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.”
Eight – Persuasion
Looking up into Stephen’s face, Beth suddenly saw him through a haze of tears. He was toying with her, he could not be serious.
“L … love? You speak of love when … all you wanted before was …”
She could not speak those hideous words aloud, she simply could not.
“To bed you?” Stephen completed for her, then smiled sadly before he continued. “Dear Lord, but I have made a blithering mess of it, haven’t I? Forgive me, my love, for hurting you with my haughty ways.”
And he took her in his arms where she stood frozen and unresponsive yet he did not seem to notice. How could he be so carefree about something she considered so serious? Yet, quite unexpectedly, the sweetness in his voice touched her right in the heart.
“Of course, I was attracted to you. I would be blind and completely without feelings, would I not have been attracted to a lovely, adorable woman like you. The fact that we knew each other since childhood might have had something to do with it, too. I admit to having been a total cad and an incredibly stupid oaf not to understand that you would not be pleased about it. Being a peer of the realm does that to a man, darling, although that is no excuse for my boorish behaviour.”
He again lifted her face so that she was forced to meet his gaze.
“But, my dearest girl, once you had set off to Manchester after boxing my ears and leaving me so unexpectedly, I began to have an inkling of what you really meant to me. I was baffled to find myself completely lost and hating every moment of it. I could not think straight without you popping into my head every minute of the day. I could not sleep at night and when I did, you haunted my dreams. I found myself going utterly bonkers without you, Beth.”
Oh, those gorgeous blue eyes … burning with fire … Could she really believe him? She so wanted to … she so longed to.
“Beth, I know you have no trust in me and I cannot blame you, for I gave you every reason to distrust me. After all, I was responsible for so many misdeeds. I caused your mother and brother to die in that horrible accident. I compromised an innocent village girl and abandoned her and the children I begot. And … I wanted you to be my mistress. That was perhaps the dastardliest deed of all. I did not see you for the wonderful woman you are.”
Cupping her face in his hands, he softly kissed first her brow, then the top of her head.
“I love you, Beth … I must have loved you since that day, at the vicarage, when my mother spoke so harshly to you, and my father evicted yours. How crushed I felt in my parents’ stead, how ashamed and … how deeply sad at the sudden realisation that you were going to leave the village and disappear from my life. You were always in my thoughts, Beth, through my Cambridge days and later, when I was in the army and fighting.”
Finally, Beth found the courage to say something back to him. “Why were you so mean and vicious to me, then? You never gave me any reason to think you cared for me.”
Stephen’s reaction was a complete surprise to Beth. She did not know exactly what she had expected but certainly not this! Fenton released her and sank onto a chair, raking both of his hands through his hair.
“God, Beth! Could we not let bygones be bygones? I was haughty and arrogant and … well, furious, too! You came back, pretending to be someone else, and with a purpose of ruining me. I did not comprehend why, Beth! You already knew of my involvement in the tragedy!”
“Yes, I did! And I wanted you to own up to it, pay for it, Stephen Fenton! Can you blame me?”
When he lifted his eyes to hers, the look in them pierced her heart.
“Oh, I have paid for it, Beth, dearly so. First, I lost you. And then, when I finally managed to put you out of my mind and began loving Florence, I also lost her – and in a carriage accident, irony of ironies.”
There was pain in those drawn, pale features and bitterness in those thin, rigid lips. For the first time in their long acquaintance, Beth could actually see the deep hurt and sorrow in Stephen Fenton. Florence … his wife … Beth had never known her and conveniently forgotten about her. Florence Durant had been the daughter of a Devonshire earl, and the baron not only gained a charming, very beautiful baroness but also a substantial amount of dowry money. Their mutual love had been equally substantial, apparently.
“I am very sorry,” she whispered, belatedly, and swallowed away her stupid pride.
Stephen’s face was pale but without emotion, once more. Beth knew he was a master in disguising his feelings, a characteristic she loathed in him. How could she deal with a man who was incapable of showing how he felt? How was she to connect with such a man? She was not sure if she would be able to share her life with Stephen if he could not make her a part of his life and feelings.
Then, all of a sudden, one solitary tear rolled down Stephen’s cheek, and Beth’s heart skipped several beats. Her hand went up and slowly, gently wiped it away.
“I would be very honoured indeed, my lord, to become your wife …”
When Stephen led her outside, to the front of the cottage, Beth was utterly astonished to find the whole village waiting for them. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage stepped forward to meet them, a radiant smile on their faces.
“My dear Miss Williams,” the Reverend beamed. “May I express the extreme gratitude of the entire community for the enormous task you have fulfilled? You have brought back joy to our little village, and we want to thank and honour you.”
And there they were! All her pupils, girls and boys alike! Each with a huge bouquet of the loveliest wild flowers they could gather in the fields of early May. Beth’s eyes, once more, filled with tears.
She took several of the bouquets in her arms while Lily and Oliver carried the rest inside. After a moment, Stephen Fenton cleared his throat and raised an arm to ask for silence.
“People … dear friends … I, too, have an announcement. Miss Williams has done me the great honour of consenting to be my wife.”
A deafening cheer rose from the assembly and Ruby threw herself into Beth’s arms.
“Oh … famous! Dearest Beth, I am so happy!” A couple of minutes went by in which numerous villagers came to congratulate their school teacher, before Stephen asked for silence again.
“Mr Carter, sir? I have a favour to ask of you,” he addressed the vicar.
A gasp of delighted surprise escaped the crowd when the baron retrieved a document from his coat.
“Reverend, I have obtained a special licence to marry my beloved Miss Williams forthwith. Would you perform the ceremony now?”
Beth stared at her betrothed in appalled astonishment. Words failed her while her heart exalted with joy!
“My lord,” the Reverend replied, “I would be honoured … and utterly overjoyed to oblige you.”
“Well, my dearest, loveliest Beth, then, without further delay, we shall go into St Mary’s church and be joined in holy matrimony!” Stephen said and offered his right hand flashing a radiant smile at his beloved. With an answering smile, Beth sealed her fate by placing her hand in Stephen’s. The die was cast; from now on, she would follow her baron to the end of the world if necessary.
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.
Seven – Rectification
The next day, Beth was to find out that His Lordship had left the house. She had gone to bed right away the previous night, after the baron and Ben Merton had stepped outside. Ruby insisted on that since Beth’s face still showed a tinge of grey.
The smallpox situation had changed for the better in more than one way. All patients were recovering nicely, their fever gone and their rash reduced to mere pimples. The children were up and playing again. Little Johnny was suckling his mother’s breasts with enthusiasm again, to his parents’ delight.
Apart from astonishment over Fenton’s sudden departure and also, over the fact he had not told her, Beth actually felt relieved they were no longer under the same roof. She still had no inkling as to why he had moved in with her in the first place! Now, with Ruby and Ben living in, she was in a better position again to deal with people’s judgements. Yes, she felt relieved. Or so she told herself …
She also missed him already, and dearly so. Living with him for just these couple of days had made it very clear to Beth how much she loved Stephen Fenton. The way he cared for the children had surprised her endlessly every single day! The patience and gentleness he exerted stirred her heart and sent her spirits soaring sky-high! She had learned a completely different side of him, one that made her adore him more each day. And then came that moment, when he had asked her – no, told her, in that high-handed way of his – to marry him. That moment had been the happiest of her life. She was convinced her heart would burst with joy, and it had been the hardest thing she had ever done, not to show it to him. He was not to know, at least, not before he told her he loved her too. And that, he had not done.
In her heart of hearts, Beth was convinced that Stephen did not love her, though he liked her well enough and certainly, that he wanted her as a lover. She longed for him, too, desperately so. His touch was like liquid fire, spreading through her entire body, setting her senses ablaze! Although Beth had never been with a man and was justifiably afraid of the unknown things that could befall her, she knew it would be pure delight with the man she loved – on condition that he would love her back. Never could she give herself to Stephen without having his love.
Ruby and Beth were serving dinner to a table full of hungry children, when Ben stepped inside, accompanied by Dr Forrester. The baron’s personal physician was a short, wiry man in his early sixties with a balding head of sparse grey hair and watery grey eyes. He sported a goatee beard that had retained its natural dark colour which made it look like as if it were a fake and had been glued onto the doctor’s chin.
“Good evening, Miss Williams. His Lordship sent me to examine the children and report back to him about their welfare. I have just returned from London where I consulted with some colleagues of mine from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Now, I would like to take a good look at your patients, if you would allow me.”
Thus, the children were examined, one by one, which took a good bit of time. When the doctor was finished, he smiled cheerfully and gave his opinion on the matter.
“Miss Williams, I had an inkling that this disease might not be the smallpox but the chicken pox. Now that I saw for myself, I am positive. It is, for a fact, only chicken pox. You might want to know that His Lordship’s friend, Mr Masterton, was the one that contracted it in Egypt and infected His Lordship’s cousin, Miss Hannah Faraday. She is now better but she has been very ill, these last two weeks, and Mr Masterton, too, had a high fever for several days. They both have conquered it, though.”
Beth’s spirits lifted endlessly at that! Chicken pox was not nearly so dangerous as smallpox, and relatively mild when children contracted it.
“I was not aware of the fact that adults could also be infected, doctor. I thought it to be a childhood disease.”
“It is, Miss Williams, it certainly is, and once a child has gone through it, he or she acquires a long-life immunity to it. Yet, when the disease develops in an adult, it can be quite dangerous, even life-threatening. I take it you had chicken pox as a child?”
“Yes, quite so, doctor. I was also inoculated with small pox.”
“Perfect, you should be safe for either of them.”
The day after Dr Forrester’s visit, all Beth’s little patients had gone home safe Lily and Oliver. It seemed the chicken pox was over, finally! Beth was grateful she had her former charges still with her.
“I want to live here with you, Miss Williams,” Oliver assured her. “It is so much more fun here, especially since I have made some new friends, being sick and all.”
“Yes, me too,” Lily chimed in. “Is school going to start soon again, Miss Williams? I already miss Lizzie and Jane!”
“In a few days, Little Miss Impatience! Give me time to clean up the classrooms first! In the mean time, you must return to your father’s house. I know for sure he and your grandmother miss you both terribly.”
“Then, why is she always scolding us when we do something she does not like?” Oliver put in.
“It is you who behaves badly, Oliver, not I!” Lily retorted. “Grandmama says she does not understand how a well-behaving girl like me could end up with such a scoundrel for a brother!”
They were all laughing, when the door opened, and Stephen Fenton walked in, dressed to perfection and so incredibly handsome Beth’s heart did a summersault.
“Papa!” The twins dashed toward him and it was all he could do to keep his footing when they hugged him.
“Hello, my darling brats! I have come to take you home, so go get your stuff so that my coachman can stow it away in the carriage.”
Fenton smiled when they pounded upstairs to do as he asked.
“You will allow me to send some maids and footmen to help you clean up, I hope?” he asked when they were alone.
“I will welcome the help, my lord, and I am much obliged to you. If we have conquered the disease, we could only have managed thanks to you.”
“No, Miss Williams, that is not true. You and you alone have wrought this and brought it to a good end. This community owes you and so do I.”
Beth acknowledged this with a smile of her own, suddenly feeling ridiculously happy. Seeing Stephen seemed to have this effect on her, lately. When he spoke again, the earnest tone of his voice sobered her.
“Miss Williams …” He stopped, then rubbed a hand through his face and exclaimed: “Blast it, you will always be Beth to me, so I might as well call you so!”
He took her hand in his and, with his other hand, lifted her chin. Fiery blue eyes bore into hers and Beth shivered.
“Beth, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
She was thoroughly taken aback, so much so that she blurted out the one reply that came into her head. “Why?”
Stephen’s answer came in a voice husky with emotion.
“Because I love you and I cannot live without you, dearest girl.”
Six – Priorities
At that moment, someone banged on the kitchen door, and Beth heard a voice, shrill with horror and panic, calling out her name. Ruby’s voice … In a frenzy, Beth tore open the door, pelted down the stairs, past an astonished Stephen and snapped open the kitchen door.
“Oh, Beth! I think little Johnny has caught the disease! Look! He is burning up with fever and he won’t suckle!”
She dumped a bundle into Beth’s arms and threw herself in the arms of her husband, who was as horrified as she. For a few moments, Beth just stood there on the threshold, her mind blank with sudden fear. She seemed to have forgotten all the necessary knowledge she would need to help Johnny, who was mewing pitifully. It was a sound that ripped through her heart. Oh, merciful God, this was Johnny! What was she to do?
Gentle hands took the baby from her and a voice, piercing through a lump in her ears, gave quiet commands. The baron …
“Ben, bring Ruby inside. Come, put her here, next to the stove. The warmth will soothe her. She appears to be in a shock. Now, help me. We have to fill the tub with tepid water. Take that big kettle, it’s warm …”
Holding onto the doorpost for support, Beth watched. Her knees were wobbling, all of a sudden. Her head was spinning and seemed to be filled with cotton wool as panic raged through her.
Meanwhile, Stephen undressed the little fellow’s limp little body and bathed him with the help of his father. Calm and detached, but with sure, steady gestures, the pair of them cooled Johnny’s body, rubbed it dry and made him drink Beth’s lavender tisane, which she kept at the ready in her medicine cabinet.
Fenton’s gestures were sure, steady and gentle as he wrapped the baby in a clean blanket and laid him in one of the laundry baskets, which he put on Ruby’s lap.
“Ruby, look. Little Johnny is asleep and, if you feel his brow, you will find his fever gone. Leave him here for a few days until we know if he is indeed affected.”
“But … my lord … I have to nurse him! I am breastfeeding him!”
“We can accommodate you and Ben in an upstairs room, if you are not afraid of catching the disease.”
Ben Merton nodded.
“Then that is what we will do, my lord. I can help with the work and Ruby too.”
“Well, Miss Williams, is that not fortunate? We will not be dealing alone with …”
Fenton, addressing Beth and turning to her, saw her swaying on her feet. He was just in time, catching her in his arms when she collapsed.
Not more than a few seconds could have passed since she sank into blackness, Beth guessed, since she was still being held tightly against the baron’s solid chest when she regained consciousness. The three people in the kitchen were all talking but what they said was very different. Through a thick layer of cotton wool, Beth heard Ruby’s voice, shrill with panic.
“Oh, my goodness! My lord, she has fainted! Get her onto a chair, I beg you!”
Ben’s tenor chimed in with a hearty agreement, but it was first and foremost Stephen’s baritone that caught Beth’ attention while she fought to get control over her trembling knees and spinning head. Stephen’s voice, warm and soothing, right next to her ear.
“Lean on me, dear Miss Williams, I will get you to sit down. Here we are, just lower yourself down. Easy now! Put your head on your arms!”
Beth became aware of quite a few things occurring that same moment. Fenton’s arm was still around her shoulders, and his hard body touched hers in several places, suffusing her with warmth and beguiling her with a scent so totally male she nearly felt dizzy again. Her cheek was resting against his chest, and the strong, steady beat of his heart did nothing to calm her own heart rate. His voice, warm and sweet, was soothing her to the point of bringing tears of self-pity into her eyes. She also saw the way Ruby and Ben were looking at both her and the baron and she shivered. It was exactly how the town people would look at her – with appalled astonishment and with hurt. Hurt because they thought so much higher about her. Miss Williams, the vicar’s daughter, now sunken into the gutter status of a nobleman’s mistress.
“No,” she suddenly gasped. “I am fine, my lord. Just a slight indisposition. It has already passed.”
With all the willpower she could muster, Beth took a deep breath and turned toward Ruby.
“How is little Johnny, Ruby? Can I have a look at him?”
Fenton stared at Beth with a bit of disbelief. What was that? What had he done now to upset her so? Then he saw the look Merton gave him, cold rage blanching the man’s ruddy face.
Now, that, he could not let pass! Merton was one of his tenants, for God’s sake! Fenton gave the man a sign with his thumb, summoning him outside.
“Well, Merton? Care to explain why you are looking daggers at me?”
Oh, and why, Stephen mused, was he the one wanting to explain to a subordinate? Merton, however, stood his ground, as usual when dealing with his lord.
“My lord, I’m a man of plain speaking and I cannot condone your behaviour toward Miss Williams.”
Fenton studied the man closely while he was trying to establish a way of punishing him for his blatant impertinence. Yet, somehow, he understood that there must be a serious reason for it, not that Merton had not always been defiant in his dealings with his betters. Merton was a proud, straightforward man, with a strong conscience and a large sense of justice.
“And why is that, Merton? What have I done to Miss Williams that it raises your hackles so?”
Merton fixed him with a stare so stern that Fenton felt a slight uneasiness coming to life.
“My lord, begging your pardon, sir, but have you no consideration for the way your cohabitation is perceived in the village and the county? All the pious and the righteous are speaking shame about it. They are so convinced that Miss Williams is your mistress that they are going to ask you for another teacher when this disease is over. They do not want her to “foul their innocent children’s mind” any further, as they expressed it.”
If Merton had punched him in his gut, Fenton could not have been more surprised. Never had he considered his and Beth situation subjected to critic from villagers and country folk! He was their baron, for God’s sake! His actions were of no concern to the populace! But Beth … that was another matter altogether.
She was one of them, and people expected her to behave within the strictest bonds of propriety. With his high-handed ways of never asking anyone’s opinion or advice, Fenton had placed Beth in an intolerable and impossible position. Why had he not realised that long before? And of course, that was why she was so furious with him. And why she had thrown his marriage offer right back into his face.
The baron became once again aware of Merton and the scowl the man bestowed on him. Fenton’s temper rose to a pitch and for the space of a moment, he just wanted to engage in fisticuffs and punch him to a pulp! Merton must have seen the flare of anger in his eyes yet the blasted fellow did not even flinch. Instead, he drew himself up to his full 6 feet and straightened his back which made his huge shoulders look even more wide. Incredible! Even though the man knew full well Fenton could ruin his life and that of his family without even blinking an eye, Benjamin Merton stood up to him and in a quiet, righteous manner too.
“Tell me, Merton,” Fenton challenged him. “Why is it that you risk losing your livelihood in defying me, your lord and master, on behalf of my former vicar’s daughter?”
“She’s pure gold,” Merton told him. “She’s one of us, and if you hurt her, all of us feel her pain. Without the slightest hesitation, she risked her life to help and heal our children. In return, we cannot let her be compromised by anyone, my lord. Not even by you. If you want to throw me out of your farm, then do so, but Ruby and I are not letting Miss Beth down.”
Fenton withstood Merton’s glare with ease and even smiled at him.
“Well, man, you may rest assured I will try and rectify the matter to mine and Miss Williams’ satisfaction. I would appreciate if you and your wife would stay with Miss Williams and help her with the children. I will withdraw to “The Blue Boar” forthwith, just to ease your mind.”
And on that remark, Fenton turned on his heels and went back inside.
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.
Five – Fighting Side By Side
For the next three days, Beth and the baron worked side by side in never-desisting labour. There was much to be done during the day and the night. The children’s fever had risen a bit, making them very tired. They were asleep most of the day and had to be spoon-fed because of their weakness. The baron – as Beth was prone to notice – was very good at this. This fact baffled her, to be honest. She had never known him to be patient or simply kind to small children. By God, it had even taken him several months before he opened up to his own children!
But now, she saw a completely different side of him. He usually sat on the patient’s bed, holding the bowl in one hand and feeding the child slowly and gently with the other. His patience was sweet but persistent, and he only stopped when the bowl was empty. Beth, who managed only four patients in one hour, was stunned to see Fenton feed twice as quickly, so that at ten in the morning, every child had been dealt with.
That left room for bathing, and there too the baron was extremely helpful. He had ordered a copper bathtub to be brought to the school yard. With a few heaves of his muscular shoulders, Fenton brought it inside and positioned it next to the kitchen stove. He then carried the children to it, one by one, and Beth washed and dried them. Fenton put them back into their beds after Beth had again dressed them in their night dresses. The washing took only two hours instead of four!
By then, it was time for luncheon. The baron had arranged for footmen and maids to bring on hot meals and hot water from “The Blue Boar”. He personally collected the goods at the garden gate and carried them inside. Then, he helped with the meals to be fed to the children.
What astonished Beth the most, was the baron’s patient kindness and gentle good humour in dealing with the children. It seemed he was a totally different man from the one Beth had known forever, and it worried her greatly because she detected a softening in her feelings for him. Surely, she was not planning on trusting him ever again, was she?
After a busy day, they often sat in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of tea. Revelling in the peace and quiet of the evening, they spoke about what happened that day, about which children were worse or better, about how they would tackle the next day and the problems ahead. Time seemed to stand still for Beth, and the rest of the world was far away and unreal to her.
The cosy interior of the kitchen, with its huge stove, softly whirring with burning logs and coal, the clean-scrubbed oaken table with its blue-and white chequered cloth, the smell of food still lingering and the fragrance of the tea they were drinking, it all added to the feeling of safety and well-being. Beth sneaked a peak at the baron as he sat bowed over his tea, his large but slender hands around his cup. His hair was in damp disarray because he had just finished cleaning out the bath tub, after the children’s many baths. It hung over his collar and brow in glistening curls, black as a raven’s wing. His wrinkled white shirt had come undone to expose a part of his broad chest.
Not for the first time did Beth notice the huge scar that crossed the chest muscle, a thick red streak about half an inch wide. She recalled it was about ten inches long … It was a miracle he survived such an injury. His mother had said he nearly died of the fever that followed …
There was one, very clear notion in Beth’s mind, at that moment. She did not even begin to know Stephen Fenton, the fifth baron Brixton. All her life, she considered him haughty and without a conscience, and heartless, and … she thought of him as a monster, yet he was not that. Like every human being, Fenton too had experienced hurt, physical as well as emotional, and it had left him with scars. Not that he ever showed them – no, not him, not the baron!
That was the point, Beth mused. Stephen – her long standing enemy, but also, the man who touched her heart so very deeply – was first and foremost a baron, a noble, a man with authority, wealth and position. There was no common future for them, even if they should ever grow closer.
She swallowed at the large lump in her throat that had suddenly and unexpectedly formed. Stupid! She was being stupid and unrealistic! She had better stop indulging in those useless feelings before he …
Too late! Stephen Fenton raised his dreamily gaze to her, blue eyes glowing softly with some pleasant emotion that made Beth’s heart flutter wildly! And alarmed Fenton to the point that he grabbed her hand!
“Miss Williams! What is it? Are you unwell? Tell me, I beg of you!”
Unwell, Beth thought, no. Doomed was a better word! She cleared her stricken throat before she could begin to summon up a reply.
“It is nothing, my lord. I am merely tired and …”
“My name is Stephen, as you very well know. Surely, we are past all this silly politeness? Are we not partners in this unfortunate business?”
Oh, the warmth of his hand on hers! The heat of those beautiful eyes and the comfort of that sweet smile …
“Partners? Yes, but … I … I do not really know you, do I? How can I sit here and talk to you as if we were equals? I …”
“Not only equals, Beth, but also friends, I hope? Surely by now, we are close friends?”
“I … I …”, was all Beth could stammer, overwhelmed as she was under the onslaught of his gaze.
“Beth … could you not make an effort to get to know me for who I am? A man, Beth, just a plain, ordinary man, who longs to befriend you … we do know each other for so long, do we not? All our lives, we have been in close proximity, so why should we not be so now? We are fighting alongside each other. For God’s sake, Beth! We are practically living together!”
In sudden panic, Beth rose, causing her chair to clatter onto the floor as she pushed it back with vehemence! She stumbled out of the room, bumping into furniture on her way to the door, but not looking back at him.
Damn and blast! What had he done? He would have to cut out his tongue if he ever was to look her in the face again properly! Had he really blurted out that extremely foolish remark about living together? He knew, did he not, how easily she was thrown in uproar about such things! Had he still not yet realised how sensitive a person Beth was? Fool! He was such a stupid fool!
Beth reached her upstairs bedroom on instinct, rather than actually seeing where she was going. She was so thoroughly shattered by what she just heard from Stephen’s mouth that her chest was aching with the very breaking of her heart! He still lusted after her! He had as good as laid out to her that the only thing left was for them to … to consummate that lust. They really were living together, were they not? They were in each other’s company, under the same roof, every day and every night, and the worst of it was that the whole village knew it! People would think they were lovers! Her reputation was ruined, non-existent! She was ruined, she was a fallen woman in the eyes of the community she was living in! Bitter tears ran down her cheeks now but they did nothing to alleviate her pain. Oh, why had she ever made that foolish decision to come back to Woolworth?
A soft but insistent tap on the door finally broke through the red veils of her distress.
“Miss Williams, please? We need to talk and make matters clear if we are to work together in the days to come. I humbly apologize for the clumsy way I expressed myself, just a few moments ago. My choice of words was unforgiveable. Please, talk to me, Miss Williams? Think of the children that count on us and are in need of our care?”
Although Beth was still in a horrified uproar, she had to admit that Fenton had said the only thing that would make her listen to him. She opened the door and stepped onto the landing, her body rigid with indignation.
“Oh, you are indeed caring for them now, are you? A minute ago, the only one that mattered to you was how to coax me into becoming your lover! Moreover, you called it another name; you asked to ‘befriend me’!”
“And that was exactly what I meant!” Stephen snapped. “I hold you in too high an esteem to take you to bed unless you want to yourself!”
Shocked though she was at his bluntness, Beth nevertheless felt herself softening again. He did have a high esteem for her, then? Oh, there was nothing more she could want from him, Beth thought. To know he respected her, liked her and loved her! Like she loved him, then? No! She instantly quenched that feeling! And she should not offer him her heart on a platter, too!
“Yet, that is what everybody thinks, I imagine!” she snarled instead. “That we are lovers, indeed! I asked you specifically not to come here yet that was exactly what you did! How am I supposed to go on living in this village after the disease has gone and the children are healthy again?” Goodness, she was barking at him herself, now.
“Simple!” he barked back. “Marry me!”
Stephen could have slapped himself across the face, but it was too late now. He had spoken aloud the only notion that had been in his brain for months, and there was no retrieving it. He had as good as destroyed his own defences. Yet, he could not read the look she threw at him. She was angry no longer but stood studying him with cool calculation.
“Why?” was all she asked, startling him by the harshness of her tone.
“Why? Well, because that way, you would retrieve your reputation. Besides, we have known each other for God knows how long and we have no secrets for each other anymore since you are perfectly informed about everything my life might contain. I need a wife and a mother for Lily and Oliver. My position as a peer of the Realm wants a baroness, and I cannot think of anyone better than you, Beth.”
For a long time, Beth did not speak. Stephen was aware of the sweat breaking out all over his body and of the rapid beating of his heart, emotions that had not come to him since his time as a soldier in the Peninsular War!
“My lord,” Beth said calmly, “I need you to leave this house, this instant. You have outstayed your welcome.” With that, she entered her bedroom and locked the door behind her.
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.
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.”