At last, we reach the end. Thanks for following my story.
John sat in his shirtsleeves at the walnut secretary in the corner of the master chamber. His hand smoothed over the map that lay before him. The broad light of early afternoon illuminated the surveyor’s paper as his gaze measured vale and plain still largely untouched by man’s building. Soft, low humming sounded from the bedside behind him. Well he knew that the drifting melody was meant for the babe at his wife’s breast. The gentle sound filled the room, softening the master’s tightened features and soothing the strain of anxiety that arose at the thought of his sweeping plans.
“Oh dear, I don’t believe he will take his nap after all,” Margaret declared, punctuating her frustration with a sigh.
Mr. Thornton’s chair scraped the floor in swift reply. He shrugged on his coat before stepping to his wife’s side. A dark-haired babe of nearly five months peered up at his mother with bright eyes, his tiny hand clutching tight to the fabric gathered at her breast.
“No matter, give him to me.” He smiled at his son’s resistance to follow schedule as he scooped up the tiny lad.
With the babe secure in his grasp, John bent to kiss his wife. The touch of lips, lingering and tender, banished for a delicious moment any extraneous thoughts of a world beyond and kindled the embers of the burning love constantly within. Time had not diminished the stirring thrill of claiming her as his. The strong sense of what she was to him had only grown more profound as time had passed. Motherhood had not dulled her allure but burnished her beauty into something even more vibrant and holy to him.
Reluctantly, he rose from the bliss of the simmering contact, his gaze lingering upon the rosy blush on her porcelain cheeks as the curl of long lashes fluttered in reciprocation of feeling. She lifted eyes of absolute adoration to his a moment before glancing at the wriggling child in his grasp.
“I’m certain Mother will not mind caring for him,” he assured her. The proud father was convinced of his pronouncement as he admired anew the perfect beauty of the child of their love’s creation.
Margaret admitted to herself that his judgment was very probably correct; however, she could not help feeling a pang of guilt to oblige her mother-in-law to care for the babe for several hours. If only Dixon were here! But she could not begrudge her long-time servant one afternoon of freedom from her weekly duties. Although Dixon still sometimes grumbled about her mistress’ choice to nurse her own child and keep the baby’s crib in the master bedroom, Margaret knew the supercilious maid adored caring for her young offspring and went well beyond the tasks of a lady’s maid to also attend to the nursery. She knew, too, that the tradition-bound servant from the south had come to greatly respect her mistress’ husband, despite the clash of stubborn wills that occasionally reared between them in the form of dagger-fierce looks or muttered oaths.
Mr. Thornton paced around the room, gently pointing out to his son the objects in the room while his wife dressed for their outing. Jealous of the fleeting opportunity in which he could hold the growing infant in his arms, he knew that such moments were hallowed time that would quickly become mere memory as the months and years hastened on.
Once Margaret was ready, John followed his wife’s descent to the drawing room, still holding the cooing baby.
“Johnny would not sleep. I tried…” Margaret blurted in explanation as the threesome passed through the entryway into the open living space.
“Give him to me,” Hannah directed with satisfaction, laying her embroidery aside to take her grandchild from her son. Settling the moving bundle in her arms, she was at once oblivious to all other activity as she smiled at the babe. A glow of serene contentment swept the mark of care-worn years from the widow’s face.
On a sofa nearby, a small girl in a white smock dress sat with attentive eyes upon the whiskered face of her grandfather. Louisa was so engrossed in the story that she did not notice her parents had entered the room. The corners of John’s mouth lifted in a smile as he took in the sight of his daughter’s rounded face and tousled chestnut curls. The vision of the bonded generations never ceased to warm his heart. It had been a blessing to receive such a gentle soul as his father-in-law’s into their home.
Margaret was relieved that her husband’s prophecy was correct. Hannah would see no toil in caring for the child while they were away.
“We’ll return as soon as we’re able,” Margaret could not help uttering as her husband ushered her out of the room toward the waiting carriage outside.
A short ride took them to the same station where they had begun their wedding journey nearly four years before. As they boarded a first-class compartment on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, a fresh feeling of new beginnings rose within them, filling the air with the tingling expectation of conjoined hope for the path they had chosen.
Their hands were clasped together in calm unity as the train carried them past monotonous rows of back-to-back houses that had been built in haste for the influx of factory workers during the recent decades of Milton’s great growth. Each passenger looked out their own window, lost in a pensive trail of thoughts. The private conversations, pointed questions, and daring hopes that they had shared in the intervening years of their marriage had led to this moment, when they were about to take the first step in turning their dreams to reality.
Mr. Thornton studied the collected soot and blackened facades of the brick buildings of the town he had called home for so long, trying to recall the first impulses of his ambition to create a better model between masters and men. Perhaps the visit to Saltaire’s promising beginnings had moved him more than he had been aware at the time, although he could never have imagined initiating such a scheme at that date.
His plan was not on the grand scale of Sir Titus Salt’s venture, for he did not have endless resources from which to draw. His experiment would be no ostentatious philanthropic measure but a collaborative undertaking that integrated the interests of the men who worked under him with sound market principles upon which he had based his business. He had visited New Lanark and seen that profit could be made even when workers were granted a better life.
He could not trace the intricate weaving of fate and circumstances that had slowly worked its compelling design to change his larger aims. But he knew the elements that had played a part in forming this altogether more satisfying and inclusive endeavor and purpose: it was his wife’s unfailing compassion, the stroke of sudden and studied prosperity, and the surprising evolution of friendship with one who had once hated him.
The Master had come to rely upon Higgins for his sharp eye, quick mind, and ready diligence. The former union leader had been that first vital link to convey to the mass of workers the varied challenges with which masters continually contended to keep the mill in steady operation. The reserve of anger and distrust between the toiling hundreds and their employers had dissolved into a compatible reliance and respect at Marlborough Mills.
Many a time had he and the stalwart mill worker spent talking late into the evening, either in the factory office or in the simple home in the Princeton district. Mr. Thornton had learned the names and stories of many of the other men who worked under him, and met them on occasion as they came and went in Higgins’ home for counsel and aid. It had been the most natural and logical decision to hand Higgins the job of overseer at the mill when Williams left to settle in the south for his health. There was no other man to whom he could trust his entire enterprise, and no hint of shame in the Master’s mind at the truthful consideration that of all the men in Milton, this earnest and loyal soul could be counted as his friend.
Mr. Thornton knew he had gained the respect of all his workers. That they had contributed to and endorsed his venture to build anew and would follow wherever he would lead gave him reassurance whenever the fear of responsibility threatened to overwhelm him.
As the train passed under a bridge that marked the edge of town, Margaret observed the change from buildings to industrial acreage. A coal pit revealed in stark sight the black source of power that fed man’s ceaseless industry, and, nearby, brick fields spread for acres. These simple units of construction waited their purpose in stacked rows as far as the eye could see.
What of those who had mined that vast pile of coal and made those innumerable bricks? Margaret considered the lives of drudgery of those who toiled unseen to provide the very foundation required to fuel the country’s relentless drive for progress. She prayed for the time when those whose luxuries depended upon the menial work of others would consider the welfare of their fellow beings. It was a consolation that the men and women under her husband’s command were treated with dignity and given a chance to expand their confining existence.
Her thoughts drifted to the crafty old man who had made this venture possible. Mr. Bell had passed away a few months after Louisa’s birth. She remembered fondly the pleasure written on his face at the sight of their newborn treasure. It was his last visit to Milton. A fortnight later, they had received word of his death. Mr. Hale had been much grieved to lose his oldest friend and Margaret was still saddened to think of how much she missed his friendly humor and untiring candor.
John had been surprised at the extent of the Milton-born scholar’s holdings and had dealt carefully with the capital entrusted to him, investing portions in industrial enterprises thoroughly inspected by his own eyes. He was keenly aware of the benefit to be gained by manufacturing new precision tools and improved models of machinery in every trade.
With their rising fortune had bloomed their desire to do more to improve the lives of their workers, who had become much more than cogs on the wheel of Mr. Thornton’s success. She had watched with great satisfaction as her husband’s relationship with Nicholas slowly turned into a friendship, one that she was certain ran deeper than that of any other of his associations.
Open fields now lay outside her window, decorated at intervals with small ponds and old outlying estates. They passed green heathland before the train slowed to a stop at a quiet station where a crossroad led to a small print works factory. A waiting coach carried them along the rutted, damp country lane.
The Milton master watched the landscape keenly as they approached the land he was certain he would purchase. A brick dye mill stood in the far distance with a half-dozen small houses dotting the countryside. He signaled the driver to bring the coach to a halt and climbed out, the smell of earth and pasture reaching his nostrils before his feet touched the leveled dirt and stones of the well-worn road.
He turned to aid his wife, and handed her down to the firm country ground. Together, they stepped up the small roadside embankment to stand level with the gently sloping grassland spread before them. A small brook curved its way in the near distance, the glimmer of water catching their eyes as they scanned the horizon.
Margaret saw in her mind’s eye a pretty house with a garden and expanses of green for her children to run and play. She imagined making helpful rounds to visit families in their homes, watching the workers’ children stream through the gates of an open schoolyard, and taking long walks with her husband on Sundays to enjoy the fruition of all they had accomplished.
Mr. Thornton envisioned the breadth and height of the new mill, the lodestar of the small village that would surround it. The faces of men and women, workers he knew by name came rushing into mind. He considered numerous others and the children and dependents whose livelihood and peace rested upon the wisdom and success of this enterprise.
A west wind tugged at his anchored hat and pummeled his resolute profile in invigorating bursts. Absorbed by the view before him, he reached out instinctively for his wife’s hand. Her skirts billowed and flapped in the strong breeze. Tall grasses bent and swayed in undulating patterns of effortless precision until the distant dappled hills absorbed their motion. The docile rustling sound filled his senses, whispering the power and promise of collective harmony. He drew a deep breath of settled confidence as slender fingers nestled into the clasp of his own broad hand.