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Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848)

Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XV


What thoughtful heart can look into this gulf
That darkly yawns 'twixt rich and poor,
And not find food for saddest meditation!
Can see, without a pang of keenest grief,
Them fiercely battling (like some natural foes)
Whom God hath made, with help and sympathy,
To stand as brothers, side by side, united!
Where is the wisdom that shall bridge this gulf,
And bind them once again in trust and love?

We must return to John Barton. Poor John! He never got over his disappointing journey to London. The deep mortification he then experienced (with, perhaps, as little selfishness for its cause as mortification ever bad) was of no temporary nature; indeed few of his feelings were.

Then came a long period of bodily privation; of daily hunger after food; and though he tried to persuade himself he could bear want himself with stoical indifference, and did care about it as little as most men, yet the body took its revenge for its uneasy feelings. The mind became soured and morose, and lost much of its equipoise. It was no longer elastic, as in the days of youth, or in times of comparative happiness; it ceased to hope. And it is hard to live on when one can no longer hope.

The same state of feeling which John Barton entertained, if belonging to one who had had leisure to think of such things, and physicians to give names to them would have been called monomania; so hau nting, so incessant, were the thoughts that pressed upon him. I have somewhere read a forcibly described punishment among the Italians, worthy of a Borgia. The supposed or real criminal was shut up in a room, supplied with every convenience and luxury; and at first mourned little over his imprisonment. But day by day he became aware that the space between the walls of his apartment was narrowing, and then he understood the end. Those painted walls would come into hideous nearness, and at last crush the life out of him.

And so day by day, nearer and nearer, came the diseased thoughts of John Barton. They excluded the light of heaven, the cheering sounds of earth. They were preparing his death.

It is true much of their morbid power might be ascribed to the use of opium. But before you blame too harshly this use, or rather abuse, try a hopeless life, with daily cravings of the body for food. Try, not alone being without hope yourself, but seeing all around you reduced to the same despair, arising from the same circumstances; all around you telling (though they use no words or language), by their looks and feeble actions, that they are suffering and sinking under the pressure of want. Would you not be glad to forget life, and its burdens? And opium gives forgetfulness for a time.

It is true they who thus purchase it pay dearly for their oblivion; but can you expect the uneducated to count the cost of their whistle? Poor wretches! They pay a heavy price. Days of oppressive weariness and languor, whose realities have the feeble sickliness of dreams; nights, whose dreams are fierce realities of agony; sinking health, tottering frames, incipient madness, and worse, the consciousness of incipient madness; this is the price of their whistle. But have you taught them the science of consequences?

John Barton's overpowering thought, which was to work out his fate on earth, was rich and poor; why are they so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all? It is not His will that their interests ar e so far apart. Whose doing is it?

And so on into the problems and mysteries of life, until, bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering, the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other.

But what availed his sympathy? No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgement, but it was a widely erring judgement.

The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?

John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist; all that is commonly called wild and visionary. Aye! but being visionary is something. It shows a soul, a being not altogether sensual; a creature who looks forward for others, if not for himself.

And with all his weakness he had a sort of practical power, which made him useful to the bodies of men to whom he belonged. He had a ready kind of rough Lancashire eloquence, arising out of the fulness of his heart, which was very stirring to men similarly circumstanced, who liked to hear their feelings put into words. He had a pretty clear head at times, for method and arrangement; a necessary talent to large combinations of men. And what perhaps more than all made him relied upon and valued, was the consciousness which every one who came in contact with him felt, that he was actuated by no selfish motives; that his class, his order, was what he stood by, not the rights of his own paltry self. For even in great and noble men, as soon as self comes into prominent existence, it beco mes a mean and paltry thing.

A little time before this, there had come one of those occasions for deliberation among the employed, which deeply interested John Barton, and the discussions concerning which bad caused his frequent absence from home of late.

I am not sure if I can express myself in the technical terms of either masters or workmen, but I will try simply to state the case on which the latter deliberated.

An order for coarse goods came in from a new foreign market. It was a large order, giving employment to all the mills engaged in that species of manufacture; but it was necessary to execute it speedily, and at as low prices as possible, as the masters had reason to believe that a duplicate order had been sent to one of the continental manufacturing towns, where there were no restrictions on food, no taxes on building or machinery, and where consequently they dreaded that the goods could be made at a much lower price than they could afford them for; and that, by so acting and charging, the rival manufacturers would obtain undivided possession of the market. It was clearly their interest to buy cotton as cheaply, and to beat down wages as low as possible. And in the long run the interests of the workmen would have been thereby benefited. Distrust each other as they may, the employers and the employed must rise or fall together. There may be some difference as to chronology, none as to fact.

But the masters did not choose to make all these facts known. They stood upon being the masters, and that they had a right to order work at their own prices, and they believed that in the present depression of trade, and unemployment of hands, there would be no difficulty in getting it done.

Now let us turn to the workmen's view of the question. The masters (of the tottering foundation of whose prosperity they were ignorant) seemed doing well, and, like gentlemen, "lived at home in ease," while they were starving, gasping on from day to day; and there was a foreign order to be executed, the extent o f which, large as it was, was greatly exaggerated; and it was to be done speedily. Why were the masters offering such low wages under these circumstances? Shame upon them! It was taking advantage of their workpeople being almost starved; but they would starve entirely rather than come into such terms. It was bad enough to be poor, while by the labour of their thin hands, the sweat of their brows, the masters were made rich; but they would not be utterly ground down to dust. No! they would fold their hands and sit idle, and smile at the masters, whom even in death they could baffle. With Spartan endurance they determined to let the employers know their power, by refusing to work.

So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continenta l manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester.

Of course it was succeeded by the usual consequences. Many other Trades' Unions, connected with different branches of business, supported with money, countenance, and encouragement of every kind, the stand which the Manchester power-loom weavers were making against their masters. Delegates from Glasgow, from Nottingham, and other towns, were sent to Manchester, to keep up the spirit of resistance; a committee was formed, and all the requisite officers elected; chairman, treasurer, honorary secretary: -- among them was John Barton.

The masters, meanwhile, took their measures. They placarded the walls with advertisements for power-loom weavers. The workmen replied by a placard in still larger letters, stating their grievances. The masters met daily in town, to mourn over the time (so fast slipping away) for the fulfilment of the foreign orders; and to strengthen each o ther in their resolution not to yield. If they gave up now, they might give up always. It would never do. And amongst the most energetic of the masters, the Carsons, father and son, took their places. It is well known, that there is no religionist so zealous as a convert; no masters so stern, and regardless of the interests of their workpeople, as those who have risen from such a station themselves. This would account for the elder Mr Carson's determination not to be bullied into yielding; not even to be bullied into giving reasons for acting as the masters did. It was the employers' will, and that should be enough for the employed. Harry Carson did not trouble himself much about the grounds for his conduct. He liked the excitement of the affair. He liked the attitude of resistance. He was brave, and he liked the idea of personal danger, with which some of the more cautious tried to intimidate the violent among the masters.

Meanwhile, the power-loom weavers living in the more remote parts of Lancash ire, and the neighbouring counties, heard of the masters' advertisements for workmen; and in their solitary dwellings grew weary of starvation, and resolved to come to Manchester. Foot-sore, way-worn, half-starved looking men they were, as they tried to steal into town in the early dawn, before people were astir, or in the dusk of the evening. And now began the real wrong-doing of the Trades' Unions. As to their decision to work, or not, at such a particular rate of wages, that was either wise or unwise; all error of judgement at the worst. But they had no right to tyrannize over others, and tie them down to their own Procrustean bed. Abhorring what they considered oppression in the masters, why did they oppress others? Because, when men get excited, they know not what they do. Judge, then, with something of the mercy of the Holy One, whom we all love.

In spite of policemen, set to watch over the safety of the poor country weavers -- in spite of magistrates, and prisons, and severe punishments -- the poor depressed men tramping in from Burnley, Padiham, and other places, to work at the condemned "Starvation Prices," were waylaid, and beaten, and left almost for dead by the road-side. The police broke up every lounging knot of men: -- they separated quietly, to reunite half-a-mile further out of town.

Of course the feeling between the masters and workmen did not improve under these circumstances.

Combination is au awful power. It is like the equally mighty agency of steam; capable of almost unlimited good or evil. But to obtain a blessing on its labours, it must work under the direction of a high and intelligent will; incapable of being misled by passion or excitement. The will of the operatives had not been guided to the calmness of wisdom.

So much for generalities. Let us now return to individuals.

A note, respectfully worded, although its tone of determination was strong, had been sent by the power-loom weavers, requesting that a "deputation" of them might have a meeting with the masters, to stat e the conditions they must have fulfilled before they would end the turn-out. They thought they had attained a sufficiently commanding position to dictate. John Barton was appointed one of the deputation.

The masters agreed to this meeting, being anxious to end the strife, although undetermined among themselves how far they should yield, or whether they should yield at all. Some of the old, whose experience had taught them sympathy, were for concession. Others, white-headed men too, bad only learnt hardness and obstinacy. from the days of the years of their lives, and sneered at the more gentle and yielding. The younger men were one and all for an unflinching resistance to claims urged with so much violence. Of this party Harry Carson was the leader.

But like all energetic people, the more he had to do the more time he seemed to find. With all his letter-writing, his calling, his being present at the New Bailey when investigations of any case of violence against knob-sticks was going on, he beset Mary more than ever. She was weary of her life for him. From blandishments he had even gone to threats -- threats that whether she would or not she should be his; be showed an indifference that was almost insulting to everything which might attract attention and injure her character.

And still she never saw Jem. She knew he had returned home. She heard of him occasionally through his cousin, who roved gaily from house to house, finding and making friends everywhere. But she never saw him. What was she to think? Had be given her up? Were a few hasty words, spoken in a moment of irritation, to stamp her lot through life? At times she thought that she could bear this meekly, happy in her own constant power of loving. For of change or of forgetfulness she did not dream. Then at other times her state of impatience was such, that it required all her self-restraint to prevent her from going and seeking him out, and (as man would do to man, or woman to woman) begging him to forgive her hasty words, and allow her to retract them, and bidding him accept of the love that was filling her whole heart. She wished Margaret had not advised her against such a manner of proceeding; she believed it was her friend's words that seemed to make such a simple action impossible, in spite of all the internal urgings. But a friend's advice is only thus powerful, when it puts into language the secret oracle of our souls. It was the whisperings of her womanly nature that caused her to shrink from any unmaidenly action, not Margaret's counsel.

All this time, this ten days or so, of Will's visit to Manchester, there was something going on which interested Mary even now, and which, in former times, would have exceedingly amused and excited her. She saw as clearly as if told in words, that the merry, random, boisterous sailor had fallen deeply in love with the quiet, prim, somewhat plain Margaret: she doubted if Margaret was aware of it, and yet, as she watched more closely, she began to think some instinct made the blind girl fee l whose eyes were so often fixed upon her pale face; that some inner feeling made the delicate and becoming rose-flush steal over her countenance. She did not speak so decidedly as before; there was a hesitation ill her manner, that seemed to make her very attractive; as if something softer, more loveable than excellent sense, were coming in as a motive for speech; her eyes had always been soft, and were in no ways disfigured by her blindness, and now seemed to have a new charm, as they quivered under their white downcast lids. She must be conscious, thought Mary -- heart answering to heart.

Will's love had no blushings, no downcast eyes, no weighing of words; it was as open and undisguised as his nature; yet he seemed afraid of the answer its acknowledgment might meet with. It was Margaret's angelic voice that had entranced him, and which made him think of her as a being of some other sphere, that he feared to woo. So he tried to propitiate Job in all manner of ways. He went over to Liverpool to rummag e in his great sea-chest for the flying-fish (no very odorous resent, by the way). He hesitated over a child's caul for some time, which was, in his eyes, a far greater treasure than any Exocetus. What use could it be of to a landsman? Then Margaret's voice rang in his ears: and he determined to sacrifice it, his most precious possession, to one whom she loved as she did her grandfather.

It was rather a relief to him, when having put it and the flying-fish together in a brown paper parcel, and sat upon them for security all the way in the railroad, he found that Job was so indifferent to the precious caul, that he might easily claim it again. He hung about Margaret, till he had received many warnings and reproaches from his conscience in behalf of his dear aunt Alice's claims upon his time. He went away, and then he bethought him of some other little word with Job. And he turned back, and stood talking once more in Margaret's presence, door in hand, only waiting for some little speech of encouragement to come in and sit down again. But as the invitation was not given, he was forced to leave at last, and go and do his duty.

Four days had Jem Wilson watched for Mr. Harry Carson without success; his hours of going and returning to his home were so irregular, owing to the meetings and consultations among the masters, which were rendered necessary by the turn-out. On the fifth, without any purpose on Jem's part, they met.

It was the workman's dinner hour, the interval between twelve and one; when the streets of Manchester are comparatively quiet, for a few shopping ladies, and lounging gentlemen, count for nothing in that busy, bustling, living place. Jem had been on an errand for his master, instead of returning to his dinner; and in passing along a lane, a road (called, in compliment to the intentions of some future builder, a street), he encountered Harry Carson, the only person, as far as he saw, beside himself, treading the unfrequented path. Along one side ran a high broad fence, blackened over b y coal-tar, and spiked and stuck with pointed nails at the top, to prevent any one from climbing over into the garden beyond. By this fence was the footpath. The carriage-road was such as no carriage, no, not even a cart, could possibly have passed along, without Hercules to assist in lifting it out of the deep clay ruts. On the other side of the way was a dead brick wall; and a field after that, where there was a sawpit, and joiner's shed.

Jem's heart beat violently, when he saw the gay, handsome young man approaching, with a light buoyant step. This, then, was he whom Mary loved. It was, perhaps, no wonder; for he seemed to the poor smith so elegant, so well appointed, that he felt the superiority in externals, strangely and painfully, for an instant. Then something uprose within him, and told him, that "a man's a man for a' that, for a' that, and twice as much as a' that." And be no longer felt troubled by the outward appearance of his rival.

Harry Carson came on, lightly bounding over the dirty places with almost a lad's buoyancy. To his surprise the dark, sturdy-looking artisan stopped him, by saying respectfully,

"May I speak a word wi' you, sir?"

"Certain, my good man," looking his astonishment; then finding that the promised speech did not come very quickly, he added, "But make haste, for I'm in a hurry."

Jem had cast about for some less abrupt way of broaching the subject uppermost in his mind than he now found himself obliged to use. With a husky voice that trembled as he spoke, he said,

"I think, sir, yo're keeping company wi' a young woman called Mary Barton

A light broke in upon Henry Carson's mind, and he paused before he gave the answer for which the other waited.

Could this man be a lover of Mary's? And (strange stinging thought) could be be beloved by her, and so have caused her obstinate rejection of himself? He looked at Jem from bead to foot, a black, grimy mechanic, in dirty fustian clothes, strongly built, and awkward (according to the dancing master); then he glanc ed at himself, and recalled the reflection he had so lately quitted in his bedroom. It was impossible. No woman with eyes could choose the one when the other wooed. It was Hyperion to a Satyr. That quotation came aptly; he forgot, "The man's a man for a' that." And yet here was a clue, which he had often wanted, to her changed conduct towards him. If she loved this man. If -- he hated the fellow, and longed to strike him. He would know all.

"Mary Barton! let me see. Aye, that is the name of the girl. An arrant flirt the little hussy is; but very pretty. Aye, Mary Barton is her name."

Jem bit his lips. Was it then so; that Mary was a flirt; the giddy creature of whom he spoke? He would not believe it, and yet bow he wished the suggestive words unspoken. That thought must keep now, though Even if she were, the more reason for there being some one to protect her; poor faulty darling.

"She's a good girl, sir, though maybe a bit set up with her beauty; but she's her father's only child, sir, and --" he stopped; he did not like to express suspicion, and yet he was determined he would be certain there was ground for none. What should he say.

"Well, my fine fellow, and what have I to do with that! It's but loss of my time, and yours, too, if you've only stopped me to tell me Mary Barton is very pretty; I know that well enough."

He seemed as though he would have gone on, but Jem put his black, working, right hand upon his arm to detain him. The haughty young man shook it off, and with his glove pretended to brush away the sooty contamination that might be left upon his light greatcoat sleeve. The little action aroused Jem.

"I will tell you, in plain words, what I have got to say to you, young man. It's been telled me by one as knows, and has seen, that you walk with this same Mary Barton, and are known to be courting her; and her as spoke to me about it, thinks as how Mary loves you. That may be, or may not. But I'm an old friend of hers and her father's; and I just wished to know if you m ean to marry the girl. Spite of what you said of her lightness, I ha' known her on enough to be sure she'll make a noble wife for any one let him be what he may; and I mean to stand by her like a brother; and if you mean rightly, you'll not think the worse on me for what I've now said; and if -- but no, I'll not say what I'll do to the man who wrongs a hair of her head. He shall rue it to the longest day he lives, that's all. Now, sir, what I ask of you is this. If you mean fair and honourable by her, well and good; but if not, for your own sake as well as hers, leave her alone, and never speak to her more." Jem's voice quivered with the earnestness with which he spoke, and he eagerly waited for some answer.

Harry Carson, meanwhile, instead of attending very particularly to the purpose the man had in addressing him, was trying to gather from his speech what was the real state of the case. He succeeded so far as to comprehend that Jem inclined to believe that Mary loved his rival; and consequently, that if the speaker were attached to her himself, he was not a favoured admirer. The idea came into Mr Carson's mind, that perhaps, after all, Mary loved him in spite of her frequent and obstinate rejections; and that she had employed this person (whoever he was) to bully him into marrying her. He resolved to try and ascertain more correctly the man's relation to her. Either be was a lover, and if so, not a favoured one (in which case Mr Carson could not at all understand the man's motives for interesting himself in securing her marriage); or he was a friend, an accomplice, whom she had employed to bully him. So little faith in goodness have the mean and selfish!

"Before I make you into my confidant, my good man," said Mr Carson, in a contemptuous tone, "I think it might be as well to inquire your right to meddle with our affairs. Neither Mary nor I, as I conceive, called you in as a mediator." He paused; he wanted a distinct answer to this last supposition. None came; so he began to imagine he was to be threatened into some engagement, and his angry spirit rose.

"And so, my fine fellow, you will have the kindness to leave us to ourselves, and not to meddle with what does not concern you. If you were a brother or father of hers, the case might have been different. As it is, I can only consider you an impertinent meddler."

Again he would have passed on, but Jem stood in a determined way before him, saying,

"You say if I had been her brother, or her father, you'd have answered me what I ask. Now, neither father nor brother could love her as I have loved her -- aye, and as I love her still; if love gives a right to satisfaction, it's next to impossible any one breathing can come up to my right. Now, sir, tell me! do you mean fair by Mary or not? I've proved my claim to know, and, by G--, I will know."

"Come, come, no impudence," replied Mr Carson, who, having discovered what he wanted to know ( namely, that Jem was a lover of Mary's, and that she was not encouraging his suit), wished to pass on.

"Father, brother, or rejected lover" (with an emphasis on the word rejected), "no one has a right to interfere between my little girl and me. No oneshall. Confound you, man! get out of my way, or I'll make you," as Jem still obstructed his path with dogged determination.

"I won't then, till you've given me your word about Mary," replied the mechanic, grinding his words out between his teeth, and the livid paleness of the anger he could no longer keep down covering his face till he looked ghastly.

"Won't you?" (with a taunting laugh), "then I'll make you." The young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke. An instant afterwards he lay stretched in the muddy road, Jem standing over him, panting with rage. What he would have done next in his moment of ungovernable passion, no one knows; but a police man from the main street, into which this road led, had been sauntering about for some time, unobserved by either of the parties, and expecting some kind of co nclusion like the present to the violent discussion going on between the two young men. In a minute he had pinioned Jem, who sullenly yielded to the surprise.

Mr Carson was on his feet directly, his face glowing with rage or shame.

"Shall I take him to the lock-ups for assault, sir?" said the policeman.

"No, no," exclaimed Mr Carson; "I struck him first. It was no assault on his side; though," he continued, hissing out his words to Jem, who even bated freedom procured for him, however justly, at the intervention of his rival, "I will never forgive or forget your insult. Trust me," he gasped the words in excess of passion, "Mary shall fare no better for your insolent interference." He laughed, as if with the consciousness of power.

Jem replied with equal excitement --

"And if you dare to injure her in the least, I will await you where no policeman can step in between. And God shall judge between us two."

The policeman now interfered with persuasions and warnings. He locked his arm in Jem's t o lead him away in an opposite direction to that in which he saw Mr Carson was going. Jem submitted, gloomily, for a few steps, then wrenched himself free. The policeman shouted after him.

"Take care, my man! there's no girl on earth worth what you'll be bringing on yourself, if you don't mind."

But Jem was out of hearing.