With great care not to get his fingers caught, Ross finally slid the heavy mechanical piece into place. The recently shaped iron was still free of rust and blemishes, in stark contrast to the rust on the rest of the large spinning machine. While he laid upside down to reach the mechanisms, he gestured for Tommy to come take a look.
“Watch yer hands, don't get 'em caught!” He warned his little brother, having to raise his voice over the deafening whirring and ticking of the still functional spinning machines. He showed him how the parts moved in relation to the other. Bit by bit he put back together the other pieces, which he had to remove to replace the old part.
He felt a harsh tap of a cane on his leg. In surprise, nearly insulted he looked up at the foreman of the factory; a middle aged man, his hair slicked back with so much Macassar it glistened, even in the dusty air of the textile factory. His heavy mustache moved as he spoke loudly.
“How much longer Mr. Forrest. We are losing production.”
Ross had to resist the urge to snap back, instead remaining polite.
“It is nearly done sir, the old beast will be ready for a test run in fifteen minutes.”
The foreman gave a sharp nod and checked his pocket watch for the time.
“The girls will get her ready.” With a loud, sharp whistle and a raise of his cane the foreman signalled for a group of young girls. Immediately they sprung into action, manning the machine and getting the cotton ready for processing. Several even younger boys and girls followed, waiting for when the machine would work again.
Despite it not being his place to have an opinion, Ross couldn't help but glance at the children. Their clothes torn from working on their knees, too thin and tired to really focus. He knew that the longer this machine was still, the less they would have to work – but the less they worked, the less they would get paid. As if taking their childhood wasn't enough, the few pence they had for food and clothing would be gone as well.
Whether he fixed this machine or not, it didn't really make a difference. With a frustrated shake of his head, he simply continued to put things back together the way they were. Like the cogs in the machine, he couldn't change the way they worked, only put them back in and watch it all wear away for a few pounds of profit more.
“Ross?” Tommy's voice beside him pulled him out of his frustrated mullings. He looked over, happy to have some sort of distraction, even if he could see the slightly confused worry in his little brother's eyes.
“Isn’t this machine dangerous?”
“Well, if you get yer fingers caught, it won't stop, so it's better if ye keep yer hands off.”
“Then why are they working it?” Tommy pointed at the children, not just on this machine, but also the ones that were already busy diving and grabbing the cotton that fell under the spindles each time the machine went back and forth.
“Because it's their job Tommy, don't worry too much, ye need yer hands for different work.” With a smile he brushed the cotton dust from his little brother's hair, but his smile wasn't reprocitated.
“Don't they need hands?”
Ross sighed deeply, and nodded, but he knew there was little he could change or do about it, and even less he could say to justify it.
“They do Tommy, but their hands buy some people far up pretty things.”
“Like the people in that manor?”
Ross nodded again.
“Like that gun ye made?”
He quickly shook his head, but realised that had it been anyone else, it very well could have been. It wasn't a thought he enjoyed.
“Sometimes… but if I don't make them, ye'd be under there with them.”
A hard hit against his ankles made him jolt in pain, and Tommy gasped from the suddenness.
“Quarter of an hour has gone by, Mr Forrest, yet she moves not.” The foreman clicked his pocket watch shut, and the sound alone offended him. If ye live by that thing, may as well shove it up yer arse so it can replace yer heart.
“I am on it, aren't I?” He barked back, his ankle still sore from the hit by the hardwood cane.
“Does your father know you are this lazy? Or is he too drunk to come by again, so he has to make do with you?”
Ross resisted the urge to throw his tools down right then and there, as he felt his blood rush in his ears. But with Tommy there, and unwilling to lose work, he could hardly fight. Hell, he was already on his back.
“No sir. It will be done soon.” With a push he sent Tommy out from under the machine, so he would be away before it moved again.
“I suppose I should be glad you're not drunk, can't expect much better from you uncivilised lot.” Another hard hit against his ankles made him jerk his feet back in pain.
Upset and insulted, he let out a long breath consisting of nothing but Scottish swears he had only ever heard his father utter. Luckily for him it drowned out amongst the loud noise, so neither Tommy, nor the foreman heard.
With a last few tugs, he put the final part in place. With his fingers dark from the oil, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and put his tools back in the bag beside him. A few smudges and stains richer – and with bruised ankles, he got up. Before he could even give a signal he saw the foreman switch a handle that caused the power to return to the fixed row. Immediately the whirring and ticking started and fell in pace with all the other rows on the floor.
As the metal frame came back down the center, he instinctively pulled Tommy closer to him. The latter gladly stuck by him, as he watched the children that dove back under to grab the loose cotton.
“I promise ye'll never work like this.” Ross said as he ran a hand over Thomas's shoulder, causing his shirt to smudge. He didn't respond, too intently focussed on whenever the machine came back and whether the children made it out in time. “Hey, I'll get ye those sweets soon?”
That did get Thomas to look up, at least drawing his attention away for long enough to nod sullenly.
Ross counted the coin he was given for his work meticulously, as the foreman and company clerk kept a close watch.
“You're a shilling short sir.” He stated, after a second recount. The foreman huffed, as if insulted.
“Or maybe you can't count, I doubt your folk need to know anything over five.” With how those wee-ones looked, neither do ye.
Ross tossed the tiny bag onto the desk of the clerk.
“Count them yourself then. It's five shilling for the materials and craft, two for the work and repair. I may not count to five, but I can count three – and that right there is two threes, which makes no seven.”
The foreman scoffed, but the clerk counted, let out a sigh, and tossed in the extra shilling.
“The man's right, it's six in here.” The clerk said, and telling from his jaded tone it probably happened more often than not.
“It's a fee for working so slow, we lost good time on this.” The foreman attempted to crawl back on his earlier statement with confidence.
“I’d worked faster hadn't you kept hitting me.”
“Listen here you,-” In a fit, the foreman took a step closer and waved a finger at Ross, but realised that mayhaps not have been such a smart idea when he had to look up to meet the blacksmith's gaze. Instead the foreman just swallowed his words and scoffed again. “If it were me I'd never have hired the likes of you wild folk.”
Ross ignored the insult, instead walking over to the desk and taking his earnings, before it could be forcefully renegotiated again. He pocketed it and took his leave.
“Good day sirs, your machine should stay up and running.”
For a second the foreman looked like he wanted to retort, but a brisk 'good day’ from the clerk finished the exchange.
Once outside, Ross tossed Tommy the loose shilling. He looked at it like it was a treasure.
“All of it?” He asked, amazed by what was effectively a small fortune to him. Ross nodded and smiled.
“Fair wage for fair work, but don't spend it all.”
Thomas grinned, quickly putting it in his pocket to keep it safe. He wrapped both his arms around his older brother in a tight hug, not able to reach higher than his waist. Ross simply grinned and patted his shoulder, not caring much that their mother would undoubtedly berate them for all the black smudges.
With a paper bag of boiled sweets from the grocer still in hand, Ross and Thomas entered the forge again. The sweets didn't last very long either, as he was quickly obliged to share a round with all the forge hands. Even his own father took one, in the midst of asking him how it had been.
“How did it go?”
“Colonel was kind enough, told him if he wants the gun fixed or modified he could come by. The Morris people were bitching as usual.”
“Bunch o' swines, the lot of them. Tried to pull anything?”
“Pay me a shilling less and beat my ankles sore.” Ross shrugged, lifting one pant of his pantalons, showing his increasingly black and blue ankle.
“Ah fer focksake, they get worse every time. Next time I'll go with ye Rossy.”
“How did yer emergency go?”
“'t was a quick thing, just a cog that snapped and got caught. Took half an hour tops, so I went to Mr. Hogarth to sign that for the house on the by.”
“Yea, it’s all ours now, we'll move the stuff in in an hour or so. Get ye yer own place to work.”
Ross grinned, surprised by how quick it had been settled, but glad he'd finally get some peace and quiet during working hours.
With a heavy grunt, he and a forgehand set the last of the small crates down in what was supposed to be a narrow living room. Instead the bare walls were now packed with crates and barrels full of materials and ore, still in need of refinement for the work. It wasn't the ideal storage space but as long as it fit through the door it would be fine.
The second part was much trickier, as they had to carry furniture up the narrow, uneven stairs. Some large pieces, like the bed, he and his father took apart and reassembled again in his room. It was rather intense labour, considering the heavy lifting involved, but none of them were strangers to that. Until at last Ross could set down his own personal items on the desk in his work room, next to the bedroom. Mostly that consisted of specialised tools, and small mechanical parts and gears.
He felt a heavy hand pat his back, and heard a low chuckle.
“Well that's that.”
Ross smiled and nodded, turning around to face his father.
“And now if ye ever meet a fine lass, ye got a place to settle.”
Ross sighed, his smile dulling slightly, despite him trying his best to keep it up.
“Won’t be meeting any lasses for a while when I got to work these orders.”
“Yer a handsome lad, sooner or later they'll catch up on ye.” His father chuckled again and gave his shoulder another heavy pat. He smiled back but didn't buy it.
“Ye make it sound like a fox hunt da.”
“Yer red enough for it, trust me.”
His hair was given a good tussle to prove a point, causing him to sigh and shake his head.
“I'd hope not, wouldn't want to get caught by a bitch.”
“Then ye better be on the lookout yerself.”
He scoffed a little at the notion, but then resigned himself to it.
“Fine da, but I'll finish work first.”
“Good, I'll see ye at dinner.” His father gave his hair another good tussle, undoubtedly making a mess out of it.
“See ye.” He replied, as his father left the room.
The moment his father closed the door, his smile faltered. He heard the heavy footfalls down the stairs, and then the door closing. With a sigh he sunk into a chair, and for the first time in a long time it was quiet. No brothers or sisters, no family, no workers and no work. The last time he'd felt this still, he had sat alone in a brothel room.
He felt a deep yearning in his heart, like a string wound around it wanted to pull him back in time so he could have one more moment he would never get again. Instead his fingers found a letter hidden between blueprints and schematics. He traced the creased paper and opened it up again to a painfully familiar handwriting. There was no need to read further than the first line, as he knew well enough all that followed.
For months he'd hoped for another letter, but he would never find any more salvation than he had knowing those were his last words to him.
I can't… I can't think of a woman like that. As much as his drunken mind had found some artistic interest in that lady in yellow, his heart had never jumped and leaped for her like it had for the man she hid. And not once had he understood why he'd hide; to have such intelligence and insight wasted on walks in the park with him. No matter how much he tried to force himself to, he had loved Cecil, not Celandine – so how could I marry a lass when I won't love her? Isn't it wrong to be loved, but never be able to return it?