Jack London. The Apostate (part 5)
«Or younger, I dare say. I suppose he’s worked here all those years?»
«Off and on — but that was before the new law was passed,» the superintendent hastened to add. «Machine idle?» the inspector asked, pointing at the unoccupied machine beside Johnny’s, in which the part-filled bobbins were flying like mad.
«Looks that way.» The superintendent motioned the overseer to him and shouted in his ear and pointed at the machine. «Machine’s idle,» he reported back to the inspector.
They passed on, and Johnny returned to his work, relieved in that the ill had been averted. But the one-legged boy was not so fortunate. The sharp-eyed inspector haled him out at arm’s length from the bin truck. His lips were quivering, and his face had all the expression of one upon whom was fallen profound and irremediable disaster. The overseer looked astounded, as though for the first time he had laid eyes on the boy, while the superintendent’s face expressed shock and displeasure.
«I know him,» the inspector said. «He’s twelve years old. I’ve had him discharged from three factories inside the year. This makes the fourth.»
He turned to the one-legged boy. «You promised me, word and honor, that you’d go to school.»
The one-legged boy burst into tears. «Please, Mr. Inspector, two babies died on us, and we’re awful poor.»
«What makes you cough that way?» the inspector demanded, as though charging him with crime.
And as in denial of guilt, the one-legged boy replied: «It ain’t nothin’. I jes’ caught a cold last week, Mr. Inspector, that’s all.»
In the end the one-legged boy went out of the room with the inspector, the latter accompanied by the anxious and protesting superintendent. After that monotony settled down again. The long morning and the longer afternoon wore away and the whistle blew for quitting time. Darkness had already fallen when Johnny passed out through the factory gate. In the interval the sun had made a golden ladder of the sky, flooded the world with its gracious warmth, and dropped down and disappeared in the west behind a ragged sky-line of housetops.
Supper was the family meal of the day — the one meal at which Johnny encountered his younger brothers and sisters. It partook of the nature of an encounter, to him, for he was very old, while they were distressingly young. He had no patience with their excessive and amazing juvenility. He did not understand it. His own childhood was too far behind him. He was like an old and irritable man, annoyed by the turbulence of their young spirits that was to him arrant silliness. He glowered silently over his food, finding compensation in the thought that they would soon have to go to work. That would take the edge off of them and make them sedate and dignified — like him. Thus it was, after the fashion of the human, that Johnny made of himself a yardstick with which to measure the universe.