Chapter Forty – After the storm
Afterwards John remembered those terrifying moments for the rest of his life, as the fierce events were etched into his brain forever.
He hurried in what was left of the cellar and bumped into a wall of debris, blocking his further progress. Nothing but heavy, black dust clouded his vision. Where was Higgins? John shouted his name but there was no answer. He found himself clawing at the dust and the debris, barely feeling the pain in his bleeding hands. All the time he felt a gnawing fear in his chest for his co-worker and – God forbid – for his mother, because Higgins would not have gone inside, had she not been there!
Then – to his infinite relief – he heard Nicholas’s voice!
“John! John!”, he coughed, “Help me! She’s here, she’s tied onto a chair but I can’t free her!”
Someone behind him handed him a knife and John crawled forward to find Higgins holding the board above his mother’s body. She was lying on her side, hands and feet bound onto a chair. John had her loose in seconds while he supported the board with his back and shoulders. The air in the dark, confined space was vile and heavy with dust.
John began lifting his mother, only to feel himself shoved aside by a determined Higgins. The union man gently took his mother into his arms, treated her as carefully as a newborn baby. He stumbled after them, numb with apprehension.
Outside, helping hands took over Hannah’s motionless body and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Margaret and Mary Higgins direct the men towards the infirmary. When a big gulf of exhaustion swept over him, he did not resist but lowered himself onto the ground. Someone gave him a glass of water and he gulped it down. Gradually he began feeling better and enquired after Higgins.
“John, I’m fine! Where’s Hannah?”
Nicholas’s voice rang loudly and clearly somewhere above his head. Apart from being incredibly dirty, his friend was looking alright, if the mischievous grin on his face was anything to go by. Then panic struck him again!
“Higgins, was she breathing? Was she alive?”
“Yes, John, she was, thank God!”
Higgins’s eyes, John saw, were shining with tears of relief, then he asked. “And you, Nicholas, how are you?”
Someone must have fetched Dr. Donaldson because he stood waiting for them in the infirmary.
“Easy npw, lads, put her here, on top of the table. Mary, help me. Jenny, loosen her collar. Betty, hot water and towels, please.”
With the perfect routine acquired over his many years as a physician, Dr. Donaldson began attending to Hannah. Margaret stepped forward to help but he waved her onto a chair.
“Not you, Mrs. Thornton, you need to rest. Sit down, I’ll take care of her.”
Margaret discovered that she was glad to do so, her legs were a bit shaky. She watched anxiously at the competent team and the good job they were doing. It was not long before she heard a faint little cough and then, a deep intake of breath.
“Very well, help her into an upright position. Careful! Mary, the digoxin tincture, please? You may put five drops of it in half a glass of water.”
Margaret saw to her infinite relief that Hannah was reacting in a positive way to the medication. Her breathing became easier and her cheeks regained a little colour. Her eyes were open and she was looking around her with a steady gaze.
“What happened?”, she whispered faintly.
“Well, Mrs. Thornton,” the doctor answered, “you almost died. Your son and Higgins rescued you from being buried alive. You did not breathe when they brought you here but I think you are over the worst now.”
“Oh, yes … the cellar …”, Hannah croaked.
The infirmary door burst open and Higgins stormed in, closely followed by John.
“My God, Hannah! How … what … are you alright?”
Hannah lifted her eyes towards Nicholas and a bright smile lit her face.
Higgins took his daughter’s place behind Hannah and wrapped his arms around her frail body.
“My dear, dear girl, don’t you ever frighten me like that again! I thought I’d lost you!”
Margaret watched John as he stood rooted to the spot when Nicholas kissed his mother … on the mouth! John was speechless and very distraught, she could see that. So she slipped her hand through his and began pulling him out of the room, already vacated by everyone else.
Outside, she spoke softly to him. “They love each other, darling. I think we should give them some privacy.”
Only now, John seemed to shake himself out of his dreamlike stupor.
“But … Margaret … how can this be? She … she is my mother, for God’s sake!”
“Yes,” Margaret smiled, “but she is also a woman. She has been sacrificing herself for sixteen years, my love, for you and for Fanny Now the both of you are safely married and your mother knows her children are going to be alright. It is high time that she should start thinking about herself from now on.”
A great commotion and noise, coming from the direction of the house, suddenly distracted them both. To their astonishment they saw Dixon approaching them. She was firmly holding a struggling Jane in her strong grasp, and Jane’s arms were tied up behind her back.
“Master!”, Dixon’s indignant voice rang through the courtyard. “I think you’d better listen to what this wretch of a girl has to say! Oh, doctor, hurry! Inside there’s Annie and she’s been stabbed by this one! ”
On the evening of that eventful day, John and Margaret sat beside Hannah’s bed. John had his arm around Margaret’s slim shoulders, and her head was resting against his chest. Hannah was sleeping peacefully, her breathing deep and steady, thanks to the soothing chest poultice Dixon had applied earlier.
“She is doing well, isn’t she, Margaret?”, John whispered, his mouth in his wife’s lovely hair. They had already dressed for bed and Margaret’s hair was down.
“Yes, my love, she is. She is a strong woman, our dear mother. Do not worry, John, she will soon recover. But, John?”
“Hmm?” God, he thought, her hair smells heavenly!
“Is it over now? Will it stop now that Jane is in custody?”
Anger filled his mind and he said fiercely:
“That terrible woman! I cannot believe she was here, all the time, conspiring and harming us! Had I but known, I should have killed her!”
“She was very sly and she hated us because of Leonards, John. Inspector Mason said she spat it all out, almost mad with rage against our whole family. She must have loved that man very dearly.”
“Love? Love had nothing to do with it! How can you harm and injure people out of love? Ha, I could have throttled her when Dixon told us all about it! If not for Mason taking her in, I would have done it, Margaret! Over and done with!”
Margaret looked up into his face, laying her hand against his cheek.
“John, please? No more anger, no more sorrow. Let it go, my love. It is over and we can go on with our lives.”
He took her in the circle of his arms and kissed the top of her head. He loved her so much … his Margaret.
“You are so right, my darling, we will go on, together! As long as we are together, Margaret, nothing can hurt us.”
The baby stirred violently and John startled, suddenly remembering his unborn child.
“How is he, our little man?”
Margaret chuckled. “You still think it is a boy, then?”
“I am absolutely certain it is, indeed, a boy! He never seems to sleep! My mother tells me I was just like that and that, when she was expecting me, I never gave her a moment’s peace!”
“Well,” Margaret said, “then I have a rough twenty-five weeks ahead, John Thornton, thanks to you!”