repulsive or exhausting that fewer and fewer people care to do it may one day cease to be; or it will be done on the laborer’s terms; or — by a reversion stimulating to the imagination — by society itself. Certainly, for many women, the last condition is actually upon us. Already independence of a laboring class has brought rewards. Intelligence, and an unemotional objectivity such as only education — breeding perhaps — can give, transform repellent labor to a kind of art. The kitchen becomes laboratory and studio.

For men, the work of the world offers new adventure and challenge. Among my books, studious of the records of the past, I envy a colleague whose vacation is devoted to moving freight under a broiling sun in the railway yards. And I do not think of the seashore with regret.