Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-One

Chapter 21– John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate

After the removal of the Latimers and Leonards, life finally settled into normality. Time inexorably went on, its progress relentless and bold.

It was December the 20th and, for weeks, an Arctic winter held Milton in its clutches. Snow lay 20 inches thick, frozen solid as the temperature didn’t rise above minus 15 C by day.

John Thornton was sitting at his desk in his ice-cold office, trying to work on the Mill’s books.

Many worries were keeping him from his work. There was, of course, Marlborough Mills and its many problems. At least the Mill was prospering, bringing in a steady amount of money from the selling of cotton to the draper’s shops and clothes factories. Yet, when a factory made profit, its workers started clamouring for a raise, and that was something John was not prepared to grant. It was far too early to be handing out too much money now. The profit had to be consolidated first, at  least over an entire year. Knowing this and making his workers understand were two very different things.

 

An icy gust blew in when the door opened letting Nicholas Higgins in. He shook the snow from his shoulders and grumbled in his deep, gravelly voice. “Bloody ‘ell! What a foul weather it is! And it’s not much better in here, is it? Why don’t you light a fire when it’s that freezing?”

John chuckled. “Would make the place all nice and cosy, wouldn’t it? No, Nicholas, I need to keep focused in here and a fire would make me doze off, which I can’t afford with all the amount of work on my desk. Now, tell me, how’s the mood among our workers?”

“Bit turbulent, I’d say. They know the Mill is making good profit. Moreover, prices of food are exorbitant and coal is unaffordable for most of them. Once Winter will set in for good, and that’s not going to take long, their children will grow sick. Then, they’ll be clamouring for higher wages.”

Sighing deeply, John rubbed his hand through his face. “I can’t blame them, Nicholas, but I can’t give in either. We’re still staggering between profit consolidation and bankruptcy as it is. I need all the money I can get right now.”

Higgins sharply sucked in his breath and looked John in the eye, in a way that reminded the latter of the man Higgins really was, first a union committee man, before anything else. The glimpse of fierce awareness he caught in Higgins’s glare made John brace himself. Inwardly he prepared himself for battle.

“Master, you know I’ll have to take the workers’ side when it comes to a strike. Me being your Administration Manager must come second to their welfare, I’ve warned you about that.”

With a pinch of disappointment in his heart, John rose from his seat. Higgins always switched back to master when he was in union mode, instead of using John’s given name when he was not.

“You do what you have to do, Higgins, I cannot discuss raises right now, it’s out of the question!”

Higgins suddenly grew red in the face and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, in that case, sir, prepare yourself for another strike!”

Anger welled up in John and he too crossed his arms. Just when he was about to give a caustic response to Higgins’s words, the door opened again and his wife entered.

 

“My God, how cold …,” Margaret began but stopped when she saw the grim expressions on the two men’s faces. John, she noticed had his master face on and Nicholas … well, it had been a long time since she’d seen the union man on him.

“It’s the wage demands again, isn’t it?”, she said softly, loosening her scarf and coat.

John looked at her now but his mouth didn’t relax into a smile. “Margaret, don’t get involved in …”

“Stop! Don’t go there, John!”, she interrupted him in a trembling voice. “I have a right getting involved! It’s my money supporting this mill, isn’t it? I’m a share holder so let me have my say!”

The sudden hurt in John’s eyes nearly did her in but it was necessary to shock him before he did something stupid like ruining the fine understanding he had with Nicholas Higgins. Margaret took a deep breath and turned towards the older man with a sad smile on her face.

“Nicholas, dear Nicholas, listen. I have a proposition for you.”

At least she had his attention and his goodwill, Margaret saw.

“I want you to speak to the workers tonight and ask them for patience,” she said.

She raised her hand quickly when she saw him open his mouth to retaliate. “Yes, I know about the meeting you’ve planned at the Lyceum Hall, Nicholas. I talk to people and I listen to them as well. I know there’s much suffering amongst them, especially when the weather is as cold as it is now. At least we can try and relieve part of it, so I’ve hired a dozen women with small children to help out at the infirmary and soup kitchen. There’s Jenny, who can come in and bring her newborn baby with her. It will allow her to feed him at the required times, and he’ll be kept warm. Betty will come too, bringing little Alice with her, and she’ll be able to keep up her strength in the last trimester of her pregnancy. These are just a few I’m thinking of. There are loads of women too weak with or coming out of a pregnancy, and they cannot work. I hope you see my point here, Nicholas? Me and Mary, we are organising an income for the weakest members of our society, allowing them to survive when they are not fit to do factory work.”

She’d got him to listen, Margaret saw, with an avid interest. So she went on. “Nicholas, talk to them about that at the meeting. You, with your talent to reach out to their hearts, must make them see that it is important to keep funds free for this kind of work first. Later, when things are going to pick up, we can talk about higher wages. First we must care for the weakest members of our society. Our workers will understand when winter lasts and children and mothers grow sick.”

Higgins was smiling at her now and she returned his smile fully. “Margaret, thank you,” he replied, “you’re right and I will do as you ask. But, John?”

John involuntarily startled when his attention was snatched away from the enthralling sight of his beloved holding up a torch for his workers.

“John,” Nicholas enquired, “give me your word that wages will be raised in time, when Margaret’s projects will be properly organised, because that’s the only thing I’m willing to plead for with my men tonight, that they withhold their demands until the weak are provided for.”

Margaret’s heart clenched in fear seeing all these conflicting emotions crossing John’s face. How come he still didn’t trust Nicholas, or her, for that matter? When it came to Marlborough Mills, John still had a one-track mind on letting it come before everything else. She still had a long way to go before he would open his heart for his workers and see their needs.

“Okay, Higgins,” he replied, mouth set in grim determination, “you have my word on those wage raises if you can guarantee me a winter without strikes. Take it or leave it.”

Higgins wetted his lips, drew himself up to his full six feet and said evenly. “It’s a deal, Master!”

He offered his hand to John who took it in a strong grasp. Turning on his heels Higgins then stalked out of the office room. Margaret felt so relieved that her legs started shaking beneath her. She hastily sat down on one of the wooden chairs and wiped her brow with her handkerchief, only now realising she had been terrified that Nicholas would bristle on John’s haughty reserve.

John’s voice, harsh with suppressed fury, startled her. “So, Mrs. Thornton, tell me? Which side are you really on? I need to be sure that you’re on mine if I’m to put your money to good use!”

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty

Chapter 20 – All’s well that ends well

 

In sudden panic Margaret was hauled back to consciousness realizing she was choking!

Gasping and gagging for air, she was terrified, and her body was raked with pain. She tried to move, to make a sound, call for help but she was paralyzed. Her limbs had no strength, and she could not see nor hear nor speak. The only living thing was her extreme fear, it was like a gnawing monster deep inside her. I am dying, I am beyond rescue, it is over …

Light came suddenly back into her eyes and sound reached her ears. Sweet clean air entered her nose and mouth, and she greedily gasped until her lungs stopped aching and her mind cleared.

“Shhh! Shhh! It’s over, sweetheart, I’m here! It’s me, it’s John!”

Relief washed over her! John, thank God, John was with her!  Margaret opened her eyes and saw her husband’s face hovering over her own, his eyes full of concern. Oh, dear Lord, how wonderful to see his face and feel his hands on her.

“What happened?” Her voice was just a faint croak. Then she saw Ann Latimer! Terror washed over her once more. She gave a strangled cry and John immediately held her closer.

“Don’t be afraid, darling, she cannot do you any more harm! Look …”

Margaret did so and saw that Ann Latimer had her hands tied behind her back and that she was being held by a police officer.

Dixon sat next to her bed and held a cup to her mouth. “Come on, Miss Margaret, drink this.

It’s sweet tea and it’ll do you good.”

Margaret drank greedily from the cup and felt the soothing liquid go down her aching throat.

“I had a police officer hidden in the room”, John explained. “I let her alone with you on purpose and she rose to the bait. The officer barely had time realizing what she intended to do when it was all he could do to snatch her away from you. A vicious little cat, this one!”

While the officer led Ann Latimer away, one of the lads came stomping up the stairs.

“Master! Master! Come quickly! Higgins has caught the arsonist!”

 

It was true.

As John came out of the house, a large crowd of workers had gathered around Higgins and a tall, thin fellow in rags, held by two of his sturdiest workers. The man had something vaguely familiar but John couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Officer Mason now entered through the open Mill gate with several of his fellow men.

“Ah,” he said. “I see we’ve succeeded. Your plan worked, Mr. Thornton. This here fellow is Jay Leonards, does the name not ring a bell, sir?”

Of course! Leonards, the drunk that died in hospital after he was found near the station embankment last year. A few days after he’d seen Margaret in that same station, embracing an unknown young man. A man who turned out to be her brother but at that time, John had only being ravaged by jealousy. Now John could see the resemblance between the two well enough.

“It’s his brother,” Mason explained. “He’s been wanted by the Metropolitan Police in London for a good deal of mischief. Reckon the soil became too hot under his feet.”

Mason turned towards Leonards and grabbed the lapel of his ragged coat. “So you decided to cause trouble in Milton, then, you lowlife!”

“I … I don’t know … what you’re talking about … I never …”

Mason cut him short. “You’ve no business being on this premises, my lad, and surely not when you’re carrying a can of lamp oil and a box of matches! No, man, you’re done!”

At that moment a carriage rode through the gate at an alarming pace. The door opened to let Latimer, the banker, out.

“Thornton,” he barked. “What is this business about my daughter? They tell me she’s been taken into custody? Surely …”

Leonard’s voice was loud and shrill when he yelled. “That’s him! That’s the fellow who ordered me to set fire on the Mill! He’s the real criminal, he paid me fifty guineas for it!”

Latimer gave a harsh laugh and seemed not in the least worried. “What the deuce is this man talking about? Surely some lunatic or …”

“No, dearest father!”

Ann Latimer, held by two officers, stood proud and erect and smiled cruelly at her father.

“No, father, you are going down with me! I know what you did, I heard it all from your own lips, remember? You told me to go after John and seduce him so that he had to let his guard down and you could destroy the Mill. No, dearest father, if I’m to be punished, you will take the brunt of it!”

“Hush, you stupid girl, hold your tongue!” Latimer shouted, his voice shrill with alarm.

“Too late, Mr. Latimer!” Mason said. “It’s over! Come on, lads, bring them in!”

Stunned into disbelieve, John watched the two being led away. Latimer behind this? It was too mind-reeling!

Yet it all made sense. The damage to the looms, the fires, the attack on Margaret … and the injured boys, innocent victims of these bastards! Damn, Latimer would pay for this!

The hand of Nicholas on his shoulder brought him back into reality.

“Master,” Nicholas said softly. “John … it’s over. Go to her, she needs you now. I’ll take care of things here.”

 

Margaret lay in their bed, propped up by pillows, face pale and eyes shut. His mother rose from her seat next to the bed and withdrew as soon as he’d taken her place.

“My love, my Margaret …” he breathed, caressing her face with the back of his hand.

Margaret opened her eyes and smiled at him, so sweetly that his heart turned to water.

“John …” she whispered, “John, please, hold me …”

In one heartbeat he was beside her on their bed. He took her in his arms, ever so gently, and drew her to him, careful not to hurt her. They did not speak. The sharing of comfort and belonging together was enough and the feeling of peace and safety filled their hearts completely.

“John …”

“Mm … what, my heart”’

“John, I … I might … it could be that …” She stopped, throat tightened with sudden emotion.

He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “It could be that you are with child, my precious love?”

“Yes … but …”

“Shhh, shhh, I know, Dr. Donaldson told me.” In a surge of protectiveness, he drew her closer again.

“We’ll wait, my darling, for Nature to take its course. Let’s not think further ahead than just now, let’s savour this moment.”

Yes, he thought, there was nothing else to do or … go insane with worry. He would stand by her, whatever came their way. Together they could face the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Nineteen

Chapter 19 – Do not trifle with John Thornton

 

John had never, in his whole life, been as stunned as he was now. “Margaret, pregnant? Oh, sweet Jesus, but … oh, Lord!”  He rubbed his face in a desperate gesture.

Dr. Donaldson quickly added,  “She is young and healthy, Mr. Thornton, she will survive this. She’s suffered from being gagged and bound for so long a time but she’ll recover fast enough if she has enough rest. However, I cannot guarantee that … that the baby will not be affected by the lack of fluids and proper air supply.”

John closed his eyes, overwhelmed by despair and sorrow.

“Are you sure that Margaret is pregnant?” he asked wearily.

“Yes, sir, your wife is about seven weeks. It’s only noticeable to me, as a professional, I doubt if she has even realized it herself. However, there has been some loss of blood. We can only wait. If the baby is affected, she will miscarry within days.”

“Can … can I see her?” John whispered.

“Of course, sir, but she’s sleeping. I gave her something mildly sedating.”

 

Nicholas came into the parlour just as the doctor had left.

“Master”, he said, “the fire has been dealt with. We were able to rescue the roof of the building but the second store floor is lost and the attic floor collapsed only minutes after we’d evacuated it. Some fifty bales went up in the flames as well. How is Miss Margaret, John? People are asking after her …”

John looked up in surprise. “They … they are? Oh, my God … of course, she’s been their advocate since the day she came to Milton. Doctor says she will recover but it will take some time. Please tell that to our lads, will you? And, Nicholas … thank you! I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Higgins grinned and took his leave.

“John?” He’d forgotten about his mother. She stood next to the parlour window, her trembling hands clasped in front of her.

“I’m sorry, mother, I’ve kept you waiting long enough. Where’s Fanny?”

“She’s returned home,” Hannah said quietly. “What did Dr. Donaldson say to you?”

John took her by the arm and led her into the master bedroom. They seated themselves next to the bed. Margaret was unconscious, sedated by Dr. Donaldson. Her pale face was smooth but the dead white colour contrasted highly with her dark brown hair.

Hannah looked at her son. She had never seen him that downcast and drawn. When he spoke, his voice was rough with suppressed emotion.

“She might be with child. Donaldson says there’s been some blood loss and it may be that she miscarries within the next days.”

Hannah’s heart lurched with deep compassion for her beloved son. She did not know what to say. She laid her hand on John’s and he grasped it fiercely. That did her in, she took him in her arms, and he sobbed, but only once.

“Don’t fret about what might come, John,” she whispered. “we’ll take that fence when we come to it. I’ll make sure that she gets enough rest and fortification. She’s very young and she’s strong. It might turn out right, you have to keep your spirits up.”

John forced himself into a very sad little smile but his eyes were weary. “Will you stay with her, mother? There’s something I have to do.”

 

John, frustrated and powerless, needed to lessen his fury about what happened to his wife. Helping Margaret had been taken out of his hands. All he could do was to wait for her to get better. Violently pushing the thought of her possible pregnancy  out of his mind, he headed for his office.

Nicholas Higgins was waiting for him there.

“Sit down, Nicholas”, he said. “We have an arsonist and a murderer to catch.”

“They’ll not set fire on the Mill again, John. I’ve got the watch doubled. He must have used lamp oil to fuel the fire, we’ve found the empty can near the place where it started. Unfortunately I have no idea as to who he is.”

“I think there are two different criminals and we’ll have to flush them out, Nicholas. Listen, I have a plan.”

 

Jay Leonards was about to take a train to London when his sponsor’s henchmen intercepted him. They dragged him, bound and blindfolded, before the man who’d ordered him to set fire on the mill.

Rage and hatred sounded in the man’s cold voice when he spat into Leonard’s face. “You have failed me again! Twice now have you forfeited a chance to burn down Marlborough Mills and you will pay dearly! Say your prayers, you’ll die a slow and agonizing death.”

“No, no, sir, I beg you! Please, sir, give me just one more chance, I’ll do it for sure now! Please, sir, please?”

 

The Milton Chronicle had a striking headline on the day after the fire, clamouring that Marlborough Mills had successfully fought off a fire that threatened to destroy the whole mill. John Thornton, the mill-owner, had promised a considerable sum of money to the individual that provided a clue as to the identity of the arsonist. The article stated further that Mrs. Margaret Thornton had been badly injured during the fire and was fighting for her life.

 

Nicholas Higgins took no chances as to the vigilance on the Mill. Two workers at each of the twenty locations he’d marked as likely to be a potential fire starter spot was no luxury at all. One of each pair would report back to him every hour. Each worker had a tin whistle in his pocket so that, if there was an attempt or even a stranger inside the Mill, the other watchmen would be there seconds later. His carefully prepared scheme paid off very nicely. When nightfall had set in, his men captured the bedraggled figure of Jay Leonards and hauled him before Higgins and John Thornton. In his pockets they found a can of fire oil, the same brand that had been used for the arson and a box of matches.

“Go and warn Mr. Mason. Tell him we’ve got a suspect,” John said to one of the men.

 

When he went back to the house, John heard voices in the parlour, indicating that they had visitors. He found his mother in the company of Fanny and Ann Latimer. The latter rose quickly as he stepped in and took his hands in hers before he knew what happened.

“Oh, John! How dreadful! Margaret so badly injured! Please accept my deepest sympathy and be assured of my ardent prayers for the recovery of Margaret’s health!”

He could have been fooled by the warm compassionate voice and the sympathy in those brown eyes, if he’d not known better. The woman was good, excellent even. He’d have to match her role playing with one of his own.

“Thank you, Ann. I may call you Ann, I hope?” And when she smiled and nodded, he continued. “I’m totally lost, Ann! This is so very hard on me that I don’t know how I’ll survive this. She is dying, Ann, my precious wife is dying and I don’t know what to do!” He hoped he’d kept his voice wavering with sorrow enough to make her let her guard down. Not that he didn’t feel his sorrow weighing him down enough.

“Can I go and see her, John? I would like to pray at her bedside for a moment.”

“Of course, my dear, come, I’ll show you to her room.”

He let her into their bedchamber where Margaret was still lying in deep sedation.  Avoiding looking at his beloved for fear of breaking down, he said, “I must see to the business, dear Ann. Just go back to the parlour when you’re finished. And, thank you for your sympathy, I appreciate it.”

After the door had closed behind him, Ann Latimer stilled herself for a few moments while contemplating Margaret’s motionless figure in the bed.

Then she came forward, took a pillow from the seat next to the bed and, with both hands, pressed it hard onto Margaret’s face. She used all reserves of strength and transferred it into her tiny white hands, the burning hate within her strengthening her even more.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen – The power of love

 

“Margaret! Margaret, can you hear me? Margaret!” John shouted at the top of his lungs.

Nicholas, who’d come up after John, could now also see someone lying near the back wall of the attic but he was unable to see who it was. John, however, started to ease nearer to the flames that were now leaking through the floor boards. In a short time there would be a wall of fire between his master and the inanimate figure at the back, so Nicholas got hold of John’s arm.

“Master! Master, no! You can’t reach her, it’s too dangerous!”

“It’s Margaret! Can’t you see it’s Margaret, I have to get to her!”

John shook himself free and leapt into one of the firemen’s gushes to soak himself while he bound his wet handkerchief around his nose and mouth as the smoke in the attic was now suffocating.

In a few strides he’d reached her, and his heart nearly stopped when he saw the state she was in. Violently coughing from the acrid smoke despite the handkerchief, John tried to untie her with shaking hands. He dared not move her because she could be strangled when he picked her up. His eyes kept on darting towards her dead white face. She felt so cold under his touch!

“Master, hurry!” He looked up to see Nicholas at his side.

“I can’t move her … she’s not breathing …” John choked as the smoke invaded his lungs now in a most aggressive wave.

We must do it together, John! Keep the rope between her arms and legs slack!

Yes, of course, Higgins was right. John inwardly thanked God for Nicholas’s common sense and courage.

Between the two of them they managed to carry Margaret towards the manhole. One of the firemen handed John a knife, and he quickly cut all the ropes, snatched away the gags from her face and started giving her mouth-to-mouth respiration.

It was taking far too long! She was not responding! Oh God, she was not responding!

Suddenly Higgins took hold of him and tore him away from Margaret’s lifeless form. John then realized Dr Donaldson was taking over. Gasping with exhaustion and lack of proper breathing John kept hold of Higgins’s strong support.

Agonizing seconds ticked by, every beat of his terrified heart sounding like thunder in his ears! After what looked like eternity he heard a weak little cough. Margaret’s body shook even with the weakness of it. Instantly he was at his knees by her side and shoved his arm under her head and shoulders.

“Margaret, sweet love, come back to me, please, don’t leave me? Please, dear heart, come back to me?”

To his uttermost relief, he saw her eyes flutter open, first without seeing but then her gaze came to rest upon his face. She tried to speak but violent coughing assaulted her.

“Shhh! Shhh! Do not speak, my love, do not move. I’ll take care of you.”

John rose and lifted her up. He saw Nicholas sighing with relief too. He laid Margaret in to the waiting arms of a fireman at the top of the ladder. A moment later, she was being handed down the latter by a chain of firemen, handling her with careful gestures. While he descended the ladder, he saw Dixon and his mother taking care of Margaret. He hastily followed them inside the house and into their bedroom, only to be banned from Margaret’s side by Dr Donaldson.

“Please?” the good doctor said. “I need some peace and quiet checking on Mrs Thornton, sir? I’ll be as quick as I can, alright?” He gestured towards Dixon who eagerly sprang to assist him.

 

In the parlour Hannah took her son by the arm and directed him to the settee. Fanny was already offering him a glass of water which he drank avidly. Watson had gone home again, he had his own business to attend to.

John was beyond exhaustion, Hannah realized.

He was covered in dirt and his face was very pale and drawn. Then she saw how his hands were covered with blisters.

“Shall I look to your injuries, John?” she asked quietly. He shook his head, leaning back with closed eyes. Hannah couldn’t keep herself from stroking his hair. Her heart was bleeding for her poor son.

The three of them sat waiting for Dr Donaldson to give word of Margaret’s condition. Time ticked away, and John’s fear kept growing with every second that went by. Would he lose his beloved after only six weeks of being together? It’d be the death of him, he knew that for certain …

Life meant nothing without his Margaret. She was everything to him, she’d always been. He remembered seeing her for the first time that day in the Mill. How, even furious and flushed about that stupid fool Stephens, he’d been struck by her beauty and liveliness when she had withstood him without any sign of fear. How she had constantly and systematically countered him in words and deeds, only following her own heart and conscience. How he’d been annoyed and sometimes angry about that. He had not been used to a woman who spoke her mind, apart from his mother, nor had he been prepared coming in close contact to an extremely  beautiful and spirited young woman like Margaret. Before Margaret, he had been lonely. He’d never had any kind of relationship because he’d never met a woman who was worthy of his most deep feelings.

The entrance of Dr Donaldson startled him into action.

“She is doing well, all things considered,” the doctor said. “I … erm … would like to have a word with you, in private if possible, Mr Thornton.”

John’s stomach lurched with sudden fear but he preceded the doctor into his study.

“Please, sit down,” he asked before letting himself down behind his desk.

Dr Donaldson’s face was grave as was his voice when he asked. “Mr Thornton, sir … have you, by any chance, knowledge of Mrs Thornton being with child?”

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Seventeen

Chapter 17 – Mrs. Thornton intervenes

 

By now the Milton Police were organizing a search for Margaret. Mason was in charge but he had no idea where to start. Young Mrs. Thornton could be anywhere from here to London and beyond!

Nevertheless he organized his men starting from Marlborough Mills and searching every house , alley or building in an ever-widening circle. It would take all night and a good deal of the next day.

Hannah Thornton, meanwhile, had a mission of her own.

As soon as Jane had spilt the beans about Fanny, she went to the Watsons’s house despite the nightly hour. A sleepy parlour maid was ordered to rouse the mistress at once.

The Watsons appeared before long, both in dressing gowns over their nightclothes.

“Mrs. Thornton! What brings you here at this hour of …” Watson tried.

“I’ve business with my daughter, sir, but you’re welcome to it if you want to stay and listen. Perhaps you’re to blame as well for her latest folly?”

Fanny turned white and let herself down onto the settee. Watson eyed her with a puzzled expression on his thickset face. “Fanny, what is your mother speaking of? What have you done?”, he asked, panic creeping into his voice.

Hannah drew herself up to her full height, ignoring Watson’s gesture that she should sit down.

“Margaret has disappeared and I have every reason to believe that Fanny has a hand in this. Well, am I to shake some sense into you, girl, or are you going to tell us of your own accord?”

Fanny, cowering under her mother’s fierce gaze, threw her hands to her face and began crying violently. Watson, bless his heart, immediately went by her side and put his arm around her shoulder. “Now, my love, what is it? You’re worrying me, sweet, what is going on?”

Fanny clung to her husband’s arm and sobbed. “I never thought she would actually do it! I knew she detested Margaret and…”

“Oh no, my girl, you’re wrong!” Hannah cut her short. “You both detested her from the start. I’m even guilty of that myself at first but at that time I didn’t really know her.”

“Mother, you don’t understand! Ann doesn’t detest Margaret, she hates her! She said she would kill Margaret but I didn’t think she was serious about it until …”

“Until what, Fanny?” Watson now urged, beginning to realize something was truly wrong.

“She was speaking of doing away with Margaret with such violent hate in her voice and eyes …” Fanny whispered.

Hannah approached her daughter, took her hands in hers and gently asked. “Sweetheart, do you know what she could have done to Margaret? Where could she have brought her to? John is beside himself and now the Mill is on fire and …”

Fanny stared at her in horror. “The Mill? Oh God! But … but … that cannot be Ann’s doing then, can it? She would never do anything that can harm John, she’s in love with him! She only wanted to harm Margaret, frighten her, so that she would leave John and then Ann could go and comfort him and …”

Hannah shook her head in utter disbelief. “Oh Fanny, you’re such a harebrained nit! How can you believe such nonsense? Have you any idea as to where Ann Latimer could have taken Margaret?”

“No! How would I?”

Watson took over now. “We’re coming with you to Marlborough Mills, Mrs. Thornton. I believe Thornton will need all the help he can get. And, another thing, I can’t believe for a second that Ann Latimer did this on her own, she must have had help.”

 

 

It was now two a.m. and Marlborough Mills was on fire.

John and Nicholas had soon discovered, however, that the fire mainly was situated on the second floor of the cotton warehouse, the only place where bales were still stored. The dockworkers’ strike proved to be a blessing, for normally the warehouse would have been filled to the rafters.

Mill workers were fighting to keep it contained within the second floor space. It was a terribly straining job, for the water had to be brought up in buckets, and the fire was roaring. The noise was deafening and the heat infernal. John and Nicholas, along with a few of the braver lads, were pulling bales out of range with long hook-tipped poles.

“Master!” Higgins shouted. “Back away! It’s far too hot!”

“We must prevent it spreading towards the attic! More water! Come on, hurry!”

Thankfully, the fire-fighters’ squad arrived at that time, and they began pulling out their long hoses which reached just high enough to deal with the second floor fire.

John and Nicholas, both exhausted and filthy, retreated to the courtyard. A carriage arrived from which John’s mother alighted accompanied by Fanny and Watson.

“John!” Hannah shouted over the din made by the fire-fighters. “John, are you alright? You’re not injured ..?”

“No mother, but why have you brought the Watsons here?”

“Fanny says that Ann Latimer is indeed involved in Margaret’s disappearing, John. She threatened to kill her, she hates her!”

John stared at his mother and sister in disbelief. “Fanny, is this true?’ And when his sister meekly nodded. “But … why? What can Margaret possibly have done to her to induce such actions?”

Hannah snorted. “Well, apparently she’s set her cap on you and she planned to have a go on you once Margaret was out of the way.”

John sat down on a bale of cotton, his knees giving way as he began to see where all this was leading to. The initial attack on Margaret, the first attempt of setting fire to the Mill, Ann Latimer’s very strange behaviour towards him, it all added up to an attempt to destroy both his wife and his business!

Suddenly, one of the piecer lads came running towards him, stumbling over his feet.

“Master, master! Hurry! The fire commander says there’s someone on the top floor of the warehouse and they can’t reach them, ‘cause the fire’s too well advanced!”

John and Higgins hurried away towards the long ladders that were perched against the building. John scrambled up the ladder and reached the attic manhole set up high in the roof. He lowered himself in and saw several fire-fighters aiming their lance onto the wooden floor. It was not yet on fire but it was already smoking.

John peered into the smoke-filled space at the back of the attic and could just see the form of a person propped up against the wall. A person? That … that was … oh, sweet Lord!

That was Margaret!

 

 

Author: Luce (Belgium)

 

luce@justperioddrama.com

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Sixteen

Chapter 16 – In mortal danger

By now it was midnight, and Hannah Thornton was in agony.

She had grown tired of waiting for Margaret to return home and consequently had gone to the infirmary, only to find it closed and dark. She had then gone to Higgins’s house, swallowing her pride and her disgust in having to descend that filthy alley, past decayed houses and begging children in rags.

“But, Mrs Thornton,” Mary had said when she’d explained her coming, “Margaret went home at half past nine!”

Hannah and Higgins stared at each other in stunned silence.

 

John Thornton stepped from the train in Outward Milton Station around half past midnight. He and Williams had been able to bribe some dockworkers in Liverpool Harbour in unloading their so much needed bales of cotton onto a dray cart, which was now been driven home by Williams. It should be at the Mill by morning.

John was weary to the bone.

He hadn’t slept the night before and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a meal.

When he alighted from the hansom cap, it was near one p.m. The house was quiet and the lights dimmed. Jane seemed a little subdued, he thought.

There was nobody in the parlour nor in the dining room or the bedrooms.

“Jane!” he bellowed. The maid came rushing in, face pale and eyes shifting.

“Where are my wife and my mother?” he asked, scowling at her.

Jane wrung her hands and wailed. “Mr. Thornton, sir, please, it’s … it’s Mrs. Thornton, sir, your wife … she …”

“What of her, girl, talk!”

The maid didn’t meet his eyes and whimpered. “She’s … she’s not come home, sir, she’s … disappeared …”

 

Margaret lay on the hard floor for what seemed to her like for days. She had lost all notion of time because she had drifted into unconsciousness and back for several times. Her body, aching and stone-cold, was shaking uncontrollably and her breathing was ragged. Because of her tightly bound hands and feet, she was forced to stay as immobile as she could but every time she passed out, her throat was being tightened by the noose. For what had been an eternity, she had managed to stay alive but she knew it was just a matter of time before her body would give up and then she would die.

 

Stepping into the parlour, still in her hat and coat, Hannah heard Jane’s stammered words.

“John! Oh, dear Lord, I’m so relieved that you’re home! It’s Margaret, she’s not returned home from the infirmary. I went to Mary’s house and she told me Margaret had gone home around half past nine.”

John couldn’t take in what his mother was saying. Margaret was not here? Why? What had happened?

“It’s true, master”, Higgins, who had accompanied Hannah, said. “I’ve notified the police and sergeant Mason is already organizing a search.”

Somehow, Nicholas’s grave tone of voice breached the dam of John’s paralyzing apathy. He sank onto the settee, his knees suddenly buckling.

“When has this happened? When was she last seen?” he said, his voice giving way.

Higgins tried to explain. “She must have disappeared here, John, in the Mill. It cannot have happened otherwise. Mary told her to go home, because they were done for the day. Margaret was glad to go, she was tired, Mary said. Margaret wouldn’t have gone elsewhere but home. No, she must have been taken here, in the Mill.”

John stood abruptly. “Have you searched the Mill?” he asked wearily.

“No, I just heard about it from Mrs. Thornton. I came back with her to begin searching.”

“I’ll come with you!”

At that moment Dixon came in, furious and scowling at Higgins. “I told you so, you wretched man, and you did nothing! Now my poor mistress has been snatched and could be lying dead somewhere!” She launched herself at Higgins, who had all the trouble in the world fighting her off. John and Hannah took her each by an arm and held her back.

“Miss Dixon, what are you talking about?” John asked her when she had calmed down a bit.

Dixon shrugged herself free and, in two steps, had reached Jane, whom she took firmly by the arm.

“I’m sure you should listen to what this sorry miss here has to tell, master! She could maybe explain why she eavesdropped on you and the mistress and why she kept record of it and carried it to Mrs Watson. And maybe she knows why Mrs Watson is in cahoots with Miss Latimer. And maybe she could explain to me why two rich ladies are befriended with a little nobody like herself?”

When she stopped because she’d run out of breath, John turned to a frightened Jane now. “Well, Jane?” he enquired.

But Jane had reached the end of her wits now and burst into hysteric tears. “Oh, for God’s sake!” Hannah exclaimed and gave Jane a fierce shook on her arm. “Come on, Jane, tell us!”

The stern voice of her mistress stopped Jane’s hiccupping cries at once.

She began spilling everything. How Mrs Watson had ordered her to eavesdrop and report of what she’d heard. How she’d heard Miss Latimer speak to Mrs Watson about harming Miss Margaret.

“Harm her?” John exclaimed. “Fanny plans to harm Margaret? I’m going over there now!”

He was stopped by Hannah.

“No, John”, she said calmly. “I am going over there. You are needed here.”

Sudden clamour and noise dragged everybody towards the window.

John’s stomach cramped when he saw flames and smokes rising from the upper windows of the Mill!

A fire, there was a fire!

 

Margaret was beyond exhaustion by now.

She was crying without being able to stop it. She thought of John and sank even deeper into despair.

He didn’t even know that she was taken. No one knew it. She wouldn’t be missed for a long time and therefore nobody would be looking for her. Help would not come for her.

Her awareness was fading, and she had no strength left to fight for it.

Then, suddenly, an acrid smell rose from beneath her …

Slowly, she began to understand what it was … a fire, there was a fire beneath her! In violent panic she tried to scream, to make a sound and failed! Her bonds were already strangling her again and she forced herself to stay motionless, draining whatever strength was left in her cramped body.

She had a choice between being strangled and burn to death!

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fifteen

Chapter 15 – The power of hate

 

Nicholas looked at Margaret’s maidservant  while she was telling him what she needed him to know, in a straightforward blunt way. Dixon’s tale surprised him, but he wasn’t really concerned. He even wondered why a level-headed woman like Dixon would be worried about a maid that had befriended Fanny Watson. Jane had always been in Mrs. Watson’s service before the latter had married so it was normal that she should be close to her.

He did, however, not say so. Instead, he assured her he would look into it, and as soon as Dixon had left him, he forgot all about it.

Two days after John had left for Liverpool, Margaret and Mary were hard at work at the infirmary.

There was a inflow of people coming in, as the November nights became cold and damp. People suffering from “fluff on the lungs” or byssinosis would especially be affected by moist weather. At least fifty people, mostly mothers with little children, had asked for help and relief. Mary learned them to inhale the vapour coming from a bowl of hot water mixed with eucalyptus oil, which brought them temporarily relief. She also taught them to wear a mouth mask of clean cotton, when stepping outside their houses and into the mills, to avoid the cotton fluff entering their respiratory ways.

Margaret was not sorry when the last patient left around half past nine. She was not feeling well herself, she was tired and her back ached. She couldn’t even remember when was the last time she’d eaten. Mary told her to go back to the house.

“I’ll do the cleaning up, don’t worry, Margaret.”

“Thank you, Mary, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Margaret walked towards the house which was a good half mile away from the infirmary. The surface of the Mill was approximately one square mile, and the outhouse sat at the back of it. It was a cold and damp night with fog swirling between the buildings. She had barely walked for twenty yards when a blow on the back of her head thrust her into a deep black darkness.

Hannah, working on her household books in the parlour, looked up when the clock on the mantelpiece struck ten. She frowned and wondered where Margaret was. Working herself into exhaustion in that infirmary, no doubt!

She rose and went to stand at the window overlooking the front courtyard. It was a nasty night. Hannah shivered but not from cold. She felt uncomfortable, as she always did when John was not at home. She worried about John, how would he fare in Liverpool?

“Oh, come on, woman!” she inwardly admonished herself. “What has become of you? You shiver and tremble over nothing!” Resolutely she resumed her seat and continued working on her books.

 

Margaret’s body was screaming with pain. She seemed to be immerged into a black sea of pain and she could not breathe properly.  She was lying on a hard unyielding surface, gasping and retching uncontrollably because she could not get enough air into her lungs. There was a blindfold, and a gag which blocked her nose and mouth.

Fighting the panic that threatened to overwhelm her, she tried to take small shallow breaths. It helped a little but it didn’t drive the pain away.

“Well … how the high and mighty have fallen,” a voice drawled somewhere above her head, and it took Margaret some time to realize that the voice belonged to Ann Latimer. It didn’t make sense, why would Ann Latimer do her harm? She tried to move, but her hands were tied onto her back, and her bound feet were connected with her hands. They had laid a noose around her neck and connected it with her hands and feet. She was in a stranglehold. If she moved either hands or feet, the noose was tightening and she would be slowly throttled.

“Careful now, Miss Hale! If you move, you’ll strangle yourself,” Ann Latimer said triumphantly.

Margaret heard the faint rustle of fabric close to her head. Her attacker must have lowered herself somehow because this time the voice was much closer.

“But it won’t matter, my dear, for you’ll die anyway. You see, you’re in my way, you keep John away from me, simply because you exist. I have loved John far more and far longer than you have. There was even a time when we were on the brink of betrothal, as you seemed to be away from Milton for good.”

That voice! So cold and so full of hate, and why? What had she ever done to harm Ann Latimer?

“Oh yes, the minute he realized that you were going to leave Milton forever, he came to me. He courted me and wooed me, and I welcomed it with all my heart. The first time we kissed, I thought I’d die from happiness. He is a passionate man, my John, and soon he will be mine again, solely mine!”

Margaret desperately tried to shield her mind and her heart from those words and from the agonizing feelings they stirred up. She knew that the woman was lying, she had to be lying! John would never have done such things, not when she knew he had loved her all along. John had never stopped loving her, of that Margaret was indisputably certain. Then, however, she recalled John telling her about Ann trying to kiss him …

“Say your prayers, Miss Hale, you will die at the same time Marlborough Mills is destroyed. Destroyed for good, this time, so that your despicable money won’t be able to rebuild it again. John will inherit that money and it will make him a rich husband for me. You see, my dear, I have no money of my own. My brute of a father won’t settle a sufficient dowry on me as he cannot part of it. I have to fend for myself and I will. Goodbye, my dear, try to stay alive long enough for you to burn to death.”   

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fourteen

Chapter 14 – We have ways and means

Dixon was truly and seriously worried.

Ever since the break-in in the Mill, now two months ago, she hadn’t been able to make up her mind as to whom she should speak about Jane’s curious behaviour. She had been trying to speak to Margaret, but her young mistress had her hands full with the new infirmary. In the evening Margaret was often too tired to be harassed with such tales.

Dixon did not dare to approach Hannah Thornton.

The mistress of the Thornton household – yes, she still was all of that – was a stern and forbidding woman. Dixon herself was not so easily scared but she wanted to be careful for Miss Margaret’s sake. She didn’t want to drive a wedge between Miss Margaret and her mother-in-law. So that was that.

Approaching Mr. Thornton was no option either.

Dixon still had no notion of what to make of the master. He seemed to love her mistress but was that really so? Men did want only one thing, didn’t they?

He was a very hard worker, she had to give him that! To put in so many hours a day, to mix with his workers if need be, even not being afraid to get dirt on his hands if need be. Not many masters did that. But, Dixon realized, the Mill was his life’s blood. The master would do anything that was required to keep his Mill operating. Dixon doubted if he even had any other interests but his cotton mill. So, no, she would not talk about her suspicions to the master.

 

 

Nicholas Higgins knocked before he entered his master’s office even though the door was rarely closed. John looked up from his paperwork and smiled.

“Ah, Nicholas, come in, sit down! What’s the news?”

As soon as he saw Nicholas’s face, John knew something was not right.

“Well, master, we might have some trouble looming. There’s a strike at Liverpool Harbour and the cotton is not being unloaded from the merchant ships. If we don’t get our supply by Monday next week, we’ll go out of production.”

“Damn!” John stood and went to close the office door. He didn’t want anybody to hear that, it could raise troubles amongst the workers. He resumed his seat and was lost in thought for a couple of minutes.

“I’ll have to go down there, Nicholas.”

“I’m coming with you, when do we go?”

“No!” John said. “I need you to stay here and look after the Mill. I’m not at all sure the attacks are behind us and I don’t want vigilance to slow down. Besides, if I don’t succeed in bringing some of our cotton with me, you’ll have to deal with the workers and prevent commotion. I’ll take Williams with me, he knows his way around the harbour better than I do.”

Nicholas nodded and stood.

“When will you leave, master?”

“I’ll take the last train tonight so I’d better tell Margaret.”

 

Dixon was helping Margaret and Hannah sorting out a box of supplies for the infirmary that had arrived that morning, when John entered the parlour.

“My love,” he said “I must leave for Liverpool this instant. There’s a problem with our cotton supply that I must see into. Now, mother’ – he turned to Hannah – ‘Nicholas is to remain here as my substitute. He’s the only one that can keep the workers from getting stirred up.”

“I’ll go and prepare your suitcase, John,”Margaret said quietly and went to their bedchamber.

Dixon, who’d been feeling restless for days over past events, was suddenly very worried. She didn’t know where it came from but she was not happy with the master’s departure, especially at a time like the present. Somehow the master’s tall form seemed to be needed to feel oneself safe.

While she kept working alone now, for both the ladies had left, Dixon fretted about Jane and her doings. Whom could she talk to, who could help her? At some point she walked over to the window, tired of being in the same position so long, and stretched her back. It was then that she saw Nicholas Higgins in the courtyard, giving instructions to a couple of men. And suddenly, Dixon knew what to do.

 

Fanny Watson stamped her foot and exclaimed, “What? He did what? He rejected you? Oooohhh, what a stick-in-the-mud my brother is! I can’t believe it! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

Ann Latimer’s eyes smouldered with suppressed rage, even after so long a time. When she thought back of that morning, six weeks earlier, on which she had been so brutally rejected by John Thornton, her fury was brought alive again.

“Oh, do you think it is something I want everybody to know, then? And besides, you were away to the continent until yesterday, Fanny! How was I to reach you, then? It’s not something you write about in a letter to your touring fiend, is it? He humiliated me, Fanny!” spat Ann. Seeing Fanny’s eyes widen with surprise, she smothered down her fury.

“Your brother will pay for this, Fanny,” she said in a calmer voice.

She was perfectly able to conceal the power of her revenge if she wished to. And, oh yes, revenge she would have.

“What are we going to do next, dear Ann? We must do something! I cannot be stuck with the stupid Hale woman for the rest of my days, can I?”

“Well …” Ann Latimer said, “we must raise the stakes a little bit higher, then. Your brother will suffer in a way he’s never imagined and he’s not even going to know it was me who did it to him.”

Struck by the extreme hate she heard in Ann Latimer’s voice, Fanny looked at her in sudden fear now.

“What do you mean? Suffer? Why must John suffer? He will be a little downcast when the Hale woman leaves him but as you will step into her place, he’ll come around sometime, don’t you think?”

Ann Latimer’s cruel little laugh chilled Fanny to the bones.

“Oh, the Hale bitch will leave him alright! So definitively that she’ll be a corpse anytime soon now!”

Fanny stared at her in frightened surprise, not sure if she’d heard right.

“What … what do you mean, a corpse? You can’t mean to say that … oh no, Ann, you couldn’t!”

Ann’s eyes were black as coal when she whispered, “I could, I can and I will, Fanny.”

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirteen

Chapter 13 – A woman scorned

John stood rooted to the spot, feeling as if he had been kicked in the stomach!

He felt the blood draining from his face as he stared at the face of this … well-educated accomplished female he’d supposed was coming from a decent family of bankers. She was … offering herself to him! He must have misunderstood! This was so absurd, or … maybe it wasn’t after all?

Still reeling from the shock, he saw how she brought her pretty face nearer to his. She was taller than Margaret. She had also beautiful brown eyes, fit for a man to be drowned in their depths, and he couldn’t help himself looking at her full rosy lips. The next second, she had thrown her arms around him, and he felt the curves of her body plying against his in an incredibly intimate way. She slowly moved her pelvis against his and pressed her mouth onto his. The instant she was inserting her tongue into his mouth, he came to his senses and violently pushed her away. She hadn’t foreseen that and bumped into one of the looms with a cry of pain.

John’s gentlemanlike disposition forced him to take her arm and steady her.

“Miss Latimer, for God’s sake, take care! You’ll hurt yourself!”

He hadn’t finished his sentence before he was being slapped hard in the face by this wretched girl.

“You will come to regret what you did, John Thornton!” she spat, “I’ll never forget that you rejected me and doubted my sincere love for you! Be sure of my retaliation!”

Ann Latimer turned on her heels and stalked away, leaving him baffled to the extreme.

 

“This is your next assignment, Leonards. I’m very pleased with the way you handled the previous one. You’re sure nobody saw you when you left the courtyard?” the gentleman in the carriage said in his cold unmoving voice.

“No, sir,” Leonards assured. “This should be very easy and very to my liking too! It will be the ultimate revenge on that Hale woman!”

“Then go and prepare yourself. There will be guards around the Mill now, I know Thornton, he’ll not take any risks.’”

 

When John entered the parlour, Margaret’s heart tightened.

He was nearly beyond exhaustion, his face pale and drawn, his mouth a thin rigid line, his eyes drained of everything but extreme weariness. She and Hannah jumped to their feet simultaneously to ease him down on the settee. Margaret withdrew in favour of Hannah, who she knew was dying to help her son. Instead she went to the small table loaded with glasses and a decanter of sherry. On reflexion she poured him a generous glass of whisky and was rewarded by a look of profound gratitude when she handed it to him. She and Hannah resumed their seats.

“The damage?” Hannah asked, her voice only slightly trembling.

“Bad enough, but we’ll be able to make repairs. What troubles me more is, that there’s been a deliberate attempt to ruin my Mill. To make me go bankrupt again! I … God! It’s obscene, criminal even!”

 

 

Margaret bend over to touch his hand. “Steady, my love …”, she urged. “Everything is under control. We will conquer this, if we all work together. Have you posted guards?”

“Yes, and not only by night, also by day. Higgins has drawn up a roster for the guards to be on a four hour shift on ten different locations about the Mill. We have notified the Milton Police Department and they agreed to give us support.”

Hannah, who had kept silent until then, softly said,                                                        “Margaret, he’s at the end of his wits. Help him to go to bed.”

“Mother, I’m not …”

“Come …,” Margaret said and eased him up. They retreated to their bedroom.

“John?” Margaret said gently, “do you wish to go to your former boy’s bedroom so that you can sleep better?”

John turned to her and his eyes scanned her face. “Margaret, my sweet love, I’m not going anywhere. I need your presence, I cannot do without you, sweetheart …Come …”

With a happy sigh Margaret went to him and was instantly in his arms.

“So how are the injured lads doing?” John asked.

Margaret noticed how tired he must be for his voice gave way with fatigue and emotion over the children’s fate.

“They’re stable, thank God. Jimmy, the one with the broken leg, has gone home already and Tommy is at the hospital for an operation. The poor boy has his pelvis broken and Dr Donaldson has promised to tell me if he has any news. Oh John! The damage to the Mill is bad enough but it‘s nothing compared to what happened to the children! Tommy’s mother is a widow with five children and only Tommy is old enough to work. Luckily Jimmy has two older brothers but even so it will be a huge loss of income for his family when he’s not working!”

“Shhh, shhh! Don’t worry, darling, I’ve asked Higgins to see to the needs of the two families and to the cost for the boys. We’ll help as best as we can. But Margaret …”

He lifted her chin so he could see into her eyes. “It is because of you, my precious one, that I’ve come to realize the need my workers and their families are in. Before I knew you, I had no knowledge of it and nor did I care. You have made a better man of me, darling, and for that, I thank you.”

Margaret smiled and laid her hand against his cheek. John involuntarily winced when she touched the spot where he was slapped.

“John! What happened? You have a bruise!”

“Ah, yes … well, darling, brace yourself for I have something to tell you, something quite unbelievable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twelve

Chapter 12 – A very accomplished young lady

 

Within mere minutes John was on the spot. A number of workers had gathered in the factory hall and were blocking the entrance.

“Let me pass!” His voice thundered through the silent hall.

The men parted, and he rushed by them, taking stock of what had happened. It was a sheer disaster!

All the leather belts which were used to drive the looms were cut and all the cotton in process on the looms was shred to pieces. It would cost a fortune repairing the damage fast enough not to suffer a delay in production.

Then John’s gaze turned towards the two young boys sprawled under one of the looms. Apparently one of the warp beams had come loose and crashed down onto the children, leaving one of them buried under its massive weight and the other trapped by the leg. The latter boy was howling in pain, the other unconscious. Several men were trying to lift the beam but they were unable to do so.

“Master, come, give me a hand!” Higgins shouted at John.

Margaret, who had rushed from the dining room close on John’s heels, watched how the two men took each a side of the beam and heaved it upwards in one mighty haul. Sweat broke out on their brows as they held the heavy beam up while others removed the boys from under it. As soon as they were free, Margaret sprang to action.

“Careful! Don’t move them again!” she shouted. “Mr. Williams, is there a board or a plank we can use to transport them to the infirmary?”

“Of course, Mrs. Thornton, ma’am!” Williams answered and gestured at two of the workers who approached with a board between them.

“Please slide the board under them, very carefully, if you please! We don’t want to dislocate the boy’s pelvis”, Margaret instructed.

She glanced around looking for John but he and Higgins were taking stock of the damage. She preceded the workers bearing the boards with the injured children to the infirmary. Mary, she knew, would already be there to help her.

 

John entered his office and went straight to the cupboard at the back. Retrieving a bottle of brandy, he poured himself a measure and tossed it back in one gulp. The damage to the looms was extensive not to mention the arrears on production. He was also aware of the darker side of this; someone was planning on ruining Marlborough Mills.

Weary to the bone after the crushing task he’d behind him, calculating the cost of the damage repair with Higgins at the ledger office, John sank into his chair behind his desk and ran his hands over his face. Only then he noticed the blood on his hand and sleeve. He had a nasty cut on his forearm which bled a little.

“Oh, John, you’re hurt!”

He violently startled and saw Ann Latimer standing in the doorframe.

“Miss Ann! Good Lord, are you still here? And in the Mill to boot! This is no place for you, come, let me escort you back to the house.”

“No, no, that is not necessary.” She smiled and looked around her.

“So this is where you work. How interesting and inspiring! But, John, you must let me tend to your wound.”

In bewilderment, John saw her stride towards the sink in the corner of the office and wet her fine lace handkerchief under the tab. A second later she had wrapped it around his arm, tying it firmly. Her fingers were light as a feather while they lingered on his wrist, caressing it slowly. She raised her big brown eyes to meet his gaze and her voice was slightly husky when she spoke. “So you’ve managed to save the Mill after all, albeit with the help of Margaret Hale’s money.”

John blinked and pulled his hand free. “Mrs. Thornton, you mean?’ he corrected her, all the while in bewilderment over her strange behaviour.

Ann brought her face closer to his, and he had to keep himself from pulling away. What was going on here? He gave her his most scowling stare. She seemed not to notice.

“Yes, …I forgot, she is now Mrs. Thornton … and she bought herself a neat and tidy little business, didn’t she …”

The extremely impertinent tone of her voice drove John to stand abruptly, forcing her to recede in haste.

“Miss Latimer”, he said in the iciest tone he could muster, “your conduct is highly inappropriate. I suggest that we both return to the house and from there you could leave in Watson’s carriage. I have urgent business, you must excuse me.”

Something changed in the way she looked at him, a glint of something dark gleamed in those doe eyes. Yet, she smiled and bowed her head. “Of course, John, if it pleases you.”

 

Late that night, Hannah and Margaret in the parlour sat waiting for John. Hannah was doing needlework and Margaret was trying to do the same but she didn’t succeed. Her mind kept wandering to the strange events of the day and to the effect they would have on John. It was abundantly clear that someone was trying to destroy Marlborough Mills. That was horrible enough but the wounding of the two children angered her even more. Two innocent victims had suffered from the deeds of someone set on dangerous mischief. Fortunately, the lad with the broken leg was already on the mend, Dr. Donaldson having set and cast it. She’d keep him in the infirmary until the next day as he might still be developing a fever.

The other boy was in a much worse shape. His pelvis had indeed been broken, and Dr. Donaldson had him transferred to the hospital to perform an operation. Margaret’s heart still hurt when she thought about the poor child, howling with pain every time they had to move him.

 

John gestured Ann Latimer out of his office, careful not to offer her his arm or to touch her. She sweetly smiled at him and preceded him outside. While they went through the now deserted Mill shed, he followed her between the damaged rows of looms. His heart ached at the sight of them, he couldn’t keep himself from staring at his machinery in horror. It took a while ‘ere he realized that Ann Latimer was talking to him.

“John, how awful! Please accept my sympathy and my support, should you need it. I can talk to Father about this, I’m sure he would lend you the money to make the necessary repairs.”

“That would be totally unnecessary, Miss Latimer. I told your father that I won’t need his services as I have contracted another banker since the Mill went back into business.”

“Oh! But ….” She edged closer to him and, to his abhorrence, laid a hand to his cheek, one that didn’t wear a glove!

                ”But … John, are you sure? We,… I would do anything, anything, to be of assistance, if you understand what I mean to say? Assistance in everything, John … I fully understand how … unfortunate you must be in having married a woman without the lure of true love. You did it for the sake of your business, I know. So, even if you were unable therefore to ask me to be your wife, I still can … supply whatever need you have for … real companionship, John …I have no objection in doing so, rest assured.”