Chapter VI. The Grievance Committee
 

There was trouble at the Maitland Mills. For the first time in his history Grant Maitland found his men look askance at him. For the first time in his life he found himself viewing with suspicion the workers whom he had always taken a pride in designating "my men." The situation was at once galling to his pride and shocking to his sense of fair play. His men were his comrades in work. He knew them--at least, until these war days he had known them--personally, as friends. They trusted him and were loyal to him, and he had taken the greatest care to deal justly and more than justly by them. No labour troubles had ever disturbed the relations which existed between him and his men. It was thus no small shock when Wickes announced one day that a Grievance Committee wished to interview him. That he should have to meet a Grievance Committee, whose boast it had been that the first man in the works to know of a grievance was himself, and that the men with whom he had toiled and shared both good fortune and ill, but more especially the good, that had befallen through the last quarter century should have a grievance against him--this was indeed an experience that cut him to the heart and roused in him a fury of perplexed indignation.

"A what? A Grievance Committee!" he exclaimed to Wickes, when the old bookkeeper came announcing such a deputation.

"That's what they call themselves, sir," said Wickes, his tone of disgust disclaiming all association with any such organization.

"A Grievance Committee?" said Mr. Maitland again. "Well, I'll be! What do they want? Who are they? Bring them in," he roared in a voice whose ascending tone indicated his growing amazement and wrath.

"Come in you," growled Wickes in the voice he generally used for his collie dog, which bore a thoroughly unenviable reputation, "come on in, can't ye?"

There was some shuffling for place in the group at the door, but finally Mr. Wigglesworth found himself pushed to the front of a committee of five. With a swift glance which touched "the boss" in its passage and then rested upon the wall, the ceiling, the landscape visible through the window, anywhere indeed rather than upon the face of the man against whom they had a grievance, they filed in and stood ill at ease.

"Well, Wigglesworth, what is it?" said Grant Maitland curtly.

Mr. Wigglesworth cleared his throat. He was new at the business and was obviously torn between conflicting emotions of pride in his present important position and a wholesome fear of his "boss." However, having cleared his throat, Mr. Wigglesworth pulled himself together and with a wave of the hand began.

"These 'ere--er--gentlemen an' myself 'ave been (h)appinted a Committee to lay before you certain grievances w'ich we feel to be very (h)oppressive, sir, so to speak, w'ich, an' meanin' no offence, sir, as men, fellow-men, as we might say--"

"What do you want, Wigglesworth? What's your trouble? You have some trouble, what is it? Spit it out, man," said the boss sharply.

"Well, sir, as I was a-sayin', this 'ere's a Committee (h)appinted to wait on you, sir, to lay before you certain facts w'ich we wish you to consider an' w'ich, as British subjecks, we feel--"

"Come, come, Wigglesworth, cut out the speech, and get at the things. What do you want? Do you know? If so, tell me plainly and get done with it."

"We want our rights as men," said Mr. Wigglesworth in a loud voice, "our rights as free men, and we demand to be treated as British--"

"Is there anyone of this Committee that can tell me what you want of me?" said Maitland. "You, Gilby, you have some sense--what is the trouble? You want more wages, I suppose?"

"I guess so," said Gilby, a long, lean man, Canadian born, of about thirty, "but it ain't the wages that's eatin' me so much."

"What then?"

"It's that blank foreman."

"Foreman?"

"That's right, sir." "Too blanked smart!" "Buttin' in like a blank billy goat!" The growls came in various undertones from the Committee.

"What foreman? Hoddle?" The boss was ready to fight for his subalterns.

"No! Old Hoddle's all right," said Gilby. "It's that young smart aleck, Tony Perrotte."

"Tony Perrotte!" Mr. Maitland's voice was troubled and uncertain. "Tony Perrotte! Why, you don't mean to tell me that Perrotte is not a good man. He knows his job from the ground up."

"Knows too much," said Gilby. "Wants to run everything and everybody. You can't tell him anything. And you'd think he was a Brigadier-General to hear him giving us orders."

"You were at the front, Gilby?"

"I was, for three years."

"You know what discipline is?"

"I do that, and I know too the difference between a Corporal and a Company Commander. I know an officer when I see him. But a brass hat don't make a General."

"I won't stand for insubordination in my mills, Gilby. You must take orders from my foreman. You know me, Gilby. You've been long enough with me for that."

"You treat a man fair, Mr. Maitland, and I never kicked at your orders. Ain't that so?"

Maitland nodded.

"But this young dude--"

"'Dude'? What do you mean, 'dude'? He's no dude!"

"Oh, he's so stuck on himself that he gives me the wearisome willies. Look here, other folks has been to the war. He needn't carry his chest like a blanked bay window."

"Look here, Gilby, just quit swearing in this room." The cold blue eyes bored into Gilby's hot face.

"I beg pardon, sir. It's a bad habit I've got, but that--that Tony Perrotte has got my goat and I'm through with him."

"All right, Gilby. If you don't like your job you know what you can do," said Maitland coldly.

"You mean I can quit?" enquired Gilby hotly.

"I mean there's only one boss in these works, and that's me. And my foreman takes my orders and passes them along. Those that don't like them needn't take them."

"We demand our rights as--" began Mr. Wigglesworth heatedly.

"Excuse me, sir. 'A should like to enquir-r-e if it is your-r or-rder-rs that your-r for-r-man should use blasphemious language to your-r men?"

The cool, firm, rasping voice cut through Mr. Wigglesworth's sputtering noise like a circular saw through a pine log.

Mr. Maitland turned sharply upon the speaker.

"What is your name, my man?" he enquired.

"Ma name is Malcolm McNish. 'A doot ye have na har-r-d it. But the name maitters little. It's the question 'A'm speerin'--asking at ye."

Here was no amateur in the business of Grievance Committees. His manner was that of a self-respecting man dealing with a fellow-man on terms of perfect equality. There was a complete absence of Wigglesworth's noisy bluster, as also of Gilby's violent profanity. He obviously knew his ground and was ready to hold it. He had a case and was prepared to discuss it. There was no occasion for heat or bluster or profanity. He was prepared to discuss the matter, man to man.

Mr. Maitland regarded him for a moment or two with keen steady gaze.

"Where do you work, McNish?" he enquired of the Scot.

"A'm workin' the noo in the sawmill. A'm a joiner to trade."

"Then Perrotte is not your foreman?"

"That is true," said McNish quietly.

"Then personally you have no grievance against him?" Mr. Maitland had the air of a man who has scored a bull at the first shot.

"Ay, A have an' the men tae--the men I represent have--"

"And you assume to speak for them?"

"They appoint me to speak for them."

"And their complaint is--?"

"Their complaint is that he is no fit to be a foreman."

"Ah, indeed! And you are here solely on their word--"

"No, not solely, but pairtly. A know by experience and A hae har-r-d the man, and he's no fit for his job, A'm tellin' you."

"I suppose you know the qualifications of a foreman, McNish?" enquired Mr. Maitland with the suspicion of sarcasm in his voice.

"Ay, A do that."

"And how, may I ask, have you come to the knowledge?"

"A dinna see--I do not see the bearing of the question."

"Only this, that you and those you represent place your judgment as superior to mine in the choice of a foreman. It would be interesting to know upon what grounds."

"I have been a foreman myself. But there are two points of view in this question--the point of view of the management and that of the worker. We have the one point of view, you have the other. And each has its value. Ours is the more important."

"Indeed! And why, pray?"

"Yours has chiefly to do with profits, ours with human life."

"Very interesting indeed," said Mr. Maitland, "but it happens that profits and human life are somewhat closely allied--"

"Aye, but wi' you profits are the primary consideration and humanity the secondary. Wi' us humanity is the primary."

"Very interesting, indeed. But I must decline your premise. You are a new man here and so I will excuse you the impudence of charging me with indifference to the well-being of my men."

"You put wur-r-ds in my mouth, Mr. Maitland. A said nae sic thing," said McNish. "But your foreman disna' know his place, and he must be changed."

"'Must,' eh?" The word had never been used to Mr. Maitland since his own father fifty years before had used it. It was an unfortunate word for the success of the interview. "'Must,' eh?" repeated Mr. Maitland with rising wrath. "I'd have you know, McNish, that the man doesn't live that says 'must' to me in regard to the men I choose to manage my business."

"Then you refuse to remove yere foreman?"

"Most emphatically, I do," said Mr. Maitland with glints of fire in his blue eyes.

"Verra weel, so as we know yere answer. There is anither matter."

"Yes? Well, be quick about it."

"A wull that. Ye dinna pay yere men enough wages."

"How do you know I don't?" said Mr. Maitland rising from his chair.

"A have examined certain feegures which I shall be glad to submit tae ye, in regard tae the cost o' leevin' since last ye fixed the wage. If yere wage was right then, it's wrang the noo." Under the strain Mr. Maitland's boring eyes and increasing impatience the Doric flavour of McNish's speech grew richer and more guttural, varying with the intensity of his emotion.

"And what may these figures be?" enquired Mr. Maitland with a voice of contempt.

"These are the figures prepared by the Labour Department of your Federal Government. I suppose they may be relied upon. They show the increased cost of living during the last five years. You know yeresel' the increase in wages. Mr. Maitland, I am told ye are a just man, an' we ask ye tae dae the r-r-right. That's all, sir."

"Thank you for your good opinion, my man. Whether I am a just man or not is for my own conscience alone. As to the wage question, Mr. Wickes will tell you, the matter had already been taken up. The result will be announced in a week or so."

"Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir," said Mr. Wigglesworth. "We felt sure it would only be necessary to point (h)out the right course to you. I may say I took the same (h)identical (h)attitude with my fellow workmen. I sez to them, sez I, 'Mr. Maitland--'

"That will do, Wigglesworth," said Mr. Maitland, cutting him short. "Have you anything more to say?" he continued, turning to McNish.

"Nothing, sir, except to express the hope that you will reconsider yere attitude as regards the foreman."

"You may take my word for it, I will not," said Mr. Maitland, snapping his words off with his teeth.

"At least, as a fair-minded man, you will look into the matter," said McNish temperately.

"I shall do as I think best," said Mr. Maitland.

"It would be wiser."

"Do you threaten me, sir?" Mr. Maitland leaned over his desk toward the calm and rugged Scot, his eyes flashing indignation.

"Threaten ye? Na, na, threats are for bairns. Yere no a bairn, but a man an' a wise man an' a just, A doot. A'm gie'in' ye advice. That's all. Guid day."

He turned away from the indignant Mr. Maitland, put his hat on his head and walked from the room, followed by the other members of the Committee, with the exception of Mr. Wigglesworth who lingered with evidently pacific intentions.

"This, sir, is a most (h)auspicious (h)era, sir. The (h)age of reason and justice 'as dawned, an'--"

"Oh, get out, Wigglesworth. Haven't you made all your speeches yet? The time for the speeches is past. Good day."

He turned to his bookkeeper.

"Wickes, bring me the reports turned in by Perrotte, at once."

Mr. Maitland's manner was frankly, almost brutally, imperious. It was not his usual manner with his subordinates, from which it may be gathered that Mr. Maitland was seriously disturbed. And with good reason. In the first place, never in his career had one of his men addressed him in the cool terms of equality which McNish had used with him in the recent interview. Then, never had he been approached by a Grievance Committee. The whole situation was new, irritating, humiliating.

As to the wages question, he would settle that without difficulty. He had never skimped the pay envelope. It annoyed him, however, that he had been forstalled in the matter by this Committee. But very especially he was annoyed by the recollection of the deliberative, rasping tones of that cool-headed Scot, who had so calmly set before him his duty. But the sting of the interview lay in the consciousness that the criticism of his foreman was probably just. And then, he was tied to Tony Perrotte by bonds that reached his heart. Had it not been so, he would have made short work of the business. As it was, Tony would have to stay at all costs. Mr. Maitland sat back in his chair, his eyes fixed upon the Big Bluff visible through the window, but his mind lingering over a picture that had often gripped hard at his heart during the last two years, a picture drawn for him in a letter from his remaining son, Jack. The letter lay in the desk at his hand. He saw in the black night that shell-torn strip of land between the lines, black as a ploughed field, lurid for a swift moment under the red glare of a bursting shell or ghastly in the sickly illumination of a Verry light, and over this black pitted earth a man painfully staggering with a wounded man on his back. The words leaped to his eyes. "He brought me out of that hell, Dad." He closed his eyes to shut out that picture, his hands clenched on the arms of his chair.

"No," he said, raising his hand in solemn affirmation, "as the Lord God liveth, while I stay he stays."

"Come in," he said, in answer to a timid tap at the office door. Mr. Wickes laid a file before him. It needed only a rapid survey of the sheets to give him the whole story. Incompetence and worse, sheer carelessness looked up at him from every sheet. The planing mill was in a state of chaotic disorganization.

"What does this mean, Mr. Wickes?" he burst forth, putting his finger upon an item that cried out mismanagement and blundering. "Here is an order that takes a month to clear which should be done within ten days at the longest."

Wickes stood silent, overwhelmed in dismayed self-condemnation.

"It seems difficult somehow to get orders through, sir, these days," he said after a pause.

"Difficult? What is the difficulty? The men are there, the machines are there, the material is in the yard. Why the delay? And look at this. Here is a lot of material gone to the scrap heap, the finest spruce ever grown in Canada too. What does this mean, Wickes?" he seemed to welcome the opportunity of finding a scapegoat for economic crimes, for which he could find no pardon.

Sheet after sheet passed in swift review under his eye. Suddenly he flung himself back in his chair.

"Wickes, this is simply damnable!"

"Yes, sir," said Wickes, his face pale and his fingers trembling. "I don't--I don't seem to be able to--to--get things through."

"Get things through? I should say not," shouted Maitland, glaring at him.

"I have tried, I mean I'm afraid I'm--that I am not quite up to it, as I used to be. I get confused--and--" The old bookkeeper's lips were white and quivering. He could not get on with his story.

"Here, take these away," roared Maitland.

Gathering up the sheets with fingers that trembled helplessly, Wickes crept hurriedly out through the door, leaving a man behind him furiously, helplessly struggling in the relentless grip of his conscience, lashed with a sense of his own injustice. His anger which had found vent upon his old bookkeeper he knew was due another man, a man with whom at any cost he could never allow himself to be angry. The next two hours were bad hours for Grant Maitland.

As the quitting whistle blew a tap came again to the office door. It was Wickes, with a paper in his hand. Without a word he laid the paper upon his chief's desk and turned away. Maitland glanced over it rapidly.

"Wickes, what does this nonsense mean?" His chief's voice arrested him. He turned again to the desk.

"I don't think--I have come to feel, sir, that I am not able for my job. I do not see as how I can go on." Maitland's brows frowned upon the sheet. Slowly he picked up the paper, tore it across and tossed it into the waste basket.

"Wickes, you are an old fool--and," he added in a voice that grew husky, "I am another and worse."

"But, sir--" began Wickes, in hurried tones.

"Oh, cut it all out, Wickes," said Maitland impatiently. "You know I won't stand for that. But what can we do? He saved my boy's life--"

"Yes, sir, and he was with my Stephen at the last, and--" The old man's voice suddenly broke.

"I remember, Wickes, I remember. And that's another reason-- We must find another way out."

"I have been thinking, sir," said the bookkeeper timidly, "if you had a younger man in my place--"

"You would go out, eh? I believe on my soul you would. You--you-- old fool. But," said Maitland, reaching his hand across the desk, "I don't go back on old friends that way."

The two men stood facing each other for a few minutes, with hands clasped, Maitland's face stern and set, Wickes' working in a pitiful effort to stay the tears that ran down his cheeks, to choke back the sobs that shook his old body as if in the grip of some unseen powerful hand.

"We must find a way," said Maitland, when he felt sure of his voice. "Some way, but not that way. Sit down. We must go through this together."