The Second Generation
By David Graham Phillips
Public Domain Books
Chapter IV - The Shattered Colossus
That night there was sleep under Hiram Ranger’s roof for Mary the cook only. Of the four wakeful ones the most unhappy was Hiram himself, the precipitator of it all. Arthur had the consolation of his conviction that his calamity was unjust; Adelaide and her mother, of their conviction that in the end it could not but be well with Arthur. For Hiram there was no consolation. He reviewed and re-reviewed the facts, and each time he reached again his original conclusion; the one course in repairing the mistakes of the boy’s bringing up was a sharp rightabout. “Don’t waste no time gettin’ off the wrong road, once you’re sure it’s wrong,” had been a maxim of his father, and he had found it a rule with no exceptions. He appreciated that there is a better way from the wrong road into the right than a mad dash straight across the stumpy fields and rocky gullies between. That rough, rude way, however, was the single way open to him here. Whenever it had become necessary for him to be firm with those he loved, it had rarely been possible for him to do right in the right way; he had usually been forced to do right in the wrong way–to hide himself from them behind a manner of cold and silent finality, and, so, to prevent them from forming an alliance and a junction of forces with the traitor softness within him. Besides, gentle, roundabout, gradual measures would require time–delay; and he must “put his house in order" forthwith.
Thus, even the consolation that he was at least doing right was denied him. As he lay there he could see himself harshly forcing the bitter medicine upon his son, the cure for a disease for which he was himself responsible; he could see his son’s look and could not deny its justice. “I reckon he hates me,” thought Hiram, pouring vitriol into his own wounds, “and I reckon he’s got good cause to.”
But there was in the old miller a Covenanter fiber tough as ironwood. The idea of yielding did not enter his head. He accepted his sufferings as part of his punishment for past indulgence and weakness; he would endure, and go forward. His wife understood him by a kind of intuition which, like most of our insight into the true natures of those close about us, was a gradual permeation from the one to the other rather than clear, deliberate reasoning. But the next morning her sore and anxious mother’s heart misread the gloom of his strong face into sternness toward her only son.
“When did you allow to put the boy to work, father?” she finally said, and her tone unintentionally made Hiram feel more than ever as if he had sentenced “the boy” to hard labor in the degradation and disgrace of a chain gang.
As he waited some time for self-control before answering, she thought her inquiry had deepened his resentment. “Not that I don’t think you’re right, maybe,” she hastened to add, “though"–this wistfully, in a feminine and maternal subtlety of laying the first lines for sapping and mining his position–"I often think about our life, all work and no play, and wonder if we oughtn’t to give the children the chance we never had.”
“No good never came of idleness,” said Hiram, uncompromisingly, “and to be busy about foolishness is still worse. Work or rot–that’s life.”
“That’s so; that’s so,” she conceded. And she was sincere; for that was her real belief, and what she had hinted was a mere unthinking repetition of the shallow, comfortable philosophy of most people–those “go easys" and “do nothings” and “get nowheres” wherewith Saint X and the surrounding country were burdened. “Still,” she went on, aloud, “Arthur hasn’t got any bad habits, like most of the young men round here with more money than’s good for them.”
“Drink ain’t the only bad habit,” replied Hiram. “It ain’t the worst, though it looks the worst. The boy’s got brains. It ain’t right to allow him to choke ’em up with nonsense.”
Ellen’s expression was assent.
“Tell him to come down to the mill next Monday,” said Hiram, after another silence, “and tell him to get some clothes that won’t look ridiculous.” He paused, then added; “A man that ain’t ready to do anything, no matter what so long as it’s useful and honest, is good for nothing.”
The night had bred in Arthur brave and bold resolves. He would not tamely submit; he would cast his father off, would go forth and speedily carve a brilliant career. He would show his father that, even if the training of a gentleman develops tastes above the coarseness of commerce, it also develops the mental superiority that makes fleeing chaff of the obstacles to fame and wealth. He did not go far into details; but, as his essays at Harvard had been praised, he thought of giving literature’s road to distinction the preference over the several others that must be smooth before him. Daylight put these imaginings into silly countenance, and he felt silly for having lingered in their company, even in the dark. As he dressed he had much less than his wonted content with himself. He did not take the same satisfaction in his clothes, as evidence of his good taste, or in his admired variations of the fashion of wearing the hair and tying the scarf. Midway in the process of arranging his hair he put down his military brushes; leaning against the dressing table, he fixed his mind upon the first serious thoughts he had ever had in his whole irresponsible, sheltered life. “Well,” he said, half-aloud, “there issomething wrong! If there isn’t, why do I feel as if my spine had collapsed?” After a long pause, he added: “And it has! All that held it steady was father’s hand.”
The whole lofty and beautiful structure of self-complacence upon which he had lounged, preening his feathers and receiving social triumphs and the adulation of his “less fortunate fellows” as the due of his own personal superiority, suddenly slipped from under him. With a rueful smile at his plight, he said: “The governor has called me down.” Then, resentfully, and with a return of his mood of dignity outraged and pride trampled upon: “But he had no right to put me up there–or let me climb up there.” Once a wrong becomes “vested,” it is a “vested right,” sacred, taboo. Arthur felt that his father was committing a crime against him.
When he saw Adelaide and his mother their anxious looks made him furious. So! They knew how helpless he was; they were pitying him. Pitying him! Pitying him! He just tasted his coffee; with scowling brow he hastened to the stables for his saddle horse and rode away alone. “Wait a few minutes and I’ll come with you,” called Adelaide from the porch as he galloped by. He pretended not to hear. When clear of the town he “took it out” on his horse, using whip and spur until it gripped the bit and ran away. He fought savagely with it; at a turn in the road it slipped and fell, all but carrying him under. He was in such a frenzy that if he had had a pistol he would have shot it. The chemical action of his crisis precipitated in a black mass all the poison his nature had been absorbing in those selfish, supercilious years. So long as that poison was held in suspense it was imperceptible to himself as well as to others. But now, there it was, unmistakably a poison. At the sight his anger vanished. “I’m a beast!” he ejaculated, astonished. “And here I’ve been imagining I was a fairly decent sort of fellow. What the devil have I been up to, to make me like this?”
He walked along the road, leading his horse by the bridle slipped over his arm. He resumed his reverie of the earlier morning, and began a little less dimly to see his situation from the new viewpoint. “I deserve what I’m getting,” he said to himself. Then, at a twinge from the resentment that had gone too deep to be ejected in an instant, he added: “But that doesn’t excuse him.” His father was to blame for the whole ugly business–for his plight within and without. Still, fixing the blame was obviously unimportant beside the problem of the way out. And for that problem he, in saner mood, began to feel that the right solution was to do something and so become in his own person a somebody, instead of being mere son of a somebody. “I haven’t got this shock a minute too soon,” he reflected. “I must take myself in hand. I–”
“Why, it’s you, Arthur, isn’t it?” startled him.
He looked up, saw Mrs. Whitney coming toward him. She was in a winter walking suit, though the day was warm. She was engaged in the pursuit that was the chief reason for her three months’ retirement to the bluffs overlooking Saint X–the preservation of her figure. She hated exercise, being by nature as lazy, luxurious, and self-indulgent physically as she was alert and industrious mentally. From October to July she ate and drank about what she pleased, never set foot upon the ground if she could help it, and held her tendency to hips in check by daily massage. From July to October she walked two or three hours a day, heavily dressed, and had a woman especially to attend to her hair and complexion, in addition to the masseuse toiling to keep her cheeks and throat firm for the fight against wrinkles and loss of contour.
Arthur frowned at the interruption, then smoothed his features into a cordial smile; and at once that ugly mass of precipitated poison began to redistribute itself and hide itself from him.
“You’ve had a fall, haven’t you?”
He flushed. She, judging with the supersensitive vanity of all her self-conscious “set,” thought the flush was at the implied criticism of his skill; but he was far too good a rider to care about his misadventure, and it was her unconscious double meaning that stung him. She turned; they walked together. After a brief debate as to the time for confessing his “fall,” which, at best, could remain a secret no longer than Monday, he chose the present. “Father’s begun to cut up rough,” said he, and his manner was excellent. “He’s taken away my allowance, and I’m to go to work at the mill.” He was yielding to the insidious influence of her presence, was dropping rapidly back toward the attitude as well as the accent of “our set.”
At his frank disclosure Mrs. Whitney congratulated herself on her shrewdness so heartily that she betrayed it in her face; but Arthur did not see. “I suppose your mother can do nothing with him.” This was spoken in a tone of conviction. She always felt that, if she had had Hiram to deal with, she would have been fully as successful with him as she thought she had been with Charles Whitney. She did not appreciate the fundamental difference in the characters of the two men. Both were iron of will; but there was in Whitney–and not in Hiram–a selfishness that took the form of absolute indifference to anything and everything which did not directly concern himself–his business or his physical comfort. Thus his wife had had her way in all matters of the social career, and he would have forced upon her the whole responsibility for the children if she had not spared him the necessity by assuming it. He cheerfully paid the bills, no matter what they were, because he thought his money’s power to buy him immunity from family annoyances one of its chief values. She, and everyone else, thought she ruled him; in fact, she not only did not rule him, but had not even influence with him in the smallest trifle of the matters he regarded as important.
The last time he had looked carefully at her–many, many years before–he had thought her beautiful; he assumed thenceforth that she was still beautiful, and was therefore proud of her. In like manner he had made up his mind favorably to his children. As the bills grew heavier and heavier, from year to year, with the wife and two children assiduously expanding them, he paid none the less cheerfully. “There is some satisfaction in paying up for them,” reflected he. “At least a man can feel that he’s getting his money’s worth.” And he contrasted his luck with the bad luck of so many men who had to “pay up” for “homely frumps, that look worse the more they spend.”
But Arthur was replying to Mrs. Whitney’s remark with a bitter “Nobody can do anything with father; he’s narrow and obstinate. If you argue with him, he’s silent. He cares for nothing but his business.”
Arthur did not hesitate to speak thus frankly to Mrs. Whitney. She seemed a member of the family, like a sister of his mother or father who had lived with them always; also he accepted her at the valuation she and all her friends set upon her–he, like herself and them, thought her generous and unselfish because she was lavish with sympathetic words and with alms–the familiar means by which the heartless cheat themselves into a reputation for heart. She always left the objects of her benevolence the poorer for her ministrations, though they did not realize it. She adopted as the guiding principle of her life the cynical philosophy–"Give people what they want, never what they need.” By sympathizing effusively with those in trouble, she encouraged them in low-spiritedness; by lavishing alms, she weakened struggling poverty into pauperism. But she took away and left behind enthusiasm for her own moral superiority and humanity. Also she deceived herself and others with such fluid outpourings of fine phrases about “higher life” and “spiritual thinking” as so exasperated Hiram Ranger.
Now, instead of showing Arthur what her substratum of shrewd sense enabled her to see, she ministered soothingly unto his vanity. His father was altogether wrong, tyrannical, cruel; he himself was altogether right, a victim of his father’s ignorance of the world.
“I decided not to submit,” said Arthur, as if the decision were one which had come to him the instant his father had shown the teeth and claws of tyranny, instead of being an impulse of just that moment, inspired by Mrs. Whitney’s encouragement to the weakest and worst in his nature.
“I shouldn’t be too hasty about that,” she cautioned. “He is old and sick. You ought to be more than considerate. And, also, you should be careful not to make him do anything that would cut you out of your rights.”
It was the first time the thought of his “rights"–of the share of his father’s estate that would be his when his father was no more–had definitely entered his head. That he would some day be a rich man he had accepted just as he accepted the other conditions of his environment–all to which he was born and in which consisted his title to be regarded as of the “upper classes,” like his associates at Harvard. Thinking now on the insinuated proposition that his father might disinherit him, he promptly rejected it. “No danger of his doing that,” he assured her, with the utmost confidence. “Father is an honest man, and he wouldn’t think of anything so dishonest, so dishonorable.”
This view of a child’s rights in the estate of its parents amused Mrs. Whitney. She knew how quickly she would herself cut off a child of hers who was obstinately disobedient, and, while she felt that it would be an outrage for Hiram Ranger to cut off his son for making what she regarded as the beginning of the highest career, the career of “gentleman,” still she could not dispute his right to do so. “Your father may not see your rights in the same light that you do, Arthur,” said she mildly. “If I were you, I’d be careful.”
Arthur reflected. “I don’t think it’s possible,” said he, “but I guess you’re right. I must not forget that I’ve got others to think of besides myself.”
This patently meant Janet; Mrs. Whitney held her discreet tongue.
“It will do no harm to go to the office,” she presently continued. “You ought to get some knowledge of business, anyhow. You will be a man of property some day, and you will need to know enough about business to be able to supervise the managers of your estate. You know, I had Janet take a course at a business college, last winter, and Ross is in with his father and will be active for several years.”
Thus it came about that on Monday morning at nine Arthur sauntered into the offices of the mills. He was in much such a tumult of anger, curiosity, stubbornness, and nervousness as agitates a child on its first appearance at school; but in his struggle not to show his feelings he exaggerated his pose into a seeming of bored indifference. The door of his father’s private room was open; there sat Hiram, absorbed in dictating to a stenographer. When his son appeared in the doorway, he apparently did not realize it, though in fact the agitation the young man was concealing under that unfortunate manner was calmness itself in comparison with the state of mind behind Hiram’s mask of somber stolidity.
“He’s trying to humiliate me to the depths,” thought the son, as he stood and waited, not daring either to advance or to retreat. How could he know that his father was shrinking as a criminal from the branding iron, that every nerve in that huge, powerful, seemingly impassive body was in torture from this ordeal of accepting the hatred of his son in order that he might do what he considered to be his duty? At length the young man said: “I’m here, father.”
“Be seated–just a minute,” said the father, turning his face toward his boy but unable to look even in that direction.
The letter was finished, and the stenographer gathered up her notes and withdrew. Hiram sat nerving himself, his distress accentuating the stern strength of his features. Presently he said: “I see you haven’t come dressed for work.”
“Oh, I think these clothes will do for the office,” said Arthur, with apparent carelessness.
“But this business isn’t run from the office,” replied Hiram, with a gentle smile that to the young man looked like the sneer of a tyrant. “It’s run from the mill. It prospers–it always has prospered–because I work with the men. I know what they ought to do and what they are doing. We all work together here. There ain’t a Sunday clothes job about the place.”
Arthur’s fingers were trembling as he pulled at his small mustache. What did this tyrant expect of him? He had assumed that a place was to be made for him in the office, a dignified place. There he would master the business, would gather such knowledge as might be necessary successfully to direct it, and would bestow that knowledge in the humble, out-of-the-way corner of his mind befitting matters of that kind. And here was his father, believing that the same coarse and toilsome methods which had been necessary for himself were necessary for a trained and cultured understanding!
“What do you want me to do?” asked Arthur.
Hiram drew a breath of relief. The boy was going to show good sense and willingness after all. “I guess you’d better learn barrel-making first," said he. He rose. “I’ll take you to the foreman of the cooperage, and to-morrow you can go to work in the stave department. The first thing is to learn to make a first-class barrel.”
Arthur slowly rose to follow. He was weak with helpless rage. If his father had taken him into the office and had invited him to help in directing the intellectual part of that great enterprise, the part that in a way was not without appeal to the imagination, he felt that he might gradually have accustomed himself to it; but to be put into the mindless routine of the workingman, to be set about menial tasks which a mere muscular machine could perform better than he–what waste, what degradation, what insult!
He followed his father to the cooperage, the uproar of its machinery jarring fiercely upon him, but not so fiercely as did the common-looking men slaving in torn and patched and stained clothing. He did not look at the foreman as his father was introducing them and ignored his proffered hand. “Begin him at the bottom, Patrick,” explained Hiram, “and show him no favors. We must give him a good education.”
“That’s right, Mr. Ranger,” said Patrick, eying his new pupil dubiously. He was not skilled in analysis of manner and character, so Arthur’s superciliousness missed him entirely and he was attributing the cold and vacant stare to stupidity. “A regular damn dude,” he was saying to himself. “As soon as the old man’s gone, some fellow with brains’ll do him out of the business. If the old man’s wise, he’ll buy him an annuity, something safe and sure. Why do so many rich people have sons like that? If I had one of his breed I’d shake his brains up with a stave.”
Arthur mechanically followed his father back to the office. At the door Hiram, eager to be rid of him, said: “I reckon that’s about all we can do to-day. You’d better go to Black and Peters’s and get you some clothes. Then you can show up at the cooperage at seven to-morrow morning, ready to put in a good day’s work.”
He laid his hand on his son’s shoulder, and that gesture and the accompanying look, such as a surgeon might give his own child upon whom he was performing a cruelly painful operation, must have caused some part of what he felt to penetrate to the young man; for, instead of bursting out at his father, he said appealingly: “Would it be a very great disappointment to you if I were to go into–into some–some other line?”
“What line?” asked Hiram.
“I haven’t settled–definitely. But I’m sure I’m not fitted for this.” He checked himself from going on to explain that he thought it would mean a waste of all the refinements and elegancies he had been at so much pains to acquire.
“Who’s to look after the business when I’m gone?” asked Hiram. “Most of what we’ve got is invested here. Who’s to look after your mother’s and sister’s interests, not to speak of your own?”
“I’d be willing to devote enough time to it to learn the management," said Arthur, “but I don’t care to know all the details.”
It was proof of Hiram’s great love for the boy that he had no impulse of anger at this display of what seemed to him the most priggish ignorance. “There’s only one way to learn,” said he quietly. “That’s the way I’ve marked out for you. Don’t forget–we start up at seven. You can breakfast with me at a quarter past six, and we’ll come down together.”
As Arthur walked homeward he pictured himself in jumper and overalls on his way from work of an evening–meeting the Whitneys–meeting Janet Whitney! Like all Americans, who become inoculated with “grand ideas," he had the super-sensitiveness to appearances that makes foreigners call us the most snobbishly conventional people on earth. What would it avail to be in character the refined person in the community and in position the admired person, if he spent his days at menial toil and wore the livery of labor? He knew Janet Whitney would blush as she bowed to him, and that she wouldn’t bow to him unless she were compelled to do so because she had not seen him in time to escape; and he felt that she would be justified. The whole business seemed to him a hideous dream, a sardonic practical joke upon him. Surely, surely, he would presently wake from this nightmare to find himself once more an unimperiled gentleman.
In the back parlor at home he found Adelaide about to set out for the Whitneys. As she expected to walk with Mrs. Whitney for an hour before lunch she was in walking costume–hat, dress, gloves, shoes, stockings, sunshade, all the simplest, most expensive-looking, most unpractical-looking white. From hat to heels she was the embodiment of luxurious, “ladylike" idleness, the kind that not only is idle itself, but also, being beautiful, attractive, and compelling, is the cause of idleness in others. She breathed upon Arthur the delicious perfume of the elegant life from which he was being thrust by the coarse hand of his father–and Arthur felt as if he were already in sweaty overalls.
“Well?” she asked.
“He’s going to make a common workman of me,” said Arthur, sullen, mentally contrasting his lot with hers. “And he’s got me on the hip. I don’t dare treat him as he deserves. If I did, he’s got just devil enough in him to cheat me out of my share of the property. A sweet revenge he could take on me in his will.”
Adelaide drew back–was rudely thrust back by the barrier between her and her brother which had sprung up as if by magic. Across it she studied him with a pain in her heart that showed in her face. “O Arthur, how can you think such a thing!” she exclaimed.
“Isn’t it so?” he demanded.
“He has a right to do what he pleases with his own.” Then she softened this by adding, “But he’d never do anything unjust.”
“It isn’t his own,” retorted her brother. “It belongs to us all.”
“We didn’t make it,” she insisted. “We haven’t any right to it, except to what he gives us.”
“Then you think we’re living on his charity?”
“No–not just that,” she answered hesitatingly. “I’ve never thought it out–never have thought about it at all.”
“He brought us into the world,” Arthur pursued. “He has accustomed us to a certain station–to a certain way of living. It’s his duty in honesty and in honor to do everything in his power to keep us there.”
Del admitted to herself that this was plausible, but she somehow felt that it was not true. “It seems to me that if parents bring their children up to be the right sort–useful and decent and a credit,” said she, “they’ve done the biggest part of their duty. The money isn’t so important, is it? At least, it oughtn’t to be.”
Arthur looked at her with angry suspicion. “Suppose he made a will giving it all to you, Del,” he said, affecting the manner of impartial, disinterested argument, “what would you do?”
“Share with you, of course,” she answered, hurt that he should raise the question at a time when raising it seemed an accusation of her, or at least a doubt of her.
He laughed satirically. “That’s what you think now,” said he. “But, when the time came, you’d be married to Ross Whitney, and he’d show you how just father’s judgment of me was, how wicked it would be to break his last solemn wish and will, and how unfit I was to take care of money. And you’d see it; and the will would stand. Oh, you’d see it! I know human nature. If it was a small estate–in those cases brothers and sisters always act generously–no, not always. Some of ’em, lots of ’em, quarrel and fight over a few pieces of furniture and crockery. But in a case of a big estate, who ever heard of the one that was favored giving up his advantage unless he was afraid of a scandal, or his lawyers advised him he might as well play the generous, because he’d surely lose the suit?”
“Of course, Arthur, I can’t be sure what I’d do,” she replied gently; “but I hope I’d not be made altogether contemptible by inheriting a little money.”
“But it wouldn’t seem contemptible,” he retorted. “It’d be legal and sensible, and it’d seem just. You’d only be obeying a dead father’s last wishes and guarding the interests of your husband and your children. They come before brothers.”
“But not before self-respect,” she said very quietly. She put her arm around his neck and pressed her cheek against his. “Arthur–dear–dear–" she murmured, “please don’t talk or think about this any more. It–it–hurts.” And there were hot tears in her eyes, and at her heart a sense of sickness and of fright; for his presentation of the other side of the case made her afraid of what she might do, or be tempted to do, in the circumstances he pictured. She knew she wouldn’t–at least, not so long as she remained the person she then was. But how long would that be? How many years of association with her new sort of friends–with the sort Ross had long been–with the sort she was becoming more and more like–how many, or, rather, how few years would it take to complete the process of making her over into a person who would do precisely what Arthur had pictured?
Arthur had said a great deal more than he intended–more, even, than he believed true. For a moment he felt ashamed of himself; then he reminded himself that he wasn’t really to blame; that, but for his father’s harshness toward him, he would never have had such sinister thoughts about him or Adelaide. Thus his apology took the form of an outburst against Hiram. “Father has brought out the worst there is in me!” he exclaimed. “He is goading me on to–”
He looked up; Hiram was in the doorway. He sprang to his feet. “Yes, I mean it!” he cried, his brain confused, his blood on fire. “I don’t care what you do. Cut me off! Make me go to work like any common laborer! Crush out all the decency there is in me!”
The figure of the huge old man was like a storm-scarred statue. The tragedy of his countenance filled his son and daughter with awe and terror. Then, slowly, like a statue falling, he stiffly tilted forward, crashed at full length face downward on the floor. He lay as he had fallen, breathing heavily, hoarsely. And they, each tightly holding the other’s hand like two little children, stood pale and shuddering, unable to move toward the stricken colossus.