Chapter 17 – Mrs. Thornton intervenes
By now the Milton Police were organizing a search for Margaret. Mason was in charge but he had no idea where to start. Young Mrs. Thornton could be anywhere from here to London and beyond!
Nevertheless he organized his men starting from Marlborough Mills and searching every house , alley or building in an ever-widening circle. It would take all night and a good deal of the next day.
Hannah Thornton, meanwhile, had a mission of her own.
As soon as Jane had spilt the beans about Fanny, she went to the Watsons’s house despite the nightly hour. A sleepy parlour maid was ordered to rouse the mistress at once.
The Watsons appeared before long, both in dressing gowns over their nightclothes.
“Mrs. Thornton! What brings you here at this hour of …” Watson tried.
“I’ve business with my daughter, sir, but you’re welcome to it if you want to stay and listen. Perhaps you’re to blame as well for her latest folly?”
Fanny turned white and let herself down onto the settee. Watson eyed her with a puzzled expression on his thickset face. “Fanny, what is your mother speaking of? What have you done?”, he asked, panic creeping into his voice.
Hannah drew herself up to her full height, ignoring Watson’s gesture that she should sit down.
“Margaret has disappeared and I have every reason to believe that Fanny has a hand in this. Well, am I to shake some sense into you, girl, or are you going to tell us of your own accord?”
Fanny, cowering under her mother’s fierce gaze, threw her hands to her face and began crying violently. Watson, bless his heart, immediately went by her side and put his arm around her shoulder. “Now, my love, what is it? You’re worrying me, sweet, what is going on?”
Fanny clung to her husband’s arm and sobbed. “I never thought she would actually do it! I knew she detested Margaret and…”
“Oh no, my girl, you’re wrong!” Hannah cut her short. “You both detested her from the start. I’m even guilty of that myself at first but at that time I didn’t really know her.”
“Mother, you don’t understand! Ann doesn’t detest Margaret, she hates her! She said she would kill Margaret but I didn’t think she was serious about it until …”
“Until what, Fanny?” Watson now urged, beginning to realize something was truly wrong.
“She was speaking of doing away with Margaret with such violent hate in her voice and eyes …” Fanny whispered.
Hannah approached her daughter, took her hands in hers and gently asked. “Sweetheart, do you know what she could have done to Margaret? Where could she have brought her to? John is beside himself and now the Mill is on fire and …”
Fanny stared at her in horror. “The Mill? Oh God! But … but … that cannot be Ann’s doing then, can it? She would never do anything that can harm John, she’s in love with him! She only wanted to harm Margaret, frighten her, so that she would leave John and then Ann could go and comfort him and …”
Hannah shook her head in utter disbelief. “Oh Fanny, you’re such a harebrained nit! How can you believe such nonsense? Have you any idea as to where Ann Latimer could have taken Margaret?”
“No! How would I?”
Watson took over now. “We’re coming with you to Marlborough Mills, Mrs. Thornton. I believe Thornton will need all the help he can get. And, another thing, I can’t believe for a second that Ann Latimer did this on her own, she must have had help.”
It was now two a.m. and Marlborough Mills was on fire.
John and Nicholas had soon discovered, however, that the fire mainly was situated on the second floor of the cotton warehouse, the only place where bales were still stored. The dockworkers’ strike proved to be a blessing, for normally the warehouse would have been filled to the rafters.
Mill workers were fighting to keep it contained within the second floor space. It was a terribly straining job, for the water had to be brought up in buckets, and the fire was roaring. The noise was deafening and the heat infernal. John and Nicholas, along with a few of the braver lads, were pulling bales out of range with long hook-tipped poles.
“Master!” Higgins shouted. “Back away! It’s far too hot!”
“We must prevent it spreading towards the attic! More water! Come on, hurry!”
Thankfully, the fire-fighters’ squad arrived at that time, and they began pulling out their long hoses which reached just high enough to deal with the second floor fire.
John and Nicholas, both exhausted and filthy, retreated to the courtyard. A carriage arrived from which John’s mother alighted accompanied by Fanny and Watson.
“John!” Hannah shouted over the din made by the fire-fighters. “John, are you alright? You’re not injured ..?”
“No mother, but why have you brought the Watsons here?”
“Fanny says that Ann Latimer is indeed involved in Margaret’s disappearing, John. She threatened to kill her, she hates her!”
John stared at his mother and sister in disbelief. “Fanny, is this true?’ And when his sister meekly nodded. “But … why? What can Margaret possibly have done to her to induce such actions?”
Hannah snorted. “Well, apparently she’s set her cap on you and she planned to have a go on you once Margaret was out of the way.”
John sat down on a bale of cotton, his knees giving way as he began to see where all this was leading to. The initial attack on Margaret, the first attempt of setting fire to the Mill, Ann Latimer’s very strange behaviour towards him, it all added up to an attempt to destroy both his wife and his business!
Suddenly, one of the piecer lads came running towards him, stumbling over his feet.
“Master, master! Hurry! The fire commander says there’s someone on the top floor of the warehouse and they can’t reach them, ‘cause the fire’s too well advanced!”
John and Higgins hurried away towards the long ladders that were perched against the building. John scrambled up the ladder and reached the attic manhole set up high in the roof. He lowered himself in and saw several fire-fighters aiming their lance onto the wooden floor. It was not yet on fire but it was already smoking.
John peered into the smoke-filled space at the back of the attic and could just see the form of a person propped up against the wall. A person? That … that was … oh, sweet Lord!
That was Margaret!
Author: Luce (Belgium)