FRIENDS IN COUNCIL

‘Going out again, John?’ spoke Mrs Hatfield, a little plaintively, as
her husband rose and took down his hat from its peg, ten days after
Thornsett Mill had been closed. Not closed for a day on account of a
wedding, as had once been suggested, but closed, it might be for ten
years, or practically for ever.

‘Ay, lass,’ said her husband shortly, but not unkindly; ‘Ah should go
clean daft if Ah stayed i’ the house. Lazying about don’t suit me–it’s
only my betters as takes their pleasure i’ that way.’

‘Tha’lt do no good down at t’ Spotted Cow,’ returned Mrs Hatfield,
compressing her lips; ‘tha might as well be idle i’ tha own house as
wi’ all they gomerils–spending tha money too, as if tha was i’ full
work.’

‘Well,’ he said, pausing with his hand on the back of the settle where
she sat, ‘we’ll all have to be shifting out o’ this soon, and tha
knows, lass, as Ah were never one to drink nor to talk out o’ season.
Ah mun hear where the lads is going for work. It won’t ne’er do for us
a’ to be going the same way.’

‘It seems hard tha should have to go after work at tha time o’ life,
John. But likely it’s as hard for Rowley and Dick as for thee and me.
Poor lads, poor lads! Ah, Heaven help us a’ in this hard world.’

‘They’re fur enow fro’ want, tha may be sure, or they wouldn’t ha’
sacrificed the mill to their mucky pride. It’s little they care who
starves, so long as they have enow. Tha must remember as what they’d
call being poor we’d call being rich. “Hard up” for a gentleman ud be
enow and to spare for a working man.’

And he went out, slamming the door behind him, and his wife took up
her knitting with a sigh. She could rarely follow her husband in his
reasonings, but troubles are not the less hard to bear because we don’t
clearly see their causes. They had saved a little money, but that would
soon be gone, and then there would be nothing before them but ‘the
house.’ Both their sons were away–one a sailor, and the other in a
warehouse in Liverpool–but neither was earning enough to be able to
help their parents. Vaguely she hoped that her husband might take it
into his head to go to London for work. An idea is prevalent in the
provinces that in London there is work for every one, and besides,
Alice had written from London, and there would be a chance of finding
her poor lost child and bringing her back.

The sudden closing of the mill made affairs indeed terribly serious
for most of the men in Thornsett. It was in the middle of winter, when
journeying was not pleasant, nor work easy to get; and though the
‘hands’ employed in the mill had been told that it would close, very,
very few among them had made any effort to secure other work before the
time for closing came. Perhaps it had seemed to them that the closing
of the mill was one of those calamities too terrible to happen. But it
had happened, and after ten days of idleness the men were beginning to
see clearly what it would mean to them. For there was no other work
to be got within anything like easy reach of the village; and even
if work could be obtained somewhere else, the little community must
be broken up, and each family must separate itself from friends and
neighbours and relatives in order to journey thither. This alone is
thought a terrible calamity for middle-class men and women, but it is
the least of the troubles which are always hanging over the heads
of the workers. The exodus that must shortly take place had not yet
begun, but every one knew that it could not now be long delayed; and
Potters and the few other tradespeople being, of course, involved in
the general distress, could no longer give credit. This had never been
withheld in slack times, when the shopkeepers knew that good ones were
certain to come in which the scores would be wiped off or reduced very
considerably; but now there was no chance of things growing brighter
again, and even the small accounts then owing were not very likely ever
to be paid.

During the past ten days, as the men’s money was being spent, and as
the want of work gave them more time to reason on the causes of their
trouble, a strong feeling of resentment had been growing up among them
against the two young masters, who had held, as it were, the happiness,
the comfort, perhaps the lives, of all these men in their hands, and
had thrown all to the dogs rather than humble their own insensate
pride and abate their own insensate obstinacy. This feeling had found
vent, not only in the scowls and black looks on which Litvinoff had
commented, but in certain faint groans and hisses with which Roland had
been greeted on more than one occasion when he passed down the village
street.

What right had these two, on whose forbearance and good fellowship hung
the fate of all these families, to go quarrelling with each other?

‘It’s a’ their darn’d selfishness,’ Murdoch was saying, just as
Hatfield kicked open the door of the tap-room at the Spotted Cow, and
passed in. ‘What’s the odds to them if we clem or if we dunna’t?’

‘It’s my belief,’ said Potters bitterly, ‘as they done it to show their
independence.’

‘They might have hit on a cheaper way,’ growled Hatfield, as Murdoch
and Sigley made room for him to sit between them.

‘Cheaper! why, what’s cheaper nor our flesh and blood?’ asked Murdoch,
with a snarl. ‘They can afford to chuck a little o’ that away. They can
get more of it when they want it easy enow.’

‘Ay, that’s it, lad,’ said Hatfield. ‘It’s the flesh and blood o’ some
o’ us that’s here still, and more o’ us that’s dead and gone, that’s
made the bit o’ money they’ll live on for the rest o’ their days.’

‘Well, I don’t quite see that,’ muttered Sigley, with his usual
meekness. ‘They’ve always paid fair wages.’

‘Yes,’ answered Hatfield. ‘Ah never said they took it for nothing. They
paid for it right enow, but they bought it cheap, lad–they bought it
cheap, and they sold it at a good profit. We’ve nowt but our flesh and
blood to sell, and now we mun carry it to another market.’

‘If you mean your work,’ put in the landlord, ‘I don’t see as you
ought to talk i’ that way. They paid you your own price for your work,
anyhow.’

‘No,’ said Hatfield. ‘They paid us what we was forced to take.’

‘Thou’dst always some sense i’ tha head, John,’ broke in old Murdoch
approvingly. ‘Tha was na here when…. D’ye mind, Bolt, the night after
t’owd master’s burying, tha made the lads drink t’ young masters’
health? Ask them to drink it now!’

The murmur of ironical assent which went round the room showed that
Murdoch had expressed the sense of the meeting. He had been rising in
importance daily, ever since the announcement of the mill’s closing.
He had always been the prophet of calamity, and now that his worst
prophecies had been more than fulfilled he was looked upon as little
less than inspired.

‘Well,’ said Bolt deprecatingly, ‘who could ha’ foreseen things turning
out i’ this way? And as for asking them to drink their healths, why
they ain’t their masters now. So where’s the use?’

‘It do seem hard, it do,’ murmured Sigley, who went to chapel
regularly, ‘when a man have saved up a bit to have it all swept away
in a rushing, mighty wind, and us left, like Pharaoh’s lean kine, to
make bricks without straw. The whole creation groaneth!…’

‘Well, don’t groan here,’ interrupted Murdoch grimly; ‘tha’d best do
tha groanin’ wi’ the rest o’ creation at t’ chapel; and well mayst tha
groan there if tha hears tell o’ cows makin’ bricks.’

‘Them as don’t believe in the Bible,’ said Sigley impressively, giving
voice to a very popular belief, ‘can’t look for a blessing.’

‘Nor yet them as does, it seems.’

‘What ah was going to say was this–as we should take comfort, thinking
as we ain’t the only ones.’

‘Comfort, tha loon!–that’s the hell of it! Damn the man, says I, as
can find comfort i’ t’ thought o’ other men’s misery!’

It was Hatfield who spoke, and as he spoke he brought his fist down on
the table with a bang that made the glasses ring.

‘How tha does take on, John,’ said Bolt. ‘What Sigley meant was only as
it shows you ain’t to blame, seeing as so many others is in the same
fix.’




Sigley did not confirm this interpretation. He only shook his head,
with the air of one who had meant something much more pious and
profound.

‘You’re wrong _again_,’ said Hatfield loudly. He had risen and faced
the room, which was now pretty full. While this talk had been going
on, men had dropped in by twos and threes, and all that had been said
had been listened to with profound attention. ‘You’re wrong again! It
_is_ our faults, and the faults of all like us. Our fathers might have
altered it. We might alter it now if we had but the spunk to take it
in hand; and, if we don’t, them as comes after us will, and’ll curse
us for leaving them the work to do. Didn’t none o’ ye ever hear tell
o’ the elephant that lets himself be led and mastered by one he could
smash with a shake o’ his poll? And why? Because, the books tell us,
_he doesna know his own strength_. But he doesna fare so bad as we. He
gets well fed and well looked after because it costs summat to replace
him, and we lets oursels be led and drove and starved, when it suits
’em, by a set as we could chase out o’ the world to-morrow if we but
stood together and acted like men.’

A thrill of excited sympathy ran through the room as old Murdoch
shouted,–

‘Right again! That’s it, John; tha’s got it! A score thousand o’ your
pattern and there’d be an end to men being turned out o’ their homes to
clem i’ midwinter because two young devils both wants the same lass!’

‘It’s all very well, Hatfield,’ said Potters sourly; ‘but tha’s one
face for us and another face for t’ gentlefolk. That warn’t no working
man as I’ve see comin’ out o’ your house time and again this last three
week.’

‘No, he ain’t. He’s more o’ the right stuff in his little finger nor
you and all like you put together has got in your whole bodies. There,
take that, Potters!’

‘Whatever he’s got in him, he seems pretty thick with young Roland
Ferrier,’ said a man who had not spoken before.

‘He did his best to stop their quarrelling,’ Hatfield answered hotly;
‘because he knew what it would be for all o’ us; and he’s been chased
out o’ his own country and lost nearly all his brass for standing up
for the likes o’ we.’

‘Yes, I’ve had a bit o’ talk with him, too; that’s true enough.’

‘Ay! he’s no fool, nor no coward neither.’

‘He’s a true friend o’ working men, he is, if he is a Count.’

Litvinoff, it will be seen, had not lost his opportunities while he had
been at Thornsett, for nearly every man present had something to say in
his favour.

‘But seeing as he’s such a friend o’ Mr Roland’s, why don’t he do
something to stop this set-out?’

‘What can he do?’

‘He might speak to him about it.’

‘Look’ee here, lads,’ said Clayton, an old man who had not spoken
before, ‘ah’ve been a-turnin’ o’ this thing over i’ my head, and this
is what ah come to. If so be as young Ferrier’s like to listen to any
one, would he listen first to a new-fangled furrin’ chap, or to all
o’ us honest lads as has known him since he was so high? Has any of
you spoke to him? Has any one of you put it straight to him–this is
the way of it, and this and this? M’appen this fooling o’ theirs was
just through ignorance. They might ha’ thought it didna matter to any
but them, and if once they knowed a’ as it means, m’appen they’d think
better owt, and let things go the old way.’

‘Old heads is worth most, arter all,’ said John Bolt, who was of a
hopeful nature and turned to the new idea as a relief from his former
visions of empty benches and deserted bar,–of a time when there would
be nothing to chalk up but his own losses, and when adulterated beer
would seem what it was, a drug in the market. ‘Why shouldn’t some of
you do as he says, and go and see him and speak him reasonable?’

A great difference of opinion arose at once on the new idea, but nearly
all were in their hearts glad to try a new chance, and at last old
Clayton, from whom the suggestion had come, said,–

‘Well, sithee, if any of you lads’ll come wi’ me, dang me if I’ll not
go this very night–this very minute.’

‘You’d better all go,’ advised Potters; ‘it would be more telling like.’

‘All o’ us isn’t here,’ murmured Sigley.

‘Get ’em here,’ said Clayton shortly. ‘If two or three o’ ye was to go
round and tell the other lads what’s towards, they’d come too, and we’d
have one more try at getting things righted here, afore we all turns
different ways and never sees each other’s faces again.’

No sooner said than done. Men are ready at all times to follow any one
who will act, or even to act themselves if prompted with sufficient
energy. In less than half an hour over a hundred men were assembled
outside the Spotted Cow, and were prepared to go up to Thornsett Edge
to try to open again the doors of the workshop which a dead hand had
closed against them. But their faith was strong in the power of a young
and living hand, and they went with a new hope in their hearts.

‘We’ll all go up,’ said old Clayton, who had assumed the position of
leader, ‘but only a few of us had best go in. Let’s see–you, and you,
and you. You’ll be one, Hatfield, and Murdoch makes five.’

‘Not me,’ snarled Murdoch sourly; ‘no eatin’ dirt for me. I ain’t never
humbled myself to no man, and I ain’t a-goin’ to begin now, to a young
chap as ah worked along o’ his father manys a long day.’

‘Not me, neither,’ said Hatfield, ‘for ah know aforehand as it’s too
late. But don’t you mind us. Go your own way, and here’s luck to you.’

He and Murdoch stood at the door with Bolt and Potters, and a few more
who, not having been employed in the mill, were considered not to have
any place in the deputation. They watched the crowd out of sight up
the steep street, and the women turned out to watch their men go by.
It was a clear, frosty night, and bitterly cold, but most of the women
rolled their bare arms in their aprons and stood talking in little
knots after the procession had passed out of sight. They were more
hopeful than their husbands, for women are naturally more trusting than
men and believe more in the possibility of altering facts by emotional
influences.

To Murdoch and Hatfield, in spite of their assumption of indifference,
the time seemed very long as it went by and brought them no news of
their comrades. After half an hour Bill suggested that they should
stroll up the hill to meet the others and learn how it fared with them.