Chapter 16 – In mortal danger
By now it was midnight, and Hannah Thornton was in agony.
She had grown tired of waiting for Margaret to return home and consequently had gone to the infirmary, only to find it closed and dark. She had then gone to Higgins’s house, swallowing her pride and her disgust in having to descend that filthy alley, past decayed houses and begging children in rags.
“But, Mrs Thornton,” Mary had said when she’d explained her coming, “Margaret went home at half past nine!”
Hannah and Higgins stared at each other in stunned silence.
John Thornton stepped from the train in Outward Milton Station around half past midnight. He and Williams had been able to bribe some dockworkers in Liverpool Harbour in unloading their so much needed bales of cotton onto a dray cart, which was now been driven home by Williams. It should be at the Mill by morning.
John was weary to the bone.
He hadn’t slept the night before and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a meal.
When he alighted from the hansom cap, it was near one p.m. The house was quiet and the lights dimmed. Jane seemed a little subdued, he thought.
There was nobody in the parlour nor in the dining room or the bedrooms.
“Jane!” he bellowed. The maid came rushing in, face pale and eyes shifting.
“Where are my wife and my mother?” he asked, scowling at her.
Jane wrung her hands and wailed. “Mr. Thornton, sir, please, it’s … it’s Mrs. Thornton, sir, your wife … she …”
“What of her, girl, talk!”
The maid didn’t meet his eyes and whimpered. “She’s … she’s not come home, sir, she’s … disappeared …”
Margaret lay on the hard floor for what seemed to her like for days. She had lost all notion of time because she had drifted into unconsciousness and back for several times. Her body, aching and stone-cold, was shaking uncontrollably and her breathing was ragged. Because of her tightly bound hands and feet, she was forced to stay as immobile as she could but every time she passed out, her throat was being tightened by the noose. For what had been an eternity, she had managed to stay alive but she knew it was just a matter of time before her body would give up and then she would die.
Stepping into the parlour, still in her hat and coat, Hannah heard Jane’s stammered words.
“John! Oh, dear Lord, I’m so relieved that you’re home! It’s Margaret, she’s not returned home from the infirmary. I went to Mary’s house and she told me Margaret had gone home around half past nine.”
John couldn’t take in what his mother was saying. Margaret was not here? Why? What had happened?
“It’s true, master”, Higgins, who had accompanied Hannah, said. “I’ve notified the police and sergeant Mason is already organizing a search.”
Somehow, Nicholas’s grave tone of voice breached the dam of John’s paralyzing apathy. He sank onto the settee, his knees suddenly buckling.
“When has this happened? When was she last seen?” he said, his voice giving way.
Higgins tried to explain. “She must have disappeared here, John, in the Mill. It cannot have happened otherwise. Mary told her to go home, because they were done for the day. Margaret was glad to go, she was tired, Mary said. Margaret wouldn’t have gone elsewhere but home. No, she must have been taken here, in the Mill.”
John stood abruptly. “Have you searched the Mill?” he asked wearily.
“No, I just heard about it from Mrs. Thornton. I came back with her to begin searching.”
“I’ll come with you!”
At that moment Dixon came in, furious and scowling at Higgins. “I told you so, you wretched man, and you did nothing! Now my poor mistress has been snatched and could be lying dead somewhere!” She launched herself at Higgins, who had all the trouble in the world fighting her off. John and Hannah took her each by an arm and held her back.
“Miss Dixon, what are you talking about?” John asked her when she had calmed down a bit.
Dixon shrugged herself free and, in two steps, had reached Jane, whom she took firmly by the arm.
“I’m sure you should listen to what this sorry miss here has to tell, master! She could maybe explain why she eavesdropped on you and the mistress and why she kept record of it and carried it to Mrs Watson. And maybe she knows why Mrs Watson is in cahoots with Miss Latimer. And maybe she could explain to me why two rich ladies are befriended with a little nobody like herself?”
When she stopped because she’d run out of breath, John turned to a frightened Jane now. “Well, Jane?” he enquired.
But Jane had reached the end of her wits now and burst into hysteric tears. “Oh, for God’s sake!” Hannah exclaimed and gave Jane a fierce shook on her arm. “Come on, Jane, tell us!”
The stern voice of her mistress stopped Jane’s hiccupping cries at once.
She began spilling everything. How Mrs Watson had ordered her to eavesdrop and report of what she’d heard. How she’d heard Miss Latimer speak to Mrs Watson about harming Miss Margaret.
“Harm her?” John exclaimed. “Fanny plans to harm Margaret? I’m going over there now!”
He was stopped by Hannah.
“No, John”, she said calmly. “I am going over there. You are needed here.”
Sudden clamour and noise dragged everybody towards the window.
John’s stomach cramped when he saw flames and smokes rising from the upper windows of the Mill!
A fire, there was a fire!
Margaret was beyond exhaustion by now.
She was crying without being able to stop it. She thought of John and sank even deeper into despair.
He didn’t even know that she was taken. No one knew it. She wouldn’t be missed for a long time and therefore nobody would be looking for her. Help would not come for her.
Her awareness was fading, and she had no strength left to fight for it.
Then, suddenly, an acrid smell rose from beneath her …
Slowly, she began to understand what it was … a fire, there was a fire beneath her! In violent panic she tried to scream, to make a sound and failed! Her bonds were already strangling her again and she forced herself to stay motionless, draining whatever strength was left in her cramped body.
She had a choice between being strangled and burn to death!