1851 winter, Milton, N.W. England
“Look back ………………. look back at me.”
John heard his thoughts slip from his mouth, as he stood and watched the coach bearing Margaret away forever. Unknowingly, she carried his heart, his soul, and his future dreams.
Inside the carriage, Margaret dwelled deep within her own misery of lost family, drowning in the solitude she thought her life to be, too absorbed to give a backward glance.
On that snowy day, John’s soul froze over; all of his passion fell dormant. With her coach out of sight, he felt nausea sweep over him. He was an empty shell. A large void replaced his heart. He wondered if he wanted to live within a world without her.
John Thornton was a tall, virile, handsome man of thirty-one years. He had black hair and ocean blue eyes, and beneath his cravat and black frock cloak, he carried a taut muscular, perfectly proportioned body. Years of hard learning had produced a keen mind, and with his mother’s guidance, he achieved manhood and became a gentleman. Simmering just beneath the surface was a well-managed temper, fueled by great passion, but rarely displayed. He was well regarded by his peers and ladies alike, and though he did not seek it, seemed destined for history and fame.
John never had the luxury of a misspent youth and had little time for sowing his wild oats. Hardship fell early in his life. His father committed suicide, the result of unfortunate business mistakes, and John was forced to support his mother and sister. As a young lad, he worked hard to restore his family’s good name and eventually repaid his father’s creditors, even though the name Thornton had been written off as a bad debt.
Through pure diligence and hard work, John became a merchant, a tradesman, and a Master and Cotton Mill owner, employing several hundred workers. Milton, the town where he was raised, had birthed the Machine’s Industrial Age, and John Thornton was an integral part of it. He, along with other owners, pioneered the manufacturing of cotton fabric and shipped it, not only within the country, but worldwide. Cotton was a low profit commercial item for which the world was starting to clamor. With its lower cost and lighter weight, it replaced many textiles such as canvas, fur, velvets, and linen. It was already Great Britain’s largest exported product, and because of it, the town of Milton was on the verge of exploding into a very large dot on the map.
John became a leader among his peers in the cotton industry. Inspired by the words of Miss Margaret Hale (since gone from his life), he soon became the solution to the unsolvable wage issues that had kept the workers impoverished.
By 1851, when the worst of the labor issues existed, Margaret Hale, her mother, and father (a disillusioned clergyman turned teacher) and Dixon; their housekeeper had been in Milton for a year. John became acquainted with the family and fell in love with Margaret Hale almost immediately, but differences in customs of the slow-paced south and the industrial north caused a series of misunderstandings between them. Margaret felt John was too crude and forward, certainly not a gentleman in the genteel south or London tradition. Most of the time, she shunned him. She didn’t care for his northern ways.
One eventful day, Margaret visited John’s mother, Hannah, at their home situated within the property of Marlborough Mills. While there, a riot broke out among the strikers who were demanding more pay. Barred inside the house, Margaret and John observed the incited crowd from an upper window. Margaret spoke to him, begging him to consider the situation and see it through the eyes of the workers. “They’re being driven mad with hunger” she told him, “but they’re only human. You must find a solution. Please, go talk to them.” John pondered her suggestion for a few moments, then without really knowing what to say, walked outside to speak to them. As Margaret continued to watch from inside, she realized the crowd was growing angrier, and she quickly went out to help him. Knowing that they would not harm a woman, she forced herself between John and the rioters and tried to reason with them. John was momentarily caught off guard. Angry, but fearing for her safety, he tried to force her back into the house when suddenly he felt her body slump, lifeless against his, having been felled by a thrown rock intended for him. John carried an unconscious Margaret inside and laid her on the couch. His mother told him to do what he needed to do and that she would care for Margaret. Minutes later, the doctor arrived and declared she had a bad bump on her head, but she would be fine. The doctor took her home in his carriage.
Unbeknownst to Margaret, her spontaneous reaction signified more than just concern for John’s safety. To the people in the north, she had signaled an interest in John which propriety could not overlook, and although not her intention, it was taken as such by all who witnessed her behavior. Both John and his Mother then felt he was obligated to protect her reputation and ask for her hand in marriage. Marrying Margaret was already in his thoughts, but doing it at this particular time was less than ideal for either of them.
Her rejection of his proposal was a miserable and extremely painful experience for them both, but over time, John felt that she was beginning to understand the ways of the north. He remained hopeful that a relationship could be salvaged in the future. Other misunderstandings of lesser significance were also present, but they were nothing more than that, solvable, if time were on their side.
During that same year, Margaret suffered several losses: First, Bessie, the only friend whom she made since moving to Milton, then tragically and within a short time of each other, her parents. She was devastated by the death of her father, her only remaining parent, and having lost so many of her loved ones; she felt lonely and bewildered. Margaret secretly wondered what it was within her, or what she had done, to cause such grievous misfortunes to befall her and desolate her life so quickly.
Immediately following her father’s death, and even though she was of age, Margaret’s aunt took her under her care and swept her away, to live in London. Aunt Shaw at no time thought Milton was good enough for her sister and her family, so Margaret was quickly forced to adapt to London and its societal lifestyle, a lifestyle that John never felt she totally embraced.
The day she left Milton, Margaret went to say good-bye to John and his family. She gave him a book that had belonged to her father. In that instant, John realized his world had changed dramatically. Moments later, he stood silently watching her coach leave his mill yard. As it passed through the gate, out of sight, John knew Margaret was gone from his life. But, he vowed; he would not . . . could not let it end this way.
I cannot lose her, lest I lose myself.