Hi readers. I have never written a North and South fic before but I just love the characters to much that I could not resist. I have tried to remain as true to the book as I can but I am sure elements of the tv series will sneak in as I do so love it. I do not own the characters (of course); I am just a huge fan. I will probably make many mistakes during the course of this story so please do forgive me if I do. Please review and let me know what you think- both good and bad.
Thank you for reading. Elle x
Margaret Hale pulled the collar of her dark coat tighter around her neck as she hurried through the bitter Milton wind towards Crampton. Despite the small blooms of daffodils lurking in the few open spaces (the defenceless signs of a more forgiving season battling its way through), the weather was, as usual, dark and unforgiving and the smog circled the town, enveloping the inhabitants of Milton in its depths. She knew she should have left the Princeton District earlier, but she had been helping dear Mary to tend to the Boucher children and time had gotten away from her once again. It had only been when Mary had announced that her father would be home from the Mill soon that she realised that it was nearly six o'clock and had begrudgingly said a hasty goodbye and promised to return soon.
As she passed the ominous gates of Marlborough Mills, Margaret turned her head almost instinctively, unable to resist a glance inside the courtyard, her eyes seeking out the one person she simultaneously least and most wanted to see. The hands were milling in the yard, presumably leaving word for the day and the place was just crowded enough that it was difficult to distinguish his commanding figure amongst the throng of men at a glance and she could not bring herself to look back again.
Thankfully or unfortunately (she was unsure which she really felt), he was either not in the yard with the men or he had no inclination to talk to her. The chatter of the men as they stood around for their pay before leaving the Mill, the memory of his strong presence moving towards her on the other occasions she had previously passed this way and the muffled but distinct baritone of his commanding voice carrying on the wind implied to her that it was probably the latter and a pang of sadness rippled through her at the thought.
So much had changed since that fateful day when she had sought to protect him from the mob of union members and she feared Mr Thornton's opinion of her had since dropped as fast as she had when the stone had pierced her temple. That was the day everything had started to go wrong between them and it had gone steadily downhill since then. Oh why did he have to propose to her? She had been trying hard to see the good in Mr Thornton as he was such a good friend to her father and she had been proud of the way he had listened to her and faced the men man to man. "I do not wish to possess you; I wish to marry you because I love you!" he had said and at the time that had seemed to utterly insulting to her but now she realised that she had been too harsh and had dealt with it all wrong. She hadn't meant to insult him by refusing him but he had obviously been confused about her intentions as had his sister Fanny and the servants if the conversation she had overheard between them as she was coming around from her unconsciousness was anything to go by. She could never accept a man she did not love and she would have thought he could understand that.
And why did he have to then see her at the station with her brother that night- the one indiscretion she could not explain to him or to anyone? Yet despite his obvious distain for her and his position as a magistrate, he had then lied for her, claimed that she was not there that night and everything but his approval of her seemed not to matter so much anymore. She knew he had done it out of friendship for her father, had he not told her that? In fact, he had made it perfectly clear that he had no interest in her whatsoever other than as the daughter of a dear friend. Despite his disinterest in being friends with her as she had hoped, she was grateful to him but now she was indebted to the man whose hand she had refused, whose mother hated her with a passion and who appeared to hate he with equal passion. She was unsure why she cared what his opinion of her was at all, but since he had seen her at the station saying goodbye to Fred, he had avoided her completely (other than to tell her that he had taken on Nicholas Higgins) and, sadly, the company of her father also. However, she tried to convince herself that they two occurrences were unrelated, she knew it was not true. Even after she had refused his proposal he had still called to take lessons with her father. Still, at least her father would not notice the change so keenly as he was staying with Mr Bell, his dearest friend and a scholar, in Oxford.
Finally, she hurried up the cold, stone steps at the front of the house and pushed through the door into the hallway, calling to Dixon as she hastily removed her coat and scarf and hung them nearly on the coat stand in the narrow hallway.
Dixon appeared on the landing above, wiping her hands on the apron she wore around her front: "Miss Margaret, a letter was delivered for you this morning. I've left it on the table in the sitting room." Her figure retreated into some other part of the house. Since the death of Margaret's mother, Dixon had been even more despondent than usual and Margaret was surprised not to have been greeted with some complain or other the moment she stepped through the door.
"Thank you, Dixon." She called up, with a cheer she didn't quite feel and then ran up the stairs eager to read the letter she had no doubt was from her father.
However, the letter resting against some of the mother's trinkets on the side table was not in her father's hand. His writing was small and neat, more of a print than the decorative calligraphy style on the envelope, all loops and flicks and slanted to the right.
To her puzzlement, the envelope was larger than any letter she had ever received and thick, as if several folded pieces of paper were inside rather than the one or two sheets her father had written her previously. Driven by curiosity, she quickly sliced the envelope open with a pen knife and pulled out three separate items, a letter, another envelope addressed to her and, to her dismay, one addressed to Mr Thornton of Marlborough Mills. Both envelopes were written in her father's hand and she had to resist the temptation to forget the letter and open the envelope from her father. Begrudgingly, she moved the two sealed envelopes to the back of the pile and carefully unfolded the letter in the bold, flowing writing. It was dated two days ago and the return address provided was that of Mr Bell in Oxford.
I hope this letter find a you well and not too depressed by the dreadful grey of the Milton skies.
Forgive me for my bluntness my dear, but I fear that at a time like this no good can come from delaying what I must relay. It falls to me to impart the sad news that your father passed from this world last night, peacefully and in his sleep. Words cannot express how sorry I am both to have to be the one to impart such sad news and to have been the one with your father in his last hours, rather than yourself. I can assure you that this last week has been such an enjoyable time for me and I am sure your father also. Richard seemed happy and completely relaxed and I don't want you to worry that he was at all uncomfortable. I will see to it that the funeral arrangements are made and that my dearest friend receives the best service to remember him. It is a shame that your father will not be buried with your dear mother but I must think of the practicalities. The funeral will likely be on Tuesday morning but I will contact your male relatives to invite them to attend.
I will, of course, come and visit you as soon as I can after the funeral. I have notified your aunt of your father's passing and I am sure she will be up to Milton as soon as she can.
Before he died, your father had written you a letter and we had intended to send it to you the next morning. I have included it here in the hope that it's contents can give you some comfort at this time. If I have done wrong then I wholeheartedly apologise, but my conscience will not allow me to deny you of your father's final words to you.
Lastly, your father had also written a letter to Mr Thornton which we had also intended to post. I felt it best to send it to you so that you can decide whether you want to pass on whatever your father had intended to say to my tenant or you may rather not. I will leave it to you to decide what is best in this regard and no judgement will be cast by me on this matter whatever you choose.
Look after yourself, Margaret and remember that you have many friends and family here to help you at this time.
Your loving godfather, Mr Bell.
Margaret's knees sank beneath her as she fell awkwardly into one of the sitting room chairs. Tears stung her eyes as the magnitude of the sad news Mr Bell's letter contained hit her with an unbearable force. For a moment she sat stunned, tears now falling freely down her still cold cheeks. Papa couldn't be dead! She had seen him barely a week ago alive and fairly well.
For a while she re-read the letter again and again as if the words would somehow change. Surely, she must have misunderstood Mr Bell. Her father was ill, she was under no illusions about that; her mother's death had affected him greatly but she did not think she would have to lose her father so soon, with no warning and without the chance to say goodbye. When he had left with her godfather, he had seemed in excellent spirits and yet now she was seemingly an orphan.
Only when her vision became too blurred to see anything other than distorted shadows did she admit defeat and turn away from that hateful letter, the once flowing writing now prickled and spiked where her tears had fallen and warped the ink. She cast the letter aside to to wipe her eyes and cradle her face in her still gloved hands, the paper hitting the wooden floorboards with a surprisingly loud thud.
First her mother and now her father. How was she ever going to be able to bare this crushing pain? A loud sob escaped her and she leant back into the softness of the chair's cushioned back. It was he father's chair and smelt of him, his peppermint scent now seeming to open the gaping hole in her heart further rather than comforting her in his absence as it had done just this morning. Oh poor Papa. How was she to live without the two most important people in her life?
"Are you alright Miss Margaret? I thought I heard you crying." Dixon bustled into the room, stopping when she caught sight of the crying girl and the discarded items on the floor.
Margaret snapped to her senses and quickly wiped her nose and eyes, trying to dispel the evidence that she had been crying, not wanting Dixon to see her weakness.
"I am just a little out of sorts Dixon, but I will be alright in a moment." She didn't want to tell anyone the contexts of the letter yet. She needed to grieve a little herself before Dixon knew the news. She didn't think she could bare her pity.
It seemed Dixon had other ideas.
"Was it your father's letter, Miss? Did he say something distasteful? No doubt he's loving his time away from this awful place, whilst we suffer here…" the servant prattled on, sitting next to Margaret and resting a reassuring hand on the girl's back throughout her thinly veiled attack on Papa. Dixon had made it more than clear that she disapproved of Mr Hale for bringing the family to Milton and liked to bring it up again as often as she could.
Despite her despair, Margaret still felt the usual prickle of annoyance at the older woman's harsh words. She could think of no other servant who would have the gall to say such a thing but then Dixon had never been a traditional household employee, always close to her mother- annoyingly close in Margaret's opinion. She had always been a little jealous of the way her mother had confided in Dixon things which she kept from her only daughter. Particularly her illness since they moved to Milton. Margaret would never be able to fully forgive her for that.
"Dixon, please do not say that. You are too harsh on Papa." She supposed she would have to tell her since the tears were now starting to fall again. "He-he- well- the letter was not from my father. It was from Mr Bell. He had some sad news to disclose. You see, it seems that father was more ill than we imagined and he- he- died- two nights ago now- so Mr Bell, was just writing to inform me that he won't be returning home this week…" her voice broke as she trailed off, another large sob escaping despite her best efforts.
"Oh, Miss Margaret!" Dixon patted her back gingerly and Margaret prepared herself for the oncoming storm. "How could he go to Oxford and die, leaving you here alone? That man! Your poor mother would be turning in her grave, God bless her. How will we live? We will have to return to London almost immediately. I shall not be sorry to leave this awful place of course, but everything will have to be sold. There is so much to do…"
Margaret wasn't listening. She didn't want to hear her father criticised. She didn't want to hear anything and in some ways felt more alone than ever with despite how close she was in proximity to Dixon.
"Of course, we will have to wait until after the funeral to leave. At least your mother will be with your father again…"
Dixon's words brought her back to reality as Mr Bell's letter re-entered her mind. Her father would be lain to rest in Oxford rather than Milton or Helston. How dreadful for him to be buried so far from Mama, where no-one would visit him! She must contact Mr Bell immediately and implore him to help her have father buried with her mother. If the funeral was to be on Tuesday, just four days from tomorrow then she must act immediately. But a letter would never get there in time. She needed to think and quickly.
Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to get away from Dixon and be alone with the letter. She slipped off the sofa and scrabbled on the floor on her hands and knees gathering the letter frantically. She ignored Dixon's exclamations that she would ruin her dress and clasped the letter to her chest. Her eyes lingered for a moment on the small envelope addressed to Mr Thornton which she had cast so carelessly aside and which she had completely forgotten about until this second. What a cruel trick for her to have been thinking about Mr Thornton and his hatred for her not even an hour ago and now here were her father's last written words addressed to him. It rested just on top of the one addressed to her and she snatched them up quickly before Dixon could notice and enquire what they were. They would remain her secret. She wasn't sure whether she would pass the letter onto Mr Thornton yet or not but something inside her didn't want anyone to know about these yet and especially not Dixon who would probably have something to say about it.
"I am sorry Dixon, but I am tired and just want to be alone at the moment so I am going to retire. I know it's only early but I don't think I am going to be much company tonight I am afraid so please don't worry about any food for me." She knew she was being rude but she didn't wait for an answer before rising to her feet and leaving the room. Everything ached as she made her way up the second flight of stairs, as if her muscles knew of the sadness coursing through her veins and had given up on trying.
For the first time since arriving at Crampton, she locked her bedroom door and shut the world and everyone else outside.
The cold of her bedroom bit at her skin as the wind whipped around outside, whistling its pain. She had read Mr Bell's letter at least a hundred times now, poured over them for hours and finally the tears had stopped falling. The pain had not dulled even a little since the first time she read it but her body ached with exhaustion, both from the effort of crying and tiredness; it was three thirty in the morning.
Dixon had left her alone other than knocking to offer her a glass of water, which she had refused, and to say goodnight. She supposed that in one regard Dixon had been right earlier. She would indeed be left with no choice but to return to London and depend upon the hospitality of her aunt. The thought did not fill her with the comfort that she thought it would. She longed for the familiar routine of that house in Harley Street but her cousin Edith, was happily married and touring Europe with Captain Lenox and their young son so she would be left with just her Aunt Shaw for company who would undoubtedly spend her time trying to persuade her to marry Henry Lennox. By her aunt's standards he was an excellent match but she just didn't love him.
Oh, her brain felt so muddled. Now that she no longer had the energy to cry, her mind was overcome with worry about the future and she still hadn't been able to bring herself to read the letter from her father. Why would he have also written one to Mr Thornton? She had wondered why numerous times this evening, but still could find no answer that made sense to her. Yes, Mr Thornton was her father's good friend but had only written one other letter to her, his daughter, so why would he write to his friend after only being absent for such a short time? Perhaps his worry for Fred and his safe return to Caditz had driven her father to do so. She would not blame him. There had been multiple times where she had almost sought Mr Thornton out to explain, though she had nearly done so to try and restore his impression of her. Perhaps Papa was as desperate to confide in someone and receive their reassurance as she was.
It was wrong of her but she resented that her father's dying thoughts had been of his friend rather than just her. It was unfair, she knew that. Her father had most likely not known he was going to die so soon and yet that thought added to her grief regardless. Still, she could not withhold a letter her father had intended to send. Should she take Mr Thornton his letter first thing in the morning? In barely a few hours from now he would no doubt be awake and in his office and she could take him the letter and reveal the news. At least he would be forced to talk to her for a moment, but she might have to bear his judgement for what he viewed as her indiscretion again. She might implore him not to think on her so harshly for what he saw at the station and thank him for lying for her. Or she could just ignore it ever happened.
No. She would open hers first and then decide what to do about the other letter.
With trembling hands, she reached for the paper bearing her name, and with her thumb stroked the small writing marked onto the paper- her last touch of her beloved father. She had no letter opener this time and so as carefully as she could she slipped a finger into the edge of the seal and prized the envelope gently open. It smelt of him, his faint peppermint smell, caressing her senses. For a moment when she closed her eyes, she could see him standing there in front of her, well and alive. But the image faded as she opened her eyes again and the same cold dread settled back into her heart. At the sight of his neat print she felt the need to shed her tears again but found that she could not.
I must start by saying that I miss you, my daughter, but I am having a marvellous time. Mr Bell and I have visited so many of our old haunts in Oxford and I must confess that I feel more relaxed than I have in a long time. I think you would like Oxford, Margaret, and you really must come and visit sometime, perhaps with me or perhaps with someone else in the future.
I hope that Dixon is looking after you well, or rather that you are looking after her, since she does seem to hate Milton so. I had hoped that with time she would see that Milton's people are fair and hardworking and there is beauty to be found wherever you go but I fear that your mother's death has prevented that forever. I think you now have seen it and I hope that you will not hate me for moving our family there.
Now that your mother is gone and I am away from you, I find myself contemplating the mortality of men more than ever, particularly my own. Since your mother left us so quickly, I feel the need to make a request of you that I hope you will not hate me for. I know that I am old and becoming ill and I fear that should I die, you would be left entirely alone. Of course, you will always have Fredrick but since returning to England so soon would be detrimental to his safety, I beg of you that when my time comes you do not ask him to return once again. I know you will be alone, but there will always be people there for you. Your Aunt Shaw would happily take you back to London and allow you to live in her house, but I wonder if there is another alternative you would prefer. I feel you have become attached to Milton and the people there and I want to be able to make sure you have another choice should you need it. Please don't be offended by this Margaret and don't fly off the handle but I have often wondered recently whether Mr John Thornton has developed feelings for you- at least as a friend. Perhaps I am an old man reading too much into nothing, but if I was a gambling man, I would bet my life on him caring for you as more than an acquaintance-the daughter of a friend. Indeed, for a while you seemed to be able to have a civil conversation and there are marriages based on less!
I have debated long and hard and decided to write to Mr Thornton and implore him that if anything should happen to me, that if he has any feelings, even if only friendship for you, that he will make you an offer so that you might stay in Milton. I would not ask you to marry someone you have no feelings for my dear, but Mr Thornton is a good man and something tells me you would be happier in Milton than returning to London. Mr Thornton has been such a good friend to me that I am sure he would offer even if he did not have feelings for you, if he felt it was for the greater good. You never were silly enough to fit in with the other young ladies on London society and I would ask that you at least are kind and consider the proposal that I am almost certain will come.
I am sorry to have told you all this in a letter, Margaret but if there is one thing that Mr Bell and I have decided whilst we have been in Oxford, it is that we must seize the day and delay no longer. We both have our reasons. I will see you again next week when I return but until then think about what I have written. I am sorry for writing to Mr Thornton without speaking to you first but I felt it only fair that he could think about it for a while too. I don't mean to pressure you but I know that this way if you choose to stay in Milton after I too am gone, you would be looked after by a good man who will respect you, which is all I can ask for as a father.
Take care Margaret, and I will see you next week.
Your loving Papa.
Margaret didn't think it was possible for anything her father had to say to make her feel worse but she had been proven wrong. Her heart ached as she realised he knew of Dixon's disapproval of his moving the family, that he felt some guilt for it and was asking her forgiveness. It had also dropped the second she had read Mr Thornton's name. Why had her father been having these thoughts? She knew he would not do something to purposely caused her pain but in effectively imploring Mr Thornton to marry her he had caused her pain nonetheless. Now she knew that she should have been open with her father; if only she had told him of the proposal and her subsequent refusal she would not find herself in this dilemma now and would have saved herself a world of extra hurt.
Had Mr Bell known what was written in her father's letter? If so, he surely was trying to be nice by allowing her to read the letter rather than sending the other to its recipient straight away but instead he had put her in the most dreadful position she could imagine. There was now no doubt in her mind what the letter to Mr Thornton contained and no doubt that she could not allow him to ever read it! She would die of shame. After all, he had only recently told her that his 'foolish passion' for her were over and he may as well have added that he now only viewed her with contempt. If she threw the letter away now she would eradicate the problem completely, but if she gave it to its intended recipient…
He wouldn't really propose again, would he? If anything, he would probably hate her more than ever. Previously she had told him he was not a gentleman but now she knew better. He was above all else a gentleman and he would do whatever he could to help her father. Part of her suspected that despite everything he would probably still do all he could to help her too. No matter what she supposed he deserved to know that her father was gone. She picked up the envelope bearing his name and stroked the small letters on the front as she had done her own before opening it. For a moment she simply stared at it as if what was contained would spring into her hand and she could somehow censor the contents, removing any part containing her Papa's request. It was no use- she was going to have to give him the letter. Her father had intended it and if he hadn't died Mr Thornton would have received it by now most likely. If he did propose again she would face that when it came. A choice was what her father had wanted for her- that was all, no obligation. She could only hope that Papa had made that clear and that Mr Thornton would understand.
4 o'clock in the morning. The clock beside her bed struck the early hour with vigour making her jump in surprise. In a few hours she would have to face the music and visit Marlborough Mills regardless of her heart begging her not to. Still clutching the envelope, she finally laid her head on her pillow and pulled the blanket up tightly around her. Pressed tightly against her chest, a simple letter seemed so harmless and yet she knew it would bring a storm in the morning.
Trying to clear her mind and invite sleep in, she closed her eyes and the face of her Papa filled her view, in his element, talking enthusiastically to someone- someone whose face she desperately did not want to see, yet he haunted her broken dreams anyway. Even in her imagination his eyes displayed contempt for her.
When she woke up in the night, disoriented and shivering from the cold, she was still clinging tightly to the letter at her breast and her pillow was wet with tears.