“To make the holiday as good an imitation of mirth as possible, they were very noisy, but their holly, their tinsel stars on a tall pine tree, their family devotion in a serene old house in a little town, was no different at heart from despairing drunkenness in the city night.
Doremus reflected that it might have been just as well for all of them to get drunk and let themselves go, elbows on slopped café tables, as to toil at this pretense of domestic bliss. He now had another thing for which to hate the Corpos, for stealing the secure affection of Christmas.”
It Can’t Happen Here is a semi-satirical 1935 political novel by American author Sinclair Lewis.
Published during the rise of fascism in Europe, the novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a demagogue who is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values.
After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a pIutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS.
The novel’s plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup’s opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion.
He could not decide whether Emil Staubmeyer, and through him Shad Ledue, knew that he had tried to escape. Did Staubmeyer really look more knowing, or did he just imagine it? What the deuce had Emil meant when he said, “I hear the roads aren’t so good up north, not so good!” Whether they knew or not, it was grinding that he should have to shiver lest an illiterate roustabout like Shad Ledue find out that he desired to go to Canada, while a ruler-slapper like Staubmeyer, a Squeers with certificates in “pedagogy,” should now be able to cuff grown men instead of urchins and should be editor of the Informer! Doremus’s Informer! Staubmeyer! That human blackboard!
Daily Doremus found it more cramping, more instantly stirring to fury, to write anything mentioning Windrip. His private office, the cheerfully rattling linotype room, the shouting pressroom with its smell of ink that to him hitherto had been like the smell of grease paint to an actor, they were hateful now, and choking. Not even Lorinda’s faith, not even Sissy’s jibes and Buck’s stories, could rouse him to hope.
He rejoiced the more, therefore, when his son Philip telephoned him from Worcester: “Be home Sunday? Merilla’s in New York, gadding, and I’m all alone here. Thought I’d just drive up for the day and see how things are in your neck of the woods.”
“Come on! Splendid! So long since we’ve seen you. I’ll have your mother start a pot of beans right away!” Doremus was happy. Not for some time did his cursed two-way-mindedness come to weaken his joy, as he wondered whether it wasn’t just a myth held over from boyhood that Philip really cared so much for Emma’s beans and brown bread; and wondered just why it was that Up-to-Date Americans like Philip always used the long-distance telephone rather than undergo the dreadful toil of dictating a letter a day or two earlier. It didn’t really seem so efficient, the old-fashioned village editor reflected, to spend seventy-five cents on a telephone call in order to save five cents’ worth of time.
“Oh hush! Anyway, I’ll be delighted to see the boy! I’ll bet there isn’t a smarter young lawyer in Worcester. There’s one member of the family that’s a real success!”
He was a little shocked when Philip came, like a one-man procession, into the living room, late on Saturday afternoon. He had been forgetting how bald this upstanding young advocate was growing even at thirty-four. And it seemed to him that Philip was a little heavy and senatorial in speech and a bit too cordial.
“By Jove, Dad, you don’t know how good it is to be back in the old digs. Mother and the girls upstairs? By Jove, sir, that was a horrible business, the killing of poor Fowler. Horrible! l was simply horrified. There must have been a mistake somewhere, because Judge Swan has a wonderful reputation for scrupulousness.”
“There was no mistake. Swan is a fiend. Literally!” Doremus sounded less paternal than when he had first bounded up to shake hands with the beloved prodigal. “Really? We must talk it over. I’ll see if there can’t be a stricter investigation. Swan? Really! We’ll certainly go into the whole business. But first I must just skip upstairs and give Mammy a good smack, and Mary and Little Sis.”
And that was the last time that Philip mentioned Effingham Swan or any “stricter investigation” of the acts thereof. All afternoon he was relentlessly filial and fraternal, and he smiled like an automobile salesman when Sissy griped at him, “What’s the idea of all the tender hand-dusting, Philco?”
Doremus and he were not alone till nearly midnight. They sat upstairs in the sacred study. Philip lighted one of Doremus’s excellent cigars as though he were a cinema actor playing the role of a man lighting an excellent cigar, and breathed amiably:
“Well, sir, this is an excellent cigar! It certainly is excellent!”
“Oh, I just mean, I was just appreciating it-”
“What is it, Phil? There’s something on your mind. Shoot! Not rowing with Merilla, are you?”
“Certainly not! Most certainly not! Oh, I don’t approve of everything Merry does, she’s a little extravagant but she’s got a heart of gold, and let me tell you, Pater, there isn’t a young society woman in Worcester that makes a nicer impression on everybody, especially at nice dinner parties.”
“Well then? Let’s have it, Phil. Something serious?”
“Ye-es, I’m afraid there is. Look, Dad. . . . Oh, do sit down and be comfortable! . . . I’ve been awfully perturbed to hear that you’ve, uh, that you’re in slightly bad odor with some of the authorities.”
“You mean the Corpos?”
“Naturally! Who else?”
“Maybe I don’t recognize ‘em as authorities.”
“Oh, listen, Pater, please don’t joke tonight! I’m serious. As a matter fact, I hear you’re more than just ‘slightly’ in wrong with them.”
“And who may your informant be?”
“Oh, just letters, old school friends. Now you aren’t really pro-Corpo, are you?”
“How did you ever guess?”
“Well, I’ve been, I didn’t vote for Windrip, personally, but I begin to see where I was wrong. I can see now that he has not only great personal magnetism, but real constructive power, real sure-enough statesmanship. Some say it’s Lee Sarason’s doing, but don’t you believe it for a minute. Look at all Buzz did back in his home state, before he ever teamed up with Sarason! And some say Windrip is crude. Well, so were Lincoln and Jackson. Now what I think of Windrip-”
“The only thing you ought to think of Windrip is that his gangsters murdered your fine brother-in-law! And plenty of other men just as good. Do you condone such murders?”
“No! Certainly not! How can you suggest such a thing, Dad! No one abhors violence more than I do. Still, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs-”
“Hell and damnation!”
“Don’t call me ‘Pater’! If I ever hear that ‘can’t make an omelet’ phrase again, I’ll start doing a little murder myself! It’s used to justify every atrocity under every despotism, Fascist or Nazi or Communist or American labor war. Omelet! Eggs! By God, sir, men’s souls and blood are not eggshells for tyrants to break!”
“Oh, sorry, sir. I guess maybe the phrase is a little shopworn! I just mean to say, I’m just trying to figure this situation out realistically!”
“‘Realistically’! That’s another buttered bun to excuse murder!”
“But honestly, you know, horrible things do happen, thanks to the imperfection of human nature, but you can forgive the means if the end is a rejuvenated nation that-“
“I can do nothing of the kind! I can never forgive evil and lying and cruel means, and still less can I forgive fanatics that use that for an excuse! If I may imitate Romain Rolland, a country that tolerates evil means, evil manners, standards of ethics, for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end. I’m just curious, but do you know how perfectly you’re quoting every Bolshevik apologist that sneers at decency and kindness and truthfulness in daily dealings as ‘bourgeois morality’? I hadn’t understood that you’d gone quite so Marxo-materialistic!”
“I! Marxian! Good God!” Doremus was pleased to see that he had stirred his son out of his if-your-honor-please smugness.
“Why, one of the things I most admire about the Corpos is that, as I know, absolutely, I have reliable information from Washington, they have saved us from a simply ghastly invasion by red agents of Moscow, Communists pretending to be decent labor-leaders!”
“Not really!” (Had the fool forgotten that his father was a newspaperman and not likely to be impressed by “reliable information from Washington”?)
“Really! And to be realistic, sorry, sir, if you don’t like the word, but to be, to be-”
“In fact, to be realistic!”
“Well, yes, then!”
(Doremus recalled such tempers in Philip from years ago. Had he been wise, after all, to restrain himself from the domestic pleasure of licking the brat?)
“The whole point is that Windrip, or anyway the Corpos, are here to stay, Pater, and we’ve got to base our future actions not on some desired Utopia but on what we really and truly have. And think of what they’ve actually done! Just, for example, how they’ve removed the advertising billboards from the highways, and ended unemployment, and their simply stupendous feat in getting rid of all crime!”
“Pardon me, what y’ say, Dad?”
“Nothing! Nothing! Go on!”
“But I begin to see now that the Corpo gains haven’t been just material but spiritual.”
“Really! They’ve revitalized the whole country. Formerly we had gotten pretty sordid, just thinking about material possessions and comforts, about electric refrigeration and television and air-conditioning. Kind of lost the sturdiness that characterized our pioneer ancestors. Why, ever so many young men were refusing to take military drill, and the discipline and will power and good-fellowship that you only get from military training, Oh, pardon me! I forgot you were a pacifist.”
Doremus grimly muttered, “Not any more!”
“Of course there must be any number of things we can’t agree on, Dad. But after all, as a publicist you ought to listen to the Voice of Youth.”
“You? Youth? You’re not youth. You’re two thousand years old, mentally. You date just about 100 BC. in your fine new imperialistic theories!”
“No, but you must listen, Dad! Why do you suppose I came clear up here from Worcester just to see you?”
“God only knows!”
“I want to make myself clear. Before Windrip, we’d been lying down in America, while Europe was throwing off all her bonds, both monarchy and this antiquated parliamentary-democratic-liberal system that really means rule by professional politicians and by egotistic ‘intellectuals.’ We’ve got to catch up to Europe again, got to expand, it’s the rule of life. A nation, like a man, has to go ahead or go backward. Always!”
“I know, Phil. I used to write that same thing in those same words, back before 1914!”
“Did you? Well, anyway, Got to expand! Why, what we ought to do is to grab all of Mexico, and maybe Central America, and a good big slice of China. Why, just on their own behalf we ought to do it, misgoverned the way they are! Maybe I’m wrong but-”
“-Windrip and Sarason and Dewey Haik and Macgoblin, all those fellows, they’re big, they’re making me stop and think! And now to come down to my errand here-”
“You think I ought to run the Informer according to Corpo theology!”
“Why, why yes! That was approximately what I was going to say. (I just don’t see why you haven’t been more reasonable about this whole thing, you with your quick mind!) After all, the time for selfish individualism is gone. We’ve got to have mass action. One for all and all for one.”
“Philip, would you mind telling me what the deuce you’re really heading toward? Cut the cackle!”
“Well, since you insist, to ‘cut the cackle,’ as you call it, not very politely, seems to me, seeing I’ve taken the trouble to come clear up from Worcester. I have reliable information that you’re going to get into mighty serious trouble if you don’t stop opposing, or at least markedly failing to support, the government.”
“All right. What of it? It’s my serious trouble!”
“That’s just the point! It isn’t! I do think that just for once in your life you might think of Mother and the girls, instead of always of your own selfish ‘ideas’ that you’re so proud of! In a crisis like this, it just isn’t funny any longer to pose as a quaint ‘liberal.’”
Doremus’s voice was like a firecracker. “Cut the cackle, I told you! What you after? What’s the Corpo gang to you?”
“I have been approached in regard to the very high honor of an assistant military judgeship, but your attitude, as my father-”
“Philip, I think, I rather think, that I give you my parental curse not so much because you are a traitor as because you have become a stuffed shirt! Good-night.”
Holidays were invented by the devil, to coax people into the heresy that happiness can be won by taking thought. What was planned as a rackety day for David’s first Christmas with his grandparents was, they saw too well, perhaps David’s last Christmas with them. Mary had hidden her weeping, but the day before Christmas, when Shad Ledue tramped in to demand of Doremus whether Karl Pascal had ever spoken to him of Communism, Mary came on Shad in the hall, stared at him, raised her hand like a boxing cat, and said with dreadful quietness, “You murderer! I shall kill you and kill Swan!”
For once Shad did not look amused.
To make the holiday as good an imitation of mirth as possible, they were very noisy, but their holly, their tinsel stars on a tall pine tree, their family devotion in a serene old house in a little town, was no different at heart from despairing drunkenness in the city night.
Doremus reflected that it might have been just as well for all of them to get drunk and let themselves go, elbows on slopped café tables, as to toil at this pretense of domestic bliss. He now had another thing for which to hate the Corpos, for stealing the secure affection of Christmas.
For noon dinner, Louis Rotenstern was invited, because he was a lorn bachelor and, still more, because he was a Jew, now insecure and snubbed and threatened in an insane dictatorship. (There is no greater compliment to the Jews than the fact that the degree of their unpopularity is always the scientific measure of the cruelty and silliness of the régime under which they live, so that even a commercial-minded money-fondling heavily humorous Jew burgher like Rotenstern is still a sensitive meter of barbarism.)
After dinner came Buck Titus, David’s most favorite person, bearing staggering amounts of Woolworth tractors and fire engines and a real bow-and-arrow, and he was raucously insisting that Mrs. Candy dance with him what he not very precisely called “the light fantastic,” when the hammering sounded at the door.
Aras Dilley tramped in with four men.
“Lookin’ for Rotenstern. Oh, that you, Louie? Git your coat and come on, orders.”
“What’s the idea? What d’you want of him? What‘s the charge?” demanded Buck, still standing with his arm about Mrs. Candy’s embarrassed waist.
“Dunno’s there be any charges. Just ordered to headquarters for questioning. District Commissioner Reek in town. Just astin’ few people a few questions. Come on, you!”
The hilarious celebrants did not, as they had planned, go out to Lorinda’s tavern for skiing. Next day they heard that Rotenstern had been taken to the concentration camp at Trianon, along with that crabbed old Tory, Raymond Pridewell, the hardware dealer.
Both imprisonments were incredible. Rotenstern had been too meek. And if Pridewell had not ever been meek, if he had constantly and testily and loudly proclaimed that he had not cared for Ledue as a hired man and now cared even less for him as a local governor, yet-why, Pridewell was a sacred institution. As well think of dragging the brownstone Baptist Church to prison.
Later, a friend of Shad Ledue took over Rotenstern’s shop.
It can happen here, meditated Doremus. It could happen to him. How soon? Before he should be arrested, he must make amends to his conscience by quitting the Informer.
Professor Victor Loveland, once a classicist of Isaiah College, having been fired from a labor camp for incompetence in teaching arithmetic to lumberjacks, was in town, with wife and babies, on his way to a job clerking in his uncle’s slate quarry near Fair Haven. He called on Doremus and was hysterically cheerful. He called on Clarence Little, “dropped in to visit with him,” Clarence would have said.
Now that twitchy, intense jeweler, Clarence, who had been born on a Vermont farm and had supported his mother till she died when he was thirty, had longed to go to college and, especially, to study Greek. Though Loveland was his own age, in the midthirties, he looked on him as a combination of Keats and Liddell. His greatest moment had been hearing Loveland read Homer. Loveland was leaning on the counter. “Gone ahead with your Latin grammar, Clarence?”
“Golly, Professor, it just doesn’t seem worth while any more. I guess I’m kind of a weak sister, anyway, but I find that these days it’s about all I can do to keep going.”
“Me too! And don’t call me ‘Professor.’ I’m a timekeeper in a slate quarry. What a life!”
They had not noticed the clumsy looking man in plain clothes who had just come in. Presumably he was a customer. But he grumbled, “So you two pansies don’t like the way things go nowadays! Don’t suppose you like the Corpos! Don’t think much of the Chief!” He jabbed his thumb into Loveland’s ribs so painfully that Loveland yelped, “I don’t think about him at all!”
“Oh, you don’t, eh? Well, you two fairies can come along to the courthouse with me!”
“And who may you be?”
“Oh, just an ensign in the M.M.’s, that’s all!”
He had an automatic pistol.
Loveland was not beaten much, because he managed to keep his mouth shut. But Little was so hysterical that they laid him on a kitchen table and decorated his naked back with forty slashes of a steel ramrod. They had found that Clarence wore yellow silk underwear, and the M.M.’s from factory and plowland laughed, particularly one broad young inspector who was rumored to have a passionate friendship with a battalion leader from Nashua who was fat, eyeglassed, and high-pitched of voice.
Little had to be helped into the truck that took Loveland and him to the Trianon concentration camp. One eye was closed and so surrounded with bruised flesh that the MM. driver said it looked like a Spanish omelet.
The truck had an open body, but they could not escape, because the three prisoners on this trip were chained hand to hand. They lay on the floor of the truck. It was snowing.
The third prisoner was not much like Loveland or Little. His name was Ben Trippen. He had been a mill hand for Medary Cole. He cared no more about the Greek language than did a baboon, but he did care for his six children. He had been arrested for trying to strike Cole and for cursing the Corpo régime when Cole had reduced his wages from nine dollars a week (in pre-Corpo currency) to seven-fifty.
As to Loveland’s wife and babies, Lorinda took them in till she could pass the hat and collect enough to send them back to Mrs. Loveland’s family on a rocky farm in Missouri. But then things went better. Mrs. Loveland was favored by the Greek proprietor of a lunch-room and got work washing dishes and otherwise pleasing the proprietor, who brilliantined his mustache.
The county administration, in a proclamation signed by Emil Staubmeyer, announced that they were going to regulate the agriculture on the submarginal land high up on Mount Terror. As a starter, half-a-dozen of the poorer families were moved into the large, square, quiet, old house of that large, square, quiet, old farmer, Henry Veeder, cousin of Doremus Jessup. These poorer families had many children, a great many, so that there were four or five persons bedded on the floor in every room of the home where Henry and his wife had placidly lived alone since their own children had grown.
Henry did not like it, and said so, not very tactfully, to the M.M.’s herding the refugees. What was worse, the dispossessed did not like it any better. “‘Tain’t much, but we got a house of our own. Dunno why we should git shoved in on Henry,” said one. “Don’t expect other folks to bother me, and don’t expect to bother other folks. Never did like that fool kind of yellow color Henry painted his barn, but guess that’s his business.”
So Henry and two of the regulated agriculturists were taken to the Trianon concentration camp, and the rest remained in Henry’s house, doing nothing but finish up Henry’s large larder and wait for orders.
“And before I’m sent to join Henry and Karl and Loveland, I’m going to clear my skirts,” Doremus vowed, along in late January.
He marched in to see County Commissioner Ledue.
“I want to quit the Informer. Staubmeyer has learned all I can teach him.”
“Staubmeyer? Oh! You mean Assistant Commissioner Staubmeyer!”
“Chuck it, will you? We’re not on parade, and we’re not playing soldiers. Mind if I sit down?”
“Don’t look like you cared a hell of a lot whether I mind or not! But I can tell you, right here and now, Jessup, without any monkey business about it, you’re not going to leave your job. I guess I could find enough grounds for sending you to Trianon for about a million years, with ninety lashes, but, you’ve always been so stuck on yourself as such an all-fired honest editor, it kind of tickles me to watch you kissing the Chief’s foot, and mine!”
“I’ll do no more of it! That’s certain! And I admit that I deserve your scorn for ever having done it!”
“Well, isn’t that elegant! But you’ll do just what I tell you to, and like it! Jessup, I suppose you think I had a swell time when I was your hired man! Watching you and your old woman and the girls go off on a picnic while I, oh, I was just your hired man, with dirt in my ears, your dirt! I could stay home and clean up the basement!”
“Maybe we didn’t want you along, Shad! Good morning!”
Shad laughed. There was a sound of the gates of Trianon concentration camp in that laughter.
It was really Sissy who gave Doremus his lead. He drove to Hanover to see Shad’s superior, District Commissioner John Sullivan Reek, that erstwhile jovial and red-faced politician. He was admitted after only half an hour’s waiting. He was shocked to see how pale and hesitant and frightened Reek had become. But the Commissioner tried to be authoritative. “Well, Jessup, what can I do for you?”
“May I be frank?”
“What? What? Why, certainly! Frankness has always been my middle name!”
“I hope so. Governor, I find I’m of no use on the Informer, at Fort Beulah. As you probably know, I’ve been breaking in Emil Staubmeyer as my successor. Well, he’s quite competent to take hold now, and I want to quit. I’m really just in his way.”
“Why don’t you stick around and see what you can still do to help him? There’ll be little jobs cropping up from time to time.”
“Because it’s got on my nerves to take orders where | used to give ‘em for so many years. You can appreciate that, can’t you?”
“My God, can I appreciate it? And how! Well, I’ll think it over. You wouldn’t mind writing little pieces for my own little sheet, at home? I own part of a paper there.”
“No! Sure! Delighted!”
(“Does this mean that Reek believes the Corpo tyranny is going to blow up, in a revolution, so that he’s beginning to trim? Or just that he’s fighting to keep from being thrown out?”)
“Yes, I can see how you might feel, Brother Jessup.”
“Thanks! Would you mind giving me a note to County Commissioner Ledue, telling him to let me out, without prejudice?, making it pretty strong?”
“No. Not a bit. Just wait a minute, ole fellow; I’ll write it right now.”
Doremus made as little ceremony as possible of leaving the Informer, which had been his throne for thirty-seven years. Staubmeyer was patronizing, Doc Itchitt looked quizzical, but the chapel, headed by Dan Wilgus, shook hands profusely. And so, at sixty-two, stronger and more eager than he had been in all his life, Doremus had nothing to do more important than eating breakfast and telling his grandson stories about the elephant.
But that lasted less than a week. Avoiding suspicion from Emma and Sissy and even from Buck and Lorinda, he took Julian aside:
“Look here, boy. I think it’s time now for me to begin doing a little high treason. (Heaven’s sake keep all of this under your hat, don’t even tip off Sissy!) I guess you know, the Communists are too theocratic for my tastes.
But looks to me as though they have more courage and devotion and smart strategy than anybody since the Early Christian Martyrs, whom they also resemble in hairiness and a fondness for catacombs. I want to get in touch with ‘em and see if there’s any dirty work at the crossroads I can do for ‘em, say distributing a few Early Christian tracts by St. Lenin. But of course, theoretically, the Communists have all been imprisoned. Could you get to Karl Pascal, in Trianon, and find out whom I could see?”
Said Julian, “I think I could. Dr. Olmsted gets called in there sometimes on cases, they hate him, because he hates them, but still, their camp doctor is a drunken bum, and they have to have a real doc in when one of their warders busts his wrist beating up some prisoner. I’ll try, sir.”
Two days afterward Julian returned.
“My God, what a sewer that Trianon place is! I’d waited for Olmsted before, in the car, but I never had the nerve to butt inside. The buildings, they were nice buildings, quite pretty, when the girls’ school had them. Now the fittings are all torn out, and they’ve put up wallboard partitions for cells, and the whole place stinks of carbolic acid and excrement, and the air, there isn’t any, you feel as if you were nailed up in a box, I don’t know how anybody lives in one of those cells for an hour, and yet there’s six men bunked in a cell twelve feet by ten, with a ceiling only seven feet high, and no light except a twentyfive watt, I guess it is, bulb in the ceiling you couldn’t read by it. But they get out for exercise two hours a day, walk around and around the courtyard they’re all so stooped, and they all look so ashamed, as if they’d had the defiance just licked out of ‘em, even Karl a little, and you remember how proud and sort of sardonic he was.
Well, I got to see him, and he says to get in touch with this man, here, I wrote it down, and for God’s sake, burn it up soon as you’ve memorized it!”
“Was he, had they, ?”
“Oh, yes, they’ve beaten him, all right. He wouldn’t talk about it. But there was a scar right across his cheek, from his temple right down to his chin. And I had just a glimpse of Henry Veeder. Remember how he looked like an oak tree? Now he twitches all the time, and jumps and gasps when he hears a sudden sound. He didn’t know me. I don’t think he’d know anybody.”
Doremus announced to his family and told it loudly in Gath that he was still looking for an option on an apple orchard to which they might retire, and he journeyed southward, with pajamas and a toothbrush and the first volume of Spengler’s Decline of the West in a briefcase.
The address given by Karl Pascal was that of a most gentlemanly dealer in altar cloths and priestly robes, who had his shop and office over a tea room in Hartford, Connecticut. He talked about the cembalo and the spinetta di serenata and the music of Palestrina for an hour before he sent Doremus on to a busy engineer constructing a dam in New Hampshire, who sent him to a tailor in a side-street shop in Lynn, who at last sent him to northern Connecticut and to the Eastern headquarters of what was left of the Communists in America.
Still carrying his little briefcase he walked up a greasy hill, impassable to any motorcar, and knocked at the faded green door of a squat New England farm cottage masked in wintry old lilac bushes and spiraea shrubs. A stringy farm wife opened and looked hostile.
“I’d like to speak to Mr. Ailey, Mr. Bailey, or Mr. Cailey.” “None of ‘em home. You’ll have to come again.”
“Then I’ll wait. What else should one do, these days?”
“Ail right. Cmin.”
“Thanks. Give them this letter.”
(The taiIor had warned him, “It vill all sount very foolish, the passvorts und everyt’ing, but if any of the central committee gets caught,“ He made a squirting sound and drew his scissors across his throat.)
Doremus sat now in a tiny hall off a flight of stairs steep as the side of a roof; a hall with sprigged wall paper and Currier & Ives prints, and black-painted wooden rocking chairs with calico cushions. There was nothing to read but a Methodist hymnal and a desk dictionary. He knew the former by heart, and anyway, he always loved reading dictionaries, often had one seduced him from editorial writing. Happily he sat conning:
Phenyl. 11., Chem. The univalent radical C6 H5, regarded as the basis of numerous benzene derivatives; as, phenyl hydroxid C6 H5 OH.
Pherecratean. n. A choriambic trimeter catalectic, or catalectic glyconic; composed of a spondee, a choriambus, and a catalectic syllable.
”Well! I never knew any of that before! I wonder if I do now?” thought Doremus contentedly, before he realized that glowering from a very narrow doorway was a very broad man with wild gray hair and a patch over one eye. Doremus recognized him from pictures. He was Bill Atterbury, miner, longshoreman, veteran, W.W. leader, old A. F. of L. strike-leader, five years in San Quentin and five honored years in Moscow, and reputed now to be the secretary of the illegal Communist Party.
“I’m Mr. Ailey. What can I do for you?” Bill demanded. He led Doremus into a musty back room where, at a table which was probably mahogany underneath the scars and the clots of dirt, sat a squat man with kinky tow-colored hair and with deep wrinkles in the thick pale skin of his face, and a slender young elegant who suggested Park Avenue.
“Howryuh?” said Mr. Bailey, in a Russian-Jewish accent. Of him Doremus knew nothing save that he was not named Bailey.
“Morning,” snapped Mr. Chailey, whose name was Elphrey, if Doremus guessed rightly, and who was the son of a millionaire private banker, the brother of one explorer, one bishop’s wife, and one countess, and himself a former teacher of economics in the University of California.
Doremus tried to explain himself to these hard-eyed, quick-glancing plotters of ruin.
“Are you willing to become a Party member, in the extremely improbable case that they accept you, and to take orders, any orders, without question?” asked EIphrey, so suavely.
“Do you mean, Am I willing to kill and steal?”
“You’ve been reading detective stories about the ‘Reds’! No. What you’d have to do would be much more difficult than the amusement of using a tommy-gun. Would you be willing to forget you ever were a respectable newspaper editor, giving orders, and walk through the snow, dressed like a bum, to distribute seditious pamphlets, even if, personally, you should believe the pamphlets were of no slightest damn good to the Cause?”
“Why I, I don’t know. Seems to me that as a newspaperman of quite a little training-”
“Hell! Our only trouble is keeping out the ‘trained newspapermen’! What we need is trained bill-posters that like the smell of flour paste and hate sleeping. And, but you’re a little old for this, crazy fanatics that go out and start strikes, knowing they’ll get beaten up and thrown in the bull pen.”
“No, I guess I, Look here. I’m sure Walt Trowbridge will be joining up with the Socialists and some of the leftwing radical ex-Senators and the Farmer-Laborites and so on-”
Bill Atterbury guffawed. It was a tremendous, somehow terrifying blast. “Yes, I’m sure they’ll join up, all the dirty, sneaking, haIf-headed, reformist Social Fascists like Trowbridge, that are doing the work of the capitalists and working for war against Soviet Russia without even having sense enough to know they’re doing it and to collect good pay for their crookedness!”
“I admire Trowbridge!” snarled Doremus.
Elphrey rose, almost cordial, and dismissed Doremus with, “Mr. Jessup, I was brought up in a sound bourgeois household myself, unlike these two roughnecks, and I appreciate what you’re trying to do, even if they don’t. I imagine that your rejection of us is even firmer than our rejection of you!”
“Dot’s right, Comrade Elphrey. Both you and dis fellow got ants in your bourjui pants, like your Hugh Johnson vould say!” chuckled the Russian Mr. Bailey.
“But I just wonder if Wait Trowbridge won’t be chasing out Buzz Windrip while you boys are still arguing about whether Comrade Trotzky was once guilty of saying mass facing the north? Good-day!” said Doremus.
When he recounted it to Julian, two days later, and Julian puzzled, “I wonder whether you won or they did?” Doremus asserted, “I don’t think anybody won except the ants! Anyway, now I know that man is not to be saved by black bread alone but by everything that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord our God. . . . Communists, intense and narrow; Yankees, tolerant and shallow; no wonder a Dictator can keep us separate and all working for him!”
Even in the 1930’s, when it was radiantly believed that movies and the motorcar and glossy magazines had ended the provinciality of all the larger American villages, in such communities as Fort Beulah all the retired business men who could not afford to go to Europe or Florida or California, such as Doremus, were as aimless as an old dog on Sunday afternoon with the family away. They poked uptown to the shops, the hotel lobbies, the railway station, and at the barber shop were pleased rather than irritated when they had to wait a quarter-hour for the triweekly shave. There were no cafés as there would have been in Continental Europe, and no club save the country club, and that was chiefly a sanctuary for the younger people in the evening and late afternoons.
The superior Doremus Jessup, the bookman, was almost as dreary in retirement as Banker Crowley would have been.
He did pretend to play golf, but he could not see any particular point in stopping a good walk to wallop small balls and, worse, the links were now bright with M.M. uniforms. And he hadn’t enough brass, as no doubt Medary Cole would have, to feel welcome hour on hour in the Hotel Wessex lobby.
He stayed in his third-story study and read as long as his eyes would endure it. But he irritably felt Emma’s irritation and Mrs. Candy’s ire at having a man around the house all day. Yes! He’d get what he could for the house and for what small share in Informer stock the government had left him when they had taken it over, and go, well, just go, the Rockies or anywhere that was new. But he realized that Emma did not at all wish to go new places; and realized that the Emma to whose billowy warmth it had been comforting to come home after the office, bored him and was bored by him when he was always there. The only difference was that she did not seem capable of admitting that one might, without actual fiendishness or any signs of hot-footing it for Reno, be bored by one’s faithful spouse.
“Why don’t you drive out and see Buck or Lorinda?” she suggested.
“Don’t you ever get a little jealous of my girl, Linda?” he said, very lightly, because he very heavily wanted to know.
She laughed. “You? At your age? As if anybody thought you could be a lover!”
Well, Lorinda thought so, he raged, and promptly he did “drive out and see her,” a little easier in mind about his divided loyalties.
Only once did he go back to the Informer office.
Staubmeyer was not in sight, and it was evident that the real editor was that sly bumpkin, Doc ltchitt, who didn’t even rise at Doremus’s entrance nor listen when Doremus gave his opinion of the new make-up of the rural correspondence pages.
That was an apostasy harder to endure than Shad Ledue’s, for Shad had always been rustically certain that Doremus was a fool, almost as bad as real “city folks,” while Doc Itchitt had once appreciated the tight joints and smooth surfaces and sturdy bases of Doremus’s craftsmanship.
Day on day he waited. So much of a revolution for so many people is nothing but waiting. That is one reason why tourists rarely see anything but contentment in a crushed population. Waiting, and its brother death, seem so contented.
For several days now, in late February, Doremus had noticed the insurance man. He said he was a Mr. Dimick; a Mr. Dimick of Albany. He was a gray and tasteless man, in gray and dusty and wrinkled clothes, and his pop-eyes stared with meaningless fervor. All over town you met him, at the four drugstores, at the shoe-shine parlor, and he was always droning, “My name is Dimick, Mr. Dimick of Albany, Albany, New York. I wonder if I can interest you in a wonnerful new form of life-insurance policy. Wonnerful!” But he didn’t sound as though he himself thought it was very wonnerful.
He was a pest.
He was always dragging himself into some unwelcoming shop, and yet he seemed to sell few policies, if any.
Not for two days did Doremus perceive that Mr. Dimick of Albany managed to meet him an astonishing number of times a day. As he came out of the Wessex, he saw Mr. Dimick leaning against a lamppost, ostentatiously not looking his way, yet three minutes later and two blocks away, Mr. Dimick trailed after him into the Vert Mont Pool & Tobacco Headquarters, and listened to Doremus’s conversation with Tom Aiken about fish hatcheries.
Doremus was suddenly cold. He made it a point to sneak uptown that evening and saw Mr. Dimick talking to the driver of a Beulah-Montpelier bus with an intensity that wasn’t in the least gray. Doremus glared. Mr. Dimick looked at him with watery eyes, croaked, “Devenin’, Mr. D’remus; like t’ talk t’ you about insurance some time when you got the time,” and shuffled away. Later, Doremus took out and cleaned his revolver, said, “Oh, rats!” and put it away. He heard a ring as he did so, and went downstairs to find Mr. Dimick sitting on the oak hat rack in the hall, rubbing his hat. “I’d like to talk to you, if y’ain’t too busy,” whined Mr. Dimick.
“All right. Go in there. Sit down.”
“Anybody hear us?”
“No! What of it?”
Mr. Dimick’s grayness and lassitude fell away. His voice was sharp:
“I think your local Corpos are on to me. Got to hustle. I’m from Walt Trowbridge. You probably guessed, I’ve been watching you all week, asking about you. You’ve got to be Trowbridge’s and our representative here. Secret war against the Corpos. The ‘N.U.,’ the ‘New Underground,’ we call it, like secret Underground that got the slaves into Canada before the Civil War. Four divisions: printing propaganda, distributing it, collecting and exchanging information about Corpo outrages, smuggling suspects into Canada or Mexico. Of course you don’t know one thing about me. I may be a Corpo spy. But look over these credentials and telephone your friend Mr. Samson of the Burlington Paper Company. God’s sake be careful! Wire may be tapped. Ask him about me on the grounds you’re interested in insurance. He’s one of us. You’re going to be one of us! Now phone!”
Doremus telephoned to Samson: “Say, Ed, is a fellow named Dimick, kind of weedy-looking, pop-eyed fellow, all right? Shall I take his advice on insurance?”
“Yes. Works for Walbridge. Sure. You can ride along with him.”
To follow in part 9