Christmas Dinner – Calumet “K”, Chapter 17
The elevator was the place for the dinner, if only the mild weather that had followed the Christmas storm should continue—on that Bannon, Pete, and Max were agreed. New Year’s Day would be a holiday, and there was room on the distributing floor for every man who had worked an hour on the job since the first spile had been driven home in the Calumet clay. To be sure most of the laborers had been laid off before the installing of the machinery, but Bannon knew that they would all be on hand, and he meant to have seats for them. But on the night of the thirtieth the wind swung around to the northeast, and it came whistling through the cracks in the cupola walls with a sting in it that set the weighers to shivering. And as the insurance companies would have inquired curiously into any arrangement for heating that gloomy space on the tops of the bins, the plan had to be given up.
As soon as the last of the grain was in, on the thirty-first, Max took a north-bound car and scoured South Chicago for a hall that was big enough. Before the afternoon was gone he had found it, and had arranged with a restaurant keeper to supply the dinner. Early the next morning the three set to work, making long tables and benches by resting planks on boxes, and covering the tables with pink and blue and white scalloped shelf-paper.
It was nearly ten o’clock when Max, after draping a twenty-four-foot flag in a dozen different ways, let it slide down the ladder to the floor and sat down on the upper round, looking out over the gridiron of tables with a disgusted expression. Peterson, aided by a man from the restaurant, was bringing in load after load of thick white plates, stacking them waist high near the door. Max was on the point of calling to him, but he recollected that Pete’s eye, though quick with timbers, would not help much in questions of art. Just then Bannon came through the doorway with another flag rolled under his arm.
“They’re here already, a couple of dozen of ’em,” he said, as he dropped the flag at the foot of the ladder. “I’ve left James on the stairs to keep ’em out until we’re ready. Better have an eye on the fire escape, too—they’re feeling pretty lively.”
“Say,” Max said abruptly, “I can’t make this thing look anyhow. I guess it’s up to you.”
Bannon stepped back and looked up at the wall.
“Why don’t you just hang them from the ceiling and then catch them up from pretty near the bottom—so they’ll drape down on both sides of the windows?”
“I know,” said Max, “but there’s ways of making ’em look just right—if Hilda was here, she’d know——” He paused and looked down at the red, white, and blue heap on the floor.
During the last week they had not spoken of Hilda, and Bannon did not know whether she had told Max. He glanced at him, but got no sign, for Max was gazing moodily downward.
“Do you think,” Bannon said, “do you think she’d care to come around?”
He tried to speak easily, as he might have spoken of her at any time before Christmas Day, but he could not check a second glance at Max. At that moment Max looked up, and as their eyes met, with an awkward pause, Bannon knew that he understood; and for a moment the impatience that he had been fighting for a week threatened to get away with him. He had seen nothing of Hilda, except for the daily “Good morning,” and a word now and then. The office had been besieged by reporters waiting for a chance at him; under-foremen had been rushing in and out; Page’s representatives and the railroad and steamboat men had made it their headquarters. It may be that he would not have spoken in any case, for he had said all that he could say, and he knew that she would give him an answer when she could.
Max’s eyes had dropped again.
“You mean for her to help fix things up?” he asked.
Bannon nodded; and then, as Max did not look up, he said, “Yes.”
“Why—why, yes, I guess she’d just as soon.” He hesitated, then began coming down the ladder, adding, “I’ll go for her.”
Bannon looked over his shoulder—Pete was clattering about among the dishes.
“Max,” he said, “hold on a minute.”
Max turned and came slowly back.
Bannon had seated himself on the end of a table, and now he waited, looking down at the two rows of plates, and slowly turning a caster that stood at his elbow. What he finally said was not what Max was awaiting.
“What are you going to do now, Max—when you’re through on this job?”
“Why—I don’t know——”
“Have you got anything ahead?”
“Nothing sure. I was working for a firm of contractors up on the North Side, and I’ve been thinking maybe they’d take me back.”
“You’ve had some experience in building before now, haven’t you?” Bannon was speaking deliberately, as if he were saying what he had thought out before.
“Yes, a good deal. It’s what I’ve mostly done since I quit the lumber business.”
“When Mr. MacBride was here,” said Bannon, “he told me that we’ve got a contract for a new house at Indianapolis. It’s going to be concrete, from the spiles up—there ain’t anything like it in the country. I’m going down next week to take charge of the job, and if you’d like to go along as my assistant, I’ll take you.”
Max did not know what to say. At first he grinned and blushed, thinking only that Bannon had been pleased with his work; then he grew serious.
“Well,” said Bannon, “what do you say?”
Max still hesitated. At last he replied:—
“Can I have till to-morrow to think about it? I—you see, Hilda and I, we most always talk things over, and I don’t exactly like to do anything without——”
“Sure,” said Bannon; “think it over if you like. There’s no hurry up to the end of the week.” He paused as if he meant to go on, but changed his mind and stood up. Max, too, was waiting, as if there were more to be said.
“You two must think we’ve got all day to fix things.” It was Pete calling from the other end of the room. “There ain’t no loafing allowed here.”
Bannon smiled, and Max turned away. But after he had got a third of the way down the aisle, he came back.
“Say, Mr. Bannon,” he said, “I want to tell you that I—Hilda, she said—she’s told me something about things—and I want to——” It had been a lame conversation; now it broke down, and they stood through a long silence without speaking. Finally Max pulled himself together, and said in a low, nervous voice: “Say, it’s all right. I guess you know what I’m thinking about. And I ain’t got a word to say.” Then he hurried out.
When Max and Hilda came in, the restaurant man was setting up the paper napkin tents on the raised table at the end of the hall, and Pete stood by the door, looking upon his work with satisfaction. He did not see them until they were fairly in the room.
“Hello,” he said; “I didn’t know you was coming, Miss Vogel.” He swept his arm around. “Ain’t it fine? Make you hungry to look at all them plates?”
Hilda followed his gesture with a smile. Her jacket was still buttoned tightly, and her eyes were bright and her cheeks red from the brisk outer air. Bannon and James were coming toward them, and she greeted them with a nod.
“There’s going to be plenty of room,” she said.
“That’s right,” Pete replied. “There won’t be no elbows getting in the way at this dinner. Come up where you can see better.” He led the way to the platform, and they all followed.
“This is the speakers’ table,” Pete went on, “where the boss and all will be”—he winked toward Bannon—”and the guest of honor. You show her how we sit, Max; you fixed that part of it.”
Max walked around the table, pointing out his own, Pete’s, James’, and Bannon’s seats, and those of the committee. The middle seat, next to Bannon’s he passed over.
“Hold on,” said Pete, “you forgot something.”
Max grinned and drew back the middle chair.
“This is for the guest of honor,” he said, and looked at Hilda. Pete was looking at her, too, and James—all but Bannon.
The color, that had been leaving her face, began to come back.
“Do you mean me?” she asked
“I guess that’s pretty near,” said Pete.
She shook her head. “Oh, no—thank you very much—I can’t stay.”
Pete and Max looked at each other.
“The boys’ll be sorry,” said Pete. “It’s kind of got out that maybe you’d be here, and—I don’t believe they’d let you off.”
Hilda was smiling, but her face was flushed. She shook her head. “Oh, no,” she replied; “I only came to help.”
Pete turned on Max, with a clumsy laugh that did not cover his disappointment.
“How about this, Max? You ain’t been tending to business. Ain’t that so, James? Wasn’t he going to see that she come and sat up with us where the boys could see her?” He turned to Hilda. “You see, most of the boys know you’ve had a good deal to do with things on the job, and they’ve kind of took a shine to you——” Pete suddenly awoke to the fact that he had never talked so boldly to a girl before. He hesitated, looked around at Max and James for support and at Bannon, and then, finding no help, he grinned, and the warm color surged over his face. The only one who saw it all was Hilda, and in spite of her embarrassment the sight of big, strong, bashful Pete was too much for her. A twinkle came into her eyes, and a faint smile hovered about her mouth. Pete saw it, misunderstood it, and, feeling relieved, went on, not knowing that by bringing that twinkle to Hilda’s eyes, he had saved the situation.
“It’s only that they’ve talked about it some, and yesterday a couple of ’em spoke to me, and I said I’d ask Max, and——”
“Thank you, Mr. Peterson,” Hilda replied. “Max should have told me.” She turned toward Max, her face sober now except for the eyes, which would not come under control. Max had been dividing his glances between her and Bannon, feeling the situation heavily, and wondering if he ought not to come to her relief, but unable to dig up the right word. Pete spoke up again:—
“Say, honest now, ain’t you coming?”
“I can’t really. I’m sorry. I know you’ll have a good time.”
Bannon had been standing aside, unwilling to speak for fear of making it harder for her. But now she turned to him and said, with a lightness that puzzled him:—
“Aren’t we going to do some decorating, Mr. Bannon? I’m afraid it will be dinner time before Mr. Peterson knows it.”
Pete flushed again at this, but she gave him a quick smile.
“Yes,” said Bannon, “there’s only a little over half an hour.” He paused, and looked about the group, holding his watch in his hand and fingering the stem. The lines about his mouth were settling. Hilda glanced again at him, and from the determined look in his eyes, she knew that his week of waiting was over; that he meant to speak to her before she left the hall. It was all in the moment’s silence that followed his remark; then he went on, as easily as if he were talking to a gang on the marine tower—but the time was long enough for Hilda to feel her brief courage slipping away. She could not look at him now.
“Take a look at that door, James,” he was saying. “I guess you’ll have to tend to business if you want any dinner.”
They all turned and saw the grinning heads of some of the carpenters peering into the room. There was the shuffling of many feet behind them on the stairs, and the sound of cat calls and whistling. A shove was passed on from somewhere back in the hallway, and one of the carpenters came sprawling through the door. The others yelled good-naturedly.
“I’ll fix ’em,” said James, with a laugh, starting toward them.
“Give him a lift, Pete,” said Bannon. “He’ll need it. You two’d better keep the stairs clear for a while, or they’ll stampede us.”
So Pete followed, and for a few moments the uproar from the stairs drowned all attempts at conversation. Only Max was left with them now. He stood back by the wall, still looking helplessly from one to the other. The restaurant men were bustling about the floor; and Hilda was glad they were there, for she knew that Bannon meant to send Max away, too. She was too nervous to stand still; and she walked around the table, resetting the knives and forks and spoons. The paper napkins on this table were the only ones in the room. She wondered at this, and when the noise of the men had died away into a few jeering cries from the street, and Max had gone to get the flags (for she had said that they should be hung at this end of the room), and the waiters were bustling about, it gave her a chance to break the silence.
“Aren’t the other”—she had to stop to clear her throat—”aren’t the other men going to have napkins?”
“They wouldn’t know what they were for.”
His easy tone gave her a momentary sense of relief.
“They’d tie them on their hats, or make balls to throw around.” He paused, but added: “It wouldn’t look bad, though, would it?—to stand them up this way on all the tables.”
She made no reply.
“What do you say?” He was looking at her. “Shall we do it?”
She nodded, and then dropped her eyes, angry with herself that she could not overcome her nervousness. There was another silence, and she broke it.
“It would look a good deal better,” she said, “if you have time to do it. Max and I will put up the flags.”
She had meant to say something that would give her a better control of the situation, but it sounded very flat and disagreeable—and she had not meant it to sound disagreeable. Indeed, as soon as the words were out, and she felt his eyes on her, and she knew that she was blushing, she was not sure that she had meant it at all. Perhaps that was why, when Bannon asked, in a low voice, “Would you rather Max would help you?” she turned away and answered in a cool tone that did not come from any one of her rushing, struggling thoughts, “If you don’t mind.”
She did not see the change that came over his face, the weary look that meant that the strain of a week had suddenly broken, but she did not need to see it, for she knew it was there. She heard him step down from the platform, and then she watched him as he walked down the aisle to meet Max, who was bringing up the flags. She wondered impatiently why Bannon did not call to him. Then he raised his head, but before a word had left his lips she was speaking, in a clear tone that Max could plainly hear. She was surprised at herself. She had not meant to say a word, but out it came; and she was conscious of a tightening of her nerves and a defiant gladness that at last her real thoughts had found an outlet.
“Max,” she said, “won’t you go out and get enough napkins to put at all the places? You’ll have to hurry.”
Bannon was slow in turning; when he did there was a peculiar expression on his face.
“Hold on, there,” called a waiter. “There ain’t time to fold them.”
“Yes, there is,” said Bannon, shortly. “The boys can wait.”
“But dinner’s most ready now.”
“Then I guess dinner’s got to wait, too.”
The waiter looked disgusted, and Max hurried out. Bannon gathered up the flags and came to the platform. Hilda could not face him. For an instant she had a wild impulse to follow Max. She finally turned her back on Bannon and leaned her elbows on a chair, looking over the wall for a good place to hang the flags. She was going to begin talking about it as soon as he should reach the platform. The words were all ready, but now he was opposite her, looking across the table with the red and white bundle in his arms, and she had not said it. Her eyes were fixed on a napkin, studying out the curious Japanese design. She could hear his breathing and her own. She let her eyes rise as high as the flags, then slowly, higher and higher, until they met his, fluttered, and dropped. But the glance was enough. She could not have resisted the look in his eyes.
“Did you mean it?” he asked, almost breathlessly. “Did you mean the whole thing?”
She could not reply. She glanced around to see if the waiters could hear.
“Can’t you tell me?” he was saying. “It’s been a week.”
She gazed at the napkin until it grew misty and indistinct. Then she slowly nodded.
A waiter was almost within hearing. Bannon stood looking at her, heedless of everything but that she was there before him, that her eyes were trying to peep up at him through the locks of red gold hair that had strayed over her forehead.
“Please”—she whispered—”please put them up.”
And so they set to work. He got the ladder and she told him what to do. Her directions were not always clear, but that mattered little, for he could not have followed them. Somehow the flags went up, and if the effect was little better than Max’s attempt had been, no one spoke of it.
Pete and Max came in together soon with the napkins, and a little time slipped by before Bannon could draw Max aside and grip his hand. Then they went at the napkins, and as they sat around the table, Hilda and Bannon, Pete and the waiters, folding them with rapid fingers, Bannon found opportunity to talk to her in a low voice, during the times when Pete was whistling, or was chaffing with the waiters. He told her, a few words at a time, of the new work Mr. MacBride had assigned to him, and in his enthusiasm he gave her a little idea of what it would mean to him, this opportunity to build an elevator the like of which had never been seen in the country before, and which would be watched by engineers from New York to San Francisco. He told her, too, something about the work, how it had been discovered that piles could be made of concrete and driven into the ground with a pile driver, and that neither beams nor girders—none of the timbers, in fact—were needed in this new construction. He was nearly through with it, and still he did not notice the uncertain expression in her eyes. It was not until she asked in a faltering undertone, “When are you going to begin?” that it came to him. And then he looked at her so long that Pete began to notice, and she had to touch his foot with hers under the table to get him to turn away. He had forgotten all about the vacation and the St. Lawrence trip.
Hilda saw, in her side glances, the gloomy expression that had settled upon his face; and she recovered her spirits first.
“It’s all right,” she whispered; “I don’t care.”
Max came up then, from a talk with James out on the stairway, and for a few moments there was no chance to reply. But after Bannon had caught Max’s signals to step out of hearing of the others, and before he had risen, there was a moment when Pete’s attention was drawn by one of the waiters, and he said:—
“Can you go with me—Monday?”
She looked frightened, and the blood rose in her cheeks so that she had to bend low over her pile of napkins.
“Will you?” He was pushing back his chair.
She did not look up, but her head nodded once with a little jerk.
“And you’ll stay for the dinner, won’t you—now?”
She nodded once more, and Bannon went to join Max.
Max made two false starts before he could get his words out in the proper order.
“Say,” he finally said; “I thought maybe you wouldn’t care if I told James. He thinks you’re all right, you know. And he says, if you don’t care, he’d like to say a little something about it when he makes his speech. Not much, you know—nothing you wouldn’t like—he says it would tickle the boys right down to their corns.”
Bannon looked around toward Hilda, and slowly shook his head.
“Max,” he replied, “if anybody says a word about it at this dinner I’ll break his head.”
That should have been enough, but when James’ turn came to speak, after nearly two hours of eating and singing and laughing and riotous good cheer, he began in a way that brought Bannon’s eyes quickly upon him.
“Boys,” he said, “we’ve worked hard together on this job, and one way and another we’ve come to understand what sort of a man our boss is. Ain’t that right?”
A roar went up from hundreds of throats, and Hilda, sitting next to Bannon, blushed.
“We’ve thought we understood him pretty well, but I’ve just found out that we didn’t know so much as we thought we did. He’s been a pretty square friend to all of us, and I’m going to tell you something that’ll give you a chance to show you’re square friends of his, too.”
He paused, and then was about to go on, leaning forward with both hands on the table, and looking straight down on the long rows of bearded faces, when he heard a slight noise behind him. A sudden laugh broke out, and before he could turn his head, a strong hand fell on each shoulder and he went back into his chair with a bump. Then he looked up, and saw Bannon standing over him. The boss was trying to speak, but he had to wait a full minute before he could make himself heard. He glanced around and saw the look of appeal in Hilda’s eyes.
“Look here, boys,” he said, when the room had grown quiet; “we aren’t handing out any soft soap at this dinner. I won’t let this man up till he promises to quit talking about me.”
There was another burst of laughter, and James shouted something that nobody understood. Bannon looked down at him, and said quietly, and with a twinkle in his eye, but very firmly:—
“If you try that again, I’ll throw you out of the window.”
James protested, and was allowed to get up. Bannon slipped into his seat by Hilda.
“It’s all right,” he said in a low tone. “They won’t know it now until we get out of here.” His hand groped for hers under the table.
James was irrepressible. He was shouting quickly now, in order to get the words out before Bannon could reach him again.
“How about this, boys? Shall we stand it?”
“No!” was the reply in chorus.
“All right, then. Three cheers for Mr. Bannon. Now—Hip, hip——”
There was no stopping that response.
“This talk offers an introduction to the background, spirit and craft of the novel Ayn Rand called her favorite. Calumet ‘K,’ she wrote, features a ‘portrait of an efficacious man’; it reflects the sense of life of ‘a time when people were capable of admiring productive achievement.’ Dr. Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializes in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Ayn Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Ayn Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Ayn Rand’s life (to 1957).
Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster
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