Can we be whole again?
A/N: For this story to make sense where I begin it, I've made the minor change of Mr Hale passing away in Milton instead of Oxford. The plot from this point on is my own, with all characters and places lovingly borrowed from Elizabeth Gaskell. I am also not a professional historian or linguist, so there may be some inaccuracies in the way the characters speak. I've tried to keep as true to the period as possible.
"…Following the arrest of Captain Reid for theft, after he was discovered stealing money intended for his officers' payroll, he confessed to his abusive behaviour which led to the infamous mutiny where he and his other officers were cast from the ship in a lone boat. Therefore, it has been the decision of Her Majesty's Navy, to offer a full and free pardon to the involved officers. Many of these pardons will be awarded posthumously, and Her Majesty's Navy will personally oversee exhumation and reburial of officers already tried and hanged from where they are presently located in Broadmoor Prison. Their names, as well as the names of officers believed to be alive and in exile are listed below…"
It was the custom of Hannah Thornton to read the newspaper aloud as her son John was usually so preoccupied with eating breakfast and finalising any mill papers he would need that day that he often did not have the time to read it himself. He listened with half an ear; his mind too full of the tragedies which had shook Milton. Barely a month after the death of his wife, Richard Hale had been discovered dead in his bed one morning by his own daughter Margaret. You could hear her wails a street away when the undertaker arrived for the body. The sound still haunted John's dreams, as well as the torment of not being able to rush to her side and hold her, as John had yearned to.
Nevertheless, once the formalities of the funeral had been conducted, Margaret had been ushered back to London by her Aunt. Prior to their departure, Margaret was brought to Malborough Mills by her Aunt to formally take leave of her friends. She had recited all the formalities promptly enough, but her eyes stared without seeing. John was not even sure she knew where she was. She recovered herself long enough to bestow her father's copy of Plato upon John, with an earnest plea to treasure it for her. He had stared her straight in the eye when he vowed that he would never give it up. She had stared at him then, before the fire in her eyes that had so entranced John in the beginning dulled once more and she slipped that unfathomable blank mask back on.
Once she was safely ensconced back in London, everyone had assumed that to be the end of it. Save the occasional remark for poor Miss Hale, orphaned with no other immediate family left to her, and no dowry bequeathed to attract a husband, regular mention of the Hale family soon slipped from the Thorntons' circle of acquaintances altogether. That had been some three months ago, and the promised letters to Fanny never arrived. Clearly Margaret had been utterly relieved to be able to quit Milton, despite the heavy losses she had sustained in the process and had no compunctions about throwing off all connections she had made with the place. John, for his part, was sure she had more than likely resumed communication with the secret lover he had discovered her with at Outwood Station and was merely biding her time for her formal mourning to be over. He himself was only indignant on Fanny's behalf. He knew that despite some of her comments, Fanny had been fond of Margaret in her own way and had been keen to carry on the acquaintance.
The sound of his mother breaking off her sentence with an "Oh" snapped John's attention back to her.
"What is it Mother?"
"There's a fellow in this officers list by the name of Hale. I merely wondered if he was a relation of Miss Hale or her parents. The Navy believe him to still be alive"
"I am sure Miss Hale will be able to contact him if that is the case. I do not see a need for you to be too concerned Mother"
The cold steel underlying his voice halted Hannah Thornton's tongue, and the topic of the unknown Mr. Hale did not enter John's head again. That was, until a few weeks later.
After the Sunday service, John and his mother decided to walk home through the cemetery in order to pay respects to Mr and Mrs Hale. Upon entering the graveyard, John looked up to the hill where he knew their gravestones to be and started in surprise. A young man stood in front of the headstones with his head turned up to the sky. John and Hannah approached him slowly, but a stick snapping under John's shoe turned the stranger's attention to them with a rapid turn of his head, and John almost swore out loud with surprise. It was the man he had spied with Margaret at the station, and a noticeable widening of his eyes told him that this man remembered that evening as well. His mother, unaware of the connection, decided to confirm the suspicions her sharp mind had already formed.
"Good afternoon, we've come to the pay our respects to the late Mr and Mrs Hale. Were you acquainted with them?"
The man stared at Mrs Thornton, slightly slack jawed, before drawing in a great breath and speaking almost all at once, such a rush he was in to gain information.
"You knew my mother and father? Please, tell me what you can about my father's passing. I was able to be here for Mother, but I did not know that Father would follow so soon! And Margaret? Please tell me where my sister has gone. Tell me she is not alone in her grief. I am only sorry that I was not here for her sooner. We are both orphans now, we should be together. Please, tell me you know where my sister is!"
Mrs Thornton had attempted to interject once or twice with answers to his many questions but decided on the whole to let him talk himself into calm.
John, on the other hand, was fighting a bizarre desire to laugh, knowing it was not an appropriate response. This man that had tormented his dreams with images of his arms around Miss Hale, had simply been her brother.
"Before we tell you anything, I believe introductions are in order. My name is Hannah Thornton. This is my son, John. We live over at Malborough Mills. Pray, tell us your name," said Hannah, aware that the man was close to hysterics.
"My name is Frederick Hale"
"I recall seeing your name in the paper. You are one of the recently pardoned officers from Captain Reid's regiment, are you not?"
"That is correct Madam. An old Navy acquaintance tipped me off about the Navy's decision and I set out for home to – "
Their conversation was cut off by an ominous rumble of thunder, and they all three looked up to see ugly black clouds rolling in, having silently crept up on them.
"Come to take some tea with us, we will be able to carry on this conversation more privately," John offered to Frederick, puzzle pieces finally sliding together in his head.
They had all made it to the warmth and shelter of Malborough Mills just in time. Jane had barely closed the door behind them when the rain began coming down in unrelenting sheets. It was against this gloomy backdrop that Frederick Hale learned of the fate of his father. Now he was able to gain a better look at him than the fleeting glimpse at the station, John noticed with increasing discomfort Fredericks' resemblance to the sister John couldn't now think of without shame and regret. Their hair was the same soft shade of brown and even had the same slight curl to it. John estimated him to be a head taller than Miss Hale standing. His face currently had the same expression of melancholy that his sister had so frequently worn in the last weeks of their acquaintance. It pulled the corners of his mouth down into the same small frown.
"… An old Navy acquaintance who I went through training with alerted me to Captain Reid's arrest and the decision to pardon the mutineers. His arrest unearthed a catalogue of unconscionable behaviour. He has been detained and awaiting trial himself from my understanding," Frederick explained with a grim smile. The Captain's downfall had come too little too late for Frederick Hale, who returned home to find himself an orphan. He recollected himself and carried on his tale.
"I packed what I could and set off on the first available boat from where I'd been living in Spain. My wife and I agreed that if I were ever to be allowed back to England then we would come and build a life here. I remembered the way to Milton from my last journey. Except this time I arrive to find the house empty and no one inclined to tell me anything about the Hales. I decided to visit Mother's grave, found Father's next to her and no sign anywhere of my sister, some small mercy perhaps. Strange as it sounds, I was praying for help when I looked around and saw you standing there. The Lord does move mysteriously" Fred mused with a wry smile. John remembered Margaret sporting a similar smile when she was teasing him over something or other.
"For now, we can simply assure you that your sister is safe. She was taken back to London by your Aunt Shaw who was the only available family member," Mrs Thornton explained to Fred. She had not meant the last part unkindly, but he still visibly winced. Then he smiled.
"I should have known Aunt Shaw would take her in. Margaret passed most of her childhood in London with Aunt Shaw and Cousin Edith. She's probably having a dreadful time, she always found it drearily dull in London"
"What will you do now?" John asked.
"I think I will travel back into Milton and try to find some cheap lodgings. I will write to my sister explaining where I am, and a letter to Aunt Shaw begging her to accommodate me. I will travel when I am surer of my welcome"
Just then, another clap of thunder sounded overhead that rattled the windowpanes in its ferocity. The rain hammered down even harder, momentarily convincing John that thousands of angry workers had returned to pelt the house with stones. Hannah Thornton gave her son a pointed look.
"Mr Hale" – John winced as he said it, only a few hours ago convinced it was an address he would never use again – "There is little sense and even less honour in turning a guest away in weather so abominable as this when that guest has no certain abode to return to. You may remain here until you are prepared for your travel to London, if you are agreeable to my suggestion"
Fred nodded "I'm grateful to you Mr. Thornton, for your generosity. My father and sister always spoke highly of you during my last brief visit. Margaret in fact admonished me when I voiced less than charitable opinions of the people of Milton, and for those opinions I am sorry," he said, staring at Mr. Thornton so earnestly that he knew Frederick was telling the absolute truth. In amidst the chaos of his day, the thought that Miss Hale spoke in defence of him gave him no small amount of cheer. Mrs. Thornton nodded her agreement at the arrangements and had just reached for the bell to ring for Jane when the girl herself knocked and came in.
"Apologies Mrs Thornton, Mr. Thornton. There's a Captain Lennox and a Mr. Henry Lennox come to see you. Shall I show them in?"
Lennox. John recalled the name and remembered the gentleman who'd accompanied Miss Hale to the Great Exhibition. Mostly he remembered the man's infuriatingly smug expression as he'd flaunted his connection with Miss Hale, goading the man with snide remarks. He reasoned that they were here to enquire about Frederick, and so nodded to Jane to admit them with a painfully tight grimace.