Martin Eden HTML version

Chapter 17
Martin learned to do many things. In the course of the first week, in one
afternoon, he and Joe accounted for the two hundred white shirts. Joe ran the
tiler, a machine wherein a hot iron was hooked on a steel string which furnished
the pressure. By this means he ironed the yoke, wristbands, and neckband,
setting the latter at right angles to the shirt, and put the glossy finish on the
bosom. As fast as he finished them, he flung the shirts on a rack between him
and Martin, who caught them up and "backed" them. This task consisted of
ironing all the unstarched portions of the shirts.
It was exhausting work, carried on, hour after hour, at top speed. Out on the
broad verandas of the hotel, men and women, in cool white, sipped iced drinks
and kept their circulation down. But in the laundry the air was sizzling. The huge
stove roared red hot and white hot, while the irons, moving over the damp cloth,
sent up clouds of steam. The heat of these irons was different from that used by
housewives. An iron that stood the ordinary test of a wet finger was too cold for
Joe and Martin, and such test was useless. They went wholly by holding the
irons close to their cheeks, gauging the heat by some secret mental process that
Martin admired but could not understand. When the fresh irons proved too hot,
they hooked them on iron rods and dipped them into cold water. This again
required a precise and subtle judgment. A fraction of a second too long in the
water and the fine and silken edge of the proper heat was lost, and Martin found
time to marvel at the accuracy he developed - an automatic accuracy, founded
upon criteria that were machine-like and unerring.
But there was little time in which to marvel. All Martin's consciousness was
concentrated in the work. Ceaselessly active, head and hand, an intelligent
machine, all that constituted him a man was devoted to furnishing that
intelligence. There was no room in his brain for the universe and its mighty
problems. All the broad and spacious corridors of his mind were closed and
hermetically sealed. The echoing chamber of his soul was a narrow room, a
conning tower, whence were directed his arm and shoulder muscles, his ten
nimble fingers, and the swift-moving iron along its steaming path in broad,
sweeping strokes, just so many strokes and no more, just so far with each stroke
and not a fraction of an inch farther, rushing along interminable sleeves, sides,
backs, and tails, and tossing the finished shirts, without rumpling, upon the
receiving frame. And even as his hurrying soul tossed, it was reaching for
another shirt. This went on, hour after hour, while outside all the world swooned
under the overhead California sun. But there was no swooning in that
superheated room. The cool guests on the verandas needed clean linen.
The sweat poured from Martin. He drank enormous quantities of water, but so
great was the heat of the day and of his exertions, that the water sluiced through