Authors: Upton Sinclair
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The Coal War
It was the last afternoon of the year, and in the sunlight the distant peaks of the mountains shone dazzling white. The houses of Western City made a frame for this snow-picture, and the young man who was walking down the street kept his eyes upon it so continually that he was hardly aware of the brown slush under his feet, nor of the unlovely neighborhood about him. This was characteristic of the young man, whose preoccupation with distant loveliness sometimes got him into immediate difficulties. He was twenty-two years of age, erect and keen-looking, with wavy brown hair and sensitive features, generally serious, but capable of lighting up with sudden humor. He was well-dressed, but in an inconspicuous way, as if it had happened by accident.
He came to the number he was seeking, and rang the doorbell of a cheap lodging-house. Of the woman who opened the door he inquired, “Does Mrs. Minetti live here?”
The reply was, Third floor, straight ahead at the back. Evidently the etiquette of the place did not provide for visiting-cards, so the young man climbed the stairs and knocked. Quick steps came, and the door was opened by a small boy, who gave one glance, and then a shout: “Joe Smith! Joe!” He made a leap, and the young man caught him and tossed him up so high that he almost bumped his head on the ceiling.
“Hello, Little Jerry! How's the boy?”
The boy's mother, a black-eyed Sicilian girl, had started from her chair. It was plain that she too was glad to see the distinguished-looking caller, but her shy welcome was eclipsed by the eagerness of the child. “Say! How you know we was here?” And then, “You heard about my father?”
“The union wrote me,” said the visitor.
“Say, ain't it rotten?” cried the youngster. “Say, I wisht I was a man! Wouldn't I go for them mine-guards!” Little Jerry added exclamations of a kind which would look disturbing in print.
“But my father go back!” he declared. “He get into them camps again!”
Hal asked for particulars of the elder Minetti's fate, and Rosa sat with her hands clenched in her lap and a look of distress on her face, while he spelled out her husband's Italian letter. Big Jerry had been doing organizing work in one of the “closed camps” of the coal-country, and the company guards had caught him, beaten him unconscious, and then, to get rid of him, had thrown him on top of an outgoing coal-car. It had been pretty bad, said the letter, but now it was all right, for he had been found by a section-man who was a union sympathizer, and while this man's home was only a box-car on a siding, there were flowers in the windows, and a woman to take care of a broken head.
Little Jerry took up the story in his eager, high voice. He and his mother and the baby had been living in the coal-town of Pedro, and at night three strange men had broken into their lodgings, and tumbled them out of bed. They had torn everything to pieces, searching for letters. From their remarks it was plain that Big Jerry had been caught at his perilous work; but that was all the family had known for more than a week. The union people had advised them to move up to Western City, where they would be out of danger. So now they were all right, said Rosa, except that it was so lonely.
Hal looked about him at the cheerless lodging-house room, a hall-room with only one chair in it, upon which he himself sat. Rosa sat on the bed, which was hardly more than a couch, so that he wondered how she kept herself and Little Jerry and the baby from rolling off at night. There was a small chest of drawers, and a wooden box with a gas stove on it, and a sauce-pan boiling. One did not have to lift the cover to know what this sauce-pan contained.
During his three months sojourn in the coal-camps, the young man had learned to put up with odors, so now he wrinkled his nose, and grinned at Little jerry and said, “Um! Um!”
“Um!” said Little Jerry, and grinned back.
Rosa added, “You stay supper with us?”
“Sure, Joe!” cried the child.
The mother put in quickly, “You say Mister Warner!”
And the young man laughed. “Let him call me Joe. And you call me that, too.” Then, seeing Rosa look embarrassed, “I'm mighty proud of having been a miner. I still have my union-card, you know.” He was looking at the girl-wife as he spoke, and noted that she had lost some of her pretty color. It occurred to him that boiled cabbage is not a sustaining diet, especially when flavored with terror.
It was the Christmas season, and the young man had witnessed many festivities. But here, it seemed, was a family which had been overlooked by Santa Claus. He made inquiry and learned that Little Jerry had never made the acquaintance of the benevolent old gentleman of the rein-deer; perhaps North Valley had been too high up in the mountains for these creatures to climb. Had there never been a Christmas tree at the North Valley church? Yes, but Little Jerry did not go to it. His father had no use for churches.
So Hal recalled that Minetti was a Socialist, and of the Italian variety; he spoke of priests as “black beetles”. Since he had come to America, and earned his living as a shot-firer in the feudal fortresses of the General Fuel Company, he had seen nothing to disabuse his mind of this hatred of religion. The General Fuel Company had taken fifty cents a month from his wages for the maintenance of the Reverend Spragg, and Jerry had paid this, as he paid all other charges, under protest; he had kept his family away, considering it an effort to steal their minds by the agency of General Fuel Company theology, baited with Christmas trees and Sunday school prizes.
But now Big Jerry was far away, and had a broken head, and could not interfere; and the idea possessed Hal Warnerâwhat a shame this Christmas-tide should pass entirely over the head of a Dago mine-urchin! He recalled the parties he had seen, the preparations for parties, the remains of parties. So many bright and shining faces, so many bright and happy homes, full of gifts and laughter and song; and all of it passing undreamed of over the head of a Dago mine-urchin!
Ever since Hal had gone to North Valley, and made a practical test of the life of a coal-miner, his thoughts were continually being lured into experiments in social amalgamation. What a cruel thing was this chasm between the classes! Cruel to both classesânot merely to those who had too little, but also to those who had too much! To the smooth, comfortable, kindhearted, generous, blind people, who went to church on Christmas morning, and sang carols, and went home and ate turkey and plum-pudding, really believing that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world! What an education for these people, if one could bring them to this lodging-house room, full of the odor of boiling cabbage, and let them hear the story of this child-wife from Sicily, with her two babies, and another soon to be born, and a husband lying with a broken head in a far-distant box-car!
Hal suddenly thought of one party that had still to be: a New Year's day party at the home of Robert Arthur, the banker, a party for the old gentleman's eleven grandchildren, and at least twice as many of their friends. An inspiration flashed over him. The Dago mine-urchin should go to that party!
It was such a thrilling idea that he could not waitânot even till he had secured an invitation. “Little Jerry,” he said, “do you remember Miss Arthur, the pretty young lady who came to your house at North Valley?”
“Sure I remember!” said Little Jerry. “Your girl!”
“So you said,” laughed Hal. “Well, you know, her father is Santa Claus.”
“Go on!” said the mine-urchin, who had learned the American way of speech.
“Honest!” said the other. “He has a big house near here, and he's going to give a party tomorrow afternoon, a New Year's party. I'm going to get him to invite you.”
“Aw!” said Little Jerry. “He wouldn't let no Dagos come!” Nevertheless, the black Dago eyes began to shine; and when Hal insisted that his prestige as “best feller” of the pretty Miss Jessie would enable him to get an invitation, a fountain of Dago questions was set flowing. What was a New Year's party like? What did they do at it? Did they have grub? Plenty? Ice-cream?
All one could eat!
And a Christmas tree? And Santa Claus? How many children would be there? Girls too? Were they pretty, like Hal's girl? Dressed up fine, like her?
So came an important matter; Little Jerry must be dressed for this partyâdressed as never a Dago mine-urchin had been dressed in history before. In the first place, he had to be scrubbed. Perhaps Rosa could borrow a wash-tub from the landlady; also soap, and a towel, and plenty of hot water. Little Jerry listened in dismay. Yes,
water! Not too hot, not hot enough to imperil the skin, but hot enough to take off the dirt. There must be no mistake about it, every particle of dirt must come off; the whole body, even the feet; the backs of the hands, as well as the palms. The coal-dust must be mined from under the Dago finger-nails, and from out the ears, and from behind them. The Dago hair must be scrubbedâyes, even the hair; it would shine in lovely wavy black curlsâbut no oil, or pomade, or anything to make it smell good. Just soap and hot water! And then Hal would send a lot of new clothes, in which Little Jerry would be arrayed. What size suit did he wear? What was his chest-measure? What was the size of his foot? And of his hand? Yes, even his hand! He was going to have a pair of new kid gloves. “
” cried Little Jerry.
And he danced about, clamoring; his eyes shining, ready to pop out of his head. What time would the party be? And how long would it last? Would they eat all the time, or what? They played games? What sort of games? One might have to kiss the little girls?
No doubt that explained why you had to be so careful to be washed; but for God's sake, why did you have to wash your feet?