John and Margaret are weeks away from their planned marriage when life starts to unravel for the committed couple. Margaret has unknowingly presented John with a nightmare he could never have imagined. John cannot bring himself to give up hope. Does it still exist? Can his obsession for the woman he has waited many years to marry bring her back? Fate continues to deal its heavy hand as Margaret and John become embroiled in a mystery with the Braithwaite family. Will John defeat the challenges laid before him as the inflicted tragedies mount and Margaret struggles?
Another Fantasy Novel of
John Thornton and Margaret Hale
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John Thornton had weathered many unpleasant spells in his life. Some of them – like when Marlborough Mills went bankrupt – could even be called horrible. On the whole, his life had never been easy, and he was fairly sure he could bear far more than any other man. Yet, what he was forced to undergo in the days that followed Margaret’s first pains of childbirth, nearly did him in.
How he ever survived those hellish days, he never knew.
During that first night, Margaret felt only four painful spasms. Although she managed – with John’s help – to breathe in the required way, her anxiety prevented her from sleeping between spells.
This was the time, her time. It was all or nothing. No matter what would happen in the next hours, or days, she would be in the centre of it. She stood on the verge of fighting the most decisive battle of her life, and she was terrified!
Margaret was not actually asleep, she was just dozing off into a state of numbness. John, perched on the edge of a chair next to their bed, was watching her with growing anxiety. Lord! How long was this going to take?
The night had drifted into dawn, and Nurse Goodyear had just examined Margaret’s progress. The cervix had barely dilated from the three inches it had the last time she checked. There was no progress! Even though the contractions – John had to force himself to call them so – followed each other a bit more frequently, the cervix did not open further.
Where was that damned fellow Chelmsford? Why was not he here yet?
He looked up to find his mother beside him. She blanched and he did not understand why, but his brain was too befuddled to make an effort.
“John, go and lie down. You cannot help her, and she needs to regain her strength before the next contraction starts. I will stay here, go!”
Margaret moaned as the pain rushed through her, fiercer now and much longer. She clasped the hands that were holding her, tears running down her cheeks. Her body ached all over, and rivers of sweat trickled over her breasts and thighs.
“Margaret, breathe! Now, Margaret! Small puffs, quick and shallow, come on, do it, Margaret!”
When she opened her eyes to the forceful voice of Hannah, barking out the words, Margaret felt immensely relieved to have her near.
“Oh, Mother! I am so glad that you are here!”
Pain cut her off, and she puffed, just like Hannah told her to. It helped … A bit.
“Very good, Mrs Thornton!”
That was Eliza’s voice. Now Margaret was no longer so scared. She had two extremely competent women to help her.
Of course, John could not sleep.
He was lying on the couch in the parlour, ears pricked to the sounds coming from the bedroom, heart pounding with fear for what might be going on there. Suddenly he sat up and covered his face. It was no use, he was eaten up by sheer fear! It gnawed at him like a wild animal. It tore him apart and ripped the flesh from his mere soul!
A cry from Margaret had him on his feet and into the bedroom.
His wife was half sitting, half lying against the stack of pillows in their bed. The covers were thrown back, revealing her spread legs and raised knees. On both sides of her, his mother and the nurse were supporting her through yet another attack of pain as she arched away from the mattress. Then Nurse Goodyear took sight of him.
“Mr Thornton, will you please leave the room immediately? This is not your place!”
“Curse it! I will not go! I cannot leave her alone now! Tell me what to do, for God’s sake, woman!”
A deep voice from the doorway cut through his speech.
“You can climb into that bed behind her and support her with your body, mister! And for the rest, you can just shut up or I will remove you from the room myself!”
Dr Mortimer Chelmsford had finally arrived.
She was now one large mass of fierce, hot pain, eating at her, tearing her apart, killing her slowly but unstoppably. She had lost all control. There was nothing she could do except to undergo it, to let it engulf her and to try to survive. A lot of voices were humming around her, but she could not make out what they were saying any longer. However, there was one familiar voice that managed to penetrate the haze of red hot pain. It came from somewhere behind her where a warm, hard presence was holding her, supporting her, carrying her through the fiery waves. She clung to that voice with every fibre of her weakening body.
“Very good, my darling, my sweet, brave love, very good. Breathe, my love, breathe, in and out, slowly, deeply, in and out. I am here, my darling, do not be afraid, I am here, with you.”
John! It was John! Oh, sweet Mother of God, thank you!
Five people were stubbornly and tirelessly working together to help Margaret Hale Thornton giving birth to her babies.
There was Dixon, and she sponging Margaret’s sweat-streaked face. There was Hannah, offering a hand and arm so that Margaret might cling to them when a contraction set in.
There was Eliza, watching the doctor’s every move and word so that she might do what he asked for.
There was Mortimer Chelmsford at the foot of the bed, checking Margaret’s progress after each pain wave and listening to her heartbeat and that of the babies.
Finally, there was her husband John, sitting behind his wife, legs spread to steady himself and hands firmly on her lower back to give Margaret his extra strength when the pain hit her. Indefatigably, he talked to her, encouraging her with his steadying voice. As far as he was concerned, John was taking no risks at all to let anything go wrong in this!
On that long day in June 1853, Margaret and John Thornton were fighting side-by-side to bring the birth of their twins to a good end. As time went on, John learned to recognize all the signs and proceedings of a confinement.
He could feel the slightest change in Margaret’s body when a contraction was coming, a tiny rippling of her back muscles under his hands. Then he would straighten his own back, harden his own muscles and tighten his grip on her waist as he sat behind her, legs spread with Margaret between them. When it began, he would support her with all his might, to give her the extra strength needed for the contraction to be as efficient as possible.
This process was going on for long, excruciating hours, so long that John had lost all notion of time.
He had seen dawn coming through the windows, where Dixon had forgotten to draw the curtains, busy as she was with bustling from the bedroom to the kitchen in a supply of fresh hot water, hot drinks and food for everybody in attendance.
John could very well tell that Margaret was weakening rapidly now. He literally had to hold her upright during her labour. Yet he never allowed himself to stop encouraging her, firing her up, praising her efforts, telling her that he loved her. Margaret’s tears of sheer exhaustion were falling upon his hands and arms and tearing at his very heart in the process.
Was not this the outcome of his love for her? Had he not been the sole villain in this, by impregnating her? How cruel was this, when a man could enforce this kind of torture onto his wife, solely by loving her? By God, he swore he would find a way to spare Margaret further agony in the future or to die trying to!
Margaret had not an ounce of strength left. She felt utterly drained, body and mind. Only John’s presence and strength kept her going. John … She was utterly grateful for her husband’s strong body behind her, his capable hands on her waist and his loving voice in her ear.
“Come on, my love. Hold on for just a little while. Doctor says it is not long now. Sweet darling, come on, push, my love, push!”
“I … I cannot … I cannot go on, John, I …”
“Yes, you can! Together, we can, my love! Come on, together with me, now, Margaret!”
It was only John that kept her going, Margaret thought. As long as she heard his voice, she could indeed go on! John, stay with me, John, please, help me!
The doctor’s voice came from somewhere far away.
“Dr Donaldson? Mrs Goodyear? Stand by, if you please … Here comes number one! Oh, what a beauty!”
The haze of pain grew to an extremely high peak but, strangely, Margaret found she could endure it somehow. Her body was still fighting, though she did not know how that was possible.
Someone was pressing onto her stomach, but her eyes refused to open and see whom it was.
“Oh … Oh, my God, Margaret! Sweet Jesus, Margaret … Oh, oh …”
Was John crying? She could feel him sobbing but could not believe it. John crying? Impossible!
“Come on, my brave, brave darling, push, PUSH!”
“There is the other one!”, Dr Chelmsford cried, “And what a healthy one it is! Dr Donaldson, take him, please?”
Suddenly the level of pain dropped to almost nothing and Margaret was left shivering with exhaustion and sudden cold.
“Nurse, give me an extra blanket! Here, Mr Thornton, wrap this around her, she is in shock!”
John tenderly wrapped his wife into the blanket and climbed out of the bed, helped by the strong hands of his mother. Hannah’s face was wet with tears, but her eyes were shining.
“Oh, John! You have two sons! Two healthy sons, is it not, Dr Chelmsford?”
As his knees buckled under the sudden demand of being upright, John took a deep breath and tried to collect his scattered wits.
“Is it true, doctor? Are the children healthy?”
It was Dr Donaldson’s voice that answered. At some point, John had noticed that the faithful family doctor had entered the room, but he had been too busy with his wife to greet him.
“Yes, Mr Thornton, I have examined the children, and they are remarkably well. Two strong boys they are, a little small as was to be expected, but strong nevertheless. Would you like to see them?”
“In a while, Dr Donaldson, if you please. Dr Chelmsford, how is Margaret?”
The London obstetrician turned to him while he was working on Margaret.
“She is completely exhausted, Mr Thornton, and asleep. The after-birth bleeding does not seem too extreme, and I think we must leave her into the competent hands of Mrs Goodyear who will make her as comfortable as possible. I would be obliged if you and Mrs Hannah would leave the room now so that we can do our jobs.”
“But …But I want to see how Margaret is and …”
At this point, Hannah took hold of her son’s arm and quietly but firmly led him out of the room.
Once outside, John’s knees did really buckle, and he would have crashed onto the floor but for the strong, steadying hands of Nicholas Higgins.
Around the clock of noon on June 19th 1853, Mrs Eliza Goodyear, nurse and midwife, came into the parlour of the Thornton house, carrying two small bundles, one in each arm. Beaming with pride, she placed them on the lap of John Thornton with a smile.
“Here you are Mr Thornton! Meet your twin sons! They are a fine example of strong, healthy English babies and you can be proud of your good wife for delivering them in so fine a condition.”
“Margaret! Oh, my God, how is she?”
“As well as can be expected, do not worry. She is sleeping, and Dr Chelmsford will soon be here to tell you all about her. For now, look at your babies!”
John’s large hands were trembling when he held his newborn sons. They were so small yet so perfect!
His thumb touched one of the tiny hands and instantly the delicate fingers curled around his with a surprising strength.
“Ouch! But you are quite the muscle man, aren’t you, son,” he whispered, grinning at Nicholas and Hannah, who stood smiling at him, his mother all misty-eyed.
“Oh, you don’t know half of it!”, Mrs Goodyear assured him, “Wait until they open their mouths!”
As if waiting for a sign, both babies began crying their hearts out, the level of noise deafening and very, very shrill!
“Good God!” John exclaimed. “Is this how it is going to be from now on? May God have mercy on us!”
Hannah now laughed through her tears of joy and reached out for one of the babies. John stood and laid one howling child in Hannah’s arms and the other in the arms of a startled Nicholas.
“Oh, yes, Higgins! I am not going to do this on my own! You are to help me, Granddad! And you too, Granny!” He joked with an impish smile curling his mouth.
After that, he escaped from the parlour and went to find Margaret in their bedroom. Dr Chelmsford was just checking her pulse and put a finger to his lips when John entered. ‘Five minutes’ he gestured, stood and left.
The sight of his beloved wife, resting peacefully, brought a lump into John’s throat. He seated himself next to the bed and carefully took her porcelain little hand in his. With anxious eyes roaming over her, he took it all in, her lovely dark brown hair neatly brushed from her still pale face, delicate and precious in its sleep-relaxed state, her breast moving under the intake of breath, the slight curve of her stomach under the covers where their children had been. He couldn’t keep himself from caressing the alabaster cheeks and the curve of the cherry mouth.
Margaret opened her eyes, saw him and smiled.
“How are you, my heart? Do you know how much I love you? You have done so marvellously, my love! You have given me two strong, handsome sons for whom we yet have to find a name. I was hoping you would have some suggestions?”
Margaret smiled again, so sweetly that John’s heart turned into water.
“I know you have already picked one name, John. Charles Richard, after both of our fathers. I do agree with that but what about the other one?”
John chuckled and squeezed her hand.
“There is no way to keep anything from you, is it not? You are right. Charles Richard Thornton is a good name but which one of them is going to have it?”
“The firstborn, of course! He has a small birthmark on his chest, in the shape of a weaving reel.”
“Really? I never saw that! Remarkable! So our little future weaver is named Charles. Now the other one, any suggestions?”
“Yes … I would like to call him Nicholas Alexander. And … I would like to have Nicholas as his godfather and Dr Donaldson for Charles if that is alright with you, John?”
John stroked his wife’s face and whispered, “You have been thinking this over very thoroughly, haven’t you, my love? Alright, I agree but what about godmothers?”
“Mother for Charles and Mary for Nicholas. It is simple, if you put your mind to it.”
John grinned mischievously, kissed Margaret on the mouth and stood.
“Well, I will leave you to rest, darling, and go and inform the godparents-to-be of their future duties. I am looking forward to that in rapt anticipation! Just think of all the money they will have to spend on sugared almonds and silver spoons!”
Margaret burst out into genuinely merry laughter which caused her husband to bend over her and take her into his arms.
“Margaret, you are my heart and soul, and I love you more than life itself. Thank you for our boys and thank you for loving me. Life is going to be just marvellous!”
The second day of the month of June in the year of Our Lord 1853, the bells of Milton Chapel were peeling joyfully to announce the wedding of Mrs Hannah Thornton, mother of the Master of Marlborough Mills, and Mr Nicholas Higgins, assistant manager of the factory.
The day was a bit overcast, but that did not lessen the joyful mood as the bride was being led down the aisle on the arm of her proud son, John Thornton of Marlborough Mills. At the altar stood Nicholas Higgins, tall and broad in a suit of black superfine, a bright white lawn shirt, dove grey waistcoat and dazzling white cravat. His hands held a pair of white cotton gloves and a black top hat, and his honest face bore a wide, happy grin as he watched Hannah approach on John’s arm.
Hannah was magnificently decked out in a lavender dress of gleaming silk, whose sober, straight cut accented the slimness of her tall, erect figure but softened the lines in her usually stern countenance. Now, Hannah was smiling, blue eyes sparkling like diamonds. Her thick, black hair, with only the hint of silver, was combed back loosely from her face to fall in heavy waves on her back. Nicholas’s heart skipped a beat as he noticed the loosened hair. It made her look like the young girl she must have been when she married John’s father.
John solemnly lay his mother’s hand on Nicholas’s and retired at the side of his own wife.
Margaret smiled at him as he sat down beside her wheelchair and took her hand.
Not yet a year ago, they had been bride and groom at this same church themselves. How well John remembered his lovely Margaret in her cream coloured silk dress and lace veil, the very picture of beauty and grace. Today she wore a loose gown of mint green silk, very light to the touch as to give her as much comfort as possible with the heavy burden of her pregnancy to bear.
John’s heart lurched in fear as it had for so many days now since he knew Margaret was carrying twins. He pressed her fine boned hand and smiled at her, not showing what he was truly feeling other than his immense love for her.
Margaret watched the couple at the altar with quiet joy filling her heart.
Dear Nicholas and sweet Mother! How she wished them to gain a new happiness with each other. They had been through such a difficult time, with Hannah being stalked and nearly killed. A shiver ran through her as she remembered the deeds of their former maid, Jane.
Another memory returned suddenly, and she had to swallow her tears. At this same time last June, her father had died. Margaret could still see the tall figure of Mr Bell, standing in the street with her father’s suitcase in his hand, when he came to tell her of Mr Hale’s demise.
The sudden kick of one of her babies brought Margaret back from the sad past into the present.
She admonished herself sternly. It was no use reminiscing about past sorrow. She had things to do, she must prepare herself for motherhood and stop being such a ninny. After all, she had the most dedicated and loving man in the whole world at her side and the strong support of a woman whom she considered a mother. Her own dear departed mother would never have given her strength at all, weak and sickly as she had been. So she brought John’s hand to her lips and watched fondly as Nicholas and Hannah spoke their wedding vows.
After the ceremony, there was a reception at the Thornton house. The gathering was small. There was the family, of course, and a few acquaintances, such as Dr Donaldson and Inspector Mason from the Milton Police Force.
Margaret was watching the guests with a fond eye when her friend, Mary Higgins came to sit on a chair beside her own wheelchair.
“Dear Margaret, how are you feeling? This must be an exhausting day for you. Are you comfortable? Can I get you something?”
Margaret took Mary’s hand and pressed it fondly.
“No, Mary, do not worry. I am perfectly alright, although I am as huge as a beached whale! How I am ever to get my figure back after this, I do not know!”
She winced as a kick from the babies made her stomach lurch with a burning gulf of bile. Mary laid her hand on Margaret’s swollen stomach and smiled as she felt the strong kicking.
“They are remarkably healthy in there, for sure! Two boys, I should say, and rugby players to boot!”
The two women burst into laughter at the thought, and Margaret saw John’s head turn towards her in surprise. She waved at him, and he, reassured with her lightness of spirit, went on with his conversation with Dr Donaldson.
“Mary, I have not yet have an opportunity to thank you for sending your cousin, Letty Monroe, to us. She is very sweet and, although still young, she impressed me with her quiet self-confidence. She will make a good nanny, I am sure.”
Mary was silent for a moment, then said in an earnest tone, “Letty had an unusual childhood, Margaret, one that would have scarred a less strong girl for life but not her! She was but ten years old when she lost her left foot. A cart wheel broke down and the wheel axis’ sharp edge severed it clean, so no chance of saving it. Many little girls would have lost courage but not our Letty. She stepped into our house, one day, on her crutches and tackled Dad, whom she knew to be a good carver of wood. ‘Uncle Nick,’ she said, ‘make me a wooden foot so that I can walk without these stupid crutches.’ I tell you, Margaret, Father was all in doubt about it, but he did as Letty asked. After lots of failures, he finally managed to make a foot to match her leg stump fairly well.”
Margaret listened in awe to all this.
“Did she manage to walk on the foot? I imagine it must have been difficult to keep her balance?”
“It was. She kept falling, and she did not seem to be able to fasten the foot adequately enough on her stump. But, finally, she succeeded. She and Father designed something quite new, a leather sock, lined with cotton waste, to cover her stump, and then they used Arabic gum to make it stick onto the foot as an addition to the straps around her leg. It works. She will never be able to run, of course, but she can walk alright.”
This girl, Margaret thought, surely deserved a chance.
After the reception Nicholas Higgins took his bride to their new home, their carriage seen off by their family and friends. Despite being as tall as he, Nicholas carried Hannah over the threshold and straight up to their bedroom. The housekeeper and maids had the rare experience of hearing their mistress giggle like a young girl.
Near the half of June 1853, Margaret found herself growing more and more restless every day.
She was now gigantic and experienced considerable discomfort from her pregnancy, although the babies seemed healthy enough. They were exceedingly active, especially when she tried to rest or sleep. Even John marvelled about the force of his unborn children when he laid his hand on Margaret’s stomach.
“My poor darling,” he said, one night when he helped Margaret to go to the bathroom for the fourth time that night, “how I wish I could relieve your suffering! I cannot imagine how the weight of the children must burden you.”
He plumped up her pillows and helped her back into bed.
“Now, how many weeks to go?”
Margaret gave a deep, heartfelt sigh.
“Theoretically three and a half weeks. But I fervently wish it to be less!”
“You know what the doctor said, darling. The longer you carry them, the stronger they will be.”
“Yes, you are right, John. It was very selfish of me to wish for the birth to begin.”
“Come, my love. Close your eyes and go to sleep now. You need to rest.”
Her head resting upon John’s breast, while lying on her side with one leg drawn up and the other stretched out – a position she found very comfortable – Margaret soon found sleep.
John, on the other hand, worried, as usual. He watched Margaret grow more tired every day and of lower spirits. Lord, but to have to carry two babies, large, heavy babies, for that matter, must be torture for his fragile, slender wife.
John Thornton had always been a fighter. Problems might arouse, but they had to be dealt with. He was going to make absolutely sure Margaret was being taken care of as thoroughly as could be.
Therefore he wrote a letter to Dr Mortimer Chelmsford, obstetrician in London, and invited him to come and live at the Thornton home so as to be ready at hand when Margaret would go into labour
Dr Chelmsford, who was a busy man with a blooming practice, promised to come to Milton during the last week of June or, should labour start sooner, travel post haste to be with her. For now, he sent his most skilled midwife to cover for him until he would arrive.
Mrs Eliza Goodyear arrived duly on the 20th of June from London.
She was a widow whose husband died of pneumonia ten years ago, leaving her without money. Dr Chelmsford, who was looking for a housekeeper took her on and discovered very soon that Mrs Goodyear was better suited to care for the sick than for sweeping and cooking. He provided her with the money to take proper training so that she could go and offer her services wherever they were needed.
Margaret was immediately drawn to the lively and cheerful woman of thirty-five.
Eliza Goodyear had soon organized Margaret’s days into long periods of rest and short intervals of sitting up on the parlour couch. C & J, Margaret’s faithful chair bearers were banned from the house, at least as far the wheelchair was concerned. No more outings, Eliza said, no more tiring distractions.
That was a good thing for one night at the dinner table where she was taking her evening meal in the company of John, Margaret suddenly felt a gnawing pain in her lower back. She gasped, startling John into action.
“Darling, what is the matter? Are you unwell? Talk to me, Margaret please?”
At that moment, the pain was expanding, circling her waist like a belt and growing stronger by the second. Margaret clasped John’s hand with closed eyes, unable to breathe.
“Dixon! Mrs Goodyear! Somebody, help!” John bellowed in helpless rage.
It was Dixon who was first on the spot, but this was so clearly beyond her usual skills that John was relieved when Eliza Goodyear entered the room. She took matters in hand with a comforting confidence.
“Mr Thornton, sir, help her up. Come on, Mrs Thornton, we must get you to your bed.”
John, in his usual brisk manner, shoved her aside and scooped up his wife as if she weighed nothing. Eliza Goodyear’s eyes widened in admiring surprise seeing how strong he was.
Between the two of them, they soon had Margaret in bed.
“Mrs Thornton, I want you to lie on your side in, as I told you, was the position of relax. Very well, that is it. Now, breathe, exactly the way I taught you to, deep long intakes that go all the way down to your stomach. Then, hold your breath for ten seconds and release it slowly. Yes, that is good.”
She turned towards John.
“Mr Thornton, you must see that she does this every time the pain starts. It is her body preparing for the birth. The womb, which is no more than a very strong muscle, is in great need of oxygen. That is the reason for the elaborated breathing process. You, sir, must help her to breathe instead of letting her tense up, like she did just now. Can I trust you with this? Can you do this?”
John shot the nurse a decidedly grim but determined look.
“Of course I can! Do you think me a weakling?”
He turned to Margaret, kneeled by the bed and started working on her breathing along with her.
Eliza Goodyear smiled in satisfaction and left the room, feeling reassured about John Thornton’s utter commitment and cooperation.
Hannah’s and Nicholas’ wedding day was approaching rapidly, and Margaret wanted it to be as lovely as could be for the pair of them. John, who first had been reluctant to see them wed, had changed his view under Margaret’s gentle guidance. He knew all too well that his mother had been lonely after his father’s death, although she never said a word, even to him.
John was still slightly astonished how an attachment between the two had come to grow but, when he saw them together and watched how they looked at each other, he had no more doubts about the depth of their mutual feeling. After all, Nicholas had become a capable and decent man with a suitable salary to keep his wife in a station that was due to her.
So, he helped Margaret to make the necessary arrangements.
There was a particularly tricky matter to settle, one that would require all of Margaret’s diplomatic talents. Hannah and Nicholas needed a house to live in after their marriage.
Hannah did not really want to leave her present house, but she realised all too well that she could not go on living there indefinitely, now that John and Margaret were to become parents. They would need all the space they could get, as soon as the children were born. So, she agreed upon inspecting Milton’s house market with Margaret and her two attendants, albeit reluctantly.
Nicholas, however, proved to be the hardest to convince.
He was fond of his small house on Princess Street, where he lived since he married Bessy’s and Mary’s mother. Oh, he understood that, apart from being rather dank and far too small, the dismal little house had as good as no amenities whatsoever and could not possibly be thought suitable for a lady like Hannah Thornton.
After a long time – and a good deal of convincing – it was Mary who brought her father to reason.
She stated very simply that she had too much to do at the Infirmary, to have some time to spare for looking after the Boucher children. After their parent’s death, two years before, Nicholas had taken in the three boys, Thomas, Christopher and Harold and the three girls, Jemima, Louisa and Tabitha.
Tom was now almost nine. He was working with John at Marlborough Mills. His sister Jemima, eight, who first worked as a ‘scavenger’, was now helping Mary at the Infirmary. The four younger siblings still needed a lot of looking after and also, a lot of space. A bigger house, Mary said to her father, was just a question of good common sense.
Thus, one beautiful day at the end of May, Hannah and Nicholas agreed on signing the contract of sale on a house in the suburbs of Milton, with five bedrooms and a large garden. Margaret and John were extremely pleased with the acquisition and promised to help with the move.
After that, there was only the ceremony to prepare and settle the date of the wedding to come.
“It feels awkward,” John whispered one evening. He and Margaret were in bed, exhausted from an extremely long and tiring day.
“What is that, darling?” Margaret asked.
“Mother leaving this house. I … I had it built, especially for her, you know. It was my first sizeable expenditure after two years of substantial profit. I was scarcely able to afford it, but I wanted mother and Fanny out of the bleak, shabby rooms we occupied at the time. Mother knew we had not yet enough money to spare on the mill’s expenses, but she never said a word. She acknowledged my need to honour her for her troubles and hard work.”
Margaret laughed softly. “Mother always seems to know what you are thinking or feeling, sometimes even before you do yourself.”
“Yes, that is correct. As I do with her. I could never have succeeded without her, Margaret.”
“I know. John …”
Her husband’s arms were around Margaret’s heavy body, cradling it soothingly in his warmth.
“John … I once made a vow that … That I would never come between you and Mother. I hope I succeeded in that?”
“Oh, my darling Margaret, of course you did! Yet, should I ever be forced to choose between the two of you, I would not know how to deal with it. That is why I love you so much, my sweetheart, you have made it remarkably easy for me by loving my mother as if she were you own. I will never have to make this choice.”
Margaret still felt stunned by the fact that Hannah and she had become close to one another, given their initial stilted relationship. Now it felt only natural to call Hannah ‘mother’. With a contented sigh, Margaret nestled herself deeper in John’ arms. How good it felt to be held by him …
“Sweetheart …”, She breathed, her heart pinched all of a sudden.
“What is it, darling?”
“John, you must promise me this, please? If … If I do not … Survive this …”
“If I do not survive this, then you must not grieve me forever, John.”
John, on hearing those soft-spoken words, found himself prey to many different feelings, of which rage was the most powerful.
“Margaret, no! I forbid you to speak like that!”
The cheer vibrant fury in John’s voice startled Margaret. Her eyes grew moist, and she pressed his hand strongly.
“John, John, forgive me, I did not mean …”
But John turned her so that she now faced him.
“Margaret Hale Thornton, do not ever say such a thing again or I … I … Oh, I do not know what I will do but … Lord, Margaret! We cannot even think of you not being here to raise our children together with me!”
“John, I’m sorry. I … I had a moment of weakness, and it will never occur again, my darling. I am sure that I can succeed in this with you by my side.”
“Exactly, you are not alone, my darling. I will be there every step of the way. Now, you must rest. Come, let me help you to get comfortable.”
Long after her husband had fallen asleep, Margaret lay awake, staring at the silver rectangle of the window. She was terribly afraid of the ordeal awaiting her. The pregnancy was beginning to wear her down, more so than she would have liked and not only physically.
John came bursting through the parlour door, a huge grin on his handsome face and blue eyes shining with pleasure. Behind him, Margaret could see the figure of another man, a tradesman by the look of it.
“Darling, this is Mr Topplewaite. He runs a furniture shop in one of Milton’s finest neighbourhoods. I asked him to come and show you some of the drawings of the furniture he has in the shop. Nursery furniture, that is!”
Margaret’s face flushed with pleasure. She had been worrying about the nursery for some time now.
When Margaret’s pregnancy was certain, Hannah had showed her the former nursery. The mother-to-be had not been happy with it. Situated on the top floor of the house, it was a gloomy, oppressive place and too far away from their own bedroom, to Margaret’s taste. Thus, she was relieved to see John take this problem out of her hands.
“Now,” John said, “Crispin, Justin, take your places. Come, darling, fasten your seatbelt. Here, let me help you.”
Margaret had to fight herself not to ruffle her husband’s black hair while he kneeled to help with the belt. Dear, sweet John …
C & J wheeled her chair, not toward the stairs, but to their bedroom door and then beyond, to the room John occupied before their marriage.
“John, what is this? I do not understand …”
“This,” John said as he threw open the door, “is to be the nursery. Look what I have done with the place.”
Margaret’s chair rolled into the room, and she gasped with surprise.
“Heavens, John! When on earth have you found the time to accomplish all this?”
Her husband grinned unabashedly. “Oh, it was not easy, my sweet! I had to wait until you were safely gone to the Infirmary. I daresay that some of my workers have now acquired some house-decorating skills.”
The whole space had been cleared, the wallpaper had been stripped, the carpets removed, the curtains unhooked. What had been John’s former bachelor room, upholstered with the appropriate subdued browns and dark greens, was now a spacious, light and airy children’s room. The wall were a soft sky blue, the ceiling pure white and the floor had been decked with new boards, painted in dove grey and polished to a gleam. The windows were hung with dark blue velvet curtains from top to bottom.
“Mr Topplewaite, do your magic, if you please? Margaret, you are to assist Mr Topplewaite and choose the right furnishings. When you are ready, Mr Topplewaite, I would be obliged to you if you would step into my office, later? Thank you.”
With that, the Master left the room, still grinning with delight.
Margaret spent the next two hours choosing two cots, two small wardrobes, one large chest-of-drawers with a marble top, destined for the babies’ toilette, and a comfortable rocking chair. She picked out a small bath tub and a few stuffed animals and toys. Also needed were a bed, wardrobe and dressing table for the nursery maid – and, Good Lord, she had yet to find one!
This pleasant chore finished, the four of them were sipping at a much needed cup of tea, when Hanna and Nicholas came in. They had been overseeing the work going on in their new house and were glad to drink a cup too.
“What do you say, chaps?” Nicholas grinned at Mr Topplewaite and Margaret’s chair bearers. “How about something a bit stronger to accompany the tea? I could stomach a brandy!”
The other three eagerly nodded in agreement and Hannah pointed at the sherry bottle.
Margaret and Mr Topplewaite then began explaining what they had been doing, and the newcomers examined and approved of it all.
After tea, Mr Topplewaite and the two men excused themselves, and Margaret told Hannah and Nicholas about her urgent need to find a nursemaid.
“You know, Margaret,” Nicholas said, “I might have just the lass for you.”
“Oh?”, Margaret asked, smiling at him.
“Yes, her name is Letty Monroe, and she is Mary’s cousin. Her father is my late wife’s brother.
Letty is … Well, she had an accident when she was ten. She lost a foot at Henderson’s mill. As a result, she cannot work in a shed any more. When she has to stand on that leg, despite the wooden foot, she tires easily. But, Margaret, she is a bright girl, taught herself to read and write, and she is remarkably good at drawing. You should see her drawings.”
Margaret kept her face bland, but she was having doubts about Letty Monroe. A poor girl from the worker’s class was not what she had in mind as a nanny for her children. Yet, she agreed to receive the girl the next day and talk to her.
“So, you have found yourself a nanny, then?” John asked, that night.
He had just helped his wife into bed and was now undressing himself.
“I do not know, John, I have to see her first. I confess I am a bit apprehensive. She is an uneducated girl, John, and she has a wooden foot, Nicholas said. She lost a foot in an accident at Henderson’s, as a child.”
John retrieved his shirt and asked:
“When was this? I seem to recall something of the kind, five or six years ago.”
“I do not know. Nicholas is sending her here tomorrow.”
Hearing the sound of doubt in Margaret’s voice, her husband was surprised.
“Margaret, what is this? You seem … Somehow prejudiced against this girl! That is not like you! Normally, you have no qualms about members of the working class.”
Margaret bowed her head in a sudden consternation.
“Oh, I’m sorry, John, it’s just that …”
She looked up at him, tears in her beautiful eyes. Her voice was very small when she whispered, “I’m so afraid, John, I’m terrified …”
With a grunt of deep concern, John took his wife into his arms and hugged her.
“Margaret, my love, do not lose heart? I shall move heaven and earth to help and protect you. I promise you that everything will be seen to. I will not leave your side, Margaret! You and I, we will bring this baby business to a good end.”
But, Margaret was softly sobbing, her face hidden into his shoulder and, not for the first time, John Thornton, strong man that he was, had dire forebodings about the weeks to come.
“Ah!”, Nicholas exclaimed, “I knew this was going to stir him out of his whining!”
“Whining? I am not at all whining. I’m just aghast that you … Good God, Nicholas, it’s just … The completeness of this list only emphasizes its enormous importance! We must indeed do all this to keep Margaret safe, and to ensure that our babies be born in perfect health. Thank you, my friend, thank you all. Now, what will be my part on this list? I see you have not rounded it out yet?”
Nicholas, under Hannah’s gaze full of concern for her son, placed his hand on John’s shoulder.
“You, my friend, have the most difficult task of all. You must convince our Margaret that there is only one rule for her to obey: she needs to rest as much as she can. You, John, must be the most vigilant of all because you are her husband and you are close to her. Now, listen, what I have in mind.”
At breakfast, the next morning, Margaret was presented with a full delegation of friends and family.
Her husband, eyes shining with mirth, did the talking.
“My dearest, we need you to listen to what we have to say. First of all, we all love you dearly, Margaret. Look at us all, here we are as your servants, all of us.”
Margaret’s gaze went around the company and rested for a while upon them all, one by one.
There was Mary, her best friend and co-worker, smiling shyly at her, and Dixon, her faithful servant and friend, her ruddy face beaming with affection. There was Dr Donaldson, tall and trustworthy, nodding reassuringly at Margaret. There were Nicholas and Hannah, hand in hand, towers of strength, both of them. And then, there was John …
Tall frame and broad shoulders erect but eyes sparkling with love, so deeply it brought tears into her eyes. She reached out for him, and he instantly came and took her into his arms. He kissed her on the top of her head and lifted her face to his.
“Margaret, my love …”
His voice broke as he continued.
“You are the most precious person in all our lives now. We want you to be safe and whole so please, listen to us?”
He led her to the settee and sat her down gently.
Nicholas handed her the List as it would be called from now on and, after the first shock of surprise, Margaret began perusing it attentively. Her eyes gradually widened as she began to comprehend what was written down in so many details.
“But … But, John, Nicholas, am I to be … In a bed … All the time, then? How could I possibly supervise all these projects when I am not there? I do want to rest, surely, but how could I if I am not allowed to be bodily present?”
John saw tears in her beautiful blue eyes, and he squeezed her shoulder in support.
“Be calm, my love, Nicholas has it all covered.”
Indeed, the big union man smiled broadly and clapped his hands. Two sturdy fellows came in, one of them pushing the most comfortable wheel chair ever seen!
“Margaret, this is Crispin.”
The man in question was about thirty, at least six three and highly massively built. His dark eyes shone with humour and his broad, ruddy face beamed with affability. He bowed to Margaret and said, in a deep bass voice, “At your service, Ma’am, all day long!”
“And this,” Nicholas went on, “is Justin.”
Same built and height, but Justin was fair-haired and had beautiful hazel eyes which had a touch of shyness in them.
“Your humble servant, Ma’am, at your beck and call.”
His voice was soft and deep as if he wasn’t used to intense talking.
Margaret was extremely puzzled. She liked the two men instantly, but she did not understand why they were here. Nicholas explained.
“From now on, my dear young lady,” the union man said in a mock stern voice, “you are not going anywhere but in that wheel chair. Crispin and Justin are your attendants. They will wheel you around the mill yard and the house, even up the stairs, whenever and wherever you want to go. Have I your word that you will employ them as intended?”
“Margaret?”John chimed in, eyes serious.
They all stared sternly at her, even in a highly immovable fashion as if they would not take ‘no’ for an answer. Margaret quickly pondered all that was laid before her. They were right, of course, and they were brilliant! This ‘List’ made it possible for her to be everywhere she wanted to be, and her two attendants would provide her with the means to do so without endangering her babies and her health.
She let her gaze wander over all those loving faces and answered, “Dear friends, thank you for your love and concern. Yes, I will do as you suggest and follow my ‘List’ faithfully. With the support of all of you, I am sure nothing can go wrong.”
From that day on, Margaret kept her promise to her family truly faithfully.
She still performed the many duties she had imposed upon herself, but she was careful not to overdo. In this, she counted on the strong hands of Crispin and Justin, her two ‘wheelchair bearers’ as she called them. Those trustworthy, extremely patient men, strong of arms and cheerful of mind, carried her all day long wherever she wanted to go.
“Where to first, Mrs T?” Crispin would ask as they presented themselves each morning in her parlour.
“Kitchen, Mr Crispin!”,Margaret would reply and settle herself firmly into her wheelchair.
John had, from the very first day, spotted that the chair might be a trifle unsafe. The risk of Margaret toppling out of it if the bearers should tilt the contraption a bit too much had immediately come to his attention. So John, practical as ever, fitted out the chair with a seat belt of his own design. This was one of his own belts but padded with cotton waste as not to hurt Margaret’s body. She was extremely heavy now, at 33 weeks, and the month of May was three weeks old.
The first day of Margaret’s new way of doing her job, John had not left her side. He had scrupulously observed all Crispin’s and Justin’s doings, criticized their actions whenever he saw a flaw in them and copiously sprinkled them with advise as how to improve their work. Justin, a quiet, patient man had only smiled benignly at this, but Crispin, being of a more feisty nature, had reacted frequently against the Master’s interferences. Margaret had to bid John to withdraw, at the end. John resigned himself to do so, as soon as he saw that his wife was becoming nervous under the constant bickering between him and Crispin. Reluctantly, however.
Margaret’s household staff now consisted of five members, all of them living in.
There was, of course, the faithful Adelaide Dixon, who was now housekeeper of the Thornton’s household. Directly under her was Mrs Ursula Pennywater, the widow of a former overseer at Marlborough Mills. She and her husband had been childless, and Mrs Pennywater had come to work as a cook for Hannah when her husband died. Dixon had become excellent friends with Cook and they often spent their leisure hours together, reading or talking.
Annie Babcock, the upstairs maid was a lively girl of twenty-two, whose father and brothers worked at the mill. She had a younger sister of twelve, Dottie, who worked as a scullery maid under Mrs Pennywater.
Last there was the laundry maid, Jenny Hawkins, who had only recently come to the household. She was eighteen and her parents and five brothers all worked for John at the mill.
These were the people Margaret conferred with at the beginning of each day.
There were meals to be decided, the smooth running of the household to be discussed and the many other tasks to be carried out. It usually took half of the morning.
After that, Justin and Crispin carried and wheeled their mistress to the Infirmary, situated in one of the halls of Marlborough Mills. The sick and the weak amongst the workers and their families had a special place in Margaret’s heart. She was seriously planning to increase her efforts in that field after the babies would be born.
The vast space of the hall was divided into smaller spaces by wooden partitions. Each ward had their own supervising female attendant, watching over the smooth running of the ward they were responsible of.
These women were not real nurses. England, in the nineteenth century, had not yet training schools to that goal. It was only in that same year of 1853 that Florence Nightingale began her own training in Paris. It would not be before 1899, when the Council of Nurses was formed that proper training was established.
So Margaret’s women were virtually untrained, but eager to learn, and they were hard workers. They all received a financial reward for their work, which enabled them to bring in a little money for their families.
There were in total, eight wards, in which four types of illnesses were cared for, each with separate spaces for men and women. One was for various injuries and fractures acquired during working hours at the mill. Those were fairly frequent, so much so that Nicholas Higgins was seriously thinking of installing a committee for the improvement of safety on the premises of the mill.
A second ward provided for the sick children, boys and girls separated, of course. Another space was solely preserved for women who recently gave birth. Here, mothers and their babies were properly cared for, and they were allowed to bring their young children with them when there was no one to take care of them at home. A fourth ward was destined specifically for lung diseases, such as ‘brown lung disease’ or byssinosis, or in popular terms ‘fluff on the lungs’. This was the illness that caused the death of Margaret’s friend, Bessy Higgins, two years ago.
It was a vile disease, causing the sick person great many discomforts, such as chest tightness and subsequently breathing difficulties, wheezing and coughing. The patient suffered a narrowing of the trachea in the lungs, lung scarring and, eventually death from infection or respiratory failure. There was, unfortunately, not a great thing to be done for those patients. Nurses could only try to make them more comfortable.
John always made it a point to be at Margaret’s side when she visited the Infirmary.
He knew all too well how appalled she was on seeing the suffering of her dear patients. His Margaret had a soft and tender heart for those with a lower station in life who suffered from it. It was one of the things Margaret had taught him. Before he met her, John had not known, or not wanted to know, about the life conditions of his workers and their families.
So he was always with his wife on moments like this. He worried, he simply did. About Margaret and their unborn babies.
“Concern? Margaret, sweetheart, are you alright? Is something amiss with the baby?”
His blue eyes full of alarm, John dropped onto his knees in front of Margaret. Since the beginning of her pregnancy, he had doubts and fears about it, although he had recently begun to relax because she seemed just fine and healthy. Margaret hastened to reassure him.
“No, no, do not panic, John! I’m doing fine, really, I am. It is just …”
She took his face into her hands and brushed the tumbled black locks from his brow.
“I am carrying twins, John. That is why I’m so heavy and so easily tired.”
Dumbfounded and aghast, John stared at his wife. He felt like he had just received a kick in the stomach and a feeling of absolute terror began rising in his chest.
“Oh, Margaret,” he whispered hoarsely, “I do not know what to say. This is … This cannot be true?”
He placed his hand on Margaret’s heavily swollen belly which immediately caused a reaction from his offspring. John startled realising in overwhelming fear that there were now two of them inside his wife’s delicate body.
“John, my darling John, look at me. It is true, and we must deal with it. I went to see Dr Chelmsford when I was in London. He told me the pregnancy will only grow more difficult but that I have a fairly good chance of carrying the babies closer to full term if I were to take enough rest. I will probably go into premature labour so I must try and hold on as long as I can.”
She smiled at him, a decidedly wavering little smile which pierced John’s heart.
“But … But what about the delivery, sweetheart? Won’t it be … Dangerous? Will the babies survive? Margaret … Will you? Oh, Margaret!”
He could not help himself but had to bury his face into her lap. Strong man that he was he could not suppress the huge wave of crushing fear raging through his heart and soul. It lasted only a few seconds, and then John raised his head again and stood.
“Come, my love,” he said,” let me help you to bed.”
When Margaret was safely settled against the pillows, John prepared himself for bed and joined her. Letting her body rest against his own, he gently stroked her hair.
“My brave, beautiful Margaret,” he said solemnly, “I promise you that I will do everything I can to assist and comfort you. We will weather this, my darling, together we will prevail.”
By the evening of the next day, all the rest of Milton and Marlborough Mills seemed to know that young Mrs Thornton was expecting twins, and that the Master himself was in a fit state of rage about it.
Everywhere he so much as showed his face, people were grinning knowingly at him or clapping him on the back with a well-meant word of congratulation. John stomped into the parlour of his house around eight pm to find his mother, Nicholas, Mary, Dixon and even Donaldson there but not his wife. They were all fixing him with a determined gaze.
Hannah rose swiftly to lay a soothing hand upon his arm.
“Before you ask, John, Margaret is resting and absolutely fine. Now, come and sit down. We have things to discuss.”
Nicholas pressed a whisky into his hands and pushed him gently on one of the settees.
“John,” he said in an efficient tone, “we need a plan, a strategy to bring this baby business to a good end. If I know your Margaret – and I think I do – she is not going to sit still and wait for the birth just like that. Besides, it will just make her unhappy and nervous, and that cannot be good for the babies she is carrying. It is therefore of vital importance that we keep her happy and relaxed.”
John took a large swig of his whisky and replied wearily, “And how the devil are you going to pull this off? She’ll want to do her work at the infirmary, and she’ll be running around helping strays and … Oh, God, she’ll drive me over the edge!”
“John Thornton!” His mother spoke sternly. “Stop this at once! This panicking will bring you nowhere, and it is decidedly distressing for Margaret, too. Listen to what Nicholas has to say.”
They were right, of course. It was just that whenever he thought of Margaret and the babies – oh, God, the babies! – his mind seemed to go haywire, and he found himself unable to think clearly. He took a deep, steadying breath and concentrated upon Nicholas.
“From now on,” Higgins began, “we are all on a mission. It is called: ‘Operation Twins’.”
He drew a paper out of the breast pocket of his rumpled suit. Nicholas still had not grown accustomed to fancy clothes, John thought, inwardly smiling. On the paper was a list which contained the following items:
Operation Twins – Presumed Achievement Date: July 2, 1853
- Adjustment of Time: the children’s birth can occur in the weeks preceding this date.
Measurements To Be Taken: to keep a vigilant eye on Margaret from today on.
- Handling the next months of pregnancy:
Most Important Issue: to force Margaret to rest.
Measurements To Be Taken: make sure all her points of interest are being taken care of.
- Margaret’s Points of Interest:
- The Housekeeping
- The Infirmary
- The Wedding of Hannah and Nicholas
- The Delivery of the Babies
- The Care of the Babies
- Division of Tasks and Responsibilities:
The Housekeeping – Miss Adelaide Dixon
From now on, Miss Dixon will take over the general management of the Thornton’s housekeeping and keep at this until Margaret is well again after the babies’ birth.
The Infirmary – Miss Mary Higgins
From now on, Miss Higgins will take over the total responsibility over the working of the Infirmary, in close consultation with Dr Donaldson and his staff. The next primary goal here is to establish a proper hospital ward in the vicinity of Marlborough Mills. An additional planning meeting about this issue is to be held in the near future in the presence of Margaret.
The Wedding of Hannah and Nicholas – the two individuals concerned
Wedding date: June, 2d 1853.
No one else is allowed to have a say in this matter but the two people who are directly concerned.
The Delivery of the Babies – Dr Abraham Donaldson
Due to the special difficulties of twin sibling birth, Dr Donaldson will ask for the assistance of Dr Mortimer Chelmsford of Harley Street, London. In his capacity of experienced obstetrician, this gentleman is best placed to bring the matter to the success. Mr John Thornton will therefore officially request the London doctor to come and stay in Milton as soon as possible.
The Care of the Babies – General Supervision: Mrs Hannah (soon to be Higgins) Thornton
The former will urgently proceed in hiring a nurse, for the care of Margaret during and after the delivery, and a nanny, for the care of the babies. She will also assist Margaret in establishing a proper nursery.
She will also search a wet nurse to help Margaret with the feeding of the babies once they are born.
John – himself
John did not know whether to burst into helpless laughter or into a righteous rage over this preposterous bit of paper. He turned to his friend with the darkest scowl he could muster and asked in a cold, accusing tone, “And what, Mr Nicholas Higgins, is there on this list that you want ME to do?”
A noise from below sounded all of a sudden, breaking the strange mood between the two women. Nicholas’ deep voice was rumbling with laughter, along with Hannah’s unmitigated giggle.
“Nicholas Higgins, put me down this instant! This is not your house, and it is not yet our honeymoon!”
“Ah, but I figured to have a try in carrying you over the threshold, my girl! You finally seem to have put on a bit of flesh in these past weeks, so I’d thought finding out if I actually still could carry you in my arms!”
A look of absolute and horrible disgust showed on Fanny’s face as she exclaimed:
“Oh, Good God! This cannot be true! This must be my worst nightmare!”
She jumped up when Nicholas burst in carrying her mother in his arms and let out a cry of disgust when she saw Hannah had her arms wrapped firmly around his neck.
Fanny drew herself up and fixed Hannah with a look worthy of her brother’s worst scowl.
“In Christ’s name, will you show some dignity? And you, you … Horrible man, put her down at once! You scoundrel, you ruffian, you …”
She then rushed toward the couple with raised fists and would have pounded on Nicholas, had not John come in and grabbed her with his good arm.
“Fanny, dear,” he mocked, “I’m sure Watson is a trifle worried about you, right now. I think it’s time you went home.”
His sister let out a wholehearted ‘Oof!’, gathered up her skirts and stalked out of the room.
“Nicholas, my friend,” John addressed him, “I think you can put Mother down safely now.”
Higgins did so, and the two men shook hands vigorously.
“Ah, John! It’s good to be back! Come and embrace your mother!”
John smiled at Hannah, took her hand and kissed it.
“Mother, how are you?”
“Oh, John!”, Hannah laughed and put her arms around him.
“What have you been doing? Is it true you threw yourself under a loom?”
Of course, the men wanted to go and see the mill, so Margaret and Hannah were on their own. After Dixon brought a fresh pot of tea, the two women were finally able to catch up, “Margaret, is he going to be alright? You’re sure he has no other injuries than the dislocated shoulder?”
“Yes, mother, that is all. It has been a close call, however. Thank God it was for the good of the little boy. I am actually immensely proud of John, you know.”
“Yes, me too. Now, what was all that about with our Fanny? What is she up to now?”
After Margaret told her, Hannah sighed deeply.
“I do not understand, Margaret. What did I do wrong? I tried to give both of my children a proper education and a true understanding of good, solid human values, but it seems only my son profited from that.”
“Mother, Fanny is still so very young, and all she can think about, is her comfort. I tried to explain it to her, what it is that makes a woman proud of bearing her husband’s child, but I fear I failed.”
Suddenly, a distressing thought struck her.
“Oh, heavens! I have told Fanny something even John does not know yet! Oh, God! She … She has not gone to the factory, has she?”
“No, you need not worry about that, dear. I do not think Fanny has ever set foot into the factory in her whole life. She hates it. Why did you say that?”
Margaret swallowed and coloured bright red.
“Because I have revealed something to her that I should have told John first. Mother, I am expecting twins. I do not want John to hear it from another than me.”
Hannah stared at her in astonishment.
“Good Lord, child! This is … Astonishing news! How do you know? Did you learn this in London?”
“Yes, I did. Oh, I don’t know how John is going to react to this!”
“Well, Margaret, you’d better tell him tonight. John is fairly down-to earth, I am sure he will take it like a man.”
Hannah smiled encouragingly and patted Margaret’s hands. The latter promised herself to tell her husband the good news the same night.
“So, Mother, is your health fully restored? When are you planning on marrying Nicholas?”
The older woman suddenly blushed which made her look twenty years younger.
“Oh, Margaret, he has been so good to me! Yes, I’m pretty much like my old self again, thanks to Nicholas. He was with me every step of the way, supporting me during the obligatory daily walks and watching over me to eat properly and rest sufficiently.”
Hannah paused, and Margaret saw her cheeks were flushed rosily.
“I don’t know what has come over me, Margaret, but I am so singularly happy! It has been a long time since I felt like this. My marriage to Charles, John’s father, was a happy one, but the shadow of his death always tamped down the good memories of the past. I had grown bitter and cold over the years, Margaret, only leaving room to care for John and Fanny. I only now realise that I blamed myself for Charles’ suicide, thinking he didn’t trust me enough to confide in me in his hour of need. Nicholas has made me see that all this was unnecessary. He gave me some perspective again and a lot of joy.”
“That is good, Mother. You certainly deserve that, and I know you and Nicholas will be truly happy together. So when is it going to be?”
“In four weeks, June the second. Oh, Margaret, there is so much to be done! I don’t know how …”
“Shhh, Mother, do not worry. I will help you, and so will John. Just give him a day or two to recuperate from his fall.”
That night, Margaret felt yet again exhausted.
Her back did not stop hurting whichever position she was in. Sitting or standing, walking or reclining, it was all alike. She had to suppress a groan when she rose from the settee to accompany her husband to their bedchamber. John was instantly at her side, his eyes large with concern.
“Darling, what is it? Are you unwell?”
He slung his good arm around her waist when he saw her stagger.
“Damn! This bloody shoulder keeps me from taking proper care of you! Here, lean on me, sweetheart, let us go to our room.”
To be sure, there was the omnipresent Dixon.
“Shall I give you some assistance, Master?”
“No, Dixon, thank you. I’ll manage.”
In their room, John lowered Margaret onto the bed. She grabbed his hand and looked up to him.
“John, darling, I have to tell you something which might cause you concern.”
“Oh, Margaret, you must help me, you simply must! I am lost, I am doomed if you do not help me!”
Fanny Watson stumbled out of the carriage, fanning herself with the pretty hat she was supposed to be wearing on her head. Instead, her fingers were crushing its rim in a dead grip. Margaret saw a dozen heads turning in the direction of Fanny’s shrill cries, and work stopped momentarily because no one wanted to miss a thing. She hastily took her sister-in-law by the arm.
“Fanny, what has happened? Please, come in! Let us talk quietly once we are inside, eh?”
As soon as they entered the parlour, Fanny flung herself onto the settee and whined:
“It is a disaster! Oooohhhh!”
She turned her head toward Margaret, looked her over from head to feet and burst into a fit of tears.
“Oh! Look at you! Can you imagine me … Oh, dear Mother of God, no! Noooo!!!”
Margaret stared at her in bewilderment, not knowing what to do or what to say. Fanny did not appear to suffer from some injury or to be ill. Why the racket?
“How on earth is a man supposed to be resting when all hell seems to break loose in his house?”
John stood in the door way, supporting his right shoulder with his left hand and scowling like Margaret had never seen him do before!
Fanny, not in the least daunted, answered him readily enough!
“And why, in Heaven’s name, cannot a woman speak her own mind in her brother’s house? Just go away, John, I must have a talk with Margaret and we do not need you here. Haven’t you got any work to do for the confounded factory or so?”
“Fanny!” Margaret gasped in extreme horror. “Please, can’t you see John is injured? He has a dislocated shoulder. I must beg you for a bit of restraint, here?”
“Ha!” Fanny’s brother exclaimed. “Restraint, you say, darling? She has never even heard of the word, hare-brained nitwit that she is! What are you doing here, Fanny? Is there any chance I might discover that today?”
In reply to this question, Fanny again broke down in a spurt of tears, pressing her scrap of lace tightly against her face.
“It is outrageous! It is not to be endured! He must be out of his mind! He must be insane!”
“Who, for God’s sake!” Her brother bellowed in sheer despair.
“Watson! That’s who! Do you even know what he means to inflict upon me? What he wants me to do, is impossible, I tell you! He cannot want to do that to me!”
John closed his eyes in exasperation, took a deep, steadying breath and asked in a low, barely controlled voice:
“What, Fanny, does Watson want to inflict upon you?”
Fanny sat upright, blew her nose as hard as she could and declared in a voice full of impending doom, “Motherhood!”
Margaret and John stared at each other, lost for words. John let himself down into a chair and supported his head with his good arm. His wife kneeled beside her sister-in-law and took Fanny’s limp hand in hers. She then asked softly, “Fanny, are you telling us that your husband wishes you to have a baby?”
“Yes! I cannot fathom why he would want a child, all of a sudden! He has never said so before but now, he is forever complaining of getting older, and how time flies by and … Oh! I cannot do it, Margaret, it simply boggles the mind!”
And she was sobbing again …
Margaret turned to John and motioned him to go away. John rolled his eyes but complied.
“Fanny? Fanny, please, listen to me.”
At that moment, Dixon came in. She took stock of the situation in one second and her honest face wrinkled in disgust.
“Would you like me to bring some tea, Miss Margaret?” She asked, also rolling her eyes.
“Oh, yes, thank you, Dixon! That would be splendid!”
Margaret waited for the tea to be brought and then poured two cups. She handed Fanny one of them and took a sip of her own before speaking.
“I was first having mixed feelings when John and I discovered I was pregnant. It seemed so soon, and we had barely had the time to get used to each other. I was afraid too, I still am, especially now that I know I am expecting twins.”
Fanny let out a wail of genuine horror.
“What? Oh, poor Margaret! Oh, my God, how horrible!”
“No, Fanny, it is not! It is wonderful, it is … Oh, I cannot describe it! I feel … Blessed, honoured, special! I cannot wait for the day of the children’s birth to arrive!”
“But … But Margaret, you could … You could die! You will suffer from horrible pains, maybe you will be weakened, injured, wrecked! And all for what? Even if all goes well, you will have two troublesome, howling children to care for, day and night. The worst of it is, you could easily become pregnant again, right after the birth. Oh, Margaret, you could have a child each year, over and over again! You could be completely withered and old, even before you reach the age of thirty! Ooooh!”
Margaret sighed deeply. How was she to explain the incredible feelings she had about her pregnancy? About the joy John and she felt every day in the knowledge that they would become parents?
“You know, Fanny, I do not think you love your husband the way he deserves.”
Her voice had been matter-of-fact and detached, but it seemed to prompt a different reaction with Fanny than the ones she had shown so far. Now, Fanny was indignant!
“For your information, Margaret, I do respect Watson well enough, and I dare say you cannot possibly have any idea of how I am conducting my housewifely duties! You have never even visited us. I assure you everything is even more impeccable than here!”
“Yes,” Margaret said softly, “but do you genuinely love him? Are you waiting in anticipation for him to come home each night after a busy day’s work? Are you anxious when he is late and wondering whether something has befallen him? Are you listening to his breathing at night, revelling at the thought that he loves and worships only you? Are you, Fanny?”
Fanny Watson stared at her incomprehensibly as if she had spoken another language altogether. Margaret grabbed her hands and pressed them forcibly.
“Fanny, I was in London recently visiting my aunt and cousin. At one strange moment I knew, I simply knew something had happened to John, something bad! I did not know what it was, but I knew he was in danger, as surely as I would have been at his side. I returned immediately and found him here, with a dislocated shoulder and a concussion. Fanny, I cannot describe the relief I felt, seeing him alive! Every time something happens to John, I die a little, Fanny! I cannot conceive my life without John, Fanny! He is a part of my very body, Fanny, he is my heart, my soul! Fanny, I do love him so!”
“Twins! Oh, my God, Margaret, that is disastrous! You could die! Oh, heavens!”
Edith stood beside the couch upon which they had laid Margaret after she collapsed a few minutes earlier. She had deemed it advisable to tell her aunt and cousin about what Dr Chelmsford told her.
Edith was wringing her hands in despair, and Aunt Shaw, sitting on a nearby chair, was silently weeping, as if Margaret was already dead.
Suddenly Mrs Shaw jumped up and said in a determined voice, “You must stay here for the rest of your pregnancy. With Dr Chelmsford, as your physician, of course. His knowledge and the fact that he lives nearby are now of vital importance for your health, Margaret. I shall instruct the butler to send a telegram to your husband.”
Margaret sat upright and said vehemently, “I must go back to Milton! I feel … No, I know something is not right! With John … Something has happened to John!”
Edith and Mrs Shaw stared at her as if she had suddenly grown two heads.
“I cannot explain, auntie,” Margaret said softly, tears blurring her vision, “I just know it. John is in danger, I have to go to him.”
At one point on the train ride back to Milton, Margaret stopped listening to Dixon’s endless complaints about their returning home so soon. It was keeping her mind off John, and she did not want that. Something had transpired in Milton, and it had affected her husband. Of that she was absolutely sure. She needed to be with John, as soon as possible.
Although they had taken seats in the first class carriage of the train, upholstered with soft, red plush seat cushions, Margaret did not feel comfortable at all. Her back ached, and her head swam. She could not help thinking of her unborn babies and what would become of them when the birth took place. She now realised that the reason for her being so heavy was the fact that she was bearing two children instead of one. How was she to give birth to them? Would they survive? Would she survive herself? However, all that was not the worst of it. No, it was John, and what it was that had befallen him, for she was convinced it would be something dreadful! God! Could this confounded train go any slower than this?
In Dr Donaldson’s small surgery, John was laid upon an examination table. Mary hurried in after the doctor, and between the two of them, they proceeded in establishing the damage. After a while, Dr Donaldson breathed a sigh of relief.
“It is not as bad as it looks like, Mary. He’s got a dislocated shoulder. We must set it instantly; otherwise, his muscles will cramp up too much. Help me undress him, I want to examine his rib cage.”
In her quiet, discreet way, Mary did as she was asked. With careful gestures, she eased John out of his coat and shirt, as gently as she was able to. It did not keep him from uttering a groan of pain, but he did not wake up. Dr Donaldson’s hands started probing John’s torso which was already beginning to show ugly bruises all over the broad chest and back.
“No broken ribs, thank God. Now, Mary, I’m going to turn him a bit on his side. We must proceed with extreme caution, mind you. Yes, perfect, May. Keep him in that position and steady his head. Gently, please?”
With caution, the doctor’s fingers examined the back of John’s head and the base of his neck.
“No, there is no fracture, as far as I can feel.”
A loud groan from the patient startled them both.
“Hell, Donaldson! What did you do to me, you old scoundrel? My whole body aches like the devil!”
“Mr Thornton, you are awake? Steady, Mary, ease him onto his back again.”
By the time they had arrived at Outward Milton Station, Margaret was in a fine state of panic. The ride had taken much longer, due to a delay somewhere down the line, where she had been pacing up and down the platform, fretting about John, until finally, the train master had given the signal for departure. It was already dark, and a thin fog was curling over the platform as Dixon and her mistress alighted from the train. They hurried into a hansom cab, and Dixon ordered the driver to Marlborough Mills. Then she turned to her mistress.
“Miss Margaret, how are you feeling? I hope …”
“I am fine enough, Dixon, do not fuss.”
Margaret lay her hand on Dixon’s.
“Dixon, dear Dixon, I am going to have a great need of you, the days to come. I cannot say why, I just know it.”
“I will always be at your service, Miss, you know that, I hope?”
“Yes, Dixon, I do.”
At Marlborough Mills, a surprise awaited Margaret. Jenny, the maid that had replaced Jane told her that the master had been taken to Dr Donaldson’s surgery.
“So, all that is wrong with me is a dislocated shoulder? Damnation, Donaldson, how can this hurt so much? It’s like a hot poker is being plunged into it!”
“I must set it now, Mr Thornton. It is already far too long since they brought you here, and your muscles are cramping up.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get on with it!”
John’s heart leapt at hearing the beloved voice of his Margaret. He pushed Donaldson aside, and there she was!
“Darling!” He exclaimed. “What the devil are you doing here?”
He had meant it as a joke, but when he saw Margaret’s ashen face, he sobered quite quickly.
Margaret rushed to him, then checked herself.
“Doctor, what is wrong with him?”
“Not much, Mrs Thornton. A dislocated shoulder and a concussion. Now, if you will forgive me, Ma’am, I must set the shoulder.”
“Donaldson, surely, if I am to be subjected to torture, I am entitled to kiss my wife first. Come here, you adorable darling of mine.”
Not caring of Donaldson’s and Mary’s seeing it, John drew Margaret close with his good arm and kissed her soundly and squarely on her lovely mouth.
Dr Donaldson coughed discretely but with mild indulgence as he watched the two young people embrace. Misfortune seemed to follow them wherever they went and whenever they were happy. Mrs Thornton, her pretty face flushed, apologized.
“Pray, Ma’am do not take offense. I have to attend to Mr Thornton’s injury without delay.”
“Oh, how clumsy of me! I …”
“Sweetheart,” John chuckled, “do you not think we have sufficiently embarrassed poor Donaldson? Get on with it, doctor.”
He then gripped his wife’s hand.
The doctor motioned John to lie down and then placed his knee onto John’s bare chest. He got hold of John’s shoulder and heaved with all his might. John let out a muffled grunt of pain and sweat broke out all over his face. Margaret tried not to wince when her hand was being crushed by her husband’s grip.
“I am sorry, Mr Thornton,” Donaldson said. “I am afraid I shall have to try again.”
John’s face was white as a sheet, but he nodded. Margaret felt faint with worry, but she remained at her husband’s side, biting her lip in powerless frustration and bracing herself.
Dr Donaldson gave it another try and this time the dry snap of the joint jumping back into place told him of his success. John’s hand relaxed, and his head fell aside as he passed out with pain.
Margaret went to sit on the bed and took her husband’s head onto her lap, brushing the hair back from his wet brow.
“What has happened, Dr Donaldson? How did he get so badly injured?”
Margaret took charge of her husband’s transfer from the surgery to their house. She knew all too well John would want to be in his own home. Dixon helped her putting John to bed, and both women were grateful he was still unconscious. Even though Dr Donaldson had thoroughly bound up the injured shoulder, every move would give him excruciating pain. To the purpose of relief, the doctor gave Margaret a small supply of laudanum which she was to slip into his tea.
After they were done, Margaret left Jenny as a watch beside John’s bed, instructing her to come and call her, should he wake up.
Outside, at the front door, she found a large group of workers, anxious to hear news about the master.
“Thank you, all of you, for coming. Thank you, also, for caring about my husband. Mr Thornton is safe enough, and he will resume his responsibilities as a master of this mill within a few days. In the mean time, I would like you to carry out your jobs as you always do.”
The workers sheered and clapped, and Margaret smiled a bit wanly, not wanting to show her fears to them. From somewhere at the back of the group Mary came advancing toward her, holding a young woman by the hand. The girl – for that was what she was – was clutching a small boy in her arms.
“Margaret,” Mary asked, in her quiet way, “can we talk? Inside?”
In the parlour, Mary began explaining who the girl was and what she was there for. While Margaret listened to the story, the girl started crying while it was unravelling. The boy cried too, feeling his mother’s distress.
“Oh, Dinah, I am so happy that little Paulie was not hurt. Do not weep, my dear. All will be well with Mr Thornton, he is not too seriously hurt.”
“Ma’am, I’m ever so sorry, really, Ma’am, I couldn’t stop Paulie from crawling under …”
“Shhh, shhh, it’s alright, Dinah. Mary take her to the kitchen and ask Cook to make her a cup of tea. I hope Paulie is alright, he is not injured?”
“Oh, no, Mrs Thornton, Ma’am. He’s right as rain.”
After she had accompanied Mary to the infirmary hall, Margaret applied herself to help her friend see to the long line of sufferers which were seeking help, as always. Most of them were mothers with young children and the women were extremely young. Girls as well as boys grew up too fast in the worker’s society, due to sheer necessity. Thanks to Mary’s excellent stewardship there were now a dozen of young female helpers, each trained to do a specific task. Debbie, a recently widowed girl of barely eighteen had learned to read and write under Mary’s tutelage and was now employed and paid as a secretary. Her task was the recording of the patient’s names and ailments and the triage into groups with similar medicinal problems. That way Mary and Margaret could work faster and more efficiently. The downright serious cases would be directed to Dr Donaldson’s surgery, of course. Margaret had established a small fund in order to compensate the good doctor for any expenses made on behalf of the patients.
There was, however, not enough space to accommodate all patients, and Margaret spoke to Mary and Donaldson about this, one morning. It was three days since she had returned from London and they were assembled in the master’s bedroom where the doctor had come to examine John.
“Dr Donaldson, we have to take measures about the infirmary. It is too small.”
“Darling,” John intervened, “I cannot spare another hall of the mill. I have not enough space as it is.”
Margaret hastened to take his hand in hers.
“I was not planning to organize another ward at Marlborough Mills, sweetheart, do not trouble yourself. No, I wanted to ask Dr Donaldson to help us. Surely, you know of a location where we might establish a ward, doctor?”
“I will give it serious thought, Mrs Thornton,” the doctor replied and began storing his instruments.
“Now, Mr Thornton, you must be careful with that arm. Do not remove the bandage and, for the love of God, do not use it!”
John protested immediately.
“Donaldson, it is my right arm! How am I supposed to do my job?”
The good doctor threw his hands up in a gesture of utter despair and Margaret, having a hard time suppressing a giggle, took him gently by the arm and led him outside.
“I will see to it,” she whispered. “Thank you, Dr Donaldson, for caring so much for him.”
She personally escorted the doctor to the front door and watched him as he mounted his carriage. In the mill’s courtyard workers, men and women both, were bustling around doing their job. Margaret loved to watch them, knowing they were working, not only for Marlborough Mills, but also for themselves and their families.
Another carriage came rattling through the mill’s gate, just as Margaret wanted to close the door.
Out came, in a flurry of muslin skirts and silk ribbons, the dainty figure of her sister-in-law, Fanny Watson!