Here’s another excerpt from my historical novel, A Weaver’s Web. Benjamin and Charlotte meet up again after many years …
Benjamin stood for a moment, watching her disappear. He thought of his mother and what a nice surprise she would get when Miss Brody handed her the ten shillings and told her who it was from. His mother surely had more need for the money than he did. It gave him a feeling of satisfaction that he had been able to help her this way. At least she would have decent food for a while, and could pay for a doctor to see her, if she wanted one.
He strode off down the street, wondering how much money it would have taken before Miss Brody let him visit his mother. He thought of his father and how easy it would be for him to offer Brody enough money, not only to see Sarah but to get her out of that wretched place. But Henry hadn’t done it. Benjamin felt sick. And he recalled the party when his mother went hysterical and how Henry and his associates considered her bad for business. It struck him his father might not be interested in her release from the asylum, that he would rather keep her out the way while he made money. Benjamin didn’t want to go home.
Light drizzle fell as he headed to the town centre. He wished he had given Miss Brody only five shillings to pass on, but all he had was a ten shilling note. Now he had nothing.
Why he chose the inner city, he didn’t quite know. He was familiar with it, crisscrossing it often on his visits to merchants and others who dealt with his father’s mill. But he never went there on a Sunday. It looked even worse than it did during the week. The bustling crowds at the market had given way to an assortment of paupers and drunks, wandering the streets, in alleyways, and in the taverns, which weren’t supposed to be open, but nobody was around to check on them, with the police either at home or in a bar having a drink themselves.
A young woman he couldn’t help notice hobbled along the footpath just ahead of him. She reminded him of the cripples in the factories he worked in as a child. Benjamin still feared his father might one day make him work on the factory floor. If it happened, he was sure he would run away for good.
There was something familiar about this girl. He wanted to speak to her, but was worried she might think he was going to rob or assault her. Just then she must have sensed his eyes were on her, for she spun around and faced him.
‘What are you looking at, Mister?’ she said.
He recognised the voice, then the face. How could he ever forget the little factory girl who was caned by the masters, crippled by the system, and fell into the machinery and was almost killed, yet came up smiling and joking. It had to be Charlotte, the orphan who always called him mister. It didn’t matter to him she called all males older than herself mister. He hated master, and boy was even worse. To be called mister made him feel like he was grown up and important, someone who commanded respect.
‘Charlotte,’ he said.
‘How do you know who I am?’
‘We worked in the same factory. Remember?’
She looked at him closely and took a step back. ‘No.’
He could see fear in her eyes. He had forgotten he was dressed in a good suit and hat and she wouldn’t recognise him in such clothes. She was in her rags, and that was how he too had dressed when she knew him. Benjamin realised she might think he was one of her old masters who had been cruel to her in the past and had caught up with her.
‘It’s me – Benjamin,’ he said. ‘I was the one who talked to you and the other orphans at meal times. Don’t you recall?’
(cover shows the Peterloo Massacre)
She stared at him again. Slowly her eyes brightened. ‘Yeah, I do.’ But she became defensive again. ‘Why are you dressed like that, and what do you want?’
‘Nothing. I …’
‘Then go away.’ She limped off.
He stood and watched her and was about to call out, when he asked himself why he would want to have anything to do with an orphan in rags who was crippled and probably slept in the street. She was grubby and small and slow. But he was intrigued. He set off after her and quickly caught up.
‘My brother Albert worked as an orphan,’ he said, walking just behind her, ‘in the same factory as us. I told you about him. Remember?’
She ignored him.
‘He was kidnapped off the street and taken in a cart to the factory. He was kept there, locked up, and he worked nights.’
‘It must’ve been terrible.’
‘No worse than what I went through.’
‘That’s true,’ Benjamin said, realising she too couldn’t leave the factory. He kept following her. ‘Where do you work now?’
‘None of your business.’
‘You can’t still be a factory orphan, or you wouldn’t be here, walking along the street.’
Charlotte didn’t respond, so he stopped. Again he watched her wander off and again something made him catch up to her. He still wasn’t sure what it was. It wasn’t her appearance or her manner towards him or her gait.
Knowing she wasn’t going to get rid of him, she decided to use her streetwise ways and try and get whatever she could from him. ‘You got any money, Mister?’
He patted his pockets and shook his head. ‘No.’
‘What? All dressed up like that and you’ve no money.’ She sounded upset, but then she turned and giggled at him.
He blushed. ‘I had a ten shilling note, but …’
‘Ten shillings!’ She stopped and looked at him, wide-eyed. ‘I’ve never seen one. Where did you get it from? What did you do with it?’
She was quite pretty, he thought, for an orphan. ‘I … had to give it to someone.’
‘Did you have a debt? It’s not good to have debts.’
‘Oh no, it wasn’t a debt.’
‘You had a ten shilling note, just to give away?’
‘No, it was to … to care for someone.’
‘When you get your next ten shillings, can you give it to me?’
‘I won’t have any more money.’
‘But you must work somewhere.’
‘For my father.’
‘He must be rich.’ She reached out and touched his jacket. ‘Good quality, but look, it’s got a hole in it.’
Benjamin knew he must have torn it climbing over the asylum wall. He went to brush his jacket where she had touched it, but took his hand away. ‘It’s only an old one.’
‘You mean you have more than one?’
‘A few, for different occasions. Not much good if you’ve got no money though.’
‘I’m broke too.’
They walked side by side along the narrow footpath. He lifted his hat to anyone who did the same or wished him a good afternoon. She acknowledged nobody. He wondered where she was going after they had gone several streets and had left the older part of town behind and were passing endless rough brick terraces. Residents sat outside or stood in groups talking, no doubt to escape the stench and the squalor inside, things that brought back vivid memories for Benjamin. He thought of his family’s house now – two storey splendour and more than a dozen rooms set on several acres.
‘Going home?’ he said.
‘Yeah, it’s getting late.’ Soon she stopped outside some steps leading to a cellar.
‘Who lives here?’
‘Me and a few others. Some of us work at the factory over there.’ She pointed to a nearby mill casting a shadow over the whole terrace. Dirty smoke came from its chimney, the breeze blowing it onto the houses.
‘Can we meet again?’ he said as she hopped down the steps.
Charlotte looked up. ‘Maybe.’
‘How about …?’
But she had gone inside.
(end of excerpt)
My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is available at the following outlets:
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H52SEEK
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H52SEEK
Amazon Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B00H52SEEK