The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
1 An Imperial Banquet. A Philosophical Discussion. The Mysterious Stranger. Britons Never shall be Slaves 2 Nimrod: a Mighty Hunter before the Lord 3 The Financiers 4 The Placard 5 The Clock-case 6 It is not My Crime 7 The Exterminating Machines 8 The Cap on the Stairs 9 Who is to Pay? 10 The Long Hill 11 Hands and Brains 12 The Letting of the Room 13 Penal Servitude and Death 14 Three Children. The Wages of Intelligence 15 The Undeserving Persons and the Upper and Nether Millstones 16 True Freedom 17 The Rev. John Starr 18 The Lodger 19 The Filling of the Tank 20 The Forty Thieves. The Battle: Brigands versus Bandits 21 The Reign of Terror. The Great Money Trick 22 The Phrenologist 23 The 'Open-air' 24 Ruth 25 The Oblong 26 The Slaughter 27 The March of the Imperialists 28 The Week before Christmas 29 The Pandorama 30 The Brigands hold a Council of War 31 The Deserter 32 The Veteran 33 The Soldier's Children 34 The Beginning of the End 35 Facing the 'Problem' 36 The OBS 37 A Brilliant Epigram 38 The Brigands' Cave 39 The Brigands at Work 40 Vive la System! 41 The Easter Offering. The Beano Meeting 42 June 43 The Good Old Summer-time 44 The Beano 45 The Great Oration 46 The 'Sixty-five' 47 The Ghouls 48 The Wise men of the East 49 The Undesired 50 Sundered 51 The Widow's Son 52 'It's a Far, Far Better Thing that I do, than I have Ever Done' 53 Barrington Finds a Situation 54 The End
In writing this book my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working-class life—more especially of those engaged in the Building trades—in a small town in the south of England.
I wished to describe the relations existing between the workmen and their employers, the attitude and feelings of these two classes towards each other; their circumstances when at work and when out of employment; their pleasures, their intellectual outlook, their religious and political opinions and ideals.
The action of the story covers a period of only a little over twelve months, but in order that the picture might be complete it was necessary to describe how the workers are circumstanced at all periods of their lives, from the cradle to the grave. Therefore the characters include women and children, a young boy—the apprentice—some improvers, journeymen in the prime of life, and worn-out old men.
I designed to show the conditions relating from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely—Socialism. I intended to explain what Socialists understand by the word 'poverty': to define the Socialist theory of the causes of poverty, and to explain how Socialists propose to abolish poverty.
It may be objected that, considering the number of books dealing with these subjects already existing, such a work as this was uncalled for. The answer is that not only are the majority of people opposed to Socialism, but a very brief conversation with an average anti-socialist is sufficient to show that he does not know what Socialism means. The same is true of all the anti-socialist writers and the 'great statesmen' who make anti-socialist speeches: unless we believe that they are deliberate liars and imposters, who to serve their own interests labour to mislead other people, we must conclude that they do not understand Socialism. There is no other possible explanation of the extraordinary things they write and say. The thing they cry out against is not Socialism but a phantom of their own imagining.
Another answer is that 'The Philanthropists' is not a treatise or essay, but a novel. My main object was to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally.
This was the task I set myself. To what extent I have succeeded is for others to say; but whatever their verdict, the work possesses at least one merit—that of being true. I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of. As far as I dared I let the characters express themselves in their own sort of language and consequently some passages may be considered objectionable. At the same time I believe that—because it is true—the book is not without its humorous side.
The scenes and characters are typical of every town in the South of England and they will be readily recognized by those concerned. If the book is published I think it will appeal to a very large number of readers. Because it is true it will probably be denounced as a libel on the working classes and their employers, and upon the religious-professing section of the community. But I believe it will be acknowledged as true by most of those who are compelled to spend their lives amid the surroundings it describes, and it will be evident that no attack is made upon sincere religion.
An Imperial Banquet. A Philosophical Discussion. The Mysterious Stranger. Britons Never shall be Slaves
The house was named 'The Cave'. It was a large old-fashioned three-storied building standing in about an acre of ground, and situated about a mile outside the town of Mugsborough. It stood back nearly two hundred yards from the main road and was reached by means of a by-road or lane, on each side of which was a hedge formed of hawthorn trees and blackberry bushes. This house had been unoccupied for many years and it was now being altered and renovated for its new owner by the firm of Rushton & Co., Builders and Decorators.
There were, altogether, about twenty-five men working there, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers. New floors were being put in where the old ones were decayed, and upstairs two of the rooms were being made into one by demolishing the parting wall and substituting an iron girder. Some of the window frames and sashes were so rotten that they were being replaced. Some of the ceilings and walls were so cracked and broken that they had to be replastered. Openings were cut through walls and doors were being put where no doors had been before. Old broken chimney pots were being taken down and new ones were being taken up and fixed in their places. All the old whitewash had to be washed off the ceilings and all the old paper had to be scraped off the walls preparatory to the house being repainted and decorated. The air was full of the sounds of hammering and sawing, the ringing of trowels, the rattle of pails, the splashing of water brushes, and the scraping of the stripping knives used by those who were removing the old wallpaper. Besides being full of these the air was heavily laden with dust and disease germs, powdered mortar, lime, plaster, and the dirt that had been accumulating within the old house for years. In brief, those employed there might be said to be living in a Tariff Reform Paradise—they had Plenty of Work.
At twelve o'clock Bob Crass—the painters' foreman—blew a blast upon a whistle and all hands assembled in the kitchen, where Bert the apprentice had already prepared the tea, which was ready in the large galvanized iron pail that he had placed in the middle of the floor. By the side of the pail were a number of old jam-jars, mugs, dilapidated tea-cups and one or two empty condensed milk tins. Each man on the 'job' paid Bert threepence a week for the tea and sugar—they did not have milk—and although they had tea at breakfast-time as well as at dinner, the lad was generally considered to be making a fortune.
Two pairs of steps, laid parallel on their sides at a distance of about eight feet from each other, with a plank laid across, in front of the fire, several upturned pails, and the drawers belonging to the dresser, formed the seating accommodation. The floor of the room was covered with all manner of debris, dust, dirt, fragments of old mortar and plaster. A sack containing cement was leaning against one of the walls, and a bucket containing some stale whitewash stood in one corner.
As each man came in he filled his cup, jam-jar or condensed milk tin with tea from the steaming pail, before sitting down. Most of them brought their food in little wicker baskets which they held on their laps or placed on the floor beside them.
At first there was no attempt at conversation and nothing was heard but the sounds of eating and drinking and the drizzling of the bloater which Easton, one of the painters, was toasting on the end of a pointed stick at the fire.
'I don't think much of this bloody tea,' suddenly remarked Sawkins, one of the labourers.
'Well it oughter be all right,' retorted Bert; 'it's been bilin' ever since 'arf past eleven.'
Bert White was a frail-looking, weedy, pale-faced boy, fifteen years of age and about four feet nine inches in height. His trousers were part of a suit that he had once worn for best, but that was so long ago that they had become too small for him, fitting rather lightly and scarcely reaching the top of his patched and broken hob-nailed boots. The knees and the bottoms of the legs of his trousers had been patched with square pieces of cloth, several shades darker than the original fabric, and these patches were now all in rags. His coat was several sizes too large for him and hung about him like a dirty ragged sack. He was a pitiable spectacle of neglect and wretchedness as he sat there on an upturned pail, eating his bread and cheese with fingers that, like his clothing, were grimed with paint and dirt.
'Well then, you can't have put enough tea in, or else you've bin usin' up wot was left yesterday,' continued Sawkins.
'Why the bloody 'ell don't you leave the boy alone?' said Harlow, another painter. 'If you don't like the tea you needn't drink it. For my part, I'm sick of listening to you about it every damn day.'
'It's all very well for you to say I needn't drink it,' answered Sawkins, 'but I've paid my share an' I've got a right to express an opinion. It's my belief that 'arf the money we gives 'him is spent on penny 'orribles: 'e's always got one in 'is hand, an' to make wot tea 'e does buy last, 'e collects all the slops wot's left and biles it up day after day.'
'No, I don't!' said Bert, who was on the verge of tears. 'It's not me wot buys the things at all. I gives the money I gets to Crass, and 'e buys them 'imself, so there!'
At this revelation, some of the men furtively exchanged significant glances, and Crass, the foreman, became very red.
'You'd better keep your bloody thruppence and make your own tea after this week,' he said, addressing Sawkins, 'and then p'raps we'll 'ave a little peace at meal-times.'
'An' you needn't ask me to cook no bloaters or bacon for you no more,' added Bert, tearfully, 'cos I won't do it.'
Sawkins was not popular with any of the others. When, about twelve months previously, he first came to work for Rushton & Co., he was a simple labourer, but since then he had 'picked up' a slight knowledge of the trade, and having armed himself with a putty-knife and put on a white jacket, regarded himself as a fully qualified painter. The others did not perhaps object to him trying to better his condition, but his wages—fivepence an hour—were twopence an hour less than the standard rate, and the result was that in slack times often a better workman was 'stood off' when Sawkins was kept on. Moreover, he was generally regarded as a sneak who carried tales to the foreman and the 'Bloke'. Every new hand who was taken on was usually warned by his new mates 'not to let the b—r Sawkins see anything.'
The unpleasant silence which now ensued was at length broken by one of the men, who told a dirty story, and in the laughter and applause that followed, the incident of the tea was forgotten.
'How did you get on yesterday?' asked Crass, addressing Bundy, the plasterer, who was intently studying the sporting columns of the Daily Obscurer.
'No luck,' replied Bundy, gloomily. 'I had a bob each way on Stockwell, in the first race, but it was scratched before the start.'
This gave rise to a conversation between Crass, Bundy, and one or two others concerning the chances of different horses in the morrow's races. It was Friday, and no one had much money, so at the suggestion of Bundy, a Syndicate was formed, each member contributing threepence for the purpose of backing a dead certainty given by the renowned Captain Kiddem of the Obscurer. One of those who did not join the syndicate was Frank Owen, who was as usual absorbed in a newspaper. He was generally regarded as a bit of a crank: for it was felt that there must be something wrong about a man who took no interest in racing or football and was always talking a lot of rot about religion and politics. If it had not been for the fact that he was generally admitted to be an exceptionally good workman, they would have had little hesitation about thinking that he was mad. This man was about thirty-two years of age, and of medium height, but so slightly built that he appeared taller. There was a suggestion of refinement in his clean-shaven face, but his complexion was ominously clear, and an unnatural colour flushed the think cheeks.
There was a certain amount of justification for the attitude of his fellow workmen, for Owen held the most unusual and unorthodox opinions on the subjects mentioned.
The affairs of the world are ordered in accordance with orthodox opinions. If anyone did not think in accordance with these he soon discovered this fact for himself. Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance and superfluity of the things that are produced by work. He saw also that a very great number—in fact the majority of the people—lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger, or, maddened by privation, killed themselves and their children in order to put a period to their misery. And strangest of all—in his opinion—he saw that people who enjoyed abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others, who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing all this he thought that it was wrong, that the system that produced such results was rotten and should be altered. And he had sought out and eagerly read the writings of those who thought they knew how it might be done.
It was because he was in the habit of speaking of these subjects that his fellow workmen came to the conclusion that there was probably something wrong with his mind.
When all the members of the syndicate had handed over their contributions, Bundy went out to arrange matters with the bookie, and when he had gone Easton annexed the copy of the Obscurer that Bundy had thrown away, and proceeded to laboriously work through some carefully cooked statistics relating to Free Trade and Protection. Bert, his eyes starting out of his head and his mouth wide open, was devouring the contents of a paper called The Chronicles of Crime. Ned Dawson, a poor devil who was paid fourpence an hour for acting as mate or labourer to Bundy, or the bricklayers, or anyone else who wanted him, lay down on the dirty floor in a corner of the room and with his coat rolled up as a pillow, went to sleep. Sawkins, with the same intention, stretched himself at full length on the dresser. Another who took no part in the syndicate was Barrington, a labourer, who, having finished his dinner, placed the cup he brought for his tea back into his dinner basket, took out an old briar pipe which he slowly filled, and proceeded to smoke in silence.
Some time previously the firm had done some work for a wealthy gentleman who lived in the country, some distance outside Mugsborough. This gentleman also owned some property in the town and it was commonly reported that he had used his influence with Rushton to induce the latter to give Barrington employment. It was whispered amongst the hands that the young man was a distant relative of the gentleman's, and that he had disgraced himself in some way and been disowned by his people. Rushton was supposed to have given him a job in the hope of currying favour with his wealthy client, from whom he hoped to obtain more work. Whatever the explanation of the mystery may have been, the fact remained that Barrington, who knew nothing of the work except what he had learned since he had been taken on, was employed as a painter's labourer at the usual wages—fivepence per hour.
He was about twenty-five years of age and a good deal taller than the majority of the others, being about five feet ten inches in height and slenderly though well and strongly built. He seemed very anxious to learn all that he could about the trade, and although rather reserved in his manner, he had contrived to make himself fairly popular with his workmates. He seldom spoke unless to answer when addressed, and it was difficult to draw him into conversation. At meal-times, as on the present occasion, he generally smoked, apparently lost in thought and unconscious of his surroundings.
Most of the others also lit their pipes and a desultory conversation ensued.
'Is the gent what's bought this 'ouse any relation to Sweater the draper?' asked Payne, the carpenter's foreman.
'It's the same bloke,' replied Crass.
'Didn't he used to be on the Town Council or something?'
''E's bin on the Council for years,' returned Crass. ''E's on it now. 'E's mayor this year. 'E's bin mayor several times before.'
'Let's see,' said Payne, reflectively, ''e married old Grinder's sister, didn't 'e? You know who I mean, Grinder the greengrocer.'
'Yes, I believe he did,' said Crass.
'It wasn't Grinder's sister,' chimed in old Jack Linden. 'It was 'is niece. I know, because I remember working in their 'ouse just after they was married, about ten year ago.'
'Oh yes, I remember now,' said Payne. 'She used to manage one of Grinder's branch shops didn't she?'
'Yes,' replied Linden. 'I remember it very well because there was a lot of talk about it at the time. By all accounts, ole Sweater used to be a regler 'ot un: no one never thought as he'd ever git married at all: there was some funny yarns about several young women what used to work for him.'
This important matter being disposed of, there followed a brief silence, which was presently broken by Harlow.
'Funny name to call a 'ouse, ain't it?' he said. '"The Cave." I wonder what made 'em give it a name like that.'
'They calls 'em all sorts of outlandish names nowadays,' said old Jack Linden.
'There's generally some sort of meaning to it, though,' observed Payne. 'For instance, if a bloke backed a winner and made a pile, 'e might call 'is 'ouse, "Epsom Lodge" or "Newmarket Villa".'
'Or sometimes there's a hoak tree or a cherry tree in the garding,' said another man; 'then they calls it "Hoak Lodge" or "Cherry Cottage".'
'Well, there's a cave up at the end of this garden,' said Harlow with a grin, 'you know, the cesspool, what the drains of the 'ouse runs into; praps they called it after that.'
'Talking about the drains,' said old Jack Linden when the laughter produced by this elegant joke had ceased. 'Talking about the drains, I wonder what they're going to do about them; the 'ouse ain't fit to live in as they are now, and as for that bloody cesspool it ought to be done away with.'
'So it is going to be,' replied Crass. 'There's going to be a new set of drains altogether, carried right out to the road and connected with the main.'
Crass really knew no more about what was going to be done in this matter than did Linden, but he felt certain that this course would be adopted. He never missed an opportunity of enhancing his own prestige with the men by insinuating that he was in the confidence of the firm.
'That's goin' to cost a good bit,' said Linden.
'Yes, I suppose it will,' replied Crass, 'but money ain't no object to old Sweater. 'E's got tons of it; you know 'e's got a large wholesale business in London and shops all over the bloody country, besides the one 'e's got 'ere.'
Easton was still reading the Obscurer; he was not about to understand exactly what the compiler of the figures was driving at—probably the latter never intended that anyone should understand—but he was conscious of a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that it was about time we did something to protect ourselves. Still, it was a very difficult question: to tell the truth, he himself could not make head or tail of it. At length he said aloud, addressing himself to Crass:
'Wot do you think of this 'ere fissical policy, Bob?'
'Ain't thought much about it,' replied Crass. 'I don't never worry my 'ed about politics.'
'Much better left alone,' chimed in old Jack Linden sagely, 'argyfying about politics generally ends up with a bloody row an' does no good to nobody.'
At this there was a murmur of approval from several of the others. Most of them were averse from arguing or disputing about politics. If two or three men of similar opinions happened to be together they might discuss such things in a friendly and superficial way, but in a mixed company it was better left alone. The 'Fissical Policy' emanated from the Tory party. That was the reason why some of them were strongly in favour of it, and for the same reason others were opposed to it. Some of them were under the delusion that they were Conservatives: similarly, others imagined themselves to be Liberals. As a matter of fact, most of them were nothing. They knew as much about the public affairs of their own country as they did of the condition of affairs in the planet of Jupiter.
Easton began to regret that he had broached so objectionable a subject, when, looking up from his paper, Owen said:
'Does the fact that you never "trouble your heads about politics" prevent you from voting at election times?'
No one answered, and there ensued a brief silence. Easton however, in spite of the snub he had received, could not refrain from talking.
'Well, I don't go in for politics much, either, but if what's in this 'ere paper is true, it seems to me as we oughter take some interest in it, when the country is being ruined by foreigners.'
'If you're going to believe all that's in that bloody rag you'll want some salt,' said Harlow.
The Obscurer was a Tory paper and Harlow was a member of the local Liberal club. Harlow's remark roused Crass.
'Wot's the use of talkin' like that?' he said; 'you know very well that the country IS being ruined by foreigners. Just go to a shop to buy something; look round the place an' you'll see that more than 'arf the damn stuff comes from abroad. They're able to sell their goods 'ere because they don't 'ave to pay no dooty, but they takes care to put 'eavy dooties on our goods to keep 'em out of their countries; and I say it's about time it was stopped.'
''Ear, 'ear,' said Linden, who always agreed with Crass, because the latter, being in charge of the job, had it in his power to put in a good—or a bad—word for a man to the boss. ''Ear, 'ear! Now that's wot I call common sense.'
Several other men, for the same reason as Linden, echoed Crass's sentiments, but Owen laughed contemptuously.
'Yes, it's quite true that we gets a lot of stuff from foreign countries,' said Harlow, 'but they buys more from us than we do from them.'
'Now you think you know a 'ell of a lot,' said Crass. ''Ow much more did they buy from us last year, than we did from them?'
Harlow looked foolish: as a matter of fact his knowledge of the subject was not much wider than Crass's. He mumbled something about not having no 'ed for figures, and offered to bring full particulars next day.
'You're wot I call a bloody windbag,' continued Crass; 'you've got a 'ell of a lot to say, but wen it comes to the point you don't know nothin'.'
'Why, even 'ere in Mugsborough,' chimed in Sawkins—who though still lying on the dresser had been awakened by the shouting—'We're overrun with 'em! Nearly all the waiters and the cook at the Grand Hotel where we was working last month is foreigners.'
'Yes,' said old Joe Philpot, tragically, 'and then thers all them Hitalian horgin grinders, an' the blokes wot sells 'ot chestnuts; an' wen I was goin' 'ome last night I see a lot of them Frenchies sellin' hunions, an' a little wile afterwards I met two more of 'em comin' up the street with a bear.'
Notwithstanding the disquieting nature of this intelligence, Owen again laughed, much to the indignation of the others, who thought it was a very serious state of affairs. It was a dam' shame that these people were allowed to take the bread out of English people's mouths: they ought to be driven into the bloody sea.
And so the talk continued, principally carried on by Crass and those who agreed with him. None of them really understood the subject: not one of them had ever devoted fifteen consecutive minutes to the earnest investigation of it. The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners. To them the mysterious thing they variously called the 'Friscal Policy', the 'Fistical Policy', or the 'Fissical Question' was a great Anti-Foreign Crusade. The country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the thresholds of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner! Therefore, down with the foreigners and all their works. Out with them. Drive them b—s into the bloody sea! The country would be ruined if not protected in some way. This Friscal, Fistical, Fissical or whatever the hell policy it was called, WAS Protection, therefore no one but a bloody fool could hesitate to support it. It was all quite plain—quite simple. One did not need to think twice about it. It was scarcely necessary to think about it at all.
This was the conclusion reached by Crass and such of his mates who thought they were Conservatives—the majority of them could not have read a dozen sentences aloud without stumbling—it was not necessary to think or study or investigate anything. It was all as clear as daylight. The foreigner was the enemy, and the cause of poverty and bad trade.
When the storm had in some degree subsided,
'Some of you seem to think,' said Owen, sneeringly, 'that it was a great mistake on God's part to make so many foreigners. You ought to hold a mass meeting about it: pass a resolution something like this: "This meeting of British Christians hereby indignantly protests against the action of the Supreme Being in having created so many foreigners, and calls upon him to forthwith rain down fire, brimstone and mighty rocks upon the heads of all those Philistines, so that they may be utterly exterminated from the face of the earth, which rightly belongs to the British people".'
Crass looked very indignant, but could think of nothing to say in answer to Owen, who continued:
'A little while ago you made the remark that you never trouble yourself about what you call politics, and some of the rest agreed with you that to do so is not worth while. Well, since you never "worry" yourself about these things, it follows that you know nothing about them; yet you do not hesitate to express the most decided opinions concerning matters of which you admittedly know nothing. Presently, when there is an election, you will go and vote in favour of a policy of which you know nothing. I say that since you never take the trouble to find out which side is right or wrong you have no right to express any opinion. You are not fit to vote. You should not be allowed to vote.'
Crass was by this time very angry.
'I pays my rates and taxes,' he shouted, 'an' I've got as much right to express an opinion as you 'ave. I votes for who the bloody 'ell I likes. I shan't arst your leave nor nobody else's! Wot the 'ell's it got do with you who I votes for?'
'It has a great deal to do with me. If you vote for Protection you will be helping to bring it about, and if you succeed, and if Protection is the evil that some people say is is, I shall be one of those who will suffer. I say you have no right to vote for a policy which may bring suffering upon other people, without taking the trouble to find out whether you are helping to make things better or worse.'
Owen had risen from his seat and was walking up and down the room emphasizing his words with excited gestures.
'As for not trying to find out wot side is right,' said Crass, somewhat overawed by Owen's manner and by what he thought was the glare of madness in the latter's eyes, 'I reads the Ananias every week, and I generally takes the Daily Chloroform, or the Hobscurer, so I ought to know summat about it.'
'Just listen to this,' interrupted Easton, wishing to create a diversion and beginning to read from the copy of the Obscurer which he still held in his hand:
'GREAT DISTRESS IN MUGSBOROUGH. HUNDREDS OUT OF EMPLOYMENT. WORK OF THE CHARITY SOCIETY. 789 CASES ON THE BOOKS.
'Great as was the distress among the working classes last year, unfortunately there seems every prospect that before the winter which has just commenced is over the distress will be even more acute.
Already the Charity Society and kindred associations are relieving more cases than they did at the corresponding time last year. Applications to the Board of Guardians have also been much more numerous, and the Soup Kitchen has had to open its doors on Nov. 7th a fortnight earlier than usual. The number of men, women and children provided with meals is three or four times greater than last year.'
Easton stopped: reading was hard work to him.
'There's a lot more,' he said, 'about starting relief works: two shillings a day for married men and one shilling for single and something about there's been 1,572 quarts of soup given to poor families wot was not even able to pay a penny, and a lot more. And 'ere's another thing, an advertisement:
'THE SUFFERING POOR
Sir: Distress among the poor is so acute that I earnestly ask you for aid for The Salvation Army's great Social work on their behalf. Some 600 are being sheltered nightly. Hundreds are found work daily. Soup and bread are distributed in the midnight hours to homeless wanderers in London. Additional workshops for the unemployed have been established. Our Social Work for men, women and children, for the characterless and the outcast, is the largest and oldest organized effort of its kind in the country, and greatly needs help. L10,000 is required before Christmas Day. Gifts may be made to any specific section or home, if desired. Can you please send us something to keep the work going? Please address cheques, crossed Bank of England (Law Courts Branch), to me at 101, Queen Victoria Street, EC. Balance Sheets and Reports upon application. 'BRAMWELL BOOTH.'
'Oh, that's part of the great 'appiness an' prosperity wot Owen makes out Free Trade brings,' said Crass with a jeering laugh.
'I never said Free Trade brought happiness or prosperity,' said Owen.
'Well, praps you didn't say exactly them words, but that's wot it amounts to.'
'I never said anything of the kind. We've had Free Trade for the last fifty years and today most people are living in a condition of more or less abject poverty, and thousands are literally starving. When we had Protection things were worse still. Other countries have Protection and yet many of their people are glad to come here and work for starvation wages. The only difference between Free Trade and Protection is that under certain circumstances one might be a little worse that the other, but as remedies for Poverty, neither of them are of any real use whatever, for the simple reason that they do not deal with the real causes of Poverty.'
'The greatest cause of poverty is hover-population,' remarked Harlow.
'Yes,' said old Joe Philpot. 'If a boss wants two men, twenty goes after the job: ther's too many people and not enough work.'
'Over-population!' cried Owen, 'when there's thousands of acres of uncultivated land in England without a house or human being to be seen. Is over-population the cause of poverty in France? Is over-population the cause of poverty in Ireland? Within the last fifty years the population of Ireland has been reduced by more than half. Four millions of people have been exterminated by famine or got rid of by emigration, but they haven't got rid of poverty. P'raps you think that half the people in this country ought to be exterminated as well.'
Here Owen was seized with a violent fit of coughing, and resumed his seat. When the cough had ceased he say wiping his mouth with his handkerchief and listening to the talk that ensued.
'Drink is the cause of most of the poverty,' said Slyme.
This young man had been through some strange process that he called 'conversion'. He had had a 'change of 'art' and looked down with pious pity upon those he called 'worldly' people. He was not 'worldly', he did not smoke or drink and never went to the theatre. He had an extraordinary notion that total abstinence was one of the fundamental principles of the Christian religion. It never occurred to what he called his mind, that this doctrine is an insult to the Founder of Christianity.
'Yes,' said Crass, agreeing with Slyme, 'an' thers plenty of 'em wot's too lazy to work when they can get it. Some of the b—s who go about pleading poverty 'ave never done a fair day's work in all their bloody lives. Then thers all this new-fangled machinery,' continued Crass. 'That's wot's ruinin' everything. Even in our trade ther's them machines for trimmin' wallpaper, an' now they've brought out a paintin' machine. Ther's a pump an' a 'ose pipe, an' they reckon two men can do as much with this 'ere machine as twenty could without it.'
'Another thing is women,' said Harlow, 'there's thousands of 'em nowadays doin' work wot oughter be done by men.'
'In my opinion ther's too much of this 'ere eddication, nowadays,' remarked old Linden. 'Wot the 'ell's the good of eddication to the likes of us?'
'None whatever,' said Crass, 'it just puts foolish idears into people's 'eds and makes 'em too lazy to work.'
Barrington, who took no part in the conversation, still sat silently smoking. Owen was listening to this pitiable farrago with feelings of contempt and wonder. Were they all hopelessly stupid? Had their intelligence never developed beyond the childhood stage? Or was he mad himself?
'Early marriages is another thing,' said Slyme: 'no man oughtn't to be allowed to get married unless he's in a position to keep a family.'
'How can marriage be a cause of poverty?' said Owen, contemptuously. 'A man who is not married is living an unnatural life. Why don't you continue your argument a little further and say that the practice of eating and drinking is the cause of poverty or that if people were to go barefoot and naked there would be no poverty? The man who is so poor that he cannot marry is in a condition of poverty already.'
'Wot I mean,' said Slyme, 'is that no man oughtn't to marry till he's saved up enough so as to 'ave some money in the bank; an' another thing, I reckon a man oughtn't to get married till 'e's got an 'ouse of 'is own. It's easy enough to buy one in a building society if you're in reg'lar work.'
At this there was a general laugh.
'Why, you bloody fool,' said Harlow, scornfully, 'most of us is walkin' about 'arf our time. It's all very well for you to talk; you've got almost a constant job on this firm. If they're doin' anything at all you're one of the few gets a show in. And another thing,' he added with a sneer, 'we don't all go to the same chapel as old Misery,'
'Old Misery' was Ruston & Co.'s manager or walking foreman. 'Misery' was only one of the nicknames bestowed upon him by the hands: he was also known as 'Nimrod' and 'Pontius Pilate'.
'And even if it's not possible,' Harlow continued, winking at the others, 'what's a man to do during the years he's savin' up?'
'Well, he must conquer hisself,' said Slyme, getting red.
'Conquer hisself is right!' said Harlow and the others laughed again.
'Of course if a man tried to conquer hisself by his own strength,' replied Slyme, ''e would be sure to fail, but when you've got the Grace of God in you it's different.'
'Chuck it, fer Christ's sake!' said Harlow in a tone of disgust. 'We've only just 'ad our dinner!'
'And wot about drink?' demanded old Joe Philpot, suddenly.
''Ear, 'ear,' cried Harlow. 'That's the bleedin' talk. I wouldn't mind 'avin 'arf a pint now, if somebody else will pay for it.'
Joe Philpot—or as he was usually called, 'Old Joe'—was in the habit of indulging freely in the cup that inebriates. He was not very old, being only a little over fifty, but he looked much older. He had lost his wife some five years ago and was now alone in the world, for his three children had died in their infancy. Slyme's reference to drink had roused Philpot's indignation; he felt that it was directed against himself. The muddled condition of his brain did not permit him to take up the cudgels in his own behalf, but he knew that although Owen was a tee-totaller himself, he disliked Slyme.
'There's no need for us to talk about drink or laziness,' returned Owen, impatiently, 'because they have nothing to do with the matter. The question is, what is the cause of the lifelong poverty of the majority of those who are not drunkards and who DO work? Why, if all the drunkards and won't-works and unskilled or inefficient workers could be by some miracle transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would, under the present conditions, be so much the worse for us, because there isn't enough work for all NOW and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably cause a reduction of wages and a greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the present states of affairs, for the purpose of preventing us from discovering the real causes of our present condition.'
'Well, if we're all wrong,' said Crass, with a sneer, 'praps you can tell us what the real cause is?'
'An' praps you think you know how it's to be altered,' remarked Harlow, winking at the others.
'Yes; I do think I know the cause,' declared Owen, 'and I do think I know how it could be altered—'
'It can't never be haltered,' interrupted old Linden. 'I don't see no sense in all this 'ere talk. There's always been rich and poor in the world, and there always will be.'
'Wot I always say is there 'ere,' remarked Philpot, whose principal characteristic—apart from thirst—was a desire to see everyone comfortable, and who hated rows of any kind. 'There ain't no use in the likes of us trubblin our 'eds or quarrelin about politics. It don't make a dam bit of difference who you votes for or who gets in. They're hall the same; workin the horicle for their own benefit. You can talk till you're black in the face, but you won't never be able to alter it. It's no use worrying. The sensible thing is to try and make the best of things as we find 'em: enjoy ourselves, and do the best we can for each other. Life's too short to quarrel and we'll hall soon be dead!'
At the end of this lengthy speech, the philosophic Philpot abstractedly grasped a jam-jar and raised it to his lips; but suddenly remembering that it contained stewed tea and not beer, set it down again without drinking.
'Let us begin at the beginning,' continued Owen, taking no notice of these interruptions. 'First of all, what do you mean by Poverty?'
'Why, if you've got no money, of course,' said Crass impatiently.
The others laughed disdainfully. It seemed to them such a foolish question.
'Well, that's true enough as far as it goes,' returned Owen, 'that is, as things are arranged in the world at present. But money itself is not wealth: it's of no use whatever.'
At this there was another outburst of jeering laughter.
'Supposing for example that you and Harlow were shipwrecked on a desolate island, and YOU had saved nothing from the wreck but a bag containing a thousand sovereigns, and he had a tin of biscuits and a bottle of water.'
'Make it beer!' cried Harlow appealingly.
'Who would be the richer man, you or Harlow?'
'But then you see we ain't shipwrecked on no dissolute island at all,' sneered Crass. 'That's the worst of your arguments. You can't never get very far without supposing some bloody ridclus thing or other. Never mind about supposing things wot ain't true; let's 'ave facts and common sense.'
''Ear, 'ear,' said old Linden. 'That's wot we want—a little common sense.'
'What do YOU mean by poverty, then?' asked Easton.
'What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.'
Everybody laughed. It was so ridiculous. The idea of the likes of THEM wanting or having such things! Any doubts that any of them had entertained as to Owen's sanity disappeared. The man was as mad as a March hare.
'If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man's family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilization he might just as well be a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived. What we call civilization—the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers—is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or full, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal—he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.'
Some of them began to wonder whether Owen was not sane after all. He certainly must be a clever sort of chap to be able to talk like this. It sounded almost like something out of a book, and most of them could not understand one half of it.
'Why is it,' continued Owen, 'that we are not only deprived of our inheritance—we are not only deprived of nearly all the benefits of civilization, but we and our children and also often unable to obtain even the bare necessaries of existence?'
No one answered.
'All these things,' Owen proceeded, 'are produced by those who work. We do our full share of the work, therefore we should have a full share of the things that are made by work.'
The others continued silent. Harlow thought of the over-population theory, but decided not to mention it. Crass, who could not have given an intelligent answer to save his life, for once had sufficient sense to remain silent. He did think of calling out the patent paint-pumping machine and bringing the hosepipe to bear on the subject, but abandoned the idea; after all, he thought, what was the use of arguing with such a fool as Owen?
Sawkins pretended to be asleep.
Philpot, however, had suddenly grown very serious.
'As things are now,' went on Owen, 'instead of enjoying the advantages of civilization we are really worse off than slaves, for if we were slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always had food and—'
'Oh, I don't see that,' roughly interrupted old Linden, who had been listening with evident anger and impatience. 'You can speak for yourself, but I can tell yer I don't put MYSELF down as a slave.'
'Nor me neither,' said Crass sturdily. 'Let them call their selves slaves as wants to.'
At this moment a footstep was heard in the passage leading to the kitchen. Old Misery! or perhaps the bloke himself! Crass hurriedly pulled out his watch.
'Jesus Christ!' he gasped. 'It's four minutes past one!'
Linden frantically seized hold of a pair of steps and began wandering about the room with them.
Sawkins scrambled hastily to his feet and, snatching a piece of sandpaper from the pocket of his apron, began furiously rubbing down the scullery door.
Easton threw down the copy of the Obscurer and scrambled hastily to his feet.
The boy crammed the Chronicles of Crime into his trousers pocket.
Crass rushed over to the bucket and began stirring up the stale whitewash it contained, and the stench which it gave forth was simply appalling.
They looked like a gang of malefactors suddenly interrupted in the commission of a crime.
The door opened. It was only Bundy returning from his mission to the Bookie.
Nimrod: a Mighty Hunter before the Lord
Mr Hunter, as he was called to his face and as he was known to his brethren at the Shining Light Chapel, where he was superintendant of the Sunday School, or 'Misery' or 'Nimrod'; as he was named behind his back by the workmen over whom he tyrannized, was the general or walking foreman of 'manager' of the firm whose card is herewith presented to the reader:
RUSHTON & CO. MUGSBOROUGH ———- Builders, Decorators, and General Contractors FUNERALS FURNISHED Estimates given for General Repairs to House Property First-class Work only at Moderate Charges
There were a number of sub-foremen or 'coddies', but Hunter was THE foreman.
He was a tall, thin man whose clothes hung loosely on the angles of his round-shouldered, bony form. His long, thin legs, about which the baggy trousers draped in ungraceful folds, were slightly knock-kneed and terminated in large, flat feet. His arms were very long even for such a tall man, and the huge, bony hands were gnarled and knotted. When he removed his bowler hat, as he frequently did to wipe away with a red handkerchief the sweat occasioned by furious bicycle riding, it was seen that his forehead was high, flat and narrow. His nose was a large, fleshy, hawklike beak, and from the side of each nostril a deep indentation extended downwards until it disappeared in the dropping moustache that concealed his mouth, the vast extent of which was perceived only when he opened it to bellow at the workmen his exhortations to greater exertions. His chin was large and extraordinarily long. The eyes were pale blue, very small and close together, surmounted by spare, light-coloured, almost invisible eyebrows, with a deep vertical cleft between them over the nose. His head, covered with thick, coarse brown hair, was very large at the back; the ears were small and laid close to the head. If one were to make a full-face drawing of his cadaverous visage it would be found that the outline resembled that of the lid of a coffin.
This man had been with Rushton—no one had ever seen the 'Co.'—for fifteen years, in fact almost from the time when the latter commenced business. Rushton had at that period realized the necessity of having a deputy who could be used to do all the drudgery and running about so that he himself might be free to attend to the more pleasant or profitable matters. Hunter was then a journeyman, but was on the point of starting on his own account, when Rushton offered him a constant job as foreman, two pounds a week, and two and a half per cent of the profits of all work done. On the face of it this appeared a generous offer. Hunter closed with it, gave up the idea of starting for himself, and threw himself heart and mind into the business. When an estimate was to be prepared it was Hunter who measured up the work and laboriously figured out the probably cost. When their tenders were accepted it was he who superintended the work and schemed how to scamp it, where possible, using mud where mortar was specified, mortar where there ought to have been cement, sheet zinc where they were supposed to put sheet lead, boiled oil instead of varnish, and three coats of paint where five were paid for. In fact, scamping the work was with this man a kind of mania. It grieved him to see anything done properly. Even when it was more economical to do a thing well, he insisted from force of habit on having it scamped. Then he was almost happy, because he felt that he was doing someone down. If there were an architect superintending the work, Misery would square him or bluff him. If it were not possible to do either, at least he had a try; and in the intervals of watching, driving and bullying the hands, his vulture eye was ever on the look out for fresh jobs. His long red nose was thrust into every estate agent's office in the town in the endeavour to smell out what properties had recently changed hands or been let, in order that he might interview the new owners and secure the order for whatever alterations or repairs might be required. He it was who entered into unholy compacts with numerous charwomen and nurses of the sick, who in return for a small commission would let him know when some poor sufferer was passing away and would recommend Rushton & Co. to the bereaved and distracted relatives. By these means often—after first carefully inquiring into the financial position of the stricken family—Misery would contrive to wriggle his unsavoury carcass into the house of sorrow, seeking, even in the chamber of death, to further the interests of Rushton & Co. and to earn his miserable two and a half per cent.
It was to make possible the attainment of this object that Misery slaved and drove and schemed and cheated. It was for this that the workers' wages were cut down to the lowest possible point and their offspring went ill clad, ill shod and ill fed, and were driven forth to labour while they were yet children, because their fathers were unable to earn enough to support their homes.
Hunter realized now that Rushton had had considerably the best of the bargain. In the first place, it will be seen that the latter had bought over one who might have proved a dangerous competitor, and now, after fifteen years, the business that had been so laboriously built up, mainly by Hunter's energy, industry and unscrupulous cunning, belonged to Rushton & Co. Hunter was but an employee, liable to dismissal like any other workman, the only difference being that he was entitled to a week's notice instead of an hour's notice, and was but little better off financially than when he started for the firm.
Hunter knew now that he had been used, but he also knew that it was too late to turn back. He had not saved enough to make a successful start on his own account even if he had felt mentally and physically capable of beginning all over again, and if Rushton were to discharge him right now he was too old to get a job as a journeyman. Further, in his zeal for Rushton & Co. and his anxiety to earn his commission, he had often done things that had roused the animosity of rival firms to such an extent that it was highly improbable that any of them would employ him, and even if they would, Misery's heart failed him at the thought of having to meet on an equal footing those workmen whom he had tyrannized over and oppressed. It was for these reasons that Hunter was as terrified of Rushton as the hands were of himself.
Over the men stood Misery, ever threatening them with dismissal and their wives and children with hunger. Behind Misery was Rushton, ever bullying and goading him on to greater excuses and efforts for the furtherance of the good cause—which was to enable the head of the firm to accumulate money.
Mr Hunter, at the moment when the reader first makes his acquaintance on the afternoon of the day when the incidents recorded in the first chapter took place, was executing a kind of strategic movement in the direction of the house where Crass and his mates were working. He kept to one side of the road because by so doing he could not be perceived by those within the house until the instant of his arrival. When he was within about a hundred yards of the gate he dismounted from his bicycle, there being a sharp rise in the road just there, and as he toiled up, pushing the bicycle in front, his breath showing in white clouds in the frosty air, he observed a number of men hanging about. Some of them he knew; they had worked for him at various times, but were now out of a job. There were five men altogether; three of them were standing in a group, the other two stood each by himself, being apparently strangers to each other and the first three. The three men who stood together were nearest to Hunter and as the latter approached, one of them advanced to meet him.
'Good afternoon, sir.'
Hunter replied by an inarticulate grunt, without stopping; the man followed.
'Any chance of a job, sir?'
'Full up,' replied Hunter, still without stopping. The man still followed, like a beggar soliciting charity.
'Be any use calling in a day or so, sir?'
'Don't think so,' Hunter replied. 'Can if you like; but we're full up.'
'Thank you, sir,' said the man, and turned back to his friends.
By this time Hunter was within a few yards of one of the other two men, who also came to speak to him. This man felt there was no hope of getting a job; still, there was no harm in asking. Besides, he was getting desperate. It was over a month now since he had finished up for his last employer. It had been a very slow summer altogether. Sometimes a fortnight for one firm; then perhaps a week doing nothing; then three weeks or a month for another firm, then out again, and so on. And now it was November. Last winter they had got into debt; that was nothing unusual, but owing to the bad summer they had not been able, as in other years, to pay off the debts accumulated in winter. It was doubtful, too, whether they would be able to get credit again this winter. In fact this morning when his wife sent their little girl to the grocer's for some butter the latter had refused to let the child have it without the money. So although he felt it to be useless he accosted Hunter.
This time Hunter stopped: he was winded by his climb up the hill.
'Good afternoon, sir.' Hunter did not return the salutation; he had not the breath to spare, but the man was not hurt; he was used to being treated like that.
'Any chance of a job, sir?'
Hunter did not reply at once. He was short of breath and he was thinking of a plan that was ever recurring to his mind, and which he had lately been hankering to put into execution. It seemed to him that the long waited for opportunity had come. Just now Rushton & Co. were almost the only firm in Mugsborough who had any work. There were dozens of good workmen out. Yes, this was the time. If this man agreed he would give him a start. Hunter knew the man was a good workman, he had worked for Rushton & Co. before. To make room for him old Linden and some other full-price man could be got rid of; it would not be difficult to find some excuse.
'Well,' Hunter said at last in a doubtful, hesitating kind of way, 'I'm afraid not, Newman. We're about full up.'
He ceased speaking and remained waiting for the other to say something more. He did not look at the man, but stooped down, fidgeting with the mechanism of the bicycle as if adjusting it.
'Things have been so bad this summer,' Newman went on. 'I've had rather a rough time of it. I would be very glad of a job even if it was only for a week or so.'
There was a pause. After a while, Hunter raised his eyes to the other's face, but immediately let them fall again.
'Well,' said he, 'I might—perhaps—be able to let you have a day or two. You can come here to this job,' and he nodded his head in the direction of the house where the men were working. 'Tomorrow at seven. Of course you know the figure?' he added as Newman was about to thank him. 'Six and a half.'
Hunter spoke as if the reduction were already an accomplished fact. The man was more likely to agree, if he thought that others were already working at the reduced rate.
Newman was taken by surprise and hesitated. He had never worked under price; indeed, he had sometimes gone hungry rather than do so; but now it seemed that others were doing it. And then he was so awfully hard up. If he refused this job he was not likely to get another in a hurry. He thought of his home and his family. Already they owed five weeks' rent, and last Monday the collector had hinted pretty plainly that the landlord would not wait much longer. Not only that, but if he did not get a job how were they to live? This morning he himself had had no breakfast to speak of, only a cup of tea and some dry bread. These thoughts crowded upon each other in his mind, but still he hesitated. Hunter began to move off.
'Well,' he said, 'if you like to start you can come here at seven in the morning.' Then as Newman still hesitated he added impatiently, 'Are you coming or not?'
'Yes, sir,' said Newman.
'All right,' said Hunter, affably. 'I'll tell Crass to have a kit ready for you.'
He nodded in a friendly way to the man, who went off feeling like a criminal.
As Hunter resumed his march, well pleased with himself, the fifth man, who had been waiting all this time, came to meet him. As he approached, Hunter recognized him as one who had started work for Rushton & Co early in the summer, but who had left suddenly of his own accord, having taken offence at some bullying remark of Hunter's.
Hunter was glad to see this man. He guessed that the fellow must be very hard pressed to come again and ask for work after what had happened.
'Any chance of a job, sir?'
Hunter appeared to reflect.
'I believe I have room for one,' he said at length. 'But you're such an uncertain kind of chap. You don't seem to care much whether you work or not. You're too independent, you know; one can't say two words to you but you must needs clear off.'
The man made no answer.
'We can't tolerate that kind of thing, you know,' Hunter added. 'If we were to encourage men of your stamp we should never know where we are.'
So saying, Hunter moved away and again proceeded on his journey.
When he arrived within about three yards of the gate he noiselessly laid his machine against the garden fence. The high evergreens that grew inside still concealed him from the observation of anyone who might be looking out of the windows of the house. Then he carefully crept along till he came to the gate post, and bending down, he cautiously peeped round to see if he could detect anyone idling, or talking, or smoking. There was no one in sight except old Jack Linden, who was rubbing down the lobby doors with pumice-stone and water. Hunter noiselessly opened the gate and crept quietly along the grass border of the garden path. His idea was to reach the front door without being seen, so that Linden could not give notice of his approach to those within. In this he succeeded and passed silently into the house. He did not speak to Linden; to do so would have proclaimed his presence to the rest. He crawled stealthily over the house but was disappointed in his quest, for everyone he saw was hard at work. Upstairs he noticed that the door of one of the rooms was closed.
Old Joe Philpot had been working in this room all day, washing off the old whitewash from the ceiling and removing the old papers from the walls with a broad bladed, square topped knife called a stripper. Although it was only a small room, Joe had had to tear into the work pretty hard all the time, for the ceiling seemed to have had two or three coats of whitewash without ever having been washed off, and there were several thicknesses of paper on the walls. The difficulty of removing these papers was increased by the fact that there was a dado which had been varnished. In order to get this off it had been necessary to soak it several times with strong soda water, and although Joe was as careful as possible he had not been able to avoid getting some of this stuff on his fingers. The result was that his nails were all burnt and discoloured and the flesh round them cracked and bleeding. However, he had got it all off at last, and he was not sorry, for his right arm and shoulder were aching from the prolonged strain and in the palm of the right hand there was a blister as large as a shilling, caused by the handle of the stripping knife.
All the old paper being off, Joe washed down the walls with water, and having swept the paper into a heap in the middle of the floor, he mixed with a small trowel some cement on a small board and proceeded to stop up the cracks and holes in the walls and ceiling. After a while, feeling very tired, it occurred to him that he deserved a spell and a smoke for five minutes. He closed the door and placed a pair of steps against it. There were two windows in the room almost opposite each other; these he opened wide in order that the smoke and smell of his pipe might be carried away. Having taken these precautions against surprise, he ascended to the top of the step ladder that he had laid against the door and sat down at ease. Within easy reach was the top of a cupboard where he had concealed a pint of beer in a bottle. To this he now applied himself. Having taken a long pull at the bottle, he tenderly replaced it on the top of the cupboard and proceeded to 'hinjoy' a quiet smoke, remarking to himself:
'This is where we get some of our own back.'
He held, however, his trowel in one hand, ready for immediate action in case of interruption.
Philpot was about fifty-five years old. He wore no white jacket, only an old patched apron; his trousers were old, very soiled with paint and ragged at the bottoms of the legs where they fell over the much-patched, broken and down-at-heel boots. The part of his waistcoat not protected by his apron was covered with spots of dried paint. He wore a coloured shirt and a 'dickey' which was very soiled and covered with splashes of paint, and one side of it was projecting from the opening of the waistcoat. His head was covered with an old cap, heavy and shining with paint. He was very thin and stooped slightly. Although he was really only fifty-five, he looked much older, for he was prematurely aged.
He had not been getting his own back for quite five minutes when Hunter softly turned the handle of the lock. Philpot immediately put out his pipe and descending from his perch opened the door. When Hunter entered Philpot closed it again and, mounting the steps, went on stripping the wall just above. Nimrod looked at him suspiciously, wondering why the door had been closed. He looked all round the room but could see nothing to complain of. He sniffed the air to try if he could detect the odour of tobacco, and if he had not been suffering a cold in the head there is no doubt that he would have perceived it. However, as it was he could smell nothing but all the same he was not quite satisfied, although he remembered that Crass always gave Philpot a good character.
'I don't like to have men working on a job like this with the door shut,' he said at length. 'It always gives me the idear that the man's 'avin a mike. You can do what you're doin' just as well with the door open.'
Philpot, muttering something about it being all the same to him—shut or open—got down from the steps and opened the door. Hunter went out again without making any further remark and once more began crawling over the house.
Owen was working by himself in a room on the same floor as Philpot. He was at the window, burning off with a paraffin torch-lamp those parts of the old paintwork that were blistered and cracked.
In this work the flame of the lamp is directed against the old paint, which becomes soft and is removed with a chisel knife, or a scraper called a shavehook. The door was ajar and he had opened the top sash of the window for the purpose of letting in some fresh air, because the atmosphere of the room was foul with the fumes of the lamp and the smell of the burning paint, besides being heavy with moisture. The ceiling had only just been water washed and the walls had just been stripped. The old paper, saturated with water, was piled up in a heap in the middle of the floor.
Presently, as he was working he began to feel conscious of some other presence in the room; he looked round. The door was open about six inches and in the opening appeared a long, pale face with a huge chin, surmounted by a bowler hat and ornamented with a large red nose, a drooping moustache and two small, glittering eyes set very close together. For some seconds this apparition regarded Owen intently, then it was silently withdrawn, and he was again alone. He had been so surprised and startled that he had nearly dropped the lamp, and now that the ghastly countenance was gone, Owen felt the blood surge into his own cheeks. He trembled with suppressed fury and longed to be able to go out there on the landing and hurl the lamp into Hunter's face.
Meanwhile, on the landing outside Owen's door, Hunter stood thinking. Someone must be got rid of to make room for the cheap man tomorrow. He had hoped to catch somebody doing something that would have served as an excuse for instant dismissal, but there was now no hope of that happening. What was to be done? He would like to get rid of Linden, who was now really too old to be of much use, but as the old man had worked for Rushton on and off for many years, Hunter felt that he could scarcely sack him off hand without some reasonable pretext. Still, the fellow was really not worth the money he was getting. Sevenpence an hour was an absurdly large wage for an old man like him. It was preposterous: he would have to go, excuse or no excuse.
Hunter crawled downstairs again.
Jack Linden was about sixty-seven years old, but like Philpot, and as is usual with working men, he appeared older, because he had had to work very hard all his life, frequently without proper food and clothing. His life had been passed in the midst of a civilization which he had never been permitted to enjoy the benefits of. But of course he knew nothing about all this. He had never expected or wished to be allowed to enjoy such things; he had always been of opinion that they were never intended for the likes of him. He called himself a Conservative and was very patriotic.
At the time when the Boer War commenced, Linden was an enthusiastic jingo: his enthusiasm had been somewhat damped when his youngest son, a reservist, had to go to the front, where he died of fever and exposure. When this soldier son went away, he left his wife and two children, aged respectively four and five years at that time, in his father's care. After he died they stayed on with the old people. The young woman earned a little occasionally by doing needlework, but was really dependent on her father-in-law. Notwithstanding his poverty, he was glad to have them in the house, because of late years his wife had been getting very feeble, and, since the shock occasioned by the news of the death of her son, needed someone constantly with her.
Linden was still working at the vestibule doors when the manager came downstairs. Misery stood watching him for some minutes without speaking. At last he said loudly:
'How much longer are you going to be messing about those doors? Why don't you get them under colour? You were fooling about there when I was here this morning. Do you think it'll pay to have you playing about there hour after hour with a bit of pumice stone? Get the work done! Or if you don't want to, I'll very soon find someone else who does! I've been noticing your style of doing things for some time past and I want you to understand that you can't play the fool with me. There's plenty of better men than you walking about. If you can't do more than you've been doing lately you can clear out; we can do without you even when we're busy.'
Old Jack trembled. He tried to answer, but was unable to speak. If he had been a slave and had failed to satisfy his master, the latter might have tied him up somewhere and thrashed him. Hunter could not do that; he could only take his food away. Old Jack was frightened—it was not only HIS food that might be taken away. At last, with a great effort, for the words seemed to stick in his throat, he said:
'I must clean the work down, sir, before I go on painting.'
'I'm not talking about what you're doing, but the time it takes you to do it!' shouted Hunter. 'And I don't want any back answers or argument about it. You must move yourself a bit quicker or leave it alone altogether.'
Linden did not answer: he went on with his work, his hand trembling to such an extent that he was scarcely able to hold the pumice stone.
Hunter shouted so loud that his voice filled all the house. Everyone heard and was afraid. Who would be the next? they thought.
Finding that Linden made no further answer, Misery again began walking about the house.
As he looked at them the men did their work in a nervous, clumsy, hasty sort of way. They made all sorts of mistakes and messes. Payne, the foreman carpenter, was putting some new boards on a part of the drawing-room floor: he was in such a state of panic that, while driving a nail, he accidentally struck the thumb of his left hand a severe blow with his hammer. Bundy was also working in the drawing-room putting some white-glazed tiles in the fireplace. Whilst cutting one of these in half in order to fit it into its place, he inflicted a deep gash on one of his fingers. He was afraid to leave off to bind it up while Hunter was there, and consequently as he worked the white tiles became all smeared and spattered with blood. Easton, who was working with Harlow on a plank, washing off the old distemper from the hall ceiling, was so upset that he was scarcely able to stand on the plank, and presently the brush fell from his trembling hand with a crash upon the floor.
Everyone was afraid. They knew that it was impossible to get a job for any other firm. They knew that this man had the power to deprive them of the means of earning a living; that he possessed the power to deprive their children of bread.
Owen, listening to Hunter over the banisters upstairs, felt that he would like to take him by the throat with one hand and smash his face in with the other.
Why then he would be sent to gaol, or at the best he would lose his employment: his food and that of his family would be taken away. That was why he only ground his teeth and cursed and beat the wall with his clenched fist. So! and so! and so!
If it were not for them!
Owen's imagination ran riot.
First he would seize him by the collar with his left hand, dig his knuckles into his throat, force him up against the wall and then, with his right fist, smash! smash! smash! until Hunter's face was all cut and covered with blood.
But then, what about those at home? Was it not braver and more manly to endure in silence?
Owen leaned against the wall, white-faced, panting and exhausted.
Downstairs, Misery was still going to and fro in the house and walking up and down in it. Presently he stopped to look at Sawkins' work. This man was painting the woodwork of the back staircase. Although the old paintwork here was very dirty and greasy, Misery had given orders that it was not to be cleaned before being painted.
'Just dust it down and slobber the colour on,' he had said. Consequently, when Crass made the paint, he had put into it an extra large quantity of dryers. To a certain extent this destroyed the 'body' of the colour: it did not cover well; it would require two coats. When Hunter perceived this he was furious. He was sure it could be made to do with one coat with a little care; he believed Sawkins was doing it like this on purpose. Really, these men seemed to have no conscience.
Two coats! and he had estimated for only three.
Crass came hurrying along.
'What's the meaning of this? Didn't I tell you to make this do with one coat? Look at it!'
'It's like this, sir,' said Crass. 'If it had been washed down—'
'Washed down be damned,' shouted Hunter. 'The reason is that the colour ain't thick enough. Take the paint and put a little more body in it and we'll soon see whether it can be done or not. I can make it cover if you can't.'
Crass took the paint, and, superintended by Hunter, made it thicker. Misery then seized the brush and prepared to demonstrate the possibility of finishing the work with one coat. Crass and Sawkins looked on in silence.
Just as Misery was about to commence he fancied he heard someone whispering somewhere. He laid down the brush and crawled stealthily upstairs to see who it was. Directly his back was turned Crass seized a bottle of oil that was standing near and, tipping about half a pint of it into the paint, stirred it up quickly. Misery returned almost immediately: he had not caught anyone; it must have been fancy. He took up the brush and began to paint. The result was worse than Sawkins!
He messed and fooled about for some time, but could not make it come right. At last he gave it up.
'I suppose it'll have to have two coats after all,' he said, mournfully. 'But it's a thousand pities.'
He almost wept.
The firm would be ruined if things went on like this.
'You'd better go on with it,' he said as he laid down the brush.
He began to walk about the house again. He wanted to go away now, but he did not want them to know that he was gone, so he sneaked out of the back door, crept around the house and out of the gate, mounted his bicycle and rode away.
No one saw him go.
For some time the only sounds that broke the silence were the noises made by the hands as they worked. The musical ringing of Bundy's trowel, the noise of the carpenters' hammers and saws and the occasional moving of a pair of steps.
No one dared to speak.
At last Philpot could stand it no longer. He was very thirsty.
He had kept the door of his room open since Hunter arrived.
He listened intently. He felt certain that Hunter must be gone: he looked across the landing and could see Owen working in the front room. Philpot made a little ball of paper and threw it at him to attract his attention. Owen looked round and Philpot began to make signals: he pointed downwards with one hand and jerked the thumb of the other over his shoulder in the direction of the town, winking grotesquely the while. This Owen interpreted to be an inquiry as to whether Hunter had departed. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders to intimate that he did not know.
Philpot cautiously crossed the landing and peeped furtively over the banisters, listening breathlessly. 'Was it gorn or not?' he wondered.
He crept along on tiptoe towards Owen's room, glancing left and right, the trowel in his hand, and looking like a stage murderer. 'Do you think it's gorn?' he asked in a hoarse whisper when he reached Owen's door.
'I don't know,' replied Owen in a low tone.
Philpot wondered. He MUST have a drink, but it would never do for Hunter to see him with the bottle: he must find out somehow whether he was gone or not.
At last an idea came. He would go downstairs to get some more cement. Having confided this plan to Owen, he crept quietly back to the room in which he had been working, then he walked noisily across the landing again.
'Got a bit of stopping to spare, Frank?' he asked in a loud voice.
'No,' replied Owen. 'I'm not using it.'
'Then I suppose I'll have to go down and get some. Is there anything I can bring up for you?'
'No, thanks,' replied Owen.
Philpot marched boldly down to the scullery, which Crass had utilized as a paint-shop. Crass was there mixing some colour.
'I want a bit of stopping,' Philpot said as he helped himself to some.
'Is the b—r gorn?' whispered Crass.
'I don't know,' replied Philpot. 'Where's his bike?'
''E always leaves it outside the gate, so's we can't see it,' replied Crass.
'Tell you what,' whispered Philpot, after a pause. 'Give the boy a hempty bottle and let 'im go to the gate and look to the bikes there. If Misery sees him 'e can pretend to be goin' to the shop for some hoil.'
This was done. Bert went to the gate and returned almost immediately: the bike was gone. As the good news spread through the house a chorus of thanksgiving burst forth.
'Thank Gord!' said one.
'Hope the b—r falls orf and breaks 'is bloody neck,' said another.
'These Bible-thumpers are all the same; no one ever knew one to be any good yet,' cried a third.
Directly they knew for certain that he was gone, nearly everyone left off work for a few minutes to curse him. Then they again went on working and now that they were relieved of the embarrassment that Misery's presence inspired, they made better progress. A few of them lit their pipes and smoked as they worked.
One of these was old Jack Linden. He was upset by the bullying he had received, and when he noticed some of the others smoking he thought he would have a pipe; it might steady his nerves. As a rule he did not smoke when working; it was contrary to orders.
As Philpot was returning to work again he paused for a moment to whisper to Linden, with the result that the latter accompanied him upstairs.
On reaching Philpot's room the latter placed the step-ladder near the cupboard and, taking down the bottle of beer, handed it to Linden with the remark, 'Get some of that acrost yer, matey; it'll put yer right.'
While Linden was taking a hasty drink, Joe kept watch on the landing outside in case Hunter should suddenly and unexpectedly reappear.
When Linden was gone downstairs again, Philpot, having finished what remained of the beer and hidden the bottle up the chimney, resumed the work of stopping up the holes and cracks in the ceiling and walls. He must make a bit of a show tonight or there would be a hell of a row when Misery came in the morning.
Owen worked on in a disheartened, sullen way. He felt like a beaten dog.
He was more indignant on poor old Linden's account than on his own, and was oppressed by a sense of impotence and shameful degradation.
All his life it had been the same: incessant work under similar more or less humiliating conditions, and with no more result than being just able to avoid starvation.
And the future, as far as he could see, was as hopeless as the past; darker, for there would surely come a time, if he lived long enough, when he would be unable to work any more.
He thought of his child. Was he to be a slave and a drudge all his life also?
It would be better for the boy to die now.
As Owen thought of his child's future there sprung up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against the majority of his fellow workmen.
THEY WERE THE ENEMY. Those who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to the existing state of things, but defended it, and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion to alter it.
THEY WERE THE REAL OPPRESSORS—the men who spoke of themselves as 'The likes of us,' who, having lived in poverty and degradation all their lives considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for the children they had been the cause of bringing into existence.
He hated and despised them because the calmly saw their children condemned to hard labour and poverty for life, and deliberately refused to make any effort to secure for them better conditions than those they had themselves.
It was because they were indifferent to the fate of THEIR children that he would be unable to secure a natural and human life for HIS. It was their apathy or active opposition that made it impossible to establish a better system of society under which those who did their fair share of the world's work would be honoured and rewarded. Instead of helping to do this, they abased themselves, and grovelled before their oppressors, and compelled and taught their children to do the same. THEY were the people who were really responsible for the continuance of the present system.
Owen laughed bitterly to himself. What a very comical system it was.
Those who worked were looked upon with contempt, and subjected to every possible indignity. Nearly everything they produced was taken away from them and enjoyed by the people who did nothing. And then the workers bowed down and grovelled before those who had robbed them of the fruits of their labour and were childishly grateful to them for leaving anything at all.
No wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt. They WERE despicable. They WERE dirt. They admitted it and gloried in it.
While these thoughts were seething in Owen's mind, his fellow workmen were still patiently toiling on downstairs. Most of them had by this time dismissed Hunter from their thoughts. They did not take things so seriously as Owen. They flattered themselves that they had more sense than that. It could not be altered. Grin and bear it. After all, it was only for life! Make the best of things, and get your own back whenever you get a chance.
Presently Harlow began to sing. He had a good voice and it was a good song, but his mates just then did not appreciate either one of the other. His singing was the signal for an outburst of exclamations and catcalls.
'Shut it, for Christ's sake!'
'That's enough of that bloody row!'
And so on. Harlow stopped.
'How's the enemy?' asked Easton presently, addressing no one in particular.
'Don't know,' replied Bundy. 'It must be about half past four. Ask Slyme; he's got a watch.'
It was a quarter past four.
'It gets dark very early now,' said Easton.
'Yes,' replied Bundy. 'It's been very dull all day. I think it's goin' to rain. Listen to the wind.'
'I 'ope not,' replied Easton. 'That means a wet shirt goin' 'ome.'
He called out to old Jack Linden, who was still working at the front doors:
'Is it raining, Jack?'
Old Jack, his pipe still in his mouth, turned to look at the weather. It was raining, but Linden did not see the large drops which splashed heavily upon the ground. He saw only Hunter, who was standing at the gate, watching him. For a few seconds the two men looked at each other in silence. Linden was paralysed with fear. Recovering himself, he hastily removed his pipe, but it was too late.
Misery strode up.
'I don't pay you for smoking,' he said, loudly. 'Make out your time sheet, take it to the office and get your money. I've had enough of you!'
Jack made no attempt to defend himself: he knew it was of no use. He silently put aside the things he had been using, went into the room where he had left his tool-bag and coat, removed his apron and white jacket, folded them up and put them into his tool-bag along with the tools he had been using—a chisel-knife and a shavehook—put on his coat, and, with the tool-bag slung over his shoulder, went away from the house.
Without speaking to anyone else, Hunter then hastily walked over the place, noting what progress had been made by each man during his absence. He then rode away, as he wanted to get to the office in time to give Linden his money.
It was now very cold and dark within the house, and as the gas was not yet laid on, Crass distributed a number of candles to the men, who worked silently, each occupied with his own gloomy thoughts. Who would be the next?
Outside, sombre masses of lead-coloured clouds gathered ominously in the tempestuous sky. The gale roared loudly round the old-fashioned house and the windows rattled discordantly. Rain fell in torrents.
They said it meant getting wet through going home, but all the same, Thank God it was nearly five o'clock!
That night as Easton walked home through the rain he felt very depressed. It had been a very bad summer for most people and he had not fared better than the rest. A few weeks with one firm, a few days with another, then out of a job, then on again for a month perhaps, and so on.
William Easton was a man of medium height, about twenty-three years old, with fair hair and moustache and blue eyes. He wore a stand-up collar with a coloured tie and his clothes, though shabby, were clean and neat.
He was married: his wife was a young woman whose acquaintance he had made when he happened to be employed with others painting the outside of the house where she was a general servant. They had 'walked out' for about fifteen months. Easton had been in no hurry to marry, for he knew that, taking good times with bad, his wages did no average a pound a week. At the end of that time, however, he found that he could not honourably delay longer, so they were married.