Chapter 12 – A very accomplished young lady
Within mere minutes John was on the spot. A number of workers had gathered in the factory hall and were blocking the entrance.
“Let me pass!” His voice thundered through the silent hall.
The men parted, and he rushed by them, taking stock of what had happened. It was a sheer disaster!
All the leather belts which were used to drive the looms were cut and all the cotton in process on the looms was shred to pieces. It would cost a fortune repairing the damage fast enough not to suffer a delay in production.
Then John’s gaze turned towards the two young boys sprawled under one of the looms. Apparently one of the warp beams had come loose and crashed down onto the children, leaving one of them buried under its massive weight and the other trapped by the leg. The latter boy was howling in pain, the other unconscious. Several men were trying to lift the beam but they were unable to do so.
“Master, come, give me a hand!” Higgins shouted at John.
Margaret, who had rushed from the dining room close on John’s heels, watched how the two men took each a side of the beam and heaved it upwards in one mighty haul. Sweat broke out on their brows as they held the heavy beam up while others removed the boys from under it. As soon as they were free, Margaret sprang to action.
“Careful! Don’t move them again!” she shouted. “Mr. Williams, is there a board or a plank we can use to transport them to the infirmary?”
“Of course, Mrs. Thornton, ma’am!” Williams answered and gestured at two of the workers who approached with a board between them.
“Please slide the board under them, very carefully, if you please! We don’t want to dislocate the boy’s pelvis”, Margaret instructed.
She glanced around looking for John but he and Higgins were taking stock of the damage. She preceded the workers bearing the boards with the injured children to the infirmary. Mary, she knew, would already be there to help her.
John entered his office and went straight to the cupboard at the back. Retrieving a bottle of brandy, he poured himself a measure and tossed it back in one gulp. The damage to the looms was extensive not to mention the arrears on production. He was also aware of the darker side of this; someone was planning on ruining Marlborough Mills.
Weary to the bone after the crushing task he’d behind him, calculating the cost of the damage repair with Higgins at the ledger office, John sank into his chair behind his desk and ran his hands over his face. Only then he noticed the blood on his hand and sleeve. He had a nasty cut on his forearm which bled a little.
“Oh, John, you’re hurt!”
He violently startled and saw Ann Latimer standing in the doorframe.
“Miss Ann! Good Lord, are you still here? And in the Mill to boot! This is no place for you, come, let me escort you back to the house.”
“No, no, that is not necessary.” She smiled and looked around her.
“So this is where you work. How interesting and inspiring! But, John, you must let me tend to your wound.”
In bewilderment, John saw her stride towards the sink in the corner of the office and wet her fine lace handkerchief under the tab. A second later she had wrapped it around his arm, tying it firmly. Her fingers were light as a feather while they lingered on his wrist, caressing it slowly. She raised her big brown eyes to meet his gaze and her voice was slightly husky when she spoke. “So you’ve managed to save the Mill after all, albeit with the help of Margaret Hale’s money.”
John blinked and pulled his hand free. “Mrs. Thornton, you mean?’ he corrected her, all the while in bewilderment over her strange behaviour.
Ann brought her face closer to his, and he had to keep himself from pulling away. What was going on here? He gave her his most scowling stare. She seemed not to notice.
“Yes, …I forgot, she is now Mrs. Thornton … and she bought herself a neat and tidy little business, didn’t she …”
The extremely impertinent tone of her voice drove John to stand abruptly, forcing her to recede in haste.
“Miss Latimer”, he said in the iciest tone he could muster, “your conduct is highly inappropriate. I suggest that we both return to the house and from there you could leave in Watson’s carriage. I have urgent business, you must excuse me.”
Something changed in the way she looked at him, a glint of something dark gleamed in those doe eyes. Yet, she smiled and bowed her head. “Of course, John, if it pleases you.”
Late that night, Hannah and Margaret in the parlour sat waiting for John. Hannah was doing needlework and Margaret was trying to do the same but she didn’t succeed. Her mind kept wandering to the strange events of the day and to the effect they would have on John. It was abundantly clear that someone was trying to destroy Marlborough Mills. That was horrible enough but the wounding of the two children angered her even more. Two innocent victims had suffered from the deeds of someone set on dangerous mischief. Fortunately, the lad with the broken leg was already on the mend, Dr. Donaldson having set and cast it. She’d keep him in the infirmary until the next day as he might still be developing a fever.
The other boy was in a much worse shape. His pelvis had indeed been broken, and Dr. Donaldson had him transferred to the hospital to perform an operation. Margaret’s heart still hurt when she thought about the poor child, howling with pain every time they had to move him.
John gestured Ann Latimer out of his office, careful not to offer her his arm or to touch her. She sweetly smiled at him and preceded him outside. While they went through the now deserted Mill shed, he followed her between the damaged rows of looms. His heart ached at the sight of them, he couldn’t keep himself from staring at his machinery in horror. It took a while ‘ere he realized that Ann Latimer was talking to him.
“John, how awful! Please accept my sympathy and my support, should you need it. I can talk to Father about this, I’m sure he would lend you the money to make the necessary repairs.”
“That would be totally unnecessary, Miss Latimer. I told your father that I won’t need his services as I have contracted another banker since the Mill went back into business.”
“Oh! But ….” She edged closer to him and, to his abhorrence, laid a hand to his cheek, one that didn’t wear a glove!
”But … John, are you sure? We,… I would do anything, anything, to be of assistance, if you understand what I mean to say? Assistance in everything, John … I fully understand how … unfortunate you must be in having married a woman without the lure of true love. You did it for the sake of your business, I know. So, even if you were unable therefore to ask me to be your wife, I still can … supply whatever need you have for … real companionship, John …I have no objection in doing so, rest assured.”