A Safety Match/Chapter 2

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Five gentlemen sat side by side along a baize-covered table in a dingy room in a dingier building not far from the principal pit-head of Mirkley Colliery. They were the representatives of the local Colliery Owners' Association, and they were assembled and met together for the purpose of receiving a deputation representing the united interests and collective wisdom of their employés.

It should be noted that although there were five gentlemen present, six chairs were set along the table.

Now a deputation may be defined as an instrument designed to extract from you something which you have not the slightest desire to give up. Consequently the reception of such, whether you be a damsel listening for the rat-a-tat of an undesired suitor who has written asking for an interview, or a dethroned Royal Family sitting in its deserted abode awaiting the irruption of a Committee of Public Safety composed of the greater part of its late loyal subjects armed with billhooks and asking for blood, is always an uncomfortable business at the best. Our five gentlemen do not appear to be enjoying their present position any more than the two examples cited above. In fact, they look so exceedingly averse to interviews or arguments of any description, that we will leave them for a moment and divert our attention to the deputation itself, which is delicately skirting puddles of coal-black water and heaps of pit refuse on its way from the boiler-house, where its members have assembled, to the office-buildings of the colliery.

They are six in number, and we will describe them seriatim.

Mr Tom Winch is a professional agitator, though he calls himself something else. He is loud-voiced, and ceaseless in argument of a sort. His notion of a typical member of the upper classes is a debilitated imbecile suffering from chronic alcoholism and various maladies incident on over-indulgence, who divides his time between gloating over money-bags and grinding the faces of the poor. He privately regards Trades Unions as an antiquated drag upon the wheels of that chariot at the tail of which he hopes one day to see Capital led captive, gentlemen like Mr Tom Winch handling the reins and plying the whip.

Mr Amos Entwistle is a working collier, and is rightly regarded by both parties as a safe man. He is habitually sober, scrupulously honest, and has worked at Belton Pit for nearly forty years. He looks upon Trades Unions as his father and mother.

Mr Jacob Entwistle is the Nestor of the party. (Amos is his son.) He is a patriarchal old gentleman, with a long white beard, the manner of an ambassador, the deafness of an adder, and the obstinacy of a mule. Altogether he is just the sort of man to prove a valuable asset to any properly constituted deputation. He is the senior member of the local branch of the Employés' Association. He regards himself as the father and mother of Trades Unions.

Mr Albert Brash is an expert in the art of what may be called Righteous Indignation. Never was there such an exploiter of grievances. Is short time declared? Mr Brash calls for an Act of Parliament. Is there an explosion of fire-damp? Mr Brash mutters darkly that one of these days a director must swing. Does a careless worker remove a pit-prop and bring down an avalanche of coal on himself? Mr Brash raises clenched hands to heaven and clamours for a revolution. So persistently and so methodically does Mr Brash lay upon the shoulders of Capital the responsibility for all the ills to which flesh is liable, from a hard winter to triplets, that he has ultimately (as is the way in this short-sighted world of ours) achieved the position of Sir Oracle. His deportment is that of a stage conspirator, and he rarely speaks above a hoarse and arresting whisper. He calls himself an Anarchist, but he quails at the passing of the most benevolent policeman. He regards Trades Unions as well-meaning institutions, with but little discrimination as to their choice of leaders.

Mr James Killick is a thoroughly honest, thoroughly muddle-headed Socialist of a rather common type. Like many a wiser and more observant man before him, he has realised something of the grinding misery and suffering of this world, and a great and vague desire to better things is surging inarticulately within him. He has come to the conclusion, as most half-educated philosophers usually do, that the simplest remedy would be to take from those who have and give the proceeds to those who have not. The fact that the world is divided into men to whose hands money sticks like glue and men through whose fingers it slips like water, and that consequently a Utopian re-distribution of property would have to be repeated at inconveniently frequent intervals in order to preserve the social balance, has not yet been borne in on him. He regards Trades Unionism as a broken reed.

Mr Adam Wilkie is a Scot of the dourest and most sepulchral appearance. Native reticence and an extremely cautious manner of expressing himself have invested him with that halo of business acumen which appears to be inevitable to the Scot as viewed by the Sassenach, and his very silence is regarded with respectful admiration by his more verbose colleagues. In reality, he is an intensely stupid, entirely placid individual. Still, he has kept himself by native thrift in tolerable comfort all his life without extraneous assistance, and he consequently regards Trades Unionism as an institution specially and mercifully introduced by Providence for the purpose of keeping the weak-kneed English out of the poorhouse.

"Who's to be there?" inquired Mr Brash of Mr Entwistle senior.

That patriarch, who was negotiating a mountainous waste-heap, made no reply.

"Who are we going to meet?" repeated Mr Brash in a louder tone.

"Eh?" inquires Mr Entwistle, giving his invariable answer to any sudden question.

"Who are we going to meet?" bawled Mr Winch.

Mr Entwistle, who was never at a loss a second time, smiled benignantly and replied:—

"Ay, that's so. But maybe we can manage to dry 'em at the fire in the office."

"I expect there will be five of them, Mr Winch," interpolated Amos, coming to the rescue. "Kirkley, Thompson, Finch, Aymer, Montague——"

There was a grunt of disapproval from Mr Wilkie as the last name was mentioned.

"Yon felly!" he observed darkly. "Aha! Mphm!"

Then he relapsed into silence. It was upon such safe utterances as these that Mr Wilkie's reputation for profound wisdom was based.

"Is that all?" said Winch. "Because if it is, I'll undertake to learn that lot right enough! Kirkley, of course, is just an empty-headed aristocrat: he don't count. Then that Finch—he's too cautious to do anything. We can talk Thompson round all right: done it half a dozen times meself. Aymer never knows his own mind two minutes together, and Moses is a coward. But is that all? Ain't the big man going to be there? He's the lad that counts in that crowd."

"He was away in London yesterday," said Entwistle junior. "But you never know——"

"Wallowing in the vice and luxury of the metropolis!" chanted Mr Brash suddenly, as if from some internal missal. "The master absent, squandering his tainted millions, while we stay here and starve! If I was a Member o' Parliament——"

"Talk sense," said Amos Entwistle curtly. "He may be back for all we know. Anyway, they're certain to bring him up if they can, because they know they can't do without him. Mind that tank-engine, father."

He impelled his aged parent, who, oblivious to delirious whistling, was resolutely obstructing the progress of a diminutive locomotive hauling a string of trucks, on to safer ground.

"Well, we'll hope for the best," said Mr Winch piously. "It would be something if he was to come late, even. Give me twenty minutes with the rest before he can get his oar in, and I'll undertake to make them outvote him."

By this time the deputation had arrived at the managerial offices, and five minutes later they were admitted to the presence of the Board. They did not know that they had been immediately preceded by an orange-coloured envelope, which was eagerly torn open by Lord Kirkley, the deputy-chairman.

"Good egg!" observed his lordship, with a sigh of heartfelt relief. "Juggernaut's coming—by motor."

A gentle murmur of satisfaction was audible. Evidently the Board felt the need of a little stiffening. We may as well describe them.

The Marquis of Kirkley was more accustomed to exercising a kindly despotism over rustics who lived contentedly on fourteen shillings a week than to splitting hairs with unbending mechanics earning four pounds, whose views on the relations between master and man were dictated by a cast-iron bureaucracy, and who regarded not the elastic laws of Give and Take. He was a handsome, breezy, kind-hearted patrician of thirty-four, and considered Trades Unions a damned interfering nuisance.

James Crisp was a solicitor, and represented the Dean and Chapter of Kilchester, beneath the very foundation of whose mighty cathedral ran a very profitable little seam of coal, which was chiefly responsible for making the bishopric of the diocese one of the richest ecclesiastical plums in England. He was a shrewd man of business, probably the best qualified of those present to take the lead in the present instance. Consequently he remained studiously in the background. He regarded Trades Unions as inevitable, but by no means invulnerable.

Sir Nigel Thompson had inherited great possessions, including a colliery, from his father. There was no vice in him, but he loved coal about as much as a schoolboy loves irregular verbs, and his only passions in life were old furniture and chemical research. He attended under compulsion, having torn himself from his comfortable house in London at the bidding of his manager, in whose hands he was reported (not altogether unjustly) to be as wax. He was full of theoretical enthusiasm for Trades Unions, which he identified in some mysterious way with the liberty of the individual; but wished mildly that people could contrive to settle their affairs without dragging him north. Altogether a pleasant but entirely useless member of the Board.

Mr Alfred Aymer was the owner of Cherry Hill Colliery. He was middle-aged, timorous, and precipitate. Left to himself, he would probably have been a kind and fair-dealing employer. But it was his misfortune to be so constituted that his opinions on any subject were invariably those of the last man with whom he had discussed it. Consequently his line of action in the affairs of life was something in the nature of an alternating electric current. After an interview with his manager he would issue a decree of unparalleled ferocity: after five minutes with a deputation of employés he would rescind all previous resolutions and promise a perfectly fabulous bonus next pay-day. In his present company he was an adamantine Capitalist, and regarded Trades Unions as the most pernicious of institutions.

Last of all came Mr Montague, whose surname at an earlier and less distinguished period in his history had probably rhymed with "noses." He came from London, where he earned a livelihood by acquiring the controlling interest in various commercial ventures, and making these pay cent per cent. He had recently become proprietor of Marbledown Colliery, and it was said that he was making a better thing out of it than his employés. He regarded Trade Unions as an impertinent infringement of the right of the upper classes to keep the lower classes in their proper place. From which the intelligent reader will have no difficulty in deciding to which class Mr Montague considered that he himself belonged.

The deputation was introduced with the usual formalities. Its object was to effect the reinstatement of two employés at Marbledown Colliery, an engineman and a hewer, who had been summarily dismissed from their positions for endeavouring, in a society whose relations had never been of the most cordial, to heighten dissension between master and man.

Mr Tom Winch's version of the case, delivered with great wealth of detail and a good deal of unnecessary shouting, was different. The men, it appeared, were models of what enginemen and hewers should be. Their sole offence consisted in having incurred the dislike of the mine-manager, Mr Walker—whether through their own sturdy independence as true-born Englishmen (applause from Mr Brash), or the natural jealousy of an incompetent official towards two able and increasingly prominent subordinates, it was not for Mr Winch to say. Proceeding, the orator warmed to his work, and mentioned that one man was as good as another. Indeed, but for the merest accident of fortune, Lord Kirkley himself might be delving for coal in the bowels of the earth, what time Messrs Conlin and Murton, the dismissed employés, sate in the House of Lords smoking cigars and drinking champagne.

After this singularly convincing peroration Mr Winch fell back into line with his companions, amid the sotto voce commendations of Messrs Brash and Killick. Mr Aymer, who had been taking notes on a sheet of paper, tore it up with a resigned air of finality. The case was clear: these poor fellows must be reinstated.

The chairman conferred briefly with Mr Crisp.

"Would any other of you gentlemen like to say anything?" he inquired.

The question was communicated to Mr Entwistle senior, who stepped forward and delivered himself of a courtly but rambling discourse, consisting chiefly of reminiscences of something portentous but unintelligible which had happened forty years ago, and even to the most irrelevant mind presented no sort of bearing upon the case whatsoever.

After this Lord Kirkley replied. His remarks were not convincing, for he was hampered in dealing with the question by complete inability to understand where the men's grievance came in, and said so. The owners, he explained, tried to do the fair thing, and most of them did considerably more. Sick funds, pensions, benevolent schemes, and all that sort of thing, didn't they know? He quite admitted that an employer of labour had grave responsibilities and duties laid upon him, and he for one had always tried to live up to them. But hang it! surely an employer had the right to get rid of a couple of fellows who went about preaching anarchy and red revolution in all the public-houses in the district—what? He did not mind ordinary grousing. It did everybody good to blow off steam periodically: he did it himself. But there was grousing and grousing: and when it came to the sort of game that Messrs Conlin and Murton were playing, it was his lordship's opinion that a ne plus ultra of thickness had been attained.

The chairman concluded a somewhat colloquial address amid a deathly silence, and the deputation and the board glared uncomfortably at one another. An impasse had been reached, it was clear.

"It's all very well, gentlemen," broke in Killick suddenly, "for you aristocrats——"

Lord Kirkley, who was not without a certain sense of proportion, glanced involuntarily at Mr Montague and then at Mr Killick. Did this omniscient and self-opinionated son of toil really see no moral difference between a Peer of the realm, with centuries of clean-bred ancestry behind him, and a man who wore diamond rings and elastic-sided boots? Mr Montague looked up, and regarded Mr Killick with something akin to affection.

There was a sudden rumble underneath the windows, accompanied by the hoot of a motor-horn.

The drama having run itself to a deadlock, the deus had duly arrived—in his machina.