Chapter Thirty-Eight – Joining forces
Dixon’s eyes narrowed when she came out of the master bedroom and found Jane standing at the study door, her ear pressed against it in an all too well-known posture of eavesdropping. The wretched girl was at it again! Dixon hastily withdrew and softly closed the door. She would not make the same mistake as in the past but keep the maid under surveillance. Her instinct had warned Dixon for some time now, that Jane was up to something. The maid’s conduct of lately had been highly unusual and her work – which had never been very good – had been lacking to a degree that Dixon wanted to complain to old Mrs. Thornton about it. How closely Jane’s recent behaviour resembled that of the previous autumn, when she had been in league with Ann Latimer. Dixon had not approved of her mistress’s forgiving nature then and, if it had been up to her, Jane would have been on the streets without a reference right away. So she would keep a very close eye on the maid in order to know if the little goose was planning on mischief again.
Two days after Hannah’s disappearance, a kind of war council was being held in John’s office. Apart from his wife and Nicholas Higgins, Inspector Mason was present, along with Overseer Williams and Mary Higgins.
“I want the mill searched from top to bottom,” John stated and looked around the small circle of people before unrolling a large sheet of paper on top of his desk.
“To do so more effectively, I have sent for the plans of the buildings as they were given into the custody of the Milton Town Registry Office by my father twenty years ago.”
All came closer to examine the document and John went on:
“Mr. Williams, you were here before I was. Can you tell me if something has changed on this floor plan?”
The overseer studied the sheet of paper for a while.
“Not that much, Master. This building here has been enlarged under your management, as you well know, and is now being used as our best cotton warehouse. Before that it was a wooden outbuilding to these smaller warehouses at the back of the courtyard. Some of them don’t exist anymore, you’ll remember, sir, that one of them collapsed the winter before this one.”
“Yes,” Higgins chimed in, “and the others should also be torn down. They are on the verge of collapsing, especially as they are now buried under a yard of snow. You really should secure these premises, Master. It is not safe to go there.”
John nodded. He knew this but he had not found the time to do something about it.
Mason, his honest face rather sceptical, said, “It is going to take us quite a while, sir, to search all of this. I want some of your workers to assist my men so that nothing is overlooked.”
“Take as much men as you need, Inspector. Higgins will coordinate the whole business.”
Margaret had kept silent until now. “We need to find Mrs. Thornton as quickly as possible, gentlemen. It is been two days now and she could be hurt,” she said gravely.
They all nodded gravely in quiet agreement. John’s eyes met hers and the same anxiety was reflected in them.
Hannah realised she must have fallen into a slumber many times now, on and off. She had lost all notion of time. The oil lamp had ceased burning long ago. What day was it? Was this the second or the third day she was held here? Her head had stopped aching but now she was feeling weird, very light-headed, as if her body was not connected anymore with her head. Weakness from the lack of food and water, of course. Would this be the end? Would she die here, in this place? Would she die alone and far from her loved ones? She felt cold to her very bones.
Footsteps! Immediately Hannah sat straighter! One must never show one’s weakness, not under any circumstances.
A key turned in the lock and a figure appeared in the doorway. It was wrapped head to toe in a heavy, black cloak, so long that it covered every inch of a slender figure. A hood over the figure’s head effectively hid the face. It might be a woman, so Hannah tried to catch a glimpse of it, but to no avail. She could not even make out if it was a man or a woman, although she opted for a man as the person was tall and upright.
“Could I ask you for some water?”
Hannah’s voice sounded inhuman to her own ears, hoarse and without strength. The figure did not answer nor move.
“Please? I am very thirsty.”
The hooded figure shrugged, turned and left. Hannah’s spirits sank as she realised she was being left there to die. Fighting hard not to give in to despair, she brooded over what just happened. The way that person had shrugged … it reminded her of someone she knew. But who? Remembrance was at the edge of her memory yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
She felt weaker every minute and her nausea became worse. Her heart was pounding as if it were trying to leap out of her chest. A dull pain burned in her chest and she felt very lightheaded. Recalling the symptoms of the heart attack she had last year, Hannah tried to breathe properly and slowly. It helped a little.
“ Jane? Where are you? Come and help me with the sheets!” Dixon called out but she got no answer. Instead of Jane, Molly came hurrying into the scullery
“I will give you a hand, Miss Dixon!”
“Hmpf!”, Dixon grumbled but accepted the girl’s help. They had just finished with the laundry when Jane came in, her cloak and bonnet still on her.
“And where have you been, missie? What is this nonsense? Sneaking out of the house without asking permission, are you?”
“I am so sorry, Miss Dixon! My little sister was here an hour ago, my mother is ill and she wanted me to come home to go fetch some medicines. I hope you will not be angry with me for bringing her a food basket?”
Dixon studied the girl with a critical eye. In the end she sent her off to her duties, with the stern admonition to ask for permission the next time. Fair enough, she thought, if Jane went to help when her mother was ill. Yet later that day, she asked Molly, the scullery maid, if Jane’s little sister had indeed come to the house.
“Oh, yes, Miss Dixon, I saw little Dottie around six this afternoon and Jane went out with her.”
The ceiling above Hannah’s head was definitively creaking! A crack appeared in the corner right before her, slowly slithering along the old bricks of the vault, to stop at the first iron beam it encountered. Hannah shivered in sheer apprehension.