SHARPENING THE SCYTHE.
IN the heart of a high table-land that overlooks many square leagues of the rich scenery of Devonshire, the best scythe-stone is found. The whole face of the enormous cliff in which it is contained is honeycombed with minute quarries; half-way down there is a. wagon road, entirely formed of the sand cast out from them. To walk along that vast soft terrace on a July evening is to enjoy one of the most delightful scenes in Eng1and. Forests of fir rise overhead like cloud on cloud; through openings of these there peeps the purple moorland stretching far southward to the Roman Camp, and barrows from which spears and skulls are dug continually. Whatever may be underground, it is all soft and bright above, with heath and wild flowers, about which a breeze will linger in the hottest noon. Down to the sand road the breeze does not come; there we may walk in calm, and only see that it is quivering among the topmost tress. From the camp the Atlantic can be seen, but from the sand road the view is more limited, though many a bay and headland show where the ocean of a past age rolled. Fossils and shells are almost as plentiful within the cliff as the scythe-stone itself, and wondrous bones of extinct animals are often brought to light.
All day long, summer and winter, in the somber fir-groves may be heard the stroke of the spade and the click of the hammer; a hundred men are at work like bees upon the cliff, each in his own cell of the great honeycomb, his private passage. The right to dig his own burrow each of the men has purchased for a trifling sum, and he toils in it daily. Though it is a narrow space, in which he is not able to stand upright, and can scarcely turn, - though the air in it that he breathes is damp and deadly, - though the color in his cheek is commonly the hectic of consumption, and he has a cough that never leaves him night or day, - though he will himself remark that he does not know amongst his neighbors one old man, - and though, all marrying early, few ever see a father with his grown-up son, yet, for all this, the scythe-stone cutter works in his accustomed way, and lives his short life merrily, that is to say, he drinks down any sense or care that he might have. These poor men are almost without exception sickly drunkards. The women of this community are not much healthier. It is their task to cut and shape the rough-hewn stone into those pieces wherewith “the mower whets his scythe.” The thin particles of dust that escape during this process are very pernicious to the lungs; but, as usual, it is found impossible to help the ignorant sufferers by anything in the form of an idea from without; a number of masks and respirators have been more than once provided for them by the charity of the neighboring gentry, but scarcely once woman has given them her countenance.
The short life of the scythe-stone cutter is also always liable to be abruptly ended. Safety requires that fir poles from the neighboring wood should be driven in one by one on either side of him, and a third flat stake be laid across to make the walls and roof safe, as the digger pushes his long burrow forward. Cheap as these fir poles are, they are too often dispensed with. There is scarcely one of the hundred mined entrances of disused caverns here to be seen, through which some crushed or suffocated workman has not been brought out dead. The case is common. A man cannot pay the trifle that is necessary to buy fir poles for the support of his cell walls; the consequence is, that sooner or later, it must almost inevitably happen that one stroke of the pickaxe shall produce a fall of sand behind him, and set an impassable barrier between him and the world without. It will then be to little purpose that another may be working near him prompt to give the alarm and get assistance; tons upon tons of heavy sand divide the victim from the rescuers, and they must prop and roof their way at every step, lest they too perish. Such accidents are therefore mostly fatal; if the man was not at once crushed by a fall of sand upon him, he has been cut off from the outer air, and suffocated in his narrow worm-hole.
Whiteknights is a small village at the foot of this cliff, inhabited almost entirely by persons following this scythe-stone trade. The few agricultural laborers there to be met with may be distinguished at a glance from their brethren in the pits; the bronzed cheeks from the hectic, the muscular frames from the bodies which disease has weakened, and which dissipation helps to a more swift decay. The cottages are not ill built, and generally stand detached in a small garden; their little porches may be seen of an evening thronged with dirty pretty children, helping father outside his cavern by carrying the stone away in little baskets, as he brings it out to them.
Beside the Lutarivulet, which has pleasanter nooks, more flowery banks, and falls more musical than any stream in Devon; beside this brook, and parted by a little wood of beeches and wild laurel from the village, is a very pearl of cottages. Honeysuckle, red rose and sweet briar hold it entangled in a fragrant network; they fall over the little windows, making twilight at midnoon, yet nobody has ever thought of cutting them away or tying up a single tendril. Grandfather Markham and his daughter Alice, with John Drewit, her husband and master of the house, used to live there, and they had little children, Jane, Henry and Joe.
A little room over the porch was especially neat. It was the best room in the cottage, and therein was lodged old Markham, who had, so far as the means of his children went, the best of board as well. He was not a very old man, but looked ten years older than he was, and his hand shook through an infirmity more grievous than age. He was a gin drinker. John Drewit had to work very hard to keep not only his own household in food and clothing, but also his poor old father-in-law in drink.
John was a hale young man when I first knew him, but he soon began to alter. As soon as it was light he was away to the sand-cliff by a pleasant winding path through the beech wood and up the steps which his own spade had cut. One or two of them he had made broader than the rest at intervals, where one might willingly sit down to survey the glory spread beneath; the low, white, straw-thatched farms gleaming like light amongst the pasture-lands, the little towns each with its shining river, and the great old city in the hazy distance; the high beacon hills, the woods, and far as eye could see the mist that hung over the immense Atlantic. This resting on the upward path, at first a pleasure, became soon a matter of necessity, and that, too, long before the cough had settled down upon him; few men in Whiteknights have their lungs so whole that they can climb up to their pits without at halt or two.
The old man helped his son-in-law sometimes; he was a good sort of old man by nature, and not a bit more selfish than a drunkard always must be. He ground the rough stones into shape, at home, minded the children at his daughter’s absence, and even used the pick himself when he was sober. John, too, was for his wife’s sake tolerant of the old man’s infirmity, though half his little earnings went to gratify the old man’s appetite. At last necessity compelled him to be, as he thought, undutiful. Print after print vanished from the cottage walls, every little ornament, not actually necessary furniture, was sold: absolute want threatened the household, when John at last stated firmly, though tenderly, that grandfather must give up the gin-bottle or find some other dwelling. Alice was overcome with tears, but when appealed to by the old man, pointed to her dear husband, and bowed her head to his wise words.
For two months after this time, there were no more drunken words nor angry tongues to be heard within John’s pleasant cottage. Nothing was said by daughter or by son-in-law of the long score at the public-house that was being paid off by installments; the daughter looked no longer at her father with reproachful eyes, and the children never again had to be taken to bed before their time – hurried away from the sight of their grandfather’s shame. At last, however, on one Sunday evening in July, the ruling passion had again the mastery; Markham came home in a worse state than ever; and in addition to the usual debasement, it was evident that he was possessed by some maudlin terror, that he had no power to express.
Leaving him on his bed in a lethargic sleep, John sailed forth as usual at dawn; his boys, Harry and Joe, carrying up for him his miner’s spade and basket. Heavy hearted as he was, he could not help being gladdened by the wonderful beauty of the landscape. His daughter told me that she never saw him stand so long looking at the country – he seemed unwilling to leave the sunlight for his dark, far winding burrow. His burrow he had no reason to dread. Poverty never had pressed so hard on John Drewit as to induce him to sell away the fir prop that assured the safety of his life. Often and often had his voice been loud against those men, who knowing of the mortal danger to which they exposed their neighbors, gave drink or money in exchange for them to the foolhardy and vicious. Great, therefore, was his horror when he went into his cave that morning and found that his own props had been removed. They had not been taken from the entrance, where a passer-by might have observed their absence; all was right for the first twenty yards, but beyond that distance down to the end of his long, toil-worn labyrinth every pole was stripped away. Surely he knew at once that it was not an enemy who had done this; he knew that the wretched old man who lay stupefied at home, had stolen and sold his life defense for a drink. All that the poor fellow told his boys was that they should keep within the safe part of the digging while he himself worked on the rock as usual. Three or four times he brought out a heap of scythe-stones in his basket, and then he was seen alive no more.
Harry, his eldest son, was nearest to the unpropped passage when the sandcliff fell. When he heard his father call out suddenly, he ran at once eagerly, running towards the candle by which the miner worked, but on a sudden all was dark; there was no light from candle or from sun – before and behind was utter blackness and there was a noise like thunder in his ears. The whole hill seemed to have fallen upon them both, and many tons of earth parted the father from his child. The sand about the boy did not press about him closely. A heavy piece of cliff that held together was supported by the narrow walls of the passage, and his fate was undetermined. He attended only to the muffled sounds within the rock, from which he knew that his father, though they might be the sounds of his death struggle, still lived.
To the people outside the alarm had instantly been given by the other child, and in an incredibly short space of time the laborers from the field and cave came hurrying up to the rescue. Two only could dig together, two more propped the way behind them foot by foot; relays eagerly waited at the entrance; and not an instant was lost in replacing the exhausted workmen. Everything was done just as quickly, and, at the same time, as judiciously as possible; the surgeon had at the first been ridden for, at full speed, to the neighboring town; brandy and other stimulants, a rude lancet – with which many of the men were but too well practiced operators, - bandages and blankets were all placed ready at hand; for the disaster was so common at Whiteknights that every man at once knew what was proper to be done. Those who were not actively engaged about the cave, were busy in the construction of a litter – perhaps a bier – for the unhappy victims.
How could this have happened? was the whispered wonder. John was known to be far too prudent a man to have been working without props, and yet fresh ones had to be supplied to the rescuers, for they found none as they advanced. The poor widow – every moment made more sure of her bereavement – stood a little way aside; having begged for a spade and been refused, she stood with her two children handing to her apron, staring fixedly at the pit’s mouth.
Down at the cottage there was an old man invoking Heaven’s vengeance on his own grey head and reproaching himself fiercely with the consequences of his brutal vice; he had stolen the poles from his son’s pit on the previous morning, to provide himself with drink; and on that very day even before he was quite recovered from his yesterday’s debauch, he was to see the victim of his recklessness brought home in a lifeless heap. He saw John so brought in, but with the eyes of a madman; his brain, weakened by drunkenness, never recovered from that shock.
Basket and barrow had been brought full out of the pit a hundred times; and it was almost noon before, from the bowels of the very mountain as it seems, there came up a low moaning cry. “My child, my child,” murmured the mother: and the digging became straightway even yet more earnest, almost frantic in its speed and violence. Presently into the arms of Alice little Harry was delivered, pale and corpse-like, but alive; and then a shout as of an army was set up by all the men.
They dug on until after sunset – long after they lost all hope of finding John alive. His body was at last found. It was placed upon the litter, and taken under the soft evening sky down through the beech wood home. Alice walked by its side, holding its hand in hers, speechless and with dry eyes. She never knew until after her father’s death, how her dear John was murdered. She used to wonder why the old man shrank from her when she visited him, as she often did, in his confinement. The poor widow is living now, though she has suffered grief and want. Her daughter Jane has married a field laborer, and her sons, by whom she is now well supported, have never set foot in a pit since they lost their father.
Back to Index