The Reform of John Thornton – Part Twelve

 

Chapter Twelve

 

One day in January, I witnessed my overseer Williams, who was chasing a person from the courtyard, a man who I had come to loathe most assiduously. Nicholas Higgins seemed to have mustered the effrontery – and the courage, I must admit – to come and ask for work.

I knew he had been dismissed from Hamper’s mill after the strike, and also, why. The firebrand and his abominable union wanted the workers to pay contributions to a fund that would sustain them when there was a prolonged strike.

I had once lectured to Margaret about our Northern traditions, I recalled. About every man or woman to do as they pleased with their wages, but this time, I could not condone the union’s scheme. Paying in order to sit out a strike was disastrous for us, masters. Add to this the ignorance  of most of the working class members as how to spend their funds wisely, and one knew for certain  families would grow hungry once again and starve.

There was nothing I could do to prevent such a thing from happening, so I concentrated on my work. In a few days’ time, I had a meeting with Latimer about the latest figures, and I wanted to be certain of what I would do if the results were not satisfactory. It was also my intention to ask Latimer to be permitted to court his daughter Ann. A burden on my conscience, that last fact. I was uncertain if I could truly marry Ann without loving her.

 

He had the incredible audacity to accost me, a few days later, when I was on my way to Latimer. I had spotted him right away, when I left the house but had no intention to acknowledge him. My stride was purposeful enough to deter even the most assiduous encounter, but Higgins stepped forward nonetheless, cap in hand.

“I need to talk to you, sir,” he said, in a subdued and polite tone.

I planted my hat on my head and strode past him. “I can’t stop now,” I barked.

In truth, I had no time. Latimer wanted to see me on an urgent business. I went first to the building that housed the bank, but Mr Latimer, the clerk said to me, was at his club. Musing over how it was possible for a working man to spend time at a club, I walked the short distance from the bank.

I found Latimer leisurely playing billiards. Unbelievable. Unheard of, too. I swallowed my irritation when he asked, “You’ve seen the new figures?”

It was all I ever did, lately, damn it! But I replied evenly, “I’d hoped to reduce the bank loan by now.”

“Eh, it’s a pity so much is tied up in the new machinery.”

This man, I firmly said to myself, does not know the first thing about the running of a mill.

“I needed the machinery because we were doing well,” I said calmly. “We had large orders.  And I needed to buy the cotton in bulk.  Obviously I wasn’t expecting not to be able to fulfil the contracts.”

Without looking up from his billiard cue, Latimer continued, “But you’ve been back to work for a good while now.”

I took a deep breath. “But we’re still behind with the orders and we’ll not catch up for … It’s not looking like we will catch up.”

Latimer was now purposefully not looking at me.

“Well, the bank can extend the loan. Temporarily. But we’ll have to be careful.”

Damn the man! What was he implying? “I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being careless!  Or frivolous!”

My tone must have irked him, because he looked up, irritation written all over his face. I hastened to correct my behaviour. “Forgive me.  I don’t know how I could have prevented this or what to do next.”

“Well, there are more … modern financial procedures.  Investments.”

He once again bent over the billiards table. “ I could let you know when I hear of any such schemes.”

Confound it and damn it all to hell! I was almost shouting with rage. “Speculation? I’ll not risk everything on some idiot money scheme.”

Now he looked me straight in the face, and his gaze was downright hostile. “Well, if matters carry on like this you might not have anything left to risk.”

I went all cold. I knew my figures were bad, but to hear my banker say it aloud was devastating.

I took my leave, since there was nothing left to discuss with Latimer. I walked home in a state of numbness and despair. My mill was in danger of bankruptcy, and I seemed unable to rectify the situation. Black thoughts were milling through my head when I reached Marlborough Mills’ gate, only to see that Nicholas Higgins was still there. The man must be in trouble, I realised with a start.

“Good Lord!  Are you still here?”

“Yes, sir.  I want to speak to you.

“You’d better come in then.”

I preceded him to the office. Higgins was turning his cap around and around in his calloused worker’s hands. I pretended to rearrange some papers, only to see what he was up to. He stood there, silent and subdued, so I addressed him, none too friendly, though.

“Well, so what do you want with me?”

“My name is Higgins…”

I cut him short. “I know who you are.  What do you want?”

“I want work.”

Just like that. He, of all people, was asking for work? Impossible!

“Work?  You’ve got a nerve,” I challenged him. He stayed calm, though. “Hamper ’ll tell you I’m a good worker.”

“I’m not sure you’d like to hear all of what Hamper would have to say about you,” I scoffed.  “I’ve had to turn away 100 of my best hands for following you and your union.  And you think that I should take you on?  Might as well set fire to the cotton waste and have done with it.”

He made a turn as if to go away, then looked back at me. “I promise you, I’d not speak against you.  If I found anything wrong I’d give you fair warning before taking action.  I’m a steady man. I work hard.”

“How do I know you’re not just planning mischief,” I sneered. ”Or maybe you’re just interested in saving up money against another strike.”

“I need work, for the family of a man who were driven mad,” he said, urgently. “He had his job taken by one of those Irishmen you hired.  Didn’t know one end of a loom from another.”

The nerve! I barked at him. “Your union forced me into hiring those Irish.  Much good it did me!  Most of them have gone home.”

I continued with my paperwork, and got up to take something from the shelves, and then sat down again. All this to keep him on his toes. “If I were to believe your reason … I can’t say that I’m inclined to.  I’d advise you to try some other work and leave Milton.”

“If it were warmer, I’d take Paddy’s work and never come back again.  But come winter, those children will starve.  If you knew any place away from mills … I’d take any wage they thought I was worth for the sake of those children.”

I could not believe my ears! “Oh, you’d take wages less than others?  They have no union of course.  Your union ’d be down like a ton of bricks on my Irish for trying to feed their families, and yet you’d do this for these children?  I’ll not give you work.  You’re wasting your time.”

I took up my papers and began reading.

“And yours,” he said, a smile in his words. I deliberately did not look at him. He continued. “ I was told to ask you by a woman.  Thought you had a kindness about you.  She was mistaken.  But I’m not the first to be misled by a woman.”

Impertinent bugger! “Tell her to mind her own business next time and stop wasting your time and mine.”

He left then, but I was brooding, suddenly. What woman? Margaret? Yes, it must be her.

I left my office, went to Williams in the weaving shed and asked, “How long has that man Higgins been waiting to speak to me?”

“He was outside the gate when I arrived, sir, and it’s four now,” my diligent overseer replied.

So Higgins had been prepared to wait for me all day? He must indeed be desperate. I decided to see into the matter, later that day.

It had started snowing. It was January.

 

There was now a thin blanket of frosty snow covering the mill yard and the rest of Milton.

People were beginning to wrap up warmly, although some of my workers only had rags to do so. Something should be done to help people through rough times, I mused.

One overcast and dark afternoon, I was doing the accounts in the parlour, having fled my stone cold office. No use in kindling the stove and spend money on coals when there was a good fire inside the house.

Fanny entered, and I instantly noticed that she was in a fine uproar. I ignored her. Fanny is always in an uproar about something. But it was not to be.

“Honestly!  Miss Hale could do with having just a little humility about her position.  She was at Green’s and stopped to congratulate me.  She seemed surprised when I told her of my wedding plans.  She’s so grave and disapproving, as if we couldn’t afford it. I soon put her right.  It’s not as if she will ever get a husband. She’s much older than me.  And so severe!  I told her about Watson’s business proposition and she really turned up her nose at me!  She as much as said you wouldn’t be interested, as if she knew you better than me.  So superior.”

I listened to this litany with growing fury. Then I caught Mother’s glance at Fanny’s sneer of Margaret, and I forced myself to be calm. I could not help myself from berating my hare-brained sister. “I’ll thank you not to discuss my business affairs in the street. What do you know about anything anyway, Fanny, except how to spend money?”

Now she looked positively insulted. “I know that if you were to take up Watson’s offer and join him in the speculation, you would be certain to profit. Tenfold….,” she said smugly.

Was she stupid, or what? “There is nothing certain about speculation,” I barked. “I will not risk the livelihoods of my men by joining Watson’s tomfool schemes.  If I lose money, how will I be expected to pay off the expense of your wedding?”

“You’ll be sorry,” she barked at me, and stalked off.

I suddenly bowed my head, resting it on my fist. A headache had been lurking all day, choosing that moment to burst out in full.

Mother came to stand beside me. “Is the speculation so risky?” she asked quietly.

“Do you need to ask me that, Mother?,” I wearily replied. “It’s very risky.  If it succeeds, all our financial problems will be over and no one will ever know how bad things are.”

She took a deep breath.  “If it fails?”

“At the moment, the payroll is safe. Would you advise me to risk it?”

“If you succeeded, they’d never know.

“And if it fails, I would have injured others.  Would you ask me to risk that?”

She shook her head and put her hand lovingly on my shoulder. “Tell me what to do.”

Dearest Mother. “Pray for a good summer,” I said in as light a tone as I could muster. “People will buy cotton clothes.  Pray that some of our buyers pay their bills on time … and pray that Fanny doesn’t have time to order any more from the draper’s.”

Mother’s rare and very sweet smile alit her face and she stroked the top of my head.

Ah, Mother. Would I have been able to talk in that manner to Margaret, if she were my wife? I seriously doubted that.

That same week, I went to the Princeton district on my way back from Milton Outwood station, where had gone there to check on a cotton delivery I was expecting. In vain, unfortunately. Supplies from Liverpool were slow, these days, due to the inclement weather.

I descended the dark, filthy alley that went down to a cluster of dismal hovels housing workers and their families. I was appalled, as I beheld the grimy, desperate misery these people were living in. Of course I had always known how poor the workers and their families truly were, but what I saw now surpassed every imaginable picture I had in my mind.

The day was cold, with a constant, icy wind from the north, yet people were huddling before their doors, clad in filthy rags. Mothers with eyes devoid of hope were clutching grizzling infants, or groping at grubby, thin children hiding in their skirts. One little slip of a girl held up her dirty, tiny hand. I gave her a ha’penny, smiling at her. She looked back at me without doing so, and her mother averted shameful eyes.

Ah, even in the despair of abject poverty, these Northerners still held up their heads high.

Higgins’ house – if one could call it that – was at one end of a blind alley. I knocked briskly on the rough wooden door. He opened, looked brazenly at me, and stepped aside. I entered a small room that served as a kitchen and bedroom at the same time. On the bed in the alcove were five children, ranging from babyhood to toddler. One small boy – six or seven years old – was sitting near the hearth with Higgins’ surviving daughter. She was holding a book from which the boy was reading aloud. I took off my hat and gestured to the two.

“Are these your children?”

“No, but they’re mine now.”

“Did your daughter teach them to read?”

“I think they are teaching her.

I looked at the ones on the bed. “And these are the children you mentioned yesterday?”

Higgins’ brow rose. “You didn’t believe me?”

I walked farther into the room, then turned towards Higgins. “I spoke to you in a way that I had no business to.  I did not believe you.  I couldn’t have taken care of a man such as Boucher’s children.  I have made enquiries and I know now that you spoke the truth.  I beg your pardon.”

Higgins shrugged. “Well, Boucher’s dead and I am sorry.  But that’s the end of it.”

“Will you take work with me?  That’s what I came here to ask.”

 

Nicholas Higgins was thinking for a moment, then said in a tone that betrayed his dissatisfaction, “You’ve called me impudent, a liar, a mischief-maker.  But for the sake of these children, do you think we could get along?”

“Well, it’s not my proposal that we get on well together,” I said, as neutral a tone as I could muster at his impertinence.

He seemed to desist. “Work is work.  I’ll come.  And what’s more, I’ll thank you.  And that’s a good deal from me.

I held out my hand. “And this is a good deal from me.”

We shook hands, and Higgins’ grasp was firm and unyielding. “Now, mind you come sharp to your time.  What times we have, we keep sharp.”

I looked him in the eye sternly. “And the first time I catch you using that brain of yours to make trouble, off you go.  Now you know where you are.”

Mischief sparkled in the man’s eyes. “Reckon I’ll leave my brains at home, then.”

I walked to the door to leave, then stopped as a thought struck me. “ Was Miss Hale the woman that told you to come to me?  You might have said.”

“And you’d have been a bit more civil?” Higgins challenged, triumph in his eyes.

I left. On my way home, I realised Higgins must know of my dealings with Margaret. How utterly abhorrent!

When next I went to the Hales’ house to read, I could not help mentioning to Margaret that I had taken Higgins on.

She bowed her head with a sad little smile that tugged at my heart. “I’m glad of it,” she said quietly.

“I didn’t know that it was you who urged him to come to me,” I said, but I did not know why I did so. She answered in a small voice, “Would it have made you more or less likely to give him a job?”

Ah, she was taunting me again now. ““I don’t know.  I’ll not withdraw it though, if that’s what worries you.”

She looked down again, as if she could not bear to look at me. “I wouldn’t think you capable of that.  I have a better opinion of you than you do of me at the moment, I feel.”

Later, when I was seeking sleep in vain, her words came back to my mind.

The meekness with which they had been spoken was uncharacteristic for Margaret. Dared I hope that she had changed her opinion of me, then? She certainly seemed to care for my own assessment of her. Or … was I deluding myself yet again?

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