I found myself in the same drawing-room with Anne the other day, so I offered her one of my favourite sandwiches. (I hadn’t seen her for some time, and there were plenty in the plate.)
“If you are coming to talk to me,” she said, “I think I had better warn you that I am a Bolshevist.”
“Then you won’t want a sandwich,” I said gladly, and I withdrew the plate.
“I suppose,” said Anne, “that what I really want is a vote.”
“Haven’t you got one? Sorry; I mean, of course you haven’t got one.”
“But it isn’t only that. I want to see the whole position of women altered. I want to see–“
I looked round for her mother.
“Tell me,” I said gently; “when did this come over you?”
“In the last few weeks,” said Anne. “And I don’t wonder.”
I settled down with the sandwiches to listen.
Anne first noted symptoms of it at a luncheon-party at the beginning of the month. She had asked the young man on her right if she could have some of his salt, and as he passed it to her he covered up any embarrassment she might be feeling by saying genially, “Well, and how long is this coal strike going to last?”
“I don’t know,” said Anne truthfully.
“I suppose you’re ready for the Revolution? The billiard-room and all the spare bedrooms well stocked?”
Anne saw that this was meant humorously, and she laughed.
“I expect we shall be all right,” she said.
“You’ll have to give a coal-party, and invite all your friends. ‘Fire, 9–12.’”
“What a lovely idea!” said Anne, smiling from sheer habit. “Mind you come.” She got her face straight again with a jerk and turned to the solemn old gentleman on her other side.
He was ready for her.
“This is a terrible disaster for the country, this coal strike,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” said Anne; and feeling that that was inadequate, added, “Terrible!”
“I don’t know what’s happening to the country.”
Anne crumbled her bread, and having reviewed a succession of possible replies, each more fatuous than the last, decided to remain silent.
“Everything will be at a standstill directly,” her companion went on. “Already trade is leaving the country. America–“
“I suppose so,” said Anne gloomily.
“Once stop the supplies of coal, you see, and you drain the life-blood of the country.”
“Of course,” said Anne, and looked very serious.
After lunch an extremely brisk little man took her in hand.
“Have you been studying this coal strike question at all?” he began.
“I read the papers,” said Anne.
“Ah, but you don’t get it there. They don’t tell you–they don’t tell you. Now I know a man who is actually in it, and he says–and he knows this for a fact–that from the moment when the first man downed tools–from the very moment when he downed tools…”
Anne edged away from him nervously. Her face had assumed an expression of wild interest which she was certain couldn’t last much longer.
“Now, take coal at the pit’s mouth,” he went on–“at the pit’s mouth”–he shook a forefinger at her–“at the pit’s mouth–and I know this for a fact–the royalties, the royalties are–“
“It’s awful,” said Anne. “I know.”
She went home feeling a little disturbed. There was something in her mind, a dim sense of foreboding, which kept casting its shadow across her pleasanter thoughts; “Just as you feel,” she said, “when you know you’ve got to go to the dentist.” But they had a big dinner-party that evening, and Anne, full of the joy of life, was not going to let anything stand in the way of her enjoyment of it.
Her man began on the stairs.
“Well,” he said, “what about the coal strike? When are you going to start your coal-parties? ‘Fire, 10–2.’ They say that that’s going to be the new rage.” He smiled reassuringly at her. He was giving the impression that he could have been very, very serious over this terrible business, but that for her sake he was wearing the mask. In the presence of women a man must make light of danger.
Anne understood then what was troubling her; and as, half-way through dinner, the man on her other side turned to talk to her, she shot an urgent question at him. At any cost she must know the worst.
“How long will the strike last?” she said earnestly. “That’s just what I was going to ask you,” he said. “I fear it may be months.”
Anne sighed deeply.
* * * * *
I took the last sandwich and put down the plate.
“And that,” said Anne, “was three weeks ago.”
“It has been the same ever since?” I asked, beginning on a new plate.
“Every day. I’m tired of it. I shrink from every new man I meet. I wait nervously for the word ‘coal,’ feeling that I shall scream when it comes. Oh, I want a vote or something. I don’t know what I want, but I hate men! Why should they think that everything they say to us is funny or clever or important? Why should they talk to us as if we were children? Why should they take it for granted that it’s our duty to listen always?”
I rose with dignity. Dash it all, who had been doing the listening for the last half-hour?
“You are run down,” I said. “What you want is a tonic.”
Quite between ourselves, though, I really think–
But no. We men must stick together.