Hearts Adrift – Part Six

Armitage_004

Chapter Six

 

Longpré was reached in the late afternoon, and the travellers were all exhausted, hungry and downtrodden. They hid in the surrounding woods while Jake went into the village. He was the least conspicuous of them all; he could pass as a harmless farmhand.

Jéhan was fast asleep, his head on Manon’s lap. She gently brushed the boy’s auburn hair from his brow, a gesture that went straight to Richard’s heart.

“You both have Lily’s colouring, Manon,” he said, his voice a bit hoarse, “and she was the image of her own mother, Lady Elizabeth. There is a large portrait of her in Bearsham Manor’s great hall. Your mother’s picture is in my library, where I can look at it while I work. I loved your mother very much, Manon. I was but a child when she left, yet I acutely felt her absence for years. When my father informed me of her demise, five years ago, I was downcast for months.”

“Your father informed you? How can that be? How did he know?”

“Our fathers kept up a correspondence, apparently. They started it soon after Thibaut Favier settled himself in Paris with Lily. My father, though heartbroken because she ran away with his valet, never stopped loving his daughter. I learned of the connection between our fathers when your mother died giving birth to Jéhan. After my father’s death, I found the letters in his desk. You may read them, if you wish it.”

“Thank you, Uncle; I know for certain I will enjoy reading them. So my father wrote to yours for years? He never told me.”

“My father, your grandfather adored Lily, just like I did. Lily was …”

He stopped, and in his eyes, Manon could see a dreamy sadness. “Lily was beautiful,” he went on.  “Not just pretty, but truly exquisite, with her wavy hair the colour of the purest copper and her sparkling green eyes. She was smart, lively, and sweet. Graceful she was, with a natural elegance, combined with a perfect figure.”

“Maman was always perfect in everything she did. Papa was devastated when she died, and we missed her terribly. I talk about her to Jéhan whenever I think of her. It is a shame that my brother never knew her.”

“We will show him her picture when we reach my home.”

“Your home …” Manon whispered, as if the words meant something unreachable for her.

“Yes,” Richard replied, a sudden constriction in his throat at the forlorn expression on her face. “Bearsham Manor, which will be your home and Jéhan’s from now on, Manon.”

“So I will never see Paris again? How will we fare in England, Jéhan and I? It is another country, another language.”

“I will hire a tutor for Jéhan, to prepare him for a decent boarding school. He has to learn English, of course, and so do you.”

Manon bowed her head so that her uncle would not see her face. She was inwardly debating if she should tell him that she already spoke his language. After what he had done for her the previous night, she knew she could trust him unquestionably. Her decision made, she looked up and said, in perfect English, “No need for language lessons for me, Uncle. Maman insisted that I should learn her mother tongue to perfection.”

Her slight French accent was the arrow that struck him, Richard realised. She was irresistible with those finely clipped consonants and those stretched vowels. As if she had not been utterly striking and charming already. She had pulled her bow and pierced his heart.

“Why did you not tell me before?” he asked, in a voice hoarse with emotion. The answer mattered to him, for some reason.

She shrugged, then smiled. “You were a stranger. I did not trust you, but I do now. Since last night, when you saved me.”

Before Richard could go further into that topic, they both heard Jake’s whistle. He had returned with fortunate news.

“There is this farmer called Bontemps, master,” Jake grinned. “He was part of a gang that raided the local squire’s manor after the family fled. Now he is stranded with four thoroughbreds, and he has no inkling what to do with them. Their upkeep costs him an arm and a leg, he says. I figure we could relieve him of at least two horses.”

“Good, that is what we will do. Listen, Jake, there is no need to speak French anymore, except with the boy. Miss Manon is fluent in English.”

Jake looked at Manon with delight. “She is? Oh, that’s capital! I was growing tired of having to speak the damn …”

“Jake!” Richard threatened, but with a grin on his face.

“Sorry, miss! I was about to speak nonsense, of course!”

“It is of no consequence, Jake. You are my friend, so you may speak to me about whatever you like.”

Richard cleared his throat, waking Jéhan in the process. The boy peered around sleepily before he said, “I am terribly hungry, Manon. When will we have breakfast?”

“Soon, mon chou,” his sister answered in French. “For now, you must pay attention to what our uncle is planning.”

“We must change tack,” Richard explained. “When we buy the horses, it will be under a different disguise. I will pose as a wealthy Parisian shopkeeper, and the three of you as my servants. Having just acquired a large house in Paris from a former aristocrat, I am in need of skilled horses. You, Jake, will do the talking, as I, your master, will be too haughty to speak to riffraff. Manon and Jéhan, you will be there to serve me and see to it that I have everything I need while on the journey. It will be just a pretence, in case someone is nosy enough to ask who we all are. The keyword is haughty. Do not offer information, not even when you are asked, unless it is by soldiers. If that happens, Jake will do the talking. Are we ready? I am counting on you, friends!”

 

They readily pulled it off, the farmer being all too keen to sell three of the horses, for which he was handsomely paid by Richard. Richard rode the largest animal, a big black hunter of seventeen hands by the name of César. Jake had a much smaller bay gelding who answered to the name Cyrano, and Manon, with Jéhan behind her, was to ride a placid chestnut mare named Mélissande.

Richard had decided on three horses so that they could carry their travel bags and food supply more conveniently. Manon, who could not ride, received a quick, elementary riding lesson, with regard to her position in the sidesaddle and how to find and maintain her balance.

“I hope you will manage, Manon,” her uncle said. “We will go slowly, and you must ride beside me. I noticed that the mare and my own steed are comfortable with each other. When you stay at my steed’s side, Mélissande will be more at ease.”

“I will manage, Uncle. Have no fear.”

After a much-deserved breakfast at the only inn Longpré boasted, they repaired to the main road and covered the ten miles to Abbeville in time for dinner and a bed in one of the inns. Abbeville was smaller than Beauvais, with a population of eighteen thousand. In one part of the city, nearly a thousand houses had been destroyed twenty years before when the ammunition depot exploded. A hundred and fifty people had been killed and trice as many had been gravely injured. The gaping holes where the houses had been had not yet been filled in with new ones.

According to what they had agreed upon earlier, the travellers acted as a company of servants to a Parisian bourgeois. Understandably, they dressed in character. Richard donned his breeches and riding boots, and his frock coat, with white shirt, black waistcoat and cravat. He wore his beaver hat and riding gloves and made use of a riding crop. Jake was dressed in modest but well-cut attire, with buckled shoes instead of boots, and a tricorne hat. Jéhan kept his own Parisian clothes, which were suitable for a servant lad and Manon donned one of the gowns her uncle had purchased. It was a morning dress of pale blue cotton with a navy blue bodice. Over her auburn curls, which she had pinned up in a bun at the nape of her neck, she wore a mob cap. That way, she could hide the too noticeable beauty of her long, shining locks in order to avoid unwanted attention. With her eyes downcast and her hands demurely folded in front of her, she truly looked the part.

Jake haughtily requested a private room for his master, Messire Jean-François Breton, master draper of Paris, and three beds in the common room for himself and his companions. While they were having their supper, Richard softly spoke to Manon in French.

“I must ask you to trust me once more, niece. I am not at ease with the riffraff that is staying here, tonight. In the common room, you will doubtless be bothered again. As a gentleman, I cannot allow that. You must stay the night in my room so that I can watch over you.”

Richard paused to look at Manon’s reaction, but she merely nodded.

“You know what people will think, do you not?”

“Yes,” she stated, looking him in the eye, “they will assume that you take your maidservant to bed. I do not care what they think, Uncle. I am ever so grateful that I will be safe and can have a decent night’s rest.”

 

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Five

Armitage_004

Chapter Five

 

Five days and four nights later, Richard and his companions reached Amiens.

The journey had been relatively easy, with one checkpoint in Beauvais after twenty-one miles of travelling through the lush Picardie countryside. The farther they moved away from Paris, the less people seemed affected by the Revolution. At least, the farmers were still at their work; the fields had been sowed and the pastures had cattle grazing on them. Even at the Beauvais checkpoint, the guards seemed lax and did not question the travellers. Apparently, a small family of what looked like farmers was not prone to raise their interest.

Richard’s company arrived at Amiens halfway through the fifth day after they left the abbey. The town was buzzing with activity, as if there were no revolution going on. With a population of forty thousand and a thriving community of weavers and drapers, it was not easy to find suitable accommodation. Nonetheless, Richard with Jake acting as the head of the family managed to secure lodgings at an inn in the Quartier Saint Maurice, which was situated northwest of the centre. The Auberge de la Madeleine was run by a large woman by the name of Francine Duval, who ruled her establishment with an iron hand. She put Manon in the common room reserved for women, while the men were lodged in the vast stables. There, they joined ten other men, mostly drapers. There were, however, three soldiers as well, so Richard instantly adopted his “demented uncle” persona. They could not afford to let the soldiers address him.

To her utter relief, Manon discovered that she was the inn’s only female guest in the inn that night. After dinner in the taproom, she quickly retired to the far corner of the common room, which was divided into separate booths by means of wooden partitions. Finally some privacy, she sighed. She enjoyed the luxury of washing in a small wooden tub and afterwards donned a fresh cotton nightgown, which her uncle had purchased for her in Beauvais along with an extra change of small clothes, two cotton gowns and a pair of extra walking boots. Together with her toiletries, those items formed the contents of her new travel bag.

Once she was lying on her narrow cot, Manon felt she could finally let her guard down. For almost a week, the four of them had ridden through the vast French countryside, always on the lookout for soldiers or brigands. Manon had not yet told Jéhan about Papa’s death, yet the boy kept asking when they would go back to Paris to ascertain that he was not in need of assistance. Every time that happened, Manon’s gaze met her uncle’s, who in a private moment, asked her if Jéhan knew that their father was dead. He should be told, her uncle said. There was no point in deceiving the boy when he would eventually have to find out the truth.

Now that she was finally alone, Manon found herself sobbing, at last allowing herself to feel the full impact of recent events. All her efforts and thoughts had been taken up with keeping herself and her brother alive. Papa was dead. She had buried him in their garden in Paris, and the last time, she had seen him alive and well had only been the same morning of the day she had done so. They had parted in joyful affection, never worrying, even in the grim circumstances the Revolution had brought on. Now she was alone, and with the added responsibility of having to look after her little brother. She had yet to live a life taking care of only her own person. Even when they now had the protection of her uncle for which she was utterly grateful in these dire times, the care for Jéhan rested on Manon’s shoulders and no one else’s. The burden was indeed heavy.

Resolutely, Manon dried her tears and went to wash her face in the water basin that sat on the side table. There was no point in dwelling on matters she could not change.

Abruptly and without warning, she was seized by strong hands, which gripped her so hard that her arms were painfully wrenched upwards. An arm slung around her waist, effectively pinning her arms against her body and making it impossible to move. A rough hand clasped over her mouth, and a hoarse voice rasped in crude French, “Ah, but what have we here? A pretty little wench, so fit to please a brave soldier of the Revolution!”

A vile stench of unwashed male accompanied these words, and Manon gagged when her tongue tasted the sour skin of the large hand that covered her lips. In a wave of panic, she writhed and kicked, but the man simply lifted her in the air and smacked her onto her cot, face down. With one hand he held her pinned to the straw mattress, while the other shoved her nightdress high until her backside was bare.

She froze, the breath fleeing from her lungs. He was going to rape her! Her face was pressed into her blanket. In despair, she kicked her legs, but the man simply put his knees onto her bare thighs. His weight was heavy and unyielding like tons of bricks on her tender flesh. She was going to be killed …

And then she was set free. The weight was lifted from her body, and she drew in a large gulp of wonderful air. Hastily, she covered herself and turned onto her back.

“Manon, are you unharmed?” her uncle asked, concern making his voice give way. There he stood, in shirt and breeches, apparently the attire he used while abed.  Manon watched him, still dazed from her experience. She gasped in horror.

“Where is he? That man …” She noticed the large, unkempt soldier, lying unconscious at her feet.

“Oh …”, she said in a small voice. “Uncle, what are we to do? Now, everybody will know you are not demented. We must leave immediately!”

“Shhh, child, do not panic. Jake is preparing Jéhan as we speak. Yes, we are leaving, this instant. Jake and I will carry our friend here and dump him somewhere in the yard. I will pour some cheap wine all over him so that it will appear as if he was in his cups and stumbled when he went to relieve himself. You must dress and pack your bag. We will be waiting for you in the yard as soon as Jake has paid our hostess.”

 

As a precaution, Richard decided to give the cart and horse to the landlady and instead, repair to the marshes lining the river Somme and proceed on foot. His purpose was to find two decent horses and attempt to reach Boulogne on horseback.

They marched as quickly as was possible, which was not easy because the rich pastures near the water were soggy. Fortunately, they were also covered with tree saplings, so the fugitives were hidden from the main road that ran alongside the river. Richard was justifiably worried about the soldiers. They might well try to find them and take revenge.

With Jéhan asleep in his arms, Richard took the lead of their small group. Manon walked behind him with Jake taking the rear. The path was so narrow it only allowed them to walk in single file. It was still very dark, with no moon to guide their way. Richard hoped to reach the village of Longpré before nightfall of the following day. They had approximately twelve miles to cover, and their progress would be slow and tiresome. Fortunately, he had taken the precaution of bringing enough coins from England. The exchange of guineas against Louis d’or in Paris had been easy and very profitable. Money lenders knew the value of English coin and hoarded it for the future. And every Frenchman, high or low, loved a Louis d’or.

The three walked in absolute silence, because they needed to watch their footing on the slippery riverside path. Manon doggedly followed in her uncle’s footsteps, ignoring her weariness after the disturbed peace of the night. Her arms and legs were starting to bruise where the brute had grabbed them. Yet she would not give in to weakness. Her uncle would protect them all, she knew. At that moment, Manon had the absolute conviction that nothing was impossible for Richard de Briers.

 

Richard was extremely anxious to progress as quickly as was possible. He was convinced the three rascals would pursue them, even kill them if they caught up with them. Upon Richard’s instructions, Jake had fed the landlady a tale of a dying relative on a farm south of the river Marne. With enough coin and the cart and horse to keep her silent, Francine Duval had vowed not to tell the soldiers too much. Yet Richard had not overly trusted the woman. Anybody could break under pressure, he knew.

His thoughts kept wandering to his niece and what she had gone through this past week.

Her father had been slaughtered, forcing her to leave the only home she had known, and now she had been brutally assailed by that monster. Richard recalled the white-hot rage he had felt surging through him at the sight of that brute, who had been on the verge of raping her. He had literally seen red and had wanted to smash the man into a bloody pulp. He had not hesitated for one second but had thrown himself to Manon’s rescue, blowing their carefully constructed cover in the process. He might well have signed their death sentence, he realised. If he was not able to secure horses soon and lead the group to Boulogne forthwith, they would be caught. He shuddered at the thought – not for himself or Jake, but for Manon and her little brother.

However, that was not his deepest concern. He was more disturbed by the torrent of raw desire he had been experienced when setting eyes on Manon’s creamy white, round buttocks. May the Lord have mercy on him but he had wanted her so much that he felt his body react just by recalling the image. What a miserable cad he was, lusting after his young niece. And what hell his life was turning into. How was he supposed to keep on living when he felt thus?

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Four

Armitage_004

Chapter Four

 

The company set off at dawn, as was agreed, in a cart drawn by a large horse, one that de Briers had purchased from a brewer. He had paid handsomely for the horse, as well as for the cart, and had asked the brewer and the landlady to keep quiet about himself and his charges. As a precaution, he had let slip that their destination was Le Havre, instead of Boulogne. It was an insurance that meant whoever followed them would take the wrong road, heading due west instead of north.

Jake and Manon sat on the bench, with Jake holding the reins, while Jéhan and de Briers were in the cart. The latter was dressed as drably as was possible, with a large cap shielding his face. Manon was extremely curious to see how he would behave if they encountered a checkpoint.

They crossed the Bois de Boulogne and reached the village of Suresnes where they crossed the river Seine. From there they followed the riverbank, travelling east for a while, until they reached the small village of Clichy. Travelling northwest, they next set off on the road to Calais. Eventually, the horse had to be rested and fed. That left the travellers time to have their luncheon.

As soon as the foursome sat down on the Seine’s grassy sloping bank, Jéhan chose de Briers’ company, barely glancing at his sister when she handed him a piece of bread and an apple.

“Uncle, tell me about England. I want to become an Englishman, like you,” the boy said in rapid French.

De Briers laughed, a sound so joyful it made Manon’s heart leap.

“Well, first of all, Jéhan, you must learn to speak English! Once you have mastered that, I can hire a private tutor for you so that you can be properly educated.”

“I do not speak English,” the boy moped. “Is it difficult to learn?”

“Not to me,” de Briers smiled, “and I am certain that a clever lad like you will learn it very quickly.”

Manon kept her mouth shut about her ability to speak the language. Up until now, the travellers had always spoken in French. Manon’s mother had insisted on Manon learning her tongue from a very tender age. Manon spoke it fluently, albeit with a slight accent. She was reluctant for de Briers to learn of this – it was convenient to be able to overhear conversations between the two men when they discussed matters they did not want her to hear.

After the meal, de Briers ordered Jéhan and Manon to take a nap, given the fact that their early rising had left the boy sleepy. Brother and sister stretched out on the cool grass, basking in the warm June sun. De Briers waited a quarter of an hour before he challenged Jake.

“What exactly were you blabbering about last night, Jake? I overheard your comment about the Dowager Baronetess, and I was displeased with it.”

“I apologize once again, master, but the girl was asking eager questions about you. I saw no harm in telling her facts that are common knowledge.”

“Enlighten me, Jake,” de Briers said, his tone becoming rather implacable. “What exactly was my niece asking after?”

“Well, she wanted to know …” Jake hesitated, then continued, “… about the women in your life.”

Manon felt heat flaring up her cheeks and neck. She pinched her eyes closed more  firmly, afraid that they might think her awake.

“Did she now?” de Briers drawled. “And have you managed to satisfy her curiosity?”

“No! What do I know about that subject, sir? I am merely your Parisian man of business.”

“Good,” de Briers grunted. “I would very much appreciate it, Jake, if you did not venture to proffer personal details of my life to anyone in the future.”

“No, master, I won’t. You have my word.”

 

They stayed at the riverside for two hours to make sure the horse was properly rested. Their survival might well depend on the animal’s ability to bring them all the way to Boulogne, which was one hundred and sixty miles from Paris. That distance was but a bit shorter than what they would have to travel once they reached England.

Eventually, Jake mounted the bench while de Briers lifted Jéhan into the cart. Manon hesitated.

“I … could you just wait a moment, Uncle?”

De Briers turned in surprise upon hearing the name she had given him. Finally, he reflected, his niece was letting her guard down. “What is it, Manon?”

“I … I have … to go,” she mumbled, and began to head off for a small copse some twenty yards from the road.

Of course, De Briers realised. She was female and did not have the luxury to go and do her business in the river, like the rest of their little band. Stupid of him, not to have anticipated that. However, he did not like the notion that she should stray into the woods all by herself and followed her. When she turned and saw him, Manon put her hands on her waist in the universal gesture of annoyance. “You do not need to come with me,” she challenged. “I will be only a moment.”

“No,” her uncle stated curtly, “times are too uncertain. There are lots of fugitives in France, nowadays, and desperate people do not shy away from violence. Let me take a look first.”

Manon had not thought about that, and she realised her uncle was not only intelligent and careful, but also sweet and caring.

“Thank you, Uncle,” she said, and waited patiently until he signalled her to come nearer.

“Here,” he said, “this is a safe place. I will be waiting just a few yards away. Be quick about it, Manon. I want us to reach Fraconville before nightfall. There is a decent auberge where we can spend the night. I do not like the look of those clouds in the west.”

 

Unfortunately, de Briers was right. The clouds became large, black, and ominous, and the group was soaked to the bone by a deluge right after they crossed the Seine outside Clichy. The river meandered through the countryside repeatedly on its way to the North Sea, so they would encounter it again and again before they reached Boulogne.

Fortunately, while the passengers of the cart sat hunched under their soaked cloaks, feeling miserable, the placid, sturdy horse kept on plodding along, oblivious to the pelting rain. There was one large benefit to the situation, de Briers mused. At least they would not encounter guards or checkpoints now.

Their progress through the lush countryside was slow but steady, and eventually, the rain subsided. The warm sun that followed the torrent was a welcome change to the bone-cold travellers, who basked in the warmth it provided. Yet, when they reached the Auberge du Coquelicot in the tiny village of Fraconville, clouds had come drifting in again.

“Remember,” de Briers warned, before they went in, “Jake is the head of our “family” and you, Manon are posing as his wife. I am a demented uncle and Jéhan is your son.”

“Actually,” Manon said, “that will not do. Jake and I, as man and wife, would be given one bedchamber. I will be his widowed sister and Jake can sleep with you. Jéhan sleeps in my room.”

“I want to be with the men,” Jéhan piped. “I am a man, too!”

But, as it turned out, there were no private rooms at the “Poppy Inn”. All guests had to sleep in the common room, but as times were uncertain, they were the only guests, that night.

Times were indeed uncertain, as Manon soon experienced. The landlord, a thickset, gloomy looking man with a head as bald as an egg, had little else to offer but a hard straw mattress and a thin blanket for a bed in the cold common room.

“I have no wood to burn, and besides, it is June,” he said sourly. “Be glad I have some rabbit stew ready for your supper. That and a tankard of wine will get you warm quickly enough.”

After their meal, Jéhan settled next to Jake, who spread his blanket over the both of them. The boy seemed to have formed a friendship with Jake, who welcomed him good-naturedly. De Briers put his pallet to Jéhan’s other side, almost automatically, and Manon envied the three males. She was banished to the far end of the room, where a curtain separated her from the rest.

 

Manon felt miserable. She was damp, cold and still hungry. She had not dared to drink wine, for fear she might be sick afterwards. Wine made by the common people could not always be trusted, her father had taught her. They added dubious extra ingredients to the mixture in order to increase the alcohol content more efficiently than was possible with grape fermentation alone, such as wood spirits, an alcohol produced by the distillation of wood and used as a diluent in cheap wines. It was poisonous and could kill or blind a person, if they were lucky enough to survive.

Her uncle, as it turned out, forbade all of them from drinking the drinking the landlord’s wine. Manon asked for a pitcher of hot water and made a mint tisane for them. She had the satisfaction of seeing her uncle’s eyes widen with surprise as she rummaged through her medicinal bag to retrieve the pouch with the dried mint leaves. She even produced a small pot of honey, which she used to sweeten the beverage. It was succulent but it did nothing to warm the body, especially hers, when she lay shivering on her lonely pallet. After a long time, she drifted into a fitful sleep, interrupted by her frequent coughs.

 

Richard de Briers listened to his niece’s coughs with growing unease. The girl had no spare clothing so she was forced to sleep in her damp dress, he knew. It must by sheer misery. He could barely get warm under the thin, mouldy blanket their host had provided, so he could only guess how Manon must feel. At least he had little Jéhan’s body to warm his back, while she had no one’s warmth to comfort her. Tired of wrestling with his worry for Manon, Richard rose and crept to the other end of the room.

His niece was sleeping like a child would do, one hand under her cheek and the other wrapped tightly over her small breasts. The blanket had slipped away to leave her trembling with cold. Without giving further thought to the matter, Richard curled up behind her and enveloped them both in his spare woollen cloak. This one was fairly dry since it had been stored inside his leather travel bag.

The moment he felt Manon’s soft, round body snuggle up against his, Richard realised his mistake. His treacherous male body immediately responded with the usual embarrassing reaction. He froze, not daring to move for fear Manon would wake. How was he, her uncle, to explain the very

non-avuncular behaviour he had just displayed by joining his virgin niece on her pallet?

However, with a sigh of well-being, Manon sank deeper into sleep, and was soon breathing, deeply and regularly. Gradually, Richard relaxed and his body with him. It felt … well, right, although he knew that it was not right, not at all. Manon was his niece – his ward, even. He was honour-bound to protect her, to offer her a home where she would feel loved and safe. His mind and heart knew her for what she was, his sister’s daughter, but his lascivious body only acknowledged her exquisite femininity.

Richard inwardly cursed himself for staying away from Madame Herodias’ London nunnery for far too long. Then, as their combined body heat started to relax him, he willed himself to rule out all inappropriate thoughts and go to sleep.

 

Manon woke as soon as de Briers gave the signal. She was surprised to see him already dressed and giving instructions, while Jéhan and Jake were still preparing, dizzy with sleep. She herself felt marvellously rested, which caused her to wonder, since she had had such a hard time falling asleep.

When they were on the road again, Manon reflected upon it. She had been cold and wet and shivering. Yet she must have fallen asleep sometime, and had a sound sleep as well, since she had not dreamt or tossed around on her pallet. She did, however, remember a wonderful warmth that had spread over her at some point. By that time, she had already been too soundly asleep to bother about trying to understand it.

 

The weather was bright and sunny again, and the group made excellent progress. Come nightfall, they had achieved their planned fifteen miles, and they reached the Abbaye Notre-Dame du Val.

The abbey had been sold to a draper from Paris a few years ago, when the Revolution dispersed the monks. It stood empty but people from the vicinity still worshipped our Lady in the ruined church, which was the only building that had been destroyed.

De Briers knew about the abbey because he had stayed there when accompanying his father to France during his boyhood. He was also acquainted with some of the farmers who lived nearby. His father had always showed an interest in how others gained their produce so that he could apply their methods at Bearsham Manor.

The four of them stopped at Thierry Dubois’ farmhouse and bought some food from him – at a very substantial price, of course. Afterwards, they took refuge inside the abbey for the night and restored themselves.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Three

Armitage_004

Chapter Three

 

The band of fugitives made its way to the quays aligning the river Seine without being spotted by members of the Garde Révolutionaire. A small boat was moored at the bottom of the steps. They got on board, Manon and Jéhan at the stern and Jake at the bow, while de Briers took the oars. He began rowing downstream in a steady rhythm, the heavy oaken shafts cutting the water in silence. They slid along the riverbank, and de Briers kept the boat as close to the quay wall as he could without crashing into it. Their progress was slow but steady and undisturbed in the moonless dark of the June night.

Manon had taken Jéhan onto her lap when the boy began showing signs of weariness, but the damp chill that always seemed to emanate from the water made them both shiver with cold. Jéhan could not settle. “I am so cold, Manon. I want my cloak,” he whimpered.

“Shh, mon chou,” Manon hushed, “you must not make a noise.” She was afraid de Briers would become angry with them. Moreover, heaven knew what would happen if they were caught by the guards patrolling the riverbanks.

“Here,” de Briers said, “take this.” He signalled for Jake to hold the oars, shed his coat and draped it over Manon’s shoulders. She stifled a gasp when the man’s body heat, still trapped in the rough woollen coat, engulfed her. His scent – clean, spicy and very male – attacked her senses. They were stirred in a way she had never experienced before in her life, creating odd little flames that tantalized her skin. Recovering from her thoughts, she pulled Jéhan into the coat with her.

Quickly, Manon lowered her gaze, shame welling up deep in her chest. What was this awkward sensation that so disturbed her? Could it be … desire? Could it? In the twenty years of her life in the French capital Manon had – of course – encountered young men. Manon knew she was beautiful, lively and witty, and some young men had been so besotted that they had tried to lure her into their beds, but none had succeeded. No man had ever stirred Manon’s heart so she always kept the upper hand. She also knew what damage could be done when giving oneself to a man. Damage, both physical and emotional, that could ruin a girl’s life and leave her with a babe to raise on her own. Manon could deal with a fatherless babe but she would have been mortified to put her dearest Papa through the ordeal of a daughter who betrayed his trust in her. Papa had always shouldered the scalding blame for her Mama’s forced flight from her family when she had eloped with him. He had instilled in his daughter a strong conviction that a girl should not give her virginity to a man unless he was her legal husband. A husband who would love and cherish her until death parted them.

Manon had kept to that belief until this day, and she meant to keep it that way. Moreover, this man, this Richard de Briers, was her uncle, according to his own words. A blood relative. Romantic feelings for him would be considered incest, even if she did not act physically on them. She needed to quell these sudden, immoral thoughts forthwith.

 

Richard de Briers focused on the job at hand, steering the small craft over the mirror-like surface of the river Seine. At the same time, he listened for unusual noises and scanned the riverbanks for lights. From the moment he had met his niece and nephew, they had become family.

The girl was indeed his niece; of that he had no doubts at all. She had the bright red hair and vivid green eyes of her mother, his beloved sister Lily. Richard had been five when his half-sister eloped with Thibaut Favier, and to him, it had felt as if a part of his soul had been ripped away. Lily, sweet and caring, had been more of a mother to him than the cold, self-centred woman who had given birth to him.

Mildred de Briers, née Thompson, was a commoner. An extremely wealthy one, no doubt, but a commoner nevertheless. Her vast dowry, the result of her father’s activities as a Manchester cotton mill owner, had been the principal motive of his father’s second marriage. Sir Robert was in dire financial circumstances and needed the blunt. The fact that Mildred had given him a son and heir had never stirred more than tepid affections for Mildred in Sir Robert. Mildred herself had not loved her husband either. She consented to the marriage to please her papa who wished to have a titled son-in-law. Because Mildred and her family were tradespeople, they had never been properly educated. They could read and write, of course, but they had no interests in Society’s intricate machinations. Therefore, they had not known until after the marriage that Sir Robert, being only a baronet, was no member of the peerage. That little piece of information had thoroughly severed the connections between Sir Robert and his in-laws.

With rising annoyance, Richard shook off the memories of his sour, grim-faced mother. He needed to keep his wits free to get his niece and nephew out of Paris safely. That was what he had promised his dying father and what Richard himself felt was an obligation to his dearest Lily’s memory. This girl and this boy were Lily’s children. He would protect them with his life.

 

They reached Auteuil unharmed and unnoticed. The small borough, just outside Paris, lay squeezed between the river in the east and the notorious Bois de Boulogne in the west. Richard’s lodgings were with a soldier’s widow called Madame Bernard. The house lay on the edge of these woods, a safe enough distance from the capital to keep them from being overly bothered by the revolutionary guards. The nasty reputation of the woods, where people were attacked and even murdered, where women were raped and children butchered, helped to keep Richard and Jake out of sight.

By the time they arrived at Madame Bernard’s house, Jéhan was fast asleep in Richard’s arms, exhausted by the long walk from the river to the woods’ edge. Manon looked ghastly, Richard noticed, even though she never uttered a complaint as she dragged her tired and sore feet. Her shoes were threadbare; their soles were too thin to walk the cobbled streets, let alone travel the dusty roads.

Once inside, Richard ordered a bath and a meal for his charges. Madame Bernard was instantly fussing over the boy and cooing over Manon. She led them to the kitchen and shooed the men into her parlour, instructing them to pour themselves a glass of liquor. Richard grimaced at the thought of the vile green beverage the French called crême de menthe, but Jake eagerly poured himself a generous dose. Finally, Richard chose a cognac and settled into a chair.

Faint noises from the kitchen reached his tired mind. Splashing and giggling, and Madame Bernard’s happy comments; she must have been bustling about and preparing their meal. Upon hearing Manon asking for the soap, an image of her naked body, luxuriating in the bath, ambushed Richard’s mind, utterly unbidden and thoroughly unwanted. In response, his body immediately reacted, leaving him stunned with the force of his desire. What the devil was going on and what the hell was he thinking? He jumped from his seat. “I will be in my room. Tell Madame Bernard to bring up my meal as soon as it is ready.”

Jake, startled by his master’s sudden exit, stared at the closing door in bewilderment.

 

Manon was famished by the time the landlady laid out their meal. At first, she was distracted by Jéhan, who, as ravenous as he was, gobbled up his food without even trying to chew it. A few minutes passed, in which she fed him little tidbits until he ate more slowly, before she actually noticed that her uncle had not come to Madame’s cosy kitchen. When she asked Jake about it, he shrugged.

“He is like that sometimes. I do not know why. Simply disappears. Reckon he had enough of us for tonight.”

“How well do you know my uncle, Jake?” Manon asked, eager to learn as much as she could.

“Not well, actually. I was employed by his father, the late baronet of Bearsham, who sent me to Paris. I know Sir Richard only slightly from my rare visits to Brighton in the past. He is all right, so to speak. Never treats one without respect, although he does not allow slovenliness or insubordination. He is thorough in his business dealings, and he is clever, I tell you.”

“Is he married, or engaged?” Manon did not know why she wanted to know the answer to that, but she did.

“How would I know whether he is betrothed?” Jake protested. “He is not likely to tell me, is he? I heard he was engaged once, but the lady married another.”

“Does he have a mistress, then?”

“Now, miss, you should not ask such questions. It is very unladylike!”

“Jake, this is Paris and I am no lady.” Manon eyed him with deliberate mischief.

“No, but you will become one soon. You are the master’s niece.” The young man returned a stern gaze.

“Maybe I will,” Manon chuckled, “but really, is there a woman in his life?”

Jake shook his head emphatically. “No, indeed. I think he is somewhat lonely, is the master.”

Manon digested this information for a while before asking, “What do you mean, lonely?”

They had spoken all of this in French, of course, and Manon now became aware of Madame Bernard staring at the two of them with avid eyes. Apparently, she was considering all this to be very interesting.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” Madame Bernard chimed in. “Monsieur has a certain … look about him, of being utterly alone in the world. As if he had not a living soul who cared for him. As if no one ever told him they loved him.”

“Exactly!” Jake acknowledged.

She knew not why, but Manon’s heart contracted with sheer compassion for de Briers.

“That cannot be true,” she said. “His mother is still alive, is she not? Mothers and sons – that is the oldest love story in the world!”

Jake knowingly shook his head. “Ah, but you clearly do not know the Dowager Baronettes of Bearsham! She is as cold as they come. Haughty, and ruthless. A veritable dragon, she is!”

Suddenly, a deep voice boomed from the doorway.

“I will thank you, Mr Davies, not to comment on my family, if you please!”

Jake nearly fell from his chair and began apologizing profusely to his master.

“Oh! I am so sorry, master … I …”

“Madame Bernard, we wish to depart from here at the first light of dawn,” de Briers said, cutting him off. “We will need several items for our journey, such as a food basket, blankets, and two decent woollen cloaks for the young lady and her brother. I wish to buy that wooden cart I saw in your yard. Just tell me your price and I will meet it.”

The landlady bobbed in silent answer. De Briers addressed Manon with a curt nod of his head. “Be sure to wear unobtrusive clothes, niece. We do not want to attract any unwanted attention. We will pose as a family of farmers. You and Jake as a couple with a young son. I will be an elderly relative who is weak of mind. Also, I will not speak because my accent would give me away as an Englishman.”

Manon was dumbstruck by his curtness and could only nod in agreement.

“Very well, then,” de Briers said, “we should all retire to our beds and have a good night’s sleep. We have a long journey ahead in the days to come.”

They all rose at once and left for their sleeping quarters.

Hearts Adrift – Part Two

 

Armitage_004

Chapter Two

 

“Are you certain, sir, that you want to pursue this matter? The streets are extremely dangerous in Paris right now.”

The young man’s pleasant countenance grew serious, causing Richard de Briers to turn a sharp eye on him. “What is it that you are saying, Jake? Are the streets barred? Bridges over the Seine destroyed, maybe?”

Jake Davies had been acting as Richard’s business man in Paris for the last four years. He had begun his life as a London street urchin and Robert de Briers had caught the boy trying to steal his handkerchief one rainy night. Richard’s father, seeing the sorry state the starving boy was in, took him into his London household and gave him a home, responsibilities, and, seeing a potential in him, eventually an education. Jake started his career as a clerk to Mr. Donby, Robert de Briers’ secretary. His childhood in the London rookeries made him the perfect man to tackle post-revolutionary Paris. He had made possible many successful business transactions for Richard and his father before him. So, when Jake found it necessary to warn him, Richard listened and pondered.

“I am saying, sir, that we must go unnoticed, which implies we have to go after dark. However, the darkness will add a definite danger to our journey. There are two liabilities, as I see it. We could get held up by the troops of the Terror –  and arrested if they have a mind to it. In that case, we are as good as dead, being foreigners, and English to boot. They will think us spies. On the other hand, we could be caught by cutthroats, and be robbed and murdered. No one would be surprised by one or two corpses floating in the Seine, these days.”

“Or, Jake, we could be clever and pick our way to the Rue Saint-Jacques cautiously. We could bring my relatives back to the inn in Auteuil and from there, set off to the coast. Once we reach Boulogne, we could hire a boat to bring us back to England.”

Jake bowed his head at the resolute tone of his master’s voice. “Yes, sir, we could do all that. Well, no better time than tonight.”

“My good man!” Richard grinned. “Let us prepare ourselves!”

 

The riots were still raging through Paris’ streets; therefore, Manon and Jéhan were sensibly staying indoors. They had, however, finished their last bits of food the night before. Manon realised they could not stay at the house for much longer. Jéhan was frightened, with reason, and she had done all she could to keep him quiet and comfort him as best as she was able to. After four days of hiding, Manon told her brother that their father might have been arrested. She kept silent about the real situation. Jéhan was too young to understand. Better to let him think their father was in prison, and therefore unreachable. No one was allowed to visit prisoners these days, and Jéhan, young though he was, knew that. She would explain what transpired when the time was right.

For now, she would make a plan to escape from Paris. Her mind was diligently considering her options, while she was picking up eggs in the back garden. By some miracle, the plunderers had overlooked a single chicken, hidden under a pile of straw.

A large hand covered her mouth and a steely arm sneaked around her body, effectively pinning her arms in a tight hold. Manon struggled, fought, kicked her heels against her assailant’s shins, but it was like kicking a brick wall. A warm whiff of breath caressed her ear, and a deep baritone voice whispered, “Do not fight me. Are you Manon Favier, daughter of Lily de Briers and Thibaut Favier?”

The tall, incredibly strong man had spoken in heavily accented French, and Manon had to strain her ears just to be able to understand what he said. She nodded as well as she could, given the fact that his hand was still on her mouth.

“I am your uncle Richard de Briers,” the man said. “I will release you now, and you must not make a sound. I have come to take you and your brother to England with me.”

Manon heaved a deep sigh and turned to look at her uncle as soon as he set her back on her feet. It was early dusk and she could see him clearly in the light of the setting sun.

Richard de Briers was tall and broad-shouldered, with a figure that seemed to be hewn out of granite. Although he was dressed in the drab, coarsely woven clothes of a commoner, his stance and the expression on his face immediately gave him away as an aristocrat. A face as handsome as the devil’s, Manon registered – clean-cut, with wide-set eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long blade of a nose and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. A full head of pitch-black hair completed the image of a devil, yet what troubled Manon the most was the cold, steely gaze in those grey eyes.

She shivered but straightened to her full height, which only allowed her to bring the top of her head halfway up his chest. Mon Dieu, but the man was a giant!

“How do I know that you are who you say you are, monsieur?” she challenged him, tossing back the red mane of her hair that had come undone from its pins. Her green eyes blazed at him with unmitigated defiance as she lifted her face to look him straight in the eyes.

Richard de Briers stared at her in disbelief, unable, for a moment, to find the words that would convince her. Was this slip of a girl doubting his word? If he was to act as her guardian, he had better make it clear to her from the beginning that he was the one giving the orders.

“Quit your whims, girl, and follow me. Do not fuss or there will be consequences. I have no qualms binding and gagging you.”

He gripped her arm and towed her along into the kitchen, where another man slighter and shorter than de Briers was waiting with her little brother, perched on his shoulder. Jéhan did not seem to be afraid of the strangers and had his wooden horse tucked under his arm.

“We are travelling to England, Manon! Is that not wonderful?” The boy was smiling broadly.

“Keep quiet, little master,” Jake admonished in perfect Parisian French. “We do not want the guards to hear us.”

“Sorry,” Jéhan apologized. “I can be quiet as a mouse, monsieur, I promise!”

“Who are you, monsieur?” Manon challenged Jake. “Put my brother down, now!”

“His name is Jake Davies and he is my business man. You have nothing to fear from him,” Richard de Briers’ voice rumbled above her head. “Now, listen, mademoiselle. We will go to the river, where I have a small boat ready to take us to my rooms in Auteuil. That way, we will avoid the Barrière de Grenelle and inspection by the guards at the barrier checkpoint. The surveillance is very thorough these days.”

Manon humphed, which made the man raise an annoyed eyebrow. “I know all too well how thorough the surveillance is, monsieur! I live here, remember?”

De Briers cut her short with a glare that could have set the place on fire, then continued, “From Auteuil, where I have horses ready, we ride to Boulogne, from where we sail to England. Can you ride?”

“No,” she sneered, “Why would I have learned to ride a horse? There is no need to ride in Paris!”

“Perfect!” De Briers growled under his breath, but aloud he said, “It is of no consequence. Jake and I can take you behind us in the saddle in turn.”

Manon decided to give in, at least for now. This was as good a way as any other to escape Paris. Her “uncle” seemed to have made his plan rather thoroughly. The toll barriers and the wall, called Murs des Fermiers Généraux had been in place since 1788, a year before the storming of the Bastille. The people had not approved of the tolls on all incoming goods, which were levied to pay for the aristocrats’ extravagances. Since 1790, the barriers were checkpoints for controlling not only goods, but also the comings and goings of people, so avoiding them was paramount. Once they were in the countryside, Manon would find an opportunity to run away. Surely, in the Bois de Boulogne, an opportunity would present itself.

Manon did not trust this “uncle” unconditionally. Father had told her about her so-called English family often enough, and what she had learned about these people had not inclined her to feel generous towards them, but these were desperate times.

Manon’s mother had been a child of her grandfather’s first marriage. After the death of his wife in childbirth, her grandfather had not taken much notice of his baby daughter, so Maman had been raised by her nanny, and later, by her governess. At fifteen, Maman had eloped with her father’s French valet, Thibaut Favier. To escape her father’s wrath, they had fled to Paris, where Papa had worked in his father’s apothecary shop and learned the trade. Manon was born and the couple stayed in Paris. Jéhan was born when Manon was fifteen, but this late pregnancy was too much for Maman’s frail body. She died after three days of horrible agony, even though Manon – who had also learned the apothecary trade – and her father had tried everything that was humanly possible to heal her.

There had never been a word from England, as far as Manon knew. And now this “uncle” had shown up. Her grandfather must have remarried at some point.

“Have you gathered the necessities for your journey?” De Briers shook her arm, as if he had noticed her daydreaming.

“We have only the clothes on our backs, Jéhan and I. Our house was plundered a few days ago.”

He nodded. “I will provide you with clothes and necessaries, when we reach Auteuil. It might be useful if you had a cloak, however. The river can be damp at night.”

“I have no cloak,” Manon replied. “Nor does Jéhan.”

“We have to go, Master,” Jake urged. “In another ten minutes, the night watch will be upon us.”

“Come on, then,” De Briers said, and took Jéhan from Jake, settling the boy on his hip, before striding to the door.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Sixteen

TheReformofJohnThornton

Chapter Sixteen

 

Soon thereafter, I took my leave of the sanctimonious couple. They had infuriated me more than I could stomach. I would have had a row if I had stayed any longer. How dared they criticize Mr Hale’s honest doubts in his faith when the poor man had been tried the way he had been? His son was banished from England’s shores, for heaven’s sake! And then the manner in which they treated their children! They were nothing but unpaid servants, no, they were treated like slaves! At least, the children in my mill had been paid for their work.

I found myself trembling with fury on the footpath that led to their front garden. I took a deep breath and looked around me. Helstone was indeed a lovely town nestled in the most beautiful landscape I had ever beheld. I could well imagine Margaret walking through it, to visit her father’s parishioners, or picking flowers to decorate the many rooms in that pretty little vicarage, or helping their maid Dixon to make preserves from the berries she picked along her ramblings through the woods. I could imagine her, dressed in a fine muslin morning gown on a beautiful morning in June, picking roses …

Roses … yes, I thought, that were her favourite blooms … they must be. Any other flower would lack resemblance to Margaret, who was beautiful, but strong, and who blossomed all summer, like the Helstone roses had once, before they were cut down so ruthlessly.

I turned to the house and saw its bare garden encircling it with dismal emptiness. In several spots, I could see the patches of upturned earth where the roses had been. They must have been dog roses, I realised. They would grow and extend all over the garden. I wandered down the path toward the church, where a bridal path crossed the one I was on.

I looked as intently as I could to inspect the six-feet-high hedgerow that lined it. It was a beech hedge, tick and green, effectively sealing the view from what was behind. After a while, I found what I had been searching.

 

I left Helstone for Bishopstoke, on that same day. There was no point in staying longer, since no one knew about Margaret’s whereabouts. The ride on horseback allowed me to gather my sombre thoughts.

I had not been truly convinced that I would hear about her from the start. Margaret was gone, and although my brain knew that fully well, my foolish heart had still hoped for the exact opposite. It was final, now. I would never again see my dearest girl.

To my infinite relief, my compartment on the London train was empty. I had ample opportunity to wallow in misery without being disturbed. My hand held the yellow rose from Margaret’s beautiful Helstone. I would treasure it, and I knew exactly how; I would place it in Mr Hale’s Plato, so that it would dry, and be kept indefinitely. Would my love for Margaret also dry and wither? I hoped it would not, for I would wither and dry with it.

I did not waste time in London but boarded the Northbound train instantly. I longed to be home again, in my beloved Milton, and tackle the many problems that awaited me there. I would weather this new situation as I had done so many times before. I would not give in to self-pity and despair. I was John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate. I still was a manufacturer, even though my mill had closed. I would start over again. I would find the funds needed to start over again.

 

The train had stopped, but it took me a bit of time before I realised it. I had been breaking my head as to how I would find the necessary means to begin working again. Finding workers would not be difficult, since Higgins – of all people! – had given me a list of men and women who would come back to me, if I ever became a mill master again. But the funds! How was I to acquire money? Latimer had already rejected my application for a new loan, and I knew no bankers outside of Milton. If only Mr Hale were still there to advise me. He knew London better than I did. I sighed and stood to close the door after a passenger disembarked.

My heart stopped, no, began throbbing loudly in my head! There she was, my Margaret.

She was standing on the platform gazing at me with joyous consternation. Oh, lovely vision, that was surely a mirage, conjured up by my longing heart. But she, too was looking as if she was seeing something she could not believe was there! I left the train, I walked toward her.

Her eyes … oh, her beautiful eyes! How they bore into mine, as if they wanted to drink in the sight of me, me, the man she had hitherto loathed. She did not speak, she just gazed at me, her lips curving in the sweetest smile I had ever seen.

“Where are you going?” My voice rasped a bit, as if my breath had run out. It had …

Margaret seemed embarrassed, all of a sudden. She turned her head to the train she had just left, then looked back at me and said, “To London … I have just been to Milton …”

“Ah …” It was all I managed, before a thought struck me. “You’ll never guess where I have been …” I reached into my waistcoat pocket and drew out the yellow dog rose. I gave it to her and she took it. Our fingers brushed.

“To Helstone?” she breathed, “You’ve been to Helstone?” Her eyes widened with pure joy. “I thought those had all gone …”

“I found it in the hedgerow,” I rasped, “You have to look hard.”

Margaret smiled and looked down again.

“Why were you in Milton?” I asked, glad that my voice was normal again.

She seemed to hesitate, then she took a deep breath and said, “On business.  Well, that is, I have a business proposition.”

Her cheeks were suddenly flushed, and she turned toward the southbound train.  “Oh, dear,” she gasped, “I need Henry to help me explain.”

Lennox? I quickly looked at the train, and there he was, staring broodily at us. Ah … so he was the one she would turn to when in need of advice … and what else, I mused. Well, she was with me now, blast it!

I grasped her arm, then let go of it, to prevent her from thinking I would try and force her to go, if she wanted to do so. “You don’t need Henry to explain.”  I gently took her elbow and led her to a bench. She followed, but glanced at Lennox. We sat down, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see how Lennox was still watching us like a hawk.

Margaret seemed short of breath but she continued, “I have to get this right.”

Her glance kept dropping from mine, though I could not but drink in her lovely face. My heart was pounding fiercely now, and I felt an immense anticipation as if something was going to happen. Something that would turn my life upside down.

“It’s a business proposition,” Margaret swallowed, then rushed on swiftly, “I have some fifteen thousand pounds.  It is lying in the bank at present, earning very little interest.”

Now she threw me a nervous glimpse. I could not utter a single word, because I was beginning to realise what she was saying.

The dear girl now ploughed on, “Now, my financial advisers tell me that if you were to take this money and use it to run Marlborough Mills, you could give me a very much better rate of  …. interest.”

We were both breathing hard, now. My gaze bore into her eyes, willing her to see how deeply, how desperately I loved her. My Margaret … my sweet, dearest, loveliest girl …

Again she dropped her eyes to her lap at her hands holding the rose. I drank in her beautiful features, her soft brown hair, small ears and heart-shaped face. My Margaret …

“So you see, it is only a business matter,” she breathed. “You’d not be obliged to me in any way.  It is you who would be doing …

I covered the hand and the rose in her lap with mine. Oh, the warmth of it, and the softness!   “…me the service, she said, voice fading off.

My heart stopped when her fingers began caressing my hand, but I nearly died of happiness , when she lifted it to her mouth. Her lush, rosy lips brushed over my skin, in a kiss so chaste, and at the same time so erotic that … oh, but I could never, ever describe the feelings that assaulted me!

 

I still have trouble to recollect what transpired exactly during those wonderful moments.

We were alone in a world of our own, me and my Margaret, My one and only love.

I raised my other hand and touched, then cupped her face. I wanted to see her eyes.

They were so beautiful that I could only drown in them, while I bent down. Our lips touched, and I forced myself to woo hers slowly, gently, and wait for her to adjust. She was an innocent, my Margaret, yet she responded to my touch with shy but unmistakeable fervour. I found the courage to kiss her properly, then, and met her open-mouthed. She sighed and granted me access to her warm, soft haven.

 

“London train about to depart.  London train is about to depart.”

We were cast back brutally into the present and hastily we drew apart, yet our eyes never broke away. My Margaret looked troubled, and I found myself too tensed up to speak. She abruptly stood and walked back to the southbound train.

It was over, then. How I found the strength to rise and go back to my own train, I do not know, but I did. I had kissed her, and she walked away from me. It was the final blow.

As I was about to open the door, Margaret’s reflection appeared in the window pane. I swallowed, turned, and there she was, smiling at me so warmly that my knees threatened to buckle beneath me. I smiled back at her and asked, “You’re coming home with me?”

Her gaze did not waver, but showed acquiescence, so I took her bag from her and let her step into the compartment. I followed, bedazzled with the notion that she had finally chosen to be with me.

While the train pulled out of the station, we again turned to each other, seated very closely on the wooden bench; we kissed again, shyly now. Our lips met once, twice, and I was in a daze of happiness, so deep that I could not help from putting my arm around her shoulders and draw her near.

England’s green, lush countryside passed by the window. Margaret was looking dreamily at it, and I … I was gazing at her.

Finally, I was whole.

 

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Fourteen

TheReformofJohnThornton

Chapter Fourteen

For the next three months, I fought tooth and nail to keep my business afloat. I travelled to Birmingham, Leeds and even London to find some new investors, but alas, to no avail. Latimer would not see me again when I applied for an interview about a new loan. Needless to say I did not pursue Ann Latimer further. I was relieved about that, at least.

On one day in late spring, I received a visit from Mr Bell, my landlord. He was an Oxford academic from a wealthy family, who had invested and still was investing money into Marlborough Mills. He had some disturbing news. It seemed he was dying from a long neglected disease, and he was concluding his affairs with the intention of going to Argentina. There he hoped to die in peace and comfort.

“So, I’m almost at the end of sorting my business affairs,” he said in a jovial tone, handing me the documents I was to sign.

I took them and began reading. “When do you sail?” I asked.

“On Wednesday.  I shall be pleased to be warmed by the sun again.  I spent much of my youth there.”

I was reading a document concerning the lease of my mill’s premises and startled when I saw who was to be my new landlord.

“Yes,” Bell said, a slight smile on his face. “I have signed all my property and fortune to my goddaughter Miss Hale.  I have no other family and Hale is my oldest friend.”

I had a difficult time believing what I saw with my own eyes. So Margaret was not only a very rich woman, now, she was also my landlord, which meant she could end my lease when she desired so. I was at her mercy, and so was my business.

When I looked up, I saw Bell watching me with I can only describe as sympathy. I quickly changed the subject. “But South America?  Won’t you need money to live on?”

“Oh, I have sufficient for a very good life there,” Bell stated, seemingly uninterested. Then he sobered, “What remains of it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I could never warm to the gentleman. He was too glib by far and always trying to stir peoples’ feelings to make them react. Yet I was distraught to hear what his fate was.

“Thank you, but don’t be,” he replied.  “I consider myself lucky to be able to settle my own affairs.  To know that Miss Hale is secure will ease my heart in these last few months.”

He paused, studying his fingers. “By the way, Miss Hale is unlikely to bother you or to interfere.  She is landlord in name only.”

Damn the fellow! He must suspect I had an interest in Margaret. In my most frosty voice I said, “Even if Miss Hale were minded to interfere, she has little enough opinion of me.  There may not be much left for her to interfere with.”

I handed him the signed documents and he shrugged. “Yes, well, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do.  I have left business behind me.” He stood and donned his hat. “I sail on Wednesday.”

I touched my sweaty brow with one hand, overwhelmed by all I had learned, just now. With Bell’s visit, all my suppressed thoughts of Margaret were assailing me anew. I was aware of Bell going to the door but he had something more to say.

“You might be mistaken, Thornton, if you think Miss Hale has a bad opinion of you.”

It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I quickly rose and turned away from him.

But Bell was not finished. “And you might not judge her as harshly as you do…  In fact…”

I burst out, barely able to control my livid fury. “As you say, Mr. Bell, your business in Milton is finished. And now the future of this mill is no concern of yours.  I’m afraid I’m busy too. Good day.”

 

I shall always remember those dreadful months as the worst time of my life.

There was no joy, no succour to be found in the slow, painful demise of one’s beloved business.

I tried everything, but nothing could prevent Marlborough Mill from bankruptcy. Mother attempted to help me, of course. Mother is and has always been my most faithful ally and support.

She proposed to sell her jewels, the thought of it made me cringe with horror. I hastened to explain there was no need for that. I had secured our financial survival, and now that Fanny was off my hands, I was certain Mother and I could survive on very little. I would find employment, if necessary.

That did not seem to reassure Mother, for she then proposed to dismiss all the servants and do the work herself. If need be, she said, she could go into service herself and add to our income.

“Mother!” I exclaimed, thoroughly horrified. “Here, have a look at this!” And I showed her the small ledger where I noted my personal finances. She was sighing with relief, after that.

“John,” she said, placing a hand over mine, “we could sell the house, if matters become too dire. It would pain me, I’ll give you that, but I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary to alleviate our problems.”

“I shall fight hard to prevent that, Mother, fear not. I’m fond of this house, too. It is my own, personal achievement, marking our successful battle against poverty, after Father died. Yet, if there’s no other solution, I will sell it.”

“Oh, John,” she whispered, and for the first time since years, I saw tears glistening in her eyes. She did not give in to weeping, though. Mother never weeps. She is the strongest woman alive. But I would not have minded to see her weep now. I was close to tears myself, curse it!

 

On the last working day of Marlborough Mills, I could not bring myself to go to my office and see the workers depart for the very last time. It was cowardly, I know. For them, it was disastrous, while I had other options to gain my daily bread. They, however, faced starvation, if they couldn’t manage to find work.

Mother and I were sitting in the parlour, and we were thoroughly discouraged. We did not speak, for what was there to say? But we felt each other’s sorrow, and I was furious because I could do absolutely nothing to lift hers.

Suddenly, Fanny burst into the room, a smirk on her face that did not bode well.

“I told you,” she exclaimed, in a tone so conceited that I felt like throttling her! Wretched girl!

She continued in a triumphant tone, “ I was right and John was wrong. For once you must admit I was right.  If you’d invested in Watson’s scheme, you’d have made thousands.  Enough to get you out of trouble!”

I could not find the strength to react, and that seemed to anger her.

“Admit it,” she demanded, but Mother and I just looked at each other. What was there to say, or to admit? I would never invest in a speculation scheme. If that was the way to make money, I would not do it. It was like playing with other people’s lives, playing without having to pay the consequences.

Then Fanny said in a haughty, condescending tone, “I will ask Watson if he will lend John some money, but he was very angry when John would not join him in the venture.  And he says a gentleman must pay his own way!”

I was beginning to think that my only sister disliked me very much. She must have known her words would hurt me, and Mother. The best I could do was keep my mouth shut, so that was what I did. Fanny waited, then left, but she had one final arrow to shoot at me.

“And I think you can think again about Ann Latimer!  I’m sure she won’t have you now!”

As if that was of any concern to me! How little did she know me, my superficial, egotistic little sister.

“You mustn’t mind losing the house, Mother,” I said, after a long silence.

“I don’t mind about the house!” Mother said forcefully. She again put her hand on my arm. “I care about you!”

I found the courage to smile at her. “Thank God Fanny’s taken care of. It’ll just be you and I again.”

Mother gave me her rare, exquisite smile, and it encouraged me, despite my morose state of mind.

Later that day, I found the courage to go to the sorting room, now empty and silent. What a dismal sight greeted me there. The looms, cotton sheets still on them, were silent and looked so abandoned it broke the heart of me. All my life’s work, all my pride, all my hope … gone. All I had fought for, since the death of my father, to restore his memory and repay his debts … it had all been for nought. I was back to where I had been at sixteen. I was destitute again but for the meagre savings I had managed to rescue out of the disaster.

My eyes wandered through the shed to the dais I always used to survey it all. I suddenly remembered the day I saw Margaret for the first time, and how she shouted at me to stop thrashing Stephens. How right she had been, my love.

Ever since I met her, she had been in my heart. A lady of the purest heart and beauty, she had shown me the way to a human relationship with my workers. Not through violence and masterful haughtiness, but through treating them as human beings. Listening to them, letting them explain their grievances, and negotiating with them to find an acceptable solution for all concerned.

Too late had I found how to deal with people. Too late had I known how to win my love.

For only now did I understand how she must have seen me. Not a man, but a beast, a yelling, beating, and rude beast of a man. Not a gentleman, oh, how right she had been there. I would have nothing to offer her now, should I ever get a new chance at wooing her. Should I ever again have the chance to lay my heart at her feet, I had nothing in my hands to offer her. Would she have me now, I wondered? A man, and nothing but a man, with no position or status, and my only richness the deep love I still harboured for her.

No, she would not even glance at me, let alone hear me out or speak to me. I was not worthy of her, I knew that all along, but, oh, how I would love her, and worship her, and give my life’s blood to make her the happiest woman on earth.

 

“What a nice Christmas present it will be, said Charlotte. But I hope …”

The light, stumbling voice of little Tom Boucher broke through my black thought with the strength of a ray of summer sun. I turned and saw him sitting on top of one of the looms, a book in his lap. I wandered to him, smiled and asked, “Where’s Higgins?”

“He’s finishing off something,” said Tom and carried on reading. “Mr Arnott will… sometimes bring her cart into…”

Again my mind pictured Margaret, now in the arms of the stranger, late at night at the station. Again I recalled my stupid jealousy, and my fury, and my powerlessness. How caddish I had behaved to her, as a result of all these idle and senseless feelings. What right had I being outraged at her because she loved another? Had I not explained in detail how independent my female workers were in the matter of using their wages? Was I their father or their brother to tell them what to do? Yet I had wanted to thrash the man holding my Margaret, and beat him to a bloody pulp, without any right at all. I had no claim on her, and never would.

“I said, have you heard about Miss Margaret?”

I startled, and saw Higgins approach. Why was he asking about Margaret? He would be the one knowing all about her, I mused. I could not bring myself to answer his question, so I asked one of mine, “Still here?”

“Just because it’s the last shift, Master, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t finish the job well.”

I shrugged. “I am nobody’s master anymore, Higgins.”

In a casual tone, Higgins ventured, “If you’re ever in a position to take on workers again, there’s a fair number of us who’d be happy to run a mill for you.”

I smiled. Ah, Higgins. How I had come to like the man, since he took up work with me.

“I got up a petition to collect the names,” said Higgins, and handed me a role of paper. I took it from him and was at a loss what to do with it. It was very unlikely that I would ever be a mill master again.

”Anyway,” Higgins continued, ‘I was asking about Miss Margaret. Have you heard how she’s doing?”

What was I to say? I had not seen Margaret for several months. “She’s well.  She’s in London.  We’ll not see her again.”

“I thought she might have gone to Spain,” Higgins said, mischief colouring his voice.

I was stunned and failed to understand what he was driving at. “Spain?  Why would she go there?”

Higgins grinned at me. “Well, to see her brother, now that he’s her only family.”

What?!? What was he saying, curse it? “Her brother? She doesn’t have a brother.”

Higgins was having a laugh at me, I could tell, yet I was too eager to hear the rest. “Him that were over when their mother were dying.  Kept it a secret, they did. My Mary used to fetch things for them.  She’s a quiet girl, but she talks to me.”

I was really at a loss, now. “Why wouldn’t Mr Hale tell me that he had a son?”

“Something to do with the law.  Found himself on the wrong side of the Navy.  In real danger he was.”

A brother in the Navy, away from home. A man wanted by the authorities … a man in hiding.

How could I have been so daft? If I had only known, our lives may have been different.  “He was her brother,” I whispered, and felt as if a light had been lit inside me.

Higgins extended his hand. “Well. Thornton…. I’ll bid you good day.”

I clasped it, all of a sudden overwhelmed by joy from what he had told me. “Goodbye Higgins. Good luck.”

 

I was alone again in the vast emptiness of the mill. It weighed on me like a suffocating blanket. As matters stood, I had only two options; either I would wallow in self-pity, deploring the unhappy demise of my business, or I would try to begin anew. Whichever path I chose, it would be a solitary one. I was on my own, I was without my Margaret.

I went to my office and sank down onto the hard wooden chair behind my now useless desk.

Margaret, too, had endured much sorrow since she came to Milton. I had time to waste, now, so I reflected on Margaret’s life, as I knew it.

She had come to Milton with both her parents still alive, sad beyond comprehension because she had had to leave her beloved Helstone in sunny, easy Hampshire. Her mother had suffered even more, and to the point that she became ill. Margaret had had no support from her mother, on the contrary, it had been she who must comfort Mrs Hale, over and over again.

Mr Hale was no great support, neither to his weak wife, nor to his brave daughter. He had retreated behind his books and left his daughter to seek the company of others, like the Higginses.

I could not begin to understand what enormous difference Milton and its people must have been to Margaret from her Southern village. Yet she had endeavoured to blend in in Milton’s society as best as she could, albeit in her own outspoken and free-thinking way. She had even made some friends amongst the workers, something I had not even tried.

Margaret … my courageous love. I knew I would never stop loving her, and, even if some other woman crossed my path, I would remain a bachelor for the rest of my life. How could I love another, when I knew that somewhere in London or beyond, there was my Margaret?

Maybe, I mused, she would indeed go to her brother in Spain. She obviously loved and adored him a great deal. Would my heart feel it if she left England’s shores?

Perhaps she would go back to her beloved Helstone and settle there, alone or with a husband. Would my heart shatter the day she gave herself to another man? Surely, it would.

I stood and left the building to go to the house. I had made up my mind. I would indeed start anew, but not until I had cleansed myself from my bitterness and sorrow about Margaret. The only place where I could attempt just that, was Helstone, Hampshire.