Jane Davis Takes a Hand

ELIZABETH HAMMETT, poor girl, had had to suffer a tremendous strain in the last few weeks. Mrs. James Hammett’s hysterics and the old granny’s illness which was likely to end in death, and then all this coming to and fro, and her respect and affection for Uncle Jim lying in gaol, had its natural effect on her. She had worked hard to keep the house going, and the work had kept up her spirits to some extent. But in the Court she could have cried out with indignation time after time. She was worked up into such excitement that her friend, Jane Davis, had some difficulty in keeping her from saying something for which they both would have been removed and perhaps charged with misdemeanour.

As soon as it was over, sentence not having been pronounced, both young women tramped back again to Tolpuddle. They could say very little, except that all the prisoners were guilty and that a lawyer chap had got up and said it was a shame and nothing had been proved. This common experience kept Jane Davis in close touch with the Hammetts for the next two days. She wanted to know what the end was to be and thought that they would know as soon as sentence was pronounced.

But the time went on and no news came. John Hammett was not inclined to make any inquiries. The less he said to the authorities the better. It would be difficult for him to say anything, and not implicate himself. But there were some of the women at the chapel who came from Affpuddle and it was thought that Edward Legg was likely to know as soon as anybody, so up to Affpuddle they went. But Edward Legg could not be found, nor could anybody else who knew. At last Jane Davis was asked two days later if she would go down to Dorchester again with Elizabeth Hammett, and find out somehow what had taken place. Brine, the constable, knew no more than the rest of them what had happened.

The walk to Dorchester was a weary business. There was no spring in their steps, young as they were. Both of them were heavy-hearted, and somehow they felt that nothing could come of it to cheer anyone, and least of all, old Granny Hammett. It was about eleven o’clock when they got to the county town and walked on toward the Court. There they saw a little commotion taking place outside as the prisoners from Tolpuddle were being led away to Dorchester Gaol. They could not get into touch with the men, who were all chained together and Loveless was looking their way. They saw a bit of paper fluttering by, and then the guard took hold of it and rushed away with it into the Court. They saw the prisoners hurried away, but in the distance as he went they could hear George Loveless’s voice lifted up as he sang:

We raise the watchword ‘Liberty,’

We will, we will, we will be free!

‘Why, those are his “possible” notes to new words,’ said Elizabeth Hammett.

‘Possible words, my dear,’ said her companion. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Why, that hymn of his:

The things impossible shall be,

All things are possible to me.

‘Well, he’ll find some things’ll have to be a bit more possible than you’d think for the next seven years,’ said a man who had just left the Court.

‘Seven years?’ shrieked Elizabeth. ‘Seven years? Have they given him seven years? And what about the others? What about Uncle Jim?’

‘He’s got seven years as well, if he was one of them,’ answered the man. ‘They’ve all been given seven years’ transportation.’

‘Oh, let me go to see him, Jane. I must speak to him. Poor old Uncle Jim. And he wasn’t there at all. And how shall we tell Auntie and Granny? Just think of Uncle Jim a convict, Jane. Isn’t it a shame? How could they do such a thing? Can’t they see that he is a good man and wouldn’t do anything wrong?’

‘I’m afraid they can’t, Elizabeth. But there isn’t one of them who would do anything wrong so far as I can see. I don’t know much about young Brine, but he seems a nice enough lad, and the others, aren’t they all members at the chapel? And three of them preachers? Yes, it’s a shame Surely they won’t have to go. I’m going to see the minister about it and see if he can’t do anything.’

And just then the minister came out of the Court with Mr. John Barnett, of Strickland, a local preacher. They had been in to hear the sentence pronounced and both of them looked very grave. In fact Mr. Barnett looked positively angry.

‘It’s a great shame that such judgement should be given against these men,’ he said to the minister. ‘What have they done? Who doesn’t know that they are living in conditions that it is a shame any man should have to suffer, let alone men of power and good living like the Lovelesses and Standfields. Something must be done about it?’

‘Yes,’ said the minister, ‘but what? What can we do? The farmers are up in arms about this society business and they say they can’t pay more.’

‘Can’t pay—fiddlesticks!’ burst out Mr. Barnett, and then he saw the two young women from Tolpuddle.

‘We are all of us really indignant about these sentences,’ he said to them. ‘Tell everybody at Tolpuddle that I don’t think it is possible for such a savage sentence to stand.’

‘But, sir, what is to be done? Is it possible to get someone up in London to see the Prime Minister or the King or somebody who can give them a free pardon?’ said Jane Davis.

‘What do you think?’ said Mr. Barnett to the minister. Can it be done? Is there anybody who is in touch with them?’

‘Well, there is Jabez Bunting. He has a lot of influence. I don’t know whether he would help. I daren’t ask him myself. I dare not be considered to be mixed up with a lot of agitators. It is as much as my remaining in the ministry is worth. I don’t approve, as you know, of the sort of thing that these men have done. But I know they are good men and it goes to my heart that they should be transported. It may be that if someone else went to Dr. Bunting he might take pity on them and try to get the Prime Minister to use his prerogative of mercy. Couldn’t you go and see him, Mr. Barnett? You could put the case to him with such knowledge and sympathy that he might be impressed.’

‘No, I’m afraid I cannot,’ he replied. ‘It is quite impossible for me to get away just now. But I’ll pay the fare for anyone who will go.’ Then turning to Jane Davis, who was still hovering round to find if she could catch any more news of the trial, he said. ‘Is there anyone in Tolpuddle who could go to London with a message like that? Would any of the men take it?’

‘I shouldn’t think so,’ she said, realizing the situation at once. ‘Anyone who went to London like that might be held to be in the movement, and be added to the list of those to be transported. I’ll ask if you like. The only man I know who might go would be John Hammett, and his mother is lying so seriously ill and his sister-in-law is so overcome that he feels bound to stand by for a time. But if nobody else will go, I will. I feel as if I would do anything to get those men freed. It is such a shame to have acted like that, and they’re such good men. I don’t know how their places will be filled in this countryside. Why, there is a meeting they were expecting to start at Cerne Abbas at the early part of May. George Loveless and James were going out there to preach on the village green, and there is sure to be a fine time there, for George always brings a crowd, and he speaks as if the Lord were speaking through him. You know, sir,’ she added, addressing the minister, ‘he sometimes seems to me to be a man very much like John Wesley, so much power seems to be with him when he is speaking of the things that matter most.

‘Well,’ said John Barnett, ‘I think you might very well be the best person to do this. As for the Cerne Abbas meeting, do not trouble about that. I myself will go and preach on that village green. If you will undertake this journey to London, I will gladly do my part to get these things spoken of elsewhere.’

It seemed to be the only way. The minister was too timid to face the great man himself. He knew that to him it was a greater risk than it could be to this woman. Besides, he had no intention of being identified with the discontent of the county. His job was difficult enough as it was without going out of his way to create enmity between him and every farmer in his Circuit.

On this journey it was impossible that she should take Elizabeth Hammett with her. Although the latter could be spared for a day at a time, the serious illness of the Granny and the uncertain health of Mrs. James Hammett made her absence for a few days a matter not even to be discussed. Jane Davis, therefore, put the best face on it that she could and taking her courage in both hands, resolved to go the great journey to London unaccompanied. It is unnecessary to describe the coaching journey of those days. There was something of adventure about it for one who had never undertaken so long a journey in her life. She was not in the mood to enjoy the beautiful wooded scenery that she passed through. Fitfully she slept at night-time, and in the daytime she was not entirely indifferent to the things that went on around her. The coachman saw to it that whatever wrappings were available should be at her disposal. It was bitterly cold, but a working woman is more inured to such hardships than the ordinary travellers by coach were, so that she did not feel an excessive amount of discomfort on that account.

Very tired, very cold and very hungry she arrived in London early in the morning. She took no steps to get a lodging for that night, for she was not sure whether she would stay longer than the time it took to see the great Jabez Bunting. If he responded to her appeal and undertook to plead the cause of these men, she would want to hurry home again and tell the relatives, so that some hope might be given to them for the future days. By dint of constant inquiry she found her way to Hatton Garden, and then it was an easy matter to get to the building she sought. It was not so easy to pluck up courage to go in. Finally, however, she braced herself up by the thought of the courage of George Loveless in the Court, and the thought of those poor women bereft of their loved ones in Tolpuddle, and went forward to the Wesleyan Mission House.