It Can't Happen Here

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Chapter 26

The Informer composing room closed down at eleven in the evening, for the paper had to be distributed to villages forty miles away and did not issue a later city edition. Dan Wilgus, the foreman, remained after the others had gone, setting a Minute Man poster which announced that there would be a grand parade on March ninth, and incidentally that President Windrip was defying the world.

Dan stopped, looked sharply about, and tramped into the storeroom. In the light from a dusty electric bulb the place was like a tomb of dead news, with ancient red-and-black posters of Scotland county fairs and proofs of indecent limericks pasted on the walls. From a case of eight-point, once used for the setting of pamphlets but superseded by a monotype machine, Dan picked out bits of type from each of several compartments, wrapped them in scraps of print paper, and stored them in the pocket of his jacket. The raped type boxes looked only half filled, and to make up for it he did something that should have shocked any decent printer even if he were on strike. He filled them up with type not from another eight-point case, but with old ten-point.

Daniel, the large and hairy, thriftily pinching the tiny types, was absurd as an elephant playing at being a hen.

He turned out the lights on the third floor and clumped downstairs. He glanced in at the editorial rooms. No one was there save Doc Itchitt, in a small circle of light that through the visor of his eye shade cast a green tint on his unwholesome face. He was correcting an article by the titular editor, Ensign Emil Staubmeyer, and he snickered as he carved it with a large black pencil. He raised his head, startled.

"Hello, Doc."

"Hello, Dan. Staying late?"

"Yuh. Just finished some job work. G'night."

"Say, Dan, do you ever see old Jessup, these days?"

"Don't know when I've seen him, Doc. Oh yes, I ran into him at the Rexall store, couple days ago."

"Still as sour as ever about the régime?"

"Oh, he didn't say anything. Darned old fool! Even if he don't like all the brave boys in uniform, he ought to see the Chief is here for keeps, by golly!"

"Certainly ought to! And it's a swell régime. Fellow can get ahead in newspaper work now, and not be held back by a bunch of snobs that think they're so doggone educated just because they went to college!"

"That's right. Well, hell with Jessup and all the old stiffs. G'night, Doc!"

Dan and Brother Itchitt unsmilingly gave the M.M. salute, arms held out. Dan thumped down to the street and homeward. He stopped in front of Billy's Bar, in the middle of a block, and put his foot up on the hub of a dirty old Ford, to tie his shoelace. As he tied it—after having untied it—he looked up and down the street, emptied the bundles in his pockets into a battered sap bucket on the front seat of the car, and majestically moved on.

Out of the bar came Pete Vutong, a French-Canadian farmer who lived up on Mount Terror. Pete was obviously drunk. He was singing the pre-historic ditty "Hi lee, hi low" in what he conceived to be German, viz.: "By unz gays immer, yuh longer yuh slimmer." He was staggering so that he had to pull himself into the car, and he steered in fancy patterns till he had turned the corner. Then he was amazingly and suddenly sober; and amazing was the speed with which the Ford clattered out of town.

Pete Vutong wasn't a very good Secret Agent. He was a little obvious. But then, Pete had been a spy for only one week.

In that week Dan Wilgus had four times dropped heavy packages into a sap bucket in the Ford.

Pete passed the gate to Buck Titus's domain, slowed down, dropped the sap bucket into a ditch, and sped home.

Just at dawn, Buck Titus, out for a walk with his three Irish wolfhounds, kicked up the sap bucket and transferred the bundles to his own pocket.

And next afternoon Dan Wilgus, in the basement of Buck's house, was setting up, in eight-point, a pamphlet entitled "How Many People Have the Corpos Murdered?" It was signed "Spartan," and Spartan was one of several pen names of Mr. Doremus Jessup.

They were all—all the ringleaders of the local chapter of the New Underground—rather glad when once, on his way to Buck's, Dan was searched by M.M.'s unfamiliar to him, and on him was found no printing-material, nor any documents more incriminating than cigarette papers.



The Corpos had made a regulation licensing all dealers in printing machinery and paper and compelling them to keep lists of purchasers, so that except by bootlegging it was impossible to get supplies for the issuance of treasonable literature. Dan Wilgus stole the type; Dan and Doremus and Julian and Buck together had stolen an entire old hand printing-press from the Informer basement; and the paper was smuggled from Canada by that veteran bootlegger, John Pollikop, who rejoiced at being back in the good old occupation of which repeal had robbed him.

It is doubtful whether Dan Wilgus would ever have joined anything so divorced as this from the time clock and the office cuspidors out of abstract indignation at Windrip or County Commissioner Ledue. He was moved to sedition partly by fondness for Doremus and partly by indignation at Doc Itchitt, who publicly rejoiced because all the printers' unions had been sunk in the governmental confederations. Or perhaps because Doc jeered at him personally on the few occasions—not more than once or twice a week—when there was tobacco juice on his shirt front.

Dan grunted to Doremus, "All right, boss, I guess maybe I'll come in with you. And say, when we get this man's revolution going, let me drive the tumbril with Doc in it. Say, remember Tale of Two Cities? Good book. Say, how about getting out a humorous life of Windrip? You'd just have to tell the facts!"

Buck Titus, pleased as a boy invited to go camping, offered his secluded house and, in especial, its huge basement for the headquarters of the New Underground, and Buck, Dan, and Doremus made their most poisonous plots with the assistance of hot rum punches at Buck's fireplace.

The Fort Beulah cell of the N.U., as it was composed in mid-March, a couple of weeks after Doremus had founded it, consisted of himself, his daughters, Buck, Dan, Lorinda, Julian Falck, Dr. Olmsted, John Pollikop, Father Perefixe (and he argued with the agnostic Dan, the atheist Pollikop, more than ever he had with Buck), Mrs. Henry Veeder, whose farmer husband was in Trianon Concentration Camp, Harry Kindermann, the dispossessed Jew, Mungo Kitterick, that most un-Jewish and un-Socialistic lawyer, Pete Vutong and Daniel Babcock, farmers, and some dozen others. The Reverend Mr. Falck, Emma Jessup, and Mrs. Candy, were more or less unconscious tools of the N.U. But whoever they were, of whatever faith or station, Doremus found in all of them the religious passion he had missed in the churches; and if altars, if windows of many-colored glass, had never been peculiarly holy objects to him, he understood them now as he gloated over such sacred trash as scarred type and a creaking hand press.



Once it was Mr. Dimick of Albany again; once, another insurance agent—who guffawed at the accidental luck of insuring Shad Ledue's new Lincoln; once it was an Armenian peddling rugs; once, Mr. Samson of Burlington, looking for pine-slashing for paper pulp; but whoever it was, Doremus heard from the New Underground every week. He was busy as he had never been in newspaper days, and happy as on youth's adventure in Boston.

Humming and most cheerful, he ran the small press, with the hearty bump-bump-bump of the foot treadle, admiring his own skill as he fed in the sheets. Lorinda learned from Dan Wilgus to set type, with more fervor than accuracy about ei and ie. Emma and Sissy and Mary folded news sheets and sewed up pamphlets by hand, all of them working in the high old brick-walled basement that smelled of sawdust and lime and decaying apples.

Aside from pamphlets by Spartan, and by Anthony B. Susan—who was Lorinda, except on Fridays—their chief illicit publication was Vermont Vigilance, a four-page weekly which usually had only two pages and, such was Doremus's unfettered liveliness, came out about three times a week. It was filled with reports smuggled to them from other N.U. cells, and with reprints from Walt Trowbridge's Lance for Democracy and from Canadian, British, Swedish, and French papers, whose correspondents in America got out, by long-distance telephone, news which Secretary of Education Macgoblin, head of the government press department, spent a good part of his time denying. An English correspondent sent news of the murder of the president of the University of Southern Illinois, a man of seventy-two who was shot in the back "while trying to escape," out of the country by long-distance telephone to Mexico City, from which the story was relayed to London.

Doremus discovered that neither he nor any other small citizen had been hearing one hundredth of what was going on in America. Windrip & Co. had, like Hitler and Mussolini, discovered that a modern state can, by the triple process of controlling every item in the press, breaking up at the start any association which might become dangerous, and keeping all the machine guns, artillery, armored automobiles, and aeroplanes in the hands of the government, dominate the complex contemporary population better than had ever been done in medieval days, when rebellious peasantry were armed only with pitchforks and good-will, but the State was not armed much better.

Dreadful, incredible information came in to Doremus, until he saw that his own life, and Sissy's and Lorinda's and Buck's, were unimportant accidents.

In North Dakota, two would-be leaders of the farmers were made to run in front of an M.M. automobile, through February drifts, till they dropped breathless, were beaten with a tire pump till they staggered on, fell again, then were shot in the head, their blood smearing the prairie snow.

President Windrip, who was apparently becoming considerably more jumpy than in his old, brazen days, saw two of his personal bodyguard snickering together in the anteroom of his office and, shrieking, snatching an automatic pistol from his desk, started shooting at them. He was a bad marksman. The suspects had to be finished off by the pistols of their fellow guards.

A crowd of young men, not wearing any sort of uniforms, tore the clothes from a nun on the station plaza in Kansas City and chased her, smacking her with bare hands. The police stopped them after a while. There were no arrests.

In Utah a non-Mormon County Commissioner staked out a Mormon elder on a bare rock where, since the altitude was high, the elder at once shivered and felt the glare rather bothersome to his eyes—since the Commissioner had thoughtfully cut off his eyelids first. The government press releases made much of the fact that the torturer was rebuked by the District Commissioner and removed from his post. It did not mention that he was reappointed in a county in Florida.

The heads of the reorganized Steel Cartel, a good many of whom had been officers of steel companies in the days before Windrip, entertained Secretary of Education Macgoblin and Secretary of War Luthorne with an aquatic festival in Pittsburgh. The dining room of a large hotel was turned into a tank of rose-scented water, and the celebrants floated in a gilded Roman barge. The waitresses were naked girls, who amusingly swam to the barge holding up trays and, more often, wine buckets.

Secretary of State Lee Sarason was arrested in the basement of a handsome boys' club in Washington on unspecified charges by a policeman who apologized as soon as he recognized Sarason, and released him, and who that night was shot in his bed by a mysterious burglar.

Albert Einstein, who had been exiled from Germany for his guilty devotion to mathematics, world peace, and the violin, was now exiled from America for the same crimes.

Mrs. Leonard Nimmet, wife of a Congregational pastor in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose husband had been sent to concentration camp for a pacifist sermon, was shot through the door and killed when she refused to open to an M.M. raiding section looking for seditious literature.

In Rhode Island, the door of a small orthodox synagogue in a basement was locked from the outside after thin glass containers of carbon monoxide had been thrown in. The windows had been nailed shut, and anyway, the nineteen men in the congregation did not smell the gas until too late. They were all found slumped to the floor, beards sticking up. They were all over sixty.

Tom Krell—but his was a really nasty case, because he was actually caught with a copy of Lance for Democracy and credentials proving that he was a New Underground messenger—strange thing, too, because everybody had respected him as a good, decent, unimaginative baggageman at a village railroad depot in New Hampshire—was dropped down a well with five feet of water in it, a smooth-sided cement well, and just left there.

Ex-Supreme Court Justice Hoblin of Montana was yanked out of bed late at night and examined for sixty hours straight on a charge that he was in correspondence with Trowbridge. It was said that the chief examiner was a man whom, years before, Judge Hoblin had sentenced for robbery with assault.

In one day Doremus received reports that four several literary or dramatic societies—Finnish, Chinese, Iowan, and one belonging to a mixed group of miners on the Mesaba Range, Minnesota—had been broken up, their officers beaten, their clubrooms smashed up, and their old pianos wrecked, on the charge that they possessed illegal arms, which, in each case, the members declared to be antiquated pistols used in theatricals. And in that week three people were arrested—in Alabama, Oklahoma, and New Jersey—for the possession of the following subversive books: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie (and fair enough too, because the sister-in-law of a county commissioner in Oklahoma was named Ackroyd); Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets; and February Hill, by Victoria Lincoln.



"But plenty things like this happened before Buzz Windrip ever came in, Doremus," insisted John Pollikop. (Never till they had met in the delightfully illegal basement had he called Doremus anything save "Mr. Jessup.") "You never thought about them, because they was just routine news, to stick in your paper. Things like the sharecroppers and the Scottsboro boys and the plots of the California wholesalers against the agricultural union and dictatorship in Cuba and the way phony deputies in Kentucky shot striking miners. And believe me, Doremus, the same reactionary crowd that put over those crimes are just the big boys that are chummy with Windrip. And what scares me is that if Walt Trowbridge ever does raise a kinda uprising and kick Buzz out, the same vultures will get awful patriotic and democratic and parliamentarian along with Walt, and sit in on the spoils just the same."

"So Karl Pascal did convert you to Communism before he got sent to Trianon," jeered Doremus.

John Pollikop jumped four straight feet up in the air, or so it looked, and came down screaming, "Communism! Never get 'em to make a United Front! W'y, that fellow Pascal—he was just a propagandist, and I tell you—I tell you—"



Doremus's hardest job was the translation of items from the press in Germany, which was most favorable to the Corpos. Sweating, even in the March coolness in Buck's high basement, Doremus leaned over a kitchen table, ruffling through a German-English lexicon, grunting, tapping his teeth with a pencil, scratching the top of his head, looking like a schoolboy with a little false gray beard, and wailing to Lorinda, "Now how in the heck would you translate 'Er erhält noch immer eine zweideutige Stellung den Juden gegenüber'?" She answered, "Why, darling, the only German I know is the phrase that Buck taught me for 'God bless you'—'Verfluchter Schweinehund.'"

He translated word for word, from the Völkischer Beobachter, and later turned into comprehensible English, this gratifying tribute to his Chief and Inspirer:


America has a brilliant beginning begun. No one congratulates President Windrip with greater sincerity than we Germans. The tendency points as goal to the founding of a Folkish state. Unfortunately is the President not yet prepared with the liberal tradition to break. He holds still ever a two-meaning attitude the Jews visavis. We can but presume that logically this attitude change must as the movement forced is the complete consequences of its philosophy to draw. Ahasaver the Wandering Jew will always the enemy of a free self-conscious people be, and America will also learn that one even so much with Jewry compromise can as with the Bubonic plague.



From the New Masses, still published surreptitiously by the Communists, at the risk of their lives, Doremus got many items about miners and factory workers who were near starvation and who were imprisoned if they so much as criticized a straw boss… . But most of the New Masses, with a pious smugness unshaken by anything that had happened since 1935, was given over to the latest news about Marx, and to vilifying all agents of the New Underground, including those who had been clubbed and jailed and killed, as "reactionary stool pigeons for Fascism," and it was all nicely decorated with a Gropper cartoon showing Walt Trowbridge, in M.M. uniform, kissing the foot of Windrip.



The news bulletins came to Doremus in a dozen insane ways—carried by messengers on the thinnest of flimsy tissue paper; mailed to Mrs. Henry Veeder and to Daniel Babcock between the pages of catalogues, by an N.O. operative who was a clerk in the mail-order house of Middlebury & Roe; shipped in cartons of toothpaste and cigarettes to Earl Tyson's drugstore—one clerk there was an N.U. agent; dropped near Buck's mansion by a tough-looking and therefore innocent-looking driver of an interstate furniture-moving truck. Come by so precariously, the news had none of the obviousness of his days in the office when, in one batch of A.P. flimsies, were tidings of so many millions dead of starvation in China, so many statesmen assassinated in central Europe, so many new churches built by kind-hearted Mr. Andrew Mellon, that it was all routine. Now, he was like an eighteenth-century missionary in northern Canada, waiting for the news that would take all spring to travel from Bristol and down Hudson Bay, wondering every instant whether France had declared war, whether Her Majesty had safely given birth.

Doremus realized that he was hearing, all at once, of the battle of Waterloo, the Diaspora, the invention of the telegraph, the discovery of bacilli, and the Crusades, and if it took him ten days to get the news, it would take historians ten decades to appraise it. Would they not envy him, and consider that he had lived in the very crisis of history? Or would they just smile at the flag-waving children of the 1930's playing at being national heroes? For he believed that these historians would be neither Communists nor Fascists nor bellicose American or English Nationalists but just the sort of smiling Liberals that the warring fanatics of today most cursed as weak waverers.

In all this secret tumult Doremus's most arduous task was to avoid suspicions that might land him in concentration camp, and to give appearance of being just the harmless old loafer he veritably had been, three weeks ago. Befogged with sleep because he had worked all night at headquarters, he yawned all afternoon in the lobby of the Hotel Wessex and discussed fishing—the picture of a man too discouraged to be a menace.



He dropped now and then, on evenings when there was nothing to do at Buck's and he could loaf in his study at home and shamefully let himself be quiet and civilized, into renewed longing for the Ivory Tower. Often, not because it was a great poem but because it was the first that, when he had been a boy, had definitely startled him by evoking beauty, he reread Tennyson's "Arabian Nights":


A realm of pleasance, many a mound And many a shadow-chequered lawn Full of the city's stilly sound, And deep myrrh-thickets blowing round And stately cedar, tamarisks, Thick rosaries of scented thorn, Tall orient shrubs, and obelisks    Graven with emblems of the time,    In honor of the golden prime       Of good Haroun Alraschid.


Awhile then he could wander with Romeo and Jurgen, with Ivanhoe and Lord Peter Wimsey; the Piazza San Marco he saw, and immemorial towers of Bagdad that never were; with Don John of Austria he was going forth to war, and he took the golden road to Samarcand without a visa.

"But Dan Wilgus setting type on proclamations of rebellion, and Buck Titus distributing them at night on a motorcycle, may be as romantic as Xanadu … living in a blooming epic, right now, but no Homer come up from the city room yet to write it down!"



Whit Bibby was an ancient and wordless fishmonger, and as ancient appeared his horse, though it was by no means silent, but given to a variety of embarrassing noises. For twenty years his familiar wagon, like the smallest of cabooses, had conveyed mackerel and cod and lake trout and tinned oysters to all the farmsteads in the Beulah Valley. To have suspected Whit Bibby of seditious practices would have been as absurd as to have suspected the horse. Older men remembered that he had once been proud of his father, a captain in the Civil War—and afterward a very drunken failure at farming—but the young fry had forgotten that there ever had been a Civil War.

Unconcealed in the sunshine of the late-March afternoon that touched the worn and ashen snow, Whit jogged up to the farmhouse of Truman Webb. He had left ten orders of fish, just fish, at farms along the way, but at Webb's he also left, not speaking of it, a bundle of pamphlets wrapped in very fishy newspaper.

By next morning these pamphlets had all been left in the post boxes of farmers beyond Keezmet, a dozen miles away.

Late the next night, Julian Falck drove Dr. Olmsted to the same Truman Webb's. Now Mr. Webb had an ailing aunt. Up to a fortnight ago she had not needed the doctor often, but as all the countryside could, and decidedly did, learn from listening in on the rural party telephone line, the doctor had to come every three or four days now.

"Well, Truman, how's the old lady?" Dr. Olmsted called cheerily.

From the front stoop Webb answered softly, "Safe! Shoot! I've kept a good lookout."

Julian rapidly slid out, opened the rumble seat of the doctor's car, and there was the astonishing appearance from the rumble of a tall man in urban morning coat and striped trousers, a broad felt hat under his arm, rising, rubbing himself, groaning with the pain of stretching his cramped body. The doctor said:

"Truman, we've got a pretty important Eliza, with the bloodhounds right after him, tonight! Congressman Ingram—Comrade Webb."

"Huh! Never thought I'd live to be called one of these 'Comrades.' But mighty pleased to see you, Congressman. We'll put you across the border in Canada in two days—we've got some paths right through the woods along the border—and there's some good hot beans waiting for you right now."

The attic in which Mr. Ingram slept that night, an attic approached by a ladder concealed behind a pile of trunks, was the "underground station" which, in the 1850's, when Truman's grandfather was agent, had sheltered seventy-two various black slaves escaping to Canada, and on the wall above Ingram's weary threatened head was still to be seen, written in charcoal long ago, "Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies."



It was a little after six in the evening, near Tasbrough & Scarlett's quarries. John Pollikop, with his wrecker car, was towing Buck Titus, in his automobile. They stopped now and then, and John looked at the motor in Buck's car very ostentatiously, in the sight of M.M. patrols, who ignored so obvious a companionship. They stopped once at the edge of Tasbrough's deepest pit. Buck strolled about, yawning, while John did some more tinkering. "Right!" snapped Buck. Both of them leaped at the over-large toolbox in the back of John's car, lifted out each an armful of copies of Vermont Vigilance and hurled them over the edge of the quarry. They scattered in the wind.

Many of them were gathered up and destroyed by Tasbrough's foremen, next morning, but at least a hundred, in the pockets of quarrymen, were started on their journey through the world of Fort Beulah workmen.



Sissy came into the Jessup dining room wearily rubbing her forehead. "I've got the story, Dad. Sister Candy helped me. Now we'll have something good to send on to other agents. Listen! I've been quite chummy with Shad. No! Don't blow up! I know just how to yank his gun out of his holster if I should ever need to. And he got to boasting, and he told me Frank Tasbrough and Shad and Commissioner Reek were all in together on the racket, selling granite for public buildings, and he told me—you see, he was sort of boasting about how chummy he and Mr. Tasbrough have become—how Mr. Tasbrough keeps all the figures on the graft in a little red notebook in his desk—of course old Franky would never expect anybody to search the house of as loyal a Corpo as him! Well, you know Mrs. Candy's cousin is working for the Tasbroughs for a while, and damn if—"


"—these two old gals didn't pinch the lil red notebook this afternoon, and I photographed every page and had 'em stick it back! And the only comment our Candy makes is, 'That stove t' the Tasbroughs' don't draw well. Couldn't bake a decent cake in a stove like that!'"

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