THE LETTER

In the vat house there took place the transformation from liquid to
solid, from pulp to paper, from a gruel-like, tenuous compound to a
substance strong enough to stand strain of many pounds and last for
centuries.

Here was the largest building in the Mill—a very lofty, brightly
lighted, airy hall, from whose open roof descended electric lights
hanging above each vat. A steady whirr and throb of noisy engines made
a din here, but the vatmen and their couchers were used to it and could
hear themselves speak through the familiar riot.

To the right, elevated under the roof, stood the range of chests—huge,
round vessels, like little gasometers, into which the pulp descended
from Ned Dingle when he had perfected it. There were eight of these fat
monsters ranged in a row, and from them flowed the material to the vats
as it was needed. The vats stood on the floor of the chamber—large,
wide-mouthed troughs heated by steam from within. For the pulp is warm
for the vatman, and some of the finest and most enduring papers demand
such a high temperature that an operative’s hands are blistered and
boiled at his work. Beside each vat is a hand-box of cold water, to dip
and refresh the vatman’s fingers when the need arises.

Within the vat revolves the “hog,” a toothed roller, which keeps the
heavy pulp mixed and moving, and prevents any settlement of the fibre.

On stages before the breasts of the vats stood the paper makers, and
the wooden bands against which they leaned were polished with the
friction of their aprons. Their tools were two—the mould—a flat,
rectangular tray, or sieve, of copper wire as fine as gauze, with the
water-mark let in upon it to tell the story of the future paper, and
the deckle—a light wood and metal frame of four sides which fitted
exactly over the mould and lifted an edge all round it to hold the
pulp. The moulds varied from the size of two open sheets of notepaper,
to great squares of “double elephant,” the noblest stuff the Mill
produced. Moulds for these immense pieces once immersed in the pulp,
called for great physical power to draw them cleanly and steadily back
from the clinging fluid with their weight of material spread upon them.

Kellock was making “double elephant” in a mighty mould. With his thumbs
firmly set on the deckle edge, he lowered the tray into the snow-white
pulp, sloping it towards him as he did so. He put it in, sank it flat
under the pulp and drew it out again with one beautiful, rhythmic
movement.

The pulp sucked hard at the great mould, to drag it to the depths,
but the man’s strength brought it steadily forth; and then he made
his “stroke”—a complicated gesture, which levelled and settled the
pulp on the mould and let the liquid escape through the gauze. Kellock
gave a little jog to the right and to the left and ended with an
indescribable, subtle, quivering movement which completed the task. It
was the work of two seconds, and in his case a beautiful accomplishment
full of grace and charm. He stood easily and firmly while every muscle
of breast and arm, back and loins played its appointed part in the
“stroke.”

Mr. Trood often stood and watched Jordan for the pleasure of the sight.
It was the most perfect style he had ever seen. He was a theorist and
calculated that Kellock produced the very greatest amount of physical
power for the least possible expenditure of muscular loss; while
others, who made as good paper as he, squandered thousands of pounds
of dynamical energy by a stroke full of superfluous gesture. But the
stroke is never the same in any two vatmen. It develops, with each
artificer’s knowledge of the craft, to produce that highly co-ordinated
effort embraced in the operation of making a sheet of paper.

Mr. Knox operated at the next vat and offered an object lesson. He did
the same things that Kellock did; dipped his mould, drew it to him,
brought it squarely out, jogged to right and left and gave that subtle,
complex touch of completion; yet in his achievement a wholly different
display met the observer. It seemed that he performed a piece of
elaborate ritual before the altar of the vat.

He bowed his head to right and left; he moved his tongue and his knees;
he jerked his elbows and bent his back over the trough as a priest
consecrating the elements of some sacramental mass. Then he bowed and
nodded once more and the created sheet emerged from his mould. The
effect was grotesque, and seen at a little distance a stranger had
supposed that Mr. Knox was simply playing the fool for the amusement of
his coucher and layer; but in reality he was working hard and making as
fine and perfect paper as Kellock himself. His muscles were tuned to
his task; he had lifted his sheer weight of forty tons or more by the
end of the day and was none the worse for it. Nor could he have omitted
one gesture from his elaborate style without upsetting everything and
losing his stroke.

So the transformation became accomplished and the millions of linen
and cotton fibres scooped on to the mould ran into a thin mat or wad,
which was a piece of paper. Why all these fragile and microscopic
atoms should become so inter-twisted and mingled that they produce
an integral fabric, it is difficult to understand; but this was the
result of the former processes; and those to come would change the
slab of wet, newly created stuff—now no more than a piece of soaked
blotting-paper—to the perfected sheet.

His stroke accomplished and the sediment levelled on the mould, Kellock
brought his mould to the “stay”—a brass-bound ledge on his left hand.
He lifted the deckle from it as he did so and the full mould was drawn
up the stay to the “asp,” where his coucher stood. Then Kellock clasped
the deckle on to his second mould, now returned from the coucher, and
dipped again, while his assistant, taking the full mould from the asp,
turned it over on to the accumulating pile of sheets rising on his
plank. Then he ran the empty mould back along the bridge to Kellock’s
hand and drew to himself the next full mould now waiting for him on the
stay.

So the process was endlessly repeated, and when the coucher’s pile
of paper, with woollen welts between each new sheet, had grown large
enough, it was removed, drawn away on a little trolley, which ran upon
rails down the centre of the vat house, and taken to a press. Here the
mass under a steady strain showed that the new sheets were still half
water, for a fountain poured and spurted away on every side as the
lever was turned.

From this initial pressing each pile came back to the place of its
creation and the layer, the third worker in the trinity at each vat,
separated the paper from the woollens between the sheets and handed the
felts back to the coucher as he needed them for his own task. The three
men worked together like a machine with rhythmic action and wonderful
swiftness. Then came the interval; the din of the machinery ceased for
a while and the vatmen washed their hands.

Each manual craft leaves its own marks, by which one skilled may tell
a worker’s business, and the paper maker’s hands are deeply corned and
calloused along the palms and joints. They are his stock in trade and
he takes the utmost care of them, for a bleeding corn, or cut, or any
wound instantly disables him and he cannot tend the vat until they are
sound again.

At this moment Robert Life was out of action, with a sore on his
thumb, and employed for the time at other labour; but he joined the
men in the dinner hour and shared a discussion concerning the supreme
disaster which may fall to the vatman’s lot.

“Did you ever lose your stroke?” asked Life of Mr. Knox. “I’ve heard of
men that did—and never got it back no more.”

“May it never happen to you, Robert,” answered the elder, “for anything
more dreadful and shattering you can’t imagine. Yes, I lost my stroke
eight years ago; and I can remember every item of the tragedy as if it
was yesterday.”

“Along of illness?” asked Life, “or your own fault?”

“As I’m among friends,” replied Philander, “I’ll confess that it was
my own fault. I tell you these things as a warning to you younger men.
It was whiskey. I’d go on the burst sometimes, though never what you’d
call a drinker. But I held an opinion it was better to have a fair
wallow in it now and again with teetotal intervals, than to be always
drinking, you see; and once I overdid it and lost my stroke. I came
to the vat and dipped, but the touch was gone. I tried and failed and
washed off again and again; but I couldn’t make paper. They came round
me and said hopeful things, and I stood like a stuck pig among ’em and
the sweat poured down my face. Then I dropped the mould and sneaked
away and felt as if the end of the world had come. For I knew bitter
well that often and often the stroke once lost is never got back.”

“You got yours back, however?”

“In my terror I signed the pledge and promised the Almighty a lot of
very fine things if He’d be merciful and let me regain my skill. My
self-respect was gone and I’d have grovelled to God, or anybody who
could help me. My foreman was a very good chap and understood the
nature of the disaster. He cheered me and felt so positive sure I
should get it back, that I began to think I should myself. For in such
case half the battle is to have cheerful, hopeful people about you,
who’ll make light of the tragedy and say it’s going to be all right.
The moral effect of that helps you to hope against hope and recover
your nerve, when you come to try again. It’s all nerve really, and if
you can get back your nerve, then you’ll probably get back your stroke.”

“At the third trial I got mine back anyway, and ’twas a very fine
example of the best in human nature to see how my coucher and layer
shook hands with me when I made my first sheet and how glad my fellow
vatmen were about it.”

“And did you keep all your good promises?” asked Kellock.

“For practical purposes, yes,” answered Philander. “I improved a good
bit after that adventure and never went on the burst again. The pledge,
however, I did not keep, because by experiment I found I could work
better on beer than water; but spirits are a thing of the past. I don’t
drink more than a whiskey or two a week now-a-days.”

Kellock, at one stage in his secret thoughts at this season, had found
his heart faint somewhat, for by temperament thus far he had been
a thinker rather than a doer. His work ended, his leisure had been
largely devoted to the welfare of his class, and he doubted not that he
would turn a great part of his energies to labour questions and even
abandon paper-making for a political career some day. Such was his
dream; but for the present that had been swept aside.

Thoughts of his own future gave him no lasting uneasiness. Whether
he stopped at Dene, or went elsewhere, after running away with Mrs.
Dingle, mattered nothing to him. His skill commanded a ready market
and he could get work for the asking. He guessed, indeed, that Medora
must desire to live as far from the haunts of her tragedy as possible;
but he also knew that Matthew Trenchard would wish to keep him if
he could. A more pressing problem concerned the future of Medora’s
husband. Kellock’s orderly mind above all things would have liked to go
to Ned, state the case clearly, prove to him that he was never destined
to make his wife a happy woman and frankly suggest a change of partners
for Medora. He was actually tempted to do this, and even went so far as
to suggest it to Mrs. Dingle; but she, hiding a secret amazement at any
enterprise so unromantic, assured him that such an action could only
serve greatly to complicate their future if it did not actually ruin
their plans altogether.

“If he was like you,” she said, “and could listen to sense it might
work; but you don’t want to get your head broken, Jordan, and that’s
all that would happen. The more he knows he’s wrong and being wicked
to me, the more he’d fight to keep me. He’s got into a horrible way
of torturing me now. He properly feeds on my sufferings I believe.
It’s now or never, for he’s breaking me down and I shan’t be company
for any man much longer. Don’t think I want to make a scene, or add
difficulties to your life. God knows I only want to be your right hand,
and help you, and work as best I can for all the noble things you mean
to do. But before that happens, you’ve got to play the hero a bit I’m
afraid, and meet his brute force with your bravery and courage.”

In fact Medora would not have missed the necessary theatricals for the
world, and a peaceful interchange of husbands did not at all appeal to
her. She had no desire to forego the excitement or the fame. She had
thought a thousand times of the hum at the Mill when her place knew
her no more, and there came the news that she had left her husband for
a better and greater man. Probably she loved Kellock after a fashion;
certainly she believed she did. In the unreal atmosphere that she now
breathed, it seemed to her that Kellock was about to play Perseus to
her Andromeda; but she had no wish that the matter should be settled
amicably with the dragon. Jordan must do his part; otherwise her rôle
would be lessened and reduced below the dignity proper to it.

Since Ned was to blame for everything, reason demanded that retribution
fall upon him. Only so could justice—poetical or otherwise—be done.
If her departure were not to inflict adequate punishment upon him, then
the salt was out of the situation. To Kellock this sounded vindictive,
but he could not deny that it was human and natural. He remembered that
Medora must not be expected to consider Ned’s feelings; though secretly
he wished that she had been able to do so.

But Medora was out for blood and her carnivorous instincts extended
even to Kellock himself. He too must suffer, that she might complete
her performance with due triumph. She pictured Jordan ostracised and
turning to her for comfort and support. She saw herself doubted,
misunderstood, but presently triumphing over everybody. She imagined
Kellock lifted to heights unattainable without her steadfast aid. She
felt a boundless confidence in her own intelligence and inspiration to
help him. But he must certainly run away with her as a preliminary. He
must outrage convention, focus all eyes and appear in the lurid light
that beats on people who have the courage to do such things. She told
him so and assisted at the simple preliminaries.

He was about to take a fortnight’s holiday and it was decided that
a day after he left Dene, Medora would join him at Newton Abbot and
proceed to London with him.

He agreed to this arrangement as the most seemly, and together they
concocted the letter which Mr. Dingle would receive by post on the
morning of Medora’s disappearance. She invited Jordan to assist her in
this composition, but was sorry afterwards that she had done so, for
her lover differed from her on certain particulars and deprecated the
writing of several things that she desired to write.

They planned the communication in the secrecy of the Priory ruin on
a Sunday afternoon, and it was some time before the man had produced
a clean draft for Medora to take away and copy. She wished to insert
a demand, couched somewhat insolently, that Mr. Dingle would divorce
his wife as swiftly as possible; but Kellock forbade this, because he
felt that advice to Ned under such circumstances was undignified and
altogether improper.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You must be reasonable and take it in a
high-minded way. It’s for you to tell him what you’re going to do and
the reason; but it ain’t for you to tell him what he’s got to do. You
can safely leave that to him. You see in these cases, when they get in
the papers, that a man and woman always go to an hotel together; and
when that’s proved, the other man divorces her as a matter of course.
That’s all there is to it.”

At other points also he declined to support Medora’s wishes. She had
designed some rather flagrant sentiments for this letter and felt that
her action needed them. It was to be the letter of her life and, as
she said, it had become her first wish to make Dingle feel what he had
made her feel. But Kellock was calm and collected upon the subject, and
finding composition of the letter awakened very considerably passion in
Medora, he begged her to let him draft it and accept his idea of what
such a document should be.

“It may be read in open Court some day,” he said—a possibility that
cheered her.

She agreed therefore and hid her disappointment at what she regarded as
a very colourless indictment. Jordan’s idea was something as lifeless
as a lawyer’s letter, but equally crushing in its cold and remorseless
statement of fact. Not a shadow of emotion marked it. There was nothing
but the statement that finding she failed to please or satisfy her
husband, and knowing their continued union could only destroy their
happiness and self-control and self-respect, therefore—for both their
sakes—Medora had decided to leave Ned and cast in her lot with
Jordan Kellock, who was willing and anxious to make her his wife.
Neither anger nor sorrow appeared in this communication as it left
Kellock’s hands.

She took the letter and thanked him gratefully for helping her. Then
they tore up into very tiny fragments the various attempts before the
finished article and so parted—not to meet again until they met for
ever.

And Medora, when alone, read his letter again and liked it less than
before. That night her husband was out and she began her transcription,
but when it came actually to copying Kellock’s sentences, their
icy restraint began to annoy her. She stopped once or twice to ask
herself how it was possible for any human being to write in a manner
so detached. First she praised him for such amazing power and such
remarkable reserve; then she reminded herself that this was to be her
letter to her husband, not Jordan’s. Jordan proposed to write himself
from London. She wondered a great deal what Jordan’s letter would be
like. If the letter he had written for her made her shiver, surely
the letter he wrote for himself would be a freezing matter. She told
herself that Kellock was a saint. She felt uneasily proud of him
already. She kept his heroism in her mind, and felt proud of herself,
too, that such a man was willing to let her share his future, brilliant
as it must certainly be.

But the letter—her letter—stuck. She began arguing with herself about
it. She told herself that it was not her style and Ned would know it.
Obviously Ned must not suppose that Kellock had written the letter.
She noted down a few sentences of the sort of letter she would have
written without anybody’s assistance—the letter she had dreamed of
writing—and it pleased her much. She found such a flow of words as
seemed proper to the tremendous occasion. They glittered and flashed
like knives. Invective and self-justification shared the burning pages.
She surprised herself at the force and vigour of the phrases. Turning
again to Kellock’s composition, she now found it hopelessly inadequate
as compared with her own. It was true that she had promised Jordan
to post it; but she changed her mind and determined to despatch her
own production, as better suited to the parting, far more forcible,
far more dramatic and far more the sort of letter she pictured Ned as
showing to other people, after the blow had fallen.

She paltered with the situation to the extent of writing another letter
embodying a part of Kellock’s. And then she copied this, and copied it
again. She destroyed the debris, including Kellock’s original draft,
and left one letter perfect in every way—an exceedingly outrageous
production.

She sealed it up and next morning assured herself that, for all
practical purposes, it was the letter Kellock had designed. From a
decision to tell him that she had added a phrase or two, she doubted
whether it was worth while. Finally she determined not to tell him that
she had altered the letter.

“It’s no good making needless complications,” she thought.

She was very happy and excited. She lived in a dream for a week, and
the reality of the things she had decided to do lay altogether outside
her calculations and anticipations.

Probably her greatest joy at this juncture centred, not so much in
the happiness she had planned for herself and Jordan, as the thought
of what people would say at Dene about their flight. She felt that to
be invisible among her acquaintances on the morning of her departure,
would have been even a greater delight than the first day in London
with her future husband.

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