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Chapter 16

It had been a crude and stupid plot, yet Hal realised that it was adapted to the intelligence of the men for whom it was intended. But for the accident that he had stayed awake, they would have found the money on him, and next morning the whole camp would have heard that he had sold out. Of course his immediate friends, the members of the committee, would not have believed it; but the mass of the workers would have believed it, and so the purpose of Tom Olson's visit to North Valley would have been balked. Throughout the experiences which were to come to him, Hal retained his vivid impression of that adventure; it served to him as a symbol of many things. Just as the bosses had tried to bedevil him, to destroy his influence with his followers, so later on he saw them trying to bedevil the labour-movement, to confuse the intelligence of the whole country.

Now Hal was in jail. He went to the window and tried the bars--but found that they had been made for such trials. Then he groped his way about in the darkness, examining his prison, which proved to be a steel cage built inside the walls of an ordinary room. In one corner was a bench, and in another corner another bench, somewhat broader, with a mattress upon it. Hal had read a little about jails--enough to cause him to avoid this mattress. He sat upon the bare bench, and began to think.

It is a fact that there is a peculiar psychology incidental to being in jail; just as there is a peculiar psychology incidental to straining your back and breaking your hands loading coal-cars in a five foot vein; and another, and quite different psychology, produced by living at ease off the labours of coal-miners. In a jail, you have first of all the sense of being an animal; the animal side of your being is emphasised, the animal passions of hatred and fear are called into prominence, and if you are to escape being dominated by them, it can only be by intense and concentrated effort of the mind. So, if you are a thinking man, you do a great deal of thinking in a jail; the days are long, and the nights still longer--you have time for all the thoughts you can have.

The bench was hard, and seemed to grow harder. There was no position in which it could be made to grow soft. Hal got up and paced about, then he lay down for a while, then got up and walked again; and all the while he thought, and all the while the jail-psychology was being impressed upon his mind.

First, he thought about his immediate problem. What were they going to do to him? The obvious thing would be to put him out of camp, and so be done with him; but would they rest content with that, in their irritation at the trick he had played? Hal had heard vaguely of that native American institution, the "third degree," but had never had occasion to think of it as a possibility in his own life. What a difference it made, to think of it in that way!

Hal had told Tom Olson that he would not pledge himself to organise a union, but that he would pledge himself to get a check-weighman; and Olson had laughed, and seemed quite content--apparently assuming that it would come to the same thing. And now, it rather seemed that Olson had known what he was talking about. For Hal found his thoughts no longer troubled with fears of labour union domination and walking delegate tyranny; on the contrary, he became suddenly willing for the people of North Valley to have a union, and to be as tyrannical as they knew how! And in this change, though Hal had no idea of it, he was repeating an experience common among reformers; many of whom begin as mild and benevolent advocates of some obvious bit of justice, and under the operation of the jail-psychology are made into blazing and determined revolutionists. "Eternal spirit of the chainless mind," says Byron. "Greatest in dungeons Liberty thou art!"

The poet goes on to add that "When thy sons to fetters are confined--" then "Freedom's fame finds wings on every wind." And just as it was in Chillon, so it seemed to be in North Valley. Dawn came, and Hal stood at the window of his cell, and heard the whistle blow and saw the workers going to their tasks, the toil-bent, pallid faced creatures of the underworld, like a file of baboons in the half-light. He waved his hand to them, and they stopped and stared, and then waved back; he realised that every one of those men must be thinking about his imprisonment, and the reason for it--and so the jail-psychology was being communicated to them. If any of them cherished distrust of unions, or doubt of the need of organisation in North Valley--that distrust and that doubt were being dissipated!

--There was only one thing discouraging about the matter, as Hal thought it over. Why should the bosses have left him here in plain sight, when they might so easily have put him into an automobile, and whisked him down to Pedro before daylight? Was it a sign of the contempt they felt for their slaves? Did they count upon the sight of the prisoner in the window to produce fear instead of resentment? And might it not be that they understood their workers better than the would-be check-weighman? He recalled Mary Burke's pessimism about them, and anxiety gnawed at his soul; and--such is the operation of the jail-psychology--he fought against this anxiety. He hated the company for its cynicism, he clenched his hands and set his teeth, desiring to teach the bosses a lesson, to prove to them that their workers were not slaves, but men!

Upton Sinclair