For the next three months, I fought tooth and nail to keep my business afloat. I travelled to Birmingham, Leeds and even London to find some new investors, but alas, to no avail. Latimer would not see me again when I applied for an interview about a new loan. Needless to say I did not pursue Ann Latimer further. I was relieved about that, at least.
On one day in late spring, I received a visit from Mr Bell, my landlord. He was an Oxford academic from a wealthy family, who had invested and still was investing money in Marlborough Mills. He had some disturbing news. It seemed he was dying from a long neglected disease, and he was concluding his affairs with the intention of going to Argentina. There he hoped to die in peace and comfort.
“So, I’m almost at the end of sorting my business affairs,” he said in a jovial tone, handing me the documents I was to sign.
I took them and began reading. “When do you sail?” I asked.
“On Wednesday. I shall be pleased to be warmed by the sun again. I spent much of my youth there.”
I was reading a document concerning the lease of my mill’s premises and startled when I saw who was to be my new landlord.
“Yes,” Bell said, a slight smile on his face. “I have signed all my property and fortune to my goddaughter Miss Hale. I have no other family and Hale is my oldest friend.”
I had a difficult time believing what I saw with my own eyes. So Margaret was not only a very rich woman now, she was also my landlord, which meant she could end my lease when she desired so. I was at her mercy, and so was my business.
When I looked up, I saw Bell watching me with I can only describe as smugness. I quickly changed the subject. “But South America? Won’t you need money to live on?”
“Oh, I have sufficient for a very good life there,” Bell stated, seemingly uninterested. Then he sobered, “What remains of it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I had never truly liked Bell. He was too glib by far and always trying to stir peoples’ feelings to make them react. Yet I was distraught to hear what his fate was.
“Thank you, but don’t be,” he replied. “I consider myself lucky to be able to settle my own affairs. To know that Miss Hale is secure will ease my heart in these last few months.”
He paused, studying his fingers. “By the way, Miss Hale is unlikely to bother you or to interfere. She is landlord in name only.”
Damn the fellow! He must suspect I had an interest in Margaret. In my most frosty voice I said, “Even if Miss Hale were minded to interfere, she has little enough opinion of me. There may not be much left for her to interfere with.”
I handed him the signed documents and he shrugged. “Yes, well, I’m sorry. I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do. I have left business behind me.” He stood and donned his hat. “I sail on Wednesday.”
I touched my sweaty brow with one hand, overwhelmed by all I had learned, just now. With Bell’s visit, all my suppressed thoughts of Margaret were assailing me anew. I was vaguely aware of Bell going to the door yet he had something more to say.
“You might be mistaken, Thornton, if you think Miss Hale has a bad opinion of you.”
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I quickly rose and turned away from him.
But Bell was not finished. “And you might not judge her as harshly as you do… In fact…”
I burst out, barely able to control my livid fury. “As you say, Mr. Bell, your business Milton is finished. And now the future of this mill is no concern of yours. I’m afraid I’m busy too. Good day.”
I felt more than I saw how he stiffened with some sad anger. I was glad to be rid of the man, finally.
I shall always remember those dreadful months as the worst time of my life.
There was no joy, no succour to be found in the slow, painful demise of one’s beloved business.
I tried everything, but nothing could prevent Marlborough Mill from bankruptcy. Mother attempted to help me, of course. Mother is and has always been my most faithful ally and support.
She proposed to sell her jewels, the thought of it made me cringe with horror. I hastened to explain there was no need for that. I had secured our financial survival, and now that Fanny was off my hands, I was certain Mother and I could survive on very little. I would find employment, if necessary.
That did not seem to reassure Mother, for she then proposed to dismiss all the servants and do the work herself. If need be, she said, she could go into service herself and add to our income.
“Mother!” I exclaimed, thoroughly horrified. “Here, have a look at this!” And I showed her the small ledger where I noted my personal finances. She was sighing with relief, after that.
“John,” she said, placing a hand over mine, “we could sell the house, if matters become too dire. It would pain me, I’ll give you that, but I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary to alleviate our problems.”
“I shall fight hard to prevent that, Mother, fear not. I’m fond of this house, too. It is my own, personal achievement, marking our successful battle against poverty, after Father died. Yet, if there’s no other solution, I will sell it.”
“Oh, John,” she whispered, and for the first time since years, I saw tears glistening in her eyes. She did not give in to weeping, though. Mother never weeps. She is the strongest woman alive. But I would not have minded to see her weep now. I was close to tears myself, curse it!
On the last working day of Marlborough Mills, I could not bring myself to go to my office and see the workers depart for the very last time. It was cowardly, I know. For them, it was disastrous, while I had other options to gain my daily bread. They, however, faced starvation, if they couldn’t manage to find work.
Mother and I were sitting in the parlour, thoroughly discouraged. We did not speak, for what was there to say? But we felt each other’s sorrow, and I was furious because I could do absolutely nothing to lift hers.
Suddenly, Fanny burst into the room, a smirk on her face that did not bode well.
“I told you,” she exclaimed, in a tone so conceited that I felt like throttling her! Wretched girl!
She continued in a triumphant tone, “ I was right and John was wrong. For once you must admit I was right. If you’d invested in Watson’s scheme, you’d have made thousands. Enough to get you out of trouble!”
I could not find the strength to react, and that seemed to anger her.
“Admit it,” she demanded, but Mother and I just looked at each other. What was there to say or to admit, for that matter? I would never invest in a speculation scheme. If that was the way to making money, I would not stoop to it. It was like playing with other people’s lives, playing without having to ay the consequences.
Then Fanny said in a haughty, condescending tone, “I will ask Watson if he will lend John some money, but he was very angry when John would not join him in the venture. And he says a gentleman must pay his own way!”
I was beginning to think that my only sister disliked me very much. She must have known her words would hurt me, and Mother aa well. The best I could do was keep my mouth shut, so that was what I did. Fanny waited, then left, but she had one final arrow to shoot at me.
“And I think you can think again about Ann Latimer! I’m sure she won’t have you now!”
As if that was of any concern to me! How little did she know me, my superficial, egotistic little sister.
“You mustn’t mind losing the house, Mother,” I said, after a long silence.
“I don’t mind about the house!” Mother said forcefully. She again put her hand on my arm. “I care about you!”
I found the courage to smile at her. “Thank God Fanny’s taken care of. It’ll just be you and I again.”
Mother gave me her rare, exquisite smile, and it encouraged me, despite my morose state of mind.
Later that day, I found the courage to go to the weaving shed, now empty and silent. What a dismal sight greeted me there. The looms, cotton sheets still on them, were silent and looked so abandoned it broke the heart of me. All my life’s work, all my pride, all my hope … gone. All I had fought for, since the death of my father, to restore his memory and repay his debts … it had all been for nought. I was back to where I had been at sixteen. I was destitute again but for the meagre savings I had managed to rescue out of the disaster. Thank God I had no debts, not even to the bank.
My eyes wandered through the shed to the dais I always used to survey it all. I suddenly remembered the day I saw Margaret for the first time, and how she shouted at me to stop trashing Stephens. How right she had been, my love.
Ever since I met her, she had been in my heart. A lady of the purest heart and beauty, she had shown me the way to a better relationship with my workers. Not through violence and masterful haughtiness, but through treating them as human beings. Listening to them, letting them explain their grievances, and negotiating with them to find an acceptable solution for all concerned.
Too late had I found how to deal with people. Too late had I known how to win my love.
For only now did I understand how she must have seen me. Not a man, but a beast, a yelling, beating and rude beast of a man. Not a gentleman, oh, how right she had been there. I would have nothing to offer her now, should I ever get a new chance at wooing her. Should I ever again have the chance to lay my heart at her feet, I had nothing in my hands to offer her. Would she have me now, I wondered? A man, and nothing but a man, with no position or status, and my only richness the deep love I still harboured for her.
No, she would not even glance at me, let alone hear me out or speak to me. I was not worthy of her, I knew that all along, but, oh, how I would love her, and worship her, and give my life’s blood to make her the happiest woman on earth.
“What a nice Christmas present it will be, said Charlotte. But I hope …”
The light, stumbling voice of little Tom Boucher broke through my black thought with the strength of a ray of summer sun. I turned and saw him sitting on top of one of the looms, a book in his lap. I wandered to him, smiled and asked, “Where’s Higgins?”
“He’s finishing off something,” said Tom and carried on reading. “Mr Arnott will… sometimes bring her cart into…”
Again my mind pictured Margaret, now in the arms of the stranger, late at night at the station. Again I recalled my stupid jealousy, and my fury, and my powerlessness. How caddish I had behaved to her, as a result of all these idle and senseless feelings. What right had I being outraged at her because she loved another? Had I not explained in detail how independent my female workers were in the matter of using their wages? Was I their father or their brother to tell them what to do? Yet I had wanted to trash the man holding my Margaret, and beat him to a bloody pulp, without any right at all. I had no claim on her, and never would.
“I said, have you heard about Miss Margaret?”
I startled, and saw Higgins approach. Why was he asking about Margaret? He would be the one knowing all about her, I mused. I could not bring myself to answer his question, so I asked one of mine, “Still here?”
“Just because it’s the last shift, Master, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t finish the job well.”
I shrugged. “I am nobody’s master anymore, Higgins.”
In a casual tone, Higgins ventured, “If you’re ever in a position to take on workers again, there’s a fair number of us who’d be happy to run a mill for you.”
I smiled. Ah, Higgins. How I had come to like the man, since he took up work with me.
“I got up a petition to collect the names,” said Higgins, and handed me a role of paper. I took it from him and was at a loss what to do with it. It was very unlikely that I would ever be a mill master again.
”Anyway,” Higgins continued, ‘I was asking about Miss Margaret. Have you heard how she’s doing?”
What was I to say? I had not seen Margaret for several months. “She’s well. She’s in London. We’ll not see her again.”
“I thought she might have gone to Spain,” Higgins said, mischief colouring his voice.
I was stunned and failed to understand what he was driving at. “Spain? Why would she go there?”
Higgins grinned at me. “Well, to see her brother, now that he’s her only family.”
What?!? What was he saying, curse it? “Her brother? She doesn’t have a brother.”
Higgins was having a laugh at me, I could tell, yet I was too eager to hear the rest.
With a definitely smug smile, he continued. “Him that were over when their mother were dying. Kept it a secret, they did. My Mary used to fetch things for them. She’s a quiet girl, but she talks to me.”
I was really at a loss, now. “Why wouldn’t Mr Hale tell me that he had a son?”
“Something to do with the law. Found himself on the wrong side of the Navy. In real danger he was.”
A brother in the Navy, away from home. A man wanted by the authorities … a man in hiding.
How could I have been so daft? “He was her brother,” I whispered, and felt as if a light had been lit inside me.
Higgins extended his hand. “Well. Thornton…. I’ll bid you good day.”
I clasped it, all of a sudden overwhelmed by joy from what he had told me. “Goodbye Higgins. Good luck.”
I was alone again in the vast emptiness of the mill. It weighed on me like a suffocating blanket. As matters stood, I had only two options; either I would wallow in self-pity, deploring the unhappy demise of my business, or I would try to begin anew. Whichever path I chose, it would be a solitary one. I was on my own, I was without my Margaret.
I went to my office and sank down onto the hard wooden chair behind my now useless desk.
Margaret, too, had endured much sorrow since she came to Milton. I had heaps of time to waste now, so I reflected on Margaret’s life, as I knew it.
She had come to Milton with both her parents still alive, sad beyond comprehension because she had had to leave her beloved Helstone in sunny, easy Hampshire. Her mother had suffered even more, to the point that she became ill. Margaret had had no support from her mother, on the contrary, it had been she who must comfort Mrs Hale, over and over again.
Mr Hale was no great support, neither to his weak wife, nor to his brave daughter. He had retreated behind his books and left his daughter to seek the company of others, like the Higginses.
I could not begin to understand what enormous difference Milton and its people must have been from her Southern village to Margaret. Yet she had endeavoured to blend in in Milton’s society as best as she could, albeit in her own outspoken and free-thinking way. She had even made some friends amongst the workers, something I had not even tried.
Margaret … my courageous love. I knew I would never stop loving her, and, even if some other woman crossed my path, I would remain a bachelor for the rest of my life. How could I love another, when I knew that somewhere in London or beyond, there was my Margaret?
Maybe, I mused, she would indeed go to her brother in Spain. She obviously loved and adored him a great deal. Would my heart feel it if she left England’s shores?
Perhaps she would go back to her beloved Helstone and settle there, alone or with a husband. Would my heart shatter the day she gave herself to another man? Surely, it would.
I stood and left the building to go to the house. I had made up my mind. I would indeed start anew, but not until I had cleansed myself from my bitterness and sorrow about Margaret. The only place where I could attempt just that, was Helstone, Hampshire.