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Authors: Joan Aiken

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BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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Sir Randolph is like an old gray condor with sharp beak and talons. I have seen pictures of birds like him perched on crags, with fierce little red eyed; they live in the wilderness and tear their prey untidily. He is a good man; he built three churched and brought prosperity to the town of Blastburn. He is my guardian; I should be grateful to him. I am afraid of him. This must be because I am bad.
Why
am I bad? Heredity? Upbringing in heathen country? Is it because I have bad dreams?

The door behind him opened suddenly, and his tutor came in. His hand jerked guiltily, and the bottle of ink toppled over and rolled off the table, leaving a trail of ink over the unfinished composition and falling on to the supper tray below.

"You've spoiled your supper," said Mr. Oakapple irritably, stepping forward and looking down at the ink-splashed chops. He was a ginger-haired young man with a long serious face. The skin of his face was pale, dry-looking, and covered with freckles. He had pale sandy eyelashes and pale gray eyes, which generally held an impatient expression when he looked at his pupil.

"It—it wasn't very nice to start with," stammered Lucas, hoping that the tutor could not from where he stood see the unfinished task, hoping that the spoiled meal might be considered sufficient punishment for his eavesdropping upstairs.

Surprisingly, Mr. Oakapple did not mention this incident.

"Get your hat," he said abruptly. "You can't eat that stuff anyway; you may as well leave it. And Sir Randolph wants us to go out."

"Out?" Lucas was amazed. Sir Randolph never sent him anywhere.

"Yes. Down to the Mill. Fetch your hat—hurry."

Mr. Oakapple plainly had no taste for this errand, whatever it was.

Lucas fetched his hat and jacket from his bedchamber upstairs, and rejoined Mr. Oakapple, more mystified than ever. Momentarily he had had the wild fear that because of his listening outside the study door he was to be expelled from Midnight Court, turned out into the world to fend for himself. He was not happy at Midnight Court, but the unknown world outside was more terrifying still. However, if they were being sent to the Mill—but
why
were they being sent to the Mill? Such a thing had never occurred before.

Lucas knew, his knowledge having been acquired from Pinhorn and a young groom called Bob who had lately been dismissed, that what money Sir Randolph possessed came from the Mill. Its real name was Murgatroyd's Carpet, Rug, and Matting Manufactury, but locally it was always known as Midnight Mill. Its extensive premises occupied a central position in the town of Blastburn, and its chimneys belched out more smoke than any other. But Sir Randolph himself never went near the place, and nor had Lucas. He entertained very little notion of what the Mill was like, beyond a vague general dread of it, born from Bob's dark saying: "Ah, there's more folk dies at Murgatroyd's, think on, than at all th'other mills put together. They'll alius take on new hands at Midnight, for they go so quick, but chaps looking for work'll try anywhere else first."

Perhaps Sir Randolph, at no time a kindly or welcoming guardian, had decided to get rid of the burden of his ward altogether by sending him to earn his living in the Mill? Children much younger than himself, ones of nine or ten, and even of seven or eight, did work there, Lucas knew.

Unhappily, following Mr. Oakapple, he went out to the stableyard, which lay to the rear, between the east and west wings of the E-shaped house. A governess cart stood waiting, with an old cob called Noddy, one of the few remaining horses, already between the shafts.

They set off in silence, Mr. Oakapple driving.

"Why are we going to the Mill?" Lucas finally summoned up courage to ask. He always felt ill at ease with Mr. Oakapple whose manner was invariably short, preoccupied, as if the center of his thoughts were a very long way off. Although the two of them spent hours together every day doing French, arithmetic, and geography, Lucas did not have the least knowledge of what went on inside Mr. Oakapple's head.

"Oh"—Mr. Oakapple turned slightly at the question, then concentrated once more on the dark road—"I thought Sir Randolph had told you. We are going because it is your birthday tomorrow."

"I don't understand."

Lucas knew that he ought to have been pleased at his birthday's being remembered, but he could only feel cold, wet, and anxious. They jolted on through the rainy dark. By now the lodge gates had been left behind; they were descending the broad main hill that led into Blastburn. Gas lamps flared at intervals; the mare's feet slipped and rang on granite cobbles.

"Well"—Mr. Oakapple drew a sharp, impatient sigh—"You know that your father was Sir Randolph's partner."

"Yes."

"And after he died, it was found that he had left a will appointing Sir Randolph as your guardian."

"Yes," Lucas answered despondently, remembering his journey back from India to England last year, after the death of his parents from smallpox, and the miserable arrival at Midnight Court.

"It was also laid down in your father's will that from the age of thirteen you should be permitted to learn the business, in order that when you were of age you could take your father's place as partner. Your father stipulated that some part of each day should be spent in the Mill, studying how it is run. And I have to go with you."

Mr. Oakapple's tone indicated that he did not in the least relish this program, but Lucas did not notice the tutor's shortness for once.

His great relief at learning that he was not immediately to be put to work as a stripper or fluff-picker was mixed with another anxiety. How, he wondered, did one set about running a carpet factory? He found it quite hard enough to perform the tasks in geometry or history prepared for him by Mr. Oakapple, who often called him a slowtop; he was unhappily certain that learning how to look after a whole factory would be completely beyond him.

They had reached the town. There were very few shops, taverns, or dwelling houses. The buildings for the most part were factories, workshops where articles were made—nail foundries where clanging lengths of iron were cut into strips, gasworks where coal was baked in huge ovens, papermills where wood pulp and clay were boiled into a porridge that was the raw material for books and magazines—jute mills, cotton mills, potteries, collieries. None of these places looked as if they were built by human beings or used by them. Huge, dark, irregular shapes rose up all around; they were like pinnacles in a rocky desert, like ruined prehistoric remains, or like the broken toys of some giant's baby. The potteries were enormous funnels; the gasworks huge flowerpots; the collieries monstrous pyramids, with skeleton wheels the size of whole church fronts which stood above them against the fiery sky.

Every now and then the roadway was cut by sets of iron rails, and sometimes a clanking train of wagons would run slowly across in front of the governess cart, and the mare would sweat and whinny and shudder her coat at the sudden loud noise, and the smell of hot metal, and the spark-filled smoke.

"Why do we have to go to the factory at this time?" said Lucas nervously in one of these pauses while they waited for a train to cross. "Won't it be shut for the night?"

"Factories never shut." The tutor glanced at him briefly. "Didn't you know about shift work? When the day workers leave, the night workers come on, so that the machines, which cost a great deal of money, need never stand idle. We shall get there just as the night shift comes on duty. It makes no difference when we arrive—people are always at work."

Somehow this idea filled Lucas with dismay. He thought of the machinery always running by night and day, the great fires always burning, the huge buildings always filled with little people dashing to and fro—never any darkness, or silence, or rest. He felt a kind of terror at the thought of wheels turning on and on, without ever stopping.

"Don't the machines ever stop at all?"

"Oh, perhaps for one week in the year, so that they can clean the boilers and put a new lining on the main press. Here we are," said Mr. Oakapple with gloom, turning the mare's head in at a pair of huge gates through a wall even higher than that around Midnight Park. Tram rails ran right through the gates and across a wide cobbled area beyond which was lit by gas flares.

Mr. Oakapple brought the mare to a halt and found a place to tether her in a line of stable sheds at one side of the factory yard. As he did this, they were passed by a dismal little procession going in the opposite direction. Two or three women with checked shawls over their heads accompanied a pair of men who were carrying something—a small shape—on a plank and covered by a blanket.

A short distance behind them walked another shawled woman. Her arms were folded, her head bent. She walked draggingly, as if she had been dead-tired for more weeks than she could remember.

As she passed near Lucas and Mr. Oakapple, a man in a black frock coat came out of a small brightly lit office and spoke to her. "Mrs. Braithwaite—ah, Mrs. Braithwaite! Mr. Gammel said to tell you that the compensation will be sent up tomorrow morning—you may be sure of that—ten shillings and a free doormat. The very best quality!"

"Ten shillings?" The woman flung back her shawl and stared at him for a moment in silence. Her face was very pale. Then she said, "What do I care about your ten shillings? That won't bring my Jinny back, that had the sweetest voice in our lane and could make a bacon pudding to equal mine, though she was only eight."

The frock-coated man shrugged. "Say what you please, there's not many turns up their noses at ten shillings and a free mat—why, you could sell
that
again, if you already have one, for double the factory price."

"Have one?" she said bitterly, her voice rising. "Why, we have
three,
already. Three fine free doormats. What do you say to that, Mr. Bertram Smallside?" Then she drew the shawl over her face again and followed the plank-bearers out through the gate into the rainy night.

"What did she mean?" whispered Lucas uneasily, as he and Mr. Oakapple left the cart and walked toward the frock-coated man, who had turned back in the direction of his office.

"Oh"—the tutor's voice was low and dry: he spoke hurriedly—"I suppose her child may have been injured by the great press—she was one of the fluff-pickers, maybe; it does happen from time to time, I have heard—"

He entered the office. Lucas remained outside, looking toward the gateway, which was empty now. He remembered the words of Bob the groom: "Nineteen or twenty a year, regular—specially fluff-pickers—even more than falls into the soap-plodders at Lathers and Smothers—"

Inside the office he heard his tutor saying, "Mr. Smallside? Good evening. I believe Sir Randolph has already sent word. I come from the Court; I have brought down young Master Lucas Bell, as arranged, to be shown the works."

Mr. Smallside's manner changed completely. He had been looking irritably at the visitors as if he had little time for them. Now he smiled, and the brisk, matter-of-fact tone he had used with Mrs. Braithwaite was replaced by obsequious, hand-rubbing civility, as he came out into the yard.

"Young Master Bell? Yes, indeed, yes,
indeed.
Sir Randolph did graciously think to mention it. He sent a note. Delighted to meet you, Master Bell, delighted indeed! What a pleasure, what a pleasure! How well I remember your dear father, at least I almost remember him, for in fact he left to look after our Indian supply office just the year before I became manager here, but I've heard his name spoken so often that it's much the same. Such a sad loss when he passed away. And so you're his son—young Master Bell! Well, well, well, young Master Bell, what can we do for you?"

"I—I don't exactly know," stammered Lucas, quite taken aback by all this politeness, so extremely different from his usual treatment. In spite of it—or even because of it—he was not sure that he liked Mr. Smallside, who was a lean, pallid man with a bidding head and a face the color and shape of a bar of carpet soap. His hand, also, with which he grasped that of Lucas and shook it up and down very many times, had a kind of damp soapy feel to it. Lucas withdrew his own as soon as possible, and, when he could manage it without being observed, rubbed his palm vigorously against the skirts of his rough frieze jacket.

"Now," said Mr. Smallside, leading them into his office, which was a kind of little hut in the middle of the yard, cramped, hot, piled high with dusty papers and lit by hissing gas globes. "Now, what can we offer young Master Bell? A bit of parkin? A drop of prune wine? A caraway biscuit? Young gentlemen usually have a sweet tooth, I know!"

"Nothing, thank you," Mr. Oakapple replied for Lucas. His tone was brusque. "I think we should commence our tour straight away. The boy still has his schoolwork to do as well."

"Dear, dear, dear!" Mr. Smallside shook his head sorrowfully. "Don't stretch the young shoot too far, though, Mr. Oakapple? All work and no play won't make the best hay, we used to say when I was a young lad—" Putting his head on one side, he smiled at Lucas so much that the smile seemed likely to run round and meet at the back of his head. Lucas felt more than ever that he could not possibly be at ease in the company of Mr. Smallside and hoped that they would not have his escort while they went over the Mill.

He soon discovered that he need have had no anxieties on that score. It was suddenly plain that Mr. Smallside felt he had kept his smile on long enough; it dropped from his face like melted butter, and he went to the door of his hut and bawled across the yard towards a group of men engaged in unloading a truck: "Scatcherd! Scatcherd! Where are you? Hey, one of you trimmers—Barth, Stewkley, Danby, Bloggs—send Scatcherd to me directly. Make haste there!"

His tone was quite different again—bullying, loud, sharp, as if he enjoyed showing off his power.

A man left the rest and ran across the yard.

"There you are then," Mr. Smallside addressed him disagreeably. "Took your time, didn't you? You're to show young Master Bell here over the works, anything he wants to see."

BOOK: Midnight is a Place
13.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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