> "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."
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.