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At twenty minutes past eight, Maraton, with his two companions, reached the building in which the meeting was to take place--a plain, unimposing-looking edifice, built for a chapel, whitewashed inside, but with plastered walls and bare floors. The room was almost packed, and it was with some difficulty that they found seats in the back row. David Ross, Peter Dale and Graveling occupied chairs on the platform. Between them, Julia and Aaron kept Maraton informed as to the identity of each newcomer.
"That's Mr. Docker, who is going to speak now," the latter declared in an excited whisper. "He is a fighting man. It's he who has manoeuvred this strike, they say. Now he's off."
Mr. Docker has risen to his feet amidst a little hoarse cheering. For a quarter of an hour or more, he spoke fluently and convincingly. It appeared from his statements that boiler-makers were the worst paid mechanics in the universe, that it was he who had discovered this, that it was he who had drawn up the ultimatum which had been presented to the masters and refused. His peroration was friendly but appealing.
"There are some amongst Boulding's people," he wound up, "who, they tell me, are satisfied. If so, I hope they are not here. They haven't any place here. To them I would say--'If you are satisfied with twenty-four shillings a week, well, don't waste a penny in subscribing to the Unions, but go and spend your twenty-four shillings a week and live on it and enjoy it, and get fat on it if you can.' But to those others I want to say that it's just as easy to get twenty-eight. The masters don't want you to strike just now. You only have to be firm and you can get what's fair and right."
A man rose up in the hall.
"Is it true," he asked, "that Boulding's won't pay the advance?--that they are going to close the doors to-morrow if we insist upon it?"
"It is true," Mr. Docker answered. "Are you afraid of that?"
The man hesitated.
"I don't know as 'afraid' is exactly the word," he said, "but I don't fancy being out of work for a month or so, and perhaps losing my job at the end of it. Fifteen bob a week from the Union won't keep my little lot."
There was a murmur of applause. Docker pointed with threatening forefinger to the man who had just sat down.
"It's the likes of him," he declared, "who keep down wages, who make slaves of us! The likes of him, who haven't the pluck to ask for what they might get at any time!"
He plunged into facts and figures, and Maraton more than once yawned. He seemed to find more interest in watching the faces of the audience than in listening to the stock arguments which were being thrown at their heads. A little cloud of tobacco smoke hung about the room. There were few women present, and most of the men were smoking. On the whole they were a very earnest gathering. There were very few there who were not deeply interested. Julia was listening to every word, her head resting upon her hand, her lips a little parted, her eyes full of smouldering fires. At the end of Docker's speech, one of the Union officials got up on his feet. It was for the men themselves to decide, he said. They had subscribed the money; it was for them to say whether it should be used. Was the moment propitious for a blow on behalf of their rights? If they thought so, then let it be war. If they asked for his advice, they were welcome to it. His advice was to fight. The masters had refused their reasonable ultimatum. Let the masters try and carry out their contracts without work people! That was his way of looking at it.
There was a rumble of applause. The militants were certainly in the majority. A man got up from one of the front rows.
"I propose," he said, "that we strike to-morrow. They are working us as hard as they can in shifts on special jobs now, in case they should get left. Every hour we work makes it better for them. I say 'Strike!'"
There was a thunder of applause. A ballot box was brought and placed on a table in front of the platform.
"They will strike," Aaron muttered,--"three thousand of them! Splendid!"
Maraton shook his head.
"It is piecemeal work, this. They do not understand."
"They do not understand what?" Julia asked him, turning her head swiftly.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"They will ask for five shillings a week more and get half-a-crown," he said. "Half-a-crown a week! What difference can it make? Do you know what Boulding's put on one side for distribution to their shareholders last year?--what they put to their reserve fund? Why, it was a fortune!"
A man from somewhere at the back of the hall climbed on to a seat to get a better view and suddenly pointed out Maraton to his neighbours. A little murmur arose from the vicinity. Some one mentioned his name. The cry was taken up from the other side of the hall.
Maraton sat back, frowning. The cries, however, became more insistent. The occupants of the platform were leaning forward towards him. The chairman rose In his feet and beckoned. With obvious reluctance, Maraton moved a few steps to the front. From the far corners of the ill-lit hall, white-faced men climbed on to the benches, peering through the cloud of smoke which hung almost like fog about the place. They saluted him in all manner of ways--with cat-calls, hurrahs, stamping of feet, clapping of hands. Maraton, who had climbed up on to the platform, was soon surrounded.
Dale held out his hand.
"Thought you weren't going to honour us here, Mr. Maraton," he remarked gruffly.
"I had not meant to," Maraton replied. "I came as one of the audience. I wanted to hear, to understand if I could."
Dale stretched out his hand.
"This is Mr. Docker," he said, performing the introduction. "Mr. Docker--Mr. Maraton."
"Come to support us, sir, I hope?" the former remarked.
"I came to listen," Maraton answered. "To tell you the truth, it's against my views, this, an individual strike."
They were calling to him now from the front. Mr. Docker's reply was inaudible.
"You'll have to say a few words," Dale insisted. "They'll never leave off until you do."
Maraton nodded and turned towards the audience. He stood looking down at them for a moment or two, without speech. Even after silence had been established he seemed to be at a loss as to exactly what to say. When at last he did speak, it was in an easy and conversational manner. There was no sign of the fire or the frenzy with which he had kindled the enthusiasms of the people of the United States.
"I find it rather hard to know exactly what to say to you," he began. "I am glad to be here and I have come to this country to work for you, if I may. But, you know, I have views of my own, and it isn't a very auspicious occasion for me to stand for the first time upon an English platform. I came as one of the audience to-night and I have listened to all that has been said. I don't think that I am in favour of your strike."
There was a murmur of wonder, mingled with discontent.
"Why not?" some one shouted from the back.
"Aye, why not?" a dozen voices echoed.
"I'll try and tell you, if you like," Maraton continued. "I didn't mean to say anything until after Manchester, but I'll tell you roughly what my scheme is. These individual strikes such as you're planning are just like pinpricks on the hide of an elephant. How many are there of you? A thousand, say? Well, you thousand may get a shilling or two a week more. It won't alter your condition of life. It won't do much for you, any way. You will have spent your money, and in a year or two the masters will be taking it out of you some other way. A strike such as you are proposing causes inconvenience--no more. I'd bigger things in my mind for you."
He hesitated for a moment as though uncertain, even now, whether to go on. Glancing around the hall, his eyes for a moment met Julia's. Something in her still face, the almost passionate enquiry of her wonderful eyes, seemed to decide him. He lifted up his hands, his voice grew in volume.
"Let me tell you what I want, then. Let me tell you the dream which others have had before me, which is laughed to scorn by the enemies of the people, but which grows in substance and shape, year by year. I want to teach you how to smash the individual capitalist. I want to teach you how to frame laws which will bring the wealth of this country into a new and saner distribution. I want to teach you the folly of the old ideas that because of the wretched conditions in which you live, the better educated man, the man better equipped mentally and physically for his job, must gather to himself the wealth and you must become his slaves. What do you suppose, in the course of three or four generations, produces men of different mental and physical calibre? I will tell you. The circumstances of their bringing-up, the life they have to lead, their education, their environment. What chance have you under present conditions? None! For very shame, as the years pass on, you operatives will be better paid. What will it amount to? A few shillings a week more, the same life, the same anxieties, the same daily grinding toil, brainless, machine-like, leading you nowhere because there isn't a way out. There will still remain your masters; there will still remain you, the men. Can't you see what it is that I am aiming at? I want to make a great machine of all the industries of this country. The man with the gift for figures will find himself in the office, and the man with lesser brain power will find himself before a machine. But the two will be working for one aim and one end. They will both be parts of the machine, and for their livelihood they will take what that machine produces, distributed in a scientific and exact ratio. It's co-operation over again, you say? Very well, call it that. Only I tell you why co-operation has failed up till now. It's because you've been in too much of a hurry. I am going to appeal to you presently, not for your own interests but in the interests of your children and your children's children, because the better days that are to come for you won't dawn yet awhile. It may be, even, that you will be called upon to make sacrifices, instead of finding yourselves better off. There are some great changes which time alone can govern."
"What about this strike?" some one shouted from the bottom of the hall.
"You are quite right, sir," Maraton replied swiftly. "I've wandered a little from my point. I think that the first thing I said to you was that this strike, if it took place, would be like the pinprick on an elephant's hide. I want to teach you how to stab!"
There was a murmur of voices--approving this time, at any rate.
"Can't you see," Maraton continued, "that Society can easily deal with one strike at a time? That isn't the way to make yourself felt. What I want to see in this country is a simultaneous strike of wharfingers, dock labourers, railways, and all the means of communication; a strike which will stop the pulses of the nation, a strike which will cost hundreds of millions, a strike which may cost this country its place amongst the nations, but which will mark the dawn of new conditions. I'd put out your forge fires from Glasgow to Sheffield and Sheffield to London. I'd take the big risks--the rioting, the revolutions, the starvation, the misery that will surely come. I'd do that for the sake of the new nation which would start again where the old one perished."
There was a sudden burst of applause. A little thrill seemed to have found its way, like zig-zag lightning, here and there amongst them. But there were many who sat and smoked in stolid silence. Maraton looked into their faces and sighed to himself. There were too many hungry people for his mission.
"We are half starved," a man called from the back of the ball. "My wage is a pound a week and four children to keep. It's fine talk, yours, but it won't feed 'em."
There was a murmur of sullen approval. Maraton's hand shot out, his finger quivered as it pointed to the man.
"I don't blame you," he said, "but it's the cry you've just raised which keeps you and a few other millions exactly in the places you occupy. There are many generations as yet unborn, to come from your children and your children's children. Are they, then, to suffer as you have suffered?"
There was a little stir at the back of the platform. A tall, broad-shouldered man pushed his way through to the front. His face was pitted with smallpox; he had black, wiry hair; small, narrow eyes; a large, brutal mouth. He took up his position in the middle of the platform, ignoring Maraton altogether.
"Listen, lads," he began; "you are here to-night to decide whether or not you want another half-crown on to your wages. This man who has been talking to you has done big things in America. I know nothing about him and I'm not rightly sure that I know what's at the back of his head. If he is your friend, he's our friend, and we shall soon fall into line, but to-night you're here to meet about that half-crown. It's for you to say whether or no you'll have it. We've saved the money for the fight, saved it from your wages, got it with your sweat. You've given up your beer for it--aye, and maybe your baccy. We've saved the money and the time's come to fight. All that he says"--jerking his elbow towards Maraton--"sounds good enough. That'll come in later. Are you for the strike?"
There was no doubt about the reply--a roar of approving voices. Maraton smiled at them and stepped down from the platform. For the moment he was forgotten. Only Julia whispered passionately in his ear as they moved out of the place.
"You should have gone on. They didn't understand. They have waited so long, they could have waited a little longer."
Maraton did not answer until they reached the street. Then he stood a few steps in the background, watching the people as they came out.
"I couldn't," he said simply. "I felt as though I were offering stones for bread. The stones were better, perhaps, but the cruelty was the same."
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