Text and Art by EJourney
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Margaret of the North
The train chugged out of the
station in a shroud of grayish white smoke. As it gained speed and the smoke
swirled up above, the May countryside slowly unveiled itself, vibrant with the
young greens of fresh growth and luscious with a spectrum of yellows and reds
on meadows glistening from the lingering moisture of winter. Margaret knew
that it was not too long before this lush landscape, which she watched
distractedly from her train window, would give way to more grayish white smoke,
diffused but more pervasive, billowing not from the train but from the
ever-churning machines in cotton mills that meant life for the denizens of the
modernizing city of Milton. At that dense city, as different as it could be
from the hamlet she grew up in, a city of stale, particulate-laden air and of
somber shades of gray—from its atmosphere to its buildings to the mood of its
inhabitants—Margaret had chosen, on this fateful day and at the age of 22, to
make her home. There, she would marry, raise a family, and fashion a future
for herself that she hoped to look back on with some measure of fondness as
well as gratitude.
She smiled at her reflection on
the train window and gazed with not a small measure of amazement at the image
behind hers, a bit blurrier but unmistakable: the strong profile, tan
complexion, dark hair, and aquiline nose. John Thornton was deep in thought,
an arm resting on her shoulders, his head slightly bowed, and a smile playing
on his lips. Margaret studied his reflection for some moments, incredulous at
how quickly her fate changed; how the aching emptiness of resigning herself to
the loss of his regard was supplanted by a wondrous, unbelievable happiness at
regaining it. What sweeter bliss was there than getting what one's heart
desired—after that desire had seemed so impossible that, just a short hour ago,
one dared not hope at all?
Margaret had made a choice, a
clear and inevitable one, in her mind, that sprung not from thinking through
her alternatives. Instead, she merely yielded to sentiments that refused to be
tamed any longer and to happenstances so favorable that they renewed her belief
in a divine hand. She hardly ever made momentous decisions impulsively or
suddenly. Encouraged from childhood to be reflective by an intellectual
clergyman father whose collection of books she could explore at will, in a
small hamlet in the country free of distractions from too many competing
pursuits and compelling company, she was inclined to brood and mull a long time
over her choices. But in her mind, returning to live permanently in Milton was
not a question of making the right or wrong choice. It was, simply, the most
natural thing to do, after nearly two years of sorrow and mourning, to seize
happiness when it was right there before her. This happy choice was taking
Margaret back to Milton for the second time on this day.
Neither Margaret nor John noticed
when the train slowed once again and stopped. The train inspector knocked on
the door of their compartment and opened it. "Good afternoon, Mr.
Thornton, madam. May I see your ticket ma'am?"
John and Margaret were startled
to find themselves at another train stop, bustling with people getting off the
train, rushing out of the station. The inspector sensed Margaret's distraction
and addressed her in a low but commanding voice. She straightened and glanced
at him as he smiled at her apologetically, then she absentmindedly reached into
her bag and handed him a train ticket.
"This is for London, ma'am.
You are on the train to Milton."
Before she could reply with an
apology and inquire about how to obtain a proper ticket, John addressed the
inspector with a smile. "Inspector, Miss Hale is my fiancée and I am
taking her back home to Milton. We are getting married. Her ticket, it is
true, is for the opposite way but it costs the same, doesn't it? And what is
the harm? Are we not almost there?"
His tone was calm but firm,
assured that he would not be contradicted. The train inspector nodded,
"Yes, sir, Mr. Thornton. I suppose it will do. I am sorry Miss Hale. I
was just doing my duty."
"It's quite all right, Inspector.
I understand. In fact, I thank you for being so accommodating."
The inspector bowed and, scanning
the length of the train quickly, he stepped away. He blew his whistle and the
train began to move and was soon speeding back to Milton, less than an hour
Margaret smiled gratefully at
John. He drew her closer as he asked, "I hope it will be all right
meeting my mother again?"
"I did see her this
morning," she replied, "at the mill."
"You went to Marlborough
Mills?" His voice registered both surprise and curiosity.
"Yes. How else would I find
you so we could discuss business?" She answered, amused.
"Was Henry Lennox with
"No, he went for some
breakfast. We left London quite early." Margaret paused thoughtfully
before adding, "She is a formidable woman, your mother, frank and
sincere. I admire her for that. But I suspect she does not find it easy to
"She will probably find
fault in anyone I marry but particularly you, I'm afraid."
Margaret flashed him a worried
look and said nothing. She was not surprised at what he said. After all, Mrs.
Thornton did not think her, a Southerner with strange ideas, worthy of her
son. But it bothered her and she turned away to hide the momentary
apprehension in her eyes.
But John did catch it, fleeting
though it was, and explained ruefully, "You are unlike the other women my
mother meets in Milton and she may find you more daunting to deal with. I
suppose mothers are anxious about being replaced in the affections of their
sons when they marry." He added, his voice low and pleading for some
tolerance, "Mine is no exception."
Margaret chose to remain silent.
What, after all, could she say? She knew only too well how strongly attached
Mrs. Thornton was to her son and how her life had revolved around him and his
work. Margaret suspected that Mrs. Thornton would be unhappier than most
mothers at her son's marriage to any woman and, if that woman was Margaret, her
unhappiness would very likely be at its most profound. Margaret stared at the
now wilting yellow rose on her lap. She had been so happy, ecstatic almost, in
a way she had never known only moments before. She was not willing, just then,
for such an exquisite sensation to be disturbed by concerns about Mrs.
Thornton's distress. Margaret raised her head and turned her attention back to
the scenery outside her window. The greenery was gradually metamorphosing into
the structures on the outlying areas of a big industrial city.
She had been in that city earlier
in the morning, accompanied by Henry Lennox in his capacity as adviser on the
handling of her newly acquired wealth. She convinced herself that they came on
important matters of business, to present a proposition to John Thornton that
would keep Marlborough Mills in operation. But John Thornton was nowhere in
Milton. Even his mother did not know where he was.
Margaret left barely two hours
after she had arrived, certain yet again, as she had been a year ago after
moving back to London, that she would never return to Milton. She left with a
leaden heart, her spirits sinking to depths almost as low as when she lost her
parents. It perplexed her, this profound disappointment, this unexpected
feeling of dejection. Did she not convince herself before undertaking that
journey to expect nothing? Not the success of the business proposition, much
less the fulfillment of hopes she had kept buried in her heart, but which she
could now admit she had also kept alive. When she left London for Milton on
this fateful day, she thought herself prepared for Mr. Thornton's indifference,
even rejection and yet, his mere absence had plunged her into inexplicable
But fate, God, or luck intervened
and at a train station midway to London, Margaret's future took a blissful
turn. Now she was on her way back to Milton but, this time, she was going to
For those in the habit of
brooding, the new and unexpected invites reflection. It is a way to relive an
experience, to relish happy moments all over again and, consequently, convince
themselves that what happened was indeed real. Both Margaret—who had been
resigned to the certainty of mere regrets—and John—who had been anxious and
restless in the uncertainty of how she would receive his proposal when he
renewed it—felt compelled to replay in their minds the delicious unfolding of
their happiness in all its freshness. The improbability of meeting and being
reunited at a train station was such that it would bear reminiscing throughout
their lives. Between them, they would talk about every look, every expression,
every utterance, the tentative first kiss, and the passionate ones that came
after. To their children and their grandchildren, they would focus on the
wonder, the unexpectedness of it all, the unlikely setting, the sequence of
coincidental events. But at this time, dazed and bewilderingly happy, they
affirmed—with each recollection of events of the past hour or two and the
plethora of emotions they elicited—that they were indeed in this train,
together, on their way back to Milton.
Margaret first came to Milton
when her family had taken up residence there, for a relatively short 18
months. But what months they were! Packed with turmoil and sorrow, unknown to
her, at 19, until then. Her father, in a matter of conscience, had given up
his life in the clergy and decided that it was in this rapidly growing city
that he could find meaning as well as gainful employment. Unhappily uprooted
from a sheltered life in the idyllic south, Margaret found Milton strange,
harsh—the lives of too many of its inhabitants attended by perpetual need and
suffering; the baskets of food and the few coins she could offer too meager to
ease the privation and despondency among the few she knew. Those months showed
her how helpless she was in the face of pervasive poverty.
Those 18 months also claimed the
lives of her parents and a friend she had made from among the workers. They
marked the nearly simultaneous death of the parents of six children, one of
them by suicide and the other by wasting away from grief. And, amidst all
these, she had fallen in love, though unknowingly at first. John Thornton had
proposed to her, professing love so strong, so new in her limited experience
that she could not comprehend it. In retrospect years later, she concluded
that the proposal was also ill-timed. It had come on the heels of the
strikers' riot and his sister's irksome remark, echoing his mother's scornful
notion that Margaret had set her sights on John to elevate herself and her
family from their current pecuniary state. As yet naive about affairs of the
heart, hurt and offended at such insinuations, Margaret dwelled upon her
initial dislike of Mr. Thornton. Then, she fueled that dislike with the
thought that the Thorntons held a disapproving and uncompromising disdain for
She bluntly rejected Mr.
Thornton's proposal although she had begun to take an interest in him, as each
contentious encounter revealed to her his real character. Ruled by her mind
and unwitting of her heart, she did not recognize what that interest meant.
Her love blossomed in quiescence, guarded from her awareness, from people
around her and, most of all, from Mr. Thornton. But such sentiments could not
be repressed for too long and, being inclined to introspect, she arrived soon
enough at the realization that his good opinion mattered much to her, that she
valued it even more than her brother's. By then, it was too late. He had
already caught her at a flagrant lie: She told police she was not at the train
station the night of an unfortunate accident that led to the death of a man.
It was a lie that she assumed cost her the high regard he had for her.