The Reform of John Thornton – Part Six

Chapter Six

How grateful I was to have my mill so that I could throw myself onto my work and forget the events of that upsetting tea party.

The mill required my full attention at that time, for trouble was most definitively brewing.

It was of such great concern that I called on my fellow mill masters to convene and discuss the situation.

Our assembly hall was next to the Lyceum Hall, and I was standing near the open window. I was watching the comings and goings from above, and to my chagrin, I had recognized several of my workers entering the hall to attend a meeting. Since I had also seen Higgins going in some time before, I presumed he was to be the ringleader for a possible strike.

A slight woman clad in drab brown mounted the steps at a leisurely pace.

Margaret! What was she doing here? What was her business attending a workers’ meeting? Was there no end to my torture, then? Would she aggrieve me over and over again with her inappropriate behaviour?

“Ah …put him down. He’s one of ours isn’t he?” Hamper’s voice nearly made me jump. He was standing next to me, a tankard of ale in his hand.

“Boucher … he’s Thornton’s,” Henderson said. He too had come to join us without me noticing it.

Hamper then challenged me. “Aren’t you interested, Thornton?  All mills together if you please. We need to show ‘em.  We know what they’re up to and who they are.”

I did not take the bait. Hamper always likes to tease and stir trouble, and when he succeeds he scampers away, leaving it to others to clean after him.  “Let them meet, if that’s how they want to spend their leisure time.”

Then it was Henderson again. “We’re all trying to work together Thornton.”

I turned to the room, letting my scepticism show. “Are we?”

“What does that mean?” Henderson asked, sounding surprised, yet I knew better.

“I overheard some of my men talking.  It seems you are planning to give in to them.  We agreed …. we would all be in line … so that the men would know we meant business and know that we kept our word.”

“Well … I …” Henderson sputtered, then looked at Watson. They were playing their own game behind my back, I knew it well. No matter, I would know what to do if the need should arise.

 

Later that night – it must have been near eleven o’ clock – I went to close Marlborough Mills’ main gate. God, I was exhausted. And very concerned about the coming days.

Just when I was at the gate, a figure stepped forward from the shadows. I had failed to see him, because a fog was whirling through the deserted streets. Stephens!

“Master, …”

“What are you doing here?”

“ Master, I beg you to take me back …”

Sudden red-hot fury engulfed me at the little bastard’s nerve. “Get out!” I growled, but the miscreant chose not to heed my command. He bowed awkwardly and ventured, “I were at meeting this evening … “

I took a step closer, as understanding dawned. The coward continued, “I could tell you what they’re planning … what’s in their thoughts …   Please sir… I beg you.”

I grasped the traitorous little bastard by the collar and shouted, ”Get out and do not come near this mill again!”

I shoved him from me in disgust, but then approaching footsteps caught my attention. “Who’s there?” I challenged.

Two familiar figures appeared from the fog. Mr Hale and … Margaret!

“It’s only us,” Mr Hale said jovially. So Margaret had gone to meet her father. I now belatedly recalled that Mr Hale taught at the Lyceum Hall in the evenings. Joy began to blossom in my heart, because she had not gone to attend a union meeting, yet it seemed I was still to be harassed by that bloody good-for-nothing Stephens. He moved forward, yet again. “Master, I promise you …”

My patience had been tried too much, now. “Get away from here!” I bellowed, and raised my fist.

That frightened Stephens enough and he disappeared in the darkness.

“Couldn’t you show a little mercy?” Mr Hale’s reproachful voice sounded.

Blast. I had forgotten about them and was now ashamed of my rudeness, yet it seemed important to me that they understood my meaning.

“Mr Hale! Please … do not try to tell me my business!” I pleaded, but then Margaret’s sarcastic little voice cut me off.

“Remember, they do things differently here! Come, Father.” She threw me a scathing glance and turned away, pulling her father with her. My teacher did not show understanding either.

I stood there like a bloody fool, watching them walk away. A sigh escaped my lungs, realising that I was yet the only one to understand it all. It was a lonely place I found myself in.

I stepped through the gate, giving the pair one last look before closing it.

 

Thank God for Mother, I thought, as I watched walk calmly through the weaving shed, her hands on her very erect back, and her face displaying imperious authority. Some of the workers were whispering amongst each other, and if their facial expressions were anything to go by, they were having a joke at her expense. Ah, let them be, I mused. Nothing could shake Mother. It was a comforting thought, indeed, to know she at least would always be at my side, and in all circumstances.

The noises in the room were also comforting. I heard someone shout for more supplies, and was glad I had had the foresight to order the cotton in bulk.

“You there!  Is the machine mended?” Mother challenged a female weaver.

“Yes,” the woman replied shyly.

“Then use it, for there is many to take your place.”

Next, I saw her striding towards a woman who was holding her coughing child. Ah, the fluff would be disastrous for some of the weaker workers.

“The child is ill. Send her home,” Mother said in a stern voice.”

“I can’t afford to,” replied the woman, on the verge of weeping.

Mother sighed with annoyance but offered, “The child cannot work.  Is there another child at home?”  The woman nodded, so mother continued, “If you can get her here within the hour you can keep the place”

The woman’s face alighted with relief. “Thank you.”

“In the hour, mind, or lose it,” Mother ordered.

She had by now reached the place where I was standing, and she was looking into my face as if to guess my thoughts, so I was compelled to give her my approval. “Whatever you think best, Mother.  You know how this mill works almost better than I do.”

Her grateful smile was a balm to my soul.

 

Later, I was accosted by Slickson. He had dared come to my mill in the middle of the day, to whine that he had been forced to decline a raise of pay to his workers. I very well could see through the slimy eel’s meaning, though.

“I don’t know why you’re blaming me,” he ventured, trying to keep up with me as I strode down the courtyard.

“You can play your tricks out to Ashley. That’s your decision.  But if you get it wrong, we all suffer,” I replied angrily. I had no patience with the man. It was not the first time he had played us for a fool.

“They wanted 5%.  Would you have given it them?” he continued with faint surprise.

I turned to him in suppressed rage. “No, but I would’ve told ’em straight.  I wouldn’t pretend I were thinking about it and tell them to come back on payday, so that I could turn them down flat and provoke them.”

He was even more surprised, the fool. “Are you accusing me of trying to encourage a strike?”

“You’re telling’ me that it wouldn’t have suited you?  It’s their lives and our livelihood you’re playing with.” I set him straight and left him standing there. I had no more patience for him.

 

Some days later, I saw Margaret again. There had not passed a minute in those days when I had not been thinking of her. It was strange, and it was something I was not used to.

I was thirty-one, and I was a bachelor of means. Of course, I had had my share of female attention, and the assiduous attempts of eager mothers to catch my eye were downright exasperating, at times. Any social gatherings where the ladies were attending, were a torture to me, because I would be assaulted by matrons shoving their daughters into my path. Needless to say that none of these simpering, eye-battering young chits would make me a decent enough wife.

Up until now, I had wanted high standards for my future spouse. She must be strong and steadfast, and prepared to be the companion of a man whose first love would always be his mill. She must bear him a couple of sturdy sons, who could become her husband’s business partners, in time. A few daughters would also not go amiss, since there would be ample possibility to combine my own wealth with that of another mill master. Modesty and integrity, and elegance without spendthrift, and also sweet, balanced disposition were required. But most of all, the woman destined to become Mrs John Thornton would have to be approved by Mother in all things she deems should be present in her daughter-in-law. My mother would always be master in my household, but she might be prepared to relinquish control to my wife in time, should her health require it.

It was not surprising at all then, when I saw Margaret strolling through my courtyard, that I tried to fit her into my ideal image of a wife. Before I could take stock however, she was talking to some piecer girls sitting on a bench during their lunch time. The conversation seemed to be very jolly, because all three of them were laughing.

I edged nearby, puzzled as to why Margaret, an accomplished young lady from the South, would want an acquaintance with some low-born working girls from the North.

“What would you like to spend it on?” Margaret asked eagerly.

“Food, and then more food.  I’d pile it up, great big plates,” the piecer girl answered, even more eagerly

I inwardly frowned. Why would that girl waste her money on food? The fact that she earned a living surely was enough not to have her go hungry? Yet Margaret’s next question struck me right in the gut. “So, would you join a strike?  Well, I’m not saying there will be one; just if there was.”

How did she know about an upcoming strike? And why was she even interested? Dear Lord, she was interested, then?

But by now, the girls had spotted me and fell silent, their heads bowed. Margaret turned around and saw me, and understood. In her eyes, I had been spying on my workers to see what they were up to. She nevertheless talked to me in a gracious way.

“Your mother has kindly given me the name of a doctor.”

I was instantly alarmed. “You are ill?”

“No. No, it is just a precaution.”

The girls were avidly listening, so I started walking to my office, and to my joy, Margaret followed me.

“Your mother is always accusing me of knowing nothing about Milton and the people who live here,” she said in a voice laced with mirth.

I answered in kind. “Doubt she meant you should hang on to the tittle-tattle of young piecers and spinners.”

A smile spread about her lovely face, setting my heart to beat erratically. “Well,” she said, “they weren’t telling me any secrets.”

Thrilled by the notion that she was actually wishing to converse with me, I explained, “There was a man with a survey here a few weeks ago. It is quite the new thing.  They become practiced at telling others their wages and their working conditions.”

“Do you mind that?  If they tell the truth?”

“ Course not.  I do not apologize to anyone about the wages I pay or how I run Marlborough Mills. It is no secret.  It’s in plain sight for all to see.”

Suddenly, she stopped to face me. “And what about how they spend their money?”

She had surprised me there. “Well, that would be none of my business.  My duty is to the efficient running of the mill.  If I neglect that, all the workers will cease to have an income.”

“But what about your moral duty?”

My, my, she would persevere! I kept up my patience and said, “If she keeps to her hours and does nothing to disrupt the honest and efficient working of the mill, what she does in her own time is not my concern.  Here in the North, we value our independence.”

“But surely you must take an interest?” Margaret pressed on.

I was beginning to wonder why she was so determined to know my opinion on all this, but I could not stop myself from explaining further. “I am her employer.  I am not her father or her brother that I can command her to do as I please.  Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Hale.  I would like to play the overbearing master, but I will answer your questions as honestly as I am sure you ask them.”

A look of semi-understanding ran on her face. I smiled, wanting to encourage her further, but then she looked over my shoulder, and dismay appeared. I turned my head. Ah. She had seen Mother standing at the parlour window. Mother always overlooks the courtyard when she has the time for it. This, however, was the first time that it displeased me that she should want to know what I was doing. Time to end the conversation. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve urgent business,” I said brusquely and left Margaret standing on her own.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Five

Chapter Five

After the day’s work, I ascended the stairs to prepare myself for my visit to the Hales.

Mother was sitting at the table, absorbed in her needlework. How she managed to be so diligently doing that, with Fanny’s dreadful attempts in doing piano scales upstairs, I do not know.

Once in a while, my sister even sang, and it sounded horrible. I donned my coat and rolled my eyes, saying, “Mother, remember I go to the Hales this evening. I will be home to dress, but then out till late.”

She laid down her needlework and remarked in some surprise, “Dress?  Why should you dress up to take tea with an old parson? Ex-parson!”

Dear Mother, she truly did not like the Hales. “Mr. Hale is a gentleman and his daughter is an accomplished young lady,” I smiled.

Mother raised her eyebrows in a way only she can do. It leaves a fellow positively shaken up.

“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m in no danger from Miss Hale.  She’s very unlikely to consider me a catch. She’s from the South.  She doesn’t care for our Northern ways.”

She scoffed in a most unladylike manner, but then Mother had never claimed to be a lady in her life.

“Huh!  Airs and graces!”  She stood up and started adjusting my cravat. “What business has she?  A renegade clergyman’s daughter, who’s now only fit to play at giving useless lectures to those who do not wish to hear them!  What right has she to turn up her nose at you?”

I did not take her bait and would not be drawn into discussing Margaret’s faults, but said warmly, “Board up the windows. There’ll be a storm later.” I kissed her soft cheek and left.

 

I was still in a good mood when I reached Canute Street. There was a noticeable spring in my step as I walked along Milton’s busy streets. I knocked briskly on the Hales’ door.

Their servant – I believe her name was Dixon – showed me up the stairs to the first floor sitting room, a tolerably pretty chamber done up in a creamy wall paper sprinkled with green leaves. I found only Mr Hale there, who began apologizing to me. His wife, it seemed, was not feeling well, but she had promised to come down later.

I was, of course, not interested in the mother at all, so I wondered where Margaret was. Would I suffer disappointment? Would she not join us? How I longed to ask, but of course, this was not done. I had to swallow down my ardent questions and be civil to my host.

It turned out that my teacher was very interested in the working of my mill, so I obliged and answered his questions about the various procedures involving the making of cotton. I became so enthused that I barely noticed when Margaret came in, carrying the tea tray. Propriety demanded I greet her, and she nodded in response before pouring out the tea.

I carried on with relish about Arkwright’s invention of a mechanical loom, “… All motion and energy but truly a thing of beauty.  Classics will have to be re-written to include it.”

I was distractedly sipping my tea, until I became aware of Margaret’s silence. I looked at her. She was asleep, and the sight of her beautiful features, relaxed in sleep, turned my heart into water. I swallowed, put down my cup, and remarked, “Ah… I’m afraid we’re boring Miss Hale with our enthusiasm for Arkwright’s invention.”

Margaret startled and sat up. “No…indeed I’m sure it’s fascinating. I’m a little tired that’s all.”

She got up and began refilling my empty cup. I could not help gazing at her intensely. She was a rare beauty and her graceful manner had me in a spell. She handed me my cup, but I was so fascinated by her slender arm, adorned with a simple gold bracelet, and by her tiny hand and porcelain skin, that I almost forgot to take the cup from her. Our fingers brushed. A sparkle of awareness flitted up my arm, setting my senses ablaze, all of a sudden. Dear Lord! I had never felt anything like it before.

Mr Hale abruptly stood, and I did the same, for Mrs Hale had entered the room. Her smile was positively reluctant, and I gathered I had encountered another member of the family who was not pleased with me.

Mr Hale jovially remarked, “Er…Mr Thornton has been admiring our newly redecorated rooms, Maria.”

I smiled at her, while she answered, “Oh yes, Mr. Thornton. Hmm … well, there … there wasn’t a great deal of choice but these papers are of a similar shade to our drawing room in Helstone.  But not quite.”

My smile broadened when I proffered, “Well …. On behalf of Milton taste, I’m glad we’ve almost passed muster.”

The smile was still on my face when I caught Margaret’s gaze, but she abruptly turned away, crushing all my joy in doing so. Margaret was becoming an expert in crushing me, it seemed.

I forced myself to listen to Mrs Hale again. “Yes … yes well … clearly you’re very proud of Milton. My husband admires its energy and its … its people … are very busy making their businesses successful.”

That only required an easy reply, and I promptly gave it. “I won’t deny it – I’d rather be toiling here, success or failure, than leading a dull prosperous life in the south … with their slow careless days of ease.”

All of a sudden, Margaret burst out indignantly. “You are mistaken. You don’t know anything about the South. It may be a little less energetic in its pursuit of competitive trade but then there is less suffering than I have seen in your mills … and all for what?”

Could she really be that dense?

Yet I spelled it out for her. “We make cotton.”

She was not to be persuaded, however. Petulantly, she continued. “Which no one wants to wear!”

By now, my patience had grown very thin. I straightened my shoulders and attempted to reason with her, glad for the chance to do so.

“I think that I might say that you do not know the North. We masters are not all the same whatever your prejudice against Milton men and their ways.”

She actually scoffed! “I’ve seen the way you treat your men. You treat them as you wish because they are beneath you.”

That was far over the limit! I said in a patient voice, “No, I do not.” Control was slipping away from me, I’m sure!

She cut me off again. “You’ve been blessed with good luck and fortune, but others have not.”

She was determined to crush me, to blame me for the misery in all the world, it seemed. Fighting for composure, I resumed, “I do know something of hardship …”

She did seem to collect herself somewhat, now, so I was encouraged to proceed.

“Sixteen years ago my father died … in very miserable circumstances.  I became the head of the family very quickly.  I was taken out of school.  I think that I might say that my only good luck was to have a mother of such strong will and integrity.  I went to work in a draper’s shop and my mother managed so that I could put three shillings aside a week.  That taught me self-denial.  Now I’m able to keep my mother in such comfort as her age requires and I thank her, every day for that early training …  so,  Miss Hale, I do not think that I was especially blessed with good fortune or luck …”

I looked at her, pleading for her approval, but she lowered her eyes, as if she could not bear the mere sight of me. I was dimly aware of her mother, shifting in her seat as if in great discomfort. I could not, for the life of me, understand what I had done wrong now.

I suddenly realized that it was time to go. “I have outstayed my welcome.”

I stood while Mr Hale was muttering a protest. I needed to try one more attempt to befriend Margaret, so I extended my hand and said in a soothing tone. “Come Miss Hale, let us part friends despite our differences.  If we become more familiar with each other’s traditions, we may learn to be more tolerant, I think.”

That was when she hurt me in a most violent way. She shrunk back and left me standing there like a fool with my hand raised. I clenched my fist in deep offence. Never in my life had I encountered a human being who so blatantly refused to take my hand.

I turned to Mr Hale, saying in what I hoped was a normal voice, “I’ll see myself out.”

Mr Hale lamely uttered that I should come again. I hastened to leave this dreadful house.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Four

Chapter Four

 

During the following week, I most assiduously tried to get Miss Margaret Hale out of my thoughts. I had to be honest with myself, though. I had begun developing some sort of attachment to her, and that was not to be tolerated. She was beautiful, I had to give her that, but she was also outspoken and prejudiced and … damn it! Never had I allowed any woman to openly cast me down by her unfounded criticism! Never!

Whenever I started thinking of her, I turned into a completely different man. I became a stranger, stumbling on a path I had known well before, but which had now become uncomfortably unfamiliar. One would think me a boy freshly out of the schoolroom, with no comprehension of females!

I had known my fair share of women, of course. At thirty-one, and still unwed, women vied for my attention, because of my position in Milton society as a successful manufacturer and dutiful magistrate. My mother frequently teased me about that, and my sister Fanny downright mocked me for my reticence in seeking a wife. I keenly felt the need to have a suitable companion in life but had not actively been looking for one.

Now, after I met Margaret, I had come to hope that I had found the woman who would share my life. That was, however, before I knew her. She would never have me for she despised me. She did not think me a gentleman and thus, unworthy of her. That stung, and far more than I cared to admit to myself.

 

Mother and Fanny went to pay their respects to the Hales on one of October’s brighter days.

When I looked down into the mill’s courtyard, and saw Fanny get into the cab, I wondered how she managed to get in all those many, heavily starched skirts. My sister is vain to the point of silliness. Actually, my sister is silly and hare-brained.

Mother, on the contrary, was her usual dignified self, clad in heavy, black bombazine, and her head held high. I knew she behaved that way to show the whole of Milton that she had managed to overcome her setback from the past, and that she was proud of it.

I wondered what she would make of the whole situation at the Hales’ house. To say the least, it was rather awkward. Mr Hale had given up his living to uproot his family and to come live at a place they perceived as strange and uncomfortable. Mrs Hale seemed constantly unwell and never left the house. The daughter, on the contrary, seemed to be found strolling through town all day. According to Williams, she had struck up friendships with some of my workers, and that, I found most disturbing. No doubt she did it to antagonise me!

I tried to concentrate on the ledgers, after that, but I could not stop scrabbling doodles instead of adding up figure. Checking my ledgers is an activity which normally would give me the greatest satisfaction. Today, it did nothing to distract me from thinking of Margaret Hale, so I rose and went to the weaving shed.

The regular noisy clacking of the looms never failed to calm me, thank the Lord! I wandered over to Williams on his platform and asked, “Everything in order?”

“Yes, master … for now, that is.”

I looked at him sharply. “What? What is the matter? Tell me, man!”

Williams looked about him uneasily, before speaking in a barely audible voice. “I heard rumours about the men wanting a raise. Some union man is asking around how much they make, and from what I hear they are all but too eager to tell him.”

“What is the name of this fellow? Do you know him?”

“Aye, sir. The daughter is over there next to the window. She is a good worker, and a good friend of the young lady that was here last. Her name is Bessy Higgins.”

I directed my gaze at the woman in question, a thin, pale, sickly kind of girl. “And her father? Is he on my pay role, too?”

“No, sir, he works at Hamper’s. A terrific firebrand, I hear, is Nicholas Higgins.”

Deep in thoughts, I went back to my office. So unrest was brewing. I would have to keep an eye on things and be ready when they got awry.

And Margaret had befriended one of my working girls, had she not? What did that mean, a friendship between a lowly factory girl and a lady? Could that even be? Oh, and now I thought of Margaret as a lady, then? Which, of course, she was. And I, on the other hand, was not a gentleman.

 

At dinnertime that day, Mother could not keep silent about her visit. She was in a state of rigid disapproval about the entire Hale family and she did not stop ranting about it. Mr Hale was a weakling, Mrs Hale was a woman with too much airs and graces, and the daughter …

“John, that young woman is like no one I have ever encountered before. She has an opinion on everything, and she thinks Milton is far beneath London and its attractions. And yet they have not two pennies to rub together. I hope you will not succumb to her wiles when you go reading with her father.”

I shrugged. “Mother, that is all Mr Hale and I do when we meet; we read. And all we drink is a cup of tea. He does not even keep spirits in the house.”

“Oh, and you never see the girl, do you?”

“No, Mother, I do not. I neither see the mother nor the daughter.”

Which was entirely true, to my chagrin. Neither woman entered Mr Hale’s study on the second floor, while I was there. No doubt Margaret could not stand the sight of me.

 

I had begun to like Mr Hale, both as a teacher and as a friend. He was extremely skilled in literature and culture, and I was quickly catching up with my abandoned education. So I was glad he was one of my guests, next time I gave a dinner party for my fellow mill owners.

The conversation was, of course, entirely about factories, workers and machinery. Nevertheless, Mr Hale did not hesitate in pitching in, once in a while, though his comments were a testimony to his great ignorance of trade and manufacturing.

When Watson began speaking about a wheel he had not had to put in his sheds, I relied I had one in all my rooms. Hamper, seeing Mr Hale’s confusion, explained the wheel’s function to him. It kept the workers’ lungs from clogging, and Mr Hale’s countenance brightened. I realised he was still thinking like a clergyman, when he talked about treating the workers in the Christian way. I simply had to put him straight, saying I did not run a charitable institution but a business. He kept silent after that, and I began to realise I might have hurt him.

There was no chance to apologize to him that evening, so I made a mental note to it when I went reading, next Tuesday. However, before he took his leave, Mr Hale invited me to take tea with him and his family, the day after.

That night, I went to bed, happy as a child, because I would see Margaret again.

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Three

Chapter Three

It took me several days to find the time to pay a visit to Mr Hale. The new machines I ordered from Leeds had finally arrived so I had to supervise their installation in the mill’s main shed. But then, on a windy morning mid-September, I finally went to Crampton to seek out my new teacher.

The house was located at the corner of Canute Street and a narrow alley, which gave the impression it was at the bottom of a dead end. The street was, however, very lively, with people praising their wares, and lots of small children playing. I jumped up the few stairs and knocked on the front door.

A very stout maid with a forbidding expression on her round face opened the door yet made no show of letting me step inside. I produced my card. “Good day to you. Mr Thornton wishes to speak to Mr Hale.” I deliberately kept my voice jovial.

The maid took it, glanced at it, and then stepped aside to show me to a parlour on the right. She ostentatiously closed the door behind me, so I went to stand before one of the small windows, where I had a view of the busy street below.

While I was waiting, I could hear the house creak above my head, as if the maid was going from room to room to search for her master. I glanced around the somewhat shabby room. It was small with only two windows and one door, through which I had entered. A large book case occupied one wall, a small fireplace another. In the centre stood a table large enough to dwarf the room even more. The whole surface of the table was laden with books. Books were everywhere, I realised. They were stacked on the floor near the walls, they covered the mantelpiece and every chair, and even the window sills.

I was bewildered and wondered why on earth an ex-parson would want to have that many books. Then my thoughts were interrupted when the door opened to let Mr Hale in. He was a tall man, sturdily built though not rotund. He had curly hair of a non-descript brown, which had begun receding from his forehead, and a pair of friendly, grey eyes. He wore his whiskers so long that they almost brushed the sides of his mouth. A style from some thirty years before, one my own father had also favoured.

“Mr Thornton?” he boomed in a voice he must have used in his church sermons during his days as a parson. “Welcome, sir! My friend Bell told me a lot about you, and I am very pleased to meet you!”

I struggled to keep a congenial countenance, as I felt anger at Mr Bell, all of a sudden. What had he been divulging of my affairs to this virtual stranger? Mr Bell was good with words, I knew that all too well. I inwardly shuddered guessing at what secrets of mine he would have revealed.

“Good day to you, sir,” I said, extending my hand. Mr Hale glanced at it in mild surprise but eventually took it and shook it firmly.

“Mr Hale,” I continued, reassured by his handshake, “I have a fervent wish to broaden my education through reading and discussing literature. My time is limited, though. You might know I am a cotton manufacturer, and the running of my mill claims most of my day. However, I might find some hours during the evening to devote myself to studying.”

“Splendid! Splendid!” Mr Hale exclaimed. Then he slapped me on the back and said, “Sit down, my good man, sit down!” With swift movements, he cleared two chairs and dragged them to the table. We sat but after two seconds, Mr Hale jumped up and strode towards the book case, where he began rummaging through the books.

I was once again bewildered. He was completely different from what I had come to think of a teacher, with only my limited school days as a reference. Soon, however, Mr Hale returned to the table with two, rather shabby books. Both leather covers were dusty, I noticed.

“Now then, John … I hope I can call you by your first name? I call all my students by their first names, you know.”

I had barely time to nod when he continued,” Now then, John, you must tell me what you have previously had in the way of education.I understand – from Mr Bell, of course – that you have not finished your grammar school?”

“No, indeed not, sir. At sixteen, I was forced to work, but I went to Lancaster Grammar School here in Milton until then.”

“Ah, so you had Latin and Greek?”

“Yes, sir, although my knowledge is very basic.”

“No matter, no matter,” Mr Hale replied, folding his hands while placing his elbows on the table. “We will soon pick up where you left. Now, in my opinion, it is best we start with either Plato or Aristotle. Which of the two do you prefer, John?”

Again he caught me completely off guard, or was it the sound of the front door opening that disturbed my thought, I do not know. Mr Hale, however, had not heard. He pressed me on, “We have to make a choice, John.  Now it’s difficult, I know.”

Suddenly, his gaze darted to the half open door and he exclaimed, “Margaret, is that you?”

It was enough to make me jump to my feet in some sort of panic. Of course, you fool, I scolded myself, could you not have guessed you would meet her again? I hastily went to stand before the window, my back to the door, conscious that my torment was back again. I was suddenly anxious that it should show on my face.

“Margaret, is that you?  Well, Margaret!  Come in, Margaret.  Come in.  Meet my new friend and, erm, first proper pupil. Mr. Thornton, this is my daughter, Margaret.“

I took a deep breath and turned. There she was, the bane of my life, and as I suddenly realized, the delight of my heart. Her hair, a deep dark brown, was dishevelled because she had just removed her hat, but it was so becoming that I longed to touch it and straighten the tumbled locks. In her lovely, heart-shaped face, her eyes, which I now noticed for the first time, were a deep blue, her nose tiny and pert, and her mouth lush and deeply red. The sight of her made my stomach summersault, and I had to fight hard to keep my own countenance undisturbed. When I finally spoke, I was glad to hear that my voice was steady. “I believe your daughter and I have already met.”

“Ah … “ Mr Hale said, oblivious to the tension between me and his daughter, “now, Mr. Thornton cannot decide between Aristotle and Plato.  I suggest we start with Plato, and then move on.  What do you think?”

I gave him a swift but stunned glance, confused as I was because of his lack of comprehension, and forged on. “I’m afraid Miss Hale and I met under less than pleasant circumstances.  I had to dismiss a worker for smoking in the weaving shed.”

Miss Hale all but burst out in speech. “I saw you beat a defenceless man who is not your equal!”

The raw aggression in her words finally sunk in with her father. He exclaimed in shock, “Margaret!”

I could not help coming to her defence. “No, she’s right.” And after a pause to regain my composure, I managed. “I was angry. I have a temper. Fire is the greatest danger in my mill. I have to be strict.”

If I had hoped to win her over by explaining my perfectly sane reasons, I was totally wrong. She turned away in disgust, saying, “A gentleman would not use his fists on such a … pathetic creature, or shout at children.”

I must have heard wrongly, I thought. A gentleman? What had that to do with what was been said about my mill? Devil take it, but she was taunting me to no end!

My voice raised, I nearly shouted. “I dare say a gentleman has not had to see three-hundred corpses laid out on a Yorkshire hillside as I did last May. And many of them were children. And that was an  accidental flame. The whole mill destroyed in 20 minutes.”

All she did was glancing sideways at me. Nothing of what I had said, touched her, I could see.

I sighed. “I should go,” I said to Mr Hale, and we shook hands. “You’ll join us for dinner next week?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” he replied. “Erm … thank you.  Erm …we’ll start with Plato next Tuesday.”

Just then, I recalled something my mother had said when I left the house. Something about her wanting to get acquainted with Mr Hale’s wife. “I will ask my mother to call … when you’re settled,” I quickly said, giving Miss Hale a parting look. I very well knew I must be frowning. She was so … well, headstrong and opinionated!

“Of course, erm … ,” Mr Hale ventured. “Now by all means. We’re always here. Aren’t we, Margaret?”

Miss Hale looked positively sullen and refused to answer as I took my leave.

 

The Reform of John Thornton – Part Two

Chapter Two

 

As a rule, I am not a violent man. I do not take pleasure in beating my workers to a bloody pulp. Yet I have a temper, which at times gets the better of me. Thus when I witnessed Stephens’ transgression with my own eyes, I literally saw red.

Stephens is a brainless fool, who has only his own selfish interests at heart. His poor wife and four children do not often see much of his wages, because he squanders them away in the tavern as soon as he gets his hands on the coins. Many times over, I have warned him, and he always promises it is the last time he smokes during work hours, yet the wretch always does it again. Now my patience had been tried too much, and I was right in dismissing him. Unfortunately, his family will reap the miserable consequences. I do not run a charitable institution, so as sad as it may be, I cannot do a thing about it. The interests of the mill must come first.

Even though I had been entirely justified in behaving as I had, a nagging concern kept gnawing at my conscience. I am a rational man, yet I had let my temper boil over so rashly that I now felt downright wretched.

This state of mind was so unfamiliar to me that it puzzled me to the extreme. Never before in my life had I regretted any action I had done, yet now I positively loathed what I had done to Stephens. I could not for the life of me comprehend why this was so. Nobody in the whole shed had frowned upon me, nor had anybody come to Stephens’ help, because they all thought it justified he be chastised.

Nobody? No one, except for the petite brunette who had so rashly chastised me, John Thornton of Marlborough Mills. Before the eyes of my workers, a mere slip of a girl had talked back at me. Better yet, she had dared raise her voice at the master of Marlborough Mills, a place where she had no business being.

All present had indeed noticed. Some were shocked, but others had smirked with glee. Many of my workers resented me, even though I give them an income and thus save them from starvation and misery. As it is Mother’s wont to say, some men raise themselves to be masters, while others will strive to bring them down.

I should have retorted to the forward young woman, yet I had not. Instead, a strange paralysis had overcome me, I, a man who was never ill, who never showed weakness. A man who was master and answerable to no one but himself.

I strangely felt answerable to Miss Margaret Hale. For some incomprehensible reason, at that time I felt compelled to go and explain myself to her, if possible even that same day.

Margaret Hale … the name was familiar, though I could not immediately place it. I knew I would not be satisfied until I found out, so I went in search of Overseer Williams.

The loyal employee was back at his workplace on the raised platform, scrupulously watching the workers. I climbed the rickety ladder, absentmindedly making a mental note to have it made sturdier.

“Why did you bring that young woman in here, Williams? Surely, you know as well as I do, that strangers to the workplace are not allowed in the weaving shed.”

“She was at the house you found for your acquaintance, Mr Bell, master. She said she wanted to speak to you, and nothing I or the agent said would change her mind. A stubborn one, that.”

“What was her name again?” I asked, knowing well enough what it was.

“Margaret Hale, master. She said she and her father were sharing the task of finding lodgings. Not quite proper, if you ask me. Women have no business doing such a task.”

I ignored his remark about Miss Hale’s impropriety, although it was not Williams’ place to comment at all. “And where was this?”

“In Canute Street in Crampton, master. A nice little place, and well it may be, because the owner asks thirty pounds a year for it.”

I thanked him and left him to his work. Puzzled, I went back to my office.

The whole business of Williams seeking lodgings had its origin in Mr Bell’s request that I find a house for a friend of his, whose name was Richard Hale, I recalled. Mr Bell was an academic from  Oxford and one of my chief investors. Therefore, I had not had the luxury to turn him down, when he claimed some of my precious time. He had come from Oxford with the sole purpose of asking for my cooperation but he had prattled on so endlessly about his friend Hale, that I had lost all interest long before he was finished. Matters that have nothing to do with Marlborough Mills cannot keep my attention for long.

I made an effort to recall what exactly he had told me about Hale, a former clergyman who had given up his living to come and teach in Milton. Something to do with him not willing to reaffirm in the Book of Common Prayer, or some such nonsense. What would prompt a man to give up his livelihood and rob his family of income, I asked myself. I thought about this for some time, but was unable to solve the question. To me, Hale’s behaviour was on the brink of insanity.

Bell had also said that the man needed private pupils in order to bring in some money.

Now that, I found most interesting.

I was a mill master and a magistrate, but my education had been cut short. When I was but sixteen years old, I began working at a draper’s shop to rescue my mother and sister from poverty. Ever since, I had felt the lack of literature and culture and was anxious to remedy that. I was determined to pay Mr Hale a visit, as soon as he was settled in Canute Street.

My reminiscing about the past had, unfortunately, revived my memories of those disastrous days of fifteen years ago, when my father had taken his own life. The three of us, Mother, Fanny and myself were cast into ruin and poverty, because Father had lost all his possessions in a fraudulent speculation. At that time, he had been struggling to keep his cotton mill afloat after a most violent strike, wherein the workers had squeezed a ten percent raise from him. Unable to pay his workers beyond the weeks to come, Father had then turned to his banker. That man, who was the owner of several London banks, had taken Father’s personal fortune, promising him a scheme that would yield ten times the sum. The London banker was an imposter. He fled abroad, taking all Father’s money with him. Facing bankruptcy, Father had hanged himself.

 

I sat there, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, for I know not how long. When Mother suddenly appeared in the doorway, I was startled to see that it was ten in the evening. The mill had emptied of workers, the machines had been stopped, yet I had not noticed.

“What is troubling you, John? Why are you still here?”

Mother came to stand beside my chair and felt my brow with the back of her hand. I could not stifle a smile. To Mother, I am still a young boy, even though I had reached my thirty-first year last August. Sometimes, she is downright overprotective, which vexes me a little, but I do not have the heart to tell her otherwise. So I rose swiftly and drew her arm through mine.

“Just working over my time, Mother. You know as well as I do that the running of the mill takes the better part of my time. I presume dinner is ready?”

“It is, and Fanny is calling you names for making her wait.”

“By all means, let us not keep her waiting, then.”

 

The Reform of John Thornton – Part One

Chapter One

The day I met Miss Margaret Hale, Fate kicked me in the gut so hard that I was transformed into a man I would come to loathe.

I am John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate in Milton, Lancashire, and therefore, I speak bluntly. Gentlemanlike manners are no use to me when I have to deal with workers, tradesmen, and the likes, who do not understand civil language should it kick them in the arse.

That day, I was not only speaking my mind in the rudest of ways but I was also swearing at that bloody idiot Stephens for smoking in the weaving shed. I was so livid with rage that I chased him from between the rows of cotton looms to a spot where I could trash him into oblivion. Fire in a cotton mill – as every sane person knows – is highly dangerous. If the cotton waste is set ablaze, nothing can save the mill from burning down to the ground.

Finally, I was able to catch the fool by the collar. “Smokin’ again!” I bellowed. “Where is it?”

I began searching his filthy rags of clothing until I found the pipe, which, of course, he had been smoking on the sly. “Still warm,” I accused, my rage now boiling over. “Stupid idiot!”

It was a relief to swing my fists at him, and with satisfaction, I dealt him a few well-placed blows.

“Look at me!” I commanded. “Look at me!”

“Stop! In God’s name, stop!”

The light voice – barely audible above the din of the machines – did really stop me, although all I wanted to do was to kill Stephens with my bare hands. I jerked around, sweat trickling down my face. The air was knocked from my lungs, as I beheld the most beautiful creature in all the world. Her face was frozen in horror, her mouth partly opened and her eyes – ah, the eyes! – were wide with dismay. I looked at her, paralysed by the sight of such perfect beauty, My raised arm hung high in the air, ready to strike again, but the strength seemed to have left me.

What strange sickness had suddenly overcome me? I felt like a statue, I was unable to breathe. The girl – for she was little more than that – lifted her gaze to capture mine, and now a giant fist squeezed my heart. I could feel the blood drain from my face, until an icy shiver raked my entire body.

“Please, miss, please!” And then I was free again, thanks to Williams’ desperate plea. My trustworthy overseer was trying to pull the girl away, but even as slight as she was, she managed to resist him.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” I barked at her.

“My name is Margaret Hale,” she replied, her eyes blazing with fury.

Williams hastened to enlighten me. “I’m sorry, sir, I told her to stay in the office.”

Again I felt myself sliding into that haze of rage and I cried, “Get her out of here!” But then that little rat Stephens began crawling away from me. I released him but I could not stop myself from kicking him like the rat he is. “Aye, crawl away on your belly and don’t come back here again!”

Stephens was now desperate to escape but he gasped, “Please, sir, I ‘ave little ones!”

“You know the rules!” The rat dared answer me back, devil take it!

“My children will starve, sir,” Stephens sobbed, but I was too far gone to listen.

“Better they starve than burn to death!” I cried, and placed a hard kick in his belly.

“Stop! Stop, please!”

This time, the girl’s voice did not freeze me. I had more than enough of her interferences! I whirled around and snarled at Williams, “Get that woman out of here!” Williams succeeded in his endeavour to remove the girl this time, and she let herself be hauled behind a stack of cotton bales.

All the light seemed to vanish from the weaving shed. My knees buckled, and I had to seek support against the wall. The air seemed laden with some vile stench that clawed at my throat. Cotton fluff added more hardship to my already disturbed breathing. My brain, the part of my body I can always rely on, screamed at me to get the hell out of there.

I began stumbling towards the exit, pain raking through me like a spear. Gasping for breath, I reached the courtyard, and the cool air revived me instantly, when I gasped. It took me several moments to compose myself enough that I could go to the house and climb the stairs to the parlour. My mother keeps a bottle of port on a table near the door, and I splashed a large portion of it in a glass. The sweet, heavy liquid burned a path through my insides, and at last, I could breathe again.

“Why are you imbibing in the middle of the day, John? That is not you. Has something happened at the mill?” Mother’s cool voice inquired.

I took great care to take my glass and stride calmly to the mantelpiece, as was my habit, when I came up from the mill during the day. “Everything is fine, mother,” I said. “Just a restorative glass of port, is all.”

Mother was sitting in her usual spot on the coach beneath the window, darning some old socks of mine. Mother’s hands are never idle, God bless her, but why was she wasting her energy on clothing that was only fit to be thrown away? I took a few steps toward her and gently took the socks out of her hands.

“We are wealthy, Mother. You do not need to do such useless menial tasks. These socks are no longer your concern. Give them to one of the maids, if you want them darned.”

Mother is not easily fooled. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips but she let go of the socks without protest. “Fortune is as volatile as the smoke from our stacks, John, as you well know. We should be frugal at all times, so that we do not come on hardship once more.”

By now, I had full control over my countenance. “Mother, if you think it best to darn these very old socks in order to preserve me from going bankrupt, then by all means, do it.”

I was rewarded by her beautiful, but rare smile, which she bestows solely on me. The corners of my own lips turned upwards in answer, before I left her to go back to the mill. I sought the relative calm of my office, a cubicle set aside from the weaving shed by crude, wooden boards. Most of the space is occupied by a large desk and some shelves. I let myself down on the hard wooden chair behind the desk, planted my elbows on its surface and covered my face with my hands.

The Reform of John Thornton – Preface

Preface

Once in a while, we are touched by something so deeply that it becomes a constant source of joy.

When we need to have our spirits lifted, there it is; we just have to revisit our source, and the joy is back.

 

The 2004 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South provides that kind a joy to me. The novel’s plot is brilliant, but Sandy Welsh’s script gives it a contemporary ring so that the characters become even more alive. Brian Percival’s direction is magnificent and gives the viewer a thorough understanding of the nineteenth century workers’ struggle. Martin Phipps’ lovely music touches our hearts.

 

Of course, the actors’ performances are outstanding. All British actors and actresses just have that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes them so lovable. Yet Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage show us a chemistry that shines through the whole film like a beacon of love and hope.

 

North & South is in essence Margaret Hale’s story. John Thornton is her love interest as the male lead, but we mostly see Margaret’s views and reactions, in the novel as well as in the film.

I decided it was time to give Thornton the opportunity to explain himself to the full.

 

Writing The Reform of John Thornton was both a joy and a thrill. I can’t aspire to match Mrs Gaskell’s brilliant writing, of course. I will endeavour to use my own style and hope for the best.

As soon as I finished writing, I realised that my story could never be published. I broke too many rules in using Sandy Welsh’s script word for word. Yet it could not be done otherwise and gave me lots of fun.

 

I hope you will enjoy Thornton’s own story and forgive me for giving him that chance.

 

 

 

Lucia Swiers

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Six

The sun was high in the August sky when the newlyweds left St Wulfram’s church.

A double row of village girls, all dressed in their best Sunday clothes were standing along the path that led out of the churchyard. They were forming a flowered arch over the path, inviting Richard and Manon to pass under it on their way to their carriage. A chorus of happy cheers sounded as the couple ducked and walked under the arch, while a sprinkle of daisies rained down on them. Well-wishers shouted their congratulations and children offered nosegays to the grateful bride and groom.

They reached the white-and-gold carriage and Richard ushered his bride in. Manon settled onto the blue velvet cushions with a sigh of pure, contented pleasure, hooking her hand through Richard’s arm when he sat next to her.

“Well, my love?” Manon asked, delicate eyebrows raised over slightly mocking green eyes. “It seems that the Bearsham villagers are happy with our marriage, do you not agree? We have been concerned in vain, thinking they would object.”

“Yes, we were wrong to do so,” Richard acquiesced, his grey-blue eyes sparkling with unmitigated happiness. “These simple people are far more sensible than my hare-brained, spiteful mother.” He sighed. “What am I to do with her, Manon? I had hoped she would settle quite meekly in our household, but it appears that she is determined to be the fly in the ointment of our marriage. I am so sorry, my sweet. I would have given my right arm to spare you the scene she inflicted upon us during the ceremony.”

Manon took his handsome face in her hands, forcing Richard to look her in the eyes.

“Oh no, we cannot have that,” she said, her voice full of mirth. “What use would you be to me with only one arm?”

With a groan, Richard pulled her onto his lap in one swift movement and revelled in her happy gasp of surprise. “Finally, I have you to myself for the first time today, my lady. There is so much I wanted to say after what transpired last night, and so much that I worried over. Did I…have I…oh, God, Manon! I am thoroughly ashamed of the way I so utterly lost control…”

“Yes…”Manon drawled. “Rest assured that I will punish you for torturing me so, my lord husband. I have been racking my brains for ways to make you suffer for what you did to me, last night, and I have come up with something like this…”

She stood, hitched up her skirts and rearranged herself in his lap, this time astride. Her lips captured his and her tongue teased his while she sensuously wriggled atop of his thighs and onto his already aroused member. Richard groaned into their kiss and pulled her to him in a grip of iron. Their tongues battled as a wave of raw desire swept them along. Gasping for dear life when Richard’s hands slid up her thighs, to slip a finger into her heat, Manon began fumbling with the buttons of his breeches.

A few moments later, they were joined under the wide expanse of Manon’s gown, and a wild dance, old as the world itself, drove them to bliss in seconds.

 

When their carriage stopped in front of Bearsham Manor, the flushed couple had barely had the time to right their dishevelled appearance. They had a dining hall full of guests waiting to share their wedding breakfast with them. Manon, however, cast a quick glance in the hall mirror before she faced her guests…and gasped. She looked thoroughly disordered! On no account in the world would she present herself thusly.

“Richard, I really must have a moment to myself so that Bessie can restore my appearance.”

She gave him a critical look of appraisal and added, “And you, my love, will want Bright to correct your attire, too.”

“Thornton,” Richard addressed his butler, tongue in cheek, “please ask our guests for patience, just a little more time.”

Rushing up the stairs, they barely heard the butler’s reply. Once inside the master bedroom, Richard shooed away Bessie and Bright, who had come running after them. He kicked the door shut, swept Manon into his arms, and placed her onto the bed. With determined concentration, he then applied himself to continue what they had begun during their carriage ride home. His bride met his demands with eager anticipation. It was, after all, their wedding day.

 

Much later, when the wedding breakfast was over, and their guests had gone home, Richard took Manon by the hand and led her outside. The balmy August evening had not yet come, but the sun was beginning to make its way downward. Manon wondered where her husband was taking her, but she said nothing and followed him down the terrace and into the secret garden. It was a lovely spot near the edge of the Home Wood, and Manon had always wanted to explore it ever since she had come to Bearsham Manor but had never found the time in the whirlwind of events that had arisen. Now she stood next to her Richard in front of a grave.

“Here rests Father,” Richard whispered, pulling Manon in the circle of his arms while making her face the tomb. “I hope he looks upon us with contentment on this happiest of days, my love.”

“I am certain he does, my dearest,” Manon replied, placing her hands over Richard’s. It was the perfect time to be here, she reflected. Sir Robert de Briers had always been anxious about Manon and Jéhan, even if he had never known them. He had even stood guard over them all, from beyond the grave, and left them the letter that brought her and Richard together. How Manon wished she had known him!  How she would have cherished Richard’s good father!

“We must do something about Mother,” Richard suddenly said, recalling the Dowager’s appalling behaviour during their wedding ceremony. “She is going to be a constant thorn in our sides, my sweet, and I cannot have anything disturbing our lives from now on.”

Manon turned in his arms and looked up to him. “Leave her to me, my darling,” she said, confidence radiating from her lovely green eyes. “I want her to be part of our lives. She is a damaged woman, Richard. Life has not been gentle to her. Together, we will find a way to give her a place at Bearsham Manor.”

And if anyone could accomplish just that, Richard thought, it was his lively, strong Manon. He bent his head to claim her mouth in a kiss that promised the world.

 

The End

 

 

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

The vision of his bride, exquisitely dressed in a silken gown of fragile green, knocked the air out of Richard’s lungs. Good Lord, she was breathtakingly beautiful, and she was going to be his wife. He took a deep breath – a much needed breath because his head was spinning with the deep feelings of love and joy that overwhelmed him.

Then Manon smiled at him, and his heart turned to water. His legs would have walked toward her of their own accord, had not Lucian’s hand on his arm kept Richard on the spot.

“Steady, old man,” Lucian whispered – mercifully, his voice was only audible to Richard. “You must allow Jéhan to give her away.”

Only then did Richard notice the small, dapper figure of Jéhan, left hand linked with his sister’s right one. Of course, he berated himself, Manon had no one else to hand her over to her bridegroom. What a capital thought to choose her young brother!

Richard strove to keep his countenance solemn as Jéhan placed Manon’s hand in his. He bowed to the child with reverence and had the pleasure of seeing Jéhan emulate the bow with diligence.

Then, however, Richard had eyes solely for his beautiful bride, who beamed up at him. He kissed the back of her hand, never letting his gaze leave hers. Before straightening again, he whispered, “My dearest…” How he longed to say more, yet the words would not form in Richard’s mind.

Manon raised a hand to touch Richard’s cheek, when the Reverend Merryweather cleared his throat to drag them both back to the present. In unison, they turned to face him, but Richard kept Manon’s hand firmly in his.

While the good vicar began reciting the proper words for the wedding celebration, Richard felt his fears subside. Only then did he realise how heavily those fears had weighed upon his heart. Would Manon meet him at the altar to be his wife, when he had so thoroughly lost his control, the previous night? What if she had been scared by his wild abandon? But no, she was here, at his side, and he knew he was forgiven.

In a haze, Richard heard the vicar’s familiar voice.

“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today before this congregation, to join together Richard de Briers, fourteenth Baronet Bearsham, and Miss Manon Favier of Paris in matrimony which is an honourable and solemn estate and therefore is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and soberly. Into this estate, these two persons present come now to be joined. If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

Here, the Reverend paused and peered sternly at the congregation over the rim of his glasses.

Richard’s heart began hammering in his throat yet again as he realised that someone, anyone, in the small community had the power to object to their union. Not many of Brighton’s society were in attendance but they all knew that Manon had been first presented as his niece and afterwards had been named the daughter of Lady Elizabeth’s bastard.

Then, his heart nearly stopped as the sound of the church doors being thrown open reached him.

“I, Lady Mildred de Briers, do strongly object to this farce of a marriage!”

A rumble of shocked sighs rippled through the church’s nave as everyone turned towards the back, where the imposing figure of the Dowager Baronetess darkened the doorway. Time seemed to slow as Richard saw Manon’s lovely face freeze in a horror that must have reflected on his own countenance. A nightmare, devastating and cruel, descended upon them as the cold, harsh voice continued its torture.

“This union is truly cursed for it is an incestuous one! Manon Favier is the daughter of Lily de Briers, and therefore she is Sir Richard’s niece!”

Richard could not move, nor speak, nor even breathe. A weight crushed down on him, threatening to suffocate him under a pitch-black blanket of misery and shame. All was lost…he wished for Death to take him here and now.

But no…he should have had faith in his indomitable, fierce bride!

Manon stepped away from him and met her nemesis with pride and dignity.

“You are mistaken, Madam, and you are cruel and vicious in your despair! You should be crushed by shame to try and inflict this torture upon your only son. Sir Richard does not deserve to be treated thusly by the woman who gave birth to him, a mother whom he has always respected and cared for. My dear mother, Lily Favier was a bastard. I hereby make this known to this community and challenge everyone to take notice of Sir Robert’s letter to his son, written by his own hand and deposited in the care of his solicitor, Mr Brownslow. Sir Robert’s seal is testimony enough for the letter’s authenticity.”

“It is true and unmistakable! I, as Our Lord’s representative, have acknowledged and approved the content of Sir Robert’s letter. You will hold your peace, madam, or you will be removed from this church!” Mr Merryweather’s booming voice had never sounded so welcome to Richard’s shocked ears. He watched how the Dowager gasped in shock as St Wulfram’s sexton took her arm and led her away.

“Let us now proceed with the celebration of this marriage,” continued Mr Merryweather. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

“I do!”

Jéhan’s clear voice chimed through the nave like the voice of an angel. The small five-year-old took his sister’s hand and led her back to her betrothed, confident in his role. Manon, as if nothing had occurred to disturb her peace, firmly grasped Richard’s hand and brought him back to reality and happiness. With infinite relief, he was grateful for Manon’s unwavering support.

The rest of the ceremony was undisturbed, and the two young people spoke their vows with nothing but pure exhilaration in their hearts.

“I, Manon, take thee, Richard, to be my lawfully wedded husband, secure in the knowledge that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you in the presence of God and all these witnesses my pledge to stay by your side as your faithful wife in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I promise to love you without reservation, comfort you in times of distress, laugh with you and cry with you, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you,
and cherish you for as long as we both shall live.”

Richard watched in awe and reverence as Manon’s gaze grew but brighter, with every word she spoke. He had the solemn duty to answer her in kind, so he cleared his throat and let exultation colour his deep voice.

“I, Richard, take thee, Manon, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto, I plight thee my troth.”

His hand shaking just the merest moment, Richard took his bride’s hand in his.

“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

The simple gold wedding band slid onto Manon’s finger, and she looked at her husband. His beautiful blue eyes shone like diamonds, love sparkling from them to warm her soul.

Again the Reverend’s voice boomed them back to the present.

“I hereby declare that you, Sir Richard and Lady de Briers, are husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride, Sir Richard.”

An invitation Richard accepted with alacrity.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

August twenty-second dawned with a shaft of golden sunlight piercing through the gap in the curtains of Richard’s bedchamber. He woke with a start when the light touched his face with a pleasant warmth. His arm flung out to reach for Manon but to his utter disappointment, she was no longer there. He turned to the small ormolu clock on his nightstand, which told him it was barely seven in the morning.

A feeling of utter loss assaulted Richard as he reclined on his back with his arms supporting his head. He now knew for certain that he must have hurt Manon during their nightly lovemaking, great lumbering brute that he was.

Up until now, he had never had to concern himself with the women he bedded other than to gain his satisfaction from them. They had all been experienced. Yet he had always made it his duty to give as much as he took in the way of pleasure, and more so, to avoid causing pain during the process of intercourse. He had never suspected that he had failed in doing so since none of his former lovers had complained, the morning after.

However, now, something was vastly different. He had made love to his virgin bride, his companion for the rest of his life, and his soon-to-be wife. He had introduced his soul mate to the pleasures of the marriage bed and had made a thorough mess of it since his Manon had fled their chambers.

Lord! He must rise and dress and go to find her. Beg for her forgiveness, and promise never to hurt her, ever.

 

Manon stepped out of the copper bath and into the large towel Bessie was holding in front of her. The warm, lavender-scented water had effectively soothed her aches, even in those places Manon had never felt hurt before. With heat-suffused cheeks, Manon began drying herself. All the lovely things she and Richard had shared, all the wondrous caresses they had exchanged, and all the deep, soul-touching feelings they had experienced – they all came to life again. It was unbelievable, but she again felt those magic stirrings, deep in her core, just by thinking of her Richard. Oh, dear Lord, if there were just one, single wish that Manon would love to make today, it would be to have that kind of sharing with him for the rest of their lives together! She ached for him yet again and as strongly as she had last night when she had spotted him on the terrace. He had been exactly how she wanted him, tall and lean and so exquisitely male. And so incredibly sweet and infinitely gentle.

A tap on the dressing room door had Bessie hurrying to open it. It was Pru Butterworth, glowing with excitement while she stepped in to greet Manon. In her wake was Mrs Briskley, carrying a breakfast tray with a pot of steaming hot chocolate and a plate of freshly baked scones.

“Come and sit down, Manon,” Pru ordered. “Have some breakfast first before Bessie starts dressing you.”

“Has Madame delivered the gown?” Manon asked, a bit of anxiety in her voice.

Finding a suitable wedding gown had been a daring challenge. Manon wanted it to be something unique, something that showed her true self. She had gone to Brighton in the company of Pru and Bessie to visit Madame Tourtereau’s establishment. It was said that Madame was of aristocratic descent, related to the French royals and that she had barely escaped the guillotine, a few months ago. Manon knew that it was all a sham. The clever seamstress was as English as a field of daisies. She was born in Leicester as the daughter of a tailor, but she took care to lace her speech with enough French words to describe her business so that most of her unsuspecting clients believed her story.

Pru smiled and gestured to Franny and Mabel, who stepped forward to present Manon’s gown. With a gasp of wonder, Manon clasped her hands on her chest.

“Oh, Pru,” she whispered, “it is all I wished for!”

Then she took Pru by the waist and began twirling around the room with her, in a burst of unchecked joy. “I am going to be Richard’s wife, Pru! I am going to be his!”

 

Richard opened his dressing room door, eager to dress and go find Manon, but he was waylaid by his valet Bright.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but you have only one hour to ready yourself. I have your bath prepared, and you can have a quick bite afterwards. Now if you would care to sit down so that I can shave you, then we will start.”

With a sigh, Richard surrendered to his valet’s care but he wondered if perhaps there would be a few moments later on, because he desperately needed to see Manon.

“Do you know if Miss Favier has woken yet, Bright?” Richard inquired, striving to keep his tone neutral.

Bright grinned broadly while he began lathering his master’s face in preparation for a shave.

“The activity in her quarters started an hour ago, sir. I saw Miss Butterworth coming up the stairs at nine o’clock with Mrs Briskley and two maids following her. Do not concern yourself, sir. Mr Thornton has everything well in hand. He will give the signal when it is time to set off for the church.”

Richard met Bright’s positively glowing gaze in the mirror, and it abruptly dawned on him in full force. He was getting married today. In just two hours from now, he would be Manon’s husband. If she was indeed preparing herself for their wedding, Manon could not possibly have seconds thoughts about becoming his wife.

With a broad grin, he settled down in his chair and willingly surrendered to Bright’s ministrations.

 

Bessie put the finishing touch to Manon’s toilet by adding just a spot of rouge on her already flushed cheeks.

“There, miss,” she said, beaming with pride, “now you can go and marry Sir Richard!”

Manon gazed at her own image in the large cheval mirror, happiness warming her heart. Her wedding dress of sea-green taffeta had a snug bodice that dipped just enough to reveal the curve of her breasts. The neckline left her shoulders bare so that Maman’s pearls were shown to their best advantage. Elbow-length sleeves encased Manon’s slim arms, while her hands were clad in short, white chiffon gloves. The gown’s skirt was narrow and in the Empire style, hugging her slender hips in flowing lines and ending in a short train, as to emphasize Manon’s upright bearing. Her thick auburn hair was left unbound, but Bessie had styled the long waves with tiny pearl clasps so that Manon’s face was framed with heavy wings on both sides. It gave Manon a regal air, which she liked very much. After all, she was marrying a noble of the realm.

“Thank you, dearest Bessie!” Manon whispered, taking the girl’s hands in hers. “You will stay with me after I marry, I hope?”

“Yes, Miss, I would be happy to! My mum no longer needs my presence, since my younger sister took over the task of caring for her.”

“How is your mother, Bessie? I am truly sorry for not asking earlier about her health, but my own circumstances have kept me vastly occupied recently.”

“She is doing better, miss. Thank you for asking.”

At that moment, the door opened. Jake Davies led a splendidly dressed Jéhan into the room, and Manon gasped in surprise.

“Oh, mon chou! You look absolutely magnificent! How you have grown over the last weeks, little brother!”

Jéhan drew himself up to his full height of three-foot-four. He was indeed tall for his five years.

“Manon, no more calling me French names. I must become an English gentleman.” The way her little brother eyed her, Manon had no doubt he would become just that. She hid her smile and curtsied.

“I beg your pardon, Sir John. I forgot my manners.”

Then Jéhan grinned broadly at her and went to embrace his sister.

“I am glad that you are marrying Uncle Richard, Manon,” he said and kissed her cheek.

Manon inwardly grimaced at the name Jéhan still called her beloved. They had, of course, tried to explain it all to Jéhan, but to no avail. At five years old, notion of legal descent was too hard to comprehend. To Jéhan, Richard would be considered his uncle until he came to an age when he knew enough about life to understand. Manon was just immensely relieved that Jéhan had never been told that he had once been considered to be the heir to Richard’s title.

“My firstborn son will be the next Baronet Bearsham, sweet,” Richard had explained to Manon. “However, I promise you that Jéhan will never lack for anything for as long as he resides under my roof. He will be allowed to make his way in life as he wishes, and I will not withdraw the funds that my father wanted him to inherit when he comes of age.”

All this had overwhelmed Manon with joy, of course.

It is time, miss,” Bessie said, interrupting Manon’s thoughts. “Here is Miss Butterworth to take you to the wedding carriage.”

 

In St Wulfram’s Church, Richard was waiting for Manon to arrive.

He was pacing in front of the small blue stone altar, an exquisite piece of stonemasonry, with little, elegant niches, in which red sandstone saints stood.

Richard, however, did not notice those tiny pieces of art. He was growing more nervous with every minute that passed. Would Manon still want to become his baronetess? What if she had changed her mind after he had initiated her so forcibly, last night? He damned himself now for not having been more circumspect. He should have…

“Here she comes, Rich,” Lucian’s voice dragged him back from his dismal thoughts, and Richard swivelled round toward the church entrance. Yes, there she was, his Manon, and what a sight she was to behold!

 

In the brand new, white-and-gold wedding carriage, especially bought by Richard as a wedding present to his bride, Manon fantasized with rapt anticipation about what was to come in the next hours. Today, she was Richard’s bride! They were about to be joined in matrimony, for the rest of their lives. Joy, pure and hot, sped through her heart like wildfire. A bright smile curved her lips.

Her brother, sitting on the bench opposite, saw it and asked, “What are you smiling for, Manon?”

Of course, Manon mused. Jéhan was too young to understand that this was a pivotal day in his sister’s life. In all their lives, for that matter.

“I am smiling because you look so extremely handsome, mon chou. And also because you are giving me away to my future husband, which is only right, since you are my only living male relative.”

Jéhan reflected on this for a while, his young face screwed up in concentration. “Is that what a brother must do, Manon? Must I give you away forever when you marry Uncle Richard?”

“No, my sweet, I will not be away from you at all, ever. You are going to do a very important thing, my love. It is an English tradition to give away a woman to her husband. A brother places his sister’s hand in that of her husband because he entrusts her welfare and happiness to the man she loves. To the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with.”

She stroked his cheek and smiled fondly at him. “My sweet Jéhan,” she said, fighting down the huge lump in her throat, “you will always be the dearest person in my life. You are my one and only brother whom I love more than life itself.”

The carriage stopped at the foot of the low knoll that bore St Wulfram’s Church, a fortress-like Saxon building. Manon stepped down, her hand held by Jake Davies.

“Are you ready, Master John?” he asked Jéhan. “Yes, Mr Davies,” the boy replied solemnly and took up his position beside his sister.

The tones of Jeremiah Clarke’s “Prince of Denmark March,” performed by the village organist and accompanied by one of Brighton’s renowned trumpet players, began resonating through the nave. Every head turned toward the open double doors in anticipation.

Manon, her small hand in that of her brother, was stepping down the aisle towards the man of her dreams, who was awaiting her at the altar.

Oh, how handsome he was, her Richard! His finely tailored coat of moss green superfine wool covered a shirt of the sheerest white lawn and a cream-coloured silk waistcoat over a pair of buff buckskin breeches. He stood solid as the rock he truly was, his long, muscular legs encased in rust-coloured boots of the softest leather. In his trembling hand, he held his black beaver hat.

It was his bright blue eyes, however, that captured Manon’s gaze in rapt, intense love. She returned it with her beautiful green gaze, equally full of love.

Finally, their day had broken. At last, their lives would truly begin.

 

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