Hail the New
"The gates are locked."
Richard Davis, checked the authenticity of the message before passing it back to the approaching workforce.
"We're locked out. Summat's up," he said.
The worrying news spread by way of a thousand whispers.
The adult employees shuffled their feet on the slush covered ground as the younger children started a game of tag to keep warm. Stumpy stood by the gates with his best friend Davy and his older brother, John. Davy suffered from a lung infection and a persistent cough, aggravated by working in the dust beneath the machines.
“What’s that big iron beast in the corner of the yard?” he wheezed. “I wasn’t there yesterday.”
Stumpy’s reply was cut short as a window opened in the gatekeeper's office and the long face of the foreman, Granville Lurcher, appeared. “There’s to be an announcement,” he shouted.
The boys looked at each other with grim faces. Announcements usually brought bad news.
The door to the gatehouse opened and a cold silence descended on the workforce. Mill owner, Cornelius Grubhunter, walked into the courtyard, smoothed his moustache and addressed the crowd.
“Right, you lot,” he began. “There are going to be some big changes at the mill. The improvements will result in higher productivity and a better product for our customers. Some of you will be trained on the new machines. That will cost time and money, so certain economies will have to be made.”
The words buzzed like a swarm of bees.
Cornelius puffed out his chest and pointed to the new engine that Davy had spotted.
“Hail the new, lads and lasses,” he proclaimed. “This is PROGRESS!”
“Will progress mean layoffs?” asked Davy’s mother.
Cornelius brushed his moustache again and held up his hand for silence. When he spoke his voice was honey laced with chilli-pepper.
“The only layoffs will come from the ranks of the child labourers. But... there will be a reduction in wages for the rest of you. The new machinery has to be paid for somehow.”
“How many children?”
Cornelius shrugged. “We'll keep four boys to work in the boiler house.”
Panic shot through the crowd.
“We can't afford to eat without our Samuel's wages.”
“Lucy's wage helps pay the rent.”
Cornelius called for silence again but the crowd ignored him. Granville Lurcher stepped forward and glared at the workforce. “Silence!” he snarled.
The noise stopped abruptly. No one ever argued with Granville.
Cornelius pointed again to the black monster in the corner of the yard. “We have a team of engineers arriving this afternoon to fit this, and other new machinery. One of those machines will enable you to work without your brats getting their limbs ripped off as they crawl under the looms. For that you should be grateful.”
“But we need them to work.”
“And work they will,” said Cornelius with a saintly smile. “I have spoken to other businessmen in the area and between us we have found work for most of them.”
Davy burst into a coughing fit. Cornelius glared at him and continued.
“Some will go down the pit. There are also six sweeps willing to give work to boys small enough to climb into chimneys and there is work for all of the girls at the match factory.”
He paused to take a sheet of paper from Granville. “Bring your brats back here at 11 o'clock to face the selection panel.”
Granville strode up to the gates and held up a list of names. “The mill is now closed,” he said. “It will re-open on January 1st. A skeleton workforce of thirty men will assist the engineers. Their names are on this list along with the brats we have retained. The rest of you can bugger off ‘ome.”
The crowd erupted. Insults were hurled at Cornelius.
At a signal from his employer, Granville blew a whistle. The factory doors opened and out poured a score of men, each carrying a thick stick or an iron bar. The leader slapped his stick into the palm of his hand.
“Now then. Who wants to argue?”
At eleven, the mill children marched back and forth across the courtyard while a small group of men studied their build and agility. The sweeps chose the smallest of the boys, while the manager of the coal mine wanted the stockier children. After an hour, only two remained.
Cornelius looked around at the employer’s representatives. “Will no one take these two boys? They’re tougher than they look.”
“That wheezy one’s no good to us with a chest like that,” said the mine manager. And the other only has one hand. What use is he to anyone?”
Cornelius pointed to Davy. “His cough is only a winter ailment; he’ll be fine in a day or two. The lad has the perfect build for chimney work. Who’ll have him on a wage free trial?”
“I'll take him on those terms,” said a mean looking sweep. “But it will be three months, wage free.”
Stumpy stood forlornly by as parents signed over their children to the new employers. Despite a plea to Cornelius from his mother, Stumpy was told to leave the premises and never return.
Sunday was the one day the mill workers had to themselves. The children met up at the frozen pump at the old town square. The mood was subdued.
“Where's Davy?” asked Stumpy.
“He got stuck in a chimney on his first day and suffocated,” said John. “The sweep just left him there. Ma had to go and get him out.”
Stumpy snarled. “He should never have been sent to the sweep.”
The children mumbled agreement.
“Davy should be avenged,” whispered Stumpy.
John nodded. “But how?”
“I have an idea,” said Stumpy. He looked around the earnest faces. “I'll need volunteers.”
Cornelius Grubhunter stood in front of the hall mirror and smoothed down his moustache.
‘Seven-thirty five. Where the hell was Granville?’ The mill owner’s Christmas banquet was not an event he liked to be late for. He called the groom to the back door and ordered him to prepare the bay. ‘I’ll ride to Hardfast Hall by way of the mill,’ he thought. ‘Granville’s excuse had better be a good one.’
Cornelius threw on his cloak and rode the short distance to the mill. He entered the boiler house to find a group of boys gathered around a dark shape on the floor.
“What are you brats standing around for?” he snarled. “Get that boiler fed.” Cornelius pushed them aside to find a pair of legs protruding from beneath the conveyor.
“Granville,” he shouted. “Get up man, are you drunk?” He aimed a kick at the legs. When there was no reaction he bent over to get a closer look.
Cornelius gasped when he saw what was left of his foreman. The entire top half of the body was missing. Smoke drifted up from the charred remains. He retched as the sickly smell of burning flesh assailed his nostrils.
“What the hell has...?”
A heavy coal shovel hit him across the back of the head, cutting him off, mid-sentence.
Cornelius came to, lying on the coal conveyor, wrapped mummy-like in a sheet of Grubhunter's finest cotton with an oily rag stuffed in his mouth.
“Let's hear what he has to say.”
A small hand removed the rag.
“You’ll all hang,” spluttered Cornelius.
“If we do, you won’t be here to see it,” said a familiar voice.
“Stumpy? Damn you. I'll have your other hand for this.”
“No you won’t,” said Stumpy quietly. “You’re done hurting people.” He nodded and John turned the hand crank. The conveyor moved forward a couple of feet.
Stumpy turned to Edwin and Sam, the coal boys. “Get their horses and lead them to the Grimdon Marshes. Everyone must think they were taken by footpads.”
“Footpads?” spat Cornelius. “No one will believe it; they’ll come here looking for me.”
“And they’ll find nothing,” said Stumpy, calmly. He turned to the remaining coal boys. “Get what’s left of Granville back on the conveyor, lads.”
Cornelius’s boots began to smoulder. He craned his neck to look ahead. His eyes bulged as he looked into the mouth of the boiler. Flames performed a hellish ballet around its gaping jaws.
The conveyor moved again and Cornelius began to sweat. His feet felt like they were on fire.
“Please, don't do this. I'll give you anything you want. Anything, just say.”
“You can't give us Davy back.”
“Davy? Who's Davy?” A high-pitched scream ripped from his lips as the conveyor lurched forward again. The flames lapped around his knees, his feet were gone.
“Davy,” said Stumpy, “was the boy with the annoying cough. The one you sent to work up the chimneys. He suffocated on his first day.”
The mill owner screamed again and again as the flames wrapped themselves around his groin. “I'll make it up to you. Please...”
Stumpy smiled as John turned the crank handle again and Cornelius went in up to his chest. His screams died away, replaced by small, whimpering sounds as the flames consumed him.
“Hail the new,” said Stumpy.
Trevor Belshaw is the author of Tracy’s Hot Mail and Designer Shorts. He also writes for children under the name Trevor Forest. His books include Magic Molly, Peggy Larkin’s War, Abigail Pink’s Angel and Faylinn Frost and the Snow Fairies.
Trevor’s short stories have appeared in various anthologies including 100 Stories for Haiti, 50 Stories for Pakistan, 100 Stories for Queensland, Deck the Halls, Another Haircut and Stories for Advent. He is also published by Ether Books on their iPhone app and is a regular contributor to The Pages Magazine. Trevor’s articles have appeared in The Best of British, Ireland’s Own and First Edition.