The Game is Afoot
John gently rested Margaret on the couch in his sitting room. He went to the buffet and poured them each a port. He sensed she needed something to strengthen her consciousness.
“Margaret. What am I going to do with you? You will have to warn me when you are about to faint because you startle me before I know it’s happening. I’m thankful that all three times you were in my arms when it happened.” He smiled as he handed her the wine glass.
John settled next to her on the couch and turned towards her. He put his arm across the backrest and caressed her cheeks with the back of his hand, moving it from her temple and then down her shoulders. He kept stroking her while she began to focus on the recent event.
“John, it’s because I am in your arms that causes me to faint. You overwhelm me.” Margaret paused. “John . . . I think you proposed to me in front of everyone tonight?”
“That, I did. And you graciously accepted me and then fainted. I have hundreds of witnesses. There is no turning back now.” John was glowing, watching her bewildered face as if she was trying to sort things out.
Margaret slipped into an unexpected state of serious reflection. “Tonight, John, I watched as you were honored as The Man of the Decade for the Industrial Age. That is ten years worth of sweat, toil, and determination for your caring about the human condition that was Milton. They extolled you as being the hero who sacrificed his life to save the lives of three strangers. I was so passionately proud of you and humbled, my tears came from very deep within, bordering on reverence, I think. To me, you stood there looking like a saint. I felt that you were finally . . . finally, accepting the praise that you have so ruthlessly shunned. Your posture was gracious, majestic, even. I almost fainted when the audience came to their feet to bestow their admiration and appreciation for all that you have accomplished.
“Margaret . . .”
“Shhh . . . I need to say these words….”
“I watched as you looked out over the audience, finally receiving the distinction that you justly deserve, and found it hard to believe that you love me . . . me! John Thornton, Man of the Decade, loves plain, little Margaret Hale from Helston. I felt so incredibly small and vastly unworthy in the whole scheme of your life.
“Scheme of my life?” John questioned loudly, with incredulity. “Margaret, you ARE my life!”
She continued. “To save your family’s name and respect, you spent your teenage years supporting your mother and sister and repaid your father’s creditors for his mistakes. With shame, I recalled my initial impression of you. My naivety overwhelms me: From that first day when I met you in your mill, and thought you uncaring and harsh, to your moment of fame that I witnessed, just a short time ago, when people recognized you for the caring man that you are. Along with everything else you affect, you are a Magistrate for Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’s courts. You are responsible for the livelihoods of over, now, well over a thousand people.
“And yet . . . you are still the same man I met five years ago. All your courage, caring and honor has lived within you all of your life. Why could I not see it five years ago . . . this total person who stood on that dais tonight? As dreadful as I was to you, you loved me even back then; you suffered for me all those years since; you hoped and waited for me. . . living a lonely life with a broken heart. On my suggestion, you took a man in and gave him work, and it almost bankrupted your business. You interceded on my behalf when you saw me that night at the train station, saying goodbye to my, unknown to you, brother, and I had to lie to the police about being there and witnessing an accident. Because of the late hour and my being alone, you protected my reputation, again, with your discreet reserve, not to mention your first marriage proposal when you attempted to rescue me from totally embarrassing myself. You championed my honor at the Ball. Dispite you being normally reticent to stand out in a crowd, you whirled me around the dance floor, gazing lovingly at me with every step, and remained unruffled by the fact that we were the only two being watched by many. And tonight, you knelt down on one knee and proposed to me in front of hundreds of your peers. How am I so honored to have your love?”
John’s heart lept into his throat. “Margaret, I have loved you from the beginning of our acquaintance. I loved everything about you, loved you to your core for who you are inside. You are right; I am still the same man as I was back then, except that I love you beyond all reason, now. If you are proud of me and consider that I am intelligent and caring, what do you think that says about the one I chose to love for the rest of my life? I treasure you, Margaret. I love and lust for you, Margaret. I would give my life for you. God forbid you leave this earth before me; I will follow, for I cannot live in a world where you do not exist. You are so deeply embedded in my spirit and my soul; I just want to be lost in you. I love you Margaret, soon-to-be-Thornton. You are my life, now and forever more; you are my reason for living.”
John pulled her to him, and they sat in silence as Margaret shed her tears of devotion for the man who loved her.
Wrapped in each other’s arms, silence prevailed for many moments, while they absorbed the words spoken by the other.
“I have something that I want to show you,” John said softly.
He left the room and came back from the library with a letter in his hand.
“I took some liberty, hoping eventually that you would agree to marry me. You might like to know what’s in this letter.”
“Before I read this,” she took John’s hands in hers and pointed to her ring, “Thank you for loving me and thank you for this strikingly beautiful ring which proves our love by you offering, and my accepting it. I want everyone to see that I belong to you, and if you must know the truth, if you did not propose to me soon, I was going to do it myself.” She smiled into John’s eyes.
John perceived the deep love and desire in her face. His own body flooded with passion, magnifying what was already within him; he drew her tightly to him and kissed her hard. He whispered in her ear, “You can read the letter tomorrow. Just give me a moment,” he said, as he laid the note down on the table and stood.
John went to his room and returned with a feather blanket that had been in storage. He spread it in front of the roaring fire and turned off all the gas lights. After adding another log and stoking the fire, he took Margaret’s hand and guided her to the downy quilt.
“Oh, stay here, I forgot something,” he said, as he disappeared into the dark. Returning, he held his hands behind him.
Margaret waited for the unveiling of what he had retrieved and was now hiding.
“Care to guess?” John asked.
“Oh, John, you’re not going to make me guess, are you? We’ll be here all night, standing like this,” she said, putting on her pouty face, which she sensed John loved.
“All right, I doubt you would have guessed, anyway. Now, close your eyes.”
Margaret closed her eyes.
“Hold out your hand, palm up, so I can place something in it.”
Margaret held out her palm, face up.
John placed something small and soft in her palm.
“Now, don’t open your eyes yet, and tell me what it is.”
“Can I use my other hand to feel it?”
Margaret started to feel the soft little ball in her hands. She handled the item for a few seconds, and then she burst out laughing. “It’s YARN!” She opened her eyes. “You cheated last time, as I recall.”
“I don’t quite remember it that way, myself. I remember outsmarting you, so I am going to give you a chance to redeem yourself. Only this time, I select what you remove, and you select what I remove,” John said grinning. Ready for the rules?”
“Rules?” Margaret asked, laughingly.
“Yes. Rules. There aren’t many. You may not select an item of clothing that has something lying over it that has to be removed to get to it. Say . . . you could not ask me to remove my woolen socks before my boots. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? And there, Milady, are the rules.”
John had been working on this game for several weeks, in his mind. He was sure he had counted all the garments, and even jewelry, that she could wear, and he had so equipped his pockets with bits of odds and ends to even the score.
“John, this isn’t a good week for me to undress,” she said with a straight face.
Shaking his finger in her face, John said, “Mrs. Thornton-to-be, that is the first fib you have ever told me, and we will have none of that. If you don’t think I had that figured out and plotted for the next year, you have seriously underestimated me. “They both fell into roars of laughter. John laid the yarn down between them. “Ready?”
“Who goes first?” Margaret asked.
Withdrawing a coin from his pocket, John said, “Notice that I have a coin in my pocket; you will want to remember that. I will flip it, and you will call it.” John flipped it, and Margaret called tails. “Tails it is. You may choose first whether to TAKE or GIVE.”
“I will take first and ask for your boots.” John handed Margaret his boots.
John said, “My turn. I will take your shoes.” Margaret handed over her shoes.
She stood there starting to work out his clothing, coin and watch, versus her garments. He had tricked her last time, and she wanted to avoid that or beat him to it. “I will take your watch.” It was handed over.
John said, “I will take your undergarment.”
Margaret’s eyes got really big, and she began to protest until she realized her undergarment had nothing restricting it. She looked wide-eyed at John and saw his shoulders shaking with laughter, but he wasn’t making a sound. He put on an air of smug intellect. Margaret turned her back and pulled off her undergarment pitching it to the chair behind John.
John said, “That’s a foul, but I forgot to tell you that. You must hand your garment to your opponent.” John retrieved her undergarment and slung it over his shoulder.
Margaret was mortified. I guess I can be grateful that he didn’t wear them like a hat, she thought. “I will take your stick pin.”
“And Margaret, I will take your dress. Do you need help with that?”
“No, I can do it, but somehow I don’t think you’re playing fair.”
John looked at her as she stood before him in her corset and half slip. She looked like a short ballerina. She was so adorable, standing there, looking like that; he smiled broadly as he watched her.
Margaret looked down at her predicament and noticed John had hardly removed anything fun. She knew she was in trouble as she realized he’d have her on the floor in three turns. He wouldn’t worry about her stockings, garters, hair barrette or jewelry. Yes, this was a different twist, alright. Margaret gave it a lot of thought. An idea came to her; she studied it for a moment and then said, “I will take the contents of your trouser pockets.”
“Wait, that shouldn’t be fair. You cannot ask for more than one thing,” John said with some alacrity.
“Well, you didn’t ask me for one shoe, you asked for my shoes. I think that constitutes more than one, don’t you?”
“Why . . . you little smart aleck. I didn’t count on that; you outsmarted me. If you don’t marry me, I will hire you.” John handed her his bits and pieces. They both were laughing at each other. John stepped over the yarn and kissed her; that move of hers deserved a reward.
“I will take your half slip thing, whatever that is called.”
“It’s called a crinoline. Here!” Margaret handed it over. “I will take your trousers, please.”
John knew he was beat, but he had one last trick up his sleeve. As he unbuttoned his trousers, he watched her face. He tucked his thumbs in both his trousers and undergarment and slowly started to slide both down, watching Margaret every second. The look of realization on Margaret’s face was priceless. She inhaled loudly and slapped her hands to her eyes. John was laughing so hard that he almost tripped trying to step out of his pants.
She was still hiding her face. “John, you cheated AGAIN! Don’t you have underwear on?” Margaret asked in her little girl pouty voice.
John stepped across the yarn and pulled her hands from her face. He buried her mouth and stroked her lips and tongue with his. He pulled her closer so she could feel his desire against her. He stepped back and started to disrobe her and she did the same with the remainder of his garments.
John laid her down on the blanket, sitting on his knees, and nestled between her thighs. The firelight was throwing its golden light on her body; he was intoxicated. Looking down at her naked body, awaiting him, he could not touch her enough. He knew that at any minute he would remember, again, how to breathe. He lifted her womanhood to his mouth, robbing her of her senses, almost immediately. With all embarrassment and hesitancy gone, she climaxed quickly, as he knew she would. Before her last spasms could subside, he guided himself into her and thrust into her sweet depths, sustaining her climax while he met his. There was no greater joy to him, including his own orgasm, than giving and hearing Margaret have hers. To him, that was the culmination of being a man. She would always come first in his life before himself.
“Margaret, I have fallen in love many times . . . always with you.” After several more hours of lovemaking, Margaret fell asleep cradled in John arms in front of the fire. As the fire began turning to ash, John picked Margaret up and carried her to his bed, returning for all their clothes before he closed the door behind them.
The workers coming in through the mill yard woke Margaret. She became a little flustered with the full light coming into the room, but she laid on the bed and admired John as he dressed, his body hard and muscular, but slim, without all that thickness of clothes.
“I love you, John Thornton.”
“And I love you Margaret, soon-to-be-Thornton. I love every soft centimeter of you. You are so beautiful to watch while you sleep, especially naked. But I think you should dress unless you want more of the same. I am quite prepared, you know? If you’re still in bed by the time I’m shaved, I’ll be back on top of you before you can protest.
“Protest? Let me think about that for a moment.” Margaret giggled. “Last night you said something about a letter?”
John was beaming at her little joke. “Oh yes, let me get it.”
“Here, read it. It is to both of us.”
Margaret lifted up on her pillow pulling the sheet above her bare breasts and began to read. “It’s from my brother, Fredrick! He is giving his approval for me to marry you. John, how did you . . .?”
“I got his address from Dixon and wrote to him. Although you are your own woman, you are still a lady and a gentleman’s daughter, so I thought you would appreciate that I have kept to one of the gentry’s honorable traditions by asking for your hand.
“Oh John, that was so thoughtful of you.” She jumped out of bed, naked, and came over to throw her arms around him and give him a big kiss.
Even though he had lather on his face, he returned her kiss, picked her up, walked to the bed, and sat her on his lap. He wanted his fingertips to roam her silky skin before she covered it.
Margaret insisted that John get to work and allow Branson to drive her home. She didn’t care about the propriety of leaving his home early in the morning. These were her people, now.
John called for Branson to bring the carriage to the front. After a final long, hard kiss goodbye at the door, John escorted Margaret outside to the coach, where he claimed a long, erotic kiss, disregarding Branson, before he handed her inside.
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.
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At Bearsham Manor, Hampshire, England, Sir Robert de Briers, baronet, lay dying. His ragged breathing was shallow and fast, indicating that the end was near. This last apoplexy had proved too much of a strain on Sir Robert’s heavyset, gout-infected body, even though his mind was as sharp as ever. With considerable effort, he opened his pale blue, bloodshot eyes and searched for the tall figure of his son and heir, Richard. Sir Robert had one last, yet most urgent request for him.
“Come, my son, come closer…”
Richard de Briers obeyed readily and bent down on one knee beside his father’s bed. Guessing that the old man wanted only him and no one else present to hear, he bowed his head toward his father.
“I am listening, sir,” he whispered in his father’s ear. “What is it that you want from me?”
Wheezing and fighting for air, Sir Robert explained.
“You must go to Paris and find Lily’s family,” he said, referring to Richard’s late half-sister. “Her husband has … an apothecary’s workshop … on the Rue Saint-Jacques. There have been many riots lately, with the revolutionaries taking power. Thibaut Favier, Lily’s husband … has not written to me on his usual date of the second Sunday of the month. I fear … something bad might have befallen him. If so, I want you … to bring the children … to the estate and … become their legal guardian. I have discussed this … with Mr Brownslow, my solicitor in Portsmouth. Go to him and ask him. Richard …”
The old man’s pudgy hand grabbed his son’s in urgent need.
“Do not say a word of this matter to your mother. She never approved of my concern for Lily.”
Sir Robert squeezed Richard’s hand rather hard.
“Swear to me, Richard … that you will do as I ask!”,
“I give you my word, Father that I will see that Lily’s children are safe.”
Richard had no inkling as to how he was to achieve such a difficult task, what with all the frightful news that seeped through from France and from Jake Davies, his poor, besieged business man in Paris. Now he had made a promise to his dying father, so he would do his utmost for his niece and nephew.
“Richard, my son …” Sir Robert’s fading voice once more claimed his attention.
“You must be the best of guardians to them, care for them as if they were your own … Richard, you must learn to love them, promise me …”
“I promise, father.”
What was the meaning of all this, he wondered? Why was his father so adamant?
“Listen, come closer. There is a letter for you … you must read it and act upon its contents. It is hidden behind … behind …”
Sir Robert gasped for breath, but the grip on Richard’s fingers never slackened.
“Where, father?” Richard encouraged.
“Behind the veil …”
A faint, barely audible gust of breath escaped Sir Robert’s parched lips. It was his last one. Sir Robert de Briers was gone.
Richard laid the limp hand upon his father’s chest and closed his staring yet unseeing eyes. He rose from his knees and opened the door to the landing.
“Mrs Briskley,” Richard addressed Bearsham Manor’s housekeeper, “would you do me the kindness of seeing to it that my father is decently laid out?”
The plump, motherly woman bobbed. “Yes, sir, right away, sir,” she said as her tears quietly slipped from her eyes. She watched Sir Richard with distressed gaze as he left his father’s room.
“Thornton, will you notify Beacon & Sons that I will have need of their services for my father’s funeral, please?”
The elderly, thin butler bowed his head. “Of course, sir. Will you be needing anything else, sir?”
“I will say so when I think of it, Thornton, thank you. For now, I would like to be on my own for a while, in my father’s library.”
“Yes, sir. Sir … on behalf of the staff, I would like to convey our deepest sympathy on the passing of Sir Robert.”
Weary to the bone, Richard descended the long, winding staircase and turned to the library door when his mother’s cold voice stopped him.
“How is he, Richard?”
Without turning to her, he replied in the same disinterested tone his mother, Mildred de Briers had used. “My father is dead, Madam. You can pay your respects after he has been laid out.”
Not wishing to speak to her for the moment, he entered the library and closed the door behind him with a definitive click.
Lady Mildred de Briers stared at the closed door for a few moments, then gathered her lavender silk skirts and slowly mounted the stairs. As she passed the large, gold-framed mirror on the landing, she stopped and studied her face and instantly wiped the grim expression from it. At forty-five, she was still beautiful, Mildred gloated. A pity, that her only son always managed to raise her hackles, but then there it was and it would never change. She hated her son, and had done so since Richard was born.
It was June 1793 and Paris was once again in turmoil.
The people were rioting against the Terror regime, the power that had crushed hopes of a good life and instead made them suffer even more cruelly than under the Ancient Régime. The execution of the royal family, presented to the people as the ultimate victory over the aristocracy, had obtained the opposite effect, as people began to pity the unfortunate King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette, both beheaded in January 1793, as well as their surviving daughter Marie-Thérèse, barely fifteen and still imprisoned at the Tour du Temple.
People were murdered, women violated, children left to die of starvation on the streets. Shops were ransacked, houses burned, churches destroyed. It was chaos, the end of a world and of an era.
For Manon Favier, fate had something particular in store.
Up until now, the Faviers had managed to keep their heads above water well enough. Thibaut Favier had taken over his father’s apothecary shop on the Rue Saint-Jacques, near the Sorbonne university after he fled England. He was well-known and loved in the neighbourhood. He provided the much-tried inhabitants with potions, pills, and ointments for their many ailments, often without asking for payment. So the people had protected their apothecary and his family. However, recently, Paris had been caught in a different kind of frenzy, where all the values of before were scattered and obliterated. Thibaut Favier’s shop was ransacked, and the owner killed. Manon and her little five-year-old brother Jéhan were left orphans without a penny to live on.
On the day her father was killed, Manon – unaware of what had befallen on their father – had gone out to meet her brother at the Couvent des Dames de Marie, where he attended school. She was on her usual rounds, seeing to the patients in her care, so she had been carrying her apothecary satchel, filled with the necessities of her trade, and a load of various items of food, given to her by her grateful patients. Manon had spotted the rioters, waited until they were gone, and inwardly sent up a prayer of thanks because they hadn’t set fire to the house.
She and Jéhan had gone inside, barred the door, and were planning to make up a bed for the night amidst the torn curtains and clothes the plunderers had discarded, when Manon noticed the rusting-iron odour of her father’s slaughtered corpse on the kitchen floor. Quickly, she had ushered Jéhan into the shop, preventing him from seeing the horror.
“Here, my darling; let us sit down and eat something, shall we?”
Jéhan obeyed but asked, “Where is Papa? It is filthy in here, Manon. I want to go eat in the kitchen.”
“We cannot, my darling.”
Manon debated what she should do while she handed a lump of bread and a piece of cheese to her brother. Jéhan had to be told about their father, but it was not necessary for him to see the bloodied corpse. Her stomach churning and her heart grieving, she applied herself to feeding her brother and putting him to sleep on a pile of rags in one corner of the shop. She waited until he was fast asleep before she ventured back into the kitchen again.
They had stabbed Papa multiple times, and he had bled copiously until one blade pierced his heart. His face, surprisingly, was intact and serene, as if he had not suffered a great deal. Maybe he had not, Manon mused, but she knew she was fooling herself. A large lump had formed in her throat, now threatening to burst. She closed her eyes, heaved a deep sigh and started to think.
She and Jéhan could not stay in Paris, that was obvious. The riots were becoming harsher by the day, and half the city was on the run for the countryside. The populace that would stay, was a rabble of miscreants and murderers, not to mention the Terror’s troops. Any time now, she and her brother could be arrested and put on trial, which would certainly lead to them being beheaded. The fact that Jéhan was only five years old would not stop the monsters. Her own fate would even be worse than death.
Manon shivered, swallowed, and made her decision. She would bury her father in the small back garden, where they grew their herbs, and would then wait until the rebellion against the Terror slowed down enough for her to leave Paris. Where she would be going, she did not know yet. But she was going, no doubt about that.
Milton, Lancashire – December 24th, 1850
Tomorrow was Christmas, and it should have been a merry time.
Another year was over, and Marlborough Mills had done reasonably well, despite the strike. Or should I say, it had been doing well before the strike? Ah …
Men would seek to better themselves, and strive to bring down mill masters who stood in their way.
I, John Thornton, was in their black book even more, because I brought in Irish workers to do their jobs while the strike lasted. Yet who could blame me for trying to save my business, no matter what it took?
On this icy-cold Christmas Eve, I was on my way to my banker. My workers were at home, celebrating the season as best they could, and God knew they hadn’t much to celebrate with.
I was not inclined to celebrate, either. I had my mill to keep safe and sound, so I was to learn of an investor Latimer had invited to come and meet me. As I walked the cold, deserted streets of Milton, snow crunched and ice crackled underfoot. It was one of the harshest winters I had ever known.
I hurried on, past the dark alley entrances of the Princeton district, eager to reach the larger, well-to-do streets further on. From one of these dismal openings came a keening, sobbing sound. I stopped to investigate, and froze; a woman was holding a bundle of rags close to her chest, weeping disparagingly. She seemed lost in her own, distant world of misery.
“Can I be of assistance, madam?” I asked, stunning myself in the process. What possessed me to even talk to the woman? But she looked up at me, and I was shocked to see that she was very young, and approximately the same age as Margaret. Something moved deep inside me.
“My little girl is dying, mister,” she sobbed. “She’s just three weeks old, and my milk has run dry. Oh, what am I to do? My dearest girl …”
From out of the dark, a young boy darted at me. “Leave me sister alone, you bastard!” His small fists pounded at me, but he was too short to reach higher than my thighs. I grabbed him by the shoulders and made him to look at me.
“Listen, boy,” I commanded, “here’s a tuppence coin for you if you do as I say. Go to Mr Latimer’s house and tell him Mr Thornton has been delayed. I’m taking your sister and her babe to my house at Marlborough Mills. Can you remember that?”
“Yes, sir, yes!”
“Then, go!” He disappeared into the night, while I scooped up woman and child and strode back home as quickly as I could.
“Mother!” I shouted, and kicked the front door close. I headed for the kitchen, Mother’s footsteps resounding behind me almost at once.
“John, what’s happened? Are you hurt? What …”
In a few words, I explained, putting the woman in a chair before the hearth, while Mrs Baxter, our cook, took the small bundle from her.
“Oh, Lord! What ‘ave we ‘ere? Oh, heavens, what a poor little mite!”
“The baby had no feedings for I know not how long,” I said, rubbing the hands of the woman, who had fainted when the warmth from the fire overwhelmed her. “Mrs Baxter, what can you use to restore her? I don’t know how long she’s been without food.”
“Leave it to me, sir. Jane? Jane, come and ‘elp me!” Our maid Jane was there in an instant, wide-eyed and aghast. Mrs Baxter laid the bundle in Jane’s arms.
“Put your little finger into the babe’s mouth and see if she suckles, while I prepare some hot milk with honey,” Mother advised.
Jane, a slender, not too bright girl, was standing there nonplussed, when Mother took over.
“Give her to me, Jane, and prepare a basin with tepid water. We need to warm her up first.”
By now, the mother had regained consciousness and was gaping at the room at large. I splashed a bit of brandy into a glass and handed it to her. “Here, sip this, but very carefully, mind! What’s your name?”
“Daisy, sir. Daisy Hardman. We live in Princess Street, next to Nicholas Higgins. Oh, Mr Thornton, what ‘ll happen to my little Margaret?”
It had to be a Margaret, for surely I would never ever be allowed to forget her. She who had so cruelly rejected me. She who I would love until my last breath. Margaret, my love …
A weak but distinctive cry came from the scullery, causing Daisy to jump up and run.
A few moments later, she returned with little Margaret clutched against her breast. Mrs Baxter and Jane, preceded by Mother, followed. Mother handed Daisy a small glass bottle which contained the milk. It was topped by what looked like a cow’s teat. I was greatly astonished; where on earth had she found such an object?
Daisy, however, took it from Mother, and after hesitating for a short time, inserted the teat into little Margaret’s mouth. The baby began to suckle, first cautiously, but then more vigorously.
“Careful!” Mother warned, then said, “Don’t give her too much at a time. She can’t cope with too much food after she missed her nursing for a whole day.”
Mother turned to me and whispered, “Apparently she stopped having milk only since yesterday. It’s bad enough, but I don’t think it too late to save the child.” I nodded. Mother is good at these matters.
The knocker on the front door sent Jane away, and I wondered who would come calling at this hour. Jane returned soon, her face flushed.
“Master, there’s a gentleman to speak with you. I showed him into the parlour. He says he’s from Mr Latimer’s bank.”
I hastened upstairs, wondering who my visitor would be. The most extraordinary vision awaited me in the parlour.
The man was undoubtedly a gentleman, and one of the old school, to boot. He was not young, in his late sixties or early seventies, but it was obvious that he was in excellent condition. He was tall, slender and still muscular, with broad shoulders and a proud, upright posture. His clothing was of the finest broadcloth, his linen snowy white, and his overcoat was of thick, blue wool. He wore tall, shiny boots, that were of a fashion some forty years ago. I had seen my father wearing them, when I was a child. I believe they were called Hessians, and they would have been worn by gentlemen of some wealth.
This gentleman offered me his hand, saying, “Mr Thornton? My name is Darcy, and your late father was a friend of mine when we were at university. I was sorry to hear that he died, after that dreadful bankruptcy. I was one of his investors, at the time.”
“Mr Darcy of the Pemberley estate in Derbyshire? It’s an honour to meet you, sir, although I’m embarrassed that my father’s debacle caused you to lose money. If there are still some debts, I will do my utmost best to cover them.”
“Oh, no, you misunderstand me, sir. I have come to offer you my support for your business. I was most impressed by the way your lady mother paid back all that was lost in the bankruptcy.”
I was speechless. So flabbergasted was I, that I failed to hear the door open. Mother passed me and curtsied to Mr Darcy, in so an unusual but graceful manner, that I was stunned to see her do it.
“Mr Darcy, I am Mrs Thornton, and I am so very glad to finally make your acquaintance, sir. Still, I’m afraid you give me too much credit. It was not I who repaid you, but my son John, here. As a sixteen-year-old, he quit school and went to work at a draper’s shop to gather all the missing funds and pay them to everyone who had lost their money.”
Mr Darcy turned back to me, joy shining in his deep-brown eyes.
“Then, Mr Thornton, I can repay you in proposing a business deal. I want to become a partner in Marlborough Mills.”
Later, much later, Mr Darcy and I had agreed to the conditions of our partnership, and were enjoying a glass of brandy. I was very tired, not only because of the long day, with all its demanding events, but also because I fully realised for the first time that I would never share this with Margaret. She had cut all the ties that existed between us when she refused me.
“Forgive me, Mr Thornton, but I can see that there is something weighing on you. If I can help, I will gladly do so.”
I looked him in the eye and saw that, for some reason, that he understood me. I hesitated. Mr Darcy was a stranger, after all.
“Is it because of a woman, Mr Thornton? Oh, don’t give me that suspicious look. I know the signs all too well. I have been there myself.”
“You, sir?” I stammered.
“Oh, yes,” he replied, smiling ruefully. “My Lizzie gave me a hard time before she agreed to be mine. I deserved every ounce of it. I had treated her with disdain and misplaced pride, I’m afraid. But finally I was able to convince her of my deep and sincere feelings of love and affection.”
And so, Mr Darcy told me his story. It was incredible but beautiful. At the time he and Miss Elizabeth Bennet met, he considered her family inferior, and her siblings empty-headed geese. He especially hurt his wife by offending her mother in the most vicious way, although he had a point when thinking Mrs Bennet a bit vulgar in some ways. Small wonder that Miss Bennet had rejected him with words that even now rang bitter in his mind.
“With a few well-chosen words, she accused me of being anything but a gentleman,” Mr Darcy said. “And I, fool that I was, failed to see the hurtful tears in her fine eyes. Tears that had been caused by my foolish pride. Ah, Mr Thornton, love comes to us like a disease, unexpected and unwanted. We feel completely lost in an unknown world and are helpless to right the wrongs we might cause. Men fight love, when it overwhelms us, Mr Thornton, and are as miserable as can be, until we embrace it to the full.”
I stared at him, experiencing a feeling of unabashed comfort. This man knew what he was talking of. “But,” I said hesitantly, “all went well in the end for you and your lady?”
“It did,” Mr Darcy smiled. “I had the good fortune of being able to help my Lizzie with a most embarrassing family matter, which made her see me in a totally different light. She, of course, had come to love me, she must already have had feelings for me when I uttered my ill-mannered proposal. So after a long time, when all difficulties had been taken care of, she accepted my proposal when I asked her a second time. We have been married happily for nigh forty years. What I want to say to you, Mr Thornton, is this; do not give up. Do not lose sight of your lady, and watch over her. There might come a new opportunity to offer her your love.”
He smiled. “Ladies have their pride, too. They need to hear you declare your love in a most sincere manner. They can be offended when you do not use the right words.”
Long after Mr Darcy left me, his words kept turning over and over in my head. Could he be right? Was there still a possibility that Margaret might come to love me? Time would tell, but I was determined to watch and love her from afar until that moment came.
Dear Reader, a merry Christmas and a happy New Year from Luce. May all your wishes come true and may you and your family prosper in 2016.
[JT Look Back at Me]
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 round 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 close 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 closet 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 fellowman. 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 towards 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 get to the bottom of this, or go crazy wondering. It’s too late for anything to be done, other than to ease my mind that she had not purposely avoided 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 in 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 to 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 in 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 bear.”
“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 all ready had our big discussion at Thornton’s house the other night, plus, we’ll be meeting again tomorrow morning. 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 towards 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.”
(Continued on Mondays)
[JT Look Back at Me]
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 kept long hours at work, 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 on 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 retrained his workers. In order to pay wages, he diluted most of his personal 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, produced 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 dissention 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 side 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 backwards 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.”
(Continuing on Mondays)