It is half-past three. In the kitchen of Roberts's cottage a meagre little fire is burning. The room is clean and tidy, very barely furnished, with a brick floor and white-washed walls, much stained with smoke. There is a kettle on the fire. A door opposite the fireplace opens inward from a snowy street. On the wooden table are a cup and saucer, a teapot, knife, and plate of bread and cheese. Close to the fireplace in an old arm-chair, wrapped in a rug, sits MRS. ROBERTS, a thin and dark-haired woman about thirty-five, with patient eyes. Her hair is not done up, but tied back with a piece of ribbon. By the fire, too, is MRS. YEO; a red-haired, broad-faced person. Sitting near the table is MRS. ROUS, an old lady, ashen-white, with silver hair; by the door, standing, as if about to go, is MRS. BULGIN, a little pale, pinched-up woman. In a chair, with her elbows resting on the table, avid her face resting in her hands, sits MADGE THOMAS, a good-looking girl, of twenty-two, with high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, and dark untidy hair. She is listening to the talk, but she neither speaks nor moves.
MRS. YEO. So he give me a sixpence, and that's the first bit o' money I seen this week. There an't much 'eat to this fire. Come and warm yerself Mrs. Rous, you're lookin' as white as the snow, you are.
MRS. ROUS. [Shivering--placidly.] Ah! but the winter my old man was took was the proper winter. Seventy-nine that was, when none of you was hardly born--not Madge Thomas, nor Sue Bulgin. [Looking at them in turn.] Annie Roberts, 'ow old were you, dear?
MRS ROBERTS. Seven, Mrs. Rous.
MRS. ROUS. Seven--well, there! A tiny little thing!
MRS. YEO. [Aggressively.] Well, I was ten myself, I remembers it.
MRS. Rous. [Placidly.] The Company hadn't been started three years. Father was workin' on the acid, that's 'ow he got 'is pisoned-leg. I kep' sayin' to 'im, "Father, you've got a pisoned leg." "Well," 'e said, "Mother, pison or no pison, I can't afford to go a-layin' up." An' two days after, he was on 'is back, and never got up again. It was Providence! There was n't none o' these Compensation Acts then.
MRS. YEO. Ye had n't no strike that winter! [With grim humour.] This winter's 'ard enough for me. Mrs. Roberts, you don't want no 'arder winter, do you? Wouldn't seem natural to 'ave a dinner, would it, Mrs. Bulgin?
MRS. BULGIN. We've had bread and tea last four days.
MRS. YEO. You got that Friday's laundry job?
MRS. BULGIN. [Dispiritedly.] They said they'd give it me, but when I went last Friday, they were full up. I got to go again next week.
MRS. YEO. Ah! There's too many after that. I send Yeo out on the ice to put on the gentry's skates an' pick up what 'e can. Stops 'im from broodin' about the 'ouse.
MRS. BULGIN. [In a desolate, matter-of-fact voice.] Leavin' out the men--it's bad enough with the children. I keep 'em in bed, they don't get so hungry when they're not running about; but they're that restless in bed they worry your life out.
MRS. YEO. You're lucky they're all so small. It 's the goin' to school that makes 'em 'ungry. Don't Bulgin give you anythin'?
MRS. BULGIN. [Shakes her head, then, as though by afterthought.] Would if he could, I s'pose.
MRS. YEO. [Sardonically.] What! 'Ave n't 'e got no shares in the Company?
MRS. ROUS. [Rising with tremulous cheerfulness.] Well, good-bye, Annie Roberts, I'm going along home.
MRS. ROBERTS. Stay an' have a cup of tea, Mrs. Rous?
MRS. ROUS. [With the faintest smile.] Roberts 'll want 'is tea when he comes in. I'll just go an' get to bed; it's warmer there than anywhere.
[She moves very shakily towards the door.]
MRS. YEO. [Rising and giving her an arm.] Come on, Mother, take my arm; we're all going' the same way.
MRS. ROUS. [Taking the arm.]Thank you, my dearies!
[THEY go out, followed by MRS. BULGIN.]
MADGE. [Moving for the first time.] There, Annie, you see that! I told George Rous, "Don't think to have my company till you've made an end of all this trouble. You ought to be ashamed," I said, "with your own mother looking like a ghost, and not a stick to put on the fire. So long as you're able to fill your pipes, you'll let us starve." "I 'll take my oath, Madge," he said, "I 've not had smoke nor drink these three weeks!" "Well, then, why do you go on with it?" "I can't go back on Roberts!" . . . That's it! Roberts, always Roberts! They'd all drop it but for him. When he talks it's the devil that comes into them.
[A silence. MRS. ROBERTS makes a movement of pain.]
Ah! You don't want him beaten! He's your man. With everybody like their own shadows! [She makes a gesture towards MRS. ROBERTS.] If ROUS wants me he must give up Roberts. If he gave him up--they all would. They're only waiting for a lead. Father's against him-- they're all against him in their hearts.
MRS. ROBERTS. You won't beat Roberts!
[They look silently at each other.]
MADGE. Won't I? The cowards--when their own mothers and their own children don't know where to turn.
MRS. ROBERTS. Madge!
MADGE. [Looking searchingly at MRS. ROBERTS.] I wonder he can look you in the face. [She squats before the fire, with her hands out to the flame.] Harness is here again. They'll have to make up their minds to-day.
MRS. ROBERTS. [In a soft, slow voice, with a slight West-country burr.] Roberts will never give up the furnace-men and engineers. 'T wouldn't be right.
MADGE. You can't deceive me. It's just his pride.
[A tapping at the door is heard, the women turn as ENID enters. She wears a round fur cap, and a jacket of squirrel's fur. She closes the door behind her.]
ENID. Can I come in, Annie?
MRS. ROBERTS. [Flinching.] Miss Enid! Give Mrs. Underwood a chair, Madge!
[MADGE gives ENID the chair she has been sitting on.]
ENID. Thank you!
ENID. Are you any better?
MRS. ROBERTS. Yes, M'm; thank you, M'm.
ENID. [Looking at the sullen MADGE as though requesting her departure.] Why did you send back the jelly? I call that really wicked of you!
MRS. ROBERTS. Thank you, M'm, I'd no need for it.
ENID. Of course! It was Roberts's doing, wasn't it? How can he let all this suffering go on amongst you?
MADGE. [Suddenly.] What suffering?
ENID. [Surprised.] I beg your pardon!
MADGE. Who said there was suffering?
MRS. ROBERTS. Madge!
MADGE. [Throwing her shawl over her head.] Please to let us keep ourselves to ourselves. We don't want you coming here and spying on us.
ENID. [Confronting her, but without rising.] I did n't speak to you.
MADGE. [In a low, fierce voice.] Keep your kind feelings to yourself. You think you can come amongst us, but you're mistaken. Go back and tell the Manager that.
ENID. [Stonily.] This is not your house.
MADGE. [Turning to the door.] No, it is not my house; keep clear of my house, Mrs. Underwood.
[She goes out. ENID taps her fingers on the table.]
MRS. ROBERTS. Please to forgive Madge Thomas, M'm; she's a bit upset to-day.
ENID. [Looking at her.] Oh, I think they're so stupid, all of them.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a faint smile]. Yes, M'm.
ENID. Is Roberts out?
MRS. ROBERTS. Yes, M'm.
ENID. It is his doing, that they don't come to an agreement. Now is n't it, Annie?
MRS. ROBERTS. [Softly, with her eyes on ENID, and moving the fingers of one hand continually on her breast.] They do say that your father, M'm----
ENID. My father's getting an old man, and you know what old men are.
MRS. ROBERTS. I am sorry, M'm.
ENID. [More softly.] I don't expect you to feel sorry, Annie. I know it's his fault as well as Roberts's.
MRS. ROBERTS. I'm sorry for any one that gets old, M'm; it 's dreadful to get old, and Mr. Anthony was such a fine old man, I always used to think.
ENID. [Impulsively.] He always liked you, don't you remember? Look here, Annie, what can I do? I do so want to know. You don't get what you ought to have. [Going to the fire, she takes the kettle off, and looks for coals.] And you're so naughty sending back the soup and things.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a faint smile.] Yes, M'm?
ENID. [Resentfully.] Why, you have n't even got coals?
MRS. ROBERTS. If you please, M'm, to put the kettle on again; Roberts won't have long for his tea when he comes in. He's got to meet the men at four.
ENID. [Putting the kettle on.] That means he'll lash them into a fury again. Can't you stop his going, Annie?
[MRS. ROBERTS smiles ironically.]
Have you tried?
Does he know how ill you are?
MRS. ROBERTS. It's only my weak 'eard, M'm.
ENID. You used to be so well when you were with us.
MRS. ROBERTS. [Stiffening.] Roberts is always good to me.
ENID. But you ought to have everything you want, and you have nothing!
MRS. ROBERTS. [Appealingly.] They tell me I don't look like a dyin' woman?
ENID. Of course you don't; if you could only have proper--- Will you see my doctor if I send him to you? I'm sure he'd do you good.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With faint questioning.] Yes, M'm.
ENID. Madge Thomas ought n't to come here; she only excites you. As if I did n't know what suffering there is amongst the men! I do feel for them dreadfully, but you know they have gone too far.
MRS. ROBERTS. [Continually moving her fingers.] They say there's no other way to get better wages, M'm.
ENID. [Earnestly.] But, Annie, that's why the Union won't help them. My husband's very sympathetic with the men, but he says they are not underpaid.
MRS. ROBERTS. No, M'm?
ENID. They never think how the Company could go on if we paid the wages they want.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With an effort.] But the dividends having been so big, M'm.
ENID. [Takes aback.] You all seem to think the shareholders are rich men, but they're not--most of them are really no better off than working men.
[MRS. ROBERTS smiles.]
They have to keep up appearances.
MRS. ROBERTS. Yes, M'm?
ENID. You don't have to pay rates and taxes, and a hundred other things that they do. If the men did n't spend such a lot in drink and betting they'd be quite well off!
MRS. ROBERTS. They say, workin' so hard, they must have some pleasure.
ENID. But surely not low pleasure like that.
MRS. ROBERTS. [A little resentfully.] Roberts never touches a drop; and he's never had a bet in his life.
ENID. Oh! but he's not a com----I mean he's an engineer---- a superior man.
MRS. ROBERTS. Yes, M'm. Roberts says they've no chance of other pleasures.
ENID. [Musing.] Of course, I know it's hard.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a spice of malice.] And they say gentlefolk's just as bad.
ENID. [With a smile.] I go as far as most people, Annie, but you know, yourself, that's nonsense.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With painful effort.] A lot 'o the men never go near the Public; but even they don't save but very little, and that goes if there's illness.
ENID. But they've got their clubs, have n't they?
MRS. ROBERTS. The clubs only give up to eighteen shillin's a week, M'm, and it's not much amongst a family. Roberts says workin' folk have always lived from hand to mouth. Sixpence to-day is worth more than a shillin' to-morrow, that's what they say.
ENID. But that's the spirit of gambling.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a sort of excitement.] Roberts says a working man's life is all a gamble, from the time 'e 's born to the time 'e dies.
[ENID leans forward, interested. MRS. ROBERTS goes on with a growing excitement that culminates in the personal feeling of the last words.]
He says, M'm, that when a working man's baby is born, it's a toss-up from breath to breath whether it ever draws another, and so on all 'is life; an' when he comes to be old, it's the workhouse or the grave. He says that without a man is very near, and pinches and stints 'imself and 'is children to save, there can't be neither surplus nor security. That's why he wouldn't have no children [she sinks back], not though I wanted them.
ENID. Yes, yes, I know!
MRS. ROBERTS. No you don't, M'm. You've got your children, and you'll never need to trouble for them.
ENID. [Gently.] You oughtn't to be talking so much, Annie. [Then, in spite of herself.] But Roberts was paid a lot of money, was n't he, for discovering that process?
MRS. ROBERTS. [On the defensive.] All Roberts's savin's have gone. He 's always looked forward to this strike. He says he's no right to a farthing when the others are suffering. 'T is n't so with all o' them! Some don't seem to care no more than that--so long as they get their own.
ENID. I don't see how they can be expected to when they 're suffering like this. [In a changed voice.] But Roberts ought to think of you! It's all terrible----! The kettle's boiling. Shall I make the tea? [She takes the teapot and, seeing tea there, pours water into it.] Won't you have a cup?
MRS. ROBERTS. No, thank you, M'm. [She is listening, as though for footsteps.] I'd--sooner you did n't see Roberts, M'm, he gets so wild.
ENID. Oh! but I must, Annie; I'll be quite calm, I promise.
MRS. ROBERTS. It's life an' death to him, M'm.
ENID. [Very gently.] I'll get him to talk to me outside, we won't excite you.
MRS. ROBERTS. [Faintly.] No, M'm.
[She gives a violent start. ROBERTS has come in, unseen.]
ROBERTS. [Removing his hat--with subtle mockery.] Beg pardon for coming in; you're engaged with a lady, I see.
ENID. Can I speak to you, Mr. Roberts?
ROBERTS. Whom have I the pleasure of addressing, Ma'am?
ENID. But surely you know me! I 'm Mrs. Underwood.
ROBERTS. [With a bow of malice.] The daughter of our Chairman.
ENID. [Earnestly.] I've come on purpose to speak to you; will you come outside a minute?
[She looks at MRS. ROBERTS.]
ROBERTS. [Hanging up his hat.] I have nothing to say, Ma'am.
ENID. But I must speak to you, please.
[She moves towards the door.]
ROBERTS. [With sudden venom.] I have not the time to listen!
MRS. ROBERTS. David!
ENID. Mr. Roberts, please!
ROBERTS. [Taking off his overcoat.] I am sorry to disoblige a lady --Mr. Anthony's daughter.
ENID. [Wavering, then with sudden decision.] Mr. Roberts, I know you've another meeting of the men.
I came to appeal to you. Please, please, try to come to some compromise; give way a little, if it's only for your own sakes!
ROBERTS. [Speaking to himself.] The daughter of Mr. Anthony begs me to give way a little, if it's only for our own sakes!
ENID. For everybody's sake; for your wife's sake.
ROBERTS. For my wife's sake, for everybody's sake--for the sake of Mr. Anthony.
ENID. Why are you so bitter against my father? He has never done anything to you.
ROBERTS. Has he not?
ENID. He can't help his views, any more than you can help yours.
ROBERTS. I really did n't know that I had a right to views!
ENID. He's an old man, and you----
[Seeing his eyes fixed on her, she stops.]
ROBERTS. [Without raising his voice.] If I saw Mr. Anthony going to die, and I could save him by lifting my hand, I would not lift the little finger of it.
ENID. You--you----[She stops again, biting her lips.]
ROBERTS. I would not, and that's flat!
ENID. [Coldly.] You don't mean what you say, and you know it!
ROBERTS. I mean every word of it.
ENID. But why?
ROBERTS. [With a flash.] Mr. Anthony stands for tyranny! That's why!
[MRS. ROBERTS makes a movement as if to rise, but sinks back in her chair.]
ENID. [With an impetuous movement.] Annie!
ROBERTS. Please not to touch my wife!
ENID. [Recoiling with a sort of horror.] I believe--you are mad.
ROBERTS. The house of a madman then is not the fit place for a lady.
ENID. I 'm not afraid of you.
ROBERTS. [Bowing.] I would not expect the daughter of Mr. Anthony to be afraid. Mr. Anthony is not a coward like the rest of them.
ENID. [Suddenly.] I suppose you think it brave, then, to go on with the struggle.
ROBERTS. Does Mr. Anthony think it brave to fight against women and children? Mr. Anthony is a rich man, I believe; does he think it brave to fight against those who have n't a penny? Does he think it brave to set children crying with hunger, an' women shivering with cold?
ENID. [Putting up her hand, as though warding off a blow.] My father is acting on his principles, and you know it!
ROBERTS. And so am I!
ENID. You hate us; and you can't bear to be beaten!
ROBERTS. Neither can Mr. Anthony, for all that he may say.
ENID. At any rate you might have pity on your wife.
[MRS. ROBERTS who has her hand pressed to her heart, takes it away, and tries to calm her breathing.]
ROBERTS. Madam, I have no more to say.
[He takes up the loaf. There is a knock at the door, and UNDERWOOD comes in. He stands looking at them, ENID turns to him, then seems undecided.]
ROBERTS. [Ironically.] Ye were not needing to come for your wife, Mr. Underwood. We are not rowdies.
UNDERWOOD. I know that, Roberts. I hope Mrs. Roberts is better.
[ROBERTS turns away without answering. Come, Enid!]
ENID. I make one more appeal to you, Mr. Roberts, for the sake of your wife.
ROBERTS. [With polite malice.] If I might advise ye, Ma'am--make it for the sake of your husband and your father.
[ENID, suppressing a retort, goes out. UNDERWOOD opens the door for her and follows. ROBERTS, going to the fire, holds out his hands to the dying glow.]
ROBERTS. How goes it, my girl? Feeling better, are you?
[MRS. ROBERTS smiles faintly. He brings his overcoat and wraps it round her.]
[Looking at his watch.] Ten minutes to four! [As though inspired.] I've seen their faces, there's no fight in them, except for that one old robber.
MRS. ROBERTS. Won't you stop and eat, David? You've 'ad nothing all day!
ROBERTS. [Putting his hand to his throat.] Can't swallow till those old sharks are out o' the town: [He walks up and down.] I shall have a bother with the men--there's no heart in them, the cowards. Blind as bats, they are--can't see a day before their noses.
MRS. ROBERTS. It's the women, David.
ROBERTS. Ah! So they say! They can remember the women when their own bellies speak! The women never stop them from the drink; but from a little suffering to themselves in a sacred cause, the women stop them fast enough.
MRS. ROBERTS. But think o' the children, David.
ROBERTS. Ah! If they will go breeding themselves for slaves, without a thought o' the future o' them they breed----
MRS. ROBERTS. [Gasping.] That's enough, David; don't begin to talk of that--I won't--I can't----
ROBERTS. [Staring at her.] Now, now, my girl!
MRS. ROBERTS. [Breathlessly.] No, no, David--I won't!
ROBERTS. There, there! Come, come! That's right! [Bitterly.] Not one penny will they put by for a day like this. Not they! Hand to mouth--Gad!--I know them! They've broke my heart. There was no holdin' them at the start, but now the pinch 'as come.
MRS. ROBERTS. How can you expect it, David? They're not made of iron.
ROBERTS. Expect it? Wouldn't I expect what I would do meself? Wouldn't I starve an' rot rather than give in? What one man can do, another can.
MRS. ROBERTS. And the women?
ROBERTS. This is not women's work.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a flash of malice.] No, the women may die for all you care. That's their work.
ROBERTS. [Averting his eyes.] Who talks of dying? No one will die till we have beaten these----
[He meets her eyes again, and again turns his away. Excitedly.]
This is what I've been waiting for all these months. To get the old robbers down, and send them home again without a farthin's worth o' change. I 've seen their faces, I tell you, in the valley of the shadow of defeat.
[He goes to the peg and takes down his hat.]
MRS. ROBERTS. [Following with her eyes-softly.] Take your overcoat, David; it must be bitter cold.
ROBERTS. [Coming up to her-his eyes are furtive.] No, no! There, there, stay quiet and warm. I won't be long, my girl.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With soft bitterness.] You'd better take it.
[She lifts the coat. But ROBERTS puts it back, and wraps it round her. He tries to meet her eyes, but cannot. MRS. ROBERTS stays huddled in the coat, her eyes, that follow him about, are half malicious, half yearning. He looks at his watch again, and turns to go. In the doorway he meets JAN THOMAS, a boy of ten in clothes too big for him, carrying a penny whistle.]
ROBERTS. Hallo, boy!
[He goes. JAN stops within a yard of MRS. ROBERTS, and stares at her without a word.]
MRS. ROBERTS. Well, Jan!
JAN. Father 's coming; sister Madge is coming.
[He sits at the table, and fidgets with his whistle; he blows three vague notes; then imitates a cuckoo.]
[There is a tap on the door. Old THOMAS comes in.]
THOMAS. A very coot tay to you, Ma'am. It is petter that you are.
MRS. ROBERTS. Thank you, Mr. Thomas.
THOMAS. [Nervously.] Roberts in?
MRS. ROBERTS. Just gone on to the meeting, Mr. Thomas.
THOMAS. [With relief, becoming talkative.] This is fery unfortunate, look you! I came to tell him that we must make terms with London. It is a fery great pity he is gone to the meeting. He will be kicking against the pricks, I am thinking.
MRS. ROBERTS. [Half rising.] He'll never give in, Mr. Thomas.
THOMAS. You must not be fretting, that is very pat for you. Look you, there iss hartly any mans for supporting him now, but the engineers and George Rous. [Solemnly.] This strike is no longer Going with Chapel, look you! I have listened carefully, an' I have talked with her.
Sst! I don't care what th' others say, I say that Chapel means us to be stopping the trouple, that is what I make of her; and it is my opinion that this is the fery best thing for all of us. If it was n't my opinion, I ton't say but it is my opinion, look you.
MRS. ROBERTS. [Trying to suppress her excitement.] I don't know what'll come to Roberts, if you give in.
THOMAS. It iss no disgrace whateffer! All that a mortal man coult do he hass tone. It iss against Human Nature he hass gone; fery natural any man may do that; but Chapel has spoken and he must not go against her.
[JAN imitates the cuckoo.]
Ton't make that squeaking! [Going to the door.] Here iss my daughter come to sit with you. A fery goot day, Ma'am--no fretting --rememper!
[MADGE comes in and stands at the open door, watching the street.]
MADGE. You'll be late, Father; they're beginning. [She catches him by the sleeve.] For the love of God, stand up to him, Father--this time!
THOMAS. [Detaching his sleeve with dignity.] Leave me to do what's proper, girl!
[He goes out. MADGE, in the centre of the open doorway, slowly moves in, as though before the approach of some one.]
ROUS. [Appearing in the doorway.] Madge!
[MADGE stands with her back to MRS. ROBERTS, staring at him with her head up and her hands behind her.]
ROUS. [Who has a fierce distracted look.] Madge! I'm going to the meeting.
[MADGE, without moving, smiles contemptuously.]
D' ye hear me?
[They speak in quick low voices.]
MADGE. I hear! Go, and kill your own mother, if you must.
[ROUS seizes her by both her arms. She stands rigid, with her head bent back. He releases her, and he too stands motionless.]
ROUS. I swore to stand by Roberts. I swore that! Ye want me to go back on what I've sworn.
MADGE. [With slow soft mockery.] You are a pretty lover!
MADGE. [Smiling.] I've heard that lovers do what their girls ask them--
[JAN sounds the cuckoo's notes]
--but that's not true, it seems!
ROUS. You'd make a blackleg of me!
MADGE. [With her eyes half-closed.] Do it for me!
ROUS. [Dashing his hand across his brow.] Damn! I can't!
MADGE. [Swiftly.] Do it for me!
ROUS. [Through his teeth.] Don't play the wanton with me!
MADGE. [With a movement of her hand towards JAN--quick and low.] I would be that for the children's sake!
ROUS. [In a fierce whisper.] Madge! Oh, Madge!
MADGE. [With soft mockery.] But you can't break your word for me!
ROUS. [With a choke.] Then, Begod, I can!
[He turns and rushes off.]
[MADGE Stands, with a faint smile on her face, looking after him. She turns to MRS. ROBERTS.]
MADGE. I have done for Roberts!
MRS. ROBERTS. [Scornfully.] Done for my man, with that----! [She sinks back.]
MADGE. [Running to her, and feeling her hands.] You're as cold as a stone! You want a drop of brandy. Jan, run to the "Lion"; say, I sent you for Mrs. Roberts.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a feeble movement.] I'll just sit quiet, Madge. Give Jan--his--tea.
MADGE. [Giving JAN a slice of bread.] There, ye little rascal. Hold your piping. [Going to the fire, she kneels.] It's going out.
MRS. ROBERTS. [With a faint smile.] 'T is all the same!
[JAN begins to blow his whistle.]
MADGE. Tsht! Tsht!--you
MRS. ROBERTS. [Smiling.] Let 'im play, Madge.
MADGE. [On her knees at the fire, listening.] Waiting an' waiting. I've no patience with it; waiting an' waiting--that's what a woman has to do! Can you hear them at it--I can!
[JAN begins again to play his whistle; MADGE gets up; half tenderly she ruffles his hair; then, sitting, leans her elbows on the table, and her chin on her hands. Behind her, on MRS. ROBERTS'S face the smile has changed to horrified surprise. She makes a sudden movement, sitting forward, pressing her hands against her breast. Then slowly she sinks' back; slowly her face loses the look of pain, the smile returns. She fixes her eyes again on JAN, and moves her lips and finger to the tune.]
The curtain falls.
It is past four. In a grey, failing light, an open muddy space is crowded with workmen. Beyond, divided from it by a barbed-wire fence, is the raised towing-path of a canal, on which is moored a barge. In the distance are marshes and snow-covered hills. The "Works" high wall runs from the canal across the open space, and ivy the angle of this wall is a rude platform of barrels and boards. On it, HARNESS is standing. ROBERTS, a little apart from the crowd, leans his back against the wall. On the raised towing-path two bargemen lounge and smoke indifferently.
HARNESS. [Holding out his hand.] Well, I've spoken to you straight. If I speak till to-morrow I can't say more.
JAGO. [A dark, sallow, Spanish-looking man with a short, thin beard.] Mister, want to ask you! Can they get blacklegs?
BULGIN. [Menacing.] Let 'em try.
[There are savage murmurs from the crowd.]
BROWN. [A round-faced man.] Where could they get 'em then?
EVANS. [A small, restless, harassed man, with a fighting face.] There's always blacklegs; it's the nature of 'em. There's always men that'll save their own skins.
[Another savage murmur. There is a movement, and old THOMAS, joining the crowd, takes his stand in front.]
HARNESS. [Holding up his hand.] They can't get them. But that won't help you. Now men, be reasonable. Your demands would have brought on us the burden of a dozen strikes at a time when we were not prepared for them. The Unions live by justice, not to one, but all. Any fair man will tell you--you were ill-advised! I don't say you go too far for that which you're entitled to, but you're going too far for the moment; you've dug a pit for yourselves. Are you to stay there, or are you to climb out? Come!
LEWIS. [A clean-cut Welshman with a dark moustache.] You've hit it, Mister! Which is it to be?
[Another movement in the crowd, and ROUS, coming quickly, takes his stand next THOMAS.]
HARNESS. Cut your demands to the right pattern, and we 'll see you through; refuse, and don't expect me to waste my time coming down here again. I 'm not the sort that speaks at random, as you ought to know by this time. If you're the sound men I take you for--no matter who advises you against it--[he fixes his eyes on ROBERTS] you 'll make up your minds to come in, and trust to us to get your terms. Which is it to be? Hands together, and victory--or--the starvation you've got now?
[A prolonged murmur from the crowd.]
JAGO. [Sullenly.] Talk about what you know.
HARNESS. [Lifting his voice above the murmur.] Know? [With cold passion.] All that you've been through, my friend, I 've been through--I was through it when I was no bigger than [pointing to a youth] that shaver there; the Unions then were n't what they are now. What's made them strong? It's hands together that 's made them strong. I 've been through it all, I tell you, the brand's on my soul yet. I know what you 've suffered--there's nothing you can tell me that I don't know; but the whole is greater than the part, and you are only the part. Stand by us, and we will stand by you.
[Quartering them with his eyes, he waits. The murmuring swells; the men form little groups. GREEN, BULGIN, and LEWIS talk together.]
LEWIS. Speaks very sensible, the Union chap.
GREEN. [Quietly.] Ah! if I 'd a been listened to, you'd 'ave 'eard sense these two months past.
[The bargemen are seen laughing. ]
LEWIS. [Pointing.] Look at those two blanks over the fence there!
BULGIN. [With gloomy violence.] They'd best stop their cackle, or I 'll break their jaws.
JAGO. [Suddenly.] You say the furnace men's paid enough?
HARNESS. I did not say they were paid enough; I said they were paid as much as the furnace men in similar works elsewhere.
EVANS. That's a lie! [Hubbub.] What about Harper's?
HARNESS. [With cold irony.] You may look at home for lies, my man. Harper's shifts are longer, the pay works out the same.
HENRY ROUS. [A dark edition of his brother George.] Will ye support us in double pay overtime Saturdays?
HARNESS. Yes, we will.
JAGO. What have ye done with our subscriptions?
HARNESS. [Coldly.] I have told you what we will do with them.
EVANS. Ah! will, it's always will! Ye'd have our mates desert us. [Hubbub.]
BULGIN. [Shouting.] Hold your row!
[EVANS looks round angrily.]
HARNESS. [Lifting his voice.] Those who know their right hands from their lefts know that the Unions are neither thieves nor traitors. I 've said my say. Figure it out, my lads; when you want me you know where I shall be.
[He jumps down, the crowd gives way, he passes through them, and goes away. A BARGEMAN looks after him jerking his pipe with a derisive gesture. The men close up in groups, and many looks are cast at ROBERTS, who stands alone against the wall.]
EVANS. He wants ye to turn blacklegs, that's what he wants. He wants ye to go back on us. Sooner than turn blackleg--I 'd starve, I would.
BULGIN. Who's talkin' o' blacklegs--mind what you're saying, will you?
BLACKSMITH. [A youth with yellow hair and huge arms.] What about the women?
EVANS. They can stand what we can stand, I suppose, can't they?
BLACKSMITH. Ye've no wife?
EVANS. An' don't want one!
THOMAS. [Raising his voice.] Aye! Give us the power to come to terms with London, lads.
DAVIES. [A dark, slow-fly, gloomy man.] Go up the platform, if you got anything to say, go up an' say it.
[There are cries of "Thomas!" He is pushed towards the platform; he ascends it with difficulty, and bares his head, waiting for silence. A hush.]
RED-HAIRED YOUTH. [suddenly.] Coot old Thomas!
[A hoarse laugh; the bargemen exchange remarks; a hush again, and THOMAS begins speaking.]
THOMAS. We are all in the tepth together, and it iss Nature that has put us there.
HENRY ROUS. It's London put us there!
EVANS. It's the Union.
THOMAS. It iss not Lonton; nor it iss not the Union--it iss Nature. It iss no disgrace whateffer to a potty to give in to Nature. For this Nature iss a fery pig thing; it is pigger than what a man is. There iss more years to my hett than to the hett of any one here. It is fery pat, look you, this Going against Nature. It is pat to make other potties suffer, when there is nothing to pe cot py it.
[A laugh. THOMAS angrily goes on.]
What are ye laughing at? It is pat, I say! We are fighting for a principle; there is no potty that shall say I am not a peliever in principle. Putt when Nature says "No further," then it is no coot snapping your fingers in her face.
[A laugh from ROBERTS, and murmurs of approval.]
This Nature must pe humort. It is a man's pisiness to pe pure, honest, just, and merciful. That's what Chapel tells you. [To ROBERTS, angrily.] And, look you, David Roberts, Chapel tells you ye can do that without Going against Nature.
JAGO. What about the Union?
THOMAS. I ton't trust the Union; they haf treated us like tirt. "Do what we tell you," said they. I haf peen captain of the furnace-men twenty years, and I say to the Union--[excitedly]--"Can you tell me then, as well as I can tell you, what iss the right wages for the work that these men do?" For fife and twenty years I haf paid my moneys to the Union and--[with great excitement]--for nothings! What iss that but roguery, for all that this Mr. Harness says!
EVANS. Hear, hear.
HENRY ROUS. Get on with you! Cut on with it then!
THOMAS. Look you, if a man toes not trust me, am I going to trust him?
JAGO. That's right.
THOMAS. Let them alone for rogues, and act for ourselves.
BLACKSMITH. That's what we been doin', haven't we?
THOMAS. [With increased excitement.] I wass brought up to do for meself. I wass brought up to go without a thing, if I hat not moneys to puy it. There iss too much, look you, of doing things with other people's moneys. We haf fought fair, and if we haf peen beaten, it iss no fault of ours. Gif us the power to make terms with London for ourself; if we ton't succeed, I say it iss petter to take our peating like men, than to tie like togs, or hang on to others' coat-tails to make them do our pisiness for us!
EVANS. [Muttering.] Who wants to?
THOMAS. [Craning.] What's that? If I stand up to a potty, and he knocks me town, I am not to go hollering to other potties to help me; I am to stand up again; and if he knocks me town properly, I am to stay there, is n't that right?
JAGO. No Union!
HENRY ROUS. Union!
[Others take up the shout.]
[BULGIN and the BLACKSMITH shake their fists at EVANS.]
THOMAS. [With a gesture.] I am an olt man, look you.
[A sudden silence, then murmurs again.]
LEWIS. Olt fool, with his "No Union!"
BULGIN. Them furnace chaps! For twopence I 'd smash the faces o' the lot of them.
GREEN. If I'd a been listened to at the first!
THOMAS. [Wiping his brow.] I'm comin' now to what I was going to say----
DAVIES. [Muttering.] An' time too!
THOMAS. [Solemnly.] Chapel says: Ton't carry on this strife! Put an end to it!
JAGO. That's a lie! Chapel says go on!
THOMAS. [Scornfully.] Inteet! I haf ears to my head.
RED-HAIRED YOUTH. Ah! long ones!
JAGO. Your ears have misbeled you then.
THOMAS. [Excitedly.] Ye cannot be right if I am, ye cannot haf it both ways.
RED-HAIRED YOUTH. Chapel can though!
["The Shaver" laughs; there are murmurs from the crowd.]
THOMAS. [Fixing his eyes on "The Shaver."] Ah! ye 're Going the roat to tamnation. An' so I say to all of you. If ye co against Chapel I will not pe with you, nor will any other Got-fearing man.
[He steps down from the platform. JAGO makes his way towards it. There are cries of "Don't let 'im go up!"]
JAGO. Don't let him go up? That's free speech, that is. [He goes up.] I ain't got much to say to you. Look at the matter plain; ye 've come the road this far, and now you want to chuck the journey. We've all been in one boat; and now you want to pull in two. We engineers have stood by you; ye 're ready now, are ye, to give us the go-by? If we'd aknown that before, we'd not a-started out with you so early one bright morning! That's all I 've got to say. Old man Thomas a'n't got his Bible lesson right. If you give up to London, or to Harness, now, it's givin' us the chuck--to save your skins--you won't get over that, my boys; it's a dirty thing to do.
[He gets down; during his little speech, which is ironically spoken, there is a restless discomfort in the crowd. ROUS, stepping forward, jumps on the platform. He has an air of fierce distraction. Sullen murmurs of disapproval from the crowd.]
ROUS. [Speaking with great excitement.] I'm no blanky orator, mates, but wot I say is drove from me. What I say is yuman nature. Can a man set an' see 'is mother starve? Can 'e now?
ROBERTS. [Starting forward.] Rous!
ROUS. [Staring at him fiercely.] Sim 'Arness said fair! I've changed my mind!
ROBERTS. Ah! Turned your coat you mean!
[The crowd manifests a great surprise.]
LEWIS. [Apostrophising Rous.] Hallo! What's turned him round?
ROUS. [Speaking with intense excitement.] 'E said fair. "Stand by us," 'e said, "and we'll stand by you." That's where we've been makin' our mistake this long time past; and who's to blame fort? [He points at ROBERTS] That man there! "No," 'e said, "fight the robbers," 'e said, "squeeze the breath out o' them!" But it's not the breath out o' them that's being squeezed; it's the breath out of us and ours, and that's the book of truth. I'm no orator, mates, it's the flesh and blood in me that's speakin', it's the heart o' me. [With a menacing, yet half-ashamed movement towards ROBERTS.] He'll speak to you again, mark my words, but don't ye listen. [The crowd groans.] It's hell fire that's on that man's tongue. [ROBERTS is seen laughing.] Sim 'Arness is right. What are we without the Union--handful o' parched leaves--a puff o' smoke. I'm no orator, but I say: Chuck it up! Chuck it up! Sooner than go on starving the women and the children.
[The murmurs of acquiescence almost drown the murmurs of dissent.]
EVANS. What's turned you to blacklegging?
ROUS. [With a furious look.] Sim 'Arness knows what he's talking about. Give us power to come to terms with London; I'm no orator, but I say--have done wi' this black misery!
[He gives his muter a twist, jerks his head back, and jumps off the platform. The crowd applauds and surges forward. Amid cries of "That's enough!" "Up Union!" "Up Harness!" ROBERTS quietly ascends the platform. There is a moment of silence.]
BLACKSMITH. We don't want to hear you. Shut it!
HENRY Rous. Get down!
[Amid such cries they surge towards the platform.]
EVANS. [Fiercely.] Let 'im speak! Roberts! Roberts!
BULGIN. [Muttering.] He'd better look out that I don't crack his skull.
[ROBERTS faces the crowd, probing them with his eyes till they gradually become silent. He begins speaking. One of the bargemen rises and stands.]
ROBERTS. You don't want to hear me, then? You'll listen to Rous and to that old man, but not to me. You'll listen to Sim Harness of the Union that's treated you so fair; maybe you'll listen to those men from London? Ah! You groan! What for? You love their feet on your necks, don't you? [Then as BULGIN elbows his way towards the platform, with calm bathos.] You'd like to break my jaw, John Bulgin. Let me speak, then do your smashing, if it gives you pleasure. [BULGIN Stands motionless and sullen.] Am I a liar, a coward, a traitor? If only I were, ye'd listen to me, I'm sure. [The murmurings cease, and there is now dead silence.] Is there a man of you here that has less to gain by striking? Is there a man of you that had more to lose? Is there a man of you that has given up eight hundred pounds since this trouble here began? Come now, is there? How much has Thomas given up--ten pounds or five, or what? You listened to him, and what had he to say? "None can pretend," he said, "that I'm not a believer in principle--[with biting irony]--but when Nature says: 'No further, 't es going agenst Nature.'" I tell you if a man cannot say to Nature: "Budge me from this if ye can!"-- [with a sort of exaltation]his principles are but his belly. "Oh, but," Thomas says, "a man can be pure and honest, just and merciful, and take off his hat to Nature!" I tell you Nature's neither pure nor honest, just nor merciful. You chaps that live over the hill, an' go home dead beat in the dark on a snowy night--don't ye fight your way every inch of it? Do ye go lyin' down an' trustin' to the tender mercies of this merciful Nature? Try it and you'll soon know with what ye've got to deal. 'T es only by that--[he strikes a blow with his clenched fist]--in Nature's face that a man can be a man. "Give in," says Thomas, "go down on your knees; throw up your foolish fight, an' perhaps," he said, "perhaps your enemy will chuck you down a crust."
EVANS. Curse them!
THOMAS. I nefer said that.
ROBERTS. [Bitingly.] If ye did not say it, man, ye meant it. An' what did ye say about Chapel? "Chapel's against it," ye said. "She 's against it!" Well, if Chapel and Nature go hand in hand, it's the first I've ever heard of it. That young man there-- [pointing to ROUS]--said I 'ad 'ell fire on my tongue. If I had I would use it all to scorch and wither this talking of surrender. Surrendering 's the work of cowards and traitors.
HENRY ROUS. [As GEORGE ROUS moves forward.] Go for him, George-- don't stand his lip!
ROBERTS. [Flinging out his finger.] Stop there, George Rous, it's no time this to settle personal matters. [ROUS stops.] But there was one other spoke to you--Mr. Simon Harness. We have not much to thank Mr. Harness and the Union for. They said to us "Desert your mates, or we'll desert you." An' they did desert us.
EVANS. They did.
ROBERTS. Mr. Simon Harness is a clever man, but he has come too late. [With intense conviction.] For all that Mr. Simon Harness says, for all that Thomas, Rous, for all that any man present here can say--We've won the fight!
[The crowd sags nearer, looking eagerly up.]
[With withering scorn.] You've felt the pinch o't in your bellies. You've forgotten what that fight 'as been; many times I have told you; I will tell you now this once again. The fight o' the country's body and blood against a blood-sucker. The fight of those that spend themselves with every blow they strike and every breath they draw, against a thing that fattens on them, and grows and grows by the law of merciful Nature. That thing is Capital! A thing that buys the sweat o' men's brows, and the tortures o' their brains, at its own price. Don't I know that? Wasn't the work o' my brains bought for seven hundred pounds, and has n't one hundred thousand pounds been gained them by that seven hundred without the stirring of a finger. It is a thing that will take as much and give you as little as it can. That's Capital! A thing that will say--"I'm very sorry for you, poor fellows--you have a cruel time of it, I know," but will not give one sixpence of its dividends to help you have a better time. That's Capital! Tell me, for all their talk, is there one of them that will consent to another penny on the Income Tax to help the poor? That's Capital! A white-faced, stony-hearted monster! Ye have got it on its knees; are ye to give up at the last minute to save your miserable bodies pain? When I went this morning to those old men from London, I looked into their very 'earts. One of them was sitting there--Mr. Scantlebury, a mass of flesh nourished on us: sittin' there for all the world like the shareholders in this Company, that sit not moving tongue nor finger, takin' dividends a great dumb ox that can only be roused when its food is threatened. I looked into his eyes and I saw he was afraid--afraid for himself and his dividends; afraid for his fees, afraid of the very shareholders he stands for; and all but one of them's afraid--like children that get into a wood at night, and start at every rustle of the leaves. I ask you, men--[he pauses, holding out his hand till there is utter silence]--give me a free hand to tell them: "Go you back to London. The men have nothing for you!" [A murmuring.] Give me that, an' I swear to you, within a week you shall have from London all you want.
EVANS, JAGO, and OTHERS. A free hand! Give him a free hand! Bravo --bravo!
ROBERTS. 'T is not for this little moment of time we're fighting [the murmuring dies], not for ourselves, our own little bodies, and their wants, 't is for all those that come after throughout all time. [With intense sadness.] Oh! men--for the love o' them, don't roll up another stone upon their heads, don't help to blacken the sky, an' let the bitter sea in over them. They're welcome to the worst that can happen to me, to the worst that can happen to us all, are n't they--are n't they? If we can shake [passionately] that white-faced monster with the bloody lips, that has sucked the life out of ourselves, our wives, and children, since the world began. [Dropping the note of passion but with the utmost weight and intensity.] If we have not the hearts of men to stand against it breast to breast, and eye to eye, and force it backward till it cry for mercy, it will go on sucking life; and we shall stay forever what we are [in almost a whisper], less than the very dogs.
[An utter stillness, and ROBERTS stands rocking his body slightly, with his eyes burning the faces of the crowd.]
EVANS and JAGO. [Suddenly.] Roberts! [The shout is taken up.]
[There is a slight movement in the crowd, and MADGE passing below the towing-path, stops by the platform, looking up at ROBERTS. A sudden doubting silence.]
ROBERTS. "Nature," says that old man, "give in to Nature." I tell you, strike your blow in Nature's face--an' let it do its worst!
[He catches sight of MADGE, his brows contract, he looks away.]
MADGE. [In a low voice-close to the platform.] Your wife's dying!
[ROBERTS glares at her as if torn from some pinnacle of exaltation.]
ROBERTS. [Trying to stammer on.] I say to you--answer them--answer them----
[He is drowned by the murmur in the crowd.]
THOMAS. [Stepping forward.] Ton't you hear her, then?
ROBERTS. What is it? [A dead silence.]
THOMAS. Your wife, man!
[ROBERTS hesitates, then with a gesture, he leaps down, and goes away below the towing-path, the men making way for him. The standing bargeman opens and prepares to light a lantern. Daylight is fast failing.]
MADGE. He need n't have hurried! Annie Roberts is dead. [Then in the silence, passionately.] You pack of blinded hounds! How many more women are you going to let to die?
[The crowd shrinks back from her, and breaks up in groups, with a confused, uneasy movement. MADGE goes quickly away below the towing-path. There is a hush as they look after her.]
LEWIS. There's a spitfire, for ye!
BULGIN. [Growling.] I'll smash 'er jaw.
GREEN. If I'd a-been listened to, that poor woman----
THOMAS. It's a judgment on him for going against Chapel. I tolt him how 't would be!
EVANS. All the more reason for sticking by 'im. [A cheer.] Are you goin' to desert him now 'e 's down? Are you going to chuck him over, now 'e 's lost 'is wife?
[The crowd is murmuring and cheering all at once.]
ROUS. [Stepping in front of platform.] Lost his wife! Aye! Can't ye see? Look at home, look at your own wives! What's to save them? Ye'll have the same in all your houses before long!
LEWIS. Aye, aye!
HENRY ROUS. Right! George, right!
[There are murmurs of assent.]
ROUS. It's not us that's blind, it's Roberts. How long will ye put up with 'im!
HENRY, ROUS, BULGIN, DAVIES. Give 'im the chuck!
[The cry is taken up.]
EVANS. [Fiercely.] Kick a man that's down? Down?
HENRY ROUS. Stop his jaw there!
[EVANS throws up his arm at a threat from BULGIN. The bargeman, who has lighted the lantern, holds it high above his head.]
ROUS. [Springing on to the platform.] What brought him down then, but 'is own black obstinacy? Are ye goin' to follow a man that can't see better than that where he's goin'?
EVANS. He's lost 'is wife.
ROUS. An' who's fault's that but his own. 'Ave done with 'im, I say, before he's killed your own wives and mothers.
DAVIES. Down 'im!
HENRY ROUS. He's finished!
BROWN. We've had enough of 'im!
BLACKSMITH. Too much!
[The crowd takes up these cries, excepting only EVANS, JAGO, and GREEN, who is seen to argue mildly with the BLACKSMITH.]
ROUS. [Above the hubbub.] We'll make terms with the Union, lads.
EVANS. [Fiercely.] Ye blacklegs!
BULGIN. [Savagely-squaring up to him.] Who are ye callin' blacklegs, Rat?
[EVANS throws up his fists, parries the blow, and returns it. They fight. The bargemen are seen holding up the lantern and enjoying the sight. Old THOMAS steps forward and holds out his hands.]
THOMAS. Shame on your strife!
[The BLACKSMITH, BROWN, LEWIS, and the RED-HAIRED YOUTH pull EVANS and BULGIN apart. The stage is almost dark.]
The curtain falls.