Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Nine

Chapter Nineteen  – The Edge of Reason

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.

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Eight – Joining forces

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?”

“Hmpf!”

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.

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Seven – Ache and Agony

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!”

“John!”

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.

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Six

Chapter Sixteen – John Thornton’s despair

 

 

“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?”

Margaret nodded.

“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?

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Five – Mrs. Thornton’s vanishing

“Definitively, this is something I will have to explain to Mother,” John said to Margaret, as they were returning to the house.

“Why?”, asked Margaret, “What part is that, John?”

“Well, Mother is a bit old-fashioned in her viewpoints. She does not think it proper for a mill owner to negotiate with strikers. She would have brought in Irish workers right from the start.”

Margaret smiled. “I think you underestimate her, John. Mother has changed over the past few months. She is most concerned about people’s poor quality of life.”

“Well, let us see what she will say when we explain it to her.”

His mother, however, was not in the house.

 

Nicholas Higgins whistled a cheerful tone between his teeth as he returned home. He felt ridiculously happy after his encounter with Hannah Thornton. Holy smoke, he thought, I am on friendly terms with Mrs. Thornton, the Mrs. Thornton!

It had been a while now since he started looking at her in a different way. Since he had been appointed personnel manager at Marlborough Mills, he had seen her on a regular base. She just could not keep away from the factory, she just had to stick her nose in the daily running of it. Nicholas chuckled almost aloud as he pictured her straight-backed figure striding through the factory hall and keeping an eagle’s eye on the workers. She was still a beautiful woman, with her fine figure and her thick, dark hair and vivid blue eyes. Her face was lined, to be sure, but it did not diminish the strength of it. On the contrary, it only enhanced the quality of her character, a strong, but very likeable woman.

 

Dixon appeared in the door right behind them as John and Margaret entered the empty parlour.

“Where is Mrs. Thornton?”, John asked her.

“Oh, she went out, sir, at about seven pm. Said she had an errant to run.”

It was now ten pm and Margaret saw John’s brow furrowing with a hint of concern.

“Where can she have gone to on an errand at this time of day? Surely it could have waited until the morning?”

Margaret also was having second thoughts about Hannah going out on a winter evening without telling anyone where she was going. It was certainly uncommon for her not to be back since long now. Inwardly she began recalling her day and her conversations with Hannah.

They had talked about the strike, for sure. They had talked about John and how he was going to deal with it. Margaret had asked Hannah what her viewpoint was on negotiating the worker’s wages with Nicholas, something Margaret had been wanting to do even before the strike. To her surprise Hannah had been in favour of talking to Nicholas. She had actually praised him for his commitment towards the factory’s interests. She had even said that she was very grateful to him because of his help in caring for John during his illness. It had occurred to Margaret that Hannah might even have learned to like Nicholas Higgins! She thus formed her thoughts to her husband.

“Mother might have gone to talk with Nicholas, John.”

Astonishment shone from his eyes when John incredulously enquired: “Mother? Talking to Higgins? You must surely be joking, Margaret!”

Margaret shook her head. “No, John, I am not. Mother has become rather acquainted with him during your illness when he … well, it is difficult to explain but, you see, Nicholas was here every night to enquire about your state of health and Mother was rather in low spirits and …”

“And what, Margaret? Please, do not stop now! I have a right to know!”

“John, I am not sure of anything but I think they may have formed a kind of friendship, an understanding.”

The look of complete and utter bewilderment on John’s face caused Margaret to laugh out loud.

“Oh, John, don’t be such a prude! Your mother is a mature, responsible woman but, nevertheless, a woman! She has been a widow for more than sixteen years! I could be entirely wrong but I think she has grown rather fond of Nicholas and he of her.”

Two seconds later John stormed out of the room and thundered down the stairs like a madman.

“Oh, dear!,” Dixon sighed, “Oh, dear, dear!”

 

Nicholas was just about to clear up the tea things when there was a loud banging on his door. He had barely time to open it on a furiously scowling John Thornton when his master grabbed him hard by the lapels of his shirt, tearing them loose in the process!

“You treacherous, two-timing son of a …”

Nicholas placed him an uppercut, not too violently but hard enough to slightly stun John so that he let go of him. John staggered backwards and Nicholas got hold of him, steadying his master and helping him sit down on a chair.

“Ouch!”, John said, a bit surprised.

Nicholas crossed his arms on his broad chest and stood before him with a look of amused interest in his eyes. “Come to give me a trashing, then, hey Master? You think this is going to help solving the strike?”

John fingered his painful jaw and gave him a sheepish grin. “Ah, the strike … no, actually I came for something entirely different altogether. What is going on between you and my mother?”

He had the satisfaction of seeing Nicholas blanch under his black stubble. The union man sat down with a thud and swallowed.

“Well, John, actually there isn’t going on something just yet but there might be in the future … You see, Hannah and I, we have … we might have … we would like to … Blast!!!”

John chuckled and winced when that gave him an unexpected stab of pain in his jaw.

“I’m having confusing thoughts when you swear and call my mother by her given name in one sentence,” he said.

Nicholas was momentarily speechless. He had a hard time realising that John Thornton could stomach the possibility of a “friendship” between him and Hannah.

“By the way,” John asked, “where is she?”

Sheer astonishment coloured Nicholas’s cheeks. “At home, of course! I walked her to your mill gate myself, not an hour ago!”

“She was here, then?”

“Yes, we talked and … are you implying she is not at home?”

 

John inhaled shakily and replied in a forlorn tone. “No, Nicholas, she is not …”

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Four – From bad to worse

Margaret found her husband staring at his idle looms in the empty weaving hall of the mill.

John had been there all day since the workers had gone on strike at two pm. The day had been gloomy and cold, as if to match the Master’s mood, and at present, an eerie dusk had set in .

“John, dearest?”

He turned towards her, eyes haggard. “So it has happened again, Margaret,” was all he said, in a voice hoarse with misery.

“Come home with me, John. It is freezing out here and mother is waiting for us with dinner.”

She tried to keep her voice cool. “No,” John answered, “I will stay here and work on my books. I must assess the damage this is bound to inflict upon my mill.”

“Are you going to import hands from Ireland?”, his wife asked quietly.

He threw her an apprehensive look. “I am considering it, yes,” he hesitated.

Margaret placed her hand on his arm.

“John, please, do not do it. You know it will deteriorate things and the outcome is very uncertain. You should …”

“What on earth am I to do then? I cannot bloody let my production come to a stop for God knows how long and risk everything once again!”

John had shouted this words at her but Margaret didn’t startle. His temper had gotten away with him as it was prone to do when he was on edge.

“My love,” she said quietly, “there is another way to solve the problem. It is much better to talk with your workers and listen to what they have to say.”

“Damn it, Margaret! If it were that simple, I would have done it long before! All they talk about is getting higher wages and being paid their overtime! How is Marlborough Mills supposed to survive under such circumstances?”

“It will only survive if you come to a deep and honest understanding of your workers, my love. You have seen the way they are forced to live. They are suffering, John! They are starving!”

“Oh, and I am to blame? I am the one responsible for their misery, I, who provides them with a livelihood? What am I supposed to do, give them a house, food, coal, everything?”

“No.” Her quiet, calm tone and the look of determination in her eyes abated a bit of his anger. Margaret took his hands in hers, they were cold as were her own. It was so arctic in the hall their breaths came out of their mouths as little puffs of smoke.

“I will help you, John. We will work out how much raise you could give them and not put the survival of the mill on the line. We will draw up a social plan for the sick and the temporarily incapacitated, like the pregnant women. We will improve the quality and the efficiency of the soup kitchen and of the infirmary. I have informed myself about this, John, I have read several works about social improvement. Let me help you, dearest. After all it is as much our future as that of our workers.”

John stared at his tiny, slender wife whose face was alight with enthusiasm and diligence. This was the woman he fell in love with, he remembered, the woman with a heart and a love for those who were in worse conditions than herself. The woman that never shied away from what she believed in.

He gathered her in his arms and she came to rest against his chest. “My sweet love,” he breathed, “I am sorry. Once again my wretched temper got the better of me. Let us go inside, it’s freezing. Just allow me to get my books so I can study them at home.”

 

Hannah Thornton was on a mission she could not postpone. She had walked the three mile distance to Nicholas’ house in order to have the time to gather her thoughts. It was imperative that she speak with him. He must cancel this stupid strike as he was the only one to do it. She, Hannah, must make him see reason, though she had not the faintest idea how she was about to tackle this blasted subject.

Hannah had lately become aware of strange, long-forgotten sentiments of – and here her mind always coiled away from even thinking it – of a certain softness she felt when in the presence of Nicholas Higgins. She had learned about the union man when the first strike at Marlborough Mills had taken place. From what John recounted Hannah had taken an instant dislike of the man. He had become – in her eyes – the fiercest enemy of the mill by organising and leading the strikers. Under his imperturbable directions the strikers had held on for five whole weeks, almost bringing the factory to its knees. No wonder a few months later John had gone bankrupt after being brought to such a low degree of cotton production. Her son had fought heroically to make up the arrears and lost. It was enough for Hannah to have begun hating Nicholas Higgins.

Gradually, however, she had got to see another side of him, a humanitarian side. Higgins really cared about his people, as he called them. He was prepared to fight for them, to try everything that was in his reach to improve their station in life. Moreover, he did so in a straightforward but implacable way, and that was something Hannah could respect. She herself behaved exactly the same way in her dealings with people and situations. During John’s recent predicament, Nicholas had been invaluable in his efforts to find John. He had helped saving John’s life and quietly but firmly offered his support when she needed it the most.

Hannah had not told this to a living soul but, during the long days of John’s illness, Nicholas had called on her every night. He had not talked much but simply hold her hands in his. He had sometimes spoken to her in tender yet supporting words of comfort. One evening in particular, he had gathered her into his arms when she had succumbed to tears of powerlessness. She still remembered the warm, solid firmness of that broad, muscular chest and the overwhelming feeling of safety and comfort that had raced through her. A stabbing thought of propriety had made her tear herself from his embrace. Nicholas had not uttered a word but she had clearly seen the sudden, deep hurt in those blue-green eyes.

As a result of all this, the strike was not the only reason Hannah had to seek out Nicholas. She had by now reached the bottom of Princes Street where his house sat. Drawing a deep breath Hannah gave a firm knock on the door. It was opened almost instantly by a grim looking Nicholas.

“Han … Mrs. Thornton!”

“Hannah, please? I think we have become sufficiently acquainted by now to be on a first name base, have we not?”

A mischievous grin spread over his still handsome face and he stepped back to show her in.

“I’m afraid you will find me on my own,” he said, “Mary is still at work in the infirmary. Now, I do not give a fig about propriety but I know you do. Therefore we could talk on the doorstep, if you wish.”

Hannah strode in and seated herself on one of the chairs at the white-scrubbed table.

“No, thank you!,” she replied, “What I have to say, is not for everyone to be overheard.”

“Ah! Well, let me make you a cup of tea first, then. The day is cold enough to freeze a man to death.”

Hannah waited in silence until he had placed two mugs of steaming tea on the table and seated himself in front of her.

“I am all ears, Hannah, what do you have to say?”

“You must let go of the strike. It will ruin my son and I cannot bear that.”

Nicholas sucked in his breath and bit his lower lip.

“You do not beat around the bush, do you?”

“No”, Hannah replied, “and neither do you. What can be done to solve this problem?”

He scoffed, not in the least disconcerted by her stern look of disapproval.

“Come on, Hannah! Do not tell me you do not know what is needed to get the strikers back to work! Not you, as John Thornton’s mother!”

Now it was Hannah’s turn to scowl. She felt the colour rise in her face with sheer anger! “You want my son to raise their wages and he cannot do it! Do you want the mill to go bankrupt again? Then nobody will be the better and our workers’ lives will go even more miserable! Confound it, Nicholas, do you think my son is inhumane? He knows about their misery and he does what he can to make it better!”

She suddenly realised that Nicholas was looking at her in a peculiar way, amused, on the verge of laughing.

“What? What is it?”

“Hannah Thornton, you are a woman after my own heart! You have a temper, I like that! When your son comes into frame,  you defend him like a lioness. Have no fear, my girl, I will talk to John. We will find a solution.”

“Your girl, Nicholas Higgins? I am no such thing!”

His large, calloused hand covered her own and her heart started pounding in her ears.

“Do I have to spill it out to you?,” he asked softly.

Hannah found herself drowning in his gaze and she swallowed, unable to acknowledge the truth.

“I would never do anything that would cause you pain, Hannah. You must know that.”

His hand on hers was pleasantly warm and comforting and although her inbred instincts screamed at her to retrieve it, she found she could not.

“What is this?, she breathed, “What is happening?”

“You know what it is. And now, I think you should return to Marlborough Mills. I’ll go with you.”

He stood, showed her out, put her hand in the crook of his arm and accompanied her all the way through town to the gates of the mill.

“Here you are,” he said, “off you go then.”

He didn’t do anything, just threw her a fond look. She opened the gate and entered, turned the key in the lock and retrieved it. Deep in thoughts, Hannah set foot towards her house.

 

A quiet footfall behind her made her turn her head to the left but the blackness engulfed her before she knew what befell her.

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Three – And then the looms fell silent

The minute Dixon walked into the large basement kitchen, the maids stopped their idle chatting and hastily bent over their work again. From the day Miss Adelaide Dixon had taken residence in the Thornton’s household, now four months ago, she had imposed her undisputable authority onto the rest of the staff. Even Cook had not dared resisting when Dixon gave her the stern, piercing look as she was wont to do when someone did not obey her orders.

Dixon’s face betrayed nothing but she had indeed managed to catch a few words from the girls’ conversation. They were talking about the mill and about the unrest amongst the workers. The word ‘strike’ had fallen and Dixon was worried about that. A strike meant trouble and that was something her beloved Margaret could do without right now. Dixon had seen a lot of meaningful looks between the stupid little gooses lately and occasionally caught a few snatches of their silly tittle-tattle. She knew something was afoot. An accidentally overheard conversation between Nicholas Higgins and Overseer Williams had learned her there was serious discontentment under the workers because winter was so hard and prices of food were high. While she was doing Margaret’s laundering of small clothes – a task she did not give to anyone else – Dixon heard Jane beginning to gossip again.

“I tell you, Annie, they are going to put work down tomorrow! And a good thing it will be, with the master refusing to raise the wages, how are these poor people supposed to survive? My dad hasn’t worked for over two months now, him being ill, and my brother brings in eleven shillings a week. Without my salary we wouldn’t be able to cope!”

Dixon put her head around the door, startling the maids into a fright.

“Then, if I were you, missie, I would earn my wages by putting in some good, decent work instead of tattling away the hours!”

Jane nearly jumped out of her skin but she managed to stammer. “Yes, Miss Dixon, I did not mean any disrespect!” She practically fled from the room.

Silly goose, Dixon thought, but what could you expect when the serving girls had been picked out of the gutter and had never been in a decent, respectful household! She vowed herself to keep an eye on that one!

 

The New Year’s dinner was given by Hannah Thornton every year for a very select group of family and friends since she had been newly married thirty-three years ago. That night her guest list was very small; only Fanny and her husband and Nicholas and Mary Higgins were on it.

There was definitively something awkward about the way her guests were behaving, Hannah thought. Fanny was her usual, hare-brained self but Jeremy Watson’s good-natured face bore an expression of concern. It could result from the presence of Nicolas Higgins whom Watson thought to be a firebrand and a potential enemy to mill owners. Her son-in-law, however was too well-bred to openly  show his annoyance. He kept a polite but stone-cold attitude towards the union man.

Nicholas himself, Hannah mused, was also very polite and unusually quiet, only responding briefly when spoken to. The conversation at the dinner table was upheld solely by the ladies, with Fanny being the main talker. Trust Fanny not to be noticing a chill between people!

John’s sister was currently chatting about some new furnishings for her drawing room, which she had recently upholstered. While she went on about the colours of the wallpapers and curtains, the style and size of cupboards and seats, nobody was actually paying attention, though Fanny was blissfully oblivious to that fact.

John and Margaret were positively glowing. Hannah saw the looks they were flashing each other over the rim of their glasses when they sipped their drinks. A surge of relief went through her. They were happy! They were content but they were also wrapped into a world of their own and for the moment oblivious to the rest of it.

Hannah, with her long experience of factory life and everything it brought on, sensed that something was brewing, something that meant trouble, like a strike. She could try and coax Nicholas about it but she wouldn’t. Nicholas – yes, she was since lately thinking of him on a first name base – was the one to speak to when it came down to the workers and their problems. Hannah was a shrewd, down-to earth woman when it concerned people and their intertwined  dealings. She knew about the worker’s poor conditions and the threatening famine amongst them. She knew Nicholas, too. He was acutely aware of what was going on and ever more acutely affected by it. Maybe she would try and speak with him later but for now, she turned towards his daughter who was sitting at her right hand.

“How are things at the surgery, Mary? I haven’t found the time, these last days, to come to see for myself.”

Mary looked at Hannah in her usual, unruffled way.

“It is sometimes hard but we keep struggling on, Mrs.Thornton. There is much suffering this year, much more than I have ever known before.”

She hesitated and Hannah took the advantage to ask in a low voice.

“Is there also unrest under them? Will they try and set up a strike?”

Her big, blue eyes wide, Mary nodded and Hannah felt the blood leave her face. Then she saw Nicholas’s gaze upon her, unreadable, unwavering. She must try to speak with him privately!

 

Even in the haze of her happiness, Margaret was aware of the tension between Nicholas and John. They were only speaking of trivial matters in voices strained with control. These few days past, with John being so ill, she had found little chance to work at the infirmary but Mary seemed to have managed well enough with her small staff of women. Caring for John had kept her in the house, however, and therefore she had missed the chatter from which she usually  picked up people’s moods. At this very moment Margaret realised that master and employee were on the verge of conflict. Knowing Nicholas’ dedication to his union work and John’s passion for Marlborough Mills, there could very well be trouble ahead.

Her anxiety was aggravated  when the two men retired in John’s study after dinner. Fanny and her husband had another engagement and left, so Margaret finally saw fit to have a conversation with Mary.

“Dearest Mary, I can’t thank you enough for all the good work you performed at the infirmary.”

“Oh, Margaret! People are so miserable and I sometimes have the feeling that what we do is just a drop into the ocean!”

“No, Mary, no! I know it can make a difference, we must continue as we are. Tell me honestly, is there a strike coming?”

“Yes, Margaret, the hands are about to turn out tomorrow!”

Margaret felt a hollow settle into the pit of her stomach.

“We must get ourselves prepared, then. The number of sufferers will vastly increase over the next few weeks.”

Dixon, who was clearing the table alongside Jane, cringed inwardly when she heard all this. It seemed that the chatting girls had been right, trouble was once again looming.

 

The following day the workers shut off the steam engines which powered the looms. They gathered their coats and hats, wrapped themselves up against the bitter cold and left the sheds of Marlborough Mills. John stood on top of the outside platform watching them, his face gloomy and his heart heavy. He was, however, not the only one to be watching.

The Spiteful One, a malicious smile on her face, was there too, but well hidden behind a stack of cotton bales. Victory!