It had been two years since he’d heard that soft, lovely voice, now, depressingly fading to a whisper in his heart. Hardly believing the moment, he slowly turned around, and she was there, standing off to the side on the veranda. Margaret was pulling all the air from his lungs.
John audibly inhaled as he took in Margaret’s vision which had been captured in his mind since he first met her. Was there any beauty on earth to match hers? . . . He didn’t think so. Margaret, once his entire future, stood before him, and she belonged to someone else. The person who unknowingly took his heart was right there; he wanted to reach out and touch her, to know that she was real.
What do I say to her at such a time?
With a faint smile, John began, “Miss . . . . Mrs. . . . . I’m sorry; I don’t know your married name.”
“Margaret interceded with, “Reed. But I would appreciate it if you would call me Margaret. I think we’ve been well enough acquainted for some time to drop the stiff propriety. May I call you John?”
As he walked towards her, he could smell her scent, and he struggled to get his words out. John wanted to tell her that, she could call him anything, but . . . “Yes, I would like you to call me, John. I’m quite taken by surprise to see you here. I didn’t expect this. You’re looking well.”
Margaret fidgeted with her handkerchief. “I came by three weeks ago to collect more of my books from my old room when Dixon told me of your letter and the news about your mother.” She paused briefly, realizing she was having difficulty looking into his eyes, but couldn’t understand why. “Shall we sit, while Dixon brings our tea?”
They walked a few paces over to the more comfortable padded wicker seating arrangement, with its large green and red tropical flower design. Margaret on the settee sat very primly and John in a single chair to her right sat rigidly, still disbelieving the moment.
Dixon brought out a silver tray with the china tea service. “Mr. Thornton,” she said, as she poured the tea, “I have talked with Miss Margaret, and she knows all about your offer to me in helping Mrs. Thornton. She will answer for me, I’ll be upstairs if you need me, but I would like to talk with you a moment before you leave.”
“That will be fine Dixon,” John told her. “And would you watch for a coach waiting out front in twenty minutes, and let me know?”
“Yes, Mr. Thornton, I surely will.” With that Dixon took her leave.
“John,” Margaret said, now turning slightly towards him, “I am genuinely sorry to hear about your Mother. I know this must be a very hard time for you, watching as her health fails. I really wanted to get to know her better, but as you know, I was swept away by my family before I could come to grips with my own life.”
“Yes,” John said, repressing his anger, “How well I remember that your family forced you to leave Milton, but I guess I can understand it, with your family feeling about Milton, the way they did. I remember there was so much I wanted to say, but the opportunity never arose. I know you’ve been through a lot, and I’m sorry for that.” He couldn’t help but ramble; there was so much in his heart, so much left unsaid.
Margaret continued, “Dixon is now an extra staff member in this house, but my cousin was certainly willing to keep her on until she found employment elsewhere, or I found a way to keep her. She’s overjoyed to be needed in your home, but saddened as to the reason.”
All the while Margaret was speaking, John knew he was staring. He could hardly pay attention to her words; he was gazing intently at her lovely face. Surprisingly, he didn’t see the radiance one might have expected in a newly married woman. John slightly shifted in his seat as his arousal caught him off guard.
“Dixon’s already packed and can be in Milton next week,” Margaret went on.
There was a moment of silence as John, mesmerized, realized she had stopped talking. “I’ll be very grateful for her help,” he told her. When the time comes, and my Mother is no longer with me, Dixon can remain on as head of housekeeping, which currently, only includes Jane and Cook. She’ll be welcomed to stay on forever or until she finds something else she would rather do. I’ll not worry about an extra staff member. Jane is young enough to marry any year now, and she might be gone soon.”
Not wanting the conversation to stop altogether, John politely inquired,” And how is life treating you, Margaret? Well, I hope?”
Margaret cleared her throat, “About my marriage . . .”
Well, she got right to the subject, didn’t she?
John promptly stood. He wasn’t expecting this conversation to come up so quickly. He was afraid of what she might say. Perhaps she is nervous, too,” he thought. Turning his back to Margaret, he looked out over the beautiful landscaped grounds. He was afraid of the emotion that might show itself at any moment now. “Yes,” he interrupted, “I must say, it came as a shock to me when I read it in a recent letter from Dixon.”
Seeing him turn from her, and feeling surprised at his words and the desolate tone of his voice, Margaret asked, “Did you not receive my two letters and then the invitation to our wedding?”
Oh, dear God, she had written to me before she married!
“No,” he said. “I did not. Not one word did I receive.” Turning to face her, he said in an anguished voice, “Nothing. Nothing have I heard from you, since that snowy day you left Milton.”
Margaret could see the torment that creased his brow and descended across his handsome face. She had to look away. Suddenly, a small voice inside her said, “He loves you still, Margaret . . .”
John sat down in the chair, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He slowly cast his eyes back at Margaret, noticing her dejected posture. “Did you not receive the four letters I wrote to you?”
“Margaret quickly raised her lowered head, and frowning softly, sat staring at John as she tried to take in his words.”
“Your letters? . . . Four? No . . . no . . .,” she said while shaking her head in bewilderment. “No, I’ve heard nothing from you, or about you since that day I brought you father’s book and said goodbye. Those few days are still very much a blur to me, I hardly can remember them. I . . . I thought I must have really hurt you by saying goodbye so quickly. Eventually, I remembered you with Ann Latimer at Fanny’s wedding. I thought, perhaps, the two of you were probably, well . . . you know. And after my two letters went unanswered, there seemed to be no mistaking the fact that you had moved on. And I couldn’t blame you, for it was I, unquestioningly, who mishandled our friendship and . . .”
Margaret was startled as John bolted out of his seat, again, taking long strides across the expanse of the veranda, clearly in a state of barely controlled anger. “Margaret, first, Ann Latimer never meant anything to me, ever. It was always you. Can you not see what your family has done to us? Or perhaps it’s just me? Margaret, had our communication not been subverted I feel we wouldn’t be where we are today. What I can say, for certain, is that having no word from you has irretrievably damaged the course of my life forever. You must know how I’ve always felt about you.” He crossed back to his chair and sat down, watching Margaret as he spoke each word.
“John, had I known that you still held some regard for me, I would have . . .”
Silence was suspended, as Margaret fought to contain the words she knew she shouldn’t speak.
“I’m sorry, Margaret.” John said, noticing her discomfort. It was improper of me to speak of my feelings, please forgive me. I just can’t believe what has happened. If only . . .”
The sound of Dixon knocking on the open door caught their attention. “Mr. Thornton,” Dixon said, “there’s a coach outside . . . Mr. Thornton . . . ?”
“Yes, thank you Dixon.” John said. Nodding his head towards Margaret, he asked, “Margaret, will you excuse me a moment?” And without waiting for an answer, he walked towards the front of the house.
With John out of sight, Margaret turned to Dixon. “Dixon, I’ve just found out that over the past two years, John wrote me four letters! I’m sure my family has intercepted all of our mail. They don’t know what they’ve done . . .” Margaret’s voice trailed off slightly. “Dixon, I think he still loves me, after all this time,” she said humbly.
“Miss Margaret, you must be the only one living that don’t know that.” Dixon scolded her gently. “He thinks no one knows; he tries to hide it and keeps it tucked away, but I see it. I could see it several years ago; I got to think nothing has changed.” Hearing his approaching footsteps, she lowered her voice. “He’s coming back now. I’ll be in the other room if you need me,” Dixon passed John on her way back inside.
“Indeed, I apologize for interrupting our conversation,” John said, returning to his chair.
“John, I don’t know what to say.” Margaret began, attempting to resume their conversation. “This is so awkward . . . no . . . this is much worse than that. This is tragic! I’m going to have harsh words with my family and get to the bottom of things. Seven pieces of post don’t just disappear into nowhere. I believe our lives would have taken another path had I known you were still aware of me. Nothing they can do will atone for this. Nothing!” . . . “Nothing,” she said softly. Her voice trailing off into a whisper, as the realization that it was all too late to change, descended upon her. “Nothing can be done.”
Hearing those words from her lips, John looked up sharply, in awe, emotions spreading through his body like wildfire.
Did she understand what she had just said? Does she truly believe there might have been hope of a future together?
Even though he could not question her about it, her wounded expression spoke volumes to his heart.
Regaining her composure, Margaret said, “John, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be talking like this. As to your question just before you left, Booker is a history professor at the nearby university. Being married to an academic is quite a different world. The social scene is far easier to tolerate than, what I was being encouraged to do, when I lived with my family.”
There IT is. The answer. She married more out of convenience than love.
How much more of this catastrophic mistake could he bear to hear? His life lay in ruins and perhaps for her, as well.
“It’s a totally academic environment; they seem to stay in their own little world. Lots of debates go on as if it were normal conversation. The books are piled to the rafters. The students come and go from our lodgings; you would think we were living in the dormitories.”
John could barely stand listening to much more, but he knew he must. He wanted to smother her mouth with his, so she would stop talking.
“We had a slow and long courtship.” Margaret was saying. “I never seemed to want to commit, but eventually I did.” She paused for a moment, smiling wistfully at him. “So how about you, John? Is there anyone special in your life, if there is no Ann?”
Looking directly into her face, he softly answered, “There was a special woman in my life, but that seems to be over now.” John quickly looked away, embarrassed that he had said such a thing. How ungentlemanly that was, knowing she understood the significance.
“I’m sorry, Margaret. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Please forgive me. I can’t seem to keep my thoughts to myself. I’ve taken up enough of your time, already. I hope we can remain friends and perhaps in the future our correspondence will be uninterrupted. Do you think you could call Dixon for me?” He stood to leave.
Margaret stood as well, less than an arm’s length from John. Just the presence of him there, his hovering over her, so tall, his tantalizing manly smell, his solid, muscular body, the timbre of his voice, that handsome face and those beautiful hands with long slim fingers . . . everything . . . the all of him . . .
I cannot bear this ache . . . thinking about what might have been.
She began to weep. With John so near, it was then that she recognized her own deep feelings, clawing from within her. Knowing that she could never be closer to John than she was at this very moment just seemed an impossible truth.
Staring at her tears in disbelief, John reached for her hands but Margaret quickly threw her arms around him and lay against his strong chest. She didn’t know why she did it; she was drawn inexplicably to him. John represented something to her, but she wouldn’t allow the ‘why’ to take form in her mind. She pushed it away, not wanting the realization to invade the moment.
He hadn’t moved. He didn’t back away from her unexpected behavior. He was a rock standing there for her. Through his thick clothing, she could feel his heartbeat accelerating, pounding loudly.
His love for me is hammering in his chest. Dear God, what am I doing?
John gently put his arms around her, and closed his eyes, letting the moment wash over him like a cresting wave rolling onto shore. He knew this was improper, he had no understanding of why Margaret was embracing him, but he was not going to let it stop. “Dearest Margaret,” he whispered, grasping her closer. Margaret, so small in his arms, that his hands circled her body from shoulder to shoulder. Kissing the top of her head, he inhaled deeply to capture her scent. “Dearest Margaret,” he whispered again. He could hear her muffled sobs and saw the wet tears drop to his sleeve. Loosening some of his own self-control, he feathered her with light kisses down the side of her face. Nestling his mouth against her neck he whispered “Oh God, how I love you, Margaret,” as he pressed her more tightly to his rigid body.
God, let this moment continue forever.
He wanted to kiss her mouth, so badly. He began tilting her face up to his, but she backed away, as with teary eyes and flushed cheeks, she looked up one last time into his face. The moment was gone.
“I . . . I don’t know what I’m doing,” Margaret said, continuing to back away. She turned to go get Dixon.
John stared at her as she left the room. His mind was racing. He knew she wasn’t free to express anything, but he had just been given the most precious gift he could ever receive. Never before, had he held her. Finally, he was able to tell her what he had waited to say for so long. She had voluntarily come into his arms, held him, and allowed him to hold her body pressed to him. The passion he was feeling was so intense, he was afraid he might open the cage and release the primitive animal within himself. He thought about carrying her upstairs and taking her. He had never experienced this . . . this fervor.
“Mr. Thornton?” “Mr. Thornton, you look a million miles away.” Dixon was standing in front of him, trying to get his attention.
“I was.” John said. “Sorry, Dixon. You wanted to see me before I left?”
“Miss Margaret is upstairs crying, sir. I hope everything is alright?” Not getting any reaction from him, she continued, “What I wanted to ask was when did you want me to be there in Milton?”
“As soon as you possibly can, Dixon. Please check the train schedules, and post me a note about your approximate arrival time, and I will have someone come to collect you and your things. I thank you very much, Dixon. I know my mother will be well looked after and I appreciate your help.” Glancing over her shoulder, he asked, “Am I to assume that Margaret will not be down to say goodbye?”
“I don’t think she’ll be down. I better go to her and see what I can do. Can you see your way out, sir?”
“Yes, Dixon, I can. And would you give Margaret a message for me? Tell her I said, “MAYBE SOMEDAY.” That’s all. Goodbye, Dixon.”