Here’s another excerpt from my historical novel A Weaver’s Web set in early 19th century Manchester area, UK …
Henry produced a handful of coins and was immediately invited into the office. The owner sat down behind a huge desk and signalled to Henry to sit on one of the chairs opposite.
‘Whisky, Mr Wakefield?’ Thorndike reached behind his chair and took a bottle and two glasses from a cupboard.
‘Yes please, Sir,’ Henry said happily. It was the first time a member of the upper class had ever offered him a drink. He relaxed in his chair and smiled as Thorndike poured two whiskies and passed one to him. He crossed his legs and took a sip with surprising elegance.
‘We’re not normally in the business of selling orphans, Mr Wakefield.’
‘He’s not an orphan. He’s my son.’
Thorndike looked at him hard. ‘Have you got proof?’
‘At the church in Middleton. That’s where the boy was baptised.’ It was a long way to Middleton and Henry didn’t want to visit Edmond anyway. He hoped Thorndike would accept his offer.
‘Let’s just settle for a pound, Mr Wakefield.’
‘But orphans are easy to come by, Mr Thorndike. The factories simply take them off the streets. I’ll give you twelve shillings.’
‘Fifteen. They’re not as easy to procure as years gone by. We have to contend with new laws.’
Henry took another sip of his whisky. It didn’t taste like any old home brew. This was good quality stuff. ‘All right, fifteen.’ He counted out the sum and gave it to Thorndike who put the money straight in his pocket.
‘Oh yes, and speaking of new laws, they’ve now got one that stops us selling orphans, and the authorities are on to it. I’m afraid you’ll have to produce evidence of his baptism before I can release him.’
‘Then you’d better give me back my money until I get the proof you need.’
‘A deal was done, Mr Wakefield.’
‘What? You can’t do that. I’ll tell the jurors.’
Thorndike leant back and laughed. ‘They’re good friends of mine. They won’t believe a word you say.’
Henry knew Thorndike was right. They would never believe someone as far down the social ladder as Henry, handloom weaver, over someone like Mr Thorndike, cotton baron, landholder and esteemed citizen.
‘You despicable person. You miserable old …’
But the cotton baron beamed with satisfaction.
‘What’s fifteen bob to you?’ Henry said. ‘It’d be like a farthing to most people.’
‘The law’s the law, Mr Wakefield.’
‘And what about the law that says you can’t steal from another person?’
The cotton lord laughed again. ‘No one stole anything. You gave me the money.’
Thorndike stopped laughing. ‘Bring me evidence he’s yours and I’ll give him to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve work to do.’ He resumed sifting through a wad of papers on his desk – purchases, and orders from buyers throughout England and abroad.
Henry swallowed the rest of his whisky, determined to get something for his fifteen shillings, and left.
Next Monday, he set off for Middleton for the first time since they moved. He had waited until Monday as he knew Edmond would quite likely be out opening new churches or schools, or campaigning against his opponents. Henry would rather see the assistant who filled in when the minister was absent.
He hadn’t been happy to leave Sarah, with the baby due any time. She was still working. Her pay was needed to buy food and other necessities. He hoped she wouldn’t be off work too long, though he was confident Albert would soon get a wage, once Thorndike released him. What annoyed Henry was the month or so it would take Albert to earn the sum Thorndike had taken, and there was his own loss of income while he went to Middleton to get proof of his son’s baptism. In a strange sort of way, he admired the cotton baron. To have that much money and power was something Henry could only dream of. But since his meeting with Thorndike, such thoughts were in his mind more often.
As he trekked along the road to Middleton, he pictured himself in a big house, bigger than Edmond’s, with servants and plenty of food, and dry clothes to change into on a rainy day. He only knew weaving though.
He was halfway to Middleton, on a lonely stretch of road when, suddenly, two men jumped out of bushes in front of him.
‘This is a stick-up,’ the taller one said, holding a gun at him.
Henry took a step back.
‘Stop!’ the other fellow said. ‘Hand over your money, or else.’
(cover of A Weaver’s Web, showing the Peterloo Massacre, 1819)
Henry stopped, afraid to move. He had been held up twice before, but on both occasions had no money and the robbers let him go. This time he had several pounds. But he noticed his assailants weren’t coming towards him and they looked nervous, even more than he felt himself. They seemed unsure, each perhaps waiting for the other to make a move, like they were scared something might go wrong. Henry knew it wasn’t only the upper class who could call people’s bluff, so he decided to take his chances and try and deceive these novices, to keep his money.
‘I’m but a humble weaver off to visit his sick mother,’ he said. ‘All I’ve got is a few pennies I need for her medicine.’
They turned to each other, not knowing what to do next.
Henry continued. ‘There’s a coach a half mile or so back. The driver’s fixing a broken wheel. He had some sacks on board marked Bank of England. I saw them.’
He didn’t have to say any more. The robbers hurried off to find the imaginary coach. When they had gone, Henry laughed out loud. He felt proud of what he had done. But he knew he had to be careful as not all robbers were that gullible. He walked swiftly for fear they would realise they had been fooled and come after him.
Striding along the roadside, he couldn’t help notice the openness and greenery and fresh air, and the friendliness of the people as they waved to him from their front gardens. These were things he missed in Manchester. Rain was in the air, but he hardly noticed it. He wondered if they would ever return to the country. It was so much nicer than a cellar in a terrace – what with the flooding, and every time a neighbour talked or coughed or cried, day or night, he could hear them. The only thing he liked about Manchester was the Cloak and Dagger.
By late morning he reached Middleton. Crossing the stream, he half expected to see his old house perched on the green hillside above the laneway, albeit with somebody else in it. But what he saw was worse, much worse. Where his cottage had stood for so long was a factory, a cotton mill of three storeys, not nearly as big as many in Manchester, but just as ugly. Black smoke billowed into the sky. The stream, where children had played and people got their water, was deserted and the water no longer clear. A high fence now kept unwelcome visitors and stray animals out and, no doubt, orphans in. His house was gone, not a trace left. And the trees had been cut down and the cottages on adjoining properties were gone too.
He had seen enough and had to move on, quickly. A little further, in an area that had been open field, was a terrace similar to those in Manchester, where some of the new mill’s employees probably lived.
‘God Almighty, save us from ourselves,’ Henry mumbled, overawed and depressed by what had happened to his home and his town. Why was it that one person could do this and make so much money, and cause misery for so many people? he asked himself. If he had that much money he would at least make sure conditions and wages and living quarters were reasonable.
As he walked on, he stared in disbelief at other new mills and terraces, causing him to tread in puddles and trip over roots and stumps on the side of the laneway where trees once flourished. He was almost run over by a horse and cart laden with cloth.
‘Watch out, peasant,’ the driver called out, ‘can’t you see I’ve got a heavy load?’
Henry didn’t answer, but kept walking. Sometimes he wished he was a peasant, on a remote farm far away from any factory.
He got to Edmond’s and saw horses peering from their stables, and the priest’s carriage in an open shed. That meant Edmond was home. Henry was sure he would be confronted by him and be asked why he and his family had walked out of church and never returned, and be lectured on his sins, and be told how the good priest was still engaged in battle with the Nonconformists and the Catholics. It was a daunting thought. Perhaps he could wait until next day and hopefully the vicar would be out. But he had to get back to Manchester as soon as possible to finish his orders. He took a couple of deep breaths and felt ready to face him. As he approached the front door, it opened and there stood the priest.
– end of excerpt –
A Weaver’s Web is available at the following sites:
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