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- Youth Challenges - 40/62 -
to rest. He was going to feel cool water on his head and his neck; he was going to revel in cool water... and then he would sleep. SLEEP! He made toward sleep as one lost in the desert would make toward a spring of sweet water. ...
Lightener stood and looked after Bonbright. His granite face did not alter; no light or shade passed over it. Not even in his gray eyes could a hint of his thoughts be read. Simply he stood and looked after Bonbright, outwardly as emotionless as a block of the rock that he resembled. Then he walked to his office, sat down at his desk, selected and lighted a cigar, and tilted back in his chair.
"There's something to that Bonbright Foote formula," he said to himself. "It's all wrong, but it could produce THAT."
Then, after a few moments of puffing and of studying the thing, he said: "We'll see if he comes back to-morrow. ... If he DOES come back--"
At home that evening Hilda asked him about Bonbright. He was ashamed to confess to her what he had done to the boy--yet he was proud of having done it. To his own granite soul it was right to subject men to such tests, but women would not understand. He knew his daughter would think him a brute, and he did not want his daughter to think any such thing. "If he comes back in the morning--" he promised.
Bonbright came back in the morning, though he had been hardly able to drag himself out of bed. It was not strength of body that brought him, but pure will. He came, looking forward to the day as a man might look down into hell-but he came. "I'll show THEM," he said, aloud, at the breakfast table, as he forced himself to drink a cup of coffee. Ruth did not understand. She did not understand what was wrong with him; feared he was on the verge of an illness. He had come home the night before, scarcely speaking to her, and had gone directly to bed. She supposed he was in his room preparing for dinner, but when she went to call him she found him fast asleep, moaning and muttering uneasily.
"What did you say?" she asked, uneasily.
"Didn't know I spoke," he said, and winced as he moved his shoulders. But he knew what he had said---that he would show THEM. It wasn't Malcolm Lightener he was going to show, but the men--his fellow laborers. The thing that lay in his mind was that he must prove himself to be their equal, capable of doing what they could do. He wanted their respect--wanted it pitifully.
Ruth watched him anxiously as he left the apartment. She knew things were not well with him and that he needed something a true wife should give. First, he needed to tell some one about it. He had not told he If ah had been inside his life, where she belonged, he must have told her. Second, he needed her sympathy, her mothering. ... She might have been able to give him that--after a fashion. ... She felt how it should be done, knew how she would have done it if only she loved him. "I could be the right kind of a wife," she said, wistfully. "I know I could. ..."
Bonbright went doggedly to his place at the mouth of the chute and was ready with the whistle, an axle poised to slide downward to the assembling car below. He was afraid--afraid he would not be able to get through the day--absurdly afraid and ashamed of his physical weakness. If he should play out!...
A boy tapped him on the shoulder. "You're wanted in the office," he heard.
"I've got to--keep up," he said, dully. "Cars are coming along below," he explained, carefully, "and I've got to get the axles to them."
"Here's a man to take your place," said the boy--and so strange is man created in God's image!--he did not want to go. He wanted to see it through till he dropped.
"If you keep the boss waiting--" said the boy, ominously.
Bonbright walked painfully to Lightener's office.
"Well?" said Lightener.
"I can do it--I'll harden to it," Bonbright said.
"Huh!... Take off those overalls. ... Boy, go to Mr. Foote's locker and fetch his things. ..."
"Am--am I discharged?"
"No," said Lightener, bestowing no word of commendation. Men had little commendation from him by word of mouth. He let actions speak for him. When he gave a man a task to perform that man knew he was being complimented. ... But he knew it in no other way.
"That's the way a laborer feels," said Lightener. ... "You got it multiplied. That's because you had to jam his whole life's experience into a day. ..."
"Poor devils!" said Bonbright.
"I'm going to put you in the purchasing department--after that, if you make good--into the sales end. ... Able to go ahead to-day?"
"Before you amount to a darn as a business man you've got to know how to buy. ... That's the foundation. You've got to be able to buy right. Then you've got to learn how to make. Selling is easiest of all--and there are darn few real salesmen. If you can buy, you can do anything."
"I--I would rather stay out of the shops, Mr. Lightener. The men-- found out who I was...I'd like to stay there till they--forget it."
"You'll go where I put you. Men enough in the purchasing department. Got a tame anarchist there, I hear, and a Mormon, and a Hindu, and a single-taxer. All kinds. After hours. From whistle to whistle they BUY."
Lightener took Bonbright personally to his new employment and left him. But Bonbright was not satisfied. Once before he had sought contact with men who labored, and he had landed in a cell in police headquarters. That had been mere boyish curiosity to find what it was all about. Now his desire to know was real. He had been--very briefly, it is true--one of them. Now he wanted to know. He wanted to know how they thought, and why they thought that way. He wanted to understand their attitude toward themselves, toward one another, toward the class they largely denominated as Capital. He had caught snatches of conversation--interesting to him, but none had talked to him. He wanted to get on a footing with them which would permit him to listen, and to talk. He wanted to hear arguments. He wanted to go into their homes and see their wives and find out what their wives thought. ... All this had been brought to him by a few days in overalls. He had no idea that Lightener had intended it should be brought to him. ...
However, that must lie in the future; his present business was to do as he was told and to earn his wages. He must earn his wages, for he had a family to support. ... It was his first experience with the ever-present fear of the wage earner--the fear of losing his job.
But he determined to know the men, and planned accordingly. With that end in view, instead of lunching with men in his department, he went to the little hash house across the road to drink vile coffee and rub elbows with laborers in greasy overalls. He would go there every day; he would seek other opportunities of contact. ... Now that he felt the genuine, sympathetic hunger for an understanding of them and their problems, he would not rest until it was his. ...
Bonbright found himself a layman in a department of specialists. On all sides of him were men who knew all about something, a few who knew a great deal about several things, and a man or two who appeared to have some knowledge of every element and article that went into a motor car. There was a man who knew leather from cow to upholstery, and who talked about it lovingly. This man had the ability to make leather as interesting as the art of Benvenuto Cellini. Another was a specialist in hickory, and thought and talked spokes; another was a reservoir of dependable facts about rubber; another about gray iron castings; another about paints and enamels, and so on. In that department it would not have been impossible to compile an encyclopedia.
It was impossible that Bonbright should not have been interested. It was not business, it was a fascinating, enthralling debating society, where the debates were not of the "Resolved that the world would be better" sort, but were as to the essential qualities of concrete things. It was practical debate which saved money and elevated the standards of excellence.
The department had its own laboratories, its own chemists, its own engineers. Everything was tested. Two articles might appear to the layman equal in virtue; careful examination by experts might not disclose a difference between them, but the skill of the chemist would show that this article was a tenth of one per cent, less guilty of alloy than that, or that the breaking strength of this was a minute fraction greater than that. ... So decisions were reached.
Bonbright was to learn that price did not always rule. He saw orders given for carloads of certain supplies which tested but a point or two higher than its rival--and sold for dollars more a ton. Thousands of dollars were paid cheerfully for those few points of excellence. ... Here was business functioning as he did not know business could function. Here business was an art, and he applied himself to it like an artist. Here he could lay aside that growing discontent, that dissatisfaction, that was growing upon him. Here, in the excitement of distinguishing the better from the worse, he could forget Ruth and the increasingly impracticable condition of his relations with her.
He had come to a realization that his game of make-believe would not march. He realized that Ruth either was his wife or she was not. ... But he did not know what to do about it. It seemed a problem without a solution, and it was--for him. Its solution did not lie in himself, but in his wife. Bonbright could not set the thing right; his potentiality lay only for its destruction. Three courses lay open to him; to assert his husbandship; to send Ruth home to her mother; or to put off till to-morrow and to-morrow and still another to-morrow.
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