Collected Short Stories, by D. H. Lawrence

Strike-Pay

Strike-money is paid in the Primitive Methodist Chapel. The crier was round quite early on Wednesday morning to say that paying would begin at ten o’clock.

The Primitive Methodist Chapel is a big barn of a place, built, designed, and paid for by the colliers themselves. But it threatened to fall down from its first form, so that a professional architect had to be hired at last to pull the place together.

It stands in the Square. Forty years ago, when Bryan and Wentworth opened their pits, they put up the “squares” of miners’ dwellings. They are two great quadrangles of houses, enclosing a barren stretch of ground, littered with broken pots and rubbish, which forms a square, a great, sloping, lumpy playground for the children, a drying-ground for many women’s washing.

Wednesday is still wash-day with some women. As the men clustered round the Chapel, they heard the thud-thud-thud of many pouches, women pounding away at the wash-tub with a wooden pestle. In the Square the white clothes were waving in the wind from a maze of clothes-lines, and here and there women were pegging out, calling to the miners, or to the children who dodged under the flapping sheets.

Ben Townsend, the Union agent, has a bad way of paying. He takes the men in order of his round, and calls them by name. A big, oratorical man with a grey beard, he sat at the table in the Primitive school-room, calling name after name. The room was crowded with colliers, and a great group pushed up outside. There was much confusion. Ben dodged from the Scargill Street list to the Queen Street. For this Queen Street men were not prepared. They were not to the fore.

“Joseph Grooby — Joseph Grooby! Now, Joe, where are you?”

“Hold on a bit, Sorry!” cried Joe from outside. “I’m shovin’ up.”

There was a great noise from the men.

“I’m takin’ Queen Street. All you Queen Street men should be ready. Here you are, Joe,” said the Union agent loudly.

“Five children!” said Joe, counting the money suspiciously.

“That’s right, I think,” came the mouthing voice. “Fifteen shillings, is it not?”

“A bob a kid,” said the collier.

“Thomas Sedgwick — How are you, Tom? Missis better?”

“Ay, ‘er’s shapin’ nicely. Tha’rt hard at work today, Ben.” This was sarcasm on the idleness of a man who had given up the pit to become a Union agent.

“Yes. I rose at four to fetch the money.”

“Dunna hurt thysen,” was the retort, and the men laughed.

“No — John Merfin!”

But the colliers, tired with waiting, excited by the strike spirit, began to rag. Merfin was young and dandiacal. He was choir-master at the Wesleyan Chapel.

“Does your collar cut, John?” asked a sarcastic voice out of the crowd.

“Hymn Number Nine.

‘Diddle-diddle dumpling, my son John

Went to bed with his best suit on,’”

came the solemn announcement.

Mr. Merfin, his white cuffs down to his knuckles, picked up his half-sovereign, and walked away loftily.

“Sam Coutts!” cried the paymaster.

“Now, lad, reckon it up,” shouted the voice of the crowd, delighted.

Mr. Coutts was a straight-backed ne’er-do-well. He looked at his twelve shillings sheepishly.

“Another two-bob — he had twins a-Monday night — get thy money, Sam, tha’s earned it — tha’s addled it, Sam; dunna go beout it. Let him ha’ the two bob for ‘is twins, mister,” came the clamour from the men around.

Sam Coutts stood grinning awkwardly.

“You should ha’ given us notice, Sam,” said the paymaster suavely. “We can make it all right for you next week —”

“Nay, nay, nay,” shouted a voice. “Pay on delivery — the goods is there right enough.”

“Get thy money, Sam, tha’s addled it,” became the universal cry, and the Union agent had to hand over another florin, to prevent a disturbance. Sam Coutts grinned with satisfaction.

“Good shot, Sam,” the men exclaimed.

“Ephraim Wharmby,” shouted the pay-man.

A lad came forward.

“Gi’ him sixpence for what’s on t’road,” said a sly voice.

“Nay, nay,” replied Ben Townsend; “pay on delivery.”

There was a roar of laughter. The miners were in high spirits.

In the town they stood about in gangs, talking and laughing. Many sat on their heels in the market-place. In and out of the public-houses they went, and on every bar the half-sovereigns clicked.

“Comin’ ter Nottingham wi’ us, Ephraim?” said Sam Coutts to the slender, pale young fellow of about twenty-two.

“I’m non walkin’ that far of a gleamy day like this.”

“He has na got the strength,” said somebody, and a laugh went up.

“How’s that?” asked another pertinent voice.

“He’s a married man, mind yer,” said Chris Smitheringale, “an’ it ta’es a bit o’ keepin’ up.”

The youth was teased in this manner for some time.

“Come on ter Nottingham wi’s; tha’ll be safe for a bit,” said Coutts.

A gang set off, although it was only eleven o’clock. It was a nine-mile walk. The road was crowded with colliers travelling on foot to see the match between Notts and Aston Villa. In Ephraim’s gang were Sam Coutts, with his fine shoulders and his extra florin, Chris Smitheringale, fat and smiling, and John Wharmby, a remarkable man, tall, erect as a soldier, black-haired and proud; he could play any musical instrument, he declared.

“I can play owt from a comb up’ards. If there’s music to be got outer a thing, I back I’ll get it. No matter what shape or form of instrument you set before me, it doesn’t signify if I nivir clapped eyes on it before, I’s warrant I’ll have a tune out of it in five minutes.”

He beguiled the first two miles so. It was true, he had caused a sensation by introducing the mandoline into the townlet, filling the hearts of his fellow-colliers with pride as he sat on the platform in evening dress, a fine soldierly man, bowing his black head, and scratching the mewing mandoline with hands that had only to grasp the “instrument” to crush it entirely.

Chris stood a can round at the “White Bull” at Gilt Brook. John Wharmby took his turn at Kimberley top.

“We wunna drink again,” they decided, “till we’re at Cinder Hill. We’ll non stop i’ Nuttall.”

They swung along the high-road under the budding trees. In Nuttall churchyard the crocuses blazed with yellow at the brim of the balanced, black yews. White and purple crocuses dipt up over the graves, as if the churchyard were bursting out in tiny tongues of flame.

“Sithee,” said Ephraim, who was an ostler down pit, “sithee, here comes the Colonel. Sithee at his ‘osses how they pick their toes up, the beauties!”

The Colonel drove past the men, who took no notice of him.

“Hast heard, Sorry,” said Sam, “as they’re com’n out i’ Germany, by the thousand, an’ begun riotin’?”

“An’ comin’ out i’ France simbitar,” cried Chris.

The men all gave a chuckle.

“Sorry,” shouted John Wharmby, much elated, “we oughtna ter go back under a twenty per cent rise.”

“We should get it,” said Chris.

“An’ easy! They can do nowt bi-out us, we’n on’y ter stop out long enough.”

“I’m willin’,” said Sam, and there was a laugh. The colliers looked at one another. A thrill went through them as if an electric current passed.

“We’n on’y ter stick out, an’ we s’ll see who’s gaffer.”

“Us!” cried Sam. “Why, what can they do again’ us, if we come out all over th’ world?”

“Nowt!” said John Wharmby. “Th’ mesters is bobbin’ about like corks on a cassivoy a’ready.” There was a large natural reservoir, like a lake, near Bestwood, and this supplied the simile.

Again there passed through the men that wave of elation, quickening their pulses. They chuckled in their throats. Beyond all consciousness was this sense of battle and triumph in the hearts of the working-men at this juncture.

It was suddenly suggested at Nuttall that they should go over the fields to Bulwell, and into Nottingham that way. They went single file across the fallow, past the wood, and over the railway, where now no trains were running. Two fields away was a troop of pit ponies. Of all colours, but chiefly of red or brown, they clustered thick in the field, scarcely moving, and the two lines of trodden earth patches showed where fodder was placed down the field.

“Theer’s the pit ‘osses,” said Sam. “Let’s run ’em.”

“It’s like a circus turned out. See them skewbawd ‘uns — seven skewbawd,” said Ephraim.

The ponies were inert, unused to freedom. Occasionally one walked round. But there they stood, two thick lines of ruddy brown and piebald and white, across the trampled field. It was a beautiful day, mild, pale blue, a “growing day”, as the men said, when there was the silence of swelling sap everywhere.

“Let’s ha’e a ride,” said Ephraim.

The younger men went up to the horses.

“Come on — cooop, Taffy — cooop, Ginger.”

The horses tossed away. But having got over the excitement of being above-ground, the animals were feeling dazed and rather dreary. They missed the warmth and the life of the pit. They looked as if life were a blank to them.

Ephraim and Sam caught a couple of steeds, on whose backs they went careering round, driving the rest of the sluggish herd from end to end of the field. The horses were good specimens, on the whole, and in fine condition. But they were out of their element.

Performing too clever a feat, Ephraim went rolling from his mount. He was soon up again, chasing his horse. Again he was thrown. Then the men proceeded on their way.

They were drawing near to miserable Bulwell, when Ephraim, remembering his turn was coming to stand drinks, felt in his pocket for his beloved half-sovereign, his strike-pay. It was not there. Through all his pockets he went, his heart sinking like lead.

“Sam,” he said, “I believe I’n lost that ha’ef a sovereign.”

“Tha’s got it somewheer about thee,” said Chris.

They made him take off his coat and waistcoat. Chris examined the coat, Sam the waistcoat, whilst Ephraim searched his trousers.

“Well,” said Chris, “I’n foraged this coat, an’ it’s non theer.”

“An’ I’ll back my life as th’ on’y bit a metal on this wa’scoat is the buttons,” said Sam.

“An’ it’s non in my breeches,” said Ephraim. He took off his boots and his stockings. The half-sovereign was not there. He had not another coin in his possession.

“Well,” said Chris, “we mun go back an’ look for it.”

Back they went, four serious-hearted colliers, and searched the field, but in vain.

“Well,” said Chris, “we s’ll ha’e ter share wi’ thee, that’s a’.”

“I’m willin’,” said John Wharmby.

“An’ me,” said Sam.

“Two bob each,” said Chris.

Ephraim, who was in the depths of despair, shamefully accepted their six shillings.

In Bulwell they called in a small public-house, which had one long room with a brick floor, scrubbed benches and scrubbed tables. The central space was open. The place was full of colliers, who were drinking. There was a great deal of drinking during the strike, but not a vast amount drunk. Two men were playing skittles, and the rest were betting. The seconds sat on either side the skittle-board, holding caps of money, sixpences and coppers, the wagers of the “backers”.

Sam, Chris, and John Wharmby immediately put money on the man who had their favour. In the end Sam declared himself willing to play against the victor. He was the Bestwood champion. Chris and John Wharmby backed him heavily, and even Ephraim the Unhappy ventured sixpence.

In the end, Sam had won half a crown, with which he promptly stood drinks and bread and cheese for his comrades. At half-past one they set off again.

It was a good match between Notts and Villa — no goals at half-time, two-none for Notts at the finish. The colliers were hugely delighted, especially as Flint, the forward for Notts, who was an Underwood man well known to the four comrades, did some handsome work, putting the two goals through.

Ephraim determined to go home as soon as the match was over. He knew John Wharmby would be playing the piano at the “Punch Bowl”, and Sam, who had a good tenor voice, singing, while Chris cut in with witticisms, until evening. So he bade them farewell, as he must get home. They, finding him somewhat of a damper on their spirits, let him go.

He was the sadder for having witnessed an accident near the football-ground. A navvy, working at some drainage, carting an iron tip-tub of mud and emptying it, had got with his horse on to the deep deposit of ooze which was crusted over. The crust had broken, the man had gone under the horse, and it was some time before the people had realised he had vanished. When they found his feet sticking out, and hauled him forth, he was dead, stifled dead in the mud. The horse was at length hauled out, after having its neck nearly pulled from the socket.

Ephraim went home vaguely impressed with a sense of death, and loss, and strife. Death was loss greater than his own, the strike was a battle greater than that he would presently have to fight.

He arrived home at seven o’clock, just when it had fallen dark. He lived in Queen Street with his young wife, to whom he had been married two months, and with his mother-inlaw, a widow of sixty-four. Maud was the last child remaining unmarried, the last of eleven.

Ephraim went up the entry. The light was burning in the kitchen. His mother-inlaw was a big, erect woman, with wrinkled, loose face, and cold blue eyes. His wife was also large, with very vigorous fair hair, frizzy like unravelled rope. She had a quiet way of stepping, a certain cat-like stealth, in spite of her large build. She was five months pregnant.

“Might we ask wheer you’ve been to?” inquired Mrs. Marriott, very erect, very dangerous. She was only polite when she was very angry.

“I’ bin ter th’ match.”

“Oh, indeed!” said the mother-inlaw. “And why couldn’t we be told as you thought of jaunting off?”

“I didna know mysen,” he answered, sticking to his broad Derbyshire.

“I suppose it popped into your mind, an’ so you darted off,” said the mother-inlaw dangerously.

“I didna. It wor Chris Smitheringale who exed me.”

“An’ did you take much invitin’?”

“I didna want ter goo.”

“But wasn’t there enough man beside your jacket to say no?”

He did not answer. Down at the bottom he hated her. But he was, to use his own words, all messed up with having lost his strike-pay and with knowing the man was dead. So he was more helpless before his mother-inlaw, whom he feared. His wife neither looked at him nor spoke, but kept her head bowed. He knew she was with her mother.

“Our Maud’s been waitin’ for some money, to get a few things,” said the mother-inlaw.

In silence, he put five-and-sixpence on the table.

“Take that up, Maud,” said the mother.

Maud did so.

“You’ll want it for us board, shan’t you?” she asked, furtively, of her mother.

“Might I ask if there’s nothing you want to buy yourself, first?”

“No, there’s nothink I want,” answered the daughter.

Mrs. Marriott took the silver and counted it.

“And do you,” said the mother-inlaw, towering upon the shrinking son, but speaking slowly and statelily, “do you think I’m going to keep you and your wife for five and sixpence a week?”

“It’s a’ I’ve got,” he answered sulkily.

“You’ve had a good jaunt, my sirs, if it’s cost four and sixpence. You’ve started your game early, haven’t you?”

He did not answer.

“It’s a nice thing! Here’s our Maud an’ me been sitting since eleven o’clock this morning! Dinner waiting and cleared away, tea waiting and washed up; then in he comes crawling with five and sixpence. Five and sixpence for a man an’ wife’s board for a week, if you please!”

Still he did not say anything.

“You must think something of yourself, Ephraim Wharmby!” said his mother-inlaw. “You must think something of yourself. You suppose, do you, I’M going to keep you an’ your wife, while you make a holiday, off on the nines to Nottingham, drink an’ women.”

“I’ve neither had drink nor women, as you know right well,” he said.

“I’m glad we know summat about you. For you’re that close, anybody’d think we was foreigners to you. You’re a pretty little jockey, aren’t you? Oh, it’s a gala time for you, the strike is. That’s all men strike for, indeed. They enjoy themselves, they do that. Ripping and racing and drinking, from morn till night, my sirs!”

“Is there on’y tea for me?” he asked, in a temper.

“Hark at him! Hark-ye! Should I ask you whose house you think you’re in? Kindly order me about, do. Oh, it makes him big, the strike does. See him land home after being out on the spree for hours, and give his orders, my sirs! Oh, strike sets the men up, it does. Nothing have they to do but guzzle and gallivant to Nottingham. Their wives’ll keep them, oh yes. So long as they get something to eat at home, what more do they want! What more SHOULD they want, prithee? Nothing! Let the women and children starve and scrape, but fill the man’s belly, and let him have his fling. My sirs, indeed, I think so! Let tradesmen go — what do they matter! Let rent go. Let children get what they can catch. Only the man will see HE’S all right. But not here, though!”

“Are you goin’ ter gi’e me ony bloody tea?”

His mother-inlaw started up.

“If tha dares ter swear at me, I’ll lay thee flat.”

“Are yer — goin’ ter — gi’e me — any blasted, rotten, còssed, blòody tèa?” he bawled, in a fury, accenting every other word deliberately.

“Maud!” said the mother-inlaw, cold and stately, “If you gi’e him any tea after that, you’re a trollops.” Whereupon she sailed out to her other daughters.

Maud quietly got the tea ready.

“Shall y’ave your dinner warmed up?” she asked.

“Ay.”

She attended to him. Not that she was really meek. But — he was HER man, not her mother’s.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49