When life changes, a strong woman will survive…
“Thomas Baxter, clear that floor!” Phoebe raised her head in horror as she heard the order bellow out of the miserable mouth of Mr Benjamin Bladderwell, the overseer of the cotton mill. She saw the fear on her young brother’s face. Thomas froze. He was nearly nine, half Phoebe’s age and, like her, slight of build. Phoebe watched his back slowly straighten. He was obviously trying hard to be brave.
Bladderwell pointed to the clutter under one of the looms, where dust and other fibres had collected. The overseer yelled above the cacophony of sounds between the machines. “Move yourself, boy. Now!”
Thomas did not move, but looked at Phoebe who sensed his fear. He was small but going under a moving machine was a job usually given to the younger children. Phoebe felt an unusual and strong emotion – hatred. Bladderwell relished every minute he could sustain his power over their lives. Phoebe had to be brave for Thomas’s sake. They had had to adjust to living amongst the cruelty of his regime keeping alive the hope that one day they could make a run for it and be free again. The time for that brave or foolish gesture, she sensed, was rapidly approaching.
“Move it, you lazy scum-bag!” Bladderwell took a stride towards Thomas. A young woman dropped her shuttle as Bladderwell stormed past; without pausing he clipped the back of her head. She let out a sharp cry, but did not hesitate in her duty of retrieving her tool and continuing the thread of the weft.
Phoebe and Thomas both loathed the shame and the abuse which had become part of their daily existence. This and the constant hunger inside their guts were why they knew that they had to escape, before they were too weak, or injured to run.
Immediately, Phoebe stopped her work, placing her basket of wound cotton bobbins on the floor and ran over to her brother’s side. Standing by him she spoke boldly, to protect the boy from a beating if not from the task he had been set. “I’ll do it, sir. I’m more agile than Thomas and quicker too!” She then inched in front of Thomas hoping he would snap out of his fear-filled trance before Bladderwell’s temper broke and he lashed out at them.
She tried to move him aside. Thomas’s panic had quite reached the point where his blood ran cold and his feet were rooted to the ground. She was able to gently push Thomas away, out of the direct eye line of the brute she was facing down. Bladderwell was staring back at her. Phoebe decided they would run for it that very night if they were at liberty to do so.
Bladderwell swung the back of his hand down towards her. He was hefty in build. She instinctively ducked to avoid the force of the contact, but Thomas did not move so quickly, and the blow landed across the boy’s cheek. Thomas fell back onto the damp floor, scraping his knee through the thin fabric of his clothes. Phoebe saw his head turn sharply toward his attacker, the trance broken, flashing a look of pure unmistakable hatred at Bladderwell.
The man’s face creased with a grin. Somehow they had to run, Phoebe thought, as fear filled her soul. With the rags they stood up in as their only possessions, they would have nothing to weigh them down. When they had been brought to the mill they had worn decent clothes on their backs, but they were exchanged for paupers’ rags within the first hour of their arrival, such was their welcome to this hell hole.
Winded, Thomas tried to stand upright again. He was fighting to recover, breathing in the cotton dust and damp humid air. The factory was kept hot and moist so that the threads did not break on the weaving and spinning machines. No one seemed to care what happened to the people who had to breathe within it. Phoebe believed somewhere there must be a mill that was run in a kinder manner, where people were treated with consideration and happily worked for a fair wage, but she had not heard of one.
The owner of this mill, James Bartholomew Atkins, grew richer by the minute, whilst his workers choked their way through another gruelling day’s labour. Phoebe could cry with the injustice of it all; meanwhile, her brother had been struck and she feared for what would happen next.
Phoebe gasped as Bladderwell cupped her chin in his hand, pulling her towards him.
“Listen, missy.” He moved his lips near to her ear. His rank breath made Phoebe want to heave. She tried to pull away. He tightened his grip, until she stopped resisting. “You can make life much easier for yourself and the sprat, down there. Don’t see how he’ll survive in here, not that one. He can’t control his temper in front of his betters. However, I’m not a bad man. I’ve a heart. I’ll let the little rat off if you’ll come to the store house with me now and show Benjamin how sorry you is for his bad behaviour.”
He looked into her wide horrified eyes and grinned.
She glared back at him. Phoebe had grown up on a farm and knew how life began, she had seen how animals coupled and guessed it was much the same for people. Phoebe felt her stomach knot. Did he honestly think that for one moment she could let him touch her, or lift her skirts for him?
“You know what I want – you to do exactly that…” he whispered in her ear again, “… anything I want.”
Phoebe could not control her words, “Never! You’re evil!”
Thomas stood up as Bladderwell threw Phoebe to the ground. “Get down there where you both belong, and when you’ve ‘ad time to think, missy, you can crawls your way back to Mr Benjamin Bladderwell on your hands and knees! Then see if I’m as generous in me offer.”
Phoebe looked at the back of Bladderwell’s jacket as he turned to face the boy. One day soon, she thought, I’ll make you crawl. I’ll see you terrified and cornered! She promised her revenge in her mind and, almost at once, as if the man sensed it, Benjamin turned on his heel and picked Thomas up by the scruff of his threadbare wool jacket.
“Ain’t you got work to do?” Bladderwell dropped him from the height of his extended arm onto the stone floor and simultaneously reached for his lash which he kept on a hook on the wall. It was a constant reminder to the children to obey their master.
Phoebe had to act fast. Her thoughts were filled with heated emotion as she cowered beneath the great moving monster trying to sweep the debris away. There was no room for her to move. She was not a child anymore. Her build was slight and her movements agile, but she was a young woman. She tried to wriggle slowly back out, whilst Bladderwell’s attention was fixed on Thomas. Where had the big brave bully been when they needed men to fight Napoleon? she wondered; hiding behind his horrid machines, no doubt.
Phoebe forced a picture of her father into her mind – a long ago memory, painful for her to rekindle, but necessary to give her the courage to do what she must do now. A good man like her father had died in the long wars with France, yet a brute like Benjamin Bladderwell still lived. Life, she had learnt, was just not fair.
Thomas’s eyes stared accusingly back at the substantial figure bending over him. Phoebe prayed they would be able to escape that very day – now, in fact, for if they didn’t they would be broken, in body if not in spirit by the time Bladderwell had had his way. But how? Their situation seemed impossible.
“I’m goin’ to strip the skin off your idle little back!” The lines on Bladderwell’s forehead deepened as he gritted his browning teeth and raised the lash high behind him ready to swipe down. Thomas had curled into the tightest small ball that he possibly could, trying to protect his head, especially his eyes.
Phoebe was incensed; she moved quickly without taking enough care.
“Agh!” The high shriek of Phoebe’s scream stopped Bladderwell as his head turned to face the cause of the noise, stopping the lash from falling back down onto Thomas.
“Phoebe!” Thomas shouted, and stood instantly, running over to where she was trapped. She could not help her tears escape as she cried out, but lay there motionless underneath the great machine. She could neither move forwards nor backwards so great the fear that had overtaken her.
There was an unspoken bond between the brother and sister. Thomas began to panic when he realised that there was blood on her hand.
“Get out of there, you stupid bitch…” Benjamin Bladderwell’s words were drowned out by the noise of the weaving machine, as its clatter grew louder and more irregular. Phoebe had somehow damaged the machine, as part of her sleeve had caught in its mechanism. Thomas grabbed hold of Phoebe’s ankles as he tried to ease her out. However, he lacked the strength to do it. The ground seemed to move under him as he was yanked back. Then Phoebe was unceremoniously dragged out also. She coughed as she fought for breath as her face was pulled through a cloud of fibrous dank dust. Once free, Phoebe rubbed her eyes so that she could see the gash in her arm that was as long as her little finger. She swallowed hard and held her wounded arm to her protectively.
“It will be all right, Phoebe. It’s not deep; you’ll see it will be fine.” Thomas was trying to reassure her whilst she straightened her dress after being unceremoniously released from her fate.
“Oh, Didy…” She could see the overseer’s face behind the boy and it both angered and terrified her. Phoebe and Thomas’s mother had always called Thomas Didy. It was short for Didymus, another name used in the Bible for Thomas. Phoebe thought it suited his spirit better.
Phoebe felt hatred well up inside her with the strength of feeling she could not have thought possible for her to bear before she had entered the life of hell that was the mill.
Nobody in the factory stopped working to help them. They were all too frightened of losing their precious positions. Work was hard to come by and although the pay was poor, it was better than none and the resulting humiliation and illness that followed being locked away in the workhouse. The adults would be grateful that it was not their child who had been hurt today. A woman glanced sympathetically at them, but did not turn away from her task for fear of punishment.
Thomas helped Phoebe to her feet. “She needs her wound tending… sir.” The last word had been added reluctantly. “That cut needs balm… and cloth to bind it up.”
Phoebe knew Bladderwell did not care; she had refused to pleasure him, he was more concerned about the damaged machine and work lost than her plight.
“Get back to your work, girl! You can tie a machine rag around it, to make sure that you do not drip your blood on the weave. Once done, then collect up those spindles. Now move!”
“No!” the lad’s voice shouted out.
Thomas had a hot head and a short temper when it came to injustice.
“There’s scraps of clean cloth there. If it’s clean it mends better, my ma said so!” he shouted.
“Didy, I’ll manage.” Phoebe, seeing the danger Thomas was already in, tried to act normally, but she was pale and frightened. Her voice had been low, almost like a whisper. It only served to embitter Thomas further; although nearly ten years younger than her, he liked to assume the role of her protector. They had been raised in a fine home, on a working farm – born free. It had been a new farm, one that had been enclosed and the crops rotated to use the land more effectively. Phoebe knew that Thomas liked modern thinking and ways. From his earliest words he had asked questions, ones his ma could not answer, which frustrated her, but like Phoebe it also delighted her as Thomas seemed quick of wit. He was not against machines, but hated their misuse and the greedy men who abused them.
When the lash was raised once more, Thomas reached out and grabbed one of the besoms propped against the wall; they were normally used by the younger children to sweep the floor at the end of the long day. He swung it wildly. The gesture seemed to exhilarate him, giving confidence. The lash came down wrapping around its handle, becoming enmeshed. Thomas pulled at the besom with all his body’s weight behind it, flicking it sharply and, using the moment of surprise in his favour, he managed to jerk it out of Bladderwell’s strong hand. He flipped it free, but Thomas could not control what happened next. All watched in disbelief as the lash flew one way and the broom the other. Phoebe had expected them to fall to the ground, she hoped that they would, but neither did. Bladderwell lurched at him, his balled fists now opened wide like two claws ready to grasp at their prey. Phoebe felt her throat tighten in a moment of panic, but the almighty sound of a machine crashing put a halt to Bladderwell’s intentions. His head spun around. Two women screamed, scared by the noise and clatter and crunching of wood as the besom’s handle splintered. Bladderwell almost fell to his knees as he watched the machine falter, before coming to a shuddering halt. Phoebe saw a glint of fear cross his face. He was answerable to the mill owner for the upkeep of the machines and their output. The whip landed on one of the other weaving machines, becoming tangled in the threads, bringing work there also to a grinding halt. Things had gone too far for them to stay a moment longer. They had to leave straight away – somehow, before they were caught and punished.
Benjamin Bladderwell’s face that had been bright red was now slowly turning purple. Thomas pushed Phoebe behind him and grabbed a scrap of fabric from the pile of off-cuts.
“Use this, Phoebe,” he said.
Thomas helped to secure it firmly and quickly around her arm.
“When I say run, run!” she ordered her brother who nodded – there was no other choice.
Phoebe started backing towards the large double doors at the end of the mill. Her arm hurt. She would rather have a cut arm than have had Bladderwell fumble her. He was evil and a bully and she was glad he would have to answer for the damage caused in the mill, but they would now be hunted as machine breakers.
They were near the doorway when Bladderwell ran like a mad man, storming towards Thomas. Words they had never heard before came rushing out of his mouth. Thomas waited till he was nearly upon them, then grabbed another broom handle and jabbed it hard at the overseer’s shin. Bladderwell dodged, slipped on the debris under his feet, but could not escape the blow that glanced off his jawbone. Thomas drew the broom back, looked the man straight in the eye and grinned fleetingly before taking his ultimate revenge. Phoebe realised his intent, but could not stop the boy. With an almighty thrust she could see that he took great pleasure in deliberately hurling the whole broom into the workings of the nearest loom.
“No!” The roar from Bladderwell’s mouth was nearly as loud as the commotion Thomas had caused. The apparatus came to a standstill. The workers ran to the side of the mill in trepidation. The sound of splintering wood and metal hitting metal echoed in Thomas and Phoebe’s ears as Benjamin and his men were busy trying to stop the carnage.
“Run! Now!” Phoebe shouted, “Didy, run for the gates and don’t stop!”
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