The High Calling/Chapter 5
WALTER'S mind worked with what he afterward described to himself as an unquestioning obedience to a first impulse, at the centre of which was an instantaneous fear of discovery. Before Bauer had taken another step nearer him he had turned, switched off the power from the lamp, and snatched up a hammer from his bench.
With one blow he smashed the electrodes and then, as if made frantic over the act, he struck at the mechanism until it was a heap of bent and twisted wires and metal. It lay on his bench in a tangled mass and he stooped over it and began to sweep it off into the refuse box. Bauer had not yet said a word. Only with the first blow of the hammer he had ejaculated "Ach!" As Walter was flinging bits of the lamp into the box the German student came up and stood near, looking at Walter in astonishment.
"What is the matter?"
Walter simply muttered some unintelligible thing. He was, to tell the truth, tremendously excited, disturbed, overwhelmed by Bauer's return at this particular time.
"I've--I've been experimenting and have failed," he finally managed to say, stammering out the words with great difficulty. He was terrified to think Bauer might read in his face the whole story.
But Felix Bauer was one of the most simple-hearted and unsuspicious souls that ever lived. If he had not been, some of the things that are going to be true of this story could never have happened. He looked at Walter and then at the broken mechanism and simply said: "I am sorry you have failed. But it is nothing by the side of dishonor."
And then for the first time Walter looked openly and squarely into Bauer's face and saw tragedy there. The incandescent light over the bench was not a strong one. But Bauer was close to him and Walter quickly saw that he was not thinking of what Walter had done, was not going to ask him any questions about it, because some other thing was gripping him, some other thing so strong and insistent and sorrowful that it took possession of him and dominated him. Walter's action had already passed out of his mind as simply an incident connected with some disappointing experiment, and he was looking at Walter with an appeal in his great, sad eyes which smote Walter like a blow in the dark.
He felt almost faint and instinctively he sat down. Bauer had gone over to his own desk and stood leaning against it.
"I ought not to come in here and annoy you at this time," he said in his slow, almost stammering manner, "but I--you see, somehow I felt so lonely, so afraid, when I got off the train to-night, that I could not help the desire to see you, and they told me you must be in the shop. Heine says in the Lorelei, you know, 'Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, das Ich so traurig bin?' But I do know why I am so sad. It is disgrace which has befallen me, such deep disgrace to my home, my father------"
He stopped and looked at Walter timidly as if not quite sure how his confidence might be received. Walter sat with his head bowed, and smitten into silence. He did not know what to say, but Bauer probably took his silence for quiet sympathy, being of that nature himself and mistaking Walter's attitude for earnest attention.
"My father--you will understand what it means--has deserted my mother, and she has run away, the home destroyed is to be, and the disgrace--Oh, it is greater, more than I can endure, I said as I was obliged to come back for my things. It is more than I can bear alone, and you are so strong, so principled."
Walter cowered in his chair, appalled at the thing that was happening to him. Here was a soul in desperate need who had come to fling itself on him for companionship and courage, and he with his own soul stained with deception for the love of fame and money! He would have cried out; he wanted to, but Bauer went on, now he had broken over his natural reserve. He eagerly awaited Walter's sympathy, and his spirit hungered for light in his darkness.
"Yes, you see, I don't know anyone here, and your action about the story telling in your room--I heard of that--I counted it a brave thing to do. And, oh, I am so hungry for a friend! I need one; do you think you could be friend to me, do you, Douglas? Friend to a disgraced family? It is asking a great deal, but I feel the dark, the dark--it is so heavy for me------"
Bauer, looking at Walter in his almost animal-like appeal, saw at last that there was something he did not understand in Walter's attitude. Walter's mind was not confused by the strange situation, it was clear and vibrating with feeling. But it was a long time before he could speak. How could he tell Bauer the truth now? Why not let him remain in ignorance of the purpose to steal his ideas? Nothing had been done so far to really wrong him. The lamp was destroyed. Walter would not make another, and the basis of a possible friendship, such as Bauer needed, could be established without any explanation or foolish confession.
But somehow Walter could not rest with that suggestion. He felt that if Bauer had his friendship it must rest on truth and a frank outspoken revelation of the character of the soul he was appealing to for help.
It was very still in the big shop when Walter finally looked up and said to Bauer:
"I am not worthy of your friendship. I am not what you think I am."
"Not worthy? Not------" Bauer looked at him in amazement.
"No, not worthy. Look!" Walter spoke fast now as if afraid he might fail in courage. "Open your locker! Here! here is the key! You left it with me."
He thrust the key at Bauer, and Bauer turned around, and under the pressure of Walter's look and voice opened his locker and stood in front of it holding on to the door.
"There! That paper! Your plan, your drawing of the lamp! Open it. Let me show------"
Bauer obeyed mechanically. Walter got up and stood by Bauer's table. Bauer slowly unfolded the paper. His look showed he had almost forgotten it.
"There! See! You were on the right track! The soft metal teeth coupled to the electrode! Don't you see?" Bauer's face began to glow for the first time that evening, for he, too, like Walter, had the inventor's sensitive hunger. "You left the paper here the night you were called home. I saw it and copied it before I put it back. I made the model and it works. That is it there," and Walter pointed to the stuff on the table and in the refuse box. "Do you understand? I stole your plans. I was going to get out the lamp without telling you if you had not come back. And I am the person you want for a friend. Am I worthy? Do you understand now?"
A dull red spot began to creep up into the German student's face. He was still holding the locker door with one hand. His eye travelled from the diagram to Walter and then back again. Walter stood very erect, his head thrown back almost defiantly now that he had made his confession, and he was absolutely in the dark as to the effect of it on Bauer. He would and could not blame him for being angry. And he was angry for a moment. But only a moment. Then his great brown eyes softened and he said in a quiet, gentle way that moved Walter more than any burst of passion could have done:
"I am not a judge for you. While on the way home I suddenly thought out the secret of the metal teeth. See! I have it here." He took out of his pocket a paper and opening it spread it out on Walter's desk. Walter saw in a second's glance that Bauer had discovered the working basis for the successful light. "And I was going to work on the plan when I came back. But all my trouble drove it away. I lost my ambition. And I understand what you did. I might have done the same. But still, Douglas, do you know, I don't care. I--I am hungry for a friend just like you. What you have said does not change anything. What difference does that make? That is not trouble, not for me."
Walter looked at him a moment and then in the reaction which was really the taking off of the strain of weeks, he put his head between his hands and sobbed. Bauer did not venture to say anything. When Walter could control himself he reached out his hand. Bauer took it, and in that grasp the two young men understood each other for life. I think each gave as much as he took. The sacred compact they sealed in the big empty shop that night was made with few words, but it was never disturbed nor broken in after years. And each one of them realised something of the depth and joy of real friendship. Do you? Does anybody? Our human friendships, when they are real and permanent, are the finest and richest possessions of our lives. Pity we treat them so lightly and measure them so tamely.
That same night Bauer in his simple manner told Walter something more of his home troubles, enough to give Walter a glimpse into the real sorrow of his heart. Walter in his turn told in part the story of his temptation and of his struggles and tortures to escape. To this Bauer listened with a faint smile and with perfect understanding.
In the days that followed, they agreed to construct the lamp between them and share in the profits from it. And when they began work on the mechanism each found that the other had discovered little improvements which were necessary to the best construction, finally producing a lamp far more perfect and practical than Walter's first attempt.
The day after that memorable scene with Bauer in the shop Walter wrote home a long and exuberant letter, a part of which we may read.
"Mother, I can't begin to tell you what a relief I have experienced since I told Bauer all about it. I believe I had a little taste of hell for a while and I don't want to go through it again. Bauer and I are the best friends you ever saw. He is just the opposite of me. I'm impulsive and quick and get mad quick and all that. You know all about it, but he is slow and calm and talks only a little at a time. He is not what you would call handsome, but he has the most beautiful brown eyes I ever saw. If I was a girl I would think he was handsome because his eyes are. He has told me a good deal about his home life and I have told him something about ours, and he has asked some questions. And, oh yes, he is coming home with me for the holidays. At first he refused, but when I told him how much you wanted him to come and how lonesome it would be for him here he consented to come. I hope you will all like him. Helen will probably think he is odd and solemn, but I hope she will be kind and all of us can make him feel at home.
"We are working on the lamp together and it is almost finished. We are keeping the construction of it a secret because we want to spring it on Anderson, the foreman. I haven't told you about him. He is all up on electricity, knows as much about it as Edison, at least he almost says so at times, and he really does know a lot, but he is the one teacher in the whole bunch I don't like. There is a manner about him that makes you feel he has on a dress suit and a stovepipe hat all the time. I heard the other day he is related to the Van Shaws, a cousin or something of the steel magnate at Pittsburgh. I have never had any trouble with Anderson, but I felt relieved the other day to hear that I was not the only fellow in the school that he ruffled. He is mighty unpopular. Bauer and I are going to make sure of our lamp first and then give Anderson a look at it. If the thing goes as well as we expect I don't know how much there will be in it for us. But if it is anything like what I expect, no more stewardship for me. I'm tired of waiting on the swells, and since the Van Shaw episode I've not had a very pleasant time with some of them. You see, mother, there is a crowd here that seems to think it is necessary to be coarse and fast in order to be men. The more money they can spend, the more beer they can drink, the more chorus girls' photographs they can get to paste up in their rooms, the more tobacco pipes they can display over and under their mantels, the more slang and indecency they can learn, the more college atmosphere they think they are creating. I wonder sometimes why the professors don't seem to care about the morals of us students. We never hear anything in the class room or the shop except the technical parts of our studies. I haven't a single teacher at Burrton that I would go to if I were in real trouble and I never would think of going to President Davis about anything. He is a great scholar and hustler for money, but I should hate to have to go to him for advice or sympathy.
"Well, I have made the letter long enough. I'm getting a little homesick to see you all, and looking forward to the holidays. Expect me home with a trunk full of money from the sale of the lamp. If we get it patented we may either sell the thing outright, or Bauer thinks we can better make profitable terms with some good electrical manufacturing firm like Madison Brooks & Co., New York. Love to all.
Mrs. Douglas answered him at once and in the course of her letter expressed her delight at the happy outcome of Walter's experience with the lamp and with Bauer's friendship.
"I don't know when you have given your mother more happiness, boy. I was so happy I cried all the forenoon while your father and Helen and Louis were out of the house. I am delighted that you have made a friend. Do you know what that means? If Bauer is what you think he is, you and he have something more than a trunkful of money. A man or a woman can live to be fifty years old without gaining more than two or three such friends as Bauer. So what has really happened to you is a splendid thing. And I hope you will feel very rich indeed. Of course we would all be pleased if the lamp turns out to be a success. But I suppose you will make up your mind to be ready for anything. There are many slips between models and patents, and it will be well for both of you not to buy expensive trips around the world on the strength of your discovery until the money is really in hand.
"Louis is giving us some trouble lately. He is very slow in his studies, especially his English, Your father, I think, feels annoyed by it, because he wants Louis to be literary. But Louis's English teacher brought to your father the other day a composition Louis had written on the Tuberculosis Outdoor Hospital recently established at the Mansfield farm by the State Board of Health. Miss Barrows, the teacher, is a very practical person and she went out to this tuberculosis station with a section of her class in English, and told the members to keep their eyes open and on their return to the school to write one hundred words about what they had seen. And this is Louis's contribution to the symposium:
"'Tuberculosis was started in 1884, by Dr. Trudeau, who had it in the Adirondacks. Although consumption is not inherited and does not belong in the climate it is getting very popular. The sleeping bags are very useful to the consumptive people because they can keep their heads out and put the rest of their bodies into them. I saw the germs. It is a big white ball with blue spots on it. I think it would be fine to sleep in one of those beds with the head inside and the lungs outside.'
"Well, when your father read this, he simply choked. In fact we all choked, and Helen who happened to get hold of it somehow, just screamed. Poor Louis was mad at every one of us and especially at Miss Barrows when he heard she had taken his account to his father. At first your father thought Louis was trying to be funny at the expense of the English department in the high school. But he wasn't. He was in dead earnest, and doing his best. I tell your father that it isn't fair to ridicule Louis. Ridicule is a dangerous form of criticism and Louis is very sensitive. I don't blame him for saying that the teacher ought not to make fun of him when he is trying to get his lessons. He fairly hates some of his teachers because they use sarcastic or ironical remarks about him in the presence of the whole school. It seems strange to me that any teacher will do that, especially in the case of a boy like Louis. They defend themselves by saying it is the only way to wake up the students or shame them into doing good work. But I believe they are wrong in their methods with boys like Louis and I am going to talk with them about it for his sake.
"We will welcome Bauer with you at the holidays. He will feel at home with us if your mother has anything to do about it. We all anticipate his coming. If you are a little homesick to see us we are all more than a little eager to see you. I pray the good God to keep you pure and true. Lovingly,
Two weeks after this and two weeks before the Christmas holidays, Walter and Bauer had completed their lamp and given it a test. It was more perfect by far than Walter's model. It worked with a practical certainty that left no doubt in their minds that unless some unforeseen factor came in to change conditions they had a workable, economic mechanism which was automatic and durable.
Within a day or two they decided to let Anderson into the secret and Walter asked him to come into the shop at night to see the result of some special original work. This was a common request and the foreman simply made his engagement at the hour assigned, and when the hour came he went in and Watched Walter and Bauer bring out the lamp and make the necessary connections. Anderson had respect for Walter's ability, recognising in him the brightest mind for electricity that Burrton had ever seen in a student. He stood by silently at first while Walter in considerable excitement and some evident pride did the explaining. But when the light started in the arc and the brilliant glow of it began to fling out its dazzling shafts through the shop the professor started forward, a look of astonishment came over his face and he asked Walter a question, so unexpected, that Walter turned pale and looked first at Anderson and then at Bauer in blind wonder and a great sinking of heart.