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Chapter 13

But then, as they were on their way home, tragedy fell upon them. Hearing a step behind them, Mary turned and looked; then catching Hal by the arm, she drew him into the shadows at the side, whispering to him to be silent. The bent figure of a man went past them, lurching from side to side.

When he had turned and gone into the house, Mary said, "It's my father. He's ugly when he's like that." And Hal could hear her quick breathing in the darkness.

So that was Mary's trouble--the difficulty in her home life to which she had referred at their first meeting! Hal understood many things in a flash--why her home was bare of ornament, and why she did not invite her company to sit down. He stood silent, not knowing what to say. Before he could find the word, Mary burst out, "Oh, how I hate O'Callahan, that sells the stuff to my father! His home with plenty to eat in it, and his wife dressin' in silk and goin' down to mass every Sunday, and thinkin' herself too good for a common miner's daughter! Sometimes I think I'd like to kill them both."

"That wouldn't help much," Hal ventured.

"No, I know--there'd only be some other one in his place. Ye got to do more than that, to change things here. Ye got to get after them that make money out of O'Callahan."

So Mary's mind was groping for causes! Hal had thought her excitement was due to humiliation, or to fear of a scene of violence when she reached home; but she was thinking of the deeper aspects of this terrible drink problem. There was still enough unconscious snobbery in Hal Warner for him to be surprised at this phenomenon in a common miner's daughter; and so, as at their first meeting, his pity was turned to intellectual interest.

"They'll stop the drink business altogether some day," he said. He had not known that he was a Prohibitionist; he had become one suddenly!

"Well," she answered, "they'd best stop it soon, if they don't want to he too late. 'Tis a sight to make your heart sick to see the young lads comin' home staggerin', too drunk even to fight."

Hal had not had time to see much of this aspect of North Valley. "They sell to boys?" he asked.

"Sure, who's to care? A boy's money's as good as a man's."

"But I should think the company--"

"The company lets the saloon-buildin'--that's all the company cares."

"But they must care something about the efficiency of their hands!"

"Sure, there's plenty more where they come from. When ye can't work, they fire ye, and that's all there is to it."

"And is it so easy to get skilled men?"

"It don't take much skill to get out coal. The skill is in keepin' your bones whole--and if you can stand breakin' 'em, the company can stand it."

They had come to the little cabin. Mary stood for a moment in silence. "I'm talkin' bitter again!" she exclaimed suddenly. "And I promised ye me company manner! But things keep happening to set me off." And she turned abruptly and ran into the house. Hal stood for a moment wondering if she would return; then, deciding that she had meant that as good night, he went slowly up the street.

He fought against a mood of real depression, the first he had known since his coming to North Valley. He had managed so far to keep a certain degree of aloofness, that he might see this industrial world without prejudice. But to-night his pity for Mary had involved him more deeply. To be sure, he might be able to help her, to find her work in some less crushing environment; but his mind went on to the question--how many girls might there be in mining-camps, young and eager, hungering for life, but crushed by poverty, and by the burden of the drink problem?

A man walked past Hal, greeting him in the semi-darkness with a nod and a motion of the hand. It was the Reverend Spragg, the gentleman who was officially commissioned to combat the demon rum in North Valley.

Hal had been to the little white church the Sunday before, and heard the Reverend Spragg preach a doctrinal sermon, in which the blood of the lamb was liberally sprinkled, and the congregation heard where and how they were to receive compensation for the distresses they endured in this vale of tears.

What a mockery it seemed! Once, indubitably, people had believed such doctrines; they had been willing to go to the stake for them. But now nobody went to the stake for them--on the contrary, the company compelled every worker to contribute out of his scanty earnings towards the preaching of them. How could the most ignorant of zealots confront such an arrangement without suspicion of his own piety? Somewhere at the head of the great dividend-paying machine that was called the General Fuel Company must be some devilish intelligence that had worked it all out, that had given the orders to its ecclesiastical staff: "We want the present--we leave you the future! We want the bodies--we leave you the souls! Teach them what you will about heaven--so long as you let us plunder them on earth!"

In accordance with this devil's program, the Reverend Spragg might denounce the demon rum, but he said nothing about dividends based on the renting of rum-shops, nor about local politicians maintained by company contributions, plus the profits of wholesale liquor. He said nothing about the conclusions of modern hygiene, concerning over-work as a cause of the craving for alcohol; the phrase "industrial drinking," it seemed, was not known in General Fuel Company theology! In fact, when you listened to such a sermon, you would never have guessed that the hearers of it had physical bodies at all; certainly you would never have guessed that the preacher had a body, which was nourished by food produced by the overworked and under-nourished wage-slaves whom he taught!

Upton Sinclair