Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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He arose as sharply from the chair, and, without a word, went to the
sink. It was a greasy, filthy sink. A smell came up from the outlet. He
took no notice of it. That a sink should smell was to him part of the
natural order, just as it was a part of the natural order that the soap
should be grimy with dish-water and hard to lather. Nor did he try very
hard to make it lather. Several splashes of the cold water from the
running faucet completed the function. He did not wash his teeth. For
that matter he had never seen a toothbrush, nor did he know that there
existed beings in the world who were guilty of so great a foolishness as
tooth washing.

"You might wash yourself wunst a day without bein' told," his mother
complained.

She was holding a broken lid on the pot as she poured two cups of
coffee. He made no remark, for this was a standing quarrel between them,
and the one thing upon which his mother was hard as adamant. "Wunst" a
day it was compulsory that he should wash his face. He dried himself on
a greasy towel, damp and dirty and ragged, that left his face covered
with shreds of lint.

"I wish we didn't live so far away," she said, as he sat down. "I try
to do the best I can. You know that. But a dollar on the rent is such a
savin', an' we've more room here. You know that."

He scarcely followed her. He had heard it all before, many times. The
range of her thought was limited, and she was ever harking back to the
hardship worked upon them by living so far from the mills.

"A dollar means more grub," he remarked sententiously. "I'd sooner do
the walkin' an' git the grub."

He ate hurriedly, half chewing the bread and washing the unmasticated
chunks down with coffee. The hot and muddy liquid went by the name of
coffee. Johnny thought it was coffee - and excellent coffee. That was one
of the few of life's illusions that remained to him. He had never drunk
real coffee in his life.

In addition to the bread, there was a small piece of cold pork. His
mother refilled his cup with coffee. As he was finishing the bread, he
began to watch if more was forthcoming. She intercepted his questioning
glance.

"Now, don't be hoggish, Johnny," was her comment. "You've had your
share. Your brothers an' sisters are smaller'n you."

He did not answer the rebuke. He was not much of a talker. Also, he
ceased his hungry glancing for more. He was uncomplaining, with a
patience that was as terrible as the school in which it had been
learned. He finished his coffee, wiped his mouth on the back of his
hand, and started to rise.

"Wait a second," she said hastily. "I guess the loaf kin stand you
another slice - a thin un."

There was legerdemain in her actions. With all the seeming of cutting
a slice from the loaf for him, she put loaf and slice back in the bread
box and conveyed to him one of her own two slices. She believed she had
deceived him, but he had noted her sleight-of-hand. Nevertheless, he
took the bread shamelessly. He had a philosophy that his mother, because
of her chronic sickliness, was not much of an eater anyway.

She saw that he was chewing the bread dry, and reached over and emptied
her coffee cup into his.

"Don't set good somehow on my stomach this morning," she explained.

A distant whistle, prolonged and shrieking, brought both of them to
their feet. She glanced at the tin alarm-clock on the shelf. The hands
stood at half-past five. The rest of the factory world was just arousing
from sleep. She drew a shawl about her shoulders, and on her head put a
dingy hat, shapeless and ancient.

"We've got to run," she said, turning the wick of the lamp and blowing
down the chimney.

They groped their way out and down the stairs. It was clear and cold,
and Johnny shivered at the first contact with the outside air. The stars
had not yet begun to pale in the sky, and the city lay in blackness.
Both Johnny and his mother shuffled their feet as they walked. There was
no ambition in the leg muscles to swing the feet clear of the ground.

After fifteen silent minutes, his mother turned off to the right.

"Don't be late," was her final warning from out of the dark that was
swallowing her up.

He made no response, steadily keeping on his way. In the factory
quarter, doors were opening everywhere, and he was soon one of a
multitude that pressed onward through the dark. As he entered the
factory gate the whistle blew again. He glanced at the east. Across a
ragged sky-line of housetops a pale light was beginning to creep. This
much he saw of the day as he turned his back upon it and joined his work
gang.

He took his place in one of many long rows of machines. Before him,
above a bin filled with small bobbins, were large bobbins revolving
rapidly. Upon these he wound the jute-twine of the small bobbins. The
work was simple. All that was required was celerity. The small bobbins
were emptied so rapidly, and there were so many large bobbins that did
the emptying, that there were no idle moments.

He worked mechanically. When a small bobbin ran out, he used his left
hand for a brake, stopping the large bobbin and at the same time, with
thumb and forefinger, catching the flying end of twine. Also, at the
same time, with his right hand, he caught up the loose twine-end of
a small bobbin. These various acts with both hands were performed
simultaneously and swiftly. Then there would come a flash of his hands
as he looped the weaver's knot and released the bobbin. There was
nothing difficult about weaver's knots. He once boasted he could tie
them in his sleep. And for that matter, he sometimes did, toiling
centuries long in a single night at tying an endless succession of
weaver's knots.

Some of the boys shirked, wasting time and machinery by not replacing
the small bobbins when they ran out. And there was an overseer to
prevent this. He caught Johnny's neighbour at the trick, and boxed his
ears.

"Look at Johnny there - why ain't you like him?" the overseer wrathfully
demanded.

Johnny's bobbins were running full blast, but he did not thrill at the
indirect praise. There had been a time... but that was long ago, very
long ago. His apathetic face was expressionless as he listened to
himself being held up as a shining example. He was the perfect worker.
He knew that. He had been told so, often. It was a commonplace, and
besides it didn't seem to mean anything to him any more. From the
perfect worker he had evolved into the perfect machine. When his work
went wrong, it was with him as with the machine, due to faulty material.
It would have been as possible for a perfect nail-die to cut imperfect
nails as for him to make a mistake.

And small wonder. There had never been a time when he had not been in
intimate relationship with machines. Machinery had almost been bred into
him, and at any rate he had been brought up on it. Twelve years before,
there had been a small flutter of excitement in the loom room of this
very mill. Johnny's mother had fainted. They stretched her out on the
floor in the midst of the shrieking machines. A couple of elderly women
were called from their looms. The foreman assisted. And in a few minutes
there was one more soul in the loom room than had entered by the doors.
It was Johnny, born with the pounding, crashing roar of the looms in his
ears, drawing with his first breath the warm, moist air that was thick
with flying lint. He had coughed that first day in order to rid his
lungs of the lint; and for the same reason he had coughed ever since.

The boy alongside of Johnny whimpered and sniffed. The boy's face was
convulsed with hatred for the overseer who kept a threatening eye on
him from a distance; but every bobbin was running full. The boy yelled
terrible oaths into the whirling bobbins before him; but the sound did
not carry half a dozen feet, the roaring of the room holding it in and
containing it like a wall.

Of all this Johnny took no notice. He had a way of accepting things.
Besides, things grow monotonous by repetition, and this particular
happening he had witnessed many times. It seemed to him as useless to
oppose the overseer as to defy the will of a machine. Machines were made
to go in certain ways and to perform certain tasks. It was the same with
the overseer.

But at eleven o'clock there was excitement in the room. In an apparently
occult way the excitement instantly permeated everywhere. The one-legged
boy who worked on the other side of Johnny bobbed swiftly across the
floor to a bin truck that stood empty. Into this he dived out of
sight, crutch and all. The superintendent of the mill was coming along,
accompanied by a young man. He was well dressed and wore a starched
shirt - a gentleman, in Johnny's classification of men, and also, "the
Inspector."

He looked sharply at the boys as he passed along. Sometimes he stopped
and asked questions. When he did so, he was compelled to shout at the
top of his lungs, at which moments his face was ludicrously contorted
with the strain of making himself heard. His quick eye noted the empty
machine alongside of Johnny's, but he said nothing. Johnny also caught
his eye, and he stopped abruptly. He caught Johnny by the arm to draw
him back a step from the machine; but with an exclamation of surprise he
released the arm.

"Pretty skinny," the superintendent laughed anxiously.

"Pipe stems," was the answer. "Look at those legs. The boy's got the
rickets - incipient, but he's got them. If epilepsy doesn't get him in
the end, it will be because tuberculosis gets him first."

Johnny listened, but did not understand. Furthermore he was not
interested in future ills. There was an immediate and more serious ill
that threatened him in the form of the inspector.

"Now, my boy, I want you to tell me the truth," the inspector said, or
shouted, bending close to the boy's ear to make him hear. "How old are
you?"

"Fourteen," Johnny lied, and he lied with the full force of his lungs.
So loudly did he lie that it started him off in a dry, hacking cough
that lifted the lint which had been settling in his lungs all morning.

"Looks sixteen at least," said the superintendent.

"Or sixty," snapped the inspector.

"He's always looked that way."

"How long?" asked the inspector, quickly.

"For years. Never gets a bit older."

"Or younger, I dare say. I suppose he's worked here all those years?"

"Off and on - but that was before the new law was passed," the
superintendent hastened to add.

"Machine idle?" the inspector asked, pointing at the unoccupied machine
beside Johnny's, in which the part-filled bobbins were flying like mad.

"Looks that way." The superintendent motioned the overseer to him and
shouted in his ear and pointed at the machine. "Machine's idle," he
reported back to the inspector.

They passed on, and Johnny returned to his work, relieved in that the
ill had been averted. But the one-legged boy was not so fortunate. The
sharp-eyed inspector haled him out at arms length from the bin truck.
His lips were quivering, and his face had all the expression of one upon
whom was fallen profound and irremediable disaster. The overseer looked
astounded, as though for the first time he had laid eyes on the boy,
while the superintendent's face expressed shock and displeasure.

"I know him," the inspector said. "He's twelve years old. I've had him
discharged from three factories inside the year. This makes the fourth."

He turned to the one-legged boy. "You promised me, word and honour, that
you'd go to school."

The one-legged boy burst into tears. "Please, Mr. Inspector, two babies
died on us, and we're awful poor."

"What makes you cough that way?" the inspector demanded, as though
charging him with crime.

And as in denial of guilt, the one-legged boy replied: "It ain't
nothin'. I jes' caught a cold last week, Mr. Inspector, that's all."

In the end the one-legged boy went out of the room with the inspector,
the latter accompanied by the anxious and protesting superintendent.
After that monotony settled down again. The long morning and the longer
afternoon wore away and the whistle blew for quitting time. Darkness had
already fallen when Johnny passed out through the factory gate. In the
interval the sun had made a golden ladder of the sky, flooded the world
with its gracious warmth, and dropped down and disappeared in the west
behind a ragged sky-line of housetops.

Supper was the family meal of the day - the one meal at which Johnny
encountered his younger brothers and sisters. It partook of the
nature of an encounter, to him, for he was very old, while they were
distressingly young. He had no patience with their excessive and amazing
juvenility. He did not understand it. His own childhood was too far
behind him. He was like an old and irritable man, annoyed by the
turbulence of their young spirits that was to him arrant silliness. He
glowered silently over his food, finding compensation in the thought
that they would soon have to go to work. That would take the edge off
of them and make them sedate and dignified - like him. Thus it was, after
the fashion of the human, that Johnny made of himself a yardstick with
which to measure the universe.

During the meal, his mother explained in various ways and with infinite
repetition that she was trying to do the best she could; so that it was
with relief, the scant meal ended, that Johnny shoved back his chair
and arose. He debated for a moment between bed and the front door,
and finally went out the latter. He did not go far. He sat down on the
stoop, his knees drawn up and his narrow shoulders drooping forward, his
elbows on his knees and the palms of his hands supporting his chin.

As he sat there, he did no thinking. He was just resting. So far as his
mind was concerned, it was asleep. His brothers and sisters came out,
and with other children played noisily about him. An electric globe at
the corner lighted their frolics. He was peevish and irritable, that
they knew; but the spirit of adventure lured them into teasing him. They
joined hands before him, and, keeping time with their bodies, chanted in
his face weird and uncomplimentary doggerel. At first he snarled curses
at them - curses he had learned from the lips of various foremen. Finding
this futile, and remembering his dignity, he relapsed into dogged
silence.

His brother Will, next to him in age, having just passed his tenth
birthday, was the ringleader. Johnny did not possess particularly kindly
feelings toward him. His life had early been embittered by continual
giving over and giving way to Will. He had a definite feeling that
Will was greatly in his debt and was ungrateful about it. In his own
playtime, far back in the dim past, he had been robbed of a large part
of that playtime by being compelled to take care of Will. Will was a
baby then, and then, as now, their mother had spent her days in the
mills. To Johnny had fallen the part of little father and little mother
as well.

Will seemed to show the benefit of the giving over and the giving way.
He was well-built, fairly rugged, as tall as his elder brother and even
heavier. It was as though the life-blood of the one had been diverted
into the other's veins. And in spirits it was the same. Johnny was
jaded, worn out, without resilience, while his younger brother seemed
bursting and spilling over with exuberance.

The mocking chant rose louder and louder. Will leaned closer as he
danced, thrusting out his tongue. Johnny's left arm shot out and caught
the other around the neck. At the same time he rapped his bony fist to
the other's nose. It was a pathetically bony fist, but that it was
sharp to hurt was evidenced by the squeal of pain it produced. The other
children were uttering frightened cries, while Johnny's sister, Jennie,
had dashed into the house.

He thrust Will from him, kicked him savagely on the shins, then reached
for him and slammed him face downward in the dirt. Nor did he release
him till the face had been rubbed into the dirt several times. Then the
mother arrived, an anaemic whirlwind of solicitude and maternal wrath.

"Why can't he leave me alone?" was Johnny's reply to her upbraiding.
"Can't he see I'm tired?"

"I'm as big as you," Will raged in her arms, his face a mass of tears,
dirt, and blood. "I'm as big as you now, an' I'm goin' to git bigger.
Then I'll lick you - see if I don't."

"You ought to be to work, seein' how big you are," Johnny snarled.
"That's what's the matter with you. You ought to be to work. An' it's up
to your ma to put you to work."

"But he's too young," she protested. "He's only a little boy."

"I was younger'n him when I started to work."

Johnny's mouth was open, further to express the sense of unfairness that
he felt, but the mouth closed with a snap. He turned gloomily on his
heel and stalked into the house and to bed. The door of his room
was open to let in warmth from the kitchen. As he undressed in the
semi-darkness he could hear his mother talking with a neighbour woman
who had dropped in. His mother was crying, and her speech was punctuated
with spiritless sniffles.

"I can't make out what's gittin' into Johnny," he could hear her say.
"He didn't used to be this way. He was a patient little angel.

"An' he is a good boy," she hastened to defend. "He's worked faithful,
an' he did go to work too young. But it wasn't my fault. I do the best I
can, I'm sure."

Prolonged sniffling from the kitchen, and Johnny murmured to himself as
his eyelids closed down, "You betcher life I've worked faithful."

The next morning he was torn bodily by his mother from the grip of
sleep. Then came the meagre breakfast, the tramp through the dark, and
the pale glimpse of day across the housetops as he turned his back on
it and went in through the factory gate. It was another day, of all the
days, and all the days were alike.

And yet there had been variety in his life - at the times he changed from
one job to another, or was taken sick. When he was six, he was little
mother and father to Will and the other children still younger. At seven
he went into the mills - winding bobbins. When he was eight, he got work
in another mill. His new job was marvellously easy. All he had to do was
to sit down with a little stick in his hand and guide a stream of cloth
that flowed past him. This stream of cloth came out of the maw of a
machine, passed over a hot roller, and went on its way elsewhere. But he
sat always in one place, beyond the reach of daylight, a gas-jet flaring
over him, himself part of the mechanism.

He was very happy at that job, in spite of the moist heat, for he was
still young and in possession of dreams and illusions. And wonderful
dreams he dreamed as he watched the steaming cloth streaming endlessly
by. But there was no exercise about the work, no call upon his mind,
and he dreamed less and less, while his mind grew torpid and drowsy.
Nevertheless, he earned two dollars a week, and two dollars represented
the difference between acute starvation and chronic underfeeding.

But when he was nine, he lost his job. Measles was the cause of it.
After he recovered, he got work in a glass factory. The pay was better,
and the work demanded skill. It was piecework, and the more skilful
he was, the bigger wages he earned. Here was incentive. And under this
incentive he developed into a remarkable worker.

It was simple work, the tying of glass stoppers into small bottles. At
his waist he carried a bundle of twine. He held the bottles between his
knees so that he might work with both hands. Thus, in a sitting position
and bending over his own knees, his narrow shoulders grew humped and his
chest was contracted for ten hours each day. This was not good for the
lungs, but he tied three hundred dozen bottles a day.

The superintendent was very proud of him, and brought visitors to look
at him. In ten hours three hundred dozen bottles passed through his
hands. This meant that he had attained machine-like perfection. All
waste movements were eliminated. Every motion of his thin arms, every
movement of a muscle in the thin fingers, was swift and accurate. He
worked at high tension, and the result was that he grew nervous. At
night his muscles twitched in his sleep, and in the daytime he could
not relax and rest. He remained keyed up and his muscles continued
to twitch. Also he grew sallow and his lint-cough grew worse. Then
pneumonia laid hold of the feeble lungs within the contracted chest, and
he lost his job in the glass-works.

Now he had returned to the jute mills where he had first begun with
winding bobbins. But promotion was waiting for him. He was a good
worker. He would next go on the starcher, and later he would go into the
loom room. There was nothing after that except increased efficiency.

The machinery ran faster than when he had first gone to work, and his
mind ran slower. He no longer dreamed at all, though his earlier years
had been full of dreaming. Once he had been in love. It was when he
first began guiding the cloth over the hot roller, and it was with the
daughter of the superintendent. She was much older than he, a young
woman, and he had seen her at a distance only a paltry half-dozen times.
But that made no difference. On the surface of the cloth stream that
poured past him, he pictured radiant futures wherein he performed
prodigies of toil, invented miraculous machines, won to the mastership
of the mills, and in the end took her in his arms and kissed her soberly
on the brow.

But that was all in the long ago, before he had grown too old and tired
to love. Also, she had married and gone away, and his mind had gone to
sleep. Yet it had been a wonderful experience, and he used often to
look back upon it as other men and women look back upon the time they
believed in fairies. He had never believed in fairies nor Santa Claus;
but he had believed implicitly in the smiling future his imagination had
wrought into the steaming cloth stream.

He had become a man very early in life. At seven, when he drew his first
wages, began his adolescence. A certain feeling of independence crept
up in him, and the relationship between him and his mother changed.
Somehow, as an earner and breadwinner, doing his own work in the world,
he was more like an equal with her. Manhood, full-blown manhood, had
come when he was eleven, at which time he had gone to work on the night
shift for six months. No child works on the night shift and remains a
child.

There had been several great events in his life. One of these had been
when his mother bought some California prunes. Two others had been the
two times when she cooked custard. Those had been events. He remembered
them kindly. And at that time his mother had told him of a blissful dish
she would sometime make - "floating island," she had called it, "better
than custard." For years he had looked forward to the day when he would
sit down to the table with floating island before him, until at last he
had relegated the idea of it to the limbo of unattainable ideals.

Once he found a silver quarter lying on the sidewalk. That, also, was
a great event in his life, withal a tragic one. He knew his duty on the
instant the silver flashed on his eyes, before even he had picked it up.
At home, as usual, there was not enough to eat, and home he should have
taken it as he did his wages every Saturday night. Right conduct in this
case was obvious; but he never had any spending of his money, and he was
suffering from candy hunger. He was ravenous for the sweets that only on
red-letter days he had ever tasted in his life.

He did not attempt to deceive himself. He knew it was sin, and
deliberately he sinned when he went on a fifteen-cent candy debauch.
Ten cents he saved for a future orgy; but not being accustomed to the
carrying of money, he lost the ten cents. This occurred at the time when
he was suffering all the torments of conscience, and it was to him an
act of divine retribution. He had a frightened sense of the closeness
of an awful and wrathful God. God had seen, and God had been swift to
punish, denying him even the full wages of sin.

In memory he always looked back upon that as the one great criminal deed
of his life, and at the recollection his conscience always awoke and
gave him another twinge. It was the one skeleton in his closet. Also,
being so made, and circumstanced, he looked back upon the deed with
regret. He was dissatisfied with the manner in which he had spent
the quarter. He could have invested it better, and, out of his later
knowledge of the quickness of God, he would have beaten God out by


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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 2 of 12)