Upstairs, Margaret collapsed across her old bed, crying. She felt ashamed and mystified by her sudden emotion for John and her own response to him. She was lost in his embrace until his rigid passion for her became all too apparent, but she knew he had little control over that. Unexpected elation, brought on by his desire for her, momentarily swept her away. For Margaret, passion had quickly disappeared from her marriage to Brook, and she martyred the guilt of her naivety. She had endured mortifying feelings of inadequacy as a woman but today John did not see her as the failure, she saw herself to be, thus dispelling some of the disappointment in her own femininity. His sensual reaction restored a small part of her womanly self-confidence.
She loved her husband . . . so what prodded her in seeking refuge in John’s arms? Nausea had swept over her when she realized their correspondence had been intentionally intercepted, and her possible destiny had been manipulated out of her own hands.
John, almost a stranger for the past two years, had demonstrated his devotion and his passion, neither of which could be found in her new marriage. Why isn’t my own husband showing me this regard?
How she had wanted to remain in his arms, to feel loved, but eventually she struggled against her newly found sensuality and stepped back. How she despised herself. As she retreated into the house, she saw John, eyes downcast, drop his arms to his sides. In a fleeting moment, she saw him cross from exhilaration into utter rejection. How, she despised herself.
Dixon came into the room, rousing her from her dismal reflections.
“Are you alright Miss Margaret? I hope those tears are from happiness and not sadness.”
Sitting up, Margaret said, “Dixon, I’m fine. I just got a little melancholy, no more. Is Mr. Thornton still downstairs?”
“No, he left. He told me to tell you two words.” He said, “Tell Miss Margaret ‘MAYBE SOMEDAY’. It don’t make much sense to me, but I guess you’d know what he meant.”
“Thank you, Dixon.” Margaret said, feeling the impact of John’s parting words.
He loves me still and carries hope for us even though I am married. What more harm did I just cause to us both?
Thirty minutes later, John stood on the platform waiting for his train. As there were fewer passengers leaving London than arriving, he soon found himself alone in the coach, stowing his hat and cases over the top. Finally, he settled by a window as the train pulled away.
“Maybe someday . . .” He was leaving a door of hope open for both of them, for even with her marriage, he could not close his. John had no other choice, now; he would never give up. When he had first learned of her marriage, two months ago, he had lost all hope that she had ever cared for him. But it was different, now. Even though she had married for convenience, and even with another man making love to her, John felt Margaret was reaching out for him through her silence. He could be imagining it because he wanted it to be that way, but he didn’t think so. John was prepared to live a life waiting for her. Twenty-four hours ago, he had nothing . . . nothing but grief and sorrow. After today, he had a small piece of her heart; he was sure of it.
When John arrived home, he was surprised to find his mother still awake, for it was past the time she usually retired. He walked over to her sitting on the couch. John noticed she was wringing her hands when he bent and kissed her on the cheek.
“How was your health, while I was away, Mother?” He asked as he straightened himself and began removing his waistcoat and cravat. He sat down in his chair by the fire, clasped his hands across his lap, and stretched his long legs out before him.
Hannah looked over at her son. “My health is fine, but I’ve been sitting here all weekend,” she said, “feeling sorry for my outburst about the possibility of you wanting to see Miss Hale. Your letter to Dixon made me realize that I’m forcing you to hide things from me and do things behind my back because you fear my reaction.”
“Mother, I do not fear your reaction for myself. I am capable of taking responsibility for my own decisions, but I don’t like upsetting you. You and I have always been of a different opinion when it came to Miss Hale, and I try to keep that part of my life from you, so you won’t worry. I’m sorry, but there it is.”
“No, John, I will change. I’ve done a lot of thinking while you were away, and I’m completely resigned to the fact that Miss Hale is your real love and always will be. I need to be part of that with you. If she is so deeply embedded into your heart, then she shall be in mine, too. If I could do anything to change the past for you, I would. Whoever you love will be important to me because she’ll bring you happiness, which then will be my happiness.”
John’s eyes narrowed speculatively, “Mother. This is quite a change. It sounds to me that you’re more ill than I previously thought.” He tried to keep the alarm out of his voice.
“Oh, John . . . it’s not that. I know I’m getting older, as it should be, and maybe my time is becoming shorter. That isn’t it. It was the letter from Dixon and your reaction to it that opened my eyes to all of my past negative comments. It’s not like she had to make me happy, she had to make you happy. Originally, I didn’t think she did a very good job, but you handled her rejection, and still you loved her.”
John rose and went over to the couch. Kneeling down beside his mother, he spoke earnestly, “Your words mean a lot to me. Thank you, Mother. However, now that she is married, I fear all your newly found sentiments for Margaret will never see the light of day.” He could feel himself on the edge of tears. He couldn’t share with her that he would live in hope, waiting. His mother had just made a heartfelt concession, but she would never understand that. Hannah, not knowing what to say to comfort him, looked lovingly at her son. Reaching out, she drew him close to her.
Hannah grew weaker over the next six months, worrying John. He was powerless to help her and began spending more time with her, even though she objected.
One afternoon, Dixon came bursting through the mill’s office door. “The master, where’s the master?” She hollered for anyone to hear.
Higgins came out of a back room and said, “Dixon, what is it?”
“It’s the Missus. I must find the master right now.”
“I’ll take you to him; he’s in the carding room. Follow me,” Higgins said as he grabbed her by the arm and hurried her down the warehouse path to the mill room door. “Wait here, I’ll get him for you. I’ll be right back.”
Higgins slid the door open for only a second and Dixon could see the room full of cotton fluff, cascading down on the master, as he walked his platform, overseeing his workers. In less than a minute, the door opened again and both men came to a halt in front of her. “Oh Master,” she said anxiously, “it’s the Missus. She had a lay down a while ago. I just checked on her and she seems very pale and is asking for you, Master. I’m afraid she might be . . . be . . .” Dixon couldn’t finish her words.
John rounded on Higgins. “Take care of things here,” he said quickly. “Send someone for the doctor and fetch my sister.” With that, he began running across the yard toward his home. When he reached the main hall, he took the stairs three at a time and ran into his Mother’s room. She seemed very comfortable laying there with a peaceful look on her face. John rushed to her side, breathless, and knelt by the bed, holding one hand behind her head while his other hand held hers. “Mother. Please hold on. I’ve sent for the doctor. Can I do anything for you?”
“Nothing. Calm down, John,” Hannah whispered softly.
A surreal darkness began to descend upon him, as John sensed he only had moments left with her.
Mother, please don’t leave me.
He looked at the translucent skin on her hands and his eyes traveled upwards to her face. She was looking into his eyes. With tears seeping from the corners, he said, “Mother, I love you.”
Just then Dixon appeared at the door. John, sensing they were being watched, said, “Leave us, Dixon. Send Fanny in when she gets here and close the door, please.”
As the door closed behind her, Hannah said, “You know, John, Dixon has been a wonderful companion to me, Jane has always been a great help and you know how I love Cook. I know I protested at the beginning about Dixon but I really grew to rely on her. She has been a great comfort for me. You will see them right, won’t you?” Hannah’s voice was so tender; it barely hovered above a whisper.
“You know I will. Mother, please, don’t give up,” he pleaded.
“John,” she said, “let us not waste words now. I have much to say and little time.” John caressed her hand firmly, as Hannah continued. “You John, you are the one I worry about. Losing Margaret was your greatest tragedy from which you have never recovered. And I don’t think you ever will. I’m so sorry I didn’t do more to ingratiate her into our lives. I was a jealous mother, who didn’t want to let go of her son. But I see what this has done to you, and I am sorrier than you will ever know. I plan on making amends when I pass beyond the limits of this world.”
“Mother, please . . .”
“John, let me finish. In my jewelry case, I have an heirloom, a ruby heart pendant on a gold chain. It was passed down to me by grandfather when I was a little girl. I want Margaret to have it. It will be up to you how to present it to her, but I want to give it to her, I want to say, “I’m sorry” to the woman you love. I’ve loved you all of my life, John. No mother on this earth could be as proud of her son as I am of you. You took our early hardships and used them to mold John Thornton; to the man, you are today. You’re not only a successful business man, but I know you are becoming known, far and wide and will be in the history books someday. You are financially set for your future, but you are not emotionally settled. I will ask God to help. He owes my son a favor. Watch for a sign from me; you cannot mistake it. Your life will change for the better.”
John opened his mouth to speak and found he had no voice. Struggling, he began to speak his final words to her. “Mother, I, have also loved you every day of my life. You have made me what I am today, not I. Your love and strength, your guidance, your endurance and your courage, have been my moral compass all my life. At times, I’ve considered you my conscience and asked myself, ‘what would mother do in this situation?’.”
Pausing to wipe his tears that were falling onto his mother’s shoulder, John continued.
“I will miss you more than I can say, for you have been my constant companion in life, as well as my friend. I shall be lost without you.”
Hannah patted his hand with hers, trying her best to assuage him.
“John, you are a strong, intelligent and a loving man . . . and you will get through this. You shall never forget me, and that brings me peace and the only closure, I seek. Please tell Fanny, I love her, too. Smiling weakly at him, Hannah whispered, “John . . . you were always the life in me. You made me so proud of you every single day of your life. I love you, son . . .” And with those words, John heard her final rush of air and watched her slowly slip, peacefully away from him.
Grieving for her with his tears, John closed her eyes and lifted her to him, burying his face to her bosom. As he rocked her slowly and wept at her breast, like a child, he murmured, “This is where I first met you and this is where we will part. I love you, Mother. Thank you for bringing me into this world and for loving me.”
He was still holding and rocking her when the door opened, and the doctor entered. Walking towards the bed, Dr. Donaldson stopped in mid stride, as he quickly assessed the situation. Not wanting to intrude on John’s final good-bye, he quietly backed out of the room.
Fanny arrived at John’s side minutes later, and found him still holding their mother in his arms. She leaned over her kneeling brother and softly placed her hands on his shoulders, encouraging him to let go. John gently laid his mother down on her pillow, looking into her face, as he stroked her cheek and kissed her forehead, for the last time. He rose to embrace Fanny. She cried on his shoulder for a moment, then looking up into his glassy eyes, kissed him on the cheek, and finally knelt down beside her mother. No words were spoken as John left the room.
Walking out into the hall, John closed the door behind him and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to dab his eyes. As he entered the parlor, Higgins walked over to him, clamping his hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry for the loss of your Mother,” he said. They stood in silent communion like two brothers, each knowing the pain of great loss. Regaining his composure, John straightened himself, wiped his eyes again, and shook Higgins’s hand with both of his, saying, “I know you are. Thank you, Nicholas.”
Dr. Donaldson, waiting with Higgins in the parlor, stood. Speaking quietly, he said, “My condolences, too, John. I’ll take care of everything from here. Take some time for yourself and see me tomorrow about arrangements.”
“Thank you,” John said, then slowly proceeded to his own room, and quietly closed his door.
John spent the evening secluded in his room.
When morning came, he went into his mother’s room and stood, perfectly still, and slowly glanced around. He saw the impression of her head, still on her pillow. His heart was heavy as he gazed at her few, worldly possessions. Walking over to her vanity, he recognized the familiar broach she often wore, her favorite silver hair barrettes, and her black velvet jewelry slip case. Looking inside, he saw the heirloom ring that hadn’t been worn in many years: A large diamond, shining brightly in a platinum filigree setting. The ring had belonged to his grandmother, who had died before he was born. He slipped the ring into his pocket, thinking, maybe someday . . . yes… maybe someday . . . it would be used in a wedding. He found the ruby heart pendant and tucked it away in his handkerchief, wondering how he would give it to Margaret. There were other pieces of jewelry John had not seen, but he wanted Fanny to come look through her things. As he sat at her small writing desk, he sifted through her personal papers finding little of much consequence, only a few trade articles about him that she cut and saved. He went to her bed and sat, where she had just lain only a day before, and picked up her pillow. Holding it to his face, and smelling her familiar perfume, he mourned into it. Finally, he lay back, holding the pillow to his chest, as he gazed toward the ceiling wondering what his life would be like without her. This house was going to feel so empty. Every night she waited for him to come home. He had never previously experienced anything quite like this. His father’s suicide was fraught with embarrassment, police investigations, and every sort of confusion regarding his business, but losing his mother was much sadder. It made him think of Margaret and how she could have endured going through such a loss, three times within one year. John thought he could empathize with her misery when she lost her parents, but he hadn’t known the half of it. How did Higgins ever cope with losing a grown child? He rose from the bed, placed her pillow back as it had been and walked to the door, casting his eyes back, one last time. Closing the door, he headed off to see how Dixon and Cook were coping.
He found them consoling each other in the warm kitchen. John looked at their sad faces and gestured for them to come to him. Putting one arm around each of them, he said, “We’ll get through this.” Just then Jane came through the door, already weeping, and John motioned her over to be included in the group.
Moments later, standing back from the three women John said to them, “Ladies, we will all make it through this difficult time. Mother was a strong woman and so must you be.”
“Mr. Thornton. . . ,” but John interrupted Dixon.
“Let me quickly get through with what I have to say, while I’m able. Dixon, as I’ve said before, you will become head housekeeper, starting now. Cook, your position remains unchanged, unless Dixon or Jane needs to help you from time to time. Jane, your duties will also be divided with Dixon’s. I’ll be making arrangements today, but we should expect a house full of guests in a few days. Please start planning for that. We will need small sandwiches, cakes, and tea. I’ll take care of the liquors. Dixon, I’ll ask Fanny to come by, look over Mother’s effects, and take what she wants. I will then look myself. Dixon, Jane, and Cook, at that point I would like you to look through the remainder, and see if there is a keepsake you might like of hers. Afterwards, Dixon, you will be responsible to distribute any remaining items, where you see fit. Please set aside any jewelry, monies, or papers for me.”
Looking directly at them, John could see by their faces that all was understood, so he continued.
“On the day of the funeral, I would like the food prepared ahead of time; that way you will be able to attend, if you so desire. I know my mother relied on all of you to do good work, and you never disappointed her. She liked all of you very much, and said as much in her final words to me.” Stifled sobs escaped from the women.
“Finally, before I leave . . . I know her loss to you is great, and you know her loss to me is even greater. We share the sorrow of each other’s loss, so please do not tell me how sorry you are; I already know it. Right now, it is written all over your faces. I’m doing my best to cope, and talking about the sadness will not help me recover. Do not pity me, and do not pamper me, as that will only reinforce what I know I’ve lost. On behalf of my mother and myself, I thank you all for what you’ve done for this family.” John paused briefly before continuing.
“I will not have breakfast today, but I will return around noon for a sandwich. If any well-wishers stop by today, you may, or may not, choose to talk with them. Tell them I’m not seeing anyone just now, and ask them to leave their card. Get through the day as best you can, and we’ll end our workday early this evening. Dixon, make some plans with Mr. Granger tonight. I would like to be alone in the house for awhile. Good day.” John turned, and headed towards the back door. He had said all that had to be said, but he didn’t have the control to let it flow out like normal conversation. He left swiftly, before his emotions could engulf him.
It was still too early in the day to see about the church service and other arrangements, so John went to the carriage house. He decided to go for a ride out into the country, and instead of hitching one of the horses to a small buggy, he saddled Arkwright. He needed to get away from the impending crush of condolences and steel himself against the days to come. The day beckoned brightly to him, as he rode several miles out of town until he found a hill that afforded a nice view of the city. Tethering his horse to a nearby tree, John sat on a fallen log. With the billows of smoke down-wind, he had a clear vista of the city where his life had begun. He thought about his mother and how far he had come because of her, all she had taught him, and just how much she meant to him. He smiled over the happy times, but was saddened to think of all the things he wished he had said to her. It pleased him to know she finally came to accept Margaret as the woman he would always love. He shed tears as memories assailed him. An hour later, he headed homeward, thinking about the rest of his day.
Back at the house, Dixon gathered herself together and wrote a brief letter to Miss Margaret about the Missus. She knew the Master would not bother Margaret with his sorrow, but was certain she would want to hear about it.
Three days later, John was taken aback at the hundreds of people who attended his mother’s service and burial. She had had fewer friends in her later years, but they were all in attendance. John was quite self-conscious and humbled by the compliment which was paid to him, through the attendance of so many of his business acquaintances from all over the land. He hoped that very few condolences would be openly expressed, as this would cause him great discomfort. He wanted to just get through the day.
The service was beautiful, and even though it was fall, the church was ringed with soft flowers. John could not bring himself to give a eulogy, so the pastor read from the notes which John provided for him. Fanny and her husband, Mr. Watson, sat beside him during the short service. Higgins had previously selected the pallbearers, and included himself as one. As the mourners exited the church, John greeted nearly everyone before they walked to the cemetery. Having already expressed their condolences, many left after the burial. John was relieved to see that most of those remaining were business associates, and they wouldn’t dwell on sympathetic words, since they had already expressed them.
Dixon, Cook, and Jane left immediately to prepare for the unexpected, larger group. John had a carriage waiting for them.
When everyone arrived back at his home, John, offered drinks, mostly brandies, which were accepted heartily. His driver, Branson, filled in as the bartender for the afternoon. The talk got lively and there was polite laughter around the room. Whenever it was appropriate, John joined in; he could feel the heavy curtain of sadness starting to lift. He remembered his Mother once telling him that laughter at a funeral, even by the family, was not disrespectful; it was healing. How he wished he could tell them how grateful he was – he knew they were rallying him back into the world, pulling him from his emotional slide – but men never said those words to other men. In place of any sentimentality, a simple “thank you” was proffered, as they drifted home.
The last of the guests left around 6:00 pm, and the house was finally quiet. John summoned his staff and they hurried to his side. “Thank you, ladies, for what you did today: You served this family with dignity and respect. The food, as always, was good, and your service to the guests was flawless. If all the food has been attended to, I want you, Jane and Cook, to go home. Dixon, why don’t you get out of the house for a while, and visit Mr. Granger. Please, give him my thanks for his attendance today. Tomorrow, we start a new life in this house. Now . . . please go and rest yourselves.” John walked over to the bar and poured himself a Scotch, as soon as the ladies left. Turning to where his mother sat most evenings, he raised his glass in remembrance, offering to fetch her drink, as he had always done. She wasn’t there, but John felt as though he could see her spirit smiling back at him. He toasted her a final farewell.
Shaking off that emotional setback, he thought about how his staff had made him proud. John knew they had worked their hearts out so that everything would reflect on their respect for his mother. He wanted for them to leave for their sake as well as his own; John needed just once to be totally alone, and get past the impact of the solitude. He wanted to finally collapse into his emotions and feel the loss of the women he loved. He had to plunge to the bottom of his existence, and try to find a footing from which to push off, and surface into the rest of his life, wherever it may lead.
The following day, John received a note from Margaret.
I only received word of your Mother’s passing yesterday. I am so terribly sorry. I wish there had been sufficient time to attend and be there for support. I know I have been gone from Milton quite a long time now, but I still feel connected there, especially to you, since I know the pain, you are bearing. Please accept my sincerest condolences. If ever I can do anything or just listen, write to me. Many times, John, I have wondered how you were, especially after our meeting on the veranda in London. How often that day comes to mind. I wish I could tell you what it meant, but I cannot. Dixon has been keeping me up to date with your great strides in the mill. I always knew you would find a way.
My most heartfelt regards,
These were the only words he had heard from her since that day. He did not expect any. A strange, almost mystical, revelation enveloped him as he read her letter; one woman lost to him was writing about the other woman lost to him. It felt vaporous; both had disappeared from his life. John folded the note and put it in his coat pocket over his heart. He was comforted by the thought that her penned hand now rested there, as once did her real hand, not long ago. .
She thinks of that day often, as do I.
John smiled, thinking back on what his Mother had said about “working on his behalf” when she reached the other side. He had never believed in such things, although his heart wanted to accept the possibility.
But maybe someday… John would come to understand that a mother’s love knew no bounds.
Eleven – A Struggle For Life
Now that she had managed to negotiate a truce with her mother-in-law, Beth was able to concentrate on Stephen to the full. She certainly needed to do just that. Stephen was getting sicker by the hour, his fever rising to an incredible pitch. After a couple of hours, he became completely oblivious to his surroundings, suffering from long spells of heat, which left him soaked in sweat. Shivers of cold raked his body, breaking even more perspiration. After a few hours, the rash broke out, and it was worse than any Beth had seen on the children. It literally covered every square inch of his body, especially his face, and the pimps quickly turned into blisters.
Beth got really worried after Dr Forrester made an appearance and told her the situation was in fact desperate.
“My dear lady Brixton, I have to point out to you that His Lordship could very possibly die if we do not succeed in bringing down the fever. If it rises any higher, irreparable damage will ensue. So, at all cost, we must try and cool him.”
Consequently, the master bedroom was quickly transformed into a war zone and became a world apart. Stephen was carried to his dressing room by two footmen, who let him down into his bath tub, filled with cold water. The state of complete lethargy he was in, tore at Beth’s very heart. There was no reaction or cooperation coming from Stephen, which made it very hard for the footmen to handle him. Beth sponged his entire body while she supported his head with a hand, numb from the icy water. It brought down the fever only slightly. After a quarter of an hour, Dr Forrester ordered the baron to be put back into bed again.
Beth treated the blisters on his skin with talcum powder laced with lavender oil and dressed Stephen in a clean nightshirt. She made sure Trixie and the other maids had changed the sheets on the bed beforehand. She then tried to feed him some infusion of meadowsweet and lavender, sweetened with honey, but he would not swallow. Half an hour later, the fever was back in full force yet again, and the whole process had to be done over.
After a night of trying to lower Stephen’s fever to no avail, Beth had no strength left yet she did not give up. Dr Forrester had fallen asleep on one of the sofas, and the maids and footmen had been twice replaced by fresh ones, except for Trixie who had stayed by Beth’s side. The little maid meticulously looked after her mistress, making sure Beth took an occasional nap, when Stephen’s fever had diminished between baths. She also forced some food on her though she was not very successful there. Beth was hanging onto her fear that Stephen was in mortal danger, as long as the fever would not be broken. Her strength came from the love they shared and the fact that she could simply not abide the thought that she might lose her husband. Stephen simply could, would not die. She would rather die herself trying to prevent that!
Henrietta, dowager baroness Brixton, was in sheer agony over her son’s fate yet she would prefer dying first rather than going to see how he was. But, how she longed to do just that! Stephen was her son, after all. The gift she received thirty years ago from her darling Septimus, and would she now lose him? The thought was unbearable!
So Henrietta finely cut the knot and marched into the sickroom after half a week of misery and waiting … and stopped right away in her tracks. The room was a mess! On every sofa and seat, there were people sprawled as if they had died there. One of them was her son’s physician, Dr Forrester. Henrietta had never seen him in such a deplorable state of dishabille, without a coat and with his shirt sleeves rolled up over his scrawny arms. A couple of bath tubs must have been added, and they were surrounded by huge copper jars, used for carrying hot water from the kitchens. Then, finally, her gaze was drawn to the large four poster bed, and her heart stopped with overwhelming fear!
The figure in the bed could have been a stranger she failed to recognize and surely not her beloved Stephen. The man was lying absolutely still, bony hands above the covers, face an ugly shade of grey and cheeks sunken so that the bones stood out like those of a skull. Stephen’s thin nose was like a blade jutting out of his face, and his lips were colourless and cracked. His eyes were closed and ugly dark pouches showed beneath them. His body showed a greyish white sheen that Henrietta recognized as a layer of talcum powder, through which the ugly blisters of the rash shone in a horrible way.
Henrietta became aware of something else – someone else, to be precise. Her hated daughter-in-law was sitting next to Stephen and was trying to make him drink something. She was holding Stephen’s head with one hand, and with the other, she was raising a cup to his lips, coaxing and enticing him to drink in a voice barely audible with hoarseness.
“Please, my love, drink this? Come, my darling, you must drink it. It will make you better, I promise you. Dearest, please, do not leave me. Please, Stephen, I love you so, do not die on me.”
This woman must indeed care a great deal about her son, Henrietta realised as she swallowed at the lump in her throat. She must have been at Stephen’s side the whole time, judging by the extreme state of sloppiness she was in. Her hair was like that of a scare crow, coming down from its pins, and it was obvious it had not seen a brush or comb for several days. Her clothes were filthy and wet, she wore shoes nor stockings and her face was ghastly and tear-stained. It was clear to the dowager that Beth was near complete exhaustion. How had she managed to hold up until now?
Beth’s monotone voice, coaxing her husband to drink, tore Henrietta back to reality. She resolutely stepped toward the bed, gently took the cup from Beth’s hand and spoke in a sweet voice.
“Come away, child. I will take over so that you can rest a while. You do not need to leave his side. I will order a cot to be placed here, next to Stephen’s bed, so that you can watch him while you rest.”
Dr Forrester, who had woken shortly after Henrietta came in, agreed whole-heartedly with these arguments.
“My lady dowager is right, Lady Brixton. You are wearing yourself out, and it would not help your husband at all, should you collapse.”
Beth seemed in a state of shock, and it was not until the cot was brought in and Henrietta gently led her to it, that she finally looked at her mother-in-law.
“He is dying, Mama-in-law,” she croaked, “ I did all I could but I will … lose him … nevertheless.”
The last words came out in bits and pieces, as if Beth had no breath left. Tears were running down her face now and heart-rendering sobs were raking her chest. Without thinking, Henrietta took the trembling girl into her arms and hugged her.
“Now, now, child, do not despair yet. He is still breathing, but we must join forces to make him better again. I have left you on your own far too long to deal with this wretched disease. Now, go and lie down.” With gentle but firm gestures, she pushed Beth onto the cot and tucked her in herself.
The rest of that week – the second of Beth’s only-too-fresh marriage to Stephen – passed in a haze of misery and hard labour. Trice the Reverend Carter, who had come over as soon as he learnt about the Baron’s dire condition, administered the last rites to Stephen, so convinced as the minister was of his lordship’s imminent demise.
Henrietta and Beth, too exhausted to cry, had equally been certain they would lose Stephen. His colour was deathly pale, the skin of his face parched and dry, and his crackled lips revealed his teeth as they parted to fight for air. In his state of extreme fatigue, Stephen’s chest heaved as he laboured for breath, making Beth cringe every time he managed the effort.
Yet Stephen kept clinging to life, hour after hour and day after day. Dr Forrester professed he had never had a patient so strong and tenacious as to resist death for so long. Yet, although Stephen was still alive after seven days of high fever, his health was rapidly failing since his nurses did not get much sustenance into him. He was too weak to swallow so Beth and Henrietta took turns in trying to get fluids past his dry lips. It failed – most of the time – yet the two women stubbornly held on, refusing all defeat.
One day, Raleigh asked Beth to come down with him to the great entrance hall, which – to her astonishment – was crowding with people. Stephen’s tenants and their families and the entire population of Woolworth had come to pay their respects to their master and his lady. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage had been chosen to convey the assembly’s support. Beth was near to tears yet she did not give in to weakness. Her voice but slightly trembling, she thanked them all on behalf of her husband, her mother-in-law and herself. Knowing she was not alone in her suffering meant the world to her.
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.
Gnashnab is an 18th century northern English word, meaning someone who just complains all the time. Contemporary synonyms include nitpicker, moaner and grumbler. It’s just as true now as it was back then—no one likes a gnashnab.
Mental Floss notes this word is “probably derived from ‘scopperloit,’ an old English dialect word for a vacation or a break from work.” A scobberlotcher is someone who avoids hard work like it’s their job. The next time you catch someone dozing off at their desk, hit ’em with this one.
This is a Victorian word meaning idiot. This is an appropriate example with a contemporary angle, spoken with some irritation while driving on the highway: “That zounderkite just cut me off!”
The website Matador Network says this is “a 17th century variant of ‘zounds’ which was an expression of surprise or indignation.” It’s less of an insult and more of something to yell after someone has insulted you…but of course you can follow up with some other great words of your own.
A sexually incompetent man, who is either too young to have had sex or one who is too old to attempt it (“flapdoodle” also referred to nonsense or rubbish and ladyparts in the same time period)
A prostitute, who presumably works in the countryside
More to come at a later date
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.”