Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 17

Jane went to work next morning feeling that she had nothing to expect from Vincent in the way of assistance or advice. He had gone away for a week, gone to a town a hundred miles distant, and before he returned she might be forced to give Mr Curden a definite answer, which, if she wished to keep her situation much longer, could not be one that would displease him. Nevertheless, with still a glimmer of hope in her heart, she looked forward impatiently to Vincent’s return. Saturday came, and, as she had feared, the foreman asked her what she had to say to him: he had waited a whole week.

“You have had plenty of time to consider,” he remarked, “and you must have made up you’ mind to one thing or another.”

“Didn’t I tell y’u you must wait a month?” asked Jane, still endeavouring to put off the day of decision.

“You simply playin’ with me, that’s what it is!” snapped Mr Curden. “If y’u don’t want to say yes, say the other thing; there is as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it, and I am not going to kill meself because of you. But I don’t mean you to make a fool of me any longer.”

He was angry, and she was driven into a corner. She boldly resorted to lying.

“You know quite well I mean to say yes,” she returned, as though angry, “but you want to quarrel wid me. Don’t you know I have to give notice at the place where I am living; besides, why should y’u have you’ own way all de time?”

“You give notice yet?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes. The month was up yesterday, so I told de landlady I would be leavin’ at the end of dis month.”

“You needn’t wait till the time is up before you leave,” said Curden. “You can pay the rent and move as soon as I get a nice place for you.”

“All right,” said Jane, but her voice did not sound very cheerful.

“You know,” said Curden slowly, looking her in the face as if trying to read her thoughts, “you know, I believe y’u are only fooling me?”

“That is because you want to believe so,” said Jane. “Howsoever, you will see.”

This conversation took place on the piazza after they had left work for the day, and Jane went home feeling that Curden was succeeding in taking an advantage of her. He had not threatened her once, but threats were quite unnecessary. However, she could seek for another position during the coming week; perhaps Mr Broglie might be able to get her one. She would ask him.

She did not see him when she got home, though she heard he had returned in the afternoon. He must have come in very late that night, for though she lingered about the yard until near eleven o’clock, there was no sign of him. But on the following morning there was excitement in the yard, and the author of it was Vincent.

At an early hour men began to come in, and these seated themselves on chairs arranged in front of Mr Broglie’s house. When about ten persons had arrived, Mr Broglie rose and formally addressed them, speaking as though they were not visitors merely, but a public meeting and a committee in one. He had a still larger audience in the tenants who clustered round to hear what the gathering and speech-making were about, and it was plain enough that he was speaking to this audience as well as to the men who had specially come to consult with him.

It was also evident that the latter had heard before all that he had to say. It was of a Printers’ Union that he spoke, and of an approaching strike, and the burden of his. remarks was a denunciation of tyranny and oppression, and the praise of a man who, it appeared, had suddenly risen up on behalf of the downtrodden workers.

Much did he speak on the rights of labour, on the duty of men to fight for what was due to them, and on the value and strength of unity. The people in the yard listened with profound admiration, the men invariably saying “Hear, hear,” when Vincent used some word whose meaning was decidedly vague. Not the last to applaud him was Jane, who hoped that he might notice her appreciation. His speech over, one of his visitors rose to address the meeting, then another and another, and as man after man added his quota to the rhetoric, which was as music in the ears of the speaker, no one who heard but must have perceived that they all were facing something of a crisis with evident enjoyment and with perfect certitude.

And, for them, it was indeed a serious crisis that threatened. No more hard-working body of men and women could be found anywhere than the compositors of the Jamaica printing offices; their hours were long, their work required intelligence, and their pay was small. Their condition was not enviable; yet it had been steadily improving during the past two years, and bade fair to continue to improve. Unfortunately for them, at about this time there appeared in the island a gentleman of an ambitious and speculative turn of mind, and extremely loquacious. He determined to organise a strike, and spoke much to that effect. By means of this strike, he argued, or even a mere threat of a strike, the pay of the compositors would at once be doubled, their working hours considerably decreased, and the printing offices would pass under their control.

His propaganda was wonderfully successful. Kingston had just won a great fight against the English Insurance Companies, which had refused to admit claims for insurance money, their contention being that the fire which had destroyed the business section of the city had been caused by the recent earthquake. The policyholders had, on the other hand, gone far towards proving that the fire had caused the earthquake; they banded together, fought the Insurance Companies, won the battle, and thus gave a splendid illustration of the value of co-operation and unanimity of conviction. The example was contagious, and the suggestion of a strike amongst the compositors of the island was caught up with enthusiasm. Vincent had travelled to Montego Nay to enroll members for the Union there, and this meeting in the yard was a sort of friendly reunion on the part of some of those who wished to talk over the certainty of their success and the glorious future which awaited them.

One of the speakers mentioned in the course of his address that he had heard or read somewhere that in “the olden days” compositors were entitled to wear swords. He seemed to suffer from a sense of special grievance in not being allowed to wear a sword, though, as there was no law to prevent his doing so, his annoyance did not seem to be firmly rooted in reason. He dwelt with emphasis upon that little matter of the sword. The absence of swords seemed to typify for him the departed glories and fallen fortunes of the men of his profession-he insisted upon saying “profession,” no other word appearing to him to be quite so appropriate. The people in the yard listened to him attentively and were impressed by his earnestness. When he ceased, a few of them (all men) assured him loudly that he had spoken “good words,” and expressed a desire to go on strike themselves. One was a storeman, and he wanted to know what might happen to him if he too should join the Union with a view to striking. His lady, overhearing the question, tartly pointed out that he would probably achieve starvation, a form of success which did not appear to appeal to him.

It was this meeting, and the general conversation which followed, that determined Jane to attempt a very bold thing indeed. While Vincent and the other speakers were dwelling upon the certainty of the employers being beaten, she had thought a strike must be a splendid demonstration of independence, to say nothing of the pecuniary advantages of it. But when, after the speeches had all been delivered, she heard Vincent and his friends wondering at the astonishing and unbusinesslike stubbornness of the employers, she remembered Mr Curden’s short way of dealing with recalcitrant employees, and began to fear that Vincent might be treading a very perilous path.

He went out with his comrades to have a drink, but returned towards six o’clock in the afternoon. He was not a quarter of an hour in his room before he came out again; as he passed out of the gate, Jane, who was waiting outside, deliberately stopped him.

“Beg pardon, Mr Vin,” she said, “but I want to ask you something about dis strike.”

“You don’t want to strike too?” he asked her, laughing.

“No; but I wanted to know if you can lose, an’ what will happen if y’u lose.”

“Well, we can lose, I suppose,” he replied, rather pleased with the general interest which the coming strike seemed to be creating in the community. “We can lose, but I don’t think we going to lose.”

“But suppose y’u lose? What will happen?”

It was not the first time that the question had been put so directly to Vincent; but he refused to believe in the possibility of defeat. He waived the question aside.

“We can’t lose,” he declared positively, forgetting his admission of a moment before. “I am going to a meeting now.”

A thought struck him, and he acted on it. “You want to come?” he asked Jane. “Plenty of girl compositors go to the meetings. Put on your hat and come, if you like.”

Jane rushed into her room and was out in a couple of minutes. Such great fortune she had not hoped for, nor expected. To be seen at a public meeting with him—the very idea was intoxicating. She preened herself as they walked along, he volubly explaining to her, with a wealth of absolutely incorrect detail, the origin and development of Unions and strikes.

The meeting was held in the principal room of a large house in. the lower-part of the town, and was attended by a number of enthusiastic persons, male and female, who had been captured by the rhetoric of the labour leader and, strike organiser, and by his wonderful promises and assurances. This worthy indulged in generalities culled from cheap American publications. He bade his hearers be steadfast, immovable, abounding in the payment of subscriptions towards the strike fund (of which he was the treasurer). There was no doubt whatever in his mind that they would win; he was convinced that, practically speaking, they had won already. His hearers cheered him again and again, and almost all of them left that meeting feeling that victory must be theirs.

Jane not being a member of this lately-formed Union, and not understanding one-fifth of what had been said by the speaker, was sceptical as to the success of the effort which so many persons had determined to make. Had she understood more, she too might have been enthusiastic. As it was, the one thing that stood out in her mind was the fact that “Mr Vin” was running the risk of losing his job through doing something that almost suggested physical violence. He was going to “strike,” and that, she now believed, was clearly a desperate and dangerous thing to do.

Remembering his promise to take her for a ride on the tram-car some day, Vincent suggested to Jane that, instead of going home at once, they should go for a ride round the belt-line: “that is, if you not afraid Curden will see you and quarrel with you,” he added.

“I doan’t care what him choose to do,” she declared stoutly; “but if you could get a job for me, it would help me.”

“I may soon be looking for a job meself,” said Vincent gaily; “Monday next week I will be out on strike.”

“You mean you really goin’ to leave you’ work, Mr Vin?”

“Yes; didn’t you hear what we said at the meeting a little while ago?”

“But it seem to be all foolishness dat man was talkin’. If you leave your good job wid a lot of other people, none of them can help you; an’ suppose anyone go behind your back an’ ask for it; what you would do?”

This aspect of the matter Vincent did not care to dwell upon, especially as the possibility of it had occurred to himself more than once. He had little to complain of personally; he had joined the Union through a love of excitement and because he had been induced by the labour leader to identify himself with it. Since then he, like most of the other members, had refused to think of the possibility of defeat, and had declined to allow any one to suggest it to him. But here was Jane, the last person in the world to understand such matters, taking the pessimistic view.

“We can’t lose,” he again declared positively, “and we are not going to lose. So we needn’t talk about that.”

A car coming from the opposite direction rushed past at this moment, and Vincent noticed that Jane shrank back in her seat, turning her head the other way.

She resumed the conversation.

“But y’u just said that you might be lookin’ for another job you’self, an’ you wouldn’t say that if you did sure you was goin’ to win. If I was in a good situation, it would teck a lot to meck me leave it. I would let the other folkses do what them like, but I would go me own way. It is hard to get a job when you leave one.”

She shrank back again, another car happening to pass, and this time Vincent was moved by the circumstance to ask her what she was afraid of.

“Is it Curden you don’t want to see you?” he inquired, guessing the reason of her fear.

“Yes; him saw me an’ you when we was comin’ from de funeral the other day, an’ him talk about it. That is why I want to leave my place, but I am not independent like you. I can’t walk out, for when I do dat there is nobody to help me. It is all very well, you know, Mr Vin,” she continued confidentially, “it is all very well for a lot of people to get up an’ say what them goin’ to do; but you know how Jamaica people stand: them will tell y’u one thing to-day an’ do another to-morrow; an’ if you depend on them you will find out you’ mistake before long. I doan’t forget how Sathyra treat me, an’ ever since dat time I am careful. If you find y’u have make a mistake when you make it already, what you goin’ to do? P’rhaps de very same man dat was talking so big to-day may go an’ try to get you’ job when you is well out of it!”

This was the common philosophy of the working classes, but it came from Jane’s lips with force and emphasis. It was so true that Vincent didn’t want to hear it. For days and weeks he had been trying to think of only one issue to this effort on his part and on that of his colleagues. He had heard that some were already wavering, he had heard that type-setting machinery was to be imported by the masters, he knew that no sign of yielding had been given by them. But these disquieting facts had been ignored at the meetings of the Union, which now took place every day, and sometimes twice a day. He had taken Jane to one of these gatherings to convince her of the strength of the movement, and she had come away incredulous! He felt annoyed. This insistence of hers on the possibility of the strikers being beaten, and on the probability of some one playing him false and securing one of the best positions in his line, was the more irritating because of its very reasonableness. Then, for a mere girl to suggest that he was acting foolishly—he who had taken so prominent a part in the Union and had made such excellent speeches—was nothing short of impertinence.

“If I was you,” he said deliberately, “I would look after meself and Curden, and wouldn’t interfere with things I don’t know nothing about. If you are afraid of Curden, I am not afraid of my employer, and I know how to manage my own business.”

He lapsed into silence after this, and Jane perceived that she had gone too far. They finished the rest of the ride in silence, she involuntarily shrinking back when they passed another car. When they reached the crossing where they were nearest home, he stopped the car and said he was going farther on. She alighted by herself, he rather derisively expressing the hope that she had not been seen by Mr Curden. The ride had been a failure. Angry, and feeling insulted, Jane marched home, saying to herself that Vincent was a fool. She cried in her room that night through sheer vexation.

He, on his part, condemned himself for having taken any notice of an ignorant little girl in whom his familiarity had bred contempt. She had forgotten herself entirely! He went to another meeting that evening, and there the enthusiasm was even greater than usual. He dismissed Jane and her impudence from his mind as he listened to the same speeches he had heard so often during the last four weeks or so.

Yet Jane had sent an arrow into the brain of Vincent, and there it rankled. Suppose the strikers should lose? He dismissed the suggestion from his mind, but somehow it would obtrude itself again and again: suppose he should lose? Jane had no sort of connection with the employers. She was simply a girl who lived decently by herself and who, he knew, liked him. She had ask him a disconcerting question with the sole idea of warning him. It was very foolish of her, yet—suppose he should lose?



Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (Jane's Career: A Story of Jamaica by Herbert G. de Lisser) is free of known copyright restrictions.