In Which Our Heroine Prepares to Receive the Nobility.
(Previous installment here.)
The chilly morning fogs had not yet dissipated when Mary and Kate arrived at the great factory doors, still deep in trivial and happy bickering over which of the two was as a rule more punctual. They were still bickering when the melee of the cloakroom rush broke up chit-chat until they took their places.
The noise of the factory made conversation difficult at the best of times, but Mary and Kate had settled into a customary place across from two other veterans of the floor; their ears had grown accustomed, and their eyes could all but read each other’s lips. And if the general hubbub discouraged communication, it also precluded easy eavesdropping.
Sarah Connolly was there before them–she had a husband who worked on the docks, and three children who left her with perpetual dark circles under her eyes. Hepzibah Habergram came stumping in after. Her hair was red and she was inclined, as Mary put it, “to notions.” Mary always mentioned the two facts in conjunction, though the relationship between them is yet unverified. Hepzibah’s last notion had involved taming a city pigeon to eat out of her hand and and be her boon companion. The pigeon, having notions of its own, had fluttered out a window and perched on a chimney, forcing Hepzibah, like the good shepherd, to follow.
The sprain was mostly healed.
“Hepzibah,” called Sarah as they settled into their work, “Hepzibah, I’ve found just the man for you. My Tim’s second cousin, just come down from Liverpool, so tall, and handsome, and no objections to birds whatsoever.”
Sarah was forever finding Hepzibah eligible young men, in blithe denial of her loud and repeated insistence that she would die a happy old maid.
The object of Sarah’s matrimonial schemes fixed her with a gimlet glare.
“Connelly. What have I told you, Connelly, about collecting men for me?”
“That you’d rather die alone than live a slave, that your heart is made of ice, we know, we know.” This was Mary, who had just cut her finger and was sucking on it in great disgruntle.
“Exactly,” said Hepzibah, unruffled.
“I work sun-up to sundown to make a living for myself in this half-penny Gehenna, and now I’m to come home to some great lump demanding his supper and putting up his feet on my granny’s ottoman and asking if my cousin Edwina couldn’t come some other week?”
Sarah could not restrain a laugh at this picture of conjugal felicity.
“Well, you know, he would have things of his own, and work of his own.”
“Yes, worse and worse. To be the little woman to his great man of the house, knowing his wages are twice mine.”
“Tim’s very grateful for what I bring home.”
“That’s no way to work on Hepzibah, Sarah dear,” Kate jumped in. “Next you’ll be saying he’s proud of you and lets you buy whatever you choose and she’ll be straight off to make a bonfire of marriage licenses and we’ll have to finish her work for her.”
“But tell me it doesn’t drive you mad,” said Hepzibah, “knowing the night shift men come in and do shoddy work and half the time leave everything out of order for us to scramble at in the morning, and for a day of their wages any of us would count ourselves rich!”
Two pink spots appeared in Sarah’s cheeks.
“I won’t say it doesn’t,” she said slowly, “but that’s not Tim’s fault, and the pennies he makes aren’t so grand for the grind of it, either.”
“And after, all, the men have families to provide for. It’s fair enough that their pay should take that into account.”
At this Sarah turned on Kate, her quiet voice breaking. “How can you, Kate Barrett, of all people, say that? You with a mother and sister depending on you for everything. And I’m not so badly off, but I break my back here before I go home and care for my babies, and I’m supposed to be earning a little pin-money to buy myself hat trimmings? Hepzibah’s right, it does drive me mad.” She finished, a little out breath.
“All right Sarah,” said Mary, more gently than usual, “Mind your work or you’ll cut yourself like I did.”
Kate was silent. She could not see herself as the family provider, entitled to the corresponding prerogatives without, she felt, somehow accusing her father of having left her in a lurch by dying, and this was impossible.
Mary gave her hand a squeeze under the worktable.
“All right, Heps, tell us what kind of man you might deign to consider,” Kate said. She had habituated herself to shaking off painful moods, and it was easy when Mary was on hand. “Set us a challenge and we shall endeavor to rise to it.”
“You might as well give up now, because there’s nothing you could possibly tempt me with.”
“Not if he offered you a whole menagerie of pigeons and peacocks?” said Mary.
“Not if he thought your hair was made fire and your eyes were made of stars?” said Sarah.
“Not if he were handsome as a prince and could make them double your wages with a snap of his fingers?” said Kate.
“Not for any of those things plus all the tea in China thrown in.”
The other three refused to leave her alone until she provided what they considered a fair answer.
“All right, perhaps if he had a house of his own and I had one of mine, and he liked all my hats, and took me out to tea and never asked me to cook for him and never fussed or bothered, and had dark eyes and waving hair and a cleft chin and a beautiful singing voice, then I might consider it–no guarantees and I should probably refuse anyway. ” She glowered around the table like a lioness made self-conscious and unaccustomed to the feeling.
“What about you, Katie?” said Sarah. “What would it take to make you think about a man?” Kate had admirers every now and then, but she never took them seriously. She was too busy, she always said, between work and and and mother and sister to go gadding. Besides, she always walked home with Mary.
“Nothing much, nothing extravagant, just a castle, a fortune, a villa abroad, a stallion to ride, and a rope of pearls as long as I am tall to wear on my wedding day.”
Sarah and Mary laughed, but Hepzibah was a lover of justice.
“That’s not fair; I had to answer straight, and so do you.”
“All right, don’t bite me, give me a minute to think.”
She lowered her head as she thought, looking at her work.
“You know, I really can’t say,” she finally answered, a little surprised at herself. “He’d have to be kind, I suppose, and someone who could go halves with me in life. But really, I can’t imagine anyone. Perhaps I will join Hepzibah’s legion.”
Mary giggled. “Not when I’ve already got your dream husband picked out and waiting for you. Look me in the eye and tell me that you could refuse Mr. Bartholomew Mortimer once he starts twirling that moustache in your direction. Oh crumbs, speak of the devil.”
Bartholomew Mortimer was the floor manager, a hard, squeezing, cruel, grasping man with a sweet, unctuous, ingratiating voice. He cheated the women of their wages, turned a deaf ear to their complaints, punished without discretion or mercy, and engaged in long-running campaigns of spite against any worker unfortunate enough to offend him. If he had a virtue, it was honesty; the long, greasy moustache he was perpetually twirling instantly announced him as a villain. This was, all things considered, rather sporting of him: no shy newcomer could be taken in by him, or fail to mark him instantly as an unregenerate scoundrel prone to nefarious schemes.
In Kate’s first years at the factory, the sweetness and docility with which she would make an excuse for a late comrade, or distract him from one of his vindictive outbursts had charmed him and won his approval. But eventually it had begun to occur to him, at some level below explicit articulation, that for every sunny smile and humble “Yes Mr. Mortimer, of course Mr. Mortimer, how shocking Mr. Mortimer! Have you trimmed your moustache, Mr. Mortimer?” some rightful exercise of his powers slipped through his fingers. He began to suspect he was being laughed at.
Like many men of few qualities and a love of dominion, the desire to punish a woman and the desire to woo her were easily confused, then entangled, in his mind. He noticed that she was impertinent and that she had grown pretty almost at the same moment. However, he could not check the vaguely suspected impertinence because he enjoyed the smiles, and he found courting the smiler equally difficult. Somehow, with Mary standing by, clear-eyed and impassive, it was impossible to say what he had planned. This in turn increased his frustration and stung his vanity, and the upshot of the cycle was a half-cringing, half sneering attitude to Kate, and the tendency to torment her and seek her favor by regular turns. It made Sarah uneasy, but Mary was not inclined to take him seriously or disturb Kate unnecessarily; she treated the whole thing as a joke, and teased her friend about him at every possible opportunity.
Now he was calling for silence and mounting the makeshift podium from which he always made announcements.
“Your attention, please, girls.” He always called them girls, which had on more than one occasion made Hepzibah threaten to blind him with her hatpin.
“As I think I reminded you last week, today you are to be the recipients of a very high and unmerited honor. Lady Elinor Montmorency, the Lady Elinor Montmorency, will be visiting the factory on behalf of the Women’s League For the Moral Uplift of the Masses, this very afternoon. I have since been informed that we will be so favored as to also receive Lord Claude Bletchmore, ninth earl of Twichester and a particular friend of Lady Elinor’s. Now, I believe I told you to dress with care and to please ensure that you are scrubbed, clean, and fit to meet so high a station.”
Kate glanced at Sarah, who, like her, had forgotten. Kate had run out the door late with her curls swept unbrushed into a ribbon and looked slightly shabby, but Sarah was truly bedraggled. Her youngest had the colic, and Sarah bore the marks of it.
“I feel I need not remind you of the weightiness of this event and the expectation that you all display only your best behavior. Had I, in fact, any reason to remind any of you, the consequences would be….unfortunate,” he said, twirling his moustache with more than usual gusto.
“However, I have no doubt that your deportment will reflect the best of your abilities. Try,” he said, with an affected titter, “to imagine you are ladies. You will assemble in line after lunch in the front of the floor to greet Lady Elinor. That is all, return to your work.”
“Crumbs,” repeated Mary, as he finished his speech. “What an awful load of malarkey. Standing half the day in front of two posh idiots telling us how to do our work, or whatever it is they plan to drone on about.”
“At least we shan’t be working,” said Hepzibah.
Sarah was in a quiet panic. “I do wish I had remembered,” she whispered, looking down at her worn-out shoes in misery. Kate reached over and patted her hand.
“Whatever will Mr. Mortimer say when he sees me? It’s the sort of thing he’d like to make an example over.”
“Don’t worry, dear, we’ll get you wedged into the back behind Hepzibah’s head of hair and my patchy dress and no one will think to look at you or be any the wiser.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Mary “imagine asking us to primp for a couple of toffs, as if we’d nothing better to do or think about.”
To turn her thoughts Kate launched into an impression of the imagined Lord Claude; he was in her rendering both extremely effeminate and incapable determining how to remove his gloves without the advice of several servants. Sarah brightened a little, and the workday wound on towards noon.
“But Elinor, my dear, are you sure I won’t rather be a hindrance to you than not?” asked Lord Claude, trying to keep the hope out of his voice. He was lunching in a West End restaurant, pushing the paupiettes de sole au vin blanc around his plate. It was too fashionable a place for the food to be very good, but the wine, he had noted with relief, was excellent.
Lady Elinor smiled an indulgent smile. She was tall, slender, and of a commanding mien, with, as one unsuccessful admirer had put it, “nobility arched in each brow and flared in each nostril.” She also possessed the combination of beauty, charm, and force of personality that overcomes most obstacles, and her engrossing, glacial-blue eyes were said to rival the city’s most prominent barristers in argumentative power. Claude wished she would fix them on something else, though under an ostrich-plume hat and neat mass of golden hair their effect was lovely.
“A perfect angel” was the generally accepted epithet for society’s most proficient philanthropist, and she did indeed look like an angel of of biblical lore: radiant, bent on the Lord’s work and not about to stand any nonsense in its commission. She lacked only a flaming sword, and doubtless could have produced one had it become really necessary.
“Darling, I’ve told you time and again, you mustn’t underestimate yourself so. Besides, it’s so important that you become acquainted with my work, not just through what I tell you, but really involved in it, don’t you feel that?”
Lord Claude did not feel that, but having spent his breakfast disdaining the idleness of most debutantes, realized he was in a moral corner. He knew he was being a silly ass; he only wished that awareness alone would dissolve his asinine inclinations.
“Of course, you’re right.”
“Oh Claude, I’m sure it will do you good. We fortunate know so little of the working class–the degradations, the shocking habits that reproduce themselves from generation to generation. It is our duty to be aware of them, to be their guardians and good angels, to help them better themselves.”
“Yes, yes, you’re absolutely correct. I really am grateful, you know, to be included.”
“Just let’s settle up the bill then, or we’ll be late.”
Converting mutiny to gratitude was a talent of Lady Elinor’s, and one she exercised across all areas of her life.