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Luddite Spring: 36 - Sairy Bright And Beautiful

...After passing ropes under the box, they lifted Sairey’s coffin over the opening before letting the ropes slip gently through their calloused hands, taking care not to bump her coffin against the sides of the grave on its way down. Their gentleness stood in sharp contrast to the treatment she had endured at Staithes’ mill, from Staithes and from his overlookers...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel set in the turbulent early days of the industrial revolution.

In the pale grey halflight of a cold January morning, six sad men carried Sairy North’s coffin from North’s home over the frozen ground to Pauper’s Field, a distance just short of two miles. The coffin was not heavy. Two men could have borne it with ease, but in times of grief friends need to be of use.

They passed by the village church, its graveyard barely visible through the morning mist. The frosty air turned their breath into clouds. Burial in the graveyard’s hallowed precincts was restricted to the sanctified. Criminals, the unknown, suicides, paupers, and other undesireables were buried in Potter’s Field.

Little Sairy’s proper name was Sarah Jane but she had been called Sairy after the fashion of the Yorkshire tongue since she was an infant in arms. She was scarcely eight years old when she fell asleep and tumbled awkwardly into the thoughtless machine she tended. She was a victim of progress. Her tiny body was overcome with fatigue and the need to sleep when it yielded silently to the noisy engine of death that did no more than grunt and pause a moment before it resumed its race and devoured her. At that time she had tended the the engine of her death for eleven straight hours without a break.

“I’m paying you her wages up to the moment she died, but I’m rounding it down to the top of the hour, because she died at twenty minutes past.” Staithes spoke with no hint of emotion in his voice or face. For him it was a simple business transaction. Even in death, she was robbed by him that held the reins of her unhappy life and violent death in his grasp. Who could endure this?

"By rights she should be buried in there,” said Matthew North, Sairy’s father, his free hand pointing over the stone wall of the churchyard as they passed by. “But few folks can afford to pay the vicar and the sexton. They certainly can’t afford to pay to lay a fire in the church for the funeral service. It might come cheaper if we’d gone to services now and again, but we didn’t. Potter’s Field will have to do her like it does all the lads and lasses from the mill.”

His companions grunted agreement. North continued. “We came in from the country to work in the mill. We were promised good wages and a decent living. That didn’t come to anything. And while it’s true we don’t gather with the church folks on Sundays but we’ve not neglected to worship. We do that at home when we rise from our beds. It’s a bit later than on workdays, but we need to catch up on our rest as we can, and Sunday lets us do it.”

“Aye, Matthew,” said Charlie Denison. “You’re not alone in that. We take a lie in on Sundays as well and see to our prayers ourselves. Lots of us do it. There’s no place in church for the likes of us.”

As if by arrangement, they stopped their journey and lowered Sairy’s coffin down on the top of the low wall and rested. Rows of memorial stones wreathed in silent mists gazed indifferently at the party.

“It’s not that we neglect religion,” continued North as if Denison had not spoken, “It’s just that we are all so worn out when Sunday comes around from labouring through the week in the mill that we have no strength left. We have no choice but to rest on the Day of Rest. Sundays help us to recover. On the other hand, we do fall foul of going to church. When we first came here, we went to church as often as the parson did. But after a few months working in the mill all the hours God sent, we didn’t have any energy left to do anything on Sunday except rest like the Good Book says.”

Denison agreed. “You’re right Matthew. Even when we went to church, the effort of rising in a cold house and eating a pitiful breakfast before going off to church with aching limbs and heads too heavy for our necks to hold up was more than we could manage. Then, when we got to church, we had to sit right at the back and listen to the parson droning on about God blessing the rich but not blessing the poor, because, the vicar said, ‘God knows as the poor won’t shift themselves to raise themselves from poverty and filth.’ We took these as insults. It was a mean place and we stopped going. We never found anything godly there. Then we just had enough of it one day and have stayed away ever since.”

North and his companions murmured agreement. It was not, they thought, a time for many words. However, Herbert Longbottom was moved to speak.

“We used to go every Sunday, but we got stalled of singing about how God made the earth wonderful, because we didn’t see any beauty in our world. Preachers said that we were in a pickle because God put us in it and means us to stay in it! It didn’t take us long to work out that if God ordered our misery, then our situation was hopeless. We’d already gathered that everything else in life was against us and that the best we could do was knuckle under and try to survive. We looked to God for help but found he wasn’t in the business of helping poor folk, so we treated him like he treated us and turned away. I wouldn’t go back into church now if they paid me.”

“Y’know,” began Denison, thoughtfully. “There’s more hypocrisy in that there Church than there is in a den of vipers! They preach one thing and do another, and that’s hypocrisy!”

“Do you have anything particular in Mind, Charlie?” asked North.

“I do. We brought our family Bible with us when we moved into town, and it tells them to do the exact opposite of what they do.”

“Do they? What, for example?”

“For example,” said Denison, suddenly speaking in a grave tone, “Take the Epistle of James. He says, among other things, ‘Ye have despised the poor.’ It says it right there in the Holy Bible.”

“Is that right?”

“It is. I’ll show you where it is the next time you come calling to my house. I have a marker in it. And I’ll tell you summat else: I’m not going back into a church until I find one that deals with the poor like the Holy Bible says it should!”

“How did you learn to say all that? Are you studying to be a preacher, then?” broke in Longbottom.

Denison laughed, mostly to himself, then said, “Not likely, Herbert. But, when I read that, it hit me that the parson and his crowd were going dead against what it said. And they tell us they are God’s servants! What would our lords and masters say to us if we went dead against them, eh? How long would we last?”

“Not long. Maybe five minutes. And then they’d say we were godless!”

“Aye, they would that.” Agreed North, stamping his feet to restore their circulation.

“That’s why labouring folks stay away from church.”

“Aye, it is that! But, you know, because we don’t get ourselves inside churches doesn’t mean we’re godless.”

“Some are. Some have turned atheist. They reckon that if that’s the way God lets his people treat poor folks then he’s not interested in us.”

Denison followed North in stamping his feet, throwing his arms around his body to warm himself. North stopped stamping to say,
“We attend to our own religion at home on Sunday mornings. We have too few seats for too many sit-upons but everybody squeezes in somewhere. I read stories from the Bible that tell us that God is on the side of the good, not just the powerful. I’m teaching my children to read. We sing some of Wesley’s hymns I learned at the village church as a lad where Wesley used to come and preach and sing his new hymns. I remember one especially.

Thy mind throughout my life be shown,
While listening to the wretch's cry,
The widow's or the orphan's groan,
On mercy's wings I swiftly fly,
The poor and needy to relieve;
Myself, my all, for them to give?

Denison was impressed with North’s recital. “You should be a preacher, Matthew. You’ve missed your way!”

“Not me. I can see what’s wrong, though. They sing and preach one thing, and then they practice another. It is a pity, but it’s true. The church has no heart for the poor. Working folks are vexations to be suffered, not souls to be saved. The parson’s busy with his rich friends and has no time for those of us that live with sorrows and troubles every day of their lives. You know the vicar wouldn’t go and comfort the Gledhill’s when their girl, Mary, was killed. That’s not godly if you ask me. The Church teaches the divine right of kings and princes to rule, and that makes powerful men right whatever they do, and poor men wrong even when they do right! You know that’s the truth, Charlie.”

Denison agreed, nodding slowly before speaking. “I don’t know what the poor have ever done to the Church, but somewhere the two have broken apart like the wheels of an old cart whose joints have gone dry and loose. They have nothing to say to each other now, more’s the pity.”

“Let’s get on,” said North.

They took up Sarah’s coffin and walked as far as the gate hole in the wall of the pauper’s ground and then lowered the coffin again to take a rest before finishing the last leg of their journey. The morning cold bit their fingers hard, and made their knees and elbows ache.

Blowing on his hands to warm them, North spoke sadly. “Burial in a pauper grave is the lot of the poor. Some say we are vile because we can’t bury our loved ones in a better place. I’ve heard them say so. However, our shame, if we have any, is heaped on us by our betters, we don’t earn it ourselves. We live in foul hovels, work in stinking dust-laden and oven-hot mills, and we do nothing but feel pain. Our children die from pestilence, and if they don’t die of that, they are shredded by machines. Sometimes they die from worse things that we dare not even speak about. Our girls are taken by overseers and robbed of their innocence, and we are bound to keep silent or suffer. Even with all of us working, we still have to go to the Parish Poor Law for a dole to make up for our lack of food to keep us alive. The food they give is too little and mostly rotten or stale. They consider us contemptible. Poverty is a curse shared by millions of workers, all of us are all brothers in anguish, and we live exposed to the ridicule and rudeness of the arrogant with their airs and graces.”

Denison concurred. “You’re right, Matthew. The upper classes say that poverty and respectability are opposites, like evil and good. They say we have no sensitivity and no capacity for loving. They look on us as animals breeding by instinct never knowing love. They blame us for our suffering. They say it’s our own fault and that God is punishing us for being poor. Only last week I overheard a gentleman at the mill seeing Mister Staithes. He said there was a permanent connection between wealth and civilisation. He said the marriages of the poor were nothing more than business contracts, and that we get married only because we must. Staithes agreed with him. He said that whatever emotional ties we seem to have are imitations of the behaviour of our betters. If they had Matthew’s heart in them today, they would know that what connects them and us is more than what divides us. They would learn that workers are human.”

“Aye,” said the group in concert.

Denison continued. “Our betters believe that we don’t love our children, not even our little babies. They say if we did love them we couldn’t bury child after child dead from starvation, disease, or mangling in machinery and show as little feeling as we do.”

North’s anger rose as he added Denison’s sentiments. “We are said to be lazy and wicked without the gift to love. That we are unequipped by nature to have feelings. They say we lack the brains to be educated and must to be kept in our places by cruelty and harshness. If they understood that our sadness is the result of our misery they wouldn’t question why we seem not to enjoy life. We would if we had their advantages.”
Tom Caufield, silent so far other than expressing agreement by grunting appropriately, ventured his opinion. “Us mill hands swapped reasonably pleasant lives for promises of good wages and benefits. None of them came along although mills bring prosperity to the masters, and they aren’t shy of shoving their riches in our faces. Owners said they’d furnish ‘superior housing and social amenities for workers.’ They lied by hiding the bad conditions that result in us being exploited, even exterminated. We get sick, we get weak, we die early, we go mad, and we are murdered by the masters. They are our curses, and then they tell us that Providence controls us because we are bestial and sub-human!”

“Aye, that’s what they say. Come on, Matthew. Let’s get on and lay your girl to rest.”

They lifted up the coffin and continued towards the spot where little Sairy was to be buried. North continued speaking as they approached a line of graves. “They say we’re beasts and not real men. They argue that we have foolish characters that make it impossible for them to reason with us. That’s why they don’t try to bargain with us to help resolve our problems. They throw up one law after another to defeat us and keep us in slavery. It’s easy for masters to treat us any way they choose because the law supports them that say we don’t have any rights. The fruit of that kind of thinking is lying here in this coffin!”

All the discontent North had felt since starting work at the mill came out in a flood. His friends’ tongues, too, were loosed because they were among likeminded men that they trusted and were not likely to be overheard. While conscious of the appropriate sentiments in which to address their melancholic task, they aired their discontents secure of their isolation in the frigid indifference of the morning.

Taking off their jackets, they dug into the frozen ground, striking with mattock and spade. After an hour, they had gained only four feet in depth, unable to persuade the hard, stony earth to yield more. They stopped digging.

“That will have to do, lads,” said North, resting on his spade, his panting breath a spume of white vapour in the raw air.

“Aye, we’ll not get much further down,” gasped another that also leaned on his shovel.

“Right. The earth is as hard as iron. The lower we get, the harder it is. Let’s lower her and say some Christian words to send her off,” whispered Father North, too full of grief for many more words, too exhausted to make any but an effete gesture towards the ugly hole into which his beautiful daughter was to be laid, his heart ready to break yet again.

The friends nodded agreement. “Aye, let’s put her in,” said one.

After passing ropes under the box, they lifted Sairey’s coffin over the opening before letting the ropes slip gently through their calloused hands, taking care not to bump her coffin against the sides of the grave on its way down. Their gentleness stood in sharp contrast to the treatment she had endured at Staithes’ mill, from Staithes and from his overlookers.

When the coffin rested on the bottom, North cried out in pain from the depths of his soul at the frightful finality he faced. “Why could they not be gentle with her at the mill?’ he cried. “She were nothing but a little lass that worked hard and did her best every hour of the day! If they’d have treated her right and let her rest when she needed to, she’d be alive yet and not laid in this rotten hole! God rest her little soul in peace. And may he bring calamity on the head of Staithes for her death!”

“Aye! May he so do and more,” murmured one of his friends. “But, there’s no justice in this life but what we can deliver. God give us strength to be avenged in timely and proper ways.”

The men stood a long time gazing at the little box before North shovelled in the first spadeful of earth on his daughter. His companions joined in, backfilling her grave in silence until the earth lay in a bright mound over her resting place.

Had critics and betters the capacity for looking inside Matthew North’s heart and mind at that moment, they would have recognised the completeness of his humanity. They would have learned that no man is so contemptible that he ceases to be human. Even lowly folks that are viewed through the lens of another’s injustice and disdain are just as human as is the king himself.

Even if Sairy’s eternal inheritance was Hell, that place could not be as abominable as the world from which she had been released. Lucifer, when he is most baneful, was a thousand times more magnanimous than was Reynold Walkden Staithes on his best day. That Sairy was better off out of this world is beyond doubt. But that she was done great wrong as to the manner of her going is equally sure.

After the burying, not one of them stirred. North felt the biting pang of abandoning his daughter in death as he had so often been forced to abandon in life her by holding back from aiding her when she had been abused. He hated to leave her grave, but work was waiting. They looked at each other, shook North’s hand, each uttering quiet words of solace and sympathy. What could anyone say that would extract the sting from the death of a little?

Their condolences expressed, their sorrows wept, their hearts breaking for their friend, the party walked away smarting from the evil trinity of injustice, pain, and despair. Even their homes matched the cold cheerless grave of little Sairy. She had escaped like a slave that can only lay down its burdens when freed by Death. However cold the Grim Reaper’s arms may be, they are more charitable than the conditions that caused her death.  


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