Hannah Thornton was surprised to see her daughter-in-law, but smiled politely as she joined them for breakfast.
Mr. Thornton apologized for his haste after he had eaten and moved to kiss his mother and wife on the cheek.
Margaret took his hand between hers to stay him for a moment. “Will you eat lunch today?” she asked him as a reminder to take care of himself, studying his face questioningly for his answer.
A warm smile spread over his face. “I make no promises, but I will try,” he answered as he gave her hand a squeeze.
Mrs. Thornton watched their exchange, noting Margaret’s concern for her son, which was written on her plaintive expression. Perhaps John had at last revealed to her how serious circumstances were at the mill, for the girl bore a manner of solicitude more pronounced and somber than before.
After Mr. Thornton had departed, the room fell into silence as the women drank their tea, both reflecting on the daunting tasks which the Master of Marlborough Mills would face while their day would undoubtedly unfold in much the same pattern as ever.
“I will visit Mary Higgins this morning,” Margaret began. “I mean to help some of the worker’s children get an education,” she announced cautiously, deciding she could no longer keep her activities hidden from her mother-in-law’s judgment. “Mr. Thornton is aware of my purpose, and approves of my intentions. I will still happily fulfill my household obligations every day,” she added to avoid undue censure, “but I will also be spending time pursuing my plans. I will go to the market this morning on my return. Is there anything that you should like me to purchase?”
Being given little opportunity to equivocate, Hannah was taken aback by the girl’s directness. “I believe the cook has a small list,” she answered, regarding her son’s wife with reluctant respect for her adroit ability to accomplish her designs with a commanding sense of purpose and deft diplomacy. She only hoped that John would not fall prey to his wife’s persuasive wiles and sanction her every plea without due consideration of the consequences.
Mrs. Thornton was certain that Margaret’s ideals were well intended, but she doubted the wisdom and practicality of attempting to solve the long-standing problems of society at the expense of everything John had worked so hard to build up – namely, the Mill’s success and the unquestioned respect of those in the city.
Margaret enjoyed the freedom of walking the familiar streets and alleyways toward the Princeton district. The squalor and grimness of the place always pulled at her heartstrings, but she had also come to recognize the solidarity and friendliness of the people, which encouraged her to think that their lives were not barren. She perceived in most of them the inherent qualities of man’s higher nature that would elevate them above the sordid conditions of their lives and aid them in their determination to better themselves.
She acknowledged women and children she passed, and smiled at their expressions as some of them recognized the Master’s wife. It amused her to think of how horrified Aunt Shaw and Edith would be to know of her daily walks. Margaret was keenly aware of the liberty afforded her in marrying Mr. Thornton. She did not know many husbands of similar standing who would allow their wives to wander the more dismal parts of the city all alone. Henry would have sorely disapproved, she felt, shuddering at the thought of being held in a restrictive marriage. No, she was grateful to have found someone who understood her independent nature.
Last night, after they had both returned home, Margaret had suggested that she drop her plans for the school. Her husband had insisted, however, that she should continue despite the circumstances. He reminded her that the supplies had already been purchased and that there was little cost in setting up the room. He was also concerned that she have some occupation that gave her pleasure.
When Margaret arrived at Higgins’ humble and cramped home, she helped Mary tidy the main room, gathering little Joseph Boucher into her arms as his surrogate mother quickly swept the floor. Mary was excited to hear more of Margaret’s plans to begin schooling some of the children, and told her friend that several other families would like their children to attend.
Margaret walked with Mary and the children to a neighbor’s where the children would stay while Mary went to prepare lunch for the workers at Marlborough Mills. The two young women walked together until Margaret parted ways to go to the market.
Sometime later, Margaret emerged from the chemist’s shop with a few small packages, her basket already laden with fruit and sundry other items. She sauntered down the high street and stopped to look at flowers for sale by an aging woman in a faded cambric dress.
Further down the same street, Albert Slickson spied the lovely Mrs. Thornton as she bent to smell some lavender and selected a few bunches to carry in her basket. He stepped to the curb at once and, dodging the carts and people massing in the cobbled street, briskly crossed to the other side to catch her eye.
The dashing young student ambled toward Margaret with a feigned nonchalance and waited with civil courtesy for her to recognize him. His inward smile swiftly manifested itself on his lips as her eyes met his and she slowed and then stopped.
“Mr. Slickson,” Margaret greeted him politely as he tipped his hat.
“Mrs. Thornton. So pleased to see you again,” Albert replied warmly.
“I hope you are enjoying your stay in Milton, learning our northern ways,” she commented with good humor.
“Indeed, there is much to note about the difference in the way things are done here. I am inclined to think that such cities of industry as this will propel all of England into the future,” he remarked with an air of respect.
“I am pleased that you think so. You will be interested to know that I am beginning a school for the workers’ children,” she continued, remembering their previous conversations at the ball.
“A capital idea! That is another point I have discerned about the pace of life here: in London we must discuss at great length any grand ideas for progress before they are implemented, whereas here in Milton an idea put forth seems to be immediately acted upon. I am impressed with your swift initiative,” Albert praised her. “And is Mr. Thornton involved in your endeavor?” he asked with particular interest, wondering to what degree the Mistress of Marlborough Mills was supervised by her husband.
“He approves, of course, but I’m afraid he is much too engaged with business at present to offer his assistance,” she answered somewhat uncomfortably.
“Of course, I understand. There is a dampening of trade currently. I imagine your husband must be very involved in his business as of late,” he remarked smoothly.
“Yes, he is,” Margaret replied, her polite smile tinged with sadness at the thought of the many hours her husband was forced to spend at the Mill.
“I mustn’t keep you any longer. I wish you well in your new enterprise. Perhaps I could visit your school to see for myself how such a place can be run,” Albert suggested hopefully.
“Of course. Perhaps in a week or two,” she responded pleasantly. “Good day.”
“Good day, ma’am,” Albert replied with a gallant nod and tip of his hat. He walked half a block away before turning discreetly to catch a glimpse of Margaret’s retreating figure.
Unbeknownst to either of them, Miss Latimer had spotted Mr. Slickson and the Mistress of Marlborough Mills upon coming out of the milliner’s shop and had observed with great interest the animated conversation between them. She recalled how uninhibited the parson’s daughter seemed to be with her words and remembered, too, with haughty disdain the rumors that had circulated about Margaret last winter that she had been seen alone with a man at dusk at Outwood Station.
Miss Latimer smiled smugly to herself as she casually inspected the wares of the fruit vendor. Perhaps Mr. Thornton should have been more careful in his choice of a wife, she mused.
Margaret busied herself the remainder of the day, spending a good deal of time in the kitchen, much to Mrs. Thornton’s surprise. When the young woman had finished her task and given the cook her final instructions, she went upstairs to arrange a few things, take a short rest, and change for dinner.
She sat later in the drawing room with her mother-in-law, eagerly awaiting her husband’s return from work. She had requested that he make every effort to come home for dinner each evening. Attempting to read the book in her hands, she listened intently for the sound of his footsteps and sighed in happy satisfaction when at last she finally heard them.
Taking pains to greet him with the restraint required in his mother’s presence, she nevertheless grasped his arms and stretched up to give him an affectionate kiss on the lips.
Mr. Thornton reveled in the warm welcome he received as he grasped his wife’s waist lightly, feeling the urge to return her enthusiasm with a kiss that would not be appropriate in his mother’s view. He would be glad to come home to dinner every night with such attentions as these, he mused, studying his wife’s lips for a brief moment before releasing her and greeting his mother.
Margaret accompanied him as he headed upstairs to wash, mentioning that she wished to show him something that she had purchased.
They had only reached the landing at the top of the stairs when Mr. Thornton swiftly took her into his strong embrace and kissed her as he had longed to just moments before. He felt a thrill of lustful desire as she immediately melded to him, putting herself under his power. They kissed as starving lovers, having not come together in several days.
He tore himself away from her to pull out his pocket watch, fairly quaking with ardent desire. “Dinner is at half past?” he asked.
She nodded her accord, breathless from the yearning he had wrought in her.
“We have yet twenty minutes,” he answered, his eyes alight with triumphal determination. He scooped her up into his arms without another word and bounded for the bedroom door.
Hannah Thornton waited patiently as her son and his wife arrived at the table a few minutes late. Margaret self-consciously felt to check the pins in her hair as Mr. Thornton helped his wife to her seat. Mrs. Thornton eyed her son as their dinner was served and marveled at how radiantly happy he appeared despite the current circumstances at the mill. She glanced at Margaret, whose distractedness had dissolved into effusive joy as she observed her husband’s delight in the meal she had specifically chosen for him.
The elder woman could not help but be glad about her daughter-in-law’s evident care for her son. Mrs. Thornton remembered how worried she had been last summer when her son had become distracted with events concerning the strike and subsequent riot, and had had little concern for food or proper rest. She was pleased and not a little relieved to see that Margaret would tend to him during this difficult time when all was uncertain. She was a good wife to him.
Margaret spoke of her plans for helping the workers’ children, and Mrs. Thornton listened without comment, taking her son’s responses as her cue to keep silent with her own reservations about such undertakings. She did not wish to disturb the evening with her objections.
Margaret smiled when dessert was served and bowed her head humbly when it was announced that the young mistress herself had made fresh gooseberry tarts.
Mr. Thornton looked at his wife with surprise and admiration, feeling a flood of affection for the effort she had taken to please him.
She beamed at his praise and mentioned that she sometimes enjoyed baking, and would especially enjoy it now that she knew it would please him.
When dinner was over, Mr. Thornton was again obliged to excuse himself to continue his work. However, this time he brought his ledgers and papers to the desk in his room as his wife had suggested the evening before.
Margaret stayed in the drawing room with her mother-in-law for a while, but found she could not concentrate on her reading. “Would you mind if I excused myself? I think I should like to write to Edith tonight,” she asked her husband’s mother.
“Not at all,” Mrs. Thornton replied with a sliver of a smile as she looked up briefly from her needlework.
Margaret climbed the stairs with a determination not to bother her husband, and entered her room quietly to write to her cousin as she had mentioned. She described the recent ball as she had promised, but carefully omitted telling her of the recent disturbance in the economy and John’s trouble with the mill.
When she had finished, she could no longer bear to remain alone in her room and ventured to see how her husband was faring with his work.
He gave her a smile as she walked into the richly toned room.
She walked over to stand behind him and began to rub his shoulders, feeling the muscles through the thin cotton of his shirt. “Are you comfortable working here?” she asked with a knowing smile.
“I am. It is a great deal more comfortable than my office,” he admitted. “The room smells of Helstone,” he added, referring to the fresh lavender she had placed in the room.
“It is just as I desired. If you must work, I see no reason why you cannot do so in pleasant surroundings,” she reasoned as she continued to work on his taut muscles.
He set his quill down and relaxed in the bliss of her vigorous attentions. “I think you shall quite spoil me,” he remarked, his voice revealing the pleasure he took in her care.
“Then I have succeeded as a good wife. I wish to help you in whatever way I am able. But don’t let me be a distraction,” she added. “Will it bother you if I come later to read in bed?”
“No, I would like your company,” he answered truthfully. The bleakness of his accounting seemed mercifully lessened with her nearby. Her presence gave him reason to hope.
“Then you shall have it,” she replied and left him to dress for bed, although it was still early in the evening.
She dressed in her nightgown and read in the great bed, in perfect contentment to be in the same room as him. And when he at last turned out his lamp and prepared for bed, she set her book aside and waited for him to join her under the covers. She ran her hand along his darkened jaw and began to rub the muscles at the back of his neck. He gave her a grateful kiss and turned to offer her his back as well, sighing in the comfort of her soothing skills.
At length, she snuggled against him and whispered her affections in his ear. He took her hand, kissed it and held it against his chest as he fell asleep.
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