New Oxford, U.S.A., June-July 1892.
“THE truth is,” said the man in the train, “that we live in a tropical country for three months of the year, only we won’t recognise. Look at this.” He handed over a long list of deaths from heat that enlivened the newspapers. All the cities where men live at breaking-strain were sending in their butcher-bills, and the papers of the cities, themselves apostles of the Gospel of Rush, were beseeching their readers to keep cool and not to overwork themselves while the hot wave was upon them. The rivers were patched and barred with sun-dried pebbles; the logs and loggers were drought-bound somewhere up the Connecticut; and the grass at the side of the track was burned in a hundred places by the sparks from locomotives. Men—hatless, coatless, and gasping—lay in the shade of that station where only a few months ago the glass stood at 30 below zero. Now the readings were 98 degrees in the shade. Main Street—do you remember Main Street of a little village locked up in the snow this spring?1—had given up the business of life, and an American flag with some politician’s name printed across the bottom hung down across the street as stiff as a board. There were men with fans and alpaca coats curled up in splint chairs in the verandah of the one hotel—among them an ex-President of the United States. He completed the impression that the furniture of the entire country had been turned out of doors for summer cleaning in the absence of all the inhabitants. Nothing looks so hopelessly “ex” as a President “returned to stores,” The stars and stripes signified that the Presidential Campaign had opened in Main Street—opened and shut up again. Politics evaporate at summer heat when all hands are busy with the last of the hay, and, as the formers put it, “Vermont’s bound to go Republican.” The custom of the land is to drag the scuffle and dust of an election over several months—to the improvement of business and manners; but the noise of that war comes faintly up the valley of the Connecticut and is lost among the fiddling of the locusts. Their music puts, as it were, a knife edge upon the heat of the day. In truth, it is a tropical country for the time being. Thunder-storms prowl and growl round the belted hills, spit themselves away in a few drops of rain, and leave the air more dead than before. In the woods, where even the faithful springs are beginning to run low, the pines and balsams have thrown out all their fragrance upon the heat and wait for the wind to bring news of the rain. The clematis, wild carrot, and all the gipsy-flowers camped by sufferance between fence line and road net are masked in white dust, and the golden-rod of the pastures that are burned to flax-colour burns too like burnished brass. A pillar of dust on the long hog-back of the road across the hills shows where a team is lathering between farms, and the roofs of the wooden houses flicker in the haze of their own heat. Overhead the chicken-hawk is the only creature at work, and his shrill kite-like call sends the gaping chickens from the dust-bath in haste to their mothers. The red squirrel as usual feigns business of importance among the butternuts, but this is pure priggishness. When the passer-by is gone he ceases chattering and climbs back to where the little breezes can stir his tail-plumes. From somewhere under the lazy fold of a meadow comes the drone of a mowing-machine among the hay—its whurr-oo and the grunt of the tired horses.
Houses are only meant to eat and sleep in. The rest of life is lived at full length in the verandah. When traffic is brisk three whole teams will pass that verandah in one day, and it is necessary to exchange news about the weather and the prospects for oats. When oats are in there will be slack time on the farm, and the farmers will seriously think of doing the hundred things that they have let slide during the summer. They will undertake this and that, “when they get around to it.” The phrase translated is the exact equivalent to the mañana of the Spaniard, the kul hojaiga of Upper India, the yuroshii of the Japanese, and the long drawled taihod of the Maori. The only person who “gets around” in this weather is the summer boarder—the refugee from the burning cities of the Plain, and she is generally a woman. She walks, and botanizes, and kodaks, and strips the bark off the white birch to make blue-ribboned waste-paper baskets, and the farmer regards her with wonder. More does he wonder still at the city clerk in a blazer, who has two weeks’ holiday in the year and, apparently, unlimited money, which he earns in the easiest possible way by “sitting at a desk and writing,” The farmer’s wife sees the fashions of the summer boarder, and between them man and woman get a notion of the beauties of city life for which their children may live to blame them. The blazer and the town-made gown are innocent recruiting sergeants for the city brigades; and since one man’s profession is ever a mystery to his fellow, blazer and gown believe that the farmer must be happy and content. A summer resort is one of the thousand windows whence to watch the thousand aspects of life in the Atlantic States. Remember that between June and September it is the desire of all who can to get away from the big cities—not on account of wantonness, as people leave London—but because of actual heat. So they get away in their millions with their millions—the wives of the rich men for five clear months, the others for as long as they can; and, like drawing like, they make communities set by set, breed by breed, division by division, over the length and breadth of the land—from Maine and the upper reaches of the Saguenay, through the mountains and hot springs of half-a-dozen interior States, out and away to Sitka in steamers. Then they spend money on hotel bills, among ten thousand farms, on private companies who lease and stock land for sporting purposes, on yachts and canoes, bicycles, rods, châlets, cottages, reading circles, camps, tents, and all the luxuries they know. But the luxury of rest most of them do not know; and the telephone and telegraph are faithfully dragged after them, lest their men-folk should for a moment forget the ball and chain at foot.
For sadness with laughter at bottom there are few things to compare with the sight of a coat-less, muddy-booted, millionaire, his hat adorned with trout-flies, and a string of small fish in his hand, clawing wildly at the telephone of some back-of-beyond “health resort.” Thus:
“Hello! Hello! Yes. Who’s there? Oh, all right. Go ahead. Yes, it’s me! Hey, what? Repeat. Sold for how much? Forty-four and a half? Repeat. No! I told you to hold on. What? What? Who bought at that? Say, hold a minute. Cable the other side. No. Hold on. I’ll come down. (Business with watch.) Tell Schaefer I’ll see him to-morrow.” (Over his shoulder to his wife, who wears half-hoop diamond rings at 10 A.M.) “Lizzie, where’s my grip? I’ve got to go down.”
And he goes down to eat in a hotel and sleep in his shut-up house. Men are as scarce at most of the summer places as they are in Indian hill-stations in late April. The women tell you that they can’t get away, and if they did they would only be miserable to get back. Now whether this wholesale abandonment of husbands by wives is wholesome let those who know the beauties of the Anglo-Indian system settle for themselves.
That both men and women need rest very badly a glance at the crowded hotel tables makes plain—so plain, indeed, that the foreigner who has not been taught that fuss and worry are in themselves honourable wishes sometimes he could put the whole unrestful crowd to sleep for seventeen hours a day. I have inquired of not less than five hundred men and women in various parts of the States why they broke down and looked so gash. And the men said: “If you don’t keep up with the procession in America you are left”; and the women smiled an evil smile and answered that no outsider yet had discovered the real cause of their worry and strain, or why their lives were arranged to work with the largest amount of friction in the shortest given time. Now, the men can be left to their own folly, but the cause of the women’s trouble has been revealed to me. It is the thing called “Help” which is no help. In the multitude of presents that the American man has given to the American woman (for details see daily papers) he has forgotten or is unable to give her good servants, and that sordid trouble runs equally through the household of the millionaire or the flat of the small city man. “Yes, it’s easy enough to laugh,” said one woman passionately, “we are worn out, and our children are worn out too, and we’re always worrying, I know it. What can we do? If you stay here you’ll know that this is the land of all the luxuries and none of the necessities. You’ll know and then you won’t laugh. You’ll know why women are said to take their husbands to boarding-houses and never have homes. You’ll know what an Irish Catholic means. The men won’t get up and attend to these things, but we would. If we had female suffrage, we’d shut the door to all the Irish and throw it open to all the Chinese, and let the women have a little protection.” It was the cry of a soul worn thin with exasperation, but it was truth. To-day I do not laugh any more at the race that depends on inefficient helot races for its inefficient service. When next you, housekeeping in England, differ with the respectable, amiable, industrious sixteen-pound maid, who wears a cap and says “Ma’am,” remember the pauper labour of America—the wives of the sixty million kings who have no subjects. No man could get a thorough knowledge of the problem in one lifetime, but he could guess at the size and the import of it after he has descended into the arena and wrestled with the Swede and the Dane and the German and the unspeakable Celt. Then he perceives how good for the breed it must be that a man should thresh himself to pieces in naked competition with his neighbour while his wife struggles unceasingly over primitive savagery in the kitchen. In India sometimes when a famine is at hand the life of the land starts up before your eyes in all its bareness and bitter stress. Here, in spite of the trimmings and the frillings, it refuses to be subdued and the clamour and the clatter of it are loud above all other sounds—as sometimes the thunder of disorganised engines stops conversations along the decks of a liner, and in the inquiring eyes of the passengers you read the question—“This thing is made and paid to bear us to port quietly. Why does it not do so?” Only here, the rattle of the badly-put-together machine is always in the ears, though men and women run about with labour-saving appliances and gospels of “power through repose,” tinkering and oiling and making more noise. The machine is new. Some day it is going to be the finest machine in the world. To the ranks of the amateur artificers, therefore, are added men with notebooks tapping at every nut and bolthead, fiddling with the glands, registering revolutions, and crying out from time to time that this or that is or is not “distinctively American.” Meantime, men and women die unnecessarily in the wheels, and they are said to have fallen “in the battle of life.”
The God Who sees us all die knows that there is far too much of that battle, but we do not, and so continue worshipping the knife that cuts and the wheel that breaks us, as blindly as the outcast sweeper worships Lal-Beg the Glorified Broom that is the incarnation of his craft. But the sweeper has sense enough not to kill himself, and to be proud of it, with sweeping.
A foreigner can do little good by talking of these things; for the same lean dry blood that breeds the fever of unrest breeds also the savage parochial pride that squeals under a steady stare or a pointed finger. Among themselves the people of the Eastern cities admit that they and their womenfolk overwork grievously and go to pieces very readily, and that the consequences for the young stock are unpleasant indeed; but before the stranger they prefer to talk about the future of their mighty continent (which has nothing to do with the case) and to call aloud on Baal of the Dollars—to catalogue their lines, mines, telephones, banks, and cities, and all the other shells, buttons, and counters that they have made their Gods over them. Now a nation does not progress upon its brain-pan, as some books would have us believe, but upon its belly as did the Serpent of old; and in the very long run the work of the brain comes to be gathered in by a slow-footed breed that have unimaginative stomachs and the nerves that know their place.
All this is very consoling from the alien’s point of view. He perceives, with great comfort, that out of strain is bred impatience in the shape of a young bundle of nerves, who is about as undisciplined an imp as the earth can show. Out of impatience, grown up, habituated to violent and ugly talk, and the impatience and recklessness of his neighbours, is begotten lawlessness, encouraged by laziness and suppressed by violence when it becomes insupportable. Out of lawlessness is bred rebellion (and that fruit has been tasted once already), and out of rebellion comes profit to those who wait. He hears of the power of the People who, through rank slovenliness, neglect to see that their laws are soberly enforced from the beginning; and these People, not once or twice in a year, but many times within a month, go out in the open streets and, with a maximum waste of power and shouting, strangle other people with ropes. They are, he is told, law-abiding citizens who have executed “the will of the people”; which is as though a man should leave his papers unsorted for a year and then smash his desk with an axe, crying, “Am I not orderly?” He hears lawyers, otherwise sane and matured, defend this pig-jobbing murder on the grounds that “the People stand behind the Law”—the law that they never administered. He sees a right, at present only half—but still half—conceded to anticipate the law in one’s own interests; and nervous impatience (always nerves) forejudging the suspect in gaol, the prisoner in the dock, and the award between nation and nation ere it is declared. He knows that the maxim in London, Yokohama, and Hongkong in doing business with the pure-bred American is to keep him waiting, for the reason that forced inaction frets the man to a lather, as standing in harness frets a half-broken horse. He comes across a thousand little peculiarities of speech, manner, and thought—matters of nerve and stomach developed by everlasting friction—and they are all just the least little bit in the world lawless. No more so than the restless clicking together of horns in a herd of restless cattle, but certainly no less. They are all good—good for those who wait.
On the other hand, to consider the matter more humanly, there are thousands of delightful men and women going to pieces for the pitiful reason that if they do not keep up with the procession, “they are left.” And they are left—in clothes that have no back to them, among mounds of smilax. And young men—chance-met in the streets, talk to you about their nerves which are things no young man should know anything about; and the friends of your friends go down with nervous prostration, and the people overheard in the trains talk about their nerves and the nerves of their relatives; and the little children must needs have their nerves attended to ere their milk-teeth are shed, and the middle-aged women and the middle-aged men have got them too, and the old men lose the dignity of their age in an indecent restlessness, and the advertisements in the papers go to show that this sweeping list is no lie. Atop of the fret and the stampede, the tingling self-consciousness of a new people makes them take a sort of perverted pride in the futile racket that sends up the death-rate—a child’s delight in the blaze and the dust of the March of Progress. Is it not “distinctively American”? It is, and it is not. If the cities were all America, as they pretend, fifty years would see the March of Progress brought to a standstill, as a locomotive is stopped by heated bearings. . . .
Down in the meadow the mowing-machine has checked, and the horses are shaking themselves. The last of the sunlight leaves the top of Monadnock, and four miles away Main Street lights her electric lamps. It is band-night in Main Street, and the folks from Putney, from Marlboro’, from Guildford, and even New Fane will drive in their well-filled waggons to hear music and look at the Ex-President. Over the shoulder of the meadow two men come up very slowly, their hats off and their arms swinging loosely at their sides. They do not hurry, they have not hurried, and they never will hurry, for they are of country—bankers of the flesh and blood of the ever bankrupt cities. Their children may yet be pale summer boarders; as the boarders, city-bred weeds, may take over their farms. From the plough to the pavement goes man, but to the plough he returns at last.
“Going to supper?”
“Ye-ep,” very slowly across the wash of the uncut grass.
“Say, that corncrib wants painting.”
“Do that when we get around to it.”
They go off through the dusk, without farewell or salutation steadily as their own steers. And there are a few millions of them—unhandy men to cross in their ways, set, silent, indirect in speech, and as impenetrable as that other Eastern fanner who is the bedrock of another land. They do not appear in the city papers, they are not much heard in the streets, and they tell very little in the outsider’s estimate of America.
And they are the American.