A Trip to Alford
It must have been obvious to everyone but myself that I made up excuses to visit Miss Momsen in her little office at the back of the store. She, of course, was always happy to see me. I was her best customer, at times almost her only customer. I don't mean that she was insincere. She was sincerely happy to have me as her customer, and was positively delighted to have the chance to do up a custom railway car. With all this good will directed at me, it was probably inevitable that I came to believe that she was delighted to see me as a person, entirely apart from my project. Indeed, even that might have been true, but not in the way in which I believed it.
After our second meeting, I managed to conceive the idea that she had no real boy friend. After the third, I had marriage definitely in mind. But for the detail that I wasn't yet legally divorced, I might have proposed it.
Somewhere in there, in the midst of a discussion of my future way of life, I remarked,
"In some ways it'll be good to get away. I'm more or less disgraced here. I suppose you've heard."
"Oh yes, I felt so terribly sorry, even before I met you! The papers can be so mean and nasty. I hate them!"
This was so precisely what I needed to hear that it still surprises me that I didn't, despite being still married, propose marriage on the spot. Miss Momsen seemed, as she bent solicitously across her desk, the loveliest woman in the world. Her voluminous blonde hair and wonderful blue eyes, must, it seemed, have been specially created to allow a man to slough off certain indignities and present himself as a weary old soldier, wronged by the world but still capable of bearing true love for the goddess he seeks.
There was no one to advise me that I was, perhaps, being a bit unrealistic about the lady who had prompted these feelings. I, deprived of such advice, concluded only that Miss Momsen was wonderful. But I did, at least, realize that I must proceed slowly so as not to alarm her. In the event, I proceeded so carefully that she had no idea that I was proceeding at all.
One day, not long after that, Miss Momsen informed me casually but gleefully that she had been visited by James MacPherson Garner. I felt as if a spear had been thrust into my stomach. Once I had come to terms with the spear, I began cursing myself for having suggested to him that he visit her. But, of course, I had to smile and pretend that I was pleased. I did so, just. But my smile must have been a peculiar one.
My fears were momentarily allayed when it turned out that Mac only wanted his office, my old office, re-decorated. But, then, our headquarters were only temporary. In any case, it hardly seemed likely that he wanted the office made cozy. He must have had something else in mind. Moreover, no man, having once met Miss Momsen, could possibly resist her. My feelings were in such turmoil that I feigned an attack of dizziness and excused myself.
I didn't sleep that night. One might suppose that the prospective loss of a woman one never possessed in the first place couldn't be a major blow. Indeed, I reasoned that night, over and over, that I had never had the slightest evidence that it had ever occurred to Miss Momsen to marry anyone such as myself. Unfortunately, my imaginings hadn't been constrained by reason, and I had built up a fantasy of considerable proportions.
That night was, amazingly enough, worse than the night of my disgrace. On that previous night, it had been obvious enough that I would have to start a new life. Moreover, the life I had had wasn't full of unmixed blessings. Amid the humiliation, there was a feeling of adventure. What, I had wondered, would I be able to put together?
On this second occasion, it seemed to me that nothing I could possibly manage would even begin to compare with the life I had imagined. That was the one with Miss Momsen installed as my wife in the new railway car she had designed.
In an attempt to escape from the repetitive and agonizing circle of thoughts in which I had been caught, I tried everything. I even imagined Miss Momsen sitting on the toilet doing her business. She had, unfortunately, a particularly delightful way of taking a shit.
What worked in the end was pure fatigue. I didn't so much fall asleep as recognize that, if Mac did marry her, I would often see her. I was just tired enough so that the thought that would have twisted the knife in the wound a few hours earlier now brought a kind of consolation. After an hour's sleep, I did, upon waking, finally settle it that Mac would marry Miss Momsen. I then staggered off to the office.
It might now seem that my second idea, that Miss Momsen would marry Mac, was hardly better founded than the earlier one that she would marry me. It was, in fact, not nearly so crazy. Miss Momsen really was an extraordinary prize, and Mac certainly had a way of collaring whatever was best for himself.
Along about ten in the morning, I was amazed to receive a call from Miss Momsen. She actually said,
"You weren't feeling well yesterday, and I was concerned. How are you?"
If I hadn't spent the night I had, I would have been overjoyed. That call would have confirmed every silly sentiment I had allowed myself to entertain over the past week.
Whatever may be said of me, I can fairly claim one important virtue. Having once recognized the truth, I don't retreat from it. In this case, I recognized that Miss Momsen had come to regard me as a friend, and that she meant exactly what she said, nothing more. Moreover, she had a warm sympathetic nature, and was strongly inclined to feel sorry for anyone in my position. It had nothing to do with romance. I was thus able to be gracious, to thank her for her solicitude, and to arrange to visit the car with her to check on the progress being made.
The visit duly took place the next day. I was much more relaxed with her than I had been previously. Apropos of nothing, I said,
"I've decided that, along with a new life, I need a new name. I've always been called 'Jimmy.' I could be 'James', or I could use my middle name, 'Watt.' You're the arbiter in matters of taste, so I'll let you decide."
Miss Momsen laughed, but didn't refuse my commission. She replied,
"Watt's a nice name, but Watt Witt would confuse people. You'd forever be repeating it and spelling it. You'd be a good James, though. It has just the right touch of gravity to offset your playfulness and humorousness."
It surprised me more than a little that she thought that I was playful and humorous, but I let it pass. I insisted only that she be the first to use my new name. She, in turn, disclosed herself as Vignis.
"It's an Icelandic name. By rights, I'd be Vignis Eriksdottir, but things got all confused when we immigrated, and we ended up with the name Momsen. Isn't it awful?"
"No, it didn't strike me so. But I'm delighted to know a real Icelander."
As we approached the yards, I was a little nervous about appearing before the men. After the episode of John Henry Jamieson, I might be marked as the man who was bringing in southern blacks at half price to take their jobs. As it happened, we entered uneventfully, except, of course, for the looks that followed Vignis wherever she went.
The old Swede and his helpers were just finishing the job of panelling my car, and a lovely job it was. Each plank of yellow pine had been fitted perfectly, and the vertical cracks between the planks were just uneven and distinct enough to distinguish it from any sort of faked panelling. In fact, the wood was so attractive, and smelled so good, that I suggested leaving it unvarnished. Vignis put her nose to the wood and sniffed appreciatively. She then replied,
"I like it, too. But, if it's left unvarnished, it'll eventually lose the good smell and turn gray. We'll use a light clear varnish and keep most of the effect of the wood."
The partitions had been framed out, but not themselves panelled, and a plumber was installing the bathroom fixtures. Vignis had chosen them, and was particularly pleased with their arrangement and appearance. It occurred to me that only a Scandinavian girl would be sufficiently impressed with cleanliness to find glamour in a room in which one performed unmentionable acts.
As on our last visit, we drifted to the observation platform, which had now been cleaned up and painted. Vignis grasped an upright, swished one silken leg around the other, and asked me about Mac.
I was hardly surprised. Thinking it more than likely that she would eventually repeat to him whatever I said, I replied,
"He has an extremely strong character. I'm forty three to his thirty eight, but he's the one who leads me around. He would even if he weren't my boss."
Vignis smiled at me a little quizzically. In that moment, I realized that she was really very bright. Overcome by her attractiveness, I had simply supposed her to be typically feminine, whatever that meant, in all other respects. I now saw that she knew that I knew what she wanted, but that I was being careful about supplying it. She wanted to know whether Mac was a cad who would exploit her and then drop her. She knew that, even if I couldn't answer that question directly, I would, in time, give her the hints that she needed.
During my nights of total love for Miss Momsen, as she had been for me then, I hadn't really cared about her thought processes, her feelings, or, indeed, hardly anything that might have gone on inside her head. Now that she was Vignis, extraordinarily attractive but not quite a goddess, she was beginning to have some qualities which, to a man of my generation, weren't quite appropriate to a goddess. After all, a goddess should either love a man or spurn him. Either he has heroic stature or he does not. There should be no room for calculation as to likely future behavior, still less any sort of bargaining. On the other hand, this blonde vision standing at my side was being very calculating indeed. And, of course, I still loved her. In response to a very few leading questions, I said,
"People often wonder how a man like that will deal with other people. Will he be consistent and reliable? How much will he care about them?"
Vignis smiled and nodded. I was raising the right questions. However, instead of attempting to answer them, I remarked,
"If anyone is permitted to ask those questions, it should be me. I'm totally dependent on Mac."
"You must think about that often."
I laughed. I knew when I was being pumped, and I jabbed her playfully on the shoulder. She laughed herself, but looked appealingly at me. I went on,
"Those aren't really the questions to ask because Mac doesn't see the world in personal terms. He's a philosopher, and it's a big universe with only a few funny little people in an obscure corner. He has a vision. It happens to concern railways rather than Platonic concepts, and that makes it sound a lot less abstract. I'm not sure that it really is."
I was, in effect, telling her to drop Mac on the spot, that he cared much more for his empire than he ever would for any woman. I went on to say,
"I imagine that romance for you is quite a different thing."
She actually gave a little shiver, as if she were cold. I almost dared put a paternal arm around her shoulders. She was evidently so taken with Mac that my message caused her pain. She said,
"He did talk about philosophy. I took a philosophy course at Skidmore, but the only girl who liked it was really strange."
"I'm not sure that Mac ever took such a course. I have a feeling that he's self-taught in that area."
"That would account for his enthusiasm. I suppose I acted as if I understood what he was saying."
I couldn't help asking,
"Did he sound to you as if he came from Texas?"
"I guess so. When he first came in, I thought he was going to ask me to decorate some big old ranch house. But then he didn't sound like a cattle rancher at all."
"He sounds like a cattle rancher except when he takes people seriously."
That pleased her, and she gave me a smile which would more appropriately have been addressed to Mac.
It happened that there was in Scranton a tea room in the Victorian sense, and Vignis was delighted when I suggested it. It was patronized almost entirely by ladies. If any knew me, I could count on their venturing nothing more than a polite nod, or perhaps a word or two. Women handle some things so much better than most men. In the event, there was one little wave from across the room.
As I followed Vignis to the table, I noticed anew that she was a big strong girl, narrow only at the waist and ankles. Even though nothing she wore was too tight, she moved with an athletic energy which suggested that she might, at any moment, burst out of her silks and bound over a table or two.
I suggested to her, not quite that thought, but a related one,
"You look as if you're quite athletic."
"Yes, I was always a tomboy playing boys' games. On weekends and after work I still ride, swim, and play tennis. Otherwise, I'd probably be perfectly round."
Vignis took food seriously. The menu wasn't extensive, but she almost exhausted it with a sandwich in addition to coffee and cake. Having not eaten very well in the preceding days for a variety of reasons, I very nearly kept up with her. When everything was eaten and we settled back with tea, I ventured to remark,
"It's nice to be with such a healthy young woman. My wife made something of a cult of being never quite well."
"Was she really sick a lot?"
"Not really. But she was always on the edge of being sick, and I had the impression that, if she ever were sick, it would be something like tuberculosis."
"How unpleasant for you!"
There was the sympathy again, all ready for the taking. On this occasion I didn't encourage it. I replied,
"Married people adjust to almost anything. It became a little drama in which we both had roles. I was the concerned husband, always wondering if she felt a draught of cold air. I suppose I came to like it."
"I couldn't stand that female role. It'd drive me crazy to have people fussing over me."
"Well, of course, you don't have to play that role, or any role, to be attractive. But Marcia has always been a very thin washed-out woman who really does look a little sick. Now that she's over forty, she looks even more that way. The high point of our marriage probably consisted in trips to her doctor."
Vignis looked at me with frank amazement. I explained,
"Her doctor is Sam Grundy, a man about our age who we've known for years. Some doctors would probably have told Marcia to stop being a hypochondriac, but Sam's rather heavy and serious anyway, and he becomes solicituous in an elaborate formal way in his office. He'd ask her lots of questions, very slowly, and the drama would mount. Then the nurse would help Marcia off with her dress, and he'd go over her, inch by inch, with his stethoscope. She has a thin proud face, and she'd stand entirely upright, even if she were almost naked. I often thought she'd be a wonderful artist's model for a painting called 'The Examining Room.'"
"What would happen then?"
"Marcia would be standing there all set to be heroic and unflinching when she was condemned to death, but the verdict would always be ambiguous. Sam would say that he hadn't been able to find anything. Marcia would actually look a little disappointed. But Sam would always add that there might be something, and that we should be very careful. Marcia would get dressed slowly, and the stage would be set for us to return in about a month."
"So she really is a hypochondriac and the doctor encourages her?"
"I suppose so. I'm sure she's spending a lot of time with him now."
"No wonder you were driven off in such an unhealthy direction!"
I smiled. Vignis had before implied that I might have been framed, or at least that my misdemeanor had been exaggerated by the newspapers. But, like everyone else, she had believed every word that she had read. However, she had now found an excuse for me, and would make the most of it. She added,
"What you need now is a woman with a good healthy attitude. I know lots of nice widows. Even in my family, there are a couple of quite attractive aunts."
I smiled again, and asked,
"Do your aunts look like you?"
Vignis both laughed and blushed. She replied,
"Well, you know, not all Icelanders are blonde. Aunt Helga is petite and dark. Aunt Bergthora is a bit more like me, I guess.
We both knew that Aunt Bergthora, though looking a bit like Vignis, wouldn't look nearly enough like her for my purposes. Vignis' offer to introduce me was made somewhat lamely, and I replied,
"You forget that I'm notorious in Scranton, Vignis. Even if Aunt Bergthora were receptive, how would your father, or other relatives, feel?"
We were now on a new plane of frankness. Vignis bit her lip and replied,
"Well, I suppose I often do forget about Father. He can be difficult."
That turned out to be an understatement. As nearly as I could make out, Vignis' father was a perfect horror. He was the sort of man who should have been a clergyman, but had become a lawyer instead. The law hadn't fulfilled his expectations in a number of ways, and his bitterness had been turned both inward and toward his family. In the midst of all this, Vignis brightened and said,
"I have to laugh sometimes. He has a way of making people feel guilty just by looking at them, even if they hardly know him."
"You live at home, don't you?"
"Yes. I couldn't afford to live on my own. Besides, Father would raise an amazing fuss."
I soon discovered that Vignis sometimes had quite mixed feelings about going home at night.
"He never says anything that's more than a little rude to Mother or myself, but he never says anything nice either. There's tension all the time. You never know when you're going to get one of his looks. I don't know how Mother stands it."
"It doesn't sound very nice for you either. So many girls marry just to get away from unpleasantness at home. I'm glad you haven't done that."
"I've been tempted once or twice, but I'm too romantic for that. I need someone pretty exciting."
"Mac might be that if he isn't too old for you. I'm sure he's interested. He can't really want the office decorated, you know. He won't even be there long. It must just be an excuse to keep seeing you."
Vignis was somewhat embarrassed, but she didn't, or couldn't, hide her pleasure.
"Then he should have had me do him a car like yours."
"He probably acted on the spur of the moment, and didn't think of it. That'll come next. At least, if he doesn't just commandeer mine when he sees it."
I spoke with mock ruefulness, but I wanted her to realize that she was dealing with a big man who had big immediate desires whose satisfaction he wasn't likely to postpone. She laughed and replied,
"In that case, I'll do a new improved model for you."
Vignis worked fast. In two weeks' time, just before Christmas, my car was finished and entirely furnished. I decided on a maiden run, coupled behind the 5 PM passenger train up to Alford, and then a return after dinner. When I suggested to Vignis that she accompany me, she accepted, but wasn't quite as enthusiastic as I had hoped. When I then suggested inviting Mac to go with us, the extra enthusiasm quickly appeared.
The next morning, when I invited Mac for that very evening, I had wondered if he'd be able to clear his schedule so quickly. Indeed, it seemed that he wouldn't come until he heard who else was coming.
That settled, he had yet another surprise for me. It was written out, as always on graph paper, and ran to quite a few pages. I soon found that it was a table of ranks and positions for everyone in the system. The ranks were military ranks. Mac explained,
"Merely by giving our ranks military names, we automatically borrow from the army a kind of discipline. Soldiers obey orders, and they're only allowed to get drunk when on leave. They don't just wander off because that's desertion, a serious matter. This obviously won't solve all our disciplinary problems, but it'll help."
"Are we also going to have court-martial procedures?"
"I hadn't exactly thought of that, son, but it's a good idea. We can't put people in the stockade, or make them march back and forth in front of the roundhouse for a couple of hours, but we can have penalties publicly imposed with dismissal as the last expedient."
"How about uniforms and insignia?"
"Railwaymen practically wear uniforms as it is, and others may not be necessary. But there'll be insignia of rank which can be pinned or sewn onto shirts. I think I'd like to see brightly colored patches, purple for the highest ranks."
"Then you can be Caesar with your purple patch, and the rest of us will be happy with ones of every other color of the rainbow."
Ignoring my attempt at humor, Mac replied,
"Another thing that occurred to me is that southern blacks love anything having to do with the military. Even though they aren't treated equally by any means, they have more opportunity than they do in civilian life. In France during the war, I'd see them in uniform with their chests stuck out and their buttons and shoes all polished. Their morale was pretty good."
This was the first time I had ever heard Mac mention his past. Evidently, he had been in the army during the war. As we talked on, it appeared that it had there first occurred to him that blacks, properly trained, would happily do twice the work of white men for half the money. I asked,
"What rank is John Henry going to have?"
"Major. That'll be quite a respected position, as it is for a young man in the army. An engineer will be a second lieutenant. You'll be a lieutenant general once your divorce is final. In the meantime, while the settlement is up in the air, you'll need to have a lower salary."
"Thank you. I hadn't thought of that. What are you?"
"I'm the field marshal, son. I did think to make myself a philosopher-king after Plato, but that sounded unnecessarily anti-democratic. In a case such as ours, I think he'd say that justice consists only in seeing that everyone has the right rank. I'll see to that, at least at the higher levels."
"Is this going to cause an immediate revolt by the unions? I've never heard of a unionized army."
"Well, of course, that's part of the point in the end. But, in the beginning, we'll just give everyone a rank. Anyone we really want to keep on a railway we take over will be made an officer. They'll joke about it, but they'll be pleased all the same. That much won't cause a revolt."
"What about the ones we don't want?"
"They'll either go quietly or try to strike. If they do, it'll be short and sweet."
I soon discovered that Mac had rather detailed plans, which he had drawn up with Sam Hanks, for dealing with the unions. Seeing that I was interested, he clumped his boots to the floor, stretched himself briefly, and led me down the hall to Hanks' office. As we entered and took chairs, Mac proclaimed,
"Jimmy wants to know about the unions."
Hanks laughed, picked up a paper from his desk, and handed it to me. It was a list of the unions with whom we would have dealings:
The Order of Railroad Telegraphers
International Association of Machinists
International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America
International Brotherhood of Blacksmiths, Drop Forgers and Helpers
Sheet Metal Workers' International Association
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America
International Brotherhood of Firemen, Oilers, Roundhouse and Railway Shop Laborers
Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees
Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees
Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen of America
National Organization Masters, Mates, and Pilots of America
National Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association
International Longshoremen's Association
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers
The length of the list surprised even me, and Hanks pointed out,
"We won't have a great deal to do with some of those unions. The marine ones are involved only because we run car ferries across the Hudson to New York City, and in a few other places. Some of the others come into the picture only because we'll have our own locomotive works, which amounts to a factory."
Mac put in,
"There are really only seven unions that we're immediately concerned with."
As if to confirm that point, Hanks handed me another sheet with a shorter list.
Clerks and Freight Handlers
Firemen and Roundhouse men
Maintenance of Way Employees
Hanks then went down the list with comments.
"In our system, signallers will be corporals. They're easy to train, and the C&G can immediately send us several hundred. The next union, clerks and freight handlers, is tricky because it combines two different things. Freight handlers will only be privates and are replaceable. But clerks hold the bureaucracy of an organization together, and aren't easily and quickly replaced.
The engineers consider themselves to be elite, and won't enter into common negotiations with the other unions. That may turn out to be their downfall.
The firemen, roundhouse men, carmen, and maintenance of way men really form the backbone of a railway. But, as with the signallers, the C&G is training them as fast as it can. Most telegraphers can be eliminated altogether. We're going to use telephones instead."
"Of course, that doesn't mean that we can replace all these kinds of men overnight. The C&G, intensively worked as it is, can only provide a modest backlog, and then a thin stream. We'll probably open at least one other training railway, but that'll take time."
I drew the conclusion,
"So, if we're going to put the new schedule into operation soon, we'll have to have relative peace with most of our unionized employees."
No one disputed it. Hanks replied,
"The thirty odd railways comprising our main lines and major branches are about ninety per cent unionized, and the roads have hundreds of contracts with these various unions expiring at many different dates. Our policy is to keep paying the men at the same rates, but not sign new contracts as they expire."
"In ordinary times, that would trigger strikes at almost every expiration, but we don't think it will now. These men won't strike as long as they continue to be paid."
I pointed out,
"On the Lackawanna, all those agreements are for closed shops. No one can work who doesn't belong to the appropriate union, and union dues are taken out of pay checks."
"There isn't any Lackawanna any more, or any of the other component lines. There's only the Great Eastern Railway, and we don't have any contractual obligations to any union."
"Even if they're still being paid, I think they'll strike if we hire non-union men. We may get away with John Henry, but not with any significant number of scabs."
Mac then smiled, not enough to show his gold tooth, but rather unpleasantly for all that.
"We think we can divide and conquer them. If we bring in scabs against a selected union, one railway at a time, but don't at the same time lay anyone off or reduce his salary, the indignation will be limited. The union may strike the particular railway, say, the Lackawanna, but probably not the whole system. Once the men are actually on strike, we can begin laying them off, a few at a time, the most senior first. That'll probably bring the others back, but, even if it doesn't, we'd be able to replace all the members of that union on that line."
"Which unions have you selected?"
"The ones the others won't support. The engineers because they haven't supported the others in the recent past, and are perceived as high-falutin. The other one is the maintenance of way employees. They're the lowest of the low, and the others won't be quick to identify with them. We'll leave the middle classes alone for a while."
"Of course, it all depends on the line. On some, we won't take on any of the unions. On others, if we have some initial success, we may bring in non-union men and women of all trades."
Mac almost purred,
"It'll be Jimmy's function to see that these new people are allowed to work in peace."
No one, certainly not Mac, had intimated that, in addition to being head spy, I was also to be head policeman. I almost protested that I was the last man in the world for the latter role. Instead, I recalled an old principle which I had often seen confirmed, but which I had never adopted for my own:
The man who wishes to succeed should happily accept any responsibility that no one else wants, and embrace it publicly and confidently. The others will be so thankful that they will be forgiving even if things turn out badly.
Even as I projected myself into the part of a complete lieutenant general of police, I recalled nervously that the principle had been tested only on men much softer than Mac and Hanks.
At lunch, we put the subject of unions on one side for a while, and spoke of golf and fishing. Mac seemed a little distracted, and I wondered if he was thinking of our forthcoming excursion with Vignis. If so, he said nothing of it, either at lunch or when we returned to the office. Indeed, in the late afternoon, I was beginning to wonder if he had forgotten when he turned up in my office and suggested that it was time to go for Miss Momsen.
It looked as if Vignis had bought new everything she had on, from her leather pumps to her little hat. The colors were all quite restrained, mostly brown and dark red, but Vignis herself burst forth brilliantly.
We waited at the station with the other passengers, but walked to the extreme end of the platform, where my car would be. We didn't tell Vignis that this train, like most other passenger trains, would be cancelled once we got organized, or that there would be precious few trains running in what would be the wrong direction.
The engine that slid past us was a rather graceful Lackawanna Pacific of middle age. It must have occurred to both Mac and myself that we would have to find some other employment for the engine, perhaps hauling freight in a flat district that wouldn't tax its limited tractive force.
The furnishings were, as Vignis had promised, the latest thing. The light gray carpet was pierced in four places for the pedestals of steel and chrome easy chairs which both swivelled and reclined. The upholstery of each chair was a different tint of yellow or yellow orange, all quite light, while the curtains were a deep rich salmon. If the colors hadn't been well chosen, the whole would have been a disaster. However, Vignis knew her work and had a good sense of color. It turned out that there were four different sets of curtains, each for a different season, so that I wouldn't become bored with my surroundings.
The whole scheme was, of course, a statement about me. I was to live and work in happy circumstances, and it was implicit that, once I had recovered from Scranton and the events of the recent past, my moods would be as bright and varied as the colors. To that extent, it was a compliment. Vignis thought me resilient, and also emotionally versatile and imaginative.
On the other hand, there was something robustly feminine about the arrangement. I was sure that Mac's office would be quite different, as would be any car done up for him. I understood, of course. For most people, any sort of sexual irregularity connotes latent homosexuality, or at least a tendency to stray from the straight masculine line laid down by such people as puritans and Texans. The car might as well have been meant to say to me that it was all right if I wanted to do things a little differently at times, and that I should, at all events, feel comfortable and cozy in my new home.
I wasn't insulted. I have never consorted with men, but, by that time, I had given up hope of ever being considered normal.
I could hardly imagine what Mac thought, except that he was obviously enjoying himself. Most probably, he felt as if he were being entertained in a lady's boudoir, chastely to be sure, but still suggestively.
We were hardly under way in the dusk before snow began to fall. Since the car was well heated, we could relax without coats while we watched the lights go bouncing past the windows. We often delved into dark cuts, and, at one point, burst out over a vast fragile-seeming bridge.
The snow intensified into something like a blizzard, and the porter drew the shades and turned up the lights. With our chairs pointed at one another and drinks on the table, it was possible to be entirely comfortable and easily chatty in the middle of the storm.
I had chosen Alford because it had a small hotel with an excellent dining room right across from the station. When we slowed for the station and looked out, we saw that the storm had passed the town after depositing a quantity of new snow. There was nothing but white covering every building, hummock, and coal pile. The stars were out brightly and the stillness seemed to intensify the glare of the moonlight on the snow. As the train pulled out, I had the feeling that we had been marooned in a frozen long-deserted town. That is to say, the night was perfect for romance.
The romance began when Mac, seeing that no paths had been shovelled, carried Vignis from the platform to the front steps of the hotel across the street. The distance was at least a hundred yards, and Vignis was not light. Mac made it look easy. I waded along beside them, chattering away, while Vignis, her blonde hair particularly striking in the peculiar white light, teased me gently. Mac even managed to join the conversation without grunting.
When we got to the hotel steps, Vignis bounced athletically out of Mac's arms, landed gracefully, and gave him a wonderful smile. The whole spectacle would have been quite awful for me if I hadn't earlier come to terms with reality. By this time, I knew that Vignis and Mac were both so far out of my league that jealousy would be ridiculous. I only worried that my presence would be awkward and unwanted.
I needn't have worried. Vignis would never have allowed me to be ignored. Moreover, Mac wanted to talk about the railway. He seemed to assume that our fair companion would be interested, and it was also implicit that she would soon be in a position in which she could hardly fail to be interested.
The dining room was decorated festively for Christmas, but the weather had evidently kept people away. Mac and I were both men who, in our different ways, liked being the only diners. Vignis might normally have been uneasy in a restaurant that failed, for unspecified reasons, to attract other customers. However, on this occasion, she became the complete Nordic princess surrounded by fawning waiters.
Mac began by mentioning the forthcoming system of military ranks. Vignis replied,
"That reminds me of school. The boys had an army, and they were all generals. I was let in, but only as a private. Then I pushed one of the boys into the duck pond and said I wanted to be a general too."
"Did they make you one?"
"No, but I never heard about the army again. I think they disbanded it rather than let a girl be a general."
Vignis didn't ask whether we would have girl generals in our army. Mac volunteered nothing on that subject, but said,
"Jimmy here is going to be a lieutenant general. His command will be the nearest thing to infantry that we'll have."
Vignis obviously didn't understand, and Mac explained.
"His command consists of intelligence and security. The intelligence operatives will have varied apparent functions, but their main role will be to keep us informed of what's going on in the system, and to give us advance warning of trouble. I suppose you might call these people spies."
Mac gave his characteristic smile at this point. I wondered if Vignis had seen his gold tooth before, and whether she realized that that particular smile was accompanied by a certain amount of malice. She showed nothing, and Mac said to me,
"I don't think you'll have any trouble in that role, son. You have natural curiosity, and you're certainly capable of building up a big picture from bits and pieces that come in from here and there."
I acknowledged as much. In truth, I found the picture romantic. Spies would appear in my car in the dead of the night, make their reports, and then disappear. I would see a good deal of John Henry at odd moments, and would have that powerful force and personality at my disposal. Much might be accomplished in those circumstances. Vignis gave me a little look, laughed, and said,
"The only thing better than playing army is playing spy."
Mac didn't seem to take it ill that she compared his enterprises to those of little boys. He replied,
"It's the security part that Jimmy may have to stretch a little to handle. He may end up playing soldier with real guns."
That caught me up short. I said only,
"You'll be in charge of the guards and policemen all over the system. Some of them will have to carry guns."
That wasn't so bad. The police, of course, had guns. But they hardly ever had to use them. It was Vignis who asked,
"You aren't going to use them against strikers, are you?"
It seemed unlikely that Mac had told her that we were going to have labor trouble. So far as I knew, they had only been together a few times, and a prospective suitor doesn't ordinarily tell his lady that he intends to precipitate a strike among his workers. Vignis had apparently reasoned that out for herself. In addition, she seemed to have developed a feel for Mac, partly with my help. She knew that he was confrontational. Mac replied in his Texas mode, but his meaning was clear enough. He said,
"Well now. If some group of misguided people attempted to interfere with my workers or my running of the railway, I couldn't just let em, could I?"
He then filled out the picture more clearly. The guards would be scattered all over the system, but they could quickly be concentrated at any point on one of our circles by simply attaching coaches to freight trains and loading them aboard. Mac then reflected,
"All the military treatises talk about rapid concentration of force. This is basically a geometrical notion in its application, but it doesn't usually work very well. In the war, we had a very long scraggly front line, and the supply lines were short lines coming into it at right angles. The result wasn't a closed figure of any sort. It looked something like a ladder with one upright missing. The Germans did a little better. They had some triangles with railways forming two sides and the front the third side. But none of this worked very well. Neither side was ever able to concentrate really decisive force against the other."
I then beat him to the punch line.
"But we have circles, which are superior to the other figures."
"Right. Let someone start something at any point on a circle, and we can assemble any number of violent men against them in a few hours."
I expected Vignis to be horrified. She had Viking blood, and was capable of riding a horse with reckless abandon, but, in all my dealings with her, she had been so very feminine. I could hardly imagine that she would condone violence. Right in front of me, Mac was, in effect, pressing his question. It couldn't have been done so well without my presence. This way, it was more dispassionate and more demanding of a clear- cut answer. He wanted Vignis, but he also wanted her to know what sort of man he was. Knowing that, would she then accept?
Against all odds, Vignis laughed. Her face didn't look at all as it did when she produced sympathy on my behalf. I wouldn't say that she looked hard, but her perfectly formed features suggested the strength of someone who won't refuse a dare. And then, too, there was an element of mischief in that laugh. She said only,
"My father's always talking about disruptive and violent strikers. He hates them, but he never does anything about them."
She finished with a little shrug and a little smile. That was the answer. She would shrug off whatever Mac had to do, and have a smile for him when he came home. Like so many women with an impossible father, Vignis accepted her father's basic outlook. She was then prepared to look favorably on a man who assumed that same outlook, but who took things a little farther.
Mac, of course, was delighted. The rest of the evening was very jolly indeed. When we reached Scranton station, I was too unsteady on my pins to do more than stagger up to my room. Mac took Vignis home. I wasn't terribly surprised, two days later, when she called to tell me that she was marrying Mac. I congratulated her, and made her promise to tell me what happened when Mac confronted her father.