The Reform of John Thornton – Part Three

Chapter Three

It took me several days to find the time to pay a visit to Mr Hale. The new machines I ordered from Leeds had finally arrived so I had to supervise their installation in the mill’s main shed. But then, on a windy morning mid-September, I finally went to Crampton to seek out my new teacher.

The house was located at the corner of Canute Street and a narrow alley, which gave the impression it was at the bottom of a dead end. The street was, however, very lively, with people praising their wares, and lots of small children playing. I jumped up the few stairs and knocked on the front door.

A very stout maid with a forbidding expression on her round face opened the door yet made no show of letting me step inside. I produced my card. “Good day to you. Mr Thornton wishes to speak to Mr Hale.” I deliberately kept my voice jovial.

The maid took it, glanced at it, and then stepped aside to show me to a parlour on the right. She ostentatiously closed the door behind me, so I went to stand before one of the small windows, where I had a view of the busy street below.

While I was waiting, I could hear the house creak above my head, as if the maid was going from room to room to search for her master. I glanced around the somewhat shabby room. It was small with only two windows and one door, through which I had entered. A large book case occupied one wall, a small fireplace another. In the centre stood a table large enough to dwarf the room even more. The whole surface of the table was laden with books. Books were everywhere, I realised. They were stacked on the floor near the walls, they covered the mantelpiece and every chair, and even the window sills.

I was bewildered and wondered why on earth an ex-parson would want to have that many books. Then my thoughts were interrupted when the door opened to let Mr Hale in. He was a tall man, sturdily built though not rotund. He had curly hair of a non-descript brown, which had begun receding from his forehead, and a pair of friendly, grey eyes. He wore his whiskers so long that they almost brushed the sides of his mouth. A style from some thirty years before, one my own father had also favoured.

“Mr Thornton?” he boomed in a voice he must have used in his church sermons during his days as a parson. “Welcome, sir! My friend Bell told me a lot about you, and I am very pleased to meet you!”

I struggled to keep a congenial countenance, as I felt anger at Mr Bell, all of a sudden. What had he been divulging of my affairs to this virtual stranger? Mr Bell was good with words, I knew that all too well. I inwardly shuddered guessing at what secrets of mine he would have revealed.

“Good day to you, sir,” I said, extending my hand. Mr Hale glanced at it in mild surprise but eventually took it and shook it firmly.

“Mr Hale,” I continued, reassured by his handshake, “I have a fervent wish to broaden my education through reading and discussing literature. My time is limited, though. You might know I am a cotton manufacturer, and the running of my mill claims most of my day. However, I might find some hours during the evening to devote myself to studying.”

“Splendid! Splendid!” Mr Hale exclaimed. Then he slapped me on the back and said, “Sit down, my good man, sit down!” With swift movements, he cleared two chairs and dragged them to the table. We sat but after two seconds, Mr Hale jumped up and strode towards the book case, where he began rummaging through the books.

I was once again bewildered. He was completely different from what I had come to think of a teacher, with only my limited school days as a reference. Soon, however, Mr Hale returned to the table with two, rather shabby books. Both leather covers were dusty, I noticed.

“Now then, John … I hope I can call you by your first name? I call all my students by their first names, you know.”

I had barely time to nod when he continued,” Now then, John, you must tell me what you have previously had in the way of education.I understand – from Mr Bell, of course – that you have not finished your grammar school?”

“No, indeed not, sir. At sixteen, I was forced to work, but I went to Lancaster Grammar School here in Milton until then.”

“Ah, so you had Latin and Greek?”

“Yes, sir, although my knowledge is very basic.”

“No matter, no matter,” Mr Hale replied, folding his hands while placing his elbows on the table. “We will soon pick up where you left. Now, in my opinion, it is best we start with either Plato or Aristotle. Which of the two do you prefer, John?”

Again he caught me completely off guard, or was it the sound of the front door opening that disturbed my thought, I do not know. Mr Hale, however, had not heard. He pressed me on, “We have to make a choice, John.  Now it’s difficult, I know.”

Suddenly, his gaze darted to the half open door and he exclaimed, “Margaret, is that you?”

It was enough to make me jump to my feet in some sort of panic. Of course, you fool, I scolded myself, could you not have guessed you would meet her again? I hastily went to stand before the window, my back to the door, conscious that my torment was back again. I was suddenly anxious that it should show on my face.

“Margaret, is that you?  Well, Margaret!  Come in, Margaret.  Come in.  Meet my new friend and, erm, first proper pupil. Mr. Thornton, this is my daughter, Margaret.“

I took a deep breath and turned. There she was, the bane of my life, and as I suddenly realized, the delight of my heart. Her hair, a deep dark brown, was dishevelled because she had just removed her hat, but it was so becoming that I longed to touch it and straighten the tumbled locks. In her lovely, heart-shaped face, her eyes, which I now noticed for the first time, were a deep blue, her nose tiny and pert, and her mouth lush and deeply red. The sight of her made my stomach summersault, and I had to fight hard to keep my own countenance undisturbed. When I finally spoke, I was glad to hear that my voice was steady. “I believe your daughter and I have already met.”

“Ah … “ Mr Hale said, oblivious to the tension between me and his daughter, “now, Mr. Thornton cannot decide between Aristotle and Plato.  I suggest we start with Plato, and then move on.  What do you think?”

I gave him a swift but stunned glance, confused as I was because of his lack of comprehension, and forged on. “I’m afraid Miss Hale and I met under less than pleasant circumstances.  I had to dismiss a worker for smoking in the weaving shed.”

Miss Hale all but burst out in speech. “I saw you beat a defenceless man who is not your equal!”

The raw aggression in her words finally sunk in with her father. He exclaimed in shock, “Margaret!”

I could not help coming to her defence. “No, she’s right.” And after a pause to regain my composure, I managed. “I was angry. I have a temper. Fire is the greatest danger in my mill. I have to be strict.”

If I had hoped to win her over by explaining my perfectly sane reasons, I was totally wrong. She turned away in disgust, saying, “A gentleman would not use his fists on such a … pathetic creature, or shout at children.”

I must have heard wrongly, I thought. A gentleman? What had that to do with what was been said about my mill? Devil take it, but she was taunting me to no end!

My voice raised, I nearly shouted. “I dare say a gentleman has not had to see three-hundred corpses laid out on a Yorkshire hillside as I did last May. And many of them were children. And that was an  accidental flame. The whole mill destroyed in 20 minutes.”

All she did was glancing sideways at me. Nothing of what I had said, touched her, I could see.

I sighed. “I should go,” I said to Mr Hale, and we shook hands. “You’ll join us for dinner next week?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” he replied. “Erm … thank you.  Erm …we’ll start with Plato next Tuesday.”

Just then, I recalled something my mother had said when I left the house. Something about her wanting to get acquainted with Mr Hale’s wife. “I will ask my mother to call … when you’re settled,” I quickly said, giving Miss Hale a parting look. I very well knew I must be frowning. She was so … well, headstrong and opinionated!

“Of course, erm … ,” Mr Hale ventured. “Now by all means. We’re always here. Aren’t we, Margaret?”

Miss Hale looked positively sullen and refused to answer as I took my leave.

 

Scroll Up