… this horrible year comes to an end.
Happy New Year!
… and may all our troubles end.
We long for normalcy, for cuddles and kisses, for culture, for vacations and holidays.
May it all come true for you and your loved ones.
Soon thereafter, I took my leave of the sanctimonious couple. They had infuriated me more than I could stomach. I would have had a row if I had stayed any longer. How dared they criticize Mr Hale’s honest doubts in his faith when the poor man had been tried the way he had been? And then the manner in which they treated their children! They were nothing but unpaid servants, no, they were treated like slaves! At least, the children in my mill had been paid!
I found myself trembling with fury on the footpath that led to their front garden. I took a deep breath and looked around me. Helstone was indeed a lovely town nestled in the most beautiful landscape I had ever beheld. I could well imagine Margaret walking through it, to visit her father’s parishioners, or picking flowers to decorate the many rooms in that pretty little vicarage, or helping their maid Dixon to make preserves from the berries she picked along her ramblings through the woods. I could imagine her, dressed in a fine muslin morning gown on a beautiful morning in June, picking roses …
Roses … yes, I thought, that were her favourite blooms … they must be. Any other flower would lack resemblance to Margaret, who was beautiful, but strong, and who blossomed all summer, like the Helstone roses had once, before they were cut down so ruthlessly.
I turned to the house and saw its bare garden encircling it with dismal emptiness. In several spots, I could see the patches of upturned earth where the roses had been. They must have been dog roses, I realised. They would grow and extend all over the garden. I wandered down the path toward the church, where a bridal path crossed the one I was on.
I looked as intently as I could to inspect the six-feet-high hedgerow that lined it. It was a beech hedge, tick and green, effectively sealing the view from what was behind. After a while, I found what I had been searching. Thanks to the sheltering hedge one little bloom, perfect and bright yellow, had survived winter.
I left Helstone for Bishopstoke, on that same day. There was no point in staying longer, since no one knew about Margaret’s whereabouts. The ride on horseback allowed me to gather my sombre thoughts.
I had not been truly convinced that I would hear about her from the start. Margaret was gone, and although my brain knew that fully well, my foolish heart had still hoped for the exact opposite. It was final, now. I would never see my heart again. Yet I vowed I would do everything to at least learn if she was well. Only then I could go on with my own life, empty as it would be.
To my infinite relief, my compartment on the London train was empty. I had ample opportunity to wallow in misery without being disturbed. My hand held the yellow rose from Margaret’s beautiful Helstone. I would treasure it, and I knew exactly how; I would place it in Mr Hale’s Plato, so that it would dry, and be kept indefinitely. Would my love for Margaret also dry and wither? I hoped it would not, for I would wither and dry with it.
I did not waste time in London but boarded the Northbound train instantly. I longed to be home again, in my beloved Milton, and tackle the many problems that awaited me there. I would weather this new situation as I had done so many times before. I would not give in to self-pity and despair. I was John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate. I still was a manufacturer, even though my mill had closed. I would find the funds needed to start over again.
The train had stopped, but it took me a bit of time before I realised it. I had been breaking my head as to how I would find the necessary means to begin working again. Finding workers would not be difficult, since Higgins – of all people! – had given me a list of men and women who would come back to me, if I ever became a mill master again. But the funds! How was I to acquire money? Latimer had already rejected my application for a new loan, and I knew no bankers outside of Milton. If only Mr Hale was still there to advise me. He had known London better than I had. I sighed and stood to close the door after a passenger disembarked.
My heart stopped, no, began throbbing loudly in my head! There she was, my Margaret.
She was standing on the platform gazing at me with joyous consternation. Oh, lovely vision, that was surely a mirage, conjured up by my longing heart. But she, too was looking as if she was seeing something she could not believe was there! I left the train, I walked toward her.
Her eyes … oh, her beautiful eyes! How they bore into mine, as if they wanted to drink in the sight of me, me, the man she had hitherto loathed. She did not speak, she just gazed at me, her lips curving in the sweetest smile I had ever seen.
“Where are you going?” My voice rasped a bit, as if my breath had run out. It had …
Margaret seemed embarrassed, all of a sudden. She turned her head to the train she had just left, then looked back at me and said, “To London … I have just been to Milton …”
“Ah …” It was all I managed, before a thought struck me. “You’ll never guess where I have been …” I reached into my waistcoat pocket and drew out the yellow dog rose. I gave it to her and she took it. Our fingers brushed.
“To Helstone?” she breathed, “You’ve been to Helstone?” Her eyes widened with pure joy. “I thought those had all gone …”
“I found it in the hedgerow,” I rasped, “You have to look hard.”
Margaret smiled and looked down again.
“Why were you in Milton?” I asked, glad that my voice was normal again.
She seemed to hesitate, then she took a deep breath and said, “On business. Well, that is, I have a business proposition.”
Her cheeks were suddenly flushed, and she turned toward the southbound train. “Oh, dear,” she gasped, “I need Henry to help me explain.”
Lennox? I quickly looked at the train, and there he was, staring broodily at us. Ah … so he as the one she would turn to when in need of advice … and what else, I mused. Well, she was with me now, blast it!
I grasped her arm, then let go of it, to prevent her from thinking I would try and force her to go, if she wanted to do so. “You don’t need Henry to explain.” I gently took her elbow and led her to a bench. She followed, but glanced at Lennox. We sat down, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see how Lennox was still watching us like a hawk.
Margaret seemed short of breath but she continued, “I have to get this right.”
Her glance kept dropping from mine, though I could not but drink in her lovely face. My heart was pounding fiercely, now, and I felt something immense was going to happen.
“It’s a business proposition,” Margaret swallowed, continuing swiftly, “I have some fifteen thousand pounds. It is lying in the bank at present, earning very little interest.”
Now she threw me a nervous glimpse. I could not utter a single word, because I was beginning to realise what she was saying.
The dear girl now ploughed on, “Now, my financial advisers tell me that if you were to take this money and use it to run Marlborough Mills, you could give me a very much better rate of …. interest.”
We were both breathing quickly, now. My gaze bore into her eyes, willing her to see how deeply, how desperately I loved her. My Margaret … my sweet, dearest, loveliest girl …
Again she dropped her eyes to her lap at her hands holding my rose. I drank in her beautiful features, her soft brown hair, small ears and heart-shaped face. My Margaret …
“So you see, it is only a business matter,” she breathed. “You’d not be obliged to me in any way. It is you who would be doing …
I covered the hand and the rose in her lap with mine. Oh, the warmth of it, and the softness! “…me the service, she said, voice fading off.
My heart stopped when her fingers began caressing my hand, but I nearly died of happiness , when she lifted it to her mouth. Her lush, rosy lips brushed over my skin, in a kiss so chaste, and at the same time so erotic that … oh, but I could never, ever describe the feelings that assaulted me!
I still have trouble to recollect what transpired exactly during those wonderful moments.
We were alone in a world of our own, me and my Margaret, My one and only love.
I raised my other hand and touched, then cupped her face. I wanted to see her eyes.
They were so beautiful that I could only drown in them, while I bent down. Our lips touched, and I forced myself to woo hers slowly, gently, and wait for her to adjust. She was an innocent, my Margaret, yet she responded to my touch with shy but unmistakeable fervour. I found the courage to kiss her properly, then, and met her open-mouthed. She sighed and granted me access to her warm, soft haven.
“London train about to depart. London train is about to depart.”
We were cast back brutally into the present and drew apart, yet our eyes never broke away. My Margaret looked troubled, and I found myself too keyed up to speak. She abruptly stood and walked back to the southbound train.
It was over, then. How I found the strength to rise and go back to my own train, I do not know, but I did. It was over. I had kissed her, and she walked away from me.
As I was about to open the door, Margaret’s reflection appeared in the window pane. I swallowed, turned, and there she was, smiling at me so warmly that my knees threatened to buckle beneath me. I smiled back at her and asked, “You’re coming home with me?”
Her gaze did not waver, but showed acquiescence, so I took her bag from her and let her step into the compartment. I followed, bedazzled with the notion that she had finally chosen to be with me.
While the train pulled out of the station, we again turned to each other, seated very closely on the wooden bench. We kissed again, shyly now. Our lips met once, twice, and I was in a daze of happiness, so deep that I could not help putting my arm around her shoulders and drawing her near.
England’s green, lush countryside passed by the window. Margaret was looking dreamily at it, and I … I was gazing at her.
Finally, I was whole.
On this most awkward Christmas Day in this most peculiar year ever,
to all of you, dear friends!
“Mother,” I said that evening after dinner, “I’ll be 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 it’s necessary that I do it.”
I could not, must not disclose to Mother that I was bound 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 would have been my wish. She would not have given over the household reins to Margaret gladly, but 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, and maybe that was a blessing.
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.
Since I could no longer afford expensive tickets, I was forced to travel third class. It was early summer, and the day promised to be warm and sunny. The compartment was fully occupied with working-class people, 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 a pariah 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.”
There was not much to reply to all that, so I just inclined my head and 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 last three 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 had wronged her so many times, I now realised. I had been judgemental, and prejudiced, and proud. I had never even tried to see matters 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, and maybe still even was.
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, low class people? And me, 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 village 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 their 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’s, 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 from her since her father died. However, I was a very good friend of Mr Hale’s, 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. “I was taken from school when I was sixteen, after my father died. My mother needed me to work and bring in money to support her and my little sister. I have always regretted that my education had been cut short. Mr Hale 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 their house. She encouraged my efforts in learning with her sweet smile and her 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 elderly gentleman I never saw before,” 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. Probably with Bell, which was unusual and inappropriate, since he was unmarried. Was she contemplating on coming back here, now that she had come of age and of means after inheriting Bell’s money? It could not have been any other than 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 do the trick.
“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, 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 head resting on my arms. 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 little 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, stiff, bombazine garment that covered her almost to the toes. She wore a starched, white apron over it, and her small head was bedeck 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 as 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 introduce 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 the bishop 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, four years ago, I presume.”
This must have been when Mr Hale abandoned his livelihood to begin 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 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 welcoming 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 re-affirm, 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 quarrelled with me because I had removed the enormous mass of rose bushes in the garden, and she practically attacked 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 after all those weeks. 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 part 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!”
Good Lord! Margaret must have been appalled to see what horrible people now lived in her former home where she had been happy. My poor girl, how she must have been hurt. Why, for God’s sake, had Bell brought her here? He must have known it would be misery to her.
It was now imperious to me that I found out where Margaret lived and how she fared.
For the next three months, I fought tooth and nail to keep my business afloat. I travelled to Birmingham, Leeds and even London to find some new investors, but alas, to no avail. Latimer would not see me again when I applied for an interview about a new loan. Needless to say I did not pursue Ann Latimer further. I was relieved about that, at least.
On one day in late spring, I received a visit from Mr Bell, my landlord. He was an Oxford academic from a wealthy family, who had invested and still was investing money in Marlborough Mills. He had some disturbing news. It seemed he was dying from a long neglected disease, and he was concluding his affairs with the intention of going to Argentina. There he hoped to die in peace and comfort.
“So, I’m almost at the end of sorting my business affairs,” he said in a jovial tone, handing me the documents I was to sign.
I took them and began reading. “When do you sail?” I asked.
“On Wednesday. I shall be pleased to be warmed by the sun again. I spent much of my youth there.”
I was reading a document concerning the lease of my mill’s premises and startled when I saw who was to be my new landlord.
“Yes,” Bell said, a slight smile on his face. “I have signed all my property and fortune to my goddaughter Miss Hale. I have no other family and Hale is my oldest friend.”
I had a difficult time believing what I saw with my own eyes. So Margaret was not only a very rich woman now, she was also my landlord, which meant she could end my lease when she desired so. I was at her mercy, and so was my business.
When I looked up, I saw Bell watching me with I can only describe as smugness. I quickly changed the subject. “But South America? Won’t you need money to live on?”
“Oh, I have sufficient for a very good life there,” Bell stated, seemingly uninterested. Then he sobered, “What remains of it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I had never truly liked Bell. He was too glib by far and always trying to stir peoples’ feelings to make them react. Yet I was distraught to hear what his fate was.
“Thank you, but don’t be,” he replied. “I consider myself lucky to be able to settle my own affairs. To know that Miss Hale is secure will ease my heart in these last few months.”
He paused, studying his fingers. “By the way, Miss Hale is unlikely to bother you or to interfere. She is landlord in name only.”
Damn the fellow! He must suspect I had an interest in Margaret. In my most frosty voice I said, “Even if Miss Hale were minded to interfere, she has little enough opinion of me. There may not be much left for her to interfere with.”
I handed him the signed documents and he shrugged. “Yes, well, I’m sorry. I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do. I have left business behind me.” He stood and donned his hat. “I sail on Wednesday.”
I touched my sweaty brow with one hand, overwhelmed by all I had learned, just now. With Bell’s visit, all my suppressed thoughts of Margaret were assailing me anew. I was vaguely aware of Bell going to the door yet he had something more to say.
“You might be mistaken, Thornton, if you think Miss Hale has a bad opinion of you.”
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I quickly rose and turned away from him.
But Bell was not finished. “And you might not judge her as harshly as you do… In fact…”
I burst out, barely able to control my livid fury. “As you say, Mr. Bell, your business Milton is finished. And now the future of this mill is no concern of yours. I’m afraid I’m busy too. Good day.”
I felt more than I saw how he stiffened with some sad anger. I was glad to be rid of the man, finally.
I shall always remember those dreadful months as the worst time of my life.
There was no joy, no succour to be found in the slow, painful demise of one’s beloved business.
I tried everything, but nothing could prevent Marlborough Mill from bankruptcy. Mother attempted to help me, of course. Mother is and has always been my most faithful ally and support.
She proposed to sell her jewels, the thought of it made me cringe with horror. I hastened to explain there was no need for that. I had secured our financial survival, and now that Fanny was off my hands, I was certain Mother and I could survive on very little. I would find employment, if necessary.
That did not seem to reassure Mother, for she then proposed to dismiss all the servants and do the work herself. If need be, she said, she could go into service herself and add to our income.
“Mother!” I exclaimed, thoroughly horrified. “Here, have a look at this!” And I showed her the small ledger where I noted my personal finances. She was sighing with relief, after that.
“John,” she said, placing a hand over mine, “we could sell the house, if matters become too dire. It would pain me, I’ll give you that, but I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary to alleviate our problems.”
“I shall fight hard to prevent that, Mother, fear not. I’m fond of this house, too. It is my own, personal achievement, marking our successful battle against poverty, after Father died. Yet, if there’s no other solution, I will sell it.”
“Oh, John,” she whispered, and for the first time since years, I saw tears glistening in her eyes. She did not give in to weeping, though. Mother never weeps. She is the strongest woman alive. But I would not have minded to see her weep now. I was close to tears myself, curse it!
On the last working day of Marlborough Mills, I could not bring myself to go to my office and see the workers depart for the very last time. It was cowardly, I know. For them, it was disastrous, while I had other options to gain my daily bread. They, however, faced starvation, if they couldn’t manage to find work.
Mother and I were sitting in the parlour, thoroughly discouraged. We did not speak, for what was there to say? But we felt each other’s sorrow, and I was furious because I could do absolutely nothing to lift hers.
Suddenly, Fanny burst into the room, a smirk on her face that did not bode well.
“I told you,” she exclaimed, in a tone so conceited that I felt like throttling her! Wretched girl!
She continued in a triumphant tone, “ I was right and John was wrong. For once you must admit I was right. If you’d invested in Watson’s scheme, you’d have made thousands. Enough to get you out of trouble!”
I could not find the strength to react, and that seemed to anger her.
“Admit it,” she demanded, but Mother and I just looked at each other. What was there to say or to admit, for that matter? I would never invest in a speculation scheme. If that was the way to making money, I would not stoop to it. It was like playing with other people’s lives, playing without having to ay the consequences.
Then Fanny said in a haughty, condescending tone, “I will ask Watson if he will lend John some money, but he was very angry when John would not join him in the venture. And he says a gentleman must pay his own way!”
I was beginning to think that my only sister disliked me very much. She must have known her words would hurt me, and Mother aa well. The best I could do was keep my mouth shut, so that was what I did. Fanny waited, then left, but she had one final arrow to shoot at me.
“And I think you can think again about Ann Latimer! I’m sure she won’t have you now!”
As if that was of any concern to me! How little did she know me, my superficial, egotistic little sister.
“You mustn’t mind losing the house, Mother,” I said, after a long silence.
“I don’t mind about the house!” Mother said forcefully. She again put her hand on my arm. “I care about you!”
I found the courage to smile at her. “Thank God Fanny’s taken care of. It’ll just be you and I again.”
Mother gave me her rare, exquisite smile, and it encouraged me, despite my morose state of mind.
Later that day, I found the courage to go to the weaving shed, now empty and silent. What a dismal sight greeted me there. The looms, cotton sheets still on them, were silent and looked so abandoned it broke the heart of me. All my life’s work, all my pride, all my hope … gone. All I had fought for, since the death of my father, to restore his memory and repay his debts … it had all been for nought. I was back to where I had been at sixteen. I was destitute again but for the meagre savings I had managed to rescue out of the disaster. Thank God I had no debts, not even to the bank.
My eyes wandered through the shed to the dais I always used to survey it all. I suddenly remembered the day I saw Margaret for the first time, and how she shouted at me to stop trashing Stephens. How right she had been, my love.
Ever since I met her, she had been in my heart. A lady of the purest heart and beauty, she had shown me the way to a better relationship with my workers. Not through violence and masterful haughtiness, but through treating them as human beings. Listening to them, letting them explain their grievances, and negotiating with them to find an acceptable solution for all concerned.
Too late had I found how to deal with people. Too late had I known how to win my love.
For only now did I understand how she must have seen me. Not a man, but a beast, a yelling, beating and rude beast of a man. Not a gentleman, oh, how right she had been there. I would have nothing to offer her now, should I ever get a new chance at wooing her. Should I ever again have the chance to lay my heart at her feet, I had nothing in my hands to offer her. Would she have me now, I wondered? A man, and nothing but a man, with no position or status, and my only richness the deep love I still harboured for her.
No, she would not even glance at me, let alone hear me out or speak to me. I was not worthy of her, I knew that all along, but, oh, how I would love her, and worship her, and give my life’s blood to make her the happiest woman on earth.
“What a nice Christmas present it will be, said Charlotte. But I hope …”
The light, stumbling voice of little Tom Boucher broke through my black thought with the strength of a ray of summer sun. I turned and saw him sitting on top of one of the looms, a book in his lap. I wandered to him, smiled and asked, “Where’s Higgins?”
“He’s finishing off something,” said Tom and carried on reading. “Mr Arnott will… sometimes bring her cart into…”
Again my mind pictured Margaret, now in the arms of the stranger, late at night at the station. Again I recalled my stupid jealousy, and my fury, and my powerlessness. How caddish I had behaved to her, as a result of all these idle and senseless feelings. What right had I being outraged at her because she loved another? Had I not explained in detail how independent my female workers were in the matter of using their wages? Was I their father or their brother to tell them what to do? Yet I had wanted to trash the man holding my Margaret, and beat him to a bloody pulp, without any right at all. I had no claim on her, and never would.
“I said, have you heard about Miss Margaret?”
I startled, and saw Higgins approach. Why was he asking about Margaret? He would be the one knowing all about her, I mused. I could not bring myself to answer his question, so I asked one of mine, “Still here?”
“Just because it’s the last shift, Master, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t finish the job well.”
I shrugged. “I am nobody’s master anymore, Higgins.”
In a casual tone, Higgins ventured, “If you’re ever in a position to take on workers again, there’s a fair number of us who’d be happy to run a mill for you.”
I smiled. Ah, Higgins. How I had come to like the man, since he took up work with me.
“I got up a petition to collect the names,” said Higgins, and handed me a role of paper. I took it from him and was at a loss what to do with it. It was very unlikely that I would ever be a mill master again.
”Anyway,” Higgins continued, ‘I was asking about Miss Margaret. Have you heard how she’s doing?”
What was I to say? I had not seen Margaret for several months. “She’s well. She’s in London. We’ll not see her again.”
“I thought she might have gone to Spain,” Higgins said, mischief colouring his voice.
I was stunned and failed to understand what he was driving at. “Spain? Why would she go there?”
Higgins grinned at me. “Well, to see her brother, now that he’s her only family.”
What?!? What was he saying, curse it? “Her brother? She doesn’t have a brother.”
Higgins was having a laugh at me, I could tell, yet I was too eager to hear the rest.
With a definitely smug smile, he continued. “Him that were over when their mother were dying. Kept it a secret, they did. My Mary used to fetch things for them. She’s a quiet girl, but she talks to me.”
I was really at a loss, now. “Why wouldn’t Mr Hale tell me that he had a son?”
“Something to do with the law. Found himself on the wrong side of the Navy. In real danger he was.”
A brother in the Navy, away from home. A man wanted by the authorities … a man in hiding.
How could I have been so daft? “He was her brother,” I whispered, and felt as if a light had been lit inside me.
Higgins extended his hand. “Well. Thornton…. I’ll bid you good day.”
I clasped it, all of a sudden overwhelmed by joy from what he had told me. “Goodbye Higgins. Good luck.”
I was alone again in the vast emptiness of the mill. It weighed on me like a suffocating blanket. As matters stood, I had only two options; either I would wallow in self-pity, deploring the unhappy demise of my business, or I would try to begin anew. Whichever path I chose, it would be a solitary one. I was on my own, I was without my Margaret.
I went to my office and sank down onto the hard wooden chair behind my now useless desk.
Margaret, too, had endured much sorrow since she came to Milton. I had heaps of time to waste now, so I reflected on Margaret’s life, as I knew it.
She had come to Milton with both her parents still alive, sad beyond comprehension because she had had to leave her beloved Helstone in sunny, easy Hampshire. Her mother had suffered even more, to the point that she became ill. Margaret had had no support from her mother, on the contrary, it had been she who must comfort Mrs Hale, over and over again.
Mr Hale was no great support, neither to his weak wife, nor to his brave daughter. He had retreated behind his books and left his daughter to seek the company of others, like the Higginses.
I could not begin to understand what enormous difference Milton and its people must have been from her Southern village to Margaret. Yet she had endeavoured to blend in in Milton’s society as best as she could, albeit in her own outspoken and free-thinking way. She had even made some friends amongst the workers, something I had not even tried.
Margaret … my courageous love. I knew I would never stop loving her, and, even if some other woman crossed my path, I would remain a bachelor for the rest of my life. How could I love another, when I knew that somewhere in London or beyond, there was my Margaret?
Maybe, I mused, she would indeed go to her brother in Spain. She obviously loved and adored him a great deal. Would my heart feel it if she left England’s shores?
Perhaps she would go back to her beloved Helstone and settle there, alone or with a husband. Would my heart shatter the day she gave herself to another man? Surely, it would.
I stood and left the building to go to the house. I had made up my mind. I would indeed start anew, but not until I had cleansed myself from my bitterness and sorrow about Margaret. The only place where I could attempt just that, was Helstone, Hampshire.
One evening, I rose from my chair behind my desk, all my limbs stiff with fatigue. It was late, I guessed. Just then the whistle blew, indicating the end of the evening shift. Ten o’ clock. I went to the window.
Little Tom Boucher sat on the loading platform’s rough wooden planks, his feet in their scuffed boots dangling from it. He was reading aloud from a book. There was a most intelligent lad, I mused, while I donned my coat. I went to stand beside him, reading over his shoulder. He was spelling the words diligently, though somewhat haltingly, especially the lengthy ones.
“Laugh…at me. C-Call me … A comee … c-comical. A…”
“A-ni-mal,” I supplied, inwardly smiling at the industrious little boy.
“A-ni-mal,” Tom repeated, then looking up at me.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Higgins?,” I asked. Tom shrugged, pursing his small mouth. “ Have you had your supper?”
“Mary went to the butcher but she didn’t do dinner,” Tom shook his head. I wondered why that had occurred. Surely I paid Higgins decent enough wages.
Higgins approached, when I suddenly realised he had not come out with the bulk of the men.
“Why are you so late?,” I challenged. “Shift finished an hour ago.” I crossed my arms in suspicion. “What are you up to?”
Higgins did not seem goaded at all. “Work wasn’t finished. We stayed until it was.”
I made something very clear immediately. “Can’t pay over your time.”
An unruffled Higgins threw the ball back to me, curse him! “See you working over your time. You go under, no one else ’ll take me on, and who’ll put food in his mouth?”
He was right, and no doubt about it. “He’s not had his supper tonight, he’s been telling me.”
Higgins explained, “Well, some days there’s good meat, other days nothing fit for a dog even if you’ve got money in your pocket. There’s your market forces in action for you, Master.”
I went along. “It’s a pity you can’t get up some scheme. Buy food wholesale, cook for twenty instead of one. Then everybody’d be able to afford a good meal a day and then you’d have fit minds to do studying.”
Finally, I had ruffled him. “Careful, someone will report you to the masters union for that kind of talk.” But he was smiling mischievously.
I continued, although I could not fathom why I had broached this subject. The words just seemed to form themselves without my cooperation. “If men eat well they work well. And that’ll please masters too, unless they are idiots. Which some of them are.”
“We’d need somewhere to cook. There’s an old outhouse out the back, not in any use as far as I can tell,” Higgins pressed. I was actually beginning to like the man.
“You did bring your brains with you to work today, didn’t you?”
He smirked at me. “Well, I try to keep them hidden but I can’t do without them altogether.”
“You get some figures up and we’ll see. Not promising, mind,” I closed the subject.
Winter settled in for real, now. It was snowing heavily each day, but the mill’s new soup kitchen was working nicely.
Well, the name was inappropriate since the food was not for free. My workers would never have accepted charity, so I charged them only a quarter farthing. This was something each and every of my workers could easily afford, even the ones with the very lowest wages. I had calculated that the costs would be even when twenty-five people a day would pay their share. Their number was almost four times that, so I was soon running even.
On one particularly cold afternoon, I was traversing the courtyard, when I noticed I had left my coat inside. It was so damned cold that I was freezing within seconds, but I did not care. I had no time, so I proceeded, when Higgins’ voice hailed me.
“Master? Will you come in? It’s stew today.”
I was not only stone cold, but also famished, something I had not noticed before. I smiled, “I haven’t had that for a while.”
Higgins continued, concern on his ruddy face. “Not eaten all day, I’ll bet.”
He was right. I answered, a bit taken aback by his perceptivity, “No, no, been too busy.”
I followed him into the shed we designated for the kitchen. There were a good thirty people inside, all eating and chatting congenially with each other. I was struck by the warmth and homeliness of the place, even though the building was in a state of disrepair. I also noticed that conversation stopped when I entered, but it resumed as soon as I let myself down on one of the benches at the crude wooden table. So my workers did not object to their master sharing their meal. I was pleased and felt at home. More so, dare I say it, than in my own house. I quickly cast aside this horrible thought.
A girl rushed forward and placed a steaming plate of stew before me. She dug out a spoon from her apron pocket and put it next to my plate. I tasted the stew, and was very pleasantly surprised. “This is very good. Really. Very good.”
It was not only good, it was also nourishing. I pointed to the girl whose name I could not recall. “Isn’t that your daughter?”
“Aye,” Higgins replied. “She’s a good girl. A fair cook. She’s come into her own since her sister died, God rest her soul.”
Shame rose in my heart when I realised I had completely forgotten that this man had lost his eldest daughter not so long ago. She had been one of my piecers, yet I had not notion of her name. I was tempted to ask Higgins, but refrained from doing so. He might think me an unfeeling, selfish cad, and with good reason.
A thought shot through me, that Margaret would know both girls’ names. I could not ask her either. She would think I would dismiss Higgins or something like it. A few weeks ago, she would have been right.
Then, all of a sudden, I recalled the girl’s name. It was Mary, and Margaret had named her so the evening I saw a man’s coat and hat on the pegs in Mr Hale’s house. I bowed my head, not wanting Higgins to see my embarrassment.
Fanny’s wedding day was exceptionally free of snow, with a watery sun brightening the winter’s season. I was feeling cheerful, despite the disastrous financial situation I was in.
Well, not I or my family, to speak truthfully. No, it was Marlborough Mills that was going down the drain, and very rapidly so. I had begun drawing funds from my own savings to secure the workers’ pay role. Foolish, I know, but what could I do?
I had provided the money for Fanny’s wedding and dowry, and I had secured Mother’s future by bestowing enough money on her, so that she might live a comfortable old age. My own funds would carry me a long way, provided I did not draw more from them. But I knew I could not let go of my beloved business. Never. Soon I would be forced to seek employment, though as what I knew not.
Firmly, I cast aside all these sombre thoughts. Today was my only sister’s wedding day, and I rejoiced in Fanny and Watson’s happiness. He seemed to like her exceedingly, and my sister was smart enough to know which side of her bread her butter was spread on. I could not imagine love between the two of them, though. I could not imagine Fanny being tortured by Watson’s indifference as much as I had been by Margaret’s. Watson was not indifferent to my sister, while Margaret was not only indifferent but also horrified by me. Margaret thought the worst of me, in all circumstances. In her eyes, I was a cruel, violent man with no notion of how to behave in a gentlemanly manner.
Again I made an effort to regain my cheerfulness, as I strode down the aisle with Fanny on my arm When I gave her away to Watson, I turned and saw Margaret looking at me from the third row to the left. Next to her sat her father, and next to him Latimer and his daughter.
Ah, Ann Latimer. I would have to make a decision regarding her, and very soon. Latimer knew about my financial situation well enough, yet he seemed inclined to envisage a union between his daughter and me. He kept making allusions to my courting Ann, even though the latter had been non-existent on my part. I could not court her, even though she was a lovely girl. Every time I wanted to ask her to marry me, my budged proposal to Margaret flashed through my mind again. I had proposed marriage to the girl I loved, so how could I do so to a girl I did not love? Now, in this chapel, on this day of joy, I caught Margaret’s gaze, and willed it to be sweet and loving. It was not, of course. Her eyes were quickly cast down, but the indifference in them had been scorching. I deliberately avoided to look at her, even when I saw Mother going to Mr Hale’s side and speak with him. I drew Ann’s hand through my arm when we left the chapel.
Winter dragged on, and many of my workers, especially the children, fell ill. I knew it was primarily malnutrition and poor housing that caused the coughing and the fevers, but I was powerless to do something about it. I lowered the price of a meal to one farthing a week, so that the workers could save on their wages because they did not need to buy food in town. Prices were outrageously high. I began thinking on establishing a kind of medical assistance to care for the weakest of my child-labourers, but I was so overwhelmed with work that the plan never took off. More than once, I wished I had someone to stand by my side with problems like this. Mother was no help, because she only cared about the mill. The ignorant workers had only themselves to blame when they choose to drink away their wages in a tavern, she said. I could not help thinking that maybe Margaret would have known what to do.
One day, I was walking over the courtyard, when Higgins hailed me. His ruddy face bore a particular stricken expression, and in his eyes was a pain I had never beheld on the man.
“Master, ‘ave ye ‘eard about Mr Hale? He’s dead. Miss Hale sent word to my Mary.”
If he had planted a fist in my gut, I could not have felt worse.
“Mr. Hale? Dead?” The words barely managed to pass my lips.
”Aye, in his sleep. Poor fellow. Never recovered from his wife’s death.”
I was stricken with sudden, overwhelming grief. My good friend … dead. It did not bear thinking! My legs felt suddenly like cotton and I grasped the doorpost.
”Master?” Higgins said, taking me by the arm. He urged, “Master, come in. Sit down, have some food.”
He led me inside the canteen and lowered me to a bench. I seemed to have lost the ability to act myself, when a thought struck me. “And Margaret? What of her?”
I could only guess how badly she would be struck by the death of her beloved father. Margaret loved her father dearly. She had been his support through the years, since her mother had been poorly.
“There’s nothing to keep her here now. Her aunt’s coming to taker her home, they say. She’s seen a great deal of sorrow since she’s been here. We’ll be sorry to see her go, Mary and I.”
It was the end. I would never see her again. I would be heartbroken and miserable for the rest of my life, and I would never see her again.
I would never see my love again.
And then my Margaret did something I would never have thought she would. She astonished me to the core, by visiting us before she went with her aunt. As I came on top of the stairs leading to the parlour, I heard her sweet, soft voice.
“It was a while ago, but I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you at our last meeting. I know that you meant well.”
To whom was she speaking? Mother? My heart was pounding painfully with sorrow, because she had come to take her leave. I entered the parlour, and there she was, in black mourning clothes. She wore her mourning bonnet, but thankfully, the thick, black veil was folded from her small, white face. My heart clenched with powerless sorrow for her loss. She turned to me, offering something, but all I was able to do, was to gaze into those beautiful blue eyes, now moist with grief. Oh, my dearest Margaret …
“So, you’re going,” I croaked, breath suddenly failing me.
”I…. brought you Father’s Plato,” she whispered, looking me straight in the eye with all her sorrow. “I thought that you might like it.”
I accepted the book from her hands. “I shall treasure it. As I will your father’s memory. He was a good friend to me.”
There was something exchanged between us, something deep and pure. I had to control myself from taking her in my arms, then and there. I desperately wanted to prolong that precious moment. Quietly, yet urgently, I whispered, “So you are going. And never come back?”
A sad little smile curved her mouth, but did not lit her eyes. “I wish you well, Mr. Thornton.”
I left the room. I was determined to allow myself one more glance at her.
I waited until she took her leave from my mother and sister, before I descended the stairs. Standing in the doorway, I saw her climbing into the carriage without so much as a glance back. Cold numbness assaulted me as I whispered, “Look back … look back at me.”
It was a last plea to whatever deity was listening. It was the last resort my broken heart had, to use the fervour of my genuine, fierce love. To summon her unfeeling heart, to make her look at me one last time.
She did not, and the carriage drove away over the snow-bedecked courtyard. I felt like dying.
One day in January, I witnessed my overseer Williams, who was chasing a person from the courtyard, a man who I had come to loathe most assiduously. Nicholas Higgins seemed to have mustered the effrontery – and the courage, I must admit – to come and ask for work.
I knew he had been dismissed from Hamper’s mill after the strike, and also, why. The firebrand and his abominable union wanted the workers to pay contributions to a fund that would sustain them when there was a prolonged strike.
I had once lectured to Margaret about our Northern traditions, I recalled. About every man or woman to do as they pleased with their wages, but this time, I could not condone the union’s scheme. Paying in order to sit out a strike was disastrous for us, masters. Add to this the ignorance of most of the working class members as how to spend their funds wisely, and one knew for certain families would grow hungry once again and starve.
There was nothing I could do to prevent such a thing from happening, so I concentrated on my work. In a few days’ time, I had a meeting with Latimer about the latest figures, and I wanted to be certain of what I would do if the results were not satisfactory. It was also my intention to ask Latimer to be permitted to court his daughter Ann. A burden on my conscience, that last fact. I was uncertain if I could truly marry Ann without loving her.
He had the incredible audacity to accost me, a few days later, when I was on my way to Latimer. I had spotted him right away, when I left the house but had no intention to acknowledge him. My stride was purposeful enough to deter even the most assiduous encounter, but Higgins stepped forward nonetheless, cap in hand.
“I need to talk to you, sir,” he said, in a subdued and polite tone.
I planted my hat on my head and strode past him. “I can’t stop now,” I barked.
In truth, I had no time. Latimer wanted to see me on an urgent business. I went first to the building that housed the bank, but Mr Latimer, the clerk said to me, was at his club. Musing over how it was possible for a working man to spend time at a club, I walked the short distance from the bank.
I found Latimer leisurely playing billiards. Unbelievable. Unheard of, too. I swallowed my irritation when he asked, “You’ve seen the new figures?”
It was all I ever did, lately, damn it! But I replied evenly, “I’d hoped to reduce the bank loan by now.”
“Eh, it’s a pity so much is tied up in the new machinery.”
This man, I firmly said to myself, does not know the first thing about the running of a mill.
“I needed the machinery because we were doing well,” I said calmly. “We had large orders. And I needed to buy the cotton in bulk. Obviously I wasn’t expecting not to be able to fulfil the contracts.”
Without looking up from his billiard cue, Latimer continued, “But you’ve been back to work for a good while now.”
I took a deep breath. “But we’re still behind with the orders and we’ll not catch up for … It’s not looking like we will catch up.”
Latimer was now purposefully not looking at me.
“Well, the bank can extend the loan. Temporarily. But we’ll have to be careful.”
Damn the man! What was he implying? “I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being careless! Or frivolous!”
My tone must have irked him, because he looked up, irritation written all over his face. I hastened to correct my behaviour. “Forgive me. I don’t know how I could have prevented this or what to do next.”
“Well, there are more … modern financial procedures. Investments.”
He once again bent over the billiards table. “ I could let you know when I hear of any such schemes.”
Confound it and damn it all to hell! I was almost shouting with rage. “Speculation? I’ll not risk everything on some idiot money scheme.”
Now he looked me straight in the face, and his gaze was downright hostile. “Well, if matters carry on like this you might not have anything left to risk.”
I went all cold. I knew my figures were bad, but to hear my banker say it aloud was devastating.
I took my leave, since there was nothing left to discuss with Latimer. I walked home in a state of numbness and despair. My mill was in danger of bankruptcy, and I seemed unable to rectify the situation. Black thoughts were milling through my head when I reached Marlborough Mills’ gate, only to see that Nicholas Higgins was still there. The man must be in trouble, I realised with a start.
“Good Lord! Are you still here?”
“Yes, sir. I want to speak to you.
“You’d better come in then.”
I preceded him to the office. Higgins was turning his cap around and around in his calloused worker’s hands. I pretended to rearrange some papers, only to see what he was up to. He stood there, silent and subdued, so I addressed him, none too friendly, though.
“Well, so what do you want with me?”
“My name is Higgins…”
I cut him short. “I know who you are. What do you want?”
“I want work.”
Just like that. He, of all people, was asking for work? Impossible!
“Work? You’ve got a nerve,” I challenged him. He stayed calm, though. “Hamper ’ll tell you I’m a good worker.”
“I’m not sure you’d like to hear all of what Hamper would have to say about you,” I scoffed. “I’ve had to turn away 100 of my best hands for following you and your union. And you think that I should take you on? Might as well set fire to the cotton waste and have done with it.”
He made a turn as if to go away, then looked back at me. “I promise you, I’d not speak against you. If I found anything wrong I’d give you fair warning before taking action. I’m a steady man. I work hard.”
“How do I know you’re not just planning mischief,” I sneered. ”Or maybe you’re just interested in saving up money against another strike.”
“I need work, for the family of a man who were driven mad,” he said, urgently. “He had his job taken by one of those Irishmen you hired. Didn’t know one end of a loom from another.”
The nerve! I barked at him. “Your union forced me into hiring those Irish. Much good it did me! Most of them have gone home.”
I continued with my paperwork, and got up to take something from the shelves, and then sat down again. All this to keep him on his toes. “If I were to believe your reason … I can’t say that I’m inclined to. I’d advise you to try some other work and leave Milton.”
“If it were warmer, I’d take Paddy’s work and never come back again. But come winter, those children will starve. If you knew any place away from mills … I’d take any wage they thought I was worth for the sake of those children.”
I could not believe my ears! “Oh, you’d take wages less than others? They have no union of course. Your union ’d be down like a ton of bricks on my Irish for trying to feed their families, and yet you’d do this for these children? I’ll not give you work. You’re wasting your time.”
I took up my papers and began reading.
“And yours,” he said, a smile in his words. I deliberately did not look at him. He continued. “ I was told to ask you by a woman. Thought you had a kindness about you. She was mistaken. But I’m not the first to be misled by a woman.”
Impertinent bugger! “Tell her to mind her own business next time and stop wasting your time and mine.”
He left then, but I was brooding, suddenly. What woman? Margaret? Yes, it must be her.
I left my office, went to Williams in the weaving shed and asked, “How long has that man Higgins been waiting to speak to me?”
“He was outside the gate when I arrived, sir, and it’s four now,” my diligent overseer replied.
So Higgins had been prepared to wait for me all day? He must indeed be desperate. I decided to see into the matter, later that day.
It had started snowing. It was January.
There was now a thin blanket of frosty snow covering the mill yard and the rest of Milton.
People were beginning to wrap up warmly, although some of my workers only had rags to do so. Something should be done to help people through rough times, I mused.
One overcast and dark afternoon, I was doing the accounts in the parlour, having fled my stone cold office. No use in kindling the stove and spend money on coals when there was a good fire inside the house.
Fanny entered, and I instantly noticed that she was in a fine uproar. I ignored her. Fanny is always in an uproar about something. But it was not to be.
“Honestly! Miss Hale could do with having just a little humility about her position. She was at Green’s and stopped to congratulate me. She seemed surprised when I told her of my wedding plans. She’s so grave and disapproving, as if we couldn’t afford it. I soon put her right. It’s not as if she will ever get a husband. She’s much older than me. And so severe! I told her about Watson’s business proposition and she really turned up her nose at me! She as much as said you wouldn’t be interested, as if she knew you better than me. So superior.”
I listened to this litany with growing fury. Then I caught Mother’s glance at Fanny’s sneer of Margaret, and I forced myself to be calm. I could not help myself from berating my hare-brained sister. “I’ll thank you not to discuss my business affairs in the street. What do you know about anything anyway, Fanny, except how to spend money?”
Now she looked positively insulted. “I know that if you were to take up Watson’s offer and join him in the speculation, you would be certain to profit. Tenfold….,” she said smugly.
Was she stupid, or what? “There is nothing certain about speculation,” I barked. “I will not risk the livelihoods of my men by joining Watson’s tomfool schemes. If I lose money, how will I be expected to pay off the expense of your wedding?”
“You’ll be sorry,” she barked at me, and stalked off.
I suddenly bowed my head, resting it on my fist. A headache had been lurking all day, choosing that moment to burst out in full.
Mother came to stand beside me. “Is the speculation so risky?” she asked quietly.
“Do you need to ask me that, Mother?,” I wearily replied. “It’s very risky. If it succeeds, all our financial problems will be over and no one will ever know how bad things are.”
She took a deep breath. “If it fails?”
“At the moment, the payroll is safe. Would you advise me to risk it?”
“If you succeeded, they’d never know.
“And if it fails, I would have injured others. Would you ask me to risk that?”
She shook her head and put her hand lovingly on my shoulder. “Tell me what to do.”
Dearest Mother. “Pray for a good summer,” I said in as light a tone as I could muster. “People will buy cotton clothes. Pray that some of our buyers pay their bills on time … and pray that Fanny doesn’t have time to order any more from the draper’s.”
Mother’s rare and very sweet smile alit her face and she stroked the top of my head.
Ah, Mother. Would I have been able to talk in that manner to Margaret, if she were my wife? I seriously doubted that.
That same week, I went to the Princeton district on my way back from Milton Outwood station, where had gone there to check on a cotton delivery I was expecting. In vain, unfortunately. Supplies from Liverpool were slow, these days, due to the inclement weather.
I descended the dark, filthy alley that went down to a cluster of dismal hovels housing workers and their families. I was appalled, as I beheld the grimy, desperate misery these people were living in. Of course I had always known how poor the workers and their families truly were, but what I saw now surpassed every imaginable picture I had in my mind.
The day was cold, with a constant, icy wind from the north, yet people were huddling before their doors, clad in filthy rags. Mothers with eyes devoid of hope were clutching grizzling infants, or groping at grubby, thin children hiding in their skirts. One little slip of a girl held up her dirty, tiny hand. I gave her a ha’penny, smiling at her. She looked back at me without doing so, and her mother averted shameful eyes.
Ah, even in the despair of abject poverty, these Northerners still held up their heads high.
Higgins’ house – if one could call it that – was at one end of a blind alley. I knocked briskly on the rough wooden door. He opened, looked brazenly at me, and stepped aside. I entered a small room that served as a kitchen and bedroom at the same time. On the bed in the alcove were five children, ranging from babyhood to toddler. One small boy – six or seven years old – was sitting near the hearth with Higgins’ surviving daughter. She was holding a book from which the boy was reading aloud. I took off my hat and gestured to the two.
“Are these your children?”
“No, but they’re mine now.”
“Did your daughter teach them to read?”
“I think they are teaching her.
I looked at the ones on the bed. “And these are the children you mentioned yesterday?”
Higgins’ brow rose. “You didn’t believe me?”
I walked farther into the room, then turned towards Higgins. “I spoke to you in a way that I had no business to. I did not believe you. I couldn’t have taken care of a man such as Boucher’s children. I have made enquiries and I know now that you spoke the truth. I beg your pardon.”
Higgins shrugged. “Well, Boucher’s dead and I am sorry. But that’s the end of it.”
“Will you take work with me? That’s what I came here to ask.”
Nicholas Higgins was thinking for a moment, then said in a tone that betrayed his dissatisfaction, “You’ve called me impudent, a liar, a mischief-maker. But for the sake of these children, do you think we could get along?”
“Well, it’s not my proposal that we get on well together,” I said, as neutral a tone as I could muster at his impertinence.
He seemed to desist. “Work is work. I’ll come. And what’s more, I’ll thank you. And that’s a good deal from me.
I held out my hand. “And this is a good deal from me.”
We shook hands, and Higgins’ grasp was firm and unyielding. “Now, mind you come sharp to your time. What times we have, we keep sharp.”
I looked him in the eye sternly. “And the first time I catch you using that brain of yours to make trouble, off you go. Now you know where you are.”
Mischief sparkled in the man’s eyes. “Reckon I’ll leave my brains at home, then.”
I walked to the door to leave, then stopped as a thought struck me. “ Was Miss Hale the woman that told you to come to me? You might have said.”
“And you’d have been a bit more civil?” Higgins challenged, triumph in his eyes.
I left. On my way home, I realised Higgins must know of my dealings with Margaret. How utterly abhorrent!
When next I went to the Hales’ house to read, I could not help mentioning to Margaret that I had taken Higgins on.
She bowed her head with a sad little smile that tugged at my heart. “I’m glad of it,” she said quietly.
“I didn’t know that it was you who urged him to come to me,” I said, but I did not know why I did so. She answered in a small voice, “Would it have made you more or less likely to give him a job?”
Ah, she was taunting me again now. ““I don’t know. I’ll not withdraw it though, if that’s what worries you.”
She looked down again, as if she could not bear to look at me. “I wouldn’t think you capable of that. I have a better opinion of you than you do of me at the moment, I feel.”
Later, when I was seeking sleep in vain, her words came back to my mind.
The meekness with which they had been spoken was uncharacteristic for Margaret. Dared I hope that she had changed her opinion of me, then? She certainly seemed to care for my own assessment of her. Or … was I deluding myself yet again?