Kalin Baronov was about to die.
Georgi Leonidov had saved Kalin’s life more times than could be remembered. Now he would cause his death.
On this black Belasitsa night, elite agents of the Durjavna Sigurnost advanced on him from three sides. Only the sheer cliff face at his back prevented their attack from a fourth. He could not see them. At rare moments, when the lacerating wind abated, he heard their advance through the heavily forested land just beneath the slope on which he lay. The line of boulders before him gave protection—and the two Belgian automatics clenched in his fists even more. He vowed that more than one secret police officer would this night return to Sofia in a box. He was unflinchingly still behind the boulder at the far right of the line.
They were in position. He knew because all sounds of movement ceased. Their attack was imminent. Even in the bone-numbing cold, Kalin’s palms sweated on the grips of his pistols. His heart pounded so loud in his ears that he was certain the DS agents knew his location to a millimeter. Focus, he willed himself. Death—not merely the DS—stalked this plateau tonight. Make it your partner, your ally, and rain its kinship on your enemies.
Georgi, he thought. Even in the blood-soaked acts of kill or be killed, his friend’s image was seared in his brain: the Ghost of the Belasitsa doing, for the hundredth time, what no other man could do—now, carrying over his left shoulder the limp weight of Raisa Aracheva as, with just his right hand and legs, he scaled the vertical cliff face that most athletic men could not climb at all; carrying her to freedom just kilometers away at the Greek frontier.
A withering suppressive fire erupted from the tree line 50 meters away. Bullets hammered the face of boulders and scarred the frozen earth, seeking to claw their way through rock and dust to nestle snugly in a hard man’s soft flesh. Kalin withheld fire. If they wanted him, they must charge. The scant seconds in which they were caught in the open would suffice; he and his friend, Death, would be waiting.
The DS agents did not lack courage. They rose from the trees and charged, black figures on a black night, at least six of them fanning out across Kalin’s line of sight, their AK-47s spewing hot pellets of steel. But Death played no favorites, Kalin knew; He came for Communists and freedom fighters alike. Flat on his chest, for one tick he waited as bullets whined overhead and careened off of rocks; then he fired just above and slightly to the left of the muzzle flashes; fired both pistols at the figure at the left of the attackers’ formation.
In the instant that muzzle flashes ceased from the figure nearest him, a hot projectile seared through Kalin’s coat and thudded into his left shoulder, jarring his body backward and rattling his teeth. Immediately he lost sensation in his left arm, and the semi-automatic fell from limp fingers. Sweat and tears streaked both cheeks as, with all focus he could muster, he fired repeatedly at the muzzle flashes newly nearest him. Then those flashes also terminated and Kalin rolled to the boulder’s right, head and shoulders shielded by its edge, legs extended behind him, out in the open. All firing ceased.
They were on their bellies now. They knew now that Death was here for them, as well; that relentless hours of high Balkan practice had made their foe a marksman with either hand; that countless midnight fire fights with the DS, alongside the Ghost of the Belasitsa, enabled that foe to face Death with courage even greater than his fear. There was only grim motionlessness from the two heaps that had, just moments prior, rained fire on Kalin’s position. Chastened, the surviving DS officers crawled toward the line of boulders as silently as they could.
Furiously, by touch, ears and eyes straining for evidence of motion before him, Kalin expertly dressed his wound with antiseptic and bandages; dressed it exactly as the Ghost had taught him.
Tonight, he vowed wordlessly, was his last battle. He would die—or he would write. There would be no other outcome. He was thirty-two and had risked his life a hundred times to aid his father and the Ghost ferry to freedom poor luckless souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain. No more. He was a freedom fighter by choice—but a writer by birth. He had known since childhood what he would do.
Even if he survived tonight, and never again faced a DS thug, how long before Death swerved from kinship to enmity and came, swinging scythe in hand, for him? There were dozens of ways to commit suicide—surrendering one’s dream was one—and nobody’s years were countless. Regarding guns, this was his final battle. The sole battle left was literary. His lips, tight against pain, parted briefly in a grim smile. The toughest battle of all.
He heard a light scrape of boot against the cliff face above him. The Ghost was back! Any noise was deliberate, to attract attention away from Kalin. The DS agents let loose at the sound—Kalin fired repeatedly at the muzzle flashes—and Georgi Leonidov, with no need of stealth, did not rappel but flew down his rope like a descending eagle. Above the crashing guns that drowned the wind, Kalin heard his friend’s death-defying laugh.
Leonidov hit the ground and dived. “The Ghost!” he roared at his foes a name more terrifying than his weapons. “Of the Belasitsa!” From behind a boulder to Kalin’s left, Leonidov, with magician’s hands—ever in motion, ever unseen—lobbed two grenades into his enemy’s position, buried his face in the frozen earth, and, after the shattering explosion, rolled into the open, firing from his M-16 a swathe of lead across his enemies’ placement. Kalin waited for his friend to clear his line of fire and then emptied his clip into his foes’ last known position.
With one hand, Kalin replaced the magazine. The Ghost had reached the tree line from where the enemy had charged. No fire was returned at either of them. The high plateau was still. Where was the Ghost? He was, Kalin knew, ceaselessly moving—and, as if genetically engineered to wreak destruction, possessed an animal’s instinct to smell, hear, or see his foe, even on the blackest night.
Kalin heard nothing, saw less—but nonetheless shivered in a form caused not by cold but by something primeval; for, as though by preternatural instinct absorbed by osmosis from his friend, he knew where the Ghost was; slithering snakelike, silently, on his belly, semi-automatic—now silenced—clutched in his left fist, a ten-inch, wickedly barbed sheath knife in his right, sensing, like a shark, his enemy’s blood, and prepared to spill every fluid ounce of that belonging to State Security agents who assailed his friend and impeded, to the death, his sacred quest for freedom.
Then it was over. The Ghost ambled toward him, whistling lightheartedly, melodically, as though strolling, with his love, hand in hand, the Champs Elysees in a fresh May mist. But the viscous red fluid he wiped from his blade did not speak of romance.
“Dead eye shooting, Kay-Lee!” he roared jovially. “I observed it from up—”
Then he noticed that Kalin lay motionless in the grass, wan smile slowly fading. Instantly, he was on his knees, by his friend’s side, hands and eyes moving swiftly over Kalin’s body, until he felt the bloody mess of his compatriot’s left shoulder. Swearing in three languages, he jerked open Kalin’s coat, ripped off his sodden bandage, and pulled from his pack a fresh one. He applied it and squeezed with all desperate strength to be summoned from his wiry body.
Kalin fought to maintain consciousness. Momentarily, his eyelids fluttered open.
“Georgi,” he whispered. “I’ve got books to write…about heroes…”
The Ghost vigorously nodded.
“About yourself, Kay-Lee.” Even on a black Belasitsa night, with consciousness growing increasingly blacker, Georgi Leonidov’s smile lit the landscape as though powered by untold amps of spiritual force. Kalin passed out.
He awoke once, unsure whether his shoulder or his head hurt more, upside down, slung over the Ghost’s shoulder, blood rushing to his brain—his friend struggling under a man’s full weight, but tortuously ascending the cliff face, millimeters at a time, fractions of measurements, but refusing to quit, determined to carry to safety the man as much a son to him as to Todor Baronov; determined, even if it meant his own collapse and death.
Kalin was delirious.
“The literary world…must know…such deeds…” The thought passed half-formed through a foggy brain. “Much more…then Bulgarian freedom…depends…”
The world spun crazily, an out-of-control top in a gravitational field. Had the Ghost fallen? He had never been so nauseated. He was going to retch—he was falling, hurtling downward into an abyss, downward into a bottomless pit of unrelieved blackness and undisturbed silence.
(c) 2017 Andrew Bernstein. All rights reserved.
“This is an exhilarating, love-infused story of mystery and adventure. The story builds an edge-of-the-seat momentum as the protagonists fight for both heroism in American literature and freedom behind the Iron Curtain. Beware: Andrew Bernstein’s story may embolden the hero in you. This is destined to become a classic, read by students young and old worldwide.” — Ellen Kenner, Ph.D. Co-Author, The Selfish Path to Romance: How to Love With Passion and Reason
“A Dearth of Eagles presents the grandest view of an action-packed hero’s life with a philosophic punch. As the narrative drama accelerates the reader forward, the underlying conflict of values reveals itself as the true driving force. The intellectual spy thriller has a new voice in Andrew Bernstein.” — Eric Daniels, Ph.D. Head of School, LePort School
A Dearth of Eagles, by Andrew Bernstein, is fast-paced fictional work tells the story of Bulgarian freedom fighters during Communism’s final years, of their valiant attempts to smuggle dissidents to freedom in the West, and of their desperate battles with the Durjavna Sigurnost, the Bulgarian secret police who seek to kill them. It tells also of a parallel conflict, of one of the freedom fighters—a member of the tiny band, an émigré, a writer living in New York City—who engages in the story’s fiercest struggle, seeking to publish serious stories about these dauntless men in a Western literary culture that rejects heroism for anti-heroism.
Order a copy of Andrew Bernstein’s novel A Dearth of Eagles!
The head of NASA convinces the President that space exploration should be done by private industry, and the United States government declares, “The first person to land on Mars, live there a year, and return alive owns the whole Red Planet.” Welcome to the greatest race in history.
That is the premise of Ron Pisaturo’s novella, The Merchant of Mars, now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebook. That premise draws on a political idea by Objectivist philosopher Harry Binswanger.
Excerpts from The Merchant of Mars by Ronald Pisaturo.
Remson pressed his remote control device, and the silver screen illustrated his ensuing words with high-tech animations. “In 1989, NASA submitted a plan to land humans on Mars in thirty years, for 450 billion dollars. That’s four times as long and ten times as expensive as it took to get to the moon. Here was the plan. Getting to Mars and back would require enormous amounts of fuel. A spaceship carrying all that fuel is too heavy to launch from Earth. So the ship would have to be launched in pieces, and assembled on a large space station on the moon and in orbit around the Earth. The assembled craft would take six months to get to Mars and stay there only a month. On the way back, the craft would head not to Earth, but to Venus.”
“Venus?” asked the President.
“That’s right, Mr. President,” said Remson. “That would be the only open launch window all year.” The animation continued, and so did Remson. “The craft would go to Venus, slingshot around that planet, and then reach Earth about a year and a quarter after having left Mars.” The animation paused on the final image, of a spaceship landing on earth.
The President looked perplexed. “Is that the simplest way, Mr. Remson?”
“That was the government way, Mr. President. We weren’t going for simple. Every department head wanted to justify his own pet project, so every new and unproven technology was designed into the mission. That’s how you do the federal budget isn’t it?”
The President remained perplexed. “Is there a better way? To get to Mars, I mean.”
Remson continued patiently. “Our people at NASA are smart, dedicated, and ethical. We can do it a better way, but not the best way, or the cheapest way. I won’t tell you how much this animation cost. In our system, success is measured by the size of your budget. We’ve been given no other clear goal to shoot for. At least when we were racing against the Russians, we knew what our mission was. And now that we have to do joint missions with the United Nations—”
“What is your point?” interrupted Sickle, not as patient as Remson.
Remson, unperturbed, said, “My point is, don’t try to go to Mars. Let private individuals do it, if they want to.”
Sickle replied derisively, “The Mars Prize. The government would offer thirty billion dollars to the first private citizen to land on Mars.”
Remson said, “No, I don’t want that. Why should taxpayers be forced to pay for something they may not want?”
As Remson continued evenly, Sickle became more agitated. “What are you saying?” demanded Sickle.
Remson now more clearly took in the whole room, aware of the import of what he was about to say. “I propose we announce to every person on Earth: If you land on Mars, if you live there for a year, and come back alive, … you own it.”
“You own … what?” asked Sickle, trying not to be aware of what Remson had meant.
“Mars. The first one there and back owns the whole planet. We just step aside and let the race begin.”
Each advisor looked dead serious. Sickle looked dead sick. The President wore a goofy grin.
Now indoors, Voogan continued to follow the older man, his boss, through a work area toward a makeshift office. The boss walked quickly—trying to get away from Voogan.
Now inside the office with the boss, Voogan said, “The idea I told you about last month—”
The boss interrupted. “Which one was that? The nuclear thermal rocket, the laser rocket, the rocket cartoon character?—”
“The Martian fuel maker.”
“The ‘live-off-the-land’ idea?! Come on—”
“A few of us have been working on it—”
“Who authorized you to spend time on that!?”
“—on our own time, offsite—”
“Well make sure you don’t compromise company secrets. And who is ‘we’?”
“I’ll tell you later. Look, we’re—”
“You look. That project was canceled five years ago. You know why?—”
“Because NASA didn’t want it. You know why?—”
“Because it was too cheap. If that thing could be made to work—and I’m not saying it could—there would be no need for big booster rockets, for big space stations, for lots of other big, juicy projects. You know what I mean by juice, boy?—”
“Now there was a time when this project was hot and cool. … I never told you this, but even Farrell himself fought with NASA about it.”
“But they said no. And you know what? It’s a lot better for us. We get paid cost plus ten per cent. Whatever it costs us to build something, NASA pays us that cost plus ten per cent more for profit. Now I’m not going to ask my boss to ask his boss’s boss to ask Farrell to fight for something nobody wants—”
“But it works.”
The boss was taken aback. Some about this young engineer made him feel like a young engineer again. But sadness entered the boss’s eyes. He spoke from the heart, but firmly. “Haven’t you been listening, son. If it works, if it beats all their big projects, then they definitely don’t want it.”
Moments later, Farrell entered a busy office corridor. Alongside him were Rocky, shorter than Farrell but the same age, and a young engineer. Walking behind them, unnoticed, was Voogan.
“What’s the word?” said Farrell to Rocky.
Rocky looked at the young engineer and said “You tell him, McAllister.”
McAllister said, “Mr. Farrell, computer analysis confirms the test results of your laser design. It will reduce mission risk on the orbiter by five per cent.”
Voogan, overhearing all of this, beamed.
“Good,” said Farrell.
Rocky said, “Keep talking, McAllister.”
McAllister said, “It delays the schedule by three months and increases the cost by a hundred million dollars. But Smitty thinks we can get NASA to go for the increase—”
“Stop talking, McAllister,” said Rocky, and walked away from the other two.
“Good work, McAllister,” said Farrell.
“Thank you, sir!” said McAllister as Farrell walked away to follow Rocky. Voogan still stalked Farrell and Rocky, within earshot.
When Farrell had caught up to him, Rocky said, “That laser is a good idea, but not on this spacecraft. It’s too expensive.”
“The orbiter is already as safe as our corporate jet.”
“Smitty’s right, we can get NASA to pay for the increase.”
“We already have a contract with them.”
“We can get Congress to raise the appropriation.”
“It’s not their money. It’s the taxpayers’ money.”
“It could save an astronaut’s life.”
“A hundred million dollars can buy a lot in safety features on automobiles and school buses. I care about safety as much as you do. But if you want to spend that money, then you should write your own check for a hundred million dollars. And also pay the other contractors for the delay in schedule.”
“Rocky, we can ask, they can say no. That’s the system. It’s worked well enough the last twenty-five years.”
“Tom, one day someone is going to say no to the system.”
Order Ron Pisaturo’s novella, The Merchant of Mars, now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebook.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | 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).
Talk will be presented at OCON 2017 in Pittsburg, PA and is free to all students.