Sybil/Book 6/Chapter 7

During the strike in Lancashire the people had never plundered, except a few provision shops, chiefly rifled by boys, and their acts of violence had been confined to those with whom they were engaged in what on the whole might be described as fair contest. They solicited sustenance often in great numbers, but even then their language was mild and respectful, and they were easily satisfied and always grateful. A body of two thousand persons, for example—the writer speaks of circumstances within his own experience— quitted one morning a manufacturing town in Lancashire, when the strike had continued for some time and began to be severely felt, and made a visit to a neighbouring squire of high degree. They entered his park in order—men, women, and children—and then seating themselves in the immediate vicinity of the mansion, they sent a deputation to announce that they were starving and to entreat relief. In the instance in question, the lord of the domain was absent in the fulfilment of those public duties which the disturbed state of the country devolved on him. His wife, who had a spirit equal to the occasion, notwithstanding the presence of her young children who might well have aggravated feminine fears, received the deputation herself; told them that of course she was unprepared to feed so many, but that, if they promised to maintain order and conduct themselves with decorum, she would take measures to satisfy their need. They gave their pledge and remained tranquilly encamped while preparations were making to satisfy them. Carts were sent to a neighbouring town for provisions; the gamekeepers killed what they could, and in a few hours the multitude were fed without the slightest disturbance, or the least breach of their self-organised discipline. When all was over, the deputation waited again on the lady to express to her their gratitude, and the gardens of this house being of celebrity in the neighbourhood, they requested permission that the people might be allowed to walk through them, pledging themselves that no flower should be plucked and no fruit touched. The permission was granted: the multitude in order, each file under a chief and each commander of the files obedient to a superior officer, then made a progress through the beautiful gardens of their beautiful hostess. They even passed through the forcing houses and vineries. Not a border was trampled on, not a grape plucked; and when they quitted the domain, they gave three cheers for the fair castellan.

The Hell-cats and their following were of a different temper to these gentle Lancashire insurgents. They destroyed and ravaged; sacked and gutted houses; plundered cellars; proscribed bakers as enemies of the people; sequestrated the universal stores of all truck and tommy shops; burst open doors, broke windows, destroyed the gas works, that the towns at night might be in darkness; took union workhouses by storm, burned rate-books in the market-place, and ordered public distribution of loaves of bread and flitches of bacon to a mob—cheering and laughing amid flames and rapine. In short they robbed and rioted; the police could make no head against them; there was no military force; the whole district was in their possession: and hearing that a battalion of the Coldstreams were coming down by a train, the Bishop ordered all railroads to be destroyed, and if the Hell-cats had not been too drunk to do his bidding and he too tipsy to repeat it, it is probable that a great destruction of these public ways might have taken place.

Does the reader remember Diggs' tommy shop? And Master Joseph? Well a terrible scene took place there. The Wodgate girl, with a back like a grasshopper, of the Baptist school religion, who had married Tummas, once a pupil of the Bishop and still his fervent follower, although he had cut open his pupil's head, was the daughter of a man who had worked many years in Diggs' field, had suffered much under his intolerable yoke, and at the present moment was deep in his awful ledger. She had heard from her first years of the oppression of Diggs and had impressed it on her husband, who was intolerant of any tyranny except at Wodgate. Tummas and his wife, and a few chosen friends, therefore went out one morning to settle the tommy-book of her father with Mr Diggs. A whisper of their intention had got about among those interested in the subject. It was a fine summer morning, some three hours from noon, the shop was shut, indeed it had not been opened since the riots, and all the lower windows of the dwelling were closed, barred, and bolted.

A crowd of women had collected. There was Mistress Page and Mistress Prance, old Dame Toddles and Mrs Mullins, Liza Gray and the comely dame who was so fond of society that she liked even a riot.

"Master Joseph they say has gone to the North," said the comely dame.

"I wonder if old Diggs is at home?" said Mrs Mullins.

"He won't show I'll be sworn," said old Dame Toddles.

"Here are the Hell-cats," said the comely dame. "Well I do declare they march like reglars; two, four, six, twelve; a good score at the least."

The Hell-cats briskly marched up to the elm-trees that shaded the canal before the house, and then formed in line opposite to it. They were armed with bludgeons, crowbars, and hammers. Tummas was at the head and by his side his Wodgate wife. Stepping forth alone, amid the cheering of the crowd of women, the pupil of the Bishop advanced to the door of Diggs' house, gave a loud knock and a louder ring. He waited patiently for several minutes; there was no reply from the interior, and then Tummas knocked and rang again.

"It's very awful," said the comely dame.

"It's what I always dreamt would come to pass," said Liza Gray, "ever since Master Joseph cut my poor baby over the eye with his three foot rule."

"I think there can be nobody within," said Mrs Prance.

"Old Diggs would never leave the tommy without a guard," said Mrs Page.

"Now lads," said Tummas looking round him and making a sign, and immediately some half dozen advanced with their crowbars and were about to strike at the door, when a window in the upper story of the house opened and the muzzle of a blunderbuss was presented at the assailants.

The women all screamed and ran away.

"'Twas Master Joseph," said the comely dame halting to regain her breath.

"'Twas Master Joseph," sighed Mrs Page.

"'Twas Master Joseph," moaned Mrs Prance.

"Sure enough," said Mrs Mullins, "I saw his ugly face."

"More frightful than the great gun," said old Dame Toddles.

"I hope the children will get out of the way," said Liza Gray, "for he is sure to fire on them."

In the meantime, while Master Joseph himself was content with his position and said not a word, a benignant countenance exhibited itself at the window and requested in a mild voice to know, "What his good friends wanted there?"

"We have come to settle Sam Barlow's tommy book," said their leader.

"Our shop is not open to-day my good friends: the account can stand over; far be it from me to press the poor."

"Master Diggs," said a Hell-cat, "canst thou tell us the price of bacon to-day?"

"Well, good bacon," said the elder Diggs willing to humour them, "may be eightpence a-pound."

"Thou are wrong Master Diggs," said the Hell-cat, "'tis fourpence and long credit. Let us see half a dozen good flitches at fourpence, Master Diggs; and be quick."

There was evidently some controversy in the interior as to the course at this moment to be pursued. Master Joseph remonstrated against the policy of concession, called conciliation, which his father would fain follow, and was for instant coercion; but age and experience carried the day, and in a few minutes some flitches were thrown out of the window to the Hell-cats who received the booty with a cheer.

The women returned.

"'Tis the tenpence a-pound flitch," said the comely dame examining the prize with a sparkling glance.

"I have paid as much for very green stuff," said Mrs Mullins.

"And now Master Diggs," said Tummas, "what is the price of the best tea a-pound? We be good customers, and mean to treat our wives and sweethearts here. I think we must order half a chest."

This time there was a greater delay in complying with the gentle hint; but the Hell-cats getting obstreperous, the tea was at length furnished and divided among the women. This gracious office devolved on the wife of Tummas who soon found herself assisted by a spontaneous committee of which the comely dame was the most prominent and active member. Nothing could be more considerate, good-natured, and officious, than the mode and spirit with which she divided the stores. The flitches were cut up and apportioned in like manner. The scene was as gay and hustling as a fair.

"It's as good as a grand tommy day," said the comely dame with a self-complacent smile as she strutted about smiling and dispensing patronage.

The orders for bacon and tea were followed by a very popular demand for cheese. The female committee received all the plunder and were very active in its distribution. At length a rumour got about that Master Joseph was entering the names of all present in the tommy books, so that eventually the score might be satisfied. The mob had now very much increased. There was a panic among the women, and indignation among the men: a Hell-cat advanced and announced that unless the tommy books were all given up to be burnt, they would pull down the house. There was no reply: some of the Hell-cats advanced; the women cheered; a crowbar fell upon the door; Master Joseph fired, wounded a woman and killed a child.

There rose one of those universal shrieks of wild passion which announce that men have discarded all the trammels of civilization, and found in their licentious rage new and unforseen sources of power and vengeance. Where it came from, how it was obtained, who prompted the thought, who first accomplished it, were alike impossible to trace; but as it were in a moment, a number of trusses of straw were piled up before the house and set on fire, the gates of the timber-yard were forced, and a quantity of scantlings and battens soon fed the flame. Everything indeed that could stimulate the fire was employed; and every one was occupied in the service. They ran to the water side and plundered the barges, and threw the huge blocks of coal upon the enormous bonfire. Men, women, and children were alike at work with the eagerness and energy of fiends. The roof of the house caught fire: the dwelling burned rapidly; you could see the flames like the tongues of wild beasts, licking the bare and vanishing walls; a single being was observed amid the fiery havoc, shrieking and desperate he clung convulsively to a huge account book, It was Master Joseph. His father had made his escape from the back of the premises and had counselled his son instantly to follow him, but Master Joseph wished to rescue the ledger as well as their lives, and the delay ruined him.

"He has got the tommy book," cried Liza Gray.

The glare of the clear flame fell for a moment upon his countenance of agony; the mob gave an infernal cheer; then some part of the building falling in, there rose a vast cloud of smoke and rubbish, and he was seen no more.