A PRIZE TO BE WON
Part 1 of 1
From A Marriage of Inconvenience
As Margaret made her away along the passageway to take her father a cup of tea like the faithful daughter she was, she was thinking, she was thinking very carefully indeed, her brow knitted in deep contemplation and concentration.
She was going to see him to apologise for her outburst earlier this afternoon and seek a reconciliation, something he must surely wish for too, the warm and buttery biscuits she had baked a sort of olive branch to sweeten their doubtless uncomfortable conversation. That is, Margaret was sorry, but at the same time, she was not sorry in the least.
Oh dear, I am not explaining myself at all well, am I?
I am most sorry, it has been a terribly trying day, as you shall soon read if you choose to bear with me.
Let me start again.
At around one o’clock today, (she remembered because she heard the church clock strike the hour), Margaret had been summoned to her father’s library for an audience. At once, she had detected the sombre atmosphere which hung in the air and stifled the study like a cloud of suffocating smoke, and with her legs quivering beneath her clothes, she dreaded what was to come. His sermon, (for a sermon was what it was), had been brief, and the young lady had sat in stunned silence as she had been informed, in no uncertain terms, that she was to marry Mr John Thornton as soon as possible.
As she had taken in this most unwelcome yet not entirely unexpected news, Margaret had felt all the light vanish from her life, the smothering walls of despair closing in and threatening to crush her hopes of ever being happy.
How could this be? How could she be expected to marry a man whom she did not love, and as far as she knew, cared nothing for her in return?
She had cried. She had protested. She had appealed to her father to change his mind and set her free from this obligation in which she would become no more than a pawn that was tugged and thrust in all manner of doomed directions by others, all for the sake of pleasing the pathetic idol that was propriety. Margaret had tried to tell him that he had misunderstood the whole sorry affair. The riot had not been as serious as he supposed. She had not meant to fling herself at the mill master. Not many people had seen her foolish folly. And her injury had really not been so terrible after all.
But her father had shaken his head solemnly and stood firm.
Margaret had then sunk to her knees and begged him for mercy. She told him that she did not love Mr Thornton and never could. She said that she found him unfeeling, callous and self-serving, swearing that she obstinately refused to give her heart or her hand to such a man as he. At the same time, amidst a torrent of mournful tears, Margaret had professed that in turn, Mr Thornton admired her not, desiring her even less, explaining that he had only proposed because he felt he had to out of a sense of duty, an honourable act indeed, but one which meant that he wanted her as a wife just as little as she wanted him as a husband. How then could her parents insist that she bind herself to a man who loathed her, rather than loved her? Was that not the cruellest of cruelties?
On hearing this, Mr Hale’s expression of stony indifference had simply faded away, and he had smiled to himself, a small, secret smile, and he chuckled. Poor Margaret, thought he, how young she was, how unworldly. Still, with God’s blessing and guidance, she would know the truth soon enough, and then, finally, she would thank her lucky stars for the destiny fate had handed her this day.
What truth is that, I hear you ask?
Well, never you mind, just you wait and see.
As far as Margaret was concerned, this verdict had felt like the end of her world, and she had fled from her father’s sight, her heart broken beyond salvation, fearing that she would never know comfort or contentment again, since how could she ever hope to find such a thing as joy in that man’s home, that man’s arms, or that man’s bed?
As she walked along the corridor tonight, a single candle in her hand to enlighten her journey and lighten her mood a little, Margaret had decided that she would parley with her father one more time and plead her case. He was not pitiless, and so, he could hardly be so lacking in compassion as to shackle her to a man who shouted at children, let his workers starve, set soldiers on honest people, and was so inflamed with bitterness when he proposed, speaking to her with such fury when he asked her to spend the rest of her life with him.
No, all would be well, she knew it would be.
It would be…wouldn’t it?
As she approached his study, Margaret stopped and stilled.
There were voices.
He was not alone.
With discreet caution, Margaret made her way closer, tiptoeing as softly as she could, inwardly admonishing her skirts for rustling so noisy and giving her away. When she at last reached the door, she leaned against the wall and listened, her ears pricking as she pried.
’£2,000, that should do it,’ came a cheerful voice, clearly pleased with itself.
‘No,’ said another, rather firmly, a degree of disdain lacing his tone.
‘More?’ asked a third with a hint of scepticism.
‘No!’ repeated the second, more hotly than before, almost growling like an enraged beast. ‘I want nothing, not a penny!’ he insisted. ‘I require no incentive, and it would be wrong of me to take any. She would not like it, and nor do I.’
Margaret’s blood ran cold, an icy chill distressing her veins and sending an ominous shiver throughout her body, causing her to shudder from the crown of her head to the nail of her toe. She knew who the three men were, and what was worse, she knew precisely what they were talking about, and it made her furious, it made her so angry that she could feel the self-righteous resentment of it bubbling and brewing away in her belly. And oh, how she longed to spew it forth and scald each and every one of those calculating villains with her indignation for violating her so.
All at once, Margaret stood tall, and boldly stepped around the corner, and there she stood, waiting for them to notice her, unashamed of her intrusion, since after all, she was the one of whom they spoke and schemed, so why should she not be there?
In an instant, all three men peered up from their negotiations, and even in the dim light of the dying fire and the few paltry candles which flickered sleepily on the table overlooking their documents of underhand hurt and humiliation, she could see that they were each aghast to see her, the lines of their guilty faces etched into sculptures of surprise, horror, and dismay. In the darkness that swathed them like a stealthy cloak soiled by venality, the erratic convulsing of the wretched light only served to make their appearance all the more sinister, this scene one of shady dealings.
However, the man in the middle, the youngest of them all, was clearly the most disturbed to be discovered by her, his fervent eyes searching Margaret’s face frantically and causing her to tremble as they seeped into her very soul, attempting to penetrate her spirit and speak openly with it, begging for her forgiveness, praying for her fondness, something he knew, deep down, that she could never gift him.
But Margaret would not give him the satisfaction of meeting his gaze. No! Let him look, for she would not look back at him.
‘Daughter,’ began her father, after a noticeably loud cough, the man evidently abashed to have been uncovered by her as he participated in such a disgracefully shady meeting. ‘There you are, dearest, I thought you were asleep. Do – do come in,’ he bid, reaching out a welcoming hand to her, one which may once have been tenderly paternal, but now looked withered to Margaret, forever tainted by his betrayal.
Margaret was rooted to the spot, wild horses could not displace her, her body quaking in its place like a flower trapped in a whirlwind of a storm, unable to find shelter, powerless to escape, forced to remain resolute and suffer the turmoil which surrounded this thorned rose, a rare bloom that was determined to stand its stubborn ground, stoic to the last.
She said nothing, her small yet stately figure framed by the doorway, making Margaret appear like a wrathful vision from a nightmare, her skin that had been paled by sickly shock, transforming her into a ghost with an eerie aura, almost like an ethereal presence that was not of this realm of flesh and bone.
‘Dear girl,’ piped up one of the trio, his hair greying at the tips of his thinning strands, his suit immaculate and well-cut. ‘There is no need to look so alarmed, my child, no need,’ Mr Bell said with galling dynamism, attempting to reassure her, but if she looked, Margaret could see a glimmer of unease flash behind the wily fox’s eyes at having been caught bartering like the Devil.
This in itself was no crime to Margaret’s mind, no, not when men bargained scrupulously for mercantile goods. However, inanimate objects and innocent services were one thing, but it was a different matter, a wicked sin, when they were striking up a deal to exchange a far more precious commodity than cotton, that of a human soul.
‘How dare you!’ she breathed, her voice so low it was almost a hiss.
All three men gulped and looked down, too ashamed to meet her eye.
‘I said, how dare you!’ Margaret repeated more forcefully, stepping into the room courageously, her tone now as fierce as can be as her body shook with the moral rage that overwhelmed her.
‘I heard you, all of you!’ she accused, pointing at the three crooks who stood in the dock before her, the woman’s judgement so unforgiving that they would each be condemned in her estimation for all eternity. ‘You are discussing the terms of my marriage,’ she scoffed in injured incredulity. ‘You are deliberating over who will pay whom and what price should be placed on my head,’ she seethed. ‘I know that my independence is inconsequential to you, for I am the mere property of men, that is my unfortunate lot in this life as a woman, but I had honestly thought you all better than that!’ Margaret provoked curtly, hoping to make them all heartily mortified in themselves for debasing her, for making her feel so unbearably insignificant.
‘Well, I tell you this, gentlemen, not that any of you are worthy of such a title, I will not be bought and sold like a slave!’ she shouted, her fists balling at her sides. ‘I am no prize to be won!’
At this, Margaret spun on her heels and made to leave, but before she had taken one step, a single sound fell upon her, assaulting her ears, arresting her attention, and forcing her to stay, rendering her as still as a statue.
With her heart fluttering in her chest, Margaret bit her lip, and her head fell to the side as the man in the middle called out a solitary word, one which was drenched in desire and devotion. She felt the butterflies in her stomach take flight as that irresistibly passionate voice undid her with one fatal annunciation, their rich baritone thick with an aching yearning. Closing her eyes, her every sense shook and then soared as that lone word set her soul on fire:
All at once, the whole world seemed to halt, and then it waited, watched and wondered with bated breath as it witnessed this scene between the pair of star-crossed lovers unfold, anxious to see what would happen next. Slowly, very slowly, Margaret turned around, and there, she looked at him at long last.
Here he was, her husband-to-be.
He was tall, dark, and yes, handsome, even she could admit that much. As Margaret let her curious gaze wander across the face of the man who she would see every day for the rest of her life, she discerned something hidden there, but in her naivety, she could not quite make it out.
Longing? Maybe. Love? Impossible.
But while he regarded his wife-to-be with an intense focus which was bordering on being unnerving in its concentration, desperately imploring her to stay and hear him out, all so that he might explain himself, she returned his ardent stare with nothing more than haughty disregard.
‘Well, Mr Thornton,’ Margaret began irreverently, addressing him alone, her throat cracking in its intolerabe dryness as she stalked towards him, her shapely body swaying from side to side, something which she could tell he had noticed, since how could he not, when every move she made fascinated him?
‘And here was I hoping you could think in greater terms than buying and selling,’ she quipped spitefully, and Margaret felt a stab of sorrow pierce her heart to see the way his shoulders sagged, and his eyes wept within to be accused of such a dishonourable offence.
But she was not done.
‘Tell me…,’ she went on, venturing closer still as she stood across the table from him and leaned in nearer, drawn to him as she was by some invisible force that violently pulled her towards the man who had occupied her thoughts day and night for longer than she would care to admit. Margaret’s insubordinate gaze never once left his own as she challenged the mighty mill master head-on, their breathing ragged as they stared at one another in suppressed silence, the air around them becoming excruciatingly steamy and sticky, their skin itching to touch as their fingers sneaked closer across the expanse of the tabletop.
Then, snatching her hand away, Margaret saw the disappointment spill across his face, and as unsympathetic as it may see to you and I, she could not help but feel just a little proud of her victory over him, since after all, he would soon have such immeasurable power over her. Rolling her tongue across her lips to wet them, something she had never done so brazenly before, especially not before a man, Margaret smiled in satisfaction as his fevered eyes darted to watch her do this, his strong body trembling as his teeth involuntarily gnashed at her with hungry yearning.
With her head cocked in casual listlessness, she demanded to know: ‘Tell me, how much would I fetch at market?’
‘Good Heaven's!’ her father hollered in disbelief to hear his daughter talk with such impudent dissent.
Still, she did not look away, and nor did he, both of them refusing to back down in this crucial fight for their dignity, and in Margaret’s case, she was battling for her right to have a voice, something she would never allow him to take from her.
‘Why should I not ask such a thing?’ she questioned with a bemused expression. ‘You are the expert after all, dearest,’ she conceded, nodding towards the town’s most prominent tradesman. ‘But I must know…shall you make a profit or a loss when you buy me, sir?’ she goaded. ‘And how am I to be valued? By my size, like a cow? Or by my breeding, like a dog? Or by my performance, like a horse? For surely, my character, my intelligence, my passions, and most importantly of all, my capacity to love, none of these things are worth anything to you, so you shall not count them as assets when you assess my worth to you, is that not so?’ she continued, her pitch growingly increasingly strident as Margaret’s eyes watered while stared up at him with unwavering defiance, her frosty façade of indifference rapidly melting away.
However, much to her amazement and annoyance, he did not utter a word, but just let her go on, and on, and on, his eyes searching her own with miserable and restless longing.
Why would he not speak? Why would he not defend himself? Why would he not reprimand her? Why was he letting her abuse him so? God help her, why was he so honourable?!
Oh! How she wished he would rebuke her in that domineering way of his, all so that she might fight back more furiously than ever before, showing him just what he would be getting as a reward if he were to even so much as vaguely try and possess her.
Sniffing vociferously and attempting to quell her crying, Margaret bit down on her lip, so hard that she burst her skin and a drop of blood trickled into her mouth.
Shuddering, Margaret began to edge away, and as she did this, she could sense him lurching forwards, instinctively mourning her leaving. ‘I tell you this, husband-to-be!’ she began, glaring at him as she held her head high. ‘You will never be my master, do you hear? You may be able to buy me and do with me as you like, but you will never, NEVER, buy my love, since that is not yours to take, but mine to give!’ she declared, thumping at her heart and bruising her breast.
‘And I promise you one thing, John Thornton,’ she concluded as she turned to deliver her deadly departing shot, every fibre of her being screaming out at the thought of being torn from him, her soul knowing what she did not yet understand, that the man standing before her was her one, true, and only mate. ‘I will never be your Margaret!’