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Authors: Anna Jacobs

Tags: #Historical Fiction/Romance

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BOOK: Marrying Miss Martha
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* * * *

In Tapton Jonas Wright settled down in front of the blazing fire and looked at his younger friend, whom he hadn’t seen for several days. “Are things going any better at home, Ben?”

“No. I had to threaten to drag Georgie to church last Sunday and well, you saw what she was wearing . . . ” He sighed and ran his hands through his short, dark hair. “I need to do something about her clothes, but what do I know about how a young woman should dress?”

“Libby was wishing she could help you more, but she hadn’t been at all well lately. The slightest movement hurts her.”

“I’d not inflict my sister on your wife, Jonas. Libby has enough to bear already. Quite frankly, Georgie’s been spoiled rotten since my father died, but neglected too, and although I blame Belinda for that, I must blame myself as well. I should have paid more attention to what my dear step-mother was doing, not let her move so far away—though she does have cousins in Bradford and it seemed reasonable for her to go and live near them. Anyway, she’s no longer my responsibility.” And thank goodness for that. Georgie was more than enough for a busy man to deal with.

“Did the wedding go well?”

“Very smoothly. His side
paid, of course, because Belinda had some very extravagant ideas and I declined to spend my money on them. Besides, my father left her a very comfortable sum and I saw no reason why she shouldn’t use that to pay for her wedding.” He grinned. “It took a couple of quarrels to persuade her she couldn’t twist me round her little finger as she did him, but in the end she accepted that I wasn’t going to waste my money on one day’s fuss.” His smile faded. “Anyway, I couldn’t have afforded such a large outlay just now, as you know.”

“I do and I think you’re right to get new machinery for your mill. It’ll soon pay for itself. Tell me more about the wedding, though, because Libby will want to know all the details. What did the bride wear?”

Ben frowned. “Something frilly and blue with the widest sleeves I ever saw and a hat so large I kept expecting it to slide off her head. The whole thing was a much bigger affair than I’d expected and to tell the truth, I felt out of place among county society.” He pulled a wry face and they both smiled, for even in Tapton there were sharp lines drawn between families in trade and the county gentry, who lived on nearby estates.

“Georgie was so sulky at the wedding I felt downright ashamed of her and so I told her. She would hardly open her mouth to her new stepfather and scowled the whole time, so it’s not just me she’s angry with, it seems to be the whole world. Oh, and you can tell Libby my sister was wearing something frilly, too, pink and white.” He sighed and lapsed into contemplation of his various problems.

“Are the new machines completed?”

“Nearly. Then we have to get them here safely. There’s been rioting over in Netherdene and I’ve heard that some of the operatives in Tapton are upset, too. I’ve tried to make my own employees understand that these are new spinning machines not power looms.”

“I’ve spread the word among my workers, too.”

“But that still leaves Noll Brindley’s workers, who seem determined to see the machines as threatening their jobs.”

“I’ve heard Brindley’s behind all that, stirring them up.”

“Who else could it be? He’s been behind a few bits of trouble since I took over and we both know why: he wants my mill. Well, even if I wanted to sell, I’d not offer it to him. But I don’t want to sell. I want to make it thrive again as it did in the old days.” Before his father had met Belinda and lost interest in his business. “I can never thank you enough for your help this past year or two, Jonas.”

His friend waved one hand dismissively. “It was my pleasure. After all, we didn’t want Owd Noll getting his hands on another Tapton mill, did we? The way he treats his workers is a disgrace.”

Ben nodded agreement. They had both seen the gaunt, starveling children who worked at Brindley’s. After a moment or two he dismissed that unpleasant picture and smiled at his friend. “Well, that’s enough about me and my problems. What did you want to see me about?”

“I may have found someone to teach the children and keep an eye on your Georgie.”

“That’d be a huge relief!”

“I met this fellow in Leicestershire, Edward Merridene, he’s called. A fussy fool in some ways, but a shrewd enough businessman. It seems he has two female cousins whose father has just died and left them short of money. They’re looking to set up a school. And the terms you and I agreed upon seemed acceptable to him.”

He grinned. “Merridene was at great pains to tell me he’d offered them a home but they’d refused—which I thought spoke in their favour—but if they’re anything like him, they won’t do. Anyway, he’s bringing them up to meet us and they’ll be arriving the day after tomorrow.”

“They’ll probably take one look at Georgie’s sullen expression and run for their lives,” Ben said glumly.

“Nay, lad, never despair. You’ll find some way to manage her. My Libby says she needs your love.”

Maybe she did and maybe he would find a way, Ben thought glumly, but in the meantime it was heavy going. Even Hepzibah was having trouble with Georgie, and there had been several scenes and tantrums.

What the hell did he know about bringing up girls of sixteen? Especially girls as contrary and wilful as his half-sister. He prayed these schoolteachers would be up to scratch.

* * * *

When Ben got back to the mill, he found a man waiting to see him, a man ill-dressed for such a cold day and who looked vaguely familiar. He nearly refused to see him, then chided himself. Had he not vowed when he took over the mill to treat decently and kindly all the people with whom he dealt? “What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for a job, Mr Seaton.”

“We’re not taking on any more hands at present, I’m afraid.”

“I heard you’re getting new machinery. I’m good with machines.”

Ben frowned. He did need an assistant engineer, but this man looked more like a labourer than a skilled worker. “Where did you train? Do you have references?”

“I don’t have references and I trained by working on machines whenever I could. I’m good with them.”

“Where did you work last?”

“Brindley’s. He dismissed me yesterday.”

Ben knew he should send the other away, but there was something about the man’s expression, dogged and yet desperate, that touched him. “Why did he do that?”

“Because I wouldn’t take the guards off the machinery and make it unsafe for the little ’uns who clean it. I’ve been working as his engineer.”

“What’s your name?”

There was the slightest hesitation, then, “Daniel Porter.”

Of course! That hair colour. “You’re James Porter’s son.”

“Aye.”

“My father dismissed yours.”

“I’m not like him. Are you like
your
father?” When no immediate answer was forthcoming, Porter sighed and turned towards the door.

“Wait!”

He turned round.

“I’ll take you to see Ross Turner, my engineer. If you can convince him you know how to work with machines, I’ll give you a trial. But at the first sign of trouble, you’re out.”

“I’m
not
a troublemaker and I’ll be grateful for a chance to prove it, Mr Seaton. I have a mother and sister dependent on me.”

When they went to see Ross, Ben stood back, watching as his engineer checked out Porter’s claim to understand machinery. Soon the two men were leaning over some engine parts talking eagerly, hands waving, completely forgetting their employer. He had to move forward and take Ross’s arm before his engineer could be distracted from the piece of equipment he was stripping. “Well? Does he get the job or not?”

“What? Oh yes, of course he does.”

Ben saw Porter close his eyes for a moment and relief play starkly over his thin face. “You can have a month’s trial, then.”

“I shall need a house, too, Mr Seaton. We’ve to be out of Brindley’s house by the end of the week. He only gave us that time because he thinks I’ll go begging for my job back and when he hears I’ve been taken on here, he’ll have us thrown out. I know he will.”

It was very likely. Everyone knew that Noll Brindley did nothing out of kindness and cared only about money. “Ross will arrange that for you.”

As Ben walked slowly back to his office, he wondered if he’d done the right thing. Well, if Porter caused any trouble he’d be out on his ear. But if he did know about machines, he’d be a godsend.

* * * *

The journey north severely tried the patience of all three travellers and made Edward turn peevish, but soon after noon on the second day they saw the small town of Tapton lying below them in a narrow Pennine valley. As the coach jolted down the deeply rutted road they were able to take a good look at their possible future home.

“Wright told me Tapton was little more than a village at the turn of the century and has grown rapidly, thanks to the mills offering employment to so many people,” Edward said. “I’d guess those stone dwellings near the church are the older part and those larger buildings must be the mills, but look at all those cottages, rows and rows of them. I never saw such a thing.”

The newer buildings spread out along the sides of the valley like smutty fingers grasping at the grey-green skirts of the hills. There were many terraces of workers’ dwellings, built right up the slopes of the valley sides in places, some on land supported at intervals by steep retaining walls. The red bricks of the narrow houses were already streaked with soot and their roofs were of grey slate. The three large square buildings were several storeys high and were each dominated by a tall chimney pouring black smoke into the sky.

“The mills are much bigger than I’d expected,” Penelope said after a long scrutiny.

“I didn’t expect them to be built
inside
the town!” exclaimed Edward in tones of deep distaste. “And look at that smoke. I can only be thankful I don’t have to subject
my
family to such outpourings of filth! I cannot like this, my dear cousins. You must tell Mr Wright that you’ve changed your minds.”

The sisters ignored him, continuing to stare through the carriage window, avidly taking in every detail of what might be their new home.

He raised his voice to gain their attention. “As soon as the horses can be changed we’ll set off for home again. I daresay we can cover quite a few miles before dusk. How glad Rosemary will be to see me again.”

“Oh, we may as well look round, now that we're here and we can’t leave without seeing Mr Wright,” Martha said.

Penelope rubbed her temple and added, “Anyway, I really couldn’t face any more travel today, Edward. I'm feeling quite nauseous and my head is aching.”

Her cousin edged away from her with a worried glance.

Martha looked at her compassionately, but knew her sister hated to be fussed over when she was feeling unwell, so turned back to gaze out of the window as the main street widened out into a rather pleasant square. The carriage crossed it to turn into the yard of a commodious inn, above whose door swung a crudely-painted sign depicting a sickly-looking dragon writhing on the ground beneath a plump knight holding a gore-tipped lance. The knight definitely reminded her of Edward and she couldn’t help smiling.

An ostler came running out to hold the horses and the landlord of the inn surged forth to greet them in person, flanked by his wife. He offered just the sort of fussy attention that Edward enjoyed and Martha watched in amusement as her cousin mellowed rapidly beneath an expert touch.

“Mr Wright has booked rooms for you and the ladies, sir—the best the inn can provide—and fires have been burning in them since early morning. No need to fear damp sheets in
our
establishment. And he wishes to be informed the minute you arrive.”

It was obvious from the landlord’s tone that Mr Wright was a personage of considerable importance in the town.

“Very civil of him,” Edward murmured, mellowing still further when the three visitors were shown up to comfortable bedrooms with blazing fires and a good hot meal promised within the half-hour. Their baggage was brought up with panting promptness by the boot boy, and a young maid followed soon after with copper ewers of piping hot water.

Penelope begged them to excuse her for a while and retired to her bed, looking wan and shuddering at the thought of food, but Edward and Martha did full justice to the excellent meal that was served in a cosy private parlour.

Afterwards Edward decreed that they should both take a rest before venturing out for a stroll round the square. Martha wasn’t surprised that he needed to rest after consuming so much food and didn’t bother to argue with him. She tiptoed in to see her sister, but found Penelope fast asleep, the frown already smoothed from her face.

On returning to her own room she hesitated, then told herself there could be nothing wrong with going out for some fresh air. She needn’t go far, but was bursting with curiosity about the town.

Outside she paused for a moment, deciding that even the air tasted strange here—sharp and invigorating, but with a hint of soot and other odours she couldn’t identify. The people looked different too, striding along briskly as if they hadn’t a moment to spare, which was very different from the slower pace of the villagers in Woodbourne. These folk also called out cheerfully when they met an acquaintance, their voices louder than she was used to in public.

The breeze was invigorating after the stuffiness of the carriage and she decided to go and inspect the church on the other side of the square. It was surely one of the ugliest she had ever seen, for it was topped by a stubby spire out of all proportion to the rest of the building and was surrounded by sagging gravestones. So engrossed was she in studying the peculiarities of its architecture and in controlling the wild flapping of her cloak and bonnet strings that she didn’t pay attention to where she was going and collided with someone.

The encounter knocked the man’s hat sideways over one ear and made him drop the hand he had been using to hold it on, upon which the wind whipped the hat right off and sent it bowling across the square. As he steadied Martha, he let out an angry exclamation and once he was sure she wasn’t going to fall, he stepped back to watch the progress of his hat. Her reticule had been knocked from her hand, scattering its contents in the mud, but he didn’t seem to notice that. A Woodbourne gentleman would have ignored the hat and picked her things up, regardless of whose fault it was.

BOOK: Marrying Miss Martha
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