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Chapter 16 Meeting between masters and workmen

  • > "Not for a moment take the scorner's chair; >       While seated there, thou know'st not how a word, >       A tone, a look, may gall thy brother's heart, >       And make him turn in bitterness against thee."
  • >                                             —"LOVE-TRUTHS."
  • The day arrived on which the masters were to have an interview with _eputation of the workpeople. The meeting was to take place in a public room, at an hotel; and there, about eleven o'clock, the mill-owners, who ha_eceived the foreign orders, began to collect.
  • Of course, the first subject, however full their minds might be of another, was the weather. Having done their duty by all the showers and sunshine whic_ad occurred during the past week, they fell to talking about the busines_hich brought them together. There might be about twenty gentlemen in th_oom, including some by courtesy, who were not immediately concerned in th_ettlement of the present question; but who, nevertheless, were sufficientl_nterested to attend. These were divided into little groups, who did not see_y any means unanimous. Some were for a slight concession, just a sugar-plu_o quieten the naughty child, a sacrifice to peace and quietness. Some wer_teadily and vehemently opposed to the dangerous precedent of yielding one jo_r one tittle to the outward force of a turn-out. It was teaching th_orkpeople how to become masters, said they. Did they want the wildest thin_ere-after, they would know that the way to obtain their wishes would be t_trike work. Besides, one or two of those present had only just returned fro_he New Bailey, where one of the turn-outs had been tried for a cruel assaul_n a poor north-country weaver, who had attempted to work at the low price.
  • They were indignant, and justly so, at the merciless manner in which the poo_ellow had been treated; and their indignation at wrong, took (as it ofte_oes) the extreme form of revenge. They felt as if, rather than yield to th_ody of men who were resorting to such cruel measures towards their fellow- workmen, they, the masters, would sooner relinquish all the benefits to b_erived from the fulfilment of the commission, in order that the workmen migh_uffer keenly. They forgot that the strike was in this instance th_onsequence of want and need, suffered unjustly, as the endurers believed; for, however insane, and without ground of reason, such was their belief, an_uch was the cause of their violence. It is a great truth that you canno_xtinguish violence by violence. You may put it down for a time; but while yo_re crowing over your imaginary success, see if it does not return with seve_evils worse than its former self!
  • No one thought of treating the workmen as brethren and friends, and openly, clearly, as appealing to reasonable men, stating exactly and fully th_ircumstances which led the masters to think it was the wise policy of th_ime to make sacrifices themselves, and to hope for them from the operatives.
  • In going from group to group in the room, you caught such a medley o_entences as the following—
  • "Poor devils! they're near enough to starving, I'm afraid. Mrs. Aldred make_wo cows' heads into soup every week, and people come many miles to fetch it; and if these times last, we must try and do more. But we must not be bullie_nto anything!"
  • "A rise of a shilling or so won't make much difference, and they will go awa_hinking they've gained their point."
  • "That's the very thing I object to. They'll think so, and whenever they've _oint to gain, no matter how unreasonable, they'll strike work."
  • "It really injures them more than us."
  • "I don't see how our interests can be separated."
  • "The d—d brute had thrown vitriol on the poor fellow's ankles, and you kno_hat a bad part that is to heal. He had to stand still with the pain, and tha_eft him at the mercy of the cruel wretch, who beat him about the head til_ou'd hardly have known he was a man. They doubt if he'll live."
  • "If it were only for that, I'll stand out against them, even if it is th_ause of my ruin."
  • "Ay, I for one won't yield one farthing to the cruel brutes; they're more lik_ild beasts than human beings."
  • (Well, who might have made them different?)
  • "I say, Carson, just go and tell Duncombe of this fresh instance of thei_bominable conduct. He's wavering, but I think this will decide him."
  • The door was now opened, and the waiter announced that the men were below, an_sked if it were the pleasure of the gentlemen that they should be shown up.
  • They assented, and rapidly took their places round the official table; looking, as like as they could, to the Roman senators who awaited th_rruption of Brennus and his Gauls.
  • Tramp, tramp, came the heavy clogged feet up the stairs; and in a minute fiv_ild, earnest-looking men stood in the room. John Barton, from some mistake a_o time, was not among them. Had they been larger-boned men, you would hav_alled them gaunt; as it was, they were little of stature, and their fustia_lothes hung loosely upon their shrunk limbs. In choosing their delegates, too, the operatives had had more regard to their brains, and power of speech, than to their wardrobes; they might have read the opinions of that worth_rofessor Teufelsdreck, in Sartor Resartus, to judge from the dilapidate_oats and trousers, which yet clothed men of parts and of power. It was lon_ince many of them had known the luxury of a new article of dress; and air- gaps were to be seen in their garments. Some of the masters were rathe_ffronted at such a ragged detachment coming between the wind and thei_obility; but what cared they.
  • At the request of a gentleman hastily chosen to officiate as chairman, th_eader of the delegates read, in a high-pitched, psalm-singing voice, a paper, containing the operatives' statement of the case at issue, their complaints, and their demands, which last were not remarkable for moderation.
  • He was then desired to withdraw for a few minutes, with his fellow-delegates, to another room, while the masters considered what should be their definit_nswer.
  • When the men had left the room, a whispered earnest consultation took place, every one re-urging his former arguments. The conceders carried the day, bu_nly by a majority of one. The minority haughtily and audibly expressed thei_issent from the measures to be adopted, even after the delegates re-entere_he room; their words and looks did not pass unheeded by the quick-eye_peratives; their names were registered in bitter hearts.
  • The masters could not consent to the advance demanded by the workmen. The_ould agree to give one shilling per week more than they had previousl_ffered. Were the delegates empowered to accept such offer?
  • They were empowered to accept or decline any offer made that day by th_asters.
  • Then it might be as well for them to consult among themselves as to wha_hould be their decision. They again withdrew.
  • It was not for long. They came back, and positively declined any compromise o_heir demands.
  • Then up sprang Mr. Henry Carson, the head and voice of the violent party amon_he masters, and addressing the chairman, even before the scowling operatives, he proposed some resolutions, which he, and those who agreed with him, ha_een concocting during this last absence of the deputation.
  • They were, firstly, withdrawing the proposal just made, and declaring al_ommunication between the masters and that particular Trades' Union at an end; secondly, declaring that no master would employ any workman in future, unles_e signed a declaration that he did not belong to any Trades' Union, an_ledged himself not to assist or subscribe to any society, having for it_bject interference with the masters' powers; and, thirdly, that the master_hould pledge themselves to protect and encourage all workmen willing t_ccept employment on those conditions, and at the rate of wages first offered.
  • Considering that the men who now stood listening with lowering brows o_efiance were all of them leading members of the Union, such resolutions wer_n themselves sufficiently provocative of animosity: but not content wit_imply stating them, Harry Carson went on to characterise the conduct of th_orkmen in no measured terms; every word he spoke rendering their looks mor_ivid, their glaring eyes more fierce. One among them would have spoken, bu_hecked himself, in obedience to the stern glance and pressure on his arm, received from the leader. Mr. Carson sat down, and a friend instantly got u_o second the motion. It was carried, but far from unanimously. The chairma_nnounced it to the delegates (who had been once more turned out of the roo_or a division). They received it with deep brooding silence, but spake neve_ word, and left the room without even a bow.
  • Now there had been some by-play at this meeting, not recorded in th_anchester newspapers, which gave an account of the more regular part of th_ransaction.
  • While the men had stood grouped near the door, on their first entrance, Mr.
  • Harry Carson had taken out his silver pencil, and had drawn an admirabl_aricature of them—lank, ragged, dispirited, and famine-stricken. Underneat_e wrote a hasty quotation from the fat knight's well-known speech in Henr_V. He passed it to one of his neighbours, who acknowledged the likenes_nstantly, and by him it was sent round to others, who all smiled and nodde_heir heads. When it came back to its owner he tore the back of the letter o_hich it was drawn in two, twisted them up, and flung them into the fireplace; but, careless whether they reached their aim or not, he did not look to se_hat they fell just short of any consuming cinders.
  • This proceeding was closely observed by one of the men.
  • He watched the masters as they left the hotel (laughing, some of them were, a_assing jokes), and when all had gone, he re-entered. He went to the waiter, who recognised him.
  • "There's a bit on a picture up yonder, as one o' the gentlemen threw away; I've a little lad at home as dearly loves a picture; by your leave I'll go u_or it."
  • The waiter, good-natured and sympathetic, accompanied him upstairs; saw th_aper picked up and untwisted, and then being convinced, by a hasty glance a_ts contents, that it was only what the man had called it, "a bit of _icture," he allowed him to bear away his prize.
  • Towards seven o'clock that evening, many operatives began to assemble in _oom in the Weavers' Arms public-house, a room appropriated for "festiv_ccasions," as the landlord, in his circular, on opening the premises, ha_escribed it. But, alas! it was on no festive occasion that they met ther_his night. Starved, irritated, despairing men, they were assembling to hea_he answer that morning given by the masters to their delegates; after which, as was stated in the notice, a gentleman from London would have the honour o_ddressing the meeting on the present state of affairs between the employer_nd the employed, or (as he chose to term them) the idle and the industriou_lasses. The room was not large, but its bareness of furniture made it appea_o. Unshaded gas flared down upon the lean and unwashed artisans as the_ntered, their eyes blinking at the excess of light.
  • They took their seats on benches, and awaited the deputation. The latter, gloomily and ferociously, delivered the masters' ultimatum, adding thereto no_ne word of their own; and it sank all the deeper into the sore hearts of th_isteners for their forbearance.
  • Then the "gentleman from London" (who had been previously informed of th_asters' decision) entered. You would have been puzzled to define his exac_osition, or what was the state of his mind as regarded education. He looke_o self-conscious, so far from earnest, among the group of eager, fierce, absorbed men, among whom he now stood. He might have been a disgraced medica_tudent of the Bob Sawyer class, or an unsuccessful actor, or a flash_hopman. The impression he would have given you would have been unfavourable, and yet there was much about him that could only be characterised as doubtful.
  • He smirked in acknowledgment of their uncouth greetings, and sat down; the_lancing round, he inquired whether it would not be agreeable to the gentleme_resent to have pipes and liquor handed round, adding, that he would stan_reat.
  • As the man who has had his taste educated to love reading, falls devouringl_pon books after a long abstinence, so these poor fellows, whose tastes ha_een left to educate themselves into a liking for tobacco, beer, and simila_ratifications, gleamed up at the proposal of the London delegate. Tobacco an_rink deaden the pangs of hunger, and make one forget the miserable home, th_esolate future.
  • They were now ready to listen to him with approbation. He felt it; and risin_ike a great orator, with his right arm outstretched, his left in the breas_f his waistcoat, he began to declaim, with a forced theatrical voice.
  • After a burst of eloquence, in which he blended the deeds of the elder and th_ounger Brutus, and magnified the resistless might of the "millions o_anchester," the Londoner descended to matter-of-fact business, and in hi_apacity this way he did not belie the good judgment of those who had sent hi_s a delegate. Masses of people, when left to their own free choice, seem t_ave discretion in distinguishing men of natural talent: it is a pity they s_ittle regard temper and principles. He rapidly dictated resolutions, an_uggested measures. He wrote out a stirring placard for the walls. He propose_ending delegates to entreat the assistance of other Trades' Unions in othe_owns. He headed the list of subscribing Unions, by a liberal donation fro_hat with which he was especially connected in London; and what was more, an_ore uncommon, he paid down the money in real, clinking, blinking, golde_overeigns! The money, alas! was cravingly required; but before alleviatin_ny private necessities on the morrow, small sums were handed to each of th_elegates, who were in a day or two to set out on their expeditions t_lasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham, etc. These men were most of them members o_he deputation who had that morning waited upon the masters. After he ha_rawn up some letters, and spoken a few more stirring words, the gentlema_rom London withdrew, previously shaking hands all round; and many speedil_ollowed him out of the room, and out of the house.
  • The newly-appointed delegates, and one or two others, remained behind to tal_ver their respective missions, and to give and exchange opinions in mor_omely and natural language than they dared to use before the London orator.
  • "He's a rare chap, yon," began one, indicating the departed delegate by a jer_f his thumb towards the door. "He's getten the gift of the gab, anyhow!"
  • "Ay! ay! he knows what he's about. See how he poured it into us about tha_here Brutus. He were pretty hard, too, to kill his own son!"
  • "I could kill mine if he took part with the masters; to be sure, he's but _tep-son, but that makes no odds," said another.
  • But now tongues were hushed, and all eyes were directed towards the member o_he deputation who had that morning returned to the hotel to obtain possessio_f Harry Carson's clever caricature of the operatives.
  • The heads clustered together, to gaze at and detect the likenesses.
  • "That's John Slater! I'd ha' known him anywhere, by his big nose. Lord! ho_ike; that's me, by G-d, it's the very way I'm obligated to pin my waistcoa_p, to hide that I've getten no shirt. That IS a shame, and I'll not stan_t."
  • "Well!" said John Slater, after having acknowledged his nose and his likeness;
  • "I could laugh at a jest as well as e'er the best on 'em, though it did tel_gen mysel, if I were not clemming" (his eyes filled with tears; he was _oor, pinched, sharp-featured man, with a gentle and melancholy expression o_ountenance), "and if I could keep from thinking of them at home, as i_lemming; but with their cries for food ringing in my ears, and making m_feard of going home, and wonder if I should hear 'em wailing out, if I la_old and drowned at th' bottom o' th' canal, there—why, man, I cannot laugh a_ught. It seems to make me sad that there is any as can make game on wha_hey've never knowed; as can make such laughable pictures on men, whose ver_earts within 'em are so raw and sore as ours were and are, God help us."
  • John Barton began to speak; they turned to him with great attention. "It make_e more than sad, it makes my heart burn within me, to see that folk can mak_ jest of striving men; of chaps who comed to ask for a bit o' fire for th'
  • old granny, as shivers i' th' cold; for a bit o' bedding, and some war_lothing to the poor wife who lies in labour on th' damp flags; and fo_ictuals for the childer, whose little voices are getting too faint and wea_o cry aloud wi' hunger. For, brothers, is not them the things we ask for whe_e ask for more wage? We donnot want dainties, we want bellyfuls; we donno_ant gimcrack coats and waistcoats, we want warm clothes; and so that we get
  • 'em, we'd not quarrel wi' what they're made on. We donnot want their gran_ouses, we want a roof to cover us from the rain, and the snow, and the storm; ay, and not alone to cover us, but the helpless ones that cling to us in th_een wind, and ask us with their eyes why we brought 'em into th' world t_uffer?"
  • He lowered his deep voice almost to a whisper—
  • "I've seen a father who had killed his child rather than let it clem befor_is eyes; and he were a tender-hearted man."
  • He began again in his usual tone. "We come to th' masters wi' full hearts, t_sk for them things I named afore. We know that they've getten money, as we'v_arned for 'em; we know trade is mending, and they've large orders, for whic_hey'll be well paid; we ask for our share o' th' payment; for, say we, if th'
  • masters get our share of payment it will only go to keep servants an_orses—to more dress and pomp. Well and good, if yo choose to be fools we'l_ot hinder you, so long as you're just; but our share we must and will have; we'll not be cheated. We want it for daily bread, for life itself; and not fo_ur own lives neither (for there's many a one here, I know by mysel, as woul_e glad and thankful to lie down and die out o' this weary world), but for th_ives of them little ones, who don't yet know what life is, and are afeard o_eath. Well, we come before th' masters to state what we want, and what w_ust have, afore we'll set shoulder to their work; and they say, 'No.' On_ould think that would be enough of hard-heartedness, but it isn't. They g_nd make jesting pictures on us! I could laugh at mysel, as well as poor Joh_later there; but then I must be easy in my mind to laugh. Now I only kno_hat I would give the last drop of my blood to avenge us on yon chap, who ha_o little feeling in him as to make game on earnest, suffering men!"
  • A low angry murmur was heard among the men, but it did not yet take form o_ords. John continued—
  • "You'll wonder, chaps, how I came to miss the time this morning; I'll jus_ell you what I was a-doing. Th' chaplain at the New Bailey sent and gived m_n order to see Jonas Higginbotham; him as was taken up last week for throwin_itriol in a knob-stick's face. Well, I couldn't help but go; and I didn'_eckon it would ha' kept me so late. Jonas were like one crazy when I got t_im; he said he could na get rest night or day for th' face of the poor fello_e had damaged; then he thought on his weak, clemmed look, as he tramped, footsore, into town; and Jonas thought, maybe, he had left them at home a_ould look for news, and hope and get none, but, haply, tidings of his death.
  • Well, Jonas had thought on these things till he could not rest, but walked u_nd down continually like a wild beast in his cage. At last he bethought hi_n a way to help a bit, and he got the chaplain to send for me; and he telle_e this; and that th' man were lying in the Infirmary, and he bade me go (to- day's the day as folk may be admitted into th' Infirmary) and get his silve_atch, as was his mother's, and sell it as well as I could, and take th_oney, and bid the poor knob-stick send it to his friends beyond Burnley; an_ were to take him Jonas's kind regards, and he humbly axed him to forgiv_im. So I did what Jonas wished. But, bless your life, none on us would eve_hrow vitriol again (at least at a knob-stick) if they could see the sight _aw to-day. The man lay, his face all wrapped in cloths, so I didn't see that: but not a limb, nor a bit of a limb, could keep from quivering with pain. H_ould ha' bitten his hand to keep down his moans, but couldn't, his face hur_im so if he moved it e'er so little. He could scarce mind me when I telle_im about Jonas; he did squeeze my hand when I jingled the money, but when _xed his wife's name, he shrieked out, 'Mary, Mary, shall I never see yo_gain? Mary, my darling, they've made me blind because I wanted to work fo_ou and our own baby; O Mary, Mary!' Then the nurse came, and said he wer_aving, and that I had made him worse. And I'm afeard it was true; yet I wer_oth to go without knowing where to send the money… . . So that kept me beyon_y time, chaps."
  • "Did you hear where the wife lived at last?" asked many anxious voices.
  • "No! he went on talking to her, till his words cut my heart like a knife. _xed th' nurse to find out who she was, and where she lived. But what I'm mor_special naming it now for is this,—for one thing I wanted you all to know wh_ weren't at my post this morning; for another, I wish to say, that I, fo_ne, ha' seen enough of what comes of attacking knob-sticks, and I'll ha'
  • nought to do with it no more."
  • There were some expressions of disapprobation, but John did not mind them.
  • "Nay! I'm no coward," he replied, "and I'm true to th' backbone. What I woul_ike, and what I would do, would be to fight the masters. There's one among y_alled me a coward. Well! every man has a right to his opinion; but since I'v_hought on th' matter to-day I've thought we han all on us been more lik_owards in attacking the poor like ourselves; them as has none to help, bu_un choose between vitriol and starvation. I say we're more cowardly in doin_hat than in leaving them alone. No! what I would do is this. Have at th_asters!" Again he shouted, "Have at the masters!" He spoke lower; al_istened with hushed breath—
  • "It's the masters as has wrought this woe; it's the masters as should pay fo_t. Him as called me coward just now, may try if I am one or not. Set me t_erve out the masters, and see if there's aught I'll stick at."
  • "It would give the masters a bit on a fright if one of them were beaten withi_n inch of his life," said one.
  • "Ay! or beaten till no life were left in him," growled another.
  • And so with words, or looks that told more than words, they built up a deadl_lan. Deeper and darker grew the import of their speeches, as they stoo_oarsely muttering their meaning out, and glaring with eyes that told th_error their own thoughts were to them, upon their neighbours. Their clenche_ists, their set teeth, their livid looks, all told the suffering which thei_inds were voluntarily undergoing in the contemplation of crime, and i_amiliarising themselves with its details.
  • Then came one of those fierce terrible oaths which bind members of Trades'
  • Unions to any given purpose. Then under the flaring gaslight, they me_ogether to consult further. With the distrust of guilt, each was suspiciou_f his neighbour; each dreaded the treachery of another. A number of pieces o_aper (the identical letter on which the caricature had been drawn that ver_orning) were torn up, and one was marked. Then all were folded up again, looking exactly alike. They were shuffled together in a hat. The gas wa_xtinguished; each drew out a paper. The gas was re-lighted. Then each went a_ar as he could from his fellows, and examined the paper he had drawn withou_aying a word, and with a countenance as stony and immovable as he could mak_t.
  • Then, still rigidly silent, they each took up their hats and went every on_is own way.
  • He who had drawn the marked paper had drawn the lot of the assassin! and h_ad sworn to act according to his drawing! But no one, save God and his ow_onscience, knew who was the appointed murderer.