John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 7

Chapter 7

 

     She’s Not the Margret, We Once Knew

 

As the large crowd milled outside, talking, John made his way through to the chapel steps and entered the church.  He seated himself near the front, across from where Margaret was likely to be.  The organist began to play and the assembly filed inside, quickly filling the pews, until there was standing room only.  Searching through the mass of people, John finally noticed Margaret, walking down the aisle.  She was accompanied by a man and woman, who could only have been her husband’s brother and sister. John thought.  Margaret was naturally dressed in black with a netted veil covering her face.  Even so, he thought; only Margaret could still look stunning in mourning attire.  He gazed intently through the veil at her profile, surprised to find few tears being wiped away.  She was composed, as she held her head high, determined to show strength, and still accepting of yet another death in her world of friends and family.  The organ music quietly ended, and the minister began his words with a prayer to the congregation.  It was a nice service and a close faculty friend, an older gentleman, Dr. Trevor Pritchard, who gave the eulogy.  However, John’s attention was steadfastly engaged on Margaret; he was somewhat baffled that she showed little emotion.

 

She looks withdrawn, as if she has been discarded from life.  Odd, that she shows little sadness.

 

After the ceremony was completed, the minister announced that the short private burial would commence immediately behind the chapel.  Booker Reed was being buried in the campus church graveyard.  Apparently, John heard murmured around him; this was an honor rarely bestowed.  Everyone was invited to remain for refreshments in the dining hall, two buildings over.

Having Margaret near, yet so far away, he decided to attend the private burial, hoping to find a moment to speak with her.  The pallbearers bore the coffin out first, followed by Margaret, her family, and the Reed family.  The general assembly then flowed next with John being one of the last ones to exit.

Taking full strides with his long legs, he soon reached the party as they neared the burial site, directly behind the church.  The college cemetery was very elegant with its filigree ironworks, tall oak trees and intricately carved head stones.  About a dozen people attended the private burial, but John, being self-conscious of his height since no one could miss seeing him there, slipped behind the few that were standing.

He was encouraged by the fact that Margaret was handling her situation well and had seemingly shed very few tears, yet he was concerned that there could be more behind her apathetic manner.  He could sense it; he wondered if anyone else could feel it.  Once the final words were read by the Reverend, the mourners filed past the lowered coffin to pay their last respects with a handful of earth or flowers.  John watched as Margaret stood over the grave site for several seconds, tossed her bouquet down to the coffin, then walked away, escorted by her family and followed by the other mourners.

John was the last to leave, and as they all walked toward the front of the church, he was still deciding how he should approach her.

 

Margaret . . . look back at me . . . 

 

As if she’d heard his very thoughts, Margaret slowly turned her head and looking back, noticed John’s tall stately presence, casting his long shadow.

His breath caught, and he stopped walking, drinking in her vision as she stared at him.

 

Through our silence, she is looking back at me, as if she has heard me.

 

 John could feel her eyes gazing at him even through her dark netted veil.  Knowing she was now aware of his presence, his heart began to hammer against his ribs, reaffirming that he loved her more than life.

Margaret stopped and motioned for the others to pass her then looked back in his direction.  The family wondered what had caught her attention.  Her cousin wanted to wait on her, but Margaret waved Edith on.

Not taking his eyes from her, John removed his hat and started walking towards her.  This was a special moment for him, but out of sympathy, he withheld his smile.  He was living one of his recurring dreams.  He recognized it for what it was – Margaret walking towards him as he walked towards her.  He lived this moment in his mind many times.  As she took steps in his direction, the distance between them grew shorter until John touched her extended hand.

Face to face, she lifted her veil.

 

Someday . . . she will lift her wedding veil to me.

 

Releasing a hushed sigh, John looked into her glassy hazel eyes and lost himself in the delicate features of her face.  Even at her lowest, Margaret was the most beautiful creature in his world.  He searched for words, which now seemed stranded deep within him.  The silence became awkward.  John knew if he forced himself to speak, he would fall over his own words.  However, he cherished the fact that she was looking at him intently, unable to speak, herself.

Margaret could hardly believe he was standing before her, so tall and handsome, holding the sun behind him like a monolith.  John was the pillar of inner strength she desperately needed in her life, right now.  And, no doubt, had probably needed for several years, she realized.

Thank you, God, for sending him here.

The stalled moment seemed welcomed by them both as their eyes roamed each other’s faces, like long lost lovers being reunited.  The vision was rapturous for John.  Margaret felt every bit the same; however, she smothered that emotional passion.

Margaret felt like she had been thrown a rope as the high waves were breaking over her, battering her down into the sea.  John was from a different world, a world she had missed for many years.  She knew he would protect her from the harsh storm which seemed to be swirling about her.  Looking into his face, she saw his serenity, his strength, and his love, all beckoning her to step into his space.

 

My arms are your sanctuary . . . reach out to me . . . Margaret

 

Feeling extremely vulnerable and suddenly weak, she collapsed against him, laying her arms against his chest.  What a strange sensation, finding peace and safety even when she was not in any danger.  She needed to draw something from John, but what it was she didn’t know.  There was something about him that made Margaret want to lean on him.  For just a few moments, she longed for reassurance that in her own world, Margaret’s world, she was not alone.  “John. Hold me . . . hold me close.”

He was swiftly overwhelmed, driven by his deep love for her, surrendering his reserve, allowing his eyes to mist.  The emotional wall that John had been hiding behind for many years began to crack.  He fought his dominant male instinct to sweep her off her feet and carry her away to safety.  He ached for her, but gently wrapped his arms about her discreetly, and sheltered her to him.  John felt her unleash shivering sobs against his body.  She felt so warm and soft in his arms; he almost closed his eyes from the pure tenderness of the moment.  Despite the scrutiny of onlookers and how it might be perceived; he threw propriety to the wind and did not interrupt the moment.  John held Margaret close to him, weathering her through her storm.  He laid his cheek on top of her head to secure her closer, reveling in her scent and the feel of her within his arms.  Suddenly, he felt Margaret’s weight sliding through his grasp, as she fainted.  He grabbed her tightly, swinging his arm beneath her knees and lifting her easily to his chest.  He carried her over to a white wooden bench, nearby.

Margaret’s Aunt Shaw and cousin Edith hurried back to see what had happened, and immediately began to fan and fawn over her.  “What did you say to her,” Aunt Shaw asked, rather haughtily.

“We have yet to speak a word to each other,” John replied, somewhat annoyed.  “She must be exhausted from the strain and stress of the day.”  He had no sentiment for these people.

As Margaret’s eyes fluttered open, bringing her back into her surroundings, her aunt sighed in relief.  “You’re going to be alright, Margaret,” she said, assuring her, as though she were a child.  “We’ll take you home, and you won’t have to talk with all these people.”

John was buried in Margaret’s eyes, watching for her awareness of the family’s efforts to direct her life.  If possible, he vowed, never again would he allow them to make decisions for her.

John spoke calmly but firmly, “Would you please allow Mrs. Reed and I a few moments before she leaves, so that I can express my condolences and those of others from Milton.”

Silent glances and frowns were exchanged between Margaret’s relatives.

“I must insist on this,” John said sternly, sensing their reluctance.  “I will bring her to the front of the church directly; please just give us a moment.  I have come a long way to say these few words to her, and I intend to say them.  You have meddled in Margaret’s affairs, possibly changing the course of her life, but you will not meddle in mine, ever again.  Please, leave us.”

Knowing how they had successfully contrived to keep Margaret and him apart, ruining at least one of their lives, John would brook no argument, especially from this family.  There was iron in his voice, and he remained resolute.

Aunt Shaw and Edith walked away, quite aware of what his underlying reasons had meant.

Rising to a seated position, Margaret apologized to John for the scene she had created and thanked him for his help.

John sat her down beside him and turned towards her, rubbing her hands. “I’m so glad to be here with you.  I am sorry for your loss.  Higgins, Mary, Dixon, and I all want you to know you have our support.”

“How are they?” she asked, regaining her senses. “I miss them immensely.”

“As they do you, Margaret” John said.  “Please let our friendship help you through the coming difficulties you will face.  We will all worry and want to write to you, if you allow us.  I will keep in touch with you no matter how you feel about it.  If I receive no response, I will come to London and speak my mind to your family.  No one can stand in my way ever again, except you.”  He gazed at her beautifully sad face with its tear streaks and flushed cheeks, as he handed her his handkerchief.

“Thank you, John,” Margaret said, trying to stifle her tears.

“I’m hoping you might think to consider returning to Milton for your mourning period.”  John said, studying her face closely.  “There you will have true friends who wish to support your wishes and not steer you in any direction.  The thought of you having to return to your family is almost more than I can bear.  Please keep that in mind as you begin your recovery.  I could even take you away this very moment, should you wish to escape all this.”  Seeing her tears increase, he added in a sorrowful voice, “Margaret, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  I thought I was conveying words that would be welcomed.”

“I’m not crying from sadness, John.”  Margaret assured him, “I’m overcome with relief.  I have felt so . . . detached . . . from this world for a long time.  You have brought an oasis to my desert.  How I’ve longed for friends, my friends, and . . .  and . . . thank you, John, for being here today.  I know you never met Booker and this inconvenience to you is for me, alone.”

Having sensed something more in her words and actions, and unable to keep his sentiment under control any longer, John said softly, “Margaret, there is no inconvenience here.  Never with you,”

“Seeing you standing there, John, I thought my guardian angel had come to rescue me.  Suddenly, I was safe from the world.  I knew everything was going to be alright.  You saved me from the whirlpool of faces and condolences.  You have lifted me up today.  I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

I want you always to come to me. 

“You could never embarrass me, Margaret,” he remarked tenderly.  “I am, and always will be your guarding angel.”  Please think of the people who want to help you.  They all love you, you know.”

“As I do them.”  Margaret hastened to assure him.  “Please thank Nicholas, Mary, and Dixon for their sympathy and support.  I may yet come to rely on all of you.”  Margaret looked devoutly into John’s face.  “Thank you . . . most of all.  I’d like to tell you how much it means for you to be here with me, but propriety forbids such admissions.”  She paused, wondering if she should say more.  “I think I should return, now, before we speak beyond our places.”

John became aware of a lump in his throat.  Her words seemed heaven sent.

 

Margaret . . . how I love you.    

                            

“Margaret, before we go . . . and this is a most inappropriate time but not knowing where your future will lead you, I would like to ask a personal question.  I’ve thought about that night for several years, and if you don’t wish to tell me, I will understand.”

“Yes, John, ask anything and I will tell you what I can.

“I never met your husband and although, I think the answer is no . . . was he the gentleman who I saw you with at the train station that night?”

An awkward silence captured the moment, for them both.

 

Why doesn’t she speak . . . I’ve crossed a line. 

 

“No, John, that man was not Booker.”

John knew it was a terrible time to ask a question that he had no right to ask.  As Margaret hesitated, he realized he would be at a loss if she didn’t continue.

“Margaret,” he said, gently, “I never should have inquired into your personal affairs, and I am quite ashamed of how selfish I’ve been.”

“John,” she reassured him, “I’m the one who should be ashamed . . . ashamed of not trusting your feelings for me at the time.  It has troubled me, as well, for I should have confided in you.  Your attitude towards me changed considerably after that night.  I knew why, but I couldn’t rectify it then; now I feel I can.  I needed to keep that secret from you and from everyone, really.”

“I don’t understand, Margaret.  A secret?”  He prompted.

“It’s a long story for another time, but I will tell you that the man you saw me with that night at the train station, is someone I have loved all my life.  That man was my brother.”

“Your brother!”  John repeated quietly, in bewilderment.  The realization that the stranger was her brother slowly relieved him of the mystery that had torn his heart out over three years ago.

 

He was her brother . . . !

 

“I hope someday to hear the whole story.  I know I was harsh and distant, and I am truly sorry.  I think you remember my feelings towards you at that time.  I admit it unsettled me to think you had another gentleman in your life.  I dare to say it would be no different today.  Nevertheless, as you say, that’s for another time.  I think we have a lot of  – IF’s –  in our past,” John continued, somewhat regretfully,  “If you hadn’t run out to the rioters,  if I’d known he was your brother, if our letters weren’t conveyed away from us, if I’d known you were about to marry, but those are all behind us now.  Margaret, dare to free yourself from your past.

“Thank you, John.  When we have time to discuss the whole story, you will understand.”

He nodded to her, hoping that day would come.  John stood; ready to assist her, “Do you think you can stand, now, Margaret?”

“Yes, if you let me take your arm.  I’m sure I am steady on my feet, now.  The swarming emotions have cleared.  When are you returning to Milton?”

“Just as soon as I leave here,” John said, as he helped Margaret and curled her arm around his.  “Do you know what your immediate plans might be?”  He asked as he began to slowly escort her toward the church, not wanting the moment to end.

“I shall be at my cousin’s house for a week,” she said, “after which I must return to our campus quarters and begin packing the few things that were ours.  There are thousands of books to donate to the school’s library, and personal items that his family should have.  It will probably take a few weeks to resolve all the paperwork.  I’ve not totally decided to move into Edith and Maxwell’s home, as is being suggested to me.  However, I may stay with them a month or so until I have firm plans.  This shall be the last time that I ever depend on them.  I need time to take care of all the consequences of Booker’s death, including our living quarters.  Most importantly, I’ll need time to consider my future.  However, I do know for certain that I will not stay in London for my entire mourning period.  Like you, I feel that going back to that environment is directly in opposition to the life I want to lead.  I’m anxious to start a brand-new  life, on my own.

John, hearing those words, put his free hand over her hand, which was wrapped around his arm, and pressed it tightly.  “Will you want Dixon to return to London?”  He asked, as they continued walking.

“I want her to stay with you for now,” Margaret answered, “until I’m quite assured of my direction.  I’m financially independent, and I will leave London.  I will handle my affairs without family intervention.  I’ll always love them, but I can never forgive them for what happened between us, our . . . letters, that is.  Thank you for holding your temper back there.  Your words were quite valiant and far more effective than mine had been.  Right now, I feel I am handling Booker’s death well; far different from when my parents passed.  His family has been very supportive throughout this trying time and wants me to continue receiving the stipend that was his rightful inheritance as a second son.  They are wealthy and quite generous.”

They walked a few steps in silence.

You’ve been without your Mother for almost a year and a half.  How are you faring, John?”

“Margaret, I’m managing well.  I’ll not lie and tell you that I did not grieve a long time after she died, because I did.  I owed her much.  My life is quite empty with her gone, even with Dixon trying to ‘mother’ me.  I suppose we will soon have to have words.”  He smiled, as did Margaret, at the thought of anyone having words with Dixon.

“And you haven’t married; I know this because Dixon writes occasionally about you and your work in Milton.  Do you have a steady lady in your life?”  Margaret asked.

“No, there is no steady lady in my life and never has been since . . .” John caught his own words before he could embarrass himself.

“May I ask why you have not married yet?”  Margaret probed gently.

“No, you may not ask, but I think you know.”  Flustered, he continued, “I am sorry.  That was quite inappropriate to say.”

 

God . . . can I not hold my tongue? 

 

“Please, don’t apologize.  It brings me great comfort.”  Margaret said, feeling a flush of heat come over her.

I have hurt this man at every turn in our acquaintance, and yet he still loves me after all this time, waiting through my marriage.  I do not deserve the attentions of a man such as him.  He is a far greater person than I am, and to think that I once thought . . .

John did not miss her blush or her words.  As they neared the cemetery gates, John could see family and friends waiting for her.  Stopping suddenly, he stepped between Margaret and her family, so his back was to them, shielding her.  He was so close to her that he could feel her body heat.

 

I want to take you into my arms, right now, to kiss you.

 

“Margaret, I wish your society allowed me to visit while you mourn, but I dare not seek to cross the boundaries of propriety, in London, for your sake.”  John lifted her hand and lightly kissed the back of it in the London gentleman tradition as he drank in one last look from her exquisite face, burning her vision into his heart.

Leaning down towards her, he murmured softly into her ear, “I miss you, Margaret.  Please, come back to us.  Don’t lock your heart away.  Return to me.”  He hesitantly turned and left, feeling her absence pressing in on him from that first step away.  There was a knot in his stomach, but he had done all he could do for now.  But was it enough?

Instantly feeling his loss and a great sense of emptiness, Margaret watched as he threaded his way through the crowd.  She would never let him walk out of her life.

John Thornton, look back at me.

As he proceeded around the groups of people waiting to see her, he turned back to Margaret one last time and was ecstatic to see that she still followed him with her eyes.

 

She is still looking at me . . .

 

John noticed that she soon became ensconced by the gathered mourners.

A half-hour later, he was seated on the train, re-living every word and each moment of his time with Margaret.  How he desperately wanted that hope back!  He tried to be objective, but found he could not.  Recalling how she had come into his arms once again, in need of a temporary rescue, John knew she had found solace and protection in his embrace.  The day had begun to close in on her, but he felt there was more to it than the funeral; something more was underlying her grief.  He still sensed she was calling out to him, almost like she was very tired while treading water far from shore.  The time was soon coming when he would respond to all of her needs, without the heavy curtain of propriety always hanging between them.

For the four-hour ride home, John reflected on his few moments with her, feeling as if his heart would burst if he were left alone with his dreams much longer.

 

I looked like her guardian angel . . . You were saving me from . . . You lifted me up. . .

 

As the train pulled into Milton, John shook himself out of his reverie and forced himself back to earth.  Once again, his thoughts returned to the kidnapping.  Exiting the train, he hailed a carriage and went directly to Chief Mason’s office.  As John arrived at the courthouse, he could see Mason through the window of the glass door, enmeshed in paperwork.  Tapping lightly, he walked in.  “Mason, what has happened so far?”  He began in an excited tone.  “And hello, to you, too, Detective Carlson.  Forgive me, I had my mind elsewhere and didn’t see you sitting there.”

“Good evening to you, sir.  Please, no apology needed,” the detective responded.

“Sir, I’m glad you’re back.  There have been some developments in the case.  Only hours ago, Lindsey McKeever escaped her abductors and hailed a passing coach for help.  She was on Hyde road about 2 miles outside of town.  She said she hid along the road until she spotted a decent coach that she could stop.  No second note was received, and no money exchanged hands.  It was obvious, by her condition, that she had been assaulted in some way, starved and possibly tortured or beaten, so I allowed her to be taken home and examined by the doctor.  We will interview her tomorrow, if the doctor permits.  The house has been guarded.  She told us that she remembered being hauled away in her own trap and thought she had walked about two miles before being picked up, so I have men searching the area for her trap.  I’m glad that she is alive and safe, but those men are still out there, probably long gone by now, but we won’t give up.  She thinks there were at least two men, but she wasn’t sure, as she was blindfolded the whole time.  I will plan on going out there tomorrow morning at 10:00 o’clock with Detective Carlson.  Would you would care to join us, sir?”

“No, I’ll leave that in your capable hands.  Let me know if I can be of any other help.  I’ll return tomorrow and read your report.  We still don’t know if the assault was the original intent or if it was a kidnapping.  The note she received, doesn’t clearly specify that either way for us.  I’m very sorry that this has been as brutal as you may think.  I know you will continue to seek these depraved animals.”  Shaking his head and frowning, John said, “There is no lower form of species on this earth than men who prey on women and children to . . .” He could not finish his sentence.

“I agree, sir.  I am sorry you were called away on such unpleasant circumstances, yourself,” Mason said.

“Thank you, Mason.  No, it wasn’t a pleasant time for Mrs. Reed.  You’ll remember her as Miss Hale.  She lost her husband through an accidental fall.  It’s been a long day for me.  I’m just returning now from the funeral and would like to get home.”  Donning his hat, John turned towards the two men.  “If I can be of service, contact me.  Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.  Good-bye, Mason.  Good-bye Detective Carlson,” He shook hands with the men and left the office.

Moments later, John entered his coach, anxious to return home and tell Higgins and Dixon about his visit with Margaret.