By a strange chain of circumstances involving an unexpected legacy, a secret cupboard, and the lost continent of Lemuria, I came into possession of an early manuscript edition of Only A Factory Girl, one of the late, great, Rosie M. Bank’s early romance novels. There being little market for these things nowadays, and summer being the appropriate season to read sentimental fiction, I thought I might as well publish it here in serial form. Without further ado:
Only A Factory Girl
Chapter One: Introductions
To many men, a clamorous superabundance of marriage-minded society beauties might seem quite a pleasant little problem with which to beguile the leisure hours; but Lord Claude Bletchmore, Earl of Twichester, was fed to the teeth. As the sun’s first rays slipped into the bedroom of his spacious flat, furnished at great expense and to questionable effect, he cast his mind over the scene from the night before. Here he was certainly in the minority; most attendees of the annual Gala for The Royal School of Deaf Harpsichordists were still too deeply dreaming off their hangovers for reflection. But Lord Claude had always felt that sleeping past the sunrise was somehow a cowardly retreat from life, no matter how demoralizing the previous night had been.
And this had been one for the ages. The endless array of girls, women, their grande dame chaperones, swimming up to him like so many tropical fish: shimmering in jewels, laughing over champagne–not a one distinguishable from the others in features or address, except, occasionally, the the more interestingly hideous chaperones.
Perhaps he would marry Mrs. Booth out of spite.
Mrs. Booth was a recently widowed American steel baroness, ugly as sin, enormously fat, and with an undiminished appetite for life. He would enjoy seeing their faces as he led her to the altar.
It wasn’t, he thought, the girls themselves. It was not their fault if they were young, or silly, or if they failed to stir any tender passion in his breast (he could hardly blame them for his good taste). Were they not so obvious and fawning in their intent, he imagined many of them might be quite pleasant. Really, it was the mothers to blame. It was perhaps excusable, if rather vulgar, to set portionless daughters with fortunes to make husband hunting. But it seemed that no one, however comfortably settled in their own right, could abstain from the season’s blood sport. And Lord Claude was their quarry.
Donning his favorite silk dressing gown (purple, embroidered with little gold kimodo dragons), he wondered if perhaps he weren’t being a tad unfair. This was, after all, what they were bred for. To spend a few seasons at the same round of parties, murmuring through the same conversations, moulding themselves into identical paragons of refined and unserious correctness; to be rewarded for these efforts by the name and children of a suitably wealthy and prominent man.
And who could be more suitable, wealthy, and prominent than the ninth Earl of Twichester, hero of the polo-field, occasional lecturer on ancient Cypriot weaponry, mountain climber, philanthropist, and heir to Thwistlesham Halll.
Really, he had no one but himself to blame. He should never have let Great Uncle Reginald buy him that polo pony. How often, he reflected, with a groan, do we in our youth sow the seeds of our own destruction. He was beginning to feel the pangs of a slight headache.
As if in answer to a distress signal, Phipps entered, bearing the silver tray, the steaming teapot, in fact, the whole apparatus of a bearable morning.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning, Phipps. I’ll take it out on the balcony.”
“Very good, sir.”
Lord Claude had never once been able to conceal an incipient hangover from Phipps’ eye, by turns judgemental and sympathetic. His valet coughed.
“A trying night sir?”
As Lord Claude had surmised early in their relationship, “a trying night” was Phipps’ preferred euphemism for “blotto carousing.”
“Indeed it was, Phipps, in more ways than you ken.”
“The ladies, sir?”
Phipps was far too chivalrous a soul to elaborate further.
“The ladies, Phipps.”
“If your Lordship will forgive me, this is precisely why I suggested that your Lordship appear with Lady Elinor.”
Lady Elinor Montmorencey was not exactly Lord Claude’s betrothed, but as they had known each other since childhood, were regularly seen together, and enjoyed a pleasant similarity of fortune and birth, it came to the same thing. Lord Claude dimly felt that in the end he would delight their respective parents and take her to wife–if he had reasons for postponing the tender proposal, for dallying and tarrying in the comfortable shallows of informal expectation, as had been his policy thus far, they were even more obscure, and nothing he cared to probe. In the meantime, he generally squired her about when he came to town, and she had provided an armor against the most explicit and determined attacks on his bachelorhood.
“Believe me, Phipps, no one could regret her Ladyship’s absence last night more. But you know how she is with her Women’s Union for the Moral Uplift of the Masses. Wouldn’t desert her bally masses and their squalorous vices were I pleading on my deathbed for one last kiss to my alabaster brow. I suppose,” he said, flicking a jammy crumb to an inquisitive pigeon that had alighted on the balcony’s railing, “I should not object.”
Phipps, forbearing comment, retired to draw the bath.
Certain factions of Lord Claude’s family regularly begged him to trim his mane of chestnut curls into a less eccentric style. And certain men, jealous, lesser men, doubtless, men who hung around the edges of dances, unsought by Claude’s throng of damsels, had been known to mutter under their breaths, “Curse Bletchmore, that blasted dandy. Can’t imagine what they see in him,” when he waltzed by; but if Claude could not in good conscience claim that his leonine profusion was his only vanity, it was the one he had decided to live with openly, and the flowing locks remained. He shook them out now. They were indeed striking above his blue eyes and broad shoulders, giving him the air of an Apollo Belvedere statue suddenly come to life and not quite certain what to about it.
He lowered his body into the steaming tub. No one, at least, could accuse him of maintaining a foppishly boyish softness. The polo field, tennis court, fox hunt, and mountain cliff had all lent him a powerful musculature coupled with an unexpected bodily grace. This did not endear him to his detractors. But it probably attracted more admirers than Lord Claude, who rarely bothered attributing more than one dimension to young women’s motivations, might have guessed.
Claude splashed about the bath like a destructive island god, creating tsunamis for his unfortunate rubber duck, ruminating as he did. He still felt dissatisfied and out of sorts with the memory of last night. Was it, as Phipps thought, because he had not brought Lady Elinor with him? He thought not. Besides, he could not cling to her skirts and otherwise refuse to face the world; though it was a tempting option: Elinor had a way of managing so that everything seemed natural and settled and there was very little for you to do.
The truth was, he was bored and tired, and wanted a change. But what, and where? He cast his mind over the usual spots: Capri, Cyprus, Prague, the Alps. None of them appealed to him. Perhaps he should take up that offer of a guest lectureship at Oxford. Oxford would be pleasant, and removed enough, and there would at least be a different sort of party. But Lord Claude was honest enough to foresee for himself the same restlessness and rebellion, this time against quiet and seclusion. He knew he was not really a scholar at heart, only a connoisseur, and would soon grow tired of courteous dons and frolicsome undergraduates.
Reviewing possible avenues of refreshment and variety, he remembered with a jolt that he’d promised to accompany Elinor to the factory she was visiting this afternoon. Well, he reflected, he had wanted to see a different slice of life. His conscience pricking him for it, he groaned, and disappeared beneath the bubbles.
On the other side of London, Kate Barrett was also making a sunrise breakfast. She had not risen from silken sheets, nor was her family crest carved into the handsome oak headboard above her. Indeed, her blankets were moth-eaten and threadbare, and the mattress of her narrow, rickety brass bed sagged. But she tucked into her tea and toast with at least as much gusto as Claude did his silver breakfast tray. The tenement kitchen in which she ate was tiny, with stubborn yellow grease stains left behind from previous tenants; but it bore the signs of care. The table and floor was worn from scrubbing, and the copper kettle shone bright and sang out a tune of good cheer. In the center of the table, on the window sills, and corners, stood tiny nosegays of the humble and unregarded flowers that grow in cracks and corners of cities. They stood in chipped mugs, cracked glasses, and other ad-hoc vases, and their yellows and purples lent a dauntless charm to the room.
The small, smooth head so lustily tearing into buttered toast possessed the same dauntless charm. This was unsurprising, as the flowers, like the scrubbing, were her doing. One could not say that Kate Barrett was beautiful. True, her dark shining hair lay around her face like the tendrils of a blooming vine, and the line of her jaw somehow managed to suggest both strength and delicacy, but these alone are not beauty. Her lips, parted in eagerness as they were now, held a suggestion of devilish mischief in their upturned corners; perhaps, had they not been disfigured by a freckle, they might have have called pretty. But her large eyes, full of waifish poignancy and latent fire–these were certainly compelling rather than lovely. No, Kate Barrett was not a beautiful girl.
From around the kitchen doorpost peeped another head, an almost exact replica of Kate’s on a much smaller scale. A tiny girl, clad in a nightgown much too large for her, was rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“Come and have some breakfast, Jo, It’s butter day!” Kate waved her bread about like a flag of victory, careful not to lose any fat from the melting pools. Last night Kate had parted with a portion of her wages to purchase such luxuries as butter and beer. Josephine climbed on Kate’s lap and began munching on her toast, and Kate, as was her custom, made no protest against these gross liberties with her person and property. Instead, she began braiding her sister’s hair with nimble, work-worn fingers, pausing every now and then to look down into the girl’s face as if memorizing it. This was the part of her day that she lived for: when London roused itself from slumber, between the first gray hints of dawn and the sounding of the factory whistle; when, having both family and hot buttered toast within reach, she lacked for nothing.
“Is mother up yet?”
“No, she’s fast asleep still. More toast please.”
Kate put more bread on the rack, and broke the remaining slice into pieces, which she shared one by one with her sister.
“Let’s let her sleep, her cough’s been getting worse all week. You can get yourself ready for school, can’t you?”
Jospehine nodded, mutiny in her eye.
“Why can’t come I come to the factory with you? I hate school. I’d much rather be with you.”
This was a familiar argument.
“You’re going to school, ragamuffin, and that’s that. Now go wash up.”
Kate glanced at the clock. Late to meet Mary–just time to snatch up hat and coat and apron and race out the the door and down the lane. Breathless, she pulled up at their daily meeting place.
Mary had one arm around the lamppost, and was grinning her broad Cheshire cat’s grin.
They ran, arms around each other at a lopsided galloping gait.
As long as she’d worked at the factory they’d walked there together in the mornings like this, sometimes half running, depending how much time they had to spare. Kate was almost always punctual.
They’d met ten years ago, on the factory floor, when Kate had been nothing more than a wretched little sparrow, large-eyed, shivering, still in shock from the death of her father.
It had been a fire in one of the tenements next door. They’d all been able to get clear, but he’d heard Mrs. Malone’s stifled cries–she was too old to move quickly–and gone in after her. Granny Malone had survived. Joe Barrett had not.
Kate knew she ought to remember him away from all that horror: smoke, heat, everything collapsing into rubble and all the rotting corners of the tenement exposed by the flaming light. She ought, she knew, embalm him in some peaceful memory of home life. Slurping one of her mother’s stews, waggling his eyebrows to show that he knew she disapproved such breaches of table etiquette, and wanted to simultaneously goad and compliment her, like a schoolboy; or the schoolboy lovelight in his eye whenever he put his arm around his wife; or perhaps tucking Kate in at night, telling her about the palace in the moon they’d have one day. But somehow she could only remember him as she’d last seen him, blue eyes brightened by the flames reflected in them, his jaw set, his shoulders squared against–what? She had never been able to guess. She did not think it was the fire, exactly. He looked so strong, so dauntless, she would have bet that nothing on earth could ever beat him. But the smoke had.
Kate had not quite been able to believe it, but Kate’s mother, who had then been pregnant, took it quietly. When Kate’s father talked about her mother, she was like a princess in a fairy tale: lovely, laughing Annie, and himself the rascal who’d run off with the pride of three counties. Kate was lucky she took after her mother, he’d said, and Kate believed him, though time and pain had changed the woman in Joe’s stories. Annie Barrett was, in her own way, as dauntless as her husband; her infirmity made her more quiet, smiling, gentle refusal of defeat all the more gallant; but she was weak, and the shock of her husband’s death on top of a difficult pregnancy made her weaker. When she’d suggested taking a post herself in one of the factories, on top of her sewing, Kate, eleven though she was, had shaken her head, and her mother had not disputed. She knew it was against all their interests for her to die too.
Little Josephine had been born prematurely nonetheless. And in the aftermath Annie had contracted a pneumonia that exacerbated her frailty and permanently weakened her lungs, and which put into Kate a constant terror that her mother would fall victim to that curse of poor districts, tuberculosis. Nowadays Annie still plied her needle, but most evenings saw her younger daughter take over its passage through the yards of fabric as her mother’s fingers grew heavy with fatigue.
Kate and Annie Barrett had both insisted Josephine attend school during the day. Every so often her younger sister would urge Kate, now de facto head of the family, to reconsider the question, and Kate would think back to her first days on the factory floor before returning the invariable verdict: Josephine was to continue her education.
The recollection was both dim in places, and, as childhood memories are wont to be, sharp in others. The noise and movement, new and jarring, rendered her insensible of almost everything but a few instructions and the hum and clack and whirr of work all about her. It was hot, and she could not breathe, and the too-quickly barked directions bounced off the surface of her attention, and she did not know where she was to go or what she was to do, and this elicited sneering, humiliating, somehow distinct and audible snarls from her supervisor. For a child just plucked from the protection of her father and the safety of home this was was beyond endurance, and hot tears filled her eyes and obscured her vision before rolling down her cheeks. Then, like a ministering angel, a face appeared close to hers. The face was older, already fifteen, but it was full of kindness.
“Here, hold your thread like this.”
“Like this,” and Mary took the clumsy little hands in her own to show her, at risk of her own scathing rebuke from the floor manager. But Mary Rodd, Kate was soon to think, was not afraid of anything.
She helped Kate all through her shift, and at the end waited by the big double to doors to catch Kate by the braids as as she skiddered past–all the energy of childhood had momentarily returned to Kate’s exhausted body when the whistle blew.
“Hey, going to run by your old friend without so much as a ‘good evening?’”
Kate blushed, conscious of and mortified by her lapse, but she saw that Mary’s eyes twinkled, and walked home with her.
The next morning, her second shift at the factory, Kate found Mary waiting for her by the lamp post. At first the older girl patronized the younger out of a concerned pity expressed in jocular gruffness. But she soon found that Kate, with those she trusted (she had trusted and shly adored Mary from the moment she saw her), Kate could repay gruffness with cheek, and could offer a perceptive and piquant commentary on the street, the factory, the cafe where Mary took her for a cup of tea at the end of her first week. As she found her bearings, she helped Mary once or twice, with a boldness that surprised the older girl, by coming forward with a quick excuse delivered in a pretty manner. Indeed, she soon learned to exercise her wits on behalf of any worker she saw in a jam, and for this soon became known and loved. Still, she clung to Mary, took Mary’s opinion as the final arbiter of any question, and loyalty to Mary as the unspoken anchor of all her daily dealings. And over time Mary came to regard her less and less as a rescue and more and more as an equal.