Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 3

It was a wet morning; there had been a heavy rain since dawn, which impelled by a gusty south-wester came driving on a crowd of women and girls who were assembled before the door of a still unclosed shop. Some protected themselves with umbrellas; some sought shelter beneath a row of old elms that grew alongside the canal that fronted the house. Notwithstanding the weather, the clack of tongues was incessant.

"I thought I saw the wicket of the yard gates open," said a woman.

"So did I," said her neighbour; "but it was shut again immediately."

"It was only Master Joseph," said a third. "He likes to see us getting wet through."

"If they would only let us into the yard and get under one of the workshop sheds, as they do at Simmon's," said another.

"You may well say Simmon's, Mrs Page; I only wish my master served in his field."

"I have been here since half-past four, Mrs Grigsby, with this chilt at my breast all the time. It's three miles for me here, and the same back, and unless I get the first turn, how are my poor boys to find their dinner ready when they come out of the pit?"

"A very true word, Mrs Page; and by this token, that last Thursday I was here by half-past eleven, certainly afore noon, having only called at my mother-in-law's in the way, and it was eight o'clock before I got home. Ah! it's cruel work, is the tommy shop."

"How d'ye do neighbour Prance?" said a comely dame with a large white basket, "And how's your good man? They was saying at Belfy's he had changed his service. I hear there's a new butty in Mr Parker's field; but the old doggy kept on; so I always thought, he was always a favourite, and they do say measured the stints very fair. And what do you hear bacon is in town? They do tell me only sixpence and real home-cured. I wonder Diggs has the face to be selling still at nine-pence, and so very green! I think I see Dame Toddles; how wonderful she do wear! What are you doing here, little dear; very young to fetch tommy; keeping place for mother, eh! that's a good girl; she'd do well to be here soon, for I think the strike's on eight. Diggs is sticking it on yellow soap very terrible. What do you think—Ah! the doors are going to open. No—a false alarm."

"How fare you neighbour?" said a pale young woman carrying an infant to the comely dame. "Here's an awful crowd, surely. The women will be fighting and tearing to get in, I guess. I be much afeard."

"Well, 'first come, first served,' all the world over," said the comely dame. "And you must put a good heart on the business and tie your bonnet. I dare guess there are not much less than two hundred here. It's grand tommy day you know. And for my part I don't care so much for a good squeedge; one sees so many faces one knows."

"The cheese here at sixpence is pretty tidy," said a crone to her companion; "but you may get as good in town for fourpence."

"What I complain is the weights," replied her companion. "I weighed my pound of butter bought last tommy day, and it was two penny pieces too light. Indeed! I have been, in my time, to all the shops about here, for the lads or their father, but never knew tommy so bad as this. I have two children at home ill from their flour; I have been very poorly myself; one is used to a little white clay, but when they lay it on thick, it's very grave."

"Are your girls in the pit?"

"No; we strive to keep them out, and my man has gone scores of days on bread and water for that purpose; and if we were not forced to take so much tommy, one might manage—but tommy will beat anything; Health first, and honesty afterwards, that's my say."

"Well, for my part," said the crone, "meat's my grievance: all the best bits go to the butties, and the pieces with bone in are chopped off for the colliers' wives."

"Dame, when will the door open?" asked a very little palefaced boy. "I have been here all this morn, and never broke my fast."

"And what do you want, chilt?"

"I want a loaf for mother; but I don't feel I shall ever get home again, I'm all in a way so dizzy."

"Liza Gray," said a woman with black beady eyes and a red nose, speaking in a sharp voice and rushing up to a pretty slatternly woman in a straw bonnet with a dirty fine ribbon, and a babe at her breast; "you know the person I'm looking for."

"Well, Mrs Mullins, and how do you do?" she replied, "in a sweet sawney tone."

"How do you do, indeed! How are people to do in these bad times?"

"They is indeed hard Mrs Mullins. If you could see my tommy book! How I wish I knew figures! Made up as of last Thursday night by that little divil, Master Joe Diggs. He has stuck it in here and stuck it in there, till it makes one all of a-maze. I'm sure I never had the things; and my man is out of all patience, and says I can no more keep house than a natural born."

"My man is a-wanting to see your man," said Mrs Mullins, with a flashing eye; "and you know what about."

"And very natural, too," said Liza Gray; "but how are we to pay the money we owe him, with such a tommy-book as this, good neighbour Mullins?"

"We're as poor as our neighbours Mrs Gray; and if we are not paid, we must borrow. It's a scarlet shame to go to the spout because money lent to a friend is not to be found. You had it in your need, Liza Gray, and we want it in our need; and have it I will, Liza Gray."

"Hush, hush!" said Liza Gray; "don't wake the little-un, for she is very fretful."

"I will have the five shillings, or I will have as good," said Mrs Mullins.

"Hush, hush, neighbour; now, I'll tell you—you shall have it; but yet a little time. This is great tommy-day, and settles our reckoning for five weeks; but my man may have a draw after to-morrow, and he shall draw five shillings, and give you half."

"And the other half?" said Mrs Mullins.

"Ah! the other half," said Liza Gray, with a sigh. "Well, then—we shall have a death in our family soon—this poor babe can't struggle on much longer; it belongs to two burial clubs—that will be three pounds from each, and after the drink and the funeral, there will be enough to pay all our debts and put us all square."

The doors of Mr Diggs' tommy-shop opened. The rush was like the advance into the pit of a theatre when the drama existed; pushing, squeezing, fighting, tearing, shrieking. On a high seat, guarded by rails from all contact, sate Mr Diggs senior, with a bland smile on his sanctified countenance, a pen behind his ear, and recommending his constrained customers in honeyed tones to be patient and orderly. Behind the substantial counter which was an impregnable fortification, was his popular son, Master Joseph; a short, ill-favoured cur, with a spirit of vulgar oppression and malicious mischief stamped on his visage. His black, greasy lank hair, his pug nose, his coarse red face, and his projecting tusks, contrasted with the mild and lengthened countenance of his father, who looked very much like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

For the first five minutes Master Joseph Diggs did nothing but blaspheme and swear at his customers, occasionally leaning over the counter and cuffing the women in the van or lugging some girl by the hair.

"I was first, Master Joseph," said a woman eagerly.

"No; I was," said another.

"I was here," said the first, "as the clock struck four, and seated myself on the steps, because I must be home early; my husband is hurt in the knee."

"If you were first, you shall be helped last." said Master Joseph, "to reward you for your pains!" and he began taking the orders of the other woman.

"O! Lord have mercy on me!" said the disappointed woman; "and I got up in the middle of the night for this!"

"More fool you! And what you came for I am sure I don't know," said Master Joseph; "for you have a pretty long figure against you, I can tell you that."

"I declare most solemnly—" said the woman.

"Don't make a brawling here," said Master Joseph, "or I'll jump over this here counter and knock you down, like nothing. What did you say, woman? are you deaf? what did you say? how much best tea do you want?"

"I don't want any, sir."

"You never want best tea; you must take three ounces of best tea, or you shan't have nothing. If you say another word, I'll put you down four. You tall gal, what's your name, you keep back there, or I'll fetch you such a cut as'll keep you at home till next reckoning. Cuss you, you old fool, do you think I am to be kept all day while you are mumbling here? Who's pushing on there? I see you, Mrs Page. Won't there be a black mark against you? Oh! its Mrs Prance, is it? Father, put down Mrs Prance for a peck of flour. I'll have order here. You think the last bacon a little too fat: oh! you do, ma'am, do you? I'll take care you shan't complain in futur; I likes to please my customers. There's a very nice flitch hanging up in the engine-room; the men wanted some rust for the machinery; you shall have a slice of that; and we'll say ten-pence a pound, high-dried, and wery lean—will that satisfy you!

"Order there, order; you cussed women, order, or I'll be among you. And if I just do jump over this here counter, won't I let fly right and left? Speak out, you ideot! do you think I can hear your muttering in this Babel? Cuss them; I'll keep them quiet," and so he took up a yard measure, and leaning over the counter, hit right and left.

"Oh! you little monster!" exclaimed a woman, "you have put out my babby's eye."

There was a murmur; almost a groan. "Whose baby's hurt?" asked Master Joseph in a softened tone.

"Mine, sir," said an indignant voice; "Mary Church."

"Oh! Mary Church, is it!" said the malicious imp, "then I'll put Mary Church down for half a pound of best arrow-root; that's the finest thing in the world for babbies, and will cure you of bringing your cussed monkeys here, as if you all thought our shop was a hinfant school.

"Where's your book, Susan Travers! Left at home! Then you may go and fetch it. No books, no tommy. You are Jones's wife, are you? Ticket for three and sixpence out of eighteen shillings wages. Is this the only ticket you have brought? There's your money; and you may tell your husband he need not take his coat off again to go down our shaft. He must think us cussed fools! Tell him I hope he has got plenty of money to travel into Wales, for he won't have no work in England again, or my name ayn't Diggs. Who's pushing there? I'll be among you; I'll close the shop. If I do get hold of some of you cussed women, you shan't forget it. If anybody will tell me who is pushing there, they shall have their bacon for seven-pence. Will nobody have bacon for seven-pence? Leagued together, eh! Then everybody shall have their bacon for ten-pence. Two can play at that. Push again, and I'll be among you," said the infuriated little tyrant. But the waving of the multitude, impatient, and annoyed by the weather, was not to be stilled; the movement could not be regulated; the shop was in commotion; and Master Joseph Diggs, losing all patience, jumped on the counter, and amid the shrieks of the women, sprang into the crowd. Two women fainted; others cried for their bonnets; others bemoaned their aprons; nothing however deterred Diggs, who kicked and cuffed and cursed in every quarter, and gave none. At last there was a general scream of horror, and a cry of "a boy killed."

The senior Diggs, who, from his eminence, had hitherto viewed the scene with unruffled complacency; who, in fact, derived from these not unusual exhibitions the same agreeable excitement which a Roman emperor might have received from the combats of the circus; began to think that affairs were growing serious, and rose to counsel order and enforce amiable dispositions. Even Master Joseph was quelled by that mild voice which would have become Augustus. It appeared to be quite true that a boy was dead. It was the little boy who, sent to get a loaf for his mother, had complained before the shop was opened of his fainting energies. He had fallen in the fray, and it was thought, to use the phrase of the comely dame who tried to rescue him, "that he was quite smothered."

They carried him out of the shop; the perspiration poured off him; he had no pulse. He had no friends there. "I'll stand by the body," said the comely dame, "though I lose my turn."

At this moment, Stephen Morley, for the reader has doubtless discovered that the stranger who held colloquy with the colliers was the friend of Walter Gerard, arrived at the tommy-shop, which was about half-way between the house where he had passed the night and Wodgate. He stopped, inquired, and being a man of science and some skill, decided, after examining the poor boy, that life was not extinct. Taking the elder Diggs aside, he said, "I am the editor of the Mowbray Phalanx; I will not speak to you before these people; but I tell you fairly you and your son have been represented to me as oppressors of the people. Will it be my lot to report this death and comment on it? I trust not. There is yet time and hope."

"What is to be done, sir," inquired the alarmed Mr Diggs; "a fellow-creature in this condition—"

"Don't talk but act," said Morley. "There is no time to be lost. The boy must be taken up stairs and put to bed; a warm bed, in one of your best rooms, with every comfort. I am pressed for business, but I will wait and watch over him till the crisis is passed. Come, let you and I take him in our arms, and carry him up stairs through your private door. Every minute is precious." And so saying, Morley and the elder Diggs entered the house.

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