A Fainting Finale
John and Margaret entered the top floor of the courthouse. They were attending Slickson’s retirement party that was being held in the grand ballroom. John was delighted to have Margaret on his arm, and as they milled around speaking to many of the attendees, he introduced her to his business acquaintances. John swelled with pride as he watched all the men taking an interest in her, and knowing she was his. He escorted Margaret to sit with the Professor, along with Nicholas and Peggy, near the front, while he joined the original mill owners on the raised dais.
Everyone eventually found their seats and dinner was served. Slickson finished his meal ahead of most and came down off the stage to walk among the guests, thanking them for coming and briefly discussing his future traveling plans. He approached Margaret’s table.
“Good evening Professor Pritchard, and good evening to you Miss Hale… please excuse me . . . Mrs. Reed. I’m not sure I will ever get that right. I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening,” he said, as he winked at Margaret. Then he moved on, heading back to the stage.
“Professor, did you see that? Mr. Slickson winked at me. That was rather impertinent, don’t you think?” She asked, turning to look at the Professor.
The Professor just beamed a big smile.
“Professor? What is the grin for?”
“Shhh . . . John is getting ready to speak,” said the professor, as he skillfully brushed off her question.
Margaret brought her attention back to the front of the room where her elegant John stood, tall and beautiful, preparing to address the audience. As she began to listen to him speak about Mr. Slickson, she was impressed by his illustrious public speaking presence and voice, no doubt honed by all of his Chamber travels. He had so many talents; she was in a constant state of awe. He looked at her several times, and she thought she would burst with admiration.
“From a single spinning wheel to an industry . . . ,” John began in earnest, following a few opening remarks. He spoke for about five minutes, ending with an introduction and applause for Mr. Slickson. He sat down in his seat next to Watson, as Slickson took the front stage position.
Slickson spoke for a short time about his past decade in the cotton business. He brought to the audience’s attention that competitors can become friends, and although he was going to miss being in his mill every day, thanks to the generosity of his former competitor, John Thornton had promised him he could return, at any time, to visit. He concluded by expressing his appreciation to everyone for coming to wish him and his wife a fond retirement. When he was finished, the audience applauded enthusiastically and gave him a standing ovation.
Once everyone had seated themselves again, Slickson continued.
“Since we are all gathered here this evening, the Members of the Chamber thought we would like to take this opportunity to present two new awards. We have created an award to honor someone who is with us tonight. Because of his pursuit of excellence and his determination to set a higher standard for all of us here, this man has been a pillar of the commerce industry for the past decade. He pioneered the inroads in the early days of wage disputes, despite knowing there was very little profit on cotton. He championed his workers and in so doing, almost bankrupted himself.”
John was starting to feel like jelly. He had never heard of this award before this moment, and his stomach was churning. He felt his worst nightmare was about to claim him, here and now, in front of all these people.
Slickson continued, “He is single-handedly responsible for turning Milton into the city it is today due to his advancements in employee relationships, from which we all profited and grew. Looking out over this audience, I see members who represent the many new products that have now moved to Milton because of the reputation this town has built, all on the backs of our hard working laborers in the early years, and still, today. The original Mill Masters worked tirelessly, trying to resolve the conflicts, the strife and the poverty that was being inflicted upon our workers who lived in abysmal conditions. One man threw everything he had to the wind, spending long nights, month after month for almost a full year, succeed or fail, he was determined to achieve what the rest of us could not do. This man is appreciated and respected by all of his peers. There have been articles written about him in trade publications; many other burgeoning commerce areas across our kingdom have sought him out for his advice. Most of you probably don’t know that, along with all his other achievements, he is a Magistrate for our city. Now as if that isn’t enough, several months ago he put his own life in great peril when he rescued three people from a burning cotton mill. As we all know, there is nothing more dangerous than a fire in a cotton mill. He very nearly lost his life that night. I believe he has a guardian angel watching over him. I know that by now he has figured out that we are talking about him, and he is very uneasy. As much as he shuns the limelight, we are not going to allow that tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to proudly introduce our ‘Man of the Century in Commerce’ . . . John Thornton of Marlborough Mills.”
Hearing the announcement and witnessing the standing applause that followed, Margaret burst into tears as John’s peers cheered him to the front of the stage. She knew this was a wonderfully historical moment for John: Finally, he was receiving the tribute for which he never sought, yet so richly deserved.
As Margaret watched, John slowly approached the accolades of his audience. There, standing before her being honored for his achievements, was the man who knew her every intimacy, the man she would marry. John was like a Greek God being paid homage. As the audience came to its feet, he stood looking out over them like a conquering warrior, proud and fearless. He was stately, and he was transcendent. Nicholas beamed from ear to ear, clapping as loud as he could. He, too, had not expected this award.
Slickson adorned John with a large gold medallion hanging from a blue ribbon; the Chamber’s insignia and the words, “1st Industrial Man of the Century Award, John Thornton” was embossed on it. He also received a bronze, engraved plaque with a cast of his first mill, which showed the back of him looking towards it, and the inscription, “John Thornton, 1st ‘Man of the Century’ for the Industrial Age.” After several minutes of more applause, the audience quieted.
Laughingly, Slickson told him, “John, you are expected to say a few words here, you know.”
Silence. John was struggling to compose himself. He was engulfed with emotions, the result of the unexpected recognition that they were showing him tonight. He gazed at the floor for a few, brief moments then finally raised his head to the audience, displaying the strength of character for which he was known.
“I thank all of you for this gracious honor. I do not feel that I am more worthy of this praise than any man up on the stage tonight. Since I was not prepared for this, let me share with you what I believe is the reason that I am up here, holding this outstanding award.”
“Aristotle once wrote: ‘Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work’. Respect for your workforce must ultimately be that first step to perfection. The day there were striking rioters from all the mills in Milton, standing at my front door at Marlborough Mills, I learned that adversity introduces a man to himself. I want to tell you how that day changed my life, the town of Milton, and perhaps even the Cotton Industry itself.”
John walked off the dais, took Margaret by the hand, and motioned for Nicholas to join him. Margaret was still shedding tears of pride as John gently pulled her onto the stage. Nicholas followed, looking bewildered.
“I think most of you know my new partner in Marlborough Mills, Nicholas Higgins.” John waited while the applause died down. “You might wonder why I hired the man who instigated that strike in the first place.”
A smattering of laughter was heard.
“Nicholas Higgins was against the rioting that took place, but his interest in driving the strike was for the betterment of his fellow workers.”
“In the middle is Margaret Reed, some of you will remember her as Miss Margaret Hale. She and her family came to Milton over four years ago. Miss Hale happened to be visiting my mother the day of the riot. She stood with me by the window, watching the workers clamoring for me to come out. For years I have tried to remember her exact words, but in essence, she made me look at them as people, as humans who were starving, and she beseeched me to put myself in their place. Her words on that day haunted me. Miss Hale left Milton shortly after that, due to the death of her parents, but her words from that day remained.”
John looked over at Margaret; her eyes were looking at the floor. He could see her tears dropping like rain. Nicholas, seeing her discomfort, took her hand and handed her his handkerchief. As he stood beside, he realized for the first time that it was Margaret who would have been the woman that was hit by the rock that day. She took the handkerchief and dabbed her eyes, but she would not look up into the eyes of the audience.
“Weeks after the strike was over and the mill workers had returned to their machines, I had a visit from Nicholas; he was looking for work. His master had rightly refused to reinstate him.”
John looked at Nicholas, and they both almost laughed.
“I basically told him I wasn’t going to hire him either. But once again Miss Hale entreated me to listen, telling me what a good man he was; this made me give him a second thought. Miss Hale knew him as a friend; I knew him as a smart man. Although I have never told him of my thinking back then, I saw in him a man with intelligence, a man who had conceived and driven a large strike, a man who showed managerial and organizational skills. The riot that ended the strike was never his idea. So, I took the chance and eventually hired him. As you can see, now he is a partner at Marlborough Mills; it was a good fit for both of us. He’s been a tremendous paragon for all workers who wish to succeed. Hard work, respect, and honesty know no bounds within him. And, once again, Miss Hale had shown her insight into the depths of human souls.
I give most of the credit for this award to these two people up here with me tonight. Margaret opened my eyes and forced me to see problems with the laborers, in a different light; I made plans, took the financial risk and had faith in her judgment; and Nicholas, here, brought labor and owner together. Nicholas took the plans that I created from Margaret’s insight and made it happen. I want to thank Margaret Reed, and Nicholas Higgins, who I feel should share this award with me.” With that final statement, John stepped back and applauded them.
The audience joined him and rose to their feet. Margaret finally lifted her head; rosy cheeked from embarrassment. She looked over at John and saw him beaming at her. She couldn’t seem to turn off her tears.
Still applauding, Slickson appeared next to John holding a second plaque. The audience sensed he was about to speak and slowly sat down.
“John, I doubt many here knew your story back then, but I think most of us original Mill Masters figured that’s what happened, and we had our thinking authenticated by Mr. Higgins here. That’s why we have a second award to present tonight. It is my privilege to present our first Key to Commerce Award to Margaret Reed . . .”
John and Nicholas now backed away, clapping, as they left Margaret in the spotlight by herself. Once again the audience came to its feet, bestowing their honor for her part in the making of Milton. John smiled broadly, so proud of his woman, standing before his fellow peers; he knew every part of her belonged to him, and the people loved her.
Margaret, mouthed, “Thank you.”
Slickson handed the award to John to present to Margaret.
The room quieted down, and Nicholas took Margaret’s hand and began to leave the stage.
John quickly said, “Margaret, could you wait just a minute? I have one last thing to say.”
Nicholas continued down to his seat as John turned to Slickson and handed him back the award.
“I see there is a mistake on the plaque and it will have to be corrected.”
Slickson looked at the plaque, puzzled. “Where is there an error?” he asked.
“It’s the name,” John said.
“It is Reed, is it not?”
“Not for long, I hope,” John said.
The audience gasped, holding their breath, and a hush fell.
John turned back to Margaret who still seemed in a state of confusion. He took her by her shoulders and turned her around to face him, like a child. He quietly asked if she was ok.
“I . . . I . . . think so. Can I go sit down, now?” she stammered, a little too loudly.
The audience laughed. They had figured out what was going to happen, but could see that Margaret was completely unaware of John’s intentions.
John shook her hands a little to get her attention. She finally focused on his eyes. He sensed the audience knew what was coming, even though Margaret didn’t. He looked out into the faces of all his friends and said, “You cannot know how much I love this woman.”
Someone hollered, “Yes, we can!” Laughter and light applause followed.
John reached into his pocket for the ring that he had carried there for such a long time; he knelt down on one knee. The audience buzzed with anticipation.
“Margaret, I’ve carried this ring in my pocket for over two years.”
Again, he took both of Margaret’s hands in his and looked up into her face. The buzzing stopped, and the room fell silent like the night.
“Margaret Hale Reed, will you do me the great honor of accepting my hand in marriage?”
Margaret was stunned beyond words. Did he just propose? She wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure of anything.
A small laugh from the crowd rippled around the room.
“Margaret Hale Reed, I have loved you since I’ve known you; will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
He did ask.
“Yes . . . Oh yes, I will, John!”
As the audience broke out into loud applause and congratulatory greetings, John rose to a standing position, taking the ring and holding Margaret’s hand as he slid it onto her finger. Margaret looked at the ring and then looked at John; tears began to stream once again.
John took her into his arms and kissed her passionately, not caring about his audience. For the third time in his life, he found Margaret sliding down, out of his grasp. He caught her tightly and swung her up to his chest, carrying her off the dais and out into the foyer. The banquet hall went wild. Everyone was glad to honor John with their appreciation, but what a spectacular, unexpected ending for everyone to witness. Nicholas caught Peggy by the arm and hurried to the outer hall with the Professor behind them.
The attendees began to filter out of the room to see what was happening with the happy couple. Peggy was fanning Margaret with her fan as she slowly awakened. She was still lying in John’s arms while he sat on a bench with her; her vision began to clear. She looked up at John and his beautiful smile. Becoming aware of the crowd which gathered around her, she swooned once again.
John stood with her in his arms, realizing he had to remove her from the smothering onlookers. To the shouts of “congratulations” from the attendees, he thanked everyone and told Higgins and the Professor, “I’m going to get her home.” He carried her down two flights of stairs and across the street to her own home.
John struggled to open the door as he continued holding Margaret firmly in his arms. Dixon, hearing the sound of the door opening, came running.
“Oh Mister John, what has happened to Miss Margaret? She is fainted.”
“Dixon, I proposed marriage to her tonight, and she accepted; and now you see her,” he said with a worried laugh. “I brought her home, but now I think I will take her to my home. We will have a lot to discuss. She will be home when she is home. Do not worry about her.”
“No, sir. I know she’s alright with you, Mr. John,” Dixon said, as she held the door open for John to carry Margaret out to his coach.
Even though Margaret’s eyes drifted open, John still held her to his chest as they traveled to his home. He wanted her with him tonight. All night.
“Where am I?” Margaret whispered.
“You’re coming home with me.”