Faith and Fearlessness – M. G. Thomas
Manchester, September 1860
• • •
Mr Thornton sat motionless at his desk in the gloom of his dusky apartment, fully dressed in a black cashmere evening suit, his gaze fixed on a picture in a silver frame.
There was a respectful knock on the door. He looked up, confused. Then annoyance quickly clouded his countenance. In the doorway he distinguished the frail frame of a young woman.
His brow knitted.
He suddenly remembered.
But he forced himself to produce a bland smile.
“Thank you, Sarah. I’ll be right there.”
Yet he did not stir. Instead, his eyes wandered back to rest upon their precious object. His gaze instantly darkened with raw agony. He choked. Within his blurred sight now appeared his hand, slowly moving forward, animated by a will of its own, its thirsty fingers stretching, trembling, reaching out… desperate to caress the softly smiling lips once more. Suddenly the sound of short, rasping breaths cut through the solemn air and made his blood run cold. But the instant he realised that it was his own panting, he abruptly drew his hand back and squeezed his fingers into an unforgiving fist.
He brusquely pushed back his heavy chair while he rose, straightened his back and determinedly walked out of the room, leaving Margaret’s portrait untouched and undefiled.
• • •
“Dear John, may I introduce to you my friend, Miss Grant? She has taken the trouble to travel from unspoiled Oxford to reside in our grey, foggy, smoke belching Cottonopolis, only to edit a manuscript and write a book of her own! Isn’t that delightfully remarkable?”
Mrs Brown looked up at him with her round, innocent eyes and gently touched his elbow. Mr Thornton quickly recomposed himself, sharply realising how he had stood near the fireplace all by himself for... too long probably. The muscles in his hand cramped from holding his glass too tightly. He smiled at Mrs Brown, suspiciously searching for any pity-coloured shade in her eyes, but she had already turned to the person waiting to be introduced. Mr Thornton now allowed his gaze to move on to the unknown lady in front of him, fully conscious of how it brushed lightly along the tender skin of her bosom and neck, then fixed itself on her lips and climbed up to her eyes. There his gaze was met with a curiously comforting attentiveness, devoid of expectations or demands.
His breath caught but fortunately his body responded mechanically and bowed. He opened his lips, but before he could utter a polite yet hopelessly insufficient greeting, Mr Brown cleared his throat and then, with a loud voice, invited all guests to enter the dining room. When Mr Thornton turned his attention back to the lady, her eyes still rested on him quietly. She then turned and followed the other guests.
• • •
“I just can’t believe how incredibly... stupid—forgive me, ladies—the demands of the union are!”
Mr Hamper shook his head and made no attempt to hide his contempt.
“We are simply not in a position to pay higher wages because there’s hardly any profit to be made, thanks to the ridiculous prices of cotton these days. The Americans are ruining the market with their cheap produce. But that bloody union—forgive my language, ladies—doesn’t care about the real world out there and claims we are enriching ourselves while the workers suffer, instilling false ideas into the masses who are so eager to believe we exploit them. They are like wax in the union’s hands, easy to mould and ever so easy to be set on fire!”
After a moment of silence Mr Slickson leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “I can tell you this much, my fellow masters, I won’t take it anymore. I have men trained who will not hesitate to beat the hell out of that rioting trash as soon as one of their so-called ‘leaders’ gets it into his ignorant mind to make a move for the engine’s boiler, draw the plug and silence the looms. By Jove, how that scumbag and his comrades will regret their listening to the union!” He smiled and fell back into his seat.
“Why would you fight your own people?”
Mr Thornton, just about to bring his fork to his mouth, nearly dropped it. All went silent at Miss Grant’s softly spoken, but unusual (and therefore unwelcome) interference of the men’s discussion. But Miss Grant calmly continued, carelessly adding to the increasing unease of the party.
“I mean… you all work for the same cause, don’t you? Yet you make it sound as if your workers are the enemy who must be taught a lesson and defeated. How can you expect the best from your people when they are met with such anger? Such resentment?”
All remained silent. The ticking of the mantle clock suddenly seemed loud and intrusive.
Mr Hamper was the first to recover from his disbelief. With a short cough he attempted to clear away this dense blanket of unexpected, uncomfortable embarrassment which had now seeped into the room, like a thick fog, effectively muting all guests at the table. He carefully allowed his irritation to build up and expand, then, looking at her sharply, spoke, “I’m sorry, madam...?”
“Miss Grant, Sir. Helen Grant.” Her eyes softened when she looked at him. A warm, liquid, honey-textured gaze flowed towards him. His heart started to throb. He didn’t expect to be met with… kindness? His grip on the knife loosened beyond his will.
“I’m sorry too.” Miss Grant smiled, then cast her eyes down, allowing Mr Hamper time to let go of his vexation and, maybe, reconsider his response. Then she looked up again.
“But what I mean is… human energy. Your most valuable asset. It’s not in the bricks and mortar of your mills, it’s not in the looms, it’s not in the figures and projections. I know—” she gently raised her hand when she saw how Mr Hamper’s lips parted to start a protest, “... that’s part of it too. But what makes your business a valuable business are the people who do the actual work. You can’t build your business without people producing your calico, now can you? You need them… with or without machines.”
“Hands can easily be replaced, Miss Grant.” Mr Slickson cracked a freshly baked roll and looked at her calculatingly. Slowly he put a piece of bread in his mouth, allowing his gaze to rest heavily upon her. Miss Grant felt how her eyes fixed themselves on this mouth—two moist, wide, righteous lips, lazily floating along on the movements of the giant jaws.
“Can you be replaced?” she asked the righteous mouth. Its movement ended abruptly when the question hit its target. Immediate anger flared up in the pores of the coarse skin around the fleshy lips.
“I beg your pardon?” Mr Slickson now sat up straight. “Are you suggesting that I’m of the same make as any ordinary mill worker? Have you any idea who I am, Madam?!”
“Oh dear, I neglected to ask if perhaps you all desire some more wine?” Mrs Brown gestured nervously to one of the butlers, desperate to steer away from this unfortunate conversation or... argument, God forbid!
“You know that I do not know you personally, Mr Slickson,” Miss Grant said, throwing Mrs Brown a reassuring smile but not allowing her attention to be diverted.
“But I have the utmost respect for you and your achievements and I am well aware that you are a very powerful man.”
Her voice welled up from deep in her throat, comforting, vast, unaffected.
“Still… even though you are in many respects different from the people who work for you… you can’t deny that you do have quite a lot in common. You both dedicate your human energy to your business, don’t you? You in your way, they in theirs. I’m certain you’ll agree with me that, in the end, we are all replaceable, we must be. People are born, work, grow old, then die. Still our businesses might continue under the guidance of new owners, with a new generation of workers. That’s only natural and I’m sure one of your main motivations is to be able to see your business continue into the coming decades, even when you can no longer conduct it yourself. To see how something you have built with your very own hands... has the potential to grow and flourish even beyond your time.”
Mr Slickson’s gaze now jumped restlessly from Miss Grant’s eyes to her hands and from her hands to her eyes again, unable to make sense of this unexpected turn; heated, alarmed and suspicious of what evil trap she was setting with those smooth words of praise. There was nothing he could think of to silence her unusual speech. In spite of his desire to thrust her away, back to where she belonged, wherever it was, to some insignificant place in time just before this sudden, unfamiliar, threatening moment was created, before he had become aware of her annoying presence… he could do little but wait and see what this unknown creature was planning to do to him.
“There are workers who can’t be bothered getting ahead in life, but I’m certain you must also have employees who are of a different mind,” Miss Grant continued, “who work from a different energy, an inner motivation. People who really want to accomplish something in their lives. Those are the people who recognise and share your drive, your passion, your urge to succeed. Of course they expect something in return, just like you. Money, status, contentment, respect. Wouldn’t it be far more efficient to cherish that potential? To identify those workers, invest in them, develop their strengths and use them to move your business forward, rather than ignore, criticise or even resist them? If you are reluctant to listen to your workers—any of your workers… if you are indifferent to their concerns... it will only make them easy prey to parties who are more than happy to listen to their frustrations and worries and fuel their feelings of insecurity and discontentment, like the unions so cleverly do. It’s exactly your desire, to extinguish their fire rather than kindle it, which drives them into the warm, comforting arms of the unions!”
Mr Thornton had listened to her words in growing amazement, struggling to make sense of this woman and her outrageous courage to project her compassionate, but impossible views onto the men’s businesses.
“No offence ma’am, but I do not know any of these ‘different’ workers you speak of so confidently,” Mr Hamper spoke, now fully recovered and ready to charge again.
“You are a... novelist, aren’t you? Yes, I think Mrs Brown told me.” He threw Miss Grant a carefully crafted, pitiful look.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, madam, but I’m afraid those ‘different’ workers, so dear to you, only exist in your feeble female imagination.”
He half-hid a stiff, joyless little smile behind his napkin and looked confidently around the table, happily anticipating how his words would shut this silly woman up for good, saving this civilised party from total perplexity by putting an end to this absurd conversation.
But Miss Grant still looked at him, now with a contemplating gaze.
“I’d hoped for a more robust reply, Mr Hamper,” said she. “Either you don’t have an eye for them, or you feel threatened by talented, motivated, driven workers who might do a better job than you. Don’t worry—” Mr. Hamper’s triumphant expression rapidly froze into a grimace as she was speaking, “…most manufacturers think they’re the best choice for running their business and turning it into a success. Rather than identifying good people and investing in them, and—God forbid—maybe even learn from them…” (will this be too much for him? she thought, then decided it wasn’t) “…they hire the dumb, replaceable masses whose intelligence—or more specifically lack of self-confidence and lack of education—can never rise up to their masters’ superior levels. So, Mr Hamper, if you have never met these different workers, and please allow me to assure you that I’m not only talking about them, but working with them myself, I’m tempted to think that you, like ninety percent of entrepreneurs and business owners, have chosen not to look for them, either consciously or subconsciously.”
Mrs Brown couldn’t help herself. The explosive energy of this conversation was just too much for her sensitive soul. All guests now looked at Mr Hamper, anxiously, helplessly (as if to ask him for directions in this total confusion), then at Miss Grant and then back at Mr Hamper. All eyes were then unwillingly drawn to Miss Grant’s gaze, a serious, almost worried gaze, which, without a trace of victorious arrogance, rested calmly on Mr Hamper’s now bloodless countenance.
“Miss Grant?” A deep, yet gentle voice. It was Mr Thornton who shattered the dense atmosphere. He coughed briefly, feeling uneasy to speak, yet too intrigued to refrain from taking part.
“I’d be interested to hear what your advice would then be to us mill masters who are now facing social upheaval and maybe even a union strike.”
Miss Grant looked around the table, curious to learn which of the men was taking up the glove this time. Then she recognised him. She noticed that he was not leaning back lazily into the safety of the shadows—which performed their dramatic play just outside the stage of the table—to carelessly watch how she would respond, but instead leaned slightly forwards, one hand resting next to his plate, allowing the candles to light the regular features of his face, with a clever, alert look in his eyes. Miss Grant remembered those eyes well.
She swallowed, hesitant for a moment. Then she took a breath.
“Well, Mr Thornton…”
His gaze intensified. She remembered my name.
“…if you cotton manufacturers fear for a strike you need to understand—understand at a deep level, not just intellectually, but from the wisdom of the heart—that your employees are standing on your side rather than opposing you. Masters need to see that you all work to achieve the same outcome: financial safety and a sense of worth. You need to acknowledge that your workers are not enemies nor competitors, but fellow workers. Of course you must be aware of differences in views and solutions, but masters and labourers always have a mutual goal: creating a successful business so that money will be made for every party involved. I think masters shouldn’t allow themselves to be forced into animosity by the unions. You should be wiser than that. You need to look deeper and understand that the so-called ‘demands’ of your workers—carefully sowed, watered and cultivated by the unions and their ruthless thirst for power—sprout from nothing but fear, which is the root of the problem. The masters would do well to deal with that fear-infected root rather than with its poisonous fruits: harsh words, impulsive threats, calls for violent action. All that is just the expression of fear. Tough words and threatening behaviour are little more than an outer peel… like the prickly, protective skin of the vulnerable pineapple flesh. Rather than being tempted to dully accept the unions’ habit of solving problems in only one way—which is jumping into the ring and ripping each other to pieces like fighting cocks who can’t think for themselves—mill owners should constrain their vexation, step back, examine, then deal with the true cause of their workers’ problem, which is nothing but fear: fear of losing the stability of a daily income; fear of becoming obsolete due to the rapid introduction of inventive and highly efficient machinery; fear of losing out; fear of being... replaceable.”
Mr Hamper dramatically threw the silver cutlery onto his plate, pushed back his chair and said in a voice which was more emotionally affected than he wished for:
“I refuse to listen to this senseless chatter any longer!”
Mr Slickson, who had been quieted by Miss Grant’s unexpectedly respectful words but whose smouldering anger was eager to flare up again and get even with her, put his glass down and coldly asked Mr Brown: “Would you be so kind as to take us to the smoking room, sir? I believe this dinner has just come to an end.”
Mr Brown, well aware of his obligations as a host and not willing to contradict the wishes of his respected guests, rose and gestured to the butler to open the door to the smoking room.
Mr Thornton, who had been fascinated by Miss Grant’s passionate plea, was surprised at all the commotion. His disturbed glance, however, was quickly met by Mr Brown’s commanding look, which was clearly not to be contradicted and which ordered him to leave the dining table at once and follow the other men. Mr Thornton took a deep breath. He wiped his lips with the silk napkin and placed it next to his plate. When he rose from his chair he tried to catch Miss Grant’s eye, but she looked dreamily into the candle flames and took a sip of her wine, seemingly unaffected by the chaos she had just caused.
• • •
Mr Thornton leaned into the cushions, his legs loosely crossed while one arm rested on the back of the sofa, an empty glass in his hand. He was tired of hearing his fellow masters express their opinions about this unknown woman in the strongest terms possible, forcing poor Mr Brown to apologise and even go as far as to blame Mrs Brown for having acted recklessly in inviting such a rude person into their intimate circle. But then the door opened and the cause of the men’s crushed pride entered the room. Her silhouette was hazy at first due to the heavy, tobacco-scented mist, but when she stepped forward it became clear and vibrant. Mr Thornton was stunned to see her standing there, in a simple but beautiful evening dress which seemed to make her shine like a precious star. But then the sacred spell, which had silently slipped into the room with her, was deliberately disgraced by a crude snort from Mr Hamper.
“Dear Mr Brown,” Miss Grant spoke, apparently unbothered by this hostile universe and its unforgiving rules, “may I thank you for inviting me into your home, among your good friends. It was an...” she hesitated but then smiled, “interesting experience, I must say. It’s wonderful that you have allowed me to meet with such proud men who are passionate about their businesses. Very inspiring indeed.”
She looked around the room, her lips curled into a smile, as if to thank the men for trying to slaughter her just a while ago. Mr Brown, utterly confused by her appearance and bold words, stuttered something unintelligible and bowed awkwardly. In response, she dropped an elegant curtsy.
But instead of allowing Mr Brown to lead her back to the other ladies, her gaze swiftly traveled through the room, scrutinised it, then spotted whom it was looking for—Mr Thornton. He gasped for air as if she had just put a bullet in his gut. What on earth…? Now she started to walk over to him, calmly, forcing the others to hold their breath... and watch her movements in deathly silence. Mr Thornton rose quickly, the blood rushed from his brain, he almost stumbled, then bowed to steady himself.
“Mr Thornton?” she said, “May I, please?”
He looked at her soft eyes, desperately searching his mind to say something, anything, for God’s sake!, then noticed how her hand reached out to him. Did she want to shake hands? Only then he saw a note in the palm of her hand. She looked at him intensely while she smiled her comforting smile. He cleared his throat, then took her gently by the wrist, pretending to shake her hand while slipping the note into his hand.
She nodded politely. He opened his lips to speak, but Miss Grant had already turned away and swept from the room.
• • •
The smell of roast beef, smouldering coals and bees wax. The sound of the clock’s majestic ticking. The smooth sensation of polished parquet underneath his leather shoes. Mr Thornton stood in the shadowy, candlelit hallway of his mansion, ready to ascend the elaborate, carved wood staircase to his rooms. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt. Then he remembered the note in the pocket of his jacket. Seconds after Miss Grant had left the room, the masters in the smoking room had roared in disbelief, relieved like a pack of college boys once they knew they were safe from the danger of her clever observations, then scrambled to compete with one another in a foul game of humiliating her with grotesque judgements. Mr Thornton, unwilling to be involved in such a despicable display of male cowardliness, had warmly shaken Mr Brown’s trembling hand and left.
He now examined the double sheet of octavo-post, then unfolded it. He could make out some words, but it was too dim to read. He raised the candle in its silver candlestick and fumbled with the note to illumine the handwritten lines. Its message was short:
How much of a chance do I have of meeting you for lunch this week to continue our conversation? Helen Grant, Moss Side Cottage, Moss Lane, Manchester
The words hit him right between the eyes. The candlestick almost slipped. As his one hand tightened its grip instinctively, squeezing the candlestick, his other hand let go and dropped the note. While he bent to pick it up, he could feel his quickening heartbeat rushing through his temples. He pushed his elbow against the stair rail to gain his balance, waited to let the dizziness dissipate, impatiently unfolded the paper again while pointing the vigorously flickering candle towards it and, eager to find out if he had understood the message correctly the first time, read it again.
A mixture of sharp excitement and faint nausea spread through his belly. He placed the candlestick back on the side table and sat down on the wide, ebony stairs. He held the note in his hands and scrutinised her handwriting. It was feminine, elegant, written with precision. But the words... nothing a lady would... nothing a lady should ever write to a gentleman she didn’t even know. No frills, no poetic subtleties, no hide and seek. Just the bare message—short, factual, bold. He felt his stomach contract while his gaze moved along the lines. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Suddenly a vision of Miss Beckett appeared before his mind’s eye, as clear as if she was right there, standing in front of him, brightly lit in the dark hallway. Miss Beckett in her beautiful, expensive, ivory-coloured muslin dress she had worn during that never-ending evening at her parents’ summer house. Mrs Thornton, his mother, was bent on him marrying Miss Beckett to secure her son’s future—and her own. Young Miss Beckett could have chosen any man she wanted, for she was rich, well-connected and gracious under all circumstances. But she had approved of him, so Mrs Beckett had happily informed Mrs Thornton. Not that Miss Beckett would confide in her mother about matters of the heart, but she had confided in her best friend (naturally under the strict condition of confidentiality) who had told Mrs Beckett less than four-and-twenty hours later. Mrs Beckett, in her turn, had enlightened Mrs Thornton by letter. His mother had then proudly announced Miss Beckett’s choice to him. This had taken place less than two weeks ago.
Mrs Thornton had been thrilled with the news that Miss Beckett had finally made up her mind about her son, but the morning that Mrs Thornton actually informed him, she instantly realised that he did not share her excitement. While she scrutinised his face—as if that would have stopped the news from taking its horribly wrong, irreversible turn—she helplessly watched how a crack, as fine as a silk thread, suddenly made its appearance and started to find its way down the smooth, moist surface of his eye, frosting his usually bright gaze for just a second. At that moment she knew that all hope of a happy marriage was lost. “I’m glad to hear that, mother.” He had spoken mechanically before casting his eyes down.
Mrs Thornton had sighed silently in an attempt to calm her throbbing heart and had closed her eyes just momentarily, so that he wouldn’t notice. They had sat there motionless, each seated at opposite ends of the breakfast table, both feeling crushed about his lack of romantic feelings for young Miss Perfect.
Still, the inevitable course of life was not to be hindered by the irrationality of feelings or the inconvenience of sentiments, and so arrangements were swiftly put in motion. The fact that Mr Thornton did not love Miss Beckett was unfortunate—and God knew how Mrs Thornton had tried everything in her power to find him an object of love in the person of Miss Beckett—but she was relieved to find that John had listened to her plea calmly, then had dutifully accepted a future with Miss Beckett as the best option there was. At least he will be loved, Mrs Thornton had thought in an attempt to find a ray of light in this dim prospect, stubbornly pushing away the distress of expecting to see her son continue to struggle through an unhappy and unfulfilling life... after the misery he had suffered already.
Mr Thornton was seven-and-thirty years of age now, and he understood perfectly well it was time that a new Mrs John Thornton should take the stage, as his mother had so forcefully suggested to him for the past two years. Miss Beckett was three-and-twenty and as ready as could be to fulfil the many tasks of her life’s destiny as a wife, a mother and head of her household. That summer evening Miss Beckett had honoured her parents’ outstanding accomplishment of having given her the finest education possible, by entertaining their highly respected guests with her virtuoso piano playing. Mr Thornton had watched how, after the solo performance, she had taken in the impassioned applause with a proud little smile on her thin lips, blissfully unaware of her natural gaze which had remained unaffected and blank.
• • •
When Mr Thornton awoke from his meditations and realised he was still sitting on the stairs in the dim hallway, he suddenly remembered Miss Grant’s mysterious, warm, thoughtful eyes as she had stood before him—her hand reaching out to him, the note in the palm of her hand, perfectly calm. No doubt. No fear. Not a single flicker in the pupil of her eye. Was she being outrageously rude? Outrageously courageous? Or had she simply lost her mind? But that evening she hadn’t given the impression of suffering from a nervous affliction, which so many ladies nowadays seemed to be falling victim to. On the contrary—she had seemed to know perfectly well what she was doing… only playing a different game than generally approved of.
How much of a chance do I have of meeting you for lunch this week to continue our conversation? An open question, lightheartedly expressed as if spoken to a close friend rather than written to a complete stranger, confidently unbothered by the outcome. He could imagine her asking him face-to-face, her head slightly tilted, a hint of a cheeky smile on her lips, a playful look in her eyes, knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist such an inappropriate yet exciting request. How was he to respond to such a... dilemma?