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The Dwelling Place of Light - Volume 3

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Occasionally the art of narrative may be improved by borrowing the method of the movies. Another night has passed, and we are called upon to imagine the watery sunlight of a mild winter afternoon filtering through bare trees on the heads of a multitude. A large portion of Hampton Common is black with the people of sixteen nationalities who have gathered there, trampling down the snow, to listen wistfully and eagerly to a new doctrine of salvation. In the centre of this throng on the bandstand—reminiscent of concerts on sultry, summer nights—are the itinerant apostles of the cult called Syndicalism, exhorting by turns in divers tongues. Antonelli had spoken, and many others, when Janet, impelled by a craving not to be denied, had managed to push her way little by little from the outskirts of the crowd until now she stood almost beneath the orator who poured forth passionate words in a language she recognized as Italian. Her curiosity was aroused, she was unable to classify this tall man whose long and narrow face was accentuated by a pointed brown beard, whose lips gleamed red as he spoke, whose slim hands were eloquent. The artist as propagandist—the unsuccessful artist with more facility than will. The nose was classic, and wanted strength; the restless eyes that at times seemed fixed on her were smouldering windows of a burning house: the fire that stirred her was also consuming him. Though he could have been little more than five and thirty, his hair was thinned and greying at the temples. And somehow emblematic of this physiognomy and physique, summing it up and expressing it in terms of apparel, were the soft collar and black scarf tied in a flowing bow. Janet longed to know what he was saying. His phrases, like music, played on her emotions, and at last, when his voice rose in crescendo at the climax of his speech, she felt like weeping.

"Un poeta!" a woman beside her exclaimed.

"Who is he?" Janet asked.

"Rolfe," said the woman.

"But he's an Italian?"

The woman shrugged her shoulders. "It is his name that is all I know." He had begun to speak again, and now in English, with an enunciation, a distinctive manner of turning his phrases new to such gatherings in America, where labour intellectuals are little known; surprising to Janet, diverting her attention, at first, from the meaning of his words. "Labour," she heard, "labour is the creator of all wealth, and wealth belongs to the creator. The wage system must be abolished. You, the creators, must do battle against these self-imposed masters until you shall come into your own. You who toil miserably for nine hours and produce, let us say, nine dollars of wealth—do you receive it? No, what is given you is barely enough to keep the slave and the slave's family alive! The master, the capitalist, seizes the rightful reward of your labour and spends it on luxuries, on automobiles and fine houses and women, on food he can't eat, while you are hungry. Yes, you are slaves," he cried, "because you submit like slaves."

He waited, motionless and scornful, for the noise to die down. "Since I have come here to Hampton, I have heard some speak of the state, others of the unions. Yet the state is your enemy, it will not help you to gain your freedom. The legislature has shortened your hours,—but why? Because the politicians are afraid of you, and because they think you will be content with a little. And now that the masters have cut your wages, the state sends its soldiers to crush you. Only fifty cents, they say—only fifty cents most of you miss from your envelopes. What is fifty cents to them? But I who speak to you have been hungry, I know that fifty cents will buy ten loaves of bread, or three pounds of the neck of pork, or six quarts of milk for the babies. Fifty cents will help pay the rent of the rat-holes where you live." Once more he was interrupted by angry shouts of approval. "And the labour unions, have they aided you? Why not? I will tell you why—because they are the servile instruments of the masters. The unions say that capital has rights, bargain with it, but for us there can be only one bargain, complete surrender of the tools to the workers. For the capitalists are parasites who suck your blood and your children's blood. From now on there can be no compromise, no truce, no peace until they are exterminated. It is war." War! In Janet's soul the word resounded like a tocsin. And again, as when swept along East Street with the mob, that sense of identity with these people and their wrongs, of submergence with them in their cause possessed her. Despite her ancestry, her lot was cast with them. She, too, had been precariously close to poverty, had known the sordidness of life; she, too, and Lise and Hannah had been duped and cheated of the fairer things. Eagerly she had drunk in the vocabulary of that new and terrible philosophy....