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 perpracticable 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.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10