King Coal/Book I/Chapter 12

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King Coal by Upton Sinclair
Book I Chapter 12

On the evening of the same Sunday Hal went to pay his promised call upon Mary Burke. She opened the front door of the cabin to let him in, and even by the dim rays of the little kerosene lamp, there came to him an impression of cheerfulness. "Hello," she said--just as she had said it when he had slid down the mountain into the family wash. He followed her into the room, and saw that the impression he had got of cheerfulness came from Mary herself. How bright and fresh she looked! The old blue calico, which had not been entirely clean, was newly laundered now, and on the shoulder where the rent had been was a neat patch of unfaded blue.

There being only three rooms in Mary's home, two of these necessarily bed-rooms, she entertained her company in the kitchen. The room was bare, Hal saw--there was not even so much as a clock by way of ornament. The only charm the girl had been able to give to it, in preparation for company, was that of cleanness. The board floor had been newly sanded and scrubbed; the kitchen table also had been scrubbed, and the kettle on the stove, and the cracked tea-pot and bowls on the shelf. Mary's little brother and sister were in the room: Jennie, a dark-eyed, dark-haired little girl, frail, with a sad, rather frightened face; and Tommie, a round headed youngster, like a thousand other round headed and freckle-faced boys. Both of them were now sitting very straight in their chairs, staring at the visitor with a certain resentment, he thought. He suspected that they had been included in the general scrubbing. Inasmuch as it had been uncertain just when the visitor would come, they must have been required to do this every night, and he could imagine family disturbances, with arguments possibly not altogether complimentary to Mary's new "feller."

There seemed to be a certain uneasiness in the place.

Mary did not invite her company to a seat, but stood irresolute; and after Hal had ventured a couple of friendly remarks to the children, she said, abruptly, "Shall we be takin' that walk that we spoke of, Mr. Smith?"

"Delighted!" said Hal; and while she pinned on her hat before the broken mirror on the shelf, he smiled at the children and quoted two lines from his Harrigan song--

"Oh, Mary-Jane, come out in the lane, The moon is a-shinin' in the old pecan!"

Tommie and Jennie were too shy to answer, but Mary exclaimed, "'Tis in a tin-can ye see it shinin' here!"

They went out. In the soft summer night it was pleasant to stroll under the moon--especially when they had come to the remoter parts of the village, where there were not so many weary people on door-steps and children playing noisily. There were other young couples walking here, under the same moon; the hardest day's toil could not so sap their energies that they did not feel the spell of this soft summer night.

Hal, being tired, was content to stroll and enjoy the stillness; but Mary Burke sought information about the mysterious young man she was with. "Ye've not worked long in coal-mines, Mr. Smith?" she remarked.

Hal was a trifle disconcerted. "How did you find that out?"

"Ye don't look it--ye don't talk it. Ye're not like anybody or anything around here. I don't know how to say it, but ye make me think more of the poetry-books."

Flattered as Hal was by this naïve confession, he did not want to talk of the mystery of himself. He took refuge in a question about the "poetry-books." "I've read some," said the girl; "more than ye'd have thought, perhaps." This with a flash of her defiance.

He asked more questions, and learned that she, like the Greek boy, "Andy," had come under the influence of that disturbing American institution, the public-school; she had learned to read, and the pretty young teacher had helped her, lending her books and magazines. Thus she had been given a key to a treasure-house, a magic carpet on which to travel over the world. These similes Mary herself used--for the Arabian Nights had been one of the books that were loaned to her. On rainy days she would hide behind the sofa, reading at a spot where the light crept in--so that she might be safe from small brothers and sisters!

Joe Smith had read these same books, it appeared; and this seemed remarkable to Mary, for books cost money and were hard to get. She explained how she had searched the camp for new magic carpets, finding a "poetry-book" by Longfellow, and a book of American history, and a story called "David Copperfield," and last and strangest of all, another story called "Pride and Prejudice." A curious freak of fortune--the prim and sentimentally quivering Jane Austen in a coal-camp in a far Western wilderness! An adventure for Jane, as well as for Mary!

What had Mary made of it, Hal wondered. Had she revelled, shop-girl fashion, in scenes of pallid ease? He learned that what she had made of it was despair. This world outside, with its freedom and cleanness, its people living gracious and worth-while lives, was not for her; she was chained to a scrub-pail in a coal-camp. Things had got so much worse since the death of her mother, she said. Her voice had become dull and hard--Hal thought that he had never heard a young voice express such hopelessness.

"You've never been anywhere but here?" he asked.

"I been in two other camps," she said--"first the Gordon, and then East Run. But they're all alike."

"But you've been down to the towns?"

"Only for a day, once or twice a year. Once I was in Sheridan, and in a church I heard a lady sing."

She stopped for a moment, lost in this memory. Then suddenly her voice changed--and he could imagine in the darkness that she had tossed her head defiantly. "I'll not be entertainin' company with my troubles! Ye know how tiresome that is when ye hear it from somebody else--like my next-door neighbour, Mrs. Zamboni. D' ye know her?"

"No," said Hal.

"The poor old lady has troubles enough, God knows. Her man's not much good--he's troubled with the drink; and she's got eleven childer, and that's too many for one woman. Don't ye think so?"

She asked this with a naïveté which made Hal laugh. "Yes," he said, "I do."

"Well, I think people'd help her more if she'd not complain so! And half of it in the Slavish language, that a body can't understand!" So Mary began to tell funny things about Mrs. Zamboni and her other polyglot neighbours, imitating their murdering of the Irish dialect. Hal thought her humour was naïve and delightful, and he led her on to more cheerful gossip during the remainder of their walk.