The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirteen

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January 2nd , 1816

 

A notion, so urgent that it almost hurt her brain, made Rowena struggle to overcome the lethargic sleep she had been in for so long. She needed to wake up, to rise, and do something so important that she lost all possible train of thoughts whirling in her sleep-drowsy mind.

With an effort, she opened her eyes, and was immediately struck by the intensity of sunlight invading her room. It positively hurt, she thought, panic engulfing her. She stirred and tried to sit up, a movement which caused a sharp pain in the nether regions of her body.

“Oh, Rowie, do lie still,” Meg’s calm voice came from nearby, and Rowena discovered her friend sitting beside her bed, cradling a small bundle.

“Is that … is that my baby? It is gone, is it not? It was too early …”

Meg smiled sweetly and encouragingly at her. “No, my pet, she lives. You have a beautiful little girl, although she is very small and fragile.”

Joy, pure and sharp, engulfed Rowena like a tidal wave. She reached out to Meg, begging in urgency. “Oh, Meg, let me hold her! Oh, I was so afraid believing I had lost her!” When Meg carefully placed the small bundle into her arms, Rowena gasped in delight when she saw the tiny infant’s dark mop of curls, and her rosy little face, her flower of a mouth, and her tiny, perfect fingers. At that same moment, the infant began wailing in protest in a healthy manner.

“She is indeed beautiful …,” Rowena whispered.

“Yes, and she is getting hungry. It has been a while since His Lordship fed her. I wonder where that wet nurse is, confound it.”

She must not have understood it rightly, Rowena thought. Meg could not have said that Alex … no surely not!

“His … His Lordship has done what?”

“Well, he must have seen and done a great many more things than just soldiering during his time on the Continent, that is for certain!” Meg commented, raising her voice to be heard over the racket the babe was making. “What about him supporting you the way he did during childbirth? I have never seen anyone doing that, not even the best midwife. And then, the way he handled the baby! He took the little one and held her close. To keep her warm, he said. Lectured us, Dr Orme and me, about the importance of keeping a newly born warm, especially those who are not full term. Then he ordered me to the kitchen for a bowl of boiled water with honey. He fed the liquid by dipping a handkerchief’s corner into the babe’s mouth, and blimey if she did not take it well enough! He then rocked her until she fell asleep before tucking her in her cradle.”

Rowena was still trying to get her head around this information when the door opened to admit the wet nurse. She was Tracy Cobbins, the wife of the local miller, and Rowena had met her during the New Year’s celebration at the village assembly rooms. Tracy had just given birth to her seventh child, a healthy little boy, presently tied around her ample bosom in a wrap.

“Good morning, me lady,” she curtsied, hefting the child around her waist to a more comfortable position.

“Good morning, Tracy. I am very pleased that you accepted to feed my daughter. She is very hungry, at the moment, as you can hear.”

Tracy took the baby from her mother’s arms, after having deposited her son in an extra cradle Meg had provided. She then settled in a chair beside the cradle and freed one of her very large breasts. With an expertise acquired after seven births, she presented the nipple to the little baby girl.

Rowena’s eyes stung with tears when she watched her daughter avidly taking the nipple and beginning to suckle hard.”

“Well!” Tracy marvelled. “She’s pretty strong for such a wee one! Easy, my pet, easy! There’s enough for the two of ye!”

Meg took over again. “Come, let me see to your needs now, Rowie. In the bath tub with you.”

 

Alex had not slept a wink. He had turned and tossed for a couple of hours debating whether it would be advisable to go to Rowena’s bed, not to make love to her, but to hold her, so she would be able to sleep soundly. Although not touching her would be a torment he was not sure he could withstand.

She had felt so right in his arms, only two nights before. Lord … had it been that recent? He had been so thoroughly sated by their lovemaking, that he was able to recall every second of it, which did nothing to dampen down his heated arousal, of course.

Yet now was not the time nor the occasion to force his lust on his wife, after the exertions of childbirth. He had asked Richard about the appropriate period of time for Rowena to recover, and the answer had been appallingly unsatisfactory, to say the least. Six weeks of abstention, that was what he faced. It was ironic that, after half a year of forced celibacy, he now felt bereft at the notion of six weeks without the benefits of Rowena’s exquisite body.

How the devil would he be able to endure it? How on earth would he live through the long weeks that now stretched before him? Not to be able to hold her, after their lovemaking? Not to feel this divine, soul-filling emotion of being physically sated. And that was not the whole of it, Alex mused. She not only sated his body, she also filled his entire being with a sense of peace, of wellness, of … dare he name it, belonging. Rowena, countess of Ketteridge, made him feel at home in his own home.

He must have fallen asleep sometime, and when he opened his eyes again, the morning was well advanced. Alex rose and called for Porter.

 

After a welcome and blissfully warm bath, Rowena let Meg help her into a fresh night gown. Meg then brushed her hair until the dark waves were a gleaming stream along Rowena’s back. When, finally, she leaned back against her pillows, after finishing a light but nourishing breakfast, Rowena felt exhausted. So when Dr Orme came to examine her, she lay passively, almost languorously reclined until he was done.

“Well, my lady, you are as healthy as can be expected after your ordeal. I advise you to stay in bed for the next couple of days, at least. Plenty of rest, and good food. I trust you are satisfied with Tracy Cobbins as a wet nurse?”

Rowena did not answer but turned her face to the door that connected her room with the small boudoir where Meg had placed the cradle and all necessities for the baby.

“Why cannot I feed her?” she asked, in a very small voice.

“My lady, that is not the way highborn ladies deal with their infants. Aside from that, you are still weak from the loss of blood. You are but a slight, delicate young woman, my lady. You need to rest, the better to care for your child in a few weeks.”

Alex stood listening to this from their common dressing room. He had been waiting for Richard and the ever present Meg to leave the room, so that he could enter and be alone with his wife. Hearing the seriousness in Richard’s voice, it filled him with a spear of sharp concern. Richard had voiced so much, and yet so little. Rowena had suffered greatly from the childbirth.

He stood rooted to the spot, unable to make a movement, while he heard his wife lecture her physician in a way only she would do.

“I am of the opinion that my daughter needs me greatly, Dr Orme. She is very small and weak. I want to feed her myself. If by chance my milk should not be plenty enough, then Mrs Cobbins can take over.”

Alex held his breath for fear they would hear him. Although he could very well understand why she would want to feed her child, he knew she might not have the strength to do it. He could, however, find no fault in her reasoning, that the little one needed her mother, most of all. What dilemmas, and how excruciating they were.

Almost before he could do otherwise, Alex stepped into his wife’s bedchamber. “I am of a mind to agree with my wife, Richard, although you and Mrs Wallis have a point in judging her too weak to nurse the child. I would suggest we do as she proposes; let Her Ladyship give it a try, and if there are problems, the child can be nursed by the wet nurse after all.”

His friend and Mrs Wallis were gaping at him as if he had gone insane, but his wife beamed at him. “Oh, Alex, it would like that very much! Meg, come, help me, and you too, Tracy!”

At Rowena’s command, both women jumped to do her bidding, and a few moments later, Alex stood gazing at Rowena trying to nurse her baby. He had not known that nursing was such a complicated business.

First, the baby howled at being removed from Tracy Cobbins’ breast, and then she fussed at being put to Rowena’s, squirming in her mother’s arms, and whining. Rowena looked at him in despair, and Alex suddenly remembered what he had seen that young Portuguese mother do, after she gave birth.

He knelt at Rowena’s side and began massaging her breast, very gently but firmly, until the nipple had grown warmer. Then he brought the tiny baby head to it.

“Speak to her, Rowie,” he said softly. “Let her hear your voice.”

After a few moments of incomprehension, Rowena began crooning at the baby, pleading her to take the nipple and trying to push it in her daughter’s mouth. To Alex’ relief, it worked. The baby took it and suckled. Rowena’s face relaxed as she looked down on her tiny baby daughter.

“Well, I never!” Mrs Wallis and Tracy both uttered.

“Alex,” Richard Orme said, “I have a mind to lock you in my surgery for a whole day, so that you can write down all that wisdom. I am stunned, you can have no inkling how much!”

“Come,” Alex said, “let us go from here. They need to rest, both of them.”

He turned and left. Richard Orme followed him, but not before he saw the puzzled gaze Rowena directed at her husband’s back.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twelve (complete)

It had been early evening when Rowena had been brought back to the manor. Now it was early evening again, the day after. Rowena had given birth to a tiny baby daughter, and lost an enormous amount of blood in the process. She was sleeping now, while Alex stood watching her beside the bed. In his arms, he held the infant, reluctant to give her to Meg, who would put her into her cradle.

Alex found that he was fairly able to see the new-born babe, albeit it not as sharp as he would have wanted. She had a soft mop of curly black hair on top of her little head, and a rosebud of a mouth in the softest of little faces. She was smaller than the length of his joined hands, Alex mused, and no heavier than a good-sized loaf of bread, but she was absolutely perfect. Her chubby hands had all their fingers, and her tiny feet bore all their toes. Alex wanted to kiss every single one of them, yet for now, he was content holding her to his chest.

“My lord,” Meg pleaded, “let me put the little one in her cradle. She is very weak, and I fear she might …”

“No.” Alex was determined not to let his newly born daughter out of his sight. He wanted this tiny, fragile creature to live, so that he could be her father and raise her the way she deserved. He owed Rowena that much. His gaze went back to his wife. She was exhausted, and even in sleep, her pale face was drawn and thin.

“Richard, how is she?” Alex asked his friend.

“Her ladyship has been through something of an ordeal, Alex, as you very well know. She will need a long bed rest and good food and care. Do you want me to arrange a nurse?”

Alex’ eyes wandered to Meg, who bristled at the doctor’s suggestion. “No, Richard. I am fairly sure, Mrs Wallis will be competent enough in taking care of my wife. Now what about the little one?”

“Alex, she is very small. She might not survive through the next hours.”

“Yes, she will. Arrange for a wet nurse to be here as soon as possible. Mrs Wallis, go ask Mrs Hall for some boiled water with lots of honey in it.”

“Yes, my lord,” Meg replied, surprise in her eyes, but she ran to do his bidding. When she returned, Meg was even more baffled to see her master dip the corner of a fresh handkerchief in the sugared water, and put it between the infant’s lips.

“Come, my sweet,” he crooned. “Suckle, my darling, it is good for you. From now on, I am going to take good care of you.”

And the baby, as if she understood every word he said, pursed her soft, rosebud mouth and suckled.

Meg, as well as Richard, looked in complete astonishment, as Alex patiently and diligently fed the babe.

“Where have you learned that?” Richard Orme asked, baffled by the careful skill his friend was using.

“When you are a soldier fighting a war in a foreign country, you encounter more than swords and cannon balls. There are also the civilians who have to fight their own daily battles, often with less means than you have. I mastered quite a few skills.”

 

Once Meg had settled the baby in her cot, Alex, with one last gaze at his sleeping wife, went downstairs and gathered a few people in his library. Not only his steward, John Wallis, and his solicitor, Mr Middlebridge, but also Ketteridge’s vicar, Mr Brindley, and Squire Thaddeus Orme, Richard’s father were there. Richard himself stood watching from the side, as Alex invited them all to sit down around his large desk. Porter, silently brooding, positioned himself behind Alex’ chair like a watch dog.

“Gentlemen, I have an assignment of the uttermost importance for you all. I want the individual named Peter Johnston apprehended and brought before a court of law for deceiving my wife and causing her harm. We must work together in order to catch this man, since he is a serious liability to my countess.”

“My lord,” the Reverend Brindley asked, clearly puzzled, “who is this man? Why did he approach Her Ladyship?

Even with his limited eyesight, Alex saw the puzzlement reflected in the faces of all his listeners. “Gentlemen,” he said in a serious tone, “what I am about to convey to you, must stay between these walls. Knowledge of it could harm my wife’s reputation, and I will not tolerate that.”

They all murmured acceptance of this condition, so Alex continued. “Peter Johnston, Carlisle’s third son, is the father of her ladyship’s child. This child is now my responsibility, and I will undertake steps to have her adopted. Johnston was also reported as a casualty of the Waterloo Battle on June 18th of the previous year. So, either this man posing as him is a fraud, or Johnston is not dead. Suffice it to say that in both cases, there is a danger to my wife and child. I shall therefore need your assistance in order to protect them both.”

Squire Orme cleared his throat. He was a tall, broad-chested man in his late fifties, and possessed a keen intelligence, Alex knew. “It makes no sense, Alexander,” he said. “If this man is an imposter, then her ladyship would have immediately known so, and called for help. She did not, so I assume he was indeed Johnston. Why, I ask you, would a cavalry man reported dead, not make himself known to the military authorities? I imagine his family and his regiment would like to know he is alive.”

“I can think of a number of reasons for Johnston not wanting someone to know he is alive, Thaddeus. What if he were a deserter? He would face a court martial, should he be arrested.”

The squire nodded. “Yes, I agree. He would be in serious trouble.”

The Reverend Brindley, a timid man who was clearly awed by the honour Alex had bestowed on him by inviting him, ventured, “My lord, I am confused. Her Ladyship comes from country gentry, I understand. Why has her family – I believe she has a half-brother – not intervened on her behalf? How did they know about Johnston’s presumed demise?”

Alex sighed. “There are lots of mysteries here to be solved, Mr Brindley. My wife has been chased from her childhood home by the very person of this half-brother, when he learned of her pregnancy. I would like to know his reasons, for I cannot fathom why a brother would do such a despicable thing. But, first things first, let us search for this man Johnston. Maybe he can reveal more than we know now.”

“Very well,” the squire said, in a firm and determined tone of voice, “let us proceed. What does this man look like? We need a description, if we are to find him.”

Ah … there was the catch. Alex suddenly realized that he had not clearly seen Johnston in the dimly lit graveyard. Only Rowena could give them a picture of her former lover.

“I am afraid we will have to wait until her ladyship wakes, gentlemen. Even my trusted batman has not caught a glimpse of the fellow. I will inform you as soon as possible.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twelve (continued)

Rowena was paralyzed in horror. Being held in this painful vice, unable to move, short of breath, it all flowed back to her; the helplessness she had felt when Peter had known her intimately for the first time. He had been ruthless and brutal. The memory of it, the pain and the shame, of being denied fulfilment after Peter had climaxed. The bruises she would find, that covered the softest parts of her body afterwards. She had been too young to understand he was a cruel, sadistic bully, but now she knew better. She had known Alex’ gentle, unselfish touch.

Rage, white and hot, suddenly swamped away her fear. She had let this scoundrel son of an earl abuse her. Why had nobody made her understand what it was to lay with a man? Meg and John had already left her father’s estate by then, so Rowena could not ask her confidante. Rowena had known something was wrong from the beginning but she had been so deeply in love with Peter that she had been helpless to tear herself away from him. How dearly she had paid for her naivety!

She must do something, and she must do it now. She stopped clutching at Peter’s clasping arm, because it would not move anyway. Instead she rammed both her elbows in his lower stomach as hard as she could. He yelped and dropped the blade, and she was free. Then Peter kicked her feet from under her. Rowena fell hard onto the cobbled path, unable to stretch out her hands to cushion the blow. Her swollen belly took the full brunt, and the pain jolted through her. She knew no more, as darkness engulfed her.

Porter, having to cover a large distance, lunged for the blackguard too late. Johnston fled and jumped over the low stone wall, to disappear in the thick foliage of the adjacent woods. The batman hastily returned to Alex, who was kneeling beside the countess.

“Major, we should take ‘er ladyship ‘ome. I don’t like the way she looks, right now. Bastard threw her down ‘ard.”

Alex scooped Rowena up and cradled her against him. Her head lolled forward onto his chest, like a rag doll. Her skirts were soaking wet, he realized with a jolt. Christ!

 

Once they reached the house, matters turned to chaos. Mrs Hall and Trixie, who had hurried from the kitchens, panicked when they saw Rowena’s pale, very still face, her limp form clinging to her husband. Meg, realizing what was happening, ordered them to prepare lots of hot water and clean cloths. Dr Orme was summoned and could only confirm what Alex was fearing; Rowena had gone into labour, after her waters had broken due to the fall.

“My lord, it is far too soon. She is only eight months gone,” Meg said, wringing her hands.           Rowena cringed every time a contraction ran through her. “There is very little we can do, Mrs Wallis,” Dr Orme replied. “Let us get her ladyship into bed.”

Rowena leaned upon Alex and Dr Orme, when they half carried her upstairs. She was in a strange frame of mind; her thoughts seemed to have vanished into nothingness, except for the fear. Fear whenever her body was raked with pain. Her baby was coming, and it was too soon. The child could die. She could not think of anything else but the plain fact that she might lose her babe.

Meg and Trixie helped her out of her sodden clothes, washed her and dressed her in a fresh cotton nightgown. Mrs Hall and the other maids had already prepared the bed, following Dr Orme’s instructions; the mattress was protected with a cover made of tarpaulin, then decked with sheets.           Rowena was scooped up by Alex, who let her down onto the bed.

“Do not fear, my dear. You are in good hands.”

Rowena looked up at him, then winced as a new contraction made her go rigid.

“My lady, I need you to relax, instead of tensing up. It is bad for the child. Breathe deeply through your nose when the pain strikes. Then hold your breath for a couple of seconds before you release it very slowly. Can you do that?” pleaded Dr Orme.

Rowena nodded, trying hard to do as he said. It was, however, extremely difficult to breathe into the pain, but she managed better than she had hoped for. Next Dr Orme was checking Rowena’s stomach, which was decently covered by a sheet. “All is proceeding well, my lady. I foresee no difficulties for the child to be born.”

Rowena stared at him, as another searing wave of pain gripped her. How could the man say such a thing! She wanted to scream at him but she had no breath left. She was drowning in fierce, unbearable pain. Oh how, she hoped she would faint! Ah … so much pain …

 

Alex found himself in a turmoil he had not known before, not even in the heat of battle, not even at Waterloo. He was almost paralyzed with fear, he realized. Fear like he experienced on June 18, 1815, when he felt the French blade slice through his body. The mindless, inexorable fear that he was going to die. He felt it now and recognized it, and he was helpless just like he had been before.

Only now it was Rowena who was in danger of dying, and her little one with her.

No. The word was clear in Alex’ mind and heart. No, he was not going to stand by without trying to give support to his wife in her hour of need.

 

Rowena struggled to stay conscious but she knew she was failing. The pain was like a living creature, a beast that was suffocating her. She longed for oblivion, but her body denied her with yet another wave of searing pain.

“Come,” a deep baritone voice said, “let me support you. It will give you relief, if you sit up and raise your knees.” And then someone lifted her into an upright position and drew her knees up.    Rowena opened her eyes to find herself sitting … Dear Lord!

Alex had positioned himself behind her on the bed. She was sitting between his spread legs, and the warmth of his big, hard body was simply divine. He had indeed raised her knees and was now massaging her lower belly with warm, gentle hands.

“Th … thank you,” Rowena stammered, overwhelmed by the soothing movement of his hands. Then she noticed the shocked expressions on the faces of everyone in the room, including Dr Orme’s.

“Alex,” the doctor said softly, “you need not be here. I can manage with the women’s help.”

“No,” Rowena’s husband replied. “I have done this before, Richard.”

“You have? When?” was Rowena’s next question, just as she recalled his earlier story of the young Portuguese mother.

“I told you so before, Rowie. Do you not remember?”

“Forgive me,” she whispered, revelling in the comfort of his broad chest behind her. Her head was nestled against his shoulder, and when she turned her cheek into its hollow, she could feel the steady, strong beat of his heart. The others were still staring at them, but she did not care.

“I told you about Porter and me helping a young mother near Sobràl, did I not? When her pains had been at the worst, I discovered she breathed more easily when she was propped against a hard surface. Her back straight and her knees raised, just as you are now.”

Rowena smiled, but her smile turned into a grimace when a new contraction tortured her. Instantly, she felt Alex stiffen behind her, supporting her, lending her his endless strength, and it gave her glorious relief.

“Breathe deeply, Rowie,” he whispered in her ear. “Long, deep intakes of air. Keep the air for a while and then release it slowly through pursed lips, just as Richard instructed.”

What an amazing man she had married, Rowena mused, executing what he had said as exactly as she could. Again she found it eased her pain considerably.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Six

Chapter Twelve

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, New Year’s Day, 1816

 

Rowena entered the unexpectedly large graveyard that surrounded St Crispin’s Church. Sometime during the day, she had tamped down her anger about Alex’ highhandedness and told him she wanted to meet the mysterious letter writer. She wanted Alex to accompany her to Evensong and afterwards, let her go to the meeting alone.

“Wait for me outside the graveyard, please. I need to know what is transpiring here. Please try to understand my concern, Alex? If this is a hoax, then you can go to the magistrate, and if it is not …”

“You are not seriously thinking that Johnston might be still alive? It must be a hoax, and I am not inclined to let you go alone.”

“Please, Alex? He will not show up when he sees you with me. You could post young Gregson at the entrance to watch over me.”

He could, Alex thought, yet he would not. He most certainly should not; she might be in danger. He would watch over her himself, though he could not tell her that, since she still thought him blind. So he pretended to give in.

“Very well, my dear. We will do as you say. I implore you to be very careful. If it is a hoax, the ones involved might not wish you well.”

Rowena pressed her husband’s hand in gratitude, then stepped into the graveyard.

The graves were as well-tended as was possible, given the dampness of the soil. Yet many graves lay sunken under the thick blanket of snow, their lichen-covered headstones crooked. Some were broken, marking graves of long-dead people. Rowena shivered as the gloomy atmosphere added an eerie edge to the winter night. It was still bitterly cold, although the sky was overcast, so no moonlight helped her find her way through the deserted yard. The note had not specified where exactly she was to meet the mysterious person, so she halted in the middle where two paths crossed. A large funeral chapel stood there, belonging to a wealthy Leicester merchant family whose ancestry was from Ketteridge. Rowena went to stand near the chapel door, better to see when someone approached her.

“Rowena … Rowie …”

That voice … that clipped accent with just a hint of Cumberland tones … could it be? She swung round to the left and nearly fainted when she recognized the man who was standing there, leaning on a cane. His clothes were shabby and dirty, his fair hair too long, his eyes too large in his narrow face. Yet it was Peter, no doubt about it.

 

Alex peered through the darkness, anxious to lose sight of Rowena. Damnation, but he did not like this! He had been suspicious of Johnston as soon as Rowena told him about the man. He had thought him a cad, a blackguard, for seducing an inexperienced girl, only weeks before he joined his regiment. Alex knew all too well that Johnston must have been informed long before the exact date on which the army forces would gather and cross over to Flanders. Cavalry men often belonged to the landed gentry. They wanted to be informed early enough to be able to provide for the running of their estates in their absence.

That afternoon, he had taken the trouble of looking up Johnston. If he was the son of an earl, he had to be in Debrett’s. Johnston, Alex discovered, was indeed Carlisle’s third son. Yet no mention had been there about a demise, and the edition of Debrett’s was from July 1815. Up to date, thus.

 

“Peter … what … they told me you were dead … I thought you were dead …”

Her former lover shrugged, smiling broadly at her, showing teeth that had known better days. How was this possible? Peter used to be such a fastidious man, proud of his uniform, and his status as the son of a nobleman. Now he seemed destitute and unwell. Rowena’s heart melted.

“Oh my God, Peter! What happened to you? Why did they think you were dead? Roderick told me he had a telegram from the Regiment, announcing you had fallen at Waterloo.”

“Ah, well …” Peter said, scratching his head, and avoiding her eyes. “You see, Rowie, I was badly injured and I must have lain for dead for hours, if not days. I dragged myself from the battlefield, and I must have done that for a long time, because when I finally woke up, I was lying in a barn, five miles from the battle field. A farm lad found me, and he and his sister nursed me back to health. Unfortunately, I had no memory of what happened, and someone had stripped me of my uniform. So it took several months for my memory to come back, and then one day, I remembered you. I left and came back, Rowie. We can be together and start a family.”

He took a step forward, and Rowena realized he was going to embrace her. Suddenly, that did not seem to be an attractive notion. She braced herself when he put his arms around her, desperately trying not to shy away. He was dirty and he smelled anything but fresh, but that was not what repelled her. Repulsion … of Peter? How had she come to that? But she had. She closed her eyes, enduring his embrace as best as she could, before she gently extracted herself from his arms.

“Peter, matters have changed. I have married the Earl of Ketteridge.”

Peter’s gasp cut her off, as he pushed her from him. “Rowie, no! That cannot be so! Why, Rowie, why?”

Rowena pushed away from Peter and felt suddenly relieved to be free of his touch. She was baffled. Why would she be shy of Peter’s touch, when she had lain with him in the past?

“It saddens me that matters have gone the way they have. Yet they have, and we must resign ourselves to the fact that we both are in a new situation. We …”

In the blink of an eye, Peter again grabbed her upper arms and shook her. He actually shook her, and very hard! The cane he was holding was pressed painfully into the flesh of her arm. “No! I cannot let this happen! I need you, Rowena!”

His mouth bore down on hers, forcing open her lips, invading her mouth with his tongue.            Rowena struggled not to gag, fighting to pull free, but his vicelike grip was unbreakable. She panicked, tried to kick him, but he pushed her against the chapel’s wall. Pushed her so hard her head banged against the bricks. She longed to faint, to escape this horror.

 

Alex had watched the whole, disgusting scene from afar, gritting his teeth in loathing when he saw his wife step into the stranger’s embrace. She had done so willingly, he observed, rage burning holes in his chest. She must still love the cavalry man, damnation!

He was unable to hear what they were saying, the distance being too great. He rejoiced when Rowena pulled away, panicked when he saw Johnston grab her again. His feet were taking him to her before he realized. He seized Johnston’s arm and wrenched him backwards. The man suddenly swung a cane Alex had failed to notice, and it connected hard with his right temple.

Alex’s vision blurred, the world suddenly spinning. He gritted his teeth and rose from his knees to run after Johnston who was dragging a screaming Rowena towards the graveyard’s entrance. How had the fiend managed to cover all that distance? Alex fought back the bile mounting in his throat, feeling a warm trickle of blood running down his face. Blast! His head wound must have reopened.

He forced himself to run harder, saw the distance diminish. Then, to his infinite relief, he saw Porter entering through the graveyard’s gate.

“Porter! Stop him!”

The batman never hesitated but broke into a swift run towards Johnston and Rowena. But Johnston was now a cornered animal and he acted so by backing up to a large grave stone. A blade flashed, and Alex realized it must have been hidden in the cane. Johnston held its rim against Rowena’s throat, locking her in a dead grip.

Both Alex and Porter stopped, yards away from the couple. Alex felt sick with sudden panic burning his gut. If this madman … no! He could not give in to paralyzing panic! Not when Rowena needed him to be calm.

“What is it you want, Johnston? Money? I can give you as much as you need. Let her go and we can make an arrangement.”

“Back! Move back or I’ll slice her like a pig, I swear!” The man’s tones were all but clipped now.

Christmas Is White as Cotton

 

The spirit of Christmas

 

By the time John had finished his dinner and gone back to the weaving shed, the early December night had fallen. Margaret stood at the window overlooking the courtyard and saw her husband stride purposefully through the first heavy snowfall of that winter. Lord! Snow would make everything so much harder for the poor workers.

How fortunate that she had planned a Christmas Eve dinner at the factory’s refectory. Mary had organized it all, with some of her female friends to help out, and Margaret had been busy over the previous days to order the food. They would serve a sturdy meal for the workers and their families and offer them a large basket of supplies to take home. It was estimated that there would be about two hundred people tomorrow night. Margaret suddenly realized that she should check on Mary and see if everything would go along as they had planned, especially with Mary worrying over Nicholas.

Someone cleared their throat and Margaret whirled around. It was Hannah standing in the doorway, her hands clasped before her.

“Miss Higgins tells me you and she have planned a dinner for tomorrow evening, and … well, I was wondering if I could be of any help.”

Margaret did not know what stunned her more, Hannah’s forbidden facial expression yet combined with a soft, concerned voice, or the fact that she seemed sincere about helping out altogether. She swallowed hard, looking for the right words.

“That is … truly kind of you, Mrs Thornton. We would certainly appreciate it.”

Hannah’s expression changed to something resembling … hurt? Could it be that? Margaret was not sure and she hastily continued.

“Would you be prepared to help us serving everyone’s food? We lack capable hands, although Mary will bring some of her friends and neighbours, but …” Margaret waited with baited breath for Hannah’s answer to this no doubt outrageous proposal for her.

Her mother-in-law inclined her head in acquiescence. “What time do you wish me to be there?”

“Will five in the afternoon do? We do not want people to be out too late at night.”

“Very well,” Hannah replied and began to retreat. Margaret stepped towards her.

“Mrs Thornton … how is Nicholas? I have been so concerned for him.”

Hannah regarded her with a puzzled expression on her stern face. “I have never grasped why you, of all people, had a connection to this man. He is an uncivilized, rough-speaking firebrand, while you have had the upbringing of a lady.”

Margaret smiled. “It was with his daughter Bessy, that I had a deep friendship. She died from a lung disease, which caused much hurt to Nicholas and Mary. I tried to support them as best I could, not financially, because Nicholas was always able to provide for his family, but emotionally. Nicholas might be a bit rough, but he is a good man and a loving father, Mrs Thornton. He raised his daughters all by himself, after his wife died in childbirth when the girls were but toddlers.”

Hannah nodded briskly, then turned and left.

 

On Christmas Eve morning, a flurry of activities began in Marlborough Mills’ refectory. Since the room was too small to receive all the diners at once, Margaret had commandeered two rooms in the adjacent shed normally used for packing up the finished cotton bolts. Under Margaret’s supervision, tables were being set up and laid out with white cloth, cutlery and crockery. In the kitchen, Mary was overseeing the preparations; they would serve her usual stew, of course, but also a starter which consisted of leak-and-potato soup, and apple pie with cream for dessert.

Margaret had help from a few workers, gracefully relinquished by John for the purpose. She was just taking a bit of a break, when her husband walked in. He grinned when he saw what had already been achieved.

“So, Margaret, how does it go? Do you have enough hands here? I’m sure I can supply more if you wish.” He quickly kissed her on the cheek, startling her. It did not seem to bother him that all present were staring at him in stunned surprise.

“I can manage well enough, John, but thank you for asking. You remember that work will stop early this afternoon? People need to get themselves ready.”

“I know, sweetheart. It’ll cost me an arm and a leg, but we cannot leave Christmas uncelebrated, now can we?”

At that moment, there was a commotion at the shed’s entrance. Nicholas Higgins strode in, followed by an outraged Hannah. “You stubborn man,” she shouted at Nicholas’ back, “you should be in bed! You’re not fit to work and you’ll do away with all the good administrations we gave you!”

“I’m perfectly fine, woman, and let go of my arm! I want to help!”

Margaret was too flabbergasted to do anything, but John, barely able to suppress a heartfelt laugh, intervened. “Now, now, what have we here? Nicholas, when Mrs Thornton orders you to do something, you obey, my friend. Moreover, I think she’s right. You’re not fit to work yet.”

“Yes, damn it, she is right,” Nicholas grunted. “I feel a bit the worse for wear. I wasn’t planning on doing hard labour, though, I just wanted to see if I could help. Yet this … woman wouldn’t hear of it. She wants to keep me in bed like she would a five-year-old!”

Hannah smiled triumphantly at him. “Come on, Mr Higgins, let’s go back to the house. As you can see, everything here is in perfect control.”

Nicholas, who was looking a bit green around the gills, allowed her to lead him away.

“Well!” John was grinning outright now. “Have you ever seen such a thing, darling? My firebrand of a union man led away like a sheep by my bossy mother! It’s too much!”

Margaret did not reply. She was aware of something she had not thought possible in her life; Hannah Thornton being kind to a worker, caring for an injured man? And she would help them with the Christmas Eve dinner! Stunning, to say the least.

 

The dinner began at six o’ clock in the evening, with people beginning to stroll in from half an hour beforehand. Once everybody was settled, John welcomed them all and wished them a fine time. Then the meal was served and soon there was a merry atmosphere buzzing around the large room. It was a busy episode for Mary and her fellow waitresses, since there were over three hundred people, a hundred more than estimated, but fortunately there was enough food.

After the meal, there was some very nice carolling from some of the workers and their wives and children, before the baskets were distributed. John, however, had a surprise of his own, one he had not told Margaret about; he had arranged to hand out small purses with extra coins to allow people to better bridge the harsh winter conditions. Margaret watched her husband go about the room handing over the purses to the grateful wives, while their husbands capped their hands with glee. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw how delighted people were, and she loved John for caring so much about his workers.

Hannah had allowed Nicholas to participate in the meal which made him truly happy. He loved being with his people and sharing their joy. His attention, though, was also fixed upon Hannah who went from table to table, serving food and admonishing some of the men who drank a bit too much ale. She would not allow their coarse remarks and spoke to them in severe tones which did the trick to perfection. Nicholas admired the ‘old dragon’ for her dignified manner and obvious authority.

After the meal, someone suddenly got out a violin and conjured up some lively tunes which started an improvised dancing. Soon a panoply of couples were engaged in a cheerful reel.

Margaret was watching them with a happy heart. This was unforeseen but welcome.

“Care for a dance, my love?” John’s deep baritone voice was whispering in her ear and he placed a swift kiss to the soft skin of her neck. Sparkles races down her spine, her face in flames; her mother-in-law had seen the gesture and she was frowning. Just before she was led away by John, Margaret saw Nicholas strode towards Hannah. Then Margaret saw nothing else than her handsome husband who grabbed her by the waist and whirled her into a quick polonaise. Oh, this was priceless! When the music changed into a slow waltz, Margaret was in heaven. She loved dancing with her John, and he was certainly the most accomplished dancer of all. They did not have many opportunities to dance or even enjoy just being together and doing something pleasant, Margaret knew. Work had kept John engaged too tightly of late.

Hannah was still frowning when they returned to their table after the dance but she kept quiet. Nicholas had a slight smile on his face and winked at Margaret.

“How is our patient, mother?” John asked, clapping Nicholas’ shoulder.

“He shouldn’t be here. Where shall you be, John, when your overseer lets you down by collapsing from exhaustion?” Hannah replied sternly.

Nicholas scoffed. “I’m strong enough, ma’am. I survived a life of toiling without too many mishaps, but I’m sure I appreciate your concern.” Which made Hannah scoff back, but she did not reply.

Mary, who was still making the rounds and serving everyone, plunked down two pints of ale for the men. “What can I serve you, ladies? “ she asked in her soft voice. Mary was a quiet girl who had come into her own after Bessy died, and Margaret admonished herself for letting her do all the work alone. She quickly rose to help.

“John, hurry! She’s fainting!” Nicholas and John were both on their feet in a rush to support Margaret who would have injured herself if she hit her head on the too tightly packed benches.

“Love, love, easy there … what’s the matter, sweetheart? What ails you?”

“John, she must return to the house now!” Hannah urged. “Mr Higgins, send for Dr Donaldson.”

John, however, did not need his mother to tell him what to do. He scooped his Margaret into his arms and strode towards the house.

 

Hannah, Nicholas and Mary were waiting in the drawing room for the doctor to give his verdict on Margaret, while her husband had gone to see the diners on the road to their homes. There was no point in prolonging the gathering and everyone would be tired and eager for bed.

Once again, Hannah mused, her conscientious son had to let his business take precedence over his personal concerns. She knew, however, how much it cost him. Margaret was his wife and the light of his life, and it would be the end of him, should something bad happen to her. So Hannah was worrying, too, and so were Nicholas and Mary Higgins, she noticed. It amazed Hannah how deep the friendship between the Higginses and her daughter-in-law went.

John came racing up the stairs two at a time, just when the doctor appeared.

“Donaldson, what …” John panted, his face pale.

“Calm yourself, Thornton, all is well with your wife. In fact, she could not be better, and I must congratulate you. Young Mrs Thornton is in a delicate condition but there is no need for concern.”

John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate, and strong man that he was, turned white as a sheet. Hannah hastened to take his arm, fearful that he should collapse on the spot. Nicholas and Mary rushed forward to help her, but John had no need for any help. He was at Margaret’s bedside in two seconds, falling on his knees beside her.

“Love, sweet love, is it true? Are you …?”

Margaret beamed at him with tears of joy in her lovely eyes. “Yes, John, we will have a little one in late summer. Dr Donaldson estimates that I am six or seven weeks in my pregnancy.”

“Oh, dear Lord … this is wonderful … this is … God, are you all right? I shall die if something happens to you, my Margaret!” He snatched her into his arms, suddenly terrified of what was to come.

“John, stop, you are crushing me!” Margaret was giggling happily and kissed her husband’s lips as soon as he released her. “I am fine, says the doctor, and healthy. I suspected I was pregnant but I wanted to be certain before I told you.”

Her husband, Margaret saw, was speechless, while his blue-grey eyes brimmed with happy tears.

 

Of course, this happy news called for another celebration. Jane and Connie served tea at Hannah’s request, and brought brandy for the men. Even Mrs Bradshaw, the cook came up from below to participate. Yet, while everyone was congratulating her son with his upcoming fatherhood, Hannah knew she had a mission of her own to accomplish. She unobtrusively slipped into Margaret’s bedroom.

“My dear, may I congratulate you? This is a most fortunate prospect for you and John, and I am very happy for you both.”

“Thank you, Mrs Thornton. I hope I can count on your experience as you are twice a mother yourself?”

Hannah placed a chair next to the bed and took Margaret’s hand in hers.

“You called me ‘mother’ yesterday, remember? I hope you will do so from now on. I have much to atone for, Margaret, and I deeply regret my earlier behaviour. I clung to the past as hard as I could, and that was wrong. From now on, you are mistress in this house. I only hope I will still be welcome here after I move somewhere else.”

“Mother!” Margaret squeezed Hannah’s hand in dismay. “You don’t need to move from here, please, don’t do that! This house is large enough to shelter all of us, although we might need to make some alterations for when the little one arrives. Will you help me bring this to good order, please?”

So, when John entered the room a little while later, he found the two most important women in his life embracing while crying tears of joy.

All was well in Milton and Marlborough Mills in particular.

Christmas Is White as Cotton

An unforeseen catastrophy

 

John Thornton stood on the weaving shed platform in the newly re-opened Marlborough Mills Cotton Factory and surveyed his workers with a critical, though fond eye. He was tall – almost six-two – and his height permitted him to see over the heads of his tallest workers. Nothing escaped his keen grey-blue eyes, watchful as he was to the slightest malfunction in the clacking looms. Everything was running as smoothly as possible, so John, eager to have a break, flipped open his pocket watch.

A movement at the shed’s entrance caught his eye, making his heart leap with joy. His Margaret stood there scanning the vast room, her small hand fanning the cotton fluff away from her face. How well he remembered the first time she set foot in this very place, now four years ago, when she came to live in Milton with her parents. She had been looking over houses, searching for him in particular, as John had recommended the house in Crampton on behalf of Mr Hale and his family. She had wanted to see him, to speak with him, but instead, she found him beating one of his workers for smoking in the shed. John would never forget the shock and distress in her beautiful blue eyes, nor the fury with which she commanded him to stop. He must have fallen in love with his Margaret in that same moment, he mused, although it had taken him long months before he realized it.

Margaret had spotted him and came flying through the looms, hitching up her voluminous skirts to avoid them catching onto the machinery. “John,” she screamed, panic in her voice, “John, come quickly, there’s been a terrible accident!”

 

Nicholas Higgins groaned when he so much as moved, causing a sharp pain to slice through his abdomen. He had done himself in for real now, he cursed. Why, oh, why had he wanted to do the work himself using a few fellows from the mill instead of hiring a proper building company? There had been a tremendous amount of work to be done at the outbuilding on Marlborough Mills’ site; replacing windows and doors, installing a kitchen, a pharmacist’s laboratory, and three new sick wards. Not to mention four walls had  to be pulled down and supporting beams installed, which meant hard labour with lots of possible bodily damage to be expected.

The afore mentioned bodily damage had occurred, of course. One of the wrought-iron beams had come crashing down on top of him, no doubt breaking all the bones in his body. Well, he mused, nothing he had not endured before, after having worked at a cotton mill since he was seven. He had suffered his share of injuries during his years of toiling to keep food on the table. Yet now it seemed that it was a little more serious, however. He couldn’t breathe properly, and when he tried, it hurt like the devil. He fiercely hoped that he would not faint, because he had never fainted before in his entire life, and it would not do to start doing it in his declining years.

Yet his vision began to blur around the edges, his breathing slowed, and his heart beat boomed like thunder in his ears.

A hand slapped his face, hard and without mercy. “Do not faint, man! Stay awake or I’ll slap you until your ears ring like Christmas church bells!” Nicholas opened his eyes and stared into the scowling face of Hannah Thornton. All sorts of thoughts were racing through him as he became utterly mesmerized by the old dragon’s furious blue gaze. What was she doing here? She never left the house except to haunt the sheds looking for work shirkers.

“Stay still until the master comes. Don’t move or you’ll do yourself even more damage than you already have. Here, squeeze my hand and keep breathing steadily.”

“I … I can’t … there’s no air …” Nicholas wheezed but did as she demanded.

“Yes, there is! Just take little gasps at the time.” She extracted a large white handkerchief from her pocket and began to mop the sweat from his face. That felt so good that he sighed with relief. To his amazement, he actually could breathe a little bit better.

 

Unable to stop her impetuous run, Margaret nearly tripped over her skirts, but John caught her in his arms at the last moment. “Love, love, you’ll break your head, if you fall and bump into the machinery. Now, what bee have you in your bonnet?”

“Oh, John, it is awful! Nicholas was working on the infirmary, and it must have collapsed. He is wounded, he is buried underneath!”

John released her, grabbed her hand and pulled her with him to the courtyard. There was a to-do, he saw, with several workers shouting and pulling at something. It took John two seconds to dispel them, so that he would be able to see what the problem was. His heart missed a beat when he looked down at Higgins’ large body, pinned down by a massive beam, and his mother slapping the man’s ashen face, yelling at him not to loose conscientiousness.

“Mother, step away, please,” he said, anxious not to raise his voice in panic. “There might still be some danger. I need to assess what is to be done. Margaret, please, look after her, my love.” He gently took his mother’s arm and pulled her to her feet. Then he knelt at Higgins’ side amidst the rubble, but not before he handed over his mother to Margaret.

“Well, Higgins, what have you been up to here? Don’t worry, we’ll have you free in no time.”

Organizing a team of workers to free his friend kept John fairly occupied. The first thing to do was to lift the blasted beam, so he did his fair share of the hauling, all the time aware of Margaret’s white face while she kept his mother away from the danger. Higgins had been a good friend since the early days of the Hales settling in Milton, so it was only natural that his wife should be anxious about what had occurred. John fervently hoped that she would not be affected too much by all this commotion.

They had just succeeded in freeing Higgins when Donaldson arrived. John stepped back to shift his attention to his women folk. Margaret was trying to get his mother back to the house but to no avail. The difference between the two women could not be greater; his mother stood proud and in complete control, overlooking the procedures with a keen and intelligent eye, while Margaret, wide-eyed and trembling, looked on the verge of collapsing.

Sudden guilt overwhelmed John as he hastened to put an arm around his wife’s waist. Lord, since when had she grown so thin? He had been so engrossed in his work that he had neglected Margaret somewhat, he realized, although she never uttered a single word of reproach.

“Where can he be brought to?” Donaldson asked briskly, bringing John back to the matter at hand.

“John, you must bring him to the house,” Hannah ordered in a no-nonsense voice, which made her son gaze at her in bewilderment. “Well of course,” she said, extracting herself from Margaret’s grasp, “this happened on our premises and it’s up to us to remediate the damage.”

Hannah had the immense satisfaction in seeing her son smile and nod in acquiescence. Only then she permitted her daughter-in-law to lead her from the scene, or was it the other way round?

 

A few hours after, the commotion was over.

Nicholas had been settled in one of the guest rooms, after been examined in situ by Dr Donaldson. With John’s help, the patient had been stripped by the doctor in order to be thoroughly examined.

Margaret had to do all she could to prevent Hannah from entering the sick room and helping with Nicholas’ care. Only when Mary, Nicholas’ daughter hurried into the entrance hall, did Hannah allowed herself to be distracted. The poor girl was in a state, and that was only to be expected. After all, father and daughter had only each other left to constitute their family; Nicholas’ wife Trudy had died twenty years ago in childbed of a baby son, and Bessy, Margaret’s dear friend and Mary’s sister died a few years before from a pulmonary disease.

Now Mary was almost hysterical, thinking her father badly hurt and near death. Margaret rushed forward to comfort Mary but Hannah beat her to it. She took Mary by the arm and made her sit down on the sofa. “Now, now, there’s no reason to get yourself into an uproar, my girl,” Hannah said, her voice almost gruff. “Dr Donaldson will soon be out to tell us what’s wrong with your dad. You just sit here quietly until he comes.” She motioned for tea to their maid Jane, who stood waiting in the door.

Margaret found herself in some kind of shock as she waited for news of Nicholas. Her head was swimming and her stomach was cramping up so badly that she had to clasp her arms around it. She could not stop trembling, it seemed, and she felt so utterly cold, despite her woollen wrap. It had all been so horrible seeing dear strong Nicholas cast down and crushed, and John clearing rubble off his friend with his bare hands, and now poor Mary crying and sobbing.

The door opened and Dr Donaldson came out. “It  looks worse than it is,” he said in his calm, reassuring voice. “The man has multiple bruises but no fractures or severe wounds. He is strong and healthy so all he needs is a few days of absolute bed rest and fortifying food to get him on his feet again.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Hannah said, bowing her head in salute. “Can I offer you some refreshment before you leave?”

“No, Mrs Thornton, kind of you, but I have other patients to attend to.”

Margaret had been listening to all this without seeming to understand a word of it. At that moment, John exited the sick room, and the sight of him made her stomach heave and roil. He was in shirt sleeves, without coat or waistcoat, and his hands … God, his poor hands! And blood, there was blood all over him! He was hurt! Margaret tried stepping towards him but she failed because her legs suddenly buckled. In a blurring daze, she saw how her mother-in-law rushed towards John, clucking in dismay. It was she and not Margaret who took John by the arm to lead him away, the doctor and Jane following in their wake. Mary disappeared into her father’s sickroom, and Margaret found herself alone, utterly miserable as she realized she was the outsider in this house.

Well, she mused, this was not the first time she felt that way since she came to Milton, but it had never stopped her from forging on with her purpose. It would not do so now.

In the entrance hall, she spotted Connie with the tea tray in her hands, puzzled because she did not know whether to put it down somewhere or to follow after Hannah.

“Connie, please, bring this to the master’s room, and then ask Mrs Bradshaw to prepare a food tray for my husband. He will be wanting to eat before he goes back to the mill.”

The girl stood staring at her for several seconds, but Margaret directed a stern gaze at her and went on in a firm voice. “Hurry, girl. There is work to do.”

Connie nodded and obeyed.

In their room, Margaret found her husband sitting on the bed, while Dr Donaldson was tending his hands, and her mother-in-law was standing guard over the proceedings. Jane, uncertain as ever, stood wringing her hands near the door.

“Mother?” Margaret kept her voice gentle but firm and managed to turn Hannah’s attention towards her. “Mother, you must order some food for our patient. I asked for a tray for John. He can eat it in here before he returns to the mill. Will you go and see to Nicholas’ needs?”

Margaret would never know what it was that fixed the attention of all present on her, but Hannah blinked, then nodded briskly and left the room.

Dr Donaldson, who had finished bandaging John’s hands, began collecting his medical supplies. “You are right, Mrs Thornton. That stubborn husband of yours wants to go back to his shed instead of resting after his ordeal. However, I’m certain you will make him see reason. Good night, Thornton, Mrs Thornton, I will come back in the morning to check on the patients.”

Margaret addressed Jane with a curt nod. “Please escort the doctor out, Jane. Then you may help Connie with the dinner preparations.”

Not even looking to see whether Jane did what she was asked, Margaret went to her husband with no further ado. “Well, John? Can I make you see reason? You need to rest, and I am going to see that you do.”

She began unbuttoning his torn and bloodstained shirt, when John stood, forcing her to look up into his face. He was smiling at her, and it was the rare, thoroughly heart-stopping smile he kept only for her. “My love,” he said in the low, sweet voice that always made her heart skip a beat, “my darling Margaret, I love it when you’re acting all headstrong and bossy. Yes, I’ll rest but only for a short time while I eat dinner. Then you must allow me to return to the mill. Don’t forget I am using your money to put it back to rights, sweetheart. I don’t want to make a hash of things by forgoing my duties.”

He bent his head and kissed her lightly on the mouth. “Now, help me to change into clean clothes. I must look a right mess.”

Christmas Is White as Cotton

 

Happily ever after

It was close to Christmas in the year 1854. The winter was harsh and early, which was customary for Northern England.

Margaret Thornton, whose maiden name was Hale, had been a married woman for three months, when she found herself staring forlornly out of the window in the drawing room of her husband’s house. Not her house, mind, and not even fully John’s. No, within these walls, the only mistress was her mother-in-law, Hannah Thornton.

Oh, Margaret was happily married, no doubt about that, since she and John loved each other in a true and profound way. Becoming John’s wife was all she had hoped for, and more. Her husband had truly given her all he promised in their wedding vows, namely his heart, his body, and all his worldly goods. When they were together at night, alone in their room, she was deliriously happy and could only thank the Lord for receiving and being able to return John’s love. Yet during the long, lonely daytime hours, when John was at the mill, Margaret was subjected to Hannah Thornton’s extremely difficult character.

Hannah ruled the house with an iron hand. Nothing was ever to be changed or even adjusted.

Meals were on strict and fixed times, with fixed menus and cooked the way Hannah prescribed. Even John, who was extremely busy most of the time, had to comply to the fixed meal times. When occasionally this was impossible, John would rather forego the meal altogether than arrive late.

Bedrooms were another point of contention between the two women. Hannah still occupied the master bedroom, so John and Margaret slept in John’s old room which he had been in since boyhood. It was, of course, too small for a married couple. Margaret had tried, and repeatedly so, to come to an agreement with Hannah to relinquish the master bedroom, but to no avail. Short of openly arguing with Hannah, something Margaret was loathing, they were in a deadlock.

Last but not least, there were the servants. Margaret had wanted Dixon, the Hales’ former maid to come with her when she married, but Hannah, who had a profound aversion to the no-nonsensical and outspoken woman, had adamantly put her foot down. Jane and Connie, the maids, and Mrs Bradshaw, the cook were very much Hannah’s servants, and they refused to even take the slightest order from Margaret.

 

So Margaret, young and energetic, was forced to fill her days with other matters than the household. She was sitting at the escritoire in the Thornton house drawing room trying to make her figures work. With only two days to go before Christmas, there had not been enough time since September to finish what would be the infirmary at Marlborough Mills cotton factory, but at least the finances were solid enough.

Margaret wanted nothing more than to reform the entire factory and create a place where the workers not only would earn their livelihood, but also find a safe haven when times grew harsh. There would be an infirmary for the injured and the sick, and a nursery for the very young children not old enough to do factory work. There would also be a meeting hall where people could debate about all sorts of things, like the union and its workings, or how to enlarge their minds to their benefit. However, all they had managed to finish so far, was the refectory improvement. It was no longer situated in the dingy outhouse from a few years ago, but in a newly build, modern facility with adequate kitchen and clean tables. Mary Higgins, Margaret’s friend, was running it in a most satisfactory way.

“Why aren’t you in the shed supervising the workers?”

Hannah Thornton, resplendent in her usual, black bombazine dress stood in the doorway scowling at her, also as usual. Margaret inwardly gasped at the severely disapproving tone of her mother-in-law’s strong voice. Although the two of them had not seen eye to eye with almost everything from the start, lately the pure venom in Hannah’s dark gaze had become almost physically hurting, like a spear thrusted into Margaret’s heart.

She forced herself to stay calm, because there was nothing she could do or say to appease John’s mother when she was in that particular vile mood. “Mrs Thornton, surely there are others more competent than I am to perform that specific task? John has recently given the overseer’s job to Nicholas Higgins after Mr Williams retired, as you are well aware of. There is no one better than he, in my opinion.”

“Aye, and that’s another matter altogether! Why John hired that wretched union scoundrel to work in his mill, I’ll never know! God! What’s the world coming to, when such people are permitted to raise above their filthy origins and be masters instead of subordinates?”

Margaret realized not for the first time that Hannah Thornton harboured some very bitter feelings against her. Well, to be honest she was an embittered person who felt cross with almost anyone or anything, and on some points, she had a right to. Years ago, her husband had impoverished her and her family with his careless speculations. After Charles Thornton committed suicide, John had been forced to leave school and take care of his mother and sister. After her beloved John resurrected the factory through sheer hard work, it had taken only one strike to cast him into bankruptcy again. Hannah had been devastated by this, Margaret knew. She remembered all too well when she had encountered Hannah in the empty mill shed, telling Margaret that she did not know where John had gone. Margaret had offered her comfort, then, but Hannah had stubbornly refused it.

Now, she had been obliged to accept the headstrong but rich Margaret Hale as her daughter-in-law, and as a consequence, her home was no longer her own. John’s cotton mill was in the process of being restored, thanks to his wife’s money, and that was particularly intolerable to Hannah. On top of that, Margaret and John had married and come to live in Hannah’s house. Margaret knew how hard that must be for the woman who had reigned over the Thornton household for over thirty years. Consequently, she tried hard to be  kind to John’s mother, who unfortunately did not make it easy for Margaret.

During all the time of their marriage, Hannah had been relentlessly difficult. She flatly refused Margaret any say, even in the smallest matters. She had not even relinquished the keys to the house, nor had she given Margaret her own set of keys, and when Margaret had asked her why, Hannah had simply answered that the house was John’s and therefore also Hannah’s. She was fighting a hopeless battle, Margaret realized, and she was adamantly reluctant to speak to John about it. This was her battle, and she would fight it alone.

She quickly rose, eager to escape yet another futile argument, and an unexpected wave of dizziness made her grab for the solid edge of the escritoire’s top. Panic stabbed her, since lately this seemed to happen rather frequently. Margaret hoped she was not on the verge of catching a nasty cold, especially now when the winter was so harsh.

“Mrs Thornton,” she said, in answer to Hannah’s statement, breathing in deeply to recover herself, “the world is rapidly changing, and we must endeavour to adapt to the changes, lest they overtake us and change our lives without us having a say in it.”

“Oh aye, and wouldn’t you like to be the one doing all the changes, messing up all the existing ones? Well, my girl, as long as I’m drawing breath, nothing here is going to change. Where are you going? Stay here when I’m talking to you!”

“I have some urgent business of my own, Mrs Thornton,” Margaret stated coolly and left the room. She desperately needed a breath of fresh air, and what better excuse than to escape to the courtyard where she knew Nicholas was overseeing the alterations on an outbuilding they had chosen for the infirmary. Margaret had tried to involve John in the plans, but her husband had firmly refused to divide his attention. He only had eyes for the mill’s resurrection and had permitted Margaret to do whatever she wanted.

As she neared the outhouse, Margaret could hear the uplifting singing of the men as they worked; the banging of hammers on walls, the scraping of heavy objects being displaced, the sawing of wooden planks and beams. Over it all was NIcholas’ deep voice shouting out orders and giving directions. Margaret smiled as she recalled how Nicholas, her first and best friend in Milton, immediately committed himself full of enthusiasm to the task at hand.

Her happy thoughts were brutally interrupted by a loud crashing sound followed by an enormous dust cloud billowing toward her and enveloping her head to toe.