It was a cloudy, glimmering dawn. A cold withering east wind blew through the silent streets of Mowbray. The sounds of the night had died away, the voices of the day had not commenced. There reigned a stillness complete and absorbing.
Suddenly there is a voice, there is movement. The first footstep of the new week of toil is heard. A man muffled up in a thick coat, and bearing in his hand what would seem at the first glance to be a shepherd's crook, only its handle is much longer, appears upon the pavement. He touches a number of windows with great quickness as he moves rapidly along. A rattling noise sounds upon each pane. The use of the long handle of his instrument becomes apparent as he proceeds, enabling him as it does to reach the upper windows of the dwellings whose inmates he has to rouse. Those inmates are the factory girls, who subscribe in districts to engage these heralds of the dawn; and by a strict observance of whose citation they can alone escape the dreaded fine that awaits those who have not arrived at the door of the factory before the bell ceases to sound.
The sentry in question, quitting the streets, and stooping through one of the small archways that we have before noticed, entered a court. Here lodged a multitude of his employers; and the long crook as it were by some sleight of hand seemed sounding on both sides and at many windows at the same moment. Arrived at the end of the court, he was about to touch the window of the upper story of the last tenement, when that window opened, and a man, pale and care-worn and in a melancholy voice spoke to him.
"Simmons," said the man, "you need not rouse this story any more; my daughter has left us."
"Has she left Webster's?"
"No; but she has left us. She has long murmured at her hard lot; working like a slave and not for herself. And she has gone, as they all go, to keep house for herself."
"That's a bad business," said the watchman, in a tone not devoid of sympathy.
"Almost as bad as for parents to live on their childrens' wages," replied the man mournfully.
"And how is your good woman?"
"As poorly as needs be. Harriet has never been home since Friday night. She owes you nothing?"
"Not a halfpenny. She was as regular as a little bee and always paid every Monday morning. I am sorry she has left you, neighbour."
"The Lord's will be done. It's hard times for such as us," said the man; and leaving the window open, he retired into his room.
It was a single chamber of which he was the tenant. In the centre, placed so as to gain the best light which the gloomy situation could afford, was a loom. In two corners of the room were mattresses placed on the floor, a check curtain hung upon a string if necessary concealing them. In one was his sick wife; in the other, three young children: two girls, the eldest about eight years of age; between them their baby brother. An iron kettle was by the hearth, and on the mantel-piece, some candles, a few lucifer matches, two tin mugs, a paper of salt, and an iron spoon. In a farther part, close to the wall, was a heavy table or dresser; this was a fixture, as well as the form which was fastened by it.
The man seated himself at his loom; he commenced his daily task.
"Twelve hours of daily labour at the rate of one penny each hour; and even this labour is mortgaged! How is this to end? Is it rather not ended?" And he looked around him at his chamber without resources: no food, no fuel, no furniture, and four human beings dependent on him, and lying in their wretched beds because they had no clothes. "I cannot sell my loom," he continued, "at the price of old firewood, and it cost me gold. It is not vice that has brought me to this, nor indolence, nor imprudence. I was born to labour, and I was ready to labour. I loved my loom and my loom loved me. It gave me a cottage in my native village, surrounded by a garden of whose claims on my solicitude it was not jealous. There was time for both. It gave me for a wife the maiden that I had ever loved; and it gathered my children round my hearth with plenteousness and peace. I was content: I sought no other lot. It is not adversity that makes me look back upon the past with tenderness.
"Then why am I here? Why am I, and six hundred thousand subjects of the Queen, honest, loyal, and industrious, why are we, after manfully struggling for years, and each year sinking lower in the scale, why are we driven from our innocent and happy homes, our country cottages that we loved, first to bide in close towns without comforts, and gradually to crouch into cellars, or find a squalid lair like this, without even the common necessaries of existence; first the ordinary conveniences of life, then raiment, and, at length, food, vanishing from us.
"It is that the Capitalist has found a slave that has supplanted the labour and ingenuity of man. Once he was an artizan: at the best, he now only watches machines; and even that occupation slips from his grasp, to the woman and the child. The capitalist flourishes, he amasses immense wealth; we sink, lower and lower; lower than the beasts of burthen; for they are fed better than we are, cared for more. And it is just, for according to the present system they are more precious. And yet they tell us that the interests of Capital and of Labour are identical.
"If a society that has been created by labour suddenly becomes independent of it, that society is bound to maintain the race whose only property is labour, from the proceeds of that property, which has not ceased to be productive.
"When the class of the Nobility were supplanted in France, they did not amount in number to one-third of us Hand-Loom weavers; yet all Europe went to war to avenge their wrongs, every state subscribed to maintain them in their adversity, and when they were restored to their own country, their own land supplied them with an immense indemnity. Who cares for us? Yet we have lost our estates. Who raises a voice for us? Yet we are at least as innocent as the nobility of France. We sink among no sighs except our own. And if they give us sympathy—what then? Sympathy is the solace of the Poor; but for the Rich, there is Compensation."
"Is that Harriet?" said his wife moving in her bed.
The Hand-Loom weaver was recalled from his reverie to the urgent misery that surrounded him.
"No!" he replied in a quick hoarse voice, "it is not Harriet."
"Why does not Harriet come?"
"She will come no more!" replied the weaver; "I told you so last night: she can bear this place no longer; and I am not surprised."
"How are we to get food then?" rejoined his wife; "you ought not to have let her leave us. You do nothing, Warner. You get no wages yourself; and you have let the girl escape."
"I will escape myself if you say that again," said the weaver: "I have been up these three hours finishing this piece which ought to have been taken home on Saturday night."
"But you have been paid for it beforehand. You get nothing for your work. A penny an hour! What sort of work is it, that brings a penny an hour?"
"Work that you have often admired, Mary; and has before this gained a prize. But if you don't like the work," said the man quitting his loom, "let it alone. There was enough yet owing on this piece to have allowed us to break our fast. However, no matter; we must starve sooner or later. Let us begin at once."
"No, no, Philip! work. Let us break our fast come what may."
"Twit me no more then," said the weaver resuming his seat, "or I throw the shuttle for the last time."
"I will not taunt you," said his wife in a kinder tone. "I was wrong; I am sorry; but I am very ill. It is not for myself I speak; I want not to eat; I have no appetite; my lips are so very parched. But the children, the children went supperless to bed, and they will wake soon."
"Mother, we ayn't asleep," said the elder girl.
"No, we aynt asleep, mother," said her sister; "we heard all that you said to father."
"He sleeps still."
"I shiver very much!" said the mother. "It's a cold day. Pray shut the window Warner. I see the drops upon the pane; it is raining. I wonder if the persons below would lend us one block of coal."
"We have borrowed too often," said Warner.
"I wish there were no such thing as coal in the land," said his wife, "and then the engines would not be able to work; and we should have our rights again."
"Amen!" said Warner.
"Don't you think Warner," said his wife, "that you could sell that piece to some other person, and owe Barber for the money he advanced?"
"No!" said her husband shaking his head. "I'll go straight."
"And let your children starve," said his wife, "when you could get five or six shillings at once. But so it always was with you! Why did not you go to the machines years ago like other men and so get used to them?"
"I should have been supplanted by this time," said Warner, "by a girl or a woman! It would have been just as bad!"
"Why there was your friend Walter Gerard; he was the same as you, and yet now he gets two pound a-week; at least I have often heard you say so."
"Walter Gerard is a man of great parts," said Warner, "and might have been a master himself by this time had he cared."
"And why did he not?"
"He had no wife and children," said Warner; "he was not so blessed."
The baby woke and began to cry.
"Ah! my child!" exclaimed the mother. "That wicked Harriet! Here Amelia, I have a morsel of crust here. I saved it yesterday for baby; moisten it in water, and tie it up in this piece of calico: he will suck it; it will keep him quiet; I can bear anything but his cry."
"I shall have finished my job by noon," said Warner; "and then, please God, we shall break our fast."
"It is yet two hours to noon," said his wife. "And Barber always keeps you so long! I cannot bear that Barber: I dare say he will not advance you money again as you did not bring the job home on Saturday night. If I were you, Philip, I would go and sell the piece unfinished at once to one of the cheap shops."
"I have gone straight all my life," said Warner.
"And much good it has done you," said his wife.
"My poor Amelia! How she shivers! I think the sun never touches this house. It is indeed a most wretched place!"
"It will not annoy you long, Mary," said her husband: "I can pay no more rent; and I only wonder they have not been here already to take the week."
"And where are we to go?" said the wife.
"To a place which certainly the sun never touches," said her husband, with a kind of malice in his misery,—"to a cellar!"
"Oh! why was I ever born!" exclaimed his wife. "And yet I was so happy once! And it is not our fault. I cannot make it out Warner, why you should not get two pounds a-week like Walter Gerard?"
"Bah!" said the husband.
"You said he had no family," continued his wife. "I thought he had a daughter."
"But she is no burthen to him. The sister of Mr Trafford is the Superior of the convent here, and she took Sybil when her mother died, and brought her up."
"Oh! then she is a nun?"
"Not yet; but I dare say it will end in it."
"Well, I think I would even sooner starve," said his wife, "than my children should be nuns."
At this moment there was a knocking at the door. Warner descended from his loom and opened it.
"Lives Philip Warner here?" enquired a clear voice of peculiar sweetness.
"My name is Warner."
"I come from Walter Gerard," continued the voice. "Your letter reached him only last night. The girl at whose house your daughter left it has quitted this week past Mr Trafford's factory."
And there entered SYBIL.