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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter5,part3)

2006-08-28 23:26

    PART 3

    The spirit of commercialism that dominated America during the nineties and the first years of the new century never got hold of Jeff. The air and the light of his land were often the creation of a poet's dream. The delight of life stabbed him, so, too, did its tragedy. Not anchored to conventions, his mind was forever asking questions, seeking answers.

    He would come out from a theater into a night that was a flood of illumination. Electric signs poured a glare of light over the streets. Motor cars and electrics whirled up to take away beautifully gowned women and correctly dressed men. The windows of the department stores were filled with imported luxuries. And he would sometimes wonder how much of misery and trouble was being driven back by that gay blare of wealth, how many men and women and children were giving their lives to maintain a civilization that existed by trampling over their broken hearts and bodies.

    Preventable poverty stared at him from all sides. He saw that our social fabric is thrown together in the most haphazard fashion, without scientific organization, with the greatest waste, in such a way that non-producers win all the prizes while the toilers do without. Yet out of this system that sows hate and discontent, that is a practical denial of brotherhood, of God, springs here and there love like a flower in a dunghill.

    He felt that art and learning, as well as beauty and truth, ought to walk hand in hand with our daily lives. But this is impossible so long as disorder and cruelty and disease are in the world unnecessarily. He heard good people, busy with effects instead of causes, talk about the way out, as if there could be any way out which did not offer an equality of opportunity refused by the whole cruel system of to-day.

    But Jeff could be in revolt without losing his temper. The men who profited by present conditions were not monsters. They were as kind of heart as he was, effects of the system just as much as the little bootblack on the corner. No possible good could come of a blind hatred of individuals.

    His Bohemian instinct sent Jeff ranging far in those days. He made friends out of the most unlikely material. Some of the most radical of these were in the habit of gathering informally in his rooms about once a week. Sometimes the talk was good and pungent. Much of it was merely wild.

    His college friend, Sam Miller, now assistant city librarian, was one of this little circle. Another was Oscar Marchant, a fragile little Socialist poet upon whom consumption had laid its grip. He was not much of a poet, but there burnt in him a passion for humanity that disease and poverty could

    not extinguish.

    One night James Farnum dropped in to borrow some money from his cousin and for ten minutes listened to such talk as he had never heard before. His mind moved among a group of orthodox and accepted ideas. A new one he always viewed as if it were a dynamite bomb timed to go off shortly. He was not only suspicious of it; he was afraid of it.

    James was, it happened, in evening dress. He took gingerly the chair his cousin offered him between the hectic Marchant and a little Polish Jew.

    The air was blue with the smoke from cheap tobacco. More than one of those present carried the marks of poverty. But the note of the assembly was a cheerful at-homeness. James wondered what the devil his cousin meant by giving this heterogeneous gathering the freedom of his rooms.

    Dickinson, the single-taxer, was talking bitterly. He was a big man with a voice like a foghorn. His idea of emphasis appeared to be pounding the table with his blacksmith fist.

    "I tell you society doesn't want to hear about such things," he was declaiming. "It wants to go along comfortably without being disturbed. Ignore everything that's not pleasant, that's liable to harrow the feelings. The sins of our neighbors make spicy reading. Fill the papers with 'em. But their distresses and their poverty! That's different. Let's hear as little about them as possible. Let's keep it a well-regulated world."

    Nearly everybody began to talk at once. James caught phrases here and there out of the melee.

    ". . . Democratic institutions must either decay or become revitalized. . . .To hell with such courts. They're no better than anarchy. . . .In Verden there are only two classes: those who don't get as much as they earn and those who get more. . . . Tell you we've got to get back to the land, got to make it free as air. You can't be saved from economic slavery till you have socialism. . . ."

    Suddenly the hubbub subsided and Marchant had the floor. "All of life's a compromise, a horrible unholy giving up as unpractical all the best things. It's a denial of love, of Christ, of God."

    A young preacher who was conducting a mission for sailors on the water front cut in. "Exactly. The church is radically wrong because——"

    "Because it hasn't been converted to Christianity yet. Mr. Moneybags in the front pew has got a strangle hold on the parson. Begging your pardon, Mifflin. We know you're not that kind."

    Marchant won the floor again. "Here's the nub of it. A man's a slave so long as his means of livelihood is dependent on some other man. I don't care whether it's lands or railroads or mines. Abolish private property and you abolish poverty."

    They were all at it again, like dogs at a bone. Across the Babel James caught Jeff's gay grin at him.

    By sheer weight Dickinson's voice boomed out of the medley.

    ". . . just as Henry George says: 'Private ownership of land is the nether mill-stone. Material progress is the upper mill-stone. Between them, with an increasing pressure, the working classes are being ground.' We're just beginning to see the effect of private property in land. Within a few years. . . ."

    "What we need is to get back to Democracy. Individualism has run wild. . . ."

    "Trouble is we can't get anywhere under the Constitution. Every time we make a move——check. It was adopted by aristocrats to hold back the people and that's what it's done. Law——"

    Apparently nobody got a chance to finish his argument. The Polish Jew broke in sharply. "Law! There iss no law."

    "Plenty of it, Sobieski, Go out on the streets and preach your philosophic anarchy if you don't believe it. See what it will do to you. Law's a device to bolster up the strong and to hammer down the weak."

    James had given a polite cynical indulgence to views so lost to reason and propriety. But he couldn't quite stand any more. He made a sign to Jeff and they adjourned to the next room.

    "Your friends always so——so enthusiastic?" he asked with the slightest lift of his upper lip.

    "Not always. They're a little excited to-night because Harshaw imprisoned those fourteen striking miners for contempt of court."

    "Don't manufacture bombs here, do you?"

    Jeff laughed. "We're warranted harmless."

    James offered him good advice. "That sort of talk doesn't lead to anything——except trouble. Men who get on don't question the fundamentals of our social system. It doesn't do, you know. Take the constitution. Now I've studied it. A wonderful document. Gladstone said."

    "Yes, I know what Gladstone said. I don't agree with him. The constitution was devised by men with property as a protection against those who had none."

    "Why shouldn't it have been?"

    "It should, if vested interests are the first thing to consider. In there"-with a smiling wave of his hand——"they think people are more important than things. A most unsettling notion!"

    "Mean to say you believe all that rant they talk?"

    "Not quite," Jeff laughed.

    "Well, I'd cut that bunch of anarchists if I were you," his cousin suggested. "Say, Jeff, can you let me have fifty dollars?"

    Jeff considered. He had been thinking of a new spring overcoat, but his winter one would do well enough. From the office he could get an advance of the balance he needed to make up the fifty.

    "Sure. I'll bring it to your rooms to-morrow night."

    "Much obliged. Hate to trouble you," James said lightly. "Well, I won't keep you longer from your anarchist friends. Good-night."

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