Jack London. The Apostate (part 4)
The boy alongside of Johnny whimpered and sniffed. The boy’s face was convulsed with hatred for the overseer who kept a threatening eye on him from a distance; but every bobbin was running full. The boy yelled terrible oaths into the whirling bobbins before him; but the sound did not carry half a dozen feet, the roaring of the room holding it in and containing it like a wall.
Of all this Johnny took no notice. He had a way of accepting things. Besides, things grow monotonous by repetition, and this particular happening he had witnessed many times. It seemed to him as useless to oppose the overseer as to defy the will of a machine. Machines were made to go in certain ways and to perform certain tasks. It was the same with the overseer.
But at eleven o’clock there was excitement in the room. In an apparently occult way the excitement instantly permeated everywhere. The one-legged boy who worked on the other side of Johnny bobbed swiftly across the floor to a bin truck that stood empty. Into this he dived out of sight, crutch and all. The superintendent of the mill was coming along, accompanied by a young man. He was well dressed and wore a starched shirt — a gentleman, in Johnny’s classification of men, and also, «the Inspector.»
He looked sharply at the boys as he passed along. Sometimes he stopped and asked questions. When he did so, he was compelled to shout at the top of his lungs, at which moments his face was ludicrously contorted with the strain of making himself heard. His quick eye noted the empty machine alongside of Johnny’s, but he said nothing. Johnny also caught his eye, and he stopped abruptly. He caught Johnny by the arm to draw him back a step from the machine; but with an exclamation of surprise he released the arm.
«Pretty skinny,» the superintendent laughed anxiously.
«Pipe stems,» was the answer. «Look at those legs. The boy’s got the rickets — incipient, but he’s got them. If epilepsy doesn’t get him in the end, it will be because tuberculosis gets him first.»
Johnny listened, but did not understand. Furthermore he was not interested in future ills. There was an immediate and more serious ill that threatened him in the form of the inspector.
«Now, my boy, I want you to tell me the truth,» the inspector said, or shouted, bending close to the boy’s ear to make him hear. «How old are you?»
«Fourteen,» Johnny lied, and he lied with the full force of his lungs. So loudly did he lie that it started him off in a dry, hacking cough that lifted the lint which had been settling in his lungs all morning.
«Looks sixteen at least,» said the superintendent.
«Or sixty,» snapped the inspector.
«He’s always looked that way.»
«How long?» asked the inspector, quickly.
«For years. Never gets a bit older.»