Chapter 20 – All’s well that ends well
In sudden panic Margaret was hauled back to consciousness realizing she was choking!
Gasping and gagging for air, she was terrified, and her body was raked with pain. She tried to move, to make a sound, call for help but she was paralyzed. Her limbs had no strength, and she could not see nor hear nor speak. The only living thing was her extreme fear, it was like a gnawing monster deep inside her. I am dying, I am beyond rescue, it is over …
Light came suddenly back into her eyes and sound reached her ears. Sweet clean air entered her nose and mouth, and she greedily gasped until her lungs stopped aching and her mind cleared.
“Shhh! Shhh! It’s over, sweetheart, I’m here! It’s me, it’s John!”
Relief washed over her! John, thank God, John was with her! Margaret opened her eyes and saw her husband’s face hovering over her own, his eyes full of concern. Oh, dear Lord, how wonderful to see his face and feel his hands on her.
“What happened?” Her voice was just a faint croak. Then she saw Ann Latimer! Terror washed over her once more. She gave a strangled cry and John immediately held her closer.
“Don’t be afraid, darling, she cannot do you any more harm! Look …”
Margaret did so and saw that Ann Latimer had her hands tied behind her back and that she was being held by a police officer.
Dixon sat next to her bed and held a cup to her mouth. “Come on, Miss Margaret, drink this.
It’s sweet tea and it’ll do you good.”
Margaret drank greedily from the cup and felt the soothing liquid go down her aching throat.
“I had a police officer hidden in the room”, John explained. “I let her alone with you on purpose and she rose to the bait. The officer barely had time realizing what she intended to do when it was all he could do to snatch her away from you. A vicious little cat, this one!”
While the officer led Ann Latimer away, one of the lads came stomping up the stairs.
“Master! Master! Come quickly! Higgins has caught the arsonist!”
It was true.
As John came out of the house, a large crowd of workers had gathered around Higgins and a tall, thin fellow in rags, held by two of his sturdiest workers. The man had something vaguely familiar but John couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Officer Mason now entered through the open Mill gate with several of his fellow men.
“Ah,” he said. “I see we’ve succeeded. Your plan worked, Mr. Thornton. This here fellow is Jay Leonards, does the name not ring a bell, sir?”
Of course! Leonards, the drunk that died in hospital after he was found near the station embankment last year. A few days after he’d seen Margaret in that same station, embracing an unknown young man. A man who turned out to be her brother but at that time, John had only being ravaged by jealousy. Now John could see the resemblance between the two well enough.
“It’s his brother,” Mason explained. “He’s been wanted by the Metropolitan Police in London for a good deal of mischief. Reckon the soil became too hot under his feet.”
Mason turned towards Leonards and grabbed the lapel of his ragged coat. “So you decided to cause trouble in Milton, then, you lowlife!”
“I … I don’t know … what you’re talking about … I never …”
Mason cut him short. “You’ve no business being on this premises, my lad, and surely not when you’re carrying a can of lamp oil and a box of matches! No, man, you’re done!”
At that moment a carriage rode through the gate at an alarming pace. The door opened to let Latimer, the banker, out.
“Thornton,” he barked. “What is this business about my daughter? They tell me she’s been taken into custody? Surely …”
Leonard’s voice was loud and shrill when he yelled. “That’s him! That’s the fellow who ordered me to set fire on the Mill! He’s the real criminal, he paid me fifty guineas for it!”
Latimer gave a harsh laugh and seemed not in the least worried. “What the deuce is this man talking about? Surely some lunatic or …”
“No, dearest father!”
Ann Latimer, held by two officers, stood proud and erect and smiled cruelly at her father.
“No, father, you are going down with me! I know what you did, I heard it all from your own lips, remember? You told me to go after John and seduce him so that he had to let his guard down and you could destroy the Mill. No, dearest father, if I’m to be punished, you will take the brunt of it!”
“Hush, you stupid girl, hold your tongue!” Latimer shouted, his voice shrill with alarm.
“Too late, Mr. Latimer!” Mason said. “It’s over! Come on, lads, bring them in!”
Stunned into disbelieve, John watched the two being led away. Latimer behind this? It was too mind-reeling!
Yet it all made sense. The damage to the looms, the fires, the attack on Margaret … and the injured boys, innocent victims of these bastards! Damn, Latimer would pay for this!
The hand of Nicholas on his shoulder brought him back into reality.
“Master,” Nicholas said softly. “John … it’s over. Go to her, she needs you now. I’ll take care of things here.”
Margaret lay in their bed, propped up by pillows, face pale and eyes shut. His mother rose from her seat next to the bed and withdrew as soon as he’d taken her place.
“My love, my Margaret …” he breathed, caressing her face with the back of his hand.
Margaret opened her eyes and smiled at him, so sweetly that his heart turned to water.
“John …” she whispered, “John, please, hold me …”
In one heartbeat he was beside her on their bed. He took her in his arms, ever so gently, and drew her to him, careful not to hurt her. They did not speak. The sharing of comfort and belonging together was enough and the feeling of peace and safety filled their hearts completely.
“Mm … what, my heart”’
“John, I … I might … it could be that …” She stopped, throat tightened with sudden emotion.
He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “It could be that you are with child, my precious love?”
“Yes … but …”
“Shhh, shhh, I know, Dr. Donaldson told me.” In a surge of protectiveness, he drew her closer again.
“We’ll wait, my darling, for Nature to take its course. Let’s not think further ahead than just now, let’s savour this moment.”
Yes, he thought, there was nothing else to do or … go insane with worry. He would stand by her, whatever came their way. Together they could face the world.