“Twins! Oh, my God, Margaret, that is disastrous! You could die! Oh, heavens!”
Edith stood beside the couch upon which they had laid Margaret after she collapsed a few minutes earlier. She had thought it advisable to tell her aunt and cousin about what Dr Chelmsford told her. Edith was wringing her hands in despair and Aunt Shaw, sitting on a nearby chair, was silently weeping, as if Margaret were already dead.
Suddenly Mrs Shaw jumped up and decreed in a determined voice. “You must stay here for the remainder of your pregnancy. With Dr Chelmsford, as your physician, of course. His knowledge and the fact that he lives nearby are now of vital importance for your health, Margaret. I shall instruct the butler to send a telegram to your husband.”
Margaret sat upright and spoke vehemently. “I must go back to Milton! I feel … no, I know something is not right! With John … something has happened to John!”
Edith and Mrs Shaw stared at her as if she had suddenly grown two heads.
“I cannot explain, auntie,” Margaret said softly, tears blurring her vision, “I just know it. John is in danger, I have to go to him.”
At one point on the train ride back to Milton, Margaret stopped listening to Dixon’s endless complaints about their returning home so soon. It was keeping her mind off John and she did not want that. Something had transpired in Milton and it had affected her husband. Of that she was absolutely sure. She needed to be with John, as soon as possible.
Although they had taken seats in the first class carriage of the train, upholstered with soft, red plush seat cushions, Margaret was not comfortable at all. Her back ached and her head swam. She could not help thinking of her unborn babies and what would become of them when the birthing took place. She now realised that the reason for her being so heavy was the fact that she was bearing two children instead of one. How was she to give birth to them? Would they survive? Would she survive herself? However, all that was not the worst of it. No, it was John and what it was that had befallen him, for she was convinced it would be something dreadful! God! Could this confounded train go any slower than this?
In Dr Donaldson’s small surgery John was laid upon an examination table. Mary hurried in after the doctor and between the two of them they proceeded in establishing the damage. After a while, Dr Donaldson breathed a sigh of relief.
“It is not as bad as it looks like, Mary. He’s got a dislocated shoulder. We must set it instantly otherwise, his muscles will cramp up too much. Help me undress him, I want to examine his rib cage.”
In her quiet, discreet way, Mary did as she was asked. With careful movements, she eased John out of his coat and shirt, as gently as she could. It did not keep him from uttering a groan of pain but he did not wake up. Dr Donaldson’s hands started probing John’s torso which was already beginning to show ugly bruises all over the broad chest and back.
“No broken ribs, thank God. Now, Mary, I’m going to turn him on his side, but just a tad, mind you. Very well, so far so good. Keep him in that position and steady his head. Gently, please?”
With caution the doctor’s fingers examined the back of John’s head and the base of his neck.
“No, there is no fracture, as far as I can feel.”
A loud groan from the patient startled them both.
“Hell, Donaldson! I’m dying here! What did you do to me, you old scoundrel?”
“Mr Thornton, you’re awake? Steady, Mary, ease him onto his back again.”
By the time they had arrived at Outward Milton Station, Margaret was in a fine state of panic. The ride had taken much longer, due to a delay somewhere on the line, where she had been pacing up and down the platform, fretting about John, until finally, the station master had given the signal for departure. It was already dark and a fine fog was curling over the platform as Dixon and her mistress alighted from the train. They hurried into a hansom cab and Dixon ordered the driver to Marlborough Mills. Then she turned to her mistress.
“Miss Margaret, how are you feeling? I hope …”
“I am fine enough, Dixon, do not fuss.”
Margaret lay her hand on Dixon’s. “Dixon, dear Dixon, I am going to have a great need of you, the days to came. I cannot say why, I just know it.”
“I will always be at your service, Miss, you know that, I hope?”
“Yes, Dixon, I do.”
At Marlborough Mills a surprise awaited Margaret. Jenny, the maid that had replaced Jane, told her that the master had been taken to Dr Donaldson’s surgery.
“So, all that’s wrong with me, is a dislocated shoulder? Damnation, Donaldson, how can this hurt so much? It’s like a hot poker is being plunged into it!”
“I really must set it now, Mr Thornton. It is already far too long since they brought you here and your muscles are cramping up.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get on with it!”
John’s heart leapt at hearing the beloved voice of his Margaret. He pushed Donaldson aside and there she was!
“Darling!” he exclaimed, “What the devil are you doing here?”
He had meant it as a joke but when he saw Margaret’s ashen face, he sobered quite quickly.
Margaret rushed to him, then checked herself. “Doctor, what is wrong with him?”
“Not much, Mrs Thornton. A dislocated shoulder and a concussion. Now, if you will forgive me, Ma’am, I must set the shoulder.”
“Donaldson, surely, if I’m to be subjected to torture, I’m entitled to kiss my wife first. Come here, you adorable darling of mine.”
Not caring of Donaldson’s and Mary’s seeing it, John drew Margaret close with his good arm and kissed her soundly and squarely on her lovely mouth.
John had a long evening pacing the floor that night. The day brought a huge milestone in his life. He asked himself every question he could think of. He had little to no fear of the intimate part of their life, he thought, but could she love him for a lifetime? How would she take to the rigors of being married to a mill master? He knew there were many broken marriages from loneliness on the part of the wife and children rather than indiscretions. Perhaps their jobs caused the wife to eventually seek warmth with some other man. He was going to have to change things for both him and Nicholas.
Margaret couldn’t think straight after talking with Fred. She closed her journal and laid down in bed reliving every moment. She also remembered she had to follow up with the doctor tomorrow. Margaret wanted to visit with Bessie. Perhaps, she could after seeing Dr. Donaldson.
“Bessie, you are late to the table this morning.”
“I had trouble falling asleep last night, so it seems I had to make it up this morning.”
“What are your plans today?”
“I would like to visit with Margaret. In fact, I will prepare a note for her now and have our driver deliver before her day begins. Excuse me.”
Bessie went to her father’s den, pulling paper from his desk.
It would be nice if you could find some time for me today and perhaps have lunch with me in town. The driver will wait for an answer. Bessie
She folded the note, dropped a bit of hot wax and sought out her driver in the stables.
Nicholas was drafting a small building for the property when John entered for the morning.
“And a good morning to you,” John replied, causing Nicholas to pause hearing the merriment.
Nicholas turned his drawing around and discussed it with John before he sat down.
“We will need one of these at Mill2, as well. Somehow, we will find the money to buy extra goods to store for next year.”
“Perhaps, Miss Hale can tell us how to do that.”
Margaret’s job. He’d totally forgotten about that.
“John, is there a ghost in the room that only you can see?”
John shook himself out of his revelry and smiled.
“Thinking of her injury, Margaret’s new position here slipped my mind.”
“All you have to do is look through that office door and see the vast changes made to be reminded,” Nicholas laughed.
John produced a half slanted grin, feeling a bit embarrassed, as he sat at his desk.
“John, you know, a lot of things in my life are changing.”
“Yes. Bessie for one.”
John was quiet for a moment. “I see. Did you give your approval for Fred Hale to drop anchor?” John smiled.
“He did actually come and talk to me. As you know Bessie is of age, and that wasn’t really needed, but he knew of the custom and approached me.”
“I remember when Watson came and spoke to Mother and me when he wanted to be seeing Fanny on a regular basis. It is a strange feeling inside. You know it really doesn’t matter whether you approve or not, because they will do what they want. But all of a sudden you feel you hold great power over two lives as if you were a ruling king. It passes quickly, but it was rather uplifting to be asked as if our feelings mattered. So how did it go?”
“Unlike you, I wanted to know how he planned to make his way in life. I see income potential in him. However, I needed to ask.”
“He was a bit vague. If Bessie doesn’t accept his advances, he may turn to driving for a while. It seems Branson has sparked his interest. And if Bessie remains in the picture, he feels he’s educated and trained enough to be hired in many places. My concern is, that may not be in Milton.”
“He may have money in his own right at this time. Not enough for a lifetime. What do you think of bringing him on here – at one of the mills? Let him start at the bottom, but we will accelerate his promotions. After all, he may be the son you leave your partnership to.” John offered.
“I had thought about him coming on board. I had not thought of him as a successor. Perhaps, I should think of that. We maybe should begin grooming him.” Nicholas said next.
“Whether Bessie accepts him or not, I do think he’s a good candidate for us. He will bring to us skills we hadn’t known we needed. He’ll oversee these mills with new eyes. Look what his sister is endeavoring to do for us.”
“Well, we seem to agree on that. Which one of us should approach him?”
“I think I should,” John insisted. He shouldn’t feel any pressure to accept.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“No. He may someday have to face you as a father-in-law. He’s marrying the bosses daughter. I believe that puts him in a spot of feeling forced to comply. Why? Why do you think I’m joking?”
“Fred may someday have to face you as a brother.” Nicholas smiled.
John was stunned. “I don’t know that. How do you know that?”
“John, this is me you’re talking to. You don’t even have to tell me the words. I see the small changes in you. It’s been happening since the Lyceum. You were seeing one lady at the time, but I expected you to get out of that and you did. You seemed inspired at the ball before that Lenore woman created a spectacle at the dinner. I have never seen you take a woman’s arm by force like that. I was sure then. So, perhaps we should have one of our trusted foremen approach him.”
Both men laughed.
“You said changes in your life. What else other than Bessie?”
“Well, you, my friend, of course.”
“I will change little, if any.”
“You can’t really believe that, can you?”
“Time, John, time. I will miss you during the late hours, a day here and there.”
“I’m glad you brought that up. Whether Miss Hale is my destiny or not, we’re going to change the amount of time we spend away from our families.”
Bessie received the reply from Margaret.
Please pick me up at 11:00 a.m. You can accompany me to the doctor’s and then we’ll go to lunch. I am so excited to be seeing you.
Margaret went to find Fred. Adam was there visiting her father.
“Good morning, Adam. Father do you know where Fred is?”
“Where else is he anymore? He’s with his horse,” Richard Hale laughed.
Margaret trundled through the kitchen to the outside stable. Fred was mucking out the mess.
Fred, sweat rolling down his face, “Do you think the rich people do this? No. They have drivers or stableboys doing this. I might reconsider being a driver.”
Margaret laughed. “I am here to give you fair warning.”
Fred stopped what he was doing and leaned on his pitchfork. That image struck Margaret so funny.” Fred, right now, you would make a fine portrait,” she laughed.
“What’s the warning, sis?” Fred didn’t want to add to her comment, although he found it funny, himself.
“Bessie is going to take me to Dr. Donaldson’s, and then we will have lunch. Just she and I.”
Margaret thought fast. “She will not get out of her carriage, but it will stop here at noon.”
“Thank you, my dear selfish sister.”
“Perhaps, when we return, she might find time for you, jealous brother.”
Margaret giggled all the way back to the house. She went to see her father and Adam to tell them her plans for the next couple of hours.
Finally 11:00 came, and Margaret heard her carriage. She said goodbye to her father and Adam and dashed out the door. Fred was just coming in to wash up. Hearing the coach pull away, he ran to the door . . . muck and all.
“Fred, get yourself back to the mud room and remove those boots. You’re stinking up the whole house.”
Hanging his head, in missing Bessie, he returned to the back of the house.
Margaret and Bessie hugged. Both had cheeks ready to burst with exciting news.
“Margaret, why did you run to the coach?”
“I told Fred, you would arrive at noon. I had to get in here and away before he knew I fibbed to him. He would have taken my time with you for himself,” she laughed. “Let’s not talk about the men until we are seated for lunch. I want no interruptions. Agreed?”
It seemed forever for Margaret to get through the doctor visit, declaring she was mending as she should. She was still reminded to not put herself in any position like she had, for a while, yet.
“Bessie, I know a nice café for lunch. John took me there. Do you have a favorite place?”
“No, let’s go where you want.”
Bessie knocked on the roof of the coach and asked the driver to come down. Margaret didn’t know the name but explained what she knew. The driver acknowledged that he was familiar with the place.
The girls were seated in a booth, but not the private booths, which Margaret was quick to point out when they entered.
“John said one of those booths was his.” Margaret laughed.
“Really he said it, but I’m sure it’s not true. Let’s look at the menu and then you can go first. I want to hear about Fred and you.”
The luncheon went on for an hour or more. Both had desserts with several cups of tea afterward. Bessie held nothing back from Margaret but being careful to frame some of her thoughts and feelings since she was talking to Fred’s sister.
“Bessie, do you feel inhibited talking to me? Have I become Fred’s sister and not your best friend?”
“In all honesty, a bit. You are my best friend, and I am sharing every detail with you and wanting your opinion, but at the same time, I am watching my words because you are his sister.”
“Don’t be like that. I know Fred. I can well imagine how he can be romantic and I am so happy he is bestowing his charm on you. By the way, tell him you think him charming when a good moment arrives. He’s jealous of John Thornton and how he acts.” Margaret laughed.
“Now how about you, Margaret? Fred has told me a bit, but, of course, that is coming from a man’s point of view. Seeing you at the ball, I didn’t think things were going well for you. Then father talked about the scene at the dinner. He thought you left early because of that other woman. Is that so?”
“There were two other women vying for his attention.”
“Oh. Was it Anne Latimer?”
“Yes. You know her?”
“Yes. She’s pretty, typical finishing school debutant, but I know John finds her boring. My father told me that.”
Margaret went on to shock Bessie with all the news that she had to impart. Bessie was excited for her.
“Margaret, I can’t believe it. He has never proposed to anyone.”
“Well, he hasn’t proposed to me, either.”
“But what you say doesn’t seem in character with what we’ve known of him. You are really changing his life, I hope.”
“What do you mean ‘I hope.’”
“I don’t think I meant to say that.”
“I want to know what you’re thinking. I don’t want to be surprised down the line.”
“Now, there is no reason to assume what I say has any truth, be it rumor or fact. It is only something I have thought of in the past, especially when I worked on the mill floor and the ladies talked about him all the time.”
“What is it, Bessie? What did they say?”
“John has been seeing women, off and on, not steady for over ten years. Everyone wondered what type of woman would suit him. And honestly, I think it’s you. However, there was just talk, mind you, about his . . . his fidelity after marriage.”
“Well, no one every knew why he let some very nice ladies go. I think we joked that there may be something amiss in the more intimate details if you know what I mean.”
Margaret was startled. What Bessie was saying about fidelity had never occurred to her.
“So, what are you saying?”
“I don’t know what I am saying. I am giving only conjecture, no facts. I’m sure there was something with the ladies that he eventually felt he could not live a life with. He did most of the rejecting as time passed. There was a woman who I think felt intimidated by him, but that wasn’t his fault. You, you are so different. I don’t know what he would have said to the other women during the course of their relationship, but I believe it would have sounded a lot different than what words he speaks to you.”
“Since he seemed to stay with these women, I mean some of them as a relationship built, could it possibly be . . . you know . . . you know what I am getting at, that didn’t suit him for a lifelong partner?”
“I have no idea. The women on the mill floor thought so. Each bragging how they could change that for him. It was disgusting really, but they had little to talk about in their lives. Fantasizing was a game they played.”
Margaret was quiet. Bessie waited.
“I see you thinking very hard, Margaret. You don’t need to go there. He’s a man. Perhaps he became too passionate, and etiquette told them to refuse. I doubt that, but it could be another idea. I don’t tend to think that myself or we would have heard rumors about it from the women he left behind. However, he broke off from the more special women, must have been an embarrassment to them for nothing to be said by either party.”
“Does he talk with your father?”
“Sometimes. Asks his opinion of the lady if dad has met her, but I really doubt there was ever any intimate talk. A gentleman never discusses that.”
“Do you think that, eventually, that area of a relationship should be known before it progresses into a marriage?”
“Personally, I do. Not just with John, but with any couple preparing to live together for life. That is such a large and wonderful part of marriage. I think it should be tested before commitment.”
“So, you and my brother . . . ?”
“If you mean Fred and me . . . yes, that time will most likely come. I won’t resist it.”
Margaret laughed at Bessie’s naming Fred as a man and not her brother.
“Have you talked about it?”
“Not in those words. He tells me, I need not be afraid as he will not initiate any advances in that direction.”
Margaret laughed. “That sure doesn’t sound like the Fred that just came back to us.” Bessie laughed, too. “Instead of telling me about the ways of men, he’s going to be asking me the ways of women.
“I can’t believe our good fortune. Why . . . we could be sisters someday. I get to see John tonight for a nice dinner. Gosh, I feel like I could be walking off a cliff. Going out into the unknown every time I see, John. Neither of us know ourselves enough, saying nothing about men, and what happens along the way.”
“I guess we must be glad that they have had the experience.”
“I’ll try to think of it that way,” Margaret giggled. “I guess we best go. I wish we could set aside one day a week, at least, to catch up. We’re both lost in the woods. You’ll never believe what Fred has asked me to do.”
“He knows John is very popular, so he wants me to expedite our budding relationship, so I can tell him what to do next.”
Both girls laughed so hard, people looked at them.
“You’re right, we must go.”
The carriage pulled to the front of Margaret’s flat and Fred came out of the door. They past each other on the steps without saying a word. Margaret went inside and sat on the couch looking out at the couple. The coach door was open, but Fred sat on the floor of the doorway. They were talking. Fred was smiling and laughing. She couldn’t see Bessie very well.
“Don’t you think they deserve a little privacy, Margaret?” Adam surprised her being in the room.
“I haven’t spoken to you since that debate on your virtue. How are you doing?”
“As you can see, I no longer have my neck collar. I am doing fine.”
“And Thornton? Has he made any attempt to apologize? It would be unlike him if he didn’t.”
“Yes. He came by yesterday but father was resting, and Fred was visiting Bessie. He took me to lunch, as he promised after the budget lessons and we had a good talk. I must confess something to you. I hope it doesn’t hurt your friendship, but I told John about the ‘ignoring him’ plan.”
“Did you now? What was his reaction.”
“I’m not sure as it was heaped in with all the other nonsense I played on him. I think he found it innovative. He said he’d never seen such a ploy.”
Adam laughed. “We’ve known each other a long time. In Milton, he feels superior to me, in a friendly way, and that is because he is. He knows the town, people, the business. It felt good to put one over on him. I think we shall laugh at it one day. It couldn’t have worked with anyone else except you.”
“Because he didn’t know you. He hadn’t figured you out. He knew you were different but not to that point.”
They both chuckled.
“I believe I will be off to the hotel for awhile. Have you any dinner plans this evening?”
“Yes, thank you, Adam, but I do. However, I do want your opinion on something before you leave Milton for London.”
At Marlborough Mills things were busy but progressing very nicely.
John was supervising the installation of looms in one of his new sheds and at this moment, he wished Nicholas could have been with him. Higgins’ vast knowledge of machinery would have served him well but it would be at least another week before he and Hannah would be back in Milton. Thank God his mother was getting back on her feet without any visible setbacks, John thought.
He redirected his attention to the affairs in hand.
Three groups of sturdy workmen were building up an equal number of Lancashire Looms in the vast new hall, especially built for just that. The looms were the latest invention and very expensive. John and Margaret had invested a great part of their fortune in the acquisition of the three of them. It was of vital importance, therefore, that they would be functioning as soon as possible.
Hovering at the entrance of the hall were a group of women of Mary’s infirmary ward, taking their break. Some of them had their children with them, and the little ones were running around and laughing and playing. Mary had organized a neat scheme of turning shifts and she was now employing thirty young workers’ wives, who were prevented from working because they had recently given birth or had too many children under the age of six. Children older than six would be at the factories working as “scavengers”. Their task consisted in crawling under the looms to collect pieces of cloth and tie up loose ends. It was a dangerous job and many children were injured, some met their deaths when caught up in the looms. John always insisted on a thorough training beforehand and asked Mr Williams, his overseer, to keep a firm eye on the children. Mr Williams had an overseer in every shed, so that the children could be watched.
John was attentively watching the progress of assembling the looms, when, like a flash of lightning, a small form slid under one of the machines, giggling and shrieking. The worker, holding up one of the warp beams, startled and the heavy beam slit from his hands. He managed to get a grip but his hands, not getting the right hold, kept slipping. Without thinking, John plunged under the loom, snatched the child and literally threw it from under the menacing beam.
At that moment, with a sound like thunder, the beam crashed down on John.
Margaret was numb with bewilderment as she stammered. “Tw … twins … you’re … you … but … doctor …”
“Mrs Thornton, please, collect yourself. There is no need for panic. You must proceed as you have until now, only, you need to lie down every couple of hours. Try not to be on your feet for too long. Be careful with your food. Nothing too fat or too sugary, no alcohol or coffee, but lots of fluids, tea or water. You must forestall the gain of too much weight. Now, we must get you home and, do not worry, I will order my coachman to drive you home.”
“Surely, doctor,” Margaret began, “my aunt’s house is 300 yards down the street and …”
“No arguing, Mrs Thornton, if you please? You had a shock, you need to rest, to be calm. No straining exercise anymore today.”
Margaret had to admit she was indeed in shock. Twins … how on earth was she to tell John?
When she entered her aunt’s house, Edith came out of the drawing room.
“Oh, dear! Margaret, you look awful! Come and sit down, sweetheart. Holly, help me with Mrs Thornton.”
They lowered Margaret onto a chair and Dixon, who came whirling in, fell on her knees beside her mistress.
“Oh, my dear Miss Margaret! I must get you to bed immediately.”
“No,” Margaret said, “I’m fine. I just need to lie down a bit.”
To emphasize this, she rose. A sharp stab of pain in her lower back made her gasp but that was not the worse. All of a sudden, out of the blue, she had a horrible feeling something was very wrong … with John …
For a few seconds everybody in the hall just stood rooted to the ground in shock!
Then Mr Williams bellowed to haul up the warp beam and secure it. He knelt and crawled toward the master who lay motionless on his stomach, his arm bent back in a weird angle and blood trickling of a wound at the back of his head. Mr Williams put out a shaking hand and touched the master’s neck. A pulse … thank God, there was a heartbeat! A very weak one …
They sent for Dr Donaldson who gave directions as how to retrieve John from under the loom. A board was slowly slit under the master’s body, and they carried him to Dr Donaldson’s surgery, three blocks away. All the way, a large and totally silent mass of workers followed the stretcher, a mass growing more and more.
The word was spreading rapidly through the city. John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills had just been gravely, maybe fatally, injured.
“We are nearing your home. There are no words which can describe what you have brought to me this day and for the rest of my life. I think we are both beyond overwhelmed and should make time to breathe in, our words declared. You may have had two weeks, I much less, but I feel as if I have been dropped into another world, and I am wandering in a fog.”
Looking down at her hand in his, “John, I am there with you in this fog of love. It is swirling around me. Moments ago, this fog wrapped me in its arms, pressed me to its bosom and whispered, he is here for you.” Margaret teared up halfway through her mind song and watched as John’s eyes watered.
“Margaret, that was beautiful.” John turned towards her. He placed his long fingers at the back of her neck, holding her cheeks with this thumbs and moved his face close to hers. He was cautious of any apprehension on her part, as she could be in no doubt that he was about to kiss her. Gently, slowly and with purpose, John pressed his lips to hers. He sensed the pleasant reception from her supple lips. He withdrew and kissed her again and again. Margaret placed her hands against his sides showing acceptance, which elicited a reaction from him. It was like he had been holding his breath and her touch allowed him to breathe.
They felt the carriage come to a stop.
“Will you speak of us with your family?” John inquired.
“John, it is hard for me to accept what has happened between us within the last two hours. I cannot expect anyone to understand unless it is you. My family will think I am delusional, and I’m not so sure that I’m not, but I wish to begin from yesterday – your apology. For the sake of your professional reputation and all the broken hearts that you will leave in your wake, can we step back and capture all we have missed?”
“Margaret, I care not for my professional reputation when it comes to my feelings for you, and I certainly owe no woman an explanation or warning. However, I do see a potential dilemma for you, but aside from that, I would enjoy the chance to woo you. I am unskilled in that area. I can wait until you feel an ease of separating from your family.
“Separating from my family, you say? If that is some contorted backhanded proposal, you need to work on your presentation. If I ever needed proof that you have never been in love, you just gave it to me,” Margaret smiled, and John laughed.
“If a woman is true to herself, she waits her entire life for those words. She has fantasized how it would happen a hundred times. I will admit that my dreams have been a little more untraditional but not quite to the point where I had to read between the lines.” She laughed at John’s red face.
“I consider myself rightly chastised and will work on a passionate style of offering for your hand.” John laughed. “That is one reason why I knew I loved you because you don’t mess about with a flourish of false compliments or complaints, as in this case.”
“I am going to find it hard to leave your coach.” Margaret stuttered in soft sounds.
“You will have dinner with me, tomorrow evening, at a nice restaurant?
“Yes, I will. That will be three times in a row. People may begin to talk.”
“I hope so.”
“Ask your mother if she would receive me for a visit. Never mind, I will send her a note. I did enjoy my visit with her and would like to visit with her again.”
“I’m sure she would like that, too.”
The coach stopped. John did not kiss her again, as there may be onlookers. He walked her to the door and reminded her that he will pick her up a 7:00 tomorrow evening. “Thank you for a very special afternoon.” He tipped his hat and returned to the coach.
“Margaret, I see you went for a ride with Thornton.”
“Yes, father. He had said he wanted to take me to lunch for my performance at the lessons, and so he did.”
“May I ask about his attitude toward you?”
“First, I think he came here to apologize to you and Fred, but neither of you was here. His attitude seemed appealing and friendly.”
“This is good, I think.”
“I think so, too.”
“You are very flushed in the face. Perhaps, you overextended yourself going out with your neck as it is.”
“I took the feel of the good wind in my face from the window. It’s lovely outside.”
Richard Hale walked to the window to look out. “That’s strange, to me it seems like rain my come.”
“Is Fred still out?”
“Yes. He’s probably plying a driver trade in town,” Richard laughed.
“He can’t be. He doesn’t know the town, Margaret laughed. She was in a mood that she just wanted to share with herself. When bedtime came, she would be alone with her memories from the day. She would pen them in her journal, never wanting to forget a single moment of the most significant day in all the days she had lived. Margaret untied her neck collar with no trouble this time.
“Mr. Higgins, I know Bessie is of age, but I would still ask for permission to see her. By that, I mean on a continual basis.”
Fred and Nicholas were wandering around the stable as Nicholas was tending to his buggy and horse upon returning from work.
“I am not asking for her hand, but I hope to someday. I find that I am very fond of her. She will be treated by a respectful gentleman.”
“Not as seaman home from a long voyage?”
“No, sir. That is a different life that is behind me.”
“And what does she think of this?”
“I believe her to be receptive to the idea, but I will hope you speak with her.”
“There is one thing I would like to know.”
“What is your goal in life after your service to the Queen?”
“That may depend on Bessie. Should she reject my attention, I may try driving, but not as a lifelong living. I am educated, and should Bessie find favor with me, I will seek to find employment that would befit a husband with a family.”
“Have you ever thought about working at the mills?”
“As I am coming to know them, I cannot see me in such poverty. I believe I am quite competent to be easily and quickly trained. I would not shy from that, but I know what Bessie has been through with your long hours away from home. We would have to discuss that. We are not near that point, sir.”
“I will give you my blessing as you don’t need my permission. Bessie will decide.”
“Thank you, sir. I will treat her as my own sister.”
“I’m not sure she’s expecting just that, son.”
Fred finally understood what he was saying, showing a slight blush.
“I will treat her as she wishes to be treated.”
“Fine. You are dismissed. My dinner is ready.” Nicholas smiled. He knew the day was coming and his question and answer were prepared.
Margaret was sitting on the back stoop, reliving her day when Fred pulled into the back area. She continued to day-dream as Fred unharnessed Max, fed him and pulled the buggy into the shed. He came to her side and sat.
“Margaret, I have had the most amazing day in my life.”
“I have, too.”
“Really, I mean the life-changing type of day.”
“I spoke honestly, man-to-man with Nicholas Higgins about Bessie. I laid out my intentions, which did not include marriage. Although I am sure she’s the one, I didn’t want to spring that on him too quickly.”
“What a coincidence.” Margaret was starting to find it funny that her brother wasn’t hearing anything she was saying.
“We began to speak words of love of the most innocent kind.” Fred rambled on.
“Yes, innocent but meaningful, right?”
“Yesss . . . right.” Fred was twiddling with a piece of straw, looking far into a distance that wasn’t visible to her.
“And you think this is serious?” Margaret smiled, on the verge of laughing at him.
“More than you know.”
“I think I know the feeling.”
Fred chuckled, “Margaret, you know nothing yet. But someday you will, and it will bring a beauty into your life which people rarely talk about.”
“I can see it now.”
“Puppet, I know you are mimicking me, but I want you to be happy for me.”
“Oh, Fred. I truly am. For you and for Bessie. Now, just hear me out as I have learned this from you, dear brother.”
“Bessie, as I, don’t know or understand men yet. You are most likely the first man in her life. She blooms. Life’s mysteries are beginning to unravel. She feels like a woman, and she may no longer fear finding someone to love. Strange vibrations are awakening in her body.”
“Oh, I hope you are right.”
“Now, you . . . you are a rather randy seaman home from the high seas. Bessie is the first woman that you see. Like you said, you’re always on the hunt, and there she stands before you. Innocent. That is surely appealing. You catch her complimenting you to me, and voila, the path is now open to be receptive . . .”
“Stop right there! It isn’t like that with me.”
“I am sure all men say that at some point. How do you know it’s love and not some lustful fantasy in your mind?”
“Because it’s, different. That’s all.”
“What? Because it’s different? That hardly seems to be much of a reason to call it love and speak with her father. Poor Bessie – because it’s different,” Margaret sarcastically muttered just loud enough for him to hear. “So help me, Fredrick Hale, if you do anything to ruin a new best friend, I will never speak to you again.”
Fred took Margaret’s shoulders in his hands and stared into her face.
“Listen to me,” he almost shook her. “Listen, I know in my heart of the deep feelings I have for her. As far as randy, it’s the farthest thing from my mind. And yes, that is after being months away from any port. I am looking far past that. I am looking into her heart, her soul. Yes, I want to possess her in that way and brand her as mine, but not now. I will admit, I have found far greater feelings than that.”
“Do you admit that not all men are on the hunt?”
“I will acquiesce and say that not all men are on the hunt, consciously.”
“I think I’ll take that as a win.”
Dixon called them in for dinner.
“How was your ride today, Fred?”
“Did you see, Miss Higgins at all?”
“I did spend a lot of the afternoon talking with her.”
“Your sister had a nice afternoon, too.”
“Oh yeah? Another exciting day at the library, Puppet?” Fred smiled broadly.
Margaret started to answer, but her father filled it in. “She had a luncheon with Mr. Thornton.”
“Did you, now?” Fred seemed stunned as he looked at her with wide eyes.
“Yes, Mr. Thornton came to apologize to you and father, but you were gone, and father was resting. He reminded me that he had promised me a luncheon as a thank you for my lessons.”
“So you went with him in his coach to a place that serves foods?”
“Where else? Fred, honestly! Tsk.”
Margaret laughed inside when she saw Fred start to stare into his soup bowl. He would look up at her and go back to his soup.
“Margaret . . .”
“Please, no questions about my afternoon. Suffice it to say, John was an amiable luncheon companion. Can I have a biscuit, please?”
After Richard Hale had retired for the evening, Margaret went to her room. She sat at her desk, pulled out her journal, and inked her pen. Where did she begin to summarize this day? There was a knock at the door. She knew Fred would would want to talk this evening.
“Come in, Fred. You’ve got me so excited about yours and Bessie’s happiness. I hardly had her as a friend, and now you will take up her time.”
Fred gave her a big smile. “She’s changed my life.”
“What happens now? You’ve had words. Is it a continuation of the same to intensify and secure the relationship?”
Fred laid back on Margaret’s pillow with his hands behind his head. He stared at the ceiling. “I honestly don’t know, sis. I mean, it’s not that I don’t know, but I will put her in control of me. I can’t accidently offend her in any way. I want more than anything to make her happy.”
“How is she to know that you are putting her in control? Control of what exactly?”
“I’m so nervous around her. I fear speaking out of place. The pace has to be hers, I can wait forever.”
“It is quite strange to hear my brother, who is lost in how to treat his woman. I thought you were well acquainted with all things woman.”
“Physically, I am.”
“Oh . . . emotionally, you are not?”
Fred sat up. “Margaret, I am drifting. There is a mild overcast of panic. She means so much to me, I dare not make a move for concern of her misunderstanding me.”
“I do think she is a smart woman. If she feels for you the way you say she does, there isn’t much you can do to displease her . . . except for inaction.”
“Inaction? What do you take that to mean?”
“Women are brought up to be shy and look away, remember. We have had to suppress the longings we feel out of worry for our reputations. It may become a stalemate between the two of you. You’re waiting for a sign from her, and she’s waiting for you to advance the relationship forward.”
“I understand what you are saying, but I don’t believe it. She hasn’t spoken to you about me, has she?”
“Only what you heard her whisper to me. We’ve had very little time together. You’ve been with her more than I have.”
“So what you are trying to teach me about women, or the one woman in my life, is that, after an appropriate amount of time, I should endeavor to . . . bloody hell, how do I say this, I should . . . enhance . . . her desire . . . for me?”
Margaret felt sorry for her brother just then. His eyes were pleading for an answer.
“Fred, you are a man like most others and have been brought up with standards that all men think they know. Men really don’t have much sense when it comes to loving us. I mean love, not bedding. The desires men have are worn on their sleeve, in their mannerisms, in smoke filled rooms at the private clubs. Women have those desires too, but we’ve been forced to repress them, which keeps us in good stead. But when a woman finally meets the man she will love all her life, and he promises the same, she wants to express them, but will not unless coaxed.”
“I don’t believe you. I can’t see how you would even know this.”
“Have you kissed her, yet?”
“No signs of complacency or shock. No slap in the face or talk of not doing that?” Margaret asked.
“Quite the contrary.”
“Have you tasted her?”
“Tasted? I’m not sure I want to go into that with you.”
“Have you licked her lips or neck, tasted her tongue, kissed her eyes, long kisses down her neck?”
“No, but I sure want to do that. I see that long naked neck, and it beckons and teases me.”
“I would say that is your next step if you feel she is in a receptive mood.”
“I wish you would hurry and garner Thornton’s attentions. I’d like to know how he handles this.”
“Oh, I see. You want me to move my mission up to gain his favors, so that what he may give to me, I can tell you for Bessie’s sake?”
“Well . . . yeah. Why not? We’re brother and sister. Brotherly love and all that.”
Margaret snorted so loud, she had to grab a hanky out of her drawer.”
“For Queen and Country, is it? I will try to persuade Mr. Thornton to give lessons at the Lyceum.” Margaret laughed. “Realistically, Adam may have an ounce of advice that he’s willing to part with. Father said he was and still is, quite the lady’s man in London.”
“Yes, I know.”
“How do you know that, Fred?”
“One man can tell a lot about another man. He’s a gentleman, Oxford educated, a man of means, nice looking for his age and very private. All the ingredients to make an irresistible partner. Like Thornton, who is self-taught.”
“I don’t know about one man knowing another and his ways, but I do think you may be correct about Adam.”
“Margaret, the one thing a gentleman will never do is ask another gentleman how to handle the woman he is coming to love. We’re just supposed to know how to do that somehow.”
“No, you’re not. Your primitive instincts are born within you. You will always succumb to those whims. However, with the woman you want as your wife, you will govern yourself to match what she wants. I’d say it’s almost done for you. You have a part of you that drives you in that direction. I am having dinner with Mr. Thornton tomorrow night. I will ask if he can throw a tidbit your way.”
“Don’t you dare. You must learn it first hand?” Fred declared with a smile.
“One day you embarrass me in front of Adam and my father when talking about my virtue, now you want me to go out and learn how to give it away? I’ve already told you how to treat Bessie. Just be slow and gentle and watch for signs of excitement and reception. She’ll step back when she feels she needs to.”
“I look at Thornton, and I see the charm. How does a fellow learn charm? What is charm and how does it attract women?”
“I only know this. He immediately puts you at ease, which means he smiles and listens. He listens. His responses are honest. You know he actually listened, therefore, found interest in your words. If he compliments, you know he means it. He treats women as equals, and that is important. He is always well-groomed, and his dress is perfect. He has the knowledge of how to please someone, be it male or female. He projects an image one cannot lightly forget. Women will stare at that! He is humble. That may be the ultimate draw. He never seeks favors. He is his own man. With a nice haircut, you could be too. You don’t have to look prosperous, but you can look nice. You’re handsome. You have that on your side.”
“I’m not sure I can fit all this into my head. With the words that Bessie and I shared and this talk with you, I am overwhelmed.”
Margaret woke to the grey dawn of April in a London drenched by rain. She had slept very badly as she always seemed to do lately, when John was not beside her in the bed. John … oh, how she missed him! His gentle reassurance after a day’s hard work, his sweet soothing of her, with kisses and caresses … John … the handsome face of her husband came into her mind and she felt a stab of sheer loss of not having him close to her! Only four days … four long, lonely days … without John.
With a sigh Margaret rose and readied herself for her second day in the Empire’s capital. As she did so, her baby violently kicked.
In Milton John woke after the most wretched night he ever had.
Damn! How was he supposed to sleep without his wife next to him? And then, this empty house, without even his mother! Damn! His world had been turned upside down!
He dragged himself out of bed and dressed. It was barely six am and still dark but he made a point of being there when the first shift arrived. Just so that the workers knew their master shared their working hours.
Tom was already in the office, busily jotting down numbers in one of the large ledgers.
“Good Lord, boy! And you here in this blistering cold? Why do you come here so early? Mr Williams does not light the stove before eight am!”
“I don’t feel the cold, Mr Thornton, sir!”, Tom beamed, “I awoke at five and couldn’t stay in bed! Not with all the work there’s to be done!”
“Be sure to go down to the house for breakfast, Tom. I notified Cook you would.”
Margaret entered the waiting room of Dr Mortimer Chelmsford, renowned gynaecologist in London’s Harley Street, which hosted the residences of a vast amount of famous (read: exclusive and expensive) members of the medical profession. A very dignified lady at the reception led her into it, indicating a chair.
“The doctor will see you soon, Ma’am,” she proclaimed in a rigid manner and retired.
Margaret waited, her nervousness mounting as time ticked away. Although she had a deep trust in Dr Donaldson and his abilities, she was anxious to hear the opinion of the London doctor on her pregnancy. Just to be on the safe side. She remembered all too well how precarious the situation had been in the first months of waiting anxiously for a miscarriage to happen.
Dr Chelmsford was not at all as Margaret had imagined he would. For instance, he was young; he could not be more than thirty-five. He was also very reassuring , cordially welcomed her into his office and held out a chair for her. His big brown eyes shone with warm interest and his large mouth smiled readily while he penned down her data on a page of the record book he kept for his patients. He did not interrupt Margaret before she told him the whole story about her pregnancy.
“Well, Mrs Thornton, if you would be so kind as to step behind that screen? I would like you to disrobe of your coat, shirt, skirt and corset, if you please? Then, pray, stretch out onto the couch.”
Feeling a trifle awkward, Margaret did as he asked. She stiffened when the doctor began to probe the swollen mound of her belly with gentle hands.
“Please, Mrs Thornton, I beg you to relax. This procedure is very necessary in order to establish the position and condition of your baby. I will endeavour not to prolong it beyond its necessity. Now, close your eyes, think of pleasant, soothing things.”
With an effort, Margaret directed her thoughts to the man she loved beyond everything. She forced herself to recall John’s face and brilliant blue eyes, his smile when he looked at her, his upright frame and long legs. John … only four days and she would be with him again.
“There, Mrs Thornton, that part is over. Now, I want you to be very brave. There is one examination I have to do and it is not a pleasant one. I must ascertain myself of the condition of the cervix.”
“But … doctor, how will you …”
Dr Chelmsford took one of her hands and squeezed it gently.
“I must ask you to put yourself into my hands, Mrs Thornton. If you prefer not to be alone with me during this examination, I will ask my assistant to be present. That way propriety will be satisfied. Would you like Mrs Dorcas, who is a respectfully married lady with two children, to be present?”
“Yes, please,” Margaret whispered.
After what was positively the most horrible ten minutes of her entire life, Margaret was allowed to dress again. She was a trifle wobbly in the legs when she returned to the chair in front of Dr Chelmsford’s desk. When Mrs Dorcas, face still placidly unperturbed, handed her a cup of fragrant, steaming tea, she gladly accepted. The tea was strong and sweet and after she drained the cup greedily, Margaret felt almost restored to her old self.
“Mrs Thornton,” the doctor said gravely, “I have some … disturbing news for you. I must inform you of the fact that you are carrying twins.”
Chapter Forty-Four – Working for Marlborough Mills
John’s hand, holding a spoon full of stew, stopped half way up to his mouth in surprise. This was the first time ever Mary ‘proposed’ something to him!
“Well … I couldn’t help notice you are being overtaken by work and a lot of it is that of an office clerk, filling in the ledgers, calculating and checking numbers, writing letters and so on. Do you remember little Tom Boucher? John, thanks to your kind concern, the boy, now eight, has become an astute little fellow who is particularly good at mathematics. His school teacher, Mr Debenham, even refers to him as ‘brilliant’. His handwriting is neat and very legible. Maybe he could give you a hand, as an junior office hand?”
John put down his spoon and grabbed Mary’s hand in so fierce a grasp that she startled!
“Mary, Mary, thank you! Now why haven’t I thought about that? It is simply perfect! Bring him to me this instant. He will do very nicely, I’m sure!”
Although the meeting at the Assembly Hall was very instructive, Margaret was glad to return to Harley Street when it was over. She had been participating and asking questions throughout the debate and lectures, frantically making notes and instructing Dixon to go hunting for pamphlets. Now, at the end of a very long morning, she felt exhausted. Her back was troubling her something fiercely and her head was spinning. Dixon’s reproaches on what she called Margaret’s foolish behaviour did nothing to relieve the headache she now had. When they came out into the courtyard, they had an unpleasant surprise as their cab was nowhere to be seen.
“Miss, you go back inside and I’ll go fetch another one!” Dixon ordered.
“No, Dixon, let’s go together. No need for you to go on your own.”
Leaning heavily on Dixon’s sturdy arm, Margaret left the courtyard into the narrow Throgmorton Street and the pair of them set foot in the direction of the broader London Wall thoroughfare.
She bit her lower lip at the pain in her back. Dr Donaldson had been trying to reassure her about it, saying it was only her pelvis ligaments elongating, caused by her growing belly. This way her body prepared itself to give birth. It did hurt mightily and she had to stifle a groan when she overturned her ankle and the shock reverberated through her belly. Thanks to Dixon’s strong grasp on her arm she did not fall.
“Margaret! Margaret, for God’s sake, what are you doing out here?”
They both turned toward the voice and saw, to their infinite relief, Henry Lennox, alighting from his carriage.
When Tom Boucher entered the office, John stood and bid him welcome, motioning to a chair in front of his desk.
“Hello, Tom! How are you? I hear you want to come and work for me?”
The boy, who had grown quite a bit over the last two years, beamed at him and replied. “Oh, yes, Mr Thornton, sir! I would very much like that! I am quite good at maths and I can write a clear hand, sir. Mary told me to bring these with me, so you could see for yourself.”
Tom handed over a map to John who opened and studied it. Mary had not at all been exaggerating. The boy wrote an impeccable hand and his calculating examples were neat and correct. John smiled at him and looked him over.
“You have grown a lot since I last saw you, Tom. What is it, some three inches?”
“Three and a half, Mr Thornton, sir!” Tom beamed.
John realised he had neglected to inquire about the boy’s health and progress even though he promised himself to do so after discovering that Nicholas had taken Boucher’s children in. Thank God Mary had cared for them!
“Well, Tom, I want you to come into the office at eight in the morning and take care of all the administration, a task for which I do not have time. You will work until five pm and you will take three meals a day in the kitchen of my house. I will inform my cook about this. I will pay you a weekly salary of nine shillings a week with a monthly raise of half a shilling, if you keep up the good work. Here are some of the ledgers from the supply that have to be updated.”
John led Tom to a high writing desk and gestured him to climb on the high stool.
The serious note in John’s voice made the boy look him straight into the face.
“Yes, Mr Thornton, sir?”
“I do hope you are aware of the fact that all things in here are confidential? You are not to speak about any of these affairs to any one, not even to Mary. Do you understand, Tom?”
The blue eyes of the boy stared into his own with grave honesty.
“Yes, Mr Thornton, I do understand. You have my word, Sir.”
That night, John Thornton sat in his parlour after he dined alone in his dining room.
The house was very quiet and dark, all noises coming to an end as evening settled in. The factory itself seemed to have grown silent, as it did every night at ten pm, when the last shift of workers went home. John was always aware of the ending of work but never as acutely as now, when he was alone in his house, without everyone he loved.
Never before, not even in earlier times of being rejected by her, had John felt Margaret’s absence more deeply than now. His darling wife had become a part of him. Without her he was lost.
“Much better, father. My neck is stiff to turn it, but most of the pain is gone. I don’t believe I will need any medication anymore. Adam isn’t visiting today, is he? I can’t take another day like yesterday.”
“Quite honestly, I can’t either. I’ve really let you down, Margaret. I am sorry for that. I just didn’t know how to broach the subject, and I should have. I guess I assumed your mother had covered that with you.”
“Father, don’t be sorry. Mother covered what she should have, and that was about me and my pubescent body, but she said nothing about men. Perhaps, she didn’t know much herself. And with you, as a devoted, loving husband gave her no reason for more knowledge.”
“It would embarrass you for me to go into that part of our life, but we were a happy couple.”
“I’ve always known that. I hope I am as fortunate to have one man love me all my life.”
“Do you think it may be Mr. Thornton?”
“I don’t know. He mainly apologized for the dinner and expressed wanting to know me better. I am fortunate to have that.”
“Margaret, he was quite adamant about seeing you yesterday. There is more behind that apology, I am sure of it.”
“Where is Fred?”
“He’s taken Max out for exercise. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t pass by a particular young lady’s home while he’s riding.”
“Mr. Thornton asked if he could come by today, and I said yes. I don’t know what time, though.”
“Do you feel up to having company?”
“I feel up to seeing him,” Margaret shyly smiled.
“I know the principles that you were raised with, and I trust you to do what is right for you. I do not worry about proper society rules. As you know, your mother went against those herself, and I believe she never regretted it. Do what makes you happy but do keep in mind potential consequences to your actions.”
“Thank you for telling me that, father.”
“I do believe I will hold off on my nap until John gets here.”
“I do believe he is here now,” Margaret mimicked. She went to the window, and Branson had his door open.”
“Dixon, I’ll get the door,” Margaret shouted.
“I believe I will retire before he comes in. Richard remarked.”
“See you at dinner, father.”
Margaret opened the door to John Thornton.
“Good afternoon, Miss Hale. Is there an ambush lying in wait for me inside? I would like to apologize, first.”
Margaret laughed, which brought a small frown. “Only me. Do, I count?”
“The answer to that could be misinterpreted, so I will decline. You are alone?”
“Fred is out, and my father just went to rest. Please come in.”
“How is your injury, puppet?” He smiled.
“I think one more day with this collar should suffice. May I get you any refreshment?”
“I was wondering if you felt you could take a brief ride on a good road. I would like to take you into town for lunch. But I can easily wait until you are stronger.”
“If I wear my collar while riding, I should be fine. If you can wait, I will tell Dixon.”
Margaret was gone a few minutes, and John stood in the sitting room twirling his hat. He was reminded of the scene he had made there, only yesterday. He, no doubt, had those other apologies to make.
Margaret was back with her bonnet and neck collar. John noticed she had dimples.
“Margaret, with those little dimples, you do remind me of a puppet,” John grinned.
“With this stiff collar, I feel like the Queen of Scotland just before they removed her head. I believe they wore those wretched stiff ruffled collars about that time.”
“I’ve never had any reference to the clothing of that era. Perhaps, a day at the London museum?”
“I’m sorry. Is that a question?”
“It’s an invitation if you would like a day out as such.”
“I believe we need more conversation before I can agree to anything as lovely as that.”
“And I believe I have much to say in these conversations. Shall we go?”
John handed her in the coach, spoke with Branson, and then entered as well. He pitched his hat on the opposite bench, settling beside Margaret.
“I am grateful to have this private time with you,” John said. “I have questions that I hope you will feel free to answer. I know this is your business, your life, but still, you leave a mystery in your wake.”
“Should I worry? I was looking forward to lunch with you. Will you spoil it?”
“You have been looking forward to coming out to lunch? Did I not take you to the canteen at the mill? You didn’t seem all that enthused then. I am reminded you made notice of something there, but I digress.”
“Are you teasing me?” Margaret frowned looking at him.
John broke out in a smile looking at that face. “Dimples and frowns and stares. I fear I am not strong enough for your beguiling moods.”
“You are teasing me.”
“Have you never done that yourself? Can you say you never teased me?”
Margaret looked out the window. “How far is the luncheon café?”
John laughed as quietly as he could, but Margaret heard him and laughed, too.
“Well? Asked John.
“I think I would like to table that question until other, more important, issues are known to me.”
“Branson seems to be slowing down. Are we here?”
Margaret began to untie the neck collar. Whether it was her nerves or done purposely, the strings became knotted.
Branson was waiting through the open door, looking in. John made no offer to help her. He kept a straight face while he heard small exasperating gushes of air as she wrestled with it. Since she couldn’t see it, he knew she would fail. He waited to be asked, glancing at Branson.
John couldn’t help it. When Branson started whistling while they waited, John laughed out loud.
“Oof . . .” He heard Margaret utter.
“Margaret, may I be of some assistance?”
“I think you know you can. You waited for me to ask, didn’t you?”
“Margaret Hale, we know very little about each other. By offering my help immediately, you may assume that I didn’t have faith that you could do it yourself.”
“What kind of an answer is that?”
“Poor, I’m afraid. So you do or do not need the benefit of my help?”
“I do. Please.”
“All you had to do was ask. For what’s it’s worth, I am fairly well known for coming to the aid of damsels in distress. You may remember several instances at the Lyceum, for example. And you weren’t even aware that I had to carry you into your house because you were in your cups.”
“Are you done, yet?” Margaret mockingly sounded stern. They were almost nose to nose. Margaret didn’t think his eyesight was that bad that he had to get that close to the knot to see it. “Is the light bad?”
“I’m getting it,” John said, purposely staring into her eyes. She didn’t know that it had been unknotted for several moments. He heard Branson cough.
“There we go. I don’t mind taking you to lunch while you are wearing your collar. If you feel you need it, let’s return it.”
“I don’t think I will have any missteps from here to the door.”
“Not if you take my arm.”
“But doesn’t your own arm bother you?”
“And why would you think that?” He asked, handing her out of the coach.
“You’ve been patting yourself on your back quite long now.”
John heard Branson snort from holding in laughter.
“Branson, that will be enough of that.” John hadn’t laughed like this since he couldn’t remember when.
John and Margaret were seated in a secluded part of the café. There were many round tables and chairs and booths around the edge of the big room. Several of them had a bit of privacy to them.
“Will this do, Mr. Thornton?”
“Yes, this is fine. Could you bring us a bottle of your house wine while we read your menu?”
“Coming right up, sir.”
Once Margaret was settled he sat opposite her. “What do you think of this nice little café?”
“It does look very nice. It appears to be somewhere between the pub cafes and the fine restaurants. I’m not sure I would call it small. Does this booth have your name carved in it somewhere? No, wait . . . I bet if I look closely, you have inscribed the names of each of the women you have brought here, is that not so?”
“Actually, this is my booth. I have paid the establishment for my own private use. Yes, I bought it.”
Margaret flopped back against the high wood backrest, staring at John with her mouth open. She bumped her head when she did that, showing John her grimace face.”
“Margaret, are you alright?”
“I’m not sure, but my neck is fine. Your booth? Do patrons vote on the different women you bring to this booth? “Oh, she’s a stunner. “That one’s a little too skinny for me. This trip they must know I am only a fill-in. Is there a ballot box somewhere?”
John withdrew a bit of paper and a pencil from his vest pocket. In large letters, he wrote the word gullible.
“Gullible? You mean me?” Margaret recalled the meat on her plate at the ball.
John just stared at her with a smile.
“Oof . . .” She said and looked away from his smile.
The small platters with meatloaf, boiled potatoes, and carrots were served.
“I love this meal,” Margaret announced.
“As do I. None of the other women order it when I bring them here,” he teased.
“Are you ready, Mr. Thornton? You may fire as you bear.”
“As I bear?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve heard my brother say that. If the navy is maneuvering to fire their cannons at another ship, he would tell his men to ‘fire as you bear,’ meaning for them to fire when their bearing was in a good position for an attack.”
“Thank you for such a complete understanding of that word. I did know what you meant. I didn’t think you would.”
“You have underestimated me recently, have you not?”
“That is rather an understatement in itself. That’s where many of my questions lie. But first, there is something more important than your attempts to draw my attention to you.”
“And that would be . . . ?”
“Is that important to you?”
“Most emphatically,” John replied.
“Why?” Asked Margaret.
Margaret set down her fork, looked up into John’s face and said, “I think I love you.”
John reached for her hand across the table. “I thought it would take months to hear you say those words to me. I had come to hope that you did. I have spent a lot of hours thinking about you and how I missed seeing you. I am certain that was by design. Surprisingly, resourceful. I …”
Margaret interrupted. “It’s not right for a woman to say those words first.” Margaret frowned. “l am sure you hear that often, and my declaration doesn’t sound any different than the next female.”
“Oh, you’re so wrong about that.”
“That’s not what my brother tells me. He’s been coaching me about men and what to expect and how to act. Fred’s been telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. What some men expect from women. Adam helped me with ignoring you. I didn’t think of that on my own. I’ve ruined it all.” Margaret started crying.
John stepped around to her side of the bench and placed his arm around her, hugging her to him.
“Stop . . . stop . . . stop this. You haven’t ruined anything. This very minute you changed my life.”
“I what?” Margaret said, glassy-eyed.
“I know I love you.
“You what?” Margaret said, slurring her words. “You can’t know that. After everything I’ve done to you, what is wrong with you that you can say those words? I’ve insulted you, I’ve ignored you, I’ve chastised your pride when you said you carried me around the dance floor. You can’t love someone if that’s all you know about them.”
“Let me see. You forgot embarrassed me, stared at me, shamed me, and now I find out I’ve been ambushed by the family. I’ve been tricked, hoodwinked, victimized and mislead. I love you more than I ever thought it was possible to do. Don’t you understand?”
“I’d have to have my head examined if I did. How did I embarrass you?”
“You pee’d in your shoes at the Lyceum, didn’t you? You didn’t think I knew about that.”
“Oh my, God.” Margaret hung her head between her hands with her elbows resting on the table. She then pushed her plate to the side and laid her head down.
“I never told anyone. This isn’t exactly like I had planned,” John laughed, “but we sure arrived at the important answers rather quickly. Instead of weeks or months for each of us to speak of love, it happened in minutes over meatloaf. You should be in my arms right now, I would be kissing your neck, loving the feel of your sweet skin on my lips. We’ve missed so much getting to this point.”
Margaret sat up hearing those words. “You can’t say those words to me. They make me feel odd inside. I think I know that means something. I’ll have to ask Fred, again.”
“Never mind, Fred. You now ask me, since I am the one that is causing that to happen to you. You are doing the same thing to me.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?”
John sucked air through his smile. “With you, it’s hard to say.” He smiled lovingly at her. This was the happiest time of his life.
“See here, John. I’ve been working on these growing feelings for you in excess of two weeks. You have only been thinking about me for two days. It’s impossible for you to know how you really feel.”
“Yes, Fred says men have desires all the time. Love isn’t known until one gets to know the other.”
“And your brother has been in love, has he?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how does he know about all men? He’s a naval officer. He was at sea a long time. His mind may have worked differently since companionship wasn’t readily available to him.”
“Why do you think you love me?”
“Because I have never been where I am right now. I want to explode. I’m barely keeping myself together at this moment. I want to fly apart with joy and happiness. I know, at this hour, my whole life is turning a major corner. I believe you crept into my heart at the Lyceum. Watching you, marveling at you, filled me with emotions I didn’t recognize then. My thoughts of love began to solidify at the ball and were engraved on my heart by the dinner. As I felt myself falling in love with you, I spent an entire night going over everything I had heard or seen you do. I thought there may be some interest in me, but then you started acting strangely at the ball. Finally, it was the tear at the dinner table where the pieces began to fit. As much as this is going to hinder my path to you, I do like that you are cautious with your heart and . . . nevermind. Being the innocent that you are, I’m not sure what you feel for me is real love. You’re new at these emotions and . . . odd feelings.”
“Your words sound sincere. I am not to be fooled by them? You’re not just a man in gentleman’s clothing, are you?”
“At the very least I hope I am that. I am a normal male with more than my share of . . . ladies. I’ve tried to live my life as a gentleman in the highest traditions of honor. I believe I have succeeded in that, both professionally and personally. Who do you think you’re in love with? Could it be my appearance, my wealth, my standing? Why did you fall in love with me? Perhaps, I’m the one who should be questioning the motives of a puppet.”
The tears started to form again. John was beside himself. This was definitely uncharted waters, but he vowed that nothing was going to alter her feelings for him. He slid closer, taking her hand in his. He leaned in and kissed her tears.
Margaret turned to him when he did that. She looked into his eyes and then at his mouth where she lingered.
“Do you know you are giving me a signal, Margaret?”
“A signal? Fred didn’t talk about signals. Oh, wait. Yes, he did. He said I was seducing you with my eyes.”
“What am I doing now?”
“You are asking me to kiss you.”
“You did puppet. If I wasn’t the gentleman that you think you love, I would have kissed you, here and now. I had better move back to my side of the table. You don’t know what you’re doing, and I am helpless against you.”
“We’ve confessed our most important thoughts, unhindered and untimely. I am bearing my soul as you are. The words you have said to me are overwhelming that I can’t even take them in. I should be rejoicing, but I am swimming in the path we took to get here. John, do you fancy me?”
“More than anyone in my life and fancy isn’t strong enough.” John was holding her hands across the table.
“Do you seek my favors?”
“All of them. I will seek and know them all. I want you in my life for the rest of our days.”
“I desperately want to believe you and you to believe me. You have the experience with such matters, and I do not.”
“Margaret, I have never been in love. Ever. I hope you can believe that. There have been many rumors about my personal life, most of them are not true. Yes, it will take time for you to trust that I am telling you the truth. I can wait. I will be constant.”
“Our food is cold.”
“I see we have come to the end of our confessions. ‘Tis sad, that. My heart has yearned to speak these words all my life.”
“Someone has been reading Shakespeare.”
They both laughed.
Seeing Margaret finally smile was almost heartbreakingly wonderful.
“John, as stoic and prideful as you always appear, there may be a romantic inside of you.”
“I foresee one has just awakened. It is incongruous to me how different I feel compared to any other time I have lived. My past never felt hope for any particular woman, and now a mist clears and you are standing before me.”