Milton, Lancashire – December 24th, 1850
Tomorrow was Christmas, and it should have been a merry time.
Another year was over, and Marlborough Mills had done reasonably well, despite the strike. Or should I say, it had been doing well before the strike? Ah …
Men would seek to better themselves, and strive to bring down mill masters who stood in their way.
I, John Thornton, was in their black book even more, because I brought in Irish workers to do their jobs while the strike lasted. Yet who could blame me for trying to save my business, no matter what it took?
On this icy-cold Christmas Eve, I was on my way to my banker. My workers were at home, celebrating the season as best they could, and God knew they hadn’t much to celebrate with.
I was not inclined to celebrate, either. I had my mill to keep safe and sound, so I was to learn of an investor Latimer had invited to come and meet me. As I walked the cold, deserted streets of Milton, snow crunched and ice crackled underfoot. It was one of the harshest winters I had ever known.
I hurried on, past the dark alley entrances of the Princeton district, eager to reach the larger, well-to-do streets further on. From one of these dismal openings came a keening, sobbing sound. I stopped to investigate, and froze; a woman was holding a bundle of rags close to her chest, weeping disparagingly. She seemed lost in her own, distant world of misery.
“Can I be of assistance, madam?” I asked, stunning myself in the process. What possessed me to even talk to the woman? But she looked up at me, and I was shocked to see that she was very young, and approximately the same age as Margaret. Something moved deep inside me.
“My little girl is dying, mister,” she sobbed. “She’s just three weeks old, and my milk has run dry. Oh, what am I to do? My dearest girl …”
From out of the dark, a young boy darted at me. “Leave me sister alone, you bastard!” His small fists pounded at me, but he was too short to reach higher than my thighs. I grabbed him by the shoulders and made him to look at me.
“Listen, boy,” I commanded, “here’s a tuppence coin for you if you do as I say. Go to Mr Latimer’s house and tell him Mr Thornton has been delayed. I’m taking your sister and her babe to my house at Marlborough Mills. Can you remember that?”
“Yes, sir, yes!”
“Then, go!” He disappeared into the night, while I scooped up woman and child and strode back home as quickly as I could.
“Mother!” I shouted, and kicked the front door close. I headed for the kitchen, Mother’s footsteps resounding behind me almost at once.
“John, what’s happened? Are you hurt? What …”
In a few words, I explained, putting the woman in a chair before the hearth, while Mrs Baxter, our cook, took the small bundle from her.
“Oh, Lord! What ‘ave we ‘ere? Oh, heavens, what a poor little mite!”
“The baby had no feedings for I know not how long,” I said, rubbing the hands of the woman, who had fainted when the warmth from the fire overwhelmed her. “Mrs Baxter, what can you use to restore her? I don’t know how long she’s been without food.”
“Leave it to me, sir. Jane? Jane, come and ‘elp me!” Our maid Jane was there in an instant, wide-eyed and aghast. Mrs Baxter laid the bundle in Jane’s arms.
“Put your little finger into the babe’s mouth and see if she suckles, while I prepare some hot milk with honey,” Mother advised.
Jane, a slender, not too bright girl, was standing there nonplussed, when Mother took over.
“Give her to me, Jane, and prepare a basin with tepid water. We need to warm her up first.”
By now, the mother had regained consciousness and was gaping at the room at large. I splashed a bit of brandy into a glass and handed it to her. “Here, sip this, but very carefully, mind! What’s your name?”
“Daisy, sir. Daisy Hardman. We live in Princess Street, next to Nicholas Higgins. Oh, Mr Thornton, what ‘ll happen to my little Margaret?”
It had to be a Margaret, for surely I would never ever be allowed to forget her. She who had so cruelly rejected me. She who I would love until my last breath. Margaret, my love …
A weak but distinctive cry came from the scullery, causing Daisy to jump up and run.
A few moments later, she returned with little Margaret clutched against her breast. Mrs Baxter and Jane, preceded by Mother, followed. Mother handed Daisy a small glass bottle which contained the milk. It was topped by what looked like a cow’s teat. I was greatly astonished; where on earth had she found such an object?
Daisy, however, took it from Mother, and after hesitating for a short time, inserted the teat into little Margaret’s mouth. The baby began to suckle, first cautiously, but then more vigorously.
“Careful!” Mother warned, then said, “Don’t give her too much at a time. She can’t cope with too much food after she missed her nursing for a whole day.”
Mother turned to me and whispered, “Apparently she stopped having milk only since yesterday. It’s bad enough, but I don’t think it too late to save the child.” I nodded. Mother is good at these matters.
The knocker on the front door sent Jane away, and I wondered who would come calling at this hour. Jane returned soon, her face flushed.
“Master, there’s a gentleman to speak with you. I showed him into the parlour. He says he’s from Mr Latimer’s bank.”
I hastened upstairs, wondering who my visitor would be. The most extraordinary vision awaited me in the parlour.
The man was undoubtedly a gentleman, and one of the old school, to boot. He was not young, in his late sixties or early seventies, but it was obvious that he was in excellent condition. He was tall, slender and still muscular, with broad shoulders and a proud, upright posture. His clothing was of the finest broadcloth, his linen snowy white, and his overcoat was of thick, blue wool. He wore tall, shiny boots, that were of a fashion some forty years ago. I had seen my father wearing them, when I was a child. I believe they were called Hessians, and they would have been worn by gentlemen of some wealth.
This gentleman offered me his hand, saying, “Mr Thornton? My name is Darcy, and your late father was a friend of mine when we were at university. I was sorry to hear that he died, after that dreadful bankruptcy. I was one of his investors, at the time.”
“Mr Darcy of the Pemberley estate in Derbyshire? It’s an honour to meet you, sir, although I’m embarrassed that my father’s debacle caused you to lose money. If there are still some debts, I will do my utmost best to cover them.”
“Oh, no, you misunderstand me, sir. I have come to offer you my support for your business. I was most impressed by the way your lady mother paid back all that was lost in the bankruptcy.”
I was speechless. So flabbergasted was I, that I failed to hear the door open. Mother passed me and curtsied to Mr Darcy, in so an unusual but graceful manner, that I was stunned to see her do it.
“Mr Darcy, I am Mrs Thornton, and I am so very glad to finally make your acquaintance, sir. Still, I’m afraid you give me too much credit. It was not I who repaid you, but my son John, here. As a sixteen-year-old, he quit school and went to work at a draper’s shop to gather all the missing funds and pay them to everyone who had lost their money.”
Mr Darcy turned back to me, joy shining in his deep-brown eyes.
“Then, Mr Thornton, I can repay you in proposing a business deal. I want to become a partner in Marlborough Mills.”
Later, much later, Mr Darcy and I had agreed to the conditions of our partnership, and were enjoying a glass of brandy. I was very tired, not only because of the long day, with all its demanding events, but also because I fully realised for the first time that I would never share this with Margaret. She had cut all the ties that existed between us when she refused me.
“Forgive me, Mr Thornton, but I can see that there is something weighing on you. If I can help, I will gladly do so.”
I looked him in the eye and saw that, for some reason, that he understood me. I hesitated. Mr Darcy was a stranger, after all.
“Is it because of a woman, Mr Thornton? Oh, don’t give me that suspicious look. I know the signs all too well. I have been there myself.”
“You, sir?” I stammered.
“Oh, yes,” he replied, smiling ruefully. “My Lizzie gave me a hard time before she agreed to be mine. I deserved every ounce of it. I had treated her with disdain and misplaced pride, I’m afraid. But finally I was able to convince her of my deep and sincere feelings of love and affection.”
And so, Mr Darcy told me his story. It was incredible but beautiful. At the time he and Miss Elizabeth Bennet met, he considered her family inferior, and her siblings empty-headed geese. He especially hurt his wife by offending her mother in the most vicious way, although he had a point when thinking Mrs Bennet a bit vulgar in some ways. Small wonder that Miss Bennet had rejected him with words that even now rang bitter in his mind.
“With a few well-chosen words, she accused me of being anything but a gentleman,” Mr Darcy said. “And I, fool that I was, failed to see the hurtful tears in her fine eyes. Tears that had been caused by my foolish pride. Ah, Mr Thornton, love comes to us like a disease, unexpected and unwanted. We feel completely lost in an unknown world and are helpless to right the wrongs we might cause. Men fight love, when it overwhelms us, Mr Thornton, and are as miserable as can be, until we embrace it to the full.”
I stared at him, experiencing a feeling of unabashed comfort. This man knew what he was talking of. “But,” I said hesitantly, “all went well in the end for you and your lady?”
“It did,” Mr Darcy smiled. “I had the good fortune of being able to help my Lizzie with a most embarrassing family matter, which made her see me in a totally different light. She, of course, had come to love me, she must already have had feelings for me when I uttered my ill-mannered proposal. So after a long time, when all difficulties had been taken care of, she accepted my proposal when I asked her a second time. We have been married happily for nigh forty years. What I want to say to you, Mr Thornton, is this; do not give up. Do not lose sight of your lady, and watch over her. There might come a new opportunity to offer her your love.”
He smiled. “Ladies have their pride, too. They need to hear you declare your love in a most sincere manner. They can be offended when you do not use the right words.”
Long after Mr Darcy left me, his words kept turning over and over in my head. Could he be right? Was there still a possibility that Margaret might come to love me? Time would tell, but I was determined to watch and love her from afar until that moment came.
Dear Reader, a merry Christmas and a happy New Year from Luce. May all your wishes come true and may you and your family prosper in 2016.