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The Three Witches of Milton

Chapter Text

 

THE THREE WITCHES OF MILTON

Part 1 of 3

A North and South, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice Crossover Parody

From: Parodies and Other Such Poppycock

 

 

John Thornton settled himself beside the fire and stretched his long legs out as far as they would go, his tired limbs groaning in relief to be permitted the rare chance of relaxing, a luxury they rarely benefitted from, what with their master being a martyr to industriousness, as was his tenacious nature. Humming serenely, John wiggled his toes as the flames lashed out their scorching tongues of blue, red and orange, the whips of warmth attempting to lick at his feet that were encased in a pair of meticulously-polished shoes.

 

Lounging in a manner that was bordering on lazy, John let himself slide down in his chair, ever so slightly, mind, as he read one of his four customary Sunday newspapers which he traditionally enjoyed perusing after church, this being one of his few indulgences, an infrequent period of respite in his usually harassed week, a recreational repose which he normally relished in that private and distinctive way that befitted his character.

 

That was…until today…

 

As he moistened his thumb and turned the page of the broadsheet, John spat and spluttered when he tasted the tang of ink as it tingled his taste buds, the resin of varnish and wax having run after the stack of cockcrow edition rags had been left loitering in the heavy rain by that heedless grocer boy. Nevertheless, his disgruntled gripe was soon mollified when he began scrutinising a rather riveting looking article regarding the Navigation Act, making him ponder on its potential effect upon his trade. Chewing his gums, John scrunched up his eyes as they skimmed left to right as he took in the words printed in unreasonably small font, but he had not got but three sentences in before his attention was arrested by an unpleasant disruption. Glancing up, the master found himself frowning as his finely-tuned ears were assaulted by a shrill squeak, a squawk even, whichever is worse, we shall go with that. It was a disconcerting sound to say the least, one which was blaring from across the room like a foghorn and most rudely interrupting his prized hour of well-earned leisure.

 

John growled through the thin parting of his gritted teeth.

 

Lord save him!

 

But he would not look. No. He would not give them the satisfaction. No sir!

 

Perhaps I had better explain.

 

When John had returned from the morning service, he had briefly called into his mill office, as was his practise, and after collecting up a bundle of papers to occupy him throughout the rest of the day, he had headed back to the house to treat himself to his hour of studying by the parlour fire, something he had done every Sunday for the past five years without fail. This fixed appointment with himself had become so entrenched in John’s routine, a man of habitual methodology, that the master found that he became like an irritable child out of sorts if he were deprived of his respite in any way, shape or form. It was essential, you see, because not only did these precious sixty minutes of solitude and study serve to cheer his wearied bones which were not as young as they once were, coaxing him into a passably affable mood, but it also helped to thaw his soul too, since reading, as we know, is as close as any humble human may get to experiencing untainted bliss.

 

However, speaking of souls, a theme that had been on his mind a great deal of late, because John, aggravatingly practical man as he was, opposed to being a sentimental fool, had never before cared tuppence for this hidden part of his person, his secret self, given that he hardly believed he harboured the capacity to possess such a tender thing. Bleak thought indeed, but conceivably this assessment was not cruel, but entirely rational, since perhaps it had wilted away in barren waste for too long, deadened by the weeds of loneliness that suffocated his hopes of true happiness. The bracken of this austere discontent with its thorns that sought to spear this bulldog’s resilient spirit over the years had been so downright bleak, that no rays of affection had penetrated the childlike crux of his being for God knows how long. That is, of course, not until ─

 

Never mind.

 

Yes, it had been a suppressed and forgotten portion of him, an essential element which we all need in order to distinguish us from the beasts. Nonetheless, in John’s case, it had long since been laid to rest, possibly forever subdued in deadened decay, rendered dormant through neglect.

 

Still, something had changed, there was no denying it, and now, as if for the first time, his soul was alive, it was awake, and oh! -  how it ached! How it pined in writhing pain when it thought of the one whom he lov ─

 

Forgive me. I have done it again. Ignore my ramblings, since it is not my place to speak of such things, it is not my role to interfere, he has sternly told me so before, many times. I only exist in his head, dwelling in his subconscious, but I must be quiet, I must be still, or else he will banish me for good, but I fear that without my prodding and pestering, there will be no hope left for him, stubborn as he is.

 

I should get back to the story, but where was I?

 

Ah, yes, I remember. Maybe it is best if I turn back the clock and begin at the beginning, just nine minutes earlier.

 

It had all started with the prospect of being a perfectly innocent Sunday, and John, what with his sensitive mind being particularly troubled at present, both with the mill and Marg ─ and other matters, he was looking forward to his rest more than usual this day. However, as soon as John had ventured a single stride over the threshold of his drawing room, he had paused in abhorrent dissatisfaction, for rather than finding it the peaceful haven of quiet tranquillity that he was accustomed to, he had discovered it under siege. Stilling like a pillar of biblical salt, and with his brow creased petulantly, it did not take the shrewd man long to notice that he was very far from alone.

 

Blinking, John was appalled to discern that his sharp eyes did not deceive him, because sat before the mill master, in a somewhat satanic looking circle of frills and bows, fans and baubles, all garish trimmings that were attached to silken skirts with circumferences that would rival the equator, were a horde of visitors. With strident giggles that resembled cattish titters, John was disappointed, nay – disturbed, to see that his parlour had been occupied by the three most loathsome young ladies that he, or any other unlucky man, had been burdened with the grave misfortune of being acquainted with.

 

With his instincts on high alert in a bid to protect himself and guard his loins, as they say, John had attempted to swiftly and silently retreat unheard, unseen, undiscovered. But damn, dash and darn it, his gambit had not worked, for no sooner had the master turned his back in his attempt to scarper, than his mother, with a tone that brooked no argument, halted him in his escaping tracks, formally announced his presence, and beckoned her son to come hither and join this dangerous lair of feminine frivolity.

 

Gulping, John had slowly veered round, and with the broad frame of his sculpted shoulders huddled to try in vain to hide himself, and his eyes wide in alarm, he had witnessed the five ladies, (yes, I did say three, and then I said five, but I shall introduce them all shortly), before him staring up at their prey with sparingly veiled covetousness, almost as if they planned to pin him down upon a plate and devour him for their luncheon, their vicious claws ripping him to shreds as they divided him up between them.

 

John grumbled, the sort of seething gripe that croaks in the throat, flares in the nostrils, flickers in the eyes, and constricts in the jaw, leaving nobody in doubt that the complainer is one pitifully unhappy fellow.

 

‘Good afternoon, ladies,’ he said blandly, hardly able to conceal his displeasure at having happened upon them most ominously. Then again, John was no dim-witted twit, so it would not surprise him in the least to discover that their attendance upon Marlborough House this hour was very far from an untimely coincidence, but rather, it was an arranged scheme contrived by none other than his nearest and dearest, all in the fickle hopes of enticing a smile out of him, perhaps even a flirtation, and who knows, maybe even a proposal if the stars were aligned just right.

 

Ha! When pigs fly! But oh dear! On the other hand, perhaps these sneaky sorceresses really could achieve such a feat, John would not put it past them, and then where would he be?

 

Sulking, John’s temper was being sorely tested, and all he could think, all he cared about in the midst of this predicament in which he now found himself centre stage and in grave danger, was that his heart’s true dearest, she was anything but nearest, and how that grieved him more than words can say.

 

If only she were here, not them.

 

Despite their estrangement, irrespective of the frosty barrier of hot-headed hostility that their misunderstandings and petty squabbles had erected between them, a barricade which separated them with ruthless harshness, John knew that her presence would bring him solace. She need not say anything, she need not do anything, because her company alone would be efficacious enough to calm the storm that raged in his soul. With just one look, and if he were lucky, one touch, her softness, her sweetness, her sunlight, they would melt his heart and bring him peace. But no, it was not to be, she was not here, in his home, where he longed for her to live, bringing life and laughter to these walls of prison like misery. When night fell, and he had gone another day without seeing her, the woman shying away from his companionship whenever she could in order to be spared from his scowls of disapproval and displeasure, masks which concealed his overwhelming despair, John feared more and more that she would never come here again, for why would she when she cared for him not?

 

John sighed once more, the throbbing in his heart too sore for his strong body to withstand, and so he reached up a hand to lean against the wall for support, that gnawing ache growing fiercer day-by-day, with every passing day that he missed her in a malady of desperate yearning.

 

I would attempt to describe his torment for you, I truly would, simple wordsmith that I am, but as I say, he has forbidden me to mention it, to mention the very name…

 

No, I have said too much, I sense his censure boring into me, channelling from his core and burning my fingertips, rebuking me for reading his thoughts again, even although I mean no harm, only kindness, so I had best remain silent. But perhaps if he is distracted later, preoccupied by thoughts of her, since think of her he shall, maybe then I can dare tell you more, but shhh, we shall wait and see.

 

Eyeing up his foe, the master recoiled as they each leered at him, fluttered their eyelashes, swished their hair, fanned their bosoms, and giggled as if he had just said something tremendously amusing, and John being John, well, he knew that he might have one or two attributes up his starched sleeve, but humour was definitely not one of them.

 

‘Come join us, John,’ Fanny invited, a slight whine of spitefulness to her inflection, because even although she knew that her friends were only here to see her brother, she could not help but feel embarrassed by John’s demeanour, since to Miss Thornton, the celebrated man about town was nothing more than a dreary and prickly old stick in the mud. Cocking her head, Fanny surveyed her elder sibling with a dissecting eye, wondering what on earth it was about him that made woman turn into such giddy gooseberries at the mere idea of his court. She, for one, could not see the attraction, and believed she never would, since relations are blind to the qualities of their relatives, especially if they overshadow their own.

 

‘Yes, please do, Mr Thornton,’ Caroline Bingley welcomed, extending out a hand to beckon him into their wily midst, her arm swathed in an expensive glove of silken violet, the sickly sweetness in her tone enough to make him want to vomit.

 

Sighing, Miss Bingley could concede that Mr Thornton had not been her first choice of husband, given that he lacked both fame and fortune, the absence of £10,000 a year and an estate in Derbyshire a tactless oversight on his part. But still, beggars could not be choosers, and while he may never be considered a true gentleman in the exclusive drawing rooms of London society, here, in the north, he was undeniably a catch worth catching, his impressive business triumphs and dashing looks enough to inspire affection in any woman. Besides, Miss Bingley could begrudgingly acknowledge that even although she detested trade in principle, it was responsible for her own family’s prosperity, so who was she to turn her nose up at the suit of a successful mill master? What was more, with the prestige of being the bride of the most respected man in Darkshire, Miss Bingley could forever hold her head high and consider herself, no, crown herself, the self-appointed Queen of Milton.

 

But alas, she was not alone in her designs, for wherever an eligible bachelor might be, he will assuredly be followed by a drove of admirers, the fans of his flesh buzzing about him like a swarm of pesky flies.

 

‘How pleased we are to see you, sir,’ Blanche Ingram crooned, turning to face John fully, her back arching so forcefully that her breasts thrust outwards, her dress rather revealing for this time of day, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

 

Miss Ingram had been attracted to Mr Thornton from the first moment she met him. It was true that she had been affronted by her irregular association with Miss Thornton to begin with, the well-bred Yorkshire lady far too genteel to be allied with a family who buttered their bread from the grubby manufacturing of cotton. However, the regrettable friendship could not be helped, but still, when the flighty girl’s brother had first been introduced to Miss Ingram many months ago, she had been instantly captivated. With his excessively tall, dark and handsome features, the striking similarity had reminded her of another gentleman, one who was just as remarkable as he was untamed in his rugged and ready manners, the sort of rough spark of dynamism which is not common to all Englishmen, but is reserved to run through the red-blooded veins of northern males. To be sure, she had already lost one handsome and wealthy man to a mouse, and so, cunning Miss Ingram would not be letting it happen again, her years of schooling in the art of seduction her weapon, and John Thornton, he was her quarry, her stag that she would mount upon her wall like a trophy for all to admire, and then at night, well, she would be mounting him in other ways too.

 

Oh, hush you! I hear you retch in repulsion at my crassness, but really, what do you think these young ladies are taught behind closed doors? Etiquette?! Ba! Do not be so naïve, my friend.  

 

But I digress, because I still have one other to introduce.

 

‘There you are, master,’ a coy voice purred, careful to give the man his due deference, his overbearing position as an unrivalled leader amongst men the very thing which set him apart from the crowd, not to mention above them, in every way. ‘At last, we had almost given up on you,’ Ann Latimer chuckled, shuffling along the settee and vacating a space for the unmarried gentleman to settle down beside her, all close and cosy like.

 

As she did this and rearranged her skirts, her hand sliding flirtatiously along the folds of her pleats, highlighting the outline of her well-formed leg, Miss Latimer simpered to spy the way she caught his eye, his gaze narrowed as his breath grew ragged, and his chest pounded with every vigorous boom of his heart, but one which did not beat for her, but faithfully in honour of another. Unknown to her, John was not looking at Miss Latimer at all, instead, he was staring at the seat itself, his mind cast back several months before, to a day when a certain lady had lain there, quiet, cold, lifeless, almost as if she were asleep like an angel all in white, a few drops of harrowing crimson staining her dress the only mark of her mortality. As for him, John had knelt by her side, praying that she would wake, that she would come back to him safe and sound, because what was the point of living in this wretched world if she were not in it?

 

Glowering, John dragged his eyes away from the settee, the idea that these senseless ladies were seated upon it in place of his sweetheart was more than he could stand, the man wishing with all his might that she would be lying there now, only this time, she would be wide awake, smiling up at him serenely, his hand coming to rest gently over her belly and cradling the precious babe she carried there.

 

Fortunately for Miss Latimer, she had not noticed any of this, because if she had, she would have turned red as a radish with envy. In turn, she was not the least bit concerned by the presence of her rivals, no-no, not when she had the endorsement of her friend, Fanny, her conquest’s sister, no less. It went without saying that she was the lady with the greatest prior claim to this delectable prize they all fought-over and sought-after. Miss Latimer was, after all, a Milton woman born and bred. She identified with the principles of this city, including its people, its customs, its priorities, and most of all, its masters, the men who ruled hereabouts like feudal kings. What was more, she understood Mr Thornton’s bristly northern temperament, volatile traits that not all women would appreciate and know how to put up with, so it went without saying that she alone was qualified to tame and then train the animal that was the repressed and irresistibly wolfish Master of Marlborough Mills. Besides, her father, a shrewd man, was a gambler who had a nose for sniffing out successful studs, and so, he had advised his daughter to bet her hand on Mr Thornton, the robust stallion the surest ticket in town to secure her fortunes.

 

There, I have presented all three of them. The three witches of Macbeth, as John called them as a private joke, or better yet, the three witches of Milton, all here to ruin his day with their hubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

 

John grumbled for the second time, and he felt sure as sure, it would not be the last.

 

He could not understand how or why his sister knew these women, these fiends in human form. None of them were from these parts, aside from one, and as for the others, their social circles varied drastically from the Thornton’s own. He has asked her once, but in reply, his sister had been vague, distractedly describing that she knew them because a friend of a friend, knew a friend, who had a friend, who was a friend, of goodness knows who, and that is how she had met them some years before. Needless to say, John had walked away from the exchange with his sister more confused than when he had embarked upon it, and since that day, he had avoided asking any more questions, lest his mind be left as scrambled as his morning eggs.

 

It was not that John liked to criticise or condemn people, but to this magistrate, he judged that here before him sat three of the silliest women in all of England! However, their delinquencies were more unsettling than that, for while silliness may be irksome, he considered it no crime of character, no, a flaw, maybe, but a felony, no. Nevertheless, what really worried him, was the malice he saw lurking behind their eyes, orbs that were unnervingly intense yet cold all at once, rotting and decaying their humanity, their morals infected by the putrefaction of shallowness. These ladies, they lived for scandal, shopping and seduction, feeding off these vices like insects suckle off a corpse, the curdled blood they suck their soiled sustenance. No, John did not respect them, and worse, he did not trust them, so on his guard, he must be.

 

Well, as I say, here they all were. But no matter was charms or curses they wreaked upon him, he would not succumb to their witchcraft, no, not he, for how could he when John’s heart had already been cast under a spell and stolen away, to the other side of town, its darling keeper far more gentle and genuine than any of these conniving sycophants could ever hope to be?

 

‘I think I shall go and sit beside the fire,’ he decreed resolutely, nodding in the direction of the secluded shelter of the high-backed chair which rested beside the hearth, the isolation of which might just afford him some much-needed protection from their unwanted interest.

 

With his hands in his pockets, and his head hung low in accepted despondency, John traipsed away, leaving all three ladies complaining in unison and pouting like children who had been denied the chance to play with their favourite toy.

 

Never mind, thought they, they would have their chance to ensnare the most eligible bachelor in town soon enough!

 

When John reached his sanctuary, he grabbed hold of the chair, and with the use of some inelegant and terrifyingly aggressive pushing and shoving, the master rotated it even further round so that it faced the fire completely, the man grunting as he did so, a most uncouth noise indeed, I’ll admit, but the ladies did not mind, not when it was the most swoon-worthy display of masculine strength they had ever seen.

 

Goodness, what a feral brute he was, and how delicious they found him!

 

Pouring a fresh cup of piping hot tea and adding in just a dash of sugar to sweeten his mood,  Mrs Thornton carried it over to her son. Stepping close as she set it down, the mother patted his arm fondly. ‘Come now, John, do make an effort, please,’ she requested. ‘You never know, you may grow to approve of one of them, maybe even admire them,’ she suggested, although, even John could sense the scepticism in her voice, since she knew, deep down, that these hollow bit’ o raspberries were not for him, their intelligence and integrity no match for his own punishing standards to which he held himself accountable. And besides, as much as she could not bear to think on it, she knew that no matter how socially suitable these women might be, John’s love was no longer his to gift to give, since he had already handed it over most willingly, his heart now in the hands of another who has cast it aside and asunder in disdain – oh, that woman!

 

Nonetheless, all John did in return was moan, a long and weary lament of discontent. ‘Oh, mother!’ he whispered. ‘You know me better than that,’ said he, smiling at her affably, albeit weakly. ‘I cannot flirt, I never could, and I will not degrade myself, nor them, by attempting a pretence of liking or flattery. No, I am not cut from that cloth, I am not that breed of man. I admire them not, you know that, how could I, when…,’ John’s deep tenor faded away as his expressive eyes turned towards the window, his heart looking south towards its one true mate.

 

With his head sinking lower and lower in grief, John’s heart echoed the torrent of torture that roared within. ‘No, let me be, mother, let me be,’ he concluded, taking his cup of tea with a grateful upward twist of his lips and sitting down to wallow in his self-imposed loneliness. ‘It seems that I am destined to be alone and unloved, save by you.’

 

At long last, once he considered himself safe, John breathed a heavy sigh of relief. But oh! How rash he was, for the ladies, they had not even begun to unleash their diabolical ruses.

 

A game was afoot, that was for sure, but it was a contest of spite these malicious spinsters would soon regret, because in the case of John Thornton, he was not a man to suffer fools lightly, particularly when they threatened the health or happiness of those he loved best, and we all know of whom he loved best of all.

 

And fools they be, albeit crafty ones, these witches of Milton, one, two and three.