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Warp and Weft

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Treddle and drum, nipping and thrum,
Breast beam and back, edging too slack,
Coppings too tight, bobbins not right,
Rattletraps clash, ends all to smash,
Picking-sticks rap, snavel and trap,
Bad weft and warp, size dry and sharp
Clatter along, listen the song –

   ‘The Weaver,’ Keighley News.

 

April 1847.  Leeds and Bradford Railway.

It was raining hard, and dusk seemed to be creeping in even though it was mid-afternoon. Almost nothing was visible outside the steamed-up windows, other than a vague impression of hills and fields and glaring new factory chimneys. The jolting of the train was making Quentin feel ill. Thankfully his only companion in the first-class carriage, an elderly woman who had felt the need to tell him, in detail, about her married daughter’s various woes and her own illnesses, had got off at the last station.

Quentin had never taken such a long journey by steam. The smoke, the noise, and the worry of travel had made his head ache. He thought with longing of his bottle of laudanum, safely stowed in the goods compartment. He wished he hadn’t read quite so many reports of gruesome railway accidents and disasters: every larger than usual judder or unexpected screech of the whistle sent a pang of anxiety through him, since he had little idea what it might mean.

He took out his watch – his father’s watch – and studied it. He must still have around half an hour to go, before arrival at Bradford, and then he’d have to change to the brand-new line, assuming it was operating.

For the thousandth time since embarking, he wondered if he’d made the right decision, after all.

February 1847. London.

“I can do it,” Quentin said, “I want to do it. You need to stay here in London, near the best doctors, seek further opinions.”

His father sighed. “I won’t have you give up your own life for this,” he said. “What about your Fellowship examination? You’re my only son, Quentin: you’re a gentleman, and a scholar.  I didn’t educate you for a life in business and commerce. You shouldn’t be immersing yourself in the wilds of Yorkshire, just because your uncle thought it was reasonable to demand it.”

“We’ve discussed this already,” said Quentin. “Oxford isn’t going to disappear. I can always sit the examinations next year. Whereas, as we both know, if neither of us goes to take charge of the Coldwater business, the terms of his will mean that it will be sold, with no profit to us.”

“Then let it be sold,” said his father. “I will not be leaving you destitute.”

“You won’t be leaving me at all,” said Quentin, trying to infuse his voice with a conviction he didn’t truly feel.

He thought of the doctors’ bills, growing higher by the day, and of the difficulty he would face in living solely on the income from a fellowship at Oxford, even assuming he was awarded one. The lawyer had gone over their finances with Quentin in private, after the business of settling his uncle’s estate. The picture had been worse than Quentin had imagined, and quite possibly worse than his father knew.

He had next to no idea of the value of a small woollen mill, in a Northern town he had never heard of, but the lawyer had assured him that trade was picking up, and that it would be madness to allow the business to slip out of Coldwater hands. His recommendation had been that Quentin travel there immediately, learn the trade, establish himself as the owner, and then quietly put a good manager in charge and return south. As long as he made periodic visits and it was a Coldwater signature on any essential letters and accounts, the mill would still be in the family. Which is what his mysterious uncle, for reasons only known to himself, had wanted. If he’d cared so much, Quentin thought with resentment, he might at least have tried to visit his brother and his nephew, at some point in the last decade. 

His father looked old and tired, in the grey December dusk seeping through the windows, firelight flickering. It was getting chilly. Quentin saw that the basket of coals was empty: he should ring for more, or – or he shouldn’t, because his father would retire to bed soon, and coals cost money.

At least it wasn’t a Yorkshire colliery he was being asked to manage, he thought, with grim amusement.

“It might be… interesting,” he said. His tone, in his own ears, sounded wrong. “To, umm, gain some knowledge of our… industrial might, and how it operates. At the least it will give me some experiences to discuss at High Table. And it’s not so very far, now I can go by train. I’ll be able to return to London within a day, should I be – should you wish for me.”

“I see you are set on this,” said his father. “Very well. If you leave early in the New Year, you might stay a month or two, see the lie of the land. But, Quentin, should it prove an unhappy experience, or if you feel it dangerous, you must abandon it. In these unsettled times, and in such places, who knows what might happen.”

Quentin half-smiled at him. “There will be no danger,” he said. “I’ll make a success of this. I promise.”

**

The next months had passed in a bustle of planning and packing. It had been a quiet period for Quentin, beyond this. Indeed, that autumn and winter, while he ostensibly took some time to care for his father, had been almost entirely solitary. He had friends in London, of course. Yet seeing them seemed like an effort that he usually didn’t want to make.

He was still so tired all the time. Lying awake, pacing the floors, resorting far too often to laudanum, when he felt that another sleepless night would drive him mad: none of this was new, none of it was the consequence of his agreeing to move North.  Since well before he had taken his final examinations, he had been aware that the darkness he had staved off before was creeping in, fogging the edges of his mind. He had almost no appetite for what he was expected to do with his life, but no idea what else he might do instead. Nothing seemed to hold any purpose. He had started to dream of High Beech again, of its lawns and woods, its calm doctors, its locked gates; of Dr Allen’s reassuring hand on his shoulder, lost forever. Sometimes it had been hard not to close the college postern behind him and set off to walk there, to beg for admittance.

And there had been that one grey morning, or two, or three, when he’d risen before dawn, walked across the meadows to watch the river swirling in the weirs, and felt its pull, so strongly that the thought of his father losing his only son had scarcely been enough to resist it.

The examinations had been a haze of exhaustion and opiates. It was a miracle he had done as well as he had. But since he had gained his First Class, why not do what everyone expected, take the full set, remain in his college as a Fellow? The chances of him ever marrying seemed remote – other than Julia, he’d barely had a sensible conversation with a woman – and celibacy and books seemed, at least, like an option that he might find tolerable, if only he could emerge from this fug.

He was aware that agreeing to take on a difficult and entirely new form of business, while in this state of mind, was unwise. But Yorkshire had its advantages. His father would not be privy to any bouts of sleeplessness or despair – Quentin had seen him frowning, over breakfast, at the dark circles under Quentin’s eyes, with the worry that had never really left him since Quentin had turned fourteen and everything had fallen apart– and it would at least be something new, something unknown, and where no-one knew him. And if everything became truly intolerable – he would be less observed. He might be vague on the details, but he knew that factory towns were dangerous places. Accidents could occur, surely, in a variety of ways, without arousing any suspicion.

The hardest part was explaining his decision to Julia, since, of all people, she was most likely to discern his motives. It wasn’t until two days before he left that Quentin had managed to call on her and find her at home. He had half-hoped she would be out. She was far more enmeshed with society than he was: she had invited him to at least five parties and whist evenings since the Christmas holidays, but he had made excuses not to attend.

“Mr Coldwater!” she said, and then, once the footman had left and their tea was set out, “Quentin. It’s good to see you. Tell me, how is your father?”

As always, even when he saw her regularly, Quentin found her beauty almost overwhelming. He tried to smile at her, and speak normally, though his heart was beating hard with the knowledge of everything he wanted, and didn’t want, to tell her.

“No better, I am afraid,” he said. “The doctors say it is a growth. He might recover, or not – they won’t give us a straight answer.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Julia. She put her hand on his, for a moment, and then withdrew it. “And how are you? Are you…well?”

“More or less,” said Quentin. “ I am – trying to be well.” He hesitated. “And you may have heard that I am – leaving town for a while.”

“I heard a rumour you were – moving North? To become a factory magnate? But this seemed so – so absurd – “ she smiled at Quentin, “that I wasn’t sure I could trust it.”

Quentin felt, obscurely, hurt and a little angry, an old anger. Julia came from old money. Unlike the Coldwaters, she had never had to consider the cost of anything. He didn’t speak for a moment, drinking his tea.

“Why should it be absurd?” he said, eventually. “You know that my father’s family earned their money in business. My uncle, ummm, specifically asked for my father or myself to take over his work. I know it may be – different to my current interests, but I’m sure I can – pick it up.”

“Of course,” said Julia. “I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But you’re really going? Will you be safe? I hear that Chartism is still at a peak, in the North.”

Quentin, who had spent most of the last four years arguing over Greek philosophy in sunlit gardens, or lying in a punt listening to ducks squabble on the Isis and reflecting gloomily on modern theology and on his own state of mind, had not precisely been following the news reports. When he thought about the political unrest of the past decade and more, all it conjured up was a hazy vision of a mass of wild, dark, bearded men, waving pitchforks or – or whatever other tools they might use, in their work – and shouting about revolution. He recalled men saying with confidence, in passing, that the agitation was well past its peak, and then moving on to a subject of real importance for them all. He had probably said this himself.

“I believe it is well past its peak,” he said. “There will be nothing to worry about. Except my own ignorance of trade.”

“You’ve always been so clever,” said Julia. “You will be capable – and it’ll be an adventure for you. I wish that I could go, rather than being trapped here for another Season.”

“At least you’ll have James by your side,” said Quentin. He tried to speak naturally, but was aware that the old bitterness had still crept into his voice., and that Julia could hear it.

“Oh, Q,” she said. “You’ll always be one of my best friends, no matter what. You’re like a brother to me.”

“I know,” said Quentin. He tucked his hair behind his ear. “Will you and James – if you don’t mind my asking – will you be married, this year?”

Julia drew back a little, frowning. “I would need to wait until he asked me,” she said.

Quentin felt his mouth twist. “You know how I felt – how I feel – about you,” he said, to his hands, glancing up on the last word. “If I were to become something other than an Oxford don – ” He stopped. Julia was looking at him with unbearable pity.

“I really am sorry,” she said. “Your friendship has always meant so much to me.” Then she took a deep breath, and straightened her back. “Will you at least write to me?”

Quentin ran his hands through his hair. He could throw himself at her feet, of course, but what would be the purpose? There had never been a chance for him, with Julia, and she at least had seen that from the start.

“Of course,” he said, and she smiled at him, relieved.

April 1847. Keighley, Yorkshire

The train was pulling into a station. Quentin blinked, rousing from his reverie, and cleared a spot on the window. There was a knock on the compartment door and a guard came in.

“Keighley, sir,” he said briefly.

“Ah,” said Quentin. “Thank you, I’ll just, umm – “ He took down his travelling bag from the rack, and followed the man out and onto the platform. It was still drizzling slightly, but thankfully the heavier rain seemed to have passed. He looked around him.

The station was tiny, compared to London, its new-built vulgar red brick glistening in the wet. Bunting was still hanging limply from the buildings: the station had only been open for business for a short time. Groups of men in work clothes were on the platform, idling, maybe waiting for a train, or maybe just enjoying the novelty of the railway.  There was, surprisingly, a group of young women at one end of the platform too, also in what might be work clothes, and to Quentin were wholly unfamiliar: some kind of overalls, wooden clogs. They were clustered together and laughing. The engine was hissing. The air was acrid with soot, and little was visible in the fog beyond the station platform. Quentin coughed as he breathed in, drawing out his handkerchief and wiping his mouth. He needed his bags and then – some form of transport to his lodgings, he supposed.

“Quentin Coldwater?” someone said, pronouncing the name carefully. It was a seemingly well-bred voice, not Yorkshire. Quentin turned towards it.

A man was surveying him from a short distance away. Unbelievably, in the midst of this dirt, he was wearing a crisp white shirt under a smart waistcoat, with a dashing black coat over it. He had damp black curls falling into his eyes, and he was extremely tall, far taller than Quentin.

“I’m Eliot Waugh,” he said. He looked Quentin up and down, frowning slightly. Quentin was conscious that he was wearing worn travel clothes, and that he was covered in dust and grime from the journey.

“Come along,” he said. “Do you have your bags?” He turned gracefully and signalled, and a porter came running up with Quentin’s cases. This strange man lifted one, and Quentin, fumbling in his pocket for a tip for the porter, lifted the other. By the time he’d given the man a penny, the man – Eliot Waugh, a name that meant absolutely nothing to Quentin – was already striding down the platform. Quentin hurried to keep up.

“Excuse me,” he said. “But how do you know me?”

“Oh, your arrival is of some moment in the town. I thought I’d come and escort you to your lodgings.” He came to a dramatic halt in the station entrance, setting down Quentin’s bag and holding out an ungloved hand. “I hadn’t properly introduced myself: how rude. I work for the local paper. The Keighley Herald. As a combination reporter, editor, compositor, printer, novelist and poet. At your service.”

Quentin shook his hand. He blinked. Waugh’s hand was larger than his, finely made, but unmistakably calloused. 

“I am…happy to meet you,” he said.

“You will be,” said Waugh, and smiled at him, in a way that Quentin wasn’t entirely sure was friendly. “I know all the town’s doings. The mills, the engine-sheds, the taverns, the churches and chapels, the moors. If you need a native guide – ”

He picked up the bag, and started walking again. Quentin followed along. The street was full of construction work: people shouting in rough accents, the noise of hammers. He had to duck hurriedly out of the way of a man hefting an enormous plank over his shoulder, and others wheeling barrows of bricks. Waugh threaded through the chaos as if it wasn’t there. They walked over cobbles, and into what was clearly the main street. It stank. Waste ran down the gutters. A group of girls clattered down the centre, arms linked. Quentin stepped out of their path. He glanced around him, at the mean surroundings, at the poor clothing and rough appearance of the people in the streets, and his heart sank.

“The town’s on the rise,” Waugh said to him, loudly, over the noise. He stepped to the side to let a cart drive past. “Especially now that we’re on the line. In a year or two, it will be unrecognizable. Look – “ He stopped again, and gestured towards a handsome building. “The Mechanics Institute.”

Quentin looked at it dutifully.  It seemed – more impressive than the rest of the town. Compared to London, however, it was not precisely magnificent.

“Very impressive,” he said politely. It had started to rain again, and his case was heavy. He wondered if this man, Waugh, intended to walk him all over town.

Waugh gave him a knowing look. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your lodging house is nearby. You will have time to explore the town later. Unless you would like to see the mill first? Your new domain?”

Quentin frowned at him, wondering if Waugh knew absolutely everything about him.

“I should like to leave my bags,” he said, with formality. “And perhaps rest, after the journey.”

“Hmm,” said Waugh. “This way, then.” He crossed the street and headed purposefully left at a crossroads, then turned down a side street.

“Number 40,” he said. “I won’t take you to the door, your landlady is not an enthusiast for my writing. She’s an enthusiast for religion, instead, I’m sorry to tell you. The particularly gloomy kind, with hymns and hellfire and eternal damnation for us sinners.” He smirked at Quentin, who wasn’t sure whether he should smile at this or frown disapprovingly. He settled for an expression that probably came across as complete vacuity.

“You’ll have an invite to dinner at the Devonshire Arms waiting for you, no doubt,” said Waugh. “The town worthies are agog with curiosity to meet the incomer. Word of advice? Don’t trust the McAllistairs. Call by the printshop tomorrow if you’re free, and I’d be happy to tell you more.” He passed the suitcase over to Quentin, and then bowed a little, theatrically. “A pleasure to meet you. Enjoy your first night in Yorkshire, Mr Coldwater.”

“I – thank you,” said Quentin, off-balance. Waugh turned and walked off, purposefully, hands in his pockets. He might even have been whistling.

Quentin stood in the street for a moment, rain sliding down his face, and watched him leave. Waugh was one of the most – unusual – people he could remember meeting. He acted like a gentleman, more or less, and he sounded more high-class than Quentin did. But his hands – and he’d said he worked – might he engage in printing for fun? It was very mysterious. Even though he had rendered Quentin more than usually confused and incoherent, Quentin was still somehow sorry to see him go.

He hefted his suitcases, and picked his way down the street to the right house.

**

There was, indeed, a dinner invitation awaiting him, exactly as predicted. Also as predicted, his landlady had left four tracts with somewhat lurid illustrations beside his bed, along with both a large and a small Bible, and had not very subtly hinted at the heavenly rewards to be acquired if Quentin attended the Methodist chapel with her that evening. Quentin, who hadn’t attended church since he’d left college, and had certainly never attended chapel, had politely demurred, citing the dinner invitation. Hell, he thought, appropriately. Small towns. He was going to have to go to church now: presumably the Anglican church, as it would be the least offensive.

His rooms were at least clean, though small and rather bare. He had a whole floor: bedroom, sitting room and bathroom. A fire crackled brightly in the hearth, making the sitting room almost too warm, though the spring evening was chill. At least it should be easy to obtain good coal, in Yorkshire. The walls were rather bare – he wished he’d brought some prints. Maybe they could be purchased, if not in Keighley, then at least in Bradford. He thought about the mass of humanity he’d seen at Bradford station, and shuddered slightly. He unpacked his books and set them on the shelves. It was a slightly shameful collection, though it was unlikely anyone here would care that he’d left all his painfully construed Greek and Latin in London, and brought with him instead the modern poets, and his six favourite Scott novels, much-worn and still with his childish drawings in the margins. On second thoughts, considering his landlady, he took the Byron off the shelf and put it in one of the drawers of the bedside table. He pulled out his copy of Kenilworth and leafed through it, tempted to lose himself for an hour or two in the familiar fantasy. But it was getting late, and he still had to wash and change.

Mrs Shaw had looked disapproving at having to direct Quentin to a public house, but it hadn’t been complicated, the town was scarcely large. The Devonshire Arms was back on the main street, further down. He was there promptly at seven, hungry after the journey, and was shown immediately into a small private room, upstairs.

A group of three men and one elegantly dressed and very beautiful woman – Quentin fought not to show his surprise at her presence – were already present. Quentin smiled at them nervously as they turned to look at him. They were all considerably older than he was, and the lively conversation as he entered the room suggested they already knew each other.

“Good evening,” he said. “Thank you, er, for the invitation. I’m Coldwater. Quentin.”

“Coldwater,” said one of the men, getting up to shake his hand, and leading him to an empty chair. “I’m Hanson. I handle most of the legal business of the town. This is Everett Rowe, owner of Rowe’s mills and currently Chair of the Mechanics Institute Committee, which I’m sure you saw on your way through town.”

“For my sins,” said Rowe, reaching over to shake Quentin’s hand.

“It is a most impressive building,” said Quentin.

“And these are the McAllistairs: Wendell and his niece, Irene. They’re – well, our local magnates, so to speak. One of our oldest families, and the first ”

Irene smiled at Quentin, and seemed to him to hold his hand a little too long. He sat down, ducking his head and tucking his hair behind his ear.

“We were so sorry to hear of your uncle’s death,” said Irene, as Hanson poured Quentin some wine. “Were you close?”

“Oh, no, I’m afraid not,” said Quentin. “I hadn’t met him since I was a child.”

“Hmm,” said Irene. “And had you always planned to take over his business?”

“No we- ,” said Quentin. “That is, my father and I were, err, surprised by my uncle’s wish that one of us might inherit. Though, obviously we’re very happy to – to keep the business in the Coldwater name.”

“Naturally,” said Irene. “I completely understand. I’m sure – ” she looked around the table, one eyebrow raised, “that we’ll all be happy to assist you to learn the ropes. Your experience is limited, I assume?”

Quentin couldn’t tell if she was being ironic. “Umm. Yes, I am afraid so,” he said.

“It’s simply a question of managing your workers,” said McAllistair. “Showing your authority.” He frowned at Quentin, as though reflecting on Quentin’s obvious unsuitedness for this.

“Your youth won’t help you there,” he said. “Best come down hard from the start.”

“Come, come,” said Hanson. “His youth will certainly stand him in good stead with the mill-girls. You’ll have to watch yourself, Coldwater – sorry, Irene.”

Irene shrugged, sipping her wine.

“And have you left a young lady pining for you in London, eh?” said Hanson.

Thankfully, the food arrived at that moment. It was surprisingly good: a joint, roast potatoes and vegetables. Quentin concentrated on eating politely, as the others talked about people they knew in local society and the state of affairs in textiles and manufacturing, as he loosely gathered. He understood about one word in ten, which was not very promising for his career in this part of the world.

When the plates had been cleared, Hanson turned back to Quentin.

“Sorry about all the local gossip,” he said. “You’ll soon know everyone worth knowing in town, it’s a small place.”

“I met - Eliot Waugh today? I believe he works for – the press?” Quentin said.

McAllistair snorted. “If that’s what you want to call it. Waugh should watch his back. We don’t need folks like him in this town.”

“His editorials are certainly clever,” said Rowe, with distaste. “If rather fire and brimstone.” He turned to Quentin. “You won’t want to associate with him. His politics are, at the least, objectionable, and since he arrived in town a year ago, he appears to have largely concerned himself with stirring up our workforce.”

“Oh?” said Quentin, trying not to betray his curiosity. “I wondered who his family were.”

“He’s no gentleman, that’s for damn sure,” said McAllistair. “Heard he arrived in town with a troupe of actors. He needs taking down a peg or two, in my view.”

“I believe he is the bastard son of a lord, down south,” said Irene. “So rumour has it, and he certainly has the looks for it.” McAllistair snorted, and she smiled at him. “He’s a handsome boy, and I’m a better judge of that than you are.” Her glance fell on Quentin, appraising, and he looked away and took a large mouthful of wine.

“In any case,” said Irene. “I understand he fell out with his family, or they fell out with him. I should imagine he sees Keighley as a refuge.” She sounded entertained by this.

“His family exiled him for his drinking and – loose living, I imagine,” said Rowe. He pursed his lips, looking pointedly around the table. Quentin had noted that he was drinking only water.

“You can sign the pledge if you want to,” said McAllistair. “In my family, we appreciate the good things in life.” He raised his glass, and he and Irene toasted each other.

There was a pause, while he and Rowe glared at each other across the table.

“In London – ” said Quentin. He’d hoped to break the tension, but as soon as he started the sentence, and the company turned to him, he regretted starting it. “We’ve been hearing that times are, err, hard? In trade,” he finished, trailing off.

“We’ve done well,” said McAllistair. “Because we work for it, unlike some. You should see the lazy buggers I’ve been using as sorters and combers.” He turned to Rowe. “Had the gall to ask me for a raise in their pay this week. Incredible.”

“If not for us, they’d all be out on the streets,” said Irene, toying with her glass. “We might expect a little gratitude in return.”

“Times have been – or indeed, continue to be - rather hard,” said Rowe, to Quentin. “As – our friends are indicating, the workers are currently somewhat dissatisfied. It is very difficult for them to understand the vagaries of trade, and the choices that we manufacturers must make.”

“Indeed,” said Hanson. “Ignorance and ingratitude, that’s the problem in this town. And not simply among the workers, either.”

Irene made a sound of amusement. “Yes, I heard your daughter was proving intractable. Speaking of Waugh, is it true she spends all her time at the printshop?”

Hanson glared at her. “Of course not,” he said stiffly. “I would never allow it.”

“I’d ship her off to a good finishing school, if I were you,” said Irene. “In a convent. Possibly in the Swiss Alps.”

“My family are my business,” said Hanson. “And I’ll thank you not to comment on my daughter.”

Irene shrugged. “Everyone else is,” she murmured, pitched low enough that Quentin only just heard it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hanson’s hand tighten on his napkin.

“Perhaps you’d like to join our Library committee?” said Rowe to Quentin, loudly, and the tension subsided again.

**

After dessert had been served, Quentin pleaded tiredness from the journey and escaped. It was true: he was so fatigued that the wine and food had left him hardly able to keep his eyes open. And he could see that the men at the table, and perhaps Irene McAllistair too, since it seemed that none of the usual conventions applied to her, were planning to be there late into the evening. They’d been ordering port up, lavishly, as he left.

Walking out into the main street, briefly disoriented, and turning towards where he hoped his lodging was, he was arrested by a burst of song, down a side street. There were two taverns there, not more than thirty feet from him, facing each other across the street, light spilling out, men in the street leaning on rough benches. The song rose up; Quentin paused to listen, shielded by the darkness. He frowned – something about a...pleasant bed, if he was hearing right? And – a factory maid?

There were shouts and jeers, and one voice, a good voice, carrying the tune, rang out on its own. Quentin took a step closer.

“O pleasant thoughts come to me mind,”

The singer was sitting up on one of the tables, between two other men. Quentin stared at him.

“As I turn down the sheets so fine – “

The singer slowed down the line, gesturing with his hands, one of which was holding a tankard. It was definitely Waugh. He was unmistakable.

“And I saw her two breasts standing so,”

Waugh made a crude gesture, and his audience whooped and jeered,

“Like two white hills all covered in snow,”

He raised the tankard in a toast, took a long drink, and joined in what might have been the chorus, something about weavers and looms. He looked – he looked drunk, Quentin thought, his movements loose. He’d slung an arm round the man beside him, still singing.

Quentin turned back to the main street, and made his way to his chilled room. But even with his usual dose, it was a long time before he slept.