Margaret entered her husband’s office at the mill, carrying a tea tray. She knew all too well John would not care for food, engrossed as he was in his growing anxiety over Hannah.
“My love,” she said softly, smoothing the lock of dark hair from his brow in an attempt to drag him from his brooding. “Listen to me, please? I know what you are going through but you must eat something. It is not good exhausting yourself this way.”
John raised eyes to her so utterly forlorn that it tugged at Margaret’s very heart.
“I don’t think anyone knows what I am going through, Margaret, not even you.”
These words were uttered in a voice so hoarse and listless it frightened Margaret. She took a deep breath, checked herself. She must be strong for John, she must take over, so that his misery would not drag him down further.
“Yes, I am sure you are right, my love, but where would we all be if you, the Master of Marlborough Mills, would succumb to despair?”
Margaret handed him the cup of strong, sweet tea she had just prepared and proffered a plate of sandwiches.
“Now, eat! After that, we will continue our search. Nicholas is letting his crew have a rest for the moment but they will soon have finished their meal.”
“I can’t …”
“Eat!”, she said and kept her voice firm. She saw him wavering between already present distress and newly rising anger but she held her gaze against his, although, all the time, she ached to enfold him into her arms.
In John’s churning memory, his mother’s voice echoed with the words she had spoken to him after Margaret had been injured at the riots. “I’m sure it’s not possible to keep such a headstrong young woman anywhere she does not care to be. She’s such a reckless young woman!”
He inadvertently smiled, both at his remembering of his mother’s unwilling admiration for his wife and at the truth Hannah’s words. Margaret was headstrong, indeed! He nodded and took one of the sandwiches from the plate. The first bite tasted like cotton waste in his parched mouth but gradually he discovered he was ravenous.
Nicholas Higgins found himself playing with his food while his men were busily spooning down Mary’s stew in the warm, dusky interior of the soup kitchen. He doubted he could eat anything at all under the circumstances. Things were rapidly deteriorating. He was not sure how he could have done more than he had, searching for Hannah Thornton. They had turned the mill upside down and not found her. He needed to find Hannah! It had been three days since she had disappeared and it seemed she had simply been swallowed up into some hole in the earth. He wasn’t even sure if she was being held inside the mill or not.
Then, suddenly, a thought struck him! He jumped up from the bench so forcibly the workers beside him had to steady themselves for balance.
“Thomas!”, he barked at one of them. “Go get the master and bring him to the old cotton warehouses at the back!” Then he stormed out of the kitchen.
After a moment, the workers leaped up and went after him.
Higgins ran straight towards the first of the warehouses that was still intact. Its neighbour on the right had collapsed the previous year and a pile of rubble blocked the entrance to its cellar, so it was unlikely there would be someone inside. The cellars were the only place where they had not searched. If Hannah was in there, he would be the one to get her out.
As he stepped into the rundown little room, that had once served as a storage area in better days, he saw that a part of its roof had caved in and was hanging precariously above his head. Damn, he thought, that was new! He had the buildings checked for further damage only last November and the roof had still been intact then. It must be the weight of the snow that had brought this on.
Looking around him, he saw a board, used for the transport of cotton bales, lying in a corner. The board was of heavy, thick wood and measured two and a half by two yards. Higgins dragged it down the rickety wooden stairs to the cellar. A closed door barred his way at the foot of it. It was locked.
Hearing several voices above, he shouted. “Someone get me a key to the cellar door and be quick about it!”
At that moment, a deafening rumble above signalled the further collapse of the roof and a great cloud of dust enveloped him.
When John arrived at the scene, Margaret close on his heels, one of the men shouted in fear.
“Higgins, take care! The place is falling apart!”
John saw the man was right. Not only had the roof collapsed almost completely but also a part of the floor was gone, leaving a black hole from which billowed dirt and stone grit.
When the cloud had cleared, John ducked into the hole of the staircase to find Higgins, trying to break down the door by throwing himself against it.
“Hand me a crowbar or an axe!” John barked at one of the workers at the top of the stairs. After what looked like a long time, someone gave him an axe and he shoved Higgins aside and began striking at the thick wooden door.
“Master, be careful, the floor keeps craving in rapidly!”, someone shouted.
Focussing only on the job at hand, John kept bashing the door until it cracked. Peering inside he couldn’t see a thing through the dense cloud of dust arising from another caving-in of the floor above.
“Master, take my hand! It’s giving way!”
Higgins, John saw through eyes stinging with dust, plunged forward into the dark hole, covering his head with a board. A second after, the whole of the remaining structure crashed down and hands grabbed at him, pulling him out of the staircase. John lay on his stomach, coughing and gasping for air and heard Margaret’s anxious voice calling his name.
Dixon heard the two girls as soon as she stepped into the kitchen. They were in the scullery, arguing, so it seemed. She edged closer, careful not to show herself.
“Jane … please, Jane … I’m so scared! What are we going to do?”
Annie was wining and sobbing but the answer she got from Jane made Dixon freeze on the spot.
“You just shut your stupid gob, Annie Babcock! If you ever tell anyone about what we have done, I’ll kill you, do you hear me?”
“But Jane, they’re searching the warehouses right now! They will …”
A dry slap into the girl’s face silenced her. “You stupid cow! I told you to shut up and so you will!”
The box on the girl’s ear had the opposite effect and she began spilling it all out.
“I can’t! I won’t! It’s wrong, Jane! Mrs. Thornton has been very good to me and I won’t have her dead! You have gone too far! First you wanted to hurt the young missus who is such a sweet woman and then you stabbed the master! I won’t …”
A stifled little cry stopped Annie and Dixon could wait no longer! She stormed into the scullery, slammed her fist into Jane’s face, knocking her over in the process. Quickly as light, she yanked the maid’s hands on her back and bound them firmly with a piece of rope she pulled from her apron.
“Come on, you treacherous little bitch! Let’s hear what the master has to say about this!”
It was only then that she saw Annie’s body lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood.
The bunch of workers stood gaping at the disaster occurring before their eyes. The cellar had collapsed with an enormous crashing noise into a deep hole and Nicholas Higgins must be lying under it.
The master was frantically tugging at the pieces of wall and throwing them aside, his hands already bleeding. The young mistress was restraining Mary Higgins from hurling herself into the hole.
“Mary, no! Mary, listen to me!”
Margaret had to use all the force she could muster to keep her friend back.
“Hurry!” She shouted at the staring workers. “ Hurry, help the master! Nicholas could still be alive under there!”
She felt Mary tremble under her hands.
The men jumped into the hole and began helping John. Soon there was a space that broadened gradually as debris was removed by many eager hands. Margaret watched her husband directing the proceedings with calm, determined authority.
The two women stared at each other in horror as John dove into the blackness of the collapsed cellar. Minutes passed in which Margaret thought her heart would stop from sheer terror of what he might find. Nothing, however had prepared her for the broad form of Nicholas Higgins coming out unscathed, clutching the limp, motionless form of Hannah to his breast.
Fred and Bessie had a slow ride home. Their evening had been extraordinary in learning about each other. It had brought them closer, still. Fred pulled the buggy up the small drive and turned to Bessie.
“I hope we can see each other again, soon. Perhaps a picnic before the weather turns too cold. Do you think your parents would allow that?”
“You may have to come to dinner one evening. I feel fairly well about my father’s thoughts of you and he’s the boss. But I would like my stepmother to be on our side, too.”
“Whatever you want me to do.”
“Thank you for understanding.”
“May I kiss you, goodnight?”
Fred couldn’t tell in the light, but he felt she was blushing.
“I think I would like that very much.” Bessie smiled.
Fred turned to her and then faced her in front of him. He held her upper arms and pulled her towards him. She easily yielded to his lips that were waiting. Bessie felt his arms slide around her, pulling her further towards him. She reciprocated with her, now, free arms. It only lasted a moment, but both had their hearts hammering.
“You did very well, Bessie, for a beginner,” Fred laughed. Bessie laughed, too.
Fred hopped out of the buggy and walked Bessie to her front door where they said goodnight. He thought he really might be falling in love.
Dixon had gone to bed by the time Fred arrived home. He let Adam know he was home but went to check on his sister first. Seeing she was fast asleep, no doubt from the medication, he returned to the parlor.
“I hope you and Miss Higgins had a nice evening.”
“One of the nicest I’ve spent. What happened to my sister?”
Adam told Fred about the whole evening as he had seen it. When he talked about the tear, he admitted he wasn’t sure if it was from physical or emotional pain. His guess would be the latter.
“What a horrid woman!” Fred insisted. “No doubt, that ruined my sister. I know her feelings for Thornton, which is unknown to all except this family and maybe Bessie. She is obsessed with the man. Why are women so different than men?”
“Are we really so different Fred? Wouldn’t you do anything for the one you loved? What would you do if you fell in love with a woman that hardly knew you? She didn’t even notice you.”
“Well, that’s why I think they’re different. I’m not sure we do that. I don’t think we fall so deeply as Margaret has without some sign of interest. Our interest just lays on top like a physical desire until we get to know them. I know that’s not how my sister feels.”
“I’m not so sure you’re right about either statement, but let’s not quibble over that.”
“Wait. Hold on. Are you saying that Margaret may have desires for Thornton? I mean, physical desires?”
“I mean exactly that, although she doesn’t know it. She is well and truly old enough to be moved by a man, but she is proper enough to hold them at bay unconsciously, or she feels embarrassed about them.”
“Exactly what was your major in university?”
“Oh, I have a professorship in many subjects. Psychology, being one of them. Your Bessie is most likely as Margaret, but her feelings are being responded to. She has a sense of worth. Far different with your sister.”
“Are you saying this as a fact or a perhaps?”
“At their ages, I would use the word ‘probable.’”
“Let’s get passed that for a moment.” Fred shook his head, hardly believing Adam’s words. “Margaret has fallen in love with a man much sought after. You think as of tonight, she felt defeated in her effort to win his attention and is giving up?”
“I am not sure how to guide her in this. I will have to think it over and put myself in John’s position if I can.”
“Being a man, you would face the issue and speak your words to your woman, so you knew exactly where you stood. A woman will rarely do that, especially if there has been no interest shown beforehand. Basically, Margaret has to suffer the loss. She may think it’s the end of her world, but it isn’t. However, it will erode her confidence as a woman. That will all be in her mind, mind you. Some don’t ever recover from the lack of self-worth. You know what pressure they are under from birth.”
“What if I talk to Thornton?”
“And say what? Do you want to lose your sister forever? She would never forgive you.”
“There has to be something that can be done. How about an anonymous letter to him?”
“Fred! She and he would know it came from you or me.”
Fred paced the floor. “I will think of something.”
“For now, at least for the next few days, keep an eye on her and don’t do anything to alienate her. We’ll both be giving this a lot of thought.”
“I know. I could say something to Bessie, who confides in her father, hoping he will talk with Thornton.”
“Fred, I think you’re thinking of a child’s game.” Adam laughed. “Besides, if Thornton turns his attentions to her, and she knows you meddled, she can never trust him. Don’t you see that? Any interest shown has to come from the other totally unhindered by words or rumors. It has to be real. And we can’t force Thornton to love her even if all your ideas were worth trying. He is his own man. No one talks Thornton into anything.”
“I guess you’re right. That would make a difference; it would matter to me. I don’t want anyone to love me out of pity.”
“She will be sedentary for the next few days. It will give us some time to work on her. Who knows, she may wake up with an attitude that she can rise above it.”
“She’ll be lying to herself. She’ll show cheerfulness as to put us off any sympathy or knowledge of her despondency. It’s like a death in her soul. Yes, one day she will recover but at what cost.” Fred insisted.
“We shall ponder this on the morrow. I am going back to the hotel. Goodnight, Fred.”
Adam found his own way to the door.
“My God, John. What happened to you and Lenore? I have never seen you act so ungentlemanly, ever. I didn’t know you. Grabbing a woman by the arm and thrusting her in front of you; one might have thought you were making an arrest.”
“Mother, I am not sure I can talk about it now or ever. If she hadn’t been a woman, I would have beaten her.”
“John you can’t act like that for the first time in your life and tell me nothing. Do you know how I will worry forever that you could do this again?”
“Mother, I will tell you this and no more. She embarrassed me, beyond words, to Miss Hale.”
“Or to any woman who was sitting beside her. It just tears me apart that she said those things to Margaret. I would like to choke her. You and I felt something might happen and it did.”
“I think I can assume part of the rest. Remembering that you once had a fondness for her when you were a very young man, leaves little doubt about the subject.”
John didn’t respond. He walked to the window that overlooked the yard and stared out of it.
“I take it that the den conversation was a reprimand.”
Still nothing from John. “Mother you can think whatever you like, but I have said all I am going to say. And even that little stays with us.”
“Of course, John. But is it over?”
John walked to his bedchamber, not even saying goodnight. He slammed the door shut.
John paced his room for an hour still fuming. He didn’t know where to start with his anger. Where did it hurt the most? Was it embarrassment? Was it his private life being exposed? Did Miss Hale figure heavily into his anger or was she just the recipient? John wasn’t even sure he could or should do anything about it.
John began to undress. Margaret had been consistently on his mind through his imagining of the incident. He laid down on the bed, semi-dressed and began to identify his feelings for Margaret. Over and over his mother’s words came back to him.
That woman has a smart and independent spirit. How many young ladies have you met that became educated to support themselves, rather than be a ‘Lady of the Manor’?”
“She will need to find a man that will challenge her. And easy living does not seem to be her future, by choice. We had a nice conversation about how she turned away from the society life that she could have had because she did not care for those people.
Other brief memories drifted in the lessons and the mill walk with Higgins, the bravery she showed through that entire ordeal, the courage to commit to a job and promise results, her selflessness in not asking to leave early and, of course, the pain she endured to be here tonight. John laughed at remembering her staring at him, and the disappointment in her voice when he left her with his mother while her brother visited Branson. He remembered the ball and how he embarrassed her. Her ingenious effort to put him at ease by showing indifference to him. Who was she? She was beautiful, and she had been in front of him for several weeks, but he never really saw her until tonight. It struck him that if she did have any meaningful feelings for him, that she had to watch him through Adeline and Lenore. Going back to the dinner tonight, even with his disinterest in the game going on between Lenore and Anne, he remembered Margaret closing her eyes and Adam dabbing a tear from her face. At the time, he thought it might be the pain, but he didn’t believe that now.
“She must think she is losing favor with me,” John said quietly to himself. He felt the unconscious smile make itself known. He was confused. “How could I have the first serious stirrings of affections for her without knowing it?”
Tomorrow, John would begin to unravel this mystery, this ricochet of emotions. It was like nothing he knew or had heard of. He dwelt on those thoughts all night.
John woke early from his brief respite with renewed hope for his life. “Could Margaret Hale be the woman he had been waiting on?” She had been indefatigable until last night. He didn’t know the answer to that. He may have her thoughts of him absolutely wrong, but his own were becoming solid. Today, he would see her.
Dixon knocked quietly. Margaret had to clear her throat before inviting her in.
“Oh, Miss Margaret, you’ve been crying again. Is it the pain?”
Margaret had been awake for several hours, and although the pain was worse, she knew the tears were for a lost love.
“I will get Master Fred. He wanted to know when you woke.”
Dixon left the room. Any minute the Inquisitor would appear. She was wrong. Her father entered first.
“Margaret, my dear, how is the pain. I expect it to be worse, is it?”
“Yes, father a bit more. Even if I don’t try to turn my head, my neck is very stiff with a constant ache.”
“When was the last time you had medication?”
“I believe it was before the dinner last night.”
“Oh, me. I am sure Fred is taking care of that right now. I don’t think you should get out of bed today at all.”
“I know I shall be bored if I stay here all day. Perhaps later in the afternoon, I will try to sit in the parlor. I will not dress, beyond my housecoat for that.”
“Well, we shall see when the time comes. I hear your brother coming. Here is a small bell that can be heard downstairs. Ring if you need any one of us.”
“Thank you, father. I remember Mother using it.”
“Good morning, puppet,” Fred merrily said as he came through the door.
“Margaret I will be back later.”
“Thank you, father.”
“Puppet? Why do you call me that?”
“Because we have to hold your head up with a string.” He laughed.
“Don’t make me laugh. It hurts, Margaret smiled.
“I am going to hold you up while you take this powder in this water.” Fred walked around the bed to hold her. “Ready?”
Margaret took her powdered water without too much fuss.
“I see you’ve been crying not so long ago. Your face is puffy, and your eyes are still red.”
“I think I’m catching a cold.”
“I think not, puppet. Adam filled me in on what he knew about your evening. Now, I want to hear it from you. Something has to be done.”
“Nothing has to be done. I mean that. Yes, what that woman said was hurtful, but I know it shouldn’t be. Doesn’t that sound like a young man’s behavior? I can’t see where he did anything wrong. What bothered me most was her boastful attitude and what embarrassment she could bring to John.”
“Margaret, what have I told you? Thornton will suffer no embarrassment in front of his peers because they are men. I don’t think he’s done anything wrong, either, unless he was unfaithful to another. I also know, or Adam and I feel that you may have given up on the man after seeing two women trying to impress him.”
“Fred, I cannot compete with those women. I have thrown myself in his path, like many other women and he doesn’t see me. I can live with that. There were others interested in me at the ball. I don’t feel entirely worthless. I have attributes to recommend me.”
“I hear you saying the words, but I don’t think you believe them. You’re trying to talk your way out of a broken heart. I think it’s a bit too early to surrender. You would never make a naval man,” Fred smiled.
“I think I can be grateful for that.”
“You have only temporarily lost confidence in yourself. If you can’t take a little more of his indifference, then you have given up too easily. What has it been – two, three weeks? I don’t believe your regard for him is as much as you pretend. Until he is forced to say something like, ‘Margaret, I don’t see you the way you wish,’ then there’s still a chance. You are expecting far too much too soon.”
“Fred, do you really think so?”
“Think what exactly? Think that you have a chance? I do. There are no known answers except that you have not been turned away.”
“I’m not sure I don’t want to get my hopes up again and then watch them destroyed in front of me.”
“You’re a whiney sniveling child. You know that? I expect you to stamp your foot as you once did when you didn’t get your way.”
“Fred, that’s mean talk.”
“Puppet, it’s straight talk.”
“It sounds like man talk. Women aren’t as hardy as men. You know we are emotional. We can’t take a lot of rejection.”
“But that’s my point; you haven’t been rejected. Men are rejected all the time. It seems you could hold out until you get your first one.”
“Well, I have all day to lie here. I will consider what you have said.”
“Good. Dixon is making you something to eat. I’ll be back later.”
“Thank you, brother.”
Margaret had to turn on her side. She had laid on her back all night. Finding the side of the bed, she pulled herself over to her side and pushed more pillow under her head.
She had hardly made it over, and Dixon came around and sat in front of her. “Alright, Miss Magaret here is some tea and creamed oats. I put a little maple syrup in it.”
“I see you have mother’s sick cup. I guess that has the tea in it.”
“Yes, miss. I’m glad you are on your side so you can’t choke.” Dixon placed a linen under her mouth and began feeding her.”
“That tastes good, Dixon. I didn’t eat much yesterday.”
“Yes, miss, I know.”
“Before you leave can you help me with the chamber pot?”
“I’ll certainly try. If I can’t, I’ll get Master Fred.”
“If you can’t, I will find a way through the pain. My brother’s attentions stop there.”
Dixon moved the food tray to the vanity. She pulled the chair close to the side of the bed, sitting the chamber pot on top of it.
“Here we go. I am going to cradle you in my arm until you are sitting up. I think you should be able to stand.”
“Yes, I believe I can do that.”
The process of getting Margaret up and emptied was accomplished. “I should be able to do that tomorrow. This neck ache should start going away today or by then.”
Dixon took the chamber pot away first and then returned for the tray.
Margaret felt comfortable and began to give thoughts to what her brother spoke about. He was right, she hadn’t been rejected. Not being seen wasn’t the same as a rejection.
It seemed only a few moments later when Adam knocked softly on her door.
“Come in, Adam.”
“How is the patient this morning?”
“I’m not sure I am ready for another ball, but I believe I am on schedule according to the doctor. This medication is helping nicely at the moment. Before you get comfortable, my brother has talked my ear off. I don’t believe I need any more instructions on my love life.”
“That means you haven’t given up?”
“I haven’t decided, yet.”
“Then you need more instructions, puppet. Actually, while Dixon was in here, we had another talk.”
“I know you are suffering from an injury so I will not add to your misery at this time. However, I do have one question?”
“That will be your allowance for the day,” Margaret quipped.
“Why did you make such a difficult effort to be there last night?”
“To see Mrs. Thornton. I like her.”
“And that’s the only Thornton you were interested in seeing?”
“That’s another question.”
“I don’t believe you completely answered my first one.”
“You know why, Adam. I had to see him.”
“As I thought. Would you like me to read to you?”
“No, I think I want to close my eyes for a bit.”
“Then I shall leave you. I will stay here, though.”
Dixon’s eyes narrowed when she came out of the master bedroom and found Jane standing at the study door, her ear pressed against it in an all too well-known posture of eavesdropping. The wretched girl was at it again! Dixon hastily withdrew and softly closed the door. She would not make the same mistake as in the past but keep the maid under surveillance. Her instinct had warned Dixon for some time now, that Jane was up to something. The maid’s conduct of lately had been highly unusual and her work – which had never been very good – had been lacking to a degree that Dixon wanted to complain to old Mrs. Thornton about it. How closely Jane’s recent behaviour resembled that of the previous autumn, when she had been in league with Ann Latimer. Dixon had not approved of her mistress’s forgiving nature then and, if it had been up to her, Jane would have been on the streets without a reference right away. So she would keep a very close eye on the maid in order to know if the little goose was planning on mischief again.
Two days after Hannah’s disappearance, a kind of war council was being held in John’s office. Apart from his wife and Nicholas Higgins, Inspector Mason was present, along with Overseer Williams and Mary Higgins.
“I want the mill searched from top to bottom,” John stated and looked around the small circle of people before unrolling a large sheet of paper on top of his desk.
“To do so more effectively, I have sent for the plans of the buildings as they were given into the custody of the Milton Town Registry Office by my father twenty years ago.”
All came closer to examine the document and John went on:
“Mr. Williams, you were here before I was. Can you tell me if something has changed on this floor plan?”
The overseer studied the sheet of paper for a while.
“Not that much, Master. This building here has been enlarged under your management, as you well know, and is now being used as our best cotton warehouse. Before that it was a wooden outbuilding to these smaller warehouses at the back of the courtyard. Some of them don’t exist anymore, you’ll remember, sir, that one of them collapsed the winter before this one.”
“Yes,” Higgins chimed in, “and the others should also be torn down. They are on the verge of collapsing, especially as they are now buried under a yard of snow. You really should secure these premises, Master. It is not safe to go there.”
John nodded. He knew this but he had not found the time to do something about it.
Mason, his honest face rather sceptical, said, “It is going to take us quite a while, sir, to search all of this. I want some of your workers to assist my men so that nothing is overlooked.”
“Take as much men as you need, Inspector. Higgins will coordinate the whole business.”
Margaret had kept silent until now. “We need to find Mrs. Thornton as quickly as possible, gentlemen. It is been two days now and she could be hurt,” she said gravely.
They all nodded gravely in quiet agreement. John’s eyes met hers and the same anxiety was reflected in them.
Hannah realised she must have fallen into a slumber many times now, on and off. She had lost all notion of time. The oil lamp had ceased burning long ago. What day was it? Was this the second or the third day she was held here? Her head had stopped aching but now she was feeling weird, very light-headed, as if her body was not connected anymore with her head. Weakness from the lack of food and water, of course. Would this be the end? Would she die here, in this place? Would she die alone and far from her loved ones? She felt cold to her very bones.
Footsteps! Immediately Hannah sat straighter! One must never show one’s weakness, not under any circumstances.
A key turned in the lock and a figure appeared in the doorway. It was wrapped head to toe in a heavy, black cloak, so long that it covered every inch of a slender figure. A hood over the figure’s head effectively hid the face. It might be a woman, so Hannah tried to catch a glimpse of it, but to no avail. She could not even make out if it was a man or a woman, although she opted for a man as the person was tall and upright.
“Could I ask you for some water?”
Hannah’s voice sounded inhuman to her own ears, hoarse and without strength. The figure did not answer nor move.
“Please? I am very thirsty.”
The hooded figure shrugged, turned and left. Hannah’s spirits sank as she realised she was being left there to die. Fighting hard not to give in to despair, she brooded over what just happened. The way that person had shrugged … it reminded her of someone she knew. But who? Remembrance was at the edge of her memory yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
She felt weaker every minute and her nausea became worse. Her heart was pounding as if it were trying to leap out of her chest. A dull pain burned in her chest and she felt very lightheaded. Recalling the symptoms of the heart attack she had last year, Hannah tried to breathe properly and slowly. It helped a little.
“ Jane? Where are you? Come and help me with the sheets!” Dixon called out but she got no answer. Instead of Jane, Molly came hurrying into the scullery
“I will give you a hand, Miss Dixon!”
“Hmpf!”, Dixon grumbled but accepted the girl’s help. They had just finished with the laundry when Jane came in, her cloak and bonnet still on her.
“And where have you been, missie? What is this nonsense? Sneaking out of the house without asking permission, are you?”
“I am so sorry, Miss Dixon! My little sister was here an hour ago, my mother is ill and she wanted me to come home to go fetch some medicines. I hope you will not be angry with me for bringing her a food basket?”
Dixon studied the girl with a critical eye. In the end she sent her off to her duties, with the stern admonition to ask for permission the next time. Fair enough, she thought, if Jane went to help when her mother was ill. Yet later that day, she asked Molly, the scullery maid, if Jane’s little sister had indeed come to the house.
“Oh, yes, Miss Dixon, I saw little Dottie around six this afternoon and Jane went out with her.”
The ceiling above Hannah’s head was definitively creaking! A crack appeared in the corner right before her, slowly slithering along the old bricks of the vault, to stop at the first iron beam it encountered. Hannah shivered in sheer apprehension.
John had finished dressing in his eveningwear and walked into the dining room to begin to set his bar. Branson came to assist him since he would be serving. It was about 7:00 p.m. when he asked his mother if she needed any help. He was prepared and ready.
“John if you would look at the table and see if you know of anything missing.”
Thirteen places he counted. Was it an omen with Lenore being the last one added.
He felt a little guilty for not offering to pick her up, but she wasn’t his lady friend, yet he had invited her. With dinner being at 8:00 p.m., people could begin arriving at any time. The crystal, silver, and china were set, flowers and candleholders in the center. He really didn’t know what to call everything on the table, but he figured if it was there, it wasn’t missing. He just knew that where there was one, there should be twelve more. The large silver serving spoons were there, but he didn’t know how many of those were needed. It would have been a crushing blow to his mother if something wasn’t set right, which gave him a sense that the table was ready for the queen.
He caught sight of the place cards and began to walk around the table to ensure there were thirteen. He started at his mother’s end, counted around to himself, where Lenore was next to him. He was anxious to see who would sit next to her. He was stunned to see Miss Margaret Hale seated next to Lenore and then there was Adam Bell. So that’s who his guest was.
His mother came into the dining room. “Mother, you didn’t tell me Miss Hale would be here.”
“I heard you tell Adam to surprise you, so I have kept quiet about it.”
“I feel terrible. I didn’t offer to let her go home early to prepare as Nicholas and I did. God, I feel awkward. I saw her injure her neck on the way home, so I doubt she will be here.”
“I don’t know, John. That woman has a smart and independent spirit. How many young ladies have you met that became educated to support themselves, rather than be a ‘Lady of the Manor’?”
“I am sure I don’t know any,” He emphasized.
“She will need to find a man that will challenge her. An easy living does not seem to be her future, by choice.”
“I think we have had this conversation.”
“We had a nice talk about how she turned away from the social life that she could have had because she did not care for those people.”
“Is that so?” John asked softly as he stared off into the unknown thinking about his mother’s comments. The remarks felt appealing to him. Someone who preferred to be an uncommon commoner, he thought. He felt some anxiety in his chest.
Hearing his soft voice, Hannah took notice of her son. He was reacting to something. Hannah wondered if he was seeing Miss Hale differently. “John, what is it? Are you thinking of Miss Hale?”
“In a way.”
“What way would that be?”
“Time will tell.”
Hannah went about her business, smiling at her son and his thoughts. She liked Miss Hale, but her son had overlooked her, and he rarely overlooked anyone.
John slowly walked into the parlor and sat down. His mother saw he was distant, intent on some problem, it seemed.
“How did Miss Hale get injured, John?”
“I saw her brother hand her the reins. Suddenly the horse bolted, almost rearing, but didn’t move away. It could be Miss Hale doesn’t understand reinning yet. I tend to think the workers may have spooked the horse since he’s not used to a crowd. I saw her snap back into the buggy and then she fell forward, bending her upper body down on her lap. I went to them to see if I could help. She said her neck was uncomfortable, but that she was fine. I followed them home on my horse and saw her brother carry her into the house. I sent Donaldson over there.”
“Oh, that’s terrible. I’ve known that to happen to one of my friends. If she does happen to arrive, which I hope she won’t try, bring out your desk chair with the high back for her.”
“Yes, I will.”
“There’s the first knock at the door. Who do you suppose will arrive first?”
“My bet would be Fanny and Watson.”
“You may be right.”
It was getting late, but Margaret had on a collar which she would remove in the coach, and Dixon was gently working on her hair. She could not bend over to put on her shoes. In fact, her walk was very slow. She knew she could not get away from looking well because John had seen her in distress and even sent for a doctor.
Downstairs, Adam was worried about her. He went out to talk with his driver about a route that would be as smooth as possible. Adam would cradle her in his arms to support her neck during the drive. He asked Fred to get her a bed pillow, too.
Nicholas arrived first, and John was quick to ask Peggy how she was feeling. He mentioned he was sorry she had to miss the ball.
“Thank you, John. I’m still a bit weak, but a dinner here should not wear me out much. I doubt we will stay long.”
“I am glad to have you here for any time you can give us.”
It was after 8:00 p.m. and the evening was in full swing when Jane answered the door to the final couple, Adam, and Margaret.
Adam slowly assisted Margaret up to the stairs where they were welcomed into the room.
“Miss Hale, I really didn’t expect you, seeing you being injured today. Wait a moment while I get a different chair for you.”
Margaret was doing her best to smile. Adam had her arm through his to give her support. “How are you, Margaret?”
“I’m fine, Adam. Please bring my head home if it falls off.” Margaret began to laugh at her own joke and then frowned with a smile.
John was there with the chair and sat it in the drawing room for now.
“John, we tried to get her to stay home, but she wasn’t having any of it,” Adam explained.
“Here, Miss Hale. Sit here. I must apologize for not telling you to go home early. It wasn’t until a few moments ago that I knew you were going to be a guest.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thornton, please don’t make a fuss over me. I am fine.”
Hannah came over and sat on the edge of the couch and talked with Margaret.
John pulled Adam away and asked him if she was in much pain.
“Yes, she is. It will be worse tomorrow.”
“Did Donaldson make it over?”
“Didn’t he tell her to stay home?”
“He did that too; from what I understand. He’s given her some strong medication to make it through this evening. She would not be dissuaded from attending. Do you think she fears losing her job if she canceled at the last moment?”
“No, I don’t think it’s that, but I will make sure of it in the next day or so.”
Lenore appeared next to John wondering why that woman was drawing his attention away from his other guests. She didn’t feel she had any business asking about her.
John kept glancing at Margaret and watched how stiff she looked. Once in a while, he would catch a wince on her face. This was agony watching her in discomfort. Why? Why did she insist on attending in her painful condition?
“Adam, see if you can discover any information on why she felt she needed to be here. I don’t want her to fear me.”
“I will see if I can find out what you wish to know.”
Finally, a small bell was heard which signaled to come to the table. John went to Margaret and assisted her onto Adams’ arm and then picked up the chair.
“Mr. Thornton, you are going to too much fuss.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
As Margaret peered around the table, she felt that the woman next to her must be John’s dinner companion. People were talking. John was paying little attention to the woman next to him if she was his guest. Margaret couldn’t turn her head but placed her hand on the lady’s arm, which brought her attention.
“How do you do? I am Margaret Hale. I had a slight injury today and am unable to turn my head. I hope you don’t mind if I converse with you this way.”
“Not at all, Miss Hale. My name is Lenore Smithers. Who is your dinner companion? He’s quite the handsome mature gentleman.”
Margaret tapped on Adams arm, who turned her way. “Adam Bell, I would you like you to meet Lenore Smithers.”
Adam reached over and politely shook her hand. “How do you do, Miss Smithers. Is it Miss or Mrs.?”
“It is Miss. Which one of you knows Mrs. Thornton or John?”
“I have known John for many years,” Adam responded. “Margaret here is a new employee of his. As of yesterday, I believe.”
“Oh, really? I knew John quite well in our formative teen years, about ten years ago. I have returned to see what care is needed for my aging father. My sister has been caring for him while I was abroad.”
“You do go back with John, perhaps longer than I. You wouldn’t have been one of his lady friends from back then?” Adam smiled.
Margaret wondered where Adam got the nerve to ask that.
“Quite so, Mr. Bell. I believe I was his first lady friend. He’s still single after all these years. I guess he’s never recovered from me stealing his virtue. I believe I may go down in the Thornton history book,” Lenore smirked.
Margaret was aghast at what she was stating. She felt Adam squeeze her hand.
Adam quickly pulled his dinner napkin and dabbed a small tear that was ready to roll down her cheek. “Margaret, did you take your medication before you left?”
“Yes, thank you, Adam.”
John turned in time to see Adam catch a tear, but he did not hear what Lenore had said. John felt her pain must be getting unbearable. He knew Adam would do what he had to do so he would not intercede.
Several maids appeared with platters and tureens and began serving each of the guests. Branson was standing by watching all the glasses on the table. John began talking with Lenore so he could watch Margaret at the same time.
It was a beautiful meal, Margaret thought. She wondered if Lenore would be in the battle of the finishing schools with Anne Latimer. Margaret was not going to participate. There was no more jealousy of Anne showing off, not when John had invited the first love of his life. Margaret watched on as both women ogled John through dinner. It seemed the fight for him would be relentless. She knew she didn’t have the weapons to compete. Slowly she closed her eyes for a moment and . . . gave him up.
Margaret didn’t eat much and only partook of the final tea and passed on the dessert. She tried to look at other people around the table and not watch the other two women battle over the last man on earth. Anne had become alerted to the fact that Lenore must be John’s guest although most couples were not seated next to each other. Mrs. Thornton seemed to be aware of what was transpiring at her table because she casually watched over them and John’s reaction. Margaret began to think he was oblivious, further proof of his ability to disregard such advances. John was a magnificent host, she thought. No wonder he had found his way to the top of this trade quickly.
Margaret had since stopped listening to the conversation. She was glad that Adam was part of the discussion. Lenore must have been listening because she leaned over to Margaret and said, “You know John’s a Magistrate.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” Margaret said. She gently turned her head toward John as he was making a point to Adam. He made contact with her eyes. Once again she stared back, trapped, and then she closed her eyes and turned her head away for the last time. It hurt too much. She hoped she could go home soon. Never having been to such a private formal dinner, she did not know what was expected after the meal finished.
“Adam, when is it proper to leave such a function?”
“If you feel bad, we can leave immediately. Otherwise, the earliest would be when people start rising from the table. Can I take you home now?”
“Yes, I feel like I need to lay down.”
Adam stood to speak. “Mrs. Thornton this has been another success in your annual dinners. Miss Hale and I are grateful to have been here. However, it seems that we must leave early this time. I bid all of you enjoy this excellent evening. Please forgive us.”
Hannah and John stood to see them out, as the others wandered into the sitting room.
Adam assisted her into the hall where John was getting her wrap.
“Miss Hale, I am honored you made an attempt this evening, thank you,” responded Hannah.
“Mrs. Thornton is was truly a delightful experience for me. I wish I felt better so I could visit longer.” Turning to John, Margaret said, “I am sorry, John. The doctor is permitting me no work until Monday.”
“Margaret, take all the time you need. Do not rush your recovery. I will be by to see you tomorrow if you don’t mind.”
“Please don’t bother yourself, Mr. Thornton. I know you are busy.”
“I will see you tomorrow. Good evening.” John went ahead of them down the steps to the door. He helped settle Margaret into Adam’s waiting arm with the pillow in it.”
“Goodnight, John and thank you,” Adam bid.
John stood there and watched the coach roll away until it was out of site.
Upstairs, Branson was pouring brandy for the remainder, but it looked as if the Higgins’ were leaving as well. John thanked them in the hall and wished Peggy Higgins a continued good recovery.
Watson and Slickson were already in a corner discussing something, leaving their ladies to fend on their own. Latimer kept Anne company, but it seemed as if Lenore wanted to become friends with his mother. John sought out Lenore to draw her attention away.
“How has your evening been going, Lenore?”
“Very nice. The food was very good.”
“Did you get to talk with anyone?”
“Miss Hale introduced herself, and I asked to be introduced to Mr. Bell. It seems you two have been friends for a long time. I told him how far back you and I went. I think I won.”
“You spoke about us back then, did you?”
“Yes. That was a long time ago, John. Who cares what happened back that far. Since he was a long time friend, I told him I thought I was your first ladyfriend. He said I had him beat.”
“Was there anything else?” John was worried now.
“I told him I took your virtue,” Lenore laughed.
“Could I see you in my den for a moment?”
“Do you want your way with me?” She coyly asked. “John, I’ve changed. I’m not like that anymore. I’m not easy.”
John finally grasped her by the upper arm and led her from the crowd. Once inside, he pushed her into a seat.
“Hey, don’t be so rough.”
“Do you have means, Lenore?”
“Why is that your business, John?”
“Well, I am thinking I might sue you for slander. I was wondering how well I might make out. Aside from your embarrassment, which is of great value to me, maybe there is coin to be gained.”
“You can’t sue me!”
“Why can’t I? Can you prove your claim? Even bringing suit against you and losing still holds you up to public ridicule.”
“You wouldn’t do that?”
“I wouldn’t? I will suffer nothing from it. Do you know that whether your claim is true or not, you embarrassed me to a very dear friend? I have to make amends to her somehow.”
“Is that the one who was crying?”
“Which one was that?”
“The one sitting next to me.”
“She was in pain from her injury.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then you admit you spoke to her with words slanderous to me that you cannot prove.”
“What do you want me to do, John? Apologize? Should I tell her we never spent some beautiful weeks laying naked beside each other? Is that what you want?”
“I want you out of my life. I want you to desist in spreading rumors, you think to be true, to my friends. That is not nearly as hard for me to live down as it would be to you, at least in Milton.”
“So, why aren’t you married. You have to have missed me? Missed our old times. I ruined you for anyone else, it seems.”
“My marriage status is none of your concern, but if you must know something – do know it has nothing to do with you. Do you have a coach?”
“Then go in there and thank my mother, and I will have Branson drive you home.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a refresher course in young love?”
John came around his desk in a flash. Lenore scurried for the door. John hadn’t gotten his anger under control when she rushed out of the room.
John opened the door. “Branson!”
“Take Miss Smithers home.”
“Are you alright, boss?”
“No, I am not. Go on!”
John had never felt such anger in his life. He stormed about his room, trying to calm down until he could leave with some dignity. Of course, he called her bluff, although he could have gone through with his suit if she repeated it. It wasn’t his virtue or the loss of it that made him angry. It was speaking such words to Miss Hale. He would see her tomorrow and explain. He pulled himself together and left the room with a smile on his face.
All eyes were on him as he exited. He began a new conversation with the closest person, and the room returned to normal, except for the look on his mother’s face.
Fred was just escorting Bessie to his coach when Adam and Margaret arrived. He waited and helped Adam assist her to her room. Dixon followed.
“I want to talk with you, Fred when you have time,” Adam said sternly.
“I’ll be a few minutes carrying Bessie home. Will you wait?”
“Yes. Take your time.”
“I believe I will.”
Richard Hale had gone to bed, Fred was out, so Adam helped himself to scotch. He sat on the couch collecting his thoughts.
At Margaret’s young age, Adam believed her to be in love with John Thornton. It was unreciprocated. Even though there was nothing between them more than a working relationship, Adam could see that Lenore’s words devastated her. Being a man, he understood that what Lenore said about John probably happened to most young men. There was no fault with John. It would be hard for Margaret to see it that way or any young woman in love. Adam only understood it as Margaret’s hopes had been high and then found them suddenly dashed upon the rocks. With her physical pain now compounded by her emotional pain, she had rough days ahead. Adam knew he could talk with Fred and leave Richard out of the worry.
Hannah opened her eyes and immediately wished she had not. A shaft of the most piercing headache run through her head and neck. She inhaled heavily against the pain until she was able to see more clearly. It appeared that she was tied onto a chair which stood in the middle of a bare room. No windows and a crude, wooden door. A single oil lamp stood in a corner and threw a ghastly, yellow light onto brick walls, blackened with age and dirt. She was alone. What in the name of God had happened?
The last thing she remembered was her locking the gate of Marlborough Mills on – Friday evening – yes, that was it. They must have hit her over the head. Suddenly realisation dawned! Inside the mill! Who? Why? Nausea brought her stomach into her throat and she bowed her head and breathed deeply in and out. Her heart was thudding too fast …
Nicholas Higgins had done everything that was in his power to find Hannah Thornton. He was not taking any risks and he certainly was not leaving it to Mason and his bloody police rascals!
The spot at the mill, where she was supposed to have been abducted from, had been gone through with a fine-tooth comb, just now, by his own hands. He found one of her golden earrings; a sudden surge of emotion choked his throat as he put it away in his breast pocket. Damn! He would rip the heads off those bastards if he got his hands on the blighters.
His widely-spread network of contacts had already been interrogated thoroughly and yielded nothing. It was infuriating! Instead of handling the on-going strike and negotiate with John Thornton, he was wasting his time in a search for Thornton’s mother. At that moment the man that occupied his thoughts was just striding towards him and the scowl on Thornton’s face did not bide pleasant things.
“Ah, Higgins! Just the man I was looking for!”
The minute Higgins heard the light, female voice, he saw Margaret hurrying towards them.
“Oh, Nicholas, you’re here!,” she said, a little breathlessly, “Come, let us go into the house. There are several things we have to discuss!”
Margaret tucked her arm through Nicholas’s and threw a pleading glance at her husband, who smiled at her. She probably thought he had been about to pick a fight with Higgins. He would not do such a thing, not with his mother gone missing. God! For the umpteenth time, the most horrible fears were flooding his brain! His mother!
The waiting was long. Hannah could not do a single thing as she was sitting there, bound onto the chair, in the damp room. She was growing cold, hungry and thirsty but that did not bother her much. She had been deprived from food and warmth several times before in her life and she could endure it. It was only a matter of keeping a calm and positive frame of mind.
They would, of course, be searching for her and, eventually, they would find her. John would find her, she had no doubts about that. He would tear down the whole of Milton if necessary. Strangely enough she realised she was still in Milton and more so, somewhere at Marlborough Mills. Although she had never been in this place before, Hannah felt familiar with the bare brick walls. It must be one of the cellars beneath the cotton warehouses at the back of the courtyard. No one ever came down here for they were in a bad state, some of them had already collapsed a long time ago, bringing down as well the warehouse above them after a time. John had been planning to do something about it but had never gotten around to it.
Hannah’s shoulders were numb from having her hands tied so tightly behind her back. She wondered whether someone would come to see how she was doing. Why had she been taken in the first place? The answer sprung into her mind the moment she asked herself that question.
They would try and force John into giving in about the strike!
Margaret ushered the two men into John’s study and literally pushed them onto chairs, John’s was behind his desk, Nicholas’s in front of it. She placed herself in between and looked at them. Both their faces were haggard, for the same reason.
“Listen, both of you,” she said in a firm voice, “we must decide about two things. First we will discuss the strike. This is what I propose; John will agree to a raise in the wages of three shillings a week for all of our workers and you, Nicholas, will agree to keep them at work, no matter what, to catch up with the arrears on production, even if it means continuing work during the night.”
She went silent and watched the various emotions on their faces. John was the first to react.
“Margaret! That is … “
“Absolutely brilliant!”, Nicholas shouted, interrupting him.
“Yes, exactly!”, John exclaimed in the same moment.
Margaret took a deep breath of relief, realising that she had not known what the outcome would be.
“Good! Then we can concentrate on the most important issue of the two; how are we going to find your mother?”
“Ah!”, Nicholas let out with a sigh so forlorn that Margaret’s heart hurt. She covered Nicholas’s large, calloused hand with her own. He averted his face in embarrassment but she had seen his brightly shining eyes and the way he had to swallow his emotion away. She cast her husband a warning look but John nodded in understanding and cleared his throat.
“It is fairly clear that Mother must have been taken inside these walls,” John explained, “and, more so, by someone who does know a lot about us, and about the mill. It must be someone that works here. No, Higgins, I’m not saying that it is one of the workers, at least not when I have no proof of that nor an inkling as to whom it might be.”
These words blocked off any of Nicholas’s retaliation which had been on the verge of bursting out of him.
“Nor do I,” Nicholas grumbled, “but I swear I will find out! When I do, the bastard will be sorry to have ever been born!”
“Not if I can get my hands on him!”, John pointed out in a voice shaking with fury.
Margaret intervened by placing her hand on his, just like she had done with Nicholas earlier.
“We must take heed not to betray ourselves to this unknown person, John. If he is part of Marlborough Mills, he will be on his guard and he will certainly be watching us and listening in onto us.”
“Yes,” her husband agreed, “but how can we unmask him, that is what I would like to know.”
“Leave it to me, Master,” Higgins said, “I have some friends here whom I can trust unconditionally. They will be my spies.”
With a start Hannah sat upright! Some noise must have woken her from her uneasy slumber. She strained her ears and listened. It was a deep, low rumble, followed by a long, loud creak. Seconds after that a heavy thud made the floor shake so violently that her chair was moved without her being able to stop it. Her heart started pounding quickly when she realised what it was; somewhere farther away the ceiling was coming down!
Oh, sweet revenge! The Spiteful One had dealt a blow to John Thornton he would not manage that easily. She knew Hannah Thornton’s faith was as good as sealed and they would never find her! The abandoned cellars were not known to many people and nobody ever went there. Either Hannah Thornton would die of deprivation or she would be buried under tons of rubble when the ceiling collapsed. It was only a matter of time … she would only have to wait.
“Good morning, John. I can only wonder what it must be like at your home this morning. Busy are they?”
“My ears are still ringing from the clanking of pots and pans. At least, most of the commotion is limited to the kitchen now. I can tell it is exhausting mother. She will have help next year, but it won’t be me as she hopes. I will hire someone who prepares events like this.”
“How do you think Miss Hale got along yesterday?”
“I’m not sure we spoke much after we had our personal apology session. I really don’t know.”
“I did get those journals for her. I would be interested to see if she can repeat back what we said in the morning yesterday. Wouldn’t you? That gibberish she wrote is some kind of code. She could be spying for another Master that she spoke to early this week,” Nicholas laughed.
“I do believe her. She spoke to me of her dedication to the mill. Perhaps next week, we will ask her what we talked about today, so take some notes after our meeting. Here she comes. Oh, do call her, Margaret.”
A knock came to the door. Nicholas answered the door. “Good morning, Margaret. Forthwith, just come through the door. You are an official of this room.”
“Good morning, gentleman.” She walked directly to her room, found her pen and paper and returned. Her chair was still where it was left yesterday, aside John’s desk. She decided to leave it over there and work on the edge of his desk since she was right-handed. “Do you mind me sitting here, Mr. . . . ah . . . John?”
“Please, help yourself.”
“Have you begun?”
“No. We were wondering how your day went yesterday. Could we have a report from you? This is something we may include every day.”
“Yes. Agreed.” Nicholas added.
“If you wish. This first week may find me with some discussion but little once I am settled. I wasn’t prepared for any report, but I too think it is a good idea. Once the document room is organized, my first priority will be what? Nicholas gave me a list, but I am not sure it is organized as to the importance.”
“Your main job is to find ways to help us save or make money. Your first priority will be the biggest, and that is redesigning our budgeting layout.” John stated.
“And your accountants?”
“Will do as we say, if we agree with you.”
“Do you have all you will need?”
“I don’t believe so, but I am making a list. I don’t think anything expensive is required. You have seen to that. So, please proceed with your meeting.”
While Nicholas and John were talking about what was and wasn’t completed the day before, John would periodically peep at the scribble on the paper. He’d look back at Nicholas, who would smile at his confused look. They both wanted to laugh at each other for not understanding.
Hearing a pause and sensing that John was looking at her paperwork, Margaret had to smile, too. It was turning out to be fun, keeping them wondering.
“Margaret, I believe I saw your basket was still full when you left yesterday. Did you not bring your lunch?” John inquired.
“I did, I lost track of time.”
“You shall come to the canteen today with Nicholas and me, around 1:00 this afternoon.”
“I will be ready.”
“I will be at Mill2 until that time and Nicholas shall be on this property.”
“How do I contact whoever is on the property should someone come to speak with either of you?”
“You may walk into the first shed, don’t go through the rolling doors, but ask anyone you meet to get the foreman for you. He will know which master is where.”
“If you are at Mill2 and someone comes looking specifically for you, do I contact Higgins or let them know where you are?”
John thought for a moment. “I would prefer that you not have to bear that decision. All contacts must go through this mill first.”
“Oh, one last thing, Nicholas and I will be leaving early today. There will be a foreman in charge at both mills. I guess that is all for now.”
Margaret picked up her papers and returned to her room. John and Nicholas walked out together. Margaret quickly returned to the front windows and watched them go their separate ways. Nicholas headed to the first shed while John disappeared around the back of his home. Margaret went back to her work.
A note came to the Hale house for Fred. It was from Bessie saying that yes she could see him, but could it be at his home since his father was there.
Fred quickly scribbled his answer and gave it to the waiting driver. He went to tell his father that he was having company this evening. Although not spoken sharply, he did emphasize that the company was his. He wanted to give leave to his father not to feel indebted to remain when he became tired.
Margaret had her desk tidied by 12:45 p.m. and sat waiting for her lunch appointment. John arrived a few minutes early, so they waited on Nicholas.
“How is your morning so far, Margaret?”
“I do have a question.”
“And that would be?”
“Do you have ledgers per mill or is it all consolidated?”
There was silence.
“Does that mean you have one Profit and Loss statement combined for both mills?”
Nicholas came through the door. “Are we ready?”
“I am. Should I bring some money?” Margaret inquired.
“No, Margaret. Our guest. You will get to meet Bessie’s sister, Mary.”
“I have met Mary but only briefly.”
The three walked into the canteen, and Margaret was immediately aware that getting down the isles with her smock would be difficult.
“I think I will return to the office if you don’t mind,” she said.
“Do you not care to eat with the workers?”
“Oh, no. I just don’t think I can fit. I will have to dress more sensibly in the future.”
“We will make room for you.”
Overhearing part of the conversation two men at the head of the table moved to another location, carrying their plates with them. Margaret thanked them.
Mary came to the table carrying three bowls of soup and a plate of bread.
“Margaret, I hope you don’t mind this meager meal.”
“Not at all. I prefer it really. Hello, Mary. This smells nice. Pea soup, is it?”
“One of my favorites. Do you have this on specific days?”
“What do you think a slate board and a menu for the week would do for you? It would draw workers to come in only to eat certain items. It may even save some grumbling workers who arrive and don’t care for that day’s choice. What do you think?”
Mary looked at her father. He gave her no indication how to answer. “I think it may save a little more money because we would have less waste. I will think about it and ask some of the workers. Most of them eat here no matter what is served.”
“Mary, Miss Hale is working in our office now.”
“Yes, Father said that may happen. Welcome, Miss Hale. If you need anything or questions answered, you know where to find me.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Most of the conversation were men asking John or Nicholas questions.
Margaret set her spoon down and walked over to Mary near the kitchen. “Mary, why are there so few women in here, do you know?”
“There are some men in here that . . . that grab at the women. They talk rudely to them, too.”
“All the men?”
“No, it’s only about four or five.”
“Are they in here now?”
“Two are. All the workers that eat here come in shifts. There are two in here now. The other three were here before you.”
“Do they bother you?”
“They did before they knew who my father is.”
“So, when Mr. Thornton and your father are in here, they are on their best behavior.”
“Yes. The women eat outside in sun or cold. Some don’t even bring a lunch because they can only afford one meal a day.”
“Have you told your father?”
“No, I am afraid of them. They have threatened me.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
John came up behind Margaret as they headed outside.
“Was there anything wrong with the meal, Margaret.”
“Not exactly. Before we leave, take a look at your workers in this room.”
John escorted Margaret outside to Nicholas and asked them to wait. He walked back inside, casting an eye around the room. Everyone was eating, there was laughter and not too overcrowded. He left.
“I believe you see something I don’t. Nicholas, go back in there and just look at the workers eating. Look around the room, that’s all I ask.”
Nicholas was gone a minute or so. When he came out, he said, “Was I supposed to see something wrong? If anything was wrong, Mary would have told me.”
As the three walked back to the office in silence, Margaret asked if she was to lock the office somehow when she left at 5:00 p.m.
“I will be on the property for the rest of the day, Margaret. I will take care of it.”
“Are you going to tell us what you saw in there?”
“Margaret, I do not wish you to play games with our business.”
“I am not playing a game. I just want to look further into what I saw.”
“Very well. Margaret, I will say goodnight and see you tomorrow, although I may be in and out of here later.”
“Good day to you, John.”
John walked around back and talked with Branson about the spirits and wines. Branson said he had taken care of everything.
John found his mother sitting on the sofa when he entered by the back stairs. She had no needlework in her hands. “Mother is all going according to plan? Are you worried about anything?”
“I had forgotten just how exhausting these dinners were. I am taking it easy and resting often. I’ve just been sitting here thinking about that woman.”
“Would that be Lenore Smithers?”
“Yes. I just don’t know where to seat her. I’ve been thinking between Adam Bell and Nicholas. Both of those men would not do anything to excite her into a disruption. Would she be better off near you? She will want to talk with you tonight. She may try to do that across the table.”
“Mother, I do not know what to expect from her. Perhaps she should be seated next to me. There should be no other person that she knows except Slickson, and I doubt she would converse with him. Do we have six and six?”
“No. We will have six and seven. You, Bell, Watson, Latimer, Higgins and Slickson. Each of those will have a partner, and then there is me. With the pairing not even, I think I will sit her next to you and have a woman on the other side of her.”
“That is most likely the soundest idea.”
It was nearing 5:00 p.m. when John went to his den and watched out his window for Margaret to leave. Her brother was already waiting for her. He tethered his horse and waited at the bottom step for her. After the wait of a few minutes, Fred walked up to check on her. He entered the office, John saw, wondering what was holding her up. Eventually, Fred opened the door, and they walked to the buggy. Before getting in, they had a conversation which resulted in Margaret taking the reins.
John smiled as he saw her start the horse a bit too quickly causing both of them to lurch in their seats. Fred took the reins from her and pulled the buggy to a stop. John could see Margaret bent over in her lap. Fred was beginning to rub her back. She had hurt herself somehow. John hurried down the steps and trotted over to the pair sitting at a standstill.
“Margaret, are you injured?”
“Thank you, John, I am fine. I have a bit of discomfort in my neck it seems.”
Fred moved his rubbing hand towards her neck, and she winced.
“Can Branson take you to Dr. Donaldson?”
“Thank you, John. We will make it home with no problem.”
“Are you sure, sis?”
“Yes, please Fred, carry on.”
John was worried as Fred pulled away slowly. There were a lot of workers in the yard, leaving for home, which may have spooked the horse he thought. He decided to follow them. John saddled one of his horses and followed at a modest distance. Turning a corner near their home, John could see Margaret still had her head in her lap. He stopped when Fred pulled the buggy to the front of the house. Fred came around to her side and lifted her out. He carried her to the door, where he stood her up and opened the door. John turned around and rode over to Dr. Donaldson’s office.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Thornton. I shall tell the doctor you are here.”
“Please tell him, I just want a discussion with him.”
John was too restless to be seated. The waiting room was vacant, no doubt near their closing time.
“Come on back, John. Haven’t seen you for a while.”
“I’m not here for myself. I just witnessed a possible injury to one of my workers who insists she is fine. But I am in doubt.”
“Tell me about it.”
John relayed what he had seen.
“It sounds like you are describing whiplash. Most of the time it is painful but not seriously harmful. She refused to come here?”
“Yes, do you think she should?”
“If you saw her move, the chances are great that she did not break her neck. Perhaps you will see her tomorrow?”
“Yes, I will.”
“You will if she can make it to work.”
“I would feel better if you could stop by her house on your way home.” John wrote down the address for Donaldson and returned home. It was time to take his bath and begin his grooming.
Fred and Mr. Hale were hovering over Margaret lying on the couch when a knock came to the door. Dixon answered it.
“Hello, my name is Dr. Donaldson. John Thornton reported to me that a woman may have injured her neck and asked me to see to her.”
Fred rushed into the hall and introduced himself. “Thank you for coming. My sister, Margaret, is in here.” Fred led him to the parlor. “This is my father, Mr. Hale.”
“Yes, I know your family. I tended to your mother. John didn’t give me a name only this address.”
Donaldson sat beside the patient and spoke with her while prodding her neck. He helped her sit up and felt all the way down her spine. As he continued his examination, he asked, “Mr. Thornton led me to believe you are a worker at Marlborough Mills. Could that be correct?”
Donaldson could judge by the frown how much it hurt Margaret. “Dr. Donaldson, I only began yesterday as an accountant assistant. We don’t really have a name for what I will be doing.”
“I see. So, you will be sitting for most of your job?”
“I am going to make a brace for your neck, and I recommend you stay home through the weekend.”
“I have the Thornton dinner tonight and it is most important to me.”
“Margaret,” Richard Haled sighed.
“Well, it is. Fred knows it.”
Dr. Donaldson shook his head but gave her some instructions and strong headache powders. “I must insist you do not attend work tomorrow. You need to lay flat or sit in a chair that supports the back of your head. You must do that for two days. Swivel your head as slowly as possible when you can but come to see me if the pain becomes any worse. The problem with these injuries is that they feel worse the next day and perhaps another day before they begin to ease off the pain. I am giving you a strong medication, but I have stronger if you need it. Just use common sense and be most careful tonight. Do you have someone to dress you?”
“Well, then, here is the instructions for making a stiff thick collar around your neck. Wear that as long as you feel you must. I would like to see you Monday, if not before. Have a nice time tonight. I hear Mrs. Thornton spares little expense in her annual dinners. Good evening.” Donaldson closed his bag, found his hat and Fred escorted him to the door.
Expecting Margaret home, Dixon had prepared her bath in the kitchen. She could see there would be difficulty in drying and braiding her hair.
“Hurry! Get me Inspector Mason, at once!” John Thornton yelled as he stomped into the Milton Police Station, Higgins hard on his heels. The startled desk sergeant immediately ran to do what he asked. John Thornton was a magistrate; when he was in that kind of mood, one did not trifle with him. Mason duly arrived, and they told him about Hannah’s disappearance which, apparently, had taken place within Marlborough Mills. Higgins recounted how he had seen her go inside and lock the gate behind her.
“Ah, Mr. Thornton,” Mason mused, “I have been working on the mysterious events that have happened at Marlborough Mills for quite some time now and I can only conclude from all this that there is, once more, someone within its walls that wishes to harm you.”
“Then, Mason,” John snarled between gritted teeth, “I suggest that you do everything within your line of power to find out who it is!”
Margaret’s heart sank when she saw John’s face as he entered the parlour two hours later. Hastily she guided him to the sofa where he collapsed and groaned, “The worst has happened, Margaret! Mother is missing! God! What am I to do?”
He recounted what he knew about Hannah’s visit of Higgins and their call upon Inspector Mason.
“It must be someone from inside Marlborough Mills, Margaret! Someone who is very familiar with what we do and where we are at all times! Someone who is actually spying on us, who is lying in wait to pounce on us when the occasion comes up! Oh, Margaret, if something has befallen to Mother, I do not know how I would be able to cope!”
“Shhh! Shhh! Do not despair, my love!” Margaret put her arms around John’s shoulders, easing his head against her chest when tears of distress welled up in his eyes. Her heart ached for her strong, good-hearted husband as he despondently wept in her arms. She had never seen John so utterly without hope!
After a while he recovered himself and sat upright. “I am sorry, my sweet,” he said quietly, “I did not mean to go to shambles like that.”
Margaret did not respond but touched his face in an ultimately sweet gesture. John closed his eyes and leaned against the sofa’s back. His voice was hoarse when he began speaking.
“After Father’s death it was always Mother and me. Side by side we worked for Marlborough Mills, in unison and with every sacrifice it took. I learned to lean on Mother and she in turn drew her strength from me. She guided me whenever it was necessary and I protected her from need and poverty. The thought, that one day she might not be with me anymore, terrified me, Margaret. Since you came into my life, that terror has abated a little. Margaret, I hope she has come to no harm. She is much frailer than she appears to be. Did you know she suffered a mild heart attack some years back?”
“No,” Margaret whispered, “no, I did not.”
They sat quietly, with joined hands. There was not much Margaret could do to comfort her husband in his distress. Yet, when he remained silent, she made an effort to tear him out of his lethargy and ventured, “You never told me about your childhood, John …”
“Ah …”, John replied, a sad smile on his handsome face, “well, there isn’t much to tell, sweetheart. It was uneventful, and happy, I suppose. Mother ruled our house and Father had his factory, so I did not see much of him. He was a quiet man. Sometimes, on a Sunday, he would take me to the mill and explain all of its various parts to me.”
“How did you like that? How old were you, then?”
His smile broadened and Margaret felt relieved he seemed to brighten up a bit.
“Twelve or so. I was bored, at first, but gradually Father’s story began to fascinate me and by the time of his death, I had become as enthusiastic as he. When the mill went bankrupt and Father … “
John stopped talking, his voice suddenly giving way. Margaret gripped his hand.
“Go on, dearest, I want to know.”
“I am sorry, my love. This is still difficult for me. You know Father killed himself, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mr. Bell told Father about it and he told us. Oh, John, I was overwhelmed by guilt at that time because I had treated you so very cold and harshly by refusing to take your hand! Father scolded me most sternly about that!”
“I was far too outspoken during that tea party, darling. I had no business blurting it all out to you when, in fact, we were not well acquainted then. Afterwards I could have slapped myself. I was starting to fall in love with you, though I never would have made that confession to anyone, and here I was, embarrassing you all with my problems. Nice way to court a lady!”
“John, I realised far too late that I too was falling head over heels for you! Oh, how I deluded myself with false excuses about you not being a gentleman when, in truth, you were the kindest of souls and a man to be proud of!”
With a smothered gasp John pulled her against his chest and hugged her.
“Sweet, gentle darling of mine, I cannot bear the thought of being without you!”
They were both so overcome with emotion that they needed a few seconds to recover at least a hint of composure. After a while Margaret felt John tense up again and he started talking in a low, laden voice.
“Margaret … I was the one who … who found Father when he …”
His chest heaved with the effort of trying to recount what he had gone through that fatal day. Margaret squeezed his hand tightly and looked into his eyes. John took a deep, shuddering breath which made Margaret realise how shocked the young John must have been. She already knew that John had been put through the discovery of his father’s body from Hannah but she had never heard it from him.
“It was end of spring term and I had come home from school. Mother and Fanny, who was only three at the time, were in the parlour. I asked where Father was and Mother said he was still in the mill’s office. I … I went to look for him. I wanted to show him my exam results …”
Margaret waited in anxious awe for him to continue, her heart aching for him.
“It was late, a dark, windy evening. The workers had long since gone home but in the hall the lights were still on. I walked through the empty rows of the looms and I became aware of an eerie silence in which my footsteps sounded like gun shots. In Father’s office the lights were blazing, all the lamps were lit. That was why I already saw him from within the hall. He hung from one of the hall’s girders and he must have used a small ladder to have gotten that high, as if he wanted to make sure he would succeed. Margaret … it was horrible!”
John sucked in his breath like a man drowning.
“Apparently Father had not broken his neck when he kicked the ladder away to be yanked down. As a result the actual hanging must have taken a long time, for on his neck there were nail marks where he had clawed at the noose leaving long bloody scratches. His face was swollen and blue, his tongue stuck out of his mouth, bitten half way through where he had fiercely fought during his fatal agony.”
Oh, my God! This was far worse than Margaret could have imagined! Yet it was imperative that she urged him to go on, he clearly was not finished.
“What did you do next, darling?”
John started talking in a haste, as if he wanted to get rid of everything that burdened him.
“I ran back to the house and found Mother and Fanny in the parlour. The sight of my little sister playing with her dolls made me realise it had to be kept from her. Mother must have seen my face for she stood and beckoned me to follow her Father’s study. She was amazing, Margaret! Calm, composed and efficient, she handled it all. I had to make an effort not to let her down with tears and lamentations so I did not weep. It was difficult, I wanted to cry, not out of distress but out of rage! I was so furious with Father for what he had done. Leaving us like that, leaving us to deal with it all, his bankruptcy, his suicide and afterwards, our blatant poverty! I think it was only my rage what kept me going, Margaret. I had to leave school, take on a job, save money to repay the creditors. Then, finally, when I was twenty-seven, I was debt-free and I started up Marlborough Mills again. We made good profit from the start and I was able to buy the house from the creditors who had forced Mother to sell it. Dear Mother … I don’t know how I would have succeeded without her.”
And now, Margaret thought, his mother had gone missing. How was he to stomach that?