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Chapter XIV.

THE moist cold of a thaw: the damp darkness of a misty December night. Splashed to the eyes, with sodden shoes in which my tired feet worked like force-pump pistons, with clammy hands gnawed raw by the clinging fog, starved to the marrow, utterly miserable, I was plodding through the slush, when a little way before me I descried a double line of flaring fires. As I drew nearer, I saw stalwart figures, arrayed in short smocks and long night-caps, plying the pick and spade on the sides of a ravine; others trundling barrows piled with clay, or dragging them back empty, along narrow, bending planks at such a giddy height above the ground that my head swam as I watched their careless traversers. A waggon rumbled through the gorge to the end of the bluff embankment which protruded from its jaws, stopped mysteriously when apparently just about to topple down the precipice, tilted—so it seemed—of its own accord, shot out a rattling avalanche of ballast, and then rolled back into the mist to fetch another load. It was the inchoate Great Western Railway that I had reached. The huge navvies looked almost fiend-like in the lurid glare of the cresset-fires, their bustle and blasphemy were doubly startling after the deep, solitary stillness through which I had travelled; and yet, after all, the sight of them was pleasant.

It is a dreary thing to follow alone the snake-like windings of a road by night; ebon blackness dogging your steps, ebon blackness again in front, some three-square feet of ground but dimly seen beneath your very nose; hedgerow trees shaping themselves into ambushed foot-pads, milestones masquerading as silent ghosts—standing sentry, perchance, over their foully-murdered bodies; hushed fields, brooded over by dreadful, ever-thickening shadow, stretching away on each side to what would be the sky-line, if sky and earth were not blended in chaotic gloom. Any one who has taken such a journey will appreciate Coleridge's stanza:—

As one who on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once looked round, walks on,
And no more turns his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread!

The feeling so forcibly described in the last two lines—or something very like it—had gradually been stealing over me. Actual fiends from Lancashire appeared decidedly preferable to possible fiends from Hell. Moreover, I was quite fagged out and foot-sore. I determined to test the hospitality of these industrious devils in white jumpers. If repulsed


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from their fires—a warm place to sleep in was all that I wanted—I should be no worse off than before, and must then, with what heart I could muster, once more face the ceriness and endure the weariness of the heavy, haunted highway.

I clambered over a gate, and stumbled through a plowed field up to the first fire on my side of the cutting I have mentioned. I raked together some straw for a bed, and lay down before the grateful blaze unchallenged, and in two minutes was fast asleep. My slumbers, however, were soon disturbed. The toe of a huge boot lifted me out of my couch, and a gruff voice demanded my business. Nathless, the owner of the boot and voice—a gigantic navvy—was a good-tempered fellow; and when he had heard my story, gave me a drink of “dog's nose” to comfort me from a gallon-can full of that mixture which he had just concocted, and told me that if I wanted a “snooze,” I might go and lie down in his hut—a clay cottage a few yards off. To this I repaired, and coiling myself up in a corner and covering myself with an old coat I found there, I very speedily resumed my interrupted nap.

I was awoke next day by a great tumult in and around the cottage. My host was “wanted” by a band of Bristol police, who, afraid to attempt to take him when at work amongst his fellows, and knowing that he belonged to a “night-gang,” had stealthily crept up to his hut in the morning twilight, hoping to catch him in his first heavy sleep, and without the notice of his comrades. His “day-gang” mates, however, were mustered round the door, swearing that they would have the peelers' blood if they didn't instantly decamp. Contractors were striving to appease their men, and advising the “force” not to persist in effecting a capture. Some of the policemen were struggling in the doorway with the surging mob; others were endeavouring to burst open a trap-door which was the entrance to a loft that formed the delinquent's dormitory. This he had fastened down, I suppose, at the first alarm of invasion.

The lower room, as may easily be imagined, was very roughly ceiled. Its ceiling was, in fact, merely the floor of the loft, and in it there were many widely-gaping chinks. Through one of these the Inspector at the head of the constables thrust a pistol; vowing that he would shoot my stalwart friend if he did not instantly come down. Immediately afterwards the hut shook, and I heard a tremendous crash. I thought at first that the pistol had been fired, and that the man was killed; but a roar of laughter and a thundering cheer from the crowd outside undeceived me. I knew then that the navvy must have escaped. But how? He had literally jumped through the wall of his house, its clay yielding to his


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strong shoulder like reeds before a rhinoceros. Those who had come to make a prisoner were themselves kept prisoners for some three hours. When, in the opinion of his friends, sufficient “law” had been given to the quarry, his hunters were liberated, to pursue, if they liked, the chase; but, quailing before the storm of hoots and the shower of stones with which they were greeted when they issued from the cottage, they set off at full speed back to Bristol. In the confusion I slipped away unnoticed, and recommenced my tramp in the opposite direction.

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