I loved North and South so much that I wrote a sequel that I am sharing as a free serial. This week, Margaret finally comes to Milton for good, and shares the happiness of her upcoming wedding with the mill workers. If you need to start at the beginning, click to go to Chapter One.
Chapter 8 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
– copyright Jill Hughey 2014
Two days before the wedding, Margaret once again rode the train into the Milton station, this time accompanied by Aunt Shaw and all three Lennoxes. She saw John almost immediately, his tall hat in one hand as he searched the passing cars for a glimpse of her. When he spied Margaret, her nose all but pressed to the glass, he strode down the platform alongside the car until it glided to a stop.
He had come to London only once during the month before the wedding, visiting for only an evening and one morning last week before returning to his duties at the mill. The interlude had not been enough for either of them.
Now, she was finally here.
He brought her fingers to his lips. “Never to be parted again,” he said against her hand, his back to the others so that only she could hear the quiet, fervent words.
The waiting had, indeed, seemed endless, once they knew one another’s hearts. She smiled up at him, her eyes a little teary. She’d been glad she’d had the cakes to make with the help Dixon and Edith’s cook. They had chopped, stirred, and baked for ten days, until enough fruitcake for seven hundred slices sat wrapped in rum-soaked cheesecloth, finished and ripening before Mr. Thornton’s visit, in fact. Aromatic crates packed with cake now rode in a freight car, Miss Hale having personally supervised their loading while her family stood back, lamenting that she displayed less gentility with every passing day.
“You no longer smell like cloves,” John added with a spark in his eye.
She blushed, quelling the unseemly retort that he smelled just as he always did, of masculine soap with a hint of the mill.
He led the party to two carriages. She could not stop from looking over her shoulder at the freight car.
“The bride is worried about her cakes,” Captain Lennox said.
“Then let us see all the luggage into the wagon while the ladies wait,” Mr. Thornton suggested.
Aunt Shaw offered a beleaguered sigh to Miss Hale and Mrs. Lennox as she leaned back against the squabs. “Such fussing over these cakes, Margaret, yet you could hardly be bothered to choose trimmings for your wedding bonnet. You are becoming eccentric.”
“Yes, Aunt,” Margaret said. Nothing would mar this day. Not Aunt’s criticism or the prospect of entering the dragon’s lair. Nothing would dampen her spirits when she could look across the platform to see Mr. Thornton engaging two porters to move her precious crates, her trousseau and her companion’s traveling cases. Never to be parted again, he had whispered to her, with enough yearning in his voice to match her own.
Margaret spent the next morning as might be expected: consulting with Mrs. Thornton, Aunt Shaw, and Edith about the details of the upcoming wedding day. Aunt Shaw pursed her lips through most of the discussion, but managed to limit her final comment to “There is a shocking lack of flowers, lace, and attendants, but what is one to do with a bride who is more interested in making cake for peasants than ornamenting her own wedding?”
Mrs. Thornton nodded slowly, not sure if the insult targeted her, Margaret, or both of them.
Finally, in the late afternoon, Margaret was free to find Mary Higgins at the cookhouse to finalize their plan for the end of the shift, then Mary returned to the house to help with the cutting of so many slices.
Margaret borrowed an apron from the cook and settled in at the servants’ table, since the beleaguered servant needed her kitchen free to prepare another fancy dinner for tonight.
Mary tasted a crumb of rich, tawny cake that broke away as she cut her first slice. “Oh, Miss Hale,” Mary sighed. “Such a treat this will be for the hands. All the boys have been guessing at what kind of cake you’ll serve and all the girls are talking about how they’ve never seen a proper bride.”
Margaret continued slicing while she thought about that expectation. She’d planned to wear an old gown with a serviceable, plain cloak from her prior time in Milton. She did not want to be pretentious. Perhaps, though, she should wear something nicer, for the girls. She and Mary worked steadily yet still barely finished in time for Jane to dress her for dinner.
Years of training from both her mother and Aunt Shaw prevented her from fidgeting like a child at the table. In truth, her arms were so tired from slicing cake that she could barely lift them to feed herself while the toes of her left foot tapped an irregular rhythm of excitement, safely out of sight. She had, by some miracle, been placed at John’s right. He indulged her by checking his watch regularly, knowing she wanted to be at the serving tables in the yard from the very first hand’s arrival to the last. Her commitment to the project baffled him but the anticipation in her eyes was payment enough to make him adhere to her plan.
“It is 7:45,” he said quietly as he set his napkin aside.
“This is nonsense,” Aunt Shaw said. “You cannot mean to go out among those hordes in a satin gown. Your slippers will be ruined. Honestly, Margaret, what do you mean by all this? Isn’t it enough that you baked all those cakes by your own hand?”
Mrs. Thornton remained blessedly silent, having uttered not another word against the project after her outburst during Margaret’s visit.
“I know I am a disappointment, Aunt,” Margaret said as she allowed John to lead her from the room. Jane waited at the door with her best cloak, an elegant black creation lined with a shimmering pale blue satin that matched her gown.
Mrs. Thornton, Aunt Shaw and all the Lennoxes were watching from the house windows as the noisy mill equipment ground to a stop. Streams of disheveled workers, eager to get home, poured from the buildings. Mary and her crew had set up five tables far enough apart that separate lines could form, two for men, two for women, and one for children, to try to avoid any bullying. Boys ran ahead of the crowd at full tilt to be the first then cried out with excitement as they shoved the first bites of the treat into their mouths. The queues at the tables quickly lengthened.
Margaret stood among the waiting women and children, her gown gleaming like liquid silver in the light of the lamps as she greeted her special guests. The workers stood back timidly until one girl with her head wrapped tightly in a kerchief pointed to the silver comb in Margaret’s hair. “You look like a princess.”
“I am not. I’m just a regular person, like you.”
An older girl asked if she could touch her cloak. Soon, women clustered around her and sighed at the smoothness of the satin. “Feels like a puppies ear,” one said. “Or a baby’s ass,” suggested another. They all laughed companionably, including Margaret.
John stayed by the men’s tables, tall enough to keep an eye on Miss Hale over the crowd. Some of the men who knew him offered congratulations and gave him joking permission to be off work for his wedding tomorrow. “We’ll keep your place for you for one day, master,” they said, mocking the overseer’s voice. “After that, off you go.”
He nodded with uncharacteristic familiarity and humor. “Fair enough.”
Most of the workers stood in the yard to eat their cake, taking this unprecedented moment to talk with friends without the clatter of the workplace interfering. They admired the pretty young bride who seemed such an amiable contrast to the unbending master. She moved among the clusters of people now, urging extra slices on them to take home to their families. A clump of boys followed her, hoping for third or fourth servings.
Someone began to play a tiny flute. With the unplanned music came singing and even dancing for a few tunes, until the cakes were gone and the exhaustion of the workday caught up with the hearty laborers. John had come to Margaret’s side when the joviality began, and Higgins and the overseer stood behind, so she felt quite secure as a few of the workers made free to thank her for her kindness to them.
One of the rougher men bobbed before her, a nubby cap clutched in his hands. “All the lads will want to work here at Marlborough when they hear that pretty ladies hand out cake at the end of the day.”
“I am sure the master is satisfied to keep those of you who have been so productive and loyal,” Miss Hale assured him. She smiled and waved as the last of them left.
She thanked Mary and her helpers before John led her toward the house. She paused in the shadows of the front steps, rising on tiptoe to give John a quick, shy kiss.
“Well done,” he murmured. “Now, will you be content to concentrate on marrying me instead of feeding my employees?”
“I have always been concentrating on that. I wish the sun would begin to rise right this minute so our wedding would be that much sooner,” she said wistfully, earning another, deeper kiss.
“We must not forget this,” he said as he dug in a jacket pocket. “Though I will expect you to give it back to me tomorrow.”
She admired the heavy gold band. “Does it fit?”
“It does.” He kissed her again, with more passion than he had allowed to rise between them before, until she was breathless and her hands gripped his coat. He reluctantly released her lips to move his mouth to her forehead. They stood quietly until the autumn air cooled them enough to return to the house.
Margaret might have been floating on clouds high in the sky for all that she heard of her aunt’s scolding. “Look at the smudges on your gown. Some urchin has been using your skirt for a napkin!”
Mrs. Thornton again remained blessedly quiet.
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Click here to continue to Chapter 9, the wedding, which will be posted on March 26!