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Luddite Spring: 44 - The Secret

...He might be safer if he moved a bed into the mill, then he could lock himself in his office with a brace of muskets and a saddle pistol, and then woe betide any Luddite that tried to harm him!...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel set in the most turbulent period of England's industrial history.

Staithes lay awake in bed. He had things to think about. A sudden blast of cold whose origin he could not tell, spread its icy fingers around his throat so that he was at once wider awake than he had been the moment before. He sat bolt upright in his bed, drawing the bedclothes around him to shield himself from whatever or whoever it was that seemed to set upon him. Other than what he imagined to be a dark light, he could see nothing in the blackness of his room. In a state of dread, he was not surprised when his thoughts turned to the dread secret he kept from all living.

Whenever the spirits of darkness came upon him, he remembered his secret. In remembering it, he feared greatly. He quaked, knowing that he deserved to quake and that he was the only one that knew why he deserved to. The aetiology of his terror was his failure to do right. This failure condemned him to be isolated every hour of every day of his life.

Therefore, he feared to let anyone near to him in amity lest, in a weak moment, he might divulge a secret that if it were made public, would surely destroy him.

After grasping him and shaking him for several terrifying minutes, the fearful phantom released its frosty grip. Then he attempted to explain away the experience and deflect it from his personal failure onto things earthbound. He resolved that his stomach cramps had nothing to do with fear, but were engendered by his setting off from the Cherry Tree with his dinner undigested, his temper raised by a bad day’s business, and the living room and bedroom fires having gone out before he had chance to warm through. Having pushed aside the real reason for his paroxysm, which was nothing other than distress at the possibility of the exposure of his secret, he set his mind to make plans to defend his mill and machines in the event that Luddites attacked his mill. Real Luddites turned his mind away from illusions, if only for a while.

Concerning Luddites, he had formulated some vague plans but the reality of the situation was that an attack by Ned Ludd’s brigands was more likely to happen than not. He must form his defences solidly to deal with any assault they might launch and he must to do so early enough. One idea after another raced in his fevered brain until he despaired that he would ever know what he ought to do and when he should do it. He might be safer if he moved a bed into the mill, then he could lock himself in his office with a brace of muskets and a saddle pistol, and then woe betide any Luddite that tried to harm him!
Then, he realised how inadequate that would be in light of the daily reports of armed masses, armies, going against masters. He had to fortify the mill. It had to be impregnable!

He sat bolt upright in his bed. Impregnable! Gathering a counterpane around him to exclude the cold, he raced down to his study, sat at his writing table. With fumbling fingers he struck a primitive sulphur match and lit a candle. He began scratched notes of the steps he could take to beat the tide of ferocious Luddites that would come beating on his doors and windows in a frenzy to destroy his machines. After half an hour, he had made a list that was so excessive in addressing the capabilities of his assailants that he trembled at the military prowess he had conceded to them. “However mighty in arms and numbers they come to my door,” he boasted, “they will get more than they bargained for, and more than enough to settle ten times their strength!”

Exhausted from the effort of making his catalogue of defences, he snuffed his candle and went back to his bed grinning and chuckling at his schemes for defeating Luddites, singly or in battalions. The rest of the night he passed in satisfying sleep.

There were times when Staithes lamented that he was not liked by people. He decided their dislike was due to their jealousy of his intelligence. He did not reflect on his angularity of character. He was successful and, therefore, an object of envy. He neglected to allow for his insistence that he was right even when he was wrong, because he was always right! In his figuring of why he people disliked him, he hit every possible thing squarely on the head except the nail.

When it came to business he knew he was trusted as a man that kept his word, paid his bills on time, and neither made nor accepted excuses for non-performance. He never gave his word on a contract unless he knew he could deliver it on time, in the right quality, and at the agreed price. On those matters, he was trusted. Yet, the high degree of trust in business never equalled his perceived worth as a companion or friend. There was that in his habits and speech that men naturally distrusted. He believed this was somehow due to the dread secret he hoped would never be revealed. If it was … No! He dared not think of it!

Staithes’ secret was his failure to keep a promise made to his partner on his death bed. His affiliate was Thomas Marsden, a man three years his junior. They had met at a conference arranged by the War Department when it was inviting tenders for military uniform suitings. Several merchants had attended, and by chance he and Marsden had dined together and got on well enough to consider doing business together. Marsden was a dyer and Staithes a manufacturer, so there was mutual benefit to be had by their co-operation.

After several successful joint business endeavours, they amalgamated their separate concerns into a single firm as partners. They enjoyed sustained orders from the War Office, and the prosperity that came from was such that Marsden abandoned his old dyehouse and together the partners built a dyehouse abutting Outcote Mill, that went on to become a firm to be reckoned with.

It was the kind of move that either makes a company’s fortune, or else thrusts it into disagreement and debt, and its principals into debtors’ prison. Staithes and Marsden respected each other while not becoming close friends. This was solely a business venture founded on the recognition of each other’s strengths in their field. The trade described it as a perfect marriage.

The business ended with in tragedy. Tom Marsden’s horse balked at a wall during a steeplechase throwing Marsden off to strike his head on the coping. He was borne across his saddle to Staithes’ home at Outcote Hall, it being the closest dwelling. He was semiconscious for three days then lapsed into reverie from which he did not recover despite the best ministrations of three local doctors. He died a week to the day after his accident and was buried in the Wesleyan graveyard in Netherthong.

As Marsden lay dying, he confided in Staithes and secured his promise that he agreed to fulfil to the letter. Having secured Staithes’ solemn word, Marsden then told him that he had a younger brother named Ezra, from whom he had been estranged for some time. He confessed that he now regretted their estrangement and by way of recompense and reconciliation wanted Ezra to inherit his share of the company.

The brothers had parted on disagreeable terms over who should have the hand of a young maiden whose beauty and charm were such that the brothers both admired, then loved and adored, and later sought her hand in marriage. They learned of the other’s intentions before either had approached the girl’s father for permission to pay court to her. In a short time, the love between the brothers was tested to the point where they disagreed in uncivil and uncharacteristic ways, neither showing any disposition to withdraw from the competition and leave the field clear for the other.

When Thomas learned that Ezra had pursued the young woman after a chance meeting with her during which he revealed to her of his fascination with, and told his elder brother that his attention was reciprocated. In a fit of jealous passion, Thomas left his parent’s home to escape his unhappiness and leave the memory of what he called 'the betrayal' behind him. He had kept within his bosom his feelings for his lost love and the quarrel with Ezra until the day he opened his heart to Staithes.

He told Staithes that Ezra was to inherit all his property, his home, its furnishings and appointments, and all his commercial interests, including his share of the business, its profits, and its cash reserves. Staithes had clasped Marsden’s cooling hands and promised him that all would be turned over to his brother exactly as he wished. The men had again clasped hands in affirmation of the vow and Staithes’ part as executor a few hours before Marsden lapsed into a coma from which he did not recover.

Notwithstanding his promise to the dying man, Staithes allowed greed to persuade him that since only he had been privy to his wishes, no one would be any the wiser if he kept silent about it. His determination was reinforced when, after he searched through Marsden’s effects at his home and at the mill, he had failed to find a will or any document that even hinted that that he had any living family.

Secure that Marsden’s intention to dispose of his share of the firm by endowing it to Ezra Marsden, a person that could be Staithes’ rival, had perished with Marsden, it became the singular secret of the defalcator whose greed was stronger than his integrity. “No one,” he told himself aloud in the night darkness of his cold room, “will ever be any the wiser. His property, the Mill, and everything in it are mine, all mine!”

Like most wealthy people of that time, Staithes had delusions of persecution fuelled by the terrors that galloped in on the heels of the French Revolution. He had fears about his business failing, fears at the coming of the Luddites, and the chilling power of a pledge given to a dying man that he had violated. Any one of these circumstances might tax the emotional integrity of a strong man, but when combined, they were overwhelming.

On the day of Marsden’s funeral, Reynold Staithes closed the mill for two hours so the workers could attend and pay their respects to Master Marsden, but he cut the hours from their wages. Since then, he had struggled to rest, and struggled to remain calm. However, the evil he had done was stronger than his determination, and when it surfaced, as it did now and most nights, he was its victim. Staithes had his secret. But his secret also had him!

Staithes’ deceit drove him frantic. The conscious act of suppressing his crime drove him from the freedom of openness to the invisible bondage of a taciturnity that allowed him to speak only of things he believed were separate from Marsden’s wishes, lest by a breath, a sigh, or half-formed word, he might provide an intimation of his failure to execute a sacred duty. By this, he was forced by inner demons, the arbiters of his conduct, to believe that only his exercise of self-discipline, and the exercise of power over others would he be safe from disclosure and punishment.


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