As a rule, I am not a violent man. I do not take pleasure in beating my workers to a bloody pulp. Yet I have a temper, which at times gets the better of me. Thus when I witnessed Stephens’ transgression with my own eyes, I literally saw red.
Stephens is a brainless fool, who has only his own selfish interests at heart. His poor wife and four children do not often see much of his wages, because he squanders them away in the tavern as soon as he gets his hands on the coins. Many times over, I have warned him, and he always promises it is the last time he smokes during work hours, yet the wretch always does it again. Now my patience had been tried too much, and I was right in dismissing him. Unfortunately, his family will reap the miserable consequences. I do not run a charitable institution, so as sad as it may be, I cannot do a thing about it. The interests of the mill must come first.
Even though I had been entirely justified in behaving as I had, a nagging concern kept gnawing at my conscience. I am a rational man, yet I had let my temper boil over so rashly that I now felt downright wretched.
This state of mind was so unfamiliar to me that it puzzled me to the extreme. Never before in my life had I regretted any action I had done, yet now I positively loathed what I had done to Stephens. I could not for the life of me comprehend why this was so. Nobody in the whole shed had frowned upon me, nor had anybody come to Stephens’ help, because they all thought it justified he be chastised.
Nobody? No one, except for the petite brunette who had so rashly chastised me, John Thornton of Marlborough Mills. Before the eyes of my workers, a mere slip of a girl had talked back at me. Better yet, she had dared raise her voice at the master of Marlborough Mills, a place where she had no business being.
All present had indeed noticed. Some were shocked, but others had smirked with glee. Many of my workers resented me, even though I give them an income and thus save them from starvation and misery. As it is Mother’s wont to say, some men raise themselves to be masters, while others will strive to bring them down.
I should have retorted to the forward young woman, yet I had not. Instead, a strange paralysis had overcome me, I, a man who was never ill, who never showed weakness. A man who was master and answerable to no one but himself.
I strangely felt answerable to Miss Margaret Hale. For some incomprehensible reason, at that time I felt compelled to go and explain myself to her, if possible even that same day.
Margaret Hale … the name was familiar, though I could not immediately place it. I knew I would not be satisfied until I found out, so I went in search of Overseer Williams.
The loyal employee was back at his workplace on the raised platform, scrupulously watching the workers. I climbed the rickety ladder, absentmindedly making a mental note to have it made sturdier.
“Why did you bring that young woman in here, Williams? Surely, you know as well as I do, that strangers to the workplace are not allowed in the weaving shed.”
“She was at the house you found for your acquaintance, Mr Bell, master. She said she wanted to speak to you, and nothing I or the agent said would change her mind. A stubborn one, that.”
“What was her name again?” I asked, knowing well enough what it was.
“Margaret Hale, master. She said she and her father were sharing the task of finding lodgings. Not quite proper, if you ask me. Women have no business doing such a task.”
I ignored his remark about Miss Hale’s impropriety, although it was not Williams’ place to comment at all. “And where was this?”
“In Canute Street in Crampton, master. A nice little place, and well it may be, because the owner asks thirty pounds a year for it.”
I thanked him and left him to his work. Puzzled, I went back to my office.
The whole business of Williams seeking lodgings had its origin in Mr Bell’s request that I find a house for a friend of his, whose name was Richard Hale, I recalled. Mr Bell was an academic from Oxford and one of my chief investors. Therefore, I had not had the luxury to turn him down, when he claimed some of my precious time. He had come from Oxford with the sole purpose of asking for my cooperation but he had prattled on so endlessly about his friend Hale, that I had lost all interest long before he was finished. Matters that have nothing to do with Marlborough Mills cannot keep my attention for long.
I made an effort to recall what exactly he had told me about Hale, a former clergyman who had given up his living to come and teach in Milton. Something to do with him not willing to reaffirm in the Book of Common Prayer, or some such nonsense. What would prompt a man to give up his livelihood and rob his family of income, I asked myself. I thought about this for some time, but was unable to solve the question. To me, Hale’s behaviour was on the brink of insanity.
Bell had also said that the man needed private pupils in order to bring in some money.
Now that, I found most interesting.
I was a mill master and a magistrate, but my education had been cut short. When I was but sixteen years old, I began working at a draper’s shop to rescue my mother and sister from poverty. Ever since, I had felt the lack of literature and culture and was anxious to remedy that. I was determined to pay Mr Hale a visit, as soon as he was settled in Canute Street.
My reminiscing about the past had, unfortunately, revived my memories of those disastrous days of fifteen years ago, when my father had taken his own life. The three of us, Mother, Fanny and myself were cast into ruin and poverty, because Father had lost all his possessions in a fraudulent speculation. At that time, he had been struggling to keep his cotton mill afloat after a most violent strike, wherein the workers had squeezed a ten percent raise from him. Unable to pay his workers beyond the weeks to come, Father had then turned to his banker. That man, who was the owner of several London banks, had taken Father’s personal fortune, promising him a scheme that would yield ten times the sum. The London banker was an imposter. He fled abroad, taking all Father’s money with him. Facing bankruptcy, Father had hanged himself.
I sat there, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, for I know not how long. When Mother suddenly appeared in the doorway, I was startled to see that it was ten in the evening. The mill had emptied of workers, the machines had been stopped, yet I had not noticed.
“What is troubling you, John? Why are you still here?”
Mother came to stand beside my chair and felt my brow with the back of her hand. I could not stifle a smile. To Mother, I am still a young boy, even though I had reached my thirty-first year last August. Sometimes, she is downright overprotective, which vexes me a little, but I do not have the heart to tell her otherwise. So I rose swiftly and drew her arm through mine.
“Just working over my time, Mother. You know as well as I do that the running of the mill takes the better part of my time. I presume dinner is ready?”
“It is, and Fanny is calling you names for making her wait.”
“By all means, let us not keep her waiting, then.”