A steampunk short story exploring the darker hidden motives and attitudes of social and political reformers in an alternative historical timeline..
The carriage came to my office door promptly at eight o’clock. Bennett Wilson was always a prompt man. His driver opened the door of the Clarence coach. The driver showed me, then he opened a Moroccan leather covered box after I seated myself in the back.
“You never know,” he said.
“Yes, it’s true.” Inside the box was a well-polished custom nickel trimmed R Johnson Flintlock Pistol. The detailed engraving on the nickel was superb.
“Already loaded I assume?” I picked it up to admire it, the barrel pointing away from the driver.
Carefully I placed it back in the black leather burgundy velvet lined box, the barrel facing downward as the box was designed. The driver nodded and closed the door. Quickly he climbed into the driver’s seat and took the reins. I admired the fine leather seating and brushed velvet with the brass trimmed carriage interior as the two horses went into a trot. The wheels rumbled against the brick street boulevard.
The Smog and drizzle hazed around the kerosene-lit streetlights. The moon was barely visible through the brown smog. Factories belched out thick smoke all around us as we passed through the industrial center. The sound of steam engines became louder than the sound of the carriage wheels. Soot from coal furnaces and boilers covered the buildings. You could taste the gritty smoke. On the street, several dirty faced workers were walking home, some of them children.
“Ah, look there. It’s the rich,” I heard one man say. He pointed at the carriage as we passed. His face was dirty with smudges of grease and black dirt. His soot covered denim overalls and leather boots looked as though they would need to be removed before he entered his home.
“Yes, I may seem rich tonight,” I thought to myself as the carriage passed.
Outside the bars, occasional women, overly dressed for the neighborhood, stood in the drizzle underneath the kerosene street lamps. Some had umbrellas to keep from getting wet. Their high society dress in a working-class area made their occupation obvious. They waived at the carriage as we trotted by them, one of them raising her bustled skirt just above the knee.
“Hey give me a ride,” another one yelled. I looked out the window and our eyes met. She flashed a smile as I stared into her big brown eyes. I smiled back.
“Not bad,” I thought.
We approached the west end of town. “Hold steady now Mr. Thompson!” The driver warned me. He brought the horses to a canter. Quickly we passed through the slum district, an area with much less lighting and well-known for crime. The carriage wheels growled loudly along the cobblestone street. We passed two small gangs walking the sidewalks. Would any of them have tried to board the carriage if we were not moving so quickly? Such things made the newspaper headlines weekly.
Thirty minutes must have passed. “We have arrived,” the driver said.
The Wilson mansion was well lit with many outside lamps. He must have used a barrel of kerosene every month to keep them lit. The inside was brighter. Wilson had some steam powered Wool rich direct current generators in the back. Most of the mansion was lit by electricity. Only the richest could afford that.
“My labor platform for the Senate will help the workers of this state, and the entire country,” the former governor said. The interview seemed to be going well. I sensed my editor at the Arlington Times would be pleased.
I could not help noticing that his personal library was enormous. Eight rows of seven-foot-high double sided books shelves filled most of the room. In the closest section I recognized some names; Freud, Jung, Pavlov, Klein, Piaget, Asch, Watson, and Milgram. We sat in plush velvet covered chairs at a Horner carved oak winged griffin library table. We sipped on Laphroaig Scotch on ice from elegant French crystal tumblers.
“The hours are entirely too long, Wilson said. “The manufacturers are taking advantage of the workers.”
“The ghastly practice of opening the doors fifteen minutes late and penalizing the workers for half a day’s wages must stop. Forcing the worker to stay late for free because of unreasonable quotas is flagrant. A sixteen-hour work day is inhuman. I would never do that to my workers.”
Former Governor Bennett Wilson, the candidate for the U.S. Senate, was an ice baron. He started young. He worked hard and squeezed out his competitors until there was only one other operation left in the Arlington area. Next, he worked his way down the river before widening his territory leaving only one main competitor. Shortly after, the two men became friends and one drunken New Year’s Eve they joked at fixing prices. The rest was history. They bought out companies in other cities and replicated the process eventually forming a trust that controlled eighty percent of the Northeastern seaboard ice market.
“What about trusts?” I asked as I pulled out my notepad and pencil to take notes of the interview.
His gray bushy brows raised. His bright blue eyes rounded.
“Some say the larger entities and co-operatives, for example, the sugar trust, the steel trust, tobacco, and farm equipment pick the pockets of the rich and poor alike.” I said.
“Nonsense!” Wilson said. He stroked the hair of his well-trimmed brown beard with his index finger and thumb. I suddenly noticed how young he looked for his age. “That is business, and business is business. What I am talking about is releasing the poor of all those long hours. And the children, don’t forget the children. They belong in school.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is a good cause.”
“I’m not saying people cannot work long hours. What I am saying is they should be paid for all of them. An employee staying over for three hours at no pay simply because the management intentionally overschedules the amount of work is not acceptable. Nor shall it be permitted if my legislation is passed.”
“Once again, I agree sir,” I said as I recorded his words. Still, I considered the irony of his position.
“What of the wages of those supplying us with imported goods?” I asked him, testing for a reaction. “Can we stand for such principles when we consume sugar produced by almost slave labor? What about the banana boat worker that gets less than the factory workers? What about rice? The farmers in those countries make pennies per day.
“They are animals!” Wilson’s fist hit the paper tablet on the table in front of him. Our drinks shook. “Those are not civilized persons such as we are! Just look at them. Why you can even smell some of them.”
“But isn’t your platform for the poor? You almost don’t seem to like them.”
“Of course, it is.” Wilson Answered. “My platform is to help them, but I do not have to like them.”
“I see. We support those who exploit workers in other lands while campaigning to protect our own?”
“What goes on in other places is not our responsibility.”
“What about here, in our own country? We both go to Manhattan. Didn’t we purchase Manhattan for less than the price of a poor man’s city block from the Indians?”
“That was not us. That was the Dutch! And what does it matter?”
His shaking eyes met mine. His skin flushed pink against his brown beard and mustache. I feared he might ask me to leave.
“Wait,” he said. Slowly he smiled. “That is brilliant! You are brilliant Mr. Thompson.”
“How is that?” I asked. Although puzzled, I admit I enjoyed the compliment.
“My platform! I can use those things as examples of the exploitation I am fighting!” He scribbled some notes onto his tablet with a pencil, then slid it off to the left.
“But you just said you didn’t care.”
“Well maybe not, but I can act so publicly,” Wilson said. “It will appear more caring and compassionate.”
“That it will.”
“No, sir. My job is to report the facts of what you intend to do. I present both sides of the issues objectively. I am not a hack that resorts to trickery and character assassinations. Nor do I attempt to direct the outcomes of any events I cover.”
“Excellent, I knew you could be trusted with off the record remarks. You have an excellent reputation for discretion. Ironic for a newspaper reporter, isn’t it?” Wilson smiled.
“Schools need to be improved,” Wilson said. “Government schools need to be established. It is 1972 and the entire world has made little industrial or social progress in the past one hundred and forty years.”
“It is true Mr. Wilson. The French have hardly been leaders.”
“Still, we must admire Napoleon, and credit the French for their contribution,” Wilson said.
Wilson admired Napoleon, the way he defeated the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians. They were no match for his genius. Napoleon could not defeat them at sea, however. Instead, the naval battles went on for almost 20 years until a truce was declared. Both countries were too financially drained to continue.
“It is the plague that destroyed our progress.” Wilson said.
Shortly after the war, came the fifty-year plague. Starting in Europe and spreading to Africa and the Mideast, it was not long before it crossed the Atlantic. Half the world’s population died in the first 20 years. Industry came to a standstill. By the end, two-thirds of the global population had fallen throwing the entire world into a medieval existence.
“Had the French not held the power, who knows what would have happened?” Wilson said. “We might all be speaking Japanese.”
The Japanese aggression started shortly after the plague. They were not as affected by the outbreak as Europe had been. With their superior gunned steam ships and almost endless fuel supply from their conquered lands, they had the world in panic for almost fifteen years. It was the French under Napoleon II who finally defeated them at sea. Next, he conquered their major cities, destroying their technology and stealing the plans.
“The world needs strong resolute leaders,” Wilson continued. “It needs strong iron-clad rules that all must follow. Regulations is the word I mean.”
“But surely Sir, aren’t emperors, kings, and too many regulations a recipe for disaster? Aren’t they a hindrance to freedom?”
“I’m not so sure.” He shook his head and smiled. “Consider the masses. Do you really think they can do anything for themselves?”
“What I mean is, they need to be told what to do. In fact, Mr. Thompson, they want to be told. Most of them tremble at the thought of making a real decision. They need leaders to decide for them. We can make them think they are smart for following us, and they will.
“I suppose you are referring to the laborers and the poor?”
“Oh yes! Especially those, Mr. Thompson. It is up to us, the educated and elite, to plan for them, to influence them, to herd them, to help them get what they need to survive. It is we who know best.”
“I suppose you do not think they are capable on their own? Given a better environment that is.”
“Certainly not! The average one of them is an idiot. Listen to them talk. They are not fit to be more than peasants in a modern feudal society.” Wilson said. “Chattel is what they are, the whole lot of them.”
“Then what is the point of education?” I asked.
“We can convince them it is valuable, convince them it leads to prosperity, that it helps their children. As it will to some degree. Education will also provide an administrative type class to do our bidding and enforce our order, among other things.”
“Such as a tool to influence them. Years of indoctrination will mold them into what we need from them. In time, they will imagine no other way of life but what government education has taught them. Don’t you see the beauty?”
“Beauty sir?” I asked.
“Education will make them more profitable and productive. Productivity allows us to both profit more and to pay them more. More income allows them to purchase more things. That means even more profit. We can even tax them more. As for the ones left behind, the ones we must carry and support, the worthless despicable ones per say, they will support us with their votes in an exchange for what we provide from the worker’s taxes. Everyone has more goods and we have more power. It’s beautiful!”
“Won’t people see through this eventually?”
“Of course not! We won’t give them the same education as the rich, but rather one more suited for their intellect and our needs. In time, Mr. Thompson, they will defend us and fight for us. They will want us to provide even more education. They will willingly punish their children for disobeying us. It’s in their simple nature.” He raised his arm and extended his hand toward his library’s psychology section.
I looked at the shelves. I wondered what all those great authors might think knowing their work would be used in such a sinister manner. Wilson paused and poured us more scotch.
“Even if they did see through it,” Wilson continued. “They are too disorganized, unsophisticated, and quarrel among themselves too much to ever change things.”
“Are you certain?”
“In my view history proves it. We must save the mongrels from themselves. Such riff-raff need a champion. It is us.”
“Well, they certainly aren’t as educated and astute as we are. Just look at the despicable creatures. They need help and it will benefit everyone. And we, the elite of both parties, will rightfully reign over them.”
“But sir, don’t you see this as a bit like slavery or indentured servitude?”
“Of Course, not!” Wilson hit the table again, this time with the flat of his palm. “Look at them now! Look at the long hours they work and the filth that surrounds them. If we don’t save them, some tyrant will trick them with false promises. Then where will the animals be? Worse off than they are now!”
My interview continued late into the night.
As Wilson’s driver took me home, I reflected on the evening. What are the things that motivate men such as Bennett Wilson to be reformers? Is it moral balance – a need to compensate for their evil, crass, or self-serving actions by doing something good? Is it an inferiority complex masked as a superiority complex, the need to manipulate and dominate others to feel any self-worth at all? Is it easier to see the problems on the outside than to have to courage to look within oneself first? Could it sometimes be an attempt to resolve in inner problem externally? Is it simply a deceptive tactic to accumulate wealth? Or is it simply hunger for power, attention, praise, or fame?
As we passed by the bars and factories, I stared at the hazy glow of the smog surrounding the kerosene street lamps. Only a few workers heading home from the bars were still on the streets. Their faces were still dirty from the grime and coal of the factories, but they seemed to be smiling after a night of drinking.
At least they had souls. They did not hide behind a clean or pious façade, or the name of proper society, to manipulate and benefit from the lives of others.
The brown-eyed woman I saw earlier was gone. I remembered a recent book by J Krishnamurti. He wrote that all a reformer ever really does is to redecorate the prison walls. The problems they create are often worse than the ones they try to solve. Few people ever escape the prison.
Men like Bennett Wilson will always be in power.