Part 6 out of 6
There was a heavy town-fog that afternoon, a smoke-mist, densest
in the sanctuary of the temple. The people went about in it, busy
and dirty, thickening their outside and inside linings of coal-tar,
asphalt, sulphurous acid, oil of vitriol, and the other familiar
things the men liked to breathe and to have upon their skins and
garments and upon their wives and babies and sweethearts. The growth
of the city was visible in the smoke and the noise and the rush.
There was more smoke than there had been this day of February a year
earlier; there was more noise; and the crowds were thicker--yet
quicker in spite of that. The traffic policeman had a hard time,
for the people were independent--they retained some habits of the old
market-town period, and would cross the street anywhere and anyhow,
which not only got them killed more frequently than if they clung
to the legal crossings, but kept the motormen, the chauffeurs, and
the truck-drivers in a stew of profane nervousness. So the traffic
policemen led harried lives; they themselves were killed, of course,
with a certain periodicity, but their main trouble was that they
could not make the citizens realize that it was actually and mortally
perilous to go about their city. It was strange, for there were
probably no citizens of any length of residence who had not personally
known either some one who had been killed or injured in an accident,
or some one who had accidentally killed or injured others. And yet,
perhaps it was not strange, seeing the sharp preoccupation of the
faces--the people had something on their minds; they could not stop
to bother about dirt and danger.
Mary Vertrees was not often down-town; she had never seen an accident
until this afternoon. She had come upon errands for her mother
connected with a timorous refurbishment; and as she did these, in
and out of the department stores, she had an insistent consciousness
of the Sheridan Building. From the street, anywhere, it was almost
always in sight, like some monstrous geometrical shadow, murk-colored
and rising limitlessly into the swimming heights of the smoke-mist.
It was gaunt and grimy and repellent; it had nothing but strength
and size--but in that consciousness of Mary's the great structure
may have partaken of beauty. Sheridan had made some of the things
he said emphatic enough to remain with her. She went over and over
them--and they began to seem true: "Only ONE girl he could feel THAT
sorry for!" "Gurney says he's got you on his brain so bad--" The
man's clumsy talk began to sing in her heart. The song was begun
there when she saw the accident.
She was directly opposite the Sheridan Building then, waiting for the
traffic to thin before she crossed, though other people were risking
the passage, darting and halting and dodging parlously. Two men came
from the crowd behind her, talking earnestly, and started across.
Both wore black; one was tall and broad and thick, and the other
was taller, but noticeably slender. And Mary caught her breath, for
they were Bibbs and his father. They did not see her, and she caught
a phrase in Bibbs's mellow voice, which had taken a crisper ring:
"Sixty-eight thousand dollars? Not sixty-eight thousand buttons!"
It startled her queerly, and as there was a glimpse of his profile
she saw for the first time a resemblance to his father.
She watched them. In the middle of the street Bibbs had to step ahead
of his father, and the two were separated. But the reckless passing
of a truck, beyond the second line of rails, frightened a group of
country women who were in course of passage; they were just in front
of Bibbs, and shoved backward upon him violently. To extricate
himself from them he stepped back, directly in front of a moving
trolley-car--no place for absent-mindedness, but Bibbs was still
absorbed in thoughts concerned with what he had been saying to his
father. There were shrieks and yells; Bibbs looked the wrong way--and
then Mary saw the heavy figure of Sheridan plunge straight forward in
front of the car. With absolute disregard of his own life, he hurled
himself at Bibbs like a football-player shunting off an opponent, and
to Mary it seemed that they both went down together. But that was all
she could see--automobiles, trucks, and wagons closed in between. She
made out that the trolley-car stopped jerkily, and she saw a policeman
breaking his way through the instantly condensing crowd, while the
traffic came to a standstill, and people stood up in automobiles or
climbed upon the hubs and tires of wheels, not to miss a chance of
seeing anything horrible.
Mary tried to get through; it was impossible. Other policemen came
to help the first, and in a minute or two the traffic was in motion
again. The crowd became pliant, dispersing--there was no figure upon
the ground, and no ambulance came. But one of the policemen was
detained by the clinging and beseeching of a gloved hand.
"What IS the matter, lady?"
"Where are they?" Mary cried.
"Who? Ole man Sheridan? I reckon HE wasn't much hurt!"
"Was that who the other one was? I seen him knock him--oh, he's not
bad off, I guess, lady. The ole man got him out of the way all right.
The fender shoved the ole man around some, but I reckon he only got
shook up. They both went on in the Sheridan Building without any help.
Excuse me, lady."
Sheridan and Bibbs, in fact, were at that moment in the elevator,
ascending. "Whisk-broom up in the office," Sheridan was saying.
"You got to look out on those corners nowadays, I tell you. I don't
know I got any call to blow, though--because I tried to cross after
you did. That's how I happened to run into you. Well, you want to
remember to look out after this. We were talkin' about Murtrie's
askin' sixty-eight thousand flat for that ninety-nine-year lease.
It's his lookout if he'd rather take it that way, and I don't know
"No," said Bibbs, emphatically, as the elevator stopped; "he won't
get it. Not from us, he won't, and I'll show you why. I can
convince you in five minutes." He followed his father into the
office anteroom--and convinced him. Then, having been diligently
brushed by a youth of color, Bibbs went into his own room and closed
He was more shaken than he had allowed his father to perceive, and
his side was sore where Sheridan had struck him. He desired to be
alone; he wanted to rub himself and, for once, to do some useless
thinking again. He knew that his father had not "happened" to run
into him; he knew that Sheridan had instantly--and instinctively--
proved that he held his own life of no account whatever compared
to that of his son and heir. Bibbs had been unable to speak of
that, or to seem to know it; for Sheridan, just as instinctively,
had swept the matter aside--as of no importance, since all was well
--reverting immediately to business.
Bibbs began to think intently of his father. He perceived, as he
had never perceived before, the shadowing of something enormous and
indomitable--and lawless; not to be daunted by the will of nature's
very self; laughing at the lightning and at wounds and mutilation;
conquering, irresistible--and blindly noble. For the first time in
his life Bibbs began to understand the meaning of being truly this
He would be the more truly his son henceforth, though, as Sheridan
said, Bibbs had not come down-town with him meanly or half-heartedly.
He had given his word because he had wanted the money, simply, for
Mary Vertrees in her need. And he shivered with horror of himself,
thinking how he had gone to her to offer it, asking her to marry him
--with his head on his breast in shameful fear that she would accept
him! He had not known her; the knowing had lost her to him, and
this had been his real awakening; for he knew now how deep had been
that slumber wherein he dreamily celebrated the superiority of
"friendship"! The sleep-walker had wakened to bitter knowledge
of love and life, finding himself a failure in both. He had made
a burnt offering of his dreams, and the sacrifice had been an
unforgivable hurt to Mary. All that was left for him was the work
he had not chosen, but at least he would not fail in that, though
it was indeed no more than "dust in his mouth." If there had been
anything "to work for--"
He went to the window, raised it, and let in the uproar of the streets
below. He looked down at the blurred, hurrying swarms and he looked
across, over the roofs with their panting jets of vapor, into the
vast, foggy heart of the smoke. Dizzy traceries of steel were rising
dimly against it, chattering with steel on steel, and screeching in
steam, while tiny figures of men walked on threads in the dull sky.
Buildings would overtop the Sheridan. Bigness was being served.
But what for? The old question came to Bibbs with a new despair.
Here, where his eyes fell, had once been green fields and running
brooks, and how had the kind earth been despoiled and disfigured!
The pioneers had begun the work, but in their old age their orators
had said for them that they had toiled and risked and sacrificed that
their posterity might live in peace and wisdom, enjoying the fruits
of the earth. Well, their posterity was here--and there was only
turmoil. Where was the promised land? It had been promised by the
soldiers of all the wars; it had been promised to this generation
by the pioneers; but here was the very posterity to whom it had been
promised, toiling and risking and sacrificing in turn--for what?
The harsh roar of the city came in through the open window,
continuously beating upon Bibbs's ear until he began to distinguish
a pulsation in it--a broken and irregular cadence. It seemed to him
that it was like a titanic voice, discordant, hoarse, rustily
metallic--the voice of the god, Bigness. And the voice summoned
Bibbs as it summoned all its servants.
"Come and work!" it seemed to yell. "Come and work for Me, all men!
By your youth and your hope I summon you! By your age and your
despair I summon you to work for Me yet a little, with what strength
you have. By your love of home I summon you! By your love of woman
I summon you! By your hope of children I summon you!
"You shall be blind slaves of Mine, blind to everything but Me,
your Master and Driver! For your reward you shall gaze only upon
my ugliness. You shall give your toil and your lives, you shall
go mad for love and worship of my ugliness! You shall perish
still worshipping Me, and your children shall perish knowing no
And then, as Bibbs closed the window down tight, he heard his
father's voice booming in the next room; he could not distinguish
the words but the tone was exultant--and there came the THUMP!
THUMP! of the maimed hand. Bibbs guessed that Sheridan was
bragging of the city and of Bigness to some visitor from
And he thought how truly Sheridan was the high priest of Bigness.
But with the old, old thought again, "What for?" Bibbs caught a
glimmer of far, faint light. He saw that Sheridan had all his life
struggled and conquered, and must all his life go on struggling
and inevitably conquering, as part of a vast impulse not his own.
Sheridan served blindly--but was the impulse blind? Bibbs asked
himself if it was not he who had been in the greater hurry, after all.
The kiln must be fired before the vase is glazed, and the Acropolis
was not crowned with marble in a day.
Then the voice came to him again, but there was a strain in it as of
some high music struggling to be born of the turmoil. "Ugly I am,"
it seemed to say to him, "but never forget that I AM a god!" And the
voice grew in sonorousness and in dignity. "The highest should serve,
but so long as you worship me for my own sake I will not serve you.
It is man who makes me ugly, by his worship of me. If man would let
me serve him, I should be beautiful!"
Looking once more from the window, Bibbs sculptured for himself--in
the vague contortions of the smoke and fog above the roofs--a gigantic
figure with feet pedestaled upon the great buildings and shoulders
disappearing in the clouds, a colossus of steel and wholly blackened
with soot. But Bibbs carried his fancy further--for there was still
a little poet lingering in the back of his head--and he thought that
up over the clouds, unseen from below, the giant labored with his
hands in the clean sunshine; and Bibbs had a glimpse of what he made
there--perhaps for a fellowship of the children of the children that
were children now--a noble and joyous city, unbelievably white--"
It was the telephone that called him from his vision. It rang
He lifted the thing from his desk and answered--and as the small voice
inside it spoke he dropped the receiver with a crash. He trembled
violently as he picked it up, but he told himself he was wrong--he had
been mistaken--yet it was a startlingly beautiful voice; startlingly
kind, too, and ineffably like the one he hungered most to hear.
"Who?" he said, his own voice shaking--like his hand.
He responded with two hushed and incredulous words: "IS IT?"
There was a little thrill of pathetic half-laughter in the instrument.
"Bibbs--I wanted to--just to see if you--"
"I was looking when you were so nearly run over. I saw it, Bibbs.
They said you hadn't been hurt, they thought, but I wanted to know
"No, no, I wasn't hurt at all--Mary. It was father who came nearer
it. He saved me."
"Yes, I saw; but you had fallen. I couldn't get through the crowd
until you had gone. And I wanted to KNOW."
"Mary--would you--have minded?" he said.
There was a long interval before she answered.
"I don't know what to say," he cried. "It's so wonderful to hear
your voice again--I'm shaking, Mary--I--I don't know--I don't know
anything except that I AM talking to you! It IS you--Mary?"
"Mary--I've seen you from my window at home--only five times since
I --since then. You looked--oh, how can I tell you? It was like
a man chained in a cave catching a glimpse of the blue sky, Mary.
Mary, won't you--let me see you again--near? I think I could make
you really forgive me--you'd have to--"
"No--not really--or you wouldn't have said you couldn't see me any
"That wasn't the reason." The voice was very low.
"Mary," he said, even more tremulously than before, "I can't--you
COULDN'T mean it was because--you can't mean it was because you--
There was no answer.
"Mary?" he called, huskily. "If you mean THAT--you'd let me see
And now the voice was so low he could not be sure it spoke at all,
but if it did, the words were, "Yes, Bibbs--dear."
But the voice was not in the instrument--it was so gentle and so
light, so almost nothing, it seemed to be made of air--and it came
from the air.
Slowly and incredulously he turned--and glory fell upon his shining
eyes. The door of his father's room had opened.
Mary stood upon the threshold.