Chapter 1: The Young Gentleman
The letter arrived quite without warning in the morning post. The mill yard was so quiet these days that the arrival of the postman was now an event to be waited for and remarked upon, rather than just being one of many visitors that made their way through the large wooden gates. The cessation of physical activity at the mill, however, did not mean that Mr Thornton himself was in any want of occupation; closing the mill took up a great deal of his time and he was as busy as he had been in the days of prosperity when orders, invoices and despatches had made their way through those now still gates at a remarkable speed. For this reason, the letter sat a full twelve hours on Mr Thornton’s desk without being read with any of the urgency which the writer had expected, and it was only by the light of a dwindling candle that Mr Thornton finally picked up the letter to read while he prepared for bed. It was written on the best writing paper, with the best ink and it referred to Mr Thornton in the most courteous terms; on a first reading it was impossible to tell that it had been drafted as unwillingly as the author had written it. It read as follows:
As you requested, I have conveyed to Miss Hale your intention of resigning your lease over the mill and associated buildings at Marlborough Street. Miss Hale has requested that I write to you conveying her deepest regret that you should be forced to give up your business under such circumstances. Miss Hale would be most grateful if you could be prevailed upon to travel to London to discuss this matter with both her and myself at Harley Street – she is at home most mornings and I can be called upon to attend her at a moment’s notice. Mrs Shaw has similarly asked me to reiterate her offer of hospitality that I understand she made to your mother in Milton some months ago.
I am, dear Sir, yours most sincerely,
If Mr Thornton had begun reading the letter with no small measure of apprehension, by the end his senses were wholly alight. He was not sure whether he felt pain or pleasure, for all other emotion was drowned out by the thought of seeing Margaret again. A momentary sense of doubt washed over him; perhaps he would not see Margaret at all, for surely it was not usual for ladies of her class, possessed of great fortunes, to meet their tenants upon the failure of their business, but he returned to the letter swiftly and scanned it again with increasing urgency. It did say that he should discuss this matter with her - surely he could not do so without seeing her. There was no thought of business at this time, there was no question of refusal; he would take every opportunity to see Margaret, even for the shortest time, even in the presence of Henry Lennox, to see Lennox’s easy familiarity with Margaret and her world, and his condescension towards him, the failed manufacturer. There would be no opportunity of seeing her again, indeed, he had thought that he had seen her for the last time many months ago. He could not let this brief unexpected opportunity to see her for one last time and ensure that she was well pass him by, even under such reduced circumstances. The smallest morsel of food is precious to a starving man. He would go at once to Harley Street.
Despite the polite references to Mrs Thornton, he had no idea of taking his mother with him, but he equally had had no idea of lying to her about his journey. He had intended to journey down the following morning after receiving the letter but his mother always rose early and when she learnt where he planned to go and why, she argued in the strongest terms against his doing the journey alone. Originally, she had no idea of it being necessary for him to go at all. Had they not seen enough of that tiresome girl while she was resident in Milton, without it being necessary for him to take the trouble and expense to see her in London as well? Mr Thornton would not be moved on this point, however, and upon reading the letter Mrs Thornton began to think differently. There was just the hint of a potential reprieve to her. There was no need to have this Mr Lennox in a social call, surely. There must be some business discussion to be had. Was it not possible that Miss Hale might somehow see her way to helping them re-open the mill? For John had said that if there had been further capital to help them weather the hard times, there might never have been a need to close the mill. Here Mrs Thornton wrestled with herself; her desire to see the mill reopened and her son restored to his former position of grandeur was set against her hatred of Margaret and her unwillingness to be beholden to her in any way. While her love for her son inevitably won out, there was no question of her letting him go into the lion’s den alone. Although she thought so highly of John, there had occasionally been occasions since the Hales had come to Milton where she had gone so far as to think that he had erred, and she was concerned that were he to see Miss Hale again, were it but for a brief time, he might find himself most unnecessarily prolonging his visit for days or weeks while negotiations were protracted. Mrs Thornton was most adamant on this point and Mr Thornton, already having delayed his trip by a day and impatient to see Margaret again, was willing to give way. To Harley Street, therefore, they were both to go.
The tall, elegant, white stuccoed house rose before them gracefully but commandingly. Both mother and son could not fail to associate the house before it with the inhabitant that they were both, in different ways, nervous to meet again. They both saw before them in their minds’ eyes the figure of Margaret, but while Mr Thornton saw before him Margaret with all her charm and refinement, Mrs Thornton could only see before her exactly the sort of unmerited pomp and arrogance that was guaranteed to raise her hackles. To tell the truth, although she had known that Mrs Shaw was considerably better situated than the Hales, she had not quite expected this level of fashion, and it unsettled all her Milton principles to think that Margaret, whom she had been used to look down on long before she had rejected her son, lived in such an undeserved state of prosperity and elegance.
It was, therefore, for very different reasons that the pair approached the front door with a very similar level of apprehension. This was not assisted by the suspicious gaze of the butler when he opened the door just a fraction less than he would have done for a caller that was more obviously of the social circles that normally frequented the house in Harley Street. “The gentleman was quite sure that he had an appointment with Miss Hale at this hour? Only it was most unusual for the family to receive anyone at such an early hour in the morning, especially after such a night as - very well, if the gentleman was quite sure, both he and the lady might wait in the hall while he enquired whether Miss Hale was receiving visitors today.”
Such a dialogue was neither likely to calm the son, nor appease the mother. Mr Thornton felt even more clumsy and out of place in his second-best waistcoat than he had before, while Mrs Thornton lifted her head as high as it would go whilst walking past the butler to sit down on one of the green silk upholstered chairs that lined the hallway in all her affronted dignity. A few moments passed before the butler returned, looking particularly put out. Miss Hale would see Mr and Mrs Thornton. With Miss Hale’s apologies for the lateness of the hour, she was just finishing her breakfast with the rest of the family (“idle Southern ways”, thought Mrs Thornton) but she would be with Mr and Mrs Thornton soon if they would but just wait in the drawing room for a few moments. The young gentleman (no identity was given but presumably this was Captain Lennox) had offered to receive them in Miss Hale’s place while they were waiting. Refreshments would be brought through to the visitors shortly. Miss Hale had asked if their guests were intending to stay the night? If so, the guest bedrooms would be made up for them without delay. On being told that the visitors were not intending to stay, he withdrew from the drawing room, to disappear downstairs where he could openly disapprove as to the wisdom of receiving such strange people at such strange hours.
Being thus left alone, the visitors had nothing to do but observe and take in the finery of Mrs Shaw’s cream drawing room, sumptuously and recently refurbished in cream. The sofas and chairs had been reupholstered in silk and bunches of vibrant flowers, elegantly arranged in crystal vases, were the only splashes of colour within the room. A grand piano stood in the far right corner of the room, next to the dark stained door that led off into a smaller antechamber. All around was the evidence of Margaret’s presence; the flowers, a pair of slender grey gloves sitting discarded upon a pile of books, and a half executed sketch of Margaret which the artist had discarded abruptly and at whim upon being called away to more important matters at the nursery. Whilst Mr Thornton found that he drew strength from these reminders, even as his heart beat fast and thick at the thought of her coming, Mrs Thornton felt even more affronted that Margaret had the audacity to flaunt these proofs of her existence whilst she ill-manneredly kept them waiting. She had often said that she could bear any burden on behalf of her fine son, and she was keen to hear how Margaret might assist him, but even Mrs Thornton could feel her patience snap under such circumstances. She had made a promise, many months ago, to never speak ill of Margaret in Mr Thornton’s presence, but like many such promises, she found that she could not always keep her promise with the same vigour that she had made it. She was on the verge of rising out of her seat and exclaiming that no mill was worth such insults when the opening of a door brought her to her senses. Mr Thornton rose up out of his seat, as much out of anticipation as out of courtesy, as he drew in a swift sharp breath at the thought of her coming.
In came not the expected Margaret, or a servant carrying the tea things, but a sombre man who seemed somehow to be simultaneously completely at home and somewhat detached from the scene around them. His clothes were removed from his surroundings. His muted brown waistcoat, scuffed shoes, and a faded black cravat made out of the cheapest material and loosely and sloppily tied around his neck in a nod to convention, seemed more at home in a dockyard than in a Harley Street drawing room. Despite this, his confident, elegant movement marked him out as being at home here and, despite first impressions, most clearly the ‘young gentleman’ that the butler had spoken of. His entrance cast a momentary spell over the Thorntons, only breaking when the stranger’s eyes met Mr Thornton’s upright figure. Realisation flashed across his face, lightening his solemn eyes, moving down to his mouth. He broke out into a wry smile before saying, “I am sorry to disappoint you - Margaret will be here very shortly - She is not usually such a late riser – It is my fault all is confusion here - I arrived late last night with no warning and sent the household into an uproar – Mrs Shaw required three applications of the smelling salts before she came round – You have as yet no tea – Margaret will be displeased.” Without waiting for an answer, he crossed to the corner of the room and pulled a cord to summon a maid. Whilst this was all taking place, Mr Thornton became increasingly uneasy. It was not just the natural disappointment that he had been denied Margaret’s presence after he had steeled himself to receive her or the natural jealousy that this unknown man was on terms of such intimacy as to be able to call Margaret openly by her Christian name. Mr Thornton could not help but feel that there was something very familiar about this man. The open confusion was plainly shown upon Mr Thornton’s face; ‘the young gentleman’ noticed this but misinterpreted its cause.
“Ah. You have recognised me I see. I did wonder whether you would. Margaret thought it was so dark that evening that you could not possibly do so, but I thought you would. I cannot say that I took as much notice of you as perhaps I should.” He sat back in his chair, his arms placed commandingly upon the armrests as he continued, “From what Margaret told me last night, I certainly made a distinct impression upon you.”
Upon hearing this, the confusion on Mr Thornton’s face morphed into recognition. His feelings, were far from being likewise settled. He felt so awry that, used to taking charge of difficult situations as he was, he was struggling to make sense of what was being said and how he should respond to regain control. Although this man looked grave, his eyes had not stopped twinkling from the moment he came into the room, and he had the distinct impression that this man, on at least some level, found the situation highly amusing. He was not prepared to be this man’s plaything. What was Margaret thinking? He had never thought her cruel and surely she must be cruel to send such a man to receive him. He had also never thought her unmaidenly and he had been wrong there too. If that man’s presence at the station had not been enough, was not his continued presence in her home further proof? He continued trying to make sense of these two opposing Margarets in his mind while Mrs Thornton said triumphantly:
“You are the man at Outwood station. I knew there was a great deal of truth in the matter. Miss Hale’s refusal to explain herself when I confronted her over the matter was most telling”.
All mirth vanished from the young gentleman’s face at this and his lip began to curl as his voice hardened in anger. “Yes I have heard her account of it. She was distraught at your treatment. Make no mistake, she tried to soften it, spoke of both you and Thornton with the utmost kindness. It was barbaric even in her retelling of the story. Was that the promise you made to Mrs Hale, upon her deathbed? To harangue her daughter when she was alone and friendless in a strange city and in desperate need of friendship”.
“I made no promise of friendship to Miss Hale. I suppose this is what passes for London morals. A Vicar’s daughter. How can Mrs Shaw allow you to stay in this house?”
This cut through the pain to stir up all Mr Thornton’s instincts of protection towards Margaret. This was cruel. This was his mother’s way of trying to reassume superiority. Her beliefs had been much shaken, firstly by the loss of the mill, and secondly by seeing Margaret live in comfort so far above her expectations. He was diverted from these thoughts when he observed that there was a slight hint of the young gentleman’s former mirth returning as he answered, “ I can assure you that Mrs Shaw has no moral qualms allowing me to stay here. She may not have the highest opinion of me, particularly after yesterday evening, but she knows that were I to quit this house then Margaret would follow after me within twenty four hours. So you see, for her poor sister’s sake, and Margaret’s, she must tolerate me. ”
This now seemed to be stretching belief. Margaret had been with this man late at night and he was now living in the same house. Surely this was not possible. It had always seemed fantastical that Margaret would have behaved as she had that night at Outwood Station – he would not have believed it if he had not seen it. It now seemed preposterous beyond belief that she should be living with him, even chaperoned, knowing their relationship. Even if it were possible that a woman of Margaret’s Christian principles could be induced to behave in such a manner, it did not, could not seem probable that Mrs Shaw would tolerate it or allow her niece to quit her protection. Mr Thornton started to feel that there were issues in play here that he did not fully understand. He was most eager to hear of anything that might absolve Margaret, however unlikely such absolution seemed. He needed to know more of the circumstances that had induced Margaret to such behaviour, and he recognised that the most likely method of hearing the story was to keep this man talking.
“You speak of friendship”, Mr Thornton said slowly, watching him. “It was you who left her alone that night. Do you know how close she came to perjuring herself at a coroner’s inquest?”
All the young gentleman’s regal superiority vanished here, as he lent forward in his chair. “It was not from choice, you must understand”; the young gentleman took on a desperate tone here, pleading urgently. “I knew nothing of it until last night. You cannot imagine that I would willingly leave her to – my mistake was to take her to the station. I know that now but I was not thinking at the time – we were distraught – we all were – the only thing that I could think of was that I was leaving her alone and helpless there – I begged her to come to Spain with me. If I had known how it would end, I would have made her”.
This was clearly meant as an explanation but it made so little sense to the visitors that it had no effect. Mr Thornton started to recognise that it was not just levity that had made this man try to provoke him; this man was watching him intensely, trying to make sense of him and read his reactions. He was still struggling to make sense of this when the marginally familiar voice of Henry Lennox made its way into the room, followed by a maid with the delayed tea.
“Good Morning Sir! How are you finding your return to the bosom of your family? Is Margaret not with you? She is normally up and about long before this hour”.
A brief flash of annoyance at this passed across the young gentleman’s blue eyes before he stuck out his hand and firmly shook Lennox’s hand in a way that indicated that there was no slight degree of acquaintance, saying “we should have given them some notice of my arrival, Lennox. I set the house in an uproar yesterday with my arrival and everything is in confusion today as a result. Margaret will be along soon enough – she was briefly overcome yesterday evening with the shock but is quite recovered now. She is eager to thank you. You know the Thorntons of course.”
“I have had that pleasure”, Mr Lennox said coldly. He shook Mr Thornton’s hand briefly but each gentleman was as eager to release the other as you would expect. Mr Lennox then turned briefly to Mrs Thornton but seemed uncertain how to best acknowledge her; he was not sure it was quite the done thing to bow to the mother and widow of manufacturers, but neither would it be appropriate to completely ignore her. Just as he was settling on a low nod, which he hoped would satisfy the demands of etiquette in all circumstances, and just as Mrs Thornton was about to suggest that seeing as there was such confusion today, they need not see Miss Hale at all, the door opened for a third time to admit Mrs Shaw, Mrs Lennox, and Margaret.
Chapter 2: Misunderstandings Cleared Up
Fred causes his characteristic havoc. Margaret is uncharacteristically nervous. Mrs Shaw is so upset that she forgets to finish her afternoon tea.
You may well imagine Mr Thornton’s feelings upon seeing Margaret again after such a long period of separation. As he caught sight of her, he felt a thrill pass through him that invigorated both his body and his soul, restoring him, however briefly, to an interlude after the days of poverty and before thoughts of silent looms and red ink in account books had consumed his tranquillity. All his senses were drawn towards Margaret as she came in, almost forgotten by her aunt and cousin. His eyes took each detail of her in; her stately walk, the green satin that would never have been worn in Milton, the hoop skirt that would have taken up half of the Hales’ drawing room at Crampton, the unchanged beauty of Margaret’s clear skin and regular features, crowned by her impossibly thick raven curls. It was perfectly unconsciously done, but others in the room could not help but be struck by the peaceful look that came across Mr Thornton’s face and the softening of the eyes. It called all their attention back to Margaret as she dashed out of the room for a few seconds, only to return carrying a heavy pile of documents.
The young gentleman had initially seemed amused by the attention Mr Thornton gave to her, only for his face to turn to alarm at the sight of Margaret weighed down by papers and account books. All three men started up but while Mr Thornton felt too unsure of himself and of London manners to put himself forward, and Lennox only gently rose up to courteously offer his assistance, the young gentleman pushed past them both to forcibly take the pile from her in a way that would brook no defiance. “I say old girl”, the young gentleman said in a tone of alarm while taking the pile from her, “there’s no need to carry all this by yourself you know. You could have called me - or I’m sure Aunt Shaw employs enough servants”.
“It’s not half so heavy as it looks and I didn’t want to keep Mr Thornton waiting”, Margaret said with a brilliant smile as she handed over her files. Despite the absolute truthfulness of this statement, Margaret had found herself inventing excuses to delay her entrance to the room, despite finishing her breakfast a full quarter of an hour before Edith and Mrs Shaw. The forgotten papers must be attributed to this attack of nerves. Margaret had never thought that she lacked bravery, but she had found that she had not quite the courage required to enter the room alone, or let her eyes fall upon Mr Thornton quite as naturally as they should. Eventually she found that she could delay it no longer – she began to look up at him from under her lids with uncharacteristic timidity – eventually her eyes met his and as she looked up at Mr Thornton, she saw a countenance quite changed from their last encounters in Milton; full of love, full of hope, full of serenity. The young gentleman was quite forgotten by both of them. Her eyes lit up in recognition that Mr Thornton no longer felt so bitter to her as he had in the old days. She would have forgotten all others in the room and spoken to him at once, had not Mr Lennox, smarting from his earlier failure to assist her, spoken to her directly. Her eyes darted between Mr Thornton and Henry Lennox as though she was not quite sure who to greet first; although courtesy required that she acknowledge Mr Lennox, in her heart Mr Thornton took precedence and her dark eyes grew larger and softer as she addressed him. “Mr Thornton. I am so grateful you have taken the time to travel to us, and I am so sorry to have kept you waiting – Mrs Thornton too - I am afraid we are so very disorganised this morning. Has Frederick explained everything? He was so eager to make your acquaintance”.
She turned to the young gentleman with an enquiring gaze, her eyes alight with pleasure. They dimmed slightly and her smile grew weaker as Frederick suddenly averted his eyes and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Well, partly. There are so many particulars to recount, you see.”
Margaret shook her head in exasperation, one dark curl making its way over her ear before she turned to Lennox and made as though she would stretch out her hands to him in gratitude. “Henry, I might not have made myself clear last night”, she paused here before saying with feeling, “we are so very grateful.”
Lennox’s face flushed with pleasure as he ducked his head shyly, smiled and said, “It was understood. I only wish I had been able to bring him home sooner to you”.
Mr Thornton was sure that the requisite greetings and introductions were made, but he saw nothing of that at the time, or if he did, he did not notice it. There was a natural break here whilst all were seated and Mrs Shaw began to arrange the tea things. Mr Thornton was sorry for being deprived of the chance to see Margaret’s hands pour the tea things but Mrs Shaw was evidently in command in her own domain and there was nothing for Margaret to do other than to take her cup with a good grace. Mr Thornton saw enough to see that Mr Lennox was on intimate terms with the Harley Street family and that the young gentleman was not on good terms with Mrs Shaw. Mrs Shaw paid especial attention to Mr Lennox, serving him his tea before the other guests without having to ask him how he took it, and she was remarkably courteous towards the Thorntons, but the young gentleman had nothing more than a sharp look and a curt “I suppose you still take your tea without milk, Frederick”.
The silence endured until Mrs Shaw broke the pause by saying, “Well I must say once, sir, I have told my niece that I must say this once, on behalf of my whole family, how very grateful we are to you Mr Thornton. Not only on behalf of myself and Margaret, and indeed all our relations”, here she glanced towards Henry Lennox, “for your efforts on behalf of our dear Margaret. My sister and brother in law would have most eagerly wished to join me in this, but I’m afraid my own efforts will have to suffice. I am sure my” (here she paused to take an unusually long sip of tea) “nephew has expressed his own gratitude. He certainly has a great deal to thank you for.”
This caused Mr Thornton to start - here it might be expected that Mr Thornton might enquire as to the exact nature of the cousinly relationship, but Mrs Shaw evidently thought that the relationship was clear. He suddenly felt too embarrassed as to his complete ignorance of the facts to enquire further. The situation suddenly became clear to him – a distant cousin, preying upon the familial ties that he knew from his long observation of her would be so dear to Margaret. This, then, was the extenuating circumstance. This Frederick had obviously got into some scrape with the law, which had required his immediate removal from Milton, and Henry Lennox had obtained some sort of acquittal – this much was clear. What was less clear, was why Lennox had been prepared to restore his rival, unless he was so much in love with Margaret and so convinced that she would not be happy without this Frederick, that he was prepared to sacrifice his own happiness. This, Mr Thornton could understand perfectly.
Such were Mr Thornton’s ruminations and he was so perfectly convinced of their truth that he might have laboured under this misapprehension indefinitely, had Mrs Thornton not been perfectly willing to expose her ignorance to gain further knowledge of what ridiculous efforts her son had been to on Miss Hale’s behalf. “Indeed! And may I ask what service my son has given your nephew?”
The ladies of Harley Street looked up in some surprise at this but Edith was not of a disposition to hold back when she had some information to impart to the gathering. “Why, when Fred came to Milton of course, when poor Aunt Hale was dying. Mr Thornton saw Margaret at the train station with Fred, but of course he did not know that Frederick was Margaret’s brother, so he naturally thought the worst of Margaret, but he still, oh I forget the story, for there were so many details and it was very late but some sort of a scuffle broke out and there were witnesses and Margaret was asked for Fred’s identity, but of course she could not reveal whom he was without putting both him and her at risk, so she denied her being there and Margaret was to be called to an inquest, but Mr Thornton told them they should not bother overmuch about it and Margaret was saved! I dare say it was just as well Margaret, for I’m sure you do not know how to lie. You’re so tall that there is no mistaking you even in London and I’m sure there’s no one else at Milton who could pass for you. I wish I was as tall and brown as a gypsy”.
This last produced a stunned silence from all, whether it was shock at the facts, shock at the style of the recounting, or shock that Edith had been so coarse as to say all this without a shred of embarrassment. Mr Thornton felt stunned, as though a great burden had been lifted from him, only to be dropped on him again from a heavy height, crushing him under the weight of guilt. He could not take his eyes off Margaret, mortified as she was. It was as much as he could do to restrain himself from kneeling at her feet, clasping that soft, elegant hand and bowing his head over it as a supplicant begs for forgiveness. The only unaffected person was Frederick Hale himself, who seemed to find the situation remarkably amusing and had unashamedly fixed his eyes on Mr Thornton to commit his reaction to memory. The silence was only broken by Mrs Thornton’s indignant cry of “Miss Hale’s brother! I never heard such a thing! And why indeed was Mr Hale never mentioned?”
Mr Lennox leaned forward suddenly, with half an eye on Margaret, before Edith could take up her story again. “I can answer that Mrs Thornton”, he said. “You see, there was a spot of bother in the Mediterranean, a mutiny” (here Margaret reddened further) “and Mr Hale became implicated, quite a misunderstanding of course, but it became necessary for him to remain out of the country until he was able to find such legal advice as could absolve him of all guilt and bring him home. I was the happy man who was able to prove Mr Hale’s innocence, and bring him home to Miss Margaret. Under such circumstances, it no doubt seemed prudent for the Vicar and Mrs Hale to omit mentioning him, although I know he was much in their thoughts during his absence, and Miss Margaret’s”.
Mr Thornton looked upon Margaret’s flushed cheeks which betrayed her mortification so easily and wondered how he could ever have thought her a practiced liar.
The situation was most uncomfortable and it had taken its toll on Mrs Shaw. She had been in a state of emotion since last night, which accounted for her inability to tolerate the situation any further. Mrs Shaw was usually of a languorous temperament, and she rarely saw anything in a drawing room that would arouse her to a state of even mild annoyance, unless her hair was askew or Edith had not been given her proper due when playing at the pianoforte, but even Mrs Shaw had her limits. “Well, Frederick. You told us you would go ahead and explain the situation directly to Mr Thornton, so that you might clear your sister’s name, and begin to atone for your misdeeds. Instead, we find that Mr Thornton has no idea of who you are. I cannot think what you have been about. Well, Margaret may continue to hero-worship you as she did as a child, and she may be soft hearted enough not to give you the full details of the consequences of your misdeeds, but I have no such restrictions upon me. I begin by telling you now Frederick Hale, you have disgraced your sister, and your mother!”
Frederick Hale had survived storms even greater than a fit of Mrs Shaw’s anger, and he was not easily daunted. He lifted his head in a show of defiance. “Well, Aunt, I am pleased to know that at least I have not disgraced my father”.
Margaret’s head had begun drooping in sorrow at the start of Mrs Shaw’s tirade, but at this her head snapped up in surprise as Mrs Shaw spluttered with indignation. Mr Thornton had the impression that despite Margaret’s genuine distaste for the whole affair, there was a part of her that saw Frederick Hale’s defiance of Mrs Shaw with indulgent eyes, and just for a moment, he thought he saw her fine lips curl up in amusement. Having regained control of herself and couched her voice and face into disapproval, she said “Honestly Fred, you really are the limit. Do apologise to Aunt Shaw – she has endured a great deal for my sake but you cannot expect her to endure this hostility indefinitely”.
“And yet you expect me to endure this for your sake indefinitely”, Frederick Hale said, rising. “No Margaret, I think it is best for me to remove myself from this house. Lennox, I have been over those papers – Margaret may do as she pleases in this matter. It seems a very fair investment I’ve no doubt, and in any case, the money is hers to do with as she likes. I have only a brother’s interest in her welfare, you know, which counts for very little in Mrs Shaw’s house.”
It may be taken as a proof of Frederick Hale’s anger at being rebuked so, rather than any real indifference towards his sister, that he ignored Margaret’s cry of dismay. With an over-deep, mocking bow towards the Thorntons, Frederick Hale exited the scene. Mrs Shaw abandoned her tea and did not stay long after him. She apologised to Mrs Thornton, and Mr Thornton, but she did find these scenes so very trying and she must rest awhile. She did hope that they could be prevailed upon to stay to dinner. Margaret agreed to accompany her upstairs to help her settle, and at length, it was left to Henry and Edith to entertain the guests. Yet another uncomfortable silence fell, for Mr Thornton was still absorbing the events of the morning, Mr Lennox disliked unpleasant scenes, particularly when family ties were ruptured in public, and Mrs Thornton was grieved to find that her final claim to superiority over Margaret Hale had been snatched from her. Only Edith Lennox seemed remarkably unaffected by the morning’s events.
“I feel I must… apologise for the state that you find us in today”, Lennox said haltingly. “You see, Mrs Shaw was very eager last night, when young Hale returned, that I should write and put you off for a time, however Margaret would brook no delay – she was so keen to be of service to you given her gratitude towards you. I am sure by now you have realised that she wishes to assist you – she is most eager that Marlborough Mills should not close its doors. No amount of pleading as to the urgency of the business, however, would convince Mrs Shaw. Margaret was overcome with emotion on seeing her brother return home without warning. Eventually she broke down and the whole story came out. I fancy from young Hale’s reaction that it was the first he had heard of it too – he went quite white. Imagine Miss Margaret carrying that burden all those months alone in Milton! At any rate, Mrs Shaw became irate, upbraided Hale, upbraided Dixon and tried to upbraid Miss Margaret but she was crying so violently that her heart was not in it. She left Hale in no doubt that she thinks he has acted very badly throughout the entire affair, from acting in such a way that he could be suspected of being involved in a mutiny (here we can hear the tone of Mr Lennox’s legal argument)to exposing his sister to gossip. Having lived independently, and out of England for some years now, he is not accustomed to such censure from an aunt, and he has taken it very badly.”
“You see”, Edith said, lowering her voice in a tone of confidence, “I fancy Cousin Frederick rather thought he would be coming home to a conqueror’s welcome. ‘Welcome our valiant hero home, safe from all his trials and tribulations!’ But, his return meant that Mama found out what a dreadful time Margaret had in Milton trying to keep him safe, and although Aunt Hale was tremendously partial to Cousin Fred, Mama never quite saw him in the same way. Margaret was always her favourite, even before she came to live with us. She thinks both Frederick and Uncle Hale have caused Margaret a great deal of grief with their actions. ‘Hale impetuosity’, she calls it”.
“I’m sure Margaret will thank you for explaining our family relationships to the Thorntons in such great detail”, Henry remarked dryly. “But it is quite true – I’m afraid that Dixon is not long for this house. Mrs Shaw wanted to put her out yesterday but Margaret wouldn’t hear of it. Mrs Shaw is quite willing to forgive Margaret for her part in the affair, and given the appropriate amount of time, I think her anger towards young Hale will abate. But she sees no excuse for Dixon allowing Margaret to go to the station at that hour and in truth, I think she has the right of it. But I hope you will forgive Hale, Thornton. He is very out of sorts this morning – he was shocked to discover what Margaret endured those last few months in Milton and while he blames himself for it, he is eagerly looking for others to blame and thereby absolve himself. He is impulsive but he is not at all an unloving brother as you yourself have seen – he is very fond of Margaret and he is angry with himself for not seeing the dangers himself and leading her into more difficulties. I wish Mrs Shaw could have seen him at my office, Edith,” he said turning towards her. “I have never seen a brother more anxious to do good for his sister – all his desire to clear his name has been on her account. But as it is time must be the healer.”
It did not escape Mr Thornton that Henry Lennox saw this family as his own. “Our family relationships”. Was it for his brother’s sake or Margaret’s that he took such an interest in this house?
Margaret came back into the room much quicker the second time and asked the Thorntons to stay for luncheon. Mr Thornton had long felt that he was struggling to maintain control of himself – he knew he required a period of solitude to understand what had happened here and to feel how much he had wronged Margaret before he could converse with her at length again. He said that he regretted he could not stay, Miss Hale’s face fell. He said that he intended to find lodgings, as he was planning to stay some time in London on business; would Miss Hale be prepared to receive him another time? Miss Hale was suddenly full of happiness. She could indeed receive Mr Thornton another time, would Mr Thornton be free to come to dinner or was he otherwise engaged? Mr Thornton had no fixed engagements, he would be delighted to come. Mrs Thornton had looked at her son in surprise when he outlined his plan to stay, and she felt a sense of approaching danger throughout this conversation, but she was not willing to contradict him in front of strangers. It was therefore fixed that the Thorntons should return to Harley Street at eight.
Mr Thornton left the house in such turbulence that at first, he hardly knew whether he had felt more pain or pleasure, but as he continued to think upon the morning’s events two facts struck him. He had thought Margaret unmaidenly, he had found it was not true. He had thought that he would never see her again, he would not only see her but dine with her tonight. Mr Thornton was struck anew by a feeling he had not had these twelve months.
It was almost like joy!