Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 47

A New Project

There was, in fact, no particular disruption of the relations between the four of us. I continued to live with Sidonie, and Mac with Vignis. The shift that had taken place underneath the surface was probably visible only to Willy. That change, slow though it might have been, was nevertheless relentless. During the spring of 1939, Vignis managed to somehow communicate to both Mac and Sidonie what she most wanted them to know, that neither she nor I had any objection to their seeing each other in private.

Of course, Vignis and I were ourselves often alone together, sometimes indoors, but that was a different matter. She had been badly bruised in her affair with Sam Hanks, much more than he could ever have realized, and more than Mac did realize. She remarked to me at that time that people who have been hurt in one affair or marriage tend to hurt someone else in the next, and so on indefinitely. As she said,

"That's a depressing cycle, and I don't like depressing cycles. I'm going to be different."

Once when we were out rowing she said to me,

"For a couple of weeks, I thought that I was going to split up with Mac and marry Sam. I guess I just assumed that he wanted it, and that Mac was willing."

We were long past tact by that time, and I asked what had gone wrong. She replied,

"Both things. Mac wanted Sidonie, but he also didn't want to give me up. He really does care for me, just not enough in the ways that I need it. And, then, what really hit me, it turned out that Sam didn't want me either. I had been sure that he did."

"Because he made love to you so nicely?"

"No. I realized that he did that with everyone. It was because he didn't use contraceptives, and didn't even mention the subject. I thought he'd be happy for me to get pregnant."

It turned out that Mac had never touched Vignis without protection, from the first night to the last. I was surprised and said,

"I thought he was the sort of man who'd surely want a son. One who'd take over the railways."

"Yes. It's so easy to imagine him as the patriarch of a dynasty. But it's just the opposite. He positively wants to be the last of his line. That's what he takes pride in, if you can believe it."

However much Mac might seem to be a perfect example of a type, Texas or otherwise, there was always something left to discover. In this case, it was a kind of romance that I hadn't expected.

I had another of my sudden visions, again with that clarity and sharpness of distinction that conveys absolute certainty. Mac wanted there to be a definitive and posthumous biography of himself written by the sort of scholar who can marshal the coldest of facts to produce something which is, in the end, rather poignant.

The work would describe his railways, would lay forth the deeper meaning of his social actions, and would set out his philosophy. Finally, it would explain why Mac had been fated to act and live in a way that couldn't be understood by his own generation. The title of the book would be, "The Last Garner."

I had never told Vignis about the special feelings that accompanied my visions, and I didn't try to explain them on this occasion. But I did tell her what I thought. She agreed and added,

"If he had children who made no particular mark in the world, that would be an unwelcome and inappropriate anticlimax. On the other hand, if he had a son who made it in a big way, that would be competition of a sort that he wouldn't want. Mac's honest with himself. He knows what he can't handle, and he acts so as to avoid it."

Sam Hanks, needless to say, had been troubled by no such concerns when he proceeded without benefit of contraception. On the other hand, he was surely flirting with danger. I asked,

"What would have happened if Sam had gotten you pregnant?"

"He did get me pregnant, but, before I found out about that, I discovered that he wouldn't be available to marry me if I divorced Mac."

"Did he tell you that, flat out?"

"Just about. It turned out that he went with me because he wanted to, and also because Mac wanted him to. It seems that Mac felt uncomfortable about Sidonie unless he traded Sam something in return. I was what he traded. But, when I suggested marriage to Sam, with the idea of our having children together, Sam said simply that Mac wouldn't like that. I hadn't realized quite what a loyal employee he was."

"But, if he felt that way, why didn't he use contraceptives?"

"That was what I asked him. He said that he'd assumed that I was taking precautions."

There was then a pause. Vignis was on the seat in front of me and had her back to me. I knelt on the bottom of the boat and put my arms around her. Twisting to bury her face on my shoulder, she cried briefly. When she recovered, I moved back to my seat and asked her,

"What happened when you discovered that you were pregnant?"

"I didn't tell anyone, not even Willy. I went to Hall and got an abortion."

I was absolutely appalled. The thought of Vignis in the blacksmith shop and Hall bending over her with greasy hands and the sort of instrument he might have used gave me an odd dizzy sensation, one that was extremely unpleasant. Seeing me lurch toward the side of the boat. Vignis quickly replied,

"That part wasn't bad, only embarrassing. Hall's skillful and he's done it many times for animals. For lots of women, too."

She then added, with a little smile,

"He did wash his hands and sterilize everything. He's not a fool."

I finally replied,

"Won't Hall talk?"

"I don't think so. I think he's really very good at keeping secrets. And I'm not sure it matters so much now that you've seen to Sam."

I was still very unsteady, and I asked,

"Doesn't it bother you to have Hall around the cafe?"

"No. In a town this size, I'd be constantly seeing him anyway. That's just the sort of thing you have to come to terms with. I'm mostly used to it now. I guess the only difference is that I know something about Hall that the others don't, that he can pull himself together and be pretty decent. He was a lot better than some doctors I've been to."

"You know, he's been quite the professional with me. I wonder if he really is a doctor."

"He certainly seems it at times. But why would a doctor pretend to be just a veterinarian?"

I laughed and replied,

"Because he wants to live here comfortably. The villagers might be more accepting of a veterinarian who treats people than a doctor who treats animals."

Those talks which trailed off in a hundred directions were good for both of us. We sometimes talked about myself and Sidonie. I remember saying, on another occasion,

"Sidonie is like a gift from the gods to men. She's delightful and exciting, but no one man gets to have her exclusively for very long. The best thing is to enjoy her when she's there and not miss her when she's gone."

"People who don't know him well think that Mac is God's gift to women. The problem isn't so much that he goes from one woman to another. Since we've been married, he hasn't seemed at all interested in anyone but myself, and now Sidonie. And he probably wouldn't have taken up with her if he and I had been getting along better. The problem is that Mac doesn't want a woman at all, except at a certain stage in one of his grand designs."

This was the first I had heard of anything of the sort, and I could only ask what stage that was.

"It's after he's mapped out what he wants to do, but before he's begun to do it. He won't even tell anyone what he has in mind until his plan is developed. He doesn't want a woman to disturb his thinking. And, after he's really going on it, he particularly doesn't want a woman he can't control perfectly. In between, there's a stage where he wants to be admired and encouraged."

"Was he at that point when he wanted Sidonie?"

"I think he must have been. There must be something in the wind that goes far beyond this little railway here. Sidonie probably knows all about it."

That evening, I discovered that Sidonie did know all about it. She seemed surprised that I didn't. She said,

"Mac and I have been arguing about it for months. He finally convinced me, more or less."

"Of what?"

"To support England. I don't like the English. I think they're a bunch of snobs, hopelessly contemptuous of the rest of the world and hopelessly imperialist. There's no group of people so thoroughly elitist as the English upper class. They're worse than the Nazis."

It had been a long time since I'd heard anyone being described as being worse than the Nazis. It did occur to me momentarily that Sidonie, in one of her eccentric twists, might be thinking about becoming a Nazi. I had to speak carefully, so as not to elicit a revolt in that direction, and she replied,

"The Nazis are at least socialists of a sort. They don't airily assume that a working class man will be happy to lay down his life for the benefit of his betters without even bothering to accord him some elementary respect. That's what the English did in the last war, and they're ready to do it again."

"It doesn't sound as if you're supporting the English."

"Yes, I'm afraid I am. Hitler's more human and not a snob at all, but he's much more dangerous. The English believe in treating their animals well, and they accord the same treatment to their working classes. The Nazis respect the people they regard as aliens enough to want to kill them. The English don't like the Jews any better than the Nazis do, but the English don't think it's necessary to go to the trouble of persecuting them."

"Where do the communists stand on this?"

"Most are neutralists, like Hall. I started out that way, but the rest of the world will just be defeated, one by one, by the Germans if we don't all join in at the same time. There it is, I'm afraid."

"What does Mac intend to do?"

It seemed likely that he had an elaborate plan, but Sidonie was evasive. Since she was still my wife, I pressed her a little harder. She finally suggested that I ask Mac about his plans.

The next day, I did ask Mac directly what he had in mind. He was more communicative than he had been for some time. He said,

"The mistake I made last time was to try to set up an empire with myself at the head of it. I got the empire half established, and then got stuck. Other people may be able to finish it, but I would have destroyed it if I'd tried. There were other mistakes, too. I tried to create a class of people with a particular set of ideas instead of taking advantage of a class that already exists."

I wasn't sure what he meant, but asked,

"You mean the workers of the GER?"

"Right, son. I suppose I must have been influenced by the philosopher Berkeley. You know, he had a grand scheme to educate the American Indians, and he chose them particularly because he thought that they hadn't been corrupted by all the false ideas of European civilization."

"What happened?"

"He couldn't get funding from parliament. I didn't have that problem, and I thought that I could get uncorrupted young men right out of the fields and educate them properly."

"Well, most people would consider it a great success. We did give those people quite a sound education, one that's continuing. And, of course, they've all been trained to run a railway. Very well, in fact."

"Yes, there's that. But those men are gradually becoming just like other Americans. We made them learn some Plato, but our influence, in the long run, couldn't possibly compete with that of the larger society. At least, not when they get enough money to get out and mingle. But I couldn't keep them poor and innocent forever. I had to give up."

I had never fully realized that Mac actively wanted to keep our people isolated. But I understood in retrospect. Most Americans are not Platonists, nor have they ever been. It's not a slow-moving reflective society, one in which people are as interested in understanding themselves and the world as in acting to change it.

Mac's idea was that one acts blindly if one tries to change what one doesn't understand, even more so if one also doesn't understand what one takes to be one's goal. As Mac said,

"It sometimes seemed to me that our people thought they were doing fine if the trains ran on time. They never thought about anything else."

There had been, in fact, a gulf of misunderstanding between Mac and the men so wide, but also so subtle, that even I had had no idea of its magnitude.

It was just at the moment of his defeat that Mac had discovered the English. Indeed, I quickly found that he loved the English as much as Sidonie hated them. As he pointed out,

"Isn't it amazing in the abstract that there is a presently existing society which educates its ruling class almost entirely according to the notions and values of people who lived almost twenty five hundred years ago?"

I had to admit that it was. Mac went on,

"It's considered that the first step is to learn Greek. No one who doesn't know Greek can be considered to be educated. And then, once you know it, you read Plato and Aristotle, not to mention the pre-Socratics and Euclid. If Plato were now alive, he could hardly design a society more to his liking."

I objected,

"He might not want students to read any philosopher but himself."

Mac ignored this point and went on to further extol the English public schools and universities. I finally broke in,

"Sidonie's just been telling me how elitist the English are and how much she hates them."

"Well, we've had some discussions along those lines, son. The English upper classes do feel contempt for everyone else, of course they do. But, after all, look who they see. There isn't one American tourist in a thousand who can carry on a reasonable discussion with them. But, when they do come upon an exception, they drop their reserve very quickly. Sidonie shouldn't complain. They were delighted with her."

I learned that, when they were in England, Mac and Sidonie had made several forays to Oxford, and were invited to the rooms of such philosophers as H. H. Price and Isiah Berlin. The reception he received had evidently gone rather to Mac's head.

I did point out to him that he wasn't the first American to be charmed by England, and to become an Anglophile on the spot. However, I soon realized that it wasn't just that. Not only did he find a class of ready-made Platonists, but he found people ready to co-operate with him in a whole range of plans which he had already partly formulated. The result was that he had decided to do whatever he could to help save England from her potential enemies, most notably Herr Hitler.

Like many men who have given something up or given it away, Mac thought he had a right to reclaim it whenever he wanted. In his thinking, that applied, more or less equally, to both Vignis and the Great Eastern Railway.

While it wasn't clear, as yet, how Vignis could be used to help defeat Hitler, Mac had big plans for the GER. He was again happy to explain matters to me.

"I expect that it'll be like last time. Germany will be at war with England and France, and we'll be neutral. So will Russia, probably. Italy will probably be on the German side this time. I hope and expect that we'll eventually come in, but, this time, it'll be very difficult for the English and French to hold out until then.

It'll be a real crisis, and even something minor might swing the balance. What we can do is give the English help with their railways. Every gain in performance is just as effective as having extra divisions in the field and extra squadrons in the air."

That was true, of course. What Mac had in mind was for the GER to manufacture equipment for Britain in its works and, even more important, to send a large contingent of railwaymen to free English railwaymen for other duties. Mac had already had discussions with British railway and government officials. He said,

"They knew who I was, and knew more than I would have thought about the GER. I kept telling them that we could help without being disruptive and trying to change everything. They said to bring my methods with me. One of them told me I could be a second Yerkes, the American who built and ran part of the London underground system. I'll be mostly concerned with the system for moving freight in greater London."

Not many foreigners would have been trusted to that extent. Part of it was obviously Mac's American reputation. The other part, I suspected, was that Mac seemed to exactly fit the English stereotype for a certain kind of American tycoon. They would have been disappointed if he hadn't been big and expansive, if he hadn't spoken airily of bringing over hundreds of locomotives and thousands of men, and if he hadn't seemed to have unlimited funds to dispose.

That last part was critical. British railways had no spare cash, and, when the crunch came, even the government would have to use whatever credit remained to it to buy munitions.

The problem was that Mac had only about twenty million dollars of his own, not a single locomotive in his personal possession, and no legal claim on the services of a single other person. That part was to be all persuasion.

Unknown to me, and presumably to Vignis, Mac had been corresponding with Atwater and John Henry. Atwater had much the same military experience as Mac at a more senior level, and it wasn't surprising that he was inclined in the same way. But, even as president of the GER, he could do nothing without the support of a majority of his stockholders, most of whom were now his employees. The considerable money involved would, directly or indirectly, come out of their dividends.

That discussion with Mac opened the floodgates. Having previously said nothing to anyone but Sidonie about his real plans, at least the ones that went beyond the miniature operations in Iceland, he spent the next few days talking about little else. When I was next alone with Vignis she told me,

"Mac didn't feel right about you because of Sidonie, and he quite unreasonably blamed you for it. But, then, when you got him talking about how he was going to defeat Hitler, he seems to have decided you're all right after all. He now wants you to act as his assistant again, just like the old days."

That was fine with me. I had been quite active in the construction of the Icelandic Railway, but I was ready for something bigger. Now, Mac wanted me to go to England to superintend our first operations there while he went to America to raise money to support them.

Mac's intention was to tour the GER, talking to groups of our people wherever he went. His main pitch to the men would be that Hitler was as anti-Negro as he was anti- Semitic, and that a failure to stop him would be disastrous to both groups.

It was fortunate that two prominent black men had already been in conflict with the Nazis, and had done extraordinarily well. Although Max Schmeling had been armed with a telegram of encouragement from Hitler himself, Joe Louis had knocked him cold in the first round. Another non- Aryan, Jesse Owens, had won three gold medals in the 1936 Olympics with Hitler actually sitting there watching the defeat of his German runners. Mac planned to make much of these achievements by pointing out that none of the world's statesmen had done as much as Louis and Owens to embarrass Hitler.

It seemed to all of us that Mac, with the strong backing of John Henry Jamieson, would be able to get the worker- stockholders of the GER to provide very substantial aid to England, both in terms of money and time. What was most important was to get them to do it soon. If the aid was delayed until the crisis was obvious to everyone, it would be too late.

After it was decided that Mac would go to America and myself to England, nothing else was said for a day or two. We sat in the cafe with Willy and Hall, played a game of Starvation, and passed the time pleasantly enough. Even when I was alone at home with Sidonie, we didn't speak of anything very important. While we still made love in a way that was satisfying for both of us, and were friendly in other ways, we had lost the trick of intimacy. In practice, that meant that, if we had something important to say, we said it to someone else before imparting it to each other.

In those circumstances, the question of who was to accompany Mac and myself to our respective destinations never came up explicitly. I suppose we were all conscious of the fact that Sidonie, being black, could play an important role in recruiting the support of the mostly black people of the GER. By this time, she was known all over the system, and, while she no longer had any official status, she made a greater impression on many of the men than any movie star could have. In the talks between us there were only a few passing references to these underlying considerations, and the matter was soon settled.

Vignis could have posed a more difficult problem. By rights, she should also have gone with Mac. After all, she was a goddess of a quite different sort, one with at least an equal impact, and she and Sidonie had always co-operated effectively.

On the other hand, the romance between Mac and Vignis had obviously worn thin. Her attitude, implied but not quite spoken, was that she was through with such things for the time being, and that she preferred the sort of friendship that was possible with Willy and myself. The question was then whether she would stay in Iceland and help Willy supervise operations or accompany me to England. She settled it by asking Willy if he could manage the Icelandic Railway alone for a few months. When he replied that he could, she announced,

"I'd like to get to Europe for a bit and see what's happening. I'll go with James to London, and then perhaps go on from there."

These matters having been settled, we hurriedly made our preparations to leave within the week. The torpedo-boat yacht was loading canisters of mercury for New York, and Mac and Sidonie were accomodated on board. En route, they would drop Vignis and myself off in Reykjavik, where we would board one of the country ships for England.

Hall had short-wave radio friends all over the world who chatted with each other. Since they were fascinated by the fact of communication, but didn't have much to communicate, they generally exchanged messages concerning the weather and the content of their respective breakfasts. On this occasion, Hall was able to talk with people in Reykjavik, London, and New York who made reservations for us by telephone and sent messages to Atwater in Huntington. Once it was done, he assured us,

"You can expect a royal welcome at every stop. These are all people who want to meet me, but they'll settle for you instead."

It was hard to know just how to respond to a good many of Hall's remarks, but a weak smile, sometimes accompanied with a tentative "heh", generally satisfied him. He then added,

"I'll be going through London myself, and I'll look you up."

Vignis didn't look thrilled at the prospect, but she replied with fairly good grace as we took our leave of Hall the Wise.

On the last day before departure, a bright sunny day, Vignis and I went rowing with Willy. He seemed never to change from day to day, nor did it seem to matter much who he was with. As always, he was interested in the exact state of sea and sky, the birds above, and the fish below. On this day, as often, several seals were lazily following us, one on each quarter, and one in our wake. They seemed to communicate with one another, and they may have believed that we would fish. In fact, we had discovered that it was pointless to fish when they were around. They either scared the fish away or caught them before we could.

We took turns at the two rowing seats, and the third person sat in the stern. Then, deciding that the trim was bad, we put the third person in the bow with better results. When I was in the bow, I looked back at Vignis and Willy. So alike in appearance to begin with, they rowed with all the same motions in perfect cadence. Anyone would have thought that they were closer than cousins, perhaps brother and sister, or even twins. They also rowed with great power. When I turned to face forward, it seemed at times that they would drive the bow right under the approaching waves.

I had just begun to relax when the boat lurched violently, apparently in danger of capsizing. As I turned around, I discovered, with great alarm, that Vignis was trying to throw Willy overboard. They were both laughing and struggling while I, as best I could, tried to move to counter-balance the sudden shifts of weight. Finally, to my great relief, Vignis gave up. We rowed lazily back, no fewer than four seals following us and refusing to believe that we had no fish.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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