Page images
PDF
EPUB

another meeting was about to be held. It was not a formal meeting, either, this time ; as was shown by some of the men lighting their pipes, and calling for pints or half pints of ale. Those who were utterly penniless and could not afford, or borrow, money for this luxury, sat gloomily by, their brows lowering over their gaunt and famished cheeks. The landlord, who was a churlish man, generally denominated by his customers“ Surly,” had an eye to his own interest, and never trusted further than he knew he could do with safety.

" James Jones," said the landlord, in answer to a man who had called for a pint of ale, “them figures must be rubbed out afore I adds to 'em.” As he spoke, he whisked round one of the slates that were hanging against the wall, and displayed sundry figures marked upon its face." That's your score.”

“ How much is there ?" demanded the man addressed. “ Five-and-fourpence,” replied the landlord.

“Five-and-fourpence!" ejaculated the man, contemptuously: " and you are afeared of that! Hav'n't I always paid you up ? Wasn't the score last time hard upon eight shillings, and didn't I settle that ?"

“Yes," cried the landlord ; " but I have heerd that your masters, Webb and Co., stops to-morrow.”

“ Webb and Co.!" groaned some of the crowd. “God help us then! there'll be thirty hands more throwed out.”

“ It is quite false !" uttered Jones, intent upon getting a jug of ale.

“ If you tell me this time to-morrow night that it's false,” returned the landlord, “I'll treat you to a quart.”

“My opinion is, gentlemen," interrupted an intelligent-looking man, one of the few present who still retained good looks and respectability of appearance," that in a dozen years from this time there will not be a single house of business left in the city.”

The speaker was Thomas Markham, the foreman to the firm of George Arkell and Son, a very superior man for his class in life.

“ If you have cause to say that, Mr. Markham," interrupted a voice, “ it is bad indeed. When your governors go, we may expect they'll all go.”

"You mistake me," returned Markham. “There is no chance of Arkell and Son going ; for you know, gentlemen, their resources are large. But how can they, or any others, keep on manufacturing at a loss? That is a game, gentlemen, that cannot be kept up long."

“ What is to become of the town ? What is to become of it?” “Is the deputation in yet ?” inquired Markham.

“No," answered a shaggy-headed man. “ Here's Shepherd a coming in. I wonder how his child is. He thought last night it was a dying.”

A careworn, pale man, but still tidy-looking, in spite of his poverty, entered, and took his seat; replying, in answer to the questions put to him, that his child was well.

“Why I thought you said last night that it was as bad as it could be, and you was a hurrying off then for the doctor. Did he come and cure it ?”

“One doctor came, from up there," answered Shepherd, pointing towards the sky. “He came, and He took the child."

“Do you mean to say, neighbour, that your boy's dead ?"

“He is dead,” replied Shepherd, “and it's a mercy. It would be a mercy for the other young ones if they were gone too. Death in childhood is better than starvation in manhood.”

A dead silence, the silence of sympathy, reigned in the crowded room. One of the voices at length broke it.

“Did Doctor Barnes come to the child when you went for him ?”

“He opened his winder: he was a undressing to go to bed: and he asked me who was to pay him."

“ Hiss-iss-ss !" growled the listeners.

"I told him I would pay him with the very first money I could scrape together," proceeded Shepherd, sighing heavily. “And that he might take my word for it, for that had never been broken yet.”

" And did he come ?"

“No. He said he knew better than to trust to promises. And when I told him that the boy was dying, and that he was my only boy and very precious to me, the rest being girls, what he answered was, that he knew my employers had stopped business this long while, and as to my ever getting money to pay him it was all a fallacy. So he shut down his winder, and I went home to my child, powerless to help him: and I watched him die.”

“ Drink a glass of ale, Shepherd,” exclaimed Markham, getting a glass from the landlord, and filling it from his own jug.

“ Thank ye kindly, but I shall drink nothing to-night,” replied the man, motioning back the glass. “There's a sore feeling in my breast, comrades,” he mournfully continued : “it has been there a long while past, but it's sorer far to-day. I don't so much blame the surgeon, friends : we know there has been a deal of sickness among us, and the doctors have not often got paid. Perhaps, in their places, we should be as unwilling to go to poor people as they are. But, comrades, the bitter feeling is against them who has brought us to this. A few years back, and we were all earning an honest livelihood : we worked hard, but we were paid for our labour, and were contented. And look at us now! Hunderds of us is nigh akin to starving : there's scarcely a crust between us : we desire but to work honestly, and we can't get it. As I sat today, looking at my dead boy, I asked myself what we had done to deserve this wretched fate-or whether, in justice, it ought not to have fell upon them as have oppressed us."

“ Justice for us !cried a derisive voice : “where will ye go to look for that?”

“But I came here to-night, my friends,” resumed Shepherd, “for a specific purpose, though perhaps I mayn't succeed in it. I couldn't bear, I nor my poor missis, who is a'most heart-broke, to have the child buried by the parish–I can't bear the thoughts of that—and I went down to Jasper to-day to tell him to come and take the measure for the little coffin. But he said so many childern have been a dying off lately, and grown people too (as we ourselves know, comrades), and most of them gone in debt for the coffins, that it's amazing the amount of money that's owing him, and it's now a month since he took a resolve not to work on trust any more. I asked him to depend on my word, like I did Dr. Barnes, and that sooner or later he should be paid. He knew my word was honourable, he said, but it was impossible for him to grant to me what he daily refused to others. If I could find a friend to go bail for me, he would give me time, and that was all he could do. Neighbours, will any of ye stand by me in this ?”

A score of voices answered in the affirmative, eager, sympathising voices : but Shepherd shook his head.

“Many thanks to ye, my friends," he said, sadly, “but I'm afeared there's not one amongst ye, all as have spoken, as is better off than I am. I doubt if Jasper would take your words any more than mine."

No one else offered, and a silence of some minutes fell upon the room. Shepherd rose to go.

“I don't grumble, neighbours,” he said, “though I have been unsuccessful; for I know that mostly ye are powerless to aid me. But it's a bitter trial. I would rather my boy had never been born than that he should come to be buried by the parish. God knows we have heavy burdens to bear.”

“Shepherd !” cried the clear voice of Thomas Markham, ringing through the room, “I will stand by you in this strait. Tell Jasper that I pass my word to see him paid.”

'Shepherd turned back, pushed his way through the room, and grasped Markham's hand.

“ I can't thank you as I ought, sir,” he said, “but you have took a load from my heart. If you are not repaid here, you will be hereafter; for I have come to feel a certainty, lately, that if our good deeds never come home to us in this world, they are only kept to speak for us in the

[ocr errors]

“ Well, things is coming to a pretty pass with us, comrades,” observed one, as Shepherd withdrew.

“Cuss the masters !” interrupted an intemperate voice.

“Why curse the masters?” asked another. “ They are as much punished as ourselves. Curse the House of Commons, rather.”

“Cuss the French, for making goods cheaper than we do !” breathed a dozen voices.

“Curse in the right quarter, if you curse at all,” roared a man, who, by his look and bearing, seemed to bear some sort of authority in the room—" CURSE HUSKISSON !”

A shower of hisses—the name was so hateful to them— followed the words. Thomas Markham interrupted it.

“ It is generally believed,” he began, “ that Huskisson never "

The same burst of hisses broke forth again, drowning Markham's voice. But he held up his hand, and once more the men were silenced.

" My friends,” he said, “ you need not have interrupted me; you cannot suppose I was going to defend Huskisson. But I was about to observe, that Huskisson was so wanting in judgment as not to foresee the misery his measure would inflict upon the country. And it is said that repentance now presses upon him sore, and that he sees our homeless and famished children in his dreams."

“ Then why don't he close the ports again ?" shrieked out a man,

“ They call this only the trial of the measure, you know," observed a superior-looking man, who had recently entered. It was the manager to the largest firm in Riverton, the principals being frequently absent in London. “Our governors,” he continued, “ are often, from their position, brought into contact with the members of the government; and”— the speaker nodded his head sagaciously-“ I have it from a tolerably sure source, gentlemen, if there is still no reciprocity at the end of another year, our ports will be reclosed.”

“ Yes, when the city's ruined ; when we have all been beaten down to dust ; clammed to death. They'll shut the door when the steed's stolen."

“Huskisson's motives," resumed the speaker, “ however mistaken, were, no doubt, good; but

“ Don't attempt to justify Huskisson here, sir,” he was interrupted with.

“ I was about to tell you that he has seen his error,” persisted the manager. “ I know for a fact, that when our head governor called upon him one Sunday evening this summer, he was seated at his library-table, with one of our petitions to the House spread out before him. It was the one we sent up in May-you may remember it, my friends ; the one in which our sufferings and wrongs were represented in truer and more painful colours than they were, perhaps, in any of the others. And the governor told me, with his own lips, that if ever he saw remorse and care seated upon a brow, it was seated upon Mr. Huskisson's.”

Deep muttered curses upon the ill-fated statesman rose from all parts of the room. The manager resumed.

“ Huskisson began talking at once about the petition. He asked if the sufferings, related in it, were not overcoloured : but the governor assured him, upon his word of honour, as a resident in the place and an eye-witness, that they were underdrawn, rather than over : for that no pen, no description, could ever fully represent the misery and distress that had been rife in Riverton, since the bill passed. And he says he never, to the longest day of his life, shall forget the look of perplexity and care that was overshadowing Huskisson's features : which look seems now, he says, to be habitual.”

Before the last words were well spoken, the “ deputation" entered. It consisted of twelve men, chosen from the rest, who had been round that day to the manufactories still at work, asking for a little help.

“ Well, how have ye sped ?" was the general inquiry.

" We went round, thirteen of us, upon empty stomachs, and we left them at home empty too : and we have done no good. Thorpe has gone home : we gave him the money out of what we've collected, for a loaf o' bread, for his wife and childern's bad a bed, and nigh clammed besides.”

“ Was there none to promise us a little work?".

“ Not one. And they held out no encouragement that things would mend. Some of the masters gave us a few shillings, grumbling at the same time that they couldn't afford it, and that things was a growing worse."

“ They can't get worse.

“ Yes they can, comrades," continued the speaker. “ There was a meeting to-day of the masters : did ye hear on't?”

Of course they had.

“ Then what d'ye think was the chief measure as was proposed at it? Why, to reduce the wages again.”

" It's purfectly unpossible!” exclaimed one of the perplexed listeners. " They's as low now as they can be."

" I tell ye, it was proposed to-day to grind 'em still lower, let 'em be as low as they will," was the positive reply. “ And what's more, the measure was decided on, and carried. George Arkell and Son's was the only firm that held out against it. Who says now that things can't be worse?"

Murmurs of resentment against the masters, mingled with those of approbation for “ George Arkell and Son," rose from all sides of the room.

« Nobody has held out for us, from the first, like Mr. Arkell,” observed a quiet, intelligent-looking man, who had mostly been silent during the whole of the evening. “When he speaks to us, too, it is kindly and sympathisingly, like a gentleman as he is, and as if we were rational beings which they don't all do. He is a just man, brethren, and an honour to the city. It is our belief that many of the others care very little whether we starve or live. They are all selfish.”

“ They have cause to be," interposed Markham. “ It is a daily struggle with them to keep their heads above water."

“ You always speak up for the masters, Markham! If report says true, you know, you would have been setting up for one yourself, some of these days, had the prosperity of the city continued.”

“ He has cause to speak up for them,” returned one of the latelyentered men. “ If all the masters were like his, we should have less grounds of complaint. It is said that Mr. Arkell has the interests of the men at heart as much as he has his own. His contribution to us to-day was the largest we received : as his ever has been. Young Mr. Travice, too, followed us out, as we were leaving, and slipped five shillings into our hands.”

“It is nothing but the dreadful suspense and uncertainty everything is at, that makes our governor so ill," resumed Markham. “You must all have seen how terribly he is changed.”

“He is changed," said one of the former speakers; “but, brethren, when Mr. William Arkell comes to his death-bed, it will be a peaceful

one."

"A peaceful conscience, but a heavy heart,” acquiesced Markham ; " that is his portion now, my friends. He is making largely, and so losing heavily, weekly : for you are all aware that goods are not selling for what they cost to manufacture. And he must continue to make; and lose ; or else give up his business and turn us all off, to swell the number of the destitute : and some of us, you know, have grown old in his service and his father's.”

“Ay, ay," murmured the men. “God bless Mr. William Arkell !"

“And if this state of things is embarrassing for Arkell and Son," proceeded Markham, “ what must it be for those masters who still keep on making, but whose resources are all but exhausted? You should not cast blame towards the masters, comrades."

“No, no, 'tain't right,” murmured some of the more just-thinking of the men. “ The masters' troubles must be tenfold greater than ours."

“ I should be glad to hear how you make that out,” grumbled a malcontent." I have got seven mouths to feed at home, and how am I to feed 'em, not earning a penny ? We was but six, but our Betsy, as was

« EelmineJätka »