Chapter 1—The Earth Answers Back
THE GRAY COMBERS OF THE TASMAN SEA RACED PAST the ship from astern and with a slow rhythm, like that of a long pendulum, they lifted its screw to race futilely in the air. Captain Martins, after rising early as was his custom, stepped into the pilothouse to check the vessel’s course, and then out onto the bridge. The low sun burned with a strange coppery yellow such as farther north might presage a typhoon. He looked anxiously about the horizon and estimated that the wind from the west was blowing with a force of five on the Beaufort scale. The sky did not look stormy, but he went once more into the pilothouse to check the glass. The barometric pressure was high, with no indication of trouble ahead.
Again he stepped out onto the bridge and scanned the sky. Then he became conscious that in the sheltered recesses of the bridge there was a thin overlay of brown dust. He muttered to himself in momentary irritation at the slackness of his crew, and looked again at the sky. He realized that, almost like a soft mist, a film of dust was falling through the air. In six hours he would be in Auckland. There was no land astern for more than a thousand miles. With a feeling of unbelief, he again checked the wind direction. His observation confirmed that the wind was coming from the west, and the fact that the dust must be blowing all the way from Australia.
He watched the sky a half hour before going in for his morning coffee. In Sydney he had heard talk of trouble in the back country, of hundreds of wells from which the windmills were sucking only air, of sheep dying of thirst or having to be slaughtered by hundreds of thousands. He had a cargo of wheat for England but this, too, was reported in short supply.
The soft dust was still raining down, and the reddening sun showed that the cloud was thickening. Martins shook his head and thought grimly to himself, “The whole damn continent must be blowing away.”
A few hours later, on the other side of the world in the Mexican State of Michoacán, a little woman trotted along a dusty road, with the swinging Indian gait that eats up the miles. On top of her head she balanced a rusty five-gallon tin that had not carried gasoline for many years. It was filled with her day’s supply of water, precious water that had to be carried five miles to her pueblo. Ten miles every day she trotted, to have the liquid for tortillas and occasional tamales, for cooking her black beans and watering her few chickens. She weighed less than a hundred pounds and the can on her head was heavy, but the weight of her burden passed unnoticed in the heaviness of her heart. Until a few days ago she would also have been carrying a baby on her back, but now the rebozo was empty. As babies are so apt to do, in regions where water is scarce and polluted, hers had died early.
The ten-mile trip every day, under the beating sun of August or through the cold dry winds of January, did not seem in any way unusual to the woman. Didn’t her husband have to walk even farther to till his little patch of maize and beans? She could neither read nor write, and she had no way of knowing that when her pueblo was built the people had gathered there because it was near a clear cold spring that gushed from the hillside. The sterile landscape about her, gray-stained with sparse grass and clumps of maguey, told her nothing of the rich forests that had once built soil for leagues about her town. She was tired, and her heart was heavy, but with the fatalism of a people that rarely knows surcease from a precarious existence, she sighed and muttered to herself, “Se aguanta”—one, must bear with it. No phrase is more common on the lips of the women of her people.
Tom Cobbett sat with his elbows on his desk and his face buried in his hands. He had come a long way since the first day he began to cut at the shining coal in the Yorkshire mines, but he was not thinking of the past, of the years on end when he had hacked out coal sixteen and eighteen hours a day nor of how he had forced himself to study night after night, pulling himself painfully up the ladder of books—the only escape he could find from the mines.
Tom should have been the happiest man in Great Britain tonight. He had just won a by-election with one of the greatest majorities piled up by any Labor candidate in England’s history. His triumph was a tribute to himself and a rousing vote of support for the Labor party’s program of socialization. For four hours he had put on an act for his friends and supporters, displayed a jubilation he did not feel. Far down in the honest recesses of his mind, Tom had to admit to himself that he wished it had not happened.
He was, he realized, a sort of way station in an historical process. He had begun to fight for this election twenty years before, and he could not have avoided the victory without betraying his people and his country. But the weight of the prize was heavy on his mind. He, too, knew nothing of events in the Tasman Sea, nor on the dusty hillsides of Michoacán. If he had known of them, the orientation of his mind might have given him an inkling of their significance and increased the weight of the responsibility that lay so heavily upon him.
He was now a member of one of the oldest legislative bodies on the earth, charged for a time with participation in the ruling of a great empire. He and his party were committed to one of the most courageous and high-minded efforts man had ever made to better his lot.
Over two decades before the war, Cobbett had been fighting for this chance. Then the pattern he had been following was suddenly twisted out of shape by world revolution. Few members of the party saw this, but to Cobbett it was painfully clear. The Parliament to which he had just been elected ruled fifty million people who lived on two islands with an area of 95,000 square miles, the size of Oregon. By the most heroic efforts of men and women together, utilizing every yard of available land, these people had not been able to produce much more than half of the food they needed.
Before World War I this had not mattered—much. The coal he had hewn from the dripping seams had been used to buy the beef that meant so much to England, and the corn, as the English called it, for their bread. The remarkable skills of British workers had fashioned the raw products of all the world into a multitude of things that five continents would purchase with food.
But now the mines were playing out and British skills had been duplicated, with varying degrees of success, around the world. The British worker’s horizon had broadened, and he looked to the prosperity of the American worker and the economic organization of the Russian, and claimed them for his own. Cobbett, along with his party, had taken on the responsibility of satisfying this claim. Indeed he felt an intuitive kinship with the Australia of the blowing earth, with the Argentina of the rich lands, with the North America of failing waters. The hungers and desires of his crowded island would somehow have to be meshed with the rest of the world but now, faced with a driving reality, Cobbett knew that a political and economic solution would not be enough.
From far above, in the deep-blue sky, came the vagrant trumpeting of homing geese. There was not another sound in the still prairie night, and Foster Ramsey put down his pen and listened. As always, he felt a tug at his heart when the geese passed over. Across the high plains, the black spruce, the tamarack bogs, and the tundra, the flock would drive northward until it split over isolated pools, to set up the season’s housekeeping.
He took off his glasses, rubbed his tired eyes, and shook his head ruefully. Wild geese to income taxes—it was a long jump! “Not a chance,” he said to himself. “The twins will have to make do here.”
He was president of a college but it was a small college, a “cow college.” His salary would not have impressed an automobile salesman in New York. If there had been only the two older children to consider, things would have been much simpler. The twins had been a surprise, and the extra burden they brought with them had been enormously complicated by the war. The high school in the little town where they lived was not much good. How could it be, when the teachers received only $1,500 a year? Ramsey had hoped the children might go away to boarding school, but even with the scholarships he could count on, he knew he could not swing it.
He looked down again at the tax form, and wryly signed his name. Then he wrote a check. Taxes this year, including the hidden ones, would take nearly a third of his income. “Seventeen weeks out of the year,” he said to himself, “I worked for the government. Thank God, it’s the American government, and not the Nazi government!” In a sense he was grateful to be paying these taxes, glad he was able to, but as he looked at the form in front of him he could not help thinking what pleasure it, and millions like it, would have given the defeated Nazi hierarchy.
Germany had organized the greatest system of slave labor the world had ever known. Few people, Ramsey knew, realized that this slavery was not yet at an end. The major part of his taxes was helping to pay for the war and its aftermath. With luck he would have thirty years more of work ahead of him. If the national debt were ever to be paid, if there were not to be repudiation or disastrous inflation, he knew there could not be much hope that his tax load would be reduced. Seventeen weeks a year for thirty years—ten years of his life dedicated primarily to paying for the adventures of Mussolini, Hitler, and the Japanese war lords. Multiply his lot by that of tens of millions of other American workers, and it added up to a greater force of slave laborers than had ever struggled under the Nazi lash in Europe.
Ramsey did not know of the sea captain, the unhappy Tarascan woman, the English politician, but if he had, his well-organized mind, used to thinking in terms of the land, would have readily related them to the papers on his desk. Because he understood the land, had watched the degeneration of his state’s cattle ranges, had seen failing springs break more than one rancher, he would have recognized that a gullied hillside in Szechwan or a hollow-eyed miner in the Ruhr was a factor, although a hidden factor, in his tax form.
He had already recognized the substantial decrease in his living standard. He knew that for the rest of his life he would not only be carrying his share of the burden of the war but contributing increasingly to what he mentally called the “gimme boys.” Some of them wore union badges, some of them carried cards of the American Farm Bureau, some of them wore the little blue cap of the American Legion to which service in World War I entitled him. He might have added to them worried government officials in capitals in many foreign countries.
No, the kids wouldn’t get much of a high school education. He and Janet would have to see what they could do to fill in the gaps at home.
Jim Hanrahan stood in front of the mirror in his bathroom door. He tugged speculatively at the tire around his middle. It was many a year since he had pulled a peavey and he knew he looked it; but he shrugged his shoulders and thought to himself, “What the hell!” From now on peaveys would be handled for him by other men, and they would get one-fiftieth of what he made from their work.
He went to the window and looked across at the magnificent spectacle of the snow-capped mountains, unusually clear this afternoon. He poured himself a stiff highball and sighed contentedly. In a couple of hours he would eat the best dinner to be had in the city, and after that there would be the little girl at the Waikiki night club.
Tonight was a celebration, and he was going to make the most of it. He had cleaned up on war contracts—working eighteen hours a day—and now he had cashed in. True, he had had to pay a politico $8,000, but even so he had been able to get timber covering five entire mountains for less than a fifth of what it would have cost him in the States. His plant was well capitalized and his engineers would be on the ground within two weeks.
In cold dusk the night before he had stood among the mighty trees and looked out over another city below. He was buying the city’s water supply, and he knew it. But he had a lumberman’s conscience, with calluses so thick that he no longer felt even cynical about these deals. It was their country. If they wanted to sell it, it was O.K. with him. This one job would leave him sitting pretty for at least fifteen or twenty years. What would happen to the town without water at the end of that period he did not even consider. After all, business is business!
The ship was running without lights. The skipper would be damned glad to get rid of his cargo; but even so he kept the screw turning at only quarter speed. On the decks, small groups of huddled forms clung together and prayed. They knew that before morning some of them would probably be dead.
Death was nothing new to this human cargo. Most of them had lived with it as a familiar for ten years or more. Battered about from town to town, from country to country, they had wandered in an almost unbroken wilderness of dislike, of distress and stupid hatred. Not one of the men, women and children aboard but had lost someone close and dear to him. Some of these had died in concentration camps, others had been shot in cold blood as hostages, still others had been ripped apart by the whistling bombs. Hundreds of miles these people had walked, and many had left bloody tracks behind them on stony roads and in the snows. For years they had roamed, almost without hope, but now they were coming out of the wilderness—truly into a promised land.
For most of their lives, it seemed, they had lived as human contraband, and they were still human contraband. Armed guards lay in wait for them but some of them, perhaps most of them, would be able to slip ashore in the darkness. The guards might well shoot them down, although they themselves had no reason to feel any hatred against these tired wanderers. The guards themselves were mere puppets manipulated by a politician’s mistake. Lies had been spoken twenty-five years before, and these guards were set, somehow to turn the lies into truth.
The promised land to which every man and woman and child in this group hoped to win through was no land of milk and honey, such as their ancestors had found. It was a worn-out desert that once had been a rich landscape, that once had supported towns and industries and sent its ships to the edge of the known west. Man’s abuse had wrung most of the life out of it, and now man’s intelligence and backbreaking toil were slowly bringing it to life again. Grueling labor, harsh rations, little rest, were the best these few score people could hope for if they managed to scuttl...