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- The Underworld - 3/49 -
"Ay," Peter answered, "we were thinkin' it was aboot time somethin' was done. There's four bairns an' their two selves, an' though times are no' very guid for ony of us now, it maun be a lot worse for them. Geordie has been a guid while off."
"Do ye think, Peter, they are in such need?" asked Walker, with a hint in his voice that was meant to convey he knew better.
"Lord, they canna be aught else!" decisively returned Peter. "How can they be? I ken for mysel'," he went on, "that if it was me, I wad hae been in starvation lang syne."
"Weel, wad ye believe me when I tell ye--an' it's a fact--they're about the best-off family in this place, if ye only kent it."
"What!" cried Peter in surprise, "the best-off family in the place! Lord, I canna take that in!"
"Maybe no'," said Walker, "but I ken, an' ye're no' the first that's been taken in by Nellie Sinclair. If ye notice, she never tells any thin' to anybody; but she lets ye carry the notion in your mind that she's in great straits. She's a cute one, Nellie."
"Weel, Nellie does keep hersel' to hersel'," admitted Peter. "She's no' given to clashin' and claverin' about the doors like some o' the rest o' the women; but I canna' for the life o' me see where she can be onythin' but ill aff at this time."
"Weel, I ken when folk are bein' imposed on," said Walker, in a knowing tone, "an' I tore down your notice this mornin'. I didna want to see you mak' a fool o' yersels. I ha'e been considerin' for a while," he went on, speaking quickly, "about puttin' a stop to this collectin' business at the office on pay Saturdays, for it just encourages some men to lie off work when there's no' very muckle wrong wi' them; after they get the collection they soon start work again. Ye had better no' stand the morn, for I might as well begin at once and put a stop to it."
Up till now Andrew Marshall had not spoken; he was a silent man, given more to thought than speech, but this was a way of doing things he did not like.
"But ye might let us tak' the collection first, and then put up a notice yersel sayin' that a' collections have to be stopped. It wad be best to gi'e the men notice."
"No," said Walker, "there's to be nae mair collections taken. I might as well stop it this time as wait. So ye'll no' stand the morn."
"Will I no'?" returned Andrew challengingly. "How the hell do ye ken whether I will or no'?"
"I ken ye'll no'," replied Walker, with quiet menacing tones; "the ground at the office belongs to the company, and is private. So ye can do it if ye like, but ye'll be weel advised no' to bother."
"I don't gi'e a damn," cried Andrew explosively, "whether the ground is private or no'. I'll take that 'gathering' for Geordie Sinclair the morn, though ye ha'e a regiment o' sodgers at the office."
"Very well," said Walker, as he departed, "if ye do, ye can look out."
Peter took his pipe out of his mouth and spat savagely on the ground; he then replaced it with great deliberation and looked gloomily at the stoop-side. He was a man about thirty-five, tall, bony and angular; his neck was long and thin, and his head seemed always on the point of turning to allow him to look over his shoulder. His right eye was half closed, while his left eye looked big and saucer-like, and never seemed to wink; one eye was ready to laugh and the other to "greet," as his comrades described it. He had been badly disfigured in a burning accident in the pit when he was a young man, and a broken nose added still more to the strangeness of his appearance. Andrew, on the other hand, was stout and broadly built, with a bushy whisker on each cheek, and a clump of tufty hair on his head.
"What do ye mak' o' that, Andrew?" enquired Peter, after a few minutes, as he again spat savagely at the stoop-side.
"What do I mak' o't?" echoed Andrew, as he glowered across the little bing of dross at his mate, "it's just in keepin' wi' the rest o' his dirty doin's, the dirty black brute that he is!"
"I wonder what's wrong wi' him?" mused Peter as he sucked quietly at his snoring pipe. But there was no answer from Andrew, who was sitting silent and glum, gazing at his little lamp.
"What are ye goin' to do about it, then?" broke in Peter again.
"Just what I said," returned Andrew with quiet firmness. "I'll take that collection the morn, some way or another, if I should be damned for it. Does he mean to say that we can let folk starve?" He lifted his pick and began to hew the coal with an energy that told of the passion raging within him.
"Does he mean to think I'm goin' to see decent folk starve afore my e'en?" he asked after a while, pausing to wipe the sweat from his eyes. "No' damned likely! Things ha'e come to a fine pass when folk are compelled to look at other folk starvin' an' no' gi'e them a crust."
"Do ye think there's onything in what he said about them bein' weel-aff?" asked Peter cautiously, while his big eye tried to wink. "Nellie is a wee bit inclined to be prood an' independent, ye ken, an' disna say muckle about her affairs. An forby we don't ken very muckle about her; she's an incomer to the place, and she might ha'e been weel-aff afore she married Geordie, for aught we ken."
"It disna matter," replied Andrew, "I dinna care though they had thousan's. What I don't like is this 'ye'll-no'-do-this-an'-ye'll-no'-do-that' sort o' thing. What the hell right has ony gaffer wi' what a man does? It's a' one to him what I do. I'm nae slave, an' forby, I dinna believe they are weel-aff. They maun be hard up."
"But he'll maybe sack ye," suggested Peter, "if ye take the collection."
"Well, let him," cried Andrew, now thoroughly roused, "the bastard! I would see the greyhounds o' hell huntin' him roun' the rocks o' blazes afore I'd give in to him!"
Nothing further was said of the matter until well on in the day, when it suddenly occurred to Andrew that Peter, who had a large family, might not care to incur the displeasure of Walker by taking the collection the next day.
"Of course, Peter," he said, after he had thought the matter over, "if ye don't care to take the collection wi' me, I won't press ye. I'll no' think ony worse o' ye if ye don't. Ye ha'e a big family, while I ha'e only the wife to look after. Sometimes I think it's lucky we ha'e nae weans; I can flit, and ye might no' be able to rise an' run. But I mean to take the collection onyway, for I don't like a man to order me what I ha'e to do."
"Oh, I wasna mindin' that, Andra," replied Peter, trying to make Andrew believe that he had not guessed the truth. "I'll take the collectin wi' ye, an' Black Jock can gang to hell if he likes."
"No, Peter, ye'll do naethin' o' the kind. I'll take it mysel'." And Andrew would not move from that decision.
Next day everybody was curiously expectant; it had got noised abroad that Walker had defied Andrew Marshall to take a collection at the office, and had threatened him with arrest. There were wild rumors of other penalties, and when pay-day came everybody was surprised to see Andrew draw his pay and walk home. They concluded that Andrew had thought better of it, and had been cowed into submission. When darkness began to fall, however, Andrew sauntered out and visited every home in the village, soliciting aid on behalf of Geordie Sinclair. There were few houses from which he did not get a donation, though the will to give was often greater than the means. In each house Andrew had to give in detail the interview between Black Jock and himself in the pit.
"The muckle big, black, dirty brute that he is!" the good-wife would cry in indignation. "It's a pity but he could ken what starvation is himsel'. It might make him a bit mair like a human bein'."
"That's true," Andrew would agree.
In one or two houses he met with a blank refusal, but in these he was not disappointed, for he knew that the men would not risk Walker's disapproval by contributing. Again, some were wholly hostile. They were the "belly-crawlers," as Geordie Sinclair had once dubbed them at a meeting, those who "kept in" with the management by carrying tales, and generally acting as traitors to the other men.
"No, I'll no' gi'e ye onythin'," would be the reply; "he can just be like me an' gang an' work for his bairns. Forby, look at yon stuck-up baggage o' a wife o' his. She can hardly pass the time o' day wi' ye--she thinks hersel' somethin'."
"Very well," Andrew would reply, "maybe ye ha'e mair need o't for other things." And he would pass on to the next house.
He had gathered between three and four pounds, contributed sometimes even in pennies, and going to Geordie's house, he knocked at the door. This was the most uncomfortable part of his work, and he stood shifting from one foot to the other, wondering what he would say when he entered. Mrs. Sinclair was busy washing the floor and cleaning up, after having been at work all day washing for someone in the village. She wiped her hands and opened the door.
"How are ye a' keepin' the night?" inquired Andrew, as he stepped inside at Mrs. Sinclair's invitation, feeling more and more uncomfortable. It was a hard enough matter to go and ask others whom he knew had little to spare, but now, having got the money, he did not know how he was going to hand it over to Nellie. He ruminated for a time as to how he would break into the subject. He knew that Nellie Sinclair must have heard of the collection, and guessed his errand, for he saw that she, too, was uneasy and agitated.
"How are ye a' the night?" he again enquired, to break the silence.
"Oh, I'm no' so bad at a', Andra," replied Geordie. "I'm feelin' a wee bit easier the night. How's yersel'?"
"No' so bad," answered Andrew, putting his hand in his pocket for his pipe.
"Dash it! I'm away without my pipe," he said with a show of annoyance. "Can ye len' me yours, Geordie, to get a smoke? I ha'e my tobacco and matches. Ye see," he went on, speaking more rapidly, "I thought I would
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