King Coal/Book II/Chapter 28

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King Coal by Upton Sinclair
Book II Chapter 28

They came to Mary's home; and next door was the home of the Slav woman, Mrs. Zamboni, about whom in the past she had told him so many funny stories. Mrs. Zamboni had had a new baby every year for sixteen years, and eleven of these babies were still alive. Now her husband was trapped in Number One, and she was distracted, wandering about the streets with the greater part of her brood at her heels. At intervals she would emit a howl like a tortured animal, and her brood would take it up in various timbres. Hal stopped to listen to the sounds, but Mary put her fingers into her ears and fled into the house. Hal followed her, and saw her fling herself into a chair and burst into hysterical weeping. And suddenly Hal realised what a strain this terrible affair had been upon Mary. It had been bad enough to him--but he was a man, and more able to contemplate sights of horror. Men went to their deaths in industry and war, and other men saw them go and inured themselves to the spectacle. But women were the mothers of these men; it was women who bore them in pain, nursed them and reared them with endless patience--women could never become inured to the spectacle! Then too, the women's fate was worse. If the men were dead, that was the end of them; but the women must face the future, with its bitter memories, its lonely and desolate struggle for existence. The women must see the children suffering, dying by slow stages of deprivation.

Hal's pity for all suffering women became concentrated upon the girl beside him. He knew how tenderhearted she was. She had no man in the mine, but some day she would have, and she was suffering the pangs of that inexorable future. He looked at her, huddled in her chair, wiping away her tears with the hem of her old blue calico. She seemed unspeakably pathetic--like a child that has been hurt. She was sobbing out sentences now and then, as if to herself: "Oh, the poor women, the poor women! Did ye see the face of Mrs. Jonotch? She'd jumped into the smoking pit-mouth if they'd let her!"

"Don't suffer so, Mary!" pleaded Hal--as if he thought she could stop.

"Let me alone!" she cried. "Let me have it out!" And Hal, who had had no experience with hysteria, stood helplessly by.

"There's more misery than I ever knew there was!" she went on. "'Tis everywhere ye turn, a woman with her eyes burnin' with suffering wondering if she'll ever see her man again! Or some mother whose lad may be dying and she can do nothin' for him!"

"And neither can you do anything, Mary," Hal pleaded again. "You're only sorrowing yourself to death."

"Ye say that to me?" she cried. "And when ye were ready to let Jeff Cotton shoot ye, because you were so sorry for Mrs. David! No, the sights here nobody can stand."

He could think of nothing to answer. He drew up a chair and sat by her in silence, and after a while she began to grow calmer, and wiped away her tears, and sat gazing dully through the doorway into the dirty little street.

Hal's eyes followed hers. There were the ash-heaps and tomato-cans, there were two of Mrs. Zamboni's bedraggled brood, poking with sticks into a dump-heap--looking for something to eat, perhaps, or for something to play with. There was the dry, waste grass of the road-side, grimy with coal-dust, as was everything else in the village. What a scene!--And this girl's eyes had never a sight of anything more inspiring than this. Day in and day out, all her life long, she looked at this scene! Had he ever for a moment reproached her for her "black moods"? With such an environment could men or women be cheerful--could they dream of beauty, aspire to heights of nobility and courage, to happy service of their fellows? There was a miasma of despair over this place; it was not a real place--it was a dream-place--a horrible, distorted nightmare! It was like the black hole in the ground which haunted Hal's imagination, with men and boys at the bottom of it, dying of asphyxiation!

Suddenly it came to Hal--he wanted to get away from North Valley! To get away at all costs! The place had worn down his courage; slowly, day after day, the sight of misery and want, of dirt and disease, of hunger, oppression, despair, had eaten the soul out of him, had undermined his fine structure of altruistic theories. Yes, he wanted to escape--to a place where the sun shone, where the grass grew green, where human beings stood erect and laughed and were free. He wanted to shut from his eyes the dust and smoke of this nasty little village; to stop his ears to that tormenting sound of women wailing: "O, mein Mann! O, mein Mann!"

He looked at the girl, who sat staring before her, bent forward, her arms hanging limply over her knees.

"Mary," he said, "you must go away from here! It's no place for a tenderhearted girl to be. It's no place for any one!"

She gazed at him dully for a moment. "It was me that was tellin' _you_ to go away," she said, at last. "Ever since ye came here I been sayin' it! Now I guess ye know what I mean."

"Yes," he said, "I do, and I want to go. But I want you to go too."

"D'ye think 'twould do me any good, Joe?" she asked. "D'ye think 'twould do me any good to get away? Could I ever forget the sights I've seen this day? Could I ever have any real, honest happiness anywhere after this?"

He tried to reassure her, but he was far from reassured himself. How would it be with him? Would he ever feel that he had a right to happiness after this? Could he take any satisfaction in a pleasant and comfortable world, knowing that it was based upon such hideous misery? His thoughts went to that world, where careless, pleasure-loving people sought gratification of their desires. It came to him suddenly that what he wanted more than to get away was to bring those people here, if only for a day, for an hour, that they might hear this chorus of wailing women!