It was the knot of wordy socialists and working-class philosophers that held forth in the City Hall Park on warm afternoons that was responsible for the great discovery. Once or twice in the month, while riding through the park on his way to the library, Martin dismounted from his wheel and listened to the arguments, and each time he tore himself away reluctantly. The tone of discussion was much lower than at Mr. Morse’s table. The men were not grave and dignified. They lost their tempers easily and called one another names, while oaths and obscene allusions were frequent on their lips. Once or twice he had seen them come to blows. And yet, he knew not why, there seemed something vital about the stuff of these men’s thoughts. Their logomachy was far more stimulating to his intellect than the reserved and quiet dogmatism of Mr. Morse. These men, who slaughtered English, gesticulated like lunatics, and fought one another’s ideas with primitive anger, seemed somehow to be more alive than Mr. Morse and his crony, Mr. Butler.
Martin had heard Herbert Spencer quoted several times in the park, but one afternoon a disciple of Spencer’s appeared, a seedy tramp with a dirty coat buttoned tightly at the throat to conceal the absence of a shirt. Battle royal was waged, amid the smoking of many cigarettes and the expectoration of much tobacco-juice, wherein the tramp successfully held his own, even when a socialist workman sneered, “There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet.” Martin was puzzled as to what the discussion was about, but when he rode on to the library he carried with him a new-born interest in Herbert Spencer, and because of the frequency with which the tramp had mentioned “First Principles,” Martin drew out that volume.
So the great discovery began. Once before he had tried Spencer, and choosing the “Principles of Psychology” to begin with, he had failed as abjectly as he had failed with Madam Blavatsky. There had been no understanding the book, and he had returned it unread. But this night, after algebra and physics, and an attempt at a sonnet, he got into bed and opened “First Principles.” Morning found him still reading. It was impossible for him to sleep. Nor did he write that day. He lay on the bed till his body grew tired, when he tried the hard floor, reading on his back, the book held in the air above him, or changing from side to side. He slept that night, and did his writing next morning, and then the book tempted him and he fell, reading all afternoon, oblivious to everything and oblivious to the fact that that was the afternoon Ruth gave to him. His first consciousness of the immediate world about him was when Bernard Higginbotham jerked open the door and demanded to know if he thought they were running a restaurant.
Martin Eden had been mastered by curiosity all his days. He wanted to know, and it was this desire that had sent him adventuring over the world. But he was now learning from Spencer that he never had known, and that he never could have known had he continued his sailing and wandering forever. He had merely skimmed over the surface of things, observing detached phenomena, accumulating fragments of facts, making superficial little generalizations—and all and everything quite unrelated in a capricious and disorderly world of whim and chance. The mechanism of the flight of birds he had watched and reasoned about with understanding; but it had never entered his head to try to explain the process whereby birds, as organic flying mechanisms, had been developed. He had never dreamed there was such a process. That birds should have come to be, was unguessed. They always had been. They just happened.
And as it was with birds, so had it been with everything. His ignorant and unprepared attempts at philosophy had been fruitless. The medieval metaphysics of Kant had given him the key to nothing, and had served the sole purpose of making him doubt his own intellectual powers. In similar manner his attempt to study evolution had been confined to a hopelessly technical volume by Romanes. He had understood nothing, and the only idea he had gathered was that evolution was a dry-as-dust theory, of a lot of little men possessed of huge and unintelligible vocabularies. And now he learned that evolution was no mere theory but an accepted process of development; that scientists no longer disagreed about it, their only differences being over the method of evolution.
And here was the man Spencer, organizing all knowledge for him, reducing everything to unity, elaborating ultimate realities, and presenting to his startled gaze a universe so concrete of realization that it was like the model of a ship such as sailors make and put into glass bottles. There was no caprice, no chance. All was law. It was in obedience to law that the bird flew, and it was in obedience to the same law that fermenting slime had writhed and squirmed and put out legs and wings and become a bird.
Martin had ascended from pitch to pitch of intellectual living, and here he was at a higher pitch than ever. All the hidden things were laying their secrets bare. He was drunken with comprehension. At night, asleep, he lived with the gods in colossal nightmare; and awake, in the day, he went around like a somnambulist, with absent stare, gazing upon the world he had just discovered. At table he failed to hear the conversation about petty and ignoble things, his eager mind seeking out and following cause and effect in everything before him. In the meat on the platter he saw the shining sun and traced its energy back through all its transformations to its source a hundred million miles away, or traced its energy ahead to the moving muscles in his arms that enabled him to cut the meat, and to the brain wherewith he willed the muscles to move to cut the meat, until, with inward gaze, he saw the same sun shining in his brain. He was entranced by illumination, and did not hear the “Bughouse,” whispered by Jim, nor see the anxiety on his sister’s face, nor notice the rotary motion of Bernard Higginbotham’s finger, whereby he imparted the suggestion of wheels revolving in his brother-in-law’s head.
What, in a way, most profoundly impressed Martin, was the correlation of knowledge—of all knowledge. He had been curious to know things, and whatever he acquired he had filed away in separate memory compartments in his brain. Thus, on the subject of sailing he had an immense store. On the subject of woman he had a fairly large store. But these two subjects had been unrelated. Between the two memory compartments there had been no connection. That, in the fabric of knowledge, there should be any connection whatever between a woman with hysterics and a schooner carrying a weather-helm or heaving to in a gale, would have struck him as ridiculous and impossible. But Herbert Spencer had shown him not only that it was not ridiculous, but that it was impossible for there to be no connection. All things were related to all other things from the farthermost star in the wastes of space to the myriads of atoms in the grain of sand under one’s foot. This new concept was a perpetual amazement to Martin, and he found himself engaged continually in tracing the relationship between all things under the sun and on the other side of the sun. He drew up lists of the most incongruous things and was unhappy until he succeeded in establishing kinship between them all—kinship between love, poetry, earthquake, fire, rattlesnakes, rainbows, precious gems, monstrosities, sunsets, the roaring of lions, illuminating gas, cannibalism, beauty, murder, lovers, fulcrums, and tobacco. Thus, he unified the universe and held it up and looked at it, or wandered through its byways and alleys and jungles, not as a terrified traveller in the thick of mysteries seeking an unknown goal, but observing and charting and becoming familiar with all there was to know. And the more he knew, the more passionately he admired the universe, and life, and his own life in the midst of it all.
“You fool!” he cried at his image in the looking-glass. “You wanted to write, and you tried to write, and you had nothing in you to write about. What did you have in you?—some childish notions, a few half-baked sentiments, a lot of undigested beauty, a great black mass of ignorance, a heart filled to bursting with love, and an ambition as big as your love and as futile as your ignorance. And you wanted to write! Why, you’re just on the edge of beginning to get something in you to write about. You wanted to create beauty, but how could you when you knew nothing about the nature of beauty? You wanted to write about life when you knew nothing of the essential characteristics of life. You wanted to write about the world and the scheme of existence when the world was a Chinese puzzle to you and all that you could have written would have been about what you did not know of the scheme of existence. But cheer up, Martin, my boy. You’ll write yet. You know a little, a very little, and you’re on the right road now to know more. Some day, if you’re lucky, you may come pretty close to knowing all that may be known. Then you will write.”
He brought his great discovery to Ruth, sharing with her all his joy and wonder in it. But she did not seem to be so enthusiastic over it. She tacitly accepted it and, in a way, seemed aware of it from her own studies. It did not stir her deeply, as it did him, and he would have been surprised had he not reasoned it out that it was not new and fresh to her as it was to him. Arthur and Norman, he found, believed in evolution and had read Spencer, though it did not seem to have made any vital impression upon them, while the young fellow with the glasses and the mop of hair, Will Olney, sneered disagreeably at Spencer and repeated the epigram, “There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet.”
But Martin forgave him the sneer, for he had begun to discover that Olney was not in love with Ruth. Later, he was dumfounded to learn from various little happenings not only that Olney did not care for Ruth, but that he had a positive dislike for her. Martin could not understand this. It was a bit of phenomena that he could not correlate with all the rest of the phenomena in the universe. But nevertheless he felt sorry for the young fellow because of the great lack in his nature that prevented him from a proper appreciation of Ruth’s fineness and beauty. They rode out into the hills several Sundays on their wheels, and Martin had ample opportunity to observe the armed truce that existed between Ruth and Olney. The latter chummed with Norman, throwing Arthur and Martin into company with Ruth, for which Martin was duly grateful.
Those Sundays were great days for Martin, greatest because he was with Ruth, and great, also, because they were putting him more on a par with the young men of her class. In spite of their long years of disciplined education, he was finding himself their intellectual equal, and the hours spent with them in conversation was so much practice for him in the use of the grammar he had studied so hard. He had abandoned the etiquette books, falling back upon observation to show him the right things to do. Except when carried away by his enthusiasm, he was always on guard, keenly watchful of their actions and learning their little courtesies and refinements of conduct.
The fact that Spencer was very little read was for some time a source of surprise to Martin. “Herbert Spencer,” said the man at the desk in the library, “oh, yes, a great mind.” But the man did not seem to know anything of the content of that great mind. One evening, at dinner, when Mr. Butler was there, Martin turned the conversation upon Spencer. Mr. Morse bitterly arraigned the English philosopher’s agnosticism, but confessed that he had not read “First Principles”; while Mr. Butler stated that he had no patience with Spencer, had never read a line of him, and had managed to get along quite well without him. Doubts arose in Martin’s mind, and had he been less strongly individual he would have accepted the general opinion and given Herbert Spencer up. As it was, he found Spencer’s explanation of things convincing; and, as he phrased it to himself, to give up Spencer would be equivalent to a navigator throwing the compass and chronometer overboard. So Martin went on into a thorough study of evolution, mastering more and more the subject himself, and being convinced by the corroborative testimony of a thousand independent writers. The more he studied, the more vistas he caught of fields of knowledge yet unexplored, and the regret that days were only twenty-four hours long became a chronic complaint with him.
One day, because the days were so short, he decided to give up algebra and geometry. Trigonometry he had not even attempted. Then he cut chemistry from his study-list, retaining only physics.
“I am not a specialist,” he said, in defence, to Ruth. “Nor am I going to try to be a specialist. There are too many special fields for any one man, in a whole lifetime, to master a tithe of them. I must pursue general knowledge. When I need the work of specialists, I shall refer to their books.”
“But that is not like having the knowledge yourself,” she protested.
“But it is unnecessary to have it. We profit from the work of the specialists. That’s what they are for. When I came in, I noticed the chimney-sweeps at work. They’re specialists, and when they get done, you will enjoy clean chimneys without knowing anything about the construction of chimneys.”
“That’s far-fetched, I am afraid.”
She looked at him curiously, and he felt a reproach in her gaze and manner. But he was convinced of the rightness of his position.
“All thinkers on general subjects, the greatest minds in the world, in fact, rely on the specialists. Herbert Spencer did that. He generalized upon the findings of thousands of investigators. He would have had to live a thousand lives in order to do it all himself. And so with Darwin. He took advantage of all that had been learned by the florists and cattle-breeders.”
“You’re right, Martin,” Olney said. “You know what you’re after, and Ruth doesn’t. She doesn’t know what she is after for herself even.”
“—Oh, yes,” Olney rushed on, heading off her objection, “I know you call it general culture. But it doesn’t matter what you study if you want general culture. You can study French, or you can study German, or cut them both out and study Esperanto, you’ll get the culture tone just the same. You can study Greek or Latin, too, for the same purpose, though it will never be any use to you. It will be culture, though. Why, Ruth studied Saxon, became clever in it,—that was two years ago,—and all that she remembers of it now is ‘Whan that sweet Aprile with his schowers soote’—isn’t that the way it goes?”
“But it’s given you the culture tone just the same,” he laughed, again heading her off. “I know. We were in the same classes.”
“But you speak of culture as if it should be a means to something,” Ruth cried out. Her eyes were flashing, and in her cheeks were two spots of color. “Culture is the end in itself.”
“But that is not what Martin wants.”
“How do you know?”
“What do you want, Martin?” Olney demanded, turning squarely upon him.
Martin felt very uncomfortable, and looked entreaty at Ruth.
“Yes, what do you want?” Ruth asked. “That will settle it.”
“Yes, of course, I want culture,” Martin faltered. “I love beauty, and culture will give me a finer and keener appreciation of beauty.”
She nodded her head and looked triumph.
“Rot, and you know it,” was Olney’s comment. “Martin’s after career, not culture. It just happens that culture, in his case, is incidental to career. If he wanted to be a chemist, culture would be unnecessary. Martin wants to write, but he’s afraid to say so because it will put you in the wrong.”
“And why does Martin want to write?” he went on. “Because he isn’t rolling in wealth. Why do you fill your head with Saxon and general culture? Because you don’t have to make your way in the world. Your father sees to that. He buys your clothes for you, and all the rest. What rotten good is our education, yours and mine and Arthur’s and Norman’s? We’re soaked in general culture, and if our daddies went broke to-day, we’d be falling down to-morrow on teachers’ examinations. The best job you could get, Ruth, would be a country school or music teacher in a girls’ boarding-school.”
“And pray what would you do?” she asked.
“Not a blessed thing. I could earn a dollar and a half a day, common labor, and I might get in as instructor in Hanley’s cramming joint—I say might, mind you, and I might be chucked out at the end of the week for sheer inability.”
Martin followed the discussion closely, and while he was convinced that Olney was right, he resented the rather cavalier treatment he accorded Ruth. A new conception of love formed in his mind as he listened. Reason had nothing to do with love. It mattered not whether the woman he loved reasoned correctly or incorrectly. Love was above reason. If it just happened that she did not fully appreciate his necessity for a career, that did not make her a bit less lovable. She was all lovable, and what she thought had nothing to do with her lovableness.
“What’s that?” he replied to a question from Olney that broke in upon his train of thought.
“I was saying that I hoped you wouldn’t be fool enough to tackle Latin.”
“But Latin is more than culture,” Ruth broke in. “It is equipment.”
“Well, are you going to tackle it?” Olney persisted.
Martin was sore beset. He could see that Ruth was hanging eagerly upon his answer.
“I am afraid I won’t have time,” he said finally. “I’d like to, but I won’t have time.”
“You see, Martin’s not seeking culture,” Olney exulted. “He’s trying to get somewhere, to do something.”
“Oh, but it’s mental training. It’s mind discipline. It’s what makes disciplined minds.” Ruth looked expectantly at Martin, as if waiting for him to change his judgment. “You know, the foot-ball players have to train before the big game. And that is what Latin does for the thinker. It trains.”
“Rot and bosh! That’s what they told us when we were kids. But there is one thing they didn’t tell us then. They let us find it out for ourselves afterwards.” Olney paused for effect, then added, “And what they didn’t tell us was that every gentleman should have studied Latin, but that no gentleman should know Latin.”
“Now that’s unfair,” Ruth cried. “I knew you were turning the conversation just in order to get off something.”
“It’s clever all right,” was the retort, “but it’s fair, too. The only men who know their Latin are the apothecaries, the lawyers, and the Latin professors. And if Martin wants to be one of them, I miss my guess. But what’s all that got to do with Herbert Spencer anyway? Martin’s just discovered Spencer, and he’s wild over him. Why? Because Spencer is taking him somewhere. Spencer couldn’t take me anywhere, nor you. We haven’t got anywhere to go. You’ll get married some day, and I’ll have nothing to do but keep track of the lawyers and business agents who will take care of the money my father’s going to leave me.”
Onley got up to go, but turned at the door and delivered a parting shot.
“You leave Martin alone, Ruth. He knows what’s best for himself. Look at what he’s done already. He makes me sick sometimes, sick and ashamed of myself. He knows more now about the world, and life, and man’s place, and all the rest, than Arthur, or Norman, or I, or you, too, for that matter, and in spite of all our Latin, and French, and Saxon, and culture.”
“But Ruth is my teacher,” Martin answered chivalrously. “She is responsible for what little I have learned.”
“Rats!” Olney looked at Ruth, and his expression was malicious. “I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you read Spencer on her recommendation—only you didn’t. And she doesn’t know anything more about Darwin and evolution than I do about King Solomon’s mines. What’s that jawbreaker definition about something or other, of Spencer’s, that you sprang on us the other day—that indefinite, incoherent homogeneity thing? Spring it on her, and see if she understands a word of it. That isn’t culture, you see. Well, tra la, and if you tackle Latin, Martin, I won’t have any respect for you.”
And all the while, interested in the discussion, Martin had been aware of an irk in it as well. It was about studies and lessons, dealing with the rudiments of knowledge, and the schoolboyish tone of it conflicted with the big things that were stirring in him—with the grip upon life that was even then crooking his fingers like eagle’s talons, with the cosmic thrills that made him ache, and with the inchoate consciousness of mastery of it all. He likened himself to a poet, wrecked on the shores of a strange land, filled with power of beauty, stumbling and stammering and vainly trying to sing in the rough, barbaric tongue of his brethren in the new land. And so with him. He was alive, painfully alive, to the great universal things, and yet he was compelled to potter and grope among schoolboy topics and debate whether or not he should study Latin.
“What in hell has Latin to do with it?” he demanded before his mirror that night. “I wish dead people would stay dead. Why should I and the beauty in me be ruled by the dead? Beauty is alive and everlasting. Languages come and go. They are the dust of the dead.”
And his next thought was that he had been phrasing his ideas very well, and he went to bed wondering why he could not talk in similar fashion when he was with Ruth. He was only a schoolboy, with a schoolboy’s tongue, when he was in her presence.
“Give me time,” he said aloud. “Only give me time.”
Time! Time! Time! was his unending plaint.
It was not because of Olney, but in spite of Ruth, and his love for Ruth, that he finally decided not to take up Latin. His money meant time. There was so much that was more important than Latin, so many studies that clamored with imperious voices. And he must write. He must earn money. He had had no acceptances. Twoscore of manuscripts were travelling the endless round of the magazines. How did the others do it? He spent long hours in the free reading-room, going over what others had written, studying their work eagerly and critically, comparing it with his own, and wondering, wondering, about the secret trick they had discovered which enabled them to sell their work.
He was amazed at the immense amount of printed stuff that was dead. No light, no life, no color, was shot through it. There was no breath of life in it, and yet it sold, at two cents a word, twenty dollars a thousand—the newspaper clipping had said so. He was puzzled by countless short stories, written lightly and cleverly he confessed, but without vitality or reality. Life was so strange and wonderful, filled with an immensity of problems, of dreams, and of heroic toils, and yet these stories dealt only with the commonplaces of life. He felt the stress and strain of life, its fevers and sweats and wild insurgences—surely this was the stuff to write about! He wanted to glorify the leaders of forlorn hopes, the mad lovers, the giants that fought under stress and strain, amid terror and tragedy, making life crackle with the strength of their endeavor. And yet the magazine short stories seemed intent on glorifying the Mr. Butlers, the sordid dollar-chasers, and the commonplace little love affairs of commonplace little men and women. Was it because the editors of the magazines were commonplace? he demanded. Or were they afraid of life, these writers and editors and readers?
But his chief trouble was that he did not know any editors or writers. And not merely did he not know any writers, but he did not know anybody who had ever attempted to write. There was nobody to tell him, to hint to him, to give him the least word of advice. He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and intrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It travelled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed. There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. It was like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum or a tablet of chocolate. It depended upon which slot one dropped the penny in, whether he got chocolate or gum. And so with the editorial machine. One slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.
It was the rejection slips that completed the horrible machinelikeness of the process. These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he had received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor had given that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.
He was a good fighter, whole-souled and stubborn, and he would have been content to continue feeding the machine for years; but he was bleeding to death, and not years but weeks would determine the fight. Each week his board bill brought him nearer destruction, while the postage on forty manuscripts bled him almost as severely. He no longer bought books, and he economized in petty ways and sought to delay the inevitable end; though he did not know how to economize, and brought the end nearer by a week when he gave his sister Marian five dollars for a dress.
He struggled in the dark, without advice, without encouragement, and in the teeth of discouragement. Even Gertrude was beginning to look askance. At first she had tolerated with sisterly fondness what she conceived to be his foolishness; but now, out of sisterly solicitude, she grew anxious. To her it seemed that his foolishness was becoming a madness. Martin knew this and suffered more keenly from it than from the open and nagging contempt of Bernard Higginbotham. Martin had faith in himself, but he was alone in this faith. Not even Ruth had faith. She had wanted him to devote himself to study, and, though she had not openly disapproved of his writing, she had never approved.
He had never offered to show her his work. A fastidious delicacy had prevented him. Besides, she had been studying heavily at the university, and he felt averse to robbing her of her time. But when she had taken her degree, she asked him herself to let her see something of what he had been doing. Martin was elated and diffident. Here was a judge. She was a bachelor of arts. She had studied literature under skilled instructors. Perhaps the editors were capable judges, too. But she would be different from them. She would not hand him a stereotyped rejection slip, nor would she inform him that lack of preference for his work did not necessarily imply lack of merit in his work. She would talk, a warm human being, in her quick, bright way, and, most important of all, she would catch glimpses of the real Martin Eden. In his work she would discern what his heart and soul were like, and she would come to understand something, a little something, of the stuff of his dreams and the strength of his power.
Martin gathered together a number of carbon copies of his short stories, hesitated a moment, then added his “Sea Lyrics.” They mounted their wheels on a late June afternoon and rode for the hills. It was the second time he had been out with her alone, and as they rode along through the balmy warmth, just chilled by she sea-breeze to refreshing coolness, he was profoundly impressed by the fact that it was a very beautiful and well-ordered world and that it was good to be alive and to love. They left their wheels by the roadside and climbed to the brown top of an open knoll where the sunburnt grass breathed a harvest breath of dry sweetness and content.
“Its work is done,” Martin said, as they seated themselves, she upon his coat, and he sprawling close to the warm earth. He sniffed the sweetness of the tawny grass, which entered his brain and set his thoughts whirling on from the particular to the universal. “It has achieved its reason for existence,” he went on, patting the dry grass affectionately. “It quickened with ambition under the dreary downpour of last winter, fought the violent early spring, flowered, and lured the insects and the bees, scattered its seeds, squared itself with its duty and the world, and—”
“Why do you always look at things with such dreadfully practical eyes?” she interrupted.
“Because I’ve been studying evolution, I guess. It’s only recently that I got my eyesight, if the truth were told.”
“But it seems to me you lose sight of beauty by being so practical, that you destroy beauty like the boys who catch butterflies and rub the down off their beautiful wings.”
He shook his head.
“Beauty has significance, but I never knew its significance before. I just accepted beauty as something meaningless, as something that was just beautiful without rhyme or reason. I did not know anything about beauty. But now I know, or, rather, am just beginning to know. This grass is more beautiful to me now that I know why it is grass, and all the hidden chemistry of sun and rain and earth that makes it become grass. Why, there is romance in the life-history of any grass, yes, and adventure, too. The very thought of it stirs me. When I think of the play of force and matter, and all the tremendous struggle of it, I feel as if I could write an epic on the grass.
“How well you talk,” she said absently, and he noted that she was looking at him in a searching way.
He was all confusion and embarrassment on the instant, the blood flushing red on his neck and brow.
“I hope I am learning to talk,” he stammered. “There seems to be so much in me I want to say. But it is all so big. I can’t find ways to say what is really in me. Sometimes it seems to me that all the world, all life, everything, had taken up residence inside of me and was clamoring for me to be the spokesman. I feel—oh, I can’t describe it—I feel the bigness of it, but when I speak, I babble like a little child. It is a great task to transmute feeling and sensation into speech, written or spoken, that will, in turn, in him who reads or listens, transmute itself back into the selfsame feeling and sensation. It is a lordly task. See, I bury my face in the grass, and the breath I draw in through my nostrils sets me quivering with a thousand thoughts and fancies. It is a breath of the universe I have breathed. I know song and laughter, and success and pain, and struggle and death; and I see visions that arise in my brain somehow out of the scent of the grass, and I would like to tell them to you, to the world. But how can I? My tongue is tied. I have tried, by the spoken word, just now, to describe to you the effect on me of the scent of the grass. But I have not succeeded. I have no more than hinted in awkward speech. My words seem gibberish to me. And yet I am stifled with desire to tell. Oh!—” he threw up his hands with a despairing gesture—“it is impossible! It is not understandable! It is incommunicable!”
“But you do talk well,” she insisted. “Just think how you have improved in the short time I have known you. Mr. Butler is a noted public speaker. He is always asked by the State Committee to go out on stump during campaign. Yet you talked just as well as he the other night at dinner. Only he was more controlled. You get too excited; but you will get over that with practice. Why, you would make a good public speaker. You can go far—if you want to. You are masterly. You can lead men, I am sure, and there is no reason why you should not succeed at anything you set your hand to, just as you have succeeded with grammar. You would make a good lawyer. You should shine in politics. There is nothing to prevent you from making as great a success as Mr. Butler has made. And minus the dyspepsia,” she added with a smile.
They talked on; she, in her gently persistent way, returning always to the need of thorough grounding in education and to the advantages of Latin as part of the foundation for any career. She drew her ideal of the successful man, and it was largely in her father’s image, with a few unmistakable lines and touches of color from the image of Mr. Butler. He listened eagerly, with receptive ears, lying on his back and looking up and joying in each movement of her lips as she talked. But his brain was not receptive. There was nothing alluring in the pictures she drew, and he was aware of a dull pain of disappointment and of a sharper ache of love for her. In all she said there was no mention of his writing, and the manuscripts he had brought to read lay neglected on the ground.
At last, in a pause, he glanced at the sun, measured its height above the horizon, and suggested his manuscripts by picking them up.
“I had forgotten,” she said quickly. “And I am so anxious to hear.”
He read to her a story, one that he flattered himself was among his very best. He called it “The Wine of Life,” and the wine of it, that had stolen into his brain when he wrote it, stole into his brain now as he read it. There was a certain magic in the original conception, and he had adorned it with more magic of phrase and touch. All the old fire and passion with which he had written it were reborn in him, and he was swayed and swept away so that he was blind and deaf to the faults of it. But it was not so with Ruth. Her trained ear detected the weaknesses and exaggerations, the overemphasis of the tyro, and she was instantly aware each time the sentence-rhythm tripped and faltered. She scarcely noted the rhythm otherwise, except when it became too pompous, at which moments she was disagreeably impressed with its amateurishness. That was her final judgment on the story as a whole—amateurish, though she did not tell him so. Instead, when he had done, she pointed out the minor flaws and said that she liked the story.
But he was disappointed. Her criticism was just. He acknowledged that, but he had a feeling that he was not sharing his work with her for the purpose of schoolroom correction. The details did not matter. They could take care of themselves. He could mend them, he could learn to mend them. Out of life he had captured something big and attempted to imprison it in the story. It was the big thing out of life he had read to her, not sentence-structure and semicolons. He wanted her to feel with him this big thing that was his, that he had seen with his own eyes, grappled with his own brain, and placed there on the page with his own hands in printed words. Well, he had failed, was his secret decision. Perhaps the editors were right. He had felt the big thing, but he had failed to transmute it. He concealed his disappointment, and joined so easily with her in her criticism that she did not realize that deep down in him was running a strong undercurrent of disagreement.
“This next thing I’ve called ‘The Pot’,” he said, unfolding the manuscript. “It has been refused by four or five magazines now, but still I think it is good. In fact, I don’t know what to think of it, except that I’ve caught something there. Maybe it won’t affect you as it does me. It’s a short thing—only two thousand words.”
“How dreadful!” she cried, when he had finished. “It is horrible, unutterably horrible!”
He noted her pale face, her eyes wide and tense, and her clenched hands, with secret satisfaction. He had succeeded. He had communicated the stuff of fancy and feeling from out of his brain. It had struck home. No matter whether she liked it or not, it had gripped her and mastered her, made her sit there and listen and forget details.
“It is life,” he said, “and life is not always beautiful. And yet, perhaps because I am strangely made, I find something beautiful there. It seems to me that the beauty is tenfold enhanced because it is there—”
“But why couldn’t the poor woman—” she broke in disconnectedly. Then she left the revolt of her thought unexpressed to cry out: “Oh! It is degrading! It is not nice! It is nasty!”
For the moment it seemed to him that his heart stood still. Nasty! He had never dreamed it. He had not meant it. The whole sketch stood before him in letters of fire, and in such blaze of illumination he sought vainly for nastiness. Then his heart began to beat again. He was not guilty.
“Why didn’t you select a nice subject?” she was saying. “We know there are nasty things in the world, but that is no reason—”
She talked on in her indignant strain, but he was not following her. He was smiling to himself as he looked up into her virginal face, so innocent, so penetratingly innocent, that its purity seemed always to enter into him, driving out of him all dross and bathing him in some ethereal effulgence that was as cool and soft and velvety as starshine. We know there are nasty things in the world! He cuddled to him the notion of her knowing, and chuckled over it as a love joke. The next moment, in a flashing vision of multitudinous detail, he sighted the whole sea of life’s nastiness that he had known and voyaged over and through, and he forgave her for not understanding the story. It was through no fault of hers that she could not understand. He thanked God that she had been born and sheltered to such innocence. But he knew life, its foulness as well as its fairness, its greatness in spite of the slime that infested it, and by God he was going to have his say on it to the world. Saints in heaven—how could they be anything but fair and pure? No praise to them. But saints in slime—ah, that was the everlasting wonder! That was what made life worth while. To see moral grandeur rising out of cesspools of iniquity; to rise himself and first glimpse beauty, faint and far, through mud-dripping eyes; to see out of weakness, and frailty, and viciousness, and all abysmal brutishness, arising strength, and truth, and high spiritual endowment—
He caught a stray sequence of sentences she was uttering.
“The tone of it all is low. And there is so much that is high. Take ‘In Memoriam.’”
He was impelled to suggest “Locksley Hall,” and would have done so, had not his vision gripped him again and left him staring at her, the female of his kind, who, out of the primordial ferment, creeping and crawling up the vast ladder of life for a thousand thousand centuries, had emerged on the topmost rung, having become one Ruth, pure, and fair, and divine, and with power to make him know love, and to aspire toward purity, and to desire to taste divinity—him, Martin Eden, who, too, had come up in some amazing fashion from out of the ruck and the mire and the countless mistakes and abortions of unending creation. There was the romance, and the wonder, and the glory. There was the stuff to write, if he could only find speech. Saints in heaven!—They were only saints and could not help themselves. But he was a man.
“You have strength,” he could hear her saying, “but it is untutored strength.”
“Like a bull in a china shop,” he suggested, and won a smile.
“And you must develop discrimination. You must consult taste, and fineness, and tone.”
“I dare too much,” he muttered.
She smiled approbation, and settled herself to listen to another story.
“I don’t know what you’ll make of this,” he said apologetically. “It’s a funny thing. I’m afraid I got beyond my depth in it, but my intentions were good. Don’t bother about the little features of it. Just see if you catch the feel of the big thing in it. It is big, and it is true, though the chance is large that I have failed to make it intelligible.”
He read, and as he read he watched her. At last he had reached her, he thought. She sat without movement, her eyes steadfast upon him, scarcely breathing, caught up and out of herself, he thought, by the witchery of the thing he had created. He had entitled the story “Adventure,” and it was the apotheosis of adventure—not of the adventure of the storybooks, but of real adventure, the savage taskmaster, awful of punishment and awful of reward, faithless and whimsical, demanding terrible patience and heartbreaking days and nights of toil, offering the blazing sunlight glory or dark death at the end of thirst and famine or of the long drag and monstrous delirium of rotting fever, through blood and sweat and stinging insects leading up by long chains of petty and ignoble contacts to royal culminations and lordly achievements.
It was this, all of it, and more, that he had put into his story, and it was this, he believed, that warmed her as she sat and listened. Her eyes were wide, color was in her pale cheeks, and before he finished it seemed to him that she was almost panting. Truly, she was warmed; but she was warmed, not by the story, but by him. She did not think much of the story; it was Martin’s intensity of power, the old excess of strength that seemed to pour from his body and on and over her. The paradox of it was that it was the story itself that was freighted with his power, that was the channel, for the time being, through which his strength poured out to her. She was aware only of the strength, and not of the medium, and when she seemed most carried away by what he had written, in reality she had been carried away by something quite foreign to it—by a thought, terrible and perilous, that had formed itself unsummoned in her brain. She had caught herself wondering what marriage was like, and the becoming conscious of the waywardness and ardor of the thought had terrified her. It was unmaidenly. It was not like her. She had never been tormented by womanhood, and she had lived in a dreamland of Tennysonian poesy, dense even to the full significance of that delicate master’s delicate allusions to the grossnesses that intrude upon the relations of queens and knights. She had been asleep, always, and now life was thundering imperatively at all her doors. Mentally she was in a panic to shoot the bolts and drop the bars into place, while wanton instincts urged her to throw wide her portals and bid the deliciously strange visitor to enter in.
Martin waited with satisfaction for her verdict. He had no doubt of what it would be, and he was astounded when he heard her say:
“It is beautiful.”
“It is beautiful,” she repeated, with emphasis, after a pause.
Of course it was beautiful; but there was something more than mere beauty in it, something more stingingly splendid which had made beauty its handmaiden. He sprawled silently on the ground, watching the grisly form of a great doubt rising before him. He had failed. He was inarticulate. He had seen one of the greatest things in the world, and he had not expressed it.
“What did you think of the—” He hesitated, abashed at his first attempt to use a strange word. “Of the motif?” he asked.
“It was confused,” she answered. “That is my only criticism in the large way. I followed the story, but there seemed so much else. It is too wordy. You clog the action by introducing so much extraneous material.”
“That was the major motif,” he hurriedly explained, “the big underrunning motif, the cosmic and universal thing. I tried to make it keep time with the story itself, which was only superficial after all. I was on the right scent, but I guess I did it badly. I did not succeed in suggesting what I was driving at. But I’ll learn in time.”
She did not follow him. She was a bachelor of arts, but he had gone beyond her limitations. This she did not comprehend, attributing her incomprehension to his incoherence.
“You were too voluble,” she said. “But it was beautiful, in places.”
He heard her voice as from far off, for he was debating whether he would read her the “Sea Lyrics.” He lay in dull despair, while she watched him searchingly, pondering again upon unsummoned and wayward thoughts of marriage.
“You want to be famous?” she asked abruptly.
“Yes, a little bit,” he confessed. “That is part of the adventure. It is not the being famous, but the process of becoming so, that counts. And after all, to be famous would be, for me, only a means to something else. I want to be famous very much, for that matter, and for that reason.”
“For your sake,” he wanted to add, and might have added had she proved enthusiastic over what he had read to her.
But she was too busy in her mind, carving out a career for him that would at least be possible, to ask what the ultimate something was which he had hinted at. There was no career for him in literature. Of that she was convinced. He had proved it to-day, with his amateurish and sophomoric productions. He could talk well, but he was incapable of expressing himself in a literary way. She compared Tennyson, and Browning, and her favorite prose masters with him, and to his hopeless discredit. Yet she did not tell him her whole mind. Her strange interest in him led her to temporize. His desire to write was, after all, a little weakness which he would grow out of in time. Then he would devote himself to the more serious affairs of life. And he would succeed, too. She knew that. He was so strong that he could not fail—if only he would drop writing.
“I wish you would show me all you write, Mr. Eden,” she said.
He flushed with pleasure. She was interested, that much was sure. And at least she had not given him a rejection slip. She had called certain portions of his work beautiful, and that was the first encouragement he had ever received from any one.
“I will,” he said passionately. “And I promise you, Miss Morse, that I will make good. I have come far, I know that; and I have far to go, and I will cover it if I have to do it on my hands and knees.” He held up a bunch of manuscript. “Here are the ‘Sea Lyrics.’ When you get home, I’ll turn them over to you to read at your leisure. And you must be sure to tell me just what you think of them. What I need, you know, above all things, is criticism. And do, please, be frank with me.”
“I will be perfectly frank,” she promised, with an uneasy conviction that she had not been frank with him and with a doubt if she could be quite frank with him the next time.
“The first battle, fought and finished,” Martin said to the looking-glass ten days later. “But there will be a second battle, and a third battle, and battles to the end of time, unless—”
He had not finished the sentence, but looked about the mean little room and let his eyes dwell sadly upon a heap of returned manuscripts, still in their long envelopes, which lay in a corner on the floor. He had no stamps with which to continue them on their travels, and for a week they had been piling up. More of them would come in on the morrow, and on the next day, and the next, till they were all in. And he would be unable to start them out again. He was a month’s rent behind on the typewriter, which he could not pay, having barely enough for the week’s board which was due and for the employment office fees.
He sat down and regarded the table thoughtfully. There were ink stains upon it, and he suddenly discovered that he was fond of it.
“Dear old table,” he said, “I’ve spent some happy hours with you, and you’ve been a pretty good friend when all is said and done. You never turned me down, never passed me out a reward-of-unmerit rejection slip, never complained about working overtime.”
He dropped his arms upon the table and buried his face in them. His throat was aching, and he wanted to cry. It reminded him of his first fight, when he was six years old, when he punched away with the tears running down his cheeks while the other boy, two years his elder, had beaten and pounded him into exhaustion. He saw the ring of boys, howling like barbarians as he went down at last, writhing in the throes of nausea, the blood streaming from his nose and the tears from his bruised eyes.
“Poor little shaver,” he murmured. “And you’re just as badly licked now. You’re beaten to a pulp. You’re down and out.”
But the vision of that first fight still lingered under his eyelids, and as he watched he saw it dissolve and reshape into the series of fights which had followed. Six months later Cheese-Face (that was the boy) had whipped him again. But he had blacked Cheese-Face’s eye that time. That was going some. He saw them all, fight after fight, himself always whipped and Cheese-Face exulting over him. But he had never run away. He felt strengthened by the memory of that. He had always stayed and taken his medicine. Cheese-Face had been a little fiend at fighting, and had never once shown mercy to him. But he had stayed! He had stayed with it!
Next, he saw a narrow alley, between ramshackle frame buildings. The end of the alley was blocked by a one-story brick building, out of which issued the rhythmic thunder of the presses, running off the first edition of the Enquirer. He was eleven, and Cheese-Face was thirteen, and they both carried the Enquirer. That was why they were there, waiting for their papers. And, of course, Cheese-Face had picked on him again, and there was another fight that was indeterminate, because at quarter to four the door of the press-room was thrown open and the gang of boys crowded in to fold their papers.
“I’ll lick you to-morrow,” he heard Cheese-Face promise; and he heard his own voice, piping and trembling with unshed tears, agreeing to be there on the morrow.
And he had come there the next day, hurrying from school to be there first, and beating Cheese-Face by two minutes. The other boys said he was all right, and gave him advice, pointing out his faults as a scrapper and promising him victory if he carried out their instructions. The same boys gave Cheese-Face advice, too. How they had enjoyed the fight! He paused in his recollections long enough to envy them the spectacle he and Cheese-Face had put up. Then the fight was on, and it went on, without rounds, for thirty minutes, until the press-room door was opened.
He watched the youthful apparition of himself, day after day, hurrying from school to the Enquirer alley. He could not walk very fast. He was stiff and lame from the incessant fighting. His forearms were black and blue from wrist to elbow, what of the countless blows he had warded off, and here and there the tortured flesh was beginning to fester. His head and arms and shoulders ached, the small of his back ached,—he ached all over, and his brain was heavy and dazed. He did not play at school. Nor did he study. Even to sit still all day at his desk, as he did, was a torment. It seemed centuries since he had begun the round of daily fights, and time stretched away into a nightmare and infinite future of daily fights. Why couldn’t Cheese-Face be licked? he often thought; that would put him, Martin, out of his misery. It never entered his head to cease fighting, to allow Cheese-Face to whip him.
And so he dragged himself to the Enquirer alley, sick in body and soul, but learning the long patience, to confront his eternal enemy, Cheese-Face, who was just as sick as he, and just a bit willing to quit if it were not for the gang of newsboys that looked on and made pride painful and necessary. One afternoon, after twenty minutes of desperate efforts to annihilate each other according to set rules that did not permit kicking, striking below the belt, nor hitting when one was down, Cheese-Face, panting for breath and reeling, offered to call it quits. And Martin, head on arms, thrilled at the picture he caught of himself, at that moment in the afternoon of long ago, when he reeled and panted and choked with the blood that ran into his mouth and down his throat from his cut lips; when he tottered toward Cheese-Face, spitting out a mouthful of blood so that he could speak, crying out that he would never quit, though Cheese-Face could give in if he wanted to. And Cheese-Face did not give in, and the fight went on.
The next day and the next, days without end, witnessed the afternoon fight. When he put up his arms, each day, to begin, they pained exquisitely, and the first few blows, struck and received, racked his soul; after that things grew numb, and he fought on blindly, seeing as in a dream, dancing and wavering, the large features and burning, animal-like eyes of Cheese-Face. He concentrated upon that face; all else about him was a whirling void. There was nothing else in the world but that face, and he would never know rest, blessed rest, until he had beaten that face into a pulp with his bleeding knuckles, or until the bleeding knuckles that somehow belonged to that face had beaten him into a pulp. And then, one way or the other, he would have rest. But to quit,—for him, Martin, to quit,—that was impossible!
Came the day when he dragged himself into the Enquirer alley, and there was no Cheese-Face. Nor did Cheese-Face come. The boys congratulated him, and told him that he had licked Cheese-Face. But Martin was not satisfied. He had not licked Cheese-Face, nor had Cheese-Face licked him. The problem had not been solved. It was not until afterward that they learned that Cheese-Face’s father had died suddenly that very day.
Martin skipped on through the years to the night in the nigger heaven at the Auditorium. He was seventeen and just back from sea. A row started. Somebody was bullying somebody, and Martin interfered, to be confronted by Cheese-Face’s blazing eyes.
“I’ll fix you after de show,” his ancient enemy hissed.
Martin nodded. The nigger-heaven bouncer was making his way toward the disturbance.
“I’ll meet you outside, after the last act,” Martin whispered, the while his face showed undivided interest in the buck-and-wing dancing on the stage.
The bouncer glared and went away.
“Got a gang?” he asked Cheese-Face, at the end of the act.
“Then I got to get one,” Martin announced.
Between the acts he mustered his following—three fellows he knew from the nail works, a railroad fireman, and half a dozen of the Boo Gang, along with as many more from the dread Eighteen-and-Market Gang.
When the theatre let out, the two gangs strung along inconspicuously on opposite sides of the street. When they came to a quiet corner, they united and held a council of war.
“Eighth Street Bridge is the place,” said a red-headed fellow belonging to Cheese-Face’s Gang. “You kin fight in the middle, under the electric light, an’ whichever way the bulls come in we kin sneak the other way.”
“That’s agreeable to me,” Martin said, after consulting with the leaders of his own gang.
The Eighth Street Bridge, crossing an arm of San Antonio Estuary, was the length of three city blocks. In the middle of the bridge, and at each end, were electric lights. No policeman could pass those end-lights unseen. It was the safe place for the battle that revived itself under Martin’s eyelids. He saw the two gangs, aggressive and sullen, rigidly keeping apart from each other and backing their respective champions; and he saw himself and Cheese-Face stripping. A short distance away lookouts were set, their task being to watch the lighted ends of the bridge. A member of the Boo Gang held Martin’s coat, and shirt, and cap, ready to race with them into safety in case the police interfered. Martin watched himself go into the centre, facing Cheese-Face, and he heard himself say, as he held up his hand warningly:-
“They ain’t no hand-shakin’ in this. Understand? They ain’t nothin’ but scrap. No throwin’ up the sponge. This is a grudge-fight an’ it’s to a finish. Understand? Somebody’s goin’ to get licked.”
Cheese-Face wanted to demur,—Martin could see that,—but Cheese-Face’s old perilous pride was touched before the two gangs.
“Aw, come on,” he replied. “Wot’s the good of chewin’ de rag about it? I’m wit’ cheh to de finish.”
Then they fell upon each other, like young bulls, in all the glory of youth, with naked fists, with hatred, with desire to hurt, to maim, to destroy. All the painful, thousand years’ gains of man in his upward climb through creation were lost. Only the electric light remained, a milestone on the path of the great human adventure. Martin and Cheese-Face were two savages, of the stone age, of the squatting place and the tree refuge. They sank lower and lower into the muddy abyss, back into the dregs of the raw beginnings of life, striving blindly and chemically, as atoms strive, as the star-dust if the heavens strives, colliding, recoiling, and colliding again and eternally again.
“God! We are animals! Brute-beasts!” Martin muttered aloud, as he watched the progress of the fight. It was to him, with his splendid power of vision, like gazing into a kinetoscope. He was both onlooker and participant. His long months of culture and refinement shuddered at the sight; then the present was blotted out of his consciousness and the ghosts of the past possessed him, and he was Martin Eden, just returned from sea and fighting Cheese-Face on the Eighth Street Bridge. He suffered and toiled and sweated and bled, and exulted when his naked knuckles smashed home.
They were twin whirlwinds of hatred, revolving about each other monstrously. The time passed, and the two hostile gangs became very quiet. They had never witnessed such intensity of ferocity, and they were awed by it. The two fighters were greater brutes than they. The first splendid velvet edge of youth and condition wore off, and they fought more cautiously and deliberately. There had been no advantage gained either way. “It’s anybody’s fight,” Martin heard some one saying. Then he followed up a feint, right and left, was fiercely countered, and felt his cheek laid open to the bone. No bare knuckle had done that. He heard mutters of amazement at the ghastly damage wrought, and was drenched with his own blood. But he gave no sign. He became immensely wary, for he was wise with knowledge of the low cunning and foul vileness of his kind. He watched and waited, until he feigned a wild rush, which he stopped midway, for he had seen the glint of metal.
“Hold up yer hand!” he screamed. “Them’s brass knuckles, an’ you hit me with ’em!”
Both gangs surged forward, growling and snarling. In a second there would be a free-for-all fight, and he would be robbed of his vengeance. He was beside himself.
“You guys keep out!” he screamed hoarsely. “Understand? Say, d’ye understand?”
They shrank away from him. They were brutes, but he was the arch-brute, a thing of terror that towered over them and dominated them.
“This is my scrap, an’ they ain’t goin’ to be no buttin’ in. Gimme them knuckles.”
Cheese-Face, sobered and a bit frightened, surrendered the foul weapon.
“You passed ’em to him, you red-head sneakin’ in behind the push there,” Martin went on, as he tossed the knuckles into the water. “I seen you, an’ I was wonderin’ what you was up to. If you try anything like that again, I’ll beat cheh to death. Understand?”
They fought on, through exhaustion and beyond, to exhaustion immeasurable and inconceivable, until the crowd of brutes, its blood-lust sated, terrified by what it saw, begged them impartially to cease. And Cheese-Face, ready to drop and die, or to stay on his legs and die, a grisly monster out of whose features all likeness to Cheese-Face had been beaten, wavered and hesitated; but Martin sprang in and smashed him again and again.
Next, after a seeming century or so, with Cheese-Face weakening fast, in a mix-up of blows there was a loud snap, and Martin’s right arm dropped to his side. It was a broken bone. Everybody heard it and knew; and Cheese-Face knew, rushing like a tiger in the other’s extremity and raining blow on blow. Martin’s gang surged forward to interfere. Dazed by the rapid succession of blows, Martin warned them back with vile and earnest curses sobbed out and groaned in ultimate desolation and despair.
He punched on, with his left hand only, and as he punched, doggedly, only half-conscious, as from a remote distance he heard murmurs of fear in the gangs, and one who said with shaking voice: “This ain’t a scrap, fellows. It’s murder, an’ we ought to stop it.”
But no one stopped it, and he was glad, punching on wearily and endlessly with his one arm, battering away at a bloody something before him that was not a face but a horror, an oscillating, hideous, gibbering, nameless thing that persisted before his wavering vision and would not go away. And he punched on and on, slower and slower, as the last shreds of vitality oozed from him, through centuries and aeons and enormous lapses of time, until, in a dim way, he became aware that the nameless thing was sinking, slowly sinking down to the rough board-planking of the bridge. And the next moment he was standing over it, staggering and swaying on shaky legs, clutching at the air for support, and saying in a voice he did not recognize:-
“D’ye want any more? Say, d’ye want any more?”
He was still saying it, over and over,—demanding, entreating, threatening, to know if it wanted any more,—when he felt the fellows of his gang laying hands on him, patting him on the back and trying to put his coat on him. And then came a sudden rush of blackness and oblivion.
The tin alarm-clock on the table ticked on, but Martin Eden, his face buried on his arms, did not hear it. He heard nothing. He did not think. So absolutely had he relived life that he had fainted just as he fainted years before on the Eighth Street Bridge. For a full minute the blackness and the blankness endured. Then, like one from the dead, he sprang upright, eyes flaming, sweat pouring down his face, shouting:-
“I licked you, Cheese-Face! It took me eleven years, but I licked you!”
His knees were trembling under him, he felt faint, and he staggered back to the bed, sinking down and sitting on the edge of it. He was still in the clutch of the past. He looked about the room, perplexed, alarmed, wondering where he was, until he caught sight of the pile of manuscripts in the corner. Then the wheels of memory slipped ahead through four years of time, and he was aware of the present, of the books he had opened and the universe he had won from their pages, of his dreams and ambitions, and of his love for a pale wraith of a girl, sensitive and sheltered and ethereal, who would die of horror did she witness but one moment of what he had just lived through—one moment of all the muck of life through which he had waded.
He arose to his feet and confronted himself in the looking-glass.
“And so you arise from the mud, Martin Eden,” he said solemnly. “And you cleanse your eyes in a great brightness, and thrust your shoulders among the stars, doing what all life has done, letting the ‘ape and tiger die’ and wresting highest heritage from all powers that be.”
He looked more closely at himself and laughed.
“A bit of hysteria and melodrama, eh?” he queried. “Well, never mind. You licked Cheese-Face, and you’ll lick the editors if it takes twice eleven years to do it in. You can’t stop here. You’ve got to go on. It’s to a finish, you know.”
The alarm-clock went off, jerking Martin out of sleep with a suddenness that would have given headache to one with less splendid constitution. Though he slept soundly, he awoke instantly, like a cat, and he awoke eagerly, glad that the five hours of unconsciousness were gone. He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live. He grudged every moment of life sleep robbed him of, and before the clock had ceased its clattering he was head and ears in the washbasin and thrilling to the cold bite of the water.
But he did not follow his regular programme. There was no unfinished story waiting his hand, no new story demanding articulation. He had studied late, and it was nearly time for breakfast. He tried to read a chapter in Fiske, but his brain was restless and he closed the book. To-day witnessed the beginning of the new battle, wherein for some time there would be no writing. He was aware of a sadness akin to that with which one leaves home and family. He looked at the manuscripts in the corner. That was it. He was going away from them, his pitiful, dishonored children that were welcome nowhere. He went over and began to rummage among them, reading snatches here and there, his favorite portions. “The Pot” he honored with reading aloud, as he did “Adventure.” “Joy,” his latest-born, completed the day before and tossed into the corner for lack of stamps, won his keenest approbation.
“I can’t understand,” he murmured. “Or maybe it’s the editors who can’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with that. They publish worse every month. Everything they publish is worse—nearly everything, anyway.”
After breakfast he put the type-writer in its case and carried it down into Oakland.
“I owe a month on it,” he told the clerk in the store. “But you tell the manager I’m going to work and that I’ll be in in a month or so and straighten up.”
He crossed on the ferry to San Francisco and made his way to an employment office. “Any kind of work, no trade,” he told the agent; and was interrupted by a new-comer, dressed rather foppishly, as some workingmen dress who have instincts for finer things. The agent shook his head despondently.
“Nothin’ doin’ eh?” said the other. “Well, I got to get somebody to-day.”
He turned and stared at Martin, and Martin, staring back, noted the puffed and discolored face, handsome and weak, and knew that he had been making a night of it.
“Lookin’ for a job?” the other queried. “What can you do?”
“Hard labor, sailorizing, run a type-writer, no shorthand, can sit on a horse, willing to do anything and tackle anything,” was the answer.
The other nodded.
“Sounds good to me. My name’s Dawson, Joe Dawson, an’ I’m tryin’ to scare up a laundryman.”
“Too much for me.” Martin caught an amusing glimpse of himself ironing fluffy white things that women wear. But he had taken a liking to the other, and he added: “I might do the plain washing. I learned that much at sea.” Joe Dawson thought visibly for a moment.
“Look here, let’s get together an’ frame it up. Willin’ to listen?”
“This is a small laundry, up country, belongs to Shelly Hot Springs,—hotel, you know. Two men do the work, boss and assistant. I’m the boss. You don’t work for me, but you work under me. Think you’d be willin’ to learn?”
Martin paused to think. The prospect was alluring. A few months of it, and he would have time to himself for study. He could work hard and study hard.
“Good grub an’ a room to yourself,” Joe said.
That settled it. A room to himself where he could burn the midnight oil unmolested.
“But work like hell,” the other added.
Martin caressed his swelling shoulder-muscles significantly. “That came from hard work.”
“Then let’s get to it.” Joe held his hand to his head for a moment. “Gee, but it’s a stem-winder. Can hardly see. I went down the line last night—everything—everything. Here’s the frame-up. The wages for two is a hundred and board. I’ve ben drawin’ down sixty, the second man forty. But he knew the biz. You’re green. If I break you in, I’ll be doing plenty of your work at first. Suppose you begin at thirty, an’ work up to the forty. I’ll play fair. Just as soon as you can do your share you get the forty.”
“I’ll go you,” Martin announced, stretching out his hand, which the other shook. “Any advance?—for rail-road ticket and extras?”
“I blew it in,” was Joe’s sad answer, with another reach at his aching head. “All I got is a return ticket.”
“And I’m broke—when I pay my board.”
“Jump it,” Joe advised.
“Can’t. Owe it to my sister.”
Joe whistled a long, perplexed whistle, and racked his brains to little purpose.
“I’ve got the price of the drinks,” he said desperately. “Come on, an’ mebbe we’ll cook up something.”
This time Martin nodded, and Joe lamented, “Wish I was.”
“But I somehow just can’t,” he said in extenuation. “After I’ve ben workin’ like hell all week I just got to booze up. If I didn’t, I’d cut my throat or burn up the premises. But I’m glad you’re on the wagon. Stay with it.”
Martin knew of the enormous gulf between him and this man—the gulf the books had made; but he found no difficulty in crossing back over that gulf. He had lived all his life in the working-class world, and the camaraderie of labor was second nature with him. He solved the difficulty of transportation that was too much for the other’s aching head. He would send his trunk up to Shelly Hot Springs on Joe’s ticket. As for himself, there was his wheel. It was seventy miles, and he could ride it on Sunday and be ready for work Monday morning. In the meantime he would go home and pack up. There was no one to say good-by to. Ruth and her whole family were spending the long summer in the Sierras, at Lake Tahoe.
He arrived at Shelly Hot Springs, tired and dusty, on Sunday night. Joe greeted him exuberantly. With a wet towel bound about his aching brow, he had been at work all day.
“Part of last week’s washin’ mounted up, me bein’ away to get you,” he explained. “Your box arrived all right. It’s in your room. But it’s a hell of a thing to call a trunk. An’ what’s in it? Gold bricks?”
Joe sat on the bed while Martin unpacked. The box was a packing-case for breakfast food, and Mr. Higginbotham had charged him half a dollar for it. Two rope handles, nailed on by Martin, had technically transformed it into a trunk eligible for the baggage-car. Joe watched, with bulging eyes, a few shirts and several changes of underclothes come out of the box, followed by books, and more books.
“Books clean to the bottom?” he asked.
Martin nodded, and went on arranging the books on a kitchen table which served in the room in place of a wash-stand.
“Gee!” Joe exploded, then waited in silence for the deduction to arise in his brain. At last it came.
“Say, you don’t care for the girls—much?” he queried.
“No,” was the answer. “I used to chase a lot before I tackled the books. But since then there’s no time.”
“And there won’t be any time here. All you can do is work an’ sleep.”
Martin thought of his five hours’ sleep a night, and smiled. The room was situated over the laundry and was in the same building with the engine that pumped water, made electricity, and ran the laundry machinery. The engineer, who occupied the adjoining room, dropped in to meet the new hand and helped Martin rig up an electric bulb, on an extension wire, so that it travelled along a stretched cord from over the table to the bed.
The next morning, at quarter-past six, Martin was routed out for a quarter-to-seven breakfast. There happened to be a bath-tub for the servants in the laundry building, and he electrified Joe by taking a cold bath.
“Gee, but you’re a hummer!” Joe announced, as they sat down to breakfast in a corner of the hotel kitchen.
With them was the engineer, the gardener, and the assistant gardener, and two or three men from the stable. They ate hurriedly and gloomily, with but little conversation, and as Martin ate and listened he realized how far he had travelled from their status. Their small mental caliber was depressing to him, and he was anxious to get away from them. So he bolted his breakfast, a sickly, sloppy affair, as rapidly as they, and heaved a sigh of relief when he passed out through the kitchen door.
It was a perfectly appointed, small steam laundry, wherein the most modern machinery did everything that was possible for machinery to do. Martin, after a few instructions, sorted the great heaps of soiled clothes, while Joe started the masher and made up fresh supplies of soft-soap, compounded of biting chemicals that compelled him to swathe his mouth and nostrils and eyes in bath-towels till he resembled a mummy. Finished the sorting, Martin lent a hand in wringing the clothes. This was done by dumping them into a spinning receptacle that went at a rate of a few thousand revolutions a minute, tearing the matter from the clothes by centrifugal force. Then Martin began to alternate between the dryer and the wringer, between times “shaking out” socks and stockings. By the afternoon, one feeding and one, stacking up, they were running socks and stockings through the mangle while the irons were heating. Then it was hot irons and underclothes till six o’clock, at which time Joe shook his head dubiously.
“Way behind,” he said. “Got to work after supper.” And after supper they worked until ten o’clock, under the blazing electric lights, until the last piece of under-clothing was ironed and folded away in the distributing room. It was a hot California night, and though the windows were thrown wide, the room, with its red-hot ironing-stove, was a furnace. Martin and Joe, down to undershirts, bare armed, sweated and panted for air.
“Like trimming cargo in the tropics,” Martin said, when they went upstairs.
“You’ll do,” Joe answered. “You take hold like a good fellow. If you keep up the pace, you’ll be on thirty dollars only one month. The second month you’ll be gettin’ your forty. But don’t tell me you never ironed before. I know better.”
“Never ironed a rag in my life, honestly, until to-day,” Martin protested.
He was surprised at his weariness when he act into his room, forgetful of the fact that he had been on his feet and working without let up for fourteen hours. He set the alarm clock at six, and measured back five hours to one o’clock. He could read until then. Slipping off his shoes, to ease his swollen feet, he sat down at the table with his books. He opened Fiske, where he had left off to read. But he found trouble began to read it through a second time. Then he awoke, in pain from his stiffened muscles and chilled by the mountain wind that had begun to blow in through the window. He looked at the clock. It marked two. He had been asleep four hours. He pulled off his clothes and crawled into bed, where he was asleep the moment after his head touched the pillow.
Tuesday was a day of similar unremitting toil. The speed with which Joe worked won Martin’s admiration. Joe was a dozen of demons for work. He was keyed up to concert pitch, and there was never a moment in the long day when he was not fighting for moments. He concentrated himself upon his work and upon how to save time, pointing out to Martin where he did in five motions what could be done in three, or in three motions what could be done in two. “Elimination of waste motion,” Martin phrased it as he watched and patterned after. He was a good workman himself, quick and deft, and it had always been a point of pride with him that no man should do any of his work for him or outwork him. As a result, he concentrated with a similar singleness of purpose, greedily snapping up the hints and suggestions thrown out by his working mate. He “rubbed out” collars and cuffs, rubbing the starch out from between the double thicknesses of linen so that there would be no blisters when it came to the ironing, and doing it at a pace that elicited Joe’s praise.
There was never an interval when something was not at hand to be done. Joe waited for nothing, waited on nothing, and went on the jump from task to task. They starched two hundred white shirts, with a single gathering movement seizing a shirt so that the wristbands, neckband, yoke, and bosom protruded beyond the circling right hand. At the same moment the left hand held up the body of the shirt so that it would not enter the starch, and at the moment the right hand dipped into the starch—starch so hot that, in order to wring it out, their hands had to thrust, and thrust continually, into a bucket of cold water. And that night they worked till half-past ten, dipping “fancy starch”—all the frilled and airy, delicate wear of ladies.
“Me for the tropics and no clothes,” Martin laughed.
“And me out of a job,” Joe answered seriously. “I don’t know nothin’ but laundrying.”
“And you know it well.”
“I ought to. Began in the Contra Costa in Oakland when I was eleven, shakin’ out for the mangle. That was eighteen years ago, an’ I’ve never done a tap of anything else. But this job is the fiercest I ever had. Ought to be one more man on it at least. We work to-morrow night. Always run the mangle Wednesday nights—collars an’ cuffs.”
Martin set his alarm, drew up to the table, and opened Fiske. He did not finish the first paragraph. The lines blurred and ran together and his head nodded. He walked up and down, batting his head savagely with his fists, but he could not conquer the numbness of sleep. He propped the book before him, and propped his eyelids with his fingers, and fell asleep with his eyes wide open. Then he surrendered, and, scarcely conscious of what he did, got off his clothes and into bed. He slept seven hours of heavy, animal-like sleep, and awoke by the alarm, feeling that he had not had enough.
“Doin’ much readin’?” Joe asked.
Martin shook his head.
“Never mind. We got to run the mangle to-night, but Thursday we’ll knock off at six. That’ll give you a chance.”
Martin washed woollens that day, by hand, in a large barrel, with strong soft-soap, by means of a hub from a wagon wheel, mounted on a plunger-pole that was attached to a spring-pole overhead.
“My invention,” Joe said proudly. “Beats a washboard an’ your knuckles, and, besides, it saves at least fifteen minutes in the week, an’ fifteen minutes ain’t to be sneezed at in this shebang.”
Running the collars and cuffs through the mangle was also Joe’s idea. That night, while they toiled on under the electric lights, he explained it.
“Something no laundry ever does, except this one. An’ I got to do it if I’m goin’ to get done Saturday afternoon at three o’clock. But I know how, an’ that’s the difference. Got to have right heat, right pressure, and run ’em through three times. Look at that!” He held a cuff aloft. “Couldn’t do it better by hand or on a tiler.”
Thursday, Joe was in a rage. A bundle of extra “fancy starch” had come in.
“I’m goin’ to quit,” he announced. “I won’t stand for it. I’m goin’ to quit it cold. What’s the good of me workin’ like a slave all week, a-savin’ minutes, an’ them a-comin’ an’ ringin’ in fancy-starch extras on me? This is a free country, an’ I’m to tell that fat Dutchman what I think of him. An’ I won’t tell ’m in French. Plain United States is good enough for me. Him a-ringin’ in fancy starch extras!”
“We got to work to-night,” he said the next moment, reversing his judgment and surrendering to fate.
And Martin did no reading that night. He had seen no daily paper all week, and, strangely to him, felt no desire to see one. He was not interested in the news. He was too tired and jaded to be interested in anything, though he planned to leave Saturday afternoon, if they finished at three, and ride on his wheel to Oakland. It was seventy miles, and the same distance back on Sunday afternoon would leave him anything but rested for the second week’s work. It would have been easier to go on the train, but the round trip was two dollars and a half, and he was intent on saving money.
Martin learned to do many things. In the course of the first week, in one afternoon, he and Joe accounted for the two hundred white shirts. Joe ran the tiler, a machine wherein a hot iron was hooked on a steel string which furnished the pressure. By this means he ironed the yoke, wristbands, and neckband, setting the latter at right angles to the shirt, and put the glossy finish on the bosom. As fast as he finished them, he flung the shirts on a rack between him and Martin, who caught them up and “backed” them. This task consisted of ironing all the unstarched portions of the shirts.
It was exhausting work, carried on, hour after hour, at top speed. Out on the broad verandas of the hotel, men and women, in cool white, sipped iced drinks and kept their circulation down. But in the laundry the air was sizzling. The huge stove roared red hot and white hot, while the irons, moving over the damp cloth, sent up clouds of steam. The heat of these irons was different from that used by housewives. An iron that stood the ordinary test of a wet finger was too cold for Joe and Martin, and such test was useless. They went wholly by holding the irons close to their cheeks, gauging the heat by some secret mental process that Martin admired but could not understand. When the fresh irons proved too hot, they hooked them on iron rods and dipped them into cold water. This again required a precise and subtle judgment. A fraction of a second too long in the water and the fine and silken edge of the proper heat was lost, and Martin found time to marvel at the accuracy he developed—an automatic accuracy, founded upon criteria that were machine-like and unerring.
But there was little time in which to marvel. All Martin’s consciousness was concentrated in the work. Ceaselessly active, head and hand, an intelligent machine, all that constituted him a man was devoted to furnishing that intelligence. There was no room in his brain for the universe and its mighty problems. All the broad and spacious corridors of his mind were closed and hermetically sealed. The echoing chamber of his soul was a narrow room, a conning tower, whence were directed his arm and shoulder muscles, his ten nimble fingers, and the swift-moving iron along its steaming path in broad, sweeping strokes, just so many strokes and no more, just so far with each stroke and not a fraction of an inch farther, rushing along interminable sleeves, sides, backs, and tails, and tossing the finished shirts, without rumpling, upon the receiving frame. And even as his hurrying soul tossed, it was reaching for another shirt. This went on, hour after hour, while outside all the world swooned under the overhead California sun. But there was no swooning in that superheated room. The cool guests on the verandas needed clean linen.
The sweat poured from Martin. He drank enormous quantities of water, but so great was the heat of the day and of his exertions, that the water sluiced through the interstices of his flesh and out at all his pores. Always, at sea, except at rare intervals, the work he performed had given him ample opportunity to commune with himself. The master of the ship had been lord of Martin’s time; but here the manager of the hotel was lord of Martin’s thoughts as well. He had no thoughts save for the nerve-racking, body-destroying toil. Outside of that it was impossible to think. He did not know that he loved Ruth. She did not even exist, for his driven soul had no time to remember her. It was only when he crawled to bed at night, or to breakfast in the morning, that she asserted herself to him in fleeting memories.
“This is hell, ain’t it?” Joe remarked once.
Martin nodded, but felt a rasp of irritation. The statement had been obvious and unnecessary. They did not talk while they worked. Conversation threw them out of their stride, as it did this time, compelling Martin to miss a stroke of his iron and to make two extra motions before he caught his stride again.
On Friday morning the washer ran. Twice a week they had to put through hotel linen,—the sheets, pillow-slips, spreads, table-cloths, and napkins. This finished, they buckled down to “fancy starch.” It was slow work, fastidious and delicate, and Martin did not learn it so readily. Besides, he could not take chances. Mistakes were disastrous.
“See that,” Joe said, holding up a filmy corset-cover that he could have crumpled from view in one hand. “Scorch that an’ it’s twenty dollars out of your wages.”
So Martin did not scorch that, and eased down on his muscular tension, though nervous tension rose higher than ever, and he listened sympathetically to the other’s blasphemies as he toiled and suffered over the beautiful things that women wear when they do not have to do their own laundrying. “Fancy starch” was Martin’s nightmare, and it was Joe’s, too. It was “fancy starch” that robbed them of their hard-won minutes. They toiled at it all day. At seven in the evening they broke off to run the hotel linen through the mangle. At ten o’clock, while the hotel guests slept, the two laundrymen sweated on at “fancy starch” till midnight, till one, till two. At half-past two they knocked off.
Saturday morning it was “fancy starch,” and odds and ends, and at three in the afternoon the week’s work was done.
“You ain’t a-goin’ to ride them seventy miles into Oakland on top of this?” Joe demanded, as they sat on the stairs and took a triumphant smoke.
“Got to,” was the answer.
“What are you goin’ for?—a girl?”
“No; to save two and a half on the railroad ticket. I want to renew some books at the library.”
“Why don’t you send ’em down an’ up by express? That’ll cost only a quarter each way.”
Martin considered it.
“An’ take a rest to-morrow,” the other urged. “You need it. I know I do. I’m plumb tuckered out.”
He looked it. Indomitable, never resting, fighting for seconds and minutes all week, circumventing delays and crushing down obstacles, a fount of resistless energy, a high-driven human motor, a demon for work, now that he had accomplished the week’s task he was in a state of collapse. He was worn and haggard, and his handsome face drooped in lean exhaustion. He pulled his cigarette spiritlessly, and his voice was peculiarly dead and monotonous. All the snap and fire had gone out of him. His triumph seemed a sorry one.
“An’ next week we got to do it all over again,” he said sadly. “An’ what’s the good of it all, hey? Sometimes I wish I was a hobo. They don’t work, an’ they get their livin’. Gee! I wish I had a glass of beer; but I can’t get up the gumption to go down to the village an’ get it. You’ll stay over, an’ send your books dawn by express, or else you’re a damn fool.”
“But what can I do here all day Sunday?” Martin asked.
“Rest. You don’t know how tired you are. Why, I’m that tired Sunday I can’t even read the papers. I was sick once—typhoid. In the hospital two months an’ a half. Didn’t do a tap of work all that time. It was beautiful.”
“It was beautiful,” he repeated dreamily, a minute later.
Martin took a bath, after which he found that the head laundryman had disappeared. Most likely he had gone for a glass of beer Martin decided, but the half-mile walk down to the village to find out seemed a long journey to him. He lay on his bed with his shoes off, trying to make up his mind. He did not reach out for a book. He was too tired to feel sleepy, and he lay, scarcely thinking, in a semi-stupor of weariness, until it was time for supper. Joe did not appear for that function, and when Martin heard the gardener remark that most likely he was ripping the slats off the bar, Martin understood. He went to bed immediately afterward, and in the morning decided that he was greatly rested. Joe being still absent, Martin procured a Sunday paper and lay down in a shady nook under the trees. The morning passed, he knew not how. He did not sleep, nobody disturbed him, and he did not finish the paper. He came back to it in the afternoon, after dinner, and fell asleep over it.
So passed Sunday, and Monday morning he was hard at work, sorting clothes, while Joe, a towel bound tightly around his head, with groans and blasphemies, was running the washer and mixing soft-soap.
“I simply can’t help it,” he explained. “I got to drink when Saturday night comes around.”
Another week passed, a great battle that continued under the electric lights each night and that culminated on Saturday afternoon at three o’clock, when Joe tasted his moment of wilted triumph and then drifted down to the village to forget. Martin’s Sunday was the same as before. He slept in the shade of the trees, toiled aimlessly through the newspaper, and spent long hours lying on his back, doing nothing, thinking nothing. He was too dazed to think, though he was aware that he did not like himself. He was self-repelled, as though he had undergone some degradation or was intrinsically foul. All that was god-like in him was blotted out. The spur of ambition was blunted; he had no vitality with which to feel the prod of it. He was dead. His soul seemed dead. He was a beast, a work-beast. He saw no beauty in the sunshine sifting down through the green leaves, nor did the azure vault of the sky whisper as of old and hint of cosmic vastness and secrets trembling to disclosure. Life was intolerably dull and stupid, and its taste was bad in his mouth. A black screen was drawn across his mirror of inner vision, and fancy lay in a darkened sick-room where entered no ray of light. He envied Joe, down in the village, rampant, tearing the slats off the bar, his brain gnawing with maggots, exulting in maudlin ways over maudlin things, fantastically and gloriously drunk and forgetful of Monday morning and the week of deadening toil to come.
A third week went by, and Martin loathed himself, and loathed life. He was oppressed by a sense of failure. There was reason for the editors refusing his stuff. He could see that clearly now, and laugh at himself and the dreams he had dreamed. Ruth returned his “Sea Lyrics” by mail. He read her letter apathetically. She did her best to say how much she liked them and that they were beautiful. But she could not lie, and she could not disguise the truth from herself. She knew they were failures, and he read her disapproval in every perfunctory and unenthusiastic line of her letter. And she was right. He was firmly convinced of it as he read the poems over. Beauty and wonder had departed from him, and as he read the poems he caught himself puzzling as to what he had had in mind when he wrote them. His audacities of phrase struck him as grotesque, his felicities of expression were monstrosities, and everything was absurd, unreal, and impossible. He would have burned the “Sea Lyrics” on the spot, had his will been strong enough to set them aflame. There was the engine-room, but the exertion of carrying them to the furnace was not worth while. All his exertion was used in washing other persons’ clothes. He did not have any left for private affairs.
He resolved that when Sunday came he would pull himself together and answer Ruth’s letter. But Saturday afternoon, after work was finished and he had taken a bath, the desire to forget overpowered him. “I guess I’ll go down and see how Joe’s getting on,” was the way he put it to himself; and in the same moment he knew that he lied. But he did not have the energy to consider the lie. If he had had the energy, he would have refused to consider the lie, because he wanted to forget. He started for the village slowly and casually, increasing his pace in spite of himself as he neared the saloon.
“I thought you was on the water-wagon,” was Joe’s greeting.
Martin did not deign to offer excuses, but called for whiskey, filling his own glass brimming before he passed the bottle.
“Don’t take all night about it,” he said roughly.
The other was dawdling with the bottle, and Martin refused to wait for him, tossing the glass off in a gulp and refilling it.
“Now, I can wait for you,” he said grimly; “but hurry up.”
Joe hurried, and they drank together.
“The work did it, eh?” Joe queried.
Martin refused to discuss the matter.
“It’s fair hell, I know,” the other went on, “but I kind of hate to see you come off the wagon, Mart. Well, here’s how!”
Martin drank on silently, biting out his orders and invitations and awing the barkeeper, an effeminate country youngster with watery blue eyes and hair parted in the middle.
“It’s something scandalous the way they work us poor devils,” Joe was remarking. “If I didn’t bowl up, I’d break loose an’ burn down the shebang. My bowlin’ up is all that saves ’em, I can tell you that.”
But Martin made no answer. A few more drinks, and in his brain he felt the maggots of intoxication beginning to crawl. Ah, it was living, the first breath of life he had breathed in three weeks. His dreams came back to him. Fancy came out of the darkened room and lured him on, a thing of flaming brightness. His mirror of vision was silver-clear, a flashing, dazzling palimpsest of imagery. Wonder and beauty walked with him, hand in hand, and all power was his. He tried to tell it to Joe, but Joe had visions of his own, infallible schemes whereby he would escape the slavery of laundry-work and become himself the owner of a great steam laundry.
“I tell yeh, Mart, they won’t be no kids workin’ in my laundry—not on yer life. An’ they won’t be no workin’ a livin’ soul after six P.M. You hear me talk! They’ll be machinery enough an’ hands enough to do it all in decent workin’ hours, an’ Mart, s’help me, I’ll make yeh superintendent of the shebang—the whole of it, all of it. Now here’s the scheme. I get on the water-wagon an’ save my money for two years—save an’ then—”
But Martin turned away, leaving him to tell it to the barkeeper, until that worthy was called away to furnish drinks to two farmers who, coming in, accepted Martin’s invitation. Martin dispensed royal largess, inviting everybody up, farm-hands, a stableman, and the gardener’s assistant from the hotel, the barkeeper, and the furtive hobo who slid in like a shadow and like a shadow hovered at the end of the bar.