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A Circumstance of Tolerable Similarity Chapters 4-6 (Post 2)

October 28, 2017 02:38PM

Chapter 4: An Eventful Dinner



Henry Lennox was too sensible to be in love. True, he had once convinced himself that he was in love with Margaret Hale, but in the self-reflection that followed her rejection of his proposal he had realized that it was mostly desire, attraction, and compatibility. He had never felt the sort of consuming love described by the poets, he doubted it even existed. However, watching that tradesman make calf-eyes with the woman he intended to marry was the outside of enough. He needed to take swift action. When dinner was announced, he rushed to Margaret's side to escort her in. “So Margaret, were you as entranced by that story of romance as my silly sister-in law?” He asked with a discrete nod toward Edith, who was casting a misty gaze of adoration at her husband and smiling incandescently.

Margaret gave her cousin an indulgent smile and responded, “it's hard not to be touched by such a moving story, or by a couple who are still so much in love after so many years of marriage.”

“I never thought you so sentimental Margaret.”

“I grew up divided between two households and therefore had the benefit of two examples of matrimony. My parents may never have been wealthy, but they've always loved each other and our home was a paradise. My aunt, on the other hand, rarely saw the General. Even when he was around, he was always so severe and reproachful. I know which model I would like to follow.”

“And yet you and your mother are now forced to live in Milton in reduced circumstances whereas your aunt lives with every luxury.” Henry immediately knew it was the wrong thing to say.

Margaret reared up to her regal height and cast him a withering glare. “Mr. Lennox,” Henry was well aware that this was the first time she had addressed him so formally in well over a year, “I would far rather brave the air and climate of Milton with someone who loves me than spend my life comfortably alone. Whatever my father's faults or errors may be, I do not doubt his love for myself or my mother. What's more, I will thank you to not disparage my family, sir.”

Henry was just opening his mouth to soothe his blunder when they reached the dinner table. Their gracious hostess had unfortunately arranged the seats and Mr. Thornton was standing behind Margaret's chair with a ridiculous grin. “Miss Hale,” he said as he held out her chair. Henry was left to stew as Margaret graciously sat next to his rival. He made his way to the other end of the table, where he proceeded to make himself as agreeable to his dinner partner, Miss Lattimer, as possible.

~~~


John could tell Margaret was still seething when he called out to her to assist her to her chair. She abruptly turned around, still in a fit pique, but her expression softened to a rueful smile when she saw him. “Oh dear, I nearly lost my temper.” Margaret said as he helped her to her seat.

“I've been trying to reign in my temper towards that man all evening. Though I dare say your rebuke was far better for everyone than anything I might have said in anger.” He said as he took his seat beside her. Said rebuke had rekindled the fire that was slightly doused when she left the parlor on Mr. Lennox's arm. Would she consider staying in Milton with one who loved her? With him? It was clear from what little he heard of their discussion that Mr. Lennox's opinions on love were dubious at best whereas Margaret valued it highly.

Several minutes were taken up in the civilities of dinner: general chatter, footmen serving the first course, and complements to the hostess. Once those died down and conversation fractured into groups, John carefully broached the subject he desperately needed to discuss with Margaret. “The Wentworth's story was rather...”

“Illuminating?” Margaret supplied sheepishly, looking down at her napkin on her lap.

“Yes.” John smiled down at the top of her head. He had observed that although she could bravely face down his mother's insults, his own defiance, or even a very real angry mob, when conversation turned to emotional topics such as romantic interests, her mother's health, or Bessy Higgins' illness, she became shy and averted her gaze. “I could not help but reflect on my own feelings and conduct,” he continued.

“Yes,” she said quietly, “somehow it's different when hearing someone else's story, it seems so simple that if they just talked to each other, told each other how they felt … but when one is in the thick of it ... it all just seems so much more complicated.”

John wanted desperately to believe the looks that she gave him during the recitation of the story. To believe that she might care for him. Love him even. But doubt was beginning to settle in. He glanced around himself to ensure that their neighbors were engaged in their own conversations then asked in a low voice, “have we not told each other how we feel?” He held his breath, praying that her feelings had changed.

For what felt like an eternity but was likely only very few seconds, her head remained bowed, but then she turned her beautiful, large, soft eyes to return his gaze and replied, “perhaps not all women are as constant in our feelings as Lady Wentworth was.” John's heart was likely to beat right out of his chest. Her feelings had changed! After a brief pause she continued, “I told you what I was feeling at the time, but I was distraught about the riot, about Bessy, about the gossip of Fanny and your servants...”

“What has Fanny to do with it?”

“As I regained consciousness, Fanny and a servant were standing over me. They were crowing over the fact that I had thrown myself at you. Fanny declared that I had set my cap at you, which I hadn't! I couldn't bear the idea that people thought so meanly of my intentions ... that you thought so meanly of my intentions.” Her eyes again fell to her untouched soup.

I knew that you hadn't. I told my mother so that night when she repeated the same nonsense to me.”

“Well, between all of that and the fact that I had never thought of you – of anyone really – in that way, I lashed out. I spoke to you wrongly and almost the instant you were out the door I regretted my words and the pain I had caused you.”

“And now?” He said with gentle longing.

“And now...” she paused and looked at him sheepishly, “it's as if you planted a seed. You would love me, continue to love me regardless of my own actions. That seed took hold in my unconscious mind, but it wasn't until Lady Wentworth's recital and the self-reflection that it brought that the first growth burst upon me.” Her eyes again shifted to her lap before she murmured quietly, “I cannot say that my love equals yours...”

His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, but still low so as not to draw attention as he said: “Margaret!” His eyes swept the table, the Wentworths seemed to be attempting to conceal satisfied grins but they were otherwise unobserved.

~~~


For an instant she looked up; and then sought to veil her luminous eyes by lowering her head. Again, he besought her with another tremulous eager call upon her name. “Margaret!” Margaret's heart fluttered at his plea. “We are still in a crowded room, but although I do not have writing materials to hand, I can, discretely, offer you this.” She looked over to see his strong, calloused, capable hand held out to her beneath the table in silent entreaty. His eyes shone with love and hope and promise, but the longer she gazed at him the more troubled they became. With firm resolution she gave him a slight nod and slipped her hand into his. It seemed she had only a moment to enjoy the warmth of his hand around hers and the look of unadulterated joy and contentment on his face before a general bustle announced the removal of the soup course. They just barely had time to retract their hands before the footman approached them.

Glancing around the table really for the first time since she sat down, Margaret caught Lady Wentworth's congratulatory smile and nod. She lowered her eyes, her face glowing with beautiful shame. She had just become engaged, at the dinner table! How improper! How scandalous! How wonderful!

Chapter 5: Down to Business



Frederick Wentworth was heartily enjoying his evening's entertainment. Neither Thornton nor Miss Hale had touched their soup course but sat there in quietly animated conversation. He'd had the advantage of conspiratorial glances with Anne, who was discretely paying rapt attention to the two lovers while simultaneously managing to keep up a steady conversation with Mrs. Shaw to draw that lady's attention away from the pair. Miss Thornton, sitting at Anne's left and across from Mrs. Shaw, was apparently trying to mimic the elegant gestures of the two ladies. When they first sat down, Mr. Lennox and Miss Lattimer had both periodically sent frustrated glances at the lovers. After several minutes of both making a display of enjoying each other's attention, they now seemed to have settled in to actually enjoying each other's company. Mrs. Lennox and her husband seemed to be wrapped up in each other. From snippets of their conversation that he picked up, they appeared to be rehearsing their own love story to tell for posterity. That left Mr. Lattimer to himself to entertain, a slight burden as that gentleman seemed far more interested in his food and wine than his company.

Despite the lowered voice, he faintly heard Mr. Thornton's impassioned call of “Margaret!” and shared another glance with his wife, fighting the battle against laughing at the lovelorn pair. The evening seemed to be coming to the crisis at last. Before dinner he had wagered Anne that Mr. Thornton would be unable to wait until he left to make his intentions known. His ever practical Anne had insisted that he would wait for a more private setting, but Frederick understood the man's position all too well. All those years ago he himself had fought back a violent urge to scoop Anne up from that drawing room at the White Hart in front of Sophie and Mrs. Musgrove and all and sundry to whisk her away to Gretna Green. As it was, he only made it about a half hour into his errand with Harville before he made some excuse and rushed back to meet Anne, impatient for her response.

He looked across the table to his wife now. She had aged as she did everything else – gracefully. She was trapped in some insipid conversation with Mrs. Shaw. She looked for all the world like a gracious hostess enjoying the company of her guest but Frederick knew her better. She had a faint tick above her right eyebrow, a sure sign that she fought the urge to raise said eyebrow in mockery of Mrs. Shaw. His gaze shifted from her brow to the delicate shell of her ear, the regal slope of her neck, the creamy expanse of her shoulders, the quirk of her lips in just such a way that he knew she felt him watching her. She was perfect, his Anne. This examination, however, was best not continued at a dinner party.

Thornton and Miss Hale were now staring at each other with such looks of contentment and elation that he was certain they had reached an understanding. As the footmen came for the remove, Frederick made a point to noisily drop his spoon in order to recall the lovers to their surroundings. Anne caught Miss Hale's eye and gave her a sparkling smile. Miss Hale turned the beet red and sank into a mortified reflection.

Feeling pity for the girl, but urged by a wicked imp to offer his own subtle congratulations, Frederick cleared his throat to address the table. “I apologize that we monopolized the conversation before dinner with our story. I believe the purpose of this dinner was supposed to be focused on manufacturing cotton. Now that the romance is out of the way Thornton, shall we proceed to business?” Thornton gave him a self-satisfied lopsided grin and a nod. He at least was not ashamed of his current situation. Good man.

Before Mr. Thornton could respond, Mr. Lattimer chimed in with, “Come now Wentworth, surely the ladies are not interested in such a topic, we best wait and discuss it over our port so that they needn't worry their pretty little heads over money matters.”

~~~


The gall of the man! Anne thought to herself. “Excuse me, Mr. Lattimer.” She interrupted calmly, but the steel in her voice suggested her irritation. “But as I am the one who offered the invitation and proposed the topic of conversation, I would suggest that you not make such sweeping assumptions.”

Anne gave Frederick a look of exasperation and he nodded and replied in a jovial tone. “Indeed, this whole investment is Anne's business, I'm merely here for ornament tonight.” Anne could always trust to his support.

“Led by the purse strings, are you? That's not the way we do things in Milton.” Anne was regretting the number of times her footman had obviously re-filled Mr. Lattimer's wineglass.

“On the contrary, Mr. Lattimer, my mother has always taken an active interest in my business affairs, as – I imagine – will my wife,” said Mr. Thornton. Anne was liking this man more by the minute. Miss Lattimer gave a small gasp and a moue of disappointment, but Miss Hale gave her intended an appreciative nod and a warm smile.

Anne smiled soberly, “I'm glad to hear it, Mr. Thornton. You see, I have a small legacy that was left to me by my godmother, Lady Russell, that I wish to invest. As she had the management of her own estate for over fourty years then bequeathed it to me, I see no need to sit idly by while men decide the fate of my investments.” She said regally – channeling her sister Elizabeth's icy tone – then turning to her neighbor she added, “Would you not agree Mrs. Shaw? We ladies are perfectly capable of managing on our own.” That lady had spent the dinner so far prattling on about fashion and society using phrases practically out of a pattern book for a proper dignified lady, so Anne knew that this question served as both a barb and a complement. Mrs. Shaw was now opening and closing her jaw like a fish – presumably caught between antiquated notions of women's roles, her own ability as an independent widow, and deference to Anne's higher rank. After a brief pause elicited no further reactions from Mrs. Shaw, Anne continued. “Now, Mr. Thornton, I would greatly appreciate hearing of your improvements to working conditions at your mill.”

“Many of them are precautionary measures. We've enforced regulations regarding safety, such as sending hands home when they are too ill to work, or prohibiting smoking in the carding rooms.” Mr. Thornton paused and glanced at Miss Hale who flushed and averted her eyes. Anne was sure there was a story there. “We've also invested in the new machines you viewed at the exhibition today. They are safer, more efficient, and faster. All of these measures serve dual purposes, they do improve conditions for the hands, but they also improve profit by protecting the interests of the mill, ensure it's efficient running, and increase production rates.”

“That all sounds very admirable,” said Anne, duly impressed by the measures taken.

“Now, the largest improvement to working conditions, has been the wheel which I've installed in all of my sheds. There is a great deal of fluff and dust generated in the processing of cotton that floats in the air. When workers breathe this in constantly for years it can cause a lung complaint. The wheel makes a draft to carry away the dust and fluff and makes the air easier to breathe. Now, there is no immediate profit, none that you can count in pounds, shillings, and pence. But my workers are healthier, their lungs don't clog so easily. They work for me longer, their children work for me longer.”

“And how does Marlborough Mills compare to other manufacturers in these improvements?” Asked Anne shrewdly, she didn't want to invest her money if this was all standard practice.

“Some of these conditions are fairly common. After a fire destroyed a whole mill in less than 20 minutes and killed 300 souls in Yorkshire last May, most Milton manufacturers instituted strict smoking regulations. Any manufacturer would lay his hands on the new machinery if it was in his power, I suppose. However, I was the first in Milton to incorporate the wheel in all of my sheds over two years ago. While some other masters have followed suit, most do not wish to incur the added cost without any monetary gain. I do not run a charitable institution, but I do believe that healthy workers run a more efficient mill. My life and livelihood is bound to those of my laborers.”

“And does it provide much relief for the workers?” Asked Frederick, Anne knew he took an interest in the subject despite his earlier flippant remark.

“I have a friend...” Miss Hale began, then trailed off. Mr. Thornton looked at her encouragingly and nodded. “I had a friend, Bessy Higgins, who worked from childhood at Hamper's Mill. She collected fluff in her lungs and had a dreadful constant cough. When her father realized how ill she was, he moved her straight away to Marlborough Mills because it was a healthier place to work. Unfortunately the move was made too late. She is...” Miss Hale's voice broke and she took a moment before continuing, “She was was not yet nineteen – the same age as myself – and she died. She once lamented to me that if only Hamper's had a wheel ...” Mr. Thornton silently passed her a handkerchief and comforted her as best he could at the dinner table.

“How dreadful,” said Anne mournfully.

~~~


Fanny Thornton was peeved. She finally made it to London and was seated in a grand dining room in the elegant home of a peer, but conversation had drifted back to Milton nonetheless. Even worse, there was only one eligible gentleman present other than her brother and he was either wrapped up in conversation with Miss Lattimer or casting jealous glances at Miss Hale. Oh how she wished Mama and John had sent her to Switzerland, or London, or anywhere really, for finishing school. Then maybe the handsome Mr. Lennox would turn her direction every once in a while. In order to polish herself up a bit, she had been paying close attention to the two elegant matrons sitting near her. However, her attention was not so engaged that she hadn't noticed John fawning over that odious Miss Hale all evening. And now Miss Hale was drawing the attention of the table with tales of her 'friend'.

Fanny remembered with a sting of jealousy that Miss Hale had commanded the attention of all of the men at her mother's dinner party as well. She recalled how soundly Miss Hale was chastised on that occasion for her relationship with the workers. Hoping for a similar outcome, she ventured to say derisively, “Miss Hale is a great friend to the workers! She frequently makes trips to the Princeton district.”

She soon realized her miscalculation, that was a crowd of primarily mill masters who were upset by her support of the strikers. Lady Wentworth, instead of being offended at Miss Hale's poor taste in companions, perked up at her comment and responded with: “How wonderful, perhaps Miss Hale is the proper person to consult. You see, you may not run a charitable institution Mr. Thornton, but I do. Several, in fact. If I were to invest in your mill, It would be with the expectation that a portion of the funds are spent to improve the conditions of your workers.”

“In that case, Lady Wentworth, I believe you are correct. Milton's workers have no stauncher defender outside of their own ranks than Miss Hale.” John cast another horridly lovesick gaze at Miss Hale.

“Well, I don't know that I'm at all qualified. My visits have been made out of friendship and aid.”

“You may be more qualified than you think my dear, knowing what form of aid they require is the first step in improving their lot.” Lady Wentworth said kindly.

“Well, I can tell you that much of their discontent centers on food. Even we have discovered that obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables so far North, so far removed from the farms is difficult and expensive and we have more resources at our disposal than the workers as well as more convenient access to a grocer. By the time food makes it to the market in the Princeton district it is often spoiled. During the strike, while people were starving...” here Miss Hale at least had the humility to blush and turn away from John “... I brought food to the families with children, but now that most of them have gone back to work I know that they would not be interested in direct charity.”

“Then it is a problem of access?” Asked Lady Wentworth. Miss Hale nodded.

“Perhaps by buying things wholesale, and cooking a good quantity of provisions together, much money might be saved, and much comfort gained,” John suggested. “The Mill could act as something of a steward, buy in the provisions wholesale, and provide a fitting matron or cook. If we're buying in bulk, it would be easier to convince the suppliers to provide properly. We have a disused outbuilding that could be converted to a kitchen with a little renovation I think.”

“I'm afraid they might view it too close to a soup line and take offense,” contributed Mr. Lattimer. “It wouldn't do to sink money into the infrastructure of the thing if the hands were to proud to accept the gesture.”

“But if the Mill is merely acting as an agent, and the hands paid for the food and managed the venture, perhaps even paying rent for the space, it wouldn't be charity.” Added Miss Hale, “and if you consult the union leaders, and allow them input in the plan, the workers will be more likely to take advantage of the resource.”

This was altogether too much for Fanny. “The union!” She cried, “why John wouldn't even need investors if it weren't for the union and their strike! Nothing but a group of ignorant trouble makers grasping for more than they deserve.”

“That's enough Fanny!” John said sternly.

“But John! You don't approve of the union either! They broke down our gates and stormed the mill! They half killed...” Fanny's tirade quavered under the murderous glare her brother was sending her. Miss Hale paled slightly and faintly touched her temple.

“I admit that some of the men are perhaps a bit wild, but the rioting was not condoned by the union. In fact, the union expressly forbid violence.” replied Miss Hale quietly.

“Even so, their strike led to that violence, and they took unpardonable risks.” John said quietly with a pointed look of concern towards Miss Hale.

“But even if you are unable to meet their wage demands, do you not think that working with the union towards the goal of improving conditions would gain you better communication with your workers?”

“Perhaps, though I have always found them to be ruthlessly suborn and ignorant of the vast quantity of variables that influence wages.” John turned to address his hostess, “Miss Hale and I have never been able to reconcile our opinions on the union, you see.”

Lady Wentworth gave him a knowing smile and retorted, “well then, perhaps in the future it'd be best for me to direct my projects through Mrs. Thornton.”

Fanny scoffed, “Mother disapproves of the union more than even John does! Why, she thought John should just fire the lot of them when the strike ended and keep his Irish hands.” Fanny was a bit disgruntled and confused that nobody seemed to react to her statement, instead the Wentworths merely chuckled and cast significant glances toward Miss Hale.

~~~


“Regardless of our respective feelings on the union,” Margaret said, blushing in mortification at being referred to as Mrs. Thornton before her engagement was even announced, “we can hardly condemn the workers for their ignorance when they are deprived of basic schooling and necessity forces them to work from an early age.”

“Is there no school then?” Inquired Lady Wentworth.

“I believe there is, Bessy's sister Mary was kept from the factory so that she might go to school, but it is expensive. Not only in the cost of the school itself, a child cannot work if they are in school. Furthermore, it is not easily accessible to all families.”

“Have you another unused outbuilding Mr. Thornton?” Asked Wentworth with a smile.

“We do, and preparations for a school would require even less remodeling. If parents could bring their children with them on their way to work it would be easier to access.”

“I would gladly help with a school, as a pastor's daughter I often volunteered at the parish school when I was in Helstone. Yet, I can not see the Milton laborers taking kindly to that type of charity school. I'd say it's another matter to be discussed with the union if we want it to succeed. It may be best to ask what type of schooling they want. I know that my father's lectures are not always well attended for want of interest.”

“Do you have a particular union leader in mind, Miss Hale?” Lady Wentworth asked.

“Bessy's father, Nicholas Higgins, is a committee man and quite clever too. I've come to know him through my friendship with his daughter and I think he'd be just the man for the job.” Miss Hale added with a rueful smile, “though I do believe he'd be more receptive to the idea if it came from me, he did once compare Mr. Thornton to a bulldog.”

“Margaret!” Aunt Shaw seemed to finally find her voice, “it is not your place to interfere in Mr. Thornton's business proceedings. You are a gentleman's daughter, not a school mistress!”

Margaret shared a confidential glance at Mr. Thornton, knowing that very soon it would be her place. “Aunt, I am not proposing that I take a position as a school mistress, merely that I first approach Mr. Higgins as a neutral, but interested party. There is so much animosity between the masters and the union that I fear Mr. Thornton might meet with resistance even if he had good intentions.”

“Well Thornton, what do you say? Are you comfortable with Miss Hale acting as your envoy?” Asked Wentworth.

“I can think of no better person,” he replied. Margaret could tell from the look in his eyes that he referred to more than just her proposed role as his representative to the union.

“Excellent,” exclaimed Lady Wentworth, “Mr. Thornton, would two weeks be enough time for you to make some plans and draw up some figures? At that time Frederick and I could make the trip to Milton with our solicitor and arrange the particulars.”

“Oh dear, I fear that Captain Lennox won't be available to take me home until the end of the week! That would not give me much time to serve as your envoy.” Margaret said sullenly. She longed to return home and see to her mother's health, to receive her father's blessing on her engagement, and to start setting their plans in motion.

“I do apologize Margaret,” replied Captain Lennox with true contrition, “even in London, an officer does have the occasional duty.”

“You could return with us,” came the soothing Darkshire brogue beside her. “We are returning on the first southbound train in the morning, I'm sure you are anxious to see your mother and that will get you home a full three days earlier. Fanny will be along to make it proper.” Fanny cast her a sneer, but that did not deter Margaret.

“Oh! Mr. Thornton, that would be wonderful!”

“Margaret, you've barely been here a week! That's hardly worth effort of making the trip,” scolded Aunt Shaw.

“Sholto will cry so!” Exclaimed Edith.

“Aunt, Edith, I do so miss you and enjoy your company, but I've been so worried over mother's health that I doubt I'd be able to relax and enjoy myself. I only came because mother insisted that I visit the exhibition, and I've done that.”

“I suppose it must be for the best then,” replied Aunt Shaw sullenly. Margaret guessed that she would rather have refused her consent, particularly at Mr. Thornton being the man to escort her, but she dared not voice such an opinion in front of Lady Wentworth.

Chapter 6: Rumination and Recitals



John sat nursing his glass of port and smoking a cigar. The ladies had departed to the drawing room, and as per custom the men must drink their wine, smoke their cigars, and discuss manly topics. John just wanted to return to Margaret's side. Their understanding was so new that without her soothing presence by his side he was having trouble believing it was real. He could tell by the way that Wentworth locked up the cigar case and sent away the bottle of port that he did not wish to be parted from his wife for any longer than propriety dictated, and Captain Lennox didn't seen too keen to settle in either. Only the sullen Henry Lennox and the inebriated Mr. Lattimer seemed content to remain where they were, engaged in a rousing conversation about modern financial practices.

Having a natural aversion to speculation after his father's financial ruin and subsequent suicide, and a wish to avoid the acid wit of Mr. Lennox, John shifted closer to Captain Lennox and Wentworth. They were having a lively conversation about the comparative merits of the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson and their respective roles in the defeat of Napoleon. Wentworth had the upper hand in the conversation because he had actively served in the navy during the war with Napoleon under Nelson's command whereas the young Captain Lennox had merely studied the strategies of Wellington. After Trafalgar and Waterloo were thoroughly canvased, talk shifted to the war in general. More confident in his abilities than he had been before dinner, John entered the conversation with a comparison between Napoleon's plans and the early Roman Emperors in his quest to bring Europe under his own control.

As soon as the last cigar was finished, Wentworth hastily urged the gentlemen out of the room to rejoin the ladies. Margaret was seated on a sofa with Mrs. Lennox with space beside her for one gentleman. John saw Henry Lennox eying the same seat, but Margaret looked up at him with a smile and said, “Mr. Thornton, will you please join us? I would like to discuss our travel plans for tomorrow.” With a lively step and a light heart, he went to sit beside his intended.

As he approached, Mrs. Lennox, a beautiful, fair, fairylike creature, cast such a incandescent smile on him as to assure him of her good information. “Mr. Thornton,” she said in a confidential tone, “I must congratulate you. I know you must still speak to uncle, but I plagued Margaret until she gave me confirmation. She is really almost a sister to me, and she was the first person I told when Sholto proposed, so it was only fair.”

John struggled to maintain a neutral composure, but fell short of the mark. Margaret had told her cousin about their engagement! Merely having another person know made it all the more real somehow. “Thank you, Mrs. Lennox, I assure you I shall strive all my days to be worthy of her.”

Captain Lennox approached behind his wife as John made this reply and surveyed the three radiant faces. “Ah, I thought that might be the lay of the land.” He said with a roguish smile. “I take it that the news is still confidential?”

“I have yet to speak with Mr. Hale.” Thornton said cautiously, looking about the room somewhat uncomfortably. It wouldn't do to cause a scene, and he had no doubt Fanny would do just that and suspected the same of Mrs. Shaw.

“And thus the urgency of your return to Milton,” replied the Captain with a gleam in his eye. “I must say I feel much more easy sending Margaret home with you now.” Margaret's face was bright red and her eyes downcast. Luckily for Margaret's composure, their illicit conversation was interrupted by Wentworth calling for music. It was clear that he wished his wife to play, but Fanny jumped at the opportunity to exhibit in front of all of these fashionable London people.

~~~


Margaret was thoroughly uncomfortable having her private affairs spoken of, even in this small group of her dearest friends. How would she bear it when all of Milton was gossiping with the news. She had once scoffed at the notion that all of the women of Milton admired Mr. Thornton, but in short order she realized that he was a common figure in the gossip of the town. He was the youngest and by far the most handsome master, which made him prey for matchmaking mamas and eager young women. As a relative nobody in Milton, Margaret could scarcely compare to her rivals. Their engagement was sure to be much talked over in the parlors and warehouses alike.

The jarring notes of Fanny's playing brought Margaret out of her reverie, her skill fell short of the expectation she had built when she declared the piano as almost a necessary of life.

Mr. Thornton was seated next to her looking at her contentedly. “I suppose we really ought to discuss our travel plans for tomorrow,” she said in a low voice so as not to interrupt the performance or offend the performer.

“I'm afraid we shall leave rather early,” he said in a sympathetic tone, “as we are taking the first train, we shall have to call for you around five.”

“The earlier we leave, the earlier we will be home.” The phrase was common enough, but the idea of going home with Mr. Thornton made it seem somehow more intimate. She quickly gave him her aunt's direction in Harley street.

They lapsed into silence and Margaret thought about home; about her mother's illness; about her father's stilted attempts at making a living in Milton; about Henry's earlier statement that her and Mama were forced to live in Milton in reduced circumstances. It was true that her mother's health had steadily declined since their move. Something of her dark thoughts must have shown on her face because Mr. Thornton quietly asked her if she was alright.

“Of course.” Margaret replied. “I'm only thinking of my mother. Henry hinted at the most painful topic earlier and I can't help fretting over it. I love my father, and I know he loves us. But...”

“But?” He prodded.

“But my father did give up his income and move us to Milton and now Mama is...” She couldn't bring herself to complete the sentence. To admit out loud that her mother was dying.

“And the doctor suggested that the move to Milton was harmful to her health?”

Margaret thought back. Mama and Dixon had lamented that the Milton air was bad for her, Aunt Shaw, Edith, and Henry never lost an opportunity to bemoan the evils of the relocation. Even Papa had begun to lament that Milton was an unhealthy place. However, Dr. Donaldson... “no. Actually, he said that her condition was likely a progression of a chronic complaint as she had many of the symptoms for years before the move.” Recalling the doctor's words was a balm. “I am glad that the Milton air is not the cause of her illness, I could never regret the move. Not now.” She gave him a small smile, before her thoughts turned back to home. “Did you have your usual lesson this week? How is Mama?”

“When I visited two days ago she was abed. Mr. Hale said she's been in much the same state all week. Though I haven't seen her myself since you went away.”

“Abed?” Margaret paled, “but she was doing so well before I left. Oh! I never should have come to London! Only Mama insisted.”

“Is it as bad as all that?”

“Dr. Donaldson does not have much hope.” Margaret said softly as she stifled a small sob and turned her head away. She felt his hand reach for hers, which was laying between them on the sofa, partially covered by her skirts. They dared not remain thus for long while in company, but his hand was like a lifeline. She had been required to remain strong for so long. She was the voice of reason through the whirlwind of Edith's wedding. Then it felt as if they'd scarcely returned to Helstone before Father told her that they must leave. His will was strong enough to require the relocation, but not strong enough to to break the news to her mother so that task fell to Margaret as well. Upon their arrival in Milton she had shared the burden of finding and negotiating their lodgings, bolstered her mother's low spirits, reassured her father, smoothed Dixon's temper, and even shared the servant's tasks. And now she bore the weight of her mother's illness, shielding her father from the truth. She had in turns born her mother's hysterical insistence that she write to Frederick, then her mother's remorse and her father's disapproval that she had done so. She had carried all of this weight for so long, she was the rock easing other people's turmoil. But now she had this man. This wonderful, loving, handsome, capable, man to share her burdens. She squeezed his hand softly and whispered, “thank you.”

“For what?”

She turned and gazed into his tender ice blue eyes. “Thank you for taking me home tomorrow, for bringing my mother fruit even after I was so terrible to you, for being a good man, for being here for me, for ... for loving me.” His eyes widened and shone with intense emotion, but his only other response was a fervent squeeze of her hand.

~~~


Anne watched the young couple on the sofa with content. They seemed almost different people from the those who had argued publicly at the exposition that afternoon. She felt a familiar warmth at her back and leaned in to her husband. “We did good work tonight, my dear.”

“It was your campaign darling, I only followed orders. Are we really going up to Milton-Northern in two weeks?”

“Of course! I must follow this through to the end. Besides, I will be able to put Lady Russel's money to good use.”

“Investing in trade? Forty years ago she would have gone into a fit of apoplexy at the thought of it.” Frederick laughed near her ear.

“Perhaps, but times change, she changed after she saw how much happier I was after our marriage. Besides, I prefer to think of it as investing in their community, and Lady Russel was always eager to do that. I have every faith in that young couple to do great things with my money."

Anne winced as Miss Thornton hit a note sharp. “I was hoping to hear you play tonight, but it seems you've been usurped,” Frederick sighed.

“There are four lovely young women in the room, nobody wants to hear this old lady play.”

“Except for her doting husband.”

“Yes, except for you. If you manage to politely sit through the young ladies' performances, I will give you a private exhibition when they all leave.”

Frederick's hand snaked around her hip and gently pulled her back to him. “Promise?” He whispered against her ear and she blushed and nodded, “remember you do owe me a forfeit on our wager as well. Those two,” he nodded to where Mr. Thornton was discretely holding Miss Hale's hand, “have definitely come to an understanding.”

“I do believe you're right.”

~~~


As the last cords of her lively Italian song softly waned, Fanny felt truly content. The room erupted into warm applause from a fashionable audience as she sat at a beautiful instrument, in a grand parlor, in an elegant townhouse, in London! In her excitement, she would have launched into a second tune, but Lord Wentworth's clear voice commanded rather than asked Miss Lattimer to play the next. She reluctantly left the instrument, stroking the keys lovingly one last time.

Fanny felt a twinge of jealousy as Miss Lattimer played a French air with perfect execution. She began to feel disheartened as she sat through Mrs. Lennox's flawless performance as she played and sang a complex song in – what language was that even?* If she ever needed proof that there was merit in finishing schools or London masters, it was surely exhibited tonight. At least the night would end on Miss Hale's performance. She herself had admitted she didn't play well.

Lord Wentworth barely waited for the final strains to dissipate before he invited Miss Hale to play, as if he were impatient for the performance – or for it to be over. “Oh, I really couldn't, not after such talent as we've heard tonight. Lord Wentworth looked all to ready to acquiesce to her refusal, but Mrs. Lennox pressed her.

“Nonsense Margaret, you play charmingly.” Her cousin urged her. “She was attempting to master Liszt's etudes when she was seventeen, and when she couldn't – because really nobody can – she declared that she was through with the piano.” Fanny balked, she'd once seen some Liszt sheet music and was scarcely able to parse it on paper, let alone attempt it in practice.

“Yes, and that was two years ago. I've scarcely touched a piano since.”

“Come now, I won't take no for an answer,” continued Mrs. Lennox. “If it will put you at your ease, I shall play with you. Do you remember that lovely duet that we spent six months perfecting when we were fourteen? Surely you can't forget a piece you practiced for six months. You'll recall that I can be every bit as stubborn as you.”

“If that's the truth, we shall be here all evening.” John quipped in the sarcastic tone he typically reserved for banter with their mother.

“I see I've been overruled,” Miss Hale smirked at John and approached the piano. Fanny was enchanted by their performance, it was nearly a dance as well as a performance on the piano. Their arms crossed elegantly and with practiced ease, there were choreographed twirls as the other performer carried the whole tune, all while the music flowed seamlessly. If Miss Hale were indeed out of practice, she hid it well with the grace and feeling of her playing.

The party broke up shortly after the resounding applause for the duet, ushered out by an eager Lord Wentworth. As she sat in the carriage returning to their hotel, Fanny decided that she had a new found appreciation for Miss Hale. Which is probably for the best, as my brother is most certainly in love with her she thought. John sat staring out of the window with unseeing eyes, a hint of a smile on his face. Fanny couldn't recall ever seeing him so content. Mother would not be pleased but Fanny found herself rather resigned to the idea. Perhaps Miss Hale would practice a duet with her.

*It's Greek! Edith learned the song while in Corfu.

Author's Note: I had originally intended this to be a quick one-shot ending about here. If your primary interest here is Persuasion you can stop here with reasonable plot resolution. If you are a fan of North and South you have another 7 chapters to look forward to! Anne & Frederick reappear in the final chapter, but from here on out it's mostly Margaret and John. I've got the whole story written at 15 chapters, if you would like a pdf of the whole, please e-mail me at cynicallycharged@gmail.com.
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A Circumstance of Tolerable Similarity Chapters 4-6 (Post 2)

MorganAOctober 28, 2017 02:38PM

Re: A Circumstance of Tolerable Similarity Chapters 4-6 (Post 2)

Lucy J.October 30, 2017 01:48AM

Re: A Circumstance of Tolerable Similarity Chapters 4-6 (Post 2)

EvelynJeanOctober 29, 2017 01:14PM



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