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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter20)

2006-08-28 23:39

    CHAPTER 20

    Now poor Tom Dunstan's cold, Our shop is duller; Scarce a tale is told, And our talk has lost the old Red-republican color!

    。 . . . . . . . . . . . .

    'She's coming, she's coming!' said he; 'Courage, boys I wait and see! 'FREEDOM'S AHEAD!' ——Robert Buchanan.

    THE HERO IS LURED TO AN ADVENTURE INTO THE UNCONVENTIONAL AND HEARS MUCH THAT IS PAINFUL TO A WELL-REGULATED MIND

    Near the close of a fine spring afternoon James Farnum and Alice Frome were walking at the lower end of Powers Avenue. In the conventional garb he affected since he had become a man of substance the lawyer might have served as a model of fashion to any aspiring youth. His silk hat, his light trousers, the double- breasted coat which enfolded his manly form, were all of the latest design. The weather, for a change, was behaving itself so as not to soil the chaste glory of Solomon thus displayed. There had been rain and would be more, but just now they passed through a dripping world shot full of sunlight.

    "Of course I'm no end flattered at being allowed to go with you. But I'm dying of curiosity to know where we are going."

    The young woman gave James her beguiling smile. "We're going to call on a sick man. I'm taking you along as chaperon. You needn't be flattered at all. You're merely a convenience, like a hat pin or an umbrella."

    "But I'm not sure this is proper. Now as your chaperone——"

    "You're not that kind of a chaperon, Mr. Farnum. You haven't any privileges. Nothing but duties. Unless it's a privilege to be chosen. That gives you a chance to say something pretty."

    They crossed Yarnell Way. James, looking around upon the wrecks of humanity they began to meet, was very sure that he did not enjoy this excursion. An adventure with Miss Frome outside of the conventions was the very thing he did not want. What in the world did the girl mean anyhow? Her vagaries were beginning to disturb her relatives. So much he had gathered from Valencia.

    Before he had got as far as a protest Alice turned in to the entrance of a building and climbed a flight of stairs. She pushed a button. A woman of rather slatternly appearance came to the door.

    "Good afternoon, Mrs. Maloney. I've come to see how Mr. Marchant is."

    The landlady brushed into place some flying strands of hair. "Well, now, Miss Frome, he's better to-day. The nurse is with him. If you'll jist knock at the door 'twill be all right."

    While they were in the passage James interposed an objection. "My dear Miss Frome, I really don't think——"

    She interrupted brightly. "I'm glad you don't. You're not expected to, you know. I'm commanding this expedition. Yours not to answer why. Yours but to do and die." And she knocked on the door of the room at which they had stopped.

    It was opened by a nurse in uniform. James observed that she, too, like Mrs. Maloney, brightened at sight of the visitor.

    "Mr. Marchant will be pleased to see you, Miss Frome."

    He was. His gladness illuminated the white face through the skin of which the cheek bones appeared about to emerge. A thin blue- veined hand shot forward to meet hers.

    "Oh, comrade, but I'm glad to meet you."

    "I think you know Mr. Farnum."

    The man propped up in bed nodded a little grin at the lawyer. "We've met. It was years ago in Jeff's rooms."

    "Oh——er——yes. Yes, I remember."

    Presently Jeff and Sam Miller dropped in to see the invalid. From chance remarks the lawyer gathered that the little cobbler had brought himself so low by giving his overcoat one bitter night to a poor girl he had found shivering in the streets.

    The frankness with which they discussed before Alice Frome things never referred to in good society shocked James.

    It appeared that the story of this little factory girl who had been led astray was still urgent in Marchant's mind. At the time of their arrival he had just finished scribbling some verses hot from his heart. Jeff read them

    aloud, in spite of the poet's modest insistence that they were only a first draft.

    "This is a story that two may tell, I am the one, the other's in hell; A story of passionate amorous fire, With the glamor of love to attune the lyre.

    She traveled the road at breakneck speed, I opened the gates and saddled the steed; "Ride free!" I cried as we dashed along. Her sweet voice echoed a mocking song."

    "'Fraid it doesn't always scan. They seldom do," apologized the author of the verses.

    Jeff rapped for order. "The sense of the meeting is that the blushing poet will please not interrupt."

    "Nights of the wildest revel and mirth, Days of sorrow, remorse, and dearth, A heaven of love and a hell of regret—— But there's always the woman to pay my debt.

    'Sin,' says the preacher, 'shall be washed free, The blood of the Lamb was shed for thee.' Smugly I pass the sacred wine, The woman in hell pays toll for mine.

    'I am a pillar of Church and State, She but the broken sport of Fate; This is a story that two may tell, I am the one, the other's in hell.'"

    There was a moment's silence after Jeff had finished.

    "What are you going to call your verses?" the nurse asked.

    "I'll call them, 'She Pays.' That's the idea of it."

    James was distinctly uneasy. There was positively something indecent about this. He had an aversion to thinking about unpleasant things. Every well-regulated mind ought to have. He would like to make a protest, but he could not very well do that here. He promised himself to let Alice Frome know as soon as they were alone what he thought about her escapades into this world below the dead line.

    He moved uncomfortably in his chair, and in doing so his gaze fell full into the eyes of Sam Miller. The fat librarian was staring at him out of a very white face. Before James could break the spell an unvoiced question had been asked and answered.

    Marchant was already riding the hobby that was religion to him. "Four

    dollars a week. That's what she was getting. And her employer is worth two millions. Think of it. All her youth to be sold for four dollars a week. Just enough to keep body and soul together. And when she went to the head of her department to ask for a raise he leered at her and said a good looking girl like her could always find someone to take care of her. Eight months she stuck it out, getting more ragged every day. Then enter the man, offering her some comfort and pleasure and love. Do you blame her?"

    "You must give me her address," Alice said softly.

    Oscar nodded. "Good enough, comrade. Jeff has looked out for her, but she needs a woman friend." With a sweep of the hand he went back to the impersonal. "Her trouble was economic, just as ours is. Look at it. We've got a perfect self-regulating system that adjusts itself automatically to bring hard times when we're most prosperous. Give us big crops and boom times, and we head straight for a depression. Why?" He interrupted himself with a fit of coughing, but presently began again, talking also with his swift supple hands. "Because then the foreign market will be glutted. Surplus goods won't sell abroad. The manufacturer, unable to dispose of his produce, will cut down his force or close his plant. Labor, out of work, cannot buy. So every branch of industry suffers because we're too well off. It's a vicious absurd circle born of the system under which we live. Under socialism the remedy would be merely to work less for a time until the surplus was used. It would affect nobody injuriously. The whole thing's as simple as A B C."

    It had been plain to the first casual glance of James that the little Socialist was far gone. The amazing thing was the eagerness with which his spirit dominated the body in such ill case. He was alive to the fingertips, though he was already in the Valley of the Shadow. To the lawyer there was something eerie about it all. Marchant was done with the business of living. Why didn't he lie down and accept the verdict?

    But to Alice it was God-like, a thing to stand uncovered before. His remedies might be all wrong. Probably they were. None the less his vital courage for life took her by the throat.

    Jeff nodded at the invalid cheerfully. "We're going to change all that,

    Oscar. Into this little old world a new soul is being born. Or perhaps the old soul is being born again."

    The Socialist caught at this swiftly. "Yes, we're going to change this terrible waste of human lives. I see a new world, where men will live like brothers and not like wolves rending each other. There poverty will be blotted out . . . and disease and all mean and cruel things that hamper and destroy life. Law and justice will walk hand in hand through a land of peace and plenty. Our cities, the expression of our social life, will be clean and sunny and beautiful because the lives of the common people are so. There strong men and deep-breasted women will work for the joy of working, since all is for the common good. Their children will be free and happy and well fed . . . yes, and equal to each other. From that highly socialized state, because it is tied together by love, will come that restrained freedom which is the most perfect individualism."

    The nurse forced him gently back upon the pillows. "There! You've talked enough to-day."

    He lay coughing, a hectic flush above the high cheek bones. Presently, at a look from the nurse, his guests departed.

    Outside the building Miller left the rest abruptly. Flanked by the two cousins, Alice crossed Yarnell Way back to that world to which she had always belonged.

    James laid down the law to her concerning the folly of such excursions into the unconventional. Alice listened. She discovered that his viewpoint was exactly like that of Ned Merrill. Any deviation from the conventional was a mistake. Any attempt to escape from existing conditions was a form of treason. Trade, property, business, respectability, good form; these were the shibboleth they worshipped. It was just because she did not want to believe this of James Farnum that she had taken him with her to call on Marchant. It was in a sense a test, and he was answering it by showing himself complacently callous and hidebound.

    Surely he had not always been like this, a smug and well-clad Pharisee, afraid to look at the truth. In those early days, when they had been friends, with the possibility of being a good deal more, there had been an impetuous touch of ardor she could no longer find. Her cool glance ran

    down his figure. The man was taking on flesh, the plump well-fed look of one who has escaped moral conduct by giving up the fight. Fat cushioned the square jaw and detracted from its strength. For the first time she observed a

    hardening of the eye. The visible deterioration of an inner collapse was being writ on him.

    Alice sighed. After all she might have spared herself the trouble. He had chosen his path and he must follow it.

    At the corner of Powers Avenue and Van Ault Street James left them. It was natural that the talk should revert to Marchant.

    "Oscar finds your visits a very great pleasure," Jeff told her.

    "The dear madman!" Her eyes were shining softly. "Isn't he brave and optimistic?"

    "Yes."

    Both of them were thinking how soon the arm of that unseen God of love and law he worshipped would enfold him.

    Alice smiled tenderly, and for the moment the street in front of her danced in a mist. "And his perfect state! Shall we ever realize it?"

    "We must hope so. Perhaps not in the form he sees it, but in the way we work it out through a species of evolution. Think of the progress we have made in the last five years. How many dark corners in the long disused houses of our minds have been flooded with light!"

    "Yes. Why have we made more progress in the past few years?"

    Jeff's eyes held a gleam of humor. "This is a big country with enormous resources. There used to be room for all the most active plunderers to grab something. But lately the grabbing hasn't been so good. We have discoveredthat the most powerful robbers are doing their snatching from us. So we've suffered a moral awakening."

    "You don't believe that," she said quickly.

    "There's a good deal in the bread and butter interpretation of history. The push of life, its pressure, drives us to think. Out of thought grow new hopes and a broader vision."

    "And then?"

    "Pretty soon the thought will flood the world that we make our own

    poverty, that God and nature have nothing to do with it. After that we'll

    proceed to eliminate it."

    "By means of Mr. Marchant's perfect state?"

    "Not by any revolution of an hour probably. Society cannot change its nature in a day. We'll pass gradually from our present state to a better one, the new growing out of the old by generations of progress. But I think we will pass into a form of socialism. It will be necessary to repress the predatory instinct in us that has grown strong under the present system. I don't much care whether you call it democracy or socialism. We must recognize how interdependent we are and work together for the common good."

    They had come to the car line that would take her home. Up the hill a trolley car was coming.

    "May I not see you home?" Jeff dared to ask.

    "You may."

    They left the car at Lakeview Park and crossed it to The Brakes. Every step of that walk led Jeff deeper into an excursion of endearment. It was amazingly true that he trod beside her an acknowledged friend, a secret lover. The turn of her head, the shadowy smile bubbling into laughter, the gracious undulations of the body, indeed the whole dear delight of her presence, belonged for that hour to him alone.

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