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.