A Poor Wise Man (Chapter 49)

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Chapter 49

Howard went back to the municipal building, driving furiously through the empty streets. The news was ominous. Small bodies of men, avoiding the highways, were focusing at different points in the open country. The state police had been fired at from ambush, and two of them had been killed. They had ridden into and dispersed various gatherings in the darkness, but only to have them re-form in other places. The enemy was still shadowy, elusive; it was apparently saving its ammunition. It did little shooting, but reports of the firing of farmhouses and of buildings in small, unprotected towns began to come in rapidly.

In a short time the messages began to be more significant, indicating that the groups were coalescing and that a revolutionary army, with the city its objective, was coming down the river, evidently making for the bridge at Chester Street.

"They've lighted a fire they can't put out," was Howard's comment. His mouth was very dry and his face twitching, for he saw, behind the frail barrier of the Chester Street bridge, the quiet houses of the city, the sleeping children. He saw Grace and Lily, and Elinor. He was among the first to reach the river front.

All through the dawn volunteers labored at the bridge head. Members of the Vigilance Committee, policemen and firemen, doctors, lawyers, clerks, shop-keepers, they looted the river wharves with willing, unskillful hands. They turned coal wagons on their sides, carried packing cases and boxes, and, under the direction of men who wore the Legion button, built skillfully and well. Willy Cameron toiled with the others. He lifted and pulled and struggled, and in the midst of his labor he had again that old dream of the city. The city was a vast number of units, and those units were homes. Behind each of those men there was, somewhere, in some quiet neighborhood, a home. It was for their homes they were fighting, for the right of children to play in peaceful streets, for the right to go back at night to the rest they had earned by honest labor, for the right of the hearth, of lamp-light and sunlight, of love, of happiness.

Then, in the flare of a gasoline torch, he came face to face with Louis Akers. The two men confronted each other, silently, with hostility. Neither moved aside, but it was Akers who spoke first.

"Always busy, Cameron," he said. "What'd the world do without you, anyhow?"

"Aren't you on the wrong side of this barricade?"

"Smart as ever," Akers observed, watching him intently. "As it happens, I'm here because I want to be, and because I can't get where I ought to be."

For a furious moment Willy Cameron thought he was referring to his wife, but there was something strange in Akers' tone.

"I could be useful to you fellows," he was saying, "but it seems you don't want help. I've been trying to see the Mayor all night."

"What do you want to see him about?"

"I'll tell him that."

Willy Cameron hesitated.

"I think it's a trick, Akers."

"All right. Then go to the devil!"

He turned away sullenly, leaving Willy Cameron still undecided. It would be like the man as he knew him, this turning informer when he saw the strength of the defense, and Cameron had a flash of intuition, too, that Akers might see, in this new role, some possible chance to win back with Lily Cardew. He saw how the man's cheap soul might dramatize itself.

"Akers!" he called.

Akers stopped, but he did not turn.

"I've got a car here. If you mean what you say, and it's straight, I'll take you."

"Where's the car?"

On their way to it, threading in and out among the toiling crowd, Willy Cameron had a chance to observe the change in the other man, his drooping shoulders and the almost lassitude of his walk. He went ahead, charging the mass and going through it by sheer bulk and weight, his hands in his coat pockets, his soft hat pulled low over his face. Neither of them noticed that one of the former clerks of the Myers Housecleaning Company followed close behind, or that, holding to a tire, he rode on the rear of the Cardew automobile as it made its way into the center of the city.

In the car Akers spoke only once.

"Where is Howard Cardew?" he asked.

"With the Mayor, probably. I left him there."

It seemed to him that Akers found the answer satisfactory. He sat back in the deep seat, and lighted a cigarette.

The Municipal Building was under guard. Willy Cameron went up the steps and spoke to the sentry there. It was while his back was turned that the sharp crack of a revolver rang out, and he whirled, in time to see Louis Akers fall forward on his face and lie still.

* * * * * The shadowy groups through the countryside had commenced to coalesce. Groups of twenty became a rabble of five hundred. The five hundred grew, and joined other five hundreds. From Baxter alone over two thousand rioters, mostly foreigners, started out, and by daylight the main body of the enemy reached the outskirts of the city, a long, irregular line of laughing, jostling, shouting men, constantly renewed at the rear until the procession covered miles of roadway. They were of all races and all types; individually they were, many of them, like boys playing truant from school, not quite certain of themselves, smiling and yet uneasy, not entirely wicked in intent. But they were shepherded by men with cunning eyes, men who knew well that a mob is greater than the sum of its parts, more wicked than the individuals who compose it, more cruel, more courageous.

As it marched it laughed. It was like a lion at play, ready to leap at the first scratch that brought blood.

Where the street car line met the Friendship Road the advance was met by the Chief of Police, on horseback and followed by a guard of mounted men, and ordered back. The van hesitated, but it was urged ahead, pushed on by the irresistible force behind it, and it came on no longer singing, but slowly, inevitably, sullenly protesting and muttering. Its good nature was gone.

As the Chief turned his horse was shot under him. He took another horse from one of his guard, and they retired, moving slowly and with drawn revolvers. There was no further shooting at that time, nothing but the irresistible advance. The police could no more have held the armed rabble than they could have held the invading hordes in Belgium. At the end of the street the Chief stopped and looked back. They had passed over his dead horse as though it were not there.

In the mill district, which they had now reached, they received reenforcements, justifying the judgment of the conference that to have erected their barricades there would have been to expose the city's defenders to attack from the rear. And the mill district suffered comparatively little. It was the business portion of the city toward which they turned their covetous eyes, the great stores, the hotels and restaurants, the homes of the wealthy.

Pleased by the lack of opposition the mob grew more cheerful. The lion played. They pressed forward, wanton and jeering, firing now and then at random, breaking windows as they passed, looting small shops which they stripped like locusts. Their pockets bulging, and the taste of pillage forecasting what was to come, they moved onward more rapidly, shooting at upper windows or into the air, laughing, yelling, cursing, talking. From the barricades, long before the miles-long column came into view, could be heard the ominous far-off muttering of the mob.

It was when they found the bridge barricaded on the far side, however, that the lion bared its teeth and snarled. Temporarily checked by the play of machine guns which swept the bridge and kept it clear for a time, they commenced wild, wasteful firing, from the bridge-head and from along the Cardew wharves. Their leaders were prepared, and sent snipers into the bridge towers, but the machine guns continued to fire.

That the struggle would be on the bridge Doyle and his Council had anticipated from the reports of the night before. They were prepared to take a heavy loss on the bridges, but they had not prepared for the thing that defeated them; that as the mob is braver than the individual, so also it is more cowardly.

Pushed forward from the rear and unable to retreat through the dense mass behind that was every moment growing denser, a few hundreds found themselves facing the steady machine-gun fire from behind the barricades, and unable either to advance or to retire. Thus trapped, they turned on their own forces behind them, and tried to fight their way to safety, but the inexorable pressure kept on, and the defenders, watching and powerless, saw men fling themselves from the bridges and disappear in the water below, rather than advance into the machine-gun zone. The guns were not firing into the rioters, but before them, to hold them back, and into that leaden stream there were no brave spirits to hurl themselves.

The trapped men turned on their own and battled for escape. With the same violence which had been directed toward the city they now fought each other, and the bridge slowly cleared. But the mob did not disperse.

It spread out on the bank across, a howling, frustrated, futile mass, disorganized and demoralized, which fired its useless guns across the river, which seethed and tossed and struggled, and spent itself in its own wild fury. And all the time cool-eyed men, on the wharves across, watched and waited for the time to attack.

"They're sick at their stomachs now," said an old army sergeant, watching, to Willy Cameron. "The dirty devils! They'll be starting their filthy work over there soon, and that's the zero hour."

Willy Cameron nodded. He had seen one young Russian boy with a child-like face venture forward alone into the fire zone and drop. He still lay there, on the bridge. And all of Willy Cameron was in revolt. What had he been told, that boy, that had made him ready to pour out his young life like wine? There were others like him in that milling multitude on the river bank across, young men who had come to America with a dream in their hearts, and America had done this to them. Or had she? She had taken them in, but they were not her own, and now, since she would not take them, they would take her. Was that it? Was it that America had made them her servants, but not her children? He did not know.

* * * * * Robbed of the city proper, the mob turned on the mill district it had invaded. Its dream of lust and greed was over, but it could still destroy.

Like a battle charge, as indeed it was, the mounted city and state police crossed the bridge. It was followed by the state troops on foot, by city policemen in orderly files, and then by the armed citizens. The bridge vibrated to the step of marching men, going out to fight for their homes. The real battle was fought there, around the Cardew mills, a battle where the loyalists were greatly outnumbered, and where the rioters fought, according to their teaching, with every trick they could devise. Posted in upper windows they fired down from comparative safety; ambulances crossed and re-crossed the bridges. The streets were filled with rioting men, striking out murderously with bars and spikes. Fires flamed up and burned themselves out. In one place, eight blocks of mill-workers' houses, with their furnishings, went in a quarter of an hour.

Willy Cameron was fighting like a demon. Long ago his reserve of ammunition had given out, and he was fighting with the butt end of his revolver. Around him had rallied some of the men he knew best, Pink and Mr. Hendricks, Doctor Smalley, Dan and Joe Wilkinson, and they stayed together as, street by street, the revolutionists were driven back. There were dead and wounded everywhere, injured men who had crawled into the shelter of doorways and sat or lay there, nursing their wounds.

Suddenly, to his amazement, Willy saw old Anthony Cardew. He had somehow achieved an upper window of the mill office building, and he was showing himself fearlessly, a rifle in his hands; in his face was a great anger, but there was more than that. Willy Cameron, thinking it over later, decided that it was perplexity. He could not understand.

He never did understand. For other eyes also had seen old Anthony Cardew. Willy Cameron, breasting the mob and fighting madly toward the door of the building, with Pink behind him, heard a cheer and an angry roar, and, looking up, saw that the old man had disappeared. They found him there later on, the rifle beside him, his small and valiant figure looking, with eyes no longer defiant, toward the Heaven which puts, for its own strange purpose, both evil and good into the same heart.

By eleven o'clock the revolution was over. Sodden groups of men, thoroughly cowed and frightened, were on their way by back roads to the places they had left a few hours before. They had no longer dreams of empire. Behind them they could see, on the horizon, the city itself, the smoke from its chimneys, the spires of its churches. Both, homes and churches, they had meant to destroy, but behind both there was the indestructible. They had failed.

They turned, looked back, and went on.

* * * * * On the crest of a hill-top overlooking the city a man was standing, looking down to where the softened towers of the great steel bridges rose above the river mist like fairy towers. Below him lay the city, powerful, significant, important.

The man saw the city only as a vast crucible, into which he had flung his all, and out of which had come only defeat and failure. But the city was not a crucible. The melting pot of a nation is not a thing of cities, but of the human soul.

The city was not a melting pot. It was a sanctuary. The man stood silent and morose, his chin dropped on his chest, and stared down.

Beside and somewhat behind him stood a woman, a somber, passionate figure, waiting passively. His eyes traveled from the city to her, and rested on her, contemptuous, thwarted, cynical.

"You fool," he said, "I hate you, and you know it."

But she only smiled faintly. "We'd better get away now, Jim," she said.

He got into the car.

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