ROSES IN RED WAX

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From chapter four of Roses in Red Wax...


A silent, grey fog hung over the city as Percy climbed into the waiting coach. It seemed the mist had drifted into his mind, muting all sound and separating him from his surroundings by a hazy curtain of gossamer. One thing at least was in sharp relief—the relentless pounding of his head.

He’d been restless after leaving his aunt and uncle’s house, with memories of the evening flashing through his mind. The heat of Miss Stuart's sudden anger after his foolish and rather too blatant attempt at seduction. The pink satin of her lips on his fingertip. Her clean floral scent, like the wild roses that grew in the hedgerows at Grislow Park . . . and the image that was imprinted on the back of his eyelids, waiting for him every time he closed his eyes. Just as the final chord had died away, he'd looked up, half dazed, to the vision of her, eyes closed, lips slightly parted, one crystalline tear tracing its way slowly down her cheek. He could compose a thousand songs to that one perfect diamond of a tear.

She was already his muse. He must have her for his lover.

Unable to sleep, he’d been awake till nearly dawn, playing guitar and drinking whiskey.

The coach lurched into motion, eliciting a similar lurching of his stomach.

Today was the first of three scheduled mill inspections, one to each of the Fulton Company mills now owned by his father. It seemed redundant, a spinning mill was a spinning mill, was it not? But when he’d pointed this out, the solicitors had only looked at him over their spectacles, sighed, and explained, oh so patiently, that these visits were not for his benefit, but a show of authority, to demonstrate that the new ownership was keeping watch. Ironic, really. Percy had always detested authority of any kind, whether it be in the form of his governess, the vicar, a school master, Father . . .

But Mother was counting on him, so despite the thick fog in his brain, he’d done his best to dress the part of the authoritative mill owner, even donning the ridiculous hat and walking stick she’d forced on him. Despite all his efforts, the solicitors, two bony old men aptly named Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey, shot him looks of disapproval from the opposite seat. It was useless. He was a wandering musician at heart, not a man of business.

He watched out the window as the coach wound its way through the streets of Glasgow. He felt detached, as if he were observing the scene from a distance—the dirty city, the shiny black coach, himself inside it. Gradually, the wide streets of the business district narrowed and they passed through the middle-class neighborhood where his aunt and uncle lived. He’d not been farther east than this, but he knew most of Glasgow’s mills lay in Calton, at the eastern edge of the city. He’d noticed the increased haze of coal smoke in that direction.

The cool fog began to take on a brown tinge and a fetid odor. There were no houses now, just two- and three-story stone buildings, grimy and in obvious disrepair with broken panes and missing roof tiles. Impossibly narrow alleyways branched off from the main road. Craning his neck to look down one, he caught a glimpse of tattered clothing hanging on a line between the buildings. An overflowing gutter lined the street. Cameron Stuart had described this scene to him last night. These were the wynds, the slums where the millworkers lived.

Men and women dressed in dingy clothes walked the streets, some with purpose, a few teetering along aimlessly, drunk. One man lay on the ground, asleep, a worn hat covering his face, a bottle still in his hand. A group of children huddled together, rags wrapped around their bare feet and hands to protect them from the cold. They glared at the sleek, expensive coach as it passed by.

His eye was caught by a girl no older than ten or twelve but with the grim, unflinching face of a woman four times that age. She was thin as a rail and clothed in rags, her cheeks streaked with dirt, her hair stringy and wild. She was sitting on a wooden crate, clutching a screaming infant. As the carriage rolled past, her piercing blue eyes caught his, holding him in an accusatory stare. A frisson of apprehension passed through him, and he jerked away from the window, leaning back against the seat and closing his eyes to escape the scowls of the men sitting across from him.

He reflected on his conversation with Cameron Stuart the evening before. As part of his medical training, Jane’s brother had been assigned apprentice shifts in the public hospital, and he’d regaled Percy with stories of injuries and illness he’d seen the millworkers and their families fall victim to—afflictions of the lungs from breathing in cotton dust, severed fingers and hands, sickness brought on by exhaustion, dirty water, crowded living conditions, and lack of good food. According to Cameron, the price paid for cotton cloth had plummeted just as the cost of bread increased, and the weavers of Glasgow—who just one generation ago were able to make a good living spinning thread and weaving cloth in their homes—were now forced either into the factories or, if they had the means, to emigrate to Canada or America. Tenant farmers, angry and desperately poor after being evicted from their ancestral homes, were streaming into Glasgow from the Highlands and Ireland. Discontent was brewing, Cameron had said, and violent revolt seemed inevitable. He’d advised Percy to take care, lest he become a target himself.

Percy hadn’t paid close attention to the ledgers he’d been presented with in the last week, but he’d absorbed enough to know that the Fulton Company Mills operated at a profit, which seemed to be all the solicitors, and Father, cared about. Numbers on paper said nothing of the experience of the people working in the mills, however, and after his conversation with Cameron, he found that he did not, in fact, want to know the truth of it.

Devil it. He was supposed to be in Greece.

The coach came to a stop outside a four-story red brick building. It was in better repair than the houses of the wynds, with fresh white paint on the lintels and doors, but otherwise nondescript. The words Fulton Company Mill Works were painted in crisp white letters above the wide front door. Percy climbed down from the carriage, bowed with all the authority he could muster to the mill manager who came out to greet them, then followed the three men into the factory.

It was stiflingly hot. Little wisps of cotton fiber floated in the air, making him feel as if he were slowly suffocating. The spinning mule, a monster of a metal machine that stretched the entire length of the building, swung relentlessly back and forth, clanging a deafening, slow, droning beat that commanded Percy’s headache to pound in rhythm. Workers, some of them not more than ten or twelve years old, buzzed around him, attending to the needs of the machine. His sense of detachment became more pronounced, and he wondered for a moment if he was in a drink-fueled nightmare. Surely, this was not waking life. The desire to flee to fresh air and quiet was almost too much to bear. He couldn’t breathe. He was lightheaded. Dizzy. Everything was distant, muffled.

The gritty, smoke-fouled miasma outside was a paradise compared with this.

Then he noticed the youngest children and reality snapped back into focus. They were waifs, three of them that he could see from where he stood. Pale, skinny, barefoot little things who couldn’t be more than six or seven years old, scurrying underneath the mule as it swung back and forth. They took no notice of the group of men walking the factory floor. There were no smiles, no puerile banter, just blank faces staring intently at the underbelly of the mule, then disappearing beneath it. They were like the ghosts of children, darting in and out of the machine without seeing the world around them.

Suddenly, he remembered something else Cameron had told him the night before, after describing a particularly nasty injury he’d assisted with—a child’s foot, crushed so badly by the mule that it had to be amputated. Percy had been shocked, then Cameron had explained that, due to the dangerous conditions, parliament had passed a bill outlawing the hiring of young children to work in the cotton mills.

So why were they still here?

The manager was proudly espousing the number of yards of thread this particular spinning mule could produce in an hour. Percy waited for a wave of nausea to subside, then drawing on all his supposed authority, he took a breath and interrupted.

“What of those children?” He nodded toward the waifs. “What’s their part in all this?”

The manager looked surprised at the question, and not a little annoyed to be cut off in the middle of his speech.

“They’re scavengers, sir. They sweep up the bits of cotton that fall under the mule.”

Mr. Grey jumped in, speaking slowly, as if Percy were a child himself. “Another example of the efficiency of the modern spinning wheel. Every bit of raw material is utilized and turned into profit.”

“Was there not just an act passed by parliament, forbidding young children from this work?”

The men were stunned for a moment, looking at one another as if to be certain they’d heard the question correctly, then silently agreeing that, yes, they’d heard right and, yes, this young man was indeed as ignorant as all that.

“The wee ones are best suited to the task. Without them, cotton would go to waste. Profits would decrease.” The manager was clearly galled at having to explain the obvious.

“But it’s the law of the land. Surely—”

”What parliament does not understand,” Mr. Brown said, clearly losing patience, “is that being put to work is what’s best for these whelps. It keeps them off the streets. Instead of joining the criminal class, they contribute.”

“It’s really nothing to worry about, sir,” Mr. Grey added smoothly. He really did think Percy was a child. “The act is unenforceable. No fines have been leveled against any of the mills, nor will they be.”

Another surge of nausea, worse than the last. No wonder the workers of these mills were on the verge of violence. How could they not be?

He would surely retch if he kept up this line of questioning, and since casting up one’s accounts was not exactly in line with a show of authority, Percy stood back and listened as the manager droned on, proudly showing off every nook and cranny of the factory as if it were the very pinnacle of human ingenuity. The man seemed to give no further thought to the small apparitions darting in and out from under the mule or the vacant-eyed older children and adults working around them—as if they were not flesh and bone, but simply an extension of the machine that spun cotton fibers into thread.

Either this man was crazy, or Percy was stark raving mad. It was not possible that both were sane.