There was quite a discussion going on in the sitting room when Margaret and Fred arrived downstairs. Adam stood and moved away from the couch to another chair. The change in Margaret’s face said more than her words could tell them. Fred settled her and then fetched another cup of tea for his sister.
“Margaret, the change in you is an extraordinary one,” said Adam.
“This neck brace is most helpful,” she said.”
Adam and Richard chuckled as if that was the only reason.
“Your life seems to have turned around since I saw you only an hour ago. It wouldn’t have to do with that strange man that dashed to your side, would it?” Adam smiled.
“He looked vaguely like someone I know, but his conduct was not like the gentleman I know him to be. So who was he?”
Margaret began to smile until she noticed a gun on the nearby table. She gasped when seeing it. “What is a pistol doing in this house?”
Returning to the room with her tea, Fred said, “That is my service weapon. I was just showing it to Adam.”
“When you were in the Navy, you never had anyone slap you in the face with a glove and tell you ‘pistols at dawn,’ did you?”
“Disputes are not settled with pistols while on the high seas, puppet, and no I was never challenged. And should I have been, it could only have been by men of equal rank. In the civilian world, it would have been different.”
Margaret looked at Adam. “Is he telling the truth?”
“And what weapon would have been used aboard ship?”
“Swords, my dear,” Fred said.
“It’s hard to believe you were skilled in all those weapons.”
“We learn it all so we can protect our sisters,” Fred laughed.
“Are there no limits?
“None. Except in pistols at dawn where there is only one shot allowed by each combatant.”
“Are you two drinking this early?” Margaret frowned.
“Yes, we had a bit of excitement down here while you slept.”
“Are you talking about, John?”
“No, I think it was some madman that came in here and stormed your room against the odds of three other men.”
Margaret blushed and smiled at the same time. “He didn’t?”
“Oh, it was quite a show. I think you would be very proud of him although he did scare the three of us.”
“I didn’t fear him,” insisted Fred.
“Yes, you did stand up to him very well before he outsmarted you.”
Margaret was almost popping up and down on the couch clapping her hands, hearing this tale.
“I don’t think anyone in this room could have foreseen a gentleman doing that.”
“I certainly believe you to be correct, Fred. Margaret, I think he would have stormed the battlements of Camelot to see you. Can you enlighten us on his mission?” Adam smiled.
“Margaret, this is no time to go private with your life. You may be facing some very important issues soon,” Fred insisted. “Every man is this room understands that.”
“I think I want out of this room.”
“Margaret, you are very fortunate to have such a loving, protective brother. Do not fault him for wanting the best for you. He is looking down the road of your life, not just the moment.”
“Does he think I will abandon my moral upbringing at the first sign of weakness.”
“Honestly, yes, Margaret.”
“Adam, I think you judge me unfairly. I think you judge John unfairly.”
“His recent actions indicate feelings deeper than I think even he realizes.”
“And what about my feelings?”
Adam looked at Fred.
“Sis, I think we need to say it like it is. There are emotional feelings and physical feelings.”
“I think I know that.” Margaret huffed. “What is your point?”
Fred threw both hands in the air. “Aaahhh!!! Your virtue, Margaret,” he shouted.
It was like Margaret was slapped in the face. “My virtue!!”
She looked at her father, who was looking down, circling the fabric on his lap with one finger. Adam was busy filling his pipe. Fred was staring at her like she was an idiot. He was still standing in the middle of the room.
“My virtue,” she repeated. That seems to be more important to you than it does to me.”
“What!! That’s incredulous.”
“Fred, calm down. You’re going to have a stroke. Why do women have to live under a double standard? Tell me that.”
“How long have you had that attitude?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Margaret could see her father was on the verge of leaving the room, but he couldn’t move. Adam was listening intently, waiting for his opportunity to share his views. Margaret couldn’t believe this discussion of her chastity was going on in the sitting room with three men.
“I want to come over there and shake some sense into you. I know mother never spoke of these things to you, so now you have me. I’m not sure if there is a law, but there are centuries of tradition. You said you understood about a man’s needs. He will always be on the hunt until married. As crass as that sounds, it’s the truth, and he can’t help it.”
“He can’t help it. He can’t help it. That’s all I hear from you.” Margaret said in her agitated tone. “You seem to think that is a given, by rites. It excuses you from your actions because you can’t help it.”
“It’s a biological fact of life, for Christ’s sake.”
“I know that, Fred. But you make it an excuse for everything. He can’t help it. We can’t help it. Will you come home one night with a black eye and maybe bullet hole somewhere because you took Bessie’s virtue. I’ll run to your aid and ask what happened, and you’ll say, I couldn’t help it. Really? You could do that?”
That actually got a laugh from Adam and Fred.
Adam was enjoying this debate, Richard was marveling at the knowledge his daughter had gained. Fred was exasperated.
“You know you could have helped it. I do think God made men that way to perpetuate the species. But it doesn’t excuse your behavior.”
“So you’re saying we need to be ashamed?”
“I am not saying that. I am saying you can help it. A lot of your control is in here.” Margaret rose up to Fred and knocked on his head.
Fred threw up his hands. “I concede. Now let’s get back to you and this century.”
“Margaret, I think we all know that you are correct about a double standard. It is unfair, but the man you marry doesn’t want a woman who is spoilt. It may not really matter at all to him if he is a forward thinking intelligent man, but he must appear to have preserved his rights to you.” Adam added.
“Let me see if I have your thinking correct. If, and I repeat if, John Thornton and I seem to form an attachment, words have been spoken, and marriage is forthcoming, that a very large part of our relationship will be left in doubt?”
“God, she drives a hard bargain, doesn’t she,” Fred said to the rest of the room.”
“Fred, we’ve always known that she was independent.”
“But not with this. Please, not with this, Margaret.”
“Fred, Father, Adam, you’re just going to have to trust me. I don’t want all of you looking after me until I am married and bedded. I don’t want you looking at the gentleman I am seeing and think, I know what he’s after. Give me some credit.” Margaret thought her father was going to have a heart attack. She found the challenge of the argument fun even if she wouldn’t behave as she was implying.
“Fred, she is by rights a woman, now. Free to make her own choices. She was brought up with moral values, educated, and it’s time to let them play out. If it were any other man aside from Thornton, I believe I would have more to say, but I believe him to be the most honorable man I know. He won’t let her weaken unless he knows, in his mind, that he will marry her. He will not allow his passion to lose control unless it is insisted upon him.”
“So if Margaret is … is deflowered, it will be at her own insistence. Is that what you are saying?”
“Aren’t we switching things around here? First, it was the man’s needs, now she’s talking about a woman’s needs. Where did that come from?”
“Hey, I am in the room, you know,” Margaret interjected.
Fred went and sat beside her. “Alright. Can you put our worries to rest?”
“What exactly are your worries – that I will weaken and lose my virtue before marriage, or that I will be insistent?”
“Bloody hell, Margaret. What’s the difference? The man is still in control of you.” Fred’s voice was rising.
“I will promise you this. Now listen. I may lose my virtue ahead of marriage, but it will happen with the man I will marry and no one else.”
“You are assured there will be marriage. I don’t think you can be guaranteed anything.”
“Fred, can you honestly say that you would not seek the knowledge of compatibility with the woman you intend to marry for life?” Margaret looked at him, waiting for an answer.
“Let me try an example,” Margaret added.
Fred sat across the room.
“You and Bessie have been having a relationship for several months. In your heart, you feel she is the one. Time goes on, and passion grows. Your desire becomes unbearable. You think you can’t help it much longer. You have kissed and hugged and petted and maybe a bit beyond that. Unbeknownst to most men, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, Bessie will have her own desires that are constantly being put down. She wants you to take her, but she can’t say that or even intimate that because of the double standard. Now the marriage talk comes. It is decided, although a date has not yet been set. On a particular perfect outing, you two are alone. You want the touch and feel of each other. You want her in your arms, she wants to be there. Desires builds, passion mounts, being a man you can no longer hold back. You slowly unbutton her frock and pull the top down, knowing what comes next. She’s beginning to swoon. She has waited a long time for this attention. You look into her face, asking permission. Her eyes are closed, but there is a soft cooing from her lips. You bend down to kiss and then stop. “I can’t do this to you, Bessie, you will be spoiled goods for the next man, should you not marry me.”
“Damn, Margaret, you’re making me sweat.” Fred was forced to leave the room.
“Margaret, that was spectacular. You must write. That is your forte in life. Women’s novels on love. Perhaps, write for men, so they have a guide,” Adam laughed. “You took me back to my younger days. Your father is mighty quiet over there.”
“I think he sees I have come of age.” Margaret smiled.
“In every way, I do think.”
It was after dinner, the table was cleared, and John sat with his mother having an evening brandy. The evenings were beginning to chill and on damp nights, a fire was light. Hannah stared at her son as he gazed into the flames for minutes on end.
“Is anything wrong with your brandy, John?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“You have been far away in your thoughts. What troubles you tonight? Something happen at the mill?”
“I didn’t even get to the mill today. And nothing is wrong.”
“Then what is right, that takes you off this evening?”
“I’ve been thinking about Miss Hale,” John acknowledged.
“In any particular regard? I remember how upset you were at what Lenore may have told her.”
John watched the flames and infrequently looked at his mother. “That has been cleared up with a lot more understanding than a man deserves.”
“You know I liked the girl when I met her.”
“She is a woman, mother,” he exclaimed. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to snap at you.”
“Is she seeking your favor?”
“No. She isn’t.”
“No? I knew she was different. Is that what troubles you?”
“I told you, nothing was troubling me.”
“You’ve been sitting there, pondering, looking into the flames for a long time. Surely, there is something you can tell me about her that takes control of your deep thoughts.”
“I barged into her bedchamber today.” John was pinching the bridge of his nose while his gaze remained on the burning logs. “I had to speak with her and Fred, her brother, was denying me. I understood him not wanting to see me after last night. So, I took the stairs quickly, walked into her room and locked the door.”
“John, you could have been arrested. You’re a magistrate. What had you to say to her that was of such urgency?”
“I wanted to tell her I was sorry,” John said between clenched teeth.
“Wouldn’t a note have sufficed?”
“I spent all night going over in my head every detail that I have observed or heard from her since she was known to me. Every one. My only conclusion to my midnight meanderings is that she has purposely concealed herself from me. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but she did. You know I am one among many bachelor’s in Milton, and there are plenty of women. One cannot help but notice them. It didn’t mean I was interested, but notice I did. I first became aware of Margaret at the office when she came to speak about giving the lessons, which now in hindsight, I missed what I should have seen. There was a day when she stared at me. I found it a common female convention, but I was still amused by it. From then on, she insulted me and then ignored me. She never mentioned she was coming to the dinner and allowed me to tell her I was leaving early from work. Something happened last night that seemed to cause a burst in my chest. It took me all night to figure out what it was and that was seeing Adam Bell wipe a single tear from her cheek. I thought she may have been in pain since Adam said she was, but in bed last night, I knew that wasn’t it.”
“It was Lenore’s words?” Hannah asked.
“Not entirely. You are a smart woman, mother. Perhaps you became aware of a … what do I call this … an attempt to gain my attention by promoting oneself, which seemed to be going on between Lenore and Anne?”
“Yes, I did spot that but that isn’t new to you or me.”
“I don’t see where you’re going with this, John.”
“It’s as clear as day to me now.”
“The tear,” he said wistfully. “Miss Hale has been in front of me but never brought attention to herself. She never sought my favor. She didn’t bother me, in fact, she went out of her way at the ball to put me at ease with her indifference. That is a startling revelation. As I look behind all that, I see a very intriguing woman, who is not only independent but funny, intelligent and beautiful.”
“I see. But the tear?”
“Yes, the tear. Her final surrender to herself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I spent the dark hours trying to interpret what I was unconsciously aware of at the table. Mother, perhaps you can understand and tell me what was going on inside of her. First, we must remember that she went through great pain just to be at your dinner. She was quiet and unobtrusive. I believe she attended, to be noticed by me by continuing to act indifferent. She was protracted, don’t you see; thus drawing my attention more prominently and favorably as it turned out.”
“Let me tell you the rest, John, as I believed happened.”
“As you say, she made a very intelligent play for your scrutiny of her. She was masterful.”
“But?” John added.
“But . . . while sitting at the table, and I don’t know the order of things because I didn’t see the tear, she was forced to hear of Lenore’s boastings. She figured out that she was your companion for the evening.”
“That’s when the tear fell.”
“Finally witnessing the Latimer, Smithers tournament, she would never have engaged in, but it did show her that she was an unworthy opponent. Each woman dressed in their finery with their jewels, while she was a woman who educated herself so she could work. It’s not what they had that she didn’t, it was her giving up on you noticing her.”
“That was when she closed her eyes,” John remembered vividly.
“Yes . . . as I thought. All night I have reviewed this brave young woman at our table. This woman that was there unnoticed because I have become so full of pride, to be glad that she wasn’t a bother.”
“And you feel different towards her now?”
“I very much do. I feel there is new hope in my life and she may well be the one if she will have me. I need to know more of her and she of me.”
“You’ve gone as far as thinking of marriage?”
“I have, along with many other factors, including a brother that protects her as the crown jewels, which I would like the honor of doing some day. No feelings have ever felt so rooted as the ones that have developed overnight.”
“So what do you plan to do, John?”
“I’ve already started by barging into her bedchamber and locking us in.” John laughed. “I had to see her face. Was she really the same person I have been dwelling on for the past twelve hours. Placing her in my life through various situations.”
“And she was?”
“No, she was more than I hoped.”
Nicholas found John at work early the next morning. “I was sorry to miss you yesterday. How did the rest of the night unfold? I figured you were up late and had a few too many scotches.”
“You couldn’t be further from the truth. I didn’t sleep much at all that night, so I caught some of it yesterday afternoon.”
“It must have been something big because you appear somewhat changed.”
“I am changed.”
“It’s Miss Hale, isn’t it?”
“How do you know that? When did you know?”
“Before you, apparently,” Nicholas laughed. “I was sure of it the day she came for the mill walk. You came looking for her or us, and you walked her out of the mill. It would have made more sense if she walked with me and continued to ask questions, or she walked with her brother. That you came at all was a revelation. It meant you were waiting for her.”
All of his reflections last night, and there was that moment that he hadn’t remembered. The mill walk had come to mind but in her regard, not his. He didn’t know why he did it. It was an unconscious thought.
John watched the smiles come and go on Nicholas’ face as he recounted the rest of the dinner up until that very moment.
“You barged into her bedchamber? Against the repeated denials of three other men that have considerably more ownership of her than you do?”
“I know. It seemed rash at the time.”
“It doesn’t seem rash, it was rash.”
“I will never forget yesterday, no matter what comes from it. I would do it again.”
“John, I think you have just crossed over into dangerous territory where bachelors go and never return.”
They both laughed.
“Seriously, John, I have never seen you so taken with someone so easily and this quickly.”
“She was hiding, remember? My self-pride allowed her to remain indifferent and give me peace.”
“Do you think it was that well thought-out and planned. If so, you have been under siege for a fortnight.”
John had to laugh out loud at that. “It doesn’t really matter, how well it may have been planned, but her execution was flawless.”
“So what’s next?”