Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI

The Thorough Man

About three o'clock that afternoon Rushton himself suddenly appeared and began walking silently about the house, and listening outside the doors of rooms where the hands were working. He did not succeed in catching anyone idling or smoking or talking. The nearest approach to what the men called 'a capture' that he made was, when he stood outside the door of one of the upper rooms in which Philpot and Harlow were working, and heard them singing one of Sankey's hymns—'Work! for the night is coming.' He listened to two verses and several repetitions of the chorus. Being a 'Christian' he could scarcely object to this, especially as by peeping through the partly open door he could see that they were suiting the action to the word. When he went into the room they glanced round to see who it was, and stopped singing. Rushton did not speak, but stood in the middle of the floor, silently watching them as they worked, for about a quarter of an hour. Then without having uttered a syllable he turned and continued his investigations.

None of the men looked round from their work or spoke. The only sounds heard were the noises made by the saws and hammers of the carpenters who were fixing the frieze rails and dado rails or repairing parts of the woodwork.

Crass placed himself in Rushton's way several times, but beyond curtly acknowledging the foreman's servile 'Good hafternoon, sir,' the master took no notice of him.

After about an hour spent in this manner Rushton went, but as no one saw him go, his departure was not discovered for some considerable time.

Owen was secretly very disappointed. 'I thought he had come to tell me about the drawing-room,' he said to himself, 'but I suppose it's not decided yet.'

Just as the 'hands' were beginning to breathe freely again, Misery arrived, carrying some rolled-up papers in his hand. He also flitted silently from one room to another, peering round corners and listening at doors in the hope of finding an excuse to make an example of someone. Disappointed in this, he presently crawled upstairs to the room where Owen was working and handing to him the roll of papers said:

'Mr Sweater has decided to 'ave this work done, so you can start on it as soon as you like.'

It is impossible to describe without appearing to exaggerate the emotions experienced by Owen as he heard this announcement. For one thing it meant that the work at this house would last longer than it would otherwise have done; and it also meant that he would be paid for the extra time he had spent on the drawings, besides having his wages increased—for he was always paid an extra penny per hour when engaged on special work. But these considerations did not occur to him at the moment at all, for to him it meant much more. Since his first conversation on the subject with Rushton he had thought of little else than this work of decorating the drawing-room.

In a sense he had been doing it ever since, repeatedly planning and altering the details and selecting and rejecting the colours for the different parts over and over again. A keen desire to carry it through had grown within him, but he had scarcely allowed himself to hope. His face flushed slightly as he took the drawings from Hunter.

'You can make a start on it to-morrow morning,' continued that gentleman. 'I'll tell Crass to send someone else up 'ere to finish this room.'

'I shan't be able to start to-morrow, because the ceiling and walls will have to be painted first.'

'Yes, I know. You and Easton can do that. One coat tomorrow, another on Friday and the third on Saturday—that is, unless you can make it do with two coats. Even if it has to have the three, you will be able to go on with your decoration on Monday.'

'I won't be able to start it on Monday because I shall have to make some working drawings first.'

'Workin' drorins!' ejaculated Misery with a puzzled expression. 'Wot workin' drorins? You've got them, ain't yer?' pointing to the roll of paper.

'Yes; but as the same ornaments are repeated several times, I shall have to make a number of full sized drawings, with perforated outlines, to transfer the design to the walls,' said Owen, and he proceeded to explain laboriously the processes.

Nimrod looked at him suspiciously. 'Is all that really necessary?' he asked. 'Couldn't you just copy it on the wall, freehand?'

'No, that wouldn't do. It would take much longer that way.'

This consideration appealed to Misery.

'Ah, well,' he sighed, 'I s'pose you'll 'ave to do it the way you said; but for Gord's sake don't spend too much time over it, because we've took it very cheap. We only took it on so as you could 'ave a job, not that we expect to make any profit out of it.'

'And I shall have to cut some stencils, so I shall need several sheets of cartridge paper.'

Upon hearing of this additional expense Misery's long visage appeared to become several inches longer; but after a moment's thought he brightened up.

'I'll tell you what!' he exclaimed, with a cunning leer. 'There's lots of odd rolls of old wallpaper down at the shop, couldn't you manage with some of that?'

'I'm afraid it wouldn't do,' replied Owen, doubtfully, 'but I'll have a look at it, and if possible I'll use it.'

'Yes, do!' said Misery, pleased at the thought of saving something. 'Call at the shop on your way home to-night, and we'll see what we can find. 'Ow long do you think it'll take you to make the drorins and the stencils?'

'Well, to-day's Thursday. If you let someone else help Easton prepare the room, I think I can get them done in time to bring them with me on Monday morning.'

'Wot do yer mean: "bring them with you"?' demanded Nimrod.

'I shall have to do them at home, you know.'

'Do 'em at 'ome! Why can't you do 'em 'ere?'

'Well, there's no table, for one thing.'

'Oh, but we can soon fit you out with a table. You can 'ave a pair of paperhanger's trestles and boards, for that matter.'

'I have a lot of sketches and things at home that I couldn't very well bring here,' said Owen.

Misery argued about it for a long time, insisting that the drawings should be made either on the 'job' or at the paint shop down at the yard. How, he asked, was he to know at what hour Owen commenced or left off working, if the latter did them at home?

'I shan't charge any more time than I really work,' replied Owen. 'I can't possibly do them here or at the paint shop. I know I should only make a mess of them under such conditions.'

'Well, I s'pose you'll 'ave to 'ave your own way,' said Misery, dolefully. 'I'll let Harlow help Easton paint the room out so as you can get your stencils and things ready. But for Gord's sake get 'em done as quick as you can. If you could manage to get done by Friday and come down and help Easton on Saturday, it would be so much the better. And when you do get a start on the decoration, I shouldn't take too much care over it, you know, if I was you, because we 'ad to take the job for next to nothing or Mr Sweater would never 'ave 'ad it done at all!'

So saying, Nimrod began to crawl about the house, snarling and grumbling at everyone.

'Now then, you chaps, Rouse yourselves!' he bellowed, 'you seem to think this is a 'orspital. If some of you don't make a better show than this, I'll 'ave to 'ave a Alteration! There's plenty of chaps walkin' about who'll be only too glad of a job!'

He went into the scullery where Crass was mixing some colour.

'Look 'ere, Crass!' he said, 'I'm not at all satisfied with the way you're gettin' on with the work. You must push the chaps a bit more than you're doin'. There's not enough being done, by a long way. We shall lose money over this job before we're finished!'

Crass, whose fat face had turned a ghastly green with fright, mumbled something about getting on with it as fast as he could.

'Well, you'll 'ave to make 'em move a bit quicker than this,' Misery howled, 'or there'll 'ave to be a Alteration!'

By an 'alteration' Crass understood that he might get the sack, or that someone else might be put in charge of the job, and that would of course reduce him to the ranks and do away with his chance of being kept on longer than the others. He determined to try to ingratiate himself with Hunter and to appease his wrath by sacrificing someone else. He glanced cautiously into the kitchen and up the passage and then, lowering his voice he said:

'They all shapes pretty well, except Newman. I would 'ave told you about 'im before, but I thought I'd give 'im a fair chance. I've spoke to 'im several times myself about not doin' enough, but it don't seem to make no difference.'

'I've 'ad me eye on 'im meself, for some time,' replied Nimrod, in the same tone. 'Anybody would think the work was goin' to be sent to a Exhibition, the way 'e messes about with it, rubbing it with glasspaper and stopping up every little crack! I can't understand where 'e gets all the glasspaper from!'

''E brings it 'isself!' said Crass, hoarsely. 'I know for a fact that 'e bought two 'apenny sheets of it, last week, out of 'is own money!'

'Oh, 'e did, did 'e?' snarled Misery. 'I'll give 'im glasspaper! I'll 'ave a Alteration!'

He went into the hall, where he remained alone for a considerable time, brooding. At last, with the manner of one who has resolved on a certain course of action, he turned and entered the room where Philpot and Harlow were working.

'You both get sevenpence an hour, don't you?' he said.

They both replied in the affirmative.

'I've never worked under price yet,' added Harlow.

'Nor me, neither,' observed Philpot.

'Well, of course you can please yourselves,' Hunter continued, 'but after this week we've decided not to pay more than six and a half. Things is cut so fine nowadays, that we can't afford to go on payin' sevenpence any longer. You can work up till to-morrow night on the old terms, but if you're not willin' to accept six and a half you needn't come on Saturday morning. Please yourselves. Take it or leave it.'

Harlow and Philpot were both too much astonished to say anything in reply to this cheerful announcement, and Hunter, with the final remark, 'You can think it over,' left them and went to deliver the same ultimatum to all the other full price men, who took it in the same way as Philpot and Harlow had done. Crass and Owen were the only two whose wages were not reduced.

It will be remembered that Newman was one of those who were already working for the reduced rate. Misery found him alone in one of the upper rooms, to which he was giving the final coat. He was at his old tricks. The woodwork of the cupboard he was doing was in a rather damaged condition, and he was facing up the dents with white lead putty before painting it. He knew quite well that Hunter objected to any but very large holes or cracks being stopped, and yet somehow or other he could not scamp the work to the extent that he was ordered to; and so, almost by stealth, he was in the habit of doing it—not properly—but as well as he dared. He even went to the length of occasionally buying a few sheets of glasspaper with his own money, as Crass had told Hunter. When the latter came into the room he stood with a sneer on his face, watching Newman for about five minutes before he spoke.

'You can make out yer time sheet and come to the office for yer money at five o'clock,' said Nimrod at last, 'we shan't require your valuable services no more after to-night.'

Newman went white.

'Why, what's wrong?' said he. 'What have I done?'

'Oh, it's not wot you've done,' replied Misery, 'it's wot you've not done. That's wot's wrong! You've not done enough, that's all!' And without further parley, he turned and went out.

Newman stood in the darkening room feeling as if his heart had turned to lead. There rose before his mind the picture of his home and family. He could see them as they were at this very moment, the wife probably just beginning to prepare the evening meal and the children setting the cups and saucers and other things on the kitchen table—a noisy work, enlivened with many a frolic and childish dispute. Even the two year old baby insisted on helping and they had all been so happy lately because they knew that he had work that would last till nearly Christmas, if not longer. And now this had happened, to plunge them back into that abyss of wretchedness from which they had so recently escaped. They still owed several weeks' rent, and were already so much in debt to the baker and the grocer that it was hopeless to expect any further credit.

'My God!' said Newman, realising the almost utter hopelessness of the chance of obtaining another 'job,' and unconciously speaking aloud. 'My God! how can I tell them? What will become of us?'

 

When the men realised that Hunter had gone, they began to gather into little groups, and soon nearly all found themselves in the kitchen, discussing the reduction in wages. Sawkins and the other 'lightweights' remained at their work. Some of them got only fourpence half-penny, Sawkins was paid fivepence, so none of these were affected by the change. The other two fresh hands—the journeymen—joined the crowd in the kitchen, being anxious to conceal the fact that they had agreed to accept the reduced rate before being 'taken on.' Owen also was there, having heard the news from Philpot.

There was a lot of furious talk. At first several of them spoke of 'chucking up' at once; but others were more prudent, for they knew that if they left there were dozens of others who would be eager to take their places.

'After all, you know,' said Slyme, who had an idea of presently starting business on his own account, and was only waiting until he had saved enough money. 'After all, there's something in what 'Unter says. It's very 'ard to get a fair price for work now-a-days. Things is cut very fine.'

'Yes! We knows all about that!' shouted Harlow. 'And who the bloody 'ell is it cuts 'em? Why, sich swines as 'Unter and Rushton! If this firm 'adn't cut this job so fine, some other firm would 'ave 'ad it for more money. Rushton's cuttin' it fine didn't make this job, did it? It would 'ave been done just the same if they 'adn't tendered for it at all! The only difference is that we should 'ave been workin' for some other master.'

'I don't believe the bloody job's cut fine at all!' said Philpot. 'Rushton is a pal of Sweater's, and they're both members of the Town Council.'

'That may be,' replied Slyme, 'but all the same I believe Sweater got several other prices besides Rushton's, friend or no friend, and you can't blame 'im—it's only business. But pr'aps Rushton got the preference—Sweater may 'ave told 'im the others' prices.'

'Yes, and a bloody fine lot of prices they was, too, if the truth was known!' said Bundy. 'There was six other firms after this job to my knowledge, and Gord only knows 'ow many more.'

At this moment Newman came into the room. He looked so white and upset that the others involuntarily paused in their conversation.

'Well, what do you think of it?' asked Harlow.

'Think of what?' said Newman.

'Why, didn't 'Unter tell you?' cried several voices, whose owners looked suspiciously at him. They thought if Hunter had not spoken to Newman, it must be because he was already working under price. There had been a rumour going about the last few days to that effect. 'Didn't Misery tell you? They're not goin' to pay no more than six and a half after this week.'

'That's not what 'e said to me. 'E just told me to knock off. Said I didn't do enough for 'em.'

'Jesus Christ!' exclaimed Crass, pretending to be overcome with surprise.

Newman's account of what had transpired was listened to in gloomy silence. Those who, a few minutes previously, had been talking loudly of chucking up the job, became filled with apprehension that they might be served in the same manner. Crass was one of the loudest in his expressions of astonishment and indignation, but he rather overdid it and only succeeded in confirming the secret suspicions of the others that he had had something to do with Hunter's action.

The result of the discussion was that they decided to submit to Misery's terms for the time being, until they could see a chance of getting work elsewhere.

As Owen had to go to the office to see the wall-paper which Hunter had mentioned, he accompanied Newman when the latter went to get his wages. Nimrod was waiting for them, and had the money ready in an envelope, which he handed to Newman, who took it without speaking and went away.

Misery had been rummaging amongst the old wall-papers and had got out a great heap of odd rolls, which he now submitted to Owen, but after examining them the latter said that they were unsuitable for the purpose; so after some argument Misery was compelled to sign an order for some proper cartridge paper which Owen obtained at a stationer's on his way home.