Invisible Censor


24. 'And The Earth Was Dry'

Like all great ideas it seemed perfectly simple when Harrod first disclosed it to his unimportant partner John Prentiss.

"Of course we'll get back of it. We've got to," said Harrod, in the sanctity of the directors' room. "You've been down to Hopeville on pay day. It's the limit. Ordinary days there's practically no trouble. Pay day's a madhouse. How many men, do you think, had to have the company doctor last pay day?"

"You don't expect me to answer, Robert," Prentiss replied mildly. "You're telling me, you're not arguing with me."

"Twenty-five, Prentiss, twenty-five drunken swine. What do you think happened? I'll tell you. That doctor never stopped a minute taking stitches, sewing on scalps, mending skulls. He was kept on the hop all day and night all over the town. I'll tell you something more." The sturdy Harrod rapped his fist on the mahogany table, leaning out of his armchair. "The doctor's wife told me a Polack came to her shack at two in the morning with half his thumb hanging off, bitten off in a drunken brawl. What do you think she did, Prentiss? She amputated it herself, on her own hook, just like a little soldier. She's got nerve, let me tell you. But do you think we want to stand for any more of this? Not much. Hopeville is going dry!"

Mr. Harrod produced a gold pen-knife and nicked a cigar emphatically. He brushed the tiny wedge of tobacco from his plump trouser leg on to the bronze carpet. He lit his cigar and got up to have a little strut.

Poor Prentiss looked at him as only a weedy Yankee can look at a man whose cheeks are rosy with arrogant health. Why the stout Harrod who ate and drank as he willed should be proclaiming prohibition, while the man with a Balkan digestive apparatus should be a reluctant listener, no one could have analyzed. It never would have occurred to Prentiss to be so restlessly efficient. But Harrod was as simple as chanticleer. He'd made up his mind.

"We'll back Billy Sunday. His advance agent will be in town this week," Mr. Harrod unfolded. "We'll put the whole industry behind him. Drink is a constant source of inefficiency. It's an undeniable cause. When do we have accidents? On Mondays, regularly. The men come back stupefied from the rotgut they've been drinking, and it's simple luck if they don't set fire to the mine. The Hopeville mine is perfectly safe. Except for that one big disaster we had, it's one of the safest mines in the country. But how can you call any mine safe if the fellows handling dynamite and the men working the cage are just as likely as not to have a hangover? We'll stop it. We'll make that town so dry that you can't find a beer bottle in it. It took me some time to realize the common sense of this situation, but it's as clear as daylight; it's ridiculously clear. We're fools, Prentiss, that we didn't advocate prohibition twenty years ago."

"Twenty years ago, Robert," Prentiss murmured, "you were checking coal at the pit-head. You weren't so damned worried about evolving policies for the mine owners twenty years ago."

"Well, you know what I mean," Robert Harrod rejoined.

"Perfectly," retorted Prentiss. "And I'm with you, though all the perfumes of Arabia won't cleanse these little hands."

That was the first gospel, so to speak, and Harrod was as good as his word. He saw Sunday's advance agent, he rallied the industry, he lunched with innumerable Christians and had a few painful but necessary political conferences. The prohibitionist manager he discovered to be a splendid fellow-direct, clean-cut, intelligent, indefatigable. The whole great state was won to prohibition after a strenuous preparation and a typically "bitter" campaign.

And everything went well at Hopeville. At first, not unnaturally, there was a good deal of rebellion. A few of the miners-you know Irish miners, born trouble-makers-talked considerably. Something in them took kindly to the relief from monotony that came with a periodic explosion, and they muttered blasphemously about the prohibitionists, and time hung heavy on their hands. A few of them pulled out, preceded by the gaunt Scotchman who had run the bare "hotel" where most of the whisky was consumed. These were led by a sullen compatriot of their own, a man who once was a fine miner but who had proved his own best customer in the liquor business and whose contour suggested that his body was trying desperately to blow a bulb. One miner left for a neighboring state (still wet) to purchase a pair of boots. He crawled back on foot after a week, minus the new boots, plus a pawn-ticket, and most horribly chewed by an unintelligent watchdog who had misunderstood his desire to borrow a night's lodging in the barn. The drinking haunts were desolate reminders of bygone entertainments for weeks after the law took effect, and few of the younger men could look forward to tame amusement, amusement that had no elysium in it, without a twinge of disgust. But on the whole, Hopeville went dry with surprising simplicity. A great many of the miners were neither English, Scotch, Cornish, Welsh nor Irish, but Austrians and Italians and Poles, and these were not so inured to drinking and biting each other as Mr. Harrod might have thought. The mud in Hopeville, it is true, was often from nine inches to four feet deep, and there were no named streets, and no known amusements, and a very slim possibility of distraction for the unmarried men. After prohibition, however, a far from unpleasant club house was founded, with lots of "dangerous" reading material, and a segregated place for homemade music, and bright lights and a fire, and a place to write letters, and a pungent odor of something like syndicalism in the air.

That was the beginning. The men did not detonate on pay day, except in lively conversation. There was less diffused blasphemy. It concentrated rather particularly on one or two eminent men. And when the virtues and defects of these men were sufficiently canvassed, the "system" beyond them was analyzed. Even the delight of the Hunkies in dirt, or the meanness of certain bosses, began to be less engrossing than the exact place in the terrestrial economy where Harrod and Prentiss got off.

"Well, Robert," inquired the man of migraine, back in the home office, "how is your precious prohibition working? It seems to me the doctor's wife is the sole beneficiary so far."

"Working?" the rubicund Harrod responded urgently. "I don't know what we're going to do about it. You can't rely on the men for anything. A few years ago, after all, they took their wages over to Mason and blew it all in, or they soaked up enough rum in Hopeville to satisfy themselves, and come back on the job. Now, what do they do? They quit for two weeks when they want to. They quit for a month at a time. And still they have a balance. You can't deal with such men. They're infernally independent. They're impudent with prosperity. I never saw anything like it. We can't stand it. I don't know what we're going to do."

"You're going to back the liquor trade, Robert, of course. That's simple enough."

"You may laugh, but it is too late, I tell you, the harm's done. We can't remedy it. National prohibition is right on top of us. I don't know what we'll do."

"Sell 'em Bevo. That'll keep them conservative. Ever drink it?"

"Bevo? Conservative? Prentiss, this is serious. These men are completely out of hand."

"Well, aren't they more efficient?"

"Of course they're more efficient. They're too damnably efficient. They wanted Hopeville drained and they're getting it drained. They'll insist on having it paved next. They'll want hot and cold water. They'll want bathtubs. That'll be the end."

"The end? Come, Robert, perhaps only the beginning of the end."

"It's very amusing to you, Prentiss, but you're in on this with me. We've forced these working-men into prohibition, and now they're sober, they're everlastingly sober. They're making demands and getting away with it. We've got to go on or go under. Wake up, man. I've played my cards. What can we do?"

"What can we do? That is not the point now. Now the point is, what'll they do."