Chapter Thirty-Four – From bad to worse
Margaret found her husband staring at his idle looms in the empty weaving hall of the mill.
John had been there all day since the workers had gone on strike at two pm. The day had been gloomy and cold, as if to match the Master’s mood, and at present, an eerie dusk had set in .
He turned towards her, eyes haggard. “So it has happened again, Margaret,” was all he said, in a voice hoarse with misery.
“Come home with me, John. It is freezing out here and mother is waiting for us with dinner.”
She tried to keep her voice cool. “No,” John answered, “I will stay here and work on my books. I must assess the damage this is bound to inflict upon my mill.”
“Are you going to import hands from Ireland?”, his wife asked quietly.
He threw her an apprehensive look. “I am considering it, yes,” he hesitated.
Margaret placed her hand on his arm.
“John, please, do not do it. You know it will deteriorate things and the outcome is very uncertain. You should …”
“What on earth am I to do then? I cannot bloody let my production come to a stop for God knows how long and risk everything once again!”
John had shouted this words at her but Margaret didn’t startle. His temper had gotten away with him as it was prone to do when he was on edge.
“My love,” she said quietly, “there is another way to solve the problem. It is much better to talk with your workers and listen to what they have to say.”
“Damn it, Margaret! If it were that simple, I would have done it long before! All they talk about is getting higher wages and being paid their overtime! How is Marlborough Mills supposed to survive under such circumstances?”
“It will only survive if you come to a deep and honest understanding of your workers, my love. You have seen the way they are forced to live. They are suffering, John! They are starving!”
“Oh, and I am to blame? I am the one responsible for their misery, I, who provides them with a livelihood? What am I supposed to do, give them a house, food, coal, everything?”
“No.” Her quiet, calm tone and the look of determination in her eyes abated a bit of his anger. Margaret took his hands in hers, they were cold as were her own. It was so arctic in the hall their breaths came out of their mouths as little puffs of smoke.
“I will help you, John. We will work out how much raise you could give them and not put the survival of the mill on the line. We will draw up a social plan for the sick and the temporarily incapacitated, like the pregnant women. We will improve the quality and the efficiency of the soup kitchen and of the infirmary. I have informed myself about this, John, I have read several works about social improvement. Let me help you, dearest. After all it is as much our future as that of our workers.”
John stared at his tiny, slender wife whose face was alight with enthusiasm and diligence. This was the woman he fell in love with, he remembered, the woman with a heart and a love for those who were in worse conditions than herself. The woman that never shied away from what she believed in.
He gathered her in his arms and she came to rest against his chest. “My sweet love,” he breathed, “I am sorry. Once again my wretched temper got the better of me. Let us go inside, it’s freezing. Just allow me to get my books so I can study them at home.”
Hannah Thornton was on a mission she could not postpone. She had walked the three mile distance to Nicholas’ house in order to have the time to gather her thoughts. It was imperative that she speak with him. He must cancel this stupid strike as he was the only one to do it. She, Hannah, must make him see reason, though she had not the faintest idea how she was about to tackle this blasted subject.
Hannah had lately become aware of strange, long-forgotten sentiments of – and here her mind always coiled away from even thinking it – of a certain softness she felt when in the presence of Nicholas Higgins. She had learned about the union man when the first strike at Marlborough Mills had taken place. From what John recounted Hannah had taken an instant dislike of the man. He had become – in her eyes – the fiercest enemy of the mill by organising and leading the strikers. Under his imperturbable directions the strikers had held on for five whole weeks, almost bringing the factory to its knees. No wonder a few months later John had gone bankrupt after being brought to such a low degree of cotton production. Her son had fought heroically to make up the arrears and lost. It was enough for Hannah to have begun hating Nicholas Higgins.
Gradually, however, she had got to see another side of him, a humanitarian side. Higgins really cared about his people, as he called them. He was prepared to fight for them, to try everything that was in his reach to improve their station in life. Moreover, he did so in a straightforward but implacable way, and that was something Hannah could respect. She herself behaved exactly the same way in her dealings with people and situations. During John’s recent predicament, Nicholas had been invaluable in his efforts to find John. He had helped saving John’s life and quietly but firmly offered his support when she needed it the most.
Hannah had not told this to a living soul but, during the long days of John’s illness, Nicholas had called on her every night. He had not talked much but simply hold her hands in his. He had sometimes spoken to her in tender yet supporting words of comfort. One evening in particular, he had gathered her into his arms when she had succumbed to tears of powerlessness. She still remembered the warm, solid firmness of that broad, muscular chest and the overwhelming feeling of safety and comfort that had raced through her. A stabbing thought of propriety had made her tear herself from his embrace. Nicholas had not uttered a word but she had clearly seen the sudden, deep hurt in those blue-green eyes.
As a result of all this, the strike was not the only reason Hannah had to seek out Nicholas. She had by now reached the bottom of Princes Street where his house sat. Drawing a deep breath Hannah gave a firm knock on the door. It was opened almost instantly by a grim looking Nicholas.
“Han … Mrs. Thornton!”
“Hannah, please? I think we have become sufficiently acquainted by now to be on a first name base, have we not?”
A mischievous grin spread over his still handsome face and he stepped back to show her in.
“I’m afraid you will find me on my own,” he said, “Mary is still at work in the infirmary. Now, I do not give a fig about propriety but I know you do. Therefore we could talk on the doorstep, if you wish.”
Hannah strode in and seated herself on one of the chairs at the white-scrubbed table.
“No, thank you!,” she replied, “What I have to say, is not for everyone to be overheard.”
“Ah! Well, let me make you a cup of tea first, then. The day is cold enough to freeze a man to death.”
Hannah waited in silence until he had placed two mugs of steaming tea on the table and seated himself in front of her.
“I am all ears, Hannah, what do you have to say?”
“You must let go of the strike. It will ruin my son and I cannot bear that.”
Nicholas sucked in his breath and bit his lower lip.
“You do not beat around the bush, do you?”
“No”, Hannah replied, “and neither do you. What can be done to solve this problem?”
He scoffed, not in the least disconcerted by her stern look of disapproval.
“Come on, Hannah! Do not tell me you do not know what is needed to get the strikers back to work! Not you, as John Thornton’s mother!”
Now it was Hannah’s turn to scowl. She felt the colour rise in her face with sheer anger! “You want my son to raise their wages and he cannot do it! Do you want the mill to go bankrupt again? Then nobody will be the better and our workers’ lives will go even more miserable! Confound it, Nicholas, do you think my son is inhumane? He knows about their misery and he does what he can to make it better!”
She suddenly realised that Nicholas was looking at her in a peculiar way, amused, on the verge of laughing.
“What? What is it?”
“Hannah Thornton, you are a woman after my own heart! You have a temper, I like that! When your son comes into frame, you defend him like a lioness. Have no fear, my girl, I will talk to John. We will find a solution.”
“Your girl, Nicholas Higgins? I am no such thing!”
His large, calloused hand covered her own and her heart started pounding in her ears.
“Do I have to spill it out to you?,” he asked softly.
Hannah found herself drowning in his gaze and she swallowed, unable to acknowledge the truth.
“I would never do anything that would cause you pain, Hannah. You must know that.”
His hand on hers was pleasantly warm and comforting and although her inbred instincts screamed at her to retrieve it, she found she could not.
“What is this?, she breathed, “What is happening?”
“You know what it is. And now, I think you should return to Marlborough Mills. I’ll go with you.”
He stood, showed her out, put her hand in the crook of his arm and accompanied her all the way through town to the gates of the mill.
“Here you are,” he said, “off you go then.”
He didn’t do anything, just threw her a fond look. She opened the gate and entered, turned the key in the lock and retrieved it. Deep in thoughts, Hannah set foot towards her house.
A quiet footfall behind her made her turn her head to the left but the blackness engulfed her before she knew what befell her.