Chapter Twenty Four
Grant Hartford was nearing Milton after giving his horse to a young lad along the road, a mile or two from the third station from London. From there, he walked to the nearest station and boarded the train. He had hired a coach to take him from the train station three stops before Milton. He knew his training, and should the Army be now warned about him, he knew how they would think and react. He paid the driver good money to keep his mouth shut should he be asked about him. Grant had the driver drop him off two miles outside of Milton. He would walk the rest of the way in. Thinking his disguise would be plenty, he soon saw that he would stand out in his hunting clothes. He would have to rectify that.
Grant walked the perimeter of Milton until he saw what he’d been looking for. There was an ageing man about his size that would not give him much trouble as he strangled him. Any other form of death would have resulted in the clothes being unusable. He laid the body in high grass and began his hike into town.
As he neared the edge of Milton, he could see a newer more affluent end of town being built, but he was drawn to the puffing smoke mill area. There the poor labourers would be living and perhaps John Thornton as well. He pulled his worn threadbare cap low over his eyes and walked through the winding back disgusting filth of the streets. He listened to the accents around him. There were many, but all were uneducated speech. It was apparent that a lot of people had migrated to where there was work. He would have to alter his own speech to match.
Finally seeing a beaten down shed of a building with a pub sign over the top, he entered. The smell was atrocious. Apparently, they only mopped the vomit soaked floors once in a while. He took a seat at the bar and looked around him.
“I’ll ‘ave a pint,” he ordered. Neither patron beside him struck up a conversation which allowed him to listen to the conversations he could hear.
“Got any stew?” He asked as his drink was slid to him.
“Aye. Want a bowl and bread,” he was asked.
“Right you are, guv,” Grant responded.
Hartford listened to the grumblings going on around him. Workers from differing mills were bickering about their wages or treatment. He listened for John Thornton’s name but never heard it.
The bartender brought his bowl. “Why don’t you sit over there in that booth?”
“I’ll be doin’ that for sure. I’m here to find work and a bed for the night. Got any ideas?”
“You can probably find a cot or floor pallet, if you don’t mind that, about four blocks over. We get a lot of people looking for work, so’s I can’t say if there’s room. As for where to look for work, ya see that feller over there talking with that other man?”
“He’s been at the mills a long time. He should know anything you want to know.”
“Thanks, chap.” Grant slapped a few coins on the bar top for his food and ale. If he’d left a tip, he might stand out, so he didn’t do that. He picked up his bowl and pint and walked over to the empty booth. No one around him seemed to be talking about Margaret Hale or Margaret Thornton. Grant wanted to find a paper to buy.
A woman with cheap bangles and scarves around her, accentuating her very full bosom slid into his booth.
“You new here?”
“Nope, just new to this joint. I don’t ‘ave time for what you’re sellin’. How long you been here, anyway?”
“I’ve been plying my trade for a couple years, in Milton. The pay ain’t so good, here, though. Do I see some interest comin’ into those pretty eyes of yours? My name is Mable.”
“How much Mable?”
There was a bartering on price since Grant felt it was expected.
“I don’t want no stand in the corner thing. I want a room.” Grant insisted.
“That’ll be extra.”
“Bloody hell. All right.” Grant moaned.
“I’ve finished my dinner, and it’s gettin’ late. Where to wench?”
“Just up those stairs, ducky.” Mable winked.
Grant trudged along behind her. He was hoping for some information from her, more than satisfaction.
Entering the room, Grant felt like vomiting himself. He was going to have to crawl into a used bed. Not being able to stand the thought of that, he went to a chair and removed his trousers.
“You kneel in front of me, Mable.”
“Do you want me to remove my clothes since that’s what you’re wantin’?”
“Blast! Of course, I do woman. I haven’t seen a naked lass for several months.”
Mable removed her clothes as Grant looked on. Her face was painted profusely to hid her age, but her body underneath was still in good shape. As he took in her curves, breasts and the V at her upper thighs, his erection came to attention. It was almost painful. He’d forgotten about his injury.
Mable knelt down and inspected him for disease.
“Oh my, what’s happened to this big boy,” Mable said with concern.
“It is an injury. It’s none of your concern; just do what I’m paying you for.”
Grant relaxed back in the chair enjoying this effortless pleasure on his part.
“You ever hear of John Thornton?”
Mable stopped her administrations to answer. “You are new here if you don’t know Thornton.”
“He’s a very prominent citizen in Milton. He heads up the committee of mill owners. Do you want me to talk or work?”
“Go back to working. We’ll talk later.”
The night was drawing late, and Greta came up the stairs, making a noise, so the new couple were aware of her entering the room.
“Mrs Thornton, Would you like to prepare for bed?”
Margaret paused and looked at John, who was purposely looking away.
“Greta, I think just help in the privy this evening. I will attempt the other myself.” Margaret looked over at John, expecting to see a beaming face, but he was calm and collected. He had picked up the day’s paper to appear to be reading. His heart had started to pound. If the room was quiet, he was sure he could hear it. He anticipated exquisite torture ahead. He could look but touch very little. If he ever needed strength of will, it would be now.
Margaret and Greta returned from the back room. Before John could notice, Margaret had sat down on the side of the couch, holding her weight against the arm rest.
“John, I told Greta, she could go tomorrow. I’m going to be a burden on you.”
“I hope so.”
“That doesn’t mean that I am ready . . .”
“I know sweetheart. You are going to tell me, remember?”
“I may want to, but I don’t think the words will come out of my mouth when I want.” Margaret displayed a playful, yet serious, pout. Perhaps, you should take that back over, as it’s easier for me to say no, than the other.”
John smiled at her. Her innocence was undoing him. Of all the women that he had been with over his lifetime, they made the initial move. He was not used to shyness and innocence. He thought Margaret was too endearing for words.
“I will look forward to the honor,” John said.
“Would you like a drink, Margaret?”
“I thought we were going to bed?”
“Only if you wish it. Because your nurse thinks it’s bedtime, doesn’t mean you must think the same.” John needed a little assurance that Margaret meant what she said.
“It is late.”
“Yes, to some, I would imagine,” John teased, still maintaining his uninterested look.
“Would you help me undress?”
“I would like nothing better.”
“In the dark? Added Margaret.
John rolled his fist and held it in front of his mouth to keep from grinning at her charms. “Whatever you are comfortable with, my love.”
“Let me light the bedchamber light until we get there. Then I will come down here, turn these lights off and watch you climb the steps.”
Margaret was a ball of nerves. She was rubbing her hands together. Her legs felt weak, too weak to climb the stairs. “Oh, I’m going to be a fright. What will he think of me?” Margaret said to herself.
John was back in no time. He turned down the lights and came to her.
“I have a confession.”
“And that is?” John asked.
“My legs have weakened. I think I am . . . no, I know I am nervous. Could you carry me?”
John kissed her and picked her up. He had waited a long time for this, whatever this turned out to be.
Entering the bedchamber, Margaret saw that the bed had been turned down. She wasn’t sure if John did that or Jane before she left. The lights were low but not out. A thin gown lie at the foot of the bed.
“How would you like to begin, my love?”
“Umm . . . first, turn out the light.”
John went to one light and turned down the gas. That left a single candle lit in the room. Margaret looked at it and decided to leave it alone.
“If you will undo my buttons in the back of my dress, please.”
John could see his own hands shaking. What in the world was wrong with him? This had never happened. He struggled with the task as his hands were large and there was very little light. Finally, it was done. He didn’t ask but gently slid the sleeves off of her shoulders. He could see she had a slip on, in fact, one full and one-half one. Margaret didn’t object. As he started to slide it down, he felt foolish. He should be standing in front of her so she could balance herself on his shoulders when she stepped out of it.
As the gown began to fall in his hands, he kissed the back of her neck and continued softly around to the front. The weight of the garment took it down into a pool and John knelt in front of her so he could remove it while she held his shoulders.
“John, I think you are shaking worse than I am.”
“I’ve never felt this way before. I cannot seem to stop it.”
“If I say no, are you still able to stop?”
John carried the dress and hung it next to his own clothes in the wardrobe. Turning to Margaret, his inhale was audible.
“I suppose this big piece just slides down the same way?” he asked.
“Yes. I thought you knew about these things.” Margaret laughed, breaking the tension for him.
“It’s all lost forever. It’s only you now.”
“John, don’t tease me. This is hard enough.”
“I am not teasing. I am more nervous than you. You are like that special gift under the tree that I have waited for a long time. I want to slowly unwrap it.”
John began to repeat the same procedure as the dress. He knelt until it was at her feet. She steadied her hands on his shoulders and stepped out.
“Does this get hung up or go in a drawer.”
Margaret couldn’t help but laugh at John’s nervousness and his unexpected naiveté.
With great embarrassment and beyond all wonder, Margaret blurted out, “Am I to show you where to put it, too?” Margaret was thinking far ahead in their relationship, but John was still looking at her crinoline, which had not been her intention with that statement. Margaret started a hysterical laugh, throwing her hands over her mouth.
“Yes, where do I put it?” John asked becoming amused himself.
“I didn’t mean the crinoline,” she barely gasped out.
John stood there with the garment in his hands, looking at it when he finally realized what she had meant.
John slowly raised his head to look at her. His grin was easy to see even in the dim light. He was stuck for a reply. He continued to stare at her as he fondled her half slip. “I have no answer for your question. We will just have to wait and see,” he said, dropping the slip onto a chair nearby and walking back to her. The long slip was sheer, and in the faint glow, he could see her breasts through the gauzy material. Also, the rib harness was visible, too and her undergarment.
“John, will you be disappointed if I do not make it all the way to naked this time?”
What was he going to say? Yes, he would be disappointed as a lustful man, but not has a loving husband. He was beginning to wonder which one he was.
“Whatever makes you comfortable. You want to put on the nightdress and do not know how to go about it, is that it?”
Margaret looked down at it and then herself, and said, “Yes.”
“I know how to work this.”
“Finally,” Margaret laughed.
“If you did not have a break in your body, you would not be getting away with that talk, wife of mine.”
“How do we go about this?” she said, pulling herself together. She was afraid she’d be crying if she wasn’t laughing.
“You turn your back to me, like so.” John turned her.
He reached down and grabbed the hem of the full slip and pulled it over her head.
Margaret pulled her arms to cover herself, instinctively.
John gently embraced her from behind, folding his arms across hers and held her. He began kissing her neck which he loved doing and thought she felt the same. Margaret leaned her head slightly to the side, giving him more access. While kissing her neck and shoulders, he slowly unfolded her arms in front of her. He placed them at her sides, and she did not move them.
“Margaret, I love you,” he said has he held a breast in each hand. John laid his head on top of hers and swam in the soft heaviness of his wife’s feminity. He was gentle and did not want to arouse her any further. It would be so easy to do.
“Will you turn around for me?” he whispered in her ear.
Margaret paused. She looked down to see John’s long fingers massaging her bosom. She could feel him move to look over her shoulder to see his own hands filled with her. She turned to him, facing the candlelight. Margaret looked into his eyes for his reaction. His face was radiant, and her knees grew weak.
“Margaret, . . .”
“John, I cannot stand any longer. Help me.”
John let go of his precious treasure and held her under her arms. He lifted her off the floor and walked her to the bed; sitting her there. He knelt in front of her.
“Thank you, my love, for being so beautiful.”
Margaret reached for his hair and began to run her fingers through it, which pulled his face to her breasts. Although he had not anticipated this, he filled his mouth with her. She moaned softly. John gave equal pleasure to each. It quickly came to an end.
And he did. He looked for an explanation, but he didn’t think one was forthcoming. He knew what was happening to him and it must be happening to her, and someone had to stop it.
He placed her on her back and began to unhook the rib corset. His hands were much steadier now. As it fell away, the evidence of her attacker hit him like a thunderbolt, once again. The blotches of bruises were starting to fade, but it would be another week or two for them to be completely gone. He sat her back up and slipped the nightdress over her.
“Can you stand once more, for just a moment, and I will slip off your undergarment?”
Margaret nodded, and John helped her stand. Once again he knelt. He could kneel before her all night if she let him. He lightly raised his hands under her night dress and found the ribbon that was tied in a bow. The garment fell lose, and he pulled it down, coaxing her to hold onto to him once again. He tossed it to the side and placed his hands on the side of her legs. He felt the primal animal rear its presence at the scent of her. He stood quickly.
“John those will be washed. For future reference, I will not wear those a second day.”
John laid them where he put his clothes for the washerwoman that came in twice a week. As he walked back, Margaret was beginning to pull the pins from her hair.
“Let me do that.”
John stared at her face in the candlelight and wished he could love her more than infinity. Slipping into her blue eyes, he ran his fingers through her hair, feeling for the pins. First one tress fell and then another, and another. Her hair unfurled over her shoulder and down to her breasts. Finding the last pin, he raked his hands through all of it, pulling it across his face and under his nose.
“Would you like me to brush it for you?”
“I think I would like you to remove your blouse,” Margaret said, glad that John could not see her blush.
“No. I will let you do that.”
Grant left the room with more information than when he entered. Now he would take a stroll in the dark to look at what he could see in the direction of Marlborough Mills before finding a place to lay his head.
Grant nodded and tipped his hat now and again. He’d look down whenever a bobby was passing him, but he’d say, “Good evenin’, Guv.”
He imagined this was a high crime rate as there were a lot of police in this poor district. Everyone must be stealing from their neighbour down here.
Once he got into the actual mill area, there were fewer people on the road, but men were coming and going in the yards, he could see. It was almost impossible to read the signs to know which mill he was looking for. But it looked like night would be his best opportunity to hit and run. Once he found the mill, he would have to plot his escape route. Depending on how he managed it, would depend on the time it would take to discover her body, thus his escape time, as well. Grant had passed about twenty mills before he gave up. This reconnaissance would have to take place at either dawn or twilight. Both times seemed sensible to have a shift change, which would be ideal for him. He could probably easily stroll onto the property unnoticed. He turned and headed back to the place he’d been told about earlier. A cot or a floor pallet, they would have to do. Finally, he found his way back to the inn. From there, he was told to walk four streets over, and he did.
There was a dim lantern burning near the window. He knocked on the door. He heard the door being unlocked and a large man asked him if he needed a bed.
“Yes, Guv. You got anything?” Grant felt good that he had a couple days growth of beard on his face.
“I think I can find you a floor pallet at this hour,” said the night man. “Will that do ya?”
“Anything. I want to be up early to go looking for work tomorrow.”
The night man could care less. “Second floor, pallet number thirty-six.”
Grant handed over a few bob and went on his way.
As he fumbled his way in the near total darkness, he kicked a few feet and was cursed for it.
Little did he know that one of the men he woke was Frederick Hale.
Frederick laid back down with a sense of something he could not put his finger on. It had to have been that vagrant that tripped over him. He couldn’t sleep. After a few hours, as dawn was filtering through the windows, he got up, as some others were and passed the sleeping man. He felt rewarded for sleeping where he had been. He had hoped someone on the run might look for a place like this to sleep. He took a second look to be sure. It was Captain Grant Hartford. He could only see the man’s profile, but he looked a lot like the drawn picture. His hat had slipped off and that haircut was military, Frederick was sure of it.