Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XVI. 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 a deputation 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 had received 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 which had occurred during the past week, they fell to talking about the business which brought them together. There might be about twenty gentlemen in the room, including some by courtesy, who were not immediately concerned in the settlement of the present question; but who, nevertheless, were sufficiently interested to attend. These were divided into little groups, who did not seem by any means unanimous. Some were for a slight concession, just a sugar-plum to quieten the naughty child, a sacrifice to peace and quietness. Some were steadily and vehemently opposed to the dangerous precedent of yielding one jot or one tittle to the outward force of a turn-out. It was teaching the workpeople how to become masters, said they. Did they want the wildest thing here-after, they would know that the way to obtain their wishes would be to strike work. Besides, one or two of those present had only just returned from the New Bailey, where one of the turn-outs had been tried for a cruel assault on 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 poor fellow had been treated; and their indignation at wrong, took (as it often does) the extreme form of revenge. They felt as if, rather than yield to the body of men who were resorting to such cruel measures towards their fellow-workmen, they, the masters, would sooner relinquish all the benefits to be derived from the fulfilment of the commission, in order that the workmen might suffer keenly. They forgot that the strike was in this instance the consequence of want and need, suffered unjustly, as the endurers believed; for, however insane, and without ground of reason, such was their belief, and such was the cause of their violence. It is a great truth that you cannot extinguish violence by violence. You may put it down for a time; but while you are crowing over your imaginary success, see if it does not return with seven devils 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 the circumstances which led the masters to think it was the wise policy of the time 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 of sentences as the following —

“Poor devils! they’re near enough to starving, I’m afraid. Mrs. Aldred makes two 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 bullied into anything!”

“A rise of a shilling or so won’t make much difference, and they will go away thinking they’ve gained their point.”

“That’s the very thing I object to. They’ll think so, and whenever they’ve a point 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 know what a bad part that is to heal. He had to stand still with the pain, and that left him at the mercy of the cruel wretch, who beat him about the head till you’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 the cause of my ruin.”

“Ay, I for one won’t yield one farthing to the cruel brutes; they’re more like wild beasts than human beings.”

(Well, who might have made them different?)

“I say, Carson, just go and tell Duncombe of this fresh instance of their abominable 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, and asked 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 the irruption of Brennus and his Gauls.

Tramp, tramp, came the heavy clogged feet up the stairs; and in a minute five wild, earnest-looking men stood in the room. John Barton, from some mistake as to time, was not among them. Had they been larger-boned men, you would have called them gaunt; as it was, they were little of stature, and their fustian clothes 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 worthy Professor Teufelsdreck, in Sartor Resartus, to judge from the dilapidated coats and trousers, which yet clothed men of parts and of power. It was long since 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 rather affronted at such a ragged detachment coming between the wind and their nobility; but what cared they.

At the request of a gentleman hastily chosen to officiate as chairman, the leader 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 definite answer.

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, but only by a majority of one. The minority haughtily and audibly expressed their dissent from the measures to be adopted, even after the delegates re-entered the room; their words and looks did not pass unheeded by the quick-eyed operatives; their names were registered in bitter hearts.

The masters could not consent to the advance demanded by the workmen. They would agree to give one shilling per week more than they had previously offered. Were the delegates empowered to accept such offer?

They were empowered to accept or decline any offer made that day by the masters.

Then it might be as well for them to consult among themselves as to what should be their decision. They again withdrew.

It was not for long. They came back, and positively declined any compromise of their demands.

Then up sprang Mr. Henry Carson, the head and voice of the violent party among the masters, and addressing the chairman, even before the scowling operatives, he proposed some resolutions, which he, and those who agreed with him, had been concocting during this last absence of the deputation.

They were, firstly, withdrawing the proposal just made, and declaring all communication between the masters and that particular Trades’ Union at an end; secondly, declaring that no master would employ any workman in future, unless he signed a declaration that he did not belong to any Trades’ Union, and pledged himself not to assist or subscribe to any society, having for its object interference with the masters’ powers; and, thirdly, that the masters should pledge themselves to protect and encourage all workmen willing to accept employment on those conditions, and at the rate of wages first offered. Considering that the men who now stood listening with lowering brows of defiance were all of them leading members of the Union, such resolutions were in themselves sufficiently provocative of animosity: but not content with simply stating them, Harry Carson went on to characterise the conduct of the workmen in no measured terms; every word he spoke rendering their looks more livid, their glaring eyes more fierce. One among them would have spoken, but checked 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 up to second the motion. It was carried, but far from unanimously. The chairman announced it to the delegates (who had been once more turned out of the room for a division). They received it with deep brooding silence, but spake never a word, and left the room without even a bow.

Now there had been some by-play at this meeting, not recorded in the Manchester newspapers, which gave an account of the more regular part of the transaction.

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 admirable caricature of them — lank, ragged, dispirited, and famine-stricken. Underneath he wrote a hasty quotation from the fat knight’s well-known speech in Henry IV. He passed it to one of his neighbours, who acknowledged the likeness instantly, and by him it was sent round to others, who all smiled and nodded their heads. When it came back to its owner he tore the back of the letter on which 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 see that 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, at passing 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 up for it.”

The waiter, good-natured and sympathetic, accompanied him upstairs; saw the paper picked up and untwisted, and then being convinced, by a hasty glance at its contents, that it was only what the man had called it, “a bit of a picture,” he allowed him to bear away his prize.

Towards seven o’clock that evening, many operatives began to assemble in a room in the Weavers’ Arms public-house, a room appropriated for “festive occasions,” as the landlord, in his circular, on opening the premises, had described it. But, alas! it was on no festive occasion that they met there this night. Starved, irritated, despairing men, they were assembling to hear the 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 of addressing the meeting on the present state of affairs between the employers and the employed, or (as he chose to term them) the idle and the industrious classes. The room was not large, but its bareness of furniture made it appear so. Unshaded gas flared down upon the lean and unwashed artisans as they entered, 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 not one word of their own; and it sank all the deeper into the sore hearts of the listeners for their forbearance.

Then the “gentleman from London” (who had been previously informed of the masters’ decision) entered. You would have been puzzled to define his exact position, or what was the state of his mind as regarded education. He looked so 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 medical student of the Bob Sawyer class, or an unsuccessful actor, or a flashy shopman. 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; then glancing round, he inquired whether it would not be agreeable to the gentlemen present to have pipes and liquor handed round, adding, that he would stand treat.

As the man who has had his taste educated to love reading, falls devouringly upon books after a long abstinence, so these poor fellows, whose tastes had been left to educate themselves into a liking for tobacco, beer, and similar gratifications, gleamed up at the proposal of the London delegate. Tobacco and drink deaden the pangs of hunger, and make one forget the miserable home, the desolate future.

They were now ready to listen to him with approbation. He felt it; and rising like a great orator, with his right arm outstretched, his left in the breast of 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 the younger Brutus, and magnified the resistless might of the “millions of Manchester,” the Londoner descended to matter-of-fact business, and in his capacity this way he did not belie the good judgment of those who had sent him as a delegate. Masses of people, when left to their own free choice, seem to have discretion in distinguishing men of natural talent: it is a pity they so little regard temper and principles. He rapidly dictated resolutions, and suggested measures. He wrote out a stirring placard for the walls. He proposed sending delegates to entreat the assistance of other Trades’ Unions in other towns. He headed the list of subscribing Unions, by a liberal donation from that with which he was especially connected in London; and what was more, and more uncommon, he paid down the money in real, clinking, blinking, golden sovereigns! The money, alas! was cravingly required; but before alleviating any private necessities on the morrow, small sums were handed to each of the delegates, who were in a day or two to set out on their expeditions to Glasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham, etc. These men were most of them members of the deputation who had that morning waited upon the masters. After he had drawn up some letters, and spoken a few more stirring words, the gentleman from London withdrew, previously shaking hands all round; and many speedily followed him out of the room, and out of the house.

The newly-appointed delegates, and one or two others, remained behind to talk over their respective missions, and to give and exchange opinions in more homely 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 jerk of 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 that there 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 a step-son, but that makes no odds,” said another.

But now tongues were hushed, and all eyes were directed towards the member of the deputation who had that morning returned to the hotel to obtain possession of 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! how like; that’s me, by G-d, it’s the very way I’m obligated to pin my waistcoat up, to hide that I’ve getten no shirt. That IS a shame, and I’ll not stand it.”

“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 tell agen mysel, if I were not clemming” (his eyes filled with tears; he was a poor, pinched, sharp-featured man, with a gentle and melancholy expression of countenance), “and if I could keep from thinking of them at home, as is clemming; but with their cries for food ringing in my ears, and making me afeard of going home, and wonder if I should hear ’em wailing out, if I lay cold and drowned at th’ bottom o’ th’ canal, there — why, man, I cannot laugh at aught. It seems to make me sad that there is any as can make game on what they’ve never knowed; as can make such laughable pictures on men, whose very hearts 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 makes me more than sad, it makes my heart burn within me, to see that folk can make a 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 warm clothing to the poor wife who lies in labour on th’ damp flags; and for victuals for the childer, whose little voices are getting too faint and weak to cry aloud wi’ hunger. For, brothers, is not them the things we ask for when we ask for more wage? We donnot want dainties, we want bellyfuls; we donnot want 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 grand houses, 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 the keen wind, and ask us with their eyes why we brought ’em into th’ world to suffer?”

He lowered his deep voice almost to a whisper —

“I’ve seen a father who had killed his child rather than let it clem before his eyes; and he were a tender-hearted man.”

He began again in his usual tone. “We come to th’ masters wi’ full hearts, to ask for them things I named afore. We know that they’ve getten money, as we’ve earned for ’em; we know trade is mending, and they’ve large orders, for which they’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 and horses — to more dress and pomp. Well and good, if yo choose to be fools we’ll not 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 for our own lives neither (for there’s many a one here, I know by mysel, as would be glad and thankful to lie down and die out o’ this weary world), but for the lives of them little ones, who don’t yet know what life is, and are afeard of death. Well, we come before th’ masters to state what we want, and what we must have, afore we’ll set shoulder to their work; and they say, ‘No.’ One would think that would be enough of hard-heartedness, but it isn’t. They go and make jesting pictures on us! I could laugh at mysel, as well as poor John Slater there; but then I must be easy in my mind to laugh. Now I only know that I would give the last drop of my blood to avenge us on yon chap, who had so 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 or words. John continued —

“You’ll wonder, chaps, how I came to miss the time this morning; I’ll just tell you what I was a-doing. Th’ chaplain at the New Bailey sent and gived me an order to see Jonas Higginbotham; him as was taken up last week for throwing vitriol in a knob-stick’s face. Well, I couldn’t help but go; and I didn’t reckon it would ha’ kept me so late. Jonas were like one crazy when I got to him; he said he could na get rest night or day for th’ face of the poor fellow he 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 as would 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 up and down continually like a wild beast in his cage. At last he bethought him on a way to help a bit, and he got the chaplain to send for me; and he telled me this; and that th’ man were lying in the Infirmary, and he bade me go (today’s the day as folk may be admitted into th’ Infirmary) and get his silver watch, as was his mother’s, and sell it as well as I could, and take the money, and bid the poor knob-stick send it to his friends beyond Burnley; and I were to take him Jonas’s kind regards, and he humbly axed him to forgive him. So I did what Jonas wished. But, bless your life, none on us would ever throw vitriol again (at least at a knob-stick) if they could see the sight I saw today. 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. He would ha’ bitten his hand to keep down his moans, but couldn’t, his face hurt him so if he moved it e’er so little. He could scarce mind me when I telled him about Jonas; he did squeeze my hand when I jingled the money, but when I axed his wife’s name, he shrieked out, ‘Mary, Mary, shall I never see you again? Mary, my darling, they’ve made me blind because I wanted to work for you and our own baby; O Mary, Mary!’ Then the nurse came, and said he were raving, and that I had made him worse. And I’m afeard it was true; yet I were loth to go without knowing where to send the money. . . . . So that kept me beyond my 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. I axed th’ nurse to find out who she was, and where she lived. But what I’m more especial naming it now for is this — for one thing I wanted you all to know why I weren’t at my post this morning; for another, I wish to say, that I, for one, 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 would like, and what I would do, would be to fight the masters. There’s one among yo called me a coward. Well! every man has a right to his opinion; but since I’ve thought on th’ matter today I’ve thought we han all on us been more like cowards in attacking the poor like ourselves; them as has none to help, but mun choose between vitriol and starvation. I say we’re more cowardly in doing that than in leaving them alone. No! what I would do is this. Have at the masters!” Again he shouted, “Have at the masters!” He spoke lower; all listened with hushed breath —

“It’s the masters as has wrought this woe; it’s the masters as should pay for it. Him as called me coward just now, may try if I am one or not. Set me to serve 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 within an 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 deadly plan. Deeper and darker grew the import of their speeches, as they stood hoarsely muttering their meaning out, and glaring with eyes that told the terror their own thoughts were to them, upon their neighbours. Their clenched fists, their set teeth, their livid looks, all told the suffering which their minds were voluntarily undergoing in the contemplation of crime, and in familiarising 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 met together to consult further. With the distrust of guilt, each was suspicious of his neighbour; each dreaded the treachery of another. A number of pieces of paper (the identical letter on which the caricature had been drawn that very morning) 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 was extinguished; each drew out a paper. The gas was re-lighted. Then each went as far as he could from his fellows, and examined the paper he had drawn without saying a word, and with a countenance as stony and immovable as he could make it.

Then, still rigidly silent, they each took up their hats and went every one his own way.

He who had drawn the marked paper had drawn the lot of the assassin! and he had sworn to act according to his drawing! But no one, save God and his own conscience, knew who was the appointed murderer.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17