Chapter Thirty – Margaret Thornton of Marlborough Mills
It was now three days since John had been stabbed.
The day after the murderous attempt he developed a high fever without even regaining consciousness. Dr. Donaldson had taken residence at the house because he had his hands full with the patient. Hannah was at John’s side during the night and Margaret during the day. Dixon relieved both of them when they were in need of extra rest.
Meanwhile, Marlborough Mills kept its looms working with Nicholas Higgins at the helm as substitute for John. Margaret had asked Nicholas to gather up the workers at the Lyceum Hall where she had spoken to them. She told them that the Master was very ill. Her voice had broken when she mentioned that he might die. She asked the workers of Marlborough Mills to take good care of their livelihood while John was absent. She pleaded them to keep their demands low until he was better, to keep the mill going. She reminded them of the money the mill produced along with the cotton fabric, money that was needed for their wages and for the working of the soup kitchen and infirmary. A strike, she said, would weaken the mill and, in consequence, would weaken them all and their families. When she finished speaking, the workers unanimously offered her their whole-hearted support and cooperation. It warmed her heart and gave her a little strength which she was able to share with Hannah.
John’s mother had a tough time, maybe the worse time in her entire life.
She wasn’t accustomed to see her son ill, let alone wounded and burning up with fever. He was also the only person that mattered to her, he was her anchor, her reason for living. Seeing him prostrated with fever, pale and withering away, was destroying her step by step.
John was tall and muscular but without an ounce of extra fat on his body. Because of the fever, he was wasting away, slowly but inevitably. After only a few hours of high fever, his eyes were sunken and his cheekbones stood out like those of a bare skull. They tried with every possible means they had to force some food pass his dried lips but the efforts were far too lacking. He did swallow a spoonful of broth or some drops of lemon water but not nearly enough to keep up his strength.
Dr Donaldson, however, encouraged them to keep on doing as they were. No vital organs had been damaged, he said. There was only the huge amount of blood lost that was the cause of his weakness. A lesser man than John Thornton would have succumbed far earlier.
Nonetheless, when Margaret entered the room to take Hannah’s place at John’s side, she found her brushing away a few lonely tears from her cheeks. It startled her, she had never seen Hannah display her emotions like that!
“What is it, Mother? Is he worse?”
“No, no, child, there is no change. Margaret, we have to get something in him! Look at him, he is so thin! Look at his face, it’s grey and his cheeks have caved in! I’ve been trying to give him water every hour but he does not take it in! Look at his lips, they’re all dried up! Merciful God! My son is fading away! What will become of him?”
There was no answer Margaret could give to that question.
“Mother, please, go to sleep. You’re exhausted. It is my turn to sit with him.”
Hannah left and Margaret put her hand on her husband’s brow. It was still way too hot and damp. John was soaked in sweat and his breathing was ragged and uneven. Hannah was right, his lips were parched and the flesh seemed to have melted from his handsome face. She applied herself in bathing her husband with lukewarm water until he felt a little less hot. She changed his nightshirt and the sheets on the bed. Her work at the infirmary had taught her how to change sheets with the patient still on the bed. After that she dressed into her nightgown. With John propped up against his pillows, she tried and worked until she had gotten half a glass of lemon water between his lips. For the first time in three days he finally seemed to swallow it more easily. When, after that, she rested her head upon her own pillow, her baby suddenly jumped hard. Thank God for that, Margaret thought, at least our baby is alright! Gently she drew up the blanket over them both, turned down the lamp and closed her eyes.
John became aware of tiny scraps of consciousness piercing through the thick, black darkness surrounding him. Off and on they came, like the rotating lamp of a lighthouse he once saw at the coast in Scarborough. It was preventing him from sinking back into oblivion … but then, he did not want to go back there. Finally, a warm, soft presence close to him was dragging him back for good.
Margaret! She was sleeping next to him! His hand was lying upon her body and he recognized it! Why was his head so heavy and foggy? His throat was parched, his lips cracked. He felt like hell … no, that was not so, he revelled in the feeling of his wife’s body touching his. His hand on her stomach … Oh … oh God! A ripple, a fluttering, a whisper of movement so tiny he first thought it a trick of imagination but no, there it was again!
His voice was all but entirely without sound but she heard it all the same and woke up.
“John! Oh, thank God, you are awake!”
Margaret sat upright in a split second and touched his brow with a shaking hand. It felt cool and dry.
“Oh, John! We have been so anxious! We all thought you gone beyond rescue. Do you know, my love, how very ill you have been? You were burning up with fever and we could not get you to eat or drink! Oh, my love, my own, my heart …”
She laid her head upon his shoulder and John wrapped his arms around her. All was well, all was perfect. He was holding his precious love and all was well …
“Margaret … I felt something … just now …”
Margaret’s heart soared! His voice, that tiny lisp of him when he said the word “something”, that was all John!
“Sometimes our baby is moving, dearest,” she answered, “I am almost fourteen weeks now. Dr Donaldson says it is very early for a baby to be moving but I can feel it. And now, you felt it too.
“That is so wonderful …”
John gently let his hand glide over his wife’s stomach. It was slightly, ever so slightly swollen. Margaret saw his smile, sweet and shy, but so alive! Their eyes met. Happiness … love … sparkled between them. Margaret caressed his face with the back of her hand and was suddenly startled into action when she realised he urgently needed to be nursed! Quickly she rose from the bed, pulled her shawl over her nightdress and ran from the room. She knocked upon Hannah’s bedroom door.
“What is it? Come in!”
“Mother!”, she said, still gasping for breath, “he is awake! Come and see, he is better!”
Then she ran down the stairs to stir the household into action; the Master needed care!
Hannah burst into the bedroom to find her son struggling to get up.
“Almighty God, John!”
“Mother? Mother, take care … you are suffocating me … Mother!”
This had to be a first! John had never known his mother to be overly inclined in displaying her affection like that! A caress, now and then, a hand on his arm, but not this overwhelming, highly emotional embrace! Yet, he returned it warmly, feeling ridiculously happy.
The news of the Master’s cautious recovery spread like a fire through the whole of the household and factory. The Spiteful One knew she had failed. John Thornton was still alive and so was his wife. The need for revenge burning in her heart was now like an ache. It gnawed and growled like a wild animal, devouring her very soul. Soon she would have to try again and this time she would make sure to succeed.