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Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Hired Man


 

THE HIRED MAN

 

 

THE HIRED MAN

I

THE tiny room, in which they sat, looked as much as anything like an undertaker's parlor. It was paneled in coffin woods, upholstered in black leather, with mirrors innumerable and shining nickle fittings. And in the ineffectual, sad light of the gas-lamp overhead, the three men were as silent as mourners, staring solemnly, with that expression of decent dejection which the Anglo-Saxon wears when he has to listen to music in silence, or smoke among strangers who do not force him to speak. Outside the windows a noisy blackness streamed by, in a torrent and a turmoil that rocked and roared unceasingly.

They were in the smoking-compartment of a Pullman car. There entered a middle-aged man in a peaked outing-cap that looked absurdly boyish above his big, sunburnt face. The others watched him blow into the stem of a briar pipe, his cheeks puffed out, his eyes shifting from one to the next. When the pipe whistled on a high clear note, he nodded his satisfaction to the whole party and sat down among them. "The frost plays the devil with the roadbeds in this country," he said, in a burly voice that filled the whole compartment.

The young man beside him was the first to clear his throat and reply. He was prematurely bald and spectacled. He had the loose-laced shoes and woolen socks of a brain worker. And it was plain, before the conversation went very far, that he was learned in the law. The others, one by one, added their voices to the discussion as the newcomer drew them out with a question or a remark which his eyes directed. In ten minutes they were all in conversational attitudes, talking or listening; and the compartment looked like the smoking-room of a club.

Railroad legislation, "trust-busting," overcapitalization, the labor problem—these were the topics they discussed. The bald young man defended the Constitution and the Supreme Court, and deplored the lack of respect for the law in a republic where the law was the only king. In a wicker chair confronting him, a heavy-shouldered traveler, speaking with a cigar in his mouth and frowning at the signet ring which he turned and turned on his finger, voiced the exasperation of the business man, persecuted by lawyers and politicians, and unable to get employees who were "worth their salt." The third man lolled back with an ankle on his knee, his stogie uptilted almost to the brim of the derby that was slanted down over his eyes. He interjected into the argument the smoking-room stories of a "drummer," each prefaced with a curt laugh and continued nonchalantly between puffs.

The newcomer spoke of "Labor" with the sympathy of one who worked among laborers, in the open air, without gloves. He confessed that he was a civil engineer. And to make a point in his discussion he asked permission to tell a story—a long one—about a "hired man."

The drummer said: "Go ahead."

The business man glanced at his watch instinctively.

The lawyer lit a cigar, with an air of exceeding his prescribed allowance, and nodded like a judge.


II

The engineer relit his pipe. "I had a man named Larsen working under me once," he said. "He was foreman of one of the shifts of laborers—and a laborer himself.

"We were building an intake tunnel for the waterworks of a town on Lake Erie.

"I don't want to be more explicit than that. For one thing, there 's a suit about it, between the contractors and the city, still on in the courts." He nodded to the lawyer over his pipe.

"I had to sink a shaft just inside the island that protected the harbor from the lake. Then, from the foot of that shaft, I was to tunnel in one direction out under the island to the lake, and in the opposite direction back under the harbor to the city, so as to connect the lake with the pumping-station on the mainland. They had been using, before this, a big steel intake pipe laid along the bottom of the harbor, but it kept leaking at the joints, taking in sewage from the bay, and keeping the people boiling their drinking-water.

"Never mind that.

"The point is: we 'd been having as much trouble putting down that shaft as if it had been another Simplon tunnel. There 'd been an error in the City Engineer's specifications. His blue-prints, furnished us when we were bidding on the contract, showed a bottom of clay and gravel. We found quicksand when we got to work. And that makes all the difference to an engineer that it does to a builder.

"You know what a cofferdam is?—a four-sided dam. You sink your shaft inside it, after you 've pumped out the water enclosed by the dam.

"Well, an ordinary cofferdam, made of wooden piles and timber sheeting, packed with clay, won't hold out water over a quicksand, because it comes in, through the sand, under the piling, as fast as you pump it out. We 'd built an ordinary cofferdam. And when that did n't hold, we strengthened it with another outside of it. Then we put on extra pumps and kept them going until the quicksand shifted under the piling and wrecked our three months' work. After that, we decided to use a caisson.

"A caisson"—he illustrated it with his hands—"is properly a steel tube that 's sunk in sections to make a metal well for the men to dig in. It 's usually fitted with an air-lock and supplied with compressed air. As if the caisson were a diving-bell sunken in the earth—don't you know? The air in it keeps out the water, and the metal holds up the sand.

"I could n't use compressed air on the job. The company would n't stand for the expense.

"I want to hurry over these professional details, you understand, but I can't very well tell the story without them."

They encouraged him: "Go ahead. Go ahead."

Well, we got this caisson, and bolted some of the sections together, and placed the tube in position and began to sink it in the soft sand by its own weight. It went down thirty feet, and there the suction held it. We loaded it with a deck of heavy timbers and a hundred tons of iron; and it sank four feet further before it stopped again. Then we pumped the water out of it, and began to dig out the sand to see if we could lower the caisson by relieving the suction on the inside. When the men had gone down twenty feet, the quicksand rose on them like a rush of water, and they had to scramble up the ladders to save their lives. Any one could see that if we kept on taking out the sand as it rose, we 'd cause another shifting under the foundations of the cofferdam and wreck the whole work again. Besides, Larsen reported that his men were afraid to go below to dig, because two of them had been caught in the quicksand and nearly lost. So we decided that we'd try dynamite in the toe of the caisson. The explosion breaks the suction and lets the tube drop a little. We did that, and we were succeeding with it, when—well, when my story began.

"You see, by that time, we 'd been working for five months. We 'd been two months building our first cofferdam, and another month strengthening it with our second. It had taken us three weeks to get the caisson placed, and we'd been five weeks sinking it. We 'd driven our first piles through floe ice—dancing on the decks of our tugs to keep our feet warm—and now it was August. We 'd worked in sleet, in driving rain, in the drizzle of spring and the heat of mid-summer. We 'd fought the northeast storms that battered the walls of our dam and the quicksand that shifted and undermined them. One of my men had fallen into the shaft and broken his neck. Another had had his foot crushed under a steel plate. One of the boilers in the power-house had blown out. My pumps had clogged with sand. My steam-pipes had burst. My firemen had come to work drunk. Our materials had been delayed. Even my little bedroom, in the shack that served as an office, on an angle of the cofferdam, had taken fire, and my oilskins and such had been burned.

"And Larsen had been sharing all these anxieties—disappointments—delays—with a sympathy that you couldn't help smiling at. Whenever he sat with me, of an evening, in my bedroom over the office, he 'd take his chair to the window and keep one eye on the work outside. He arrived in the morning in the bows of the company's tug, and he left, at night, on the stern. He seemed to be living with his back to the outer world and his face to the shaft.

"I said to the company's superintendent, one day: 'Larsen watches that shaft as if he thought some one was trying to steal it.'

The superintendent had risen from the ranks of the 'sandhogs' himself, and he had the sort of practical mind that is n't interested in character study. He said: 'That 's what Larsen 's paid for!'

"I wondered whether that was the whole explanation of Larsen. It was n't easy to decide anything about him. He'd been a sailor, and he had all that patience, and resourcefulness, and sort of silent endurance—don't you know?—that the sea gets into a man. He was habitually silent.

"Well, we were still sinking the caisson with dynamite—dropping it a foot or so at a time—when old Nolan, the head of the company, came to see for himself what was delaying us. He looked over the situation, and cursed the City Engineer for reporting clay and gravel where there was quicksand, and cursed our own men for not discovering the truth when they made their borings. He cursed the slowness and difficulty of the operations, and the consequent loss of profits on the contract. And he ended by ordering us to use more dynamite in a charge.

"I objected, of course, that the dynamite might split the caisson.

"Nolan was a black little man with an under jaw that closed on a cigar in a bulldog grip. 'Dynamite,' he said, 'is one of those things that either make you or break you. Go ahead. Put down a box of it.'

"The box went down. And the explosion wrecked the two lower sections of the caisson.

"'My fault, boys,' he said, as cheerful as a gambler. 'Do it your own way.' And with that apology, he left us to repair his blunder the best way we could.

"Now, I understood this attitude of mind. It 's the typical contractor's—the attitude of a man who sees in an engineering operation only the question of profit or loss, and who 's willing to stake everything with a chance of losing it. But I 'd seen Nolan succeed by means that most of your academic engineers would be afraid to use, and I was n't contemptuous of his failure with the dynamite. I looked around for Larsen.

"That was where I got my first light on Larsen. I found him scowling after the tug that was carrying Nolan back to the city. His big fists swung down at his thighs, like knotted clubs. 'What does he want to come here for—buttin' into this?' he said. 'We near had her! We near had her! He thinks because he owns this business—'

"And so forth.

"I could see that it was n't any personal feeling of loyalty to Nolan that had kept him faithful. I still had to find out whether it was his wages—or the prospect of better wages.

"Are you interested? Does this bore you?"

They answered, with various degrees of politeness: "Not at all. Go on. Go ahead, anyway."

 

III

He refilled his pipe. "We went to work again. We got a lot of steel piling that would hold out quicksand, and we sank a fence of interlocking steel piles, in a square, inside the wooden cofferdam and bolted to it. Then, inside this square steel dam, we sank another dam of the same sort of steel piles, fitting them, knuckle to hub, in a circle around the broken caisson. And by pumping out the water and digging out the sand inside the square dam, and sinking the circular one as we dug, we succeeded at last in driving the circular dam down to rock bottom. Understand? But the top of that circular dam was nineteen feet below the top of the square steel dam, and the pumps had to be worked night and day. I took the night shift, with Larsen under me.

We had to dig out the broken caisson.

"It was as ticklish a job as you 'll meet with in the ordinary run of work. It was one of those bits that make an engineer's life so—so interesting to him. It would n't interest you any more than a doctor's account of a surgical operation.

"However, we got it done—or almost. And one morning, after the day shift had taken over the work, I congratulated Larsen on it. I said that Nolan ought to give him a raise of wages. Of course, I was trying to find out how he felt about the wages.

He was sitting at my bedroom window, waiting for the tug to start back to the city. He slept at home. I had my boots off, sitting on the side of my bed, smoking. I said:

"'Nolan ought to give you a raise of wages on the strength of this.'

"Larsen replied: 'No. He won't raise no wages onto me.'

"I asked him whether he did n't think he was worth more than he got. He opened his hands and looked at the palms of them. 'It 's the brains that gets paid,' he said. 'I got a boy. He goes to school.… No. Not me.'

"I can't give you the tone, or the words exactly. But they expressed the sort of tragedy of his own labor—don't you know?—and the hope that made him ambitious for the boy. He said he was making an engineer of him.

"That was lesson number two for me. I got my next one next night."

The business man interrupted: "You would n't call him typical, would you?"

The engineer answered: "I don't know. Wait till I tell you the rest.

"I slept till ten o'clock that next morning, and then I dressed to go into the city—to arrange for a supply of stone and cement that would soon be needed—and this business kept me on my feet all day. At nightfall I boarded the company's tug again, intending to have a look at the shaft and then turn the work over to Larsen and have a sleep. When I arrived I found Larsen struggling with a clogged pump at the foot of the shaft. "The water was rising. It rose so fast that the pump was drowned before it could be started again. We turned the steam on the big duplex, up above; but the duplex, waiting idle, had n't been kept in readiness. Some one had neglected it. It did n't answer the throttle. I threw off my coat and jumped down on the platform where it had been planted, at the foot of the square dam, fifteen feet below the level of the outer water—and found the suction buried in the sand. I called to Larsen to lift it out with a derrick. And Larsen, running about in the half light, like a gorilla with his long arms, slung the tackle and worked the winch and cleared the suction.

"The man at the shaft reported that the water was rising in a steady flow.

"We threw the steam into the duplex again. It did n't lift. I saw there was something wrong in the cylinder. When Larsen and I got the cylinder head off, we found the ring of the piston broken. It was the work of hours to mend it, and the water was rising at the rate of an inch and a half a minute.

"Well—not to bore you with exciting details—before we had repaired that piston, the water was up to our waists. While we were replacing the cylinder head and setting the valves, it came up to our armpits. We worked at the nuts and bolts until the water reached our chins. We could n't finish. I had to trust what few nuts I could get on to hold the head. And I had to drag Larsen out by the collar.

"When we pulled the throttle on the pump, it could n't make the stroke. It was choked with condensed steam. And Larsen groaned as if he were watching a deathbed.

"However, it got to work after a little and began to lift. I felt mighty grateful to Larsen. I took it that if he had n't been working, this way, out of any loyalty to Nolan—or with any hope of getting a raise of wages—it must be that he had some sort of affectionate interest in me and my success with the job. And when we were drying out our clothes together, in front of one of the furnaces, I tried to express my gratitude, you know.

"He took it in silence. He kept going out, every now and then, to look at the water in the shaft, in a sort of angry bewilderment that ignored me altogether. I tried to jolly him out of his bad mood, by telling him about an engineer who got his back up at things, that way—and lost a leg before he regained his temper. Larsen did n't wait to hear about it. He simply walked back to his pumps without paying any attention to me whatever. And I was wise enough to see that he had no more personal loyalty for me than he had for Nolan.

"That was lesson number three.

"I 'm nearly done now. Just a minute.

"When the day shift arrived, I was 'cross-eyed' with lack of sleep, but the square dam was empty and the pumps were beginning to draw water from the shaft itself. I took a final look around, and warned the superintendent to watch the wooden cofferdam, because a strong wind had been blowing from the northeast, and the waves were working at the outer sheeting. I told Larsen that he had better come along and get a snooze, but he looked up, like a sailor, at the storm in the sky, and shook his head. And I left him.

"As I was going into the office, I saw a company tug coming up, with Nolan in the bows. I was too tired to meet him. I told one of the men to call me if anything went wrong—and climbed up to my bunkroom. I fell asleep."

He looked for a long time at his pipe. It was black out. He had been holding it, forgotten, at his lips.

I heard, afterward, how it happened. The waves caused a shifting of the sand on the eastern front of the dam, and loosened the piles, and spread the sheeting—and the water began to pour in on the square steel dam. The men were ordered up from the shaft, and they ran with timbers and shovels to throw clay into the hole and brace the planking; and Larsen and the shift worked like mad. It was no use. The waves sucked out the clay faster than it could be shoveled in, and the dam just sank under their feet. When the inner sheeting began to give way, Larsen shouted for timbers to reinforce it. And when the men ran for beams and planks, he was just crazy enough to brace himself between the wooden sheeting and the steel dam—his feet against the one, his shoulders against the other—to try to hold the planking until the men could come to his aid.

"I saw him there. The row had wakened me, and I ran to the window. A big wave struck into the breach behind him and spurted over him, and I yelled to him to get out of that. It was too late. The wooden dam seemed to open and sink as if there was an earthquake. And then, that side of the steel dam—loosened with the piles it was bolted to—fell inward like a big fence.

"Larsen went under."

He made a gesture of apology for the emotion that had clouded his voice. "I swung over the window-sill and struck the water at the same time as one of the men. We caught Larsen as he came up, and we dragged him out. I saw he could n't stand. His legs were all sort of twisted. He looked down at them as if he was surprised to see them there.… I beg your pardon.… You see, his back was broken. He 'd held himself braced between the timbers and the steel until his spine cracked."

He blew his nose hastily. The others did not look at him.

"He did n't pay any attention to old Nolan's assurance that he and his family would be 'looked after.' He did n't pay any attention to me. All he said was—when they were carrying him aboard the tug: 'She 's all gone, this time'—speaking of the dam."

He was silent.

The business man challenged him: "Well?"

"Well!" he cried, suddenly, "we 're all hired men, are n't we? Do I work the way I do, for money alone, or out of any loyalty to anybody? Does a soldier, or a clergyman, or a doctor, or an artist? Does even a man like Larsen? Is the world really run by wages—by hire—or by any feudal-system sort of loyalty? Is it? Or is it the joy of the work, of the game, that makes us break our backs in it? You asked me whether I thought Larsen typical. I tell you 'Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!' We could get employees 'worth their salt' if we had work to give them that was worth its salt. We appropriate all the joy of the work, all the interest of the achievement, and we leave them nothing but the tasteless labor."

The lawyer interrupted: "Are you arguing for socialism?"

The engineer turned to him, surprised. "Socialism? I don't know. I never have time to read up about those things. I 'm telling you what I 've seen; that 's all."