There was one house in particular where I was turned down that evening. The porch windows opened on the dining room, and through them I saw a man eating pie–a big meat-pie. I stood in the open door, and while he talked with me, he went on eating. He was prosperous, and out of his prosperity had been bred resentment against his less fortunate brothers.
He cut short my request for something to eat, snapping out, “I don’t believe you want to work.”
Now this was irrelevant. I hadn’t said anything about work. The topic of conversation I had introduced was “food.” In fact, I didn’t want to work. I wanted to take the westbound overland that night.
“You wouldn’t work if you had a chance,” he bullied.
I glanced at his meek-faced wife, and knew that but for the presence of this Cerberus I’d have a whack at that meat-pie myself. But Cerberus sopped himself in the pie, and I saw that I must placate him if I were to get a share of it. So I sighed to myself and accepted his work-morality.
“Of course I want work,” I bluffed.
“Don’t believe it,” he snorted.
“Try me,” I answered, warming to the bluff.
“All right,” he said. “Come to the corner of blank and blank streets”–(I have forgotten the address)–“to-morrow morning. You know where that burned building is, and I’ll put you to work tossing bricks.”
“All right, sir; I’ll be there.”
He grunted and went on eating. I waited. After a couple of minutes he looked up with an I-thought-you-were-gone expression on his face, and demanded:–
“I … I am waiting for something to eat,” I said gently.
“I knew you wouldn’t work!” he roared.
He was right, of course; but his conclusion must have been reached by mind-reading, for his logic wouldn’t bear it out. But the beggar at the door must be humble, so I accepted his logic as I had accepted his morality.
“You see, I am now hungry,” I said still gently. “To-morrow morning I shall be hungrier. Think how hungry I shall be when I have tossed bricks all day without anything to eat. Now if you will give me something to eat, I’ll be in great shape for those bricks.”
He gravely considered my plea, at the same time going on eating, while his wife nearly trembled into propitiatory speech, but refrained.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said between mouthfuls. “You come to work to-morrow, and in the middle of the day I’ll advance you enough for your dinner. That will show whether you are in earnest or not.”
“In the meantime–” I began; but he interrupted.
“If I gave you something to eat now, I’d never see you again. Oh, I know your kind. Look at me. I owe no man. I have never descended so low as to ask any one for food. I have always earned my food. The trouble with you is that you are idle and dissolute. I can see it in your face. I have worked and been honest. I have made myself what I am. And you can do the same, if you work and are honest.”
“Like you?” I queried. Alas, no ray of humor had ever penetrated the sombre work-sodden soul of that man.
“Yes, like me,” he answered.
“All of us?” I queried.
“Yes, all of you,” he answered, conviction vibrating in his voice.
“But if we all became like you,” I said, “allow me to point out that there’d be nobody to toss bricks for you.”
I swear there was a flicker of a smile in his wife’s eye. As for him, he was aghast–but whether at the awful possibility of a reformed humanity that would not enable him to get anybody to toss bricks for him, or at my impudence, I shall never know.
“I’ll not waste words on you,” he roared. “Get out of here, you ungrateful whelp!”
I scraped my feet to advertise my intention of going, and queried:–
“And I don’t get anything to eat?”
He arose suddenly to his feet. He was a large man. I was a stranger in a strange land, and John Law was looking for me. I went away hurriedly. “But why ungrateful?” I asked myself as I slammed his gate. “What in the dickens did he give me to be ungrateful about?” I looked back. I could still see him through the window. He had returned to his pie.
—From “The Road” by Jack London, 1907