Read an Excerpt
By Pearl S. Buck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
A March morning in the year of our Lord, 1950, and the wind so high that on the top floor of a skyscraper in the city of New York William Lane felt a tremor under his feet. He stood by the immense plate-glass window set into the wall behind his desk. The city spread like a carpet before him, and over its horizon he saw the glimmer of hills and sea.
In his fashion he was a man of prayer, and he began his crowded days with these few moments of silence before his window and the world beyond. He had no petition in his heart nor did he ask anything of God. Prayer was an affirmation of himself and what he believed he was, a man of power for good, unmatched at least in his own country. Upon the streets below, so distant that he saw them as gray paths whereon there moved creatures insect-small, were the people whose thoughts he directed, whose minds he enlightened, whose consciences he guided. That they did not know it, that only a few people knew it, increased his power. Long ago he had given up the dream of being a popular leader. He had not the gift of winning popular love. Compelled at last to know that his looks, dark and grave, inspired fear rather than faith, he had immured himself in this great building. From here he had spread over the nation the network of his daily newspapers. For this he bought the services of men and their highest talents. There was no one, he believed, though without cynicism, who could not be bought. Nothing would persuade him, on the other hand, to buy a talent he did not want or which he could not mold to the shape of his own doctrine. The greatest writers found no space in his pages if they did not believe as he did. There were a few, not more than five or six, who were not tempted by fifty thousand dollars. There was only one who had not been tempted by twice that amount. None, he was sure, would refuse as much as he could offer, if he thought it right to offer it. What he bought was not only the fluid flow of men's words. He bought also the quality of their spirits. A man hitherto incorruptible was valuable when he yielded, though only for a while, because he sold also the faith of the people in him.
Upon this March morning, while William thus communed with himself and God, he felt the tremor beneath his feet. He knew that a rigid building, unable to sway slightly before the winds of a storm, might have been overcome. Yielding only a little, the building was safe. Nevertheless, he did not like the tremor. It reminded him of other things that had once made him tremble.
Long ago in China, when he was a boy, he had seen a mob in the streets of Peking, a mob of angry common people who hated him not for what he was, for his white skin and light eyes, but for his kind. His insecurity, the insecurity of his kind on that day, had thrown him into a panic which, though it assailed him no more, he was never able to forget. Any crowd of people, any mass of commonplace faces above dingy clothing, made him remember, although he was no longer afraid, for he had nothing to fear. He was richer than anybody he knew and his friends were some of the richest men in the Western world. Among them he was unassailable, a man of rigid goodness in his personal life. That he had divorced his first wife to marry his second could not be counted a fault, as soon as one saw Emory. She was a creature as delicately pure as a frost flower; her English beauty, her grace combined with her goodness to make her irresistible. Compared to Candace, his first wife, Emory was spirit opposed to earth.
As he thought of his wife the door opened behind him. He did not turn. No one except his secretary dared to enter uncalled, and he waited until her timid voice spoke.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Lane."
"Well?" he said in his dry voice.
"I wouldn't have come in except that it's your brother-in-law, Mr. Miller."
"Does he have an appointment?"
"No, he doesn't, Mr. Lane, and I reminded him of that, but he said he guessed you would see him anyway, because he has a big idea."
He would have liked to say quite sharply that he was not interested in any big ideas that Clem Miller might have, but he did not like to give Miss Smith cause for gossip among the lesser staff. They would call him hard, as he knew he was often called, merely because on principle he did not believe in confusing justice with mercy. Nevertheless, it was outrageous for Clem to walk into the offices on a busy morning and expect to be given time for some crank idea. He did not like to remember that Henrietta's husband, too, was a successful man. Clem had grown wealthy by the most absurd methods, so absurd that he believed the fellow, or almost did, when he said that he had never planned to make money. It was hard to believe that Clem did not want to be rich, although the way he and Henrietta lived was strange enough. In spite of wealth, they lived in a frame house on a side street of a town in Ohio. What Clem did with his money no one knew.
"Tell my brother-in-law I can give him exactly fifteen minutes. If he stays longer than that, get him out."
"Yes, Mr. Lane," Miss Smith breathed. Her name was not Smith but William Lane called all his secretaries Smith. They resented it but were paid so well that they did not dare to say so.
When he heard the door shut, William turned away from the window and sat down in the great chair behind the semicircular desk. Against the vast rectangle of light his domed head, his figure, slender but strong, square shouldered and tall, stood forth as though it were chiseled in stone. He sat immobile and waiting, looking at the door.
Thus Clem, coming through that door with his quick and nervous step, faced the mighty man. If he felt the slightest terror before William's eyes, as gray and green as lichen, he did not show it. He was a small thin man, sandy-haired, and his very skin was the color of sand. Into this general insignificance were set his eyes, a quick, kingfisher blue.
"Well, hello, William," Clem said in a high cheerful voice. "Your help out there is certainly for you. I could hardly get in here."
"If I had known you were coming—" William began with dignity.
"I didn't know I was coming myself," Clem said. He sat down, not in the chair across the desk from William and facing him, but in a leather covered chair near the window. "Nice view you have here—I always like to look at it. How's your wife?"
"Emory is quite well," William said.
"Henrietta is well, too," Clem said. "She's gone to see Candace today."
"What are you doing here?" William asked. He was accustomed to this husband of his sister's, who jumped about the earth like a grasshopper. Only the coolness of his voice might have betrayed, and then only to Henrietta herself, his displeasure with his sister's continuing friendship with his former wife.
"I got an idea and ran down to Washington," Clem said. "The Food Minister in New Delhi wrote me there was a lot of hoarded wheat over there. I wasn't sure he knew what he was talking about, sitting in an office in New Delhi. I guess he did, though. There is considerable wheat put away in India, from what I hear. I don't hardly think it's in the hands of dealers. It's bidden by the peasants themselves, the way you or I might tuck away a bank account against a rainy day."
William did not answer. He could not imagine himself tucking away money, nor could he imagine a rainy day. But Clem was incurably common.
Clem scratched his pale chin and went on talking. "If I could persuade these food hoarders of our own in Washington to let up a little and get some wheat over to India, of course it would bring out the wheat over there, and the price would go right down so the people could buy food. I don't know as I can do anything in Washington, though—I don't understand governments, least of all ours."
"Upon that you and I can agree," William said. "I thought that what we had in the White House during the war was bad enough. What we have now is worse."
"Yeah," Clem said, ruminating. "Don't matter to me, though. I'm no politician. I just want to pry some wheat loose."
"What did they say in Washington?" William asked.
"Oh, the usual patter—it would be interfering with internal affairs in India—meaning that if the people get food they might support the present government."
"Don't they like Nehru?" William asked this with some interest. He had not known what to make of that composite man upon his one visit to America.
"Sure they like him as far as he goes," Clem said. "He don't go far enough for some of our Republicans. They want him to swear eternal vengeance on the Russians and eternal loyalty to us. Nehru won't swear; no sensible man would. But that don't interest me, either. What interests me is getting people fed, if for no reason except that starvation is a shame and disgrace to the world and totally unnecessary in modern times. I don't believe in using food, mind you, to manipulate people. Get everybody fed, says I—then you start even. Once all bellies are full, people won't have to vote this way and that so as to get a meal. That's democracy. We ain't practicing it."
Food and democracy were Clem's themes, and long ago William had become bored with his brother-in-law. He saw dreaminess creep into Clem's brilliant blue eyes, a tensity lifted the thin, almost boyish voice, and he recognized both as signs of what he called Clem's fanaticism.
"I do not want to hurry you," he said in his carefully controlled voice, "I do, however, have a business meeting of unusual importance within the next fifteen minutes."
Clem brought back his eyes from the world beyond the window. The dreaminess vanished. He got up and went over to the chair facing William and sat down and leaned his elbows upon the desk. His square face looked suddenly sharp and even acute. "William, I get letters from China."
William was startled. "How do you do that?"
"Somebody I used to know in Peking."
"You'll get yourself into trouble mixing with Communists," William said sternly.
"I guess I won't," Clem said. "The Old Boy knows." The Old Boy, in Clem's language, was always the President of the United States.
"What does he say?" William asked.
"Just told me he didn't approve," Clem gave a sharp cackle.
William did not make a reply, and, as he foresaw, Clem went on without it. "William, there's a mighty famine over yonder in China. You remember? Rivers rising, dikes crumbling away into the water."
"A good thing," William said. "It will teach the Chinese people that Communists cannot save them."
"That ain't enough, though, William," Clem said with insistent earnestness. "That's only the half of it. We got to get the other half across to them. We got to get food over there. What the Reds can't do, we gotta do, or the people will think we can't do it, either, and so what's the use of giving us a try?"
"People ought to be punished for making the wrong choice," William said grimly.
Clem saw the grimness with detached pity. "You oughtn't to take pleasure in punishing people, William. I declare, it's not worthy of such a big man as you are now. It's kind of an Old Testament way of thinking that was done away with when the New Testament came along."
"I will not discuss my religion with you," William said with some violence.
"I don't want to discuss religion, either," Clem said. "I wouldn't hardly know how to say what I believe, and it's your business if you want to be a Catholic, and I told Henrietta so. I don't mind what a man is, if he's a good man—that's what I always say. My father believed in faith, but it certainly didn't save him, and I wouldn't recommend it. I'm not really interested in religion. All I say is if a man don't have a full belly—"
"I know what you say," William said with weariness. "Let's get to the point."
Clem came to the point instantly. "William, I can get the food to send to China, and to India, too. We're so stuffed with so much food over here that my buyers can get it by the hundreds of tons without bothering Washington at all. I can get my hands on ships, too. Even the Old Boy don't have to do anything—just sit there and look the other way. But I need you, William."
"What for?" William asked warily.
The light of gospel came into Clem's blue eyes. He held up his right hand in unconscious gesture.
"William, I want you to get behind the idea with your newspapers, so that I won't be hampered by any senators and the like! Everybody reads your papers, everybody over this broad land. There's millions of people reads your newspapers that don't read anything else. Even senators are still afraid of millions of people. I want you to tell the people that if we get our extra food over there to Asia it's worth any number of bombs, atom bombs— hydrogen bombs, even—"
"Impossible!" William's voice rang hard with anger. "If this is your wonderful idea—"
"My idea is to get food to the starving, William! I don't ask you to do it. I've got my ways of getting into places. I've got my friends. I only ask you to explain to our people."
"Your friends must be Communists!"
"I don't care what they are, any more than I care what you are, just so they get our food to the starving. People will ask, where is the food coming from? America! Don't you see? America don't even ask if people are Communists. Good old America just feeds the starving. It's the greatest advertisement for our democracy—"
"Impossible!" William said bitterly. "Sentimental, absurd! Clem, these people won't ask anything. They'll just eat. Most of them will think that it's the Communists who are giving them food. You are too naïve."
Clem refused to yield. "Even if they do think it's the wrong party, they'll be stronger to see tyranny in the end, won't they? A starving man can't see right or wrong. He just sees food. You've got no judgment when you're hungry. You can't even rebel."
Clem watched William's face for a waiting second. It did not change. "You've never been hungry, have you, William? I have."
William did not need to answer.
Miss Smith opened the door softly. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Mr. Lane, but the gentlemen are waiting in the Board Room."
Clem got up. "You don't need to use fancy methods with me, lady. Just tell me it's time to go. Well, William—"
"I wouldn't think of doing what you suggest," William said. "I don't agree with you in any particular."
Clem stood looking down on him. "Let 'em starve, eh, William?" he said after an infinitesimal pause.
"Let them starve until they confess their folly," William said firmly and got up. "Good-by, Clem. Give my love to Henrietta."
"Good-by," Clem said and turning he left the room.
Neither of them had put out a hand to the other, but William did not notice it. He seldom shook hands with anyone. He disliked the contact, but more than that in recent years there were twinges of neuritis in his hands which made it painful to suffer the vigor of Clem's grasp. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead and poured himself a drink of ice cold water from the silver thermos bottle on his desk. The strangest touch of fate in his strange life was the fact that Clem Miller was his brother-in-law, Clem, whom more than half a century ago he had first seen on a Peking street and never thought to see again— Clem, that pale and hungry boy, the son of the Faith Mission family, living in a cheap alleyway, a hutung in the poorest part of the city, Clem, whom even then he had despised. How had it come about? Half a century ago....
Young William Lane, leaning back in his mother's private riksha, perceived a short quarter of a mile ahead a knot of people. This in a Peking street meant some sort of disturbance. Possibly it meant only amusement. The people of the imperial city, accustomed to pleasure, were never too busy to pause for an hour or two and watch whatever passed, from the entourage of a court lady on her way to the Summer Palace to the tumbles of a trained bear and the antics of a shivering monkey. Since the season was spring it might now be a troupe of street actors, fresh from their winter in the south.
William leaned forward. "Lao Li, what is yonder?" he asked the riksha puller.
His Chinese was pure and somewhat academic, although he was only seventeen. Actually he was not proud of speaking good Chinese. It revealed too clearly that he was the son of a missionary. At the English boarding school in Chefoo where he spent most of the year, the aristocrats among the boys were the sons of diplomats and businessmen and they were careful to show no knowledge of the language of the natives. Among white people in China missionaries were distinctly low class. At school, William spoke pidgin English to the servants and pretended he did not understand them when they replied in Chinese. Now, however, he was at home for the Easter holidays, and since he had been born and had grown up in Peking, no pretense was possible.
"Something strange, Young Master," Lao Li replied. He snatched his cotton jacket from his shoulders as he ran and wiped the sweat from his face. Foreigners were heavy—this young master, for example, though still growing, was already heavier than a man. He could remember when he had pulled him as a child. The years passed.
Excerpted from God's Men by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1951 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.