Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Chapter 9

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pp. 120–132.

CHAPTER IX.

THE SLACK.

Down in the Slack lanterns moved, and the confused noise of voices could be heard a mile away. Dark forms, running hither and thither, seemed to interweave with the shadows, while others lay stretched up the hillside or sat squatting on barrows and timbers. For a hundred yards and more the slope of the hill showed the toil of many weeks. Hillocks of earth, sand, clay, stones, a confusion of timbers, barrows, baulks, spades and mattocks, ropes, lime-heaps and what not, littered the border of the Slack. Had you tried to thread your way among these you would have run the risk of walking suddenly into the deep cutting in the hillside that sheltered the furnaces themselves. The larger furnace for smelting was built into the hill; the smaller refining furnace stood cheek by jowl with it, and was barely five feet high. A tripod of heavy beams, that had served its end with the completion of the construction, had not yet been taken down, and a half-made tackle like a heavy capstan, apparently for crushing, seemed to have been abandoned. The smaller of the furnaces was fitted with a pair of bellows in a gibbet-like frame; and fifty yards away, where the Slack turned on itself towards Brotherton Bog, was the older plant—the heavy frames in which the coining-dies were set, to be struck with the sledges.

They had blackened their faces with soot or charcoal, as children might who wished to make themselves out desperately wicked, and they leaped and moved with uncouth gestures. As if their native jargon of a dialect had not been enough, they had added to it a harsh and villainous lingo of unmeaning syllables. The furnace fires were laid; half a dozen casks of ale lay near them; and on mats of sacking on the hillside a couple of slaughtered and dressed sheep were ready for the roasting. Mish Murgatroyd had had his hair cut, and where the perspiration had partly washed his brow of its grime his two great calf-licks gleamed oilily in the shifting lantern-light. His brute of a brindled dog was fastened to one of the scaffold-timbers. A man called Leventoes had blacked, not his face only, but his body from the waist up; and Dick o' Dean had smirched himself, not with black, but with red sheep-ruddle. These two danced here and there, mopping and mowing and talking the lingo incessantly. The youth called Charley seemed to have made himself drunk before coming; and Pim o' Cuddy, the devil's clerk now, hopped here and there, boasting gleefully of his own wickedness, and mixing up lingo and responses in an imbecile manner. Two men played singlestick with hammerhafts, making sharp cracks in the night.

From the northern end of the Slack there came a shout and cheer, and those lying on the hillside sat up or sprang to their feet. The lanterns moved towards one point and danced about it, like a cluster of fireflies, and a louder cheering broke out. Monjoy had appeared. Dick o' Dean danced an antic dance towards him, banging on a spade with a gavelock, and crying, “A'm red, too, Arthur, boroo-boy, boroo, boroo!” Monjoy stood in the midst of the grimy horde. He glanced at their disfigured faces.

“Nay, what the devil have you got yourselves up this way for?” he exclaimed, and they began to dance again, like vain children when overmuch notice is taken of them. “Let's begin, let's begin!” they cried, and already some had set their lanterns down before the furnace-doors. Monjoy swore softly at their folly, and then said, “Very well. Let's have it over.” They pressed about him with lanterns, seeking the favour of whose should be accepted. All swarmed round the furnaces.

At a signal from the red imp, Dick o' Dean, they fell back in a wide semicircle. Monjoy flung off his cap and coat and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt; and as he knelt by the fireplace and opened a lantern a low murmur of gibberish rose like an incantation. “They're in a choice humour to-night,” he muttered to himself, and he set the lamp-flame to the furnace.

A quick straw-flame leaped upwards, and the singsong of huggermugger words rose like some strange response. It fell again, and rose again spontaneously, as the clacking had risen and fallen at the pieceboards. It rose to a high-chanted cacophony, “Boroo, boroo!” and the foolish artificial effects of mumbling and blackened faces made ridiculous the place and hour. Sticks caught and crackled in the fire, and there broke out suddenly short yelps, accompanied by a rhythmic movement of bodies.

The fuel was dry as tinder, and the furnaces began to roar side by side. The semicircle broke up, and the moans and concerted calls became a chaos of noise. A man drove in the bung of a cask of ale, and from the shallow tin bowl that he filled three or four strove to drink at once, spilling the liquor over their bodies. They were fixing hooks into the carcases, and already from the orifice of the larger furnace flickerings of flame had begun to stream upwards. Monjoy tugged at his whiskers, regarding this. “We can't avoid a glow,” he muttered, “but we don't want a conflagration. I'll build a high hood of earth....” He climbed to the brink of the cutting and stood in thought. Already the furnaces stood in a clear red light, and it was becoming hot.

Many had now stripped off their coats and shirts, and gleaming ribs and shoulders, black faces and hairy chests, flitted and mingled in the red glare fantastically. The first cask of ale was finished, and as they became drunk each man vented his joy in the howl that liked him best. The counterchange of ruddy light on leaping bodies was restless; shadows streamed away into the darkness; and men wreathed their arms about one another, and danced and wrestled as the fires burned furiously. Some were for setting the carcases on to roast at once; but Mish Murgatroyd barred the furnace door with a crowbar, seized a man who approached it in his sinewy arms, and they rolled over together in black moulder's sand, while Mish gnashed his teeth, for all it was but horseplay. Monjoy, looking down on them from the edge of the cutting, murmured, “Satan himself won't be able to hold them in an hour.”

Somebody touched him on the shoulder. He turned, and saw James Eastwood. Surprised, he fell a pace back.

“Why, I didn't think this mumming was much to your taste,” he said, and Eastwood drew him by the shirt sleeve.

“Come where we can talk,” he said; “I've come to see you.”

They passed above the furnaces, and descended the hill where the Slack turns towards Brotherton Bog. They put the shoulder of the hill between themselves and the hubbub, and the moon, at its last quarter, appeared low over the moor, and showed the little creeping miasmic vapours that curled over the surface of the dark morass. Again Eastwood took Monjoy's sleeve.

“Tell me where Ellah is,” he said abruptly.

“Eh?” said Monjoy. “You didn't expect to find him here, did you?”

“Don't waste words. He left the 'Fullers' two days ago, and he isn't in Wadsworth.”

Monjoy's arms were folded and his fingers were moving lightly on his big biceps. They were suddenly arrested in their movement, and his brow tightened suddenly into a concentrated knot.

“Are you sure, James?” he said slowly; and from beyond the hummock there came a fresh burst of laughter.

Eastwood made no reply.

“Did I hear you right? You say he's gone?”

“Yes.... I see you know naught about it. Then tell me how he came crippled?”

One of Monjoy's hands was making little plucking movements at his lip, and suddenly he turned and walked a few yards towards the Bog. Soon, “Eh?” he said mechanically over his shoulder, “At my hands, James, at my hands;” and he resumed his walk. Eastwood looked at the ground at his feet, and by and by Monjoy approached him again.

“You're quite—quite sure that's——?” he faltered, and without waiting for an answer he began to walk again.

He had put away quickly the solution that had leaped instantaneously into his mind. He did not dare to ask for that of the flockmaster. Another noisy peal of laughter came from behind the hill; and suddenly Monjoy felt such a shiver pass over him as they say is caused by the fall of a footstep over the place that is to be your grave.

By and by he found himself at Eastwood's side again.

“Tell me quick what you think?” he commanded.

The flockmaster did not look at him. “A chaise went up the Fullergate the night afore last, past midnight.”

“What of that?”

“Only two things you can tak' your pick of——

“Christ!——

“One, a neighbourly call on John Raikes i' York, and t'other a signed deposition afore Parker i' Ford. Cope's got hold of him, that's all.... What made ye lay hands on him?”

Monjoy groaned. “Never mind that, never mind that—where's Cope?”

“I' th' bog yonder watching us, for all I know. I hadn't time to ask Matthew any more; he packed me off to ye all in a minute and bade me run. And th' new trial's in a week, Emmason says.”

“Yes, yes,” Monjoy repeated stupidly.

“I wonder, James,” he said brokenly, by and by—“nay, look up at me, James—is it money, or hatred of myself he's sold us for, sold Northrop and Haigh and all of us?”

“Nay, don't tak' on that road, Arthur; all isn't over yet. Juries has stopped ... anyway, a daft man can't gi'e evidence; no, not a daft man——

“No, not a daft man,” Monjoy repeated dully. Mechanically he was rolling down his sleeves and fastening the buttons at the wrists.

“Come, stiffen yourself up; nothing's happened yet. Hark! they're calling ye; come, I'll go back wi' ye——

They returned slowly towards the furnaces.

The Slack was now a pandemonium. Naked bodies were lightly striped with rivulets of sweat and grime, and a powerful smell of cooking and burning filled the night. The furnaces flamed with the yellow flare of blazing fat, and spat and roared with a tremendous hollow sound. A man, driving in the bung of another cask, struck awry, and the liquor shot forth in a spout, covering the men and spirting like a catherine-wheel when a hand was clapped over the hole; and they stood with their mouths open and received the torrent of strong liquor full in their faces. Underneath the furnaces was an incandescence of pink and white wood-ash, and men took embers in their hands and tossed them on the naked backs of their fellows.

As Monjoy and Eastwood approached, there came a fresh uproar and a new diversion.

“Show him aforehand what it'll be like!” voices bawled, and Pim o' Cuddy was seen struggling in a dozen arms. He shrieked for mercy, but they cried, “Show him th' bad place where clerks goes to that's turned wrong!” and they bore him to the mouth of the furnace. He writhed and screamed. Presently they let him go, and then they turned to the youth Charley, who was in a drunken sleep. They set glowing brands into his clothing, and screamed with delight at his uneasy movements as, with the brands burning through his clothes, he still slept. The carcases began to frizzle and char, and the furnace doors were flung open. Men made runs towards it with a long hook, and retreated again before the fierce heat, with scraps of smoking flesh at the end of the hook. Finally, they got the hook firmly fixed; the carcase lodged in the door and then came out suddenly, hissing, frying, and black with the sand on which it had fallen.

“Arthur mun cut it! Where's Arthur?” they cried.

He had thrown himself on the hillside. He was watching them gloomily, his head on his hand. Eastwood's sinister intelligence, brought in this his crowning hour, chimed only too well with a score of half-forgotten trifles and indications. Back o' th' Mooin itself still remained impregnable, but the two men in York could be reckoned as dead as the roasted carcases. Dead, too, on the word of a man, whose evidence, had it been for instead of against them, would not for a moment have been admitted. He made one more effort to throw off the horrible fear that lay on his heart like lead; he felt himself weak as water; he knew that the testimony of a lunatic had been admitted. Again the mummers were approaching him; he made a gesture that they were to proceed with their feast. Loud murmurings rose, and he lifted himself heavily up. “Give me a drink,” he said, and a tin bowl was filled for him.

“This is a pretty mockery,” he said to Eastwood. “It ought to be a prayer, oughtn't it? They put themselves on their knees to pray. I must do it with a bowl of liquor to my lips. Jim and Will—Jim Northrop and Will Haigh! ... Bah! Let's get it over.” He drained the bowl and flung it far from him.

The hubbub broke out again. “Arthur!” they yelled. “King Arthur! Three for him, lads——

The drunken shout pealed over the hills, and Monjoy stood with his arm outstretched. It died away, and he began to speak in short, deliberate sentences, turning his body that every man might hear.

“All's ready now,” his voice sounded. “What we set out to do four months ago we've done. I'll tell you again, for the last time, what that is. Most of you have never journeyed a dozen miles from this spot in your lives; I have, and it's right that I should tell you what I know. Back o' th' Mooin's only an odd corner of this land; it's now setting itself up against all the rest. Before these furnaces are lighted for ore you've the odds to reckon. The trade's paid you up to now, but it's been a small trade, followed quietly in corners. You're now going to make a great traffic of it, and that in the daylight. I'll tell you what that means....”

Only the steady roar of the furnaces interrupted him as he began this, his last warning. He told them briefly how one part of a realm might prosper at the expense of the rest; how, pushed too far, that ceased to avail; how, by the commonness of a commodity, came cheapness; how gold alone, by its scarcity, settled the value of all other things; how even that was alterable at the decree of personages in authority; and again of the frightful risk.

“One man,” he continued, his voice shaking a little, “one man, speaking ten words in hatred or anger or liquor, can overwhelm all. Silver can be fought with silver, and they'll offer rewards. Bribe, they will, and suborn and corrupt. Are we safe with that? Can't we think of a man among us that, for a King's reward, will sell us? ...”

Rising murmurs began to interrupt him. They increased as he continued. Presently they drowned his voice. He stopped and cried, “Let one speak for you.” Mish Murgatroyd was thrust forward.

From his lips came a thick utterance.

“We've heard ye, Arthur,” he said, swaying a little. “There's naught naughbut one thing we ha' to speak tul, eh, lads? For what ye say about makkin' silver cheap an' that, 'tis for ye to say how mich we shall mak' an' all that, an' that's why th' lads calls ye king. Nobody'll set up ageean ye i' sich matters, so that's sattled. But I'll tell ye when ye weant be king onny longer. Ye'll not be king when th' man ye speak of offers to sell us. What, lads? What, Dick? What, Belch an' Hell Harry? Who deals wi' that man?”

A short ferocious roar answered him.

“Ay. I think Arthur heard that. We sattle wi' him; so that's done wi' an' all. What else is there? Nooan so mich. All's ready, or near by. For th' coal, we know how to get coal wi'out Arthur, an' Arthur can tak' a rest of a bit. We'll see to things. We'll see to th' man that tak's a bribe an' all. Fill th' pannikin, Leventoes; Arthur'll ha' one more drink wi' us....”

*****

Monjoy and Eastwood strode along the Causeway to Wadsworth. The morning star had set; the day had broken a clear saffron; and the singing of the mounting larks could be heard far away. The bells of an approaching pack jangled, the packmen gave them good morning, and the jangling died away behind them. The sun came up in splendour, and a regal glory bathed the heather. As Big Monjoy removed his cap of foxskin his great russet head seemed to burn, and he turned to Eastwood.

“What do you think the next will be, James?” he asked quietly, and, Eastwood making no reply, they continued to stride forward past the black-topped guide-stones.