King Coal/Book II/Chapter 21

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King Coal by Upton Sinclair
Book II Chapter 21

The marshal went out, and a few moments later the jailer came back, with a meal which presented a surprising contrast to the ones he had previously served. There was a tray containing cold ham, a couple of soft boiled eggs, some potato salad, and a cup of coffee with rolls and butter.

"Well, well!" said Hal, condescendingly. "That's even nicer than beefsteak and mashed potatoes!" He sat and watched, not offering to help, while the other made room for the tray on the table in front of him. Then the man stalked out, and Hal began to eat.

Before he had finished, the camp-marshal returned. He seated himself in his revolving chair, and appeared to be meditative. Between bites, Hal would look up and smile at him.

"Cotton," said he, "you know there is no more certain test of breeding than table-manners. You will observe that I have not tucked my napkin in my neck, as Alec Stone would have done."

"I'm getting you," replied the marshal.

Hal set his knife and fork side by side on his plate. "Your man has overlooked the finger-bowl," he remarked. "However, don't bother. You might ring for him now, and let him take the tray."

The camp-marshal used his voice for a bell, and the jailer came. "Unfortunately," said Hal, "when your people were searching me, night before last, they dropped my purse, so I have no tip for the waiter."

The "waiter" glared at Hal as if he would like to bite him; but the camp-marshal grinned. "Clear out, Gus, and shut the door," said he.

Then Hal stretched his legs and made himself comfortable again. "I must say I like being your guest better than being your prisoner!"

There was a pause.

"I've been talking it over with Mr. Cartwright," began the marshal. "I've got no way of telling how much of this is bluff that you've been giving me, but it's evident enough that you're no miner. You may be some newfangled kind of agitator, but I'm damned if I ever saw an agitator that had tea-party manners. I suppose you've been brought up to money; but if that's so, why you want to do this kind of thing is more than I can imagine."

"Tell me, Cotton," said Hal, "did you never hear of _ennui_?"

"Yes," replied the other, "but aren't you rather young to be troubled with that complaint?"

"Suppose I've seen others suffering from it, and wanted to try a different way of living from theirs?"

"If you're what you say, you ought to be still in college."

"I go back for my senior year this fall."

"What college?"

"You doubt me still, I see!" said Hal, and smiled. Then, unexpectedly, with a spirit which only moonlit campuses and privilege could beget, he chanted:

"Old King Coal was a merry old soul,

And a merry old soul was he;

He made him a college, all full of knowledge--

Hurrah for you and me!"

"What college is that?" asked the marshal. And Hal sang again:

"Oh, Liza-Ann, come out with me,

The moon is a-shinin' in the monkey-puzzle tree!

Oh, Liza-Ann, I have began

To sing you the song of Harrigan!"

"Well, well!" commented the marshal, when the concert was over. "Are there many more like you at Harrigan?"

"A little group--enough to leaven the lump."

"And this is your idea of a vacation?"

"No, it isn't a vacation; it's a summer-course in practical sociology."

"Oh, I see!" said the marshal; and he smiled in spite of himself.

"All last year we let the professors of political economy hand out their theories to us. But somehow the theories didn't seem to correspond with the facts. I said to myself, 'I've got to check them up.' You know the phrases, perhaps--individualism, _laissez faire_, freedom of contract, the right of every man to work for whom he pleases. And here you see how the theories work out--a camp-marshal with a cruel smile on his face and a gun on his hip, breaking the laws faster than a governor can sign them."

The camp-marshal decided suddenly that he had had enough of this "tea-party." He rose to his feet to cut matters short. "If you don't mind, young man," said he, "we'll get down to business!"