Nineteen – A Lesson Gained the Hard Way
Having hired a horse from Burton, Stephen galloped into Manchester at breakneck speed. He was seething with rage at Oliver’s incredibly stupid decision of hiring himself out to a cotton manufacturer, just to taunt his father and prove his rebellion. As Stephen knew all too well, a cotton factory was a hellish place, especially for the small children the money-eager factory owners were so fond off. Employing a child was very profitable, their wages being very low. Their protests were non-existent, since often the child’s wages were the only source of income for the poorest of the large families. Working conditions were harsh, the working hours as long as fourteen hours a day and six days a week. Many children were beaten into submission when they dared complain against the dangerous conditions they were employed in. Many a child would get injured or would even die on the job. As a result, Stephen was blazing with fury when he skidded into a halt at the gates of Marlborough Mills on Princess Street.
He swung himself from the horse – a tolerably well-behaved bay – and fastened its rains onto a ring in the high, soot-blackened wall, surrounding the factory grounds. Pounding on the dark green gate wings, adorned with the factory’s name in golden letters, he shouted a demand for entrance. After a few moments, one half of the gate was cautiously opened to reveal the narrow face of an elderly man, clad in the dark blue cotton clothes, so typical for cotton workers. The man lifted his cap and asked in a reverend manner how he could be of service.
“I am Lord Stephen Fenton of Brixton Abbey in Leicestershire. I wish to speak to the proprietor of this factory at once.”
The doorman stepped aside to let Stephen in.
“If you’d care to follow me to the office, sir, I see if I can find master.” And so it was that Stephen was left to cool his heels in a tiny room, full of desks laden with thick ledgers while the overseer went to find the owner.
Mrs Oakham first made Isobel sit down and poured her a glass of brandy which the innkeeper’s wife downed avidly. Then Isobel started to tell them about Stephen bullying her husband into naming the mill where Oliver worked. Finally, she conveyed her fears to them, about what the baron wanted to do.
“He was just so fired up, m’ lady! He kept yellin’ curses and threatenin’ to burn down Marlborough Mills an’ ev’rythin’ in it!”
Beth closed her eyes in utter despair. So Stephen reverted to his usual rash behaviour, once again.
“Isobel, I am putting my trust in you completely. Go back to your husband and ask him to gather up some men and bring them to Marlborough Mills. I will go ahead and try to reason His Lordship before any harm is done.”
As the minutes ticked away, Stephen became more and more angrier. Where was the blasted mill owner and why had he not come running to attend to him? He gave it another minute before he walked through a door, leading to the factory’s inner courtyard. A flurry of activity greeted him, with workers carrying big cotton bales into a large shed, carts being loaded and unloaded, women shouting for more cotton, children running with errands. The whole busy scene was immersed in load noises but the loudest of them was the clanking of machines from the weaving shed.
Stephen resolutely went to investigate. A long hall, stacked to the rafters with cotton, led to a big sliding door, from which direction the clanking seemed to grow louder. With a mighty shove, Stephen threw open the door and stopped in his tracks as the deafening sound of a hundred working looms overwhelmed him.
He stared at the cacophony with open mouth, coughing now and then, when his airways became irritated with the ever-present cotton fluff. The sight was very impressive, that was the least one could say. The loom operators worked in a steady, ever-recurring rhythm, throwing the shuttle through the shed when the harnesses rose the yarn beams. It was so fascinating that Stephen forgot what he was there for in the first place, and he avidly took in all that he saw. Until he noticed the thin forms skidding under the huge warp beams, every time they were raised …
Scavengers! Small children used to pick up the cotton fluff spilled from the yarn … Oliver would most likely be one of them, as it was the lowest rung on the apprentice scale.
At that moment, the baron caught sight of a man, standing proud and tall on a raised platform, scanning the surface of the shed with eagle eyes. Everything in the man’s bearing radiated mastery and authority, his tall, broad-shouldered form towering over the clatter, as if he were the conductor of a huge mechanic orchestra.
Stephen’s fury was instantly rekindled as he burst toward the platform, darted up the stairs and grabbed the man by the lapels of his black cotton frock coat. The momentum of the attack caused both men to bump against the platform banister which cracked under their combined weight. They tumbled down and landed six feet lower, dangerously close to one of the huge looms. A few blows were exchanged, and Stephen found that the man was an equal match to his own formidable strength and fisticuff skills. The brawl did not last long because a couple of heavy-set workers plucked Stephen away from their master.
“Take him outside! Williams! Where are you, you lazy bastard?”
A short, slender man came running towards the master, plucking his cap from his head.
“Yes, Mr Thornton, I’m here! What d’ ya want me to do, sir?”
“Go get the runners! I want this lunatic thrown in jail for at least a couple of weeks! That’ll cool him down a bit!”
Stephen was so taken aback by this that he momentarily had no words to protest. Surely, the man could not do such a thing to him, a lord and a peer of the Realm? But the two strong fellows had him in an iron grip and they began dragging him to the sliding doors with grim determination. Nothing Stephen attempted to free himself had any result! Those blokes were simply too strong!
When they reached the courtyard, a woman’s voice cried out and Stephen saw a group of women running towards them. One of them was his Beth, and she had Oliver by the hand. Mrs Oakham and Isobel Burton were also there, but the fourth woman was unknown to Stephen. It was she who had cried out.
“Charles! Charles, stop this! He is a noble, a baron. You must release him at once. He could damage our business if he presses charges.”
She was a tall, very thin woman with regal bearings and a ramrod straight back. Her black hair was piled high on her head and not a single strand had broken loose of it to soften the beautiful but forbidding lines of her face, from the penetrating gaze of her black eyes to the severe, thin line of her mouth. When she came to a halt in front of the master, Stephen saw that she held a young child by the hand, a boy of maybe one year old, already showing the resemblance with his father, thick black hair and piercing blue eyes and tall for his age.
“Hannah, why have you brought the boy here? There was no need to drag little John into this! Take him to the house immediately!”
“If he is to be the master of all this one day, John has to learn quickly and from an early age. Have you seen him cry or whimper? No! He is my son and he is as strong as you like!”
Stephen saw the harsh features of the master relax as he picked up the boy and smiled at him.
“You’re not afraid, are you, Johnnie? No, I can see you’re not. Good boy, good fellow. Now run along with your mama.” While the boy was given over to his mother again, he threw Stephen a look of utter contempt, so distinctly that the baron was shocked by the vehemence of it.
This child – though not of noble decent – would do his part in the world, Stephen realized. How fortunate the master of Marlborough Mills was to have a wife and son who supported him in every step of his way in life!
“Now,” Thornton said, turning back to Stephen once again. “What is this all about? Who are you and what are you doing here?”