In the last chapter, Margaret’s frustration at her empty days overflowed into an argument. Today she visits John’s office where he will propose a solution. If you need to start at the very beginning, click here to go to Chapter 1.
Chapter 13 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
copyright Jill Hughey 2014
The large hand of the ticking clock pointed to one minute before the hour when Mrs. John Thornton appeared in the anteroom of her husband’s office.
“Good morning, Mrs. Thornton,” Mr. Chives said as he popped his short, wiry frame to attention. He turned on a heel to tap lightly on the paneled wood door to his right, then opened it to usher her forth. Margaret drew in a deep, restorative breath before following. How silly to be nervous about a meeting with her own husband, a man whose bed she’d crawled out of not four hours ago.
Of course Margaret had been in John’s office before, but the industriousness, the contained energy of enterprise, struck her anew. Ledgers filled shelves along the wall. Correspondence and reports waited in two tidy piles on the corner of her husband’s massive desk. Samples of raw fiber overflowed several small boxes on a table behind which a draped display of Marlborough Mill’s fine cotton cloth shone pristinely white from the wall.
Nothing hinted about the occupant himself, no clues about hobbies, no portraits or knick-knacks, though anyone who knew him understood the very lack of personal items told a great deal about John Thornton. The blood of commerce coursed through his veins as thick as the blood of family.
“That will be all,” John said to Mr. Chives with a dismissive nod to the young man. He dragged a chair around so Margaret could sit beside him rather than across the desk where his visitors usually perched. “Sit here. I must show you some accounts for all of this to make sense.”
Margaret swallowed, feeling even more out of place than she had. Accounts? She’d helped Father and Dixon with the running of the household, but the accounts John managed ran for pages and pages. She slipped into the chair, internally chastising herself for making such a fuss last night.
John began to explain his idea. “When Higgins and I organized the cookhouse, I ended up, by default, as a sort of steward. I am charged with supplying the food, and originally, with finding the matron, though Mary has stepped into that job well and no longer requires any guidance from me. There is, of course, the money from the hands that must be tallied. As you know, I do not want the meals to become charity, so the income and expenses must be kept properly for review by my bookkeeper.” He waved his hand over a pile of papers on centered on the desk. “The job requires too much of my time.”
He looked at her with the glow in his eyes. “You have been trained, I believe, to run a household in London at least as grand at your aunt’s. I have no doubt of your ability to manage Marlborough Mill’s cookhouse, if you are interested.”
“Manage it?” she croaked. “Do you mean I would be responsible for all those tasks you just listed? That I would help Mary Higgins to plan the meals, and then order the food and account for the money?”
His stern nod assured her that he would, indeed, expect her to perform the job, and do it well.
She clasped her hands in her lap, then glanced about his office to make sure they were unobserved before she all but leapt at him, locking her arms around his neck and whispering as effusively as she dared. “I would like it above anything. Oh, do you really mean it?” A fearful thought stilled her. “Do you truly believe I can do a good job?”
“I will help you for as long as you need. And I think Mary Higgins will, as well, don’t you? I am certain she would much rather deal with you than me.”
She nodded into his stiff collar, gave him another hard squeeze, then sat back down. “Show me,” she demanded, searching the stack of papers for the cookhouse accounts.
He unexpectedly put his hand to her cheek as he drank in the vision of her eager face. “There she is,” he said, lowly but exultantly. “There is my spirited girl.”
She flushed even more and turned her head to kiss his palm, overcome by her stunning love for him. He slid his fingers behind her neck to pull her to him for a kiss the likes of which neither of them ever expected to indulge in while in his office.
He pulled away with a throaty moan to gaze down at her luminous face. His voice was gruff. “The next time we are in London I would like to have a small likeness of you painted. I will sit your portrait here, on my desk. Try to remember the exact expression you wear right this minute, for that is how I wish you to always be looking back at me.”
Just four days later, John prepared to sail for his journey to Le Havre. Margaret barely had her feet under her at the cookhouse but promised none of his workers would starve in his absence. She clung to him one last time in their sitting room before he departed for Liverpool in the middle of the night. “Please, hurry home as fast as you can,” she whispered as they descended the stairs. The dragon waited in the entryway to say her own restrained goodbye.
Margaret threw herself into her new work. She checked orders for the week with the butcher and the grocer. She made sure Mary had enough help. The least enjoyable task required approaching the few hands late in paying for their meals, though she checked with Mary first to determine if any of the delinquents were in financial distress due to illness or some other problem.
All but one paid on the day after her request. On the second day, she approached the recalcitrant Timmy Smith at the table where he hunched protectively over a steaming bowl of mutton stew. His lower jaw jutted out when she stopped in front of him. He wore a black cap at such a jaunty angle it completely shielded his left eye from her view. “I dinna have your money,” he growled, peering up at her face in obvious challenge.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Smith, but you must bring it tomorrow,” Margaret said, “or you will not be given a meal.”
He scowled at her before shoveling an enormous spoonful of stew into his mouth. He grumbled something unintelligible to his neighbors when her back was turned.
The next day, she waited just inside the door, her stomach aflutter with nerves. “Mr. Smith,” she said when the familiar black cap bobbed under the low doorframe. “Are you prepared to pay your debt?”
“No, mum, I am not,” he said. He moved as if to proceed to a table.
“As I had mentioned yesterday, we will not continue to feed you if you refuse to settle your bill.” She tried to sound forceful despite her breathlessness. The convivial chatter in the room died quickly away.
He squinted down at her, the centers of his eyes like bits of coal in the winter gloom of his face. “I work hard at the warehouse, I do. I think the master can afford to fill my empty belly better than I can. What d’ya say, mates?” he said, looking around for support.
The other hands studied their feet or concentrated on the rarebit and dark crusty bread on their plates.
“That was never the agreement, as you well know, Mr. Smith. You are not required to eat here, but if you choose to, you are required to pay just as your fellow workers do.”
He took hold of the two sides of his jacket as he leaned back to peruse her condescendingly. “I dinna choose to pay, but I do choose to eat.” He turned his back to her to find his way to a table.
“See here, sir,” she said, not sure what to do now. How might he react if the serving girls refused to give him a meal?
Two large blokes rose to block his path and several other men stood up at the rear of the dining area. “Oy, Timmy! That’s no way to talk to her ladyship,” one of them called.
Smith turned sideways as if to pass between the two workers. They each caught an arm. When he began to resist, the men in back stepped up to help drag him out the door. His curses made Margaret’s ears burn. She hadn’t heard such language since waiting in a carriage near the London docks several years ago. Her stomach churned with disappointment at having such an altercation so early in her tenure. Fear that the man might become truly violent drove her out the door behind the scuffle.
The biggest man shoved Smith toward the center of the yard. “That’s no way to talk in front of Mrs. Thornton and these young girls. Go home t’ eat until yo’re ready to pay yor shot and show some respect.”
Mr. Smith wiped his hands down his front and checked the angle of his cap as he glared at the men, then he stalked away with more foul words trailing behind him.
“Sorry fer that,” one of her saviors said as they re-entered the cookhouse.
“Thank you,” she breathed, repeating it again to each of the five who had stepped up in her defense.
“I like havin’ a hot meal every day,” the last one said with a shrug. “Leave it t’ Smith t’ try t’ put a fly in me soup.” Subdued chuckles wafted through the room, carrying the tension away, at least for the workers.
Margaret did not linger. She scurried across the yard to curl up on the chair at John’s desk at home, wondering where he was and what he was doing, how he would have handled Mr. Smith, what she should do differently to avoid such an uproar if she found herself in the same situation again. After a quarter-hour steeped in glum thinking, she sat up straight and turned her mind to sorting the cash and receipts for Marlborough Mill’s bookkeeper, determined to be productive until her presence was required at a somber dinner with the dragon.
Margaret briefly considered sharing the dilemma with Mrs. Thornton over the soup. She decided against it, worried that the woman would have Mr. Smith fired or, even worse, give him a raise in pay for defying her daughter-in-law.
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Next week, Margaret must unexpectedly see the household through an emergency. Chapter 14 will be posted on April 30 here. Click here to find it.