This vignette is set prior to the events of 'Northern Rain'. You can read another vignette that comes before this one called 'A Man of Honour' over at the 'From Pemberley to Milton' blog.
How does one rise from the ashes of ruin and debt? I think we can all respect the force of character which such an endeavour requires, but even the bravest and surest of us do not do all on our own. “…Long after the creditors had given up hope of any payment of old Mr Thornton’s debts… this young man returned to Milton, and went quietly round to each creditor…. No noise- no gathering together of creditors- it was done very silently and quietly, but all was paid at last; helped on materially by the circumstance of one of the creditors, a crabbed old fellow…. Taking in Mr Thornton as a kind of partner.” North & South, p. 88. It seems that this creditor must have been mightily impressed with the young man who turned up on his doorstep. - NC
A Foot in the Door
Reginald Simmons dropped his pen impatiently when a knock sounded at his door. “Come!” he called in irritation to his unseen visitor. The door to his office swung open firmly, the hinges complaining at such assertive treatment. A tall, well-built young man still held the latch. His hair was dark, nearly black, but his brilliant blue eyes flashed in contrast to the rest of his stern face.
Simmons evaluated the youth for half a second. He looked to be about twenty; full-grown at something impressively over six feet. There was nothing lanky or lean about him, as one often saw in a youth so tall, for his chest and shoulders were already filled out. By the firm set of his chin and the lithe way he carried himself, he looked as though he knew hard work. There was something strikingly familiar about the young man, but… his brow furrowed. Whatever memory the lad’s appearance had jogged seemed lost to the rolling sands of time.
“Good afternoon, Mr Simmons,” the young man spoke. His voice was already deep and sure for his years, and Simmons wondered fleetingly if he were not older than he looked. “Thank you for seeing me,” he continued. “My name is John Thornton.”
Simmons felt his expression turn from puzzled to nearly horrified. His gaze swept the lad’s face over again, and he was assured of his conclusion. “Why, you… you’re George Thornton’s boy!” he breathed.
Young Thornton’s jaw tightened in acknowledgment. “I am, sir. I believe I have a debt to settle with you.” He searched within the pocket of his meticulously clean, but threadbare coat, and produced an envelope. Without ceremony, he extended it. “If my records are correct, this clears the debt in full, sir, including interest.”
Mystified, Simmons hesitantly accepted the envelope. “Young man,” he began to protest, “I never expected you and your mother to assume such an obligation. It has been at least three or four years now!”
“Five, sir,” the youth corrected him.
“Five!” Simmons shook his head sorrowfully. “I am sorry, my good fellow. I applaud you for taking this duty on yourself, but you have a mother and sister to care for, if I am not mistaken. I cannot accept.” He pressed the folded paper away from himself, but the boy would not lift his hand to touch it.
“Do you not wish to count it?” he asked quietly.
Simmons drew back the envelope, offended. “I meant no slight, young man! I would not wish to take from a widow and her orphans!”
George Thornton’s son squared his already strong shoulders, and the youthful innocence of his face took on a hard, worldly look. “I am no orphan, sir, and I am well able to care for my family. I would live a free, honest man, and as yours is the last debt I have to repay, I shall henceforth do so.”
Simmons started in some wonder. “Do you mean, son, that you have held the record of this all of these years? Why, it was only thirty pounds, as I recall! I had written it off ages ago!”
“Thirty-five, Mr Simmons, plus an additional five for interest. If you do not think that amount fair, name your figure and I shall recompense you adequately.”
Mr Simmons lowered the envelope, and when he spoke, his voice was gentle. “Tell me, young man- if I may be so bold- how many others have you repaid?”
“All of them, sir, as I have said. My father had numerous creditors.”
“And you have done all of this recently?”
“It has taken me three days to call upon everyone.”
Simmons squinted, deciding to test the boy. “I saw Mr Hamper only this morning.” He allowed the statement to hang, wondering how young Thornton might justify himself.
“I saw him yesterday,” was the steady response. “As the matter concerned no other, I asked for his confidence.”
Simmons’ eyes widened so startlingly that his glasses slipped down his nose. This was a brassy youth indeed, to approach Miles Hamper with a five-year-old debt, and then to ask the man to keep the repayment of it to himself! The very thought of recovery was so wonderful that Simmons could scarce believe it. How was the entire town not abuzz with word of this singular young man’s bold actions? Why, the sheer novelty of the idea alone would be enough to amuse all of his acquaintance for weeks- and Hamper! The man was not known to still his tongue at any man’s pleasure, much less the request of a boy who was scarcely shaving! He gaped somewhat. “How is it that he agreed to your conditions?” he marveled.
Thornton’s face flickered. “It was not a condition, sir. I had already paid him his due. I expect he would not wish to appear ungenerous, as you do not yourself. I have no fear of shame for myself, sir- my father’s actions were his own, and they are in the past. I do not seek praise, only justice. It is mine to set right a wrong, and I am satisfied at last to do so. I will thank you for your time, sir, and for your gracious patience. I have not taken it lightly, I assure you. Good-day, Mr Simmons.”
Young John Thornton replaced his tattered hat and turned to the corridor once more. Simmons stared after him in mute astonishment. Seldom- almost never- had he encountered one of such mildness and force all at once. He sensed that few would dare to defy the lad when he was grown to full manhood- and such a man as he might be! He must have laboured devotedly all of these years, saving a substantial portion of what meagre earnings the family could survive without. To at last find satisfaction in the repayment of a debt which could not rightfully be called his own, and to do all without pomp or fanfare was simply too remarkable for him to take in. He stood frozen by his own desk, staring blankly at the simply labeled envelope he held in his hand.
What might such a lad make of himself? Simmons shook his head in awe. The boy’s character was fixed. He only wanted for opportunity, and with such an air of authority already, Simmons had no doubt that it would seek him out. His fingers tightened on the bulging paper in his hand. He could use an honest man at his side just now.
The wizening old man dropped the envelope on his desk, for it was not the prize he sought. Hurriedly, he stumped out to the corridor outside his office. “Thornton!” he called eagerly.
The tall figure had already rounded the corner and begun descending the steps, but at Simmons’ voice, he retraced his path. “Yes, sir?” he asked respectfully.
Simmons panted as he jogged to catch up. “Do you need work, boy?”
The grim jaw thrust forward in a flash of pride. “I have work, sir. I thought that much was obvious.”
“Aye, and what do you make? Eighteen shillings a week?” The smooth face flinched involuntarily, and Simmons guessed that he would not get a straight answer, but the boy’s true pay was somewhat less than that.
The blue eyes sparked in defiance. “I don’t need charity, Mr Simmons.” He turned to go once more.
Simmons felt a sly smile growing. He was starting to like this boy! Proud in all of the ways a man ought to be, yet unafraid of humility, he possessed the essential qualities which would help him to go far. The broad back was already disappearing, and with one last hopeful summons, the old man beckoned to him once more. “Is it charity, lad, to recognize one who might be useful to me?” The figure stopped, but did not turn.
Encouraged, Simmons tried again. “How old are you, Thornton?”
The square profile moved to face him. “Nineteen, sir. Next month.”
Simmons’ brows jumped in surprise. “Not quite nineteen! Oh, that is young,” he mused, slyly stroking his jaw in apparent thought.
Thornton’s eyes narrowed, taking up the challenge. “I have been performing a man’s work for a long while now, Mr Simmons.”
“Aye,” Simmons shook his head in mock worry. “But you can have no experience, I think. Not in something like my business here. Where is it that you have been working?”
“A draper’s shop, about twenty miles from here,” was the unabashed response. “I know textiles, sir,” the young man asserted.
“Hmm, but it is the machinery which concerns me,” Simmons continued pensively. “I need a man who understands it. I imagine also that you have never had the management of others?”
The man, or rather boy, swallowed. “I have two lads who work under me, sir. As for the machinery, I can learn, and I would not burden anyone overmuch with the necessity of teaching me.”
Simmons pursed his worn lips, pleased with the boy’s staunch defense of himself. “Come with me, Thornton.”
Choosing his destination with care, he deliberately led the youth to what was, admittedly, one of the worst work stations in his entire factory. He watched the fascination lighting in the young man’s eyes as he beheld for the first time the massive carding room, where the cotton fibers were combed and aligned to prepare them for the weaving process. The noise was positively deafening, the humidity stifling in the summer heat, and the sheer force of the machinery violent and fearsome.
Simmons observed in silence- though, in truth, it would have done him no good to speak. Even the sharp ears of youth would be overwhelmed in such an environ. John Thornton walked slowly among the various monstrosities dominating the room, needing no shepherd or guide to usher him about. It seemed to Simmons almost as though the lad grew yet taller as the power of the room energized his frame. He paused at one point and stared at the workers, his quick eyes following every movement, every flick of cotton, every shuddering pulse of the carding machine. With swift intuition, the boy’s gaze flitted to the long overhead belt running to the next room, where the next phase of the weaving process was already underway.
Simmons allowed a triumphant smile at last. The lad was well and truly hooked. With a very little more exposure, it would be a steam engine which beat within that young body, and precision gears would drive that active mind. This was a man he could work with. When Thornton looked back to him at last, he waved him to his side.
Together, they moved to the relative cool and peace of the warehouse. Simmons had not yet done- he watched carefully and fairly abandoned the young man in the very midst of the workers who carted about cotton bales on their shoulders and on hand trucks. An honest heart and a clever mind were of little use if the fellow lacked common sense. His patience was soon rewarded, because as he looked on, the lad moved with unassuming grace about the warehouse, keeping out of the constantly changing path of the men with their burdens. At one point, he even had cause to jump into action, assisting with a broken bale which threatened to block the flow of traffic. Simmons had seen enough.
“Come to my office, Thornton,” he beckoned.
Once they had returned, he convinced his guest to take a seat, as he had not done before. “How much do you make, Thornton?” he asked kindly.
The young man’s body was fairly trembling with the excitement of all that he had beheld. “Fifteen per week, sir,” he confessed.
“I will pay you double that, lad. I’ve need of an able overseer who will not swindle me, and who can keep the hands in line.”
Young Thornton’s eyes widened. “Are you certain, Mr Simmons?”
He allowed a satisfied smile. “I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. Tell me, how did you manage to pay back all of those debts? I do not pretend to know the actual figure, but I know it must have been sizeable.”
His new employee pressed his lips. “Three shillings per week, we set aside- my mother and I. I could not have done without her, Mr Simmons. She has taught me self-denial, and I thank her for her diligent training.”
Simmons grew still. He remembered Hannah Thornton as a veritable force- a stalwart lass she had been in former days. To hear her son- a grown man now, in his own right- credit her with the dignity and restraint she had bestowed, raised this young man even further in his estimation. “Thornton,” he sighed slowly, “I think I have quite changed my mind about hiring you.”
The blue eyes flashed, the firm young jaw set in regret. “I am sorry to hear that, Mr Simmons.” He began to rise. “Forgive me for having taken so much of your time.”
Simmons smiled. “You misunderstand me, Thornton. I would prefer,” he put out his hand, “to have you as a partner. Welcome to Marlborough Mills.”
* * *Book Blurb
There is nothing like a long walk in the rain to guarantee a little privacy… unless the last person you wish to encounter happens also to be in search of solitude.
John Thornton is a man of heavy responsibilities who has many things on his mind, but the most troublesome of them all is Margaret Hale. She wants nothing to do with him, and he wishes he could feel the same. When a moment of vulnerability allows her a glimpse into his heart, she begins to see him very differently.
Is something so simple as friendship even possible after all that has passed between them? Thornton has every good reason to move on, not the least of which is the lovely Genevieve Hamilton and her wealthy father. Will Thornton act according to duty and accept an opportunity to save his mill, or will he take a chance on love, hoping to change Margaret’s mind?
Nicole Clarkston is the pen name of a very bashful writer who will not allow any of her family or friends to read what she writes. She grew up in Idaho on horseback, and if she could have figured out how to read a book at the same time, she would have. She initially pursued a degree in foreign languages and education, and then lost patience with it, switched her major, and changed schools. She now resides in Oregon with her husband of 15 years, 3 homeschooled kids, and a very worthless degree in Poultry Science (don't ask).
Nicole discovered Jane Austen rather by guilt in her early thirties- how does any book worm really live that long without a little P&P? She has never looked back. A year or so later, during a major house renovation project (undertaken when her husband unsuspectingly left town for a few days) she discovered Elizabeth Gaskell and fell completely in love. Nicole's books are her pitiful homage to two authors who have so deeply inspired her.
Blog Tour Schedule:
8-9 July: Launch Vignette, Excerpt & Giveaway at Fly High
10 July: Guest Post & Giveaway at Babblings of a Bookworm
11 July: Guest Post, Excerpt & Giveaway at My Kids Led Me Back to Pride & Prejudice
12 July: Author Interview at More Than Thornton
14 July: Review & Giveaway at Just Jane 1813
16 July: Excerpt & Giveaway at Half Agony, Half Hope
17 July: Vignette & Giveaway at Laughing With Lizzie
18 July: Author/Character Interview & Giveaway at From Pemberley to Milton
19 July: Guest Post, Excerpt & Giveaway at So little time…
20 July: Vignette & Giveaway at Stories from the Past
21 July: Vignette & Giveaway at More Agreeably Engaged
24 July: Review, Excerpt & Giveaway at Margie’s Must Reads
26 July: Guest Post & Giveaway at A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life
10 September: Review & Giveaway at The Calico Critic (with separate giveaway)