Chapter Twenty-Seven – Ultimate Disaster
Margaret felt much better after she had a little rest. Despite Dixon’s protests she got up from her bed and went to the parlour where she sat down at her escritoire to catch up on the infirmary’s log books. After having discussed it previously with Mary they had agreed on a work schedule for five young women, who were currently unable to do factory work, to come and help them with the patients. So the promise she gave Nicholas was taken care off. However, Margaret knew there was so much more to do in order to alleviate the workers’ many needs. For instance, the children were not sent to school because they had to work from a very early age. School fees would always be far too steep for the families of the workers so the children often grew up to be illiterate adults. A few of the lucky ones, such as little Tom Boucher, got the attention of a wealthy patron. It was a great joy to Margaret that John had taken the bright young boy under his wing. Tom was devouring John’s library at a rate that he would soon be ready to be sent to a grammar school.
But Tom was but one among many and Margaret was determined to change that. To that end, she read all there was on the organisation and financing of schools.
Nicholas had trouble getting over his surprise at Mrs. Thornton – stern, aloof Mrs. Thornton for Christ’s sake! – coming to talk to him about her troubles in his own, poorly accommodated home! But here she was, and very determined too, by the looks of it!
“Ma’am, whatever do you mean, someone is wishing to do harm to Miss Margaret? Couldn’t the master have her locked in inadvertently when he closed up for the night?”
He was punished by a fierce look in the lady’s blue eyes which nearly made him flinch. But Nicholas Higgins didn’t flinch that easily, not even when she barked at him in her familiar brisk way. “My son always checks that store room before locking it! What kind of a fool do you think he is?”
An unperturbed Nicholas grinned her with an impish smile. She actually flushed, which gave him a wicked satisfaction. He then turned to his daughter who quietly sat sipping her tea.
“Child, do you know of anyone wanting to hurt Margaret? You work with her all day so you should be the one to know?”
“No, Father, I cannot imagine someone would do such a thing. Everybody loves Margaret and with good reason! She is a lovely person, never intrusive, never patronising. She has a sacred respect for every patient she nurses, she knows every single one of them by name, where they live, how many children there are in their families! The children adore her!”
Hannah suddenly gave a snort of frustration and threw her hands up. “Then what can we do? Who is it then, if not one of the patients?”
Higgins put his large, calloused hand on her arm and squeezed it.
“We will keep an eye on her,” he said in a serious tone of voice, unexpectedly sending a shiver down Hannah’s spine, “I will make it my personal business to guard Margaret and keep her safe. I owe John that much.”
Hannah found herself finding comfort in those pale blue eyes, something she had not experienced since many years. Comfort, and the certainty that Higgins indeed would watch over Margaret.
“We must get you home now, Mrs.Thornton, have you come in your carriage?”
“Of course not,” she snapped, determined not to let herself be shaken by the likes of him, “do you think I would waste my money on bringing out the horses for such a short ride? No, I came by cab.”
“Good! I will walk you home then, Ma’am!”, he replied, and opening the door for her, offered her his arm.
John rubbed his face in sheer fatigue. God, but he was tired! He popped his father’s big hunter from his waistcoat pocket and saw to his surprise that it was near ten pm. His wife and his mother would come looking for him if he did not hurry back to the house, so he stood.
And the room swayed and tilted all of a sudden!
He gripped the edge of the desk and tried to swallow back a sudden nausea. His legs gave way and he abruptly sat back again. What was wrong with him? How come he was so strangely bone-tired? It was certainly not the first time he worked late, he was accustomed to it! So much for the large pot of coffee he had drunk earlier to keep awake! With an effort John rose again. That was when he heard the creak of a footstep from the deserted factory hall.
“Don’t bother coming all the way, Mother! I’m coming right away!”
“Mother? Margaret? Is that you?”
Just when he wanted to take a step away from the desk, a dark shadow flew across the room and a split second later a hot, sharp pain in his side made him gasp for breath. While the shadow’s fleeing footsteps faded away, John looked in bewilderment at the knife in his stomach. His legs gave way and he sank back into the chair with a thump, just before the room grew dark.
They heard Margaret’s shout as soon as they entered the Mill’s courtyard and saw her coming out of the house with Dixon at her side. The two women came hurrying towards them.
“Thank God you’re here, Mother! I was just going to look for John, it’s past midnight and he has not come in yet. Oh, I hate it when he does that! He has not had enough rest as it is lately!”
If Margaret was surprised to see her with Higgins at such an impropriate hour, Hannah saw no evidence of it. At least her daughter-in-law had done the sensible thing bringing Dixon with her when she left the house so late.
“Let’s go find him, child,” she said and headed for the Mill door. However, it was locked when she tried to lower the handle. Puzzled she looked at Higgins.
“How very strange! Where could John be at this late hour if not in the Mill?”
Margaret took a step towards her.
“Mother,” she urged, “we need to get inside! There’s something wrong with him! Don’t ask me how I know, I just do!”
Higgins pulled a key from his pocket and opened the door for them. Margaret whizzed past him into the dusty darkness of the Mill’s great hall and towards the office at the back.
“Margaret, wait!”, Higgins voice sounded behind her, “Let me at least light a lantern!”
He was right, she thought. Without light she might trip and fall and hurt their baby. A few moments later the small group proceeded further down the hall between the now deserted rows of cotton looms. Higgins held out his arm all of a sudden.
“Wait here,” he said, “there’s no light in the office. Stay together while I go to take a look.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dixon place herself before Margaret, a grim expression on her usually benign face.
Lord! He had done it again! His mother would be furious if she knew he had fallen asleep on top of his ledgers again! And Margaret, as well … Hell! Why could he not lift his head? He could feel his sweaty cheek sticking to the paper of the register. It would be ruined if he didn’t lift his head. He was so very weak … so very tired. Why was it so dark in his office and why did his breath come in shallow little gasps as if his lungs would not expand properly?
A whispering voice called his name and he squinted his eyes to see who it was.
“John … my son, my dear boy …”
His father! It was his dear father calling him, he could see him clearly now in the shiny, white distance, beckoning him.
“Father ?” he choked, “Father, have you come back to us?”
“John … my brave, strong son … come to me … please …”
There was nothing in the whole world he wanted more than to go to his father and embrace him! How he had missed his father!
“Yes, father, I’m coming …”