Last week, John left for Le Havre to buy cotton and Margaret met her first obstacle in the Marlborough Mill’s cookhouse. Now she is suddenly plunged into being in charge during a household emergency! If you need to start from the beginning, click here to go to Chapter 1
Chapter 14 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
copyright Jill Hughey 2014
A bright, freezing morning greeted Margaret the next day. She had not slept well. The chill from the altercation in the cookhouse plagued her all night despite being wrapped in John’s robe and cocooned under several extra blankets.
After her normal breakfast from a tray in her room, she sought refuge again in her husband’s office downstairs. She scraped a layer of frost from the window to reveal the bustle of activity that caused the now familiar sounds in the yard. The workers’ exhalations puffed like steam from locomotives as they hurried across the cobbled pavement, some seeking the relative warmth of their workrooms, others, recognizable by layers of coats and scarves, kept outside by their duties.
Margaret turned away to attend to some business correspondence with Mr. Lennox before beginning a soothing letter to Aunt Shaw in which she declined the invitation to visit for The Season. She tried her best to address Aunt’s concerns that she would soon become a complete heathen if she did not return to the civilized social whirl of London for at least a few weeks each year.
An unusual thump distracted her from her task.
She looked at the wall shared with the drawing room, expecting to hear additional sounds that would indicate a maid was sweeping beneath furniture or cleaning the hearth. The resumption of the normal stifling stillness within the house should have reassured her, but did not.
She rose and continued to listen attentively as she sneaked across the rug. She poked her head into the hall, but could see nothing amiss. She tiptoed a few steps to peer into the next doorway. “Mrs. Thornton,” she cried when she saw the figure in a black gown sprawled inelegantly on the floor. She knelt down to grip one of her mother-in-law’s hands and patted the back briskly. “Mrs. Thornton,” she whispered, braced for the woman to rear up with a scathing retort, but there was no response. “Mrs. Thornton,” she pleaded.
She had seen the face of death on her own dear mama, so knew the woman still breathed, yet the dragon would not rouse to consciousness.
Margaret ran to ring the bell then rushed into the hall to call for Jane in a shrill voice that would shock Aunt Shaw to no end. By the time Jane and a maid careened into one another at the door, Margaret was again kneeling beside Mrs. Thornton. She stroked her cheek and begged with her to awaken while the servants wrung their hands together.
After another half minute, Margaret ordered them into action. “Jane, give me that pillow so we can make her more comfortable, then bring a blanket to cover her. Sassy, go fetch my cloak and muff, then you are to stoke the fire in this room and Mrs. Thornton’s bedroom. I must find Dr. Donaldson.”
Margaret had rarely felt such relief as she did an hour later when Dr. Donaldson took charge of Mrs. Thornton’s care. After a brief initial examination, he helped them move the unconscious figure to her gloomy bedroom. She and Jane exchanged her constrictive clothing for a white cotton nightgown.
She sent Jane out in the hall while the doctor undertook a more thorough examination. As he looked in eyes and ears, and tested reflexes, her thoughts spanned all the possibilities she might soon confront and what action she should take for each, twitching her mind through a maze of abrupt turns and frightening dead ends.
His diagnosis pushed her into immediate action. “Mrs. Thornton has suffered a heart seizure,” he said. “Her survival of the initial shock bodes well, though I am concerned that she has not regained her senses yet.”
Margaret nodded her understanding.
“Has Mr. Thornton been sent for?”
“He…he is in Le Havre and not expected home for three days or more. I will go to his clerk and have word sent immediately. And I will send a message to Fanny, of course. Tell me, Dr. Donaldson, what should I say?” She bit her lip. “How grave a warning must I give?”
Having seen her through her own mother’s illness, he well knew Margaret’s steady temperament and inner strength. “Say that Mrs. Thornton is still in danger, but, barring another attack, I would expect her to regain consciousness along with all her faculties.”
Margaret startled poor Mr. Chives. He’d been deeply immersed in correspondence from today’s post that he must either hold for his employer’s return or take action on when she burst in without so much a cloak or gloves protecting her from the frigid weather.
“Mr. Chives,” she said breathlessly, “I must send messages to Mr. Thornton, however and wherever you think best so that they might intercept him. Can you help me? How many should I write?”
He gaped at her before recovering his wits. “Yes, of course, there is only Liverpool and Le Havre.” He tapped his finger on his lips. “Two for Le Havre. There is the hotel and his agent’s office.”
“Very well,” she said, striding to her husband’s desk for paper and pen.
Your mother has taken ill. Dr. Donaldson says she has had a heart seizure. She is unconscious now, so in no discomfort. Do not be overly alarmed. Dr. Donaldson expects her to regain all her faculties. Please come as quickly as possible. I know you will provide comfort to her as no one else can.
I am so sorry to send such distressing news.
Your loving wife,
She wrote something similarly stilted to Fanny, without the endearments. After entrusting all four notes to the clerk and imploring him to send them in the quickest way possible, she hurried back to Mrs. Thornton’s bedside to begin a vigil as loyal as the one she had held at Mrs. Hale’s two years ago.
Margaret unpinned and brushed out the dragon’s hair, still a glossy brown with only the first streaks of gray at her temples to suggest her age. Her face, on the other hand, looked old and creased as if she’d aged ten years in one morning, her brow furrowed as if she concentrated on a vexing problem.
Fanny arrived after dark in a storm of panic, blowing into the room with her cloak billowing behind her and her waist noticeably thickened since the wedding. “Mamma,” she cried, shattering the softly lit silence. She pressed her cold-pinkened cheek to her mother’s papery skin.
“Mamma,” Fanny cried again. “Oh no, what are we to do?”
Margaret placed a comforting hand on her back. Fanny stiffened and jerked away. “How did this happen? Where is John?” she asked accusingly.
Margaret described how she had found Mrs. Thornton and repeated everything Dr. Donaldson had said. Not surprisingly, Fanny asked the same series of questions several times as if Margaret was withholding information or could be found responsible for the collapse, then stamped her foot in frustration when told for the third time that Dr. Donaldson did not know when her mother would return to normal, though he was confident she would.
“Has my bedroom been prepared?” Fanny finally whimpered. “I must go lie down to calm my nerves.”
“You know it is always kept ready for you,” Margaret said calmly. “A maid will have lit the fire when you arrived.”
Fanny swept back out of the room, leaving Margaret to return to the chair by the bed. She rested her head wearily on the back, content to resume her solitary vigil.
In the morning, Fanny strolled into the sickroom and ignored Margaret to immediately plead with her mother. “Mamma! Mamma, please, you must speak to me.”
Mrs. Thornton’s head rolled on the pillow, the first sign of awareness in nearly 24 hours.
“Look! Look! She hears me! It is me, Mamma, your dear Fanny, here to take care of you.”
Mrs. Thorton stilled. Fanny sulked.
Margaret tried to reassure her. “That is a wonderful sign, Fanny. Of course your mother knows you are here.” She rose from the chair and pressed her hands into her aching lower back. “Perhaps you would like to stay with her until lunch. I am still wearing yesterday’s clothes.”
Fanny pouted but did not refuse. Margaret returned a few hours later after a short nap and a quick bath. She was not surprised to find Fanny pacing like a caged cat.
“I am not meant for the sickroom,” Fanny declared as she flounced out the door.
Margaret held Mrs. Thornton’s hand and talked to her for a quarter hour before turning to gaze blankly out the window.
The slate gray sky did not bode well for traveling. She doubted John could have gotten any of her messages yet, in any case. She wished she could will him here. His voice would reach through Mrs. Thornton’s fog as no one else’s could. It seemed unfathomable that he was in France or on a ship, still unaware that the women in his life were in such dire need of him. Yet that is how it had been when Fred had been in danger in the Navy and later, when he hadn’t known Mother was dying. Loved ones separated by such distances did not sense one another’s suffering.
Fanny returned to the room at dusk. “Mamma!” she demanded.
Mrs. Thornton’s eyelids fluttered. “Fanny,” she whispered.
“Oh!” Fanny shrieked as she clutched at her mother’s hand. “Did you hear, Margaret? She woke up for me.”
“Fanny,” Mrs. Thornton whispered again. “What do you want?”
Fanny’s lip trembled and tears pooled in her eyes. “Oh, Mamma, I want you to get well. You’ve scared me to death,” she said amidst what Margaret thought might be the first true show of emotion she’d ever witnessed in her sister-in-law.
“What happened?” Mrs. Thornton breathed. Her head lolled to one side as she slipped back into senselessness.
“Mamma,” Fanny repeated several times. She looked, with wet wide eyes, across the bed at Margaret. “She did speak. That must be good news. And she knew me!”
“Yes, Fanny, it is all wonderful news. I am certain the doctor will agree. He should arrive soon for his evening visit.”
Her mother’s response encouraged Fanny’s attention, and they were both in the room long after Dr. Donaldson had come and gone, when Mrs. Thornton stirred again.
“Fanny,” she said. Her hand groped along the bed covers.
“I am here, Mamma,” Fanny said as she held her hand.
Her eyelids fluttered as she struggled to focus. “Fanny. Yes.” She fought to look around the room, her gaze finding Margaret. “Who are you?”
Fanny tittered nervously, drawing the dragon’s attention back to her.
“Where is John? I need to talk to him,” she said. Fanny’s smile faded.
Margaret leaned forward. “He is coming, Mrs. Thornton. He is coming as quickly as he can,” she promised, hoping fervently that she told the truth.
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