John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 13

Chapter 13

     Staying Away

 

John awakened to the new day, having spent a miserable night, wondering if Margaret would recover from the knowledge of his previous carnal experiences.  Had he ruined everything in a moment of openness?  She had initially asked the question, which had taken him quite by surprise, and led to his confession.  Whatever made her ask that?  However, he would have to do his best to restrain his passion, in both words and deeds.

Slightly apprehensive, he took a deep breath and left his room.  He found Margaret helping Dixon set the table for breakfast.

“Good morning all,” John courteously said.

“Good morning to you, John,” Margaret replied, not looking at him as she set the knives and forks down.

“Same to you, Master,” Dixon replied.  “Do you want your paper?”

“I’ll get it,” John said, bouncing back out of his chair, glad to have something to do.  He usually didn’t read it this early because he would be in his office by now, but he took the steps down and retrieved it.  He knew he’d need something to keep him occupied, as he tried to avoid the heavy atmosphere in the room.

“John, would you care for a cup of tea before breakfast is ready,” Margaret asked, now looking at him.

“Thank you, no.  I’ll wait.”  John replied, starting to flip through the pages.

Minutes later, breakfast was brought to the table, and Margaret and John followed.  As John pulled out Margaret’s chair before seating himself, he wondered what to say.  The conversation throughout the meal was stilted, and they spoke only about the plans for the day.  Margaret planned to visit the Professor first and then was anxious to spend most of the day in her new place.

Anxious to be on their way to the cottage, Margaret and Dixon prepared to leave with John, as soon as breakfast was completed and the dishes were cleared.  He said  very little.  He didn’t know how to make small talk and sure as not, he’d overstep himself again if he opened his mouth, especially with Dixon present.  That only left silence.

Outside, the snow was starting to lie on the ground; it looked as though a white Christmas on its way.  John assisted both women into the carriage, as they were being careful of the slippery conditions, they found at their feet.  For a brief moment, Margaret had a passing vision of the inside of the milling rooms she had once glimpsed:  white fluff hanging in the air, never seeming to reach the floor.

The carriage headed into town where people were crowded on the walkways, shopping for gifts, as the snow started to impede their progress.  During their slow ride to the Professor’s home, John pulled out three house keys.  “Margaret, here are your keys to the house.  They are all the same.  I wanted to ask if I could keep one, and you have the other two?”

“Yes, John, keep it.  I’ll be glad to know that you have one.”  Margaret took two keys from John, handing one to Dixon for the day. She slipped the other into her small handbag.  Until she was comfortable with everything, she would give Dixon a house key on a ‘need by need’ basis.

Dixon was let off at the cottage, and John and Margaret proceeded to Dr. Pritchard’s.  It wasn’t far, and John was grateful that there was little time for conversation.  Margaret, herself, didn’t know what to say.  She knew she needed more time, than the few minutes they had to talk with John about the previous night and her selfish reaction, which had been so hurtful to him.  Beyond her thoughts on that, she sensed something different about John.  He was too quiet and not smiling at all.  It felt like a shield had been placed between them.

When the housekeeper opened the door, John thought it was a family re-union as Margaret ran to Professor Pritchard.  They hugged several times, kissed cheeks and both wanted to speak at the same time.

“Certainly, you two have much to say to each other.”  John said, as he observed their spontaneous greeting.  I will leave for a time to go to the Merchant’s Chamber.  I have a meeting, and a speech scheduled there for tonight.  I shall only be gone a short while.”  As John departed, he realized that, for some reason, he was feeling nervous.  He had never feared anything before, but now, Margaret’s attitude was all too prevalent in his thoughts.

For the next half hour, Margaret and the Professor talked quite a bit about what the Professor was doing and how he was setting up the office.  He inquired about her getting settled in and was surprised to find that she was still awaiting furnishings.  He showed her through the two rooms that were to be the office, and asked if she would like her desk at the front window, but Margaret had no preference either way.

They talked of the books that were piled to the ceiling in the dining room and the carpenter who would soon arrive to build his custom bookshelves.  He worked  out that he might be eating in the kitchen unless his office room could hold all of his work.  At least, he should be able to manage a small table, if his dining room had been turned into a library.  “Margaret, when you get a chance, could you come and organize the housekeeper and cook here.  I am so used to the college’s trained staff, that I don’t know how to handle the outside world of housekeeping, yet.”  He laughed.

“Of course,” Margaret assured him, “Dixon and I will come by tomorrow.  We need to get them underway before Christmas arrives in a few days.”

“Oh, is that here already?” The professor asked in all seriousness.  “Margaret take a seat, will you please?”

Margaret sat.

“How goes your problem?”  He smiled affectionately at her.

“Professor, I have had no time to give that any thought,” she lied.

“Well, don’t forget what I said about John.  I am sure things will come together; however, you want them to, and I hope it works out for him, too.”

“What do you mean?”  Margaret asked.

“Why the man has loved you for many years, since you met, I believe.  Surely you know that at least?”

“How can you know that?  You hardly know him.”  Margaret was puzzled.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” the Professor continued, “he wears his love for you across his face like a badge of honor.  His posture changes when you are around.  That serious face, he’s apparently always worn, is replaced by a gentle smile whenever you are in the room.  You cannot see that?”  The Professor laughed at his inane logic.  “How did I know so much about you?  You, yourself, commented on my insight.  Let’s just leave things the way they are and let nature takes its course.  I want you to find that real happiness and passion that go with a good marriage.”

“But . . . ,” Margaret stopped in mid sentence as John opened the door to the office.

“Oh, we’ll settle all that once you are here permanently,” the Professor said, covering over their conversation.  “So, what are your plans after visiting me?”

Margaret turned and looked at John.  “We are going to the cottage.  Having just arrived yesterday, I haven’t been in it since I was here last.”

John nodded.

Margaret turned to the Professor and inquired about the two books that he’d wanted her to study to get a sense of his writing and documenting style.

“Margaret, don’t trouble yourself now,” he assured her.  “You’re going to be very busy.  Just relax and if you find yourself with little to do until things start piling up on you, take the time to see Milton.  I’ve seen drawings and plans from earlier years, and the face of the original landscape can barely be recognized.  The growth in only a few years time is nothing short of amazing.  You two run along and come back in the next few days to see to the staff here, otherwise take care of your errands, and get settled.  Do not worry about me.  I won’t need you until the end of January.”

“Thank you for everything, Professor.  I will catch you up very soon, then.  Good-bye Professor,” said Margaret as she kissed him on the cheek like a father.

John bid the Professor a ‘good day’.  He escorted her out to the carriage and handed her in, as the snow continued to come down heavier.

“Margaret,” John began, as the carriage made its way to her cottage.  “I’m going to introduce you to Adrian and there will be another chap from the mill at your cottage today, for additional muscle.  Between Adrian and Danny, they can do heavy lifting or anything you desire.  I know you’ll see lots of things to be done.  I will then get out of your way and let you have the day in your new home.”

“You’re not going to stay?”  Margaret asked with some alarm in her voice.

“No, I don’t see where you need me, and I should prepare for my meeting tonight,” John lied.  “Branson!  . . .  Around back!”

Branson pulled the carriage around to the back entrance.  Adrian came running to the coach and opened the door to hand down his new mistress.  Margaret took his hand to exit the coach and then took his arm, steadying herself on the slippery surface as they walked to the back door.

“Thank you.  You must be Adrian?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Would you bring Danny, I think his name is, and Branson into the house, for all around introductions?”

“Yes, Miss.”

John followed Margaret into the house and waited to see what she had in mind by gathering them all together.  As the three men filed through the door, John introduced Danny to everyone, then taking a cue from Margaret, proceeded to make introductions all around.

“Thank you, John.  Cook, it’s very nice to meet you, and I hope you’re ready for us because I would like you to prepare a small lunch for five of us at 1:00, and that will include yourself.  I think we can eat off this huge prep table here in the kitchen.  Adrian and Danny, I would like you both to remain in the house until I have gone through it, but I am sure you will be inside all day.”  Margaret smiled.  “John, are you sure you won’t stay?

“I am sure.”  John said, rather abruptly.  “What time would you like to be collected?”

A small shiver ran down Margaret’s back as she picked up on the distinction between ‘to be collected’ rather than ‘for me to collect you’.  Something was definitely wrong.  She assumed to know what it pertained to, yet at the same time she didn’t like the distance that was growing between them.

“I guess Dixon and I will be ready by 5:00 this evening.  If nothing else, we’ll certainly be tired by then.”

“5:00 o’clock, it is then.”  John turned to leave.

“John, could I speak with you a moment?”

“Certainly,” John said, as he followed Margaret into her half-empty  parlor.

“John what is it, what is wrong?  I don’t like what I am feeling.  I know it must be about last night.  I need to talk with you.”

“Nothing is wrong, Margaret.  I just have some issues, I need to work out.”

“Can we talk about them together?”  Margaret prompted.

“I don’t think so, this time.  I will not be having dinner at home tonight.  I will be at the meeting.  Perhaps, I will see you later this evening.  I don’t know how long the meeting will last.  Branson will be here to collect you.  Enjoy the day, Margaret.”

Donning his hat and gloves, John called for Branson as he turned and walked away.  He was nauseated by his deportment towards Margaret, but he didn’t see any other way.  He would wait forever. He had always known that, but right now he had to give Margaret space.

 

Margaret and company had a very active day and accomplished much:  What furniture there was, got moved to their proper positions; carpets were rolled out, drapes hung, trunks unpacked and stored and books were shelved.  She had her first visitor, Mr. Cavanaugh, the next-door neighbor, who stopped by to greet her and wish her luck.  He offered his assistance if she needed  it, but finding no purchase, bid her ‘good day’.

Branson arrived promptly at 5:00 o’clock that afternoon, and came to the door to escort the ladies to his coach.  As they drove away that evening, Margaret thought that the house looked lonely and dark, easily reflecting her underlying mood of the day.

Arriving at John’s home, the only person to meet them was Cook.  Due to the deepening snow, Jane went home early.  Margaret sat at the dinner table, while Dixon ate with Cook downstairs.  It was quiet and terribly lonely, she thought.  She wondered how John had endured the solitude since his mother passed away.  Realizing that she had never lived alone, she thought it almost unbearable.  Being hidden away in her London room was horrible, but it didn’t compare to this feeling of absolute loneliness.  She could hardly fathom that John went through this, night after night; it wasn’t like he would call Dixon for company, as she herself might do.  He must be a very strong man inside, to sit alone every night, trying to keep his life going, as he loved and waited for her, with no real hope, yet managing to run two mills successfully.  She knew no other man that could have shouldered all of that under his emotional burden.

With the quiet time, she reflected on the previous evening’s conversation.  She had been rude and ultimately too forward with her question, and she stunned herself, when she knew why she did it.  She thought  that someday she might lie with John in that bed, and she wondered if he held memories, but she never anticipated speaking it aloud.  All John did was answer her own inquisition and explained himself.  Why did she really need to know anyway?  Several possible explanations drifted to mind.  First of all, there was the question itself.  Perhaps it was a form of jealousy, an entirely new emotion for her, and one that is only born from resentment to rivals.  What an odd unsettling emotion it was.  Reading the word was one thing, but the power behind experiencing the word came close to earth moving.  Secondly, and, now, she didn’t know what issue was larger, was the passionate promises he had made to her.  How could she ever match her love for him as she was discovering the bottomless depths of his love for her?  She had doubts about her own ability to ever love that deeply.  From their conversation, she realized  that his need to touch her and kiss her, came from his purest, most basic love for her and not from some near celibate primitive male urge.  She had never thought of John in that context before, being with other women.  Without realizing it, he exposed  her to the boundaries of her own naivety.  She still lived in a cloistered societal cage, oblivious to the real world, where such things were talked about, man to woman.  She wanted to be a real woman and now here it was, staring her in the face, and she had blinked.  All she could give John was her honesty and let him judge her weaknesses for himself.

In an attempt to change her own mood, she decided to write Edith and tell her all that had happened since they said good-bye at the station, omitting last night’s debacle.  She found Dixon and asked her for some writing paper.  Dixon had taken the stationery to her new quarters, but told Margaret she was sure the Master kept some in his desk.  Thanking her, Margaret momentarily debated about going through John’s desk, but then assumed he wouldn’t mind if she took a sheaf of paper.

As she went into his den, Margaret turned up the gas lights and sat at the broad walnut desk.  She drew in John’s scent.  A couple of the drawers were locked; the center one was not.  She opened it and found some blank sheaves of paper, but something caught her eye.  Gently removing the small pile of written letters, she sighed as she gazed at the words ‘Dearest Margaret’ at the top of each one of the pages.