The Reform of John Thornton – Part Eight

Chapter Eight

 

I was given more free time at present and used some of it to go reading with Mr Hale more frequently. My teacher was delighted, and we spent many a pleasant evening conversing about the problems of manufacturing. Mr Hale even suggested a few solutions to the workers’ discontent, such as providing food and medical attention on the premises of the mill, but of course, I would never be able to apply them. They were far too fanciful, not to mention the cost of it all. They would also not have worked. In the North, workers did not want to be told where to eat or where to go when they were ill.

My foolish heart had hoped to see more of Margaret, now that she was forced to stay indoors because of the strike and the dangers of hungry workers roaming the streets. Yet it seemed that this hope would be crushed. Mr Hale told me she was dispensing food and coins all day in the most dismal places, such as the alleys in the Princeton district.

When, bewildered, I asked why she would want to go to Princeton, the most destitute of all Milton’s neighbourhoods, Mr Hale explained that she had her friend Bessy Higgins there. The girl was in very bad health and had fluff disease, as she called it. The more scientific word was byssinosis, I believe. It is untreatable and often fatal. I had installed wheels in all my sheds to lower the amount of fluff in the atmosphere. Another six hundred pounds of wasted money, blast it! My workers were on strike, just as the rest of them in the whole of Milton. I knew the Higgins girl worked at my mill, so why had she contracted the illness? Could I ask Margaret about it? And more to the point, would she answer me?

 

Mother’s annual dinner party was the highlight that betokened the beginning of the winter celebrations which led to Christmas and New Year. That year was no exception, for even when there was a strike going on, all went well regarding to preparations and the evening itself.

When I entered the parlour that evening, the room was already buzzing with the voices of many guests. My attention was instantly claimed by Slickson and his wife, then by Henderson and Watson. I returned their greetings, all the while extremely aware of the one that had conquered my heart. From the corner of my eye, I saw Margaret standing next to Fanny with whom she was chatting.

I could not allow myself to openly gaze at her. Singling her out would damage Margaret’s reputation, because all women present would understand my attraction to her in the wrong way. So I ambled further into the room and was accosted by Mr Bell.

“Ah, Thornton. I took the liberty of inviting myself, knowing your mother’s hospitality,” he said, returning my handshake.

“I hope you’re not worrying about Marlborough Mills. We’ll ride out the strike just as we always have,” I said, feeling the need to reassure my landlord.

Then he answered in that infuriatingly flippant way of his. “I’ve always had complete faith in you Thornton, but obviously in the present situation …”

Damn him. In the most casual way, I answered. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“No, of course not.”

He turned his attention to the people next to him, a man I had not met before, but whose name was Latimer, and a pretty young lady, all blond ringlets and cornflower blue eyes.

“Thornton knows everything in matters of business. He has my every confidence”, was his comment.

I shook Mr Latimer’s proffered hand, and Mr Bell now turned to the girl.

“Thornton, you know Miss Latimer?”

I took her gloved hand, and she curtsied at me with a shy smile. My eyes went to Margaret, and a jolt of joy went through me! She was watching us with some strange light in her eyes, as if she did not approve of me making the acquaintance of another woman. No, that could not be so. Margaret had no interest in me. It was only my foolish heart that once again indulged in its wishful thinking. I hastily averted my gaze.

“Thornton, who’s that fine young lady?” Henderson! I had not heard him approaching me and startled. He was pointing at Margaret. Of course, he would notice the most beautiful girl in the room.

From then on, all noise fell away, and all I saw was my gorgeous Margaret. She wore a silk dress in soft sea green that fell away from her beautiful shoulders to hug the onset of her breasts. I dared smile at her, because she was smiling at me. That had never happened before, so my heart was beating erratically at the sight of her. I came nearer, unable to stay where I was, and then – oh, wonder! – she extended her hand to me. She was not wearing gloves. The touch of it seared my skin, and I was uneasy for a moment. She then grasped my hand in both of hers, looking me directly in the face. Her eyes – blue like a summer sky – had a gentle light in them, and her voice was ever so soft, when she addressed me.

“See, I am learning Milton ways, Mr. Thornton.”

Dear, dear girl …

I let go of her slender little hand and forced myself to say something, anything, before someone saw my distress.

“I am sorry your mother was unable to join us.”

She bowed her head, a grateful smile on her lips. I wanted to draw her to me, kiss her, tell her that I loved her! Damn it, but it was true!

“Thornton, I must speak with you.” Blast it all, Slickson! What now?

Wishing Slickson to hell and back, I apologized to Margaret. “Excuse me.”

I was then drawn aside by Slickson, who whispered to me, “Have you left word at the barracks?”

“It’s been done,” I replied, unable to suppress my annoyance. Slickson was a weasel and a blockhead. He saw danger in everything but was too scared to do something when a crisis was on hand.

“Men on horseback, armed?” he continued in an urgent way.

“All those arrangements have been made.”

“If they find out you are planning to break the strike by bringing Irish workers …” His tone became even more wavering.

“I take this risk for myself. You need not join in,” I said, irritated, now. I can and will protect myself and anyone that works for me from any kind of violence.”

Slickson sighed, “I sincerely hope so.”

Margaret, I  noticed with infinite regret, had been claimed by Mr Bell.

 

Mother had sixteen guests at her table. She and I both occupied the heads, while I had Miss Latimer at my left and Henderson at my right. Margaret was seated in the middle of the right side, between Mr Bell and Mr Latimer. She was, I noticed with dismay, again avoiding my gaze, while applying herself to the soup course. I knew I should entertain my guests with some intelligent conversation, yet I could not find the words. My eyes kept wondering to Margaret. I was admiring the gracious movements of her slender hand and arm, when she brought the spoon to her lush, rosy lips.

“I hear Arnold is moving lock, stock and barrel to America,” said Mr Bell in a casual tone, then sampled his wine. I was instantly on guard as I knew that tone well enough.

Watson burst out, “America? I’ll be damned.”

Slickson chimed in, “That’s what I would like to do, pack up and leave.  The damn strikers would have no work at all then.”

“Well,” Mr Bell kept teasing in his usual way, “they have no work at the moment.”

And of course, Slickson was drawn into an answer. “There is work.  They choose not to do it.  Thornton?  What do you think?”

I was not so easily baited. I knew Mr Bell very well. “Oh, I think our Mr. Bell is up to his old tricks, playing with words at the expense of us simpler fellows.”

Mr. Bell inclined his head and smiled at me, and so did Margaret, to my surprise. Ah, she, too, knew Mr Bell well enough, it seemed.

I continued, because the subject was to my liking. “But it is a serious question.  I do not want to manufacture in another country, but it is logical for others to try if they cannot make enough profit here.”

I considered my answer would be enough, but apparently, my sister thought otherwise.

“What do you think, Miss Hale?  Surely you do not condone the strikers?”

“Well, no,” was her immediate answer. “Well, and yes.  It is surely good to try to see both sides of a question.”

That was my dear girl showing her upbringing and education. I felt a smile tug at my lips.

Yet Fanny was on the warpath, now. With a sly smile, which I knew was when she had the better of someone, she said, “Mrs. Arthur saw you taking a basket to the Princeton district the other afternoon.”

I was alarmed. Did everybody knew about Margaret’s involving herself with the workers? I fervently hoped this was not the case.

Margaret gave a poised reply. “I have a good friend in Princeton. Her name is Bessy Higgins.”

My breath caught. The cursed name had fallen, and Watson pounced, “Higgins?”

All attention was now on my reckless girl, who as usual, had no inkling to what was happening. I felt frozen by horror because I knew what was coming.

Watson continued, “Isn’t he one of your union leaders, Hamper?”

“Yeah. He’s a terrific firebrand. A dangerous man.”

“I’m surprised, Miss Hale, that you keep such company,” Mother said in a scornful voice. She was annoyed, I could tell. Mother is a stickler for propriety.

Margaret, however, had not noticed anything amiss. “Bessy is my friend.  Nicholas is a little …”

Hamper now exclaimed, “Nicholas?  She’s on first name terms.”

I could not blame him. It irked me to no end that Margaret should be friends with such a creature of mischief. The only one who stayed unruffled was Margaret.

“Well,” she replied calmly, “Mr. Higgins has been made a little wild by circumstances.  But he speaks from his heart, I am sure.”

Hamper tried another tack, damn him. “Well, if he’s so determined, I’m surprised he’ll accept charity.”

Margaret had her answer ready. “Well, he doesn’t for himself.  The basket was for a man whose six children are starving.”

Hamper was annoyed now. “Ah, well.  Then he knows what to do. Go back to work.”

All were assenting to this, and to my infinite relief, I thought the matter settled.

Until Mr Bell stoked up the fire once more. “I believe this poor starving fellow works at Marlborough Mills, doesn’t he, Margaret?”

I had to say something, and I knew it was going to hurt Margaret, but I had no choice. She must see the errors of her ways.

In a voice as calm as I could muster, I said, “You do the man, whoever he is, more harm than good with your basket.  Well, as you could say, the longer you support the strikers, the more you prolong the strike. That is not kindness. They will be defeated, but it will take longer. Their pain will be prolonged.”

Everybody applauded and murmured assent, but not Margaret. She was very defensive, now.

“But surely to give a dying baby food… is not just a question of logic.”

I was speechless with sudden fury. How dare she start a confrontation with her prime host? It was awful, and I could see mother was shocked to the core.

Fortunately, Mr Hale made a valiant attempt to save the moment. “Mrs. Thornton, um, I really must congratulate you on these magnificent… um, table settings.”

I could barely suppress a sigh if relief, when I saw he succeeded in drawing Mother’s attention from Margaret.

Mr. Hale forged on, “Um, I don’t believe I’ve seen finer table decorations even in the grandest gatherings in Harley Street.”

I had to have the last word, though not at Margaret. “Not all masters are the same, Mr. Bell.  You do us an injustice to always think we’re all up to some underhand scheme or other.”

I looked on last time at her, deliberately showing my profound dismay. She looked a bit subdued, finally. Well, I thought, you brought that on yourself, dear girl.

I grasped my glass and drank deeply, then turned to Miss Latimer, who I had neglected shamefully all evening.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Seven

Chapter Seven

I had enjoyed my conversation with Margaret so much that I know craved to have that kind of interaction with her on a daily basis. She intrigued me – no, she enthralled me. But it was not to be. Not even when I went to read with Mr Hale did I caught a glimpse of her. She was with her mother, Mr Hale casually informed me, one evening. He smiled a bit sheepishly at me and confessed that Mrs Hale was feeling a bit under the weather. I remembered that Margaret had asked Mother for a doctor. I hoped it would be just a mellow ailment that troubled Mrs Hale.

So I came during the afternoon, one day that I could muster the time. To no avail, however. Mr Hale cheerfully explained that his daughter had made friends amongst my workers, and she was to be found daily at the house of – abomination! – Nicholas Higgins! Why, oh, why, I wondered, for I could not fathom the reason for it.

At the end of November, Mother began engaging in an entirely different kind of activity. I discovered her sitting at the dining room table, busily scribbling, while my sister Fanny was helping her, humming a light melody, out of tune, unfortunately.

“Preparations already?” I asked, looking over her shoulder at her scribbling.

“If we are going to entertain, we must do it properly,” Mother replied, then, out of Fanny’s earshot, quietly continued, “You’re not regretting the invitations, are you?”

“No, no. Spend what you want. May have to be the last dinner party we have for some time, I whispered, then, louder, asked,  “So … who is on the list?”

“Slicksons, of course. Fosters. Browns will decline, but we must invite them all the same. Hales will come, I presume?”

Fanny burst in, “They are probably aware of the very great advantage it would be to Mr Hale, to be introduced to people like the Fosters …”

“I am sure that motive would not influence them, Fanny,” I said, irritated by her meddling. My sister could not resist doing all she could to annoy me. I walked away and sat down on the sofa, picking up my newssheet.

Yet Fanny was not done, it seemed. “How you seem to understand these Hales, John. Do you really think they are so very different from any other people we meet?”

“He seems a worthy kind of man …,” Mother mused. “Well, rather too simple for trade. She is a bit of a fine lady, with all her low spirits. As for the daughter, she gives herself airs! And yet they are not rich, and never have been.”

My attention was diverted away from the newssheet as I wondered if Mrs Hale’s low spirits were the only reason she needed a doctor. No one could fall ill just from low spirits, couldn’t they? It was too ridiculous for words, and I was certain I didn’t know what people meant by ‘low spirits’. Of course, Mother would scoff at that.

I was now listening to the conversation between Mother and Fanny, who scolded, “And she’s not accomplished, mother. She can’t play the piano …”

I began to lose my patience, “Go on, Fanny. What else does she lack to bring her up to your standard?”

Of course, Mother heard the irritation in my voice and came to Fanny’s help. “I heard Miss Hale say she could not play myself, John! If you would let us alone, we would perhaps see her merits and like her.”

“I am sure I never could,” cried Fanny and went to sit down at her embroidery table.

I gave up on my paper and wandered across to Mother. In a low, but insistent voice, I asked, “I wish you would try to like Miss Hale, mother.”

Her reply was immediate and urgent. “Why? You have not formed an attachment to her, have you? Mind you, she will never have you. Aye, she once laughed in my face at the thought of it, I am sure she did.”

How right Mother was. Most of the time, Margaret despised me, although she seemed to have become slightly more lenient towards me.

“She would never have me,” I smiled, but wanly.

Mother burst out. “She’s too good of an opinion of herself to take you. I should like to know where she would find any one better.”

I had had enough. Soon they would start listing Margaret’s failures, and I could not bear it.

“You can both believe me then when I say this out of complete indifference to Miss Hale: Mr Hale is my friend, she is his only daughter. I wish you would both make an effort to befriend her.”

But, of course, Fanny was not placated so easily. “Pff … I only wish I knew why you talked about her so much. I am tired of it.”

Now I was truly angry, “What would you like us to talk about? How about a strike for a more pleasant topic?”

Fanny’s jaw dropped in disbelief, but she stopped nagging me, finally.

 

Tension amongst the workers had risen to a point where they would not be easily placated. They had conveyed their wage demands to Williams, who in turn had told me. I could not give them five percent raise, since all my extra funds had been used for the purchase of new machinery and cotton in bulk. I was standing idly at the mantelpiece in the sitting room when Mother, for once with idle hands, asked. “Are the hands about to turn out?”

I nodded, sudden weariness overcoming me. “They are waiting for the moment I have to turn down their wage demands.”

“Are there many orders in hand, John?”

“Of course, we know that well enough. The Americans are flooding the market. Our only chance is producing at a lower price and faster. But the faster we fill the orders, the longer it takes for us to be paid for them.”

“How much are we owed?”

“The debts at the bank is nearly four hundred pound.” That made Mother wince, and I berated myself for worrying her.

It was, alas, very true. I did not see how I was to remedy this in the near future. Mother must have felt my depression, no indeed, she felt it even more keenly. She sighed and sat down on the sofa.

“The men are less patient,” I said, in an attempt to lift her spirits. “They barely made up pay since their last cut.”

“Why don’t they listen? They think that by just putting their ignorant heads together, they’ll get their way.

I smiled. “Don’t worry mother. It’s a young industry, these problems will iron themselves out. We’re not yet in a position of selling up.”

Mother shrugged, then asked. “Can’t you get men from Ireland? Then you could get rid of the strikers. I would. I would teach them, that I was master and could employ who I liked.”

I crouched down before her, saying in what I hoped was a reassuring voice, “Yes, I can. And I will, too, if the strike lasts. It’ll be trouble and expense, but I will do it, rather than give in.”

Mother nodded, turned and took a pile of cards from a nearby table.

“If there’s to be this extra expense I am sorry we are giving the dinner this year, John.”

“We should go on as before. No more, no less.”

I got up, and touched her shoulder. Nothing pained me more than to see my mother in distress.

 

The hour had come. Mother and I were watching the activity in the courtyard, and it was now considerably less than on other days.

“You said no?” Mother asked softly.

I nodded. “They were expecting it.”

Mother turned away to sit down, completely dispirited, but I could not tear my eyes from the weaving shed entrance. The noise of the machines was still audible, then, suddenly it slowed, and finally stopped. I pulled out my watch, and it said, a quarter to eight. Over two hours short, damn it.

I ran down the stairs and positioned myself up the front door steps, from where I could watch the workers coming out of the shed.

All grim faces and determined paces. Fools! How was I to continue when I was not producing?

From then on, I lived in a kind of hell.

My mill was silent and deserted. A gloom hung over the immobile looms, still laden with unfinished cloth. The cotton fluff had settled down, resembling a blanket of snow, but inside instead of outside.

As I wandered through the empty sheds, I knew this could not go on for too long. Financially, I could stand it for a certain time, but eventually, I would be forced to close down. I made the necessary arrangements to keep my business alive. I went to an agency that employed Irish workers.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Six

Chapter Six

How grateful I was to have my mill so that I could throw myself onto my work and forget the events of that upsetting tea party.

The mill required my full attention at that time, for trouble was most definitively brewing.

It was of such great concern that I called on my fellow mill masters to convene and discuss the situation.

Our assembly hall was next to the Lyceum Hall, and I was standing near the open window. I was watching the comings and goings from above, and to my chagrin, I had recognized several of my workers entering the hall to attend a meeting. Since I had also seen Higgins going in some time before, I presumed he was to be the ringleader for a possible strike.

A slight woman clad in drab brown mounted the steps at a leisurely pace.

Margaret! What was she doing here? What was her business attending a workers’ meeting? Was there no end to my torture, then? Would she aggrieve me over and over again with her inappropriate behaviour?

“Ah …put him down. He’s one of ours isn’t he?” Hamper’s voice nearly made me jump. He was standing next to me, a tankard of ale in his hand.

“Boucher … he’s Thornton’s,” Henderson said. He too had come to join us without me noticing it.

Hamper then challenged me. “Aren’t you interested, Thornton?  All mills together if you please. We need to show ‘em.  We know what they’re up to and who they are.”

I did not take the bait. Hamper always likes to tease and stir trouble, and when he succeeds he scampers away, leaving it to others to clean after him.  “Let them meet, if that’s how they want to spend their leisure time.”

Then it was Henderson again. “We’re all trying to work together Thornton.”

I turned to the room, letting my scepticism show. “Are we?”

“What does that mean?” Henderson asked, sounding surprised, yet I knew better.

“I overheard some of my men talking.  It seems you are planning to give in to them.  We agreed …. we would all be in line … so that the men would know we meant business and know that we kept our word.”

“Well … I …” Henderson sputtered, then looked at Watson. They were playing their own game behind my back, I knew it well. No matter, I would know what to do if the need should arise.

 

Later that night – it must have been near eleven o’ clock – I went to close Marlborough Mills’ main gate. God, I was exhausted. And very concerned about the coming days.

Just when I was at the gate, a figure stepped forward from the shadows. I had failed to see him, because a fog was whirling through the deserted streets. Stephens!

“Master, …”

“What are you doing here?”

“ Master, I beg you to take me back …”

Sudden red-hot fury engulfed me at the little bastard’s nerve. “Get out!” I growled, but the miscreant chose not to heed my command. He bowed awkwardly and ventured, “I were at meeting this evening … “

I took a step closer, as understanding dawned. The coward continued, “I could tell you what they’re planning … what’s in their thoughts …   Please sir… I beg you.”

I grasped the traitorous little bastard by the collar and shouted, ”Get out and do not come near this mill again!”

I shoved him from me in disgust, but then approaching footsteps caught my attention. “Who’s there?” I challenged.

Two familiar figures appeared from the fog. Mr Hale and … Margaret!

“It’s only us,” Mr Hale said jovially. So Margaret had gone to meet her father. I now belatedly recalled that Mr Hale taught at the Lyceum Hall in the evenings. Joy began to blossom in my heart, because she had not gone to attend a union meeting, yet it seemed I was still to be harassed by that bloody good-for-nothing Stephens. He moved forward, yet again. “Master, I promise you …”

My patience had been tried too much, now. “Get away from here!” I bellowed, and raised my fist.

That frightened Stephens enough and he disappeared in the darkness.

“Couldn’t you show a little mercy?” Mr Hale’s reproachful voice sounded.

Blast. I had forgotten about them and was now ashamed of my rudeness, yet it seemed important to me that they understood my meaning.

“Mr Hale! Please … do not try to tell me my business!” I pleaded, but then Margaret’s sarcastic little voice cut me off.

“Remember, they do things differently here! Come, Father.” She threw me a scathing glance and turned away, pulling her father with her. My teacher did not show understanding either.

I stood there like a bloody fool, watching them walk away. A sigh escaped my lungs, realising that I was yet the only one to understand it all. It was a lonely place I found myself in.

I stepped through the gate, giving the pair one last look before closing it.

 

Thank God for Mother, I thought, as I watched walk calmly through the weaving shed, her hands on her very erect back, and her face displaying imperious authority. Some of the workers were whispering amongst each other, and if their facial expressions were anything to go by, they were having a joke at her expense. Ah, let them be, I mused. Nothing could shake Mother. It was a comforting thought, indeed, to know she at least would always be at my side, and in all circumstances.

The noises in the room were also comforting. I heard someone shout for more supplies, and was glad I had had the foresight to order the cotton in bulk.

“You there!  Is the machine mended?” Mother challenged a female weaver.

“Yes,” the woman replied shyly.

“Then use it, for there is many to take your place.”

Next, I saw her striding towards a woman who was holding her coughing child. Ah, the fluff would be disastrous for some of the weaker workers.

“The child is ill. Send her home,” Mother said in a stern voice.”

“I can’t afford to,” replied the woman, on the verge of weeping.

Mother sighed with annoyance but offered, “The child cannot work.  Is there another child at home?”  The woman nodded, so mother continued, “If you can get her here within the hour you can keep the place”

The woman’s face alighted with relief. “Thank you.”

“In the hour, mind, or lose it,” Mother ordered.

She had by now reached the place where I was standing, and she was looking into my face as if to guess my thoughts, so I was compelled to give her my approval. “Whatever you think best, Mother.  You know how this mill works almost better than I do.”

Her grateful smile was a balm to my soul.

 

Later, I was accosted by Slickson. He had dared come to my mill in the middle of the day, to whine that he had been forced to decline a raise of pay to his workers. I very well could see through the slimy eel’s meaning, though.

“I don’t know why you’re blaming me,” he ventured, trying to keep up with me as I strode down the courtyard.

“You can play your tricks out to Ashley. That’s your decision.  But if you get it wrong, we all suffer,” I replied angrily. I had no patience with the man. It was not the first time he had played us for a fool.

“They wanted 5%.  Would you have given it them?” he continued with faint surprise.

I turned to him in suppressed rage. “No, but I would’ve told ’em straight.  I wouldn’t pretend I were thinking about it and tell them to come back on payday, so that I could turn them down flat and provoke them.”

He was even more surprised, the fool. “Are you accusing me of trying to encourage a strike?”

“You’re telling’ me that it wouldn’t have suited you?  It’s their lives and our livelihood you’re playing with.” I set him straight and left him standing there. I had no more patience for him.

 

Some days later, I saw Margaret again. There had not passed a minute in those days when I had not been thinking of her. It was strange, and it was something I was not used to.

I was thirty-one, and I was a bachelor of means. Of course, I had had my share of female attention, and the assiduous attempts of eager mothers to catch my eye were downright exasperating, at times. Any social gatherings where the ladies were attending, were a torture to me, because I would be assaulted by matrons shoving their daughters into my path. Needless to say that none of these simpering, eye-battering young chits would make me a decent enough wife.

Up until now, I had wanted high standards for my future spouse. She must be strong and steadfast, and prepared to be the companion of a man whose first love would always be his mill. She must bear him a couple of sturdy sons, who could become her husband’s business partners, in time. A few daughters would also not go amiss, since there would be ample possibility to combine my own wealth with that of another mill master. Modesty and integrity, and elegance without spendthrift, and also sweet, balanced disposition were required. But most of all, the woman destined to become Mrs John Thornton would have to be approved by Mother in all things she deems should be present in her daughter-in-law. My mother would always be master in my household, but she might be prepared to relinquish control to my wife in time, should her health require it.

It was not surprising at all then, when I saw Margaret strolling through my courtyard, that I tried to fit her into my ideal image of a wife. Before I could take stock however, she was talking to some piecer girls sitting on a bench during their lunch time. The conversation seemed to be very jolly, because all three of them were laughing.

I edged nearby, puzzled as to why Margaret, an accomplished young lady from the South, would want an acquaintance with some low-born working girls from the North.

“What would you like to spend it on?” Margaret asked eagerly.

“Food, and then more food.  I’d pile it up, great big plates,” the piecer girl answered, even more eagerly

I inwardly frowned. Why would that girl waste her money on food? The fact that she earned a living surely was enough not to have her go hungry? Yet Margaret’s next question struck me right in the gut. “So, would you join a strike?  Well, I’m not saying there will be one; just if there was.”

How did she know about an upcoming strike? And why was she even interested? Dear Lord, she was interested, then?

But by now, the girls had spotted me and fell silent, their heads bowed. Margaret turned around and saw me, and understood. In her eyes, I had been spying on my workers to see what they were up to. She nevertheless talked to me in a gracious way.

“Your mother has kindly given me the name of a doctor.”

I was instantly alarmed. “You are ill?”

“No. No, it is just a precaution.”

The girls were avidly listening, so I started walking to my office, and to my joy, Margaret followed me.

“Your mother is always accusing me of knowing nothing about Milton and the people who live here,” she said in a voice laced with mirth.

I answered in kind. “Doubt she meant you should hang on to the tittle-tattle of young piecers and spinners.”

A smile spread about her lovely face, setting my heart to beat erratically. “Well,” she said, “they weren’t telling me any secrets.”

Thrilled by the notion that she was actually wishing to converse with me, I explained, “There was a man with a survey here a few weeks ago. It is quite the new thing.  They become practiced at telling others their wages and their working conditions.”

“Do you mind that?  If they tell the truth?”

“ Course not.  I do not apologize to anyone about the wages I pay or how I run Marlborough Mills. It is no secret.  It’s in plain sight for all to see.”

Suddenly, she stopped to face me. “And what about how they spend their money?”

She had surprised me there. “Well, that would be none of my business.  My duty is to the efficient running of the mill.  If I neglect that, all the workers will cease to have an income.”

“But what about your moral duty?”

My, my, she would persevere! I kept up my patience and said, “If she keeps to her hours and does nothing to disrupt the honest and efficient working of the mill, what she does in her own time is not my concern.  Here in the North, we value our independence.”

“But surely you must take an interest?” Margaret pressed on.

I was beginning to wonder why she was so determined to know my opinion on all this, but I could not stop myself from explaining further. “I am her employer.  I am not her father or her brother that I can command her to do as I please.  Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Hale.  I would like to play the overbearing master, but I will answer your questions as honestly as I am sure you ask them.”

A look of semi-understanding ran on her face. I smiled, wanting to encourage her further, but then she looked over my shoulder, and dismay appeared. I turned my head. Ah. She had seen Mother standing at the parlour window. Mother always overlooks the courtyard when she has the time for it. This, however, was the first time that it displeased me that she should want to know what I was doing. Time to end the conversation. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve urgent business,” I said brusquely and left Margaret standing on her own.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Five

Chapter Five

After the day’s work, I ascended the stairs to prepare myself for my visit to the Hales.

Mother was sitting at the table, absorbed in her needlework. How she managed to be so diligently doing that, with Fanny’s dreadful attempts in doing piano scales upstairs, I do not know.

Once in a while, my sister even sang, and it sounded horrible. I donned my coat and rolled my eyes, saying, “Mother, remember I go to the Hales this evening. I will be home to dress, but then out till late.”

She laid down her needlework and remarked in some surprise, “Dress?  Why should you dress up to take tea with an old parson? Ex-parson!”

Dear Mother, she truly did not like the Hales. “Mr. Hale is a gentleman and his daughter is an accomplished young lady,” I smiled.

Mother raised her eyebrows in a way only she can do. It leaves a fellow positively shaken up.

“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m in no danger from Miss Hale.  She’s very unlikely to consider me a catch. She’s from the South.  She doesn’t care for our Northern ways.”

She scoffed in a most unladylike manner, but then Mother had never claimed to be a lady in her life.

“Huh!  Airs and graces!”  She stood up and started adjusting my cravat. “What business has she?  A renegade clergyman’s daughter, who’s now only fit to play at giving useless lectures to those who do not wish to hear them!  What right has she to turn up her nose at you?”

I did not take her bait and would not be drawn into discussing Margaret’s faults, but said warmly, “Board up the windows. There’ll be a storm later.” I kissed her soft cheek and left.

 

I was still in a good mood when I reached Canute Street. There was a noticeable spring in my step as I walked along Milton’s busy streets. I knocked briskly on the Hales’ door.

Their servant – I believe her name was Dixon – showed me up the stairs to the first floor sitting room, a tolerably pretty chamber done up in a creamy wall paper sprinkled with green leaves. I found only Mr Hale there, who began apologizing to me. His wife, it seemed, was not feeling well, but she had promised to come down later.

I was, of course, not interested in the mother at all, so I wondered where Margaret was. Would I suffer disappointment? Would she not join us? How I longed to ask, but of course, this was not done. I had to swallow down my ardent questions and be civil to my host.

It turned out that my teacher was very interested in the working of my mill, so I obliged and answered his questions about the various procedures involving the making of cotton. I became so enthused that I barely noticed when Margaret came in, carrying the tea tray. Propriety demanded I greet her, and she nodded in response before pouring out the tea.

I carried on with relish about Arkwright’s invention of a mechanical loom, “… All motion and energy but truly a thing of beauty.  Classics will have to be re-written to include it.”

I was distractedly sipping my tea, until I became aware of Margaret’s silence. I looked at her. She was asleep, and the sight of her beautiful features, relaxed in sleep, turned my heart into water. I swallowed, put down my cup, and remarked, “Ah… I’m afraid we’re boring Miss Hale with our enthusiasm for Arkwright’s invention.”

Margaret startled and sat up. “No…indeed I’m sure it’s fascinating. I’m a little tired that’s all.”

She got up and began refilling my empty cup. I could not help gazing at her intensely. She was a rare beauty and her graceful manner had me in a spell. She handed me my cup, but I was so fascinated by her slender arm, adorned with a simple gold bracelet, and by her tiny hand and porcelain skin, that I almost forgot to take the cup from her. Our fingers brushed. A sparkle of awareness flitted up my arm, setting my senses ablaze, all of a sudden. Dear Lord! I had never felt anything like it before.

Mr Hale abruptly stood, and I did the same, for Mrs Hale had entered the room. Her smile was positively reluctant, and I gathered I had encountered another member of the family who was not pleased with me.

Mr Hale jovially remarked, “Er…Mr Thornton has been admiring our newly redecorated rooms, Maria.”

I smiled at her, while she answered, “Oh yes, Mr. Thornton. Hmm … well, there … there wasn’t a great deal of choice but these papers are of a similar shade to our drawing room in Helstone.  But not quite.”

My smile broadened when I proffered, “Well …. On behalf of Milton taste, I’m glad we’ve almost passed muster.”

The smile was still on my face when I caught Margaret’s gaze, but she abruptly turned away, crushing all my joy in doing so. Margaret was becoming an expert in crushing me, it seemed.

I forced myself to listen to Mrs Hale again. “Yes … yes well … clearly you’re very proud of Milton. My husband admires its energy and its … its people … are very busy making their businesses successful.”

That only required an easy reply, and I promptly gave it. “I won’t deny it – I’d rather be toiling here, success or failure, than leading a dull prosperous life in the south … with their slow careless days of ease.”

All of a sudden, Margaret burst out indignantly. “You are mistaken. You don’t know anything about the South. It may be a little less energetic in its pursuit of competitive trade but then there is less suffering than I have seen in your mills … and all for what?”

Could she really be that dense?

Yet I spelled it out for her. “We make cotton.”

She was not to be persuaded, however. Petulantly, she continued. “Which no one wants to wear!”

By now, my patience had grown very thin. I straightened my shoulders and attempted to reason with her, glad for the chance to do so.

“I think that I might say that you do not know the North. We masters are not all the same whatever your prejudice against Milton men and their ways.”

She actually scoffed! “I’ve seen the way you treat your men. You treat them as you wish because they are beneath you.”

That was far over the limit! I said in a patient voice, “No, I do not.” Control was slipping away from me, I’m sure!

She cut me off again. “You’ve been blessed with good luck and fortune, but others have not.”

She was determined to crush me, to blame me for the misery in all the world, it seemed. Fighting for composure, I resumed, “I do know something of hardship …”

She did seem to collect herself somewhat, now, so I was encouraged to proceed.

“Sixteen years ago my father died … in very miserable circumstances.  I became the head of the family very quickly.  I was taken out of school.  I think that I might say that my only good luck was to have a mother of such strong will and integrity.  I went to work in a draper’s shop and my mother managed so that I could put three shillings aside a week.  That taught me self-denial.  Now I’m able to keep my mother in such comfort as her age requires and I thank her, every day for that early training …  so,  Miss Hale, I do not think that I was especially blessed with good fortune or luck …”

I looked at her, pleading for her approval, but she lowered her eyes, as if she could not bear the mere sight of me. I was dimly aware of her mother, shifting in her seat as if in great discomfort. I could not, for the life of me, understand what I had done wrong now.

I suddenly realized that it was time to go. “I have outstayed my welcome.”

I stood while Mr Hale was muttering a protest. I needed to try one more attempt to befriend Margaret, so I extended my hand and said in a soothing tone. “Come Miss Hale, let us part friends despite our differences.  If we become more familiar with each other’s traditions, we may learn to be more tolerant, I think.”

That was when she hurt me in a most violent way. She shrunk back and left me standing there like a fool with my hand raised. I clenched my fist in deep offence. Never in my life had I encountered a human being who so blatantly refused to take my hand.

I turned to Mr Hale, saying in what I hoped was a normal voice, “I’ll see myself out.”

Mr Hale lamely uttered that I should come again. I hastened to leave this dreadful house.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Four

Chapter Four

 

During the following week, I most assiduously tried to get Miss Margaret Hale out of my thoughts. I had to be honest with myself, though. I had begun developing some sort of attachment to her, and that was not to be tolerated. She was beautiful, I had to give her that, but she was also outspoken and prejudiced and … damn it! Never had I allowed any woman to openly cast me down by her unfounded criticism! Never!

Whenever I started thinking of her, I turned into a completely different man. I became a stranger, stumbling on a path I had known well before, but which had now become uncomfortably unfamiliar. One would think me a boy freshly out of the schoolroom, with no comprehension of females!

I had known my fair share of women, of course. At thirty-one, and still unwed, women vied for my attention, because of my position in Milton society as a successful manufacturer and dutiful magistrate. My mother frequently teased me about that, and my sister Fanny downright mocked me for my reticence in seeking a wife. I keenly felt the need to have a suitable companion in life but had not actively been looking for one.

Now, after I met Margaret, I had come to hope that I had found the woman who would share my life. That was, however, before I knew her. She would never have me for she despised me. She did not think me a gentleman and thus, unworthy of her. That stung, and far more than I cared to admit to myself.

 

Mother and Fanny went to pay their respects to the Hales on one of October’s brighter days.

When I looked down into the mill’s courtyard, and saw Fanny get into the cab, I wondered how she managed to get in all those many, heavily starched skirts. My sister is vain to the point of silliness. Actually, my sister is silly and hare-brained.

Mother, on the contrary, was her usual dignified self, clad in heavy, black bombazine, and her head held high. I knew she behaved that way to show the whole of Milton that she had managed to overcome her setback from the past, and that she was proud of it.

I wondered what she would make of the whole situation at the Hales’ house. To say the least, it was rather awkward. Mr Hale had given up his living to uproot his family and to come live at a place they perceived as strange and uncomfortable. Mrs Hale seemed constantly unwell and never left the house. The daughter, on the contrary, seemed to be found strolling through town all day. According to Williams, she had struck up friendships with some of my workers, and that, I found most disturbing. No doubt she did it to antagonise me!

I tried to concentrate on the ledgers, after that, but I could not stop scrabbling doodles instead of adding up figure. Checking my ledgers is an activity which normally would give me the greatest satisfaction. Today, it did nothing to distract me from thinking of Margaret Hale, so I rose and went to the weaving shed.

The regular noisy clacking of the looms never failed to calm me, thank the Lord! I wandered over to Williams on his platform and asked, “Everything in order?”

“Yes, master … for now, that is.”

I looked at him sharply. “What? What is the matter? Tell me, man!”

Williams looked about him uneasily, before speaking in a barely audible voice. “I heard rumours about the men wanting a raise. Some union man is asking around how much they make, and from what I hear they are all but too eager to tell him.”

“What is the name of this fellow? Do you know him?”

“Aye, sir. The daughter is over there next to the window. She is a good worker, and a good friend of the young lady that was here last. Her name is Bessy Higgins.”

I directed my gaze at the woman in question, a thin, pale, sickly kind of girl. “And her father? Is he on my pay role, too?”

“No, sir, he works at Hamper’s. A terrific firebrand, I hear, is Nicholas Higgins.”

Deep in thoughts, I went back to my office. So unrest was brewing. I would have to keep an eye on things and be ready when they got awry.

And Margaret had befriended one of my working girls, had she not? What did that mean, a friendship between a lowly factory girl and a lady? Could that even be? Oh, and now I thought of Margaret as a lady, then? Which, of course, she was. And I, on the other hand, was not a gentleman.

 

At dinnertime that day, Mother could not keep silent about her visit. She was in a state of rigid disapproval about the entire Hale family and she did not stop ranting about it. Mr Hale was a weakling, Mrs Hale was a woman with too much airs and graces, and the daughter …

“John, that young woman is like no one I have ever encountered before. She has an opinion on everything, and she thinks Milton is far beneath London and its attractions. And yet they have not two pennies to rub together. I hope you will not succumb to her wiles when you go reading with her father.”

I shrugged. “Mother, that is all Mr Hale and I do when we meet; we read. And all we drink is a cup of tea. He does not even keep spirits in the house.”

“Oh, and you never see the girl, do you?”

“No, Mother, I do not. I neither see the mother nor the daughter.”

Which was entirely true, to my chagrin. Neither woman entered Mr Hale’s study on the second floor, while I was there. No doubt Margaret could not stand the sight of me.

 

I had begun to like Mr Hale, both as a teacher and as a friend. He was extremely skilled in literature and culture, and I was quickly catching up with my abandoned education. So I was glad he was one of my guests, next time I gave a dinner party for my fellow mill owners.

The conversation was, of course, entirely about factories, workers and machinery. Nevertheless, Mr Hale did not hesitate in pitching in, once in a while, though his comments were a testimony to his great ignorance of trade and manufacturing.

When Watson began speaking about a wheel he had not had to put in his sheds, I relied I had one in all my rooms. Hamper, seeing Mr Hale’s confusion, explained the wheel’s function to him. It kept the workers’ lungs from clogging, and Mr Hale’s countenance brightened. I realised he was still thinking like a clergyman, when he talked about treating the workers in the Christian way. I simply had to put him straight, saying I did not run a charitable institution but a business. He kept silent after that, and I began to realise I might have hurt him.

There was no chance to apologize to him that evening, so I made a mental note to it when I went reading, next Tuesday. However, before he took his leave, Mr Hale invited me to take tea with him and his family, the day after.

That night, I went to bed, happy as a child, because I would see Margaret again.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Three

Chapter Three

It took me several days to find the time to pay a visit to Mr Hale. The new machines I ordered from Leeds had finally arrived so I had to supervise their installation in the mill’s main shed. But then, on a windy morning mid-September, I finally went to Crampton to seek out my new teacher.

The house was located at the corner of Canute Street and a narrow alley, which gave the impression it was at the bottom of a dead end. The street was, however, very lively, with people praising their wares, and lots of small children playing. I jumped up the few stairs and knocked on the front door.

A very stout maid with a forbidding expression on her round face opened the door yet made no show of letting me step inside. I produced my card. “Good day to you. Mr Thornton wishes to speak to Mr Hale.” I deliberately kept my voice jovial.

The maid took it, glanced at it, and then stepped aside to show me to a parlour on the right. She ostentatiously closed the door behind me, so I went to stand before one of the small windows, where I had a view of the busy street below.

While I was waiting, I could hear the house creak above my head, as if the maid was going from room to room to search for her master. I glanced around the somewhat shabby room. It was small with only two windows and one door, through which I had entered. A large book case occupied one wall, a small fireplace another. In the centre stood a table large enough to dwarf the room even more. The whole surface of the table was laden with books. Books were everywhere, I realised. They were stacked on the floor near the walls, they covered the mantelpiece and every chair, and even the window sills.

I was bewildered and wondered why on earth an ex-parson would want to have that many books. Then my thoughts were interrupted when the door opened to let Mr Hale in. He was a tall man, sturdily built though not rotund. He had curly hair of a non-descript brown, which had begun receding from his forehead, and a pair of friendly, grey eyes. He wore his whiskers so long that they almost brushed the sides of his mouth. A style from some thirty years before, one my own father had also favoured.

“Mr Thornton?” he boomed in a voice he must have used in his church sermons during his days as a parson. “Welcome, sir! My friend Bell told me a lot about you, and I am very pleased to meet you!”

I struggled to keep a congenial countenance, as I felt anger at Mr Bell, all of a sudden. What had he been divulging of my affairs to this virtual stranger? Mr Bell was good with words, I knew that all too well. I inwardly shuddered guessing at what secrets of mine he would have revealed.

“Good day to you, sir,” I said, extending my hand. Mr Hale glanced at it in mild surprise but eventually took it and shook it firmly.

“Mr Hale,” I continued, reassured by his handshake, “I have a fervent wish to broaden my education through reading and discussing literature. My time is limited, though. You might know I am a cotton manufacturer, and the running of my mill claims most of my day. However, I might find some hours during the evening to devote myself to studying.”

“Splendid! Splendid!” Mr Hale exclaimed. Then he slapped me on the back and said, “Sit down, my good man, sit down!” With swift movements, he cleared two chairs and dragged them to the table. We sat but after two seconds, Mr Hale jumped up and strode towards the book case, where he began rummaging through the books.

I was once again bewildered. He was completely different from what I had come to think of a teacher, with only my limited school days as a reference. Soon, however, Mr Hale returned to the table with two, rather shabby books. Both leather covers were dusty, I noticed.

“Now then, John … I hope I can call you by your first name? I call all my students by their first names, you know.”

I had barely time to nod when he continued,” Now then, John, you must tell me what you have previously had in the way of education.I understand – from Mr Bell, of course – that you have not finished your grammar school?”

“No, indeed not, sir. At sixteen, I was forced to work, but I went to Lancaster Grammar School here in Milton until then.”

“Ah, so you had Latin and Greek?”

“Yes, sir, although my knowledge is very basic.”

“No matter, no matter,” Mr Hale replied, folding his hands while placing his elbows on the table. “We will soon pick up where you left. Now, in my opinion, it is best we start with either Plato or Aristotle. Which of the two do you prefer, John?”

Again he caught me completely off guard, or was it the sound of the front door opening that disturbed my thought, I do not know. Mr Hale, however, had not heard. He pressed me on, “We have to make a choice, John.  Now it’s difficult, I know.”

Suddenly, his gaze darted to the half open door and he exclaimed, “Margaret, is that you?”

It was enough to make me jump to my feet in some sort of panic. Of course, you fool, I scolded myself, could you not have guessed you would meet her again? I hastily went to stand before the window, my back to the door, conscious that my torment was back again. I was suddenly anxious that it should show on my face.

“Margaret, is that you?  Well, Margaret!  Come in, Margaret.  Come in.  Meet my new friend and, erm, first proper pupil. Mr. Thornton, this is my daughter, Margaret.“

I took a deep breath and turned. There she was, the bane of my life, and as I suddenly realized, the delight of my heart. Her hair, a deep dark brown, was dishevelled because she had just removed her hat, but it was so becoming that I longed to touch it and straighten the tumbled locks. In her lovely, heart-shaped face, her eyes, which I now noticed for the first time, were a deep blue, her nose tiny and pert, and her mouth lush and deeply red. The sight of her made my stomach summersault, and I had to fight hard to keep my own countenance undisturbed. When I finally spoke, I was glad to hear that my voice was steady. “I believe your daughter and I have already met.”

“Ah … “ Mr Hale said, oblivious to the tension between me and his daughter, “now, Mr. Thornton cannot decide between Aristotle and Plato.  I suggest we start with Plato, and then move on.  What do you think?”

I gave him a swift but stunned glance, confused as I was because of his lack of comprehension, and forged on. “I’m afraid Miss Hale and I met under less than pleasant circumstances.  I had to dismiss a worker for smoking in the weaving shed.”

Miss Hale all but burst out in speech. “I saw you beat a defenceless man who is not your equal!”

The raw aggression in her words finally sunk in with her father. He exclaimed in shock, “Margaret!”

I could not help coming to her defence. “No, she’s right.” And after a pause to regain my composure, I managed. “I was angry. I have a temper. Fire is the greatest danger in my mill. I have to be strict.”

If I had hoped to win her over by explaining my perfectly sane reasons, I was totally wrong. She turned away in disgust, saying, “A gentleman would not use his fists on such a … pathetic creature, or shout at children.”

I must have heard wrongly, I thought. A gentleman? What had that to do with what was been said about my mill? Devil take it, but she was taunting me to no end!

My voice raised, I nearly shouted. “I dare say a gentleman has not had to see three-hundred corpses laid out on a Yorkshire hillside as I did last May. And many of them were children. And that was an  accidental flame. The whole mill destroyed in 20 minutes.”

All she did was glancing sideways at me. Nothing of what I had said, touched her, I could see.

I sighed. “I should go,” I said to Mr Hale, and we shook hands. “You’ll join us for dinner next week?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” he replied. “Erm … thank you.  Erm …we’ll start with Plato next Tuesday.”

Just then, I recalled something my mother had said when I left the house. Something about her wanting to get acquainted with Mr Hale’s wife. “I will ask my mother to call … when you’re settled,” I quickly said, giving Miss Hale a parting look. I very well knew I must be frowning. She was so … well, headstrong and opinionated!

“Of course, erm … ,” Mr Hale ventured. “Now by all means. We’re always here. Aren’t we, Margaret?”

Miss Hale looked positively sullen and refused to answer as I took my leave.

 

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Two

Chapter Two

 

As a rule, I am not a violent man. I do not take pleasure in beating my workers to a bloody pulp. Yet I have a temper, which at times gets the better of me. Thus when I witnessed Stephens’ transgression with my own eyes, I literally saw red.

Stephens is a brainless fool, who has only his own selfish interests at heart. His poor wife and four children do not often see much of his wages, because he squanders them away in the tavern as soon as he gets his hands on the coins. Many times over, I have warned him, and he always promises it is the last time he smokes during work hours, yet the wretch always does it again. Now my patience had been tried too much, and I was right in dismissing him. Unfortunately, his family will reap the miserable consequences. I do not run a charitable institution, so as sad as it may be, I cannot do a thing about it. The interests of the mill must come first.

Even though I had been entirely justified in behaving as I had, a nagging concern kept gnawing at my conscience. I am a rational man, yet I had let my temper boil over so rashly that I now felt downright wretched.

This state of mind was so unfamiliar to me that it puzzled me to the extreme. Never before in my life had I regretted any action I had done, yet now I positively loathed what I had done to Stephens. I could not for the life of me comprehend why this was so. Nobody in the whole shed had frowned upon me, nor had anybody come to Stephens’ help, because they all thought it justified he be chastised.

Nobody? No one, except for the petite brunette who had so rashly chastised me, John Thornton of Marlborough Mills. Before the eyes of my workers, a mere slip of a girl had talked back at me. Better yet, she had dared raise her voice at the master of Marlborough Mills, a place where she had no business being.

All present had indeed noticed. Some were shocked, but others had smirked with glee. Many of my workers resented me, even though I give them an income and thus save them from starvation and misery. As it is Mother’s wont to say, some men raise themselves to be masters, while others will strive to bring them down.

I should have retorted to the forward young woman, yet I had not. Instead, a strange paralysis had overcome me, I, a man who was never ill, who never showed weakness. A man who was master and answerable to no one but himself.

I strangely felt answerable to Miss Margaret Hale. For some incomprehensible reason, at that time I felt compelled to go and explain myself to her, if possible even that same day.

Margaret Hale … the name was familiar, though I could not immediately place it. I knew I would not be satisfied until I found out, so I went in search of Overseer Williams.

The loyal employee was back at his workplace on the raised platform, scrupulously watching the workers. I climbed the rickety ladder, absentmindedly making a mental note to have it made sturdier.

“Why did you bring that young woman in here, Williams? Surely, you know as well as I do, that strangers to the workplace are not allowed in the weaving shed.”

“She was at the house you found for your acquaintance, Mr Bell, master. She said she wanted to speak to you, and nothing I or the agent said would change her mind. A stubborn one, that.”

“What was her name again?” I asked, knowing well enough what it was.

“Margaret Hale, master. She said she and her father were sharing the task of finding lodgings. Not quite proper, if you ask me. Women have no business doing such a task.”

I ignored his remark about Miss Hale’s impropriety, although it was not Williams’ place to comment at all. “And where was this?”

“In Canute Street in Crampton, master. A nice little place, and well it may be, because the owner asks thirty pounds a year for it.”

I thanked him and left him to his work. Puzzled, I went back to my office.

The whole business of Williams seeking lodgings had its origin in Mr Bell’s request that I find a house for a friend of his, whose name was Richard Hale, I recalled. Mr Bell was an academic from  Oxford and one of my chief investors. Therefore, I had not had the luxury to turn him down, when he claimed some of my precious time. He had come from Oxford with the sole purpose of asking for my cooperation but he had prattled on so endlessly about his friend Hale, that I had lost all interest long before he was finished. Matters that have nothing to do with Marlborough Mills cannot keep my attention for long.

I made an effort to recall what exactly he had told me about Hale, a former clergyman who had given up his living to come and teach in Milton. Something to do with him not willing to reaffirm in the Book of Common Prayer, or some such nonsense. What would prompt a man to give up his livelihood and rob his family of income, I asked myself. I thought about this for some time, but was unable to solve the question. To me, Hale’s behaviour was on the brink of insanity.

Bell had also said that the man needed private pupils in order to bring in some money.

Now that, I found most interesting.

I was a mill master and a magistrate, but my education had been cut short. When I was but sixteen years old, I began working at a draper’s shop to rescue my mother and sister from poverty. Ever since, I had felt the lack of literature and culture and was anxious to remedy that. I was determined to pay Mr Hale a visit, as soon as he was settled in Canute Street.

My reminiscing about the past had, unfortunately, revived my memories of those disastrous days of fifteen years ago, when my father had taken his own life. The three of us, Mother, Fanny and myself were cast into ruin and poverty, because Father had lost all his possessions in a fraudulent speculation. At that time, he had been struggling to keep his cotton mill afloat after a most violent strike, wherein the workers had squeezed a ten percent raise from him. Unable to pay his workers beyond the weeks to come, Father had then turned to his banker. That man, who was the owner of several London banks, had taken Father’s personal fortune, promising him a scheme that would yield ten times the sum. The London banker was an imposter. He fled abroad, taking all Father’s money with him. Facing bankruptcy, Father had hanged himself.

 

I sat there, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, for I know not how long. When Mother suddenly appeared in the doorway, I was startled to see that it was ten in the evening. The mill had emptied of workers, the machines had been stopped, yet I had not noticed.

“What is troubling you, John? Why are you still here?”

Mother came to stand beside my chair and felt my brow with the back of her hand. I could not stifle a smile. To Mother, I am still a young boy, even though I had reached my thirty-first year last August. Sometimes, she is downright overprotective, which vexes me a little, but I do not have the heart to tell her otherwise. So I rose swiftly and drew her arm through mine.

“Just working over my time, Mother. You know as well as I do that the running of the mill takes the better part of my time. I presume dinner is ready?”

“It is, and Fanny is calling you names for making her wait.”

“By all means, let us not keep her waiting, then.”

 

The Reform of John Thornton – Part One

Chapter One

The day I met Miss Margaret Hale, Fate kicked me in the gut so hard that I was transformed into a man I would come to loathe.

I am John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate in Milton, Lancashire, and therefore, I speak bluntly. Gentlemanlike manners are no use to me when I have to deal with workers, tradesmen, and the likes, who do not understand civil language should it kick them in the arse.

That day, I was not only speaking my mind in the rudest of ways but I was also swearing at that bloody idiot Stephens for smoking in the weaving shed. I was so livid with rage that I chased him from between the rows of cotton looms to a spot where I could trash him into oblivion. Fire in a cotton mill – as every sane person knows – is highly dangerous. If the cotton waste is set ablaze, nothing can save the mill from burning down to the ground.

Finally, I was able to catch the fool by the collar. “Smokin’ again!” I bellowed. “Where is it?”

I began searching his filthy rags of clothing until I found the pipe, which, of course, he had been smoking on the sly. “Still warm,” I accused, my rage now boiling over. “Stupid idiot!”

It was a relief to swing my fists at him, and with satisfaction, I dealt him a few well-placed blows.

“Look at me!” I commanded. “Look at me!”

“Stop! In God’s name, stop!”

The light voice – barely audible above the din of the machines – did really stop me, although all I wanted to do was to kill Stephens with my bare hands. I jerked around, sweat trickling down my face. The air was knocked from my lungs, as I beheld the most beautiful creature in all the world. Her face was frozen in horror, her mouth partly opened and her eyes – ah, the eyes! – were wide with dismay. I looked at her, paralysed by the sight of such perfect beauty, My raised arm hung high in the air, ready to strike again, but the strength seemed to have left me.

What strange sickness had suddenly overcome me? I felt like a statue, I was unable to breathe. The girl – for she was little more than that – lifted her gaze to capture mine, and now a giant fist squeezed my heart. I could feel the blood drain from my face, until an icy shiver raked my entire body.

“Please, miss, please!” And then I was free again, thanks to Williams’ desperate plea. My trustworthy overseer was trying to pull the girl away, but even as slight as she was, she managed to resist him.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” I barked at her.

“My name is Margaret Hale,” she replied, her eyes blazing with fury.

Williams hastened to enlighten me. “I’m sorry, sir, I told her to stay in the office.”

Again I felt myself sliding into that haze of rage and I cried, “Get her out of here!” But then that little rat Stephens began crawling away from me. I released him but I could not stop myself from kicking him like the rat he is. “Aye, crawl away on your belly and don’t come back here again!”

Stephens was now desperate to escape but he gasped, “Please, sir, I ‘ave little ones!”

“You know the rules!” The rat dared answer me back, devil take it!

“My children will starve, sir,” Stephens sobbed, but I was too far gone to listen.

“Better they starve than burn to death!” I cried, and placed a hard kick in his belly.

“Stop! Stop, please!”

This time, the girl’s voice did not freeze me. I had more than enough of her interferences! I whirled around and snarled at Williams, “Get that woman out of here!” Williams succeeded in his endeavour to remove the girl this time, and she let herself be hauled behind a stack of cotton bales.

All the light seemed to vanish from the weaving shed. My knees buckled, and I had to seek support against the wall. The air seemed laden with some vile stench that clawed at my throat. Cotton fluff added more hardship to my already disturbed breathing. My brain, the part of my body I can always rely on, screamed at me to get the hell out of there.

I began stumbling towards the exit, pain raking through me like a spear. Gasping for breath, I reached the courtyard, and the cool air revived me instantly, when I gasped. It took me several moments to compose myself enough that I could go to the house and climb the stairs to the parlour. My mother keeps a bottle of port on a table near the door, and I splashed a large portion of it in a glass. The sweet, heavy liquid burned a path through my insides, and at last, I could breathe again.

“Why are you imbibing in the middle of the day, John? That is not you. Has something happened at the mill?” Mother’s cool voice inquired.

I took great care to take my glass and stride calmly to the mantelpiece, as was my habit, when I came up from the mill during the day. “Everything is fine, mother,” I said. “Just a restorative glass of port, is all.”

Mother was sitting in her usual spot on the coach beneath the window, darning some old socks of mine. Mother’s hands are never idle, God bless her, but why was she wasting her energy on clothing that was only fit to be thrown away? I took a few steps toward her and gently took the socks out of her hands.

“We are wealthy, Mother. You do not need to do such useless menial tasks. These socks are no longer your concern. Give them to one of the maids, if you want them darned.”

Mother is not easily fooled. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips but she let go of the socks without protest. “Fortune is as volatile as the smoke from our stacks, John, as you well know. We should be frugal at all times, so that we do not come on hardship once more.”

By now, I had full control over my countenance. “Mother, if you think it best to darn these very old socks in order to preserve me from going bankrupt, then by all means, do it.”

I was rewarded by her beautiful, but rare smile, which she bestows solely on me. The corners of my own lips turned upwards in answer, before I left her to go back to the mill. I sought the relative calm of my office, a cubicle set aside from the weaving shed by crude, wooden boards. Most of the space is occupied by a large desk and some shelves. I let myself down on the hard wooden chair behind the desk, planted my elbows on its surface and covered my face with my hands.

The Reform of John Thornton – Preface

Preface

Once in a while, we are touched by something so deeply that it becomes a constant source of joy.

When we need to have our spirits lifted, there it is; we just have to revisit our source, and the joy is back.

 

The 2004 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South provides that kind a joy to me. The novel’s plot is brilliant, but Sandy Welsh’s script gives it a contemporary ring so that the characters become even more alive. Brian Percival’s direction is magnificent and gives the viewer a thorough understanding of the nineteenth century workers’ struggle. Martin Phipps’ lovely music touches our hearts.

 

Of course, the actors’ performances are outstanding. All British actors and actresses just have that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes them so lovable. Yet Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage show us a chemistry that shines through the whole film like a beacon of love and hope.

 

North & South is in essence Margaret Hale’s story. John Thornton is her love interest as the male lead, but we mostly see Margaret’s views and reactions, in the novel as well as in the film.

I decided it was time to give Thornton the opportunity to explain himself to the full.

 

Writing The Reform of John Thornton was both a joy and a thrill. I can’t aspire to match Mrs Gaskell’s brilliant writing, of course. I will endeavour to use my own style and hope for the best.

As soon as I finished writing, I realised that my story could never be published. I broke too many rules in using Sandy Welsh’s script word for word. Yet it could not be done otherwise and gave me lots of fun.

 

I hope you will enjoy Thornton’s own story and forgive me for giving him that chance.

 

 

 

Lucia Swiers

 

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