THE ATTACK ON THE ENGINE-HOUSE.
o sooner did Mr. Merton hear of the resolution of the miners to destroy the engines, than he sat down and wrote an urgent letter to Sir John Butler.
“Is there anything else, Jack?”
“I don’t know, sir. If the masters could be warned of the attack they might get a few viewers and firemen and make a sort of defence; but if the men’s blood’s up it might go hard with them; and it would go hard with you if you were known to have taken the news of it.”
“I will take the risk of that,” Mr. Merton said. “Directly it is dark I will set out. What are you going to do, Jack?”
“I’ve got my work marked out,” Jack said. “I’d rather not tell you till it’s all over. Good-bye, sir; Harry is waiting for the letter.”
Mr. Merton did not carry out his plans. As soon as it was dark he left the village, but a hundred yards out he came upon a party of men, evidently posted as sentries. These roughly told him that if he didn’t want to be chucked into the canal he’d best go home to bed; and this, after trying another road with the same result, he did.
Jack walked with Harry as far as the railway-station, mentioning to several friends he met that he was off again. The lads crossed the line, went out of the opposite booking-office, and set off—for it was now past five, and already dark—at the top of their speed in different directions. Jack did not stop till he reached the engine-house of the Vaughan mine. The pumps were still clanking inside, and the water streaming down the shoot. Peeping carefully in, to see that his friend, John Ratcliffe, was alone, Jack entered.
“Well, John,” he said, “the engine’s still going.”
“Ay, Jack; but if what’s more nor one has told me to-day be true, it be for the last time.”
“Look here, John; Mr. Brook has been a good master, will you do him a good turn?”
“Ay, lad, if I can; I’ve held on here, though they’ve threatened to chuck me down the shaft; but I’m a married man, and can’t throw away my life.”
“I don’t ask you to, John. I want you to work hard here with me till six o’clock strikes, and then go home as usual.”
“What dost want done, lad?”
“What steam is there in the boiler?”
“Only about fifteen pounds. I’m just knocking off, and have banked the fire up.”
“All right, John. I want you to help me fix the fire hose, the short length, to that blow-off cock at the bottom of the boiler. We can unscrew the pipe down to the drain, and can fasten the hose to it with a union, I expect. You’ve got some unions, haven’t you?”
“Yes, lad; and what then?”
“That’s my business, John. I’m going to hold this place till the soldiers come; and I think that with twenty pounds of steam in the boiler, and the hose, I can keep all the miners of Stokebridge out. At any rate, I’ll try. Now, John, set to work. I want thee to go straight home, and then no one will suspect thee of having a hand in the matter. I’ll go out when thou dost, and thou canst swear, if thou art asked, that there was not a soul in the house when thou camest away.”
“Thou wilt lose thy life, Jack.”
“That be my business,” Jack said. “I think not. Now set to work, John; give me a spanner, and let’s get the pipe off the cock at once.”
John Ratcliffe set to work with a will, and in twenty minutes the unions were screwed on and the hose attached, a length of thirty feet, which was quite sufficient to reach to the window, some eight feet above the ground. Along by this window ran a platform. There was another, and a smaller window, on the other side.
While they were working, John Ratcliffe tried to dissuade Jack from carrying out his plan.
“It’s no use, John. I mean to save the engines, and so the pit. They’ll never get in; and no one knows I am here, and no one will suspect me. None of ’em will know my voice, for they won’t bring boys with them, and dad won’t be here. There, it’s striking six. Let me just drop a rope out of the window to climb in again with. Now we’ll go out together; do thou lock the door, take the key, and go off home. Like enough they’ll ask thee for the key, or they may bring their sledges to break it in. Anyhow it will make no difference, for there are a couple of bolts inside, and I shall make it fast with bars. There, that’s right. Good-night, John. Remember, whatever comes of it, thou knowest nought of it. Thou camest away and left the place empty, as usual, and no one there.”
“Good-bye, lad, I’d stop with ‘ee and share thy risk, but they’d know I was here, and my life wouldn’t be worth the price of a pot o’ beer. Don’t forget, lad, if thou lowerst the water, to damp down the fire, and open the valves.”
Jack, left to himself, clambered up to the window and entered the engine-house again, threw some fresh coal on the fire, heaped a quantity of coal against the door, and jammed several long iron bars against it. Then he lighted his pipe and sat listening, occasionally getting up to hold a lantern to the steam-gauge, as it crept gradually up.
“Twenty-five pounds,” he said; “that will be enough to throw the water fifty or sixty yards on a level, and the door of the winding-engine’s not more than thirty, so I can hold them both if they try to break in there.”
He again banked up the fires, and sat thinking. Harry would be at the magistrate’s by a quarter to six. By six o’clock Sir John could be on his way to Birmingham for troops; fifteen miles to drive—say an hour and a half. Another hour for the soldiers to start, and three hours to do the nineteen miles to the Vaughan, half-past eleven—perhaps half an hour earlier, perhaps half an hour later. There was no fear but there was plenty of water. The boiler was a large one, and was built partly into, partly out of the engine-house. That is to say, while the furnace-door, the gauges, and the safety-valve were inside, the main portion of the boiler was outside the walls. The blow-off cock was two inches in diameter, and the nozzle of the hose an inch and a half. It would take some minutes then, even with the steam at a pressure of twenty-five pounds to the inch, to blow the water out, and a minute would, he was certain, do all that was needed.
Not even when, upon the first day of his life in the pit, Jack sat hour after hour alone in the darkness, did the time seem to go so slowly as it did that evening. Once or twice he thought he heard footsteps, and crept cautiously up to the window to listen; but each time, convinced of his error, he returned to his place on a bench near the furnace. He heard the hours strike, one after another, on the Stokebridge church clock—eight, nine, ten—and then he took his post by the window and listened. A quarter of an hour passed, and then there was a faint, confused sound. Nearer it came, and nearer, until it swelled into the trampling of a crowd of many hundreds of men. They came along with laughter and rough jests, for they had no thought of opposition—no thought that anyone was near them. The crowd moved forward until they were within a few yards of the engine-house, and then one, who seemed to be in command, said, “Smash the door in with your sledges, lads.”
Jack had, as they approached, gone down to the boiler, and had turned the blow-off cock, and the boiling water swelled the strong leathern hose almost to bursting. Then he went back to the window, threw it open, and stood with the nozzle in his hand.
“Hold!” he shouted out in loud, clear tones. “Let no man move a step nearer for his life.”
The mob stood silent, paralyzed with surprise. Jack had spoken without a tinge of the local accent, and as none of the boys were there, his voice was quite unrecognized. “Who be he?” “It’s a stranger!” and other sentences, were muttered through the throng.
“Who be you?” the leader asked, recovering from his surprise.
“Never mind who I am,” Jack said, standing well back from the window, lest the light from the lanterns which some of the men carried might fall on his face. “I am here in the name of the law. I warn you to desist from your evil design. Go to your homes; the soldiers are on their way, and may be here any minute. Moreover, I have means here of destroying any man who attempts to enter.”
“Stand firm, lads, it be a lie,” shouted the leader. “Thee baint to be frighted by one man, be’est ‘ee? What! five hundred Staffordshire miners afeard o’ one? Why, ye’ll be the laughing-stock of the country! Now, lads, break in the door; we’ll soon see who be yon chap that talks so big.”
There was a rush to the door, and a thundering clatter as the heavy blows of the sledge-hammers fell on the wood; while another party began an assault upon the door of the winding-engine house.
Then Jack, with closely pressed lips and set face, turned the cock of the nozzle.
With a hiss the scalding water leaped out in a stream. Jack stood well forward now and with the hose swept the crowd, as a fireman might sweep a burning building. Driven by the tremendous force of the internal steam, the boiling water knocked the men in front headlong over; then, as he raised the nozzle and scattered the water broadcast over the crowd, wild yells, screams, and curses broke on the night air. Another move, and the column of boiling fluid fell on those engaged on the other engine-house door, and smote them down.
Then Jack turned the cock again, and the stream of water ceased.
It was but a minute since he had turned it on, but it had done its terrible work. A score of men lay on the ground, rolling in agony; others danced, screamed, and yelled in pain; others, less severely scalded, filled the air with curses; while all able to move made a wild rush back from the terrible building.
When the wild cries had a little subsided, Jack called out,—
“Now, lads, you can come back safely. I have plenty more hot water, and I could have scalded the whole of you as badly as those in front had I wanted to. Now I promise, on my oath, not to turn it on again if you will come and carry off your mates who are here. Take them off home as quick as you can, before the soldiers come. I don’t want to do you harm. You’d all best be in bed as soon as you can.”
The men hesitated, but it was clear to them all that it had been in the power of their unknown foe to have inflicted a far heavier punishment upon them than he had done, and there was a ring of truth and honesty in his voice which they could not doubt. So after a little hesitation a number of them came forward, and lifting the men who had fallen near the engine-house, carried them off; and in a few minutes there was a deep silence where, just before, a very pandemonium had seemed let loose.
Then Jack, the strain over, sat down, and cried like a child.
Half an hour later, listening intently, he heard a deep sound in the distance. “Here come the soldiers,” he muttered, “it is time for me to be off.” He glanced at the steam-gauge, and saw that the steam was falling, while the water-gauge showed that there was still sufficient water for safety, and he then opened the window at the back of the building, and dropped to the ground. In an instant he was seized in a powerful grasp.
“I thought ye’d be coming out here, and now I’ve got ye,” growled a deep voice, which Jack recognized as that of Roger Hawking, the terror of Stokebridge.
For an instant his heart seemed to stand still at the extent of his peril; then, with a sudden wrench, he swung round and faced his captor, twisted his hands in his handkerchief, and drove his knuckles into his throat. Then came a crashing blow in his face—another, and another. With head bent down, Jack held on his grip with the gameness and tenacity of a bull-dog, while the blows rained on his head, and his assailant, in his desperate effort to free himself, swung his body hither and thither in the air, as a bull might swing a dog which had pinned him. Jack felt his senses going—a dull dazed feeling came over him. Then he felt a crash, as his adversary reeled and fell—and then all was dark.
It could have been but a few minutes that he lay thus, for he awoke with the sound of a thunder of horses’ hoofs, and a clatter of swords in the yard on the other side of the engine-house. Rousing himself, he found that he still grasped the throat of the man beneath him. With a vague sense of wonder whether his foe was dead, he rose to his feet and staggered off, the desire to avoid the troops dispersing all other ideas in his brain. For a few hundred yards he staggered along, swaying like a drunken man, and knowing nothing of where he was going; then he stumbled, and fell again, and lay for hours insensible.
It was just the faint break of day when he came to, the cold air of the morning having brought him to himself. It took him a few minutes to recall what had happened and his whereabouts. Then he made his way to the canal, which was close by, washed the blood from his face, and set out to walk to Birmingham. He was too shaken and bruised to make much progress, and after walking for a while crept into the shelter of a haystack, and went off to sleep for many hours. After it was dusk in the evening he started again, and made his way to his lodgings at ten o’clock that night. It was a fortnight before he could leave his room, so bruised and cut was his face, and a month before the last sign of the struggle was oblit erated, and he felt that he could return to Stokebridge without his appearance being noticed.
There, great changes had taken place. The military had found the splintered door, the hose, and the still steaming water in the yard, and the particulars of the occurrence which had taken place had been pretty accurately judged. They were indeed soon made public by the stories of the scalded men, a great number of whom were forced to place themselves in the hands of the doctor, many of them having had very narrow escapes of their lives, but none of them had actually succumbed. In searching round the engine-house the soldiers had found a man, apparently dead, his tongue projecting from his mouth. A surgeon had accompanied them, and a vein having been opened and water dashed in his face, he gave signs of recovery. He had been taken off to jail as being concerned in the attack on the engine-house; but no evidence could be obtained against him, and he would have been released had he not been recognized as a man who had, five years before, effected a daring escape from Portland, where he was undergoing a life sentence for a brutal manslaughter.
The defeat of the attempt to destroy the Vaughan engines was the death-blow of the strike. Among the foremost in the attack, and therefore so terribly scalded that they were disabled for weeks, were most of the leaders of the strike in the pits of the district, and their voices silenced, and their counsel discredited, the men two days after the attack had a great meeting, at which it was resolved almost unanimously to go to work on the masters’ terms.
Great excitement was caused throughout the district by the publication of the details of the defence of the engine-house, and the most strenuous efforts were made by Mr. Brook to discover the person to whom he was so indebted. The miners were unanimous in describing him as a stranger, and as speaking like a gentleman; and there was great wonder why any one who had done so great a service to the mine-owners should conceal his identity. Jack’s secret was, however, well kept by the three or four who alone knew it, and who knew too that his life would not be safe for a day did the colliers, groaning and smarting over their terrible injuries, discover to whom they were indebted for them.
AFTER THE STRIKE.
“ell, Jack, so you’re back again,” Nelly Hardy said as she met Jack Simpson on his way home from work on the first day after his return.
“Ay, Nelly, and glad to see you. How have things gone on?” and he nodded towards her home.
“Better than I ever knew them,” the girl said. “When father could not afford to buy drink we had better times than I have ever known. It was a thousand times better to starve than as ’twas before. He’s laid up still; you nigh scalded him to death, Jack, and I doubt he’ll never be fit for work again.”
“I,” Jack exclaimed, astounded, for he believed that the secret was known only to his mother, Harry, John Ratcliffe, Mr. Merton and perhaps the schoolmaster’s daughter.
“No, Harry has not said a word. Oh, Jack, I didn’t think it of you. You call me a friend and keep this a secret, you let Harry know it and say nowt to me. I did not think it of you,” and the dark eyes filled with tears.
“But if Harry did not tell you, how—”
“As if I wanted telling,” she said indignantly. “Who would have dared do it but you? Didn’t I know you were here an hour or two before, and you think I needed telling who it was as faced all the pitmen? and to think you hid it from me! Didn’t you think I could be trusted? couldn’t I have gone to fetch the redcoats for you? couldn’t I have sat by you in the engine-house, and waited and held your hand when you stood against them all? oh, Jack!” and for the first time since their friendship had been pledged, nearly four years before, Jack saw Nelly burst into tears.
“I didn’t mean unkind, Nell, I didn’t, indeed, and if I had wanted another messenger I would have come to you. Don’t I know you are as true as steel? Come, lass, don’t take on. I would have sent thee instead o’ Harry only I thought he could run fastest. Girls’ wind ain’t as good as lads’.”
“And you didn’t doubt I’d do it, Jack?”
“Not for a moment,” Jack said. “I would have trusted thee as much as Harry.”
“Well then, I forgive you, Jack, but if ever you get in danger again, and doant let me know, I’ll never speak a word to you again.”
In the years which had passed since this friendship began Nelly Hardy had greatly changed. The companionship of two quiet lads like Jack and Harry had tamed her down, and her love of reading and her study of all the books on history and travel on Jack’s book-shelves had softened her speech. When alone the three spoke with but little of the dialect of the place, Jack having insisted on improvement in this respect. With Nelly his task had been easy, for she was an apt pupil, but Harry still retained some of his roughness of speech.
Nelly was fifteen now, and was nearly as tall as Jack, who was square and somewhat stout for his age. With these two friends Jack would talk sometimes of his hopes of rising and making a way for himself. Harry, who believed devoutly in his friend, entered most warmly into his hopes, but Nelly on this subject alone was not sympathetic.
“You don’t say anything,” Jack remarked one day; “do you think my castles in the air will never come true?”
“I know they will come true, Jack,” she said earnestly; “but don’t ask me to be glad. I can’t; I try to but I can’t. It’s selfish, but, but—” and her voice quivered. “Every step thou takest will carry you farther up from me, and I can’t be glad on it, Jack!”
“Nonsense, Nelly,” Jack said angrily, “dos’t think so little of me as to think that I shall not be as true to my two friends, Harry and you, as I am now?”
The girl shook her head.
“You will try, Jack, you will try. Don’t think I doubt you, but—” and turning round she fled away at full speed.
“I believe she ran away because she was going to cry,” Harry said. “Lasses are strange things, and though in some things Nell’s half a lad, yet she’s soft you see on some points. Curious, isn’t it, Jack?”
“Very curious,” Jack said; “I thought I understood Nell as well as I did you or myself, but I begin to think I doant understand her as much as I thought. It comes of her being a lass, of course, but it’s queer too,” and Jack shook his head over the mysterious nature of lasses. “You can’t understand ’em,” he went on again, thoughtfully. “Now, if you wanted some clothes, Harry, and you were out of work, I should just buy you a set as a matter of course, and you’d take ’em the same. It would be only natural like friends, wouldn’t it?”
“Now, I’ve been wanting to give Nelly a gown, and a jacket, and hat for the last two years. I want her to look nice, and hold her own with the other lasses of the place—she’s as good looking as any—but I daren’t do it. No, I daren’t, downright. I know, as well as if I see it, how she’d flash up, and how angry she’d be.”
“Why should she?” Harry asked.
“That’s what I doan’t know, lad, but I know she would be. I suppose it comes of her being a lass, but it beats me altogether. Why shouldn’t she take it? other lasses take presents from their lads, why shouldn’t Nell take one from her friend? But she wouldn’t, I’d bet my life she wouldn’t, and she wouldn’t say, ‘No, and thank you,’ but she’d treat it as if I’d insulted her. No, it can’t be done, lad; but it’s a pity, for I should ha’ liked to see her look nice for once.”
Not satisfied with his inability to solve the question Jack took his mother into his confidence.
Jane Haden smiled.
“Noa, Jack, I don’t think as how thou canst give Nell Hardy a dress. She is a good quiet girl and keeps herself respectable, which, taking into account them she comes from, is a credit to her, but I don’t think thou could’st gi’ her a gown.”
“But why not, mother?” Jack persisted. “I might gi’ her a pair o’ earrings or a brooch, I suppose, which would cost as much as the gown.”
“Yes, thou might’st do that, Jack.”
“Then if she could take the thing which would be no manner o’ use to her, why couldn’t she take the thing that would?”
“I doant know as I can rightly tell you, Jack, but there’s a difference.”
“But can’t you tell me what is the difference?” Jack insisted.
“Noa, Jack, I can’t, but there be a difference.”
Jack seized his candle with a cry of despair, and ran upstairs. He had solved many a tough problem, but this was beyond him altogether. He was not, however, accustomed to be baffled, and the next day he renewed the subject, this time to Nelly herself.
“Look here, Nell,” he said, “I want to ask you a question. It is a supposition, you know, only a supposition, but it bothers me.”
“What is it, Jack?” she said, looking up from the ground, upon which as was her custom she was sitting with a book while Jack sat on a gate.
“If I was to offer you a pair of gold earrings.”
“I wouldn’t take ’em,” the girl said rising, “you know I wouldn’t, Jack; you know I never take presents from you.”
“I know, lass, I know. We’ll suppose you wouldn’t take it, but you wouldn’t be angered, would you?”
“I should be angered that you had spent money foolishly,” the girl said after a pause, “when you knew I shouldn’t take it, but I couldn’t be angered any other way.”
“Well, but if I were to buy you a hat and a jacket and a gown.”
“You dare not,” the girl said passionately, her face flushed scarlet; “you dare not, Jack.”
“No,” Jack said consciously, “I know I dare not, though I should like to; but why don’t I dare?”
“Because it would be an insult, a gross insult, Jack, and you dare not insult me.”
“No lass, I darena; but why should it be an insult? That’s what I canna make out; why wouldn’t it be an insult to offer you a gold brooch worth three or four pounds, and yet be an insult to offer you the other things? what’s the difference?”
Nelly had calmed down now when she saw that the question was a hypothetical one, and that Jack had not, as she at first supposed, bought clothes for her.
She thought for some time. “I suppose, Jack, the difference is this. It’s the duty of a girl’s father and mother to buy fit clothes for her, and if they don’t it’s either their fault, or it’s because they are too poor. So to give clothes is an interference and a sort of reproach. A brooch is not necessary; it’s a pretty ornament, and so a lad may give it to his lass wi’out shame.”
“Yes, I suppose it must be that,” Jack said thoughtfully. “I’m glad I’ve got some sort of answer.”