Mrs. G. Linnaeus Banks, "The Manchester Man"
When Pliny lost his life, and Herculaneum was buried, Manchester was born. Whilst lava and ashes blotted from sight and memory fair and luxurious Roman cities close to the Capitol, the Roman soldiery of Titus, under their general Agricola, laid the foundations of a distant city now competes with the great cities of the world. Where now rise forests of tall chimneys, and the hum of whirling spindles, spread the dense woods of Arden; - and from the clearing in their midst rose the Roman castrum of Mamutium, which has left its name of Castle Field as a memorial to us. But where their summer camp is said to have been pitched, on the airy rock at the confluence of the rivers Irk and Irwell, sacred church and peaceful college have stood for centuries, and only antiquaries can point to Roman possession, or even to the baronial hall which the Saxon lord perched there for security.
And only an antiquary or a very old inhabitant can recall Manchester as it was at the close of the last century; and shutting his eyes upon railway-arch, station, and esplanade, upon Palatine buildings, broad roadways, and river embankments, can see the Irk and the Irwell as they were when the Cathedral was the Collegiate Church, with a diminutive brick wall three parts round its ancient graveyard. Then the irregular-fronted rows of quaint old houses which still, under the name of Half Street, crowd upon two sides of the churchyard, with only an intervening strip of a flagged walk between, closed it up on a third side, and shut the river (lying low beneath) from the view, with a huddled mass of still older dwellings, some of which were thrust out of sight, and were only to be reached by flights of break-neck steps of rock or stone, and like their hoary fellows creeping down the narrow roadway of Hunt's Bank, overhung the Irwell, and threatened to topple into it some day.
The Chetham Hospital or College still looks solidly down on the Irk at the angle of the streams; the old Grammar School has been suffered to do the same; and - thanks to the honest workmen who built for our ancestors - the long lines of houses known as Long Millgate are for the most part standing, and on the river side have resisted the frequent floods of centuries.
In 1799 that line was almost unbroken, from the College (where it commenced at Hunt's Bank Bridge) to Red Bank. The short alley by the Town Mill, called Mill Brow, which led down to the wooden Mill Bridge, was little more of a gap than those narrow entries or passages which pierced the walls like slits here and there, and offered dark and perilous passage to courts. and alleys, trending in steep incline to the very bed of the Irk. The houses themselves had been good originally, and were thus cramped together for defence in perilous times, when experience taught that a narrow gorge was easier held against warlike odds than an open roadway.
Ducie Bridge had then no existence, but Tanners' Bridge - no doubt a strong wooden structure like that at Mill Brow - accessible from the street only by one of those narrow steep passages, stood within a few yards of its site, and had a place on ~d maps so far back as 16S0. Its name is expressive, and goes to prove that the tannery on the rocky banks of the Irk, behind the houses of Long Millgate, then opposite to the end of Miller's Lane, was a tannery at least a century and a half before old Simon Clegg worked amongst the tan-pits, and called William Clough master.
To this sinuous and picturesque line of houses, the streams, with their rocky and precipitous banks, will have served in olden times as a natural defensive moat (indeed, it is noticeable that old Manchester kept pretty much within the angle of its rivers), and in 1799, from one end of Millgate to the other, the dwellers by the waterside looked across the stream on green and undulating uplands, intersected by luxuriant hedgerows, a bleachery at Walker's Croft, and a short terrace of houses near Scotland Bridge, denominated Scotland, being the sole breaks in the verdure.
Between the tannery and Scotland Bridge the river makes a sharp bend; and here, at the elbow, another mill, with its corresponding dam, was situated. The current of the Irk, if not deep, is strong at all times, though kept by its high banks within narrow compass. But when, as is not unseldom the case, there is a sudden flushing of water from the hill-country, it rises, rises, rises, stealthily, though swiftly, till the stream overtops its banks, washes over low-lying bleach-crofts, fields, and gardens, mounts foot by foot over the fertile slopes, invades the houses, and, like a mountain-robber sweeping from his fastness on a peaceful vale, carries his spoil with him, and leaves desolation and wailing behind.
Such a flood as this, following a heavy thunder-storm, devastated the valley of the Irk, on the 17th of August, 1799.
Well was it then for the tannery and those houses on the bank of the Irk which had their foundations in the solid rock, for the waters surged and roared at their base and over pleasant meadows - a widespread turbulent sea, with here and there an island of refuge, which the day before had been a lofty mound.
The flood of the previous Autumn, when a coach and horses had been swept down the Irwell, and men and women were drowned, was as nothing to this. The tannery yard, high as it was above the bed of the Irk, and solid as was its embankment, was threatened with invasion. The surging water roared and beat against its masonry, and licked its coping with frothy tongue and lip, like a hungry giant, greedy for fresh food. Men with thick clogs and hide-bound legs, leather gloves and aprons, were hurrying to and fro with harrows and bark-boxes for the reception of the valuable hides which their mates, armed with long-shafted hooks and tongs, were dragging from the pits pell-mell, ere the advancing waters should encroach upon their territory, and empty the tan-pits for them.
Already the insatiate flood bore testimony to its ruthless greed. Hanks of yarn, pieces of calico, hay, uptorn bushes, planks, chairs, boxes, dog-kennels, and hen-coops, a shattered chest of drawers, pots and pans, had swept past, swirling and eddying in the flood, which by this time spread like a vast lake over the opposite lands, and had risen within three feet of the arch of Scotland Bridge, and hardly left a trace where the mill-dam chafed it commonly.
Too busy were the tanners, under the eye of their master, to stretch out hand or hook to arrest the progress of either furniture or live stock, though bee-hives and hen-coops, and more than one squealing pig, went racing with the current, now rising towards the footway of Tanners' Bridge.
Every window of every house upon the lower banks was crowded with anxious heads, for flooded Scotland rose like an island from the watery waste, and their own cellars were fast filling. There had been voices calling to each other from window to window all the morning; but now from window to window, from house to house, rang one reduplicated shriek, which caused many of the busy tanners to quit their work, and rush to the water's edge. To their horror, a painted wooden cradle, which had crossed the deeply-submerged dam in safety, was floating foot-foremost down to destruction, with an infant calmly sleeping in its bed; the very motion of the waters having seemingly lulled it to sounder repose I
"Good Lord It's a choilt!" exclaimed Simon Clegg, the eldest tanner in the yard. "Lend a hand here, fur the sake o' th' childer at whoam.'
Half a dozen hooks and plungers were outstretched, even while he spoke; but the longest was lamentably too short to arrest the approaching cradle in its course, and the unconscious babe seemed doomed. With frantic haste Simon Clegg rushed on to Tanners' Bridge, followed by a boy; and there, with hook and plunger, they met the cradle as it drifted towards them, afraid of over-balancing it even in their attempt to save. It swerved, and almost upset; but Simon dexterously caught his hook within the wooden hood, and drew the frail bark and its living freight close to the bridge. The boy, and a man named Cooper, lying flat on the bridge, then clutched at it with extended hands, raised it carefully from the turbid water, and drew it safely between the open rails to the footway, amidst the shouts and hurrahs of breathless and excited spectators.
The babe was screaming terribly. The shock when the first hook stopped the progress of the cradle had disturbed its dreams, and its little fat arms were stretched Out piteously as strange faces looked down upon it instead of the mother's familiar countenance. Wrapping the patchwork quilt around it, to keep it from contact with his wet sleeves and apron, Simon, tenderly as a woman, lifted the infant in his rough arms, and strove to comfort it, but in vain. His beard of three days growth was as a rasp to its soft skin, and the closer he caressed, the more it screamed. The men from the tannery came crowding round him.
"What dost ta mean to do wi' th' babby?" asked the man Cooper of old Simon. "Aw'd tak' it whoam to my missis, but th' owd lass is nowt to be takken to, an' wur as cross as two sticks when oi only axed fur mi baggin to bring to wark wi' mi this mornin'," added he, with rueful remembrance of the scolding wife on his hearth.
"Neay, lad, aw'l not trust th' poor choilt to thy Sally. It 'ud be loike chuckin' it out o' th' wayter into th' fire (Hush-a-by, babby). Aw'll just tak it to ar' Bess, and hoo'll cuddle it up and gi' it summat to sup, till we find its own mammy," answered Simon, leaving the bridge. "Bring the kayther alung, Jack," (to the boy) "Bess'll want it. We'n noan o' that tackle at ar place. Hush-a-by, hush-a-by, babby."
But the little thing, missing its natural protector, and half stifled in the swathing quilt, only screamed the louder; and Simon, notwithstanding his kind heart, was truly glad when his daughter Bess, who had witnessed the rescue from their own window, met him at the tannery gate, and relieved him of his struggling charge.
"Si thi, Bess! here's a God-send fur thi - a poor little babby fur thee to tend an' be koind to, till them it belungs to come a-seekin' fur it," said he to the young woman; "but thah mun give it summat better than cowd wayter - it's had too mich o' that a'ready."
"That aw will, poor darlin'!" responded she, kissing the babe's velvet cheeks as, sensible of a change of nurses, it nestled to her breast. "Eh! but there'll be sore hearts for this blessed babby, somewheere." And she turned up the narrow passage which led at once from the tan-yard and the bridge, stilling and soothing the little castaway as adroitly as an experienced nurse.
"Neaw, luk thi, lad," Simon remarked to Cooper; "is na it fair wonderful heaw that babby taks to ar Bess? But it's just a way hoo has, an' theere is na a fractious choilt i' a' ar yard but'll be quiet wi' Bess."
Cooper looked after her, nodded an assent, and sighed, as if he wished some one in another yard had the same soothing way with her.
But the voice of the raging water had not stilled like that of the rescued infant Back went the two men to their task, and worked away with a will to carry hides, bark, .and implements to places of security. And as they hurried to and fro with loads on back or barrow, up, up, inch by inch, foot by foot, the swelling flood rose still higher, till, lapping the foot-bridge, curling over the embankment, it drove the sturdy tanners back, flung itself into the pits, and, in many a swirling eddy, washed tan and hair and skins into the common current.
Not so much, however, went into its seething caldron as might have been, had the men worked with less vigour; and, quick to recognise the value of ready service, Mr. Clough led his drenched and weary workmen to the "Skinners' Arms," in Long Millgate, and ordered a supply of ale and bread and cheese to be served out to them.
At the door of the public-house, where he left the workmen to the enjoyment of this impromptu feast, he encountered Simon Clegg. The kind fellow had taken a hasty run to his own tenement, "just to see heaw ar Bess an' th' babby get on;" and he brought back the intelligence that it was "a lad, an' as good as goold."
"Oh, my man, I've been too much occupied to speak to you before," cried Mr. Clough. "I saw you foremost in the rescue of that unfortunate infant, and shall not forget it. Here is a crown for your share in the good deed. I suppose that was the child's mother you gave it to ?"
Simon was a little man, but he drew back with considerable native dignity.
"Thenk yo', measter, all th' same, but aw connot tak' brass fur just doin' my duty. Aw'd never ha' slept i' my bed gin that little un had bin dreawned, an' me lookin' on bike a stump. Neay; that lass wur Bess, moi wench. We'n no notion wheere th' lad's mother is."
Mr. Clough would have pressed the money upon him, but he put it back with a motion of his hand.
"No, sir; aw'm a poor mon, a varry poor man, but aw connot tak' money fur savin' a choilt's life. It's agen' ma conscience. I'll tak' mi' share o' the bread an' cheese, an' drink yo'r health i' a sup o' ale, but aw cudna' tak' that brass if aw wur deem'."
And Simon, giving a scrape with his clog, and a duck of his head, meant for a bow, passed his master respectfully, and went clattering up the steps of the "Skinners' Arms," leaving the gentleman standing there, and looking after him in mingled astonishment and admiration.
When the scurrying water, thick with sand and mud, and discoloured with dye stuffs, which floated in brightly-tinted patches on its surface, filled the arch of Scotland Bridge, and left only the rails of Tanners' Bridge visible, the inundation reached its climax; but a couple of days elapsed before the flood subsided below the level of the unprotected tannery-yard, and until then neither Simon Clegg nor his mates could resume their occupations.
There was a good deal of lounging about Long Millgate and the doors of the "Queen Anne" and "Skinners' Arms" of heavily shod men, in rough garniture of thick hide-armoury against the tan and water in which their daily bread was steeped.
But in all those two days no anxious father, no white-faced mother, had run from street to street, and house to house, to seek and claim a rescued living child. No, not even when the week had passed, though the story of his "miraculous preservation" was the theme of conversation at the tea-tables of gentility and in the bar-parlours of taverns; was the gossip of courts and alleys, highways and byways; and though echo, in the guise of a "flying stationer," caught it up and spread it broadcast in catchpenny sheets, far beyond the confines of the inundation.
This was the more surprising as no dead bodies had been washed down the river, and no lives were reported "lost." Had the child no one to care for it? - no relative to whom its little life was precious? Had it been abandoned to its fate, a waif unloved, uncared for?
The house in which Simon Clegg lived was situated at the very end of Skinners' Yard, a cul-de-sac, to which the only approach was a dark, covered entry, not four feet wide. The pavement of the yard was natural rock, originally hewn into broad flat steps, but then worn with water from the skies, and from house-wifely pails, and the tramp of countless clogs, to a rugged steep incline, asking wary stepping from the stranger on exploration after nightfall. Gas was, of course, unknown, but not even an oil-lamp lit up the gloom.
In the sunken basement a tripe-boiler had a number of stone troughs or cisterns, for keeping his commodities cool for sale. The three rooms of Simon Clegg were situated immediately above these, two small bed-rooms overlooking the river and pleasant green fields beyond; the wide kitchen window having no broader range of prospect than the dreary and not too savoury yard. Even this view was shut out by a batting frame, resembling much a long, narrow French bedstead, all the more that on its canvas surface was laid a thick bed of raw (that is, undressed) cotton, freckled with seeds and fine bits of husky pod. Bess was a batter, and her business was to turn and beat the clotted mass with stout lithe arms and willow-wands, until the fibres loosened, the seeds and specks fell through, and a billowy mass of whitish down lay before her. It was not a healthy occupation: dust and flue released found their way into the lungs, as well as on to the floor and furniture; and a rosy-checked batter was a myth. Machinery does the work now - but this history deals with then!
During the week dust lay thick on everything; even Bessy's hair was fluffy as a bursting cotton pod, in spite of the kerchief tied across it; but on the Saturday, when she had carried her work to Simpson's factory in Miller's Lane, and came back with her wages, broom and duster cleared away the film; wax and brush polished up the old bureau, the pride and glory of their kitchen; the two slim iron candlesticks, fender and poker, were burnished bright as steel; the three-legged round deal table was scrubbed white; and then, mounted on tall pattens, she set about with mop and pail, and a long-handled stone, to cleanse the flag floor from the week's impurities.
She had had a good mother, and, to the best of her ability, Bess tried to follow in her footsteps, and fill the vacant place on her father's hearth, and in his heart. Her mother had been dead four years, and Bess, now close upon twenty, had since then lost two brothers, and lamented as lost one dearer than a brother - the two former by death, the other by the fierce demands of war. She had a pale, interesting face, with dark hair and thoughtful, deep grey eyes, and was, if anything, too quiet and staid for her years; but when her face lit up she had as pleasant a smile upon it as one would wish to see by one's fireside, and not even her dialect could make her voice otherwise than low and gentle.
Both her brothers had been considerably younger than herself; and possibly the fact of having stood in loco parentis to them for upwards of two years had imparted to her the air of motherliness she possessed. Certain it is that if a child in the yard scalded itself or cut a finger, or knocked the bark off an angular limb, it went crying to Bessy Clegg in preference to its own mother; and she healed bruises and quarrels with the same balsam - loving sympathy. She was just the one to open her arms and heart to a poor motherless babe, and Simon Clegg knew it.
Old Simon, or old Clegg, he was called, probably because he was graver and more serious than his fellows, and had never changed his master since he grew to manhood; certainly not on account of his age, which trembled on the verge of fifty, only. He was a short, somewhat spare man, with a face deeply lined by sorrow for the loved ones he had lost. But he had a merry twinkling eye, and was not without a latent vein of humour. The atmosphere of the tannery might have shrivelled his skin, but it had not withered his heart; and when he handed the child he had saved to his daughter, he never stopped to calculate contingencies.
The boy, apparently between two and three months' old, was dressed in a long gown of printed linen, had a muslin cap, and an under one of flannel, all neatly made, but neither in make nor material beyond those of a respectable working-man's child; and there was not a mark upon anything which could give a clue to its parentage.
The painted wooden cradle, which had been to it an ark of safety, was placed in a corner by the fireplace; and an old bottle, filled with thin gruel, over the neck of which Bess had tied a loose cap of punctured wash-leather, was so adjusted that the little one, deprived of its mother, could lie within and feed itself whilst Bess industriously pursued her avocations.
These were not times for idleness. There had been bread riots the previous winter; food still was at famine prices; and it was all a poor man could do, with the strictest industry and economy, to obtain a bare subsistence. So Bess worked away all the harder, because there were times when babydom was imperative, and would be nursed.
She had put the last garnishing touches to her kitchen on Saturday night, had taken off her wrapper-brat, put on a clean blue bedgown, and substituted a white linen cap for the coloured kerchief; when her father, who had been to New Cross Market to make his bargains by himself on this occasion, came into the kitchen, followed by Cooper, who having helped to save the child, naturally felt an interest in him.
The iron porridge-pot was on the low fire, and Bess, sifting the oatmeal into the boiling water with the left hand, whilst with the other she beat it swiftly with her porridge-stick, was so intent on the preparation of their supper, she did not notice their entrance until her father, putting his coarse wicker market-basket down on her white table, bade Cooper "Coom in an' tak' a cheer."
Instead of taking a chair, the man walked as quietly as his clogs would let him to the cradle, and looked down on the infant sucking vigorously at the delusive bottle. Matt Cooper was the unhappy father of eight, whose maintenance was a sore perplexity to him; and it may be supposed he spoke with authority when he exclaimed -
"Whoy, he tak's t' th' pap-bottle as nat'rally as if he'n ne'er had nowt else!"
And the big man - quite a contrast to Simon - stooped and lifted the babe from the cradle with all the ease of long practice, and dandled it in his arms, saying as he did so,
"Let's hev a look at th' little chap. Aw've not seen the colour o' his eyen yet."
The eyes were grey, so dark they might have passed for black; and there was in them more than the ordinary inquiring gaze of babyhood.
"Well, thah'rt a pratty lad; but had thah bin th' fowest i' o' Lankisheer, aw'd a-thowt thi mammy'd ha' speered fur thi afore this," added he, sitting down, and nodding to the child, which crowed in his face.
"Ah! one would ha' reckoned so," assented Bess, without turning round.
"What ar' ta gooin' to do, Simon, toward fandin' th' choilt's kin?" next questioned their visitor.
Simon looked puzzled.
"Whoy, aw've hardly gi'en it a thowt."
But the question, once started, was discussed at some length. Meanwhile the porridge destined for two Bess poured into three bowls, placing three iron spoons beside them with no more ceremony than, "Ye'll tak' a sup wi' us, Mat"
Mat apologised, feeling quite assured there was no more than the two could have eaten; but Simon looked hurt, and the porridge was appetising to a hungry man so he handed the baby to the young woman, took up his spoon, and the broken thread of conversation was renewed at intervals. What they said matters not so much as what they did.
The next morning being Sunday, Cooper called for Clegg just as the bells were ringing for church; and the two, arrayed in their best fustian breeches, long-tailed, deep-cuffed coats, knitted hose, three-cornered hats, and shoes, only kept for Sunday wear, set out to seek the parents of the unclaimed infant, nothing doubting that they were going to carry solace to sorrowing hearts.
Their course lay in the same track as the Irk, now pursuing its course as smilingly under the bright August sun as though its banks were not strewed with wreck, and foul with thick offensive mud, and the woeful devastations were none of its doing. There were fewer houses on their route than now, and they kept closely as possible to the course of the river, questioning the various inhabitants as they went along. They had gone through Collyhurst and Blakely without rousing anyone to a thought beyond self-sustained damage, or gaining a single item of intelligence, though they made many a detour in quest of it. At a roadside public-house close to Middleton they sat down parched with heat and thirst, called for a mug of ale each, drew from their pockets thick hunks of brown bread and cheese, wrapped in blue and white check handkerchiefs, and whilst satisfying their hunger came to the conclusion that no cradle could have drifted safely so far, crossing weirs and mill dams, amongst uprooted bushes, timber, and household chattels, and that it was best to turn back.
In Smedley Vale, where the flood seemed to have done its worst, and where a small cottage close to the river lay in ruins, a knot of people were gathered together talking and gesticulating as if in eager controversy. As they approached, they were spied by one of the group.
"Here are th' chaps as fund th' babby, an' want'n to know who it belungs to," cried he, a youth whom they had interrogated early in the day.
To tell in brief what Simon and his companion learned by slow degrees - the hapless child was alone in the world, orphaned by a succession of misfortunes. The dilapidated cottage had been for some fifteen months the home of its parents. The father, who was understood to have come from Crumpsall with his young wife and her aged mother, had been summoned to attend the death-bed of a brother in Liverpool, and had never been heard of since. The alarm and trouble consequent upon his prolonged absence prostrated the young wife, and caused not only the babe's premature birth, but the mother's death. The care of the child had devolved upon the stricken grandmother, who had brought him up by hand, as Matthew's sagacity had suggested. She was a woman far advanced in years, and feeble, but she asked no help from neighbours or parish, though her poverty was apparent. She kept poultry and knitted stockings, and managed to eke out a living somehow, but how, none of those scattered neighbours seemed to know - she had "held her yead so hoigh"(pursued her way so quietly).
She had been out in her garden feeding her fowls when the flood came upon them without warning, swept through the open doors of the cottage, and carried cradle and everything else before it, leaving hardly a wall standing. In endeavouring to save the child she herself got seriously hurt, and was with difficulty rescued. But between grief and fright, bruises and the drenching, the old dame succumbed, and died on the Thursday morning, and had been buried by the parish - from which in life she had proudly kept aloof - that very afternoon, and no one could tell other name she had borne than Nan.
Bess sobbed aloud when she heard her father's recital, which lost nothing of its pathos from the homely vernacular in which it was couched.
"An' what's to be done neaw?" asked Cooper, as he sat on one of the rush-bottomed chairs, sucking the knob of his walking stick, as if for an inspiration. "Yo canno' think o' keeping th' choilt, an' bread an' meal at sich a proice!"
"Connot oi? Then aw con no' think o' aught else. Wouldst ha' me chuck it i' th' river agen? What does thah say, Bess?" turning to his daughter, who had the child on her lap.
"Whoi, th' poor little lad's got noather feyther nor mother, an thah's lost boath o' thi lads. Mebbe it's a Godsend, feyther, after 0,, as yo said'n to me," and she kissed it tenderly.
"Eh, wench!" interposed Matthew, but she went on without heeding him.
"There's babby clooas laid by i' lavender i' thoase drawers as hasna seen dayleet sin ar Joe wur a toddler, an' they'll just come handy. An' if bread's dear, an' meal's dear, we mun just ate less on it arsels, an' there'll be moore fur the choilt. He'll pay yo back, feyther, aw know, when yo're too owd to wark."
"An' aw con do 'bout 'bacca, lass. If the orphan's granny wur too preawd to ax help o' th' parish, aw'll be too preawd to send her pratty grandchoilt theer."
And so, to Matthew Cooper's amazement, it was settled. But the extra labour and self-denial it involved on the part of Bess, neither Matthew nor Simon could estimate.
In the midst of the rabid scepticism and Republicanism of the period, Simon Clegg was a staunch "Church and King" man, and, as a natural consequence, a stout upholder of their ordinances. Regularly as the bell tolled in for Sunday morning service, he might be seen walking reverently down the aisle of the old church, to his place in the free seats, with his neat, cheerful-looking daughter following him sometimes, but not always - so regularly that the stout beadle missed him from his seat the Sunday after the inundation, and meeting him in the churchyard a week later, sought to learn the why and wherefore.
The beadle of the parish church was an important personage in the eyes of Simon Clegg; and, somewhat proud of his notice, the little tanner related the incidents of that memorable flood-week to his querist, concluding with his adoption of the child.
The official h'md and ha'd, applauded the act, but shook his powdered head, and added, sagely, that it was a "greeat charge, a varry greeat charge."
"Dun yo' think th' little un's bin babtised?" interrogated the beadle.
"Aw conno' tell; nob'dy couldn't tell nowt abeawt th' choilt, 'ut wur ony use to onybody. Bess an' me han talked it ower, an' we wur thinkin' o' bringin' it to be kirsened, to be on th' safe soide loike. Aw reckon it wouldna do th' choilt ony harm to be kirsened twoice ower; an' 'twoud be loike flingin' th' choilt's soul to Owd Scrat gin he wur no kirsened at o'. What dun yo' thinken'?"
The beadle thought pretty much the same as Simon, and it was finally arranged that Simon should present the young foundling for baptism in the course of the week.
Manchester had at that date two eccentric clergymen attached to the Collegiate Church. Tile one, Parson Gatliffe, a fine man, a polished gentleman, an eloquent preacher, but a bon vivant of whom many odd stories arc told. The other, the Reverend Joshua Brookes, a short, stumpy man (so like to the old knave of clubs in mourning that the sobriquet of the "Knave of Clubs" stuck to him), was a rough, crusted, unpolished black-diamond, hasty in temper, harsh in tone, blunt in speech and in the pulpit, but with a true heart beating under the angular external crystals; and he was a good liver of another sort than his colleague.
He was the son of a crippled and not too sober shoemaker, who, when the boy's intense desire for learning had attracted the attention and patronage of Parson Ainscough, went to the homes of several of the wealthy denizens of the town, to ask for pecuniary aid to send his son Joshua to college. The youth's scholarly attainments had already obtained him an exhibition at the Free Grammar School, which, coupled with the donations obtained by his father and the helping hand of Parson Ainscough, enabled him to keep his terms and to graduate at Brazenose, to become a master in the grammar school in which he had been taught, and a chaplain in the Collegiate Church.
So conscientious was he in the performance of his sacred duties that, albeit he was wont to exercise his calling after a peculiarly rough fashion of his own, he married, christened, buried more people during his ministry than all the other ecclesiastics put together.
It was to this Joshua Brookes (few ever thought of prefixing the "Reverend" in referring to him) that Simon Clegg brought "Nan's" orphan grandchild to be baptised on Tuesday, the 7th of September, just three weeks from the date of his involuntary voyage down the flooded Irk.
It had taken the tanner the whole of the week following his conversation with the beadle to determine the name he should give the child, and many had been his consultations with Bess on the subject. That very Sunday he had gone home from church full of the matter, and lifting his big old Bible from its post of honour on the top of the bureau (it was his whole library), he sat, after dinner, with his head in his hands and his elbows on the table, debating the momentous question.
"Yo' see, Bess," said he, "a neame as sticks to one all ones loife, is noan so sma' a matter as some folk reckon. An' yon's noan a common choilt. It is na every day, no, nor every year, that a choilt is weshed down a river in a kayther, and saved from th' very jaws of deeath. An' aw'd loike to gi'e un a neame as 'ud mak' it remember it, an' thenk God for his mercifu' preservation a' th' days o' his loife."
After a long pause, during which Bess took the baby from the cradle, tucked a napkin under its chin, and began to feed it with a spoon, he resumed -
"Yo' see, Bess, hadna aw bin kirsened Simon, aw moight ha' bin a cobbler, or a whitster, or a wayver, or owt else. But feyther could read tho' he couldna wroite; an' as he wur a reed-makker, he towt mi moi A B C wi' crookin' up th' bits o' wires he couldna use into th' shaps o' th' letters; an' when aw could spell sma' words gradely, he towt me to read out o' this varry book; an aw read o' Simon, a tanner, an' nowt 'ud sarve mi but aw mun be a tanner too; so tha sees theer's summat i' a neame after o'."
Bess suggested that he should be called Noah, because Noah was saved in the ark; but he objected that Noah was an old greybeard, with a family, and that he knew the flood was coming, and built the ark himself; he was "not takken unawares in his helplessness loike that poor babby."
Moses was her next proposition-Bess had learned something of Biblical lore at the first Sunday school Manchester could boast, the one in Gun Street, founded by Simeon Newton in 1788 - but Simon was not satisfied even with Moses.
"Yo' see, Moses wur put in' th' ark o' bulrushes o' purpose, an noather thee nor mi's a Pharaoh's dowter, an' th' little chap's not loike to be browt oop i' a pallis."
Towards the end of the week he burst into the room; "Oi hev it, lass, oi hev it! We'n co' the lad 'Irk'; nob'dy'll hev a neame loike that, an' it'll tell its own story; an' fur th' afterneame, aw reckon he mun tak' ours."
Marriages were solemnized in the richly-carved choir of the venerable old Church, but churchings and baptisms in a large adjoining chapel; and thither Bess, who carried the baby, was ushered, followed by Simon and Matt Cooper, who were to act as its other sponsors.
At the door they made way for the entrance of a party of ladies, whom they had seen alight from sedan-chairs at the upper gate, where a couple of gentlemen joined them. A nurse followed, with a baby, whose christening robe, nearly two yards long, was a mass of rich embroidery. The mother herself, - a slight, lovely creature, additionally pale and delicate from her late ordeal-wore a long, plain-skirted dress of van-coloured brocaded silk. A lustrous silk scarf, trimmed with costly lace, enveloped her shoulders. Her head-dress, a bonnet with a bag-crown and Quakerish poke-brim, was of the newest fashion, as were the long kid gloves which covered her arms to the elbows.
The party stepped forward as though precedence was theirs of right even at the church door, heeding not Simon's mannerly withdrawal to let them pass; and the very nurse looked disdainfully at the calico gown of the baby in the round arms of Bess, a woman in a grey duffle cloak and old-fashioned flat, broad-brimmed hat, tied down over the ears.
Is there any thrill, sympathetic or antagonistic, in baby-veins, as they thus meet there for the first time on their entrance into the church and the broad path of life? For the first time - but scarcely for the last.
Already a goodly crowd of mothers, babies, godfathers and godmothers had assembled-a crowd of all grades, judging from their exteriors, for dress had not then ceased to be a criterion and all ceremonies of this kind were performed in shoals - not singly.
The Rev. Joshua Brookes, followed by his clerk, came through the door in the carven screen, between the choir and baptismal chapel, and took his place behind the altar rails. And now ensued a scene which some of my readers may think incredible, but which was common enough then, and there, and is notoriously true. The width of the altar could scarcely accommodate the number of women waiting to be churched; and the impatient Joshua assisted the apparitors to marshal them to their places, with a sharp. "You come here! You kneel there! Yon woman's not paid!" accompanied by pulls and pushes, until the semi-circle was filled.
But Still the shrinking lady, and another, unused to jostle with rough crowds, were left standing outside the pale.
Impetuous Joshua had begun the service before all were settled. "Forasmuch as it hath pleased --"
His quick eye caught the outstanding figures. Abruptly stopping his exordium, he exclaimed, in his harsh tones, which seemed to intimidate the lady,
"What are you standing there for? Can't you find a place? Make room here!" (pushing two women apart by the shoulder), "thrutch up closer there! Make haste, and kneel here!" (to the lady, pulling her forward). "You come here; make room, will you?" and having pulled and pushed them into place, he resumed the service.
Presently there was another outburst There had been a hushing of whimpering babies, and a maternal smothering of infantile cries, as a chorus throughout; but one fractious little one screamed right out, and refused to be comforted. The nervous tremor on that kneeling lady's countenance might have told to whom it belonged, had Joshua been a skilful reader of hearts and faces. His irritable temper got the better of him. He broke off in the midst of the psalm to call out, "Stop that crying child!" The crying child did not stop. In the midst of another verse he bawled, "Give that screaming babby the breast!" He went on. The clerk had pronounced the "Amen" at the end of the psalm; the chaplain followed, "Let us pray;" but before he began the prayer, he again shouted, "Take that squalling babby out!" - an order the indignant nurse precipitately obeyed; and the service ended without further interruption.
Then followed the christenings, and another marshalling (this time of godfathers and godmothers, with the infants they presented), in which the hasty chaplain did his part with hands and voice until all were arranged to his satisfaction.
It so happened that the tanner's group and the lady's group were ranked side by side. The latter was Mrs. Aspinall, the wife of a wealthy cotton merchant, who, with two other gentlemen and a lady, stood behind her, and this time gave her their much-needed support. Indeed, what with the damp and chillness of the church, and the agitation, the delicate lady appeared ready to faint
"Hath this child been already baptized or no?" asked Joshua Brookes, and was passing on, when Simon's unexpected response arrested him.
"Aw dunnot know."
"Don't know ? How's that ? What are you here for ? were questions huddled one on the other, in a broader vernacular than I have thought well to put in the mouth of a man so deeply learned.
"Whoi, yo' see, this is the choilt as wur weshed deawn th' river wi' th' flood in a kayther; an' o' belungin' th' lad are deead, an' aw mun kirsen him to mak' o' sure."
Joshua listened with more patience than might have been expected from him, and passed on with a mere "Humph!" to ask the same question from each in succession before proceeding with the general service. At length he came to the naming of several infants.
"Henrietta Burdelia Fitzbourne" was given as the proposed name of a girl of middle-class parents.
"Mary, I baptise thee," &c., be calmly proceeded, handed -the baby back to the astonished godmother, and passed to the next, regardless of appeal.
Mrs. Aspinall's boy took his name of Laurence with a noisy protest against the sprinkling. Nor was the foundling silent when, having been duly informed that the boy's name was to be "Irk," self-willed Joshua deliberately, and with scarcely a visible pause, went on
"Jabez, I baptise thee in the name," &C., and so overturned, at one fell swoop, all Simon's carefully-constructed castle.
Simon attempted to remonstrate, but Joshua Brookes had another infant in his arms, and was deaf to all but his own business. Such a substitution of names was too common a practice of his to disturb him in the least But Simon had a brave spirit, and stood no more in awe of Joshua Brookes "Jotty" as he was called-than of another man. When the others had gone in a crowd to the vestry to register the baptisms, he stopped to confront the parson as he left the altar.
"What roight had yo' to change the neame aw chuse to gi'e that choilt?"
"What right had yo' to saddle the poor lad with an Irksome name like that?" was the quick rejoinder.
"Roight! why, aw wanted to gi'e th' lad a neame as should mak' him thankful for bein' saved from dreawndin' to the - last deays o' his loife."
"An Irksome name like that would have made him the butt of every little imp in the gutters, until he'd have been ready to drown himself to get rid of it. Jabez is an honourable name, man. You go home, and look through your Bible till you find it"
Simon was- open to conviction; his bright eyes twinkled as a new light dawned upon them.
The gruff chaplain bad brushed past him on his way to the robing-room; but he turned back, with his right hand in his breeches pocket, and put a seven-shilling piece in the palm of the tanner, saying:
"Here's something towards the christening feast of th' little chap I've stood godfather to. And don't you forget to look in 'Chronicles' for Jabez; and, above all, see that the lad doesn't disgrace his name."
Joshua Brookes had the character, among those who knew him least, of loving money overmuch, and this unwonted exhibition of generosity took Simon's breath.
The chaplain was gone before he recovered from his amazement-gone, with a tender heart softened towards the fatherless child thrown upon the world, his cynicism rebuked by the true charity of the poor tanner, who had taken the foundling to his home in a season of woeful dearth.
And, to his credit be it said, the Rev. Joshua Brookes never lost sight of either Simon or little Jabez. He was wont to throw out words which he meant to be in season, but his harsh, abrupt manner, as a rule, neutralized the effect of his impromptu teachings. Now, however, the seed was thrown in other ground; and, as he intended, Simon's curiosity was excited. The Bible was reverently lifted from the bureau as soon as they reached home, and after some seeking, the passage was found.
Simon's reading was nothing to boast of' but Cooper could not read at all; and in the eyes of his unlettered comrades Clegg shone as a learned man. He could decipher "black print," and that, in his days, amongst his class, was a distinction. Slowly he traced his fingers along the lines for his own information, and then still more slowly, with a sort of rest after every word, read out to his auditors-Bess, Matthew, and Matthew 5 wife (there in her best gown and best temper)-with slight dialectal peculiarities which need not be reproduced -
"Eh, Simon, mon, owd Jotty wur woiser nor thee. Theer's for a lad to stand by! It's as good as a leeapin'-pow' that it is, t' help him ower th' brucks and rucks o' th' warld."
Simon sat lost in thought. At length he raised his head, and remarked soberly -
"Parson Brookes moight ha' bin a prophet; th' choilt's mother did bear him Wi' sorrow. The neame fits th' lad as if it had bin meade for him."
"Then aw hope he's a prophet o' eawt, feyther, an' o' th' rest'll come true in toime," briskly interjected Bess; adding - "Coom, tay's ready;', further appending for the information of their visitors-" Madam Clough sent the tay an' sugar, an' th' big curran'-loaf' when hoo heeard as feyther had axed for a holiday fur the kirsenin'; an' Mester Clough's sent some yale [ale], an' a thumpin' piece o' beef."
"Ay, lass; an' as we'en a'ready a foine kirsenin' feast, we'en no change parson's seven-shillin' piece, but lay it oop fur th' lad hissen."
But the christening feast did not proceed without sundry noisy demonstrations from Master Jabez. If' as Simon had once hinted, he was an angel in the house, he flapped his wings and blew his trumpet pretty noisily at times.
"Eh, lass, aw wish Tum wur here neaw, to enjoy hisself wi' us. Aw wonder what he'd say to yo' nursin' a babby so bonnily?"
Simon was munching a huge piece of currant-cake as he uttered this, after a meditative pause. A look of pain passed over Bess's face. She rarely mentioned the absent Tom, though he was seldom out of her thoughts.
"Yea, an' aw wish he wur here!" she echoed with a sigh, the fountain of which was deep in her own breast. "Aw wonder where he is neaw."
"Feightin,' mebbe!" suggested her father.
"Killed, mebbe!" was the fearful suggestion of her own heart, and she was silent for some time afterwards.
But the feast proceeded merrily for all that, and no wonder where Charity was president. And there was quite as happy a party under that humble roof in Skinners' Yard as that assembled in the grand house at Ardwick, where Master Laurence Aspinall was handed about in his embroidered robes for the inspection of guests who cared very little about him, although they did present him with silver mugs, and spoons, and corals, and protest to his pale and exhausted mamma that he was the finest infant in Manchester.