‘Wait till I get my hands on him, wherever he is, the scoundrel,’ Henry said as the three walked home, their jackets pulled up against rain and wind. Without a lamp and with cloud covering the moon, they could hardly see.
When Henry and Benjamin got home, Sarah heated some water and made them tea. Having no dry clothing, they wrapped themselves in old cloths and sacks from the beds and sat shivering by the fire as they drank their hot drinks. Benjamin coughed and spluttered. He had caught a fever just after Christmas and was quite sick for several weeks. Sarah prayed he wouldn’t have a relapse and gave him extra medicine. They had potatoes for supper. Later the children went to bed and still Albert hadn’t come back.
‘I do hope he’s all right,’ Sarah said from the armchair, looking up from her sewing, her face pale and drawn. She pricked her finger and a drop of blood fell onto her lap, but she didn’t realise it. Her thoughts were with Albert.
Henry was at the table, reading a pamphlet. ‘Gone to a friend’s house, I suspect, and lost track of time.’ Soon he was staring at the wall in front of him. Twice he jumped up when he thought he heard somebody outside. When he went to the door to check, it was just the wind blowing through the trees and rustling leaves on the ground.
‘What if he’s lying injured somewhere?’ Sarah said. ‘Or what if someone’s kidnapped him – put him in a cart and taken him to a workhouse and put him in chains, thinking he’s an orphan?’
‘That only happens in the cities.’
She looked at him coldly. ‘Well, I hope you’re satisfied, Henry.’
‘What do you mean? It’s not my fault he’s missing.’
‘You’re teaching him wrong principles, making us go to a chapel instead of church,’ she said. ‘And those reform meetings!’ She threw her head back.
‘Oh, I see. So it’s better to teach him he’s poor and has to eat potatoes and can’t go to weekday school or find work because he’s sinned, and because the family’s sinned,’ Henry said, pushing his pamphlet aside and glaring at her. ‘And you think we can go along and listen to Father Edmond and all will be forgiven and we’ll no longer be in our predicament.’
‘You won’t let him do factory work. That’s why he’s poor. That’s why we’re poor. You want us all working from home, and there’s no work.’
‘Sarah, I don’t care if we earn a shilling a week and have to live under a tree and eat roots, no one’s working in a factory.’ Henry got up and paced the room.
‘And that’s why we’re poor,’ she repeated calmly, and kept sewing. ‘And it’s also why he can’t go to work or school, and stay out of mischief.’
Henry stood in front of her. ‘And that’s why the answer is reform, Sarah. We’re fighting for better wages for everybody. Then we can send the children to school again. And feed and clothe them properly.’
‘Yes, fighting. That’s all reform leads to – fighting within families and among friends. And the authorities and aristocrats get cross and put a stop to it, but not before blood is spilt.’
‘Do nothing, then. Go back to the church. Suffer. See if I care,’ he said, bending over her and placing a hand on each side of the chair.
She stopped sewing and looked up at him. His eyes were full of rage and she knew she had to do something to calm him. She worried that the children would wake and hear them arguing. Fearing for her own safety, she put her sewing on her knee, freeing both arms in case she had to defend herself. She didn’t move or say anything, hoping his anger would ease. He had never physically hurt her, but she worried he might lose control one day and lash out at her as if she was an agent recruiting factory workers, or a priest or a churchgoer he didn’t like the look of.
He took a deep breath. His eyes went smaller and he started to blink again. The crevices in his face became shallower. Standing up straight and stepping back from her, he looked away and shook his head in despair. She knew the worst of his storm had passed.
She sighed and said softly: ‘I hope the Lord has mercy on you.’
Henry ignored her and marched up and down. ‘Where is he? It must be nine o’clock. If he went to friends, they’d have sent him home long ago.’
… end of excerpt …
My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is available from the following outlets:
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