Chapter Thirty-Seven – Ache and Agony
Hannah opened her eyes and immediately wished she had not. A shaft of the most piercing headache run through her head and neck. She inhaled heavily against the pain until she was able to see more clearly. It appeared that she was tied onto a chair which stood in the middle of a bare room. No windows and a crude, wooden door. A single oil lamp stood in a corner and threw a ghastly, yellow light onto brick walls, blackened with age and dirt. She was alone. What in the name of God had happened?
The last thing she remembered was her locking the gate of Marlborough Mills on – Friday evening – yes, that was it. They must have hit her over the head. Suddenly realisation dawned! Inside the mill! Who? Why? Nausea brought her stomach into her throat and she bowed her head and breathed deeply in and out. Her heart was thudding too fast …
Nicholas Higgins had done everything that was in his power to find Hannah Thornton. He was not taking any risks and he certainly was not leaving it to Mason and his bloody police rascals!
The spot at the mill, where she was supposed to have been abducted from, had been gone through with a fine-tooth comb, just now, by his own hands. He found one of her golden earrings; a sudden surge of emotion choked his throat as he put it away in his breast pocket. Damn! He would rip the heads off those bastards if he got his hands on the blighters.
His widely-spread network of contacts had already been interrogated thoroughly and yielded nothing. It was infuriating! Instead of handling the on-going strike and negotiate with John Thornton, he was wasting his time in a search for Thornton’s mother. At that moment the man that occupied his thoughts was just striding towards him and the scowl on Thornton’s face did not bide pleasant things.
“Ah, Higgins! Just the man I was looking for!”
The minute Higgins heard the light, female voice, he saw Margaret hurrying towards them.
“Oh, Nicholas, you’re here!,” she said, a little breathlessly, “Come, let us go into the house. There are several things we have to discuss!”
Margaret tucked her arm through Nicholas’s and threw a pleading glance at her husband, who smiled at her. She probably thought he had been about to pick a fight with Higgins. He would not do such a thing, not with his mother gone missing. God! For the umpteenth time, the most horrible fears were flooding his brain! His mother!
The waiting was long. Hannah could not do a single thing as she was sitting there, bound onto the chair, in the damp room. She was growing cold, hungry and thirsty but that did not bother her much. She had been deprived from food and warmth several times before in her life and she could endure it. It was only a matter of keeping a calm and positive frame of mind.
They would, of course, be searching for her and, eventually, they would find her. John would find her, she had no doubts about that. He would tear down the whole of Milton if necessary. Strangely enough she realised she was still in Milton and more so, somewhere at Marlborough Mills. Although she had never been in this place before, Hannah felt familiar with the bare brick walls. It must be one of the cellars beneath the cotton warehouses at the back of the courtyard. No one ever came down here for they were in a bad state, some of them had already collapsed a long time ago, bringing down as well the warehouse above them after a time. John had been planning to do something about it but had never gotten around to it.
Hannah’s shoulders were numb from having her hands tied so tightly behind her back. She wondered whether someone would come to see how she was doing. Why had she been taken in the first place? The answer sprung into her mind the moment she asked herself that question.
They would try and force John into giving in about the strike!
Margaret ushered the two men into John’s study and literally pushed them onto chairs, John’s was behind his desk, Nicholas’s in front of it. She placed herself in between and looked at them. Both their faces were haggard, for the same reason.
“Listen, both of you,” she said in a firm voice, “we must decide about two things. First we will discuss the strike. This is what I propose; John will agree to a raise in the wages of three shillings a week for all of our workers and you, Nicholas, will agree to keep them at work, no matter what, to catch up with the arrears on production, even if it means continuing work during the night.”
She went silent and watched the various emotions on their faces. John was the first to react.
“Margaret! That is … “
“Absolutely brilliant!”, Nicholas shouted, interrupting him.
“Yes, exactly!”, John exclaimed in the same moment.
Margaret took a deep breath of relief, realising that she had not known what the outcome would be.
“Good! Then we can concentrate on the most important issue of the two; how are we going to find your mother?”
“Ah!”, Nicholas let out with a sigh so forlorn that Margaret’s heart hurt. She covered Nicholas’s large, calloused hand with her own. He averted his face in embarrassment but she had seen his brightly shining eyes and the way he had to swallow his emotion away. She cast her husband a warning look but John nodded in understanding and cleared his throat.
“It is fairly clear that Mother must have been taken inside these walls,” John explained, “and, more so, by someone who does know a lot about us, and about the mill. It must be someone that works here. No, Higgins, I’m not saying that it is one of the workers, at least not when I have no proof of that nor an inkling as to whom it might be.”
These words blocked off any of Nicholas’s retaliation which had been on the verge of bursting out of him.
“Nor do I,” Nicholas grumbled, “but I swear I will find out! When I do, the bastard will be sorry to have ever been born!”
“Not if I can get my hands on him!”, John pointed out in a voice shaking with fury.
Margaret intervened by placing her hand on his, just like she had done with Nicholas earlier.
“We must take heed not to betray ourselves to this unknown person, John. If he is part of Marlborough Mills, he will be on his guard and he will certainly be watching us and listening in onto us.”
“Yes,” her husband agreed, “but how can we unmask him, that is what I would like to know.”
“Leave it to me, Master,” Higgins said, “I have some friends here whom I can trust unconditionally. They will be my spies.”
With a start Hannah sat upright! Some noise must have woken her from her uneasy slumber. She strained her ears and listened. It was a deep, low rumble, followed by a long, loud creak. Seconds after that a heavy thud made the floor shake so violently that her chair was moved without her being able to stop it. Her heart started pounding quickly when she realised what it was; somewhere farther away the ceiling was coming down!
Oh, sweet revenge! The Spiteful One had dealt a blow to John Thornton he would not manage that easily. She knew Hannah Thornton’s faith was as good as sealed and they would never find her! The abandoned cellars were not known to many people and nobody ever went there. Either Hannah Thornton would die of deprivation or she would be buried under tons of rubble when the ceiling collapsed. It was only a matter of time … she would only have to wait.