Last week, John and Margaret were reunited in Milton to plan their wedding, including a stop to choose wedding rings. They are returning to the house to discuss the wedding breakfast with Mrs. Thornton, who still disapproves of John’s choice of bride.
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Chapter 7 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
copyright Jill Hughey 2014
As Margaret and John entered the mill yard, the smell of food wafted to the gate. “Is that coming from the mill’s dining room?” Margaret asked.
“‘Dining room’ pays it more of a compliment than it deserves. We have no linens or fine china on the tables, I assure you,” John replied.
“What do you call it, then? Can I see it?”
He checked his watch. “We have a few minutes before Mother expects us.” He knew Margaret had been a friend to some of the workers. She would not be disgusted, as other ladies might, by the mean manners or rustic clothing of the laborers.
The interior of the brick cookhouse was dark but smelled divine. “Miss Hale?” a timid voice called.
“Mary Higgins!” Margaret said, rushing to embrace the young woman. John stood back, not wishing to intrude on the reunion with the shy girl whom, he had to admit, had gained ability and confidence from her work in the cookhouse.
A few hands were eating an early supper. Always attuned to conversations around him, he could hear snippets of their whispered comments. “…richer than a queen now, some say.” “Hale, the one who’ll marry the master.” “…helped Boucher’s children.”
He heard Margaret promise Mary she would visit again soon, and beg for her to tell her father, Nicholas, that she was eager to see him as well. John did not mind her friendship with that family. He knew enough of Higgin’s character that he considered him a friend, too, of a sort. His lips thinned with a suppressed smile. Who would ever imagine such a thing before Miss Hale had challenged him to speak — and listen — to his hands as he would to other men?
She returned to him and he brought her to Mother. He retreated only as far as his desk in the sitting room. He worked on his ledger while the sound of their voices eased the tedium of figuring the numbers. His mother’s voice, so familiar and succinct, came to his ear easily, but the lower tones of his beloved teased him, sometimes too quiet to decipher the words. In just one month, her gentle voice would be a daily sound in his house, perhaps the first voice he heard each morning and the last before he went to sleep.
He hoped it would be so.
Deep in the cotton fluff of such romantic musings, he heard Mother’s voice sharpen. “I know you have sympathetic sensibilities, but that is taking your ideas too far.”
He sat back in his chair. He wanted honest speaking but would not have Mother riding over Margaret’s feelings the second day in a row.
“I do not wish for anything as elaborate the wedding breakfast, of course. A simple meal would make them feel included.”
“Next you’ll want me to host their weddings.”
“No — ”
Mother interrupted. “There are hundreds of hands, too many to feed all at once.” She brushed at her black skirt. “I thought Fanny had outlandish ideas of how much attention her wedding should have,” she said disapprovingly.
Margaret bowed her head. John strained to hear her denial. “I did not mean it as attention for myself.”
“What is this about?” he asked quietly.
Mother rose to her feet, stiff and righteous. “She thinks we should have a meal for the hands the day before the wedding. As if I won’t have plenty to do.”
“I do not expect you to provide it,” Margaret insisted. “Mary Higgins and I could manage.”
“Pshh,” Mother scoffed as she paced across the wool rug, arms folded in stubborn irritation.
“Why?” he asked. Mother stopped. He did not want to challenge her so soon, but Margaret’s idea intrigued him.
“They are your people,” Margaret explained. “They returned to Marlborough Mills when you needed them. You told me on the train that they have brought the mill back up to production faster than you thought possible.”
“And now you want your due,” Mother said sharply. “You want all of them to meet Miss Margaret Hale, the great financier who gave them their jobs and now feeds the masses.”
Margaret went pale at the accusation. “They do not know about Mr. Bell’s money. How could they?” she asked, her voice resonating with denial.
“These laborers you love so well are not a simple as you think. They always know what direction the money flows,” Mrs. Thornton sneered.
Margaret turned to look at John, stricken. “I do not seek any recognition. I want them to see me as a friend, as they always have.” He rose to walk to her.
Mother spoke before he could offer any reassurance. “You expect to be a friend to the workers, even as Mrs. John Thornton?” she scoffed.
“Yes, of course,” Margaret said briskly. “I will be even more intimately connected with them because they are Mr. Thornton’s people.”
“I am his people!” Mother cried. She turned to glare at them, saw his hand on Margaret’s shoulder, and heard the seed of greedy truth in the words still echoing around the three of them. Her son was everything to her. He was all she had, the only sign of accomplishment in her life. She had been all he had, too, since the death of his father.
Somehow this vicar’s offspring had taken his heart. The wretched girl had not wanted his affection, leaving him to endure tortured, unrequited love for over a year. As a mother, Mrs. Thornton could not rejoice in his suffering, though she had hoped to never, ever, call this flower with a sturdy stem ‘daughter’. Now the flower bloomed here, looking pale and not very sturdy at all, yet he stood with her, his eyebrows arched in an expression of annoyance he usually saved for Fanny.
I must adjust, she thought. For better or worse, Miss Margaret Hale would be John’s people as well, and the old Mrs. Thornton had better learn to get along or she might lose her son for good.
“Excuse me,” she said as she walked stiltedly to the door. “I must see about dinner.”
Margaret shook her head as Mrs. Thornton’s footsteps echoed from the hall and then the steps to the downstairs. “I am sorry,” she said. “I never dreamt my idea would lead to such an argument.”
He squatted down and took both her hands in his. “She knows she was wrong just then. As you can imagine, she is not very good at apologizing, but she will adjust in how she thinks of you. Now, tell me what you wish to do for the workers.”
* * *
Dinner was nearly silent as each party mused on the argument from his or her own perspective. Margaret had been trained from girlhood to maintain a conversation in social situations. Tonight, she foundered. Topics that were interesting in Helstone or appropriate in London only sounded inane in Milton.
It was a relief when Jane meekly entered the dining room. “I am sorry, sir, but there is someone at the kitchen door to see Miss Hale.”
“Who is it?” he asked.
“Mr. Higgins, sir,” she said, her eyes flicking nervously to Mrs. Thornton.
Margaret tried not to smile with anticipation as she excused herself, already sliding her chair back before John could assist her. Any interruption short of fire would have pleased her, but the prospect of seeing her old friend made her truly happy.
Mr. Higgins waited outside. John seemed momentarily uncertain where to entertain a mill hand while his mother fumed in the dining room above them. They settled at the servant’s table below stairs. Higgins agreed to have a cup of tea and a taste of the rolled jam pudding Miss Hale and Mr. Thornton had foregone due to his visit.
“I came after my shift,” he said. “Didn’t know how long you’d be in Milton this time, though I was happy to hear you’ll be a proper resident soon.”
Miss Hale quizzed him on the welfare of the people she knew in his neighborhood, and when she felt satisfactorily informed, she looked to Mr. Thornton. “Perhaps we could ask Mr. Higgins what he thinks of my idea?”
John had not been entirely enamored of her wish to host a wedding meal for the mill hands. He had patiently explained to Margaret that, though he may have expanded his scope of responsibilities toward his workers in the past year, he still abhorred the idea of any kind of charity. The hands paid a tiny sum for the meals at the cookhouse, for example. “I think that Mr. Higgins may be just the adviser we need,” he agreed.
“I had hoped to have a meal for the hands on the day before the wedding. Something simple, but enough so they feel included. We are all part of Marlborough Mills, after all.”
Higgins was not the instant champion she had imagined. In fact, he could not hide his skepticism. “I only know what my Mary does to feed a few at a time. To have food for hundreds…and all off work at the same time…and then there’s those who won’t go back straight away after a break like that.” He looked up under his brow at Mr. Thornton. “The mill would be closed for hours.”
Margaret sagged in defeat. “That will never do.”
“ ‘haps something at the end of the shift? A little something that the hands could stay and enjoy in the yard, or take home.”
Margaret perked back up. She looked at the crumbs of pudding left on the plate in front of Mr. Higgins. “Cake,” she said. “Is that acceptable?” she asked, turning to John. “May we give each of them a slice of cake the night before the wedding?” she asked eagerly.
“That seems a fair compromise,” he said.
“I will take care of everything,” she assured him. “I will make the cakes — or at least help — in London so I can bring them with me. It will be no trouble to Mrs. Thornton at all. I promise you.”
“You will wear yourself out,” he cautioned.
“I must have an activity other than wedding gown fittings to fill the next four weeks.” In truth, the thought of returning to London, of once again separating from John, made her knees wobble more than facing down the dragon.
Higgins rose to leave. “It does my heart good to see the two of you. Think what Bessy would say about you marrying the master!”
They followed him out, standing in the dark near the stable yard as he began his walk home. “What a day!” she said. “It seems like another lifetime when Mrs. Thornton took me on a tour of the house, yet it was just this morning.”
He slipped an arm around her shoulder. She willingly moved into his side and looked up into his face. It was the only invitation he required to lean down for a kiss. As he tasted her mouth, her fingertips pressed into the lapels of his jacket.
“Ah, love,” he murmured, his hands tight on her waist. “Four more weeks. It is an eternity we will both struggle to fill.”
* * *
Chapter 8 will be posted on March 19. The wedding approacheth!