John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 24
Out in the country, at the Belmont Academy, I went to work in a small, perfectly
appointed steam laundry. Another fellow and myself did all the work from sorting and
washing to ironing the white shirts, collars and cuffs, and the "fancy starch" of the wives
of the professors. We worked like tigers, especially as summer came on and the academy
boys took to the wearing of duck trousers. It consumes a dreadful lot of time to iron one
pair of duck trousers. And there were so many pairs of them. We sweated our way
through long sizzling weeks at a task that was never done; and many a night, while the
students snored in bed, my partner and I toiled on under the electric light at steam mangle
or ironing board.
The hours were long, the work was arduous, despite the fact that we became past masters
in the art of eliminating waste motion. And I was receiving thirty dollars a month and
board--a slight increase over my coal-shovelling and cannery days, at least to the extent
of board, which cost my employer little (we ate in the kitchen), but which was to me the
equivalent of twenty dollars a month. My robuster strength of added years, my increased
skill, and all I had learned from the books, were responsible for this increase of twenty
dollars. Judging by my rate of development, I might hope before I died to be a night
watchman for sixty dollars a month, or a policeman actually receiving a hundred dollars
with pickings.
So relentlessly did my partner and I spring into our work throughout the week that by
Saturday night we were frazzled wrecks. I found myself in the old familiar work-beast
condition, toiling longer hours than the horses toiled, thinking scarcely more frequent
thoughts than horses think. The books were closed to me. I had brought a trunkful to the
laundry, but found myself unable to read them. I fell asleep the moment I tried to read;
and if I did manage to keep my eyes open for several pages, I could not remember the
contents of those pages. I gave over attempts on heavy study, such as jurisprudence,
political economy, and biology, and tried lighter stuff, such as history. I fell asleep. I tried
literature, and fell asleep. And finally, when I fell asleep over lively novels, I gave up. I
never succeeded in reading one book in all the time I spent in the laundry.
And when Saturday night came, and the week's work was over until Monday morning, I
knew only one desire besides the desire to sleep, and that was to get drunk. This was the
second time in my life that I had heard the unmistakable call of John Barleycorn. The
first time it had been because of brain-fag. But I had no over-worked brain now. On the
contrary, all I knew was the dull numbness of a brain that was not worked at all. That was
the trouble. My brain had become so alert and eager, so quickened by the wonder of the
new world the books had discovered to it, that it now suffered all the misery of stagnancy
and inaction.
And I, the long time intimate of John Barleycorn, knew just what he promised me--
maggots of fancy, dreams of power, forgetfulness, anything and everything save whirling
washers, revolving mangles, humming centrifugal wringers, and fancy starch and