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.”
Nine – Lull Before the Storm
“Thank you, Hawkins. I won’t be needing you anymore tonight,” Stephen said as his valet finished dressing him for his wedding night.
“Very well, my lord.” Something in his valet’s tone made Stephen raise an eyebrow at him but his long-term servant – close as a friend – showed him a face as impassive as a statue’s.
“Out with it, Hawkins! What is it?”
“I do not know what you mean, my lord! I just wanted to wish you good luck.” Now, there was a grin on Hawkins’ face as he hurriedly left his master’s dressing room. Stephen chuckled softly and opened the door to his wife’s quarters. Anticipation rushed through him, and he felt the first stirrings of arousal. Yet, no matter how long he had been fantasizing over his first night with Beth, nothing could have prepared him for what he beheld next!
She was gorgeous, simply ravishingly beautiful in her silk nightgown the colour of fine champagne, her dark brown hair spilling over her back and shoulders like a coffee-coloured waterfall. The soft material outlined her figure to perfection, bringing to life the soft curve of her slender hips and the promising roundness of her fine breasts. His body reacted like that of a boy barely out of the schoolroom! Christ! It had been ages since he felt so turned on by the sight of a mere woman!
No! Not a mere woman but his woman … his wife.
The room was exquisitely decorated with tasteful, elegant furniture, lovely shades of pastel wall papers and drawings, and a soft, thick Aubusson carpet covering the shiny parquet floor. A cheerful fire in the marble Adam fire place made it cosy enough for Beth to relax a little while she stood next to it, warming her icy hands. Would that her racing heart be so easily soothed!
She was waiting for her husband to join her and … initiate her in the pleasures of the marriage bed. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she stood staring at the dressing room door through which Stephen would enter. It connected their separate bedchambers and guaranteed a privacy whenever the need arose for a good night’s sleep … in separate beds which was often customary for marriages of the Ton. Beth fervently hoped she would not give Stephen cause to leave her bed on any night of their life together. Her parents had always shared a bed and she had never known a happier couple than Papa and Mama.
She shivered and drew a deep, calming breath. Her gaze went to the large mirror standing opposite the fire place in which her image was reflected. What she saw was a slender, frightened little girl of middle height, dressed in a night gown of creamy silk. A pale face above a décolleté that was very revealing, due to the thin shoulder straps and the low neckline that showed the onset of her small breasts. Breasts with hardened peaks straining against the flimsy fabric…
Beth was afraid, very much so. From her studies and manuals, she had of course a vague idea about what transpired between a man and a woman during sexual intercourse, yet she had not experienced it first-hand. She was only just beginning to feel sexual stirrings – all of them initiated by Stephen’s touch – and although they did not repel her, those unusual feelings did indeed worry her. It had become clear to her that they instigated a loss of free will in a person so that they were no longer in control over their reactions.
When she heard the sound of an opening door, she realised it could only be her husband, coming to claim her. A strange throbbing came to life, deep in her belly, clutching at her very heart. Her eyes shifted toward the connecting dressing room door, caught sight of Stephen and … suddenly, she stopped breathing!
Stephen wore a long robe of moss green velvet with the sash loosely bound around his narrow waist. The V-shaped opening showed a triangle of chest, slightly tanned and smooth. Beth’s gaze roamed from his devastatingly handsome face with the blue-grey eyes, now sparkling with scarcely banked fire, to his well-defined muscular torso, sculptured by the smooth velvet it was encased in. Beneath the robe, she noticed a pair of loose drawers and then – oh, Lord! – his long, strong feet. Bare feet … Her breath caught and a surge of something immensely powerful awoke in her inner self!
She felt positively light-headed when he slowly stepped nearer and the sash of his robe came undone, revealing stretches of golden muscles and a light sprinkle of dark hair that covered his nipples. Her eyes followed that line of hair where is disappeared beneath the waistband of his trousers, that were riding low on his slim hips.
Yet, it was the look in those blue eyes that really touched her; an unmistakable look of admiration and also … something quite different, something that made her heart turn in her chest. Her blood pounding in her ears, Beth surprisingly found her legs strong enough to meet him halfway. Her hands – palm down – came to rest on that broad chest where they were instantly warmed by his smooth, hot skin. Warm spirals of desire came to life and found their way from the top of her head all the way down to the tips of her toes and finally, converged inside her womb to pool in her most delicate place. She was going to faint … surely.
Stephen forced himself not to rip off that flimsy gown of hers, when Beth’s shy and yet so erotic touch seared his skin. He needed to go slowly and above all gently, for she was still an innocent. How he was supposed to accomplish that, when all his senses were ablaze with passion, he could not fathom! He had never, ever, been aroused like that! Not even with Florence, his first wife, had he experienced this kind of sexual desire. It throbbed in violent waves through his entire body, and his manhood was so hard it stung like hell!
A slight inclination of his head sufficed to make his lips brush hers, without touching her otherwise. Her jolt of surprise and the tiny moan she uttered nearly sent him over the edge! Christ! That, too, had never happened before!
Wanting to make his wife feel comfortable and relaxed, Stephen gently traced her lovely mouth with gentle kisses, until she responded by letting her hands rove over his body. She was very shy, but he could sense her eagerness and the onset of passion, as she became bolder. Her fingers slid over his shoulders, baring them. She gasped with pleasure as her hands stroked his back and buttocks, following the band of his trousers to the front of his torso again.
When she touched him through the fabric, it was his turn to gasp and groan as her fingers moved over his hardness. He eased the straps of her gown over her shoulders, and it suddenly pooled at her feet. Oh, dear Lord! She was absolutely the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on and she was his! This gorgeous woman was his and his alone!
To Beth, it seemed like the most natural thing to stand before her husband completely naked. Yet, she wanted him naked, too. Suddenly, she felt the unstoppable urge to feel his skin against her own!
Impatiently, she pulled at his trousers until they fell around his feet and then … oh, sweet Jesus … but he was breath-taking! A body as hard as rock, yet so velvety soft to the touch … steel muscles finely chiselled … male, all male … she could no longer breathe when she saw the glory of his manhood, standing proud and ready. All of a sudden, she knew it all! She understood everything that happened between a man and a woman and she wanted that now, this instant.
Stephen must have seen her desire for he took her in his arms and carried her to their bed. Gently positioning her against the pillows, he stretched beside her, long hard body warming her soft curves from head to toe. She pressed as close as she could, not wanting to miss a single inch of him. A need to touch him, caress him, savour him caused waves of heat to roll over her, and she whimpered softly when Stephen began kissing her all over her body. Face and neck and lower, to shoulders and breast … oh, heaven! His mouth was working wonders that started washing over her in waves of pure delight. His hands were setting her skin ablaze wherever they roamed but when they stroked her inner thighs, she thought she would melt, and dissolve, and be gone forever. God! But she still wanted more! This was not enough! Franticly, she parted her legs and pulled at him and lifted her body upward. Oh, why did he not come closer and absorb her until she was drawn into him?
With a jolt of delighted surprise, Stephen welcomed Beth’s uncompromising response to his lovemaking and he carefully covered her warm slender body with his. Her scent, all flowers and woman, was driving him mad with need, but he forced himself to be delicate and gentle. He needed to make her adjust to his weight and supported himself on his elbows while he slowly entered her. When she pressed even closer, he understood that she was still eager. With long, gentle thrusts, he initiated her response so that she easily followed his rhythm. She was ready for him, all warm sleekness, enveloping him completely, and he became bolder, inviting her to join him in the century-old dance of love. Soon, he had her going along with him, and she did not shy away when he breeched her barrier. Instead, she became even more aroused, clutching his shoulders with hard-gripping fingers and gasping for breath as her passion rose to higher pitches. He climbed the mountain of passion with her, welcoming the surge of release that grew and grew stronger with each thrust. When Beth gave a long, shuddering cry as she reached her peak, he shattered completely in his own, powerful release!
Afterwards, they lay wrapped in each other’s arms and savoured the infinitely agreeable feeling of their warm, sated bodies. The scent of their lovemaking was so soothing, so totally safe and full of belonging. At one point, Stephen unconsciously pulled the covers over them both and they slowly sank into blessed sleep.
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.
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.