ASSAULT AND BATTERY

In the engine house a small, hump-backed man sat picking over the
masses of wet rag brought to him by Henry Barefoot from the boilers.
For, despite the sorters and the magnet, enemies to paper still lurked
in the sodden rag, and the little man ran the sloppy stuff through his
fingers, extracting from time to time fragments of rubber, whalebone,
pearl, and other substances.

The engine house was a lofty chamber on two floors, with windows that
faced the west. Here, Ned Dingle reigned, and half a dozen men worked
under him. Much happened to the rag before it came to Ned, for after
its final picking, it was washed again, and broken before the beater
turned it into pulp. When the little hump-backed man had passed it,
the rag was set revolving with water in oval, lead-lined breakers.
On one side the washer, like a steamer’s paddle-wheel, churned in a
bladed barrel, so that the rag was not only cleaned again, but also
torn to the smallest fragments; on the other side a drum of brass wire
sucked away the dirty water, while from the upper end clean water was
perpetually spurting in. Round and round the rag revolved for three
hours, by which time its character had changed entirely. It was, in
fact, rag no more, but a substance like curds: “half stuff,” or rag
transformed and half-way to its final stages.

From the breakers the pulpy mass left the engine house for a time,
and sojourned in the bleaching tanks beneath. It flowed down through
pipes to a subterranean chamber, where the air was sharp with the
smell of chemicals, and twelve great, gaping wells ranged round a
narrow passage way. Here came the “half stuff” to repose on beds of
Delabole slate, and endure the operations of the bleach for half a day
or more. Then the liquid was drained off, the snow-white, solid masses
forked out on to little trolleys, and so returned to Ned Dingle in the
engine house. Again it revolved until the bleach was thoroughly washed
out of it, for it is a principle of great paper making that the less
chemicals, the better the pulp; and now perfected, washed, broken and
bleached, the material came to the beater for final dissection.

The beaters’ engines were oval in form and resembled the breakers. They
stood upon the lower floor of the engine house, and each communicated
directly with the breaker above it, and the vat room far beneath. From
final washing, the pulp flowed directly to Mr. Dingle, and, as before,
revolved, and was churned by a paddle-wheel set with fine knives. Ned
controlled it, and on his judgment depended the quality of the pulp
that would presently flow down to Kellock, Knox, and the other vatmen.

He was explaining the process to a young man, who had just been
promoted to his assistant from the breakers above.

“It’s got to meet every test that experience can bring against it,
Jacob,” he said. “And if it did not, I should mighty soon hear of it.”

He regulated the churning wheel with a footplate, and presently,
satisfied that the mass, which was now like fine cream after revolving
in the beating tank for many hours, had reached perfection, Ned took a
test to satisfy himself.

Two hand-bowls, or dippers, he lifted, scooped up a few ounces of the
pulp, then mixed it with pure water, and flung the liquid backwards
from one dipper to the other, pouring off and adding fresh water until
what was left in his bowl resembled water barely stained with soap. The
pulp was now so diluted that it needed sharp eyes to see anything in
the water at all; but Dingle, taking it to the window, set it slowly
dribbling away over the edge of the bowl, and as it flowed, the liquid
revealed tiny fragments and filaments all separate, and as fine as
spider’s thread. The spectacle of these attenuated fibres of cotton
told the beaterman that his engine was ready and the pulp sufficiently
fine. The masses of rag, once linen and lace, and every sort of textile
fabric woven of cotton, had become reduced to its limit of tenuity, and
was now far finer stuff than in the cotton pod of its creation. It had
been beaten into countless millions of fibrils, long and short, and all
so fine as to need sharpest scrutiny of human eye to distinguish them.

Jacob—a future beaterman—followed Ned’s operations closely; then he
made a test himself and watched the cotton gossamer flow over the edge
of his bowl.

“And next week,” declared Ned, “something finer still has got to be
made—so fine that I shall have to borrow a pair of spectacles to see
it—good as my eyes are. And that’s the pulp for the Exhibition moulds.
It’s to be a record—such paper as never before was made in the world.
But this is just ordinary, first class rag pulp—stuff that will last
till doomsday if properly handled. Now it’s going down to Knox’s vat.”

He sent a boy to the vat room to warn Philander that a re-inforcement
was about to descend. Then he sought a square shaft in the corner of
the engine house, took off the lid and revealed an empty, lead-lined
box, having six holes at the bottom. Each was securely stopped and all
communicated with the great chests that held the pulp for the paper
makers below.

He opened one hole, drew a valve from the beating engine and allowed it
slowly to empty into the box. The white mass sank away out of it; there
was a gurgle and a splash of air from the valve as the engine emptied;
while with a wooden rake Ned scraped the last of the pulp to the
aperture, whence it ran to the box above the chests in the vat room.

“No. 4 chest is being filled, so it’s No. 4 hole I’ve opened in the
box,” he explained. “Now it’s all run down very quick you see, and my
beater is empty.”

Then the breaker above disgorged another load of “half stuff” into the
beater, and after he had used a beating roll, he set the paddle-wheel
going again and the new consignment revolved on its way.

Ned took a keen interest in his work and though he might be casual and
easy-going in all other affairs of life, it was clear that he could be
serious enough over the operations of the beater. He was very thorough
and never left anything to chance. Opportunity for initiative did not
enter into his labours; but the hard and fast lines of perfection he
followed with keen application, and it was his fair boast that he had
never sent bad pulp to the vatmen. Though a mechanical calling, Ned did
not approach it in a mechanical spirit. It was his particular gift and
privilege to feel a measure of enthusiasm in the craft, and he prided
himself upon his skill.

Novelty now awaited him, for the pulp presently to be made would differ
in quality from the familiar material. The beating it to an impalpable
fineness would be his work. The pulp was also to be dyed with new
tinctures, not used until now.

For not only snowwhite material descended to the vat room. The dyeing
was a part of Mr. Dingle’s operation in many cases, and the various
colours of foreign currency papers went into the stuff during its
sojourn in the beaters.

Dingle, satisfied with his pupil, put on his coat when the dinner bell
rang, the steam pulses of the works subsided and the power stopped.
He took his basket and descended a long flight of steps to the vat
room, where Kellock, Life and the other paper makers had just knocked
off work. Others joined them, for the vast and airy vat room was a
favourite place for dinner; but Medora did not come. For several weeks
now she had ceased to meet Ned at the hour of the mid-day meal. The
fact was, of course, noted and debated behind Dingle’s back; but none
spoke of it in front of him.

The change in Medora at this stage of her existence was obvious enough
to all; while that which marked her husband did not appear so clearly.
The reason had been easy to see, though few knew enough about them to
see it. Medora, while really disingenuous, revealed her tribulation,
because she desired everybody to perceive it; while Ned, naturally an
open and simple creature, endeavoured with the instinct of a decent
male to hide his worries from the public eye. He failed, however,
because he was not built to play a part, while Medora succeeded to
perfection. Thus she created an impression of secret woes that did not
really exist, while Ned attempted to conceal anxieties which were real
enough. His temper suffered under a strain that he was not created to
endure, for his wife’s attitude, having first puzzled him, began to
anger him. He lost his temper with her on certain occasions and her
sublime patience under his rough tongue by no means turned his wrath
from her. For nothing is more maddening, if you are the smiter, than to
have the other cheek turned to you by a sufferer, who displays obvious
gusto at your chastisement. Ned soon saw that Medora liked him to be
violent and brutal. It was meat and drink to her to see him in a rage.
He guessed, and not wrongly, that if he had beaten her, she must have
relished the pain—not for itself, but for the exquisite pleasure of
relating her sufferings to other people afterwards.

She was changed, as any woman is who for pleasure or profit plays a
part. Indeed many persist in such histrionics when profit has long
ceased, for simple artistic delight at the impersonation. It is natural
to prefer a rôle which we can perform to perfection, before others
wherein we are not so effective.

The suffering and wronged and ill-treated heroine proved an
impersonation that suited Medora’s temperament exactly, and having once
assumed it, she promised to persist in it beyond the limits of her
husband’s patience. She would doubtless tire sooner or later, since it
is the instinct of every actor to desire new parts and new successes;
but she was not going to tire of it while she made such a hit, won so
much attention and created such a dramatic and exciting atmosphere
about her. In fact Medora now felt herself to be the centre of her own
little stage, and the experience so much delighted her that it was
difficult sometimes to retain the air of crushed, Christian resignation
proper to the character.

But the situation she had created out of nothing real, now developed
and began to take unto itself dangerous elements of reality. Such
theatricals do not stand still, and instead of subsiding, as Lydia
hoped it would, Mrs. Dingle’s objections and grievances, woven of
gossamer at first, began to grow tougher. She guessed that she would
catch more than herself in these elaborate reticulations, and she
persisted until she found another was becoming entangled also.

At first, to do her justice, Medora hesitated here. But she could not
pour her woes into Kellock’s ears without a reaction from him, and his
attitude towards her confession naturally influenced her. For, while
some of her elders suspected, according to the measure of their wits,
that Medora was acting, one man saw no shadow of deception. Every word
rang true on his ear, for circumstances combined hopelessly to hoodwink
him. His own serious nature, from which any powers of illusion or
sleight were excluded, read nothing but the face value into Medora’s
woeful countenance and the word value into her hopeless speeches. Not
for him to answer mock heroics with banter, or reply to burlesque with
irony. Had he been made of different stuff, he might have saved Medora
from herself at this season; but being himself, the admirable man was
terribly perturbed and indeed found himself beset with sore questions
and problems from which both his character and personal attitude to
the girl precluded escape. For he loved her, and the fact that she
was an unhappy woman did not lessen his love; while, beyond that, his
altruistic instincts must have brought him into a delicate complication
in any case when once invited to participate. And now he did enter,
with motives that could not honestly be considered mixed, for he was
thus far influenced only by a conviction that it might be possible to
help both sufferers to a better understanding. He knew that he enjoyed
a far larger measure of intellect than Ned, and he felt that to shirk
an effort for Medora’s sake would be cowardly. He had indeed convinced
himself that it was his duty to act.

He proceeded to tackle Ned, but he approached the task without the
attitude of mind vital to success. For success in such a ticklish
matter demanded in Kellock a standpoint of absolute impartiality. He
must, if he were to do any good whatever, come to Dingle with a mind
as open and unprejudiced as possible; whereas, though he knew it not,
Jordan’s mind by no means stood in that relation to the pair. Had it
done so, he had probably not interfered; for in truth it could not
be altruism alone that prompted him to the step he was now about to
take, but a very active and sincere sympathy for Medora in her alleged
griefs. He believed her with all his heart and he had a great deal more
concern for Mrs. Dingle’s point of view, which he accepted, than for
her husband’s, which he had neither heard nor considered.

The men had eaten their dinner, and Ned, out of a cheerful demeanour,
which he brought from his work, presently sank into taciturnity. From
no will to do so, but powerlessness to prevent it, he showed those
about him that his thoughts were not pleasant. Indeed the most casual
had noticed that he was of late only himself in the engine house, and
that nothing but work sufficed to take him out of himself. Away from
it, he brooded and did not chatter and jest as of old.

To-day he was more than usually abstracted and Kellock seized the
opportunity. Ned’s meal was finished in ten minutes and when he began
to stuff his pipe, the other asked him to come for a stroll up the
valley.

“Let’s go up to the ponds and see if there are any birds about, Ned,”
he said.

A little surprised, since the bird that interested Kellock was unknown,
Ned nevertheless agreed to take a walk.

“Certainly,” he answered. “Me and Trood flushed a woodcock there
yesterday, and I dare say on Saturday Trood will bring him down. He’s a
mark on a woodcock—never misses ’em.”

They strolled together up the valley where it fell gently to the Mill.

A quarter of a mile above the works the coomb narrowed to a
bottle-neck, through which a water-fall came down. The road wound
through this gap and on one side of it rose old, blue limestone
quarries, their jagged scarps and ridges fledged with gorse and oak
scrub; while on the other side of the water a limestone bluff ascended,
weathered to fine colour, and above it towered Scotch firs and ivy-clad
beeches that followed the foot of the hill and flung their arms around
a little mere, lying in the hollow of the undulating land.

In spring this cup shone emerald green; but now the place was grey and
silver. Alders and sallows towered black against the bright water;
sedges and reed mace had huddled into tangle of russet and amber. They
brightened where the sun touched them and burned over the placid lake,
while the highest colour note was a spindle tree, whereon hung its
harvest of pink and orange fruit, though all the leaves were fled. The
flame of it cast a brilliant reflection into the face of the mirror
below; and as Ned and Jordan approached by a winding way, that skirted
the mere, coot and moorhen scuttled off leaving double trains behind
them, widening out upon the waters.

Here it was that Kellock broached the great matter at his heart; and
because it was at his heart, whereas he imagined it solely in his head,
he found within the space of two minutes that he had made a very
grievous mistake.

Beside the lake spoke Jordan, while Ned had his eyes in the sedges and
distant mud flats for a woodcock.

“It’s about your wife I wanted to say a word, and I know we’re too good
friends for you to object. You see, Ned, when you look at the past—”

“To hell with the past,” answered Dingle shortly. “It’s the future I
look at. You take my tip and keep out of this—specially seeing you
wanted her yourself once.”

“I must speak,” answered the vatman mildly, “and just for that
reason, Ned. When she took you, you’ll remember I followed a very
self-respecting line about it. But at your wish—at your wish, Ned—I
kept my friendship for Medora and you; and it’s out of that friendship
I want to say I think things might be bettered.”

“She’s been washing our dirty linen for your pleasure then?”

“Not at all. But—”

“God damn it!” burst out the other. “Ain’t there to be any peace left
in the world? You get out of this and keep out of it, or—”

“Don’t be silly, Ned,—listen.”

“To you? Not much. There’s some hooken-snivey going on here by the
looks of it. Blast you—there—that’s my answer to you!”

Dingle, in a white-hot passion, swung his arm, hit Kellock on the side
of his head with a tremendous blow and knocked him down. They were on
the edge of the lake and Medora’s champion rolled over and fell into
water ten feet deep. He was stunned and sank, then came to the surface
again.

Ned’s rage vanished with the blow, for now he saw in a moment the
gravity of the situation. Kellock appeared to be unconscious and would
certainly drown if left in the water.

The man on the bank flung himself upon his stomach, leant over, gripped
his victim by the collar and dragged him breast high under the bank. In
this position Kellock came at once to his senses.

“I’m sorry—I’m cruel sorry,” said Dingle. “Lift up your hands and put
’em round my neck—then I’ll heave you out.”

Kellock opened his eyes and panted, but did nothing for a moment.

“For God’s sake make an effort—I can’t help you else. Get your arms
round my neck, Jordan.”

The other obeyed and in a few moments he was safe. Ned fished his cap
out of the water, wrung it and handed it to him.

“I’m bitter sorry—my cursed temper.”

Kellock sat down for a moment and pressed the water out of his clothes.
He was quite calm.

“I dare say it was natural,” he answered. “If you’d but listened—”

“You can’t listen to things if you’re in hell. Take my arm. No good
biding here. I’ll see you to your house. You can have the law of me.
I deserve it. I’m no bloody good to anybody in the world now-a-days.
Better I was locked up, I reckon.”

“Don’t talk rot. We’re all learners. You’ve learned me something
anyway. See me home. I’m dazed, but I shall be all right in a minute.
And don’t let on about this. I shall say I slipped on the edge of the
water and fell in and bruised my head—just an accident and my fault.
And so it was my fault.”

“I won’t have that. You rub it in. I’ve earned it. I shall tell the
people what I am, if you don’t.”

“That won’t do,” answered the other. “Think of me as well as yourself
in that matter. You’re popular; I’m not; and if they hear you’ve
knocked me into the water, they’ll say there was a reason for it.”

Dingle did not answer, but he knew this to be true.

“Least said soonest mended then.”

“For your wife’s sake, Ned.”

“Leave her out, please. I’m in your debt and I shan’t forget it.”

They met some women returning to the works and lied to them. All
expressed great concern. Then Ned brought Kellock to his rooms and
begged him to drink some spirits which he refused to do.

“Mind we tell the same tale about this,” said Jordan. “I fell in and
you grabbed me from the bank and brought me ashore. After all it’s the
truth, so far as it goes.”

Dingle agreed and then returned to his work; while the injured man,
though in considerable pain, only waited to change his clothes and then
hastened back to the Mill, to explain his accident and be chaffed for
his carelessness.

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