Jack London. The Apostate (part 6)
During the meal, his mother explained in various ways and with infinite repetition that she was trying to do the best she could; so that it was with relief, the scant meal ended, that Johnny shoved back his chair and arose. He debated for a moment between bed and the front door, and finally went out the latter. He did not go far. He sat down on the stoop, his knees drawn up and his narrow shoulders drooping forward, his elbows on his knees and the palms of his hands supporting his chin. As he sat there, he did no thinking. He was just resting. So far as his mind was concerned, it was asleep. His brothers and sisters came out, and with other children played noisily about him. An electric globe on the corner lighted their frolics. He was peevish and irritable, that they knew; but the spirit of adventure lured them into teasing him. They joined hands before him, and, keeping time with their bodies, chanted in his face weird and uncomplimentary doggerel. At first he snarled curses at them — curses he had learned from the lips of various foremen. Finding this futile, and remembering his dignity, he relapsed into dogged silence.
His brother Will, next to him in age, having just passed his tenth birthday, was the ring-leader. Johnny did not possess particularly kindly feelings toward him. His life had early been embittered by continual giving over and giving way to Will. He had a definite feeling that Will was greatly in his debt and was ungrateful about it. In his own playtime, far back in the dim past, he had been robbed of a large part of that playtime by being compelled to take care of Will. Will was a baby then, and then, as now, their mother had spent her days in the mills. To Johnny had fallen the part of little father and little mother as well.
Will seemed to show the benefit of the giving over and the giving way. He was well-built, fairly rugged, as tall as his elder brother and even heavier. It was as though the life-blood of the one had been diverted into the other’s veins. And in spirits it was the same. Johnny was jaded, worn out, without resilience, while his younger brother seemed bursting and spilling over with exuberance.
The mocking chant rose louder and louder. Will leaned closer as he danced, thrusting out his tongue. Johnny’s left arm shot out and caught the other around the neck. At the same time he rapped his bony fist to the other’s nose. It was a pathetically bony fist, but that it was sharp to hurt was evidenced by the squeal of pain it produced. The other children were uttering frightened cries, while Johnny’s sister, Jennie, had dashed into the house.
He thrust Will from him, kicked him savagely on the shins, then reached for him and slammed him face downward in the dirt. Nor did he release him till the face had been rubbed into the dirt several times. Then the mother arrived, an anaemic whirlwind of solicitude and maternal wrath.
«Why can’t he leave me alone?» was Johnny’s reply to her upbraiding. «Can’t he see I’m tired?»
«I’m as big as you,» Will raged in her arms, his face a mess of tears, dirt, and blood. «I’m as big as you now, an’ I’m goin’ to git bigger. Then I’ll lick you — see if I don’t.»
«You ought to be to work, seein’ how big you are,» Johnny snarled. «That’s what’s the matter with you. You ought to be to work. An’ it’s up to your ma to put you to work.»
«But he’s too young,» she protested. «He’s only a little boy.»