On Top of the World
With all the things John had going on in his life, Nicholas and Peggy still had not had their wedding, but it seemed to now be planned for two weeks before Christmas. Nicholas had adapted to his gentleman’s clothes and let his hair grow longer, which allowed for a more distinguished appearance that seemed to suit him rather well. He and John had all three mills running at top performance, and life was good to both of them and their prospective brides.
On a beautiful, crisp autumn day, the town of Milton found itself poised to celebrate the marriage of the decade for their city. John Thornton was to wed Margaret Hale Reed in Milton’s largest church.
Nicholas, in his own coach, drove over to John’s house to find what preparations he could help with, before setting off for his wedding riders. John was dressed to perfection, as usual, and he handed the ring to Nicholas for safe keeping.
“Are you nervous, John?”
“Actually, no; not severely, anyway. I am struggling to comprehend that my dream will come true today. After all these years, how do I switch it over in my mind to reality? Nicholas, I am sure you know how it must be for me, as you, too, are waiting to marry your lady. Today, all of the lonely tormented years will be vanquished for all time. I gave you a ring, did I not?” John asked as he patted all of his pockets.
“Yes, John, you just handed it to me.” Nicholas laughed. “All is ready for you then? I should be picking up Peggy, Margaret, and the Professor any minute now. You need to get to the church, sir. I have traveled beside you, for the most part, on your journey to this day, and my heart is filled with happiness for you and for Margaret. My very best wishes to you, both.”
John put out his hand to shake Nicholas’s and then pulled him in for a brotherly hug. “I must be on my way,” John said.
Branson, having spit polished the carriage and himself, held the door open for his master. He had bathed the horses and braided their tails, polished the brasses, oiled the leathers and straps, and painted the wheels. He was proud to drive his boss to church on his wedding day. He wanted to show his respect for his fairy tale coach, which would sit near the entrance, gleaming in the sun.
“Branson, your carriage is impeccable. Thank you for the compliment to our wedding.”
“Right you are, guv, and good luck today.”
“Has your other duty been taken care of?”
“Yes, sir. All done.”
With great pride, and looking his finest, Branson climbed into his box and reined the four shiny horses and the groom toward the large bell-tower church. Later, he would ferry the married couple back to the mill house to change and collect their luggage for the train.
When he arrived, John saw a horde of people milling around outside, talking and waiting for the festivities to begin. As soon as Branson brought the carriage to a stop, he jumped down, opened the door, and lowered the steps. John exited the coach looking breathtakingly splendid in tails and top hat.
John stood outside the church, talking and shaking hands with the invited guests until the time drew near. His joy knew no bounds today; he wore it proudly across his face. True to the devotion to his workers, many of his mill workers and managers were in attendance, as well as all Chamber members and other business acquaintances from across the motherland.
With nerves beginning to twitch, as the time was drawing close, John pulled out his pocket watch. His stomach did a flip when the organ started playing, inviting the guests to come and be seated. John saw Higgins’ coach approaching, and he became weak in the knees. He had waited long for this day than any other day in his life. And the time was now at hand. He turned toward the entrance, feeling like he was about to enter the pearly gates on earth. As he stepped inside the nave of the church, he bowed his head and said a silent prayer:
“Thank you, Mother. I love you. Your work is done.”
He turned to speak with someone who was just inside the door and then proceeded toward the altar, holding his hat in his hand. Shaking hands, walking the aisle, oblivious to the faces in front of him, he found his way to the minister and placed his hat on the front pew; he waited for Nicholas, his best man, to come down the aisle, followed by the miracle that had come into his life. John could not help but smile; it was permanently affixed to his face today. His beloved would be by his side very soon and remain there for the rest of their lives. In a few moments, Margaret would be his to possess and protect, sharing his dream, fulfilling his life.
John saw, through the sea of heads, Nicholas helping Margaret out of the carriage with Peggy right behind her. Margaret was stunning in her understated ivory cotton gown, embroidered with ivory flowers and ribbons at the waist and neckline. He was totally mesmerized; he watched as Peggy lifted the veil over Margaret’s face and placed the bouquet of roses in her hands.
The organ had stopped playing, and the gathering quieted, too, rising to their feet. Nicholas placed the Professor and Margaret in their positions, with Peggy and himself ahead of them, to lead the small procession to the altar. The organist started playing the traditional wedding march, as everyone turned their gaze toward the best man and maid of honor making their way.
Margaret found John with her eyes. She was overcome with his masculinity, dressed in resplendent elegance. Her man, the one waiting for her at the altar, was tall and proud and exquisitely handsome. He wore his black, long tails, an ivory shirt, and an ivory waistcoat, but this time he had a red cravat and a single red rose that matched her bouquet, on his lapel.
Margaret was staring at John, who was sending his love back to her, as Peggy and Nicholas began their walk. She knew to count to ten before she and the Professor started their steps. By the time she got to five, the Professor had stepped back from her, and her brother Fredrick stepped out from the shadows and into his place by her side.
As he put his arm around her, he looked into her eyes and said, “Hello Sis. Did you think I would let you walk down the aisle without me? I love you, dear sister. This is your big day, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” Fredrick urged her to take the first step.
“Shall we?” he said/asked.
“How?” Margaret whispered as they started their march.
“John arranged everything. I think he pulled in a lot of favors, and I am grateful to him to be here with you at this moment.”
Margaret could feel the moisture forming in her eyes. She would be a sight when John lifted her veil if she didn’t pull herself together right now. “Fred . . . ?”
“Shhh,” said Fredrick. “Behold, your man, standing at the altar waiting for you. He is dispatching his love for you from where he stands. He is glowing, and you are a glorious sight to all of us today.” Margaret looked up to see John, in his regal splendor, staring at her with devotion and pride unfolding across his masculine face. His chest was full; he stood impressively erect. She never took her eyes off of him, or he, off hers until she and her brother reached the altar.
Politely shaking John’s hand, Frederick gently placed Margaret’s hand in John’s. John dared to believe the moment was here.
The look in her eyes . . . The English language is inadequate of words to describe her loveliness, what this woman is today...
The minister began the service. Keeping his eyes on her, John knew he would carry this vision into the world beyond.
Their responses were uttered to each other, and the ceremony continued until John turned to Nicholas and asked for the ring that he was holding safe.
John placed the ring on Margaret’s finger and looked into her eyes, as he repeated the words . . . with this ring I thee wed. They concluded the remainder of their vows and pledges to each other without taking their eyes away from one another. John could hardly believe that he had overcome almost five years, with all its obstacles, and it had led to this moment.
“And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” said the minister.
It was done.
John lifted the veil to release the goddess beneath. He inhaled deeply when he realized Margaret was wearing his mother’s ruby heart. Tears welled in his eyes, knowing the happiness of this day could never be repeated in his lifetime. As he took Margaret in his arms, he quietly said to her, “You are the completion of me. I will love you beyond our next life.”
Before he kissed her, Margaret said, “John, your lips have kissed my soul. Love was just a word to me until you showed me its real meaning. John… thank you for Fredrick.”
They smiled at each other, and to the cheers of the crowd, they kissed passionately
As they walked down the aisle to John’s waiting carriage, the/some folks/guests gathered, tossing flower petals at them, and the church bells pealed to announce that John Thornton and Margaret Hale Thornton were now wed. Margaret tossed her bouquet; it sailed through the air, right into the hands of a blushing Mary Higgins. Hopping back up into this/?his box, Branson reined the four-in-hand set of horses toward the courthouse, while/as John settled Margaret into his arms.
“Are you happy, Mrs. Thornton?” John asked, endearingly, while looking into her watery/tear-filled eyes, gently rubbing the back of his hand down her cheeks to the base of her throat. “Those were beautiful words you said to me at the end. Thank you for that.”
“Mrs. Thornton. That has a wonderful sound. This is the happiest day of my life, dear husband. Knowing that I will always have you to myself, to love you, to be loved by you, to be protected by you, to bear your children… I could not ask for any more out of life. I am blessed with happiness beyond words.”
Feathering her face with light kisses, they drove in silence to their reception.
Now that the ceremony was concluded, everyone made their way to the courthouse, fourth floor. John, Margaret, Peggy, and Nicholas formed a reception line to welcome their guests.
Margaret whispered to John, “Where’s Fred?”
He’s back at our home. He will travel with us on the train. You will get to speak with him for several hours before we part from him.”
“Thank you, John. This is unmatched by any gift you could have given me.”
“You are welcome, my love. Oh, how nice that sounds to say out loud, now, not worrying who’s around the corner.”
“Would you like your present from me tonight?” She asked.
“Not in front of all these people, surely,” he laughed. “I’m sorry, I am too happy right now. Yes, what is it?”
“I am going to tell you when I knew I was in love with you,” said Margaret.
“You don’t know how long I have wondered when it happened. To find out now, and the fact that you chose to wear Mother’s ruby heart pendant on our wedding day, could not please me more. Thank you, my love.”
“I wanted your Mother to be with us today.”
“I know she is with us, as this is the culmination of the signs she has been sending me for two years.
John reached over and kissed her, unconcerned of the people waiting to shake their hands.
All of the traditional amenities being observed, the orchestra tuned their instruments and waited to begin their music.
John and Margaret took the floor. The conductor began the first song, a waltz, requested by John, called Brahms Waltz in A-Flat Major, Opus 39 No15, for violin.
The music began. John bowed to Margaret. “This is my dance, I believe?”
“I believe it is, sir.” She curtsied to him.
He put out his left hand for her to take. She took his hand with her right. John slid his right hand behind her to the small of her back, but this time he allowed very little proper space between them. She placed her other hand on his shoulder, reaching as far as she could.
The beautiful couple unfolded their mirrored dance of swirls of ribbon and tails, moving about the room as one. John had tremendous grace about him; he glided, rather than stepped, as he moved. His right hand splayed against the small of her back as he conducted her with assured commands into intricate little twirls and wider whirls. The audience was transfixed by their stunning performance and was amazed at how John never took his eyes from Margaret but sensed his position on the floor at all times. The mill workers were astounded by this man who was their boss, and who displayed such elegant form.
“Yes, my love?”
“Do you remember the last time we danced like this?”
“I will always cherish my memory of our first waltz together, as I will this waltz, on our wedding day. This is my favorite classical piece, and I have yearned to dance it with you.”
“I loved our first waltz because it brought into my mind when I first fell in love with you, even though I wasn’t totally aware it was love that I felt. I am going to tell you now, but I would like to hear your thoughts on when that was, first.”
As John whirled Margaret around the floor, his eyes never leaving her, he said, “I didn’t think I would be asked, but I have thought about it. You remember while I lay in the hospital, how I figured out something from your words? You somehow wiggled out of a definite answer. You said I was there, but you wouldn’t answer if I was there with YOU; I believe that’s how it went. I am going to say it was the day of your husband’s funeral when I walked away. I remember so vividly, looking back, and you were still watching me, even though your family was closing in on you. Am I close?” “No.”
“Hmm . . . Now, you really have my curiosity peaked. Earlier?
Margaret smiled at John’s sudden bewilderment. “I’ll give you a big hint. It was before I was taken away from Milton.”
John almost came to a halt in the middle of the floor. “What? BEFORE you left Milton? I loved you then as I do now. I don’t understand. I thought you knew my feelings for you. What happened and when was it?
“John, to be honest, I didn’t recognize it then, but I felt sick to my stomach all of a sudden. I had never experienced the pangs of jealousy and didn’t realize that moment for what it was. But I know, now, that was the moment I knew I had feelings of love for you.”
“Please, love, don’t keep me in suspense any longer. I cannot, at all, remember a time when I would ever have made anyone jealous.”
“Oh, you didn’t do it; it was someone else. And you were quite unaware of it, I think.”
“Please, Margaret . . .”
“It was the day of your sister’s wedding. You had just exited the church and were shaking hands and talking with people as they filed out. I stood there, watching your serene countenance, thinking how handsome you looked. You extended your arm to shake someone’s hand, and Ann Latimer entwined her arms around yours. You hadn’t offered it, but she took it upon herself to show those gathered that you belonged to her. I became ill just then, and had to look away; I didn’t understand why at that moment. You had, by then, and rightly I might add, dismissed me from your life. Of course, after that, I thought you two were interested in each other. Father died shortly thereafter, and you know the rest. I left Milton that day, thinking you were going to find happiness with Ann. I think our letters would have saved us years of misery.”
“Oh God, Margaret, you thought I had feelings for her and I thought you had feelings for the man at the station. Let’s not spoil our day with any more talk like this. I love you, Margaret, my lovely wife. We shall be happy for the rest of our days and beyond. I can’t wait for the rest of my life to begin.”
John bent down and kissed her while they turned and twirled about the room.
With Margaret’s lace hem and ribbons swaying away from her, and John’s tails floating aside his body, he slipped his hand up her back, pressing her closer to him, and she followed, moving her hand from John’s shoulder to the back of his neck. Pulling her right hand to his heart, he cupped her fingers and palm against him. He leaned towards her and pressed his lips to hers again; closing his eyes, he held her close for a final whirl around the dance floor.
Margaret and John: Finally. Their hopes, dreams, passion, and hearts, once existing as two entities, now beat as one.
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.
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.”
Constable Wilson and the Threatening Notes
It was two days before John left for Brighton. He kept in touch with Mason daily, but nothing new had surfaced except the note had an impression from the page written before it. The labs had determined the letters to be _ _ U _ T MON_ _ _ BAR _ _ _ _ _ R (something scratched over) _ _ N E. Mason had everyone looking at it from the labs to the bobbies, and even John tried to decipher what had been written. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that the MON was for MONDAY, but nothing else would come together, and Monday got them nowhere.
Knocking on Margaret’s door felt good to John. He hadn’t seen her for two days.
“John, you’ve arrived just in time, look!”
He was handed a second note. I AM WATCHING YOU, was all that it said. “Where was this one found?” John was upset and not hiding it. He was going to explode on whoever was doing this to her.
“I just opened this envelope, and it was inside. It came through the post today.”
“Let’s walk it across to Mason. Bring the envelope, and we’ll give it to the lab. At least this one was not inside the house. That is some small relief.”
Margaret took John’s arm, and they walked over to the courthouse.
They found Mason down stairs, and all the questions began. Mason took the paper to the lab immediately and wanted to know if there were any impressions on the paper. A quick appraisal seemed to reveal the letter H. The lab kept the note to go over it further.
Mason said that he still had the same men watching the house and her place of work. Having come through the post, there wasn’t anything further that they could deduce. Very discomfited, John walked Margaret to her home.
“Let’s go out back, so we can talk.” John urged.
When they had walked past the carriage house, John asked her, “Margaret, how are you doing with all of this? For some unexplainable reason, you seem to be doing better than myself. I cannot even think anymore.”
“I’m really alright, John. I’m tiring a little of the police being around all the time. I do think it must be an admirer and more of a nuisance than anything. This second note gives me the shivers though. I don’t feel in danger, but, now, he says he’s watching me.”
“That could be true, or just words of annoyance as the first note could have also been. I’ve tried to postpone my Brighton trip, but there are too many irons in the fire down there, so I must go, but I hate leaving you. I will worry. I will be thinking of you instead of why I am there. The two other Masters that are available to do this sort of work are either laid up sick or out of town. I would . . . though . . . absolutely refuse to go if I thought you were in any danger. I wish I could take you with me, but I know you have the ball, now.
“John, do not worry. I’ll be fine. I’m spending a little more time with the professor rather than coming home. Dixon hasn’t left my side, and Mr. Granger has come here to visit, which is lovely of him to do. You have two keys, and I have the other one which I keep in my bodice all the time. My handbag may be out of my sight at work, but my clothes aren’t.” She laughed. “Adrian has offered to sleep in the house, but I said no to that, knowing there are officers watching the house.
“How is Higgins doing with his promotion, by the way?”
“Well . . . he hasn’t made the big jump to new clothes, but he’s probably waiting for my big announcement after I get the deeds back. He and Peggy should be at the Ball, too. I hope he doesn’t relent. I am going to tell him of my worry for you and insist he does go, just in case. I should be going, but I will come by tomorrow before I leave.”
John and Margaret walked back to the house holding hands, saying nothing. Touching her anywhere felt so intimate that John did not want it interrupted with talk. He waved to the officer stationed out back, as he walked Margaret to her door and said goodbye.
John returned home and sat down to open his own mail. He was sent a note, too. YOU DON’T DESERVE HER. John immediately hollered to Branson not to stable the horses and bounded down the back steps to go see Mason again. The note went to the lab, while John and Mason talked about this new twist. Someone was watching her, but John was not going to tell her about his note.
“Mason, in case you find anything under the microscopes, send for me. Otherwise, I am going home to pack.”
“Do you want us to put some men on your house?”
“No, I’ve got security around the mill. I’m not worried. See you tomorrow before I leave.”
John went home to his dinner, his favorite chair, and the brandy he needed help settle his nerves. He pulled out a tattered piece of paper with the impressions from the first note and looked at it once more. Nothing. He paced the floor worrying about Margaret; he wanted to hit something. John couldn’t stomach this feeling that he was not in control.
What if something happens to her?
Still seething with frustration, he thought about the worst that could happen. Should it happen, he knew he would follow her to the grave. He wasn’t going to live without her; there was no doubt in his mind that he’d go with her immediately. Putting the worst case scenario aside, he tried to think about what type of fixation this man had for her. They were not dealing with a normal person. This person had mental problems, which made him unpredictable, and that’s what John feared. This man knew that he had feelings for Margaret so he might know that he was going to be away. It must be someone that he knows. He decided to take the late train tomorrow evening and sleep the eight hours of the trip arriving in the morning. He could cut off almost a half day that way. Every protective, primitive instinct that John possessed was brought to bear on Margaret’s safety.
John went to the office the next morning and took a few hours to review all the documented Brighton studies he would carry. Later he talked with Higgins about what had been transpiring for the past few days.
“Nicholas, if you don’t mind, could you stay on the mill property while I’m gone. I will leave the house to you. I just don’t know who we’re dealing with and since I’ve had a note, I don’t want someone sneaking in here and burning the house down while it’s empty. Were you planning on going to the Ball? If so, would you mind sitting with Margaret and Mr. Steen and the Professor?
“Of course, John. I’ll be glad to stay there and go to the Ball.”
“I saw Cavanaugh yesterday, and he’ll have the deed ready when I get back, so prepare for our Marlborough Mills celebrations, and I mean that literally. I want both Mills to have refreshments and small cakes. Let’s plan it for next Monday, a week.”
“All right, John.” Higgins smiled. “And thank you once more from Peggy and I. You’ve made a tremendous change in our lives.”
“I can’t imagine how my life would have been without you around this place, my friend.”
John had a bit of lunch at home before heading off. Gathering his travel bag and satchel, he called for Branson to take him to the courthouse. He spent most of the afternoon with Mason and Constable Wilson, who was most anxious to help.
“So, Constable Wilson, do you have any thoughts on this case.”
“Yes, sir. I do,” the young Constable replied.
John continued, “Have you discussed them with the Chief, here?”
“Actually, not yet, sir. I’ve been formulating the ideas like a detective would and, although, I see a lot of signs, I haven’t put them altogether to form any specific concept, as of yet.”
“Would you mind sharing them with the Chief and me?” John said as he looked over to Mason, anticipating a very basic outline of things, here-to-for known.
“You really want to hear what I have come up with?” Wilson asked in surprise.
“Have you discussed much of this with Mason?”
“Not much. I know about the notes. I know that there are impressions on the notes. I know what her chore man thought he saw. I know we have officers watching Mrs. Reed around the clock. I think that is about it, isn’t Chief?”
“That’s probably pretty close.”
Wilson has had the notes and studied them once again, while John smiled at Mason, eager to hear the youngster’s report.
After a minute or two, Wilson looked up and said, “I’m ready, sir.”
“Go ahead then,” said John.
“We are certainly working with a mentally disturbed man with a fixation on Mrs. Reed. He is aware that there is something between, you sir, and Mrs. Reed or knows that you are interested in her in more than a simple, friendly relationship. He writes clearly and decisively, with little words. He knows not to write too much because he could be giving something away and that shows either intelligence or a higher education. He’s wealthy. He is definitely watching her, and I think he is going to be someone known to all of us. His time is probably his own if he can often watch, meaning he’s most likely not a laborer, merchant or shop owner, constricted by time schedules. You are going to know him, Mr. Thornton. He has most likely spoken with Mrs. Reed, either passing on the street as she walks to and from work or in her place of work itself because he’s been close enough to know he wants to have her. You are probably looking for a man between the ages of 25 and 40. He feels sexually powerful and wants to fulfill his desire with her, which may push him into brutality if she resists. Mr. Thornton, he doesn’t like you butting in his way, but he is afraid of you, due to either your size or your importance. He is probably a man who most women would not look at more than once, therefore the fierce, sexual desire. He’s single. I think the impressed words start with Court Monday. How’s that?”
John and Mason were looking at him with their mouths gaping.
John said, “I am exceedingly amazed at your insight or whatever it is that drives your thinking. You have a real gift there, Constable. And you have apparently been studying detective material. I think I can speak for Mason and myself when I say, we are quite taken aback. Mason, bring this lad along quickly; let’s not waste his mind while it’s able to absorb so much.
“Very well, sir.”
“I would like to ask you how you arrived at some of your conclusions because you have gone far beyond our thoughts. Why do you say he’s wealthy?”
“That was one of the easier ones. There are two clues. He is educated or intelligent, and I feel he is educated, meaning money, because of his clear printing. The other is a little less obvious. Having a note that made an impression on another paper above it indicates that he may have a tablet of paper. There are few, if any, impoverished people that have tablets of paper.”
“Excellent theory,” John said. The age?”
“That’s just statistical. If he is feeling sexually powerful, he’ll be within those ages.
“How about the theory that he is watching her and he’ll be known to us?”
“He’s not standing out as a stranger to anyone, while he watches her.”
“Why is he afraid of me?”
“I’m not sure if afraid is the correct word in this case. He sees you standing between himself and Mrs. Reed. He doesn’t know how to attack you physically or professionally, so he’s taken to words to torment you. He would like to tear you down in Mrs. Reed’s eyes. He thinks that would smooth the way for her affection for him. He is delusional and mentally unstable. It worries me that we have an educated mentally unstable man out there seeking sexual favors with Mrs. Reed.”
“I cannot argue with that or any of your logic. You are astounding. How do you come up with COURT as the first word?”
There aren’t too many words that will fit those letters. There is COUNT, BLUNT and maybe a few others, but COURT MONDAY sounds like something someone may write down. If I can add a little more?
“First I would find out anything having to do with any court session on a Monday, who were the participants, judges, witnesses, etc. Furthermore, I think this man is going to be caught by Mrs. Reed’s chore man. Not literally, but he’ll spot that man again that was watching that day and tell someone. I think her chore man needs to be inside the front of the house watching the courtyard all day until he’s caught. COURTYARD also fits in with the word COURT. And as for using a house key the first time, which we are not sure of, yet . . . but Mrs. Reed could have mistakenly left her key in the door when coming home. If he’s been watching her, he could have spotted that and retrieved it without her knowledge of it even being lost. And finally, and this is a real long shot, but I think he might be our kidnapper, although he has a new twist to his method. We know what happened to last young lady with a note and I see nothing here with which to indicate the same won’t happen. Sending you a note, sir, is the twist which indicates an escalation since he feels successful from the other time. He’s almost playing a game, daring you to catch him. With an attitude like that, nothing will stand in his way.”
Reeling from Constable Wilson’s words, John tried to compose himself. He just shook his head wondering what they had with this perceptive young man. “Mason, if what Wilson says turns out to be true, I want him sent to London for further training as a detective. He thinks we’re going to need a detective agency in the future and I’m inclined to agree. I would like him to head it up and work closely with you. Once he’s trained, I’d like you to go for the same training.”
“Yes, Mr. Thornton. Thank you, most kindly. I will do exactly as you say. We’ve been wondering how to work that training into the budget.”
“If the city does not have the money, I will go to the Merchant’s Chamber for it. Worst case, I will pay for the two of you to train myself, if what he says is true. I will see Margaret shortly and have Adrian brought into the house to watch the courtyard. Wilson, I want you to work on how many professional jobs and or gentlemen out there who can fit into your analogy.”
“Yes, guv! Thank you, sir.”
“Wilson, you are dismissed,” Mason said. Wilson left the room.
“Mason, you have some wizard on your hands. What do you think?”
“I’ve known he had great potential and I have given him a little more responsibility, like allowing him to go to London that day. But what I just witnessed was beyond anything I have seen, ever. It almost makes me feel small.”
“Mason, you are not alone. He’s out shown us all. I know you are a better man than this, but some bosses would feel threatened by such a brilliant worker. Just drive him, challenge him, be his mentor, and certainly acknowledge him to the others. Be proud to have him.”
“Have no worries there, Mr. Thornton. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have someone like yourself to bring me along and have confidence in me, driving me to do better. I know what that means. Someday, I may work for this young man, nothing is ever forever.”
“I knew you would see it like that, Mason. I’m proud of you.”
John and the Chief sat down and began scrutinizing all that Wilson had said. Plans were made.
“I am going over to Mrs. Reed’s home for a while and then I will leave on the train for Brighton. I shall be gone . . . four days instead of five, I hope. I don’t know exactly when I will return on Friday night, but it will be very late. Mason, she means a lot to me. Take care of her for me. One last thought and this may not be possible, so don’t hesitate if you need to take action, but if you find out who it is and can watch him until I return, I would like to be there when we catch him.”
“Yes, Mr. Thornton, I know she means a lot to you. I think everyone knows that, and so does our bad guy. We will do everything possible to watch her. No shortcuts, nothing taken for granted, ever, and if we can wait, we will. Have a good trip.”
“See you when I return, Mason.” John shook Mason’s hand with both of his and said, “Good luck. My future is in your hands now.”
Branson carried John around the block to park on Margaret’s side of the street. John told him what time to return for his trip to the train station.
“Would you mind if I went around back and talked with Adrian?”
“Yes, that would be fine. I will want to talk with Adrian, too. Tether the horses and coach out front. I want the coach easily seen here.”
John was welcomed into Margaret’s house, and he greeted the police officer. “Officer, how long have you on duty in here this evening?”
“I only have but half an hour before the night shift comes to the back of the house.”
“I wish you to go out back and send Adrian in here, and then you’re excused for your last half hour because I will be here.”
“Right you are, sir.”
John asked if Dixon was here. Margaret said not this evening. “She’s been so wound up and sticking solidly by me that I insisted she gets out for several hours. She left only moments ago.”
“I think we’re perfectly safe, even if our culprit saw Dixon leave. We have Adrian and Branson in the back yard talking. I need to speak with Adrian. Peggy’s clever brother has offered us some insight into this madman, and we’re going to catch him soon.”
“Hello Adrian, how are you doing?”
“Fine, sir. What can I do for you?”
“For the next week, I want you to sit in this front parlor and just watch the courtyard across the street for any signs of the same man you thought you might have seen that one day. If you see him, you will point him out to the officer that is here. He will leave through the back and go around the block, and contact the Chief. He will point out to Mason, who you pointed out to him. Are there any questions?”
“No, sir. Clear as a bell.”
“Thank you, Adrian. That’s all.”
John sat down heavily, rubbing his forehead, mentally exhausted. His nerves were taut with fear. John slid down, so his head rested on the back of the couch and propped his feet on a nearby chair. “Margaret, will you come sit next to me?”
Margaret, worried by the look on his face, eagerly went to John. As she sat, John took her hand and held it to his chest, without even turning to look at her. Staring at nothing across the room, he said, “We’re going to get through this. There are a lot of new plans in place, now. I will worry about you, most certainly unnecessarily, but I can’t help it. I will tell you now since we have a lot more in place to keep you surrounded, but I got a note yesterday too, in my post. It said YOU DON’T DESERVE HER.”
“Oh John, are you worried at that?”
“I’m only worried about you. Since my home will be empty, Higgins is going to stay there to keep an eye on it. Let me tell you what young Wilson has come up with, you will be amazed.”
John told Margaret all that Wilson had said and his reasons for it. Margaret could feel something forming in her mind. Wheels were turning and clicking into place. John noticed she was staring off into space, her mouth slightly agape. He sat up to watch her. He could tell what he said had meant something to her. She was appraising all his words. He didn’t disturb her.
Margaret, still staring said in a calm, low voice. “I know who it is. It all fits.”
“Who? . . . Who, Margaret?”
A Dinner and a Rose
“John, I admit that I’ve been giving it some thought and somehow a rumor has spread that I’m getting ready to sell. That part is not exactly true because I’ve not made a firm decision. However, my wife is in a state of health that will not allow us to travel for many more years.
“I’m very sorry to hear that.” John said.
“Thank you, I know that you mean that, John. Over the years we’ve been fierce competitors and good friends. You are to be commended for all the advancements you’ve brought, not only to the mill owners, but this new industry, itself. If I only learned one thing about you after all this time, it’s that you are a compassionate and honest man.”
“Thank you, Slickson,” John said as he reached out to firmly grasp Slickson’s extended hand, surprised at his sincerity.
Slickson recommended a chair to him and then sat himself. “Brandy, John?”
John waved it off.
“So, I take it John that you are considering adding another mill to that spread you have going over there.”
“Well . . . my thoughts are not completely formed on this idea yet. New interests are rising that may take up my time.”
Slickson interrupted. “Yes, I see Miss Hale is back living in Milton.” He smiled at John while he lit his cigar. Oh, Thornton, don’t look so surprised. I think all the Masters were aware of your feelings back then. I must say, we were pulling for you, but you are such a private man, that none of us wanted to bring it up. We were sorry when she left so suddenly and have since been aware of your masked self-imposed loneliness. You dated the ladies, and who wouldn’t, but you always seemed to return to the solitary confinement in your mind. It became apparent what was happening to you, but only from those of us that new you best. It’s none of my business now, but I wish you good luck this time.
John lowered his head, as if in embarrassment, but remained silent, while twirling the brim of his top hat. He finally looked back into Slickson’s face, giving no indication whether Slickson’s words were true or not, but his lack of rebuttal said volumes, he feared.
Slickson, looking for some comment or gesture from John was cheated of it once again, which was no surprise, but he chuckled. “John, I admire that you’ve come straight to me to ask about this mill. That shows me some respect and respect for my workers. I’m going to let you have total access to the buildings and I’ll have my overseer show you around. Talk to the workers, look at the machinery, check the repair logs, and inspect the building. Take what you find home with you and give it thought. Of all the Masters in Milton, if I decide to sell, I’ll hope that you’ll be able to make a decent offer. I feel like my workers would be well taken care of and that has become important to me over the years, as it has you. I admire the other Masters and I think most of them run their mills just fine, but I envy your way of doing business the most. When I set a date and make an announcement, I will open my books to all prospective buyers. I hope maybe we can shake hands over a sale in the future, if both you and I see eye-to-eye and your other interests are also agreeable.” He smiled at John.
John thanked Slickson for his time and the opportunity to see everything first hand. John left with a handshake and followed Slickson’s overseer to the mill.
Margaret was quite busy the following two months, after getting her new home set up properly, and then spending all her days at the Professor’s office.
Working with the Professor proved to be very interesting but it had become some form of literary torture, she was sure. Margaret was certain he knew where he put everything but there was no organization that she could see. He was either going to have to learn her way or he was going to teach her his way. She started making piles of similarities until the Professor could find those books that he wanted her to see. She would use that system as a guideline for storage of research, waiting to be penned.
The Professor would have one or two visitors a day, who he would spend a long time discussing their connection to Milton. The Professor, while scribbling his notes, wanted to know what role they played in the science of the industry and machinery. Several manufacturers were interested in only knowing Margaret more thoroughly, to her dismay. Everyone was charming, she thought, but she wasn’t prepared for their advances. One particular gentleman, named Mr. Albert, who was mature, but most particularly in his mannerisms and distinguished in dress, preferred to overtly observe Margaret while he was there. She was becoming somewhat uncomfortable about his and other’s attentions. The first week Margaret worked there, Mr. Albert seemed to find reasons to return to the Professor another two times, and he didn’t run a mill, but was part of the Milton growth. She felt like a bug under glass. He was a very polite gentleman, tall, fine body and a handsome face, but was possibly forty years her senior.
“Professor, I do not know how to ask you for advice on this but I am becoming aware of . . . the . . .”
“. . . the interest that these fine gentlemen have in you?” asked the Professor, raising his eyebrows and smiling broadly.
“Well . . . yes. I don’t know how to react. I’ve never encountered this very often and it seems almost daily here.”
The Professor laughed, “That does not surprise me. Before, you were among very young men and the older men knew that you were married to a friend of theirs. That is another fault that Booker had; he never let you know of your beauty and attraction to men; he never gave you that confidence in yourself.”
“Professor, you are trying to embarrass me.”
“Margaret, I am only stating fact.” He laughed.
“What am I to do about it?” Margaret asked.
“What do you feel like doing about it? I mean really feel?”
Margaret blushed again, “As embarrassing as it is, I like the feeling of being complimented in that way. It makes me feel very feminine, a little sanguine, and courageous, too. But I don’t know how to react to it.”
“Margaret, your thoughts are valid and healthy and I am glad to see them rising from the ash. I cannot tell you how to react. That must come from your heart. You will do what is right for you. Measure each approach for what it is. It would probably do you good to be in the company of other men occasionally, to absorb that confidence that you seem to need.”
The following week, John invited Margaret out for diner in the city. He had picked out an elegant restaurant called The Dove, one of Milton’s finest. They had seen very little of each other since that exotic Christmas night. She had been busy with home and work, while John was reacting to the potential movement of managerial workers, should he successfully win the Slickson mill bid. After the preliminary conversation on how things were going in their lives, John launched into some unpleasant news. “Next month is the Chamber’s semi-annual ball and I am afraid I have an unavoidable commitment. I wanted so much to dance with you all night at the ball, but I have an engagement with the Bristol Commerce Association. I will be gone four to five days as the travel is quite long from here.
“John, please, do not worry yourself. I won’t miss attending it.”
“Margaret, I would like you to go with whoever asks you. Even though we no longer have the proclamation in effect, I would like you to experience something like that. I have enough confidence in our relationship to want you to go. Nicholas and Peggy will be there as well as Fanny and Watson. Most especially for me wanting you to go is that the Chamber is inviting the Professor and will introduce him at the podium, which he knows nothing about. I know he’s been trying very hard to speak to the Members briefly and I want to give him his chance. I want to expose him to many more than he would see at a normal meeting. If, and I seriously doubt this will happen, if no one invites you because you are not yet known to them, then you can be the guest of the Professor. Also, I would like to have you and the Professor over for dinner next week and I will extend the invitation to him, myself.
“Actually, John, I’ve had three invitations. I’ll be so pleased for the Professor, but not so pleased about the other, but I will do it. How formal is the ball?” Margaret asked, already wondering what she had in her wardrobe.
“Four! Four? May I ask who they are?” John said, feeling the bottom fall out of his confidence about which he had just boldly boasted.
“Yes, let’s see. There is Mr. Cavanaugh from next door, the lawyer that you know. Mr. Albert, a man that comes to the Professor’s often; he’s the one who likes to stare at me a lot, and a Mr. Cribb, and a Mr. Steen. The latter having something to do with guns, I believe. Mr. McGregor seems like he’s trying to find the courage to ask, too.
Do you know any of these gentlemen besides Mr. Cavanaugh?”
“I know all of them. Gentleman, all. Mr. Steen, Mr. Cribb, and Mr. Albert are quite familiar to the Chamber. Mr. Albert owns the ‘The Sterling Theater’ in the city. He’s a very fine distinguished mature gentleman, much older than you, but I understand he is bringing nice cultural entertainment to the city. We must go sometime, at least it isn’t opera. Mr. Cribb is a recently retired mill overseer and holds a financial office in the Chamber. Mr. Steen. He’s probably been in Milton less than two years. He manufactures gun barrels for small hand guns. Most gun making is done in pieces mainly in Birmingham, but they ship here, Steen tools the barrels and assembles them for export to the latest war around the globe. I guess he’s a nice enough chap. I feel he’ll be a gentleman with you. Mr. McGregor is relatively new to the area. He has a small looming mill that weaves the different tartans for the Scots. He only came here to learn the machinery, but has stayed, I think, longer than he anticipated. You know, this is hard for me to watch you go to a ball with another man, but I think you could choose any of them.”
“Well, not knowing I might have to choose someone, other than yourself, I have given it very little thought. I’ll talk with the Professor about who he thinks, since he’s interviewed them all. Tell me about this ball,” Margaret asked.
“Please do not think Milton as having a gala as you may have seen in London. Formal wear is required, but not the latest fashions or dances, except maybe the waltz.”
“I shall like to dance, but I will miss being with you.” Margaret said.
Their evening came to an eventual end and John was relieved that Margaret would approach it as he had hoped. He placed Margaret’s wrap around her shoulders and escorted her out of the, still busy, restaurant. Branson waited with the coach and John handed her in. All the way to her house, John kissed her and hugged her tightly, and whispered endearments into her ear. It had been too long since he could touch her. He escorted her to her door and opened it with her key.
“I would invite you in for a cup of tea, but it is getting late, and I don’t think Dixon is home yet.”
“Would that be so bad?” John asked with a smile.
“Thank you for such a lovely evening.” Margaret said, ignoring his blatant smile.
“I will see you next week for dinner with the Professor.”
John waited while Margaret entered her home and then said goodnight, kissing her inside the doorstep.
Margaret closed the door and rested herself against it. She was in a dreamy mood thinking about John, how wonderful he was, and how she had missed him.
Leaving a light on for Dixon, she climbed the stairs to her room feeling the sleepiness starting to take her. Turning on the gaslight, she noticed something on her pillow. She walked over to see that it was a white rose with a note attached. How did this get here? She opened the note but did not recognize the handwriting, as it was printed and not written. The note said,
I WILL HAVE YOU SOON AND I KNOW YOU WANT ME.
No signature. She sighed and smiled wondering what type of tricks John was up to. She knew he had a key and must have had Branson do this while they were at dinner. If the rose was still nice by John’s dinner, she would wear in her hair.
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 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.”
[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)