It was past mid-morning when the sun crept overhead, peering around the yellow soot-clouds that hovered over the woolen mills north of Edinburgh’s Queen Street Gardens. The streets and buildings were darker there, stained by the coal and other residue from the fuels used to power the factories’ massive steam engines. Soot obscured the edges of windows, clung to doors, and lay like a dusty shroud on the few pedestrians that walked along the road to and from the mills. In between the muffled grind and clank of clockwork gears and pulse of steam-driven pistons, the clatter of horse-drawn wagons laden with crates of freshly woven wool trundled along the cobblestone road. Between the factory buildings the occasional clockwork courier owl or raven soared with a tightly bound bundle.
Anthony Hunter stopped at the corner where Dundee Street left behind the soothing green of the Queen Street Gardens and its hushed atmosphere in the cool, smoky air. For a moment, the wind changed, and fumes drifted south from the factories. Hunter sniffed sharply, then repressed a sneeze.
Standing beside Captain Hunter, Moira wrinkled her nose while William made a face at the new odors. Moira finally rubbed her nose instinctively. “Not like bein’ aboard the Griffin. Somethin’ ta be said for fresh air.”
Hunter, though he agreed with Moira, simply replied, “Some would call that the progress of industry.”
“I’ll take livin’ on an airship any day.” William said scornfully.
“You sure about this, Cap’n?” Moira gave Hunter a worried look. “Beggin’ yer pardon, but we don’ know this Gilbert Monkhouse. He mighta’ sent them men ta hurt Miss Olivander for whatever reason.”
“True, we don’t know Gilbert Monkhouse.” Hunter replied with a bemused glance towards William and Moira. “All the more reason to speak with him, I think. Although I do promise to be careful.” Neither one seemed reassured. Hunter sighed, then pressed on. “In any case, I’ll meet you both at the White Hart Tavern later in the afternoon after I stop by to check in on Krumer and Thorias. Luck to you both.”
Hunter left Moira and William to go on their way while he walked down a side road between Dundee Street and East Silvermills Lane. The woolen mill owned by Gilbert Monkhouse was simple enough to locate, given it was christened ‘Monkhouse Weavers’. A two story building of dark brown brick, the woolen mill sat back from the road on the right hand side. A modest brick wall fenced in a courtyard where horse-drawn, and some of the newer steam-powered wagons sat waiting to be loaded with crates of newly woven bolts of woolen cloth.
Anthony walked along the sidewalk, then through the wide, open gate into the courtyard. Beyond the gate, the sound of gears and dull clank of metal on cobblestones echoed off the brick fence. A handful of workers, some young women, others young men, and two young children wore clockwork-powered mechanical suits to help them move the heavy crates from the factory and lift them to the wagons.
The ‘Clockwork Augmentations Suit’, or CASS for short, was a machine built much like the greasy, oil-covered metal skeleton of a giant. On its back was a large backpack in which the clockwork mechanisms slowly turned to provide power for the device. The operator sat inside the ‘ribcage’ of the skeleton, with their own arms and legs attached to levers that were directly attached to the gears and hydraulics of the skeleton’s arms and legs. In this way, when the operator moved their appendages, the skeleton would walk or manipulate objects. They were highly effective machines, but the lack of any protection usually made them rather dangerous for just anyone to operate.
These contraptions were something Captain Hunter was used to seeing in shipyards and dry-docks. He had only read about their use in factories. However, this was the first time he had witnessed one being operated by a young boy of twelve. Anthony frowned, but kept any comment he might make to himself.
By the time Hunter crossed the courtyard, the wide, broad-shouldered figure of a familiar looking man wearing a stained cotton twill shirt and dark trousers had stepped out of the woolen mill. Conor glared openly at Anthony while he propped his hands on his hips. A dark bruise leered from the big man’s jaw like a badge of shame.
“What do ya want?” Conor said firmly in his thick Irish accent. “Then again, never mind. Go away.”
Hunter raised his eyebrows and repressed a sharp retort. His dislike for the man rode close to the surface, but Anthony knew he would have to maintain a more proper decorum if he was to settle any of this in Miss Olivander’s favor. The captain smiled pleasantly. “That’s a shame, as I’ve not had a chance to say anything.”
The Irishman started to say something, but Hunter interrupted him. “I’m actually here to speak your employer, Sirrah. I believe his name is Gilbert Monkhouse? It’s about a young lady we have in common, Lydia Olivander.”
Conor continued to glare at Hunter silently, but the captain could tell. Something he said had peaked the man’s interest. After a moment, the Irishman’s body language changed slightly.
“Well, this’ll be interestin’.” Conor finally said. “All right. If ya determined, lets by all means go ta see the boss.” With a mock half-bow, Conor turned to walk through the large factory doors. “Mind yerself,” he said over his shoulder to Hunter, “stay behind me. In a place like this … accidents have been known ta happen.” With an ugly chuckle, Conor vanished inside. Hunter followed the big man through the doors with a sour look at his wide back.
Inside, Hunter blinked a few times until his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom that seemed to prevail. Once his sight adjusted, he paused a moment in surprise. While he was not an expert on the organization and arrangement of a woolen mill, he was not prepared for the view that greeted him.
The factory was essentially one large room, approximately one hundred yards long and at least fifty yards wide, if he had to make an estimate. All along the space, recessed areas in the floor that resembled shallow pits segmented the area into ‘rooms’, if they could be thought of as such. In each pit, different machines – weaving looms, cutting machines, and many others – were arranged in long rows. In front of each machine sat at a worker: tired, malnourished and pale. Some, such the people at the looms, wore dirty bandages wrapped around calloused and bleeding fingers. Others, who worked at unboxing the dye chemicals so they could be mixed, occasionally erupted in wet, harsh coughs. One woman, who looked to be all of twenty despite the savage hair loss and sallow skin, looked up from her work to watch the newcomers with hollow, dark eyes. Once they passed, she sighed and returned to work.
Aside from the specific work being done, each pit was the same as every other. Filled with machinery, operated by workers who had likely not seen the light of day in many weeks. Away from the pits, a five foot wide space acted as a separator between the pits. This flat, plain space served as a walking path.
In the far back of the building, the automated dye vats sat, noisily churning the chemicals that comprised the various dyes. Around these noxious machines, a crude set of thin wood panels had been erected as walls to close these devices off from the rest of the main floor. The loose construction of the walls coupled with the lack of a door did little to prevent most of the chemical fumes from leaving the immediate area around the vats. The stench from the cooking dye that drifted from that part of the factory towards Hunter was indescribable.
Just outside the dye vats were a dizzying array of other segments where the newly woven wool was washed and folded by workers, who used hand crank devices to churn, then later wring water from the cloth. Other devices nearby included clockwork arms which automatically took the cloth from the tired workers and methodically folded, then packed the cloth into crates. Along the walkways, between every pit, the occasional forman strolled along, not unlike a slave master aboard a slave ship of antiquity.
Hunter walked silently behind Conor, watching the nightmare play out around him. His heart beat tight in his chest at the horror. Inwardly, a turmoil raged in his mind and soul. He knew logically that he needed to see this through, to speak with Gilbert Monkhouse and get a measure of the man. His heart felt differently, however, and wanted to carry these abused people out of the factory and find help for every one of them. Finally, Conor stopped at the bottom of a set of wooden stairs.
“This way,” the Irishman explained. “The boss’ll be upstairs.”
Anthony nodded solemnly and followed. All the while, his mind desperately worked to rationalize what he was witnessing. The conditions were unthinkable. He knew there were some laws that spoke against such treatment, specifically, restricting the conditions that women and children had to endure. He could not remember the details, but he thought inspectors should be preventing these kind of hardships. Unable to remember the wording of the law, he resolved to look it up at his first opportunity. When his attention returned to the matter at hand, Conor had already opened a door to the modest office on the second floor of the factory.
“Yer in luck, the boss is in t’day.” Conor said with a chuckle.
Hunter nodded curtly. “Thank you, Sirrah.” He said, walking inside. Conor did not bother with a polite reply. Instead, he pulled the door shut with a sharp tug.
The office itself was modestly furnished, befitting the owner of a medium-sized factory. A pair of teak bookcases, their shelves heavy with worn, weathered books, sat against the wall to the right of the door. A smaller set of shelves for the accounting ledgers sat along the left wall. In between, a worn, dull reddish carpet lay over the dusty floor. At the head of the carpet was a wide cherry-wood desk adorned with all the trimmings one would expect from lamp, to papers and even a filing tray.
Of all, the desk seemed to dominate the room and draw a person’s eyes towards the portly, balding man in the pressed pinstripe dark gray suit. His clothing was well kept, almost manicured, which stood out in stark contrast to the appearance of the office. Even the memory-like tuft of russet hair that encircled his head seemed well-groomed. The man smiled, then drew his bulk up from where he sat as he held out a meaty hand to Anthony.
“Good day, Sirrah. I’m Gilbert Monkhouse.” Mr. Monkhouse said with the slightest hint of a nasal twang to his voice.
Hunter accepted the man’s handshake. Long ago, the captain had formed the belief that one could tell quite a lot about a person from the kind of handshake or greeting they gave. In this case, Gilbert Monkhouse spoke and dressed well, but had a rather cold, limp handshake. Hunter smiled. “Captain Anthony Hunter. Excellent to meet you.”
Mr. Monkhouse gestured to one of the empty chairs opposite the desk. “Please sit, Captain. I was told you’d an interest to speak with me? You’re quite in luck, as I’ve some time available now.”
Anthony sat in one of the chairs, Gilbert resumed his own seat. The old wood squeaked slightly in protest like a small rodent as Monkhouse settled himself. Hunter cleared his throat.
“I’ll drive right for the point. I’ve come to speak to you on someone’s behalf. Do you recall a Miss Lydia Olivander?” Hunter asked curiously.
Gilbert’s eyes shifted off into space a moment while he recalled the name. “Ah, yes. Miss Olivander. She worked in the dye vats.”
“Worked?” Hunter echoed while he raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, she’s sacked as of today.” The portly man said with a shrug. “She did not appear for work. As I’m trying to run a business here, I can’t have my employees just wandering in whenever they feel like. Besides, she wasn’t the hardest worker at her job, especially of late.”
“How do you mean, Sirrah?” Hunter leaned forward slightly while asking.
“Always going on about missing people and other such nonsense.” Gilbert said with a heavy chuckle. “Bollocks, if you ask me.”
“Well, a good friend of hers has gone missing, of late.” Hunter started to explain, but Gilbert interrupted him.
“Captain, please,” Mr. Monkhouse said with another shrug. “I’m sure her plight is sound enough, but you strike me as a man of means. A fellow man of the world. I’ve a business to manage here. Besides,” he added with a conspiratorial smile that reached his little chestnut eyes, “their kind are often wandering off. One must take steps to protect one’s own, in such circumstances.”
Hunter, who had started to say more, closed his mouth abruptly. His jaw slid to a rigid pose and anger flashed across his eyes. With a force of will, he kept his temper at bay. Anthony pushed out a pleasant smile onto his face. “Pardon, Sirrah, I’m not sure I quite follow. ‘Their kind’?”
Gilbert sat back, his smile wide. “Why the poor, of course. Those immigrants that seem to continuously wash ashore. An excellent renewable resource, provided you can keep their attention on the job.”
Hunter glanced away as he felt his temper surge again. He fought it under control and looked back at Gilbert. “I see. Sirrah, if I might be so bold, if they are so ‘renewable’,” Hunter said with the touch of an acidic tone on the last word, “Why did your men call upon Miss Olivander in her own room and assault her?”
The smile vanished from Gilbert’s face. “What’s this? I know nothing of that.” He leaned his bulk forward and put his forearms on his desk. “I’ll admit my men have standing orders to check on workers who ‘forget’ to return to work. But I know nothing about beatings.” The portly man’s entire body shook a little while he chuckled. “Conor and Liam can be a bit overachieving with their methods, I’ll admit…”
“They beat her, Sirrah.” Hunter said firmly, letting his voice grow hard and brittle. “Beat … her.” He slowly repeated the words for emphasis. “Their actions, while you may call them ‘overachieving’, were uncalled for. And then there is the ‘why’? Why would they care what she was doing in the evening?”
Gilbert’s chubby face turned a faint shade of angry crimson. “How I conduct my business and my employees is my right! How dare you come here to bark at me like some alley mongrel about my employees. They are mine to do with as I see fit for my business.”
Hunter gripped the arms of the chair tight, his clockwork left hand compressed the wood despite the leather glove he wore. The wood faintly moaned in protest. “Yours? I daresay I challenge that, Sirrah. I believe the laws of the land challenge it, as well. I saw children operating a CASS outside. Children. Such machines are dangerous, even for a grown man under the right circumstances. I came here to ask if Miss Olivander might retain her position, as she’s unfit to report for work due to the ‘overachieving’ actions of your employees. Perhaps instead, I should return with the constabulary over the treatment of your workers?” Hunter paused, his temper boiling into a fine, bright light in his eyes. “Simply put, Sirrah, how you retain your license to operate is beyond my knowledge!”
Immediately, Gilbert Monkhouse was on his feet in a flash, despite his portly bulk. The motion was so swift that Hunter instinctively sat back in his chair defensively. Gilbert quivered, his face a mask of rage and fear. Finally, the factory owner adjusted his vest and suit coat. “Now see here Captain, we’ve started on the wrong foot. We are gentlemen here. Let’s be reasonable. You came here with the intent to speak for what’s her name? Olivander, yes, Miss Olivander. Very well, she can retain her job, no harm done! She’ll merely need to work a few days with no payment to make up for the slight loss to the business but after that, all will be well.” Gilbert smiled again in a way that Hunter thought resembled a snake. “No need to involve anyone else.”
Hunter pounded a fist against the arm of the chair. “You are foul, Sirrah.” Hunter said nastily, his disgust blatant. “I will not play games with Miss Olivander’s livelihood. The right thing would be to allow her the grace to heal and then return to work, no questions. In addition, you will curb your two jackals from further mischief! That would be what you ought to do! If … if you were even remotely related to a gentleman, much less be one!”
Gilbert’s smile vanished abruptly, his eyes flying open wide with shock and anger. “What? Preposterous! This is extortion! All for that dollymop of a girl!”
Almost on cue, muffled shouts came from beyond the office door. Someone frantically knocked hard enough that the door shook. The handle turned, only to find the door unable to be opened. The handle spun frantically one way then the other, with no effect.
Captain Anthony Hunter slowly drew himself up to his full six feet, towering over Gilbert’s five and half. “You are a base mongrel, Sirrah.” Hunter growled angrily. “I’ve seen your factory, I can guess how you get away with the treatment of your workers. If you frighten them, they won’t speak out against you to instigate the attention of the constabulary. However, I was there when your thugs assaulted Miss Olivander. I saw what they did. I will not stand idly by while you seek to protect them!”
With a sharp crack, the door broke free of the frame and flew open. It slammed against the office wall with the sound of a gunshot. Conor and Liam immediately poured inside, jaws set and fists clenched, ready for a fight. Both men glared knives at Hunter. Captain Hunter spun on his heel, his left hand firmly latched onto the back of the wooden chair he had sat in a moment ago, ready to use it as a bludgeon. Beyond, in the factory, most of the workers had stopped what they were doing out of curiosity. Several had stood up and craned their necks to peer through the narrow door opening and watch the scene inside.
“Is there a problem?” Conor asked Gilbert with a sharp, obvious look at Hunter.
Silence fell as Gilbert took several slow, deep breaths. “No,” the portly man said at last. Slowly, Monkhouse resumed his seat. “The good captain was just leaving, actually. Show him the way out, if you would.”
Hunter’s eyes never left Conor or Liam. He slowly released his grip on the chair. The wood was distorted in the shape of his mechanical fingers. Anthony smiled coldly, yet politely at the two Irishmen. “Don’t bother. I quite know the route I’ll take. Good day … gentlemen. I’ll see you again soon.”