The day I met Miss Margaret Hale, Fate kicked me in the gut so hard that I was transformed into a man I would come to loathe.
I am John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate in Milton, Lancashire, and therefore, I speak bluntly. Gentlemanlike manners are no use to me when I have to deal with workers, tradesmen, and the likes, who do not understand civil language should it kick them in the arse.
That day, I was not only speaking my mind in the rudest of ways but I was also swearing at that bloody idiot Stephens for smoking in the weaving shed. I was so livid with rage that I chased him from between the rows of cotton looms to a spot where I could trash him into oblivion. Fire in a cotton mill – as every sane person knows – is highly dangerous. If the cotton waste is set ablaze, nothing can save the mill from burning down to the ground.
Finally, I was able to catch the fool by the collar. “Smokin’ again!” I bellowed. “Where is it?”
I began searching his filthy rags of clothing until I found the pipe, which, of course, he had been smoking on the sly. “Still warm,” I accused, my rage now boiling over. “Stupid idiot!”
It was a relief to swing my fists at him, and with satisfaction, I dealt him a few well-placed blows.
“Look at me!” I commanded. “Look at me!”
“Stop! In God’s name, stop!”
The light voice – barely audible above the din of the machines – did really stop me, although all I wanted to do was to kill Stephens with my bare hands. I jerked around, sweat trickling down my face. The air was knocked from my lungs, as I beheld the most beautiful creature in all the world. Her face was frozen in horror, her mouth partly opened and her eyes – ah, the eyes! – were wide with dismay. I looked at her, paralysed by the sight of such perfect beauty, My raised arm hung high in the air, ready to strike again, but the strength seemed to have left me.
What strange sickness had suddenly overcome me? I felt like a statue, I was unable to breathe. The girl – for she was little more than that – lifted her gaze to capture mine, and now a giant fist squeezed my heart. I could feel the blood drain from my face, until an icy shiver raked my entire body.
“Please, miss, please!” And then I was free again, thanks to Williams’ desperate plea. My trustworthy overseer was trying to pull the girl away, but even as slight as she was, she managed to resist him.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” I barked at her.
“My name is Margaret Hale,” she replied, her eyes blazing with fury.
Williams hastened to enlighten me. “I’m sorry, sir, I told her to stay in the office.”
Again I felt myself sliding into that haze of rage and I cried, “Get her out of here!” But then that little rat Stephens began crawling away from me. I released him but I could not stop myself from kicking him like the rat he is. “Aye, crawl away on your belly and don’t come back here again!”
Stephens was now desperate to escape but he gasped, “Please, sir, I ‘ave little ones!”
“You know the rules!” The rat dared answer me back, devil take it!
“My children will starve, sir,” Stephens sobbed, but I was too far gone to listen.
“Better they starve than burn to death!” I cried, and placed a hard kick in his belly.
“Stop! Stop, please!”
This time, the girl’s voice did not freeze me. I had more than enough of her interferences! I whirled around and snarled at Williams, “Get that woman out of here!” Williams succeeded in his endeavour to remove the girl this time, and she let herself be hauled behind a stack of cotton bales.
All the light seemed to vanish from the weaving shed. My knees buckled, and I had to seek support against the wall. The air seemed laden with some vile stench that clawed at my throat. Cotton fluff added more hardship to my already disturbed breathing. My brain, the part of my body I can always rely on, screamed at me to get the hell out of there.
I began stumbling towards the exit, pain raking through me like a spear. Gasping for breath, I reached the courtyard, and the cool air revived me instantly, when I gasped. It took me several moments to compose myself enough that I could go to the house and climb the stairs to the parlour. My mother keeps a bottle of port on a table near the door, and I splashed a large portion of it in a glass. The sweet, heavy liquid burned a path through my insides, and at last, I could breathe again.
“Why are you imbibing in the middle of the day, John? That is not you. Has something happened at the mill?” Mother’s cool voice inquired.
I took great care to take my glass and stride calmly to the mantelpiece, as was my habit, when I came up from the mill during the day. “Everything is fine, mother,” I said. “Just a restorative glass of port, is all.”
Mother was sitting in her usual spot on the coach beneath the window, darning some old socks of mine. Mother’s hands are never idle, God bless her, but why was she wasting her energy on clothing that was only fit to be thrown away? I took a few steps toward her and gently took the socks out of her hands.
“We are wealthy, Mother. You do not need to do such useless menial tasks. These socks are no longer your concern. Give them to one of the maids, if you want them darned.”
Mother is not easily fooled. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips but she let go of the socks without protest. “Fortune is as volatile as the smoke from our stacks, John, as you well know. We should be frugal at all times, so that we do not come on hardship once more.”
By now, I had full control over my countenance. “Mother, if you think it best to darn these very old socks in order to preserve me from going bankrupt, then by all means, do it.”
I was rewarded by her beautiful, but rare smile, which she bestows solely on me. The corners of my own lips turned upwards in answer, before I left her to go back to the mill. I sought the relative calm of my office, a cubicle set aside from the weaving shed by crude, wooden boards. Most of the space is occupied by a large desk and some shelves. I let myself down on the hard wooden chair behind the desk, planted my elbows on its surface and covered my face with my hands.