A Strain on the Cable

Bow Street was completely at fault, and never discovered the secret of that assassination. It was clear that neither the Major nor Coleman were the murderers, as they had been noticed at some distance from the spot where the Secretary fell by several persons who described them accurately. Nor was Caillaud suspected, as the constable testified that he passed him on the opposite side of the street, as he followed the Secretary. The only conclusion, according to Bow Street, which was free from all doubt was, that whoever did the deed was a committee consisting of a single member. A reward of £500 did not bring forward anybody who knew anything about the business. As for Caillaud, his daughter and the Major, the next morning saw them far on the way to Dover, and eventually they arrived at Paris in safety. Zachariah, when he reached home, found his wife gone. A note lay for him there, probably from the same hand which warned the Major, telling him not to lose an instant, but to join in Islington one of the mails to Manchester. His wife would start that night from St. Martin’s le Grand by a coach which went by another road. He was always prompt, and in five minutes he was out of the house. The fare was carefully folded by his unknown friend in the letter. He just managed as directed, to secure a place, not by the regular Manchester mail, but by one which went through Barnet and stopped to take up passengers at the Angel. He climbed upon the roof, and presently was travelling rapidly through Holloway and Highgate. He found, to his relief, that nobody had heard of the murder, and he was left pretty much to his own reflections. His first thoughts were an attempt to unravel the mystery. Why was it so sudden? Why had no word nor hint of what was intended reached him? He could not guess. In those days the clubs were so beset with spies that frequently the most important resolutions were taken by one man, who confided in nobody. It was winter, but fortunately Zachariah was well wrapped up. He journeyed on, hour after hour, in a state of mazed bewilderment, one thought tumbling over another, and when morning broke over the flats he had not advanced a single step in the determination of his future path. Nothing is more painful to a man of any energy than the inability to put things in order in himself⁠—to place before himself what he has to do, and arrange the means for doing it. To be the passive victim of a rushing stream of disconnected impressions is torture, especially if the emergency be urgent. So when the sun came up Zachariah began to be ashamed of himself that the night had passed in these idiotic moonings, which had left him just where he was, and he tried to settle what he was to do when he reached Manchester. He did not know a soul; but he could conjecture why he was advised to go thither. It was a disaffected town, and Friends of the People were very strong there. His first duty was to get a lodging, his second to get work, and his third to find out a minister of God under whom he could worship. He put this last, not because it was the least important, but because he had the most time to decide upon it. At about ten o’clock at night he came to his journey’s end, and to his joy saw his wife waiting for him. They went at once to a small inn hard by, and Mrs. Coleman began to overwhelm him with interrogation; but he quietly suggested that not a syllable should be spoken till they had had some rest, and that they should swallow their supper and go to bed. In the morning Zachariah rose and looked out of the window. He saw nothing but a small backyard in which some miserable, scraggy fowls were crouching under a cart to protect themselves from the rain, which was falling heavily through the dim, smoky air. His spirits sank. He had no fear of apprehension or prosecution, but the prospect before him was depressing. Although he was a poor man, he had not been accustomed to oscillations of fortune, and he was in an utterly strange place, with five pounds in his pocket, and nothing to do.

He was, however, resolved not to yield, and thought it best to begin with his wife before she could begin with him.

“Now, my dear, tell me what has happened, who sent you here, and what kind of a journey you have had?”

Mr. Bradshaw came about seven o’clock, and told me the Government was about to suppress the Friends of the People; that you did not know it; that I must go to Manchester; that you would come after me; and that a message would be left for you. He took me to the coach, and paid for me.”

Mr. Bradshaw! Did he tell you anything more?”

“No; except that he did not think we should be pursued, and that he would send our things after us when he knew where we were.”

“You have not heard anything more, then?”


“You haven’t heard that the Secretary was shot?”

“Shot! Oh dear! Zachariah, what will become of us?”

Her husband then told her what he knew, she listening with great eagerness and in silence.

“Oh, Zachariah, what will become of us?” she broke out again.

“There is no reason to worry yourself, Jane; it is perfectly easy for me to prove my innocence. It is better for us, however, to stay here for a time. The Government won’t go any further with us; they will search for the murderer⁠—that’s all.”

“Why, then, are we sent here and the others are let alone? I suppose the Major is not here?”

“I cannot say.”

“To think I should ever come to this! I haven’t got a rag with me beyond what I have on. I haven’t got any clean things; a nice sort of creature I am to go out of doors. And it all had nothing to do with us.”

“Nothing to do with us! My dear Jane, do you mean that we are not to help other people, but sit at home and enjoy ourselves? Besides, if you thought it wrong, why did you not say so before?”

“How was I to know what you were doing? You never told me anything; you never do. One thing I do know is that we shall starve and I suppose I shall have to go about and beg. I haven’t even another pair of shoes or stockings to my feet.”

Zachariah pondered for a moment. His first impulse was something very different; but at last he rose, went up to his wife, kissed her softly on the forehead, and said:

“Never mind, my dear; courage, you will have your clothes next week. Come with me and look out for a lodging.”

Mrs. Zachariah, however, shook herself free⁠—not violently, but still decidedly⁠—from his caresses.

“Most likely seized by the Government. Look for a lodging! That’s just like you! How can I go out in this pouring rain?”

Zachariah lately, at any rate, had ceased to expect much affection in his wife for him; but he thought she was sensible, and equal to any complexity of circumstances, or even to disaster. He thought this, not on any positive evidence; but he concluded, somewhat absurdly, that her coldness meant common sense and capacity for facing trouble courageously and with deliberation. He had now to find out his mistake, and to learn that the absence of emotion neither proves, nor is even a ground for suspecting, any good whatever of a person; that, on the contrary, it is a ground for suspecting weakness, and possibly imbecility.

Mrs. Coleman refused to go out, and after breakfast Zachariah went by himself, having first inquired what was a likely quarter. As he wandered along much that had been before him again and again once more recurred to him. He had been overtaken by calamity, and he had not heard from his wife one single expression of sympathy, nor had he received one single idea which could help him. She had thought of nothing but herself, and even of herself not reasonably. She was not the helpmeet which he felt he had a right to expect. He could have endured any defect, so it seemed, if only he could have had love; he could have endured the want of love if only he could have had a counsellor. But he had neither, and he rebelled, questioning the justice of his lot. Then he fell into the old familiar controversy with himself, and it was curiously characteristic of him, that, as he paced those dismal Manchester pavements, all their gloom disappeared as he re-argued the universal problem of which his case was an example. He admitted the unquestionable right of the Almighty to damn three parts of creation to eternal hell if so He willed; why not, then, one sinner like Zachariah Coleman to a weary pilgrimage for thirty or forty years? He rebuked himself when he found that he had all his life assented so easily to the doctrine of God’s absolute authority in the election and disposal of the creatures He had made, and yet that he revolted when God touched him, and awarded him a punishment which, in comparison with the eternal loss of His presence, was as nothing. At last⁠—and here, through his religion, he came down to the only consolation possible for him⁠—he said to himself, “Thus hath He decreed; it is foolish to struggle against His ordinances; we can but submit.” “A poor gospel,” says his critic. Poor!⁠—yes, it may be; but it is the gospel according to Job, and any other is a mere mirage. “Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom and stretch her wings towards the south?” Confess ignorance and the folly of insurrection, and there is a chance that even the irremediable will be somewhat mitigated. Poor!⁠—yes; but it is genuine; and this at least must be said for Puritanism, that of all the theologies and philosophies it is the most honest in its recognition of the facts; the most real, if we penetrate to the heart of it, in the remedy which it offers.

He found two small furnished rooms which would answer his purpose till his own furniture should arrive, and he and his wife took possession that same morning. He then wrote to his landlord in London⁠—a man whom he knew he could trust⁠—and directed him to send his goods. For the present, although he had no fear whatever of any prosecution, he thought fit to adopt a feigned name, with which we need not trouble ourselves. In the afternoon he sallied out to seek employment. The weather had cleared, but Mrs. Coleman still refused to accompany him, and she occupied herself moodily with setting the place to rights, as she called it, although, as it happened, it was particularly neat and clean. There was not so much printing done in Manchester then as now, and Zachariah had no success. He came home about seven o’clock, weary and disheartened. His wife was one of those women who under misfortune show all that is worst in them, as many women in misfortune show all that is best.

“You might have been sure you would get nothing to do here. If, as you say, there is no danger, why did you not stay in London?”

“You know all about it, my dear; we were warned to come.”

“Yes, but why in such a hurry? Why didn’t you stop to think?”

“It is all very well to say so now, but there were only a few minutes in which to decide. Besides, when I got home I found you gone.”

Mrs. Zachariah conveniently took no notice of the last part of this remark, which, of course, settled the whole question, but continued:

“Ah, well, I suppose it’s all right; but I’m sure we shall starve⁠—I am convinced we shall. Oh! I wish my poor dear mother were alive! I have no home to go to. What will become of us?”

He lost his patience a little.

“Jane,” he said, “what is our religion worth if it does not support us in times like these? Does it not teach us to bow to God’s will? Surely we, who have had such advantages, ought to behave under our trials better than those who have been brought up like heathens. God will not leave us. Don’t you remember Mr. Bradshaw’s sermon upon the passage through the Red Sea. When the Israelites were brought down to the very shore with nothing but destruction before them, a way was opened. What did Mr. Bradshaw bid us observe? The Egyptians were close behind⁠—so close that the Israelites saw them; the sea was in front. The road was not made till the enemy was upon them, and then the waters were divided and became a wall unto them on their right hand and on their left; the very waters, Mr. Bradshaw remarked, which before were their terror. God, too, might have sent them a different way; no doubt He might, but He chose that way.”

“Zachariah, I heard Mr. Bradshaw as well as yourself; I am a member of the church just as much as you are, and I don’t think it becoming of you to preach to me as if you were a minister.” Her voice rose and became shriller as she went on. “I will not stand it. Who are you that you should talk to me so?⁠—bad enough to bring me down here to die, without treating me as if I were an unconverted character. Oh! if I had but a home to go to!” and she covered her face with her apron and became hysterical.

What a revelation! By this time he had looked often into the soul of the woman whom he had chosen⁠—the woman with whom he was to be forever in this world⁠—and had discovered that there was nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing which answered anything in himself with a smile of recognition; but he now looked again, and found something worse than emptiness. He found lurking in the obscure darkness a reptile with cruel fangs which at any moment might turn upon him when he was at his weakest and least able to defend himself. He had that in him by nature which would have prompted him to desperate deeds. He could have flung himself from her with a curse, or even have killed himself in order to escape from his difficulty. But whatever there was in him originally had been changed. Upon the wild stem had been grafted a nobler slip, which drew all its sap from the old root, but had civilised and sweetened its acrid juices. He leaned over his wife, caressed her, gave her water, and restored her.

“God knows,” he said, “I did not mean to preach to you. God in heaven knows I need that somebody should preach to me.” He knelt down before her as she remained leaning back in the chair, and he repeated the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.” But will it be believed that as he rose from his knees, before he had actually straightened his limbs, two lines from the Corsair flashed into his mind, not particularly apposite, but there they were⁠—

“She rose⁠—she sprung⁠—she clung to his embrace
Till his heart heaved beneath her hidden face?”

Whence had they descended? He was troubled at their sudden intrusion, and he went silently to the window, moodily gazing into the street. His wife, left to herself, recovered, and prepared supper. There was no reconciliation, at least on her side. She was not capable of reconciliation. Her temper exhausted itself gradually. With her the storm never broke up nobly and with magnificent forgetfulness into clear spaces of azure, with the singing of birds and with hot sunshine turning into diamonds every remaining drop of the deluge which had threatened ruin; the change was always rather to a uniformly obscured sky and a cold drizzle which lasted all day.

The next morning he renewed his quest. He was away all day long, but he had no success. He was now getting very anxious. He was expecting his furniture, which he had directed to be sent to the inn where they had first stayed, and he would have to pay for the carriage. His landlord had insisted on a week’s rent beforehand, so that, putting aside the sum for the carrier, he had now two pounds left. He thought of appealing to his friends; but he had a great horror of asking for charity, and could not bring himself to do it.

The third, fourth, and fifth day passed, with no result. On the seventh day he found that his goods had come; but he decided not to move, as it meant expense. He took away a chest of clothes, and remained where he was. By way of recoil from the older doctrine that suffering does men good, it has been said that it does no good. Both statements are true, and both untrue. Many it merely brutalises. Half the crime of the world is caused by suffering, and half its virtues are due to happiness. Nevertheless suffering, actual personal suffering, is the mother of innumerable beneficial experiences, and unless we are so weak that we yield and break, it extracts from us genuine answers to many questions which, without it, we either do not put to ourselves, or, if they are asked, are turned aside with traditional replies. A man who is strong and survives can hardly pace the pavements of a city for days searching for employment, his pocket every day becoming lighter, without feeling in after life that he is richer by something which all the universities in the world could not have given him. The most dramatic of poets cannot imagine, even afar off, what such a man feels and thinks, especially if his temperament be nervous and foreboding. How foreign, hard, repellent, are the streets in which he is a stranger, alone amidst a crowd of people all intent upon their own occupation, whilst he has none! At noon, when business is at its height, he, with nothing to do, sits down on a seat in an open place, or, may be, on the doorstep of an empty house, unties the little parcel he has brought with him, and eats his dry bread. He casts up in his mind the shops he has visited; he reflects that he has taken all the more promising first, and that not more than two or three are left. He thinks of the vast waste of the city all round him; its miles of houses; and he has a more vivid sense of abandonment than if he were on a plank in the middle of the Atlantic. Towards the end of the afternoon the pressure in the offices and banks increases; the clerks hurry hither and thither; he has no share whatever in the excitement; he is an intrusion. He lingers about aimlessly, and presently the great tide turns outwards and flows towards the suburbs. Every vehicle which passes him is crowded with happy folk who have earned their living and are going home. He has earned nothing. Let anybody who wants to test the strength of the stalk of carle hemp in him try it by the wringing strain of a day thus spent! How humiliating are the repulses he encounters! Most employers to whom a request is made for something to do prefer to treat it as a petition for alms, and answer accordingly. They understand what is wanted before a word is spoken, and bawl out “No! Shut the door after you.” One man to whom Zachariah applied was opening his letters. For a moment he did not pay the slightest attention, but as Zachariah continued waiting, he shouted with an oath, “What do you stand staring there for? Be off!” There was once a time when Zachariah would have stood up against the wretch; but he could not do it now, and he retreated in silence. Nevertheless, when he got out into the Street he felt as if he could have rushed back and gripped the brute’s throat till he had squeezed the soul out of his carcass. Those of us who have craved unsuccessfully for permission to do what the Maker of us all has fitted us to do alone understand how revolutions are generated. Talk about the atrocities of the Revolution! All the atrocities of the democracy heaped together ever since the world began would not equal, if we had any gauge by which to measure them, the atrocities perpetrated in a week upon the poor, simply because they are poor; and the marvel rather is, not that there is every now and then a September massacre at which all the world shrieks, but that such horrors are so infrequent. Again, I say, let no man judge communist or anarchist till he has asked for leave to work, and a “Damn your eyes!” has rung in his ears.

Zachariah had some self-respect; he was cared for by God, and in God’s Book was a registered decree concerning him. These men treated him as if he were not a person, an individual soul, but as an atom of a mass to be swept out anywhere, into the gutter⁠—into the river. He was staggered for a time. Hundreds and thousands of human beings swarmed past him, and he could not help saying to himself as he looked up to the grey sky, “Is it true, then? Does God really know anything about me? Are we not born by the million every week, like spawn, and crushed out of existence like spawn? Is not humanity the commonest and cheapest thing in the world?” But as yet his faith was unshaken, and he repelled the doubt as a temptation of Satan. Blessed is the man who can assign promptly everything which is not in harmony with himself to a devil, and so get rid of it. The pitiful case is that of the distracted mortal who knows not what is the degree of authority which his thoughts and impulses possess; who is constantly bewildered by contrary messages, and has no evidence as to their authenticity. Zachariah had his rule still; the suggestion in the street was tried by it; found to be false; was labelled accordingly, and he was relieved.

The dread of the real, obvious danger was not so horrible as a vague, shapeless fear which haunted him. It was a coward enemy, for it seized him when he was most tired and most depressed. What is that nameless terror? Is it a momentary revelation of the infinite abyss which surrounds us; from the sight of which we are mercifully protected by a painted vapour, by an illusion that unspeakable darkness which we all of us know to exist, but which we hypocritically deny, and determine never to confess to one another? Here again, however, Zachariah had his advantage over others. He had his precedent. He remembered that quagmire in the immortal Progress into which, if even a good man falls, he can find no bottom; he remembered that gloom so profound “that ofttimes, when he lifted up his foot to set forward, he knew not where or upon what he should set it next;” he remembered the flame and smoke, the sparks and hideous noises, the things that cared not for Christian’s sword, so that he was forced to betake himself to another weapon called All-prayer; he remembered how that Christian “was so confounded that he did not know his own voice;” he remembered the voice of a man as going before, saying, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear none ill, for Thou art with me.” Lastly, he remembered that by-and-by the day broke, and Christian cried, “He hath turned the shadow of death into the morning.” He remembered all this; he could connect his trouble with the trouble of others; he could give it a place in the dispensation of things, and could therefore lift himself above it.

He had now been in Manchester a fortnight, and his little store had dwindled down to five shillings. It was Saturday night. On the Sunday, as his last chance, he meant to write to Mr. Bradshaw. He went out on the Sunday morning, and had persuaded his wife to accompany him. They entered the first place of worship they saw. It was a Methodist chapel, and the preacher was Arminian in the extreme. It was the first time Zachariah had ever been present at a Methodist service. The congregation sang with much fervour, and during the prayer, which was very long, they broke in upon it with ejaculations of their own, such as “Hear him, O Lord!”⁠—“Lord have mercy on us!”

The preacher spoke a broad Lancashire dialect, and was very dramatic. He pictured God’s efforts to save a soul. Under the pulpit ledge was the imaginary bottomless pit of this world⁠—not of the next. He leaned over and pretended to be drawing the soul up with a cord. “He comes, he comes!” he cried; “God be praised he is safe!” and he landed him on the Bible. The congregation gave a great groan of relief. “There he is on the Rock of Ages! No, no, he slips; the Devil has him!” The preacher tried to rescue him: “He is gone⁠—gone!” and he bent over the pulpit in agony. The people almost shrieked. “Gone⁠—gone!” he said again with most moving pathos, and was still for a moment. Then gathering himself up, he solemnly repeated the terrible verses: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame.” Zachariah knew that text well. Round it had raged the polemics of ages. Mr. Bradshaw had never referred to it but once, and all the elder members of his congregation were eager in the extreme to hear what he had to say about it. He boldly declared that it had nothing to do with the elect. He was compelled to do so. Following his master Calvin, he made it apply to outsiders. The elect, says Calvin, are beyond the risk of fatal fall. But “I deny,” he goes on to say, that “there is any reason why God may not bestow even on the reprobate a taste of His favour; may irradiate their minds with some scintillations of His light; may touch them with some sense of His goodness; may somehow engrave His word on their minds.” Horrible, most horrible, we scream, that the Almighty should thus play with those whom He means to destroy; but let us once more remember that these men did not idly believe in such cruelty. They were forced into their belief by the demands of their understanding, and their assent was more meritorious than the weak protests of so-called enlightenment. Zachariah, pondering absently on what he had heard, was passing out of the chapel when a hand was gently laid on his shoulder.

“Ah, friend, what are you doing here?”

He turned round and recognised William Ogden, who had been sent by the Hampden Club in Manchester some six months before as a delegate to the Friends of the People in London. The two walked some distance together, and Zachariah gave him the history of the last three weeks. With the murder he was, of course, acquainted. Ogden was a letterpress printer, and when he heard that Zachariah was in such straits, he said that he thought he might perhaps find him a job for the present, and told him to come to his office on the following morning. Zachariah’s heart rejoiced that his bread would not fail, but he characteristically rejoiced even more at this signal proof that his trust in his God was justified. When he reached home he proposed to his wife that they should at once kneel down and thank God for His mercy.

“Of course, Zachariah; but you are not yet sure you will get anything. I will take off my things directly.”

“Need you wait to take off your things, my dear?”

“Really, Zachariah, you do make such strange remarks sometimes. I need not wait; but I am sure it will be more becoming, and it will give you an opportunity to think over what you are going to say.”

Accordingly Mrs. Coleman retired for about five minutes. On her return she observed that it was the time for regular family prayer, and she produced the Bible. Zachariah had indeed had the opportunity to think, and he had thought very rapidly. The mere opening of the sacred Book, however, always acted as a spell, and when its heavy lids fell down on either side the room cleared itself of all haunting, intrusive evil spirits. He read the seventeenth chapter of Exodus, the story of the water brought out of the rock; and he thanked the Almighty with great earnestness for the favour shown him, never once expressing a doubt that he would not be successful. He was not mistaken, for Ogden had a place for him, just as good and just as permanent as the one he had left in London.