Chapter One – Stepping into The Great Unknown
So it had happened.
They were finally going home. Just an hour ago, home had meant Milton, and Marlborough Mills. John Thornton had never known a better home than the one his mother Hannah created for him and his sister Fanny. The many responsibilities in his busy life as a cotton manufacturer had been adequately balanced by Hannah, who reigned his household with quiet efficiency.
Now – just an hour ago – John discovered that Margaret had finally come to love him, the way he had loved her for three, long, and lonely years. They had met on a train station platform and kissed.
All this time, John Thornton had loved Margaret Hale, but she had first been repulsed by his harsh ways and flaring temper. To his shame and fury, she had rejected his marriage proposal. He had tried to convince himself that his foolish passion for her was gone, ever since, but he had failed, of course. He had and would always love Margaret and now they were finally together on their way to Milton, to begin their live as a newly betrothed and soon to be married couple. The bliss of that moment still sang in his blood, while he stared out of the train window and watched the green, lush English countryside glide by.
When the train rather abruptly came to a stop, John Thornton jolted out of the dreamlike state he was in.
Margaret, her head resting against his shoulder, had been slumbering peacefully, her slender frame supported by his arm.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice soft and slightly hoarse after her little doze.
John had no idea why they had come to a standstill in the middle of nowhere with no train station in sight. He was somewhat dense to react after having to shake off the bliss of having Margaret so close. God knew how long he had been waiting for that final outcome to their relationship which had been so strained for so long.
Slowly the new situation got hold of John as he realised that the train would not have stopped here unless something unusual had occurred. He freed his arm from Margaret’s waist.
“I will go and take a look, Margaret” he said and stood. “Please, wait here for me.”
Her sudden outcry startled him.
“No, John …” she said, rather nervously. “I … I would rather not be separated from you …”
The fierce look of pure, unmitigated love in John’s eyes overwhelmed Margaret like a ray of warm Southern sunshine. John Thornton still loved her after all the misery she had inflicted upon him. And she … she had finally admitted to herself that she loved him back, that she could no longer live without him, that she did not want to be away from him, ever again.
His hand cupped her face, drew it nearer. Margaret’s heart pounded with anticipation … and fear. How was she to deal with their sudden intimacy? Yet all these disturbing thoughts vanished like snow under the sun when his lips touched hers. They kissed, first shyly and awkwardly, then John’s hand glided to her lower back, pressing her even closer. His kiss became bolder as he opened her lips with his tongue. Margaret surrendered and threw her arms around his neck, answering his kiss with delight.
It took some time before they were able to speak again.
“Very well, Miss Hale,” John smiled. “If you cannot be separated from me, I guess I will have to take you with me. Let me take your bag.”
As soon as they left their compartment, John became aware of the complete silence that was reigning all around them. Although they had been alone in their own compartment, he knew for certain they had not been the only ones on the train. During the earlier ten-minutes stop he had seen several passengers mounting it. Where again had that stop occurred? John was fairly sure it was in Leicester Station, although he had failed to pay attention to it, being fully distracted by seeing Margaret.
Hand in hand, they started down the corridor, looking into the compartments as they passed them.
They were all deserted. Soon the couple realised they were the only passengers in this carriage.
“John, look …”
Margaret pointed to one of the windows behind which they could only see a dense fog obscuring the view as thoroughly as if a curtain had been drawn.
“This is weird,” John mused. “I would not have expected a fog on such a sunny day, and it is not morning, too, but the height of the afternoon. Let us take a look outside.”
He helped Margaret down from the train step which was now considerably higher than the ground since there was no platform. The first astonishing discovery was that their carriage seemed to be the only one that was left of the train. Neither before nor after, there was not a single thing on the track.
John frowned in disbelief.
“Margaret, is it possible that our carriage has broken loose from the rest of the train, you think? Although I cannot recall that ours was the end carriage …”
“It was not. I clearly remember we were somewhere in the middle of that long train, John. What can have happened?”
“I don’t know but let us find out where we are.”
Peering through the thick fog, they were barely able to make out their surroundings but eventually they could make out the low brick wall on either side of the track that suggested they were on a bridge. Carefully, John looked over it.
“There seems to be a road under this bridge, Margaret. Shall we try to descend the embankment?”
Margaret nodded but gripped his hand even firmer. He gave her an encouraging smile.
“You need not to be afraid, dearest. You are in my care, now.”
While they were descending the steep slope, Margaret basked in the stunning realisation of what John had called her. She was his dearest, his … his beloved! It was too bewildering for words!
It was indeed a narrow country road that meandered under the bridge, but they could not see farther than a few yards. That, however, was not what John was concerned of. Sinking onto one knee, he touched the surface of the road, which seemed to be made of a black gravel-like substance, hard and solid to the touch. He had never seen such a thing!
“Margaret, have you noticed this? On first sight, this is an ordinary narrow country road, flanked by hedgerows that are in urgent need to be trimmed because they are overgrown by brambles. Yet, its surface is unique!”
“Extraordinary and also very efficient. No deep potholes in this road, no matter how hard it rains. What could this substance be, John? Have you any idea? We should acquire something similar for Marlborough Mills’ courtyard, don’t you think?”
John burst into a hearty laugh and pulled her close, kissing her fondly on the top of her head.
“Making plans already, are you, Miss Hale? Yes, you are right about the mill’s courtyard. It is always something of a mess after a rainstorm.”
He lifted her chin, an inquiring grin relaxing his handsome face.
“You do not seem worried in the least, my darling. You must have realised that we are in strange surroundings and that something very weird must have happened, although I have not the slightest inkling of what it could be. Yet, you do not seem afraid. How is this?”
“No,” Margaret replied softly. “No, you are right, John. I am not afraid at all. Instead I feel excited, like if I were entering an unknown, fairytale-like world, waiting to be discovered. And, John …”
She paused to lay her hand on his cheek and gently caress it.
“What is it, sweetheart …” John breathed, heart pounding because of the love in Margaret’s tone.
“Whenever I am with you, my love, I will never be afraid of anything.”
Their kiss lasted several minutes and left them both breathless.
Eventually, hand in hand, they set forth over the narrow road, walking to the North and into the Great Unknown.