Margaret of the North (5 page)

BOOK: Margaret of the North
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Before Mrs. Thornton could lead
Margaret away to her room, John asked his mother in a low voice, "You did
set her up in the large bedroom?"

"Of course.  Everyone,
including the servants, might as well begin to get used to that room being
finally occupied."

**************

The room into which Mrs. Thornton
placed Margaret was spacious but sparer than the rest of the house.  The walls
were predominantly dark blue with fleur-de-lis gold motifs and the heavy
curtains on the one huge window on the courtyard side were of an even darker
shade of blue.  A large canopied bed stood somewhat off center, its headboard
against the wall perpendicular to the window.  By its foot, was a large
fireplace, in front of which were a table and two armchairs protected by the
same netting that could be found everywhere in the house.  A dresser with a
matching chair against the same wall as the headboard and a writing table and
chair on the opposite wall not far from the door completed the furnishings. 
The room imparted the same steeliness as the rest of the house but escaped the
oppressiveness of its heavy alabaster decorations.

Though it was a relatively warm
day, Margaret shivered a little.  She resisted an urge to run out of the room
in search of John, to seek warmth in his embrace once more and calm the unease
that she felt about this house and his mother.  Instead, she looked around the
room for her valise and found it on the low table by the fireplace.  It was
easy to miss in the large room.  She sat on an armchair, opened the valise and
took out a shawl that she wrapped around herself, relaxing in its comforting
warmth.  Exhaustion now came upon her and she leaned back on the chair and
closed her eyes, partly to prevent tears that began to moisten them.  The
incipient tears perplexed her.  Despite the chill and vague apprehension she
felt being in this house, she was aware that she was happy, that she reveled in
knowing that she loved and was loved.  But, it had been a long, rather eventful
day.  She had just been through a range of opposing emotional planes—from hope
to regret and dejection, to hopeful incredulity and, finally, joy that nearly
made her heart burst.  Then, there was the distress at the impossibility of
explaining herself to Mrs. Thornton.

With that one act of turning back
and going home to Milton with John, Margaret had indeed followed her heart and
charted a course for her future.  What lay ahead of her was less predictable,
perhaps less tranquil, but also more adventurous than if she had stayed among
London relatives and friends who cared for her and with whom she was familiar. 

She was certain that her cousin
Edith would be shocked upon learning about her decision from Henry Lennox.  He
would walk into the Harley Street drawing room that evening to announce, in the
direct and impersonal manner he assumed as a lawyer, that Margaret had
abandoned London for Milton and gotten engaged to John Thornton, a manufacturer
from there. 

Born into wealth and ensconced in
luxury and fashionable society in London, Edith would fret, probably cry, in
the arms of her handsome husband, Captain Lennox, Henry's younger brother.  She
would lament her cousin's action, aghast to imagine that Margaret, her
companion and confidante of ten years, chose a filthy industrial place to find
her happiness in.  How could Margaret, beautiful, keen of mind, and now the
heiress of a large fortune, marry a man in the trade?  And how could Henry who
Edith had marked for Margaret, share this news with equanimity?

Together from age nine, Edith and
Margaret received instruction in the arts and skills of accomplished young
women, shared each other's tears and dreams, learned to anticipate each other's
desires and reactions, and thus, nurtured an affection for each other as close
as two sisters could have.  Edith would naturally expect a letter from Margaret
that would explain the particulars of this unforeseen decision.

Edith's mother, indulgent and
generous Aunt Shaw, would be dismayed but would merely shrug her shoulders and
remind herself that Margaret was, after all, of age, rich and, therefore,
independent, free to do as she wished.  She would tell Edith about meeting Mr.
Thornton—a tall gentleman, handsome in a dark sort of way, with an air of quiet
authority—who bade Margaret a solemn, even mournful, farewell when she left
Milton.  Mrs. Shaw attributed his lugubrious air, at the time, to mourning his
friend and teacher, Mr. Hale.  But Henry's news presented her with a new
interpretation.

Mrs. Shaw and her daughter, both
languid in temperament, knew enough of and accepted the independent streak in
Margaret's generally good judgment.  They would be inclined to believe—once the
letter was read, the likely groom described to Edith, and the shock passed—that
Margaret was in love.  A defensible reason, they would agree, the only one that
could compel anyone, especially Margaret, in need of neither beauty nor
fortune, to return to a place like Milton.

Margaret now openly acknowledged
to herself that she came back to Milton that morning because of John. 
Intuitively, she knew that it was with him that life could be happy in a way
she had never known and stimulating in challenges she would be facing for the
first time.  That Milton would be the place in which this future life would
happen seemed inevitable.  She could not imagine John in any other setting. 
Although her own preference would have been a town that also had the endearing
attributes of Helstone, she no longer felt the attachment she once had to the
hamlet where she grew up.  Margaret slowly slid into much needed slumber, her
thoughts dissolving into vague random dreams which were immediately forgotten
when she awoke an hour later.

**************

John had wanted to retreat to his
room and be alone with his thoughts.  But he knew he had to talk to his mother
and ease her mind about questions that he sensed were distracting her usual
demeanor.  He did not know quite how to explain to her where he had gone and
what happened during the fateful stop at the train station.  He hesitated, for
the first time, to give her even a glimpse into the deep love he had for
Margaret and all the agony, hope, and bliss it occasioned.  On the way home,
relishing the wonder of having Margaret nestled in his arms, as if she had
always belonged there, he had neither the time nor the inclination to rehearse
what he should say to his mother.

Mrs. Thornton sat without a word,
occasionally glancing at John who knew she was waiting for him to explain the
events of the last two days.  He began, "Mother I am sorry to have left
without a note or word about where I was going.  I know it must have worried
you very much." 

He paused and faltered a little,
"I needed to be alone and away from here to think more clearly about what
I must do next.  I took the first train going south towards London."  He
stopped and looked away, unsure how to proceed.

Although taken aback, her
curiosity was piqued  "London!  Did you go to see Margaret there?  Was it
about the mill or about her?"

"Well, in fact, I went to
Helstone."

"To Helstone!  Had she moved
back to that place?"

Mrs. Thornton's voice had grown
more agitated and John decided that straightforward was probably the best way
to talk to her.  But how could he explain the turmoil he had been through or
the ensuing happiness that eventually overcame all the heartaches that came
before?

"I went to Helstone because
it seemed the farthest away in spirit from Milton as I could go."

"But I don't understand. 
Why did you want to get away from Milton?  Your life has been here, your
trials, your successes, those who have supported you."  She stared at him,
unable to hide the hurt in her eyes behind the skeptical tone of her voice.

He clearly saw her worry, sensed
the impatience in her manner but he was reluctant to confront her reproach.  He
hurried on to describe what happened.  "On the way back this afternoon, my
train stopped to let the London-bound train pass.  Margaret was on it and when
I saw her again, I could no longer deny that to be with her was what I wanted
most.  I am not a great believer in fate but, perhaps today at that train
station, it did favor me."

When John first confessed his
sentiments for Margaret, Mrs. Thornton felt as if a dagger had been thrust into
her chest.  Now that she was certain of being displaced in the primacy of her
son's affection to a woman she disliked, hearing him reaffirm that attachment
pierced deep into her heart.  Suddenly overwhelmed by what lay before her, she felt
the toll that exhaustion had taken on her spirit from days of worrying and
coping with unexpected, unpleasant events.  She could only respond with a
noncommittal "Yes, well, that was quite a coincidence meeting at a train
stop."

Then, not ready to accept the
waning of her influence, she said, "I did see Margaret at the mill this
morning.  She must have thought a lot about what I had said to her because she
admitted I was right that she knew nothing about the kind of man you were when
she rejected you."

If Mrs. Thornton had meant to
remind his son of a mother's wisdom and constancy, her attempt would appear to
have been futile.  John scowled at her with questioning eyes.  Dismayed, she
irritably explained, "Mrs. Hale asked me, before she died, to give counsel
to her daughter when I judged her to be acting inappropriately so I went to
talk to Margaret about the rumors of her improprieties at the train
station."

Suspicions of what exactly his
mother might have said to Margaret vexed John vaguely but he also thought it
more important, at the moment, to restore the effortless familiarity of past
interactions.  She looked worn out and he did not believe anything more needed
to be said about what happened that afternoon.  He smiled warmly at his mother
and said, "I understand.  I am glad that she was honest and frank with
you."

With his change in tone, they
both relaxed, almost regaining the intimacy they used to share.  His eyes
glowing with wonder and joy, John said, "Mother, I love Margaret very
much.  That she loves me as sincerely as I had wished for has made me happier
than even I imagined."

"Then, that is all I could
hope for.  I was aware that you remained attached to her."  Mrs. Thornton
answered simply, unwilling or unable to reveal anymore of her apprehensions. 
She was exhausted with having endured so many explanations in one day and was
merely desirous then of being alone and getting some respite.  "I am happy
that you are happy.  You deserve to be after all you have been through."

She got up and gently laid a hand
on his shoulder, "We've both had a long day and it's not over yet.  You
need to freshen up and I need to lie down and rest for a little while."

John was uncertain if his
explanation allayed Mrs. Thornton's anxieties.  She did not exactly seem satisfied
with what he told her but he thought he could do no more.  What else was there
to say?  All his mother really needed to know was there for her to see.  He
knew, however, that acceptance was going to be very difficult for her.  So much
had happened in recent weeks that exacted a heavy toll on both of them and for
her, the coming of Margaret was, perhaps, devastating on top of the closing
down of the mill.  He had faith, however, in his mother's resilience and
strength and he was certain that, eventually, she would adjust and be at peace
with her changed world.  In any case, he was, too full of Margaret and this
unexpected state of joy and exhilaration to concern himself with his mother for
too long.

Alone in his room, he marveled at
how differently he felt and how his outlook and his future changed almost
abruptly from early that morning.  He had quit this room restless and
despondent.  While there was, in fact, much that could not be predicted about
his future in cotton manufacturing, he was not truly deeply apprehensive about
it.  In fact, he felt a certain excitement at the challenges he would be facing
with beginning anew, as late in life as it was.  No, what had earlier
disquieted him was not so much about his rising again from his fall but the prospect
of the rest of his life without Margaret.  When working to save the future of
the mill occupied his time and energy, he had not much time to think of other
things and Margaret intruded into his consciousness only in the hours before
sleep could take over.  When the mill closed down, she invaded his thoughts
much more despite his belief that she could never be his.

This evening, Margaret was
separated from him only by a couple of doors, probably resting, in the room
intended to be his marriage chamber.  Still in the throes of happiness so new
and, only yesterday, so improbable, he felt he could not yet endure being away
from its source for too long.  He ached to be with her, to hold her, to kiss
her warm, yielding lips once more.  He stared at the door a long time, thinking
how easy it would have been to open it and go to her.  Instead, he walked
restlessly back and forth until finally, he headed for the washbasin.  Later,
he changed his shirt, and went out for a short visit to the mill.  Perhaps, Williams
was still around.

**************

Margaret was roused from her nap
by a knock from one of the servants who came in to ignite the fireplace and
light the lamps on the bedside and writing tables.  It had gotten dark and,
glancing at a clock on the writing table, she found she had less than a half
hour to freshen up for dinner.  She had more than enough time.  Without a
complete change of clothes, her toilette was going to be relatively simple and
brief.  She walked into the adjoining bathroom and splashed water on her face a
few times, welcoming its bracing coolness.  Then, she pat her cheeks and pursed
her lips enough to bring color back to her face.  After rearranging the
recalcitrant wisps of hair back into her chignon, she felt she was ready to
face this new and, as yet, strange household. 

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