Chapter Forty-Six – A Narrow Escape
At Marlborough Mills things were busy but progressing very nicely.
John was supervising the installation of looms in one of his new sheds and at this moment, he wished Nicholas could have been with him. Higgins’ vast knowledge of machinery would have served him well but it would be at least another week before he and Hannah would be back in Milton. Thank God his mother was getting back on her feet without any visible setbacks, John thought.
He redirected his attention to the affairs in hand.
Three groups of sturdy workmen were building up an equal number of Lancashire Looms in the vast new hall, especially built for just that. The looms were the latest invention and very expensive. John and Margaret had invested a great part of their fortune in the acquisition of the three of them. It was of vital importance, therefore, that they would be functioning as soon as possible.
Hovering at the entrance of the hall were a group of women of Mary’s infirmary ward, taking their break. Some of them had their children with them, and the little ones were running around and laughing and playing. Mary had organized a neat scheme of turning shifts and she was now employing thirty young workers’ wives, who were prevented from working because they had recently given birth or had too many children under the age of six. Children older than six would be at the factories working as “scavengers”. Their task consisted in crawling under the looms to collect pieces of cloth and tie up loose ends. It was a dangerous job and many children were injured, some met their deaths when caught up in the looms. John always insisted on a thorough training beforehand and asked Mr Williams, his overseer, to keep a firm eye on the children. Mr Williams had an overseer in every shed, so that the children could be watched.
John was attentively watching the progress of assembling the looms, when, like a flash of lightning, a small form slid under one of the machines, giggling and shrieking. The worker, holding up one of the warp beams, startled and the heavy beam slit from his hands. He managed to get a grip but his hands, not getting the right hold, kept slipping. Without thinking, John plunged under the loom, snatched the child and literally threw it from under the menacing beam.
At that moment, with a sound like thunder, the beam crashed down on John.
Margaret was numb with bewilderment as she stammered. “Tw … twins … you’re … you … but … doctor …”
“Mrs Thornton, please, collect yourself. There is no need for panic. You must proceed as you have until now, only, you need to lie down every couple of hours. Try not to be on your feet for too long. Be careful with your food. Nothing too fat or too sugary, no alcohol or coffee, but lots of fluids, tea or water. You must forestall the gain of too much weight. Now, we must get you home and, do not worry, I will order my coachman to drive you home.”
“Surely, doctor,” Margaret began, “my aunt’s house is 300 yards down the street and …”
“No arguing, Mrs Thornton, if you please? You had a shock, you need to rest, to be calm. No straining exercise anymore today.”
Margaret had to admit she was indeed in shock. Twins … how on earth was she to tell John?
When she entered her aunt’s house, Edith came out of the drawing room.
“Oh, dear! Margaret, you look awful! Come and sit down, sweetheart. Holly, help me with Mrs Thornton.”
They lowered Margaret onto a chair and Dixon, who came whirling in, fell on her knees beside her mistress.
“Oh, my dear Miss Margaret! I must get you to bed immediately.”
“No,” Margaret said, “I’m fine. I just need to lie down a bit.”
To emphasize this, she rose. A sharp stab of pain in her lower back made her gasp but that was not the worse. All of a sudden, out of the blue, she had a horrible feeling something was very wrong … with John …
For a few seconds everybody in the hall just stood rooted to the ground in shock!
Then Mr Williams bellowed to haul up the warp beam and secure it. He knelt and crawled toward the master who lay motionless on his stomach, his arm bent back in a weird angle and blood trickling of a wound at the back of his head. Mr Williams put out a shaking hand and touched the master’s neck. A pulse … thank God, there was a heartbeat! A very weak one …
They sent for Dr Donaldson who gave directions as how to retrieve John from under the loom. A board was slowly slit under the master’s body, and they carried him to Dr Donaldson’s surgery, three blocks away. All the way, a large and totally silent mass of workers followed the stretcher, a mass growing more and more.
The word was spreading rapidly through the city. John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills had just been gravely, maybe fatally, injured.