BACK TO THE WORK

Annie Chapman never had liked her husband working at the well.
She said as little as she could, and she scarcely knew why, but a
sort of nameless fear always crept over her when people spoke of
the work. Though she took her husband his “‘levenses” and his
“fourses” every day, she never could be induced to look down into
its depths, which naturally grew deeper day by day.

It was a hot walk though a short one, and Annie’s head throbbed
with the intensity of the heat, and her feet felt as if they were
weighted with lead. It was like walking on hot flags, she
thought, as she plodded over the common with the last baby in her
arms. The men had rigged up a sort of rough tent with four poles
and a stack-cover, and placed a couple of benches underneath it,
and Annie stopped to rest under its grateful shade. She was a
little early, and Tom was still at work ninety feet below her.
She shuddered as she thought of it, and Martin’s daughter, who
had come on the same errand for her father, laughed at her.

“You’re never cold, Mrs. Chapman!” she said. “That must be a
goose walkin’ over your grave.”

“Likely as not,” said Annie, answering in the same vein; “there
are plenty on ’em about.”

The girl laughed. She was a nice, bright, curly-haired, freckly
girl. She looked kindly at Annie, and held out her arms for the
baby.

“I don’t believe you half like your husband takin’ on with my
father,” she said.

“How do you know?” asked Annie, rather sharply for her.

“Why, Chapman told fayther so. He said you was rare put about
when he told you, and if it weren’t that he think that’s only
duin’ what he oughter, he’d ha’ chucked the job long ago. But he
would not go back on fayther, he say, after he’ve giv his word;
and he’s a good man, he is,” she added warmly. “Fayther he think
a lot o’ him. He’s a good un to work, he say, and a good mate
tew, and fayther don’t say that a’ ivrybody, I can tell yew.”

Annie felt pleased. It is always pleasant to hear nice things, of
course, about those we love, and Annie was generally so busy
muddling along with her household and children all day that she
had very little time for gossiping or exchanging many words with
her neighbours; and she scarcely knew how her Tom stood amongst
his fellows, for he was quiet and unobtrusive, and was not a man
to make many friends.

“He think a lot a’ your father too,” she answered, giving tit for
tat with truth.

“I wish they’d come up,” Annie said at last. “If they’re not
quick I’ll have to go back without seein’ Tom.”

“Why don’t you put your head over and call down to him?” said the
girl.

Annie shuddered again.

“Oh no, no, I dursn’t”

“Well, I will,” said her companion. “I know Mr. Hayes’ll let
me.–Won’t you now, Mr. Hayes?”

The big man who sat on the edge of the temporary woodwork that
was erected at the mouth of the well turned a good-natured,
sunburnt visage towards her.

“All right, my gal! come on, I’ll hold ye. They’ve got on well
to-day. They’re down a sight deeper than last time you looked.”

The man held back the ropes that hung from a windlass over the
top, and the girl stooped over the brink. She could see the heads
of both men down at what appeared to her an unfathomable depth.
She uttered a little cry of dismay. The earth had been getting
softer and easier to dig into for the last two days and they had
made considerable progress. Martin looked up as the shadow cast
by the girl’s head and shoulders darkened the pit a little.

“Hullo! That’s you, my gal, is it? Well, I’m coming. I want my
fourses bad, I can tell you.”

“Well, come on up then, father; and tell Mr. Chapman his wife
have been waitin’ for him ever so long, and she’ve got to go home
directly, to give the children their teas.”

“All right, then.–You go up first, Tom.” And nothing loath, Tom
put his foot into the loop, and gripping the rope with both hands
was soon drawn up.

“My eye, it is hot up here,” he said, as half blinded by the sun
he made his way to the tent. Martin soon followed, and the women
unpacked their baskets. Annie had brought Tom a bottle of his
favourite fromerty and a large harvest-bun. Martin liked tea, so
his daughter had a pot full of it rolled up in an old shawl to
keep it hot, for Martin held that hot tea is the most cooling of
drinks. “Drinkin’ cold things when you’re hot only makes you all
the hotter!” Well, every one to his taste, and the big man
preferred beer. He was a stranger, and the same man who had made
such cruel remarks on Geo Lummis’s muscles.

He lodged at Martin’s house, so “Martin’s gal,” as Polly was
generally called in the village, had brought his “fourses” too.
He quaffed off his half-pint of good home-brew, made by Mrs.
Martin herself, and with a sigh of enjoyment flung the drops at
the bottom of the glass on to the thirsty ground.

“That ‘ud be a rum job,” he said, as he seated himself on the
form, “if that dowser chap ha’ happened ar a mistake, and we
don’t find no water arter all.”

“We’ll find it all right,” said Martin decidedly. “He knowed what
he was about. He said that was a long way down, and I believe
him.”

That Martin should believe him was quite sufficient for himself
and Chapman, for Martin was one of those people that carry about
them a quiet power of making every one else trust them. He
possessed that nameless intangible quality that we know as
“character.” Martin was not particularly clever, he was not
entertaining or amusing in conversation; but he undoubtedly
possessed a great deal of character, and in his quiet,
deliberate, commonplace way he carried as much weight as any man
in the parish. If it had not been for Martin, it is pretty
certain the wells would never have been begun, much less
finished. It was Martin whose example made Chapman, Lake, and the
other two Willowton men at the railway well come forward in the
first instance and volunteer their services. It was Martin who
gave the other men courage to come forward with with their offer
of work. It was Martin who kept Lake and Chapman up to the mark
when, seeing the difficulty and hardness of the work, they
wavered, and, urged on by “the bridge,” were inclined to strike
for more wages.

“What, give in,” he said, “when we’ve go so far–sixty feet or
more below th’ surface? More money yer want? Well, I’m all fur
gettin’ all we can. I haven’t no sort er objection te money
myself; but fair play’s a jewel, I say, and we’ve took this risk,
and we’ve jest got te keep it. A few more shillin’s won’t make
our lives na safer, and we’ve got a good wage–three shillin’s a
day ter start on, and a shillin’ more for every ten feet; and I
say that’s good pay, and we don’t want na better–leastways we
didn’t ought to. Do you think folks is _made_ o’ money?” he
asked, warming to his subject. “I don’t say as Mr Rutland and the
doctor are goin’ to pay us out o’ their own porckets–in coorse
they’re not; but they’re responsible–that’s how I take it. And
they are payin’ us fair and punctual; and I’m not goin’ to say
that I don’t believe but what if they get more money than they
want by their subscription boxes, and they offer me a bonus, that
I’ll refuse it,” with a twinkle in his honest gray eye. “No, if
they like to remember the well-diggers when the water is come, I
won’t hev northin’ to say agin it, I’m sure; and nor wud yue now.
Jest yue put that in your pipes and smoke it!”

He lounged off as he spoke with a “good-night” over his shoulder,
and next morning, when, having “smoked it” with much thought
overnight, the two men arrived on the scene, they found Martin
there before them. He made no remark, and work began as usual.
The idea of going back never entered either of their heads again,
though the railway-well men had carried out their threat and
struck.

When Lake, who lived in Gravel-pit Lane, went down with the
fever, it was Martin who suggested to Mr. Rutland to get back the
stranger, who had only gone away that morning reluctantly; for he
was an experienced digger, and saw little risk in the railway
well, and would willingly have gone on with the work if he had
not been thrown out by the pusillanimity of his mates. He came at
once, and both the Willowton men took to him. He was pleasant to
work with, for he was both able and hard-working, and never,
“shirked a spadeful,” as Martin told the vicar, with just a touch
of pride at his own sagacity in suggesting him. Mr. Rutland had
been doubtful when it was proposed to him. He did not think it
wise to bring him in again, but Martin’s good sense overruled
him.

“There’s nobody in the place durst come and help us,” he said,
“time them tue others is out a’ work; they wouldn’t leave ’em
alone, not a minute. That’s only a stranger we can hev now, as
matters are, and he hadn’t northin’ ter due with the strike.”

“Who do you think had then?” asked the vicar, little expecting so
prompt a reply.

“Why, that scum Corkam!” asserted Martin stoutly. “He’s at th’
bottom a’ most a’ these here messes, he is! He goes a-talkin’ ar
a lot o’ rubbidge about ‘Meriky (as I don’t believe he ever
landed on), and he tell ’em a sight o’ stories about the big
wages over there, and he don’t say northin’ about the house rent
they have to pay, nor the price o’ wittles, nor clothin’, which I
know (‘cos my brother lived out in them parts for years) don’t
leave them not sa very much over for theirselves to due what they
like with arter all. And they’ve got ter goo and leave the old
place and their friends and relations, and work a sight harder
fur their money than we due here.”

“Just so, that’s just it, Martin,” said the vicar. “A little
knowledge is a dangerous thing. Corkam has got a little
knowledge–a smattering of facts about many countries; but he is
like a parrot–he repeats what he has been told, and has never
gone into the subject himself,–not had the chance, most likely.”

“You’re right, sir; that’s about the size on it! And them chaps
on the bridge of an evenin’, they’ll swaller anythin’ he like tue
tell ’em. That there young Lummis—”

“Oh, George Lummis! Yes, poor fellow, it’s heartbreaking to see
him idling away his whole life like that. But somehow I fancy
George will break loose one of these days. One day Master Corkam
will tell him something he can’t swallow, or offend his sense of
right and wrong, for there’s nothing really bad about Geo–at
present, at any rate. I still have hopes of Geo, and I hear he is
making an excellent nurse to his mother.”

In speaking thus the vicar was not talking at random. He had for
some time past been unaccountably interested in Geo. To his keen
sight–lazy, good-for-nothing as he appeared–Geo was full of
possibilities. There came into the young fellow’s sleepy,
handsome face a look sometimes that made you fancy that under
certain circumstances he might rise even to some great height of
heroism.

The vicar had been fortunate enough, as long ago as last summer,
to catch that expression one day when he came accidentally upon
him lying on the bank in the flowery meadow, lazily dropping
leaves into the stream and watching them float way. Mr. Rutland
was one of those very rare philanthropists who can resist the
temptation of improving the occasion. He saw a whole sermon in
the picture before him, and could have drawn half a dozen lessons
from the vagaries of the leaves–some of which spun round and
round and disappeared rapidly into the flowing water, others that
caught in weeds and remained prisoners or drifted under the
bank–but he did not. Geo had looked up as he caught the sound of
his footstep, and there was a look in his face that took the
vicar by surprise. It was, he thought (and he almost felt ashamed
of being so imaginative) an expression that might have been on
the face of a hero of the middle ages–a look, brave, clear,
determined, as of a man braced for some great deed, and yet he
was idling away his time on the grass, tipping leaves in the
stream. A man of less tact and less human sympathy than the vicar
would have stopped and made some remark, or at any rate have
given him the customary greeting; but Mr. Rutland refrained, and
passed on as if he had not noticed him. There was something
fermenting in Geo’s brain, he saw, and he felt certain it was,
whatever it might be, for good.

Nothing, as far as Mr. Rutland knew, ever came of this. Geo
worked hard at the “haysel” and the harvest that had followed, it
is true, and he took on occasional jobs at various farms in the
neighbourhood, but for the most part he idled away his days, as
we have already seen. His latent heroism, if he possessed any,
remained dormant. But the vicar always remembered the look when
people meted out to Geo their not unjust strictures on his
useless life.

In the meantime Geo was growing daily in the good graces of Nurse
Blunt. No patient of hers, she often told Milly, was more
carefully tended than Mrs. Lummis. Geo was a born nurse, and was
as gentle and dexterous as a woman, and even old Jimmy’s grunts
of disapproval failed to convince her that there was “nothin’ in
him.”

You may also like