To the Greeks Foolishness

Neither Mrs. Coleman nor her husband thought it anything worse than a feverish cold, and he went to his work. It was a club night, the night on which the final arrangements for the march were to be made, and he did not like to be away. His wife was to lie in bed; but a woman in the house offered to wait upon her and bring what little food she wanted. It was settled at the club that the Major should accompany the expedition and Zachariah and Caillaud having drawn lots, the lot fell upon Caillaud. A last attempt was made to dissuade the majority from the undertaking; but it had been made before, not only by our three friends, but by other Lancashire societies, and had failed. The only effect its renewal had now was a disagreeable and groundless insinuation which was unendurable. On his return from the meeting Zachariah was alarmed. His wife was in great pain, and had taken next to nothing all day. Late as it was, he went for a doctor, who would give no opinion as to the nature of the disease then, but merely ordered her some kind of sedative mixture, which happily gave her a little sleep. Zachariah was a working man and a poor man. Occasionally it does happen that a working man and a poor man has nerves, and never does his poverty appear so hateful to him as when he has sickness in his house.

The mere discomforts of poverty are bad enough⁠—the hunger and cold of it⁠—but worse than all is the impossibility of being decently ill, or decently dying, or of paying any attention to those who take it into their heads to be ill or to die. A man tolerably well off can at least get his wife some help when she is laid up, and when she is near her end can remain with her to take her last kiss and blessing. Not so the bricklayer’s labourer. If his wife is in bed, he must depend upon charity for medicine and attendance. And although he knows he will never see her again, he is forced away to the job on which he is employed; for if he does not go he will lose it, and must apply to the parish for a funeral. Happily the poor are not slow to help one another. The present writer has known women who have to toil hard all day long, sit up night after night with their neighbours, and watch them with the most tender care. Zachariah found it so in his case. A fellow-lodger, the mother of half-a-dozen children, a woman against whom the Colemans had conceived a prejudice, and whom they had avoided, came forward and modestly asked Zachariah if she might “look after” Mrs. Coleman while he was away. He thought for a moment of sundry harsh things which he had said about her, and then a well-known parable came into his mind about a certain Samaritan, and he could have hugged her with joy at her offer.

Mrs. Carter was one of those healthy, somewhat red-faced, gay creatures whom nothing represses. She was never melancholy with those who were suffering; not because she had no sympathy for she was profoundly sympathetic⁠—but because she was subduable. Her pulse was quick, and her heart so sound that her blood, rich and strong⁠—blood with never a taint in it⁠—renewed every moment every fibre of her brain. Her very presence to those who were desponding was a magnetic charm and she could put to flight legions of hypochondriacal fancies with a cheery word. Critics said she ruled her husband; but what husband would not rejoice in being so ruled? He came home weary and he did not want to rule. He wanted to be directed, and he gladly saw the reins in the hands of his “missus,” of whom he was justly proud. She conducted all the conversation; she spent his money, and even bought him his own clothes; and although she said a sharp thing or two now and then, she never really quarrelled with him. The eldest of her six children was only twelve years old, and she was not over methodical, so that her apartments were rather confused and disorderly. She was not, however, dirty, and would not tolerate dirt even in her boys, to whom, by the way, she administered very short and sharp corrections sometimes. If they came to the table with grimy paws, the first intimation they had that their mother noticed it was a rap on the knuckles with the handle of a knife which sent the bread and butter flying out of their fingers. She read no books, and, what was odd in those days, did not go to chapel or church; but she had her “opinions,” as she called them, upon everything which was stirring in the world, and never was behindhand in the news. She was really happier when she found that she had to look after Mrs. Coleman. She bustled about, taking directions from the doctor⁠—not without some scepticism, for she had notions of her own on the subject of disease⁠—and going up and down stairs continually to see how her patient was getting on. It was curious that although she was a heavy woman she was so active. She was always on her legs from morning to night, and never seemed fatigued. Indeed, when she sat still she was rather uncomfortable; and this was her weak point, for her restlessness interfered with sewing and mending, which she abominated.

The time for the march was close at hand. The Habeas Corpus Act had meanwhile been suspended and every reformer had to walk very warily. Ogden, in whose office it will be remembered that Zachariah was engaged, had issued a handbill informing all the inhabitants of Manchester and its neighbourhood that on the 10th March a meeting would be held near St. Peter’s Church of those persons who had determined to carry their petitions to London. Zachariah, going to his shop, as usual, on the morning of the 10th⁠—a Monday⁠—was astonished to find that Ogden was arrested and in prison.

We must, however, for a time, follow the fortunes of Caillaud and the Major on that day. They were both astir at five o’clock, and joined one another at the club. All the members were to assemble there at seven. Never was the Major more despondent. As for organisation, there was none, and every proposal he had made had been thwarted. He saw well enough, as a soldier, that ten times the enthusiasm at his command would never carry a hundred men to London in that cold weather, and that if twenty thousand started, the number would be the difficulty. The Yeomanry cavalry were under orders to oppose them, and what could an undisciplined mob do against a semi-military force? The end of it would be the prompt dispersion of the pilgrims and the discredit of the cause. Nevertheless, both he and Caillaud had determined not to desert it. The absence of all preparations on the part of these poor Blanketeers was, in truth, very touching, as it showed the innocent confidence which they had in the justice of their contention. Their avowed object was to present a petition personally to the Prince Regent, that they might “undeceive” him; as if such a thing were possible, or, being possible, would be of the slightest service. The whole country would rise and help them; their journey would be a triumphal procession; they were not a hostile army; the women would come to the doors and offer them bread and milk; they would reach London; Lord Liverpool would resign; and they would come back to Manchester with banners flying, having saved their country. At nine o’clock the club was in St. Peter’s fields, and a kind of platform had been erected, from which an address was to be given. Caillaud and the Major were down below. Both of them were aghast at what they saw. Thousands of men were present with whom they were unacquainted, who had been attracted by Ogden’s proclamation; some with coats; others without coats; some with sticks; some with petitions; but most of them with blankets, which they had rolled up like knapsacks. The Major’s heart sank within him. What on earth could he do? Nothing except accompany them and try to prevent collision with the troops. The magistrates were distracted by no doubts whatever. They read the Riot Act, although there was no riot, nor the semblance of one, and forthwith surrounded the platform and carried off everyone on it to prison. The crowd was then chased by the soldiers and special constables, till all power of combination was at an end. About three hundred however, were collected, and found their way to Ardwick Green. They had been joined by others on the route, and the Major informally reviewed his men. Never, surely, was there such a regiment! never, surely, did any regiment go on such an errand! Ragged many of them; ignorant all, fanatical, penniless, they determined, in spite of all arguments, to proceed. He pointed out that if they could be so easily scattered when they were thousands strong, every one of them would be cut down or captured before they were twenty miles on the road. He was answered as before with contempt and suspicions of cowardice. A Methodist, half-starved, grey-haired, with black rings round his eyes and a yellow face, harangued them.

“My friends,” he said, “we have been told to go back; that we are too few to accomplish the task to which we have set ourselves. What said the Lord unto Gideon, Judges 7: ‘The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me. Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from Gilead.’ Well, twenty-two thousand went back and at last Gideon had only the three hundred who lapped the water. By those three hundred Israel was saved from the Midianites. Our thousands have left us; but we shall triumph. It may be the Lord’s will that more should depart. It may be that there are yet too many. I say, then, in the words of Gideon, ‘Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return.’ Is there anybody?” (Loud shouts answered “None.”) “The Lord is with us,” continued the speaker⁠—“the sword of the Lord and of Gideon!” Everyone shouted again.

Respectable Manchester was frightened when the Blanketeers met, and laughed them to scorn when they were dispersed. No wonder at the laughter. What could be more absurd? And yet, when we call to mind the thing then on the throne; the thing that gave £180 for an evening coat, and incurred enormous debts, while his people were perishing; the thing that drank and lied and whored; the thing that never did nor said nor thought anything that was not utterly brutish and contemptible⁠—when we think that the thing was a monarch, Heaven-ordained, so it was said, on which side does the absurdity really lie? Of a truth, not only is the wisdom of this world foolishness, as it ever was, but that which to this world is foolishness is adjudged wisdom by the Eternal Arbiter. The Blanketeers shivering on Ardwick Green, the weavers who afterwards drilled on the Lancashire moors, and were hung according to law, or killed at Peterloo, are less ridiculous than those who hung or sabred them, less ridiculous than the Crimean war and numberless dignified events in human history, the united achievements of the sovereigns and ministries of Europe.

The route of the three hundred was towards Stockport; but when they reached the bridge they found it occupied by the Yeomanry and a troop of the Life Guards. To attempt to force a passage was impossible; but numbers threw themselves into the river, and so crossed. The soldiers then withdrew into Stockport town, and the bridge was left open to the main body. When they got into the street on the other side the soldiers and police dashed at them, and arrested everybody whom they could catch. The Major was foremost in the crowd, endeavouring to preserve some sort of discipline, and one of the Yeomanry, suspecting him to be a leader, rode up to him, and, leaning from his horse, collared him. He was unarmed; but he was a powerful man, and wrenched himself free. The soldier drew his sword, and although Caillaud was close by, and attempted to parry the blow with a stick, the Major lay a dead man on the ground. The next moment, however, the soldier himself was dead⁠—dead from a pistol-shot fired by Caillaud, who was instantly seized, handed over to a guard, and marched off with a score of others to Manchester jail. A remnant only of the Blanketeers escaped from Stockport, and a smaller remnant got to Macclesfield. There there was no shelter for them, and many of them lay in the streets all night. When the morning dawned only twenty went on into Staffordshire, and these shortly afterwards separated, and wandered back to Manchester. The sword of Gideon was, alas! not the sword of the Lord, and aching hearts in that bitter March weather felt that there was something worse than the cold to be borne at they struggled homewards. Others, amongst whom was our Methodist orator, were not discouraged. It is a poor religion which makes no provision for disaster, and even for apparently final failure. The test of faith is its power under defeat, and these silly God-fearing souls argued to themselves that their Master’s time was not their time; that perhaps they were being punished for their sins, and that when it pleased Him they would triumph. Essentially right they were, right in every particular, excepting, perhaps, that it was not for their own sins that this sore visitation came upon them. Visitation for sin it was certainly, but a visitation for the sins of others⁠—such is the way of Providence, and has been ever since the world began, much to the amazement of many reflective persons. Thou hast laid on Him the iniquity of us all, and Jesus is crucified rather than the Scribes and Pharisees! Yet could we really wish it otherwise? Would it have been better in the end that Caiaphas and the elders should have been nailed upon Calvary, and Jesus die at a good old age, crowned with honour? It was not yet God’s time in 1817, but God’s time was helped forward, as it generally is, by this anticipation of it. It is a commonplace that a premature outbreak puts back the hands of the clock and is a blunder. Nine times out of ten this is untrue, and a revolt instantaneously quenched in blood is not merely the precursor, but the direct progenitor of success.

We will spend no time over the death of Major Maitland. The tragic interest, as one of our greatest masters has said, lies not with the corpse but with the mourners, and we turn back to Zachariah. Ogden’s office was shut. On the night after the breakdown at Stockport a note in pencil was left at Zachariah’s house, in Pauline’s handwriting. It was very short:⁠—“Fly for your life⁠—they will have you tonight⁠—P.

Fly for his life! But how could he fly, with his wife in bed and with no work before him? Would it not be base to leave her? Then it occurred to him that if he were taken and imprisoned, he would be altogether incapable of helping her. He determined to speak to Mrs. Carter. He showed her the note, and she was troubled with no hesitation of any kind.

“My good man,” she said, “you be off this minute. That’s what you’ve got to do. Never mind your wife; I’ll see after her. Expense? Lord, Mr. Coleman what’s that? She don’t eat much. Besides, we’ll settle all about that afterwards.”

Zachariah hesitated.

“Now don’t stand shilly-shallying and a-thinking and a-thinking⁠—that never did anybody any good. I can’t a-bear a man as thinks and thinks when there’s anything to be done as plain as the nose in his face. Where’s your bag?”

Mrs. Carter was out of the room in an instant, and in ten minutes came back with a change of clothes.

“Now, let us know where you are; but don’t send your letters here. You write to my sister; there’s her address. You needn’t go up there; your wife’s asleep. I’ll bid her goodbye for you. Take my advice⁠—get out of this county somewhere, and get out of Manchester tonight.”

“I must go upstairs to get some money,” and Zachariah stole into his bedroom to take half a little hoard which was in a desk there. His wife, as Mrs. Carter had said, was asleep. He went to her bedside and looked at her. She was pale and worn. Lying there unconscious, all the defects which had separated him from her vanished. In sleep and death the divine element of which we are compounded reappears, and we cease to hate or criticise; we can only weep or pray. He looked and looked again. The hours of first love and courtship passed before him; he remembered what she was to him then, and he thought that perhaps the fault, after all, might have been on his side, and that he had perhaps not tried to understand her. He thought of her loneliness⁠—taken away by him into a land of strangers⁠—and now he was about to desert her; he thought, too, that she also was one of God’s children just as much as he was; perhaps more so. The tears filled his eyes, although he was a hard, strong man not used to tears, and something rose in his throat and almost choked him. He was about to embrace her; but he dared not disturb her. He knelt down at the foot of the bed, and in an agony besought his God to have mercy on him. “God have mercy on me! God have mercy on her!” That was all he could say⁠—nothing else, although he had been used to praying habitually. His face was upon her feet, as she lay stretched out there, and he softly uncovered one of them, so gently that she could not perceive it. Spotlessly white it was, and once upon a time she was so attractive to him because she was so exquisitely scrupulous! He bent his lips over it, kissed it⁠—she stirred, but did not wake; a great cry almost broke from him, but he stifled it and rose. There was a knock at the door, and he started. It was Mrs. Carter.

“Come,” she said as he went out, “you have been here long enough. Poor dear man!⁠—there, there⁠—of course it’s hard to bear⁠—poor dear man!”⁠—and the good creature put her hand affectionately on his shoulder.

“I don’t know how it is,” she continued, wiping her eyes with her apron, “I can’t a-bear to see a man cry. It always upsets me. My husband ain’t done it above once or twice in his life, and, Lord, I’d sooner a cried myself all night long. Goodbye, my dear, goodbye, goodbye; God bless you! It will all come right.”

In another minute Zachariah was out of doors. It was dark, and getting late. The cold air revived him but he could not for some time come to any determination as to what he ought to do next. He was not well acquainted with the country round Manchester, and he could not decide to what point of the compass it would be safest to bend his steps. At last he remembered that at any rate he must escape from the town boundaries, and get a night’s lodging somewhere outside them. With the morning some light would possibly dawn upon him.

Pauline’s warning was well-timed, for the constables made a descent upon Caillaud’s lodgings as soon as they got him into jail, and thence proceeded to Coleman’s. They insisted on a search, and Mrs. Carter gave them a bit of her mind, for they went into every room of the house, and even into Mrs. Coleman’s bedroom.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Mr. Nadin,” she said, turning towards the notorious chief constable, “if God A’mighty had to settle who was to be hung in Manchester, it wouldn’t be any of them poor Blanketeers. Wouldn’t you like to strip the clothes off the bed? That would be just in your line.”

“Hold your damned tongue!” quoth Mr. Nadin; but, nevertheless, seeing his men grinning and a little ashamed of themselves, he ordered them back.

Meanwhile Zachariah pursued his way northwestward unchallenged, and at last came to a roadside inn, which he thought looked safe. He walked in, and found half a dozen decent-looking men sitting round a fire and smoking. One of them was a parson, and another was one of the parish overseers. It was about half-past ten, and they were not merry, but a trifle boozy and stupid. Zachariah called for a pint of beer and some bread and cheese, and asked if he could have a bed. The man who served him didn’t know; but would go and see. Presently the overseer was beckoned out of the room, and the man came back again and informed Zachariah that there was no bed for him, and that he had better make haste with his supper, as the house would close at eleven. In a minute or two the door opened again, and a poor, emaciated weaver entered and asked the overseer for some help. His wife, he said, was down with the fever; he had no work; he had had no victuals all day, and he and his family were starving. He was evidently known to the company.

“Ah,” said the overseer, “no work, and the fever and starving; that’s what they always say. I’ll bet a sovereign you’ve been after them Blanketeers.”

“It’s a judgment on you,” observed the parson. “You and your like go setting class against class; you never come near the church, and then you wonder God Almighty punishes you.”

“You can come on your knees to us when it suits you, and you’d burn my rick tomorrow,” said a third.

“There’s a lot of fever amongst ’em down my way,” said another, whose voice was rather thick, “and a damned lot of expense they are, too, for physic and funerals. It’s my belief that they catch it out of spite.”

“Aren’t you going to give me nothing?” said the man. “There isn’t a mouthful of food in the place, and the wife may be dead before the morning.”

“Well, what do you say, parson?” said the overseer.

“I say we’ve got quite enough to do to help those who deserve help,” he replied, “and that it’s flying in the face of Providence to interfere with its judgment.” With that he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and took a great gulp of his brandy-and-water.

There was an echo of assent.

“God have mercy on me!” said the man, as he sat down on the form by the table. Zachariah touched him gently, and pushed the plate and jug to him. He looked at Zachariah, and without saying a word, devoured it greedily. He just had time to finish, for the landlord, entering the room, roughly ordered them to turn out. Out they went accordingly.

“The Lord in heaven curse them!” exclaimed Zachariah’s companion when they were in the road. “I could have ripped ’em up, every one of ’em. My wife is in bed with her wits a-wandering, and there a’nt a lump of coal, nor a crumb of bread, nor a farthing in the house.”

“Hush, my friend, cursing is of no use.”

“Ah! it’s all very well to talk; you’ve got money maybe.”

“Not much. I too have no work, no lodging, and I’m driven away from home. Here’s half of what’s left.”

“What a sinner I am!” said the other. “You wouldn’t think it, to hear me go on as I did, but I am a Methodist. The last two or three days, though, I’ve been like a raving madman. That’s the worst of it. Starvation has brought the devil into me. I’m not a-going to take all that though, master; I’ll take some of it; and if ever I prayed to the Throne of Grace in my life, I’ll pray for you. Who are you? Where are you going?”

Zachariah felt that he could safely trust him, and told him what had happened.

“I haven’t got a bit of straw myself on which to put you; but you come along with me.”

They walked together for about half a mile, till they came to a barn. There was a haystack close by, and they dragged some of the dry hay into it.

“You’d better be away from these parts afore it’s light, and, if you take my advice, Liverpool is the best place for you.”

He was right. Liverpool was a large town, and, what was of more consequence, it was not so revolutionary as Manchester, and the search there for the suspected was not so strict. The road was explained, so far as Zachariah’s friend knew it, and they parted.

Zachariah slept but little, and at four o’clock, with a bright moon, he started. He met with no particular adventure, and in the evening found himself once more in a wilderness of strange streets, with no outlook, face to face with the Red Sea. Happy is the man who, if he is to have an experience of this kind, is trained to it when young, and is not suddenly brought to it after a life of security. Zachariah, although he was desponding, could now say he had been in the same straits before, and had survived. That is the consolation of all consolations to us. We have actually touched and handled the skeleton, and after all we have not been struck dead.1

“O socii, neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum,
O passi graviora, dabit Deus his quoque finem.
Vos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantes
Accestis scopulos; vos et Cyclopia saxa
Experti. Revocate animos, moestumque timorem
Mittite; forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.”

He wandered down to the water and saw a ship cleared for some port across the Atlantic. A longing seized him to go with her. Over the sea⁠—he thought there he would be at rest. So we all think, and as we watch the vessels dropping below the horizon in the sunset cloud, we imagine them bound with a happy crew to islands of the blest, the truth being that the cloud is a storm, and the destined port is as commonplace and full of misery as the one they have left. Zachariah, however, did not suffer himself to dream. He went diligently and systematically to work; but this time all his efforts were fruitless. He called on every printing-office he could find, and there was not one which wanted a hand, or saw any prospect of wanting one. He thought of trying the riverside; but he stood no chance there, as he had never been accustomed to carry heavy weights. His money was running short, and at last, when evening came on the third day, and he was faint with fatigue, his heart sank. He was ill, too, and sickness began to cloud his brain. As the power of internal resistance diminishes, the circumstance of the external world presses on us like the air upon an exhausted glass ball, and finally crushes us. It saddened him, too, to think, as it has saddened thousands before him, that the fight which he fought, and the death which, perhaps, was in front of him, were so mean. Ophelia dies; Juliet dies, and we fancy that their fate, although terrible, is more enviable than that of a pauper who drops undramatically on London stones. He came to his lodging at the close of the third day, wet, tired, hungry, and with a headache. There was nobody to suggest anything to him or offer him anything. He went to bed, and a thousand images, uncontrolled, rushed backwards and forwards before him. He became excited, so that he could not rest, and after walking about his room till nearly daylight, turned into bed again. When morning had fairly arrived he tried to rise, but he was beaten. He lay still till about eleven, and then the woman who kept the lodging-house appeared and asked him if he was going to stay all day where he was. He told her he was very bad; but she went away without a word, and he saw nothing more of her. Towards night he became worse and finally delirious.