John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 15

Chapter 15

     Sacrificial Altar

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, guv, right away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always, Margaret; what is it?”

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

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

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

“How do you feel about that?”

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

“And do you?”

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What is he doing, Professor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Miss.”

 

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

 

Mr. Thornton,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, John, just dreaming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“John?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

“John, do you know Mr. Cavanaugh?”

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

“What do you think of him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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