“Now, now, girls!” the foreman’s timorous expostulation was almost as insistent as the ticking of the big clock. “Now, now, girls—now, now!” The Beauties treated him with full disdain; they had no heart even for insolence.
That part of the flat which turned to the left, out of the sight of Ellis at his cutting-machines, was piled to the rafters with stock and bales, and here were the dressing-rooms. This was the favourite rendezvous of the impudent shirkers, too, and now and again the foreman made an angry excursion along the dark passages between the piles of goods, driving the loafers forth, with pathetic reproaches and threats of dismissal.
From behind one of the stacks an unhealthy-looking girl, of about eighteen, with a tousled mass of dull red hair, made pantomimic efforts to attract the packer. Feathers was very sad. He was a man with a thirst that became an actual infliction under the stress of 103° in the shade—“Worse ’n’ neuralger,” he complained—but Odgson, whose office stock of uncustomed whisky never ran short, was scandalized by anything like drinking habits in the lower orders, and alcoholic beverages were strictly prohibited upstairs. Feathers’ affliction cut into his earnings. Already he had gone forth secretly as a passionate pilgrim, but his limited credit at the Star and Garter was exhausted.
“I wouldn’ ’a’ b’lieved ’twas in er ’uman woman t’ be ez firm ez what that Mrs Publican is,” he told Bruno, bitterly. “Wimmin ain’t fit t’ keep pubs; they ain’t got no compassion.”
Feathers was thinking over these things, with a dull pain at his heart and a mouth “like a drought-struck bone mill”, when his eye fell upon Linda gesticulating in the distance.
“Yah, get up yer pole!” Feathers hated frivolity at a moment like this.
“What-oh, Feathers,” hissed Linda. “Come ’n’ ’av’ a—”
The packer was about to descend to the vulgar in his anguish, when an action of Linda’s swept the black thoughts from his soul. The girl had raised her right hand to her face, her head was tilting slowly backwards, rhythmical ripples ran along her white throat. Feathers shivered.
“Meanin’” he pointed to the centre of his breast, and his eyes were round with inquiry.
“Fair dinkum,” telegraphed Linda.
“Right-o, then. In arf er tick.” Feathers ran a casual eye over the room, took up a parcel, and carried it round the bend. In a small space between a stack and the wall four or five were crowded round a large billy. The billy had liquor in it. Feathers recognized it at a glance, and half the misery of a hard life fell from him. It was beer. Linda dipped a cupful and offered it.
“Oh, come, what sort” The packer spoke in stern expostulation. But he took the cup. “This means ther dirty push fer ther lot iv yer copped,” he said.
“Rats,” said Carrie Bent. “Ole Spats’ rotten fact’ry ain’t ’eaven, is it? Run it in, Jud, I’m fair hungry for another.”
“Howdja work it”
“New cove from the mill smuggled it up the lift.”
“It’s er fair cop out iv yer cort. Mind, I told yeh.” Feathers thought he was being very firm, but the arm that held the cup was weakening visibly. The cup moved towards his face as if of its own volition. “’N’ it’s rotten bad fer yeh beer is, this weather,” he continued. “It goes t’ yer ’ead.” What further wisdom the packer might have spoken was stopped by the arrival of the cup at his lips. He seemed surprised to find it there. Something like a feat of legerdemain followed, and the beer was swept away.
Linda took the cup and served one round, Feathers standing over, moralizing. Then came the sound of Ellis’s familiar hobble, and instantly the billy went out of sight under a sack and behind a bale.
“What rot, girls; why don’t yer get er shift on” cried Feathers virtuously, making himself right. “’Taint ther mealy pertater, polin’ on the firm like this.”
“Come, come, come,” spluttered Ellis. “Get to your boards, I’ll fine you—every one of you.” A trifling revolt was sufficient to rob Fuzzy of what little understanding and self-control he possessed. He took every dereliction to heart as a personal wrong. His voice ran shrill in an agony of reproach, and, as he stumped after the girls, the timid, nervous man pitifully asserting himself, he ran blindly into a bale, cannoned on to a case of white note, and fell into the truck. The foreman fell into, or over, one or the other of the trucks at least once a day, and the joke had lost point. The Beauties remained sullen, some sprawling over their boards, openly loafing, their bare arms hanging down, their figures sharply outlined in thin skirts and skimpy bodices.
“Dead hookity, I call it,” said the packer sympathetically, as he helped Ellis out of his complication with the truck.
The foreman turned to his machines, whimpering “Now, now, girls; come, come now!” as he passed the boards. Feathers returned to his bench. He packed with some little energy for ten minutes, and then the knowledge that there was illicit beer on the flat began to prey upon his mind. He sighed frequently; his nagging thirst got at him again. The heat came through the factory in successive clouds. In answer to some weary pleasantry that came up the speaking tube, he said distinctly that life was a “blasted fraud”.
“Is that the Union Brewery” asked the voice, after an sniff.
“Nah, it’s ’ell’s stokehole, yer Jack chump.”
A few minutes later Feathers paid another urgent visit to the billy. The beer was tepid, but he returned refreshed. The factory was almost silent under the heat and burden of the day, saving for the rattle of the cogs of the guillotines and the whirr of the sewing machines ripping out leagues of meal bags. The girls had nothing to say for themselves. They were stripped to the last rag within the requirements of decency. The ex-professsional fat girl, working hard, was a humid mountain; there was an uncanny look in her set face. Benno drowsed at his desk. Much latitude was permitted to the clerk these days, in consideration of a recent sorrow. The air of the factory was heavy with the tang of humanity. The curse of Adam brooded in the room.
The printer’s devil below sang a line of “Climbing up the Golden Stairs”. It was the “office’. Feathers snatched something from his drawer, bit off an ample mouthful and chewed. Spats’ belltopper loomed above the stairs. Spats followed. The “guv’-nor’s” face was purple with heat and emotion, and large beads of oil glistened upon his tuberous nose. The machines whirred with new vigour, the Beauties made a spiritless effort to look busy, Benno drove his pen with a great show of energy, and the owner stood and glared over the factory under his clumps of brow. His look was one of unmeasured hatred. He grunted, and his grunt was expressive of great loathing. He turned, and shuffled along the flat till he came to the packer’s bench. There he paused and sniffed. He sniffed at Feathers repeatedly, like an angry dog, and grunted three times—rising grunts of fathomless disgust—the last almost a snort. Then he passed downstairs again.
Feathers leaned over the rail. “Pig’s Whiskers!” he hissed. The expression might have lacked point but it relieved him. It was cheese the packer was eating—very old cheese, and very strong for its age. It was not nice cheese, but it had the virtue of subordinating the smell of any beer that might be within an acre at the time of eating.
The whirr of the machines softened again. The cogs clanked no more. Benno’s head sank, and the Beauties abandoned all pretensions. The heated atmosphere came up the stairways, and grew denser in the top flat; breathing was a labour, and the packer’s head was humming like a mill. He was thinking of the unguarded beer behind the bale.
Suddenly the factory was disturbed by a thin crying—a low, helpless crying that had an animal-like agony in it. The fat girl was wailing at her boards. Her large face shone white; she still worked with deft fingers, but she wept at her task like an insensate creature. Ellis understood what it meant; he had heard it before more than once, and instantly he fell into his familiar condition of terror-stricken irresponsibility. He scrambled down the room, knocking against all the boards, throwing tiers of work into confusion.
“Here, here—you stop it!” he cried. “Stop it! Stop it, I tell you.”
A little girl at the folding board was making strange gasping noises. Many of the girls seemed to become suddenly possessed of a bovine fear. Sarah Eddie ran to Martha Rickards, and put strong arms about her, whereupon the fat girl flopped upon the floor, and her crying increased to an agonized scream. The little girl at the folding-board fell back convulsed. Two other girls started crying, and Ellis ran foolishly from one to the other, pleading and complaining. Feathers alone remained cool. He was experienced in all the foolishness of women. The packer leaned over the stair and called down to the printers:
“Here, er couple iv you blokes len’s a ’and Fat’s down.”
A couple of printers bounded up from the lower flat, and Feathers took command.
“Yah-h! go ’n’ get hosed!” he said, contemptuously, to the foreman, who was fussing uselessly. “Grab er ’ead, lads.”
The fat girl was now screaming in violent hysterics. Feathers took her heels, the printers her arms, and, with Sarah’s help, they carried their great burden to the lift.
“Take ’er inter ther cellar an’ let ’er bloomin’ well ’ave it out there,’ ’r she’ll ’ave ther ’ole fact’ry ’owlin’ mad in ’arf a tick.” The fat girl was promptly lowered, and Feathers turned to his other patients.
Chrissie M‘Fadyen, a tall dark girl, had fallen in a huddled heap under her board, and was making weird, choking noises. Feathers straightened her out, pillowed her head on a pile of bags and said angrily:
“Shut up’! D’ yeh ’ear? We ain’t doin’ anythin’ in fancy fits today.” Then with extreme disdain: “Arr-r-r, ring off, can’t yeh!” The girl shivered, stiffened her limbs, and opened a startled eye. “Nah, then, Mac, that’ll do you. Just you take a ’ammerlock holt iv yerself, ’n’ ’ave some dam’ consideration fer others.” The tone was brutal. Chrissie struggled with her symptoms, and conquered. “Take ’er away ’n’ sprinkle ’er,” said Feathers to one of the machinists, and Chrissie M‘Fadyen was led to the taps, weeping quietly.
The packer passed on to Ginger Copin, the foreman dancing at his heels and stuttering like a cranky monkey. It seemed as if half the girls might get out of hand at any moment. Many were crying. Feathers took Ginger by the shoulders in a masterful grip, and shook her to emphazise his biting rebuke.
“Shine idyit you makin’ o’ yerself, Copin,” he said. “Bli’ me, have er bit iv common. Stow it; stow it, d’ye hear” Ginger strove against her racked nerves, and looked surprised and piteous. Feathers was not to be softened, however. He said further things to Copin, and they were not tender and soothing things. In short he cursed her from boots to breakfast; and Copin revived as under cooling showers, and was led away by the stronger girls.
Feathers swore bitterly at a couple of weeping pasters in passing, and braced them up wonderfully; delivered a scathing expostulation to Miss Bentley, the sedate piece-worker, who gave marked indications of going off; and then addressed himself to the little girl at the folding-board, who had fallen in a fit. He carried her to the taps in the cooler part of the building, sothing the factory with bad, masterful words as he passed.
“New one, this, ain’t she” he said. “Wha’s she called”
They told him, and he addressed her by her name; not so sternly as in the former cases and without bullock-compelling expletives, but with the tone of a man who was not to be denied. He insisted on her getting well by her own effort. “It’s no use tellin’ me yeb carn’t, y’know, ’cause I know better. Come, come, buck-up!” The little girl was slowly reviving, and although this case took longer than the others, the patient was presently well enough to go below with the rest.
Feathers went back to the Beauties, bullying manfully here and there. He picked out three more, cursed them into some sense of decency, and passed them down to the cellar to cool off; and behold, the factory was in order again, and clothed in its right mind. The packer had proved himself master of the situation.
“Never you snivel ’n’ whine over wimmen when they’re ’avin’ ’sterics ’n’ them jiggity fits,” he said, wisely, to the printers; “it on’y makes ’em feel they’re pore sufferin’ dears, ’n’ they’ll holler their ’eads off, ’n’ kick ther ceilin’ in outer dashed sympathy fer themselves. What er woman wants when she’s feelin’ like that is a real beast t’ boss her. Yiv gotter work in among ’em here few er few years t’ know what er consolation er reg’lar brute is to er woman now ’n’ again.”
“Sst—Pig’s Whiskers!” hissed Billy the boy. The printers fled downstairs, and Feathers packed. “Pig’s Whiskers” was one of the many pet names the factory had given Odgson, the Boss.
Half an hour later a south breeze was sweeping the factory, and the Beauties were barracking noisily at their work. Feathers was in an amiable mood; he had emptied the billy, and now walked with ostentatious uprightness. The fact that there was no longer any alcoholic beverage on the flat, and that the boss had no just cause for complaint, filled him with genuine and virtuous satisfaction.