John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 3

  A Visit with Dixon

1853 summer

Upon discovering that Margaret had married, John spent the next few weeks trying not to sink through the hole in his heart, until he could visit Dixon and discuss the content of her letter.  Still determined to understand the meaning of her statement about why Margaret married, he wrote, requesting a few moments of her time on the day he planned to be in London.

In addition to losing the greatest love of his life, John now feared the loss of his mother.  She was growing weaker and more staid, appearing increasingly deficient by the day.  It was small comfort to John that she was under Dr. Donaldson’s care.  She still refused to share her health issues, and John’s concern grew.  Aware of Hannah’s waning strength, Dixon came to mind.  She would be ideal; a caring companion for his mother.  John had no idea, however, with Margaret married and gone, in what capacity Dixon served the Lennox household.  He needed to find out if she was available to tend to his mother, as her fragility progressed.

With sleeves rolled up, John sat slumped over his desk, strewn with scattered papers, graphs, and financial ledgers, immersing himself in concentrating on the upcoming convention.  He looked up at the sound of a knock on the door, welcoming the distraction from his tiresome work.

Higgins opened the door and poked his head in, “Can I have a word with you?  Oh … it looks like this might not be a good time.  Should I come back later?”

John tossed his feathered pen down onto the papers.  “Come in,” he said, “I’m not getting very far with this, and I could use a rest.  What can I help you with?  Take a seat.”

Pushing his chair out from under the desk, John leaned back with his hands behind his head.  Arching his stiff back and stifling a small groan, he waited for Higgins to enter the room.

Higgins stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and removed his cap.  He sat down across from John, and not knowing how to start; he began whirling his cap around and round by the rim.  John could see Higgins was anxious and worried about something.

“Higgins,” he prompted, “I know that look.  What’s on your mind?”

Shifting slightly in his seat, he began, “Boss, you put me in charge of this mill.  And it is for the mill, I am speaking to you now.  Nearly all of our people, including myself, are sensing a drastic change in your manner.  We are all concerned and there is much talk.  They are coming to me, asking what’s wrong with the Master.  Many think the mill might be in trouble.  I know that not to be true; I tell them that, but have no explanation to give them about their concerns.  You and I work closely together, and I can see a great sadness that you’re trying to hide from everyone.  I didn’t want to speak about this with you, as it must be personal in nature, but the people are growing more worried by the day; that includes me.  They’re starting to fear for their jobs, and some have talked about looking for work at other mills.  Can you share anything, which might relieve their worries?”

John stood, curling his hands into his pockets, and turned away from Higgins.  He gazed out the window over-looking the yard where his laborers were working.  He’d known all along that his recent behavior would soon be called into question, and he wondered how to broach the concerns about the two women in his life.

Still looking out the window, John began to speak, “Higgins, you put that most delicately.  Your leadership skills improve by the day.  In the entire world, I think you’ve been the closest friend to me.  Sometimes I look upon you like a brother.  I think we’re quite alike, you and I.  We have the same high standards.  We’re both honest to a fault; we work hard, and we care for our fellow man.  You’re not just my overseer.  I’m proud to call you my friend.”

John turned and faced Higgins.  Pausing briefly, he allowed his words to sink in, and then began pacing the room.  “I’m going to tell you, and only you, the two factors that have been plaguing my life recently.  Part of it is personal, and the other part will be known soon enough.”

As Higgins watched his boss pace the floor, sorrow flooded him; he knew it was all going to be bad.

Not wanting to look Higgins in the eye, John turned back to the window and slowly started to speak.  “First, and again… this is for you only. About a month ago, I learned that Margaret Hale married a college professor.  They’re living on the college campus in London.  I’ve had no communication with her since she left Milton, although I’ve tried repeatedly.  I feel there’s more wrong than right going on there, and I will get to the bottom of it.”

Feeling helpless, Higgins looked up at John, who was still staring out the window.  “I’m sorry, Master.  I knew of your feelings toward her, so I can only imagine how deeply saddened you are over this.  This alone tells me why you’ve acted the way you have, of late.  If I could ask, what do you feel is wrong?”

John turned, facing Higgins once more, and sat down at his desk, clasping his hands in front of him.  “I think it’s very unlikely that Miss Hale ever received my four letters to her in two years, and I’ve never received a single response.  I finally wrote to Dixon; she doesn’t believe she ever got them.  I’m going to find out why, or go crazy wondering.  It’s too late for anything to be done, other than to ease my mind that she did not purposely avoid replying.  I do feel there has been some . . . some… shall I say, mishandling of her posts?”

John leaned back in his chair, casually twirling his pen between his fingers and spoke before Higgins could reply.  “It gets worse.”  He hesitated a moment before continuing, “I’m now facing the fact . . . my mother does not have long to live.  The doctor comes to the house several times a week, but she doesn’t wish to confide in me about the seriousness of her illness.  So, I’ve decided, since I cannot be at her side constantly, when I go to London next week, I’ll ask Dixon if she can be her companion and watch over her.  I don’t believe mother will have any further contact with our workers, since she hardly leaves the house now and never comes into the mill.  I think we can be honest with our people and let them know that I’m worried about her health.”  He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath.

 

Higgins, be strong for me now

 

“As much as I wish to be among our workers,” John continued, “I don’t want to see the pity on their faces…” then he added softly, “… as I see in yours now.  Assure them this mill is in the best financial shape it has ever been, and that we have hopes of building another.”

“Master, I’m sorry to hear…  ”

“Higgins, dear friend,” before you try to find the words to say to me just now, I’m going to ask that you don’t speak them.  I know you’re sorry for me.  I have no doubt you’ll suffer along with me.  You yourself have been at this point, with the loss of your daughter, and I can now understand some of what you felt, and perhaps Margaret, too.  It’s a hardship we cannot help but bare.”

“Yes, it is, Master,”  Higgins said softly, wishing he could give John some words of comfort.

Smiling slightly, John continued, “I’m going to thank you now, for what I will probably lay at your door over the months ahead.  As it is, you already do everything here, but I may find myself asking for more.  I’m sorry for that, but I know you’ll see me right,” said John, leaning forward on his desk, looking down at his steepled fingers, avoiding any eye contact, lest he tear up.

“Whatever I can do . . . Master.  I wish you all the best getting through this.  I’ll be here for you.  Don’t give another thought to the mill.  Just handle your personal affairs, and I’ll be an ear if you want to talk about anything.”

“Thank you Nicholas,” John replied, his voice thick with emotion.  He didn’t rise to extend his hand in thanks, but he knew Higgins would understand.  “I know you will.  You’re always there for me.”

The following week, having quietly instructed Fanny to keep an eye on their mother, John said good-bye to Hannah.  While he was having a few final words with Higgins in the office, he collected the papers of his documented studies, and slipped them into his leather portfolio.  Feeling confident that he had done all he could, he departed for the train to London.
            His journey lasted almost four hours but was comfortable.  He didn’t notice any of the other mill owners on his morning train.  He used the time to relax, refresh his notes, and go over the conference agenda.  Tomorrow he would breakfast with his friends and then attend a short strategy meeting, before the conference, which was scheduled to begin at 11:00 am.  A meal would be served around two o’clock in the afternoon, and the conference would adjourn between five and six o’clock.  Dinner would be held across the street at the Stag and Whistle pub, with late evening plans differing with every person.  But for John, it was the day after the meeting that concerned him the most.  He was determined to visit Dixon.  After several hours of thinking about the conference and his visit, the swaying train and the sound of its clickety-clack rhythm lulled him into sleep.

An hour later, he was abruptly awakened by the noise of screeching brakes and to the hissing of vented steam.  After several stops, his station was called out, and John prepared to disembark.  Donning his hat, he gathered his travel bag, and portfolio then gingerly hopped off the train, before it came to a halt.  Pushing his way through the platform crowds, he made his way to the front and hailed a hansom cab.  He went directly to his hotel, having decided to sightsee later, should time permit.

That evening, as he entered the large, wood-paneled dining hall a few minutes early, John spotted his fellow mill owners.  Standing behind chairs at a round table, glass in hand, they were casually engaged in conversation.  When the last owner arrived, they all settled into their seats and began discussing the next day’s events.

Slickson immediately came to the point.  “I think we’re well prepared for tomorrow,” he said, “We already had our big discussion at Thornton’s house the other night, plus, we’ll be meeting tomorrow morning again.  What do you say we just enjoy the evening; at least not talk about the conference?”
There was agreement all around, as glasses were raised, and the men settled back down into other conversations.  The dinner progressed through to the final course.  By then, most of the conversation had turned toward the possibility of other factories coming into Milton.  Many of the Masters were receiving inquiries from outside merchants, wishing to relocate.  It seemed inevitable that, with new businesses flowing in, some type of merchant council or chamber would have to be created, if they were going to maintain a balance of wages.  They had to form some guidelines for the influx that would be headed Milton’s way.  This would ensure the survival of their mills, as well as that of the manufacturers of low profit goods and their wage concerns.  The evening ended with everyone in agreement to meet for further discussion when they returned to Milton.

 

The next morning, as the clock in his room struck seven, a porter, at John’s request, promptly knocked on the door announcing the time.  John called out “thank you” through the door and the porter left.  He had an hour before meeting the masters for breakfast.  He shaved and dressed, then collected his notes and headed downstairs to meet the others.  Everyone was ready for their morning meal and eager to discover what the day would bring.

The conference lasted until nearly 6:30 p.m.  Discussions and debates led the day, with John acting as spokesman for their group.  Little was settled, except for small concessions by the shippers, and a promise from the growers to yield more volume.  Prior to the meeting, John and the other Milton owners knew that’s all they could expect, but it took all day to get to that point.  They left the conference satisfied with their small achievement and headed out for dinner, across the street at the pub.  With the meal and talk of the day completed, some owners left to catch late trains and others had plans similar to the night before.

Having nothing better to do, John decided to take a carriage ride over by the college, just to see the type of environment where Margaret lived.  “It suits her well.” He thought.  The ivy-covered walls and arched doorways seemed warm and inviting, academic, and definitely a world apart from the grand tiers that one might find in London.  He hoped she was happy and being treated as she deserved.

Somewhere among these hallowed halls, my true love lives. 

Despite going to bed at 10 o’clock, John arose the next morning, suffering from a very poor night’s sleep.  His thoughts turned to his mother’s failing health and what he would do if Dixon wasn’t available.  His sadness regarding his mother was tolerable now, because he knew what to expect; what Dixon might tell him about Margaret was causing unbearable anxiety.  Time seemed to drag on, as he counted the hours until one o’clock when he would meet Dixon and find out what she had meant in her letter.  The thread of hope he was clinging to could very well break today, but he needed to know everything in order to deal with the rest of his life.

It was nearing 11 o’clock when he came down for breakfast, having packed all his things and closed out his room account.

From his pocket, he took an old yellowed piece of paper with an address on it, and asked the registrar if he recognized the area, and how long it would take to get there.  The registrar was unfamiliar with the exact address, but knew the area and approximated a 20 minute carriage ride.  John checked his pocket watch and calculated that he should leave the hotel by 12:30 p.m.

He ate alone, mostly pushing food around on his plate, and finished his second cup of tea.  Pulling out his pocket watch for the third time in half an hour, he noted it was almost midday.  He paid the waiter for his uneaten meal, collected his belongings, and went into the lobby where people were talking or reading the paper.  Sitting alone, in a far-off  corner of the room, he allowed his mind to wander.  He wasn’t too concerned about finding a caretaker for his mother, surely it would be an easy task to accomplish, but finding someone who would put up with her stubborn ways, might prove to be difficult.  Having his home on the mill property meant he would be able to assist her, but surely, as she grew weaker, she would need someone to help her with the more personal details.

And then there was Margaret…  John wondered what he would do if Dixon told him she believed Margaret married to gain freedom from her relatives.  Certainly, they would have encouraged a commonality with the different levels of the London upper class.  Marriage to a college professor sounded like an act of escape from a certain measure of the higher social circle.  But in other ways, John thought, it did have a ring of truth about it: An educator would be very much to Margaret’s liking.  Realizing he was becoming more anxious by the moment, he took out his pocket watch once more.  Time came to hail a cab.

Five minutes before the hour, John stepped out of the coach.  As he paid the driver, he instructed him to return in 20 minutes; if he was going to be any later then someone would come out and pay him to wait.

Arriving at Captain Lennox’s home, John looked over the highly ornate, white Regency town home, with its columned front porch and tall windows.  Hesitantly, he proceeded forward.  He climbed the marble steps up the slight embankment then stepped onto a slate walkway leading to the door.  Before he could lift the knocker, Dixon opened the door.  Removing his hat, John entered the house.

“Good to see you Mr. Thornton.”  Dixon said politely, a hint of sadness in her voice.  “You can place your hat and things over here.”  She pointed to a highly polished table in the foyer.  The Mr. and Missus are not in, but they know you were coming.  If you will follow me.”

“Good day to you, Dixon.  Thank you for seeing me.”

Dixon led John toward the back of the house.  “Mr. Thornton, if you would care to go out onto the veranda, I’ll fetch some tea.”

“Very good.  This is a lovely home you work in, Dixon.  I’ve not seen a veranda in many years.  I’m sure you remember the air in Milton; it wouldn’t suit such a luxury.”

As John stepped out onto the wide veranda, he was immediately struck by the large fountain, toward the center of the back garden, spewing water into its trough at the bottom.  He had always been fascinated by the water wheel engineering that lay beneath its foundation.  Wheels would turn by falling water, raised in turn by other wheels bringing the water back up the center flow.  Thinking back on his study of its construction, he was reminded that there would be a hidden chamber where a workman could repair the works from below, if needed.  Before he could have a closer look at its complex design, his senses were suddenly filled with the awareness of her, and then the voice struck his heart like a lightning bolt.

“Hello, Mr. Thornton.”