Monday, April 23, 2007

June 13, Afternoon

While I reviewed the petition handed to me by the strange old woman (whom I now take to be the widow Pearl Riley, the former Mrs. Levi Riley), My Dear set about convincing the Reverend Withrow and me that because the glassworks was at the center of one of my appeals, we had best go and tour it immediately. The Reverend kindly acquiesced and arranged it, insisting on accompanying us. Because the factory was the stage of Mrs. Riley’s downfall, I shall describe her account, and the place as it was when we toured it, side by side.

Mrs. Riley’s husband, owner and proprietor of the Lemoine glassworks, died two years ago of a pulmonary complaint. The widow Riley, having no family of her own to speak of and being (I infer, from certain details of the factory’s stock ownership and administration) out of the good graces of her husband’s family, was encouraged to sell the glassworks: to the Rileys if they made her a fair offer, or otherwise to some third party. The widow does not dispute that the offer made by her brother-in-law was a fair one, but nonetheless she refused to sell, and even invested in certain improvements to the facility, such as a set of four pipes in the great central furnace, each of which emitted what I can only describe as jets of fire, some wider and some narrower, some with their blue flames tinged by red or white indicating their varying temperatures and the compositions of the fuel they burned.

Men in leather protective suits gathered around each of the openings in the oven, their eyes fixed on flower-shaped glass works-in-progress that they held in front of these flames with long-armed tools that rested in notches like oarlocks: scoops and sticks with which they gathered up the white-hot liquid glass like honey from the crucibles at the bottom of the furnace, pincers to suspend their work in space, paddles and scrapers they used to flatten and carve, and scissors that cut away unneeded, dripping protrusions. Sometimes they returned the object to a hotter inner furnace to keep it pliable enough to work the entire surface, but more often they created its details by melting the unneeded glass away with the more precise blowlamp flame-jets. One man constantly regulated the precise angle of the flame emitted by one of the jets by blowing on it through a narrow glass tube and then, when the flower bulb’s shape was almost complete, he inserted his tube through the back of the blossom and blew into it gently to create a tiny, delicate pistil and rounded stigma. At first I thought they were making roses, but they delighted us by producing something more like a luxuriant, long-petaled orchid. As the tint of the glass cooled it revealed that in places a hint of purple and of other colors had been added to the vivid red the factory was known for. The foreman, the one who used the pincers and called out the orders to the rest in his high-pitched yeoman’s voice, pulled the orchid out of the heat so that another artisan could etch in the finest details by hand. In the far end of the furnace we could see that the next new flower had already been suspended in the flames by another team working a set of tools on the opposite side.

"You are very kind to let us witness the glassmaking," My Dear said to Vincent Kale, a Northeastern man who now leased and operated the factory. "I imagine such a legendary technique must normally be shrouded in secrecy."

"An object of exceptional fineness," said the Reverend Withrow.

"Actually, my lady, secrecy is almost unnecessary so long as we keep a close watch on our protective spectacles," Kale said. "Our glassmaking process produces temperatures so extreme that any man who watched it closely enough to reproduce its operation would be struck blind on the spot." This struck me as a tale to gull children, given that since our arrival a few of the older glassworkers had gazed into the crucible bare-eyed with no ill effect. All the others wore safety goggles with tinted lenses--the proverbial rose-colored glasses, perhaps. In the moment of silence that followed Kale’s warning, the Reverend Withrow mentioned that I had read Mrs. Riley’s appeal, and Kale asked me whether there was anything in it that could affect his interest as the operator of the glassworks. To be honest, I had to tell him that if Mrs. Riley prevailed, he would be at her mercy. But then I told him that he needn’t worry, as I had already considered the widow’s claim and there was no merit in it at all.

While the new, mechanical central furnace was still under construction, reports of a new plague among the users of Lemoine glassware had become impossible to ignore. Over the objections of her distributors and the working men of the town (so she claims), the widow Riley shut down all of the old, traditional glassblowing ovens until such time as the complex furnace was finished and the factory was converted to the production of detailed decorative objects. She promised that with the added capacity she would still be able to meet that year’s quota of glass objects in each of her contracts with the glass resellers who operated out of Lemoine. During the period of the factory’s closure, as a result of her several misfortunes and expenses, the widow found herself unable to pay her annual tithe to the parish church. Expulsion from the congregation for nonpayment, of course, would place her in a position hardly better than that of the Imps who mucked out the church’s stables, incapable of doing business or moving in the normal social circles of the town, and indeed if she had no household that would take her in at that juncture, then wardship might be her only hope. The widow forestalled that fate by persuading the Reverend Withrow to accept the accounts due on the factory’s contracts with the resellers as payment of her tithe in lieu of cash.

When the widow finally reopened the factory, the village had suffered a long period of hardship, and the people blamed her personally. The Reverend Withrow seized the spirit of the moment by preaching a sermon named _A Trumpet-Blast Against the Capricious Tyranny of Women_, which called on Mrs. Riley to relinquish her ownership of the glassworks. The distributors (who, the widow speculates, saw an opportunity to renegotiate the wholesale price of rose glass) responded to the sermon by repudiating their obligations under the contract, saying that they would buy no more glass until the factory was owned and operated by men. This meant that their accounts with the glassworks were worthless, and the widow was in default of her debt to the church. Withrow ejected her from the congregation on the very next Sunday after he had sermonized against her, in the presence of the entire flock. To consider the shock that she must have withstood, while on the verge of financial ruin to have returned to the place where such obloquy had been heaped on her the week before, and then (if the order of worship were observed) after she had joined in a single hymn, during the period reserved for church business, the black-coated curate would have towered over her in the pulpit (as her social standing would certainly have afforded her a seat neat the front) to cruelly cast her out--leaving her to walk past the rows of her former peers, head bowed, or perhaps held high in dignified resolution--helps me guess at the origin of her nobly tenacious pride, which so struck me upon our encounter at the post office. After all this, Reuben Riley, the brother of the widow’s deceased husband, accepted ownership of the factory encumbered by its debts and took the widow into his household. A landowner and farmer who lived with his family in the nearby countryside, he salvaged the value of the glassworks by leasing it to Vincent Kale. Pearl Riley brought a lawsuit against the glass-resellers on the theory that they had broken their contract with her and they were the ones obligated to pay her debt to the church, and furthermore prayed for a declaration that because her exclusion from the church was improper, ownership of the glassworks had never validly passed from her to her brother-in-law, which would also void the lease to Kale. The Reverend Withrow decided the suit against her nearly a year ago.

"The widow accuses the court of denying her the right to enforce her contract because of her sex," I told Kale. "She has the right to enforce contracts, and her sex does not diminish it. But her argument proves too much, because she must grant that the factory’s customers have the same right. The right to contract includes the right not to have one’s agreement altered in any material respect after the signing, and clearly for any businessman the gender of one’s business partner is a material consideration. The freedoms guaranteed under our laws apply to each person equally; they do not strain to favor parties that find themselves, for one reason or another, disadvantaged."

"I agree entirely," Kale said, though not without discomfort at having discussed such a matter, and in the presence of a lady. "I could show you our pigment room. Do you see the smaller pipes from the furnace to the floor above, around the chimney? Those are the chutes that supply the raw materials, both the sand and the rare minerals that give our glass its color." We followed him up a stairwell to a room on the second floor, though it was at ground level on the uphill side of the building. The room was a sort of stable, with wide doors thrown open, as Kale said, to admit the carts full of minerals that arrived at all hours from the copper mine up the mountain. In truth, the workers must have kept them open out of fear of the accumulation of dust: in this room they wore not only protective goggles but masks and leather hoods that covered their whole heads, and still they looked away furtively when they beat lumps of metal with pestles or ground them down with cranklike machines, and then poured the resulting powder into the chutes that led below. Beneath their heavy clothes, some of the workers were stiff and hunchbacked, or seemed to lack the full use of their limbs. My Dear, Withrow and I all discreetly covered our faces with our hands and inclined toward the exit, though Kale seemed oblivious to anything but My Dear’s praise of the factory’s clockwork organization. Perhaps he thought that terror of the Lemoine Rheuma was but another of his ingenious safeguards against spies. From the cart-path outside one could see up the slope to the strip-mined mountain peak far in the distance, where the strata of sediment lay cross-sectioned and exposed to the sunlight. I could begin to make out a complex wooden scaffolding built among the shored-up earth around the base of the man-made cliff which would allow miners to dig anywhere on the cliff face for its rich veins of copper, or for the more mysterious substances that they sold to the glassworks. As we were leaving, the call came up from the furnace room for more sand, and the workers began to dump sack after sack of it down the chutes. I overheard My Dear asking Kale whether any of the town’s glass-brokers would resell the rose glass as far away as the capital. Kale assured her that they would. The factory’s many woes were finally over, he said, and he had already arranged for shops across the country to be stocked with Lemoine glass by the end of the summer. My Dear seemed to take it in stride that she was not the first to understand the commercial potential of the new, reinvented Lemoine glassworks.

Finally we returned to the main room to see the annealing furnaces, which must have been used for glassblowing before the new furnace was constructed for that purpose. The annealing furnaces keep the finished objects at a high temperature which gradually decreases until the furnace has entirely cooled and the finished glass is packed away in straw. The works we saw there, illuminated by the fires beneath them, were an incredible array. To my dazzled eyes it seemed as if no two of them were the same. There were even complex blossoms like carnations, sunflowers and wisteria. The range of color and taxonomy was astounding, and most of the flowers were grouped in brilliant, riotous arrangements in rose glass vases each with its own subtle, often intricate design.

"Some of these common flowers must have taken far more work than the rare ones," My Dear said aside to me. "They are not exotic, nor do they represent wealth or love. Who do they expect will pay for them?"

"It is as if they were made for the pure aesthetic joy of their creation," I said.

"Or they may be a challenge to the buyer’s taste," My Dear said. "A discriminating collector will know that a representation of a common object need not be common. It may be rarer than all the gods and paste jewels of a governor’s parlor."

My Dear had only just begun to express her appreciation of the glasswork to Mr. Kale when we heard an awful popping and a cry went up among the workers at the central furnace. Men recoiled from their stations in pain and bits of glass skittered across the floor, some of them glowing and fluid. The white light of the crucibles brightened and rose--I could not see its source, but the shadows around the furnace changed shape--and I took my wife’s arm and shielded her body with mine while Withrow lurched away from the danger. There was nowhere for us to take shelter, and the barred front door was too far. Streams of fire soared from the furnace like flares from the sun, and the bubbling liquid glass overflowed the furnace rising like yeasted bread. The wiry, grey-haired foreman called out "Stawp the gas!" in a tone that betrayed no fear, and his subordinates attended to it by closing all the valves bolted to the furnace. Then the half-liquid glass, which had bled out onto the floor, slowed in its expansion. It was like a creature that reached out to consume us without the encumbrance of solid form. In the main it was a vibrant red, but it contained whorls and shapes of other colors hidden beneath its surface like unknown organs, and the crucible fire shone up from beneath it like a malignant animating spirit. The glass efflux hardened as it expanded and its fire died, having cast its arms out only a few feet from its place of birth, the glassmakers’ tools encased in its solid form like pikes in the flesh of some skinned beast. Once calm prevailed again, we were able to see how badly the furnace was damaged. The pipes that emitted the jets of fire were warped and filled with hardened glass, as was the pipe through which sand was delivered from above. The inside of the furnace was scorched, and though the level of the glass had fallen, it still fully encased the heating mechanism beneath the floor. A medic attended to the men pierced by shards of flying glass, while Withrow and I interviewed My Dear for signs of shock. She was unhurt, and strove to overhear the discussion between Kale and his engineers.

Kale was plainly astonished, and the glassmakers were perhaps even more so. From their baffled arguments I inferred that the eruption we had witnessed was not among the ordinary mishaps known to occur during glassmaking.

"Witchcraft," bellowed the Reverend Withrow, surprising even himself, I think. I told him I found his theory unlikely, but I do not think he quite followed my reasoning. There are several quite compelling arguments against any accusation of witchcraft, but courtesy demands of a gentleman that he not explain those reasons too clearly to a clergyman. I almost hoped that one of the glass-blowers (whose profession, after all, seems a rather satyric one) would come to my aid, but no. In any case, Withrow demanded an investigation, as was his privilege, so to satisfy him I agreed to act as inquisitor. Withrow made it clear that he wanted to investigate the matter himself--I am sure he relished the thought of empanelling a jury of captious church elders to hunt down the traces of evil as far as their fevered imaginations could spin them out--but I reminded him that witchcraft is a civil crime, and the church only borrows the authority to prosecute such crimes in the absence of state authority, and only when the representatives of state authority are actually absent. I had an idea of who he intended to blame for today’s act of ostensible witchery, and I was not about to let him complicate the widow’s lawsuit beyond my ability to bring it to a final resolution in the next few days. I gave Kale a perfunctory invitation to notify me if he found any sign of criminal mischief, and considered the case inactive. My Dear and I shared a carriage back to the parish church with a very irate clergyman.

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