The Reform of John Thornton – Part Nine

 

Chapter Nine

The Irish arrived on a gloomy, cold December evening at Milton Outwood Station. I was present with Williams at my side, and we noted the names of the one hundred men and women, who alighted from the ghastly cargo train. Poor wretches, I thought, if they had ben forced to make the journey from Liverpool in these cattle wagons. We hastened them to Marlborough Mills, where we settled them on the top floor of the building that housed the weaving shed. I sent for Father Patrick, the Catholic priest, and instructed food to be given them. The next day, my looms would be going again.

I was glad to have something to wrestle my thoughts away from Margaret. I could not for the life of me forget the look of hurt I brought to her, the evening of the dinner party. That was something else altogether, as I did not understand why she should be offended by my very logical reasoning.

I had found myself brooding over this many times, in the idle days before the coming of the Irish. Sitting in my silent office, now free from the noise of the machinery, I had nothing to fill my mind but to replay the dinner conversation over and over again.

Margaret and I were in a conflict about nearly everything that concerned the workers, that fact was undoubtedly true. She considered them her friends, and although they were not exactly my enemies, they were not my primary concern. My first and foremost attention must always go to my mill, and all the rest was minor to that sacred goal.

Yet I could not be less than worried about what was brewing now in Milton. The town was in absolute silence and had been for over a month. What did these people live on? How did they feed their families? I realised that some of them might be starving or had already died from starvation. Was it really as simple as Hamper stated at the dinner party, that the workers just should go back to work without a pay raise. Somehow I had begun to doubt that seriously. Could it be that the workers really needed their raise badly? That they were unable to survive on what they made until now?

I would give anything for the chance to discuss this with someone, Mr Hale, or better yet, Margaret, in a quiet but thorough talk. It would never be, of course.

 

The next morning, Williams rushed into my office, panicking.

“Master, master, they’re comin’! Can’t ye hear them? They’re almost upon us!”

“Did you lock the gate?”

“Aye, master!”

“Then leave through the back entrance and go to the barracks. I will wait for the soldiers.”

He left in a hurry, and I headed downstairs to the courtyard.

A rumble like the oncoming of a thunderstorm came from behind the gate. It grew in sound with every second. I ran to the mill door, closing it with my key. Above my head, I could see the  scared faces of the Irish, but I knew they were safe, for now. The soldiers would surely come in time to disperse the rioters.

I quickly ran to the house, entered and locked the door behind me.

Fanny’s  frantic shrieking greeted me. “They’re coming!  They’re coming!  They’ll kill us all!”

Foolish girl! Fortunately, I saw Mother holding her close.

“Keep her here at the back of the house, Mother.”

“How soon can the soldiers be here?” she asked, closing her arms about Fanny.

I looked at my watch and back up at Mother. We both understood that the military might not arrive on time, both we said not a word. Fanny, however, seemed to grasp our meaning all the same. She became even more frantic and crumpled to the floor while Mother tried to hold on to her.

“Try to stop her panicking,” I asked, but Mother suddenly said, “Miss Hale!”

I stared at her, then understood. Margaret must be in the house.

Suddenly cold to my very bones with anxiety, I rushed out of the room to find Margaret.  Outside the gate, I could hear the mob banging vehemently at the gates. They were howling my name. I reached Margaret who was staring out the parlour window at the unfolding scene.

 

“Miss Hale,” I gasped, out of breath,  “I am sorry you have visited us at this unfortunate moment.”

The crowd’s angry banging had finally succeeded, and the gates gave way to their force. Men and women started running into the courtyard, yelling and screaming, and waving their arms.

“They’re in there somewhere! Go on! Go on, lads!  We’ll find ‘em!  It’s not right!  I’ve a family to feed!  Get the Irish out!!” Their voices were hoarse with fury.

I saw to my utter horror that some of them were heading to the mill. “Oh, my God!   They’re going for the mill door!”

What was I to do? I could not fend them off on my own, surely. By now, several members of the angry mob were banging on the mill door. “Get the Irish out!!” came their angry cries.

“Oh, no! It’s Boucher!” cried Margaret. I saw rioting strikers gathered beneath the window where we were looking out, and all eyes and shouts were aimed at me. All raised fists, too, of course. It did not bother me. My only concern was for Margaret.

“Let them yell. Keep up your courage for a few minutes longer, Miss Hale.”

She stared at me in bafflement, her blue eyes brilliant. “I’m not afraid.  But can’t you pacify them?”

“The soldiers will make them see reason,” I reassured her.

Her eyes widened. “Reason?  What kind of reason?”

She was looking straight into my eyes, as if wanting to convey something to me. I could not, for the life of me, grasp her meaning.

“Mr. Thornton,” she said, pleading, now, “go down this instant and face them like a man.  Speak to them as if they were human beings!”

Human beings? These savages? Never! But Margaret was still looking straight at me.                 “They’re driven mad with hunger,” she cried. “Their children are starving. They don’t know what they’re doing. Go and save your innocent Irishmen.”

All of a sudden, I understood. These people were at the end of their tether. They were like crazed animals, and they would inflict violence until they got what they came for. Me.

I rushed out and down the stairs. Margaret’s cry reached my ears from a distance. “Mr. Thornton, take care!”

 

Outside, they were waiting. When I showed myself, crossing my arms in rightful confidence, their voices rose in furious volume. I was not afraid. I was the master of Marlborough Mills, and they would have to go through me to enter my house. At the moment, they were all bark and no bite. What could they do to me, I thought? Kill me? No, they would not do such a thing.

Then, in a flurry of white skirts, Margaret rushed past me, and my heart stopped.

“In God’s name, stop!”, she cried. “Think of what you’re doing!  He is only one man and you are many! Go home!  The soldiers are coming!”

Her words seemed to pacify the mob somewhat, and their voices became quieter. Amazing girl! She seemed not in the least afraid, and in that very moment, I knew I would love her always. She could, however not stay there, it was not safe.

She once again addressed the workers. “Go in peace.  You shall have an answer to your complaints.”

Some ruffian shouted at me, “Will you send the Irish home?!”

The effrontery! “Never!!” I shouted back. I would never, ever back down when someone threatened me, but I had to get my dear girl away from there.

Taking her arm, I urged, “Go inside, this is not your place!”

She gasped, “They will not want to hurt a woman!”

She threw her arms around my neck, taking me completely off guard. I struggled to release her grasp and get her inside to safety, although I yearned to embrace her, as she was doing to me.

“Go inside or I will take you in!!” Heaven forbid that she come to harm.

 

The next moment, disaster struck. Something hit Margaret and she fell limp in my hands. In a haze of horror,  I lowered her onto the doorstep, as gently as I could.  Kneeling over Margaret’s unconscious body, my trembling hand hovered over the bleeding wound on her temple. I had never known fear before, it seemed, as I knew now. I dared not touch her, she was sacred to me. She was my everything, and those scoundrels had …  Livid rage engulfed me and I rose, murder in my mind!

“Are you satisfied?!” I yelled, barely recognizing my own voice. “You came here for me so kill me if that’s what you want!!”

I stretched out my arms, ready to face anything, struck down by the worst disaster that could befall me.

The crowd was still standing silently, until the sharp whistles of the soldiers suddenly rang out. The crazed mob scrambled to escape from the courtyard. The soldiers on horseback started knocking out in all directions, but I crouched next to my wounded girl and gathered her into my arms.

Margaret, my love …

Racing up the stairs, I called out, “Mother! Help me, Miss Hale is injured!”

Mother was there in an instant and directed me to the parlour sofa, whereupon I laid my precious girl. “We need a doctor,” I gasped. I desperately wanted to go myself, but I knew I could not. The sergeant would want to have me away from the mill, after the military had driven away the rioters.

I felt numb, all of a sudden. She was lying so still, my Margaret. Despair washed through me.

“Go, John! I will go for Dr Donaldson.” Mother again. She was a rock, as always.

 

I was staring out of my office windows, and all I saw was Margaret’s unconscious body, and her lovely face stained with blood. I could not bear the thought that she had been injured because of me and my actions. She had come to my rescue, she had saved me. Dare I hope for affection on her part? No, surely not.

Vaguely, I became aware of the sergeant, coming to stand next to me.

“Mr. Thornton? Don’t worry sir. We’ll catch the ringleaders.” As if I cared for anything other than my precious Margaret.

 

Much, much later, I came up into the parlour, eager to see how Margaret was doing. My sister was lying where Margaret had been earlier. Jane, our maid, was fanning her face. Fanny was sighing and gasping in her usual attitude of a spoilt child. Where was she, where was Margaret?

I asked Mother, who was standing near the window. “Where is Miss Hale?”

“She has gone home.”

Cold sweat broke out on my back. That could not be right! “Gone home?  That is not possible.”

“Really, John, she was quite well!”

“Mother, she took a terrible blow.  What were you thinking of letting her go home?”

“Everything was done properly.  Doctor Donaldson was called.  In fact, I went for him myself as no one else seemed to have a mind to go.”

Of course, Mother would always do the right thing. I became aware of my uncalled behaviour against the most courageous of mothers. “Thank you mother.  The streets were dangerous.  You should have…”

“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.”

Also true, but not destined to the ears of servants.

I barked at the maid. “Jane, have you nothing to be getting on with?”

“Miss Fanny, sir, she…

Fanny burst out, “I was so scared John!  Believe me, I almost fainted!  I thought they would break down the door and murder us all!  And…”

Mother silenced her, “Oh Fanny, don’t be so ridiculous.”

“You were in no danger,” I added.

She gasped in shock but I was in no mood for silly behaviour. I picked up my hat.

“Where are you going?” Mother asked, anxiously.

Did I really have to state the obvious? “To see if Miss Hale is well.”

“I sent her home in a carriage with Doctor Donaldson.  Everything was done properly. John!”

I halted, looked at her. She was in distress, and I knew why, yet I could not stay a minute longer in this place.

Mother begged, “I’m asking you not to go.”

Yet I went. Sometimes a man has no other choice than the one before him.

 

It was very late, when I came back from a walk of hours. I had been so deep in thoughts that I did not know where I had wandered. Milton and its surroundings are known to me like the back of my hand. Eventually, I was back within Marlborough Mills’ gates.

Mother was doing embroidery. I was stunned.

“Still up?” I asked. “I  thought you’d be exhausted.”

“Why should I be? Where have you been?” Mother did not look up from her needlework.

“Just walking,” I sighed and began untying my cravat. I was exhausted. I walked further into the room and faced Mother.

“Where have you been walking?”

I leaned onto the mantelpiece, my legs suddenly weak. “I promised you I would not go there and I did not.”

“But?” She was still not looking at me.

“             But…” I knelt beside her chair. “Mother, you know I will have to go there tomorrow and you know what I will have to say.”

“Yes.  You could hardly do otherwise.” Her tone was short of irritated, and I failed to understand. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that you are bound in honour as she has shown her feelings for all the world to see.”

I was baffled. “Her feelings?”

Mother looked me in the eye. “She rushed out in front of an angry mob and saved you from danger.  Or are you telling me I imagined that?  You think none of the servants saw it?  Do you think it’s not become the tittle-tattle of Milton?”

I sat down on the sofa next to her and sighed deeply. “She did save me.  But, Mother, I daren’t believe such a woman could care for me.” I looked for guidance, for comfort. I had hoped that she would care for me, foolish man that I was.

“Don’t be so foolish.  And what more proof do you need, that she should act in such a shameless way?”

I sighed again. Mother reached out and stroked my cheek, as if I were still a small boy.

“I’m sure she will take you from me,” she said softly. Then she smiled girlishly. “That is why I did not want you to go to see her today. I wanted one last evening of being the first in your affections.”

She looked down at the linen in her lap. “ I will have to change the initials on our linen. It will bear her name now, hers and yours.”

Lord. Was that what she was doing? “I know she does not care for me.  But I can’t remain silent.  I must ask her.”

Mother again stroked my cheek and said in a confident tone. “Don’t be afraid, John.  She has admitted it to the world.”

Now her smile became mischievously. “ I may yet even learn to like her for it.  It must have taken a great deal to overcome her pride.”

Ah, Mother.

 

My heart was heavy with apprehension when I walked through the courtyard, next morning. It was as busy as it had been before the strike, so I had every reason to feel glad that everything was back to normal. However, I was not entire myself, that morning.

Never had I felt so cast down, and yet so exhilarated, at the same time. I was underway to my beloved’s house, to ask her to marry me. I was going to ask Margaret to be my wife, Margaret who despised me but saved me from harm. She would not appreciate it but she would know it was necessary for me to do so. I was happy, of course, that she would now become my wife, even though she did not love me. I was also full of hope that she would come to love me in the years to come, or at least, like me enough to be a pleasant companion.

Those were the thoughts that haunted me s I stood before the small window in the Hales’ parlour, and waited for Margaret to come. I had found the room somewhat tidier than before. The books had been cleared away, and on top of the table stood a bowl of fruit.

Behind me, the door opened and I turned. Margaret stepped inside, wearing her usual, serviceable brown gown. I would never tire from that gown. It was the one she had been wearing on the day that I first beheld her.

I quickly stepped forward to hold the door for her, then closed it, and passed her. She seemed uneasy, and she had every reason to. Her life was about to change considerably, and so was mine.

“I had not noticed the colour of this fruit,” I said, anxious to say something. It came out a bit silly and not at all to the point. I swallowed, then continued. “ Miss Hale, I’m afraid I was very ungrateful yesterday.”

I looked at her. She was looking back at me with the uttermost calmness of mind.

“You’ve nothing to be grateful for,” she replied in an even tone. No warmth was to be seen in her blue eyes. I did not understand her meaning, “I think that I do.”

“Why, I did only the least that anyone would have,” she explained in a concise tone..

“That can’t be true,” I said, disbelief colouring my voice.

“Well, I was, after all, responsible for placing you in danger. I would have done the same for any man there.” Her face was without expression, her voice without feeling. My temper hitched up a notch, but I strove to remain calm.

“Any man?  So you approve of that violence.  You think I got what I deserved?”

“Oh, no, of course not!  But they were desperate.  I know if you were to talk to them…”

I cut her off. Again these foolish notions of her! “I forgot. You imagine them to be your friends.”

Now she spoke with urgent insistence. “But if you were to be reasonable…”

She put the blame on me? “Me?  Are you saying that I’m unreasonable?”

“If you would talk with them and not set the soldiers on them.  I … I know they would…”

That was the best side of enough! “They will get what they deserve.” Blast it! Soon I would get no chance to do what I had come for!

I calmed myself as best as I could. “Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you.  I came because…I think it very likely… I know I’ve never found myself in this position before.  It’s difficult to find the words.”

That was an understatement. I forged on, almost in despair, now.  “Miss Hale, my feelings for you are very strong.”

Now it was she who cut me off. “Please, stop.  Will you … Please don’t go any further.”

While I was struggling to grasp what she was saying, she turned to the window and gave me her back.

My next words could barely pass my lips. “Excuse me?”

“Please don’t continue in that way.  It’s not the way of a gentleman.”

Anger overwhelmed me and I came closer to her. “I’m well aware that in your eyes at least I’m not a gentleman.  But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive.”

She, too, as angry, now. Her eyes sparkled with heat as she turned to me and spat, “It offends me that you should speak to me as if it were your duty to rescue my reputation.”

Lord! She completely misunderstood me! I walked toward her in three steps, my hands clenched. “I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you.  I have no thought for your reputation!”

“You think that because you are rich and my father is in reduced circumstances that you can have me for your possession?  I suppose I should expect no less from someone in trade.”

This was unthinkable! Was she deliberately not trying to comprehend my meaning? “I don’t want to possess you, I wish to marry you because I love you!” My voice had risen beyond propriety but I was past caring.

That was when Margaret broke my heart. “You shouldn’t because I do not like you and never have.”

She gave me her back again. I was numb with what I had to face, now. She had rejected me, and left me to live with that horrible notion.

 

My gaze fell on the bowl of fruit again. “One minute we talk of the colour of fruit… the next of love.  How does that happen?” I turned away. The mantelpiece seemed the obvious support for me. Then Margaret spoke again, her voice breaking. “My friend Bessy Higgins is dying.”

Ah. Even now, she was thinking of my workers. In one second she could speak of the misery of others, and in the next cast me off into the deepest misery of all.

Bitterly, I spat, “And that, of course, is my fault, too?”

She faced me again, her eyes bright with tears, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I barked. “That you find my feelings for you offensive?  Or that you assume that because I’m in trade I’m only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling?  Or that I take pleasure in sending my employees to an early grave?”

She was deeply upset now. “No! No, no, of course not.  I…I’m sorry to be so blunt.  I have not learnt how to…h … how to refuse.  How to respond when a man talks to me as you just have.”

This was intolerable to the extreme! “Oh, there are others?”

She shook her head, as if in despair, but I forged on. “This happens to you every day? Of course!  You must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart.”

She said in a pleading voice, “Please understand, Mr. Thornton…”

Ha! Wretched girl! “I do understand,” I said, looking intensely at her. I wanted her to remember this day for the rest of her life, because I was bound never, ever to it. “ I understand you completely.”

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