The Strike Breaker by George A. Birmingham
The train was an hour-and-a-quarter late at Finnabeg. Sir James McClaren, alone in a first-class smoking compartment, was not surprised. He had never travelled in Ireland before, but he held a belief that time is very little accounted of west of the Shannon-He looked out of the window at the rain-swept platform. It seemed to him that every passenger except himself was leaving the train at Finnabeg. This did not surprise him much. There was only one more station, Dunadea, the terminus of the branch line on which Sir James was travelling. It lay fifteen miles further on, across a desolate stretch of bog. It was not to be supposed that many people wanted to go to Dunadea.
Sir James looking out of his window, noticed that the passengers who alighted did not leave the station. They stood in groups on the platform and talked to each other. They took no notice of the rain, though it was very heavy.
Now and then one or two of them came to Sir James' carriage and peered in through the window. They seemed interested in him. A tall young priest stared at him for a long time. Two commercial travellers joined the priest and looked at Sir James. A number of women took the place of the priest and the commercial travellers when they went away. Finally, the guard, the engine driver, and the station master came and looked in through the window. They withdrew together and sat on a barrow at the far end of the platform. They lit their pipes and consulted together. The priest joined them and offered advice. Sir James became a little impatient.
Half an hour passed. The engine driver, the station master, and the guard knocked the ashes out of their pipes and walked over to Sir James' compartment. The guard opened the door.
"Is it Dunadea you're for, your honour?" he said.
"Yes," said Sir James. "When are you going on?"
The guard turned to the engine driver.
"It's what I'm after telling you," he said, "it's Dunadea the gentleman's for."
"It might be better for him," said the engine driver, "if he was to content himself with Finnabeg for this day at any rate."
"Do you hear that, your honour?" said the guard. "Michael here, says it would be better for you to stay in Finnabeg."
"There's a grand hotel, so there is," said the station master, "the same that's kept by Mrs. Mulcahy, and devil the better you'll find between this and Dublin."
Sir James looked from one man to the other in astonishment. Nowadays the public is accustomed to large demands from railway workers, demands for higher wages and shorter hours. But Sir James had never before heard of an engine driver who tried to induce a passenger to get out of his train fifteen miles short of his destination.
"I insist," he said abruptly, "on your taking me on to Dunadea."
"It's what I told you all along, Michael," said the guard. "He's a mighty determined gentleman, so he is. I knew that the moment I set eyes on him."
The guard was perfectly right. Sir James was a man of most determined character. His career proved it. Before the war he had been professor of economics in a Scottish University, lecturing to a class of ten or twelve students for a salary of £250 a year. When peace came he was the head of a newly-created Ministry of Strikes, controlling a staff of a thousand or twelve hundred men and women, drawing a salary of £2,500 a year. Only a man of immense determination can achieve such results. He had garnered in a knighthood as he advanced. It was the reward of signal service to the State when he held the position of Chief Controller of Information and Statistics.
"Let him not be saying afterwards that he didn't get a proper warning," said the engine driver.
He walked towards his engine as he spoke. The guard and the station master followed him.
"I suppose now, Michael," said the guard, "that you'll not be wanting me."
"I will not," said the engine driver. "The train will do nicely without you for as far as I'm going to take her."
Sir James did not hear either the guard's question or the driver's answer. He did hear, with great satisfaction, what the station master said next.
"Are you right there now?" the man shouted, "for if you are it's time you were starting."
He unrolled a green flag and waved it. He blew a shrill blast on his whistle. The driver stepped into the cab of the engine and handled his levers. The train started.
Sir James leaned back in the corner of his compartment and smiled. The track over which he travelled was badly laid and the train advanced by jerks and bumps. But the motion was pleasant to Sir James. Any forward movement of that train would have been pleasant to him. Each bump and jerk brought him a little nearer to Dunadea and therefore a little nearer to Miss Molly Dennison. Sir James was very heartily in love with a girl who seemed to him to be the most beautiful and the most charming in the whole world. Next day, such was his good fortune, he was to marry her. Under the circumstances a much weaker man than Sir James would have withstood the engine driver and resisted the invitation of Mrs. Mulcahy's hotel in Finnabeg. Under the circumstances even an intellectual man of the professor type was liable to pleasant day dreams.
Sir James' thoughts went back to the day, six months before, when he had first seen Miss Molly Dennison. She had been recommended to him by a friend as a young lady likely to make an efficient private secretary. Sir James, who had just become Head of the Ministry of Strikes, wanted a private secretary. He appointed Miss Dennison, and saw her for the first time when she presented herself in his office. At that moment his affection was born. It grew and strengthened day by day. Miss Molly's complexion was the radiant product of the soft, wet, winds of Connaugh, which had blown on her since her birth. Not even four years' work in Government offices in London had dulled her cheeks. Her smile had the fresh innocence of a child's and she possessed a curious felicity of manner which was delightful though a little puzzling. Her view of strikes and the important work of the Ministry was fresh and quite unconventional. Sir James, who had all his life moved among serious and earnest people, found Miss Molly's easy cheerfulness very fascinating. Even portentous words like syndicalism, which rang in other people's ears like the passing bells of our social order, moved her to airy laughter. There were those, oldish men and slightly less oldish women, who called her flippant. Sir James offered her his hand, his heart, his title, and a share of his £2,500 a year. Miss Molly accepted all four, resigned her secretaryship and went home to her father's house in Dunadea to prepare her trousseau.
The train stopped abruptly. But even the bump and the ceasing of noise did not fully arouse Sir James from his pleasant dreams. He looked out of the window and satisfied himself that he had not reached Dunadea station or indeed any other station. The rain ran down the window glass, obscuring his view of the landscape. He was dimly aware of a wide stretch of grey-brown bog, of drifting grey clouds and of a single whitewashed cottage near the railway line. He lit a cigarette and lay back again. Molly's face floated before his eyes. The sound of Molly's voice was fresh in his memory. He thought of the next day and the return journey across the bog with Molly by his side.
At the end of half an hour he awoke to the fact that the train was still at rest. He looked out again and saw nothing except the rain, the bog, and the cottage. This time he opened the window and put out his head. He looked up the line and down it. There was no one to be seen.
"The signals," thought Sir James, "must be against us." He looked again, first out of one window, then out of the other. There was no signal in sight. The single line of railway ran unbroken across the bog, behind the train and in front of it. Sir James, puzzled, and a little wet, drew back into his compartment and shut the window. He waited, with rapidly growing impatience, for another half hour. Nothing happened. Then he saw a man come out of the cottage near the line. He was carrying a basket in one hand and a teapot in the other. He approached the train. He came straight to Sir James' compartment and opened the door. Sir James recognised the engine driver.
"I was thinking," said the man, "that maybe your honour would be glad of a cup of tea and a bit of bread. I am sorry there is no butter, but, sure, butter is hard to come by these times."
He laid the teapot on the floor and put the basket on the seat in front of Sir James. He unpacked it, taking out a loaf of home made bread, a teacup, a small bottle of milk, and a paper full of sugar.
"It's not much to be offering a gentleman like yourself," he said, "but it's the best we have, and seeing that you'll be here all night and best part of to-morrow you'll be wanting something to eat."
Sir James gasped with astonishment.
"Here all night!" he said. "Why should we be here all night? Has the engine broken down?"
"It has not," said the driver.
"Then you must go on," said Sir James. "I insist on your going on at once."
The driver poured out a cup of tea and handed it to Sir James. Then he sat down and began to talk in a friendly way.
"Sure, I can't go on," he said, "when I'm out on strike."
Sir James was so startled that he upset a good deal of tea. As Head of the Ministry of Strikes he naturally had great experience, but he had never before heard of a solitary engine driver going on strike in the middle of a bog.
"The way of it is this," the driver went on. "It was giv out, by them that does be managing things that there was to be a general strike on the first of next month. You might have heard of that, for it was in all the papers."
Sir James had heard of it. It was the subject of many notes and reports in his Ministry.
"But this isn't the 1st of next month," he said.
"It is not," said the driver. "It's no more than the 15th of this month. But the way I'm placed at present, it wouldn't be near so convenient to me to be striking next month as it is to be striking now. There's talk of moving me off this line and putting me on to the engine that does be running into Athlone with the night mail; and it's to-morrow the change is to be made. Now I needn't tell you that Athlone's a mighty long way from where we are this minute."
He paused and looked at Sir James with an intelligent smile.
"My wife lives in the little house beyond there," he said pointing out of the window to the cottage. "And what I said to myself was this: If I am to be striking--which I've no great wish to do--but if it must be--and seemingly it must--I may as well do it in the convenientest place I can; for as long as a man strikes the way he's told, there can't be a word said to him; and anyway the 1st of next month or the 15th of this month, what's the differ? Isn't one day as good as another?"
He evidently felt that his explanation was sufficient and satisfactory. He rose to his feet and opened the door of the compartment. "I'm sorry now," he said, "if I'm causing any inconvenience to a gentleman like yourself. But what can I do? I offered to leave you behind at Finnabeg, but you wouldn't stay. Anyway the night's warm and if you stretch yourself on the seat there you won't know it till morning, and then I'll bring you over another cup of tea so as you won't be hungry. It's a twenty-four hour strike, so it is; and I won't be moving on out of this before two o'clock or may be half past. But what odds? The kind of place Dunadea is, a day or two doesn't matter one way or another, and if it was the day after to-morrow in place of to-morrow you got there it would be the same thing in the latter end."
He climbed out of the compartment as he spoke and stumped back through the rain to his cottage. Sir James was left wondering how the people of Dunadea managed to conduct the business of life when one day was the same to them as another and the loss of a day now and then did not matter. He was quite certain that the loss of a day mattered a great deal to him, his position being what it was. He wondered what Miss Molly Dennison would think when he failed to appear at her father's house that evening for dinner; what she would think--the speculation nearly drove him mad--when he did not appear in the church next day. He put on an overcoat, took an umbrella and set off for the engine driver's cottage. He had to climb down a steep embankment and then cross a wire fence. He found it impossible to keep his umbrella up, which distressed him, for he was totally unaccustomed to getting wet.
He found the driver, who seemed to be a good and domesticated man, sitting at his fireside with a baby on his knee. His wife was washing clothes in a corner of the kitchen.
"Excuse me," said Sir James, "but my business in Dunadea is very important. There will be serious trouble if----"
"There's no use asking me to go on with the train," said the driver, "for I can't do it. I'd never hear the last of it if I was to be a blackleg."
The woman at the washtub looked up.
"Don't be talking that way, Michael," she said, "let you get up and take the gentleman along to where he wants to go."
"I will not," said the driver, "I'd do it if I could but I won't have it said that I was the one to break the strike."
It was very much to the credit of Sir James that he recognised the correctness of the engine driver's position. It is not pleasant to be held up twenty-four hours in the middle of a bog. It is most unpleasant to be kept away from church on one's own wedding day. But Sir James knew that strikes are sacred things, far more sacred than weddings. He hastened to agree with the engine driver.
"I know you can't go on," he said, "nothing would induce me to ask you such a thing. But perhaps---"
The woman at the washtub did not reverence strikes or understand the labour movement. She spoke abruptly.
"Have sense the two of you," she said, "What's to hinder you taking the gentleman into Dunadea, Michael?"
"It's what I can't do nor won't," said her husband.
"I'm not asking you to," said Sir James. "I understand strikes thoroughly and I know you can't do it. All I came here for was to ask you to tell me where I could find a telegraph office."
"There's no telegraphic office nearer than Dunadea," said the engine driver, "and that's seven miles along the railway and maybe nine if you go round by road."
Sir James looked out at the rain. It was thick and persistent. A strong west wind swept it in sheets across the bog. He was a man of strong will and great intellectual power; but he doubted if he could walk even seven miles along the sleepers of a railway line against half a gale of wind, wearing on his feet a pair of patent leather boots bought for a wedding.
"Get up out of that, Michael," said the woman, "And off with you to Dunadea with the gentleman's telegram. You'll break no strike by doing that, so not another word out of your head."
"I'll--I'll give you ten shillings with pleasure," said Sir James, "I'll give you a pound if you'll take a message for me to Mr. Dennison's house."
"Anything your honour chooses to give," said the woman, "will be welcome, for we are poor people. But it's my opinion that Michael ought to do it for nothing seeing it's him and his old strike that has things the way they are."
"To listen to you talking," said the driver, "anybody would think I'd made the strike myself; which isn't true at all, for there's not a man in the country that wants it less than me."
Sir James tore a leaf from his note book and wrote a hurried letter to Miss Dennison. The engine driver tucked it into the breast pocket of his coat and trudged away through the rain. His wife invited Sir James to sit by the fire. He did so gladly, taking the stool her husband had left. He even, after a short time, found that he had taken the child on to his knee. It was a persistent child, which clung round his legs and stared at him till he took it up. The woman went on with her washing.
"What," said Sir James, "is the immediate cause of this strike?"
"Cause!" she said. "There's no cause, only foolishness. If it was more wages they were after I would say there was some sense in it. Or if it was less work they wanted you could understand it--though it's more work and not less the most of the men in this country should be doing. But the strike that's in it now isn't what you might call a strike at all. It's a demonstration, so it is. That's what they're saying anyway. It's a demonstration in favour of the Irish Republic, which some of them play-boys is after getting up in Dublin. The Lord save us, would nothing do them only a republic?"
Two hours later Sir James went back to his railway carriage. He had listened with interest to the opinions of the engine driver's wife on politics and the Labour Movement. He was convinced that a separate and independent Ministry of Strikes ought to be established in Dublin. His own office was plainly incapable of dealing with Irish conditions. He took from his bag a quantity of foolscap paper and set to work to draft a note to the Prime Minister on the needs and ideas of Irish Labour. He became deeply interested in his work and did not notice the passing time.
He was aroused by the appearance of Miss Molly Dennison at the door of his carriage. Her hair, which was blown about her face, was exceedingly wet. The water dripped from her skirt and sleeves of her jacket. Her complexion was as radiant and her smile as brilliant as ever.
"Hullo, Jimmy," she said. "What a frowst I Fancy sitting in that poky little carriage with both windows shut. Get up and put away your silly old papers. If you come along at once we'll just be in time for dinner."
"How did you get here," said Sir James. "I never thought--. In this weather--. How did you get here?"
"On my bike, of course," said Molly. "Did a regular sprint. Wind behind me. Going like blazes. I'd have done it in forty minutes, only Michael ran into a sheep and I had to wait for him."
Sir James was aware that the engine driver, grinning broadly, was on the step of the carriage behind Molly.
"I lent Michael Dad's old bike," said Molly, "and barring the accident with the sheep, he came along very well."
"What I'm thinking," said the driver, "is that you'll never be able to fetch back against the wind that does be in it. I wouldn't say but you might do it, miss; but the gentleman wouldn't be fit. He's not accustomed to the like."
"We're not going to ride back," said Molly. "You're going to take us back on the engine, with the two bikes in the tender, on top of the coal."
"I can't do it, miss," said the driver. "I declare to God I'd be afraid of my life to do it. Didn't I tell you I was out on strike?"
"We oughtn't to ask him," said Sir James. "Surely, Molly, you must understand that. It would be an act of gross disloyalty on his part, disloyalty to his union, to the cause of labour. And any effort we make to persuade him---- My dear Molly, the right of collective bargaining which lies at the root of all strikes----"
Molly ignored Sir James and turned to the engine driver.
"Just you wait here five minutes," she said, "till I get someone who knows how to talk to you."
She jumped out of the carriage and ran down the railway embankment. Sir James and the engine driver watched her anxiously. "I wouldn't wonder," said Michael, "but it might be my wife she's after."
He was quite right. Five minutes later, Molly and the engine driver's wife were climbing the embankment together.
"I don't see," said Sir James, "what your wife has to do with the matter."
"By this time to-morrow," said Michael, "you will see; if so be you're married by then, which is what Miss Molly said you will be."
His wife, with Molly after her, climbed into the carriage.
"Michael," she said, "did the young lady tell you she's to be married to-morrow?"
"She did tell me," he said, "and I'm sorry for her. But what can I do? If I was to take that engine into Dunadea they'd call me a blackleg the longest day ever I lived."
"I'd call you something a mighty deal worse if you don't," said his wife. "You and your strikes! Strikes, Moyah! And a young lady wanting to be married!"
Michael turned apologetically to Sir James.
"Women does be terrible set on weddings," he said, "and that's a fact."
"That'll do now, Michael," said Molly; "stop talking and put the two bikes on the tender, and poke up your old fires or what ever it is you do to make your engine go."
"Molly," said Sir James, when Michael and his wife had left the carriage, "I've drawn up a note for the Prime Minister advising the establishment of a special Ministry of Strikes for Ireland. I feel that the conditions in this country are so peculiar that our London office cannot deal with them. I think perhaps I'd better suggest that he should put you at the head of the new office."
"Your visit to Ireland is doing you good already," said Molly. "You're developing a sense of humour."