The reason firm, the temperate will— Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill.
I am not ashamed to say, Chartist as I am, that I felt inclined to fall upon my knees, and own a master of God's own making.
He received my beautiful guide with a look of chivalrous affection, which I observed that she returned with interest; and then spoke in a voice peculiarly bland and melodious:
"So, my dear lady, this is the protege of whom you have so often spoken?"
So she had often spoken of me! Blind fool that I was, I only took it in as food for my own self-conceit, that my enemy (for so I actually fancied her) could not help praising me.
"I have read your little book, sir," he said, in the same soft, benignant voice, "with very great pleasure. It is another proof, if I required any, of the under-current of living and healthful thought which exists even in the less-known ranks of your great nation. I shall send it to some young friends of mine in Germany, to show them that Englishmen can feel acutely and speak boldly on the social evils of their country, without indulging in that frantic and bitter revolutionary spirit, which warps so many young minds among us. You understand the German language at all?"
I had not that honour.
"Well, you must learn it. We have much to teach you in the sphere of abstract thought, as you have much to teach us in those of the practical reason and the knowledge of mankind. I should be glad to see you some day in a German university. I am anxious to encourage a truly spiritual fraternization between the two great branches of the Teutonic stock, by welcoming all brave young English spirits to their ancient fatherland. Perhaps hereafter your kind friends here will be able to lend you to me. The means are easy, thank God! You will find in the Germans true brothers, in ways even more practical than sympathy and affection."
I could not but thank the great man, with many blushes, and went home that night utterly "tete montee," as I believe the French phrase is—beside myself with gratified vanity and love; to lie sleepless under a severe fit of asthma—sent perhaps as a wholesome chastisement to cool my excited spirits down to something like a rational pitch. As I lay castle-building, Lillian's wild air rang still in my ears, and combined itself somehow with that picture of the Cheshire sands, and the story of the drowned girl, till it shaped itself into a song, which, as it is yet unpublished, and as I have hitherto obtruded little or nothing of my own composition on my readers, I may be excused for inserting it here.
"O Mary, go and call the cattle home, And call the cattle home, And call the cattle home, Across the sands o' Dee;" The western wind was wild and dank wi' foam, And all alone went she.
The creeping tide came up along the sand, And o'er and o'er the sand, And round and round the sand, As far as eye could see; The blinding mist came down and hid the land— And never home came she.
"Oh, is it weed, or fish, or floating hair— A tress o' golden hair, O' drowned maiden's hair, Above the nets at sea? Was never salmon yet that shone so fair, Among the stakes on Dee."
They rowed her in across the rolling foam, The cruel crawling foam, The cruel hungry foam, To her grave beside the sea: But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home, Across the sands o' Dee.
There—let it go!—it was meant as an offering for one whom it never reached.
About mid-day I took my way towards the dean's house, to thank him for his hospitality—and, I need not say, to present my offering at my idol's shrine; and as I went, I conned over a dozen complimentary speeches about Lord Ellerton's wisdom, liberality, eloquence—but behold! the shutters of the house were closed. What could be the matter? It was full ten minutes before the door was opened; and then, at last, an old woman, her eyes red with weeping, made her appearance. My thoughts flew instantly to Lillian—something must have befallen her. I gasped out her name first, and then, recollecting myself, asked for the dean.
"They had all left town that morning,"
"Miss—Miss Winnstay—is she ill?"
"Thank God!" I breathed freely again. What matter what happened to all the world beside?
"Ay, thank God, indeed; but poor Lord Ellerton was thrown from his horse last night and brought home dead. A messenger came here by six this morning, and they're all gone off to * * * *. Her ladyship's raving mad.—And no wonder." And she burst out crying afresh, and shut the door in my face.
Lord Ellerton dead! and Lillian gone too! Something whispered that I should have cause to remember that day. My heart sunk within me. When should I see her again?
That day was the 1st of June, 1845. On the 10th of April, 1848, I saw Lillian Winnstay again. Dare I write my history between those two points of time? Yes, even that must be done, for the sake of the rich who read, and the poor who suffer.
THE PLUSH BREECHES TRAGEDY.
My triumph had received a cruel check enough when just at its height, and more were appointed to follow. Behold! some two days after, another—all the more bitter, because my conscience whispered that it was not altogether undeserved. The people's press had been hitherto praising and petting me lovingly enough. I had been classed (and heaven knows that the comparison was dearer to me than all the applause of the wealthy) with the Corn-Law Rhymer, and the author of the "Purgatory of Suicides." My class had claimed my talents as their own—another "voice fresh from the heart of nature," another "untutored songster of the wilderness," another "prophet arisen among the suffering millions,"—when, one day, behold in Mr. O'Flynn's paper a long and fierce attack on me, my poems, my early history! How he could have got at some of the facts there mentioned, how he could have dared to inform his readers that I had broken my mother's heart by my misconduct, I cannot conceive; unless my worthy brother-in-law, the Baptist preacher, had been kind enough to furnish him with the materials. But however that may be, he showed me no mercy. I was suddenly discovered to be a time-server, a spy, a concealed aristocrat. Such paltry talent as I had, I had prostituted for the sake of fame. I had deserted The People's Cause for filthy lucre—an allurement which Mr. O'Flynn had always treated with withering scorn—in print. Nay, more, I would write, and notoriously did write, in any paper, Whig, Tory, or Radical, where I could earn a shilling by an enormous gooseberry, or a scrap of private slander. And the working men were solemnly warned to beware of me and my writings, till the editor had further investigated certain ugly facts in my history, which he would in due time report to his patriotic and enlightened readers.
All this stung me in the most sensitive nerve of my whole heart, for I knew that I could not altogether exculpate myself; and to that miserable certainty was added the dread of some fresh exposure. Had he actually heard of the omissions in my poems?—and if he once touched on that subject, what could I answer? Oh! how bitterly now I felt the force of the critic's careless lash! The awful responsibility of those written words, which we bandy about so thoughtlessly! How I recollected now, with shame and remorse, all the hasty and cruel utterances to which I, too, had given vent against those who had dared to differ from me; the harsh, one-sided judgments, the reckless imputations of motive, the bitter sneers, "rejoicing in evil rather than in the truth." How I, too, had longed to prove my victims in the wrong, and turned away, not only lazily, but angrily, from many an exculpatory fact! And here was my Nemesis come at last. As I had done unto others, so it was done unto me!
It was right that it should be so. However indignant, mad, almost murderous, I felt at the time, I thank God for it now. It is good to be punished in kind. It is good to be made to feel what we have made others feel. It is good—anything is good, however bitter, which shows us that there is such a law as retribution; that we are not the sport of blind chance or a triumphant fiend, but that there is a God who judges the earth—righteous to repay every man according to his works.
But at the moment I had no such ray of comfort—and, full of rage and shame, I dashed the paper down before Mackaye. "How shall I answer him? What shall I say?"
The old man read it all through, with a grim saturnine smile.
"Hoolie, hoolie, speech, is o' silver—silence is o' gold says Thomas Carlyle, anent this an' ither matters. Wha'd be fashed wi' sic blethers? Ye'll just abide patient, and haud still in the Lord, until this tyranny be owerpast. Commit your cause to him, said the auld Psalmist, an' he'll mak your righteousness as clear as the light, an' your just dealing as the noonday."
"But I must explain; I owe it as a duty to myself; I must refute these charges; I must justify myself to our friends."
"Can ye do that same, laddie?" asked he, with one of his quaint, searching looks. Somehow I blushed, and could not altogether meet his eye, while he went on, "—An' gin ye could, whaur would ye do 't? I ken na periodical whar the editor will gie ye a clear stage an' no favour to bang him ower the lugs."
"Then I will try some other paper."
"An' what for then? They that read him, winna read the ither; an' they that read the ither, winna read him. He has his ain set o' dupes like every ither editor; an' ye mun let him gang his gate, an' feed his ain kye with his ain hay. He'll no change it for your bidding."
"What an abominable thing this whole business of the press is then, if each editor is to be allowed to humbug his readers at his pleasure, without a possibility of exposing or contradicting him!"
"An' ye've just spoken the truth, laddie. There's na mair accursed inquisition, than this of thae self-elected popes, the editors. That puir auld Roman ane, ye can bring him forat when ye list, bad as he is. 'Faenum habet in cornu;' his name's ower his shop-door. But these anonymies—priests o' the order of Melchisedec by the deevil's side, without father or mither, beginning o' years nor end o' days—without a local habitation or a name-as kittle to baud as a brock in a cairn—"
"What do you mean, Mr. Mackaye?" asked I, for he was getting altogether unintelligibly Scotch, as was his custom when excited.
"Ou, I forgot; ye're a puir Southern body, an' no sensible to the gran' metaphoric powers o' the true Dawric. But it's an accursit state a'thegither, the noo, this, o' the anonymous press—oreeginally devised, ye ken, by Balaam the son o' Beor, for serving God wi'out the deevil's finding it out—an' noo, after the way o' human institutions, translated ower to help folks to serve the deevil without God's finding it out. I'm no' astonished at the puir expiring religious press for siccan a fa'; but for the working men to be a' that's bad—it's grewsome to behold. I'll tell ye what, my bairn, there's na salvation for the workmen, while they defile themselves this fashion, wi' a' the very idols o' their ain tyrants—wi' salvation by act o' parliament—irresponsible rights o' property—anonymous Balaamry—fechtin' that canny auld farrant fiend, Mammon, wi' his ain weapons—and then a' fleyed, because they get well beaten for their pains. I'm sair forfaughten this mony a year wi' watching the puir gowks, trying to do God's wark wi' the deevil's tools. Tak tent o' that."
And I did "tak tent o' it." Still there would have been as little present consolation as usual in Mackaye's unwelcome truths, even if the matter had stopped there. But, alas! it did not stop there. O'Flynn seemed determined to "run a muck" at me. Every week some fresh attack appeared. The very passages about the universities and church property, which had caused our quarrel, were paraded against me, with free additions and comments; and, at last, to my horror, out came the very story which I had all along dreaded, about the expurgation of my poems, with the coarsest allusions to petticoat influence—aristocratic kisses—and the Duchess of Devonshire canvassing draymen for Fox, &c., &c. How he got a clue to the scandal I cannot conceive. Mackaye and Crossthwaite, I had thought, were the only souls to whom I had ever breathed the secret, and they denied indignantly the having ever betrayed my weakness. How it came out, I say again, I cannot conceive; except because it is a great everlasting law, and sure to fulfil itself sooner or later, as we may see by the histories of every remarkable, and many an unremarkable, man—"There is nothing secret, but it shall be made manifest; and whatsoever ye have spoken in the closet, shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops."
For some time after that last exposure, I was thoroughly crest-fallen—and not without reason. I had been giving a few lectures among the working men, on various literary and social subjects. I found my audience decrease—and those who remained seemed more inclined to hiss than to applaud me. In vain I ranted and quoted poetry, often more violently than my own opinions justified. My words touched no responsive chord in my hearers' hearts; they had lost faith in me.
At last, in the middle of a lecture on Shelley, I was indulging, and honestly too, in some very glowing and passionate praise of the true nobleness of a man, whom neither birth nor education could blind to the evils of society; who, for the sake of the suffering many, could trample under foot his hereditary pride, and become an outcast for the People's Cause.
I heard a whisper close to me, from one whose opinion I valued, and value still—a scholar and a poet, one who had tasted poverty, and slander, and a prison, for The Good Cause:
"Fine talk: but it's 'all in his day's work.' Will he dare to say that to-morrow to the ladies at the West-end?"
No—I should not. I knew it; and at that instant I felt myself a liar, and stopped short—my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. I fumbled at my papers—clutched the water-tumbler—tried to go on—stopped short again—caught up my hat, and rushed from the room, amid peals of astonished laughter.
It was some months after this that, fancying the storm blown over, I summoned up courage enough to attend a political meeting of our party; but even there my Nemesis met full face. After some sanguinary speech, I really forgot from whom, and, if I recollected, God forbid that I should tell now, I dared to controvert, mildly enough, Heaven knows, some especially frantic assertion or other. But before I could get out three sentences, O'Flynn flew at me with a coarse invective, hounded on, by-the-by, by one who, calling himself a gentleman, might have been expected to know better. But, indeed, he and O'Flynn had the same object in view, which was simply to sell their paper; and as a means to that great end, to pander to the fiercest passions of their readers, to bully and silence all moderate and rational Chartists, and pet and tar on the physical-force men, till the poor fellows began to take them at their word. Then, when it came to deeds and not to talk, and people got frightened, and the sale of the paper decreased a little, a blessed change came over them—and they awoke one morning meeker than lambs; "ulterior measures" had vanished back into the barbarous ages, pikes, vitriol-bottles, and all; and the public were entertained with nothing but homilies on patience and resignation, the "triumphs of moral justice," the "omnipotence of public opinion," and the "gentle conquests of fraternal love"—till it was safe to talk treason and slaughter again.
But just then treason happened to be at a premium. Sedition, which had been floundering on in a confused, disconsolate, underground way ever since 1842, was supposed by the public to be dead; and for that very reason it was safe to talk it, or, at least, back up those who chose to do so. And so I got no quarter—though really, if the truth must be told, I had said nothing unreasonable.
Home I went disgusted, to toil on at my hack-writing, only praying that I might be let alone to scribble in peace, and often thinking, sadly, how little my friends in Harley-street could guess at the painful experience, the doubts, the struggles, the bitter cares, which went to the making of the poetry which they admired so much!
I was not, however, left alone to scribble in peace, either by O'Flynn or by his readers, who formed, alas! just then, only too large a portion of the thinking artizans; every day brought some fresh slight or annoyance with it, till I received one afternoon, by the Parcels Delivery Company, a large unpaid packet, containing, to my infinite disgust, an old pair of yellow plush breeches, with a recommendation to wear them, whose meaning could not be mistaken.
Furious, I thrust the unoffending garment into the lire, and held it there with the tongs, regardless of the horrible smell which accompanied its martyrdom, till the lady-lodger on the first floor rushed down to inquire whether the house was on fire.
I answered by hurling a book at her head, and brought down a volley of abuse, under which I sat in sulky patience, till Mackaye and Crossthwaite came in, and found her railing in the doorway, and me sitting over the fire, still intent on the frizzling remains of the breeches.
"Was this insult of your invention, Mr. Crossthwaite?" asked I, in a tone of lofty indignation, holding up the last scrap of unroasted plush.
Roars of laughter from both of them made me only more frantic, and I broke out so incoherently, that it was some time before the pair could make out the cause of my fury.
"Upon my honour, Locke," quoth John, at last, holding his sides, "I never sent them; though, on the whole—you've made my stomach ache with laughing. I can't speak. But you must expect a joke or two, after your late fashionable connexions."
I stood, still and white with rage.
"Really, my good fellow, how can you wonder if our friends suspect you? Can you deny that you've been off and on lately between flunkeydom and The Cause, like a donkey between two bundles of hay? Have you not neglected our meetings? Have you not picked all the spice out of your poems? And can you expect to eat your cake and keep it too? You must be one thing or the other; and, though Sandy, here, is too kind-hearted to tell you, you have disappointed us both miserably—and there's the long and short of it."
I hid my face in my hands, and sat moodily over the fire; my conscience told me that I had nothing to answer.
"Whisht, Johnnie! Ye're ower sair on the lad. He's a' right at heart still, an he'll do good service. But the deevil a'ways fechts hardest wi' them he's maist 'feard of. What's this anent agricultural distress ye had to tell me the noo?"
"There is a rising down in the country, a friend of mine writes me. The people are starving, not because bread is dear, but because it's cheap; and, like sensible men, they're going to have a great meeting, to inquire the rights and wrong of all that. Now, I want to send a deputation down, to see how far they are inclined to go, and let them know we up in London are with them. And then we might get up a corresponding association, you know. It's a great opening for spreading the principles of the Charter."
"I sair misdoubt, it's just bread they'll be wanting, they labourers, mair than liberty. Their God is their belly, I'm thinking, and a verra poor empty idol he is the noo; sma' burnt offerings and fat o' rams he gets to propitiate him. But ye might send down a canny body, just to spy out the nakedness o' the land."
"I will go," I said, starting up. "They shall see that I do care for The Cause. If it's a dangerous mission, so much the better. It will prove my sincerity. Where is the place?"
"About ten miles from D * * * *."
"D * * * *!" My heart sank. If it had been any other spot in England! But it was too late to retract. Sandy saw what was the matter, and tried to turn the subject; but I was peremptory, almost rude with him. I felt I must keep up my present excitement, or lose my heart, and my caste, for ever; and as the hour for the committee was at hand, I jumped up and set off thither with them, whether they would or not. I heard Sandy whisper to Crossthwaite, and turned quite fiercely on him.
"If you want to speak about me, speak out. If you fancy that I shall let my connexion with that place" (I could not bring myself to name it) "stand in the way of my duty, you do not know me."
I announced my intention at the meeting. It was at first received coldly; but I spoke energetically—perhaps, as some told me afterwards, actually eloquently. When I got heated, I alluded to my former stay at D * * * *, and said (while my heart sunk at the bravado which I was uttering) that I should consider it a glory to retrieve my character with them, and devote myself to the cause of the oppressed, in the very locality whence had first arisen their unjust and pardonable suspicions. In short, generous, trusting hearts as they were, and always are, I talked them round; they shook me by the hand one by one, bade me God speed, told me that I stood higher than ever in their eyes, and then set to work to vote money from their funds for my travelling expenses, which I magnanimously refused, saying that I had a pound or two left from the sale of my poems, and that I must be allowed, as an act of repentance and restitution, to devote it to The Cause.
My triumph was complete. Even O'Flynn, who, like all Irishmen, had plenty of loose good-nature at bottom, and was as sudden and furious in his loves as in his hostilities, scrambled over the benches, regardless of patriots' toes, to shake me violently by the hand, and inform me that I was "a broth of a boy," and that "any little disagreements between us had vanished like a passing cloud from the sunshine of our fraternity"—when my eye was caught by a face which there was no mistaking—my cousin's!
Yes, there he sat, watching me like a basilisk, with his dark, glittering, mesmeric eyes, out of a remote corner of the room—not in contempt or anger, but there was a quiet, assured, sardonic smile about his lips, which chilled me to the heart.
The meeting was sufficiently public to allow of his presence, but how had he found out its existence? Had he come there as a spy on me? Had he been in the room when my visit to D * * * * was determined on? I trembled at the thought; and I trembled, too, lest he should be daring enough—and I knew he could dare anything—to claim acquaintance with me there and then. It would have ruined my new-restored reputation for ever. But he sat still and steady: and I had to go through the rest of the evening's business under the miserable, cramping knowledge that every word and gesture was being noted down by my most deadly enemy; trembling whenever I was addressed, lest some chance word of an acquaintance would implicate me still further—though, indeed, I was deep enough already. The meeting seemed interminable; and there I fidgeted, with my face scarlet—always seeing those basilisk eyes upon me—in fancy—for I dared not look again towards the corner where I knew they were.
At last it was over—the audience went out; and when I had courage to look round, my cousin had vanished among them. A load was taken off my breast, and I breathed freely again—for five minutes;—for I had not made ten steps up the street, when an arm was familiarly thrust through mine, and I found myself in the clutches of my evil genius.
"How are you, my dear fellow? Expected to meet you there. Why, what an orator you are! Really, I haven't heard more fluent or passionate English this month of Sundays. You must give me a lesson in sermon-preaching. I can tell you, we parsons want a hint or two in that line. So you're going down to D * * * *, to see after those poor starving labourers? 'Pon my honour, I've a great mind to go with you."
So, then, he knew all! However, there was nothing for it but to brazen it out; and, besides, I was in his power, and however hateful to me his seeming cordiality might be, I dared not offend him at that moment.
"It would be well if you did. If you parsons would show yourselves at such places as these a little oftener, you would do more to make the people believe your mission real, than by all the tracts and sermons in the world."
"But, my dear cousin" (and he began to snuffle and sink his voice), "there is so much sanguinary language, so much unsanctified impatience, you frighten away all the meek apostolic men among the priesthood—the very ones who feel most for the lost sheep of the flock.
"Then the parsons are either great Pharisees or great cowards, or both."
"Very likely. I was in a precious fright myself, I know, when I saw you recognized me. If I had not felt strengthened, you know, as of course one ought to be in all trials, by the sense of my holy calling, I think I should have bolted at once. However, I took the precaution of bringing my Bowie and revolver with me, in case the worst came to the worst."
"And a very needless precaution it was," said I, half laughing at the quaint incongruity of the priestly and the lay elements in his speech. "You don't seem to know much of working men's meetings, or working men's morals. Why, that place was open to all the world. The proceedings will be in the newspaper to-morrow. The whole bench of bishops might have been there, if they had chosen; and a great deal of good it would have done them!"
"I fully agree with you, my dear fellow. No one hates the bishops more than we true high-churchmen, I can tell you—that's a great point of sympathy between us and the people. But I must be off. By-the-by, would you like me to tell our friends at D * * * * that I met you? They often ask after you in their letters, I assure you."
This was a sting of complicated bitterness. I felt all that it meant at once. So he was in constant correspondence with them, while I—and that thought actually drove out of my head the more pressing danger of his utterly ruining me in their esteem, by telling them, as he had a very good right to do, that I was going to preach Chartism to discontented mobs.
"Ah! well! perhaps you wouldn't wish it mentioned? As you like, you know. Or, rather," and he laid an iron grasp on my arm, and dropped his voice—this time in earnest—"as you behave, my wise and loyal cousin! Good night."
I went home—the excitement of self-applause, which the meeting had called up, damped by a strange weight of foreboding. And yet I could not help laughing, when, just as I was turning into bed, Crossthwaite knocked at my door, and, on being admitted, handed over to me a bundle wrapped up in paper.
"There's a pair of breeks for you—not plush ones, this time, old fellow—but you ought to look as smart as possible. There's so much in a man's looking dignified, and all that, when he's speechifying. So I've just brought you down my best black trousers to travel in. We're just of a size, you know; little and good, like a Welshman's cow. And if you tear them, why, we're not like poor, miserable, useless aristocrats; tailors and sailors can mend their own rents." And he vanished, whistling the "Marseillaise."
I went to bed and tossed about, fancying to myself my journey, my speech, the faces of the meeting, among which Lillian's would rise, in spite of all the sermons which I preached to myself on the impossibility of her being there, of my being known, of any harm happening from the movement; but I could not shake off the fear. If there were a riot, a rising!—If any harm were to happen to her! If—Till, mobbed into fatigue by a rabble of such miserable hypothetic ghosts, I fell asleep, to dream that I was going to be hanged for sedition, and that the mob were all staring and hooting at me, and Lillian clapping her hands and setting them on; and I woke in an agony, to find Sandy Mackaye standing by my bedside with a light.
"Hoolie, laddie! ye need na jump up that way. I'm no' gaun to burke ye the nicht; but I canna sleep; I'm sair misdoubtful o' the thing. It seems a' richt, an' I've been praying for us, an' that's mickle for me, to be taught our way; but I dinna see aught for ye but to gang. If your heart is richt with God in this matter, then he's o' your side, an' I fear na what men may do to ye. An' yet, ye're my Joseph, as it were, the son o' my auld age, wi' a coat o' many colours, plush breeks included; an' gin aught take ye, ye'll bring down my grey haffets wi' sorrow to the grave!"
The old man gazed at me as be spoke, with a deep, earnest affection I had never seen in him before; and the tears glistened in his eyes by the flaring candlelight, as he went on:
"I ha' been reading the Bible the nicht. It's strange how the words o't rise up, and open themselves whiles, to puir distractit bodies; though, maybe, no' always in just the orthodox way. An' I fell on that, 'Behold I send ye forth as lambs in the midst o' wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents an' harmless as doves;' an' that gave me comfort, laddie, for ye. Mind the warning, dinna gang wud, whatever ye may see an' hear; it's an ill way o' showing pity, to gang daft anent it. Dinna talk magniloquently; that's the workman's darling sin. An' mind ye dinna go too deep wi' them. Ye canna trust them to understand ye; they're puir foolish sheep that ha' no shepherd—swine that ha' no wash, rather. So cast na your pearls before swine, laddie, lest they trample them under their feet, an' turn again an' rend ye."
He went out, and I lay awake tossing till morning, making a thousand good resolutions—like the rest of mankind.
THE MEN WHO ARE EATEN.
With many instructions from our friends, and warnings from Mackaye, I started next day on my journey. When I last caught sight of the old man, he was gazing fixedly after me, and using his pocket-handkerchief in a somewhat suspicious way. I had remarked how depressed he seemed, and my own spirits shared the depression. A presentiment of evil hung over me, which not even the excitement of the journey—to me a rare enjoyment—could dispel. I had no heart, somehow, to look at the country scenes around, which in general excited in me so much interest, and I tried to lose myself in summing up my stock of information on the question which I expected to hear discussed by the labourers. I found myself not altogether ignorant. The horrible disclosures of S.G.O., and the barbarous abominations of the Andover Workhouse, then fresh in the public mind, had had their due effect on mine; and, like most thinking artizans, I had acquainted myself tolerably from books and newspapers with the general condition of the country labourers.
I arrived in the midst of a dreary, treeless country, whose broad brown and grey fields were only broken by an occasional line of dark, doleful firs, at a knot of thatched hovels, all sinking and leaning every way but the right, the windows patched with paper, the doorways stopped with filth, which surrounded a beer-shop. That was my destination—unpromising enough for any one but an agitator. If discontent and misery are preparatives for liberty—and they are—so strange and unlike ours are the ways of God—I was likely enough to find them there.
I was welcomed by my intended host, a little pert, snub-nosed shoemaker, who greeted me as his cousin from London—a relationship which it seemed prudent to accept.
He took me into his little cabin, and there, with the assistance of a shrewd, good-natured wife, shared with me the best he had; and after supper commenced, mysteriously and in trembling, as if the very walls might have ears, a rambling, bitter diatribe on the wrongs and sufferings of the labourers; which went on till late in the night, and which I shall spare my readers: for if they have either brains or hearts, they ought to know more than I can tell them, from the public prints, and, indeed, from their own eyes—although, as a wise man says, there is nothing more difficult than to make people see first the facts which lie under their own nose.
Upon one point, however, which was new to me, he was very fierce—the customs of landlords letting the cottages with their farms, for the mere sake of saving themselves trouble; thus giving up all power of protecting the poor man, and delivering him over, bound hand and foot, even in the matter of his commonest home comforts, to farmers, too penurious, too ignorant, and often too poor, to keep the cottages in a state fit for the habitation of human beings. Thus the poor man's hovel, as well as his labour, became, he told me, a source of profit to the farmer, out of which he wrung the last drop of gain. The necessary repairs were always put off as long as possible—the labourers were robbed of their gardens—the slightest rebellion lost them not only work, but shelter from the elements; the slavery under which they groaned penetrated even to the fireside and to the bedroom.
"And who was the landlord of this parish?"
"Oh! he believed he was a very good sort of man, and uncommon kind to the people where he lived, but that was fifty miles away in another country; and he liked that estate better than this, and never came down here, except for the shooting."
Full of many thoughts, and tired out with my journey, I went up to bed, in the same loft with the cobbler and his wife, and fell asleep, and dreamt of Lillian.
* * * * *
About eight o'clock the next morning I started forth with my guide, the shoemaker, over as desolate a country as men can well conceive. Not a house was to be seen for miles, except the knot of hovels which we had left, and here and there a great dreary lump of farm-buildings, with its yard of yellow stacks. Beneath our feet the earth was iron, and the sky iron above our heads. Dark curdled clouds, "which had built up everywhere an under-roof of doleful grey," swept on before the bitter northern wind, which whistled through the low leafless hedges and rotting wattles, and crisped the dark sodden leaves of the scattered hollies, almost the only trees in sight.
We trudged on, over wide stubbles, with innumerable weeds; over wide fallows, in which the deserted ploughs stood frozen fast; then over clover and grass, burnt black with frost; then over a field of turnips, where we passed a large fold of hurdles, within which some hundred sheep stood, with their heads turned from the cutting blast. All was dreary, idle, silent; no sound or sign of human beings. One wondered where the people lived, who cultivated so vast a tract of civilized, over-peopled, nineteenth-century England. As we came up to the fold, two little boys hailed us from the inside—two little wretches with blue noses and white cheeks, scarecrows of rags and patches, their feet peeping through bursten shoes twice too big for them, who seemed to have shared between them a ragged pair of worsted gloves, and cowered among the sheep, under the shelter of a hurdle, crying and inarticulate with cold.
"What's the matter, boys?"
"Turmits is froze, and us can't turn the handle of the cutter. Do ye gie us a turn, please?"
We scrambled over the hurdles, and gave the miserable little creatures the benefit of ten minutes' labour. They seemed too small for such exertion: their little hands were purple with chilblains, and they were so sorefooted they could scarcely limp. I was surprised to find them at least three years older than their size and looks denoted, and still more surprised, too, to find that their salary for all this bitter exposure to the elements—such as I believe I could not have endured two days running—was the vast sum of one shilling a week each, Sundays included. "They didn't never go to school, nor to church nether, except just now and then, sometimes—they had to mind the shop."
I went on, sickened with the contrast between the highly-bred, over-fed, fat, thick-woolled animals, with their troughs of turnips and malt-dust, and their racks of rich clover-hay, and their little pent-house of rock-salt, having nothing to do but to eat and sleep, and eat again, and the little half-starved shivering animals who were their slaves. Man the master of the brutes? Bah! As society is now, the brutes are the masters—the horse, the sheep, the bullock, is the master, and the labourer is their slave. "Oh! but the brutes are eaten!" Well; the horses at least are not eaten—they live, like landlords, till they die. And those who are eaten, are certainly not eaten by their human servants. The sheep they fat, another kills, to parody Shelley; and, after all, is not the labourer, as well as the sheep, eaten by you, my dear Society?—devoured body and soul, not the less really because you are longer about the meal, there being an old prejudice against cannibalism, and also against murder—except after the Riot Act has been read.
"What!" shriek the insulted respectabilities, "have we not paid him his wages weekly, and has he not lived upon them?" Yes; and have you not given your sheep and horses their daily wages, and have they not lived on them? You wanted to work them; and they could not work, you know, unless they were alive. But here lies your iniquity: you gave the labourer nothing but his daily food—not even his lodgings; the pigs were not stinted of their wash to pay for their sty-room, the man was; and his wages, thanks to your competitive system, were beaten down deliberately and conscientiously (for was it not according to political economy, and the laws thereof?) to the minimum on which he could or would work, without the hope or the possibility of saving a farthing. You know how to invest your capital profitably, dear Society, and to save money over and above your income of daily comforts; but what has he saved?—what is he profited by all those years of labour? He has kept body and soul together—perhaps he could have done that without you or your help. But his wages are used up every Saturday night. When he stops working, you have in your pocket the whole real profits of his nearly fifty years' labour, and he has nothing. And then you say that you have not eaten him! You know, in your heart of hearts, that you have. Else, why in Heaven's name do you pay him poor's rates? If, as you say, he has been duly repaid in wages, what is the meaning of that half-a-crown a week?—you owe him nothing. Oh! but the man would starve—common humanity forbids? What now, Society? Give him alms, if you will, on the score of humanity; but do not tax people for his support, whether they choose or not—that were a mere tyranny and robbery. If the landlord's feelings will not allow him to see the labourer starve, let him give, in God's name; but let him not cripple and drain, by compulsory poor-rates, the farmer who has paid him his "just remuneration" of wages, and the parson who probably, out of his scanty income, gives away twice as much in alms as the landlord does out of his superfluous one. No, no; as long as you retain compulsory poor-laws, you confess that it is not merely humane, but just, to pay the labourer more than his wages. You confess yourself in debt to him, over and above an uncertain sum, which it suits you not to define, because such an investigation would expose ugly gaps and patches in that same snug competitive and property world of yours; and, therefore, being the stronger party, you compel your debtor to give up the claim which you confess, for an annuity of half-a-crown a week—that being the just-above-starving-point of the economic thermometer. And yet you say you have not eaten the labourer! You see, we workmen too have our thoughts about political economy, differing slightly from yours, truly—just as the man who is being hanged may take a somewhat different view of the process from the man who is hanging him. Which view is likely to be the more practical one?
With some such thoughts I walked across the open down, toward a circular camp, the earthwork, probably, of some old British town. Inside it, some thousand or so of labouring people were swarming restlessly round a single large block of stone, some relic of Druid times, on which a tall man stood, his dark figure thrown out in bold relief against the dreary sky. As we pushed through the crowd, I was struck with the wan, haggard look of all faces; their lacklustre eyes and drooping lips, stooping shoulders, heavy, dragging steps, gave them a crushed, dogged air, which was infinitely painful, and bespoke a grade of misery more habitual and degrading than that of the excitable and passionate artisan.
There were many women among them, talking shrilly, and looking even more pinched and wan than the men.
I remarked, also, that many of the crowd carried heavy sticks, pitchforks, and other tools which might be used as fearful weapons—an ugly sign, which I ought to have heeded betimes.
They glared with sullen curiosity at me and my Londoner's clothes, as, with no small feeling of self-importance, I pushed my way to the foot of the stone. The man who stood on it seemed to have been speaking some time. His words, like all I heard that day, were utterly devoid of anything like eloquence or imagination—a dull string of somewhat incoherent complaints, which derived their force only from the intense earnestness, which attested their truthfulness. As far as I can recollect, I will give the substance of what I heard. But, indeed, I heard nothing but what has been bandied about from newspaper to newspaper for years—confessed by all parties, deplored by all parties, but never an attempt made to remedy it.
—"The farmers makes slaves on us. I can't hear no difference between a Christian and a nigger, except they flogs the niggers and starves the Christians; and I don't know which I'd choose. I served Farmer * * * * seven year, off and on, and arter harvest he tells me he's no more work for me, nor my boy nether, acause he's getting too big for him, so he gets a little 'un instead, and we does nothing; and my boy lies about, getting into bad ways, like hundreds more; and then we goes to board, and they bids us go and look for work; and we goes up next part to London. I couldn't get none; they'd enough to do, they said, to employ their own; and we begs our way home, and goes into the Union; and they turns us out again in two or three days, and promises us work again, and gives us two days' gravel-picking, and then says they has no more for us; and we was sore pinched, and laid a-bed all day; then next board-day we goes to 'em and they gives us one day more—and that threw us off another week, and then next board-day we goes into the Union again for three days, and gets sent out again: and so I've been starving one-half of the time, and they putting us off and on o' purpose like that; and I'll bear it no longer, and that's what I says."
He came down, and a tall, powerful, well-fed man, evidently in his Sunday smock-frock and clean yellow leggings, got up and began:
"I hav'n't no complaint to make about myself. I've a good master, and the parson's a right kind 'un, and that's more than all can say, and the squire's a real gentleman; and my master, he don't need to lower his wages. I gets my ten shillings a week all the year round, and harvesting, and a pig, and a 'lotment—and that's just why I come here. If I can get it, why can't you?"
"Cause our masters baint like yourn."
"No, by George, there baint no money round here like that, I can tell you."
"And why ain't they?" continued the speaker. "There's the shame on it. There's my master can grow five quarters where yourn only grows three; and so he can live and pay like a man; and so he say he don't care for free trade. You know, as well as I, that there's not half o' the land round here grows what it ought. They ain't no money to make it grow more, and besides, they won't employ no hands to keep it clean. I come across more weeds in one field here, than I've seen for nine year on our farm. Why arn't some of you a-getting they weeds up? It 'ud pay 'em to farm better—and they knows that, but they're too lazy; if they can just get a living off the land, they don't care; and they'd sooner save money out of your wages, than save it by growing more corn—it's easier for 'em, it is. There's the work to be done, and they won't let you do it. There's you crying out for work, and work crying out for you—and neither of you can get to the other. I say that's a shame, I do. I say a poor man's a slave. He daren't leave his parish—nobody won't employ him, as can employ his own folk. And if he stays in his parish, it's just a chance whether he gets a good master or a bad 'un. He can't choose, and that's a shame, it is. Why should he go starving because his master don't care to do the best by the land? If they can't till the land, I say let them get out of it, and let them work it as can. And I think as we ought all to sign a petition to government, to tell 'em all about it; though I don't see as how they could help us, unless they'd make a law to force the squires to put in nobody to a farm as hasn't money to work it fairly."
"I says," said the next speaker, a poor fellow whose sentences were continually broken by a hacking cough, "just what he said. If they can't till the land, let them do it as can. But they won't; they won't let us have a scrap on it, though we'd pay 'em more for it nor ever they'd make for themselves. But they says it 'ud make us too independent, if we had an acre or so o' land; and so it 'ud for they. And so I says as he did—they want to make slaves on us altogether, just to get the flesh and bones off us at their own price. Look you at this here down.—If I had an acre on it, to make a garden on, I'd live well with my wages, off and on. Why, if this here was in garden, it 'ud be worth twenty, forty times o' that it be now. And last spring I lays out o' work from Christmas till barley-sowing, and I goes to the farmer and axes for a bit o' land to dig and plant a few potatoes—and he says, 'You be d—d! If you're minding your garden after hours, you'll not be fit to do a proper day's work for me in hours—and I shall want you by-and-by, when the weather breaks'—for it was frost most bitter, it was. 'And if you gets potatoes you'll be getting a pig—and then you'll want straw, and meal to fat 'un—and then I'll not trust you in my barn, I can tell ye;' and so there it was. And if I'd had only one half-acre of this here very down as we stands on, as isn't worth five shillings a year—and I'd a given ten shillings for it—my belly wouldn't a been empty now. Oh, they be dogs in the manger, and the Lord'll reward 'em therefor! First they says they can't afford to work the land 'emselves, and then they wain't let us work it ether. Then they says prices is so low they can't keep us on, and so they lowers our wages; and then when prices goes up ever so much, our wages don't go up with 'em. So, high prices or low prices, it's all the same. With the one we can't buy bread, and with the other we can't get work. I don't mind free trade—not I: to be sure, if the loaf's cheap, we shall be ruined; but if the loafs dear, we shall be starved, and for that, we is starved now. Nobody don't care for us; for my part, I don't much care for myself. A man must die some time or other. Only I thinks if we could some time or other just see the Queen once, and tell her all about it, she'd take our part, and not see us put upon like that, I do."
"Gentlemen!" cried my guide, the shoemaker, in a somewhat conceited and dictatorial tone, as he skipped up by the speaker's side, and gently shouldered him down—"it ain't like the ancient times, as I've read off, when any poor man as had a petition could come promiscuously to the King's royal presence, and put it direct into his own hand, and be treated like a gentleman. Don't you know as how they locks up the Queen now-a-days, and never lets a poor soul come a-near her, lest she should hear the truth of all their iniquities? Why they never lets her stir without a lot o' dragoons with drawn swords riding all around her; and if you dared to go up to her to ax mercy, whoot! they'd chop your head off before you could say, 'Please your Majesty.' And then the hypocrites say as it's to keep her from being frightened—and that's true—for it's frightened she'd be, with a vengeance, if she knowed all that they grand folks make poor labourers suffer, to keep themselves in power and great glory. I tell ye, 'tarn't per-practicable at all, to ax the Queen for anything; she's afeard of her life on 'em. You just take my advice, and sign a round-robin to the squires—you tell 'em as you're willing to till the land for 'em, if they'll let you. There's draining and digging enough to be done as 'ud keep ye all in work, arn't there?"
"Ay, ay; there's lots o' work to be done, if so be we could get at it. Everybody knows that."
"Well, you tell 'em that. Tell 'em here's hundreds, and hundreds of ye starving, and willing to work; and then tell 'em, if they won't find ye work, they shall find ye meat. There's lots o' victuals in their larders now; haven't you as good a right to it as their jackanapes o' footmen? The squires is at the bottom of it all. What do you stupid fellows go grumbling at the farmers for? Don't they squires tax the land twenty or thirty shillings an acre; and what do they do for that? The best of 'em, if he gets five thousand a year out o' the land, don't give back five hundred in charity, or schools, or poor-rates—and what's that to speak of? And the main of 'em—curse 'em!—they drains the money out o' the land, and takes it up to London, or into foreign parts, to spend on fine clothes and fine dinners; or throws it away at elections, to make folks beastly drunk, and sell their souls for money—and we gets no good on it. I'll tell you what it's come to, my men—that we can't afford no more landlords. We can't afford 'em, and that's the truth of it!"
The crowd growled a dubious assent.
"Oh, yes, you can grumble at the farmers, acause you deals with them first-hand; but you be too stupid to do aught but hunt by sight. I be an old dog, and I hunts cunning. I sees farther than my nose, I does, I larnt politics to London when I was a prentice; and I ain't forgotten the plans of it. Look you here. The farmers, they say they can't live unless they can make four rents, one for labour, and one for stock, and one for rent, and one for themselves; ain't that about right? Very well; just now they can't make four rents—in course they can't. Now, who's to suffer for that?—the farmer as works, or the labourer as works, or the landlord as does nothing? But he takes care on himself. He won't give up his rent—not he. Perhaps he might give back ten per cent, and what's that?—two shillings an acre, maybe. What's that, if corn falls two pound a load, and more? Then the farmer gets a stinting; and he can't stint hisself, he's bad enough off already; he's forty shillings out o' pocket on every load of wheat—that's eight shillings, maybe, on every acre of his land on a four-course shift—and where's the eight shillings to come from, for the landlord's only given him back two on it? He can't stint hisself, he daren't stint his stock, and so he stints the labourers; and so it's you as pays the landlord's rent—you, my boys, out o' your flesh and bones, you do—and you can't afford it any longer, by the look of you—so just tell 'em so!"
This advice seemed to me as sadly unpractical as the rest. In short, there seemed to be no hope, no purpose among them—and they felt it; and I could hear, from the running comment of murmurs, that they were getting every moment more fierce and desperate at the contemplation of their own helplessness—a mood which the next speech was not likely to soften.
A pale, thin woman scrambled up on the stone, and stood there, her scanty and patched garments fluttering in the bitter breeze, as, with face sharpened with want, and eyes fierce with misery, she began, in a querulous, 'scornful falsetto:
"I am an honest woman. I brought up seven children decently; and never axed the parish for a farden, till my husband died. Then they tells me I can support myself and mine—and so I does. Early and late I hoed turmits, and early and late I rep, and left the children at home to mind each other; and one on 'em fell into the fire, and is gone to heaven, blessed angel! and two more it pleased the Lord to take in the fever; and the next, I hope, will soon be out o' this miserable sinful world. But look you here: three weeks agone, I goes to the board. I had no work. They say they could not relieve me for the first week, because I had money yet to take.—The hypocrites! they knowing as I couldn't but owe it all, and a lot more beside. Next week they sends the officer to inquire. That was ten days gone, and we starving. Then, on board-day, they gives me two loaves. Then, next week, they takes it off again. And when I goes over (five miles) to the board to ax why—they'd find me work—and they never did; so we goes on starving for another week—for no one wouldn't trust us; how could they when we was in debt already a whole lot?—you're all in debt!"
"That we are."
"There's some here as never made ten shillings a week in their lives, as owes twenty pounds at the shop!"
"Ay, and more—and how's a man ever to pay that?"
"So this week, when I comes, they offers me the house. Would I go into the house? They'd be glad to have me, acause I'm strong and hearty and a good nurse. But would I, that am an honest woman, go to live with they offscourings—they"—(she used a strong word)—"would I be parted from my children? Would I let them hear the talk, and keep the company as they will there, and learn all sorts o' sins that they never heard on, blessed be God! I'll starve first, and see them starve too—though, Lord knows, it's hard.—Oh! it's hard," she said, bursting into tears, "to leave them as I did this morning, crying after their breakfasts, and I none to give 'em. I've got no bread—where should I? I've got no fire—how can I give one shilling and sixpence a hundred for coals? And if I did, who'd fetch 'em home? And if I dared break a hedge for a knitch o' wood, they'd put me in prison, they would, with the worst. What be I to do? What be you going to do? That's what I came here for. What be ye going to do for us women—us that starve and stint, and wear our hands off for you men and your children, and get hard words, and hard blows from you? Oh! if I was a man, I know what I'd do, I do! But I don't think you be men three parts o' you, or you'd not see the widow and the orphan starve as you do, and sit quiet and grumble, as long as you can keep your own bodies and souls together. Eh! ye cowards!"
What more she would have said in her excitement, which had risen to an absolute scream, I cannot tell; but some prudent friend pulled her down off the stone, to be succeeded by a speaker more painful, if possible; an aged blind man, the worn-out melancholy of whose slow, feeble voice made my heart sink, and hushed the murmuring crowd into silent awe.
Slowly he turned his grey, sightless head from side to side, as if feeling for the faces below him—and then began:
"I heard you was all to be here—and I suppose you are; and I said I would come—though I suppose they'll take off my pay, if they hear of it. But I knows the reason of it, and the bad times and all. The Lord revealed it to me as clear as day, four years agone come Easter-tide. It's all along of our sins, and our wickedness—because we forgot Him—it is. I mind the old war times, what times they was, when there was smuggled brandy up and down in every public, and work more than hands could do. And then, how we all forgot the Lord, and went after our own lusts and pleasures—squires and parsons, and farmers and labouring folk, all alike. They oughted to ha' knowed better—and we oughted too. Many's the Sunday I spent in skittle-playing and cock-fighting, and the pound I spent in beer, as might ha' been keeping me now. We was an evil and perverse generation—and so one o' my sons went for a sodger, and was shot at Waterloo, and the other fell into evil ways, and got sent across seas—and I be left alone for my sins. But the Lord was very gracious to me and showed me how it was all a judgment on my sins, he did. He has turned his face from us, and that's why we're troubled. And so I don't see no use in this meeting. It won't do no good; nothing won't do us no good, unless we all repent of our wicked ways, our drinking, and our dirt, and our love-children, and our picking and stealing, and gets the Lord to turn our hearts, and to come back again, and have mercy on us, and take us away speedily out of this wretched world, where there's nothing but misery and sorrow, into His everlasting glory, Amen! Folks say as the day of judgment's a coming soon—and I partly think so myself. I wish it was all over, and we in heaven above; and that's all I have to say."
It seemed a not unnatural revulsion, when a tall, fierce man, with a forbidding squint, sprung jauntily on the stone, and setting his arms a-kimbo, broke out:
"Here be I, Blinkey, and I has as good a right to speak as ere a one. You're all blamed fools, you are. So's that old blind buffer there. You sticks like pigs in a gate, hollering and squeeking, and never helping yourselves. Why can't you do like me? I never does no work—darned if I'll work to please the farmers. The rich folks robs me, and I robs them, and that's fair and equal. You only turn poachers—you only go stealing turmits, and fire-ud, and all as you can find—and then you'll not need to work. Arn't it yourn? The game's no one's, is it now?—you know that. And if you takes turmits or corn, they're yourn—you helped to grow 'em. And if you're put to prison, I tell ye, it's a darned deal warmer, and better victuals too, than ever a one of you gets at home, let alone the Union. Now I knows the dodge. Whenever my wife's ready for her trouble, I gets cotched; then I lives like a prince in gaol, and she goes to the workus; and when it's all over, start fair again. Oh, you blockheads'—to stand here shivering with empty bellies.—You just go down to the farm and burn they stacks over the old rascal's head; and then they that let you starve now, will be forced to keep you then. If you can't get your share of the poor-rates, try the county-rates, my bucks—you can get fat on them at the Queen's expense—and that's more than you'll do in ever a Union as I hear on. Who'll come down and pull the farm about the folks' ears? Warn't he as turned five on yer off last week? and ain't he more corn there than 'ud feed you all round this day, and won't sell it, just because he's waiting till folks are starved enough, and prices rise? Curse the old villain!—who'll help to disappoint him 'o that? Come along!"
A confused murmur arose, and a movement in the crowd. I felt that now or never was the time to speak. If once the spirit of mad aimless riot broke loose, I had not only no chance of a hearing, but every likelihood of being implicated in deeds which I abhorred; and I sprung on the stone and entreated a few minutes' attention, telling them that I was a deputation from one of the London Chartist committees. This seemed to turn the stream of their thoughts, and they gaped in stupid wonder at me as I began hardly less excited than themselves.
I assured them of the sympathy of the London working men, made a comment on their own speeches—which the reader ought to be able to make for himself—and told them that I had come to entreat their assistance towards obtaining such a parliamentary representation as would secure them their rights. I explained the idea of the Charter, and begged for their help in carrying it out.
To all which they answered surlily, that they did not know anything about politics—that what they wanted was bread.
I went on, more vehement than ever, to show them how all their misery sprung (as I then fancied) from being unrepresented—how the laws were made by the rich for the poor, and not by all for all—how the taxes bit deep into the necessaries of the labourer, and only nibbled at the luxuries of the rich—how the criminal code exclusively attacked the crimes to which the poor were prone, while it dared not interfere with the subtler iniquities of the high-born and wealthy—how poor-rates, as I have just said, were a confession on the part of society that the labourer was not fully remunerated. I tried to make them see that their interest, as much as common justice, demanded that they should have a voice in the councils of the nation, such as would truly proclaim their wants, their rights, their wrongs; and I have seen no reason since then to unsay my words.
To all which they answered, that their stomachs were empty, and they wanted bread. "And bread we will have!"
"Go, then," I cried, losing my self-possession between disappointment and the maddening desire of influence—and, indeed, who could hear their story, or even look upon their faces, and not feel some indignation stir in him. unless self-interest had drugged his heart and conscience—"go," I cried, "and get bread! After all, you have a right to it. No man is bound to starve. There are rights above all laws, and the right to live is one. Laws were made for man, not man for laws. If you had made the laws yourselves, they might bind you even in this extremity; but they were made in spite of you—against you. They rob you, crash you; even now they deny you bread. God has made the earth free to all, like the air and sunshine, and you are shut out from off it. The earth is yours, for you till it. Without you it would be a desert. Go and demand your share of that corn, the fruit of your own industry. What matter, if your tyrants imprison, murder you?—they can but kill your bodies at once, instead of killing them piecemeal, as they do now; and your blood will cry against them from the ground:—Ay, Woe!"—I went on, carried away by feelings for which I shall make no apology; for, however confused, there was, and is, and ever will be, a God's truth in them, as this generation will find out at the moment when its own serene self-satisfaction crumbles underneath it—"Woe unto those that grind the faces of the poor! Woe unto those who add house to house, and field to field, till they stand alone in the land, and there is no room left for the poor man! The wages of their reapers, which they have held back by fraud, cry out against them; and their cry has entered into the ears of the God of heaven—"
But I had no time to finish. The murmur swelled into a roar for "Bread! Bread!" My hearers had taken me at my word. I had raised the spirit; could I command him, now he was abroad?
"Go to Jennings's farm!"
"No! he ain't no corn, he sold un' all last week."
"There's plenty at the Hall farm! Rouse out the old steward!"
And, amid yells and execrations, the whole mass poured down the hill, sweeping me away with them. I was shocked and terrified at their threats. I tried again and again to stop and harangue them. I shouted myself hoarse about the duty of honesty; warned them against pillage and violence; entreated them to take nothing but the corn which they actually needed; but my voice was drowned in the uproar. Still I felt myself in a measure responsible for their conduct; I had helped to excite them, and dare not, in honour, desert them; and trembling, I went on, prepared to see the worst; following, as a flag of distress, a mouldy crust, brandished on the point of a pitchfork.
Bursting through the rotting and half-fallen palings, we entered a wide, rushy, neglected park, and along an old gravel road, now green with grass, we opened on a sheet of frozen water, and, on the opposite bank, the huge square corpse of a hall, the close-shuttered windows of which gave it a dead and ghastly look, except where here and there a single one showed, as through a black empty eye-socket, the dark unfurnished rooms within. On the right, beneath us, lay, amid tall elms, a large mass of farm-buildings, into the yard of which the whole mob rushed tumultuously—just in time to see an old man on horseback dart out and gallop hatless up the park, amid the yells of the mob.
"The old rascal's gone! and he'll call up the yeomanry. We must be quick, boys!" shouted one, and the first signs of plunder showed themselves in an indiscriminate chase after various screaming geese and turkeys; while a few of the more steady went up to the house-door, and knocking, demanded sternly the granary keys.
A fat virago planted herself in the doorway, and commenced railing at them, with the cowardly courage which the fancied immunity of their sex gives to coarse women; but she was hastily shoved aside, and took shelter in an upper room, where she stood screaming and cursing at the window.
The invaders returned, cramming their mouths with bread, and chopping asunder flitches of bacon. The granary doors were broken open, and the contents scrambled for, amid immense waste, by the starving wretches. It was a sad sight. Here was a poor shivering woman, hiding scraps of food under her cloak, and hurrying out of the yard to the children she had left at home. There was a tall man, leaning against the palings, gnawing ravenously at the same loaf as a little boy, who had scrambled up behind him. Then a huge blackguard came whistling up to me, with a can of ale. "Drink, my beauty! you're dry with hollering by now!"
"The ale is neither yours nor mine; I won't touch it."
"Darn your buttons! You said the wheat was ourn, acause we growed it—and thereby so's the beer—for we growed the barley too."
And so thought the rest; for the yard was getting full of drunkards, a woman or two among them, reeling knee-deep in the loose straw among the pigs.
"Thresh out they ricks!" roared another.
"Get out the threshing-machine!"
"You harness the horses!"
"No! there bain't no time. Yeomanry'll be here. You mun leave the ricks."
"Darned if we do. Old Woods shan't get naught by they."
"Fire 'em, then, and go on to Slater's farm!"
"As well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb," hiccuped Blinkey, as he rushed through the yard with a lighted brand. I tried to stop him, but fell on my face in the deep straw, and got round the barns to the rick-yard just in time to here a crackle—there was no mistaking it; the windward stack was in a blaze of fire.
I stood awe-struck—I cannot tell how long—watching how the live flame-snakes crept and hissed, and leapt and roared, and rushed in long horizontal jets from stack to stack before the howling wind, and fastened their fiery talons on the barn-eaves, and swept over the peaked roofs, and hurled themselves in fiery flakes into the yard beyond—the food of man, the labour of years, devoured in aimless ruin!—Was it my doing? Was it not?
At last I recollected myself, and ran round again into the straw-yard, where the fire was now falling fast. The only thing which saved the house was the weltering mass of bullocks, pigs, and human beings drunk and sober, which, trampled out unwittingly the flames as fast as they caught.
The fire had seized the roofs of the cart-stables, when a great lubberly boy blubbered out:—
"Git my horses out! git my horses out o' the fire! I be so fond o' mun!"
"Well, they ain't done no harm, poor beasts!" And a dozen men ran in to save them; but the poor wretches, screaming with terror, refused to stir. I never knew what became of them-but their shrieks still haunt my dreams....
The yard now became a pandemonium. The more ruffianly part of the mob—and alas! there were but too many of them—hurled the furniture out of the windows, or ran off with anything that they could carry. In vain I expostulated, threatened; I was answered by laughter, curses, frantic dances, and brandished plunder. Then I first found out how large a portion of rascality shelters itself under the wing of every crowd; and at the moment, I almost excused the rich for overlooking the real sufferers, in indignation at the rascals. But even the really starving majority, whose faces proclaimed the grim fact of their misery, seemed gone mad for the moment. The old crust of sullen, dogged patience had broken up, and their whole souls had exploded into reckless fury and brutal revenge—and yet there was no hint of violence against the red fat woman, who, surrounded with her blubbering children, stood screaming and cursing at the first-floor window, getting redder and fatter at every scream. The worst personality she heard was a roar of laughter, in which, such is poor humanity, I could not but join, as her little starved drab of a maid-of-all-work ran out of the door, with a bundle of stolen finery under her arm, and high above the roaring of the flames, and the shouts of the rioters, rose her mistress's yell.
"O Betsy! Betsy! you little awdacious unremorseful hussy!—a running away with my best bonnet and shawl!"
The laughter soon, however, subsided, when a man rushed breathless into the yard, shouting, "The yeomanry!"
At that sound; to my astonishment, a general panic ensued. The miserable wretches never stopped to enquire how many, or how far off, they were—but scrambled to every outlet of the yard, trampling each other down in their hurry. I leaped up on the wall, and saw, galloping down the park, a mighty armament of some fifteen men, with a tall officer at their head, mounted on a splendid horse.
"There they be! there they be! all the varmers, and young Squire Clayton wi' mun, on his grey hunter! O Lord! O Lord! and all their swords drawn!"
I thought of the old story in Herodotus—how the Scythian masters returned from war to the rebel slaves who had taken possession of their lands and wives, and brought them down on their knees with terror, at the mere sight of the old dreaded dog-whips.
I did not care to run. I was utterly disgusted, disappointed with myself—the people. I longed, for the moment, to die and leave it all; and left almost alone, sat down on a stone, buried my head between my hands, and tried vainly to shut out from my ears the roaring of the fire.
At that moment "Blinkey" staggered out past me and against me, a writing-desk in his hands, shouting, in his drunken glory, "I've vound ut at last! I've got the old fellow's money! Hush! What a vule I be, hollering like that!"—And he was going to sneak off, with a face of drunken cunning, when I sprung up and seized him by the throat.
"Rascal! robber! lay that down! Have you not done mischief enough already?"
"I wain't have no sharing. What? Do you want un yourself, eh? Then we'll see who's the stronger!"
And in an instant he shook me from him, and dealt me a blow with the corner of the desk, that laid me on the ground....
I just recollect the tramp of the yeomanry horses, and the gleam and jingle of their arms, as they galloped into the yard. I caught a glimpse of the tall young officer, as his great grey horse swept through the air, over the high yard-pales—a feat to me utterly astonishing. Half a dozen long strides—the wretched ruffian, staggering across the field with his booty, was caught up.—The clear blade gleamed in the air—and then a fearful yell—and after that I recollect nothing.
* * * * *
Slowly I recovered my consciousness. I was lying on a truckle-bed—stone walls and a grated window! A man stood over me with a large bunch of keys in his hand. He had been wrapping my head with wet towels. I knew, instinctively, where I was.
"Well, young man," said he, in a not unkindly tone—"and a nice job you've made of it! Do you know where you are?".
"Yes," answered I, quietly; "in D * * * * gaol."
The day was come—quickly, thank Heaven; and I stood at the bar, with four or five miserable, haggard labourers, to take my trial for sedition, riot, and arson.
I had passed the intervening weeks half stupified with the despair of utter disappointment; disappointment at myself and my own loss of self-possession, which had caused all my misfortune,—perhaps, too, and the thought was dreadful, that of my wretched fellow-sufferers:—disappointment with the labourers, with The Cause; and when the thought came over me, in addition, that I was irreparably disgraced in the eyes of my late patrons, parted for ever from Lillian by my own folly, I laid down my head and longed to die.
Then, again, I would recover awhile, and pluck up heart. I would plead my cause myself—I would testify against the tyrants to their face—I would say no longer to their besotted slaves, but to the men themselves, "Go to, ye rich men, weep and howl! The hire of your labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is by you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them that have reaped hath entered into the ears of the Lord God of Hosts." I would brave my fate—I would die protesting, and glory in my martyrdom. But—
"Martyrdom?" said Mackaye, who had come down to D * * * *, and was busy night and day about my trial. "Ye'll just leave alone the martyr dodge, my puir bairn. Ye're na martyr at a', ye'll understand, but a vera foolish callant, that lost his temper, an' cast his pearls before swine—an' very questionable pearls they, too, to judge by the price they fetch i' the market."
And then my heart sank again. And a few days before the trial a letter came, evidently in my cousin's handwriting, though only signed with his initials:
"SIR,—You are in a very great scrape—you will not deny that. How you will get out of it depends on your own common sense. You probably won't be hanged—for nobody believes that you had a hand in burning the farm; but, unless you take care, you will be transported. Call yourself John Nokes; entrust your case to a clever lawyer, and keep in the background. I warn you, as a friend—if you try to speechify, and play the martyr, and let out who you are, the respectable people who have been patronizing you will find it necessary for their own sakes to clap a stopper on you for good and all, to make you out an impostor and a swindler, and get you out of the way for life: while, if you are quiet, it will suit them to be quiet too, and say nothing about you, if you say nothing about them; and then there will be a chance that they, as well as your own family, will do everything in their power to hush the matter up. So, again, don't let out your real name; and instruct your lawyers to know nothing about the W.'s; and then, perhaps, the Queen's counsel will know nothing about them either. Mind—you are warned, and woe to you if you are fool enough not to take the warning.
Plead in a false name! Never, so help me Heaven! To go into court with a lie in my mouth—to make myself an impostor—probably a detected one—it seemed the most cunning scheme for ruining me, which my evil genius could have suggested, whether or not it might serve his own selfish ends. But as for the other hints, they seemed not unreasonable, and promised to save me trouble; while the continued pressure of anxiety and responsibility was getting intolerable to my over-wearied brain. So I showed the letter to Mackaye, who then told me that he had taken it for granted that I should come to my right mind, and had therefore already engaged an old compatriot as attorney, and the best counsel which money could procure.
"But where did you get the money? You have not surely been spending your own savings on me?"
"I canna say that I wadna ha' so dune, in case o' need. But the men in town just subscribit; puir honest fellows."
"What! is my folly to be the cause of robbing them of their slender earnings? Never, Mackaye! Besides, they cannot have subscribed enough to pay the barrister whom you just mentioned. Tell me the whole truth, or, positively, I will plead my cause myself."
"Aweel, then, there was a bit bank-note or twa cam' to hand—I canna say whaur fra'. But they that sent it direckit it to be expendit in the defence o' the sax prisoners—whereof ye make ane."
Again a world of fruitless conjecture. It must be the same unknown friend who had paid my debt to my cousin—Lillian?
* * * * *
And so the day was come. I am not going to make a long picturesque description of my trial—trials have become lately quite hackneyed subjects, stock properties for the fiction-mongers—neither, indeed, could I do so, if I would. I recollect nothing of that day, but fragments—flashes of waking existence, scattered up and down in what seemed to me a whole life of heavy, confused, painful dreams, with the glare of all those faces concentrated on me—those countless eyes which I could not, could not meet—stony, careless, unsympathizing—not even angry—only curious. If they had but frowned on me, insulted me, gnashed their teeth on me, I could have glared back defiance; as it was, I stood cowed and stupified, a craven by the side of cravens.
Let me see—what can I recollect? Those faces—faces—everywhere faces—a faint, sickly smell of flowers—a perpetual whispering and rustling of dresses—and all through it, the voice of some one talking, talking—I seldom knew what, or whether it was counsel, witness, judge, or prisoner, that was speaking. I was like one asleep at a foolish lecture, who hears in dreams, and only wakes when the prosing stops. Was it not prosing? What was it to me what they said? They could not understand me—my motives—my excuses; the whole pleading, on my side as well as the crown's, seemed one huge fallacy—beside the matter altogether—never touching the real point at issue, the eternal moral equity of my deeds or misdeeds. I had no doubt that it would all be conducted quite properly, and fairly, and according to the forms of law; but what was law to me—I wanted justice. And so I let them go on their own way, conscious of but one thought—was Lillian in the court?
I dared not look and see. I dared not lift up my eyes toward the gaudy rows of ladies who had crowded to the "interesting trial of the D * * * * rioters." The torture of anxiety was less than that of certainty might be, and I kept my eyes down, and wondered how on earth the attorneys had found in so simple a case enough to stuff those great blue bags.
When, however, anything did seem likely to touch on a reality, I woke up forthwith, in spite of myself. I recollect well, for instance, a squabble about challenging the jurymen; and my counsel's voice of pious indignation, as he asked, "Do you call these agricultural gentlemen, and farmers, however excellent and respectable—on which point Heaven forbid that I, &c., &c.—the prisoner's 'pares,' peers, equals, or likes? What single interest, opinion, or motive, have they in common, but the universal one of self-interest, which, in this case, happens to pull in exactly opposite directions? Your Lordship has often animadverted fully and boldly on the practice of allowing a bench of squires to sit in judgment on a poacher; surely it is quite as unjust that agricultural rioters should be tried by a jury of the very class against whom they are accused of rebelling."
"Perhaps my learned brother would like a jury of rioters?" suggested some Queen's counsel.
"Upon my word, then, it would be much the fairer plan."
I wondered whether he would have dared to say as much in the street outside—and relapsed into indifference. I believe there was some long delay, and wrangling about law-quibbles, which seemed likely at one time to quash the whole prosecution, but I was rather glad than sorry to find that it had been overruled. It was all a play, a game of bowls—the bowls happening to be human heads—got up between the lawyers, for the edification of society; and it would have been a pity not to play it out, according to the rules and regulations thereof.
As for the evidence, its tenor may be easily supposed from my story. There were those who could swear to my language at the camp. I was seen accompanying the mob to the farm, and haranguing them. The noise was too great for the witnesses to hear all I said, but they were certain I talked about the sacred name of liberty. The farmer's wife had seen me run round to the stacks when they were fired—whether just before or just after, she never mentioned. She had seen me running up and down in front of the house, talking loudly, and gesticulating violently; she saw me, too, struggling with another rioter for her husband's desk;—and the rest of the witnesses, some of whom I am certain I had seen, busy plundering, though they were ready to swear that they had been merely accidental passers-by, seemed to think that they proved their own innocence, and testified their pious indignation, by avoiding carefully any fact which could excuse me. But, somehow, my counsel thought differently; and cross-examined, and bullied, and tormented, and misstated—as he was bound to do; and so one witness after another, clumsy and cowardly enough already, was driven by his engines of torture, as if by a pitiless spell, to deny half that he had deposed truly, and confess a great deal that was utterly false—till confusion became worse confounded, and there seemed no truth anywhere, and no falsehood either, and "naught was everything, and everything was naught;" till I began to have doubts whether the riot had ever occurred at all—and, indeed, doubts of my own identity also, when I had heard the counsel for the crown impute to me personally, as in duty bound, every seditious atrocity which, had been committed either in England or France since 1793. To him, certainly, I did listen tolerably; it was "as good as a play." Atheism, blasphemy, vitriol-throwing, and community of women, were among my lighter offences—for had I not actually been engaged in a plot for the destruction of property? How did the court know that I had not spent the night before the riot, as "the doctor" and his friends did before the riots of 1839, in drawing lots for the estates of the surrounding gentlemen, with my deluded dupes and victims?—for of course I, and not want of work, had deluded them into rioting; at least, they never would have known that they were starving, if I had not stirred up their evil passions by daring to inform them of that otherwise impalpable fact. I, the only Chartist there? Might there not have been dozens of them?—emissaries from London, dressed up as starving labourers, and rheumatic old women? There were actually traces of a plan for seizing all the ladies in the country, and setting up a seraglio of them in D * * * * Cathedral. How did the court know that there was not one?
Ay, how indeed? and how did I know either? I really began to question whether the man might not be right after all. The whole theory seemed so horribly coherent—possible, natural. I might have done it, under possession of the devil, and forgotten it in excitement—I might—perhaps I did. And if there, why not elsewhere? Perhaps I had helped Jourdan Coupe-tete at Lyons, and been king of the Munster Anabaptists—why not? What matter? When would this eternity of wigs, and bonnets, and glaring windows, and ear-grinding prate and jargon, as of a diabolic universe of street organs, end—end—end—and I get quietly hanged, and done with it all for ever?
Oh, the horrible length of that day! It seemed to me as if I had been always on my trial, ever since I was born. I wondered at times how many years ago it had all begun. I felt what a far stronger and more single-hearted patriot than I, poor Somerville, says of himself under the torture of the sergeant's cat, in a passage, whose horrible simplicity and unconscious pathos have haunted me ever since I read it; how, when only fifty out of his hundred lashes had fallen on the bleeding back, "The time since they began was like a long period of life: I felt as if I had lived all the time of my real life in torture, and, that the days when existence had a pleasure, in it were a dream long, long gone by."
The reader may begin to suspect that I was fast going mad; and I believe I was. If he has followed my story with a human heart, he may excuse me of any extreme weakness, if I did at moments totter on the verge of that abyss.
What saved me, I believe now, was the keen, bright look of love and confidence which flashed on me from Crossthwaite's glittering eyes, when he was called forward as a witness to my character. He spoke out like a man, I hear, that day. But the counsel for the crown tried to silence him triumphantly, by calling on him to confess himself a Chartist; as if a man must needs be a liar and a villain because he holds certain opinions about the franchise! However that was, I heard, the general opinion of the court. And then Crossthwaite lost his temper and called the Queen's counsel a hired bully, and so went down; having done, as I was told afterwards, no good to me.