Mrs. Thornton paced restlessly in the drawing room. Once in a while, she walked towards the window and looked down at the empty courtyard. She had not seen her son for two days. He left neither note nor word that gave her any inkling of where he might have gone. When she last talked to him, her heart ached at seeing how broken his spirits had seemed, how profound his misery.
She remembered when the mill closed and John said, "It's just you and I again, mother." Those words, uttered for the first time so long ago, had carried a challenge, energizing and full of promise, propelling them both into a mission that—through hard work, sacrifice, and determination—brought success they had both been proud of. But those same words—uttered again when his business failed and in the midst of his certainty that he would never see Margaret Hale again—conveyed a quiet despair she had never seen in him. The loss of the mill weighed on him deeply, Mrs. Thornton was certain of that. But she was also sadly aware that, since Margaret Hale left Milton, he had become uncharacteristically somber, more withdrawn, less communicative.
The unexpected sound of a carriage roused Mrs. Thornton from her musings. Rather odd, she thought. Since the mill closed, vehicles and horses no longer entered the courtyard. She hurried towards the window, anxious and curious. She sighed with relief to see John descend from the carriage. But chagrin immediately displaced relief: John turned to offer his hand to a woman alighting from the carriage.
"Miss Hale!" Mrs. Thornton stepped back from the window in dismay. She grabbed the arms of the nearest chair and sat down.
Exceedingly agitated, she did not notice Jane rush in. "Madam, the master is back and a young woman is with him. I think it’s the daughter of that parson from the south, the lady who stood in front of the rioters."
"Yes, Jane," Mrs. Thornton replied, irritably. "Calm yourself. Prepare some tea. The master must be tired from his journey."
She wearily rose from the chair, picked up her needlework, and sat on the sofa that was her preferred spot in the drawing room.
Trembling with consternation and foreboding, Mrs. Thornton absentmindedly jabbed stitches on the linen she had been working on the past two days. She knew what the presence of Margaret Hale meant and her whole being revolted against it. Her breast churned with confusing emotions. On the one hand, she could not let go of her hatred, hatred aggravated by the ease with which Margaret acquired wealth and property that John had worked hard for, much of his life. But her return did mean John's happiness and by their marriage, Margaret would be giving him ownership rights to the house and the mill. He could reopen the mill much sooner than anyone would have expected.
Mrs. Thornton knew she ought to be glad. But she was about to be supplanted. And, by whom? A Southerner with airs. One who did not shy away from speaking her mind. Born with a good mind and guided in the improvement of it by a scholarly father and his friends, Margaret developed a mind keener and more receptive than Mrs. Thornton ever had or cared about. Her ideas and sentiments were worrisome and incomprehensible and her sympathy for workers would undermine John's single-minded pursuit of his rightful place as a widely respected manufacturer. Margaret was a formidable rival not only for her son's heart but also for his mind.
Mrs. Thornton disagreed, from the beginning, with her son’s opinion of Margaret, but knew she could not dissuade him from offering his hand, particularly after the riot. When Margaret rejected him, Mrs. Thornton breathed with relief, secretly rejoicing still being first in her son's affections. But what brought her relief caused her son much unhappiness. She blamed Margaret, her disdain turning into hatred that she blurted out to her son. But she was taken aback. Instead of hating Margaret as he ought, John confessed to loving her more. They never talked about Margaret again after that.
She was happy to see Margaret leave Milton, believing that London was far enough away that this southerner could no longer disrupt their lives. But now, it seemed she had been too hasty to write her off. Mrs. Thornton was aghast, forced to accept a reality she revolted against.
She clenched her jaw, listening for footsteps, her muscles tense and her body rigid in her efforts to appear as calm as possible. The footsteps came too soon and she compressed her lips until they nearly turned white.
"Good evening, mother," John greeted her in a gentle voice. "We've come home."
Mrs. Thornton stood up slowly, with as much dignity as she could muster, and turned towards them. She could not answer and merely stared. John had drawn Margaret close as if he was trying to protect her. Margaret glanced at her for an instant but looked up again at John. They had both smiled at her, hesitantly and with anxious eyes, but as they gazed at each other, their faces shared the warm glow of a new and joyous attachment.
Mrs. Thornton looked from one to the other and stopped at her son's face. She blinked, amazed at its tranquility amidst his happiness. She saw brilliance in his eyes, just as she had ten years ago when he announced that he had successfully negotiated to run his own mill. His bearing wore the same confident and expectant air but, this time, she saw a placidity, a calm expression that relaxed his often-furrowed brow and deepened the smile that reached his eyes. It was not the defiantly triumphant countenance of one conscious about having overcome difficult obstacles. Mrs. Thornton smiled at her son, the worries that had weighed on her for some time gradually crumbling. She uttered a silent prayer and, despite herself, she felt grateful to Margaret.
But Mrs. Thornton clung violently to her emotions and her mind, rather than her heart, was grateful to Margaret. Deep within, her repulsion to the reality confronting her hardened her hatred against this young woman who was about to become her son's wife. She avoided Margaret’s gaze.
"Mother, Margaret and I," John hesitated, finding it difficult to say what he knew was obvious to her already but which he could sense she was determinedly resisting. Keenly aware that his mother disliked Margaret, he hoped that seeing him happy would temper her ill feelings.
The "Margaret and I" spoken by her son chafed at Mrs. Thornton, however, and she could no longer hold back. With anger barely suppressed, she turned to Margaret. "So, you've finally come to your senses, have you?"
Margaret laid a light restraining hand on John's arm and approached Mrs. Thornton. While boarding the carriage at the train station, the thought of meeting Mrs. Thornton again had suddenly oppressed her. She sat restlessly, wondering how she could clear the air with Mrs. Thornton. By the time they reached Marlborough Mills, she decided she must do so now, rather than later. Perhaps, she thought, it would avoid awkwardness and lessen the distress of living with someone who clearly did not like her. It was, in any case, her duty and not Mrs. Thornton's to take the initiative at greater civility in their relationship. She hoped that some ease, if not warmth, would come with time.
But Margaret was more rational than experienced about emotions and she proceeded on that basis to explain herself to Mrs. Thornton.
"Mrs. Thornton, I am truly sorry for any pain I might have caused," Margaret began, her eyes pleading but unflinching, fixed on the older woman in an attitude that Mrs. Thornton regarded as proud and haughty.
Thrusting her chin out, Mrs. Thornton stared back with disdainful skepticism and said nothing.
Margaret, who had calmly responded to Mrs. Thornton's accusation earlier at the mill, was disconcerted, her confidence replaced by a vulnerability borne out of her fresh alliance with John. She continued, "When I first came to Milton, I was rather unhappy, more so when I saw my mother in so much distress. I struggled a long time to learn and adapt to Milton, so strange and so different from anything I knew in the south."
She took a long deep breath. The conviction with which she had started this attempt at a rapprochement waned steadily at the older woman's withering indifference. She was beginning to doubt that she was getting through but, having already started, she knew she must finish. She resumed, her voice louder, attempting to negate her growing sense that her efforts were futile. Ironically, this sense began to free her, allowed her to say what came to mind more spontaneously—about her parents, Bessy, the Boucher children.
Mrs. Thornton's impenetrable countenance showed a little crack at mention of the workers' plight and she pursed her lips contemptuously. Margaret was not surprised. She knew Mrs. Thornton believed workers were inferior to masters, got what they deserved, and were not worthy of sympathy.
Margaret glanced at John, who had been watching her with some apprehension. "I have no reason or excuse that would satisfy you as to why I rejected John's proposal after the riot. We had a rather inauspicious beginning and we seemed to clash at every turn."
A hint of defiance crept into her voice. "Later, I was appalled to find that my behavior during the riot was interpreted as something calculated to generate a proposal. It distressed me that anyone thought me capable of that."
A consternated frown flitted across Mrs. Thornton’s brow and her gaze darted towards her son before being fixed again, superciliously, on Margaret. She thought, "Pride, Margaret, pride is definitely one of your failings. You rejected my son for that."
The pain and burden of explaining to the older woman had almost worn out Margaret. Her voice weary, she resumed with an explanation she felt she must make although Mrs. Thornton would probably regard it as a quaint southern affectation. "Were I aware, much less capable, in those unfortunate times, of an attachment, I am afraid my pride and confusing feelings would have prevented my accepting John or anybody else. I did not know what it was to have strong sentiments for someone who was neither my father nor my brother and I was certainly unprepared to marry."
She reached out to Mrs. Thornton whose cold, inscrutable façade had returned. Margaret, determined to appear undaunted, looked her straight in the eye. "I admit it took me some time to understand John and recognize my own feelings for him and by then, I had neither hope nor right to expect that his attachment had endured. I know you do not think me worthy of him and you and I will often see things differently."
She took another deep breath and the strain of the encounter finally brought a quiver in her voice. "If you are inclined to doubt all that I just told you, then please believe, at least—I do love John very much. It is really the only reason I’m here now."
Mrs. Thornton studied Margaret's countenance and, in her mind, begrudgingly admired her frankness. She was nonetheless not about to cede her upper hand and she retorted scornfully. "What of that man at the train station and your disgraceful behavior with him?"
John had only then begun to comprehend what Margaret went through. He saw her blink a few times to hold back tears and he felt compelled to answer his mother, "Mother, that was Margaret's brother, Frederick."
“Yes, her brother.” John felt a growing exasperation at his mother's uncivil manner towards Margaret.
“Really?" Mrs. Thornton seemed unconvinced. She looked askance at Margaret whose imploring eyes glistened with the struggle to keep from crying. Mrs. Thornton relented a little and demanded of her son, "How long have you known about the existence of this brother?"
"Not as long as I would have wished. He lives in Spain and may never return to England. Still, I ask you not to say anything about him to anyone, least of all to Fanny."
He smiled at Margaret who had been trying to compose herself. She attempted a half-smile and he added, "Sometimes secrecy is necessary but it can lead to misunderstandings that cannot be helped. Fortunately, truth has a way of coming out."
As tenacious as Mrs. Thornton's dislikes were, her attachment to her son was stronger and she was anxious to maintain it. When she heard the irritation in his voice, she reluctantly accepted, at least in words, the truth she could not wish away. She said to Margaret, without much warmth, "My son is attached to you, that is obvious enough. And you say you are to him as well."
She touched his son’s cheek affectionately. "I can accept any woman who makes you happy and if that happens to be Miss Hale, so be it." Then, with her usual proud demeanor, she started to turn around.
Margaret bit her upper lip to suppress an urge to let her tears ago. To be merely tolerated was not exactly the reception anyone wanted in joining the family of the man one was about to spend her life with. For a few seconds, she wished she had returned to London, but she thought of John, his eyes tender with concern throughout her ordeal of explaining to his mother. She knew she was where she wanted to be. So, despite the coldness of Mrs. Thornton’s reception, Margaret could not help placing her hand on Mrs. Thornton's arm and planting a kiss on her cheek.
Taken by surprise, Mrs. Thornton pressed Margaret's hand briefly but kindly. "I'll see what's happened to the tea. After that, I'll show you to your room so you can rest and freshen up before dinner. We always have it at eight."
Margaret surprised herself with the gesture she made towards Mrs. Thornton who was clearly not comfortable with public display of affection especially from someone towards whom she was indifferent, if not outright hostile. But Margaret acted spontaneously, compelled by natural temperament to act as she felt, and by southern graciousness and London gentility, to do so with a blend of sincerity and cultivated directness. Mrs. Thornton was disarmed and Margaret's own uneasiness was relieved, if only for the moment.
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