The Reform of John Thornton – Part Six

Chapter Six

How grateful I was to have my mill so that I could throw myself onto my work and forget the events of that upsetting tea party.

The mill required my full attention at that time, for trouble was most definitively brewing.

It was of such great concern that I called on my fellow mill masters to convene and discuss the situation.

Our assembly hall was next to the Lyceum Hall, and I was standing near the open window. I was watching the comings and goings from above, and to my chagrin, I had recognized several of my workers entering the hall to attend a meeting. Since I had also seen Higgins going in some time before, I presumed he was to be the ringleader for a possible strike.

A slight woman clad in drab brown mounted the steps at a leisurely pace.

Margaret! What was she doing here? What was her business attending a workers’ meeting? Was there no end to my torture, then? Would she aggrieve me over and over again with her inappropriate behaviour?

“Ah …put him down. He’s one of ours isn’t he?” Hamper’s voice nearly made me jump. He was standing next to me, a tankard of ale in his hand.

“Boucher … he’s Thornton’s,” Henderson said. He too had come to join us without me noticing it.

Hamper then challenged me. “Aren’t you interested, Thornton?  All mills together if you please. We need to show ‘em.  We know what they’re up to and who they are.”

I did not take the bait. Hamper always likes to tease and stir trouble, and when he succeeds he scampers away, leaving it to others to clean after him.  “Let them meet, if that’s how they want to spend their leisure time.”

Then it was Henderson again. “We’re all trying to work together Thornton.”

I turned to the room, letting my scepticism show. “Are we?”

“What does that mean?” Henderson asked, sounding surprised, yet I knew better.

“I overheard some of my men talking.  It seems you are planning to give in to them.  We agreed …. we would all be in line … so that the men would know we meant business and know that we kept our word.”

“Well … I …” Henderson sputtered, then looked at Watson. They were playing their own game behind my back, I knew it well. No matter, I would know what to do if the need should arise.

 

Later that night – it must have been near eleven o’ clock – I went to close Marlborough Mills’ main gate. God, I was exhausted. And very concerned about the coming days.

Just when I was at the gate, a figure stepped forward from the shadows. I had failed to see him, because a fog was whirling through the deserted streets. Stephens!

“Master, …”

“What are you doing here?”

“ Master, I beg you to take me back …”

Sudden red-hot fury engulfed me at the little bastard’s nerve. “Get out!” I growled, but the miscreant chose not to heed my command. He bowed awkwardly and ventured, “I were at meeting this evening … “

I took a step closer, as understanding dawned. The coward continued, “I could tell you what they’re planning … what’s in their thoughts …   Please sir… I beg you.”

I grasped the traitorous little bastard by the collar and shouted, ”Get out and do not come near this mill again!”

I shoved him from me in disgust, but then approaching footsteps caught my attention. “Who’s there?” I challenged.

Two familiar figures appeared from the fog. Mr Hale and … Margaret!

“It’s only us,” Mr Hale said jovially. So Margaret had gone to meet her father. I now belatedly recalled that Mr Hale taught at the Lyceum Hall in the evenings. Joy began to blossom in my heart, because she had not gone to attend a union meeting, yet it seemed I was still to be harassed by that bloody good-for-nothing Stephens. He moved forward, yet again. “Master, I promise you …”

My patience had been tried too much, now. “Get away from here!” I bellowed, and raised my fist.

That frightened Stephens enough and he disappeared in the darkness.

“Couldn’t you show a little mercy?” Mr Hale’s reproachful voice sounded.

Blast. I had forgotten about them and was now ashamed of my rudeness, yet it seemed important to me that they understood my meaning.

“Mr Hale! Please … do not try to tell me my business!” I pleaded, but then Margaret’s sarcastic little voice cut me off.

“Remember, they do things differently here! Come, Father.” She threw me a scathing glance and turned away, pulling her father with her. My teacher did not show understanding either.

I stood there like a bloody fool, watching them walk away. A sigh escaped my lungs, realising that I was yet the only one to understand it all. It was a lonely place I found myself in.

I stepped through the gate, giving the pair one last look before closing it.

 

Thank God for Mother, I thought, as I watched walk calmly through the weaving shed, her hands on her very erect back, and her face displaying imperious authority. Some of the workers were whispering amongst each other, and if their facial expressions were anything to go by, they were having a joke at her expense. Ah, let them be, I mused. Nothing could shake Mother. It was a comforting thought, indeed, to know she at least would always be at my side, and in all circumstances.

The noises in the room were also comforting. I heard someone shout for more supplies, and was glad I had had the foresight to order the cotton in bulk.

“You there!  Is the machine mended?” Mother challenged a female weaver.

“Yes,” the woman replied shyly.

“Then use it, for there is many to take your place.”

Next, I saw her striding towards a woman who was holding her coughing child. Ah, the fluff would be disastrous for some of the weaker workers.

“The child is ill. Send her home,” Mother said in a stern voice.”

“I can’t afford to,” replied the woman, on the verge of weeping.

Mother sighed with annoyance but offered, “The child cannot work.  Is there another child at home?”  The woman nodded, so mother continued, “If you can get her here within the hour you can keep the place”

The woman’s face alighted with relief. “Thank you.”

“In the hour, mind, or lose it,” Mother ordered.

She had by now reached the place where I was standing, and she was looking into my face as if to guess my thoughts, so I was compelled to give her my approval. “Whatever you think best, Mother.  You know how this mill works almost better than I do.”

Her grateful smile was a balm to my soul.

 

Later, I was accosted by Slickson. He had dared come to my mill in the middle of the day, to whine that he had been forced to decline a raise of pay to his workers. I very well could see through the slimy eel’s meaning, though.

“I don’t know why you’re blaming me,” he ventured, trying to keep up with me as I strode down the courtyard.

“You can play your tricks out to Ashley. That’s your decision.  But if you get it wrong, we all suffer,” I replied angrily. I had no patience with the man. It was not the first time he had played us for a fool.

“They wanted 5%.  Would you have given it them?” he continued with faint surprise.

I turned to him in suppressed rage. “No, but I would’ve told ’em straight.  I wouldn’t pretend I were thinking about it and tell them to come back on payday, so that I could turn them down flat and provoke them.”

He was even more surprised, the fool. “Are you accusing me of trying to encourage a strike?”

“You’re telling’ me that it wouldn’t have suited you?  It’s their lives and our livelihood you’re playing with.” I set him straight and left him standing there. I had no more patience for him.

 

Some days later, I saw Margaret again. There had not passed a minute in those days when I had not been thinking of her. It was strange, and it was something I was not used to.

I was thirty-one, and I was a bachelor of means. Of course, I had had my share of female attention, and the assiduous attempts of eager mothers to catch my eye were downright exasperating, at times. Any social gatherings where the ladies were attending, were a torture to me, because I would be assaulted by matrons shoving their daughters into my path. Needless to say that none of these simpering, eye-battering young chits would make me a decent enough wife.

Up until now, I had wanted high standards for my future spouse. She must be strong and steadfast, and prepared to be the companion of a man whose first love would always be his mill. She must bear him a couple of sturdy sons, who could become her husband’s business partners, in time. A few daughters would also not go amiss, since there would be ample possibility to combine my own wealth with that of another mill master. Modesty and integrity, and elegance without spendthrift, and also sweet, balanced disposition were required. But most of all, the woman destined to become Mrs John Thornton would have to be approved by Mother in all things she deems should be present in her daughter-in-law. My mother would always be master in my household, but she might be prepared to relinquish control to my wife in time, should her health require it.

It was not surprising at all then, when I saw Margaret strolling through my courtyard, that I tried to fit her into my ideal image of a wife. Before I could take stock however, she was talking to some piecer girls sitting on a bench during their lunch time. The conversation seemed to be very jolly, because all three of them were laughing.

I edged nearby, puzzled as to why Margaret, an accomplished young lady from the South, would want an acquaintance with some low-born working girls from the North.

“What would you like to spend it on?” Margaret asked eagerly.

“Food, and then more food.  I’d pile it up, great big plates,” the piecer girl answered, even more eagerly

I inwardly frowned. Why would that girl waste her money on food? The fact that she earned a living surely was enough not to have her go hungry? Yet Margaret’s next question struck me right in the gut. “So, would you join a strike?  Well, I’m not saying there will be one; just if there was.”

How did she know about an upcoming strike? And why was she even interested? Dear Lord, she was interested, then?

But by now, the girls had spotted me and fell silent, their heads bowed. Margaret turned around and saw me, and understood. In her eyes, I had been spying on my workers to see what they were up to. She nevertheless talked to me in a gracious way.

“Your mother has kindly given me the name of a doctor.”

I was instantly alarmed. “You are ill?”

“No. No, it is just a precaution.”

The girls were avidly listening, so I started walking to my office, and to my joy, Margaret followed me.

“Your mother is always accusing me of knowing nothing about Milton and the people who live here,” she said in a voice laced with mirth.

I answered in kind. “Doubt she meant you should hang on to the tittle-tattle of young piecers and spinners.”

A smile spread about her lovely face, setting my heart to beat erratically. “Well,” she said, “they weren’t telling me any secrets.”

Thrilled by the notion that she was actually wishing to converse with me, I explained, “There was a man with a survey here a few weeks ago. It is quite the new thing.  They become practiced at telling others their wages and their working conditions.”

“Do you mind that?  If they tell the truth?”

“ Course not.  I do not apologize to anyone about the wages I pay or how I run Marlborough Mills. It is no secret.  It’s in plain sight for all to see.”

Suddenly, she stopped to face me. “And what about how they spend their money?”

She had surprised me there. “Well, that would be none of my business.  My duty is to the efficient running of the mill.  If I neglect that, all the workers will cease to have an income.”

“But what about your moral duty?”

My, my, she would persevere! I kept up my patience and said, “If she keeps to her hours and does nothing to disrupt the honest and efficient working of the mill, what she does in her own time is not my concern.  Here in the North, we value our independence.”

“But surely you must take an interest?” Margaret pressed on.

I was beginning to wonder why she was so determined to know my opinion on all this, but I could not stop myself from explaining further. “I am her employer.  I am not her father or her brother that I can command her to do as I please.  Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Hale.  I would like to play the overbearing master, but I will answer your questions as honestly as I am sure you ask them.”

A look of semi-understanding ran on her face. I smiled, wanting to encourage her further, but then she looked over my shoulder, and dismay appeared. I turned my head. Ah. She had seen Mother standing at the parlour window. Mother always overlooks the courtyard when she has the time for it. This, however, was the first time that it displeased me that she should want to know what I was doing. Time to end the conversation. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve urgent business,” I said brusquely and left Margaret standing on her own.

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