BLTC Press Titles

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Further Adventures of an Irish R. M.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot

Arthur Edward Waite

Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment

Rudolf Steiner

The Bhagavad Gita


Glimpses through the cannon-smoke

by Archibald Forbes


Pollen had taken a letter for me down to Ingleton, and in the afternoon I looked in to see whether he had come back. His good lady reported his nonarrival, adding—" Afore we comed here, we were on the ' Surrey and Sussex;' and this morning, Betsy Smith, a lass as my daughter knowed there, corned here to see her mother, as is married on old Recks; and my girls, they be to have a holiday for to spend wi' their old friend. Well, I bid them tighten themselves up a bit, and tak' a basket, and go to the top of Ingleborough Hill, the three on em, for a day's 'scursion like; and when they'd come back, I'd have tea waitin' an' a cake, and I'd get in a bottle or two of wine, and we'd make a bit of a feast on't, you see, sir, for the lasses mayn't see one another no more in this here life." It seemed as if I had achieved the footing of a friend of the family; and Mrs. Pollen invited me, "if I would not think it beneath me," to look in and participate in the modest festivities of the evening. Beneath me! Why, it was the very thing I desired.

The navvy population of Batty-wife-hole do not keep fashionable hours. Half-past five was the hour named by Mrs. Pollen, and I was punctual. As I came up the road from the "Chum-hole," through Inkerman, to the mansion of the Pollens, the face of the swamp in the watery twilight was alive with navvies on their way home from work. They stalked carelessly through the most horrid clinging mire. What thews and sinews, what stately, stalwart forms, what breadth of shoulder and shapely development of muscle were displayed by these home-coming sons of toil! The navvy is a very rough diamond; but when you come to mix with him familiarly, and to understand him, you come to realise that he is a diamond. His character has never been more accurately delineated than in the words which I venture to quote, written by an engineer who knows him to his very marrow. "The English navvy has his bad points. Very bad points they are, no doubt, but, as a rule, they have all a common origin. The fountain of all, or almost all, the troubles of an English employer of this description of labour is the ale-can. But with these bad points there are many elements of the true pith and ring of the English character. Industry like that of the bee-hive; sturdy toil such as that which was commanded by the builders of the Pyramids, or the brick-building kings of Nineveh; firm fellowship and good feeling, evinced in subscriptions to sick funds and doctors' bills; clear-headed application of labour to produce a definite result; above all, a sense of the right that man and master alike have to fair

play and honest dealing; all these virtues are to be found in the kit of the navvy. He is a man with whom there is some satisfaction in working, and a man as to whom you can attribute any failure in the attempt to elevate him into a position of permanent comfort and respectability not to any inherent infirmity of nature, but to want of early training, and to the potent influence of strong drink." The "lasses" had got down from Ingleborough Hill, and were seated round the huge coal-fire in Mrs. Pollen's keeping-room. It was a state occasion; and the six navvies, who were lodgers, were relegated to their own sleeping apartment, where I found Mr. Pollen, slightly the fresher from his journey to Ingleton, having his hair cut by one of his lodgers prior to entering the sphere of gentility in the other room. Mrs. Pollen was painfully polite, and her notions of my capacities for rashers of bacon eaten along with buttered toast must have been based on her experience of navvies. The young ladies were at first slightly bashful, but Ingleborough air had given their appetite a beautiful fillip. Mr. Pollen was benignly jocose, with a slight tendency to hiccup. After tea, he entertained me with an historical account of Batty-wife-hole, from his first appearance in a van on its soil, exactly three years previous. Shortly afterwards, he said, "some chaps came down to make experimental borings, and they had to bide wi' us in the wan, for there were nowheres else to bide. All that winter there were ten of us living in that wan, and a tight fit it were, surely. Of a night I used to have to stand by it for half an hour with the bull'seye as a guide to the men home-coming through the waste. Sometimes one would stick, and his mates would have to dig him out; there were two chain o' knee-deep water four times a day for the fellows atween their meat and their work.

"It were a winter! The snow lay on the backs of the hill-sheep for two months at a stretch, and many on 'em were frozen as hard as a chip. But we got over it somehow; and in the spring, Recks and me built this cottage, and the works begun in fair earnest. There's been a good many deaths—what with accidents, low fevers, small-pox, and so on. I've buried three o' my own. I'm arter a sort the undertaker o' the place. You passed the little church down at Chapel-a-dale, near the head of the valley. Well, in the three years I've toted over a hundred of us down the hill to the little churchyard lying round the church. T' other day I had toted one poor fellow


down—he were hale and hearty on Thursday, and on Tuesday he were dead o' erinsipalis; and I says to the clerk as how I thought I had toted well nigh on to a hundred down over the beck to Chapel-a-dale. He goes, and has a look at his books, and comes out, and says, says he: 'Joe, you've fetched to t' kirkyawd xackly a hundred and ten corps!' I knowed I warn't far out. They've had to add a piece on to t' churchyard, for it were chock-full. And there were one poor fellow I toted down the hill as don't lie in Chapel-a-dale. It were the first summer we were here, and a cutting had been opened outside the Dents-head end of the tunnel. Five men were in a heading as was being driven in along the track of the tunnel. There came on such a fearful thunderstorm as nobody hereabout ever saw the like afore or since. The end of the cutting was stopped up, and the water came tearing down the hillsides into it, and soon filled it like the lock of a canal. The chaps in the heading were caught afore they could get out; as the water rose, three swam into the cutting, and tried to scramble out. As the water rose, they got on a wagon that was in the heading, and tried to prop themselves up between some barrels that were on it. We could just see one, the tallest on the two—the face of him just above the water, and his hands held afore his mouth, to fend off the water that came lipping over him every now and then. He could get no higher for the head of the working, and it was horrible to see him. But we were tearing like mad at the bank of earth that was blocking the cutting, and at last we got a hole jumped through it, and then the water soon found its own vent, and emptied the cutting. The shorter of the two men in the heading were drownded, and his mouth stopped up wi' clay. He came from Kingsclifife in Northamptonsheer, hard by my own native place; and I got a coffin for the poor chap, and toted him down to Ingleton, and sent him home by the railway." I don't know to what greater length Mr. Pollen's gossiping reminiscences might have extended, if they had not been interrupted by a tap at the door communicating with the room inhabited by the navvy lodgers. Sundry smothered and gasping squeakings of a fiddle had been audible lately from that apartment, the sounds being suggestive of the existence of an assertive and pertinacious violin, upon which the navvies were collectively sitting, sternly determined that while they lived, it should not violate the decorous quiet incumbent on lodgers whose respected host and hostess were entertaining visitors. The "lasses," I had noticed, were yawning a little after tea, as if the hill-air of Ingleborough had induced a somniferous tendency. As the tap was heard at the door, a glance of mutual intelligence and a smile of satisfaction passed round the younger ladies, and in truth Mrs. Pollen herself did not frown as she called, "Come in." Enter a stalwart navvy, whose powerful frame contrasted comically with his shamefaced countenance. He was blushing from ear to ear, yet there was a twinkle in the big black eye of the good-looking fellow that might speak of a consciousness he was not altogether taking a leap in the dark. He bore a message from the navvy brotherhood in the other room. He craved humbly of "Mother Pollen " that he and they should be admitted to participate in the festivities of the evening, whereunto they engaged to contribute by instrumental and vocal music, replenishment of the refreshments utterly regardless of cost, and good behaviour. Pollen pronounced at once for their admission. Mrs. Pollen only stipulated for order; and the navvies trooped solemnly in, and seated themselves on the extreme edge of a form. Mrs. Pollen helped them to wine, of which all ceremoniously partook; and then the black-eyed navvy took Mrs. Pollen aside, an interview which resulted in the introduction of a pail of strong ale and a bottle of whisky. The navvies were a decided acquisition. First, the black-eyed navvy played a lively spring on his fiddle. I may remark, that he had imperceptibly edged off the form, and had dexterously taken up new ground between Miss Pollen and the lass from the " Surrey and Sussex." Then Tom Purgin sang My Pretty Jane. Mr. Purgin was a smart ruddyfaced young fellow with black curling hair, and the physical development of a Hercules. "Tom is the best man on this section," whispered Pollen to me. A dance followed—something between a reel and an Irish jig—in which the black-eyed navvy immensely distinguished himself by playing and dancing at the same time; while the noise his big boots made in the double-shuffle was a Terpsichorean triumph that may be imagined, but cannot be described. The beer-pail was replenished, the ladies were radiant with good-humour and enjoyment, the navvies were making themselves as agreeable as possible, and the evening altogether was passing most hilariously.

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