VII The Strike

FOR a period extending over several months Judith kept her promise, and did not attempt to harass me. Jim McGrath proved a jealous lover, and watched her narrowly; perhaps she was afraid of him. Me he avoided, but I think he bided his time. His disposition was sullen, morose, and bitterly revengeful. He felt in his heart that Judith did not really care for him, and therefore he hated me. I knew him for an enemy, but I was not afraid; I thought, because I had overcome him in our first encounter, I should be able to do the same again if need arose; but occasionally meeting his eyes by chance, I received a thrill: they were so savage, so brute-like in their expression of mute malignity.

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My life was uneventful. I studied, read and roamed, keeping much to myself. I only met Judith at meals, and seldom conversed with her even then; twice a week I harangued the Push, and rose steadily in their favour and esteem. I was fast sinking into a groove, a rut of monotonous and unexciting existence. My uncle dropped frequent hints of a trial which I should have to undergo in the near future, a mysterious ordeal, the meaning of which he refused to explain; but the constant “wolf” cry dulled my curiosity. Time passed, nothing happened, and the peace I loved seemed to be entirely mine. I developed both mentally and physically; sometimes I was impatient of my lot, and craved for change, but not often. The adulation of the Push acted as a balm, it was unstintedly lavished upon me, it comforted and soothed all discontented moods. So I lived until occurred the Great Maritime Strike, which so vitally affected the shipping and commercial interests of Australia, and placed Sydney for a time under arms. The Push district bordered upon a great number of wharves, and was, therefore, directly affected by the strike. Many of the Push were also themselves either sailors, dock assistants, or wharf labourers, and members of labour unions. The harbour was filled with crewless ships and steamers. Nearly all the shipping offices were barricaded and besieged. The strikers conducted their campaign with orderly violence. They flung out pickets from their regular bodies, and patrolled the streets in force, so that the ship owners should have no chance of introducing blackleg crews on board the vessels. Business in the city was practically suspended, and the entire population watched the struggle. Naturally feeling ran high. The Dogs' Push subscribed liberally to the strike fund from their reserves, and the whole Push took keen interest in the strike. An army of special constables was enrolled by the authorities, and the military were held in readiness to check an insurrection. All streets in the neighbourhood of the sea were invaded by excited crowds, which thinned neither by day nor night, and the police hung on their outskirts watchful as hawks. Riots constantly occurred, and the strikers generally obtained the advantage. In spite of their vigilance,

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however, steamers left the harbour continually, manned by clerks, gentlefolk, and other blacklegs. The strikers, in sheer desperation, resorted to more stringent methods. When steamers appeared in readiness to sail, they were boarded in force from the water, and most reckless fights ensued. The police were at last armed with revolvers, and it seemed that a species of civil war was about to be waged. I felt the greatest sympathy for the strikers, for they had been called out in a just cause, and were, perhaps, the most hard-working and miserably underpaid body of labourers in Australia. My uncle, however, for some recondite reason of his own, sternly forbade me to take any part in the struggle, and enjoined me to keep within doors, except during my journeys to and from the foundry. Inflamed with excitement and curiosity, I found his mandates extremely distasteful, but for a time obeyed them. Perhaps I should have continued obedient, had it not been for a chance meeting with Jim McGrath. We came face to face one afternoon, just without the entrance of the foundry, as I was about to return home for the day. I had paused to watch a company of police marching citywards, with several prisoners in their midst. McGrath had been drinking; he smelt of rum, and his face was like a flag of wrath.

“Quit loafing here!” he cried, fiercely. “Get home, or I'll make you!”

I flushed with rage. “How dare you interfere with me? I shall do as I please!”

“Will you?” he grated, and seized my arm.

I tore myself free, and, swinging on heel, strode in the direction of the city, my only thought to show McGrath that I despised him.

“I'll tell your uncle!” he shouted, but I did not turn.

Pride came, and anger changed to stubbornness I made my way to Margaret Street, and in reckless mood sought the shipping. Soon my progress was blocked by a great shouting crowd. From the hill I perceived a large punt packed with grimy-faced men lying by the jetty. The crowd stared and strained in one direction, hoarsely exclaiming, groaning, and at intervals madly cheering. The men

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on the punt alone were silent. Burning with curiosity, I swarmed up a lamp-post, and, over the heads of the surging mob, saw that a desperate struggle was in progress between a body of police and strikers immediately before the North Coast Company's office doors. Slipping down, I wormed my way through the press, eager for a closer view. It was a mistake. Once in the grip of the crowd, I was helpless. Panting and breathless, I was forced, being slight and lithe, to the very front rank, and was presently thrust into the heart of the mêlée. The police were in a bad plight; they were covered with flour, half blinded, and plainly overmatched, but they fought like heroes. Half frantic, I struck out right and left at friend and foe. I was pitched backward and forward like a shuttlecock, and thought my last hour had arrived. Suddenly there came a lull. Bruised, dazed, and bleeding, I stood for a second in a little open space. The combatants had separated; why, I did not know, but I was wild to escape. I darted forward, intending to slip through a serried opening, but a pistol flashed in my face, and I saw that the police had drawn their revolvers. I heard a mighty groan, and the throng fell back.

A policeman caught me by the collar and held tight. Mad with fear, I dashed my shut hand in his face, and wrenching myself free, ran like a hare along the houses towards the water. The crowd uttered a great cry, and, making way for me, turned to watch my flight. Two constables gave chase. I reached the end of the alley, and sprang for the rail of the jetty about two yards before them. A big man standing behind the rail helped me over and swung me on to the punt, where room was made for us both. I forgot to be afraid, and shook my fist in the face of the constables. One pointed his revolver at me, but he was detached from his companions and at the mercy of his enemies. Someone jerked his arm, and the bullet went singing into the sky. I felt myself a hero! The punt immediately pushed from the shore, and was sculled swiftly into the bay. I observed a large iron steamer backing out from the Company's wharf into the stream. The name on her bow was Alice. I understood then the reason of the riot. She was manned with blacklegs. The men on the punt were armed with coal. As the

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Alice turned they planted the punt before her bows and discharged a volley of missiles at the captain, who stood upon the bridge. He escaped unhurt. Fired with enthusiasm, I picked up a stone and hurled it, hardly knowing what I did. It struck the helmsman on the shoulder, and he dropped to the deck below. The captain sprang to the wheel and shouted out some orders. But my companions were frenzied with delight. They yelled like maniacs, patted me on the back, and one big bearded fellow actually kissed me. The crowd on shore cheered my exploit to the skies. I felt myself doubly a hero! But the captain of the Alice knew what he was about; he got his vessel under way, and headed directly for the punt, at full speed. In a second all was confusion aboard. Every man shouted a different direction or command. Our steerer got confused, and the oarsmen pulled different ways. We swung round, and the huge iron bows of the Alice almost shaved our stern as she thundered past. To add to our discomfiture, several buckets of hot water were poured upon us from the towering bulwarks. My companions utterly lost their heads; but, filled with rage, I caught up an iron bar and hurled it at the ship. It smashed through a portion of deckhouse with a crash which resounded loud above the din. The strikers looked upon me as though I were a sort of battle-god, and frankly paid me homage as commander.

“Where to now?” they asked.

“Back to the shore!” I cried. My blood was up. I wanted revenge upon the policeman who had fired at me. I could not understand myself. I was completely reckless and on fire. But when we reached the jetty the police had disappeared. I was, however, recognised, and loud cries greeted me from Dogs among the crowd.

“Speech, speech!” they yelled.

Nothing loth, I sprang ashore, and was immediately hoisted on to a platform of boxes which appeared with the speed of magic.

“Friends!” I shouted. “Do you know what has happened this day? I shall tell you. We, the maritime working-men of New South Wales, have been long oppressed by capitalists, who have stolen the fruits of our

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labour, ground us down by every means which their cursed ingenuity could devise, forced us to toil early and late for a wretched pittance, and crushed our every effort to lift ourselves from the mire in which their infernal greed has plunged us. This is an old story. We have for years writhed under the injustice, and at last in the might of right we have risen united, like brothers, to resist the tyranny of our oppressors. What have we asked for? An advance in wages—not a great thing, not an unjust thing, but a thing we are well entitled to, for it is our labour, our toil, our sweat and suffering which keeps the fat man fat. We only want a little of his fat, or rather our fat, since we have made him fat. What happens? Rather than give us what is rightfully our own, he prefers to spend his stores to the last farthing in keeping us slaves, and forging new and stronger fetters for our limbs. He does not fight us himself—he dares not, for he is a coward, the beastly fat man! He sends his servants to fight us. His police—curse them!”

Here burst out a deafening thunder of applause. I scarcely waited for it to subside. “Friends,” I shrieked, “to-day the fat man has put the last straw on the patient camel's back. While he fought us fair, we didn't mind; we are strong, and can fight at least as well as his paid hirelings. But, friends, to-day he passed the Rubicon—to-day his brutes have fired upon us. Friends, there are women among you, women and children. The police fired upon them, too. Shall we suffer that? shall we allow our wives and sisters to be shot down like dogs, by bloody hirelings?”

The uproar became so tremendous that I was forced to pause. I gazed at the sea of wild and frenzied faces, terrified at the passions I had stirred and fanned to life. I had spoken without thought, my senses carried away on a swirl of passionate emotion. I realised that I had been mad, criminally mad. The crowd was ripe for deeds of reckless violence. It howled and surged and screamed; it merely required a leader to become a mighty weapon of destruction. Its eyes gleamed like wind-driven sparks of fire, its clenched hands struck at the sky, its cavernous mouths vomited fumes of rage, “My God! what have I done?” I cried, and did not hear the words. A cold perspiration

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drenched my face. I grew dizzy and strangely weak. Suddenly a man stood beside me on the platform. He waved his hand, and for a moment a hush succeeded. “Friends!” shouted the man. “Look at this boy. Look at his arm; he is shot, he is wounded!”

A low but terrible roar answered him; then a second hush.

“Look!” cried the speaker, “he totters! he faints! Revenge! Revenge is the word!”

“Revenge!” yelled the crowd.

Vertigo assailed me. The world swung round my aching eyes, fast and ever faster. I slipped into blank unconsciousness. I opened my eyes, wakened to life by pain. I was lying in my own bedroom, a strange man was sponging my arm over a basin of hot water. I was sick and dizzy. My uncle and Judith Kelly stood beside my bed, looking pale and anxious.

“I fell,” I muttered. “What happened then?”

My uncle started forward, his face lighting up. “Hush!” he said.

“What happened?” I persisted.

He whispered in my ear. “S-sh! The surgeon! They wrecked a warehouse, but the police were too strong for them!”

“Were any arrested?”

“Yes, but none of ours!”

I sighed. “Are you angry with me for breaking bounds?”

He shook his head, and muttered low: “It's the best thing you have ever done. The boys will just worship you; and, better than all, no one spotted you—not a single copper—not even Tobin, though he was there.”

I did not know who Tobin was, but the surgeon prevented me from feeling curious, so sharply did he hurt me in probing and dressing my wound. My uncle took him off at last. Judith fell to kissing my bandages. I was too weak to reprove her, and sleep came upon me before she had done.

Fever chained me to my bed for several weeks, and long before I resumed work at the foundry the great strike was a thing of the past.