“Mother,” I said that evening, while we were sitting in the parlour after dinner, “I’m going away for a couple of days. There is enough money in our strongbox to last us three months, so you needn’t worry. When I come back, I’ll deal with seeing us through to the next stage.”
Mother, who had been doing her usual needlework in her usual, quiet way, looked up in alarm. “John, where are you going? Why?”
“I don’t know yet, Mother, but I feel it is necessary that am alone somewhere to reflect on where our lives are heading.”
I could not, must not disclose to Mother that I was leaving for Hampshire. Mother had never approved of Margaret, I knew that well enough. I was well aware of the fact that she had been prepared to accept Margaret as my wife, if such was my wish. She would have given over the household reins to Margaret begrudgingly and she would have retreated in dignity, because she knew Margaret was my choice of wife. There would, however, never have been love between the two most precious women in my life. Now, of course, the question would never arise.
I packed a small valise with just the barest necessities to last me a week. If I could not get my spirits back in that time, I was a lost cause anyway. I departed from Milton Outwood Station on the early train. The trustworthy London and North Western Railway service provided good service, and the train was busy with travellers.
It was early summer, and the day promised to be warm and sunny. The compartment was fully occupied with people of all classes, and they were chattering with ear-deafening enthusiasm. I inwardly sighed. I had hoped for silence and solitude, so that I might reflect on all my troubles in peace.
When I entered the compartment, there was only one vacant seat next to the gangway door, so I lowered myself into it. The other occupants regarded me from top to toe, but, although I saw recognition dawn in their eyes, no one greeted me, nor gave any sign they knew who I was. So I had become someone to be wary of amongst my fellow citizens, hadn’t I? Well, if they choose to be rude, I did not!
“Good day to you all,” I said and nodded. They stared at me in stunned surprise, then one stout woman in plain workers’ clothes, bold as you please, ventured a remark.
“Aren’t you that Thornton fella?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am. Are you one of my former workers, then?”
“Nah, but me man was. He’d be Simmons, Jake Simmons, that is. He worked as a piecer, until ye closed the place. Now he’s workin’ at Driscoll’s, in Birmingham. I’m for there meself, lookin’ for a job and a place to stay.”
“I am most happy that he has found work, ma’am,” I said, inclined my head and from then on, kept silent. Workers were leaving Milton, it seemed. The thought was alarming enough to make me overlook the woman’s rude behaviour. Indeed, mine was not the only mill to have closed down in the past years. The years when Margaret had been living in Milton.
Unsurprisingly, my thoughts strayed to Margaret. They always did, whenever I had a moment to myself, and I had plenty, now. Margaret, the woman I loved and would always love … how did she fare? Was she still grieving for her father? Was she still in England? I was driving myself near madness with the want for knowledge of her.
I had wronged her so many times, I now realised. I had been judgemental, and prejudiced, and proud. I had never even tried to see things her way. It was little wonder she despised me. I would have despised myself, had I been in her shoes. I did despise myself, didn’t I? I loathed the man I had been. I thought I had been dreaming when I sensed a change in her attitude the last few months. She seemed more amiable and quiet. I can remember the faces of disappointment when I scolded her or walked away without speaking. I should have noticed it then. Perhaps there was hope in the air and I never felt it. Why? Why didn’t I notice the change in her? I am too headstrong and blinded myself. I am not sure I will ever recover from her.
As the train made its rhythmic progress through an ever changing landscape, I saw the grimy houses of Milton fall away to reveal the lush summer countryside of the Midlands. Then came Birmingham, as grimy as Milton. Here all of my fellow passengers alighted, and I was finally alone. I went to sit by the window, dirty with oily, soothed fingerprints.
Was that what Margaret had seen on her very first journey to Milton? A dismally dirty compartment full of smelly people? Ah, but she would have travelled first class, wouldn’t she? Or maybe not, if Mr Hale had already been short of funds.
And Milton, what had been her reflections, when she saw its dark, dirty streets full of loud, poverty-stricken people? And me, now one of them.
Oh, Margaret … could I but change the way we met! Yet life does not give us a second chance often, does it?
In London, I took a cab from Euston Station to Waterloo Station, where I boarded a train to Southampton. I did not delay, for I was eager to get to Helstone. I was hoping to find people who had known Mr Hale and his family, and talk with them.
Gradually, the scenery changed from London’s smoky neighbourhoods to countryside again. From Wandsworth on, the countryside opened up to lush, green hills and woodland. In Wimbledon, there were the beautiful mansions and country estates, commissioned by rich Londoners who wanted a home away from Town. From Kingston on, the landscape became rural and even a lusher green. I lost myself in dreaming of exploring these beautiful places, whose names were shown on placards as we passed the passengers stations; Dilton Marsh, Walton, Weybridge, and others, whose names were completely unknown to me. It occurred to me that I had perhaps focussed too much on the north of England, and not tried to discover the rest of it.
After several hours, the train stopped at Bishopstoke, which was not ten miles from Helstone. I had consulted Milton’s principal lending library, where they kept several atlases. Bishopstoke was a pleasant little seaside town, its main street lined with beautiful old houses dating from the previous century. I went to the stables and hired a horse.
Before my father died, I had been at a boarding school in Bedford. Part of our education had been horse riding, a sport I thoroughly liked. Even when I had been extremely occupied with the mill, I still had found the time to go riding, although I did not possess a mount. So when I mounted the strong, fiery stallion by the name of Parnassus, my pleasure was immense. It had been too long, since I had ridden.
I covered the distance to Margaret’s former town in good time and was pleased to find a decent inn to spend the night. The establishment’s name – The Huntsman – left no doubt as to what was the principal activity going on around here. I was surprised, though, to discover that I was still feeling prejudiced about it. What if there are people who like hunting, I admonished myself. Each person to his own.
Since dusk was already settling in, I contented myself to stay put for the night. I had a good, hearty meal of stew and a pint of decent ale, and then looked around the taproom, where a few patrons were having their evening pint at the counter. They had been looking at me askance all evening, recognizing me for the stranger I was. That was only fair, I knew. My workers would have done the same, while drinking their pints in a Milton pub. Such was the nature of man.
Blunt and straightforward speech would be best, I reckoned, so I ambled towards them and took a seat at the bar.
“Pardon me, gentlemen,” I said in a jovial tone, “but would you permit me to offer you a pint?”
They grunted acquiescence, and one short, thin individual with a thin ferret-like face and a head as bald as an egg ventured in a tone I judged was a bit on the rude side, “Ye’re not from around ‘ere, are ye? Northern chap, I reckon,”
“Yes, I’m from Milton, Lancashire. I was a friend of Mr Hale, a former vicar here, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Aye, Mr Hale was vicar before Mr Pettigrew came into the living. How’s Mr Hale doin’?”
“Ah,” I replied, “Mr Hale passed away some seven months ago. He died in his sleep, and people said he never recovered from the death of his wife, the year before.”
Cries of distress and compassion were uttered, and the landlord asked, “What of Miss Margaret, sir?”
That was a disappointment. I had rather hoped they could tell me more about my beloved.
“She went to live with her aunt in London,” I answered. “I have not heard of her since her father died. However, I was a very good friend of Mr Hale, and it would ease my conscience if I knew how his daughter fared.”
They were measuring me up with the wary glances country people used for town people. I needed to reassure them about my good intentions.
“Mr Hale was my teacher for over two years,” I elaborated. “He most generously gave me a love for reading and a friendship I still value as one of the best I ever had. Mrs Hale always opened her home to me, so that Mr Hale and I could discuss and read in homely comfort. And Miss Hale … ”
They were listening intently, now. Two women had joined our group, although they stayed behind the counter. One must be the innkeeper’s wife, and the other her daughter. The latter gaped at me with interest sparkling in her eyes.
“Ah,” I continued, “but I need not expostulate about Miss Hale’s character, because you all knew her. Far better than I, I fancy. Miss Hale was an additional incentive to me for visiting the house. She encouraged my efforts in learning an interest in Milton and its community.”
I involuntarily sighed, something I did frequently when thinking about Margaret.
“Miss Margaret has become something of a legend in Milton. She was deeply concerned about the workers and their families. She taught me a lot about compassion and how to speak with instead of to my workers. Until recently, I was a mill master, and my dictatorial behaviour was at first a thorn in Miss Margaret’s side.”
The unbidden and painful memory of Margaret scolding me for beating Stephens sprang into my mind. I closed my eyes, as I always did when I remembered my rude attitude of the past.
“Miss Margaret came visitin’ not long ago now,” a light female voice sounded.
I snapped my eyes open and saw the young woman’s face alight with sympathy and some other feeling I could not instantly recognize.
“She came here?” I asked, somewhat baffled with the knowledge.
“With some older gentleman we would see from time to time with Reverend Hale, ,” the girl continued, eager now that she had my attention. “They visited the rectory. I do the rough work for Mrs Pettigrew, and she ordered me to prepare tea for her visitors.”
She giggled suddenly. “Miss Margaret had a bit of a row with the vicar, I could see. He is a bit of a lecturer. Always berating people.”
“Hush, girl!” her mother admonished, and the girl blushed and said no more.
“I think I will go and visit the Reverend and his wife in the morning,” I said and wished them
My night was far from good, though. I lay awake, not because of the bed and mattress, which were as excellent as my own in Milton, but because of what I had learnt downstairs.
Margaret had been here, in her beloved Helstone. Was she contemplating on coming back here, now that she had come of age and of means after inheriting Bell’s money? It must have been Bell who had accompanied her here, I mused. What other elderly gentleman would she know but him? But most importantly, why? Curse it, I thought! Why had the innkeeper’s wife silenced her daughter before she could tell me more?
Too restless to sleep, I rose early and went down to breakfast. To my joy, it was the young girl who served me, although she was quiet and polite, and most assuredly avoided my gaze. I was struggling to find something to say that could lure her to talk but could not come up with anything suitable. She was about to leave when my eyes fell upon something that might inspire her to talk with me.
“Ah,” I said casually, “those yellow roses over there were particularly of Miss Margaret’s liking. She always praised them as the most beautiful flowers on earth.”
The girl looked at me with a shy smile.
“There used to be hundreds of them at the vicarage, sir,” she said. “That was before they were cut down by the Reverend Pettigrew. Such as shame.” She shook her head so emphatically, that I was beginning to develop a dislike of the unknown new vicar. A berating lecturer and a destroyer of roses!
I left the hired horse at the stables. The day was far too beautiful not to walk around the charming little town and enjoy its peaceful, yet single street, its fields and woodland. I set a good pace and walked for several hours, and then partook of the packed luncheon the landlady had given me. I found a particular idyllic spot beneath a large old oak tree. Afterwards I lay on my back in the long grass, my hands beneath my head. A few wispy clouds drifted lazily in an azure sky. The silence was almost absolute, and only the chirping of crickets rivalled with the buzzing of flies and bees to gently brake it.
I dozed off and dreamt of Margaret, walking hand in hand with me, and smiling sweetly. Under the old tree, we kissed for the first time, and I held her petite body close to mine. This was a dream that had often recurred, and yet again I woke to the realisation that it would never be real. I sighed, rose and set off for the vicarage.
A young girl – she could not have been more than twelve – opened the door when I knocked. She was dressed in a high-necked garment that covered her almost to the toes. She wore a starched, white apron over it, and her small head was bedecked with a plain, cotton mob cap.
“Yes, sir?” she asked, then lowered her eyes shyly.
“I would like to speak with the Reverend Pettigrew,” I announced briskly, attempting to smother my nascent irritation. A vicar employing a child for a parlour maid? I did not like that!
She curtsied and stepped aside to let me into a small, dark hall. Proceeding me to a door on the left, she quietly knocked. She must have heard a reply for she opened the door to me, although she did not announce me as a visitor.
As I stepped in, the vicar was berating her already with an irritated remark.
“No, Horatia, that is not the way to present a visitor. One asks for his card, and then one presents that card to the master of the house, who can then decide whether or not to receive him.”
The Reverend Pettigrew was short, stout, and balding. He had a round, red-cheeked face with a thin-lipped mouth, a blunt nose, and small pig-like eyes. His voice was soft, yet capable of expressing all his thoughts in the appropriate way, irritation being the principal of them. He rose with some difficulty from behind the enormous desk, where he had been writing, and stretched out a podgy hand.
“Good morning, sir. I believe we have not met before, if I am not mistaken?”
I shook his hand in a firm grasp, but from the way he winced, I must have made my grip a bit too hard. “You are correct, Reverend. My name is John Thornton from Milton. I was a close friend to your predecessor, the Reverend Richard Hale.”
Pettigrew showed me to a chair opposite the desk. His mouth pinched a bit more as he replied, “Ah, yes, Mr Hale. Well …”
And then he said no more. I frowned and continued, “Did you know he passed away several months ago?”
“Yes, yes, of course. His Eminence informed me of his passing.”
He shook his head. “The Lord did not take kindly his refusal to re-affirm in the Book of Common Prayers, some years ago, I presume.”
This must have been when Mr Hale abandoned his livelihood to commence a new career as a teacher in Milton, I realised. But why not re-affirm his vocation? Of course, my good friend had never talked about why he left his parsonage, but I knew him well enough to realise he would have not done so, if not a very serious reason had driven him to it. Then, all of a sudden, it dawned on me; because of young Hale’s predicaments with the Navy. My poor friend! What a shock it must have been when he realised he would never see his son again. And Mrs Hale, poor woman! It was no wonder she had been ailing and weak. But … Margaret! Again, I felt my face flush with shame, because I had been so appallingly jealous about seeing her with her brother.
“How can I be of service to you, sir?”
The vicar’s voice interrupted my wayward thoughts. I had completely forgotten the man.
“I told you I was a good friend of Mr Hale’s, vicar. I was therefore wondering if you had any notion as to the whereabouts of Miss Margaret Hale. My mother is most anxious because she has had no notice from her, and she promised Mrs Hale on her deathbed to look after her daughter.”
Although Mother had never spoken me about that promise, I nevertheless knew about it. She had been to the Hales’ house when Margaret had been in London for the Great Exhibition. She thought I did not know it, but I had heard it from my coachman, of course. He had brought her there once more after Mrs Hale had passed. I can only guess at what transpired then, but judging by the state of perturbation Mother was in that evening, I deduced Margaret must have set her down quite fiercely.
My little speech seemed to embarrass the vicar. He rose again. “Excuse me a moment, Mr Thornton,” he said and left.
I leaned back in my high-backed, very uncomfortable chair and looked around while I was waiting. The room was actually a pleasant one, with a large window overlooking the back garden, and a smaller one at the front. The large desk was placed ideally to have a view of both sides of the house. Had this room been Mr Hale’s study, too? I wondered if this could even be called a study, since, apart from on top of the desk, there were very few books. Mr Hale’s house in Canute Street, overcrowding with books on all possible surfaces, was a fond but sad memory.
A few moments later, Pettigrew entered and was accompanied by his wife. She was a thin, rather unattractive woman with hair of an indistinctive light brown and pale grey eyes. She was dressed in a severe grey gown, high-necked and long-sleeved, and she was several inches taller than her pudgy husband. Her plain face wore an expression of barely concealed annoyance. She folded her hands in front of her and nodded for me to sit down again. Her husband dragged a chair for her next to his own behind the desk.
“Now, my dear,” he said in his soothing vicar’s voice, “Mr Thornton has come to enquire about Miss Hale. Maybe you could tell him of her visit to us, a few weeks back?”
Mrs Pettigrew’s thin mouth stretched primly. “We received Miss Hale and her visitor in a most gracious and welcome manner,” she said, her voice dripping with disapproval. “ I offered them tea on the terrace, since it was a beautiful day. I had been wondering about the family ever since we moved in here. To have to abandon one’s home and familiar surroundings, and particularly because of the Reverend Hale’s refusal to confirm, must have been very hard on his family. I welcomed Miss Hale with the compassion and warmth the Scriptures require from us, but she behaved in a very bad manner. She disapproved because I had to remove the enormous mass of rose bushes in the garden, and she critized Mr Pettigrew when he ventured to speak about how the promiscuous use of books can led a man astray.”
I could almost hear Margaret’s disapproval voice saying words that shocked these two narrow-minded persons so much that they still could not deal with it. It was all I could do to cover my extreme need to burst out laughing aloud. I let my gaze drift to the back garden, where two young boys were tending to a large kitchen garden full of vegetables. The resemblance with the young parlour maid clearly betrayed them as her brothers.
“Why did you do away with the roses?” I asked.
Mrs Pettigrew was taken aback by my question. She gasped, then got herself back under control enough to say, “Mr Thornton, when one has seven children, a pleasure garden is of no use. We converted it into a vegetable garden, as you can see. It is of great use to us, since we can now teach our eldest sons to grow their own food, just as we teach our girls to tend to the household. I am very proud to say that only our two youngest children, aged three and four, do not do their bid yet. All the others work together with my husband and me in the proper way described in the Scriptures. No Devil will induce work to idle hands in this house, since he will not find any!”