John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 2

Chapter 2

     Abandoned Hope

 

Over the next year, John Thornton became a shell of the man he once was: a thinking human being with no central core, little constancy, adrift in his own life.  In an effort to keep his company from failing, he worked long hours, trying to lose himself in his mill.  Margaret’s words, on the day of the riot, continued to haunt him.  He recognized that consideration for the human condition of his people was the road to the mill’s salvation, but how to accomplish this remained an issue for him and all the cotton masters.  Feeling lost; he, nevertheless, was determined to resolve the wage issue, even if it meant losing everything to do it.  And through it all, his faith in Margaret’s insights remained intact.  Resolute to form a new perspective, John set to work toward a solution.

By the end of that first year, after Margaret had left, he began to see the benefits of his hard work.  He had successfully tightened controls, hired capable, more productive people, and re-trained his workers.  In order to pay wages, he diluted most of his  financial holdings.  He met with his workers individually and held monthly meetings so they could air their grievances.  Wanting his labor force to comprehend the whole picture, he demonstrated, with slate and chalk, where every pound was going and helped clear all their financial misunderstandings of the company.  His goal was to make them partners in his decisions.  Over time, the entire mill came to recognize their newly acquired knowledge (some absorbed more than others), as fair and equal.  They had a sense of partnership, and they had a purpose: they wanted John to succeed.  He wasn’t only their boss; he became their friend.  In the end, the workers’ personal interest in the success of the company, and their mutual pride and dedication to workmanship  created  a finer product.

Before long, John’s mill began to reap great rewards; the other mill masters, observing the result of changes he had made, began to follow his lead.  Although they didn’t always agree with him on his expenditures and personal sacrifices (with regard to the workers), John showed them that sacrifice was at the core of his success.  He believed in a new way of thinking: a future vision that embraced the workers’ humanity and would ultimately resolve most problems.  Recognized as a highly acclaimed merchant within the Cotton Industry, it wasn’t long before other burgeoning industries began to take notice of the name John Thornton and the town of Milton.  Respect and admiration for his business skills and absence of dissension among his 300 plus workers resulted in his fame being spread throughout other areas of commerce.  His methods were recorded in trade journals, and he was asked to speak at various functions around the country.  John was obliging but shunned the limelight, and never put himself forward to be admired.  He disliked receiving praise for common sense work and he highly undervalued himself.  The world, however, saw him differently…

At a time when John was achieving great success and blazing historical trails, his personal life was far from successful, but he kept it well hidden from all but his closest friends.  Margaret never wrote to him after her bereavement ended.  He had written her two letters, but they went unanswered.  This puzzled him.  It was most unlike Margaret to be so impolite.  Having had no communication from her, and having heard no news of her, he began to worry, sensing she might slip through his grasp.

My destiny cannot be to live without her.

In the second year after Margaret left, John attempted two more courteous letters but received no replies.  Now, concerned that something was amiss, he wrote to Dixon, hoping she could shed some light on Margaret’s apparent disregard for his letters.  Clearly, this was not the Margaret he once knew.  He had to find out why.

Late one evening, John returned home from the mill.  As he entered the sitting room,   Hannah was sitting at the dining table, reviewing Cook’s menus for the following week.

“Good evening, Mother.  How has your day been?”

Hannah Thornton looked up from her work and smiled fondly at her son.  “Oh, a bit tiring…”  Lottie came by to gossip for a while, and we had tea.  Then I wrote a letter, did a little cross stitch… and here I sit working on our meals for next week.”  Rising from the table, walking to the couch, she watched him, as he removed his coat and cravat and placed them over the back of a chair.  “And how was your day, John?”

John walked over to the buffet and poured himself a brandy before responding.  Lifting the glass, he turned slightly towards Hannah, “Mother?”

“Yes, John, but I would prefer a small sherry, instead.  By the way, something came in the post for you today.  It’s on the dining room table.”

Without acknowledging her comment about the post, John continued pouring their drinks.  “It was a rather easy day, today.  Higgins still amazes me with his capacity for completing all the work I assign him.  I can’t find the end of the man.  He never tires, never complains, good teacher – a perfect overseer.  I’m going to get him into the office for some of the financial sides of the business.”  Picking up her sherry, but leaving his brandy behind, John walked to the dining table and retrieved the letter.  Crossing the room, he handed his mother her glass.  He paused a moment to open the note, quickly scanning for a signature.

“Finally,” John said as he walked back to the buffet and picked up his brandy.  Walking over to his leather chair in front of the fire, he sat down and began to unfold the letter.

“Who is it from?” his mother asked, watching John’s movements.

“It’s from Dixon, the Hales’ housekeeper.  She now works for Margaret.”

Hannah looked at him angrily.  “John, you didn’t!  Please tell me you didn’t write to her and ask about Miss Hale behind her back.”

Raising his eyes to meet hers, John answered, “Mother, I cannot tell you so, because I did write to her.  I wrote to Margaret four times in two years and received no response to my letters.  I thought a quick note to Dixon, requesting a reply, would let me know if Margaret received them.  I have reason to suspect that her family may be censoring her post.  I didn’t tell you about writing to her because I knew you would go on . . . like you are about to do now . . .” He paused for a moment, letting the weight of his words sink in.  His mother’s consistent negativity towards Margaret Hale, from the very beginning of their acquaintance, was an ongoing source of frustration for him.  “So,” he continued, “if you don’t mind, mother, I would like to read Dixon’s letter now.”

As John began reading, Hannah was up and pacing the floor.  She was worried about this “re-emergence of the “Miss Hale” story.  For the past two years, he had been seeing other women, no one permanently, but she thought Miss Hale was far from his mind.  Suddenly, Hannah’s thoughts were interrupted as she heard the sound of glass, shattering on the floor.  She quickly turned around and saw John, still seated, bent slightly forward with his elbows supported on his knees.  He was holding his head in his hands, looking down, staring at the letter that had fallen to the floor.

“What is it, John?” she asked, alarmed by his pale face and empty unfocused eyes.

She watched as he stood up.  Without acknowledging her question, and oblivious to the glass fragments on the floor, he walked out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door with neither coat nor hat, in hand.  Hannah was stunned; he’d never done anything like that before.  She hurried to the window, in time to see him walking through the mill gate.

At the sound of footsteps coming from the kitchen stairs, Hannah turned and saw Jane, the housekeeper, entering the room, dustpan, and broom in hand.

“I thought I heard the sound of breaking glass, ma’am.” she said, glancing around the room.

Hannah composed herself.  “Over here, Jane,” she said as she pointed to the floor, “but hand me that letter first, if you don’t mind?”

Jane handed her mistress the note and began to sweep the glass.  Hannah waited patiently for her to leave, then sat in John’s chair and began to read.
Dear Mr. Thornton,

It was nice hearing from you.  I do not think Miss Margaret got your letters because I think she would have told me.  She and I are close friends.  She does not care for London, so we talk a lot about Helstone and Milton.  I know she wrote to you once or maybe it was two times because she asked me if I wanted to add anything.  I just wanted to say Hello to you.  Did you not receive them? 

I don’t know if this is good news or bad news for you, but Miss Margaret married her a college professor last month.  She is not living here anymore.  They live on the school grounds somewhere.  I was not allowed to go with her because they have their own staffing. 

To be honest with you Mr. Thornton, I don’t know if she was happy to be married or happy to be out of here.  She’s been very sad a long time, but I don’t think it is all about her parents dying.  She just hates living here and society life being pressed on her.  I know she would have been happy to hear from you because we wondered how you and Mr. Higgins were getting along.  I think that is all you wanted to know.  Please write again if I can tell you anymore, I like getting letters.                                                                                                  Dixon
By the time Hannah finished reading the letter, tears were rolling down her cheeks, and her heart beat rapidly in her chest.  She felt terrible for her son.  She decided to wait and have dinner with him, but he didn’t return, and she could not eat.  Feeling unwell, she retired to her room for the evening.

Knowing John was at a very low point, weighed heavily on her conscience, exhausting her even further.  She recognized she held some blame in this disaster in her son’s life.  Originally, she never endeared herself to Margaret and had since tried to sweep her memory out of the way.  John, meanwhile, had been holding on to her tightly, in his heart.  “How he must have struggled to tolerate me,” she thought,” when I was so quick to dismiss any conversation about Miss Hale.”

Will he ever forgive me?

Outside, John walked towards nowhere; numb, not caring, and oblivious to everything around him, including the cold and the approaching darkness.  His thoughts were incomprehensible; he was inconsolable.
I cannot believe what has happened to my life.  It is over.
John had loved Margaret for over three years.  Although there had been no communication between them for two of those years, he still had clung to hope.  He had dreams, and he had plans, all of which just died a horrible death.

Walking with his head down, people stared at him as he passed.  He wandered aimlessly out of town and found himself at the cemetery, where Margaret had visited weekly, at the grave of her lost friend, Bessie.

John’s insides were churning as he walked around in circles, simultaneously wrestling with anger and sorrow.  Tears rolled down his face, as his stomach convulsed with pain, and pure mental agony consumed him.

 

Margaret  . . .  my love, my life, why did you marry someone else?
Holding his arms straight over his head, shaking his fist skyward, shouting and sobbing at his maker, John wailed to the heavens, “Why, God . . . why?  Why take Margaret from me, again?  What have I done to deserve this?  . . .  God, anything but this!”

John silently cursed his god.  For him, God no longer existed.  With despondency heavily descending upon him, he slid to his knees and fell backward on to the cold damp ground.  A few moments later he sat up, resting his head on his arms, which were laying across his up-drawn knees.  Tears of utter desolation poured out from him.  He thought he was watching himself go mad.

“I have loved her for three years, God.  Two years ago, my heart broke when you took her from me.  I have not looked into her face since then, but have continued to live in hope every day.  And today, God, you put a pistol to my head and pulled the trigger.  You have taken away my love, my reason for living, my everything.  She wrapped herself around my very soul, now you’ve wrenched her away.  You have destroyed me, God.  I am done with you, as you are done with me.”  John cried uncontrollably, feeling as if he was bleeding to death, and wishing, somehow, that he could.

As the hours rolled by, he sank deeper into despair, and thoughts of ending his own life began to appear, but the recollection of the family’s grief, over his father’s suicide, kept him teetering on the brink of life.  He knew, without a doubt, living in a world without Margaret, in a world without hope of Margaret, meant living in a void: a meaningless, senseless life; forever floating, trapped in a world of depression, and ostracized from reciprocated love.

As the pale light of dawn rose over the smoky town, John stood slowly, straining at his stiffness, and decided to go home and try to survive the rest of his damaged life.  There were no tears left to shed.  He was completely and utterly spent.
Everything is gone . . .  lost to me now . . .  and I, too, am lost.
Approaching his home, John tried putting on a good face for the early workers wandering the yard, but he knew he looked awful and it matched his mood.  Feeling unprepared to face his mother over Miss Hale, again, he mounted the porch steps, took a deep breath, and turned the doorknob.  As he came bravely through the door to the sitting room, Hannah looked up from her chair and quietly gasped.  Standing before her in muddied clothes, looking totally exhausted, was her son: face swollen, eyes bloodshot and cheeks stained and streaked with tears.  He was a broken man, and her heart sank for him.  How he suffers…  Without saying a word, she walked over, putting her motherly arms around him.  She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but it didn’t seem enough, considering her past attitude toward Miss Hale, so, she kept silent on the matter.

“Would you like something to eat, John?”  Hannah asked, tentatively, as she stepped back from him.

“No thank you, mother.  I’m going to clean up and lie down for a few hours.  Would you send Jane to find Higgins and tell him it will be a while before I get to the office?”

Hannah said she would take care of it.  Having decided she would say nothing about the letter until he did, she stood silently watching him.  Picking up Dixon’s letter, John turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.  Hannah thought to herself that she had never seen him so dejected.  Unfortunately, and all too late, she realized the great love her son had for Miss Hale; so much more than she had ever thought.  At last, she fully recognized the understanding John had of Margaret.  Hannah knew, for certain, she had misjudged this woman.

In his room, John undressed and bathed, feeling the weight of loneliness descend upon his tired body.  Putting on a fresh undergarment, he lay down on the bed.  Exhaustion overtook him, finally, and he slept fitfully, never finishing Dixon’s letter.

He awoke several hours later, bathed in sweat.  Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up, trying to clear his head.  He wished he was awakening from a nightmare, but there it was, on the night table: Dixon’s letter, spelling out THE END to the rest of his life.  Reaching over, he picked it up, and began reading where he had left off:

 

  To be honest with you Mr. Thornton, I don’t know if she was happy to be married or happy to be out of here.  She’s been very sad a long time, but I don’t think it is all about her parents.  She just hates living here and society life being pressed on her.  I know she would have been happy to hear from you because we wondered how you and Mr. Higgins were getting along.  

 

Suddenly, he stopped.  “What did that mean . . . happy to be married or happy to be out of there?”

John stood, continuing to read, as he paced the floor and ran his fingers through his hair.  They were words, just words, but ignoring them would haunt him forever.  Nothing could be done now; there could be no difference in their permanent separation.  But still… he had to know…

 

Did she marry for love?

 

It seemed absurd to want to know the answer; what difference would it make?  Yet, deep down, burned the desire to feel what might have been.  What if she could have loved him?  That, at least, would be worth something to him.

He knew what he must do…  In a few weeks, he was due to attend the annual convention for the cotton mill industry, held in London.

“I will visit Dixon while I’m there.  I must understand what she meant by those words.”