In Consequence – Epilogue

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

At last, we reach the end. Thanks for following my story.

-Trudy

John sat in his shirtsleeves at the walnut secretary in the corner of the master chamber. His hand smoothed over the map that lay before him. The broad light of early afternoon illuminated the surveyor’s paper as his gaze measured vale and plain still largely untouched by man’s building. Soft, low humming sounded from the bedside behind him. Well he knew that the drifting melody was meant for the babe at his wife’s breast. The gentle sound filled the room, softening the master’s tightened features and soothing the strain of anxiety that arose at the thought of his sweeping plans.

“Oh dear, I don’t believe he will take his nap after all,” Margaret declared, punctuating her frustration with a sigh.

Mr. Thornton’s chair scraped the floor in swift reply. He shrugged on his coat before stepping to his wife’s side. A dark-haired babe of nearly five months peered up at his mother with bright eyes, his tiny hand clutching tight to the fabric gathered at her breast.

“No matter, give him to me.” He smiled at his son’s resistance to follow schedule as he scooped up the tiny lad.

With the babe secure in his grasp, John bent to kiss his wife. The touch of lips, lingering and tender, banished for a delicious moment any extraneous thoughts of a world beyond and kindled the embers of the burning love constantly within. Time had not diminished the stirring thrill of claiming her as his. The strong sense of what she was to him had only grown more profound as time had passed. Motherhood had not dulled her allure but burnished her beauty into something even more vibrant and holy to him.

Reluctantly, he rose from the bliss of the simmering contact, his gaze lingering upon the rosy blush on her porcelain cheeks as the curl of long lashes fluttered in reciprocation of feeling. She lifted eyes of absolute adoration to his a moment before glancing at the wriggling child in his grasp.

“I’m certain Mother will not mind caring for him,” he assured her. The proud father was convinced of his pronouncement as he admired anew the perfect beauty of the child of their love’s creation.

Margaret admitted to herself that his judgment was very probably correct; however, she could not help feeling a pang of guilt to oblige her mother-in-law to care for the babe for several hours. If only Dixon were here! But she could not begrudge her long-time servant one afternoon of freedom from her weekly duties.  Although Dixon still sometimes grumbled about her mistress’ choice to nurse her own child and keep the baby’s crib in the master bedroom, Margaret knew the supercilious maid adored caring for her young offspring and went well beyond the tasks of a lady’s maid to also attend to the nursery. She knew, too, that the tradition-bound servant from the south had come to greatly respect her mistress’ husband, despite the clash of stubborn wills that occasionally reared between them in the form of dagger-fierce looks or muttered oaths.

Mr. Thornton paced around the room, gently pointing out to his son the objects in the room while his wife dressed for their outing. Jealous of the fleeting opportunity in which he could hold the growing infant in his arms, he knew that such moments were hallowed time that would quickly become mere memory as the months and years hastened on.

Once Margaret was ready, John followed his wife’s descent to the drawing room, still holding the cooing baby.

“Johnny would not sleep. I tried…” Margaret blurted in explanation as the threesome passed through the entryway into the open living space.

“Give him to me,” Hannah directed with satisfaction, laying her embroidery aside to take her grandchild from her son. Settling the moving bundle in her arms, she was at once oblivious to all other activity as she smiled at the babe. A glow of serene contentment swept the mark of care-worn years from the widow’s face.

On a sofa nearby, a small girl in a white smock dress sat with attentive eyes upon the whiskered face of her grandfather. Louisa was so engrossed in the story that she did not notice her parents had entered the room. The corners of John’s mouth lifted in a smile as he took in the sight of his daughter’s rounded face and tousled chestnut curls. The vision of the bonded generations never ceased to warm his heart. It had been a blessing to receive such a gentle soul as his father-in-law’s into their home.

Margaret was relieved that her husband’s prophecy was correct. Hannah would see no toil in caring for the child while they were away.

“We’ll return as soon as we’re able,” Margaret could not help uttering as her husband ushered her out of the room toward the waiting carriage outside.

A short ride took them to the same station where they had begun their wedding journey nearly four years before. As they boarded a first-class compartment on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, a fresh feeling of new beginnings rose within them, filling the air with the tingling expectation of conjoined hope for the path they had chosen.

Their hands were clasped together in calm unity as the train carried them past monotonous rows of back-to-back houses that had been built in haste for the influx of factory workers during the recent decades of Milton’s great growth. Each passenger looked out their own window, lost in a pensive trail of thoughts. The private conversations, pointed questions, and daring hopes that they had shared in the intervening years of their marriage had led to this moment, when they were about to take the first step in turning their dreams to reality.

Mr. Thornton studied the collected soot and blackened facades of the brick buildings of the town he had called home for so long, trying to recall the first impulses of his ambition to create a better model between masters and men. Perhaps the visit to Saltaire’s promising beginnings had moved him more than he had been aware at the time, although he could never have imagined initiating such a scheme at that date.

His plan was not on the grand scale of Sir Titus Salt’s venture, for he did not have endless resources from which to draw. His experiment would be no ostentatious philanthropic measure but a collaborative undertaking that integrated the interests of the men who worked under him with sound market principles upon which he had based his business. He had visited New Lanark and seen that profit could be made even when workers were granted a better life.

He could not trace the intricate weaving of fate and circumstances that had slowly worked its compelling design to change his larger aims. But he knew the elements that had played a part in forming this altogether more satisfying and inclusive endeavor and purpose: it was his wife’s unfailing compassion, the stroke of sudden and studied prosperity, and the surprising evolution of friendship with one who had once hated him.

The Master had come to rely upon Higgins for his sharp eye, quick mind, and ready diligence. The former union leader had been that first vital link to convey to the mass of workers the varied challenges with which masters continually contended to keep the mill in steady operation. The reserve of anger and distrust between the toiling hundreds and their employers had dissolved into a compatible reliance and respect at Marlborough Mills.

Many a time had he and the stalwart mill worker spent talking late into the evening, either in the factory office or in the simple home in the Princeton district. Mr. Thornton had learned the names and stories of many of the other men who worked under him, and met them on occasion as they came and went in Higgins’ home for counsel and aid. It had been the most natural and logical decision to hand Higgins the job of overseer at the mill when Williams left to settle in the south for his health. There was no other man to whom he could trust his entire enterprise, and no hint of shame in the Master’s mind at the truthful consideration that of all the men in Milton, this earnest and loyal soul could be counted as his friend.

Mr. Thornton knew he had gained the respect of all his workers. That they had contributed to and endorsed his venture to build anew and would follow wherever he would lead gave him reassurance whenever the fear of responsibility threatened to overwhelm him.

As the train passed under a bridge that marked the edge of town, Margaret observed the change from buildings to industrial acreage. A coal pit revealed in stark sight the black source of power that fed man’s ceaseless industry, and, nearby, brick fields spread for acres. These simple units of construction waited their purpose in stacked rows as far as the eye could see.

What of those who had mined that vast pile of coal and made those innumerable bricks? Margaret considered the lives of drudgery of those who toiled unseen to provide the very foundation required to fuel the country’s relentless drive for progress. She prayed for the time when those whose luxuries depended upon the menial work of others would consider the welfare of their fellow beings. It was a consolation that the men and women under her husband’s command were treated with dignity and given a chance to expand their confining existence.

Her thoughts drifted to the crafty old man who had made this venture possible. Mr. Bell had passed away a few months after Louisa’s birth. She remembered fondly the pleasure written on his face at the sight of their newborn treasure. It was his last visit to Milton. A fortnight later, they had received word of his death. Mr. Hale had been much grieved to lose his oldest friend and Margaret was still saddened to think of how much she missed his friendly humor and untiring candor.

John had been surprised at the extent of the Milton-born scholar’s holdings and had dealt carefully with the capital entrusted to him, investing portions in industrial enterprises thoroughly inspected by his own eyes. He was keenly aware of the benefit to be gained by manufacturing new precision tools and improved models of machinery in every trade.

With their rising fortune had bloomed their desire to do more to improve the lives of their workers, who had become much more than cogs on the wheel of Mr. Thornton’s success. She had watched with great satisfaction as her husband’s relationship with Nicholas slowly turned into a friendship, one that she was certain ran deeper than that of any other of his associations.

Open fields now lay outside her window, decorated at intervals with small ponds and old outlying estates. They passed green heathland before the train slowed to a stop at a quiet station where a crossroad led to a small print works factory.  A waiting coach carried them along the rutted, damp country lane.

The Milton master watched the landscape keenly as they approached the land he was certain he would purchase. A brick dye mill stood in the far distance with a half-dozen small houses dotting the countryside. He signaled the driver to bring the coach to a halt and climbed out, the smell of earth and pasture reaching his nostrils before his feet touched the leveled dirt and stones of the well-worn road.

He turned to aid his wife, and handed her down to the firm country ground. Together, they stepped up the small roadside embankment to stand level with the gently sloping grassland spread before them. A small brook curved its way in the near distance, the glimmer of water catching their eyes as they scanned the horizon.

Margaret saw in her mind’s eye a pretty house with a garden and expanses of green for her children to run and play. She imagined making helpful rounds to visit families in their homes, watching the workers’ children stream through the gates of an open schoolyard, and taking long walks with her husband on Sundays to enjoy the fruition of all they had accomplished.

Mr. Thornton envisioned the breadth and height of the new mill, the lodestar of the small village that would surround it. The faces of men and women, workers he knew by name came rushing into mind. He considered numerous others and the children and dependents whose livelihood and peace rested upon the wisdom and success of this enterprise.

A west wind tugged at his anchored hat and pummeled his resolute profile in invigorating bursts. Absorbed by the view before him, he reached out instinctively for his wife’s hand. Her skirts billowed and flapped in the strong breeze.  Tall grasses bent and swayed in undulating patterns of effortless precision until the distant dappled hills absorbed their motion. The docile rustling sound filled his senses, whispering the power and promise of collective harmony. He drew a deep breath of settled confidence as slender fingers nestled into the clasp of his own broad hand.

In Consequence – Chapter 20, pt 2

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

It was on Sunday morning before Christmas that Margaret climbed out of bed, tying on a dark blue muslin dressing gown with cream-colored ribbons and lace. She stopped at her mirror to absently pull at the tangled strands of her long auburn hair.

Although patterns of frost decorated the outside windowpanes, only a faint chill remained inside the master chamber. Fiercely protective of the one day he had to spend his time as he willed, her husband had expressly forbidden any servant from entering their room on Sunday mornings until they had been called. And so he had lit the fire himself upon first awakening, some time ago.

A faint blush tinged her face as she recalled the time spent under warm covers this chilly morn. She, too, waited for Sunday all week long and cherished all the hours of that glorious day when they were never more than a few steps away from one another.

Her mind drifted to the consideration of the secret she held, her heart quickening its tempo at the determination to tell him soon – now perhaps, while she had him all to herself.

As if in answer to her unspoken thoughts, he was suddenly there, wrapping his arms around her from behind. She tensed at first, and then relaxed against him as he held her close. She closed her eyes. A flood of pure love filled her and a tingling sensation traced up her spine as she marveled at how natural it felt to be in his embrace when they had only been quarreling strangers to one another not long ago.

His crossed wrists pressed gently against the soft flesh of her belly, sending a cascade of warm sensations through her as she thought of the natural consequences of their intimacy. Her insides fluttered in nervous exhilaration.

“John,” she began, endeavoring to steady her tone as her pulse beat in erratic anticipation of sharing her news. “I have something to tell you,” she announced somewhat boldly, turning in his hold to raise her face to his.

Her decisive impulse wavered for a tremulous moment as she looked into his eyes. “I…I believe I am with child,” she faltered, her voice fading to a whisper.

She watched his expression change from curious amusement to a stupefied intensity. Their gaze met together in shared wonder of what was to come.

“You are not certain?” he stammered, reigning in the sweeping euphoria that rose from the pit of his stomach and prickled his skin.

She dropped her gaze and blushed under his searching stare. “I’m fairly certain….”

He let out a sharp breath of incredulous joy as he gathered her to him. He could not speak, but only held her tight. A swarm of powerful, swirling emotions filled his breast. He blinked back the tears that turned everything into a blurry haze at the thought that she would bear the evidence of their union, that even now she carried within her a child – their child.

“Are you well?” he asked, loosening his hold to search her face in sudden concern.

“Yes,” she nodded, a smile breaking over her face in her joy to relieve his worry with this simple truth.

“Margaret!” he breathed, crushing her gently to him once again in desperate elation, remembering in a flash how much his world had changed since the girl from the south had come to love him.

Tears coursed down Margaret’s cheeks as they held each other for some time.

“Have you spoken to my mother?” he inquired softly with creased brow, pulling back just enough to see her face.

“No. I have told no one. You are the first,” she answered, her eyes gleaming in honest adoration.

For this, she was rewarded with a kiss that lingered gently on the lovers’ lips as they marveled at the deepening ties of their bond.

Upon Margaret’s suggestion, it was decided that they would keep the secret between them a few days more and reveal their happy news on Christmas Day.

Neither the father-to-be nor his wife could concentrate their attention upon the sermon preached that morning. Margaret’s thoughts were filled with the trepidation and excitement of considering all that the coming months would require of her. Her husband’s thoughts, however, were swept away with more ephemeral dreams of the family life he should lead and the more potent contemplation of how he should feel to hold their infant in his arms.

Margaret was both amused and touched by the barely restrained elation in her husband’s manner that day and in the days that followed. She was certain that his mother might guess their secret in observing the frequent smiles, affectionate touches, and tender glances he gave in his wife’s direction. The look in his eye as he secretly caught her gaze across the dinner table stilled her breath and caused a certain throbbing in her womb.

He swept her into his arms when alone and she laughed at his impatience to tell the world of his joy. But she also knew well the more sober concerns behind all his light-hearted anticipation. More than once she saw the flash of concern in his eyes and knew the fear that must haunt every new waiting father. For whether rich or poor, of lineage or common – all who had walked the earth for a number of years knew by relation or friendly association some heart-wrenching tale of a mother or child lost in the throes or dangerous consequences of childbirth.

At night, he talked of little else. His tentative questions about her own upbringing and her thoughts on employing a nurse let her know that her husband held no casual interest in the matters of their children. And with a little prodding, she divined that he wanted nothing to do with the traditional customs of the more elite classes that kept children secluded from the parents and would frown upon the open commingling of boisterous youth and weighted maturity that he so craved.

*****

A dusting of snow covered the mill yard on Christmas morn, amplifying the uncommon silence outside. The world seem stilled under a blanket of white while the fire in the drawing room blazed and crackled with sweet-smelling wood on this special day.

Adolphus Watson had been invited to join the family gathering. Never far from the object of his admiration, he wore a permanent smile which only broadened at every glance he made toward Fanny, whose fetching figure and flaxen hair were accentuated in a blue patterned silk dress with ribboned lace and layers of flounces that rustled with every movement.

With the decorated tree standing sentinel nearby, Hannah Thornton began to read the story of Jesus’ birth, as she had done even those years when her young brood had sat next to her in humbling quarters. But this time she stopped mid-way and passed the great worn Bible to her daughter-in-law with nod.

A fleeting look of surprise turned to one of grateful respect as Margaret took the book gingerly into her hands. She read the remaining well-loved passages in the clear, calm voice of conviction as her husband and father looked admiringly on.

Mulled cider was served to all, its spicy aroma filling the room. And with warm hands and hearts, they began the exchange of simple gifts that had adorned the tree.

Margaret’s pulse pattered as her husband pulled out the gift she had made for him from a fist-sized silk sac. A small heart-shaped pillow of deep claret, with elaborate embroidery of white and yellow roses on winding stems lay in his hand. His words she could not recall. She knew by the look in his eyes and the manner that he handled it, that he would treasure it. She could not help smiling broadly when he tucked it into his breast pocket, where he would keep it for many weeks to come.

She adored the pearl-drop earrings her husband had chosen for her. They were truly elegant and well-crafted, but she cherished much more the way his face had shone when she had assured his hopeful glance that they were beautiful.

Amused and intrigued by the soft laugh John made at the gift of gloves from his mother, Margaret learned later that he received a new pair every year but was forever leaving them somewhere and could be trusted to lose them before the next year’s replenishment.

Margaret moved to sit next to her father as she presented him with a papered box containing sugared walnuts, a favorite indulgence which her mother had always given him each Christmas. He patted her hand in thanks and gave her a wavering smile.

He had presented a cheerful manner this day, Margaret thought in loving admiration, although she had seen in his eyes at times that haunting longing to bring back the bygone years which would never come again. She gave him an embroidered piece, a bookmark stitched with the yellow roses that had bloomed in such fragrant profusion about the faraway parsonage of her childhood.

He touched the handmade gift with reverent fingers as he recognized the hint of Helstone in the pattern and thanked her for this new addition to his collection of her handiwork.

“Papa,” she began, laying her small hand on his. “I have another gift for you….” Margaret signaled her husband with a nervous glance and watched him take a place nearer his mother.

“In truth, it is a gift for both you and Mother Thornton,” she added, looking earnestly to her mother-in-law a moment before addressing her father again. “Come summer…you shall be a grandfather.”

Mr. Hale stared unblinking in momentary incomprehension, but Hannah jerked her head toward her son for confirmation of this startling news. Standing nearby, John could not suppress the beaming smile that lit his face as he caught his mother’s inquiring gaze and nodded. She reached her hand out and he took it, giving it a squeeze.

“My Margaret…to be a mother…” Mr. Hale sputtered, awakening to the full meaning of his daughter’s words. He cupped her smooth, youthful face with his own wrinkled hand as he looked over the sweet features of the girl he remembered as a darling child. “Children are an heritage of the Lord,” he quoted with reverence, the verse from Scripture tripping more easily from his tongue while tangled emotions filled his mind with images of her childhood.

“Yes, Father,” she choked as the first tears began to spill silently down her cheeks. She leaned forward to embrace him, and he clasped his daughter to him, his own eyes moistening at this precious display of affection.

Hannah swallowed and averted her gaze from the private scene, keeping strong rule over her own heart, which swelled nearly to bursting with pride and affection for her son, whom she knew would be a very fine father.

When congratulations were offered to the expecting couple and both Mr. Watson and Mr. Hale had given John’s hand a hearty shake, Fanny raised her voice to deliver a somewhat petulant proclamation of her own. “I also have something to share. Last evening, Watson asked if I would be his wife… and I have accepted! We are to be married soon!” she declared, looking from face to face with bright eagerness to ensure that all had heard.

The young girl preened proudly at the surprised felicitations that came from Margaret and her father and chattered on to her sister-in-law about Watson taking her to the jeweler’s to select a ring. Mother and son also gave their blessing to the match, taking care to sound appropriately enthused, although John had warned his mother of the coming proposal after Watson had come to him days ago to officially ask for his sister’s hand in marriage.

A spirit of festive excitement and promise pervaded the atmosphere when the small company gathered later at the gleaming crystal and china- laden table for a Yuletide dinner of roast goose and all the trimmings. Mr. Hale requested the privilege of saying grace before the first course was served.

Normally reticent to take on any role that approximated the authority of his former vocation, the ex-vicar on this occasion delivered a short homily on the blessings of family and the unifying love of Christ. His speech touched those that discerned the great gratitude that moved the widower to speak with such simple elegance.

When the gray light of day had long faded into the blue-black darkness of a winter’s night, the family assembled around the piano in the glowing lamplight of the small rose-colored parlor. Fanny’s fingers commanded the keyboard with middling skill as she played and sang with shrill exuberance all the familiar carols of the season. Margaret’s harmonizing alto voice joined in as she sat next to her sister-in-law, turning the pages when required.

The rich baritone tones of John’s voice carried over the toneless but merry squawking of the newly engaged bachelor. The aged widow added her pleasant sound as did the elder parson from the south, who both looked upon the future with greater hope for new born happiness. And so, for a time, the walls resonated with the joyful voices of Christmas singing.

*****

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the chatter and bustle of preparing for Fanny’s wedding. On more than one occasion, young Ralph Thompson awkwardly begged for pardon as he ushered himself through the drawing room to Mr. Hale’s upstairs study while piles of fabric and lace had transformed the common living quarters into a private fashion salon.

Margaret marveled at her mother-in-law’s patience as Fanny fluctuated and halted over every detail in her determination to choose and oversee the creation of her wedding dress and the grand assortment of other garments constituting her trousseau. And beyond this, Fanny hedged upon all the other sundry but vastly important decisions including the matter of the flowers, the proper guest list, the attendants, the menu for the wedding breakfast and every possible contingency for the elaborate heralding of this one gala day.

So much thought was put into the arrangements for the ceremonial matters of the occasion, that Margaret often wondered if there were room in Fanny’s contemplations for the consideration for the type of marriage she wished to create in the years that followed. Margaret knew by her mother-in-law’s despairing glances and quiet sighs that she was not alone in worrying how well Fanny understood the nature and seriousness of the life-long commitment she was about to embark upon.

Margaret remained mystified by her husband’s actions in this one thing: Fanny’s ability to obtain all the frivolous accoutrements she desired from so temperate and prudent a brother. Although he had iterated a few authoritative limitations to his sister’s concocted dreams in exasperation, he was generally content to let her have anything she desired.  Margaret did not remark about the cost such a lavish wedding must certainly entail, for she discerned by careful watching that the expenses did weigh upon John’s mind, although he shouldered them without complaint.

But she did not feel the twinge of jealousy she supposed that any other new wife might as she silently sewed tiny, simple clothes for her babe while the parade of Fanny’s extravagance continued from day to day. Nor did she feel the impulse to caution her husband in any regard concerning the financial impact of his tacit acquiescence to Fanny’s ostentatious wishes.

No, she loved him all the more for his weakness in spoiling his sister, for in such forbearance she saw his great desire to give all to those under his careful protection. He had been more father than brother to the girl who for years took her wealth and security for granted. His heart was larger and deeper than any casual observer could suspect. No, she loved him more for all his faithful loving.

At last the scheduled April day arrived, much to the relief of everyone abiding at Marlborough Mills. For indeed, Margaret was afraid her father would begin to take to his rooms once again if the family were made to endure Fanny’s endless comments concerning wedding preparations for many more weeks.

Margaret sat in the front of the church, waiting for the ceremony to begin. A light spring rain had wet the streets, roofs, and dirt of Milton earlier in the morning. The smell of dampened earth and stone wafted into the church to blend naturally with the scent of the garlands and grand bouquets of roses adorning the solemn interior.

Fanny had fussed and fretted that the heavens would be so unkind as to spoil her day, but Margaret had found great comfort in listening to the steady pattering sound of nature outside while Dixon had aided her in fastening her dress and coiffing her hair.

The sky had since brightened to its usual gray luster, and now the sanctuary was filled with well-dressed classes of Milton’s more elite society, who awaited the arrival of the bride.

A majestic strain from the organ turned the gathered company’s attention to the back of the church where Fanny appeared on the arm of her brother. Although Margaret surmised that all other eyes must be fastened upon the bride, hers were drawn to the man who walked beside her. The young wife smiled at the manner in which Fanny’s fashionably voluminous hooped skirt seemed to keep her escort at an awkward distance. But her face shone as she watched her husband carry himself with the confident dignity and purpose that would always stir silent homage in her soul. Even after these long months of marriage, the sight of him – magnificently handsome in his formal attire, stilled her breath and roused clenching sensations that stupefied her with their power. That she was bonded to such a man – that she alone knew him as no other – caused her heart to twist and swell with the pain of desire to love him as no one else ever could.

As the bridal party neared, she saw the fleeting nervousness of the bride. Her heart went out to Fanny, whom she hoped would find half the happiness that she herself had found in wedded felicity.

When John had played his part in giving his sister to the beaming groom, he turned to take his seat. Margaret saw the fond communication that passed in a flashing look between mother and son and rightly counted herself an outsider for a moment. For truly, no one but they two knew the cost of bringing Fanny to this moment.

Margaret smiled at her husband as he sat next to her and took her hand in his. Seated between him and her father at this sacred family event, she was supremely content. She had found her place and purpose – she was home, and felt a buoyant sense of joyful gratitude to know it.

John listened intently to the vows being uttered, the force of feeling he had known on the day he had repeated those same promises returning to him in amplified measure. Every word of them he had meant, and would keep as sacred covenant until his last dying breath. He grasped tighter the small hand in his and saw in her loving glance the steadfast return of all his devotion. His heart beat strongly in silent allegiance to the depth of their bond.

She had arrived in his life as a crack of lightning. Her voice of disdain and reproach had thundered through him, shaking the very foundation of his ordered existence. Passion, struggle, and torment had crashed and poured in upon him until he had nearly drowned in the furor of his longing to have her as his own.

With her acceptance of him, the tumult of the storm clouds had passed. Now, the words from her mouth and the touch of her hands were raindrops of serenity, refreshing the tired and hardened landscape of his soul with renewed vigor of purpose and compassion for all.

He was certain that it had been heaven’s bestowal – yet a miracle to him – to place the girl from Hampshire in his care. As she sat beside him in this church, her belly swollen with his child, he could not contain the soaring sense of satisfaction that filled his chest to bursting with humbling gratitude and immense joy. Years of unbounded, ripening promise lay before him. He could not ask for anything more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Consequence – Chapter 20, pt 1

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

By November, Mr. Hale had moved into the great stone house across from Milton’s largest cotton mill. Crates of books had been carried up to Mr. Hale’s spacious new study and favorite pieces of furniture and numerous treasures from the Helstone parsonage had been sorted from the Crampton house to find permanent residence throughout the Thornton homestead.

The anxiety of change could be seen in the flashing of Hannah Thornton’s eyes with every new alteration to her long established order and arrangements, yet she outwardly maintained her rigid poise, calling upon all the practiced forces of her self-control to steady herself from the shifting tides that swept away the old and thrust in the new. She had endured much more than these trifling contingencies in those long-ago days when she had struggled to lay clear before her son the path which had allowed him to rise to greatness. This was his hour, in which he might reap the full reward of all his sowing. She would not stand in his way, nor reprove his choices. This was his house, and it was his right and privilege to fill it now as he pleased while she stood aside to play a lesser part.

Although unreasonable jealousy flared at times and the fear of uselessness suffocated her will to continue on, Hannah bit her tongue when tempted to censure Margaret or her son for any indulgence in new practices that conformed to their unified sense of principle and family.

It was a certain ease to Margaret’s spirit that her father abided within the walls wherein the center of her affections would dwell. But not all at once would the burden of grief be lifted from the widower’s heart. For the first confusing days after his arrival, Mr. Hale largely remained shut up in the quiet sanctuary of his study and Margaret worried he would swiftly form the habits of a recluse.

Fanny essayed to be politely patient midst the upheaval around her, but could not understand the fuss being made over an old parson and told her mother so in whining tones whenever they two were alone. The proud young girl soothed her nettled thoughts with confident dreams of soon setting up her own grand household to perfection when she became mistress of Mr. Watson’s estate in Hayleigh.

So it was with simpering smiles that she received Adolphus Watson’s attentions when he came on Sunday afternoons to promenade along the high street with her in the crisp autumn air.

John and Margaret chaperoned the couple, strolling some distance behind them and enjoying the opportunity to take a pleasant walk together. Husband and wife exchanged knowing looks with a glint of mirth when Fanny stopped quite often to exclaim over some trinket or luxurious fabric on display in the windows of Milton’s finest shops.

“I do believe Mr. Watson would make a gift of anything she sets her sights upon!” Margaret whispered to her husband as she watched Fanny fawn over a fur-lined coat of extravagant style.

John smirked at Watson’s besotted admiration of the loquacious beauty at his side. “Then it’s fortunate for him the shops are closed today,” he quipped in lowered tones.

Margaret smiled in agreement. “But surely, she wouldn’t allow him to buy her anything so costly,” she replied, staring dubiously at Fanny’s antics.

“His pockets are deep; I have no doubt Fanny will seek to find out how deep,” he answered, shaking his head at his sister’s petty interests.

“John!” she chastised him as a grin stole over her face.

“Providing Watson has a care to retain some spending sense, I see no harm in it. If they both enjoy the game, it may well be a perfect match,” her husband surmised.

Fanny fluttered her lashes with beaming pleasure at some word of her attending beau and happily threaded her arm with Watson’s to resume their ambling walk.

Margaret looked up into her husband’s face. Soft smiles traced both their lips. His eyes met hers with a glittering intensity of feeling, the look passing between them silently acknowledging the depths upon which their marriage was founded.

Upon reaching home, the foursome put up their coats, cloaks, and bonnets to enter the large drawing room, where the fireplace worked assiduously to keep the chilled air outside at bay.

Margaret was pleasantly surprised to find her father still seated across from Mrs. Thornton in his easy chair, just as they had left him after luncheon. Mrs. Thornton put her sewing away at their arrival and Mr. Hale closed his book, smiling warmly at the younger set.

The room filled with casual conversation. From the prospects of this winter’s severity to Watson’s travels to the continent, Fanny sprinkled every subject with animated frivolity. Although the newlyweds occasionally added their say, they were content just to be seated together in this relaxed family atmosphere. The day was passed very pleasantly, despite the dreary weather out of doors.

Margaret stepped into her father’s study later that evening to wish him good night. Books lined both walls surrounding a broad mahogany desk. A loved painting from the parsonage preserved the green hills of Hampshire from the looming brick and stone of industry outside this refuge. Gold-toned patterns on the wallpaper shone in the angled light from the brass lamp that lit the scattered pages and volumes spread out before the vicar’s bowed head.  Seated in the old leather chair Margaret knew from childhood, Mr. Hale looked comfortably at home in this private space. As well he should, Margaret smiled to herself, for John had seen to furnish the room much like his own study, ordering the shelving to be built along the walls much to Fanny’s annoyance during the days when hammering and sawing seemed incessant near her room.

“I am glad you joined us downstairs this afternoon, Papa,” Margaret enthused as her father turned to greet her. “You stayed even while we went out on our walk. I know Mrs. Thornton is not always very conversant…”

“No, no…quite the contrary! I happened to ask her something or other concerning Milton and we proceeded to talk. I believe she and I learned a great deal about each other. I told her a bit about the struggles of village life and she, in turn, told me some of the things she has seen in her days here in Milton,” he related. “Why you know, they did survive on naught much else but water-porridge for years. Truly, she is a remarkable woman,” the vicar declared with thoughtful reverence.

“Yes,” the young bride vacantly acknowledged. The revelation of her mother-in-law and husband’s earlier deprivation speared her with a deep admiration and sympathy whenever her thoughts fell upon this history in later days. But at this moment, Margaret was surprised by her father’s account of easy conversation with the tight-lipped widow. Tension released from her shoulders as she took a breath of gratitude. Something in the manner of his expression told her he would no longer play the part of a stranger in this house.

Despite the dampening blow of Mrs. Hale’s death and all its ensuing contumelies, John could not contain an inner glow of deep contentment. He accounted himself well suited for married life. His house was full, giving it new energy and life from the dull routines of years. John exulted in it: his wife greeted him eagerly every day when he returned home at dusk, conversation at dinner was more engaging with new participants gathered around the table, he spent time reading and discussing the classics regularly with his father-in-law in the older man’s new study, and his last waking moments of the evening as well as the first moments of every morning were spent in the presence of the one who had transformed his home life into this glorious effusion of living love.

Therefore, his heart was light even when there came a period of days when he was pressed to return to his office after dinner. With the machinery of industry dormant in the dark corridors of the closed mill, Mr. Thornton pored over ledgers and accounts to ascertain his financial position. Higgins’ aid in amassing workers to finish the large order that had been stalled by the strike, had helped the Master evade the crippling penalties or lost revenue that would have accompanied the completion of a product delivered well after schedule.

New business was stagnant. The strike and ensuing riot at his mill had unsettled many of his regular customers. But connections in London had sent a new potential buyer his way and he was intent upon assessing his production capacity to propose a viable schedule for an order of such magnitude. He would need to coordinate every component of his enterprise and order a few new materials. If his plan was rejected, there would be some financial repercussions, but the risks were now safeguarded by the deeds of ownership that now bore his name and proved to the bank his credit-worthy status.

He put his quill up after scribbling the last line of his business proposition and sat back in his chair, expelling a long breath of weary relief. Raising his eyes to the clock on the wall, he noted the time. It was well after eleven. He turned in his seat to see the darkened windows of his house. The nightly prayers had been made some time ago.

Another sigh escaped him. Markedly different from the exasperated sigh of obligation’s pull, this audible exhalation expressed the sweet, aching longing that centered in his chest and flooded to every tired extremity as he thought of the fair face that must be resting serenely on the pillow next to his own vacant space.

He shivered as he shrugged on his overcoat, realizing at once how cold the office had become since the steam engines had ceased their fuming hours ago.

The stillness of the hour was palpable as he crossed the empty yard to the house in the dark. It was only a matter of hours before this place would begin to stir with life again at the first glow of dawn.

He shut out the frigid night wind as he closed the door of his home behind him and deftly navigated through the darkened house with his lantern. Thinking of the sleepers in their beds, he trod quietly up the stairs, and walked the carpeted hallway of the upper hall with careful footfall until he reached the entryway to his room.

He opened the door slowly. Surprised to find the space within softly illuminated, he swiftly shifted his gaze to trace the source of light. A small corner of the room glowed from a table lamp by his wife’s bedside. She looked up with a start from the book in her hands, her thick hair falling carelessly about her shoulders in a manner both sweetly innocent and beguilingly sensual, a vision that he knew at once was his privilege, and his alone, to see every evening.

“You’re still up?” he rasped, his wavering voice waking from the long hours of solitude.

She heard the uncertain hopefulness in his voice. “I wished to wait for you,” she affirmed as she threw back the covers of her warm bed to go to him. It had not been some casual whim or anxious need that kept her awake at this hour. It was a conscious recognition of all the hardships he had endured in the past and his present diligence to all his responsibilities that created in her a deep-seated desire to offer him all the comfort and companionship of her affection to soften his days. She wrapped her arms around his waist as she reached him and lifted her face to his with a loving smile. “I could not sleep while you will still working….and not at home,” she whispered the last words as she stretched up to touch her lips to his.

His lips quivered to receive from her such tender welcome, which melted away all his weary strain and sent his limbs to fair trembling as he enfolded her closer, for this was what he had dreamed of since he had slipped a betrothal ring on her finger. And further still, the soothing effect of her soft, intimate attentions sank into his essence, evoking and filling some buried craving he had locked away these many years.

Their kisses, honest and gentle at this midnight hour, warmed every portion of his inner being. But his skin was yet cool to the touch, as Margaret discovered when she laid a caressing hand along his bristling jaw. “You’re cold!” she exclaimed, withdrawing to evade the entrancing pull of their continued kisses as much as to chide him for his lack of self-care. “You should not stay so late where there is little heat. Come to bed.”

“I will,” he answered with an irrepressible grin at both her cosseting censure and her insistent directive. Surely she must know there was no place on earth he would rather be.

A blush warmed her cheek at the implication of her words and she turned to leave him but swiveled back, remembering something she had waited all day to ask him. “Mary says she will become cook at the mill come Monday next. Why did you not tell me?” she posed, her inquisitive eyes sparkling with the anticipation of his reply.

A twisted grin appeared on his face. He placed his hands upon the small of her waist, and inched her closer to him with cloying fingers. She exuded an irresistible charm, some magnetic spell that made it quite impossible for him to bear her nearness until her form was pressed against his. “I was going to show you myself, but now my surprise is ruined. Do you approve?” he asked, knowing well her answer.

“Of course I should approve. I think it a grand idea. From what Mary tells me, you have involved Nicholas in this. I only wonder how this all came about,” she said, relaxing in his arms once more.

“The idea rose naturally from my dealings and conversations with Higgins. And I hold you partially responsible for the outcome of this experiment, since you were the one to put him in my path,” he added with teasing inflection, punctuating his incriminating warning with a stolen kiss. He felt her shiver in her nightclothes and admonished her to return to bed.

“Is that what has been keeping you these long evenings?” she asked, climbing back under the covers as he had directed.

“No, not at all,” he replied as he unbuttoned his waistcoat with familiar agility. “Mr. Colthurst has been kind enough to send me a potential buyer. I have been taking stock of my financial position and the mill’s ability to fulfill a substantial order,” he explained while he continued to prepare himself for bed in the shadowy lamplight.

“The buyer has not yet decided?” Margaret inquired.

“No.”

“But you are prepared to meet his requirements?” she asked with earnest interest and confidence in her husband’s capability to meet every challenge.

“I believe so. I have spent much of the evening writing a proposition that I hope will encourage him to consider giving us his business.”

“And if he does not?” she hesitated to ask, but could not help herself.

A long, low exhale could be heard from her husband, who had thrown on his nightshirt and now worked to free himself of the last remnants of his binding day clothes. “If he does not, we will need new work to keep the mill busy through the winter. If he does, we will be working at full capacity for quite some time. We will fare very well to win this order for Marlborough Mills.”

“Then I will pray that all will work for the best of everyone’s interests,” she declared.

He smiled at her sympathy in including the wider range of humanity involved in this concern. Any other woman would have thought only of her own fortune.

At last, he climbed into the wide bed and she turned out her lamp and slid to meet him in the middle. His limbs were cold against hers and his nose nearly like an icicle. But Margaret radiated an inner warmth that far surpassed any temporal displeasure aroused by the touch of his frigid flesh.

 

“And have you done with your figures and calculations at present?” Margaret teased, breaking the silence as his lips brushed against her forehead.

“Yes.” The hushed answer was spoken into her hair.

“Good, I am glad,” she said, nestling her face happily against the soft skin of his neck as she pressed closer to him in the darkness.

*****

The workers’ kitchen at Marlborough Mills fed a great multitude of curious hands its very first day and more came the next to try the convenience of eating at the adjoining hall for a pittance after word of the very palatable fare countered doubting aspersions of ill-prepared rations. The news of this new venture at Thornton’s became the talk of the trodden and tired classes and perked the ears of those in command of similar working factories.

It was only the second week of this new experiment when Fanny spoke up at dinner. “Watson says you’ve started a kitchen to feed your hands at noon. He doubts very much you’ll gain anything for your charitable gesture. They’ll take what they can get, he says, and still make their demands. You’ll not rid yourself of strikes for your trouble.”

All eyes turned to John.

The master of the house looked across the long table to his wife for steadying calm before he opened his mouth. “If Watson is so interested in my affairs, it were best he come talk to me to learn the facts,” he began with steely reserve. “I am not running a charity scheme. The hands pay for their meals which, in turn, cover the cost of the food, service, and equipment. I have no lofty expectation I shall win their unfailing allegiance. My gain is that my workers will be stronger and better able to concentrate on their tasks than a man who is half-starved should do.”

“I only wonder why you should go to such trouble to help them, when they have been so ungrateful in striking and beating down our doors,” Fanny pouted, dismissing the subject to take a delicate bite of roast duck.

“But of course, your effort in considering their needs can only improve relations. Your actions may indeed forestall their talk of strike in the future,” Mr. Hale commended with enthusiasm, pleased to see any development that would ameliorate the battle-ready attitudes between masters and men.

Hannah Thornton took silent opposition to her son’s sudden interest in expending his effort to aid the hands. She knew he had been influenced by the southern father and daughter, whose grandiose theories of philanthropic justice were unspoiled by the unpleasant reality of the inequity and toil involved in daily industry.

“I’m surprised you take so much time to deal with such matters. Certainly, you have more important concerns that need your attention,” the long-suffering widow directed to her son.

“I spend little enough time on it, Mother,” John answered in a gentler voice, willing to explain all to the one who understood his responsibilities. “From the very beginning, I have given to others the tasks of planning and putting things in motion. I have a buyer who seeks the best deals in provisions and my clerks handle all the accounting. I was consulted often at the inception of operations; but now, hardly at all.”

Hannah gave a conciliatory nod to her son, although her lips were still pressed together in doubtful disapproval.

“It seems to me that it is an enterprise of mutual benefit,” Margaret concluded, gleaning more than approval from her husband’s grateful glance across the table.

*****

The mill kitchen thrived as the weeks wore on, a hot meal at noontime during the cold dreariness of November and December being deemed a worthy prize by most hands. Mr. Thornton was tempted to count his experiment a success thus far, despite the mockery and deep-rooted cynicism behind the other mill masters’ craftily meted words of praise.

The pattern of days took on new hues and habits for all as autumn hastened toward winter. The sought-after contract from the London buyer had begun, spinning the mill into thriving action and filling Mr. Thornton’s schedule with the steady stream of responsibility and swift decision in which he excelled.

Mr. Hale found a new pupil in which to engage his enthusiasm, a sandy-haired lad of sixteen by the name of Ralph Thompson who was heir to his father’s calico printing factory but seemed much more fascinated in the philosophy and knowledge of sages and prophets than in the machinations of wood, iron, and cotton in the scheme of wealth-building. The ex-parson was convinced the boy had the mettle of a scholar and would cede his manufacturing birthright to his younger brother, who seemed much more interested in his father’s trade.

Margaret smiled every time her father’s newest pupil arrived for his lessons with a ruddy glow on his pale cheeks and a twinkle of eagerness in his eyes. She was glad her father had a ready recipient for the treasure trove of knowledge and philosophical musings he had accumulated. She knew well the great desire within him to be useful, to know that in some small way he was connected to the progress of good that would elevate all mankind.

As for herself, Margaret found satisfying pleasure in making her home a peaceable retreat for her husband and all who resided therein. There was an art to harmoniously inclining the management of a well-established house to the guidelines of a new mistress and it took acumen of intent, Christian charity, deft diplomacy, and patient planning to establish the model she envisioned. Consulting and engaging her mother-in-law in the handling of many important household matters, she gained the elder woman’s growing trust and respect and avoided not a few simmering arguments laid deep within the widow’s resistance to southern lassitude.

Although largely ignorant of the effort and particulars involved in creating the more casual and colorful atmosphere, John nevertheless noticed that his home was changed to one more like the Hales’ rented place, which he had so often admired for its lived-in feel and appearance.

That her husband was pleased with these domestic changes, Margaret knew to be true, for he sometimes told her of his pleasure at certain small observations, which were affirmed by his kisses when they were alone at evening time.

As Christmas approached, Margaret asked Fanny to help her select the greenery, fabrics, and ribbon for decorations. However, shopping excursions with her sister-in-law were always eventful and Margaret lost all certainty in her wisdom in calling Fanny to this purpose when Miss Thornton enthused over the displays in every window and was not content with purchasing more modest supplies traditionally borne home at Christmastide.

Fanny’s enthusiasm for all things modern and beautiful was catching and Margaret was persuaded to indulge in ordering a spruce tree sent to the house. Fanny proclaimed that everyone of the least importance had a Christmas tree these days, but that her mother had never capitulated in following this trend, which she felt was a nonsensical extravagance. The young mistress felt a nervous qualm at the notion of her mother-in-law’s silent disapproval, but she reasoned that it was the perfect time to usher in new traditions. Besides, she believed the addition would add a freshness and gaiety to the drawing room at a time when she knew her father’s thoughts and her own would be drifting to the simple Christmases her family had shared in Helstone, when her mother had been alive.

In Consequence – Chapter 19, pt 3

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

{Note to readers: the final chapter of this story will appear when it is finished, hopefully by early July.}

 

The first pink glow of the coming dawn began to lift the night shadows from the empty mill yard outside the Master’s bedchamber. The faint sound of clanking metal and hissing steam from the distant engine room penetrated the sleeping bride’s dreams as the solid form she was nestled against began to stir at the call of duty.

“Don’t,” Margaret called out in hazy desperation, clutching at her husband’s nightshirt to keep him close. “Stay with me a little longer,” she whispered softly into his chest, feeling a twinge of shame for her outburst. She could not bear his withdrawal yet from this perfect haven of peace. The wakening dread of another grieving day loomed ahead of her. The impending loneliness of the hours without him caused her to cling to him.

She was weary of the heaviness in her heart; she wished to stay in the safe comfort of his arms forever. Margaret traced her fingertips over the thin-clad chest in front of her, in fresh wonder of her privilege to touch him in such a way. The exuberance of their newly wedded bliss had been marred by tragedy, the natural joy of such an occasion cut short by affliction. He deserved so much more.

He had patiently borne the vicissitudes of this trial and had offered gentle comfort at every turn. A surge of profound love filled every fiber of her being and flowed out through her fingers as they continued their hesitant exploration of his strong form. She wished to give him all her tender affection.

His slowed breathing and perfect stillness gave her courage to touch the bare skin exposed below his neck. Then, with daring purpose, she stretched her neck to place two feather-light kisses along his throat.

The tightening grip at her back sent a sensual thrill coursing though every nerve. She ceased her gentle assault with pounding heart, the blush of sudden shame stilling her hands and keeping her eyes closed.

Seconds passed until he moved to bring his face to hers. She felt the touch of his lips and moved her own in loving accord.

The gentle fervency of his hesitant kisses turned every tired fiber in her body to tingling energy. She slid her arm around his neck and kissed him with more abandon to let him know she was in no fragile, untenable state. She wished to lose herself in the exaltation of love, to cast aside the shroud of mourning to know and feel what it was to be alive.

 

He groaned at her inviting response and rolled to trap her beneath him, kissing her with matching ardor until he remembered that only yesterday her mother had been put to her final rest. He tore his mouth from hers. “Are you certain this is what you wish?” he rasped, hovering over her with trembling longing to love her as he had not done in days, starved for that intimate bond of affection only so recently gained.

The light of love in her eyes took his breath away as she reached up to smooth his roughened jaw and curl a small hand possessively about his neck. She nodded almost imperceptibly, her eyes locked with his.

He let out a ragged breath before swooping down to crush his mouth to hers.

*****

The Master of Marlborough Mills strode through his factory with bristling energy. The muscles of his long legs slackened to be released from hours of desk-work. Now free from ledgers and accounts, his mind returned to those rapturous moments of fervent fusion in the day’s first light.

A pulsating thrill coursed through his veins as he remembered how she had clung to him, pulling him ever closer with a desperation for his touch that had torn at his heartstrings and urged him on to a feverous pitch of tender passion. He had loved her without restraint and she had wanted him – needed him – to take her to that place where only they two existed and the world was set right.

The knowledge that it was he, and he alone, that could give her such comfort gripped his heart with a fervor of wild emotion that blazed through every portion of his being, leaving him stunned at the notion that he should be what she was to him: the reason for everything he did. For now, every task he performed, every decision he made – small or great – and every endeavor for the future rebounded to her safekeeping and comfort. That he should be her happiness….

The image of her face, glowing with peaceful contentment in the aftermath of their ardent lovemaking, sent tremors of feeling to his very depths. In the midst of all her distress, he had been able to erase every trace of sorrow, if only for a moment. The way her eyes lit with tender adoration would be seared in his memory forever.

The mere thought of her filled the air around him with vibrancy of purpose and power. He felt that constant, aching desire to hold her….

“Master…Master!” The insistent call cut through his mental wanderings and he stopped to face his overseer, who looked aggravated in his endeavor.

“Yes?” Mr. Thornton returned, lifting his chin in authority as the clattering din of the factory continued around them.

“That man, Higgins, wants a word with you. Says he has important matters to discuss. Shall I tell him to meet you after hours?” Williams offered, hoping for a chance to berate the new mill worker for his impertinent intrusion upon the master’s time.

Mr. Thornton cast his eyes over the multitude of synchronized machines to meet Higgins’ inquiring gaze as he bent over his station. “No. I’ll speak to him,” he clipped, leaving Williams standing in the long aisle.

“I called out when yo’ passed, but yo’ head were elsewhere,” Higgins complained with a slight grin as the Master drew near.

A twinge of embarrassment flashed color into Mr. Thornton’s cheeks as he furrowed his brow in consternation.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the worker offered in low tones, believing he understood his employer’s distracted state.

“Thank you.”

“I’ve got some figures for yo’ and a host of questions I need fair answer to afore we set to anything,” Higgins announced, training an eye on the moving arm of the loom in front of him as he deftly continued to work his station.

“Meet me at noon tomorrow, then….I’ll provide the lunch,” the Master added as an afterthought, with a slight lift to one corner of his mouth.

Higgins grinned and nodded in acknowledgement. “How’s Miss Margaret?” he continued, his face returning to solemn consideration.

“She bears up well.”

“And the parson?” Higgins asked.

The Master discerned the worried gleam in the worker’s eye with a warm glow of appreciation for his genuine care for the aging vicar. “Not as well, I’m afraid,” he admitted, feeling strangely free to converse openly with this man.

“It’s a sore trial to lose your wife. I dun think the wound ever mends. I think on mine yet ever day, and it’s been these seven years,” Higgins related, maneuvering the loom in front of him all the while.

Mr. Thornton could only nod, absorbed as he was in how it could be that he had never considered the father of two daughters as a bereaved widow. He doubted he would ever look at Higgins in a callous manner again. And with these thoughts turning over in his mind, he strode away to continue his round through the mill.

*****

When the toil of the cotton mill had ceased and the masses had been freed until morning, Mr. Thornton followed straightaway the path to Crampton with an eagerness to see the one whose beguiling image had chased his thoughts all day.

He had taken only a few steps inside the house when she came rushing to greet him. Soft gleaming eyes told him of her own lonely longing. No words were needed as she willingly thrust herself into his waiting arms.

The anxiety of hours vanished as he felt the press of her form against his. She offered and he received sweet kisses of glad reception. Chaos might reign without but this touch of lips, this assurance of her affection, stilled all the restless rattlings of his soul and chased away the contumelies of existence.

Relaxing his hold on her, he looked into her eyes with wonder, his arms wrapped around her waist in possessive pleasure. She was here, swathed in the requisite clothes of this era – his very own goddess of love and delight. The memory of the morning’s bliss stirred his desire.  He pulled her close for one more kiss, staving off the urge to take her home at once.

Instead, he climbed the stairs to go to his grieving father-in-law whilst his wife stayed to sew in the parlor below.

Mr. Hale clung to these nighttime visits as a drowning man gropes for something solid to save him. The days he spent silently spinning doubts and flinging hard-wrought questions to the Divine, whom he was oft times more tempted to curse than praise. To his son-in-law’s patient ear, he delivered many of these doubts and fears, the dark and twisted knots of which seemed to unravel in the open discourse with one who was unmoved by the rough course of faith through the deep sea of grief. The younger man offered carefully reasoned words to steer the shipwreck back to chartered territory as one who has himself navigated such perilous waters.

Margaret remarked to her husband at the end of each of these long sequestered talks how much her father seemed altered for the better by his visits.

It was the third such evening, when Mr. Hale endeavored to apologize for keeping his daughter from her rightful home that John discerned the moment was ripe to lay bare the path intended for the widower’s future.

“Margaret does not wish for you to be alone,” Mr. Thornton gently explained.

“I’m certain I can manage. I have my books…” the old man returned, casting a blank gaze to the volumes on his desk.

“There is no need for you to keep a separate house. Marlborough Mills has many empty rooms at present. You could have your own study as well, to which you could bring your pupils.”

“I should not like to interfere…” Mr. Hale protested, shaking his head as his brow crumpled in doubt.

“It is not an interference to welcome family under my roof. It would please me very much to be able to take up our conversations most every evening. And surely, you must know Margaret would be very content to have you near,” John declared.

The older man fumbled with his fingers, rubbing and interlacing them in in dazed contemplation, his eyes vacantly trained upon this restless motion.

“You do not need to answer at present. But I hope you will consider it,” the son-in-law said softly.

More silence.

An image of the future’s promise appeared to John’s thoughts. He smiled at the possibility of the vision’s persuasive power and opened his mouth to share it. “I should like very much for you to be around to read to my children.”

Mr. Hale snapped his head around in questioning surprise.

John dropped his gaze for a moment as a rush of warmth gave a tint of color to his face. “Of course, there is no news at this time. But I expect it will not be long…” he stammered in a low voice.

“Of course,” his father-in-law echoed as he looked wonderingly about in wholly new contemplation. “Are you certain there are enough rooms?” he asked after several moments of pregnant silence, lifting a hesitant gaze up to his daughter’s husband.

*****

“He will come, then?” Margaret guessed eagerly from her husband’s triumphant smile as he descended the stairs.

“He has not given the precise word, but I feel certain it is settled,” he said, coming to where she stood and reaching out to draw her close.

She threw her arms around his neck, jumping into his embrace. “I knew I could trust you!” she breathed in joyous relief.

“I will take every opportunity to please you, for such reward,” he replied, only half in jest, unable to contain the broad smile that pulled up the corners of his mouth.

Ignoring his teasing remark, Margaret slackened her hold as a contingent concern came to mind. “What of Dixon?” she queried, gazing up to him with cautious hope.

“What of her?” he echoed, wishing the subject away.

“We must take her on as well.”

“Must we?” he returned with a pained expression.

She nodded, her eyes dancing at his affected protest.

“Then, I suppose she must come,” he conceded with a sigh of defeat. She tightened her grasp around his neck once more in beaming gratitude.

“Now, I believe I am sorely in need of reward for my magnanimity,” he announced with a devilish grin, his arms tightening about her waist.

A matching smile spread over her face as she stretched up to oblige him with a kiss.

In Consequence – Chapter 19, pt 2

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

In Consequence by Trudy Brasure

John opened his eyes to the filtered light of a gray dawn, conscious at once that this was his one morning of leisure. He stretched his neck and placed the gentlest of kisses on the forehead of the sleeper beside him before carefully climbing out of bed. It was no easy task to leave the shared sanctuary of this new intimacy. Sheer force of will, dutiful habit, and the niggling fear of overwhelming her with his need compelled him to quit the place that was for him the longed-for respite and reward from all the strivings of his days.

A floor board creaked as he crossed the chilly room to start a fire. The rustling sounds of his movement broke the spell of silence that kept the dreamer asleep. John stepped nearer to the stirring body under the covers and watched, transfixed, as Margaret drowsily raised herself to sit, the long curls of her hair falling in disarray around her.

“Good morning,” he murmured, the deep timbre of his voice wavering in the unadulterated joy of being the one to witness such moments.

She answered with a faint humming noise as she brought her hands to her face to wipe the tiredness from her eyes and then blinked to take in her surroundings.

A smile flashed on his face and then faded as he observed the dawning recognition of her waking reality – newly married bride, bereaved daughter, and worried sister – passed over her features. How much he wished he could abolish the suffering he saw settle into her eyes!

“It’s Sunday,” she muttered, hearing no sound from the mill outside and surprised somewhat at this small revelation. The days and nights since their return had passed in a blur.

“Yes,” he answered with an inward sigh. For weeks, he had imagined the incomparable satisfaction of having Margaret seated at his side at the church his family had attended for years. At this moment, he fervently wished this trial of grief swept away so that they might continue to enjoy all the new and simple delights of their conjoined lives.

“We will return to your father’s house after we breakfast,” he assured her, sitting down on the bed beside her. He reached out to take her face into his broad hand and passed his thumb gently over her cheek as he searched the traces of sadness in her face. Avoiding the temptation of pressing his lips to hers, he pulled the soft curves of her feminine form against his firm chest. The scent of her filled his being as his stubbled cheek and chin tangled blissfully in her hair. He longed to hold time captive and keep her in his embrace until all pain of sorrow melted away.

After a time, he took a determined breath and with all his strength of will released her and stood from the bed to continue to dress and allow her to do the same. He walked to the porcelain basin where razor and towel where laid out for his use. He would be satisfied and grateful, he resolved as he began his shaving ritual, to accompany her this day. They would face whatever trials lay ahead together.

*****

Frederick was glad for his sister and brother-in-law’s company, for it was apparent that the visitor from Spain strained to be released from the confinement of this cold and dark house in which he was prisoner.

All were unnerved by the restless to and fro motions of Mr. Hale, who seemed divided in his desire to spend the last reaming hours with his living son or to sit with the prostrate form of his wife, who would soon be taken from sight forever.

Dinner was somber, for everyone knew that this was the last time the remaining family would be gathered together on English soil. Frederick assayed to remark on the hospitable climate of Cadiz and its seaside beauty. A broad invitation to visit him once he had married procured little more than a glance from his father and a polite smile from his sister.

At last, the hour of parting came. Mr. Thornton announced the arrival of the cab in an effort to quell the tension rising in his breast as much as to avoid the pain of any prolonged good-byes. He hurried both of them into the small coach and took a breath of relief to spend the next few minutes safely confined from public view.

The Milton magistrate’s eyes darted about uneasily as he stepped out into the night air with his fugitive relation. He directed his charge to go and wait in the shadows of the platform while he procured his ticket.

“Mr. Thornton!” The middle-aged station-master snapped to eager attention in the presence of the powerful mill owner. “It was well-played to have brought those Irish through here a few months back. That did the strike in, didn’t it?” he chattered, having no particular interest in either side of the matter, but taking great pleasure in accounting himself quite clever to converse with such a well-known citizen.

“Yes,” Mr. Thornton answered mechanically, casting a furtive glance in Frederick’s direction. His face was downturned, blending well into the dark oblivion far from the gas-lit lamps.

The magistrate turned his face at the same instant the fugitive snapped his head in restless impulse toward the station, allowing a faint beam of gaslight to illuminate his features for one crucial second as an unknown form approached from the booking-office.

 

“You’ve got married very recently. Congratulations to you, Sir,” the station employee continued, satisfied to have remembered this tidbit of news as well.

“Thank you,” the Master muttered, impatiently watching the station employee gather the correct change and required ticket.

“Here you are,” the uniformed man declared with a friendly smile, handing the Milton cotton manufacturer his due.

Mr. Thornton gave a swift nod and swung around to glimpse a scene yards away that made his blood run cold: Frederick jerking his arm from the menacing grasp of a man in the shadowy darkness.

A terror he had never known before shot through him at the sight of this unraveling nightmare. Time was suspended in the lapse of helpless heartbeats as he raced to halt the ensuing scuffle.

“Get away from him!” John snarled, thrusting the aggressor away with wild violence.

The stranger’s eyes widened as he staggered backward, flailing his arms in vain as he pitched over the platform’s edge to the soft ground below.

Only now did the combatants hear and feel the rumble of the approaching train, coming from the other side of the platform. The cyclops of steel thundered into the station and announced its arrival with a fulminating hiss.

“That was Leonards,” Frederick sputtered, his heart still racing from the terrifying encounter.

John nodded in strained coherence at this fantastical coincidence. His own pulse pounded in his ears. Grateful to find the ticket still in his grasp, he thrust it into his brother-in-law’s hands with the admonition, “Go!”

Frederick grasped John’s hand with both of his, the anxiety of longing expressed in his face. “You will take care of my family. I am thankful to you, my brother,” he avowed.

“Godspeed,” John returned, clasping his free hand over Frederick’s as one last glance of mutual approbation passed between them. The traveler snatched his bag from the ground and hurried to board the train.

The magistrate cast a wary glance behind him and stood watch until the train, with its smuggled human cargo, chugged away into the night. With only a breath of relief to have averted the unthinkable, he turned with a fresh swarm of fear at the consequences of the incident which had passed with lightning horror only minutes ago.

Stepping toward the platform’s edge with heightened trepidation, he peered over to find the perpetrator, a gangly drunk clothed in the garb of a railway porter. The remembered whiff of gin now caused the Master to grimace in disgust. A low groan came from the inert, crumpled form below before his head lolled to one side and he began to come to life.

John’s heart battered wildly beneath his ribs as he rushed to tell the station-master of the injured man. “You will please look after one of your porters. He took a fall off the platform after accosting a passenger. He smells strongly of gin,” he managed to explain with a forced air of calm authority while his arms and limbs trembled uncontrollably.

“Of course, Sir! I’m sorry, Sir…shall I call the police?” the station-master asked in flustered obedience.

“No! The gentleman has departed and I must be away,” Mr. Thornton replied as he sped to return to the cab awaiting his return.

Once inside, he slumped against the leather cushion in the black privacy of the small compartment. His mind whirled in countless directions until it rested upon two points: Frederick would be safely out of the country in a matter of hours, and any babbling about a mutineer from a drunken sot would stand as nothing against his own word. His pulse resumed a more normal pace and the tension slackened from his tightened muscles. Resolved to make no mention of the frightful encounter at the station, Mr. Thornton had gained the better part of his solid composure by the time the cab pulled up to the Crampton house.

Margaret noted the tension that tinged his reply to her welcoming inquiry, but supposed it was only begotten of the questionable nature of his accomplished mission. She bowed her head with a trace of shame and a swell of meek gratitude that he had sacrificed his position and principles to safeguard her brother.

*****

The day of the funeral arrived. No sunlight pierced the murky clouds above the bustling town as a black-plumed carriage from Marlborough Mills jostled over cobbled streets toward Crampton. Unable to bear being abandoned in the barren spaciousness of her new home, Margaret accompanied her husband in her best black crape, determined to offer her father her aid as far as it was required.

Mr. Hale moved in a haze of helpless despair under Margaret’s fluttering attentions. A gentle entreaty from Mr. Thornton, stating that the hour had come, seemed to penetrate the mist of self-inflicted suffering. The former vicar’s eyes rose to follow the calm behest of his son-in-law. The older man leaned on the arm of the younger, as John led him to the waiting carriage.

Margaret watched them leave partly in relief but with a whisper of discontent to be banished by custom from the ceremony that would be the last acknowledgement of her mother’s brief part in this earthly existence. Nevermore would she see her mother’s face. All alone in the quiet parlor, she sank to her knees and covered her face with her hands as she allowed the flow of tears, so bravely withheld, to come freely.

Between the anchoring support of his new son-in-law and his old Oxford friend, Mr. Hale endured the ritual proceedings, softly muttering the vicar’s lines in time, the cadence of words giving meager comfort even if their import rose beyond the grasp of desperate grief at the moment of this official sundering.

Margaret was dry-eyed and composed when the mourners returned. Standing in the window with her Bible in hand, she set it aside to go to the door.

With Mr. Bell on one side, and her husband on the other, her father was guided into the house by his loyal friends. The internment of his wife had stricken him nearly blind with grief and he now tottered between the stronger men as some frail old man. Margaret’s face paled to witness it.

With glances of worried thanks given to his helpers, she kissed her father and led him to his easy chair, forthwith busying herself preparing refreshments.

When all had eaten, very little having passed through Mr. Hale’s lips, he expressed his desire to retreat to his chambers.

“Why don’t you go home,” Mr. Bell proposed to the careworn daughter, when her father had disappeared up the stairs. “I will stay here as long as necessary. Do not overburden yourself today, my dear,” he finished, receiving a grateful glance from the newly married husband.

A knot of sadness pulled tight and heavy in Margaret’s stomach as their carriage returned to Marlborough Mills. Torn between caring for father and husband, she felt an oppressive futility in rising to fulfill the role of serving either with the wholehearted devotion she desired to give. She swallowed to fend off the tears of despair that sprang to her eyes.

John escorted her into the drawing room, where Fanny and his mother offered their appropriate condolences to Margaret. Aggrieved that duty called him to leave her in her suffering state, he explained to his wife in his most tender voice that he must tend to a few things at the mill and would return as soon as he was able.

The new wife nodded her compliance, reluctant to let him go, but knowing all the while the burdens of his obligations. Ever gentle with her, he had patiently born the weight of compounded responsibility for days. How could she object to his faithful accomplishment of every task? Loneliness wrapped around her like a shroud as soon as the echo of his footsteps faded away.

When he returned later to the same room, his wife was not in the room. “Where is Margaret?” he asked with an anxious tone that pricked his mother with annoyance.

“She has just gone to her sitting room. She wished to write to her cousin in London, I believe,” Hannah answered pointedly, letting him know the girl had not been abandoned by his family. Indeed, he would never know what a trial it had been to keep company with the grieving girl for the hour or so he had been gone. When to speak, what to say, how to keep her engaged and yet give her time alone with her thoughts? All of these concerns had become a hard-worn chore for the normally taciturn matriarch. All her efforts were unmarked by him, she supposed as he rounded past her with a scant acknowledging word before he made haste to his bride.

The door to Margaret’s sitting room was ajar. He spoke her name as he pushed it gently open and entered the room where pink and mauve flowers blossomed on the walls in patterned profusion and green carpeting imitated the lushness of a garden setting. Elegantly wrapped wedding packages of various sizes were arranged in piles by the walnut secretary. But there was no occupant in the expected seat.

His heart leapt as he saw standing as still as a statue, head bowed, in the middle of the room. “Margaret!” his whispered in panicked concern, sweeping to her side to discover her cheeks wet with tears. “Margaret,” he said again, this time in comforting tenderness as he wrapped his arms around her. She melted, sobbing, into his embrace.

He cursed himself for leaving her, damning all the obligations that would keep him from tending to this one precious object of his life. “What is it?” he asked with helpless gentleness, feeling a fool for knowing, in part, the answer.

Margaret swallowed her sobs and took a long breath to make some reply. The sight of the neatly stacked gifts had reminded her of her mother’s smiling image outside the church only days ago. “She was so happy,” she endeavored to explain.

“At our wedding?” he guessed. She nodded.

“She was…..was it not right that she should be?” he asked, softly imploring.

“Yes,” she answered.

“I am sorry. Can you ever think of it with some measure of content – knowing she was happy in those last days?”

“Yes, but it is so hard…”

“I know, I know,” he soothed, caressing her back with his hands.

“And father…” she began.

“You are troubled to leave him alone,” he responded. “He must come live here…with us.”

She raised astonished eyes to his. “Are you in earnest?” she breathed, incredulous that he should propose a solution she had scarcely dared to divine herself. “Your mother….” She shook her head in doubt.

“My mother will accommodate my wishes. It is my…our house. We are free to choose the occupants. There are several empty rooms. He may have a study as well to keep his privacy and to meet with pupils.”

The oppressive weight of silent anxiety lifted at his words. He was in earnest, and had thought it all through! Fresh tears formed in her eyes as her heart swelled with love for the man she had married. She relaxed further in his hold even as doubts began to gather again in her mind. “He will not wish to be an inconvenience.…”

“Do you think I have befriended your father this long and do not yet know him?” he returned with a cajoling smile. “I will convince him that he does us a great kindness to come here. I shall enjoy taking up the classics with him – every night, if we so choose. And you shall not need to divide your time between your former home and Marlborough Mills. It will be a great comfort to have him near, will it not?”

“Yes….yes, of course,” she replied with brightening face.

“It is settled, then. Will you trust me to talk to him about it?” he asked, a glimmer of uncertainty remaining in his voice.

She nodded, assuring him with a smile, as she reached up to wrap her arms around his neck and rest her head against him in gratitude and relief. He clasped her close.

The brief moment of conjugal felicity, a ray of sunshine in the gloom, was interrupted by a steady voice.

“You must excuse my intrusion, but there is a police-inspector come to the house who asks for John,” Hannah Thornton announced summarily as she stood in the open doorway. Her eyes flickered with caution to her son.

John’s muscles froze as he recalled the night of Frederick’s harrowing escape.

He loosened his grasp around his wife’s waist. “I am called as magistrate. I will return as soon as I am able,” he explained to her with forced calm. He let his hand drop at her acquiescence and turned to go.

He moved swiftly through the house. His pulse beat a tempo of warning as a frantic chain of questions chased through his thoughts. Had Leonards spoken the fugitive’s name? Had Frederick been somehow apprehended? Mr. Thornton struggled to conquer his rising panic and resolved to meet any circumstance with firm trust that the highest justice would prevail.

He stepped outside the main doors to find a small man in police uniform who had once been a packer in his warehouse.

“I’m sorry to bother you at such a time…” the waiting visitor began.

“Mason, isn’t it? How can I help you?” Mr. Thornton interrupted, taking command of the situation at once.

“I would have come another time, but I need a statement from you to close a case. You see, it involves the death of a man and I must be careful to know all,” Mason confided to the Milton magistrate who had first commended him to police work.

An electric tingle of fear charged though Mr. Thornton’s every nerve at the annunciation of death. Cold, stabbing terror demanded he know what had happened. “Who is dead?” he asked, his breath quickening in impatience.

“The railway porter that you reported to the station-master on the night of the fourth — the name is Leonards,” Mason responded, consulting his notes.

Mr. Thornton let out a breath of relief that Frederick was unnamed, but felt prickles of remorse that he should have caused the death of any man. “I saw him move…I did not think him hurt so badly….”

“Indeed, the station-manager says he got up and clamored in some drunken rampage for money to catch another train. He was sent away by all, of course. He was found, badly ailing, along a footpath the next day and was carried to the infirmary where he died shortly thereafter,” the police-inspector explained.

“Did he say anything? I don’t understand…Was there an autopsy?” the Master questioned, straining to keep his voice from betraying the anxious confusion that roiled beneath his outward calm.

“He spoke incoherently of Navy ships and men from his past – the unintelligible mutterings of the dying, I suppose. The coroner found a liver ailment – in an advanced stage that would have taken him ere long. But the fall he took hastened his death. This is why, you understand, I had to come and get your account of the incident. You saw him take the fall?”

Mr. Thornton took a long breath and cast his gaze downward as he solemnly concentrated on the facts he should reveal. “I accompanied an associate, a stranger to Milton, to the station that night. I directed him to wait at the platform while I procured his ticket. When I had done so, I turned to see this Leonards assailing my friend. I was, naturally, very alarmed. I ran to stop this attack, pushing the porter away from my friend. I did so with some force. Leonards staggered back and lost his footing. He fell off the platform onto the cinder path below, opposite the arriving train. I hastened my friend to his train as it was the last of the evening, I believe. When he had safely gone, I looked to see if the porter was injured. He appeared to be recovering. I did not think him badly hurt, so I told the station-master of his errant employee and made my way home.”

“His fall was an accident, then, sustained from your attempt to ward him off as an attacker.”

“Yes,” the Master hasted to confirm, his nerves tensing as his eye caught the movement of a figure crossing the empty mill yard. His breath released at the recognition of one of his clerks. The mill owner nodded briefly at the passing employee.

“By all other accounts, he was drunk and looking for money. Was this your impression also?” Mason inquired.

“Yes. There is no doubt he had been drinking,” Mr. Thornton confirmed.

Mason looked up to the Milton magistrate. “Thank you for your time, Sir. I consider this case closed. It was an unfortunate incident for all concerned. I hope your friend was not troubled too greatly. Once again, I’m sorry to have interrupted you at such a time…”

“Not at all, it was your duty,” Mr. Thornton returned, feeling the tension relax in his shoulders.

The uniformed man’s mouth curved into an admiring smile. “May I wish you congratulations on your marriage, Sir? I wish you very happy…despite the lady’s recent sorrows,” Mason added with a measure of solemnity.

“Thank you,” the newly married man answered with a softening smile that swept away the crease on his brow.

Mr. Thornton had kept silent concerning Frederick’s narrow escape from the train station. Margaret carried enough burdens of sorrow and worry. He would not add to her store. She was told only that the police had come in connection with the death of Jane’s betrothed, which accounted for the servant’s pitiful wailing in the upper chambers.

Margaret brushed the waves of her long chestnut hair in the lamp-lit quiet of the great bedroom that evening as the Master prepared for bed. The weight of tension and grief lifted with the unfastening and removal of the binding clothes that defined him to the world beyond these walls. His heart beat strongly in anticipation of doffing all pretense of unyielding power and confidence to meet his wife under the bedcovers simply as a man in need of the love that seemed to pour forth from her gentle being.

Only a handful of nights, each one of them unspeakably precious, had passed wherein they had shared a bed as husband and wife. Tonight, after such trying ordeals as this day had brought, he would find peaceful bliss merely to hold her body close to his.

She shed no tears this time as she nestled her head to his chest, finding her rightful resting place in the safety of his embrace. He stroked her hair and let his lips caress its silken softness. He did not know who derived the greater comfort from this loving contact: the mourner or the comforter. But he knew without a doubt that he would endure any hardship, suffer any agony of tribulation required to hold her in his arms at the close of every day.

23 pages