I walked the streets in a state of numbness, not seeing or hearing a thing. Barely was I able to comprehend what had just happened to me. The pain, however, was already fully in attendance. It was a wound I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
I know not how but eventually I reached Marlborough Mills and the house, where I ascended the stairs to the parlour, feeling drained and utterly cast down. I noticed Mother was not sitting on her usual sofa, but in a smaller chair, closer to the hearth. She was doing needlework, as usual.
Nothing of this must touch her, I promised myself. For Mother’s sake, I must conquer this. However, I needed a fortifying drink, before facing her. What I had to say, was utterly incomprehensible. I walked past her to the window overlooking the courtyard. Words failed me while I drank my port.
“Well,” Mother said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “at least we’ve got the machines going again.”
I nodded, unable to look at her.
“And the Irish?”
My voice gave way as I attempted an answer. “They’re settled. They’ve had a good meal, and… I sent for the Catholic priest, Father Patrick, he seemed to calm them down. I’ll have to send them home, got workers clamouring to come back.”
Mother scoffed, “Serve them right if we kept the Irish workers…”
I could bear it no longer and went to stand behind her chair, supporting myself on the back.
“By the way, I was right, Mother.”
She looked up, and I could not see her face. Her rigid bearing, however, told me she was very tensed.
“Miss Hale will not have me.”
She slumped a bit in her chair, heaving a big sigh. Dear Mother … I bowed to kiss her on the brow. “No one loves me. No one cares for me but you.”
She grasped my arm and drew me down, so that I was forced to kneel before her chair. She took my face in her hands, and stroked my cheeks with her thumbs. “A mother’s love holds fast and forever. A girl’s love is like … a puff of smoke. Changes with every wind.”
“I knew I wasn’t good enough for her… And I think I love her more than ever.”
“I hate he!” My face must have frighten her, because she continued forcefully. “I’ve tried not to, when I thought she would make you happy.”
No, no! I could not have that! I rose and walked back to the window, while Mother spoke in a pleading tone. “I’d give my lives blood for that!”
Then, scoffing vehemently, “Who is she that she dares to reject you!”
“No!” It was the only word I was able to utter, horror flooding me at Mother’s violent disdain of the woman I loved.
“It’s no good John. Your sorrow is mine. And if you won’t hate her, then I must.”
I needed to say something rational, or at least, try. “She does not care for me, and that is enough. The only thing you can do for me is never say her name again. We will never talk of her again.”
“With all my heart … How I wished that she and all her family would be swept back to the place they came from!”
Wishes that would not become true, I feared.
I threw myself into my work. Because of the strike, we were far behind with the orders. Thank God for work.
I was walking back from the law court, one day, when a familiar voice haled me. Mr Bell crossed the street toward me, a jovial smile on his weathered face. So he was still in Milton? That was not his usual way. I touched my hat.
“Congratulations!” Mr Bell said. “On handling the strike. I trust everything’s back to normal?”
“Well, business is a bit more complicated than that. It’ll take a while.” Had he no idea at all how it worked? Two people joined us.
“Ah! You know the Latimers of course,” Mr Bell said.
Again, I touched my hat. “Of course.” I looked at Miss Latimer, whom I had not seen since the dinner party. She was beautiful, in a doll-like way.
Mr Bell’s attention was captured by someone coming down the street. “Ah, Margaret! Over here!”
I inwardly froze and made an effort not to look at her. My face might very well betray me. Bell rambled on.
“Now look at this! What luck! Two of the prettiest girls in Milton. You remember the Latimers, Margaret? My banker and therefore a very important man. And this is Ann, recently arrived home from Switzerland, I believe, and very much finished.”
I could not help myself after all. I had to see her lovely features, drink them in, keep them forever in my heart.
“Now, where’re you off to, my dear?” Mr Bell asked her. She looked startled and answered, a bit too readily, “Nowhere.”
Bell smiled at her, and I wanted to punch him in the face! “That’s all right, you can have your little secrets. All young women must have their secrets, isn’t that one of the joys of life?”
Now he had the effrontery to stare into my face, a sly smile on his. I fear I was a bit short, just then. “I wouldn’t know. Good day.”
Pompous, meddling man! I took Miss Latimer’s arm and walked away with her as quickly as I could.
Miss Ann Latimer would be paramount in conquering my foolish and misplaced feelings for Miss Hale, I had decided. She was a sweet, quiet girl, and I liked her company exceedingly well. We went out for walks, and saw each other at dinner parties, but unfortunately, there was not ample chance of being alone. I could not remember her saying much, and when she did, she always agreed with me. Perhaps that was what made me hesitate in asking her. I would have to forget the woman who never agreed with me, first.
I saw little of Margaret, nowadays. Mr Hale said she stayed with her friends, the Higginses, who had recently lost a daughter. And sure enough, when I came down Canute Street, one evening, to read with her father, I watched Margaret taking her leave of Higgins.
A sort of cold rage filled me. Higgins was allowed to see her, speak to her, and be welcomed in her house, and I was cast out?
She saw me, as the man turned away, and blast it all to hell, she looked at me with … I know not what, but it was a piercing, pleading look. Oh, no, my girl! You are not playing that game with me! I hastily turned away and it almost felt like fleeing.
The winter was long and harsh. My faithful overseer Williams reported daily to me about some worker or other that had fallen ill, due to hunger and disease. It was my task to fill in the open places at the looms as quickly as possible. Fortunately the supply of hands was inexhaustible.
Marlborough Mills was slowly recovering from the strike but it was not fast enough for me to fulfil my obligations to the bank. So it was that in May of the year 1851, I was invited by Latimer to accompany him and Miss Latimer to see the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, as it was called. Latimer reckoned it would be beneficiary for my mill to introduce me to a number of his business acquaintances who were interested in cotton manufacturing. I had to give a series of lectures on the subject of industrial machines and on the general aspects of weaving and tanning. The meetings were well-attended but they did not result in many investments. Perhaps my behaviour had something to do with it. I had no patience for starry-eyed Londoners who thought it would be great fun to “dabble” in cotton.
When I was explaining – for the umpteenth time – what my business encompassed, we were visiting the Crystal Palace.
“You’re all here to see this fine machinery,” I lectured. “Technologically, we’re the envy of the world. If only there was a mechanism to enable us all to live together, to take advantage of the great benefits that come from industry. But that will be for future generations. We can bring back marmosets from Mozambique, but we cannot stop man from behaving as he always has.”
“Don’t you think we can bring about an end to strikes?” one of my listeners asked.
“Not in my lifetime… but with time and patience, we might try to bleed them of their bitterness,” I replied.
I was surrounded by a few gentlemen when a familiar figure caught my eye. Margaret! She was here? Why?
I decided to taunt her, to let her feel what humiliation felt like. “Miss Hale here knows the depths we men in Milton have fallen to. How we masters only strive to grind our workers into the ground.”
Embarrassment coloured her face, but I failed to find pleasure in it. She said in a firm voice, “I certainly do not think that… as Mr Thornton could tell you, if he would know me at all.”
I broke through the throng of my listeners and stopped by her side. “I presumed to know you once before and have been mistaken.”
“Miss Hale!” Fanny’s voice sounded, a little flatly. “How delightful!”
Blast! I had completely forgotten about my silly sister, who was ambling by with Miss Latimer at her side.
“You’ve managed to come to London at last,” Margaret smiled warmly. I had to admire her gentleness. Fanny always managed to put me off sorts at all times. Now she was giggling aloud, attracting a lot of unwanted attention. “Mother allowed it only because John was coming, and Miss Latimer of course, who she approves of greatly. Seems to think she’s far more sensible than me.”
A man in fashionable attire approached us, and Margaret turned to him. “Henry, do you know Mr Thornton?”
The fellow smirked at me, and I had no inkling why. He was far too glib for my liking, and hell! Margaret had called him by his first name. Now the man looked at me in the most impolite manner and said, “Mr Thornton. All the way from Milton.”
I nodded, and he continued in a leisurely way, “My brother is interested in dabbling in cotton.”
Ah, how I loathe these Londoners and their disdain of the world in general. As coldly as I could I answered. “I’m not sure I’m the one to speak to. I’m not sure I’d know how to dabble.”
Lennox smirked again, and suddenly I had enough. ”I must go. You may enjoy the machinery like an exhibit in the zoo. I have to go and live with it. I must get back to Milton today.”
I turned away when Lennox said smugly. “Give our regards to the Hales. You must tell them how the London break is suiting Miss Hale. Don’t you think, Thornton?”
I glared at him, clenching my fists in anger.
Lennox stubbornly continued. “Doesn’t Miss Hale look well?”
I held my eyes on the fellow, then turned them to Margaret. No doubt she was enjoying this little altercation. ”Good day.”
“Tell Mother I’ll be home soon, with so much to tell her,” Margaret pleaded in a soft voice. I wanted to look at her, but what would be the point? I walked away with large strides.
So that Lennox fellow was what Margaret considered a gentleman. A vain, idle money-maker from London. From the South. How foolish of me to think that she would consider me a suitable husband. During the entire journey home, I was brooding over my folly of loving her. Yet I knew I would eventually master this. Other, more pressing matters claimed my entire attention.
When I alighted from the cab that brought me home, I was surprised to see Mother coming towards the gate, in full attire of black bombazine.
“Where have you been,” I asked, glad to see her, after my weeks in London. I had missed her.
“John! You’re back!” She pressed my hand and I offered her my arm. Together we went inside the house, where we divested ourselves from our coats. Mother ordered Jane to bring us some tea, and we climbed the stairs to the parlour.
“I have visited Mrs Hale, John,” Mother explained. “She is unwell, in fact, she might be dying.”
I was shocked. I had always known Mrs Hale was a sickly woman, but to be on the brink of death! Mother continued, “She is wasting away, and has weakened considerably during the last days. Yet she pressed her daughter to accept her aunt’s invitation to go to the exhibition. I cannot understand such a thing.”
Neither could I. I had gone to read with Mr Hale a few times before I went to London, but my teacher had not mentioned his wife’s predicament to me. Another sign that I was not in their league, no doubt. I was just a low manufacturer after all.
I tried to be civil and brought a basket of fruit to the Hales, one evening. Margaret opened the door, which surprised and delighted me. She did not invite me in, though. Instead she gave my basket to a girl who came up the steps, and asked her to carry the basket to the kitchen.
I was clearly not welcome. I lifted my hat and said, “You must excuse me. I thought that I would still be welcome here despite our…… despite what’s passed between us….. as your father’s guest at least.”
She was uneasy, I could tell. “Indeed. You are welcome but …”
I noticed a man’s hat and coat on the rack in the hallway. Ah …
“I’m sorry, you have company already….,” I all but grumbled and turned.
“No! Indeed we do not! There is no one here!” Yet at the same time, laughter – a man’s laughter – was heard from upstairs. She was lying to me. It was something I never thought she would do. “Good day Miss Hale.”
She called after me, “Mr Thornton, please…. My mother is ill! Things are not as they seem! Please believe me that I mean no discourtesy towards you and that you are most welcome …”
Lies, all lies. I donned my hat and walked away.
She must have suitors aplenty, I brooded, while I left the stationmaster’s office at Milton Outwood Station. I had been enquiring about a cotton shipment from Liverpool Docks, but it had not yet arrived. Now I was on my way home through the chilly evening fog.
That was when I saw them. Margaret and a young man, embracing on the platform. I could not believe my eyes! Had the girl no decency?
I felt a sudden, hot wave of pure jealousy that shook me to the core. Margaret in the arms of another! Must I bear this misery, too? Would there never be an end to my sorrow?
I realised I had halted and was staring at the couple, when Margaret saw me. I hastened away in deep misery. The look of abhorrence that twisted her lovely face will haunt me forever.