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Chapter 32: sober by law.

No bar, no drain-shop, no saloon defiles St. Johnsbury; nor is there, I am told, a single gaming-hell or house of ill-repute. So far as meets the eye this boast is true. Once, in my walks, I fancy there may be an opening in the armour of these Good Templars. Turning from the foreign street, where Jacques is somewhat careless of his fence, and Pat is tolerant of the cess-pool at his door, I read a notice calling on the passer-by to enter “ the sporting and smoking bazaar.” Here, surely, there must lurk some spice of dissipation. Passing down the steps into this “sporting and smoking bazaar,” I see a large vault, running below Avenue House, and conjure up visions of Gothe's wine cellar in Leipzig, the Heiliger Geist in Mainz, and our own supper-rooms in Covent Garden; but on dropping down the steps of this “smoking and sporting bazaar,” I find [330] myself in a big empty room; the floor clean, the walls bright, and a small kiosk in one corner for the sale of cigars and cigarettes, at which a nice-looking matron waits for customers, who are slow to come.

“They suffer you to sell tobacco, madam? ”

“Yes, Sir, for the present,” sighs the patient creature; “ some of them want to put down the sale of tobacco and snuff, as they have put down that of beer and gin; a lecturer was here last week; and in a year or so they may get a majority of votes.”

“Your trade will then be gone?”

“Yes, clearly.”

“You may be the last of all your race?”

“Well, some one must be last in everything, I guess.”

I leave her with the full conviction that there lurks no large amount of wickedness in this sporting and smoking bazaar.

The case seems hard to men who have not helped to pass the Bill. So much depends on your consent! A necklace is a pretty thing to wear; but not a necklace such as Gurth, the Saxon, wore-fixed round his throat by force.

For my part, I have passed through many countries [331] and been broken to the ways of many men. I have eaten ice with a Druse of Lebanon, and sucked a water-melon with a Kirghiz chief; drunk quass with the Archimandrite of Pechersk, and gulped the dregs of a tank with an Arab Sheikh ; tasted, unwittingly, the saltness of the Dead Sea, and shrunk with loathing from the nauseous ooze of Bitter Creek. I have lapped the Nile, and lingered by the fountains of Loja. In the absence of wine I can drink water with a Good Templar, and live in comfort on tea and milk. But an Oxonian near me, reared on foot-ball ground and cricket-field, asks for beer.

“ Can you get me a pint of bitter ale?”

It is a crucial test, and I regard the waiter's face while seeming not to notice him.

“Well, Sir, it may be got.”

“Then bring me some at once.”

“Yes, Sir, but not at once. The thing will take some time. I have to send for it.”

“To send for it — where from?”

“From the Commissioner's.”

“Pray, who is this Commissioner?”

“ Who is this Commissioner!” [332]

“Yes, yes, excuse me for the question; I am but a stranger in these parts.”

“Why, Sir, the Commissioner is the town officer appointed by law to sell poisons, as I hear druggists are licensed in London to sell aconite and arsenic.”

“ Then get me a pint bottle of the poison called Bass's Pale Ale.”

The waiter disappears; a moment afterwards he returns with pen and paper in his hand.

“You must be kind enough to write an order for the ale, and sign your name to it for record.”

“Sign my name for what?”

“For record; the Commissioner is bound to enter the name and address of every person to whom he sells a bottle of beer.”

“Then I shall have a place in the archives of St. Johnsbury for my sins?”

“The ale will certainly be posted against you,” he rejoins; saying which he pops out of doors. Dinner is nearly done when he comes back, laden with a couple of pint bottles.

“ You've been long in coming, but your Commissioner seems to be a liberal fellow. We require a pint; he sends a quart.” [333]

“ The fact is, Sir,” the waiter answers with a leer, “it's my doing. There are two of you; a pint is little enough for one; and our Commissioner dare not serve you a second time to-day. I told him the order meant one pint for each.”

My own enquiries satisfy me that the man is right. Intoxicating drinks are classed with poisons, such as laudanumn and arsenic; but as poisons may be needed in a civilized country, under a scientific system of medicine, laudanum and arsenic are permitted to be sold in every civilized city. Such is here the case with brandy, beer, and wine, which are all carefully registered in books and kept under lock and key. These poisons are doled out, at the discretion of this officer, in small quantities, very much as deadly-nightshade and nux vomica are doled out by a London druggist.

“ Cannot you get a bottle of cognac for your private use?” I ask Colonel Fairbanks, manager of the scale factories.

“ I can write my order for a pint of cognac; it will be sent to me, of course; but my order for it will be filed, and the delivery entered on the public books for everyone to see.” [334] “You find that system rather inquisitorial, eh?”

“Well, no; it is intended for the common good, and everyone submits to what is for the good of all. We freely vote the law, and freely keep the law. But for myself the rule is a dead letter, as no intoxicating drink ever enters my house.”

In going through the scale mills I notice several classes of artisans. Five hundred men are toiling in the various rooms. The work is mostly hard; in some departments very hard. The heat is often great. From seven till twelve, from one till seven, the men are at their posts. The range of heat and cold is trying; for the summer sun is fierce, the winter frost is keen. Your ordinary citizen cannot live through the summer heats without a trip to Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. Yet the men engaged in these manufactories are said to drink no beer, no whisky, and no gin. Drinking and smoking are not allowed on the premises. Such orders might be meant for discipline; but I am told that these five hundred workmen never taste a drop of either beer or gin. Their drink is water, their delight is tea. Yet everyone assures me that they work well, enjoy good health, [335] and live as long as persons of their class who are engaged on farms.

“These men,” I ask, “who rake the furnaces, carry the burning metals, and stand about the crucibles-can they go on all day without beer?”

“They never taste a drop, and never ask to have a drop. There is a can of water near them; they like the taste of water better than the fume of ale, and do their work more steadily without such fume.”

In fact, I find that these mechanics are the warmest advocates of a prohibitive liquor law. They voted for it in the outset; they have voted for it ever since. Each year of trial makes them more fanatical. Since the Act came into force, many new clauses have been added by the State Legislature. Party questions turn on this liquor law, and these intelligent workmen always vote for those who promise to extend its operations. They would gladly crush the sale of intoxicating liquors once for all, and I am led to fancy with my friend, the Good Templar of Cincinnati, that some of them would not hesitate to make the sale a capital offence.

“You see,” says Colonel Fairbanks, “we are a nervous and vehement race. Our air is dry and [336] quick; our life an eager and unsleeping chase When we work, we work hard; when we drink, we drink deep. It is natural that when we abstain, we should abstain with rigour.”

“Are there no protests on the part of moderate men? ”

“None, or next to none. As year and year go by, more persons come to see the benefits of our rule. The men who formerly drank the most, are now the staunchest friends of our reform. These men, who used to dress in rags, are growing rich. Many of them live in their own houses. They all attend church, and send their boys and girls to school.”

Such facts are not to be suppressed by shrugs and sneers. It is an easy thing to sneer, and some unconscious comedy turns up at every corner to provoke a laugh.

“Oblige me,” I entreat the sober successor of Captain Barney, when going to bed, “ with a glass of soda-water.”

“ Sorry, Sir, we have no soda water in the house.”

“Then a glass of Selzer-water or Congress-water?” [337] “Sorry, Sir; none in the house.”

“Why not? Are these intoxicating drinks prohibited by law?”

“Oh, no, they sell them at the druggists' shops.”

“ Then please to get me some from the druggist's shop.”

“Excuse me, Sir, it is too late. The druggist's shop is closed.”

The fact is so. I ask my host why he does not keep such things as soda-water and seizer-water for sale.

“ We have no customers for them. Guess it's people who drink brandy that ask for soda-water!”

Should a tipsy stranger be taken in the street (as sometimes happens) he is seized like a stray donkey, run into a pound, and kept apart till he has slept away his dram. An officer then enquires where he got his drink. On telling, he is set free, and the person who sold the liquor is arrested, tried, and punished for the man's offence. The vendor, not the buyer, is responsible for this breach of moral order. It is just the same, whether the person supplying the liquor sells it or gives it; so that a man who entertains his friends at dinner has to stand [338] before the magistrate and answer for the conduct of his guests. Imagine how this rule is likely to promote good fellowship round the mahogany-tree!

Such drawbacks may be taken off the sum of public benefits conferred on Vermont by the Liquor Law. What remains? The Workman's Paradise remains: a village which has all the aspect of a garden; a village in which many of the workmen are owners of real estate; a village of five thousand inhabitants, in which the moral order is even more conspicuous than the material prosperity; a village in which every man accounts it his highest duty and his personal interest to observe the law. No authority is visible in St. Johnsbury. No policeman walks the streets — on ordinary days there is nothing for a policeman to do. Six constables are enrolled for duty, but the men are all at work in the factories, and only don their uniforms on special days to make a little show.

Some part of these beneficent results must be assigned to the platform scale, a special industry which seeks out quick and steady men, and by rewarding them beyond the ordinary rate of wages helps them to grow rich. A house and garden [339] steadies a man as if by magic. But the law of abstinence comes in to harden and complete the work.

On looking up and down the streets, so lovely in the moonlight, weighing the visible results against my lack of soda-water, I sip my bit of broken ice, and go to bed with a not unkindly feeling towards the principle of the Vermont Law.

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Thadeus Fairbanks (2)
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