It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 36

The ban on information at the Trianon camp had been raised; Mrs. Candy had come calling on Doremus — complete with cocoanut layer cake — and he had heard of Mary’s death, the departure of Emma and Sissy, the end of Windrip and Sarason. And none of it seemed in the least real — not half so real and, except for the fact that he would never see Mary again, not half so important as the increasing number of lice and rats in their cell.

During the ban, they had celebrated Christmas by laughing, not very cheerfully, at the Christmas tree Karl Pascal had contrived out of a spruce bough and tinfoil from cigarette packages. They had hummed “Stille Nacht” softly in the darkness, and Doremus had thought of all their comrades in political prisons in America, Europe, Japan, India.

But Karl, apparently, thought of comrades only if they were saved, baptized Communists. And, forced together as they were in a cell, the growing bitterness and orthodox piety of Karl became one of Doremus’s most hateful woes; a tragedy to be blamed upon the Corpos, or upon the principle of dictatorship in general, as savagely as the deaths of Mary and Dan Wilgus and Henry Veeder. Under persecution, Karl lost no ounce of his courage and his ingenuity in bamboozling the M.M. guards, but day by day he did steadily lose all his humor, his patience, his tolerance, his easy companionship, and everything else that made life endurable to men packed in a cell. The Communism that had always been his King Charles’s Head, sometimes amusing, became a religious bigotry as hateful to Doremus as the old bigotries of the Inquisition or the Fundamentalist Protestants; that attitude of slaughtering to save men’s souls from which the Jessup family had escaped during these last three generations.

It was impossible to get away from Karl’s increasing zeal. He chattered on at night for an hour after all the other five had growled, “Oh, shut up! I want to sleep! You’ll be making a Corpo out of me!”

Sometimes, in his proselytizing, he conquered. When his cell mates had long enough cursed the camp guards, Karl would rebuke them: “You’re a lot too simple when you explain everything by saying that the Corpos, especially the M.M.‘s, are all fiends. Plenty of ’em are. But even the worst of ’em, even the professional gunmen in the M.M. ranks, don’t get as much satisfaction out of punishing us heretics as the honest, dumb Corpos who’ve been misled by their leaders’ mouthing about Freedom, Order, Security, Discipline, Strength! All those swell words that even before Windrip came in the speculators started using to protect their profits! Especially how they used the word ‘Liberty’! Liberty to steal the didies off the babies! I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word ‘Liberty’ today, after what the Republicans did to it! And I tell you that a lot of the M.M. guards right here at Trianon are just as unfortunate as we are — lot of ’em are just poor devils that couldn’t get decent work, back in the Golden Age of Frank Roosevelt — bookkeepers that had to dig ditches, auto agents that couldn’t sell cars and went sour, ex-looeys in the Great War that came back to find their jobs pinched off ’em and that followed Windrip, quite honestly, because they thought, the saps, that when he said Security he meant SECURITY! They’ll learn!”

And having admirably discoursed for another hour on the perils of self-righteousness among the Corpos, Comrade Pascal would change the subject and discourse upon the glory of self-righteousness among the Communists — particularly upon those sanctified examples of Communism who lived in bliss in the Holy City of Moscow, where, Doremus judged, the streets were paved with undepreciable roubles.

The Holy City of Moscow! Karl looked upon it with exactly such uncritical and slightly hysterical adoration as other sectarians had in their day devoted to Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome, Canterbury, and Benares. Fine, all right, thought Doremus. Let ’em worship their sacred fonts — it was as good a game as any for the mentally retarded. Only, why then should they object to his considering as sacred Fort Beulah, or New York, or Oklahoma City?

Karl once fell into a froth because Doremus wondered if the iron deposits in Russia were all they might be. Why certainly! Russia, being Holy Russia, must, as a useful part of its holiness, have sufficient iron, and Karl needed no mineralogists’ reports but only the blissful eye of faith to know it.

He did not mind Karl’s worshiping Holy Russia. But Karl did, using the word “naïve,” which is the favorite word and just possibly the only word known to Communist journalists, derisively mind when Doremus had a mild notion of worshiping Holy America. Karl spoke often of photographs in the Moscow News of nearly naked girls on Russian bathing-beaches as proving the triumph and joy of the workers under Bolshevism, but he regarded precisely the same sort of photographs of nearly naked girls on Long Island bathing-beaches as proving the degeneration of the workers under Capitalism.

As a newspaper man, Doremus remembered that the only reporters who misrepresented and concealed facts more unscrupulously than the Capitalists were the Communists.

He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty. For they were thieves not only of wages but of honor. To their purpose they could quote not only Scripture but Jefferson.

That Karl Pascal should be turning into a zealot, like most of his chiefs in the Communist party, was grievous to Doremus because he had once simple-heartedly hoped that in the mass strength of Communism there might be an escape from cynical dictatorship. But he saw now that he must remain alone, a “Liberal,” scorned by all the noisier prophets for refusing to be a willing cat for the busy monkeys of either side. But at worst, the Liberals, the Tolerant, might in the long run preserve some of the arts of civilization, no matter which brand of tyranny should finally dominate the world.

“More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”

Yes, this was the worst thing the enemies of honor, the pirate industrialists and then their suitable successors, the Corpos with their blackjacks, had done: it had turned the brave, the generous, the passionate and half-literate Karl Pascals into dangerous fanatics. And how well they had done it! Doremus was uncomfortable with Karl; he felt that his next turn in jail might be under the wardenship of none other than Karl himself, as he remembered how the Bolsheviks, once in power, had most smugly imprisoned and persecuted those great women, Spiridinova and Breshkovskaya and Ismailovitch, who, by their conspiracies against the Czar, their willingness to endure Siberian torture on behalf of “freedom for the masses,” had most brought on the revolution by which the Bolsheviks were able to take control — and not only again forbid freedom to the masses, but this time inform them that, anyway, freedom was just a damn silly bourgeois superstition.

So Doremus, sleeping two-and-a-half feet above his old companion, felt himself in a cell within a cell. Henry Veeder and Clarence Little and Victor Loveland and Mr. Falck were gone now, and to Julian, penned in solitary, he could not speak once a month.

He yearned for escape with a desire that was near to insanity; awake and asleep it was his obsession; and he thought his heart had stopped when Squad–Leader Aras Dilley muttered to him, as Doremus was scrubbing a lavatory floor, “Say! Listen, Mr. Jessup! Mis’ Pike is fixin’ it up and I’m going to help you escape jus’ soon as things is right!”

It was a question of the guards on sentry-go outside the quadrangle. As sweeper, Doremus was reasonably free to leave his cell, and Aras had loosened the boards and barbed wire at the end of one of the alleys leading from the quadrangle between buildings. But outside, he was likely to be shot by a guard on sight.

For a week Aras watched. He knew that one of the night guards had a habit of getting drunk, which was forgiven him because of his excellence in flogging troublemakers but which was regarded by the more judicious as rather regrettable. And for that week Aras fed the guard’s habit on Lorinda’s expense money, and was indeed so devoted to his duties that he was himself twice carried to bed. Snake Tizra grew interested — but Snake also, after the first couple of drinks, liked to be democratic with his men and to sing “The Old Spinning–Wheel.”

Aras confided to Doremus: “Mis’ Pike — she don’t dast send you a note, less somebody get hold of it, but she says to me to tell you not to tell anybody you’re going to take a sneak, or it’ll get out.”

So on the evening when Aras jerked a head at him from the corridor, then rasped, surly-seeming, “Here you, Jessup — you left one of the cans all dirty!” Doremus looked mildly at the cell that had been his home and study and tabernacle for six months, glanced at Karl Pascal reading in his bunk — slowly waving a shoeless foot in a sock with the end of it gone, at Truman Webb darning the seat of his pants, noted the gray smoke in filmy tilting layers about the small electric bulb in the ceiling, and silently stepped out into the corridor.

The late-January night was foggy.

Aras handed him a worn M.M. overcoat, whispered, “Third alley on right; moving-van on corner opposite the church,” and was gone.

On hands and knees Doremus briskly crawled under the loosened barbed wire at the end of the small alley and carelessly stepped out, along the road. The only guard in sight was at a distance, and he was wavering in his gait. A block away, a furniture van was jacked up while the driver and his helper painfully prepared to change one of the tremendous tires. In the light of a corner arc, Doremus saw that the driver was that same hard-faced long-distance cruiser who had carried bundles of tracts for the New Underground.

The driver grunted, “Get in-hustle!” Doremus crouched between a bureau and a wing chair inside.

Instantly he felt the tilted body of the van dropping, as the driver pulled out the jack, and from the seat he heard, “All right! We’re off. Crawl up behind me here and listen, Mr. Jessup. . . . Can you hear me? . . . The M.M.‘s don’t take so much trouble to prevent you gents and respectable fellows from escaping. They figure that most of you are too scary to try out anything, once you’re away from your offices and front porches and sedans. But I guess you may be different, some ways, Mr. Jessup. Besides, they figure that if you do escape, they can pick you up easy afterwards, because you ain’t onto hiding out, like a regular fellow that’s been out of work sometimes and maybe gone on the bum. But don’t worry. We’ll get you through. I tell you, there’s nobody got friends like a revolutionist. . . . AND enemies!”

Then first did it come to Doremus that, by sentence of the late lamented Effingham Swan, he was subject to the death penalty for escaping. But “Oh, what the hell!” he grunted, like Karl Pascal, and he stretched in the luxury of mobility, in that galloping furniture truck.

He was free! He saw the lights of villages going by!

Once, he was hidden beneath hay in a barn; again, in a spruce grove high on a hill; and once he slept overnight on top of a coffin in the establishment of an undertaker. He walked secret paths; he rode in the back of an itinerant medicine-peddler’s car and, concealed in fur cap and high-collared fur coat, in the sidecar of an Underground worker serving as an M.M. squad-leader. From this he dismounted, at the driver’s command, in front of an obviously untenanted farmhouse on a snaky back-road between Monadnock Mountain and the Averill lakes — a very slattern of an old unpainted farmhouse, with sinking roof and snow up to the frowsy windows.

It seemed a mistake.

Doremus knocked, as the motorcycle snarled away, and the door opened on Lorinda Pike and Sissy, crying together, “Oh, my dear!”

He could only mutter, “Well!”

When they had made him strip off his fur coat in the farmhouse living room, a room with peeling wall paper, and altogether bare except for a cot, two chairs, a table, the two moaning women saw a small man, his face dirty, pasty, and sunken as by tuberculosis, his once fussily trimmed beard and mustache ragged as wisps of hay, his overlong hair a rustic jag at the back, his clothes ripped and filthy — an old, sick, discouraged tramp. He dropped on a straight chair and stared at them. Maybe they were genuine — maybe they really were there — maybe he was, as it seemed, in heaven, looking at the two principal angels, but he had been so often fooled so cruelly in his visions these dreary months! He sobbed, and they comforted him with softly stroking hands and not too confoundedly much babble.

“I’ve got a hot bath for you! And I’ll scrub your back! And then some hot chicken soup and ice cream!”

As though one should say: The Lord God awaits you on His throne and all whom you bless shall be blessed, and all your enemies brought to their knees!

Those sainted women had actually had a long tin tub fetched to the kitchen of the old house, filled it with water heated in kettle and dishpan on the stove, and provided brushes, soap, a vast sponge, and such a long caressing bath towel as Doremus had forgotten existed. And somehow, from Fort Beulah, Sissy had brought plenty of his own shoes and shirts and three suits that now seemed to him fit for royalty.

He who had not had a hot bath for six months, and for three had worn the same underclothes, and for two (in clammy winter) no socks whatever!

If the presence of Lorinda and Sissy was token of heaven, to slide inch by slow ecstatic inch into the tub was its proof, and he lay soaking in glory.

When he was half dressed, the two came in, and there was about as much thought of modesty, or need for it, as though he were the two-year-old babe he somewhat resembled. They were laughing at him, but laughter became sharp whimpers of horror when they saw the gridironed meat of his back. But nothing more demanding than “Oh, my dear!” did Lorinda say, even then.

Though Sissy had once been glad that Lorinda spared her any mothering, Doremus rejoiced in it. Snake Tizra and the Trianon concentration camp had been singularly devoid of any mothering. Lorinda salved his back and powdered it. She cut his hair, not too unskillfully. She cooked for him all the heavy, earthy dishes of which he had dreamed, hungry in a cell: hamburg steak with onions, corn pudding, buckwheat cakes with sausages, apple dumplings with hard and soft sauce, and cream of mushroom soup!

It had not been safe to take him to the comforts of her tea room at Beecher Falls; already M.M.‘s had been there, snooping after him. But Sissy and she had, for such refugees as they might be forwarding for the New Underground, provided this dingy farmhouse with half-a-dozen cots, and rich stores of canned goods and beautiful bottles (Doremus considered them) of honey and marmalade and bar-le-duc. The actual final crossing of the border into Canada was easier than it had been when Buck Titus had tried to smuggle the Jessup family over. It had become a system, as in the piratical days of bootlegging; with new forest paths, bribery of frontier guards, and forged passports. He was safe. Yet just to make safety safer, Lorinda and Sissy, rubbing their chins as they looked Doremus over, still discussing him as brazenly as though he were a baby who could not understand them, decided to turn him into a young man.

“Dye his hair and mustache black and shave the beard, I think. I wish we had time to give him a nice Florida tan with an Alpine lamp, too,” considered Lorinda.

“Yes, I think he’ll look sweet that way,” said Sissy.

“I will not have my beard off!” he protested. “How do I know what kind of a chin I’ll have when it’s naked?”

“Why, the man still thinks he’s a newspaper proprietor and one of Fort Beulah’s social favorites!” marveled Sissy as they ruthlessly set to work.

“Only real reason for these damn wars and revolutions anyway is that the womenfolks get a chance — ouch! be careful! — to be dear little Amateur Mothers to every male they can get in their clutches. HAIR DYE!” said Doremus bitterly.

But he was shamelessly proud of his youthful face when it was denuded, and he discovered that he had a quite tolerably stubborn chin, and Sissy was sent back to Beecher Falls to keep the tea room alive, and for three days Lorinda and he gobbled steaks and ale, and played pinochle, and lay talking infinitely of all they had thought about each other in the six desert months that might have been sixty years. He was to remember the sloping farmhouse bedroom and a shred of rag carpet and a couple of rickety chairs and Lorinda snuggled under the old red comforter on the cot, not as winter poverty but as youth and adventurous love.

Then, in a forest clearing, with snow along the spruce boughs, a few feet across into Canada, he was peering into the eyes of his two women, curtly saying good-bye, and trudging off into the new prison of exile from the America to which, already, he was looking back with the long pain of nostalgia.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38