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.
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.