Margaret Hale was one brave woman to become Hannah Thornton’s daughter-in-law. In this episode, their relationship begins to form and they are not destined for happily-ever-after. If you want to start at the beginning, click here for Chapter One.
Chapter 11 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
copyright Jill Hughey 2014
Margaret did, indeed, love her husband. For the first week, with the dragon out of the roost, the novelty of the new marriage allowed the couple to be blissful, even if John returned to the mill on the second day. Margaret spent that afternoon exploring the public areas of the house. She tried to force a familiarity with her new home that she did not feel. The next day she went to the upholsterer’s shop, eager to make her decisions about her bedchamber before the matriarch’s return. She and John decided to hire the man who had hung the wallpaper in her parent’s Crampton house to paint her room a cheerful yellow, and their sitting room warm gold.
By the time Mother Thornton descended, the bedchamber had been stripped of all decoration and its bare walls waited for transformation. There was no turning back.
The dragon never uttered a word about it though Margaret had no doubt she was aware of the gutting. In every other way, in every other corner, the original Mrs. Thornton picked up the reins of the household as if a second Mrs. Thornton did not exist.
She could not destroy Margaret’s happiness. Just the thought of John being a quick walk across the millyard spurred Margaret’s pulse, though she did not make that walk, knowing that he was busy from dawn to dusk and would not know what to do with her standing in his office.
She wrote notes to their wedding guests, supervised her decorators, and adjusted her wardrobe back to Milton expectations. When she had no correspondence and their sitting room shone like an autumn sunrise, including a cozy, heavier sofa for she and John to share — though they seemed to always be downstairs in the evenings now — she resumed her regular walks around Milton to fill some of the hours of her days.
She asked once to accompany Mrs. Thornton on her daily inspection of the mill and was reluctantly towed along. But Margaret’s habit of chatting with instead of haranguing the workers did not suit the dragon. Margaret excused herself after being chided for the third time in the second workroom. The dragon let her go.
Several deep breaths returned enough calmness that she could walk across the mill yard without betraying her disappointment in both herself and her mother-in-law. She wandered until a tempting smell drew her to the cookhouse. The mouthwatering scent gave way to the sight of poor Mary Higgins elbow deep in dishwater while a full table of workers waited impatiently for meals.
“How can I help?” Margaret asked as she pushed up the sleeves of her brown wool gown.
“Oh, no, you mustn’t, Mrs. Thornton,” Mary said, horrified. “Two of the girls are sick at home but we’ll make do.” Margaret looked around until she found an apron and a towel. She dried a dish then carried it to a rotund woman who appeared to be just as overwhelmed with cooking and serving. She continued helping Mary until each worker had received a meal on a clean dish, then she alternated chopping potatoes for the cook and serving new arrivals.
Hours later, a silence fell over the last few hands who were eating late in the afternoon. Margaret glanced around to see what had subdued their companionable chatter. “Mr. Thornton,” she cried when she saw her husband’s silhouette at the door. She patted her hair self-consciously as she walked to him. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Looking for you,” he replied, clasping his hands behind his back.
“Oh?” She stepped outside since he did not seem inclined to come in. He also did not seem inclined to expand on his reason for being at the cookhouse. “Did you need me for something?”
He had been searching her face but now looked away across the yard. “Mother came looking for you at the office. She said she had…discouraged you in the carding room today. When she went to the house you were not there, nor had Jane seen you.”
Margaret frowned. “I have never before told Mrs. Thornton what I am doing or where I am going. Why did my absence cause enough concern today that she bothered you with it?”
The hint of a smile curved the corner of his mouth. “It has been hours since she last saw you. I think she was afraid she had run you off. Or perhaps that you’d gotten trapped in a warehouse.” When she didn’t reply, he looked down at her, the suggestion of humor replaced by anxiety. “In any case, her concern led me to worry, so I came to find you.”
“I am sorry for that,” she said, truly upset when she saw that he had, indeed, been worried. “It felt so good to be out and doing something useful that I lost track of time.” She smiled up at him. “Yet you knew just where to find me.”
His eyes softened and glowed in that private way that showed his adoration.
“I am glad you did not send your mother,” she added.
“She knows she should not have spoken to you so sharply in front of the hands.”
Margaret twisted her fingers together. “I am only a distraction in the mill,” she admitted. “I do not have a talent for urging the hands to strive harder.” She lifted her chin. “I am able to help here, though.”
“You cannot spend your days washing dishes in the cookhouse, love.”
The gently delivered endearment caught her attention more than a true scolding would have. She was always “Mrs. Thornton” when they were within earshot of people other than family.
He could see her disappointment, so he added, “Miss Margaret Hale was not raised to serve stew to mill hands, and it is not appropriate for Mrs. John Thornton, either.”
She untied her apron with a brisk jerk. “I could help when they are short handed, like today.”
“Perhaps,” he said slowly. “I would hope Mary Higgins does not find herself in this predicament often.”
Margaret returned to the low-ceilinged room to hand her apron to Mary who scrubbed the now-empty tables. With only a few hours left before the end of the workday, all of the hands were busy in the mill. “Send for me if you ever need help again,” Margaret said.
Mary studied the floor as she nodded, and Margaret knew she would never receive such a summons. John still waited at the door. He did not mean to be overbearing. She knew he did not. Yet she could not help feeling as though the newly discovered wings she had been exercising since their wedding had just been clipped somehow.
“I will go to the house now,” she told him. “I have kept you from your duties long enough, I am sure.”
John watched her retreat, knowing that a shadow, a first hint of strife, had just passed between them, not entirely unexpected considering the adjustments she was being asked to make, but very, very unwelcome.
Six weeks later, John sat at the breakfast table with Mother. Frigid winter darkness pressed against the windows, so black and heavy that even the lamps and coal fire could not completely defeat the chill. Margaret had watched him from his bed less than an hour ago, as she did each morning when he reluctantly slipped away to his dressing room. She’d smiled dreamily when he kissed her on his way out, as if she were a lady of leisure who would roll over to sleep the morning away, yet he knew that by now she was preparing for the day with Jane’s assistance.
A maid passed by the dining room door with a tray. Mother’s eyes fixed on her like a hawk on a mouse as the girl carefully climbed the steps. “Your wife becomes melancholy. What does she mean by having a her breakfast delivered every morning?”
A hint of anger stabbed him. He pushed it away. “Margaret asked about our household routine. I told her about our breakfast conversations, when Fanny was always hours from emerging. She suggested that we both might prefer to continue. If you would like her to join us in the future, I will be happy to invite her.”
Mother stirred her tea then set her spoon on the saucer with a clack. “Whatever suits you, John.” She ate several bites of toast before continuing, as he’d known she would. “You must see, though how she tends to be like her mother, brooding about with a shawl around her shoulders.”
Anger flashed again. “She is not like her mother whom, you will recall, ended up dying of what you dismissed as ‘low spirits.’”
“She sits for hours with a book in her lap.”
John clenched his teeth together. He knew this. He’d been drawn to the house by her unrest. He’d find her at the desk in their sitting room with a blank piece of paper in front of her, or curled in a chair in his office downstairs — the only public room in the house she occupied when he was absent — with an unread book or some untended piece of sewing in her hands.
She was always glad to see him, and the love in her welcoming smile wrapped around him like an unexpected warm blanket in the midst of a blizzard. He was happy beyond his dreams, yet knew the source of all his happiness did not share his complete joy in their new life together. Worst of all, he and Mother were partly to blame.
He wiped his mouth before setting his napkin aside. “You have given her no responsibility in the house. We have both discouraged her from involving herself with the mill, and last week you acted the matriarch when she had a few of my colleague’s wives for lunch.”
“Every new bride must find her own way,” Mother said, offended. “I told you when you first showed your interest in her that she would turn up her nose —″
“Stop,” he said sharply. “Margaret is not putting on airs.” It would be pointless to explain to his mother that his wife was as open to him as the account book sitting to the left of his fork. Before the luncheon Margaret thought she was hosting, she admitted to a hope she might be able to be friends with Gormley’s wife, a young woman she remembered from their wedding. After the event, when he’d asked about the lady, she’d indicated they did not suit after all. She had not been an open book to him at that moment. She would not tell him what had changed her mind about the friendship.
He leaned toward Mother, his expression questioning. “What happened at that lunch between Margaret and Mrs. Gormley?”
Mother shifted in her chair. “You know your wife would wear one of her London dresses for the lunch. I suspect Mrs. Gormley felt a little put out by not being the most fashionable. She has begged Mr. Gormley for a shopping excursion to London since they were married, and that has been at least three years.”
John leaned back. “How would Mrs. Gormley know Margaret’s dress was from London?”
Mother frowned as she picked up her teacup.
“This will not do,” he said warningly. “You cannot accuse her of acting an aristocrat while sabotaging her chances to be part of our set and criticizing her interactions with the hands.”
When she scowled at her tea, his voice firmed even more. “I am in earnest. She must be allowed to fit in somewhere. Our peers know you did not favor the marriage. Your position on the matter has been duly noted by everyone and strongly felt by my wife, I assure you. I am asking you to let go of your resentment at least enough that she has a chance to make the friends she chooses. If you will not support her then at least stop undermining her.”
Mother had the grace to look chagrined, though no admission of wrongdoing passed her lips.
She ate in silence while John set aside personal musings, shifting his focus to his daily review of Marlborough’s orders. One large contract would be fulfilled and ready to ship today or tomorrow. He would begin to pay back Margaret’s principal by the middle of next year, if all went well. To continue working at this capacity, unfortunately, he would have to journey to Le Havre to buy raw cotton soon. Very soon. He’d considered taking Margaret with him, but rejected the idea, preferring to hurry across the channel, conduct his business, and return as quickly as possible.
He sifted through the papers, pausing at the accounting for the cookhouse. Margaret had been happy helping Mary last month, almost as vibrant as she’d been when handing cake to the workers the night before their wedding. The numbers on the paper disappeared as he remembered her serving “his people,” as she’d called them. He must think on it in the hopes of finding some direction for her well-meaning energy, and quickly.
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Next week, a tiny argument as Margaret begins to assert herself. Chapter 12 will be posted on April 16! Find it here.