The Disintegrator

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Disintegrator  (1914) 
by Mary Heaton Vorse

From Harper's Magazine, Jul 1914

The Disintegrator


WHEN they found him lying helpless by the roadside they picked him up and carried him to the "lock-up," for how did they know he was a prophet, that in his person he carried legend and romance? He could not have accomplished what he did had he made his entrance in a less spectacular manner.

The town had been "prohibition" so long that a drunken man lying in the open street, almost in the shadow of the town hall, sent a ripple through Greenhurst, Massachusetts. As long as the memory of living man could reach, those who got drunk did so in solitude or in the privacy of the back room of the Allen House. Here they were put to bed and kept quiet by Si Allen until they sobered up. Others went out of town. Thus was the god of Temperance worshiped and his name—or should I say her name—kept sacred. This is the reason that, lying drunk and unashamed in the light of day, the stranger slapped all the traditions of Greenhurst in the face, for Inebriety was no longer a jovial and noisy son of Bacchus, but sinister and secret, an eye-winking, chop-licking personage.

Gideon Howes's sense of humor was tickled by the event. He strolled into the Allen House and leaned against the opposite door-jamb from that occupied by the proprietor. During his residence abroad Howes, although a New-Englander of good family, had learned to be democratic. Like New England towns of its class, the social divisions of Greenhurst were definite and clear-cut.

"What sort of a fellow was it they arrested this morning?" Howes asked.

"Nice looking, they say," responded Allen, briefly, his speculative eyes upon the drug emporium. "Nice looking, clean-shaven, decent dressed; they say he was paralyzed for fair."

"Where did he get it?" asked Howes, voicing the question that was agitating Greenhurst. "Been up against the soda-water?" Like all adult males of the younger generation and most of those of the older, Howes knew where you could "get it." Allen snorted a snort that was engendered partly by rage and partly by outraged trust. He and Mr. Richardson, proprietor of the drug-store, had come to an understanding as to who should dispense the spiritus frumenti the year before Mr. Richardson's son had gone to the legislature.

"There's your aunt," he vouchsafed.

"So she is; she's going to the jail."

On their way across the common were two ladies; one was Miss Amelia Titherington, and she clasped in her hand a sheaf of leaflets which even from that distance her nephew recognized as tracts. She was president of the Temperance Society, and had been informed no less than seven times by telephone of the event. She was accompanied by Miss Rose Nelligan, that flower-like person whom Howes had discovered in his excursions into democracy. Rose Nelligan had the freshness of a hawthorn-tree in full bloom, and her eyes were like blue-gray sapphires, and they were edged with dark rims; her hair had gleams of red-gold in its glossy wilderness. Now she was merry, now wistful; now she looked like a sweet, lovable woman, now she looked like an elfin fairy thing, the sort that had inspired the Celtic music and the Celtic stories. Her anger flamed hot and high for nothing at all, and tears sprang to her eyes at any tale of injustice; she was capable of fierce quarreling and heart-breakingly warm forgiveness, and her manner was ineffably New England. Her father, an Irishman from Sligo County, was a master-carpenter, and she taught school.

If you have ever lived in New England you know how many traditions had been shattered for Gideon's sake just at the mere mention of the fact that his aunt was walking across the common on such an intimate errand as to reform a drunkard, accompanied by Miss Rose Nelligan. When bidden by her nephew to arise and call upon the fairest flower in New England, Miss Titherington had done so without a murmur. She was probably the one person of her class in all Greenhurst who could have made such advances to lovely Rose Nelligan, because Rose had had her heart broken when, on leaving high-school, she found that her friends belonging to the "real American families" faded from her. Rose had taken this defection of her friends deeply to heart, the wound had never healed, and this was why Gideon found her shy and hard to find as any of the lovely wood flowers she resembled. They were soon led into the presence of the delinquent, and not even the pallor of the morning-after had impaired his undeniable good looks. He was manly and up-standing; there was still such a look of the candor and innocence of youth about him that there burst from Miss Titherington's lips the spontaneous cry:

"Oh, my poor boy! Why did you do it?"

The poor boy was surprised at this exclamation, but he showed his obliging temperament immediately by answering, his candid eyes upon Miss Amelia: "Ma'am, I love drink."

"You have made friends," said Miss Amelia, "with mankind's greatest enemy." She trembled like her name as she stood there; she was wounding her finest feelings in thus talking; it was horrible to her to invade the spiritual privacy of another, but her morals were stronger than herself; they drove her to this course. Something of this penetrated to the prisoner. He looked at her speculatively from behind the bars of the iron cell, which, like two other cells, was situated conveniently in the cellar of the town hall.

"I guess you never beat it to the bar," he remarked, "after a fierce day's work, when there wasn't no feelin' such as makes a man a man, and, after you had had your foot on the rail awhile, you felt like a human being again, or you wouldn't miscall drink so."

Rose, who was easily moved to mirth, snickered; Gideon looked at the ceiling.

"Was that what brought you where you are?" inquired Miss Titherington.

"No, ma'am," said the inebriate. "Three reasons got me here, and, believe me, I was some paralyzed. One was I had been spending a week in a factory town agitating, the second reason was I wanted to feel like a god, and the third and real reason was that this is a temperance town. When I see that I'd come into a temperance town I just naturally would 've wanted to get full, anyway. I'd heard of temperance towns, but had never been in one; the thought that my free rights were bein' interfered with by laws made all the manhood in me rise, an' I got full. It was all too easy, but never again—in a prohibition town. I'll bring it with me another time. I never had a head like this; nothin' I ever drank, pure alcohol nor nothin', ever knocked me out like the kerosene that old guy sold me."

Amelia Titherington was trembling with indignation.

"Who sold you this poison?" she demanded. The prisoner rested his head in his hands and moved it wearily.

"The old geezer in the drug-store with the white-wool trimmings."

Then for the first time Gideon joined in the conversation. "You said you were agitating," he said. "What for, may I ask?"

"I'm an anarchist," replied the prisoner, wearily, and he closed his eyes. Miss Titherington, however, had already started for the door.

"What are you going to do, Aunt Amelia?" her nephew asked.

"Take steps," she replied, tartly, and with a briskness that one wouldn't have believed possible of her; and thus it was that the social fabric of Greenhurst was rent in twain.

It was in vain that all was done to shield the erring bulwark of the dominant party in Greenhurst, Mr. Philos D. Richardson. The unreasonableness of the Temperance Society proved again how little fitted are women for the ballot, and how no arguments can avail; they do not understand politics. In vain the husbands pointed out the pain Richardson's wife and daughter would feel, and that election was nearing, and in vain they showed what a laughing-stock among its less temperate neighbors Greenhurst would seem. But these arguments availed nothing with the ladies.

They reckoned without the anarchist, Adolph Heffelinger. On the witness-stand he seemed what they call in New England towns "lacking." He did not remember what he had said to the ladies. Miss Titherington, shivering, testified that the prisoner had obtained it from an "old geezer with white-wool trimmings." Rose Nelligan testified the same; so did Gideon; but Adolph Heffelinger's mind remained vacant.

After the trial Gideon sought out Adolph.

"Why wouldn't you testify?" he asked.

"I don't believe in courts," replied the other.

"But," said Rose Nelligan, "you promised to tell the truth; you perjured yourself."

"They've got no right to make me promise to tell the truth, have they?" cried Adolph, with heat. "They've got no right to bring me here. The only reason I came was to save myself trouble. Why, I wouldn't send a man up for selling me knock-out drops. It isn't his fault; he's the victim of a bad social condition."

Rose looked at him in awe. "Don't you believe in anything?" she inquired.

"Yes," said Adolph, "I believe in not working for the present state, and I'm never going to do it again."

"How 'll you live?" asked Rose, anxiously.

"I'd a lot rather starve than go against my principles. If a man's got principles, let him live up to them."

"I don't call not believing in work a principle," said Rose; "I call it being lazy."

"I suppose you don't," replied Adolph, sadly, "I suppose you don't. That's because you've never thought in your life; you've never had one little thought that belonged to you. You an' other creatures like you, looking sweet and delicate, can bear to live in a world where civilization kills just such sweet women as yourself without raising your voices in protest; and when any one tells you to think, what do you do?" He spoke with a winning gentleness. "You get mad at me; you call me lazy because I make you think for a minute. It hurts people to think. You're comfortable, and you'd like to forget what sort of a world you're living in just because you an' your folks don't do any work."

"I do work," cried Rose. "I'm a school-teacher, and my father's a carpenter."

A gleam passed over Adolph's face. "Oh," said he, "I thought you was a lady."

Gideon laughed.

"You needn't laugh," said Adolph, with his gentle, sweet tone. "It takes a real weight off my mind; I'd rather be a sneak-thief than a lady. I couldn't bear to think of her being a lady; I liked her from the first, and any woman who works, even if it's at such a darn fool thing as teaching, is better than these blamed parasites. Schools are good for the poor, hard-working mothers, though of course they're bad for the children. I'm going along."

Then it was that Gideon first named Adolph. "There," he said, "there's the new spirit. There's Protest, and there are going to come hundreds and thousands of them. There were we three: I, the philosopher, knowing that I and my kind will have to go; you, the conservative; and he, the disintegrator."

"Didn't he have nice teeth?" asked Rose. "He didn't look to me as though he ever threw bombs."

Again Gideon laughed, joyously.

It was not long after this that Miss Amelia asked her nephew, as he came in for his cup of tea:

"Gideon, my dear, have you found out, as I asked you, if that drunken young anarchist is lurking around these woods?"

"If he is," said one of the three ladies taking tea with Miss Amelia, "I sha'n't sleep in my bed nights."

"Dear aunt," said Gideon, "I wish you wouldn't call my friend, Adolph Heffelinger, a drunken anarchist. He's a very charming young fellow, most amusing and intelligent. It is true that he's camping temporarily down in Cornwall woods." A little shiver ran through the assembly. Miss Amelia corroborated bravely:

"He's really a delightful personality, and if led into better paths—"

Then it was that Gideon tampered with the wheels of fate, for it was with malice and knowing his audience that he said: "His ideas and mode of living remind me so much of Thoreau. I suppose if you had had your way, auntie," he went on, sweetly, "you would have converted Thoreau, wouldn't you, and have had him live like everybody else?"

At this sacrilegious idea Miss Titherington flushed. "Indeed I would not have, Gideon dear," she protested. Thus was planted the seed of the flower that turned Adolph Heffelinger from a drunken young anarchist into a prophet.

Although a small country town, Culture walked through the streets of Greenhurst unchecked. There were more cultured men per hundred inhabitants—that is, if you include the small and exclusive summer colony from Boston—than one would find per thousand in the average town of its size. Each one of these intelligent men heard within the week that Gideon Howes considered Adolph Heffelinger a charming fellow. Greenhurst was going to run no risk of harboring an angel unawares; and, more than this, it enjoyed the distinction of having a private little prophet of its own. Few had ever before seen a real Radical face to face, and the things he had said stirred them. His commonplaces were their madnesses, and, besides that, his manner was winning and he had the gift of deep sincerity; that, combined with his passion for propaganda and discussion, made Adolph easy of access.

Men who took an interest in him were many of them singularly good and gentle; many of them had lived lives as unadventurous as that of the average woman. It inflamed their imaginations to meet one who had stepped out of the frame of civilization as they knew it, who didn't need the support of the accustomed run of things to keep him alive. They enjoyed being treated by Adolph as though they were the robber barons of industry. They did not know that in conversation with Gideon Howes Adolph asked:

"What do those old hens want o' me? What makes 'em come down here?"

From the cultured ones Adolph's ideas permeated through the rest of the community, strangely garbed, grotesquely distorted, and losing none of their portentousness. Wherever a knot of men gathered—in the barber-shop or in Si Allen's back room—sooner or later the talk fell on Adolph. He was mad, he was a reprobate, yet his ideas floated through their talk. In the spacious drawing-rooms of Miss Titherington's friends they discussed him with keen intellectual joy.

Gideon Howes spent his leisure in aiding the Disintegrator. In the pool-room he led the conversation to the subject; he took a perverse joy in stirring up Greenhurst until it felt as though a fabulous danger dwelt in Cornwall woods. Wild talk began to float around. The Disintegrator was making bombs; his place was full of time-clocks. He was experimenting in nitroglycerin.

Meantime the Nelligans gained fast in notoriety, for Adolph dropped in there of an evening as any young fellow might. It happened just this way: he was walking past the Nelligan home one evening and Rose was sitting on the porch; Mr. Nelligan, in his shirt-sleeves, the soles of his socks turned to the street, smoked at peace. Adolph stopped a second, gazed at Rose's loveliness, and would have passed on when she commanded:

"Come in and tell me why you said what you did about the schools."

"You don't think poison and trash are good for children's stomachs, do you?" replied the indefatigable propagandist.

"No," replied Rose.

"Then why do you think the lies and useless things you teach 'em are good for their minds?"

"Right ye aire," joined in Mr. Nelligan. "I always told ye, Rosie, a boy was better off at work."

They were off. By the time Gideon dropped in, Rose was red with anger. Adolph was talking with his imperturbable gentleness.

"Oh, and the awful part of it is," she told Gideon afterward, "that some of the things he says are right."

"Of course they are," said Gideon, smiling philosophically.

"He's better than you are, anyway," flashed Rose, with the naïve logic of her sex. "He cares about something."

"I care about something; I care about you, Rose," answered Gideon, seriously. At this Rose stamped her foot.

For a little while the Plain People and the Aristocracy (let us be frank about it for once) went hand in hand in their interest. Then the stomach of the Plain People began to rise at the thought of Adolph. He derided freely all their fetishes—State, School, and Church alike. It affected them oddly to have the sure foundation of their world questioned. Moreover, all thought pained them.

Then it was that Miss Zella Allen complained to her brother, "I miss chickens!"

It was here that Town and Manor parted and went their separate ways. Just as the theory of Adolph as the Disintegrator, as the prophet of the future, was flowering in the minds of Amelia Titherington and her friends, Miss Zella Allen and her friends began muttering about him in sinister fashion. They could stand for dynamite being prepared for a distant capitalist, but not for their hens being prepared for a dynamiter's dinner.

"How does he live?" they wanted to know. "As fur's we know, he ain't got no means of support." The community began guessing that he had better move on or they would know the reason why.

When Gideon learned this he was sincerely shocked and pained. "Why," he argued, "Adolph's a bully chap, and haven't you all had more fun out of him than you have had out of anything in a month of Sundays? What are you going to talk about after you have hounded him away? Isn't this a free country?" he demanded.

"The country is free," some one opined, "but chickens ain't." This unworthy witticism pleased Gideon no more than the more dangerous growlings.

"What's he doing here, anyway? How do we know he ain't making bombs?"

"Great heavens!" he said to Rose, "they ought to pay him to stay."

"If he wants to stay, why doesn't he work?" Rose inquired.

"I don't wonder anarchists talk about the 'bourgeois,'" Gideon fumed.

"I'm a 'bourgeois,'" said Rose.

"Oh no, you are not," Gideon protested.

"What am I, then?" Rose wanted to know.

"I've told you a thousand times," said Gideon; "you're an angel."

"You never treat me seriously," she flamed.

"You're utterly adorable when you're angry," replied Gideon.

She stamped her foot, went in, and slammed the door. Gideon sat patiently on the steps and waited. Mr. Nelligan's voice came through the window: "Don't mind her, Mr. Howes; she's quarrelin' with you 'cause Adolph won't fight with her. Jawin' to a woman is the comfort that drink is to some of us men."

"Come out," called Gideon; "come back, Rose, and I'll tell you a scheme I've got about Adolph. I sha'n't let 'em run him out."

"I don't want to hear you or your schemes about Adolph," Miss Nelligan asserted. The unseen Mr. Nelligan chuckled.

"It's sore with him she is because he won't do what she tells him to; I like a man that can stand out against a woman."

"It's awful the way you men stand together! Shame on you for encouraging a young man to waste his life!" came from the heated Rose.

Meantime the Forwards Club, a luncheon club with a select membership of only fourteen, of which Miss Titherington was a member, conceived a bold idea. They were tired of hearing about the prophet at second hand. The plan was put to Gideon by his aunt.

"Why wouldn't he come up," she asked, "and give us a little talk? We want to know through what mental processes he arrived at his present conclusions." But here Gideon laughed almost rudely at the idea.

"You couldn't drive him with the ax, Aunt Amelia," he vulgarly remarked, and paused. "Perhaps," he said, "it is barely possible—I can't promise it, but I'll see what I can do. He would let you come down there."

"Oh, go on, Adolph," he urged his friend later. "Let 'em come down. You'll have the time of your life. Let a bunch of those parasites learn for once what you think of society, of which they are an unnecessary by-product. Go ahead and tell them that anarchists are the only Christians left and that most of them don't know it. Tell 'em about the people's impassioned cry for a wider life, for more life, and all that sort of thing. You'll never have a chance like that again. Go on. Tell them how shut in they have been. Oh, go on!"

A smile flickered over Adolph's countenance. "All right," he agreed.

It was a deep adventure of the spirit to them, although they never were grateful enough to him, to be sure; and why the value of the shake-up he gave them should have been lessened by what happened afterward I can't tell you. You must judge for yourself. None of them showed their surprise at finding Rose Nelligan already at the little shack. Most of them knew Rose, and they greeted her with whatever cordiality the occasion demanded.

Then Adolph arose, and they sat there while he deliberately tore to pieces their social structure. They listened to him with shivers running up their backs, sitting on wraps on the ground before him, while he, bareheaded, a stern and earnest young prophet, pointed out that they, of all creation, had the least right to live on the earth, that humanity groaned under the burden of supporting them and other women like them in idleness. He made them feel like duchesses of an aristocracy. He made them feel like sinners. What didn't he do for them? He was prodigal in his gifts, and yet for what happened none of them ever forgave him.

Before he had finished, the noise of men's voices came to them through the trees, a little angry rumble as of a distant mob, and upon this little assembly broke in the constable, Si Allen, some five outraged citizens, some fifteen curious ones, and a rabble of excited little boys; and they turned their faces on the astounding spectacle of all they respected most, the best and promptest-paying people of Greenhurst, and Rose Nelligan, sitting upon the dry leaves at the feet, so to speak, of the loafer.

It was Gideon who first broke the silence. "May I inquire," said he, with the irritating politeness of the aristocrat, "what brings us the honor of your company?"

Here Si Allen's patience snapped; he had borne with Gideon's undesired companionship in silence; now he broke out:

"Yes, you may! We've come to tell him"—he jerked a vulgar thumb toward the direction of Adolph—"to leave! We don't want no drunken loafers makin' dynamite down to our woods."

"We're sorry to disturb these here ladies," put in the constable, "but it's quite a walk; and sence we're here—"

"But what's he done?" cried out Rose of the ready anger.

"The charge is vagrancy, Rosie," answered one of the men.

"It seems to me to be some misapprehension, gentlemen," Gideon gave forth, with lofty seriousness. Poor young man, he had never enjoyed himself more. "You could hardly arrest my guest on the charge of vagrancy. When I noticed your lack of courtesy to Mr. Heffelinger and your small-mindedness, I bought this tract of land and asked him to remain here."

"How does he support himself?" growled Si Allen.

"Yes, how?" chorused the thwarted crowd.

"It really isn't any of your business how any guest of mine derives his income," said Gideon, suavely, "and pardon me if I suggest that you yourselves are just at present violating the trespass laws. If we were not in the midst of a little social meeting I wouldn't hurry you so. Good afternoon!"

After the invaders had departed Adolph resumed:

"I guess I've said all I've got to say except one thing, and that's why I let you ladies come here this afternoon. Some of the girls of your families have been mean to my Rosie, an' I wanted her to hear me tell you just what I thought about you, because Rosie an' me are goin' to be married."

Though Gideon's heart stopped beating for a moment, it is a credit to his class that he never turned a hair, but smiled as the occasion demanded. A murmur ran through the group of middle-aged ladies; they had had intellectual excitement, adventure, and now romance. Alas! that it was to be so spoiled for them.

"Do you share your fiancé's beliefs, my dear, and are you going to live down here?" they inquired. They, too, wondered how he supported life. Perhaps by time-clocks, perhaps by selling explosives; but now it was Rose herself who blighted their illusions.

"Oh no," she dimpled. "We're not going to live down here. Adolph's going into business with pa; Adolph's a carpenter, you know!"

A perceptible pause made itself felt; a cold chill fell upon the assembly. Finally Miss Amelia chirped out:

"How lovely for you and your father!"

"Yes, so nice!" echoed some one else, and every one felt those sentiments to be inadequate. It was the stir that precedes departure. The prophet's mantle had fallen, disclosing an honest workman about to be married to Rose Nelligan. Fate and he had joked with them. It is one thing to be lectured by a predatory or—delightful thought!—possibly a bomb-throwing anarchist: to have one's social vices stripped bare before one, but quite another to be brought down to Cornwall woods for the purpose of having Rose Nelligan hear her lover ease his mind, a person who at any time might be mending one's piazza or shingling one's roof.

After the club had departed, Gideon put his hand on Adolph's shoulder.

"I called you the Disintegrator," he said. "Forgive me; I was mistaken. There's the great disintegrator of the ages." He smiled toward Rose.

"Let me tell you, Mr. Gideon Howes," said Rose, her black brows publishing her displeasure, "Adolph's going to be just as much of an anarchist when he's married to me as he ever was."

"Sure," said Gideon, "sure. Talk's free. You can keep on talking, Adolph. You will be a 'quaint character' when you get old enough."

A look of dumb pleading came in Adolph's eyes. He had cared for his principles, you see, and had lived by them,

"You know how it is when you like a girl," he muttered.

"Yes, I know," said Gideon, and there was a forlorn note in his sympathy.

Rose the Disintegrator stood apart, half angry, half smiling, distractingly lovely.

"Are you coming along, Adolph?" she said. "Pa's waiting."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.