Chapter Thirty-Three – And then the looms fell silent
The minute Dixon walked into the large basement kitchen, the maids stopped their idle chatting and hastily bent over their work again. From the day Miss Adelaide Dixon had taken residence in the Thornton’s household, now four months ago, she had imposed her undisputable authority onto the rest of the staff. Even Cook had not dared resisting when Dixon gave her the stern, piercing look as she was wont to do when someone did not obey her orders.
Dixon’s face betrayed nothing but she had indeed managed to catch a few words from the girls’ conversation. They were talking about the mill and about the unrest amongst the workers. The word ‘strike’ had fallen and Dixon was worried about that. A strike meant trouble and that was something her beloved Margaret could do without right now. Dixon had seen a lot of meaningful looks between the stupid little gooses lately and occasionally caught a few snatches of their silly tittle-tattle. She knew something was afoot. An accidentally overheard conversation between Nicholas Higgins and Overseer Williams had learned her there was serious discontentment under the workers because winter was so hard and prices of food were high. While she was doing Margaret’s laundering of small clothes – a task she did not give to anyone else – Dixon heard Jane beginning to gossip again.
“I tell you, Annie, they are going to put work down tomorrow! And a good thing it will be, with the master refusing to raise the wages, how are these poor people supposed to survive? My dad hasn’t worked for over two months now, him being ill, and my brother brings in eleven shillings a week. Without my salary we wouldn’t be able to cope!”
Dixon put her head around the door, startling the maids into a fright.
“Then, if I were you, missie, I would earn my wages by putting in some good, decent work instead of tattling away the hours!”
Jane nearly jumped out of her skin but she managed to stammer. “Yes, Miss Dixon, I did not mean any disrespect!” She practically fled from the room.
Silly goose, Dixon thought, but what could you expect when the serving girls had been picked out of the gutter and had never been in a decent, respectful household! She vowed herself to keep an eye on that one!
The New Year’s dinner was given by Hannah Thornton every year for a very select group of family and friends since she had been newly married thirty-three years ago. That night her guest list was very small; only Fanny and her husband and Nicholas and Mary Higgins were on it.
There was definitively something awkward about the way her guests were behaving, Hannah thought. Fanny was her usual, hare-brained self but Jeremy Watson’s good-natured face bore an expression of concern. It could result from the presence of Nicolas Higgins whom Watson thought to be a firebrand and a potential enemy to mill owners. Her son-in-law, however was too well-bred to openly show his annoyance. He kept a polite but stone-cold attitude towards the union man.
Nicholas himself, Hannah mused, was also very polite and unusually quiet, only responding briefly when spoken to. The conversation at the dinner table was upheld solely by the ladies, with Fanny being the main talker. Trust Fanny not to be noticing a chill between people!
John’s sister was currently chatting about some new furnishings for her drawing room, which she had recently upholstered. While she went on about the colours of the wallpapers and curtains, the style and size of cupboards and seats, nobody was actually paying attention, though Fanny was blissfully oblivious to that fact.
John and Margaret were positively glowing. Hannah saw the looks they were flashing each other over the rim of their glasses when they sipped their drinks. A surge of relief went through her. They were happy! They were content but they were also wrapped into a world of their own and for the moment oblivious to the rest of it.
Hannah, with her long experience of factory life and everything it brought on, sensed that something was brewing, something that meant trouble, like a strike. She could try and coax Nicholas about it but she wouldn’t. Nicholas – yes, she was since lately thinking of him on a first name base – was the one to speak to when it came down to the workers and their problems. Hannah was a shrewd, down-to earth woman when it concerned people and their intertwined dealings. She knew about the worker’s poor conditions and the threatening famine amongst them. She knew Nicholas, too. He was acutely aware of what was going on and ever more acutely affected by it. Maybe she would try and speak with him later but for now, she turned towards his daughter who was sitting at her right hand.
“How are things at the surgery, Mary? I haven’t found the time, these last days, to come to see for myself.”
Mary looked at Hannah in her usual, unruffled way.
“It is sometimes hard but we keep struggling on, Mrs.Thornton. There is much suffering this year, much more than I have ever known before.”
She hesitated and Hannah took the advantage to ask in a low voice.
“Is there also unrest under them? Will they try and set up a strike?”
Her big, blue eyes wide, Mary nodded and Hannah felt the blood leave her face. Then she saw Nicholas’s gaze upon her, unreadable, unwavering. She must try to speak with him privately!
Even in the haze of her happiness, Margaret was aware of the tension between Nicholas and John. They were only speaking of trivial matters in voices strained with control. These few days past, with John being so ill, she had found little chance to work at the infirmary but Mary seemed to have managed well enough with her small staff of women. Caring for John had kept her in the house, however, and therefore she had missed the chatter from which she usually picked up people’s moods. At this very moment Margaret realised that master and employee were on the verge of conflict. Knowing Nicholas’ dedication to his union work and John’s passion for Marlborough Mills, there could very well be trouble ahead.
Her anxiety was aggravated when the two men retired in John’s study after dinner. Fanny and her husband had another engagement and left, so Margaret finally saw fit to have a conversation with Mary.
“Dearest Mary, I can’t thank you enough for all the good work you performed at the infirmary.”
“Oh, Margaret! People are so miserable and I sometimes have the feeling that what we do is just a drop into the ocean!”
“No, Mary, no! I know it can make a difference, we must continue as we are. Tell me honestly, is there a strike coming?”
“Yes, Margaret, the hands are about to turn out tomorrow!”
Margaret felt a hollow settle into the pit of her stomach.
“We must get ourselves prepared, then. The number of sufferers will vastly increase over the next few weeks.”
Dixon, who was clearing the table alongside Jane, cringed inwardly when she heard all this. It seemed that the chatting girls had been right, trouble was once again looming.
The following day the workers shut off the steam engines which powered the looms. They gathered their coats and hats, wrapped themselves up against the bitter cold and left the sheds of Marlborough Mills. John stood on top of the outside platform watching them, his face gloomy and his heart heavy. He was, however, not the only one to be watching.
The Spiteful One, a malicious smile on her face, was there too, but well hidden behind a stack of cotton bales. Victory!