Chapter 7 – A catastrophe is looming
Jane entered soon thereafter to announce that dinner was served.
The party moved to the dining room and took seats. John sat on one table head with Margaret on his right and Mary next to her. Hannah sat on John’s left side and Nicholas next to her. It was but a simple meal, with pumpkin soup, roast turkey with rice and a simple dressing, accompanied by mashed peas and stewed leak stems, citrus flavoured ice and coffee afterwards.
John poured a French cognac for himself and Nicholas, while the ladies were served with a fine ratafia.
Conversation went on very amiably until Margaret, who had been talking to Mary about the building plans, said, “John, Mary and I want to go down to the building site and check if the plans are being executed as planned.”
“Yes, of course, love. I’ll come with you in a minute. I want to check out the factory hall first. Mother, will you please excuse us?”
Hannah nodded her consent. The two women put on their wrappings and went out. At the front door they parted as John headed for the factory door.
The infirmary was to be built as an appendage to the soup kitchen, situated in an outhouse at the far end of the factory’s yard. Margaret and Mary walked towards the building side which was adjacent to the Mill’s cotton warehouse. They carried a lantern because dusk was settling in.
“Oh Margaret,” Mary said cheerfully, “how wonderful this is! We will not only hand out meals to people, but also nurse them when they get injured.”
“Yes,” Margaret replied, “it was something that should have been established long time ago. I’m so happy that John finally came to understand his duties to his workers.”
The building site had reached the state of shell, walls and roof finished. Soon Margaret and Mary would be supervising the interior arrangements of the infirmary. The women were satisfied with what they saw as work was progressing according to the plans.
While they were waiting for John, they took a small stroll around the yard. The evening was mild and they enjoyed stretching their limbs after being confined inside that long. Margaret noticed the absence of the fragrances she remembered from Helstone, leaves, grass and flowers. Here in Milton, other scents were present, such as smoke from the wood fires in people’s houses or the sharp dusty smell from the cotton bales, stacked in abundance in the Mill’s yard. Yet, there was another smell that struck her, aggressively and all too real, the smell of burning!
The tall skinny figure dressed in drab rags approached the carriage that was waiting at the back entrance of Marlborough Mills. The carriage door was opened just enough that he could trust his hand inside.
“Is it done?,” the civilised voice of a man asked coldly. It was the same man who charged him to set fire on the cotton supplies of the Mill, something the ragged scoundrel had only been eager enough to do.
“Yes, sir, as you asked me, sir!” the thug answered, the unmistakable London accent in his own voice audible even to himself.
A leather purse was being dumped in his outstretched hand, and he barely had the time to withdraw it before the carriage door snapped shut. Seconds later the carriage slowly and almost inaudibly slid away.
The man stared after it for some time while he put the money in his coat pocket. Money well earned, he thought, for a job well done. That’ll teach these bastard Thorntons and Hales for what they’d done to him and his brother!
John, coming out in the courtyard, was just in time to hear Margaret’s cry of alarm. He ran towards the kitchen outhouse and what he saw chilled the blood in his very veins! A fire! There was a fire behind that cotton stack, he could see the long flames leaping upwards. And Margaret, oh Lord, she was pulling bales out of the way like mad!
John’s mind was reeling with the implications of what could become his worst nightmare. He rushed to the fire scene and started hauling at those bales which were too close to the flames. Only then he saw Mary Higgins and she too was working like a madwoman pulling further away the bales that Margaret had pushed her way. Margaret … oh God! She was the nearest to the fire of them all! Fearless and with no regard to the dangers that threatened her, she was methodically hauling bales out of the fire’s range. It dawned to John that she was far too close to the flames and he hurried to her and grabbed her arm.
“Margaret, come away! You’re too close!”
To his abhorrence she pulled herself free and took several steps closer towards the now blazing inferno, hauling at bales that were not yet on fire.
“Margaret, I beg you, come away! You’ve done well, there’s no immediate danger anymore.”
Only now, Margaret really looked at John. His face was ravaged with concern for her safety, she realized. She smiled and nodded.
“Yes, John, you’re right, I can see that now. I’ll come away.”
She was surprised to see several workers on the spot by now under Nicholas’s command and they were trying to extinguish the fire by dousing it with large buckets of water. It was no easy task as the fire was high and hot and everyone within a distance of fifteen feet was in danger of being seared.
The panic in John’s voice made Margaret return her attention to him. John was holding her hands in his and he was horrified, she realized. Only then she saw why.
Both her hands were burned and covered with blisters. In some spots the skin had been damaged to leave the flesh raw and red. At that very moment Margaret felt the hot excruciating pain overwhelming her. She crumpled and it was all John could do to keep her from falling.