Their first weeks as man and wife were blissfully calm. In order to give them time to adjust to married life, Mrs. Thornton and Fanny had taken themselves off a-visiting with some friends of Fanny's who lived near Hayleigh. Mr. Hale had spent some time deliberating on what his situation would be following the wedding. John and Margaret had, of course, invited him to move to Marlborough Mills with them, not wanting him to be alone with his macabre memories, but he too was keen on giving the newlyweds some space just after the wedding. Mr. Bell had devised the perfect solution. Plans were already in the works for a reunion of their Oxford friends in April, and so he proposed that he would visit Milton for the wedding, and Mr. Hale would accompany him back to Oxford a week ahead of the reunion. And so John and Margaret found themselves blissfully free of family for a time.
As the mill had never fully recovered from the upset of the riot, John could ill afford the luxury of a honeymoon, but they quickly fell into a routine. Margaret would wake with John and accompany him to breakfast before he left for the mill. Most days they ate their mid-day meal together — if possible, he would return home and join her in the dining room, if he was unable, Margaret would pack the luncheon away and carry it to his office. She rarely saw him again before dinner, but their evenings were spent in blissful contentment.
One day, John had a late afternoon meeting canceled at the last minute. Having cleared his schedule and finding himself free, he took the rare liberty of returning home early to see his wife. He entered the parlor where she greeted him every night only to find it empty. Margaret was likewise not to be found in the dining parlor, study, or in their chambers. He began to give way to disappointment that she had gone out, though he could not blame her as he had given her no notice that he would be early. Resigned to her absence, he began to make his way back through the house to return to work when he heard soft music coming from the music room. Not the loud clanging practice chords or lively dance music that Fanny preferred, but a plaintive melancholy tune.
He leaned against the doorway for a moment, soaking in her beauty, elegance, and music. At length, she allowed her hands to still and the music to taper off, releasing a shuddering sigh. He quickly strode to her side and saw a look of deep sorrow on her face. "Margaret, love? Are you well?" He asked, a hint of panic in his voice.
She started slightly then turned to him, "Oh, John! You're home early!" She gave him a contrite smile before schooling her features back into their habitual form.
"Margaret, are you unhappy?" He asked again, his own insecurities providing reasons for her sorrow. "Have I neglected you? I am sorry that you must spend such long solitary hours of the day in this large and unfamiliar house ..."
"John," Margaret interrupted him, laying a hand on his cheek, "I am very happy in this house, and with your attentions. I even savor the solitude."
"You did not appear happy a moment ago," he said sadly.
"It is only Mama. Although you provided me with comfort and solace through my period of mourning, your visits were always agonizingly brief in the long weary hours of the day, and I did not wish to waste them on further grief. The balance of my time for so many months has been spent bolstering my father during his grief. It's only now that he is away that I have felt how great and long had been the pressure on my time and spirits. It's astonishing, almost stunning, to feel myself so much at liberty; no one depending on me for cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; I might be idle, and silent, and forgetful, — and what seems worth more than all the other privileges — I might be unhappy if I like."
John's heart again broke for her and he pulled her into his embrace. "Of course my love, you must have time to mourn. I apologize if I have imposed on you."
Her short laugh surprised him at such a moment. "John, of course you've not imposed. I love you, and your love has supported me through this dark time." John held her close for several moments, unsure what to say to support her but wishing to comfort her all the same.
He looked around the room. It was clearly Fanny's domain with it's cheerful pink wallpapers, abundance of looking glasses, and figurines of dancing ladies and gentlemen arranged on the mantle, a stark contrast to the austere drawing room of silver, gray, and black that it connected to through double doors. This was probably the least suited room in the house for mournful reflection. Allowing his curiosity to get the better of him, he asked her what drew her here of all places. She gave him a mischievous look, "I did not wish the servants to assume I was unhappy in our marriage, so I wanted to grieve privately. Our chambers are so full of ..." she paused and blushed "... other memories that it did not feel appropriate for solemn reflection. But I have noticed that the servants tend to give this room wide berth in their daily routine."
John laughed, "aye, I believe Fanny's playing has frightened away many a spectator. In spite of her many hours of practice."
"At least it has served me well," Margaret laughed. "And it has allowed me to play again, in that indolent unstructured way that so infuriated my piano master."
John kissed her hand as he assisted her back onto the piano bench, "well, you ought to enjoy it now, as Fanny will give you little access to the piano once she returns." Margaret sat and continued playing whatever songs from her memory caught her fancy as her husband sat nearby entranced by her grace and beauty at the instrument. John was pleased to note that by the time dinner was ready, she had shifted away from the melancholy to more spirited tunes.
Two weeks after their marriage, his mother and sister returned from their visit. Fanny's monopoly on the piano, it seemed would be short lived as she returned home bursting with the news of an engagement of her own. Mr. Watson was her friend's uncle and they had been much in company over the visit. He was wealthy, well set up, and in full possession of his own Mills and two homes — one in Milton and the other near Hayleigh. She insisted that it was a good match, even if he was a touch gray. John was on friendly terms with the fellow, and knew there was no talking Fanny out of the match even if the man was old enough to be her father and played fast and loose with speculation. Nonetheless, he had family money backing his mills and Fanny would be well provided for.
A truly affectionate son and brother in his own way, John welcomed back his family even while lamenting the loss of privacy for himself and Margaret. Their evenings were now spent in company with Mother and Fanny. The latter shattered their peace with incessant chatter over wedding clothes — a fact which made John even more grateful for the modest needs of his own bride — and the former shattered Margaret's peace with a rigorous household schedule of tasks and her ongoing disapproval of Margaret's behavior.
Three weeks after their marriage, John was obliged to make a trip to Havre to sort out the rising price of cotton. Loathe as he was to leave his wife, it would be but a short trip and neither saw any immediate need for her to make the journey with him. On his return trip, he was allowing his mind to roam from the newspaper in his hands to the anticipated reunion with his wife when he was shocked out of his reverie by a loud exclamation of: "Why, Thornton! is that you?" He had hardly recognized the man as Mr. Bell before his hand was vehemently grasped then quickly released as his landlord wiped tears from his eyes. Dread settled in his stomach.
"I'm going to Milton, bound on a melancholy errand. Going to break to Hale's daughter the news of his sudden death!"
"Death! Mr. Hale dead!"
"Ay; I keep saying it to myself, "Hale is dead!" but it doesn't make it any the more real. Hale is dead for all that. He went to bed well, to all appearance, last night, and was quite cold this morning when my servant went to call him."
"My poor Margaret!" John's head was reeling and his eyes beginning to pool. His dear friend and father-in-law was dead, and his wife ... Margaret had faced so much suffering between her brother's exile and her mother's death, and now her father! How could she bear it.
Yes! I am going to tell her. Poor fellow! how full his thoughts were of her all last night! Good God! Last night only. And how immeasurably distant he is now! How he expounded last night on his relief that she was well settled. You must take care of her Thornton, for she is as dear to me if she had been my own child."
John bristled slightly at his implication, "there is nothing more important to me than my wife's health and happiness."
Mr. Bell looked at him shrewdly, and nodded. "Yes, I know. I believe I knew even before the tittle tattle of Milton began that you loved our Margaret. So much the better, I need not fear her being pursued by a fortune hunter — or that cleaver Lennox!"
"What!?" John feared the old man had quite lost his mind in his grief. Margaret had no fortune to hunt — not that it had been any deterrent to his affections — and wasn't Lennox her cousin's husband?
"Why, she'll have my money at my death, did you not know? No, of course not, I only told Hale last night." John put the information of Margaret's improved prospects aside for the moment to focus on the needs of the moment. As much of the burden that could be lifted from Margaret must be done. The funeral must be planned, the Crampton house packed and such items as Margaret did not wish to keep auctioned off, the rest transported to Marlborough Mills.
He tried not to think of the calamity averted. Had they not already married before Mr. Hale's death, Margaret would be in her Aunt Shaw's protection. Her aunt who hates Milton, it's climate, it's people, and especially him as their representative in her mind. His darling Margaret might have been snatched away to the glitter and ease of London and he powerless to stop it. She would have been at the mercy of relatives who did not care for her father and cared for her only as far as it suited their own interests. He would have been unable to comfort her, provide her solace. He unsuccessfully attempted to keep the tears at bay, but felt secure in the knowledge that Mr. Bell had as tenuous a hold on his own emotions.
The remainder of the train ride and the carriage ride to Marlborough Mills passed primarily in silence, broken only by the occasional discussion of funeral preparations. As they pulled into the mill yard, he saw her at the drawing room window awaiting his return. She beamed down at him as he stepped down, but he then had to look back to Mr. Bell and she saw him alight; she guessed the truth with an instinctive flash. She stood in the middle of the drawing-room, as if arrested in her first impulse to rush downstairs, and as if by the same restraining thought she had been turned to stone; so white and immoveable was she.
They hurried up to the drawing-room, in John's urgency to reach his wife's side he easily outpaced his companion. He drew her into his arms, scarcely registering the worried inquiries from his mother and sister. Even as she clung to him in dreadful anticipation of what was to come, Margaret scarcely looked at him, Her eyes were focused on Mr. Bell's entry behind him.
"Oh! don't tell me! I know it from your face! You would have sent — you would not have left him — if he were alive! Oh papa, papa!" At Mr. Bell's tortured nod Margaret gave way to the shock of the news and collapsed into John's waiting arms. He carried her to the nearest armchair and sat cradling her limp form against his chest. He could hear Mr. Bell's halting explanation of Mr. Hale's death, Mother's succinct inquiries as to preparations and lodging for Mr. Bell, and Fanny's hysterics — no doubt brought on by Margaret's own faint. But he paid little heed to any of this, his attention was focused solely on his wife. A single tear trailing down her cheek was the first sign of consciousness, followed by a contraction of her brows in agony. He grasped her tighter and whispered words of love and comfort. She threw her arms about him and latched on as if she could absorb his strength. He wished to God she could.
After her initial faint, Margaret was slow to come back to herself over the next days. The day after she heard the news, John wished to remain with her, but he had responsibilities that required his attention. He settled her in the sitting room with Dixon and Mr. Bell sitting sentinel should she require anything. He was dismayed on his return to find her lying as still on that sofa as if it were an altar-tomb, and she the stone statue on it. Dixon and Mr. Bell had tried to rouse her, to tempt her to eat, but she hadn't responded. John again picked her up and sat himself on the sofa cradling her, she curled into him and he was able to coax her into drinking some tea at the least. Her reaction to her father's death was far more visceral than it had been to her mother's. She had no father and brother to bolster, no household to uphold. Her husband was there to support her and her mother-in-law to see to the house. She had been denied her grief for one parent for the benefit of the other and now she grieved for both as one.
The funeral was held in Oxford, Margaret wished to attend the funeral and John readily agreed to accompany her thither. Fanny put up a fuss about proprieties and unladylike behavior, but Mother surprised him in her agreement with Margaret. She was a widow, no stranger to death, and saw no reason to bar women from such occasions. By the time of the funeral, she was able to endure the train ride sitting white, motionless, speechless, tearless, but with her hand firmly encased in her husband's.
The funeral seemed to do her good. It was as if she had suspended her animation as long as she could suspend her belief. Once she was able to see the body, make her peace, and say goodbye, her appetite and vigor was gradually restored to her.
While Margaret was grieving for her father, Marlborough Mills continued to sink under the blows from the strike. While they had no further quality issues, they remained behind in their orders and seemed unlikely to catch up. The global rise in the cost of cotton caused mischief for their buyers as well, who were unable to pay their bills on time. For a while, John attempted to shield his wife from the harsh reality of their situation because he did not wish to add to her burdens. But as her grief subsided, she began to notice the tolls of stress on him.
Unsurprisingly, John's first true indication that Margaret was returning to her own self came in the form of an argument. She urged him to confide in her about his troubles, he demurred hoping to protect her, she assumed that she was the source of his additional burden and confronted him about it, he was forced to explain ending with: "I protected you from the truth because I love you," shouted in anger. This prompted both husband and wife to first dissolve into laughter over their now familiar pattern of argument, then rationally discuss the issues at hand.
By August Margaret had regained much of her former spirits, if a bit subdued. She was an orphan, but not alone. She had her husband's love, a household to run, a sister-in-law's wedding to prepare for, and a kitchen project for the laborers to help oversee. Margaret and Mrs. Thornton had even come to a better mutual understanding after a thorough audit of the household budget in order to cut expenses under their present circumstances.
Margaret had been expecting a visit from Mr. Bell, promised and scheduled, broken and rescheduled, but was disappointed when he at length missed yet another appointed time. She had a terrible presentiment, therefore, when she received a letter posted from Oxford the following morning but not in Mr. Bell's own hand. It was a brief letter from Wallis, his servant, stating that his master had not been feeling well for some time, which had been the true reason of his putting off his journey; and that at the very time when he should have set out for Milton, he had been seized with an apoplectic fit; it was, indeed, Wallis added, the opinion of the medical men — that he could not survive the night; and more than probable, that by the time Miss Hale received this letter his poor master would be no more.
Margaret received this letter at breakfast-time, and turned very pale as she read it; then silently putting it into Mrs. Thornton's hands, she left the room. That shrewd lady, now familiar with Margaret's ways, ordered a maid to run the letter over to John's office then hail a cab. She sent Jane to pack a bag before she searched the schedule for the next train that would leave for Oxford, ordered a basket from the kitchens, and stopped in Margaret's room on her way to her own.
"I am going to Oxford. Dixon has offered to go with me, but I could have gone by myself. I must see him again. Besides, he may be better, and want some care. He has been like a father to me. Don't stop me Mrs. Thornton." Margaret said without looking up from her packing.
Mrs. Thornton let out something between a laugh and snort. "As if I could prevent anyone as headstrong as you from going where you please. There is a train in half-an-hour, I've already sent for a cab, so we should just make it."
Margaret turned to her mother in law in astonishment, "we?"
"With all due respect to Dixon, I'll not have my daughter-in-law rushing about the country with only a servant as a companion in your condition and we both know John can't be spared at the mill just now." Dixon momentarily stopped her packing in indignation.
Margaret paled and placed a hand on her stomach, "how?"
"I've had two myself you know. You've eaten nothing for breakfast aside from tea for all of a week but increased your mid-day meal. You've lived beside a mill for months without problems but suddenly the smell of woad bothers you, and I saw Dr. Donaldson leaving the mill gates on Tuesday when I returned from tea with Mrs. Slickson. Now, Dixon, if you're ready, Jane should be just about done with my bag." The punctual maid stopped in the hallway as if on cue leaving Margaret wondering if her mother-in-law had some sort of magical abilities. She silently took her bag from Dixon and followed Mrs. Thornton down the stairs.
John had just reached the entrance as they exited the house. "Oh, Margaret, I'm so sorry," he said as he pulled her into an embrace.
Mrs. Thornton checked the watch on her chatelaine and announced brusquely, "we're to Oxford, our train leaves in twenty-five minutes and if we've any hope of arriving in Oxford in time to be of any use we'd best be on it."
John looked somewhat startled, but would not delay them. "Of course, thank you Mother," he said as he helped his mother into the carriage. He pulled Margaret in for one final embrace — heedless of the hands loading carts in the yard — whispered "I love you," and helped her into the carriage.
Even with their haste, Margaret and Mrs. Thornton arrived only hear that he had died in the night. The trip was brief, but Margaret had the chance to say her goodbyes. As they had some time before the return train, Mrs. Thornton proposed a walk through the cemetery to visit Mr. Hale's grave. Later, as they sat aboard the train, silent but for the soft rustle of Mrs. Thornton's thread pulling through the linen napkin she was embroidering, Margaret looked up at her mother-in-law. "I'm sorry if I was foolish rushing all the way down to Oxford, I just..."
"It was not foolish, he's as good as family," Mrs. Thornton replied without looking up.
Margaret continued observing her mother-in-law, "Thank you for accompanying me today. I could have taken Dixon, but I appreciated your company none the less." She paused a moment, but then decided to charge on "I know that you did not approve of me as John's wife ..." She'd intended to be forceful but it came out as a question.
"I did not approve of my son's attachment to you. You did not seem worthy to me. Of course, I knew nothing about you but I didn't want to know anything about you ..." she paused and finally looked up at Margaret "... did you know that I had two sisters and a brother?" Margaret, startled at the rapid change of topic shook her head no. "There was a cholera epidemic one summer in Milton, over the course of three months I lost all three of my siblings and my mother. How father and I muddled on for the years after that is hard to say, he was a broken man. Eventually I met John's father and married. My father died when John was but a babe in arms. And of course, you know of my husband's death. I was one of four children, and before my thirty-first year my entire family had dwindled down to my two children. They became my world." For the first time ever, Margaret saw Mrs. Thornton's eyes pool with tears. "John is my rock. Until you came along I was first in his affections. His love for you threatened that. I saw you as a usurper, taking away my son from me." She grew silent and Margaret hung her head, breaking her heart for the woman beside her.
Mrs. Thornton cleared her throat and Margaret looked up to see that she had resumed her habitual calm demeanor. "I've survived a year such as you've had. A year of grief and loss. I've seen my father broken by such a year, a shadow of his former self. But you, Margaret, are a fighter, you're recovering, you're planing for your future and your happiness and your love and I respect you for that. My family had dwindled down to my two children ... but now you're here and soon there'll be a babe. So don't thank me for attending on Mr. Bell. He was as good as part of your family, and you're part of my family." Margaret reached over and pressed Mrs. Thornton's hand, tears clogging her throat and preventing her from speech.
They returned home late after their long journey. John was asleep in the drawing room, an open book resting on his lap. Margaret gently placed the book on a side table and woke him by gently running her hand through his hair — an action he had performed himself recently to judge by the state of it. "You're back," he said, his voice thick with sleep, "I didn't know if you'd return this evening."
"And yet you've waited up," Mrs. Thornton replied brusquely. Formerly Margaret would have assumed reproach in that comment, but now she recognized the tenderness and concern in it.
"With the two of you traveling alone at night?" He replied as he stood up and bushed a kiss on Margaret's cheek in greeting, "of course I've waited up."
"It's late, we all ought to seek our beds."
"Yes, goodnight Mother," John said and kissed her cheek.
"Goodnight ..." Margaret also kissed her cheek, then added shyly, "Mother."
John looked up in surprise, but Mrs. Thornton merely gave her a lopsided half smile and bade them goodnight.
"What have you done to my mother?" John asked playfully as he helped her undress. She had already given him the sad account of their visit to Mr. Bell and the pertinent information about his death and funeral and John was curious about their encounter.
"Added to her family," Margaret responded cryptically. At his upturned eyebrow, she elaborated. "We've bonded over grief. She told me of the cholera epidemic. Of her sisters and brother and mother. Of the year her family dwindled and she survived."
"She rarely speaks of it." John said thoughtfully, "I don't think she could remain as strong as she is if she dwelt on her past miseries often."
"No, I think that was her goal. To remind me of the future rather than allowing me to dwell on the pain of the last year." She moved to the vanity and sat down to brush out her hair as he began to undress himself. "We also spoke of her disapproval of me." John's hands stilled on his shirt buttons and he looked at her with a scowl.
"She had lost so many people. You were her world and I threatened to take you away, then rejected you." Margaret shrugged. John began to protest, but his wife stopped him. "When we married, she still held on to that resentment, but she has since come to realize that rather than taking you away from her I've merely added to her family. She had only two people to care for, but now there are three." She blushed fiercely at this and abruptly stopped talking. John found it odd, but attributed it to her modesty and confusion at his mother's unprecedented words of affection.
"I am glad she's finally seen your merits, my love." John said and dropped a kiss on her head. They silently continued their preparations for bed for some time.
"John," Margaret said as she finished tying off her braid. He looked up but rather than meeting his eye, she was staring sheepishly at the carpet.
"Margaret?" he mimicked.
"Soon there will be four," she said sheepishly.
Grasping back on their last thread of conversation, and having spent an evening alone with Fanny and her wedding preparations, he replied, "ah yes, Watson. Although I can hardly see him calling her 'Mother,' seeing as he's all of four years her junior."
"Five," she corrected quietly, holding her hands over her stomach. "Your family is increasing at a rapid rate."
Understanding finally broke through to him and he stopped and stared at his wife. "Increasing?"
She finally looked up and nodded, smiling. "Dr. Donaldson said not to tell anyone yet as it's still early and it's my first pregnancy, but your mother figured it out on her own."
He felt a bemused smile spread across his face, "a baby!" He murmured gleefully, pulling Margaret into his arms and kissing her gently.
The following year proved far kinder to their family than the prior. Margaret, with full support of Mrs. Thornton and an experienced midwife, refused to remain abed for her confinement. Although she kept to the house, she insisted on roaming the halls of Marlborough Mills for exercise and performing her normal daily tasks. She gave birth to a beautiful, healthy daughter with jet black hair, ice-blue eyes, and a stern brow — an impressive sight on an infant. Although she was the very image of her father, she was christened Maria Elizabeth Thornton in honor of Margaret's departed mother and friend.
Mr. Bell's fortune, of course, saved Marlborough Mills. It not only allowed their expanding family to remain in their home, but elevated the Thorntons to the status of land-owners. Fortune aside, this alone allowed the business to stabilize without the burden of rent or the fear of eviction. Apart from an initial investment — which he fully repaid — John refused to use Margaret's money for the mill. The majority was placed in trust for their children, while a portion remained available for Margaret's social projects. The first of these was a school for the children of the laborers — the Boucher children being the first pupils enrolled.
As official owner of the property and an investor in the mill — a status which John insisted was Margaret's alone as it was her inheritance, whatever society and the law might say about the matter — Margaret began taking a more active interest in the daily workings of the mill. With the help of Higgins, John and Margaret continued to build a closer and more genial intercourse with the hands that ran their looms.
And so ends this N&S AU. I usually like to end with a bit of fluff in an epilogue, but this one turned out a bit heavy because there were too many plot points I wanted to tie up. Sorry, but hey, campy confusion about birth announcements b/c Victorians never just come out and say "I'm pregnant." I also wanted to round out Mrs. Thornton a bit and make her more likable, so she gets an even more tragic backstory.
I've got ideas for several other stories floating around in my head, but I haven't started writing anything yet. So I figured I'd poll the audience to see if you all have any preference:
1.) Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Geskell (Molly is stuck in the quarantine at Hamley Hall when little Osborne gets scarlet fever, forcing her and Roger together rather than apart just before he has to leave again)
2.) Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (Fanny befriends the new curate hired by Dr. Grant just when Edmond is falling under the sway of Mary Crawford. Fanny gains more autonomy, Edmond is more jealous of a friend and spiritual advisor than he is of Henry Crawford as a lover)
3.) Persuasion, Jane Austen (The Admiral and Mrs. Croft are in a gig accident and Anne saves the day, coincidentally throwing her in Frederick's path)
4.) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (Mary is visiting with the Darcys when Lady Catherine dies. She meets and befriends Anne DeBurgh. Anne, now an independent woman able to make her own choices, asks Mary to be her companion. Spinsters by choice - spinsters in love - Mary/Anne DeBurgh)