Chapter 15 – The power of hate
Nicholas looked at Margaret’s maidservant while she was telling him what she needed him to know, in a straightforward blunt way. Dixon’s tale surprised him, but he wasn’t really concerned. He even wondered why a level-headed woman like Dixon would be worried about a maid that had befriended Fanny Watson. Jane had always been in Mrs. Watson’s service before the latter had married so it was normal that she should be close to her.
He did, however, not say so. Instead, he assured her he would look into it, and as soon as Dixon had left him, he forgot all about it.
Two days after John had left for Liverpool, Margaret and Mary were hard at work at the infirmary.
There was a inflow of people coming in, as the November nights became cold and damp. People suffering from “fluff on the lungs” or byssinosis would especially be affected by moist weather. At least fifty people, mostly mothers with little children, had asked for help and relief. Mary learned them to inhale the vapour coming from a bowl of hot water mixed with eucalyptus oil, which brought them temporarily relief. She also taught them to wear a mouth mask of clean cotton, when stepping outside their houses and into the mills, to avoid the cotton fluff entering their respiratory ways.
Margaret was not sorry when the last patient left around half past nine. She was not feeling well herself, she was tired and her back ached. She couldn’t even remember when was the last time she’d eaten. Mary told her to go back to the house.
“I’ll do the cleaning up, don’t worry, Margaret.”
“Thank you, Mary, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Margaret walked towards the house which was a good half mile away from the infirmary. The surface of the Mill was approximately one square mile, and the outhouse sat at the back of it. It was a cold and damp night with fog swirling between the buildings. She had barely walked for twenty yards when a blow on the back of her head thrust her into a deep black darkness.
Hannah, working on her household books in the parlour, looked up when the clock on the mantelpiece struck ten. She frowned and wondered where Margaret was. Working herself into exhaustion in that infirmary, no doubt!
She rose and went to stand at the window overlooking the front courtyard. It was a nasty night. Hannah shivered but not from cold. She felt uncomfortable, as she always did when John was not at home. She worried about John, how would he fare in Liverpool?
“Oh, come on, woman!” she inwardly admonished herself. “What has become of you? You shiver and tremble over nothing!” Resolutely she resumed her seat and continued working on her books.
Margaret’s body was screaming with pain. She seemed to be immerged into a black sea of pain and she could not breathe properly. She was lying on a hard unyielding surface, gasping and retching uncontrollably because she could not get enough air into her lungs. There was a blindfold, and a gag which blocked her nose and mouth.
Fighting the panic that threatened to overwhelm her, she tried to take small shallow breaths. It helped a little but it didn’t drive the pain away.
“Well … how the high and mighty have fallen,” a voice drawled somewhere above her head, and it took Margaret some time to realize that the voice belonged to Ann Latimer. It didn’t make sense, why would Ann Latimer do her harm? She tried to move, but her hands were tied onto her back, and her bound feet were connected with her hands. They had laid a noose around her neck and connected it with her hands and feet. She was in a stranglehold. If she moved either hands or feet, the noose was tightening and she would be slowly throttled.
“Careful now, Miss Hale! If you move, you’ll strangle yourself,” Ann Latimer said triumphantly.
Margaret heard the faint rustle of fabric close to her head. Her attacker must have lowered herself somehow because this time the voice was much closer.
“But it won’t matter, my dear, for you’ll die anyway. You see, you’re in my way, you keep John away from me, simply because you exist. I have loved John far more and far longer than you have. There was even a time when we were on the brink of betrothal, as you seemed to be away from Milton for good.”
That voice! So cold and so full of hate, and why? What had she ever done to harm Ann Latimer?
“Oh yes, the minute he realized that you were going to leave Milton forever, he came to me. He courted me and wooed me, and I welcomed it with all my heart. The first time we kissed, I thought I’d die from happiness. He is a passionate man, my John, and soon he will be mine again, solely mine!”
Margaret desperately tried to shield her mind and her heart from those words and from the agonizing feelings they stirred up. She knew that the woman was lying, she had to be lying! John would never have done such things, not when she knew he had loved her all along. John had never stopped loving her, of that Margaret was indisputably certain. Then, however, she recalled John telling her about Ann trying to kiss him …
“Say your prayers, Miss Hale, you will die at the same time Marlborough Mills is destroyed. Destroyed for good, this time, so that your despicable money won’t be able to rebuild it again. John will inherit that money and it will make him a rich husband for me. You see, my dear, I have no money of my own. My brute of a father won’t settle a sufficient dowry on me as he cannot part of it. I have to fend for myself and I will. Goodbye, my dear, try to stay alive long enough for you to burn to death.”