In the previous episode, we left the elder Mrs. Thornton in bed after a heart seizure, John across the channel buying cotton and unaware of her illness, and Margaret managing the household and Fanny. If you need to start at the very beginning, click here to go to Chapter 1.
Chapter 15 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
copyright Jill Hughey 2014
Mrs. Thornton’s strength grew and her periods of lucidity lengthened over the next day. She did not remember Margaret at first, but once Fanny explained who she was, the memory returned and stuck.
Margaret had had no word from Le Havre, not even a congenial letter posted before Mrs. Thornton’s illness. Worry ate at her, but what could she do except sit in the sickroom, tending to all the patient’s personal needs that Fanny overlooked?
The sound of a horse thundering past the house the next evening lifted hope that climbed higher when pounding footsteps echoed on the stairs. Margaret backed slightly away from the bed, knowing he would want to go straight to the dragon — that he should go straight to her — who slept soundly after drinking a small cup of broth. Margaret tried to see her as John would, pale and frail after these few days without solid food and steady activity. Her countenance would alarm him.
The door swung back with a thud and he stood there, mud-stained, his expression wild. “Dear Mother, what have you done to yourself?” he asked in a low, tortured tone. She roused at the sound of his familiar voice, awakening fully when he sat on the bed to cradle the bony hand the rested on her stomach in his. “Mother, I am here.”
Fanny reached across the bed as she tried to hide her relief at her brother’s arrival. John shifted to envelope his mother’s and sister’s hands with his own. The three Thorntons sat for a moment of perfect unity.
Then Fanny whined, “Oh John, where have you been? She has been waking for me but then asks only for you, of course. No one else would suit her.”
Mrs. Thornton gazed up at him, proving Fanny’s jealous claim with the transparent adoration in her eyes. He leaned down to kiss her forehead. She emitted a happy hum at the unusual demonstration of her son’s affection. When he straightened he searched the room. “Where is — ah, there you are, love.” He freed one hand to beckon Margaret into a group where she was not sure she belonged. When she hesitantly reached the range of his arm, he slid his hand to her waist, drew her to him, and pressed his face into her breast. He breathed in deeply, as if collecting her scent, much as she did from him. Beneath the unfamiliar smells of travel were his soap and…him. He drew another hitching breath and she knew only she felt his trembling.
She did belong because John needed her.
She slipped her hand into his hair and pressed her face to the top of his head to murmur quiet reassurances. “All will be well, John. She is much better than she was. Truly.”
He nodded, then turned to look at his beloved dragon again, and the dragon stared devotedly at him. Margaret tried to pull away now that he had collected himself, but his arm tightened convulsively on her, keeping her with him as he spoke quiet, encouraging words to the woman who had stood by him, steadfast, for his whole life.
“Was your trip successful?” Mrs. Thornton whispered.
“Do not worry about such things,” he chided.
“Tell me,” she said.
So, as Fanny yawned, he spoke of his journey, of buying enough raw cotton to keep the mill running into the spring and whom he bought it from and how much he’d paid, until his mother dozed and Fanny eagerly escaped.
He carefully withdrew his hand from his mother’s.
“Did you get any of my messages?” Margaret asked. John shifted off the edge of the bed to lead her to a chair where he pulled her into his lap.
“What are you doing?” she whispered, flustered by his uncharacteristic behavior. He rarely embraced her outside of their private rooms. Now, to be draped all across him when his mother could see them or a servant might walk in at any time…it was simply not how John Thornton behaved.
“Humor me for a few moments,” he said on a sigh. “I have missed you for an entire week.”
She relaxed to bend willingly against him, even sliding out of her slippers so she could tuck her feet between his leg and the arm of the chair. “I love you so much,” she said.
“And I, you,” he murmured as he rubbed her arm. “I received your message in Liverpool. I was already hastening home, eager to see my bride. I hired a horse instead of a carriage and gained only an hour or two.”
She nodded against his shoulder. “I am so glad you are here. I know you are the only person who can comfort her.”
“She seemed perfectly comfortable when I arrived,” he said reassuringly. “When will Dr. Donaldson visit again?”
They spoke of the details of Mrs. Thornton’s situation while he held her cuddled against him. He closed his eyes when he had a grasp on his mother’s condition. Margaret’s weight in his lap, her warmth and willing affection for him, returned the balance that had disappeared during his journey. Oh, he’d been the same commanding Thornton his colleagues expected during his business dealings. However, when he was alone the distance from her ate at him.
He’d found it damn disconcerting. How had he survived thousands of quiet evenings with Mother and Fanny without pining for a welcoming, intimate smile meant only for him? Had he really been satisfied to retreat to his bachelor’s chamber with the forebodingly empty mistress’s bedroom next door?
No, he’d never been satisfied. Resigned and lonely, yes. Suffering, yes, when he thought Margaret’s love lay beyond his reach. In his pride, though, if anyone had asked him at any time after she’d refused him whether he desired the partnership of marriage, he would have claimed to be too busy for a wife while deep in his heart, deep where only Margaret had ever dared to tread, black loneliness and white-hot longing tore at him.
Hours alone in a hotel in Le Havre brought back those forlorn months and reminded him of the hole in his being Margaret filled. He’d wished he’d brought her with him as she’d asked. Standing on the rolling deck of a ship, sprayed with freezing seawater as he searched for the first sight of England, he’d vowed never to squander even one day of her companionship.
Of course, with the advent of Mother’s illness, he knew it was best that he hadn’t taken his wife to France. From Margaret’s detailed description of the episode and her ability to chronicle every improvement and nearly every word the doctor had spoken, he knew she’d been a constant, steadfast caretaker.
His wife tilted her head back to invite a kiss. Their lips met in a brief caress that spoke volumes of who they were together.
It was not exactly the ardent homecoming he had imagined, but it was more than enough.
Margaret approached the door with a stack of laundered nightgowns.
“If you could only convince her to leave,” Mrs. Thornton said to Dr. Donaldson as he checked her breathing.
Margaret paused in the hall, not out of sight but unviewed by the woman sitting on the edge of the bed and the man who now checked her pulse.
“Everyone hovers around me,” Mrs. Thornton said. “Just today I had to send John back to the mill. What does he mean by coming here to hold my hand at eleven o’clock in the morning?”
“They have been concerned about you, as your children should be,” Dr. Donaldson said soothingly.
“If only she would go I could have some peace. She pesters me. I am suffocated by her silly questions.”
In spite of the sympathetic indifference Margaret had cultivated since the day of her betrothal, her mother-in-law’s words stung. Did she truly want the doctor to ask her to leave? To go where?
“Then you must tell her,” Dr. Donaldson said, “since your strength seems to be returning along with your opinions.”
Mrs. Thornton released a beleaguered sigh. “I suppose you are right. I must tell her that her place is with Mr. Watson and not here weeping ‘Mamma, Mamma, Mamma’ all over me as if at my wake.”
“You might say it more gently than that, Mrs. Thornton.”
“How did I ever produce such a delicate flower for a daughter?” Mrs. Thornton asked with a grumble.
Dr. Donaldson waved Margaret into the room. “Ah, here is Margaret who will remember just how she assisted her own dear mother to walk. Mrs. Thornton is adamant that she be allowed to dress and use the water closet, but I have made her agree she will not do so unassisted,” the doctor told Margaret with a commiserative smile.
“Of course,” Margaret said, still a little lightheaded from the realization that it was Fanny whom the dragon wished to drive away, and not her new daughter-in-law.
* * *
Oh, no, next week brings the end! The final chapter will be posted here on May 14. Click here to find it!