John woke as pale light displaced the receding darkness in the small, unfamiliar bedroom of his wife’s maiden days. With drowsy deliberation, he roused himself to alleviate the dull ache in his hip, careful not to disturb the sleeper in front of him. Prickling pain surged through the arm now relieved from its ill-arranged position as blood rushed to resume its normal courses within.
He eased himself off the mattress and stretched as he stood upon a braided rug, his bare feet peeking from rumpled trousers. The crinkled cotton of his day shirt mocked the crimping crick in his neck. He passed his hand over the offending discomfort in a wincing exhalation of breath.
The house was silent. The horror of death’s dark visit had passed. Now there remained the tedious tasks to which the living must attend, walking and breathing the waking nightmare as they adjusted their lives to the loss while their minds searched the halls of memory to recall the voice and smiles of one who no more animates earth’s scene.
He gazed at Margaret with a painful longing to fill the void of her loss with all the tenderness of his powerful love. He wished her a peaceful repose for as long as it could be taken.
John put on the vestments of his position with thought to the unpleasant arrangements that must be made and the unavoidable alteration to his daily schedule. Unshaven and weary of heart, he dressed and silently slipped from the room. The chill of the morning fog seemed to penetrate the walls. He shivered in the October air as he descended the stairs.
Stepping into the parlor, Mr. Thornton noted the sleeping form of the gaunt servant girl – Higgins’ daughter, he had discovered – curled up under a gray wool blanket on the couch. A twinge of grateful sympathy softened the features of his face at the sight of her steadfast loyalty.
He crouched to start a fire in the cold room, where the family might gather before breakfast.
“I can see to that, Sir,” a wavering voice offered.
He turned to see the Higgins girl smoothing an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She was sitting upright, her tired face flushed in embarrassment of having been seen caught sleeping.
“I can manage here. Perhaps you could tend to the dining room,” he suggested gently. She sprang to follow his command, leaving him alone to set the coals glowing.
The doorbell rang a moment later, causing the girl to retrace her steps. Mr. Thornton’s ears pricked at the sound of a familiar voice in the hallway. He took swift paces to where his mother handed a large basket, laden with food, to Mary.
“Mother,” he exclaimed, in welcome surprise.
“Mrs. Hale…” she inquired with caution, the servant’s red-rimmed eyes and somber silence offering her little cause for hope.
The strong man dropped his gaze from the eager inquiry. “She is gone,” he muttered.
“When?” The whispered word was choked out after a moment of stunned silence.
“Sometime very late…in the night.”
Hannah’s heart bled for her son as she studied his weary, disheveled appearance. He would bear the burden of sorrow with strength and dignity, fighting against the forces which would try to crush out his happiness, so recently attained, in this unjust turn of fate. “And Margaret?” she asked after his new bride, uncertain how well the girl would bear up to the untimely strain of loss.
“She sleeps, for now,” he answered, his forehead creased in contemplation of breaking her restful peace.
“Do you go to work?”
He let out a long breath and shook his head in a quandary of indecision. “I am scheduled to meet with a buyer, who has been forestalled already for my wedding travels.”
“I will stay to assist in whatever way I am able. Go, if you have need. I will remain as long you are away,” she offered, receiving a nod of thanks.
“You have not eaten?” she asked, guessing the answer.
“Little thought has been given to food this past day.”
“Sustenance must be provided,” she said, brushing past him to survey the empty dining room. “There is little wisdom in starving the body at such a time. The heart needs strength. Call the house to breakfast in an hour. I will help see that it is ready,” she commanded as she turned to follow the young maid to the kitchen.
John moved to follow her firm direction, grateful to allow another to establish order in the confusing wake of tragedy. He knocked gently at the bedroom door he had so recently quitted and opened it to find Margaret hurrying to fasten on her petticoats.
“I heard the bell. Has someone come?” she asked in a fluster, prepared to forestall the morning’s oppressive gloom with needful activity.
“My mother has come to help. Do not trouble yourself,” he soothed, taking her hands into his to stay her restless motions. “She is even now preparing our breakfast.”
She stared unblinking at him for a moment before the tears began to gather in her eyes in awful comprehension of her loss. Here was one called mother, so unlike her own, who would offer comfort and kindness while her own dear mother lay cold and lifeless across the hall. Shameful jealousy stung at the realization that only one mother remained betwixt them. It was unjustly cruel – she would never have her gentle mother back again!
“Margaret,” her husband murmured as he witnessed silent tears spilling down her cheeks. He swiftly enfolded her into a tender embrace, holding her close as the first choking sobs of grief wracked her body. Relieved in some measure that her stoic stance had broken, John offered silent comfort to the sufferer until the tears subsided and she released him from his patient service.
The family was gathered for breakfast in an hour’s time. Somewhat embarrassed by his emotional outbursts the night before, Frederick attempted to meet the others with a measure of cheer but broke into tears over some remark of his sister, whose sympathetic and sorrowful gaze reminded him pointedly of their shared grief.
John spoke gently with the broken-down widower in his study afterwards, and was gladly given leave to make all necessary arrangements, Mr. Hale being neither able nor willing to make any effort towards these final steps other than to mumble a request that no grand gestures be made. He had an aversion to the pompous affectations of mortals to morbid social ritual and was certain his wife’s sure entrance to heaven required no earthly fanfare.
The newly married Master gave his wife an affectionate good-bye before heading out to accomplish several unbending tasks, with a promise to return as quickly as he could.
The hours passed with unbearable slowness for Margaret. The quiet efficiency of her mother-in-law was a mixed blessing for the mourning bride. The daily pattern of responsibility being wrested from her, Margaret yearned for some common toil to occupy the numbing emptiness of her mind and half-wished her mother-in-law away. Yet, underlying her temperamental annoyance, she found a certain comfort in the widow’s unseen presence and blinked away the fresh rise of tears at the remembrance of her soft-spoken words of sympathy and the surprising warmth of caring in her eyes.
It was both a pleasure and a hollow comfort to spend time with Frederick, who found relief in chattering away, telling her more of his past and his hopes for the future. Their eyes flashed at one another in shared anxiety when their father finally joined them in the drawing room, having spent most of the day in the closed room with the dead.
The faded light of late afternoon added to the somber atmosphere of the quiet room. The ticking of the clock on the mantle could be heard. Mr. Hale’s grave face appeared shocked into still confusion as he lowered himself onto his favorite easy chair. His children watched him intently as he drew his brows together, his eyes unfocused upon the carpet before him.
“Dixon has given me cause for alarm,” he announced, bringing his gaze to Frederick.
Margaret and her brother spoke in hushed tones in the front parlor sometime later as the last light of day began to dwindle. Discussing the danger of Frederick’s stay had greatly agitated Mr. Hale and Margaret had coaxed her father to rest in his room before dinner. The siblings had not long been occupied in their new venue when a knock on the front door was heard. Dixon grumbled from some distant place as the door was opened without her aid.
A tall figure appeared at the threshold of the carpeted room. Margaret’s weary heart soared at the sight of her husband, his returning presence infusing in her fresh hope and strength in this sorest of trials. How the hours had dragged on without him! She rose instantly from her seat to greet him, suddenly glimpsing what had not been there before: around the upper arm of his coat was a band of black crape.
Tears sprang to her eyes at his gesture of unity with her family, the fresh recognition of her permanent bond with him striking her deeply. He was her husband now. She would never be alone again. He would stand by her through all of life’s trials.
“Margaret,” the returning groom muttered with agitated concern, taking gentle hold of her arms at the sight of her tear-filled gaze. “Has something happened?”
She shook her head, unable to look at him as she blinked back tears of gratitude and relief. She could not explain in words what had touched her so profoundly.
“Nothing has happened, but there is news,” she whispered, raising her face to his as she gained some control over her emotions. “The other day, Dixon encountered in the streets of Milton someone who sailed with Frederick in years past, and who knows of his history,” she related with trepidation.
John’s breath stilled. A chill of foreboding pulled his muscles taut.
“I should have let him pass by, but it was such a surprise to see a face from the south in these parts,” Dixon lamented with a shake of her head, stepping into the room. Mr. Thornton gave the family servant a look of impatient forbearance.
“You have no faith in this man’s sympathy,” John deduced, speaking to no one in particular. “What kind of person is he? What is his name?” he asked.
“The worst sort. His name is George Leonards. A sorrier sailor I’ve never seen,” Frederick answered with a flare of contempt.
“He’s a ne’er-do-well and a plague to his family since he was a boy,” Dixon readily added. “I asked him what he was doing in Milton and he said he had business to attend, but he looks just as he ever did – an out-and-out ruffian searching for some scheme for easy profit.”
“He did not like Frederick, I’m afraid,” Margaret relayed.
These accounts sank heavily in John’s heart. He let out his breath in consternation at this untidy complication. His experience as a magistrate had taught him only too well how unscrupulous greed and spite could motivate men to pursue their unscrupulous desires.
“Does this Leonards know where you live?” Mr. Thornton asked Dixon. “Did you meet him close to this house so that he might have followed you home?”
“No. He took the omnibus away,” she replied. “He does not know where we abide. And not many in Milton know of us, having come so recently from the south,” Dixon added in a more hopeful tone.
Her answer did little to alleviate the weight of his concern. There might be time for some reprieve, but there could be great danger in keeping a fugitive.
“You must not stay,” Mr. Thornton decreed, looking to Frederick.
“That is what father said as well,” the exiled son replied with a sigh. “But I’ve only just arrived!” he countered in rising rebellion. “I’ve a mind to stay as long as I please. I’ll not cower at the hand of a rogue such as Leonards!”
“No,” the Milton magistrate stated firmly, noting the alarm on Margaret’s face at her brother’s words. “It is too dangerous to act with impunity. You must return to Spain as soon as possible.”
“Frederick and I were talking,” Margaret interjected hesitantly. “Perhaps Henry could help him clear his name. More light may have been shed on Captain Reed’s offenses these past years. If testimony could be gained…”
“No,” her husband reiterated without cavil, meeting her startled look with sympathy for her innocence. “The tribunal is set apart from the court systems which we rightly trust to mete out justice from reasonable evidence. Clemency is not the method of the military. Their figures of authority exact strict obedience from the leagues of men at their command. To examine the justification of individual protest would be, you must understand, uncommon.”
Margaret bowed her head in concession, nodding her reluctant accord. The spark of defiance died in Frederick’s eyes and he gazed at the floor in stark comprehension of his fate.
“I regret that England can never be your home,” Mr. Thornton continued more gently. “But from all you have told us, it seems that purpose and place await you in Spain,” he added, eliciting a small smile from the English-born adventurer. “Perhaps someday we will set sail to visit you,” he remarked auspiciously, this time gaining the hopeful smile of his wife.
The subject of Frederick’s departure was discussed once more at the dinner table, where Mr. Hale confessed he would not feel at peace until he knew that his son had safely boarded the train to Liverpool. Margaret offered to take her brother to the station, but Mr. Thornton insisted that the departure must take place after daylight and that he would be the one to ensure that Frederick was safely on his way out of the country.
Hannah Thornton sat watching all that transpired with circumspection, her eyes widening at her son’s promise to safeguard one accounted a criminal to the Crown.
A solemn silence pervaded the Thorntons’ carriage ride home that evening until John’s voice pierced the settled gloom. “It may not be the proper time to tell you, but I must not keep news of such portent to myself any longer….Mr. Bell has given me ownership of the mill and the house as a wedding gift,” he announced without embellishment of emotion.
A passing streetlamp threw light upon his mother’s astonished face in the darkness.
“You own the land and all the property thereon?” Margaret asked, surprise sounding in her voice.
“How wonderful,” she remarked with quiet enthusiasm. “He is very generous; you will not need to pay rent ever again. That must be a great benefit to your position, is it not? Are you pleased?” she asked, a little uncertain after her words if he was comfortable to be gifted what might over time be earned.
“How can I not be? Yes, I am pleased,” he assured her warmly, taking her hand in his in the shadowy darkness and giving it a gentle squeeze.