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Title: Free Labour
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201301h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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Free Labour

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Central Queensland Herald, Rockhampton, Australia, 1 Apr 1943

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014


OVERTON crept a little nearer towards the neat little parcel in the clean table napkin, and sniffed as a hungry dog might have done. The muscles of his mouth quivered--he passed his tongue over his dry lips. In the language of his bygone youth--and, Heavens! how far away that seemed--he was up against it. Not for worlds would he have confessed the fact that no food had passed his lips for 20 hours. He was willing enough to work and strong enough withal. But the whole world seemed to be full up, perspiring dockers were passing in a constant stream, he could hear the roar of traffic as the laden lorries passed over the cobble stones in High Street. And yet in all this world of activity they told him that things were slack and that most of the casual hands there were working for a bare wage.

Overton was realising bitterly enough that this thing was true. He had made a sixpence yesterday by holding horses, but so far as the docks were concerned nothing for the best part of a week. He was angrily conscious that the strength in which he prided himself was feeling the strain. But at any rate he was a better man than the thin reed over there sweating amongst the bales of wool. He was a clean-shaven, respectable-looking man and bore the unmistakeable stamp of better times. Overton studied him half curiously. He saw the little man stagger towards one of the bales and drop on it, shaking from head to foot like a leaf. His head and hands jerked as if invisible strings were pulling them.

"Anything wrong?" Overton asked.

"Malaria," the little man gasped. "It's a legacy I brought back with me from India. Catches me cruelly at times. When I get a bad dose I'm good for nothing for a week. And the devil of it is that cursed foreman's got an eye on me. Next time he comes round and finds I haven't shifted this little parcel I'll get fired. They've got no use for malaria here. Do you happen to be looking for a job yourself!"

"Well, that's about it," Overton said briefly.

"Well, turn in and shift this wool for me. If you get it done in half-an-hour I'm good for a shilling. If I get a stiff dose of quinine down me I may be better presently. On the other hand, I may be worse. Point is, are you game?"

Overton turned to the work fiercely. He ripped off his coat and vest and rolled up his shirtsleeves. The shaky little man sitting there had a stammering word or two of praise for those magnificent muscles.

"My word, you ought not to be put off a job," he said. "Done a deal of rowing in your time, haven't you?"

"I was in my college boat," Overton said absently. He reddened slightly as he spoke. "But that's another story."

"That's all right," the little man said. "I was in my college boat, too, though you wouldn't think it to look at me."

He rose to his feet and staggered away. When he returned half-an-hour later the whole of the work was done and Overton was sitting on a capstan wiping his heated forehead.

"Here's your money," the little man said. "Oh, you needn't hesitate to take it. I've got a bit put away. And I should have a bit more but for these cursed strikes. To blast with your leaders, I say. No, I've got no Federation ticket and I don't want one. And thousands more would tear up theirs if they only dared. And there's thousands, too, who regard Mat Herring as a god and just do anything he asks when he holds up his little finger. Look at him now talking to those lightermen. Not a day's work has he done for the last ten years. Just twig his fine clothes and his big watch chain and his cigar. And there's nothing to him except the gift of the gab and a certain infernal cheek that fairly hypnotised 'em. There are mothers and children down our way who would put a knife into him if they dared. We've had mine strikes in the last five years, and there's not a docker here who could tell you what they were about if you gave him a sovereign. Here, you haven't taken your shilling yet. It seems a pity that a workman like you should be doing nothing. You come along here tomorrow morning at the same time, and I'll see if I can't find a job for you."

Overton walked over to the nearest public house and spent a few coppers of his precious shilling in a cheap, substantial meal. In reckless mood he treated himself to a glass of beer and a penny packet of cigarettes. The close and stuffy little bar was full of dockers more or less unemployed, the air reeked with the smell of sweating humanity. And Overton did not fail to notice the suggestion of unrest and discontent on the face of those about him. He could hear certain threats and grumbling; he caught from time to time the revered name of Mat Herring. There was a commotion in the bar presently, and the big agitator himself came in. He spoke loudly and stridently--his coarse red face bore a certain suggestion of strength and power. From Overton's point of view he was merely a repulsive bully using these deluded men as a means to an end. Overton itched with a desire to get his hands upon the man, and he would have quarrelled with him at the slightest opportunity. But discretion was certainly the better part of valour now. He had only a small handful of coppers between himself and starvation, and the docker who made an enemy of Mat Herring lived to regret it and that speedily.

The agitator boomed on in his big voice, eloquent on imaginary grievances and leaving sullen discontent behind him wherever he went. There was some fresh trouble in the air, some childish controversy which might at any moment burst into a flame that would involve all the labour in the East.

"You've got 'im in your own 'ands," Herring roared. "'Ere, wot are yer talking about? Ain't I speaking?"

"There's a gal outside wot wants to speak ter yer, Mister 'Erring," one of the audience said ingratiatingly.

"Daresay it's that niece o' mine," the great man said. "If she wants to see me, she can come inside."

There entered a tall, slim figure of a girl clad in rusty black. Over her head and shoulders was a shawl of some fleecy material which did not serve to disguise the marvellous colour and texture of her hair or the sensitive beauty of her face. She was no better dressed than most women round there and yet she stood out from them a thing apart. Something like a bitter smile trembled on Overton's lips. He was wondering by what extraordinary freak of nature this girl could be Herring's niece. The man turned and brutally demanded what the girl was doing there.

"It's the child," the girl stammered painfully. Overton noticed that her voice was as refined as her face. "She's worse. You must send for a doctor."

"No doctors in my house," Herring declared. "Bloodsucking set of murderers I call 'em. And don't you come bothering me again like this when I'm in the middle of my work."

He raised his am threateningly and Overton jumped to his feet. Just for a moment the joy and pride of the militant dockers was within an ace of receiving the thrashing which he had so richly deserved for years. But Overton checked himself in time. Commonsense told him that he would only make matters worse for the girl afterwards. He did not take his seat again, but followed the girl out into the street.

"You'll excuse me," he said. "I have no right to speak to you, of course, but you are in trouble, and I fancy I can help you. I have no money, but I am not without influence, though it may sound amusing for me to say so."

"You are very good," the girl said gratefully. "And it is a pleasure to speak to a gentleman again. And anybody can see you are that. In a way we are companions in misfortune. You see Mr. Herring married my sister. And she died. It is just as well that she did, and she left a little girl, whom I promised to look after. That is why I am down here instead of--but I need not go into that. Ada is a poor, weakly little thing. And she will never live to be grown up. And he doesn't care, he has no heart or feeling of affection for anything. All the money he makes he spends on himself. Can't you see how cruelly I am placed? And what he said just now about the doctor is all lies. He grudges the expense where his own flesh and blood is concerned."

Who on earth was this girl, Overton wondered. And what was she doing here in this God-forsaken spot? And how on earth had that sister of hers come to give her heart to a cold-blooded brute like Herring? But he was destined to learn all these things in time. Providentially Herring was away for a day or two, stirring up strife and discontent at Bristol, and Overton's doctor friend was doing his best for the pale, white fragment of humanity which would never blossom into robust youth. It was only a question of time, and Helen Macgregor heard the verdict with tears in her eyes. After the clumsy methods of manhood Overton consoled her. He had been seeing a good deal of the girl lately, for the little man with the malaria had been as good as his word, and Overton was in regular employment now.

"I wonder if I'm really sorry," Helen said. "It will be a blessed relief when the time comes, and then I can get away from here altogether."

"You want to go all that badly?"

"I am aching to turn my back upon it. It has been two years of penal servitude for me. I offered to take the child elsewhere, but my brother-in-law would not hear of it. If it were not for her I could go back tomorrow to the family I left. When my father died I became governess to some children in the most delightful household in the world. I was more one of the family than a governess. My father had been vicar of the parish. We might have all been happy if my sister had not met Mr. Herring. She was always strangely romantic, she took a vivid interest in social questions, and she made up her mind that Mathew Herring was a great man. Even to the very last she regarded him as a kind of Napoleon of labour. She was absolutely blind to his coarseness and selfishness. She never saw that he was a dissipated, vulgar, dishonest loafer, whose only qualities were impudence and brag, and she never realised that he would not have married her at all but for the fact that she had inherited a few hundred pounds from a distant relative. And he dragged her from the sweetness and refinement of a country home to this dreadful spot. He had never been accustomed to anything different--any slum-dwelling was good enough for him so long as he could spend his evenings in some low public-house over his beer and politics. He never even let me know when my sister was dying. I found her here, and she made me promise to look after the child. A sordid little story, is it not? But all I can do now is to wait for the inevitable end. Then I can go back again to the sunshine and the sweetness of the country. But before I go I should like--you won't think me vindictive?"

"Oh, I know what you would like," Overton said. "And I like you all the better for that touch of humanity. It makes me feel that I am not altogether in contact with a saint. You would like to see Herring exposed and disgraced. You would like to see him made the laughing stock of these poor deluded fools whose proudest ambition it is to pay for his beer. Well, I will try and manege it for you if I can. It was very nearly being an accomplished fact the day I first saw you in that dirty little public-house. There's going to be trouble here. I feel quite sure that these men will be all out again within the fortnight. And, mind you, they don't want to come. If I could only get them to listen to me I'd break Herring in a week. And there's only one way to do it."

Helen Macgregor's eyes gleamed. There was a deep flush on her face. She laid her hand on Overton's arm.

"Oh, if you only could," she whispered. "My heart bleeds for the women and children. Mind you, these people have a case. I have lived with them long enough to see that. And they would win what they are entitled to if they could get rid of the bitter blight that parasites like Herring smother them with. And you could do it for them. They have come to like you. And, strangely enough, one of the reasons is because you are a gentleman."

"Do I look like one?" Overton smiled.

"Yes, you do," the girl said. "In spite of your docker's dress and the dirt on your hands and face, there is no mistaking it. I knew it the first time we ever met."

"And you asked yourself no questions, Helen?"

"Of course I did. I am full of curiosity. And I don't care if you've done something wrong. At any rate, you have not been used to the horrors of a place like this, and it is fine and noble of you to be getting your own living whilst, I daresay, your friends would be ready to help you. Perhaps you will tell me some day."

"Oh, I will that. There's nothing against me. I could walk down Piccadilly with my face to the sunshine. Only I've been a fool. Heavens, what a fool!"

He might have told her more, but the whistles began to hoot and bellow, and the grimy, dingy bees were stirring in the hive. They were very discontented bees just now, sullen and unwilling, and Overton scented the trouble from afar off. He marked Herring as he strolled about the docks with the air of a dissipated conqueror, he noted the angry gleam in the foremen's eyes and the clenching of their fists as Herring swaggered past them. But they were utterly powerless, and they knew it. Had the men any sort of feeling? Overton asked himself. This sort of thing had been going on for days now, and Herring's child lay dying. It was that same evening that Helen came to him, quiet and subdued, with the information that the little one's sufferings were over.

"She died an hour ago," she explained, "and Matthew Herring grumbled because he would have to find the money for the funeral. Oh, he is a dreadful creature! Don't think it hard of me, but I can think of nothing but my release from this awful place.. .. Within a day--within an hour----"

"Oh, I know what you mean. But don't go alone. Let us go together. Will you call me presumptuous if I tell you that there is a dear old aunt of mine who writes to me regularly and who takes the warmest interest in my welfare. And I have taken the liberty of telling her all about you. I told her of your noble heroism and self-sacrifice. And when you've finished here she wants you to go and stay with her for a time."

"I shall be very glad," Helen said simply. "With the exception of the people I used to be with, I have not a friend in the world. And they are abroad and will not be back for several weeks. I will wait and go with you, Geoffrey."

The last word dropped quite unconsciously from the girl's lips, and Overton smiled.

"Then let it be Saturday," he said. "When did you say the funeral was to be--Thursday afternoon? Oh, yes, I shall be quite ready for you by Saturday morning."

Overton went back to his work with his head high in the air and a set determination on his lips. There was going to be trouble by Saturday, of that he felt certain. It was late on the Friday afternoon before the smoke gave way to the flame, it was one of those silly disputes between capital and labour, a touch of harshness on the one side and mistaken pride on the other. A sullen murmur ran through the dock and almost before anyone knew what had happened a thousand angry men were standing with their hands by their sides, and the foreman, almost beside himself with rage, was yelling hoarse commands lurid with profanity. Out of the welter of dogged, perspiring humanity came Herring, red of face, strident and overbearing.

"Down tools, lads," he cried. "Outside every one of you. You've got right on your side and you will have all the country with you over this job. Within a week there won't be a single workman in a single dockyard in Great Britain."

Overton stepped quietly forward.

"Wait a minute," he said. "You might give the foreman a chance. You might wait to hear what he's got to say anyhow. Don't tell me that you are going to be influenced by that drunken, swaggering loafer any more."

He pointed contemptuously at Herring. The latter darted forward, his course, red face aflame.

"Meaning me?" he demanded hoarsely.

"Meaning you, you common, dissipated beer-swiller. You're a liar and a thief. You've been robbing these poor fools for years. Yes, and I'm in a position to prove it if you like. Regular work and contentment for the lads means starvation for you. Here, come, there must be at least five hundred of you chaps who have known Matthew Herring for years. But I'll wager a sovereign that the oldest-hand here cannot recollect when Herring did an honest day's work. Is it a bet."

He held up the glittering coin between his fingers, and something like a sigh went up from the dockers. There was not one of them there who had not felt the pinch of hunger at least four times during the past twelve months, and very few of them who could not have recollected the loss of a wife or child, and all owing to the blighting influence of Matthew Herring. Something like a laugh went up, and more then one man in the crowd reached down for his tools.

"Here, drop it," Herring yelled. "Who do you think's speaking to yer? Why this chap's a blackleg 'imself."

"They're going back to work," Overton said quietly.

Indeed, they looked very much like doing it. Their eyes, were averted from Herring: he would, perhaps, have been astonished could he have known the deep-rooted hatred that he had inspired in every breast there. In reality it seemed to him that this impudent blackleg was defying him on his own ground. Well, he would show the dockers what he was made of. He stripped off his coat and strode across to where Overton was standing. The latter's heart leapt with pure joy. He had but little fear of the conflict. And it pleased him to see that Herring had some knowledge of boxing. It was all absolutely irregular, not to say idiotic, for the crowd had gathered round, and even the strident foreman had forgotten his torrid blasphemy. Herring came on with a head-long rush intent upon carrying all before him. Something seemed to move something jolted him on the jaw, and, to his own intense surprise, he found himself rolling over in the dust. A deep sarcastic cheer rose from the crowd and the red danced before his eyes. From that moment there could only be one possible result of the fight. The turning agitator was blind with rage, he was dead out of condition, and Overton hit him just where and when he pleased. The blood was streaming down his face, his left eye was half blind, and still Overton refrained from the knock-out blow. He took a particular pleasure in punishing this ruffian, a certain savage delight which relieved the pent-up feelings of many weeks, and Herring needed no knockout blow. He dropped to his knees at length and blubbered like a child.

"Better get back to work lads," Overton said quietly. "Nice specimen of a leader you're got, haven't you? Try a man next time. Here, get up and go home."

He kicked Herring to his feet, and the vanquished orator slunk off without another word. There came a harsh command from the ready-witted foreman, and in a moment every hand was at work again. All but Overton. He put on his coat and left the dock.

"'Ere, you're not going?" the foreman asked. "I can find you a better job if you need it. You're the stuff we want."

"Oh, I've got a job," Overton smiled. "It's not in the docks. It's down at a place in Sussex."

He met Helen next morning. He no longer wore his suit of moleskins; he was attired in a neat, well-cut flannel suit and straw hat. Half a dozen women gave him a cheer as he stood by the side of the taxicab waiting for Helen. She, too, was changed almost beyond recognition. Her eyes were moist and her smile unsteady as she put her hand into Overton's.

"Where are we going now?" she whispered.

"We are going straight away into Sussex," Overton explained. "Down to the house I told you about. Extravagant? Oh, I don't know. I have not spent much for the last 12 months, and I want to have you all to myself."

"I heard all about yesterday afternoon," Helen said. "Oh, it was splendid, splendid! I loathe violence, but I should like to have been there? Are you very shocked?"

They whirled along away from the misery and humiliation out into the country and the sunshine. Then they came at length to a fair old house nestling amongst the trees, and here on the balcony, looking across a garden so fair and sweet that the tears rose to Helen's eyes, Overton placed her in a seat and told his story.

"I have a confession to make," he said. "This house and small estate belongs to me. For the last year my aunt has been looking after it. You will see her presently and fall in love with her, as everybody does. But I have something to tell you first. Now, do you know that 18 months ago I was one of the most selfish, indolent idlers who ever disgraced a good education? My father used to say that I had no heart at all, and when he died, somewhere about a year ago, he left a strange will. He said I was young and strong enough for anything, and that for a whole 12 months I must go away with nothing in my pockets and earn my own living. I was not to borrow a penny from anyone, and if I failed by a single day, everything was to go to a single relation. My word, this last year has been a revelation to me! It took the conceit out of me to find how useless I was. I had chances and lost them one after another. I knew what it was to be downright hungry. I've slept on the Embankment, and the day I first went to the docks I hadn't tasted food for 20 hours. Well, I got a job there, and I was only too glad to stick to it, and I did stick to it till the year was up, and nearly six weeks more and I am a man at last."

"It was very fine," Helen cried. "But why did you go on after the year was up?"

"You don't know that? Can you look me in the face and tell me you cannot guess? Do you think I could part with you now, you who came like a crown to my salvation. I brought you here to remain always after we are married, and my aunt is looking forward to welcoming you as a daughter. She will be here at any moment now. You won't disappoint her, Helen?"

The girl held out her hand and smiled at Overton through her happy tears.

"Oh," she whispered, "Oh, what a world it is!"<


THE END

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