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Authors: A. J. Cronin

The Stars Look Down

BOOK: The Stars Look Down
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The Stars Look Down
A.J. Cronin

The Stars Look Down
Copyright © 1935, 2015 by A.J. Cronin

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Electronic edition published 2015 by RosettaBooks
Cover design by Peter Clark
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795345456
www.RosettaBooks.com

Contents

Book One

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Twenty-Four

Book Two

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Book Three

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Other Books by A.J. Cronin

BOOK ONE
ONE

When Martha awoke it was still dark and bitter cold. The wind, pouring across the North Sea, struck freezingly through the cracks which old subsidences had opened in the two-roomed house. Waves pounded distantly. The rest was silence.

She lay quite still in the kitchen bed, holding herself rigidly away from Robert whose coughing and restlessness had fitfully broken the night. For a minute she reflected, sternly facing the new day, choking down the bitterness she felt against him. Then with an effort she got up.

Her bare feet felt the stone floor like ice. She struggled into her clothes quickly, with the active movements of a powerful woman not yet forty. Yet when she had dressed, the exertion left her panting. She was not hungry now—for some queer reason the worst of her hunger had gone days before—but she was sick, deathly sick. Dragging herself to the sink she turned on the tap. No water came. The pipe was frozen.

She lost herself momentarily, stood with her calloused hand pressed against her swollen side staring through the window towards the hesitant dawn. Miners’ rows beneath her, stretching dimly, row upon row. To the right the blackness of Sleescale town, the harbour beyond with one cold light and then the colder sea. To the left the stark outline of Neptune No. 17’s headgear rising like a gallows against the pale east sky, dominating the town, the harbour and the sea.

The furrow deepened on Martha’s brow. Three months now the strike had gone on. At the misery of it she turned abruptly from the window and began to get the fire alight. It was difficult. She had only the damp driftwood that Sammy had gathered the day before and some duff, the worst kind of dross, fetched in by Hughie off the pit-tip. It maddened her that she, Martha Fenwick, always used to fine silkstone coal, to a real collier’s fire, should be forced to potch with duff. But at last she had it going. She went
through the back door, smashed the new ice on the water-butt with one resentful blow, filled the kettle, came back and set it to boil.

The kettle was a long time. But when it boiled she filled a cup and sat crouched before the fire clasping the cup with both hands, sipping it slowly. The scalding water warmed her, sent vague currents of life through her numbed body. It was not so good as tea; no, no, nothing like tea; but for all that it was good, she felt herself “coming to.” The flames darting about the green wood illuminated a bit of old newspaper, torn from her kindling, lying on the pipeclayed hearth.
Mr. Keir Hardie asked in the House of Commons whether, since the destitution is as great as ever in the North, the Government proposes a measure to enable the education authorities to take steps to feed destitute children. The answer given was that the Government did not intend to give authorities power to feed destitute children.
Still sipping her hot water she read it idly. Her face, gaunt as bone, showed nothing, neither interest nor resentment; nothing. It was inscrutable like death.

Suddenly she turned. Yes. He was awake, lying upon his side, his cheek on his palm, in the familiar way, watching her. Instantly, all the bitterness surged over her again. Everything, everything, everything—him. Then he began to cough, she knew he had been holding it for fear of her. It was not a racking cough, but a deep, gentle, experienced cough. It was an intimate cough. In fact the cough was himself, not unkindly, possessing him almost benignly. It filled his mouth with a vast quantity of phlegm. Raising himself upon his elbow he spat upon the square of
Tit-Bits
. He seemed always to be cutting these squares from
Tit-Bits
, cutting them carefully, painstakingly, with her old bone-handled potato knife. He had a stock of them, never ran out. He would spit upon the little square, contemplate the result, fold and burn it… burn it with a sort of optimism. When he was in bed he dropped the little packets over the edge… burned them when he got up.

She felt a sudden hatred of him and the cough that was he, but she rose, refilled the cup with hot water and handed it to him. He took it in silence.

It was lighter. The clock had been the first thing pawned, the temple marble clock her father had won for bowling—a fine man her father and a real champion at pot-stour bowls!—but she judged the time about seven o’clock. She twisted
one of David’s stockings round her neck, pulled on a man’s cloth cap which was now her own, then got into her shabby black cloth coat. That, at least, was something, her coat. She was not a shawl-woman. Never. She was respectable, was, and would be, in spite of everything. All her life… respectable.

Without speaking, without looking at him, she went out, the front door this time. Bracing her figure to the bitter wind she set off down Cowpen Street, the steep slant leading to the town. It was colder outside, terribly cold. The Terraces were deserted, not a soul in sight. She passed the Salutation, passed Middlerig, passed the deserted steps of the Institute, covered with frozen spittle, the spume of past debate. The side wall was chalked,
Mass meeting at three
. Charley Gowlan the check-weigher had wrote that—the big boozy waster.

She shivered and tried to hasten her pace. But she could not go faster. The child within her, still without life, lay heavy as lead, pulling, dragging, bending her down. To be like this; at such a time! Three grown sons; David, the youngest, nearly fifteen; and then to be caught. She clenched her hands. Indignation boiled within her. Him, again, coming home in liquor, silently, doggedly, in liquor, to have his will of her.

In the town most of the shops were shut. Many of them would not open. Not even the Co-op., where credit, strained to the uttermost, was finally exhausted. What did it matter, anyway, she had one red twopenny token in her purse; that would buy her plenty, wouldn’t it? Not Masters either—for two days he had been shuttered, glutted with pledges, her own good things among them, his three brass balls dangling without promise. Not Murchison, nor Dobbs, nor Bates. They were all shut, all frightened, dead frightened of trouble.

She turned the corner into Lamb Street, crossed the road opposite Ramage’s, went down the narrow Scut to the slaughter-house. As she approached, her face brightened. Hob was there, sweeping the concrete yard, sweeping in his shirt-sleeves and leather apron.

“Anything this morning, Hob?” Her voice was quiet and she stood quiet, waiting until he should notice her.

He had noticed her all along, but still kept his head down, slushing the water with his brush. Steam rose from his wet red arms. She did not mind. Hob was all right, Hob
knew
her, Hob would do what he could. She waited.

“You haven’t a bit left-ower, Hob?” She was not asking
much, an unwanted piece, a piece of the lights or pluck, usually thrown out as offal.

He stopped at last, not looking at her, surly because he must refuse.

“Aw’ve nowt in the place.”

She looked at him.

“No?”

He shook his head.

“Not nowt! Ramage made us kill six a’clock last night and cart everything te the shop. He must ov heard aw was handin’ out nap bones. Near blew my head off!”

She drew in her lips. So Ramage had stopped their chance of soup, of a scanty liver-fry. She looked worried. Hob was slashing viciously with the brush.

She walked away, thinking, hastening gradually, back through the Scut, along Lamb Street to the harbour. One glance was enough. She stopped short while the wind billowed her skirt, dismay at last flooding her pinched face. Not a chance of a herring even; though she had brought herself to the point of asking the Macers’ charity. The
Annie Macer
lay with the other boats, lined behind the stubby breakwater, nets snug, untouched. The weather, she thought, heavily, letting her gaze shift to the dirty churning waves beyond. None of the boats had been out.

Martha turned slowly and began, droopingly, to go back. More people in the streets now, the town bestirring, a few carts clattering over the cobbles. Harkness of Bethel Street School went by, a little man with a pointed beard, gold-rimmed glasses and a warm overcoat; some rope-work girls in clogs; a clerk to the Council Offices hurrying, blowing on his hands. They all avoided her, studiously, avoided her eye. They did not know her. But they did know she was from the Terraces, part of the trouble, the blight that had lain upon the town these last three months. Her feet dragged as she began to climb the hill.

Outside Teasdale’s bakery, a horse and van stood loading bread for delivery. Dan Teasdale, the son, hurried in and out with a big basket on his arm, loaded with new-baked loaves. As she came abreast the shop the hot sweet scent of the new bread rose from the basement bakehouse, and caught her by the throat. Instinctively she paused. She could have swooned with desire for the bread. At that moment Dan came out with another basketful. He saw her, saw the ravening in her face. He paled; a kind of horror clouded his eyes.
Without thinking, he took a loaf and thrust it into her hands.

She said nothing, not a word, but a mist of gratitude, the nearest she ever got to tears, danced before her as she continued up Cowpen Street into Sebastopol Row. She liked Dan, a decent lad who was working for his ticket at the Neptune, but now, since the strike, was helping his father, driving the van, delivering the bread; he often spoke to Davey. Breathing a little fast from the climb, she laid her hand upon the door of her house.

“Mrs. Kinch’s Alice has the congestion.” Hannah Brace, her next-door neighbour, stopped her on the way in.

Martha nodded: all that week the children of the Terraces had been going down with pneumonia.

“I’ll look round later, tell Mrs. Kinch,” she said and entered her own house.

They were up and dressed, the four of them, Robert and her three sons, gathered round the fire; but as usual her eyes fell first on Sammy. He smiled at her, that ready, tight-lipped grin which sent his deep-set blue eyes right out of sight beneath his nobby forehead. There was an infinite hardihood behind Sam’s grin. He was only nineteen, already a hewer in the Neptune, Martha’s eldest son, her favourite.

“Eh, look,” Sam winked at David. “Look what yer mother has been and gone and done. She’s been and gone and done and pinched a loaf for ye.”

In his corner Davey smiled dutifully; a thin, quiet white-faced boy with a long, serious, stubborn face. His shoulder-blades stuck out as he stooped over the fire; his big dark eyes looked inquisitive usually, but they were less inquisitive now. He was fourteen years of age, horse-putter in the Neptune, Paradise section, nine hours each day underground bank to bank, now on strike and rather peckish.

“What do ye think about it, lads?” Sam went on. “Here’s your uncle Sammy trainin’ for the living-skeleton act. Loses ten stone a fortnight, doin’ the Hints for Stout Ladies, doin’ the cure for cor
pul
ency. And then wor mother walks in wi’ a banquet. Hard lines on Sammy, eh, Hughie lad?”

BOOK: The Stars Look Down
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