At dusk that same evening the two had started for the village fair. A velveteen shooting-jacket, a pair of corduroy trousers, and a waistcoat, furnished by Tregarva, covered with flowers of every imaginable hue, tolerably disguised Lancelot, who was recommended by his conductor to keep his hands in his pockets as much as possible, lest their delicacy, which was, as it happened, not very remarkable, might betray him. As they walked together along the plashy turnpike road, overtaking, now and then, groups of two or three who were out on the same errand as themselves, Lancelot could not help remarking to the keeper how superior was the look of comfort in the boys and young men, with their ruddy cheeks and smart dresses, to the worn and haggard appearance of the elder men.
‘Let them alone, poor fellows,’ said Tregarva; ‘it won’t last long. When they’ve got two or three children at their heels, they’ll look as thin and shabby as their own fathers.’
‘They must spend a great deal of money on their clothes.’
‘And on their stomachs, too, sir. They never lay by a farthing; and I don’t see how they can, when their club-money’s paid, and their insides are well filled.’
‘Do you mean to say that they actually have not as much to eat after they marry?’
‘Indeed and I do, sir. They get no more wages afterwards round here, and have four or five to clothe and feed off the same money that used to keep one; and that sum won’t take long to work out, I think.’
‘But do they not in some places pay the married men higher wages than the unmarried?’
‘That’s a worse trick still, sir; for it tempts the poor thoughtless boys to go and marry the first girl they can get hold of; and it don’t want much persuasion to make them do that at any time.’
‘But why don’t the clergymen teach them to put into the savings banks?’
‘One here and there, sir, says what he can, though it’s of very little use. Besides, every one is afraid of savings banks now; not a year but one reads of some breaking and the lawyers going off with the earnings of the poor. And if they didn’t, youth’s a foolish time at best; and the carnal man will be hankering after amusement, sir — amusement.’
‘And no wonder,’ said Lancelot; ‘at all events, I should not think they got much of it. But it does seem strange that no other amusement can be found for them than the beer-shop. Can’t they read? Can’t they practise light and interesting handicrafts at home, as the German peasantry do?’
‘Who’ll teach ’em, sir? From the plough-tail to the reaping-hook, and back again, is all they know. Besides, sir, they are not like us Cornish; they are a stupid pigheaded generation at the best, these south countrymen. They’re grown-up babies who want the parson and the squire to be leading them, and preaching to them, and spurring them on, and coaxing them up, every moment. And as for scholarship, sir, a boy leaves school at nine or ten to follow the horses; and between that time and his wedding-day he forgets every word he ever learnt, and becomes, for the most part, as thorough a heathen savage at heart as those wild Indians in the Brazils used to be.’
‘And then we call them civilised Englishmen!’ said Lancelot. ‘We can see that your Indian is a savage, because he wears skins and feathers; but your Irish cottar or your English labourer, because he happens to wear a coat and trousers, is to be considered a civilised man.’
‘It’s the way of the world, sir,’ said Tregarva, ‘judging carnal judgment, according to the sight of its own eyes; always looking at the outsides of things and men, sir, and never much deeper. But as for reading, sir, it’s all very well for me, who have been a keeper and dawdled about like a gentleman with a gun over my arm; but did you ever do a good day’s farm-work in your life? If you had, man or boy, you wouldn’t have been game for much reading when you got home; you’d do just what these poor fellows do — tumble into bed at eight o’clock, hardly waiting to take your clothes off, knowing that you must turn up again at five o’clock the next morning to get a breakfast of bread, and, perhaps, a dab of the squire’s dripping, and then back to work again; and so on, day after day, sir, week after week, year after year, without a hope or a chance of being anything but what you are, and only too thankful if you can get work to break your back, and catch the rheumatism over.’
‘But do you mean to say that their labour is so severe and incessant?’
‘It’s only God’s blessing if it is incessant, sir, for if it stops, they starve, or go to the house to be worse fed than the thieves in gaol. And as for its being severe, there’s many a boy, as their mothers will tell you, comes home night after night, too tired to eat their suppers, and tumble, fasting, to bed in the same foul shirt which they’ve been working in all the day, never changing their rag of calico from week’s end to week’s end, or washing the skin that’s under it once in seven years.’
‘No wonder,’ said Lancelot, ‘that such a life of drudgery makes them brutal and reckless.’
‘No wonder, indeed, sir: they’ve no time to think; they’re born to be machines, and machines they must be; and I think, sir,’ he added bitterly, ‘it’s God’s mercy that they daren’t think. It’s God’s mercy that they don’t feel. Men that write books and talk at elections call this a free country, and say that the poorest and meanest has a free opening to rise and become prime minister, if he can. But you see, sir, the misfortune is, that in practice he can’t; for one who gets into a gentleman’s family, or into a little shop, and so saves a few pounds, fifty know that they’ve no chance before them, but day-labourer born, day-labourer live, from hand to mouth, scraping and pinching to get not meat and beer even, but bread and potatoes; and then, at the end of it all, for a worthy reward, half-a-crown a-week of parish pay — or the workhouse. That’s a lively hopeful prospect for a Christian man!’
‘But,’ said Lancelot, ‘I thought this New Poor-law was to stir them up to independence?’
‘Oh, sir, the old law has bit too deep: it made them slaves and beggars at heart. It taught them not to be ashamed of parish pay — to demand it as a right.’
‘And so it is their right,’ said Lancelot. ‘In God’s name, if a country is so ill-constituted that it cannot find its own citizens in work, it is bound to find them in food.’
‘Maybe, sir, maybe. God knows I don’t grudge it them. It’s a poor pittance at best, when they have got it. But don’t you see, sir, how all poor-laws, old or new either, suck the independent spirit out of a man; how they make the poor wretch reckless; how they tempt him to spend every extra farthing in amusement?’
‘Why, he is always tempted to say to himself, “Whatever happens to me, the parish must keep me. If I am sick it must doctor me; if I am worn out it must feed me; if I die it must bury me; if I leave my children paupers the parish must look after them, and they’ll be as well off with the parish as they were with me. Now they’ve only got just enough to keep body and soul together, and the parish can’t give them less than that. What’s the use of cutting myself off from sixpenny-worth of pleasure here, and sixpenny-worth there. I’m not saving money for my children, I’m only saving the farmers’ rates.” There it is, sir,’ said Tregarva; ‘that’s the bottom of it, sir — “I’m only saving the farmers’ rates. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”’
‘I don’t see my way out of it,’ said Lancelot.
‘So says everybody, sir. But I should have thought those members of parliament, and statesmen, and university scholars have been set up in the high places, out of the wood where we are all struggling and scrambling, just that they might see their way out of it; and if they don’t, sir, and that soon, as sure as God is in heaven, these poor fellows will cut their way out of it.’
‘And blindfolded and ignorant as they are,’ said Lancelot, ‘they will be certain to cut their way out just in the wrong direction.’
‘I’m not so sure of that, sir,’ said Tregarva, lowering his voice. ‘What is written’? That there is One who hears the desire of the poor. “Lord, Thou preparest their hearts and Thine ear hearkeneth thereto, to help the fatherless and poor unto their right, that the man of the earth be no more exalted against them.”’
‘Why, you are talking like any Chartist, Tregarva!’
‘Am I, sir? I haven’t heard much Scripture quoted among them myself, poor fellows; but to tell you the truth, sir, I don’t know what I am becoming. I’m getting half mad with all I see going on and not going on; and you will agree, sir, that what’s happened this day can’t have done much to cool my temper or brighten my hopes; though, God’s my witness, there’s no spite in me for my own sake. But what makes me maddest of all, sir, is to see that everybody sees these evils, except just the men who can cure them — the squires and the clergy.’
‘Why surely, Tregarva, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of clergymen and landlords working heart and soul at this moment, to better the condition of the labouring classes!’
‘Ay, sir, they see the evils, and yet they don’t see them. They do not see what is the matter with the poor man; and the proof of it is, sir, that the poor have no confidence in them. They’ll take their alms, but they’ll hardly take their schooling, and their advice they won’t take at all. And why is it, sir? Because the poor have got in their heads in these days a strange confused fancy, maybe, but still a deep and a fierce one, that they haven’t got what they call their rights. If you were to raise the wages of every man in this country from nine to twelve shillings a-week tomorrow, you wouldn’t satisfy them; at least, the only ones whom you would satisfy would be the mere hogs among them, who, as long as they can get a full stomach, care for nothing else.’
‘What, in Heaven’s name, do they want?’ asked Lancelot.
‘They hardly know yet, sir; but they know well what they don’t want. The question with them, sir, believe me, is not so much, How shall we get better fed and better housed, but whom shall we depend upon for our food and for our house? Why should we depend on the will and fancy of any man for our rights? They are asking ugly questions among themselves, sir, about what those two words, rent and taxes, mean, and about what that same strange word, freedom, means. Eight or wrong, they’ve got the thought into their heads, and it’s growing there, and they will find an answer for it. Depend upon it, sir, I tell you a truth, and they expect a change. You will hear them talk of it to-night, sir, if you’ve luck.’
‘We all expect a change, for that matter,’ said Lancelot. ‘That feeling is common to all classes and parties just now.’
Tregarva took off his hat.
‘“For the word of the Lord hath spoken it.” Do you know, sir, I long at times that I did agree with those Chartists? If I did, I’d turn lecturer tomorrow. How a man could speak out then! If he saw any door of hope, any way of salvation for these poor fellows, even if it was nothing better than salvation by Act of Parliament!’
‘But why don’t you trust the truly worthy among the clergy and the gentry to leaven their own ranks and bring all right in time?’
‘Because, sir, they seem to be going the way only to make things worse. The people have been so dependent on them heretofore, that they have become thorough beggars. You can have no knowledge, sir, of the whining, canting, deceit, and lies which those poor miserable labourers’ wives palm on charitable ladies. If they weren’t angels, some of them, they’d lock up their purses and never give away another farthing. And, sir, these free-schools, and these penny-clubs, and clothing clubs, and these heaps of money which are given away, all make the matter worse and worse. They make the labourer fancy that he is not to depend upon God and his own right hand, but on what his wife can worm out of the good nature of the rich. Why, sir, they growl as insolently now at the parson or the squire’s wife if they don’t get as much money as their neighbours, as they used to at the parish vestrymen under the old law. Look at that Lord Vieuxbois, sir, as sweet a gentleman as ever God made. It used to do me good to walk behind him when he came over here shooting, just to hear the gentle kind-hearted way in which he used to speak to every old soul he met. He spends his whole life and time about the poor, I hear. But, sir, as sure as you live he’s making his people slaves and humbugs. He doesn’t see, sir, that they want to be raised bodily out of this miserable hand-to-mouth state, to be brought nearer up to him, and set on a footing where they can shift for themselves. Without meaning it, sir, all his boundless charities are keeping the people down, and telling them they must stay down, and not help themselves, but wait for what he gives them. He fats prize-labourers, sir, just as Lord Minchampstead fats prize-oxen and pigs.’
Lancelot could not help thinking of that amusingly inconsistent, however well-meant, scene in Coningsby, in which Mr. Lyle is represented as trying to restore ‘the independent order of peasantry,’ by making them the receivers of public alms at his own gate, as if they had been middle-age serfs or vagabonds, and not citizens of modern England.
‘It may suit the Mr. Lyles of this age,’ thought Lancelot, ‘to make the people constantly and visibly comprehend that property is their protector and their friend, but I question whether it will suit the people themselves, unless they can make property understand that it owes them something more definite than protection.’
Saddened by this conversation, which had helped to give another shake to the easy-going complacency with which Lancelot had been used to contemplate the world below him, and look on its evils as necessaries, ancient and fixed as the universe, he entered the village fair, and was a little disappointed at his first glimpse of the village-green. Certainly his expectations had not been very exalted; but there had run through them a hope of something melodramatic, dreams of May-pole dancing and athletic games, somewhat of village-belle rivalry, of the Corin and Sylvia school; or, failing that, a few Touchstones and Audreys, some genial earnest buffo humour here and there. But there did not seem much likelihood of it. Two or three apple and gingerbread stalls, from which draggled children were turning slowly and wistfully away to go home; a booth full of trumpery fairings, in front of which tawdry girls were coaxing maudlin youths, with faded southernwood in their button-holes; another long low booth, from every crevice of which reeked odours of stale beer and smoke, by courtesy denominated tobacco, to the treble accompaniment of a jigging fiddle and a tambourine, and the bass one of grumbled oaths and curses within — these were the means of relaxation which the piety, freedom, and civilisation of fourteen centuries, from Hengist to Queen Victoria, had devised and made possible for the English peasant!
‘There seems very little here to see,’ said Lancelot, half peevishly.
‘I think, sir,’ quoth Tregarva, ‘that very thing is what’s most worth seeing.’
Lancelot could not help, even at the risk of detection, investing capital enough in sugar-plums and gingerbread, to furnish the urchins around with the material for a whole carnival of stomach-aches; and he felt a great inclination to clear the fairing-stall in a like manner, on behalf of the poor bedizened sickly-looking girls round, but he was afraid of the jealousy of some beer-bemuddled swain. The ill-looks of the young girls surprised him much. Here and there smiled a plump rosy face enough; but the majority seemed under-sized, under-fed, utterly wanting in grace, vigour, and what the penny-a-liners call ‘rude health.’ He remarked it to Tregarva. The keeper smiled mournfully.
‘You see those little creatures dragging home babies in arms nearly as big as themselves, sir. That and bad food, want of milk especially, accounts for their growing up no bigger than they do; and as for their sad countenances, sir, most of them must carry a lighter conscience before they carry a brighter face.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Lancelot.
‘The clergyman who enters the weddings and the baptisms knows well enough what I mean, sir. But we’ll go into that booth, if you want to see the thick of it, sir; that’s to say, if you’re not ashamed.’
‘I hope we need neither of us do anything to be ashamed of there; and as for seeing, I begin to agree with you, that what makes the whole thing most curious is its intense dulness.’
‘What upon earth is that?’
‘I say, look out there!’
‘Well, you look out yourself!’
This was caused by a violent blow across the shins with a thick stick, the deed of certain drunken wiseacres who were persisting in playing in the dark the never very lucrative game of three sticks a penny, conducted by a couple of gipsies. Poor fellows! there was one excuse for them. It was the only thing there to play at, except a set of skittles; and on those they had lost their money every Saturday night for the last seven years each at his own village beer-shop.
So into the booth they turned; and as soon as Lancelot’s eyes were accustomed to the reeking atmosphere, he saw seated at two long temporary tables of board, fifty or sixty of ‘My Brethren,’ as clergymen call them in their sermons, wrangling, stupid, beery, with sodden eyes and drooping lips — interspersed with more girls and brazen-faced women, with dirty flowers in their caps, whose whole business seemed to be to cast jealous looks at each other, and defend themselves from the coarse overtures of their swains.
Lancelot had been already perfectly astonished at the foulness of language which prevailed; and the utter absence of anything like chivalrous respect, almost of common decency, towards women. But lo! the language of the elder women was quite as disgusting as that of the men, if not worse. He whispered a remark on the point to Tregarva, who shook his head.
‘It’s the field-work, sir — the field-work, that does it all. They get accustomed there from their childhood to hear words whose very meanings they shouldn’t know; and the older teach the younger ones, and the married ones are worst of all. It wears them out in body, sir, that field-work, and makes them brutes in soul and in manners.’
‘Why don’t they give it up? Why don’t the respectable ones set their faces against it?’
‘They can’t afford it, sir. They must go a-field, or go hungered, most of them. And they get to like the gossip and scandal, and coarse fun of it, while their children are left at home to play in the roads, or fall into the fire, as plenty do every year.’
‘Why not at school?’
‘The big ones are kept at home, sir, to play at nursing those little ones who are too young to go. Oh, sir,’ he added, in a tone of deep feeling, ‘it is very little of a father’s care, or a mother’s love, that a labourer’s child knows in these days!’
Lancelot looked round the booth with a hopeless feeling. There was awkward dancing going on at the upper end. He was too much sickened to go and look at it. He began examining the faces and foreheads of the company, and was astonished at the first glance by the lofty and ample development of brain in at least one half. There were intellects there — or rather capacities of intellect, capable, surely, of anything, had not the promise of the brow been almost always belied by the loose and sensual lower features. They were evidently rather a degraded than an undeveloped race. ‘The low forehead of the Kabyle and Koord,’ thought Lancelot, ‘is compensated by the grim sharp lip, and glittering eye, which prove that all the small capabilities of the man have been called out into clear and vigorous action: but here the very features themselves, both by what they have and what they want, testify against that society which carelessly wastes her most precious wealth, the manhood of her masses! Tregarva! you have observed a good many things — did you ever observe whether the men with the large foreheads were better than the men with the small ones?’
‘Ay, sir, I know what you are driving at. I’ve heard of that new-fangled notion of scholars, which, if you’ll forgive my plain speaking, expects man’s brains to do the work of God’s grace.’
‘But what have you remarked?’
‘All I ever saw was, that the stupid-looking ones were the greatest blackguards, and the clever-looking ones the greatest rogues.’
Lancelot was rebuked, but not surprised. He had been for some time past suspecting, from the bitter experience of his own heart, the favourite modern theory which revives the Neo–Platonism of Alexandria, by making intellect synonymous with virtue, and then jumbling, like poor bewildered Proclus, the ‘physical understanding’ of the brain with the pure ‘intellect’ of the spirit.
‘You’ll see something, if you look round, sir, a great deal easier to explain — and, I should have thought, a great deal easier to cure — than want of wits.’
‘And what is that?’
‘How different-looking the young ones are from their fathers, and still more from their grandfathers! Look at those three or four old grammers talking together there. For all their being shrunk with age and weather, you won’t see such fine-grown men anywhere else in this booth.’
It was too true. Lancelot recollected now having remarked it before when at church; and having wondered why almost all the youths were so much smaller, clumsier, lower-brained, and weaker-jawed than their elders.
‘Why is it, Tregarva?’
‘Worse food, worse lodging, worse nursing — and, I’m sore afraid, worse blood. There was too much filthiness and drunkenness went on in the old war-times, not to leave a taint behind it, for many a generation. The prosperity of fools shall destroy them!’
‘Oh!’ thought Lancelot, ‘for some young sturdy Lancashire or Lothian blood, to put new life into the old frozen South Saxon veins! Even a drop of the warm enthusiastic Celtic would be better than none. Perhaps this Irish immigration may do some good, after all.’
Perhaps it may, Lancelot. Let us hope so, since it is pretty nearly inevitable.
Sadder and sadder, Lancelot tried to listen to the conversation of the men round him. To his astonishment he hardly understood a word of it. It was half articulate, nasal, guttural, made up almost entirely of vowels, like the speech of savages. He had never before been struck with the significant contrast between the sharp, clearly-defined articulation, the vivid and varied tones of the gentleman, or even of the London street-boy when compared with the coarse, half-formed growls, as of a company of seals, which he heard round him. That single fact struck him, perhaps, more deeply than any; it connected itself with many of his physiological fancies; it was the parent of many thoughts and plans of his after-life. Here and there he could distinguish a half sentence. An old shrunken man opposite him was drawing figures in the spilt beer with his pipe-stem, and discoursing of the glorious times before the great war, ‘when there was more food than there were mouths, and more work than there were hands.’ ‘Poor human nature!’ thought Lancelot, as he tried to follow one of those unintelligible discussions about the relative prices of the loaf and the bushel of flour, which ended, as usual, in more swearing, and more quarrelling, and more beer to make it up —‘Poor human nature! always looking back, as the German sage says, to some fancied golden age, never looking forward to the real one which is coming!’
‘But I say, vather,’ drawled out some one, ‘they say there’s a sight more money in England now, than there was afore the war-time.’
‘Eees, booy,’ said the old man; ‘but its got into too few hands.’
‘Well,’ thought Lancelot, ‘there’s a glimpse of practical sense, at least.’ And a pedlar who sat next him, a bold, black-whiskered bully, from the Potteries, hazarded a joke —
‘It’s all along of this new sky-and-tough-it farming. They used to spread the money broadcast, but now they drills it all in one place, like bone-dust under their fancy plants, and we poor self-sown chaps gets none.’
This garland of fancies was received with great applause; whereat the pedlar, emboldened, proceeded to observe, mysteriously, that ‘donkeys took a beating, but horses kicked at it; and that they’d found out that in Staffordshire long ago. You want a good Chartist lecturer down here, my covies, to show you donkeys of labouring men that you have got iron on your heels, if you only know’d how to use it.’
‘And what’s the use of rioting?’ asked some one, querulously.
‘Why, if you don’t riot, the farmers will starve you.’
‘And if we do, they’d turn sodgers — yeomanry, as they call it, though there ain’t a yeoman among them in these parts; and then they takes sword and kills us. So, riot or none, they has it all their own way.’
Lancelot heard many more scraps of this sort. He was very much struck with their dread of violence. It did not seem cowardice. It was not loyalty — the English labourer has fallen below the capability of so spiritual a feeling; Lancelot had found out that already. It could not be apathy, for he heard nothing but complaint upon complaint bandied from mouth to mouth the whole evening. They seemed rather sunk too low in body and mind — too stupefied and spiritless, to follow the example of the manufacturing districts; above all, they were too ill-informed. It is not mere starvation which goads the Leicester weaver to madness. It is starvation with education — an empty stomach and a cultivated, even though miscultivated, mind.
At that instant, a huge hulking farm-boy rolled into the booth, roaring, dolefully, the end of a song, with a punctuation of his own invention —
‘He’ll maak me a lady. Zo . Vine to be zyure. And, vaithfully; love me. Although; I; bee; poor-r-r-r.’
Lancelot would have laughed heartily at him anywhere else; but the whole scene was past a jest; and a gleam of pathos and tenderness seemed to shine even from that doggerel — a vista, as it were, of true genial nature, in the far distance. But as he looked round again, ‘What hope,’ he thought, ‘of its realisation? Arcadian dreams of pastoral innocence and graceful industry, I suppose, are to be henceforth monopolised by the stage or the boudoir? Never, so help me, God!’
The ursine howls of the new-comer seemed to have awakened the spirit of music in the party.
‘Coom, Blackburd, gi’ us zong, Blackburd, bo’!’ cried a dozen voices to an impish, dark-eyed gipsy boy, of some thirteen years old.
‘Put ‘n on taable. Now, then, pipe up!’
‘What will ‘ee ha’?’
‘Mary; gi’ us Mary.’
‘I shall make a’ girls cry,’ quoth Blackbird, with a grin.
‘Do’n good, too; they likes it: zing away.’
And the boy began, in a broad country twang, which could not overpower the sad melody of the air, or the rich sweetness of his flute-like voice —
‘Young Mary walked sadly down through the green clover,
And sighed as she looked at the babe at her breast;
“My roses are faded, my false love a rover,
The green graves they call me, ‘Come home to your rest.’”
‘Then by rode a soldier in gorgeous arraying,
And “Where is your bride-ring, my fair maid?” he cried;
“I ne’er had a bride-ring, by false man’s betraying,
Nor token of love but this babe at my side.
‘“Tho’ gold could not buy me, sweet words could deceive me;
So faithful and lonely till death I must roam.”
“Oh, Mary, sweet Mary, look up and forgive me,
With wealth and with glory your true love comes home;
‘“So give me my own babe, those soft arms adorning,
I’ll wed you and cherish you, never to stray;
For it’s many a dark and a wild cloudy morning,
Turns out by the noon-time a sunshiny day.”’
‘A bad moral that, sir,’ whispered Tregarva.
‘Better than none,’ answered Lancelot.
‘It’s well if you are right, sir, for you’ll hear no other.’
The keeper spoke truly; in a dozen different songs, more or less coarsely, but, in general, with a dash of pathetic sentiment, the same case of lawless love was embodied. It seemed to be their only notion of the romantic. Now and then there was a poaching song; then one of the lowest flash London school — filth and all — was roared in chorus in presence of the women.
‘I am afraid that you do not thank me for having brought you to any place so unfit for a gentleman,’ said Tregarva, seeing Lancelot’s sad face.
‘Because it is so unfit for a gentleman, therefore I do thank you. It is right to know what one’s own flesh and blood are doing.’
‘Hark to that song, sir! that’s an old one. I didn’t think they’d get on to singing that.’
The Blackbird was again on the table, but seemed this time disinclined to exhibit.
‘Out wi’ un, boy; it wain’t burn thy mouth!’
‘I be afeard.’
He pointed to Tregarva; there was a fierce growl round the room.
‘I am no keeper,’ shouted Tregarva, starting up. ‘I was turned off this morning for speaking my mind about the squires, and now I’m one of you, to live and die.’
This answer was received with a murmur of applause; and a fellow in a scarlet merino neckerchief, three waistcoats, and a fancy shooting-jacket, who had been eyeing Lancelot for some time, sidled up behind them, and whispered in Tregarva’s ear —
‘Perhaps you’d like an engagement in our line, young man, and your friend there, he seems a sporting gent too. — We could show him very pretty shooting.’
Tregarva answered by the first and last oath Lancelot ever heard from him, and turning to him, as the rascal sneaked off —
‘That’s a poaching crimp from London, sir; tempting these poor boys to sin, and deceit, and drunkenness, and theft, and the hulks.’
‘I fancy I saw him somewhere the night of our row — you understand?’
‘So do I, sir, but there’s no use talking of it.’
Blackbird was by this time prevailed on to sing, and burst out as melodious as ever, while all heads were cocked on one side in delighted attention.
‘I zeed a vire o’ Monday night,
A vire both great and high;
But I wool not tell you where, my boys,
Nor wool not tell you why.
The varmer he comes screeching out,
To zave ‘uns new brood mare;
Zays I, “You and your stock may roast,
Vor aught us poor chaps care.”
‘Coorus, boys, coorus!’
And the chorus burst out —
‘Then here’s a curse on varmers all
As rob and grind the poor;
To re’p the fruit of all their works
In **** for evermoor-r-r-r.
‘A blind owld dame come to the vire,
Zo near as she could get;
Zays, “Here’s a luck I warn’t asleep
To lose this blessed hett.
‘“They robs us of our turfing rights,
Our bits of chips and sticks,
Till poor folks now can’t warm their hands,
Except by varmer’s ricks.”
And again the boy’s delicate voice rung out the ferocious chorus, with something, Lancelot fancied, of fiendish exultation, and every worn face lighted up with a coarse laugh, that indicated no malice — but also no mercy.
Lancelot was sickened, and rose to go.
As he turned, his arm was seized suddenly and firmly. He looked round, and saw a coarse, handsome, showily-dressed girl, looking intently into his face. He shook her angrily off.
‘You needn’t be so proud, Mr. Smith; I’ve had my hand on the arm of as good as you. Ah, you needn’t start! I know you — I know you, I say, well enough. You used to be with him. Where is he?’
‘Whom do you mean?’
‘He!’ answered the girl, with a fierce, surprised look, as if there could be no one else in the world.
‘Colonel Bracebridge,’ whispered Tregarva.
‘Ay, he it is! And now walk further off, bloodhound! and let me speak to Mr. Smith. He is in Norway,’ she ran on eagerly. ‘When will he be back? When?’
‘Why do you want to know?’ asked Lancelot.
‘When will he be back?’— she kept on fiercely repeating the question; and then burst out — ‘Curse you gentlemen all! Cowards! you are all in a league against us poor girls! You can hunt alone when you betray us, and lie fast enough then? But when we come for justice, you all herd together like a flock of rooks; and turn so delicate and honourable all of a sudden — to each other! When will he be back, I say?’
‘In a month,’ answered Lancelot, who saw that something really important lay behind the girl’s wildness.
‘Too late!’ she cried, wildly, clapping her hands together; ‘too late! Here — tell him you saw me; tell him you saw Mary; tell him where and in what a pretty place, too, for maid, master, or man! What are you doing here?’
‘What is that to you, my good girl?’
‘True. Tell him you saw me here; and tell him, when next he hears of me, it will be in a very different place.’
She turned and vanished among the crowd. Lancelot almost ran out into the night — into a triad of fights, two drunken men, two jealous wives, and a brute who struck a poor, thin, worn-out woman, for trying to coax him home. Lancelot rushed up to interfere, but a man seized his uplifted arm.
‘He’ll only beat her all the more when he getteth home.’
‘She has stood that every Saturday night for the last seven years, to my knowledge,’ said Tregarva; ‘and worse, too, at times.’
‘Good God! is there no escape for her from her tyrant?’
‘No, sir. It’s only you gentlefolks who can afford such luxuries; your poor man may be tied to a harlot, or your poor woman to a ruffian, but once done, done for ever.’
‘Well,’ thought Lancelot, ‘we English have a characteristic way of proving the holiness of the marriage tie. The angel of Justice and Pity cannot sever it, only the stronger demon of Money.’
Their way home lay over Ashy Down, a lofty chalk promontory, round whose foot the river made a sudden bend. As they paced along over the dreary hedgeless stubbles, they both started, as a ghostly ‘Ha! ha! ha!’ rang through the air over their heads, and was answered by a like cry, faint and distant, across the wolds.
‘That’s those stone-curlews — at least, so I hope,’ said Tregarva. ‘He’ll be round again in a minute.’
And again, right between them and the clear, cold moon, ‘Ha! ha! ha!’ resounded over their heads. They gazed up into the cloudless star-bespangled sky, but there was no sign of living thing.
‘It’s an old sign to me,’ quoth Tregarva; ‘God grant that I may remember it in this black day of mine.’
‘How so!’ asked Lancelot; ‘I should not have fancied you a superstitious man.’
‘Names go for nothing, sir, and what my forefathers believed in I am not going to be conceited enough to disbelieve in a hurry. But if you heard my story you would think I had reason enough to remember that devil’s laugh up there.’
‘Let me hear it then.’
‘Well, sir, it may be a long story to you, but it was a short one to me, for it was the making of me, out of hand, there and then, blessed be God! But if you will have it —’
‘And I will have it, friend Tregarva,’ quoth Lancelot, lighting his cigar.
‘I was about sixteen years old, just after I came home from the Brazils —’
‘What! have you been in the Brazils?’
‘Indeed and I have, sir, for three years; and one thing I learnt there, at least, that’s worth going for.’
‘What the Garden of Eden must have been like. But those Brazils, under God, were the cause of my being here; for my father, who was a mine-captain, lost all his money there, by no man’s fault but his own, and not his either, the world would say, and when we came back to Cornwall he could not stand the bal work, nor I neither. Out of that burning sun, sir, to come home here, and work in the levels, up to our knees in warm water, with the thermometer at 85 degrees, and then up a thousand feet of ladder to grass, reeking wet with heat, and find the easterly sleet driving across those open furze-crofts — he couldn’t stand it, sir — few stand it long, even of those who stay in Cornwall. We miners have a short lease of life; consumption and strains break us down before we’re fifty.’
‘But how came you here?’
‘The doctor told my father, and me too, sir, that we must give up mining, or die of decline: so he came up here, to a sister of his that was married to the squire’s gardener, and here he died; and the squire, God bless him and forgive him, took a fancy to me, and made me under-keeper. And I loved the life, for it took me among the woods and the rivers, where I could think of the Brazils, and fancy myself back again. But mustn’t talk of that — where God wills is all right. And it is a fine life for reading and thinking, a gamekeeper’s, for it’s an idle life at best. Now that’s over,’ he added, with a sigh, ‘and the Lord has fulfilled His words to me, that He spoke the first night that ever I heard a stone-plover cry.’
‘What on earth can you mean?’ asked Lancelot, deeply interested.
‘Why, sir, it was a wild, whirling gray night, with the air full of sleet and rain, and my father sent me over to Redruth town to bring home some trade or other. And as I came back I got blinded with the sleet, and I lost my way across the moors. You know those Cornish furze-moors, sir?’
‘Well, then, they are burrowed like a rabbit-warren with old mine-shafts. You can’t go in some places ten yards without finding great, ghastly black holes, covered in with furze, and weeds, and bits of rotting timber; and when I was a boy I couldn’t keep from them. Something seemed to draw me to go and peep down, and drop pebbles in, to hear them rattle against the sides, fathoms below, till they plumped into the ugly black still water at the bottom. And I used to be always after them in my dreams, when I was young, falling down them, down, down, all night long, till I woke screaming; for I fancied they were hell’s mouth, every one of them. And it stands to reason, sir; we miners hold that the lake of fire can’t be far below. For we find it grow warmer, and warmer, and warmer, the farther we sink a shaft; and the learned gentlemen have proved, sir, that it’s not the blasting powder, nor the men’s breaths, that heat the mine.’
Lancelot could but listen.
‘Well, sir, I got into a great furze-croft, full of deads (those are the earth-heaps they throw out of the shafts), where no man in his senses dare go forward or back in the dark, for fear of the shafts; and the wind and the snow were so sharp, they made me quite stupid and sleepy; and I knew if I stayed there I should be frozen to death, and if I went on, there were the shafts ready to swallow me up: and what with fear and the howling and raging of the wind, I was like a mazed boy, sir. And I knelt down and tried to pray; and then, in one moment, all the evil things I’d ever done, and the bad words and thoughts that ever crossed me, rose up together as clear as one page of a print-book; and I knew that if I died that minute I should go to hell. And then I saw through the ground all the water in the shafts glaring like blood, and all the sides of the shafts fierce red-hot, as if hell was coming up. And I heard the knockers knocking, or thought I heard them, as plain as I hear that grasshopper in the hedge now.’
‘What are the knockers?’
‘They are the ghosts, the miners hold, of the old Jews, sir, that crucified our Lord, and were sent for slaves by the Roman emperors to work the mines; and we find their old smelting-houses, which we call Jews’ houses, and their blocks of tin, at the bottom of the great bogs, which we call Jews’ tin; and there’s a town among us, too, which we call Market–Jew — but the old name was Marazion; that means the Bitterness of Zion, they tell me. Isn’t it so, sir?’
‘I believe it is,’ said Lancelot, utterly puzzled in this new field of romance.
‘And bitter work it was for them, no doubt, poor souls! We used to break into the old shafts and adits which they had made, and find old stags’-horn pickaxes, that crumbled to pieces when we brought them to grass; and they say, that if a man will listen, sir, of a still night, about those old shafts, he may hear the ghosts of them at working, knocking, and picking, as clear as if there was a man at work in the next level. It may be all an old fancy. I suppose it is. But I believed it when I was a boy; and it helped the work in me that night. But I’ll go on with my story.’
‘Go on with what you like,’ said Lancelot.
‘Well, sir, I was down on my knees among the furze-bushes, and I tried to pray; but I was too frightened, for I felt the beast I had been, sir; and I expected the ground to open and let me down every moment; and then there came by over my head a rushing, and a cry. “Ha! ha! ha! Paul!” it said; and it seemed as if all the devils and witches were out on the wind, a-laughing at my misery. “Oh, I’ll mend — I’ll repent,” I said, “indeed I will:” and again it came back — “Ha! ha! ha! Paul!” it said. I knew afterwards that it was a bird; but the Lord sent it to me for a messenger, no less, that night. And I shook like a reed in the water; and then, all at once a thought struck me. “Why should I be a coward? Why should I be afraid of shafts, or devils, or hell, or anything else? If I am a miserable sinner, there’s One died for me — I owe him love, not fear at all. I’ll not be frightened into doing right — that’s a rascally reason for repentance.” And so it was, sir, that I rose up like a man, and said to the Lord Jesus, right out into the black, dumb air — “If you’ll be on my side this night, good Lord, that died for me, I’ll be on your side for ever, villain as I am, if I’m worth making any use of.” And there and then, sir, I saw a light come over the bushes, brighter, and brighter, up to me; and there rose up a voice within me, and spoke to me, quite soft and sweet — “Fear not, Paul, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” And what more happened I can’t tell, for when I woke I was safe at home. My father and his folk had been out with lanterns after me; and there they found me, sure enough, in a dead faint on the ground. But this I know, sir, that those words have never left my mind since for a day together; and I know that they will be fulfilled in me this tide, or never.’
Lancelot was silent a few minutes.
‘I suppose, Tregarva, that you would call this your conversion?’
‘I should call it one, sir, because it was one.’
‘Tell me now, honestly, did any real, practical change in your behaviour take place after that night?’
‘As much, sir, as if you put a soul into a hog, and told him that he was a gentleman’s son; and, if every time he remembered that, he got spirit enough to conquer his hoggishness, and behave like a man, till the hoggishness died out of him, and the manliness grew up and bore fruit in him, more and more each day.’
Lancelot half understood him, and sighed.
A long silence followed, as they paced on past lonely farmyards, from which the rich manure-water was draining across the road in foul black streams, festering and steaming in the chill night air. Lancelot sighed as he saw the fruitful materials of food running to waste, and thought of the ‘over-population’ cry; and then he looked across to the miles of brown moorland on the opposite side of the valley, that lay idle and dreary under the autumn moon, except where here and there a squatter’s cottage and rood of fruitful garden gave the lie to the laziness and ignorance of man, who pretends that it is not worth his while to cultivate the soil which God has given him. ‘Good heavens!’ he thought, ‘had our forefathers had no more enterprise than modern landlords, where should we all have been at this moment? Everywhere waste? Waste of manure, waste of land, waste of muscle, waste of brain, waste of population — and we call ourselves the workshop of the world!’
As they passed through the miserable hamlet-street of Ashy, they saw a light burning in window. At the door below, a haggard woman was looking anxiously down the village.
‘What’s the matter, Mistress Cooper?’ asked Tregarva.
‘Here’s Mrs. Grane’s poor girl lying sick of the fever — the Lord help her! and the boy died of it last week. We sent for the doctor this afternoon, and he’s busy with a poor soul that’s in her trouble; and now we’ve sent down to the squire’s, and the young ladies, God bless them! sent answer they’d come themselves straightway.’
‘No wonder you have typhus here,’ said Lancelot, ‘with this filthy open drain running right before the door. Why can’t you clean it out?’
‘Why, what harm does that do?’ answered the woman, peevishly. ‘Besides, here’s my master gets up to his work by five in the morning, and not back till seven at night, and by then he ain’t in no humour to clean out gutters. And where’s the water to come from to keep a place clean? It costs many a one of us here a shilling a week the summer through to pay fetching water up the hill. We’ve work enough to fill our kettles. The muck must just lie in the road, smell or none, till the rain carries it away.’
Lancelot sighed again.
‘It would be a good thing for Ashy, Tregarva, if the weir-pool did, some fine morning, run up to Ashy Down, as poor Harry Verney said on his deathbed.’
‘There won’t be much of Ashy left by that time, sir, if the landlords go on pulling down cottages at their present rate; driving the people into the towns, to herd together there like hogs, and walk out to their work four or five miles every morning.’
‘Why,’ said Lancelot, ‘wherever one goes one sees commodious new cottages springing up.’
‘Wherever you go, sir; but what of wherever you don’t go? Along the roadsides, and round the gentlemen’s parks, where the cottages are in sight, it’s all very smart; but just go into the outlying hamlets — a whited sepulchre, sir, is many a great estate; outwardly swept and garnished, and inwardly full of all uncleanliness, and dead men’s bones.’
At this moment two cloaked and veiled figures came up to the door, followed by a servant. There was no mistaking those delicate footsteps, and the two young men drew back with fluttering hearts, and breathed out silent blessings on the ministering angels, as they entered the crazy and reeking house.
‘I’m thinking, sir,’ said Tregarva, as they walked slowly and reluctantly away, ‘that it is hard of the gentlemen to leave all God’s work to the ladies, as nine-tenths of them do.’
‘And I am thinking, Tregarva, that both for ladies and gentlemen, prevention is better than cure.’
‘There’s a great change come over Miss Argemone, sir. She used not to be so ready to start out at midnight to visit dying folk. A blessed change!’
Lancelot thought so too, and he thought that he knew the cause of it.
Argemone’s appearance, and their late conversation, had started a new covey of strange fancies. Lancelot followed them over hill and dale, glad to escape a moment from the mournful lessons of that evening; but even over them there was a cloud of sadness. Harry Verney’s last words, and Argemone’s accidental whisper about ‘a curse upon the Lavingtons,’ rose to his mind. He longed to ask Tregarva, but he was afraid — not of the man, for there was a delicacy in his truthfulness which encouraged the most utter confidence; but of the subject itself; but curiosity conquered.
‘What did Old Harry mean about the Nun-pool?’ he said at last. ‘Every one seemed to understand him.’
‘Ah, sir, he oughtn’t to have talked of it! But dying men, at times, see over the dark water into deep things — deeper than they think themselves. Perhaps there’s one speaks through them. But I thought every one knew the story.’
‘I do not, at least.’
‘Perhaps it’s so much the better, sir.’
‘Why? I must insist on knowing. It is necessary — proper, that is — that I should hear everything that concerns —’
‘I understand, sir; so it is; and I’ll tell you. The story goes, that in the old Popish times, when the nuns held Whitford Priors, the first Mr. Lavington that ever was came from the king with a warrant to turn them all out, poor souls, and take the lands for his own. And they say the head lady of them — prioress, or abbess, as they called her — withstood him, and cursed him, in the name of the Lord, for a hypocrite who robbed harmless women under the cloak of punishing them for sins they’d never committed (for they say, sir, he went up to court, and slandered the nuns there for drunkards and worse). And she told him, “That the curse of the nuns of Whitford should be on him and his, till they helped the poor in the spirit of the nuns of Whitford, and the Nun-pool ran up to Ashy Down.’”
‘That time is not come yet,’ said Lancelot.
‘But the worst is to come, sir. For he or his, sir, that night, said or did something to the lady, that was more than woman’s heart could bear: and the next morning she was found dead and cold, drowned in that weir-pool. And there the gentleman’s eldest son was drowned, and more than one Lavington beside. Miss Argemone’s only brother, that was the heir, was drowned there too, when he was a little one.’
‘I never heard that she had a brother.’
‘No, sir, no one talks of it. There are many things happen in the great house that you must go to the little house to hear of. But the country-folk believe, sir, that the nun’s curse holds true; and they say, that Whitford folks have been getting poorer and wickeder ever since that time, and will, till the Nun-pool runs up to Ashy, and the Lavingtons’ name goes out of Whitford Priors.’
Lancelot said nothing. A presentiment of evil hung over him. He was utterly down-hearted about Tregarva, about Argemone, about the poor. The truth was, he could not shake off the impression of the scene he had left, utterly disappointed and disgusted with the ‘revel.’ He had expected, as I said before, at least to hear something of pastoral sentiment, and of genial frolicsome humour; to see some innocent, simple enjoyment: but instead, what had he seen but vanity, jealousy, hoggish sensuality, dull vacuity? drudges struggling for one night to forget their drudgery. And yet withal, those songs, and the effect which they produced, showed that in these poor creatures, too, lay the germs of pathos, taste, melody, soft and noble affections. ‘What right have we,’ thought he, ‘to hinder their development? Art, poetry, music, science — ay, even those athletic and graceful exercises on which we all pride ourselves, which we consider necessary to soften and refine ourselves, what God has given us a monopoly of them? — what is good for the rich man is good for the poor. Over-education? And what of that? What if the poor be raised above “their station”? What right have we to keep them down? How long have they been our born thralls in soul, as well as in body? What right have we to say that they shall know no higher recreation than the hogs, because, forsooth, if we raised them, they might refuse to work —for us? Are WE to fix how far their minds may be developed? Has not God fixed it for us, when He gave them the same passions, talents, tastes, as our own?’
Tregarva’s meditations must have been running in a very different channel, for he suddenly burst out, after a long silence —
‘It’s a pity these fairs can’t be put down. They do a lot of harm; ruin all the young girls round, the Dissenters’ children especially, for they run utterly wild; their parents have no hold on them at all.’
‘They tell them that they are children of the devil,’ said Lancelot. ‘What wonder if the children take them at their word, and act accordingly?’
‘The parson here, sir, who is a God-fearing man enough, tried hard to put down this one, but the innkeepers were too strong for him.’
‘To take away their only amusement, in short. He had much better have set to work to amuse them himself.’
‘His business is to save souls, sir, and not to amuse them. I don’t see, sir, what Christian people want with such vanities.’
Lancelot did not argue the point, for he knew the prejudices of Dissenters on the subject; but it did strike him that if Tregarva’s brain had been a little less preponderant, he, too, might have found the need of some recreation besides books and thought.
By this time they were at Lancelot’s door. He bid the keeper a hearty good-night, made him promise to see him next day, and went to bed and slept till nearly noon.
When he walked into his breakfast-room, he found a note on the table in his uncle’s handwriting. The vicar’s servant had left it an hour before. He opened it listlessly, rang the bell furiously, ordered out his best horse, and, huddling on his clothes, galloped to the nearest station, caught the train, and arrived at his uncle’s bank — it had stopped payment two hours before.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10