City Of Discoveries
This was a far cry from the open country, but Jennet knew it was the only way forward . . .
JENNET MARSHALL drew her shawl around her rake-thin shoulders and braced herself for the walk to Sooth’s Mill. She knew William, her husband, was pretending to sleep in the bed she’d left 20 minutes earlier, but she simply whispered a goodbye as she lifted the latch and slipped out on to the passageway.
He wasn’t the only man left behind by a working wife in Dundee, but it was a thing he bitterly resented.
She hugged the damp wall of their shared tenement stairwell and tried not to let her boots ping. William had insisted on banging nails into their soles and heels when she slipped and fell on the ice last week.
The boots did grip the cobbles better, but they were noisy and some folk were still sleeping in this dark early-morning hour.
She turned away from the mill and made her way off Hawkhill a wee bit. Getting up 10 minutes earlier meant she could walk in a loop around streets where the houses had gardens, and pretend she was back in the countryside.
In January there was no greenery or blossom, but there were trees. She loved to walk below them where they stretched across the street, dreaming about the summer canopy to come.
It would be different this year in the city. She sighed over their move from Carnoustie. There had been no choice when the handloom-weaving ended.
Women were attractive to employers because they were cheap. Men like William were more expensive to employ.
A paperboy rushed out of one garden gate and dropped his bundle.
“Here,” Jennet said. “I’ll help you.”
“Thanks, missus. There’s a lot the day. Thae publishers have brocht out a new ane and everybody wants a copy or three.” “Three!”
Jennet and William hadn’t a penny to spare for news, and how she missed her reading. She glanced at the number on the gate: 59. Were they buying three copies of the one paper?
“What’s it called?” she asked the lad.
“‘The People’s Friend’,” he said and rushed away.
“‘The People’s Friend’,” Jennet murmured. “Aye, some of us people are in sair need of a friend.”
She’d lost time talking to the lad and by the time she retraced her steps, Hawkhill was thronged. A mass of women and children moved towards the bulk of the great mills.
Jennet hardly knew any of her fellow workers by name, but one or two faces were familiar because they were in the same section.
They worked under foreman Drew Fleming, whose rough voice and
uncertain temper kept them all in fear of their jobs, but who kept the overseer sweet because his outcomes were good.
Soon the press of folk was so great that Jennet was caught on either side by two women. She recognised the older one by the green stripe running through her blue shawl, and nodded when she spoke.
“Jennet, isn’t it?” “Aye. You’re Meggie?” “That’s me, an’ this here is my sister, Torie. Are you getting the hang of your loom, Jennet?”
The mill gates materialised out of the dark street. A few lamps cast a glow on the women’s heads, in their shawls and the odd man’s cap.
“We’ve seen that devil Fleming hanging o’er you.”
Jennet suppressed a shiver. She’d thought the foreman had been paying her unnecessary attention, but had hoped she’d imagined it.
Last week, he’d come up behind her and run his hands across her hair. When she jumped out of his way, he’d growled at her.
“Whit are you about, quine? I need to see that your hair is tightly held. Dinnae want any quine scalped on my shift.”
The man’s family had come from Aberdeen when the mills began expanding, and his accent was all but impenetrable to Jennet.
Not so the lustful look in his eyes. She knew what that meant.
She’d thought about telling William of her fears, but decided things were bad enough between them.
“He does pay particular attention, and he seems to think I need more supervising than others,” Jennet said quietly.
“He would. Listen, we’re behind you. Eh, Torie?”
“That’s right. Dinna let that man away with onything. Dinna let ony man away with onything.”
Jennet looked at Torie.
The long day, with its clouds of fluff and neverceasing clatter, eventually ended. Jennet tumbled out of the mill with the other workers and into the dark of a January evening.
She ached, her head thumped and two fingers were red and raw.
“Penny for the marmalade, miss?”
Crouching beside a shop door was a waif so small and malnourished, Jennet could not tell whether it was male or female. “Please, miss, a penny.” The child was holding a filthy broken cup, in its middle a spoonful of marmalade or jam.
Raking in her pocket, she found a farthing and a penny. She held them out to the child.
“Thank ye, miss,” the tiny voice squeaked, and in a flash the child was gone.
“Did you give him money?” At her elbow, William’s deep tones were loud in her ears.
“William, you startled me! Did you see the state that child was in?”
“We need all our pennies, Jennet. There’s rent due.”
“It’ll be a sad day when we cannae help a bairn with no shoes an’ only a broken cup of rancid jam! What’s come over you?”
Jennet knew she should have been calmer, but months of creeping around her husband’s broken spirit, the noise of the mill and the horrid presence of Drew Fleming were suddenly too much for her. She was the one getting up at half past four to struggle into work, not William! “They were my pennies.” “So you think because ye earn the money, ye hold the purse-strings. Did I ever keep you short?”
Jennet felt hot angry tears behind her eyes.
“No, you never did. An’ I’m no’ keeping you short, but we have no bairn of our own and that one will not be long for this world if naebody helps him.”
William lifted his arm and a woman, too smartly dressed to be a worker, stepped towards them out of the evening crowd.
Jennet saw her fist clench tightly around a walking stick which she waved with authority.
She thinks William is going to hit me, Jennet realised, and she’s going to stop him!
She grabbed his arm. “Let’s get back.” Whatever else they’d faced, William had never raised his hand against her.
His warm bulk leaning against her side brought its own comfort and she tried to let the stress slide away.
“I tried the docks again the day, but that’s still as it was where work’s concerned. Thae men all know one another and an outsider disnae get a look in.”
Jennet’s heart ached for her man. He’d never been idle a day until last year when they learned there would be no more collections of finished cloth from their cottages. Most of the village men were made idle and the looms broken up.
William stopped walking and Jennet followed the line of his gaze.
Was that Drew Fleming? Surely the foreman lived in the opposite direction? He and his family were able to afford three rooms.
She knew because he’d made a point of telling her when he asked if her own man was in work.
“That chap with the side-whiskers?” William nodded towards the wynd the figure had gone down.
“Aye, Drew Fleming. He’s the foreman in my section.”
“Does he live out our way?”
“Naw, he lives across the other side.”
“Curious. I’ve seen him lurking around afore.”
He let Fleming go as the excitement of other work news overtook him.
“Listen, I heard from that auld wifie on the ground floor, Mistress Wightman, that Keiller’s have hud a huge delivery of them oranges they use fur the marmalade. There might be a portering job going.”
“That’s mair like, William!” Jennet said, and the excitement drove Fleming from her thoughts, too. “The women were talking about Keiller’s the day. It’s like the jobs are mair at some times of the year than others.”
“Aye, with the seasons,” William said. “Mistress Wightman suggested I go along the morrow and speak to a Mr Cruikshanks. She has a notion he’ll be the one to change my luck.”
“Oh, William,” Jennet said and squeezed his arm.
Hetty Wilson smiled as she saw her young cousin, Carrie Smith, blink in the sunshine when she came into the breakfast room. January days took such a long time to ripen that Hetty often had lamps burning until after ten o’clock.
Yet again Hetty thought how lucky she was that Carrie had decided to sell up after her parents’ deaths and take the big downstairs room here as a paying guest.
She enjoyed the younger woman’s sparky intelligence, and it meant at least one room of her boarding-house held someone congenial.
She looked around for the morning mail and spied a large pile of letters where Cook had left them on the end of the sideboard.
It was an unspoken rule of the house that the mail should not be disturbed until breakfast was eaten, so no-one lingered too long over that meal.
Hetty had only one guest at present, but with Carrie’s increasing involvement in suffrage business, the pile of letters did not diminish.
Hetty crumbled her toast and gave a small cough. Why did she find it so difficult to talk about the house’s financial arrangements?
Carrie might be from one of the richest jute families in Dundee, but she did not flaunt her wealth.
Even so, Hetty was
still, after 10 years of doing it, a little embarrassed to be letting out rooms.
“I wanted to tell you, Carrie, that I have been able to fill the two empty rooms on the top floor,” Hetty said, blushing.
“Goodness, Hetty, will these new tenants be returning high-seas adventurers?”
“No, but they are both male. I was approached by my late cousin Roberta’s husband, Mr Thomas Webster. He is bringing a friend to visit Dundee.”
Hetty choked a little on the sip of tea she’d taken.
“Careful, Hetty,” Carrie said in concern.
“Mr Webster is of a Dundee family, although they are now living in Edinburgh. He found it too painful to continue here after Roberta died. The family business is whaling.
“His friend is called Crombie, John Crombie. I don’t know what he does.” Hetty poured more tea.
She watched Carrie push her plate away and rise.
The pile of mail was proving irresistible. She would be expecting letters from Edinburgh, and of course there was always the hope that one of their mutual cousin Elspeth’s entertaining accounts of life in Australia would arrive.
“I would not take male guests, but times are hard and the extra income must be seen as a bonus.” Hetty lifted her chin. “I hope you understand. Mr Webster is virtually a relative and Mr Crombie will only be here for two or three weeks at most. I believe he has a passage booked for his return to Newfoundland.”
“Why, Hetty,” Carrie said calmly, “I understand the nature of business. You rent out rooms, and when there are no guests of the female sex then you must make do with men.
“I remember the Webster family from childhood parties. Papa would have been glad to know a Webster was around and active in the city, because he always said that whale oil was an important part of the production process in making jute profitable.” Hetty smiled.
“You are so very knowledgeable about technical matters. Well, it is 1869 and perhaps women need to recognise that their brains are as capable of understanding science as any man’s.”
Hetty occasionally felt a little disgruntled that the Good Lord had made her a woman and not a man.
Had she been born her brother, as it were, she might have been running a jam or jute factory herself by now, and not having to worry about whether the sheets were fine enough for Mr Thomas Webster and Mr John Crombie.
“Yes, they are,” Carrie replied mildly.
Hetty knew her cousin, too, chafed at being female from time to time, and certainly there was little sign of mildness when she went after the overseer, Souter, about his treatment of the women and children in Sooth’s Mill. Carrie might not be running her family’s business, but she kept a close eye on it.
“That is one of the reasons I feel the suffrage movement is so important.”
Carrie handed over three letters from the bundle, but the rest were for her.
“Thank you. I’ll go down to the kitchen and speak with Cook. She may have ideas about what the gentlemen should be offered for breakfast.”
Hetty left her cousin in the breakfast parlour where, after her elderly maid, Ina, had cleared, she knew Carrie would spread out her papers, pamphlets and correspondence and set to work.
Elspeth Sutherland sat on the verandah in a light gown and a wrapper.
It was not yet six o’clock in the morning, but the heat demanded she have a huge ostrich-feather fan which she used to waft some cooler air around her from time to time.
Life as a colonial wife in Sydney was different in so many ways from what she would have experienced as a wife in Dundee, had Harold not carried her off. She relished it.
“I certainly could not have appeared on any balcony corset-less and wearing a wrapper,” she told the koala and its baby watching her from the safety of a huge gum tree on Harold’s new property.
The animal’s unblinking stare was a little unnerving.
“My dear, are you suffering from heat-stroke, that you’re talking to the koalas?” her husband asked as he brought a tray of pineapple juice through from the kitchen. “Once we start having any of my family to visit, you may not sit out here in only a wrapper, either.”
“You are a cruel man, sir, but at least you don’t insist I wear a corset when your family visit.”
Elspeth stretched her head up to meet Harold’s kiss.
“I can almost forgive you as you’re bringing me this wonderful juice.”
“It is still hot,” Harold agreed. “Usually by the middle of January, the thermometer is creeping down.”
Elspeth sighed with pleasure. She loved the view from their new house.
It opened out across the expanse of the Botanic Gardens where Harold spent his working days, and was sufficiently distant from the busy city streets to be a quiet haven of burgeoning plant-life and a selection of Australia’s odd fauna.
“Have you sent off some notes to your parents, my love? Only I know how your papa will fret if he cannot have sleep and . . .”
“I have sent him your recommendations for which cabins to book for the journey on to Sydney. Oh, Harold, just think, we have not seen them since we left them after our marriage in Calcutta.”
She stood up and, dropping the fan, leaned over the verandah railing to study the koalas.
Harold came up behind her and encircled her with his arms. Elspeth relaxed into his lean strength and breathed slowly.
“Are you crying, Mrs Sutherland? Yes, sometimes I think our marriage was too sudden, but what could I do when the next opportunity might have been in five years’ time?”
Elspeth sniffed. “These are tears of happiness because I’ll get to see my parents again within a few months.”
She squirmed round and gazed into his troubled eyes.
“Besides, if we hadn’t married, all those single ladies would have had too much opportunity to secure your interest.”
Elspeth knew her arrival in Sydney as Harold Sutherland’s bride had not met with the approval of everyone in the community of European academics. Some women had taken the trouble to tell her so.
“You mean Miss Stewart and her friends,” Harold said with a chuckle. “Darling Elspeth, I hope they aren’t causing you more discomfort. There never was any real affection between me and Grizel Stewart.”
He lifted the heavy locks of blonde hair from the back of her neck and a welcome breeze tickled it.
“I was much surprised to be told by her brother that I’d broken her heart; much surprised.”
Elspeth gurgled with amusement despite thinking she should be kinder to Miss Stewart’s injured feelings.
In the four months since she and Harold had arrived in the city, she’d come to see that her new husband was inclined to speak as he found rather than dress things up in polite phrases and little white lies.
“And I, too, will be glad to see your parents again and get to know them better. I am sure my mother is looking forward to their visit. I should be back from the Blue Mountains by the time they arrive.”
“The Blue Mountains! When are we leaving?”
She was delighted.
One of the ambitions of her life was to travel, and there was so much of Australia to see.
Elspeth let excitement deafen her ears to that “I”.
“You haven’t given me much warning, Harold; I’ve been accepting invitations willy-nilly. I knew nothing of this Blue Mountains trip.”
“You don’t need to worry, my love. I have no intention of taking my bride up into the wilds. Accept as many invitations as you please.”
Elspeth hid her disappointment as best she could. Outright opposition was not going to move Harold one iota.
She would have to plan her strategy.
The big clock in the hallway had just finished striking 11 when the doorbell jangled again.
Hetty dried her hands on her apron and struggled to loosen the strings. The tradesmen had been and gone long before this and besides, they pulled the kitchen bell.
Who could be calling this early? The minister?
She checked her neat bun in the hall mirror as she passed the parlour door and sighed. Why was this person ringing the front doorbell?
Battling through the curtain hanging behind the glass vestibule door and hauling away the bolt of draught excluder, Hetty managed to open the door.
A young lad in the livery of the city’s premier hackney service stood there. He removed his hat and bowed.
“Luggage from Earl Grey Dock, ma’am.”
“Luggage!” Hetty said faintly as realisation dawned.
The new lodgers had already stepped out of a second cab pulled up behind the first.
The horses snorted and stamped in the cold air, the boys bustled about unloading trunks and cases and two tall, elegantly dressed gentlemen watched from the flags.
Catching sight of her, they came into the garden.
“Miss Wilson?” the older man said. “Thomas Webster. I know we have not met so very often since I married Roberta, but I do see a family resemblance.”
He removed his hat and made a small bow.
“The Wilsons are thought to have small chins,” Hetty said, feeling instantly at ease with Thomas Webster. “And I think you must call me Hetty, sir, as we are family.”
“Only if you agree to call me Thomas and to accept my apology. We are a day ahead of our proposed arrival as the boat we joined made excellent passage from London.
“It arrived in Leith quicker than expected and the captain decided to take advantage of a fine wind to come on.”
“And here we are,” the other man finished in an accent Hetty did not recognise.
She thought he sounded as if he might come from North America, maybe Canada.
He was a couple of inches taller and his complexion a couple of shades darker than his companion.
“John Crombie,” he added, holding out a hand.
Hetty gripped it in hers and looked up into a pair of brown eyes that sparkled with amusement.
Is he laughing at my discomfiture, she thought, and straightened her spine.
Blushing is something other misses do, she silently reminded herself. I am equal to any man.
“Well, good morning to you, gentlemen. We aren’t quite ready for you, but come in meantime.
“If the rooms are not aired to your satisfaction, then others can be reserved at the temperance hotel in Reform Street until tomorrow.”
She turned back into the passageway, but not before she caught the gleam of admiration in Thomas Webster’s eye. She’d surprised him and that satisfied her hugely.
“Thank you, Hetty,” was all he said.
“A temperance hotel,” Mr Crombie mused as they moved down the passage, “Surely in this land of such fine whisky, a temperance hotel is a strange thing?”
Hetty swung open the door of the front room.
“I think your luggage could be put in here,” she said, “but as the fire has not been lit yet, perhaps you would care to come into the breakfast parlour.”
Within a very short time the cabmen had unloaded all the portmanteaux and cases.
It was difficult to squeeze in and out of the room, but Hetty waited patiently while Thomas discharged the bill.
She led the gentlemen along the short hallway to the breakfast parlour.
“Oh, goodness!” Carrie exclaimed, looking up as the mess of her work and correspondence was discovered all over the table.
Papers and reference books were strewn everywhere. Hetty had forgotten she would still be working in here.
“Carrie, these gentlemen are my new guests. Mr Thomas Webster and Mr John Crombie.”
She stood to one side as Carrie came forward to shake hands.
Did Mr Crombie hold on to Carrie’s a little longer than was necessary for politeness, Hetty wondered.
She noticed the shy upward glance the young woman gave him and was struck by how pretty a pale pink blush made her young cousin look.
Her light red hair was abundant and piled on top of her head in an untidy bundle, but with glasses slightly askew and an ink smudge on her cheek, she presented an endearing picture.
“I am a sea-faring man, Miss Smith,” Crombie was saying. “A whaler like Mr Webster here. But I work out of Newfoundland.”
“Newfoundland,” Carrie said in a whisper. “I think Newfoundland must be a very exciting place.”
Jennet’s stomach was roiling with nerves as she made her way among the thick press of folk shuffling towards the mill the next morning.
After the excitement of William’s news had died away, she’d lain awake puzzling over why Drew Fleming had been lurking in a close so near their house.
She was barely conscious of the cold and the damp January air hanging heavily over the city under a blanket of dark cloud and nearly impenetrable fog. “Good morning, Meggie.” Inside the mill, Jennet and Torie turned to the woman’s voice with its air of authority, as did Meggie.
Jennet realised the speaker was the young woman who she had noticed in the crowded street last night.
“I’ve come in early today because I heard from the school that two or three of the bairns have been missing lessons,” the woman continued.
“Aye, weel, ye’d need to ask their maws aboot that, Miss Smith,” Meggie said shortly, and carried on changing her outside boots for the thinner ones she carried in a cloth bag.
“Who is she?” Jennet asked as she moved on.
“Miss Smith? She’s wan o’ the owners, or the owners’ family, but being as how she’s a woman, she busies herself with our welfare,” Meggie said.
Picking up the woman’s reluctance to say more, Jennet let it go. Besides, Meggie had other news.
“I hear Fleming is being considered for a promotion,” she said as they unwound their shawls and rubbed their fingers to bring a bit of life and circulation into them before starting up the looms.
Jennet glanced at her new friend, startled.
“Promotion? Does that mean he’ll have even more chance to make our lives a misery?”
She hauled off her boots and slipped her feet into wooden clogs before checking carefully that her hair was tied up and out of the way of any machinery.
“It’s no’ guaranteed,
like,” Meggie said. “He micht be moved over to one of the other mills an’ replaced here.”
Jennet drew a deep breath. Dare she hope? Would the Guid Lord listen to a prayer asking that the devil might be successful in his promotion?
She heard the clatter of the machines bursting into life and took up her own position.
“Guid o’ you to turn your attention to the job at last,” Fleming said in her ear.
He was behind her, hidden from most of the workers, but some would have seen him cross the floor and slide between her loom and the next.
“I’m shair ye understand how important it is that my workforce is on top of the outturns.”
He paused and Jennet wondered if he awaited an answer.
She couldn’t think of one and kept silent.
“These airs an’ graces are no’ doing you any good in my e’en, quine. Think on. When I take the trouble to point out your faults an’ how you could improve, I’m doing you a favour.
“I expect a bit of consideration in return.”
“I’m sure I work as hard as I know how, Mr Fleming,” Jennet said.
She shivered as cold sweat trickled down the back of her neck.
This was worse than any of his previous insinuations.
“Aye, but I think ye could be a wee bit mair nice in your attentions to me. I did suggest ye micht like to bring your piece out to the backyard, did I not?”
The backyard was a dingy space fenced off from the main yards and frequented by the foremen to smoke their pipes and sometimes, Jennet knew, to spend ten minutes with one of the women.
She would not trust Fleming if they were out of sight of the others.
Jennet shuddered and a thread snapped.
Nerves made her fingers clumsy and Fleming had to grab her hand before she lost a finger in her haste to repair it.
Fleming hitched his trousers around his belt and sloped off.
Jennet forced herself to concentrate. The risk of an injury was ever present and she could not afford to be laid off.
Twenty minutes later one of the bairns arrived at her loom.
“The overseer has telt me to tell you to gang to his office, Jennet Marshall.” “The overseer?” Jennet was breathless. Nobody was ever sent for by the overseer for a good reason.
She let the loom fall silent and tidied her skirts as best she could before crossing the floor to the overseer’s tiny office.
She knocked on the glass and went inside when he called.
“Jennet Marshall?” “Yes, sir.”
Jennet was aware of Fleming standing to her left.
His breathing rasped into the cleaner air of the office which was cut off from the suspension of fluff on the factory floor.
“Mr Fleming tells me he’s no’ awfully pleased with your work,” the overseer began.
“Why, sir, that’s no’ fair. I maybe snapped a thread this morning, but ony body does from time to time,” she burst out without thinking what impression she would give.
“Do you interrupt me, Mistress Marshall? Who is Jennet Marshall to tell my experienced foreman anything?
“Listen to me, woman, there’s plenty can take your place.”
The door behind Jennet crashed against the wall and Miss Smith burst in.
She crossed the floor and leaned forward with both hands on the overseer’s desk.
Meggie’s words echoed in her head. One of the owners, but a woman. But what now?
And what would become of her and William if she lost this job? To be continued.