The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
Bob arose rather early the following Sunday, snatched a hasty breakfast and departed. Baker had been in camp three days. All at once Bob had taken the young man in strong distaste. Baker amused him, commanded his admiration for undoubted executive ability and a force of character so dynamic as to be almost brutal. In a more social environment Bob would still have found him a mighty pleasant fellow, generous, open-hearted, and loyal to his personal friends. But just now his methods chafed on the sensitiveness of Bob's new unrest. Baker was worth probably a couple of million dollars, and controlled ten times that. He had now a fine house in Fremont, where he had chosen to live, a pretty wife, two attractive children and a wide circle of friends. Life was very good to him.
And yet, in the perversity and the clairvoyance of his mood, Bob thought to see in Baker's life something of that same emptiness of final achievement he faced in his own. This was absurd, but the feeling of it persisted. Thorne, with his miserable eighteen hundred a year, and his glowing enthusiasm and quick interest seemed to him more worth while. Why? It was absurd; but this feeling, too, persisted.
Bob was a healthy young fellow, a man of action rather than of introspection, but now the hereditary twist of his character drove him to attempt analysis. He arrived at nothing. Both Baker and Thorne seemed to stand on one ground--each was satisfied, neither felt that lack of the fulfilling content Bob was so keenly experiencing. But the streak of feminine divination Bob had inherited from his mother made him understand--or made him think to understand--that Baker's satisfaction was taken because he did not see, while Thorne was working with his eyes open and a full sense of values. This vague glimpse Bob gained only partially and at length. It rather opened to him new vistas of spiritual perplexity than offered to him any solution.
He paced rapidly down the length of the lake--whereon the battered but efficient towing launch lay idle for Sunday--to the Lake Meadow. This was, as usual, surrounded by hundreds of campers of all classes. Bob was known to all of them, of course; and he, in turn, had at least such a nodding acquaintance with them that he could recognize any accretions to their members. Near the lower end of the meadow, beneath a group of a dozen noble firs, he caught sight of newcomers, and so strolled down that way to see what they could be like.
He found pomp and circumstance. An enclosure had been roped off to exclude the stock grazing at large in the meadow. Three tents had been erected. They were made of a very light, shiny, expensive-looking material with fringes along the walls, flies overhead and stretched in front, sod cloths before the entrances. Three gaily painted wooden rocking chairs, an equally gaudy hammock, a table flanked with benches, a big cooking stove in the rear, canvas pockets hung from the trees--a dozen and one other conveniences and luxuries bespoke the occupants as well-to-do and determined to be comfortable. Two Japanese servants dressed all in white moved silently and mysteriously in the background, a final touch of incongruity in a rough country.
Before Bob had moved on, two men stepped into view from the interior of one of the tents. They paced slowly to the gaudy rocking chairs and sat down. In their progress they exhibited that peculiar, careless but conscious deliberation of gait affected everywhere by those accustomed to appearing in public. In their seating of themselves, their producing of cigars, their puffings thereon, was the same studied ignoring of observation; a manner which, it must be acknowledged, becomes second nature to those forced to its adoption. It was a certain blown impressiveness, a significance in the smallest movements, a self-importance, in short, too large for the affairs of any private citizen. It is to be seen in those who sit in high places, in clergy, actors off the boards, magistrates, and people behind shop windows demonstrating things to street crowds. Bob's first thought was of amusement that this elaborate unconsciousness of his lone presence should be worth while; his second a realization that his presence or the presence of any one else had nothing to do with it. He wondered, as we all wonder at times, whether these men acted any differently when alone and in utter privacy, whether they brushed their teeth and bathed with all the dignity of the public man.
The smaller, but evidently more important of these men, wore a complete camping costume. His hat was very wide and stiff of brim and had a woven band of horsehair; his neckerchief was very red and worn bib fashion in the way Bob had come to believe that no one ever wore a neckerchief save in Western plays and the illustrations of Western stories; his shirt was of thick blue flannel, thrown wide open at the throat; his belt was very wide and of carved leather; his breeches were of khaki, but bagged above and fitted close below the knee into the most marvellous laced boots, with leather flaps, belt lacings, and rows of hobnails with which to make tracks. Bob estimated these must weigh at least three pounds apiece. The man wore a little pointed beard and eyeglasses. About him Bob recognized a puzzling familiarity. He could not place it, however, but finally decided he must have carried over a recollection from a tailor's fashion plate of the Correct Thing for Camping.
The other man was taller, heavier, but not near so impressive. His form was awkward, his face homely, his ears stuck out like wings, and his expression was that of the always-appreciated buffoon.
Bob was about to pass on, when he noticed that he was not the only spectator of all this ease of manner. A dozen of the campers had gathered, and were staring across the ropes with quite frank and unabashed curiosity. More were coming from all directions. In a short time a crowd of several hundred had collected, and stood, evidently in expectation. Then, and only then, did the small man with the pointed beard seem to become aware of the presence of any one besides his companion. He leaned across to exchange a few words with the latter, after which he laid aside his hat, arose and advanced to the rope barrier on which he rested the tips of his fingers.
"My friends," he began in a nasal but penetrating voice, that carried without effort to every hearer. "I am not a regularly ordained minister of the gospel. I find, however, that there is none such among us, so I have gathered you here together this morning to hear a few words appropriate to the day. It has pleased Providence to call me to a public position wherein my person has become well known to you all; but that is an accident of the great profession to which I have been called, and I bow my heart in humility with the least and most lowly. I am going to tell you about myself this morning, not because I consider myself of importance, but because it seems to me from my case a great lesson may be drawn."
He paused to let his eye run over the concourse. Bob felt the gaze, impersonal, impassive, scrutinizing, cold, rest on him the barest appreciable flicker of a moment, and then pass on. He experienced a faint shock, as though his defences had been tapped against.
"My father," went on the nasal voice, "came to this country in the 'sixties. It was a new country in the hands of a lazy people. It needed development, so my father was happy felling the trees, damming the streams, building the roads, getting possession of the land. That was his job in life, and he did it well, because the country needed it. He didn't bother his head with why he was doing it; he just thought he was making money. As a matter of fact, he didn't make money; he died nearly bankrupt."
The orator bowed his head for a moment.
"I might have done the same thing. It's all legitimate business. But I couldn't. The country is being developed by its inhabitants: work of that kind couldn't satisfy me. Why, friends? Because now it would be selfish work. My father didn't know it, but the reason he was happy was because the work he was doing for himself was also work for other people. You can see that. He didn't know it, but he was helping develop the country. But it wouldn't have been quite so with me. The country is developed in that way. If I did that kind of work, I'd be working for myself and nobody else at all. That turns out all right for most people, because they don't see it: they do their duty as citizens and good business men and fathers and husbands, and that ends it. But I saw it. I felt I had to do a work that would support me in the world--but it must be a work that helped humanity too. That is why, friends, I am what I am. That a certain prominence is inevitable to my position is incidental rather than gratifying.
"So, I think, the lesson to be drawn is that each of us should make his life help humanity, should conduct his business in such a way as to help humanity. Then he'll be happy."
He stood for a moment, then turned away. The tall, ungainly man with the outstanding ears and the buffoon's face stepped forward and whispered eagerly in his ear. He listened gravely, but shook his head. The tall man whispered yet more vehemently, at great length. Finally the orator stepped back to his place.
"We are here for a complete rest after exhausting labours," he stated. "We have looked forward for months to undisturbed repose amongst these giant pines. No thought of care was to intrude. But my colleague's great and tender heart has smitten him, and, I am ashamed to say against my first inclination, he urges me to a course which I'd have liked to avoid; but which, when he shows me the way, I realize is the only decent thing. We find ourselves in the midst of a community of some hundreds of people. It may be some of these people are suffering, far from medical or surgical help. If there are any such, and the case is really pressing, you understand, we will be willing, just for common humanity, to do our best to relieve them. And friends," the speaker stepped forward until his body touched the rope, and he was leaning confidentially forth, "it would be poor humanity that would cause you pain or give you inferior treatments. I am happy to say we came to this great virgin wilderness direct with our baggage from White Oaks where we had been giving a two weeks' course of treatments--mainly charitable. We have our instruments and our medicines with us in their packin' cases. If need arises--which I trust it will not--we will not hesitate to go to any trouble for you. It is against our principles to give anything but our best. You will suffer no pain. But it must be understood," he warned impressively. "This is just for you, our neighbours! We don't want this news spread to the lumber camps and over the countryside. We are here for a rest. But we cannot be true to our high calling and neglect the relieving of pain."
The man bowed slightly, and rejoined his companion to whom he conversed low-voiced with absolute unconsciousness of the audience he had just been addressing so intimately. The latter hesitated, then slowly dispersed. Bob stood, his brows knit, trying to recall. There was something hauntingly familiar about the whole performance. Especially a strange nasal emphasis on the word "pain" struck sharply a chord in his recollection. He looked up in sudden enlightenment.
"Painless Porter!" he cried aloud.
The man looked up at the mention of his name.
"That's my name," said he. "What can I do for you?"
"I just remembered where I'd seen you," explained Bob.
"I'm fairly well known."
Bob approached eagerly. The discourse, hollow, insincere, half-blasphemous, a buncombe bit of advertising as it was, nevertheless contained the germ of an essential truth for which Bob had been searching. He wanted to know how, through what experience, the man had come to this insight.
But his attempts at conversation met with a cold reception. Painless Porter was too old a bird ever to lower his guard. He met the youth on the high plane of professionalism, refused to utter other than the platitudinous counters demanded by the occasion. He held the young man at spear's length, and showed plainly by the ominous glitter of his eye that he did not intend to be trifled with.
Then Baker's jolly voice broke in.
"Well! well! well!" he cried. "If here aren't my old friends, Painless Porter and the Wiz! Simple life for yours, eh? Back to beans! What's the general outline of this graft?"
"We have come camping for a complete rest," stated Waller gravely, his comical face cast in lines of reprobation and warning.
"Whatever it is, you'll get it," jibed Baker. "But I'll bet you a toothpick it isn't a rest. What's exhausted you fellows, anyway? Counting the easy money?"
"Our professional labours have been very heavy lately," spoke up the painless one.
"What's biting you fellows?" demanded Baker. "There's nobody here."
Waller indicated Bob by a barely perceptible jerk of the head. Baker threw back his head and laughed.
"Thought you knew him," said he. "You were all having such a love feast gab-fest when I blew in. This is Mr. Orde, who bosses this place--and most of the country around here. If you want to do good to humanity on this meadow you'd better begin by being good to him. He controls it. He's humanity with a capital H."
Ten minutes later the four men, cigars alight, a bottle within reach, were sprawling about the interior of one of the larger tents. Bob was enjoying himself hugely. It was the first time he had ever been behind the scenes at this sort of game.
"But that was a good talk, just the same," he interrupted a cynical bit of bragging.
"Say, wasn't it!" cried Porter. "I got that out of a shoutin' evangelist. The minute I heard it I saw where it was hot stuff for my spiel. I'm that way: I got that kind of good eye. I'll be going along the street and some little thing'll happen that won't amount to nothin' at all really. Another man wouldn't think twice about it. But like a flash it comes to me how it would fit in to a spiel. It's like an artist that way finding things to put in a picture. You'd never spot a dago apple peddler as good for nothing but to work a little graft on mebbe; but an artist comes along and slaps him in a picture and he's the fanciest-looking dope in the art collection. That's me. I got some of my best spiels from the funniest places! That one this morning is a wonder, because it don't listen like a spiel. I followed that evangelist yap around for a week getting his dope down fine. You got to get the language just right on these things, or they don't carry over."
"Which one is it, Painful?" asked Baker.
"You know; the make-your-work-a-good-to-humanity bluff."
"And all about papa in the 'sixties?"
"'And just don't you dare tell the neighbours?'"
"The whole mountains will know all about it by to-morrow," Baker told Bob, "and they'll flock up here in droves. It's easy money."
"Half these country yaps have bum teeth, anyway," said Porter.
"And the rest of them think they're sick," stated Wizard Waller.
"It beats a free show for results and expense," said Painless Porter. "All you got to have is the tents and the Japs and the Willie-off-the-yacht togs." He sighed. "There ought to be some advantages," he concluded, "to drag a man so far from the street lights."
"Then this isn't much of a pleasure trip?" asked Bob with some amusement.
"Pleasure, hell!" snorted Painless, helping himself to a drink. "Say, honest, how do you fellows that have business up here stick it out? It gives me the willies!"
One of the Japanese peered into the tent and made a sign.
Painless Porter dropped his voice.
"A dope already," said he. He put on his air, and went out. As Bob and Baker crossed the enclosed space, they saw him in conversation with a gawky farm lad from the plains.
"I shore do hate to trouble you, doctor," the boy was saying, "and hit Sunday, too. But I got a tooth back here--"
Painless Porter was listening with an air of the deepest and gravest attention.