Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Two

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Chapter Two

 

Honesty compels me to confess I hesitated a little before I dismounted.

I was not like the few of my female acquaintances – that is to say – the ones who grew up in a normal household and were brought into Society without so much as a close look upon a man. I was not afraid of men for I had not been formally presented to any. I was not afraid of men, period. Of course, I knew they were not all of them as gentle as my two brothers-in-law, Colonel Christopher Brandon and Edward Ferrars. They were the rare treasures among their kind. I was aware that there were also dangerous specimens roaming society for innocent, gullible damsels.

This man was unknown to me so I attentively studied him before I dared come closer.

He was lying on his stomach, his face covered by strands of long dark hair, black as a raven’s wing.

A puddle of blood formed under his body and I was concerned. He seemed to be seriously injured, his face very pale.

I knelt beside him and, reaching with a trembling hand to one of his wrists, I was relieved to feel a strong pulse. That gave me the courage to try turning him onto his back, not an easy task because he was a tall, muscular fellow. He did not regain consciousness when I involuntarily caught him on the left shoulder, as I turned him. He was bleeding rather copiously from what appeared to be a bullet wound in that shoulder. The fine fabric of his dark green riding coat was stained with blood which was spreading to his white linen shirt and staining his waistcoat of moss green silk.

The sight of the blood prompted me into action.

I searched my bag for something that could serve to stop the bleeding wound but found nothing. To my relief, the man’s coat pockets produced a large white cotton handkerchief which I crumpled into a ball. Pressing it to the small hole, I began untying the man’s cravat of buff coloured silk, to allow him easier breathing.

He stirred and gave a weak, throaty moan.

I felt a surge of relief from this sign of life. I secured the handkerchief wrapping the man’s chest with the cravat. Not an easy task as I was forced to pass my hands over his body several times. I became aware of his warm hard strength and it allowed me to examine him more closely for other injuries. There were none I could find except for a shallow gash on his brow which had already stopped bleeding. I carefully cleaned it with a tip of the cravat.

I drew a deep breath and leaned back, satisfied with the efforts I had done so far. For the first time in several minutes, I could again take stock of the situation. Here I was, alone on the moors, with an unconscious, injured man, and I was somewhat at a loss to what I was to do next.

Should I go for help? Where to? Barton Cottage was out of the question; my mother would have a fit of the vapours if I arrived there in the company of an unknown gentleman without a chaperon, an injured one at that!

My patient was indeed a gentleman, judging by the quality and fabric of his dress and the exquisite cream-coloured buckskins, which hovered above the finely crafted, black leather Hessian boots. His hands, long fingered and strong, bore no calluses and his nails, though not manicured, were nevertheless cut and clean. He sported no jewels, not even a signet ring, which was rather unusual for a gentleman of means.

My gaze wandered to his sun-tanned face and I lingered there, revelling in its attractiveness. His face was not really beautiful since it was too strong-featured. He had a broad brow bearing a few shallow lines. A long, thin nose set above a pair of wide sensual lips rounded out his features. The firm, well-defined jaw, covered with the shadow of beard as if he had shaved in a state of hurry, was very becoming and I found myself touching that jaw just to know the feeling of it. It was rough yet at the same time, soft and warm. My hand quivered with an unknown tingle; I hastily withdrew it. I touched his thick black hair as I did so. So thick, and so silky soft … and a trifle too long for propriety’s sake.

This was a man born into Society, but not a willing member of it? He clearly lacked the touch of finesse acquired for Society gatherings as if he was somehow reluctant to participate with people in them. His appearance was appropriate, but nothing more. However, compared to my sisters’ husbands, the handsome Edward and the manly Brandon, this man definitively was even more attractive – in a slightly dangerous way.

Who was he? I was fairly certain I had never seen him around here, nor had he appeared at the small country gentry gatherings in this part of Devonshire, so I reckoned he must be staying with relatives or friends who lived in the vicinity somewhere. But where? To my knowledge no one had a guest staying with them at the moment.

He must have spent a considerable amount of time abroad, I mused. His skin bore the golden tan of someone who lived a long time in a climate with much more sun than was found in England. I sighed. So many questions were spinning in my head!

The stranger suddenly let out a low, deep  grunt, then opened his eyes – bright blue eyes.

“What the devil … hell and damnation!” he exclaimed in a forceful voice, eyes darting side to side.

The blasphemy came when he tried to sit up and his shoulder wound must have caused him considerable pain, hence the expletives. I put a constricting hand upon his chest and raised my voice in a forceful manner.

“Do stay where you are, sir, or you will only injure yourself even more!”

His fierce blue eyes bore into mine but with a scowl that could have scared the Devil himself.

“Who are you? What have you done to me?” he growled.

The voice was a deep baritone and the tone, though refined enough, was a clipped one. It was enough to render me speechless with indignation.

“Well?” the stranger barked. “Are you going to sit there like a stone statue? Help me up, you silly wench, or I will give you a taste of my riding crop!”

I was beginning to enjoy the situation so I smiled sweetly.

“I am sorry to say so, sir, but you seem to have lost your crop when you tumbled from your horse. I also want to point out that I am no mere ‘wench’ but a respectable woman. I must insist you treat me with the respect I am due.”

With as much dignity as I could muster, I rose to my feet, placed my hands on my hips and looked down at him.

“My name,” I said, “is Margaret Dashwood of Barton Cottage and my mother is a relative of Sir John Middleton of Barton Hall. Kindly tell me your name, sir, or I will leave you to your fate this instant.”

“Upon my word! A ‘respectable lady’ disguised as a peasant girl. Please forgive my mistake, my dainty damsel, but you must admit that it was only natural, given the dishevelled nature of your appearance.”

That statement was accompanied by an impertinent stare that raked my body, head to toe. All of a sudden, I became very uncomfortably aware of how I must appear to him in my old muslin dress and scuffed walking boots, my hair escaping its confinement and my face flushed with anger. I could not bear this embarrassment for more than a second so I grabbed my bag, turned on my heels and stalked away as dignified as I could.

“Wait … Miss Dashwood, please? I would be very grateful if you would consent in assisting me.”

He had spoken in a gruff tone yet he had not managed to conceal the pleading in his voice. Immediately I grew concerned again and scolded myself inwardly for my selfishness. After all, this man was injured and had lost quite a lot of blood.

“Put your right arm around my shoulders, sir,” I said and, kneeling once again beside him and sliding my arm around his waist. After a few failed attempts, we finally succeeded in getting him to his feet.

He towered over me and seemed to be too weak in the knees to stay upright; I had to tighten my grip just to keep him upright.

“Careful, sir!” I panicked a trifle when his head fell onto my shoulder and the warmth of his breath caressed the skin of my neck. I felt the hardness of his muscles under my hand, and the assault of his heady but not unpleasant scent was enough to rattle my usually calm composure. All of a sudden there seemed to be not enough air to breathe …

Finally the stranger stirred and lifted his head, his back muscles tightening under my touch.

“Good Lord, but this has affected me in a rather serious manner! Do forgive me, Miss Dashwood. I seem to have outdone myself more than usually in my rude behaviour.”

He took a step away from me and gave me a little bow. “Douglas Alexander Spencer of Watcombe Manor, at your service, Ma’am!”

He had overrated his abilities and I grabbed his arm when I saw the dark, nasty shade of grey that suffused his countenance.

“Sir, we must seek help. You are too weak to …”

At that moment the black stallion came trotting towards us, whinnying softly, which made Mr Spencer stare at me with disbelief.

“Dragon? He galloped away from me after I fell. How come he is here now?”

“I found him in the ring of standing stones and it was he who led me here, sir. Once I got into the saddle, he knew exactly where to go.”

“He … he allowed you to mount him? Impossible! Dragon does not accept orders from anyone but me. Even I sometimes get bitten when he is in a foul mood. Come here, boy.”

Dragon snorted and nudged Spencer’s outstretched hand, who then stroked the soft silken nose with tenderness.

“So you have deserted me for this pretty little chit, have you not? You devil! I should whip you, but I cannot blame you. She is very pretty, indeed.” The stranger then looked at me and I blushed.

The horse tossed its head upward and whinnied.

“Mr Spencer, I must insist on two things: first, I will bring you to Barton Cottage where I can summon a physician. Secondly, I must demand respect from you. I do not wish to be called ‘a chit’ which I find a most offensive word for a woman.”

Spencer’s blue-eyed gaze raked over me once more and his mouth widened into a sardonic grin.

“Oh, but you are indeed a woman, my dainty damsel, no doubt about that!”

His hand reached out to tidy a lock of my hair behind my ear and I had to suppress a sudden shudder.

“I have known many fair-haired, blue-eyed dolls, my dainty one, but none like you. You are not afraid of me and you have not recoiled in horror upon hearing my name. Why is that?”

“I have never heard of you, sir, so why should I be afraid? What have you done besides indulging in the usual eccentricities gentlemen of your type permit themselves?”

 

 

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part One

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Chapter One

The grey streaks of dawn were just beginning to show on the eastern sky, when I closed the door of Barton Cottage behind me. Soon the morning sun would grace the Devonshire downs with a rim of gold, but for now, the world was still a pearly grey, and everything was quiet. The air of this early June morning was so pure and exhilarating that, to me, it tasted like chilled white wine.

I climbed the grassy slope on which the cottage sat, paused at the hill’s top, and looked down on the small, neat house of dark, grey granite. Nothing moved behind the windows yet, so I could indulge in an activity that would have sent my mother into an uproar, should she ever find me out. I broke into a healthy, uncontrolled jaunt down the hill’s other side. I ran until I had no breath left, then rolled in the hillside’s soft grass, panting and laughing. Oh, it was so good to be out of the cottage with its stuffy rooms, and away from Mother with her constant complaints – always weeping and whining about one thing or everything.

My name is Margaret Dashwood and I am the youngest of three sisters. Elinor and Marianne, both married to the man they loved, were as different as could be, the former a tall, graceful young woman with heavy brown hair and grey eyes, the latter also tall but much more elegant, with a mass of golden curls and a pair of cornflower blue eyes. They were also each other’s opposite in character and disposition, Elinor being the sensible, responsible eldest of the two, quiet and discrete, and Marianne, who was mostly led by her emotions, cheerful and loud.

Compared to my sisters, I was not really beautiful but some people thought me attractive with my fair, curly hair and my pale blue eyes. As for myself, I hated my snub little nose and the sprinkle of freckles on it, though some found it cute. I would have liked to be taller since I was barely 5’5 which, according to Mother, was a scant too short to be considered beautiful. Elinor and Marianne were both over 5’8 so I guess Mother was right. However, there was nothing I could do about my height so I accepted my lack of inches with good humour.

I had turned twenty-one the month before and – to members of the circle of Society our family moved in – I was still relatively young, even if one was endowed with enough prospects, such as beauty, a fortune or a title, to be offered to a possible suitor. However, when one is blessed with a rather inconspicuously pleasant prettiness, without any financial prospects and absolutely no bonds to the nobility, at twenty-one I was what people called ‘on the shelf’.

I am content with remaining unmarried.  Eight years ago, Marianne left to marry Colonel Christopher Brandon and shortly thereafter Elinor had done the same to be united with Edward Ferrars. Someone had to stay and look after dear Mama, endearingly shallow and confused as she was, or she would end entangling herself in disastrous situations. Mama had never managed to reconcile herself with our dire financial circumstances after my half-brother John had left us with a yearly income of barely 500 pounds. She was still most hurt by him turning us out of our beloved Norland Park, Papa’s estate, where all three of us grew up.

So I, level-headed, intelligent Margaret, had to play the part of nursemaid, coping with Mama’s eternal harebrained and silly ways. I did not mind because they gave me the opportunity of doing exactly what I wanted without anyone asking questions.

My childhood had been rather uneventful. First I had a nanny, later a governess until I was thirteen and our father died, leaving us practically nothing to live on. So my governess, Miss Pewter, had to go and, short time later, we had moved away from Norland Park into Devonshire and the estate of Sir John Middleton of Barton Park, a distant cousin of Mama’s, who kindly offered us the use of a cottage on his grounds. I grew up with nothing more than books for company, though Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings were always happy to receive us regularly at Barton Hall for quiet country dinner evenings. Thus, I became a solitary, earnest girl, always engrossed in books and with not much knowledge of what the world was like beyond the beautiful downs of Devonshire, a process that was even increased after my sisters married and left me alone with Mama.

I was quite reconciled with the certainty that I would never be what Mama wanted me to be, a distinguished, wealthy woman, married to a rich and preferably titled gentleman. There were none in the vicinity of Barton Park, except Sir John and he was a widower of some sixty years without children. In Torquay, a rapidly growing country town, some twenty miles southwest of Barton Park, there lived several rich manufacturers and tradesmen with sons in search of a wife, but I was no match for them, being free-spirited and outspoken as I was. I could never have thrived in that confined, narrow-minded world and the young men I encountered soon became aware of that. So far, none of them had ever tried to deepen the acquaintance they made with me during the balls I too rarely attended.

In short, I was undisciplined, but free and I did not care as long as nothing more was asked of me than looking after Mama.

After having recovered my breath, I did what I liked the most. Adopting a sturdy pace, I began walking the moors towards my own favourite spot, a small circle of standing stones. There were many of them to be found in Devonshire and this one was without the grandeur of Stonehenge and much smaller. There were only eight standing stones in the small circle, each about seven feet high. Between them there were benches lying that were some fifteen inches high. The circle had a diameter of approximately twenty yards so the whole was rather tight and cosy.

Just when I reached my sheltered spot behind one of the large stones of the circle, the sun rose above the horizon in a blaze of bright orange. Magnificent! I lowered myself down, rested my back in the hollow of a boulder and sighed with pleasure. The light would provide an adequate help for my sketching and I started rummaging through my bag for my sketchbook and pencils.

For the good part of an hour I was happily and most satisfactory engrossed in my drawing.

I was just thinking of breakfasting on the food I had with me, when I suddenly saw a horse running towards me. A riderless horse, yet saddled and bridled. Coming at me at a swift canter, it abruptly stopped a few yards away from me, startled and with huge eyes full of fear.

Colonel Brandon, Marianne’s husband had allowed me the use of his stables at his estate of Delaford and over the years I had become a fairly good horsewoman. Therefore, I was not afraid, but rose and stepped towards the horse, my hands stretched out before me and whistling softly. The huge black stallion approached and sniffed one of my hands when I addressed it in soft, murmuring tones.

“Hey, my beauty, hush now, where do you come from?”

The stallion blew into my hands, snorted and allowed me to stroke his neck. After a bit of caressing and crooning, I made an attempt to mount him. He allowed me do it with just a hint of panic, which was easily soothed as soon as I was in the saddle. I gave him free hand and he started trotting lightly to the west. That is when I saw he was limping a bit, but it did not seem to bother him much. I chuckled when I thought of what Mother would have to say about me sitting astride a horse, in a man’s saddle, with my skirts hitched up high.

My steed continued westwards over the wide stretch of grassland for a few minutes and I was beginning to enjoy the ride when he suddenly stopped, trusting his head upwards.

“What is it, boy?” I stroked the animal’s neck and he moved forward again. Then, I saw what the stallion had wanted to show me and froze with shock. The body of a man, lying face down on the boggy grass.

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Dearest, loveliest Meg

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility tells the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and their search for happiness. In Edward Ferrars, Elinor finds her soul mate, and Marianne comes finally home to Colonel Brandon’s love.

There is, however, another sister.

Margaret Dashwood is left to care for her spendthrift mother. Will she find her match too?

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Next week, Margaret’s story appears on this page on Saturday. Join us for Dearest, loveliest Meg.

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The Lost Northbound Train – Part Twenty

Chapter Twenty – Inexorable Fate

 

While John was propelled into the Unknown, only one fact stood clearly in his mind; he must not let go of Margaret! In that last conscious second, he managed to sling his arms around her waist and cling tightly to her. Whatever would transpire, he would not release his hold on Margaret, even if he should die in the process! But the violence of the force with which they were thrown into the darkness was overpowering …

As consciousness slowly returned, Margaret immediately felt the sting of an injury to her left shoulder and, when she moved it, she cried out in pain. Opening her eyes, she saw John’s worried face hovering above hers.

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“Margaret, darling, lay still! I think you may have dislocated your shoulder.”

“Where are we?” Margaret asked, looking around.

“We are in the mill’s loom hall. Fortunately we seem to have landed onto a pile of cotton waste which must have cushioned the blow somewhat. Margaret, the looms are not working, so I guess we cannot be sure in what era we are.”

Margaret, firmly holding on to John’s arm, managed to sit up, though the pain in her shoulder was growing worse by the minute.

“John,” she urged, “look closely! I recognize this location very clearly. I was here just before I took the train back to London in the company of Henry Lennox. Do you recall it, John? I told you so on the station platform where our trains crossed.”

John nodded, deep in thoughts.

“I met your mother in here, that day,” Margaret continued. “She was so very bitter, John. She accused me of coming to gloat over you and the bankruptcy of Marlborough Mills. Oh, John, she was so very distressed about not knowing where you were! Just think of it! She still does not know after all these weeks that we spent in the future!”

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“Yes, you are right, darling. We should go and find out where we are and, more important, in which era. Come, let’s get you on your feet.”

With the greatest care, John assisted his wife in getting up, yet he couldn’t prevent her having a lot of pain in her injured shoulder. Eventually, they started toward the entrance door of the hall. As they were passing one of the grimy windows, they saw the deserted courtyard stretching out beneath it.

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“Oh God!” John whispered. “Is it possible that we arrived back in our own time?”

“Let’s go outside, John.”

They did indeed exited the hall into a courtyard that acutely resembled the one John had fled after the mill’s downfall and, in sore need of a distraction from all his worries, had gone on a train to Helstone, Hampshire. In unison, their glances turned to the house where John and his family had lived. Laced curtains still adorned the clean windows, and the doorstep was still meticulously swept.

Hiding behind a stack of cotton bales, John and Margaret observed the stately house. It certainly looked like John’s 1852 home!

“Listen, sweetheart, we cannot go inside the way we are dressed just now, in jeans, T-shirts and denim jackets. I will bring you back to the hall and install you somewhat more comfortably there, while I will go and see if I can get us more suitable clothing. Can you wait for me there?”

“Of course I can, John. You are so right! That is just the thing to do.”

 

Once nightfall had set in, John cautiously crept toward the house’s back door with the intention to wait until the lights went out in the pantry. That was a sure sign that Cook had gone to her bedchamber. Cook was always the last to seek her bed for the night. He had to wait for another hour before he could execute his plan of forcing his way into his own house by picking the pantry’s door lock. The house was quiet but faint little noises were audible, as if the rooms themselves were listening for intruders. John stole his way up to his bedroom by using the servant’s staircase, which lay at the back of the house and was more isolated than the main staircase. Ten minutes later, he had done his ablutions, dressed himself in clean clothes and sneaked into Fanny’s old bedroom to get a dress out of her closet. His spoilt sister had not bothered taking them all with her after her marriage to Watson.

He hurried back to the factory hall where he found Margaret dozing on the bed of cotton waste.

“My dearest, I am going to help you get into this dress. It will be painful but also necessary, for I want

to take you to Dr Donaldson. You shoulder needs to be set as soon as possible lest the muscles cramp up.”

Margaret acquiesced with lips as white as the left-over sheets of cotton on the inert looms, and John eased her into the dress. By the time he was finished, she had passed out with the pain. John was not surprised. He knew all too well how excruciating the pain must be. Carefully, he carried her to the street and hailed a conveniently passing cab.

Dr Donaldson did not so much as blink when John rang at his door that late. He knew John would not call for just a trifle illness or injury. With stoicism, he accepted John’s explanation that Margaret had taken a fall on a train platform, somewhere halfway between Milton and London. He nodded pensively at John’s going into detail about their trains crossing and he spotting her. The doctor’s thoughts were already on the task at hand.

“Help me get her onto the examination table, Mr Thornton. I will set the shoulder while you are to keep her down. Poor child, she has not had much of a respite, this last year, has she?”

“No, she has not,” John replied, emotion clouding his voice.

After the task was completed, John asked the doctor if Margaret could spend the night at his infirmary, to which Dr Donaldson agreed. John would come and get her in the morning. He left the doctor’s house to perform a task that he was even more reluctant to; he had to go and speak with his mother.

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John had to knock hard before he was heard by a sleepy Jane whose task it was to answer the door.

“Mr Thornton!” she exclaimed, clutching the shawl hard over her nightgown for propriety’s sake.

“Thank you for letting me in, Jane. I am sorry to have woken you so late but be so good as to inform my mother I have come home. There is no need for her to rise, I will see her in the morning.”

However, by the time he had reached his bedchamber, Hannah Thornton rushed in, right out of bed, without having bothered to put on a dressing gown.

“John! Thank Heaven you have returned! I have been worried out of my wits! Where the hell have you been?”

“Mother …” He was with her in two long strides and took her into his arms, so firmly that she whimpered frm the force of his embrace.

“Mother, why were you so out of sorts? Surely, I was not gone that long?”

“John, you were gone for two whole days! That is enough to drive any mother into madness! It was not something you had ever done before, John. You always used to inform me of all you undertook.”

Closing his eyes to prevent his mother to witness his astonishment, John processed what he just heard. Two days! All those long weeks he spent with Margaret in 2013, came down on only two days in 1852! Unfathomable!

“Mother, I’m so sorry to have put you through this. It will never happen again, be sure of that.”

“You’re home safely, that’s enough! What have you been doing then?”

John gestured to one of the chairs next to his washstand and sat down himself, using the other one.

“Mother, I have something to tell you …” he said quietly, looking her in the face.

 

The End

The Lost Northbound Train – Part Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen – Forever Bound

 

Margaret woke to a sound she knew must be rather common but one she never actually heard before in her life; the steady, strong breathing of a man firmly surrendered to deep sleep. In the first light that seeped through a gap in the heavy curtains, she was fascinated by what she saw. The long, lean, bare form of her husband, stretched out on his back beside her, one arm upwards to support his head, the other flung out over the edge of the bed.

A stir of longing awoke deep inside her chest and belly, while her gaze travelled over the most beautiful sight she ever beheld.

John’s handsome face was in deep repose and slightly averted so that a lock of his raven-black hair had tumbled over his brow. His finely chiselled lips were curled in a smile, as if he were dreaming about something that brought him joy. She took in the breathtaking sight of his bare muscular chest with its fine sprinkle of dark curls, trailing down over his flat stomach and narrow hips to the seat of his manhood, now inert but still incredibly beautiful.

Margaret’s trembling hand reached out to stroke the skin of his thigh, rough with a growth of fine black hair. She marvelled when it quivered slightly under her fingers. She followed the long structure of thighbone and shin down to his strong foot with its firm ankle and long toes.

All this hard strength, all this power and grace combined, it fascinated her!

This man, John Thornton, was now her husband. Her. Husband. She was Mrs John Thornton, from now on until Death did do them part.

She lay down and huddled against him, instantly loving the warmth emanating from his smooth, silken skin.  John’s arm went up to draw her close and suddenly, her bare breasts rippled over the rough patch of hair on his chest, as he pulled her on top of him. It was so incredibly arousing, and Margaret loved it!

“Hey, you …” the slightly husky voice of her husband sounded. “What is it that you want, Mrs Thornton? Tell me, or better, show me …”

 

The newlywed couple had five glorious days of enjoying each other at the hotel. They did not do anything else but be together in thrilling, joyous, infinitively satisfying lovemaking, only leaving the bed to fortify themselves with tasty bites and fine champagne.

John could not but marvel in the repeating pleasure he found in making love to Margaret. Every time he coaxed her between the sheets again, his beautiful bride found a new way of fuelling his arousal into new heights of incredible delight. Margaret would be alternatively shy or bold, languid or playful, sweet or passionate. He never knew what attitude she would adopt, and every time again, she managed to surprise him. It was immensely exhilarating and a way of showing herself to him that he could never have guessed before. She delighted him with every move and gesture she used.

Afterwards, they would lie in each other’s arms, exhausted, bruised but very replete. They would bathe together in the huge tub in the adjoining bathroom, each of them rinsing, soothing, cleansing the other, trying to ignore the nascent arousal for as long as it was bearable, when their fingers washed and caressed the intimate zones of their bodies. But, eventually, they would end up in bed again, unable to resist the pull of arousal any longer.

 

After their honeymoon, John and Margaret returned to Betty’s cottage where they found the other happy couple, Jowan and Marjorie, just come back from a short stay at Bristol. Jowan had promised Marjorie a holiday on Barbados when the baby was born. He hadn’t dared go too far away from England while Marjorie was almost eighteen weeks pregnant now.

They could still make short day trips, though, as they did regularly around the country, to show their friends all the new and unknown things that had been realized in one hundred and sixty years of progress.

John and Margaret were taken to London, a city they’d both known back in 1852, yet it hadn’t had anything familiar. Take the river, for instance. John had known the docksides pretty well, with all their grimy ugliness and their bustle and noise. Now it was all neat and tidy warehouses, riversides buildings with smart lofts, trendy disco bars. The real harbour activity was concentrated mainly at Purfleet, Thurdock, Tilbury and Coryton, further down the estuary. Canvey Island in Essex, Dartford and Northfleet in Kent, and Greenwich, Silvertown, Barking, Dagenham and Erith in Greater London were also important extensions.

Their friends took the Thorntons to see Heathrow Airport where they were stunned to see the bustle of airplanes land and lift off. The railway stations too had changed beyond recognition, as had the trains. Everywhere and always present were the motorcars and motorbikes, the busses and the cabs. London was still a city crowded with people, running and hastening about like ants. It was nearly impossible to take in.

 

One evening, after yet another busy day, the two couples and Betty were sitting in the kitchen, enjoying a light meal and a glass of wine.

“John,” Jowan asked, “do you think it possible that you might return to your own time, one day?”

“It certainly is my most fervent wish, Jowan, and I believe Margaret thinks the same.”

John’s wife nodded without speaking.

“But, how will that happen?” Marjorie asked. “Will you just disappear and we won’t know where you’ve gone to? I would hate that! It’s so horrible to know that, some day, you won’t be there anymore!”

Margaret smiled at Marjorie and laid her arm around her friend’s shoulders.

“I am sure I would hate it too, Marjorie. It’s the not knowing that is the worst. I confess I would like nothing more than to return to my own era but when I do, I will never see you again and that, I loathe.”

“I have an idea,” Betty intervened. “Let’s agree on something. Whenever you go somewhere other than to your work, you must tell us or leave us a message, so that we know where you went through the portal when you don’t return.”

“That is a splendid idea, Betty!” John exclaimed. “That is exactly what we will do!”

 

One beautiful Autumn Sunday, John and Margaret went to visit the large industrial town of Manchester, where they planned to visit several mill sites that remained from Manchester’s cotton mill days. They all had museums where one could see how the mills worked in the old days.

John attempted to find a resemblance or a familiar view from his own Milton. Maybe he would recognize a street, a building, a park, anything that would reassure him that Manchester indeed modeled for Milton in Mrs Gaskell’s novel. Yet, there was nothing familiar for him to see.

“Little wonder, darling,” Margaret tried to soothe him. “Marjorie told me most of the street scenes were taken in Edinburg instead of Manchester.”

John shook his head in bewilderment as they headed for the entrance of the Sedgewick Mill in Union Street. They paid their fee and began strolling through the sparsely visited rooms of the museum.

The walls were lined with glass cases containing a mass of small objects that were used back in the eighteen hundreds. In the middle of the room stood a large steel loom, and the sight of it lifted John’s heart. He had hundreds of such looms in his mill! Pulling his hand from Margaret’s, he strode towards it and touched the long warp beam with a longing hand.

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In his mind, he could see himself in the busy hall of Marlborough Mills, overseeing his workers while they were manufacturing cotton. A longing, so fierce that it jolted through him like lightning, made him close his eyes in sudden despair of ever going back to Milton ever again. He sighed. What was he to do?

Margaret’s quiet touch on his cheek shook him out of his downcast mood. Thank God they were together!

A sign on the wall pointed toward a small set-aside construction with the name “Video of a working Manchester mill in 1852”.

“John, look! Let’s go see it!” Margaret enthused, dragging him along.

John followed her eagerly through the door. As soon as they were inside, a blinding light burned their eyes and Margaret was trusted back against John’s hard body. The pair was struck down with  a violence that robbed them of their senses, and the world went black.

The Lost Northbound Train – Part Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen – When Two Become One

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The cold winds announcing fall began coming in from the north when, one evening, Father Patrick visited Betty’s cottage.

“I’ve good news for you, John and Margaret, but there’s also some bad news.”

“Oh!” Margaret’s anguished cry startled John, and he went to put his arm around her shoulder.

“For God’s sake, Father! Do tell us! You are upsetting Margaret.”

“I’m sorry, my dear,” Patrick apologized, “but I’m afraid a proper civil marriage isn’t possible. The Registrar has to enter your marriage in the register, and since you have no proper address nor legal whereabouts, that won’t be possible. However, you can marry in a religious marriage and be registered here, in the parish where Betty lives. Mr Routhledge, the local vicar, has agreed to perform the ceremony. You could be husband and wife within three weeks from the date the banns are published.”

Margaret immediately looked at John. Although her heart had just made a huge jump of joy inside her, she wasn’t sure about her betrothed’s reaction. John had set rules for himself that could be very strict. Being engaged to him, she was now subjected to those same rules.

She was seeing conflicting feelings on that strong face of his; a bit of doubt, a touch of fear but also, relief.

“My darling,” he said softly, “do you find it convenient if we go to Mr Routhledge and ask him to publish our banns?”

Margaret flung herself around his neck in sheer joy!

 

On the tenth of October 2013, John and Margaret were wed in the parish church of St Mary’s at Sileby by Mr Routhledge, the vicar. Margaret was wearing a beautiful, mint-green dress in the finest cotton, that reached halfway down her legs, in transparent white stockings, to reveal her slim feet in short, white, high-heeled boots. To protect herself from the biting wind, she had donned a woollen coat, a bit longer than her dress, and of a green a bit darker than that of her dress. She could not stop glancing at her bridegroom in his three-piece black suit of fine wool over a light blue linen shirt and matching tie. Even without the glorious cravats he used to wear in 1852, John managed to look simply dashing.

Father Patrick was there too and acted as a witness for John and also, for Jowan. He and Marjorie finally decided to be husband and wife and begin a real family, now that their baby was duly underway. Betty was radiant with pride and joy for the two lovely couples in front of the altar. She was Margaret’s witness and Dorothy, Paul Burrows’ wife had agreed to be Marjorie’s. Of course, Jowan’s parents were also present.

After the ceremony, the whole company went to “The Green Huntsman” to celebrate with a fine meal and a few bottles of champagne.

John and Margaret were then settled in a taxi, which brought them to a nearby hotel for their wedding night. This was Mr Thorn’s wedding present for the newlyweds, as a token of his appreciation for John, who’d worked so hard in the pub. They would stay for three days and enjoy a quiet honeymoon in Leicester.

After the door closed behind them, they found themselves in a pretty room of large proportions, upholstered in a twenty-first century version of the Victorian style, with dark mahogany furniture and long, dark red velvet curtains. A flower-patterned wallpaper covered the walls and their feet sunk into a thick carpet of a rich brown, sprinkled with tiny rose buds. However, their eyes were drawn to the big four-poster bed with its silken bedspread.

Margaret’s breath escaped her lips in a helpless little sigh of both anxiety and anticipation. This was her wedding night with John! She turned towards her husband and immediately was enveloped in his intense blue gaze, burning dark with unmistakeable desire. It startled her, despite the stirring of her own rising need. How familiar this feeling had become, she reflected. This surge of heat, originating low in her abdomen and spreading slowly through her entire body, until she shivered from the intensity of it.

John saw the slight shudder of fear in Margaret’s stance and his heart clenched with deep, uncontrolled love for her. He opened his arms and offered her his brightest smile.

“Come, my love.” He said it with a voice so husky with suppressed need, that Margaret instantly responded to his call and stepped into the waiting circle of his arms. She felt so safe and so whole as her cheek came to rest against the hard surface of his chest.

“My sweet Margaret …” The deep, warm rumble of his voice kindled the fire within her to a heat and Margaret lifted her face for him to kiss her. He took her mouth in his with a fierceness that made her want to press even closer to him. Plundering her mouth with his tongue, revelling in the sweet, clean taste of it, John moaned and let his hands move to the back of her dress. Slowly unzipping it, his fingers felt only the soften silkiness of her creamy skin until they found her bra, which he unhooked deftly. Margaret gasped as her breasts came free from their restraint.

“Shhh, love … relax … let me finish.”

Suppressing the burning need to simply throw her onto the bed and take her, John forced himself to go slowly. He eased Margaret’s dress from her shoulders, removing the bra in the process, and his hands followed the fabric as it fell to the ground, tracing the lush yet delicate curves of her gorgeous body. The soft moans, escaping from her moist lips, delighted him to a sudden edge of fierce arousal, and he pressed her against his body to let her feel how he ached for her.

Margaret felt the long hardness push against the silk of her drawers, and a sudden wetness pooled between her legs in a rush of heat. It was breathtaking! Swirls of molten fire started to originate in her belly with tantalizing progress. She found herself tugging at John’s jacket and removing it. Then she attacked his waistcoat and shirt, unfastening buttons as they came. Finally, at last, she found the warm yet soft skin of his bare chest and roved her hands over the taut muscles in delight.

“Slowly, my sweet. Do not rush things.”

John’s suave baritone voice sounded at the edge of her ear, and Margaret closed her eyes, better to savour the moment. She felt John’s hands slide down her body to her legs. Her stockings were being peeled off her legs and her drawers followed and, at the back of her mind, she acknowledged vaguely that she was naked.

She looked down to see her husband’s gaze travel over her in awe. Heat swirling through her, she continued working on John’s clothing with a determination of steel. She wanted him naked too, as quickly as possible.

That goal finally achieved, they stood contemplating each other for a while, eyes big with wonder.

“My God, Margaret! You are so incredibly beautiful, my love …”

“So are you, John … I … it is the first time I … oh, oh, it’s … it’s so … “

“What?” John chuckled. “Don’t you like what you see? I can put on my clothes again and …”

“No! No, don’t do that!” Margaret shrieked in panic.

John swooped her up in his arms so swiftly her breath seemed to become solid within her. With endless tenderness, he positioned her on the turned-up bed and lowered himself beside her. His hand followed the soft curve of her cheek to cup her face and kiss her. Margaret gave herself over to that kiss with rapt eagerness, and now her body was aching for him. John felt the length of her slender figure touch every inch of him and again he had to control himself fiercely not to go till the end.

With slow, teasing touches of lips, tongue and teeth, he traced the curve of her neck to descend further to her shoulder and lower, to the onset of her breasts until, at last, his lips encountered the hard peaks. Margaret gave a small cry of delight when he nibbled, first one peak and then, the other. The ache in her belly became a roaring fire, and she pressed herself hard against the steely length of him, marvelling in the delicious tortures it unleashed in her.

While Margaret was savouring all those swirls deep inside her, John began kissing her along her flat stomach and down to the dark triangle that covered her femininity. God, the scent of her! All roses and cream, so completely woman! He gently parted her thighs with trembling hands to gain access to her deepest core, kissing her warm folds, tasting her sweetness and shivering with the delight of it.

Margaret arched her back to meet his mouth even closer, swept up by waves and waves of sheer, uncontrolled pleasure. She buried her hands in John’s thick, black curls, slid her hands over the hard muscles of his back. Her legs gripped him around the waist with only one purpose; to bring that tantalizing mouth of his deeper into her core. Suddenly, she came in a rush of heat so fierce that she cried out in the bliss of her intense release.

John positioned himself between her thighs and slowly eased himself into her wetness. Oh Lord! She was still pulsing with the bliss of her aftermath. It tore at his control so fiercely that he had to fight the incredibly powerful urge to let himself go.

He began thrusting carefully while he waited patiently between strokes until she adjusted herself to his weight and to the rhythm of he set. When Margaret started to follow his pace, he gradually began pushing harder and faster.

A faint little whimper escaped her as a sharp pain meandered through her deepest core.

John instantly stopped and drew her close.

“I am so sorry, my darling, did I hurt you? The pain won’t last, sweetheart, do not be afraid.”

“John …”

“Yes, my heart?”

“Do not stop, please?”

Exulting in her eagerness, John resumed his lovemaking, thrusting gently into her sleek womanhood. As he felt Margaret respond again to his caresses, he gave himself over to his own arousal completely. Rushes of heat swept through him as his strokes became stronger and faster. Margaret climaxed suddenly and she cried out, her inner muscles clenching around his manhood, which caused the wave of desire to sweep him higher and higher until it pushed him over the edge in a powerful release.

Shock after shock of sheer bliss rolled over him, and his breath was harsh and loud as he struggled for air. Sweet Lord in Heaven! Later, much later, he lay down beside Margaret, taking her into his arms and, pulling the bedclothes over them both, he cradled her tousled head against his heart. Sweet oblivion settled over John, now that Margaret was finally his.

The Lost Northbound Train – Part Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen – Setting Things In Motion

The priest continued in the same, relaxed way, not giving them a chance to recollect themselves after the first shock John and Margaret had suffered.

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“I have to dress the old-fashioned way, you know. People in this neighbourhood still feel strongly about every man that holds a position in religion; they want to know him for what he is, no more, no less. Certainly, no less. A priest must look like one. I came here in jeans and leather jacket but I soon changed into traditional garb since I was ignored, even by the few Irish that live here. Now, what can I do for you, my good people? Sit down, sit down. Sharia, my pet, won’t you ask Mrs Trundle if she can serve us some tea, there’s a good girl?”

Betty, noticing the couple’s embarrassment, took over.

“Patrick, this is John Thornton and his fiancée, Margaret Hale. They’ve been staying at my house since a couple of weeks now. They would like to be married, only, they are illegally staying in the country. I know how you dealt with cases like that in the past and I thought you might be able to help them.”

The priest showed no visible surprise or rejection.

“So, you don’t have the necessary documents to prove your identity? Well, you just have come to the right neighbourhood, then. Half the residents are in the exact same position as you are. But, forgive me for asking, Thornton looks like a real British name to me, and so does Hale. What’s happening here?”

The indomitable Betty opened her big handbag and pulled a book out of it.

“Here, Patrick. I think you should have a look at this. Go directly for the back cover.”

How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

 

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice.

This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man

John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over treatment over his employees masks a deeper attraction.

In North and South Elizabeth Gaskell skilfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

John watched the priest as he was reading with sharp attention what was on the page. The absurdity of it all again hit him with considerable force. How was one to explain what had happened to him and Margaret? John wasn’t even sure he understood himself but here he was – propelled forward into time for the span of a hundred and sixty years. It was mind-blowing!

Father Patrick looked up to gaze directly at John first and then at Margaret.

“Look here,” he said slowly, “if you hadn’t come with Betty, I would have taken you for two people who are seriously confused in their minds. People who are so shaken by life that they seek relief in extreme escapism by posing as characters out of a novel. But I have known Betty for ten years now, and she is the most level-headed person I know. So I have no choice but to believe her. You two are the John and Margaret of a Gaskell novel but you have ended up here, not only real but also with knowledge of your past lives or – at least – how this novel describes them?”

“Yes, Father,” John replied in a steady voice, “we were in a train carriage somewhere between London and Milton, in 1852. The train stopped, and we discovered that the carriage, we were in was all that was left of the train. We alighted and found ourselves in the twenty-first century.

Somehow – and do not ask me how for I have no inkling – we must have gone through a time portal.”

Father Patrick nodded.

“Well,” he mused, “it’s certainly very unusual and utterly inexplicable, but there are more things between Heaven and Earth that are also inexplicable to us, mere mortals. You must have been thoroughly shaken by the experience! A time gap of a hundred and sixty years is immense. The changes that have taken place must overwhelm the two of you.”

John smiled and took Margaret’s hand in his.

“Margaret and I are in this together, Father. We draw whatever courage we can from each other’s presence and support. But you are right; we do keep being amazed – and sometimes shocked – by all the unknown new things that we’re discovering. It’s mind-boggling what people have achieved over the years.”

Father Patrick studied the couple sitting in front of his desk with interest. They were so obviously not in their right place, even though they were dressed in jeans, T-shirt and denim jacket. The girl’s hair was a rich, chocolate brown, wavy and thick, and tied in a tail in the nape of her neck but Patrick could easily picture her with her hair piled up on top of her head as was the custom in the eighteen-hundreds. The man’s bearing was full of quiet dignity and strong authority, as was befitting his status as a manufacturer from 1852. They were deeply in love; he could feel the strength of that love in every look they gave each other, in every sweet, yet very shaky smile. They were also very afraid. The force of that fear seeped through their every action and was visible in the depths of their eyes.

“What would you have me do to help you, people?” he asked quietly, folding his hands before him.

The girl spoke for the first time, directing her blue eyes at him.

“We want you to marry us, Father.”

 

After they had all returned to Betty’s cottage and explained to Jowan where they had been, Margaret wanted Marjorie to go and rest. The young woman’s face was very pale and she seemed exhausted. Betty and Margaret then saw to supper.

“Do you think Father Patrick can marry us, Betty?” Margaret asked.

“No, dear, since you and John are no Roman-Catholics. But he knows a lot of people, and I’m sure he can find a clergyman of The Church of England to perform the ceremony. I was surprised, though, when he said he wanted to read ‘North & South’ first.”

“I am not,” John said, matter-of-factly. “If I were in his shoes, I would have done the same thing. It is of the uttermost importance for a priest to know everything there is about the couple.”

“So you’re really going through with it, John?” Jowan asked, while he sat down and began buttering toast.

“Of course I am. Margaret and I have chosen each other for life, and we want to seal our union for life, also.” He extended a hand to Margaret who took it and smiled sweetly at him.

“I should go and bring Marjorie something to eat,” she said. “She was really tired, Jowan. She’s well up in her second trimester now, yet her nausea spells keep coming up still.”

When she entered Marjorie’s room, Margaret found her friend sitting in a chair in front of the window.

“I brought you some toast and scrambled eggs and some tea, Marjorie. You should be in bed, you know. You need a lot of rest.”

Marjorie swung round to face her, distress plainly on her face.

“I envy you, Margaret. What did John do to persuade you to marry him?”

Margaret put her tray on the dressing table and looked at her friend in astonishment.

“What do you mean ‘persuade me’? John proposed to me a long time ago, you know that from – well, from the film and the book. I was so stupid and stubborn. I did not see what a good man he was and how much he loved me. I have a lot to make up to him, Marjorie, for I must have caused him great sorrow. Yet, he did not stop loving me but kept hoping we would come together. God knows I have kept him waiting a long time, refusing to realise that I, too had started loving him. It is only natural that we should become man and wife, now that we both know we love each other.”

“Yes, but when did you realise that you loved him? What did persuade you that he was the right man for you? What had changed, so long after that first proposal?”

Margaret suddenly found herself blushing with embarrassment.

“Marjorie, I think I was attracted to John from the first time I set eyes on him, in the sorting room at Marlborough Mills. Yet, the attraction turned instantly into revulsion, when I saw him beat Stephens. I remember being troubled for days, after that. I kept seeing his angry face, and the appalling violence he used to punish a worker who was weaker than himself. From then on, I fought the attraction and focussed on the revulsion. John – time after time – confused me when one minute, he was arrogant and cruel and abrasive and, the next minute, he was compassionate and civil. And at some point, he was downright sweet. That was when he broke through my defences, so gradually that I did not see it. After Mason came to tell me John had annulled the coroner’s inquest after the death of Leonards, it suddenly dawned on me just how much he must love me. At that same moment, I realised I loved him too.”

“But he withdrew from you then, isn’t it? He was persuading himself that it would never work out between the two of you.”

“Yes!” Margaret exclaimed. “Oh, I was such a goose, Marjorie! I did not know how to deal with his newfound aloofness, which hurt me very deeply. There were times when I wanted to scream at him, to shout out loud that I loved him! But my upbringing prevented me from doing so. Thank God, we got another chance, at that train station. Now I absolutely know I will never let him go again.”

Marjorie nodded, her face very earnest.

“Maybe I should let Jowan break through my defences too, isn’t it? Maybe it’s time I accepted his proposal, now that we’re going to have a baby together.”