On her wedding day in 1821, Charlotte Freeman was eager to feel grown up. She would not have confessed such a silly hope even to her sweetheart. George was six years older than she. He would have already been a workingman on Charlotte’s sixth birthday, that day long ago on which she had roused her family with her sobs because she had not awakened suddenly much larger than when she fell asleep the night before.
As that birthday had drawn near, people would say, “Oh, Lottie, you’re going to be six. You’re going to be a big girl!” What a disappointment it had been to wake up not at all changed! Her family still teased her about it every May.
Now she and her maids walked to the church, each of them crowned with a flowery wreath so that the Fates could not distinguish one from another. Disguised as what they truly were, hopeful girls, they would confuse Bad Fortune and lure it away from Charlotte, whose happiness rendered her vulnerable.
As she entered the stony shade of the chapel, her name trailed behind her, dissolving more completely with each step. She took the dear hand of George Werrett, who would remain George Werrett till his death. She felt the hard coin in her shoe, lately transferred from her mother’s generous hand to hers. Would it become George’s sixpence in the hocus pocus of the vicar’s droning? She thought of the slip of a child that had lately stopped her courses. So much exchange these last days, and yet such little alteration!
Maybe God, the guest of honor at all these events, would transform her as He could the bread. More likely He was, as usual, distant or busy and would leave it largely up to her.
Widow with Five
When George was killed, Charlotte was pregnant with their fourth child. Her brothers brought her money on paydays. When her favorite brother also carried the news that a man they all liked seemed willing, he assured her that none of them minded the money.
When she asked why a man ten years younger would think of her at all, her brother reminded her that she was beautiful. She thought it must be only that she had survived childbed so often and that the man was alone with his baby son. But she didn’t say this to her brother.
“He would treat me as a mother, not a wife,” she argued. She couldn’t know that he would tease her about her age only when she did something that might frustrate anyone and that then he would assume the manner of a youth pretending tolerance of the truly elderly. And she would be forced to laugh.
Objections passed through her mind quickly, as if she hadn’t the strength to entertain them long, let alone raise them to her brother. One lone thought among her shadowy ruminations pled the poor widower’s cause. Since they were both bereaved, neither would be expected, even in the dark, to feel any genuine enthusiasm for the other
“It’s fine,” she told her brother. “Tell him it’s fine.”
John Birch loved the cottage even more than he hated the mine. Whether straight from the shift or by way of the pub, he would pop in the door of his home like a champagne cork and settle into whatever rumpus was underway there. If some men insisted on peace and quiet at the end of their day, this one thrived on chatter and activity.
He had even told Charlotte that he liked to listen to them all breathing whenever he woke up in the middle of the night. She suspected he would have been happier as a weaver or carpenter who worked with family underfoot. With his motherless infant son, he had blown into the cottage and immediately become the cheery protector of her and of all the little children poor George Werrett had left to the world. The more Charlotte got to know her new, young husband, the more she liked him.
That time he showed them how to ease a cramp with a warmed stone wrapped in rags, she asked, “John, has there even been anything you couldn’t fix or make better?” He blanched, his eyes widened, and immediately Charlotte was awash with regret. “Oh, how thoughtless! Please, forgive me.” But he rallied as quickly as he had paled.
She apologized again later, when the children were asleep. Then they spoke for a long time about Cathy and George and things till then obscured by life’s fast flow and their hesitancy to examine too closely their present luck. They learned, for one thing, that neither one of them imagined their misfortune or their luck as part of a deity’s master plan.
“So, the Birches consort with unbelievers,” John teased. “Both of them do.”
“What will people think?” she smiled.
“Nothing as long as they don’t know,” he whispered. “Can you keep a secret?”
“With all the secrets we’ve given up tonight,” she answered, leaning her head on his shoulder, “There’s surely room for one more.”
Jack and Jane played together on the highest, greenest mountainsides. People warned them, sadly, that playing would not last. When Jack was eight, he could join the breaker boys, sitting above a conveyer belt from seven till five, hammering coal into uniform chunks. Jane would take a bag to the discard piles and pick up bits of it to burn at home or to sell.
The family called them “the twins,” though two months separated their birthdays. They were half orphans, relicts of Mam and Tad’s first marriages.
Sometimes when the children grew tired they would hide behind a copse to eavesdrop on the men off shift, talking up on the mountains, out of earshot of the bosses. Jack and Jane could hear easily, because the men often shouted.
“Do you know what a charter is?” Jack asked.
“Mam told me it was a dream that won’t come true,” she answered. “Tad said, ‘I fear your mam is right, as usual.’ Why does it make the men so angry then?”
“Because they wish it would come true?” Jack guessed. “I wish I was old enough to go underground.” He often said this.
“I told them I sometimes have grand charters while I sleep,” Jane said.
“What did they say?”
“Tad said, ‘That’s the very best kind, cariad.” Why do you want so much to go underground? What do you think you’ll see there?”
“Big rooms,” he said. “All black, but shiny at the same time. I can’t wait.”
Long after the younger children were asleep, Charlotte heard laughing men running in the street. John and Tommy burst in, disheveled but unharmed. She put a finger over her lips and nodded toward the back of the house. “Thick as thieves,” she thought, of her son and his dad only twelve years his senior.
At the table they recounted the night’s mischief, painting their storming of the government meetings, waving the red flag, as if it were both a spectacular victory for the workingman and a hilarious prank. Then Tommy turned serious.
“In America men like us vote,” he whispered hoarsely. “In Pennsylvania the miners vote just like other men.” He pounded with his fist, as if the wooden planks themselves were to blame for the too meager meals served there and the too meager wages that bought them. Charlotte wondered when she had ever been so young and bold and careless of safety. Not lately, and not for long.
“And where do I vote then?” she asked, carrying two cups of currant cordial to the table.
“In paradise, cariad,” John said. “If God knows what’s good for him. But don’t go there soon, please.” Anyone who knew their minds would hear, not just as echo of their unspoken wedding vows to each stay alive, but subtle encouragement to Tommy’s imagination and resolve to emigrate.
They knew before Tommy did that he would go to America. That he should go, driven even more by philosophy than need. This most devout one among them would require the confidence that they would all “meet at Jesus’s feet to part no more” if he were to pull himself away from the family. Charlotte poured a cup of the cordial for herself and went to sit with them.
The men told some silly story that wouldn’t have been so very funny if it were examined in the calm of ordinary daylight but now unmanned them all, so that they flailed with hilarity, like netted fish. It was nothing more than the observation that white trousers were a poor choice for English soldiers who might wet and soil themselves in fear while rowdy, unwashed miners kept the advantage in the dark.
Charlotte’s head lay on the table, her arms stretched out in helpless mirth, when she noticed the two little ones in the shadows with shocked faces. She saw how her abandon had weakened that wall of adult stolidity they relied on for shelter.
She sat up and beckoned. They ran into her embrace. “You must go back to bed,” she coaxed.
“Can we have a taste?” the boy asked, looking at her cup.
“Just a sip,” she answered. “But you won’t like it. It’s sweet and bitter at the same time.” The boy kept a straight face, but the girl winced and sputtered.
“Go on, now, back to sleep,” she told them. “We’ll all be there with you before you know it.”
Come, Come Ye Saints
Tommy was swept up in the 1840’s when the Mormon missionaries reaped the South Wales valleys. John’s older brother Dan baptized him.
“How many baptisms does he need?” Charlotte fumed, though what really troubled her was their painting Utah as the Promised Land, the place where Jesus himself had stopped on his way to heaven. Still, she took care to keep secret between her and John her scorn of the golden plates and all such fantasies. “George and I had the boy christened in the parish when he was a baby. Then he joined the Baptists. This makes three.”
“Some men get that way,” John began with mock seriousness. “Down to hell’s sooty gates every day and up again.” He stopped to cough. “Coal dust seeps into the soul. Finally, an ordinary bath isn’t enough.”
“John, you’re silly,” she laughed.
“Ah, but I made you smile,” he said.
Tommy’s first letter from American arrived while John was still on the day shift. She held it out to him the moment he came in the door. His face brightened a little, and he coughed. “How’s our Tommy doing, tilling Jesus Christ’s old farm?” he asked. She hurried to warm something to soothe his chest.
“Miraculously,” she answered, merrily. “It’s loaves and fishes every day over there.” She watched him carefully as he drank. “Good,” she said. “I made you smile.”
Pauper, Collier’s Widow
The little cottage was crowded with visitors after John’s funeral. For a moment, standing alone, Charlotte looked at the open door and remembered the first days of their hasty marriage. At first it had often seemed as though they were meeting in some imaginary doorway, each trying to move out of the other’s way but instead repeatedly stepping into the other’s path. On clumsy occasions, John had always been the first to laugh.
Her good neighbor came up and took her arm. Charlotte said, “I don’t know why when he was sick so long, it still surprised me when he died. Like the canary in the mine, one minute singing and then the next . . .”
“He showed us how it’s done,” her friend said. “Remember how he used to lend a hand and say, ‘Here, let me show you how it’s done.’?”
Charlotte’s eyes brimmed and she pursed her lips. Then she whispered, “I want to do it, too.” Her friend shook her head and directed her glance toward the four youngest children of the house, grouped in a corner, eating funeral food. If that neighbor had been a seer, she might have told the mourner how each of those children would grow up to name their first daughter Charlotte, but simply directing the widow’s attention to her young charges proved enough for now.
With their life together complete and closed, Charlotte realized the extent to which it had been an apprenticeship in how to do so many things she would do alone in the future. John could always dispel sorrow, but she had failed to notice how he did that.
Wise Old Bird
After both Charlotte and Rachel had recovered from scarlet fever, Rachel’s husband Owen called them to the table, where he laid out papers and made a show of reading them the bills from the physician and the apothecary. Charlotte kept a straight face as she saw and heard him exaggerate and inflate the expenses. “How well you took care of us, Owen!” Rachel said.
Charlotte knew her youngest daughter was grateful to Owen. He had hired Rachel as the maid for his boarding house after her first husband had died, and then he had married her. It was because of him that Rachel had a home to offer her elderly mother.
Charlotte said nothing but just patted Rachel’s shoulder. Sometimes when she had been alone in the room with the ginger jar, she had counted its contents. There had been a lot less money recently.
Later that day, just as they had finished supper, the census taker came. He remarked that there were far fewer living in Mynyddislwyn after the recent fever. Charlotte was relieved that she could be enumerated as an “assistant” to her daughter. She remembered being written down as “pauper, collier’s widow” right after John’s death.
When the canvasser left, Owen stayed at the table while the women cleaned up, and Evan finished some schoolwork for the next day. “It pleased me so much, Evan” Charlotte said, “To see the census man write you down now as a ‘scholar.’ You know, your mother and I never got to go to school.”
“Not a scholar for long,” Evan grinned. “You know I’m going to work as soon as I finish this school nonsense.” Then he sat up straight and stared at his grandmother. “Nain, you can read! Can you, really?”
Charlotte noticed Owen’s back was to her, so she decided just to smile and nod at Evan. She watched Owen’s shoulders twitch and his posture shift uneasily. When the time came that post offices began offering the chance for ordinary people to keep savings accounts, she opened one and fed it regularly from the contents of the ginger jar.
Letters from the American children usually came to Jane’s home before she and her family emigrated, too. She was the best reader among them, and it was a short skip downhill to Rachel’s house to share the letters.
Jane had walked reluctantly to Rachel’s house with this one from Pennsylvania. Its contents were like no other. Her voice sounded strained as she read to Charlotte and Rachel. The letter was horrifying, and the clipping from a newspaper was worse.
“All one hundred men and boys, all dead,” Charlotte echoed after Jane finished. “Our Jack, and even little Johnny, too.” She thought there was the small mercy that John had not lived to see this.
Jane read that part again. “When their bodies were brought up from the mine, Mr. Birch’s young son Johnny was found wrapped in his father’s left arm, as if the two had simply fallen asleep.”
“Blood in all their eyes and mouths,” Rachel repeated, shaking her head.
Rachel’s husband Owen found them shocked and subdued when he came home. Jane read it all aloud once more for him. He was quiet only for a moment.
“I’m just observing,” he began, his head tipped back and his chest puffed out as if he were a schoolboy proud to have the answer to a question no one had thought to ask. “None of you has any blood ties to either of them. Well, Rachel does, but she’s Jack’s half-sister only. Why so glum then?”
Charlotte rose and pushed her chair back from the table. “I’m just observing,” she mocked, “You’re not blood kin to any of us, Owen Griffiths.” She advanced on him, crossing the room in a couple of strides. Owen backed up.
When they were face to face, she hissed, “Shut your head, you jackass!” Then, more audibly, “A man who pays his Bastard Bond so seldom he lands in jail every so often wants to instruct us about blood ties, does he?” Charlotte heard one of her daughters take a sharp breath, a sob or a chuckle. Hard to tell.
As she turned and walked away from her son-in-law, her voice took on that prophetic tone common to mothers. “It’s not blood that ties us, here in this vale of tears,” she said. “But oh, Iesu mawr! How it does flow and flow!”
The day the drayman and his wife coaxed Charlotte out of her snug home in Picton Alley behind Colliers Row and took her to the fair, they brought home a businesswoman. As the three of them lingered, talking with the cloth merchant, Charlotte had inquired about the sudden influx of new wagons and carts and the air of knowing bustle as the fair closed down. She learned that smaller dealers came in to pick up vendors’ leftovers to peddle and hawk.
“Nobody wants my cottons today,” the yard goods man shrugged and began to pack up.
“Charlotte could take some of them,” the drayman’s wife suggested. “She could sell them for you.” The elements of the deal were struck rapidly—the loan of a barrow from the drayman, bits of money coming and going from here and there, who to pay, where to meet the dealer again. “He could.” “She could.” “We could.” All four leaseholders on limited lives cavorted in the unexpected shower of “coulds” as if they were natives in the atmosphere of possibility.
Charlotte, for whom even cotton flannel was a novelty, rode home surrounded by bolts and scraps of pique, plisse, moleskin, lawn, jacquard, chambray and twill. Soft jumbles of color now fortified the space between Charlotte and the poorhouse. She remembered the shell gamer’s booth and felt like the bean, coming up under a surprising nutshell in the end. She laid her right hand on checks and her left on paisley for balance.
The House James Birch Built
The drayman told Charlotte about Abernant House and said she must come along with him and see it when he picked up the empty beer kegs after the big party. The caretaker at the estate had told him a man had built it in the beginning of the nineteenth century and lived in it just a few years before having to leave it as the result of a change in the local iron business. The man was called James Birch. He had been the practical engineer for a refinery, but the company had soon been taken over by new management, and Birch had disappeared.
Delivering beer to a colossal celebration in an elegant house outside of Aberdare, the drayman had chatted with the overseer of the house, and when the builder’s name came up coincidentally, he had arranged the invitation for Charlotte. From the high vantage of the wagon as it crossed unfamiliar territory, she marked how much further the harsh evidence of industry extended. She had imagined mines and mills as only very local. She thought how they all ate and drank now from these black wounds in the landscape.
“Thousands of people!” the drayman marveled. “The invited guests had a big white tent in the garden, but I was delivering to the meadows where the common people were entertained. Bells, speeches, gunfire just for fun. Even the choir that took the prize at the Crystal Palace was there singing! It was their son, you see, coming of age and starting into the business. The workmen gave him a diamond ring, as if he needed such a thing. Shows, and gymnasts and boating. Races, all kinds of sport. Peacocks on the lawns. Fireworks planned for the evening, they said, but I had to be off sooner.” Charlotte straightened up, determined not to appear to be a slack jawed bumpkin.
“Will they let me in at all, do you suppose?” she asked him, not for the first time.
Again, he explained that the family lived in another county now, for the most part, in even greater splendor. “They will not be in residence. It will be just you and the housekeeper.”
When the door opened, the floor stretched out like a sharply tessellated quilt made of bright, fired clay. She hesitated. “You can step on them, Mrs. Birch,” the housekeeper chuckled. “Come right on in.”
Just for a moment Charlotte saw raw wealth. From then on, she saw only intricate, man-made beauty. Immersed in color, she found she could breathe in it as if she had been doing so since her birth. There would be no embarrassment after all. “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” her memory quoted. “If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
“They’ve even decorated the ceilings,” Charlotte marveled. “In the drawing rooms, parlors, halls. And for who to look at, I wonder?” She and Mrs. Trumble, the housekeeper, had taken their tea to the ladies’ parlor.
“They call it an Alhambra room,” Mrs. Trumble said. ”As if we’re in Spain of the Moors.”
“But who sees the ceilings?” Charlotte repeated.
“The idle rich,” her hostess grumbled in answer. “Those wicked ones on their backs wherever the fancy strikes.”
“Oh, Mrs. Trumble,” Charlotte laughed. “You’re a wicked woman yourself to say such a thing.”
“You haven’t wanted to emigrate yourself, Mrs. Birch? No doubt your children over there would gladly have you with them. Though some are still here, you say?”
“They would. Our Tommy, my oldest boy, is in Utah, out west with the Mormons and quite content. He lost his left arm in a farming mishap, and his church takes care of him. Still, I’d be a bad fit with the Mormons.”
“Where are the others?”
“Jane is in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, and so is Jack’s widow and children. They were the babies of our widowhood. Close as twins. Jane writes me letters. She says Shamokin looks like Wales, with mountains, trees and mines. And William lives near Pittsburgh, where the soft coal is. He’s always been a prickly sort, but never a bad man.”
“Shamokin sounds like an Indian name. In America, I hear they like the Welsh in the mines and mills. They have experience. They speak English. Some Welshmen even call themselves English, to get ahead a little faster.”
“Oh, Jane tells me William’s doing that these days,” Charlotte said. “An American can become anything he likes, even an Englishman.”
Mrs. Trumble scowled. “That seems a low enough aspiration.” Charlotte smiled and nodded agreement.
“I suppose I could always go over,” Charlotte said. “But I get only the one chance to stay, if you see what I mean.”
“You’re loyal, then? To the queen?”
“Or she’s loyal to me,” Charlotte said. “We seem to be holding on together. She’s a bit younger. Same age as my Betsy. The queen married the same year Betsy died.”
“She’s had her prince,” Mrs. Trumble said. “He took good care of her.”
“Indeed. No, it’s Margaret and Ted and Sam and Rachel I’m loyal to over here.” Charlotte swallowed more tea and again inspected the ceiling. “’I will lift up mine eyes.’” She quoted. “What’s to become of the place, do you think, now that the family’s never here anymore?”
“Mr. Trumble believes they’ll sell it one of these days, for a school or perhaps a hospital. He’s heard talk.”
“Then the patients can enjoy the ceilings,” Charlotte said. “Or the students, when they’re bored.” She stood up. “No boredom for us though. Let me help you a little until my ride comes back for me.” The housekeeper took her own cup and the teapot in hand.
“It’s yours to visit anytime you want to come back, Mrs. Birch. Built by one of your own name, after all, And I enjoy your company.”
“Likewise, Mrs. Trumble, and thank you.” They walked toward the kitchen. “You’ve made me feel right at home in such elegance. And I wouldn’t have a grand manor in America, would I?”
Charlotte, almost as old as the century, stopped living in the spring of 1891. In March of the following year, St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Theological Seminary was founded in Abercarn House in Aberdare. Later that year, the Park and Dare Hall in Treorchy opened as a workingman’s institute and library.