A Visit with Dixon
Upon discovering that Margaret had married, John spent the next few weeks trying not to sink through the hole in his heart, until he could visit Dixon and discuss the content of her letter. Still determined to understand the meaning of her statement about why Margaret married, he wrote, requesting a few moments of her time on the day he planned to be in London.
In addition to losing the greatest love of his life, John now feared the loss of his mother. She was growing weaker and more staid, appearing increasingly deficient by the day. It was small comfort to John that she was under Dr. Donaldson’s care. She still refused to share her health issues, and John’s concern grew. Aware of Hannah’s waning strength, Dixon came to mind. She would be ideal; a caring companion for his mother. John had no idea, however, with Margaret married and gone, in what capacity Dixon served the Lennox household. He needed to find out if she was available to tend to his mother, as her fragility progressed.
With sleeves rolled up, John sat slumped over his desk, strewn with scattered papers, graphs, and financial ledgers, immersing himself in concentrating on the upcoming convention. He looked up at the sound of a knock on the door, welcoming the distraction from his tiresome work.
Higgins opened the door and poked his head in, “Can I have a word with you? Oh … it looks like this might not be a good time. Should I come back later?”
John tossed his feathered pen down onto the papers. “Come in,” he said, “I’m not getting very far with this, and I could use a rest. What can I help you with? Take a seat.”
Pushing his chair out from under the desk, John leaned back with his hands behind his head. Arching his stiff back and stifling a small groan, he waited for Higgins to enter the room.
Higgins stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and removed his cap. He sat down across from John, and not knowing how to start; he began whirling his cap around and round by the rim. John could see Higgins was anxious and worried about something.
“Higgins,” he prompted, “I know that look. What’s on your mind?”
Shifting slightly in his seat, he began, “Boss, you put me in charge of this mill. And it is for the mill, I am speaking to you now. Nearly all of our people, including myself, are sensing a drastic change in your manner. We are all concerned and there is much talk. They are coming to me, asking what’s wrong with the Master. Many think the mill might be in trouble. I know that not to be true; I tell them that, but have no explanation to give them about their concerns. You and I work closely together, and I can see a great sadness that you’re trying to hide from everyone. I didn’t want to speak about this with you, as it must be personal in nature, but the people are growing more worried by the day; that includes me. They’re starting to fear for their jobs, and some have talked about looking for work at other mills. Can you share anything, which might relieve their worries?”
John stood, curling his hands into his pockets, and turned away from Higgins. He gazed out the window over-looking the yard where his laborers were working. He’d known all along that his recent behavior would soon be called into question, and he wondered how to broach the concerns about the two women in his life.
Still looking out the window, John began to speak, “Higgins, you put that most delicately. Your leadership skills improve by the day. In the entire world, I think you’ve been the closest friend to me. Sometimes I look upon you like a brother. I think we’re quite alike, you and I. We have the same high standards. We’re both honest to a fault; we work hard, and we care for our fellow man. You’re not just my overseer. I’m proud to call you my friend.”
John turned and faced Higgins. Pausing briefly, he allowed his words to sink in, and then began pacing the room. “I’m going to tell you, and only you, the two factors that have been plaguing my life recently. Part of it is personal, and the other part will be known soon enough.”
As Higgins watched his boss pace the floor, sorrow flooded him; he knew it was all going to be bad.
Not wanting to look Higgins in the eye, John turned back to the window and slowly started to speak. “First, and again… this is for you only. About a month ago, I learned that Margaret Hale married a college professor. They’re living on the college campus in London. I’ve had no communication with her since she left Milton, although I’ve tried repeatedly. I feel there’s more wrong than right going on there, and I will get to the bottom of it.”
Feeling helpless, Higgins looked up at John, who was still staring out the window. “I’m sorry, Master. I knew of your feelings toward her, so I can only imagine how deeply saddened you are over this. This alone tells me why you’ve acted the way you have, of late. If I could ask, what do you feel is wrong?”
John turned, facing Higgins once more, and sat down at his desk, clasping his hands in front of him. “I think it’s very unlikely that Miss Hale ever received my four letters to her in two years, and I’ve never received a single response. I finally wrote to Dixon; she doesn’t believe she ever got them. I’m going to find out why, or go crazy wondering. It’s too late for anything to be done, other than to ease my mind that she did not purposely avoid replying. I do feel there has been some . . . some… shall I say, mishandling of her posts?”
John leaned back in his chair, casually twirling his pen between his fingers and spoke before Higgins could reply. “It gets worse.” He hesitated a moment before continuing, “I’m now facing the fact . . . my mother does not have long to live. The doctor comes to the house several times a week, but she doesn’t wish to confide in me about the seriousness of her illness. So, I’ve decided, since I cannot be at her side constantly, when I go to London next week, I’ll ask Dixon if she can be her companion and watch over her. I don’t believe mother will have any further contact with our workers, since she hardly leaves the house now and never comes into the mill. I think we can be honest with our people and let them know that I’m worried about her health.” He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath.
Higgins, be strong for me now.
“As much as I wish to be among our workers,” John continued, “I don’t want to see the pity on their faces…” then he added softly, “… as I see in yours now. Assure them this mill is in the best financial shape it has ever been, and that we have hopes of building another.”
“Master, I’m sorry to hear… ”
“Higgins, dear friend,” before you try to find the words to say to me just now, I’m going to ask that you don’t speak them. I know you’re sorry for me. I have no doubt you’ll suffer along with me. You yourself have been at this point, with the loss of your daughter, and I can now understand some of what you felt, and perhaps Margaret, too. It’s a hardship we cannot help but bare.”
“Yes, it is, Master,” Higgins said softly, wishing he could give John some words of comfort.
Smiling slightly, John continued, “I’m going to thank you now, for what I will probably lay at your door over the months ahead. As it is, you already do everything here, but I may find myself asking for more. I’m sorry for that, but I know you’ll see me right,” said John, leaning forward on his desk, looking down at his steepled fingers, avoiding any eye contact, lest he tear up.
“Whatever I can do . . . Master. I wish you all the best getting through this. I’ll be here for you. Don’t give another thought to the mill. Just handle your personal affairs, and I’ll be an ear if you want to talk about anything.”
“Thank you Nicholas,” John replied, his voice thick with emotion. He didn’t rise to extend his hand in thanks, but he knew Higgins would understand. “I know you will. You’re always there for me.”
The following week, having quietly instructed Fanny to keep an eye on their mother, John said good-bye to Hannah. While he was having a few final words with Higgins in the office, he collected the papers of his documented studies, and slipped them into his leather portfolio. Feeling confident that he had done all he could, he departed for the train to London.
His journey lasted almost four hours but was comfortable. He didn’t notice any of the other mill owners on his morning train. He used the time to relax, refresh his notes, and go over the conference agenda. Tomorrow he would breakfast with his friends and then attend a short strategy meeting, before the conference, which was scheduled to begin at 11:00 am. A meal would be served around two o’clock in the afternoon, and the conference would adjourn between five and six o’clock. Dinner would be held across the street at the Stag and Whistle pub, with late evening plans differing with every person. But for John, it was the day after the meeting that concerned him the most. He was determined to visit Dixon. After several hours of thinking about the conference and his visit, the swaying train and the sound of its clickety-clack rhythm lulled him into sleep.
An hour later, he was abruptly awakened by the noise of screeching brakes and to the hissing of vented steam. After several stops, his station was called out, and John prepared to disembark. Donning his hat, he gathered his travel bag, and portfolio then gingerly hopped off the train, before it came to a halt. Pushing his way through the platform crowds, he made his way to the front and hailed a hansom cab. He went directly to his hotel, having decided to sightsee later, should time permit.
That evening, as he entered the large, wood-paneled dining hall a few minutes early, John spotted his fellow mill owners. Standing behind chairs at a round table, glass in hand, they were casually engaged in conversation. When the last owner arrived, they all settled into their seats and began discussing the next day’s events.
Slickson immediately came to the point. “I think we’re well prepared for tomorrow,” he said, “We already had our big discussion at Thornton’s house the other night, plus, we’ll be meeting tomorrow morning again. What do you say we just enjoy the evening; at least not talk about the conference?”
There was agreement all around, as glasses were raised, and the men settled back down into other conversations. The dinner progressed through to the final course. By then, most of the conversation had turned toward the possibility of other factories coming into Milton. Many of the Masters were receiving inquiries from outside merchants, wishing to relocate. It seemed inevitable that, with new businesses flowing in, some type of merchant council or chamber would have to be created, if they were going to maintain a balance of wages. They had to form some guidelines for the influx that would be headed Milton’s way. This would ensure the survival of their mills, as well as that of the manufacturers of low profit goods and their wage concerns. The evening ended with everyone in agreement to meet for further discussion when they returned to Milton.
The next morning, as the clock in his room struck seven, a porter, at John’s request, promptly knocked on the door announcing the time. John called out “thank you” through the door and the porter left. He had an hour before meeting the masters for breakfast. He shaved and dressed, then collected his notes and headed downstairs to meet the others. Everyone was ready for their morning meal and eager to discover what the day would bring.
The conference lasted until nearly 6:30 p.m. Discussions and debates led the day, with John acting as spokesman for their group. Little was settled, except for small concessions by the shippers, and a promise from the growers to yield more volume. Prior to the meeting, John and the other Milton owners knew that’s all they could expect, but it took all day to get to that point. They left the conference satisfied with their small achievement and headed out for dinner, across the street at the pub. With the meal and talk of the day completed, some owners left to catch late trains and others had plans similar to the night before.
Having nothing better to do, John decided to take a carriage ride over by the college, just to see the type of environment where Margaret lived. “It suits her well.” He thought. The ivy-covered walls and arched doorways seemed warm and inviting, academic, and definitely a world apart from the grand tiers that one might find in London. He hoped she was happy and being treated as she deserved.
Somewhere among these hallowed halls, my true love lives.
Despite going to bed at 10 o’clock, John arose the next morning, suffering from a very poor night’s sleep. His thoughts turned to his mother’s failing health and what he would do if Dixon wasn’t available. His sadness regarding his mother was tolerable now, because he knew what to expect; what Dixon might tell him about Margaret was causing unbearable anxiety. Time seemed to drag on, as he counted the hours until one o’clock when he would meet Dixon and find out what she had meant in her letter. The thread of hope he was clinging to could very well break today, but he needed to know everything in order to deal with the rest of his life.
It was nearing 11 o’clock when he came down for breakfast, having packed all his things and closed out his room account.
From his pocket, he took an old yellowed piece of paper with an address on it, and asked the registrar if he recognized the area, and how long it would take to get there. The registrar was unfamiliar with the exact address, but knew the area and approximated a 20 minute carriage ride. John checked his pocket watch and calculated that he should leave the hotel by 12:30 p.m.
He ate alone, mostly pushing food around on his plate, and finished his second cup of tea. Pulling out his pocket watch for the third time in half an hour, he noted it was almost midday. He paid the waiter for his uneaten meal, collected his belongings, and went into the lobby where people were talking or reading the paper. Sitting alone, in a far-off corner of the room, he allowed his mind to wander. He wasn’t too concerned about finding a caretaker for his mother, surely it would be an easy task to accomplish, but finding someone who would put up with her stubborn ways, might prove to be difficult. Having his home on the mill property meant he would be able to assist her, but surely, as she grew weaker, she would need someone to help her with the more personal details.
And then there was Margaret… John wondered what he would do if Dixon told him she believed Margaret married to gain freedom from her relatives. Certainly, they would have encouraged a commonality with the different levels of the London upper class. Marriage to a college professor sounded like an act of escape from a certain measure of the higher social circle. But in other ways, John thought, it did have a ring of truth about it: An educator would be very much to Margaret’s liking. Realizing he was becoming more anxious by the moment, he took out his pocket watch once more. Time came to hail a cab.
Five minutes before the hour, John stepped out of the coach. As he paid the driver, he instructed him to return in 20 minutes; if he was going to be any later then someone would come out and pay him to wait.
Arriving at Captain Lennox’s home, John looked over the highly ornate, white Regency town home, with its columned front porch and tall windows. Hesitantly, he proceeded forward. He climbed the marble steps up the slight embankment then stepped onto a slate walkway leading to the door. Before he could lift the knocker, Dixon opened the door. Removing his hat, John entered the house.
“Good to see you Mr. Thornton.” Dixon said politely, a hint of sadness in her voice. “You can place your hat and things over here.” She pointed to a highly polished table in the foyer. The Mr. and Missus are not in, but they know you were coming. If you will follow me.”
“Good day to you, Dixon. Thank you for seeing me.”
Dixon led John toward the back of the house. “Mr. Thornton, if you would care to go out onto the veranda, I’ll fetch some tea.”
“Very good. This is a lovely home you work in, Dixon. I’ve not seen a veranda in many years. I’m sure you remember the air in Milton; it wouldn’t suit such a luxury.”
As John stepped out onto the wide veranda, he was immediately struck by the large fountain, toward the center of the back garden, spewing water into its trough at the bottom. He had always been fascinated by the water wheel engineering that lay beneath its foundation. Wheels would turn by falling water, raised in turn by other wheels bringing the water back up the center flow. Thinking back on his study of its construction, he was reminded that there would be a hidden chamber where a workman could repair the works from below, if needed. Before he could have a closer look at its complex design, his senses were suddenly filled with the awareness of her, and then the voice struck his heart like a lightning bolt.
“Hello, Mr. Thornton.”
Over the next year, John Thornton became a shell of the man he once was: a thinking human being with no central core, little constancy, adrift in his own life. In an effort to keep his company from failing, he worked long hours, trying to lose himself in his mill. Margaret’s words, on the day of the riot, continued to haunt him. He recognized that consideration for the human condition of his people was the road to the mill’s salvation, but how to accomplish this remained an issue for him and all the cotton masters. Feeling lost; he, nevertheless, was determined to resolve the wage issue, even if it meant losing everything to do it. And through it all, his faith in Margaret’s insights remained intact. Resolute to form a new perspective, John set to work toward a solution.
By the end of that first year, after Margaret had left, he began to see the benefits of his hard work. He had successfully tightened controls, hired capable, more productive people, and re-trained his workers. In order to pay wages, he diluted most of his financial holdings. He met with his workers individually and held monthly meetings so they could air their grievances. Wanting his labor force to comprehend the whole picture, he demonstrated, with slate and chalk, where every pound was going and helped clear all their financial misunderstandings of the company. His goal was to make them partners in his decisions. Over time, the entire mill came to recognize their newly acquired knowledge (some absorbed more than others), as fair and equal. They had a sense of partnership, and they had a purpose: they wanted John to succeed. He wasn’t only their boss; he became their friend. In the end, the workers’ personal interest in the success of the company, and their mutual pride and dedication to workmanship created a finer product.
Before long, John’s mill began to reap great rewards; the other mill masters, observing the result of changes he had made, began to follow his lead. Although they didn’t always agree with him on his expenditures and personal sacrifices (with regard to the workers), John showed them that sacrifice was at the core of his success. He believed in a new way of thinking: a future vision that embraced the workers’ humanity and would ultimately resolve most problems. Recognized as a highly acclaimed merchant within the Cotton Industry, it wasn’t long before other burgeoning industries began to take notice of the name John Thornton and the town of Milton. Respect and admiration for his business skills and absence of dissension among his 300 plus workers resulted in his fame being spread throughout other areas of commerce. His methods were recorded in trade journals, and he was asked to speak at various functions around the country. John was obliging but shunned the limelight, and never put himself forward to be admired. He disliked receiving praise for common sense work and he highly undervalued himself. The world, however, saw him differently…
At a time when John was achieving great success and blazing historical trails, his personal life was far from successful, but he kept it well hidden from all but his closest friends. Margaret never wrote to him after her bereavement ended. He had written her two letters, but they went unanswered. This puzzled him. It was most unlike Margaret to be so impolite. Having had no communication from her, and having heard no news of her, he began to worry, sensing she might slip through his grasp.
My destiny cannot be to live without her.
In the second year after Margaret left, John attempted two more courteous letters but received no replies. Now, concerned that something was amiss, he wrote to Dixon, hoping she could shed some light on Margaret’s apparent disregard for his letters. Clearly, this was not the Margaret he once knew. He had to find out why.
Late one evening, John returned home from the mill. As he entered the sitting room, Hannah was sitting at the dining table, reviewing Cook’s menus for the following week.
“Good evening, Mother. How has your day been?”
Hannah Thornton looked up from her work and smiled fondly at her son. “Oh, a bit tiring…” Lottie came by to gossip for a while, and we had tea. Then I wrote a letter, did a little cross stitch… and here I sit working on our meals for next week.” Rising from the table, walking to the couch, she watched him, as he removed his coat and cravat and placed them over the back of a chair. “And how was your day, John?”
John walked over to the buffet and poured himself a brandy before responding. Lifting the glass, he turned slightly towards Hannah, “Mother?”
“Yes, John, but I would prefer a small sherry, instead. By the way, something came in the post for you today. It’s on the dining room table.”
Without acknowledging her comment about the post, John continued pouring their drinks. “It was a rather easy day, today. Higgins still amazes me with his capacity for completing all the work I assign him. I can’t find the end of the man. He never tires, never complains, good teacher – a perfect overseer. I’m going to get him into the office for some of the financial sides of the business.” Picking up her sherry, but leaving his brandy behind, John walked to the dining table and retrieved the letter. Crossing the room, he handed his mother her glass. He paused a moment to open the note, quickly scanning for a signature.
“Finally,” John said as he walked back to the buffet and picked up his brandy. Walking over to his leather chair in front of the fire, he sat down and began to unfold the letter.
“Who is it from?” his mother asked, watching John’s movements.
“It’s from Dixon, the Hales’ housekeeper. She now works for Margaret.”
Hannah looked at him angrily. “John, you didn’t! Please tell me you didn’t write to her and ask about Miss Hale behind her back.”
Raising his eyes to meet hers, John answered, “Mother, I cannot tell you so, because I did write to her. I wrote to Margaret four times in two years and received no response to my letters. I thought a quick note to Dixon, requesting a reply, would let me know if Margaret received them. I have reason to suspect that her family may be censoring her post. I didn’t tell you about writing to her because I knew you would go on . . . like you are about to do now . . .” He paused for a moment, letting the weight of his words sink in. His mother’s consistent negativity towards Margaret Hale, from the very beginning of their acquaintance, was an ongoing source of frustration for him. “So,” he continued, “if you don’t mind, mother, I would like to read Dixon’s letter now.”
As John began reading, Hannah was up and pacing the floor. She was worried about this “re-emergence of the “Miss Hale” story. For the past two years, he had been seeing other women, no one permanently, but she thought Miss Hale was far from his mind. Suddenly, Hannah’s thoughts were interrupted as she heard the sound of glass, shattering on the floor. She quickly turned around and saw John, still seated, bent slightly forward with his elbows supported on his knees. He was holding his head in his hands, looking down, staring at the letter that had fallen to the floor.
“What is it, John?” she asked, alarmed by his pale face and empty unfocused eyes.
She watched as he stood up. Without acknowledging her question, and oblivious to the glass fragments on the floor, he walked out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door with neither coat nor hat, in hand. Hannah was stunned; he’d never done anything like that before. She hurried to the window, in time to see him walking through the mill gate.
At the sound of footsteps coming from the kitchen stairs, Hannah turned and saw Jane, the housekeeper, entering the room, dustpan, and broom in hand.
“I thought I heard the sound of breaking glass, ma’am.” she said, glancing around the room.
Hannah composed herself. “Over here, Jane,” she said as she pointed to the floor, “but hand me that letter first, if you don’t mind?”
Jane handed her mistress the note and began to sweep the glass. Hannah waited patiently for her to leave, then sat in John’s chair and began to read.
Dear Mr. Thornton,
It was nice hearing from you. I do not think Miss Margaret got your letters because I think she would have told me. She and I are close friends. She does not care for London, so we talk a lot about Helstone and Milton. I know she wrote to you once or maybe it was two times because she asked me if I wanted to add anything. I just wanted to say Hello to you. Did you not receive them?
I don’t know if this is good news or bad news for you, but Miss Margaret married her a college professor last month. She is not living here anymore. They live on the school grounds somewhere. I was not allowed to go with her because they have their own staffing.
To be honest with you Mr. Thornton, I don’t know if she was happy to be married or happy to be out of here. She’s been very sad a long time, but I don’t think it is all about her parents dying. She just hates living here and society life being pressed on her. I know she would have been happy to hear from you because we wondered how you and Mr. Higgins were getting along. I think that is all you wanted to know. Please write again if I can tell you anymore, I like getting letters. Dixon
By the time Hannah finished reading the letter, tears were rolling down her cheeks, and her heart beat rapidly in her chest. She felt terrible for her son. She decided to wait and have dinner with him, but he didn’t return, and she could not eat. Feeling unwell, she retired to her room for the evening.
Knowing John was at a very low point, weighed heavily on her conscience, exhausting her even further. She recognized she held some blame in this disaster in her son’s life. Originally, she never endeared herself to Margaret and had since tried to sweep her memory out of the way. John, meanwhile, had been holding on to her tightly, in his heart. “How he must have struggled to tolerate me,” she thought,” when I was so quick to dismiss any conversation about Miss Hale.”
Will he ever forgive me?
Outside, John walked towards nowhere; numb, not caring, and oblivious to everything around him, including the cold and the approaching darkness. His thoughts were incomprehensible; he was inconsolable.
I cannot believe what has happened to my life. It is over.
John had loved Margaret for over three years. Although there had been no communication between them for two of those years, he still had clung to hope. He had dreams, and he had plans, all of which just died a horrible death.
Walking with his head down, people stared at him as he passed. He wandered aimlessly out of town and found himself at the cemetery, where Margaret had visited weekly, at the grave of her lost friend, Bessie.
John’s insides were churning as he walked around in circles, simultaneously wrestling with anger and sorrow. Tears rolled down his face, as his stomach convulsed with pain, and pure mental agony consumed him.
Margaret . . . my love, my life, why did you marry someone else?
Holding his arms straight over his head, shaking his fist skyward, shouting and sobbing at his maker, John wailed to the heavens, “Why, God . . . why? Why take Margaret from me, again? What have I done to deserve this? . . . God, anything but this!”
John silently cursed his god. For him, God no longer existed. With despondency heavily descending upon him, he slid to his knees and fell backward on to the cold damp ground. A few moments later he sat up, resting his head on his arms, which were laying across his up-drawn knees. Tears of utter desolation poured out from him. He thought he was watching himself go mad.
“I have loved her for three years, God. Two years ago, my heart broke when you took her from me. I have not looked into her face since then, but have continued to live in hope every day. And today, God, you put a pistol to my head and pulled the trigger. You have taken away my love, my reason for living, my everything. She wrapped herself around my very soul, now you’ve wrenched her away. You have destroyed me, God. I am done with you, as you are done with me.” John cried uncontrollably, feeling as if he was bleeding to death, and wishing, somehow, that he could.
As the hours rolled by, he sank deeper into despair, and thoughts of ending his own life began to appear, but the recollection of the family’s grief, over his father’s suicide, kept him teetering on the brink of life. He knew, without a doubt, living in a world without Margaret, in a world without hope of Margaret, meant living in a void: a meaningless, senseless life; forever floating, trapped in a world of depression, and ostracized from reciprocated love.
As the pale light of dawn rose over the smoky town, John stood slowly, straining at his stiffness, and decided to go home and try to survive the rest of his damaged life. There were no tears left to shed. He was completely and utterly spent.
Everything is gone . . . lost to me now . . . and I, too, am lost.
Approaching his home, John tried putting on a good face for the early workers wandering the yard, but he knew he looked awful and it matched his mood. Feeling unprepared to face his mother over Miss Hale, again, he mounted the porch steps, took a deep breath, and turned the doorknob. As he came bravely through the door to the sitting room, Hannah looked up from her chair and quietly gasped. Standing before her in muddied clothes, looking totally exhausted, was her son: face swollen, eyes bloodshot and cheeks stained and streaked with tears. He was a broken man, and her heart sank for him. How he suffers… Without saying a word, she walked over, putting her motherly arms around him. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but it didn’t seem enough, considering her past attitude toward Miss Hale, so, she kept silent on the matter.
“Would you like something to eat, John?” Hannah asked, tentatively, as she stepped back from him.
“No thank you, mother. I’m going to clean up and lie down for a few hours. Would you send Jane to find Higgins and tell him it will be a while before I get to the office?”
Hannah said she would take care of it. Having decided she would say nothing about the letter until he did, she stood silently watching him. Picking up Dixon’s letter, John turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Hannah thought to herself that she had never seen him so dejected. Unfortunately, and all too late, she realized the great love her son had for Miss Hale; so much more than she had ever thought. At last, she fully recognized the understanding John had of Margaret. Hannah knew, for certain, she had misjudged this woman.
In his room, John undressed and bathed, feeling the weight of loneliness descend upon his tired body. Putting on a fresh undergarment, he lay down on the bed. Exhaustion overtook him, finally, and he slept fitfully, never finishing Dixon’s letter.
He awoke several hours later, bathed in sweat. Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up, trying to clear his head. He wished he was awakening from a nightmare, but there it was, on the night table: Dixon’s letter, spelling out THE END to the rest of his life. Reaching over, he picked it up, and began reading where he had left off:
To be honest with you Mr. Thornton, I don’t know if she was happy to be married or happy to be out of here. She’s been very sad a long time, but I don’t think it is all about her parents. She just hates living here and society life being pressed on her. I know she would have been happy to hear from you because we wondered how you and Mr. Higgins were getting along.
Suddenly, he stopped. “What did that mean . . . happy to be married or happy to be out of there?”
John stood, continuing to read, as he paced the floor and ran his fingers through his hair. They were words, just words, but ignoring them would haunt him forever. Nothing could be done now; there could be no difference in their permanent separation. But still… he had to know…
Did she marry for love?
It seemed absurd to want to know the answer; what difference would it make? Yet, deep down, burned the desire to feel what might have been. What if she could have loved him? That, at least, would be worth something to him.
He knew what he must do… In a few weeks, he was due to attend the annual convention for the cotton mill industry, held in London.
“I will visit Dixon while I’m there. I must understand what she meant by those words.”
1851 winter, Milton, N.W. England
“Look back ………………. look back at me.”
John heard his thoughts slip from his mouth, as he stood and watched the coach bearing Margaret away forever. Unknowingly, she carried his heart, his soul, and his future dreams.
Inside the carriage, Margaret dwelled deep within her own misery of lost family, drowning in the solitude she thought her life to be, too absorbed to give a backward glance.
On that snowy day, John’s soul froze over; all of his passion fell dormant. With her coach out of sight, he felt nausea sweep over him. He was an empty shell. A large void replaced his heart. He wondered if he wanted to live within a world without her.
John Thornton was a tall, virile, handsome man of thirty-one years. He had black hair and ocean blue eyes, and beneath his cravat and black frock cloak, he carried a taut muscular, perfectly proportioned body. Years of hard learning had produced a keen mind, and with his mother’s guidance, he achieved manhood and became a gentleman. Simmering just beneath the surface was a well-managed temper, fueled by great passion, but rarely displayed. He was well regarded by his peers and ladies alike, and though he did not seek it, seemed destined for history and fame.
John never had the luxury of a misspent youth and had little time for sowing his wild oats. Hardship fell early in his life. His father committed suicide, the result of unfortunate business mistakes, and John was forced to support his mother and sister. As a young lad, he worked hard to restore his family’s good name and eventually repaid his father’s creditors, even though the name Thornton had been written off as a bad debt.
Through pure diligence and hard work, John became a merchant, a tradesman, and a Master and Cotton Mill owner, employing several hundred workers. Milton, the town where he was raised, had birthed the Machine’s Industrial Age, and John Thornton was an integral part of it. He, along with other owners, pioneered the manufacturing of cotton fabric and shipped it, not only within the country, but worldwide. Cotton was a low profit commercial item for which the world was starting to clamor. With its lower cost and lighter weight, it replaced many textiles such as canvas, fur, velvets, and linen. It was already Great Britain’s largest exported product, and because of it, the town of Milton was on the verge of exploding into a very large dot on the map.
John became a leader among his peers in the cotton industry. Inspired by the words of Miss Margaret Hale (since gone from his life), he soon became the solution to the unsolvable wage issues that had kept the workers impoverished.
By 1851, when the worst of the labor issues existed, Margaret Hale, her mother, and father (a disillusioned clergyman turned teacher) and Dixon; their housekeeper had been in Milton for a year. John became acquainted with the family and fell in love with Margaret Hale almost immediately, but differences in customs of the slow-paced south and the industrial north caused a series of misunderstandings between them. Margaret felt John was too crude and forward, certainly not a gentleman in the genteel south or London tradition. Most of the time, she shunned him. She didn’t care for his northern ways.
One eventful day, Margaret visited John’s mother, Hannah, at their home situated within the property of Marlborough Mills. While there, a riot broke out among the strikers who were demanding more pay. Barred inside the house, Margaret and John observed the incited crowd from an upper window. Margaret spoke to him, begging him to consider the situation and see it through the eyes of the workers. “They’re being driven mad with hunger” she told him, “but they’re only human. You must find a solution. Please, go talk to them.” John pondered her suggestion for a few moments, then without really knowing what to say, walked outside to speak to them. As Margaret continued to watch from inside, she realized the crowd was growing angrier, and she quickly went out to help him. Knowing that they would not harm a woman, she forced herself between John and the rioters and tried to reason with them. John was momentarily caught off guard. Angry, but fearing for her safety, he tried to force her back into the house when suddenly he felt her body slump, lifeless against his, having been felled by a thrown rock intended for him. John carried an unconscious Margaret inside and laid her on the couch. His mother told him to do what he needed to do and that she would care for Margaret. Minutes later, the doctor arrived and declared she had a bad bump on her head, but she would be fine. The doctor took her home in his carriage.
Unbeknownst to Margaret, her spontaneous reaction signified more than just concern for John’s safety. To the people in the north, she had signaled an interest in John which propriety could not overlook, and although not her intention, it was taken as such by all who witnessed her behavior. Both John and his Mother then felt he was obligated to protect her reputation and ask for her hand in marriage. Marrying Margaret was already in his thoughts, but doing it at this particular time was less than ideal for either of them.
Her rejection of his proposal was a miserable and extremely painful experience for them both, but over time, John felt that she was beginning to understand the ways of the north. He remained hopeful that a relationship could be salvaged in the future. Other misunderstandings of lesser significance were also present, but they were nothing more than that, solvable, if time were on their side.
During that same year, Margaret suffered several losses: First, Bessie, the only friend whom she made since moving to Milton, then tragically and within a short time of each other, her parents. She was devastated by the death of her father, her only remaining parent, and having lost so many of her loved ones; she felt lonely and bewildered. Margaret secretly wondered what it was within her, or what she had done, to cause such grievous misfortunes to befall her and desolate her life so quickly.
Immediately following her father’s death, and even though she was of age, Margaret’s aunt took her under her care and swept her away, to live in London. Aunt Shaw at no time thought Milton was good enough for her sister and her family, so Margaret was quickly forced to adapt to London and its societal lifestyle, a lifestyle that John never felt she totally embraced.
The day she left Milton, Margaret went to say good-bye to John and his family. She gave him a book that had belonged to her father. In that instant, John realized his world had changed dramatically. Moments later, he stood silently watching her coach leave his mill yard. As it passed through the gate, out of sight, John knew Margaret was gone from his life. But, he vowed; he would not . . . could not let it end this way.
I cannot lose her, lest I lose myself.
Three thirty arrived, and John escorted Margaret down their steps. He lifted her into the carriage. He pitched his top hat on the opposite seat and gently lifted Margaret onto his lap.
“You know I’m going to hate it when you don’t have to sit like this anymore.”
“I know. I feel the same way.”
John reached for her head to kiss her.
“I am carrying you into the courthouse. You will exhaust yourself walking that far.
“All right. I love being in your arms.”
“Margaret, before you go in there, I should tell you something.”
“Do you mean about you and three others going after Hartford last night? By the paper today, I would say you had a successful evening.”
“Where do you come up with this? Is that your intellect working or did you know.”
“I’m not ready to tell you how, just yet.”
“So, how do you feel about what we did?”
“Proud, since you came home alive.”
John kissed her again. He never thought she’d understand.
“I know the man I married. I know your pride. You would never let that go unanswered. I should have remembered that before I made my way back. These past days have made me sick with worry. After yesterday, and talking with Frederick after you walked out, I think I understand your intensity in this matter more.”
“Should I have told you at the beginning?”
“No. I needed the hope that you would be convinced to change your mind, to get through it all. I didn’t do any good in changing your mind.”
“There never was that chance. I had to do it. It’s done. Behind us. I love you too much to ever let you be harmed.”
“You won’t go to jail, will you?”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Relatively, sure. I think the worst that could happen is, it goes to court. But I doubt even that. I think Boyle is going to resolve all of it at this meeting.”
“I hope we can leave there with good news for everyone,” Margaret added.
Everyone was on the outside steps when Branson pulled the carriage around to the back. Since he was requested, he had to tie off the team. He let his owners out first. John held Margaret in his arms.
“Sis, I heard what you did. Still the clumsy little girl, I see. I’ve spent the day looking around Milton. I am seriously thinking of taking John up on his offer to work for him. I’ve been walking freely in this town all week, and it felt good.”
“Oh, Frederick, I hope that will come to be. I shall want to know the woman you love.”
When Branson arrived at the crowd, John proceeded to courtroom C. John, Margaret, Branson, Adam, Frederick, and the Captain, all walked the halls in silence. No one looked worried. Margaret thought they looked like men arriving home from a war with their heads held high.
The room was empty when they arrived. John led them to the front row on the left side pew. The people filed in order, with Maxwell, Adam, John, Margaret, Frederick, and Branson on the end nearest the main aisle.
Within a few minutes, Mason entered carrying a file, but instead of standing before everyone, he sat next to Branson. Margaret thought he looked too serious.
“Detective Boyle will be here in a few minutes. He had a telegram to send.”
Detective Boyle finally made his late entrance and walked to the front the small gathering.
“I thank all of you for coming today, to what I hope will answer all the questions about the . . . I’d say death, but it was more like a massacre if you can massacre one person. We’re here to close the book on Captain Grant Hartford.
“I will start by saying this is the most bizarre case I have ever worked, in fact, I think ever in the Met history. I was privileged to be the Detective in charge. Nothing would have been possible without Inspector Mason and his great force. They all worked hard. Much harder than any of you ever saw. I am curious. How many of you knew you were being followed for the last three days?”
Maxwell raised his hand.
“Just the Captain here? I thought Frederick would have possibly spotted our men since he’s been looking over his shoulder for a long time. How did you know about being followed, Captain?”
“It’s my training. I spotted the same officer several times in places I was at. Detective, you should rotate your men.”
Boyle laughed. “I should indeed. Why did you not say anything to the others?”
“Because I knew you were on our side.”
“You knew this? Did you,” asked Boyle.
“Yes. I did. You were overtly too courteous and forthcoming with all your information.”
“Agreed,” said John.
Maxwell continued. “That’s why I was willing to give you all of my knowledge. Sir, if I may say something. Don’t join the army. Stay where you are.”
Everyone had a quiet chuckle at Boyle’s expense.
John reached for Margaret’s hand and squeezed it.
“Thank you, Captain, for your indulgence of my methods.” Boyle laughed as hard as the others.
Boyle got serious for a moment. “I want to say this to all of you and only you. The seriousness of this case and the overpowering love that you all have shown this woman here pushed me across a line, I hope I never cross again in my career. We could have taken Hartford nearly anytime we wanted after he left London. As a man, I could feel the primitive need for revenge. I wasn’t going to let you have your way until the old man was strangled. That’s when we gave you your head. That’s why we followed you. We had to ensure the safety of everyone in this room. Now, if you say that outside this room, I will deny it. Mason and I made that decision. He convinced me of the type of man that you were, John, and I knew of you before I got here.”
John stood, “Before you go further, I want to tell you that I killed him. I would not be a man that I could live with if I let that pass. I don’t want there to be any doubt should this all be a trick.”
Frederick stood next, “I killed him, not John. My sister was brutalized because of me. I did it.”
Adam couldn’t sit and let that happen. “Sir, I killed him. Margaret’s father was my best friend. I promised him that I would watch out for her.”
Captain Lenox stood next. “Sir, with respect to my new friends here and my regiment, I killed him because of his embarrassment to the men that served him.”
Margaret looked at Branson and smiled.
Branson rose. “Sir, I killed him. I cannot let my master take the blame for something I did. It was me.”
Margaret struggled to her feet, and Branson helped her. “Sir, if you followed everyone, you know that I killed him.”
“Margaret, sit down! You did no such thing.”
“Sir, I cannot let my husband take the blame for my own revenge on Captain Hartford. I would do it again and again. I killed him.”
“Margaret!” John said, his temper flaring. “You could not have killed him. Now sit. John lowered her to a sitting position.
“Did to,” Margaret said on her way down to the seat.
Detective Boyle smiled and waved his arms for everyone to be seated. John snapped a frown at his wife for her foolishness.
“This has all been quite heartwarming, I must admit. I felt sure that’s how you all felt, which led Mason and me to cross the line. Mason, would you bring in the coroner?”
“Let me say this. Not one of you should have any regrets about what you did. There is no guilt here. I will say, that in all good conscience, I could not let him go unclaimed. I have written to his commanding officer telling him that he was killed in a shootout with police for the murder of Tom Douglas. I went on to say that we also had evidence of another murder he committed. Nothing was mentioned about you, Lenox, that will be up to you. I also did not mention anything about our real reason for being here, and that is the attack on the then Miss Hale. I feel certain he will not be buried with any honors and if he has family, they can claim him.”
Mason escorted the coroner to the front with a box in his hand.
“Would you all like to know what killed this man.?”
“Detective, with respect I think the men here know that I fired first. John insisted”
“So you are saying you are the one who ended his life?”
Boyle turned to the coroner. “Doctor, would you tell us your findings? Tell us where the shot balls were found.”
“The first one I pulled from the body was from the groin or what was left of it.”
“That would have been John Thornton’s shot” replied Boyle. “Continue.”
“The second shot I pulled out was from the heart. The pistol had been placed against the shirt as there were powder burns there.”
“That would have been Frederick Hale’s shot.”
The men started taking great interest now, wondering how they or Boyle knew who placed the shot.
“The third ball was removed from the very center of his forehead, a particularly good shot.”
“That would have been the Captain’s shot.”
“The next one was from his left side. It didn’t appear to be aimed at any special part of the man.”
That would have been Mr. Bell’s shot,” continued Boyle.
Boyle looked into the box. “Coroner, you have more shot here.”
The four men started looking at one another trying to remember if anyone fired twice.
“Yes, sir. I couldn’t find the bullet in the body, but his toes had been shot off. At least three of them. The bullet was lodged in the floor.”
The men were taken aback.
“The last one I found was taken from the lower spin.”
“I suggest that was inflicted from our young driver Branson.”
John interrupted. Are you saying there were six shots to his body?”
“I am,” said the coroner.
Boyle was ready for the grand finale~.
“Coroner, all these men would like to know which bullet killed this man.”
“Sir, Lady, and gentlemen,” the coroner said, looking down the line of men,” None of them.”
“Four men jumped up, protesting the coroner’s findings.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please take your seats. All will be revealed.
The men were talking amongst themselves, grumbling.
“Coroner, if none of these bullets killed this man, what did kill him first?”
There was dead silence in the room.
“Sir, of all those bullets in him, there was no blood spilt from the body, except his toes. He was already dead when all of you thought you had killed him.”
“So how did he die?”
“Someone administered arsenic to him in a very large dosage.”
“You mean we shot a dead man?” asked John of Boyle.
“That is right, Mr. Thornton.”
“Then who killed him.”
“Poison is a woman’s weapon. Your killer sits among you.”
John looked down at Margaret.
“Told you,” she remarked with a smarmy smile.
John ran his fingers through his hair and leaned over putting his elbows on his knees. He could not believe that.
Margaret wanted to laugh at John.
Frederick turned towards her and kneeled. “Sis, I knew you were crazy, but I didn’t know you were brave. My God, what a sister, I have.”
“Let me have a final word on this.” Spoke Boyle above the din in the room. “Although slightly delayed, Miss Hale dispatched Captain Hartford in self-defense. She has no guilt at all.”
Branson turned and hugged her.
Captain Lenox came over to her and shook her hand. “Thank you, Margaret, for doing our job. I salute you. Should I tell Edith?”
“I’d rather tell her when I feel the time is good. Thank you, Maxwell, for all you did to aid this investigation.”
Next came Adam Bell. “Margaret, I always knew you were a woman of many talents, but I have been forever underestimating your cunning and bravery. I will leave for London early tomorrow with the Captain and Miss Shaw. I will see you soon.” Adam took her hand, and Margaret closed both of hers over his.
“Please don’t stay away. I am going to miss you soon enough.”
“I’ll be around, dear girl. Bravo to you. Good day.”
Branson had left the room after hugging her, to ready the coach.
Frederick slapped John on the back, trying to bring him back to reality. “If I had met you sooner, I could have told you the type of woman you were marrying. She would never lose you. She didn’t kill him for herself; she killed him for you. It’s been a pleasure, hunting, plotting and planning with you, John. We must do this again soon,” Frederick laughed, kissing his sister on the way out.
Boyle extended his hand to John. Seeing it, John sat back up. “You have some woman there, sir. Goodbye.” Boyle shook Margaret’s hand, too, on his way out. That left John and Margaret alone.
John slid a bit further away from Margaret and turned to stare at her. She had fallen on her sword for him.
Margaret’s smile disappeared. What was John thinking of her, she wondered.
“Is this your version of the silent treatment? How long will this last? Must you stare? You are unnerving me?”
“To unnerve you. You have nerves of cast iron.”
Margaret felt adrift. Did she just cut John out of her life with what she did, she worried. The tears began to flow. She couldn’t take his staring at her anymore. She slid to the pew end and started to pull herself up to a standing position.
Suddenly, she was swept into John’s arms. Before she could groan from the ache in her side, he kissed her hard. He kept his lips on hers all the way through the courthouse and to their waiting carriage. Margaret couldn’t breathe with her tears and running nose, she finally had to pull away.
“You still love me, then?”
“Of course, I do. I am so amazed at you. When I realized what you had done, and I knew it was for me, I felt you squeeze more love into my heart, and I think it burst this time.”
John saw Branson’s big smile and stepped into the carriage.
“Do you want to hear all about it,” she asked.
“Later. I just want to kiss your fool head off. If I had known what you were up to . . .”
John began a series of very passionate, love making kisses on their ride home.
Feeling the rock forming under her, Margaret said, “Our friend is back. Is he looking for his home?”
John smiled, “He’s looking for his ooh-ooh.”
Last Chapter next week
Chapter Twenty Nine
Nicholas sat for a while reading the paper. He decided to fix himself a drink, but there was no whisky which was the first time he’d ever known that to be missing from John’s bar. He settled for a scotch as his nerves were shot, too.
He walked over to Margaret, wondering if he should find something to cover her. As he looked down, he noticed something coming from her mouth.
“Not again,” he said out loud and hurried to a policeman in the yard.
“Fetch Dr. Donaldson and be quick about it.” He returned to Margaret’s side.
Branson drove the coach on the same route he had done only an hour before, pulling under the same trees near cottage one.
“Do you want me, Guv?”
“No, stay with the team. In case anything happens to one of us, you’ll be ready to move quickly,” John told him.
Branson watched the little he could in the moonlight, as the men slowly made their way to the cottage. Due to the time of night, they followed the road, almost fearless and undaunted in their task. A strange feeling came over Branson as they looked like men from the Wild West, he’d heard about, walking side-by-side into town for a showdown, he thought it was called. These things didn’t happen in England. They weren’t even taking safety measures to hide as far as he could see.
Once the men were nearing cottage three, they headed into the wooded area for cover. Branson jumped out of the box and walked the team to cottage two. If he could get close enough, he would tie the team near cottage two and follow them. If at all possible, he wanted to watch this and see how well his setup had worked.
Branson crept close to cottage three since they would not be looking behind. Maxwell was the one that took the first pass of cottage four. Branson saw Adam restraining his Guv. Frederick was itching to run, too.
Maxwell disappeared to the other side of the cottage and out of sight. Frederick, John, and Adam all followed to cottage four, bent low as they ran to it. Everyone seemed to find a window to peer through. Branson moved close to cottage four as it seemed they were headed for the door. He had one pistol with him, so if seen, his Master would think he was there if they needed him.
The men entered the room and were quite cheated out of the fact that the man was drunk and passed out. John wanted to have a close look at him even though the man was lying in his own vomit. John pulled him by his hair and sat him back in the chair, hoping to wake him.
He waited only a moment and said, “This is for my wife and old Tom,” John pointed his pistol and fired into Hartford’s groin. The body fell forward again, and Frederick then walked to the corpse. He lifted him up as John had, and said, “This is for my loving sister, who you brutally mistreated because of me. Frederick pressed his pistol to Hartford’s heart and fired.
Hartford was still in an upright position now, and Maxwell walked to a spot across the table from him. “This is for the disrespect for a uniform worn by time-honored heroes.” Maxwell placed one directly in the center of his forehead.
He stepped away, and Adam came to the table. He raised his small pistol, but his hands were trembling. John walked over to him and said, “Adam, you don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do.” Adam raised the small pistol and aimed. “This is for my failure to keep Margaret safe, as I had promised my best friend.” He fired, in no particular area. He dropped his pistol and walked out of the door.
Branson ran back for the coach and reined it to cottage four. Adam was waiting. Frederick emerged from the cottage and vomited off to the side. John walked over to him and patted him on the shoulder. Branson wasn’t sure but it looked like his master was holding his head a bit higher. He wore a look of satisfaction. The Captain looked unmoved by the whole ordeal and carried Adam’s small gun in his hand. The men stood in a small circle and shook each other’s hands.
“Mission accomplished,” said the Captain.
They entered the coach. Branson didn’t seem to hear any words being spoken after that.
“Home Branson,” John said, being the last one to enter.
“Donaldson arrived and took a preliminary examination where Margaret lay. “Nicholas, could you carefully carry her up to her bed. She’s reinjured her rib if not broken it completely this time. Just try to keep her straight out in your arms, don’t bend her.”
Nicholas eased her into his arms as Donaldson led the way, lighting lamps as he went. Nicholas had to turn sideways going up the stairs in order not to bend her. He concluded that she was unconscious and not sleeping. He carried her to the bed and laid her down, gently. “Can I do anymore for you, doctor?”
“Thank you, Nicholas, not at this time. Please close the door on your way out.”
As Donaldson began to disrobe her, he instantly noticed she did not have her rib corset on. He looked around the room and saw it lying on a chair. He then began to examine all of her ribs. It was clear it was the same rib she had cracked. He checked her mouth for any other blood. He poured some laudanum into her mouth, and she seemed to swallow it. Retrieving the rib brace, he rolled her slightly to fit it under her.
Arriving home, there would be no celebration for a job well executed. Adam and Maxwell got into Adams’s coach and left. John and Frederick came to the house.
As John walked into the parlor with Frederick, Nicholas was standing there with a look that John knew was trouble.
“Margaret?” John asked immediately.
“Donaldson’s with her. He thinks she’s reinjured that rib.
John ran to the steps and Frederick ran his fingers through his hair pacing the room.
“I don’t know how she did it, Fred. She was lying on the sofa when I arrived. I thought she was sleeping. I went to cover her and saw a spot of blood on her lip again. I’m sure it’s not life threatening. How did your mission work out?”
“Satisfactorily, for all of us. The man will never bother anyone again.”
“I wish I could have been there. How about a drink, Fred?”
“I can use one. Make one for John, as well.”
“I’m way ahead of you, lad.”
John burst through the door of his bedchamber.
“Must you make so much noise, John?” Donaldson stated.
“What’s happened? Will she be all right?” John was in a state of anxiety. “We had our first disagreement today, and I haven’t talked to her all day. I’ve felt terrible. You don’t think . . .”
“No, John, she didn’t fall on her sword for you. She was either bumped real hard or fell. She will be fine. It’s just that this healing process has to start over. Since we’re only dealing with a rib, I think you should get that nurse back, and I’ll leave her here. I’ll be by twice a day to check on the internal bleeding.”
John watched as Donaldson hooked the corset on her. He watched her lovely breasts jiggle as Donaldson worked all the hooks. He was struggling a bit.
“John, don’t try to put her in a night dress. Just leave her like this for the night. She was unconscious, but I have given her some laudanum. She will not wake until morning.”
Donaldson rose from the bedside and snapped his case closed and proceeded to the door. “I’ll show myself out.”
“Thank you, Donaldson.”
John sat beside her, looking at his lovely broken angel. His eyes welled, and he wept. The whole day had been almost unbearable, and then he came home to this. Well . . . this was the end of bad times. Tomorrow they would begin a new life devoid of fear. John pulled the bed linens down and returned to carry Margaret to her side. He sat with her a bit longer before returning to Frederick and Nicholas.
“What a way to end the day, ‘ey, John,” asked Frederick, handing him his drink. “Donaldson told us how she is. My sister was a crazy little girl. I guess because I was an older brother she thought she should be able to do what I did. Over the years I’ve tried to figure out when we stopped being even.”
“What do you mean by that?” John asked, sipping his scotch.
She could do almost anything I could do: climb trees, jump ponds plus other stuff. She never was able to beat me because of her size, not her age. Even though we’re three years apart, she seemed to reach the maturity while I reached the muscle at the same time. I even think she beat me through puberty,” Frederick laughed.
“Speaking of being young, and please don’t tell Margaret I am telling you this.” John looked at Nicholas, too.
“It was yesterday morning, bloody hell, how do I say this? Let’s just say we had a very big laugh. I was lying on the bed, while your sister, dressed in her night dress, got out of bed, and I cannot remember why. There was some conversation, and we started to laugh.” John laughed just thinking about it. Frederick and Nicholas were all ears.
“We were laughing most heartily, and your sister put one hand over her mouth to stop the laughing, and one hand between her legs, like a child, will do when they have to urinate. Well, the laughter got worse with her predicament. She didn’t know there was a chamber pot for emergencies. She started jiggling like a child, and I am afraid I was no help at all. It was too delightful a sight to miss, and I was rolling on the bed with laughter. Well, as you can imagine, water began to run down her legs. The look on her face was priceless. She looked down at the floor, unbelieving of the puddle she was standing in. She was my little girl for a minute.” John smiled at the remembrance.
“Then she got embarrassed, and I was able to control some of my laughter. I found a towel and mopped her up and the floor. I told her it probably wouldn’t leak to the floor below and the laughter started again, at least for me.
“Now the only reason I am telling this story is because I was sure she said something that sounded like ooh-ooh. She denied it, but I told her I heard her say it. She refused to tell me. I told her I would walk around all day saying it until she told me what she meant. She refused, so I told her I would ask you. I see a grin on your face. Apparently, you are familiar with that phrase.”
“All too familiar, I’m afraid. For her, it would mean her womanly area. When my mother said it to me, it meant, of course, penis. My mother never referred to private body parts as their real words. I think Margaret and I went on for years wondering why we were different down there and mother called us both the same. We finally, had to understand what mother had done on our own. I grew out of it; apparently, my sister slipped back when she said that. So, she was just referring to her more feminine part as she urinated on the floor.”
Everyone broke out laughing. It felt good to laugh, John thought.
“Thank you, Fred. I will wait for just the right time to spring that on her. I am sure she thought I wouldn’t ask or that you wouldn’t remember.”
“I think I’d like to turn in. Is it all right if I stay here?”
“Of course, Fred. You are always welcome. Never ask. Just find a room and bunk in.”
“I’m on my way, too,” said Nicholas. “I’m sorry about your wife. I feel bad thinking she was asleep when I arrived, and she had been unconscious.”
“Nicholas, you couldn’t have known. She’ll be fine. Go home. Get some rest. Tomorrow starts a brand new life for a lot of us.”
John climbed into bed that night determined to keep his hands to himself. He didn’t succeed.
John woke early. Margaret looked like she hadn’t moved all night. Startled with that, he listened to her breathing. It was faint but regular. He rose from the bed, performed his morning ritual, and went downstairs to the privy. From there he went to the steps for his paper and shouted good morning to cook. “I think we’ll be eating late this morning. Mrs. Thornton has reinjured her rib and is still sleeping from the medicine. Could you bring a tray of tea to our room?”
“Yes, Guv. Right away, Guv.” Cook was upset to hear about the Missus.
“Has Mr. Hale been around to eat yet?”
“Yes, sir. He left early, saying he would be back later.”
John carried his newspaper upstairs. He would not leave Margaret’s side until she woke. He made sure she looked decent for Jane or Cook to enter the room. John pulled the small chair over beside Margaret and opened the paper.
The headlines read:
Unidentified Man Found Slain
Believed to be the man being hunted for the strangulation of Tom Douglas.
John smiled at what must have been the news release given out by the precinct, in care of Detective Boyle. Boyle knew who the unidentified man was and it was a foregone conclusion that he killed Tom Douglas. Hartford would have Tom’s clothing to connect him. As he started to read the article, he heard Margaret’s hoarse voice.
“What are you smiling at, husband?”
“It seems that the police have found the body of Captain Hartford, although, here, it says, unidentified.”
“And you think it’s him?”
“Yes, I do. Since he was believed to have been here and we feel he killed old Tom, it has to be him. You never know, though, where these newspapers get their stories from.”
“It will ease my mind when it is verified.”
John leaned in and kissed her.
“You’re not mad at me anymore?” she asked huskily.
“Margaret, what did you do to yourself, yesterday? Donaldson says you broke your rib this time. We have to start all over again. Donaldson will stop in twice a day to check for internal bleeding. He doesn’t seem too concerned about that. If we get the nurse back, you can stay home.”
“I don’t have to stay in bed, do I?”
“He did not say that you did, but he has left strong medication to take, while the pain is the worst. How did you do that?”
Margaret paused, deciding whether to lie to her husband or not. “I fell, John. I tripped over something.”
“Outside. I was foolish and did not put on the rib corset yesterday. Branson carried me in because I was winded, but we didn’t know I had broken anything.” Margaret was thankful that John seemed to accept that as being enough detail. She hadn’t lied.
“I’d like to get up, now.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am very sure. You will have to help me.”
“I am going to skip the wash bowl this morning. Maybe I can wash my face and wash my teeth, but not the rest. I know I cannot bend over.”
“A wise choice, my dear.”
“Will you get me a clean undergarment?”
“You’re going to let me help you with that?”
“Only if you are not mad at me anymore. You never did answer me before.”
“I am not mad anymore. I was hurt, not mad. That is now behind us, never to happen again.”
“Somehow, I knew you would come up with a good answer.” Margaret made an attempt to smile.
John walked to the dresser and found what she needed. He helped her to a standing position. John sat back in his chair while Margaret held his shoulder.
“Do I have to close my eyes, this time?” John laughed.
“Don’t make me laugh John Thornton. No, you don’t. Just do not do anything unexpected.”
“Like what?” he smarmed.
“Oh, I don’t know. I just read these things. I don’t know if they’re true.”
“Back to the randy men, are you?”
“It’s the only book I have.”
“Since you will be sitting down for a few weeks, we shall buy you lots of books. Are you ready, because I am.”
Margaret tried not to laugh at that.
John untied the garment. “Are you sure you don’t want to put on the long slip first?”
“Not today. Only my dress which I can step into.”
John pulled her undergarment down, and she was exposed to him. His heart was hammering, but it would just have to hammer. There was an ache in his groin that he would need to adjust quickly. Margaret stepped out of her garment parting herself slightly.
“Margaret, I am going to have to stand for a minute. Can you balance?”
“Yes. Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s really wrong. In fact, it is quite natural.”
“Then why have you turned your back. I am standing her almost naked, and you start adjusting your trousers. Oh! I see.”
“For his own sake, John looked away, and he slid the clean garment up her legs and tied it.
John went for the dress that she had on yesterday. He carried it over, ready to place it over her head.
“No, John. I wish to burn this dress.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. Let me see what’s in the wardrobe.”
There was only one clean frock left. “I will have a dressmaker in this week to start fitting you for some new clothes.”
Margaret started down the stairs as she had been doing, but the exertion took her breath, expanding her chest and that was painful. John, seeing the grimace, lifted her down the steps.
Jane passed through the room, and Margaret called out to her.
“Yes, Miss. How can I help you?”
“Do you think you could do something with my hair after I eat? I cannot lift my arms.”
“I would be most happy to, mum.” Jane left with that.
“I think I’ll write Dixon today. Are you still all right with her coming to stay?”
“Yes, whatever you want, love.”
“You keep saying that and I can’t have it . . . yet.”
John kissed her again before seating her at the table.
“What does the paper have to say about the unidentified man and where is Frederick?”
“He was gone before I woke. I’ve told him he is always welcome here. I do not expect him to tell me where he is going or how long he will be gone. He’s his own man. You, however, I want to know where you go.”
Margaret was not sure if he was jesting, but she did not want to take a chance and have another day like yesterday.
“The paper says he was found almost two miles outside of town in the old Cottage Village.”
“Before the mills came, this land was owned by an Earl, and he had tenants on his land. They worked fields and raised animals for income for the property belonging to the Earl. He eventually sold it to the town of Milton that was beginning to spread. The settlers, or crofters, as they were called, had to move on. Most came to work for the mills.”
“I see. Does it say much else?”
“Nothing much. The body is at the coroner’s, and they are hoping someone will come forward to identify him.”
“John, I could identify him, you know. He’s dead now. Maybe his family would like the body.”
“Captain Lenox and Adam Bell could identify him, too. I do not want you involved in any of this.”
John carried their cups of tea to the small tables and helped Margaret. He handed her the front section, and he took the mills again. This time there was a little interruption. John was sinking into the warm arms of home and family. Settled. He was settled in his life.
“John I have yet to see this house. Is there anywhere to lie down on this floor?”
“Yes, there is a second guest room on this floor. My mother used to sleep in that room. I do not know if Fredric slept in there last night or downstairs. You want to lie down?”
“Yes. I think I would like some medicine and a little more rest. I won’t undress, just lay on the bed.”
John hopped up and checked the room. Frederick had not slept in it.
“You can rest in the room down this small hall.”
John helped her to the room and went for her medicine upstairs. Margaret took it, and John made her comfortable lying back.
“Do you want me to stay with you,” he asked finding a small blanket in a drawer.
“No, do any work that you have to. I promise not to do anything foolish. Maybe you could get me a bell if I need Jane to help me or go find you.”
“I’ll find a bell, but I am not going anywhere.”
John left wondering where he could find a bell in the house. He remembered there had been one as his mother failed in her later weeks. It was in the buffet with the sewing basket, he thought.
Walking down the hall to the dining room, he found it. Returning to Margaret, he sat beside her on the bed. He leaned towards her and looked into her eyes. “Everything is good for us, Margaret. Today is a new day. Today is a new life for us. I love you with all my heart and soul.” And then he kissed her passionately.
John left the door open and went to his study. He pulled his pistol out of the drawer and cleaned it all down. He oiled it and the matching one, setting them both away like new. When Margaret was asleep, he would run over to the office and bring back work he could do at home.
Finishing that, he went to the kitchen to advise Jane and Cook on Margaret’s new situation. He asked if either knew where Margaret’s brother was, but neither had any idea.
He was returning to the sitting room when a knock came to the front door. He was halfway expecting everyone and no one. When opening the door, there stood a young lad with a note being handed to him.
“Is a reply needed, he asked the chap.”
“No, sir. Good day, sir.”
John watched the lad run out through the yard. He turned the note over in his hand as he walked up the steps. He glanced in on Margaret. She was fast asleep.
Finding his usual chair, he sat and broke the seal.
Detective Boyle requests the presence of John Thornton, Margaret Thornton and a man known only as Branson to attend a private coroner’s inquest in Courtroom C, this afternoon at four.
Respectfully, Inspector Mason
John had to laugh. This detective Boyle really had a way with dramatics. John and Boyle knew there was no such thing as a private coroner’s inquest. He had to imagine that all the others received one, too. Another knock on the door.
John bet himself it was Adam. He was right. “Come in Adam. I think I know why you are here.” John held up the note in his hand.
“Yes, I got mine a bit ago.”
“What are we to do, do you think?”
“Come sit, Adam.” John went down the hall and closed Margaret’s door.
Adam sat in the chair opposite of where John always sat. John returned from wherever he had gone.
“Where is Margaret? Can we talk?”
“She fell yesterday. This time breaking the cracked rib. She is in the other room sleeping.”
“That poor dear girl. She’s really had it rough for months, it seems. Perhaps, since she left Milton.”
“Adam, there is no such thing as a ‘private coroner inquest’. Boyle is going to have fun with us, I do believe. Look at these notes. They look like invitations to a play. I plan on confessing.”
“You can’t, John. I’m the one to confess. I have very little time and how could you ruin Margaret’s life?”
“Nothing is going to happen to us. There is no proof.”
John went on with other reasons why he knew there would be no arrests made.
“Have you seen Frederick, today?” John asked.
“Yes, not too long ago. I told him about this inquest thing because I didn’t think they could find him. I don’t know what he’s up to.”
“I have an idea, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need him. Margaret just asked about him, that is all.”
John and Adam talked well into the afternoon, with Adam eating Margaret’s portion of the midday meal. John was sure she would want little to eat. Adam was offered a scotch, and he accepted. John realized he was out of whisky when he went to his bar. He wondered where it had gone. Perhaps, Frederick drank whisky, but he didn’t think so.
It was just after two in the afternoon when John heard the bell.
“Adam, that means Margaret is awake. I need to help her out of bed.”
“You go on, John,” Adam said, swallowing the contents of his glass. “I’ll see you at four.”
John went to Margaret. “How is my sweet wife?”
“I am doing all right, I believe. Can you help me up?”
John steered her towards the dining room table and seated her.
“I let Adam have your portion of the meal. I did not think you would want much.”
“Yes, you are right. What did you have?”
“You know, Adam and I were so busy talking, I don’t even remember what I ate.”
John went to the kitchen steps and called for Cook.
“Could you fix my wife a very small portion of whatever we had for lunch?
“Right away, sir.”
“What were you two so busy talking about?”
John slid the note to her. She picked it up and read it.
“We don’t have much time,” Margaret remarked. I need Jane to do my hair.”
“Margaret, you are not going to this.”
“It says I am.”
“Well, I do not want you to go.”
“John,” Margaret said with a sigh, “I am going. This will be what puts all this behind me . . . us. Can you not see that?”
“But your injury . . .”
“Will have to suffer a little more for a greater reward. When you said, ‘I cannot deny you anything’, was that just words?”
Margaret had him there.
“Yes, you are right. I did say that. I did not think you would hold it over my head when I want to protect you, though.”
“I know. I know what you meant when you said it. I don’t want another day like yesterday. I think it was the worst day of my life.”
“I can agree there.”
“I know you can, John.”
John let that strange sounding answer, pass.
Cook brought a small plate. “Cook, could you find Jane for Margaret?”
“Yes, sir. With two of you in the house, I think her routine has been thrown off. I’ll find her.”
Chapter Twenty Eight
John never returned from his office. Margaret and Branson departed from the stable area and never passed where John could see she was riding on top.
“You know where we’re going, right Branson?”
“I know exactly where we are going and which cottage. We will park the team at some distance, Miss, so he will not know we’re coming. I will enter first with my pistols in hand. If he goes for a weapon, I will shoot at his toe. I want you to be able to talk to him and give him your doctored whisky. However, if he continues to try, I will shoot him dead, and no one will get a chance at him. Your husband and your brother want this man very badly.”
“That sounds good Branson. Is Branson your first name?”
“It’s my last name, Miss.”
“Can I know your first name?”
“I’d rather not say. I have been with the master over four years, and even he doesn’t know it. I don’t think he knows he doesn’t know it and that’s fine with me. It’s never come up. All right, we’re turning to leave the city. In this coach, it will probably only be another ten minutes before we are close enough to walk.”
Branson reached for a blanket on the floor. Miss, put your head in my lap and hurry. She did as she was told and felt a blanket covering her.
As they drove past the man that was the target, Branson told Margaret what was happening. It looked like he was headed to the cottage. I will make sure he sees us head in the opposite direction when we turn on the road where he will walk.”
“Do what you have to do, Branson. Don’t worry about me.” Margaret’s sounds we muffled, and she felt strange with her head in Branson crotch. It was another five minutes before she could sit up and breathe the air.
“I’m sorry, Miss, I didn’t have any choice.”
“I know that. You probably saved our lives. Are you sure it was Hartford.”
“Yes. I’ve seen that picture plenty of times, and like Maxwell said, he cannot hide the military style haircut for a while.
Branson pulled the carriage into some heavy trees and bushes off of the road. He slipped back to watch the man turn towards the fourth cottage. And he did.
Branson helped Margaret down and back inside the coach until they were under a bit of darkness. Branson collected the pistols, and Margaret held firmly onto the arsenic-laced whisky bottle.
It was about thirty minutes later when the pair trekked quietly through the fallen branches and piles of leaves, heading towards cottage four.
Reaching cottage three, they waited there for twilight to almost disappear. As hoped, a candle was lit followed by an oil lantern. Branson watched intently at the windows. There was no sign of another person, but there was a horse tied to a post behind the house. That was the first that Branson knew about a horse. Hartford was ready for his attack and escape. He was expected to be carrying two pistols and one knife at least, possibly two knives. One would be in his boot. Branson gathered his thoughts and his nerve.
He held Margaret at bay still behind the third cottage while he approached the fourth. He placed her so he could find her in the moonlit night. Margaret understood and obeyed.
Branson crept to the house, silently slipping up to a window edge. Peering through the window, he could make out in the dim light that Hartford was eating bread and cheese at the table. His back was towards Branson and Hartford was facing the door. He had one pistol in a side holster and one lying on the table.
Unbeknownst to Branson, Margaret had walked to the front door but did not enter.
“Grant Hartford, I know you’re in there. It’s Margaret Hale. I’m here for you to kill me or make you a very rich man. I must tell you that pistols are pointed at you right now. So reach for your own if you want to die.
“I only have my driver, but he is an expert marksman. There is no one here to arrest you. You should know I have said nothing about your brutality and violation of me. That’s why no one has come looking for you. I hope you realize if no one knows yet, then they never will. You will have to believe that if you want to be a rich man.
“We don’t want your weapons; just put them up on that mantel behind you. I wish to enter and talk.”
“Margaret, it fills my heart with joy to know you did not go off and kill yourself as you were about to do. I know I am in a spot, so I will listen to you, but I will insist on keeping one pistol within five feet of me. That would put it at the other end of this long thin slab of wood table. That’s about as agreeable as I will be. Otherwise, just shoot me now.”
“Agreed. Place your holstered gun on the mantel. Place the other pistol at the far end of the table. Then take your right hand and shove it down your trousers.”
“Why that, Margaret?”
“I believe that is your favored shooting hand and I do not want it too accessible to the pistol on the table. That’s my deal to save your neck and make you rich. That is what you originally wanted. It can still be yours.”
Branson moved around the building from window to window watching him until he had done what Margaret asked. He nodded to her.
“I am coming in. My marksman said you have completed your end of the bargain, so I am coming to do mine.”
Margaret stepped through the door and Branson followed. He was shaking badly, watching for any twitch by Hartford. He followed Margaret inside, so Hartford knew she was not lying.
“Hello, Margaret. I remember that dress most vividly. I must say it looked better before. What’s that you’ve got in your hand? Whisky? Is that for me?”
“Only as a celebration if we can agree.”
Margaret went to the far end of the table where the pistol was laying, Hartford on the other. Branson was standing about eight feet from Hartford.
Branson had to speak. “Hartford, if you reach for the knife in your boot, I will shoot off several of your toes. I don’t want to be hung for killing you, but if it is self-defense, you’re dead.”
“I believe you, lad.”
“So, Margaret what is this deal to make me go away and not kill you?”
“Originally, you wanted to marry me for money. I am now married to a man I have loved for two years. He is wealthy. He is bringing a gang of men, including my brother, to kill you, possibly tonight or tomorrow. I don’t care what happens to you, but I do care what happens to him. As you can imagine, he would be tried and possibly hung for your murder. I cannot live with that if I have other alternatives.”
Branson saw Hartford’s arm swing down to his side. He was going for the knife soon, and Branson knew he could flick it his way in a split second.
“I can more than double what you would have had if you married me. It will take me a day or two to get it.”
“How did you know where I was?”
“You’ve been trailed for two days. You’ve been seen at Marlborough Mills, checking out the back for your escape. You spent your first night here at a sleazy bed place. Is that enough to know there are others coming?”
Suddenly, Hartford reached for his knife, and Branson fired at his boot.
A curdled scream rang out. While he was bent over cursing, Branson moved quick enough to kick the knife out of Hartford’s hand.
“Hand me that whisky woman. This hurts like bloody hell.”
Margaret slid the bottle down to him and reached for the other pistol left on the table.
“Looks to me like you don’t have much choice anymore, Grant.”
Grant continued holding his foot and drank from the bottle. Branson found a rag and threw it at him so he could stem the blood flow.
“I’d say you have backed me into a corner, there Missy. I am forced to accept your offer.”
Margaret continued negotiating until he had finished the bottle. “I didn’t know you would want to get shot. I should have brought a full bottle of that.”
Margaret knew she had enough arsenic in that bottle to kill ten people. Why wasn’t he showing any effects?
He was now harmless and totally disarmed with missing toes and arsenic in his body.
“I guess we don’t have a deal. You have not seemed very interested.”
Finally, Grant started howling in pain clutching his stomach.
“You’ve poisoned me, Margaret. You bitch.”
“Yes, I have.”
Margaret waited through the howling and doubling over in pain. When the retching started, Branson told her to leave, and he would do what needed to be done.
As Margaret entered the coach, she heard a pistol go off. She ran back and saw Branson adjusting Hartford’s body to look like a passed out drunk. He leaned him over the table in his own vomit and closed his eyes. He set the empty bottle on its side, nearby. He replaced one pistol in his holster, left the other on the table, and returned the knife to his boot. Branson doused the lantern and emptied the oil so it could not be lit. He set the only burning candle opposite of Hartford, so there was no light showing on his spine, where Branson had just fired toward.
Margaret was at the door watching. Branson was walking the room to make it look the best he could that the man was passed out and not dead.
“Branson, you’ve got it. Let’s go.”
Margaret and Branson disappeared into the night running. Margaret tripped over a dead branch and fell. She instantly lost her breath. Her rib was broken this time. Branson carried her in his arms to the coach.
“Miss, I’m going to have to whip this team to speed, so hold onto that side of yours. We’ll be home in no time. Good job, Miss. I was amazed. Don’t ever offer me anything to drink.”
Margaret smiled and tried to laugh but couldn’t. It was over. John was safe. That’s all that mattered. She would go to the detective tomorrow and confess.
Branson pulled the coach to the stable. He carried Margaret upstairs and poured her a requested scotch. He would have had a whisky, but there was no bottle. He settled for scotch instead.
Margaret asked Branson to run downstairs and fetch her pain medication, which he did.
“Branson, look out the window. Is there a light burning in the office?”
“Yes, and there is a carriage there plus Mr. Higgins’ buggy. I suspect it’s Mr. Bell’s driver. That would mean that Captain Lenox is with him. I can only assume the revenge group is readying to kill a dead man.” Branson let out a chuckle. Now, that it was done and passed, he felt the strain lifting off of him. They had survived.
“You know, Miss, if you don’t mind me saying, that was a damn fine plan you had. You really frightened me when I heard you begin to talk through the door. I had planned to come back and retrieve you.”
“I know that Branson. As a gentleman, you would most likely be too protective, putting yourself in further danger. I had to surprise you as well.”
“That was planned?”
“It’s a good thing women don’t fight wars, that’s all I can say. You are quite unpredictable.”
“I think that’s a rite of passage for women,” Margaret tried to laugh again, and still couldn’t. The clock over the mantel struck eight.
“Miss, what would you like me to do?”
“Do you think your Guv could be waiting on you?
“It’s possible. We didn’t discuss the time I would be bringing you back from the hotel.”
“Maybe you should go and announce yourself. You may get to kill him again,” Margaret was forced to chuckle even through the pain.
“I doubt that. I don’t think he’ll leave you alone in the house. He will insist that I stay, but I best go let him know we’re back, so he can tell me that.”
“I’ll be fine just sitting here. Go ahead.”
Branson set down his drink and walked to the office.
Branson knocked lightly on the office door and then opened it. The room was silent with five men sitting around the desk. Nicholas was there to lend his coach and however else he could help.
“I’m back, sir. Do you need me?”
“You have two pistols, Branson?” John asked.
“Yes, sir but they need to be loaded.”
“Go load them and come back. I think we can return to our original plan. Nicholas will stay with Margaret and Branson can drive the one coach. This way we won’t stand out with a buggy and two horses.”
Branson left and went around the house rather than through it. That would not have been normal. Branson thought the Missus would know what happened when Nicholas arrived.
John stood staring out the window, looking at his home . . . their home, still upset from the day and how he treated Margaret. Something strange was there about the house. He kept staring at it.
“Something wrong, John,” asked Adam.
“I’m not sure.”
Nicholas came to the window.
“Could Margaret have gone to bed? There are no lights on.”
“That’s it. Margaret hasn’t found where they all are. I’m not sure she’s tall enough to light them manually. Even if she were tall enough and knew where they were, lifting her arms over her head is her most restrictive movement.”
“John, do you want me to go over now? Mason has six men on the ground, but if she’s just sitting in the dark because she can’t light them; that is rather sad, don’t you think?” Nicholas used that tone, knowing something had come between them today.
“I’ll go,” offered Fred.
John was feeling worse by the moment, and it was being compounded by the task at hand. Tempers were running high, at least for him.
“I’ll go,” John said.
John entered the parlour and shouted for Margaret.
“I here, John.”
He found the first light and lit it. Margaret had a drink in her hand. His feelings worsened. Kneeling at her feet, John picked up her hand and kissed it. No words were said. He went to embrace her, and she shied away. John stood. He had never felt so torn apart and lonely.
“Nicholas will be over soon to stay with you. I am going out.”
“Good hunting,” Margaret said as he walked out the sitting room door.
Branson brought the coach around. Margaret struggled to her feet, really feeling the pain now that the adrenaline was abating. Poor Branson, she thought. What a secret he had to keep. He must feel very low for what she had asked him to do. Now, it looked like he might have to repeat it.
Under the lights of the mill yard, the men gathered by the coach door. She saw Frederick, pull a pistol from somewhere and check it, returning it to somewhere within his clothing. Nicholas was standing there talking with them. No doubt, wishing them luck, promising John to take care of her if anything happened, she thought. The men entered the coach, although Maxwell opted to ride in the box with Branson. Margaret watched it slowly pull through the gates.
The pain was intensifying, and the pill was making her drowsy. She made her way to the sofa and laid down. She never heard Nicholas come into the room.
Chapter Twenty Seven
John and Frederick talked into the night, finalizing plans. Both agreed the pressure and anxiety were reaching an alarming pace, but nothing would stop them now, except death – for someone. They would have a meeting early the next day with the others; tell them all they knew and set the last plans of participation. Everyone would meet at the office around ten in the morning, including Branson.
As the plan seemed laid out, all the men would meet in the morning. Afterwards, Frederick would continue to scout Hartford. At four in the afternoon, everyone would meet with Boyle for any last minute information. Ten at night seemed to be the selected hour to put this man behind them all and Margaret. If Frederick found Hartford was not moving as predicted, the plans would have to change at the last minute.
Frederick saw John open a lower drawer in his desk and lift out a pistol.
“Do you have one of these, Fred?”
“I do, but I have no powder and ball.”
“Here.” John slid what Frederick needed across the desk. “Where do you keep it?”
Frederick reached down his trouser front and pulled out a small but powerful blunt pistol.
“I’ve carried this for three years. I’ve never used it on a person, but it has given me consolation knowing it has been there. On my trip here, I had to shoot for food. I must say, rabbits are fast. I used up all my munitions, I’m afraid.”
Both men laughed.
Each man took the time to clean and load their weapons.
John couldn’t remember the last time he had fired it. Many years ago, he had bought a set, feeling one should be in the house. Days after his purchase, he rode into a wooded area and fired for about an hour. He thought it felt strange to hold as it held a great impact in his life, one way, or another. John placed the loaded pistol into his top center drawer.
“I have a second pistol,” John told Fred.
“I’m not planning on missing, thank you. You being a magistrate, what are our chances of getting away with this?”
“None, really. There’s no doubt that Boyle will know. He’ll call us in and hassle us, but there won’t be any arrests. There is no way he can prove anything. It’s all circumstantial. I’m sure he knows what we’re doing in any regard. He has given us too much information for who we are. I may have been privileged to know it, but I do not think its usual practice to disclose what he has to our group.”
“Do you have regrets about taking a life?” Frederick asked.
“Of course, there is regret but I have no doubts. It is something I must do. My conscience will not be bothered with expediting this man to the next life. He’s headed there if the police get to him before we do. I just want the satisfaction of revenge. As a man, I have come face to face with the primitive man that still resides deep within, The Protector. It’s a rather unique feeling of learning more about the man that you really are and what you are capable of doing in extreme circumstances, don’t you think?”
“I’ve been there once before if you know my whole story. Yes, it’s like standing outside of yourself, unbelieving that you are confident in such actions. But when it comes down to it, nothing feels better than doing what is right, rather than what is just.”
“That’s the way I see it, Fred. I know I’ve ruled in my court, on occasions, for the side of right rather than justice. I’ve never been called into question about it. It’s very late,” John said, snapping his watch closed. I would imagine your sister went to bed a long time ago.”
“John, let me just say, ‘thank you’ for being the man to love her. I do not think she could have found another man with the deep feelings for her that I see in you.”
John’s thin smile appeared. “Thank you for saying that. Your confidence in me is well-placed. I would give up my life for her.”
“I think I know that. So . . . where do I sleep?”
As John entered their bedchamber, his heart sank. Margaret was lying across the bed, with her head near the light, book fallen to the floor, still in her day clothes. He didn’t know how far he would get and not wake her, but he would try to undress her.
He thought about which side the break was and then rolled her over onto her stomach. She made a sound but did not come awake. Slowly, button by button, he undid the back. He stood back, looking down at her, trying to use his intellect, on the next moves. Surely he had to pull off that wide skirt, whatever she called it, he couldn’t remember. Next came her bloomers. John gently reached under her stomach and pulled a long end of the bow that tied them on. Slowly, he shimmied them down and then off. Once again, he stood back with is arms crossed and figured the rest was going to be tricky. Should he wake her, he wondered. No, there was the off chance that she would sleep through his fumbling. Considering there were now, two long pieces – one, usually slipped off her shoulders, the other over her head – he thought he would try both over her head, at the same time. That would leave just the rib corset when he was done. He debated with himself over keeping her modesty or not. He opted to turn out the light, as she may have wished.
John took a deep breath and began the slow bunching of the fabrics upward. He had to roll her over once, but the darkness hid her beautiful form from him. Finally, the fabric came away from her, and he pulled it down her arms. He could reach the hooks on her side with no trouble. Completing that, he knew she was naked on the bed. He wanted badly to feel her skin, her curves, her everything, but instead, he gently lifted her to her side of the bed and pillow.
He disrobed himself, completely and slid next to her, pulling the covers over them. Little by little he slipped his arm under her neck and moved so their bodies were touching. Instinctively, he laid one leg over her and placed his hand on her stomach. He closed his eyes and let his fantasies soar.
“You are true gentlemen,” he heard whispered in the dark.
“When did you wake up?” John asked.
“I woke up missing you about a half hour ago.”
“So you were awake during all my strategic planning, doing it as I thought you would want, mind you – not what I wanted?”
“I was. I must admit it was difficult.” Margaret replied.
“It was much more enjoyable than difficult.”
“I didn’t mean that for you; I meant it for me.”
“Did I worry you, Margaret?” John asked as he leant in and kissed her sensually.
“How could I ever worry about myself in your care? I just didn’t want you to know I was awake. You might have stopped. I had to keep the smile hidden.”
“Everyday, I know I cannot possibly love you more than I do. There is no room left in my heart, but somehow you manage to squeeze just a bit more in, unexpectedly. My heart is about to burst, I love you, Margaret, with everything I am.”
“I feel that. Our visitor is back,” she giggled.
“He’s back looking for his home,” said a romantic John.
“Oh God,” John moaned, as Margaret reached for him. He buried his face in her neck. “I didn’t expect that. Oh, dear God, how I’ve waited for your touch.” John kissed her fervently.
Margaret surprised herself but the moment moved her, and she reacted. Hearing his words inspired her to continue. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, but she just reacted as he reacted. It soon became all too apparent and all too easy what he liked.
“It’s so hard,” she expressed in wonder. “How . . . John, I love how you react to my touch. I feel very womanly, suddenly. I think I’ve brought you to your knees.”
John reluctantly pulled her hand away. “You’re going to bring more than you expected, so you need to stop stroking me.”
“It that what it’s called, what I was doing?”
“Among many other terms. I think we need to sleep. Your brother is here, too.”
“Does it always get that big?” Margaret seemed to have many questions, now that her naiveté had been breached.
“Margaret, you are making me laugh. Please, let’s do this in the daylight so I can see that innocent look of yours.”
“All right, but I have a lot of questions. I am new at this, you know.”
Smiling broadly in the dark, John responded, “Yes, I know, my love. They will all be answered, no matter what you want to know.”
Margaret rolled towards him, ready to settle in for the night. She permitted his leg over her, his hand on her hip and he permitted her to hold him, but not stroke. John lay awake for a long time until her hand fell away.
Margaret woke, hearing the clock somewhere, striking eight in the morning. John was missing from their bed. She had to wonder what type of inner clock he had. It must come from years of working and having to be somewhere at a certain time.
She pulled back the covers and rolled out of bed. Seeing that a second bowl and pitcher had been installed, she went to it. She must have them buy a privacy screen, at least for her. What if John walked in and saw her washing her ooh-ooh.
Finished with her morning freshening, she thought about dressing herself. She would leave off the rib corset today and see how she made out. Finding clean bloomers, she sat on the bed and got that far. She saw the long slip that John had discarded in the night with her dressed all bunched together. She put them on with a modest amount of discomfort when she raised her arms. Later today, she would bath and find a clean dress. She looked for her soft shoes and couldn’t see them; they must be under the dining table, she assumed.
She started down the stairs and could hear her brother talking with John. Stopping to listen before she was discovered, they were not talking about anything secret.
Margaret strolled into the parlor, surprising John.
“Good morning, love. Again, I am being a bad husband. I should have checked on you.”
“Good morning, husband, and brother,” she said taking her place at the chair John had pulled out for her. “I have to try and do for myself. I’m getting there.” Margaret knew their whole day. John must not know that voice carries from his study to their bedchamber through the heat vents in the floor. She suspected they were never closed off. Her big day was before her as theirs was, too, and everyone was trying to act natural.
“I have plans today, John. I did not think you would mind if I travel over to the hotel to see my cousin. She and I want some woman-talk before she leaves.”
John set his fork down, “Are you sure you feel up to such a trip? I could go with you, although I have a couple of meetings today.”
“John, if I find the ride too uncomfortable, I will have Branson turn around. Do you need him today?”
Frederick looked at John for his answer, knowing the use of the carriage and Branson were in their plans.
“I think I can do without it, Margaret.” For Frederick’s benefit, he added, “I have Nicholas’s buggy or either one of my horses.”
Margaret noticed Frederick’s marginal relaxing posture.
“I think I will take the carriage this morning. Frederick and I want to talk with Boyle and see if there anything new to be told.”
“How long do you think this will go on,” Margaret asked.
“The last we heard yesterday, they thought they knew where he was.”
Margaret didn’t particularly care about acting dumb through this strain they were all under.
“Do you think he killed that old man?”
John kept his composure, and Frederick fidgeted.
“What makes you ask that, Margaret?”
Frederick looked on with interest at his ever-surprising sister.
“You left here in a hurry yesterday. I gave that a lot of thought of why, a hurry. I came to only one conclusion, and by the look on your face I would say I am correct.”
Frederick looked over at John.
“Margaret, I can honestly say, we do not know for sure, who strangled old Tom. I think Boyle and the ones that love you, think it’s a possibility. You would not have noticed, but there are a lot of policemen in work clothes around the mill yard. We are not taking any chances. I told you I would protect you at any cost.”
“John, I think the at any cost is new.”
John had no rebuttal, so Frederick took the opportunity to intercede.
“Sis, you need to stop haranguing your husband. He’s worried sick for you, can’t you see that?”
“That works both ways, you know?” Margaret spat back, now showing her temper.
“Margaret, Hartford is not after the men in your life, at least, not me anymore. If it does prove to be that he strangled the old man, and I don’t know how they can prove that, it means he’s here in Milton.”
John was afraid Frederick was going too far, but he knew Frederick’s love for his sister would find the line that was drawn in letting Margaret know their plans.
“So Frederick, you are saying that if he is in Milton, then he must be seeking me, is that right?”
“But why? Why now?”
“Sis, how can you be so smart about some things and dumb when it comes to this?”
John sat back and folded his arms.
“I guess you’ll have to tell me, brother.”
“Bloody hell! He does not want your money any longer, he wants your silence.” Frederick replied as he pounded his fist on the table, causing Margaret to jump.
“So, he wants to kill me? Is that what you both have been trying not to tell me? Is that the reason for all these secret meetings, and private talks in the study and trips to the police station?
“Yes, sister. We have been scurrying around to ensure you are protected and to alert Boyle should we see Hartford. That’s why we have been updated daily on how the police have been tracking him.” Frederick looked at John and saw relief.
“Look, it’s simple. Give me a pistol. Show me how to use it and let him come for me.” Margaret said in a serious tone.
Frederick laughed out loud. “Margaret, you are a woman and are naive in the ways of men and warfare and pride, for that matter.
Margaret looked at John. “Is my husband not coming to my defence in this argument?”
“Actually, you are holding your own pretty fair. Besides, I’m on your brother’s side. We are ALL coming to your defence, don’t you see that yet?”
Trying to soothe her own feathers, Margaret responded, “I guess we just don’t see this the same way.”
“No, we don’t,” admitted John. “You take it too damn lightly.” John threw his napkin on the table and walked out of the house.
“Sis, you don’t know what you’re doing to the man.”
“I guess I do, now.”
“You can’t see how obsessed he is with you, can you? He’s way past loving you. That walking out just now is costing him emotional pain.
“Oh, Fred. What have I done?”
“You’ve slapped him in his face, essentially. In effect, you are taking his whole world and telling him he’s an idiot to care that much.”
“I’ll fix it. I have to.”
Frederick walked away from the table to follow John.
The room was silent. Margaret picked up her fork and went back to eating. “Yes, bring on the day,” she said to herself. “This has to be over, now.”
Margaret went to the window when she heard the carriage rolling out. No doubt, John and Frederick were on their way to the police station. Margaret went upstairs and lay on the bed, crying for what she did to John. She was really doing it for his own good so he wouldn’t suspect what she was up to, but it went all wrong. She had taken it too far. Today, she would redeem herself and save him because she loved him as much as he loved her. She would lay down her life, to save his.
John dropped Frederick off near the Princeton area. He would start his scouting then and meet up with the rest, if he could, at four. Otherwise, they would all meet at John’s office at eight that night.
John continued on to the hotel. He would find the Captain and Adam somewhere there at this time of the morning. The three would sit in the dining room, and John would let them know the final plans and times. The three would then go to the police station for any final words from overnight. All they wanted to know was that Hartford had not been discovered and captured. If the day held true to yesterday, their plan would not have to change with the exception of Branson driving the coach.
John rearranged the travel. Adam and Frederick would take Nicholas’ small two-man cab, and John and the Captain would ride the other two horses that were not pulling John’s coach. It could also work out that Branson would have returned Margaret from the hotel before dark. Either way, Branson would not need to be in on the final end, but just drive.
Branson sat in on the meetings in the hotel and heard their plans; he made his own. Somehow, he would have to make Hartford look like he was drunk and passed out rather than dead. The group had to think they were the first there; otherwise, he and the Ma’am might both be dismissed. He knew what this meant to his master, but his duty was to save his master, and that was the only reason he conceded to Mrs. Thornton’s demands on his protection for her. He felt like a savior and a traitor to his Guv. Down deep, his master would have wanted him to protect Mrs. Thornton, if he could not persuade her otherwise. And that’s what he was preparing to do.
Pulling herself out of her depression, Margaret asked for the tub to be filled with warm water. She had to ask Jane to wash her hair. She dressed in the dress she arrived in. Hartford might remember it. The dress had been cleaned and repaired. She put on a lot of powder and creams to cover her yellowing black eye.
Midday meal rolled around, and John had returned to his office, alone, but never came to the house for anything to eat. Margaret could not stand this separation. She had a plate fixed for him and carried it across to the office.
When she walked in John and Nicholas were talking about some work detail.
“I’m sorry, Nicholas, I didn’t know you were here. I was just bringing John something to eat. Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you, Margaret. I was just on my way to have lunch with my daughter.”
“I will be glad to meet her soon.”
“I’m sure that will happen. I’ll leave you two to your meal.” Higgins could feel the rift between them by John’s earlier attitude. They were married now. Nicholas knew he could not intrude with questions like he once did.
“Good day, Nicholas,” John said. He went back to the papers on his desk.
Margaret walked over and sat the plate in front of him. He politely set it off to the side, seemingly uninterested. “Thank you,” he said.
“John, I’m sorry.”
“We weren’t supposed to say that anymore, remember?”
“Yes, you’re right. You’re always right. I was wrong. I’m doing a horrible job of trying to save you while you save me. I am half crazed with fear more for you than myself. I promise to make it up to you.”
“If you will excuse me, I have work to do. I will see you when you return from visiting your cousin.”
Margaret turned away and quietly walked out of the room.
John rose from his chair and watched her negotiate the steps. He realized she had on the same dress that she had arrived in, with blood coming from her mouth. He slammed his fist against the window, breaking it, as she disappeared into their door at the house. Hopefully, they could begin a new life; something with a firm foundation. He was punishing her right now, and he hated himself, but other forces were ruling him that she did not know about.
The hours went by like days. Finally, Margaret was ready to do her best to save her husband. She’d been over her speech all afternoon. She walked outside to check with Branson. He was ready. She asked for the arsenic, and he handed her the tin can. She took it inside and heaped a bunch into a shallow whisky bottle and shook it until it looked clear. She needed to return the arsenic tin to the stable on her way out, or John could be suspicious if he came home unexpectedly.
The sun was starting to set. Twilight was an hour away. She was shaking, but the thought of saving John from a noose lifted her through the scare.
Returning the arsenic, she said to Branson, “I’m ready. Are you?”
“I want to ride up there with you. I need to talk some more about our approach.”
Margaret realized quickly that she should have worn her rib corset today. What was the matter with her? She knew what it was.
“Go.” She said to Branson.
“Walk on,” were the last words said as they left the grounds.
Frederick watched as Hartford fell in step with the workers entering Marlborough Mills. Hartford pulled his cap down over his eyes and his clean cut hair in the back. A whistle blew somewhere on the property, and hundreds of people exited the sheds, thus blurring Frederick’s view of his quarry. Finally, he knew he had lost him. He would have to stand and wait for the crowd to clear out before finding him again. Frederick inched over towards the house, so he’d know if Hartford tried to enter there.
Margaret, went to the kitchen to talk with Jane or Cook about purchases they would need for their bedchamber. John went down for his paper but did not notice Frederick around the corner. Returning to the parlour to read, Margaret and Greta entered the room, to say their goodbyes. Greta was ready to leave, so Margaret decided against the bath.
“Now, Mrs. Thornton, I think you are releasing me a couple days early, but that is your decision. You are making a remarkable recovery, but that does not mean that your rib is. Remember to hold steady on the stairs, no bumpy carriage rides, and don’t hesitate to take those pills if you need them. You were all right with the privy this morning?”
There was a low chuckle from John as he pretended to read.
“I had no troubles sitting and rising, Greta.” Margaret heard a stifled laugh across the room.
“Something has taken your husband’s fancy in that paper this morning.”
“I am sure that must be it. Thank you for all of your help even with the painful exercises. I know they helped me to move around more quickly. We have your address should we need to call you back. I believe our driver is waiting to take you back to your service.”
Margaret looked over at John with his smile as she walked Greta to the front door. Final pleasantries were exchanged, as John came down the steps and added his.
Margaret stayed on the porch while John escorted Greta to the coach.
This sighting was not missed by Hartford just inside a shed by the window. He had seen enough. He knew the back of the building but not what lay beyond. Grant stepped behind a few stragglers that were leaving their shift, and Frederick picked up his trail again.
Their meal was on the table when they returned.
“Margaret, have you any interest in becoming involved in the menus of the house?”
“Not at the moment, John. Cook is doing a fine job. I’m not sure how domesticated I will tend to be. I am not one to sit about. I would like to know your mill work before I give consideration elsewhere. I wouldn’t mind donating my time to a library; I hope you have in Milton?”
“Yes, we do have a large library and growing. We have several book stores. Would you like to own one of those?”
“Own? Do we have that much money?”
“Yes, love. Enough for whatever you desire.”
“How much do you cost?” She smiled.
John had to grab his napkin as his smile was going to allow his food to slip out.
“I think you read me like a book,” John said, returning to his meal. As you have no nurse now, I am completely at your service. I will stop over at the office to have a word with the foreman after I have read the paper. Want to come read the paper with me? I’ll bring your tea.”
John followed Margaret to ensure she could seat herself. Satisfied with that, he returned for the tea cups.
He set Margaret’s on the table next to her. “Can you reach it on your side like that?”
“Yes, I think so.” Margaret tried and succeeded not showing the slight discomfort that she felt.
John sat with his tea and picked up the paper. He decided to give Margaret the front page, and he went to the mill section. There was quiet in the room for a few moments.
“Oh, this is sad news,” Margaret said reading the article again.
“What is that?”
“Do you know someone named Tom Douglas?”
“Yes, has he died? He was getting up there in years.”
“It says here that he was strangled.”
“What!” John said in amazement.
“Can I see that?”
Margaret handed him the paper and saw concern draw over John’s face. He must have known the man for a long time.
“What is it, John?”
“I need to go see, Mason. The ladies are in the house. Will you be all right?”
“Yes, of course. Do you get involved in all police matters?”
John stood, pulling his coat from the back of the chair. “I do when it is murder as this appears to be. This is quite rare.”
“But you don’t have a coach.”
John started pacing the floor, his brows furrowed and he rubbed them. He was in deep thought. “Yes, I had forgotten about that. I’m going to see if Nicholas’ buggy is here. I’ll take that and him, too. Otherwise, I will come home and wait.”
John hurried down the steps and Margaret had to wonder why he hurried. Yes, it was possibly a murder but why did John need to be there this instant. The dead man wasn’t going anywhere. If it was in the paper, surely, the police were already working the case. Margaret, again, had that sinking feeling. When Branson returned, she was going to have a heart-to-heart talk with him while she could. She was making her own plans should Hartford be heading this way. John’s anxiousness to leave because of an old man being strangled heightened Margaret’s suspicions. She would take no chances with her husband’s life. If one of them had to shoot Hartford, it was going to be her. Both would want to die from heartbreak, but John had hundreds of people relying on his business skills. She would only be missed by John and Fred.
John and Nicholas arrived at the police station, only to find Captain Lenox already speaking with Boyle. Seeing John and Nicholas striding down the corridor, Boyle waved them into the investigation room.
“Have a seat, men. Where are the other two?”
“I just saw the paper,” replied John.
“As I did. I came straight here to ask a question,” spoke Maxwell.
“And what is your question, Captain?
“Were his clothes missing?”
“Yes, they were,” Boyle answered.
“He’s here, then,” continued Maxwell.
“Now?” asked John. “How do you know? Would he kill someone for their clothes to blend in?” John asked.
“Easily, if it were a war. As soon as I read ‘strangled,’ I knew it was him. That’s a very unique way to kill someone if you are a soldier. That is used when the situation calls for complete silence, or in rare cases when you don’t want blood on the clothing.”
John hung his head. “Have your men discovered anything since yesterday?” John turned his attention to Boyle.
“There was no horse found to be bought or wandering at the London end. No doubt, someone has a nice new horse in their pasture. I hate to say it, but I think he’s here, too. However, there was no horse bought for three stations either.”
“Is there anyone with a description of what old Tom was wearing,” asked Nicholas.
“We’re working on that now. I have men trying to locate anyone who may have seen this old man yesterday. From the tall grass where we found his body, it appeared there were steps leading towards town that tamped down the grass.”
“Captain, what is he doing right now?” asked the detective.
“When was the old man found?”
“I’d say it was about seven last night. The body was about an hour’s walk into town, at a normal pace.
“If he arrived in or near dark last night, he would have just found a place to eat and lay low. Today, he is looking for where Mrs. Thornton could be living, which should take no time, for anyone could tell him where John Thornton lives. He is looking for his ability to infiltrate or lure out people from the house. Grant will plan a silent attack because he has to escape. How long that will take him, I don’t know. I haven’t really seen around Mr. Thornton’s home and mill site. Then he will plan his escape route. He might buy provisions. We don’t know if he has a horse or not, but if he does not, he will have to buy or steal one. He will not rely on escaping by foot. That could put him in target range within thirty-six hours. But . . . he will wait, however, long it takes, for the right moment. He is patient; that is part of his tactical training. As long as no one startles him, he could wait weeks, even.” Maxwell paused and turned to John. “That is only my opinion, I am not certain of his exact timing or his ability to overcome obstacles in his path to complete his task.”
“Would he risk daylight hours,” asked John.
“Yes. It has to be silent, so if he can slip around unseen, daylight would be no hindrance to him. In fact, if he plans on entering your home, daylight would be to his advantage to see his way around. However, he will study the amount of people in the house, too. Night is probably better in that regard at your home.”
“Mr. Thornton,” piped up Mason, “men are moving into your yard as we speak.
John liked Mason, a lot, but he knew this one was over his head. Detective Boyle seemed laid back, but John saw hints of real intelligence that he apparently hid to ease the relatives of victims.
“That’s it, gentlemen. I will see you at four this afternoon.”
John walked over and extended his hand to the Captain. “I am most appreciative of your skill and insight into this man. Whatever comes to pass, all of your points are valid, and we would never have thought of them. I thank you.”
“No, thanks needed, Mr. Thornton.
“Please, call me John.”
“I will see you later, John.”
Both men went their own ways leaving the room. John waited on Higgins and Maxwell marched out like a proper soldier.
“Mrs. Thornton, I could never let you do that. The Master would kill me before dismissing me.”
“But you have to help me. You just have to. I’ll get someone else if you don’t. Do you own a pistol?”
“Yes, but it is too dangerous for you or me.”
“I don’t think it is dangerous for you and me. First, you must swear to me that you will not let John know about this, at least, not ahead of time – whether you choose to help me or I get someone else, like Nicholas.”
“Yes, I have two pistols, but you don’t know what you’re getting into. You could die facing that man.”
“That’s where you come in. He will listen to me if he has two pistols staring at him. He is going to agree with me. Please, Branson.” Margaret pleaded. “I know, and you must surely know that your master is seeking revenge. I have little to lose if the worst happens. He has hundreds of people that depend on him. But it’s not going to go that far. I just have to get to Hartford before he does. All he wants is money, and I can promise him that.”
“Is there nothing I can say that will change your mind.”
“You don’t know me very well, yet. That is a definite no. I will go with or without you, even if I have to go alone.”
“I really hate doing this, but I will not let you go alone. So, what’s this plan of yours?”
All Margaret had to do, now, was the impossible, such as finding out where to find him and leaving the house without John knowing. Slipping Hartford arsenic in a partial bottle of whisky would be easy.
Frederick had stayed well away from Hartford as he watched him go over the back grounds of Marlborough Mills. Hartford turned and walked his way. Frederick ducked behind some bushes, as Hartford passed him. It looked like the man was headed back to the inn to eat. Frederick was becoming hungry himself, but there wasn’t much he could do about it, yet. He was sure his sister was wondering where he was by now. If Hartford would ever settle, he had to get this information to the others.
Frederick waited outside the inn and expected Hartford to head to the bed place. He didn’t. Hartford began to walk away from town towards . . . he didn’t know where. Frederick anticipated it might be a trap being laid for him so Hartford could see if he was being followed. He lagged way behind to the point of barely being able to see him. When twilight started to fall, he could catch up.
It seemed about an hour’s walk when Hartford started into an area where there was a small village of abandoned cottages. No doubt when the mills came, people had to give up the land. At this point, Frederick was looking for wide trees to stand behind because Grant was checking over his shoulder on occasion. Hartford, finally, turned into one that looked almost like he’d picked it out before now. Frederick waited. Eventually, it looked like a candle was lit and after that, perhaps, an old lantern. Frederick moved in a very wide circle as night fell, to see if there was anyone else around or a horse being stored someplace. He saw nothing, only Hartford’s shadow moving past the window now and then. Frederick waited about two hours. Satisfied he was bunking there for the night, he headed back to town counting the cottages along the road. It was the fourth.
Being rested from his wait on Hartford, he was able to trot back to town, making it in about forty minutes. He headed for Marlborough Mills. It was two hours past dark when he arrived, and he was sure they had eaten. That didn’t matter, he would be given food.
Frederick knocked on the back door, and John let him in. The staff was gone, and John was just settling in for an evening alone with his wife.
“We missed you at the four o’clock meeting,” said John.
As Frederick came through the door, hearing John, he burst out as quietly as he could, but Margaret was heading towards the stairs and heard her brother say, “He’s here. I have followed him all day. I know where he is now.”
John put his fingers to his lips so Frederick would keep that to himself for a bit longer. John started to shake. The time was almost here.
“Oh Frederick, where have you been? We thought you would be with us for dinner. I know we didn’t ask you properly, though.”
“I’ve been busy today. Your husband talked with me about how I might be safe in Milton, so I started to look over the town, or I should say city. Sis, I haven’t eaten much today. Can you fix me a couple of sandwiches or anything left over from the day?”
“Of course, Fred. Sit down at the table.” Margaret didn’t want them out of hearing range just yet. She went to the larder and looked to see what was on platters under cloth covers. She brought some ham and bread to him.
“Do you want some tea?”
“Do you have any cider. I don’t feel like anything hot right now.”
John suggested that they go upstairs and he could give Frederick a real drink.
Frederick picked up the platter and followed his sister and John upstairs. They walked to the dining room table. John brought him a scotch.
“Thank you, John.”
John stared into Frederick’s eyes and asked, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I saw something that I think Lisa would like, but I have not made up my mind. It may be a year or more before I make that decision. I plan on marrying this woman, and that changes my risk factor. I would love to be among family, again. As far as risks go, could I talk with you after I eat about that? Privately?”
“Frederick, why can’t I hear?” Margaret whined. She had to put up the pretence of objecting so they wouldn’t think she would eavesdrop.
“Sis, you have enough to worry about right now. I just want to talk with John about things that might add to your worry. I would rather not do that just now. If I think I will move here, you will know all that will be involved. For now, it’s just man talk.”
“Don’t forget we have to plan a way to communicate before you leave,” Margaret added for good measure.
Small talk went on while he ate. Margaret was aware that Frederick was tapping his foot quietly on the carpet. That was a sign of urgency. When he was young, it meant he had to go pee, and he was being detained in some way.”
“Will you stay the night?” Margaret asked.
John was hoping he would, though it was his first night with his wife, alone. But what they were about to do was life and death, and he wished to discuss plans with Fredrick. John nodded almost imperceptibly to him.”
“I think I might, sis. Are you sure another person in the house isn’t an unwelcome guest for a newly married couple,” he smiled at her.
“Frederick, I have a broken rib. We’re not married as much as we could be one of these days.”
John and Frederick broke out laughing.
“Oh, excuse me, sis.” Frederick said, feigning offence” I didn’t mean to pry that far.” He thought again what a fine man John was because he knew what the man must be going through for her. He could see the love for his sister when John looked at her.
Margaret looked at her husband, and there he was holding his fist to his mouth, with a grin leaking out of either side.
“Well, if you promise not to make noises and keep me up, I’ll stay.”
“Just teasing, sis. We used to be able to talk about anything when we were younger. Remember?”
“No matter what I say next, will not be understood, so I will just let this pass. Do you want more to eat?”
Frederick leant back in the chair, rubbing his palms up and down his chest, feeling his full belly. “I think you have fed me well enough. Could I borrow your husband for a little while?”
“If you must. I’ll see to these dishes.” Margaret began to pick up the heavy platter and head towards the stairs. John caught her around the waist to stop her.”
“Leave those for the staff tomorrow. You are not carrying anything down the steps. Would you like me to fetch your book?”
“Yes, if you do not mind.”
John took the stairs two at a time and retrieved Margaret’s book from the bedside. She had read a bit when she laid down to nap. Coming back into the parlour John asked her where she would like to sit.
“I think I’ll sit at the dining room table. It’s a better light, and I don’t have to hold it. I might even pick at the ham.”
Margaret remained seated, and John handed her the book. He walked to the bar and refilled their glasses and asked Frederick to follow him into his study. He closed the door.
“She’s getting suspicious, Fred. Depending on what you tell me, we may have to meet in the office, as a group tomorrow.”
Margaret tiptoed towards the door. Frederick had launched immediately into the where of Grant. Margaret wanted to hear more, but the voices stopped, and she thought John was coming to check the door to ensure she wasn’t listening. She quickly stepped into the privy and made sounds of a struggle.
“John, you scared me. Don’t sneak up on me like that. What do you want?”
“I was wondering what you were doing?”
“I’m trying to figure out how to turn on the gaslight that is somewhere in this room. I’m feeling the walls, but I can’t find it.”
The light went on in a flash. John stood there smiling.
“Thank you. You came out to see what I was doing when you just left the room?” Margaret asked with puzzlement in her voice.
“I was afraid you would try to take the plates downstairs. You promise you will not attempt that.”
“I promise. I think I’ll read a little bit and then may go upstairs. Do you have any idea how long you will be?”
“No, but it shouldn’t be too long. Try to stay awake for me. I need to help you get out of that dress.”
“Frederick can have the guest room or the room off the kitchen since the nurse left. There are clean linens on the bed.”
“I tell him, sweet. I’ll see you in a little while,” John winked.
Margaret went back to the table and read a few pages. She decided to sneak out and talk with Branson.
Slipping outside, she saw he had a light burning. She chucked a few pebbles at his window, which hurt her side. Branson came to his door.
“M’am? Is that you?”
“Yes. Could you come down and talk to me for a few minutes?”
Branson bounded down the stairs, and Margaret shushed him. “Come over to the back porch steps.”
Branson sat next to Margaret, and she said, “Tomorrow is the day.”
“What? Are you still very sure about this?”
“Yes. Sometime tomorrow, late afternoon, I will tell John that I wish to visit my cousin for an hour or so. You will bring the coach to the front. Under your seat, you will have your two pistols and the arsenic from the stable. I know you have to have that around with the feed. And then . . .
Chapter Twenty Five
“John, I cannot possibly pull that over your head.”
“Here. You sit on the edge of the bed. Part your legs a little bit so I can get close enough for you to pull it over my head.”
Margaret did as she was told, ensuring her nightdress was pulled down properly.
John snuggled between her knees and lifted the bottom of his shirt to give her a start. As he felt it being pulled from his body, he was exhilarated. No one had done that for him before tonight. When the shirt was removed, Margaret was staring into his eyes. He watched her drop it to the floor without taking her eyes off of him. She was hypnotic to him. She put her small hands on the sides of his face and pulled him to her mouth. John gradually slipped his arms around her waist as he pressed her lips hard.
Margaret moved her hands to his hair, eliciting a moan from John. In another moment she was trying to rub down his back.
John lowered his head to her lap. He snuggled into the wedge between her parted legs. He thought how he would gladly die right there.
Margaret couldn’t stop feeling his skin under her hands or John’s hot breath where there were already flames.
Finally, she lifted his head. He hugged her tighter, not wanting to part from where he was.
Margaret had to reach down to raise his chin.
“John, you’re drooling on me.”
“I’m not sure if that is you or me,” he looked at her with such joy in his heart.
“Me? Never mind. I do not want to hear your explanation just now. I want to feel the hair on your chest. You cannot imagine how many times I’ve dreamt of doing that.”
“This is a bit awkward. I will lie on the bed next to you. I hope you are not too attached to this side closest to the door. A man always takes that protective post.”
“I love you, John Thornton.”
John stood, almost heady with his own dreams after being where he was. Lying right there had been the best moments of his life, and still, they were only at the beginning of their lovemaking to come.
“You’re not going to remove everything, are you? Margaret asked hesitatingly.
“I think it is best that I do not do that just yet. I will leave on my undergarment. Will that be all right with you?”
John moved into the shadows and disrobed to his last cotton garment. He slid into bed before the light could fall on him and startle her. The night had brought so much to him that was not expected. He was walking on air.
“We’ll meet in the middle,” laughed Margaret.
“Could I try something, love?” John asked.
John laughed, realizing what she might be thinking. “I want to test several areas where I can lay my arm across you. I want your head lying in my neck, but I will need some guidance from you of where the other arm will not hurt you.”
John and Margaret began the testing of the situation. He found that it was her bottom rib that was the painful area. Anywhere other than that, seemed to be tolerable to her.
“Can you lay on your side at all,” he asked.
“I can only roll towards you and lay on that side.”
“That will do just fine for kissing you all night long.”
Margaret asked John to lay on his back for her. She was able to roll over on her good side and place her hand on his chest. Before she could even start to feel the magic, John lifted her hand and kissed her palm.
She began her quest in earnest and swept him from his neck to his garment. All the way down, it tickled her hand. She giggled. Upon hearing that, John reached for her hand again and kissed it once more.
Once it was returned to her control, she initiated her wish slowly. Moment after moment went by as she ran her fingers everywhere. Occasionally, she would stop to circle his nipple because that seemed to produce a shiver in him and she loved that.
“This has been the greatest night of my life. You have brought me such joy tonight. I could never form strong enough words to tell you how wonderful it all is. I feel at one with you. You are my other half. Without you, I know I could not live.”
“Shh… You’re going to make me cry. I feel the same way. I am uneasy that I could lose you, though. You don’t have that to contend with that as I do.”
“What do you mean, love? I will never leave you, you know that.” John said with conviction.
Margaret didn’t say anything. She stopped the pleasure of his chest and laid back down. Why did she have to go a spoil her most beautiful evening, too? She knew why. She was deeply feeling his love and to lose what she had experienced tonight would shatter her world, now. Margaret began to weep.
John threw his arm over his eyes, wanting to weep himself. He realized what she was talking about and there was little he could say and not lie.
He rolled so he as facing her. He placed his hand on her cheek and stroked her face.
“Margaret, you know how much I love, don’t you?”
“Yes. As much as I love you.”
“Margaret, I will never do anything to ruin what we have. I am not going off to London to play hero. As much as I would want to avenge you, I cannot chance losing what we have now. You do believe me, don’t you?”
Margaret could hear the tears in his voice. She felt tired of making John sad and come to his own defence every time she alluded to her imagination. She would desist talking with him about it.
“John, I promise never to bring that up again. Just hold me.”
John moved as close as he could to her and rested his hand on her hip.
“Something’s wiggling down there,” Margaret said in amusement. Are there three of us in this bed.”
Chuckling, John said, “I am afraid so. When you married me, he came along for the ride.”
“Does he need a driver?”
John broke out in a bout of laughter. Margaret felt the bed shaking.
“No, sweetheart. He has his own driver.”
“Maybe tomorrow night, I will be brave enough to meet him.”
“We have an accord, Mrs. Thornton.”
John stayed awake several hours, just holding his life in his arms. He wished the light would never come.
Frederick left the night lodging house and found a distant surveillance spot. He felt good that his practice of running from the Navy was now going to pay dividends. As much as he would like to shoot that man where he lay, he would be arrested and then the Navy would come after him. He liked his sister’s husband and knew that he needed to be in on the annihilation of this man as much as he did.
Since there was no definite plan yet, Frederick decided to follow Hartford and see where he would lay low for the day. He could not be sure if Hartford knew what he looked like, so he had to keep out of sight from the man.
Frederick did not have to wait long. Hartford emerged pulling his brim low and proceeded to an ale house four streets over. There were a lot of people moving about at this time of the morning, allowing Frederick to blend in well enough. Frederick was staying three building lengths to the rear of him and behind other walking workers.
Hartford entered the tavern and sat in a booth. A bar wench came to his table and asked what he would like.
“You got bangers?”
“Yeah, honey. You want that?”
“Give me the bangers and whatever comes with ‘em and a pint, Miss.”
The waitress turned and left the table. He was surprised at all the workers eating in there. He thought there must be a lot of single men in town. From what he’d overheard last night, he expected these men to head for their mills in about thirty minutes. That would give him enough time for the privy and eating his food. When he found Marlborough Mills, he could walk straight through the gate and look around.
Frederick waited patiently for Hartford to come out. He only hoped the man was not spotted by the bobbies and arrested before his revenge party could get to him, themselves.
As Margaret opened her eyes, squinting at the light coming through the window, she noticed John watching her.
“Good morning, husband,” she said, yawning.
“Good morning, wife of mine. Do you feel any soreness around your rib?”
“What did you do? Have your way with me while I slept?” Margaret said smiling.
John grinned and leaned over to kiss her fully awake. He must have kissed her a hundred times during the night and still was unquenched.
“Since you don’t know the answer to that, I will have to practice more.”
Margaret attempted a laugh and then held her rib.
John thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her hair was scattered all around her face and across his own pillow. As she slept, he noticed how her lashes swept her cheeks and saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lips. Her full mouth would part sometimes, and he lightly traced his finger over each one. She had soft, smooth, lovely skin. To John, it seemed like she would take the sun when it was available in London. It had a luster to it, unlike strikingly white porcelain. Would it be that she would stroll the parks and then sit to read a book – perhaps, about randy men? That made him laugh quietly which must have brought Margaret awake.
Margaret rolled to face him, and John felt relieved that he could hold her more firmly, circling her back.
She tilted her head up to look into his eyes, placing her palm on his unshaven face. Again, he reached for her hand, kissed her palm, and returned it to his face.
That moment . . . that very instant, with her looking up into his eyes as they lie in bed together, her hand on his cheek, pressed in on John like an epiphany. He was startled at the awareness of that very moment in time as if he were endowed with that vision forever. The moment was being branded into his memory. Her eyes were filled with love for him; the spell was sweet utopia, and he recognized it for what it was . . . the pure look of love. He bent down and kissed her like he had never kissed her before.
Margaret had noticed it was a moment for John and his kiss verified her feelings.
“John, you went somewhere in your thoughts. Where is that world?”
He was surprised at her perception, but she was coming to know him in ways he did not know himself. “I cannot explain it. The look you gave to me is now tucked away forever in a special place. I will be able to take it out and relive it anytime that I want to. It’s inscribed for eternity. He kissed her again. And they laid there in silence for a while.
“Mrs. Thornton, please know this is not a normal morning that you will experience.”
“I suppose you will have risen, dressed, and left for work?”
“Dressed . . . eventually, risen, most definitely. You shall be thoroughly ravished before breakfast each morning.”
“Is that when we do it . . . mornings, I mean?
John was about to laugh loudly when he saw her smile. John continued the play.
“Is there a better time for you, my love?”
“How can I know yet? I have heard some lady’s don’t like it and some love it. How do I know which one I will be?”
John sensed this was a real question. “I am of the opinion that all women have the capability to enjoy that side of their life if – and only if – they have a caring and experienced partner.”
“And that would be you?”
“That would be me, indeed, my love. I have practiced enough during my youth and years until now. You, my love, are my grand performance.” John beamed. “I will admit there will be a first for me, here and there. I have reserved those pleasures for the woman that I married.”
Still looking into his eyes, Margaret pulled a few strands of chest hair.
“Ouch! You are lucky, Mrs. Thornton, that you are in a delicate way or that would have resulted in luscious punishment.
“So, I can do that without having to ask the words?
John smiled at her. “I seriously doubt you will ever have to ask.”
“Now,” John continued, “how do we start this morning process of me pretending not to peek? Ouch!”
Figuring out the procedure was indeed a challenge. John insisted that she use the pitcher with water and the bowl first. Margaret headed that way and then declined, knowing she washed more than her face, but could not tell him that, yet. John using the water in the same way; could not tell her that, either. He could not walk half naked, carrying his clothes to the privy and he did not trust Margaret going down the stairs carrying anything. They stood and stared at each other and burst out laughing finally realizing both had the same thoughts. Margaret was about to wet herself, and the situation worsened. She put one hand over her mouth to stop laughing and one hand between her legs, like a little girl, to stem the tide that was coming out as the case seemed to be. She started jiggling, and it got worse as John was laughing so hard at her. She finally just pee’d where she stood, still holding herself. The most shameful look came over her face as John saw what she was doing. He fell on the bed holding his stomach as the use of his laughing muscles were so new, it hurt.
“Stop laughing. I am a disgrace,” she said.
John continued to roll around on the bed enjoying this new first and maybe only adventure like this in their life.
“I actually don’t think it will leak through to the downstairs, Margaret. I guess no one told you about the chamber pot under the bed. That’s for emergencies such as this.” He beamed.
“Did I just hear you say something like ‘ooh-ooh’?” John asked in all seriousness, as he rose to find a towel.
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“I am sure you did, my sweet.”
Margaret started to laugh again.
“What does ooh-ooh mean? John asked. “It sounds like a child’s word.
Margaret blushed quite badly.
“You are really piquing my interest now,” John smiled, as he bent down to dry the floor. Ooh-ooh, Mrs. Thornton, if you please.”
“John, stop saying that. It’s vulgar.”
“Margaret, you could hardly ever say anything vulgar. I shall walk around all day saying that word unless you tell me.”
“I’m not telling.”
“Fine, I shall ask your brother.”
“He will laugh at you.” Margaret smiled.
“Let him. It shall be worth it.”
“I’m not sure he knows,” Margaret replied.
“I shall see. And that is my final word on the subject. Now . . . what do we do about you?
Chapter Twenty Four
Grant Hartford was nearing Milton after giving his horse to a young lad along the road, a mile or two from the third station from London. From there, he walked to the nearest station and boarded the train. He had hired a coach to take him from the train station three stops before Milton. He knew his training, and should the Army be now warned about him, he knew how they would think and react. He paid the driver good money to keep his mouth shut should he be asked about him. Grant had the driver drop him off two miles outside of Milton. He would walk the rest of the way in. Thinking his disguise would be plenty, he soon saw that he would stand out in his hunting clothes. He would have to rectify that.
Grant walked the perimeter of Milton until he saw what he’d been looking for. There was an ageing man about his size that would not give him much trouble as he strangled him. Any other form of death would have resulted in the clothes being unusable. He laid the body in high grass and began his hike into town.
As he neared the edge of Milton, he could see a newer more affluent end of town being built, but he was drawn to the puffing smoke mill area. There the poor labourers would be living and perhaps John Thornton as well. He pulled his worn threadbare cap low over his eyes and walked through the winding back disgusting filth of the streets. He listened to the accents around him. There were many, but all were uneducated speech. It was apparent that a lot of people had migrated to where there was work. He would have to alter his own speech to match.
Finally seeing a beaten down shed of a building with a pub sign over the top, he entered. The smell was atrocious. Apparently, they only mopped the vomit soaked floors once in a while. He took a seat at the bar and looked around him.
“I’ll ‘ave a pint,” he ordered. Neither patron beside him struck up a conversation which allowed him to listen to the conversations he could hear.
“Got any stew?” He asked as his drink was slid to him.
“Aye. Want a bowl and bread,” he was asked.
“Right you are, guv,” Grant responded.
Hartford listened to the grumblings going on around him. Workers from differing mills were bickering about their wages or treatment. He listened for John Thornton’s name but never heard it.
The bartender brought his bowl. “Why don’t you sit over there in that booth?”
“I’ll be doin’ that for sure. I’m here to find work and a bed for the night. Got any ideas?”
“You can probably find a cot or floor pallet, if you don’t mind that, about four blocks over. We get a lot of people looking for work, so’s I can’t say if there’s room. As for where to look for work, ya see that feller over there talking with that other man?”
“He’s been at the mills a long time. He should know anything you want to know.”
“Thanks, chap.” Grant slapped a few coins on the bar top for his food and ale. If he’d left a tip, he might stand out, so he didn’t do that. He picked up his bowl and pint and walked over to the empty booth. No one around him seemed to be talking about Margaret Hale or Margaret Thornton. Grant wanted to find a paper to buy.
A woman with cheap bangles and scarves around her, accentuating her very full bosom slid into his booth.
“You new here?”
“Nope, just new to this joint. I don’t ‘ave time for what you’re sellin’. How long you been here, anyway?”
“I’ve been plying my trade for a couple years, in Milton. The pay ain’t so good, here, though. Do I see some interest comin’ into those pretty eyes of yours? My name is Mable.”
“How much Mable?”
There was a bartering on price since Grant felt it was expected.
“I don’t want no stand in the corner thing. I want a room.” Grant insisted.
“That’ll be extra.”
“Bloody hell. All right.” Grant moaned.
“I’ve finished my dinner, and it’s gettin’ late. Where to wench?”
“Just up those stairs, ducky.” Mable winked.
Grant trudged along behind her. He was hoping for some information from her, more than satisfaction.
Entering the room, Grant felt like vomiting himself. He was going to have to crawl into a used bed. Not being able to stand the thought of that, he went to a chair and removed his trousers.
“You kneel in front of me, Mable.”
“Do you want me to remove my clothes since that’s what you’re wantin’?”
“Blast! Of course, I do woman. I haven’t seen a naked lass for several months.”
Mable removed her clothes as Grant looked on. Her face was painted profusely to hid her age, but her body underneath was still in good shape. As he took in her curves, breasts and the V at her upper thighs, his erection came to attention. It was almost painful. He’d forgotten about his injury.
Mable knelt down and inspected him for disease.
“Oh my, what’s happened to this big boy,” Mable said with concern.
“It is an injury. It’s none of your concern; just do what I’m paying you for.”
Grant relaxed back in the chair enjoying this effortless pleasure on his part.
“You ever hear of John Thornton?”
Mable stopped her administrations to answer. “You are new here if you don’t know Thornton.”
“He’s a very prominent citizen in Milton. He heads up the committee of mill owners. Do you want me to talk or work?”
“Go back to working. We’ll talk later.”
The night was drawing late, and Greta came up the stairs, making a noise, so the new couple were aware of her entering the room.
“Mrs Thornton, Would you like to prepare for bed?”
Margaret paused and looked at John, who was purposely looking away.
“Greta, I think just help in the privy this evening. I will attempt the other myself.” Margaret looked over at John, expecting to see a beaming face, but he was calm and collected. He had picked up the day’s paper to appear to be reading. His heart had started to pound. If the room was quiet, he was sure he could hear it. He anticipated exquisite torture ahead. He could look but touch very little. If he ever needed strength of will, it would be now.
Margaret and Greta returned from the back room. Before John could notice, Margaret had sat down on the side of the couch, holding her weight against the arm rest.
“John, I told Greta, she could go tomorrow. I’m going to be a burden on you.”
“I hope so.”
“That doesn’t mean that I am ready . . .”
“I know sweetheart. You are going to tell me, remember?”
“I may want to, but I don’t think the words will come out of my mouth when I want.” Margaret displayed a playful, yet serious, pout. Perhaps, you should take that back over, as it’s easier for me to say no, than the other.”
John smiled at her. Her innocence was undoing him. Of all the women that he had been with over his lifetime, they made the initial move. He was not used to shyness and innocence. He thought Margaret was too endearing for words.
“I will look forward to the honor,” John said.
“Would you like a drink, Margaret?”
“I thought we were going to bed?”
“Only if you wish it. Because your nurse thinks it’s bedtime, doesn’t mean you must think the same.” John needed a little assurance that Margaret meant what she said.
“It is late.”
“Yes, to some, I would imagine,” John teased, still maintaining his uninterested look.
“Would you help me undress?”
“I would like nothing better.”
“In the dark? Added Margaret.
John rolled his fist and held it in front of his mouth to keep from grinning at her charms. “Whatever you are comfortable with, my love.”
“Let me light the bedchamber light until we get there. Then I will come down here, turn these lights off and watch you climb the steps.”
Margaret was a ball of nerves. She was rubbing her hands together. Her legs felt weak, too weak to climb the stairs. “Oh, I’m going to be a fright. What will he think of me?” Margaret said to herself.
John was back in no time. He turned down the lights and came to her.
“I have a confession.”
“And that is?” John asked.
“My legs have weakened. I think I am . . . no, I know I am nervous. Could you carry me?”
John kissed her and picked her up. He had waited a long time for this, whatever this turned out to be.
Entering the bedchamber, Margaret saw that the bed had been turned down. She wasn’t sure if John did that or Jane before she left. The lights were low but not out. A thin gown lie at the foot of the bed.
“How would you like to begin, my love?”
“Umm . . . first, turn out the light.”
John went to one light and turned down the gas. That left a single candle lit in the room. Margaret looked at it and decided to leave it alone.
“If you will undo my buttons in the back of my dress, please.”
John could see his own hands shaking. What in the world was wrong with him? This had never happened. He struggled with the task as his hands were large and there was very little light. Finally, it was done. He didn’t ask but gently slid the sleeves off of her shoulders. He could see she had a slip on, in fact, one full and one-half one. Margaret didn’t object. As he started to slide it down, he felt foolish. He should be standing in front of her so she could balance herself on his shoulders when she stepped out of it.
As the gown began to fall in his hands, he kissed the back of her neck and continued softly around to the front. The weight of the garment took it down into a pool and John knelt in front of her so he could remove it while she held his shoulders.
“John, I think you are shaking worse than I am.”
“I’ve never felt this way before. I cannot seem to stop it.”
“If I say no, are you still able to stop?”
John carried the dress and hung it next to his own clothes in the wardrobe. Turning to Margaret, his inhale was audible.
“I suppose this big piece just slides down the same way?” he asked.
“Yes. I thought you knew about these things.” Margaret laughed, breaking the tension for him.
“It’s all lost forever. It’s only you now.”
“John, don’t tease me. This is hard enough.”
“I am not teasing. I am more nervous than you. You are like that special gift under the tree that I have waited for a long time. I want to slowly unwrap it.”
John began to repeat the same procedure as the dress. He knelt until it was at her feet. She steadied her hands on his shoulders and stepped out.
“Does this get hung up or go in a drawer.”
Margaret couldn’t help but laugh at John’s nervousness and his unexpected naiveté.
With great embarrassment and beyond all wonder, Margaret blurted out, “Am I to show you where to put it, too?” Margaret was thinking far ahead in their relationship, but John was still looking at her crinoline, which had not been her intention with that statement. Margaret started a hysterical laugh, throwing her hands over her mouth.
“Yes, where do I put it?” John asked becoming amused himself.
“I didn’t mean the crinoline,” she barely gasped out.
John stood there with the garment in his hands, looking at it when he finally realized what she had meant.
John slowly raised his head to look at her. His grin was easy to see even in the dim light. He was stuck for a reply. He continued to stare at her as he fondled her half slip. “I have no answer for your question. We will just have to wait and see,” he said, dropping the slip onto a chair nearby and walking back to her. The long slip was sheer, and in the faint glow, he could see her breasts through the gauzy material. Also, the rib harness was visible, too and her undergarment.
“John, will you be disappointed if I do not make it all the way to naked this time?”
What was he going to say? Yes, he would be disappointed as a lustful man, but not has a loving husband. He was beginning to wonder which one he was.
“Whatever makes you comfortable. You want to put on the nightdress and do not know how to go about it, is that it?”
Margaret looked down at it and then herself, and said, “Yes.”
“I know how to work this.”
“Finally,” Margaret laughed.
“If you did not have a break in your body, you would not be getting away with that talk, wife of mine.”
“How do we go about this?” she said, pulling herself together. She was afraid she’d be crying if she wasn’t laughing.
“You turn your back to me, like so.” John turned her.
He reached down and grabbed the hem of the full slip and pulled it over her head.
Margaret pulled her arms to cover herself, instinctively.
John gently embraced her from behind, folding his arms across hers and held her. He began kissing her neck which he loved doing and thought she felt the same. Margaret leaned her head slightly to the side, giving him more access. While kissing her neck and shoulders, he slowly unfolded her arms in front of her. He placed them at her sides, and she did not move them.
“Margaret, I love you,” he said has he held a breast in each hand. John laid his head on top of hers and swam in the soft heaviness of his wife’s feminity. He was gentle and did not want to arouse her any further. It would be so easy to do.
“Will you turn around for me?” he whispered in her ear.
Margaret paused. She looked down to see John’s long fingers massaging her bosom. She could feel him move to look over her shoulder to see his own hands filled with her. She turned to him, facing the candlelight. Margaret looked into his eyes for his reaction. His face was radiant, and her knees grew weak.
“Margaret, . . .”
“John, I cannot stand any longer. Help me.”
John let go of his precious treasure and held her under her arms. He lifted her off the floor and walked her to the bed; sitting her there. He knelt in front of her.
“Thank you, my love, for being so beautiful.”
Margaret reached for his hair and began to run her fingers through it, which pulled his face to her breasts. Although he had not anticipated this, he filled his mouth with her. She moaned softly. John gave equal pleasure to each. It quickly came to an end.
And he did. He looked for an explanation, but he didn’t think one was forthcoming. He knew what was happening to him and it must be happening to her, and someone had to stop it.
He placed her on her back and began to unhook the rib corset. His hands were much steadier now. As it fell away, the evidence of her attacker hit him like a thunderbolt, once again. The blotches of bruises were starting to fade, but it would be another week or two for them to be completely gone. He sat her back up and slipped the nightdress over her.
“Can you stand once more, for just a moment, and I will slip off your undergarment?”
Margaret nodded, and John helped her stand. Once again he knelt. He could kneel before her all night if she let him. He lightly raised his hands under her night dress and found the ribbon that was tied in a bow. The garment fell lose, and he pulled it down, coaxing her to hold onto to him once again. He tossed it to the side and placed his hands on the side of her legs. He felt the primal animal rear its presence at the scent of her. He stood quickly.
“John those will be washed. For future reference, I will not wear those a second day.”
John laid them where he put his clothes for the washerwoman that came in twice a week. As he walked back, Margaret was beginning to pull the pins from her hair.
“Let me do that.”
John stared at her face in the candlelight and wished he could love her more than infinity. Slipping into her blue eyes, he ran his fingers through her hair, feeling for the pins. First one tress fell and then another, and another. Her hair unfurled over her shoulder and down to her breasts. Finding the last pin, he raked his hands through all of it, pulling it across his face and under his nose.
“Would you like me to brush it for you?”
“I think I would like you to remove your blouse,” Margaret said, glad that John could not see her blush.
“No. I will let you do that.”
Grant left the room with more information than when he entered. Now he would take a stroll in the dark to look at what he could see in the direction of Marlborough Mills before finding a place to lay his head.
Grant nodded and tipped his hat now and again. He’d look down whenever a bobby was passing him, but he’d say, “Good evenin’, Guv.”
He imagined this was a high crime rate as there were a lot of police in this poor district. Everyone must be stealing from their neighbour down here.
Once he got into the actual mill area, there were fewer people on the road, but men were coming and going in the yards, he could see. It was almost impossible to read the signs to know which mill he was looking for. But it looked like night would be his best opportunity to hit and run. Once he found the mill, he would have to plot his escape route. Depending on how he managed it, would depend on the time it would take to discover her body, thus his escape time, as well. Grant had passed about twenty mills before he gave up. This reconnaissance would have to take place at either dawn or twilight. Both times seemed sensible to have a shift change, which would be ideal for him. He could probably easily stroll onto the property unnoticed. He turned and headed back to the place he’d been told about earlier. A cot or a floor pallet, they would have to do. Finally, he found his way back to the inn. From there, he was told to walk four streets over, and he did.
There was a dim lantern burning near the window. He knocked on the door. He heard the door being unlocked and a large man asked him if he needed a bed.
“Yes, Guv. You got anything?” Grant felt good that he had a couple days growth of beard on his face.
“I think I can find you a floor pallet at this hour,” said the night man. “Will that do ya?”
“Anything. I want to be up early to go looking for work tomorrow.”
The night man could care less. “Second floor, pallet number thirty-six.”
Grant handed over a few bob and went on his way.
As he fumbled his way in the near total darkness, he kicked a few feet and was cursed for it.
Little did he know that one of the men he woke was Frederick Hale.
Frederick laid back down with a sense of something he could not put his finger on. It had to have been that vagrant that tripped over him. He couldn’t sleep. After a few hours, as dawn was filtering through the windows, he got up, as some others were and passed the sleeping man. He felt rewarded for sleeping where he had been. He had hoped someone on the run might look for a place like this to sleep. He took a second look to be sure. It was Captain Grant Hartford. He could only see the man’s profile, but he looked a lot like the drawn picture. His hat had slipped off and that haircut was military, Frederick was sure of it.