Titus Salt alighted from his conveyance at Crow Nest Park and stretched out his long frame in relief. He breathed deeply of the fresh air, pleased to have left behind him the stench of the city for another day. George Weerth had the right of it when he had said “If anyone wants to feel how a poor sinner is tormented in Purgatory, let him travel to Bradford.”
Salt’s hound, a huge black beast the colour of his own hair, lolloped up to him and rested her big head against his leg in greeting. He ruffled the dog’s ear, and gave her his newspaper to carry before striding towards the big front door of the mansion. He slowed down as he felt the cramp in his calves after a day on his feet.
“Come, Kanute!” he called to the dog, which happily trailed in his wake as he entered the large front door.
“Hello, the house!” he called, before remembering that his wife was away this day, taking their daughter Fanny to visit relatives in Harrogate. He laid down his hat and topcoat for the maid to find and clean later and ambled to his study.
He was delighted to find that the maid had already lit a fire in the grate. Kanute padded over to the rug on her great paws and sat before the warmth, dropping the soggy newspaper on the floor. A stuffed owl on the mantlepiece looked down on the dog disapprovingly.
The flames flickered merrily, their glow brightening the darkening room, their warm reflections dancing from the clutter of objects filling every corner. A telescope, a globe, inkwells on the desk, shelves groaning with books and geological samples, plants and stuffed birds – all the accoutrements that a successful gentleman might be expected to gather to him in Victoria’s proud and prosperous realm.
Salt scratched Kanute’s head, and the heavy tail thumped against the floor. He crossed to his desk and sat down. He opened a drawer and withdrew a rolled paper. He unrolled it across the desk, weighing it at either side with inkstand and blotter. He peered closely at the paper, lowering his head.
Hmmm. He twirled his greying beard between his fingers. Cheerful though the firelight was, the rich dark oak-paneled walls drank too much of the radiance before it reached him.
He returned to the fireplace and lighted a spill, carrying the flame back to the desk where he lit the Argand oil lamp. A soft yellow glow illumined the desk, driven by best colza oil. He sat down and looked again.
A section of the Aire Valley lay depicted before him. The area he had chosen for his new mill was fully three miles from Bradford’s throttling stench. Surely people would work better in the clean air than in the centre of that stinking, breath-clogging hellhole.
He peered again at the map, trying to ascertain the exact boundary of the land that he had purchased. It was still too gloomy, and he sighed wearily.
“Though God Himself demand it, I cannot stand again,” he thought.
He took up a heavy brass hand-bell and shook it vigorously, dispatching a loud summons through the house.
Shortly, the door opened and a maid entered. She was dressed in her working attire of dark ankle-length dress protected by a white pinafore. Her red hair was tied back, and her only adornment was a necklace from which depended a small silver skull. When he had first seen the necklace it had seemed to Salt a peculiar piece of jewellery for a young woman, but he was not one to hold harmless affectations against a person.
Kanute’s tail thumped rhythmically against the rug as the maid entered. Kanute liked the maid. Indeed, Salt liked her too. She performed her duties well.
“You rang, sir?”
“Eileanora, yes,” he replied, “Would you please light the candles? My legs seem to have decided to withdraw their labour.”
“Yes, sir.” Eileanora bobbed a quick curtsey and crossed to the fireplace, where she lit the several wicks of a candelabrum set on the mantlepiece in front of a mirror.
“Thank you,” Salt said, “Perhaps you could also bring a pot of tea? And perhaps a dish of those delicious comfits from Harrogate?”
“Sir,” she curtsied, and left the room. Salt turned his attention back to his plans. Perhaps if he could persuade Lady Rosse to sell him her land to the west, he might consider further building.
His train of thought was interrupted by Eileanora’s knock at the door. For goodness sake, she had only just left.
“Yes?” he enquired, a little sharply.
The maid bobbed into the room once more.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but there are some gentlemen to see you.”
“Who are they? Do they have cards?”
“No, sir. I did ask, but they wouldn’t tell me who they were. Shall I fetch the groom, sir?”
Salt sighed deeply. He’d better go and see what they wanted. Perhaps they were workers looking for a job. He stood up with a groan.
“Very well, Eileanora, you can—”
The door behind the maid crashed open, sending her flying across the room. She sprawled across the floor by Kanute, who jumped up, barking loudly.
Three men burst into the study with a clattering of boots on the wooden floor. Kanute barked even more deafeningly.
“Shut that fucking dog up!” barked the ruffian at the front, brandishing a pair of pistols. The two with him each bore a knife and a club. Thieves! Desperate ones, too, if they had the nerve to break into a gentleman’s house.
“There’s no—” began Salt.
“Shut it!” ordered the one with the pistols. Salt took this as a sign that he was the leader of the trio. One of the others moved over towards Eileanora and pointed his knife at her.
“You shut that cur up now or I’ll bash its brains in!” he snarled. The maid got to her feet, stroked Kanute, and spoke quietly to the dog. The barking ceased, though the dog sat alertly, watching carefully.
“There is very little money in the house,” explained Salt.
“We don’t want your money,” spat the leader. He wore a brown jacket and trousers, neither of them displaying the threadbare appearance that one might expect of a ruffian thief. In fact, he did not have the appearance of a member of the working class at all.
“What do you want?” asked Salt.
“Well,” said the man to the left, “I wouldn’t mind availing myself of the maid service.” He leered at the demure servant. She looked down at her feet, avoiding his gaze.
“Watch your manners,” ordered the leader, and his henchman took a step back, chastened.
“Well now, Mr. Mayor,” began the head ???ruffian, lowering his pistols, “You have been ruffling a few feathers lately. Very important feathers. For example, with all this claptrap that you’ve been trying to push through the council, trying to force a by-law to compel factory owners to use these expensive Smoke Burners.”
“It would significantly improve the health of—”
“Bollocks it would,” interrupted the intruder, “There’s nowt wrong with a bit of smoke. Exercises the lungs, it does.”
“I disagree,” Salt argued. The leader of these men, at least, seemed quite articulate. Perhaps he would be open to reasoned argument.
“Might you be a medical man then, Mr. Salt?” enquired the intruder.
“I am not, as you must know. But I see all the cholera in the city. What causes that, pray, if not for filth, for grime, and a lack of clean air?”
“Lustful living,” said the man, “Lustful urges and the drinking of cheap alcohol. That’s my honest view, sir, but my honest view is not what matters. What matters is the view of my employers.”
“I am no supporter of lustful living. I am no supporter of any sin, Mister..?”
“Chuff off. You don’t need to know my name.”
“Very well,” Salt replied calmly, raising his hands to mollify the man. He’d been getting somewhere then, he was sure, but had put a foot wrong by asking the man’s name. He should try to take this gently.
“I can see that you are a reasoning man,” he began. “Come and look here, at these plans.”
He beckoned the man over to his desk, where the Aire Valley map was spread out. The ruffian approached, pistols held loosely at his sides now.
Salt indicated the area below the River Aire.
“This is about three miles west of the city, along the Aire,” he explained, “Mill workers here would have unsoiled air and clean living, and that, I maintain, can benefit not only the workers, but we owners, too. A happy worker is a good worker.”
“According to my superior, who is paying me a great deal of money to visit you today, a happy worker is nothing of the sort. A happy worker is a worker who then imagines he has a right to that happiness. And once a worker has one right, he’ll want others. Higher pay, more expensive housing, costly doctoring. Once the lower class gets a foothold, there’ll be no stopping them.”
The man’s voice rose as he espoused thoughts obviously dearly held by himself as well as by his mysterious superior.
“I have evidence to the contrary,” continued Salt, “From my own woollen mills. I have fitted the Rodda Smoke Burners. I therefore have a healthier workforce. They are sick less often, for a start.”
“And it cost you a packet, didn’t it? These burners are expensive things. You might be able to afford such doings, but others cannot. You just desire to drive others out of business so that you can obtain their mills for yourself and grow your empire. I know greed, and I see right through your fancy words, Mr. Salt!”
“But I….” Salt paused, unsure of how to proceed in the face of this man’s rising anger, then continued, trying to keep his voice calm.
“Look, what would you say if I told you that I will soon build a new mill in this place.” He swept his hand across the map, “Out in the countryside, where I can properly test my hypothesis. Perhaps even houses, with running water on tap from the river? What would you say then?”
“I’d say that you’ve signed your own death certificate, Mr. Mayor.”
The man’s lip curled, and he pushed Salt back down into the desk chair. He raised a pistol and pressed the barrel against Salt’s forehead. Salt stared up wide-eyed at the anger in the man’s twisted face and prepared to meet his God.
A narrow beam of pale blue light shone out of the man’s left eye, and the eyeball melted. The beginning of a scream was cut off as the light swept through the face, slicing away the top of the man’s head.
As the body of his assailant fell away and the pistols clattered to the floor, the figure of Eileanora was revealed to Salt. She stood erect, a determined look on her face. Her right arm was outstretched, and in her hand was a bizarre device from which emerged the thin beam of blue light.
Her left hand gripped the throat of one of the henchmen, and as Salt gazed on aghast, a simple twist of her wrist dispatched him from this life. His corpse fell to the floor. Kanute yipped approvingly.
The thin blue light swept inexorably across the room and sliced into the third man’s chest. He too fell lifeless, tumbling like one of Fanny’s rag dolls.
Eileanora touched her skull necklace with her left forefinger and spoke.
“Hey, it’s Tabby. I’m done here. Extraction, please.”
She shimmered, then simply disappeared, her maid’s uniform falling still warm to the floor as it was left behind.