The Apostate by Jack London
"Now I wake me up to work;
I pray the Lord I may not shirk.
If I should die before the night,
I pray the Lord my work's all right.
"If you don't git up, Johnny, I won't give you a bite to eat!"
The threat had no effect on the boy. He clung stubbornly to sleep,
fighting for its oblivion as the dreamer fights for his dream. The boy's
hands loosely clenched themselves, and he made feeble, spasmodic blows at
the air. These blows were intended for his mother, but she betrayed
practised familiarity in avoiding them as she shook him roughly by the
It was a cry that began, muffled, in the deeps of sleep, that swiftly
rushed upward, like a wail, into passionate belligerence, and that died
away and sank down into an inarticulate whine. It was a bestial cry, as of
a soul in torment, filled with infinite protest and pain.
But she did not mind. She was a sad-eyed, tired-faced woman, and she had
grown used to this task, which she repeated every day of her life. She got
a grip on the bedclothes and tried to strip them down; but the boy,
ceasing his punching, clung to them desperately. In a huddle, at the foot
of the bed, he still remained covered. Then she tried dragging the bedding
to the floor. The boy opposed her. She braced herself. Hers was the
superior weight, and the boy and bedding gave, the former instinctively
following the latter in order to shelter against the chill of the room
that bit into his body.
As he toppled on the edge of the bed it seemed that he must fall
head-first to the floor. But consciousness fluttered up in him. He righted
himself and for a moment perilously balanced. Then he struck the floor on
his feet. On the instant his mother seized him by the shoulders and shook
him. Again his fists struck out, this time with more force and directness.
At the same time his eyes opened. She released him. He was awake.
"All right," he mumbled.
She caught up the lamp and hurried out, leaving him in darkness.
"You'll be docked," she warned back to him.
He did not mind the darkness. When he had got into his clothes, he went
out into the kitchen. His tread was very heavy for so thin and light a
boy. His legs dragged with their own weight, which seemed unreasonable
because they were such skinny legs. He drew a broken-bottomed chair to the
"Johnny," his mother called sharply.
He arose as sharply from the chair, and, without a word, went to the sink.
It was a greasy, filthy sink. A smell came up from the outlet. He took no
notice of it. That a sink should smell was to him part of the natural
order, just as it was a part of the natural order that the soap should be
grimy with dish-water and hard to lather. Nor did he try very hard to make
it lather. Several splashes of the cold water from the running faucet
completed the function. He did not wash his teeth. For that matter he had
never seen a toothbrush, nor did he know that there existed beings in the
world who were guilty of so great a foolishness as tooth washing.
"You might wash yourself wunst a day without bein' told," his mother
She was holding a broken lid on the pot as she poured two cups of coffee.
He made no remark, for this was a standing quarrel between them, and the
one thing upon which his mother was hard as adamant. "Wunst" a day it was
compulsory that he should wash his face. He dried himself on a greasy
towel, damp and dirty and ragged, that left his face covered with shreds
"I wish we didn't live so far away," she said, as he sat down. "I try to
do the best I can. You know that. But a dollar on the rent is such a
savin', an' we've more room here. You know that."
He scarcely followed her. He had heard it all before, many times. The
range of her thought was limited, and she was ever harking back to the
hardship worked upon them by living so far from the mills.
"A dollar means more grub," he remarked sententiously. "I'd sooner do the
walkin' an' git the grub."
He ate hurriedly, half chewing the bread and washing the unmasticated
chunks down with coffee. The hot and muddy liquid went by the name of
coffee. Johnny thought it was coffee—and excellent coffee. That was
one of the few of life's illusions that remained to him. He had never
drunk real coffee in his life.
In addition to the bread, there was a small piece of cold pork. His mother
refilled his cup with coffee. As he was finishing the bread, he began to
watch if more was forthcoming. She intercepted his questioning glance.
"Now, don't be hoggish, Johnny," was her comment. "You've had your share.
Your brothers an' sisters are smaller'n you."
He did not answer the rebuke. He was not much of a talker. Also, he ceased
his hungry glancing for more. He was uncomplaining, with a patience that
was as terrible as the school in which it had been learned. He finished
his coffee, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and started to rise.
"Wait a second," she said hastily. "I guess the loaf kin stand you another
slice—a thin un."
There was legerdemain in her actions. With all the seeming of cutting a
slice from the loaf for him, she put loaf and slice back in the bread box
and conveyed to him one of her own two slices. She believed she had
deceived him, but he had noted her sleight-of-hand. Nevertheless, he took
the bread shamelessly. He had a philosophy that his mother, because of her
chronic sickliness, was not much of an eater anyway.
She saw that he was chewing the bread dry, and reached over and emptied
her coffee cup into his.
"Don't set good somehow on my stomach this morning," she explained.
A distant whistle, prolonged and shrieking, brought both of them to their
feet. She glanced at the tin alarm-clock on the shelf. The hands stood at
half-past five. The rest of the factory world was just arousing from
sleep. She drew a shawl about her shoulders, and on her head put a dingy
hat, shapeless and ancient.
"We've got to run," she said, turning the wick of the lamp and blowing
down the chimney.
They groped their way out and down the stairs. It was clear and cold, and
Johnny shivered at the first contact with the outside air. The stars had
not yet begun to pale in the sky, and the city lay in blackness. Both
Johnny and his mother shuffled their feet as they walked. There was no
ambition in the leg muscles to swing the feet clear of the ground.
After fifteen silent minutes, his mother turned off to the right.
"Don't be late," was her final warning from out of the dark that was
swallowing her up.
He made no response, steadily keeping on his way. In the factory quarter,
doors were opening everywhere, and he was soon one of a multitude that
pressed onward through the dark. As he entered the factory gate the
whistle blew again. He glanced at the east. Across a ragged sky-line of
housetops a pale light was beginning to creep. This much he saw of the day
as he turned his back upon it and joined his work gang.
He took his place in one of many long rows of machines. Before him, above
a bin filled with small bobbins, were large bobbins revolving rapidly.
Upon these he wound the jute-twine of the small bobbins. The work was
simple. All that was required was celerity. The small bobbins were emptied
so rapidly, and there were so many large bobbins that did the emptying,
that there were no idle moments.
He worked mechanically. When a small bobbin ran out, he used his left hand
for a brake, stopping the large bobbin and at the same time, with thumb
and forefinger, catching the flying end of twine. Also, at the same time,
with his right hand, he caught up the loose twine-end of a small bobbin.
These various acts with both hands were performed simultaneously and
swiftly. Then there would come a flash of his hands as he looped the
weaver's knot and released the bobbin. There was nothing difficult about
weaver's knots. He once boasted he could tie them in his sleep. And for
that matter, he sometimes did, toiling centuries long in a single night at
tying an endless succession of weaver's knots.
Some of the boys shirked, wasting time and machinery by not replacing the
small bobbins when they ran out. And there was an overseer to prevent
this. He caught Johnny's neighbour at the trick, and boxed his ears.
"Look at Johnny there—why ain't you like him?" the overseer
Johnny's bobbins were running full blast, but he did not thrill at the
indirect praise. There had been a time... but that was long ago, very long
ago. His apathetic face was expressionless as he listened to himself being
held up as a shining example. He was the perfect worker. He knew that. He
had been told so, often. It was a commonplace, and besides it didn't seem
to mean anything to him any more. From the perfect worker he had evolved
into the perfect machine. When his work went wrong, it was with him as
with the machine, due to faulty material. It would have been as possible
for a perfect nail-die to cut imperfect nails as for him to make a
And small wonder. There had never been a time when he had not been in
intimate relationship with machines. Machinery had almost been bred into
him, and at any rate he had been brought up on it. Twelve years before,
there had been a small flutter of excitement in the loom room of this very
mill. Johnny's mother had fainted. They stretched her out on the floor in
the midst of the shrieking machines. A couple of elderly women were called
from their looms. The foreman assisted. And in a few minutes there was one
more soul in the loom room than had entered by the doors. It was Johnny,
born with the pounding, crashing roar of the looms in his ears, drawing
with his first breath the warm, moist air that was thick with flying lint.
He had coughed that first day in order to rid his lungs of the lint; and
for the same reason he had coughed ever since.
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
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
"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
"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."
"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 arms 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 honour, 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
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 at 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 ringleader. 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
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 mass 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."
"I was younger'n him when I started to work."
Johnny's mouth was open, further to express the sense of unfairness that
he felt, but the mouth closed with a snap. He turned gloomily on his heel
and stalked into the house and to bed. The door of his room was open to
let in warmth from the kitchen. As he undressed in the semi-darkness he
could hear his mother talking with a neighbour woman who had dropped in.
His mother was crying, and her speech was punctuated with spiritless
"I can't make out what's gittin' into Johnny," he could hear her say. "He
didn't used to be this way. He was a patient little angel.
"An' he is a good boy," she hastened to defend. "He's worked faithful, an'
he did go to work too young. But it wasn't my fault. I do the best I can,
Prolonged sniffling from the kitchen, and Johnny murmured to himself as
his eyelids closed down, "You betcher life I've worked faithful."
The next morning he was torn bodily by his mother from the grip of sleep.
Then came the meagre breakfast, the tramp through the dark, and the pale
glimpse of day across the housetops as he turned his back on it and went
in through the factory gate. It was another day, of all the days, and all
the days were alike.
And yet there had been variety in his life—at the times he changed
from one job to another, or was taken sick. When he was six, he was little
mother and father to Will and the other children still younger. At seven
he went into the mills—winding bobbins. When he was eight, he got
work in another mill. His new job was marvellously easy. All he had to do
was to sit down with a little stick in his hand and guide a stream of
cloth that flowed past him. This stream of cloth came out of the maw of a
machine, passed over a hot roller, and went on its way elsewhere. But he
sat always in one place, beyond the reach of daylight, a gas-jet flaring
over him, himself part of the mechanism.
He was very happy at that job, in spite of the moist heat, for he was
still young and in possession of dreams and illusions. And wonderful
dreams he dreamed as he watched the steaming cloth streaming endlessly by.
But there was no exercise about the work, no call upon his mind, and he
dreamed less and less, while his mind grew torpid and drowsy.
Nevertheless, he earned two dollars a week, and two dollars represented
the difference between acute starvation and chronic underfeeding.
But when he was nine, he lost his job. Measles was the cause of it. After
he recovered, he got work in a glass factory. The pay was better, and the
work demanded skill. It was piecework, and the more skilful he was, the
bigger wages he earned. Here was incentive. And under this incentive he
developed into a remarkable worker.
It was simple work, the tying of glass stoppers into small bottles. At his
waist he carried a bundle of twine. He held the bottles between his knees
so that he might work with both hands. Thus, in a sitting position and
bending over his own knees, his narrow shoulders grew humped and his chest
was contracted for ten hours each day. This was not good for the lungs,
but he tied three hundred dozen bottles a day.
The superintendent was very proud of him, and brought visitors to look at
him. In ten hours three hundred dozen bottles passed through his hands.
This meant that he had attained machine-like perfection. All waste
movements were eliminated. Every motion of his thin arms, every movement
of a muscle in the thin fingers, was swift and accurate. He worked at high
tension, and the result was that he grew nervous. At night his muscles
twitched in his sleep, and in the daytime he could not relax and rest. He
remained keyed up and his muscles continued to twitch. Also he grew sallow
and his lint-cough grew worse. Then pneumonia laid hold of the feeble
lungs within the contracted chest, and he lost his job in the glass-works.
Now he had returned to the jute mills where he had first begun with
winding bobbins. But promotion was waiting for him. He was a good worker.
He would next go on the starcher, and later he would go into the loom
room. There was nothing after that except increased efficiency.
The machinery ran faster than when he had first gone to work, and his mind
ran slower. He no longer dreamed at all, though his earlier years had been
full of dreaming. Once he had been in love. It was when he first began
guiding the cloth over the hot roller, and it was with the daughter of the
superintendent. She was much older than he, a young woman, and he had seen
her at a distance only a paltry half-dozen times. But that made no
difference. On the surface of the cloth stream that poured past him, he
pictured radiant futures wherein he performed prodigies of toil, invented
miraculous machines, won to the mastership of the mills, and in the end
took her in his arms and kissed her soberly on the brow.
But that was all in the long ago, before he had grown too old and tired to
love. Also, she had married and gone away, and his mind had gone to sleep.
Yet it had been a wonderful experience, and he used often to look back
upon it as other men and women look back upon the time they believed in
fairies. He had never believed in fairies nor Santa Claus; but he had
believed implicitly in the smiling future his imagination had wrought into
the steaming cloth stream.
He had become a man very early in life. At seven, when he drew his first
wages, began his adolescence. A certain feeling of independence crept up
in him, and the relationship between him and his mother changed. Somehow,
as an earner and breadwinner, doing his own work in the world, he was more
like an equal with her. Manhood, full-blown manhood, had come when he was
eleven, at which time he had gone to work on the night shift for six
months. No child works on the night shift and remains a child.
There had been several great events in his life. One of these had been
when his mother bought some California prunes. Two others had been the two
times when she cooked custard. Those had been events. He remembered them
kindly. And at that time his mother had told him of a blissful dish she
would sometime make—"floating island," she had called it, "better
than custard." For years he had looked forward to the day when he would
sit down to the table with floating island before him, until at last he
had relegated the idea of it to the limbo of unattainable ideals.
Once he found a silver quarter lying on the sidewalk. That, also, was a
great event in his life, withal a tragic one. He knew his duty on the
instant the silver flashed on his eyes, before even he had picked it up.
At home, as usual, there was not enough to eat, and home he should have
taken it as he did his wages every Saturday night. Right conduct in this
case was obvious; but he never had any spending of his money, and he was
suffering from candy hunger. He was ravenous for the sweets that only on
red-letter days he had ever tasted in his life.
He did not attempt to deceive himself. He knew it was sin, and
deliberately he sinned when he went on a fifteen-cent candy debauch. Ten
cents he saved for a future orgy; but not being accustomed to the carrying
of money, he lost the ten cents. This occurred at the time when he was
suffering all the torments of conscience, and it was to him an act of
divine retribution. He had a frightened sense of the closeness of an awful
and wrathful God. God had seen, and God had been swift to punish, denying
him even the full wages of sin.
In memory he always looked back upon that as the one great criminal deed
of his life, and at the recollection his conscience always awoke and gave
him another twinge. It was the one skeleton in his closet. Also, being so
made, and circumstanced, he looked back upon the deed with regret. He was
dissatisfied with the manner in which he had spent the quarter. He could
have invested it better, and, out of his later knowledge of the quickness
of God, he would have beaten God out by spending the whole quarter at one
fell swoop. In retrospect he spent the quarter a thousand times, and each
time to better advantage.
There was one other memory of the past, dim and faded, but stamped into
his soul everlasting by the savage feet of his father. It was more like a
nightmare than a remembered vision of a concrete thing—more like the
race-memory of man that makes him fall in his sleep and that goes back to
his arboreal ancestry.
This particular memory never came to Johnny in broad daylight when he was
wide awake. It came at night, in bed, at the moment that his consciousness
was sinking down and losing itself in sleep. It always aroused him to
frightened wakefulness, and for the moment, in the first sickening start,
it seemed to him that he lay crosswise on the foot of the bed. In the bed
were the vague forms of his father and mother. He never saw what his
father looked like. He had but one impression of his father, and that was
that he had savage and pitiless feet.
His earlier memories lingered with him, but he had no late memories. All
days were alike. Yesterday or last year were the same as a thousand years—or
a minute. Nothing ever happened. There were no events to mark the march of
time. Time did not march. It stood always still. It was only the whirling
machines that moved, and they moved nowhere—in spite of the fact
that they moved faster.
When he was fourteen, he went to work on the starcher. It was a colossal
event. Something had at last happened that could be remembered beyond a
night's sleep or a week's pay-day. It marked an era. It was a machine
Olympiad, a thing to date from. "When I went to work on the starcher," or,
"after," or "before I went to work on the starcher," were sentences often
on his lips.
He celebrated his sixteenth birthday by going into the loom room and
taking a loom. Here was an incentive again, for it was piece-work. And he
excelled, because the clay of him had been moulded by the mills into the
perfect machine. At the end of three months he was running two looms, and,
later, three and four.
At the end of his second year at the looms he was turning out more yards
than any other weaver, and more than twice as much as some of the less
skilful ones. And at home things began to prosper as he approached the
full stature of his earning power. Not, however, that his increased
earnings were in excess of need. The children were growing up. They ate
more. And they were going to school, and school-books cost money. And
somehow, the faster he worked, the faster climbed the prices of things.
Even the rent went up, though the house had fallen from bad to worse
He had grown taller; but with his increased height he seemed leaner than
ever. Also, he was more nervous. With the nervousness increased his
peevishness and irritability. The children had learned by many bitter
lessons to fight shy of him. His mother respected him for his earning
power, but somehow her respect was tinctured with fear.
There was no joyousness in life for him. The procession of the days he
never saw. The nights he slept away in twitching unconsciousness. The rest
of the time he worked, and his consciousness was machine consciousness.
Outside this his mind was a blank. He had no ideals, and but one illusion;
namely, that he drank excellent coffee. He was a work-beast. He had no
mental life whatever; yet deep down in the crypts of his mind, unknown to
him, were being weighed and sifted every hour of his toil, every movement
of his hands, every twitch of his muscles, and preparations were making
for a future course of action that would amaze him and all his little
It was in the late spring that he came home from work one night aware of
unusual tiredness. There was a keen expectancy in the air as he sat down
to the table, but he did not notice. He went through the meal in moody
silence, mechanically eating what was before him. The children um'd and
ah'd and made smacking noises with their mouths. But he was deaf to them.
"D'ye know what you're eatin'?" his mother demanded at last, desperately.
He looked vacantly at the dish before him, and vacantly at her.
"Floatin' island," she announced triumphantly.
"Oh," he said.
"Floating island!" the children chorussed loudly.
"Oh," he said. And after two or three mouthfuls, he added, "I guess I
ain't hungry to-night."
He dropped the spoon, shoved back his chair, and arose wearily from the
"An' I guess I'll go to bed."
His feet dragged more heavily than usual as he crossed the kitchen floor.
Undressing was a Titan's task, a monstrous futility, and he wept weakly as
he crawled into bed, one shoe still on. He was aware of a rising, swelling
something inside his head that made his brain thick and fuzzy. His lean
fingers felt as big as his wrist, while in the ends of them was a
remoteness of sensation vague and fuzzy like his brain. The small of his
back ached intolerably. All his bones ached. He ached everywhere. And in
his head began the shrieking, pounding, crashing, roaring of a million
looms. All space was filled with flying shuttles. They darted in and out,
intricately, amongst the stars. He worked a thousand looms himself, and
ever they speeded up, faster and faster, and his brain unwound, faster and
faster, and became the thread that fed the thousand flying shuttles.
He did not go to work next morning. He was too busy weaving colossally on
the thousand looms that ran inside his head. His mother went to work, but
first she sent for the doctor. It was a severe attack of la grippe, he
said. Jennie served as nurse and carried out his instructions.
It was a very severe attack, and it was a week before Johnny dressed and
tottered feebly across the floor. Another week, the doctor said, and he
would be fit to return to work. The foreman of the loom room visited him
on Sunday afternoon, the first day of his convalescence. The best weaver
in the room, the foreman told his mother. His job would be held for him.
He could come back to work a week from Monday.
"Why don't you thank 'im, Johnny?" his mother asked anxiously.
"He's ben that sick he ain't himself yet," she explained apologetically to
Johnny sat hunched up and gazing steadfastly at the floor. He sat in the
same position long after the foreman had gone. It was warm outdoors, and
he sat on the stoop in the afternoon. Sometimes his lips moved. He seemed
lost in endless calculations.
Next morning, after the day grew warm, he took his seat on the stoop. He
had pencil and paper this time with which to continue his calculations,
and he calculated painfully and amazingly.
"What comes after millions?" he asked at noon, when Will came home from
school. "An' how d'ye work 'em?"
That afternoon finished his task. Each day, but without paper and pencil,
he returned to the stoop. He was greatly absorbed in the one tree that
grew across the street. He studied it for hours at a time, and was
unusually interested when the wind swayed its branches and fluttered its
leaves. Throughout the week he seemed lost in a great communion with
himself. On Sunday, sitting on the stoop, he laughed aloud, several times,
to the perturbation of his mother, who had not heard him laugh for years.
Next morning, in the early darkness, she came to his bed to rouse him. He
had had his fill of sleep all the week, and awoke easily. He made no
struggle, nor did he attempt to hold on to the bedding when she stripped
it from him. He lay quietly, and spoke quietly.
"It ain't no use, ma."
"You'll be late," she said, under the impression that he was still stupid
"I'm awake, ma, an' I tell you it ain't no use. You might as well lemme
alone. I ain't goin' to git up."
"But you'll lose your job!" she cried.
"I ain't goin' to git up," he repeated in a strange, passionless voice.
She did not go to work herself that morning. This was sickness beyond any
sickness she had ever known. Fever and delirium she could understand; but
this was insanity. She pulled the bedding up over him and sent Jennie for
When that person arrived, Johnny was sleeping gently, and gently he awoke
and allowed his pulse to be taken.
"Nothing the matter with him," the doctor reported. "Badly debilitated,
that's all. Not much meat on his bones."
"He's always been that way," his mother volunteered.
"Now go 'way, ma, an' let me finish my snooze."
Johnny spoke sweetly and placidly, and sweetly and placidly he rolled over
on his side and went to sleep.
At ten o'clock he awoke and dressed himself. He walked out into the
kitchen, where he found his mother with a frightened expression on her
"I'm goin' away, ma," he announced, "an' I jes' want to say good-bye."
She threw her apron over her head and sat down suddenly and wept. He
"I might a-known it," she was sobbing.
"Where?" she finally asked, removing the apron from her head and gazing up
at him with a stricken face in which there was little curiosity.
"I don't know—anywhere."
As he spoke, the tree across the street appeared with dazzling brightness
on his inner vision. It seemed to lurk just under his eyelids, and he
could see it whenever he wished.
"An' your job?" she quavered.
"I ain't never goin' to work again."
"My God, Johnny!" she wailed, "don't say that!"
What he had said was blasphemy to her. As a mother who hears her child
deny God, was Johnny's mother shocked by his words.
"What's got into you, anyway?" she demanded, with a lame attempt at
"Figures," he answered. "Jes' figures. I've ben doin' a lot of figurin'
this week, an' it's most surprisin'."
"I don't see what that's got to do with it," she sniffled.
Johnny smiled patiently, and his mother was aware of a distinct shock at
the persistent absence of his peevishness and irritability.
"I'll show you," he said. "I'm plum' tired out. What makes me tired?
Moves. I've ben movin' ever since I was born. I'm tired of movin', an' I
ain't goin' to move any more. Remember when I worked in the glass-house? I
used to do three hundred dozen a day. Now I reckon I made about ten
different moves to each bottle. That's thirty-six thousan' moves a day.
Ten days, three hundred an' sixty thousan' moves. One month, one million
an' eighty thousan' moves. Chuck out the eighty thousan'"—he spoke
with the complacent beneficence of a philanthropist—"chuck out the
eighty thousan', that leaves a million moves a month—twelve million
moves a year.
"At the looms I'm movin' twic'st as much. That makes twenty-five million
moves a year, an' it seems to me I've ben a movin' that way 'most a
"Now this week I ain't moved at all. I ain't made one move in hours an'
hours. I tell you it was swell, jes' settin' there, hours an' hours, an'
doin' nothin'. I ain't never ben happy before. I never had any time. I've
ben movin' all the time. That ain't no way to be happy. An' I ain't going
to do it any more. I'm jes' goin' to set, an' set, an' rest, an' rest, and
then rest some more."
"But what's goin' to come of Will an' the children?" she asked
"That's it, 'Will an' the children,'" he repeated.
But there was no bitterness in his voice. He had long known his mother's
ambition for the younger boy, but the thought of it no longer rankled.
Nothing mattered any more. Not even that.
"I know, ma, what you've ben plannin' for Will—keepin' him in school
to make a book-keeper out of him. But it ain't no use, I've quit. He's got
to go to work."
"An' after I have brung you up the way I have," she wept, starting to
cover her head with the apron and changing her mind.
"You never brung me up," he answered with sad kindliness. "I brung myself
up, ma, an' I brung up Will. He's bigger'n me, an' heavier, an' taller.
When I was a kid, I reckon I didn't git enough to eat. When he come along
an' was a kid, I was workin' an' earnin' grub for him too. But that's done
with. Will can go to work, same as me, or he can go to hell, I don't care
which. I'm tired. I'm goin' now. Ain't you goin' to say goodbye?"
She made no reply. The apron had gone over her head again, and she was
crying. He paused a moment in the doorway.
"I'm sure I done the best I knew how," she was sobbing.
He passed out of the house and down the street. A wan delight came into
his face at the sight of the lone tree. "Jes' ain't goin' to do nothin',"
he said to himself, half aloud, in a crooning tone. He glanced wistfully
up at the sky, but the bright sun dazzled and blinded him.
It was a long walk he took, and he did not walk fast. It took him past the
jute-mill. The muffled roar of the loom room came to his ears, and he
smiled. It was a gentle, placid smile. He hated no one, not even the
pounding, shrieking machines. There was no bitterness in him, nothing but
an inordinate hunger for rest.
The houses and factories thinned out and the open spaces increased as he
approached the country. At last the city was behind him, and he was
walking down a leafy lane beside the railroad track. He did not walk like
a man. He did not look like a man. He was a travesty of the human. It was
a twisted and stunted and nameless piece of life that shambled like a
sickly ape, arms loose-hanging, stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested,
grotesque and terrible.
He passed by a small railroad station and lay down in the grass under a
tree. All afternoon he lay there. Sometimes he dozed, with muscles that
twitched in his sleep. When awake, he lay without movement, watching the
birds or looking up at the sky through the branches of the tree above him.
Once or twice he laughed aloud, but without relevance to anything he had
seen or felt.
After twilight had gone, in the first darkness of the night, a freight
train rumbled into the station. When the engine was switching cars on to
the side-track, Johnny crept along the side of the train. He pulled open
the side-door of an empty box-car and awkwardly and laboriously climbed
in. He closed the door. The engine whistled. Johnny was lying down, and in
the darkness he smiled.