John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 17

     Christmas Eve Day and  Night

 

The first rays of the sun were glistening off of the re-frozen snow crust.  Christmas Eve day dawned brightly with no apologies or explanations or new edicts expected.  Coming out of her room, Margaret inhaled a wonderful pine scent, and found John standing in front of the tree.  He was looking at the cranberry strands, which now stood out as red swags, in the sunlit room.  She watched him as he leaned against the back of a chair, long legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded, looking at the tree without knowledge of her presence.  Margaret knew she was seeing him in an unguarded moment.

 

“Good morning John,” she said, startling him slightly, “do you see something wrong with our tree?”

“Good morning.  I was looking at the cranberries, which make the tree look nice with the light of day, and wondering what to put at the top.”  John was   partially lying; he already knew what he was going to put there.  “Are you excited about today, visiting the mills and talking among the workers?”

“I doubt I’ll be talking all that much.  I’ll be a strange face to them, but I shall enjoy it, all the same.  Good morning Dixon.”

“Good morning Miss.  I see you, and the Master did a right nice job on that tree.  I love coming upstairs to the smell of pine.  It makes it cheery.”

“How is it below stairs?

“It’s already busy.  The Master’s Cook is discussing food preparation and timing with our Cook.  Cooking for six above and seven below stairs is a challenge they are both eager to do.  There’s a lot of laughing; they must have the cooking sherry hidden somewhere down there because they sure have the holiday spirit, as I think we all do,” Dixon laughed.  “And they’re dragging poor Branson in on the serving tomorrow.  He’s just hauled in the huge goose, and they are uncertain how to fit two large birds in the oven.”

Margaret replied, “That sounds wonderful.  Be sure that Adrian is worked into your plans, as well.”

John escorted Margaret to the breakfast table and seated her, saying, “Yes.  Branson needs to pick him up early.”

As they sat down to eat, Margaret suddenly remembered Nicholas’s children.  “What about Nicholas’ children tomorrow?”

“I’ve discussed that with him.  They will have their Christmas dinner tonight and arrive a little later tomorrow, allowing time for gifts to be opened.  I am pleased that Higgins’ ability to give to them has grown through his hard work for me.  I truly am appreciative of that day you sent him back to me.  As for today’s plans, normally there are three shifts working round the clock, except for Sunday.  Tomorrow they will all be off, and today’s work is a bit different, with each shift working for four hours instead of eight, with the last one ending at 2:00 p.m.  Hopefully, today you, and I can catch two shifts as they change, because the night shift left two hours ago.  Do you need anything from your home today that can’t wait a couple more days?”

“Yes, John.  I need some fresh clothes.  Can I take a bath here?”

“Can you?!”  John said, raising his eyebrows in mock excitement.  “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing, “I’m afraid a little mischievous spirit imp has invaded my senses today.”

Margaret burst out laughing, unable to hide her own joy of this holiday.  Yesterday and last night, she turned  a definite corner in her life.  She was positive that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with John.  She was getting to know a John that probably no one had ever seen, and more likely, not John, himself.  Had he ever been a happy person?  Thinking about what she knew about his past, she didn’t believe he ever was.  He’d had a young life full of terrible hardships, then there was the toil and strife of managing the mills and her absence from his life, some of which she read about in those dark letters in his desk.  No, he had never known happiness, and now he was happy . . . more than happy… and she was, too.  She knew he was caring, intelligent, honest, and loving, but Margaret was reveling in the humor she found he possessed.  What new delights still awaited her, she wondered?  He was amazing her at every turn.  She realized she’d never really known this John Thornton, and she loved every moment of him.  How could she possibly go on with his proclamation?  But she promised she’d try.

“Margaret?”  John said, laying his hand on her arm.  “You’re off in that strange land where you go so often.  I’ve noticed this several times.  Where is this place within your mind?”

Embarrassed about drifting off, she said, “Oh, I have several lands.  Mostly, I put to shore on my Hopes and Dreams Island, my favorite place.  There are other islands, too.  There is Rocky Island, which is my least favorite; I was stranded there for a long time.”

“And just now, which island was that?”

“I was on my Reality Island.  That is a newly charted island for me.  I am spending a lot of time there, lately.  However, last night,” Margaret began with a smile, “I glimpsed an entirely new land beyond the horizon; I think I am going to name it Passion Island.”

John looked at Margaret, loving her little islands.  “Margaret, I am your safe harbor; when you are in a storm, sail to me.  You can always find me on Passion Island, waiting for you.”

“John, don’t start with those loving words,” Margaret said.  “You’ll have me crying before the day begins.”  And she smiled.

“Aye, me matey, Captain Thornton, at your service.”  John saluted her.

Laughing again, they both discovered another moment, birthed from humor, as each recognized it as a new experience in their lives.  Every laugh seemed to tie the bindings tighter.

“Captain, is it?  We’ll see about that!”  The laughter continued, as John dwelled in the sparkle of her eyes.

“John, did we forget to invite Fanny and her husband?  It would be so awful to overlook them.”

“As much as I love our intended guest list, I did talk with Watson, and they are headed away for the Holiday; so, relieve your mind there.”

 

Branson brought around the smaller two-horse carriage, and the day began at Margaret’s.  Adrian was outside chopping wood, but he had a banked fire inside, keeping away the coldness.  Branson came down from his box, and after opening his master’s door, he went around the other side of the carriage house to talk with Adrian.  John handed Margaret out and up the slick back steps and followed behind.  He stopped in the dining room, watching her pass through the parlor.

“Oh look, a piece of furniture must have arrived after all.  I wonder which one it is,” Margaret said, walking over and pulling the cover off it.  “Dear me, I wish I’d been here when this beautiful piece came; it’s been delivered to the wrong house.”

John walked up to Margaret and wrapped his arms around her from behind.  Leaning down, he rested his cheek next to hers and said, “Happy Christmas, my love.”

Margaret stood there paralyzed.  She couldn’t speak.  John could feel her beginning to slide through his arms, once again, but then she found her legs.  “I’m sorry, John.  My knees became weak.”  Finally, after many long moments of silence, in a soft low voice, she asked, “This is for me?”  John could feel her start to shake with quiet sobs.  Sobs, he knew, of delight.

“Yes, Margaret.  That is for you, my love.”

Margaret slowly lifted the cover to reveal the black-and-white  ivory keys of her new piano.

“Someday you shall have a grand piano, if you wish it, but I knew your cottage would be too small for that now,” John said, holding her quiet shivering body in his arms.  He turned her to face him.

Margaret’s face was a mask of pure disbelief.  She looked into John’s face with tears beaded on her lashes, unable to speak, and mouthed the words, “Thank you, John.”  She reached up, put her arms around his neck, and laid her head against his chest, still dazed.

He held her momentarily, and then pulled her back to kiss her, but found she had sailed to one of her islands.  She was totally unfocused.  She wasn’t pulling out of her state of disbelief.  John closed the lid on the piano and pulled the cover back over it.  “We can talk about this later,” he said.  “Get your clothes.  I’ll wait outside, or I’m afraid we’ll be here all day.”  He walked her over to the steps that led upstairs then left the house and went out to his horses to pat down.  He was happy with Margaret’s response to his gift.  He wanted to give her everything.  He wanted to spoil her.  Someday . . . perhaps…

Margaret was back within ten minutes, still dazed, and John went over to fetch her.

Before he could get to her, she started down the steps.  As she turned around to point up to her “Margaret’s Enchanted Cottage” sign, she slipped from the step, pitching forward.  John caught her and lifted her off the step, setting her down on the ground.  He released her slightly, so she could free her arms, but he wouldn’t let go of his hold, since she appeared to be allowing him that closeness.

John thought how small she was next to him; he could crush her so easily, if he hugged her too tightly.  He desperately wanted to always protect her fragileness.

Silence reigned between them.  Margaret slipped her hands from his chest, up to each side of his face, and held his head in her hands, beckoning.

John whispered, “If you don’t say no right now, I am going to kiss you again, my love.

“I would like that.”  Margaret said softly.

John let her go long enough to throw his top hat to the ground and took her fiercely into his arms, properly, almost bending her backward.  He looked at her throat, her lips and then into her eyes, slowly moving to cover her mouth with his.  He was tender and slow, licking her lips and gently parting them.  The stroking seduction of his tongue took away her senses and blocked any slight resistance she might be thinking was improper.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, trying to reach his mouth more fully.  Margaret made a low, utterly female sound and relaxed into him.  She was  innocently tentative on their first kiss, but not so now.  She met him hotly with hunger that fed his own.  John’s uninhibited feral groan undid her.  Her head fell backwards as his mouth claimed her throat.  Reacting passionately, he moved one of his arms lower, just near her buttocks, and drew her more tautly to him.  He wanted her so badly.  He was burning up.  The caged animal wanted to assert its prowess over its mate.  Margaret could feel John’s longing, liking it more than she should, as it was ardently presenting itself.  He wanted her to know his desire for her as a woman and he pressed her closer to him feeling her heaving bosom upon his chest.  Margaret, starting to understand passion, pressed herself to John’s erection.

“Margaret, please let me love you,” John whispered, as he started to kiss down her neck; behind them, one of the horses suddenly whinnied, startling Margaret.  She backed away out of propriety, mortified that she had been swept away, forgetting that John’s driver was back there.  As she timidly peered around John, she could see that Branson and Adrian had politely turned away.

“Oh dear, I am so embarrassed, ” Margaret said, suddenly turning crimson.

“Not I,” said John.  I am not ashamed of the love I feel for my woman.  I’ve waited too long to show the world my love for you.”  He stooped to retrieve his hat and cleared his throat, which seemed to signal Branson to open the door.  Highly embarrassed and red faced, Margaret was handed into the coach, John following with her bag.

“Thank you, thrice, John.  Once for saving me from a very uncomfortable accident on the steps, and thank you for my adorable little sign,” as she pointed to it, “which I know is your doing.  I love it.  And how can I thank you for my exquisite pianoforte.  I have so longed for one.  I think you are getting far ahead of our gentlemen’s agreement.  And I think you did tell me that you were not buying anything for Christmas?”

“Margaret, first of all, if you remember our conversation about gift giving for the holiday, I never agreed to any such thing; we only talked about your boots.  Secondly, that was ordered several days after your return to London because I knew you had left one in Helstone and wanted you to have one, no matter where our relationship went.  And finally, there was nothing in our agreement about a gift for my love only that you needed choices, and that hasn’t changed.  But most of all, I cannot help myself.”  John kissed her lightly and then shouted to Branson, “Mill 2.”

Arriving after 10:00 o’clock, they had missed the second shift change for both Mills.  John knew that Higgins was spreading his own form of cheer through all the shifts today.

Margaret remarked on the vast difference in layout between the two mills and their sizes.  John explained that Mill 2 had 450 workers, whereas Mill 1 had 350.  The changed layout had come from 10 years of learning what would expedite movement around the yard.  It was built like a fortress, with 20 loading docks, 10 to each side facing each other, uniting all the buildings into a U shape with the canteen at the far end, between the two sides.  The office was located at the entrance.

“The canteen,” John shouted to Branson who was threading his way between the loading wagons on each side of him.  “One side is for importing and the other side is for exporting,” John told her.  “This design is more efficient than Mill 1.”

They enjoyed two hours there, with Margaret following John around, saying little, – mostly nodding hello when introduced.  The workers came to get their free dinner that John had provided for everyone, as a token of holiday cheer.  Oranges would be passed out when the shift ended; John had ordered almost a boat full of imported oranges to be given to his people.  They were a real treat anytime of the year.  Margaret was delighted to see Mary, but they would talk tomorrow as she was busy serving.  Higgins was there, traveling a different route around the canteen, shaking hands, thanking and talking.  Margaret was so happy to see that Nicholas was appreciated and finally finding his merited status as a hard worker and overseer.  Nevertheless, once again, she felt overtaken upon viewing John’s responsibilities: the mass of faces, the wagons with all the horses, and the size of these huge buildings and the sound of machinery running somewhere in the distance.  As she observed the way they all respected him and looked up to him, she didn’t feel herself fairing very equal as his partner in life.

How is it? He’s picked me, of so little significance, to love?

The same scene repeated itself in Mill 1.  Most of these workers had been with John the longest; some, Margaret thought, might even remember her.  She felt more comfortable there as she walked among the tables, even without John, wishing the workers a Happy Holiday, and thanking them for all they do for Marlborough Mills.  John stood off in the kitchen area, fascinated, watching Margaret conduct herself down the rows of workers, alone, shaking hands, and talking with them.  With him not at her side, he wondered how she was explaining who she was.  This was a beautiful sight to behold, and caught him off guard with the emotions it brought forth in him.  This was another exquisite remembrance for their treasure chest of love.  Every moment he watched her, he felt her beauty, her scent, and the touch of her.  Second, only to Margaret, were his mills and his people.  John knew within his heart that she would fit in perfectly, better than his own mother.  He knew his people would absolutely love her.

When they arrived back home in the late afternoon, Margaret asked that a bath be prepared for her before Jane left.  Dixon found her and had her own request, “Miss Margaret, we are as ready as we can be downstairs.  As you can see, the upstairs has been prepared, and most of the table is set, except for your dinner places.  Could I be allowed the evening off?”

“Yes, of course, Dixon.  I won’t ask, but I hope it has something to do with Mr. Granger.”

“Yes, Miss Margaret.  He bought a small tree, and we will decorate it tonight.  And if I could have tomorrow evening off after the dinner has been cleaned away; we will be exchanging gifts then.”

“Yes, yes, of course, please take both nights off.”  Margaret said, happy for Dixon.

“Thank you Miss Margaret, and one last thing; since you will be going home the day after Christmas, is it alright if I just return home instead of coming back here?”

“Yes, I guess.  Yes, but only because Adrian’s there.  You still have a key for now.  He will be there, probably sleeping on the carpeted floor in the parlor.”

Margaret went for her bath.  John left the house and went to his office to look over the Slickson mill offer again.  He felt that it was better to be away from where Margaret was right now.  The yard was empty, but he saw that Higgins was still here somewhere.  Higgins had long ago moved out of the Princeton District and found a small cottage just a little way out of town.  He had a horse and small buggy for getting to work, and it was still on the property.

“Higgins,” John said, as Nicholas stepped into the office, “I think I am going to go talk directly to Slickson next week and stop relying on rumors.  Our only questions seem to lie in the condition of the mill itself and its machinery, does it not?”

“That’s about it, Master.  Their productivity level is only slightly below our own, but the people that he has, look good.”

“Good . . . then why don’t you get yourself on home?  Our security men are all working and rotating this holiday, are they not?”  John inquired.

“Yes, that’s where I’ve just been, checking at both mills, that all the machinery has been shut down properly, and security is in place.  They know to contact you first and me second, should an emergency arise.”

“Well then, it sounds that all is fine.  Take yourself away from here and come back for dinner tomorrow about 1:00 or so in the afternoon”

“See you tomorrow, have a good eve tonight,” Higgins said, waving his cap as he left.

 

After dinner, John realized that they were left alone, as Dixon would be gone for several hours.  He was not sure he had the strength to get through the next few hours alone with Margaret without stepping past his own line, especially with the way she looked tonight.  She was wearing a yellow frock, and her scent was eminently alluring.  He thought she must have brought her own bath soap.

John went to the bar and got a brandy for both, he and Margaret, while she had gone to her room for something.  He stoked the fire, added a log, lowered the gas lights, and folded himself down onto the carpet in front of the fireplace.

As Margaret came from her room, carrying a book for the evening, she said, “Ah . . . What’s this?  No lights, only firelight?  Mr. Thornton Proclamation, you are not arranging a romantic evening, are you?  Excuse me while I send someone for the Proclamation Police.  Someone needs to come and enforce procedure here.”

John was quietly shaking with laughter and could only manage to beckon her over to him with his hand.  Margaret looked around the room and remembered the sewing basket was in the buffet.  Finding what she wanted, she returned to John and sat down on the carpet, placing a piece of yarn between them, effectively giving them sides on which to stay.

“There!  You have your side and I have mine.  Unless you want pistols at dawn, the gentlemen’s agreement stated that I could only make moderate advances to you until I have seen other men.  Are they not, in fact, your very words, sir?

John loved this game, but he had sure outsmarted himself this time.  This could have been a perfect evening, almost too perfect, and here he was with a dividing line between them.

“I am a gentleman; that was a gentleman’s agreement, and I will keep my word.”  John picked up his brandy glass.  “You see this brandy glass, Margaret?”  She nodded.  “One of my favorite pastimes is to sit in my chair, holding a glass such as this, and swirl the contents.  The best part about it all is watching it coat the inside of the glass while watching it through to the fire.”  John demonstrated for her.  As he was taking his first swallow of it, he saw Margaret start to lean for her glass that sat on the floor in front of him.  He slowly, and deliberately, pushed it out of her reach with his booted foot.  “I’m sorry, did you want something?”

“Yes, I would like my brandy, please” Margaret said.

“And how to you propose to get it, my love?”  John smirked, looking at the dividing line.

Undaunted, Margaret did not answer John or pursue her brandy.  She started this little game tonight and had to see it through.

John couldn’t help but love the look on her face as she contemplated some reciprocal act.  She had such a fierce look on her face, like a mad little kitten.

Margaret decided to raise the stakes.  She thought she had figured something out.  So, hiking the hem of her dress to the knee, she reached down to remove her shoes.

John was roused seeing her legs.  He knew a real game was afoot, now.  John pulled off his boots, hoping this game was headed where he thought it might.

Margaret didn’t know how long she could keep doing this with a straight face.  She sat for a minute as if in thought.  She swiveled so her back was to John and hiked up her dress much farther to catch the top of one stocking.

John quickly lay down on the carpet, so his body extended back, and he caught Margaret with her dress to the top of her thighs.

Margaret, said, “No fair!”

John took off one sock, laughing.

Margaret took off the other stocking, ensuring he didn’t sneak a peek.

John removed his other sock.  He was beaming the whole time.

Margaret, still with her back facing John, removed a garter that held a stocking.

John started to sweat.  Was it the fire in the fireplace, or the fire in his body?  He removed his cravat and his shirt fell open.

Margaret tried to twist around to see his open shirt.  What she wouldn’t give to be lying next to that bare chest.  She would work the game until his shirt was off and then stop.  She removed her last garter and returned to sitting next to him.

Just before he removed his waistcoat, John took stock for a minute and counted items left for each of them.  He was anxious to go straight to his trousers and undergarment to see what she would do, but this was too much fun, so he removed his pocket watch.

Margaret inhaled deeply, she hadn’t expected that.  She thought she had things counted correctly.  Think . . . think . . . she removed her earrings.

John went for his waistcoat.

After each piece of clothing was removed, they would stare into each other’s eyes, smiling, having survived another round, daring each other to go on.  Still no words were  spoken.  John knew he would have no embarrassment, so he wasn’t nervous, but he’d like to win the game, rather than lose it.

Margaret was getting nervous about how this was going to end.  John had three more items to go, if it should ever go that far, which she was sure it would not.  She had her dress, full slip, half slip, corset, and undergarment.  She didn’t like this, but she could not blink now.  Her dress was the next likely item, but she stood and slid down her half slip, pooling it at her feet, and then kicking it away.

John knew he was going to lose, which he didn’t really want to do, because it was so heart rendering having Margaret figure this all out, probably feeling frightened about now; he decided to call her bluff.

He stood up beside her and instead of pulling off his shirt, for which Margaret had patiently been waiting; John proceeded to reach for the buttons on his trousers.

Margaret’s eyes got as big as saucers as she shouted, “You Win!  Stop!  You CHEATED!!”

“How do you arrive at that conclusion?” he asked, choking back the laughter and the joy at her surprise.  Oh well, he thought, these were days they could never recapture and were worth every second to have as memories, just like the first night she had arrived, their first kiss, and the tree decorating.  These were all firsts to cherish their whole life.

Still laughing, John leaned down and picked up the yarn, tossed it into the fireplace and reached for Margaret.

Just then, they heard the downstairs door open.  Dixon was home early.

 

 

 

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John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 16

Chapter 16

     A Sensual Moment

 

Margaret woke with a start, suddenly conscious of the fact that she didn’t have a holiday gift for John.  She didn’t have anything for anyone.  She was sure it wasn’t expected of her this year, but she must talk to John to ensure he wasn’t going to purchase a gift for her.

Finding him dressed for the day, already reading his paper, Margaret said, “John, I want to talk about gift exchanging.  I know there is a Thornton Proclamation, in effect, but I would have liked to have gotten you a small gift, but I haven’t had time.  Please tell me you are not going to purchase anything for me.”

“I cannot promise that because the first thing we will do this morning is to procure a pair of snow boots for you, unless you have some at your home.”

“Why, yes, John.  I do.  We’ll visit my home first and talk with Adrian.  And I’ve realized another person we forgot to invite, Mr. Granger, Dixon’s gentleman.  Maybe she should be given this evening to visit him.  Could Branson take her over to see him tonight?”

“Yes, if she’d like that, it is fine with me for the carriage use.  How many would that make below stairs if everyone attends?  We may have to find a second goose today.

Margaret started prattling off the names, flipping her fingers in the counting.  “Let’s see, two Cooks, two Housekeepers, two Drivers/Chore men, Mr. Granger, and Branson’s lady friend.  That’s eight below stairs.  That huge work table should sit everyone.  Upstairs, we’ll have . . . let me think . . . six.  Dear me, that is 14 people for dinner, and your cook was probably only expecting 3 or 4.  I’ll go talk with her, now, and ask what she might need in the way of food.”  Margaret disappeared down the stairs before John could tell her where he was about to go.

John waited, putting the day together in his mind.  They would be at Margaret’s home, and the Professors; they needed to purchase the liquors, along with the tree and trimmings.  He went to the back stairs and hollered to Margaret that he was going to get Branson started and talk to Nicholas about the invitation.  “I shall return shortly.”

The day progressed easily even in the deep snow.  Jane was the only one to decline her invitation, as she was expected at her family’s this year.  Nicholas was excited to have Margaret and Peggy together.  He knew they would fit well as good friends.  The Professor tried to beg off, but when he realized that his own Cook would not be cooking for him that day, he acquiesced.  A second goose was located, and a box of assorted liquors and a box of champagne was purchased; that left only the tree, cranberries, holly, and mistletoe.  John told Branson to drive around until he found some street merchants selling the holiday greenery.  He wasn’t about to go tree chopping.  John reached for Margaret’s gloved hand.  He massaged her fingers and then pulled her hand to his face and kissed the underside of her wrist, forgetting himself.  Startled at what he was doing, he said, “I’m just getting a head start on the other gentlemen.  We’ll have an early dinner when we get home.  I’ll have Branson mount the tree and bring it inside with the other greenery and the liquor.  I guess we can leave the goose in the stable overnight.  While he’s doing that, we can walk to the mill and get the cotton snow.”

“John, I’m so excited.  It all feels contented and homey.  It feels so right.  I’ve had a wonderful day today and am looking forward to decorating the tree with you tonight.  Do you keep any old lamp parts around?”

Puzzled, John said, “I think there might be a box of assorted pieces in the back cellar.  What are we looking for now?”

“It’s possible you have saved some of the crystal prisms that hang from chandeliers.  They would catch the light from the fireplace and almost twinkle.”

“I do remember seeing some of those.  I don’t know how many, but we’ll use all we find.  They’ll need washing, I suspect.”  John was carried away by the day, being able to share this holiday with his beloved.  They would be married by this time next year, he hoped.

 

She said the words – “It all feels contented and homey.  It feels so right.”  That is the best gift I can receive.  

 

John and Margaret arrived home and walked over to the mill, instead of taking dinner, while they were still dressed against the cold.  As she walked into the mill office, Margaret couldn’t help but reminisce about her only other time there.  Seeing the white cotton waste hang and drift through the air had been beautiful, almost as inspiring as her first impression of John, standing tall in his black coat as he oversaw the workers.  He was truly a vision at first glimpse that day.  However, the image faded  quickly when she saw John administer his own form of discipline to a worker who lit  a flame in a combustible area.  That was the beginning of her misgivings towards him; a day she came to regret.  It took time for her to be convinced that he had been right in his actions.

“Alright, we are here.  Just stay by me.  I am going to take you up on ‘the cat walk,’ so you can see the whole operation from a high, safe area.  Everyone will look at you and me, but I know you are not shy.”  John laughed.  He paused, wondering if he should take her hand.  Rolling the wide door open, he hadn’t made a decision.

“John, it’s positively beautiful,” she whispered.  John handed her his handkerchief to cover her mouth and nose as they stepped through the door.  “I’m sure you don’t see it that way anymore.  If it wasn’t for the noise, I would think I was in a fairytale.”

John had to lean down to hear what she was saying.  For no other reason than safety, he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her through the narrow aisle and up the six steps to the cat walk.  He released her hand.  Immediately, he turned his attention to Margaret, wanting the time to study her initial reactions.  She was fascinated.  He knew they would need another time when he could give her a good deal of information about everything.  He leaned into  her ear.  “This has been my life and livelihood for many years.  My wife will be part of this, too.”  John could barely be heard over the noise.

Turning to him, Margaret smiled with her eyes, and still holding the cloth to her face, she said, “I think I shall love being part of this.”

He didn’t expect that.  John felt his knees buckle beneath him as he had to catch his own weight on the hand railing.  The room was as noisy as it always had been, but he was sure he heard what she had said.  He couldn’t dare ask her to repeat it, but he smiled broadly, as her attention was elsewhere.  “How can she say something like that and then go on as if nothing had been said?”  John wondered.  He started to doubt that he heard what he thought he did.

 

She would love being part of this.  Could she really have said that?

 

They spent a few minutes as Margaret pointed and asked John questions, all the while the whole workforce was watching.  John felt so proud inside, showing off his lady to them.  He had never brought another female acquaintance into this first room, or any of the mill rooms.  John left her on the cat walk, while he paced the main aisle to retrieve a hemp bag of the cotton waste.  Margaret thought him almost majestic, as she watched the sight of her tall John striding down through the floating cotton.  The workers nodded as he passed, offering their greetings.  John was like a God to them.  They all smiled when he neared.  He stopped to talk with someone in charge and then proceeded down to the end of the room.  To think that he provided all these people with safe work, enabling them to live, eat, and raise families, was a hard thing for Margaret to take in.  Returning to the cat walk, John motioned her towards the steps and handed her down to the floor.  Still clutching her hand and the bag, he led her out, leaving the noise behind them.

“They are in awe of you John, as am I.”  Margaret said, returning his handkerchief.

“You?  After my confession, followed by my proclamation, you can still say that?”  John smiled.

With a serious face, Margaret continued, “Don’t laugh at me.  I mean what I say.  I looked over the . . . what . . . fifty people in there and thought about how you provide sustenance for these people and their families.  How many people work for you?”

“Close to 800, I believe.”

“What?  800?  Really, 800 people work for you?  I am most astonished.  How many other mill owners have that many people working for them?”

“No other; I am the only one.  I am in the planning stages of buying a third mill, possibly, which would add another 350.”

Margaret was beyond stunned, never having had any idea of the amount of his responsibility.  Suddenly,  she felt so very small and inconsequential.  For the first time, she had self-doubts,  about whether or not she was good enough for him.  She was perplexed as to how her attitude had radically shifted in an instant.  She was once so sure of the reverse of that emotion.

“Let us go eat and decorate our tree,”  John said, embarrassed that he was sensing some unmerited esteem emanating from her.

Our tree.  Margaret liked the sound of that.

 

Dixon was in the kitchen helping Cook wash the dinner dishes, waiting for Branson to take her to see Mr. Granger when Branson came through the back door with a tall Christmas tree.  “Oh goody,” she said, like a school girl.  “Look, Cook, a tree to decorate.  I guess Miss Margaret, and the Master are going to do that this evening.  I think it’s wonderful that they are getting along well, so quickly.”

John was down the backstairs next, heading into a back room.  Returning, he handed Dixon a box of prisms and asked her to wash them and bring them upstairs when she was done.  Taking two steps at a time, he was back standing next to Margaret.  The other furniture had been moved about the room, and they stood and gazed at the naked tree, sitting in a corner by the fireplace.

“Where do we start?”  John asked as he looked over the shape of the tree.  He turned it several times and stepped back, trying to get the straightest and fullest look possible.

“I guess we don’t have anything for the top, but that’s alright,” Margaret replied.  “We will not put any candles on it, either, like some families do.  With the cotton, it would not work, and I like the cotton better anyway.  So, we start stringing the cranberries first.  Next will be the cotton snow, followed by the prisms.  Is there a sewing basket in the house?”

John thought he remembered one over in the buffet in the dining room.  “Yes, it’s still here,” he said, walking over to retrieve it.

Handing it to Margaret, she removed what she needed and proceeded to show John how the strings were made, and then attached.  During the cranberry garland construction hour, Branson had brought up the other greenery, and Dixon brought the prisms.  The pair left, saying goodnight as they disappeared down the back steps to the kitchen.

With garland strewn in swags about the boughs, they pulled out the cotton snow next.  Margaret taught John how to make nice little tufts on the branches to make it look like piled snow, then she tried to see how much fluff she could pile on his head before he felt it.  John decorated the top branches, and Margaret decorated John until he discovered what she was up to.  He grabbed her around her waist playfully, pinning her arms down, and then stepped back.  They both encountered an uneasy moment as the merriment had stalled.

Margaret brought over the clean crystal prisms handing them to John.  “Since you are the tall one, you hang them, and I’ll tell you where.  We want it to have a balanced look.”

The prisms were spectacular, a menagerie of long, and short, pointed or tear dropped shapes of cut or faceted glass that refracted the firelight around the room.  Looking like moving stars across the sky, Margaret watched the room evolve into the heavens as John placed them.  After a half-hour of ‘little more to the left and right,’ the tree was done.  They turned to each other and smiled, proud of their creation.  John held her around her waist and pulled her back to get a full view of their handiwork.  The white snow really enhanced the tree in its dark corner, while the constellation exhibition overhead on the dark ceiling walls danced and held them breathless.

John was on the verge of losing himself until he looked over at Margaret and saw her glassy eyes, too.  Turning her to look at their tree, he stood behind her, wrapping his strong arms around her and resting his chin lightly upon her head.  No words needed to be said as they both got caught up in this uninhibited moment of contentment.  Their mirrored emotions took root, and Margaret turned in his arms to face him.  John looked down into her fire-lit face as she lifted her hands against his shoulders, encouraging him forward.

“Unless you say no, I am going to kiss you, Margaret.”

John pulled back slightly to look into her eyes for his answer.  He took her head in his hands and instinctively brushed his lips lightly over hers, letting her respond in her own measure.  Margaret reacted softly in a return kiss, allowing his lips to find more firmness.  The taste of his lips and breath stirred within her, and she was intoxicated by his tenderness and warm body, now moving against hers.  She parted her lips to taste more of him, and that was all the encouragement that John needed.  Holding her fast, he let his tongue glide across her lips, savoring her flavor.  He deepened his kiss by slipping his tongue into her parted lips.  It prowled hungrily, sweetly, wantonly, until he was certain that she felt he had a right to be there.  Stealing her naiveté, he could feel when she was momentarily startled and then relented, accepting him, yielding her innocence.

Margaret shivered with delight, surprised at the sensation she felt as his tongue searched her mouth lightly, and then he began probing her depths.  She moaned quietly.  The sensual kisses continued with Margaret participating more until she slipped her tongue through his lips.  He took her tongue and suckled it lightly, not wanting to let her have it back, which elicited a moan from each of them.  Margaret knew that Booker’s bland kisses were like soft rain compared to John’s delicious storm.  Booker kissed lightly with his lips; John kissed with his entire body.  This was love.

John knew he was dangerously close to the most intimate of acts, and he eased back, exacting every bit of his control.  Margaret was well aware of this new experience, feeling this . . . this . . . runaway passion, and welcomed the forbearance that he showed.

“John?”

“Yes, Margaret,” John whispered.

“I have never been kissed like that.  I feel dizzy from the sweet pleasure of it.  I can even feel . . .” but she paused realizing where she was headed.

 

Where were these words coming from that suddenly wanted to spring from her mouth when she was with John?

 

“Margaret, I know how and where you can feel it, it’s the same for us, both.  I’ve wanted that for us.  You can’t know how I have been turned inside out, thinking of someone else giving you these pleasures.  I am overcome, as a man, knowing I, most likely, will be the one to dispatch you to another place, another sphere of existence.  I want to kiss you like that all over, every inch of you.  I want to kiss you forever, but I think we should return to our tree, or I will carry this too far.  I think I’m doing a fine job of backing away, don’t you?”  John said laughing sarcastically.

John went to his chair by the fire to study their tree.  Margaret walked over to him and sat on his lap, putting her arms around his neck and snuggling her head on his shoulder.  Not looking at him, she said, “Thank you, John.”

As he held her and kissed her softly at the top of her forehead, he asked, “You’re thanking me again; what for?  Margaret, you never need to thank me.”

“I am just having a weak moment.  I am finding a new depth of my ability for love.  It is for you John, and I was thinking how different it is from my past.  I need your closeness.  I have been so adrift.  Regardless of your edict, I know that you are by my side; your sheltering arms are there to pull me in, should I need it; I will dare to be free of the ghosts that have haunted me these past years.  I’ll no longer feel that I cannot come to you for fear of you expecting more from me, right now.  I recognize your passion is being held at bay, because you are a gentleman and want me to be sure of myself.  I thank you for that.  I’m sure it’s costing you all your reserve, but still I thank you.”

John continued to hold her tightly, rubbing her back and kissing her temple.  “Margaret, all will be right someday, and to me every minute with you is perfect, no matter the cost.  Have you forgotten I am your guardian angel, that you once thought me?  Please, just let me always comfort you at your difficult times . . . reach out to me.  And I do know that you will be the woman, and have the life that you want someday, which will include loving me.  I know this in my heart.  You are my woman, Margaret.  And I know this from a higher authority, too.”  John smiled.

“Margaret shifted on his lap, looking more into his face.  I think you have been in my heart a lot longer than I knew.  Having been briefly married, that day on the veranda, when you stood to leave, I thought, ‘I could never be closer to him than I am right now’.  I could not accept that.  That frightened me, not knowing where that emotion was coming from, and what I would do with it when you left.  I needed to spend it, or carry it forever.  Already, I thought myself a failure in my marriage when I thought of you.”

John held her tightly and kissed her from her ear lobes, lightly down her neck to the top of her breasts.  Margaret pulled him closer to her, enjoying this most intimate sensation.  Margaret became quite aware of John’s own intimate sensation.  Before she could rise from his lap, he lifted his head and covered her mouth again with his probing tongue, causing deep moans from both.   He pulled his tongue from her mouth and let it slide down to the hollow of her neck, kissing and licking there.  Margaret put her hands in his hair and pulled his head lower, allowing him to taste the swell of her breasts.  She could feel the sweat in his damp hair, and knew his control was straining him.  She knew John wanted to remain there, stroking the deep curves of her cleavage with his tongue, as she herself wanted . . . but she must find the strength to put a stop to it now.  These sensations were all so new.  She was lost in his love; she didn’t know what she should be doing.  She pulled his hair back until he raised his face to her, and she kissed him lightly, signaling it was over.  She rose to her feet, and swept her hand under his chin, forcing him to look higher, into her eyes.  She bent and kissed his eyes closed and then walked to her room, shaking.

Margaret sat on the edge of her bed, feeling the heat settle in her tender areas.  “Oh, dear God, how naive I really am.  How can I be this age, previously married, educated, and not know that such deep sensations even existed, forgetting experienced?”  She realized it for what it was.  The passion of loving someone . . .  no, not someone…

. . . the passion of loving John.  When John said he loved her beyond all reason, she felt she could now understand what that meant.  She readied for bed, thinking of all the years that John had carried this same love for her with no hope.  Margaret cried herself to sleep, plagued by John’s misery, which both John and the Professor had told her not to dwell on.

John continued to sit in his chair looking down, replaying the moment.  She had come to him.  He raised his hands to see how badly he was shaking, never having felt like this before.  His pulse was racing and his heart felt like a wild bird, trapped, banging itself on the sides of its cage, trying to escape.  He had never needed control with other women.  He knew loving every exquisite moment with Margaret was going to be an agonizing pleasure.  These passionate encounters would eventually take a toll on him if he had many more like this one.  However, he would take them all and damn the toll.

He banked the fire, turned out the lights, and sat in the dark for another hour.  His body finally subsided, and he wondered how he would get through the next couple of days with Margaret being so close.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 15

Chapter 15

     Sacrificial Altar

 

As the evening grew late, they both said goodnight in the parlor and went their separate ways, with John striving to treat Margaret as a guest.  Morning was much the same; a casual conversation about Margaret’s plans for the day and John being her ride and guide.  A big part of her furniture was due today, and she had promised to visit the Professor’s staff with Dixon at her side.  John was starting to realize how difficult it was going to be to step back from Margaret.

 

This was my idea, and I’d better find a way to do it.

 

Outside, the snow had stopped, but nearly a foot had fallen overnight.  The mill workers were pushing snow off the docks, trying to get stranded carts and wagons loaded with cotton bales, and moved around the yard.  While Dixon and Margaret were getting ready, John went off in search of Higgins to find out what was being done about other snow issues they had between the two mills.

Finding Higgins talking to the foreman about the snow, John asked about Mill 2.  “I haven’t gotten out there, yet, Master.  I’m not sure what we’re looking at in Mill 2.  I’ve just now got most of the people here assigned to get the yard in passable order and get most of the looms up.  I let the third shift go early so they could get home at least, shutting down the looms about midnight.  It was the same thing at Mill 2.”

“I’ll take care of Mill 2, myself.  You work here.”  John turned and walked away trying to step into footprints already made through the snow.  He went around to the back of the house and found Branson, harnessing the carriage.  “Branson, can two horses pull the smaller carriage in this deep snow?”

“Yes, sir, two horses for the small and four for the traveling one.  What do you want me to do?”

“Hitch two horses to the smaller buggy.  You’ll be taking Miss Margaret and Dixon, first to the Professor’s house and then to her home for the rest of the day.  I’d like you to stay with them and bring them home when they wish.  Also, saddle Aristotle for me.  I need to get out to Mill 2.”

“Yes, guv, right away.”

Within 20 minutes, the smaller buggy and the saddled Aristotle were waiting in front of the house.  John was busy, walking the yard to see what Higgins had in progress.  He found everything was running as it should be for the emergency they had on their hands.  Margaret and Dixon had come out of the house and were waiting on the porch, Margaret wondering about the saddled horse.  Did John ride?  John was nowhere to be seen, but Branson was up on the steps, in no time, explaining his instructions for the day.

“Where’s Mr. Thornton?”  Margaret asked of Branson.

“With this snow, Miss, he needs to check the operations of Mill 2.  They shut down the machines last night so people could go home early, and this morning they are dealing with getting the yards cleared and passable.  You have the smaller carriage today, because Mr. Thornton needed his horse to get over there.  Who’s first down the steps?”  Branson asked, as he extended an arm in the air to assist them.

John made it to Mill 2, but it took twice as long reining Aristotle in a more sure-footed path.  The foreman there had started to organize their snow efforts, but John knew he’d never been trained for this.  He instructed him through all the phases of snow clearing.  Certain procedures were usually done before others.  John took the opportunity to walk the entire mill and talk to the workers, thanking them for making it to work today.  He encouraged the foreman to make sure each worker got cups of hot tea today, and instructed him to feel free to offer such things whenever he felt it would help.

Dixon and Margaret made it to the Professor’s home with little speed, themselves.  Upon her arrival, Margaret set off for the kitchen.  Dixon asked the Professor if he had any particular requests for his comfort, to which he replied he did not.  She then headed for the staff to ensure they knew the basics and ask how they had been managing so far.  Branson made himself useful and carried in some firewood, stacking all the grates and refilling the inside wood storage area.

Margaret asked the cook to prepare some tea and toast, while she sat and rested.  She specifically did this to observe the cooks, speed, cleanliness, and thought process.  All seemed well there.  She talked with the Cook about portion control and the science of ordering meats and other foods.  There should always be enough for unexpected guests, but only so much waste was allowed.  The cook seemed to be way ahead of her and Margaret was grateful for that.  Certifying that Dixon had done a good job in a cook selection, she went in search of the professor.

“I think you’re fortunate with your cook.  She is clean, there is little waste, and she seems to be able to handle a lot going on at once.  My question is, ‘how does her food taste’?”

“Quite adequate, I must say, Margaret.  I did have some favorites from the college that, perhaps, someday we can get around to discussing, but mostly I am very satisfied.”

“Do you have a moment to give me some advice, Professor?”

“Always, Margaret; what is it?”

Margaret settled on the chair closest to the Professor and informed him of the serious conversation she had with John; which they had the previous evening.  “Do you think he’s being fair?”

“Fair?”  The Professor laughed.  “What a word to be using when you are in love.  I think you mean ‘is he asking too much of you’; does that sound about right?”

“I don’t think so.  I think I mean . . . does he have the right to question my regard for him?”  Margaret said.

“How do you feel about that?”

“I think he should . . . he should trust me to know my own heart.”

“And do you?”

Margaret thought there was some underlying point to the question that the Professor has proposed to her.  Curious as to his tone on the question, she stood and paced over to the big display window.  The Professor sat back in his big desk chair and lit his pipe, watching the wheels turn in Margaret’s head as she worked something through.  “You’re thinking about Booker, aren’t you?”  Margaret said.  “Don’t you consider that far different, though?”

“In some ways, yes, it was different, but not at its most basic level.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Margaret, you found Booker when you were in a very depressed state.  You had no one who loved you, or so you thought.  You were lonely and unprotected, so to speak.  You wanted a different environment than the London scene in which you were being encouraged to participate.  He showed you love.  You had very few, if any, close relationships with other men before him.  I think unconsciously you married him to escape your lonely world.  He should love you, but he was not necessarily someone you loved.  Have you never thought of this before?” the Professor questioned.

“To be honest, when our marriage started to quickly unravel, that was one place that I thought I could find blame in myself.”

“Do you not see the same underlying naivety in this situation with John?  He apparently does.”

“Well . . .  I am not sure I totally see your meaning.”  Margaret said, sitting back down.

“John is an extremely intelligent man.  I give him a lot of credit for devising this -test- if you will.  I know no man that would have the courage to do what he is doing.”

“What is he doing, Professor?”

“He is forcing you to find your greatest possible happiness at a tremendous personal sacrifice to himself.  He knows he could lose you, but he loves you more than his own life and wants you to find the love and passion that he feels you deserve, even if it isn’t with him.  John is surrendering his entire emotional being, prepared for complete and utter destruction of his life, should you turn from him, all for the sake of you choosing what your heart desires.  He knows you have to experience more in life in order to compare him.  As much as he loves you, he never wants to think you settled for him; that would be worse to his soul than if you walked away.  It’s so self-sacrificing  that books should be written about his courage.  I can visualize the book cover.  It shows a very dark, gothic gathering room from medieval times.  The circular room and floor have carved and cast unknown glyphic figures all around.  There is only a sliver of light passing through the thick walls from above.  Hooded figures, like monks, are standing within a circle; John lies on the stone Sacrificial Altar in the center of the room.  You are a dream over John’s head, slightly hidden by a fog of clouds and in the arms of another man.  There is a hooded figure, with a partially visible face, standing over him, holding a dagger in his hands, ready to plunge it into John’s heart.  What makes the cover interesting, is that the hooded figure standing over him … is himself.  He sacrificed himself for you.”

By this time, Margaret was crying; tears and moans – all her emotions – were unleashed.

“If you mature  enough, you must understand this with your head and not your heart, which is vastly difficult to do.  John wants you to make decisions based on your own feelings, with no regard for what he feels.  And you must do that.  Above all, be honest with him; he is basing everything on honesty, if you two are to be together.  I truly believe it will happen.  What woman couldn’t love that man?  He must be like candy to the ladies in the city, but you are the world he has chosen for his life, and he will wait forever, until you have decided.  With what he has asked of you, I can see why Milton is where it is today: a man of such deep convictions is at the core of its growth.”

“Oh Professor, it’s all so overwhelming.”

“It is powerfully overwhelming for both of you.  Only this once, try to see what he is going through.  It’s going to be hell on earth for him to get through.  When you were newly in love with Booker, not married, but might see him out with another woman, how would you have felt?  Well . . . take that imaginary emotion and multiply it by a thousand.  Only look into that once, and then dismiss it, as he would not have you turn to him in pity.  That would be spitting in his face, and he seems like a man that has always protected his self-respect.”

“As usual, you have opened my eyes,” Margaret said, still crying.  “I do think I am still naive, but not so much as I once was.  Based on what you have said, I am quite prepared to take your advice.  Before I make another mistake in selecting the person, I want to spend my life with, I need to have choices, even though my heart has already chosen.  I hate the thought of going through this, but I will agree to what is being asked of me.”

“Will the two of you be allowed to see each other, like you would with another man?  Frankly, Margaret, after John waiting for you this long, I don’t see him staying away from you for any length of time, as he thinks, he can.  His passion will eventually dominate his keen mind.  However, just the mere thought that he is willing to try this, for your sake, is beyond any emotion I’ve ever seen of one person for another – whether it works or not.”

“He says he wants to step back and let my feelings develop slowly and naturally for him, but I won’t allow him to step back as far as he thinks he should.”

Margaret walked around the Professor’s desk and hugged him around his neck.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  “I am quite fortunate having you to guide me through these difficult times in my life.  I’m more grateful than I can say.  I must get on with my work at the cottage.  I will see you soon.”

Branson reined Margaret and Dixon safely to her home.  He pulled around to the carriage house in the rear and was escorting Margaret in when she noticed a small sign, now covered with snow, over her back door.  Puzzled, she said aloud, “I wonder what that sign says.”

“Oh, I know what it says, Miss.  The Master had me nail it up.  It says, ‘Margaret’s Enchanted Cottage’.

Margaret’s eyes misted over.  She hurried into the house before they could freeze on her face.  Stepping back, is he?  I don’t think I can let that happen, she thought.

Adrian arrived at the carriage and assisted Dixon up the back steps.  He was glad to get inside and get the fires started.  The house felt like ice.  Margaret talked with Adrian about his experience with horse and carts, and asked if she should purchase one.  He was very well acquitted with all of that, he told Miss Margaret.  Mr. Thornton had inquired into his experience before he was hired.  She would have to speak with Mr. Thornton, though, on how one went about selecting and purchasing such a responsibility.

“I don’t know what you are used to where you live, but there is small living quarters over the carriage house.  You would be welcome to live here on the property, if that would suit you.  I know I would feel somewhat safer with a man on the premises, but, please, don’t let that influence you.  You would have all kitchen privileges and the use of the downstairs lavatory.  However, I would certainly understand if you wanted to stay with your friends.

“Miss, I would be glad to come to this property to live.  I would enjoy living here, alone, and feel honored to protect you and the property.  I can say that living among young children is something I would rather do without,” Adrian laughed.

Margaret smiled, saying, “Very good, then.  Check the quarters for repairs, or other necessities it needs to be habitable, and let me know what you need.  Once you are comfortable with it, you can move in.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

 

Margaret and Dixon still found plenty to occupy themselves.  The day moved along happily until someone pounded the front door knocker.  Dixon answered it and brought back the note, hand delivered by a young child, to Miss Margaret.

 

Mr. Thornton,

I am sorry to say that we will be unable to deliver the furnishings until after Christmas.  With the weight of the wood pieces, we know our wagon cannot make it through this deep snow.  It will take a couple of days for the snow to melt, and that brings us to Christmas Holiday.  Please excuse us for being delayed.  Jason Hughes, carpenter.

 

Margaret’s initial reaction was disappointment, but upon further reflection, she wasn’t all that anxious now to leave John’s home.  Perhaps, this was a blessing after all, she thought.

By late afternoon, Adrian had the new gas heat flowing throughout the house.  The gas heat would be used during the day with additional fires lit for overnight.  With that worry settled, Branson returned Margaret and Dixon to the Thornton home, leaving Adrian bunked on the carpeted floor that evening, to ensure he had learned all he needed to know of the heating system.

When Margaret arrived at the Thornton home, the table was set for two.  John was in his library studying invoices, it appeared.  Margaret wondered if he ever relaxed.  She doubted that he did.  Relaxing allowed your mind to wander, and where would his wander?  Judging by the letters in his drawer, it would have been his own heartbreak.  She walked over to the door, peaked in, and said, “Good evening, John”

John stood.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t hear you come in.  I haven’t been home long myself.  It’s been quite a day out there.  I’m sorry I didn’t come with you today.”

As she stood looking at him, Margaret couldn’t get the book cover out of her mind.  She realized she was staring at a man who was martyring himself for her love.  Stepping into the room, she closed the door behind her and rested against it.  John was saying something but stopped when he noticed she was far away, as she often was, he assumed, just lost in her thoughts and dreams.

When she closed the door, he became worried that some unpleasant conversation was about to be broached.  She didn’t speak for several minutes.  Had she come to some decision he wouldn’t want to hear?  As he was about to come from around his desk, Margaret snapped back into reality.

“I’m sorry, John, just dreaming.”

Now, still wondering why she had closed the door, he began to approach her, but she walked towards him.  She pushed his chest lightly, encouraging him to step back.  Again, she pushed, causing him to fall into his desk chair.  She looked down at him.  John had never seen this face on her.  “What is this?” he asked himself.

Margaret, still in her daydream, somewhat, put her hands to his face.  This made John smile, but still he was confused.  Putting her hands on his shoulders, Margaret turned slightly and lowered herself to his lap.  John, inwardly glorified whatever this was, and put his arms around her waist, drawing her close to his chest.  She rested her head on his shoulder, as she encircled his neck with her arms.

John rubbed his hand up and down her back, soothing her.  “I love this moment, but Margaret, is anything wrong?”

“No, I just wanted to thank you,” Margaret said softly, picturing him on a sacrificial altar.

“Thank me all you want, if this is how you do it, but thank me for what?”

“For loving me, John,” was all Margaret could say.

John was quiet several moments, allowing those words to hang in the air.  “Margaret, please don’t thank me for loving you.  There is no effort here; I can’t even help myself.  I’ve had several years of trying to stop loving you, but it only became stronger.  At this moment, I do need restraint if we are to keep to the gentlemanly rules.”

Sighing, Margaret quietly got to her feet, slowly coming out of her visual mood of the sacrifice.

They walked out of his room and into the parlor.  “Did your furniture arrive today?” he asked, while indicating the couch to sit on, as he went to the bar.  “You look like you could use something to warm your toes.”

“Thank you.  I think I will have a sherry for now and maybe a brandy after dinner.”  Margaret said, as she sat on the couch with her feet tucked under her bottom for warmth.  “I’ve had some good news and bad news today.  The bad news is that my furniture did not arrive.”

She paused, waiting for John to ask the next question.

“Margaret, that is disappointing news for you, I’m sure.  What happened to the delivery, and what is the good news?”

“It seems that because of the deep snow, the carpenter cannot deliver until after Christmas Day if the snow has gone away.  So, I must beg a few more days of your hospitality.”

“Oh, I see.  And that is the good news for you, is it?”  John asked with a beaming smile on his face.

“Well, it is now, since I will not see you as often as I should like, after last night’s proclamation,” Margaret said with sarcastic amusement.

John became excited at the thought of being missed by Margaret.  There might be a silver lining to all this.

“John?”

“Yes, dear friend?”  John said jokingly, pouring her drink.

“John Thornton, stop that right now!  You are not backing up that much, even if I have to throw my arms around your leg and hold tight to keep you from stepping back too far.”

Sensing fun ahead, John said, “Yes, Margaret?”

“Tell me about your horses,” Margaret inquired, “I never knew you to ride a horse.”

Crossing the room and handing Margaret her sherry, John proceeded.  “When I was a very young lad before father left us, I had a friend who had horses.  He would often let me ride with him.  I vowed ttwenty-some years go, that someday, I would have one.  With the second Mmillcoming, the money was ggood,and I needed some regular transportation.  I looked a long time to find two matched pair of horses, but they had to sit a man as well as pull a coach, in tandem.  Then I found Branson and his knowledge was of great value to me.  I’ve been fortunate in that investment.  Someday I hope to teach you to ride, if you would like that.”  John finally settled on the couch with Margaret, although not as close as he would have liked.

“I think I should like that very much,” Margaret said.  “What are the names of your horses?

Smiling, John said, “I have Plato, Aristotle, Arkwright, and Cotton.  Plato and Aristotle are a matched set, as are Arkwright and Cotton.  Cotton is very gentle and will be your horse if you will have her.”

“John, those names sound so John Thornton of you.”  Margaret laughed.  “I have another question.”

“Hmm . . ?”  John said, smiling at her as he sipped his scotch.

“Since I will be here for the holiday, can we have a Christmas tree to decorate?”

“Yes, if you wish.  I’m afraid I don’t have anything to hang on it.  I’m not sure this house has ever had a tree.  Tomorrow we will get a tree, and find something to hang on it.  Then, perhaps, you would like to accompany me on Christmas Eve to both mills and spread cheer at the canteens?”

“Oh yes, John, I would love to do that with you.  I am interested to see how your mill works.  As you might remember, my first and only visit inside was unpleasant for both of us.”

John, knowing this would be the best Christmas in his life, thought about making it even brighter for them.  “Since you will not be in your cottage by Christmas Day, would you like to have the Professor, and Higgins, his fiancé and Mary over for Christmas dinner?  We could make it a festive Christmas Dinner.”

“What a wonderful idea, John.  Can we really do that?  And I could bring Cook and Adrian to have dinner below stairs with your Cook, Jane, Dixon, and Branson?”

“Maybe we should also invite Branson’s lady friend, or he might not be here.  I hate to think of Adrian left to all those women,” John laughed.  “This is turning into an amazing Christmas for me, Margaret,” he said humbly, looking down into his glass.

Dixon came into the room, and announced dinner was served.

John seated Margaret at the table.  Both were smiling because there was no loneliness tonight.  Passed, were the two confrontational nights; the air had been cleared, and now it had a sense of holiday spirit.  As they ate, it seemed both were holding back smiles; deep inside, each hiding from the other a very real warm feeling of contentment.  Even with what lay ahead for both,  the season was working its miracle, lighting a glow inside their hearts.  John had only one concern, how to keep from getting too close to Margaret.  The last two nights, going to bed without so much as embracing her, left him wanting the touch of her.

 

As they sat down to a brandy after dinner, John in his big chair stretched out by the fire and Margaret on the carpeted floor, near his boots, they talked about the day.  John looked down at his feet, where Margaret sat, watching her stare into the flames.  The reflected shadows of the fire light danced across her porcelain skin.  He loudly sucked his breath in through his teeth at the stunning image it was invoking.  Margaret looked up at John, bestowing a smile that would have stolen his heart, had it not already belonged to her.

 

I will make love to her some night, right here by firelight.

 

“John, do you know Mr. Cavanaugh?”

“Yes, he’s done some work for me and just recently, too.  We pass through the hall of the courthouse, often.  He’s a lawyer in Property, Deeds, and Titles.  Why do you ask?”

“What do you think of him?

“I guess I’ve never thought about him that much.  He’s a gentleman, polite, well spoken, a little quiet, I think.  I repeat, why do you ask?”

Margaret told John about meeting him on the train with the Professor, twice, and that he had stopped in from his office next door to welcome her and wish her luck.  “He said he knew you through his work.  I think he likes me a little more than I am comfortable with.”  Margaret said, looking away as though she had a guilty conscience.

“Margaret, that interest is something you need to experience like I’ve begun to tell you.  You are going to find gentlemen flocking to your door.  Many will vie for your affections, be certain of that.  I will be in that line, waiting outside your door, too.”  John noticed Margaret’s face took on a sullen expression as she turned it to the fire once more.  Neither of them wanted to proceed any further with that conversation, suspecting it would dampen their glow.

“I asked Adrian if he wanted to move into the quarters over the carriage house, and he seemed delighted with the prospect.  I think I’ll feel comforted with him there.  He’s also going to stay in the house until I move in, to keep the gas lit.”

“Good.  I am glad to hear it.  I like Adrian, and I like the thought of him being there, too.  We’ll need to stop by there tomorrow and ask him and your Cook for dinner.  What do you think of some of the cotton fluff for decorating the tree, like it has snow?”

“John.  I love that idea.  I’ve also thought we could find some cranberries and string them for garland and maybe a little holly for garland across the mantle and a table centerpiece.  And then there is the mistletoe, I must insist upon it.”

“I’m not sure the mistletoe is such a good idea right now.  You’re going to kill me if you put that up somewhere,” John happily lied, hoping she would not heed him.

John knew all too well that he would kiss her tomorrow night or go mad.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 14

Chapter 14

     A Gentleman’s  Agreement

 

Margaret strolled over and closed the door to his library, forbidding even the warmth in the room, while she read the letters.  “Why am I doing this?” she wondered.  “This would not have happened with the old Margaret,” she told herself.

Sitting down, she pulled out the little pile of letters from the drawer, all addressed to her.  She noticed a mixture of dates and wondered why John had never sent them.  Two were before their London meeting on the veranda, and the rest were after that day.  None of them were finished.  Why had they lain in wait to be completed?

The ink on two of the earlier ones seemed to have been smeared, and she assumed this was the reason he had never sent them.  However, as she began reading, she realized they had been wet with his tears, and he had poured out his devastated life, and his need of her, with his pen and paper.  Her eyes filled in spite of herself, adding additional tear stains to the inked words.

 

Dearest Margaret

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . that snowy day.  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . if you looked back.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  . took my heart .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . alone with only memories .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  love you more than .  .  .  .  .  . breath of my life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . able to go on . . .

 

John’s heart and soul were  wrung from his body onto those pages.  Margaret lost herself in his words of love and emotional disaster.  She wept, adding more of her own tears, to the words describing the desecration that she had caused in John’s life.

The next two letters were equally forlorn, but showed a ray of hope.  She remembered that day on the veranda when she discovered that there was more between them than she had realized before, but he, apparently, had known it for a very long time.  He had written that he understood nothing could be done, and she could not speak to anything, but he left that day, happy that she had come into his arms.  He felt he could cope with a life based only on that one memory.  Still, these letters spoke so much of his heart and his hopes, they would never have been sent.  Continuing to weep, she sought out the last two.

The final letters, written after Booker’s passing, showed a tempered joy, no tears, and much hope in the future with her.  There were many references to his intimate and sensual desires, some of which she had heard of last night.  She almost had to put them down, but she continued reading as she fidgeted in the chair.  Margaret doubted these were ever meant to be sent, as he was speaking most passionately from his heart and body.  She came across a strange reference to a sign from his mother.  “Whatever could that mean, with his mother now being gone?”

Still thinking about John’s strife, Margaret stowed the letters back where they came from and pulled out a sheaf of paper.  Suddenly, he came through the door.

They looked at each other, startled, and Margaret wondered if the guilt was prevalent on her face.

“Good evening, John.  I wasn’t looking for you this early.  I wanted to post a note to Edith; Dixon thought you had paper in your desk.  I hope it was alright to take a piece.”

“Yes, yes, of course.  Take all you like.  I’m sorry to disturb you.  I thought you had retired, so I was coming to look for some correspondence that is stored in my filing cabinets.  It’s of no importance; I shall leave you to your letter.  Would you like the fire lit?”

“No, thank you.  I shall be brief in my writing.”

John walked back to the parlor.  He had sensed a stiffness in Margaret, and wondered why the closed door.  That room was freezing with no fire lit.  Feeling a bit uneasy, he picked up the partially read paper from this morning.  Opening the pages, his mind elsewhere . . .

 

The letters!  She must have found the letters.

 

John did not immediately know what to do about it.  He never wanted her to know how bad his life had been without her.  She might think him weak, but it was in every one of those letters.  Why hadn’t he destroyed them since learning of her return to Milton?  As he heard her footsteps coming into the room, John began to pay more attention to his paper.  Eventually, he looked over at Margaret’s quiet form, sitting across the room from him.  She was perched on the couch, looking a bit awkward, as though she wanted to speak, but didn’t know how to begin.

“You look like you have something to say.  Is anything bothering you, Margaret?”  Now, he thought, was as good a time as any to discuss last night.

“Yes, there is John, but first I must summon my courage.”

“Summon courage?”  John thought.  He was certain she was going to bring up the letters.  Aside from the matter of harboring her brother when he was in the country and under an arrest warrant, which he, himself, never understood at the time, she was almost totally defenseless in the use of deception.  However, how was he to explain them, he wondered.

They sat in silence for a few more minutes, clearing throats and shifting in their seats, when John, not being able to wait any longer, said, “Margaret, if it’s about the letters in my desk, you need no courage to summon.  They should have been destroyed a month ago when I knew you were returning.  I am quite ashamed and embarrassed for you to know the state of mind that I have been in since you left Milton.  They do not matter.  That is all water under the bridge.  They are just ramblings of a man who loved and lost.  And the later letters are the delusions of a man in love still, never for your eyes or anyone’s but my own.  They were like a catharsis for me; instead of reliving all those moments of hopes and dreams, putting them to paper helped me not to dwell on my situation every minute.”  He could not bring himself to look directly at her.

“John, how can I apologize for looking at your private writings?  I, too, am ashamed about what I did and I knew I had to speak to you right away, but I wanted to form my response with some thought.  It was accidentally done.  I was looking for paper, but when I opened the drawer, I saw papers addressed ‘Dearest Margaret’,’ and I wondered why you had never sent them.  I can understand the why in each one of them, now.  I will not speak to the contents, but I want to talk with you about me . . . and you.

Silence was suspended in the room; the wait for Margaret to begin was almost intolerable for John.  He had much to say tonight, himself.

“Foremost, let me say that I am sorrier than you will ever know, for the misery I have caused in your life.  It’s been devastating to read.  I have never known of such love from one person to another as you expressed in those letters and last night.  I didn’t see, or know, of that depth with my parents, or in my own marriage, but I am slowly coming to know of it on my own.  You and I have fought our own demons and were lost, but now, we may be found.  My demons were self-imposed, and yours were also imposed by me – unforeseen circumstances and deception by my family – all of your private hell is on my shoulders.

“No, Margaret . . .” John tried to interrupt, but Margaret continued.

“Please, John . . .”  John sat back, but found himself gripping the claw carved hand rest on his chair, with white knuckles.

 

She cannot take all this blame.  It is behind us, now.

 

“John, please forgive my intrusive question and abrupt conduct of last night.  I am sure I surprised myself more than I did you.  It was unforgivably rude of me.  I laid awake most of the night thinking about our conversation, but came to some realizations while eating alone at your table this evening.  Firstly, I asked the question and you gave me your honest answer.  I’ve wondered why I asked it. It seemed to come out on its own.  I think it was in my thoughts because I hope to be part of your life someday, and I guess I wanted to know where the memories might be buried.  As for your answer, because of your deep love for me, you felt compelled to explain yourself, and I think it was a conscious decision you made that ran very deep.  It was a tremendous sacrifice you made and a risk you took for both of us, in admitting those intimate events, you knew would hurt me.  However, you trusted me to see my way through all that hurt, coming out on the other side knowing you have experienced all in life, and still you chose me, unknowing of the woman I may be.

 

She -did- understand.

 

“You did this because you wanted me to know all of you and have faith in your love for me.  I am prostrate at your feet for the great trust you have placed in me to find my way through that, and for the confidence, you knew I needed to recover.”

John was soon going to need to be strapped down in order to keep from coming out of his chair.

“That was not my only revelation that came out of last night, “Margaret continued.  “When you talked about your passionate promises . . .”

Bolting out of his chair, John took to the center of the room, “Margaret, I must insist that you stop there.”

“But . . .”

“No . . . please no buts.  I, too, have had a lot of thoughts, and it relates in a way to that which you are about to speak.”

“If you feel you must speak now John, then, by all means, go ahead.”

“Please try to listen with your head and not your heart.”

The moment was suspended as John paced the floor, running his fingers through his hair, endeavoring to form the hardest words of his life.

“Margaret, I have been very selfish.  You know I love you, but that should only be my concern right now.  Somehow, I’ve adopted the attitude that you are mine, or soon will be, and I have been very possessive in my thoughts, and maybe some of my actions.  You have never discouraged my advances, but that isn’t good enough.  You have lived in innocence all of your life.  You do not know the world outside your husband and me.  I cannot be totally comfortable with your lack of discouragement to me, because you have had nothing to base my affections on, except for your marriage, which you know was never a real marriage of love.  You are allowing me close, perhaps because of your touching naivety, or some obligation you may feel because of how I feel about you, or any number of other reasons.  It may be love, but we don’t know for sure, do we?”

“I think my heart does.  John, I don’t think I understand where you are going with this.”

“I am going to step back and try not to insist myself upon you so quickly.  As difficult as this is to say, I would like you to accept invitations from other gentlemen.  I would want you to compare all of your suitors, so I know when you turn to me, that you do it with a confident heart.  Just think about it, please.  When I thought about those words I spoke last evening, as much as I wanted you to know my heart, I realized I was laying an encumbrance upon you.  I don’t want you to turn to me unless you have chosen me for the one you want to spend your life with, and how can you choose without choices?  You must experience more of life.  For my sake, use your mind and see all the way through this, to the other side, for both of us,” John said, in a very agonizing but serious voice.

“John, I want to scream and yell and beat my fists against your chest, but if that’s what it takes for you to be sure of my decision, then I will do it.  I can understand you seeing it that way with my naivety, but I already know the result.  I know where I’ll be when I reach the other side.  As much as I do not want to be put through this charade, I will accept other invitations, including yours – I will not let you step back that far.  How will you handle my advancements to you?  Am I allowed that?”

“Only in moderation, until you have spent time with other men.”  John replied, almost smiling now.

“Can the Professor count as one?”  Margaret asked with that pouty face.

John, now laughing said, “No.  Spending time with your father figure does not count toward experiences of the heart.”

“You know John, I started out thinking of him as a father figure, but he is closer than that.  Strange, but he’s more like a close brother or sister to me, one who I can really open up to and talk about things that one would never speak to a parent, yet he has the intelligence and life experience to guide me, better than a parent, really.”

“Margaret, I am glad you have such a confidant in your life.  I’ve never had that, even with my Mother, and I envy you.  Perhaps, someday your husband will take on that responsibility.

“Can I ask a final question?”

“Margaret, always know that you can.  What is it?”

“In those letters in your drawer, there was a reference about your mother working on your behalf.  What did that mean?”

“Margaret, that is for another time to explain, but I promise I will some day.”

“So when does this game begin?”

“There is nothing like the present, I suppose, or whenever you feel you are passed your bereavement time, which I think should be about now.”  John said.

Margaret, breaking the tension that had saturated the air, presented her hand for a handshake.  “We have a gentleman’s agreement, then?” she asked.

John, smiling, took her hand and shook it, “I dare to say it’s better than pistols at dawn.”

They both laughed.  Every laugh between them was drawing them closer.

 

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 10

Chapter 10

     The Cottage

 

They walked arm in arm down the tree-lined street, towards the cottage that John hoped someday would be Margaret’s.  He was thrust into the feeling of incredible contentment welling up inside of him.  He didn’t care to analyze it; he just wanted to hold this tender sensation inside him forever.  John noticed  the little house several times on his courthouse days.  He was still finding it hard to believe that they were strolling toward a possible residence for Margaret’s return to Milton.  John suspected she might like it.  Its appearance seemed to be well suited for her, he thought.  To him, it looked like a tiny white fantasy house.  It had intricately carved ornamental trim, dragon scale wood siding, and a spindled banister porch on three sides.  If a house could be male or female, this house would most definitely be female.

As they neared the cottage, Margaret excitedly pointed to it.  “John,” she asked, “is that it?  Is that what you wanted to show me?  It looks precious from here.  Oh, I hope that’s the one.”

“Yes, that’s it,” John reassured her.  “With all the fancy woodwork and white paint, I think I should be cutting a piece and having it on my plate.  It appears to have icing,” he added jokingly.

“Oh yes, hurry!  Oh, it’s enchanting.”

Laughing to himself, John increased the pace of his stride.  Earlier, he had to fall in step with Margaret’s little strides, and now he couldn’t keep up with her.  Life was heavenly at this moment, bringing him to hope along with Margaret’s many enjoyable surprises and her cute feminine ways.  It seemed as if the years that had torn them apart, had actually brought them closer.  How odd when one considered how they had parted ways.

 

Where did it all go right?

 

Before John could locate the key in his pocket, Margaret was already running along the wrap-around porch, from window to window, peeking inside.  As he opened the door, they were struck with the stringent smell of paint; undeterred, they proceeded to cover every square meter of the “little darling,” as Margaret called it.  Occasionally she would say, “Oh, look at this,” as John studied the house from a totally different perspective: possible construction weaknesses, leaks, problems with the roof, dry cellar, faulty plumbing and more.  He was pleased to see the little cottage had been refurbished with the most modern conveniences, such as indoor gas lights and an indoor lavatory with tub, all of which Margaret was familiar with, having lived in London.  Leaving her to her decorating whims, John headed to the rear of the house.  On the ground floor, he noted, with interest, there was a nice mud room with a drain and a secondary lavatory without a tub.  Glad to see the back building, he walked to the small carriage house and noted it could stable one horse, with room for a small buggy, a tack room, and quarters overhead.  He walked the outside observing the painted wood siding and other facets of the restored buildings.  John remembered it when it was a home, but for many years it had been a bookstore that he had visited often.  Since the expansion of Milton, many of the older main street small businesses sold out, making extremely nice profits.  He was pleased to see the realtor had enough vision to restore the house to its original state.  Satisfied with all that he had seen, he went looking for Margaret.

As John entered through the back door, he caught a glimpse of Margaret twirling around the empty kitchen like a ballerina.  She was looking up at the ceiling, as she turned around and around with her arms outstretched.  He stood there and watched the woman he loved more than life: seemingly enraptured by the probability that she would be living here soon.  How precious these unguarded moments were, he thought.

Finally, realizing that John was at a distance watching her spin, she surprised him by saying, “Do you think I can afford it?”

John walked forward, catching her in his arms, and held her while her twirling dizziness subsided.  Heat quickly rose within him.  He tilted her chin up, looking deep into her eyes, then at her lips and back to her eyes for any sign of uncertainty.  Finding none, his lips found hers, drawing her breath into him, kissing her fully for the first time.  His kiss was warm and tender, possessed of passion and longing.  John couldn’t help the moan that escaped between his lips.  Margaret felt his lips soft in touch but firm in deliverance, and her knees gave way to a swoon.  John immediately caught her, delighted by her response.  No other women had ever reacted like that when he had kissed them, but then he knew kissing Margaret was different; his heart was in his kiss.  Pleased that she had not backed away like she had on the veranda, he gently released his hard grasp of her.  Having waited and dreamt of this moment for four years, John felt overwhelmed, and he feared he might prompt an action that could have consequences, she was not ready to face so quickly.  Reluctantly, he stopped it there, allowing the anticipation of the future to linger.  Still cradling her to him, he finally answered her question, “Afford it?  It shall be yours at any price.”

Margaret wrestled herself away from John and stepped back, slightly annoyed and a bit dizzy from the kiss.  “John Thornton, I’m renting this house. I don’t need any help.  If I can’t afford it, I will find somewhere else.”

 

Uh oh . . . the Margaret I remember first loving has returned . . . independent as ever.

 

“Well, I can tell how you love this white frosted cake of a house, and I think it’s sound and solid.  Let’s go see the agent, Mr. McBride, shall we?”  John asked, as he extended his arm and completely ignored her little tantrum.

They walked back in silence, each dazzled in the moment they had just shared: their first kiss; a cherished moment to stow away in the chest of remembrances.  Arriving at the Professor’s place, the Professor and McBride were settling on pieces of furniture that remained in the house: these which would also be purchased by the Doctor.  John and Margaret looked around at the furniture that was being discussed, waiting for an opportunity to talk with Mr. McBride.

When it eventually came, John began to ask, “We would . . .” but Margaret interrupted him saying, “I would . . . like to speak with you for a moment, Mr. McBride, privately,” looking directly at John as she emphasized the word PRIVATELY.

“Yes, Mrs. Reed, anything you like,” he said as John handed the key back to him and he walked her to the back yard.

As much as he wanted to ensure a good price for her, John knew he was seeing what he loved most about Margaret, and that was her spirit.  Smiling, he paced the room, watching from the window as he observed their conversation outside.  First Margaret would frown, speak, and then smile.  Next McBride would shake his head no, and then frown, speak and smile.  It took some time, but John thought the smiles had it by a slim margin.  Twenty minutes after god knew what, John saw them shake hands, both smiling at the same time.  “She’s coming to live here, and soon,” he said to himself.

Margaret had struck her own deal, and she seemed quite proud.  Good, bad, or indifferent, John could see by her face that she was pleased with whatever decision was agreed upon.  Perhaps she would share that conversation with him later.  Since the Professor was momentarily nowhere to be found, Margaret asked the agent if he had already purchased the very large upholstered wing chair in the future office room.  Being told, no, she then asked that she be allowed to purchase it and have it delivered to her new cottage.  She thought the chair looked large and comfortable enough for John, so she purchased it for his anticipated visits.

 

Following a lovely meal and a thoroughly enjoyable conversation at the Marlborough Mills home, the Professor Pritchard excused himself about two hours later, leaving John and Margaret to sit and talk.  The three of them were together most of the day, looking all over the city for furnishings.  The Professor had bought most of the pieces that were left in the house, as he had no particular preferences other than the two desks and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, he was having made.  Margaret, on the other hand, was looking for contents that would go well with the age of the house and had arranged to have several pieces custom made.  John and Margaret had both agreed, since he was well-known in the city, they would run the billing through him, and Margaret would reimburse him, when her finances were transferred to Milton.  They had accomplished much in just a one-day  period and Margaret was excited about their progress.  Dixon had a cook already lined up and John was to see about a chore man / driver.

 

It had grown late, and Dixon came into the room and announced that she was going to bed and asked if they needed anything before she retired.  Receiving “no thank you,” she went back downstairs for the night.

John sat slouched down in his chair, arms across his chest, long legs extended in front of the fire.  Margaret lounged on the couch.  Both felt full and tired, and especially pleased with themselves for their accomplishments of the day.

“John,” Margaret said, after a few moments of quiet, “one week ago, I was depressed, confused, and rushing towards flight out of London, and now my world has completely turned around.  How is that possible?” she asked, somewhat puzzled, as she stared off through the window into the dark night, still deep in thought.

John came over and sat beside her on the couch, not facing her, but relaxed against its upholstered back, as he took one of her hands in his.  “Margaret,” he said, softly, “I am sure you know how I have felt about you since I first met you.  Someday I shall tell you about my first impression of you, shouting at me in the mill.”  John smiled, remembering that, “I have thought about you every day for almost four years and suffered the loss of you, twice.  I have dreamed of every possible way to win you, to love you, to make love to you and to possess you, forever.  I am taking nothing for granted, and I am not making any assumptions at this point, but you have to know how my life has changed in the last twenty-four hours.”  He gently squeezed her hand.

Margaret looked up at his handsome profile and spoke softly, “John, thank you for loving me all this time.  You may find this hard to understand or think it woman’s intuition, but I could always feel you there . . . waiting . . . and I can’t explain how.  You were always hovering somewhere in the twilight of my life and that brought me comfort, which I can hardly explain even to myself.  It has seen me through many difficult times.  I still have . . .”

John interrupted her, “Wait . . . please, let me speak first while I can,” he said, as he turned to face her, choking back the lump in his throat.  “I have always loved you.  I have waited a long time to have you near again, and I will wait forever if that’s what it takes you to accept me.  I think you have some feelings for me, but I do not want you to feel compelled in any way to express them, at least not for a while.  You have only been widowed for three months, and must have many conflicts within yourself to resolve, and a proper bereavement period to conclude.  I know you are joyful right now, but a different reality could settle on you once you are comfortably situated in Milton.  As much as I would like to carry you off to my bed right now, I know that would be wrong in many ways.  I do not want to scare you, pressure you, influence, or smother you.  I’m going to keep my emotions reined as well as I possibly can, and I’ll wait for you to come to me.  If I get carried away, just say no.  I hope I don’t get to the point to embarrass us both, but my body doesn’t always listen to my brain whenever you are near.”

“John . . .” Margaret said, as she stroked his cheek.

Not wanting to lose his train of thought, he pulled her hand from his cheek to his lips and kissed her palm.  “Margaret, let me finish, please.  I love and desire you beyond all reason.  I want to be everything to you, your friend, your lover, your husband, and the father of our children.  I will always be at your side to protect you, to cheer you, to comfort you and to love you.  But along with my depth of devotion to you, there must come honesty in your feelings.  I do not want pity, or any sense of obligation, and I do not want to wear you down.  I could not live with that.  I will keep my self-respect, for if you turn from me, it is all I will have left.  I can take a lot of rejection before it’s all too apparent that you do not care for me in the same regard.  Just don’t say you love me until you are sure of your words, but I do love you and will all my life.”  John leaned in and gave her a light kiss, then licked the drops, now, falling from her eyes.

Margaret closed her eyes; a hushed sigh escaped her lips, as John drank in the salt of her tears.  With a silly incandescent smile, she said, “I wish I had more tears to shed right now.”

Snuggling deep into John’s strong arms, and resting her head on his broad shoulder, Margaret began her tale.

“I think I am in love with you; I am almost sure of it.  You have asked me not to say those words just yet, because you fear I don’t know myself, I think.  However, I will wait, as you ask, until I am sure that you know that I love you.  You seem to need proof.”

John, smiled as he pulled her closer to his chest, encasing her with both arms, while his cheek rested against the top of her head.

“It is true,” Margaret continued, “that I have conflicts within me to resolve, mostly confidence.  Not with regards to my independence, as you might think, but my confidence as a woman.  With the Professor’s guidance and relentless soul searching, I now know why my marriage was a disaster.”

Margaret paused, wondering how to say what needed to be said.

“If you are to love me fully, you must know where my conflicts lie.  I do not want to tell you this, but lying or holding back from you is worse.  I now understand what I never saw before, and what the Professor discovered after my marriage to Booker.  He has opened my eyes to the fact that my husband was strongly attracted to his male pupils.  Perhaps, he never realized this until he married me, but young men were his preference.  I will never know if he married me out of love or as a cover for his dark desires.  We had no premarital relationships, so nothing was realized beforehand.  Once he discovered the truth about himself, which must have been almost immediately, I knew little love and no passion at all.  Unaware of any of this, I began to think it was my fault; I was too naive and inexperienced in the ways of passion.  He never desired me, not even the pretense of desire.  I lived with guilt over not being enough of a woman for him.  In his eyes, I was defective, or so I thought.  This created deep scars and a total loss of confidence in feeling desirable to a man.  We quickly grew apart, barely even touching.  No good bye kiss in the morning, nothing – but worst of all, there was no explanation given as to why.  I just continued in my misery.  In all other ways, he was a decent husband, I guess, but for me, not where it counted – in my heart.  I had moved from one setback in my life to another.  I reached  the bottom of my existence.  After my parents died, I didn’t think life could have gotten worse, but the misery became compounded by the feeling that I was being cast off, thrown away.  I was of no use.  This is the most terrible thing I will ever say: I don’t know what would have happened to me, had I stayed in that marriage for a life time, and I am grateful, I won’t have to know.

So she could liberate all her sorrow and clear her soul, John let her finish without making any comments.  He just held her even tighter and kissed her forehead.  He wanted to know all of her story.  “Go on, Margaret.”

“It became painstakingly clear to me,” she continued, “that day on the veranda that Booker’s affection for me was far from what it should be, and I had taken it to heart as guilt.  Then you said those words to me that I will never forget – “Oh, God, how I love you.”  You said it in such a way that it tore my heart out because I felt you wouldn’t feel that way if you knew me as Booker did.  I had often thought about you.  I would pull you out of the twilight and I talked with you whenever I was alone.  When I saw you a year later at the funeral, it was like someone turned on the light to my soul.  At first, I felt ashamed thinking I was happy to be free of Booker, but then I realized it wasn’t him, it was you entering my life again, descending from my twilight.  You weren’t there for him, you were there for me.  It was my ‘someday’, and you rescued me that day.  The Professor has tried to free me from my guilt.  He told me how sorry he felt for me, as he watched the two of us, and saw the relationship spiraling down almost from the beginning.  He knew it would get worse.  He hadn’t been sure about Booker himself, but after we married it was confirmed, to him, in his mind.

John stroked her cheek and kissed the hollow of her neck, still holding her fast to him.  Inside, he wanted to explode and put his fist through a wall or a face of anyone who could have treated her with such indifference, enough to make her despise herself.  What she must have endured that year and half marriage, and perhaps was still feeling.  She believed she had married a real man only to discover disappointment; then she took the blame on herself for his lack of interest in her.  This was more than John could stomach.  Margaret was all the woman whom any normal male could ever want, and John knew she was everything to him.  Wanting to find a way to reverse her wavering confidence and begin to dispel any self-doubts,  John initiated a delicate but passionate move.  He gently picked up her hand, which he was holding and placed it lightly in his lap allowing her to feel his arousal for her.

“Margaret . . . know that you are a very desirable woman and never will doubt that again,”  John whispered, looking into her tear-filled eyes.

She startled herself, as she realized she wanted to know him in that way, but she hesitantly retracted her hand with a forced embarrassed look.  Inside, Margaret was glowing from John’s physical reaction to her; it lifted  her.  She scoffed to herself that propriety deemed this closeness was too soon.  Awaiting the end of her bereavement period was going to be more difficult than she had anticipated.  Margaret was blushing and feeling the warmth of that sensual moment from head to toe.

John did not miss a breath of her reaction.

She brought both hands to John’s face, holding him, as she initiated a light but firm kiss.  John responded the same while he slowly licked her lips apart and tried to enter her mouth.  Naivety surfaced, and she pulled back unsure of what he was doing.

Now radiating inwardly, and sensing her bewildered innocence of such a kiss, John pulled her back to his shoulder.  He was exhilarated to find that this passionate act was new to her.  Perhaps, he would be the first in her life for many other sensual pleasures.  He selfishly hoped so.

“John,” Margaret said, “I want us to take our time.  I want to, need to, know that I am what you want in a complete woman.  Though I know about Booker, now, but I do not feel strongly about myself, yet.”  Starting to laugh, she said, “I know you are anxious to help me find myself, but we must proceed at my pace.  Can you bear with me?”

“Margaret, I can wait forever, because you are my life.  I have no other options and wouldn’t want them, even if there were.  Being who you are, at your core, made that choice for me a long time ago.  And yes, I . . . together . . . we will find you. You can be sure of that.  However, let me just say, I would still love you for the rest of my life even if real intimacy wasn’t possible.  Never, ever think I love you for carnal reasons, alone.  I have had experience in that area of life, and still I have waited for only you.  I have had sex, but I have never made love.  I have wanted only you, Margaret, to release what I know waits inside of me.”

They nestled in each other’s arms for a long time before retiring for bed.  Again, a brief embrace was the only affection shown before going to their rooms.  The air was heavy with unspent passion.

Separately, they each lay awake a long time, ardently cherishing the openness and honesty of the words imparted that evening.  Words straight from their heart were starting to tie the bindings of love.

 

Dixon’s assignment was to gather a housekeeping staff for the Professor, which was to consist of a live-in housekeeper, a full time cook and a daily char person, whose duties included setting the fire and clearing the fireplace, scrubbing floors and a few more menial tasks.  Dixon had already selected Margaret’s cook.  She was also responsible  of purchasing linen for the home, along with food, cooking utensils and daily chinaware for the kitchen; she would send Margaret the measurements for the window sizes.  Margaret would take care of the fine china and silver later.  If all the furniture arrived, Dixon would be allowed to move in at any time.

John was responsible for finding a chore man / driver, who would be assigned all outside duties, such as cutting and stacking firewood, in addition to tending the fireplaces inside, general repairs and inconsequential yard duties.  If needed, a part-time  gardener would be hired on a less frequent basis.  The chore man would also be a coach driver, when and if that time arose, as Margaret was already planning on this for some time in the future.  In the event that any major pieces of furniture didn’t arrive on schedule, Margaret and Dixon would remain at John’s residence until they were delivered.  The chore man, however, was to begin as soon as he was found, and Margaret’s cook would begin next week at Thornton’s home.  She had recently retired but didn’t find it to her liking.  Eager to return to the kitchen, she would be preparing meals alongside John’s cook, in order to hone her old skills in preparation for her Margaret’s arrival if everything went according to plan.  Margaret would return in three weeks, the week before Christmas, to her new home and life.  John promised  to post to her every couple of days, and keep her informed of their progress.

 

As they waited for the Professor to come fetch Margaret for the train, John and Margaret stood at his parlor window, looking out at the workers going about their business.

“Margaret,” he asked, “Do you remember the last time we stood together looking out this window?”

It only took Margaret a moment to cast her mind back to the day of the riot.  “Yes, John, that was quite a memorable day, as I recall.”

“In more ways than you know, Margaret.”  John lifted her hair to see if there was any remaining mark from the stone that had felled her that day.  There wasn’t, but John leaned down and kissed the spot where she had bled.  “I haven’t spoken to you much about the mills; I didn’t care to waste words, with so little time, but when the strikers were at the door, the words you said to me that day changed my life and the life of everyone who works for me.  Those words have been the very cornerstone of my success.  I owe much of my success to you, you know.”

“Don’t talk piffle, John.  I did no such thing.  Don’t credit me for what you have accomplished.”

“Somehow, I knew you would say that, but one day I hope to prove to you, what that day inspired in me after your departure from Milton.”

John saw the carriage coming through the mill gate and pulled Margaret away from the window.  “Margaret, I love you, and I will never tire of telling you so.  I will live in anticipation until you are safely returned to Milton in a few weeks’ time.  I will not have a moments rest while you are away.  For you and me, our tomorrow will finally come.”  John pulled her into his arms, kissed her lightly but firmly, and held her until they heard the knock on the door.

Dixon escorted Dr. Pritchard into the room and went straight to Margaret for a good-bye hug.  “Miss Margaret, we will have everything ready and waiting for you.  I’m so excited.”

John retrieved Margaret’s coat as he bid the Professor a cordial “hello.”

The Professor picked up Margaret’s bag, saying, “Hello all…so, Margaret… are you ready?  Your carriage awaits, Milady,” and bowed from the waist.

Margaret laughed, as she told the Professor, “You’re stealing John’s lines.”  Margaret and John smiled broadly at each other.

John accompanied Dr. Pritchard and Margaret outside, and handed Margaret into the carriage.  He closed the door and Margaret leaned out of the window, “See you soon,” she said.  John covered her hand, which was resting on the door frame, and squeezed hard on it, mouthing the words, “I love you” as the driver told the horses to ‘walk on’.

John returned to the top of his steps.  Once again, he was witnessing Margaret being borne away from him.  His stomach roiled at the remembrance, but he was uplifted, as she looked back at him, dispelling one horrid memory with a brilliant new one, balancing the scales.  He stood there thinking, long after the coach had departed the gates, how the memory of the two worst days of his life had been replaced with two new beautiful memories:  This one, that had just happened, replaced the day Margaret left Milton four years ago; the other, Margaret’s appearance at his door two days ago, replaced the day he read that she had married

 

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 9

Chapter 9

     John and Margaret’s Reunion

 

Maxwell and Edith Lennox took Margaret to the train station to meet the Professor for their visit to Milton.

“You know, Margaret,” Edith teased her, “it is quite scandalous of you to take off to Milton so early in your bereavement, but I must say that I envy your courage.  We’re very happy to see you settle into something that you really will enjoy.  You’ve been unhappy for so long.  I think you have found a very agreeable place working alongside the Professor.  I’ll miss you so when you move to Milton permanently; look for a house with guestrooms.”

“Thank you, Edith.”  Margaret smiled at her cousin affectionately.  “I agree. I think I have found a good purpose in my life, one that will bring me joy and takes me away from London.  Sometimes, I envied you for your willingness to live within such strict guidelines and proper societal etiquette demands.  That has never been tolerable for me as a way of life.  Oh . . . there’s the Professor, now.  I will say good-bye to you and will see you on my return Sunday.  Take care,”

“Good-bye, Margaret.  Enjoy yourself,” Maxwell said, as he handed over her overnight bag and he and Edith gave her a quick hug.

Dr. Pritchard and Margaret strolled towards each other, carrying their small bags, which would see them through the next two days.

“Excited, Margaret?”  The Professor asked, without even saying hello.

“YES!  I am full of questions and ideas, and I am already decorating my home in my head.  I find myself laughing over the silliest things; you have changed my life, Doctor.  I feel reborn into someone new.  Do you think that a bad thing?”

“Contrary to what your family probably thinks,” said the Professor.  “I think it the best medicine for you.  If anyone needed a life change, it was you.  I think of you as a rosebud, once wilting on the vine from lack of care, but now you’re like a bloom ready to open itself to the sun, beckoning the bee to taste its nectar,” he finished, laughingly lecherously, raising his eyebrows up and down.

Feeling her face redden, Margaret couldn’t help but burst out laughing.  “I do like you too much, I think,” she said, lavishing him with attention.  They both roared, almost doubling over with laughter.

“Ah . . . here’s our train.  Ready, Mrs. Reed?” the Professor asked as he extended his arm for her to take.

“Ready!  Dr. Pritchard.”

They stepped into the crowded coach and discovered they had to sit separately for several more London stops.  When it finally cleared out, they sat side by side leaving only one other person traveling north to Milton.  Darkness was creeping into the coach, and the third rider lit the gas lights, not waiting for the porter to come by.  The man seemed to prefer his own company and newspaper, so the Professor and Margaret settled into quite a long and involved discussion about how to proceed with his reference work and getting settled into Milton.  He told Margaret to expect only two or three days work a week, at the most.

“Margaret,” he said finally, “the one thing that I am not looking forward to is hiring my housekeeping staff.  Do you have any experience with that?”

“Professor, I’ve very little, but I do know someone who can help us, so don’t worry yourself.  We can start that task while we’re there this weekend,” she assured him.  The Professor could have talked hours longer because he taught classes all day, but he could hear Margaret’s voice starting to get hoarse.  “Margaret, I think I shall let you rest before you lose your voice entirely.”

Margaret smiled and let her head rest on the back of the seat, knowing Milton was only another hour away.

 

John had just settled down to write a letter to Margaret when he heard his big mill gate rolling open.  He set his pen down and walked over to the window to see who could be visiting him, unannounced at this time of night – and in a carriage, no less.  “Dixon,” John called out, uncertain as to where she was that the moment, “someone is coming to the front door. I will see who it is, don’t bother yourself.”  He hurriedly threw on his waistcoat, leaving his top coat and cravat lay where they were.  Descending the steps, he opened the door and saw the most unbelievable vision of his entire life.  A coachman was handing Margaret out of a carriage.  His breath left him, although he was sure any minute now, he would remember how to breathe.  The driver grabbed her carpet bag and handed it to John.  He was so overwhelmed at the sight of her; he couldn’t get a single word out.

 

I know I am dreaming this.

 

“John, please close your mouth.  Yes, it’s me,” Margaret laughed as her breath plumed in the frigid air.  “Surprise!”

 

She jests!  I am definitely asleep.

 

John, picking up on Margaret’s playful mood, replied, “Who are you?  You look incredibly like someone I used to know, but I’ve never heard her jest, so obviously you cannot be her.”

“How are you, John?”  Margaret asked in all seriousness.

“Do you mean generally or at this very moment?”  John laughed, not believing what was transpiring.  It felt surreal.  He knew he was trembling inside.  “I was just sitting down to write you a letter.  How kind of you to spare me the ink.”

 

Could this really be happening? 

 

As John and Margaret entered the sitting room, he called for Dixon to come to the parlor.  John set down Margaret’s bag as he waited for Dixon to arrive.  He was very interested in knowing why she was carrying it tonight, to his home, at this hour.  As he removed her coat and hung it in the hall, his heart was pounding hard in his chest.  Just then Dixon came into the room and, seeing Margaret, ran straight over to her with her arms outstretched, almost hysterical with glee to see her lifelong charge.  They hugged briefly and exchanged a few pleasant words.  Dixon asked Margaret if she would like a cup of tea, tea being Dixon’s answer for everything.

“Not tonight, Dixon, thank you.”  Margaret said, as she cast her glance toward John, who was already on his way to the bar.  “I think I prefer something a little stronger, for this is a celebration indeed.”

“Margaret seated herself on the cushioned settee, feeling relief from hours of sitting on hard train benches.

“Brandy, whiskey or port, Milady?”  John asked, bowing to her, mockingly.  “What would you desire?”

To anyone who knew them well, John and Margaret’s performance would have seemed unbelievable.  They were so giddy with delight, beyond happy, both throwing themselves headlong into some joyous abyss.  Margaret knew why she was acting this way, but she was shocked to see that John . . . John Thornton . . . THE John Thornton had such a sense of humor and was joining into the farce with her.  She had never seen this side of him before and doubted that anyone ever had.  His capacity for high spirits enthralled her.

Continuing on with their performance, Margaret stood and curtsied saying, “Port, sir.  If you will.”

Dixon was baffled by the amusement taking place before her.  Eventually, they all laughed and settled into chairs with their refreshments:  John, in his usual chair by the fireplace, with Margaret on the couch at his right, and Dixon sat nearby on a small chair opposite John.

John smiled and shook his head from side to side, still unable to comprehend the playfulness that had overtaken him.  “Margaret,” he said, “thank you for that.  I haven’t laughed this much since . . . well, I don’t know since when.  I can’t believe you are sitting here in this room without our having known of your impending visit.  Please tell us what it is you’re celebrating.”  John seemed to be holding his breath; judging from the mood she was in, he was expecting some good news.  He wanted to pinch himself to verify he wasn’t dreaming.

Margaret burst out giggling again, “John, are you pinching yourself?”  She asked.  “It looks like you just pinched your thigh.  I do think you are awake and yes, I am really sitting here, and . . . I will be spending tonight and tomorrow night here before returning to London.”

John, now totally embarrassed, normally an almost impossible accomplishment, said, “So you will spend two days with us.  I’m happy to hear that.”  He was still stunned and could only offer courteous, stilted words for this unexpected miracle.  He wanted to lift her off the floor and whirl her around in a circle.  Finding a ray of sense, he asked, “Who accompanied you here?  Surely you were not alone?”

“Miss Margaret,” Dixon interrupted, “could you please tell us what is going on?  I can’t wait any longer,” she insisted stubbornly.

“Well,” Margaret said, looking at them both and smiling, “I’ve made a very important decision in my life.  I know where my future lies, now, and it’s right here, in Milton.  I’ll be moving here almost as soon as I can.”

An audible gasp came from John’s direction.  He became silent, inwardly reeling from Margaret’s declaration, which seemed to breathe life into his abandoned soul.  It was all he could do to listen to whatever followed.  Four years, he had wanted to hear those very precious words.

“John,” Margaret continued, “you may remember the Professor that gave Booker’s eulogy?”  John nodded yes, just barely.  “He has asked if I would partner with him in writing his research book about the Industrial Age, and its beginning, which is here in Milton.  He’s been a great friend to me.  He is helping me overcome some rather serious matters in my life, but I have a long way to go, yet.  I had already decided to move back here where I knew I had friends, but two days ago, the Professor visited me, told me of his plans, and asked if I would like to help him.  I couldn’t agree fast enough.”

“Oh, Miss Margaret,” Dixon clapped her hands together, enthusiastically, “we’re so pleased.  I’ve hoped for this day, and now it has come.  How long before you move here?”

“Well, that will depend on John, I think.”

“I?  Tell me how I can help.”  John inquired, trying to form his words and allow them to flow out, above a whisper.

 

I can’t believe what I am hearing.  Is it really happening?

 

“I’ve come here this weekend with the Professor,” Margaret explained, “so he could finalize the purchase of a home that he’s already selected.  Instead of writing to you, John, to ask for help in finding a residence, I thought I would accompany the Professor and ask you personally, so it would be easier to discuss what I would need.  The Professor will move here permanently within a couple of weeks, and I hope to be here before Christmas, which is only a month away.  I don’t need the time myself, but John you might, looking for a place, that is.”  Margaret finished.  She was watching John while she spoke.  He looked as though he had been hit by a runaway coach.  He seemed to be growing paler by the minute.

 

Only a month away?  I am soon delivered from my hell!

 

“Margaret, count on me to do whatever it takes to get you here.  Like Dixon said, we have all waited for this day.  I was only a few weeks away from visiting you, myself.  This news is beyond belief.  Please excuse me for a moment.”  John walked down the hall to his room and quietly closed the door.  He sat on the edge of his bed literally trying to breathe.  He was caught in a deluge of happiness that just kept pouring over him and over him, not allowing him to catch a breath before the next blissful torrent assailed him.  This must be what pure bliss feels like, he told himself.  He cursed the tears that had sprung to his eyes.

 

I can’t face her like this..

 

Sensing John was overcome with happiness similar to hers, (it felt as if she had been walking on clouds for two days), Margaret told Dixon to go on to bed, and they would talk more in the morning.

A few moments later, John heard a light tap on his door, and before he could answer it, Margaret entered his room.  He quickly turned his face from her with deep embarrassment.  Catching sight of his tear-filled eyes, she walked over to him, and sat by his feet, allowing him to hide his manly sensitivity.

“John,” Margaret whispered.  She heard no answer.

“John, happiness is overwhelming, isn’t it?  I know what you’re feeling right now.  I cried, too, when I was finally alone.”

John swiftly pulled her up to a sitting position on his bed beside him, holding both of her hands in his.  He looked into her face and saw tears matching his own looking back at him.

 

God, let me find the strength to do what is right at this moment.

 

He bent towards her and slowly brushed his lips against hers.  Feeling no denial from Margaret, he wanted to crush her to him; but then, calling on all his reserve as a gentleman, he quickly pulled away and stood up.  “I think its best that we return to the parlor, don’t you?”

“Yes, John.  Maybe someday, though.”  She whispered enticingly, as she walked away.

Her statement staggered him to a halt; he couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

 

She’s remembered those words that I left for her, well over a year ago.

 

They talked well into the night about her move: the type of home she would like to own and what she could afford.  She had the address of the Professor’s new home, and was hoping that she could find a home within walking distance to him.  Purposely, there was no mention of any ardent feelings between John and Margaret.  Much later, Margaret admitted she was tired and wished to go to bed, but was unsure as to where she was expected to sleep.  John showed her the way to Fanny’s old room, which was always kept fresh by Dixon.  He escorted her to the door, and he stopped outside.  She looked up into his steel blue eyes, and he embraced her tightly, stealing her heat and her scent.  He held her as she put her arms around his waist.  A kiss was hanging in the air, but did not rush itself.  There were no inhibitions on either part, leaving each with a suspended expectation of things to come.  They no longer had to hide their feelings from each other, or, from others.

Margaret’s reaction shocked  him.  It was pure.  No emotional burden being the cause.  It was true, and it was right.  John returned to the parlor, turned down the lights and sat back his chair by the fire.  Staring at the embers fading to a soft glow, John drifted through all the past years:  the initial meeting at the mill, the misunderstandings, his rejected proposal, the man at the station, the separation, the absence of communication, her marriage, the veranda, the funeral, and now . . . she was sleeping in a bed in the next room.  After four years, Margaret was returning home, to his love, a love which he had never given up.  John told himself long ago, that he would wait forever.  Forever was now here and he had no earthly idea where to start, but he wept with happiness for it had finally come, setting him free from the loneliness.

When he finally retired to his room, he was afraid to sleep, fearing he would wake to find it all had been a dream.

 

Dawn broke the next morning, signaling the beginning of a new outlook on life for John and Margaret.  Slipping over to the office, he invited Higgins over for a talk, but kept the surprise a secret.  “I’ll be right behind you, Master” Higgins told him, “let me just finish giving directions to our foreman.”

John returned to the house and saw Dixon busy setting the table.  Margaret’s door was still closed, but he could hear her moving around and knew she’d be out momentarily.  “Dixon please set the table for four this morning and tell Cook.  I want you to join us this time.”

Moments later, Higgins hollered up the steps and John told him to come ahead.  Not having any hint as to what this talk was about, Higgins was surprised at the four place settings on the dining room table.

“You wanted to talk to me, Master?”  Higgins asked.

“Yes, Higgins, I want you to join me for breakfast.  I have something to show you.”

“I see there are four settings?  You have my curiosity well and truly peeked.”  Higgins said as he placed his hat in the hall and removed his coat, wishing he’d washed his hands before coming over.

Dixon entered the room, and told John that Cook would bring the food in a few moments.  She began to pour the tea for four.  John invited Higgins to the table, and they both sat.  Seeing Dixon sit down to the table with them really unsettled Nicholas, and as he looked at the fourth place, he began to wonder.  Before he could get very far in his thinking, he heard a voice.

“Nicholas!”  Emerging from her room, Margaret shouted with glee upon finding her old friend seated around the table.  Higgins had hardly stood before Margaret had her arms round his neck, kissing him on the cheek.  “Oh, I am so happy to see you this trip.  How is Mary?”

While Margaret was hugging him, Higgins looked up at John for his reaction and saw a beaming smile; he then felt comfortable in hugging her back.  “Miss Margaret,” he said, “I can hardly believe this.  The Master didn’t tell me you were coming.”

“Actually, John didn’t know himself until I showed up on his doorstep late last night, begging lodging,” she laughed.

As they all sat down to the table and the food was passed food around, Margaret briefly related her story to Nicholas about her return to Milton.  Higgins occasionally watched John’s face as she spoke, noticing his eyes never left Margaret; Higgins was really happy for the two of them.

It was past 9:30 and the breakfast party was just starting to break when there was a knock on the door.  Walking over to the window, John saw a carriage waiting outside.  Dixon had gone to greet the visitor, and returned, shortly escorting Dr. Pritchard into the parlor.  Margaret hugged him and happily introduced him to everyone, suddenly realizing she was surrounded by her loving and only friends, in the whole world.  This is what she wanted, she felt it immensely at that moment and knew she’d found her home.  To everyone’s bafflement, she was suddenly overcome by the warmth and relief that surrounded her and she started to cry.  In an effort to regain her control, she turned and headed for her room.

Everyone looked at each other in bewilderment.  Dixon was on her way in to see Margaret, when Margaret returned with her hanky.

“I’m sorry for being so silly,” she told them, still slightly teary-eyed, “I just became aware that all my favorite people in the world are with me right now, a moment that I have dreamt about for so long.  I was overcome with the comfort of it all.

As he watched her run away, John’s knees had weakened at her happiness.  He recognized, even with his great passion for her, he could never have brought such a significant moment to her life.  He wondered how often that ever happened to anyone.

Rather than standing around speechless, Higgins decided he had to get back to work.  “Master, I couldn’t be happier for the two of you and for us,” he said, and turning to the Professor, “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir.  Miss Margaret,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “I couldn’t be more pleased to know that you will be living here soon.  If I can be of any help in any way, please call on me.  You know where I work,” he finished laughingly as he grabbed his coat and cap and left with Margaret escorting him to the door, leaving John and the Professor alone.

“Won’t you sit down, Professor,” John asked, pointing to a chair near the fireplace.

The Professor sat, crossed his legs, and pulled out a pipe from his vest pocket.  “Do you mind?”  He asked, indicating the pipe to John.

“Please,” John replied with a slight wave with his hand.

There was a moment of silence while he struck the wooden match and puffed life into his pipe.  “So. You’re the one.”  The Professor said, more as a statement than a question.

“I’m sorry.  I’m what?”  John asked in total surprise.

“You’re the man in Margaret’s life,” the Professor said.  “Someday, I will explain why I know that, and why I know that Margaret is coming to know, too.  Furthermore, you’re the man who’s making the history around here.  You will be very prominent in my book, with all that you have done in Milton.  I won’t go into that now either, for I will be moving here in two weeks, and it will be several months before I come to you asking for your whole story.”

John shifted in his seat.  “I will be glad to work with you when the time comes,” he said.  “Do you and Margaret have appointments today?”

“Well, yes and no.”

Just then Margaret returned to the room still looking a bit embarrassed, but she sat down on the couch to listen to their conversation.

The Professor, puffing on his pipe as smoke swirled overhead, said, “Glad to have you back Margaret,” he said.  “Your heart rendering proclamation warmed us all.  Do not feel embarrassed.  It is something you’ve needed probably your entire life.  It must have been the equivalent of a person totally blind from birth, having his sight restored.  It was an epiphany for you, and I am envious.”

John was watching Margaret intently, stunned by the personal way in which the Professor was talking to her . . . and speaking that way in front of him.  However, he saw a smile break out on her face that took his breath away.

 

There is closeness there, far beyond mere friendship.

 

“As I was about to tell Mr. Thornton, here,” Professor Pritchard continued, “I have come by to see if the two of you would like to see where I will live, so plans can begin for your own residence, Margaret.”

“Yes, surely.  I would like that, “Margaret said as she looked questioningly at John.

“I’d be most interested myself, Dr. Pritchard,” John said standing.  “By the way, would you care to have dinner with us this evening?”

“Yes, thank you.  I’d like that very much.”

Margaret jumped up and said she would find Dixon and tell her, as she also wanted to ask Dixon about a housekeeping staff for the Professor.

While Margaret was gone, John and Dr. Pritchard discussed where he would be locating, and the possibility of finding something suitable nearby for Margaret.  John remembered a quaint little house that was being refurbished weeks ago, close by and told the Professor about it.

“Excellent,” the Professor was saying as Margaret re-entered the room.  “If there is nothing left to do, I have a hired coach outside.  Should we take our leave?”  That remark was a small joke between Margaret and the Professor, as a sort of nose-thumbing to the vanities of Londoners.

“Oh yes, let’s do.”  Margaret said, as John retrieved her coat, and placed it around her shoulders.

John slipped into his own great coat, grabbed his top hat and they all set off for 840 Queens Lane.  As they were being driven there, on what was formerly known as Main Street, John noted the distance from the gingerbread cottage that sat across from the courthouse to the Professor’s residence.  Upon arriving at the residence, John saw the same realtor sign in the window of the cottage.  Providence was still holding sway, he thought.

As they entered the dwelling, Margaret began looking around the old refurbished store front home, remarking that it had downstairs quarters for a housekeeper.  “By the way, Professor,” Margaret told him, “I’ve spoken with Dixon, and she is sure that she can accommodate you with a suitable staff, just as I thought she could.”

The realtor arrived shortly after, with the necessary paperwork prepared for Dr. Pritchard.  “Hello, Dr. Pritchard,” he said, “nice to see you again.  Oh, and hello Mr. Thornton, I’m surprised to see you here.”

John introduced Mrs. Reed to the realtor and asked him if he happened to have with him, the key to the cottage across from the courthouse.  He replied that he did and handed it to Mr. Thornton, without a care.

“We shall let you two do your paperwork, while I escort Mrs. Reed to the cottage.  We will return shortly.”  John said with a smile.

Surprising Margaret and catching her totally off guard, John wrapped her arm around his and whisked her out the door saying, “Come, I want to show you something.”

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.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 4

Chapter 4

     Maybe Someday

 

It had been two years since he’d heard that soft, lovely voice, now, depressingly fading to a whisper in his heart.  Hardly believing the moment, he slowly turned around, and she was there, standing off to the side on the veranda.  Margaret was pulling all the air from his lungs.

John audibly inhaled as he took in Margaret’s vision which had been captured in his mind since he first met her.  Was there any beauty on earth to match hers?  . . .  He didn’t think so.  Margaret, once his entire future, stood before him, and she belonged to someone else.  The person who unknowingly took his heart was right there; he wanted to reach out and touch her, to know that she was real.
What do I say to her at such a time?

 

With a faint smile, John began, “Miss . . . .  Mrs. . . . .  I’m sorry; I don’t know your married name.”

“Margaret interceded with, “Reed.  But I would appreciate it if you would call me Margaret.  I think we’ve been well enough acquainted for some time to drop the stiff propriety.  May I call you John?”

As he walked towards her, he could smell her scent, and he struggled to get his words out.  John wanted to tell her that, she could call him anything, but . . . “Yes, I would like you to call me, John.  I’m quite taken by surprise to see you here.  I didn’t expect this.  You’re looking well.”

Margaret fidgeted with her handkerchief.  “I came by three weeks ago to collect more of my books from my old room when Dixon told me of your letter and the news about your mother.”  She paused briefly, realizing she was having difficulty looking into his eyes, but couldn’t understand why.  “Shall we sit, while Dixon brings our tea?”

They walked a few paces over to the more comfortable padded wicker seating arrangement, with its large green and red tropical flower design.  Margaret on the settee sat very primly and John in a single chair to her right sat rigidly, still disbelieving the moment.

Dixon brought out a silver tray with the china tea service.  “Mr. Thornton,” she said, as she poured the tea, “I have talked with Miss Margaret, and she knows all about your offer to me in helping Mrs. Thornton.  She will answer for me, I’ll be upstairs if you need me, but I would like to talk with you a moment before you leave.”

“That will be fine Dixon,”  John told her.  “And would you watch for a coach waiting out front in twenty minutes, and let me know?”

“Yes, Mr. Thornton, I surely will.”  With that Dixon took her leave.

“John,” Margaret said, now turning slightly towards him, “I am genuinely sorry to hear about your Mother.  I know this must be a very hard time for you, watching as her health fails.  I really wanted to get to know her better, but as you know, I was swept away by my family before I could come to grips with my own life.”

“Yes,”  John said, repressing his anger, “How well I remember that your family forced you to leave Milton, but I guess I can understand it, with your family feeling about Milton, the way they did.  I remember there was so much I wanted to say, but the opportunity never arose.  I know you’ve been through a lot, and I’m sorry for that.”  He couldn’t help but ramble; there was so much in his heart, so much left unsaid.

Margaret continued, “Dixon is now an extra staff member in this house, but my cousin was certainly willing to keep her on until she found employment elsewhere, or I found a way to keep her.  She’s overjoyed to be needed in your home, but saddened as to the reason.”

All the while Margaret was speaking, John knew he was staring.  He could hardly pay attention to her words; he was gazing intently at her lovely face.  Surprisingly, he didn’t see the radiance one might have expected in a newly married woman.  John slightly shifted in his seat as his arousal caught him off guard.

“Dixon’s already packed and can be in Milton next week,” Margaret went on.

There was a moment of silence as John, mesmerized, realized she had stopped talking.  “I’ll be very grateful for her help,” he told her.  When the time comes, and my Mother is no longer with me, Dixon can remain on as head of housekeeping, which currently, only includes Jane and Cook.  She’ll be welcomed to stay on forever or until she finds something else she would rather do.  I’ll not worry about an extra staff member.  Jane is young enough to marry any year now, and she might be gone soon.”

Not wanting the conversation to stop altogether, John politely inquired,” And how is life treating you, Margaret?  Well, I hope?”

Margaret cleared her throat, “About my marriage . . .”

 

Well, she got right to the subject, didn’t she?

 

John promptly stood.  He wasn’t expecting this conversation to come up so quickly.  He was afraid of what she might say.  Perhaps she is nervous, too,” he thought.  Turning his back to Margaret, he looked out over the beautiful landscaped grounds.  He was afraid of the emotion that might show itself at any moment now.  “Yes,” he interrupted, “I must say, it came as a shock to me when I read it in a recent letter from Dixon.”

Seeing him turn from her, and feeling surprised at his words and the desolate tone of his voice, Margaret asked, “Did you not receive my two letters and then the invitation to our wedding?”

 

Oh, dear God, she had written to me before she married! 

 

“No,” he said.  “I did not.  Not one word did I receive.”  Turning to face her, he said in an anguished voice, “Nothing.  Nothing have I heard from you, since that snowy day you left Milton.”

Margaret could see the torment that creased his brow and descended across his handsome face.  She had to look away.  Suddenly, a small voice inside her said, “He loves you still, Margaret . . .”

 

John sat down in the chair, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.  He slowly cast his eyes back at Margaret, noticing her dejected posture.  “Did you not receive the four letters I wrote to you?”

“Margaret quickly raised her lowered head, and frowning softly, sat staring at John as she tried to take in his words.”

Your letters?  . . .  Four?  No . . . no . . .,” she said while shaking her head in bewilderment.  “No, I’ve heard nothing from you, or about you since that day I brought you father’s book and said goodbye.  Those few days are still very much a blur to me, I hardly can remember them.  I . . . I thought I must have really hurt you by saying goodbye so quickly.  Eventually, I remembered you with Ann Latimer at Fanny’s wedding.  I thought, perhaps, the two of you were probably, well . . . you know.  And after my two letters went unanswered, there seemed to be no mistaking the fact that you had moved on.  And I couldn’t blame you, for it was I, unquestioningly, who mishandled our friendship and . . .”

Margaret was startled as John bolted out of his seat, again, taking long strides across the expanse of the veranda, clearly in a state of barely controlled anger.  “Margaret, first, Ann Latimer never meant anything to me, ever.  It was always you.  Can you not see what your family has done to us?  Or perhaps it’s just me?  Margaret, had our communication not been subverted I feel we wouldn’t be where we are today.  What I can say, for certain, is that having no word from you has irretrievably damaged the course of my life forever.  You must know how I’ve always felt about you.”  He crossed back to his chair and sat down, watching Margaret as he spoke each word.

“John, had I known that you still held some regard for me, I would have . . .”

Silence was suspended, as Margaret fought to contain the words she knew she shouldn’t speak.

“I’m sorry, Margaret.”  John said, noticing her discomfort.  It was improper of me to speak of my feelings, please forgive me.  I just can’t believe what has happened.  If only . . .”

The sound of Dixon knocking on the open door caught their attention.  “Mr. Thornton,” Dixon said, “there’s a coach outside . . . Mr. Thornton . . . ?”

“Yes, thank you Dixon.”  John said.  Nodding his head towards Margaret, he asked, “Margaret, will you excuse me a moment?”  And without waiting for an answer, he walked towards the front of the house.

With John out of sight, Margaret turned to Dixon.  “Dixon, I’ve just found out that over the past two years, John wrote me four letters!  I’m sure my family has intercepted all of our mail.  They don’t know what they’ve done . . .” Margaret’s voice trailed off slightly.  “Dixon, I think he still loves me, after all this time,” she said humbly.

“Miss Margaret, you must be the only one living that don’t know that.”  Dixon scolded her gently.  “He thinks no one knows; he tries to hide it and keeps it tucked away, but I see it.  I could see it several years ago; I got to think nothing has changed.”  Hearing his approaching footsteps, she lowered her voice.  “He’s coming back now.  I’ll be in the other room if you need me,” Dixon passed John on her way back inside.

“Indeed, I apologize for interrupting our conversation,” John said, returning to his chair.

“John, I don’t know what to say.”  Margaret began, attempting to resume their conversation.  “This is so awkward . . . no . . . this is much worse than that.  This is tragic!  I’m going to have harsh words with my family and get to the bottom of things.  Seven pieces of post don’t just disappear into nowhere.  I believe our lives would have taken another path had I known you were still aware of me.  Nothing they can do will atone for this.  Nothing!” . . .  “Nothing,” she said softly.  Her voice trailing off into a whisper, as the realization that it was all too late to change, descended upon her.  “Nothing can be done.”

Hearing those words from her lips, John looked up sharply, in awe, emotions spreading through his body like wildfire.

 

Did she understand what she had just said?  Does she truly believe there might have been hope of a future together?

 

 Even though he could not question her about it, her wounded expression spoke volumes to his heart.

Regaining her composure, Margaret said, “John, I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t be talking like this.  As to your question just before you left, Booker is a history professor at the nearby university.  Being married to an academic is quite a different world.  The social scene is far easier to tolerate than, what I was being encouraged to do, when I lived with my family.”

 

There IT is.  The answer.  She married more out of convenience than love.

 

How much more of this catastrophic mistake could he bear to hear?  His life lay in ruins and perhaps for her, as well.

“It’s a totally academic environment; they seem to stay in their own little world.  Lots of debates go on as if it were normal conversation.  The books are piled to the rafters.  The students come and go from our lodgings; you would think we were living in the dormitories.”

John could barely stand listening to much more, but he knew he must.  He wanted to smother her mouth with his, so she would stop talking.

“We had a slow and long courtship.”  Margaret was saying.  “I never seemed to want to commit, but eventually I did.”  She paused for a moment, smiling wistfully at him.  “So how about you, John?  Is there anyone special in your life, if there is no Ann?”

Looking directly into her face, he softly answered, “There was a special woman in my life, but that seems to be over now.”  John quickly looked away, embarrassed that he had said such a thing.  How ungentlemanly that was, knowing she understood the significance.

“I’m sorry, Margaret.  I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.  Please forgive me.  I can’t seem to keep my thoughts to myself.  I’ve taken up enough of your time, already.  I hope we can remain friends and perhaps in the future our correspondence will be uninterrupted.  Do you think you could call Dixon for me?”  He stood to leave.

Margaret stood as well, less than an arm’s length from John.  Just the presence of him there, his hovering over her, so tall, his tantalizing manly smell, his solid, muscular body, the timbre of his voice, that handsome face and those beautiful hands with long slim fingers . . . everything . . . the all of him . . .

 

I cannot bear this ache . . . thinking about what might have been.

 

She began to weep.  With John so near, it was then that she recognized her own deep feelings, clawing from within her.  Knowing that she could never be closer to John than she was at this very moment just seemed an impossible truth.

Staring at her tears in disbelief, John reached for her hands but Margaret quickly threw her arms around him and lay against his strong chest.  She didn’t know why she did it; she was drawn inexplicably to him.  John represented something to her, but she wouldn’t allow the ‘why’ to take form in her mind.  She pushed it away, not wanting the realization to invade the moment.

He hadn’t moved.  He didn’t back away from her unexpected behavior.  He was a rock standing there for her.  Through his thick clothing, she could feel his heartbeat accelerating, pounding loudly.

 

His love for me is hammering in his chest.  Dear God, what am I doing?

 

John gently put his arms around her, and closed his eyes, letting the moment wash over him like a cresting wave rolling onto shore.  He knew this was improper, he had no understanding of why Margaret was embracing him, but he was not going to let it stop.  “Dearest Margaret,” he whispered, grasping her closer.  Margaret, so small in his arms, that his hands circled her body from shoulder to shoulder.  Kissing the top of her head, he inhaled deeply to capture her scent.  “Dearest Margaret,” he whispered again.  He could hear her muffled sobs and saw the wet tears drop to his sleeve.  Loosening some of his own self-control, he feathered her with light kisses down the side of her face.  Nestling his mouth against her neck he whispered “Oh God, how I love you, Margaret,” as he pressed her more tightly to his rigid body.

 

God, let this moment continue forever.

 

He wanted to kiss her mouth, so badly.  He began tilting her face up to his, but she backed away, as with teary eyes and flushed cheeks, she looked up one last time into his face.  The moment was gone.

“I . . . I don’t know what I’m doing,” Margaret said, continuing to back away.  She turned to go get Dixon.

John stared at her as she left the room.  His mind was racing.  He knew she wasn’t free to express anything, but he had just been given the most precious gift he could ever receive.  Never before, had he held her.  Finally, he was able to tell her what he had waited to say for so long.  She had voluntarily come into his arms, held him, and allowed him to hold her body pressed to him.  The passion he was feeling was so intense, he was afraid he might open the cage and release the primitive animal within himself.  He thought about carrying her upstairs and taking her.  He had never experienced this . . . this fervor.

“Mr. Thornton?”  “Mr. Thornton, you look a million miles away.”  Dixon was standing in front of him, trying to get his attention.

“I was.”  John said.  “Sorry, Dixon.  You wanted to see me before I left?”

“Miss Margaret is upstairs crying, sir.  I hope everything is alright?”  Not getting any reaction from him, she continued, “What I wanted to ask was when did you want me to be there in Milton?”

“As soon as you possibly can, Dixon.  Please check the train schedules, and post me a note about your approximate arrival time, and I will have someone come to collect you and your things.  I thank you very much, Dixon.  I know my mother will be well looked after and I appreciate your help.”  Glancing over her shoulder, he asked, “Am I to assume that Margaret will not be down to say goodbye?”

“I don’t think she’ll be down.  I better go to her and see what I can do.  Can you see your way out, sir?”

“Yes, Dixon, I can.  And would you give Margaret a message for me?  Tell her I said, “MAYBE SOMEDAY.”  That’s all.  Goodbye, Dixon.”

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 3

  A Visit with Dixon

1853 summer

Upon discovering that Margaret had married, John spent the next few weeks trying not to sink through the hole in his heart, until he could visit Dixon and discuss the content of her letter.  Still determined to understand the meaning of her statement about why Margaret married, he wrote, requesting a few moments of her time on the day he planned to be in London.

In addition to losing the greatest love of his life, John now feared the loss of his mother.  She was growing weaker and more staid, appearing increasingly deficient by the day.  It was small comfort to John that she was under Dr. Donaldson’s care.  She still refused to share her health issues, and John’s concern grew.  Aware of Hannah’s waning strength, Dixon came to mind.  She would be ideal; a caring companion for his mother.  John had no idea, however, with Margaret married and gone, in what capacity Dixon served the Lennox household.  He needed to find out if she was available to tend to his mother, as her fragility progressed.

With sleeves rolled up, John sat slumped over his desk, strewn with scattered papers, graphs, and financial ledgers, immersing himself in concentrating on the upcoming convention.  He looked up at the sound of a knock on the door, welcoming the distraction from his tiresome work.

Higgins opened the door and poked his head in, “Can I have a word with you?  Oh … it looks like this might not be a good time.  Should I come back later?”

John tossed his feathered pen down onto the papers.  “Come in,” he said, “I’m not getting very far with this, and I could use a rest.  What can I help you with?  Take a seat.”

Pushing his chair out from under the desk, John leaned back with his hands behind his head.  Arching his stiff back and stifling a small groan, he waited for Higgins to enter the room.

Higgins stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and removed his cap.  He sat down across from John, and not knowing how to start; he began whirling his cap around and round by the rim.  John could see Higgins was anxious and worried about something.

“Higgins,” he prompted, “I know that look.  What’s on your mind?”

Shifting slightly in his seat, he began, “Boss, you put me in charge of this mill.  And it is for the mill, I am speaking to you now.  Nearly all of our people, including myself, are sensing a drastic change in your manner.  We are all concerned and there is much talk.  They are coming to me, asking what’s wrong with the Master.  Many think the mill might be in trouble.  I know that not to be true; I tell them that, but have no explanation to give them about their concerns.  You and I work closely together, and I can see a great sadness that you’re trying to hide from everyone.  I didn’t want to speak about this with you, as it must be personal in nature, but the people are growing more worried by the day; that includes me.  They’re starting to fear for their jobs, and some have talked about looking for work at other mills.  Can you share anything, which might relieve their worries?”

John stood, curling his hands into his pockets, and turned away from Higgins.  He gazed out the window over-looking the yard where his laborers were working.  He’d known all along that his recent behavior would soon be called into question, and he wondered how to broach the concerns about the two women in his life.

Still looking out the window, John began to speak, “Higgins, you put that most delicately.  Your leadership skills improve by the day.  In the entire world, I think you’ve been the closest friend to me.  Sometimes I look upon you like a brother.  I think we’re quite alike, you and I.  We have the same high standards.  We’re both honest to a fault; we work hard, and we care for our fellow man.  You’re not just my overseer.  I’m proud to call you my friend.”

John turned and faced Higgins.  Pausing briefly, he allowed his words to sink in, and then began pacing the room.  “I’m going to tell you, and only you, the two factors that have been plaguing my life recently.  Part of it is personal, and the other part will be known soon enough.”

As Higgins watched his boss pace the floor, sorrow flooded him; he knew it was all going to be bad.

Not wanting to look Higgins in the eye, John turned back to the window and slowly started to speak.  “First, and again… this is for you only. About a month ago, I learned that Margaret Hale married a college professor.  They’re living on the college campus in London.  I’ve had no communication with her since she left Milton, although I’ve tried repeatedly.  I feel there’s more wrong than right going on there, and I will get to the bottom of it.”

Feeling helpless, Higgins looked up at John, who was still staring out the window.  “I’m sorry, Master.  I knew of your feelings toward her, so I can only imagine how deeply saddened you are over this.  This alone tells me why you’ve acted the way you have, of late.  If I could ask, what do you feel is wrong?”

John turned, facing Higgins once more, and sat down at his desk, clasping his hands in front of him.  “I think it’s very unlikely that Miss Hale ever received my four letters to her in two years, and I’ve never received a single response.  I finally wrote to Dixon; she doesn’t believe she ever got them.  I’m going to find out why, or go crazy wondering.  It’s too late for anything to be done, other than to ease my mind that she did not purposely avoid replying.  I do feel there has been some . . . some… shall I say, mishandling of her posts?”

John leaned back in his chair, casually twirling his pen between his fingers and spoke before Higgins could reply.  “It gets worse.”  He hesitated a moment before continuing, “I’m now facing the fact . . . my mother does not have long to live.  The doctor comes to the house several times a week, but she doesn’t wish to confide in me about the seriousness of her illness.  So, I’ve decided, since I cannot be at her side constantly, when I go to London next week, I’ll ask Dixon if she can be her companion and watch over her.  I don’t believe mother will have any further contact with our workers, since she hardly leaves the house now and never comes into the mill.  I think we can be honest with our people and let them know that I’m worried about her health.”  He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath.

 

Higgins, be strong for me now

 

“As much as I wish to be among our workers,” John continued, “I don’t want to see the pity on their faces…” then he added softly, “… as I see in yours now.  Assure them this mill is in the best financial shape it has ever been, and that we have hopes of building another.”

“Master, I’m sorry to hear…  ”

“Higgins, dear friend,” before you try to find the words to say to me just now, I’m going to ask that you don’t speak them.  I know you’re sorry for me.  I have no doubt you’ll suffer along with me.  You yourself have been at this point, with the loss of your daughter, and I can now understand some of what you felt, and perhaps Margaret, too.  It’s a hardship we cannot help but bare.”

“Yes, it is, Master,”  Higgins said softly, wishing he could give John some words of comfort.

Smiling slightly, John continued, “I’m going to thank you now, for what I will probably lay at your door over the months ahead.  As it is, you already do everything here, but I may find myself asking for more.  I’m sorry for that, but I know you’ll see me right,” said John, leaning forward on his desk, looking down at his steepled fingers, avoiding any eye contact, lest he tear up.

“Whatever I can do . . . Master.  I wish you all the best getting through this.  I’ll be here for you.  Don’t give another thought to the mill.  Just handle your personal affairs, and I’ll be an ear if you want to talk about anything.”

“Thank you Nicholas,” John replied, his voice thick with emotion.  He didn’t rise to extend his hand in thanks, but he knew Higgins would understand.  “I know you will.  You’re always there for me.”

The following week, having quietly instructed Fanny to keep an eye on their mother, John said good-bye to Hannah.  While he was having a few final words with Higgins in the office, he collected the papers of his documented studies, and slipped them into his leather portfolio.  Feeling confident that he had done all he could, he departed for the train to London.
            His journey lasted almost four hours but was comfortable.  He didn’t notice any of the other mill owners on his morning train.  He used the time to relax, refresh his notes, and go over the conference agenda.  Tomorrow he would breakfast with his friends and then attend a short strategy meeting, before the conference, which was scheduled to begin at 11:00 am.  A meal would be served around two o’clock in the afternoon, and the conference would adjourn between five and six o’clock.  Dinner would be held across the street at the Stag and Whistle pub, with late evening plans differing with every person.  But for John, it was the day after the meeting that concerned him the most.  He was determined to visit Dixon.  After several hours of thinking about the conference and his visit, the swaying train and the sound of its clickety-clack rhythm lulled him into sleep.

An hour later, he was abruptly awakened by the noise of screeching brakes and to the hissing of vented steam.  After several stops, his station was called out, and John prepared to disembark.  Donning his hat, he gathered his travel bag, and portfolio then gingerly hopped off the train, before it came to a halt.  Pushing his way through the platform crowds, he made his way to the front and hailed a hansom cab.  He went directly to his hotel, having decided to sightsee later, should time permit.

That evening, as he entered the large, wood-paneled dining hall a few minutes early, John spotted his fellow mill owners.  Standing behind chairs at a round table, glass in hand, they were casually engaged in conversation.  When the last owner arrived, they all settled into their seats and began discussing the next day’s events.

Slickson immediately came to the point.  “I think we’re well prepared for tomorrow,” he said, “We already had our big discussion at Thornton’s house the other night, plus, we’ll be meeting tomorrow morning again.  What do you say we just enjoy the evening; at least not talk about the conference?”
There was agreement all around, as glasses were raised, and the men settled back down into other conversations.  The dinner progressed through to the final course.  By then, most of the conversation had turned toward the possibility of other factories coming into Milton.  Many of the Masters were receiving inquiries from outside merchants, wishing to relocate.  It seemed inevitable that, with new businesses flowing in, some type of merchant council or chamber would have to be created, if they were going to maintain a balance of wages.  They had to form some guidelines for the influx that would be headed Milton’s way.  This would ensure the survival of their mills, as well as that of the manufacturers of low profit goods and their wage concerns.  The evening ended with everyone in agreement to meet for further discussion when they returned to Milton.

 

The next morning, as the clock in his room struck seven, a porter, at John’s request, promptly knocked on the door announcing the time.  John called out “thank you” through the door and the porter left.  He had an hour before meeting the masters for breakfast.  He shaved and dressed, then collected his notes and headed downstairs to meet the others.  Everyone was ready for their morning meal and eager to discover what the day would bring.

The conference lasted until nearly 6:30 p.m.  Discussions and debates led the day, with John acting as spokesman for their group.  Little was settled, except for small concessions by the shippers, and a promise from the growers to yield more volume.  Prior to the meeting, John and the other Milton owners knew that’s all they could expect, but it took all day to get to that point.  They left the conference satisfied with their small achievement and headed out for dinner, across the street at the pub.  With the meal and talk of the day completed, some owners left to catch late trains and others had plans similar to the night before.

Having nothing better to do, John decided to take a carriage ride over by the college, just to see the type of environment where Margaret lived.  “It suits her well.” He thought.  The ivy-covered walls and arched doorways seemed warm and inviting, academic, and definitely a world apart from the grand tiers that one might find in London.  He hoped she was happy and being treated as she deserved.

Somewhere among these hallowed halls, my true love lives. 

Despite going to bed at 10 o’clock, John arose the next morning, suffering from a very poor night’s sleep.  His thoughts turned to his mother’s failing health and what he would do if Dixon wasn’t available.  His sadness regarding his mother was tolerable now, because he knew what to expect; what Dixon might tell him about Margaret was causing unbearable anxiety.  Time seemed to drag on, as he counted the hours until one o’clock when he would meet Dixon and find out what she had meant in her letter.  The thread of hope he was clinging to could very well break today, but he needed to know everything in order to deal with the rest of his life.

It was nearing 11 o’clock when he came down for breakfast, having packed all his things and closed out his room account.

From his pocket, he took an old yellowed piece of paper with an address on it, and asked the registrar if he recognized the area, and how long it would take to get there.  The registrar was unfamiliar with the exact address, but knew the area and approximated a 20 minute carriage ride.  John checked his pocket watch and calculated that he should leave the hotel by 12:30 p.m.

He ate alone, mostly pushing food around on his plate, and finished his second cup of tea.  Pulling out his pocket watch for the third time in half an hour, he noted it was almost midday.  He paid the waiter for his uneaten meal, collected his belongings, and went into the lobby where people were talking or reading the paper.  Sitting alone, in a far-off  corner of the room, he allowed his mind to wander.  He wasn’t too concerned about finding a caretaker for his mother, surely it would be an easy task to accomplish, but finding someone who would put up with her stubborn ways, might prove to be difficult.  Having his home on the mill property meant he would be able to assist her, but surely, as she grew weaker, she would need someone to help her with the more personal details.

And then there was Margaret…  John wondered what he would do if Dixon told him she believed Margaret married to gain freedom from her relatives.  Certainly, they would have encouraged a commonality with the different levels of the London upper class.  Marriage to a college professor sounded like an act of escape from a certain measure of the higher social circle.  But in other ways, John thought, it did have a ring of truth about it: An educator would be very much to Margaret’s liking.  Realizing he was becoming more anxious by the moment, he took out his pocket watch once more.  Time came to hail a cab.

Five minutes before the hour, John stepped out of the coach.  As he paid the driver, he instructed him to return in 20 minutes; if he was going to be any later then someone would come out and pay him to wait.

Arriving at Captain Lennox’s home, John looked over the highly ornate, white Regency town home, with its columned front porch and tall windows.  Hesitantly, he proceeded forward.  He climbed the marble steps up the slight embankment then stepped onto a slate walkway leading to the door.  Before he could lift the knocker, Dixon opened the door.  Removing his hat, John entered the house.

“Good to see you Mr. Thornton.”  Dixon said politely, a hint of sadness in her voice.  “You can place your hat and things over here.”  She pointed to a highly polished table in the foyer.  The Mr. and Missus are not in, but they know you were coming.  If you will follow me.”

“Good day to you, Dixon.  Thank you for seeing me.”

Dixon led John toward the back of the house.  “Mr. Thornton, if you would care to go out onto the veranda, I’ll fetch some tea.”

“Very good.  This is a lovely home you work in, Dixon.  I’ve not seen a veranda in many years.  I’m sure you remember the air in Milton; it wouldn’t suit such a luxury.”

As John stepped out onto the wide veranda, he was immediately struck by the large fountain, toward the center of the back garden, spewing water into its trough at the bottom.  He had always been fascinated by the water wheel engineering that lay beneath its foundation.  Wheels would turn by falling water, raised in turn by other wheels bringing the water back up the center flow.  Thinking back on his study of its construction, he was reminded that there would be a hidden chamber where a workman could repair the works from below, if needed.  Before he could have a closer look at its complex design, his senses were suddenly filled with the awareness of her, and then the voice struck his heart like a lightning bolt.

“Hello, Mr. Thornton.”

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 2

Chapter 2

     Abandoned Hope

 

Over the next year, John Thornton became a shell of the man he once was: a thinking human being with no central core, little constancy, adrift in his own life.  In an effort to keep his company from failing, he worked long hours, trying to lose himself in his mill.  Margaret’s words, on the day of the riot, continued to haunt him.  He recognized that consideration for the human condition of his people was the road to the mill’s salvation, but how to accomplish this remained an issue for him and all the cotton masters.  Feeling lost; he, nevertheless, was determined to resolve the wage issue, even if it meant losing everything to do it.  And through it all, his faith in Margaret’s insights remained intact.  Resolute to form a new perspective, John set to work toward a solution.

By the end of that first year, after Margaret had left, he began to see the benefits of his hard work.  He had successfully tightened controls, hired capable, more productive people, and re-trained his workers.  In order to pay wages, he diluted most of his  financial holdings.  He met with his workers individually and held monthly meetings so they could air their grievances.  Wanting his labor force to comprehend the whole picture, he demonstrated, with slate and chalk, where every pound was going and helped clear all their financial misunderstandings of the company.  His goal was to make them partners in his decisions.  Over time, the entire mill came to recognize their newly acquired knowledge (some absorbed more than others), as fair and equal.  They had a sense of partnership, and they had a purpose: they wanted John to succeed.  He wasn’t only their boss; he became their friend.  In the end, the workers’ personal interest in the success of the company, and their mutual pride and dedication to workmanship  created  a finer product.

Before long, John’s mill began to reap great rewards; the other mill masters, observing the result of changes he had made, began to follow his lead.  Although they didn’t always agree with him on his expenditures and personal sacrifices (with regard to the workers), John showed them that sacrifice was at the core of his success.  He believed in a new way of thinking: a future vision that embraced the workers’ humanity and would ultimately resolve most problems.  Recognized as a highly acclaimed merchant within the Cotton Industry, it wasn’t long before other burgeoning industries began to take notice of the name John Thornton and the town of Milton.  Respect and admiration for his business skills and absence of dissension among his 300 plus workers resulted in his fame being spread throughout other areas of commerce.  His methods were recorded in trade journals, and he was asked to speak at various functions around the country.  John was obliging but shunned the limelight, and never put himself forward to be admired.  He disliked receiving praise for common sense work and he highly undervalued himself.  The world, however, saw him differently…

At a time when John was achieving great success and blazing historical trails, his personal life was far from successful, but he kept it well hidden from all but his closest friends.  Margaret never wrote to him after her bereavement ended.  He had written her two letters, but they went unanswered.  This puzzled him.  It was most unlike Margaret to be so impolite.  Having had no communication from her, and having heard no news of her, he began to worry, sensing she might slip through his grasp.

My destiny cannot be to live without her.

In the second year after Margaret left, John attempted two more courteous letters but received no replies.  Now, concerned that something was amiss, he wrote to Dixon, hoping she could shed some light on Margaret’s apparent disregard for his letters.  Clearly, this was not the Margaret he once knew.  He had to find out why.

Late one evening, John returned home from the mill.  As he entered the sitting room,   Hannah was sitting at the dining table, reviewing Cook’s menus for the following week.

“Good evening, Mother.  How has your day been?”

Hannah Thornton looked up from her work and smiled fondly at her son.  “Oh, a bit tiring…”  Lottie came by to gossip for a while, and we had tea.  Then I wrote a letter, did a little cross stitch… and here I sit working on our meals for next week.”  Rising from the table, walking to the couch, she watched him, as he removed his coat and cravat and placed them over the back of a chair.  “And how was your day, John?”

John walked over to the buffet and poured himself a brandy before responding.  Lifting the glass, he turned slightly towards Hannah, “Mother?”

“Yes, John, but I would prefer a small sherry, instead.  By the way, something came in the post for you today.  It’s on the dining room table.”

Without acknowledging her comment about the post, John continued pouring their drinks.  “It was a rather easy day, today.  Higgins still amazes me with his capacity for completing all the work I assign him.  I can’t find the end of the man.  He never tires, never complains, good teacher – a perfect overseer.  I’m going to get him into the office for some of the financial sides of the business.”  Picking up her sherry, but leaving his brandy behind, John walked to the dining table and retrieved the letter.  Crossing the room, he handed his mother her glass.  He paused a moment to open the note, quickly scanning for a signature.

“Finally,” John said as he walked back to the buffet and picked up his brandy.  Walking over to his leather chair in front of the fire, he sat down and began to unfold the letter.

“Who is it from?” his mother asked, watching John’s movements.

“It’s from Dixon, the Hales’ housekeeper.  She now works for Margaret.”

Hannah looked at him angrily.  “John, you didn’t!  Please tell me you didn’t write to her and ask about Miss Hale behind her back.”

Raising his eyes to meet hers, John answered, “Mother, I cannot tell you so, because I did write to her.  I wrote to Margaret four times in two years and received no response to my letters.  I thought a quick note to Dixon, requesting a reply, would let me know if Margaret received them.  I have reason to suspect that her family may be censoring her post.  I didn’t tell you about writing to her because I knew you would go on . . . like you are about to do now . . .” He paused for a moment, letting the weight of his words sink in.  His mother’s consistent negativity towards Margaret Hale, from the very beginning of their acquaintance, was an ongoing source of frustration for him.  “So,” he continued, “if you don’t mind, mother, I would like to read Dixon’s letter now.”

As John began reading, Hannah was up and pacing the floor.  She was worried about this “re-emergence of the “Miss Hale” story.  For the past two years, he had been seeing other women, no one permanently, but she thought Miss Hale was far from his mind.  Suddenly, Hannah’s thoughts were interrupted as she heard the sound of glass, shattering on the floor.  She quickly turned around and saw John, still seated, bent slightly forward with his elbows supported on his knees.  He was holding his head in his hands, looking down, staring at the letter that had fallen to the floor.

“What is it, John?” she asked, alarmed by his pale face and empty unfocused eyes.

She watched as he stood up.  Without acknowledging her question, and oblivious to the glass fragments on the floor, he walked out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door with neither coat nor hat, in hand.  Hannah was stunned; he’d never done anything like that before.  She hurried to the window, in time to see him walking through the mill gate.

At the sound of footsteps coming from the kitchen stairs, Hannah turned and saw Jane, the housekeeper, entering the room, dustpan, and broom in hand.

“I thought I heard the sound of breaking glass, ma’am.” she said, glancing around the room.

Hannah composed herself.  “Over here, Jane,” she said as she pointed to the floor, “but hand me that letter first, if you don’t mind?”

Jane handed her mistress the note and began to sweep the glass.  Hannah waited patiently for her to leave, then sat in John’s chair and began to read.
Dear Mr. Thornton,

It was nice hearing from you.  I do not think Miss Margaret got your letters because I think she would have told me.  She and I are close friends.  She does not care for London, so we talk a lot about Helstone and Milton.  I know she wrote to you once or maybe it was two times because she asked me if I wanted to add anything.  I just wanted to say Hello to you.  Did you not receive them? 

I don’t know if this is good news or bad news for you, but Miss Margaret married her a college professor last month.  She is not living here anymore.  They live on the school grounds somewhere.  I was not allowed to go with her because they have their own staffing. 

To be honest with you Mr. Thornton, I don’t know if she was happy to be married or happy to be out of here.  She’s been very sad a long time, but I don’t think it is all about her parents dying.  She just hates living here and society life being pressed on her.  I know she would have been happy to hear from you because we wondered how you and Mr. Higgins were getting along.  I think that is all you wanted to know.  Please write again if I can tell you anymore, I like getting letters.                                                                                                  Dixon
By the time Hannah finished reading the letter, tears were rolling down her cheeks, and her heart beat rapidly in her chest.  She felt terrible for her son.  She decided to wait and have dinner with him, but he didn’t return, and she could not eat.  Feeling unwell, she retired to her room for the evening.

Knowing John was at a very low point, weighed heavily on her conscience, exhausting her even further.  She recognized she held some blame in this disaster in her son’s life.  Originally, she never endeared herself to Margaret and had since tried to sweep her memory out of the way.  John, meanwhile, had been holding on to her tightly, in his heart.  “How he must have struggled to tolerate me,” she thought,” when I was so quick to dismiss any conversation about Miss Hale.”

Will he ever forgive me?

Outside, John walked towards nowhere; numb, not caring, and oblivious to everything around him, including the cold and the approaching darkness.  His thoughts were incomprehensible; he was inconsolable.
I cannot believe what has happened to my life.  It is over.
John had loved Margaret for over three years.  Although there had been no communication between them for two of those years, he still had clung to hope.  He had dreams, and he had plans, all of which just died a horrible death.

Walking with his head down, people stared at him as he passed.  He wandered aimlessly out of town and found himself at the cemetery, where Margaret had visited weekly, at the grave of her lost friend, Bessie.

John’s insides were churning as he walked around in circles, simultaneously wrestling with anger and sorrow.  Tears rolled down his face, as his stomach convulsed with pain, and pure mental agony consumed him.

 

Margaret  . . .  my love, my life, why did you marry someone else?
Holding his arms straight over his head, shaking his fist skyward, shouting and sobbing at his maker, John wailed to the heavens, “Why, God . . . why?  Why take Margaret from me, again?  What have I done to deserve this?  . . .  God, anything but this!”

John silently cursed his god.  For him, God no longer existed.  With despondency heavily descending upon him, he slid to his knees and fell backward on to the cold damp ground.  A few moments later he sat up, resting his head on his arms, which were laying across his up-drawn knees.  Tears of utter desolation poured out from him.  He thought he was watching himself go mad.

“I have loved her for three years, God.  Two years ago, my heart broke when you took her from me.  I have not looked into her face since then, but have continued to live in hope every day.  And today, God, you put a pistol to my head and pulled the trigger.  You have taken away my love, my reason for living, my everything.  She wrapped herself around my very soul, now you’ve wrenched her away.  You have destroyed me, God.  I am done with you, as you are done with me.”  John cried uncontrollably, feeling as if he was bleeding to death, and wishing, somehow, that he could.

As the hours rolled by, he sank deeper into despair, and thoughts of ending his own life began to appear, but the recollection of the family’s grief, over his father’s suicide, kept him teetering on the brink of life.  He knew, without a doubt, living in a world without Margaret, in a world without hope of Margaret, meant living in a void: a meaningless, senseless life; forever floating, trapped in a world of depression, and ostracized from reciprocated love.

As the pale light of dawn rose over the smoky town, John stood slowly, straining at his stiffness, and decided to go home and try to survive the rest of his damaged life.  There were no tears left to shed.  He was completely and utterly spent.
Everything is gone . . .  lost to me now . . .  and I, too, am lost.
Approaching his home, John tried putting on a good face for the early workers wandering the yard, but he knew he looked awful and it matched his mood.  Feeling unprepared to face his mother over Miss Hale, again, he mounted the porch steps, took a deep breath, and turned the doorknob.  As he came bravely through the door to the sitting room, Hannah looked up from her chair and quietly gasped.  Standing before her in muddied clothes, looking totally exhausted, was her son: face swollen, eyes bloodshot and cheeks stained and streaked with tears.  He was a broken man, and her heart sank for him.  How he suffers…  Without saying a word, she walked over, putting her motherly arms around him.  She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but it didn’t seem enough, considering her past attitude toward Miss Hale, so, she kept silent on the matter.

“Would you like something to eat, John?”  Hannah asked, tentatively, as she stepped back from him.

“No thank you, mother.  I’m going to clean up and lie down for a few hours.  Would you send Jane to find Higgins and tell him it will be a while before I get to the office?”

Hannah said she would take care of it.  Having decided she would say nothing about the letter until he did, she stood silently watching him.  Picking up Dixon’s letter, John turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.  Hannah thought to herself that she had never seen him so dejected.  Unfortunately, and all too late, she realized the great love her son had for Miss Hale; so much more than she had ever thought.  At last, she fully recognized the understanding John had of Margaret.  Hannah knew, for certain, she had misjudged this woman.

In his room, John undressed and bathed, feeling the weight of loneliness descend upon his tired body.  Putting on a fresh undergarment, he lay down on the bed.  Exhaustion overtook him, finally, and he slept fitfully, never finishing Dixon’s letter.

He awoke several hours later, bathed in sweat.  Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up, trying to clear his head.  He wished he was awakening from a nightmare, but there it was, on the night table: Dixon’s letter, spelling out THE END to the rest of his life.  Reaching over, he picked it up, and began reading where he had left off:

 

  To be honest with you Mr. Thornton, I don’t know if she was happy to be married or happy to be out of here.  She’s been very sad a long time, but I don’t think it is all about her parents.  She just hates living here and society life being pressed on her.  I know she would have been happy to hear from you because we wondered how you and Mr. Higgins were getting along.  

 

Suddenly, he stopped.  “What did that mean . . . happy to be married or happy to be out of there?”

John stood, continuing to read, as he paced the floor and ran his fingers through his hair.  They were words, just words, but ignoring them would haunt him forever.  Nothing could be done now; there could be no difference in their permanent separation.  But still… he had to know…

 

Did she marry for love?

 

It seemed absurd to want to know the answer; what difference would it make?  Yet, deep down, burned the desire to feel what might have been.  What if she could have loved him?  That, at least, would be worth something to him.

He knew what he must do…  In a few weeks, he was due to attend the annual convention for the cotton mill industry, held in London.

“I will visit Dixon while I’m there.  I must understand what she meant by those words.”