The foreman clawed his fuzzy hair, and showed a cowering back. The quiet was ominous. Nothing was heard but the whir and whiz of the machines, the fluttering of busy hands in paper, and a sibilant whispering peculiarly viperish. Spats’ girls did not usually whisper; their ordinary conversation was shrill and over-bearing, and there were at least eighty of them, young and old. Factory girls, like those of the ballet, remain “girls” in defiance of time and the ravages thereof.
“Wha’ ‘s wrong, Feathers” Billy the Boy, the juvenile rouseabout from the printers’ flat, who had crept up the stairs, thrust an inky stub of a nose through the battens, and cocked an anxious eye.
“Get t’ ’ell outer this!” said the packer, throwing a ball of twine. The day was oppressive, and the packer’s attempt to steal out for a pint of consolation had been stalled off at the lift door by the boss, and he was feeling wronged and vindictive.
Billy whipped down on a banister at the peril of his neck, and called softly upwards:
“Oh, yer love me, Carrie, dontcher, spite o’ me boil”
The tone had a tender pathos touched with passion. It stirred the packer to black wrath. Leaning over the open space by the stairs, he promised Billy death with barbaric effects. Feathers was liable to boils, and was also a man of a philandering temperament. The printer’s devils were in the habit of deliberately hearing things in the cellar among the bales when the girls were being let out after over-time.
Billy was deeply moved; he smeared ink on the rope with which Feathers swung parcels to the shop flat, and resumed the ordinary evasion of his duties as a devil.
The majority of the girls worked at square boards on trestles. There was a heap of paste in the centre of each board, and the piece-workers stood to their task, pasting and folding at the terraced stacks of stationery with the dexterity of machines, bare-armed, bare-necked, in slovenly gowns caked with dirt-colored dough, their tousled hair powdered with the fibre of the paper. One girl worked alone. There was a drift from her neighbourhood, but sidelong glances assailed her with accusations; the tittering that occasionally broke out was all for her ears, and it was suppressed with a malicious understanding that she would recognise the suppression to be a measure of consideration extended to a transgressor.
The creature apart was a sallow, freckled girl, with pale hair and sharp features. She was fully conscious of what was going on—had felt some symptoms of it working for weeks, but to-day the devilment was pointed and deliberate. The hot oppression of the top flat had wrought upon the Beauties, and Annie Mack was sacrificed to the necessity for diversion. From a purely moral point of view the factory had no particular qualms about Miss Mack’s weaknesses.
There was a sullen stupidity in Annie’s face; she raced her work; her hands flashed along the automatic movements of a set task; the perspiration ran down her long neck. This energetic action was the only relief, and the girl’s consolation would come in a fat packet on Saturday, she being a piece-worker.
Benno loitered at the packer’s bench for a word. Our Mr. Dickson, it must not be forgotten, was a superior creature—he reigned on a high stool at a desk in a top corner near the cutters, piling figures on figures all day long. He came at nine, after the others, and left at half-past five, before the others, and had become shockingly lop-eared as a result of his practice of carrying a long pen behind his ear to assert his dignity. Benno as a clerk should have held status with the young gentlemen down in the warehouse if people had their rights.
“They’re settin’ her nibs t’-day,” said Benno, with a sportsman’s keenness, a sidewise convulsion of his features indicating Annie.
Feathers finished a knot with some deliberation.
“Dunno what they’re gettin’ at,” he said. His air was that of a man with a mild grievance.
“G’out, man! mean t’ say yeh ain’t took a tumble” Benno had his own opinion of such mental denseness.
“No, iv you”
“Course—weeks ago. Ain’t yeh got eyes in yer ’ead”
A harsh voice barked behind them. Benno fled to his high stool. Feathers banged his ream industriously, and Odgson, the Gov’ner, otherwise Spats, snarled and glowered for a few minutes, like an angry dog. Spats was rarely articulate. After scrutinising his Beauties under the rim of his belltopper, overlooking the room in the attitude of an avenging Fate, the Gov’ner drifted down stairs again. He had been disturbed in his den below by the ominous silence aloft.
Billy the Boy reappeared under the banister, grinning maliciously.
“Copped out that trip, didn’t yeh! Up to yeh, too, fer a dead nark.” The “office” should have come from Billy the Boy. Feathers took him on the nose with a treacherous jerk of the twine ball, and the devil retreated to the first landing, whence he sent up shrill whisperings to remind the packer of his lowly birth, and his many defects of character and education. “Anyhow, thank Gawd, ’twasn’t my old mother stole the boots!” said Billy.
The hush imposed by the great man’s presence passed, the voices hissed again; and Annie bent to her task. Her face was to her enemies. She increased her pace. She had listened so long, and at such a strain that now the whole room buzzed in her head like a big bee.
Miss Kruse, the ever depressed elderly maiden, nominally forewoman, felt the electrical condition of the atmosphere, and, knowing her helplessness in the face of a combination of the bigger girls, devoted herself to the kids at the folding-boards, casting sulky, underhand glances at the others, and wearing the piteous expression of an ill-used woman on her flat face. Ellis, boss of the flat, who had retired behind his guillotines, shot his head over the machines every now and again, and nervously surveyed the room. Being mortally afraid of the girls, anything like a display of insubordination threw the lathy man into a state of imbecile distress.
The long day wore on to half-past four, and there was no outbreak. Ellis prayed for 6 o’clock. With marvellous cunning he had approached Miss Mack, hinting at illness, and mildly advising bed and a brand of pills much appreciated in the factory. Diplomacy was Fuzzy’s strong point.
“Set a trap in yer ’at, you’ve got rats!” responded the young lady, bitterly, and though the foreman revolved for a few minutes agitatedly expostulating, after that she treated him as something extinct.
Work had been Annie’s safety-valve. While running at high pressure she could contain herself, but now came a break. Her paste was used up, and to get more she must turn her back to the foe and pass down a long flat to the corner where the coppers were. She went with resolution. Simultaneously with her disappearance, there was a burst of uproar in the factory, loud conversation, calls, badinage, and laughter; the flat roared with its characteristic babel.
The moment Annie reappeared the racket sank to a sibilant murmuring once more. The girl walked erect, with tight drawn lips and fiery eyes, carrying the dipper of steaming paste in her hand. She came to the packer’s bench, where Benno stood talking business.
“Fifty-six iv nine pound brown,” said Feathers.
Annie saw the heads together, and suddenly her restraint collapsed. She turned upon the men, her whole person animate with passion.
“You’re a lyin’ ’ound!” she yelled.
Feathers got the whole dipper of hot paste full in his face. The stuff half choked him; it clung in his hair, it rolled down his neck, it deluged him. He slid down into a pool of it, and blinked up at his assailant in pitiable amazement, a ludicrous object smoking on the floor, no longer a man, but a clammy mass.
“An’ I never said a word!” he protested weakly. “S’ ’elp me, I never said a word!”
But Annie Mack was otherwise engaged. She flamed upon the factory. Rage possessed her. She was crammed with hatred, and it flew from her in language that shot terror into her enemies.
“I leave it t’ Benno, there. Now, come, what ’d I say” cried Feathers, virtuously pathetic.
“Flamin’, blazin’ liars!” cried Annie. “You tork about me—you—you! You orter! A pack o’ rats. What’re yer gotter say ’bout me” Spit it out!” She stood with up lifted hands and screamed at them, and then her eye picked out an individual. “You, Kitty Conroy, call me things, will yeh”
She dashed at Kitty, and fastened on her like a fury, all claws. “Fight me, yeh waster!” she shrieked, tearing at the other’s hair.
Kitty fought back with spirit. Crash went her board and on it rolled the combatants, fighting like tykes amongst the paste and the papers. They clawed, and tore, and punched, screaming incessantly, turning over and over in the mess. Annie arose from the fray half-blinded, pasted from head to foot, and garnished with fruit-bags. She rushed into the thick of her enemies. The girls screamed, and broke before her in terror, and havoc followed in her wake. She tore down the tables, she filled the air with paste and myriads of envelopes, storms of stationery broke out whenever she paused a moment, and the unhappy girl that fell into her hands was reft of hair and draperies, and blackened with bruises. The distracted foreman danced on the outskirts of the riot, shedding real tears, and appealing in heart-rending accents alternately to Annie and to high heaven.
“Miss Mack! Miss Mack, for pity’s sake!” He became valiant in his great perturbation, and threw himself in Annie’s way.
Snatching up a small tub of paste, she smashed it over the foreman’s head, leaving him with a necklace of hoops, and in a smother of his own composition. In that awful moment, Ellis bitterly regretted his attempts to improve the consistency of good flour paste with common glue.
Sis Twentyman was the next victim, but she escaped, leaving a wisp of hair in Annie’s hands, and took refuge behind her table, and Miss Mack chased her round it five times.
“I’ll give yeh whisperin’ an’ tisperin’,” cried Annie. “I’ll tear the eyes out of yer monkey face, you pig’s sister. What ’re you, to go whisperin’ about people! What ’re you, more’n a half Chow” She paused for breath, and a fierce resolution shone in her eyes. “I’ll do yeh, though! I’ll do yeh!”
Annie darted to the dressing-room, and presently reappeared, brandishing something with the triumph of a scalp-hunting savage. It was Sis Twentyman’s new hat she held aloft—the beautiful confection Sis had introduced only that morning—the most precious thing in all the world. “See,” cried Annie-”See, you dirty stop-out!” She placed the hat on the floor and danced wildly amongst the feathers.
Sis uttered a yell of mortal agony, and, heedless of danger, dashed in to the rescue; but with her foot still upon the crown, Annie tore the hat to fragments, and flung them in Sis’s face, and the two girls fastened on each other after the manner of cats.
A number of the printers had come to Benno’s assistance by this time. They parted the combatants, and Annie relapsed into hysterics. She was carried to the dressing-room, and Fuzzy followed after with the Gov’ner, who had just arrived on the scene, snapping orders.
A quarter of an hour later Annie Mack came forth, clothed in her right mind, and stole down the stairs. It was understood that she had been discharged, and her foes were appeased, but order was not restored in the factory that day, nor the next.
One afternoon, some nine weeks later, Annie re-visited the top flat, proudly carrying a long-coated baby about three weeks of age. Annie was gaily dressed, and the infant’s gown was worked to a point of extravagance. The girl smiled cheerfully on all, just as if nothing had happened, sailing through the room, a vision of happiness. She bore no malice for the mischief she had wrought. Annie submitted her baby to Miss Kruse’s approval with beaming confidence. Curiosity overcame the others, and they gathered round to inspect and applaud.
“Ain’t he a bute” said Annie.
“A little love!” said Kitty Conroy.
“The darlin’!” gasped Bell Oliver.
The girls flattered and gushed. Sis Twentyman kissed the baby.
“Course you know I’m married” said Annie.
“Go on!” cried Bell. “Was that lately”
“Bless yeh, no!” answered Annie—“a week ago!”