The Story of Robert Sinclair, Miner
JAMES C. WELSH
New York Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers
I have tried to write of the life I know, the life I have lived, and of the lives of the people whom, above all others, I love, and of whom I am so proud.
My people have been miners for generations, and I myself became a miner at the age of twelve. I have worked since then in the mine at every phase of coal getting until about five years ago, when my fellow workers made me their checkweigher.
I say this that those who read my book may know that the things of which I write are the things of which I have firsthand knowledge.
JAMES C. WELSH. DOUGLAS WATER, LANARK.
I. THE THONG OF POVERTY
II. A TURN OF THE SCREW
III. THE BLOCK
IV. A YOUNG REBEL
V. BLACK JOCK'S THREAT
VI. THE COMING OF A PROPHET
VII. ON THE PIT-HEAD
VIII. THE MANTLE OF MANHOOD
IX. THE ACCIDENT
X. HEROES OF THE UNDERWORLD
XI. THE STRIKE
XII. THE RIVALS
XIII. THE RED HOSE RACE
XIV. THE AWAKENING
XV. PETER MAKES A DECISION
XVI. A STIR IN LOWWOOD
XVII. MYSIE RUNS AWAY
XVIII. MAG ROBERTSON'S FRENZY
XIX. BLACK JOCK'S END
XX. THE CONFERENCE
XXI. THE MEETING WITH MYSIE
XXII. MYSIE'S RETURN
XXIV. A CALL FOR HELP
XXV. A FIGHT WITH DEATH
THE THONG OF POVERTY
"Is it not about time you came to your bed, lassie?"
"Ay, I'll no' be very long now, Geordie. If I had this heel turned, I'll soon finish the sock, and that will be a pair the day. Is the pain in your back worse the nicht, that you are so restless?" and the clicking of the needles ceased as the woman asked the question.
"Oh, I'm no' so bad at all," came the answer. "My back's maybe a wee bit sore; but a body gets tired lying always in the yin position. Forby, the day aye seems long when you are out, and I dinna like to think of you out working all day, and then sitting down to knit at nicht. It must be very tiring for you, Nellie."
"Oh, I'm no' that tired," she replied with a show of cheerfulness, as she turned another wire in the sock, and set the balls of wool dancing on the floor with the speed at which she worked. "I've had a real good day to-day, and I'm feeling that I could just sit for a lang while the nicht, if only the paraffin oil wadna' go down so quick. But the longer I sit, it burns the more, and it's getting gey dear to buy now-a-days."
"Ay," said the weary voice of the man. "If it's no' clegs it's midges. Folk have always something to contend against. But don't be long till you stop. It's almost twelve o'clock, and you ought to be in your bed."
"Oh, I'll no' be very long, Geordie," was the bravely cheerful answer. "Just you try and gang to sleep and I'll soon finish up. I'll have to try and get up early in the morning, for I have to go to Mrs. Rundell and wash. She always gi'es me twa shillings, and that's a good day's pay. The only thing I grudge is being away all day, leaving you and the bairns, for I ken they're no' very easy to put up with. They're steerin' weans, and are no' easy on a body who is ill."
"Ay, they're a steerin' lot, lassie," he answered tenderly. "But, poor things, they must hae some freedom, Nellie. I wish I was ready for my work."
"Hoot, man," she said with the same show of cheerfulness. "We might have been worse, and you will be better some day, and able to work as well as ever you did."
For a time there was silence, broken only by the loud ticking of the clock, the clicking of the needles, and occasionally a low moan from the bed, as the injured miner sank into a restless sleep.
There had been an accident some six weeks before, and Geordie Sinclair, badly wounded by a fall of stone, had been brought home from the pit in a cart.
It was during the time known to old miners as the "two-and-sixpenny winter," that being the sum of the daily wage then earned by the miners. A financial crisis had come upon the country and the Glasgow City Bank had failed, trade was dull, and the whole industrial system was in chaos. It had been a hard time for Geordie Sinclair's wife, for there were four children to provide for besides her injured husband. Work which was well paid for was not over plentiful, and she had to toil from early morning till far into the night to earn the bare necessities of life. There were times like to-night, when she felt rebellious and bitter at her plight, but her tired eyes and fingers had to get to the end of the task, for that meant bread for the children in the morning.
The silence deepened in the little kitchen. No sound came now from the bed, and the lamp threw eerie shadows on the walls, and the chimney smoked incessantly.
Her eyes grew watery and smarted with the smoke. She dropped stitches occasionally, as she hurried with her work, which had to be lifted again when she discovered that the pattern was wrong, and sometimes quite a considerable part had to be "ripped out," so that she could correct the mistake.
The dismal calling of a cat outside irritated her, and the loud complacent ticking of the clock seemed to mock her misery; but still she worked on, the busy fingers turning the needles, as the wool unwound itself from the balls which danced upon the floor. There was life in those balls of wool as they spun to the tune of the woman's misery. They advanced and retired, like dancers, touching hands when they met, then whirling away in opposite directions again; they side-stepped and wheeled in a mad riot of joyous color, just as they were about to meet: they stood for a little facing each other, feinting from side to side, then were off again, as the music of her misery quickened, in an embracing whirl, as if married in an ecstasy of colored flame, many-shaded, yet one; then, at last, just as the tune seemed to have reached a crescendo of spirit, she dashed her work upon the floor, as she discovered another blunder, and burst into a fit of passionate weeping.
Suddenly there was a faint tap at the window, and she raised her head, staying her breath to listen. Soon she heard it again, just a faint but very deliberate tap, which convinced her that someone was outside in the darkness. Softly she stole on tiptoe across the room, so as not to disturb her sleeping husband, and opening the door quietly, craned forward and peered into the darkness to discover the cause of the tap.
"It's just me," said a deep voice, in uneasy accents, from the darkness by the window, and she saw then the form of a man edging nearer the door.
"And who are you?" she asked a little nervously, but trying to master the alarm in her voice.
"Do you not ken me?" replied the voice with an attempt to speak as naturally as possible; yet there was something in the tone that made her more uneasy.
Then the figure of the man drew nearer, and he whispered "Are they all sleeping?" alluding to the inmates of the house.
"Ay," she answered, drawing back into the shelter of the doorway. "Why do you ask? And what is it you want?"
"Oh, I just came along to see how you were all getting on," was the reply. "I ken you must be in very straitened circumstances by this time, and thought I might be able to help you a bit," and there was an ingratiating tone in the words now as he sidled nearer. "You must have a very hard battle just now, and I would like to do something to help you."
"Come away in," said the woman, with still an uneasy tremor in her voice, yet feeling more assured. "Geordie is sleeping, but he'll not be hard to waken up. Come away in, and let us see who you are, and tell us what you really want."
"No, I'm no' coming in," he whispered hoarsely. "Do you no' ken me? Shut the door and not let any of them hear. I'm wanting you!" and he stepped into the light and reached forward his hand, as if to draw her to him.
Mrs. Sinclair gasped and recoiled in horror, as she recognized who it was that stood before her.
"No," she cried decisively, stepping further back into the shelter of the house, her voice low and intense with indignation. "No, I have not come to that yet, thank God. Gang home, you dirty brute, that you are! I'll be very ill off when I ask anything, or take anything, from you, Jock Walker!" For it was well known in Lowwood that Jock Walker's errands to people in distress had always in them an ulterior motive.
He was the under manager at the pits, and his reputation was of the blackest. There were men in the village of Lowwood who were well aware of this man's relations with their wives, and they openly agreed to the sale of the honor of their women folk in return for what he gave them in the shape of contracts, at which they could make more money than their neighbors, or good "places," where the coal was easier won. In fact, to be a contractor was a synonym for this sort of dealing, for no one ever got a contract from Walker unless his wife, or his daughter, was a woman of easy virtue, and at the service of this man.
"Very well," replied Walker with chagrined anger. "Please yourself. But let me tell you that you'll maybe no' ay be so high and mighty; you'll maybe be dam'd glad yet of the chance that I have given you."
"No, no," protested Mrs. Sinclair. "Go away—"
"Look here, Nellie," he said, his voice changing to a low pleading tone, "you're in a hole. You must be. Be a sensible woman, and you'll never need to be so ill-grippet again. I can put Geordie in a position that he'll make any amount of money as soon as he is able to start. You are not a bit better than anyone else, and for the sake of your bairns you should be sensible. And forby," he went on, as if now more sure of his ground, "what the hell's wrang in it? It's no' what folk do that is wrong. It's in being found out. Now come away and be sensible. You ken what is wanted, and you ken that I can make you well off for it."
"No, by heavens," she cried, now tingling with anger at the insult. "Never! Get out of this, you brute! If Geordie Sinclair had been able this nicht, I'd have got him to deal with you. Get out of here, or I'll cleave your rotten body, and let out your rotten heart." And she turned in, and closed and bolted the door, leaving Walker fuming with anger at the repulse of his advances. Nellie Sinclair had never felt so outraged in all her life before. She was trembling with anger at the insult of his proposals. She paced the floor in her stockinged feet, as if a wild spirit were raging within her demanding release; then finally she flung herself into the "big chair," disgust and anger in her heart, and for the second time that night burst into a passionate fit of weeping, which seemed to shake her body almost asunder. For a long time she sat thus, sobbing, her whole being burning with indignation, and her mind in a fury of disgust and rebellion.
Then there was a faint stirring in the bed where the children slept, and a little boy's form began to crawl from amongst the rough bedclothes, his eyes gazing in amazement at the bowed figure of his mother. She was crying, he concluded, for her shoulders were heaving and it must be something very bad that made his beautiful mother cry like this. He crept across the bare wooden floor, his bare sturdy legs showing beneath the short and meager shirt, and was soon at her side.
"What's wrang wi' you, mother?" he asked, as he put his soft little hand upon her head. "What's wrang wi' you? Will I kiss you held and make it better?" But his mother did not look up—only the big sobs continued to shake her, and the boy becoming alarmed at this, also began to cry, as he placed his little head against hers. "Oh, mother, dinna greet," he sobbed, "and I'll kiss your heid till it's better."
At last she lifted her head, and seeing the naked boy, she caught him in her arms and crushed him to her breast, as if she would smother him. This was strange conduct for his usually undemonstrative mother; but it was nice to be hugged like that, even though she did cry.
"What made you greet, mother?" he queried, for he had never before, in all his four years, seen his mother cry. For answer she merely caught him closer to her breast, her hair falling soft and warm all over him as she did so.
"Was you hungry, mither?" he tried again.
"No' very," she answered, choking back her sobs.
"Are you often hungry, too, mither?" he persisted, feeling encouraged at getting an answer at last.
"Sometimes," she replied. "But dinna bother me, Rob," she continued. "Gang away to your bed like a man."
He was silent for a time at this repulse, and lay upon her knee puzzling over the matter.
"Do you greet when you are hungry?" he enquired, with: wide-eyed earnestness and surprise.
"There noo," she answered, "don't ask so many questions, Daddy'll not be long till he is better again, and when he is at work there'll be plenty of pieces to keep us all from being hungry."
"And will there be jeely for the pieces?" pursued the boy, for it seemed to him that there had never been a time when there was plenty to eat.
"Yes, we'll get plenty o' jeely too," she replied, drying the remaining tears from her eyes, and hugging him again to her breast.
"Oh, my," he said, with a deep sigh. "I wish my father was better!" and the little lips were moistened by his tongue, as if in anticipation of the coming feast.
Another silence; and then came the query—"What way do we not get plenty o' pieces when my daddy's no' working? Does folk no' get them then?"
"No, Robin," she answered, "but dinna fash your wee noddle with that. You'll find out all about it when you get big. Shut your eyes and mother'll sing, an' you'll go to sleep." And he snuggled in and shut his eyes, while Mrs. Sinclair gathered him softly to her breast and began to croon an old ballad.
As she sang it seemed to the boy that there were no such things as "jelly-pieces" to bother about. He liked his mother to sing to him, for he seemed to get rolled up in her soft, warm voice, and become restful and happy. Gradually the low crooning song grew fainter in his ears, the flicker of the fire danced further and further away, until long streaks of golden thready light seemed to reach out, straight from his eyes to the fireplace, and all the comfort that it was possible to have flowed through his soul, and at last he slept. Mrs. Sinclair placed him beside his brothers and sisters in the bed and went back to finish her knitting. The night was far gone before she accomplished her task, and she stood and surveyed her humble home with weariness in her heart.
Through the dim smoke which hung like a blue cloud along the roof, and made more seemingly thick by the small lamp upon the table, she looked at her husband lying asleep, and so far free from pain. Then her eyes traveled to the children in the other bed, and they filled with tears as she thought that she had had to put them supperless to bed that night, and again rebellion surged through her blood as she thought of all the misery of her life. Was it worth living and going on in this way? Was it worth while to continue? What had she done to reap all this suffering?
She was hungry and weak and exhausted. Perhaps if she could sleep she would forget it, and in the morning the socks she had finished would bring her a few pence, and that would mean food.
She decided to go to bed, and in passing by the shelf at the window, her eye caught sight of a plateful of potato skins, the remains of the meager dinner of boiled potatoes which the children had had; and clutching them, she began greedily to devour them, filling her mouth and cramming them in in handfuls, until it seemed as if she would choke herself. Then, licking the plate clean of every crumb, she undressed and slipped quietly into bed, to lie and fret and toss, as she thought of the insult which Black Jock had offered her, and pondered over the unhappy lot of her children and their injured father.
A TURN OF THE SCREW
On the Friday following Jock Walker's visit to Mrs. Sinclair, a notice was put up at the pit by Peter Pegg and Andrew Marshall, to the effect that a collection would be taken next day on behalf of Geordie Sinclair. The notice was posted up before Andrew and Peter descended the pit for the day.
"Black Jock," as Walker was called by the miners, saw the notice before it had been ten minutes posted, and deliberately tore it down. He then visited Peter Pegg and Andrew Marshall at the coal face.
"I suppose you an' Andrew are goin' to gather for Geordie Sinclair the morn?" he said, addressing Peter.
"Ay," Peter answered, "we were thinkin' it was aboot time somethin' was done. There's four bairns an' their two selves, an' though times are no' very guid for ony of us now, it maun be a lot worse for them. Geordie has been a guid while off."
"Do ye think, Peter, they are in such need?" asked Walker, with a hint in his voice that was meant to convey he knew better.
"Lord, they canna be aught else!" decisively returned Peter. "How can they be? I ken for mysel'," he went on, "that if it was me, I wad hae been in starvation lang syne."
"Weel, wad ye believe me when I tell ye—an' it's a fact—they're about the best-off family in this place, if ye only kent it."
"What!" cried Peter in surprise, "the best-off family in the place! Lord, I canna take that in!"
"Maybe no'," said Walker, "but I ken, an' ye're no' the first that's been taken in by Nellie Sinclair. If ye notice, she never tells any thin' to anybody; but she lets ye carry the notion in your mind that she's in great straits. She's a cute one, Nellie."
"Weel, Nellie does keep hersel' to hersel'," admitted Peter. "She's no' given to clashin' and claverin' about the doors like some o' the rest o' the women; but I canna' for the life o' me see where she can be onythin' but ill aff at this time."
"Weel, I ken when folk are bein' imposed on," said Walker, in a knowing tone, "an' I tore down your notice this mornin'. I didna want to see you mak' a fool o' yersels. I ha'e been considerin' for a while," he went on, speaking quickly, "about puttin' a stop to this collectin' business at the office on pay Saturdays, for it just encourages some men to lie off work when there's no' very muckle wrong wi' them; after they get the collection they soon start work again. Ye had better no' stand the morn, for I might as well begin at once and put a stop to it."
Up till now Andrew Marshall had not spoken; he was a silent man, given more to thought than speech, but this was a way of doing things he did not like.
"But ye might let us tak' the collection first, and then put up a notice yersel sayin' that a' collections have to be stopped. It wad be best to gi'e the men notice."
"No," said Walker, "there's to be nae mair collections taken. I might as well stop it this time as wait. So ye'll no' stand the morn."
"Will I no'?" returned Andrew challengingly. "How the hell do ye ken whether I will or no'?"
"I ken ye'll no'," replied Walker, with quiet menacing tones; "the ground at the office belongs to the company, and is private. So ye can do it if ye like, but ye'll be weel advised no' to bother."
"I don't gi'e a damn," cried Andrew explosively, "whether the ground is private or no'. I'll take that 'gathering' for Geordie Sinclair the morn, though ye ha'e a regiment o' sodgers at the office."
"Very well," said Walker, as he departed, "if ye do, ye can look out."
Peter took his pipe out of his mouth and spat savagely on the ground; he then replaced it with great deliberation and looked gloomily at the stoop-side. He was a man about thirty-five, tall, bony and angular; his neck was long and thin, and his head seemed always on the point of turning to allow him to look over his shoulder. His right eye was half closed, while his left eye looked big and saucer-like, and never seemed to wink; one eye was ready to laugh and the other to "greet," as his comrades described it. He had been badly disfigured in a burning accident in the pit when he was a young man, and a broken nose added still more to the strangeness of his appearance. Andrew, on the other hand, was stout and broadly built, with a bushy whisker on each cheek, and a clump of tufty hair on his head.
"What do ye mak' o' that, Andrew?" enquired Peter, after a few minutes, as he again spat savagely at the stoop-side.
"What do I mak' o't?" echoed Andrew, as he glowered across the little bing of dross at his mate, "it's just in keepin' wi' the rest o' his dirty doin's, the dirty black brute that he is!"
"I wonder what's wrong wi' him?" mused Peter as he sucked quietly at his snoring pipe. But there was no answer from Andrew, who was sitting silent and glum, gazing at his little lamp.
"What are ye goin' to do about it, then?" broke in Peter again.
"Just what I said," returned Andrew with quiet firmness. "I'll take that collection the morn, some way or another, if I should be damned for it. Does he mean to say that we can let folk starve?" He lifted his pick and began to hew the coal with an energy that told of the passion raging within him.
"Does he mean to think I'm goin' to see decent folk starve afore my e'en?" he asked after a while, pausing to wipe the sweat from his eyes. "No' damned likely! Things ha'e come to a fine pass when folk are compelled to look at other folk starvin' an' no' gi'e them a crust."
"Do ye think there's onything in what he said about them bein' weel-aff?" asked Peter cautiously, while his big eye tried to wink. "Nellie is a wee bit inclined to be prood an' independent, ye ken, an' disna say muckle about her affairs. An forby we don't ken very muckle about her; she's an incomer to the place, and she might ha'e been weel-aff afore she married Geordie, for aught we ken."
"It disna matter," replied Andrew, "I dinna care though they had thousan's. What I don't like is this 'ye'll-no'-do-this-an'-ye'll-no'-do-that' sort o' thing. What the hell right has ony gaffer wi' what a man does? It's a' one to him what I do. I'm nae slave, an' forby, I dinna believe they are weel-aff. They maun be hard up."
"But he'll maybe sack ye," suggested Peter, "if ye take the collection."
"Well, let him," cried Andrew, now thoroughly roused, "the bastard! I would see the greyhounds o' hell huntin' him roun' the rocks o' blazes afore I'd give in to him!"
Nothing further was said of the matter until well on in the day, when it suddenly occurred to Andrew that Peter, who had a large family, might not care to incur the displeasure of Walker by taking the collection the next day.
"Of course, Peter," he said, after he had thought the matter over, "if ye don't care to take the collection wi' me, I won't press ye. I'll no' think ony worse o' ye if ye don't. Ye ha'e a big family, while I ha'e only the wife to look after. Sometimes I think it's lucky we ha'e nae weans; I can flit, and ye might no' be able to rise an' run. But I mean to take the collection onyway, for I don't like a man to order me what I ha'e to do."
"Oh, I wasna mindin' that, Andra," replied Peter, trying to make Andrew believe that he had not guessed the truth. "I'll take the collectin wi' ye, an' Black Jock can gang to hell if he likes."
"No, Peter, ye'll do naethin' o' the kind. I'll take it mysel'." And Andrew would not move from that decision.
Next day everybody was curiously expectant; it had got noised abroad that Walker had defied Andrew Marshall to take a collection at the office, and had threatened him with arrest. There were wild rumors of other penalties, and when pay-day came everybody was surprised to see Andrew draw his pay and walk home. They concluded that Andrew had thought better of it, and had been cowed into submission. When darkness began to fall, however, Andrew sauntered out and visited every home in the village, soliciting aid on behalf of Geordie Sinclair. There were few houses from which he did not get a donation, though the will to give was often greater than the means. In each house Andrew had to give in detail the interview between Black Jock and himself in the pit.
"The muckle big, black, dirty brute that he is!" the good-wife would cry in indignation. "It's a pity but he could ken what starvation is himsel'. It might make him a bit mair like a human bein'."
"That's true," Andrew would agree.
In one or two houses he met with a blank refusal, but in these he was not disappointed, for he knew that the men would not risk Walker's disapproval by contributing. Again, some were wholly hostile. They were the "belly-crawlers," as Geordie Sinclair had once dubbed them at a meeting, those who "kept in" with the management by carrying tales, and generally acting as traitors to the other men.
"No, I'll no' gi'e ye onythin'," would be the reply; "he can just be like me an' gang an' work for his bairns. Forby, look at yon stuck-up baggage o' a wife o' his. She can hardly pass the time o' day wi' ye—she thinks hersel' somethin'."
"Very well," Andrew would reply, "maybe ye ha'e mair need o't for other things." And he would pass on to the next house.
He had gathered between three and four pounds, contributed sometimes even in pennies, and going to Geordie's house, he knocked at the door. This was the most uncomfortable part of his work, and he stood shifting from one foot to the other, wondering what he would say when he entered. Mrs. Sinclair was busy washing the floor and cleaning up, after having been at work all day washing for someone in the village. She wiped her hands and opened the door.
"How are ye a' keepin' the night?" inquired Andrew, as he stepped inside at Mrs. Sinclair's invitation, feeling more and more uncomfortable. It was a hard enough matter to go and ask others whom he knew had little to spare, but now, having got the money, he did not know how he was going to hand it over to Nellie. He ruminated for a time as to how he would break into the subject. He knew that Nellie Sinclair must have heard of the collection, and guessed his errand, for he saw that she, too, was uneasy and agitated.
"How are ye a' the night?" he again enquired, to break the silence.
"Oh, I'm no' so bad at a', Andra," replied Geordie. "I'm feelin' a wee bit easier the night. How's yersel'?"
"No' so bad," answered Andrew, putting his hand in his pocket for his pipe.
"Dash it! I'm away without my pipe," he said with a show of annoyance. "Can ye len' me yours, Geordie, to get a smoke? I ha'e my tobacco and matches. Ye see," he went on, speaking more rapidly, "I thought I would just slip round to see how ye was keepin'."
Andrew knew that Geordie would not have had a smoke for a long time, and this was his way of leaving him with a pipeful of tobacco.
"I think my pipe's on the mantelshelf," returned Geordie, "but I doot it's empty."
Andrew took down the pipe, filled it generously, set it alight, and sat for a few minutes trying vainly to keep up a connected conversation. After he had puffed a few minutes at Geordie's pipe he laid it down, dived his hand into his trousers pocket as he made for the door. He pulled forth the money, which was in a little bag, and laid it down on the table, saying: "I'm no' guid at this kind of thing, Geordie. There's something for ye from the men. Guid nicht!" and he was off, leaving Nellie in tears and Geordie in glum silence.
Mrs. Sinclair's tears were tears of rebellion as well as of gratitude. She was touched by Andrew's delicacy, but her independent spirit was wounded at having to take help from anyone. She thought of the children and of her husband, who needed nourishment, and taking up the little bag she poured its contents into her lap, while her hot tears fell upon the money. Little Robert, who was sitting watching, and who had never in all his life seen so much money, ran to his mother with a cry of delight.
"Oh, mammy, will I get sweeties noo?" and the boy danced with glee, as he shouted, "I'll get jeely-pieces noo, hurray!"
That night there was happiness in Geordie Sinclair's house, for there was food in plenty, and it seemed as if the children would never be able to appease their hunger.
The "jeely-pieces," or slices of bread with jam on them, disappeared with amazing rapidity, and Geordie had some beef-tea, which seemed to improve him almost as soon as he had taken it. For the first time for many months Mrs. Sinclair and the children went to bed with satisfied appetites; and the children's dreams were as the incidents in the life of a god, exalted and happy, and their mother's rest was unbroken and full of comfort.
But on Monday morning Andrew Marshall had to pay the price of the happiness he had been instrumental in giving them, for he was informed by one of Walker's henchmen that his place was stopped. The excuse given was that it was too far in advance of the others. Andrew knew what that meant, and as he went home, fierce rebellious feelings stirred within him. Peter Pegg, he was glad to know, had got started on "oncost" work, and Andrew felt he had done right in not allowing Peter to take the collection with him.
"I see Andra Marshall's back again," observed Sanny Robertson to Peter Pegg one evening three months later.
"Ay," said Peter, "he was at Glampy, but his place was stopped, an' there wasna anither for him."
"Got the sack again, I suppose," said Sanny. "Weel, he maun learn, Peter, that gaffers are no' gaun to put up wi' his nonsense. If a man will no' do what he's telt, he maun just take the consequences."
"Ay," said Peter, very dryly, and as Peter knew his man, no more was said.
Later the same night Matthew Maitland observed to Peter, as they sat on their "hunkers" at the corner:
"Andra's back again, I suppose."
"Ay," was the answer, "he was telt his place was stopped."
"Imphm," said Matthew, "it's a damn fine excuse. It's a pity but somethin' could be done."
"It's the Block," said Peter. "I'm telt that a' the managers roun' aboot ha'e an understandin' with one another no' to gi'e work to onybody they take a dislike to."
"Ay," agreed Matthew, "I ha'e heard aboot it, but I would soon put a stop to it."
"Ay, Matthew, it's a union we need up here badly. I'm telt that that chap Smillie has managed to start one down in the West Country, an' it's daein' weel. He's got some o' their wages up a hale shillin' a day since he took it in hand."
"Is that a fact, Peter? The sooner we ha'e him up here the better then. Black Jock needs a chap back onyway," and Matthew looked like a man who had suddenly discovered a great truth.
Andrew Marshall had never been allowed to forget his action in defying Walker; everywhere he went it was the same story—no work for him. The "Block" system among the managers was in good working order, and could easily starve a man into docility. Andrew became more desperate as time passed, and he knew that he and his wife were nearing the end of their small savings. He returned home one evening from his usual fruitless search for employment, and threw himself into the arm-chair by the fireside.
"No work yet, Andra?" asked Katie.
"Nane," was the gloomy response.
"We have no' very mony shillin's left noo, Andra. I dinna ken what we'll do."
Savage, revengeful feelings surged through Andrew, and found vent in a volley of oaths which terrified his wife.
"Dinna talk like that, Andra," she pleaded. "It's no' canny, an' forby, the Lord disna like ye to do it."
"If the Lord cared He could take Black Jock by the scruff o' the neck an' fling him into hell oot o' the road. It's Black Jock that's at the bottom o' this, an' I could twist his dirty neck for him."
"Weel, Andra, it's the Lord's doin', an' maybe things'll soon men'."
"If it's the Lord's doin', I dinna think muckle o' His conduct then," and Andrew lapsed into sullen silence.
On Monday morning he was up at five o'clock, desperately resolved to lay his case before the men. He walked to the end of the village, knowing the colliery would be idle, for Tam Donaldson was to be "creeled." This was a custom at one time very prevalent in mining villages. When a young man got married, the first day he appeared at his work afterwards he was taken home by his comrades, and was expected to stand them a drink. It generally ended in a collection being made, after they had tasted the newly-married man's whiskey, and a common fund thus being established, a large quantity of beer and whiskey was procured, and all drank to their heart's content.
Andrew heard the men calling to each other as they made their way to the pit, the lights from their lamps twinkling in the darkness of the winter morning.
"Is Tam away yet, Jamie?" he heard wee Allan ask, as he overtook old Jamie Lauder on his way to the pit.
"Ay, I saw to that," replied Lauder, "I chappit him up at five o'clock, so that he wadna sleep in. I hinna missed a creelin' for thirty-five years, an' I wasna' gaun to miss Tam Donaldson's. I heard him goin' oot two or three minutes afore me. We're in for a guid day, for he telt me he had in two bottles for the spree."
"That's a' right, then; I was afraid he wad maybe sleep in," and the two trudged on together towards the pit.
A group of dark figures stood on the pithead, waiting their turn to go below. The cage rattled up from the depths of the shaft, the men stepped in, and almost immediately disappeared down into the blackness. Arrived at the bottom, they walked along towards the different passages, chaffing and jesting with Tam Donaldson, the newly-married one.
"Ye'll be gaun to do something decent the day, Tam, when we take ye hame?" said Jamie Allan. "I hear ye ha'e two bottles ready for the occasion."
"Ay, but I'm damned shair there's no a lick gaun unless ye take me hame," answered Donaldson. "If I ha'e to be creeled, I'll be creeled right, an' every one o' ye'll gang hame wi' me afore ye get a taste."
"Oh, but we'll see to that, chaps," said old Lauder. "Here's a hutch, get him in an' aff wi' him."
The victim pretended to resist, and stoutly maintained that they should not creel him. He was seized by half a dozen pairs of arms, and with much expenditure of energy and breath, deposited in the hutch. Some considerate person had put some straw and old bags in the "carriage" to make it more comfortable, and a few of the wags had chalked inscriptions, the reverse of complimentary, all over it.
"There, noo', boys," said old Lauder, who had been busy hanging lighted pit lamps round Tam's cap, "gi'e him a guid run to the bottom, and see that he gets a guid bump in the lye."
The men ran the hutch to the "bottom" straight against the full tubs ready to be sent to the surface.
"Come on, Sourocks, let us up," called Allan to the old man who acted as "bottomer."
"Hell to the up will ye get!" replied the old fellow, "I'm gaun to put on these hutches first."
"No, ye'll no', an' if ye do, you'll gang into the 'sump,' an' we'll chap the bell oorsels"—the sump being the lodgment into which the water gathered before pumping operations could start.
"Sourocks" thought discretion the better part of valor in this case, and swearing quietly to himself, he signaled to the engineman at the top to draw them up.
"He's no gaun to walk hame," said Allan, as they all gathered again on the pit head. "We'll take the hutch hame wi' Tam in it. Put a rope on it, and we'll draw the damned thing through the moor, an' maybe Tam'll mind the day he was creeled as lang as he lives."
This proposal was jumped at, especially by the younger men, to whom an idle day did not mean so much worry on pay-day as to their married elders.
Andrew Marshall had waited at the end of the village, knowing that the creeling was to take place, and that he would get the men on their way from the pit. Presently old Lauder, who had taken a short cut across the moor, came up, and Andrew accosted him.
"Will ye wait here, Jamie, so that I can try an' get a meetin' held wi' the rest o' the men when they come alang?"
"I will that, Andra," replied Jamie, taking the lighted lamp from his head, and sitting down at the corner on his "hunkers." "They're a' comin' hame anyway, for we're creelin' Tam Donaldson."
Soon the procession appeared, the hutch jolting along the rough street, the men shouting and singing as they came. The village had turned out to see the fun. Andrew and Jamie found themselves in the midst of a crowd of women and children, as the foremost of the men came to a halt at the corner.
Andrew quietly stepped out and addressed the men, asking them if they would wait a few minutes—as they were idle in any case—to have a meeting. All were agreed.
"Here's Sanny Robertson," said Tam Tate, peering into the breaking light, "he'll no' likely wait, but we'll see what he says aboot it," and all waited in silence until Robertson approached. He seemed to guess what was in the air, and hurriedly tried to pass on, but Andrew stepped out with the usual question.
"No," he replied uneasily, "I'll ha'e no part in ony mair strife. Folk just get into bother for nothing. Men'll ha'e to keep mind that gaffers now-a-days'll no' put up wi' disobedience."
"Ay, but ye maun mind," said Tam Tate hastily, "that men maun be treated as human bein's, even by a gaffer."
"I can aye get on with the gaffer," replied Robertson, "an' I dinna see what way ither folk canna do the same."
"That's a' richt," put in old Jamie Lauder, "but a' men are no' just prepared to do as ye do," and there was a hint of something in his voice which the others seemed to understand.
"I ha'e no quarrel," sulkily replied Robertson, "an' I dinna see what way I should get into this one. I can get plenty o' work, an' ither folk can get it too, if they like to behave themselves."
"Ye're a liar," roared Tam Tate angrily, his usual hasty temper getting the mastery. "It's no' you that gets the work, it's Mag!"
The others laughed uproariously, for it was common knowledge that Sanny got his good jobs because of Walker's intimacy with his wife.
"Ye leave the best man in the house every mornin' when ye gang oot!" roared another amid coarse laughter, whilst Andrew turned to tackle the next comer.
A few refused to wait, but it was generally known that these were the men whose houses were always open to Walker by day or night. When they were all gathered, Andrew Marshall stood up, and for the first time in his life spoke at a meeting.
"Weel, men," he began, "ye a' ken the position o' things. Ye ken as weel as me that I got the sack for gatherin' for Geordie Sinclair. Weel, I ha'e been oot o' work three months; the Block is on against me, an' it seems I ha'e to starve. I canna get work onywhere, an' I stopped ye a' the day to ask ye to make my quarrel yours, an' try and put an end to this business."
That was the whole speech, but its simple sincerity appealed to all, and many expressed approval and determination to stand by Andrew in his fight.
"I think it's a damn'd shame," said old Lauder.
"I'll tell ye what it is," said Matthew Maitland, "it's a downricht barefaced murder, an' I would smash this damn'd cantrip o' Black Jock's. I ken that he'll get a' that is said at this meetin', an' maybe I'll get the same dose; but I think it's aboot time somethin' was done to put an end to his capers," and so Matthew floundered on.
"Ay, an' let us see what can be done for Geordie, too," put in Peter Pegg, and his long neck seemed to get longer at every syllable, while his big eye made a great attempt to wink and to look backward, as if he expected to see someone coming from behind. "We a' ken," continued Peter, "that Geordie is ready for work noo', this fower week syne, but Black Jock says he has no places, an' forby two strangers got jobs just yesterday."
"I ken for yae thing that there's fower places staunin' in Millar's Level," said Jamie Lauder, "an' I'm telt there's five or six staunin' in the Black Horse Dook. It's a' a bit of humbug, an' I think we should try an' put an end to it."
"Weel, I think we're a' agreed on that," said Tam Tate. "Has ony o' you onything to suggest?"
For a few minutes there was silence, while they sat or stood deep in thought, trying to find a solution. It was an eerie gathering, with the gray dawn just beginning to break, while on every head the indispensable lamp burned and flickered. Men expectorated savagely upon the ground, staring hard at the stones at their feet, thinking and wondering how they might serve their comrades.
"It's about time we had a union," said one.
"Ay," replied another, "so that some bigmouthed idiot can pocket the money an' get a guid saft job oot o' it."
"We've had plenty of unions," put in another. "The last yin we started here—ye mind Bob Ritchie gaed aff to America wi' a' the money. It was a fine go for him!"
"Oh, ay, but let us see what can be done wi' this case," said Jamie Lauder. "Hoo' wad it do if we appointed a deputation to gang an' lay the hale thing afore Mr. Rundell?"
Jamie was always listened to with the respect due to his proved good sense, for everyone knew that he was a man who would not intentionally hurt a fellow creature by word or deed.
"I believe it wad be a guid plan," agreed Tam Tate. "He maybe disna ken the hauf that gangs on. What do ye a' think o' it, men?"
This was before the days of limited companies and coal syndicates, and the proprietor of the pits in Lowwood, Mr. Rundell, lived about two miles out of the village. He was not a bad man, as men go; he was fiery and quick-tempered, but had a not ungenerous nature withal, and was usually susceptible to a reasoned statement. Just as they were about to decide on a course of action, Andrew spoke: "I dinna want ony mair o' ye than can be helped to get into bother, so, if ye like, Jamie Lauder—if he's agreeable—could gang wi' me and Geordie Sinclair, and we'll put the hale case afore him an' see what he mak's o't."
This was received with approval, and it was agreed that Andrew, Jamie and Geordie should form the deputation.
But Black Jock soon heard of the decision, and, as usual, acted with alacrity; for, had the men only known it, they had decided on a course which he did not want them to adopt. He visited Jamie Lauder, and told him that the day before Rundell and he had agreed that the places in the Black Horse Dook should be started at once, and that he was angry at the course taken by the men. He believed that Mr. Rundell would also be very angry, and if only Andrew and Geordie had come to him the night before, they could have been working that day. He represented Rundell as being in an explosive mood, and that he was furious at the men taking the idle day, and that he had threatened that if they were not at work next day, he would lock them out. So plausibly did he speak, and so sincere did his concern appear, that Jamie, who was withal a simple man, and aware that the circumstances of his comrades would not admit of a very long fight, began to think it might be as Black Jock had said.
"I think ye'd better ca' a meetin' o' the men, Jamie, and put the hale case afore them. Let them ken that Rundell decided just yesterday to start the places, and that Andra and Geordie can start the morn. I ha'e no ill wull at ony o' the twa o' them, and I'm vexed that things ha'e been as bad as they've been, but I couldna get the boss to start the places, and what could I do? They can a' be back at their work the morn if they like to look at it reasonably. Of course, ye can please yersel'," he went on, "it's a' yin to me; but if Rundell tak's it into his head to ha'e a fight, well—ye ken what it means, an' I wouldna like to ha'e ony strife the noo', for times are very hard for us a'."
Simple and honest as Jamie was, Black Jock's plausibility appealed to him, and he began to think that Walker perhaps was not so bad as he was made to appear. Again, Jamie knew that Rundell was a man of hasty temper and impulsive judgments, and could not brook trouble, and he began to think that perhaps it might be better to hold the meeting as suggested and tell the men what he had heard, and appeal to them to go back to work.
"All right," he said to Walker, "I'll call a meeting to-night and put the case as you have said, and ask them to go back. But mind, you've not to go back on your promise. You'll have to start Andrew and Geordie within twa days, or the men will no' continue to work. Mind, I'm taking a lot on myself to do this, and you'll have to carry out your part and start them."
"I'll fill my part, never fear," was the answer, and there was relief in Walker's voice. "See, there's my hand," he said, extending a big black limb as he spoke, first spitting on his palm to ensure due solemnity. "There's no dryness about that, Jamie. I mean it. I'll start Geordie and Andrew all right. You get the men to go back to work to-morrow, for I'm afraid Rundell will make trouble if you remain idle anither day. Noo' I promise." And Jamie took the extended hand in token of the bargain and returned to summon the meeting, which was duly held, and, as Walker had anticipated, the men were appeased, and returned to work the next day.
Sure enough, within two days Andrew Marshall and Geordie Sinclair were both started to work, and matters went smoothly for a time.
But though they had had a lesson, it did not stop their activities as agitators for the establishment of a union, for they knew that there was no protection for any of them if they remained unorganized.
"Men never were meant to work and live as colliers do," said Geordie, thoughtfully. "Life should be good, and free, and happy, with comfort and enjoyment for all. Look at the birds—they are happy! So are the flowers, or they wouldn't look so pleased. God meant a' men and weemin to be glad, even though they have to work. But hoo' the hell can folk be happy and worship God on two and sixpence a day? It's all wrong, Andrew, an' I'll never believe that men were meant to live as we live."
"That's true, Geordie," agreed Andrew soberly. "I only wish we could get everybody to see it as we see it. There's plenty for a' God's creatures—enough to make everybody happy, an' there need be no ill-will in the world, if only common-sense was applied to things; but I'm damn'd if I can see where even the men can be happy who are making their money oot o' our lives. They're bound to ken surely that what comes from misery can not make happiness for them."
"True, Andrew, true, and we maun just go on working for it. Sometimes I have the feeling that we are on the point of big changes: just as if the folk would awaken up oot o' their ignorance, with love in their hearts, an' make all things right for everybody. A world o' happiness for everybody is worth workin' for. So we maun gang on."
And so they talked of their dreams and felt the better for it.
A YOUNG REBEL
About two years after these events little Robert Sinclair went to school. It was a fine morning in late spring, and Robert trudged the seemingly long road, clasping an elder brother's hand, for the school lay about a mile to the north-west of the village, and that seemed to the boy a very long way.
It was a great experience. Robert's clothes had been well patched, his face had been washed and toweled till it shone, his eyes sparkled with excitement, and his heart beat high; yet he was nervous and awed, wondering what he would find there.
"By crikey," said wee Alec Johnstone to him, "wait till auld Clapper gie's ye a biff or twa wi' his muckle tawse. Do ye ken what he does to mak' them nippy? He burns them a wee bit in the fire, an' then st'eeps them in whusky. An' they're awful sair."
"Oh, but I ken what to do, Rab, if ye want to diddle him," put in another boy. "Just get a horse's hair—a lang yin oot o' its tail—and put it across yer haun', an' it'll cut his tawse in twa, whenever he gie's ye a pammy."
"That's what I'm gaun to do, Jamie," replied another. "I'll get some hairs frae Willie Rogerson. He's gettin' me some frae his father's when he's in the stable the morn, an' ye'll see auld Cabbage-heid's tawse gaun in twa, whenever he gie's me yin." And they all looked admiringly at this little hero who was going to do this wonderful thing so simply.
"I got four yesterday," said another, "an' I wasna' doin' onything. By criffens! it was sair, an' gin I had only had a horse's hair, I'd soon ha'e putten his tawse oot the road."
"I got four yesterday too," said another, "an' a' because I was looking at yon new laddie wha cam to the schule yesterday. By! they were sair. I never heard auld Cabbage-heid till he cam up an' telt me to put oot my haun."
"It's Peter Rundell's his name," chimed in another. "He's the Boss's laddie. My! if you just saw what fine claes he has on. A new suit, an' lang stockings, an' a pair o' fine new buits."
"Ay, an' a white collar too," said another, "an' hundreds o' pooches in his jacket."
"He has a waistcoat wi' three pooches in it—yin for a watch—an' a braw, black, shiny bonnet."
"He had a white hankey too, an' sweeties in yin o' his pooches."
Robert felt a certain amount of resentment as he listened to the description, and he grudged Peter Rundell his new suit for he himself had never known anything of that kind, but had always worn "make-downs" created by his mother's clever fingers out of the discarded clothes of grown-ups.
"Auld Cabbage-heid didna' like me looking at Peter Rundell an' that's the way he gied me four, but I'll get a horse's hair too, an' his tawse 'll soon get wheegh. He's awful cruel, Rab," he said, turning to Robert, "an' ye'd better look oot."
Each and all had some fearful story to tell of the cruelty of the headmaster, and all swore they'd get even with him. These stories filled Robert with a certain fear, for he was an imaginative and sensitive boy. Still he knew there was no escape. He must go to school and go through with it whatever the future might hold for him.
So far he had grown wild and free, and loved the broad wide moor which began even at the end of the row where he lived. It seemed to him that there never had been a time when he did not know that there was a moor there. Nothing in it surprised him, even as a child. Its varied moods were already understood by him, and its silences and its many voices appealed to and were balm to his soul. The great blue hills which fringed it away in the far distance were for him the ends of the world, and if he could go there some day, he would surely look over and find—what? The thought staggered him, and his imagination would not, or could not, construct for him what was at the other side. All day, often, he had lain stretched full length upon the moor, watching the great white clouds sailing past, seeing himself sometimes sitting astride them, proudly surveying, like God, the whole world. At times it was so real that he bounded to his feet when by some misadventure he slipped from the back of the cloud. He listened to the songs of larks, the cries of curlews and lapwings and all the other moorland birds, and became as familiar with each of them as they were with one another.
But this going to school was a break in his freedom, and it stirred him strangely. He felt already that he would rather not go to school. He had always been happy before, and he did not know what lay ahead.
In the schoolroom that morning, Robert was called out by the headmistress to her desk, and while she was jotting down in her register particulars as to his age, etc., it happened that Peter Rundell was also on the floor. Robert looked so wonderingly at the white collar and the shining boots, that Rundell, to fill in the blanks and keep himself cheerful, promptly put out his tongue. Robert, not to be behind in respectfulness, just as promptly put out his, at the same time making a grimace, and immediately they were at it, pummeling each other in hearty glee before the teacher could do anything to prevent them. It was their first fight. The whole class was in immediate uproar and cries of—"Go on, Rob!" and "Good Peter!" were ringing out, as the supporters on either side shouted encouragement. Both went at it and for a couple of minutes defied the efforts of the teacher to separate them; but in response to calls for help, Mr. Clapper, the headmaster, came in, and taking hold of Robert soon had him across his knee, and was giving him a taste of the "tawse" he had heard so much about that morning, and Robert went back to his seat very sore, both physically and mentally, and crying in pain and anger. Thus his first day began at school, and the succeeding months were full of many such incidents.
Life ran along in the ordinary ruts for three or four years, but always Peter and Robert were antagonists. If Rundell happened to get to the top of the class, Robert never rested till he had excelled and displaced him; and then it was Peter's turn to do likewise till he too succeeded.
Robert, when in the mood, was eager and brilliant, and nothing seemed able to stay him. At times, however, he was given to dreaming, and lived through whole days in the classroom quite unconscious of what was going on around him. He worked mechanically, living in a strange world of his own creation, usually waking up to find himself at the foot of the class with Peter smiling at the top.
Often he went hungry, for times were still hard, and the family had increased to six. It was a bitter struggle in which Mrs. Sinclair was engaged to try and feed—let alone clothe—her hungry children. Patient, plodding, and terrible self-sacrifices alone enabled her to accomplish what she did. It was always a question of getting sufficient food rather than aiming at any particular kind. It was quantity rather than quality that was her biggest problem, for the children had sharp appetites and could make a feast of the simplest material. A pot of potatoes, boiled with their "jackets" on, tumbled on to the center of the bare, uncovered table and a little salt placed in small heaps at the exact position where each person sat, a large bowl of butter-milk when it could be got, with a tablespoon for each with which to lift a spoonful of the milk, and thus was set the banquet of the miner's family.
"Mither, Rob's taken twa sups of milk to yae bite o' tattie," little Mary would say.
"Ay, an' what did you do?" Robert would reply. "When you thought naebody was lookin', you took three spoonfu' to yae wee tattie. I was watchin' you."
"Now that'll do," the mother would admonish them. "Try and make it gang as far as ye can. Here you!" she would raise her voice to another, "dinna be so greedy on it. The rest maun get some too." At this the guilty child would frown and look ashamed at being caught taking more than his share.
Robert's dreams, however, were always satisfying, and even the sordid surroundings of the home were gilded by the warmth and glow of his imagination. Some day, somewhere he seemed to feel, there was a place for him to fill in the hearts of men. Vague stirrings told him of great future events which no one could dominate, save the soul that filled his body.
One day, during the dinner hour, when the school children were all at play, Robert and Peter again came into conflict. Some girls were playing at a ring game, and Robert and a few other boys were shamefacedly looking on. He was by this time at the bashful age of ten, and already the sweet, shy face of Mysie Maitland had become familiar in every dream. Mysie's modesty and grace appealed to him and the strange magnetic power of soul for soul was continually drawing them together, even at this early age. No voice was like Mysie's voice, no name like her name to him. If only she chanced shyly to ask if he had a spare piece of pencil Robert was happy; he'd gladly give her his only piece and forthwith proceed to borrow another for himself. He saw that Mysie did certain things, used, for instance, to clean her slate with a bit of rag, and he instantly procured one, and this kept his jacket sleeve clean and whole.
"Choose, choose wha' ye'll tak', Wha' ye'll tak', wha' ye'll tak', Choose, choose wha' ye'll tak', A laddie or a lassie."
So sang the girls, as with hands joined they walked round in a ring, with Mysie, blushing and sweet, standing in the center—a sweet, shy, little rosebud—a joy in a cheap cotton frock.
"Come on, Mysie," urged the girls, who had now come to a standstill with the finish of the song. "Choose an' dinna keep us waiting." But Mysie stood still, her little heart beating at a terrible rate, her breath coming in short, quick gasps, and a soft, glowing light of nervous intensity in her eyes.
"Oh, come on, Mysie Maitland," cried one girl in hurt tones, "choose an' dinna spoil the game."
"Come on," urged another, "the whistle will be blawn the noo."
"She's feart," said one, "an' she disna need, for we a' ken that she wants to choose Bob Sinclair."
Something sang uproariously in Bob's ears at this blunt way of stating what they all felt; a hot wave surged over him, and his whole being seemed to fill with the energy of a giant. He shifted uneasily, his senses all acutely alert to pick up even Mysie's faint gasp of shame, as the hot blood suffused her face. Would she choose him before all these others? He hoped she wouldn't, and he tried to summon a smile to hide his uneasiness. Still Mysie hesitated. She wanted to choose Robert, but if she did, perhaps the other boys and girls would tease them afterwards.
"Oh, come on, Mysie. It's no' fair," cried one of the girls, getting more and more impatient. "Choose an' be done wi' it. It's only a game."
Thus urged Mysie stepped forward, and, excited out of all judgment, her face covered with shame, her heart thumping and galloping, she grabbed the first hand she saw, which happened to be Peter Rundell's, and something seemed to darken the day for all. Robert, now that he had not been chosen, felt murder in his heart. His body felt charged with energy, a flood of passion poured over him and he lost all discretion. He saw only Peter's shining collar, his fine boots and good clothes, and above all the smile, half of shame, half of triumph, upon his face. In passing Peter staggered against Robert, who let drive with his fist, and there was a fight before anyone really knew what had happened.
"What are ye shovin' at? Can ye no' watch folk's toes?" And he was on Peter like a whirlwind. There was the hatred of years between them, and they pummeled each other heartily.
"A fight, boys!" yelled the others. "Here's a fight!" and a crowd rapidly gathered to watch operations, while little Mysie, who had been the cause of it all, shrank back into a quiet corner, the tears running from her eyes and a sore pain at her heart.
"Go on, Bob! Gi'e him a jelly yin," cried Bob's supporters.
"Watch for his nose, Peter," cried those who pinned their faith to the coal-owner's son. Amid a chorus of such encouragement, both boys belabored each other and fought like barbarians.
"Let up, Peter," cried Bob's admirers, "an' gi'e him fair doo," as the two rolled upon the ground, with Peter, who was much the bigger boy, on top. "Come on now, he let you up when you was doon," and so they kept the balance of fair play. But the fight raged on in a terrible fury of battle, sometimes one boy on top, sometimes the other. Bob was the more active of the two, and hardier, and what he lacked in weight he made up in speed. One of Peter's eyes was bruised, while Robert's lip was swelling, and each strained to plant the decisive blow that would end the fight.
"Nae kickin', Peter! Ye're bate," yelled one watchful supporter of Bob, as he noticed the former's booted foot come into violent contact with Bobbie's bare leg.
"Big cowardie!" cried another, as Peter, crying now with rage and vexation, hit out with his foot. "Fight fair an' nae kickin'!"
Bob managed to dodge the kick, and flinging himself in before Peter recovered his balance, planted a heavy blow upon his opponent's nose.
"Ho! a jelly yin! a jelly yin!" roared the crowd in admiration. "Gi'e him anither yin," and even Peter's supporters began to desert him. Bob, thus encouraged, laid about him with all the strengthened "morale" of a conscious victor, finding it comparatively easy now to hit hard—and often. Peter, blinded by tears and choking with passion, could not see, but struck aimlessly, till one resounding smack upon his already injured nose brought the eagerly looked for crimson blood from it, and that of course, in schoolboy etiquette, meant the end of the fight. Peter was now lying upon the ground, his handkerchief at his nose, and roaring like a bull, not so much because of his injured nose, as because of the hurt to his pride and vanity.
"Haud back yer held," advised one boy, "an' put something cauld doon yer back."
Suddenly there was silence, and everyone looked awed and shamefaced as Mr. Clapper, the headmaster, strode into the midst of them. He had heard the noise of the fight, and had stolen up unobserved just in time to see Peter get the knockout blow.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded sternly, his eyes traveling all over the children, till they rested finally on Robert. No one answered, and so he proceeded to question Peter, who had struggled to his feet. Peter, like many other boys in similar circumstances, poured forth a great indictment of his adversary, and Mr. Clapper then turned to Robert.
"What have you to say, Sinclair?" he asked. "Speak out, and give me your side."
But Robert said nothing. His rebellious spirit was roused, and he resented the tone of the headmaster's voice. Again Mr. Clapper tried, but Robert remained silent.
"Come now, tell me what led to the fight? Why were you fighting with Peter?"
Robert would not speak, and Mr. Clapper, being of an explosive temperament, with little tact, was fast losing his temper. He turned to question some of the other boys, finally calling them all into the school, and putting Robert into the teacher's room, so that he might "get to the bottom of it."
Mr. Clapper, whatever good points he may have possessed, was not at all fitted for the teaching profession, for he lacked the sympathy necessary in dealing with children, and he was a rigid believer in the doctrine of punishment.
After a time he came into the room where Robert sat, and began once more to question him. But Robert was still obdurate, and stolidly kept silent. Mr. Clapper recognized at once that this was a clear case of a dour nature in the wrong. It needed correction, and that of a severe kind. That spirit he felt must be broken, or there would be trouble ahead in after years for Robert Sinclair. Mr. Clapper was determined to do his duty, and he believed that Robert in later life would probably feel grateful for this thrashing. He thrashed the boy soundly and severely upon the most sensitive parts of his body, so that the pain would help to break his spirit. He saw no indignity heaped upon a high-spirited, sensitive soul. It was all for the boy's own good, and so the blows fell thick and heavy upon the little back and hips.
Robert bit his lip to repress the roar of pain that wanted to escape. He would not cry, and this was another spur to the efforts of Mr. Clapper. The boy's flesh twitched and quivered at every blow, yet never a cry came from him. It but served to feed his rebellion, and he struggled and fought with fury until completely exhausted.
"There now," declared Mr. Clapper, flinging down the "tawse" upon the table, panting from his exertions and wiping his brow, "I shall leave you for a time until you decide to speak. If you will not speak when I return, I shall thrash you again," and he went out, locking the door, leaving the boy, still proud and unsubdued, but aching in every muscle and bone of his little body.
Left to himself, Robert very nearly cried, but he dashed the gathering tears from his eyes, angry at the weakness, and resolved, as he adjusted his garments, that he would die rather than speak now. He looked round, and seeing the window raised a little from the bottom, sprang to it, a sudden resolve in his heart to run away. Just as he got astride the sill he spied a piece of chalk and the "tawse" on the table, so turning back he put the "tawse" in his pocket, and with the chalk wrote on the table:—
"You are an ould pig and I'll not speak, and you'll never put your hands on your tawse again."
Then he was out of the window, dropped easily to the ground, and was away to the moors. He ran a long way, until finding that he had not been detected, he skirted a small wood, dug a hole in the soft moss, put in the "tawse," and covered them up. There they may be lying to this day, for no one ever learned from him where they were buried.
The spell of the moor took possession of him, and his wounded soul was soon wrapped in the soft folds of its silence. The balm of its peace comforted him, and brought ease and calmed the rebellion in his blood. He was happy, forgetting that there ever had existed a schoolmaster, or anything else unpleasant. Here he was free, and no one ever misunderstood him. He gave pain to no one, and nothing ever hurt him here.
He flung himself down among the rank gray grass and heather, while the moor cock called to his mate in an agony of pleading passion, the lapwing crooned upon a tuft of grass as she prepared a place for her eggs, the whaup wheepled and twirled and cried in eerie alarm, the plover sighed to a low white cloud wandering past; while the snipe and the lark, the "mossie," the heather lintie, and the wandering, sighing winds among the reeds and rushes of the swampy moss, all added their notes to soothe and satisfy the little wounded spirit lying there on the soft moorland. Already he was away upon the wings of fancy in a world of his own—a world full of dreams and joys unspeakable; a world of calm comfort, where there was no pain, no hunger, no unpleasantness; a world of smiles and warm delights and love.
Thus he dreamed as he watched the white clouds trailing their draperies along the sky, till the shadows creeping over the hills, and the cries of the heron returning to his haunts in the moor, woke him to a realization of the fact that the school was long since out, and probably another thrashing awaited him when he got home. Sadly and regretfully he dragged his little aching body from its soft mossy bed, felt that his limbs were still sore, and that he was very, very hungry. Rebellion again surging within him as he remembered all, he trudged home, fearful yet proud, resolved to go through with the inevitable.
BLACK JOCK'S THREAT
That same day Walker intimated to Geordie, when he was at work underground, that a reduction was to be imposed on his ton rate, which meant for Sinclair that it would be more difficult to earn a decent wage. Geordie had always had it in his head to confront Walker about his very unfair treatment of him, and on this occasion he decided to do so.
"What way are you breakin' my rate?" he asked, when Walker told him of the reduction.
"Oh, it's no' me," replied Walker. "It's Rundell. He thinks it can be worked for less than it's takin', and, of course, I've just to do as I am tell'd."
"Weel, I don't ken," said Geordie. "But I've thocht for a lang while back that you had a hand in it. Have I done anything to ye, for I don't ken o' it?"
"Ye've never done me any harm, Geordie," replied Walker with a show of sincerity. "What mak's ye think that?"
"Weel, for a lang time noo', I've ay been kept in hard places, or places wi' nae air, or where there was water to contend wi'. There's ay been something, an' I ha'e come to the conclusion that there's mair design than accident in it."
"I dinna think so," was the reply. "But maybe it's because you're ay agitatin' to have a union started."
"An' what about it," enquired Geordie, getting a bit heated. "If I ha'e been advocatin' the startin' o' a union? It seems to me to be muckle needed."
"Oh, I've nothing to say aboot it," replied Walker. "It's the boss, an' I was merely givin' ye a hint for yer ain guid."
"It's a' richt," exclaimed Geordie, getting still more heated. "I can see as far through a brick wall as you can see through a whin dyke. The boss has naething to do wi' it. It's you, an' I'm quite pleased to get the chance to tell ye to yer face. Ye could, many a time, ha'e given me a better place, if you had cared. But let me tell you, if there was a union here, it would soon put an end to you an' yer damn'd cantraips."
"Very weel. Gang on an' start yin. Man, though ye were a' in a union the morn, I could buy an' sell the majority of them for the promise of a guid place, or a bottle of whisky—Ay, if they jist thocht they were in wi' the gaffer, I'd get all I wanted frae the maist o' them. A clap on the shoulder, a smile, or even a word would do it. The one hauf o' the men can ay be got to sell the ither. Ye daurna' cheep, man, but I hear of it."
"Damn'd fine I ken that," replied Geordie, "an' it's mair the peety. But that's no' to say that men'll ay be like that. If they'd be true an' stick to yin anither, they'd damn'd soon put an end to sic gaffers as you."
"Maybe ye'll be the first to be put an end to," said Walker, rising to leave. "I might ha'e something to say to—"
"You rotten pestilence o' hell," cried Geordie, now fairly roused, and jumping over the coals on the "roadhead" after him. "I'll cleave the rotten heart o' ye if I get my fingers on ye, you an' yer fancy women, yer gamblin' an' yer shebeens!"
But Walker was off; he did not like to hear these matters of his private life mentioned, and so Geordie, left to himself, lit his pipe, and sat down to cool his temper.
A few minutes later Matthew Maitland came round to borrow a shot of powder, and Geordie unburdened his mind to him.
"He's a dirty brute," said Matthew, "an' it's time we had a union started. I hear great stories aboot how Bob Smillie's gettin' on wi' the union that he started doon the west country."
"I ken Bob fine," said Geordie. "He's a fine fellow. I worked next wall to him doon there a while, an' a better chap ye couldna' get."
"I hear that he's gotten as muckle as tippence on the ton to some o' the miners who ha'e joined. I'm gaun to join whenever it can be started."
Geordie agreed that it would be good to have a union, but he knew that whoever led in the matter would very likely have to pay for his courage. There was the "Block" to consider, and he could not see how they might start a union just then in such hard times.
He sat and thought after Matthew had gone away, and was still sitting when Matthew's shot went off. His lot, he knew, was hard. He could not afford to "flit," even though he did find work somewhere else. His six children depended upon his readiness to swallow insult and injustice, and he could see no way but to submit. If only his first boy were ready for work, it would soon make a difference in the house. It was only a few months now till that time would come, and perhaps things might change.
All day he was sullen and angry, and he tore at his work like some imprisoned fiend, a great rebellion in his heart, and a fury of anger consuming him. Everything seemed to go wrong that day, and at last when "knock-off" time came, he felt a little easier, though still silent and angry. His last shot, however, missed fire, just as he was coming away home; and that, added to all the other things that day, made him feel that his whole life was clouded, and was one long trial.
On the way home from the pit he heard the story of Robert's rebellious outburst at school, and when he came into the house his wife saw by his face that something had upset him. She proceeded to get him water to wash himself, and brought in the tub, while he divested himself of his clothes, flinging each garment savagely into the corner, until he stood naked save for his trousers. Most miners are sensitive to the presence of strangers during this operation, and it so happened at that particular time the minister chose to pay one of his rare visits among his flock in the village.
"Wha the hell's this noo?" asked Geordie, when he heard the tap at the door, as he looked up through soapy eyes, his head all lathered with the black suds. "Dammit, they micht let folk get washed," he said angrily.
When he heard the voice of the minister, he plunged his head into the tub, and began splashing and rubbing, and lifting the water over his head.
"Oh, you are busy washing, I see, Mr. Sinclair," observed the minister, looking at the naked collier.
"Ay," said Geordie shortly, "an' I dinna think you'd ha'e thankit me for comin' in on the tap o' you, when you were washin' yerself," he said bluntly—a remark which his wife felt to be a bit ill-natured, though she said nothing.
"Oh, I am sorry," replied the minister. "I did not mean to intrude. I'll not stay, but will call back some other time," and his voice was apologetic and ill at ease.
"I think sae," retorted Geordie, splashing away and spitting the soap from his mouth. "Yer room's mair to my taste than yer company the noo."
"My! that was an awfu' way to talk to the meenister," said Mrs. Sinclair when the door was again closed. "You micht aye try to be civil to folk," and there was resentment in her voice.
"Ach, dammit, wha can be bothered wi' thae kind o' folk yapping roun' about when yer washin' yerself. He micht ken no' to come at this time, when men are comin' hame frae their work," and he went on with his splashing. "Here, gi'e my back a rub," and he lay over the tub while she washed his back from the shoulders downward, making it clean and free from the coal dust and grime. Then she proceeded to dry him all over with a rough towel, after which he put on a clean shirt, and taking off his pit trousers, stepped into the tub and began to wash his lower limbs and make them as clean as the upper part of the body.
"Ach, folk should ha'e a place to wash in anyway," he grumbled, as if to justify his outburst, for secretly he was beginning to feel ashamed of it. "The folk that ha'e the maist need o' a bath are the folk wha never get the chance o' yin," he went on. "Look at that chap wha was in the noo. He never needs to dirty a finger, an' look at the hoose he has to bide in, wi' its fine bathroom an' a' things that he needs. Och, but we are a silly lot o' blockheads!" And so he raved on till he sat down to his frugal dinner of potatoes and buttermilk, after which he relapsed into silence again, and sat reading a newspaper.
It was in this mood that Robert found him when he returned from the moors. Nellie had noticed that something was worrying her husband, and she suspected some fresh trouble at the pit, though she asked no questions.
"Where hae ye been?" asked Geordie very calmly, as Robert entered furtively, and sat down on a chair near to the door. The boy did not answer. He dreaded that calmness. He seemed to feel there was something strong, cruel and relentless behind it. But he had something of his father's nature in him, so he sat in silence.
"What kind o' conduct's this I hear ye've been up to?" was the next question, with the same studied calm, seemingly passionless and pliable. Still no answer from the boy, though when he looked at his father he felt afraid. He turned his eyes appealingly to his mother, but her face betrayed nothing, and a feeling of hopelessness entered Robert's heart. There was nothing else but to go through with it.
"Tak' aff yer claes," quietly commanded the father, and the boy reluctantly began to peel off his scanty garments one by one, till he stood naked on the bare floor. He was glad that no one except the baby was in to see his humiliation, his brothers and sisters being all out at play.
The father rose and went to the corner where his working clothes lay in a heap. Selecting the belt he wore round his waist at his work, he grasped it firmly, and with the other hand took the boy by one arm, saying:—
"Are ye going to answer my question noo', and tell me where ye ha'e been?"
But Robert did not answer, so down came the hard leather belt with a horrible crack across the naked little hips, and a thick red mark appeared where the blow had fallen. A roar of pain broke from the boy's lips, in spite of his resolution not to cry, as lash after lash fell upon his limbs and across the little white back. Horribly, cruelly, relentlessly the belt fell with sickening regularity, while the tender flesh quivered at every blow, and an ugly series of red stripes appeared along the back and down across the sturdy legs.
"Oh, dinna' hit me ony mair, faither," he pleaded at last, the firm resolution breaking because of the pain of the blows. "Oh, dinna hit me!" and he jumped as the blows fell without slackening. "Oh, oh, oh! Mother, dinna' let him hit me ony mair!" roared the boy, while the grim, set face of the parent never relaxed, and the belt continued to lash the quivering flesh.
Mrs. Sinclair, who by this time was crying too, feeling every blow in her mother-heart, began to fear this grim, cruel look on her husband's face. He was mad, she felt, and there was murder in his eyes; and at last, spurred to desperation, she jumped forward, tore at the belt with desperate strength, and flung it into the corner, crying, as she gripped the boy in her arms.
"In the name of Heaven, Geordie, are ye gaun to kill my bairn afore my een?"
She tore the boy fiercely from his father's grasp and shielded him from her husband, exclaiming at the same time with indignation, "Ha'e ye nae humanity aboot ye at a'? Hit me if ye are goin' to hit any more. It's murder, an' I'll no' stand ony longer an' let ye do it."
Geordie, surprised and amazed at her action, and the fierceness in her voice, looked up, and immediately reason seemed to steal back into his mind. A flush of shame overspread his face, and he sat down, burying his face in his hands.
"Wheesht, sonny. Wheesht, my wee man," crooned the mother soothingly, as she began to help Robert to get on his clothes, the tears falling still from her own eyes, as she saw the ugly stripes and bruises upon his back beginning to discolor. "Wheesht, sonny! Dinna' greet ony mair. There noo', my wee son. Daddy's no' weel the nicht," she excused, "an' didna' ken what he was doin'." Then breaking into a louder tone: "I wonder what in Heaven's name puir folk are born for at a'. There noo'. There noo'. Dinna greet, my wee man, an' mither'll gi'e ye yer denner."
Sinclair could stand it no longer, so slipping on his boots and reaching for his cap, he went out, never in all his life feeling more ashamed of himself.
Left to themselves—for all the other children were still out at play—Nellie soon had Robert quietened and sitting at his dinner of cold potatoes and buttermilk. Bit by bit she drew from him the story of the fight at school; divining for herself the reason for Robert's attack upon Peter Rundell, she soon was in possession of the whole story with its termination of revolt against the headmaster and even the confession of what he had written on the table.
"An' what did ye do wi' the tawse, son?" she enquired, her dark eyes showing pride in the revolt of her laddie. She was proud to know that he had sufficient character to stand up to a bully, even though he were a headmaster.
"I buried them in the muir," he replied simply, "but I dinna' want to tell naebody where they are. I'll never gi'e them back."
"Oh, weel, if ye dinna' want to tell me, dinna' do it," she said. "I'll gang with ye to the school the morn, an' I'll see that ye're no' meddled wi'. But, Robin, while I like to see ye staunin' up against what is wrong, I dinna want ye to dae wrang yerself. An' I think ye was in the wrang to strike Peter. He staggered against ye, an' I dinna think he wad try to tramp on yer taes. An' always when ye're in the wrang, own up to it, an' make what amends ye can."
Robin did not reply to this, but she could see that he knew she was right. Before he could say anything she added, "Come awa' noo', if ye ha'e gotten yer denner, son, I think ye should gang awa' to yer bed. Ye'll be the better o' a lang sleep. Dinna' think hard o' yer faither; he's feelin' ashamed o' hittin' ye. There must be something botherin' him, for I dinna' mind o' him ever leatherin' one o' ye like that."
This was true, for Geordie Sinclair was rather a "cannie" man, and had never been given to beating his children before. She felt that something had happened in the pit, and whatever it was it had made her husband angry.
Robert again stripped off his clothes and crept into bed, while his mother seemed to feel every pain once more as she looked upon the soft little body with the ugly black stripes upon it. She placed him under the rough blankets as snugly as possible, telling him to lie well over near to the wall, for there were five of them now who lay abreast, and there was never too much room. He was soon asleep, and Mrs. Sinclair put fresh coals on the fire, and began to tidy up, so as to have everything as cheerful as possible when her husband should return. It was no easy matter to keep a house clean, with only a single apartment, and eight individuals living in it.
The housing conditions in most mining villages of Scotland are an outrage on decency. In Lowwood there were no sanitary conveniences of any kind, and it was a difficult matter for the women folk to keep a tidy house under these circumstances. But it was wonderful, the homeliness and comfort found in those single apartment houses. It was home, and that made it tolerable. In such homes fine men and women were bred and reared, but the credit was due entirely to our womenfolk; for they had the fashioning of the spirit of the homes, and the spirit of the homes is always the spirit of the people.
THE COMING OF A PROPHET
Another year passed, and Robert was now eleven years of age. Though full of hardship, hunger and poverty, yet they were not altogether unhappy years for him. There were joys which he would not have liked to have missed, and in later life he looked back upon them always through a mist of memory that sometimes bordered on tears.
He had grown "in wisdom and stature," and gave promise of being a fine sturdy boy; but lately it had been borne in upon him that no one seemed just to look at things from his point of view. He was alluded to as "a strange laddie," and the gulf of misunderstanding seemed to grow wider every day. Old Granny Frame, the "howdie-wife" of the village, always declared that he would be a great man, but others just took it for granted that he would never see things as they saw them.
He was already too serious for a boy, and his joys were not the joys of other children. Sensitive, and in a measure proudly reserved, he took more and more to the moors and the hills. All day sometimes he roved over them, and at other times he would lie motionless but happy, for the moor always understood. If he were hurt at anything which happened, the moor brought him solace; if he grieved, it gave him relief; and if he were happy, it too rejoiced. He loved it in all moods, and he could not understand how its loving silence was dreaded by others.
His parents now found that their battle, though not much easier, certainly was no worse, and hope shone bright for them in the future. The oldest boy was already at work and one girl was away "in service." Robert, too, would soon be ready, and in quick succession behind him there were three other boys. Geordie Sinclair was often told by his workmates that he would "soon ha'e naethin' to do but put in wicks in the pit lamps." But Geordie merely smiled. How often before had he heard that said of others who had families like his own and he knew that he would never see them all working. Fifty years was a long time to live for a collier in those days of badly ventilated and poorly inspected pits and many men were in their graves at forty.
Walker still indulged in petty persecution, whilst Geordie agitated for the starting of a union, and many a battle the two had, until the enmity between them developed into keen hatred.
"I wonder what Black Jock really has against me," he had said over and over again, unable to understand his persistent hostility, but his wife had never dared tell him.
One night, however, after he had been out of work a week, because, as Black Jock had said, "there was nae places," she decided to tell him the real reason of Walker's antipathy.
"Man, it's no' you, Geordie, that Black Jock has the ill will at," she ventured to say, "it's me, an' he hits me an' the bairns through you."
"You," said Geordie in some surprise, "hoo' can that be?"
Bit by bit, though with great reluctance, she told her husband how and when Black Jock had attempted to degrade her. When she had ended, he sat in grim silence, while the ticking of the clock seemed to have gained in loudness, and so, too, the purring of the cat, as it rubbed itself against his leg, first on one side and then the other, drawing its sleek, furry side along his ankle, turning back again, and occasionally looking up into his face for the recognition which it vainly tried to win.
The fire burned low in the grate as Nellie busied herself with washing the dishes; while outside the loud cries of the children, playing on the green, mingled occasionally with a clink, as the steel quoits fell upon each other, telling of some enthusiastic players, who were practicing for the local games. Loud cries of encouragement broke from the supporters, and Geordie and Nellie heard all these—even the plaintive wail of a child crying in a house a few doors farther up the "row," and the mother's attempts to soothe it into forgetfulness of its temporary pain or disappointment.
The little apartment seemed to have become suddenly cheerless. Nellie felt the silence most oppressive, for she was wondering how he was taking it all. Soon, however, he rose and reached for his cap. Looking at his wife with eyes that set all her fears at rest—for she saw pride in them, pride in her and the way she had acted—he said:—
"Thank ye, Nellie; ye are a' the woman I always thocht ye was, an' I'll see that nae dirty brute ever again gets the chance to insult ye," and he was out of the door before she could question him further.
Geordie went straight to where Walker lived and knocked at the door. A girl of fourteen came in answer to his knock, for Walker was a widower, his wife having died shortly after the birth of their only child.
"Is yer faither in?" enquired Geordie quietly, hardly able to control the raging anger in his heart.
"No, he's no' in," replied the girl. "Oh, is that you, Geordie?" she asked, recognizing him in the darkness. "My father said when he went oot that if ye cam' to the door, I was to tell ye he had nae places yet."
"That's a' richt," said Geordie, still very quietly. "Do ye ken onything aboot where he is this nicht?"
"No, unless he's up in Sanny Robertson's, or maybe in Peter Fleming's."
"Thank ye," said Geordie, turning away, "I'll go up an' see if he is there."
He knew that Peter Fleming was working that night, and had stopped on an extra shift to repair a road, by special instructions from Walker; so Geordie went direct to Fleming's house and knocked at the door. After an interval a woman's voice enquired, "Wha's that?" and Geordie thought there was anxiety in it.
"Open the door," said Geordie quietly. "What the hell are ye afert for?" and the woman, thinking it was her husband returned from work, immediately opened the door.
"You're shairly early," she said; then suddenly recognizing who the intruder was, she tried to shut the door.
"Na, na," said Geordie, now well in the doorway, "I want to see Black Jock."
"He's no' here," she lied readily enough, but with some agitation in her voice.
"You're a liar, Jean," replied Geordie, "that's him gaun oot at the room door," and Geordie withdrew hurriedly, determined that Black Jock should not escape him. He hurried to the end of the "row," and waited with all the passion of long years raging through his whole being. He stepped out as Walker advanced, and said: "Is that you, Walker?"
"Ay," came the answer, "what do ye want?" as he came to a halt.
"Just a meenit," said Geordie, placing himself in front of Walker, barring his way. "I want to warm yer dirty hide. It ought to have been done years ago, but I never kent till the nicht, and I'm gaun to dae it the noo," and the tones of his voice indicated that he meant what he said.
"Oh! What's wrang?" asked Walker in affected surprise. "I'll get ye a place," he went on hurriedly, "just as soon as I can—in fac' there's yin that'll be ready by the morn."
"I'm no gi'ein' a damn for yer place. It's you I'm efter the nicht. Come on, face up," and Sinclair squared himself for battle.
Thus challenged, Walker, who was like all bullies a coward at heart, tried to temporize, but Sinclair was in no mood for delay.
"Come on, pit them up, or I'll break yer jaw for you," he said threateningly.
"Man, Geordie, what ails ye the nicht?" asked Walker in hurried alarm, wondering wildly how he could stave off the chastisement which he knew from Geordie's voice he might expect. "Talk sensibly, man. Try an' ha'e some sense. What's the matter wi' ye?"
"Matter," echoed Geordie, "jist this. The wife has jist telt me a' aboot the nicht ye cam' chappin' to the door when I was lyin' hurt. She kent I'd break yer neck for it, and she was feart to tell me. So put up yer fists, ye black-hearted brute that ye are. I'm gaun to gi'e ye what we should hae gotten seven years syne, an' it'll maybe put ye frae preyin' on decent women. Come on."
"Awa', man, Geordie, an' behave yersel'," began Walker, trying to evade him.
"Tak' that, then, ye dirty brute!" and Geordie smashed his fist straight between Walker's eyes.
Roused at last, Walker showed fight and swung at Sinclair. He was the younger man by about two years, and had not had the hard work and bad conditions of the other, but Sinclair was a strong man, and was now roused to a great pitch, so he struck out with terrific force. Then the two closed and swayed about, struggling, cursing and punching each other with brutal might. Sinclair's extra weight and more powerful build soon began to tell, and he was able to send home one or two heavy blows on Black Jock's face and body. Panting and blowing, they separated, and as they did so, Sinclair caught his opponent a straight hard crash on the jaw that sent him rolling to the muddy road, and feeling as if a thousand fists had struck him all at once.
Walker lay for a short time, then gathering himself together, he rose to his feet and set off at a quick pace in the direction of his house, whilst Geordie, too, turned homewards, feeling that it was useless to follow him.
Mrs. Sinclair did not hear what had happened till a week later, when Geordie, being in a communicative mood, told her of the affair in simple, unaffected terms.
Shortly afterwards a great event happened in Lowwood, which made the deepest impression on Robert's mind. His father still being out of work, had sent a letter to Robert Smillie, who was then beginning to be heard of more and more in mining circles. In the letter Geordie explained, to the best of his ability, the local circumstances, and he mentioned his own case of persecution, and his agitation for the starting of a union. Smillie sent word in reply that he would come in two days, and Geordie enthusiastically set to work to organize a meeting, going round every house in the district, telling the folks that Smillie was coming, and exhorting them to turn out and hear him.
"I dinna think it'll do any guid," said old Tam Smith, when Geordie called upon him. "It's a' richt talkin' about a union, but the mair ye fecht the mair ye're oppressed. The bosses ha'e the siller, an' they can ay buy the brains to serve them."
Geordie made no reply, for he knew from experience that it was only too true.
"Just look at young Jamie Soutar," continued Tam. "He is yin o' the cleverest men i' the country. He wrocht wi' me as a laddie when he went into the pit, an' noo' he's travelin' manager for that big company doon the west country, an' I'm telt he's organizin' an' advocatin' the formin' o' what he calls a Coal Combine."
"That's a' richt, Tam. I admit it a', though I dinna jist ken what a Coal Combine means; but I ken that Bob Smillie is makin' great wark wi' the union he has formed. I ken he has gotten rises in wages for a' the men who ha'e joined, an' that he is advocatin' an eight hours day. If that can be done doon there, it can be done here; for there's naebody has ony mair need o' a eight hours day than miners."
"Oh, I'll turn oot a' richt at the meetin'," said Tam, who was always credited with seeing farther than most of his workmates, "an' I'll join the union, too, if it's formed; but ye'll see if ye live lang enough that the union'll no' be a' ye think it. The ither side will organize to bate ye every time." And with this encouraging prophecy, Geordie went on to the next house.
"No, I'm no' comin' to nae meetin'. I want naethin' to dae wi' yer unions. I can get on weel enough without them," curtly said Dan Sellars, the inmate. He was what Geordie somewhat expressively called a "belly-crawler," a talebearer, and one who drank and gambled along with Walker, Fleming, Robertson and a few others.
"Man, it'll no' do muckle guid," said another, "ye mind hoo' big Geordie Ritchie ran awa' wi' the money o' the last union we started? It'll gi'e a wheen bigmouths a guid job and an easy time. That's a' it will do."
"Oh, ay," answered Sinclair, "but that's no' to say that the union'll ay fail. Folks are no' a' Geordie Ritchies, an' they're no' a' bigmouths either. We're bound to succeed if we care to be solid thegither."
"I'll come to the meetin', Geordie, although I was sayin' that, but I'll no' promise to join yer union," was the answer, and Sinclair had to be content with that.
Thus went Geordie from house to house, meeting with much discouragement, and even downright opposition, but he was always good-humored, and so he seldom failed to extract a promise to attend the meeting.
The night of the meeting arrived, and the hall—an old, badly lit and ill-ventilated wooden erection—was packed to its utmost. There were eager faces, and dull, listless ones among the audience; there were eyes glad with expectancy, and eyes dulled with long years of privations and brutal labor; limbs young and supple and full of energy, and limbs stiff and sore, crooked and maimed.