The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XX. The People's America
At his evening meetings on the street, Jake Vodell with stirring oratory kindled the fire of his cause. In the councils of the unions, through individuals and groups, with clever arguments and inflaming literature, he sought recruits. With stinging sarcasm and withering scorn he taunted the laboring people--told them they were fools and cowards to submit to the degrading slavery of their capitalist owners. With biting invective and blistering epithet he pictured their employer enemies as the brutal and ruthless destroyers of their homes. With thrilling eloquence he fanned the flames of class hatred, inspired the loyalty of his followers to himself and held out to them golden promises of reward if they would prove themselves men and take that which belonged to them.
But the Mill workers' union, as an organization, was steadfast in its refusal to be dominated by this agitator who was so clearly antagonistic to every principle of American citizenship. Jake Vodell could neither lead nor drive them into a strike that was so evidently called in the interests of his cause. And more and more the agitator was compelled to recognize the powerful influence of the Interpreter. It was not long before he went to the hut on the cliff with a positive demand for the old basket maker's open support.
"I do not know why it is," he said, "that a poor old cripple like you should have such power among men, but I know it is so. You shall tell this Captain Charlie and his crowd of fools that they must help me to win for the laboring people their freedom. You shall, for me, enlist these Mill men in the cause."
The Interpreter asked, gravely, "And when you have accomplished this that you call freedom--when you have gained this equality that you talk about--how will your brotherhood be governed?"
Jake Vodell scowled as he gazed at the man in the wheel chair with quick suspicion. "Governed?"
"Yes," returned the Interpreter. "Without organization of some sort nothing can be done. No industries can be carried on without the concerted effort which is organization. Without the industry that is necessary to human life the free people you picture cannot exist. Without government--which means law and the enforcement of law--organization of any kind is impossible."
"There will have to be organization, certainly," answered Vodell.
"Then, there will be leaders, directors, managers with authority to whom the people must surrender themselves as individuals," said the Interpreter, quietly. "An organization without leadership is impossible."
The agitator's voice was triumphant, as he said, "Certainly there will be leaders. And their authority will be unquestioned. And these leaders will be those who have led the people out of the miserable bondage of their present condition."
The Interpreter's voice had a new note in it now, as he said, "In other words, sir, what you propose is simply to substitute yourself for McIver. You propose to the people that they overthrow their present leaders in the industries of their nation in order that you and your fellow agitators may become their masters. You demand that the citizens of America abolish their national government and in its place accept you and your fellows as their rulers? What assurance can you give the people, sir, that under your rule they will have more freedom for self-government, more opportunities for self-advancement and prosperity and happiness than they have at present?"
"Assurance?" muttered the other, startled by the Interpreter's manner.
The old basket maker continued, "Are you and your self-constituted leaders of the American working people, gods? Are you not as human as any McIver or Adam Ward of the very class you condemn? Would you not be subject to the same temptations of power--the same human passions? Would you not, given the same opportunity, be all that you say they are--or worse?"
Jake Vodell's countenance was black with rage. He started to rise, but a movement of Billy Rand made him hesitate. His voice was harsh with menacing passion. "And you call yourself a friend of the laboring class?"
"It is because I am a friend of my fellow American citizens that I ask you what freedom your brotherhood can insure to us that we have not now," the Interpreter answered, solemnly. "Look there, sir." He swept, in a gesture, the scene that lay within view of his balcony porch. "That is America--my America--the America of the people. From the wretched hovels of the incompetent and unfortunate Sam Whaleys in the Flats down there to Adam Ward's castle on the hill yonder, it is our America. From the happy little home of that sterling workman, Peter Martin, to the homes of the business workers on the hillside over there, it is ours. From the business district to the beautiful farms across the river, it belongs to us all. And the Mill there-- representing as it does the industries of our nation and standing for the very life of our people--is our Mill. The troubles that disturb us--the problems of injustice--the wrongs of selfishness that arise through such employers as McIver and such employees as Sam Whaley, are our troubles, and we will settle our own difficulties in our own way as loyal American citizens."
The self-appointed apostle of the new freedom had by this time regained his self-control. His only answer to the Interpreter was a shrug of his thick shoulders and a flash of white teeth in his black beard.
The old basket maker with his eyes still on the scene that lay before them continued. "Because I love my countrymen, sir, I protest the destructive teachings of your brotherhood. Your ambitious schemes would plunge my country into a bloody revolution the horrors of which defy the imagination. America will find a better way. The loyal American citizens who labor in our industries and the equally loyal American operators of these industries will never consent to the ruthless murder by hundreds and thousands of our best brains and our best manhood in support of your visionary theories. My countrymen will never permit the unholy slaughter of innocent women and children, that would result from your efforts to overthrow our government and establish a wholly impossible Utopia upon the basis of an equality that is contrary to every law of life. You preach freedom to the working people in order to rob them of the freedom they already have. With visions of impossible wealth and luxurious idleness you blind them to the greater happiness that is within reach of their industry. In the name of an equality, the possibility of which your own assumed leadership denies, you incite a class hatred and breed an intolerance and envy that destroy the good feeling of comradeship and break down the noble spirit of that actual equality which we already have and which is our only salvation."
"Equality!" sneered Jake Vodell. "You have a fine equality in this America of capitalist-ridden fools who are too cowardly to say that their souls are their own. It is the equality of Adam Ward and Sam Whaley, I suppose."
"Sam Whaley is a product of your teaching, sir," the Interpreter answered. "The equality of which I speak is that of Adam Ward and Peter Martin as it is evidenced in the building up of the Mill. It is the equality that is in the comradeship of their sons, John and Charlie, who will protect and carry on the work of their fathers. It is the equality of a common citizenship--of mutual dependence of employer and employee upon the industries, that alone can save our people from want and starvation and guard our nation from the horrors you would bring upon it."
The man laughed. "Suppose you sing that pretty song to McIver, heh? What do you think he would say?"
"He would laugh, as you are laughing," returned the Interpreter, sadly.
"Tell it to Adam Ward then," jeered the other. "He will recognize his equality with Peter Martin when you explain it, heh?"
"Adam Ward is already paying a terrible price for denying it," the Interpreter answered.
Again Jake Vodell laughed with sneering triumph. "Well, then I guess you will have to preach your equality to the deaf and dumb man there. Maybe you can make him understand it. The old basket maker without any legs and the big husky who can neither hear nor talk--they are equals, I suppose, heh?"
"Billy Rand and I perfectly illustrate the equality of dependence, sir," returned the Interpreter. "Billy is as much my superior physically as I am his superior mentally. Without my thinking and planning he would be as helpless as I would be without his good bodily strength. We are each equally dependent upon the other, and from that mutual dependence comes our comradeship in the industry which alone secures for us the necessities of life. I could not make baskets without Billy's labor--Billy could not make baskets without my planning and directing. And yet, sir, you and McIver would set us to fighting each other. You would have Billy deny his dependence upon me and use his strength to destroy me, thus depriving himself of the help he must have if he would live. McIver would have me deny my dependence upon Billy and by antagonizing him with my assumed superiority turn his strength to the destruction of our comradeship by which I also live. Your teaching of class loyalty and class hatred applied to Billy and me would result in the ruin of our basket making and in our consequent starvation."
Again the Interpreter, from his wheel chair, pointed with outstretched arm to the scene that lay with all its varied grades of life--social levels and individual interests--before them. "Look," he said, "to the inequality that is there--inequalities that are as great as the difference between Billy Rand and myself. And yet, every individual life is dependent upon all the other individual lives. The Mill yonder is the basket making of the people. All alike must look to it for life itself. The industries, without which the people cannot exist, can be carried on only by the comradeship of those who labor with their hands and those who work with their brains. In the common dependence all are equal.
"The only equality that your leadership, with its progress of destruction, can insure to American employers and employees is an equality of indescribable suffering and death."
The old basket maker paused a moment before he added, solemnly, "I wonder that you dare assume the responsibility for such a catastrophe. Have you no God, sir, to whom you must eventually account?"
The man's teeth gleamed in a grin of malicious sarcasm. "I should know that you believed in God. Bah! An old woman myth to scare fools and children. I suppose you believe in miracles also?"
"I believe in the miracle of life," the Interpreter answered; "and in the great laws of life--the law of inequality and dependence, that in its operation insures the oneness of all things."
The agitator rose to his feet, and with a shrug of contempt, said, "Very pretty, Mr. Interpreter, very pretty. You watch now from your hut here and you shall see what men who are not crippled old basket makers will do with that little bit of your America out there. It is I who will teach Peter Martin and his comrades in the Mill how to deal with your friend Adam Ward and his class."
"You are too late, sir," said the Interpreter, as the man moved toward the door.
Jake Vodell turned. "How, too late?" Then as he saw Billy Rand rising to his feet, his hand went quickly inside his vest.
The old basket maker smiled as he once more held out a restraining hand toward his companion. "I do not mean anything like that, sir. I told you some time ago that you were defeated in your Millsburgh campaign by Adam Ward's retirement from the Mill. You are too late because you are forced now to deal, not with Adam Ward and Peter Martin, but with their sons."
"Oh, ho! and what you should say also, is that I am really forced to deal with an old basket maker who has no legs, heh? Well, we shall see about that, too, Mr. Interpreter, when the time comes--we shall see."