It was September, and they were moving to Crabb Cot for a week or two’s shooting. The shooting was not bad about there, and the Squire liked a turn with his gun yet. Being close on the Michaelmas holidays, Tod and I were with them.
When the stay was going to be short, the carriages did not come over from Dyke Manor. On arriving at South Crabb station, there was a fly waiting. It would not take us all. Mr. and Mrs. Todhetley, the two children, and Hannah got into it, and some of the luggage was put on the top.
“You two boys can walk,” said the Pater. “It will stretch your legs.”
And a great deal rather walk, too, than be boxed up in a crawling fly!
We took the way through Crabb Lane: the longest but merriest, for it was always lively with noise and dirt. Reports had gone abroad long before that Crabb Lane was “out on strike:” Tod and I thought we would take a look at it in this new aspect.
There were some great works in the vicinity — I need not state here their exact speciality — and the men employed at them chiefly inhabited Crabb Lane. It was setting-up these works that caused the crowded dwellings in Crabb Lane to be built — for where a number of workmen congregate together, habitations must of necessity follow.
You have heard of Crabb Lane before — in connection with what I once told you about Harry Lease the pointsman. It was a dingy, over-populated, bustling place, prosperous on the whole, its inhabitants as a rule well-to-do. A strike was quite a new feature, bringing to most of them a fresh experience in life. England had strikes in those past days, but they were not common.
Crabb Lane during working hours had hitherto been given over to the children, who danced in the gutters and cried and screamed themselves hoarse. Women also would be out of doors, idling away their time in gossip, or else calling across to each other from the windows. But now, as I and Tod went down it, things looked different. Instead of women and children, men were there. Every individual man, I believe, out of every house the lane contained; for there appeared to be shoals of them. They lounged idly against the walls, or stood about in groups. Some with pipes, some without; some laughing and jeering, apparently in the highest spirits, as if they had climbed the tree of fortune; some silent and anxious-looking.
“Well, Hoar, how are you?”
It was Tod who spoke. The man he addressed, Jacob Hoar, was one of the best of the workmen: a sober, steady, honest fellow, with a big frame and a resolute face. He had the character of being fierce in temper, sometimes savage with his fellow-men, if put out. Alfred Hoar — made pointsman at the station in poor Harry Lease’s place — was his brother.
Hoar did not answer Tod at all. He was standing quite alone near the door of his house, a strangely defiant look upon his pale face, and his firm lips drawn in. Unless I was mistaken, some of the men over the way were taking covert glances at him, as though he were a kangaroo they had to keep aloof from. Hoar turned his eyes slowly upon us, took off his round felt hat, and smoothed back his dark hair.
“I be as well as matters’ll let me be, young Mr. Todhetley,” he then said.
“There’s a strike going on, I hear,” said Tod. “Has been for some time.”
“Yes, there’s a strike a-going on,” assented Hoar, speaking in a deliberate, sullen manner, as a man resenting some special grievance. “Has been for some time, as you say. And I don’t know when the strike ‘ll be a-going off.”
“How is Eliza?” I asked.
“Much as usual, Mr. Johnny. What should ail her?”
Evidently there was no sociability to be got out of Jacob Hoar that afternoon, and we left him. A few yards further, we passed Ford’s, the baker’s. No end of heads were at the shop door, and they seemed to be staring at Hoar.
“He must have been dealing out a little abuse to the public generally, Tod,” said I.
“Very likely,” answered Tod. “He seems bursting with some rage or other.”
“Nay, I don’t think it’s rage so much as vexation. Something must have gone wrong.”
“Well, perhaps so.”
“Look here, Tod. If we had a home to keep up and a lot of mouths to feed and weekly rent to pay, and a strike stopped the supplies, we might be in a worse humour than Hoar is.”
“Right, Johnny.” And Tod went off at a strapping pace.
How it may be with other people, I don’t know: but when I get back to a place after an absence, I want to see every one, and am apt to go dashing in at doors without warning.
“It won’t take us a minute to look in on Miss Timmens, Tod,” I said, as we neared the school-house. “She’ll tell us the news of the whole parish.”
“Take the minute, then, if you like,” said Tod. “I am not going to bother myself with Miss Timmens.”
Neither perhaps should I, after that, for Tod swayed me still; but in passing the door it was opened wide by one of the little scholars. Miss Timmens sat in her chair, the lithe, thin cane, three yards long, raised in her hand, its other end descending, gently enough on the shoulders of a chattering girl.
“I don’t keep it to beat ’em,” Miss Timmens was wont to say of her cane, “but just to tap ’em into attention when they are beyond the reach of my hand.” And, to give her her due, it was nothing more.
“It’s you, is it, Master Johnny? I heard you were all expected.”
“It’s me, safe enough. How goes the world with you, Miss Timmens?”
“Cranky,” was the short answer. “South Crabb’s going out of its senses, I think. The parson is trying to introduce fresh ways and doings, in my school: new-fangled rubbish, Master Johnny, that will bring more harm than good. I won’t have it, and so he and I are at daggers drawn. And there’s a strike in the place!”
I nodded. While she spoke, it had struck me, looking at the room, that it was not so full as usual.
“It’s the strike does that,” she said, in a sort of triumph. “It’s the strike that works all the ill and every kind of evil”— and it was quite evident the strike found no more favour with her than the parson’s fresh ways.
“But what has the strike to do with the children’s absence from school?”
“The strike has carried all the children’s best things to the pawn-shop, and they’ve nothing decent left to come abroad in. That is one cause, Johnny Ludlow,” she concluded, very tartly.
“Is there any other?”
“Don’t you think that sufficient? I am not going to let them appear before me in rags — and so Crabb Lane knows. But there is another cause, sir. This strike has so altered the course of things that the whole order of ordinary events is turned upside down. Even if the young ones’ frocks were home again, it would be ten to one against their coming to school.”
“I don’t see the two little Hoars.” And why I had been looking for those particular children I can’t say, unless it was that Hoar and his peculiar manner had been floating in my mind ever since we passed him.
“‘Liza and Jessy — no, but they’ve been here till today,” was the reply, given after a long pause. “Are you going, Mr. Johnny? — I’ll just step outside with you.”
She drew the door close behind her, keeping the handle in her hand, and looked straight into my face.
“Jacob Hoar has gone and beat his boy almost to death this morning — and the strike’s the cause of that,” she whispered, emphatically.
“Jacob Hoar has! — Why, how came he to do it?”— I exclaimed, recalling more forcibly than ever the man’s curious look, and the curious looks of the other men holding aloof from him. “Which of his boys is it?”
“The second of them; little Dick. Yes, he is black and blue all over, they say; next door to beat to death; and his arm’s broken. And they have the strike to thank for it.”
She repeated the concluding words more stingingly than before. That Miss Timmens was wroth with the strike, there could be no mistake. I asked her why the strike was to be thanked for the beating and the broken arm.
“Because the strike has brought misery; and that is the source of all the ill going on just now in Crabb Lane,” was her reply. “When the men threw themselves out of work, of course they threw themselves out of wages. Some funds have been furnished to them, weekly I believe, from the Trades Union League — or whatever they call the thing — but it seems a mere nothing compared with what they used to earn. Household goods, as well as clothes, have been going to the pawn-shop, but they have now pledged all they’ve got to pledge, and are, it is said, in sore straits: mothers and fathers and children alike hungry. It is some time now since they have had enough to eat. Fancy that, Mr. Johnny!”
“But why should Dicky be beaten for that?” I persisted, trying to keep her to the point — a rather difficult matter with Miss Timmens at all times.
“It was in this way,” she answered, dropping her voice to a lower key, and giving a pull at the door to make sure it had not opened. “Dicky, poor fellow, is half starved; he’s not used to it, and feels it keenly: resents it, I dare say. This morning, when out in the lane, he saw a tray of halfpenny buns, hot from the oven, put on old Ford’s counter. The sight was too much for him, the temptation too great. Dicky Hoar is naturally honest; has been, up to now, at all events: but I suppose hunger was stronger than honesty today. He crept into the shop on all fours, abstracted a bun with his fingers, and was creeping out again, when Ford pounced upon him, bun in hand. There was a fine outcry. Ford was harsh, roared out for the policeman, and threatened him with jail, and in the midst of the commotion Hoar came up. In his mortification at hearing that a boy of his had been caught pilfering, he seized upon a thick stick that a bystander happened to have, and laid it unmercifully upon poor Dick.”
“And broke his arm?”
“And broke his arm. And covered him with weals beside. He’ll be all manner of colours tomorrow.”
“What a brutal fellow Hoar must be!”
“To beat him like that? — well, yes,” assented Miss Timmens, in accents that bore rather a dubious sound. “Passion must have blinded him and urged him further than he intended. The man has always been upright; prided himself on being so, as one may say; and there’s no doubt that to find his child could be a thief shook him cruelly. This strike is ruining the tempers of the men; it makes them feel at war with everything and everybody.”
When I got home I found them in the thick of the news also, for Cole the doctor was there telling it all. Mrs. Todhetley, sitting on the sofa with her bonnet untied and her shawl unpinned, was listening in a kind of horror.
“But surely the arm cannot be broken, Mr. Cole!” she urged.
“Broken just above the wrist, ma’am. I ought to know, for I set it. Wicked little rascal, to steal the bun! As to Hoar, he is as fierce as a tiger when really enraged.”
“Well, it sounds very shocking.”
“So it does,” said Cole. “I think perhaps it may be productive of one good — keep the boy from picking and stealing to the end of his life.”
“He was hungry, you say.”
“Famished, ma’am. Most of the young ones in Crabb Lane are so just now.”
The Squire was walking up and down the room, his hands in his pockets. He halted, and faced the Doctor.
“Look here, Cole — what has brought this state of things about? A strike! — and prolonged! Why, I should as soon have expected to hear the men had thrown up their work to become Merry Andrews! Who is in fault? — the masters or the men?”
Cole lifted his eyebrows. “The masters lay the blame on the men, the men lay it on the masters.”
“What is it the men are holding out for?”
“To get more wages, and to do less work.”
“Oh, come, that’s a twofold demand,” cried the Pater. “Modest folk generally ask for one favour at a time. Meanwhile things are all at sixes-and-sevens, I suppose, in Crabb Lane?”
“Ay,” said the Doctor. “At worse than sixes-and-sevens, indoors and out. There are empty cupboards and empty rooms within; and there’s a good deal of what’s bad without. It’s the wives and children that suffer, poor things.”
“The men must be senseless to throw themselves out of work!”
“The men only obey orders,” cried Mr. Cole. “There’s a spirit of disaffection abroad: certain people have constituted themselves rulers, and they say to the men, ‘You must do this,’ and ‘You must not do that.’ The men have yielded themselves up to be led, and do do what they are told, right or wrong.”
“I don’t say they are wrong to try to get more wages if they can; it would be odd if we were to be debarred from bettering ourselves,” spoke the Squire. “But to throw up their work whilst they are trying, there’s the folly; there’s where the shoe must tighten. Let them keep on their work whilst they agitate.”
“They’d tell you, I expect, that the masters would be less likely to listen then than they are now.”
“Well, they’ve no right, in common sense, to throw up their wives’ and children’s living, if they do their own,” concluded the Squire.
Cole nodded. “There’s some truth in that,” he said as he got up to leave. “Any way, things are more gloomy with us than you’d believe, Squire.”
You may remember that I told you, when speaking of the Court and my early home, how, when I was a little child of four years old, Hannah my nurse, and Eliza one of her fellow-servants, commented freely in my hearing on my father’s second marriage, and shook me well because I was wise enough to understand them. Eliza was then housemaid at the Court; and soon after this she had left it to marry Jacob Hoar. She was a nice sort of young woman (in spite of the shaking), and I kept up a great acquaintance with her, and was free, so to say, of her house in Crabb Lane, running in and out of it at will, when we were at Crabb Cot. A tribe of little Hoars arrived, one after another. Jacky, the eldest, over ten now, had a place at the works, and earned two shillings a week. “‘Twarn’t much,” said Hoar the father, “but ’twas bringing his hand in.” Dick, the second, he who had just had the beating, was nine; two girls came next, and there was a young boy of three.
Hoar earned capital wages — to judge by the comfortable way in which they lived: I should think not less than forty shillings a week. Of course they spent it all, every fraction; as a rule, families of that class never put by for a rainy day. They might have done it, I suppose; in those days provisions were nothing like as dear as they are now; the cost of living altogether was less.
Of course the Hoars had to suffer in common with the rest under the strike. But I did not like to hear of empty cupboards in connection with Eliza; no, nor of her boy’s broken arm; and in the evening I went back to Crabb Lane to see her. They lived next door but one to the house that had been Lease the pointsman’s; but theirs was far better than that tumble-down hut.
Well, it was a change! The pretty parlour looked half dismantled. Its ornaments and best things had gone, as Miss Timmens expressed it, to adorn the pawnshop. The carpet also. Against the wall, on a small mattress brought down for him, lay Dicky and his bruises. Some of the children sat on the floor: Mrs. Hoar was kneeling over Dicky and bathing his cheek, which was big enough for two, for it had caught the stick kindly.
She got up, sank into a chair, flung her apron up to her face, and burst into tears. I suppose it was at the sight of me. Not knowing what to say to that, I pulled the little girls’ ears and then sat down on the floor by Dicky. He began to cry.
“Oh come, Dick, don’t; you’ll soon be better. Face smarts, does it?”
“I never thought to meet you like this, Master Johnny,” said Eliza, getting up and speaking through her tears. “’Twas hunger made him do it, sir; nothing else. The poor little things be so famished at times it a’most takes the sense out of ’em.”
“Yes, I am sure it was nothing else. Look up, Dick. Don’t cry like that.” One would have thought the boy was going into hysterics.
I had an apple in my pocket and gave it to him. He kept it in his hand for some time, and then began to eat it ravenously, sobbing now and then. The left arm, the broken one, lay across him, bound up in splints.
“I didn’t mean to steal the bun,” he whispered, looking up at me through his tears. “I’d ha’ give Mrs. Ford the first ha’penny for it that I’d ever got. I was a-hungered, I was. We be always a-hungered now.”
“It is hard times with you, I am afraid, Eliza,” I said, standing by her.
Opening her mouth to answer, a sob caught her breath, and she put her hand to her side, as if in pain. Her poor face, naturally patient and meek, was worn, and had a bright hectic spot upon it. Eliza used to be very pretty, and was young-looking still, with smooth brown hair, and mild grey eyes: she looked very haggard now and less tidy. But, as to being tidy, how can folk be that, when all their gowns worth a crown are hanging up at the pawnbroker’s?
“It’s dreadful times, Master Johnny. It’s times that frighten me. Worse than all, I can’t see when it is to end, and what the end is to be.”
“Don’t lose heart. The end will be that the men will go to work again: I dare say soon.”
“The Lord send it!” she answered. “That’s the best we can hope for, sir; and that’ll be hard enough. For we shall have to begin life again, as ’twere; with debts all around us, and our household things and our clothes in pledge.”
“You will get them out again then.”
“Ay, but how long will it take to earn the money to do it? This strike, as I look upon it, has took at the rate of five years of prosperity out of our lives, Master Johnny.”
“The league — or whatever it is — allows you all money to live, does it not?”
“We get some, sir. It’s not a great deal. They tell us that there’s strikes a-going on in many parts just now; these strikes have to be helped as well as the operatives here; and so it makes the allowance small. We have no means of knowing whether that’s true or not, us women, I mean; but I dare say it is.”
“And the allowance is not enough to keep you in food?”
“Master Johnny, there’s so many other things one wants, beside bare food,” she answered, with a sigh. “We must pay our rent, or the landlord would turn us out; we must have a bit o’ coal for firing: we must have soap; clothes must be washed, sir, and we must be washed; we must have a candle these dark evenings; shoes must be mended: and there’s other trifles, too, that I needn’t go into, as well as what Hoar takes for himself ——”
“But does he take much?” I interrupted.
“No, sir, he don’t: nothing to what some of ’em takes: he has always been a good husband and father. The men, you see, sir, must have a few halfpence in their pockets to pay for their smoke and that, at their meetings in the evening. There’s not much left for food when all this comes to be taken out — and we are seven mouths to fill.”
No wonder they were hungry!
“Some of the people you’ve known ought to help you, Eliza. Mrs. Sterling at the old home might: or Mrs. Coney. Do they?”
Eliza Hoar shook her head. “The gentlemen be all again us, sir, and so the ladies dare not do anything. As to Mrs. Sterling — I don’t know that she has so much as heard of the strike — all them miles off.”
“You mean the gentlemen are against the strike!”
“Yes, sir; dead again it. They say strikes is the worst kind of evil that can set in, both for us and for the country; that it will increase the poor-rates to a height to be afraid of, and in the end drive the work away from the land. Sitting here with my poor children around me at dusk to save candle, I get thinking sometimes that the gentlemen may not be far wrong, Master Johnny.”
Seeing the poor quiet faces lifted to me, from which every bit of spirit seemed to have gone, I wished I had my pockets full of buns for them. But buns were not likely to be there; and of money I had none: buying one of the best editions of Shakespeare had just cleared me out.
“Where’s Hoar?” I asked, in leaving.
A hot flush overspread her face. “He has not shown himself here, Master Johnny, since what he did to him,” was her resentful answer, pointing to Dick. “Afraid to face me, he is.”
“I’d not say too much to him, Eliza. It could not undo what’s done, and might only make matters worse. I dare say Hoar is just as much vexed about it as you are.”
“It’s to be hoped he is! Why did he go and set upon the child in that cruel way? It’s the men that goes in for the strike; ‘tisn’t us: and when the worry of it makes ’em so low they hardly know where to turn, they must vent it upon us. Master Johnny, there are minutes now when I could wish myself dead but for the children.”
I went home with my head full of a scheme — getting Mrs. Todhetley and perhaps the Coneys to do something for poor Eliza Hoar. But I soon found I might as well have pleaded the cause of the public hangman.
Who should come into our house that evening but old Coney himself. As if the strike were burning a hole in his tongue, he began upon it before he was well seated, and gave the Squire his version of it: that is, his opinion. It did not differ in substance from what had been hinted at by Eliza Hoar. Mr. Coney did not speak for the men or against them; he did not speak for or against the masters; that question of conflicting interests he said he was content to leave: but what he did urge, and very strongly, was, that strikes in themselves must be productive of an incalculable amount of harm; they brought misery on the workmen, pecuniary embarrassment on the masters, and they most inevitably would, if persisted in, eventually ruin the trade of the kingdom; therefore they should, by every possible means, be discouraged. The Squire, in his hot fashion, took up these opinions for his own and enlarged upon them.
When old Coney was gone and we had our slippers on, I told them of my visit to Eliza, and asked them to help her just a little.
“Not by a crust of bread, Johnny,” said the Squire, more firmly and quietly than he usually spoke. “Once begin to assist the wives and children, and the men would have so much the less need to bring the present state of things to an end.”
“I am so sorry for Eliza, sir.”
“So am I, Johnny. But the proper person to be sorry for her is her husband: her weal and woe can lie only with him.”
“If we could help her ever so little!”
The Squire looked at me for a full minute. “Attend to me, Johnny Ludlow. Once for all, NO! The strike, as Coney says, must be discouraged by every means in our power. Discouraged, Johnny. Otherwise these strikes may come into fashion, and grow to an extent of which no man can foresee the end. They will bring the workmen to one of two things — starvation, or the workhouse. That result seems to me inevitable.”
“I’m sure it makes me feel very uncomfortable,” said the Mater. “One can hardly see where one’s duty lies.”
“Our poor-rates are getting higher every day; what do you suppose they’ll come to if this is to go on?” continued the Squire. “I’d be glad for the men to get better pay if they are underpaid now: whether they are or not, I cannot tell; but rely upon it, striking is not the way to attain to it. It’s a way that has ruined many a hopeful workman, who otherwise would have gone on contentedly to the end of his days; ay, and has finally killed him. It will ruin many another. Various interests are at stake in this; you must perceive it for yourself, Johnny lad, if you have any brains; but none so great as that of the workmen themselves. With all my heart I wish, for their own sakes, they had not taken this extreme step.”
“And if the poor children starve, sir?” I ventured to say.
“Fiddlestick to starving! They need not starve while there’s a workhouse to go to. And won’t; that’s more. Can’t you see how all this acts, Mr. Johnny? The men throw themselves out of work; and when matters come to an extremity the parish must feed the children, and we, the rate-payers, must pay. A pleasant prospect! How many scores of children are there in Crabb Lane alone?”
“A few dozens, I should say, sir.”
“And a few to that. No, Johnny; let the men look to their families’ needs. For their own sakes; I repeat it; for their own best interests, I’ll have them left alone. They have entered on this state of things of their own free will, and they must themselves fight it out. — And now get you off to bed, boys.”
“The Pater’s right, Johnny,” cried Tod, stepping into my room as we went up, his candle flaring in the draught from the open staircase window; “right as right can be on principle; but it is hard for the women and children ——”
“It is hard for themselves, too, Tod: only they have the unbending spirit of Britons, to hold out to the death and make no bones over it.”
“I wish you’d not interrupt a fellow,” growled Tod. “Look here; I’ve got four-and-sixpence, every farthing I can count just now. You take it and give it to Eliza. The Pater need know nothing.”
He emptied his trousers pocket of the silver, and went off with his candle. I’m not sure but that he and I both enjoyed the state of affairs as something new. Had any one told us a year ago that our quiet neighbourhood could be disturbed by a public ferment such as this, we should never have believed it.
The next morning I went over to South Crabb with the four-and-sixpence. Perhaps it was not quite fair to give it, after what the Squire had said — but there’s many a worse thing than that done daily in the world. Eliza caught her breath when I gave it to her, and thanked me with her eyes as well as her lips. She had on a frightfully old green gown — green once — shabby and darned and patched, and no cap; and she was on her knees wiping up some spilt water on the floor.
“Mind, Eliza, you must not say a word to any one. I should get into no end of a row.”
“You were always generous, Master Johnny. Even when a baby ——”
“Never mind that. It is not I who am generous now. The silver was given me for you by some one else; I am cleared out, myself. Where’s Dicky?”
“He’s upstairs in his bed, sir: too stiff to move. Mr. Cole, too, said he might as well lie there today. Would you like to go up and see him?”
As I ran up the staircase, open from the room, a vision of her wan face followed me — of the catching sob again — of the smooth brown hair which she was pressing from her temples. We have heard of a peck of troubles: she seemed to have a bushel of them.
Dicky was a sight, as far as variety of colours went. There was no mistake about his stiffness.
“It won’t last long, Dick; and then you’ll be as well as ever.”
Dick’s grey eyes — they were just like his mother’s — looked up at mine. I thought he was going to cry.
“There. You will never take anything again, will you?”
Dick shook his head as emphatically as his starched condition allowed. “Father says as he’d kill me the next time if I did.”
“When did he say that?”
“This morning; afore he went out.”
Dicky’s room had a lean-to roof, and was about the size of our jam closet at Crabb Cot. Not an earthly article was in it but the mattress he was lying on.
“Who sleeps here besides you, Dicky?”
“Jacky and little Sam. ‘Liza and Jessy sleeps by father and mother.”
“Well, good day, Dicky.”
Whom should I come upon at the end of Crabb Lane, but the Squire and Hoar. The Squire had his gun in his hand and was talking his face red: Hoar leaned against the wooden palings that skirted old Massock’s garden, and looked as sullen as he had looked yesterday. I thought the Pater had been blowing him up for beating the boy; but it seemed that he was blowing him up for the strike. Cole, the surgeon, hurrying along on his rounds, stopped just as I did.
“Not your fault, Hoar!” cried the Squire. “Of course I know it’s not your fault alone, but you are as bad as the rest. Come; tell me what good the strike has done for you.”
“Not much as yet,” readily acknowledged Hoar, in a tone of incipient defiance.
“To me it seems nothing less than a crime to throw yourself out of work. There’s the work ready to your hands, spoiling for want of being done — and yet you won’t do it!”
“I do but obey orders,” said Hoar: who seemed to be miserable enough, in spite of the incipient defiance.
“But is there any sense in it?” reasoned the Squire. “If you men could drop the work and still keep up your homes and, their bread-and-cheese, and their other comforts, I’d say nothing. But look at your poor suffering wives and children. I should be ashamed to be idle, when my idleness bore such consequences.”
The man answered nothing. Cole put in his word.
“There are times when I feel I should like to run away from my work, and go in for a few weeks’ or months’ idleness, Jacob Hoar; and drink my two or three glasses of port wine after dinner of a day, like a lord; and be altogether independent of my station and my patients, and of every other obligation under the sun. But I can’t. I know what it would do for me— bring me to the parish.”
“D’ye think we throw up the work for the sake o’ being idle?” returned Hoar. “D’ye suppose, sirs,”— with a burst of a sigh —“that this state o’ things is a pleasure to us? We are doing it for future benefit. We are told by them who act for us, and who must know, that great benefit will come of it if we be only firm; that our rights be in our own hands if we only persevere long enough in standing out for ’em. Us men has our rights, I suppose, as well as other folks.”
“Those who, as you term it, act for you, may be mistaken, Hoar,” said the Squire. “I’ll leave that point: and go on to a different question. Do you think that the future benefit (whatever that may be: it’s vague enough now) is worth the cost you are paying for it?”
No reply. A look crossed Hoar’s face that made me think he sometimes asked the same question of himself.
“It does appear to be a very senseless quarrel, Hoar,” went on the Squire. Cole had walked on. “One-sided too. There’s an old saying, ‘Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face,’ and your strike seems just an illustration of it. You see, it is only you men that suffer. The rulers you speak of don’t suffer: while they are laying down rules for you, they are flourishing on the meat and corn of the land; the masters, in one sense, do not suffer, for they are not reduced to any extremity of any kind. But you, my poor fellows, you bear the brunt of it all. Look at your homes, how they are bared; look at your hungry children. What but hunger drove little Dick to crib that bun yesterday?”
Hoar took off his hat and passed his hand over his brow and his black hair. It seemed to be a favourite action of his when in any worry of thought.
“It is just ruin, Jacob Hoar. If some great shock — say a mountain of snow, or a thunderbolt — descended suddenly from the skies and destroyed everything there was in your home, leaving but the bare walls standing, what a dreadful calamity you would think it. How bitterly you’d bemoan it! — perhaps almost feel inclined, if you only dared, to reproach Heaven for its cruelty! But you — you bring on this calamity yourself, of your own free and deliberate will. You have dismantled your home with your own fingers; you have taken out your goods and sold or pledged them, to buy food. I hear you have parted with all.”
“A’most,” assented Hoar readily; as if it quite pleased him the Squire should show up the case at its worst.
“Put it that you resume work tomorrow, you don’t resume it as a free man. You’ll have a load of debt and embarrassment on your shoulders. You will have your household goods to redeem — if they are then still redeemable: you will have your clothes and shoes to buy, to replace present rags: while on your mind will lie the weight of all this past time of trouble, cropping up every half-hour like a nightmare. Now — is the future benefit you hint at worth all this?”
Hoar twitched a thorny spray off the hedge behind the pales, and twirled it about between his teeth.
“Any way,” he said, the look of perplexity clearing somewhat on his face, “I be but doing as my mates do; and we are a-doing for the best. So far as we are told and believe, it’ll be all for the best.”
“Then do it,” returned the Squire in a passion; and went stamping away with his gun.
“Johnny, they are all pig-headed together,” he presently said, as we crossed the stile into the field of stubble whence the corn had been reaped. “One can’t help being sorry for them: they are blinded by specious arguments that will turn out, I fear, to be all moonshine. Hold my gun, lad. Where’s that dog, now? Here, Dash, Dash, Dash!”
Dash came running up; and Tod with him.
In a fortnight’s time, Crabb Cot was deserted again. Tod and I returned to our studies, the Squire and the rest to Dyke Manor. As the weeks went on, scraps of news would reach us about the strike. There were meetings of the masters alone: meetings of the men and what they called delegates; meetings of masters and men combined. It all came to nothing. The masters at length offered to concede a little: the men (inwardly wearied out, sick to death of the untoward state of things) would have accepted the slight concession and returned to work with willing feet; but their rulers — the delegates, or whatever they were — said no. And so the idleness and the pinching distress continued: the men got more morose, and the children more ragged. After that (things remaining in a chronic state of misery, I suppose) we heard nothing.
“Another lot of faggots, Thomas; and heap up the coal. This is weather! Goodness, man! Don’t put the coal on gingerly, as if you were afraid of it. Molly’s a fool.”
We were in the cozy sitting-room again at Crabb Cot. The Squire was right: it was weather: the coldest I have ever felt in December. Old Thomas’s hands were frozen with the drive from the station. Molly, who had come on the day before, had put about a handful of fire in the grate to greet us with. Naturally it put the Squire’s temper up.
“That there strike’s a-going on still, sir,” began Thomas, as he waited to watch his wood blaze up.
“No!” cried the Squire. For we had naturally supposed it to be at an end.
“It is, though, sir. Ford the driver telled me, coming along, that Crabb Lane was in a fine state for distress.”
“Oh dear! I wish I knew whose fault it is!” bewailed Mrs. Todhetley. “What more did the driver say, Thomas?”
“Well, ma’am, he said it must be the men’s fault — because there the work is, still a-waiting for ’em, and they won’t do it.”
“The condition the poor children must be in!”
“Like hungry wolves,” said old Thomas. “’Twas what Ford called ’em, and he ought to know: own brother to Ford the baker, as lives in the very thick of the trouble!”
Scarcely anything was talked of that evening but the strike. Its long continuance half frightened some of us. Old Coney, coming in to smoke his pipe with the Squire, pulled a face as long as his arm at the poor-rate prospect: the Squire wondered how much work would stay in the country.
It was said the weekly allowance made to the men was not so much as it had been at first. It was also said that the Society, making it, considered Crabb Lane in general had been particularly improvident in spending the allowance, or it would not have been reduced to its present distressed condition. Which was not to be wondered at, in Mr. Coney’s opinion: people used to very good wages, he said, could not all at once pull up habits and look at every farthing as a miser does. Crabb Lane was reproachfully assured by the Society that other strikes had kept themselves quite respectable, comparatively speaking, upon just the same allowance, and had not parted with all their pots and pans.
That night I dreamt of the strike. It’s as true as that I am writing this. I dreamt I saw thousands and thousands of red-faced men — not pale-faced ones — each tossing a loaf of bread up and down.
“I suppose I may go over and see Eliza,” I said to Mrs. Todhetley, after breakfast in the morning.
“There is no reason why you should not, Johnny, that I know of,” she answered, after a pause. “Excepting the cold.”
As if I minded the cold! “I hope the whole lot, she and the young ones, won’t look like skeletons, that’s all. Tod, will you come?”
“Not if I know it, old fellow. I have no fancy for seeing skeletons.”
“Oh, that was all my nonsense.”
“I know that. A pleasant journey to you.”
The hoar frost had gathered on the trees, the ice hung fantastically from their branches: it was altogether a beautiful sight. Groups of Miss Timmens’s girls, coming to school with frozen noses, were making slides as they ran. As to Crabb Lane, it looked nearly deserted: the cold kept the men indoors. Knocking at Hoar’s door with a noise like a fire-engine, I went in with a leap.
The scene I came upon brought me up short. Just at first I did not understand it. In the self-same corner by the fireplace where Dicky’s bed had been that first day, was a bed now, and Eliza lay on it: and by her side, wedged against the wall, was what looked like a bundle of green baize with a calico nightcap on. The children — and really and truly they were not much better than living skeletons — sat on the floor.
“What’s to do here, you little mites? Is mother ill?”
Dicky, tending the fire (I could have put it into a cocoa-nut), turned round to answer me. He had got quite well again, arm and all.
“Mother’s very ill,” said he in a whisper. “That’s the new baby.”
“The new what?”
“The new baby,” repeated Dick, pointing to the green bundle. “It’s two days old.”
An old tin slop-pail, turned upside down, stood in the corner of the hearth. I sat down on it to revolve the news and take in the staggering aspect of things.
“What do you say, Dick? A baby — two days old?”
“Two days,” returned Dick. “I’d show him to you but for fear o’ waking mother.”
“He came here the night afore last, he did, while we was all asleep upstairs,” interposed the younger of the little girls, Jessy. “Mr. Cole brought him in his pocket: father said so.”
“‘Twasn’t the night afore last,” corrected ‘Liza. “’Twas the night afore that.”
Poor, pale, pinched faces, with never a smile on any one of them! Nothing takes the spirit out of children like long-continued famine.
Stepping across, I looked down at Mrs. Hoar. Her eyes were half open as if she were in a state of stupor. I don’t think she knew me: I’m not sure she even saw me. The face was fearfully thin and hollow, and white as death.
“Wouldn’t mother be better upstairs, Dick?”
“She’s here ‘cause o’ the fire,” returned Dick, gently dropping on a bit of coal the size of a marble. “There ain’t no bed up there, neither; they’ve brought it down.”
The “bed” looked like a sack of shavings. From my heart I don’t believe it was anything else. At that moment, the door opened and a woman came in; a neighbour, I suppose; her clothes very thin.
“It’s Mrs. Watts,” said Dick.
Mrs. Watts curtsied. She looked as starved as they did. It seemed she knew me.
“She be very bad. Mr. Ludlow, sir.”
“She seems so. Is it — fever?”
“Law, sir! It’s more famine nor fever. If her strength can last out — why, well and good; she may rally. If it don’t, she’ll go, sir.”
“Ought she not to have things, Mrs. Watts? Beef-tea and wine, and all that.”
Mrs. Watts stared a minute, and then her lips parted with a sickly smile. “I don’t know where she’d get ’em from, sir! Beef-tea and wine! A drop o’ plain tea is a’most more nor us poor can manage to find now. The strike have lasted long, you see, sir. Any way, she’s too weak to take much of anything.”
“If I— if I could bring some beef-tea — or some wine — would it do her good?”
“It might just be the saving of her life, Mr. Ludlow, sir.”
I went galloping home through the snow. Mrs. Todhetley was stoning raisins in the dining-room for the Christmas puddings. Telling her the news in a heap, I sat down to get my breath.
“Ah, I was afraid so,” she said quietly, and without surprise. “I feared there might be another baby at the Hoars’ by this time.”
“Another baby at the Hoars’!” cried Tod, looking up from my new Shakespeare that he was skimming. “How is it going to get fed?”
“I fear that’s a problem none of us can solve, Joseph,” said she.
“Well, folk must be daft, to go on collecting a heap more mouths together, when there’s nothing to feed them on,” concluded Tod, dropping his head into the book again. Mrs. Todhetley was slowly wiping her fingers on the damp cloth, and looking doubtful.
“Joseph, your papa’s not in the way and I cannot speak to him —do you think I might venture to send something to poor Eliza under the circumstances?”
“Send and risk it,” said Tod, in his prompt manner. “Of course. As to the Pater — at the worst, he’ll only storm a bit. But I fancy he would be the first to send help himself. He wouldn’t let her die for the want of it.”
“Then I’ll despatch Hannah at once.”
Hoar was down by the bed when Hannah got there, holding a drop of ale to his wife’s lips. Mr. Cole was standing by with his hat on.
“Ale!” exclaimed Hannah to the surgeon. “May she take that?”
“Bless me, yes,” said he, “and do her good.”
Hannah followed him outside the door when he was leaving. “How will it go with her, sir?” she asked. “She looks dreadfully ill.”
“Well,” returned the Doctor, “I think the night will about see the end of it.”
The words frightened Hannah. “Oh, my goodness!” she cried. “What’s the matter with her that she should die?”
“Famine and worry have been the matter with her. What she will die of is exhaustion. She has had a sharpish turn just now, you understand; and has no stamina to bring her up again.”
It was late in the afternoon when Hannah came home again. There was no change, she said, for the better or the worse. Eliza still lay as much like one dead as living.
“It’s quite a picter to see the poor little creatures sitting on the bare floor and quiet as mice, never speaking but in a whisper,” cried Hannah, as she shook the snow from her petticoats on the mat. “It’s just as if they had an instinct of what is coming.”
The Squire, far from being angry, wanted to send over half the house. It was not Eliza’s fault, he said, it was the strike’s — and he hoped with all his heart she’d get through it. Helping the men’s wives in ordinary was not to be thought of; but when it came to dying, that was a different matter. In the evening, between dinner and tea, I offered to go over and see whether any progress had been made. Being curious on the point themselves, they said yes.
The snow was coming down smartly. My great-coat and hat were soon white enough for me to be taken for a ghost enjoying the air at night. Knocking at the Hoars’ door gently, it was opened by Jacky. He asked me to go in.
To my surprise they were again alone — Eliza and the children. Mrs. Watts had gone home to put her own flock to bed; and Hoar was out. ‘Liza sat on the hearthstone, the sleeping bundle on her lap.
“Father’s a-went to fetch Mr. Cole,” said Jacky. “Mother began a talking queer — dreams, like — and it frightened him. He told us to mind her till he run back with the Doctor.”
Looking down, I thought she was delirious. Her eyes were wide open and glistening, a scarlet spot shone on her cheeks. She began talking to me. Or rather to the air: for I’m sure she knew no one.
“A great bright place it is, up there; all alight and shining. Silvery, like the stars. Oh, it’s beautiful! The people be in white, and no strikes can come in!”
“She’ve been a-talking about the strikes all along,” whispered Jacky, who was kneeling on the mattress. “Mother! Mother, would ye like a drop o’ the wine?”
Whether the word mother aroused her, or the boy’s voice — and she had always loved Jacky with a great love — she seemed to recognize him. He raised her head as handy as could be, and held the tea-cup to her lips. It was half full of wine; she drank it all by slow degrees, and revived to consciousness.
“Master Johnny!” she said then in a faint tone.
I could not help the tears filling my eyes as I knelt down by her in Jacky’s place. She knew she was dying. I tried to say a word or two.
“It’s the leaving the children, Master Johnny, to strikes and things o’ that kind, that’s making it so hard for me to go. The world’s full o’ trouble: look at what ours has been since the strike set in! I’d not so much mind that for them, though — for the world here don’t last over long, and perhaps it’s a’most as good to be miserable as easy in it — if I thought they’d all come to me in the bright place afterwards. But — when one’s clammed with famine and what not, it’s a sore temptation to do wrong. Lord, bring them to me!” she broke forth, suddenly clasping her hands. “Lord Jesus, pray for them, and save them!”
She was nothing but skin and bone. Her hands fell, and she began plucking at the blanket. You might have heard a pin drop in the room. The frightened children hardly breathed.
“I shall see your dear mamma, Master Johnny. I was at her death-bed; ’twas me mostly waited on her in her sickness. If ever a sainted lady went straight to heaven, ’twas her. When I stood over her grave I little thought my own ending was to be so soon. Strikes! Nothing but strikes — and famine, and bad tempers, and blows. Lord Jesus, wash us white from our sins, and take us all to that better world! No strikes there; no strikes there.”
She was going off her head again. The door opened, and Hoar, the Doctor, and Mrs. Watts all came in together.
Mrs. Todhetley went over through the snow in the morning. Eliza Hoar had died in the night, and lay on the mattress, her wasted face calm and peaceful. Hoar and the children had migrated to the kitchen at the back, a draughty place hardly large enough for the lot to turn round in. The eldest girl was trying to feed the baby with a tea-spoon.
“What are you giving it, Eliza?” asked Mrs. Todhetley.
“Sugar and water, with a sup o’ milk in’t, please, ma’am.”
“I hope you are contented, Jacob Hoar, now you have killed your wife.”
Very harsh words, those for Mrs. Todhetley to speak: and she hastened to soften them. But, as she said afterwards, the matter altogether was a cruel folly and sin, making her heart burn with shame. “That is, Hoar, with the strike; for it is the strike that has killed her.”
Hoar, who had been sitting with his head in the chimney, noticing no one, burst into a sudden flood of tears, and sobbed for a minute or two. Mrs. Todhetley was giving the children a biscuit apiece from her bag.
“I did it all for the best,” said Hoar, presently. “‘Twasn’t me that originated the strike. I but joined in it with the rest of my mates.”
“And their wives and families are in no better plight than yours.”
“Nobody can say I’ve not done my duty as a husband and a father,” cried Hoar. “I’ve not been a drunkard, nor a rioter, nor a spendthrift. I’ve never beat her nor swore at her, as some of ’em does.”
“Well, she is lying there; and the strike has brought her to it. Is it so, or not?”
Hoar did not answer: only caught his breath with a sound of pain.
“It seems to me, Hoar, that the strikes cannot be the good things you think for,” she said, her voice now full of pity for the man. “They don’t bring luck with them; on the contrary, they bring a great deal of ill-luck. It is you workmen that suffer; mostly in your wives and children. I do not pretend to judge whether strikes may be good from a political point of view, I am not clever; but they do tell very hardly upon your poor patient wives and little ones.”
“And don’t you see as they tell upon us men, too!” he retorted with a sob that was half pitiful, half savage. “Ay, and worst of all; for if they should be mistaken steps stead of right ones, we’ve got ’em on our conscience.”
“But you go in for them, Hoar. You, individually: and this last night’s blow is the result. It certainly seems that there must be a mistake somewhere.”
This has not been much to tell of, but it is true; and, as strikes are all the go just now, I thought I would write out for you a scrap of one of ours. For my own part, I cannot see that strikes do much good in the long run; or at best, that they are worth the outlay. I do know, for I have heard and seen it, that through many a long day the poor wives and children can only cry aloud to Heaven to pity them and their privations.
In course of time the strike (it was the longest on record in our parts, though we have had a few since then) came to an end. Upon which, the men began life again with bare homes and sickly young ones; and a few vacant chairs.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55