Archie's Mistake, Page 1William Henry Giles Kingston
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Sam W. and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net
G. E. WYATT
_Author of "Follow the Right," "Archie Digby,"_ _"Johnnie Venture,"_ _&c. &c._
THOMAS NELSON AND SONS
_London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and New York_
_"Simon Bond's strong hands grasped Stephen's ear andcollar."_(1,680) Page 32.]
"Father, why do you have such a beggarly-looking hand at the mill asthat young Bennett?" asked Archie Fairfax of the great mill-owner ofLongcross.
"Why shouldn't I?" he replied. "He comes with an excellent characterfrom the foreman he has been under at Morfield. He does his work verywell, Munster says, and that's all I care for. I don't pay for hisclothes."
Archie said no more, but he still felt aggrieved. As a rule, hisfather's work-people were a superior, tidy-looking set, but this newlad was literally in rags, and his worn, haggard face and great,hungry-looking eyes seemed, in Archie's mind, to bring discredit onthe cotton-mill.
"He's no business here," he said to himself.--"I wish you'd send himaway."
Archie had only lately had anything to do with the mill, as he hadbeen at a large public school. But now he was eighteen, and had leftschool. He had come into his father's office as secretary, that hemight learn a little about the business which was to be his some day.
Mr. Fairfax had some excuse for the pride he took in his manufactory,for a better looked after, better managed, or more prosperous one itwould have been difficult to find, though of course there were _some_rough people among the workers. Long experience had taught hiswork-people to respect and trust an employer who acted justly andhonourably in every transaction; and it was Mr. Fairfax's boast thatthere had never yet been a "strike" among his men, nor any difficultyabout work or wages which had not been settled at last in a friendlyspirit.
But this very "superiority" was a snare to the mill-hands. For if theyonce took a dislike to any one who had been "taken on," they left himno peace until they got rid of him. It was looked on as a sort ofprivilege in Longcross to belong to the Fairfax mills, and the menchose to be very particular as to whom they would admit amongthemselves.
They all disapproved of poor Stephen Bennett from the first day of hiscoming.
As they walked away that evening they discussed his appearance witheager disapprobation.
"Who is he?" "Where does he come from?" "Where's he living?" "What'smade the master take such a ragamuffin on?"
These were some of the questions asked, but no one was able to answerthem.
"I'll get it all out of him to-morrow," said Simon Bond, a bigsavage-looking lad, with his hat on one side, and his pipe in hismouth.
"P'raps he won't be quite so ready to tell as you are to ask," saidsome one else.
"He'd better be, then, if he's got any care for his skin," answeredthe boy, and the others laughed.
So the next day Simon followed the stranger out of the mill, and beganhis questions in a rude, hectoring voice.
To his utter astonishment, Stephen refused to answer them. He made noreply while Simon poured out his questions, until the latter said,--
"Well, dunderhead, d'ye hear me speaking?"
"Yes, I hear you," responded Stephen, looking at him with ahalf-frightened, half-defiant expression.
"Then why don't you answer?" he inquired with an oath. He was gettingangry. "If you cheek me, 'twill be the worse for you, I can tell you."
"I don't want to cheek you," said Stephen; "but I don't see as myaffairs is your business, any more than your affairs is my business."
Simon could hardly believe his ears as he listened to this answer.This little shrimp to defy him like that!
But his anger soon outweighed his amazement.
He seized Stephen by the collar, saying, as he gave him a shake,--
"Answer my questions this instant, or--"
His gestures completed the sentence.
Stephen turned very white, but he replied firmly,--
"I've told you I ain't going to, and I sticks to my words. If youthreaten me like that, I'll go to the foreman and complain. There hecomes."
Simon looked down the street, and saw Mr. Munster advancing justbehind two other mill-hands. He was obliged to let Stephen go, butrage filled his heart.
"I'll pay you out," he muttered, "one of these days." Then he turnedround a side street and disappeared.
And what did Stephen do?
He walked on till he came to a baker's shop, where he bought somebread; then to a grocer's, where he got sugar, tea, and a candle; andso on, till his arms and pockets were full of parcels. But the oddthing was that he bought so much. That was what struck a man--one ofthe mill-hands--who was in the shop.
Most of the work-people lived in one particular quarter of the bigcity--Fairfax Town it was called in consequence. But Stephen threadedhis way to quite a different part--a much poorer one--and turned intoan old tumble-down house, with all its windows broken and patched,which had stood empty and deserted until he came to it.
Weeks passed on, and still, in spite of constant persecution, Stephenremained at the mill. Scarcely any one spoke a kind word to him exceptMr. Fairfax, but he very seldom saw him. Even old Mr. Munster, thehead foreman, addressed him sharply and contemptuously, which was nothis usual custom. The lad did his work well enough, but he was such amiserable-looking fellow, and so untidy and shabby.
Mr. Munster said something of the sort to Archie one day, when he methim outside the office, just as Stephen was going away after receivinghis week's wages.
"Yes," replied Archie eagerly; "did you ever see such a scarecrow? Buthe has good pay, hasn't he?"
"Yes, Mr. Archie; very good for such a young hand. He has fifteenshillings a week."
"He drinks--depend upon it he drinks spirits, and that's what giveshim that hang-dog look," said Archie.
"You've never seen him the worse for drink, have you?" asked Mr.Munster, not unwilling to have an excuse for getting rid of the raggedstranger.
"Well, I don't know," he answered. "He was leaning up against a wallthe other day when I passed, and when he saw me coming he tried tostand upright, and he regularly staggered. I could see it was as muchas ever he could do."
"H'm!" said Mr. Munster thoughtfully; "I shall watch him, then. If Icatch him like that at his work, I shall soon send him packing."
"And there's another thing," Archie went on. "What does he do with thethings he buys? What do you think I saw him getting last week?"
"Couldn't say, sir, I'm sure."
"Why, three boys' fur caps, and a lot of serge, and a girl's cloak,and four pairs of cheap stockings, and other things besides. I was inDutton's shop when he came in. He didn't see me because of a pile ofblankets, and I heard him buy all those things, and carry them off. Hepaid for half, and the rest he said he'd pay for this week. He musthave bought things there before, or they wouldn't have trusted him.But, you know, they'd come to very nearly as much as his wages."
"Yes; I don't understand it," said Mr. Munster. "But, after all, itisn't our business if he does his duty at the mill."
"No, I know," said Archie; "but I believe there's something wrongabout him, and I should like to know what it is."
"Well, 'give him enough rope and he'll hang himself,' as they say,"rejoined Mr. Munster--"that is, if your ideas about him are true."
Archie said no more on the subject then, but he made up his mind tokeep a sharp look-out upon Stephen's conduct. Whenever he met him,therefore, he looked keenly at him; and he would
sometimes comethrough the great room where Stephen worked, with a number of othermen and lads, and stand close to him, silently scrutinizing him. If hespoke to him, it was always to ask a question which obliged youngBennett to say a good deal in reply; and Archie was forced to own thathe displayed a considerable knowledge of the branch of business inwhich he was occupied.
But Stephen soon discovered that he was regarded with suspicion, andhe came to dread his young master's approach, and the cold, searchingglance of his blue eyes.
Stephen had looked haggard and