One evening, I rose from my chair behind my desk, all my limbs stiff with fatigue. It was late, I guessed. Just then the whistle blew, indicating the end of the evening shift. Ten o’ clock. I went to the window.
Little Tom Boucher sat on the loading platform’s rough wooden planks, his feet in their scuffed boots dangling from it. He was reading aloud from a book. There was a most intelligent lad, I mused, while I donned my coat. I went to stand beside him, reading over his shoulder. He was spelling the words diligently, though somewhat haltingly, especially the lengthy ones.
“Laugh…at me. C-Call me … A comee … c-comical. A…”
“A-ni-mal,” I supplied, inwardly smiling at the industrious little boy.
“A-ni-mal,” Tom repeated, then looking up at me.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Higgins?,” I asked. Tom shrugged, pursing his small mouth. “ Have you had your supper?”
“Mary went to the butcher but she didn’t do dinner,” Tom shook his head. I wondered why that had occurred. Surely I paid Higgins decent enough wages.
Higgins approached, when I suddenly realised he had not come out with the bulk of the men.
“Why are you so late?,” I challenged. “Shift finished an hour ago.” I crossed my arms in suspicion. “What are you up to?”
Higgins did not seem goaded at all. “Work wasn’t finished. We stayed until it was.”
I made something very clear immediately. “Can’t pay over your time.”
An unruffled Higgins threw the ball back to me, curse him! “See you working over your time. You go under, no one else ’ll take me on, and who’ll put food in his mouth?”
He was right, and no doubt about it. “He’s not had his supper tonight, he’s been telling me.”
Higgins explained, “Well, some days there’s good meat, other days nothing fit for a dog even if you’ve got money in your pocket. There’s your market forces in action for you, Master.”
I went along. “It’s a pity you can’t get up some scheme. Buy food wholesale, cook for twenty instead of one. Then everybody’d be able to afford a good meal a day and then you’d have fit minds to do studying.”
Finally, I had ruffled him. “Careful, someone will report you to the masters union for that kind of talk.” But he was smiling mischievously.
I continued, although I could not fathom why I had broached this subject. The words just seemed to form themselves without my cooperation. “If men eat well they work well. And that’ll please masters too, unless they are idiots. Which some of them are.”
“We’d need somewhere to cook. There’s an old outhouse out the back, not in any use as far as I can tell,” Higgins pressed. I was actually beginning to like the man.
“You did bring your brains with you to work today, didn’t you?”
He smirked at me. “Well, I try to keep them hidden but I can’t do without them altogether.”
“You get some figures up and we’ll see. Not promising, mind,” I closed the subject.
Winter settled in for real, now. It was snowing heavily each day, but the mill’s new soup kitchen was working nicely.
Well, the name was inappropriate since the food was not for free. My workers would never have accepted charity, so I charged them only a quarter farthing. This was something each and every of my workers could easily afford, even the ones with the very lowest wages. I had calculated that the costs would be even when twenty-five people a day would pay their share. Their number was almost four times that, so I was soon running even.
On one particularly cold afternoon, I was traversing the courtyard, when I noticed I had left my coat inside. It was so damned cold that I was freezing within seconds, but I did not care. I had no time, so I proceeded, when Higgins’ voice hailed me.
“Master? Will you come in? It’s stew today.”
I was not only stone cold, but also famished, something I had not noticed before. I smiled, “I haven’t had that for a while.”
Higgins continued, concern on his ruddy face. “Not eaten all day, I’ll bet.”
He was right. I answered, a bit taken aback by his perceptivity, “No, no, been too busy.”
I followed him into the shed we designated for the kitchen. There were a good thirty people inside, all eating and chatting congenially with each other. I was struck by the warmth and homeliness of the place, even though the building was in a state of disrepair. I also noticed that conversation stopped when I entered, but it resumed as soon as I let myself down on one of the benches at the crude wooden table. So my workers did not object to their master sharing their meal. I was pleased and felt at home. More so, dare I say it, than in my own house. I quickly cast aside this horrible thought.
A girl rushed forward and placed a steaming plate of stew before me. She dug out a spoon from her apron pocket and put it next to my plate. I tasted the stew, and was very pleasantly surprised. “This is very good. Really. Very good.”
It was not only good, it was also nourishing. I pointed to the girl whose name I could not recall. “Isn’t that your daughter?”
“Aye,” Higgins replied. “She’s a good girl. A fair cook. She’s come into her own since her sister died, God rest her soul.”
Shame rose in my heart when I realised I had completely forgotten that this man had lost his eldest daughter not so long ago. She had been one of my piecers, yet I had not notion of her name. I was tempted to ask Higgins, but refrained from doing so. He might think me an unfeeling, selfish cad, and with good reason.
A thought shot through me, that Margaret would know both girls’ names. I could not ask her either. She would think I would dismiss Higgins or something like it. A few weeks ago, she would have been right.
Then, all of a sudden, I recalled the girl’s name. It was Mary, and Margaret had named her so the evening I saw a man’s coat and hat on the pegs in Mr Hale’s house. I bowed my head, not wanting Higgins to see my embarrassment.
Fanny’s wedding day was exceptionally free of snow, with a watery sun brightening the winter’s season. I was feeling cheerful, despite the disastrous financial situation I was in.
Well, not I or my family, to speak truthfully. No, it was Marlborough Mills that was going down the drain, and very rapidly so. I had begun drawing funds from my own savings to secure the workers’ pay role. Foolish, I know, but what could I do?
I had provided the money for Fanny’s wedding and dowry, and I had secured Mother’s future by bestowing enough money on her, so that she might live a comfortable old age. My own funds would carry me a long way, provided I did not draw more from them. But I knew I could not let go of my beloved business. Never. Soon I would be forced to seek employment, though as what I knew not.
Firmly, I cast aside all these sombre thoughts. Today was my only sister’s wedding day, and I rejoiced in Fanny and Watson’s happiness. He seemed to like her exceedingly, and my sister was smart enough to know which side of her bread her butter was spread on. I could not imagine love between the two of them, though. I could not imagine Fanny being tortured by Watson’s indifference as much as I had been by Margaret’s. Watson was not indifferent to my sister, while Margaret was not only indifferent but also horrified by me. Margaret thought the worst of me, in all circumstances. In her eyes, I was a cruel, violent man with no notion of how to behave in a gentlemanly manner.
Again I made an effort to regain my cheerfulness, as I strode down the aisle with Fanny on my arm When I gave her away to Watson, I turned and saw Margaret looking at me from the third row to the left. Next to her sat her father, and next to him Latimer and his daughter.
Ah, Ann Latimer. I would have to make a decision regarding her, and very soon. Latimer knew about my financial situation well enough, yet he seemed inclined to envisage a union between his daughter and me. He kept making allusions to my courting Ann, even though the latter had been non-existent on my part. I could not court her, even though she was a lovely girl. Every time I wanted to ask her to marry me, my budged proposal to Margaret flashed through my mind again. I had proposed marriage to the girl I loved, so how could I do so to a girl I did not love? Now, in this chapel, on this day of joy, I caught Margaret’s gaze, and willed it to be sweet and loving. It was not, of course. Her eyes were quickly cast down, but the indifference in them had been scorching. I deliberately avoided to look at her, even when I saw Mother going to Mr Hale’s side and speak with him. I drew Ann’s hand through my arm when we left the chapel.
Winter dragged on, and many of my workers, especially the children, fell ill. I knew it was primarily malnutrition and poor housing that caused the coughing and the fevers, but I was powerless to do something about it. I lowered the price of a meal to one farthing a week, so that the workers could save on their wages because they did not need to buy food in town. Prices were outrageously high. I began thinking on establishing a kind of medical assistance to care for the weakest of my child-labourers, but I was so overwhelmed with work that the plan never took off. More than once, I wished I had someone to stand by my side with problems like this. Mother was no help, because she only cared about the mill. The ignorant workers had only themselves to blame when they choose to drink away their wages in a tavern, she said. I could not help thinking that maybe Margaret would have known what to do.
One day, I was walking over the courtyard, when Higgins hailed me. His ruddy face bore a particular stricken expression, and in his eyes was a pain I had never beheld on the man.
“Master, ‘ave ye ‘eard about Mr Hale? He’s dead. Miss Hale sent word to my Mary.”
If he had planted a fist in my gut, I could not have felt worse.
“Mr. Hale? Dead?” The words barely managed to pass my lips.
”Aye, in his sleep. Poor fellow. Never recovered from his wife’s death.”
I was stricken with sudden, overwhelming grief. My good friend … dead. It did not bear thinking! My legs felt suddenly like cotton and I grasped the doorpost.
”Master?” Higgins said, taking me by the arm. He urged, “Master, come in. Sit down, have some food.”
He led me inside the canteen and lowered me to a bench. I seemed to have lost the ability to act myself, when a thought struck me. “And Margaret? What of her?”
I could only guess how badly she would be struck by the death of her beloved father. Margaret loved her father dearly. She had been his support through the years, since her mother had been poorly.
“There’s nothing to keep her here now. Her aunt’s coming to taker her home, they say. She’s seen a great deal of sorrow since she’s been here. We’ll be sorry to see her go, Mary and I.”
It was the end. I would never see her again. I would be heartbroken and miserable for the rest of my life, and I would never see her again.
I would never see my love again.
And then my Margaret did something I would never have thought she would. She astonished me to the core, by visiting us before she went with her aunt. As I came on top of the stairs leading to the parlour, I heard her sweet, soft voice.
“It was a while ago, but I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you at our last meeting. I know that you meant well.”
To whom was she speaking? Mother? My heart was pounding painfully with sorrow, because she had come to take her leave. I entered the parlour, and there she was, in black mourning clothes. She wore her mourning bonnet, but thankfully, the thick, black veil was folded from her small, white face. My heart clenched with powerless sorrow for her loss. She turned to me, offering something, but all I was able to do, was to gaze into those beautiful blue eyes, now moist with grief. Oh, my dearest Margaret …
“So, you’re going,” I croaked, breath suddenly failing me.
”I…. brought you Father’s Plato,” she whispered, looking me straight in the eye with all her sorrow. “I thought that you might like it.”
I accepted the book from her hands. “I shall treasure it. As I will your father’s memory. He was a good friend to me.”
There was something exchanged between us, something deep and pure. I had to control myself from taking her in my arms, then and there. I desperately wanted to prolong that precious moment. Quietly, yet urgently, I whispered, “So you are going. And never come back?”
A sad little smile curved her mouth, but did not lit her eyes. “I wish you well, Mr. Thornton.”
I left the room. I was determined to allow myself one more glance at her.
I waited until she took her leave from my mother and sister, before I descended the stairs. Standing in the doorway, I saw her climbing into the carriage without so much as a glance back. Cold numbness assaulted me as I whispered, “Look back … look back at me.”
It was a last plea to whatever deity was listening. It was the last resort my broken heart had, to use the fervour of my genuine, fierce love. To summon her unfeeling heart, to make her look at me one last time.
She did not, and the carriage drove away over the snow-bedecked courtyard. I felt like dying.