Chapter no 22

The Silent Companions

The change in the texture of air was remarkable. As the carriage trundled through familiar streets, smog descended in a tobacco-coloured mist. Black smuts flecked the windows. Elsie tasted the biting scent of sulphur upon her tongue long before it invaded her nostrils.

Soon the factory materialised: one tall chimney flowing with smoke and behind it rows of slanting gables, like the dorsal fins of sharks. Iron railings enclosed the courtyard. Through the rails Elsie glimpsed a wagon delivering deal wood for the splints. A boy, one of their sellers, emerged from the building and walked past the horses with a tray bobbing at his waist. The merchandise seemed so much bigger than the boy himself.

A man opened the gates and they drew into the factory complex. Elsie heard metal clang behind her, locking her in. After The Bridge, this felt like another world. Alien. She looked with the eyes of a stranger at the place that had once been her home. Through the steamed factory windows she could see the cutting machine glinting like a hay knife as it whisked back and forth; sparks from the petulant matches that would not co-operate. The splinters of light hurt her eyes. She had to look away.

‘Right,’ said Jolyon as they stopped in the yard. ‘Let us get you up to the living quarters and rested. You must be exhausted after that journey.’

‘But what about the girls from Fayford? When their wagon arrives they will need to be settled in and shown what to do.’

‘Miss Baxter will take care of all that. Who do you think has been running around after the apprentices since you married?’

It nettled her, to be supplanted. This was hers. She might marry and move away, but she would never let go of the factory – she would always be mistress here. God knew she had earnt that title. ‘Well, Miss Baxter might look after them today, for I really am fatigued. But once I have rested I will start helping again.’

Jolyon chewed his lip.

‘It will benefit me,’ she explained. ‘I need to be where there is noise and bustle and life. At The Bridge I feel like a piece of taxidermy underneath a bell jar.’

‘We shall see. But first a cup of tea and a lie-down.’ She could not argue with that.

Firmly secured on Jolyon’s arm, she alighted from the carriage and turned left, past the dipping rooms and drying sheds, towards a small, grey-brick house commanding the west side of the courtyard. Dusty, frowzy women with tassels missing from the fringes of their shawls nodded their heads in acknowledgement as she came by. A fine white vapour, garlicky and pestilential, arose from their shoulders.

‘The windows could do with a scrub,’ she told Jolyon, as she regarded the house. ‘Look what happens when I leave you alone. I dread to think what kind of bachelor’s den I am walking into.’

He smiled. ‘You will find it just the same. The same as it always was.’

The front door squealed as Jolyon’s housekeeper opened it up to them. Mrs Figgis had a plump figure and a pudding face – no trace of cheekbones under the large pores on her skin. Her unwieldy bosom went before her. Elsie wondered how her apron stretched over it. She tried not to stare as she entered her old home.

Mrs Figgis was a new fixture, hired after Elsie’s marriage to do those womanly tasks she had always taken care of. Elsie was pleased to see how kind and motherly the woman acted, ushering them into the parlour, where the fire was already simmering, beneath the coals before she hurried out to fetch the tea tray.

It was a strange reversal of Elsie’s arrival at The Bridge. She found the mantelpiece clean. The windowsills, too. That was no small feat for a servant working in the yellow cloud of a factory. Thin powder

– not precisely dust nor sand – got into everything, even under your nails and inside your nose.

‘I stand corrected,’ she said as she drew her bonnet off and sat before the fire. ‘You are being cared for extremely well.’

‘Indeed I am. Mrs Figgis is a treasure. Not, of course,’ he added swiftly, placing his hat on a stand and taking Elsie’s from her, ‘that she makes up for having you around.’

‘Flatterer. I don’t believe a word.’

Leaning back, she glanced around at the parlour. Jolyon was right

– it was all the same. Faded wallpaper with a repeating pattern of rose bouquets, a few well-chosen ornaments on the shelves and crocheted antimacassars draped over the backs of the chairs. The usual chemical smell of the factory, heightened by her absence from it. The room was the same. Only Elsie had changed.

She could not help but notice how small everything was, after The Bridge: the chairs too close together, the fire feeble and insufficient. As if she had grown too large to be contained in such a place.

Mrs Figgis brought in the tea with some bread and butter, before tactfully leaving them alone. Elsie raised the cup to her lips. There was a chip missing from the rim.

‘I want you to take a drop of laudanum and sleep for the rest of today,’ Jolyon told her. He picked up a slice of bread. ‘Tomorrow, I shall make enquiries about your treatment.’

She nearly dropped her cup. ‘I saw a physician at The Bridge. He said I was well enough to travel.’

‘That is not a full recovery, though, is it?’

‘I will admit that I am still weak, Jo, but I don’t require more than rest and a glass of wine a day.’

‘You have had a nervous shock. It does not do to let such episodes pass unheeded. The physicians have all manner of therapies these days that can soothe you – steam inhalations, cold sitz-baths.’

She sipped the tea, but it was sour in her mouth and hurt when she swallowed it down. ‘I thought we agreed. I was not . . . It was all a ghastly joke.’

‘Yes.’ Jolyon chewed his bread and butter, purposefully avoiding her eyes. ‘I am not implying otherwise. But it is still a nasty blow to the nerves. And together with all the rest – Rupert passing, so suddenly, like that.’


‘And now look what has happened! The loss of your child. It would be unnatural if it did not shake you up. There is no shame, you know, in receiving help. Just a little something to steady your nerves, reanimate your spirit.’

‘I know that.’ She set her cup down on its saucer. ‘But it’s quite unnecessary. Please do not waste your money. I’ve dealt with things like this all my life.’ He opened his mouth to speak, but she got there first. ‘This is what happens to me, Jo. I trust people and they abuse that trust. It is time I pulled myself together and learnt from it.’ She realised she was shaking. Hurriedly, she folded her hands in her lap.

‘At least,’ he said gently, sitting forward in his chair, ‘accept some help in “pulling yourself together”. It is my duty, Elsie, as your brother, to look after you. You are so brave that I often forget you are a member of the fairer sex. You were not built to withstand these things.’

She sat on her retort, because she knew it would hurt him. At twenty-three he wanted to feel grown, the man in charge.

‘You have already discharged that duty.’

‘No, I have not.’ His brow contracted – he was serious, now. ‘I am worried for you, Elsie. We need to be careful. After . . .’ He struggled for a moment, his throat working. ‘After what happened with Ma.’

Her eyes locked on his: his hazel irises, flicking minutely from side to side, and the shrinking pupils. But she could not pierce deep enough. He gave nothing away.

She realised she had forgotten to breathe. ‘Ma?’ she whispered. ‘Because of how she went at the end.’

‘You were too young to remember that.’ ‘I assure you, I recall it vividly.’

How could she hide it – this unaccountable trembling in her fingers, the twitching deep in her bones? ‘I didn’t know. I am sorry for it, Jo. It was a terrible time. I would have spared you the memory.’

There was a long pause.

‘I remember,’ Jolyon said, carefully, ‘how bad she got. Seeing goblins and devils. And then, at the end, such terrible stuff. She used to whisper me over to her bed and accuse you of all sorts.’


‘Oh, she was quite mad. I understood that, young as I was. But she was our mother, Elsie, and these things can be hereditary.’

Her face quivered back into life. ‘She had the typhus! A fever like that would send anyone off into Queer Street.’

‘Her confusion got worse with the typhus, but it didn’t start with it. You told me yourself. You said she’d been that way since Pa died.’ ‘Yes. I did say that. Of course, the grief changed her. But she was

not mad, exactly. At least, I don’t think so.’

Did people know when they were going insane? she wondered. Did they feel the weave of their mind ripping apart? Or was it like passing into a gentle dream-world? She would never know, for she and Ma had never discussed the subject. And if she were honest, back then, she did not care if Ma suffered – in fact, she rather desired it.

‘Is it worth taking the risk? Is it not better to see a doctor?’

A strange lethargy washed over her. What did Jolyon know about risks?

‘You cannot make the comparison, my dear Jo, but if you had known our parents better, you would realise that I do not share any characteristics with them.’ The old ache lodged in her throat. ‘Nothing, do you understand?’

‘You do, Elsie. You cannot help it. They are always with us, in our blood, in our very being. Whether we like it or not.’

She shuddered. ‘Yes. Yes, I suppose they are.’

Her heart was beating too fast. It made her eyes cloudy, her lips dry. A faint singing started up. She could not tell if it was her ears, or the women working outside.

Daylight sifted in through the smog, prying at the curtains and splashing the tea tray yellow. The moment it touched her knee she stood, abruptly. Her cup and saucer rattled.

Jolyon stared up at her.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She pressed a hand to her forehead. It was slick with sweat. ‘Forgive me, Jo. I’ve come over terribly unwell. I think I had better go and lie down.’



January passed into a raw, wet February with wind shrieking over the factory buildings, blowing smoke from the chimney in a diagonal

stream. Elsie scarcely noticed the days go by. Whether it was the sleeping draughts prescribed by Jolyon’s doctor or the red lavender tincture she took in her wine every evening, she felt a sense of cushioned well-being, detached from day-to-day cares.

She made rounds of the factory, but she had no real responsibilities. She could idle past the dipping room and watch the boys paddling a phosphorescent mixture on the stove. Frigid gusts of wind carried the fumes up over the gates and out into the thicker smog of London. Occasionally her nostrils found snatches of the sulphurous odour, but it did not trouble her as it used to do. The scent was a pinprick, a little jolt, rather than a knife blade.

When it grew too cold to peer through steamed-up windows, she would enter the factory proper, where the splints were made. Here she moved and breathed freely, a fish put back in water. The steam, the whirr of the machinery, the woodchips and factory chatter were all as familiar to her as Jolyon’s voice. She looked down on her employees, dashing to and fro, and the seething glitter of the saw, and felt she had been resuscitated. Brought back to life.

By March she was restored and had begun to mentor the three young girls she had rescued from Fayford.

‘Here,’ Elsie said to the smallest, a little girl with freckles who was struggling to tie up her bundle. ‘Take this measure and put it under the spout. Each one is designed to hold eighteen hundred splints. That will be just the right amount for your bundle.’

The girl’s friend looked alarmed at the prospect of having to count to so great a number, but Elsie helped her while the freckled girl darted off, teaching her the best knot to secure the bundle with.

‘I used to do this myself,’ she smiled, ‘when I was your age.’ Of course she was not as dexterous, these days, with her scarred hands.

The girl did not reply, though it was evident from her face that she did not believe a word of it. Perhaps it was odd, for the owner’s daughter to labour amongst the employees, but Pa said you didn’t know a factory until you had worked it. As far as Elsie could recall, that was the only truly useful thing Pa had ever said.

When Elsie walked away from the girls, she noticed her shoes left prints on the floor, like a person walking in sand. Machinery whirred and splints sprayed into the trough, casting forth a nimbus of dust.

The freckled girl from Fayford coughed. Gradually, the dust cleared. And just like that, Elsie’s footsteps were gone.

Curious to think of all the hidden steps, all the moments the factory floor had known, buried then swept aside with a broom.

She mounted the stairs leading up to the office and stopped halfway, leaning against the iron banister, where she could look out across the entire factory. Women filling frames and supervising the machines, all their vitality burning off with the steam. Sparks from rogue matches that snapped and died out. How quickly it happened, the fizz and transformation from one state to the other. One moment the match was a stick with a proud white head; the next a charred, wasted thing with a forlorn appearance. Shrivelled.

Handcarts ferried the bundles to and from the dipping room. Beyond that were the drying sheds, not quite visible through the windows.

There. That patch there, near the circular saw, just concealed from view. If you scrubbed down to the surface you would find it black and scorched. That was where the fire began. Where Pa ran to douse it, frantic. And then . . . where the blood had flowed. Copious amounts of blood. Red blooming on the sawdust. Red trickling between the table legs. A strange deep red, like claret. Thick.

Vinegar and mops had taken up the worst of it, but Elsie imagined a remnant lingering there beneath the sawdust. Brown, not red now. Brown like molasses.

Jolyon was only six weeks old when it happened. Pa hadn’t even changed his will to include a son yet. If Elsie had been determined, she might have found a way to retain the entire ownership of this factory until her marriage took place. But it was not natural to keep anything from Jolyon. She needed him to help her shoulder the burden of such an inheritance: a legacy born of blood.

Slowly, she deflated and sat down on the steps, her cheek pressed against the cold banister. Yes, there were terrible moments in the history of this place, but somehow the movement of the factory eroded them, wearing them away like the sea smoothing a stone. In their stead came another memory, far sweeter.

She had been walking down these very steps – not dressed in black, then, but vivid in fashionable magenta – when Jolyon ushered three gentlemen through the main doors. One wore a bowler hat, the

other two toppers. They were roughly the same age – in their middle years, or a little older – but it was Rupert who caught the eye with his bright, active face. He looked more like a young man, damaged by a rough decade. His companions were what Ma would call badly preserved, their skin wrinkled, pickled.

‘Ah,’ Jolyon had said when he saw her. He was nervous but trying not to show it. A dark patch appeared beneath his armpit as he gestured. ‘Here is my sister come to assist us with the tour. Mr Bainbridge, Mr Davies, Mr Greenleaf, may I present Miss Livingstone?’

They bowed. Only Mr Bainbridge smiled. Well, she assumed that was the case – Mr Davies and Mr Greenleaf sported such monstrosities of facial hair that she could not be sure they even possessed mouths.

Mr Bainbridge was her instant favourite. He had a tidy, salt-and-pepper moustache, and was nattier than the others – even his trousers were checked, blue and green. He had a habit of toying with his watch chain as he walked.

She had taken Jolyon’s arm and shown the trio around the factory, giving prompts where required and explaining the women’s work. Jolyon talked about machines and production rates. Between them, they had it rehearsed as thoroughly as any play. The acts ran according to the script; their potential investors nodded at the right moments, asked the questions they were supposed to. It was only when they went to the office, and Elsie sat opposite Jolyon at the head of the long, mahogany table, that the first problem arose.

‘Forgive me, gentlemen, I thought we proposed to talk business?’ Mr Greenleaf had put his bowler hat on the table, glancing from Elsie to a decanter full of brandy and back again.

‘And so we do,’ said Jolyon. ‘Please, proceed.’ ‘Hardly gallant, with ladies present.’

Elsie screwed up a smile. ‘I assure you, Mr Greenleaf, the factory is a topic of which I never tire. You need not be afraid of boring me.’

He inclined his head. Of course, boring Elsie was not what he feared – she knew it, he knew it.

‘Dear madam, let me be plain. The language in these meetings can grow a trifle coarse. It would be far better if your brother simply recounted the parts suitable for your ears at a later time.’

Rupert’s laugh was a single breath. ‘Upon my word, Greenleaf, I don’t know what sort of meeting you’re intending to have. Here I was, prepared to be mannered and civil.’

Jolyon coloured. His hands began to hover about his pockets. ‘You must understand this factory is Miss Livingstone’s inheritance, as well as mine. She has a right, I feel, to be present at any—’

‘Pshaw, no one’s disputing her right, man. But is there a need?

Spare the poor lady the formal horrors.’

She could feel her heart pounding in her neck, furious at this fat old man, stuffed with prejudice and money. Horror. What did he know of horror? Only the thought of Jolyon held her tongue.

‘Bad language and formal horror,’ commented Rupert, swinging his watch. ‘I start to doubt whether I wish to stay here myself.’

‘Bainbridge, you know well enough what I mean. Figures of speech and business formalities we take for granted could prove shocking, not to mention tiring, for a lady.’

The worst of it was that Greenleaf would never admit the truth. He would not insult her intellect. He would not argue her place. Instead he took up this degrading charade, mimicking chivalry, pretending to object for her own dear sake.

Greenleaf went on. ‘I really see no reason, Livingstone, why your poor sister should be forced to suffer this. No reason at all.’

‘Unless,’ Davies put in slyly, ‘it is for yourself. Young man that you are, you might require an elder sibling’s presence?’

Jolyon turned scarlet. That was the trigger. She stood up and seized the decanter of brandy.

‘Well, gentlemen, you’ve had your say and I’m sure you’ve enjoyed it. As for Mr Livingstone and me, we have business to attend. Anyone who invests in this factory will have a master and a mistress to deal with, and that is not up for debate.’ She poured herself a finger of brandy and tossed it back. ‘If you’re too squeamish to talk business with a lady, you had better leave now.’

The speech seemed to have said itself. Elsie felt a flame in the back of her throat and gazed down at the brandy glass, unable to understand how it had got into her hand.

Mr Greenleaf and Mr Davies left. Rupert stayed.

And after all that commotion it was Jolyon who spoke for most of the meeting, detailing their plans to change from lucifer matches to

matches with safety heads, and their proposed improvements for the welfare of staff. It was Jolyon who explained ventilation fans, Jolyon who made the case for a separate drying house. But it was Elsie whom Rupert remembered.

‘A remarkable woman,’ he said to Jolyon, when he thought she was out of earshot. ‘Your sister has an acumen for this business, Livingstone, I hear it in every word she says. You are quite right to involve her.’


But that was not what Jolyon had said in response. It was not a voice from the past, but from the here and now.


She blinked, making an effort to draw herself back to the present. The image of Rupert and Jolyon shaking hands melted away. In its void rose another Jolyon. He bore no resemblance to the young man she had just seen; his face was distorted, shocked; his voice hollow and unreal.

‘Elsie, what are you doing here? I’ve been looking all over.’

She stood, walking down the last few steps to take his hands. They were slick and hot. ‘Whatever is the matter? You look terrible, Jo.’

‘A damned awful business. Pack up your things. You need to go back to The Bridge. Today.’

The contents of her stomach shifted. ‘Why? What on earth has happened?’

‘It’s Mabel.’ He gripped her gloves, tight. ‘Mabel is dead.’

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