PodCastle 427: Squalor and Sympathy
Squalor and Sympathy
by Matt Dovey
Anna concentrated on the cold, on the freezing water around her feet and the bruising sensation in her toes. So cold. So cold. So cold, she thought. A prickling warmth like pins and needles crackled inside her feet. It coursed through her body to her clenched hands and into the lead alloy handles of the cotton loom. Each thought of cold! kindled a fresh surge of heat inside and pushed the shuttle across the weave in a new burst of power. Anna’s unfocused eyes rested on the woven cotton feeding out of the back of the machine. It looks so warm.
The constant clacking of looms that filled the factory changed tempo, quieted slightly. Anna glanced to her right, where Sally White worked.
Sally was standing, her feet still in her water bucket, and talking to herself. “Sodding thing, gone and jammed on me again. No wonder I can’t meet numbers.” She was peering into the loom at where her shuttle must have caught.
“Here, let me help.” Anna took her bare feet out of the bucket and stepped over. Her own shuttle slowed and stopped as she released the handles.
“You can’t, Anna. If Shuttleworth sees you’ve stopped work, there’ll be hell to pay. I’ll get it sorted. Don’t you worry about me, you look after yourself.” Sally’s fingers were deftly picking at threads of cotton, darting in and out like a chicken pecking for seed. She had good reason to be so delicate: when the jam cleared, the tension in the threads would launch the shuttle across the loom, even without power, and any fingers in the way would be ruined.
“Don’t be daft,” said Anna. “It’ll take no time with two of us.” She tucked her dark hair behind her ears then reached in and held the shuttle, letting Sally unpick the knots and tangles more easily.
“Oh you’ve a good heart, you have, Anna. I do like you. Ain’t many folk like you around no more. The world’s a selfish place these days, and always looking out for itself. I’m glad you’re in it to look out for others still.”
Anna stared up at Sally. Her hair and skin were so pale as to be almost white, especially in the weak sunlight of the factory. She was only twenty-two, Anna knew, only five years older than Anna herself, but she looked worn through, like milk watered down too thin. “Why don’t you say something about this shuttle?” asked Anna. “It’s near worn out!”
“I can’t say owt about it. If I say I need a new shuttle, it’ll get docked from my pay, and I can’t afford that. I’m already having to work double shifts since my George shipped off to India with the Company. A new shuttle’d cost me a week’s pay, and I can’t have my Charlotte going hungry all that time, little angel.” Sally unpicked the last knot and pulled her fingers back quick like. Anna released the shuttle and it flew across the weave, sliding to a rest.
“She not old enough to earn something herself, yet?” asked Anna.”
“My Charlotte? Oh no, not yet. Well, I mean, she’s five now, and I hear they’re using kids that young down the lead mines ‘cos they scare easier at that age. They send them down to get all frit up by the dark, and then they sit them in a bucket with a load of mined lead, and them kids look up and see a bit of light at the top of the shaft and they start lifting the bucket with their Squalor ‘cos of how they’re so frantic to get out.”
“No!” Anna covered her mouth in shock. “That’s awful, the poor buggers!” The image of her brothers down a pit, terrified and sobbing, flashed into her mind, and Anna gave a shudder that had nowt to do with the factory’s winter chill.
“I know, terrible how people’ll take advantage of them that need the pay. If they tried to take my little Charlotte away from me and scare her like that, I’d tell them what for. They’d be jumping down that mineshaft themselves to hide from me, I tell you. The things they do to us desperate folk are awful. I’m not surprised them Luddites are making progress like they are.” Sally sat down again, feet in the water bucket and hands on the handles, and started her loom up.
Anna peered around, making sure no-one was close enough to overhear, then leaned in closer to Sally. “I keep hearing about these Luddites, since I started, but who are they?”
Sally checked around herself before answering, her voice barely audible over the sound of her loom. Her shuttle never slowed: she had the knack of focusing her Squalor without thinking about it. “I hear they started off wrecking machines, right? Supposed to be this one woman called Nelly Ludd who didn’t agree with engines, said they were instruments of cruelty and shackles round the poor. No-one’s ever seen her, but there’s this whole following now, and they aren’t just wrecking the odd machine anymore. I hear they’re threatening to shut factories down, if Shuttleworth won’t listen to their demands.”
“What they asking for?”
“Saying they’re the voice of the people, right? That everyone’s getting worked too hard and paid too little, and it ain’t fair to take advantage of people’s suffering to drive machinery. Squalor’s a gift from God to help them what need it most, and twisting it like this is the Devil’s work.”
“Sir John ain’t that bad as they go, though, is he? He don’t hurt no-one to coax their Squalor, not like some I’ve heard of.”
“Anna Williams,” boomed a voice. Anna startled in shock, and saw Sir John Shuttleworth on his balcony. He stood with a speaking trumpet, reading a sheet of paper—probably a list of names against looms so he could pick her out from the floor. She glanced back at her shuttle, stationary on the weave.
Sir John lifted the trumpet to his mouth again. “Come up to my office please, Anna Williams.”
Anna picked her way across the factory floor, rough stone hard on her bare feet. The clattering and clacking of the shuttles beat against her ears as her heart beat against her chest. She passed row upon row of grim-faced women, all with their feet in water buckets, all gripping lead handles tight. The cold made ‘em needy for the warm cotton coming out the looms, wishing they could wrap themselves in it. That need drove their Squalor, and their Squalor drove the machines.
Sir John Shuttleworth stood at the top of the iron stairs, awaiting her. His swept-back silver hair was stark against the black cloak he wore; his back was straight and his hands were clasped behind him. He stared down his hawkish nose at Anna as she climbed, and indicated his open door.
She hadn’t been in the office before. It was rich and warm, all mahogany and gilt, but the smell was what stood out. Where the factory floor was the single sharp note of sweet cotton, the office was earthy and musky and full of subtle scents, as complex as a summer forest at dusk.
She was about to step onto the plush rug before the desk, eager to feel its softness between her toes, when the noise of the factory cut out and Sir John’s voice said, quiet and dismissive, “Please remain on the floorboards. The water from your feet would damage the carpet.”
Anna set her foot down again and lowered her eyes as Sir John brushed past.
He seated himself and studied her over steepled fingers. “Miss Williams, pray tell: do I employ you to stand around conversing?”
“No, Sir John.” Be a meek little mouse, that’s what he wants.
“Are you singularly possessed of the unique ability to drive your loom without actually being sat at it?”
“No, Sir John.”
“Then kindly explain why you waste my time and factory space on conversations with your neighbour!”
“I was helping her unstick her shuttle,” Anna said, lifting her face to look at Sir John. “It’s getting awful worn, and it ain’t fair to make her pay for—”
“Is your shuttle in full working order, Miss Williams?”
“Well yes, but—”
“Then no-one else’s shuttle is any of your concern.”
“But if you’d just—”
“Enough!” Sir John slammed his palm on the desk, cutting Anna off. “This insubordination will be noted on your file.”
She lowered her eyes again. So much for meek little mouse. Can’t help but get involved, can you?
Sir John shuffled through papers till he arrived at her file. “Your address is Mrs. Hobble’s orphanage in town?” His voice was no longer angry, but curious. Anna didn’t trust the change.
“Yes, Sir John. I been raised there these last six years, and Mrs. Hobble lets me rent a room still.”
“And, in your opinion, are the boys there healthy, well-fed and strong?”
Anna stumbled for a moment. Boys? It was all women on the factory floor. Sally said men didn’t have the common sense to make a loom work, they were stupid brutes that could only use fear and anger for their Squalor. What could he want boys for? Children? There’s no work for kids except—oh no, the mines! What if he sends my brothers down a pit? Daniel’d choke down there, he hates being cooped up. Even Charlie’d struggle, and Jacob’s so young—
“You seem to be having some trouble, Miss Williams.”
Anna said nothing.
“Perhaps it is that you do not trust me. No, do not trouble to deny it—I fully expect you have heard mutterings on the floor… especially of late.” His face darkened for a moment; he dispelled it with a soft shake. “The truth is, I do not expect you to understand. I work for the betterment of the Empire and to the glory of Queen Victoria, a goal too lofty for your concerns. Thanks to Parkes’ new lead alloy, Britain alone possesses the secret to channelling Squalor for industrial purposes. The Prussians may think to challenge us, fuelled as they are by the coal reserves we so sorely lack, but we are lifted anew by a fresh spirit of invention built on the Squalor of the working class. The prize we compete for is the world itself, and all Britain would prosper from its riches; and if the price seems heavy now, the reward will be worth it. You may not trust me, but I assure you that, ultimately, I work with your best interests at heart. So I ask again: are the boys at the orphanage healthy and robust?”
Anna searched for something, anything to say, but what could she do? Sir John donated to the orphanage, and if he thought Mrs. Hobble wasn’t running the place right… “Yes, Sir John. Proper fed and raised well.”
“Good. Do tell Mrs. Hobble that I shall be enquiring with her forthwith, and she is to ensure that the boys are ready for presentation at all times. That will be all, thank you.” Sir John indicated the door behind Anna and turned to his papers, his earlier tirade apparently forgotten.
Pale faces followed her back to her loom, but Anna paid them no mind. What have I done? If he takes my boys… but what else could I have said? Oh, if only I’d not stood around nattering.
She stopped, her path blocked. Maud Farlin, gruff, broad, and imposing, stood in her way.
“You all right, girl?” asked Maud.
“Yes, thank you.” It hadn’t taken Anna long to clock Maud. She was the mother of the factory floor, but not soft and caring. No, she was a mother fox, watching over everyone and fighting for ‘em tooth and claw. Properly speaking, she was just another worker, but all the women looked to her.
“Shuttleworth didn’t give you no grief now, did he?”
Maud stared intently, but Anna kept quiet. She’d let her mouth run away with her too much already today.
Maud grunted. “All right then. But you let me know if ever he does, right?”
Anna nodded and went back to her loom. In a few moments her feet were back in the water bucket, her hands were clasped around the lead grips, and the shuttle was running back and forth across the weave and filling Anna’s ears and mind with noise.
The winter winds chilled Anna something terrible as she walked the two miles back through Burnley, and she was grateful for the kitchen fire when she stepped in through the side door of the orphanage.
“Anna! Oh love, you look frozen.” Mrs. Hobble looked up from the tall kitchen table where she stood slicing bread. Her clothes were faded, layered on her round frame, but there was still enough colour in them to clash. “Come in, quick, and shut that door. Here, have yourself a slice. You need something in you to ward off a chill.”
Anna sat on a kitchen stool and unwound her scarf as Mrs. Hobble spread a thin layer of watery butter on a slice of bread. Anna took it without argument and began to eat.
“I’ve brought my rent,” she said between slow mouthfuls, putting a mixed handful of shillings and pennies on the table.
“Oh, you daft sod, I keep telling you, we don’t need your charity. You can stay here for nowt for as long as there’s room.”
“The house is riddled with holes, there ain’t never enough to go around, and you’re always taking more orphans in, so don’t tell me you don’t need charity.”
“We need charity, love, but we don’t need yours. You’ve got yourself to look after.”
“You looked after me for long enough, so if I can help in any way, I will.”
“Oh love, you don’t half say some daft things. Seeing you all grown up and standing on your own two feet is repayment enough, especially seeing you grown to care for others. You’re not that feral girl looking out for her own that I first met. So don’t you worry. You owe us nothing.”
“Even so, I ain’t taking it back. It’s yours.”
Mrs. Hobble put the bread knife down with a sigh. She’d sliced off a dozen or more slices of bread in the time they’d been talking, but the loaf hadn’t gotten any smaller.
Anna frowned. “Are you going hungry again so as you can stretch the food for the kids?”
“Needs must, love. Using my Squalor’s the only way I can get enough food to get them through this winter.”
“And what good is it to them if you can’t get through the winter? Take the money to buy some more and have yourself something to eat now. There soup left in that pot?” Anna nodded towards the kitchen fire.
“Aye, love, some chicken broth. It’s been on for three days though, so it’s getting a bit thin. I don’t know as it’s worth stretching out any longer.”
“You’ve gone hungry for three days? I’m not having that! Get that money put away in your desk and I’ll sort us both some bread and broth. Three days, you daft bint!”
Mrs. Hobble smiled, an exhausted smile between cheeks cracked red by winter, but Anna thought she could see some pride there, too. “All right then, I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She went back into the house, skirts rustling as she left the warmth of the kitchen.
Anna sliced the last of the bread up, taking care with the knife against the tough, stale crust, and then took two bowls over to the pot and ladled some chicken broth out. Three days! I can’t hardly remember hunger like that. It must be bruising her insides to be so empty. Anna’s stomach clenched in sympathy, an oddly warm sensation. She filled both bowls: it hadn’t looked like there was much left, but somehow it stretched. It was surprising how much these old iron pots could hold.
The door burst open and her three younger brothers rushed in, tumbling into Anna’s legs with shouts of excitement.
Anna laughed, put the bowls down, and crouched to hug them each in turn. “And what are you little buggers doing up still, eh? I expect Mrs. Hobble here put you to bed an hour or more ago, yet here you are!”
Jacob, the youngest at seven, pulled Anna down into another hug and whispered in her ear, “We love you.”
A tide of love and gratitude swept through Anna while Jacob’s small hands tangled in her dark hair. “I love you too,” she said through a choked throat.
“We miss you when you’re not here,” said Charlie, the oldest of the three boys. He was taller now at twelve than Anna at seventeen, and just as serious as her too. He’d been old enough when they’d arrived at the orphanage six years before to know what was going on, and he’d needed to grow up near as fast as Anna; Daniel had been only two at the time, Jacob not even walking yet.
Anna would do anything for them to keep their innocence.
“Well I’ll still be here in the morning,” she said, smiling, “so you can get yourselves to bed now, aye? Go on with you, up the wooden hill you go!”
They filed out the door past Mrs. Hobble. Jacob and Daniel chattered as they went, and even Charlie was smiling. Mrs. Hobble saw them up the stairs before she came back and sat at the counter for her broth and bread.
“Eat up then,” said Mrs. Hobble, dipping a slice.
“You’ll look out for them, won’t you?” asked Anna in a quiet voice.
“Of course I will! I always have, haven’t I?”
Anna smiled weakly, but she couldn’t shake the image of the boys down a mineshaft, frightened and alone in the closed-in dark.
“What’s on your mind, love? Not like you to ask those sorts of questions.”
“Sir John had me in his office today. Asked if there were many strong boys here.”
“What’s he asking you that for?”
“I wish I knew. He pulled me up for talking instead of working, but when he saw I lived here, he started asking about the boys. He’d never have known to ask if I’d not been idling for him to catch me. He said he’d be by any time to inspect them, and for you to have ‘em ready at a moment’s notice.” Anna wiped round her bowl with the last of her bread, round and round, round and round. “Mrs. Hobble?”
“Don’t let him take my boys, will you? When he comes, don’t let him take them. Please.”
Anna’s eyes welled up, and Mrs. Hobble reached across the counter to squeeze her hands.
“I just—” stumbled Anna. “I know it’s selfish of me, ‘cos he’ll take other boys instead, but I want them to have their childhood as long as they can.”
“You’re allowed a little selfishness, love. Everyone is. You think I run this place out of goodness? I’m as selfish as anyone. I only do this so as I don’t have to work in them mills. Everyone has to look out for themselves these days, ‘cos no-one else’ll do it for you anymore.”
“I just don’t want anyone to take advantage of ‘em. I want them to know how to stand up for themselves.”
“Now that’s one lesson I don’t think they’ll have any trouble learning, not with you around to teach them.”
Anna smiled again, but more genuinely this time. Still, it was tempered by sadness, like cold rain on warm skin. “I just hope they don’t have to learn it as hard as I did.”
Anna clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. They ached from hours of cold. Her bare feet were almost blue in the water bucket, though it was difficult to tell in the gloom. Another gust of winter wind blew through the factory, raw and biting.
Shuttleworth had declared the doors remain open at the start of the shift, “to encourage motivation and boost production”. Everyone knew why: another of his factories outside of town was still burning this morning, a great plume of black smoke dropping ash all through Burnley. _Nelly Ludd and her Luddites_ had been the awed rumour at first, Nelly Ludd and her Luddites_ the bitter recrimination after Shuttleworth’s announcement, _Nelly Ludd and her Luddites a whisper lurking beneath the rattle of the looms, Luddites CHUDUNDUN Luddites CHUDUNDUN Luddites CHUDUNDUN.
The whispering had died now, though. Only the looms clattered, lulling Anna into a chilled torpor. Even Sally, who chattered through every shift, had fallen silent.
Which made her sudden scream all the more jarring.
Anna’s heart dropped past her guts as she leapt up. A scream like that meant only one thing in a cotton mill. Sally was sobbing on her stool, cradling her hand, face paler than Anna had ever seen it. Inside the loom the shuttle was tangled in yarn and glistening bright red with blood.
Sally’s good hand was half to frozen solid when Anna reached for it, muttering reassurances and gesturing for her to show her wounds. Bloody hell, ain’t no surprise her fingers got clumsy if they’re that cold.
Anna’s breath caught when she saw the ruin of Sally’s fingers. They were splintered and twisted, bone and tendon showing white through the red ribbon of muscle. A shiver ran through Anna and her hands clenched involuntarily, itching with imagined agony.
“Oh, Sally…” Tears blurred her vision as she wrapped a gentle hand around those broken, ragged fingers. All her sympathy welled up inside, near to choking her, building to a heat in her chest like coals glowing under breath. Sally couldn’t work the loom no more, and little Charlotte’d be crying with hunger every night. Charlotte! Sally wouldn’t ever stroke her angel’s face again, not tickle nor tease her.
The heat from Anna’s chest started to run down her arm and—she felt sure of it—into Sally’s fingers.
For a moment she stood there, confusion and astonishment locking her in place. The heat died, and her arm loosened, and she lifted her hand away.
Sally’s fingers were pink and raw, like new skin after a burn, but they were straight and whole again. In a week they’d show no sign of the injury.
Maud Farlin stomped up with some of her women and looked to Sally, her gruff face set grim. “What happened?”
Sally was vacant and numb, pale with shock.
Maud looked to Anna instead. “Did you see it?”
“No, but her shuttle’s stuck and there’s blood all over the weave. Reckon it caught her as she untangled the threads. Cold fingers ain’t fast fingers.”
Maud grimaced. “Aye, girl, that’s the Lord’s truth. Well let’s have a look, Sally. See how bad it is.”
Maud reached thick fingers down and lifted Sally’s hand into a feeble beam of sunlight.
“Teeth o’ Jesus,” said one of Maud’s women, “don’t know as I’d still be sharp enough after a full shift to focus my Squalor and fix myself that good.”
Anna kept quiet. What had happened? What… what was that?
“This is on Shuttleworth,” said Maud. “I’m amazed we ain’t had more of this today. Near as amazed as I am that you fixed yourself up, Sally. Ain’t many could do that.” She looked at Anna as she said it, looked at her closely, before turning to her women. More had gathered as they talked, and Maud raised her voice to them all. “I ain’t standing for this. No-one should have to risk themselves with these long shifts and cold draughts for his profit. C’mon Sally.” Maud put her hands on Sally’s shoulders and gently, but firmly, stood her up and led her out of the bucket of water and up to the front of the factory floor, beneath Shuttleworth’s balcony.
Anna got caught up in the group of women and hustled along with them.
“Shuttleworth!” shouted Maud. The factory slowed as all the women turned, uncertain what was happening.
No answer came from the office.
Maud’s voice echoed in the silence. All the looms had stilled. Thin cloth whispered as women stood and joined the crowd.
The door opened at last and Sir John stepped out, expression distracted and annoyed. He seemed surprised to find the mass of workers staring at him and his factory halted. The anger in the air broke through his arrogance for the briefest second before he regained his composure and set his hawkish face in a mask of disdain.
“Pay will be docked for this stoppage. Further punishment will be meted out to the ringleaders in due course, but I have more pressing appointments in town.”
In town? Oh Christ, not the orphanage! I’ve got to get to the boys! Anna tried to wriggle her way out of the crowd but she was held in, pinned at the front of it all.
“I will return at two hours past dusk, and I expect you all still to be working,” continued Shuttleworth. “If production does not meet my expectations, then I have a number of… newly redundant workers in need of fresh employment.” He turned to leave, black cloak flaring out as he spun.
Maud said, “We’ll not stand for this anymore, Shuttleworth.”
If the floor had seemed silent before, it almost ached with the absence of sound now.
Anna could feel the wrath in Sir John from here. The way he moved back to face Maud Farlin was too controlled, too tight, with none of his usual flamboyance.
“I do not care what you will stand for,” he said, knuckles white as they gripped the railing, “because it does not matter to me. You think your petty concerns are important when set against the Empire? Against progress?”
“You think us less important because we have to worry about food on the table each night?” Maud’s voice was just as quiet, just as angry.
“I think you less important because you are less important, woman! Learn your place and keep to it, else I will find someone else to fill it. All of you!” He stormed down the iron steps and out the factory, rage in every step.
“You hear that?” yelled Maud, face still upturned as if Shuttleworth remained on his balcony. “You hear what he thinks of us?” The crowd grumbled. “He thinks us inferior! He thinks us contemptible! He thinks us desperate!”
We are desperate. Anna tried to worm her way out of the crowd, her terror growing lockstep with the mob’s fury.
“Are you going to let him talk to you like that?” Maud faced her audience now, gesturing roughly. “Put you down like that? He ain’t no better than us. He’s no God-fearing man like he pretends. He’s sent by Satan himself! Building his dark mills on our fair moors! He’s a canker on our land and a canker on our souls. Why should we let him drag us down with him? Why should we suffer at his tainted hands? No more of his abuse or his scorn or his evil! No more!” Maud turned and stomped out, the looms seeming to quake as she passed, all the women behind her.
Anna followed out the door and then fled up the road, leaving the mob to their riot.
Anna ran for the orphanage, ran with abandon and fear, ran as fast as ever she could.
When Shuttleworth’s black and gold coach passed her, going back the other way, she ran even faster still.
She burst in through the front door and raced through the old house, searching for Mrs. Hobble, searching for the boys.
“Hello, love.” Mrs. Hobble’s voice was soft.
“Where are the boys? Where are the boys?”
“I’m sorry, love, I tried to keep them back… he had me gather all the boys in the front room, and I made sure your lads were tucked away, near hiding behind the sofa, but he went straight to ‘em… walked past all the boys standing proud and confident, like he wanted the frightened ones. I’m so sorry, love, I really am.” She twisted her coloured skirts between her hands.
Anna swallowed back the tears and the screams and the panic. Her throat hurt when she spoke. “It’s not your fault. Thank you for trying.” She gripped Mrs. Hobble’s arms in as reassuring a manner as she could muster, and then turned and fled before she could break down.
He wants the frightened ones. Boys that’ll scare easy down a mine. Where’s these mines he’s taking ‘em to, though? He said he’d be back at the factory past dusk, he must be taking them there first.
Anna ran. The exhaustion of a full day’s shift and the bitter Lancashire winter dulled her thoughts till she became focused on the run, the run to the factory, the run to the boys, eyes glazed and feet pounding and lungs burning like they were on—
Fire, filling the horizon, blazing orange against the night.
Fire filling the factory and eating it up and casting the dark iron beams as shadows, huge black ribs bending inwards like a consumptive wreck on his deathbed.
The heat of it washed against her face from all these hundreds of feet away, and the sharp smell of burning cotton stabbed at her nose. The fire flared in a gust of wind, and part of the roof collapsed.
“No!” she shouted, lurching forward into a sprint. Maybe there was a corner that hadn’t caught yet, maybe they’d gotten out and were standing the other side, maybe she could find them and help them and—
Strong arms wrapped themselves around her and lifted her off the ground.
“Careful now, girl, easy now. Easy!”
Anna kicked her heels and struggled against the grip, but she was held tight, and she was exhausted. She went limp, and let herself be lowered to the ground. A half-choked sob burst from her throat.
“Easy now, girl. You don’t want to be running down there.”
Anna looked up through tearful eyes. “Maud? Maud Farlin?”
“What you doing back here, girl?”
“I—my brothers—I—” and Anna collapsed again, a broken doll with strings cut by grief.
Maud waited. Anna wept out her tears, and mumbled, “They were in the factory.”
“Say what, girl?”
“My brothers. They were in the factory.”
“Can’t have been. We made sure no-one were about. What would they have been doing in there?”
“Shuttleworth took them from the orphanage earlier. He picked them out special and took ‘em in his carriage, so now they’ve burnt with him in that factory.” She broke down in tears again.
“Nelly!” shouted a new voice, rising up the hill—one of Maud’s women, thunder on her face. “We best get going. We’ve dallied too long.”
Maud—Nelly?—turned to the new woman. “Aye, in a moment. You lot need to vanish. Go on, all of you.”
“You can’t hang about. If they catch themselves Nelly Ludd, they’ll go hard on you.”
“I’ll be all right. I can look after myself, can’t I? Now get on with you.”
The woman clenched her jaw, but walked away without further argument.
Anna picked through what she’d heard. “Nelly… Ludd? You’re Nelly Ludd? What’s been attacking all the factories hereabouts? But you work in ours!”
“Aye, girl. So as I could keep an eye on that toad Shuttleworth. So as I’d know when he wasn’t about and we could burn his factory without burning him. I ain’t becoming a murderer on his account.”
It took a moment for Nelly’s words to sink in. “Sir John… wasn’t there?”
“No, girl. Nor was your boys. We knew Shuttleworth was coming back, so we waited till he left again.”
Relief washed through Anna. They’re ok, they’re ok, they’re not dead, they’re ok.
“Where are they, then?” she asked, looking up from the damp grass. “Has he taken them to his mines?”
“Shuttleworth ain’t got no mines, girl. Where’d you hear that?”
“But—why else take them? Where could they be?”
“Damned if I know. But they ain’t here.”
“You’ve got to help me find them!”
Nelly barked a single laugh. “I’ve got to get away from here is all I’ve got to do. I’ve got my own worries, girl.”
Anna stood. “No. No, you will help me. ‘Cos I know it was you now, what’s been burning the factories.”
Nelly’s face darkened. “You threatening me, girl?”
“What you gonna do? You wouldn’t burn Sir John for all he’s done, but you’d hurt me? Kill me? No, I don’t reckon that’s your way. I reckon you’ll help me. Because whatever he’s got planned with my brothers, stopping it would hurt his cause, and you’ll do it for that, if not for my boys.”
Nelly stared for a long moment, and then her broad face cracked a wicked grin. “I like you, girl. You got fight. Come on, then.”
“Where we going?”
“To Gawthorpe Hall. To Shuttleworth’s home.”
Habergham Drive was a tunnel through trees made bare by winter. The full moon slipped through the naked branches and littered the path with fractured shapes.
Anna and Nelly had walked in silence since turning away from the burning factory.
Nelly said, “Girl, say what’s bothering you.”
“Why did you burn the factory?”
“To stop Shuttleworth. To show him he can’t have it all his own way.”
“Like chilling the factory floor so we work faster. Like us suffering the poisoning from Parkes’ bloody lead alloy. Like paying us in pennies and promises of an empire we’ve got no interest in.”
“Like you, then.”
“Careful how you speak, girl. I ain’t like him.”
“No? Burning that factory down to get back at Sir John? There’s people on that floor need those wages to eat, for their kids to eat, but you’ve made the decision for ‘em. You’ve dragged them into your fight whether they wanted it or not.”
“I’m being brave for them. They’d never stand up otherwise.”
“I expect Sir John’d say the same about his Empire, if you asked him. He’s being strong for ‘em, showing them how to stand up tall so as they can build something magnificent.”
“Tell me, girl, how does your Squalor work? Yours, mine, everyone’s?”
Anna’s indignation stumbled at the swerve in the conversation. “Well… necessity. Deprivation, I suppose. Squalor gives you just enough of what you need most, and you’ve got to really need it.”
“Exactly. Anyone could use Squalor, even all the toffs. But you ain’t got that necessity if you’re comfortable. So you think Shuttleworth and his kind’ll ever let us share in their wealth? No. They need us poor to build this Empire. Their machines’d stop dead if we ever had it good enough. The rich’ll get richer and the poor’ll stay poor and they’ll keep us in our place so as they can keep exploiting us.”
“And you don’t exploit people? You use them as tools to try and change the world in a way you reckon is best, thinking you know better. There’s ways of changing the world without ruining lives like you have tonight.”
“I ain’t the one who’s stolen your brothers,” said Nelly, quiet with rage.
“No, I suppose you ain’t at that. You’re the one helping me get ‘em back. But even then, you’re doing that to get at Sir John, not out of charity. You and everyone else in this world, you’re all so selfish now.”
Nelly didn’t seem angry at that. If anything, she looked sorrowful. “Aye, girl, the world’s a selfish place now. Time was people cared for others. We didn’t only have Squalor to save us then. We had Sympathy too.” Nelly looked askance at Anna, an odd expression in her eyes, but she put a finger to her lips before Anna could ask more. She stepped behind the trunk of an ash tree at the edge of the wood and motioned for Anna to join her. “We’re there.”
Gawthorpe Hall was imposing in the night, a looming black shadow detailed in silver moonlight. The gravel drive was flanked by open lawns and ornamental gardens. Two coaches stood by the stables, one large and ornate, the other simpler but detailed in gold. Shuttleworth’s coach.
Men in red jackets and towering bearskin hats stood at the entrance, watching the approach.
“What are they doing here?” muttered Nelly.
“Who? Those soldiers?”
“Soldiers? Girl, they’re the Queen’s Guard.”
“Shouldn’t they be with the Queen, then?”
“Aye, girl, they should. But the Mourning Queen hasn’t left London for four years now. Not since Prince Albert died.”
“How we going to get past them?”
“We ain’t. Let’s try round the back.” Nelly moved off through the trees, keeping an eye on the Queen’s Guard and warning Anna into stillness whenever a mounted patrol moved round the garden.
A handful of Douglas-firs lined the side of the River Calder behind Gawthorpe Hall, enough of them to hide Anna and Nelly as they crept round. A painted wooden door stood at one corner of the hall, a warm light spilling from the kitchen window next to it.
“You’re faster than I am, girl. See if you can work that door open.”
Anna hunched low and ran across the lawn, a tingling fear at the base of her neck as she crossed the open space, praying against any guards rounding the corner. She grabbed at the black iron handle but it held firm and wouldn’t turn—locked. She tried again, heaving her shoulder against the door, but it remained stubbornly solid. The crawling fear was growing stronger, pressing in, and with a curse Anna turned and ran back to the safety of the treeline.
“No good,” she said, panting clouds of breath in the cold air. “There’s got to be another way in.”
“Hold this,” said Nelly, taking off her winter coat and passing it over.
“What you doing?” asked Anna.
“This hall’s been here more than two hundred and fifty years. Penny to a shilling there’s still a privy that drains into the river. If I can find the grate and work it loose, you might be small enough to make your way in.” Nelly finished taking her boots off and dropped into the river before Anna could question it further.
Anna was near frozen after a few minutes stood there. A frost was already settling under the clear, starry sky, and the wind bit through to her skin. I don’t know how Nelly’s managing in that water. I can bare feel my toes just stood here. The exhaustion was catching up. She’d worked a full shift that day, and Squalor came at a price, drained something out of you. Two guards passed by on horseback, and Anna ducked down behind the trees. Crouched there, tucked away from the wind, Anna’s eyes and limbs grew heavy.
The sudden splash of Nelly heaving herself onto the riverbank shocked Anna back awake. “Help me out, girl,” said Nelly, teeth chattering.
Anna grabbed Nelly’s out-stretched hand and hauled her up onto the grass. Anna put the winter coat around her, but it didn’t seem to help stave off the chill.
“Found… the grate,” said Nelly, coughing and shaking, “but… couldn’t open it… lead, not iron, so… not rusted.” Nelly pulled the coat tighter around her, but she still convulsed with shivers. “Stayed in… too long. Had to try though…”
“Nelly, you’re gonna freeze to death! You need to warm yourself!”
“Too cold to… focus… my Squalor.” Her coughs were already weaker, rasping in her throat.
Oh Christ, she’s going to die on my account, that wind’s cutting through me and I ain’t soaked through with river water. I can’t imagine how cold she must be, in her guts and in her bones. Anna wrapped her arms around Nelly and tried to warm her, tried to give over some of the heat that was churning in her own chest, but the wind and rain stole away what little she had to give. She looked around, desperate, and her eyes caught on the kitchen window and the door next to it.
Anna heaved Nelly up, an arm around her waist and Nelly’s arm over her shoulders, and all but dragged the big woman to the door. She pulled hard at the handle but it was as firm as before, even with Nelly lending what strength she could.
Oh Lord, that’s it then! The chill’ll get in her bones and she’ll die out here, stuck the wrong side of a door from the stove that’d save her. She only needs to get through this door and get in! And as Anna felt the cold that she knew Nelly was feeling, felt it inside her, a new warmth flared out of her bones and through her fingers and the door gave way—
—and they stumbled into the kitchen, trying to catch their balance. Heat washed over them as Nelly slumped against the stove and Anna shut the door against the bitter winter.
“How… how did you do that… girl?”
Anna’s mouth opened and closed, but she had no answer.
“Doesn’t… matter. Find your brothers.” Nelly’s voice was settling, the shivering lessening. “Go!”
Anna nodded and went to the kitchen door, cracking it open so she could peer through to the hallway beyond.
Tall canvases lined one side of the hall. Dark figures looked down from centuries past, repainted as ghosts by moonlight through the full-height windows. Warm light leaked from a door at the other end of the long gallery, but the hallway itself was empty. It seemed all the guards were outside.
Anna scurried down the hall, but as she passed through the bright shafts of moonlight, two Queen’s Guard on horseback turned the corner outside the house, clearly visible through the leaded windows.
She ducked inside the door at the end, heart pounding, eyes closed, throat clenched. As the seconds passed with no sound of alarum, she slid to the floor and breathed again.
The rushing in her ears subsided, and she opened her eyes.
Sir John was in the room, crouching over something in the flickering candlelight.
Panic and bile rose up her throat, and Anna cast about for somewhere, anywhere to hide. A plush sofa sat in the corner nearest her, and she scrambled towards it.
As soon as she crouched behind the sofa she peered back round it. A few candles struggled against the darkness, barely illuminating the rich hangings and thick carpets. An enormous chandelier glinted in the half-light above where Sir John crouched with his back to her, busying himself with a wide metal bowl. It must have been five foot across, and made of lead alloy to judge by its dull reflection. A bundle of cables trailed off behind an ornate modesty screen.
The door opened wide, and Anna pulled herself back into the corner.
“Ah,” came Sir John’s voice, “Your Majesty.”
Queen Victoria stepped into the room, yards from where Anna hid. She crossed the drawing room and sat in a large high-backed chair before the bowl, projecting authority, expectation, and not a little impatience.
“Well then, Sir John, let us be on with it.”
“Of course, Your Majesty, a moment’s more preparation,” said Sir John with a bow. He moved smoothly from the bowl to the modesty screen, careful not to show his back to the Queen.
Anna moved to the other end of the sofa and tried to see where he went, but it was too dark behind the screen to see what he was up to.
She heard a whimper from behind it, though. A whimper she knew.
A deep thrumming sound swelled up from the large lead bowl, and a cold light cast new shadows across the drawing room, stealing the darkness Anna had been about to move through. If he’s hurt them behind there…
The shining figure of a gentleman stood over the lead bowl, floating inches above it, as if on a step. He wavered, like a mirror underwater, and there was a leaden sheen to him. He was staring at Anna with a stern, unblinking expression.
The Mourning Queen stood and reached out one gloved hand to him.
Sir John stepped back into the room from behind the screen. “Prince Albert returned to you, Your Majesty. As promised.”
He’s calling the dead back! How in the Devil’s name is he doing that? Oh this ain’t no good thing. It can’t be. I’ve got to get the boys out of here!
Anna watched Prince Albert, waiting for him to look away, but he remained completely still.
Queen Victoria stared at Prince Albert, and Sir John at Queen Victoria.
Cautiously, Anna slipped out from behind the sofa and along the wall. The shining image of Prince Albert pivoted to follow her, unmoving and static, but always facing her. He ain’t real!
Sneaking with absolute care, Anna passed inches behind Sir John’s back, in full view of the Queen and saved only by Her Majesty’s fixation on the shining apparition. Anna kept her eyes on Sir John, ready to run at the first sign of him turning, until she was behind the screen and stepping over the bundled cables.
Charlie. Daniel. Jacob.
Her brothers were sat on plain wooden chairs, wide-eyed and terrified. All three held a pair of lead handles, like the ones on Anna’s loom, cable trailing from the bottom and into the room.
Anna rushed to Jacob, youngest of the three and nearest her, and hugged his face to her neck. He felt cold—not winter cold, but deathly cold.
“Oh Jacob, what’s going on?” she whispered beneath the resonant thrum of the machine.
Jacob pulled his head away and stared over her shoulder, face taut with fear. Anna followed his gaze to a canvas of Prince Albert that hung on the screen. The image was the spit of the apparition in the bowl.
Charlie, the eldest, sat in the centre, and met Anna’s gaze as she turned back.
“Charlie! What is this?” she hissed.
“Anna, get out of here!” he whispered in reply. “You can’t risk getting caught!”
“I’m not going anywhere till I know what’s going on.”
“We have to bring Prince Albert back! Sir John told us of the Prussians and their invasion, how we need Prince Albert to stop them rampaging about with their filthy coal machines!”
“Rampaging Prussians? What nonsense is this? Look, there ain’t no way of bringing the dead back. That ain’t Prince Albert out there, it’s only an image!”
“Please, Anna, we have to do this!”
Anna looked at Charlie—really looked—and across at Daniel and Jacob. They were terrified. Desperate for salvation—salvation they needed from Prince Albert. That desperation was driving their Squalor and creating the image.
She had to get them out of here. But how could she do it without Shuttleworth knowing? If the image of Albert disappeared, he’d know something was up and catch them before they got away.
I’d take their place if I could, but I ain’t frightened enough for Shuttleworth’s machine. Oh, if only I could be as scared as them! Think, Anna, think. You’ve got to feel their terror like you felt Nelly’s cold, like you felt Sally’s pain, like—
—oh good Lord, that’s it. That’s how I’ve been doing it. It ain’t just what I need. It’s what _anyone_ needs, if I feel it strong enough.
Not just Squalor. Sympathy.
“Give me these,” she said, taking the lead handles from Charlie’s hands. “Get your brothers and get out. Go to the kitchen. There’s a woman there called Nelly, she’ll help.”
“What are you going to do?” whispered Charlie.
“I’ll bring Albert back, don’t you worry. Now go!”
As Charlie went to his brothers, Anna gripped the handles tight. _They’re so young. They’re so scared. Terrified of the Prussians, and only Albert can help. Albert. Albert._ Her stomach lurched with a hot fear. The lead handles were cold in her hands, a cold that spiked up her forearms like ice needles in her veins. Charlie was talking to Daniel and Jacob, and the cold surged as they released each handle. Her arms were numb now, and the ice was stabbing at her chest, roiling against the heat in her stomach. The light in the room began to dim.
The boys had all stopped to watch her. She turned to them with gritted teeth. “Go!”
The cold ebbed as her concentration broke. Stupid! Think of their fear, think of their fear, think of their—
“What is going on?” hissed a new voice.
Sir John stood the other side of Anna, his eyes filled with anger.
All the fear and terror and uncertainty in Anna, hers and the boys’ both, coalesced into a white-hot rage.
“You tell me, Shuttleworth. Scaring young boys like this? Terrifying them? No. You’ll not do it to them. I’ll do it for ‘em.”
Shuttleworth’s face was dark and clenched, quivering with anger. “Fine. Do it, and drain yourself. Divided amongst three, they would have had the strength to survive, but you will lose your life in this, _fool_. And see if I care.”
Another voice broke in. “One is alarmed at the mention of the loss of life.”
Shuttleworth almost jumped out of his skin as Queen Victoria spoke from behind him. Anna’s brothers stepped back into the modesty screen, knocking it over.
“Your Majesty,” said Shuttleworth, “my most abject apologies. Merely technical difficulties and nothing to be concerned with.” Sir John all but scraped the floor in his obsequiousness.
“On the contrary, the welfare of my subjects is of the utmost concern to me. What precisely is the arrangement here?”
“Ah… well, the lead alloy handles are a conduit for the emotions and energies of the—”
“One presumes you are about to lecture on Squalor. I assure you, Sir, I am aware of how my country prospers. My confusion pertains to the presence of these children and the apparent threat to their lives.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. The apparatus concentrates a desire for the Prince Consort, in this instance produced through fear, hence the requirement for such young… volunteers. The girl, however, is an intrusion shortly to be removed.”
“Fear? Why would anyone be afraid of my Albert?”
“The children were told of a threatened Prussian invasion, Your Majesty, that only Prince Albert could stop.”
“What utter nonsense!” Queen Victoria looked at the boys, at Anna holding the lead handles, and finally at Shuttleworth with imperious disdain. “No, this will not do. I will not stand by whilst one of my subjects sacrifices herself to save others. It is a queen’s duty to protect her citizens, and it is my place to make the sacrifice. I thank you, young lady, for reminding me of it. If you would be so kind?”
The Mourning Queen gestured. It took Anna a moment to realise she wanted the lead handles; she passed them over in a stunned silence, cables trailing.
The Queen spoke as she took hold of them. “A desire for the Prince Consort, you say? Who could have a stronger desire for Albert than I?”
“Your Majesty,” Shuttleworth panicked, “please, no!”
But his voice was lost beneath a sudden swell of noise from the bowl, an enormous hum that Anna felt in her ribcage, and the image of Prince Albert bloomed anew above the bowl: a thousand times more brilliant than before, and moving now, turning to face the Queen and look upon her, and despite the piercing blue light of that figure, Anna could see, quite clearly, the smile upon his face.
The Queen returned the smile, eyes shining with delight, and then collapsed to the floor, dead.
Dawn’s light stained Gawthorpe Hall with shades of pink and peach, and the frosted lawn twinkled copper and silver beneath Anna’s feet.
“You realise what you are then, girl?” asked Nelly.
“I figured it out in there. What you said earlier about Sympathy. Squalor’s a selfish thing, but Sympathy, caring for other people… why me, though? Why now?”
“You care about other folk, girl. You’re selfless in a way most have forgotten. And you’re of an age now where you’re not just thinking of yourself. Children are all wrapped up in themselves, but you’ve grown up. You think of them around you. I wondered if it was you as fixed Sally White’s fingers yesterday. Reckon it was.”
The Queen’s Guard marched Shuttleworth out of his own front door in shackles and threw him into a coach. Queen Victoria was borne behind him on the shoulders of her guardsmen, held high on a stretcher, lead handles still gripped in her hands.
“What’ll happen to him?” asked Anna. Daniel and Jacob hugged her from each side, and Charlie stood close by her shoulder.
“For regicide? They’ll strip him of his title and hang him.”
“I didn’t want him to die. In his own way he was trying to do the best for people.”
“If he thought he was what was best for folk, we’re better off without him.”
They fell silent as the carriages rolled past, gravel crunching in the crisp winter air.
“Come on then, girl,” said Nelly once the carriages had passed into the freezing mist that clung to Habergham Drive. “We can use you in the movement. A Sympathy witch looks good for us.”
“No? Don’t you want to help?”
“Aye, I do. But I want to do it my way, Nelly Ludd. You ain’t what’s best for folk neither. You can follow me if you want, and Lord knows you’d make a powerful difference, but I’m changing the world my way. We can make the world a better place without having to make it worse first.”
Anna squeezed her brothers close in the chill morning air. “Come on then, boys, best get you home. Mrs. Hobble’ll have fretted herself half to death by now, worrying about us all.”
Daniel looked up from her side. “Haven’t you got to change the world, though?”
She smiled. “I have, aye. But I reckon I’ve got to get you lot to bed first. Now go on with you!”
She walked down the drive with her brothers beside her.
A moment later, Nelly Ludd followed.
About the Author
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a ritual performed unto the Watchers Just Beyond, imploring them for the boon of great knowledge, but all he got were the lyrics to Dashboard Confessional’s album The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most stuck in his head forever. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog, and Diabolical Plots. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.
About the Narrator
Louise Ratcliffe is a a scientist and an artist. She spent her school days either trying to blow stuff up in Chemistry, or creating angsty pieces of writing and performance art. She is originally from England, and came to New Zealand as a souvenir from an OE. She is currently doing everything she never planned to do out in rural Waikato.