Through the Fray by G. A. Henty
Chapter III: A Cropper Village
Bad as were times in Varley, the two public houses, one of which stood at either end of the village, were for the most part well filled of an evening; but this, as the landlords knew to their cost, was the result rather of habit than of thirst. The orders given were few and far between, and the mugs stood empty on the table for a long time before being refilled. In point of numbers the patrons of the "Brown Cow" and the "Spotted Dog" were not unequal; but the "Dog" did a larger trade than its rival, for it was the resort of the younger men, while the "Cow" was the meeting place of the elders. A man who had neither wife nor child to support could manage even in these hard times to pay for his quart or two of liquor of an evening; but a pint mug was the utmost that those who had other mouths than their own to fill could afford.
Fortunately tobacco, although dear enough if purchased in the towns, cost comparatively little upon the moors, for scarce a week passed but some lugger ran in at night to some little bay among the cliffs on the eastern shore, and for the most part landed her bales and kegs in spite of the vigilance of the coast guard. So there were plenty of places scattered all over the moorland where tobacco could be bought cheap, and where when the right signal was given a noggin of spirits could be had from the keg which was lying concealed in the wood stack or rubbish heap. What drunkenness there was on the moors profited his majesty's excise but little.
The evenings at the "Cow" were not lively. The men smoked their long pipes and sipped their beer slowly, and sometimes for half an hour no one spoke; but it was as good as conversation, for every one knew what the rest were thinking of--the bad times, but no one had anything new to say about them. They were not brilliant, these sturdy Yorkshiremen. They suffered patiently and uncomplainingly, because they did not see that any effort of theirs could alter the state of things. They accepted the fact that the high prices were due to the war, but why the war was always going on was more than any of them knew. It gave them a vague satisfaction when they heard that a British victory had been won; and when money had been more plentiful, the occasion had been a good excuse for an extra bout of drinking, for most of them were croppers, and had in their time been as rough and as wild as the younger men were now; but they had learned a certain amount of wisdom, and shook their heads over the talk and doings of the younger men who met at the "Dog."
Here there was neither quiet nor resignation, but fiery talk and stern determination; it was a settled thing here that the machines were responsible for the bad times. The fact that such times prevailed over the whole country in no way affected their opinion. It was not for them to deny that there was a war, that food was dear, and taxation heavy. These things might be; but the effect of the machinery came straight home to them, and they were convinced that if they did but hold together and wreck the machines prosperity would return to Varley.
The organization for resistance was extensive. There were branches in every village in West Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottingham, and Derby--all acting with a common purpose. The members were bound by terrible oaths upon joining the society to be true to its objects, to abstain on pain of death from any word which might betray its secrets, and to carry into execution its orders, even if these should involve the slaying of a near relation proved to have turned traitor to the society.
Hitherto no very marked success had attended its doings. There had been isolated riots in many places; mills had been burned, and machinery broken. But the members looked forward to better things. So far their only successes had been obtained by threats rather than deeds, for many manufacturers had been deterred from adopting the new machinery by the receipt of threatening letters signed "King Lud," saying that their factories would be burned and themselves shot should they venture upon altering their machinery.
The organ of communication between the members of the society at Varley and those in other villages was the blacksmith, or as he preferred to be called, the minister, John Stukeley, who on weekdays worked at the forge next door to the "Spotted Dog," and on Sundays held services in "Little Bethel"--a tiny meeting house standing back from the road.
Had John Stukeley been busier during the week he would have had less time to devote to the cause of "King Lud;" but for many hours a day his fire was banked up, for except to make repairs in any of the frames which had got out of order, or to put on a shoe which a horse had cast on his way up the hill from Marsden, there was but little employment for him.
The man was not a Yorkshireman by birth, but came from Liverpool, and his small, spare figure contrasted strongly with those of the tall, square built Yorkshiremen, among whom he lived.
He was a good workman, but his nervous irritability, his self assertion, and impatience of orders had lost him so many places that he had finally determined to become his own master, and, coming into a few pounds at the death of his father, had wandered away from the great towns, until finding in Varley a village without a smith, he had established himself there, and having adopted the grievances of the men as his own, had speedily become a leading figure among them.
A short time after his arrival the old man who had officiated at Little Bethel had died, and Stukeley, who had from the first taken a prominent part in the service, and who possessed the faculty of fluent speech to a degree rare among the Yorkshiremen, was installed as his successor, and soon filled Little Bethel as it had never been filled before. In his predecessor's time, small as the meeting house was, it had been comparatively empty; two or three men, half a dozen women, and their children being the only attendants, but it was now filled to crowding.
Stukeley's religion was political; his prayers and discourses related to the position of affairs in Varley rather than to Christianity. They were a downtrodden people whom he implored to burst the bonds of their Egyptian taskmasters. The strength he prayed for was the strength to struggle and to fight. The enemy he denounced was the capitalist rather than the devil.
Up to that time "King Lud" had but few followers in Varley; but the fiery discourses in Little Bethel roused among the younger men a passionate desire to right their alleged wrongs, and to take vengeance upon those denounced as their oppressors, so the society recruited its numbers fast. Stukeley was appointed the local secretary, partly because he was the leading spirit, partly because he alone among its members was able to write, and under his vigorous impulsion Varley became one of the leading centers of the organization in West Yorkshire.
It was on a Saturday evening soon after Bill Swinton had become convalescent. The parlor of the "Brown Cow" was filled with its usual gathering; a peat fire glowed upon the hearth, and two tallow candles burned somewhat faintly in the dense smoke. Mugs of beer stood on the tables, but they were seldom applied to the lips of the smokers, for they had to do service without being refilled through the long evening. The silence was broken only by the short puffs at the pipes. All were thinking over the usual topic, when old Gideon Jones unexpectedly led their ideas into another channel.
"Oive heern," he said slowly, taking his pipe from his mouth, "as how Nance Wilson's little gal is wuss."
"So oi've heern;"
"Be she now?" and various other exclamations arose from the smokers.
Gideon was pleased with the effect he had produced, and a few minutes later continued the subject.
"It be the empty coopbud more nor illness, I expect."
There was another chorus of assent, and a still heartier one when he wound up the subject: "These be hard toimes surely."
Thinking that he had now done sufficient to vindicate his standing as one of the original thinkers of the village, Gideon relapsed into silence and smoked away gravely, with his eyes fixed on the fire, in the post of honor on one side of which was his regular seat. The subject, however, was too valuable to be allowed to drop altogether, and Luke Marner brought it into prominence again by remarking:
"They tell oi as how Nance has asked Bet Collins to watch by the rood soide to catch doctor as he droives whoam. He went out this arternoon to Retlow."
"Oi doubt he woant do she much good; it be food, and not doctor's stuff as the child needs," another remarked.
"That be so, surely," went up in a general chorus, and then a newcomer who had just entered the room said:
"Oi ha' joost coom vrom Nance's and Bill Swinton ha' sent in a basin o' soup as he got vrom the feyther o' that boy as broke his leg. Nance war a feeding the child wi' it, and maybe it will do her good. He ha' been moighty koind to Bill, that chap hav."
"He ha' been that," Gideon said, after the chorus of approval had died away.
"Oi seed t' young un today a-sitting in front o' th' cottage, a-talking and laughing wi' Bill."
"They be good uns, feyther and son, though they tells oi as neither on them bain't Yaarkshire."
The general feeling among the company was evidently one of surprise that any good thing should be found outside Yorkshire. But further talk on the subject was interrupted by a slight exclamation at the door.
"O what a smoke, feyther! I can't see you, but I suppose you're somewhere here. You're wanted at home."
Although the speaker was visible to but few in the room there was no doubt as to her identity, or as to the person addressed as feyther. Mary Powlett was indeed the niece and not the daughter of Luke Marner, but as he had brought her up from childhood she looked upon him as her father. It was her accent and the tone of her voice which rendered it unnecessary for any of those present to see her face.
Luke was a bachelor when the child had arrived fifteen years before in the carrier's cart from Marsden, having made the journey in a similar conveyance to that town from Sheffield, where her father and mother had died within a week of each other, the last request of her mother being that little Polly should be sent off to the care of Luke Marner at Varley.
Luke had not then settled down into the position of one of the elders of the village, and he had been somewhat embarrassed by the arrival of the three year old girl. He decided promptly, however, upon quitting the lodgings which he had as a single man occupied and taking a cottage by himself. His neighbors urged upon him that so small a child could not remain alone all day while he was away at Marsden at work--a proposition to which he assented; but to the surprise of every one, instead of placing her during the day under the care of one of the women of the place, he took her down with him to Marsden and placed her under the care of a respectable woman there who had children of her own.
Starting at five every morning from his cottage with Polly perched on his shoulder he tramped down to the town, leaving her there before going to work, and calling for her in the evening. A year later he married, and the village supposed that Polly would now be left behind. But they were mistaken. When he became engaged he had said:
"Now, Loiza, there's one point as oi wish settled. As oi have told ye, oi ha' partly chosen ye becos oi knowed as how ye would maake a good mother to my little Polly; but oi doan't mean to give up taking her down with me o' days to the town. Oi likes to ha' her wi' me on the roade--it makes it shorter like. As thou knowest thyself, oi ha' bin a chaanged man sin she coom. There warn't a cropper in the village drank harder nor oi, but oi maad oop moi moind when she came to gi' it up, and oi have gi'd it up."
"I know, Luke," the girl said, "I wouldna have had ye, hadn't ye doon so, as I told ye two years agone. I know the child ha' done it, and I loves her for it, and will be a good mother to her."
"Oi knows you will, Loiza, and oi bain't feared as ye'll be jealous if so be as ye've children o' your own. Oi shan't love 'em a bit the less coss oi loves little Polly. She be just the image o' what moi sister Jane was when she war a little thing and oi used to take care o' her. Mother she didn't belong to this village, and the rough ways of the men and the drink frightened her. She war quiet and tidy and neat in her ways, and Jane took arter her, and glad she was when the time came to marry and get away from Varley. Oi be roight sure if she knows owt what's going on down here, she would be glad to know as her child ain't bein' brought oop in Varley ways. I ha' arranged wi' the woman where she gets her meals for her to go to school wi' her own children. Dost thee object to that, lass? --if so, say so noo afore it's too late, but doon't thraw it in moi face arterwards. Ef thou'st children they shalt go to school too. Oi don't want to do more for Polly nor oi'd do for moi own."
"I ha' no objection, Luke. I remembers your sister, how pretty and quiet she wor; and thou shalt do what you likest wi' Polly, wi'out no grumble from me."
Eliza Marner kept the promise she had made before marriage faithfully. If she ever felt in her heart any jealousy as she saw Polly growing up a pretty bright little maiden, as different to the usual child product of Varley as could well be, she was wise enough never to express her thoughts, and behaved with motherly kindness to her in the evening hours spent at home. She would perhaps have felt the task a harder one had her own elder children been girls; but three boys came first, and a girl was not born until she had been married eleven years. Polly, who was now fourteen, had just come home from her schooling at Marsden for good, and was about to go out into service there. But after the birth of her little girl Mrs. Marner, who had never for a Varley girl been strong, faded rapidly away; and Polly's stay at home, intended at first to last but a few weeks, until its mother was about again, extended into months.
The failing woman reaped now the benefit of Polly's training. Her gentle, quiet way, her soft voice, her neatness and tidiness, made her an excellent nurse, and she devoted herself to cheer and brighten the sickroom of the woman who had made so kind an adopted mother to her. Her influence kept even the rough boys quiet; and all Varley, which had at first been unanimous in its condemnation of the manner in which Luke Marner was bringing up that "gal" of his, just as if the place was not good enough for her, were now forced to confess that the experiment had turned out well.
"Polly, my dear," the sick woman said to her one afternoon when the girl had been reading to her for some time, and was now busy mending some of the boys' clothes, while baby, nearly a year old, was gravely amusing herself with a battered doll upon the floor, "I used to think, though I never said so, as your feyther war making a mistake in bringing you up different to other gals here; but I see as he was right. There ain't one of them as would have been content to give up all their time and thoughts to a sick woman as thou hast done. There ain't a house in the village as tidy and comfortable as this, and the boys mind you as they never minded me. When I am gone Luke will miss me, but thar won't be no difference in his comfort, and I know thou'lt look arter baby and be a mother to her. I don't suppose as thou wilt stay here long; thou art over fifteen now, and the lads will not be long afore they begin to come a-coorting of thee. But doan't ee marry in Varley, Polly. My Luke's been a good husband to me. But thou know'st what the most of them be--they may do for Varley bred gals, but not for the like of thee. And when thou goest take baby wi' thee and bring her up like thysel till she be old enough to coom back and look arter Luke and the house."
Polly was crying quietly while the dying woman was speaking. The doctor, on leaving that morning, had told her that he could do no more and that Mrs. Marner was sinking rapidly. Kneeling now beside the bed she promised to do all that her adopted mother asked her, adding, "and I shall never, never leave feyther as long as he lives."
The woman smiled faintly.
"Many a girl ha' said that afore now, Polly, and ha' changed her moind when the roight man asked her. Don't ee make any promises that away, lass. 'Tis natural that, when a lassie's time comes, she should wed; and if Luke feels loanly here, why he's got it in his power to get another to keep house for him. He be but a little over forty now; and as he ha' lived steady and kept hisself away from drink, he be a yoonger man now nor many a one ten year yoonger. Don't ye think to go to sacrifice your loife to hissen. And now, child, read me that chapter over agin, and then I think I could sleep a bit."
Before morning Eliza Marner had passed away, and Polly became the head of her uncle's house. Two years had passed, and so far Mary Powlett showed no signs of leaving the house, which, even the many women in the village, who envied her for her prettiness and neatness and disliked her for what they called her airs, acknowledged that she managed well. But it was not from lack of suitors. There were at least half a dozen stalwart young croppers who would gladly have paid court to her had there been the smallest sign on her part of willingness to accept their attentions; but Polly, though bright and cheerful and pleasant to all, afforded to none of them an opportunity for anything approaching intimacy.
On Sundays, the times alone when their occupations enabled the youth of Varley to devote themselves to attentions to the maidens they favored, Mary Powlett was not to be found at home after breakfast, for, having set everything in readiness for dinner, she always started for Marsden, taking little Susan with her, and there spent the day with the woman who had even more than Eliza Marner been her mother. She had, a month after his wife's death, fought a battle with Luke and conquered. The latter had, in pursuance of the plans he had originally drawn up for her, proposed that she should go into service at Marsden.
"Oi shall miss thee sorely, Polly," he said; "and oi doan't disguise it from thee, vor the last year, lass, thou hast been the light o' this house, and oi couldna have spared ye. But oi ha' always fixed that thou shouldst go into service at Marsden--Varley is not fit vor the likes o' ye. We be a rough lot here, and a drunken; and though oi shall miss thee sorely for awhile, oi must larn to do wi'out thee."
Polly heard him in silence, and then positively refused to go.
"You have been all to me, feyther, since I was a child, and I am not going to leave you now. I don't say that Varley is altogether nice, but I shall be very happy here with you and the boys and dear little Susan, and I am not going to leave, and so--there!"
Luke knew well how great would be the void which her absence would make, but he still struggled to carry out his plans.
"But, Polly, oi should na loike to see thee marry here, and thy mother would never ha' loiked it, and thou wilt no chance of seeing other men here."
"Why, I am only sixteen, feyther, and we need not talk of my marriage for years and years yet, and I promise you I shan't think of marrying in Varley when the time comes; but there is one thing I should like, and that is to spend Sundays, say once a fortnight, down with Mrs. Mason; they were so quiet and still there, and I did like so much going to the church; and I hate that Little Bethel, especially since that horrible man came there; he is a disgrace, feyther, and you will see that mischief will come out of his talk."
"Oi don't like him myself, Polly, and maybe me and the boys will sometoimes come down to the church thou art so fond of. However, if thou wilt agree to go down every Sunday to Mrs. Mason, thou shalt stay here for a bit till oi see what can best be done."
And so it was settled, and Polly went off every Sunday morning, and Luke went down of an evening to fetch her back.
"Well, what is't, lass?" he asked as he joined her outside the "Brown Cow."
"George has scalded his leg badly, feyther. I was just putting Susan to bed, and he took the kettle off the fire to pour some water in the teapot, when Dick pushed him, or something, and the boiling water went over his leg."
"Oi'll give that Dick a hiding," Luke said wrathfully as he hastened along by her side. "Why didn't ye send him here to tell me instead of cooming thyself?"
"It was only an accident, feyther, and Dick was so frightened when he saw what had happened and heard George cry out that he ran out at once. I have put some flour on George's leg; but I think the doctor ought to see him, that's why I came for you."
"It's no use moi goaing voor him now, lass, he be expected along here every minute. Jack Wilson, he be on the lookout by the roadside vor to stop him to ask him to see Nance, who be taken main bad. I will see him and ask him to send doctor to oor house when he comes, and tell Jarge I will be oop in a minute."
Upon the doctor's arrival he pronounced the scald to be a serious one, and Dick, who had been found sobbing outside the cottage, and had been cuffed by his father, was sent down with the doctor into the town to bring up some lint to envelop the leg. The doctor had already paid his visit to Nance Wilson, and had rated her father soundly for not procuring better food for her.
"It's all nonsense your saying the times are bad," he said in reply to the man's excuses. "I know the times are bad; but you know as well as I do that half your wages go to the public house; your family are starving while you are squandering money in drink. That child is sinking from pure want of food, and I doubt if she would not be gone now if it hadn't have been for that soup your wife tells me Bill Swinton sent in to her. I tell you, if she dies you will be as much her murderer as if you had chopped her down with a hatchet."
The plain speaking of the doctor was the terror of his parish patients, who nevertheless respected him for the honest truths he told them. He himself used to say that his plain speaking saved him a world of trouble, for that his patients took good care never to send for him except when he was really wanted.
The next day Mary Powlett was unable to go off as usual to Marsden as George was in great pain from his scald. She went down to church, however, in the evening with her father, Bill Swinton taking her place by the bedside of the boy.
"Thou hast been a-sitting by moi bedside hours every day, Polly," he said, "and it's moi turn now to take thy place here. Jack ha' brought over all moi books, for oi couldn't make shift to carry them and use moi crutches, and oi'll explain all the pictures to Jarge jest as Maister Ned explained 'em to oi."
The sight of the pictures reconciled George to Polly's departure, and seeing the lad was amused and comfortable, she started with Luke, Dick taking his place near the bed, where he could also enjoy a look at the pictures.
"Did you notice that pretty girl with the sweet voice in the aisle in a line with us, father," Ned asked that evening, "with a great, strong, quiet looking man by the side of her?"
"Yes, lad, the sweetness of her singing attracted my attention, and I thought what a bright, pretty face it was!"
"That's Mary Powlett and her uncle. You have heard me speak of her as the girl who was so kind in nursing Bill."
"Indeed, Ned! I should scarcely have expected to find so quiet and tidy looking a girl at Varley, still less to meet her with a male relation in church."
"She lives at Varley, but she can hardly be called a Varley girl," Ned said. "Bill was telling me about her. Her uncle had her brought up down here. She used to go back to sleep at night, but otherwise all her time was spent here. It seems her mother never liked the place, and married away from it, and when she and her husband died and the child came back to live with her uncle he seemed to think he would be best carrying out his dead sister's wishes by having her brought up in a different way to the girls at Varley. He has lost his wife now, and she keeps house for him, and Bill says all the young men in Varley are mad about her, but she won't have anything to say to them."
"She is right enough there," Captain Sankey said smilingly. "They are mostly croppers, and rightly or wrongly--rightly, I am afraid--they have the reputation of being the most drunken and quarrelsome lot in Yorkshire. Do you know the story that is current among the country people here about them?"
"No, father, what is it?"
"Well, they say that no cropper is in the place of punishment. It was crowded with them at one time, but they were so noisy and troublesome that his infernal majesty was driven to his wits' end by their disputes. He offered to let them all go. They refused. So one day he struck upon a plan to get rid of them. Going outside the gates he shouted at the top of his voice, 'Beer, beer, who wants beer?' every cropper in the place rushed out, and he then slipped in again and shut the gates, and has taken good care ever since never to admit a cropper into his territory."
Ned laughed at the story.
"It shows at any rate, father, what people think of them here; but I don't think they are as bad as that, though Bill did say that there are awful fights and rows going on there of an evening, and even down here if there is a row there is sure to be a cropper in it. Still you see there are some good ones; look at Luke Marner, that's the man we saw in church, see how kind he has been to his niece."
"There are good men of all sorts, and though the croppers may be rough and given to drink, we must not blame them too severely; they are wholly uneducated men, they work hard, and their sole pleasure is in the beer shop. At bottom they are no doubt the same as the rest of their countrymen, and the Yorkshire men, though a hard headed, are a soft hearted race; the doctor tells me that except that their constitutions are ruined by habitual drinking he has no better patients; they bear pain unflinchingly, and are patient and even tempered. I know he loves them with all their faults, and I consider him to be a good judge of character."