I came home in a state of shock and disbelief. To find myself betrayed by the first and only woman I had ever loved, was a cruel blow. Granted, she had never been mine to begin with, but I had professed my devotion to her with an honesty that she must have never experienced in the jaded drawing rooms of London. And still she had rejected me.
I knew I was not a gentleman in her eyes, but surely that was to be preferred over the sly pretence of London, where no one ever spoke of what went on in their minds. Apparently, Margaret thought otherwise.
And, moreover, she had been honest to me, when she said she had never known how to behave when a man spoke of love to her. She had indeed had many men who offered her their heart. There must have been that Lennox fellow and now, this new young buck, whom she loved so dearly that she threw away propriety to embrace him at night at the station.
I had never known her. She was still a complete stranger to me.
The news of Mrs Hale’s passing reached us the next morning.
I could only wonder as to how Margaret and her father must be. I had stopped going to Mr Hale for our readings.
I dearly hoped they would have some consolation. Maybe that was why her suitor had come from London, to comfort her in her hour of great sorrow. I could forgive her that, could I not? When one loses their most beloved parent, one is entitled to some comfort. I was not the one allowed to give it to her, unfortunately. My initial, rather infantile burst of jealousy at seeing her with another man had turned into some other, darker feeling of despair. Margaret would never be mine.
I still spent time with Miss Latimer as frequently as I was allowed by her father. Latimer had only one child of whom he was extremely protective. I could not blame him, since I knew, if I had a daughter of my own, I would feel exactly the same.
Mr Hale, it seemed, had not looked after his daughter as best as he could. Margaret had no guidance at all, and never had. She had been allowed to go as she pleased and do as she wished. Her mother had been sickly, and her father indifferent. Maybe that was what she was looking for in the young man she so loved, support and comfort, and commitment, and protection from indifference.
Ah, Margaret, dearest one …
Mother, Fanny and I attended the funeral service in a chapel that was empty but for Margaret’s family and mine. Mr Bell was there, of course, but also, Higgins and his daughter. I recognized her as the girl who had come to the Hales’ house, when Margaret’s suitor had been present.
Why, I asked myself, would Higgins be there? How well did he know the Hales? And the daughter, was she now employed at their house? How was Mr Hale? How was Margaret?
I took the opportunity of speaking with Mr Bell, after the service, and he told me they were well looked after, and that I was not needed. But I knew that already for a long time.
I cast a last look at Margaret, who was supporting her father. Mr Hale seemed truly devastated, and I felt suddenly guilty for not standing by him in his darkest hour.
I startled and turned, to see a constable addressing me. “Yes? Mason, isn’t it? How do you do?”
I knew the man from when the constabulary had come to my mill during the rioting. A most thorough civil servant, I knew. A man of slender built and several inches shorter than me, and younger also. He could not be more than five-and-twenty, yet he had made his way in the constabulary already. He touched his hat.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but with your being the local magistrate …”
“What is it?”
“I must ask you to accompany me to the morgue, sir. We have a suspicious death on our hands.”
We took a cab and at once went to the mortuary room, where the bodies of unknown dead were usually laid out. On a marble table lay a figure covered by a white sheet. Mason folded the sheet back to reveal the face of a man that was vaguely familiar to me. He was thin, with drab blond hair and bulging pale blue eyes. He seemed not have suffered from lack of food or the barest necessities of life.
“This fellow was found along the station embankment two days ago,” Mason continued. “Died in hospital this morning. He’s not from these parts. We’re trying to identify him. Find out who killed him.”
“He did not die a natural death, then?”
“The coroner still has to do his examination, sir, but we found a severe blow at the back of his head. I am only starting my own investigation as if today, but I will keep you informed about what I find.”
“Thanks, Mason, I’d appreciate that.”
Then it came back to me who he was. “Mason, I know that man. He was dating one of our maids. You are free to come to the house and interrogate her.”
“I will, sir! Would now be convenient?”
“Of course, come along.”
I was present, when Mason told Jane that her friend was dead. She burst out in tears, but Mother soon got her calmed down, urging her to confide in the inspector about the man. His name was Leonards, Jane sobbed, he was from Helstone in Hampshire.
I swallowed. That was the place where the Hales came from, was it not? I said nothing, because it had nothing to do with this man’s death.
Jane insisted that he promised marriage to her, but that he had to gain some money first. And yes, the foolish girl had been giving the fellow some money of her own. Now she suspected Leonards might have spent it in the tavern, the night he died. No, she did not know where he went for his ale, but she thought it might be near Milton Outwood station.
When Mason had gone, Mother who had not been present, called me from the parlour where she was doing the household accounts. I was impatient to get back to the mill, but was waylaid on the landing when I heard Jane sobbing disconsolately as a result of the interview.
“Can’t we give Jane the week off? Better off without that scoundrel Leonards, you know,” I said, sighing with frustration.
“You know what the servants are saying about Margaret. Out after dark with a gentleman,” Mother replied, clearly bent on a different path.
I had enough of the whole sorry business. “I do not know or care what they say, Mother. And nor should you.” I knew my reply was a bit rude, but I could no longer concert myself with the events I witnessed.
When I encountered Mason again, a few days later, he asked me some disturbing things.
“Am I right in thinking you are acquainted with a Mr. Hale, sir?”
“Yes, indeed. What of it?” I replied, concern beginning to grow inside me.
“It’s just that that this man Leonards’ death is mixed up with Miss Hale, sir. I have a very secure chain of evidence that a gentleman walking out with Miss Hale at the station was the same that fought with Leonards and may well have caused his death. But the young lady denies she was there at the time.”
“Are you sure the man she was with is connected to the death? What evening was this? What time?”
“Between eleven and twelve. Thursday the 26th.”
I went cold. The 26th was the day I saw Margaret with her lover at the station.
“Sir?” Mason’s voice was insistent. I tried to compose myself.
“Miss Hale denies she was there?” I asked.
He nodded. “So … Well, you can see my problem, sir. I have a witness who’s pretty positive he saw Miss Hale, even though I’ve told him of her denial. There’ll be a coroner’s inquest. Disputed identifications are very awkward. One doesn’t like to doubt the word of a respectable young woman.”
Margaret, Margaret, what have you been involving yourself in?
My mouth dry, I asked again, “She denies she was at the station?”
“Twice. Very emphatic about it. I did tell her I’d have to ask her again. I thought if you were a friend of the family…”
I had to do something. I had to save Margaret from being interrogated at an inquest. She was only saying goodbye to her lover, she could not have been involved in Leonards’ death. Not my dear girl …
“Quite right. Don’t do anything until you see me again. I will look into it.”
I did see into the matter, and most thoroughly so. I supervised the physicians who did the post mortem on Leonards, because I wanted to be fully prepared if there was to be a coroner’s inquiry. Their findings were, I regret to say, inconclusive. The fellow was a drunkard, and a brawler. His body was covered with scars from earlier fisticuffs and even knife fights. When I pressed the head physician, he told me that the man could have just fallen and hit his head. There was no true evidence of foul play, yet his head injury could also have come from a blow.
So I took the decision to give Margaret the benefit of the doubt. I knew, of course, that she could not have done anything so foul as to club a man on the head, but I had no such generous thoughts about her lover.
Remorse plagued me for some days, afterwards. What if I had protected a murderer?
But no, Margaret must be safe at all costs, so I truly had no choice.
Now I had more time to dedicate myself more thoroughly to my mill. We were still struggling to catch up with the orders. The strike had truly disrupted the good functioning of the factory. I would soon be forced to dismiss even more workers in order to secure my pay role.
The fact that my sister Fanny wished to marry Albert Watson next month, thus forcing me to provide for her dowry, was another nail in my coffin. They had been seeing each other frequently since Mother’s last dinner party. Of course, Watson was a very good match for Fanny. He was the wealthiest manufacturer in Milton, although he derived much of his fortune from bank speculations brought on by Latimer. I could not understand why anyone would risk good money on such tomfool schemes. With the disaster Father’s speculating had brought us, I had vowed myself never to be part of it. Nevertheless, I was in sore need of incoming funds, so I worked almost around the clock. I am a very healthy man. I am never ill and I can go on working all hours without the need for sustenance.
I was just getting ready to start working, when Mother burst into my office. This was not new. She did that quite often, because she is concerned over the workings of the mill and its master. This time, however, she seemed in a state of extreme vexation. She drew up a chair and sat upon it heavily, although she is by no means a heavy person. I laid down my pen, folded my hands before me and looked at her.
“John,” she began, “you won’t be pleased by what I have to tell you.”
“What is it, Mother?” I was growing extremely weary because I knew this was about Margaret.
“ I’ve just come from the Hales. You know I promised Mrs Hale to keep an eye on her daughter.”
I had never quite understood that, I must confess. Mother is not one to make such promises. She always keeps her feelings to herself, yet Mrs Hale must have seen past her inscrutable façade.
“Yes, what of it?”
“She refused any explanation about her nightly behaviour at the station, John! She threw my generous offer of guidance back into my face and she left the room before I had even finished my sentence! Oh, she is such a headstrong, arrogant woman! I am glad she will never be your wife, John. She would have overruled you in everything you planned!”
She stood, because I offered no reply. What could one say? “Don’t stay here too late, John. You work too hard, these days.” Whereupon she left me to brood over what she had just said.
What could that dreadful secret be that was so ferociously guarded by Margaret?
I tried again to discover just that, when I went for my reading. When I entered the house, after Margaret let me in, she spoke to me quietly.
She seemed very subdued, even downcast. I fought hard to keep my emotion in check and not let her see my dismay. But she spoke quietly.
“Father is waiting in the sitting room.”
I nodded and hastened towards the stairs. As always, seeing her brought back the humiliation of rejection.
“Mr. Thornton?” She was speaking in a pleading tone, now, so I turned to face her.
“I have to thank you.”
It was my rage talking now. “No. No thanks. I did not do anything for you.”
I stepped closer, allowing my fury to show. She lowered her eyes, and my heart ached. I could not let her see what she did to me, damn! I went on. “Do you not realize the risk that you take in being so indiscreet? Have you no explanation for your behaviour that night at the station? You must imagine what I must think.”
“Mr. Thornton, please… ” She besieged me with luminous eyes. “I’m aware of what you must think of me. I know how it must have appeared, being with a stranger so late at night. The man you saw me with, he…the…the secret is another person’s and I cannot explain it without doing him harm.”
I was wavering under her gaze. I tried to grasp hat she was telling me, when suddenly Mr Hale’s voice rang from above. “Is that you, John? Come on up.”
I was saved from replying, yet I could not help myself putting matters straight between us.
“I have not the slightest wish to pry into the gentleman’s secrets. I’m only concerned as your father’s friend. I hope you realize that any foolish passion for you on my part is entirely over. I’m looking to the future.”
It was what I firmly hoped for myself, at that time.