The Second Generation by David Graham Phillips
Chapter XX. Lorry's Romance
When Charles Whitney heard Arthur was about to be married, he offered him a place on the office staff of the Ranger-Whitney Company at fifteen hundred a year. "It is less than you deserve on your record," he wrote, "but there is no vacancy just now, and you shall go up rapidly. I take this opportunity to say that I regard your father's will as the finest act of the finest man I ever knew, and that your conduct, since he left us, is a vindication of his wisdom. America has gone stark mad on the subject of money. The day is not far distant when it has got to decide whether property shall rule work or work shall rule property. Your father was a courageous pioneer. All right-thinking men honor him."
This, a fortnight after his return from Europe, from marrying Janet to Aristide, Viscount Brunais. He had yielded to his secret snobbishness--Matilda thought it was her diplomacy--and had given Janet a dowry so extravagant that when old Saint Berthe heard the figures, he took advantage of the fact that only the family lawyer was present to permit a gleam of nature to show through his mask of elegant indifference to the "coarse side of life." Whitney had the American good sense to despise his wife, his daughter, and himself for the transaction. For years furious had been his protestations to his family, to his acquaintances, and to himself against "society," and especially against the incursions of that "worm-eaten titled crowd from the other side." So often had he repeated those protests that certain phrases had become fixedly part of his conversation, to make the most noise when he was violently agitated, as do the dead leaves of a long-withered but still firmly attached bough. Thus he was regarded in Chicago as an American of the old type; but being human, his strength had not been strong enough to resist the taint in the atmosphere he had breathed ever since he began to be very rich and to keep the company of the pretentious. His originally sound constitution had been gradually undermined, just as "doing like everybody else"--that is, everybody in his set of pirates disguised under merchant flag and with a few deceptive bales of goods piled on deck--had undermined his originally sound business honor.
Arthur answered, thanking him for the offered position, but declining it. "What you say about my work," he wrote, "encourages me to ask a favor. I wish to be transferred from one mechanical department to another until I have made the round. Then, perhaps, I may venture to ask you to renew your offer."
Whitney showed this to Ross. "Now, there's the sort of son I'd be proud of!" he exclaimed.
Ross lifted his eyebrows. "Really!" said he. "Why?"
"Because he's a man," retorted his father, with obvious intent of satirical contrast. "Because within a year or two he'll know the business from end to end--as his father did--as I do."
"And what good will that do him?" inquired Ross, with fine irony. "You know it isn't in the manufacturing end that the money's made nowadays. We can hire hundreds of good men to manufacture for us. I should say he'd be wiser were he trying to get a practical education."
"Precisely. Studying how to stab competitors in the back and establish monopoly. As a manager, he may some day rise to ten or fifteen thousand a year--unless managers' salaries go down, as it's likely they will. As a financier, he might rise to--to our class."
Whitney grunted, the frown of his brows and the smile on his sardonic mouth contradicting each other. He could not but be pleased by the shrewdness of his son's criticism of his own half-sincere, half-hypocritical tribute to virtues that were on the wane; but at the same time he did not like such frank expression of cynical truth from a son of his. Also, he at the bottom still had some of the squeamishness that was born into him and trained into him in early youth; he did not like to be forced squarely to face the fact that real business had been relegated to the less able or less honest, while the big rewards of riches and respect were for the sly and stealthy. Enforcing what Ross had said, there came into his mind the reflection that he himself had just bribed through the Legislature, for a comparatively trifling sum, a law that would swell his fortune and income within the next five years more than would a lifetime of devotion to business.
He would have been irritated far more deeply had he known that Arthur was as well aware of the change from the old order as was Ross, and that deliberately and on principle he was refusing to adapt himself to the new order, the new conditions of "success." When Arthur's manliness first asserted itself, there was perhaps as much of vanity as of pride in his acceptance of the consequences of Hiram's will. But to an intelligent man any environment, except one of inaction or futile action, soon becomes interesting; the coming of Madelene was all that was needed to raise his interest to enthusiasm. He soon understood his fellow-workers as few of them understood themselves. Every human group, of whatever size or kind, is apt to think its characteristics peculiar to itself, when in fact they are as universal as human nature, and the modifications due to the group's environment are insignificant matters of mere surface. Nationality, trade, class no more affect the oneness of mankind than do the ocean's surface variations of color or weather affect its unchangeable chemistry. Waugh, who had risen from the ranks, Howells, who had begun as shipping clerk, despised those above whom they had risen, regarded as the peculiar weaknesses of the working classes such universal failings as prejudice, short-sightedness, and shirking. They lost no opportunity to show their lack of sympathy with the class from which they had sprung and to which they still belonged in reality, their devotion to the class plutocratic to which they aspired. Arthur, in losing the narrowness of the class from which he had been ejected, lost all class narrowness. The graduates from the top have the best chance to graduate into the wide, wide world of human brotherhood. By an artificial process--by compulsion, vanity, reason, love--he became what Madelene was by nature. She was one of those rare human beings born with a just and clear sense of proportion. It was thus impossible for her to exaggerate into importance the trivial differences of mental stature. She saw that they were no greater than the differences of men's physical stature, if men be compared with mountains or any other just measure of the vast scale on which the universe is constructed. And so it came naturally to her to appreciate that the vital differences among men are matters of character and usefulness, just as among things they are matters of beauty and use.
Arthur's close friend was now Laurent Tague, a young cooper--huge, deep-chested, tawny, slow of body and swift of mind. They had been friends as boys at school. When Arthur came home from Exeter from his first long vacation, their friendship had been renewed after a fashion, then had ended abruptly in a quarrel and a pitched battle, from which neither had emerged victor, both leaving the battle ground exhausted and anguished by a humiliating sense of defeat. From that time Laurent had been a "damned mucker" to Arthur, Arthur a "stuck-up smart Alec" to Laurent. The renewal of the friendship dated from the accident to Arthur's hand; it rapidly developed as he lost the sense of patronizing Laurent, and as Laurent for his part lost the suspicion that Arthur was secretly patronizing him. Then Arthur discovered that Lorry had, several years before, sent for a catalogue of the University of Michigan, had selected a course leading to the B.S. degree, had bought the necessary text-books, had studied as men work only at that which they love for its own sake and not for any advantage to be got from it. His father, a captain of volunteers in the Civil War, was killed in the Wilderness; his mother was a washerwoman. His father's father--Jean Montague, the first blacksmith of Saint X--had shortened the family name. In those early, nakedly practical days, long names and difficult names, such as naturally develop among peoples of leisure, were ruthlessly taken to the chopping block by a people among whom a man's name was nothing in itself, was simply a convenience for designating him. Everybody called Jean Montague "Jim Tague," and pronounced the Tague in one syllable; when he finally acquiesced in the sensible, popular decision, from which he could not well appeal, his very children were unaware that they were Montagues.
Arthur told Lorry of his engagement to Madelene an hour after he told his mother--he and Lorry were heading a barrel as they talked. This supreme proof of friendship moved Laurent to give proof of appreciation. That evening he and Arthur took a walk to the top of Reservoir Hill, to see the sun set and the moon rise. It was under the softening and expanding influence of the big, yellow moon upon the hills and valleys and ghostly river that Laurent told his secret--a secret that in the mere telling, and still more in itself, was to have a profound influence upon the persons of this narrative.
"When I was at school," he began, "you may remember I used to carry the washing to and fro for mother."
"Yes," said Arthur. He remembered how he liked to slip away from home and help Lorry with the big baskets.
"Well, one of the places I used to go to was old Preston Wilmot's; they had a little money left in those days and used to hire mother now and then."
"So the Wilmots owe her, too," said Arthur, with a laugh. The universal indebtedness of the most aristocratic family in Saint X was the town joke.
Lorry smiled. "Yes, but she don't know it," he replied. "I used to do all her collecting for her. When the Wilmots quit paying, I paid for 'em--out of money I made at odd jobs. I paid for 'em for over two years. Then, one evening--Estelle Wilmot"--Lorry paused before this name, lingered on it, paused after it--"said to me--she waylaid me at the back gate--I always had to go in and out by the alley way--no wash by the front gate for them! Anyhow, she stopped me and said--all red and nervous--'You mustn't come for the wash any more.'
"'Why not?' says I. 'Is the family complaining?'
"'No,' says she, 'but we owe you for two years.'
"'What makes you think that?' said I, astonished and pretty badly scared for the minute.
"'I've kept account,' she said. And she was fiery red. 'I keep a list of all we owe, so as to have it when we're able to pay.'"
"What a woman she is!" exclaimed Arthur. "I suppose she's putting by out of the profits of that little millinery store of hers to pay off the family debts. I hear she's doing well."
"A smashing business," replied Lorry, in a tone that made Arthur glance quickly at him. "But, as I was saying, I being a young fool and frightened out of my wits, said to her: 'You don't owe mother a cent, Miss Estelle. It's all been settled--except a few weeks lately. I'm collectin', and I ought to know.'
"I ain't much of a hand at lying, and she saw straight through me. I guess what was going on in her head helped her, for she looked as if she was about to faint. 'It's mighty little for me to do, to get to see you,' I went on. 'It's my only chance. Your people would never let me in at the front gate. And seeing you is the only thing I care about.' Then I set down the washbasket and, being desperate, took courage and looked straight at her. 'And,' said I, 'I've noticed that for the last year you always make a point of being on hand to give me the wash.'"
Somehow a lump came in Arthur's throat just then. He gave his Hercules-like friend a tremendous clap on the knee. "Good for you, Lorry!" he cried. "That was the talk!"
"It was," replied Lorry. "Well, she got red again, where she had been white as a dogwood blossom, and she hung her head. 'You don't deny it, do you?' said I. She didn't make any answer. 'It wasn't altogether to ask me how I was getting on with my college course, was it, Miss Estelle?' And she said 'No' so low that I had to guess at it."
Lorry suspended his story. He and Arthur sat looking at the moon. Finally Arthur asked, rather huskily, "Is that the end, Lorry?"
Lorry's keen, indolent face lit up with an absent and tender smile. "That was the end of the beginning," replied he.
Arthur thrilled and resisted a feminine instinct to put his arm round his friend. "I don't know which of you is the luckier," he said.
Lorry laughed. "You're always envying me my good disposition," he went on. "Now, I've given away the secret of it. Who isn't happy when he's got what he wants--heaven without the bother of dying first? I drop into her store two evenings a week to see her. I can't stay long or people would talk. Then I see her now and again--other places. We have to be careful--mighty careful."
"You must have been," said Arthur. "I never heard a hint of this; and if anyone suspected, the whole town would be talking."
"I guess the fact that she's a Wilmot has helped us. Who'd ever suspect a Wilmot of such a thing?"
"Why not?" said Arthur. "She couldn't do better."
Lorry looked amused. "What'd you have said a few months ago, Ranger?"
"But my father was a workingman."
"That was a long time ago," Lorry reminded him. "That was when America used to be American. Anyhow, she and I don't care, except about the mother. You know the old lady isn't strong, especially the last year or so. It wouldn't exactly improve her health to know there was anything between her daughter and a washerwoman's son, a plain workingman at that. We--Estelle and I--don't want to be responsible for any harm to her. So--we're waiting."
"But there's the old gentleman, and Arden--and Verbena!"
Lorry's cheerfulness was not ruffled by this marshaling of the full and formidable Wilmot array. "It'd be a pleasure to Estelle to give them a shock, especially Verbena. Did you ever see Verbena's hands?"
"I don't think so," replied Arthur; "but, of course, I've heard of them."
"Did you know she wouldn't even take hold of a knob to open a door, for fear of stretching them?"
"She is a lady, sure."
"Well, Estelle's not, thank God!" exclaimed Lorry. "She says one of her grandmothers was the daughter of a fellow who kept a kind of pawn shop, and that she's a case of atavism."
"But, Lorry," said Arthur, letting his train of thought come to the surface, "this ought to rouse your ambition. You could get anywhere you liked. To win her, I should think you'd exert yourself at the factory as you did at home when you were going through Ann Arbor."
"To win her--perhaps I would," replied Lorry. "But, you see, I've won her. I'm satisfied with my position. I make enough for us two to live on as well as any sensible person'd care to live. I've got four thousand dollars put by, and I'm insured for ten thousand, and mother's got twelve thousand at interest that she saved out of the washing. I like to live. They made me assistant foreman once, but I was no good at it. I couldn't 'speed' the men. It seemed to me they got a small enough part of what they earned, no matter how little they worked. Did you ever think, it takes one of us only about a day to make enough barrels to pay his week's wages, and that he has to donate the other five days' work for the privilege of being allowed to live? If I rose I'd be living off those five days of stolen labor. Somehow I don't fancy doing it. So I do my ten hours a day, and have evenings and Sundays for the things I like."
"Doesn't Estelle try to spur you on?"
"She used to, but she soon came round to my point of view. She saw what I meant, and she hasn't, any more than I, the fancy for stealing time from being somebody, to use it in making fools think and say you're somebody, when you ain't."
"It'd be a queer world if everybody were like you."
"It'd be a queer world if everybody were like any particular person," retorted Lorry.
Arthur's mind continually returned to this story, to revolve it, to find some new suggestion as to what was stupid or savage or silly in the present social system, as to what would be the social system of to-morrow, which is to to-day's as to-day's is to yesterday's; for Lorry and Dr. Schulze and Madelene and his own awakened mind had lifted him out of the silly current notion that mankind is never going to grow any more, but will wear its present suit of social clothes forever, will always creep and totter and lisp, will never learn to walk and to talk. He was in the habit of passing Estelle's shop twice each day--early in the morning, when she was opening, again when the day's business was over; and he had often fancied he could see in her evening expression how the tide of trade had gone. Now, he thought he could tell whether it was to be one of Lorry's evenings or not. He understood why she had so eagerly taken up Henrietta Hastings's suggestion, made probably with no idea that anything would come of it--Henrietta was full of schemes, evolved not for action, but simply to pass the time and to cause talk in the town. Estelle's shop became to him vastly different from a mere place for buying and selling; and presently he was looking on the other side, the human side, of all the shops and businesses and material activities, great and small. Just as a knowledge of botany makes every step taken in the country an advance through thronging miracles, so his new knowledge was transforming surroundings he had thought commonplace into a garden of wonders. "How poor and tedious the life I marked out for myself at college was," he was presently thinking, "in comparison with this life of realities!" He saw that Lorry, instead of being without ambitions, was inspired by the highest ambitions. "A good son, a good lover, a good workman," thought Arthur. "What more can a man be, or aspire to be?" Before his mind's eyes there was, clear as light, vivid as life, the master workman--his father. And for the first time Arthur welcomed that vision, felt that he could look into Hiram's grave, kind eyes without flinching and without the slightest inward reservation of blame or reproach.
It was some time before the bearing of the case of Lorry and Estelle upon the case of Arthur and Madelene occurred to him. Once he saw this he could think of nothing else. He got Lorry's permission to tell Madelene; and when she had the whole story he said, "You see its message to us?"
And Madelene's softly shining eyes showed that she did, even before her lips had the chance to say, "We certainly have no respectable excuse for waiting."
"As soon as mother gets the office done," suggested Arthur.
* * * * *
On the morning after the wedding, at a quarter before seven, Arthur and Madelene came down the drive together to the new little house by the gate. And very handsome and well matched they seemed as they stood before her office and gazed at the sign: "Madelene Ranger, M.D." She unlocked and opened the door; he followed her in. When, a moment later, he reappeared and went swinging down the street to his work, his expression would have made you like him--and envy him. And at the window watching him was Madelene. There were tears in her fine eyes, and her bosom was heaving in a storm of emotion. She was saying, "It almost seems wicked to feel as happy as I do."