Chapter 6 – Engaged to be married
Next Friday evening the Thorntons hosted a small intimate party in honour of John and Margaret’s betrothal. It was not a formal engagement party. That would be so if there was to be made an announcement to both their families of the wedding. As it was, Margaret’s remaining relatives, Aunt Shaw and the Lennoxes, could not make the trip from London for just this occasion. Margaret’s parents had passed away the previous year and her brother Frederic lived in Spain.
John’s sister Fanny already knew of the wedding so it was just a small gathering.
Hannah had ordered a light diner to be served in the dining room. Margaret and John were waiting for her to join them for champagne. She entered just as Jane brought out the tray and glasses.
“Now, Mother,” said John, a twinkle in his eyes, “when do you expect our special guests?”
“Special guests?” Margaret asked. John grinned broadly and Hannah also smiled at her. Margaret looked at the two of them and saw that they were in some scheme of their own.
Jane entered again and curtsied.
“Mister Higgins and Miss Higgins, sir,” Jane said, her plain face showing disapproval.
“Nicholas! Mary! Oh John, what a good idea, what a pleasure!” Margaret hurried towards her friends and hugged first Mary, then Nicholas. Champagne was served and glasses handed over. John took Margaret’s hand and drew her at his side.
“My sweet love,” he said huskily, “we have lost so much precious time in fighting our love for each other and the blame was entirely mine …”
“John, no, I was …” Margaret whispered.
“Hush, sweetheart, hear me out. Now that you finally consented in becoming my wife, please accept this token of my deep and eternal love for you.” His beautiful grey eyes glowed with pride and love when he took Margaret’s fine hand in his and slit a small but tasteful diamond ring on her finger. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, looking deep into her eyes. Never had their mutual understanding been deeper.
“This calls for a toast!” Nicholas’s deep voice boomed. When everybody had their glass, Nicholas raised his and smiled.
“Master, Margaret, I drink to the happy life that awaits you both as I never knew two people who were more destined to be together! I’m proud to be here as a friend! Good health to you!”
Hannah was standing a bit aside when she raised her glass in answer to Nicholas Higgins making his speech. A remarkable man, this Mr. Higgins, she thought, a union man, a strong man with strong beliefs. She knew what John’s dealings with him had been in the past. Although she was suspicious of mankind in general by nature, she sensed a loyalty of character in this man, who had stood by John in his hour of misfortune.
She had, at first, been reluctant in receiving Higgins in her house but John had persuaded her that he was now the only true friend he had left. Higgins, John had said, was of great value to the working of the Mill and that had won Hannah over.
Margaret approached Mary and took her to the settee where they began talking about their plans for the social projects they were drawing up. The soup kitchen, which had been Mary’s pride and joy up until now, had been organized by her into a perfectly working routine. Every day two shifts of meals were being served, one at noon and one at ten p.m. A dozen young women worked there, doing the purchasing of food, the cooking, serving and cleaning up. They were all nursing mothers and therefore not able to work in factory shifts. They could do their jobs in the kitchen while bringing their babies along.
Now Mary had worked out plans for a dressing station and the two women were looking for a location to install it in. John had proposed to expand the kitchen building and the women had been scrutinizing the floor plans to comment on the progressing of the works. John sat and leaned back, enjoying his champagne and the view of his Margaret as she was in lively conversation with Mary.
A sigh of contentment escaped him and a smile spread on his face.
Hannah, meanwhile, stood at her favourite spot looking out of the window when suddenly she became aware of Higgins approaching her. She turned her head and directed her cool gaze at him, scanning him from head to toe. His appearance surprised and pleased her. He wore a dark blue suit made of fine wool with a shirt of fine white linen, a waistcoat of grey silk and a burgundy coloured cravat in a simple but elegant knot. His boots were of black leather polished to a shine. He looked as if he had visited a barber, for he was neatly clean shaven and his thick, black hair with only the slightest fringe of grey seemed freshly cut.
“So, Mr. Higgins, it seems that you’re now on the side of the manufacturers rather than on the Union’s?” said Hannah with a hint of lightness in her voice. Instantly the man’s dark brown eyes came to life.
“Oh no, ma’am!” he replied in a carefully controlled voice. “I could never do that. I will be a Union man till I die because it’s in my very soul. My people depend on me, they need me! How could I ever let them down?”
“My son explained to me that you are now dealing with the factory’s supplies of cotton and that you are going over the worker’s wages and the factory’s accounts. Surely that puts you on the same side as my son, the owner of the Mill?” Hannah exclaimed in surprise.
“Master and I are on the same side where the Mill’s workings and future are concerned. However, should Master forget the wellbeing of his workers, he would find me in his way and he bloody well knows it.”
Hannah blinked at his slight cursing but did not rebuke him for it. As a matter of fact, she rather liked him for standing by his beliefs and for defending them. Higgins realized only then what he had said.
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Thornton, please accept my apology, the word escaped me ‘ere I knew it.”
Hannah couldn’t help herself from laughing. “Apology accepted, Mr. Higgins, and no offence, I have been around long enough not to be too touchy. Come, let me fill your glass again.”
She did so and they toasted, smiling at each other over the rim of their glasses.