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.