Dr. Wagner saw the break in her face as some or all realization began to sweep over her.
Margaret turned her face into John’s chest and wept loudly. John kissed her softly on her hair.
“Can we have time alone,” he asked. “I want to get her through this part, myself.”
John waited for the room to empty and the door to close. Margaret was clutching feverishly at his arm that held her hand. He could not allow her to back away from him now. Although she hadn’t heard the worst, maybe she didn’t have to.
“Margaret. I am so sorry for what you have endured. This will never happen to you again. I will always be with you and protect you for all my days. Who is this man that has done this to you?”
“Fred. Frederick is in danger.”
John continued to stroke her and kiss her gently about the face and mouth.
“Margaret, Mr. Bell has written to Frederick about the danger he could be in. He should have received that by now. We should know his situation in about two days. Margaret, can you hear me?”
Margaret nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Mr. Bell wrote to him before your last encounter with this man that beat you. Surely your brother has moved on with caution. There is a plan in action to go to his aid, which will be Mr. Bell, Branson, and Nicholas. They love you and want the best for your brother. Please don’t worry too much. You need to get well, and we need to marry tomorrow. Margaret, I love you more than my own life. I want you forever and beyond. I want to protect you and please you and pleasure you. I cannot live another day with you out of my life. Please, will you marry me?”
“Are you sure, John? I have remembered more about what made me run, and the doctor never mentioned my worst attack. I think you will find me dirty when you know.”
“Margaret, I know all. I know the worst.” John leaned in and kissed her tenderly, parting her lips with his tongue and swept away all her doubts.
“You can still love me knowing that? I can’t stand myself.”
“Margaret, yes, you were violated. Besides the fact that I want to avenge you, I find you are still the loveliest woman in my life. Don’t think of that time. It means nothing to me as far as you are concerned.”
“How can you be so understanding?”
“I love you. How can I not be understanding? You are a victim. You may not remember, but I am a magistrate. I have seen all of the vulgarities that a man can inflict upon an unwilling woman. Just don’t let it change you. You are so very brave right now, and I am overwhelmingly proud of you to not let this crush you. The spirit that I love about you will hold you up, and I will too.”
John kissed her again and again until her tears slowed down.
“Now, you haven’t answered my question. Will you marry me tomorrow?”
“Yes. I want you to be Mrs. John Thornton as of yesterday, but two in the afternoon tomorrow will do fine.”
“I will, John,” Margaret paused, hardly believing that a two year dream was about to come true. She smiled to him.
“I love you. It took me until I left to know I have always loved you. I couldn’t tell you about Fred. I was afraid for both of you.”
“I know, my love. If it bothers you, I will resign as a Magistrate, but how I see, it is: the Navy wants him, not the judicial system.”
“Oh, John. I’ve never been as happy as I am at this moment.”
“I feel the same, my lovely incredible Margaret,” John said, absorbing the moment. “I have your ring with me, but you shall not see it until tomorrow. I will bring Nicholas and Peggy as witnesses.”
“Bring Mr. Bell, too, and I’d like Branson to come.”
“As you wish, Mrs. Thornton.”
“That sounds incredibly marvelous . . . Mrs. Thornton,” Margaret repeated.
“I’ve waited a long time to call you that.”
“I’ve waited a long time to hear it.”
While the nurse fed Margaret her nightly meal, John spoke with Dr. Wagner, in the corner, about Margaret’s full knowledge of everything that they knew.
“She’s taking it well, Mr. Thornton. Be watchful of her. I do not think we’ve seen the last of this terrible experience. If that torture germinates, it could manifest itself in any number of ways.”
“What can I do?” asked John.
“Just continue to show her your love for her. If she seems to be despondent, work it out. Do not let her dwell if you see it happening. It’s going to take time, but I’m sure she’ll make it.”
John spent the rest of the evening with Margaret until she slept for the night.
Today had been a long and event filled day. For John, it had swung from the lowest to the happiest day he ever had. If they heard all, which Margaret herself seemed to indicate, she and John could put her pieces back together. He couldn’t wait to get her home to kiss her well.
As Branson pulled the coach to his front step and opened his door, John said, “You are invited to my wedding tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, Guv? Congratulations, sir. I really like Miss Hale. I take it she is going to recover all right?”
“We had the big break-through in her memory late this afternoon, I will make her well. She asked that you be there, in the hospital room with us. Shall you come?”
“Guv, you couldn’t keep me away even if I wasn’t invited. I’ve waited through many women, thousands of hours waiting outside, and many years to see this day come to you. Of all of them, boss, she is the one for you. She is different from all the others, at least that’s how I remember her last.”
“You remember, right, Branson. I have found my other half. Tomorrow, harness the small buggy. I will start using that one since I am staying long hours at the hospital. In the morning we will have another meeting with the four of us. Get some sleep.”
“Good night, Guv. I bet you’ll sleep well tonight.”
John got very little sleep that night, but most of it was spent in joyful wakefulness. Soon he would not sleep alone. He could hold Margaret all night long, once her rib was healing. Tomorrow they would be married. He probably should have offered to wait until her London relatives came, but he was glad not to have them. They had stolen Margaret away from him once before. After tomorrow, he was her family, her protector, her provider, and some lovely day in the future, her lover.
John drifted in out of plans for the dead man. He didn’t know how he would do it yet but planned on luring the man to his home town. He wanted no help from anyone. This man was his. But being in his area gave him a bit of an advantage over a tactical military officer.
The next morning, John had all four of them together. They were overjoyed to hear the news of a wedding so soon. It staggered Nicholas, and Branson was still recovering.
“I can’t say I’m going to miss those long evenings waiting outside of some lady’s home for you to return to the coach,” Branson interjected. Everyone was silent. No one knew if it was proper to laugh under such a serious situation. John finally broke out with a laugh and the rest followed.
John was beside himself with a million things to do.
“Men, the wedding is at 2:00 in Margaret’s hospital room. Nicholas, I hope Peggy can attend. Margaret wishes her to stand by her. Adam, would you mind giving my bride away?”
“I’ve waited for this day. Of course, John.”
“Nicholas, you will stand by me as my best man?”
“No one could take my place by you, my friend. This is the second happiest day in my life, I think, or darn close to it. You know the masters will be sorry to be cheated out of this.”
“Perhaps a celebration in the future when Margaret has recovered. Branson, you will stand with Mrs. Higgins as her escort.”
“John, do you have the minister and ring picked out,” asked Nicholas.
“That was taken care of yesterday before I asked Margaret. I need to talk with the minister this morning, buy out the flower shop, and perhaps find a small cake.”
“Let us do that,” said Nicholas. Peggy will want to do something.
Is there anything new on Captain Harford,” John asked.
Adam cleared his throat. “I expect for the Shaw’s to get their note today and be down her late tonight or tomorrow around noon. I hope they can bring some information. I feel it will be another two days until I hear from Fred. We will make final plans at the time, send him a note, and be on our way in two or three days. You, you lucky man, will have Margaret safely tucked away and out of the grasp of that scoundrel.”
“I’m having other thoughts there, too. Should we be successful in moving Frederick on without notice, then Hartford will have lost his leverage against Margaret; he may then see Margaret as a witness and come after her will malice. He’s got to be imbalanced. She will know nothing of this. I think I will plan to lure him here once I know Margaret’s brother is out of his sights. He is a tactical military man. Having him here will give me a small advantage.”
“You still feel strongly about carrying through on this revenge, and there’s no other way to call it, even though Margaret will heal?”
“Yes. In discussing Margaret’s eventual full recovery with the doctor, it will depend on her dependence on my commitment to her and the outcome of this man, even without those added reasons, I need to do this for myself.”
“Boss, the newspaper people, are starting to swarm the hospital every day, and I see new ones coming. They don’t seem to have Miss Margaret’s name, but your visitations are starting to become curious.” Branson reported.
“Let them alone. They will have their story tomorrow. I will be busy through today. See you all at two.”
John had left for the small buggy that he could hide behind the hospital. The other three men knew their plans would go from moving Frederick to the Thornton watch.
John quickly dashed off to the rectory before visiting Margaret to reaffirm to her of their wedding time.
“How was your rest last night, Margaret?” John asked, leaning in to kiss her when he arrived.
“Good morning husband-to-be. I’m lying here, still not believing that only a week ago, I was praying to die. And today, I want to live for the rest of your days but only with you. Yes, I had a good night and only needed the pain medication and not the laudanum.”
“I came by to confirm that we shall marry at two this afternoon. I have spoken with the minister this morning who has agreed to come to your room. You will have your first visitors today.”
Margaret looked a bit sad, and John asked her why. “I don’t look very much like a bride, a black eye, and a hospital gown.”
“Now, how could anyone ever forget attending a wedding like ours? You are beautiful in every way to me. Today you will become not only my wife but my woman.” John said tenderly.
“John, I’m sure you understand that part of our marriage will take me some time.”
“Margaret, holding you in my arms is what I have yearned for a long time. Yes, I understand. Don’t ever feel rushed or that I am anxious. You will tell me when the right moment is for us. Let it not worry that pretty head of yours.”
“I have a few errands to run. Is there anything I can get for you while I am gone?”
“Could I have some flowers to hold?”
“That was on my list.
John left the hospital and headed for a flower seller in town.
“You look happy this morning, Miss Hale. Was that Mr. Thornton who I saw leaving?”
“Yes. This is to be our wedding day.” Margaret smiled.
“Oh, how exciting! You will marry in this room, I suppose. What time is the ceremony?” asked Nurse Pickering.
“At two this afternoon, but I think my few friends here, who have wanted to see me, will be here earlier than that. I don’t look much like a bride-to-be, do I?” sighed Margaret.
“Let me think about what we can do. I shouldn’t think you can stand up for this.”
“I’d like to try. My legs aren’t injured, it’s just my rib. I’ll have to be careful and need help getting out of this bed, but I want to do it. I want to stand next to John. Could we try?” Margaret was not too proud to beg.
“I’ll ask Dr. Wagner. I think we were going to get you up today, as it is. Your rib is tightly wrapped, but still, I had better ask. Hmm… I wonder what we can do about something other than that white cotton tent you are wearing. I know I can work with your hair.”
“Oh, could you? I would appreciate that so much.”
“Good thing we have a few hours. Let me go talk with the doctor; he’s here somewhere. I’ll be back as soon as I find him.”
Nurse Pickering turned to leave the room when Dr. Wagner came through the door on his morning round. Both women seemed to swamp him with questions that he was unable to turn down in the midst of their merriment. It was the best sign from Miss Hale he could have expected. He found it almost too merry after what she had been through. He still felt there would be more residual to purge.
“Let me check you over, Miss Hale. Then we will practice standing you up, and if you prove successful, you will have my blessing. You are in a weakened state; however, I think you are running on adrenaline right now. You must rest immediately when you tire.”
The doctor and the nurse assisted Margaret to a sitting position and then swung her legs to the side. With the exception of a few grimaces, which were expected, and their aid, she made it to her feet and looked steady. She shuffled her feet in place and then began putting one in front of the other. That was accomplished with little difficulty and a big smile.
“I’m sure the ceremony will not last but a few moments. I can make it. Can I try to sit in a chair instead of getting back in the bed just now?”
“Do you feel like you could sit on a commode? That, of course, would just be for now, but it is one of the hurdles we need to get you over before releasing you.”
“Yes, I will try it. It’s got to be easier than that pan thing.”
Margaret stood holding on to the doctor’s arm and the metal footboard where her chart hung. Nurse Pickering scooted out of the room only for mere seconds, returning with a rolling commode and another nurse was carrying a privacy screen. The doctor turned this detail over to the two nurses and said he would return after a bit.
Although Margaret had difficulty lifting her gown and holding her weight to sit, she finally had success with some assistance.
“Nurse Pickering. I can’t have my new husband helping me with this when I am released. He’s never seen any part of my body.” Margaret fretted.
Laughing, Pickering told her that she would have a live-in nurse for a few days.
“You know, I should have begun my woman’s week by now. Is there more of an injury than we could know?”
“Miss Hale, you have been checked every conceivable way that is possible since you were unable to wake for the first day. What you are experiencing is trauma to your body and physiological system. Everything should return to normal as your body heals.”
“This has been quite convenient in a way.”
“How are you doing back there behind the screen?”
“I think if I could stop talking, I might have better success.” Margaret laughed.
“Well, I can’t leave the room, but I will change your bed while you are quiet.”
“I’d feel better if you closed the door, too. I know I’m hid behind this screen, but it doesn’t feel like enough.”
Pickering laughed again. She was really seeing the improvement in her patient today. After all, it was her wedding day.
Chapter One – Stepping into The Great Unknown
So it had happened.
They were finally going home. Just an hour ago, home had meant Milton, and Marlborough Mills. John Thornton had never known a better home than the one his mother Hannah created for him and his sister Fanny. The many responsibilities in his busy life as a cotton manufacturer had been adequately balanced by Hannah, who reigned his household with quiet efficiency.
Now – just an hour ago – John discovered that Margaret had finally come to love him, the way he had loved her for three, long, and lonely years. They had met on a train station platform and kissed.
All this time, John Thornton had loved Margaret Hale, but she had first been repulsed by his harsh ways and flaring temper. To his shame and fury, she had rejected his marriage proposal. He had tried to convince himself that his foolish passion for her was gone, ever since, but he had failed, of course. He had and would always love Margaret and now they were finally together on their way to Milton, to begin their live as a newly betrothed and soon to be married couple. The bliss of that moment still sang in his blood, while he stared out of the train window and watched the green, lush English countryside glide by.
When the train rather abruptly came to a stop, John Thornton jolted out of the dreamlike state he was in.
Margaret, her head resting against his shoulder, had been slumbering peacefully, her slender frame supported by his arm.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice soft and slightly hoarse after her little doze.
John had no idea why they had come to a standstill in the middle of nowhere with no train station in sight. He was somewhat dense to react after having to shake off the bliss of having Margaret so close. God knew how long he had been waiting for that final outcome to their relationship which had been so strained for so long.
Slowly the new situation got hold of John as he realised that the train would not have stopped here unless something unusual had occurred. He freed his arm from Margaret’s waist.
“I will go and take a look, Margaret” he said and stood. “Please, wait here for me.”
Her sudden outcry startled him.
“No, John …” she said, rather nervously. “I … I would rather not be separated from you …”
The fierce look of pure, unmitigated love in John’s eyes overwhelmed Margaret like a ray of warm Southern sunshine. John Thornton still loved her after all the misery she had inflicted upon him. And she … she had finally admitted to herself that she loved him back, that she could no longer live without him, that she did not want to be away from him, ever again.
His hand cupped her face, drew it nearer. Margaret’s heart pounded with anticipation … and fear. How was she to deal with their sudden intimacy? Yet all these disturbing thoughts vanished like snow under the sun when his lips touched hers. They kissed, first shyly and awkwardly, then John’s hand glided to her lower back, pressing her even closer. His kiss became bolder as he opened her lips with his tongue. Margaret surrendered and threw her arms around his neck, answering his kiss with delight.
It took some time before they were able to speak again.
“Very well, Miss Hale,” John smiled. “If you cannot be separated from me, I guess I will have to take you with me. Let me take your bag.”
As soon as they left their compartment, John became aware of the complete silence that was reigning all around them. Although they had been alone in their own compartment, he knew for certain they had not been the only ones on the train. During the earlier ten-minutes stop he had seen several passengers mounting it. Where again had that stop occurred? John was fairly sure it was in Leicester Station, although he had failed to pay attention to it, being fully distracted by seeing Margaret.
Hand in hand, they started down the corridor, looking into the compartments as they passed them.
They were all deserted. Soon the couple realised they were the only passengers in this carriage.
“John, look …”
Margaret pointed to one of the windows behind which they could only see a dense fog obscuring the view as thoroughly as if a curtain had been drawn.
“This is weird,” John mused. “I would not have expected a fog on such a sunny day, and it is not morning, too, but the height of the afternoon. Let us take a look outside.”
He helped Margaret down from the train step which was now considerably higher than the ground since there was no platform. The first astonishing discovery was that their carriage seemed to be the only one that was left of the train. Neither before nor after, there was not a single thing on the track.
John frowned in disbelief.
“Margaret, is it possible that our carriage has broken loose from the rest of the train, you think? Although I cannot recall that ours was the end carriage …”
“It was not. I clearly remember we were somewhere in the middle of that long train, John. What can have happened?”
“I don’t know but let us find out where we are.”
Peering through the thick fog, they were barely able to make out their surroundings but eventually they could make out the low brick wall on either side of the track that suggested they were on a bridge. Carefully, John looked over it.
“There seems to be a road under this bridge, Margaret. Shall we try to descend the embankment?”
Margaret nodded but gripped his hand even firmer. He gave her an encouraging smile.
“You need not to be afraid, dearest. You are in my care, now.”
While they were descending the steep slope, Margaret basked in the stunning realisation of what John had called her. She was his dearest, his … his beloved! It was too bewildering for words!
It was indeed a narrow country road that meandered under the bridge, but they could not see farther than a few yards. That, however, was not what John was concerned of. Sinking onto one knee, he touched the surface of the road, which seemed to be made of a black gravel-like substance, hard and solid to the touch. He had never seen such a thing!
“Margaret, have you noticed this? On first sight, this is an ordinary narrow country road, flanked by hedgerows that are in urgent need to be trimmed because they are overgrown by brambles. Yet, its surface is unique!”
“Extraordinary and also very efficient. No deep potholes in this road, no matter how hard it rains. What could this substance be, John? Have you any idea? We should acquire something similar for Marlborough Mills’ courtyard, don’t you think?”
John burst into a hearty laugh and pulled her close, kissing her fondly on the top of her head.
“Making plans already, are you, Miss Hale? Yes, you are right about the mill’s courtyard. It is always something of a mess after a rainstorm.”
He lifted her chin, an inquiring grin relaxing his handsome face.
“You do not seem worried in the least, my darling. You must have realised that we are in strange surroundings and that something very weird must have happened, although I have not the slightest inkling of what it could be. Yet, you do not seem afraid. How is this?”
“No,” Margaret replied softly. “No, you are right, John. I am not afraid at all. Instead I feel excited, like if I were entering an unknown, fairytale-like world, waiting to be discovered. And, John …”
She paused to lay her hand on his cheek and gently caress it.
“What is it, sweetheart …” John breathed, heart pounding because of the love in Margaret’s tone.
“Whenever I am with you, my love, I will never be afraid of anything.”
Their kiss lasted several minutes and left them both breathless.
Eventually, hand in hand, they set forth over the narrow road, walking to the North and into the Great Unknown.