Upon hearing the angry voice behind her, Margaret rose from her chair and turned around.
“Henry …,” she said softly and beheld the stern figure of Henry Lennox as he stood in the doorway, not the slightest trace of a smile on his handsome countenance.
She did the only thing that made sense on such an awkward moment; she smiled … and had the satisfaction of seeing a myriad of feelings pass over Henry’s face, resentment, anger, distress. However, there was also the more intense emotion of surprised compassion as his eyes roamed over her figure, swollen in pregnancy.
“Margaret … you are … with child?”
Henry suddenly swallowed hard, at the tender beauty of Margaret, her slight, small body held upright and proud, her slender waist now supporting the weight of her unborn child. Not for the first time Henry envied John Thornton and the enormous fortune that man had of being able to love Margaret in all possible ways.
“Yes, Henry, as you can see! John and I are expecting our first child early July. One of my purposes of coming to London is to visit Dr Mortimer Chelmsford, further down the street. I want to be absolutely certain that nothing has been overlooked and that I can await the birth of my child in peace and quiet.”
Aunt Shaw cleared her throat noisily at this point, drawing all attention to herself.
“Speaking of childbirth, Margaret, I was wondering if you should not stay here when your time comes. Surely there is no better place to have the baby than here in the capital of the Empire? What brand of physicians would they have up there in the great, barren North?”
Margaret let burst out her silvery little peel of laughter, which suddenly pinched at Henry’s heart.
“Oh, Auntie! Never! Do you suppose John would let me do such a thing? He wants to be at my side when the baby is to be born! Unless you are prepared on taking us both in, he will not be away from me!”
Mrs Shaw pinched her lips in her usual disapproving manner but said nothing more. She had never understood what attracted her niece in the brooding mill master that was John Thornton, nor why she chose to live in the grimy, unsanitary Northern town where the only thing of value seemed to be the making of cotton. Inwardly she scoffed. Cotton! Was there ever a more vile, low-quality fabric than that? And the factories! Stuffy, dark, stifling dens full of sickly, ragged people! Yet she kept quiet and promised herself to bide her time. There might come a moment when Margaret would see the profit of being in the warm comfort of a well-to-do London mansion.
The next morning, Margaret attended the seminary she had come to London for in the company of her faithful Dixon. It was held at the National Union of Weavers and Drapers Assembly Hall in Cheapside, a long way from Harley Street and Regent’s Park. The beautiful houses of the rich gradually gave way to more modest lodgings and farther away to grimy, forbidding warehouses as the hansom cab approached the river Thames. The hall itself was a large, brown-bricked building designed for practicality rather than aesthetics. Dixon and her mistress entered the big gate of the porch in their carriage, asking the driver to come and collect them in four hours. They alighted into a rather shabby courtyard and were immediately hailed a welcome by a stout, round-cheeked young man who introduced himself as Frederick Porter, the secretary of the organisation.
“Mrs Thornton,” he beamed, “it is you, isn’t it? Only a man with Mr Thornton’s progressive views would send his honoured spouse to attend our modest meetings. Welcome, ma’am. Please, let me have the honour of escorting you.”
Margaret smiled at him as she took his outstretched hand in a sturdy grasp.
“Thank you, Mr Porter, it will be my pleasure. Dixon, you need not to stay with me. I would be glad to give you the morning off, if you like?”
“Miss Margaret, I am not leaving your side! How can you think such a dreadful thing of me and in your delicate condition too!”, Dixon exclaimed. Margaret giggled inwardly at Dixon still calling her “Miss Margaret”. Her dear old Dixon had never accepted Margaret’s status of a distinguished married lady at all!
“Very well, Dixon, you may come along, if that is what you wish.”
She then allowed Mr Porter to escort her inside.
At Marlborough Mills John was almost swamped in work.
He had the orders to look after, the supplies to tend to, the worker’s wages to be calculated and paid. In addition to that he also had to supervise the construction sites of all the new buildings that were in the process of being erected on the grounds of the mill. His days were nearly endless as he was at his office at six am and not leaving until eleven at night. There was often no time to eat and no Margaret, Hannah or Higgins to drag him out of his office and make him partake of some food. As had frequently occurred in the past, John worked himself into exhaustion attempting to cope with it all.
He hadn’t even heard the quiet knock on the door at first until it repeated itself more vigorously the second time.
“Come!”, he replied.
Mary Higgins’ dainty little figure appeared in the doorway and John rose politely and pointed her to a chair.
“Good day, Mary,” he greeted her, “What can I do for you?”
“Mr Thornton, sir …”, Mary began but John interrupted her, smiling friendly at her.
“Please, Mary, I beg you, no stiff society stuff must rule our relationship. You have been a true support to me and Margaret, all these long months, and you are like family, now that Nicholas is marrying my mother. Call me John, I insist!”
Mary smiled back. “Alright, … John …” It still sounded a little awkward to her modest ears!
“John, forgive me for meddling with you but Margaret asked me to … as she called it, ‘keep an eye on you’. She was particularly worried that you should overdo it in your work and that you … forgive the expression, should starve yourself in the line of your duty.”
She then opened the basket she had brought with her and extracted a big bowl of stew and a large chunk of bread, all of which she expertly placed under his nose on top of the papers lying on his desk. The heavenly smell of warm, freshly cooked meat assaulted John’s nose and he gave in with a hearty laugh.
“Thank you, Mary! It is most welcome, I am ravenous!”
While he was tucking in with a healthy appetite, Mary hesitantly continued. “If you would allow me some more meddling, John, I have something I want to propose to you.”
Margaret’s heart thudded frantically as John’s expert fingers undid the buttons of her nightgown, pushing it from her shoulders and down her body. She closed her eyes in pure delight when he began kissing the soft skin of her neck and shoulders, setting it aflame as his lips trailed down to her now full breasts.
“John, we must not …”, she moaned, all the while unable to stop her body from arching into his touch when his hands cupped her aching breasts and his thumbs rubbed her taut nipples.
“Shhh, my beautiful love,” John soothed, “leave this to me. There are many ways to worship your exquisite body.”
Margaret, who was becoming fully aroused, wondered what he could mean! Many ways … oh! Oh! Oh! He was removing her gown and kissing her swollen, sensitive belly!
“John … stop, please … I …”
“Shhh, my precious, don’t fight me, just enjoy. Oh, my darling Margaret, how beautiful you are …”
His strokes became even more insistent now, invading her womanly place with long, deep … oh, God! He was kissing her … there? Yes, he was and … it was incredible! She plunged her hands into his thick sabre locks to steady herself as her arousal built up quickly to take her up, to that peak of delight.
Margaret’s senses suddenly exploded into a myriad of rippling waves of intense pleasure. The sensations rolled over her, again and again, as her tender womanly folds clenched in the heat of pleasure. It took several moments for her to recover her breath, while John stroked her stomach with soothing hands.
“My beautiful love,” he said hoarsely, “do you know how perfectly gorgeous you are? Oh, my Margaret, my sweet, my dearest, I love you so much …”
“John, I love you too … thank you for what you just did, it was magical. But … you, John, what of you?”
Margaret saw how intense her husband’s arousal was and how he was forcing himself to suppress it.
“Do not think of me, my darling, it will pass. We, men, are accustomed to suppress our needs many times over. If I did not lust after you, I would not be a proper man and if I had to gain satisfaction every time I feel the need for you, you would not be allowed to leave our bed all day.”
This made Margaret giggle in delight, for it was a huge compliment her husband just paid her.
The next day Margaret and Dixon took the 9.45 London-and-North-Western-Railway from Outward Milton Station to London Euston Station. They were bound on a five-hour journey of jostling on reasonably comfortable, plush couches with a half way stop in Leicester, so they made themselves comfortable. John returned to his mill, suppressing his distress about Margaret’s departure. The work was huge enough, what with Nicholas Higgins not present.
The events of the past winter and their consequences were yet another thorn in John’s side.
It was extremely difficult for him to accept that his mother and Higgins had taken a romantic interest in each other. He knew very well he was being unfair but still he could not begin to comprehend what the two of them saw in each other. They were so far apart in their social status and their education that John did not understand their mutual attachment. In the summer, they would marry, as soon as his mother had recovered from her ordeals brought on by the treacherous maid Jane. At present, his mother was recuperating in a sanatorium in Cornwall and Nicholas was at her side.
The union man had put all protest aside and ignored the claim of propriety on accompanying his betrothed before they were married.
“Damn it all, John!”, had been his exact words, “I’ll do as I see fit! Hannah needs me by her side and that’s the lot of it! To hell with anyone who dares object to it!”
In his heart, John knew he would have done the same, should Margaret be in similar circumstances. It left him, though, in dire conditions at Marlborough Mills, since Nicholas had proven himself almost indispensable in the running of the cotton factory. Now John was all by himself, as he had been before, were it not that the mill had grown in such a steep way that it now employed two thousand workers. That fact had forced John to build three new sheds for carding and weaving, as well as two new storehouses and a building fit for housing the large maintenance department he had installed.
Consequently, John’s working days were considerably long and hard.
Margaret and Dixon arrived at Euston Station in London at three o’clock and had scarcely alighted from their carriage on the platform when a young, feminine voice called her name. Through the throng of people, Edith came hurrying in their direction. The two young women embraced each other in a hearty welcome.
“Oh, Margaret! I have missed you so much! Let me look at you! You look absolutely radiant!”
“Edith, I missed you too! I am so happy to see you! Are you here all by yourself?”
“No, Margaret!,” the voice of Captain Lennox sounded, “I would not dare let her lose in town without me! She might bring irreparable harm to our capital!”
Margaret kissed and hugged Edith’s husband fondly. Then she saw Aunt Shaw stepping from behind her daughter.
“My dear child!”
With a pang of sorrow Margaret embraced her mother’s sister. Her aunt had grown stouter and her benign face was much more wrinkled than the last time she saw her. Her dark blond hair showed many grey streaks and her step was heavier.
“Come!”, Captain Lennox said, “let us go to the carriage and bring you home. Do not worry, Miss Dixon, John, our footman will see to your luggage!”
Half an hour later Margaret was seated in her aunt’s parlour at Harley Street with a restoring cup of tea in her hand. There was so much to tell and she knew hardly where to begin. So she recounted the events that had followed her wedding day, with the doings of Ann Latimer and later those of their maid, Jane. Unbelief was written on everyone’s faces when hearing this.
“Well!”, Aunt Shaw exclaimed, “I am extremely chagrined to hear that your husband does not take good care of you, my dear! What is he thinking, subjecting you to all this danger and mischief?”
Margaret was about to defend John when a voice came from the open door.
“Yes, Margaret, what does that big lout of a Thornton mean to do about protecting you?
It was not until the end of April 1853 that Milton was released from the claws of winter.
Snow and frost lasted such a long time that the poorer among the worker’s families in the Northern industrial town suffered immensely from hunger and cold. Many of them died, from starvation or diseases of the lungs. Charity could not solve every problem but at least managed to alight some of the misery.
Margaret Hale Thornton was one of the most fervent among those who were trying to make a difference to the lamentable conditions of the poor. Despite her pregnancy of thirty weeks, she was working hard in the sick bay she and Mary Higgins had set up in one of Marlborough Mills’ halls.
They provided food and medical attention every day now, around the clock. Moreover, they supplied wood and coal to a vast number of families, in return for which the older children would help in the surgery. That was, if they were not healthy enough to work in the factory. Families could not afford to lose the money. As much members of a household who were able to work were needed to keep it alive. The more lucky ones were those who had five or more wages brought in and not too many toddlers and babies at home. That way the mother would also be working which meant an extra income.
Now that the snow had gone and the temperature was mild, fewer people fell ill. Margaret and Mary could finally afford to let their guard down and give their attention to other problems, such as a thorough and lasting support of the workers and their families. To that end, Margaret was planning to go to London and attend a seminar on the improvement of workers’ conditions, organised by the National Union of Weavers and Drapers. She also wanted to visit Dr Mortimer Chelmsford in Harley Street who was a well known obstetrician. Now that her baby was well on its way, she needed reassurance that all was well. It would be her last trip away from home before her baby was due at the end of June.
Margaret was huge with pregnancy already and accordingly tired at the end of a day’s work.
Therefore, her husband John, owner and master of Marlborough Mills, was not too happy with this trip.
“Honestly, my love,” he said, as they sat at the dinner table that night, “I am not that keen on sending you to London just now. You are well underway in your third trimester and I cannot bear to miss you! Can you not wait until our child is born?”
Margaret laid her hand on John’s and smiled affectionately at him.
“Darling, it is just for one week! I will be back before you know it.”
John took up Margaret’s small, delicate hand and fondly kissed its palm. He was suddenly overcome with worried tenderness at the thought of his fragile wife on the loose in London where all sorts of danger might be lurking in dark alleys and corners.
“At least you will stay with your Aunt Shaw and you will have you cousin Edith to keep you company,” he said and rose to his feet to help her up. Margaret experienced a difficulty in her movements of lately since her abdomen was heavily swollen and her back gave her pains when she had been sitting in the same position for a while.
“Yes, that is true and I will be so happy to see them both again, after so long a time. Edith is pregnant again and my aunt wrote that she is even more sick in the mornings than she was with Sholto’s pregnancy. Poor Captain Lennox! He will be the first recipient of her complaints!”, Margaret giggled.
“Well,” John grumbled, “I always thought Edith a spoilt brat! Hopefully she is now a bit more grown-up in her ways now that she is to be a mother the second time!”
John led Margaret to their bedroom where he assisted her in undressing for the night. This was their evening ritual and he always looked forward to it. He had been doing so since the terrible fright they had in the early stages of Margaret’s pregnancy after Ann Latimer so dreadfully attacked her. They had been afraid of Margaret losing the baby, then.
Yet, every night, as soon as they came out of the dining room, Dixon would step forward to help her mistress, as she had done so for many years and every night, John had to wave her away. This evening was no exception, though John saw the affectionate smile on the faithful servant’s face and knew she was reconciled with him taking over her love labour. Besides, Dixon would have Margaret to herself in the days to come, since she was accompanying her to London. John felt comforted very much by that knowledge. Dixon would guard his beloved wife like a hen her chicks!
A little while later, John had comfortably settled his wife in their bed, propping up her aching back with several pillows, to allow her to rest properly. While he then began to undress, Margaret lay watching him with fond eyes. Every day, she thanked the Lord for this handsome, strong husband of hers. The happiness she basked in since her marriage to John seemed to grow each day.
And, she thought mischievously, so did the attraction between them!
The sight of John’s long, lean frame, the ripples of those smooth muscles under the silken skin, the broad chest with its light sprinkle of dark hair and, finally, the exquisite sight of his manhood, beautiful even in repose, all of John’s splendid physique still excited her even now.
John caught his wife’s gaze, just before donning his nightshirt.
“What?,” he grinned, “Is there something you wanted from me, my love?”
Margaret gave such a deep sigh that her husband burst out laughing at her disappointed face. They had been forbidden sexual intercourse by Dr Donaldson until after the baby was born because Margaret still was in danger of miscarrying, now that she was so heavily swollen. It was hard for them both but John, who had resigned himself to celibacy, had not been happy that his wife should suffer the same. He therefore had schooled himself in other ways of pleasing his beautiful Margaret and would only be too happy to oblige her, should the need arise.
He dropped the nightshirt and walked over to their bed, where he stretched out his body next to Margaret while proceeding in unbuttoning the front of her nightgown.
“Well,” he said, in a low, sultry voice that sent shivers all over Margaret’s body, “I cannot let you leave on a journey for a whole week without supplies, can I, my darling?”
Afterwards John remembered those terrifying moments for the rest of his life, as the fierce events were etched into his brain forever.
He hurried in what was left of the cellar and bumped into a wall of debris, blocking his further progress. Nothing but heavy, black dust clouded his vision. Where was Higgins? John shouted his name but there was no answer. He found himself clawing at the dust and the debris, barely feeling the pain in his bleeding hands. All the time he felt a gnawing fear in his chest for his co-worker and – God forbid – for his mother, because Higgins would not have gone inside, had she not been there!
Then – to his infinite relief – he heard Nicholas’s voice!
“John! John!”, he coughed, “Help me! She’s here, she’s tied onto a chair but I can’t free her!”
Someone behind him handed him a knife and John crawled forward to find Higgins holding the board above his mother’s body. She was lying on her side, hands and feet bound onto a chair. John had her loose in seconds while he supported the board with his back and shoulders. The air in the dark, confined space was vile and heavy with dust.
John began lifting his mother, only to feel himself shoved aside by a determined Higgins. The union man gently took his mother into his arms, treated her as carefully as a newborn baby. He stumbled after them, numb with apprehension.
Outside, helping hands took over Hannah’s motionless body and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Margaret and Mary Higgins direct the men towards the infirmary. When a big gulf of exhaustion swept over him, he did not resist but lowered himself onto the ground. Someone gave him a glass of water and he gulped it down. Gradually he began feeling better and enquired after Higgins.
“John, I’m fine! Where’s Hannah?”
Nicholas’s voice rang loudly and clearly somewhere above his head. Apart from being incredibly dirty, his friend was looking alright, if the mischievous grin on his face was anything to go by. Then panic struck him again!
“Higgins, was she breathing? Was she alive?”
“Yes, John, she was, thank God!”
Higgins’s eyes, John saw, were shining with tears of relief, then he asked. “And you, Nicholas, how are you?”
Someone must have fetched Dr. Donaldson because he stood waiting for them in the infirmary.
“Easy npw, lads, put her here, on top of the table. Mary, help me. Jenny, loosen her collar. Betty, hot water and towels, please.”
With the perfect routine acquired over his many years as a physician, Dr. Donaldson began attending to Hannah. Margaret stepped forward to help but he waved her onto a chair.
“Not you, Mrs. Thornton, you need to rest. Sit down, I’ll take care of her.”
Margaret discovered that she was glad to do so, her legs were a bit shaky. She watched anxiously at the competent team and the good job they were doing. It was not long before she heard a faint little cough and then, a deep intake of breath.
“Very well, help her into an upright position. Careful! Mary, the digoxin tincture, please? You may put five drops of it in half a glass of water.”
Margaret saw to her infinite relief that Hannah was reacting in a positive way to the medication. Her breathing became easier and her cheeks regained a little colour. Her eyes were open and she was looking around her with a steady gaze.
“What happened?”, she whispered faintly.
“Well, Mrs. Thornton,” the doctor answered, “you almost died. Your son and Higgins rescued you from being buried alive. You did not breathe when they brought you here but I think you are over the worst now.”
“Oh, yes … the cellar …”, Hannah croaked.
The infirmary door burst open and Higgins stormed in, closely followed by John.
“My God, Hannah! How … what … are you alright?”
Hannah lifted her eyes towards Nicholas and a bright smile lit her face.
Higgins took his daughter’s place behind Hannah and wrapped his arms around her frail body.
“My dear, dear girl, don’t you ever frighten me like that again! I thought I’d lost you!”
Margaret watched John as he stood rooted to the spot when Nicholas kissed his mother … on the mouth! John was speechless and very distraught, she could see that. So she slipped her hand through his and began pulling him out of the room, already vacated by everyone else.
Outside, she spoke softly to him. “They love each other, darling. I think we should give them some privacy.”
Only now, John seemed to shake himself out of his dreamlike stupor.
“But … Margaret … how can this be? She … she is my mother, for God’s sake!”
“Yes,” Margaret smiled, “but she is also a woman. She has been sacrificing herself for sixteen years, my love, for you and for Fanny Now the both of you are safely married and your mother knows her children are going to be alright. It is high time that she should start thinking about herself from now on.”
A great commotion and noise, coming from the direction of the house, suddenly distracted them both. To their astonishment they saw Dixon approaching them. She was firmly holding a struggling Jane in her strong grasp, and Jane’s arms were tied up behind her back.
“Master!”, Dixon’s indignant voice rang through the courtyard. “I think you’d better listen to what this wretch of a girl has to say! Oh, doctor, hurry! Inside there’s Annie and she’s been stabbed by this one! ”
On the evening of that eventful day, John and Margaret sat beside Hannah’s bed. John had his arm around Margaret’s slim shoulders, and her head was resting against his chest. Hannah was sleeping peacefully, her breathing deep and steady, thanks to the soothing chest poultice Dixon had applied earlier.
“She is doing well, isn’t she, Margaret?”, John whispered, his mouth in his wife’s lovely hair. They had already dressed for bed and Margaret’s hair was down.
“Yes, my love, she is. She is a strong woman, our dear mother. Do not worry, John, she will soon recover. But, John?”
“Hmm?” God, he thought, her hair smells heavenly!
“Is it over now? Will it stop now that Jane is in custody?”
Anger filled his mind and he said fiercely:
“That terrible woman! I cannot believe she was here, all the time, conspiring and harming us! Had I but known, I should have killed her!”
“She was very sly and she hated us because of Leonards, John. Inspector Mason said she spat it all out, almost mad with rage against our whole family. She must have loved that man very dearly.”
“Love? Love had nothing to do with it! How can you harm and injure people out of love? Ha, I could have throttled her when Dixon told us all about it! If not for Mason taking her in, I would have done it, Margaret! Over and done with!”
Margaret looked up into his face, laying her hand against his cheek.
“John, please? No more anger, no more sorrow. Let it go, my love. It is over and we can go on with our lives.”
He took her in the circle of his arms and kissed the top of her head. He loved her so much … his Margaret.
“You are so right, my darling, we will go on, together! As long as we are together, Margaret, nothing can hurt us.”
The baby stirred violently and John startled, suddenly remembering his unborn child.
“How is he, our little man?”
Margaret chuckled. “You still think it is a boy, then?”
“I am absolutely certain it is, indeed, a boy! He never seems to sleep! My mother tells me I was just like that and that, when she was expecting me, I never gave her a moment’s peace!”
“Well,” Margaret said, “then I have a rough twenty-five weeks ahead, John Thornton, thanks to you!”
Margaret entered her husband’s office at the mill, carrying a tea tray. She knew all too well John would not care for food, engrossed as he was in his growing anxiety over Hannah.
“My love,” she said softly, smoothing the lock of dark hair from his brow in an attempt to drag him from his brooding. “Listen to me, please? I know what you are going through but you must eat something. It is not good exhausting yourself this way.”
John raised eyes to her so utterly forlorn that it tugged at Margaret’s very heart.
“I don’t think anyone knows what I am going through, Margaret, not even you.”
These words were uttered in a voice so hoarse and listless it frightened Margaret. She took a deep breath, checked herself. She must be strong for John, she must take over, so that his misery would not drag him down further.
“Yes, I am sure you are right, my love, but where would we all be if you, the Master of Marlborough Mills, would succumb to despair?”
Margaret handed him the cup of strong, sweet tea she had just prepared and proffered a plate of sandwiches.
“Now, eat! After that, we will continue our search. Nicholas is letting his crew have a rest for the moment but they will soon have finished their meal.”
“I can’t …”
“Eat!”, she said and kept her voice firm. She saw him wavering between already present distress and newly rising anger but she held her gaze against his, although, all the time, she ached to enfold him into her arms.
In John’s churning memory, his mother’s voice echoed with the words she had spoken to him after Margaret had been injured at the riots. “I’m sure it’s not possible to keep such a headstrong young woman anywhere she does not care to be. She’s such a reckless young woman!”
He inadvertently smiled, both at his remembering of his mother’s unwilling admiration for his wife and at the truth Hannah’s words. Margaret was headstrong, indeed! He nodded and took one of the sandwiches from the plate. The first bite tasted like cotton waste in his parched mouth but gradually he discovered he was ravenous.
Nicholas Higgins found himself playing with his food while his men were busily spooning down Mary’s stew in the warm, dusky interior of the soup kitchen. He doubted he could eat anything at all under the circumstances. Things were rapidly deteriorating. He was not sure how he could have done more than he had, searching for Hannah Thornton. They had turned the mill upside down and not found her. He needed to find Hannah! It had been three days since she had disappeared and it seemed she had simply been swallowed up into some hole in the earth. He wasn’t even sure if she was being held inside the mill or not.
Then, suddenly, a thought struck him! He jumped up from the bench so forcibly the workers beside him had to steady themselves for balance.
“Thomas!”, he barked at one of them. “Go get the master and bring him to the old cotton warehouses at the back!” Then he stormed out of the kitchen.
After a moment, the workers leaped up and went after him.
Higgins ran straight towards the first of the warehouses that was still intact. Its neighbour on the right had collapsed the previous year and a pile of rubble blocked the entrance to its cellar, so it was unlikely there would be someone inside. The cellars were the only place where they had not searched. If Hannah was in there, he would be the one to get her out.
As he stepped into the rundown little room, that had once served as a storage area in better days, he saw that a part of its roof had caved in and was hanging precariously above his head. Damn, he thought, that was new! He had the buildings checked for further damage only last November and the roof had still been intact then. It must be the weight of the snow that had brought this on.
Looking around him, he saw a board, used for the transport of cotton bales, lying in a corner. The board was of heavy, thick wood and measured two and a half by two yards. Higgins dragged it down the rickety wooden stairs to the cellar. A closed door barred his way at the foot of it. It was locked.
Hearing several voices above, he shouted. “Someone get me a key to the cellar door and be quick about it!”
At that moment, a deafening rumble above signalled the further collapse of the roof and a great cloud of dust enveloped him.
When John arrived at the scene, Margaret close on his heels, one of the men shouted in fear.
“Higgins, take care! The place is falling apart!”
John saw the man was right. Not only had the roof collapsed almost completely but also a part of the floor was gone, leaving a black hole from which billowed dirt and stone grit.
When the cloud had cleared, John ducked into the hole of the staircase to find Higgins, trying to break down the door by throwing himself against it.
“Hand me a crowbar or an axe!” John barked at one of the workers at the top of the stairs. After what looked like a long time, someone gave him an axe and he shoved Higgins aside and began striking at the thick wooden door.
“Master, be careful, the floor keeps craving in rapidly!”, someone shouted.
Focussing only on the job at hand, John kept bashing the door until it cracked. Peering inside he couldn’t see a thing through the dense cloud of dust arising from another caving-in of the floor above.
“Master, take my hand! It’s giving way!”
Higgins, John saw through eyes stinging with dust, plunged forward into the dark hole, covering his head with a board. A second after, the whole of the remaining structure crashed down and hands grabbed at him, pulling him out of the staircase. John lay on his stomach, coughing and gasping for air and heard Margaret’s anxious voice calling his name.
Dixon heard the two girls as soon as she stepped into the kitchen. They were in the scullery, arguing, so it seemed. She edged closer, careful not to show herself.
“Jane … please, Jane … I’m so scared! What are we going to do?”
Annie was wining and sobbing but the answer she got from Jane made Dixon freeze on the spot.
“You just shut your stupid gob, Annie Babcock! If you ever tell anyone about what we have done, I’ll kill you, do you hear me?”
“But Jane, they’re searching the warehouses right now! They will …”
A dry slap into the girl’s face silenced her. “You stupid cow! I told you to shut up and so you will!”
The box on the girl’s ear had the opposite effect and she began spilling it all out.
“I can’t! I won’t! It’s wrong, Jane! Mrs. Thornton has been very good to me and I won’t have her dead! You have gone too far! First you wanted to hurt the young missus who is such a sweet woman and then you stabbed the master! I won’t …”
A stifled little cry stopped Annie and Dixon could wait no longer! She stormed into the scullery, slammed her fist into Jane’s face, knocking her over in the process. Quickly as light, she yanked the maid’s hands on her back and bound them firmly with a piece of rope she pulled from her apron.
“Come on, you treacherous little bitch! Let’s hear what the master has to say about this!”
It was only then that she saw Annie’s body lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood.
The bunch of workers stood gaping at the disaster occurring before their eyes. The cellar had collapsed with an enormous crashing noise into a deep hole and Nicholas Higgins must be lying under it.
The master was frantically tugging at the pieces of wall and throwing them aside, his hands already bleeding. The young mistress was restraining Mary Higgins from hurling herself into the hole.
“Mary, no! Mary, listen to me!”
Margaret had to use all the force she could muster to keep her friend back.
“Hurry!” She shouted at the staring workers. “ Hurry, help the master! Nicholas could still be alive under there!”
She felt Mary tremble under her hands.
The men jumped into the hole and began helping John. Soon there was a space that broadened gradually as debris was removed by many eager hands. Margaret watched her husband directing the proceedings with calm, determined authority.
The two women stared at each other in horror as John dove into the blackness of the collapsed cellar. Minutes passed in which Margaret thought her heart would stop from sheer terror of what he might find. Nothing, however had prepared her for the broad form of Nicholas Higgins coming out unscathed, clutching the limp, motionless form of Hannah to his breast.
Dixon’s eyes narrowed when she came out of the master bedroom and found Jane standing at the study door, her ear pressed against it in an all too well-known posture of eavesdropping. The wretched girl was at it again! Dixon hastily withdrew and softly closed the door. She would not make the same mistake as in the past but keep the maid under surveillance. Her instinct had warned Dixon for some time now, that Jane was up to something. The maid’s conduct of lately had been highly unusual and her work – which had never been very good – had been lacking to a degree that Dixon wanted to complain to old Mrs. Thornton about it. How closely Jane’s recent behaviour resembled that of the previous autumn, when she had been in league with Ann Latimer. Dixon had not approved of her mistress’s forgiving nature then and, if it had been up to her, Jane would have been on the streets without a reference right away. So she would keep a very close eye on the maid in order to know if the little goose was planning on mischief again.
Two days after Hannah’s disappearance, a kind of war council was being held in John’s office. Apart from his wife and Nicholas Higgins, Inspector Mason was present, along with Overseer Williams and Mary Higgins.
“I want the mill searched from top to bottom,” John stated and looked around the small circle of people before unrolling a large sheet of paper on top of his desk.
“To do so more effectively, I have sent for the plans of the buildings as they were given into the custody of the Milton Town Registry Office by my father twenty years ago.”
All came closer to examine the document and John went on:
“Mr. Williams, you were here before I was. Can you tell me if something has changed on this floor plan?”
The overseer studied the sheet of paper for a while.
“Not that much, Master. This building here has been enlarged under your management, as you well know, and is now being used as our best cotton warehouse. Before that it was a wooden outbuilding to these smaller warehouses at the back of the courtyard. Some of them don’t exist anymore, you’ll remember, sir, that one of them collapsed the winter before this one.”
“Yes,” Higgins chimed in, “and the others should also be torn down. They are on the verge of collapsing, especially as they are now buried under a yard of snow. You really should secure these premises, Master. It is not safe to go there.”
John nodded. He knew this but he had not found the time to do something about it.
Mason, his honest face rather sceptical, said, “It is going to take us quite a while, sir, to search all of this. I want some of your workers to assist my men so that nothing is overlooked.”
“Take as much men as you need, Inspector. Higgins will coordinate the whole business.”
Margaret had kept silent until now. “We need to find Mrs. Thornton as quickly as possible, gentlemen. It is been two days now and she could be hurt,” she said gravely.
They all nodded gravely in quiet agreement. John’s eyes met hers and the same anxiety was reflected in them.
Hannah realised she must have fallen into a slumber many times now, on and off. She had lost all notion of time. The oil lamp had ceased burning long ago. What day was it? Was this the second or the third day she was held here? Her head had stopped aching but now she was feeling weird, very light-headed, as if her body was not connected anymore with her head. Weakness from the lack of food and water, of course. Would this be the end? Would she die here, in this place? Would she die alone and far from her loved ones? She felt cold to her very bones.
Footsteps! Immediately Hannah sat straighter! One must never show one’s weakness, not under any circumstances.
A key turned in the lock and a figure appeared in the doorway. It was wrapped head to toe in a heavy, black cloak, so long that it covered every inch of a slender figure. A hood over the figure’s head effectively hid the face. It might be a woman, so Hannah tried to catch a glimpse of it, but to no avail. She could not even make out if it was a man or a woman, although she opted for a man as the person was tall and upright.
“Could I ask you for some water?”
Hannah’s voice sounded inhuman to her own ears, hoarse and without strength. The figure did not answer nor move.
“Please? I am very thirsty.”
The hooded figure shrugged, turned and left. Hannah’s spirits sank as she realised she was being left there to die. Fighting hard not to give in to despair, she brooded over what just happened. The way that person had shrugged … it reminded her of someone she knew. But who? Remembrance was at the edge of her memory yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
She felt weaker every minute and her nausea became worse. Her heart was pounding as if it were trying to leap out of her chest. A dull pain burned in her chest and she felt very lightheaded. Recalling the symptoms of the heart attack she had last year, Hannah tried to breathe properly and slowly. It helped a little.
“ Jane? Where are you? Come and help me with the sheets!” Dixon called out but she got no answer. Instead of Jane, Molly came hurrying into the scullery
“I will give you a hand, Miss Dixon!”
“Hmpf!”, Dixon grumbled but accepted the girl’s help. They had just finished with the laundry when Jane came in, her cloak and bonnet still on her.
“And where have you been, missie? What is this nonsense? Sneaking out of the house without asking permission, are you?”
“I am so sorry, Miss Dixon! My little sister was here an hour ago, my mother is ill and she wanted me to come home to go fetch some medicines. I hope you will not be angry with me for bringing her a food basket?”
Dixon studied the girl with a critical eye. In the end she sent her off to her duties, with the stern admonition to ask for permission the next time. Fair enough, she thought, if Jane went to help when her mother was ill. Yet later that day, she asked Molly, the scullery maid, if Jane’s little sister had indeed come to the house.
“Oh, yes, Miss Dixon, I saw little Dottie around six this afternoon and Jane went out with her.”
The ceiling above Hannah’s head was definitively creaking! A crack appeared in the corner right before her, slowly slithering along the old bricks of the vault, to stop at the first iron beam it encountered. Hannah shivered in sheer apprehension.
John had finished dressing in his eveningwear and walked into the dining room to begin to set his bar. Branson came to assist him since he would be serving. It was about 7:00 p.m. when he asked his mother if she needed any help. He was prepared and ready.
“John if you would look at the table and see if you know of anything missing.”
Thirteen places he counted. Was it an omen with Lenore being the last one added.
He felt a little guilty for not offering to pick her up, but she wasn’t his lady friend, yet he had invited her. With dinner being at 8:00 p.m., people could begin arriving at any time. The crystal, silver, and china were set, flowers and candleholders in the center. He really didn’t know what to call everything on the table, but he figured if it was there, it wasn’t missing. He just knew that where there was one, there should be twelve more. The large silver serving spoons were there, but he didn’t know how many of those were needed. It would have been a crushing blow to his mother if something wasn’t set right, which gave him a sense that the table was ready for the queen.
He caught sight of the place cards and began to walk around the table to ensure there were thirteen. He started at his mother’s end, counted around to himself, where Lenore was next to him. He was anxious to see who would sit next to her. He was stunned to see Miss Margaret Hale seated next to Lenore and then there was Adam Bell. So that’s who his guest was.
His mother came into the dining room. “Mother, you didn’t tell me Miss Hale would be here.”
“I heard you tell Adam to surprise you, so I have kept quiet about it.”
“I feel terrible. I didn’t offer to let her go home early to prepare as Nicholas and I did. God, I feel awkward. I saw her injure her neck on the way home, so I doubt she will be here.”
“I don’t know, John. That woman has a smart and independent spirit. How many young ladies have you met that became educated to support themselves, rather than be a ‘Lady of the Manor’?”
“I am sure I don’t know any,” He emphasized.
“She will need to find a man that will challenge her. An easy living does not seem to be her future, by choice.”
“I think we have had this conversation.”
“We had a nice talk about how she turned away from the social life that she could have had because she did not care for those people.”
“Is that so?” John asked softly as he stared off into the unknown thinking about his mother’s comments. The remarks felt appealing to him. Someone who preferred to be an uncommon commoner, he thought. He felt some anxiety in his chest.
Hearing his soft voice, Hannah took notice of her son. He was reacting to something. Hannah wondered if he was seeing Miss Hale differently. “John, what is it? Are you thinking of Miss Hale?”
“In a way.”
“What way would that be?”
“Time will tell.”
Hannah went about her business, smiling at her son and his thoughts. She liked Miss Hale, but her son had overlooked her, and he rarely overlooked anyone.
John slowly walked into the parlor and sat down. His mother saw he was distant, intent on some problem, it seemed.
“How did Miss Hale get injured, John?”
“I saw her brother hand her the reins. Suddenly the horse bolted, almost rearing, but didn’t move away. It could be Miss Hale doesn’t understand reinning yet. I tend to think the workers may have spooked the horse since he’s not used to a crowd. I saw her snap back into the buggy and then she fell forward, bending her upper body down on her lap. I went to them to see if I could help. She said her neck was uncomfortable, but that she was fine. I followed them home on my horse and saw her brother carry her into the house. I sent Donaldson over there.”
“Oh, that’s terrible. I’ve known that to happen to one of my friends. If she does happen to arrive, which I hope she won’t try, bring out your desk chair with the high back for her.”
“Yes, I will.”
“There’s the first knock at the door. Who do you suppose will arrive first?”
“My bet would be Fanny and Watson.”
“You may be right.”
It was getting late, but Margaret had on a collar which she would remove in the coach, and Dixon was gently working on her hair. She could not bend over to put on her shoes. In fact, her walk was very slow. She knew she could not get away from looking well because John had seen her in distress and even sent for a doctor.
Downstairs, Adam was worried about her. He went out to talk with his driver about a route that would be as smooth as possible. Adam would cradle her in his arms to support her neck during the drive. He asked Fred to get her a bed pillow, too.
Nicholas arrived first, and John was quick to ask Peggy how she was feeling. He mentioned he was sorry she had to miss the ball.
“Thank you, John. I’m still a bit weak, but a dinner here should not wear me out much. I doubt we will stay long.”
“I am glad to have you here for any time you can give us.”
It was after 8:00 p.m. and the evening was in full swing when Jane answered the door to the final couple, Adam, and Margaret.
Adam slowly assisted Margaret up to the stairs where they were welcomed into the room.
“Miss Hale, I really didn’t expect you, seeing you being injured today. Wait a moment while I get a different chair for you.”
Margaret was doing her best to smile. Adam had her arm through his to give her support. “How are you, Margaret?”
“I’m fine, Adam. Please bring my head home if it falls off.” Margaret began to laugh at her own joke and then frowned with a smile.
John was there with the chair and sat it in the drawing room for now.
“John, we tried to get her to stay home, but she wasn’t having any of it,” Adam explained.
“Here, Miss Hale. Sit here. I must apologize for not telling you to go home early. It wasn’t until a few moments ago that I knew you were going to be a guest.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thornton, please don’t make a fuss over me. I am fine.”
Hannah came over and sat on the edge of the couch and talked with Margaret.
John pulled Adam away and asked him if she was in much pain.
“Yes, she is. It will be worse tomorrow.”
“Did Donaldson make it over?”
“Didn’t he tell her to stay home?”
“He did that too; from what I understand. He’s given her some strong medication to make it through this evening. She would not be dissuaded from attending. Do you think she fears losing her job if she canceled at the last moment?”
“No, I don’t think it’s that, but I will make sure of it in the next day or so.”
Lenore appeared next to John wondering why that woman was drawing his attention away from his other guests. She didn’t feel she had any business asking about her.
John kept glancing at Margaret and watched how stiff she looked. Once in a while, he would catch a wince on her face. This was agony watching her in discomfort. Why? Why did she insist on attending in her painful condition?
“Adam, see if you can discover any information on why she felt she needed to be here. I don’t want her to fear me.”
“I will see if I can find out what you wish to know.”
Finally, a small bell was heard which signaled to come to the table. John went to Margaret and assisted her onto Adams’ arm and then picked up the chair.
“Mr. Thornton, you are going to too much fuss.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
As Margaret peered around the table, she felt that the woman next to her must be John’s dinner companion. People were talking. John was paying little attention to the woman next to him if she was his guest. Margaret couldn’t turn her head but placed her hand on the lady’s arm, which brought her attention.
“How do you do? I am Margaret Hale. I had a slight injury today and am unable to turn my head. I hope you don’t mind if I converse with you this way.”
“Not at all, Miss Hale. My name is Lenore Smithers. Who is your dinner companion? He’s quite the handsome mature gentleman.”
Margaret tapped on Adams arm, who turned her way. “Adam Bell, I would you like you to meet Lenore Smithers.”
Adam reached over and politely shook her hand. “How do you do, Miss Smithers. Is it Miss or Mrs.?”
“It is Miss. Which one of you knows Mrs. Thornton or John?”
“I have known John for many years,” Adam responded. “Margaret here is a new employee of his. As of yesterday, I believe.”
“Oh, really? I knew John quite well in our formative teen years, about ten years ago. I have returned to see what care is needed for my aging father. My sister has been caring for him while I was abroad.”
“You do go back with John, perhaps longer than I. You wouldn’t have been one of his lady friends from back then?” Adam smiled.
Margaret wondered where Adam got the nerve to ask that.
“Quite so, Mr. Bell. I believe I was his first lady friend. He’s still single after all these years. I guess he’s never recovered from me stealing his virtue. I believe I may go down in the Thornton history book,” Lenore smirked.
Margaret was aghast at what she was stating. She felt Adam squeeze her hand.
Adam quickly pulled his dinner napkin and dabbed a small tear that was ready to roll down her cheek. “Margaret, did you take your medication before you left?”
“Yes, thank you, Adam.”
John turned in time to see Adam catch a tear, but he did not hear what Lenore had said. John felt her pain must be getting unbearable. He knew Adam would do what he had to do so he would not intercede.
Several maids appeared with platters and tureens and began serving each of the guests. Branson was standing by watching all the glasses on the table. John began talking with Lenore so he could watch Margaret at the same time.
It was a beautiful meal, Margaret thought. She wondered if Lenore would be in the battle of the finishing schools with Anne Latimer. Margaret was not going to participate. There was no more jealousy of Anne showing off, not when John had invited the first love of his life. Margaret watched on as both women ogled John through dinner. It seemed the fight for him would be relentless. She knew she didn’t have the weapons to compete. Slowly she closed her eyes for a moment and . . . gave him up.
Margaret didn’t eat much and only partook of the final tea and passed on the dessert. She tried to look at other people around the table and not watch the other two women battle over the last man on earth. Anne had become alerted to the fact that Lenore must be John’s guest although most couples were not seated next to each other. Mrs. Thornton seemed to be aware of what was transpiring at her table because she casually watched over them and John’s reaction. Margaret began to think he was oblivious, further proof of his ability to disregard such advances. John was a magnificent host, she thought. No wonder he had found his way to the top of this trade quickly.
Margaret had since stopped listening to the conversation. She was glad that Adam was part of the discussion. Lenore must have been listening because she leaned over to Margaret and said, “You know John’s a Magistrate.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” Margaret said. She gently turned her head toward John as he was making a point to Adam. He made contact with her eyes. Once again she stared back, trapped, and then she closed her eyes and turned her head away for the last time. It hurt too much. She hoped she could go home soon. Never having been to such a private formal dinner, she did not know what was expected after the meal finished.
“Adam, when is it proper to leave such a function?”
“If you feel bad, we can leave immediately. Otherwise, the earliest would be when people start rising from the table. Can I take you home now?”
“Yes, I feel like I need to lay down.”
Adam stood to speak. “Mrs. Thornton this has been another success in your annual dinners. Miss Hale and I are grateful to have been here. However, it seems that we must leave early this time. I bid all of you enjoy this excellent evening. Please forgive us.”
Hannah and John stood to see them out, as the others wandered into the sitting room.
Adam assisted her into the hall where John was getting her wrap.
“Miss Hale, I am honored you made an attempt this evening, thank you,” responded Hannah.
“Mrs. Thornton is was truly a delightful experience for me. I wish I felt better so I could visit longer.” Turning to John, Margaret said, “I am sorry, John. The doctor is permitting me no work until Monday.”
“Margaret, take all the time you need. Do not rush your recovery. I will be by to see you tomorrow if you don’t mind.”
“Please don’t bother yourself, Mr. Thornton. I know you are busy.”
“I will see you tomorrow. Good evening.” John went ahead of them down the steps to the door. He helped settle Margaret into Adam’s waiting arm with the pillow in it.”
“Goodnight, John and thank you,” Adam bid.
John stood there and watched the coach roll away until it was out of site.
Upstairs, Branson was pouring brandy for the remainder, but it looked as if the Higgins’ were leaving as well. John thanked them in the hall and wished Peggy Higgins a continued good recovery.
Watson and Slickson were already in a corner discussing something, leaving their ladies to fend on their own. Latimer kept Anne company, but it seemed as if Lenore wanted to become friends with his mother. John sought out Lenore to draw her attention away.
“How has your evening been going, Lenore?”
“Very nice. The food was very good.”
“Did you get to talk with anyone?”
“Miss Hale introduced herself, and I asked to be introduced to Mr. Bell. It seems you two have been friends for a long time. I told him how far back you and I went. I think I won.”
“You spoke about us back then, did you?”
“Yes. That was a long time ago, John. Who cares what happened back that far. Since he was a long time friend, I told him I thought I was your first ladyfriend. He said I had him beat.”
“Was there anything else?” John was worried now.
“I told him I took your virtue,” Lenore laughed.
“Could I see you in my den for a moment?”
“Do you want your way with me?” She coyly asked. “John, I’ve changed. I’m not like that anymore. I’m not easy.”
John finally grasped her by the upper arm and led her from the crowd. Once inside, he pushed her into a seat.
“Hey, don’t be so rough.”
“Do you have means, Lenore?”
“Why is that your business, John?”
“Well, I am thinking I might sue you for slander. I was wondering how well I might make out. Aside from your embarrassment, which is of great value to me, maybe there is coin to be gained.”
“You can’t sue me!”
“Why can’t I? Can you prove your claim? Even bringing suit against you and losing still holds you up to public ridicule.”
“You wouldn’t do that?”
“I wouldn’t? I will suffer nothing from it. Do you know that whether your claim is true or not, you embarrassed me to a very dear friend? I have to make amends to her somehow.”
“Is that the one who was crying?”
“Which one was that?”
“The one sitting next to me.”
“She was in pain from her injury.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then you admit you spoke to her with words slanderous to me that you cannot prove.”
“What do you want me to do, John? Apologize? Should I tell her we never spent some beautiful weeks laying naked beside each other? Is that what you want?”
“I want you out of my life. I want you to desist in spreading rumors, you think to be true, to my friends. That is not nearly as hard for me to live down as it would be to you, at least in Milton.”
“So, why aren’t you married. You have to have missed me? Missed our old times. I ruined you for anyone else, it seems.”
“My marriage status is none of your concern, but if you must know something – do know it has nothing to do with you. Do you have a coach?”
“Then go in there and thank my mother, and I will have Branson drive you home.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a refresher course in young love?”
John came around his desk in a flash. Lenore scurried for the door. John hadn’t gotten his anger under control when she rushed out of the room.
John opened the door. “Branson!”
“Take Miss Smithers home.”
“Are you alright, boss?”
“No, I am not. Go on!”
John had never felt such anger in his life. He stormed about his room, trying to calm down until he could leave with some dignity. Of course, he called her bluff, although he could have gone through with his suit if she repeated it. It wasn’t his virtue or the loss of it that made him angry. It was speaking such words to Miss Hale. He would see her tomorrow and explain. He pulled himself together and left the room with a smile on his face.
All eyes were on him as he exited. He began a new conversation with the closest person, and the room returned to normal, except for the look on his mother’s face.
Fred was just escorting Bessie to his coach when Adam and Margaret arrived. He waited and helped Adam assist her to her room. Dixon followed.
“I want to talk with you, Fred when you have time,” Adam said sternly.
“I’ll be a few minutes carrying Bessie home. Will you wait?”
“Yes. Take your time.”
“I believe I will.”
Richard Hale had gone to bed, Fred was out, so Adam helped himself to scotch. He sat on the couch collecting his thoughts.
At Margaret’s young age, Adam believed her to be in love with John Thornton. It was unreciprocated. Even though there was nothing between them more than a working relationship, Adam could see that Lenore’s words devastated her. Being a man, he understood that what Lenore said about John probably happened to most young men. There was no fault with John. It would be hard for Margaret to see it that way or any young woman in love. Adam only understood it as Margaret’s hopes had been high and then found them suddenly dashed upon the rocks. With her physical pain now compounded by her emotional pain, she had rough days ahead. Adam knew he could talk with Fred and leave Richard out of the worry.