Authors: Phyllis Bentley
A MODERN TRAGEDY
BY PHYLLIS BENTLEY
In choosing names proper for West Riding characters in a West Riding town, it is almost impossible to avoid sometimes unintentionally lighting upon those borne by living people. In case this has happened in this novel, I wish to state emphatically that no character in this book is drawn from a single real person. As far as I am aware, too, no incidents exactly like those I describe have ever taken place, though sufficient similar ones might, unfortunately, be cited to show that my story is typical of its period.
N AN afternoon of early summer in the late nineteen-twenties, Walter Haigh climbed the steps of Victory Mills to interview Leonard Tasker about some damaged cloth.
Victory Millsâa clean newish building whose date was indicated by its nameâstood at the entrance to the town and valley of Ashworth, on a slight rise just off the main Hudley road; accordingly as the young man mounted he gained a wide view of the scene which lay about him. It was a characteristic urban landscape of the West Riding of Yorkshire in the post-war period which presented itself to his lively gaze. The foreground was occupied by an untidy collection of blackened hen coops and tumble-down wire nettings, enclosing groups of hens of dingy white or faded brown, cheerfully pecking a living from the sour black soil and helping to support the unemployed men who were their owners. In the middle distance rose the mills in which were carried on the various processes of cloth manufacture, the staple trade of Ashworth town: massive stone frontages along the roads, with rows of peaked weaving sheds or dye-houses with louvred roofs clustered behind them, and slender mill chimneys springing from their midst which seemed to soar unnecessarily high to rid themselves of the thin wisps of smoke they were projecting. Here and there empty chimneys and broken windows served to remind the beholder (if he had chanced to forget it) that the epoch was not a prosperous one. Steep streets, lined with mean houses,
straggled upwards on either side the valley. But Walter's eyes passed all this, and rested on the background of the scene; the interlocking hills with which Ashworth was surrounded.
In the warm afternoon light the more distant ranges, rolling away northward, were a misty romantic blue, but the near slopes glowed green and bright and very clear and sunny; in spite of the smoke it seemed you might almost count the blades of grass upon them, and every blackened stone in their mortarless walls. Above the smart clock-tower of Victory Mills Walter could just see a stretch of the Hudley road winding round the shoulder of a quarried bluff; soon he would be speeding homeward up that hill and round that corner, beneath the serene summer sky, through the warm caressing air.
“Tennis will be good to-night,” thought Walter, with a leap of his pulses, smiling all over his honest young face. Immediately he was shocked at himself for permitting the intrusion of such a reflection into working hours; he set his features into a sterner mould, and gave his mind to the business before him.
Walter's employersâMessrs. W. H. Lumb and Co., a Hudley firmâwere in the dyeing and finishing trade; that is to say, they added the final processes to cloth manufactured by other men. If while undergoing these processes any cloth became spoiled as regards breadth, colour or texture, by the custom of the trade the manufacturer threw it back upon the finishers' hands, and they paid for it at the price at which the manufacturer had contracted to sell it to his merchant.
Tasker, a cloth manufacturer on a large scaleâhow he kept up such a volume of trade in these hard times, indeed, Walter couldn't imagineâwas one of Messrs. Lumb's customers; and at present a certain piece of indigo serge was in
dispute between the two firms. Tasker alleged that it was damaged, and had become damaged while in the hands of Messrs. Lumb. A peremptory note from him that morning had requested that “your Mr. Haigh” should call round and attend to the matter promptly. It was Walter's duty in the coming interview to examine the piece with care, and, if possible, pronounce that it was not damaged at all; or, if it was damaged, that the damage was not due to the dyeing or the finishing, but to some other of the many and complex processes required in the manufacture of modern cloth. If, however, neither of these statements could honestly be made, then Walter must see that the price at which the cloth was invoiced to Messrs. Lumb was a fair one, and in accordance with the current market rate for that quality of serge.
It was the first time that Walter had been entrusted with this sort of negotiation. The “Mr. Haigh” of Tasker's note did not refer to him, but to his father, Dyson, who had travelled for Messrs. Lumb through half a lifetime. But during the last few months Dyson Haigh's health, buffeted by the successive shocks of failing firms and falling prices, had progressively declined. He had a slight stroke, recovered, but was no longer considered fit by his doctor to knock about the West Riding in train and tram as he had done for the last thirty years. Many firms, in the prevailing slump, would have taken the opportunity to get rid of him, but Arnold Lumb's answer to the doctor's ultimatum was to provide Dyson with a second-hand carârather ramshackle in appearance, but sound enoughâand take Walter, then a lad about the place, out of the office to drive it for him.
Dyson, proud of his personable young son, whose manners and speech, formed in the Hudley Grammar School as the result of a scholarship, were so superior to his own, introduced him everywhere to his customers. Soon, when the weather was bad, or Dyson suffering, Walter paid some of
his calls for him, and presently was undertaking pretty well the whole roundâwhich was, perhaps, what Arnold Lumb had intended. Both the Haighs, however, still drew salaries from Messrs. Lumb; and while Walter's was small for the work he did, Dyson's, though reduced at his own request, was much too large for the little he was able to compass. Walter was very conscious of this, very grateful to Arnold Lumb, and strongly determined to work his hardest, and serve the firm as well as he possibly could. Yes, the Lumbs had, indeed, been good to the Haighs, reflected Walter, nodding to himself as he revisualised the whole situationâhis employer, harassed and anxious in the attempt to keep a small firm afloat in these troublous times: the Haigh household depending utterly on the Lumb fortunes: his father sitting by the hearth at home, ailing and melancholy: his mother tending him with anxious, loving care: his sister, Rosamond, darkly beautiful, intelligent and candid, remaining in Hudley to support the family through their present ordeal, though better prospectsâshe was a teacher of English, as that subject was then understood in secondary schools, with a provincial degree and a year at a training college as qualificationsâwere open to her elsewhere.
As he thought thus of his father and mother and Rosamond, a warm feeling of protective love and honest effort flooded Walter's heart, and he took the top step with a bold and conquering air.
This was a difficult time of year to tackle a manufacturer about a damaged piece, as Walter knew full well. The spring trade was over; next winter's patterns were occupying all attention; in these hard times the merchant was probably glad enough to repudiate a piece ordered long ago, and it was only human nature for the manufacturer to wish to push it back on his finisher if he could possibly manage to do so. Moreover, Tasker was reputed a difficult man, and he was
one of the Lumbs' largest customers. Mr. Arnold had been vexed that Dyson was not well enough to come to-day, would surely have come himself if he had not had an appointment at the bank that afternoon. But Walter welcomed the task, welcomed the opportunity to show his care and skill. It was a mark of confidence on his employer's part to allow him to tackle Tasker, and Walter meant to justify this confidence to the hilt. He saw himself discovering some obscure defect in the cloth's manufacture which had deceived expert eyes hitherto, but would quite absolve Messrs. Lumb of the guilt of the damage. Tasker would admiringly agree that he was right; Mr. Arnold's face would brighten; and Walter's father, wagging his sad old head, would tell his son he was a chip of the old block, and wander off into anecdotes of his own skill, and be happy.
It was Walter's chance to show his mettle. Feeling smart, trim, alert, able, he pushed open the mill door, and went in.
The entrance hall of Victory Mills was large and bright, its floor covered in polished woods arranged in patterns, its walls cream-coloured, spotless and glistening. A printed notice beside the door urged Walter forward towards a staircase at the further end; this was floored in some resilient material of marbled green, and edged by a shining silvery balustrade. Impressed by this unusual magnificence in a mill, Walter advanced staring about him, and had put his foot upon the lowest step before he realised that someone else was also on the stairs. Startled, he looked up, and found that it was Henry Clay Crosland coming towards him. At once Walter, with a youthful blush, lifted his hat, and withdrew his foot; and standing respectfully to one side, waited till Mr. Crosland should have descended.
Everybody in Hudley, probably everybody in the West Riding, reflected Walter, knew Henry Clay Crosland of Clay Mills and Clay Hall. He was the present head of one of those
old-established textile families which figure in the history books, hold centenaries and publish pamphlets relating odd, rough anecdotes about the start in life of their early ancestors, the founders of the family firm.
There was some such story connected with the original Clay Crosland and a pair of boots, remembered Walter. He had bought a pair of boots on credit in order to walk the six miles from the village of Clay Green to Hudley market with a piece of cloth of his own weaving over his shoulder, or something of that sort. Or, perhaps, he had made the boots himself, and it was yarn instead of cloth; Walter was not quite sure. But at any rate it had happened in the eighteenth century, and was all very historical and creditable, and had laid the foundation of the family fortunes. For after that the Croslands had rapidly become a powerful and wealthy firm of spinners, and remained so all these years; and they had provided Mayors for Hudley and Members of Parliament for Hudley, and given Mechanics' Institutes, and parks, and hospital wards to Hudley and little Clay Green; and in general accepted the responsibilities of their wealth as well as its privileges. They had provided leaders, too, for the West Riding's defence. Henry Clay Crosland's only son, Richard, had commanded the Company in which Walter's elder brother was a private in the West Yorkshire Regiment in the Great Warâthey were killed on the same day, at Passchendaele. Remembering this, which had happened when Walter was just entering his teens, the young man ventured a timid and respectful smile; Mr. Crosland, always courteous and considerate, and used to being a public figure, inclined his head and smiled in reply, though rather absently. He looked tired and harassed, and not in the best of health, Walter thought; his fine grey suit hung loosely from his tall, thin, elegant figure; his admirable head, with the kindly handsome profile, and well-clipped ashen hair and short moustache,
drooped between his shoulders; the skin of his slender hands was the colour of parchment; and his kind grey eyes with the dark iris, usually good-humoured, twinkling, were uneasy and perplexed. Henry Clay Crosland could not look other than a man of complete integrity, commanding presence and informed goodwill, because he was such a man, and had been one all his life; but his charm and his power seemed slightly dimmed this afternoon. “Feeling his age,” thought Walter, from the heights of his youthful energy. Mr. Crosland crossed the hall swiftly in his still gallant and debonair, though rather uneven, gait, and closed the mill door behind him.