Story adapted loosely from a Persian folk tale:
The story concerns the Victorian, Yorkshire mill owner, Joshua Oldroyd, and his son, James.
Joshua owned a large woollen mill near Leeds. He wasn’t obscenely rich, but he would have agreed that he was very comfortable.
The business was the fruit of his hard work. It was also the result of the hard work of his mill hands, but he rarely thought of that, and never talked of it.
Like all rich men, he had had to struggle with his demons, just like the workers that fall asleep in his mill and fall into the machinery. And what made it especially difficult for him, was that his demons were complicated and sophisticated demons.
And he had all that responsibility. And all that risk.
James was learning the business, with a view to taking on the mill when his father decided to retire.
One day, James Oldroyd left the office to go to his tailor in town. His new suit was nearly ready, and the tailor required a final fitting, for a man like James Oldroyd was a valuable customer and no trouble should be spared.
James set off in the early afternoon, while his father was checking some figures.
But James came running back, sooner than expected, and in a dither of fright.
Joshua asked his son why he had come back so soon. What had happened?
James revealed that he had gone to the tailor’s, but had bumped into a man outside in the street, who had looked up at him with a strange look of recognition. James had recognised the face.
We all would have done. It was the face of Death.
Seeing the face of Death is not usually considered to be a good omen, even by hard-nosed manufacturers in the Heavy Woollen District. James was understandably very concerned. Very.
If Death was in the area, James didn’t want to stick around. You just never knew . . . There were too many things he wanted to do with the company to take unnecessary risks.
Joshua, his father, who thought this was all a lot of fuss about nothing, got the railway timetable from a clerk.
He pulled his heavy watch from his waistcoat pocket, and consulted it. The last train of the day to London would leave in twenty minutes. If James was that worried, he could run to the station and catch the express to London, and stay out of the way for a few days.
Oh, how James was relieved! He didn’t even pack a bag.
After James had gone, Joshua fell to thinking. He was an important man, with a factory that kept the town in work and money. He had a London Club, and his own demons to fight. How dare this fellow, Death, cause upset to his son and heir?
He brooded on this over a whisky, and then resolved to seek this Death chap and give him what for. After all, he was a man of action, and a man of action should be resolute and bold.
So, he put on his jacket, checked his pocket watch, and rushed to the tailor, where his son had seen Death.
There, leaning against the door of the tailor’s shop, was Death, casually sharpening his scythe. His clothes were tattered rags, and he had a long, scruffy white beard. We would, indeed, all have recognised him.
And so did Joshua, whose temper had not been improved by all this rushing around, and the unnecessary expense of a train ticket to London.
And, to add insult to injury, with clothes like that he was obviously poor.
Death turned to look at him, and tried to smile, although it is wearisome to smile when you have a skull for a face. When you are always the bringer of bad news, there isn’t much call for smiling, so his dry lips were a little out of practice.
Joshua was not in the mood for polite chit-chat, however. He lost no time in explaining to Death that he, Joshua Oldroyd, was a man of consequence in this town, and he didn’t take kindly to having his son upset by some strange look that Death had bestowed on him. Who did he think he was?
But, said Death, he had given James no strange look. “I was just surprised to see him here, that’s all,” he explained, “for I have an appointment with him in London this evening.”