Margaret had always liked to sit by the window on a train and watch as the landscape changed before her eyes. Sometimes, there were lush, green fields with flocks of white sheep, sometimes the view showed well-dressed ladies and gentlemen hurrying up and down the station the train stopped in.
The gentle rocking of the train, the distant roar of the engine as it let out puffs of smoke and ash as if it were a living, breathing being, often lulled her to sleep and were her seat a little more comfortable and she less excited about the new sights that unravelled themselves in front of her eyes, she believed she would have fallen asleep long time before now. As it were she only just now felt her eyelids weigh down from the many excitements and labours of the day. It was no easy task, packing all one's worldly possessions into a couple of trunks.
A soft groan coming from the seat opposite her, however, had her springing her eyes open and shaking of all thought of sleep immediately.
Mr Hale sat with his eyes closed, his face pale in the dim light of the train carriage. Margaret bit her lip to distract herself from the terrible thought of how very frail her father looked just then. His face lined with wrinkles, he sideburns and tufts of hair as white as fallen snow.
No, she forbid herself to even consider it. Her father's health had improved markedly in the last year and half and as the doctor assured her, there was no danger. And now that they were going North, away from all the painful memories, he would improve ever more.
Her father would be happy. There was no alternative.
"Papa, are you well?" she said as the train gave a lurch and her father's face turned even more ashen.
At this, he opened his eyes and attempted a smile.
"I fear I shall never be able to enjoy the pleasures of train travel as you do, my dear," he said, then glanced at the sleeping form next to Margaret. "Or Dixon."
That was true. Her father never could bear long journeys well. Though Margaret could not recall him ever suffering greatly before, after that day when he came to bring her home from Harley Street, he could never travel without experiencing great discomfort and feeling maudlin.
"I am sure we are almost there, Papa," she said and in her attempt to comfort him pulled her pocket watch out of her pouch and upon checking the dial, nodded. "We have passed London near to three hours ago, I do not believe it will take much longer."
When she looked up, she found her father grinning at her.
"What is it?"
"A young lady with a pocket watch!" he said in mock horror, his voice reminded her of one particular London relative of theirs. "Why, it is positively indecent!"
She blushed at his teasing, but she was glad to see him in a better humour.
"I fear it is too late for your objections, Papa, as it was you who had insisted I keep it," she replied, clutching her at the dearest of her possessions.
"Too true, my dear," he smiled sadly before closing his eyes again. "Too true."
In a short while Margaret observed that his breaths deepened and felt the anxiousness in her heart ease a little as a small smile played on her father's lips in his slumber. With Dixon and father asleep she felt she could finally allow herself to examine her own feelings about the journey.
"Milton," she whispered. "Mil – ton."
How unusual the name tasted on her lips. Papa said it was a most modern industrial town when he described it, with opportunities for livelihoods for men of all stations in life. That's where they were headed upon the recommendation of her godfather, Mr Bell. Margaret tried to picture how it might look in her head and found that she simply could not as she didn't have much experience with traveling beyond her visits to Aunt Shaw in London.
But Margaret supposed there was very little chance that it would be anything at all like Helstone and she couldn't decide if that was a good or a bad thing. Helstone, the colourful paradise of her childhood memories, had lost much of its brightness when she returned there with Papa after the loss of both her mother and brother.
Poor Frederick! If only he had not sailed on board the Russell! If only Captain Reid had been more honourable and her poor brother less! Her mother might still be alive…
Margaret quickly shook herself from such idle speculation. Even if it still plagued her from time to time, she had learnt over the years that wishful thinking did no good, changed nothing. For poor Frederick had sailed aboard the Russell under the command of the cruel Captain Reid and being honourable, mutinied against him and after running from the law for near to two years was caught and court marshalled.
She remembered being a little older than thirteen and living with her Aunt Shaw in Harley Street when it happened. She had often thought perhaps if her mother had sent for her then, much could have been different…
Again, she wrestled her thoughts away from that path.
The hard truth was that the loss of her firstborn and beloved son weighed on her mother so that she became very ill and not having the strength of will to fight her illness, passed away a mere month after her son.
Margaret could still remember her father's face, all drawn in pain as he stood on the threshold of Harley Street before rushing to envelope her in his arms, clutching at her weak shoulders for comfort as he hoarsely voiced her worst nightmares.
They had weathered the storm together since then, keeping each other strong and if that meant that Margaret was a little brusquer and less refined than her London cousin for leaving London for Helstone, she found that she did not care so much.
Who would have looked after Papa when he became ill, if she had stayed in Harley Street? It did not bear thinking about!
Her only wish was that the move to Milton wouldn't prove detrimental to her father's health. It had been a matter of conscience, her father said, and so they went. She so wanted to believe that life in the new town, far from painful memories of Helstone, would help ease Papa's conscience, heart and mind.
"I have spent two days surveying what houses Milton has to offer, I assure you my father and I are sharing the task and both of us have a fairly good idea of a price, sir," Margaret stated firmly with her head held high. It took all her might not to show just how very furious the two men who stood before her made her.
How dare they speak about her father like that? She had come to expect the reticence men here expressed when stood before the fact that they should treat her as her father's equal, but slander against Papa?
"Mr Thornton thinks this will do very well for your father," said the man who introduced himself as Williams. If his frown has anything to go by, Margaret would not learn what she wanted from him.
Why everyone insisted on being so difficult today, she didn't know. First, Dixon spent the whole morning complaining of the dirty air and how it shall make her young mistress look quite unbecoming before long and then where will she be, and now it was nearing late afternoon and she had yet to see a house that would be suitable to their needs as well as at an affordable price. Her task was made all the more difficult when everyone seemed to make it their purpose to protect her maidenly ears from the horror of hearing exact figures.
Though, she supposed that this Mr Williams might simply not know the rent.
She only hoped that Papa had more luck.
Indeed, it was half past four already! She realised with a quick look at the dial of her pocket watch before putting it back into her pouch. There was nothing for it, then.
"Very well, Mr Williams," she said with a sigh. "You said, you are this Mr Thornton's overseer. Please, be so good as to take me to him."
When he made no move to suggest that he was inclined to do as she asked, she continued:
"I'm sure you can appreciate that my father and I wish to find a suitable house as soon as possible and if you are unable to tell me how much the rent is for this property, I need to meet with the landlord, Mr Thornton."
It was then that the other man spoke.
"That will not be necessary, ma'am, as I'm the landlord."
No, they would not get the better of her, she decided at that moment as a part of her was sorely tempted to shout abuse at the man for not speaking up sooner and almost making her travel what she expected would be at least half across the town to see this Mr Thornton for no reason at all.
"Indeed, that is fortunate," she said instead. "Pray, tell me then: How much is the rent for the year?"
There was a long and uncomfortable silence. She supposed that her tone could have done with a little more politeness, but at that moment could not make herself care. Then the landlord opened his mouth to speak and Margaret let out a sigh in relief, finally.
"Perhaps… a meeting with your father, ma'am, or Mr Thornton-"
At this point Margaret didn't disguise the flexing of her jaw as she clenched her teeth in anger. She was tired, she was hungry and she found herself quite sick of hearing the name - Mr Thornton.
"I am sure I am grateful to Mr Thornton for the interest he takes in helping father and I secure property, it is most certainly very kind of him," Margaret interrupted him, her voice shrill. "However, as I do not know him I would not wish to trouble him any more than necessary as he is undoubtedly a very busy man. Now, please, Mr. –" She stopped and looked at the landlord expectantly.
"Mr Denby, I would be most grateful if you would answer my question."
As Margaret walked the street back towards their hotel, she regretted her losing temper. The house was smaller than her childhood home in Helstone, but she knew it would suit them perfectly and moreover, the rent at twenty-five pounds a year seemed quite reasonable. She only hoped she didn't make such a bad impression on Mr Denby that he would refuse to rent the house to them.
But she could hardly be faulted for that! Especially after catching the two men speculate about her father's honour! How they knew that was an ex-clergyman, she did not know, she could only guess that this Mr Thornton was their source of information.
Mr Thornton! She huffed angrily.
An image rose unbidden in her mind of a pudgy white-haired man, with a cigar between his lips and a monocle on one eye. A rich, interfering mill-owner from the North who thought himself above them, no doubt!
Mr Thornton, bah!