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Authors: Joan Aiken

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BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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"What about the new load o' wool?" said the man, who had come into the hut. His tone was not quite insolent, but it was by no means humble; he stood in the doorway, panting a little, and looked squarely at Smallside. He was a thin, white-faced, muscular youngish man with sharp features and black hair, a lock of which had fallen across his forehead, partly obscuring but not concealing the fact that he had one eye covered by a black patch. It might have been the reflection from the red flares outside, shining through the unglazed window, but Lucas thought that Scatcherd's other eye held a spark of something bright, fierce, and dangerous. He looked like a circus animal that had not been very well tamed.

"Bloggs can handle the wool," Smallside answered shortly. "Show the young gentleman round, anywhere he asks you to take him."

"Where shall I start?" said Scatcherd in a sulky tone.

"At the beginning. Show him the wool intake. And then the cutters. And then the looms. And the gluing. And the trimming. And so on—good heavens, I don't have to wet-nurse you, do I?"

"Shall I show him the press?" Scatcherd inquired. There was nothing out of the way about his manner, but the question somehow fell oddly.

Smallside's answer took a moment in coming. "Later—that can come later. After the rest. If there's time. Get on, man! I have all these orders to countersign."

Mr. Smallside turned with a preoccupied busy air to the papers on his desk, and Scatcherd by means of a sideways jerk of his head indicated that Oakapple and Lucas were to follow him. They hurried after him across the cobbled yard. Lucas, glancing back, felt sorry for poor Noddy, the mare, left alone in the dark, noisy, dreary place, and highly apprehensive for himself as to what lay ahead.

He was to dream, that night and for many nights to come, of what he saw during the next couple of hours.

It was not so much that the sights were frightening, though some were that; but they were so strange, so totally unfamiliar from anything that he had ever seen before; the shapes and movements of the machines were so black, quick, ugly, or sudden; the noises were so atrociously loud, the heat was so blistering, the smells so sickly, acid, or stifling.

"This here's the melder"—or the grabber, the sorting-press, or the tub thumper—Scatcherd kept saying, as he dodged nimbly under great metal arms, round swiftly-spinning enormous screws, by wheels that were almost invisible from speed and ever-whirling belts, through arches of pistons that rose and fell like the legs of some great insect, the body of which was hidden in the forest of machinery above them. Scatcherd never bothered to turn his head or to raise his voice while he imparted information about the work. Often Lucas could see his lips move but could catch less than a tenth of what he said. Could those be the right names for the machines, or could Scatcherd be deliberately misleading them? In either case, Lucas felt that at the end of the two hours he would be no wiser than at the start; he was totally bewildered by all he saw.

The wool intake was the only part of the process that he could really grasp: raw wool, as taken from the sheep's back, came clanking into the works on the trains of trucks that ran through the forecourt. The wool was in huge bales, corded up like outsize parcels. Men slashed through the cords, and the bales immediately exploded apart into masses of springy fluff which was sent sliding down a great chute into a kind of hopper where it was washed and graded; then it was teased, to have the knots and lumps and prickles taken out; then, according to the grade, some wool was dyed, some was bleached. The men in charge of the dye vats were a strange sight, for they were splashed all over in brilliant colors, their hair was colored, their arms were green or blue or crimson to the elbows.

Some of the carpets were woven with shuttles on looms. The looms, with their high and complicated machinery, occupied several of the large central buildings. But other carpets, the more inexpensive ones, were made in a new way, invented, Scatcherd told them, by Sir Quincy Murgatroyd, the original founder of the factory. He had devised a means of sticking short lengths of wool onto canvas, which was both faster and cheaper than the weaving process. And if the carpets tended to come unstuck after a few years, what did that matter? They were not the kind of carpets that were bought by rich folks. Imparting this information, Scatcherd gave his audience a malicious, sidelong glance.

"T'glue's not t'best grade, you see," he remarked, pausing beside a huge vat which contained a frothy brown vile-smelling brew that was just coming to the boil. "Very poor glue that is, and joost as well, for when chaps falls into it, which happens from time to time, they stand a better chance o' coming out alive. Which they never did, mind you, in owd Sir Quincy's day; the glue he used would ha' stuck Blastburn Town Hall oopside down on top o' Kilnpit Crags till the week after Joodgement Day."

"People fall in
there?
" said Lucas faintly.

"Ah, it's slippery roond the edge, you see; you don't want to step too close, yoong master, or you'll get those nice nankeen britches splashed," Scatcherd told him with a mocking smile.

Oakapple opened his mouth as if he would have liked to put in some remark, but Scatcherd led them on, talking all the time, past wide rollers, which spread the glue on the canvas backing, and complicated mechanical arms which, working back and forth on hinges, sprinkled the chopped-up wool over the gluey surface. Then there were implements like rakes, or combs, which straightened the pile, teasers to remove any dots of glue, sponges to mop away loose hairs, and a sucker-fan to draw the wool up so that it stood on end while the carpet was whirled round on a platform called a swiveler.

"Had enow, maybe?" Scatcherd inquired drily as they stood by the swiveler which spun and rocked so giddily that it made Lucas feel dizzy just to watch it. "Reckon you've looked at as mooch as you can take for one shift?"

Lucas did feel so, but his pride was pricked by Scatherd's tone. "What was that thing you spoke of to Mr. Smallside—the press? We haven't seen that yet, have we?"

"Oh, I think we've looked at quite enough for one evening—<" Mr. Oakapple was beginning, but Scatcherd, again without seeming to have heard the tutor, said, seeming to find this a most unexpected request, "The press? You want to see the press? Eh, very well"—and he turned on his heel. "Down this way then. Pressing's the end o' the manufacturing process. After that the carpet's ready for sale. This here's the pressing room—careful down t'steps. They're slippery—t'glue gets all over."

The pressing room was a huge place like the crypt of a church. Steps led down to it on all four sides.

"Where
is
the press?" Lucas began, and then, looking up, he saw that the whole ceiling was in fact a great metal slab which could be raised or lowered by hydraulic machinery.

A carpet was being unrolled and spread at feverish speed in the square central part of the room. The very instant it was laid out flat the men who had done so bounded up the steps, not a moment too soon, for the press came thudding down with a tremendous clap of dull sound.

"Toss a cob nut in there, you'll get it cracked free gratis," Scatcherd said briefly.

Lucas could well believe him. If anybody slipped and fell under the press, they would be done for. It rose up again much more slowly than it had come down, and the carpet was snatched away by a mechanical grab; then half a dozen overall-clad children with brooms, who had been ready waiting on the steps, darted out onto the floor and swept it with frantic speed and assiduity before the next piece of carpet was unrolled.

"Why can't the floor be swept by machinery?" Lucas asked.

"Childer's cheaper," Scatcherd answered laconically, with another of his sidelong glances. "Machines has to be kept cleaned and oiled, but there's always a new supply o' kids."

A question trembled in Lucas's mind; but Scatcherd, as if hearing the unspoken words, went on, "That bit's not
do
risky, but what does come up chancy is when there's a bit o' fluff or dirt discoovered on the carpet when it's spread out—ah! Like there, see?"

A new carpet had been spread out, brown and gold; in the middle, clearly visible on a circle of gold, was a clot of black oily wool, seemingly left from one of the previous processes.

"The chaps on the swiveler work too fast, you see; it often happens," Scatcherd said. "Now someone has to go get it off, o' course, before it's ground in by t'press. The quickest one on the shift has to do it—the one they call the snatcher. Watch now—"

A barefoot girl dashed out onto the carpet, snatched up the bit of wool with a pair of metal tongs, and leapt back to safely on the steps just before the great press thudded down again. She slipped a little on the steps, but recovered by throwing herself forward onto hands and knees, while two mates grabbed her arms.

Lucas took off his hat and rubbed his forehead with the back of his sleeve.

"O' course, they gets paid a bit extry for snatching," Scatcherd said "Ha'penny an hour danger money. Most of us has bin snatchers at one time or another when we was yoonger, but not for long—you can't keep on long at it—you gets nervous. You begin to dream at night, then your legs begins to shake and you can't run so fast."

Lucas could imagine it. Just having seen the snatcher at work made him sick with fear. Mr. Oakapple evidently shared this feeling.

"We have to go back," he said abruptly. "We have seen enough for this evening. Thank you."

Scatcherd nodded; with a shrug that showed he perceived how they felt, he began moving away toward a pile of unopened bales of wool.

At that moment a man in a wheelchair spun past Oakapple and Lucas with almost uncanny speed. Veering his chair toward Scatcherd, he called, "Ey, Davey! Coom to t'singsong at t'Mason's Arms tonight?"

Scatcherd turned. Without replying to the invitation, he said, "Two o' thy lazy, feckless, cack-handed swivel hands left clots on this afternoon. Has tha heard aboot t'Braithwaite kid?"

The man in the wheelchair made no reply; the silence between him and Scatcherd seemed condensed, like the air before thunder. Then the wheelchair turned and shot away. Mr. Oakapple walked into the forecourt, and Lucas followed.

"There will be no need to say good night to Mr. Smallside—he's busy," Mr. Oakapple said, and untied the mare. They climbed silently into the trap. The mare was eager to be off and broke into a trot, jolting the wheels over the cobbles and the tram tracks. They rattled briskly through the open gates and then slowed down for the long climb out of Blastburn.

Halfway up, on the other side, stood the Blastburn Municipal Infirmary, which, Lucas knew, had been built at the expense of Sir Quincy Murgatroyd. As they passed the gates, he wondered if the Braithwaite child was in there.

But near the top of the hill he was surprised to perceive ahead of them what seemed to be still the same sad little procession of men and woman, still slowly carrying the hurt child.

"Where can they be going?" he demanded of Mr. Oakapple. "No one lives up here so far out of town—do they?" he added, as his tutor remained silent.

"No—nobody lives up here," Mr. Oakapple said reluctantly, after another pause. "I suppose they are going to the cemetery."

The cemetery gates, guarded by large granite pillars, each topped with a stone angel, stood to the right, just over the brow of the hill.

By the time the governess cart had reached the gates, the group of mourners had passed through, but the shawled woman whom Mr. Smallside had addressed as Mrs. Braithwaite remained outside. She was sitting on a milestone by the roadside, rocking herself back and forth, repeating the same words over and over. "They got my Jean; they got my Nance; they got my Jinny. But they shan't get Sue; they shan't get Betsy—I'd sooner see them starve. I'd sooner see them starve."

One of the men returned from the graveyard. "Coom along, then, missis?" he said awkwardly. "Doesn't tha want to be there?"

"Coom on, Emma lass," said another woman, putting a hand on her friend's shoulder. But Mrs. Braithwaite shook her head.

"I seen it three times. I know what happens," she said. "I said my good-bye to Jinny the day she went through the Mill gates." And she returned to her rocking and murmuring.

Mr. Oakapple whirled the reins sharply and slapped them against the mare's withers. She had been going slowly but broke into a trot, and soon the cemetery gates were left behind.

Neither of the passengers in the cart said anything more until they were back in the stableyard where Garridge, the head groom, was waiting to take the mare and rub her down.

"Sir Randolph wants Mester Lucas in t'stoody," he said briefly.

Lucas felt his spirits, already lowered by the evening's happenings, decline still further. Would Sir Randolph be waiting for an account, a report of all they had seen? Would Lucas now be obliged to answer a whole series of questions on the carpet-manufacturing process? He tried in vain to assemble his thoughts and to recall the sequence of actions that turned wool into carpets. All he could think of was the snatcher, dashing out from under the murderous weight of the press, and Airs. Braithwaite, sitting huddled in her shawl by the graveyard gate.

"Well, bustle along then, boy," Mr. Oakapple snapped with a sudden return to his usual impatient manner, which had not been evident during their visit to the Mill. "You know Sir Randolph can't abide being kept waiting. Here—I'll take your hat and coat. You may go up the front stair, it's quicker."

Lucas nodded, with a dry mouth, and made his way to the main hall. His heart had begun thudding uncomfortably in his chest. Slowly climbing the marble stair he was weighed down by the whole burden of the day, which seemed to have been going on for about twenty hours already. For a moment he stood outside the study door, reluctant to knock. He had not entered this room above three times during the year he had spent at Midnight Court, and on none of these occasions had his guardian appeared at all friendly or pleased to see him. There seemed little chance of any difference on the present occasion.

BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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