Open main menu
 

XV

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHER

Owing to Floyd's considerate care, hardly the echoes of the disturbance created by the article in the Contemporary Review reached Colonel Halket's ears. To be sure, the Colonel read with great enjoyment the editorial comment in two of the three Avalon newspapers—comment so respectful, courteous, and sympathetic that a man who was the subject of it could not avoid thinking better both of himself and of the press. As for the officials of the mills, Floyd had called them together and explained his grandfather's attitude. The explanation made them very gloomy.

"I tell you this, Mr. Halket," said one of the men, bringing his fist down on the table, "if that's the Colonel's position, then it means disaster."

"I hope not," Floyd answered. "My grandfather's been in this business a good while, and it's quite likely he's wiser about it than any of us. Anyway we've got to accept his view, whether we sympathize with it or not,—all the more because he's gone on record publicly. Has anybody here seen the Contemporary Review for this month?"

No one had seen it, and Floyd prepared them for the article as tactfully as possible; but in spite of that, when he met Gregg again the next day, he found him injured, aggrieved, and discouraged.

"A thing like that can just about undo ten years' work," Gregg said dejectedly. "It is n't the implications against my judgment and management—it is n't those so much that I mind; but it's the fact that Colonel Halket has got so far away from the real crux of the whole situation. He does n't seem to understand what we're up against, and yet he's directing us just as if he'd never got out of touch with things." He pulled at his beard desperately. "I swear it's enough to make me feel like resigning. Here I've been building the best I knew, as I thought, to the interests of my employer; and now he tells me to pull down the whole shebang. I've turned down half a dozen good offers because I've had a certain feeling about this place—having grown up with it, you get a kind of sentiment and interest about it, you know; but this is pretty near the limit."

Floyd admitted a sympathy with his feelings, but tried to inspirit him. "It will be a little rough, altering our tactics at first, but after a while we'll probably find it easy to carry on this new policy."

Gregg shook his head. "It's almost a betrayal of those men who've been the company's best friends," he said; "the fellows that have stood out against the union. They'll read that magazine article, and they'll say, 'So that's the way ha feels about it! Well, what is there in it for us?' That's what they'll say; see if they don't. And the union men will read the article too, and get after them with a sharp stick—drive 'em into the union or out of the mills, one or the other."

"I'm afraid you're right," said Floyd. He meditated for a moment and then said, "I think we'd better not attack the subject of a new wage-scale for a few days—until we see what effect the publication of that article has in the works."

Reports from the various mills showed that it had a very marked effect. There was jubilation among the radical union men, there was gloom at the mills that had been holding out as non-union. Gregg's prediction was immediately verified; murmurs of anger and despair rose from the men who felt they had been abandoned by their employer. There was a stampede suddenly to join the union; within two weeks there was not a skilled iron worker in New Rome who was not a member of the Affiliated. Hugh Farrell had been among the last to surrender. Floyd, going through the works one day, passed into the rod-mill, where Schneider, the new foreman, had just taken charge. He passed near Farrell, who was at the old work of drawing out the long steel rods with the tongs, stepping back and forth with the same active grace which had impressed Floyd years before; and Farrell returned only a curt, unsmiling nod to his greeting. The unfriendliness of it hurt Floyd, even though he knew that he could not escape the suspicion of holding his grandfather's ideas.

Hitherto the men at the New Rome works had been paid by tonnage. Improvements in machinery had, however, so enlarged the output of certain workmen that their earnings had grown out of all proportion to those of the machinists, tool-dressers, and others, and were indeed so great as to eat into the profits of the business. In many other mills the sliding scale of wages had been adopted to counteract this difficulty, but the conservative management of the Halket Company had been reluctant to inaugurate a change of custom. When the skilled mechanics who built the improved machines were earning only a sixth or an eighth as much as the men who pulled the levers, and when steel workers who were exceptionally fortunate in their branch of employment were some of them practicing the luxurious habit of driving to and from their work in carriages, the necessity for reform was imminent. "It's all right for them to make good earnings," Floyd said in one of his conferences with Gregg, "but we can't increase the percentage all along the line without running the mills at a tremendous loss. As it is now, the expert machinists are sore at seeing some of these other fellows, who are really less skilled than they, making so much more money. Another thing that makes for trouble is that the machinists are ineligible for membership in the Affiliated, and from all accounts they feel they're being doubly discriminated against. Now that we've given the union the encouragement of a magazine article, we've got to force them to accept reasonable terms."

Therefore the sliding scale was drawn up and submitted to the executive committee of the union, of which Tustin was chairman.

At first, appreciating the cut in earnings that it would involve for a large number of men, the committee positively declined to consider it; they declared they would never accept the sliding scale. On this point their position was quite untenable; their association had accepted the principle in almost every other mill in the country. Floyd, who conducted the negotiations personally, replied that as to the principle there could be no debate; that would be enforced or the works would be closed. Then the committee shifted their ground and fought for better terms in the scale that was submitted. The principle of the sliding scale was this: that wages should move up or down, following the advance or decline in the price of steel, but that there should be a minimum price below which they should not decline. Floyd proposed that this minimum price for steel billets should be twenty-five dollars a ton; and the men insisted that it should be twenty-six dollars. On this point, as on the principle itself, Floyd was unyielding; on what seemed the minor points, to which the committee of the steel workers retreated, he was less exacting. Prices of steel were at this time high; by the agreement that was finally made, and that was to endure for two years, the rate of wages was to be fixed by the prevailing price and was to continue for six months. Floyd had proposed a monthly adjustment, but had not held out for what seemed to him then an unimportant detail. There were other details which seemed comparatively insignificant,—provisions giving committees of the union a voice in arranging the "turns," opportunity to pass upon the installation of new machinery, the privilege of making visits of inspection and presenting grievances to the superintendents of the mills. During the next two years these committees were incessantly active—often for the sole purpose of keeping their authority in evidence. The mill superintendents came to regard them as pestilential nuisances whose inflictions it was an indignity to bear; more than one superintendent resigned during this period rather than submit to the constant harassments of these committees. And quite apart from the special arrangements made with the union in this two years' agreement were the provisions in the constitution of the union itself, which took note of the smallest details and assumed jurisdiction over the lives of its members to a degree that meant regulation of the business of their employers. The daily output of each man was defined and was not to be exceeded; limits were set to the instruction of other workmen and of apprentices; the constitution bristled with restrictive and mandatory clauses, such, for instance, as the rule that seniority of service should always receive preference in promotion. The recognition of the union by the management meant the conforming to these and countless other irksome requirements.

Floyd carried the burden of the ensuing perplexities, reluctant for two reasons to let his grandfather share it; he wished to spare the old man anxiety and worry and to preserve in him his optimistic, contented spirit; and he was also honestly afraid that any interference on his grandfather's part would produce confusion worse confounded. Colonel Halket's humane liberality and tolerance on all matters pertaining to labor alarmed Floyd and seemed to him to foreshadow a weakening: More than, ever did the Colonel welcome any opportunity to hold forth at a public meeting and preach the gospel of tolerance, human kindness, and friendliness in business relations; it delighted him to feel that he was, as a presiding officer introducing him once put it, "the best-loved man in Avalon." It gratified him to find that his reputation was extending beyond the city limits; certain political honors came to him unsought; he was chosen delegate-at-large to the Republican National Convention, and there he made the speech nominating for the presidency the "favorite son" of the state, who on the first ballot received the complimentary vote of his state and no other. Experiences like this caused Colonel Halket to renew his youth; he aspired to an eminence broader, greater than any that had yet Engaged him—in short, to an eminence that should be national. His mills were known all over the country; what he now dreamed of and set his mind upon was that his personality should likewise be known and esteemed. The noble, public-spirited citizen, the generous employer, the polished, cultivated gentleman, the pioneer of a more humane and kindly era, the lovable man—these were a few sides of his character of which he was profoundly conscious and for which he desired wider recognition. To that end, he no longer confined his benefactions to Avalon; he contributed to various good causes in various parts of the country, traveled far to make speeches, enjoyed hearing the eulogies pronounced upon him by presiding officers, enjoyed bowing to the applause. Sometimes he thought of identifying himself with some political issue and lending his influence and voice to the championship of some public cause, but there was none that appealed with sufficient strength to his dramatic sense; no doubt he was wise in restricting himself to the enunciation of excellent generalities and championing nothing more definite than humanity.

Meanwhile, his autobiography was progressing. Floyd made repeated efforts to secure a reading of it, but Colonel Halket was firm; no one should see the manuscript except the publisher. Floyd felt that he could mark the stages in its development by the reminiscences which his grandfather occasionally let fall; from dealing with the remote past, they were now approaching perilously near the immediate present, and Floyd felt that the conclusion of the work was imminent.

During the first six months of the sliding scale agreement, the price of steel remained high—billets sold at thirty-five dollars a ton—and the mills were running at a good profit. The monthly reports from the superintendents, which Colonel Halket scrutinized with care, were very favorable, in comparison with those which had been made during the previous year under the tonnage system of wages; therefore Colonel Halket triumphantly called the attention of Floyd and of the other officers to the fact that the union had been allowed to establish itself and nothing serious had happened. It was in the last month of this profitable period that his book was issued; in a short time it went through several editions. Floyd read, with rapid alternations of feeling, the copy in which his grandfather had inscribed his handsomest signature, of the old-fashioned, florid type. Some chapters were so unconsciously egotistical and complacent that Floyd squirmed in reading them; it mortified him to think that his grandfather had exposed himself thus to the laughter of the multitude—or worse, of the discriminating. Other passages filled him with pain and concern because of the frankness with which they criticised certain of the associates and subordinates who had helped in the building up of the company; the author's opinions of his own greater wisdom at various crises were as thinly veiled as they had been in the magazine article, which reappeared without change, as a chapter of the book. The utterances on the freedom of labor to arrange its own affairs were more pronounced, the declarations that the employer had nothing to fear from permitting such freedom were more assured than any the author had heretofore made public, and this chapter of theorizing, Floyd felt instinctively, would be prolific of misfortune. On the other hand, there were pages that were generous and not misguided, in which Colonel Halket had recounted some of the fine acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that had been brought out in the daily life at the mills; these descriptions were vivid and real and introduced a likable human quality into the midst of what was often dull and pretentious. And one chapter moved Floyd deeply, the last; it was called "My Wife," and it told, simply and without sentimentality, what part Mrs. Halket had taken in building up New Rome and helping the women of the town. In this most difficult chapter of all there was no violation of taste, no undignified airing of the writer's love and bereavement; intimacies were not exposed, and yet no reader could miss the tenderness and reverence behind the words, or the self-contained, unasking sorrow. Floyd laid the book down with a different feeling from that which had possessed him when he was in the midst of it. "The end redeems all its mistakes," he thought—"for me at least." He awaited with more cheerfulness the disagreeable events that he believed certain to follow.

They did not come at once; even the dissatisfaction among the officers of the works was less than he had expected to find it; rather, it was resignation; their feeling seemed to be that the magazine article had already done all the harm that it was possible for a printed thing to do. The comment of the press was, with but few exceptions, respectful and favorable. In Avalon one graceless newspaper, to be sure, which was a scoffer at all things established and decent, paid the book the compliment of a sarcastic review. "An adept at solitaire performances with bouquets," it began, "Colonel Halket is here exhibited in the act of presenting himself with the choicest nosegays of his collection. The Colonel's reminiscences have what might be called an old-world charm in their ambrosial fragrance and cloying sweetness. We confess that after lounging the better part of a day in the Colonel's garden and observing him as he decks himself all down the front with boutonnieres, we have a hankering to see him take a hoe out behind the barn and grub up burdocks. We have an idea that if the Colonel keeps on attending to the business of personal decoration, the burdocks will get a good start out at New Rome."

This, however, was almost the only carping note in the grand chorus of reviews that teemed from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Colonel Halket hoarded them in a scrap-book and dwelt upon them with admiration. He treasured likewise editorial discussions based on his volume and even newspaper clippings that quoted passages from it. The titles of these gave him pleasure, for he figured in them very often,—"A Golden Rule Manufacturer," "A Pioneer of Industry," "The Best Type of Capitalist," "The Portrait of a True American." A man of seventy-eight might spend his last days less pleasantly than in brooding over such definitions of himself.

With the popular success of his book, he felt that he had achieved that which he had coveted,—a national reputation for himself, not merely for his steel. It was a fitting achievement to crown his life; he had taken rank now and was recognized as one of the influential men of the country, a power in the industrial world, a leader in action and in thought. "Perhaps no man of this generation," said the Avalon Sunday Times, "has been more actively identified with the country's development than Colonel Robert Halket of this city." Perhaps not, thought Colonel Halket.

Having bemused himself with these pleasant notions, he was quite entertained to learn that his utterances had shocked some of his brother manufacturers severely. It was the privilege of the first citizen of Avalon, a leading citizen of the United States, to shock smaller men; it was in fact a duty; and as for their murmuring criticism and dissent, it was truly ludicrous. Who among them had achieved one tenth of his success? He was giving his immediate neighbors—more than them, the whole country—a demonstration of the fact that a gigantic industrial concern can be run with absolutely no friction, with tremendous profit, and to the complete satisfaction of employer and employee. For convincing proof he had but to turn to his monthly balance-sheet.

"Floyd," he said to his grandson one day, "what should you consider a fair price for the works?"

"Are you thinking of selling them?" Floyd asked, in surprise.

"No, no, indeed. I was just wondering how nearly our ideas of the value would correspond."

"Twenty millions?" Floyd spoke dubiously.

"Twenty! My dear boy, I would n't consider an offer of fifty millions, cash down. I would n't think of it!"

"I don't believe you'll ever be offered it," Floyd said, with a smile.

"Oh, I'm not so sure," responded the old man. "It would be a good bargain at that figure for a man who understood the business and appreciated what it was to have a force of workmen in such thorough harmony with the employer as ours now are. With the perfection to which we've at last brought our organization and policy, there should be no limit to our growth."

Floyd was so surfeited with this kind of talk that for once in his weariness he spoke out incautiously.

"Sometimes I don't feel so sure of the harmony," he said. "I find I don't harmonize with the Knights of Labor for a cent. I can worry along with the Affiliated, but when the 'parent organization,' as the Knights loves to call itself, makes demands on me, I object."

"What trouble has there been?" Colonel Halket asked.

"Oh, nothing much, and there won't be. A committee of the Knights waited on me to-day with the most preposterous demand I've ever had presented. It seems there's an old fellow named Tibbs, who's been with us more than twenty years; he was one of the last to join the union and he did it reluctantly. Some of those unwilling members the union is apparently trying to freeze out; anyway it looks as if they had it in for Tibbs. His two daughters have been employed in a laundry, and the Knights have ordered all the laundresses out on strike because of some question of wages. The Misses Tibbs declined to quit and are still working, and because of that, the Knights came down on me with the demand that I discharge the old man! They'd been to Gregg and he'd kicked them out of the office; I naturally did the same."

Colonel Halket frowned and shook his head. "The demand may have seemed unreasonable," he said. "But I hope you did not treat them rudely; there is a way of getting along with such men, and no doubt to their minds there was nothing unreasonable in what they asked."

"But, Grandfather—"

Colonel Halket raised his hand.

"Conciliation is never wasted in business. Violence in speech or act never yet served any good purpose. The policy that I have enunciated in my book should be your guide in small matters as in large."

Floyd stared in silence. The vague feeling which he occasionally had experienced, that sometimes his grandfather's moods bordered on insanity, stirred again within him.

Three days later Colonel Halket told Floyd that he had been visited by the committee of the Knights of Labor.

"They came to see me about the Tibbs case," he said.

"Did they have anything new to say?" Floyd asked, with a sinking of the heart.

"They made clear to me that they had been treated with insufficient consideration," replied his grandfather severely. "As I was inclined to suspect, there is some reason in their contention. Their aim—a very proper aim—is to harmonize labor. Unfortunately, this can only be done by weeding out the inharmonious elements. Tibbs is an irritation and must go. Otherwise, they will call a strike, and that we cannot afford."

"But the principle, Grandfather—" began Floyd.

"We cannot afford a strike for a principle," declared Colonel Halket. "The men realize perfectly that this would be an advantageous time to strike—when we are making large profits and cannot fill all our orders." But he was thinking of the possible loss to his national prestige rather than of the pecuniary loss that a strike would entail. He had boasted of his security against strikes and of the affection of his men; the threat of the Knights of Labor committee had frightened him with its unwelcome possibilities. "We must preserve harmony among our men. I am sorry to order the discharge of an old employee like Tibbs, I am willing even that he should be pensioned; but under the circumstances he must go. I have promised it. You will issue the order for his discharge and at the same time convey to him the information that a suitable pension will be paid him."

Floyd, sitting forward in his chair, leaned over and laid his hand on Colonel Halket's knee.

"Grandfather," he said, and there was earnest appeal in his voice, "I've got to mutiny. I can't issue any such order. Tibbs is a good man, and I simply will not be a party to turning him out of his job because his daughters are trying to earn an honest living. Why, good God, Grandfather!"—indignation suddenly swept him out of discretion—"What do you and the Knights of Labor want to do—drive the man's girls out on the streets?"

"Floyd!" Colonel Halket rose to his feet, stood clinching his hands, and looked down at his grandson with flashing eyes.

"I beg your pardon, sir," Floyd said, rising. "But though that remark was uncalled for, I feel that what you command is a great injustice to an innocent and faithful workman. It seems to me unworthy of such an establishment as yours, and likely, moreover, to do untold harm. Rather than issue such an order, I will resign my position."

Colonel Halket put his hands on Floyd's shoulders and looked at him steadily. "Do you mean it, Floyd?"

"I do."

The old man stood for a moment, looking into his eyes. Then he said,—

"Very well. I will not ask you to issue the order, Floyd."

This mildness made Floyd ashamed of his outburst, made him feel uncomfortable, as if he had been striking an attitude and spouting heroics. He laughed apologetically.

"You and I never before came so near to having a row, did we. Grandfather?" he said. "I did n't mean to be disrespectful. But honestly I can't help feeling this way about it all." And while Colonel Halket still stood with his hand on the young man's shoulder, smiling faintly and with only a trace of austerity, Floyd amplified his ideas about "the principle of the thing." He spoke now with no defiance in his manner, but confidentially, explaining the views that he held and that he was happy to think had this time prevailed. It encouraged him to believe that his grandfather was after all so amenable to reason, was truly so liberal and open-minded. Not many a man of seventy-eight would have been so tolerant of a rebuke from a grandson, so able to see the justice of it.

Three days later, when Floyd paid his next visit to New Rome, he was informed by Gregg that Tibbs's discharge had been ordered. Floyd expressed incredulity, and Gregg handed him the note from Colonel Halket.

"I never made a worse mouth over anything," said the superintendent. "I don't know as I can stand this sort of thing indefinitely, Mr. Halket; that's a fact."

Floyd was too stunned by the evidence of his grandfather's duplicity to make any remonstrance. He was still looking stupidly at the note.

"Have you done anything about it?" he asked.

"Yes, I've done it," Gregg replied. "I notified him that he'd draw a pension of fifty dollars a month. But he's a sturdy old fellow. He said he'd have none of it. 'Keep your conscience money for them that needs it,' he said."

Floyd sat down in a chair and laid the note with slow bewilderment on the table. "It beats me," he murmured. "It beats me."

He could not fathom his grandfather's motive, he could not believe his grandfather was so poor a craven as to yield this point simply because he dreaded the calling of a strike and the temporary loss that would result. Colonel Halket had hidden successfully from every one, even from Floyd, his ambition of late birth, his anxiety to shine as a national figure, as the great industrial peacemaker of the modern world. And Floyd in his simplicity had never perceived what had become the ruling purpose of his grandfather's life.

"I wish," he said after a moment of vain meditation, "that you'd keep track of Tibbs for me, Mr. Gregg, so that I'll know where to find him if I ever want him—and how he gets along. Maybe we'll get him back again. There will have to be a change of policy some time. I hope you will stand by us till then, Mr. Gregg. Your advice will be needed."

"The fight will have to come pretty soon," declared Gregg. "This victory of the Knights will encourage all sorts of extreme demands. And they'll likely carry them all straight to the Colonel."

"Maybe they will find that he has conceded as much as he is prepared to concede," Floyd answered. "Well, we must wait and see."

Perhaps the union was unwilling to jeopardize the effect of its unexpected victory by making another instant demand and possibly meeting defeat; perhaps no issue at once presented itself to the minds of the leaders. At any rate the pressure which Floyd anticipated was not applied, and in a few weeks the conditions had been so altered that it was hardly to be dreaded. For the price of steel began now to decline rapidly, and with the prospect of running the mills at a loss, the threat of a strike, had it been made, would have had no terrors.

During this period depression overcame Colonel Halket. It was midsummer, and his great house in Canada remained closed. "I dread going to it somehow," he said to Floyd. "I can live on here—but to go back there and have all the memories of last summer recalled—it would make me feel too lonely and forlorn. I have got now to be with people."

In the end he chartered a steam yacht and sailed restlessly up and down the coast, stopping here and there, now for a day, now for a week. Floyd and the Dunbars and Stewart and Lydia Lee were with him for a time, and when they left him he secured other friends to keep him company, aged business men and lawyers from Avalon who were often seasick, talked tediously of the money and stock markets, and when they were more than a day at sea felt the lack of their newspaper. He sat with them at interminable games of cards and smoked too many cigars, and after a time the aimlessness of this vacation weighed on his spirits. When he had rid himself of the last of his guests, he finished his cruise and went home, though his charter of the yacht had still a month to run.

He was himself at a loss to account for the dejection which often now oppressed him. He felt perhaps that after issuing so gloriously into sudden national prominence he had ceased to make headway. How indeed was he to proceed? That was the question which confronted him. He could not write another autobiography, and the completion of that work had left him in a sense without an occupation, without an intimate personal interest, had left him more acutely conscious than before of his loneliness, his bereavement, his age. And from this weary consciousness he would start hopefully at any sign of public interest or favor, any invitation to speak at a banquet or to address a meeting; his appointment as chairman of the State Board of Arbitration gratified him, and the newspaper editorial articles commending the appointment he read and reread and treasured in volume X of his scrap-book. But events such as these were only intermittent flashes. If he had been a younger man, he might easily have become governor or gone to the Senate; he began mournfully to reflect on what he might have done had he not modestly confined himself for so long to winning merely local recognition. The truth emerged upon him with gradual distinctness: he had after all attained the ambition of his latter days so far as it was attainable; he stood, a figure known and admired throughout the land for his industrial achievement and progressive ideas. And the realization that he had gone as far and gained as much as would ever be possible for him deepened his melancholy. "It seems that when a man finishes his autobiography, he's practically finished his life too," he thought. "That had never occurred to me."

Only one occupation remained for him—that unlovely one of sitting tight and seeing that he lost not one inch of place that he had gained. He must live up to his reputation to the end; what people thought him, that must he be and seem. He had outlived the close and eager interest in his business; he had outlived the sense of individual justice; he was absorbed in larger things.