October 31, 2017 05:19PM

Chapter 7: Overdue Explanations



They returned to Harley street early by London standards, but rather late for anyone who must awaken by four thirty. In the confines of a drawing room with Aunt Shaw, Anne Lattimer, Fanny Thornton and Lady Wentworth hovering nearby, Margaret had only given Edith the barest essential information – she was engaged, she was in love, she was happy. Edith, being rather a romantic herself, was happy that Margaret had found a love match. She knew that when Edith followed her into her room and lounged unceremoniously on her bed that she owed her the full story.

“Now Margaret, you've been very sly. In all of your letters, you never let on that you had a suitor.”

“I promise I will fulfill your curiosity. However, as it is a rather long story and I have an early train to catch, you must help me pack while I tell it. I cannot call for a maid to pack while I'm pouring out my secrets.”

“Very well,” Edith sighed as she rose and began gathering Margaret's belongings from the vanity.

“Oh Edith, I so wanted to write to you about him, to speak to you. But I hardly knew how. I started off with such a strong dislike towards Mr. Thornton. He was brusque and unrefined, quick to temper, and in trade! In short, he was the embodiment of all that I resented in Milton as a whole. He was more of an adversary than a suitor. There was no intervening stage of friendship. Our intercourse had been one continued series of opposition. Our opinions clashed; and indeed, I had never perceived that he had cared for my opinions, as belonging to me, the individual.”

“Goodness, what happened to bring about the change?”

“I suspect there were many small circumstances, and we did grow to know each other gradually. But there was a crisis that brought everything to a simmer. I must ask you not to share this tale with your mother, I could not bear for it to get around to my parents.” Seeing Edith's look of shock, she hastily clarified, “I have done nothing I'm ashamed of, I just fear lest they worry. The strike ended rather spectacularly with a riot. Mr. Thornton had decided to break the strike by bringing in Irish hands and the poor starving strikers revolted against this. I had, quite by accident, visited the Thorntons that day asking after a watter mattress to help ease my mother's pain. When the rioters broke through the gate, Mr. Thornton bade me to hold up my courage until the soldiers arrived. You know me, I could not abide to see those poor starving laborers forced to see the type of 'reason' the soldiers would doll out, so I ordered Mr. Thornton to go speak to the rioters, to calm them and save his terrified Irish workers. Apparently I already held quite a bit of power over him because he did it. At my bidding, he placed himself in front of an angry mob!” Edith gasped with the appropriate mixture of horror, admiration, and expectation.

“From the window I saw several reckless young men arm themselves with shoes and rocks and realized how rash and dangerous my order was. How could I bear it if he came to harm because of me? I rushed down and tried to speak to the mob, calm them, disperse them. When that wasn't effective, I used the only weapon at my disposal, my self, to protect him from danger. I was not consciously aware of it at the time, but I feel I must have already loved him somewhat for I threw my arms around his neck and sought to shield him from their wrath. The only thing I accomplished was receiving the blow that was meant for him.”

“Oh Margaret!” Edith cried with true concern, “Are you alright?”

As Edith had always been Margaret's closest confidant, and the worst of the story was already out, Margaret stepped forward and lifted her hair to reveal the small scar on her temple. “I was grazed by a rock and rendered unconscious. I awoke briefly, just long enough to assure Mr. Thornton I was well before I collapsed into his arms.” Edith gasped in horror. “I awoke to the sound of Miss Thornton and a maid gossiping and accusing me of throwing myself at Mr. Thornton. You, of course, are familiar with my temper and obstinacy, the thought that I was now expected to marry Mr. Thornton, that people thought I was trying to force his hand enraged me. I went home as soon as the doctor would allow me. My wound was not serious, not as serious as my wounded pride at any rate, and I would not have my parents worry about my safety. I was more determined than ever against Mr. Thornton. Unfortunately, the incident had the opposite effect on him. When he came to my parent's house the next day to thank me, to offer for me, I was in the worst frame of mind to be receptive to his offer or his feelings. Oh Edith! The things I said!”

“There there,” Edith soothed her just as she would her son, “It couldn't have been so bad or we wouldn't be here packing your bags in anticipation of him coming for you in the morning.”

Margaret smiled mischievously. “Our present understanding is largely because he is as obstinate as me. I spewed a lot of nonsense about the tyranny of the masters, about him wanting to posses me, about my fervent dislike of him. I was so cruel and direct. But you'll never guess his response.”

“No! What?”

“He defied my dislike. He told me that he had never loved anyone else, that he would continue to love me regardless of my feelings for him!”

“Oh how romantic! Has he been brooding all this time then?”

“It sure didn't appear so from my point of view. He's avoided me when he could. When we did meet in public, he wore a stony mask of resentment and he seemed to always have Anne Lattimer hanging off of his arm.”

“And surely nothing could bring out my stubborn Margaret's latent love as quickly as jealousy,” Edith teased.

“To own the truth, even though I was, perhaps, jealous of Anne Lattimer, I didn't realize I loved him until the Wentworths were telling us their story tonight. To hear of Lady Wentworth's regret over turning down the man she loved – for what she thought were good reasons at the time, but upon reflection were trifling – caused me to reflect on my own actions.”

“And I'm sure having the vision of Mr. Thornton across from you all the while didn't help your resolve.”

“Those eyes! How could I resist those beseeching eyes? His mask of resentment quickly dissolved away into a look of pure adoration.”

“Wait a moment,” Edith paused her folding, “if all of these revelations took place tonight, when did you get engaged?”

Margaret looked down sheepishly. “Over the soup course?”

“At dinner?” Edith squealed in delight. “How shocking! In front of my mother! And your rival Miss Lattimer! And...” she gasped in dismay, “oh no, Henry! Poor dear, I had always hoped you'd marry him you know.”

“So did he, but as I already refused him before we moved to Milton, I had hoped he would have got over it by now.”

Edith dropped the shift she was folding and stared at Margaret. “Henry proposed to you? How could you not tell me!”

“You were away in Corfu, and I was so embarrassed. I did not return his affections. Besides, Henry couldn't want his failure broadcast to the world. I'm afraid I'm rather bad at turning down proposals, though I was not as terrible to him as I was to Mr. Thornton.”

“Well, my dear, your actions tonight show that a refusal of an offer is not necessarily final.”

“But it has never been the same with Henry, I've only ever seen him as a friend. Mr. Thornton … well, even when I thought I disliked him I still found myself noticing everything about him, losing myself in our arguments, seeking him out in a crowd, our exchanges were always … passionate.”

“I must say – love and passion – it sounds like you've made a promising start!” Edith paused and considered for a moment. “Anyone with eyes can see he loves you, but are you sure you love him now? You weren't just swept up by romantic tales and adoring glances? ”

“I do Edith, I love him. If I look back and consider my actions and reactions in all honesty, I believe I always have loved him. I wouldn't have reacted as strongly to our arguments if there wasn't some deeper feeling.”

“I'm so glad you've found love Margaret!” Edith said sincerely with a sisterly hug. Her expression dimmed as she pulled away. “I suppose Henry will manage his disappointment. I only wish Milton wasn't so dreadfully far away,” pouted Edith.

“It's not nearly so far as Corfu,” Margaret gently reminded her.

“Oh phoo! You know Sholto and I will always make London our home when we can. I have always hoped you'd settle nearby so we could raise our families together.”

“Well, Milton isn't another planet, we'll aways be able to visit each other. There is a rather convenient train line connecting the two cities.” Margaret checked her watch as she said this, “Oh dear, speaking of which, I'm due at that train station in less than six hours, I ought to try to get some sleep.”

“Very well, we wouldn't want you to look haggard for Mr. Thornton now would we?” Edith teased and Margaret blushed furiously.

~~~


John's mind was busy with planning as they entered their suite of rooms, it would be a busy few months what with the wedding and preparations for the dining hall and the schoolroom. This investment from the Wentworths was unconventional, but their money would stave off any immediate danger to the mill and their reforms may help soothe the bitterness between him and his workers. The success of the mill was even more paramount than ever. He'd soon have a wife. Perhaps even a child within the year. He'd always thought of Margaret as a fighter, strong and independent and ready to take on the world. Yet tonight he'd seen her vulnerability – more-so even than when she'd been injured in the riot. She had thanked him so sweetly and sincerely for taking care of her. He'd been so moved that he couldn't even form a reply. She trusted him to take care of her and he would do anything to live up to that trust. Even though he would see her again in mere hours, parting from her tonight had been torture. At least he could console himself with the fact that soon they wouldn't need to be separated at night. He could take her home to their bed.

“Well?” Asked Fanny impatiently, breaking into his thoughts. Had she asked him a question?

“Well?”

“Really John, I do have eyes, you know. It seems you had a rather eventful evening.”

He flushed slightly but he wasn't ready to have this conversation with his sister so he dissembled. “Yes, the Wentworths' investment will be instrumental in pulling us out of the hole the strike put us in.”

“You know that's not what I mean.” She looked at him expectantly, but he didn't respond. “Fine then! If you're not in a talkative mood, I'll be sure to drink enough coffee before we leave to stay bright and alert the whole ride back to Milton. I'll be able to talk fashion and music with Miss Hale nonstop and I'll be able to report every detail of our trip back to Mother. If you had any interesting news, any reason you may want some privacy on the train, I might be persuaded forgo my coffee and nap quietly.”

For all of her talk against Milton ways, it seemed that Fanny had picked up some skills at negotiation. He sighed, “Alright Fanny, you win. Mind you, I have yet to ask Mr. Hale for his consent so you'll need to keep it quiet for the time.”

“I knew it! For all of your talk of being 'safe' from Miss Hale, I knew how it would be!”

“I thought I was safe because she'd never have me. She's had me under her spell from the beginning.”

“Oh please, all of the young ladies of Milton have been after you for ages. Why should Miss Hale be any different?”

“But she is, and that's part of why I love her.” John couldn't help the smile that spread across his face. “No matter what the gossip said, she never chased after me, she was always so elegant and regal and above my touch. Until tonight.” He said the last somewhat wistfully.

“Who would have thought it! My severe older brother pining away for a girl like a lovesick schoolboy! Well, I suppose she's not as conceited as Anne Lattimer at least. Do you know Miss Hale told me she couldn't play well? I was never more amazed than when she began playing.” Nor had John, he'd been transfixed. “And she's got family in London! Maybe she'll be able to take me for a longer visit!”

John mused to himself that apparently musical talent and connections in London were all it took to bring Margaret up to Fanny's standards. “Let's not get ahead of ourselves Fanny. Mother would still have to agree to that scheme and I'm not sure how she'll take the news.”

“Oh, she'll be livid. She was so angry with Miss Hale after the riot, and as you know, she's never been terribly fond of her.”

“Yes, thank you Fanny.” There was no one like a younger sister for pointing out the obvious. Mother would be difficult to bring around. But she did want his happiness, and there's nothing in the world that could make him as happy as Margaret Hale had tonight. “We've got an early morning, we ought to get to bed.”

Chapter 8: Northbound Train


Monday October 13, 1851

Margaret sat serenely watching London pass by as the train quickly sped out of the metropolis. She was seated beside Miss Thornton, who had been chattering for the past ten minutes about how she planed to nap the whole trip but had yet to make any move to do so. Margaret shared a laughing glance with Mr. Thornton at her antics. She had found when they picked her up that the Lattimers were remaining in town for the whole week, therefore it was only Mr. and Miss Thornton with her in the train car. She was impatient to have her father's blessing, to have their engagement acknowledged, to be married.

A quarter hour later, when Miss Thornton was finally softly snoring, Mr. Thornton reached his hand out to Margaret. She took his hand and moved to join him on the facing bench. “What was that display about?” She asked in a low voice, nodding towards their sleeping companion.

“Fanny cornered me last night with an ultimatum. I had the choice of telling her where we stand, or she would consume her weight in coffee and remain alert for the whole train ride. I suspect that was her way of reminding me that she'd hold her side of the bargain.”

“So your sister knows?”

“Yes, does that bother you? You did tell Mrs. Lennox after all.”

She saw a touch of anxiety on his brow and quickly answered, “I don't believe either of us had much choice, they both seem very determined. Only, if I had know that Miss Thornton was in on the secret, I would have sat with you from the start.”

“Margaret, we were never alone last night, never able to speak freely. I …” his eyes bore into hers. Lowering his voice to a tender intensity of passion he continued, “Margaret Hale, I love you. Will you be my wife?”

Although they had already come to an understanding the previous evening, Margaret was overcome with emotion at hearing the words spoken aloud. She was unable to meet his eyes, but she replied in a soft voice, “yes, Mr. Thornton. I love you and I will marry you.”

Mr. Thornton's hand closed around hers where it sat on her lap. She absently caressed his fingers with her thumb. Glancing across the carriage to assure herself that Miss Thornton was indeed asleep, Margaret gave in to the impulse to raise his hand to her lips. His gentle fingers raised her face so that he could look into her eyes. Slowly, he lowered his lips to hers. At first it was just a feather light brush of the lips that sent tingles rushing through her body. Then his other hand cupped her face and the kiss deepened. In both of her previous proposals, Margaret had felt awkward, unprepared, unable to fill the role that they had asked her to fill and somewhat angry that they demanded something of her that she couldn't give. But here, now, with Mr. Thornton, everything just felt right, comfortable, safe.

He pulled back slowly, seeking her eyes. He looked so nervous, and vulnerable – the man who had stood defiantly in front of an angry mob and refused to give in to their demands. It took Margaret a moment to recover her faculties before she smiled up at him. “I love you,” she whispered.

~~~


The reality of kissing Margaret exceed even his dreams – and kissing Margaret had played a prominent role in his dreams for nearly a year. As he drew back from the kiss, he was struck by the memory of his last disastrous proposal – blasphemy she had called it. And now he had taken liberties with her person. What must she think of him! His anxiety evaporated and he smiled as she reaffirmed her love for him. “This feels like a dream,” he whispered, softly stroking her cheek. “I can scarcely believe it's real.”

Margaret smiled and nodded toward Fanny, whose snores had increased somewhat in volume as she fell deeper into sleep. “Surely your dreams would not include your sister's dubious chaperonage.”

“For a moment I'd quite forgotten her presence.” Just then, Fanny made her presence known with a loud snore, sending the two lovers into a fit of laughter.

They settled back into the seat and John draped an arm over her shoulder. He knew that this respite would be brief and once they arrived he would get few chances to touch her until they were married. Married!

“We ought to discuss our plans for when we arrive. I know you are anxious about your mother, and I am anxious to speak to your father, but Fanny complicates things. My mother may be …”

“difficult?” Supplied Margaret helpfully.

“Well, yes. Even more so if Fanny races home and tells her of our engagement before I have a chance to tell her myself. She has never been fond of you.”

“No,” laughed Margaret nervously, “I can imagine her indignant tones as she says, 'That woman!'”

“She's a formidable woman, and you did break her son's heart not so long ago.” He'd said it lightly, but Margaret gave a faint cry of dismay and cupped his cheek.

“I am deeply sorry Mr. Thornton. I blush when I remember how wrongly I spoke to you.” Her head again dropped, her eyes drooped and pooled with tears.

“Margaret, you've said more than enough in the last four and twenty hours to make up for any pain you caused me then.” He pulled her closer and she laid her head on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. At length he added “though it would help convince me that this is all real if you would call me John.”

“John then,” the combination of his name on her lips and her warm breath on his neck stirred a riot of feelings in him. “I believe part of me was in love with you even then but I was bitter at the accusations, angry at the world, at the riot, at life in Milton and you stood as a surrogate of Milton for me to vent my anger on.”

“Hush love, let us not renew old quarrels,” he said as he lightly caressed her arm. “Now, If we ever wish to gain my mother's approval, I think it best if we approach her openly and honestly. If we take a cab from the train station to Marlborough Mills, we can ask it to wait while we talk to my mother then continue on to Crampton. We shall only be delayed by a half hour or so that way.”

“I think it a fine idea. Then we shall be together when we inform all of our parents.”

John wasn't sure how long he sat in quiet contemplation, but he eventually noticed that Margaret had dozed off. He had never been quite so content as he was with his Margaret sleeping in his embrace. It may not be entirely proper, but he could not bring himself to move her. Before long the rocking of the train car had lulled him to sleep as well.

~~~


Fanny awoke with a start, disoriented and groggy. She looked out the window, and after a moment realized that she was on a train, and that train was stopped at a station about halfway to Milton. Looking about the car, she was shocked to see Miss Hale asleep on the seat across from her, nestled into her brother's embrace. How indiscreet! Why, anyone passing on the platform could look in and see them! She was about to wake them when she noticed John's serene face.

Her brother was thirteen years her senior and for as long as she could remember he had worked hard. Of course, she had been told about her father's death, the scandal it raised, and their resulting poverty but all she remembered was a happy, carefree childhood. John and her mother had given her everything she needed, and eventually everything she wanted. She had always been somewhat jealous of the bond her mother and brother shared, always scheming and planning and excluding Fanny as if she didn't understand. As she got older, however, she did understand more than they realized. As a child she realized that John was never around as much as she would like but that there were always other children there for her to play with. Upon reflection as an adult, she realized that John was at work and her playmates were children her mother minded to bring in income.

Fanny had often seen her brother sleeping. He fell asleep in his study often enough while pouring ledgers or some such thing. She had once even commented to her mother about John's talent for looking grave even in his sleep. But now he was calm, smiling faintly, and clasping on to Miss Hale as if she were the most precious object on this earth. As the train jerked to a start again Miss Hale roused just enough to nestle her head further into John's neck, move her hand sweetly on his chest, and give a contented sigh. John rubbed his hand up her arm then pulled her even closer, as if even in his subconscious he was afraid that any movement would take her away from him.

No, thought Fanny, John has led a life of self-denial so that I may lead a life of indulgence. The least I can do is let them sleep. As she rolled her sore neck, she contemplated that Miss Hale at least appeared comfortable. She carefully rolled up her shawl to minimize the creases and used it as a pillow as she lounged over the full length of the seat. Besides, maybe they will return the favor and be just as charitable chaperons to me some day. With this happy thought she fell unceremoniously back to sleep dreaming about a faceless man who would cradle her like a long lost treasure.

~~~


Margaret awoke feeling warm and cozy, she sighed and burrowed deeper into her pillow. She was rather alarmed when the pillow sighed back. Her eyes flew open to the sight of a black cravat, white shirt points, and a severe jaw. She jumped and tried to sit up, but the arms around her tightened. She was on the verge of panic when a familiar deep voice, thick with sleep, said: “Margaret, calm down love, you fell asleep.” Mr. Thornton. John. She pushed herself off of his chest much more sedately and this time he complied though he kept his arm around her shoulder. John was endearingly rumpled. He appeared to be brushing off the effects of sleep himself and was looking at her wistfully as if he may still be dreaming. Miss Thornton was inelegantly sprawled in the seat across from them, half of the pins in her hair fallen loose.

“I'm sorry I jumped, that was the first time I've woken in a man's arms. I was rather disoriented and startled.”

“I should have woken you earlier, but the prospect of holding you while you slept was too tempting to resist. I must have dozed off myself.”

“I daresay that was the most comfortable nap I've had on a train.”

“I'm glad you enjoyed it, you're always welcome in my arms,” John said with a self-satisfied smile. Such a smirk could not be left unquestioned.

“If I recall correctly, the last time I had my arms around your neck you shrugged me off and told me to go away.”

“You were placing yourself between me and a sea of angry strikers out for my blood, you could have been killed!” John said incredulously.

“As could you, and I was trying to prevent that.”

His features softened at that. He took up her hand and asked: “Will you now allow me to thank you for saving my life?”

“I suppose I'll allow it if I must,” she replied with a quirk of her lips.

They were gravitating towards each other and another kiss was imminent when Miss Thornton piped up. “The both of you were a pair of fools that day. And you left the doors unbarred when you ran out, they could have come and murdered us all!”

John rolled his eyes. “You were in no danger Fanny.” He dropped his arm, sighed, and turned to his sister. “I thought you were napping.”

“And so I was until you started quarreling. I even let you sleep on when I woke up.”

Margaret had been comfortable with the idea of sleeping in John's arms when it was just the two of them, but she was mortified to know they were observed. “Where are we?” She asked looking out the window, partly out of curiosity but largely to change the topic.

John looked about him. “I'd say about twenty minutes out from Milton.”

“Oh dear, we ought to make ourselves presentable.” She looked at Miss Thornton's disheveled locks and surmised that hers were in a similar state. “Miss Thornton, would you mind assisting me with my hair? I can assist you with yours. Edith and I used to spend hours experimenting with each other's hair.”

Fanny brightened. “Oh! Yes please, Miss Hale,” she clapped her hands like an excited child. “You know, I always wanted to have a sister to do such activities with!” She said this with a conspiratorial wink at Margaret. The rest of the ride was passed in girlish giggles as Margaret and Fanny – as she now insisted to be called – repaired each other's hair while John watched contentedly.

Chapter 9: Confessions


Monday October 13, 1851

Hannah Thornton sat in her drawing room waiting for good news. She had expected her son and daughter back the previous evening, but this delay hopefully meant that they had found an investor. The crunch of wheels in the square drew her attention and she saw, to her relief, a cab rather than a work cart pull up in front of the entrance. She saw her son emerge and left the window to order refreshments for the weary travelers. By the time she had given her orders, she heard footsteps in the hall and turned to greet them. Her face fell at the sight of Miss Hale entering the room on her son's arm wearing a sombre worried expression. Mrs. Thornton had no idea why Miss Hale was here with her children, but having seen the state of Mrs. Hale the previous day, she assumed that was the cause.

“What has happened?” She addressed her son.

“Mother,” John broke into a broad grin that was more unsettling to Mrs. Thornton than the sombre faces, “Margaret has agreed to marry me!”

She turned her steely glare on the girl who had come to steal away her son. “So, you've changed your mind have you? Again!”

“Mother,” John said, a warning in his tone. But Mrs. Thornton was too protective of her son to let this go without an explanation.

“He wasn't good enough for you then, but he'll do now? What has changed.”

Miss Hale assumed that haughty air that Mrs. Thornton despised and replied, “I will own that I acted poorly when Mr. Thornton first proposed, but I do not regret refusing him then.” Mrs. Thornton saw her son wince and it fortified her steel will. “At that point I didn't understand him, I misjudged his feelings and my own. I had exerted what meager means I had during the riot to protect him out of an innate sense of justice because it was the right thing to do. I had no intentions of 'catching' him, yet I discovered as soon as I awoke that gossip was already spreading.” Mrs. Thornton saw her son cast a steely glare in her daughter's direction and realized that Fanny was the one who shared that information with her as well.

“I had no greater motivation to accept your son at that juncture other than to gain his fortune or to save my reputation, neither of which would have been fair to a man in love. Last evening,” Miss Hale paused and directed a tender gaze on John, who was beaming back at her. “Last evening, we each had a chance to examine our feelings and explain them to each other. This time I accepted his offer because I love him and he loves me.”

Mrs. Thornton's brow furrowed, she was having a hard time following the time line. “You met in London then?”

“Aye, Margaret even helped us get an investor for Marlborough Mills.”

It would be easier for Mrs. Thornton to maintain her anger if John didn't look so happy. But her anger was already morphing into disappointment that she'd no longer be first in her son's affections, and it wouldn't be fair to throw that into the conversation. “You better sit down and tell me about this investor then,” she conceded and gestured to the tea service.

“I'm sorry mother, I will tell you all about it this evening. We must go now, the cab is waiting.” She hadn't expected that Miss Hale would physically take him away from her so soon and it stung. “I must speak to Mr. Hale.”

Her gaze shifted to Miss Hale. “You haven't been home yet?” A small amount of pity emerged for Miss Hale. “You don't know?”

Miss Hale's face went ashen and she responded tremulously, “Mother?”

“I saw her yesterday, she could barely speak. She asked me to...” it was too much to concede to Margaret Hale right now that she had agreed to advise her as a daughter, but the girl deserved to know the truth about her mother “... well, she said she was dying.”

The poor girl faltered and would have fallen if John hadn't been there to catch her. Mrs. Thornton sighed, “you must go.” She watched her son help his fiancée out the door and it felt like he took a bit of her life, her purpose with him.

As soon as the cab had left she rounded on Fanny. “What happened in London?” Fanny launched into a gushing review of the sights she'd seen in her short visit to town. Mrs. Thornton had no patience for Fanny's nonsense at the moment and cut her off. “Never mind all of that, you may talk about the exhibition later. How did you meet Miss Hale in London and more importantly, how did they come to be engaged?”

“Well!” Exclaimed Fanny in a pet, “I was only two displays at the exhibition away from where we met Miss Hale. John was giving a presentation to a group of investors at the exhibition when who should walk up but Miss Hale! She and John got into an argument about not knowing each other, or presuming to know each other, or some such thing, so I decided to intervene with Miss Lattimer. Then Margaret's other suitor, Mr. Lennox came up and started needling John, and before I knew it we were in one large group of people all staring at each other awkwardly. We were all about to walk away and John was ready to hustle me off to the next train home when Lady Wentworth – one of the people who was listening to John's presentation – expressed an interest in John's factory. Apparently she was already acquainted with Mrs. Shaw, so she invited all of us to dinner. Oh Mother! You should have seen her house! It was so grand and elegant, though the Lady herself was shockingly under dressed.”

“Fanny! You're veering off course.”

Fanny huffed, but continued: “Alright, before dinner, Lord and Lady Wentworth got to telling the story of how they met and fell in love. Only, she had broken their engagement so they spent eight whole years separated and breaking their hearts. Well, all through the story John and Margaret are making calf eyes at each other. You should have seen it when Lord Wentworth said something about a blow to the head causing him to realize his feelings, John nearly smashed his teacup! I think Lord and Lady Wentworth knew exactly what they were doing, because at one point his Lordship asked John straight out what he would do if he found out his love was returned but he was in a crowded room and John looked like he wanted to leap across the room and claim Margaret!”

“Strangers meddling where they're not wanted.” Mrs. Thornton muttered.

“Well, at dinner, I was sat next to the handsome Henry Lennox. But he spent the whole meal either flirting with Anne Lattimer or staring at Miss Hale – which vexed me greatly! So I had nothing better to do than watch the others. All through the soup course John and Margaret were talking quietly and staring at each other. At one point they both stopped talking and just smiled like fools at each other for a full five minutes! I swear! That must be when he proposed.”

“At the dinner table?” Mrs. Thornton asked, incensed.

“Just so! Who would ever think stuffy old John would ever be so romantic!” Mrs. Thornton kept her ideas about the romance of proposing at the dinner table to herself. “Anyway, then Lady Wentworth started asking about the mill and the conditions of the workers and all that. John gave some boring answers. But then Margaret started talking about her friendship with the workers and – you'd never guess – but that just made her ladyship start directing her questions toward Margaret instead of John. And now, her ladyship is going to invest a lot of money in Marlborough Mills but only if some of the money is used to build a dining hall and school for the hands!”

“What nonsense! Useless frills that do nothing to the profit of the mill. But then, she may spend her money how she chooses and if it gets us out of trouble, I suppose it must be done.”

“Oh! And Margaret is going to talk to the union leaders about it! Something about better relations with the hands and Margaret having a better chance at getting their help.”

“Working with the union!”

“I know! And after they nearly killed her and all!”

“That girl is going to bring us nothing but trouble.”

“Oh, I don't know. I've never seen John so happy as he's been all day today. And she is accomplished!”

“But I heard her myself say that she couldn't play well.”

“It was all modesty! She played a duet with her cousin and it was so impressive I wanted to cry! Did you know she was raised in London with a governess and London masters and all? And she fixed my hair in the train, see how fashionable it is?” Fanny paused to preen and model her new hairstyle.

Mrs. Thornton let Fanny drivel on now about her trip. As she'd heard most of the particulars that Fanny was able to give, she let her mind wander to the revelations of the day. John was engaged. To that woman! John was besotted, Miss Hale was determined, Fanny was charmed. There was nothing she could do but grieve her losses. If she were honest, she'd been second in her son's affections for some time now. How was she to bear becoming second in her own home? And these changes to the mill have Miss Hale's stamp all over them!

~~~


Margaret scarcely registered anything from when she left Mrs. Thornton's parlor until she entered into her mother's room. Then she took in everything at once: Her mother's pale face, the quiver to her voice, the tremor to her hands, the labored breathing, her cough, Dixon's gentle tutting as she tried to feed her mother beef tea, the various medicine jars and powder envelopes scattered on the table, the drawn curtains, the sickly sweet stench of laudanum that hung in the room. “Mama.” Margaret breathed a sigh of relief because for all of those observations, the most important one was that her mother was still alive.

“Margaret!” Mama said faintly, “but … you're in London.”

“I met Mr. Thornton and his sister in London at the exhibition. Since they were coming home today, I returned with them. I missed home.” She dissembled a bit in order to spare her mother's feelings. She had scarcely been gone a week and her mother had deteriorated so fast. Thank heavens – or John – that she had come home early. “I have so many exciting things to tell you!”

Dixon gave over her seat to Margaret. “Was the … exhibition as wonderful … and exotic as it sounded?” Mama asked between labored breaths.

“Yes, every bit and more. But the most exciting news is not about the exhibition at all.” Margaret could scarcely wait. She felt as if her mother could slip away any second and she could not bear to not share her news. “Mr. Thornton and I are to be married!”

Mama rallied a bit at this news, “Mr. Thornton? He's … such a kind, thoughtful … man!”

“He is.”

“But Margaret, you … always seemed to ... well to dislike him.”

“That is all past Mama. You know, I believe I was somehow transferring all of my prejudices against Milton and manufacturing, and cotton into my idea of Mr. Thornton without actually taking stock of the man in front of me. Once I came to understand him, I realized that I love him dearly.”

“Oh Margaret! I'm … so happy for you!” The news seemed to give Mama some added energy because she surged up to embrace her daughter.

“He is with Papa now.”

“I should like … to see him before … he goes. You must … run down and tell him to come up … before he leaves, then come … back and tell me all of the … wonderful things you saw in London.” Such a long speech seemed to steal her mother's wind and she broke down in a fit of coughing.

“I shall Mama,” Margaret said with tears in her eyes. “I will be back shortly. Now, mind Dixon and try finish your beef tea while I'm away.”

Margaret exited the room and quietly closed the door. “Oh! I should not have left her—wicked daughter that I am!” moaned forth Margaret. She indulged in a moment of grief, leaning her head against the wall before she dried her eyes and went to the study, it wouldn't do to show her weakness before Papa.

~~~


As soon as they entered the house, Margaret had hastened upstairs to see her mother. His heart broke for the pain in store for her. He would do anything to shield her from pain, but he had no control over death. He continued on to Mr. Hale's study and knocked. Mr. Hale was surprised to see him.

“John, this is a surprise, back from London already? This isn't our day for reading, is it?”

“No, no, Mr. Hale, I have just now returned from London. I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter at the Great Exhibition and a dinner party following. As my sister and I were returning today, and Miss Hale was anxious to return home, we accompanied her back. She's gone up to see Mrs. Hale.”

“What? Margaret back from London so soon? I'm glad of it. Thank you John, you've been a good friend to us during my wife's illness.”

“I hope,” John paused, it was hard to find the words for such a momentous request. “I hope to become much more than that.” Mr. Hale's bewildered stare was not encouraging, but he must carry it through. “I've come today to ask for your permission to marry your daughter.” Did that sound like a business proposal? He thought to himself, maybe Margaret had some basis for her former prejudices.

“John, dear fellow, of course I give you my permission, there's no better fellow than you...” John beamed at the praise “... but I'm afraid Margaret has never liked you.” He wished that people would stop bring that up every time.

“Mr. Hale, I saw quite a bit of Miss Hale in London and her opinion of me has changed. I have offered for her and she has accepted. I love her. I too find it hard to believe at times, but she says she loves me as well and we must trust her to know her own heart.”

Mr. Hale broke into a smile and offered his hand. “Well then, John, I welcome you to the family with my blessing.”

“Thank you sir.” John paused to enjoy the moment. Unfortunately, he had a difficult topic to broach next and he wasn't quite sure how to raise it. “How is Mrs. Hale?” He asked with true concern. He saw the dark cloud sweep over Mr. Hale's face, obliterating his smile.

“Maria is... Margaret, Dr. Donaldson, even Maria herself seem to think... It's not good.”

“I'm sorry.” John said, placing a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. He sighed and forged ahead with what he had to say. “Margaret is rather distraught about her mother. She's told me how happy and loving her family is, and I believe she would like her whole family with her when she marries.” Nor did he wish to wait through three to six months of mourning to marry Margaret. He wanted to be there for her in the darkest times, not two miles away at Marlborough Mills.

Mr. Hale shook off the cloud of grief far enough to ask: “what are you proposing?”

Just at that moment a soft rap at the door announced Margaret's arrival. She wore a cheerful face when she greeted her father, but John could tell that she was masking her grief. He reached out his hand to her and she grabbed it and held tightly, though her strain did seem to ebb slightly at the contact. He hated to see her in pain and if he could ease it in any way he would.

“Margaret love, your father and I were just talking about your mother. I know how much you love her, how much it would mean to you for her to be at our wedding.” Margaret stifled a small sob, as if she had yet to consider that she might not. “How would you feel about getting married straight away, this week?” Margaret's eyes met his, brimming with tears and gratitude.

“Surely not,” said Mr. Hale, “surely it is better to wait until Maria is better.” The man was clearly having trouble grasping the reality of the situation. But just yesterday Mrs. Hale had told his mother she was dying. In his experience, the lady was more apt to downplay her illness than otherwise, so this open acknowledgement should be taken seriously.

“Oh, but it would give her something to look forward to, to plan, to raise her spirits during her illness” replied Margaret. “I have never aspired to a grand wedding, indeed all I want is to put on my favorite dress and be surrounded by all of the people I love.”

“Well, shall we see if Maria likes the idea then?” Conceded Mr. Hale.

“Yes, I was sent down to fetch you.” She turned to John, “Mother does not want you to leave without visiting her.”

As Mr. Hale led the way out of the study, Margaret held him back for a moment. “Thank you,” she whispered, “I'm sure this won't be the wedding you've envisioned.”

He folded her in his arms. “As long as you are the woman by my side it will be.” He dropped a quick kiss atop her head and ushered her up the stairs. “Besides, I will do anything in my power to make you, and by extension your mother, happy.”

“I don't deserve you!” Margaret cried and stopped on the step above him. “Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!”

“Not good enough! Don't mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.”

She turned toward him, her eyes at a level with his and gave him a teary smile. “I suppose we will just have to be contented to be content regardless of our respective merits.”

He couldn't resist the urge to lean forward and kiss her. “I love you,” he whispered.

“And I you,” she said tenderly.

“Margaret? John?” Mr. Hale's voice drifted down the stairs to them, breaking the magical moment.

Margaret gave him a sad smile then replied, “coming father.”

The lingering vestiges of playfulness from their tender moment on the stairwell seemed to evaporate as they entered the sick room. The elegant lady he had come to know had whithered over the last days. She had lost weight and her breathing was labored. Even though her pale face was haggard and pained, her sunken eyes shone with happiness. “Mr. Thornton … I'm so happy! I know you will … take care of our girl.” Her pauses for breath did nothing to diminish the touching joy of her speech.

“I promise that I will, to the best of my abilities,” John replied with the solemnity of a vow.

“And you will … marry soon?” He did not fail to note the entreaty in her eyes.

“Aye, we will have to consult with my Mother and procure a special license but I believe we can be married here within the week.”

“Only think Margaret, … Frederick may even be here … in time for your wedding!” John cast a confused look at his fiancée.

“My brother. He lives in Cadiz, I have written to him urging him to come, but his situation is … complicated.” Brother? Why have I never heard of him before? His curiosity may be aroused, but the plea in Margaret's eyes warned him not to push further at the moment. She would tell him all in due time.

“I must return to the mill, but I will stop and see to the marriage license first.” He turned to Margaret, “will you walk with me to the church?”

Her eyes looked conflicted, “but Mama...”

“Go Margaret … I'm afraid all of this … excitement has quite … worn me out. I will … rest for a while … then you may … tell me of all the … wonderful news from … London.”

“If that is what you wish Mama, I shan't be gone long.”

~~~


Margaret could breathe easier outside of the stifling air of the sick room. They were carefully weaving their way through the vendors in the street outside their lodgings and even the foul air from the butcher and the fish monger was preferable to the sick room. Her feelings were rioting out of control. Her mother was so much worse than she had been even a week ago. While Dr. Donaldson had informed her that her mother was dying before she left, it hadn't really settled in as the truth until she saw her today. She had lost a whole week of her mother's precious remaining time. And yet, amidst the grief and remorse, she could not repine the London trip. John was the only light she had in her life at the moment amidst the suffering. Heaven knows what would have happened between them had they not met in London, had Lady Wentworth not orchestrated that improbable dinner party. Would the gulf between them merely have widened until it was unsurmountable? His hand squeezed hers where it rested on his arm. She met his worried gaze.

“Oh, you need not worry about me, I am well,” she assured him with false cheerfulness.

His brows knit. “I understand your need to conceal your feelings from your father, the poor man is going through a hell I can only imagine and he needs your strength. But please don't feel you need to hide your grief from me. I can not help but worry about you.”

“She looked so frail, a mere shadow of herself.” Margaret's brave facade cracked, her eyes pooled with tears and the words began pouring out. “When I was eight, I was sent to London to live with my Aunt and share Edith's education. I loved my cousin and aunt, but the highlight of my life was always my trips home to Helstone. Perhaps because my primary home was in London, Helstone seemed a paradise, my parents seemed infallible, immortal, and invariably happy. Over the last year I've had to face several home truths regarding my parents fallibility, but nothing is so hard as facing their mortality.”

“There is nothing I can do or say to ease this burden, but I can tell you from experience that you can endure it. You have the comfort of being able to say goodbye to your mother.” She knew that he had not had this luxury with his father.

“Yes, and you saw the joy in her face when we spoke of the wedding. You gave her that.” She smiled up at him in gratitude.

~~~


If anyone had told him a year, a month, even two days ago that Margaret Hale would smile up at him with adoration he would have thought them mad. But here they were, walking to the church to obtain a license. His bleak colorless world was now open and alive with possibilities for the future. “You have given me everything by accepting my hand, the least I can do is share that joy with your family.”

“And to have my family with me, all of my family, is something I never thought possible,” she said with a small smile. “Oh dear, I suppose I owe you an explanation about Frederick.”

“I have been wondering why your father never told me he had a son.”

“I suspect it is because you are a magistrate.” No. He tamped down the worst suspicions. He could not believe that Margaret's brother, that Mr. Hale's son was a criminal. They were the most morally upright people he knew. “Fred was in the Navy, you see. But six or seven years ago he was a lieutenant under a tyrannical captain. He had impossible standards and beat the sailors who did not meet them and used the threat of violence and humiliation to push them to dangerous extremes. One day a man died under this tyranny. Frederick had no choice but to act. It was not for himself, or his own injuries, he rebelled; but he would speak his mind to Captain Reid in defense of others, and so it went on from bad to worse; and you see, most of the sailors stuck by Frederick. In the end, they put the captain and those officers who remained loyal to him in a boat and left them. The navy labeled him the ring-leader, a mutineer, a traitor. He's not been back to England since for fear of a court martial.” All of this was said in a low, despairing tone.

“Your innate defense against injustice is a family trait I see,” he said with a sad smile. Fighting the hurt that they hadn't trusted him, he added: “you must have known I would not blame him, or turn him in.”

“No, I know that you are a just man. But as you are also a magistrate it could have put you in a very awkward position. We could not have presumed so far on your friendship, but now you are family,” she looked down and blushed, “or you very soon will be.”

Any disappointment he had felt dissipated with that word. Family. “Yes, very soon.” He smiled down at her with love and admiration, his Margaret. Slowly dragging his mind away from her, he focused on the tale she had just told. He knew the punishment for mutiny well enough, there would be little he could do to save Frederick Hale's life if he was apprehended. “Do you know for certain that he's coming?”

“My mother plead so fervently and cried so bitterly that it was her dying wish to see her son again. She would not calm until she saw me write the letter and sent me out straight away to post it. I've had no response from him, but I'm certain he will come.”

“It will be risky.”

“I know, but he deserved to know about Mama. If you were in his position, would you not come?”

He thought about his mother. His strong, confident, capable mother reduced to Mrs. Hale's current state and his heart ached. “Aye,” he said somberly, “I would do anything to comfort her.”

They fell into silence, both reflecting on grim thoughts but comforted by the presence of the other. As they walked, John noticed the speculative looks from others as they progressed down the street. He had walked with ladies on his arm before – Anne Lattimer seemed rather fond of perching herself there – but this was different. He knew that his manner towards Margaret was different, reverent, reciprocated. The keenest of their observers seemed to pick up on this. Their marriage would be sudden, that couldn't be helped under the circumstances, but a bit of gossip beforehand may work in their favor toward smoothing the way. Fortunately, Margaret appeared too wrapped up in her grief to notice.

They reached the church in Crampton where the Hales had been faithful parishioners. The parson knew and respected the family, and was well aware of Mrs. Hale's declining condition. Under normal circumstances, he would not even consider performing such a hasty ceremony – in a private home no less! But as it was he could not deny a dying woman the comfort of seeing her daughter settled nor a bride the comfort of her mother's presence. He assured them he would contact the bishop directly to obtain the proper license. The date was settled for Friday, enough time for family to travel up, but soon for Mrs. Hale's sake.

“I must go to the mill now, I've much to catch up on. But a strange, insistent part of me doesn't want to let you out of my sight.” John said as they walked back towards the entrance of the church.

Margaret laughed, “I believe I would become quite the distraction lurking about the corners of your office.”

John smiled at the thought, “it is debatable whether your presence or your absence is more of a distraction.” She blushed and averted her eyes in just that way of hers that he loved and he suddenly wished that they were walking down that aisle as man and wife rather than merely betrothed. Friday could not come soon enough.

“I'm afraid you will just have to endure my absence for the afternoon, I really must return to Mama.”

“Yes, you must,” he sighed, “and I have to catch up on my usual mill business as well as plan our new endeavors. Do you think you will have the chance to talk to Higgins tomorrow while your mother rests?”

“Oh yes, I wouldn't want to neglect our project, or endanger the investment,” she responded frankly.

John's heart swelled at her concern in his business. She would put her mark on Marlborough Mills just as she had on the rest of his life. “If you bring him by the office around two we can talk over details.”

“I shall do my best to bring him around. He can be somewhat stubborn.” John fought the urge to roll his eyes at this understatement.

As they had reached the doors of the church, he lifted her hand to his lips and murmured, “until tomorrow then, my love.”

“Until tomorrow,” she replied somewhat breathlessly while holding his gaze. Reluctantly, he opened the doors and the world burst upon them. They were forced to go their separate ways but neither strayed far from the other's mind.

Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who has commented or given me feedback! Special thanks to Jim D. for his advice on the peerage and Regency naval practices. Unfortunately I can't implement his suggestions on here for continuity, but in subsequent versions of this story, Frederick Wentworth will be elevated even farther to a baron. Jim also pointed out that there already was a "Lord Wentworth" that Sir Walter references in Persuasion. But I'm sticking with Wentworth for the name recognition with the book (I don't want to strip away all of the names we know and love.)

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 7-9 (Post 3)

MorganAOctober 31, 2017 05:19PM

Re: A Circumstance of Tolerable Similarity Chapters 7-9 (Post 3)

EvelynJeanNovember 01, 2017 06:52AM

Re: A Circumstance of Tolerable Similarity Chapters 7-9 (Post 3)

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