Soon thereafter, I took my leave of the sanctimonious couple. They had infuriated me more than I could stomach. I would have had a row if I had stayed any longer. How dared they criticize Mr Hale’s honest doubts in his faith when the poor man had been tried the way he had been? And then the manner in which they treated their children! They were nothing but unpaid servants, no, they were treated like slaves! At least, the children in my mill had been paid!
I found myself trembling with fury on the footpath that led to their front garden. I took a deep breath and looked around me. Helstone was indeed a lovely town nestled in the most beautiful landscape I had ever beheld. I could well imagine Margaret walking through it, to visit her father’s parishioners, or picking flowers to decorate the many rooms in that pretty little vicarage, or helping their maid Dixon to make preserves from the berries she picked along her ramblings through the woods. I could imagine her, dressed in a fine muslin morning gown on a beautiful morning in June, picking roses …
Roses … yes, I thought, that were her favourite blooms … they must be. Any other flower would lack resemblance to Margaret, who was beautiful, but strong, and who blossomed all summer, like the Helstone roses had once, before they were cut down so ruthlessly.
I turned to the house and saw its bare garden encircling it with dismal emptiness. In several spots, I could see the patches of upturned earth where the roses had been. They must have been dog roses, I realised. They would grow and extend all over the garden. I wandered down the path toward the church, where a bridal path crossed the one I was on.
I looked as intently as I could to inspect the six-feet-high hedgerow that lined it. It was a beech hedge, tick and green, effectively sealing the view from what was behind. After a while, I found what I had been searching. Thanks to the sheltering hedge one little bloom, perfect and bright yellow, had survived winter.
I left Helstone for Bishopstoke, on that same day. There was no point in staying longer, since no one knew about Margaret’s whereabouts. The ride on horseback allowed me to gather my sombre thoughts.
I had not been truly convinced that I would hear about her from the start. Margaret was gone, and although my brain knew that fully well, my foolish heart had still hoped for the exact opposite. It was final, now. I would never see my heart again. Yet I vowed I would do everything to at least learn if she was well. Only then I could go on with my own life, empty as it would be.
To my infinite relief, my compartment on the London train was empty. I had ample opportunity to wallow in misery without being disturbed. My hand held the yellow rose from Margaret’s beautiful Helstone. I would treasure it, and I knew exactly how; I would place it in Mr Hale’s Plato, so that it would dry, and be kept indefinitely. Would my love for Margaret also dry and wither? I hoped it would not, for I would wither and dry with it.
I did not waste time in London but boarded the Northbound train instantly. I longed to be home again, in my beloved Milton, and tackle the many problems that awaited me there. I would weather this new situation as I had done so many times before. I would not give in to self-pity and despair. I was John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate. I still was a manufacturer, even though my mill had closed. I would find the funds needed to start over again.
The train had stopped, but it took me a bit of time before I realised it. I had been breaking my head as to how I would find the necessary means to begin working again. Finding workers would not be difficult, since Higgins – of all people! – had given me a list of men and women who would come back to me, if I ever became a mill master again. But the funds! How was I to acquire money? Latimer had already rejected my application for a new loan, and I knew no bankers outside of Milton. If only Mr Hale was still there to advise me. He had known London better than I had. I sighed and stood to close the door after a passenger disembarked.
My heart stopped, no, began throbbing loudly in my head! There she was, my Margaret.
She was standing on the platform gazing at me with joyous consternation. Oh, lovely vision, that was surely a mirage, conjured up by my longing heart. But she, too was looking as if she was seeing something she could not believe was there! I left the train, I walked toward her.
Her eyes … oh, her beautiful eyes! How they bore into mine, as if they wanted to drink in the sight of me, me, the man she had hitherto loathed. She did not speak, she just gazed at me, her lips curving in the sweetest smile I had ever seen.
“Where are you going?” My voice rasped a bit, as if my breath had run out. It had …
Margaret seemed embarrassed, all of a sudden. She turned her head to the train she had just left, then looked back at me and said, “To London … I have just been to Milton …”
“Ah …” It was all I managed, before a thought struck me. “You’ll never guess where I have been …” I reached into my waistcoat pocket and drew out the yellow dog rose. I gave it to her and she took it. Our fingers brushed.
“To Helstone?” she breathed, “You’ve been to Helstone?” Her eyes widened with pure joy. “I thought those had all gone …”
“I found it in the hedgerow,” I rasped, “You have to look hard.”
Margaret smiled and looked down again.
“Why were you in Milton?” I asked, glad that my voice was normal again.
She seemed to hesitate, then she took a deep breath and said, “On business. Well, that is, I have a business proposition.”
Her cheeks were suddenly flushed, and she turned toward the southbound train. “Oh, dear,” she gasped, “I need Henry to help me explain.”
Lennox? I quickly looked at the train, and there he was, staring broodily at us. Ah … so he as the one she would turn to when in need of advice … and what else, I mused. Well, she was with me now, blast it!
I grasped her arm, then let go of it, to prevent her from thinking I would try and force her to go, if she wanted to do so. “You don’t need Henry to explain.” I gently took her elbow and led her to a bench. She followed, but glanced at Lennox. We sat down, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see how Lennox was still watching us like a hawk.
Margaret seemed short of breath but she continued, “I have to get this right.”
Her glance kept dropping from mine, though I could not but drink in her lovely face. My heart was pounding fiercely, now, and I felt something immense was going to happen.
“It’s a business proposition,” Margaret swallowed, continuing swiftly, “I have some fifteen thousand pounds. It is lying in the bank at present, earning very little interest.”
Now she threw me a nervous glimpse. I could not utter a single word, because I was beginning to realise what she was saying.
The dear girl now ploughed on, “Now, my financial advisers tell me that if you were to take this money and use it to run Marlborough Mills, you could give me a very much better rate of …. interest.”
We were both breathing quickly, now. My gaze bore into her eyes, willing her to see how deeply, how desperately I loved her. My Margaret … my sweet, dearest, loveliest girl …
Again she dropped her eyes to her lap at her hands holding my rose. I drank in her beautiful features, her soft brown hair, small ears and heart-shaped face. My Margaret …
“So you see, it is only a business matter,” she breathed. “You’d not be obliged to me in any way. It is you who would be doing …
I covered the hand and the rose in her lap with mine. Oh, the warmth of it, and the softness! “…me the service, she said, voice fading off.
My heart stopped when her fingers began caressing my hand, but I nearly died of happiness , when she lifted it to her mouth. Her lush, rosy lips brushed over my skin, in a kiss so chaste, and at the same time so erotic that … oh, but I could never, ever describe the feelings that assaulted me!
I still have trouble to recollect what transpired exactly during those wonderful moments.
We were alone in a world of our own, me and my Margaret, My one and only love.
I raised my other hand and touched, then cupped her face. I wanted to see her eyes.
They were so beautiful that I could only drown in them, while I bent down. Our lips touched, and I forced myself to woo hers slowly, gently, and wait for her to adjust. She was an innocent, my Margaret, yet she responded to my touch with shy but unmistakeable fervour. I found the courage to kiss her properly, then, and met her open-mouthed. She sighed and granted me access to her warm, soft haven.
“London train about to depart. London train is about to depart.”
We were cast back brutally into the present and drew apart, yet our eyes never broke away. My Margaret looked troubled, and I found myself too keyed up to speak. She abruptly stood and walked back to the southbound train.
It was over, then. How I found the strength to rise and go back to my own train, I do not know, but I did. It was over. I had kissed her, and she walked away from me.
As I was about to open the door, Margaret’s reflection appeared in the window pane. I swallowed, turned, and there she was, smiling at me so warmly that my knees threatened to buckle beneath me. I smiled back at her and asked, “You’re coming home with me?”
Her gaze did not waver, but showed acquiescence, so I took her bag from her and let her step into the compartment. I followed, bedazzled with the notion that she had finally chosen to be with me.
While the train pulled out of the station, we again turned to each other, seated very closely on the wooden bench. We kissed again, shyly now. Our lips met once, twice, and I was in a daze of happiness, so deep that I could not help putting my arm around her shoulders and drawing her near.
England’s green, lush countryside passed by the window. Margaret was looking dreamily at it, and I … I was gazing at her.
Finally, I was whole.