The Rebel At large

The Things Claude Did Not Notice

Clad in his bank [miner] clothes, his cap in one hand, his dinner-pail in the other, he stood at the door and looked at the frowzy-headed woman bending over the sewing machine.

"Goodbye, mother," he said.

She looked up half surprised.

"Goodbye?" she jeered; "a-body'd think you was goin' of somewheres to hear you talk. You save yer breath ter dig yer coal with, Claude Hampton."

She struck at one of the many frowzy-headed children with the hand that held the scissors.

"Quit meddlin' with this machine," she rasped, "'er I'll drive these 'ere plum through yer head." Claude turned and strode off toward the mines, his face tingling as if from a blow. The road wound upward between steep, precipitous mountains, through a valley so narrow that there seemed scarcely space enough for the road and the brawling stream that foamed beside it. Yet on either side were rows of houses – the typical dingy shacks of the mining country.

Looking at them, and thinking of his mother, Claude understood why his aunt had always objected to his coming back to the mining camp even for a visit.

He had idealized the place and the people in his memories of them. Yet surely his mother at least was different when he was a child. He had vague recollections of tender kisses on childish bumps and bruises. Of soft lullabys crooned in far-off twilights. Of a motherly sympathy that comforted the vast overwhelming griefs of childhood.

He knew that it was only at his stepfather's command that she had given him, when still a mere baby, to his father's sister, and through all the intervening years he had clung to his memory of his mother. It was that memory even more than his sense of duty that had brought him back to her when he heard of his stepfather's death.

He had understood before taking this step all that it might cost him. That his aunt disowned and disinherited him was nothing more than he expected. That his mother refused to leave the place where she had lived so long, and where he could find no better work than coal digging, did not surprise him, yet he would have felt no regret, if his mother had been the idealized mother of his memories.

He noticed that his butty's wife – a fair-haired little woman with two or three children clinging to her skirts–kissed her husband goodbye at the door, and at night was watching for him at the window between snowy curtains. He contrasted his mother with her and did not realize his injustice in doing so. He did not reflect that the bearing of fourteen children, and the care of a family through many years of toil and privation might account for much of the difference between his mother and the wife of his butty.

The very names his mother had chosen for her children told much of the tragedy of her life. Claude Eustace, Reginald Gollwyn, Vivian Sylvester, Sybilla Blanche, Angelina Clarice – these were the older children, named when the natural romantic impulse of her youth fed itself on such novels as came to her hands. The younger children's names were more and more commonplace until the youngest boy was simply John. The baby, born the day after its father's death, was Rizpah.

But Claude had not noticed this. There were many things Claude did not notice.

The two oldest boys, Reg and Syl, had been killed in the same explosion with their father. One of them was married, but his wife had gone back to her own people. The oldest girl, Sybilla, was fourteen and was already developing a winsome beauty that was sadly out of harmony with her surroundings. Claude wondered what her future would be. Even if she escaped the snares that are always set for the feet of poor girls, what could the future hold for her? Sooner or later her environment would brand her face and character with its sordid ugliness. He fell to observing the women of the camp. Some of the young girls were blossoming, like his sister, in a transitory beauty. Some of the young women, whose strong young husbands still kept the wolf comparatively far from the door, were sunnyfaced and hopeful. The older faces that he saw bore traces of many disappointments. The more intelligent were bitter and rebellious, others were dull and apathetic; too stolid for despair, a few were resigned.

There are other women, he reflected, who are not branded thus. He remembered the mother of one of his teachers at college, an old lady, erect, graceful, with a face like Whitman's Quakeress grandmother's, "clearer and more beautiful than the sky." He had watched her walking and driving with other old ladies and had admired their soft white hair and intellectual faces. He felt a fierce hatred of this manner of life, which robs women of their birthright, "the finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish to go." For after all the best test of any civilization is the number of beautiful old women that it can produce. Among savages there are no beautiful old women. Among the toilers of our nation there are few. Happiness, as Herbert Spencer states in an argument which does not otherwise touch on this subject, is the greatest tonic. It might also be said to be the greatest beautifier. Happiness is the only tonic that can keep a woman beautiful past three score and ten. A nation in which all women were happy would be a perfect nation. A civilization which produces ugly old women should be torn down and built over again.

Not that Claude had reached this conclusion. Oh no. It was another of the things he had not noticed.

But he noticed the untidiness of his sister's hair, and one night as he sat by the fire talking to them, while his mother at the other end of the room, ran the sewing machine, and talked above its clatter to one of the neighbors, he skilfully introduced the topic of pretty hair and the best way to care for it.

"I believe," he said to Sybilla, "that your hair would be very becoming arranged as mother wore hers when she was young. Let us try it anyway."

The suggestion pleased her for he had already complimented her several times on her hair, which was really beautiful. She found a piece of a comb and began jerking the tangles out of her hair.

"Oh don't do that," he said, "you are breaking it. Let me try."

He untangled it carefully and then brought out one of his military brushes and began applying it vigorously.

"You may have this brush for your own," he began, "if you will use it every day."

The machine was silent at the moment. His mother turned around, sharply.

"What are you doin' now, Claude Hampton," she said. "Puttin' yer fine notions in them girls' heads, as I expected. Girls, go to bed."

Claude was not so much hurt this time as he was angry.

"May I ask how often your daughters might comb their hair," he inquired, "without being accused of entertaining fine notions?"

She had turned again to the machine, and raised her voice above its clatter.

"I comb mine oncet a week unless I'm too tired a-Sundays," she said. "Tain't been combed now for two weeks I reckon."

The girls were obediently preparing to go to bed. Claude lighted a lamp and went into the kitchen. There were only two rooms in the shanty they called home and Claude had nailed up a rough bunk for himself in the kitchen, instead of sleeping in the other room with the rest of the family. This was one of his "notions," and as such had been vociferously denounced by his mother.

That she really admired the boy, and envied him the very qualities she professed to scorn had not occurred to him. It was a fierce misdirected pride that swayed her–a pride much akin to his own; but this also he had not noticed.

He sat down by the one small window and looked down at the brawling stream. He had half decided to leave them to their fate.

If he could not raise them "even to a cleaner sty," why should he stay to sink to their level?

He was a clear-headed youth, and from the first had not deluded himself with false hopes. He knew that the masses of wage workers must live and die wage workers. He knew he was only a half-educated boy, with no special talents and no training for any trade or profession. Handicapped with this family that he had chosen to support, the chance of his ever winning what the world calls success was as one in ten thousand. But alone he could fight his way hopefully and win the joy of fighting if nothing more.

"That would at least be life," he told himself, "this is simply stagnation."

The next day two incidents occurred that materially affected his decision.

He had gone down to the company store, at the lower end of the valley, to lay in supplies for the next week. Coming back he noticed a crowd around the postoffice steps and stopped to see what had attracted them. A man was standing on the steps addressing the crowd.

"They force you to work in factories and mines," the man was saying, "at the age when you should be in school and then they scorn you because you are ignorant. They pay you wages that will supply only the animal necessities of life, and then they despise you because you have no books, pictures or music worthy to be called such in your homes. They say you do not live human lives, and therefore do not deserve to be treated like human beings. I tell you that whenever it becomes possible for you to live complete human lives on wages that can supply only your physical needs, it will also become possible for you to learn how to swim without going in the water."

There was a little laughter at this and many murmurs of approval. Claude was near enough now to see the man plainly. He was young, of slight build, rather pale, but every word and gesture had the weight of vital earnestness.

"All wealth," he said, "is produced by labor. The earth furnishes the raw material from which we produce wealth. Forests, mines and fertile fields hold inexhaustible supplies of the materials from which wealth may be produced, but until labor is applied to these things they cannot be used by man. All wealth is produced by labor and therefore all wealth should belong to the laborers who produce it. This is a self-evident truth, and I don't think I need to set forth any long-winded arguments to convince you of it.

"Abraham Lincoln said: 'To secure to the laborer the full product of his toil, as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any just government.' "

The men had crowded closer and were listening intently.

"That is what we Socialists are trying to establish," he said, "a just system that will secure to every laborer the wealth that his toil creates. That our object is just and right no man can deny. If our methods are not the best we are ready to adopt any methods that can be proven to be better."

"What are your methods?" a man near the speaker asked.

"Dynamite," answered a voice at the edge of the crowd.

The speaker smiled.

"There is no dynamite or bloodshed in the Socialist program," he said. "We propose for the people to own collectively the things they use collectively. No man has a right to own the things on which the lives of others depend. We propose to make the earth the property of all the people instead of allowing Rockefeller and his pals to use it for their private profit. We propose, in short, to establish an industrial democracy for the same reason that our fathers established a political democracy – because the interest of the whole people demands it. And the method by which we propose to make this change is simply the intelligent use of the ballot.

"You have been told," he went on, "that Socialists wish to destroy the government. That they wish to destroy the home. That they wish to divide up your little savings among the idle and vicious. It is to the interest of the class that lives in idleness on the wealth you produce to keep you in ignorance of Socialism. That is why these lies are manufactured and circulated.

"As to destroying governments, I think you all agree with me that there are some governments that ought to be destroyed. If it was right for our forefathers to rebel against King George it is right for the oppressed masses in Russia to rebel against the Czar. But in America it is not necessary for the people to resort to a bloody revolution in order to obtain their rights. We have the ballot. In the hands of intelligent men the ballot is the most powerful weapon that can be used against tyranny.

"The government that our fathers founded a government of the people by the people and for the people – can not be destroyed by the Socialists for the simple reason that it has already been destroyed by the capitalists. You know that there has already been a revolution in this country – a 'revolution by bribery.' Every force and function of government is owned and controlled by the capitalists. They own the militia that shoots you down like dogs when you revolt against the inhuman conditions they impose upon you. They own the judges who issue injunctions against you. They own the supreme courts that declare income tax and eight-hour laws unconstitutional. You know that our government is no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people. It is a government 'of the people by the rascals and for the rich.' " They laughed again, and for the first time a ripple of applause ran through the crowd.

"Did you ever hear of a working man buying a state legislature?" the speaker asked, and had to stop a minute for the applause and laughter to subside.

"It is the capitalists of the country who have corrupted our national life and filched from the people the freedom our fathers died for. And now they try to bolster up their position by accusing Socialism of the very crimes that capitalism is already committing.

"They accuse us of trying to destroy the home. I tell you that capitalism is already destroying the home. Capitalism has forced nearly three million women into factories and mills. Thirteen out of every one hundred of these are married women. What sort of home do you think it can be where the mother toils from daylight to dark, away from home, to keep the wolf from the door. Capitalism is making it impossible for a large and constantly increasing class of men to marry and have even the semblance of a home. Do you know that less than one-fifth of the families in this great and prosperous country own their own homes without mortgage or incumbrance. Capitalism forces the workers to live in hovels that hogs might disdain and then warns them that Socialism will destroy the home.

"Under Socialism, for the first time in all the history of civilization, every human being will be guaranteed a home. And more–each will be guaranteed as good, as beautiful, as substantial a home as the mind of man can devise and the labor of man can build.

"They tell you that Socialists want to divide up." The speaker laughed. "Of all the lies they publish about Socialism that is a little the most humorous. The idea of any advocate of the present system objecting to Socialism on that ground even if it were true, which it is not. It is the present system – the capitalist system – that divides up all the wealth the workers produce and gives the capitalist the lion's share. According to the government statistics, the average factory worker in this country produces nearly two thousand five hundred dollars worth of wealth in a year. His wage is four hundred and thirty-seven dollars. That is a sort of dividing up that is much more injurious to the common people than it would be for them to divide up with Rockefeller. But we want no dividing. Rockefeller and his kind may keep their money, their private cars, their yachts, their diamonds and their poodles. We will take the earth and the fullness thereof, the oil-fields, the coal-mines, the railways, all the means of produing the means of life. We will not divide up these things. We will own them collectively and use them collectively and manage them collectively for the benefit of all the people. That will end the present system of dividing up.

"Did you ever watch the workers in a great city starting to work in the morning? First, about three o'clock, comes a poorly clothed, poorly fed worker with a stingy bucket – not the full dinner pail you voted for. He shivers as the cold air strikes him, and turns up the collar of his coat – the chances are he has no overcoat. Next comes a woman in a calico dress with a thin shawl drawn closely around her shoulders. She is starting out to build fires or scrub out an office. Later come mechanics in warmer clothing, then the clerks and bookkeepers – the later the hour the better the clothes, until at nine or ten o'clock you see the bankers and brokers driving to their offices in carriages, warmly clad in chinchilla overcoats. Now you know and everyone knows that if there was one iota of justice in this capitalist system the man who goes to work at three o'clock would have the warm gloves and over-coat. [1]

"Under the present system the man who works the hardest has the least. It is scarcely an exaggeration to sap that the class that produces everything has nothing and the class that produces nothing has everything. What gives the capitalist this power to take from you the wealth produced by your own hands? It is his ownership of the mines, factories and mills in which you work. In former days the workers were chattel slaves and were bought and sold like cattle. The master's ownership of the slave gave him the power to take the wealth the slave produced. But chattel slavery is very expensive. The master must not only buy the slave in the first place, but he must house and feed him and take as good care of him as if he were a horse, else he will soon lose his value. And so chattel slavery was abandoned in most civilized countries for serfdom, which was a more profitable form of slavery, the principal difference being that instead of owning the workers the master class owned the land on which the serfs worked, and their ownership of the land gave them the power to take the wealth the serf produced.

Finally the master class discovered that wage-slavery is the most profitable of all. The master class has absolute possession of the means of producing the means of life and they buy your labor by the week or the month and leave you to shift for ourselves when times are hard. You are not sure of food and shelter, as was the chattel slave. You are not sure of land to work on as was the serf. You are only sure that if the masters can make a profit off of your labor they will buy you for the length of time they can use you.

"Mankind is still divided into two classes–those who toil and those who live off the toilers. The fact that some of the strongest or shrewdest of the toilers can sometimes amass wealth and live in luxury does not change the condition of the masses. Whenever a poor boy climbs up to a position as bank president or trust magnate, the newspapers proclaim that every boy in America can do the same thing if they will all persevere and save their pennies. But if we were all bank presidents who would dig coal and potatoes? Aren't coal and potatoes as useful as bank checks to the human race? And shouldn't the men who dig them be rewarded as much as the men who do lighter work? These men who teach that we can all win 'success' and live on bank checks, must have come from the barren island Edward Carpenter tells of, where the inhabitants 'eke out a precarious living by taking in each other's washing.' "

The laugh that rose from the crowd showed that this idea had driven home. The speaker gave an illustration to clinch it.

"Bellamy compares this system to a great coach in which a few are riding while a great many are pulling it over a rough and muddy road. Sometimes one of the crowd who is pulling can climb up over the shoulders of his fellow toilers and secure a seat in the coach. But that doesn't change the system. There is still a great crowd pulling and a small crowd riding. The ones who ride may preach all they please the doctrine that every man has an equal chance to climb into the coach and that therefore the system is just and right. You all know it's a lie. If we all climbed into the coach none of us could ride. There would be no one to pull.

"Now Socialism proposes to throw the old coach on the junk pile – it has served its day –and substitute an automobile so that all can ride."

Some of the men laughed at this. Most looked incredulous.

"This is not a mere figure of speech," the speaker declared. "Benjamin Franklin said that four hours work each day was sufficient for any man to secure a livelihood for his family if the worker received all the wealth he created. Since Franklin's day machinery has been invented which enables one man to do the work of thousands. The machinery of Massachusetts is capable of doing the work of fifty million men. We have harnessed the lightning and the cataracts and have taught them to work for us. Let them pull the coach. We have slaved long enough.

"It is not only possible but it is absolutely necessary to shorten the hours of labor instead of tying part of the workers to the machines and turning the rest out to tramp. We must shorten the working hours until work will be mere play, as unlike the drudgery of the present as an automobile ride is unlike the effort of pulling a coach."

"It will take a miracle to do that," the postmaster interrupted.

"Your grandfather would have thought an automobile was a miracle," the speaker answered. "Every step in the world's progress has been declared impossible–but the world still moves."

He spoke for a while longer, emphasizing the need of working men standing together like brothers on the political as well as on the industrial field and ended with the Socialist slogan:

"Workingmen of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to gain."

Claude walked home thoughtfully. A greater change had come into his life than he was at the moment aware. He had been inoculated with the virus of Socialism.

As he neared his home he saw that his mother and the children were down at the edge of the stream making soap. They had built a fire under a huge kettle, partly of coal, partly of dry drift-wood that the children had gathered along the edge of the stream. His mother stood by the kettle stirring the boiling mixture, while three of the younger children were playing at her feet. One of them, a sturdy little fellow of seven, had picked up a stick and was vigorously punching the fire. His well-meant efforts must have loosened one of the little piles of rocks that supported the kettle, for it gave way suddenly and the kettle toppled and started to fall toward the children. Claude and his mother saw the danger at the same instant. If that flood of fiery liquid poured out upon the children there could be no more horrible death than the one they must die. Claude sprang forward with a horrified exclamation, but his mother, quick as thought, gripped the hot iron with her bare hand. The boiling soap poured out over her hand, but she only tightened her grasp and held to the kettle firmly enough to keep the threatened deluge from the children. She turned on them a face drawn and wolfish with pain.

"Clear out," she gasped, "'er I'll bust yer heads."

They fled, terrified. Claude grasped the youngest toddler and threw him up on the bank. Then he caught his mother in his arms and ran with her out of reach of the lavalike flood that rushed after them.

He ordered his oldest brother to go at once for the doctor and sat down on the doorstep with the now unconscious woman, thinking the fresh air might revive her. The children stood in a semi-circle around him with wide, frightened eyes. After a little she began moaning and moving her head restlessly. Then she opened her eyes, looked around at the children and remembered. She raised her burned hand and looked at it. Some of the children began crying softly, but she set her lips stoically and was silent.

Looking in her brave, pain-haunted eyes her son saw her for the first time since his childhood. The rough ways and words that were the result of her lifelong misery were numbered now among the things Claude did not notice.

"'Tain't so bad," she said to the distress in the boy's face. "Only – I can't take in sewin' no more. It'll make it harder fer you'uns, pore little lambs."

Late that night, when she was sleeping, Claude left his place by the bedside and stood for awhile in the doorway. The moonlight flooded the narrow valley, turning even the rough little shanties into things of beauty and adding a spectral loveliness to the mist-wreathed mountains. The only sounds that broke the stillness were the murmurs of the rushing stream and the far-off cry of a whip-poor-will. He thought he had never seen so beautiful a night.

The misty mountain seemed drawing back a little to make room for the strange new feeling that was rising within him–a resurrection of the strange old primal race instinct of reverence for motherhood.

He drew deep breaths of the cool night air.

"I have found my mother," he said aloud, very softly, "I have found my mother."


[1] This paragraph was taken from an address by B.J. Robertson. Cincinnati, Ohio, with his permission. This speech, like most soap box orations, makes no pretense to originality either as to matter or style.