A FORLORN HOPE

If the frequenters of the Spotted Cow had only known, this was about
the most unpropitious moment for obtaining a hearing for their
petition. A hearing was all they could possibly obtain for it, but that
they did not know either.

Litvinoff’s host had not found him as great a comfort as he had
expected. For one thing, the Count’s almost universal sympathy seemed
unaccountably to stop short at Roland Ferrier. The young man felt that
he had been terribly ill-used and naturally expected every one else
to see things in the same light, and it was ‘riling’ to find all the
sympathy of his guest turned, not towards him, but towards his workmen,
which did not seem reasonable; for, as Roland said, they could get
other work, but where was he to get another mill? Then he did not like
a certain change which he noticed in the other’s tone when he spoke of
Miss Stanley. He had sympathy enough for her, goodness knows–a trifle
too much Roland sometimes thought.

For Litvinoff to be a bore was impossible; but still it did happen
rather often that he would bring forward political economy of the most
startling pattern when the other wanted to talk literature, or art, or
personal grievances.

On this particular night Roland had been led, much against his will,
into a discussion of the nature which Litvinoff so much affected, and
he had to admit to himself that, as usual, he had much the worst of it.

‘It’s all very well,’ he said (people always say, ‘It’s all very well,’
when they can find no other answer to an argument); ‘it’s all very
well, and that sort of thing may do for Russia, but you will never get
an economic or any other revolution here– Why what the deuce is all
that row?’

‘That row’ was a tramping of many feet on the gravel, and a hum of
voices just outside the window.

Litvinoff, who was sitting nearer the window, rose and looked through
the laths of the venetian blinds.

‘Well, my dear Ferrier,’ he said, turning round with a smile, ‘it
strikes me that there _is_ a revolution in England, and that it has
begun at Thornsett. The whole population of Derbyshire appears to have
assembled in your front garden–yes, that’s it, evidently,’ he went on,
as a ring was given to the door bell, ‘and they are going to try gentle
measures to begin with, just as I have always advised,’ he concluded,
for the ring was not a loud one.

Roland had risen from his easy-chair and had made towards the window,
when the door opened and the maid announced that Clayton and one or two
of the hands wanted to speak to Mr Ferrier.

‘Show them in,’ said Roland curtly; and, as she withdrew, ‘One or
two,’ echoed Litvinoff; ‘that young woman’s ideas on the subject of
numbers are limited and primitive. Now, Ferrier, just repeat those
arguments you have been using against me, and I doubt not, so lucid and
convincing are they, that they will reconcile Clayton and the “hands”
here to the starvation that awaits them.’

Only three men followed old Clayton as he entered the room.

‘Well, my men,’ said Roland Ferrier, turning to them, and with a
faint irritation in his tone, as Litvinoff, leaning one elbow on the
mantelpiece, waved a recognition to the deputation, ‘What can I do for
you at this time of night?’

‘Well, sir,’ began Clayton, ‘me and my mates here has come to speak to
you for ourselves and them as is outside.’

‘Who are numerous and noisy,’ murmured the Count softly to himself.

‘Well, go on,’ said Roland, chafing.

‘We knows well enow,’ continued the old man, ‘as it ain’t all your
doing as t’ mill’s to stop, but we thowt as you might work things so
as to make it easier for us. It’s on’y nat’ral as you shouldn’t know
till it’s put to you what stoppin’ work ‘ill mean to most of us. What
‘ill it mean? Why, hard want is what it ‘ill mean, and clemming to more
nor one. So wot we’ve come to ask is, won’t you keep the works on till
summer comes, and let the stoppin’ be a bit less sudden like, and give
us time to get other work? This is bitter weather, and it’s bitter
hard as we must all leave our homes just because–‘ He paused in some
confusion.

‘Because what?’ asked Roland sharply.

‘Because our masters has fell out,’ struck in No. 2 of the deputation.

‘Look here, my men,’ Roland stamped his foot impatiently, ‘I thought
I made it perfectly clear to you a month ago that the closing of this
mill was no fault of mine. Do you take me for a born fool? Do you
suppose I should throw away this money if I could help it? Don’t you
know I lose as much as any of you? As much? I lose more than all of you
put together.’

‘Oh, just division of profits!’ murmured Litvinoff confidentially to
the clock on the mantelpiece.

‘You’ve had long enough notice of this,’ Roland went on, casting a
goaded glance at Litvinoff; ‘why didn’t you get work elsewhere?’

‘We hoped it ‘ud blow over. We thought perhaps you’d make it up with Mr
Richard; and we thought to-night as perhaps, if we told you straight
out, you’d go to him.’

‘Damn!’ hissed Roland, between his teeth. ‘I wish,’ he went on, raising
his voice, ‘you wouldn’t talk about things you don’t understand. What’s
the use of coming up like this in the middle of the night, interfering
in my private affairs; for I’d have you know my brother and I have a
perfect right to close the mill or keep it open as we choose. As for
you, Clayton, you’re old enough to know better than to come up here at
midnight with all the riff-raff of the village at your heels.’

‘No more riff-raff than yourself!’ this from the youngest deputy.

‘Hold tha noise, Jim!’ said old Clayton. ‘The other lads has come up,
sir, because they thought there mout be some good news, and they’d like
to hear ’em as soon as mout be.’

‘Well, they’ve had their tramp for nothing. That’s all the news I’ve
got for them, and much good may it do them.’

‘Well, well, sir,’ said Clayton, ‘we didn’t mean no harm. I’ll tell ’em
what you say. Good-night, sir!’

‘Good-night, Clayton!’ Roland spoke a little more gently. ‘I’m sorry I
can do nothing for you.’

The deputation turned to go. Litvinoff walked across the room and shook
hands with each man as he passed out of the door.

‘Good-night, my friends!’ he said. ‘Keep your tempers. This unfortunate
business is no one’s fault. It’s the fault of the system we all live
under.’

The door closed upon the last man. Roland turned angrily on his guest.

‘I can’t imagine,’ he said, with asperity, ‘how a man who is so
sensible about most things can take the part of these unreasonable
idiots!’

‘My dear Ferrier,’ relighting the cigar which had gone out in the
excitement of the moment, ‘of course I’ve the very greatest sympathy
with you in this painful business, and I know how little it is your
fault, but now, as always, I’m on the side of the workers, and you know
I never disguise my views.’

‘So it appears,’ Roland was beginning, when the murmur of voices
outside gave place to a single voice–that of one of the deputies, who
seemed to be speaking to the men. Ferrier and his guest could hear
the shuffling of many feet on the gravel as the men crowded round the
speaker. When he stopped there was a tumult of hissing and yelling and
groaning–a noise as of a very Pandemonium let loose.

Roland turned to Litvinoff.

‘I hope you’re proud of your precious _protégés_?’ he said, and at the
same moment a voice outside cried,–

‘Let’s smash the cursed walls in!’

Old Clayton’s voice sounded thin and shrill above the uproar.

‘Don’t be fools, lads! Come away! Let un alone! Come home! We’ll do no
good here.’

The men seemed to hesitate a minute, and then to obey, reluctantly
moving towards the gate.

‘They have gone without doing anything very serious, you see,’ said the
Count; but even as he spoke a big stone, thrown by some strong hand,
came crashing through the window, and rolled, muddy and grey, on to the
edge of the soft fur hearthrug.

‘Damn!’ cried Roland furiously, ‘I’ll have the fellow who did that,
anyway.’

He made a dash for the door, but Litvinoff caught him by the shoulders,
and there was a struggle, silent and brief, which ended in Roland’s
standing still, and looking at the other savagely.

‘Stay where you are, for God’s sake!’ shouted the Count; ‘they’ve only
done you five shillings’ worth of damage now, but they’ll perhaps add
murder to it if you go outside. Do be reasonable, Ferrier. There,
they’ve gone now; and if you went out you couldn’t identify the man who
did it.’

Roland turned away, and flung himself sulkily into a chair by the fire.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said; ‘but I shall be deuced glad to be
out of the whole thing.’

It was perhaps as well for Roland’s self-esteem and peace of mind that
he did not hear the strictures that were passed upon him by the men as
they returned towards the village. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,
but when a new-born hope is killed, and killed cruelly and suddenly,
there comes sometimes something more terrible than heart-sickness and
more dangerous.

The moon had flung aside the slight mist which had covered her face
earlier in the evening, and now shone full on the valley, towards
which the crowd were making their way. As they turned the corner which
brought them in sight of the mill whose doors none of them were to pass
again, a burst of curses and oaths broke from the men and fell on the
still air, violating and outraging the peace and beauty of the night.

At this moment Hatfield and Murdoch, walking together from the village
to meet them, came up and were promptly informed of the result of the
interview.

‘Ay, ay, lads!’ said old Murdoch. ‘What did Ah tell ye? as Ah thowt.’
Then looking down at the mill he pointed towards it, and went on in a
loud voice, ‘Ye shall best have another try now. Go down and beg o’ t’
door-posts o’ t’ owd mill to take ye on again. Ye’ll be as likely to
get a good hearing fro’ them as ye were fro’ t’ young puppy up yonder;
and they’ll not be laughing at ye as soon as yer turned, anyway.’

This last suggestion had the effect that Murdoch probably wished it to
have. At once a dozen voices were raised for going back to Thornsett
Edge, and not leaving a pane of glass in the window-sashes. The man
who had thrown the stone before at once became a small hero, and met
with numerous offers of assistance in going back and completing the
work he had begun. Not a few of the men were excited by drink as well
as by rage, having taken considerably more than was good for them
before they started on the forlorn hope, and the excitement of these
men communicated itself by those mysterious means which only manifest
themselves on these occasions to the men who were sober. Roland
Ferrier’s words, passing from mouth to mouth, had been added to and
altered so much that in the prevailing state of mind each man felt
that he personally had been insulted and outraged by the man of whom
he had asked the small favour of being allowed to continue to work
until the winter-tide had passed. The idea of returning and wrecking
the Ferriers’ house became every moment more and more popular, and the
crowd had actually faced round and begun that swaying movement which in
an undisciplined body always, for a moment or two, precedes a start,
when Hatfield spoke out at the top of his voice,–

‘See here,’ he said. ‘In a few weeks now we shall all be gone to
different parts, some on us to “the house.” Most like, when that’s
done, when we’re tramping the country far an’ wide, and seeking the
work we’re turned out of here, they two’–pointing towards Thornsett
Edge–”ll get tired o’ goin’ without their brass so long, maybe, an’
‘ill make up the quarrel, and come back and start the mill again, with
a new lot o’ hands, to live i’ our homes and eat the bread we’re done
out off.’

This new view of the case was received with a moment’s silence by the
hands; then a voice from the rear spoke out,–‘Na, na, they ‘ont, not
if I can stop it; let’s break t’ ow’d mill to bits, and give the new
hands the job to build it up again afore they work it.’

This suggestion, probably because its adoption was a trifle less
dangerous than wrecking a house, some of whose inmates were young
men–possibly young men with firearms–was received with almost
unanimous applause. In less time than it takes to tell, a hundred
pieces of the rock of which the Derbyshire walls are built had begun to
rattle on the roof and smash the windows of the mill below, and two or
three pairs of strong arms had torn away a huge boulder of grey stone
which, held in its place by creepers and earth, overhung the descent,
and had set it rolling down the steep decline. It bounded on to the
slated roof of the mill, and with a great crash went right through it,
leaving a large black gap. Then the men set up a yell that made the
country round ring again. When it had died away old Murdoch, who was
beside himself with excitement, shouted out, ‘Why waste yer time i’
chuckin’ stones at the danged place, lads? Get down t’ hill and burn it
to the ground.’ Another yell of approval greeted the proposition, and
in a few seconds the hill-top was deserted, and the crowd, swayed by an
irresistible impulse, was scrambling down the rocky decline and making
for the mill.

The shout that had been sent up when the hole had been knocked in the
roof had reached the quick ears of Count Litvinoff sitting smoking in
silence opposite his host. He got out of his chair. ‘I have a bit of
a headache to-night,’ he said, ‘I don’t think arguing agrees with me.
I’ll just go and take a turn across the moor.’

‘All right,’ said Roland. ‘I won’t turn in till you come back.’

Litvinoff sauntered out of the room and across the hall, took a stout
oak stick from the hall-stand, and, opening the front-door, strolled
leisurely down the carriage drive. But directly he was out in the road
he pulled his hat down tightly upon his ears, vaulted a low stone wall
and set off running in the direction of the mill as though a thousand
devils were following at his heels.