The Mill Owner's Son - Excerpt - introductory passage
S P Oldham
The flat, even lines of Victoria Station came sliding into sight, appearing suddenly from a low cloud of smog. To Ellen’s tired eyes it almost seemed the solid building was racing to keep up.
The illusion was ruined as the train slowed and then came to a juddering halt, a hiss of steam escaping like a sigh of frustration. Ellen stepped clumsily down onto the platform, exhausted in body and soul; Aunt Melissa had promised she would be there to meet her.
She scanned the platform anxiously; all that met her was the noise of passengers bustling about the station and the smoky, tainted atmosphere of industrial Manchester. Already, Ellen longed for the freshness of her old home in the country, where it had been so much easier to breathe.
The sudden, strident whistle of a train made her jump and cover her ears; few others seemed even to notice. So many people had converged onto the platform that there was little hope of engaging a porter to help with her trunk. Gritting her teeth, she clasped her slender fingers around its handle, resenting its hardness as it pressed cruelly into her tender palm. She had lugged it all the way from Hawcroft Vicarage to the centre of Manchester; she would not be sorry to set it aside at last.
The air hung so heavy and grey with smoke and the acrid stench of burning that Ellen could have believed the hour was approaching twilight, not mid-afternoon. It was making her eyes water, filling her dry throat with an unpleasant tang. The prospect of having to find her way alone in a strange place filled her with dread. She felt sure she would never find her new home in Ancoats. She was bound to come to some harm along the way on these unfamiliar city streets.
Ellen was weary, chilled to the bone and heart sore; not for the first time in these past few months a bleak despair threatened to overwhelm her. She would give anything to turn around, board the train once more and just go home.
It wasn’t to be and Ellen knew it, though it pained her to accept it as fact. Her beloved father had died almost sixteen weeks ago now; it had been only a matter of time before the church had moved her on in favour of the new vicar.
She was lucky not to have been evicted sooner. It seemed the church had had some trouble finding a suitable replacement, allowing her to begin to hope she might be allowed to stay longer. Then one day she received notice that the new vicar was on his way and that Hawcroft was to be vacated forthwith, along with a suggestion that she take only her personal effects with her, as if to imply that she might otherwise pack up the furniture and take that too.
That was it; no acknowledgement of all the years’ service her father had given to the church, no good luck wishes for the future or condolences for her loss. Not even a penny to help with costs or as some small token to help her step into the world alone. As a result, Ellen had been forced to contact her last known living relations for help; there was simply nowhere else to turn.
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, trying to think only of her blessings, rather than her misfortunes, as her father had always taught her. Thanks to his teachings, Ellen could read and write competently. Her father had employed a cook from Hawcroft Village to come along daily to prepare meals, her daughter also coming to act as part-time housemaid. In the hours when they were not working, Ellen had done her best to take on both roles. As a result she had acquired a few domestic skills that she hoped might also make her more employable. She was grateful to her aunt for securing her a position at Jessop’s Cotton Mill, but she hoped for better work if she was able to find it. Jessop’s would do for now, as a means of paying a few shillings board and lodge, but Ellen had no intention of staying there for long; just until she was on her feet.
So here she was, alone and adrift in a world that was so very alien to her, about to make a new start as best she could. Even if it meant finding the way by herself to the address on Mill Street that she had been sent in her aunt’s last letter.
It seemed such a very long time since she had seen her father’s sister that she was concerned she might not recognise her. She had not come to the funeral. Coupled with the fact that her aunt would also have missed a day’s wages in order to be there, Ellen quite understood why she had not attended. Yet part of her wished she had; he was her brother, after all. There was no other family to mourn him.
The funeral had been a quiet, sorry affair, a handful of villagers doing their Christian duty. Good souls for the most part; no one who truly loved him. The rain had fallen softly, too softly to disguise Ellen’s tears. Even as she had watched her father’s coffin lowered into the ground she had reflected how little there was to show for all his love and kindness in the world. So much had changed since then.
A shout woke her from her reverie. Ellen almost sobbed with the realisation that she would not have to make shift alone after all. Her fears were proved groundless; she knew her Aunt Melissa the moment she laid eyes on her.
“Ellen! Is that you? My word you’ve grown since I saw you last!” Her aunt embraced Ellen in a brief hug, knocking her black mourning bonnet askew in the process. Ellen tucked an escape strand of auburn hair back into place and smiled uncertainly.
“Harry here will get your bag,” Aunt Melissa motioned to a well-built lad of around fourteen who gave Ellen a leering grin, shouldering her trunk like it was nothing. Her cousin Harry had been a little boy when they last met. Despite Ellen being six years older, Harry towered over her now.
“I hope those country feet of yours are up to a bit of a walk, young Ellen. No sense wasting good money on a bus, not while we’ve got Harry to do the heavy work anyway, eh? Come on then, let’s get going, got to get back to the rest of them. Wouldn’t mind putting my feet up for a bit neither, it being my half day and everything.”
“I’m sorry if I have put you to any trouble,” Ellen tried to apologise, but it was waved away dismissively.
“No trouble. It will make a big difference, having another wage coming in. Come on then, shall we?” Aunt Melissa turned on her heel and marched off, Harry loping behind her.
There was no mention of her father, no enquiring after her journey, no pleasantries or words of welcome at all. Her aunt’s brisk manner and immediate reference to money made her feel uncomfortable. Yet she had no choice but to go with them. Her doubts deepening, Ellen trailed along behind.
Matthew Jessop gritted his teeth in the face of yet another lecture from his father, telling himself that it would be over more quickly if he just kept quiet and let him talk. If he had heard this sermon once, he had heard it a thousand times. He barely listened to the words anymore, so well did he know his father’s litanies. The great Bartholomew Jessop no less; owner of Jessop’s Cotton Mill, a businessman of reputation and renown, not a little feared in certain quarters, currently giving him another lesson on the productive running of the factory.
Bartholomew no longer held any semblance of fear for Matthew. At twenty three, the days of taking a whipping for insolence or some other childhood misdemeanour were long past. He stood a good foot taller than his father and a great deal broader. His was a heavily muscular frame which might have led people to think him a boxer or a wrestler if it were not for the perfectly even, undamaged features in his handsome face and the finely tailored clothes he wore that hid his form so well.
The Jessops were known as new money; disdained by some, held in awe by others. Bartholomew cared nothing for people’s opinions. As long as his precious factory was turning a decent profit, all else was by the by; and it was indeed turning a profit. A very handsome one at that.
Matthew sensed the subject matter may have changed. He refocused his attention more fully upon what his father was now saying, dismayed when he realised he had turned to the matter of marriage.
“Wilson is a good man Matthew. A banker, no less! Very keen for you to tie the knot with young Eliza,”
Matthew groaned aloud, “Father, please! Not again! She is but a girl…”
“She is almost sixteen!”
“Precisely father; a girl.”
“Of marriageable age and with time enough to deliver you a whole brood of children!”
“And so desperately shy that she can barely look me in the eye when we meet.”
“Her father has brought her up well then. She is chaste, virginal, obedient and young enough for you to mould her to your will. Any other man would snap her up.”
“Then any other man can have her,”
“Mind your tongue!” Bartholomew snapped, vestiges of the strict parent still apparent in him, “Is she not pretty enough for your tastes? You could find your sport elsewhere if she is not desirable to you, as long as you are discreet.”
Matthew sighed, “She is pretty enough. She is in fact exceedingly pretty. But father, she is a child. I have no wish to enter into wedlock with a girl. If I must marry then at least let it be to a woman!
“Pah!” Bartholomew sneered, “Woman or girl, they are all the same abed my boy. Or do you mean you look for experience?”
“I mean no such thing” Matthew snapped, unsure what he really meant, other than that he was not ready to contemplate marriage or fatherhood. “Father, why must you always harangue me on the subject? It is not as if you need me to marry well. What do you care, as long as business is properly attended to?”
“This marriage would be very advantageous to your future,”
“So you do not think of yourself in this then?”
“Foolish boy, of course I do! Bankers are wealthy, influential men. It would bring us access to all his many business contacts; investors, merchants, traders the world over. We could open factories across the Empire, then sit back and get rich while other men run them for us! Just imagine!”
Matthew turned away, exasperated. He looked out of the window, searching for distraction. The office they were in occupied the upper floor of the building, this side giving a wide view of the factory gates, the low brick wall and Mill Street beyond, lined with the small terraced houses his father had built for his workers and for which he charged a weekly rent. The other side of the building looked out onto the canal, endlessly smoking chimneys preventing a view much further than that.
His father had taken to muttering under his breath, berating Matthew for a fool once more. Matthew ignored him in a bid to avoid another argument, forcing himself to take an interest in the people on the street below.
A strong looking youth, flat cap atop his head, marched at a pace down the cobbles, a trunk swinging from his hand. He was followed by a middle aged woman in a pinafore dress with a stooped gait. Nothing of interest; mill workers, that’s all. It being Sunday they had half a day off. Matthew wondered idly where they had been. His thoughts ventured further; why the luggage?
Then another woman turned the corner, warranting far closer examination from Matthew than the first had inspired.
She was dressed in mourning attire and Matthew’s first thought was that she was a young widow. Her hair beneath her bonnet had come loose; long auburn strands of it ribboned on her shoulder to curl prettily against her slender neck. She wore a good quality coat that cinched in her tiny waist, giving her a perfectly feminine shape. Her stance was upright and proud, yet something about her looked tired, defeated. Her pace was a good deal slower than that of the others. They had reached the front door and gone inside long before she got to it, leaving it wide for her to follow after them.
She paused to lean against the frame as if to catch her breath. Matthew held his, hoping she would tarry there a while longer so he might look some more.
She turned and looked up; right at him, it seemed, Surprised, Matthew took a step back, then grinned at himself for being uncharacteristically coy and resumed his place at the window, keen to catch her eye, if it was possible from here.
She had gone inside; Matthew just caught her closing the door. He was aware that his father was still talking; about what, he did not know, He found himself wondering what colour her eyes were, imagining them to be green.
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