Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Baby Greybeards

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"BUT don't you understand," remarked a farmer friend of mine, who like myself was present at the touching scene described in the preceding paper, "they wouldn't feel it as soon as other men?" They have not got any of those fine feelings and sentiments which those firebrands who are so constantly amongst them would persuade them they possess. They haven't got 'em, and they're better without 'em. Their fathers and their grandfathers were as good men as they are, and lived and died so, and they never troubled their heads about any sentimental rubbish. They knew their way to the fields on week days - that was enough for us - and they knew their way to the church on Sundays, and that was enough for them. That was all about it. It was the good old system, and they were satisfied with it, and they never would have rose against it of their own free will."
    "But matters could not have arrived at their present pass without the free will of the men," I remarked.
    "What I mean is," replied the farmer, "that they are naturally a dull folk, and that what these clever ones call 'progress' was until lately a foreign word to them, and that they'd fall to the ground again, like children in arms, if those who have taken 'em in hand were to slacken their grip on 'em. I don't ask you to take my word for it. Go amongst them yourself and hear them talk with one another, and you'll soon be convinced."
    [-232-] It was this last observation of the farmer that led to my finding myself a few evenings afterwards in the company of a little squad of agricultural labourers, who, as usual on Saturday night, had met at the ale-house of their village to indulge in the social glass and enjoy the pipe of pleasant companionship. When I first entered the room there were present but two persons, labourers both, and locked-out, as was denoted by the bit of "blue" twisted in the band of their caps. I was glad to make this discovery, as from their sitting apart and their apparent sulky demeanour towards each other, I at first imagined that they were not on speaking terms. There was nothing in their general appearance or the expression of their countenance that denoted them men "at play," or as having recently struck on a promising vein of good fortune, the yield of which at present was incalculable. They were dull-eyed and heavy-featured fellows, and sat with their broad backs bowed and their great fingers interlaced like men lost in profound meditation. I thought to myself: "That farmer did not know what he was talking about. These are men who may at one time have been stolid and stupefied by a long course of brutal treatment, but now they are awakening - slowly perhaps - to a sense of their position, and no doubt, when a few of them get together I shall hear much that is worth listening to." I was not kept long in suspense.
    Presently one of the two elderly men took a pull at his beer, and remarked to his friend, "Summat haardish, beant it?"
On which his friend took a pull too, and gravely responded, "The waarm weather, I s'pose:" and both again interlaced their great fingers, and with downcast eyes puffed at their short pipes and said no more.
    Then a third labourer made his appearance, likewise with a blue ribbon in his cap, and with a pint of beer he had got at the bar. As he entered he nodded and said, "Ee-yaar, then."
    In response to that cabalistic salutation the other two responded, "Ee-yaar, then, Joe," and puffed a friendly whiff of tobacco smoke in his direction.
[-233-] Now they'll begin to talk, thought I; but I was again mistaken. The third corner drank some beer, and, as he set the jug down, screwed up his eyes and whistled as he drew up one of his feet.
    "Wut is it?" asked the man who had said that the beer was hard.
    "Caarns - two on 'em, a saaft un and a haard un."
    "Warnts cuttin',  p'r'aps."
    "Very loikely."
    And then the third man lit his pipe, took a seat, heaved a deep sigh, interlaced his big fingers, and for at least five minutes nothing was heard but the ticking of the clock in the corner. It occurred to me that perhaps they were made shy of talking about what must be uppermost in their minds by my presence. For all that they could tell I might be one of the enemy; so, to set at rest any uneasiness that might exist in their minds, I remarked, "So you are making fair headway in these parts, I am told; you mean to win the day, it seems;" and as I spoke I touched the "striking colour" in the cap that was lying on the table.
    "Ay, we're all union here, master," replied the man the cap belonged to.
    "And union is strength," said the second man.
    "That's what I say," added the third, and again the clock had it all to itself.
    "The newspapers give famous accounts of the progress you are making," said I; "but I needn't tell you that; you have read all about it for yourselves, of course."
    "Well, coorse we've heerd tell of it; we can't say ezactly that we've read of it, cos we caarnt read. We beant much o' scholars at newspaper print in these parts, master - at least I beant. I think that we three be all in dunce's class, hey, lads?" and at the joke there was a loud laugh, which brought in three other labourers who had been lounging at the door.
    [-234-] "What's goin' on?" one of them inquired.
    "We was talkin' o' readin' and book larnin', Peter. We was born afoor the time when they coom in fashion, warn't we?"
    "I loike they peapers that's got pictures in," remarked Peter, aged about 55;  "they're a sight easier to understan' than readin'; no matter what it is, a murder or a accident, there it is all drawed out just loike as though you was there to see it."
    "But," said I, "you couldn't have everything put in a picture like that; what is being said, for instance, all over the country at the present time about this lock-out, how could that be turned into a drawing?"
   "It u'd make a rare loively picture, though," returned Peter, stirring his grey hair with a grin. "I'd bike to see a picture of they foamin' old varmers at Bury t'other day! Gushed if I wouldn't hey it framed and hung up over the foireplace."
    Peter was evidently the recognized joker of the little community, and at this last utterance of his the others laughed till tears trickled in the furrows of their faces.
    "But is it true," I presently inquired, "that there is no man amongst you" - there were eight by this time - "who is able to read?" To which question seven shook their heads, while the eighth modestly claimed to be able to spell out large print if time were allowed for the job.
    "But we're not so much in the dark as our fathers and their fathers was, don't you think that, master!" one man remarked earnestly, and with something like a prideful twinkle lighting his dull eyes; "if we hed ha' been, p'r'aps we should never hey roused up to what we hev. We gets to know what they put in the newspapers, just as though we could read em with our own eyesight!"
   "Indeed; how's that?"
   "Why, through the youngsters, to be sure. They're got the pull o' we. They makes them barn and write and read, and them as can make out the print o' books can do likewise, by [-235-] studyin' on it, wi' the print o' newspapers, and that's how we gets at it."
    There was a dead silence after this, and the company regarded each other with something like consternation, and the speaker with reproach. It evidently was the general impression that he had let out a secret to a stranger which it would have been more prudent to have kept.
    "And when we speak out that free, it isn't as though we wasn't talkin' wi' a gen'elman," one of them remarked.
    "I am only too glad to hear that you are able to gain useful knowledge anyhow," said I; "the teaching your children get could not be put to a better purpose." Though at the same time I could not help marvelling how strange it was that spelling books in childish hands should have played so important a part in fanning into flame the smouldering discontent of generations. After this comparatively animated conversation we subsided once more to silence, and puffed at our pipes with a fixed regard each for his brown beer jug on the table. At last one old gentleman - a thatcher by trade, who sat in a corner by himself - startled the company by a strange noise he was making in his throat. It was at first supposed that he had been drinking and his beer had gone the wrong way, but alarm quickly gave way to amazement when it was discovered that the aged thatcher was chuckling with suppressed laughter.
    "What's game amiss, Billy?" somebody asked.
    "Oh, it's all right; don't mind me," said the thatcher. "On'y what you was jest now sayin' set me a thinkin' on what a wonderful thing book larnin' is. Why," continued the old man, suddenly growing grave, and bending forward over the table so as to get a better view of the company, "I heerd the other night, from the lips o' my young gran'darter, one of the most won'erful things as ever you heer tell on. She read it out of a book - not a true book, mind ye, but a book o' friction I think it was she called it; which makes all the difference. Well, [-236-] theere was once a old woman as had a cow to sell, and likewise she had a lad what was name Jack. Well, Jack took cow to rnaarket to sell it, and goin' along, he met a old fellow who was - well, it was a long word, and Susy warn't quite sure about un - he was a negromuncher or summat o' that; anyhow he warn't no good."
    By this time the seven grey heads at the other tables were all craned forward, while fourteen staring eyes were fixed on the thatcher.
    "Mind ye," continued he, "it's on'y a story, mind ye; it ain't true, not a mite on it. Well, the old man, he sez to Jack, he sez, 'I'll gi' you these here beans for the cow;' and Jack, bein' a saaftish kind o' lad, took 'em for it, and away he goes home. Well, t'ould woman was in a bad way, as you may depend upon it; and fust she waarms Jack's jacket, and then she pitches beans out into back gaarden. Early next mornin', when Jack looked out of his window, there he sees a twinin' green ladder loike of green stalks a reachin' right out o' sight."
    In short, what the old Thatcher had to tell, and what, with mouths agape and pipes grown cold in their nervous grasp, the seven middle-aged labourers for the first time in their lives listened to, was "Jack and the Beanstalk." Never did story-teller command a more attentive audience. They were with the thatcher every step of his way up the "ladder as high as the sky," and when Jack blew the horn that hung at the gate of the castle of the two-headed giant, every man wetted his lips with his tongue, as though in imagination he was taking a turn at it. When the giant's wife, after hospitably entertaining Jack, announced in a fright that her husband was coming; and the thatcher brought his fist down hard on the table, to imitate the giant's thundering knock at the door, the fourteen staring eyes winked again, and somebody said, "Stop jest haalf a minut," and everybody took a drink of ale to fortify themselves for what was to come. As the interest evinced by his friends be-[-237-]came too painfully intense, the thatcher charitably paused to remind them that it was "on'y a story," and that they mustn't think that it really all happened. He found it necessary to repeat this caution more frequently as the story proceeded and its more sanguinary parts were reached, and with less effect, if one may judge by the fact that by the time Jack, with the two-headed one in hot pursuit, stepped down the beanstalk into his mother's garden, and then, chopping away the root, brought the giant from the height of a mile or so, with a terrific smash to the ground, the hair of every man present was wet with perspiration.
    Nobody asked the thatcher any question when he had done. Every man relit his pipe and took a drink of beer, and composed himself to silent cogitation until the clock struck ten, when, with a nod for "good night, they took their departure; to dream, I have no doubt, of the redoubtable Jack, and wake in a sweat at the scratching of a mouse, exaggerated in the ghostly stillness to the noise of Giant Blunderbore coming head first down the chimney. Of course, I cannot say positively one way or the other. I may have hit on an exceptionally simple few, or it may be that those I have described are a fair sample of the agricultural labourer "at home" and left to himself. If the latter, one hardly knows whether to be glad or sorry at the prospect of his being admitted to the ranks of the intensely wide-awake and taught worldly wisdom.