Chapter Thirty-One – Up to the task again
It was New Year’s Eve. Snow still shrouded the town in a thick layer of white, softening the harshness of Milton’s greyness. People’s hardship, however, was festering under it.
The infirmary was being overflowed with miserable, sick folk, the largest part of them mothers with small children and babies. Hospitals were already full and many patients were turned down by them.
So Margaret and her small but hard-working staff set up a ward on the top floor of one of the Mill’s cotton warehouses and equipped it with as many beds they could lay their hands on. She requisitioned a group of workers to give the walls and floors a thorough scrubbing and whitewash. A wooden partition separated the men from the women and children.
John Thornton was steadily recovering from his knife wound and subsequent fever, which had kept him bedridden for more than a week. Christmas Eve and Christmas had passed quietly. He hadn’t been able to enjoy it very much, since he had been too weak to sit up for more than one hour. Now, however, he was getting better by the day. Margaret’s rigorous regime of bed rest and strong chicken broth had resulted in building up his strength. Although he wasn’t entirely like his old self again, John felt strong enough to go back to his beloved business. He had resumed his position at the helm of Marlborough Mills on the twenty-ninth. Pleas for caution from his wife and mother were to no avail. His mill had done without him long enough, though he marvelled at the work Higgins had done during his absence. The cotton production had suffered no reduction to speak of and the stocks had been sold and paid for on a regular base.
“I cannot thank you enough, Higgins”, a grateful John said to his manager on the first occasion they had alone. “You have carried on splendidly!”
“Well, Master, I brought my brains with me almost every day!”, Higgins mocked.
But, the next moment, his face became serious and he looked his employer straight in the face.
“John, winter is getting tougher and many families are in deep distress. Some of them have to feed eight to ten children on a wage of fifteen shillings a week and the price of a loaf of bread or a pound of potatoes is five pence! A lot of them are slowly starving, John!”
John raked his hand through his hair, making it stand on end.
“I know, Nicholas! I was in your district the other night with Margaret who was handing out food and medicine. It’s appalling how some people have to live! Listen, tell Mary she must make a list of families who are in the greatest need. She can serve them a meal a day for naught in the soup kitchen.”
“Good initiative, John, but not enough, not by a long shot! The problem will not be solved by handing out food. There must be a raise, master!”
“Higgins, I can’t grant a raise just now! I still haven’t consolidated our profits strongly enough to be drawing from the reserves I’ve so carefully built up these past months!”
Higgins’s face grew like stone and his eyes turned a steely grey. “You are making a big mistake, master! You are ungrateful too! These people have supported you during your illness, only because your good wife spoke to their hearts. If that’s the way you are going to reward them, it will cost you far more dearly than a few shillings a week, mark my words!”
John’s temper flared and he drew himself up into his full height. “Are you threatening me, Nicholas Higgins? Because if you are, I will not let it pass without consequences!”
Without even flinching, Higgins brought his face close to John’s and said in a low, rumbling voice. “Consider yourself threatened then, master, by a strike without mercy until you give in to our demands. If I don’t hear from you by Friday, we will stop the machines at two pm!”
He marched out of the office and John pounded his fist upon the surface of his desk in fury!
Wretched man! How could he do this? How could he not comprehend that the Mill wasn’t yet prosperous enough and John was not able to hand out raises, just like that?
Yet, a strike would be far worse an ordeal than draining his still tender reserves, though it would put him in a vulnerable financial position. Far too vulnerable …
That night, when her husband came back from the factory, Margaret immediately saw how drained he was. His face was ashen again and he lowered himself far too carefully upon the parlour settee. Hannah met her eyes and Margaret understood that her mother-in-law had seen it too.
Margaret knew these moods of John all too well. There was trouble underfoot and John was retreating into non-speaking mode. Yet, now was not the time and she slightly shook her head at Hannah and put her finger to her lips. Hannah nodded and went to the side table to pour him a whisky which he took from her with a tired smile. The two women resumed their needlework in silence until Jane announced that dinner was served.
After dinner John retired into his study without a word.
“What can be ailing him?,” Hannah asked.
“It’s the factory, I presume,” Margaret quietly replied, “I recognise the mood. He will not speak unless we tear it from him. But, Mother, this is not good for him! He should rest and problems will prevent him from sleeping.”
“He is such a worried man, my son,” Hannah continued, “it is because of his father and what that has done to him. John can never entirely relax, his mind nor his conscience will allow him to do so.”
She abruptly stood when her eyes filled with tears. Hannah was never one to show her feelings yet Margaret had seen her sorrow well enough because she was feeling exactly the same way. She joined Hannah by the window overlooking the Mill’s courtyard and placed her hand on Hannah’s arm.
“Mother, what can we do to help him? I do love him so, Mother, it breaks my heart to see him so discouraged …”
Hannah turned towards her daughter-in-law, tears now running down her face. Margaret threw her arms around her and held John’s mother close while she was silently weeping against her shoulder.
It didn’t last long.
“Instead of indulging myself in useless behaviour I should think of something that can help John,” Hannah said in a gruff voice and turned away from Margaret to stalk out of the room. Margaret sighed, thinking John’s character was much alike to that of his mother. She tied away her needlework and went to her husband’s study.
John sat with his hands to his face, the very image of misery!
“Oh, dearest, what is it? Are you unwell? Tell me!”
Margaret rushed at his side and took his hands away from his pale face. He gave her a shaky smile.
“No, my love, I’m tired but that is all.”
John put his arms around his wife’s waist, kissed the slight swelling of her stomach and laid his cheek against it.
“How is our little one doing?”, he asked softly, and all of a sudden, the baby moved. John gasped!
“Oh, my God, Margaret! Did you feel that?”
Margaret laughed softly and her fingers raked through John’s thick, raven hair.
“Yes, my love, I did. It is such a lively child, dearest, so strong. It must be a boy, the very image of his father.”
John released her and stood. With one movement he scooped Margaret into his arms.
“Come, my sweet,” he breathed, “let us go to bed.”
The Spiteful One hastily retreated into the shadows when the study door opened. She’d been eavesdropping and now, she was burning with fury and hatred. Curse the Thorntons! How dare they be so happy! They didn’t deserve to be happy, it was forbidden to them after what they had done! She raked her brain to find a way to cause then harm once again.
Then, all of a sudden, she knew exactly how she would destroy the Thorntons. There was almost certainly going to be a strike. That meant chaos, maybe violence. Who knew what could happen during violence?