Barbara Lampett ran down the lane at the edge of the village of Fiddleton, feeling the crunch of icy mud beneath her feet and the stitch in her side from the cold air in her lungs. Lately it seemed that she was always running after something or other. She wondered if the lack of decorum on her part was the first sign of a life spun out of control.
It was really no fault of her own. Had she the choice, she’d have been in a seat by the parlour fire, staring out at the changing weather and pitying those forced to go about in it. But Father paid little heed to his own discomfort when he was in one of his moods, much less that of others.
And she could hardly expect her mother to go. Mother’s volatile nature would add warmth to the day, but it would do nothing to cool her father’s zeal. Nor was Mother young and strong enough to face the crowd that surrounded him when he spoke, or to extricate him from the hubbub he created.
The new mill lay almost two miles from the centre of the village. It was too short a distance to harness a carriage, but longer than a pleasant walkâ€”especially on such a chill December day as this. Barbara found some consolation that the ground was frozen. She had decided to forgo pattens in favour of speed, but she did not wish to ruin the soft boots she wore by walking through mud.
And much mud there would have been if not for the cold. Ground that had once been green and lush was now worn down to the soil, with the comings and goings of wagons and goods, and the tramp of growing mobs that came to protest at the gates of the new buildings of Mr Joseph Stratford.
A crowd gathered here now. Another of the demonstrations that had been occurring almost daily thanks to her father’s speeches. Mixed amongst the angry weavers were the curious townsfolk. They did not seem to care either way for the plight of the workers, but they enjoyed a good row and came to the gatherings as a form of entertainment.
There was a sudden blast of wind and she wrapped her shawl more tightly about her, unable to fight the feeling of dread that came with the exhilaration. While it pleased her to see the people attracted to her father’s words, the path he was leading them down was a dangerous one and his actions dangerously unwise. With each passing day he seemed to grow more reckless, speaking from the heart and not the head. He could not seem to understand what his comments would do to the local populous.
But she could feel them, caught in the crowd as she was, buffeted by the bodies of angry and fearful men. There was a growing energy in the mob. Some day a chance word or a particularly virulent speech would push them too far. Then they would boil over into real violence.
When the wind blew from the east you could still smell the burned-out wreckage of the old mill, where so many of these men had been employed. That owner had paid dearly for his plans at renovation, seeing his livelihood destroyed and his family threatened until he had given up and quit the area. That had left the protestors with no work at all, and even angrier than they had been before.
It seemed the new master would be cagier. When he’d built his new mill, like the pig in the old story, he had used bricks. It loomed before her, a blight on the horizon. Every element was an insult to the community and proof that the person who had built it lacked sensitivity for his neighbours. It was large and squat and altogether too new. He had not built in the wreckage of Mackay’s Mill, which might have given the people hope of a return to normality. Instead he’d placed it closer to the grand old house where he currently lived. It was not exactly in the front park of the manor, but plainly on the estate, and in a place by the river that the Clairemonts had allowed all in the village to use as common greensward when they’d lived there. It was obvious that Mr Stratford had thought of nothing but his own convenience in choosing this site.
Though he showed no signs of recognising the impropriety of the location, he’d built a fence around a place that had once been the home of picnics and fetes, trampling the freshness to hard-packed mud. Barbara was convinced it demonstrated on some deep and silent level that the master of it knew he was in the wrong and expected to receive trouble for it. The wrought-iron border surrounding the yard separated it from the people most likely to be angry: the ones whose jobs had been taken by the new mechanised looms.
She pushed her way through the crowd to the place where her father stood at the foot of the stone gatepost, rallying the men to action. Though recent misfortune had addled his wits, it had done nothing to dull the fire in his eye or the clarity in his voice. While his sentiments might be unwise, there was nothing incoherent in the nature of his words.
‘The Orders in Council have already depressed your trade to the point where there is no living to be made by an honest manâ€”no way to sell your cloth to America and other friends of France.’
There were shouts and mutters, and the brandishing of torches and axe handles in the crowd. Barbara’s heart gave an uneasy skip at the thought of what might happen should any man think to bring a firearm into the already volatile situation. She was sure that the mill owner towards whom the ire was directed sat in the closed black carriage just behind the gates. From there he could listen to every word. Perhaps he was even noting the name of the speaker and any others preparing to act against him.
But her father cared nothing for it, and went on with his speech. ‘The new looms mean less work for those of you left and more jobs falling to inexperienced girls, while their fathers and brothers sit idle, dreaming of days past when a respectable trade could be plied in this country.’
The mutterings in answer were louder now, and punctuated with shouts and a forward surge of bodies, making the gates rattle in response to the weight of the crowd.
‘Will you allow the change that will take the bread from your children’s mouths? Or will you stand?’
She waved her arms furiously at her father, trying to stall what was likely to occur. The government had been willing to use troops to put down such small rebellions, treating their own people as they would Boney’s army. If her father incited the men to frame-breaking and violence they would be answered with violence in return. Mr Stratford might be as bad as her father claimed, but he was not the timid man Mackay had been. He would meet strife with strife, and send for a battalion to shoot the organisers.
‘Father!’ she shouted, trying to catch his attention. But the workers towered around her, and her voice was swallowed up by the din. Before she could speak a calming word the first shot rang outâ€”not from the crowd, but from the door of the carriage in front of them. Even though it was fired into the air, the mob drew back a pace like a great animal, startled and cringing. Barbara was carried along with it, relieved all were safe and yet further from her goal.
The carriage door opened and Stratford appeared, leaping to the ground before his worried footman could help him and springing to the same stone post where her father stood. He climbed easily up the back of it until he stood at the top and towered over her father and the other men. He held what looked like a duelling pistol in his right hand. With his left he drew back his coat, so the crowd could see its mate was tucked into his belt. He looked like a corsairâ€”nimble, fearless and ready for battle. Barbara could easily imagine him with a blade between his teeth, rushing the crowd.
She was just as sure that he would be the sort to take no prisoners. Though he was a handsome man, in a dark and hungry sort of way, there was nothing in his sharp features that bespoke a merciful nature. His grey eyes were hard and observant. His mouth, which might be capable of a sensual smile, was twisted in a sneer. Her father thought him the very devil, set upon the ruin of all around them.
But if devil he was then he was a handsome devil as well. Although she could think of a hundred reasons she should not notice it, she thought him a most attractive man. She schooled herself not to stare up with admiration, as she had caught herself doing on those few times she’d seen him in the village.
Perhaps she should have found him less impressive, for that sneer on his face quite spoiled the evenness of his features. While she had thought the position he took on the wall made him look taller than average, he hardly needed the advantage. He stood well over six feet. Today he was a fearsome thing, and nothing for a young lady to gawk at.
To match his physical presence he had the sort of forceful personality that seemed to incite strong emotion in friends as well as enemies. And, frightening though he might be, Barbara was sure that once she was focused on him she would not be able to look away.
‘Who will be the first through the fence, then?’ Stratford shouted down at the crowd. ‘I swear to you, that man will lose his life along with his livelihood.’
The workers shrank back another pace, huddling against each other as though seeking warmth in the cold.
The man on the post laughed down at them. ‘I thought as much. All bluff and bluster when there is no risk to you, and cowardice when there is.’
Her father turned, shouting up at him. ‘It is you who are the coward, sir. Vain and proud as well. You hide behind your gates with your idle threats, unwilling to walk among the common man and feel his pain, his hunger, his desperation.’
Stratford glared back at him. ‘I do not have to walk among you to know about you. I can go to the ruins of Mackay’s placeâ€”a mill that you destroyedâ€”to see the reason for your poverty. If you could, you would burn my factory as wellâ€”before I’ve even managed to open it. And then you’d complain that I’d treated you unjustly. I tell you now, since you have so conveniently gather…