Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Six – No Rest For The Righteous

The Spiteful One was watching Marlborough Mills from an advantageous and concealed position.

She had to be on her guard because John Thornton was by now growing desperate. He had already turned the factory upside down three times and still he was not giving up!

She hated John Thornton almost as much as she hated his wife! How many times had she hidden her aversion for him. She had to because, if he so much as caught a glimpse in her eyes, he would immediately retaliate. She could not afford crossing Thornton openly but she could give him surreptitious blows which weakened him and made him suffer. Like she had done now by locking his precious wife into an airless closet!

 

Margaret had by now disappeared for more than thirty hours. At ten o’ clock in the evening when John finished his round in the deserted factory, he had reached the state of emotional exhaustion, brought about by anxiety over his beloved. Weird, he mused, he hadn’t busied himself with his mill in two days now and he didn’t even care. It was as if nothing was worth caring for when Margaret was not with him. If Margaret would stay missing, he … his thoughts stopped for a second but then he dared admit it; he would wish to die. Nothing was worth living for without Margaret, nothing. Not even Marlborough Mills.

He entered the small office at the back of the factory hall and saw his ledgers which were still lying open on the top of his desk. Lord! They had been there all along for all to see, to steel! Quickly he gathered them and headed for the store room and, startled, stopped in his tracks! Had he really left the key in the lock for two whole days, leaving his valuables accessible to whoever stepped into his office?

To his surprise, the door was firmly locked, when he turned the handle.

 

Distant sounds from outside reached Margaret’s ears, even through the throbbing of her own blood in them. Someone was there, outside the door! She pounded the heavy wooden door with both her fists as hard as she could. Her strength was fading rapidly and her breath came heavily with each painful, airless gasp she made. With a head swimming from the lack of oxygen she found she had not enough power. Her banging was too weak. Help! Help! Desperately she shouted the words but they came without much sound. She was about to faint when suddenly the door opened and a bright light blinded her.

“Oh merciful Lord! Margaret!”

John’s voice … his arms, his warmth … she fainted after all.

 

Unbelievable! Outrageous!

Fury raged through John as he carried Margaret towards the house. She couldn’t have locked herself into the room, so someone else had. He hadn’t closed the door himself, he remembered that much.

Besides, he was always very careful and never turned the key before he had looked inside. The air in the room rapidly turned foul, he knew that much. Oh God! Margaret! How long has she been inside?

“Jane!”, he thundered and when the maid appeared; “Fetch the doctor! Now!”

The startled girl fled to do his bidding.

“Mother, please, help me!”

He took the steps two at the time and headed for their bedchamber. His mother and Dixon were hard on his heels, and the faithful maid started undoing Margaret’s collar as soon as John laid her on the bed. Hannah bathed her face with a clean cloth drenched in scented water and soon thereafter Margaret’s eyes fluttered. She violently coughed and John eased her up allowing her to breath deeper.

“John … Mother …”

“Shhh, dearest, do not speak. It’s alright, you’re home with me.”

But Margaret couldn’t stop herself. “John, someone must have locked me in the store room …”

“Shhh, I know, sweetheart, I know …”

Relief washed over John when Margaret laid her head against his chest. She was safe, dear Lord, she was safe! For a moment he allowed himself to savour the feel of her slender body against his. He met his mother’s gaze above his wife’s head and smiled at her. Hannah smiled back, she too was relieved they found Margaret. He laid Margaret’s body to rest against the pillows and offered her a drink of water which she avidly took in.

“Tell me how this happened, Margaret,” he asked, settling himself in the chair beside the bed.

“There is not much to tell, John. I went to lock away the medicines in the store room and all of a sudden the door fell close. I could hear the key turning in the lock.”

“That key is never going to leave my pocket anymore, from now on!”, John said and took her hand in his. “Margaret, someone is determined to hurt you, someone close to us. How did they know of the store room if they are not living in a close vicinity to us? It must be someone working here! By all Saints, I’m going to discover who it is!”

Dixon chose that precise moment to brush him aside, clucking with concern and saying, “The mistress needs her rest now, Master!”

 

Later, after Dr. Donaldson examined Margaret and found her unharmed, John went to find his mother in the parlour where she was mending sheets.

“Mother,” he urged, “do you know more of what’s going on in the soup kitchen and infirmary? I can’t shake the impression that someone connected to it wants to harm Margaret.”

Hannah looked at her son in astonishment.

“John,” she asked, “what makes you think such a thing? Margaret is very much respected amongst the people she cares for. Surely, after what happened last November, all danger is now out of the way!”

“Mother,” he said in a shaking voice, “I can feel it! Something is wrong! Someone locked Margaret in that store room, knowing full well that I would not return to it soon, as I was totally absorbed in the search for her!”

John stopped, choking back his anxiety and concern but his mother mentally finished his thoughts for him; how devastated he would be if something happened to Margaret. When John left for the factory again, Hannah donned her coat and bonnet and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the extreme cold. Christmas was approaching fast now and snow fell almost every day. Hannah got on her way to find help.

 

Nicholas Higgins had a tough time hiding his surprise when Mary opened the door of his small, dark house on Mrs. Thornton.

“Mistress! What brings you here? I’m sorry for …”

Hannah raised her hand to silence him but at the same moment she smiled at him.

“No need, Mr. Higgins. I have something I want to discuss with you if you can spare me the time?”

Nicholas bid her to sit down at the bare, clean-scrubbed table and Mary served her a cup of fragrant tea. Hannah looked about her in the shabby but spotless room and wondered not for the first time why Higgins would choose to stay and live here when he now earned a good salary as John’s manager.

She refrained from saying so, however. She knew he wanted to be near his fellow workers instead of somewhere nicer but farther away.

“Look here, Mr. Higgins, I’ll speak bluntly. No doubt you already know that my son’s wife has been found, locked into the small store room in John’s office. She is, let me hasten to say, unharmed. However, something is afoot and it does not bode well for my son and daughter-in-law. Margaret’s recent predicament clearly indicates that someone is after her again. I came here to seek yours and Mary’s help in protecting her and the baby from harm. What do you propose to be done?”

 

The Spiteful One stood lurking in the shadows of the Mill’s courtyard. Margaret Hale Thornton was unreachable for now, resting in her bed at the house under the protection of that harpy Dixon. She was afraid of Dixon’s sharp eyes and fierce temper. Best avoid the blasted woman. Old Mrs. Thornton was out tonight so Dixon would be even more on her guard.

But John Thornton was alone in his office at the back of the Mill’s hall. The workers had gone home for the night and Higgins had been the last to leave. Now was the right time to punish John Thornton.

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-Five

Chapter Five – Despair

How could she do this to him?

John paced the parlour in a desperate way, after his mother told him Margaret was missing, and the question kept forcing itself onto his mind. How could she put him into such anxiety when she knew how much he worried about her and their unborn child? Did she even know what she was putting him through? Did she even care? Where was she?

His burning thoughts were interrupted when Higgins burst into the room, brushing an indignant Dixon aside.

“John … she’s nowhere to be found! I’ve questioned Mary and she said Margaret left a few minutes later than she did and everything was fine and undisturbed.”

“Then where is she, damned!,” John barked loudly at Higgins, “Where. The. Bloody. Hell. Is. She?”

“John, please?,” his mother pleaded, “Anger won’t solve a thing. We must think! Sit down calmly and think. Where can Margaret have gone to?”

 

Margaret’s high spirits were soon tamped down when she realised she was trapped inside the store room. At first, she thumped and pounded the door with her fists, shouting that she was in there, but nothing happened! The door was indeed locked and the key was on the outside. There was nothing to do but to wait until someone discovered she was in here. So she settled herself with her back against the cold wall and her bottom upon the freezing cold earthen floor of the small chamber and waited.

 

“There is something very wrong, Mother! This is not at all Margaret’s way! She would have told me if she was going somewhere, wouldn’t she? She knows how I worry about her! Damned and blast!”

John was standing next to the parlour window overlooking the Mill’s courtyard, his body tensed, his muscles strained, his hands clamped together on his back. But shaking, Hannah saw, his hands were trembling in utter desperation.

It was now near dawn in the day after Margaret had disappeared and her son was reaching the end of his endurance. They had searched every nook and cranny of the Mill and its yard but Margaret was nowhere to be found.

“John?”, Hannah asked quietly, “Have you had a disagreement with her? Have you quarrelled?”

looked at his mother in sheer confusion. “Quarrelled? No, of course not, in fact, last night, we …”

He hastily swallowed back what he was going to say, reddening fiercely! And to his mother too!

Hannah smiled sweetly at him.

“You made love to each other, John? Well, I am pleased that you did. It’s a natural thing between husband and wife.”

“Mother, please, I …”

“You’re feeling embarrassed, I know. But, you know, you shouldn’t. I wasn’t always an withered, old woman, John. I know how wonderful it can be when you love each other. Your father and I, we had our good times too, you know.”

Maybe it was his anxiety about Margaret what made him weak but John sat down next to his mother, longing to hear more about this. “Tell me about you and Father,” he begged suddenly and fervently.

Hannah was surprised because it was the first time ever that he asked her about his father but she did oblige. Her eyes got a faraway look in them when she spoke.

“I wasn’t in love with Charles when we married. Our fathers were business acquaintances and between the two of them they arranged our marriage. I was scared to death when we were alone for the first time and so was he. I was nineteen and he twenty, we were like two very shy children.”

His heart was thumping like mad in his chest when John realised what she was going to tell him, yet he didn’t stop her. In fact, he was dying to hear it! There was so little he knew about his father and so much he longed to know!

“Charles and I sat next to each other on our bed and after a long time, he took my hand in his. I was shaking with fear but the touch of his hand soothed me. He asked, in a very shy and disarming way if I would allow him to kiss me. I could only nod, I was unable to speak. He kissed me. Very softly. Very shyly. On the lips but not further. I felt … well, I liked it … a lot.”

Holding his breath John stayed silent. His mother was still smiling but not at him. More like at someone in the far distance, someone she only she could see.

“I won’t embarrass you with details, John, but we did truly become man and wife, that night. Charles was sweet and gentle. So gentle that I have never, ever refused him throughout the twenty years of our marriage.”

John bowed his head when the memories of his father came rushing back to him. His mother laid her hand on his and whispered. “John, you never told me how you felt about Charles’s death. I think you should tell, if not to me than at least to Margaret.”

“No, mother!”, he snapped, “No, I won’t burden her with matters from so long ago when she has enough problems of her own to deal with! Father is long dead and buried; I won’t be the one to unearth him!”

He stalked from the room in the familiar, long strides he adopted whenever in distress.

 

“What’s with the Master leaving you alone now?”, Higgins asked in surprise, when he entered the room right after John left.

Hannah, feeling sad because of John’s reaction, suddenly turned to him. The same moment, seeing Higgins’s tall, broad, reassuring form, she felt as if a burden had fallen from her shoulders.

“Mr. Higgins!” She could hear the distress breaking her voice as she said it. He heard it too.

“Hey, hey, what is it, Mistress? Has Miss Margaret been found? She’s not hurt, is she?”

“No, no, she’s still missing. However, if this goes on for much longer, I don’t know how long my son is going to last.”

Now she could feel her eyes filling! Oh God! That only happened when John was in distress and she was powerless in mending it!

“Hannah …”  Bristling at the impertinence of him calling her by her given name, she looked up at him, a sharp rebuff on her lips. The words died before they were spoken. Nicholas Higgins was looking at her with a strange, comforting light in his eyes.

 

Margaret woke with a gasp! For a split second she was disoriented and unsure of where she was but then, with the damp, cold earthen floor beneath her, it all came back. She was locked up in the store room, in the dark. Hunger gnawed in her stomach, thirst parched her throat but there was something else that was very wrong.

The air in the tiny room was becoming oppressive and she began having trouble breathing.

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-Four

Chapter Four – Targeted

That night Margaret felt so tired she wanted to retire right after dinner. Hannah had already done so, partly because she wanted John and Margaret to have some time on their own. John was still working on his logbooks when Margaret rose from the settee.

“John, would you mind if I go to sleep? I need to lie down, my … well, my back is hurting. No, no, don’t worry, it’s perfectly alright!”, she added when she saw the look of panic on her husband’s face.

“Shall I come with you, darling, help you into bed?”, he asked, his voice full of concern.

“No need to, dearest, just finish your work. Dixon will assist me.”

In their bedroom Dixon was waiting to help her mistress undress as she did every night. Although Margaret had told her numerous times that it was unnecessary to wait up for her, the trusty old servant wouldn’t hear of it.

“Pardon me, missus, but you don’t look all that well to me! Are you sure you’re doing the right thing in exhausting yourself in that way caring for all those sick people? I mean that’s what doctors are for, isn’t it?”, Dixon grumbled in her own blunt way.

“Dear Dixon, yes, it is the right thing to do. You should see them, these people, they are so poor, so devoid of hope it breaks my heart. I can help them so that’s what I will do.”

“Yes, and try killing yourself doing it, I’m sure!”

“Not if I can help it!” a deep baritone voice sounded from the doorway.

They both turned around to see John standing there. Margaret laid her hand on Dixon’s arm and chuckled. “Go to bed, Dixon, I’ll be fine.”

The maid left and John took his wife into his arms. Margaret rested her head against her husband’s broad chest and sighed.

“Poor Dixon! She always disapproves of what I do.”

“But she’s right, dearest. You are killing yourself working so hard and it breaks my heart to see you struggling day after day.”

John’s hand was stroking the back of her neck and it felt so good, Margaret thought, closing her eyes. How wonderful that this good, fine man was hers! Feeling the strong beating of his heart against her cheek was so soothing and exhilarating at the same time that she wanted to stay then and there for the rest of her life.

“My lovely sweetheart,” John whispered, “come, let me help you to bed. You need to rest.”

Fighting the feelings she kindled deep in his heart and body, John led Margaret to their bed. He began pulling out the pins from her gorgeous hair, letting it fall down her back. Next he undid the buttons of her dress and helped her step out of it. As always, the sight of her slim, perfect body made his own body instantly react but he checked himself. Margaret was pregnant and under the threat of a miscarriage. He should not have intercourse right now, at least until they were sure she would keep the baby. So he contented himself with loosening her corset and helping her into her nightdress. He was, however, infinitively glad that she had her back to him.

“Shall I brush your hair for you?”, he asked, his voice slightly hoarse.

Margaret turned around. His blood started rushing fiercely when he saw the look in her eyes. The next minute she took hold of his arms and laid them around her waist, nearly breaking his strength of will by doing so.

“No,” Margaret whispered, “what I want is you making love to me …”

Her hands went up to his face, drawing it nearer to hers and teasing his mouth with hers. He was breathing heavily by now, forcing himself to keep back.

“Margaret … we shouldn’t … the baby … it’s not right …” She didn’t answer but started to ease his coat from his shoulders.

“Please, Margaret, …” Now she was unbuttoning his waistcoat and his shirt and …

“Margaret, stop, I …” Her hands were on his bare chest now, kissing and stroking, setting on fire every inch of it. Still he was fighting, drawing on every bit of reserve he possessed but she didn’t stop, began loosening his trousers instead. Abruptly he stepped back, causing her to fall onto the bed.

“Come, my love …”, she breathed, “please, come? It’s been so long since we have loved each other.”

“Margaret, what if we hurt the baby? We …” John swallowed back the huge wave of desire threatening to choke him.

“John, listen to me, my love? I want this baby as much as you do. Oh, yes, I know you do want to become a father, I’ve seen it in your eyes, heard it in your words. And I want to become a mother with every fibre of my body, but John, not at the cost of everything! When carrying this baby to full term means that I cannot make love to you for nine months, then I have to draw a line. I cannot be without you for so long, John. I will not. If it is God’s will that this baby be born, then it will. If it is not, then so be it. I will not give you up at any cost, dearest.”

When she drew him onto the bed next to her and placed his hand onto her exquisite little breast, John was done in for and surrendered.

 

The next day Margaret felt rejuvenated, better than she had felt in a long time. Even the sight of the long line of sick people didn’t tamp down her happiness. The thought of their blissful lovemaking the night before still sent shivers of pleasure down her spine. John … what a man he was, so tender and yet so fierce and proud! So skilful, too. Her cheeks were suffused with heat when the memories came back to her. God! She was so completely in love with her handsome husband!

The day dragged on, even though she nor Mary had a single spare moment left. Margaret was teaching Betty and Jenny how to do things, such as the dressing of small wounds or preparing and applying poultices on bruises and chests. The two girls, for that was what they were still, had some trouble understanding what was required of them but they eventually would be of great help, given time. When December’s early dawn set in and the air was growing colder, Mary sent the remaining patients home, promising to call on them later, that night.

“Margaret, go home. We have done our share for today. You need your rest, with the baby underway.”

“Oh!”, Margaret exclaimed, “if there’s another person today mentioning the baby, I swear I am going to scream!”

She had startled Mary and hastened reassuring her. “Sorry, Mary, but I’m sure you understand?”

Mary smiled. “I do, Margaret, I am just one more of those annoying, interfering persons, isn’t it?”

“No,” Margaret replied, “not you, Mary, never you. Now, you go home and prepare Nicholas’s dinner. I’ll lock away the supplies and then go home myself.”

They were done cleaning up so Mary left for home. Margaret collected the medicines and bandages into their basket, closed up the infirmary and went to the office at the back of the factory hall. John had a small storeroom there, where he kept his cash money and ledgers for the night. It had a sturdy iron door but no windows as it was built inside the inner factory wall. John must still be around, she thought, because the door of the store room stood ajar with the key outside in the lock.

Humming under her breath with happiness, Margaret entered the room and put the basket on one of the shelves.

She was about to turn around and leave when the iron door fell close and she was thrown in complete darkness.

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-Three

Chapter Three – Women of Marlborough Mills

 

Approaching footsteps made John and Margaret pull apart, albeit reluctantly. They only had so few moments of privacy outside their bedchamber as it was. A knock on the door made them turn towards it. Mary Higgins came in and gave them her shy smile.

“Excuse me, Margaret, Mrs. Thornton said I would find you here but if I’m interrupting I can always come back later?”, she asked in an apologizing tone of voice.

“No, Mary, there’s no need, I’m coming with you right away. Are there many visitors for the infirmary today?”

“At least fifty. Some of them are looking really sick. Should I send for Dr. Donaldson or is it too early?”

“Maybe we shall start examining them first and call upon the doctor later? He already has his hands full with his own surgery, and I don’t want to impose on him too often. Come, let’s go.”

Margaret kissed John’s cheek and, so softly only he could hear it, said, “I’ll see you tonight, sweetheart.”

When the women left, John sank back into his chair, his mind reeling with disturbing thoughts but then, when had it been otherwise? No peace for him, never. There was the Mill, there was his family.  Margaret … their baby on the way. Margaret, who had been through such an ordeal last November, with Ann Latimer’s attack on her. Their baby … John wasn’t exactly sure how he was dealing with Margaret’s pregnancy which could end any day with her miscarrying. Part of him was exulting with joy of becoming a father because it was the confirmation of his love for Margaret. He felt ready for it at thirty-two, he welcomed it. But there was another part of him that was rejecting it too, because it could be dangerous for his beloved Margaret if she should miscarry or … he shuddered inwardly, just by thinking it, if she should die in childbirth.

 

Margaret braced herself against the sudden wave of nausea and swallowed back the burning  liquid that forced itself into her throat. No, she would not be sick now, she needed to get on with her work. Too many people were depending on her and Mary to get help for their illnesses.

There were so many of them, too many. Most of them were mothers with very young children but also a few old people, all of them, without exception, suffering from respiratory diseases and “fluff-on-the-lungs”, just like Bessy Higgins. Poor Bessy … Margaret often thought about her lately, especially now that she was working regularly with Mary, Bessy’s sister. Bessy … such a good, kind soul she had been, such a good friend to Margaret at a time when she had been very lonely. What a waste, what a pity.

Mary had changed much over the past year, Margaret mused, as she studied her friend covertly, while the latter was dressing a minor wound on a small boy. Mary had been a somewhat slovenly, awkward girl when Bessy lived but now she had come into her own. She had lost her awkwardness and her sloppy appearance almost completely and turned into a discretely dressed, quiet kind of woman who handled the busy soup kitchen and infirmary in a most effective way. People liked Mary, trusted her, asked her for advice and help, all of which she gave abundantly yet not in an intrusive way. Margaret loved Mary as she had Bessy and she was glad to have her for a dear friend.

The door opened and Hannah came in, carrying a tray with the tea things. She had taken on the habit of bringing in food for Mary and Margaret when they were working because then she was certain her daughter-in-law would get sustenance at regular times. Shoving aside a pile of paper work on the desk, she put down her load and began pouring tea into large mugs, adding milk and  sugar in Margaret’s cup.

“Here,” she commanded in her usual brisk tone, “drink this and sit down for it, will you? Your face has the colour of those bandages over there, grey! Margaret, you can’t keep doing this! Have you seen the infirmary’s waiting room? It’s crowded with patients and outside there’s a line of at least fifty more! It will be the middle of the night before you’ll be finished.”

The minute she sat down, Margaret realised how tired she was.  “Mother,” she answered, sighing with pleasure when she sipped her tea, “it’s always like that. We are bringing in women with babies and small children to help out. That way they can mind their children while working.”

“Yes,” Hannah said, “and you will work twice as hard as they do and some day you will collapse and then where will we be? No, you listen to what I have to say, my girl!”

Margaret looked at John’s mother in astonishment! It had been a long time since she heard that take-it-or-leave-it tone. Hannah didn’t blink but continued.

“I’m taking over the administration of this business right now. I’ll do the ordering of supplies, the sifting of patients. Yes, don’t look so surprised, I do know something of sick people! As I said, you need to send the really badly afflicted to the hospital or to Dr. Donaldson. I’ll sort them out. I’ll talk to candidates applying to give a hand too, it’s far too time-consuming for you. Now, have you already thought about their wages? They’ll have to be paid something, you know?”

By now, Margaret was stunned! Her mother-in-law was really something!

 

The Spiteful One was watching Margaret while she was talking to a woman with a newborn baby. What smugness, what patronizing, what superiority and arrogance! Margaret Hale Thornton really thought herself to be all-knowing and faultless! A stop needed to be put at it! No more meddling with people’s lives! Yet a careful planning was in order if a maximum of result was to be gained.

Observation, listening and thinking first and then, planning. The Enemy was strong. A young, well-bred woman with a doting husband who guarded her like if she were made of sugar. Margaret Hale Thornton had it all. Never in her life had she known hardship like the Spiteful One had. Well, that was about to change fast.

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-Two

Chapter Two – Margaret’s Struggle

Margaret was stunned!

This was the John from the time she had refused to explain her behaviour in the train station to him, stern, scowling, unforgiving. Was this how their marriage would be? John refusing her to be a part of his work as a manufacturer? John furious when she reclaimed that part as her rightful own? Margaret looked at him, a plea in her eyes not to reject her, to remember their feelings of love and companionship. She rose and extended both of her hands to him but he ignored her gesture.

“John, my love, what is this? Don’t you know I will always …”

“Choose the side of my workers against me? Yes, I do know that, Margaret! You’ve proved that most effectively just now!”, he snapped, blue eyes blazing with fury.

Margaret’s heart sank! “No, that’s not true, I was merely trying to get your attention on …”

“On the fact that it’s your money what saved my mill from bankruptcy? Yes, I do know that all too well, woman! And how do you think I feel when you throw that into my face with one of my workers present?”

He rushed past her causing her to stumble backwards against the desk. A moment later the door banged shut. Margaret gasped as a fierce stab of pain shot through her lower back. The baby! She needed to sit down and breathe! Dr. Donaldson had warned her for this kind of unnecessary strain. Forcing herself in taking deep, slow breaths, Margaret carefully let herself down in her chair again.

 

Outside in the snow, Hannah Thornton wrapped her woollen shawl closer to her body as she watched her son stalking away towards the factory hall. Oh God! How dreadful! They had been quarrelling, and she had been involuntarily eavesdropping on them. She knew why John had behaved this way and she needed to explain it to her daughter-in-law. So, she entered the office to find Margaret bent forward in her chair.

“What is it, child? Are you feeling unwell?”, she asked, taking Margaret’s cold hands in hers.

“Back pain, Mother, don’t worry. I’m sure it will soon pass.”

Hannah knew better, though, but she refrained from pushing into the matter.

“Come with me, Margaret, you need to rest and to keep warm.”

She helped her son’s wife up and supported her while returning to the parlour with its cheerful fire.

“Here,” she said, “settle down on the sofa and get your feet up. Jane?”

“Yes, Mistress?”, the maid answered.

“Go and prepare a mug of hot chocolate for young Mrs. Thornton.”

The maid curtsied, looked curiously at Margaret and left. Hannah waited for Margaret to catch her breath and for Jane to bring the drink. When Margaret had taken a few sips of her cup, she drew her chair nearer and said softly. “Margaret, there’s something I need you to know. Today it’s the anniversary of my husband’s death.”

Margaret stared at John’s mother in startled dismay but the latter went on.

“You know my husband committed suicide, don’t you? Yet, you don’t know all of it and I need you to be fully aware of the details in order to understand my son’s behaviour today.”

Hannah took a deep breath and continued. “Eighteen years ago, John was home for Christmas from his boarding school in York. We were waiting for my husband to come in from his office, the same room where John keeps his nowadays.  As he was late, John went to look for him. His father had hanged himself in the office and John was the one who found him.”

Hannah’s voice wavered a little and Margaret, shocked and grieved, took her hands. “That must have been terrible for him,” she whispered, her heart full of sadness at the thought of what John must have endured.

“If it was, Margaret, he never breathed a word to me about it, although I kept questioning him. I know it must have given him a blow from which I do not think he has ever recovered. On this day, he always remembers but he never speaks about it. That is why he was so … so easily infuriated, earlier.”

“Poor, brave love of mine …”, Margaret said quietly, put down her cup and stood.

 

Once he entered the Mill’s great factory hall, John felt calmer like he always did when hearing the clattering of his looms. After finishing his round between the rows, he climbed onto the platform where Williams, his overseer, was standing.

“How is the mood amongst them?”, he asked.

“Unsettled, Mr. Thornton. They’re planning a meeting tonight.”

“I know. Higgins will see to it.”

“If you say so, sir,” Williams replied. The loyal employee still didn’t understand why his master had taken in that firebrand. It was not for him to judge, so he kept his peace.

John headed for the small office at the back of the hall, in desperate need of solitude. He had behaved like the rough jumped-up worker his wife thought him to be when they’d just met, two years ago. She was right, always had been. He was no gentleman. He had no manners and too much of a temper.

He threw open the door and stopped in his tracks. Margaret was sitting behind his desk, her fine porcelain hands joined on its top. Her bright, lovely, blue eyes smiled at him though her face was serious.

John rushed to her and kneeled by her side. “Oh, sweetheart, forgive me! I was such a bastard to you, I’m so sorry, Margaret.”

“John, my love,” she whispered, caressing his cheek with a slightly trembling hand, “there’s nothing to forgive. I wasn’t exactly tactful, was I? It is I who am sorry, darling.”

He took her face into his hands and gently kissed her mouth.

“Oh, Margaret. How can you even put up with me?”, John sighed and hugged her close. She gave a small gasp and he realised in sudden panic there must be something wrong.

“Love, what is it? Did I hurt you? I’m …”

“No, no, don’t panic. It’s nothing to worry about. Dr. Donaldson warned me about it, it will pass.”

But by now, John wasn’t prepared to take any more risks when Margaret’s wellbeing was at stake. He rose from his knees and scooped her into his arms. “I have to get you home,” he declared in a voice which was all resolution, “I won’t have you putting yourself to risk any longer!”

Margaret’s heart leapt with joy as it always did when John took over control like that. That was how she liked him best and yet, sometimes it did disturb her, too. He could be really overbearing at times and then, nothing could sway him into listening to other people’s point of view.

“Please, put me down, love,” she asked softly, “I’m fine and I can walk on my own two legs well enough.”

John did so but kept her close. She looked up into his face and saw his eyes, exquisitely blue and glowing with love, and her heart skipped several beats. The next second his mouth was on hers, claiming it with a passion that made her weak in the knees. Margaret returned his kiss willingly and full of ardour. These precious moments were what was worth living for.

 

Burning hatred seared the heart of the Spiteful One watching the two of them kissing. Hatred and outrage at this scandalous behaviour in the middle of the day! How dared they do such … such filthy deeds in broad daylight? They would have to be punished for that, it would be the rightful vengeance for what they had done! Oh, yes, the rightful vengeance …

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty-One

Chapter 21– John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate

After the removal of the Latimers and Leonards, life finally settled into normality. Time inexorably went on, its progress relentless and bold.

It was December the 20th and, for weeks, an Arctic winter held Milton in its clutches. Snow lay 20 inches thick, frozen solid as the temperature didn’t rise above minus 15 C by day.

John Thornton was sitting at his desk in his ice-cold office, trying to work on the Mill’s books.

Many worries were keeping him from his work. There was, of course, Marlborough Mills and its many problems. At least the Mill was prospering, bringing in a steady amount of money from the selling of cotton to the draper’s shops and clothes factories. Yet, when a factory made profit, its workers started clamouring for a raise, and that was something John was not prepared to grant. It was far too early to be handing out too much money now. The profit had to be consolidated first, at  least over an entire year. Knowing this and making his workers understand were two very different things.

 

An icy gust blew in when the door opened letting Nicholas Higgins in. He shook the snow from his shoulders and grumbled in his deep, gravelly voice. “Bloody ‘ell! What a foul weather it is! And it’s not much better in here, is it? Why don’t you light a fire when it’s that freezing?”

John chuckled. “Would make the place all nice and cosy, wouldn’t it? No, Nicholas, I need to keep focused in here and a fire would make me doze off, which I can’t afford with all the amount of work on my desk. Now, tell me, how’s the mood among our workers?”

“Bit turbulent, I’d say. They know the Mill is making good profit. Moreover, prices of food are exorbitant and coal is unaffordable for most of them. Once Winter will set in for good, and that’s not going to take long, their children will grow sick. Then, they’ll be clamouring for higher wages.”

Sighing deeply, John rubbed his hand through his face. “I can’t blame them, Nicholas, but I can’t give in either. We’re still staggering between profit consolidation and bankruptcy as it is. I need all the money I can get right now.”

Higgins sharply sucked in his breath and looked John in the eye, in a way that reminded the latter of the man Higgins really was, first a union committee man, before anything else. The glimpse of fierce awareness he caught in Higgins’s glare made John brace himself. Inwardly he prepared himself for battle.

“Master, you know I’ll have to take the workers’ side when it comes to a strike. Me being your Administration Manager must come second to their welfare, I’ve warned you about that.”

With a pinch of disappointment in his heart, John rose from his seat. Higgins always switched back to master when he was in union mode, instead of using John’s given name when he was not.

“You do what you have to do, Higgins, I cannot discuss raises right now, it’s out of the question!”

Higgins suddenly grew red in the face and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, in that case, sir, prepare yourself for another strike!”

Anger welled up in John and he too crossed his arms. Just when he was about to give a caustic response to Higgins’s words, the door opened again and his wife entered.

 

“My God, how cold …,” Margaret began but stopped when she saw the grim expressions on the two men’s faces. John, she noticed had his master face on and Nicholas … well, it had been a long time since she’d seen the union man on him.

“It’s the wage demands again, isn’t it?”, she said softly, loosening her scarf and coat.

John looked at her now but his mouth didn’t relax into a smile. “Margaret, don’t get involved in …”

“Stop! Don’t go there, John!”, she interrupted him in a trembling voice. “I have a right getting involved! It’s my money supporting this mill, isn’t it? I’m a share holder so let me have my say!”

The sudden hurt in John’s eyes nearly did her in but it was necessary to shock him before he did something stupid like ruining the fine understanding he had with Nicholas Higgins. Margaret took a deep breath and turned towards the older man with a sad smile on her face.

“Nicholas, dear Nicholas, listen. I have a proposition for you.”

At least she had his attention and his goodwill, Margaret saw.

“I want you to speak to the workers tonight and ask them for patience,” she said.

She raised her hand quickly when she saw him open his mouth to retaliate. “Yes, I know about the meeting you’ve planned at the Lyceum Hall, Nicholas. I talk to people and I listen to them as well. I know there’s much suffering amongst them, especially when the weather is as cold as it is now. At least we can try and relieve part of it, so I’ve hired a dozen women with small children to help out at the infirmary and soup kitchen. There’s Jenny, who can come in and bring her newborn baby with her. It will allow her to feed him at the required times, and he’ll be kept warm. Betty will come too, bringing little Alice with her, and she’ll be able to keep up her strength in the last trimester of her pregnancy. These are just a few I’m thinking of. There are loads of women too weak with or coming out of a pregnancy, and they cannot work. I hope you see my point here, Nicholas? Me and Mary, we are organising an income for the weakest members of our society, allowing them to survive when they are not fit to do factory work.”

She’d got him to listen, Margaret saw, with an avid interest. So she went on. “Nicholas, talk to them about that at the meeting. You, with your talent to reach out to their hearts, must make them see that it is important to keep funds free for this kind of work first. Later, when things are going to pick up, we can talk about higher wages. First we must care for the weakest members of our society. Our workers will understand when winter lasts and children and mothers grow sick.”

Higgins was smiling at her now and she returned his smile fully. “Margaret, thank you,” he replied, “you’re right and I will do as you ask. But, John?”

John involuntarily startled when his attention was snatched away from the enthralling sight of his beloved holding up a torch for his workers.

“John,” Nicholas enquired, “give me your word that wages will be raised in time, when Margaret’s projects will be properly organised, because that’s the only thing I’m willing to plead for with my men tonight, that they withhold their demands until the weak are provided for.”

Margaret’s heart clenched in fear seeing all these conflicting emotions crossing John’s face. How come he still didn’t trust Nicholas, or her, for that matter? When it came to Marlborough Mills, John still had a one-track mind on letting it come before everything else. She still had a long way to go before he would open his heart for his workers and see their needs.

“Okay, Higgins,” he replied, mouth set in grim determination, “you have my word on those wage raises if you can guarantee me a winter without strikes. Take it or leave it.”

Higgins wetted his lips, drew himself up to his full six feet and said evenly. “It’s a deal, Master!”

He offered his hand to John who took it in a strong grasp. Turning on his heels Higgins then stalked out of the office room. Margaret felt so relieved that her legs started shaking beneath her. She hastily sat down on one of the wooden chairs and wiped her brow with her handkerchief, only now realising she had been terrified that Nicholas would bristle on John’s haughty reserve.

John’s voice, harsh with suppressed fury, startled her. “So, Mrs. Thornton, tell me? Which side are you really on? I need to be sure that you’re on mine if I’m to put your money to good use!”

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Twenty

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.

“John …”

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Nineteen

Chapter 19 – Do not trifle with John Thornton

 

John had never, in his whole life, been as stunned as he was now. “Margaret, pregnant? Oh, sweet Jesus, but … oh, Lord!”  He rubbed his face in a desperate gesture.

Dr. Donaldson quickly added,  “She is young and healthy, Mr. Thornton, she will survive this. She’s suffered from being gagged and bound for so long a time but she’ll recover fast enough if she has enough rest. However, I cannot guarantee that … that the baby will not be affected by the lack of fluids and proper air supply.”

John closed his eyes, overwhelmed by despair and sorrow.

“Are you sure that Margaret is pregnant?” he asked wearily.

“Yes, sir, your wife is about seven weeks. It’s only noticeable to me, as a professional, I doubt if she has even realized it herself. However, there has been some loss of blood. We can only wait. If the baby is affected, she will miscarry within days.”

“Can … can I see her?” John whispered.

“Of course, sir, but she’s sleeping. I gave her something mildly sedating.”

 

Nicholas came into the parlour just as the doctor had left.

“Master”, he said, “the fire has been dealt with. We were able to rescue the roof of the building but the second store floor is lost and the attic floor collapsed only minutes after we’d evacuated it. Some fifty bales went up in the flames as well. How is Miss Margaret, John? People are asking after her …”

John looked up in surprise. “They … they are? Oh, my God … of course, she’s been their advocate since the day she came to Milton. Doctor says she will recover but it will take some time. Please tell that to our lads, will you? And, Nicholas … thank you! I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Higgins grinned and took his leave.

“John?” He’d forgotten about his mother. She stood next to the parlour window, her trembling hands clasped in front of her.

“I’m sorry, mother, I’ve kept you waiting long enough. Where’s Fanny?”

“She’s returned home,” Hannah said quietly. “What did Dr. Donaldson say to you?”

John took her by the arm and led her into the master bedroom. They seated themselves next to the bed. Margaret was unconscious, sedated by Dr. Donaldson. Her pale face was smooth but the dead white colour contrasted highly with her dark brown hair.

Hannah looked at her son. She had never seen him that downcast and drawn. When he spoke, his voice was rough with suppressed emotion.

“She might be with child. Donaldson says there’s been some blood loss and it may be that she miscarries within the next days.”

Hannah’s heart lurched with deep compassion for her beloved son. She did not know what to say. She laid her hand on John’s and he grasped it fiercely. That did her in, she took him in her arms, and he sobbed, but only once.

“Don’t fret about what might come, John,” she whispered. “we’ll take that fence when we come to it. I’ll make sure that she gets enough rest and fortification. She’s very young and she’s strong. It might turn out right, you have to keep your spirits up.”

John forced himself into a very sad little smile but his eyes were weary. “Will you stay with her, mother? There’s something I have to do.”

 

John, frustrated and powerless, needed to lessen his fury about what happened to his wife. Helping Margaret had been taken out of his hands. All he could do was to wait for her to get better. Violently pushing the thought of her possible pregnancy  out of his mind, he headed for his office.

Nicholas Higgins was waiting for him there.

“Sit down, Nicholas”, he said. “We have an arsonist and a murderer to catch.”

“They’ll not set fire on the Mill again, John. I’ve got the watch doubled. He must have used lamp oil to fuel the fire, we’ve found the empty can near the place where it started. Unfortunately I have no idea as to who he is.”

“I think there are two different criminals and we’ll have to flush them out, Nicholas. Listen, I have a plan.”

 

Jay Leonards was about to take a train to London when his sponsor’s henchmen intercepted him. They dragged him, bound and blindfolded, before the man who’d ordered him to set fire on the mill.

Rage and hatred sounded in the man’s cold voice when he spat into Leonard’s face. “You have failed me again! Twice now have you forfeited a chance to burn down Marlborough Mills and you will pay dearly! Say your prayers, you’ll die a slow and agonizing death.”

“No, no, sir, I beg you! Please, sir, give me just one more chance, I’ll do it for sure now! Please, sir, please?”

 

The Milton Chronicle had a striking headline on the day after the fire, clamouring that Marlborough Mills had successfully fought off a fire that threatened to destroy the whole mill. John Thornton, the mill-owner, had promised a considerable sum of money to the individual that provided a clue as to the identity of the arsonist. The article stated further that Mrs. Margaret Thornton had been badly injured during the fire and was fighting for her life.

 

Nicholas Higgins took no chances as to the vigilance on the Mill. Two workers at each of the twenty locations he’d marked as likely to be a potential fire starter spot was no luxury at all. One of each pair would report back to him every hour. Each worker had a tin whistle in his pocket so that, if there was an attempt or even a stranger inside the Mill, the other watchmen would be there seconds later. His carefully prepared scheme paid off very nicely. When nightfall had set in, his men captured the bedraggled figure of Jay Leonards and hauled him before Higgins and John Thornton. In his pockets they found a can of fire oil, the same brand that had been used for the arson and a box of matches.

“Go and warn Mr. Mason. Tell him we’ve got a suspect,” John said to one of the men.

 

When he went back to the house, John heard voices in the parlour, indicating that they had visitors. He found his mother in the company of Fanny and Ann Latimer. The latter rose quickly as he stepped in and took his hands in hers before he knew what happened.

“Oh, John! How dreadful! Margaret so badly injured! Please accept my deepest sympathy and be assured of my ardent prayers for the recovery of Margaret’s health!”

He could have been fooled by the warm compassionate voice and the sympathy in those brown eyes, if he’d not known better. The woman was good, excellent even. He’d have to match her role playing with one of his own.

“Thank you, Ann. I may call you Ann, I hope?” And when she smiled and nodded, he continued. “I’m totally lost, Ann! This is so very hard on me that I don’t know how I’ll survive this. She is dying, Ann, my precious wife is dying and I don’t know what to do!” He hoped he’d kept his voice wavering with sorrow enough to make her let her guard down. Not that he didn’t feel his sorrow weighing him down enough.

“Can I go and see her, John? I would like to pray at her bedside for a moment.”

“Of course, my dear, come, I’ll show you to her room.”

He let her into their bedchamber where Margaret was still lying in deep sedation.  Avoiding looking at his beloved for fear of breaking down, he said, “I must see to the business, dear Ann. Just go back to the parlour when you’re finished. And, thank you for your sympathy, I appreciate it.”

After the door had closed behind him, Ann Latimer stilled herself for a few moments while contemplating Margaret’s motionless figure in the bed.

Then she came forward, took a pillow from the seat next to the bed and, with both hands, pressed it hard onto Margaret’s face. She used all reserves of strength and transferred it into her tiny white hands, the burning hate within her strengthening her even more.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen – The power of love

 

“Margaret! Margaret, can you hear me? Margaret!” John shouted at the top of his lungs.

Nicholas, who’d come up after John, could now also see someone lying near the back wall of the attic but he was unable to see who it was. John, however, started to ease nearer to the flames that were now leaking through the floor boards. In a short time there would be a wall of fire between his master and the inanimate figure at the back, so Nicholas got hold of John’s arm.

“Master! Master, no! You can’t reach her, it’s too dangerous!”

“It’s Margaret! Can’t you see it’s Margaret, I have to get to her!”

John shook himself free and leapt into one of the firemen’s gushes to soak himself while he bound his wet handkerchief around his nose and mouth as the smoke in the attic was now suffocating.

In a few strides he’d reached her, and his heart nearly stopped when he saw the state she was in. Violently coughing from the acrid smoke despite the handkerchief, John tried to untie her with shaking hands. He dared not move her because she could be strangled when he picked her up. His eyes kept on darting towards her dead white face. She felt so cold under his touch!

“Master, hurry!” He looked up to see Nicholas at his side.

“I can’t move her … she’s not breathing …” John choked as the smoke invaded his lungs now in a most aggressive wave.

We must do it together, John! Keep the rope between her arms and legs slack!

Yes, of course, Higgins was right. John inwardly thanked God for Nicholas’s common sense and courage.

Between the two of them they managed to carry Margaret towards the manhole. One of the firemen handed John a knife, and he quickly cut all the ropes, snatched away the gags from her face and started giving her mouth-to-mouth respiration.

It was taking far too long! She was not responding! Oh God, she was not responding!

Suddenly Higgins took hold of him and tore him away from Margaret’s lifeless form. John then realized Dr Donaldson was taking over. Gasping with exhaustion and lack of proper breathing John kept hold of Higgins’s strong support.

Agonizing seconds ticked by, every beat of his terrified heart sounding like thunder in his ears! After what looked like eternity he heard a weak little cough. Margaret’s body shook even with the weakness of it. Instantly he was at his knees by her side and shoved his arm under her head and shoulders.

“Margaret, sweet love, come back to me, please, don’t leave me? Please, dear heart, come back to me?”

To his uttermost relief, he saw her eyes flutter open, first without seeing but then her gaze came to rest upon his face. She tried to speak but violent coughing assaulted her.

“Shhh! Shhh! Do not speak, my love, do not move. I’ll take care of you.”

John rose and lifted her up. He saw Nicholas sighing with relief too. He laid Margaret in to the waiting arms of a fireman at the top of the ladder. A moment later, she was being handed down the latter by a chain of firemen, handling her with careful gestures. While he descended the ladder, he saw Dixon and his mother taking care of Margaret. He hastily followed them inside the house and into their bedroom, only to be banned from Margaret’s side by Dr Donaldson.

“Please?” the good doctor said. “I need some peace and quiet checking on Mrs Thornton, sir? I’ll be as quick as I can, alright?” He gestured towards Dixon who eagerly sprang to assist him.

 

In the parlour Hannah took her son by the arm and directed him to the settee. Fanny was already offering him a glass of water which he drank avidly. Watson had gone home again, he had his own business to attend to.

John was beyond exhaustion, Hannah realized.

He was covered in dirt and his face was very pale and drawn. Then she saw how his hands were covered with blisters.

“Shall I look to your injuries, John?” she asked quietly. He shook his head, leaning back with closed eyes. Hannah couldn’t keep herself from stroking his hair. Her heart was bleeding for her poor son.

The three of them sat waiting for Dr Donaldson to give word of Margaret’s condition. Time ticked away, and John’s fear kept growing with every second that went by. Would he lose his beloved after only six weeks of being together? It’d be the death of him, he knew that for certain …

Life meant nothing without his Margaret. She was everything to him, she’d always been. He remembered seeing her for the first time that day in the Mill. How, even furious and flushed about that stupid fool Stephens, he’d been struck by her beauty and liveliness when she had withstood him without any sign of fear. How she had constantly and systematically countered him in words and deeds, only following her own heart and conscience. How he’d been annoyed and sometimes angry about that. He had not been used to a woman who spoke her mind, apart from his mother, nor had he been prepared coming in close contact to an extremely  beautiful and spirited young woman like Margaret. Before Margaret, he had been lonely. He’d never had any kind of relationship because he’d never met a woman who was worthy of his most deep feelings.

The entrance of Dr Donaldson startled him into action.

“She is doing well, all things considered,” the doctor said. “I … erm … would like to have a word with you, in private if possible, Mr Thornton.”

John’s stomach lurched with sudden fear but he preceded the doctor into his study.

“Please, sit down,” he asked before letting himself down behind his desk.

Dr Donaldson’s face was grave as was his voice when he asked. “Mr Thornton, sir … have you, by any chance, knowledge of Mrs Thornton being with child?”

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Sixteen

Chapter 16 – In mortal danger

By now it was midnight, and Hannah Thornton was in agony.

She had grown tired of waiting for Margaret to return home and consequently had gone to the infirmary, only to find it closed and dark. She had then gone to Higgins’s house, swallowing her pride and her disgust in having to descend that filthy alley, past decayed houses and begging children in rags.

“But, Mrs Thornton,” Mary had said when she’d explained her coming, “Margaret went home at half past nine!”

Hannah and Higgins stared at each other in stunned silence.

 

John Thornton stepped from the train in Outward Milton Station around half past midnight. He and Williams had been able to bribe some dockworkers in Liverpool Harbour in unloading their so much needed bales of cotton onto a dray cart, which was now been driven home by Williams. It should be at the Mill by morning.

John was weary to the bone.

He hadn’t slept the night before and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a meal.

When he alighted from the hansom cap, it was near one p.m. The house was quiet and the lights dimmed. Jane seemed a little subdued, he thought.

There was nobody in the parlour nor in the dining room or the bedrooms.

“Jane!” he bellowed. The maid came rushing in, face pale and eyes shifting.

“Where are my wife and my mother?” he asked, scowling at her.

Jane wrung her hands and wailed. “Mr. Thornton, sir, please, it’s … it’s Mrs. Thornton, sir, your wife … she …”

“What of her, girl, talk!”

The maid didn’t meet his eyes and whimpered. “She’s … she’s not come home, sir, she’s … disappeared …”

 

Margaret lay on the hard floor for what seemed to her like for days. She had lost all notion of time because she had drifted into unconsciousness and back for several times. Her body, aching and stone-cold, was shaking uncontrollably and her breathing was ragged. Because of her tightly bound hands and feet, she was forced to stay as immobile as she could but every time she passed out, her throat was being tightened by the noose. For what had been an eternity, she had managed to stay alive but she knew it was just a matter of time before her body would give up and then she would die.

 

Stepping into the parlour, still in her hat and coat, Hannah heard Jane’s stammered words.

“John! Oh, dear Lord, I’m so relieved that you’re home! It’s Margaret, she’s not returned home from the infirmary. I went to Mary’s house and she told me Margaret had gone home around half past nine.”

John couldn’t take in what his mother was saying. Margaret was not here? Why? What had happened?

“It’s true, master”, Higgins, who had accompanied Hannah, said. “I’ve notified the police and sergeant Mason is already organizing a search.”

Somehow, Nicholas’s grave tone of voice breached the dam of John’s paralyzing apathy. He sank onto the settee, his knees suddenly buckling.

“When has this happened? When was she last seen?” he said, his voice giving way.

Higgins tried to explain. “She must have disappeared here, John, in the Mill. It cannot have happened otherwise. Mary told her to go home, because they were done for the day. Margaret was glad to go, she was tired, Mary said. Margaret wouldn’t have gone elsewhere but home. No, she must have been taken here, in the Mill.”

John stood abruptly. “Have you searched the Mill?” he asked wearily.

“No, I just heard about it from Mrs. Thornton. I came back with her to begin searching.”

“I’ll come with you!”

At that moment Dixon came in, furious and scowling at Higgins. “I told you so, you wretched man, and you did nothing! Now my poor mistress has been snatched and could be lying dead somewhere!” She launched herself at Higgins, who had all the trouble in the world fighting her off. John and Hannah took her each by an arm and held her back.

“Miss Dixon, what are you talking about?” John asked her when she had calmed down a bit.

Dixon shrugged herself free and, in two steps, had reached Jane, whom she took firmly by the arm.

“I’m sure you should listen to what this sorry miss here has to tell, master! She could maybe explain why she eavesdropped on you and the mistress and why she kept record of it and carried it to Mrs Watson. And maybe she knows why Mrs Watson is in cahoots with Miss Latimer. And maybe she could explain to me why two rich ladies are befriended with a little nobody like herself?”

When she stopped because she’d run out of breath, John turned to a frightened Jane now. “Well, Jane?” he enquired.

But Jane had reached the end of her wits now and burst into hysteric tears. “Oh, for God’s sake!” Hannah exclaimed and gave Jane a fierce shook on her arm. “Come on, Jane, tell us!”

The stern voice of her mistress stopped Jane’s hiccupping cries at once.

She began spilling everything. How Mrs Watson had ordered her to eavesdrop and report of what she’d heard. How she’d heard Miss Latimer speak to Mrs Watson about harming Miss Margaret.

“Harm her?” John exclaimed. “Fanny plans to harm Margaret? I’m going over there now!”

He was stopped by Hannah.

“No, John”, she said calmly. “I am going over there. You are needed here.”

Sudden clamour and noise dragged everybody towards the window.

John’s stomach cramped when he saw flames and smokes rising from the upper windows of the Mill!

A fire, there was a fire!

 

Margaret was beyond exhaustion by now.

She was crying without being able to stop it. She thought of John and sank even deeper into despair.

He didn’t even know that she was taken. No one knew it. She wouldn’t be missed for a long time and therefore nobody would be looking for her. Help would not come for her.

Her awareness was fading, and she had no strength left to fight for it.

Then, suddenly, an acrid smell rose from beneath her …

Slowly, she began to understand what it was … a fire, there was a fire beneath her! In violent panic she tried to scream, to make a sound and failed! Her bonds were already strangling her again and she forced herself to stay motionless, draining whatever strength was left in her cramped body.

She had a choice between being strangled and burn to death!