Chapter Seventeen – Setting Things In Motion
The priest continued in the same, relaxed way, not giving them a chance to recollect themselves after the first shock John and Margaret had suffered.
“I have to dress the old-fashioned way, you know. People in this neighbourhood still feel strongly about every man that holds a position in religion; they want to know him for what he is, no more, no less. Certainly, no less. A priest must look like one. I came here in jeans and leather jacket but I soon changed into traditional garb since I was ignored, even by the few Irish that live here. Now, what can I do for you, my good people? Sit down, sit down. Sharia, my pet, won’t you ask Mrs Trundle if she can serve us some tea, there’s a good girl?”
Betty, noticing the couple’s embarrassment, took over.
“Patrick, this is John Thornton and his fiancée, Margaret Hale. They’ve been staying at my house since a couple of weeks now. They would like to be married, only, they are illegally staying in the country. I know how you dealt with cases like that in the past and I thought you might be able to help them.”
The priest showed no visible surprise or rejection.
“So, you don’t have the necessary documents to prove your identity? Well, you just have come to the right neighbourhood, then. Half the residents are in the exact same position as you are. But, forgive me for asking, Thornton looks like a real British name to me, and so does Hale. What’s happening here?”
The indomitable Betty opened her big handbag and pulled a book out of it.
“Here, Patrick. I think you should have a look at this. Go directly for the back cover.”
How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’
When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice.
This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man
John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over treatment over his employees masks a deeper attraction.
In North and South Elizabeth Gaskell skilfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.
John watched the priest as he was reading with sharp attention what was on the page. The absurdity of it all again hit him with considerable force. How was one to explain what had happened to him and Margaret? John wasn’t even sure he understood himself but here he was – propelled forward into time for the span of a hundred and sixty years. It was mind-blowing!
Father Patrick looked up to gaze directly at John first and then at Margaret.
“Look here,” he said slowly, “if you hadn’t come with Betty, I would have taken you for two people who are seriously confused in their minds. People who are so shaken by life that they seek relief in extreme escapism by posing as characters out of a novel. But I have known Betty for ten years now, and she is the most level-headed person I know. So I have no choice but to believe her. You two are the John and Margaret of a Gaskell novel but you have ended up here, not only real but also with knowledge of your past lives or – at least – how this novel describes them?”
“Yes, Father,” John replied in a steady voice, “we were in a train carriage somewhere between London and Milton, in 1852. The train stopped, and we discovered that the carriage, we were in was all that was left of the train. We alighted and found ourselves in the twenty-first century.
Somehow – and do not ask me how for I have no inkling – we must have gone through a time portal.”
Father Patrick nodded.
“Well,” he mused, “it’s certainly very unusual and utterly inexplicable, but there are more things between Heaven and Earth that are also inexplicable to us, mere mortals. You must have been thoroughly shaken by the experience! A time gap of a hundred and sixty years is immense. The changes that have taken place must overwhelm the two of you.”
John smiled and took Margaret’s hand in his.
“Margaret and I are in this together, Father. We draw whatever courage we can from each other’s presence and support. But you are right; we do keep being amazed – and sometimes shocked – by all the unknown new things that we’re discovering. It’s mind-boggling what people have achieved over the years.”
Father Patrick studied the couple sitting in front of his desk with interest. They were so obviously not in their right place, even though they were dressed in jeans, T-shirt and denim jacket. The girl’s hair was a rich, chocolate brown, wavy and thick, and tied in a tail in the nape of her neck but Patrick could easily picture her with her hair piled up on top of her head as was the custom in the eighteen-hundreds. The man’s bearing was full of quiet dignity and strong authority, as was befitting his status as a manufacturer from 1852. They were deeply in love; he could feel the strength of that love in every look they gave each other, in every sweet, yet very shaky smile. They were also very afraid. The force of that fear seeped through their every action and was visible in the depths of their eyes.
“What would you have me do to help you, people?” he asked quietly, folding his hands before him.
The girl spoke for the first time, directing her blue eyes at him.
“We want you to marry us, Father.”
After they had all returned to Betty’s cottage and explained to Jowan where they had been, Margaret wanted Marjorie to go and rest. The young woman’s face was very pale and she seemed exhausted. Betty and Margaret then saw to supper.
“Do you think Father Patrick can marry us, Betty?” Margaret asked.
“No, dear, since you and John are no Roman-Catholics. But he knows a lot of people, and I’m sure he can find a clergyman of The Church of England to perform the ceremony. I was surprised, though, when he said he wanted to read ‘North & South’ first.”
“I am not,” John said, matter-of-factly. “If I were in his shoes, I would have done the same thing. It is of the uttermost importance for a priest to know everything there is about the couple.”
“So you’re really going through with it, John?” Jowan asked, while he sat down and began buttering toast.
“Of course I am. Margaret and I have chosen each other for life, and we want to seal our union for life, also.” He extended a hand to Margaret who took it and smiled sweetly at him.
“I should go and bring Marjorie something to eat,” she said. “She was really tired, Jowan. She’s well up in her second trimester now, yet her nausea spells keep coming up still.”
When she entered Marjorie’s room, Margaret found her friend sitting in a chair in front of the window.
“I brought you some toast and scrambled eggs and some tea, Marjorie. You should be in bed, you know. You need a lot of rest.”
Marjorie swung round to face her, distress plainly on her face.
“I envy you, Margaret. What did John do to persuade you to marry him?”
Margaret put her tray on the dressing table and looked at her friend in astonishment.
“What do you mean ‘persuade me’? John proposed to me a long time ago, you know that from – well, from the film and the book. I was so stupid and stubborn. I did not see what a good man he was and how much he loved me. I have a lot to make up to him, Marjorie, for I must have caused him great sorrow. Yet, he did not stop loving me but kept hoping we would come together. God knows I have kept him waiting a long time, refusing to realise that I, too had started loving him. It is only natural that we should become man and wife, now that we both know we love each other.”
“Yes, but when did you realise that you loved him? What did persuade you that he was the right man for you? What had changed, so long after that first proposal?”
Margaret suddenly found herself blushing with embarrassment.
“Marjorie, I think I was attracted to John from the first time I set eyes on him, in the sorting room at Marlborough Mills. Yet, the attraction turned instantly into revulsion, when I saw him beat Stephens. I remember being troubled for days, after that. I kept seeing his angry face, and the appalling violence he used to punish a worker who was weaker than himself. From then on, I fought the attraction and focussed on the revulsion. John – time after time – confused me when one minute, he was arrogant and cruel and abrasive and, the next minute, he was compassionate and civil. And at some point, he was downright sweet. That was when he broke through my defences, so gradually that I did not see it. After Mason came to tell me John had annulled the coroner’s inquest after the death of Leonards, it suddenly dawned on me just how much he must love me. At that same moment, I realised I loved him too.”
“But he withdrew from you then, isn’t it? He was persuading himself that it would never work out between the two of you.”
“Yes!” Margaret exclaimed. “Oh, I was such a goose, Marjorie! I did not know how to deal with his newfound aloofness, which hurt me very deeply. There were times when I wanted to scream at him, to shout out loud that I loved him! But my upbringing prevented me from doing so. Thank God, we got another chance, at that train station. Now I absolutely know I will never let him go again.”
Marjorie nodded, her face very earnest.
“Maybe I should let Jowan break through my defences too, isn’t it? Maybe it’s time I accepted his proposal, now that we’re going to have a baby together.”