Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 4

It was night: clear and serene, though the moon had not risen; and a vast concourse of persons were assembling on Mowbray Moor. The chief gathering collected in the vicinity of some huge rocks, one of which, pre-eminent above its fellows, and having a broad flat head, on which some twenty persons might easily stand at the same time, was called the Druid's Altar. The ground about was strewn with stony fragments, covered tonight with human beings, who found a convenient resting-place amid these ruins of some ancient temple or relics of some ancient world. The shadowy concourse increased, the dim circle of the nocturnal assemblage each moment spread and widened; there was the hum and stir of many thousands. Suddenly in the distance the sound of martial music: and instantly, quick as the lightning and far more wild, each person present brandished a flaming torch, amid a chorus of cheers, that, renewed and resounding, floated far away over the broad bosom of the dusk wilderness.

The music and the banners denoted the arrival of the leaders of the people. They mounted the craggy ascent that led to the summit of the Druid's Altar, and there, surrounded by his companions, amid the enthusiastic shouts of the multitude, Walter Gerard came forth to address a TORCH-LIGHT MEETING.

His tall form seemed colossal in the uncertain and flickering light, his rich and powerful voice reached almost to the utmost limit of his vast audience, now still with expectation and silent with excitement. Their fixed and eager glance, the mouth compressed with fierce resolution or distended by novel sympathy, as they listened to the exposition of their wrongs, and the vindication of the sacred rights of labour—the shouts and waving of the torches as some bright or bold phrase touched them to the quick—the cause, the hour, the scene—all combined to render the assemblage in a high degree exciting.

"I wonder if Warner will speak to-night," said Dandy Mick to Devilsdust.

"He can't pitch it in like Gerard," replied his companion.

"But he is a trump in the tender," said the Dandy. "The Handlooms looks to him as their man, and that's a powerful section."

"If you come to the depth of a question, there's nothing like Stephen Morley," said Devilsdust. "'Twould take six clergymen any day to settle him. He knows the principles of society by heart. But Gerard gets hold of the passions."

"And that's the way to do the trick," said Dandy Mick. "I wish he would say march, and no mistake."

"There is a great deal to do before saying that," said Devilsdust. "We must have discussion, because when it comes to reasoning, the oligarchs have not got a leg to stand on; and we must stop the consumption of exciseable articles, and when they have no tin to pay the bayonets and their b—y police, they are dished."

"You have a long head, Dusty," said Mick.

"Why I have been thinking of it ever since I knew two and two made four," said his friend. "I was not ten years old when I said to myself—It's a pretty go this, that I should be toiling in a shoddy-hole to pay the taxes for a gentleman what drinks his port wine and stretches his legs on a Turkey carpet. Hear, hear," he suddenly exclaimed, as Gerard threw off a stinging sentence. "Ah! that's the man for the people. You will see, Mick, whatever happens, Gerard is the man who will always lead."

Gerard had ceased amid enthusiastic plaudits, and Warner—that hand-loom weaver whom the reader may recollect, and who had since become a popular leader and one of the principal followers of Gerard—had also addressed the multitude. They had cheered and shouted, and voted resolutions, and the business of the night was over. Now they were enjoined to disperse in order and depart in peace. The band sounded a triumphant retreat; the leaders had descended from the Druid's Altar; the multitude were melting away, bearing back to the town their high resolves and panting thoughts, and echoing in many quarters the suggestive appeals of those who had addressed them. Dandy Mick and Devilsdust departed together; the business of their night had not yet commenced, and it was an important one.

They took their way to that suburb whither Gerard and Morley repaired the evening of their return from Marney Abbey; but it was not on this occasion to pay a visit to Chaffing Jack and his brilliant saloon. Winding through many obscure lanes, Mick and his friend at length turned into a passage which ended in a square court of a not inconsiderable size, and which was surrounded by high buildings that had the appearance of warehouses. Entering one of these, and taking up a dim lamp that was placed on the stone of an empty hearth, Devilsdust led his friend through several unoccupied and unfurnished rooms, until he came to one in which there were some signs of occupation.

"Now, Mick," said he, in a very earnest, almost solemn tone, "are you firm?"

"All right, my hearty," replied his friend, though not without some affectation of ease.

"There is a good deal to go through," said Devilsdust. "It tries a man."

"You don't mean that?"

"But if you are firm, all's right. Now I must leave you."

"No, no, Dusty," said Mick.

"I must go," said Devilsdust; "and you must rest here till you are sent for. Now mind—whatever is bid you, obey; and whatever you see, be quiet. There," and Devilsdust taking a flask out of his pocket, held it forth to his friend, "give a good pull, man, I can't leave it you, for though your heart must be warm, your head must be cool," and so saying he vanished.

Notwithstanding the animating draught, the heart of Mick Radley trembled. There are some moments when the nervous system defies even brandy. Mick was on the eve of a great and solemn incident, round which for years his imagination had gathered and brooded. Often in that imagination he had conceived the scene, and successfully confronted its perils or its trials. Often had the occasion been the drama of many a triumphant reverie, but the stern presence of reality had dispelled all his fancy and all his courage. He recalled the warning of Julia, who had often dissuaded him from the impending step; that warning received with so much scorn and treated with so much levity. He began to think that women were always right; that Devilsdust was after all a dangerous counsellor; he even meditated over the possibility of a retreat. He looked around him: the glimmering lamp scarcely indicated the outline of the obscure chamber. It was lofty, nor in the obscurity was it possible for the eye to reach the ceiling, which several huge beams seemed to cross transversally, looming in the darkness. There was apparently no windows, and the door by which they had entered was not easily to be recognised. Mick had just taken up the lamp and was surveying his position, when a slight noise startled him, and looking round he beheld at some little distance two forms which he hoped were human.

Enveloped in dark cloaks and wearing black masks, a conical cap of the same colour adding to their considerable height, each held a torch. They stood in silence—two awful sentries.

Their appearance appalled, their stillness terrified, Mick: he remained with his mouth open and the lamp in his extended arm. At length, unable any longer to sustain the solemn mystery, and plucking up his natural audacity, he exclaimed, "I say, what do you want?"

All was silent.

"Come, come," said Mick much alarmed; "none of this sort of thing. I say, you must speak though."

The figures advanced: they stuck their torches in a niche that was by; and then they placed each of them a hand on the shoulder of Mick.

"No, no; none of that," said Mick, trying to disembarrass himself.

But, notwithstanding this fresh appeal, one of the silent masks pinioned his arms; and in a moment the eyes of the helpless friend of Devilsdust were bandaged.

Conducted by these guides, it seemed to Mick that he was traversing interminable rooms, or rather galleries, for once stretching out his arm, while one of his supporters had momentarily quitted him to open some gate or door, Mick touched a wall. At length one of the masks spoke, and said, "In five minutes you will be in the presence of the SEVEN—prepare."

At this moment rose the sound of distant voices singing in concert, and gradually increasing in volume as Mick and the masks advanced. One of these attendants now notifying to their charge that he must kneel down, Mick found he rested on a cushion, while at the same time his arms still pinioned, he seemed to be left alone.

The voices became louder and louder; Mick could distinguish the words and burthen of the hymn; he was sensible that many persons were entering the apartment; he could distinguish the measured tread of some solemn procession. Round the chamber, more than once, they moved with slow and awful step. Suddenly that movement ceased; there was a pause of a few minutes; at length a voice spoke. "I denounce John Briars."

"Why?" said another.

"He offers to take nothing but piece-work; the man who does piece-work is guilty of less defensible conduct than a drunkard. The worst passions of our nature are enlisted in support of piece-work. Avarice, meanness, cunning, hypocrisy, all excite and feed upon the miserable votary who works by the task and not by the hour. A man who earns by piece-work forty shillings per week, the usual wages for day-work being twenty, robs his fellows of a week's employment; therefore I denounce John Briars."

"Let it go forth," said the other voice; "John Briars is denounced. If he receive another week's wages by the piece, he shall not have the option of working the week after for time. No.87, see to John Briars."

"I denounce Claughton and Hicks," said another voice.

"Why?"

"They have removed Gregory Ray from being a superintendent, because he belonged to this lodge."

"Brethren, is it your pleasure that there shall be a turn out for ten days at Claughton and Hicks?"

"It is our pleasure," cried several voices.

"No.34, give orders to-morrow that the works at Claughton and Hicks stop till further orders."

"Brethren," said another voice, "I propose the expulsion from this Union, of any member who shall be known to boast of his superior ability, as to either the quantity or quality of work he can do, either in public or private company. Is it your pleasure?"

"It is our pleasure."

"Brethren," said a voice that seemed a presiding one, "before we proceed to the receipt of the revenue from the different districts of this lodge, there is I am informed a stranger present, who prays to be admitted into our fraternity. Are all robed in the mystic robe? Are all masked in the secret mask?"

"All

"Then let us pray!" And thereupon after a movement which intimated that all present were kneeling, the presiding voice offered up an extemporary prayer of great power and even eloquence. This was succeeded by the Hymn of Labour, and at its conclusion the arms of the neophyte were unpinioned, and then his eyes were unbandaged.

Mick found himself in a lofty and spacious room lighted with many tapers. Its walls were hung with black cloth; at a table covered with the same material, were seated seven persons in surplices and masked, the president on a loftier seat; above which on a pedestal was a skeleton complete. On each side of the skeleton was a man robed and masked, holding a drawn sword; and on each of Mick was a man in the same garb holding a battle-axe. On the table was the sacred volume open, and at a distance, ranged in order on each side of the room, was a row of persons in white robes and white masks, and holding torches.

"Michael Radley," said the President. "Do you voluntarily swear in the presence of Almighty God and before these witnesses, that you will execute with zeal and alacrity, as far as in you lies, every task and injunction that the majority of your brethren testified by the mandate of this grand committee, shall impose upon you, in futherance of our common welfare, of which they are the sole judges; such as the chastisement of Nobs, the assassination of oppressive and tyrannical masters, or the demolition of all mills, works and shops that shall be deemed by us incorrigible. Do you swear this in the presence of Almighty God and before these witnesses?"

"I do swear it," replied a tremulous voice.

"Then rise and kiss that book."

Mick slowly rose from his kneeling position, advanced with a trembling step, and bending, embraced with reverence the open volume.

Immediately every one unmasked; Devilsdust came forward, and taking Mick by the hand led him to the President, who received him pronouncing some mystic rhymes. He was covered with a robe and presented with a torch, and then ranged in order with his companions. Thus terminated the initiation of Dandy Mick into a TRADES UNION.

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