If you haven’t yet started my free serial sequel to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, you can find the first chapter here, then follow the links at the end of each post to the next. I add a new episode each Wednesday. Last week ended with a series of letters, mostly from John to Margaret, as they struggled through a few weeks apart, trying to form a plan for their wedding in Milton without much encouragement from John’s mother or Margaret’s aunt.
Chapter 5 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton – copyright Jill Hughey 2014
Margaret tugged on the strings of her reticule, listening avidly for the sounds of an approaching locomotive. Mr. Thornton, whom she had not seen in weeks, should arrive on the train at any moment. They would return together to Milton where she would stay under the same roof with him and his dragon. (It was sinful for her to think of Mrs. Thornton by that term. She simply could not help it after the horrid letter that had neither welcomed her visit nor congratulated her on the engagement. Indeed, the terse instructions could have been intended for a maid about to enter servitude at the house at Marlborough Mills!)
Captain Lennox had escorted her to the station and now rocked on the balls of his feet, enjoying the bustle of activity around them, unaware of his cousin-in-law’s pulse soaring as the southbound train thumped and screeched on the rails. Margaret scanned the opening doors of the carriages. She spied Mr. Thornton as he unfolded himself a few cars away. He stepped onto the platform before the train had even stopped.
“Ah, there he is,” the captain said. “Mr. Thornton, I have taken the liberty of buying Miss Hale’s ticket,” he called as a greeting.
Margaret did not speak. She could not, silenced again by the fact that Mr. Thornton was real, that he had come for her, that she would, indeed, go with him to plan their wedding in Milton. He shook her hand then tucked it around his arm, keeping his fingers pressed over hers as he and Captain Lennox shared the normal trivialities. She realized she was squeezing his forearm in an unladylike way, but when she relaxed her grip, he tightened his hand over hers as if he liked the pressure. He gazed down at her for a moment with a burning, hawkish focus that made her breath catch until his attention returned to Captain Lennox.
The northbound train came within a quarter hour. Captain Lennox helped with her few pieces of luggage, and then she was bundled into a carriage car with Mr. Thornton.
The train pulled out. Mr. Thornton turned to her and captured her face between his hands despite the rocking of the car. He leaned his forehead against hers. “Let us not be separated again for so long, love. I have been hard at work yet only half there all these weeks.”
She nodded and let herself be drawn in against him. He kissed her, thoroughly and well, before he nestled her against his side, where they rode for a long time in silence, blissful enough in their companionship to not need conversation.
* * *
Mrs. Thornton’s welcome was everything civil and nothing warm. Margaret was not surprised by their interaction, nor by the comfortable yet severe guest chamber she was assigned, nor by the directive to be at the dinner table in an hour. She was given the service of a maid named Jane, whom she recognized as one who had been in the house during the riot.
After changing into an evening dress and allowing Jane to arrange her hair in a feminine manner that need not survive the rigors of travel, Margaret dismissed the servant. She stood at the window to look down on the cobbles of the yard and the mill hands who continued their labors even though twilight dimmed the sky. The workers talked, and sometimes shouted, as they went from one building to another, carting and carrying with the industriousness of northern people. The white fluff of cotton offered the only softness in the scene, where it blew into the corners and caught at the edges of walls and curbs, muting the sooty, muddy angles of things.
Fifty-eight minutes after entering her room, she exited again to follow the dim hall to the stairs. John waited below, his lips curved in a restrained smile, his shirt for the evening blindingly white. “It is such a great pleasure to have you here,” he murmured when she reached the bottom step.
“Thank you,” she quietly replied, well aware of Mrs. Thornton who hovered at the door to the dining room, her face pale and sharp above the high black neckline of her gown. They sat, the three of them, rather spread out at the table, Mrs. Thornton pointedly occupying the end she would be expected to relinquish some undetermined day in October.
“I believe the last time you dined here was during the strike,” Mrs. Thornton observed over her soup.
“You hosted the dinner for a Mr. Horsfall, if I am not mistaken,” Miss Hale replied. “I was surprised at that time at how much I enjoyed the conversation of the men. I suppose that was the beginning of my education in business,” she said with a smile to John.
Mrs. Thornton held her spoon paused in mid-air. “I believe you to have been more sympathetic to the strikers, at that time, than to men like my son, who nearly lost his business due to that strike.”
Margaret was not surprised at Mrs. Thornton’s words. The woman had never trusted or liked her, and had discouraged her son’s affections accordingly. Margaret could only be thankful, if puzzled, by her making her attack so early and with John in the room.
“I think I have learned to be sympathetic to both sides,” Margaret ventured.
“Do you still have a soft-hearted affinity for the hands?” Mrs. Thornton asked.
“Mother,” Mr. Thornton said, the warning clear though dampered by an indulgent softening at the corners of his eyes.
Margaret swirled her spoon through her broth. “I was raised as a vicar’s daughter. My days were filled with helping the unfortunate members of our parish through activities you would call charity, Mrs. Thornton. When we came to Milton, I became friends with the Higgins family, especially with the daughter, Bessy, who was dying of consumption caused by her work in a mill, though not here at Marlborough. Through them, I became aware of Boucher’s family, and others, whom we helped to feed during the strike, even though Mr. Thornton had explained that this only extended their agony.” She looked up from her bowl to Mrs. Thornton. “I do not think I would change my actions during that time,” she admitted quietly. “I was watching a friend die from her work, watching innocent children starve, and almost on the same day I observed those injustices, I came here for a lavish dinner given by those who — forgive me! — claimed to be unable to pay a better wage.”
She paused while Mrs. Thornton frowned back at her. The mouth might not literally breath fire but her eyes fairly crackled with heat. When the matron remained silent, Margaret continued. “As I said, my view has broadened enough to understand that the disparity is not so simple to explain and that blame cannot so easily be placed on one party or another. I can only claim now to be sympathetic to both sides, partly guided by Mr. Thornton who, I believe has personally supported the schooling of two of the Boucher children and has also allowed for a source of sustaining food for his workers here at the mill.”
The dragon could hardly argue against the actions of her own idolized son, even though she made it clear she did not condone them. “I am not certain his broadened views will be good for his business. My son is a hard man because he has had to be,” she insisted.
“To be sure. Yet, his kindnesses make him worthy of respect in all circles, including those of his workers,” Margaret said quietly, letting the footman take her barely tasted soup. “I am not certain how to assign a monetary value to respect, though Mr. Thorton did tell me that some of the hands voiced a willingness to work for him should the opportunity arise.”
“A happy circumstance that made restarting the mill much easier,” he interjected. He leaned to one side, peering past the tall centerpiece to observe his mother. “I warned you, Mother, that Miss Hale may appear to be a soft flower but she has a sturdy stem. I assure you, her only action during the strike that I regret is her putting her head in the way of the wooden clog that was meant for mine.”
Mrs. Thornton pressed her lips closed.
John continued, “This plain speech pleases me, even if you both have spoken about me as if I am not here. You know, Miss Hale, my mother has always been my confidant. We enjoy open discourse on every topic we discuss. It is my hope that you will never shrink from expressing your opinion in our household.”
Margaret could see that his support of her actions and his invitation to join in their open discourse wounded Mrs. Thornton. For her own part, she could not imagine having to explain herself so candidly more than once a fortnight, or perhaps even once a month, no matter how sturdy John claimed her to be, or how much encouragement he offered.
The servant presented a platter of trout, and she thought she knew how the fishes must have felt in their last moments of freedom, when they shimmered in a clear burbling stream. She’d been eager to take the delicious bait of John’s love, but a barbed hook had been set, too.
Chapter Six will be posted here on March 5, 2014.