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Chapter 22

Hal told himself with satisfaction that he was now to do the real work of coal-mining. His imagination had been occupied with it for a long time; but as so often happens in the life of man, the first contact with reality killed the results of many years' imagining. It killed all imagining, in fact; Hal found that his entire stock of energy, both mental and physical, was consumed in enduring torment. If any one had told him the horror of attempting to work in a room five feet high, he would not have believed it. It was like some of the dreadful devices of torture which one saw in European castles, the "iron maiden" and the "spiked collar." Hal's back burned as if hot irons were being run up and down it; every separate joint and muscle cried aloud. It seemed as if he could never learn the lesson of the jagged ceiling above his head--he bumped it and continued to bump it, until his scalp was a mass of cuts and bruises, and his head ached till he was nearly blind, and he would have to throw himself flat on the ground.

Then old Mike Sikoria would grin. "I know. Like green mule! Some day get tough!"

Hal recalled the great thick callouses on the flanks of his former charges, where the harness rubbed against them. "Yes, I'm a 'green mule,' all right!"

It was amazing how many ways there were to bruise and tear one's fingers, loading lumps of coal into a car. He put on a pair of gloves, but these wore through in a day. And then the gas, and the smoke of powder, stifling one; and the terrible burning of the eyes, from the dust and the feeble light. There was no way to rub these burning eyes, because everything about one was equally dusty. Could anybody have imagined the torment of that--any of those ladies who rode in softly upholstered parlour-cars, or reclined upon the decks of steam-ships in gleaming tropic seas?

Old Mike was good to his new "buddy." Mike's spine was bent and his hands were hardened by forty years of this sort of toil, so he could do the work of two men, and entertain his friend with comments into the bargain. The old fellow had the habit of talking all the time, like a child; he would talk to his helper, to himself, to his tools. He would call these tools by obscene and terrifying names--but with entire friendliness and good humour. "Get in there, you son-of-a-gun!" he would say to his pick. "Come along here, you wop!" he would say to his car. "In with you, now, you old buster!" he would say to a lump of coal. And he would lecture Hal on the details of mining. He would tell stories of successful days, or of terrible mishaps. Above all he would tell about rascality--cursing the "G. F. C.," its foremen and superintendents, its officials, directors and stock-holders, and the world which permitted such a criminal institution to exist.

Noon-time would come, and Hal would lie upon his back, too worn to eat. Old Mike would sit munching; his abundant whiskers came to a point on his chin, and as his jaws moved, he looked for all the world like an aged billy-goat. He was a kind-hearted and anxious old billy-goat, and sought to tempt his buddy with a bit of cheese or a swig of cold coffee. He believed in eating--no man could keep up steam if he did not stoke the furnace. Failing in this, he would try to divert Hal's mind, telling stories of mining-life in America and Russia. He was most proud to have an "American feller" for a buddy, and tried to make the work as easy as possible, for fear lest Hal might quit.

Hal did not quit; but he would drag himself out towards night, so exhausted that he would fall asleep in the cage. He would fall asleep at supper, and go in and sink down on his cot and sleep like a log. And oh, the torture of being routed out before daybreak! Having to shake the sleep out of his head, and move his creaking joints, and become aware of the burning in his eyes, and the blisters and sores on his hands!

It was a week before he had a moment that was not pain; and he never got fully used to the labour. It was impossible for any one to work so hard and keep his mental alertness, his eagerness and sensitiveness; it was impossible to work so hard and be an adventurer--to be anything, in fact, but a machine. Hal had heard that phrase of contempt, "the inertia of the masses," and had wondered about it. He no longer wondered, he knew. Could a man be brave enough to protest to a pit-boss when his body was numb with weariness? Could he think out a definite conclusion as to his rights and wrongs, and back his conclusion with effective action, when his mental faculties were paralysed by such weariness of body?

Hal had come here, as one goes upon the deck of a ship in mid-ocean, to see the storm. In this ocean of social misery, of ignorance and despair, one saw upturned, tortured faces, writhing limbs and clutching hands; in one's ears was a storm of lamentation, upon one's cheek a spray of blood and tears. Hal found himself so deep in this ocean that he could no longer find consolation in the thought that he could escape whenever he wanted to: that he could say to himself, It is sad, it is terrible--but thank God, I can get out of it when I choose! I can go back into the warm and well-lighted saloon and tell the other passengers how picturesque it is, what an interesting experience they are missing!

Upton Sinclair