Captain Hartford returned to post with explanations to his Commander. He had entered his Commander’s office with great hesitancy only to be buoyed by the fact that nothing seemed out of order. Surely, there would be a severe questioning session if Miss Hale or Detective Boyle had come to him with any suspicions. Grant wondered how long it would be before Miss Hale was found, dead or alive. She had to have taken her own life as she admitted she had been thinking of doing. There could be little hope of reconciliation after all this time, if she lived. Grant decided to stop worrying about Miss Hale and do something about it. Looking over his shoulder was something he caused to others, and not something he would endure himself. Once he could locate her, he would dispose of her as he had once done to the fiancé of a woman he forcefully bedded. When all doubts of his involvement in her death were well and truly dismissed, he would pick his moment to expose her brother and gain the accolades of the crown.
It was nearing midday when the Shaw household received their post. The housemaid set it on the table in the foyer where it always rested in a silver tray. Edith and her mother were in the parlor still suffering the loss of Margaret.
“The police have had twenty four hours and still no word,” Mrs. Shaw stated as she paced the room. “She cannot have just disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Edith remembered spotting Margaret’s reticule on the sofa in the house of Captain Hartford. She knew the police had that knowledge but her aunt did not. Edith began to think that the waiting was starting to take a great toll on her and her mother. A doctor should be summoned tomorrow to ease her mother’s nerves.
“Mother, how about a cup of tea with me?”
“Yes, Edith, ring for the maid.”
The maid entered the parlor as requested and asked what she could do. Directed to bring a tray of tea, she turned to leave, offhandedly telling the Mistress that the post had arrived.
Edith walked to the foyer and brought the small bundle into the parlor. Noticing a post from Mr. Bell, she handed it quickly to her mother.
Mrs. Shaw snapped the seal in an instant and began to read of Margaret’s whereabouts. Almost with the vapors, she grabbed her heart and shouted, “She’s alive. Margaret is alive. She is in Milton.”
Edith pulled the note from her mother’s waving hands and read it for herself.
“Mother, it says she is injured and in the hospital there. We must go at once.”
“Edith, we will go a first light tomorrow. We will pack. Today we need to inform Maxwell and he will know who else should know of this. Oh, Thank the Lord, she is alive. Do you think Maxwell could have some time to come with us?”
“I hope so, Mother. He’s been very involved in this, much more than I think we know. I will take the buggy to the post right away.” Edith went outside and asked the groomsman to harness the buggy. She returned to the house for her shawl and to calm her mother before leaving.
As Edith reined the light buggy towards the fort, she kept repeating the words ‘particularly injurious condition’. Now, she was sure and Maxwell would be too, that Captain Hartford was hiding something. It did solve the worry that he had her tied up somewhere in his home or other place. Still upsetting to Edith was, why did she not come home that night. Did Hartford drop her home or not? Did her cousin have to run away from him? What took her to Milton?
Edith thought about the note saying that she had arrived at Mr. Thornton’s home. She had run to him for help, for protection. She still loved the man. It was as plain as day but created more questions than it answered. She could have had nothing to do with Captain Hartford, so why did she? Edith couldn’t wait to get to Milton tomorrow and she hoped Maxwell could attend with them.
The guard at the post gate admitted Edith Shaw into the visitor area behind the first gate. He sent a horseman across the fort to fetch Captain Lenox, if he were in his quarters. He was not and knowledge of his whereabouts was not immediately known.
Edith wrote a note, sealing it and handing it to the guard. “Please see that he gets this as soon as possible. It is a family emergency,” she told him, lying just a little bit.
Instead of returning home immediately, she went to see the local constable to acquaint him with the facts that they had just received. Someone should know something before they stepped onto the train tomorrow bound for Milton.
“You say you have had word from the Mr. Bell, who you spoke about before, that Miss Hale is in a Milton hospital?”
“Yes, that’s correct. I do not remember the exact wording but it said she arrived, injured, at the home of Mr. Thornton, a man who she once had feelings for. I believe she ran to the only male she trusted. Mr. Bell was not in London, and my fiancé, Captain Lenox, also, wears a red coat. She may not have wanted to confide anything to him. I’m just guessing, you understand.”
“I know of this Mr. Thornton. He is a well respected Mill Master in Milton. He has done much to place that city on the map. I will get this information over to the Met right away. You say you are leaving for Milton in the morning?”
“Is Captain Lenox going with you?”
“I’ve just come from trying to locate him to see if he could accompany my mother and I, but he couldn’t be located. And should he contact us, I do not know if he would be permitted to leave his post.”
“Do you know where you will be staying when you arrive, in case the need arises?”
“Yes, we will be registered at the Milton Grand Hotel, but will be found at the hospital, I am sure.”
“Since we and the Met have a file started on Miss Hale, someone should be down there tomorrow as well. We will need her statement.”
“I’m glad to hear that. This is all so confusing.”
“Do you have a particular sense of what is confusing to you?”
“She is my best friend, and I believe I am hers. After her father died a year ago, she came to live with us rather than staying in Milton alone. I should rephrase that. My mother insisted that she come and stay with us. As she began to slowly recover from her grief, she talked more about Mr. Thornton, quite a bit more. I could tell that she had loved him, but something wasn’t right between them when the death came and my mother pulled her to London. I’ve been confused since this letter this morning.”
“And why is that?”
“I do not see why she began to see or continued to see this Captain Hartford if her heart lay elsewhere. It’s quite unlike Margaret to do something she does not want to do. Like we said before, when she began seeing this Captain we started noticing a different person in her. She was quiet and withdrawn. That in and of itself was odd, but now, out of nowhere, she runs to her first love. I can’t blame her for that. The note said she was injured. Captain Hartford had to be abusive for her to run so far and not let us know. In her darkest hour she ran to the man she loved.
Mr. Bell was Margaret’s first visitor, almost an hour early. Margaret had tears in her eyes after seeing him come into her room and set down his top hat and cane.
“Margaret, my dear.” Were the only words that Adam Bell could say as he walked towards her. He struggled to hold his own emotions back as he looked at her face with the black eye.
Margaret tried to stand from the side of her bed, to hug him, but didn’t make it. Adam knelt on one knee in front of her and wondered how he could hug her. Instead he held her shoulders and kissed her on top of her head.
“Margaret, I have no words and you know that is most unlike me. You cannot know how we have grieved over what you have suffered. Before you ask, I think we have Frederick in a safe position. We will know more by tomorrow or the next day. Your torment is over and here, today, you finally wed the man that you should have, two years ago. Margaret you don’t know how John has been waiting for this day. He will not show it, but he is extremely upset at what this man has done to you, but you have brought him the happiest time he’s ever been in all his life.”
Margaret tried to bend and reach forward to put her arms around him but only found a small success. “I know, Adam. It took leaving him to know how much I loved him. I’m the lucky one that he didn’t have another woman in his life. I’m blessed that he still loves me.”
“I know you couldn’t know, but there was never any doubt in that. It was all too clear to me. You two will make the best couple I have ever had the good fortune to know. So, are you healing as expected?”
“Yes, I am doing well. I think I might even be a day ahead of their expectations or it could be just the good day that started for me today. You see the decorations that the hospital staff did for our wedding. I think John bought the entire flower seller’s wares. Look at this room. I did not think we could get the alcohol smell out of here, but John found away. Oh, Adam, I do love him.”
“And where did this frock come from? You did not arrive with that. I bet someone on the staff brought something from home for you. I must say it clashes with your bright black eye,” Bell laughed instead of crying for his charge.
“Oh, wasn’t that nice of them to do. John will be so surprised. The doctor and nurse worked with me this morning so I can stand for a few moments for the ceremony. I’m glad John doesn’t have to remember this day with me wearing a while sheet,” Margaret laughed and then grimaced. “I can see that laughing will a bit uncomfortable for a few weeks.”
Adam Bell stood and pulled a small chair to her side.
“Adam, who knows about me?” Margaret asked in a serious tone.
“That would be myself, John, of course, Nicholas and his wife, and Branson. Your aunt should be getting my note today about your condition, I didn’t say much, mostly about your whereabouts. I expect them very late tonight but more likely tomorrow afternoon. I have rooms reserved. Only John, Branson, Nicholas and myself, know about Fred. I hope John has told you we are making plans and feel good that Frederick is taking actions now, on his own. We want to help him get to another country. I am sure your cousin and aunt have been to the police about you being missing, but I don’t know what they told them. They didn’t know about this treatment that you were hiding from all of us, from this Captain Hartford.”
“You know about that? All of that?”
Adam, slowly nodded his head and pulled her hands into his. “Margaret we all love you. You can’t hurt and we not know why. It is absolutely unbearable to think of what you endured. He will be dealt with; you can be assured of that.”
“How? I cannot stand in a witness box and tell strangers what I have been through.”
“That is not going to happen. John is going to see to that. You must speak with him after your happy wedding day today.”
Changing the subject, “Margaret, your parents would be so proud of you and Frederick would be too, if he knew John. I hope they meet some day.”
“I want that more than anything. Besides you, Frederick is the only family that I have and who’s opinion I highly regard.”
“Margaret, you certainly have mine. You could not find a man that loves you more, will cherish you, will protect you beyond his own life, than John Thornton. It’s nice that you love him, too, don’t you think?”
“I couldn’t ask for anything better in my life than to have found him. And to think I did not like him when I saw him. The first I saw of him, he was losing his temper.” Margaret paused, thinking of that side of John. What would he do if he came face to face with Captain Hartford? Margaret set that aside for later thought.
Next came, Nicholas and Peggy through the door. Peggy set the cake off to a side cabinet and ran to Margaret. “Oh dear, Margaret. I wish the circumstances could be different but I am so glad to have you back in Milton. I have missed my friend. And now, you are going to be the famous Mrs. John Thornton.” Peggy kissed her on the good cheek followed by Nicholas doing the same thing.
“Miss Margaret, you have finally reeled in the catch of Milton. It’s about time. I’m tired of watching over his life and his moods. It’s your turn now.” Nicholas said.
“You two are scaring me. You mean I will be famous?” she laughed.
“Oh yes, you will need a spokesman to talk with all those reporters outside. They know something is up with John being seen here so many days in row. You don’t know how many hearts you will break today when you take him off the market,” Nicholas continued.
“Look at this room!” said Peggy. The women started to talk as Adam gave Peggy his seat and went to the corner to talk with Nicholas. Both had to admit they were wearing false smiles, when all they felt was sorrow and rage at this initial look at Margaret.
“I think we’ll both do better when we see the happiness on John’s face in a little while. I can’t say it will be worth what it costs, but everyone’s prayers are answered today,” added Nicholas.
John finally remembered to tell Cook and Jane that he was getting married today and that Mrs. Thornton should be in the house in a few days. Cook jumped for joy and Jane smiled for the happiness of her employer.
“There will be no celebration here at the house, at least not today. Mr. Bell may come back for a drink or two, and maybe one or two more, but no food will be necessary. I would hope between the two of you, you can stock the house with what a woman needs. I’m not sure of what it all is and Mrs. Margaret Thornton will not be in a position to shop for herself. Cook, since you go home nightly, the live-in nurse will take your room for a week or so. Include her in all meals as well.”
“Master, we are so very happy for you. I’ve been waiting for this day nigh on ten years. I’ve watched ‘em come and go. You and I have had our talks about a few of them, but no one ever measured up to Miss Hale in our eyes and apparently yours, either. Congratulations. We will do everything thing to help her settle in and teach her how to run this house.”
“Thank you, ladies. I couldn’t ask for more. I think you will come to love my lady as I do. I guess it will take some getting used to, to have a woman in the house after the both of you have left for the day. Somehow, I think I will manage that,” John smiled.
“I’m sure you will manage that quit well,” said Cook. The wedding starts shortly and Branson and I must pick up the minister.”
“Do you have the ring in your pocket,” asked Mother Cook.
John tapped his vest pockets and went scurrying back to his bedchamber to the clothes he had on moments ago. Coming back through the kitchen on his way to the stables, he kissed Cook on the cheek. “You saved me a terrible embarrassment. Thank you. Next you see me, I will be married.” John picked up his best top hat and left through the back door.
“Branson, I will be here for two hours. You may hitch the team and come to Miss Hale’s room if you wish, or just wait for me.” John looked at his pocket watch and proceeded up the steps to the hospital doors.
As he walked the corridors, he thought he would bring flowers the next time. She may not be awake, but they would be there welcoming her back when her eyes opened. He prayed for good news.
Walking into her room, Donaldson was discussing her condition with a hospital doctor. John decided to wait outside and listen even though he knew Donaldson would tell him all there was and the truth along with it. John heard them wrapping up the conversation and walked back inside.
“Hello Thornton,” said Donaldson, almost in a cheery voice. “I think we have good news here,” Donaldson said goodbye to the other doctor, who then left the room.
“What is the good news?”
“We are sure the internal bleeding has stopped. There is a certainty that her kidneys are functioning properly, and no blood is being found. We’ve decided to change the doses of laudanum. Margaret should sleep in four hour intervals during the day. That’s being done because we want to question her about additional pain we are not seeing. Also, she will be fed while she’s awake. Her awake times will be brief, at least through today and begin to increase as the days go on.”
John exhaled an audible sigh of relief. “How about the rib and the other hits to her body?”
“Her rib area is wrapped tightly. That’s all that can be done with that part of the body. She will be released before it is healed, but it will take time. She will have to be severely restricted as to her movements, such as bending and lifting. I should think by the time that is healed, all the other bruised areas will have disappeared and the painfulness along with it. She is doing good, John. She will be uncomfortable for a few weeks, but I expect we can release her in about four days unless she mentions something we do not know about. Although we see no outside injury, we are quite interested in her head. Does she have headaches? Is her eyesight normal? These are why we want her wake now and then. We are going to try a new medication on her which is supposed to help relieve the pain but not keep her sedated. She may look like she wants to swoon, a bit dizzy perhaps, but it should not shut her down to the point of sleeping. How long is your visit, this time?
“At least two hours, unless she wakes,” John replied.
“I think you’ll be in luck. She should be waking, we think, in about an hour. We will need some time with her at that point. I don’t know how long it will take. But if you are willing to wait, we will dispense the laudanum when she feels she wants it.”
“I will wait all day if there is that chance.”
“I thought you might say that. I’ll see to it that you have some time with her.”
“Thank you, Donaldson.”
John proceeded to pull a chair next to her bed, long moments after he stood over her, just looking at the prone angle. Her long eyelashes would flutter, and her hand would jerk, on occasions. He sat and stroked her arm and fingers. The warmth beneath his hand had been a long time in coming, hope had been given up, as his life emptied out. Just his light touch to her sent all the fibers in his body tingling. His mind was struggling to grasp that she was within reach; that she had come to him. His emotions had been unleashed, and they wanted to vault ahead of his actions. He felt such a swelling inside of his chest that he thought his heart would pop out. He began to speak to her, finally standing and kissing her lightly on her forehead.
“Margaret, this is John. You are safe now. You will always be safe with me. I want to hold you gently in my arms. I want to look into your eyes and feel your breath upon my face.” John was sure he was imagining the tiniest lines of a smile at the corners of her mouth. Could she hear him, he wondered.
“Hello, Mr. Thornton. Your Miss Hale had a good night. I guess you have talked with the doctors?”
“Hello, Miss Pickering. Yes, I did just speak with Dr. Donaldson.”
“That’s Mrs. Pickering. I am sure you are anxious for her to open her eyes.”
“Indeed.” John didn’t care for this light talk. He wanted to be alone with her.
“I wish I did not have to do this, but I am going to have to ask you to leave for about half an hour. I need to bath her and change her bed. We expect her to come around soon, and I’d like to get her bath taken care of before she wakes.”
“I’ll see if my driver is waiting. If not, I will be waiting down the hall.” John reached over and kissed her hand, letting it slowly rest where it had been. He left the room.
As he was again traversing the corridor, he considered a wedding ring. Here, he had a minister waiting and no ring. Finding Branson at the curb, he said, “Branson, the best jewelry merchant in the city, if you please.”
Captain Lenox arrived at the infirmary and wasn’t sure who to ask to find out who was the doctor on duty three days ago. Several nurses passed him by giving him their smiles of approval at the red-coated officer. A nice looking young nurse was scribbling on a tablet near the administration area. He decided to start there.
“Hello, Miss. I am hoping to locate the doctor on duty three days ago. Would you happen to know who that was or where I could find out?” Maxwell gave her his most endearing smile.
“Yes, Captain. I can find out for you. Please wait here.”
The nurse disappeared behind the desk she had been standing in front of and disappeared through a door. A few moments later she came back carrying a piece of paper. “Captain, it says here that Dr. Jerome was on duty,” the nurse replied.
“Is he here today?”
“No, I do not believe so. Is there something I can help you with?”
“You may be able to do just that. I believe another Captain friend of mine was in here three days ago to be looked at. I am afraid he may be coming down with a fever and wanted to seek advice.”
“What is the patient’s name, sir?” She smiled.
“That would be Captain Hartford. I would appreciate knowing if he came here, or sought his personal physician.”
Once again the nurse left for the door behind her. She was gone a few more moments than before and returned with a frown.
“I’m sorry, Captain. It’s been many months since Captain Hartford has been here for his annual medical exam. Nothing since then, I’m afraid. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, Miss. Can I have your name?”
“Yes, Captain. My name is Amy. Amy Pettigrew.”
“Thank you, Miss Pettigrew. You have been most helpful. I shall seek his personal physician.”
With that, Maxwell walked away convinced there was a mystery surrounding, Captain Hartford. He didn’t have to give his own name, but should Hartford get wind of it, he’d know who was going behind his back and asking questions.
Captain Grant Hartford sensed trouble. He did not know where Margaret was, but he felt Captain Lenox was becoming suspicious that he did. Margaret had run somewhere, that was for sure, and he knew why. After his last evening with her, and his lustful enforcements, he had no idea what she would say when found. She did speak about calling his bluff, but she also talked about ending her own life. He began to realize that there would be no wedding. But in the off chance that there was still hope of that, he needed to ensure that his knowledge of Frederick Hale’s whereabouts was still known. Hartford believed if Margaret was going to the authorities, that he could lie his way out of that due to his rank, and then, perhaps, go on to redeem any doubts by producing a wanted man who the Navy had been hunting for several years. He decided to write his contact in France and alert him to a situation that may soon come to be of real value.
Frederick and Lisa arrived in the middle of night, knocking lightly on the flat’s door of his friend Nathan. They were admitted, and safe, to all of Frederick’s senses. There had been several times in the past weeks that he felt he was seeing the same man around the postal station, but never followed him home. Slipping out in the middle of the night, Frederick was confident that they had stolen away unseen. He and Lisa were welcomed, and it was decided that the pair would stay a couple days. Nathan would scout out another location across the city and check for Frederick’s mail one last time. Later that day, Frederick would compose a note to Bell at the Milton Grand Hotel and Nathan would take it to his own local mail station for delivery.
John started the process to select the ring he felt best fit Margaret’s soul. Nothing gaudy or large but something with fire and brilliance set in a soft mounting.
“Mr. Thornton, I cannot help but feel honored to have you visit our store. I have often wondered if you would ever make such a purchase anywhere. I am filled with pride to have this distinction of selling you, your wedding ring. The other jewelers will envy me, this.”
John couldn’t help but hold at bay the smile he wanted to show, with that remark. It appeared his status as a ‘catch’ would soon come to an end, and more the glad he was of it.
“Mr. Winstone, I would ask for your discretion until this is official. You are the only one to know of this, and I am not certain my suit will be accepted.”
“Mr. Thornton, we never speak of our clients in personal regards unless it is a known fact. I can assure you, you have my personal guarantee of complete diplomacy. May I ask which lady will have the honors to be asked?”
“No. I’m sorry for that, but surely you must understand.”
“I do, indeed. I was too forward to ask. I apologize. Now, that we’ve narrowed down your choices, do you feel there is one of special interest. Of course, we can size the ring at any time.”
John had spotted the ring immediately. He felt it was Margaret set in stone. It was a delicate emerald ring in an oval shape. Around the large stone were pearls and diamonds. It was all set in a web of filigree platinum. John saw it as soft and brilliant. The pearls toned it down from being ostentatious, which would never suit Margaret.”
“That’s a very nice choice, Mr. Thornton, and I do not say that as a salesman but as a friend. Looking at this one, I would say the lady is very feminine and also has qualities of spirit and challenge.”
“Why do you say that?” John asked.
“When one has been in the business as long as I have you get the feeling of the receiver when the purchaser is very discriminating in the time taken to select a wedding ring. Would you like that engraved while you wait?”
John was given a bit of paper to write down his brief statement of love for the inside of the ring. He slid the paper back to the jeweler who disappeared into the backroom. The ring was presented to him in a very small leather slip case, placed in a blue velvet bag. John slipped the ring into his inside pocket and headed back to the hospital.
Maxwell had arrived at the Shaw’s to see two very frantic women. They both rushed to him at the door, inquiring of any news.
“I regret to say that I have no news of Miss Hale. However, I have been looking into Captain Hartford’s movements and feel his is not telling the truth. Whether he is knowledgeable of Miss Hale’s location, I do not know. Somehow, I do tend to doubt that he knows of her whereabouts, but something leads me to think he does know why she has vanished. I think it is time to visit London’s constabulary.”
“You do not feel that it should be taken up with the Military constabulary?”
“No, I have no proof of anything. I will give my information to the local officials and let them lead the search. The Metropolitan Police Force are quite skilled at their job.”
“I will make myself ready,” exclaimed Edith’s mother, as she left the room for the stairs.
Edith walked over and received a kiss from Maxwell. Backing away, she said that she would be down in a few minutes.
As Edith left for her room, her nervous condition subsided knowing that something official was about to begin.
Branson pulled the coach to the hospital steps. Yesterday, his master had talked to the minister and today he most assuredly had purchased a wedding ring. For the four years that he had been with Mr. Thornton, he thought he might never see this day come. He remembered Miss Hale from a two years ago and had known of his master’s great interest in her. Branson, himself, was let down when she left so suddenly. His master had never recovered. Branson could count on one hand the number of women he had been out with since she left. Although, overjoyed for what could now lie ahead, he knew the dark clouds were forming over this situation. Branson promised himself to do everything possible to aid his master through this treacherous ordeal. He couldn’t let him seek this man alone and destroy a life he’d been waiting for. Branson decided to work on his own alternate plan should it go that far.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
I rose from my chair behind my desk, all my limbs stiff with fatigue. It was late, I guessed. Just then the whistle blew, indicating the end of the evening shift. Ten o’ clock. I went to the window.
Little Tom Boucher sat on the rough wooden planks of the loading bank, his feet in their scuffed boots dangling from it. He was reading aloud from a book. That was a most intelligent lad, I mused, while I donned my coat. I went to stand beside him, reading over his shoulder. He was spelling the words diligently, though somewhat haltingly, especially the lengthy words.
“Laugh…at me. C-Call me A comee…c-comical. A…”
“A-ni-mal,” I supplied, inwardly smiling at the industrious little boy.
“A-ni-mal,” Tom repeated, then looking up at me.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Higgins?,” I asked. Tom shrugged, pursing his small mouth. “ Have you had your supper?”
“Mary went to the butcher but she didn’t do dinner,” Tom shook his head. I wondered why that had occurred. Surely I paid Higgins decent enough wages.
Higgins approached, when I suddenly realised he had not come out with the bulk of the men.
“Why are you so late?,” I challenged. “Shift finished an hour ago.” I crossed my arms in suspicion. “What are you up to?”
Higgins did not seem goaded at all. “Work wasn’t finished. We stayed until it was.”
I made something very clear immediately. “Can’t pay over your time.”
An unruffled Higgins threw the ball back to me, curse him! “See you working over your time. You go under, no one else ’ll take me on, and who’ll put food in his mouth?”
He was right, and no doubt about it. “He’s not had his supper tonight, he’s been telling me.”
Higgins explained, “Well, some days there’s good meat, other days nothing fit for a dog even if you’ve got money in your pocket. There’s your market forces in action for you, Master.”
I went along. “It’s a pity you can’t get up some scheme. Buy food wholesale, cook for twenty instead of one. Then everybody’d be able to afford a good meal a day and then you’d have fit minds to do studying.”
Finally, I had ruffled him. “Careful, someone will report you to the masters union for that kind of talk.” But he was smiling mischievously.
I continued, although I could not fathom why I had broached this subject. The words just seemed to form themselves without my cooperation. “If men eat well they work well. And that’ll please masters too, unless they are idiots. Which some of them are.”
“We’d need somewhere to cook. There’s an old outhouse out the back, not in any use as far as I can tell,” Higgins pressed. I was actually beginning to like the man.
“You did bring your brains with you to work today, didn’t you?”
He smirked at me. “Well, I try to keep them hidden but I can’t do without them altogether.”
“You get some figures up and we’ll see. Not promising, mind,” I closed the subject.
Winter settled in for real, now. It was snowing heavily each day, but the mill’s new soup kitchen was working nicely.
Well, the name was inappropriate since the food was not for free. My workers would never have accepted charity, so I charged them only a quarter farthing. This was something each and every of my workers could easily afford, even the ones with the very lowest wages. I had calculated that the costs would be even when twenty-five people a day would pay their share. Their number was almost four times that, so I was soon running even.
On one particularly cold afternoon, I was traversing the courtyard, when I noticed I had left my coat inside. It was so damned cold that I was freezing within seconds, but I did not care. I had no time, so I proceeded, when Higgins’ voice hailed me.
“Master? Will you come in? It’s stew today.”
I was not only stone cold, but also famished, something I had not noticed. I smiled, “I haven’t had that for a while.”
Higgins continued, concern on his ruddy face. “Not eaten all day, I’ll bet.”
He was right. I answered, a bit taken aback by his perceptivity, “No, no, been too busy.”
I followed him into the shed we had destined for the kitchen. There were a good thirty people inside, all eating and chatting congenially with each other. I was struck by the warmth and homeliness of the place, even though the building was in a state of disrepair. I also noticed that conversation stopped when I entered, but it resumed as soon as I let myself down on one of the wooden benches behind the table. So my workers did not object to their master sharing their meal. I was pleased and felt at home. More so, dare I say it, than in my own house. I cast aside this horrible thought.
A girl rushed forward and placed a steaming plate of stew before me. She dug out a spoon from her apron pocket and put it next to my plate. I tasted the stew, and was very pleasantly surprised. “This is very good. Really. Very good.”
It was not only good, it was also nourishing. I pointed to the girl whose name I could not recall. “Isn’t that your daughter?”
“Aye,” Higgins replied. “She’s a good girl. A fair cook. She’s come into her own since her sister died, God rest her soul.”
Shame rose in my heart when I realised I had completely forgotten that this man had lost his eldest daughter not so long ago. She had been one of my piecers, yet I had not notion of her name. I was tempted to ask Higgins, but refrained from doing so. He might think me an unfeeling, selfish cad, and with good reason.
A thought shot through me, that Margaret would know both girls’ names. I could not ask her either. She would think I would dismiss Higgins or something like it. A few weeks ago, she would have been right.
Fanny’s wedding day was exceptionally free of snow, with a watery sun brightening the winter’s season. I was feeling cheerful, despite the disastrous financial situation I was in.
Well, not I or my family, to speak truthfully. No, it was Marlborough Mills that was going down the drain, and very rapidly so. I had begun drawing funds from my own savings to secure the workers’ pay role. Foolish, I know, but what was I to do?
I had provided the money for Fanny’s wedding and dowry, and I had secured Mother’s future by bestowing enough money on her, so that she might live a comfortable old age. My own funds would carry me a long way, provided I did not draw more from them. But I knew I could not let go of my beloved business. Never. Soon I would be forced to seek employment, though as what I knew not.
Firmly, I cast aside all these sombre thoughts. Today was my only sister’s wedding day, and I rejoiced in Fanny’s and Watson’s happiness. He seemed to like her exceedingly, and my sister was smart enough to know which side her butter was spread on. I could not imagine love between the two of them, though. I could not imagine Fanny being tortured by Watson’s indifference as much as I had been by Margaret’s. Watson was not indifferent to my sister, while Margaret was not only indifferent but also horrified by me. Margaret thought the worst of me, in all circumstances. In her eyes, I was a cruel, violent man with no notion of how to behave in a gentlemanly manner.
Again I made an effort to regain my cheerfulness, as I strode down the aisle with Fanny on my arm. When I gave her away to Watson, I turned and saw Margaret looking at me from the third row to the left. Next to her sat her father, and next to him Latimer and his daughter.
Ah, Ann Latimer. I would have to make a decision regarding her, and very soon. Latimer knew about my financial situation well enough, yet he seemed inclined to envisage a union between his daughter and me. He kept making allusions to my courting Ann, even though the latter had been non-existent on my part. I could not court her, even though she was a lovely girl. Every time I wanted to ask her to marry me, my budged proposal to Margaret flashed through my mind again. I had proposed marriage to the girl I loved, so how could I do so to a girl I did not love? Now, in this chapel, on this day of joy, I caught Margaret’s gaze, and willed it to be sweet and loving. It was not, of course. Her eyes were quickly cast down, but the indifference in them had been scorching. I deliberately avoided to look at her, even when I saw Mother going to Mr Hale’s side and speak with him. I drew Ann’s hand through my arm when we left the chapel.
Winter dragged on, and many of my workers, especially the children, fell ill. I knew it was primarily malnutrition and poor housing that caused the coughing and the fevers, but I was powerless to do something about it. I lowered the price of a meal to one farthing a week, so that the workers could save on their wages because they did not need to buy food in town. Prices were outrageously high. I began thinking on establishing a kind of medical assistance to care for the weakest of my child-labourers, but I was so overwhelmed with work that the plan never took off. More than once, I wished I had someone to stand by my side with problems like this. Mother was no help, because she only cared about the mill. The ignorant workers had only themselves to blame when they choose to drink away their wages in a tavern, she said. I could not help thinking that maybe Margaret would have known what to do.
One day, I was walking over the courtyard, when Higgins hailed me. His ruddy face bore a particular stricken expression, and in his eyes was a pain I had never beheld on the man.
“Master, ‘ave ye ‘eard about Mr Hale? He’s dead. Miss Hale sent word to my Mary.”
If he had planted a fist in my gut, I could not have felt worse.
“Mr. Hale? Dead?” The words barely managed to pass my lips.
”Aye, in his sleep. Poor fellow. Never recovered from his wife’s death.”
I was stricken with sudden, overwhelming grief. My good friend … dead. It did not bear thinking! My legs felt suddenly like cotton and I grasped the doorpost.
”Master?” Higgins said, taking me by the arm. He urged, “Master, come in. Sit down, have some food.”
He led me inside the canteen and lowered me to a bench. I seemed to have lost the ability to act myself, when a thought struck me. “And Margaret? What of her?”
I could only guess how badly she would be struck by the death of her beloved father. She had been her father’s support through the years, since her mother had been poorly.
“There’s nothing to keep her here now. Her aunt’s coming to taker her home, they say. She’s seen a great deal of sorrow since she’s been here. We’ll be sorry to see her go, Mary and I.”
It was the end. I would never see her again. I would be heartbroken and miserable for the rest of my life, and I would never see her again.
I would never see my love again.
And then my Margaret did something I would never have thought she would. She astonished me to the core, by visiting us before she went with her aunt. As I came on top of the stairs leading to the parlour, I heard her sweet, soft voice.
“It was a while ago, but I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you at our last meeting. I know that you meant well.”
To whom was she speaking? Mother? My heart was pounding painfully with sorrow, because she had come to take her leave. I entered the parlour, and there she was, in black mourning clothes. She wore her mourning bonnet, but thankfully, the thick, black veil was folded from her small, white face. My heart clenched with powerless sorrow for her loss. She turned to me, offering something, but all I was able to do, was to gaze into those beautiful blue eyes, now moist with grief. Oh, my dearest Margaret …
“So, you’re going,” I croaked, breath suddenly failing me.
”I…. brought you Father’s Plato,” she whispered, looking me straight in the eye and hitting me with her grief. “I thought that you might like it.”
I accepted the book from her hands. “I shall treasure it. As I will your father’s memory. He was a good friend to me.”
There was something exchanged between us, something deep and pure. I had to control myself from taking her in my arms, then and there. I desperately wanted to prolong that precious moment. Quietly, yet urgently, I whispered, “So you are going. And never come back?”
A sad little smile curved her mouth, but did not lit her eyes. “I wish you well, Mr. Thornton.”
I left the room. However, I was determined to allow myself one more glance at her.
I waited until she took her leave from my mother and sister, before I descended the stairs. Standing in the doorway, I saw her climbing into the carriage without so much as a glance back. Cold numbness assaulted me as I whispered, “Look back … look back at me.”
It was a last plea to whatever deity was listening. It was the last resort my broken heart had, to use the fervour of my genuine, fierce love. To summon her unfeeling heart, to make her look at me one last time.
She did not, and the carriage drove away over the snow-bedecked courtyard. I felt like dying.