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- Youth Challenges - 4/62 -
"Thank you," said Bonbright. "Good night." He turned to the girl and lifted his hat. "Thank YOU," said he, and eyes in which there was no unfriendliness followed him as he walked away, eyes of men whom Dulac was recruiting for the army of the "other side" of the social struggle.
He hurried home because he wanted to see his father and to discuss this thing with him.
"If there is a conflict," he said to himself, "in our business, workingmen against employer, I suppose I am on the employer's side. THEY have their reasons. We must have our reasons, too. I must have father explain it all to me."
His mother called to him as he was ascending the stairs:
"Be as quick as you can, Bonbright. We have guests at dinner to- night."
"Some one I know?"
"I think not," His mother hesitated. "We were not acquainted when you went to college, but they have become very prominent in the past four years. ... Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Lightener--and their daughter,"
Bonbright noticed the slight pause before the mention of the daughter, and looked quickly at his mother. She looked as quickly away.
"All right, mother," he said.
He went to his room with another disturbance added to the many that disquieted him. Just as certainly as if his mother had put it into words he knew she had selected this Lightener girl to be Mrs. Bonbright Foote VII--and the mother of Bonbright Foote VIII.
"Confound it," he said, "it's started already. ... Dam Bonbright Foote VIII!"
Bonbright dressed with a consciousness that he was to be on exhibition. He wondered if the girl had done the same; if she, too, knew why she was there and that it was her duty to make a favorable impression on him, as it was his duty to attract her. It was embarrassing. For a young man of twenty-three to realize that his family expects him to make himself alluring to a desirable future wife whom he has never seen is not calculated to soothe his nerves or mantle him with calmness. He felt silly.
However, here HE was, and there SHE would be. There was nothing for it but to put his best foot forward, now he was caught for the event, but he vowed it would require more than ordinary skill to entrap him for another similar occasion. It seemed to him at the moment that the main object of his life thenceforward would be, as he expressed it, "to duck" Miss Lightener.
When he went down the guests had arrived. His mother presented him, using proudly her formula for such meetings, "Our son." Somehow it always made him feel like an inanimate object of virtue--as if she had said "our Rembrandt," or, "our Chippendale sideboard."
Mrs. Lightener did not impress him. Here was a quiet, motherly personality, a personality to grow upon one through months and years. At first meeting she seemed only a gray-haired, shy, silent sort of person, not to be spoken of by herself as Mrs. Lightener, but in the reflected rays of her husband, as Malcolm Lightener's wife.
But Malcolm Lightener--he dominated the room as the Laocoon group would dominate a ten by twelve "parlor." His size was only a minor element in that impression. True, he was as great in bulk as Bonbright and his father rolled in one, towering inches above them, and they were tall men. It was the jagged, dynamic, granite personality of him that jutted out to meet one almost with physical impact. You were conscious of meeting a force before you became conscious of meeting a man. And yet, when you came to study his face you found it wonderfully human-even with a trace of granite humor in it.
Bonbright was really curious to meet this man, whose story had reached him even in Harvard University. Here was a man who, in ten years of such dogged determination as affected one almost with awe, had turned a vision into concrete reality. In a day when the only mechanical vehicles upon our streets were trolley cars, he had seen those streets thronged with "horseless carriages." He had seen streets packed from curb to curb with endless moving processions of them. He had seen the nation abandon its legs and take to motor- driven wheels. This had been his vision, and he had made it reality.
From the place of a master mechanic, at four dollars a day, he had followed his vision, until the world acknowledged him one of her richest men, one of her greatest geniuses for organization. In ten years, lifting himself by his boot straps, he had promoted himself from earnings of twelve hundred dollars a year to twelve million dollars a year. ... He interested Bonbright as a great adventurer.
To Hilda Lightener he was presented last. He had expected, hoped, to be unfavorably impressed; he had known he would be ill at ease, and that any attempts he made at conversation would be stiff and stilted. ... It was some moments after his presentation when he realized he felt none of these unpleasant things. She had shaken hands with him boyishly; her eyes had twinkled into his--and he was at his ease. Afterward he studied over the thing, but could not comprehend it. ... It had been as if he were encountering, after a separation, a friend of years--not a girl friend, but a friend with no complications of sex.
She was tall, nearly as tall as Bonbright, and she favored her father. Not that the granite was there. She was not beautiful, not even pretty--but you liked her looks. Bonbright liked her looks.
At table Bonbright was seated facing Hilda Lightener. His father at once took charge of the conversation, giving the boy a breathing space to collect and appraise his impressions. Presently Mr. Foote said, impressively:
"This is an important day in our family, Lightener. My son entered the business this morning."
Lightener turned his massive, immobile face toward the boy, his expression not inviting, yet the seeing might have marked the ghost of a twinkle in his gray eyes.
"Um. ... Any corrections, amendments, or substitutions to offer?" he demanded.
Bonbright looked at him, obviously not comprehending the sarcasm.
"Most young spriggins I take into MY business," said Lightener, "think a whole day's experience equips them to take hold and make the whole thing over. ... They can show me where I'm all wrong."
Bonbright smiled, not happily. He was not accustomed to this sort of humor, and did not know how to respond to it.
"It was so big," he said. "It sort of weighed me down--yet--somehow I didn't get interested till after the whistle blew."
"That's what interests most of 'em--getting out of the place after the whistle blows."
"Dad!" said Hilda. "What was it interested you then, Mr. Foote?"
"The men," said Bonbright--"that great mob of men pouring out of the gates and filling the street. ... Somehow they seemed to stand for the business more than all the buildings full of machinery. ... I stood and watched them."
Interest kindled in Lightener's eyes. "Yes?" he prompted.
"It never occurred to me before that being at the head of a business meant-meant commanding so many men ... meant exercising power over all those lives. ... Then there were the wives and children at home. ..."
Bonbright's father leaned forward icily. "Son," he said, coldly, "you haven't been picking up any queer notions in college?"
"Socialistic, anarchistic notions. That sort of thing."
"I don't believe," said Bonbright, with utter honesty, "that I ever gave the workingman a thought till to-day. ... That's why it hit me so hard, probably."
"It hit you, eh?" said Lightener. He lifted his hand abruptly to motion to silence Mr. Foote, who seemed about to interrupt. "Leave the boy alone, Foote. ... This is interesting. Never saw just this thing happen before. ... It hit you hard, eh?"
"It was the realization of the power of large employers of labor-- like father and yourself, sir."
"Was that all?"
"At first. ... Then there was a fellow on a barrel making a speech about us. ... I listened, and found out the workingmen realize that we are sort of czars or some such thing--and resent it. I supposed things were different. This Dulac was sent here to organize our men into a union--just why I didn't understand, but he promised to explain it to me."
"WHAT?" demanded Bonbright Foote VI, approaching nearer than his wife had ever seen him to losing his poise.
"You talked to him?" asked Hilda, leaning forward in her interest.
"I was introduced to him; I wanted to know. ... He was a handsome fellow. Not a gentleman, of course--"
"Oh!" Lightener pounced on that expression. "Not a gentleman, eh? ... Expect to find the Harvard manner in a man preaching riot from a
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