Reserve and Reticence – Part Nineteen

Nineteen – A Lesson Gained the Hard Way

 

Having hired a horse from Burton, Stephen galloped into Manchester at breakneck speed. He was seething with rage at Oliver’s incredibly stupid decision of hiring himself out to a cotton manufacturer, just to taunt his father and prove his rebellion. As Stephen knew all too well, a cotton factory was a hellish place, especially for the small children the money-eager factory owners were so fond off. Employing a child was very profitable, their wages being very low. Their protests were non-existent, since often the child’s wages were the only source of income for the poorest of the large families. Working conditions were harsh, the working hours as long as fourteen hours a day and six days a week. Many children were beaten into submission when they dared complain against the dangerous conditions they were employed in. Many a child would get injured or would even die on the job. As a result, Stephen was blazing with fury when he skidded into a halt at the gates of Marlborough Mills on Princess Street.

He swung himself from the horse – a tolerably well-behaved bay – and fastened its rains onto a ring in the high, soot-blackened wall, surrounding the factory grounds. Pounding on the dark green gate wings, adorned with the factory’s name in golden letters, he shouted a demand for entrance. After a few moments, one half of the gate was cautiously opened to reveal the narrow face of an elderly man, clad in the dark blue cotton clothes, so typical for cotton workers. The man lifted his cap and asked in a reverend manner how he could be of service.

“I am Lord Stephen Fenton of Brixton Abbey in Leicestershire. I wish to speak to the proprietor of this factory at once.”

The doorman stepped aside to let Stephen in.

“If you’d care to follow me to the office, sir, I see if I can find master.” And so it was that Stephen was left  to cool his heels in a tiny room, full of desks laden with thick ledgers while the overseer went to find the owner.

 

~~~~

 

Mrs Oakham first made Isobel sit down and poured her a glass of brandy which the innkeeper’s wife downed avidly. Then Isobel started to tell them about Stephen bullying her husband into naming the mill where Oliver worked. Finally, she conveyed her fears to them, about what the baron wanted to do.

“He was just so fired up, m’ lady! He kept yellin’ curses and threatenin’ to burn down Marlborough Mills an’ ev’rythin’ in it!”

Beth closed her eyes in utter despair. So Stephen reverted to his usual rash behaviour, once again.

“Isobel, I am putting my trust in you completely. Go back to your husband and ask him to gather up some men and bring them to Marlborough Mills. I will go ahead and try to reason His Lordship before any harm is done.”

 

~~~~

 

As the minutes ticked away, Stephen became more and more angrier. Where was the blasted mill owner and why had he not come running to attend to him? He gave it another minute before he walked through a door, leading to the factory’s inner courtyard. A flurry of activity greeted him, with workers carrying big cotton bales into a large shed, carts being loaded and unloaded, women shouting for more cotton, children running with errands. The whole busy scene was immersed in load noises but the loudest of them was the clanking of machines from the weaving shed.

Stephen resolutely went to investigate. A long hall, stacked to the rafters with cotton, led to a big sliding door, from which direction the clanking seemed to grow louder. With a mighty shove, Stephen threw open the door and stopped in his tracks as the deafening sound of a hundred working looms overwhelmed him.

He stared at the cacophony with open mouth, coughing now and then, when his airways became irritated with the ever-present cotton fluff. The sight was very impressive, that was the least one could say. The loom operators worked in a steady, ever-recurring rhythm, throwing the shuttle through the shed when the harnesses rose the yarn beams. It was so fascinating that Stephen forgot what he was there for in the first place, and he avidly took in all that he saw. Until he noticed the thin forms skidding under the huge warp beams, every time they were raised …

Scavengers! Small children used to pick up the cotton fluff spilled from the yarn … Oliver would most likely be one of them, as it was the lowest rung on the apprentice scale.

At that moment, the baron caught sight of a man, standing proud and tall on a raised platform, scanning the surface of the shed with eagle eyes. Everything in the man’s bearing radiated mastery and authority, his tall, broad-shouldered form towering over the clatter, as if he were the conductor of a huge mechanic orchestra.

Stephen’s fury was instantly rekindled as he burst toward the platform, darted up the stairs and grabbed the man by the lapels of his black cotton frock coat. The momentum of the attack caused both men to bump against the platform banister which cracked under their combined weight. They tumbled down and landed six feet lower, dangerously close to one of the huge looms. A few blows were exchanged, and Stephen found that the man was an equal match to his own formidable strength and fisticuff skills. The brawl did not last long because a couple of heavy-set workers plucked Stephen away from their master.

“Take him outside! Williams! Where are you, you lazy bastard?”

A short, slender man came running towards the master, plucking his cap from his head.

“Yes, Mr Thornton, I’m here! What d’ ya want me to do, sir?”

“Go get the runners! I want this lunatic thrown in jail for at least a couple of weeks! That’ll cool him down a bit!”

Stephen was so taken aback by this that he momentarily had no words to protest. Surely, the man could not do such a thing to him, a lord and a peer of the Realm? But the two strong fellows had him in an iron grip and they began dragging him to the sliding doors with grim determination. Nothing Stephen attempted to free himself had any result! Those blokes were simply too strong!

When they reached the courtyard, a woman’s voice cried out and Stephen saw a group of women running towards them. One of them was his Beth, and she had Oliver by the hand. Mrs Oakham and Isobel Burton were also there, but the fourth woman was unknown to Stephen. It was she who had cried out.

“Charles! Charles, stop this! He is a noble, a baron. You must release him at once. He could damage our business if he presses charges.”

She was a tall, very thin woman with regal bearings and a ramrod straight back. Her black hair was piled high on her head and not a single strand had broken loose of it to soften the beautiful but forbidding lines of her face, from the penetrating gaze of her black eyes to the severe, thin line of her mouth. When she came to a halt in front of the master, Stephen saw that she held a young child by the hand, a boy of maybe one year old, already showing the resemblance with his father, thick black hair and piercing blue eyes and tall for his age.

“Hannah, why have you brought the boy here? There was no need to drag little John into this! Take him to the house immediately!”

“If he is to be the master of all this one day, John has to learn quickly and from an early age. Have you seen him cry or whimper? No! He is my son and he is as strong as you like!”

Stephen saw the harsh features of the master relax as he picked up the boy and smiled at him.

“You’re not afraid, are you, Johnnie? No, I can see you’re not. Good boy, good fellow. Now run along with your mama.” While the boy was given over to his mother again, he threw Stephen a look of utter contempt, so distinctly that the baron was shocked by the vehemence of it.

This child – though not of noble decent – would do his part in the world, Stephen realized. How fortunate the master of Marlborough Mills was to have a wife and son who supported him in every step of his way in life!

“Now,” Thornton said, turning back to Stephen once again. “What is this all about? Who are you and what are you doing here?”

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 12

Chapter 12

     Welcome Home,  Margaret

 

The London station platform was filled with people, but at least she had missed the early surge of London workers.  Margaret had ensured that her baggage was properly stowed onto the huffing train and glanced down the long line of coaches on the track, recognizing that they led to paradise, to her destiny once left behind.

Booker’s family said good-bye to her and had just left the station.  It was a sad time, for she liked them very much, and they loved her.  They promised to come visit her and asked her to do the same.  Aunt Shaw, Edith, and Maxwell stayed there to see her off.  Lots of well wishes, hugs, and kisses passed between them as Margaret boarded her train to freedom.  Edith cried and waved her lace handkerchief to Margaret, as she stepped into her coach.

As the train pulled away from the station, Margaret waved good-bye to her only family and felt everything falling into place.  She was endeavoring to set sail into a brand-new life, ready to find direction and purpose for her existence, and perhaps, her greatest love.

She looked around at her companions in the coach.  She gazed at the young couple who were seated in the corner and the gentleman across from her.  The couple appeared to Margaret to be newly married, possibly on their honeymoon.  The young man had propped himself diagonally in a corner, and the young woman rested between his legs with her back against his chest while he kissed her hair and whispered endearments to her.  It was a scandalously improper scene, but she could feel their love and envied them.

She tucked away any thoughts of romance as she reminded herself that she was going to love her freedom.  She wanted to twirl in a circle with her hands over her head and let the whole world to know that this was a new beginning for her.  Again though, her trip was slightly disturbed as the new unknown rider, a very handsome, elegantly clothed gentleman, kept glancing her way.  Even as she read her book, she could see him through her peripheral vision and could feel his eyes burning into her, but at least he had the decency to look away whenever she would look up.

 

John was getting all of his business affairs out of the way and clearing his desk, foreseeing every detail that could interrupt the lovely time he would be spending with Margaret on her first days in Milton.  She would be staying in his home for several days, until the rest of her household furnishings arrived.  He still was in a dream world anticipating her return, and there he would remain until he saw her step off the train.
As he spoke to John, Higgins could see that, today, his friend’s enthusiasm knew no bounds.  Higgins was amazed by the change in John over the past few weeks.  In all the years of their friendship, Higgins had never seen John so full of life.  He had asked a question but noticed John was now staring out the office window and hadn’t heard a word, he said to him.  Clearing his throat rather loudly, Higgins smiled and said to John, “Ahem.  “I said when is Miss Margaret due to arrive?”
John was thinking of the face among the crowd that he would soon see.  All those passengers leaving their coaches, yet he knew he would spot her instantly.  Hearing Higgins clear his throat, he turned and said, “I’m sorry, I was lost in thought.  What was it, you said?”

“Master,” he said, “I can well understand what this day must mean to you, and I understand you’re lost in thought.  I, myself, am anxious for Margaret to return.  I wish you all the success that one man can wish another.  What I said was, when is Miss Margaret due to arrive?”
“I believe she will arrive at 2:00 this afternoon.”  John replied.”  Are you sure there is nothing that I need to be doing?”

Higgins shook his head, stating that both mills were running at top performance, and no large imports or exports were expected for several more days.  He understood that the Master already knew this, but he was only asking out of nervousness.  Higgins could see John didn’t know what to do with himself as he moved about the room, looking at books and papers, totally unfocused to any purpose at hand.  He had both hands wedged in his pockets, tumbling coins, which was something he never did.  In fact, John had remarked in the past how ungentlemanly and annoying it was when one of his gentleman friends did the same thing.  “Master,” Higgins said, smiling, “do you see what you are doing?”

Without saying the words, as he wanted the sound of the jingling coins to become apparent, Higgins pointed to John’s hands in his pockets.

“What?  Higgins, what are you pointing at?”  John quipped, frowning as he began checking the clothes he’d put on that morning.

Higgins started to chuckle as John became aware of the sound he was making.

John’s face lit with a smile, and he immediately withdrew his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“Fine then, Higgins.”  John laughed.  “If you need nothing from me, then I will be off.  Should something arise, send a runner with a note.  I should be home for a short while and then I’ll head for the depot a little early in case the train is ahead of schedule.  Make sure the helpers are there by 1:30, and thanks.”
“M – i – l – t – o – n, Milton INBOUND,” came the call of the porter, who was walking the swaying train aisle.

      John had arrived at the station almost a full half-hour before the train was due, and told his driver to wait for him in the front.  His two helpers, with the cart, were at the far end of the platform, where the large baggage was unloaded.  He passed his time pacing the platform, checking his watch and looking down the tracks.  Aware that he was smiling too much, he wondered what people must think about his behavior.  He was shaking with anticipation.  John had been nervous other times, whenever he spoke to large congregations of his peers, but now that seemed like nothing compared to this moment.  This . . . this was the rest of his life about to arrive on these tracks.  John could hear the long pull on the trains whistle coming from around the bend.  He moved toward the back into the crowd that was waiting to board, and stood on a bench, hoping to see more clearly, through the crowd of departing passengers, the person who was returning with his heart and soul.
The train came to a stop, and John saw a porter open Margaret’s door – the door to his future – a vision he’d been dreaming about for many years.  Margaret was handed out by the porter, her cloak flapping in the wind and a bit of snow blowing past her face.  To John, it was as if she stepped out of a Great Master’s painting.  She wore no bonnet this day; scattered tendrils blew about her face and her hair was pulled back in a braided knot, which accentuated the arch of her neck.  John had another exquisite remembrance for his treasure chest.  Her lovely vision smote him like a fist to his abdomen.  Noticing all the gentlemen turning their heads her way, he hurried along before too many men could offer her their assistance.

When Margaret saw John standing on the crowded platform, cheeks flushed from the cold, she smiled his way.  As she watched him approach, she thought him even more handsome then a mere three weeks ago.  Aching to be with him, his approach seemed as if it was in slow motion, she became aware of his every movement, every fraction of a second that he strode towards her, smiling.  To assist her with her trunks, which seemed to have come out of nowhere at the end of her packing, he had brought two helpers with him.  John met her, doffing his hat.

“Welcome home, Margaret.  It is wonderful to have you back to stay.”  He wanted to kiss her, but instead he asked, “would you mind showing my men which are your trunks, so they can be loaded onto the wagon?”

John offered his arm to Margaret as they strolled down to the baggage area, and Margaret maneuvered through the piles, pointing out her possessions.  The men tipped their heads in recognition and proceeded to load them.

Turning to Margaret and extending his arm again, John said, “Shall we?”  As soon as she had stepped off that train, his heart started hammering through his veins.  He was sure Margaret could see it pounding through his coat and vest.

 

She is finally walking out of my dreams and into my life.

 

“How was your trip?”  John asked, nervously, smiling at her.
As Margaret began her tale about her trip, he could see the glow emanating from her rosy cheeks.  Her eyes were sparkling just the way he imagined they would, even while blinking the snow away, as she looked up to him.  Margaret was still the most beautiful creature in his universe, but now happiness blossomed out of her lit face and made him quiver inside.  John didn’t think this moment could have gotten any better, but it just did.  He steered her toward the coach but could hardly hear what she was saying, he was so enraptured by her presence and the feel of her arm around his, knowing this  was just the beginning.
“John?  John, did you hear what I asked you?”
Looking a bit shocked, John managed to stammer, “No . . . No, I am sorry, I was lost in you.”  He allowed himself to say, “I’m afraid that is the second time today that I have been guilty of that.  I humbly apologize.”

 

What a disaster, I am

 

“Let’s start over again,” he said.  “Margaret, how was your trip?”  This time John paid attention to her story.
As she finished her account of the young couple, they had arrived at the carriage.  Atop was a handsome young blond coachman wearing a nice fitted black tunic with brass buttons and a cap.  Pulling the carriage, were four shiny black horses, called a “hour-in-hand,” who had braided tails and were fitted out with highly polished brass buckles.  Margaret looked at her conveyance and felt like she was entering a fairytale coach.  She didn’t think Milton had such beauty for hire.  As John handed her into the carriage, he could see the question on her face, and he smiled to himself.  He had to sit beside her rather than across, or else he would only stare and not hear her again.

“John, these are a very handsome coach and horses.  You needn’t have gone to such expense on my behalf.”  She looked at him and saw a small smirk in the corners of his mouth.

“Nothing is too good for you, Margaret.”  His smirked widened.

“What’s that look for?  Why this expense?”  Margaret couldn’t help smiling back at John’s grin; it was infectious seeing him happy.

John tapped the roof of the coach, and Branson reined the horses forward.  “Margaret, this is not an expense for me.  I own this traveling coach, another small one and these fine horses.  Branson, the driver up in the box, works for me.  The Mills have done quite well within the past three years.  As Dixon has probably written you, I travel and speak about what we’ve done in Milton as mill and factory owners.  I speak to the issues which we have resolved and how we are still working together, as varied manufacturers, to get our product to the masses and improve the living of our workforce.  You will be amazed at Milton when you finally get a good look at the city; even I haven’t seen it all.  I’ve been selected as President of our Merchant Chamber of Commerce, and like I said before, you had a lot to do with this.”

“I what?  You’ve said that before, and I don’t know why and don’t want to hear it.  Please, stop saying so.”  She turned to look at him in wonder.  John noticed she was making the cutest little “o” with her lips.
“Well, if you’ll close your mouth, I’ll tell you why,” John said, reminiscing the fun they had, just weeks ago.  Margaret stared at him and then they laughed together as he launched into what she had taught him about his own workers and their care and living conditions.  “Because of you, along came a great change to the mills . . .”

“Oh John, I am so relieved to hear this.  Your success and wealth are very nice for you, but to think that the workers are far better off than when I last lived here just makes my heart sing.”

John’s own heart was singing.

“I will take no credit for any of this,” Margaret continued, “do not mention such things to others, either.  You were getting there. I know you were.  You were finding it very hard to accept their crisis, along with your own, back then.  You just needed the most subtle of shoves.  I am just so excited.  I can’t say how many times I’ve thought of the strife here.  When things went badly for me, and I would get upset, I would think of the workers in Milton and see my problem set against the picture of theirs.  I was always coming out ahead.”

“Margaret, you can say what you will about the people here and what they’ve suffered, but you must know that you have suffered far more.  I know of no one else who has gone through one tragedy after another, and yours were such that no one could fix them.  Margaret, you are incredibly strong.  Stronger than I, I am sure.  To be here, happy and bright, and to know that within the past four years, you lost everyone, is nothing short of a miracle.  Let’s change the subject; it depresses me to know of what you’ve endured.”

John was taking in her lovely sweet feminine scent.  His heart wouldn’t stop its heavy pounding.  Unable to resist any longer, he turned and kissed her, covering her mouth with his, holding her head, and chin.  Slowly, he pulled back, looking down at her perfect face as her eyes closed.  He kissed her eyelids and held her tight.

A poignant moment marked its place in time.

Smiling, Margaret said, “Thank you, John.  I’ve been counting the days until that kiss.  Here I am today, looking forward to a new life, one of my own choosing.  I am very happy already, and I’ve barely begun it.

As John listened, he knew Margaret was singing the lyrics of a love song straight to his heart.  “Margaret, before we get into my home, I want to take you through greater Milton.  You didn’t have a good look before.  Since we have plenty of time, now, I want you to see the uptown section where you, and the Professor will live; it’s about two to three years old.  For just a few minutes, sit back, relax, and enjoy the splendor that has bewitched Milton.”  They were both silent.  Margaret was looking out the carriage window in total awe, while John was looking at her.  He slid across the seat facing her and moved towards the window so he could see what she was seeing, in case she had questions.  Her scent was the one thing he had missed the most.  He could always be aroused by her scent: the smell of her hair, the light fragrance she wore, or the soap in which she bathed.  He could hardly restrain himself from reaching out to her this instant.  John found that he had to adjust the position of his great coat or things might become embarrassingly obvious.  He did not want her to be aware of his awkward moment.  Apparently, these rare delicate difficulties were becoming all too frequent, which he didn’t seem to mind, except for his mortification of being noticed.

“Your nice little cottage is ready for you but without all the furnishings.  Dixon is at my home still. She will be your chaperone for the coming nights.  I believe Dixon will have dinner ready for all three of us by the time we get there.  I have asked her to join us this evening.  As much as I have enjoyed having Dixon in my home, she has had a habit of mothering me, too much.  She dotes on me like I was her son.  She’s even learned to sass me on occasion, all in fun, I assure you.  It upsets me when I have to tell her that I am the boss, and she always realizes that, but little seems to deter her from doing it again.  I have to smile thinking about it.  It’s very kind of her to watch over my well being, but I think she crosses the line too often.”  Turning slightly in his seat, John leaned over and spoke into the voice box, “Branson, stop at the cottage.'”

The carriage came to a stop, and John saw Margaret’s eyes open wide with wonder; she was still in love with her home.

She inhaled loudly, “John, I think it is enchanted, like a fairy tale.  It’s like a big doll house.  I do love it, so.  I think that I shall never want to leave this lovely little place.”  She jumped across the seat, hugged him around the neck, and kissed him on the cheek.  “How long do you think before I can move in?”

John felt like he had a little girl on his hands, and she had just opened her birthday present and found her favorite doll.  “It’ll only be a few days, less than a week, I should think.”  He saw the pout on her face.  It was one of those play pouts.  None-the-less, she was disappointed, which pleased him very much because it meant she already loved being here.  From nowhere, came the thought that he wanted his first child to be a daughter.

“John, thank you for all your help with my move.”

John leaned out the window, “Home, Branson!” and turning to face her, he answered, “my pleasure.”

 

Someday I will tell her of the pleasure I felt, seeing her step off that train.

 

“I will be your ride and guide all this week for I have cleared my work for the next five days to be at your disposal, with the exception of one evening meeting.  We should be at Marlborough Mills in just a few minutes.  It’s quite close to this end of town.  You will hardly recognize where you are, from looking at the buildings.  As a frame of reference, your cottage used to be the little book store, you frequented.”

“It was?  Oh, how well I remember that little quiet book store, always filled with new things to read.  I was at it often and so was father.  The book store is my new home!  I loved that shop, but I am grateful that it has been restored to what it is now.”

John could hear the smile in her pleasant sigh.  They were pulling through the mill gates.  Dixon was waiting on the front porch when the carriage rolled up to it.  Branson came down from his box, opened the door, and let down the steps to peals of delighted sounds.  John watched Margaret and Dixon fuss over each other and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Higgins heading out of the office door and trotting over.  They hugged each other like old friends would.

“Higgins, close up the office and come on up to the house.  You shall stay for dinner, too.

Margaret noticed her carpet bag in the downstairs foyer; she assumed her trunks must have been taken on to her cottage.  Everyone ascended the stairs into the sitting room as Margaret and Dixon talked steadily.  When they got into the sitting room, John told Dixon to set another place for dinner.  Dixon knew he meant Higgins, and headed off to the kitchen.

John removed Margaret’s coat and Higgins hung his coat and cap on a peg.  John shed his great coat and waited for Margaret to enter the parlor first.  Higgins found a chair opposite where John usually sat near the fireplace, while Margaret slowly glanced around the room and then comforted her buttocks, once again on the couch.

John stood at the bar and asked for drink orders.

“Oh John, say it again, please!”  Margaret prompted mischievously.

“I’d rather not,” John said looking a bit embarrassed.

“What’s this then?”  Higgins asked, seeing John looking rather uncomfortable.

“Pleeeeeeeease,” Margaret donned her pouty face.

“Brandy, whiskey or port, Milady?  What would you prefer?”  John asked, doing a mock bow to her again, but this time coming up with a red face.  No one had ever seen John like this.

Higgins, Margaret and John, howled with laughter, mainly over John’s embarrassment of acting silly.  This was totally unheard of for him to act in such a manner.

“Miss Margaret, I have seen great and wonderful change in the Master here, since the news of your returning, but nothing like this.  How . . . did you get him to do that?”  Higgins asked, still laughing so hard, he had to wipe the spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth.

Higgins’s remark prompted more laughter all over again, as it made John seem like a performing animal act.

“Higgins, if you value your job, you will forget what you saw here,” John said, followed by another round of laughter.

Higgins asked for a whiskey while Margaret asked for a port.  John poured the drinks and handed them around.

Higgins said, “Well, is anyone going to tell me what that was all about?”

“I can hardly explain my own self,” John began.  “When Margaret showed up unexpectedly a few weeks ago, she strolled in here with all the brevity of a stage performer, announcing the new Margaret.  She was so happy, and full of exuberance that somehow she pulled me onto her stage of merriment.  We were being simple, which actually felt good for a change, but I’m sure I’ve never been that free with myself before.  Abandoning all my pride, doesn’t seem like it has been enough for her, though.  She apparently wanted you to see the act.  She shall pour her own drinks in the future.”

Margaret leaned toward Higgins and whispered loudly, “I think I should feel complimented, because I actually saw him pinch himself that night.”

For the first time ever, John was the center of humiliation.  He couldn’t stop laughing, he couldn’t stop blushing, and apparently he couldn’t stop Margaret.  He had never felt such joy before, even if it was at the expense of his pride and self-respect.  Peals of laughter echoed throughout the house, as Dixon, rolling her eyes at Cook, remarked, “There they go again; just like the last time Margaret arrived.”

Cook nodded her approval.  “This house has needed that sound since the day it was built,” she replied.

A nice dinner was served, and conversation flowed on and on about Higgins’ marriage, Margaret’s new work, the cottage, the changes to Milton and even the rumors about Slickson’s retirement and sale of the mill.  Everyone enjoyed themselves, especially John, as he glanced in Margaret’s direction, often.

Higgins rose to leave, telling Margaret once again how glad he was she was home in Milton.  He’d wanted her to see Mary, who was very excited about her return, and to meet his betrothed, Peggy.

“Thank you, Nicholas, for the warm welcome back.  I’m anxious to see everyone as soon as I am able.”

Higgins left, leaving John and Margaret alone.

They sat and talked comfortably until dark about the past three weeks and their preparations for this day.  Both Margaret and John seemed unable to keep the smiles from their faces.  Each knew they were leaving their sadness behind and embarking on a new and wondrous path in their lives.

“You’ve never seen through the whole house, would you be interested in a tour?”

“Yes, John, I would like that,” Margaret said.

To begin the tour, the two went down the kitchen steps and out the back door.  Although there was plenty of ground running back behind the mills, there was no porch on the back, to speak of, as the enlarged carriage house had taken up most of the yard.  They walked over to the carriage house, and Margaret was introduced to Branson.  “How do you do, Branson?  It’s nice to meet you,” she said, as she shivered in the frosty air.

“Thank you, Miss,” Branson replied as he tipped his cap.

Margaret, eyeing John, said to Branson, “How is it, working for Mr. Thornton?”

“It’s swell, Miss.  He’s a very fair Master.  He’s taught me things, trusts me with his horses that he loves, especially Plato.  He’s let me live over the stable.  And now that I have a lady friend, he gives me nights off so I can be with her.  I wouldn’t change this job for any other.”

“Thank you, Branson, I am sure that is a very accurate assessment of Mr. Thornton, although it was far from my first impression, which I won’t go into as I was in error.  I’m sure we will see each other a lot in the future.  Good Evening, Branson.”

“Good evening, Miss, . . . Sir,” tipping his cap.

As they walked back into the house, John told Margaret how he had admired the downstairs lavatory and the mud room in her cottage.  He would have to consider both of those additions in the future.  Entering the kitchen, all was quiet.  Cook had gone home, and Dixon was in her room.  “I’m afraid I can’t show you Dixon’s room tonight, but maybe another time.  There were several other rooms, such as a scullery, pantry, back cellar and a door that lead to a cold room below ground, plus a second lower parlor, or staff dining room, that was rarely used.  Lately it was mainly used by Dixon, for her small business, as an area for training housekeeping personnel.  Coming up the front stairs from the downstairs parlor, John led Margaret to his Mother’s room, which had been completely refurbished.  “I’ve had this room changed,” he said.  And that was all John said about that room.  They passed Margaret’s guestroom, which had once been Fanny’s old room, and proceeded through the parlor, to his library.  “I work a lot in here,” John said.

Margaret looked about the room, walking around the huge unadorned desk, taking in all his books in the glass fronted cases which had been designed for the room.  There was a comfortable upholstered guest chair, near the front of the desk, a window to the left, the desk chair and one other small chair placed against the wall.  There was an unlit fireplace.  “John, this is a nice room.  It feels warm and cozy even without the fire going.  It’s quite manly looking,” she remarked.  Then Margaret laughed, “Which I think is the point in here.”  John smiled.

The final room they came to was John’s large bedroom with its huge bed; Margaret entered it briefly on her previous visit.  At first, she was startled again at the size of the bed, but soon realized that with John’s height, he would need something much larger than average.  She walked the room, while John leaned against the door frame with his arms folded.  There was a highboy for his undergarments, socks, cravats, and the like; there was a wardrobe for his outerwear; there were two side tables, one holding a gas light, and the other a guttered candle.  A bowl and pitcher stand, with a shaving mirror, was off in one corner and two windows flanked the bed.  The room smelled masculine and seemed stark, a lot like John himself.  Margaret looked at the bed and wondered; could John have any lasting memories in that bed?  “John,” she began somewhat cautiously, “if I ask you a personal question, will you tell me the truth?”

“Forever,” John assured her, “always know that.”

Continuing to gaze at the huge bed, Margaret went over, sat on the edge, and ran her hand across the top counterpane cover.  “Do you ever entertain guests in here?”

“Entertain?”  He was dumbfounded at the word.  John straightened his frame in the doorway.  This was not a question he had expected from her.  He wasn’t sure if he should joke with her, or not.  Either way, he was not embarrassed to answer.  He realized quickly, however, that she could be thinking that he might be carrying long lasting memories of another woman.  “I have had only one woman in this room, other than my family, and that was someone named Margaret Reed; she was here about three weeks ago.”

“John, I’m serious,” Margaret told him, thinking he was attempting to humor her.

“I am too, Margaret.  I have never brought a woman into this room.  I think you are the first to even see into this room.  Do you have any other . . . questions in that regard?” he asked, as he walked into the room and sat beside Margaret.  “Let’s clear up any concern you have there.  I don’t want you wondering what I am thinking while we both might be in this room.”

“No, I don’t think I have any questions, at least not now, maybe never, but it’s really none of my business,” she finished quietly.

John took Margaret by the shoulders and turned her towards him.  “Margaret, I will never lie to you, ever.  I am a normal, sexually adept, active male.  I have always kept that part of my life private and have always been a gentleman, but if you have any questions about me in that regard, I will answer them.  I have sown my wild oats long ago.  I am very understanding of the female body and a woman’s wants and desires, but I have never loved anyone except you.  Like I said, and told you a few weeks ago, I have had sex, but never made love.  Every time I’ve lain with a woman, I have thought of only you.  My passion was withheld waiting for YOU.”  As he spoke, he rubbed Margaret’s arms up and down trying to soothe her.  “After you told me about your husband and your lack of intimacy, I dared hope to think that I might bring you new pleasures for the first time in your life.  I am a passionate man, where you are concerned, Margaret, and it’s been waiting in the dark corners of my soul for a long time.”

Margaret rose from the bed and started towards the parlor.  She had begun this conversation but no longer did she want to hear of it.

John remained seated on the bed, looking at the floor, wondering if he had said too much.  He knew instantly, like a fool, that he had.  It wasn’t what he said, but it was the pressure that he had probably placed on her.  He realized that Margaret might feel obliged to show him more than what were her truest feelings.  As much as he wanted her, he did not want that.  John raised slowly, his mind still reeling at the moment.  He turned off his light and walked back into the parlor, only to hear Margaret’s door closing.

 

God, what I have I done?  I’ve been nothing but honest.  Was I a fool?  I never want her to wonder and feel the jealous torment that I felt.

 

John paced the floor for a while wondering if she would come out.  She didn’t.  He went to her door and tapped lightly.

“We’ll talk tomorrow, John,” Margaret said through the door.  “I’m tired and I would like to sleep now.”

John walked through the sitting room, turned out the gas lights and went to his room.

He sat on the edge of his bed, going over everything he had said to her.  What could have upset her like that?  Everything, he thought . . .  everything could have stepped on her confidence.  He was trying too hard, rushing the relationship he wanted so much to build.  He wanted to do everything for her, tell her everything, touch her, and most of all show his great passion for her, something which, he realized now, was too much too soon.  She knew how he felt about her.  Previously, he had convinced himself he would let her come to him, yet he had not done that.  He was charging at her, forgetting she had just lost a husband, only to discover, soon after his death, some very unsettling news about him.  She had made the move to Milton.  She had his feelings to handle, as well as her own feelings and a new house.  She was going to be overwhelmed very soon, and John knew he had to be cautious and step back.  It was a bitter pill to swallow.

Margaret dressed in her nightwear, sat on the bed, wondering what had made her ask such a question.  She was surprised when she heard her own words coming out of her mouth.  She berated herself for not having realized that John, being the gentleman whom he was, was still an ordinary man with ordinary needs, and it was wrong of her to questioned.  Growing up, thinking of young men had never been much in her thoughts, but of course, that was her own naivety surfacing once again.  She should be thankful that John would have no awakening to other desires, as she experienced in her past marriage.  It was ludicrous for her to think she would have been the only one in his life, yet, he had never married.  How was she going to apologize for her intrusion into the personal life he had before her, and then for her disappointment in his honesty?  Sometimes, she wondered if life was fair.

 

 

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Eighteen

Eighteen – Solutions

 

The following morning, Stephen and Beth set off for Manchester in the Brixton Abbey travelling coach, a comfortable and spacious carriage that easily accommodated eight people, if necessary. Each of them was lost in their own thoughts as they progressed through the luscious, green fields and hills of Leicestershire.

Beth pondered over the account Stephen gave her of his conversation with Oliver. Because he had been raised as the heir to a title and an estate, Stephen behaved exactly as his father once had. He was firm and strict in dealing with his equals, yet stern and arrogant towards those who depended on him, his tenants and servants. In public, he rarely showed affection to those who were dear to him, and even in private, Stephen seldom dropped the last of his defences, as Beth knew all too well.

The previous night, they had made love, as they had every night since Stephen recovered from the chickenpox, but for the first time, neither of them had reached fulfilment. Both had lain awake for long hours, each of them ignoring the insomnia of the other, and their backs turned to each other. Now Stephen sat staring through the carriage window, brooding over the whole wretched situation but unable to resolve it. Beth herself still felt too hurt over her husband’s harsh treatment of his son to sympathize much. She was very much aware that she would have an impossible task to make Stephen listen to his children’s aspirations and wishes. He was too much the lord of the mansion to do so.

Suddenly, Beth realised they were riding through the outskirts of Manchester as she recognized the sign of The Queen’s Head inn.

“Stephen, we should not go further! We might easily scare Oliver away when he sees the carriage!”

“You are right,” Stephen acknowledged and swiftly rapped on the vehicle’s roof.

“Hodgkins! Pull up into the inn’s yard, if you please!”

“Very well, my lord!” came the reply, and then the coachman turned the carriage sharp left.

Wat Burton, the innkeeper, came rushing out of the taproom, wiping his hands on a rag.

“My Lord Brixton! What a pleasure to meet you again, sir! Come in, if you please.”

Burton bowed deeply and when he straightened, let his eyes grow wide open at the sight of Beth, being handed down from the carriage by Stephen.

“Miss Williams! How delightful …”

“Mr Burton, allow me to introduce you to Lady Brixton,” Stephen said, grinning broadly at seeing the innkeeper’s surprise. The man stammered a hasty apology and bowed even deeper. His wife Isobel, who joined him when she saw there was a lady present, curtsied reverently.

“My Lady, welcome in our humble establishment. Do you wish for a private room?”

“Yes, Mrs Burton, that would be most agreeable,” Beth answered and followed her inside.

 

~~~~

 

Stephen waited until his wife had gone before he went in search of Wat Burton. He and Beth agreed not to go to Mrs Oakham’s house together. Oliver might not trust his father and flee but he would not resent Beth, whom he loved and trusted. Therefore, Beth would go on her own and try to reason with the boy. Although he knew they were doing the right thing, Stephen was not entirely convinced that Oliver would listen to reason. He also was fairly sure the boy would not be at Mrs Oakham’s now, because it was broad daylight and people were at work. If he knew his son’s character just a tiny bit, Stephen thought it possible that Oliver was also at work, presumably in some cotton mill. So, when he found Burton in his cellar, taking stock of his beer casks, Stephen confronted him rather sharply.

“You know everything that goes on around here, Mr Burton. I will ask you straight away, then. Where is Oliver Bradley?”

Burton stiffened and looked the baron in the eyes in a defiant manner.

“Why are you asking, my lord? What is it to you?”

“He is my son. I want to take him back with me.”

The masterful tone the baron employed seemed to irritate the innkeeper, who straightened visibly but kept his voice level.

“I do not know where the boy has gone to other than to Mrs Oakham’s house, my lord. Why not look there for him?”

Stephen, annoyed with the man’s defiance, shot him a suspicious look.

“Oh, come on, Mr Burton. Do not insult my intelligence or your own! Which cotton mill has him enlisted on their payroll?”

When the innkeeper blanched visibly, Stephen knew he had hit the bull’s eye.

 

~~~~

 

“Beth!” Mrs Oakham’s voice rang with pleasure as she beheld the young woman on the threshold with eyes sparkling with fondness. “Come in, child! How are you? Is it true that you have married that scoundrel Fenton? I could not believe the rumours that came to me from Woolworth.”

Beth felt herself blushing like a schoolgirl under Mrs Oakham’s blunt words. A tug of longing ran through her as they reminded her of Granny Bradley, Mrs Oakham’s sister, and she was again struck by the resemblance between the two sisters, in manner as well as in countenance.

“Yes, Mrs Oakham, I am Lady Brixton now, but my husband is no longer a scoundrel.”

She paused searching for the right words to describe the changes in Stephen’s behaviour over the last weeks. Her mouth curved into a smile as she saw the beloved face of her husband in her mind’s eye.

“Stephen is a good man, Mrs Oakham, but his huge responsibilities often prevent him from taking the time to listen to people. Instead, he rushes on and barges in and mostly, the regrets come when the damage is done. I am endeavouring to try and change that in him, but it is a difficult task as I am fighting years of unchallenged solitary control over a regal estate like Brixton Abbey.”

Mrs Oakham took Beth’s face between her small, slender hands, hands that were streaked with hundreds of tiny wrinkles from hard, honest work.

“Let me see how you fare,” she whispered earnestly and peered into Beth’s eyes like she would have done with a child that behaved badly.

Beth banned all thoughts from her mind. Only Stephen remained. He often was the only object of her affections, lately.

“There is a new, bright light in your gaze, child,” was the elder woman’s statement. “You are happy, I can tell. Now what is it that brought you and your husband to Manchester?” And, when she saw Beth’s astonishment, she added, “Oh, never fear, Manchester is but a large village. Everybody knows everything about everyone else. In fact, …”

She was suddenly and brutally interrupted by a loud banging on the front door and a voice, which Beth recognized Isobel Burton’s, cried in panic. “Mrs Oakham, is Lady Brixton with you? I have to talk to her! His Lordship has rushed off to Marlborough Mills, threatening to murder the proprietor for employing Oliver at the factory!”

Reserve and Reticence – Part Seventeen

Seventeen – Consequences

 

Pacing before the empty fireplace of their bedchamber, Beth failed to find solace in it. She came up here after a yet another day of fruitless searching, wanting to escape the chaos downstairs, where servants and family were going about their businesses in a dazed way, upset as they were with Oliver’s disappearance. She fervently hoped Stephen would come home with some good news about the boy, who was now missing for three whole days.

Three days! Hundreds of horrors could have befallen Oliver as he wandered the dark country roads all by himself and without protection. He could fall into a stream or a crevice or be attacked by wild animals. Worse, he could be ambushed by highwaymen or taken by baby farm hunters. They would sell him to some cruel master, and he would be forced to work like a slave, fed just enough not to starve. He would eventually fall ill or get injured and die …

Beth’s heart shrivelled as she imagined all this. She plumped down on the stool in front of her dressing table and was abruptly met by her pale, drawn face. Good God, she looked like a ghost! Her hair had escaped her bun and her clothes were rumpled and askew. Her hands were trembling and sweating as was the rest of her body. It was sheer terror at the thought of what Oliver’s fate might be, right now.

Earlier that evening, she had to comfort poor Lily who was frantic about her twin brother’s fate. Lily knew her brother as well as she knew herself. They were like two sides of a coin, the one completing the other, where one of them failed. Henrietta, too, had needed support, frightened as she had been over her grandson’s fate. Beth had not known if she really had offered some comfort to either grandmother or granddaughter but she tried, nevertheless. Now, she had nothing more to give. She was starved of comfort, she just needed to know. She needed her husband and what he had learned about Oliver.

Pulling the bell cord to summon Trixie, she suddenly knew what to do, and when her little maid entered, Beth instructed her to help her into her riding habit.

 

~~~~

 

Dusk was settling in when Beth slowed Sparkle into a walk as she rode into Woolworth. It had occurred to her – though a bit belatedly – that Oliver might have let Ruby into his confidence, give the close relationship the Mertons had with Granny Bradley.  Scarcely had she dismounted, then a shriek pierced the quiet evening, and Ruby came hurtling out of her cottage, balancing a howling Johnny on her hip.

“Ruby, whatever is the matter?” Beth hastily secured Sparkle’s reins on the cottage fence and took Johnny out of Ruby’s arms. The hysteric slip of a woman collapsed against Beth’s chest, her lithe body shaking with distress.

“It’s His Lordship! He’s going to murder Ben! Oh, sweet heavens, do something!”

Only now, Beth saw her husband’s big black stallion, Parsifal, tethered at the rear of the house, snorting and tapping his foot in frightened agitation. A neighbour showed up, attracted by Ruby’s wailing, and Beth handed over Johnny to her.

“Ah, Myrtle! Look after them, please. I need to go and look what is going on.”

“Wha’ever it is, it’s been goin’ on for quite a while, m’lady!” the woman replied, clutching Johnny to her ample bosom. “’E’s in a foul temper, ‘e is, ‘Is Lordship!”

Beth hurried around the back of the cottage and stopped abruptly in her tracks, not quite believing her own eyes! Her husband and Ben Merton were having a heavy round of fisticuffs in the cottage back garden, pouncing and grunting and snapping at each other like two bulls in the same pen! For a brief, frightfully uncertain moment, Beth had no inkling about what to do to end this senseless fight. The two men were of an equal height and strength, each dealing and receiving the other’s blows with no clue as to whom would succumb first and be rendered unconscious. Both were equally dirty and sporting black eyes and bleeding cuts on the lips. An instant later, Beth grabbed the first bucket she could place her hands on and tossed it over the combatants. As it happened, it was the Mertons’ chamber pot.

The two pugilists stood gasping and panting … and wrinkling their noses as soon as they realised what it was they had been showered with. Or rather, Stephen who received the most of the stinking contents of the bucket, which made him even more enraged.

“Devil’s teeth, Beth! What is the meaning of this? Are you insane?” His blue eyes blazed with fury but Beth did not give in.

“Pigs wallow in refuse and frankly, my lord, you two were very much acting like pigs.” She smiled unexpectedly and added, “No offence intended to the poor pigs …”

The radiance of that smile broke Stephen’s fury and made it vanish like snow in the sun. His Beth was so right, he admitted silently. He had indeed failed to act like a gentleman and brought down his anger and fear over Oliver on someone else instead of dealing with it. A conciliatory grin on his face, he extended a hand to Ben Merton.

“I am truly sorry, Merton. I had no business attacking you like I did.”

Merton grinned back and replied. “That’s alright, my lord. Forgive me but I must refuse your … erm … hand.”

He gestured at Stephen’s dripping, smelly hand, which made them both burst out with a good healthy laugh.

“Come, my love,” Beth said, still smiling, “let us get you home and into dry clothes.”

Stephen returned her smile, his eyes lightening with pure, unabashed joy.

“Yes, my darling, let us just do that.”

 

~~~~

 

Later that evening, when they prepared for bed, Beth brushed her long, brown hair in front of her dressing table mirror. It was a soothing activity which allowed her to calm down from the excitements of the day and God knew how much she needed that since Oliver’s disappearance. After a while, she noticed that her husband too seemed to have need for reflection. Stephen was sprawled in his favourite armchair near the hearth, staring blankly into the distance.

“Stephen …” Beth said softly, putting down her silver-backed hairbrush before braiding her hair in a single plait on her back. Her husband looked up, a dazed expression in his eyes.

“Yes?” he replied and smiled sadly at her.

“You are brooding over Oliver, are you not? You must not, dearest. We will find him, eventually. I actually have an inkling as to where he might have gone to.”

“You have?” Stephen swiftly stood and came to her. He gently pulled her up by the upper arms and looked into her face, full of avid anticipation.

“Yes,” Beth answered, sliding her arms around his neck. “I think he might have headed for Manchester, to Mrs Oakham’s house.”

Utter bewilderment showed in Stephen’s blue eyes. “Manchester? But … but why would he go there?”

“When we were at Mrs Oakham’s, a few months ago, Oliver showed great interest for the cotton mills and everything regarding the cotton manufacturing. He even went to one of them, one day, and asked to be shown around and be explained the process. The overseer sent him on his way, of course, although he was old enough to be put to work. The man knew him as a relative to Mrs Oakham, though.”

“A relative? What are you saying? I do not comprehend!”

“Mrs Oakham is Granny Bradley’s sister, do you not remember? That makes her Oliver’s great-aunt.”

“Oh, Lord …” Stephen breathed, his face suddenly turning white.

“What is it, my love? Tell me!”

Before answering, Stephen took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I am an utter fool, Beth. The boy tried to tell me about his interest in cotton, but I cut him short. I overruled him in a very dictatorial manner and forbade him everything that did not relate to the running of Brixton Abbey. I drove him away, Beth. I gave him no other choice than to flee.”

Even though she was witnessing Stephen’s distress, Beth could not help feeling suddenly angry with him. She could very well imagine how Oliver must have felt, being subjected to the full brunt of his father’s innate arrogance, which had been drummed into Stephen from a very tender age. The sudden realisation that Stephen and his son were part of a totally different world, and would not easily see eye-to-eye, made her feel utterly sad.

She had an enormous task still ahead, unfortunately, if she wished the two of them forging a closer bond.

 

 

 

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

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Sixteen

Sixteen – Looking For A Missing Boy

 

After it had become evident that the missing Oliver was not to be found on the Abbey grounds, a large party was assembled, consisting of all footmen and tenants, who were not immediately necessary to the estate’s adequate daily functioning. Their mission was to begin searching in an ever widening circle, starting from the Abbey grounds and through the fields and woodland surrounding the estate. Stephen explained this to the assembly in clear words.

“Last night, my son went to bed at his usual hour of nine o’ clock, as the maid assigned to my children’s personal needs has confirmed. Even if he managed to leave the Abbey right after that time, he cannot have roamed more than a couple of miles from the estate. No horse has been taken from the stables, and I cannot believe that any cart driver or coachman, that happened to be in the estate’s vicinities, would have picked him up without notifying me or without questioning the boy as to his reasons for being out that late alone. Therefore, we shall begin the search as I instructed and report back to my lady Brixton every two hours. She will be coordinating the search efforts.”

Beth, seated next to a very distressed Henrietta, calmly listened to her husband’s speech but inwardly, she was all turmoil. What could have been exchanged between father and son, the previous evening, that it had driven away a thirteen-year-old in fear? All sorts of horrible thoughts were assaulting her brain, such as the baron striking out at the boy or threatening him in some horrible way. Instantly, she chided herself for thinking so badly about the man she was married to, about Stephen, for Heaven’s sake! How could she? But then, a little voice in her head began reciting all the horrid things the Fentons had done to her family, and how vicious Beth herself had always thought Stephen to be. Although her heart screamed in disgust that she simply could not think in that way about the man she loved, her brain calmly summed up all Stephen’s mischief. She had to talk to him, she now realised. She had to talk to him, and it could not wait.

However, she had to wait until the evening before that talk could take place.

 

~~~~

 

Oliver Bradley-Fenton reached the outskirts of Manchester early in the morning, just as the sun began mounting above the rooftops. After a long run, way past the boundaries of Woolworth, he set foot toward the industrial town and was picked up by a band of gypsies heading North. They asked no questions, used as they were at being harassed by the English authorities. They just gave him a bowl of soup and the loan of a blanket against the chilly night air and took him along.

Now, after he said his farewells, he was tired and hungry, but those inconveniences did not bother him for the moment. What an adventure this was! He had escaped the wicked baron of Brixton Abbey, the haughty man who called himself a father but was, in fact, nothing but a tyrant and a bully. As Oliver began looking around to find his bearings, he recalled the conversation he had with Fenton the night before.

Oliver was no fool. He knew very well he could never inherit the baron’s title nor the Brixton estate. He was a bastard. The more vicious people in the village had branded him and his sister with that charming nickname as long as he remembered. It had never bothered him because his grandmother taught him it did not matter he had no legal descent as long as he strove to become a good person. Lineage meant nothing, Granny said, when you were a scoundrel with no pity for other people’s misfortunes. His so-called father was such a miscreant, Granny said, and Oliver should never make Fenton a role model. It was far more important that Oliver made a good life for himself and Lily. He needed to protect and love his sister, because it was much harder for girls to find a place in the world than for a strong and smart boy.

So, on that dreadful day, when Fenton took them away from Gran and brought them to the Abbey, Oliver swallowed his fear and anger. Even when he wanted nothing more than to thwart his so-called father, he understood all too well what advantages might be drawn from a connection to a rich and powerful noble like Fenton. Oliver would bide his time and learn as much as he could.

Then, Fenton married his governess, and everything was turned upside down because now Oliver was not sure he could trust Beth anymore. Oh, she still was good to him and Lily and she had nursed them through the chickenpox like a mother would, but she also did not spend all her time with them like she used to before she married the baron. No, Oliver was no fool at all. Once the couple would have a child of their own, he and Lily would be related to the background of Beth’s life.

The proof of all this became clear to Oliver when Fenton told him he was to go to Eton soon and learn all about Latin and Greek and other useless items. Afterwards, he was for Cambridge and had to learn about how to run an estate like some upgraded steward. He would do a full day’s work for a meagre salary, and all the major decisions would come from Fenton and his offspring. He could be cast out at any time or at the whim of the baron whenever the man fancied another servant to run the estate.

No, Oliver wanted to build a worthy life for himself. When Beth took them to Manchester to live with Mrs Oakham, Oliver once visited a cotton mill and was impressed by the sheer power and working of it. The mighty looms, clacking and humming, and handled by the weavers, enchanted him. He wanted to be a part of that.  He planned to start at the bottom of the chain and work his way up, until he was an overseer and run the shed all by himself. Maybe, he would rise even further! Dreams were great, and Oliver wanted to live his dream to the full.

Yet, when he mentioned – very cautiously, mind – to Fenton that he wanted something other than becoming a steward, the baron rudely cut him off and became angry. In very clear terms, Fenton stated Oliver was to obey the baron’s orders without any protest or he would be chastised until he did. There was always the military, the baron told Oliver, to bend a rebellious spirit into submission. Oliver was to have no doubts the baron would buy him a commission in some faraway barracks if necessary.

At that precise moment, Oliver knew he would always hate Fenton and never, ever submit to him.

 

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.”

Reserve and Reticence – Part Fifteen

Fifteen – Troubles Anew

 

During the following days, Beth mostly devoted herself to her husband’s recovery. It was greatly needed. Stephen, whose fever caused him to lose a full stone, still felt fairly weak, and was greatly irritated by it. He could only manage half of the work he had set his goal to, an experience that was utterly new to him. It was Beth’s task to watch over her beloved husband and see that he did not overdo it.

 

~~~~

 

It was the end of May, and the weather granted mild, sunny days, crisp mornings and balmy nights. In consequence, short walks, that did not wander too far from the house, were very much enjoyed by the convalescent and his faithful nurse. Yet afterwards Stephen was always rather worn out and needed a quiet rest on the sunlit terrace, stretched on a chaise-longue and sheltered from the brisk southerly breeze. Beth sat beside him with her needlework, and they had long, intimate talks with subjects ranging from the daily workings of the Abbey to sweet, nonsensical love words.

Sometimes, Lily would be there too. The girl – as well as her twin brother – was now thirteen years old and rapidly growing into a young woman. Her slim body, light and elegant as a filly’s, had reached a height that already exceeded Beth’s by several inches and was developing the first signs of womanhood, with delicate hips and budding breasts. Lily was also a sweet, uncomplicated girl, who enjoyed life and people without prejudice or suspicion of malice.

Unlike her brother, Beth thought as she listened to Lily’s clear voice, while the girl was reading to her father. Oliver had recently shown a stubborn and sometimes heated response to everything his father was concerned. Stephen usually laughed it away as a form of boyish rebellion which he himself had also succumbed to, when he had Oliver’s age. It was only natural for Oliver, Stephen pointed out, to feel resentment over the world in general and his family in particular, since the boy needed to find out what his exact place in life was.

It was true that both children had gone through many abrupt changes over the last year, jostled between their grandmother and their father as they had been. The fact that Granny Bradley had so suddenly died had, of course, also been a great distress. Yet Beth instinctively felt that these matters were not solely responsible for Oliver’s angered state yet she had been unable to tackle the subject with him. Oliver steadfastly remained sullen and uncommunicative, even with her or Lily. Maybe Lily would be the last person to gain his confidence now that she was a head taller than Oliver, a fact that was prone to give him a feeling of inferiority.

With a sigh, Beth set aside her worrying, bent to her work and listened to Lily’s sweet voice instead.

 

~~~~

 

Because of the chickenpox, there had been no time to search for – and consequently, hire – private tutors for Lily and Oliver. Beth took on this task with urgency as it was vital that the children resume their education forthwith, but in the meantime, she ordered them to be driven into the village so that they could attend school with Mr Sage, the assistant curate. As a school teacher, Mr Sage was very demanding of his pupils, requesting that they make rapid and highly satisfactorily progress in their studies. The thirteen year olds now were presented with Latin and Greek as well as with French and German. It was therefore not surprising that the children brought home a multitude of tasks to perform after school, forcing them to retire to the former class room, in order to achieve the job.

From Ruby, who knew everything that transpired in the village and far beyond, Beth learned that Mr Sage secretly hoped he himself would be appointed as private tutor to the twins, but that he dare not make a request to Stephen. After hearing this, Beth told her husband what private wishes Mr Sage was harbouring. Stephen raised surprised eyebrows at this.

“Sage tutoring my children, here at the Abbey? Well, I must confess I had not given it much thought, my love. To be honest, the whole matter had somewhat slipped my mind but I suppose I could give it some consideration. It could not be for long, dearest, for Oliver is destined for Eton, which – as you might recall – was my own school. I hope he will be going to Cambridge University after concluding his secondary studies there. As for Lily, I was thinking of Harrogate. What is your opinion on this?”

“Oh, I am very certain that Lily will be over the moon when she hears this! She has always been a keen and quick learner and she recently began her classics with relish and diligence. Of Oliver, however, I am not so sure, Stephen, especially in this new and sullen mood of his.”

“Rest assured, my love. I will speak to Oliver right away. Would you care to be present?”

“No, Stephen. It is my belief that this should be entirely between the two of you. A boy should have a special bond with his father.”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen summoned Oliver to his study, but their meeting lasted not long. Afterwards, Stephen gave Beth a brief recount of their conversation, of which he was not entirely satisfied.

“You were right, as usual, Beth. Oliver is extremely sullen and sometimes downright angry. I have informed him of our plans for him, and he did not seem to object to them.”

Beth felt not comforted at all by those words and she instantly expressed her anxiety.

“But … what have you told him, Stephen? You had not yet made up your mind about the boy’s future!”

“He knows he will be going to Eton as he will need a thorough education, if he aspires to be my successor. He first started to protest, but I made it clear to him that he was very lucky to have a chance to better himself, and that he should make his profit of it.”

They were in their chamber, preparing for bed, when this talk took place. Beth, after having donned her night gown behind a screen, stepped forward and placed her hands on her husband’s chest, as if putting in a plea. Stephen’s arms immediately encircled her, pleasure and anticipation on his face. They had not made love since the beginning of his illness.

“My love,” Beth said, oblivious of the warmth in her husband’s eyes, “do you not think you have been a bit overbearing? After all, Oliver might have other wishes about his own future.”

“Mmm …” Stephen’s husky voice sounded in her ear, startling her from her musings.

“Stephen? Did you just hear what I said ?”

“I did, my love … but I prefer to ignore it …”

He nuzzled her ear and let his lips roam over the delicate skin beneath it. Beth closed her eyes in thrilling rapture, giving herself over to her husband’s lovemaking. She longed for his touch with a vehemence that was only natural after so long an abstinence. Whatever was needed, could wait until the morrow.

 

~~~~

 

However, in the morning, the Abbey was rocked on its foundations when Oliver Bradley-Fenton was missing from his room. A quantity of equally missing clothes and some books pointed to a flight. When a sum of money from the baron’s study desk was also gone, Beth and Stephen understood fully; Oliver had run away.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Fourteen

Fourteen – Regaining Dignity

 

Poor Dr Forrester almost fled from the baron’s bedchamber, his face flushed like that of a little boy who just got caught with his hand in a biscuit tin. Beth shook her head in mild disapproval.

“You should not have done that, my lord. The good doctor has worked himself into exhaustion to save you.”

“I know, my love, and I will express my gratitude to him in due time. But now, I have other plans.”

He grinned mischievously at her and held out a hand.

“Come here …”, he breathed and Beth obeyed, suddenly feeling as if her heart would jump from her chest. She sat down on the bed, taking Stephen’s offered hand. A second later, she was drawn on top of him, his arms imprisoning her tightly.

“Stephen …”, she gasped, yet at the same time revelling in the feeling of his hard body under hers. Even through the duvet’s soft layers, she instantly noticed what he had in mind.

“Stephen … no.” Bursting with tenderness, she stroked his all too pale face with both her hands. Under her fingers, she felt his cheekbones, all too protruding beneath the stubble of beard. He must have lost a considerable amount of weight, she realized.

“No?”, her husband teased, raising an eyebrow in mock disapproval. “I am profoundly shocked, my lady wife, that you should turn down my advances after such a short time. How am I to survive some fifty years of marriage without the enjoyment of your delectable body?”

Beth giggled involuntarily and was rewarded by a deep, longing kiss, the likes of which she had never been offered before. It was as if Stephen wanted to make her understand how deeply he loved her. The kiss was ardent yet also marvellously sweet. She felt quite breathless when he released her.

“Stephen, you should rest. Your body has been through the most exhausting of fevers, my love. You need to regain your strength.”

“Is that so, my delicious wife? Pray, tell me how you are going to divert my attention from what I want to do to you, right now? I should warn you I am not easily diverted from such an activity.”

Suddenly slipping out of Stephen’s arms, Beth rose from the bed and tugged the bell cord.

“You will be attended by your faithful Hawkins, sweetheart. You valet has been hovering around your sickbed for days, eagerly awaiting the moment when he could see to your bodily needs. Let us not hold him back any longer.”

With regret, but also with acknowledgment of Beth’s good sense, Stephen gave in and nodded. He certainly was in sore need of a bath!

 

~~~~

 

Later, when Beth stepped out of her own bath tub, she allowed Trixie to dress her in a pretty day gown and to put up her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She then looked in on her husband who had been given a light meal. Henrietta sat next to her son’s bed and hastily put a finger to her mouth when she heard the door open.

“He is asleep,” she whispered. “My poor Stephen was so thoroughly exhausted, Beth.”

Beth nodded in agreement and tiptoed out of the room. She would give her mother-in-law a much-needed time alone with her son. As it turned out, she herself had to perform an urgent task.

Oliver and Lily had been left in the care of Ruby and her husband Ben, as long as Stephen was too ill for Beth to leave his side. That way, the children could continue their schooling under Mr Sage’s tutelage. Stephen and Beth had planned on hiring a proper tutor for Oliver and a teacher for Lily as well, because the children still had a lot to master. Their education, as heirs to Stephen, was of the uttermost importance. Beth had taken measures for the children to be informed of their father’s illness daily but she knew they would worry nevertheless so she had the carriage readied and let herself be driven to the village.

The twins threw themselves around her in enthusiastic greetings and soon, the lot of them were gathered around the Mertons’ fireplace with tea and biscuits. Beth brought them the good news of the baron’s recovery.

“I have come to take you home, my dears. Your Papa and I have missed you terribly, this past week.”

“So Papa is better, then?” Lily asked.

“Why has he not come with you?” Oliver inquired, much more critical than his sister. Beth threw him a slightly puzzled glance, concerned over the harsh tone of the boy’s voice.

“Your Papa has not fully recovered yet, Oliver. He has suffered a severe fever and …”

“Pish! He does not care for us like you do, Beth. I might be a mere child but I can feel his indifference. Granny was right all along when she said he was but a haughty member of the nobility.”

This little speech was delivered so glibly that Beth felt a cold finger touch her heart. Where had this resentment come from? And why did Lily not share her brother’s anger? The girl sat staring at him in bewilderment and shock.

Although Beth was shocked herself, she attempted keeping a cool head on her shoulders in dealing with her former charges. The children had – in all honesty – only been brought to the Abbey when Stephen realised he had no legal heir after Florence’s death. The twins’ mother had been of low birth, and Stephen and his mother had not complied easily to the thought of having to bestow status upon the commonly brought-up offspring of a village girl. Even at this very moment, Beth was not fully certain of her husband’s real affection for his bastard children. Children, Beth knew, developed a sixth sense for such lack of affection and acted on it with anger. It was nothing but emotional self-preservation, and Beth could very well understand it herself as she had done just the same after her father’s banishment. She too had hated Stephen and his family for ten long years.

Her next and urgent task would have to be to reconcile Oliver with his father but for now, she could only try keeping Oliver’s anger under control. She put her arms around the boy, startled to see how he had grown in the last few weeks. He was no longer a child, she realised, but was rapidly becoming a proper young man. No doubt, Oliver would grow as tall and handsome as his father.

“Oliver, you must behave like you always have since first we met; you have always been an intelligent and good-hearted boy. Now you are becoming a young adult, and I fervently hope you will only grow in intelligence and goodness of heart. Do not forget your grandmother’s wish for you and Lily, my darling. She wanted you to become good people, to find happiness and fulfilment in life. Do not ever forget I will always be there to help you. Your mother Molly was my childhood friend and I will always cherish her memory.”

Although the boy returned her embrace with emphasis, Beth was able to feel a slight hesitation at first, as if Oliver needed to assess the sincerity of her words for just a tiny amount of time. It worried her greatly.

 

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.