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The machinery had not started since the death of Mr. Mulready, the foreman having received several letters threatening his life if he ventured to use the new machinery; and the works had therefore been carried on on their old basis until something was settled as to their future management.
The first few days after his return Ned spent his time in going carefully through the books with the clerk, and in making himself thoroughly acquainted with the financial part of the business. He was assisted by Mr. Porson, who came every evening to the house, and went through the accounts with him. The foreman and the men in charge of the different rooms were asked to give their opinion as to whether it was possible to reduce expenses in any way, but they were unanimous in saying that this could not be done. The pay was at present lower than in any other mill in the district, and every item of expenditure had been kept down by Mr. Mulready to the lowest point.
"It is clear," Ned said at last, "that if the mill is to be kept on we must use the new machinery. I was afraid it would be so, or he would never have taken to it and risked his life unless it had been absolutely necessary. I don't like it, for I have strong sympathies with the men, and although I am sure that in the long run the hands will benefit by the increased trade, it certainly cause great suffering at present, so if it had been possible I would gladly have let the new machinery stand idle until the feeling against it had passed away; but as I see that the mill has been running at a loss ever since prices fell, it is quite clear that we must use it at once."
The next morning Ned called the foreman into his office at the mill, and told him that he had determined to set the new machinery at work at once.
"I am sorry to be obliged to do so," he said, "as it will considerably reduce the number of hands at work; but it cannot be helped, it is either that or stopping altogether, which would be worse still for the men. Be as careful as you can in turning off the hands, and as far as possible retain all the married men with families. The only exception to that rule is young Swinton, who is to be kept on whoever goes."
That evening Luke Marner called at the house to see Ned.
"Be it true, Maister Ned, as the voreman says, the new machines is to be put to work?"
"It is true, Luke, I am sorry to say. I would have avoided it if possible; but I have gone into the matter with Mr. Porson, and I find I must either do that or shut up the mill altogether, which would be a good deal worse for you all. Handwork cannot compete with machinery, and the new machines will face a dozen yards of cloth while a cropper is doing one, and will do it much better and more evenly."
"That be so, surely, and it bain't no use my saying as it ain't, and it's true enough what you says, that it's better half the hands should be busy than none; but those as gets the sack won't see it, and oi fears there will be mischief. Oi don't hold with the Luddites, but oi tell ye the men be getting desperate, and oi be main sure as there will be trouble afore long. Your loife won't be safe, Maister Ned."
"I don't hold much to my life," Ned laughed bitterly, "so the Luddites won't be able to frighten me there."
"I suppose thou wilt have some of the hands to sleep at the mill, as they do at some of the other places. If thou wilt get arms those as is at work will do their best to defend it. Cartwright has got a dozen or more sleeping in his mill."
"I will see about it," Ned said, "but I don't think I shall do that. I don't want any men to get killed in defending our property."
"Then they will burn it, thou wilt see if they doan't," Luke said earnestly.
"I hope not, Luke. I shall do my best to prevent it anyhow."
"Oi will give ee warning if a whisper of it gets to moi ears, you may be sure, but the young uns doan't say much to us old hands, who be mostly agin them, and ov course they will say less now if oi be one of those kept on."
"We must chance it, Luke; but be sure, whatever I do I shan't let the mill be destroyed if I can help it."
And so on the Monday following the waterwheel was set going and the new machinery began to work. The number of hands at the mill was reduced by nearly one half, while the amount of cloth turned out each week was quadrupled.
The machinery had all the latest improvements, and was excellently arranged. Mr. Mulready had thoroughly understood his business, and Ned soon saw that the profits under the new system of working would be fully as great as his stepfather had calculated.
A very short time elapsed before threatening letters began to come in. Ned paid no heed to them, but quietly went on his way. The danger was, however, undoubted. The attitude of the Luddites had become more openly threatening. Throughout the whole of the West Riding open drilling was carried on.
The mills at Marsden, Woodbottom, and Ottewells were all threatened. In answer to the appeals of the mill owners the number of troops in the district was largely increased. Infantry were stationed in Marsden, and the 10th King's Bays, the 15th Hussars, and the Scots Greys were alternately billeted in the place. The roads to Ottewells, Woodbottom, and Lugards Mill were patrolled regularly, and the whole country was excited and alarmed by constant rumors of attacks upon the mills.
Ned went on his way quietly, asking for no special protection for his mill or person, seemingly indifferent to the excitement which prevailed. Except to the workmen in the mill, to the doctor, and Mr. Porson he seldom exchanged a word with any one during the day.
Mr. Simmonds and several of his father's old friends had on his return made advances toward him, but he had resolutely declined to meet them. Mr. Porson and the doctor had remonstrated with him.
"It is no use," he replied. "They congratulated me on my acquittal, but I can tell by their tones that there is not one of them who thoroughly believes in his heart that I am innocent."
The only exception which Ned made was Mr. Cartwright, a mill owner at Liversedge. He had been slightly acquainted with Captain Sankey; and one day soon after Ned's return as he was walking along the street oblivious, as usual, of every one passing, Mr. Cartwright came up and placing himself in front of him, said heartily:
"I congratulate you with all my heart, Sankey, on your escape from this rascally business. I knew that your innocence would be proved: I would have staked my life that your father's son never had any hand in such a black affair as this. I am heartily glad!"
There was no withstanding the frank cordiality of the Yorkshireman's manner. Ned's reserve melted at once before it.
"Thank you very much," he said, returning the grasp of his hand; "but I am afraid that though I was acquitted my innocence wasn't proved, and never will be. You may think me innocent, but you will find but half a dozen people in Marsden to agree with you."
"Pooh! pooh!" Mr. Cartwright said. "You must not look at things in that light. Most men are fools, you know; never fear. We shall prove you innocent some day. I have no doubt these rascally Luddites are at the bottom of it. And now, look here, young fellow, I hear that you are going to run the mill. Of course you can't know much about it yet. Now I am an old hand and shall be happy to give you any advice in my power, both for your own sake and for that of your good father. Now I mean what I say, and I shall be hurt if you refuse. I am in here two or three times a week, and my road takes me within five hundred yards of your mill, so it will be no trouble to me to come round for half an hour as I pass, and give you a few hints until you get well into harness. There are dodges in our trade, you know, as well as in all others, and you must be put up to them if you are to keep up in the race. There is plenty of room for us all, and now that the hands are all banding themselves against us, we mill owners must stand together too."
Ned at once accepted the friendly offer, and two or three times a week Mr. Cartwright came round to the mill, went round the place with Ned, and gave him his advice as to the commercial transactions. Ned found this of inestimable benefit. Mr. Cartwright was acquainted with all the buyers in that part of Yorkshire, and was able several times to prevent Ned from entering into transactions with men willing to take advantage of his inexperience.
Sometimes he went over with Mr. Cartwright to his mill at Liversedge and obtained many a useful hint there as to the management of his business. Only in the matter of having some of his hands to sleep at the mill Ned declined to act on the advice of his new friend.
"No," he said; "I am determined that I will have no lives risked in the defense of our property. It has cost us dearly enough already."
But though Ned refused to have any of his hands to sleep at the mill, he had a bed fitted up in his office, and every night at ten o'clock, after Charlie had gone to bed, he walked out to the mill and slept there: Heavy shutters were erected to all the lower windows, and bells were attached to these and to the doors, which would ring at the slightest motion.
A cart one evening arrived from Huddersfield after the hands had left the mill, and under Ned's direction a number of small barrels were carried up to his office.
Although three months had now elapsed since his return home he had never once seen his mother, and the knowledge that she still regarded him as the murderer of her husband greatly added to the bitterness of his life. Of an evening after Lucy had gone to bed he assisted Charlie with his lessons, and also worked for an hour with Bill Swinton, who came regularly every evening to be taught.
Bill had a strong motive for self improvement. Ned had promised him that some day he should be foreman to the factory, but that before he could take such a position it would, of course, be necessary that he should be able to read and write well. But an even higher incentive was Bill's sense of his great inferiority in point of education to Polly Powlett. He entertained a deep affection for her, but he knew how she despised the rough and ignorant young fellows at Varley, and he felt that even if she loved him she would not consent to marry him unless he were in point of education in some way her equal; therefore he applied himself with all his heart to improving his education.
It was no easy task, for Bill was naturally somewhat slow and heavy; but he had perseverance, which makes up for many deficiencies, and his heart being in his work he made really rapid progress.
Sometimes Ned would start earlier than usual, and walk up with Bill Swinton, talking to him as they went over the subjects on which he had been working, the condition of the villagers, or the results of Bill's Sunday rambles over the moors.
On arriving at Varley Ned generally went in for half an hour's talk with Luke Marner and Mary Powlett before going off for the night to sleep at the mill. With these three friends, who all were passionately convinced of his innocence, he was more at his ease than anywhere else, for at home the thought of the absent figure upstairs was a never ceasing pain.
"The wind is very high tonight," Ned said one evening as the cottage shook with a gust which swept down from the moor.
"Ay, that it be," Luke agreed; "but it is nowt to a storm oi saw when oi war a young chap on t' coast!"
"I did not know you had ever been away from Varley," Ned said, "tell me about it, Luke."
"Well, it coomed round i' this way. One of t' chaps from here had a darter who had married and gone to live nigh t' coast, and he went vor a week to see her.
"Theere'd been a storm when he was there, and he told us aboot the water being all broke up into furrowes, vor all the world like a plowed field, only each ridge wur twice as high as one of our houses, and they came a moving along as fast as a horse could gallop, and when they hit the rocks vlew up into t' air as hoigh as the steeple o' Marsden church. It seemed to us as this must be a lie, and there war a lot of talk oor it, and at last vour on us made up our moinds as we would go over and see vor ourselves.
"It war a longer tramp nor we had looked vor, and though we sometoimes got a lift i' a cart we was all pretty footsore when we got to the end of our journey. The village as we was bound for stood oop on t' top of a flattish hill, one side of which seemed to ha' been cut away by a knife, and when you got to the edge there you were a-standing at the end o' the world. Oi know when we got thar and stood and looked out from the top o' that wall o' rock thar warn't a word among us.
"We was a noisy lot, and oi didn't think as nothing would ha' silenced a cropper; but thar we stood a-looking over at the end of the world, oi should say for five minutes, wi'out a word being spoke. Oi can see it now. There warn't a breath of wind nor a cloud i' the sky. It seemed to oi as if the sky went away as far as we could see, and then seemed to be doubled down in a line and to coom roight back agin to our feet. It joost took away our breath, and seemed somehow to bring a lump into the throat. Oi talked it over wi' the others afterward and we'd all felt just the same.
"It beat us altogether, and you never see a lot of croppers so quiet and orderly as we war as we went up to t' village. Most o' t' men war away, as we arterward learned, fishing, and t' women didn't know what to make o' us, but gathered at their doors and watched us as if we had been a party o' robbers coom down to burn the place and carry 'em away. However, when we found Sally White--that war the name of the woman as had married from Varley--she went round the village and told 'em as we was a party of her friends who had joost walked across Yorkshire to ha' a lock at the sea. Another young chap, Jack Purcell war his name, as was Sally's brother, and oi, being his mate, we stopt at Sally's house. The other two got a lodging close handy.
"Vor the vurst day or two vokes war shy of us, but arter that they began to see as we meant no harm. Of course they looked on us as foreigners, just as we croppers do here on anyone as cooms to Varley. Then Sally's husband coom back from sea and spoke up vor us, and that made things better, and as we war free wi' our money the fishermen took to us more koindly.
"We soon found as the water warn't always smooth and blue like the sky as we had seen it at first. The wind coom on to blow the vurst night as we war thar, and the next morning the water war all tossing aboot joost as Sally's feyther had said, though not so high as he had talked on. Still the wind warn't a blowing much, as Sally pointed owt to us; in a regular storm it would be a different sort o' thing altogether. We said as we should loike to see one, as we had coom all that way o' purpose. The vorth noight arter we got there Sally's husband said: 'You be a going vor to have your wish; the wind be a getting up, and we are loike to have a big storm on the coast tomorrow.' And so it war. Oi can't tell you what it war loike, oi've tried over and over again to tell Polly, but no words as oi can speak can give any idee of it.
"It war not loike anything as you can imagine. Standing down on the shore the water seemed all broke up into hills, and as if each hill was a-trying to get at you, and a-breaking itself up on the shore wi' a roar of rage when it found as it couldn't reach you. The noise war so great as you couldn't hear a man standing beside you speak to you. Not when he hallooed. One's words war blowed away. It felt somehow as if one war having a wrastle wi' a million wild beasts. They tells me as the ships at sea sometoimes floates and gets through a storm loike that; but oi doan't believe it, and shouldn't if they took their Bible oath to it, it bain't in reason.
"One of them waves would ha' broaked this cottage up loike a eggshell. Oi do believes as it would ha' smashed Marsden church, and it doan't stand to reason as a ship, which is built, they tells me, of wood and plank, would stand agin waves as would knock doon a church. Arter the storm oi should ha' coom back next morning, vor I felt fairly frightened. There didn't seem no saying as to what t' water moight do next toime. We should ha' gone there and then, only Sally's husband told us as a vessel war expected in two or three days wi' a cargo of tubs and she was to run them in a creek a few miles away.
"He said as loike as not there moight be a foight wi' the officers, and that being so we naterally made up our moinds vor to stop and lend un a hand. One night arter it got dark we started, and arter a tramp of two or three hours cam' to the place. It were a dark noight, and how the ship as was bringing the liquor was to foind oot the place was more nor oi could make oot. Jack he tried to explain how they did it, but oi couldn't make head nor tails on it except that when they got close they war to show a loight twice, and we war to show a loight twice if it war all roight for landing.
"Oi asked what had becoom of the revenue men, and was told as a false letter had been writ saying a landing was to be made fifteen mile away. We went vorward to a place whar there war a break in the rocks, and a sort of valley ran down to the sea. There war a lot of men standing aboot, and just as we coom up thar war a movement and we hears as the loights had been shown and the vessel war running in close. Down we goes wi' the others, and soon a boat cooms ashore. As soon as she gets close the men runs out to her; the sailors hands out barrels and each man shoulders one and trudges off. We does the same and takes the kegs up to t' top, whar carts and horses was waiting for 'em. Oi went oop and down three toimes and began to think as there war moor hard work nor fun aboot it. Oi war a-going to knock off when some one says as one more trip would finish the cargo, so down oi goes again: Just when oi gets to t' bottom there war a great shouting oop at top.
"'They're just too late,' a man says; 'the kegs be all safe away except this lot,' for the horses and carts had gone off the instant as they got their loads. 'Now we must run for it, for the revenue men will be as savage as may be when they voinds as they be too late.' 'Where be us to run?' says oi. 'Keep close to me, oi knows the place,' says he.
"So we runs down and voinds as they had tumbled the bar'ls into t' boat again, and t' men war just pushing her off when there war a shout close to us. 'Shove, shove!' shouted the men, and oi runs into t' water loike t' rest and shooved. Then a lot o' men run up shouting, 'Stop! in the king's name!' and began vor to fire pistols.
"Nateral oi wasn't a-going to be fired at for nowt, so oi clutches moi stick and goes at 'em wi' the rest, keeping close to t' chap as told me as he knew the coontry. There was a sharp foight vor a minute. Oi lays aboot me hearty and gets a crack on my ear wi' a cootlas, as they calls theer swords, as made me pretty wild.
"We got the best o't. 'Coom on,' says the man to me, 'there's a lot moor on 'em a-cooming.' So oi makes off as hard as oi could arter him. He keeps straight along at t' edge o' t' water. It war soft rowing at first, vor t' place war as flat as a table, but arter running vor a vew minutes he says, 'Look owt!' Oi didn't know what to look owt vor, and down oi goes plump into t' water. Vor all at once we had coomed upon a lot o' rocks covered wi' a sort of slimy stuff, and so slippery as you could scarce keep a footing on 'em. Oi picks myself up and vollers him. By this toime, maister, oi war beginning vor to think as there warn't so mooch vun as oi had expected in this koind o' business. Oi had been working two hours loike a nigger a-carrying tubs. Oi had had moi ear pretty nigh cut off, and it smarted wi' the salt water awful. Oi war wet from head to foot and had knocked the skin off moi hands and knees when oi went down. However there warn't no toime vor to grumble. Oi vollers him till we gets to t' foot o' t' rocks, and we keeps along 'em vor aboot half a mile.
"The water here coombed close oop to t' rocks, and presently we war a-walking through it. 'Be'st a going vor to drown us all?' says oi. 'We are jest there,' says he. 'Ten minutes later we couldn't ha' got along.' T' water war a-getting deeper and deeper, and t' loomps of water cooms along and well nigh took me off my feet. Oi was aboot to turn back, vor it war better, thinks oi, to be took by t' king's men than to be droonded, when he says, 'Here we be.' He climbs oop t' rocks and oi follows him. Arter climbing a short way he cooms to a hole i' rocks, joost big enough vor to squeeze through, but once inside it opened out into a big cave. A chap had struck a loight, and there war ten or twelve more on us thar. 'We had better wait another five minutes,' says one, 'to see if any more cooms along. Arter that the tide ull be too high.'
"We waits, but no one else cooms; me and moi mate war t' last. Then we goes to t' back of the cave, whar t' rock sloped down lower and lower till we had to crawl along one arter t'other pretty nigh on our stomachs, like raats going into a hole. Oi wonders whar on aarth we war agoing, till at last oi found sudden as oi could stand oopright. Then two or three more torches war lighted, and we begins to climb oop some steps cut i' the face of t' rock. A rope had been fastened alongside to hold on by, which war a good job for me, vor oi should never ha' dared go oop wi'out it, vor if oi had missed my foot there warn't no saying how far oi would ha' fallen to t' bottom. At last the man avore me says, 'Here we be!' and grateful oi was, vor what wi' the crawling and the climbing, and the funk as oi was in o' falling, the swaat was a-running down me loike water. The torches war put out, and in another minute we pushes through some bushes and then we war on t' top of the cliff a hundred yards or so back from t' edge, and doon in a sort of hollow all covered thickly over wi' bushes. We stood and listened vor a moment, but no sound war to be heard. Then one on em says, 'We ha' done 'em agin. Now the sooner as we gets off to our homes the better.' Looky for me, Jack war one of the lot as had coom up through the cave. 'Coom along, Luke,' says he, 'oi be glad thou hast got out of it all roight. We must put our best foot foremost to get in afore day breaks.' So we sets off, and joost afore morning we gets back to village. As to t'other two from Varley, they never coom back agin. Oi heerd as how all as war caught war pressed for sea, and oi expect they war oot in a ship when a storm coom on, when in coorse they would be drownded. Oi started next day vor hoam, and from that day to this oi ha' never been five mile away, and what's more, oi ha' never grudged the price as they asked for brandy. It ud be cheap if it cost voive toimes as much, seeing the trouble and danger as there be in getting it ashore, to say nothing o' carrying it across the sea."
"That was an adventure, Luke," Ned said, "and you were well out of it. I had no idea you had ever been engaged in defrauding the king's revenue. But now I must be off. I shall make straight across for the mill without going into Varley."
One night Ned had as usual gone to the mill, and having carried down the twelve barrels from the office and placed them in a pile in the center of the principal room of the mill he retired to bed. He had been asleep for some hours when he was awoke by the faint tingle of a bell. The office was over the principal entrance to the mill, and leaping from his bed he threw up the window and looked out. The night was dark, but he could see a crowd of at least two hundred men gathered in the yard.
As the window was heard to open a sudden roar broke from the men, who had hitherto conducted their operations in silence.
"There he be, there's the young fox; burn the mill over his head. Now to work, lads, burst in the door."
And at once a man armed with a mighty sledgehammer began to batter at the door.
Ned tried to make himself heard, but his voice was lost in the roar without. Throwing on some clothes he ran rapidly downstairs and lighted several lamps in the machine room. Then he went to the door, which was already tottering under the heavy blows, shot back some of the bolts, and then took his place by the side of the pile of barrels with a pistol in his hand.
In another moment the door yielded and fell with a crash, and the crowd with exultant cheers poured in.
They paused surprised and irresolute at seeing Ned standing quiet and seemingly indifferent by the pile of barrels in the center of the room.
"Hold!" he said in a quiet, clear voice, which sounded distinctly over the tumult. "Do not come any nearer, or it will be the worse for you. Do you know what I have got here, lads? This is powder. If you doubt it, one of you can come forward and look at this barrel with the head out by my side. Now I have only got to fire my pistol into it to blow the mill, and you with it, into the air, and I mean to do it. Of course I shall go too; but some of you with black masks over your faces, who, I suppose, live near here, may know something about me, and may know that my life is not so pleasant a one that I value it in the slightest. As far as I am concerned you might burn the mill and me with it without my lifting a finger; but this mill is the property of my mother, brother, and sister. Their living depends upon it, and I am going to defend it. Let one of you stir a single step forward and I fire this pistol into this barrel beside me."
And Ned held the pistol over the open barrel.
A dead silence of astonishment and terror had fallen upon the crowd. The light was sufficient for them to see Ned's pale but determined face, and as his words came out cold and steady there was not one who doubted that he was in earnest, and that he was prepared to blow himself and them into the air if necessary.
A cry of terror burst from them as he lowered the pistol to the barrel of powder. Then in wild dismay every man threw down his arms and fled, jostling each other fiercely to make their escape through the doorway from the fate which threatened them. In a few seconds the place was cleared and the assailants in full flight across the country. Ned laughed contemptuously. Then with some difficulty he lifted the broken door into its place, put some props behind it, fetched a couple of blankets from his bed, and lay down near the powder, and there slept quietly till morning.
Luke and Bill Swinton were down at the factory an hour before the usual time. The assailants had for the most part come over from Huddersfield, but many of the men from Varley had been among them. The terror which Ned's attitude had inspired had been so great that the secret was less well kept than usual, and as soon as people were astir the events of the night were known to most in the village. The moment the news reached the ears of Luke and Bill they hurried down to the mill without going in as usual for their mug of beer and bit of bread and cheese at the "Brown Cow." The sight of the shattered door at once told them that the rumors they had heard were well founded. They knocked loudly upon it.
"Hullo!" Ned shouted, rousing himself from his slumbers; "who is there? What are you kicking up all this row about?"
"It's oi, Maister Ned, oi and Bill, and glad oi am to hear your voice. It's true, then, they haven't hurt thee?"
"Not a bit of it," Ned said as he moved the supports of the door. "I think they got the worst of it."
"If so be as what oi ha' heard be true you may well say that, Maister Ned. Oi hear as you ha' gived 'em such a fright as they won't get over in a hurry. They say as you was a-sitting on the top of a heap of gunpowder up to the roof with a pistol in each hand."
"Not quite so terrible as that, Luke; but the effect would have been the same. Those twelve barrels of powder you see there would have blown the mill and all in it into atoms."
"Lord, Maister Ned," Bill said, "where didst thou get that powder, and why didn't ye say nowt about it? Oi ha' seen it up in the office, now oi thinks on it. Oi wondered what them barrels piled up in a corner and covered over wi' sacking could be; but it warn't no business o' mine to ax."
"No, Bill, I did not want any of them to know about it, because these things get about, and half the effect is lost unless they come as a surprise; but I meant to do it if I had been driven to it, and if I had, King Lud would have had a lesson which he would not have forgotten in a hurry. Now, Luke, you and Bill had better help me carry them back to their usual place. I don't think they are likely to be wanted again."
"That they won't be," Luke said confidently; "the Luddites ull never come near this mill agin, not if thou hast twenty toimes as many machines. They ha' got a froight they won't get over. They told me as how some of the chaps at Varley was so freighted that they will be a long toime afore they gets round. Oi'll go and ask tonight how that Methurdy chap, the blacksmith, be a feeling. Oi reckon he's at the bottom on it. Dang un for a mischievous rogue! Varley would ha' been quiet enough without him. Oi be wrong if oi shan't see him dangling from a gibbet one of these days, and a good riddance too."
The powder was stowed away before the hands began to arrive, all full of wonder and curiosity. They learned little at the mill, however. Ned went about the place as usual with an unchanged face, and the hands were soon at their work; but many during the day wondered how it was possible that their quiet and silent young employer should have been the hero of the desperate act of which every one had heard reports more or less exaggerated.
A lad had been sent over to Marsden the first thing for some carpenters, and by nightfall a rough but strong door had been hung in place of that which had been shattered. By the next day rumor had carried the tale all over Marsden, and Ned on his return home was greeted by Charlie with:
"Why, Ned, there is all sorts of talk in the place of an attack upon the mill the night before last. Why didn't you tell me about it?"
"Yes, Maister Ned," Abijah put in, "and they say as you blew up about a thousand of them."
"Yes, Abijah," Ned said with a laugh, "and the pieces haven't come down yet."
"No! but really, Ned, what is it all about?"
"There is not much to tell you, Charlie. The Luddites came and broke open the door. I had got several barrels of powder there, and when they came in I told them if they came any further I should blow the place up. That put them in a funk, and they all bolted, and I went to sleep again. That's the whole affair."
"Oh!" Charlie said in a disappointed voice, for this seemed rather tame after the thrilling reports he had heard.
"Then you didn't blow up any of 'em, Maister Ned," Abijah said doubtfully.
"Not a man jack, Abijah. You see I could not very well have blown them up without going up myself too, so I thought it better to put it off for another time."
"They are very wicked, bad men," Lucy said gravely.
"Not so very wicked and bad, Lucy. You see they are almost starving, and they consider that the new machines have taken the bread out of their mouths, which is true enough. Now you know when people are starving, and have not bread for their wives and children, they are apt to get desperate. If I were to see you starving, and thought that somebody or something was keeping the bread out of your mouth, I dare say I should do something desperate."
"But it would be wrong all the same," Lucy said doubtfully.
"Yes, my dear, but it would be natural; and when human nature pulls one way, and what is right pulls the other, the human nature generally gets the best of it."
Lucy did not exactly understand, but she shook her head gravely in general dissent to Ned's view.
"Why did you not tell us when you came home to breakfast yesterday?" Charlie asked.
"Because I thought you were sure to hear sooner or later. I saw all the hands in the mill had got to know about it somehow or other, and I was sure it would soon get over the place; and I would rather that I could say, if any one asked me, that I had not talked about it to any one, and was in no way responsible for the absurd stories which had got about. I have been talked about enough in Marsden, goodness knows, and it is disgusting that just as I should think they must be getting tired of the subject here is something fresh for them to begin upon again."
As they were at tea the servant brought in a note which had just been left at the door. It was from Mr. Thompson, saying that in consequence of the rumors which were current in the town he should be glad to learn from Ned whether there was any foundation for them, and would therefore be obliged if he would call at eight o'clock that evening. His colleague, Mr. Simmonds, would be present.
Ned gave an exclamation of disgust as he threw down the note.
"Is there any answer, sir?" the servant asked. "The boy said he was to wait."
"Tell him to say to Mr. Thompson that I will be there at eight o'clock; but that--no, that will do.
"It wouldn't be civil," he said to Charlie as the door closed behind the servant, "to say that I wish to goodness he would let my affairs alone and look to his own."
When Ned reached the magistrates at the appointed hour he found that the inquiry was of a formal character. Besides the two justices, Major Browne, who commanded the troops at Marsden, was present; and the justices' clerk was there to take notes.
Mr. Simmonds greeted Ned kindly, Mr. Thompson stiffly. He was one of those who had from the first been absolutely convinced that the lad had killed his stepfather. The officer, who was of course acquainted with the story, examined Ned with a close scrutiny.
"Will you take a seat, Ned?" Mr. Simmonds, who was the senior magistrate, said. "We have asked you here to explain to us the meaning of certain rumors which are current in the town of an attack upon your mill."
"I will answer any questions that you may ask," Ned said quietly, seating himself, while the magistrates' clerk dipped his pen in the ink and prepared to take notes of his statement.
"Is it the case that the Luddites made an attack upon your mill the night before last?"
"It is true, sir."
"Will you please state the exact circumstances."
"There is not much to tell," Ned said quietly. "I have for some time been expecting an attack, having received many threatening letters. I have, therefore, made a habit of sleeping in the mill, and a month ago I got in twelve barrels of powder from Huddersfield. Before going to bed of a night I always pile these in the middle of the room where the looms are, which is the first as you enter. I have bells attached to the shutters and doors to give me notice of any attempt to enter. The night before last I was awoke by hearing one of them ring, and looking out of the window made out a crowd of two or three hundred men outside. They began to batter the door, so, taking a brace of pistols which I keep in readiness by my bed, I went down and took my place by the powder. When they broke down the door and entered I just told them that if they came any further I should fire my pistol into one of the barrels, the head of which I had knocked out, and, as I suppose they saw that I meant to do it, they went off. That is all I have to tell, so far as I know."
The clerk's pen ran swiftly over the paper as Ned quietly made his statement. Then there was a silence for a minute or two.
"And did you really mean to carry out your threat, Mr. Sankey?"
"Certainly," Ned said.
"But you would, of course, have been killed yourself."
"Naturally," Ned said dryly; "but that would have been of no great consequence to me or any one else. As the country was lately about to take my life at its own expense it would not greatly disapprove of my doing so at my own, especially as the lesson to the Luddites would have been so wholesale a one that the services of the troops in this part of the country might have been dispensed with for some time."
"Did you recognize any of the men concerned?"
"I am glad to say I did not," Ned replied. "Some of them were masked. The others were, so far as I could see among such a crowd of faces in a not very bright light, all strangers to me."
"And you would not recognize any of them again were you to see them?"
"I should not," Ned replied. "None of them stood out prominently among the others."
"You speak, Mr. Sankey," Mr. Thompson said, "as if your sympathies were rather on the side of these men, who would have burned your mill, and probably have murdered you, than against them."
"I do not sympathize with the measures the men are taking to obtain redress for what they regard as a grievance; but I do sympathize very deeply with the amount of suffering which they are undergoing from the introduction of machinery and the high prices of provisions; and I am not surprised that, desperate as they are, and ignorant as they are, they should be led astray by bad advice. Is there any other question that you wish to ask me?"
"Nothing at present, I think," Mr. Simmonds said after consulting his colleague by a look. "We shall, of course, forward a report of the affair to the proper authorities, and I may say that although you appear to take it in a very quiet and matter of fact way, you have evidently behaved with very great courage and coolness, and in a manner most creditable to yourself. I think, however, that you ought immediately to have made a report to us of the circumstances, in order that we might at once have determined what steps should be taken for the pursuit and apprehension of the rioters."
Ned made no reply, but rising, bowed slightly to the three gentlemen and walked quietly from the room.
"A singular young fellow!" Major Browne remarked as the door closed behind him. "I don't quite know what to make of him, but I don't think he could have committed that murder. It was a cowardly business, and although I believe he might have a hand in any desperate affair, as indeed this story he has just told us shows, I would lay my life he would not do a cowardly one."
"I agree with you," Mr. Simmonds said, "though I own that I have never been quite able to rid myself of a vague suspicion that he was guilty."
"And I believe he is so still," Mr. Thompson said. "To me there is something almost devilish about that lad's manner."
"His manner was pleasant enough," Mr. Simmonds said warmly, "before that affair of Mulready. He was as nice a lad as you would wish to see till his mother was fool enough to get engaged to that man, who, by the way, I never liked. No wonder his manner is queer now; so would yours be, or mine, if we were tried for murder and, though acquitted, knew there was still a general impression of our guilt."
"Yes, by Jove," the officer said, "I should be inclined to shoot myself. You are wrong, Mr. Thompson, take my word for it. That young fellow never committed a cowardly murder. I think you told me, Mr. Simmonds, that he had intended to go into the army had it not been for this affair? Well, his majesty has lost a good officer, for that is just the sort of fellow who would lead a forlorn hope though he knew the breach was mined in a dozen places. It is a pity, a terrible pity!"
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