SAYLER “DRAWS THE LINE”
In February the railways traversing
our state sent to the capitol a bill that had been
drawn by our ablest lawyers and reviewed by the craftiest
of the great corporation lawyers of New York City.
Its purpose, most shrewdly and slyly concealed, was
to exempt the railways from practically all taxation.
It was so subtly worded that this would be disclosed
only when the companies should be brought to court
for refusing to pay their usual share of the taxes.
Such measures are usually “straddled”
through a legislature, that is, neither
party takes the responsibility, but the boss of each
machine assigns to vote for them all the men whose
seats are secure beyond any ordinary assault of public
indignation. In this case, of the ninety-one members
of the lower house, thirty-two were assigned by Dunkirk
and seventeen by Silliman to make up a majority with
three to spare.
My boss, Dominick, got wind that Dunkirk
and Silliman were cutting an extra melon of uncommon
size. He descended upon the capitol and served
notice on Dunkirk that the eleven Dominick men assigned
to vote for the bill would vote against it unless
he got seven thousand dollars apiece for them, seventy-seven
thousand dollars. Dunkirk needed every one of
Dominick’s men to make up his portion of the
majority; he yielded after trying in vain to reduce
the price. All Dominick would say to him on that
point, so I heard afterward, was:
“Every day you put me off, I
go up a thousand dollars a head.”
We who were to be voted so profitably
for Dunkirk, Silliman, Dominick, and the railroads,
learned what was going on, Silliman went
on a “tear” and talked too much.
Nine of us, not including myself, got together
and sent Cassidy, member from the second Jackson County
district, to Dominick to plead for a share. I
happened to be with him in the Capital City Hotel
bar when Cassidy came up, and, hemming and hawing,
explained how he and his fellow insurgents felt.
Dominick’s veins seemed cords
straining to bind down a demon struggling to escape.
“It’s back to the bench you go, Pat Cassidy, back
to the bench where I found you,” he snarled,
with a volley of profanity and sewage. “I
don’t know nothing about this here bill except
that it’s for the good of the party. Go
back to that gang of damned wharf rats, and tell ’em,
if I hear another squeak, I’ll put ’em
where I got ’em.”
Cassidy shrank away with a furtive
glance of envy and hate at me, whom Dominick treated
with peculiar consideration, I think it
was because I was the only man of education and of
any pretensions to “family” in official
position in his machine. He used to like to class
himself and me together as “us gentlemen,”
in contrast to “them muckers,” meaning
Next day, just before the voting began,
Dominick seated himself at the front of the governor’s
gallery, the only person in it. I see
him now as he looked that day, black and
heavy-jawed and scowling, leaning forward with both
forearms on the railing, and his big, flat chin resting
on his upturned, stubby thumbs. He was there to
see that each of us, his creatures, dependent absolutely
upon him for our political lives, should vote as he
had sold us in block. There was no chance to
shirk or even to squirm. As the roll-call proceeded,
one after another, seven of us, obeyed that will frowning
from the gallery, jumped through the hoop
of fire under the quivering lash. I was eighth
on the roll.
“Sayler!” How my name
echoed through that horrible silence!
I could not answer. Gradually
every face turned toward me, I could see
them, could feel them, and, to make bad enough worse,
I yielded to an imperious fascination, the fascination
of that incarnation of brute-power, power
of muscle and power of will. I turned my eyes
upon the amazed, furious eyes of my master. It
seemed to me that his lips must give passage to the
oaths and filth swelling beneath his chest, and seething
behind his eyes.
“Sayler!” repeated the
clerk in a voice that exploded within me.
“No!” I shouted, not
in answer to the clerk, but in denial of that insolent
master-to-dog command from the beast in the gallery.
The look in his eyes changed to relief
and contemptuous approval. There was a murmur
of derision from my fellow members. Then I remembered
that a negative was, at that stage of the bill, a
vote for it, I had done just the reverse
of what I intended. The roll-call went on, and
I sat debating with myself. Prudence, inclination,
the natural timidity of youth, the utter futility
of opposition, fear, above all else, fear, these
joined in bidding me let my vote stand as cast.
On the other side stood my notion of self-respect.
I felt I must then and there and for ever decide whether
I was a thing or a man. Yet, again and again
I had voted for measures just as corrupt, had
voted for them with no protest beyond a cynical shrug
and a wry look. Every man, even the laxest, if
he is to continue to “count as one,” must
have a point where he draws the line beyond which
he will not go. The liar must have things he
will not lie about, the thief things he will not steal,
the compromiser things he will not compromise, the
practical man in the pulpit, in politics, in business,
in the professor’s chair, or editorial tribune,
things he will not sacrifice, whatever the cost.
That is “practical honor.” I had
reached my line of practical honor, my line between
possible compromise and certain demoralization.
And I realized it.
When the roll-call ended I rose, and,
in a voice that I knew was firm and clear, said:
“Mr. Speaker, I voted in the negative by mistake.
I wish my vote recorded in the affirmative. I
am against the bill.”
Amid a fearful silence I took my seat.
With a suddenness that made me leap, a wild and crazy
assemblyman, noted as the crank of that session, emitted
a fantastic yell of enthusiastic approval. Again
there was that silence; then the tension of the assembly,
floor and crowded galleries, burst in a storm of hysterical
I wish I could boast how brave I felt
as I reversed my vote, how indifferent to that tempest
of mockery, and how strong as I went forth to meet
my master and hear my death-warrant. But I can’t,
in honesty, I’m only a human being,
not a hero, and these are my confessions, not
my professions. So I must relate that,
though the voice that requested the change of vote
was calm and courageous, the man behind it was agitated
and sick with dread. There may be those who have
the absolute courage some men boast, if
not directly, then by implication in despising him
who shows that he has it not. For myself, I must
say that I never made a venture, and my
life has been a succession of ventures, often with
my whole stake upon the table, I never made
a venture that I did not have a sickening sensation
at the heart. My courage, if it can be called
by so sounding a name, has been in daring to make
the throw when every atom of me was shrieking, “You’ll
lose! You’ll be ruined!”
I did not see Dominick until after
supper. I had nerved myself for a scene, indeed,
I had been hoping he would insult me. When one
lacks the courage boldly to advance along the perilous
course his intelligence counsels, he is lucky if he
can and will goad some one into kicking him along
it past the point where retreat is possible. Such
methods of advance are not dignified, but then, is
life dignified? To my surprise and alarm, Dominick
refused to kick me into manhood. He had been paid,
and the seventy-seven thousand dollars, in bills of
large denomination, were warming his heart from the
inner pocket of his waistcoat. So he came up
to me, scowling, but friendly.
“Why didn’t you tell me
you wanted to be let off, Harvey?” he said reproachfully.
“I’d ‘a’ done it. Now,
damn you, you’ve put me in a place where I’ve
got to give you the whip.”
To flush at this expression from Dominick
was a hypocritical refinement of sensitiveness.
To draw myself up haughtily, to turn on my heel and
walk away, that was the silliness of a boy.
Still, I am glad I did both those absurd things.
When I told my mother how I had ruined myself in politics
she began to cry, and tears were not her
habit. Then she got my father’s picture
and kissed it and talked to it about me, just as if
he were there with us; and for a time I felt that I
was of heroic stature.
But, as the days passed, with no laurels
in the form of cases and fees, and as clients left
me through fear of Dominick’s power, I shriveled
back to human size, and descended from my pedestal.
From the ground-level I began again to look about
the matter-of-fact world.
I saw I was making only a first small
payment on the heavy price for the right to say, no,
for the right to be free to break with any man or any
enterprise that menaced my self-ownership. That
right I felt I must keep, whatever its cost.
Some men can, or think they can, lend their self-ownership
and take it back at convenience; I knew I was not of
them and let none of them judge me.
Especially let none judge me who only deludes himself
that he owns himself, who has sold himself all his
life long for salaries and positions or for wealth,
or for the empty reputation of power he wields only
on another’s sufferance.
A glance about me was enough to disclose
the chief reason why so many men had surrendered the
inner citadel of self-respect. In the crucial
hour, when they had had to choose between subservience
and a hard battle with adversity, forth from their
hearts had issued a traitor weakness, the feeling
of responsibility to wife and children, and this traitor
had easily delivered them captive to some master or
masters. More, or less, than human, it seemed
to me, was the courage that could make successful
resistance to this traitor, and could strike down and
drag down wife and children. “I must give
up Elizabeth,” I said to myself, “for
her own sake as well as for mine. Marry her I
must not until I am established securely in freedom.
And when will that be?” In my mood of darkness
and despair, the answer to that question was a relentless,
“Never, especially if you are weighted with the
sense of obligation to her, of her wasting her youth
in waiting for you.”
I wrote her all that was in my mind.
“You must forget me,” I said, “and
I shall forget you for I see that you are
not for me.”
The answer came by telegraph “Please
don’t ever again hurt me in that way.”
And of the letter which came two days later I remember
clearly this sentence: “If you will not
let me go on with you, I will make the journey alone.”
This shook me, but I knew only too
well how the bright and beautiful legions of the romantic
and the ideal could be put to flight, could be hurled
headlong into the abyss of oblivion by the phalanxes
“I see what I must do,”
was my answer to her letter. “And I shall
do it. Be merciful to me, Elizabeth. Do
not tempt me to a worse cowardice than giving you
up. I shall not write again.”
And I did not. Every one of her
letters was answered sometimes, I remember,
I wrote to her the whole night through, shading my
window so that mother could not from her window see
the reflection of my lamp’s light on the ground
and become anxious. But I destroyed those long
and often agonized answers. And I can not say
whether my heart was the heavier in the months when
I was getting her letters, to which I dared not reply,
or in those succeeding months when her small, clear
handwriting first ceased to greet me from the mail.