From The Thornton Tales
PART 2 OF 2
The hansom trundled through the paved streets of Milton and the children giggled as they were bounced up and down by the hobbledehoy of the horse's clippity-clopping, as the mares trotted along, their hooves clicking on the cobbles. Maria sat demurely with her hands clasped on her knee, conversing with her grandmother about their latest sewing venture. The twins were hanging out of the windows, howling like banshees, and heckling at passers-by. It was not until John had crankily dragged them back inside and glowered at them that they both piped down and recalled their promise. Nicholas was scrambling all over John as if he were a mountain, and Margaret had to gently wrench him away, enticing him with a wooden lion that he instantly pilfered, before beginning to roar at the top of his lungs. To any onlooker, this ruckus may have appeared preposterous, but to the Thorntons, it had become routine.
Margaret watched her husband, curious as to what he was plotting. She had never seen John so thrilled or nervous about taking the family out before, but she wished he would confide in her, so that she could join in his anticipation. It was pitch-black outside, so it was difficult to tell where they were heading, but her mind was a flurry of suggestions, each one as extraordinary as the last.
Eventually, the carriage came to a halt and John gazed out into the wintry night, his breath misting into vapour. 'We're here,' he announced, a puckish glimmer replacing his previously tense bearing.
Opening the coach doors, the Thorntons were instantly met by a fantastical festival of sensory delights. They could smell peanuts roasting on a fire, they could hear the enthusiastic gaiety of children, they could taste smoke in the air, and they could see a mass of figures, all toing and froing under the cloak of dusk. Each rambling individual was only visible owing to the vast string of painted lanterns that decorated and illuminated the scene, creating a picture of celebratory joy.
John helped them each to disembark and Hannah and Margaret shared a questioning look. 'Do you know anything about this?' Margaret inquired, turning to her mother-in-law, who, after all, knew John like the back of her hand.
'I am as much in the dark as you are, my dear,' Hannah answered, chuckling at her pun.
'Mother,' Maria said, tugging at her arm and angling her rosy face to peek at her mama. 'Mother, I think we are at the Milton Green.'
Margaret glanced about her and at once, she knew her daughter was right. They were standing on the edge of an extensive parkland, which was situated in the heart of the town. It was a sizeable, open space comprising of luscious fields and trees, where citizens of Milton would spend their leisure time strolling, socialising, and exchanging titbits of scandal. But the question was, what on earth was happening tonight? The common seemed to be teeming with visitors, all chattering animatedly, as if they too were privy to some mystery. However, what intrigued Margaret the most, was the fact that the swarm did not only consist of the town's elite, but of people from all backgrounds, including mill hands, teachers, shopkeepers, dressmakers, doctors, bank clerks, railway workers, lawyers, and chimney sweeps, all clad in their Sunday best. She even caught sight of a few familiar faces of those who worked at Marlborough Mills, or of pupils who either presently or historically had attended her school. As each acquaintance spotted her, they would wave fondly at the much-admired Mrs John Thornton, the darling of Milton.
'I think you are right, poppet,' Margaret returned, still puzzled. 'I wonder why your Father has brought us here.'
'I think it may have something to do with that,' Maria suggested, pointing up to a banner that hung in a position of prominence.
Margaret and Hannah glanced up, and sure enough, above their heads there was a sign with the script:
WE WELCOME YOU TO THE ANNUAL MILTON BONFIRE NIGHT, 1859.
Margaret and Hannah turned to each other, their befuddled visages conveying and confirming that neither of them had been aware of any of this.
'John,' Hannah called, 'John, do come explain yourself, what is all this?' she demanded, for indeed, Hannah Thornton was not accustomed to being left out of the loop when it came to Milton matters, and the occurrence had both stimulated and unsettled her most distinctly.
John wandered over to them, a roguish grin on his face, much like a cat who had got the cream. On the way, he tipped his hat to a few bystanders who briefly stopped to commend him, but for what, his family knew not.
'Well, Mother, Meg, I have decided this year to put on an event for the town,' he clarified. Then, opening his arms wide, he gestured to the lively landscape surrounding him. 'I have organised a bonfire and firework display to entertain all the townsfolk, man or woman, rich or poor, old or young, master or labourer, they are all invited.'
Their mouths fell open. 'John!' they both gasped. 'How ─ when ─ what ─ when ─ who? Oh my! How long have you been planning this?' they interrogated, both tripping over their words.
He chortled. 'A few months now. I had the idea when the boys accidently set alight to that small bag of gunpowder at the barracks, and then it exploded into the sky, and they both thought they had died and gone to Heaven. After seeing the look on their faces, I thought it might be something special for Milton to enjoy as a city, as a community. Why can the likes of Manchester and Birmingham have a bonfire festival, but we cannot? And there is an array of booths of all sorts, where a percentage of the profits go to charitable causes, so, you see, there is something for everyone.' Then shuffling awkwardly, he added: 'I did not tell you both because I wanted it to be a surprise.'
'Oh, John!' Margaret squeaked, hardly able to contain her elation, nor her pride in her husband for his abundance of creativity and goodwill. She had to remind herself that they were in public and that it would not do for her to throw herself into his arms, for that was a spectacle that she was not keen to repeat.
Hannah was reserved for a minute, but she soon nodded in agreement. 'Aye son,' she settled. 'You have done a grand thing here. It is most benevolent of you and it will do your reputation and standing in Darkshire no harm, being seen as the generous Master and Magistrate who has the initiative and the purse to put on such an event,' she conceded, elevating her haughty chin. 'For it must have cost you a pretty penny and it will remind people of your importance.'
John and Margaret shared a private smirk, for they knew his motives were not so self-seeking, but still, the matriarch had a point.
'Well, it was not all me,' he confessed coyly. 'I got help from other local businessmen, as well as the Mayor and our Member of Parliament. It has been a collaborative effort, of which I have been privileged to be a part of.'
'What rot! An effort that you engineered, more like,' Margaret acclaimed. 'But, John, how did we not know? Everybody else seems to. How on earth did you keep it from us so perfectly?'
'That was easy,' he sniffed. 'Nobody likes either of you very much, so nobody bothered to tell you,' he joked.
'Oye! You cheeky chap!' they both retorted, batting his chest.
It was then that they heard a friendly voice, and a tall, broad, gruff looking fellow began to saunter towards them, taking off his cap and waving it about.
'Master! Mistress!' he hollered.
'Higgins,' John greeted, as he turned to shake the hand of his overseer. 'I am heartily glad you could make it. Did the children manage to all come along?' he asked, scanning the park for the Bouchers. John was always keen to see the tykes, especially Tom, who he had become like an uncle to, always available to offer advice and support with his studies.
'Aye Master, aye!' Higgins reassured. 'They wouldna' miss this for the world! What a thing to see! You've done yer city proud, Thornton! You'll be the toast of the town for some time, I should think!' he praised, slapping the formidable Master on the back.
It was at this point that Nikko made his presence known and held out his hand to Higgins, who beamed at the sight of his namesake. 'Good evenin' young Master Thornton, it is awful fine to see you here. Ain't you a lucky lad to be allowed to come to this?' he joshed, as he lifted the boy into his burly arms.
The troupe turned as they heeded the thundering thud of thumping boots as Richard and Danny came running up to them with faces flushed with joy. 'Pa! Ma! There are games with prizes! And toffee apples and iced buns! And a tug-of-war competition! And a train engine to see ─ the actual engine, Pa! Can we go, please!' they entreated, their eyes wide with glee.
Their parents laughed. 'Aye,' John permitted. 'Take your sister and the Bouchers with you,' he tallied, dropping his hand into his pocket and offering them a handful of coins. 'And don't wander far! And don't be getting up to any nonsense, mind! Boys? BOYS?!' he bellowed after them, getting increasingly louder as they scurried further away, scooting off to take in all the merriment the night had to offer. John huffed. 'I dread to think what they will be getting up to,' he griped. 'It's not them I'm worried about, you know, they can look after themselves. It's everyone else I feel sorry for.'
Margaret stroked his cheek and he twisted towards her, instantly mollified by her calming charms. 'Well, darling,' she coaxed. 'Why do we not go and explore ourselves? For if we cannot see what mischief they get up-to, then surely, we need not worry so.' Deeming his wife's advice as most wise, John agreed and taking her arm proudly in his, the Master and Mistress of Marlborough Mills commenced to review and reconnoitre the marvel of Milton's first annual November extravaganza.
The next couple of hours was spent walking around the Milton Green and taking in all the wonderous sights. Margaret marvelled at all the stands selling food, displaying handicrafts, or hosting tournaments. But what was most impressive, were the smiles on all the spectators faces, as they appreciated the spectacle before them.
She also clandestinely felt her heart swell with affection as she observed her husband stroll about amongst his people. John was such a funny creature really. At home, behind closed doors, he was a gentle giant; a cuddly bear; a devoted husband, father and son, one who idolised and prioritised his family. But, in public, he was very much the serious-minded master, the man who people revered and respected as an intimidating force of nature. He stood tall and firm, his strength and stature making him a daunting but inspiring presence.
Margaret felt pride tingle in her chest as all sorts of people stopped to speak to John, each one either seeking his valued opinion, or applauding him on some deal or success related to trade or the law. However, despite his outwardly steely countenance, there were subtle differences between the John Thornton of old and the John Thornton of present. In the past, he had been more rigid and cross, whereas now, he was more relaxed and cheerful, his whole body looser with the knowledge of his contentment in life. He was a man like no other, and Margaret was honoured to wear a wedding band that bound her to him in a trinity of romantic, legal and spiritual union, and it made her squeeze his arm just that little bit tighter.
At that moment, Margaret spotted what looked like a wide freesia-pink circus tent festooned with frills and bows in the distance. However, she soon glanced back twice as she detected the tent begin to move towards her. Blinking rapidly, she scrutinised it and then swiftly realised that it was no bivouac, but something much more disagreeable.
It was not long before John too spied it and he let out a groan. 'Bleedin' heck!' he hissed. Then, turning in rapid circles, he almost hauled Margaret off into the crowd. 'Quick! Before she sees us.'
But alas, it was too late, for the next second they heard a high-pitched soprano accent calling out: 'John! Margaret! Hooey! Over here!'
'Damn!' John grumbled.
The couple veered back as Fanny and her husband drifted towards them. Fanny seemed to be adorned in the most lavish and ludicrous outfit that both John and Margaret had ever seen. It was blindingly bright, and it was bejewelled in an array of purple ribbons that resembled streamers. Both of them believed, though did not express, that they rather thought she looked like a firework herself.
'Greetings!' Watson rumbled, merrily beaming from cheek-to-cheek. Margaret smiled, for even although George Watson may have been a buffoon, he was harmless and full of high spirits.
'Watson, Fanny,' John replied, nodding his head curtly, his lips in a tight line of frustration.
'Thornton,' Watson flashed a row of yellow teeth. 'My-my-my, man! What a night! What an affair! My word, you've been a sly fellow organising all this. It must have cost you an arm and a leg, but then again, I suppose you can afford it. It's excellent, quite brilliant! he hailed.
Fanny wrinkled her petite nose. 'I cannot fathom it, John,' she stated tersely. 'Asking us to trapse around a park in the dead of night when anybody might carry us off into the shadows. Then there is all this mud, the hem of my poor dress is practically ruined, and it was new last week. And,' she said pointedly, 'expecting us to mingle with all the riff-raff, it is unseemly.'
'Well Fan,' John retorted bluntly, 'I am sure they will not bite. Besides, I cannot imagine anyone being able to carry you off in that monstrosity. It's so big and fulgurant that they will be able to see you from the moon!'
Fanny stomped her foot and was about to let her catty tongue run wild, but in the nick of time, Margaret intervened with her artful diplomacy.
'Fanny, dearest, your gown is divine. You have such a…distinct style; I wish I had half of your flair for fashion. Please, we must go shopping again soon.'
Fanny stopped in her tracks and seemed mollified for a minute. She looked Margaret up and down and was miffed to see her in a simple midnight-blue dress made of silk and satin, with a sash in the shade of cornflower-blue, which was gilded with flecks of silver beading, accompanied by a similar shawl of Indian muslin. From her ears hung crystal earrings and her hair shimmered with a speckle of glittering pins like shooting stars bursting into life and light. Still, what annoyed her the most was that despite Margaret's more modest attire, she was ravishing. Then, to add insult to injury, despite having just given birth to her sixth and seventh children – twins no less – she looked as thin as a broom, but with the most pleasing curves.
Fanny clicked her teeth. 'Thank you, Margaret,' she replied snippily. 'I must say, I am surprised to see you out tonight considering you only left your birthing bed four weeks ago. Your babies will wonder where you are.'
Margaret stiffened and went as pale as milk at the insinuation, her sister-in-law's comments confirming her feelings of insecurity and guilt.
'They're just fine!' John reported shortly with a fierce scowl, for he knew exactly what game his sister was playing, and he would not have Margaret bullied so churlishly. Fanny was just jealous that her waist was now the size of the equator, whilst Margaret was still as slim and sensual as ever. Indeed, one would hardly know she had borne seven babies, save for the few silvery marks which decorated her belly, but as for John, he revered them, since they were secret signs for his eyes alone which told the story of how his beloved Meg had so cleverly grown their little ones and birthed them with unflinching bravery.
Glaring at his sister, John quipped grudgingly: 'Besides, I do not see your two girls here.'
But it was Watson who changed the mood, happily adding: 'Oh yes, yes! Congratulations you two. Another set of twins, boy-oh-boy! Let's just hope they are not as lively as your eldest lads, goodness me. But how splendid for you. Seven is it now? Lord! – you are breeding like rabbits.'
Margaret blushed at his implication, for even although he meant no vulgarity, his remark was still wincingly boorish. It seemed that John too had had enough of this distasteful conversation, for he abruptly bowed his head and said: 'Well, we had better get going, lots to see and do,' he explained, pulling Margaret away at a speed that bordered on being overly hasty.
'Excellent!' Watson called out after their retreating figures. 'You must join us later Thornton for the Master's tug of war tournament against the hands! We need your strength and stamina, old boy! It's a war, and us masters must win it, or go under!' he laughed into the fading distance.
The couple came to a halt as they paused before a roaring bonfire that seemed to reach almost as high as the heavens themselves. Watching the flames lick the sky, Margaret whispered: 'John, I am so proud of you. This night is truly magnificent, and I applaud your ingenuity, imagination and kindness. I really am so hopelessly in love with you, Mr Thornton,' she championed, caressing his gloved fingers with her own.
Margaret simpered as she realised that his black, leather gloves were the very same ones that he had left at her Crampton house all those years ago, after he had proposed and she had refused his offer of marriage. How long ago it all seemed now, almost like another lifetime.
'I love you more,' he breathed, capturing her with one of his brooding smoulders. 'Darling, I hope you are not offended that I did not tell you about all this. Your advice would have been invaluable, but, well, I just wanted to give you something special and to make you proud, for I worship you more than I can say.'
But as they stood gazing into each other's eyes, lost in the sea of their love, they were rudely interrupted by the evidence of their passion, their children.
'Ohh! Look at the Guy!' Richard yelled eagerly, stabbing his finger into the air towards the straw man who sat perched atop the inferno. The children all oohed and awed as they stared at the blaze, their faces no longer cold from the nippy November wind, but aglow with the heat of the fire.
'Aye, it is a rare sight,' their grandmother allowed. 'I hope you have all thanked your Father for putting on this event for you all,' she included, never missing an opportunity to pay tribute to her son.
'Thank you, Papa!' they all chorused, whirling round to hug him. As John stared at their adoring faces, his heart was filled with love and he knew that the congratulatory comments and cheers of the rest of the county meant nothing to him, not when he was so warmly recompensed by the appreciation and admiration of his lovely children.
'You're welcome,' he chuckled. 'But mind, this night is not all about fun and games, is it? No, it is about remembering something profoundly grave that almost happened many years ago.'
'Aye,' Daniel jeered. 'Some rascal tried to blow up wir king!' he booed. The boys then pretended to engage in a sword fight and Nikko watched them wide-eyed, enthused by their melodramatic battle. The twins commenced to link arms and skip in a circle chanting:
"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England's overthrow.
By God's mercy he was catch'd
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King.
And what shall we do with him?
'Oh, no boys,' Margaret corrected. 'It is about more than that,' she continued. 'It is about remembering that it is wrong to terrorise people and to force our own beliefs or expectations upon them. People must be free to live their lives in the way they see fit, as long as they are not harming anybody. People should be at liberty to worship or not worship in the way they choose and should not be met by hostility, violence, or persecution,' she taught.
Hannah rolled her eyes. She should not have been surprised that Margaret had managed to turn this into one of her lectures, one of her moral crusades for egalitarianism. Nevertheless, she could not help but approve of her daughter-in-law's speech, no matter how radical or idealistic she may have deemed it. For all her past reservations, Hannah had to admit that after all these years, she had come to love Margaret like a daughter, considering her a true friend. There was now no question in her maternal mind that this young lass who had blown into the Thornton's lives like a storm, had in fact proven to be a breath of fresh air, and by some inexplicable means, this slip of a girl with a heart of gold, had managed to make John happier than his mother had ever dared dream he could be.
'Precisely!' John chimed in. 'Now, who can tell me, when did Guy Fawkes try to blow-up Parliament?' he queried, never forgoing an opportunity to test his children's knowledge.
'On this night in 1605,' Maria crooned, more than ready to prove her bountiful intelligence.
'Aye, and when was the Catholic Emancipation Act, then?' he affixed.
'1829!' Maria responded with satisfaction, as she turned to the boys and stuck-out her tongue, before flicking her chestnut curls behind her shoulder.
'That's correct!' John clapped. 'So, your Mother is right, it does not matter if we are Protestants, Catholics, Jews, non-believers, white, black, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, man, or woman, none of these things should matter, and we should each have the right to freedom and self-progression,' he preached, his face firm with the gravity of his words.
However, there would be no more sermonising, for at that moment, a commanding, booming voice could be heard, and a man announced the beginning of the fireworks. The crowd all applauded and began to push forward like a herd of cattle towards the appointed place. It was a few minutes later that the first explosive was ignited, and the Milton skyline was soon lit-up with a spectacular show of bursting colours. People gawked upwards in hushed amazement as one after one, the firecrackers and pinwheels were released, scattering a spiralling of sparkling light across an inky backdrop.
It was then that Maria softly began to recite:
'Strike the match and the fizzle starts to catch.
Soaring high, then-BANG-shimmering smoulders die.
Spin, twirl, snake and swirl.
Fragmented light, sprinkled onto a twinkling night.
Delicate glitter droplets separate and then hallucinate.
It's a daze, as the climbing blasts do blaze.
Painted patterns, bursting with attack, shrivel, then elapse and don't look back.
Bright sparks come and bright sparks go.
But wait! But No!…
Swoosh, smack, the colours are back.
Red, green, blue, then black.
Sparkling twinkles, fading scars.
All that's left is the mist and the stars.'
'That was very clever, Mara-Moo,' Margaret hailed. 'Where did you learn that?' she asked.
'I did not learn it, Mama,' Maria responded. 'I made it up.'
John laughed, admiring his daughter's wit. 'When?'
Margaret and John exchanged a look which silently expressed just how proud they were of their little ones, each one as enchanting as the next, and each as bright and dazzling as the fireworks around them.
It was a short while later that John ensured that his children were well-tended, then quietly and covertly lured Margaret away from the throng, leading her to a secluded spot at the back of the gathering.
'John?' she questioned, 'Where are we going?'
Then, rotating her around, he pointed her back towards the display and scandalously stood right behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder.
'Happy Anniversary, darling,' he mouthed into her ear, his breath tickling her sensitive skin.
Margaret startled and looked up at him. 'Anniversary? What are you talking about, John? It is not our anniversary.'
John just smiled back, a sly, impish grin, one which belongs to a man who still holds fast to a secret.
'No, it is our tenth anniversary,' he explained.
'John!' she admonished. 'Dearest, we got married in March,' she clarified, baffled as to how or why he could forget such a momentous date. 'Besides, we have been married eight years, not ten. It will be nine in four months, you silly boy,' she mocked, spinning back to face the show.
John's grip tightened around her and he yanked her even closer, his nose nuzzling her hair and neck. Margaret should have been shocked, she should have insisted that he stop, but for the life of her, she could not, instead sinking further into his strong and secure embrace.
Leaning nearer, John whispered in his deep and rich burr: 'It is ten years since the day we met. I met you on the fifth of November 1849,' he declared. 'This, Meg, my wife, my friend, my lover, my darling girl, this is all for you.'
Margaret gasped as the realisation hit her and she felt her knees wobble as he placed a featherlight kiss on her cheek.
Then, almost with his tongue inside her ear, he breathed: 'Remember, Remember, the fifth of November, the day Margaret Hale changed my life forever.'
As we know, the Victorians did celebrate Guy Fawkes night and had fireworks and bonfires, although, they naturally didn't quite do it like we do. In fact, it was common for people to fire off guns in all directions, (whilst three sheets to the wind), when they could not obtain or afford fireworks, which thankfully, is not common practice now…I hope. And also, the remember, remember rhyme was around at that time. Sure, maybe the idea of John putting on a firework display for the town is a bit farfetched, but hey, it felt nice to write. Again, I've also probably fudged the dates a bit here, assuming they met in November and he proposed about a year later, it's all probably very incorrect, but again, let's just rock with it.
This little fact may be of interest to some of you:
"The Observance of 5th November Act 1605, also known as the Thanksgiving Act, was an Act of the Parliament of England passed in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. The originating Bill…called for a public, annual thanksgiving for the failure of the plot. The Act was repealed in 1859."