The Laugh

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


The Laugh

BY MARY HEATON VORSE


NO one outside Dawes Hole knows how the strike on the Range started. Even in Dawes Hole they couldn't have told you that a laugh began it. Every one has different theories, from that of the easy explanation—"outside agitators"—that comes to the mine-owner's hand as readily as a half-brick to the hand of a street urchin, to the grandiloquent and idealistic one put forward by the champion of labor—"a spontaneous uprising of the people."

Now the truth was neither one thing nor the other. You cannot explain strikes that way. Outside agitators cannot send satisfied men, hundreds of them, swinging out over forty miles of road past the scarred abysmal desolation of their mines.

As for a spontaneous uprising of the people—!

The reason why the men in Dawes Hole walked out was on account of Red Tarleton's losing his punch. A laugh did it—but for the laugh he might have come back. As it was, Red Tarleton, the egregious, met his match, and suddenly the miners were on strike.

They found the company off its guard. After the beginning of the war, when a wave of discontent darkened the face of labor, and fierce storms broke in one place and another, the foremen of the mines and the men in the office sat with their ears to the ground and reported no more than the usual incessant grumbling that was always in their ears like distant thunder, and an occasional act of violence, that was like a stab of lightning. To make sure they even gave a raise to avoid trouble, for Pittsburg clamored for ore.

"How's things at the Hole?" young Allen in the company office asked Tarleton.

Tarleton, the mine boss, straddled his chair, huge, predatory, gay.

"Fine as silk," he answered, cocking his one eye at Allen.

"Keep 'em steady," Allen suggested. Here he hesitated uncomfortably. One of the men higher up had informed Allen that this was a good time for "that pirate Tarleton to quit his funny business"—war-time was no time for mine bosses to get gay, and Allen had better give Tarleton a hint.

A mine boss has legitimate power, but an unscrupulous boss can use this power in illegitimate ways. There was talk in the Range, plenty of it, of men buying good shifts from their bosses, for a man is paid by the number of tons of ore he mines. There are hard places that yield little ore, and soft shifts that yield a great deal, and men who had worked to good ore found themselves suddenly transferred and their places given to a boss's favorite. There were other ways in which a boss who needed a piece of change could get it—he could engage in a raffle, for instance. The men—in theory—didn't have to take a chance. If any one wanted to complain, let him complain to the company and see what happened—they don't believe in collective bargaining on the Range.

The company, however, doesn't approve of these things, and it was up to Allen to tell Tarleton as much. He found it hard to begin. Allen was young and romantic, and he fancied that all Tarleton needed to be the picture of a buccaneer was a sash with a cutlass in it, and a parrot to yell "Pieces of Eight" for him. Indeed, Allen was not so far wrong; the mine in its isolation was not unlike a ship with Tarleton its bucko mate.

He ran the mine and the men in it. He drove them, he harried them, bullied them, fleeced them, but he jollied them, and on occasion got drunk with them. He went through life gay and vengeful, a smile on his face, his hand clenched in a fist, dominating by sheer vitality; he was rank with it, he wantoned in it.

As Allen talked with him, he shifted his simile. Tarleton was a man who invited similes, so like a natural force he seemed. Now he appeared to Allen like the utterance of one of the gaping mines; he was red and powerful, and as tricky, and he knew just as much about his duty to his neighbor.

Allen became more and more embarrassed as a realization of his inadequacy invaded him. Knowing his admonition would be like a pebble cast into the waters of eternity, he faltered out something about care—tact—the men were restless. In the matter of women, now, there had been talk—Tarleton must know that there had.

Tarleton threw back his red head so one could look down his red gullet while he laughed. His teeth were as white as an animal's.

"Ho-ho-ho!" he howled. "Ho-ho—talk, you say—talk! Why wouldn't there be?"

Allen found himself laughing with Tarleton; that was the damnable charm of the man. Suddenly Tarleton stopped laughing; he thrust out his jaw at Allen menacingly, his face flushed to purple—to the color of the big mines—and a triangular patch of white on his forehead where the scar was gleamed out as if it had been greased.

"Talk!" he cried. "Who talks? What makes 'um come with me, then—they know me—what makes 'um come? They got eyes, 'ain't they—an' ears? They come o' their own free will, don't they? Oh, I know 'um. I don't put up no bluff with no girl. Let 'um stay home!" The storm had passed. His laughter boomed out again. "But they can't stay home—hey, Allen?—ho-ho-ho! Talk! You betcha!"

Allen had the feeling of being made a partner in one of Tarleton's rascalities.

"There wasn't only talk of women," he went on, feeling the need of keeping his self-respect. "There was talk of a—a—raffle."

"Oh—boy! The raffle—the raffle! Tarleton flung back his head again. "The old horse and shay! An' the Austrian that won it! 'What you goin' to do with it?' I says. 'Don't you want to buy it?' says he. 'I'll give you ten,' I says. I felt gen'rous—I give 'um ten. Ho-ho! Ten! Say, Allen, what's eatin' you, anyway? The ol' man tell you to hold an equisatorium over me? 'Fraid o' trouble, is he? Tell him he should worry. Ain't the ore comin' out? Am I paid to get out ore or am I paid to be a sky pilot? Tell him"—he stuck out his chest and beat upon it with the flat of his wide hand—"tell him that as the movie star says, 'He can buy me labor but not me private life.' Get me, Allen—hey, boy?" He strode to the door and turned and smiled confidently at Allen and dropped into a purring conversational tone. "Tell the ol' boy he don't need to worry—honest. Them sons o' guns to the Hole ain't goin' to make no row—not with me there." He stood there large, his one eye twinkling with pugnacious malice, intact in his own belief in himself, a man, Allen decided, on whom little was put over and who could put over a whole lot.

Before Tarleton could go out the door flew open as though blown by a wind, and a girl ran into him. She regarded Tarleton with a sort of tense fury.

"You couldn't look where you was goin', could you, Mister Tarleton—Mister-Red-Tarleton? I'm not afraid of you and your one ugly eye!"

She stood steady and her insult had the effect of level and calculated gunfire. She was angry, but only as angry as she felt like being, riding her anger as though it were a horse of high mettle.

Tarleton looked at her, for once at a loss, his mouth agape.

She was small, but with the strong build of a woman whose ancestors not long ago have worked in the field. Warmth glowed from her, the warmth of anger, of generosity, of passion, and yet she had the fire of her heart in control. Others would scorch and burn through it, but she would burn only if she were a willing victim. The Orient must have helped to make her. She had the beauty of Central-European women of mixed blood. There was a quality in her so foreign that to Allen it was vaguely shocking. Her eyes were black, not dark brown, but sloe-black and, like her hair, blazing darkly with some inner fire. She wore her American clothes and even her American speech like a chance ornament.

Tarleton's eye wandered to her white throat which sprang from her shoulders round and lovely. He noticed the peculiar whiteness and freshness of her skin. She had the quality of wildness he had seen before in the Austrian women, but theirs was the wildness of young animals; and while animals can be tamed or cowed, there was about this girl an indomitable quality.

They had faced each other a moment before she snapped:

"Keep your eyes to yourself! I ain't a lookin'-glass." Then, turning to Allen, "Are you the superintendent?" she inquired, politely. Her voice had dropped an octave.

"I represent the superintendent," Allen admitted.

"I'm Miss Moscovitch—Tessie Moscovitch—and I've come to complain of him!" She nodded her head insultingly in Tarleton's direction. "Oh yes, you can stay if you want," she wheeled on him. "I'm not afraid of you, if my brother-in-law is! My brother-in-law's dumb. I says to him, 'You must be dumb to stand it!' If I was a miner an' any one played me a trick like that, I'd take an' gouge his eye out!" Her anger escaped from her ever so little, and Tarleton saw his advantage.

"Haw-haw!" he laughed. "You'd gouge it, would you? Hear her—she'd gouge it!" He slapped his thigh in huge delight.

The girl flushed and laughed, too—not with Tarleton, but at herself. Then she grew grave and accusing.

"This is what he did to my brother-in-law, who's one of the steadiest men he's got—an' Tarleton, Mister Tarleton, knows it. He's got five kids, one a new one—an' he knows that, too. That's how I come up here—to take care of my sister—my home's in Duluth—an' I'm glad I did." She flashed a hostile look at Tarleton. "He took Joe's shift from him an' gave it to some one that paid him." Again the accusing nod in Tarleton's direction. "Took a married man's good shift from him an' gave it to one o' the unmarried ones, an' got a rake-off—an' my poor sister not off her bed yet. Took him off a shift where he was makin' maybe five a day, an' put him on one that couldn't keep body and soul together. They think if they come to the comp'ny to complain they'll get fired." Here her voice rose menacingly. "Let 'em fire Joe, an' I'll go up and down the Range an' tell every comp'ny officer there is what Mister Tarleton's doin' to Dawes Hole." She turned on Tarleton in her sudden controlled fury. "You touch a hair o' Joe's head, an' I won't rest till I get you—you hear me? I'll let 'em know about your tricks. There's plenty o' comp'ny officers that's all right—they want steady men like Joe."

Tarleton had drawn himself up. His manner expressed worth and gravity, but Allen saw the devil glancing and gleaming in his eye.

"Young lady," he said, severely, yet with kindness, "I admire the way you stick up for your folks, but you been misinformed. Every time I have to change men on their shift, there's a howl I been bribed. There's a howl every time such things happen; but why don't they howl to me? Tell me that." He addressed Allen, his jaws stuck out, his dangerous violent face ablaze. "But I guess I'll have to look into your brother-in-law's case—for I do like spunk in a girl—I do, now, even when she don't know what she's talkin' about. What you say your brother-in-law's name is?"

"Joe Mostow," she answered. She was watching him guardedly, unimpressed by his airs.

"I'll be around to look into it."

"I don't want it looked into. I want him to have his shift back," she snapped. "Which way is it to the trolley?"

"I'll show you," Tarleton volunteered. As he left the office he turned and winked at Allen, a wink which admitted everything, which defied every one, and which conveyed to Allen his opinion of this flaming, angry girl.

Allen, being young and romantic, had the impulse to rush after them to warn the girl, to tell her to "stay home," as Tarleton had said. They moved off, two opposing forces. Allen, watching them from the window, saw Tarleton bend toward her with flattering gravity, saw her flash a bright provocative look from her extraordinary black eyes.

That night when Tarleton called "to look into things" her talk gave him the feeling as though humming-birds were darting through the air, so dazzling she seemed, so swift her wit, so full of color her thoughts. She talked to her sister—she ignored him. Tarleton watched her greedily. He sat with his mottled hairy hands relaxed on his knees, but when he dropped his voice to the note of flattery, she eluded him. He found his words tripping, he stumbled over his own compliments to the accompaniment of her derisive laughter. If he gained a point, she gained two; if he made a detour to catch her, she dodged him.

From the first he saw it was to be none of the easy victories that made him so contemptuous of girls. He did what he could to please her. He hired a motor and took her to the nearest big town to "the pictures." He took her to town to a dance at the Finnish Opera House. Always she insisted on other girls going, always she made excuses that kept them with other people, not because she was afraid of him, Tarleton gathered from the mockery which flamed in her black eyes, but to annoy him.

Once when he had been alone with her he had tried to slip his arm about her and she had turned on him, lashing at him with that calculated anger of hers:

"Because I go 'round with you, don't think you can get gay with me!" she cried. "If you was the last man on earth you couldn't touch me!"

Time went on, and he got no further with Tessie. She accepted what he gave her with insulting indifference. She did not pretend to like him. If he wanted to spend money to amuse her he might, was what her manner proclaimed. He took this as a higher form of coquetry. He noticed that she was shiveringly conscious of his slightest approach, and this fastidious consciousness of him pleased Tarleton. Whatever she was, she wasn't cold, and it was his experience that the flesh, first or last, plays women false. He didn't know that the instincts of some women make them as incorruptible as fire.

"You want to look out for Tarleton," Tessie's sister warned her. "He don't spend money on a girl for nothin'."

"He's goin' to get stung then," Tessie answered. "He's stung everybody else—it's his turn now."

Tessie's visit was almost over, and the madness for her was in Tarleton's blood, and time was against him. He relaxed his grip ever so lightly on the mine. Ever so little the hold of the men slipped from him, and a venal mine boss must be as watchful as a lookout in a storm.

What worried Tarleton was that he needed money. Like easy-come money, it was easy-go. He was always hard up. So he raffled a cook-stove, and how far the men had slipped from him they showed by the way they took it; they had swallowed other raffles and the sale of the shifts, but they didn't want to chip in a dollar each for a twenty-dollar cook-stove so that Tarleton could take his girl out in a motor; let him see how they felt about it. The dissolving knots of men who met on their way to work talked and muttered, and Tarleton realized they had slipped from his grasp, and he damned them. But what mattered to him was that Tessie was going on a picnic with him almost alone, since she took with her only two of the Mostow children.

The men lounging about on that Sunday stared sullenly at Red Tarleton making for his hired motor. Opposite the houses the mine dump rose up sheer. Men were lounging on its red flanks. They laughed with meaning, and one of them, made bold by drink, called out:

"How's the little old cook-stove?"

Such a thing had not happened before. Tessie understood, and sat rigid beside him, putting distances between them.

They picnicked in the great woods. Still she kept the distance between them, looking at him gravely. Around them the underbrush snapped and crackled perpetually as with memories of forest fires. The children wandered off in its thick depths.

Tessie lay flung on the ground as though she were part of it. She had forgotten Tarleton. She was off her guard, sunk into the deep bosom of life. When he spoke to her she answered from far off. Her manner was laid aside like a garment. She seemed naked to life, as though she offered herself to all the wandering impulses that might be borne by the wind.

Tarleton had never before seen her like that. It was his moment. He edged closer to her; for the first time she did not shrink; she did not even notice his approach. Then quietly he put his arm around her and drew her to him. She sprang from his grasp, pale with fury. He stood for a moment, contemplating the beauty of her anger, and in that moment she had again eluded him. She called, and at the sound of her voice the children came crashing through the brush.

"Aw, Tessie—" he began.

She wheeled upon him, master of herself, but white to the lips, the fury of madness in her eyes, though all she said to him was:

"We are going home!" The sound of her voice was like the cracking of a whip.

At that moment love was born in Tarleton's heart. This lovely, angry woman was made for him, a proud woman on whom one could put over nothing. As she got out of the motor he tried to speak to her again. She put up her hand warningly.

"Don't speak to me," she said in her low, dangerous voice. "Never come near me again." She paused and turned on him sharply. "I mean that," she cried at him. "Never come near me again!" There was no compromise in her.

Why—he would even marry such a woman! Of course that was the only way to get her—marry her!

Tarleton went home and washed up. For one golden hour life was beautiful to him—for an hour he loved a woman who would love him; he loved her proudly and honorably. When he went around to Tessie's house Tessie's sister sat in the front room talking to Joe and some other men. The story of the cook-stove was being retold.

Tessie was clearing up in the kitchen. One went in by the kitchen door, not by the front door, at Dawes Hole. Tarleton knocked.

"What are you doing here?" Tessie cried. She was as stern as a sentencing judge.

"I—I—came— You don't understand—" he faltered. He had never asked a woman to marry him before—and meant it. "I—I—want to marry you, Tessie."

At that fury broke loose in her.

"Marry you!" she cried. "Marry you!"

"Tessie—don't—you understand?" He couldn't believe it. It had never occurred to him that he could not have any woman he wanted. He had never even had to pay a price before.

The spectacle of her anger inflamed him. He tried to gather her to him. She broke from him and stood, her hands on the table, staring at him, and calling him to go in her low, dangerous voice. He advanced on her again, his arms outstretched.

At this a cry broke from her. She seized the pepper from the table and threw it in his eye, screaming at him to go. He cried aloud in pain and struck blindly at her. She screamed, and screamed again, and Joe Mostow unfolded his big frame from his chair and plunged into the room, his visitors following. They saw their enemy pawing his eyes, and Tessie screaming with the hysteria of rage. They thought that some last insult had been offered her under the roof of her protector, and they saw him helpless. And so they beat him up and threw him out of the door.

"What did he do, Tessie—what did he do?" cried Mrs. Mostow.

"He—asked me—to marry him—the red devil! Marry him!" Tessie's voice broke with the insult of it. "An' I peppered him good!"

There was the silence of amazement, then the men's laughter boomed out, peal on peal, the while Mrs. Mostow shrilled:

"Tarleton asked you to marry him—an' you threw pepper on him!" Her laughter rang out; Tessie's joined her.

Big Red Tarleton, crawling off through the dusk, pawing at his blinded eyes, and limping from his bruises, heard them. He heard Tessie's laughter, and strength went out of him. His pride in himself had fallen. The woman he loved loathed him, loathed him with an intenser fire than he loved her, loathed him so much that her impulse to defend herself even against an honorable love had been to hurt him.

He had realized this in the second when he had clasped her in his arms. He had revolted her very soul. Her fiery heart sickened at his touch, and then, having hurt him and humiliated him, she laughed at him.

He had met his match, had received a knock-out blow, and as he crawled through the dusk he knew that he could not come back, and the men knew it, too. The joke fate had played on him was too great. People sitting on their steps saw him stumbling along blindly, and now from one house and now from another they went to Joe Mostow's to find out the reason. And the laugh grew. Big Austrian women doubled themselves up with laughter.

"He ast her to marry him—pepper in his eyes!" they roared.

One long Finnish woman shook her fist violently after him with a gesture that had in it a menace of vengeance. Dawes Hole had one voice that night, and its first note was laughter. Then the men buzzed back and forth like a hive of angry bees. They had thought him invulnerable; they had feared him, and now he had fallen.

So the next day the discontented men of Dawes Hole streamed out on strike, flowing like water down the smooth road, gathering impetus as they went.

That was how the miners of the Range came to lift up their puny heads, insignificant Davids in the face of the Goliath of the Trust. And even if David slung a glancing pebble there were moments when it had epic qualities—that strike, with its yawning decorations of disaster, for the Range is the natural setting for violence. And the men streamed down the road which uncoils its lengths past the grim regiments of blackened stumps of the fire-swept country, past the sanguinary scars of the open-pit mines, and wherever they went others joined them. They hired a band and they marched with music playing—Croats and Dalmatians, Rumanians and Finns, all the mixed Slavic races of South Austria and Bohemia. Their women, strong of leg and deep-bosomed, marched beside them, pushing their baby-carriages along. They marched along singing, celebrating the downfall of the tyrant, and now and then a woman's laugh rang out, echoed by the bass laughter of men, as they told one another how Red Tarleton lost his punch. The Range was ready for a conflagration and the laugh had been the torch.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.