To Strike or Not to Strike

When the picnic party reached Cloverdale the day after the wedding, the Jimsons were not there.

Where Mr. Jimson concealed his bride and himself during his brief honeymoon no one ever knew, for he would not tell, and she could not, being bound to secrecy.

No one, that is, no one except Mr. and Mrs. Everest, and old Mrs. Jimson. To them Selina and the Mayor confided the news that they had been in a quiet New Hampshire village, where they could enjoy delightful drives among hills resplendent in autumn dress, and have no society forced on them but that of their hostess—a farmer’s widow.

As a result of this reposeful life, Mr. Jimson came home looking ten years younger, and Roger Stanisfield, meeting him in the street, told him so.

“I’ve had a quiet time for once in my life,” said Mr. Jimson. “I ought to have got married long[245] ago. I have some one to look after me, and me only now. How is your wife?”

“Well, thank you.”

“And Tom and Berty and Bonny—gracious! I feel as if I had been away a year instead of three weeks.”

A shade passed over Roger’s face. “All well but Grandma and Berty.”

“What’s the matter with Grandma?”

“I don’t know. I am afraid she is breaking up.”

The Mayor looked serious, then he asked, abruptly, “And Berty?”

“Oh, River Street—it’s on her brain and conscience, and it is wearing her body down.”

“She’s doing what the rest of us ought to do,” said Mr. Jimson, shortly, “but, bless me—you can’t make over a city in a day; and we’re no worse than others.”

“I suppose the city council is pretty bad.”

Mr. Jimson shrugged his shoulders.

“Lots of boodle—I say, some of those aldermen ought to be dumped in the river.”

“You ought to get Berty out of city politics,” said Mr. Jimson, energetically. “That is no girl’s work.”

“She’s going to get out, Margaretta thinks,”[246] said Roger, turning round and slowly walking down the main street of the city beside him. “But we’ve got to let her work out the problem for herself. You see, she’s no missionary. She is not actuated by the passion of a life-work. She has come to live in a new neighbourhood, and is mad with the people that they don’t try to better themselves, and that the city doesn’t enable them to do it.”

“She’ll probably marry Tom Everest, and settle down to housekeeping.”

“That will be the upshot of it. I’d be doubtful about it, though, if the River Street people had given her a hand in her schemes of reform.”

“She’s just an ordinary girl,” said the Mayor, briskly. “She’s no angel to let the River Streeters walk all over her.”

“No, she’s no angel,” returned Roger, with a smile, “but she’s a pretty good sort of a girl.”

“That she is,” replied Mr. Jimson, heartily. “Now tell me to a dot just what she has been doing since I went away. She seemed all right then.”

Roger looked amused, then became grave. “Just after you left, she got worked up on the subject of child labour. It seems the law is broken here in Riverport.”

[247]

“How does our State law read?” inquired Mr. Jimson. “Upon my word, I don’t know.”

“The statutes of Maine provide that no female under eighteen years of age, no male under sixteen, and no woman shall be employed in any manufactory or mechanical establishment more than ten hours each day. We also have a compulsory education law which prohibits children under fifteen years of either sex working, unless they can produce certificates that during the year they have attended school during its sessions.”

“Well?” said Mr. Jimson.

“Berty found that some old-clothes man here had a night-class of children who came and sewed for him, and did not attend school. She burst into our house one evening when Margaretta was having a party, and before we knew where we were she had swept us all down to River Street. It was a pitiful enough spectacle. A dozen sleepy youngsters sitting on backless benches toiling at shirt-making, round a table lighted by candles. If a child nodded, the old man tapped her with a long stick. Some of us broke up that den, but Berty was furious at the attitude of the parents.”

“I’ll bet they were mad to have their children’s[248] earnings cut off,” observed Mr. Jimson. “Poor people are so avaricious.”

“They were, and Berty was in a dancing rage. She got up a paper called The Cry of the Children. You can imagine what her editorials would be. Then she had the children of River Street walk in a procession through the city. Nobody laughed at her, everybody was sympathetic but apathetic. Now she is in a smouldering temper. Her paper is discontinued, and I don’t know what she is going to do.”

“This is mighty interesting,” said Mr. Jimson, “but there’s Jones, the lumber merchant from Greenport. I’ve got to speak to him—excuse me,” and he crossed the street.

Roger continued on his way to the iron works, and two minutes later encountered Berty herself coming out of a fancy-work store.

“Good morning,” he said, planting himself directly before her.

“Good morning,” she returned, composedly.

“What have you been buying?” he asked, looking curiously at the parcel in her hand.

“Embroidery.”

“For some other person, I suppose.”

“No, for myself.”

[249]

“Why, I never saw you with a needle in your hand in my life.”

“You will now,” she said, calmly.

“How’s the park getting on, Berty?”

“Famously; we have electric lights, and the children can stay till all hours.”

“Is your helper satisfactory?”

“She is magnificent—a host in herself. She can shake a bad boy on one side of the park, and slap another at the other side, at the same time. I think I’ll resign my curatorship in favour of her. She only gets half my pay now.”

“Why resign, Berty?”

“Well, I may have other things to do,” she said, evasively.

“You’re going to get married.”

“Not that I know of,” she said, calmly.

“Good-bye,” replied Roger; “come oftener to see us, and be sure to bring your embroidery.”

Berty gazed after him with a peculiar smile, as he swung quickly away, then she made her way to River Street.

At one of the many corners where lanes led down to wharves, a group of men stood talking with their hands in their pockets.

Berty stopped abruptly. Through the women in[250] the street she knew what the chief topic of conversation among the wharf labourers just now happened to be.

“Are you talking of your projected strike?” she asked, shortly.

Not one of them spoke, but she knew by their assenting looks that they were.

“It’s a lovely time for a strike,” she said, dryly; “winter just coming on, and your wives and children needing extra supplies.”

The men surveyed her indulgently. Not one of them would discuss their proposed course of action with her, but not one resented her knowledge of it, or interference with them.

“You men don’t suffer,” she said, and as she spoke she pulled up the collar of her jacket, and took a few steps down the lane to avoid the chilly wind. “See, here you stand without overcoats, and some of you with nothing but woollen shirts on. It’s the women and children that feel the cold.”

One of the men thoughtfully turned a piece of tobacco in his mouth, and said, “That’s true.”

“What do you strike for, anyway?” she asked.

One of the stevedores who trundled the drums of codfish along the wharves for West Indian shipment,[251] said, amiably, “A strike is usually for higher wages and shorter hours, miss.”

“Oh, I have no patience with you,” exclaimed Berty, bursting into sudden wrath. “You are so unreasonable. You bear all things, suffer like martyrs, then all at once you flare up and do some idiotic thing that turns the sympathy of the public against you. Now in this case, you ought to have the public with you. I know your wages are small, your hours too long, but you are not taking the right way to improve your condition. Because the Greenport wharf labourers have struck, you think you must do the same. A strike among you will mean lawlessness and violence, and you strikers will blink at this same lawlessness and violence because you say it is in a good cause. Then we, the long-suffering public, hate you for your illegality. There’s the strong arm of the law held equally over employers and employed. Why don’t you appeal to that? If you are right, that arm will strike your oppressors. You can keep in the background.”

“There’s a machine back of that arm,” said a red-haired man, gloomily, “and, anyway, there ain’t a law standing to cover our case.”

“Then make one,” said Berty, irritably. “You men all have votes, haven’t you?”

[252]

“Yes, miss,” said a man in a blue shirt, “all except this lad. He’s just out from Ireland. He’s only been ashore two weeks.”

“That’s the way to settle things,” said Berty, warmly. “I’ve found out that votes are the only things that make anybody afraid of you—you all know how I came to this street. I found living conditions unbearable. In my feeble way I have tried to rectify them. Nobody cares anything for me. The only good I have accomplished is to get a park for the children.”

“And that was a great thing,” said the man in the blue shirt, “and I guess we all think of it when we look at you.”

“I just wanted common necessities,” said Berty, eloquently, “air, light, water, and space—wanted them for myself and my neighbours on the street. I have badgered the city council till I have got to be a joke and a reproach. Nobody cares anything about you down here, because you haven’t any influence. I’ve found out that if I could say to the city council, ‘Gentlemen, I have five hundred votes to control,’ they would listen to me fast enough.”

The men smiled, and one said, kindly, “I’m sure,[253] miss, you’d get our votes in a bunch, if we could give them.”

“I don’t want them,” said Berty, quickly. “It isn’t a woman’s business to go into reforming city politics. It’s the men’s place. You men fight for your homes if a foreign enemy menaces us. Why don’t you organize, and fight against the city council? Drive it out, and put in a good one. Those few men aren’t there to make the laws. They are to administer them. You are the people. Make what laws you please. If they are not workable, make new ones. I’m disgusted with those aldermen. The very idea of their arrogating to themselves so much authority. You would think they were emperors.”

The men smiled again. From him in the blue shirt came the emphatic remark, “We couldn’t turn out the present lot, miss. They’re too strong for us.”

“Oh, you could,” replied Berty, impatiently. “I’ve been going over our voting-list, and I find that the city of Riverport consists of ‘poor people,’ as we call them, to the extent of two-thirds of the population. You poor men have the votes. Now don’t tell me you can’t get what you want.”

[254]

“But there’s party politics, miss,” suggested a quiet man in the background.

“Shame on you, Malone,” and Berty pointed a finger at him, “shame on you, to put party politics before family politics. Vote for the man who will do the best for your wife and children. If you haven’t got such a man, organize and put one in. Let him give you equal privileges with the rich—or, rather, not equal privileges—I am no socialist. I believe that some men have more brains than others, and are entitled by virtue of their brains to more enjoyments and more power, but I mean that the city owes to every citizen, however poor, a comfortable house and a decently kept street.”

“That’s sound, miss,” said Malone, slipping still further forward, “but we’d never get it from the city.”

“Put in some of your number as aldermen. Why shouldn’t you in democratic America, when even in conservative England there can exist a city council made up of men who work by the day—masons, painters, bricklayers, and so on. Do that, and you will have a chance to carry out all sorts of municipal reforms. I think it is disgraceful that this ward is represented by that oiled and perfumed old gentleman[255] Demarley, who never comes to this street unless he wants a vote.”

Malone stared intently at Berty, while a man beside him murmured something about the board of aldermen having promised certain reforms.

“Don’t speak to me of reforms from those men that we have now,” returned Berty, with flashing eyes. “When I came to River Street, I used to blame the policemen that they didn’t enforce the law. Now I see that each policeman is a chained dog for some alderman. He can only go the length of his chain. A strapping great creature in uniform comes along to your house, Mr. Malone, and says, in a lordly way, ‘Mrs. Malone, you are obstructing the sidewalk with those boxes; you must remove them.’

“‘And you are obstructing my peace of mind,’ she says, ‘with that old drug-store over there open all hours, and with our young lads slipping in and out the back door, when they ought to be in bed. Haven’t you eyes or a nose for anything but boxes?’

“And the policeman says, meekly, ‘I see nothing, I hear nothing; there must be something wrong with your own eyes and hearing, Mrs. Malone. It’s getting old you are.’ Then he moves on to look[256] for more boxes and small boys. That’s the length of his chain.”

They were silent, and Berty, with increasing heat and irritation, went on. “This city is entirely corrupt. I say it again and again, and you know it better than I do—but I am going to stop talking about it. I had a lovely scheme for setting up a shop to sell pure milk to try to keep the breath of life in your babies a little longer, and I was going to get out plans for model dwellings, but I am going to stop short right here, and mind my own business.”

The men stood looking sheepishly at her, and at themselves, and, while they stood, Tom Everest, in a short walking-coat, and with his hat on the back of his head, came hurrying down the street.

He put his hat on straight when he saw Berty, and stopped to glance at her. He had got into the way of dodging down to River Street if he had any business that brought him in the neighbourhood, or if he could spare an hour from his office.