Chapter 17

My dearest Margaret,

It has only been a fortnight since you were last by my side, and it already feels like a fortnight too long. I greatly anticipate the day when you will be back with me as my legal wife, with no power on Earth able to take you away again.

You will be pleased to know that my meeting with Reverend Bamber was very successful. We are to be wed on the 19th of May, at 9am sharp. You may have made a wise choice trusting my mother to the organising of the wedding breakfast. She and Fanny were discussing it over lunch when I had to go back to the house for something, and the piles of notes they had between them was staggering. I hope your search for a suitable dress is proving just as fruitful (although it may be bad luck for you to give me too much information on that front!)

I enclose the first of some legal documents for you and Fred to look over. I've drawn up a draft of your settlement, as well as re writing my will to include provisions for any children we may have and your widow's portion, should the worst befall us. Believe me Margaret, my only hope is to grow old and grey at your side, but this is a necessary evil.

I hope you are enjoying being back in Helstone.

Always Yours,

John

John,

I am greatly enjoying being back in Helstone. We have been back a fortnight and I think I am only just recovered from Dolores accosting us for news the second we set foot through the door. I am sure you may have heard her shrieks of delight from Milton when I showed her my ring. It really is exquisite; I shall treasure it always.

Please do thank your mother again for organising the celebrations for us, and for this beautiful ring. Dolores is quite enraptured by the thought of helping me choose my dress – I am sure she wants to visit every dressmaker on the south coast!

Fred and I looked your documents over with some assistance from Mr Olivers – he is a Helstone lawyer who knew Mr Bell and is helping us get our heads around all our new legal responsibilities. Mr Lennox finds himself quite distracted at present helping the new Mrs Lennox settle into their home. Edith reports that the wedding was a pleasant affair, but that the couple smiled maybe five times between them.

Dear me, I should perhaps not be so ungracious. Henry was good to our family, but that he was so quick to distance himself from us when I fell ill still stings. Still, it is perhaps for the best. I think I knew even then, that if I could not marry you, then I would not wish to marry at all.

Forgive the rambling – Fred approves of your proposals and plans for the future of the mill and our family, however large that may grow to be.

I tell Milton of the place he was named for, the place that will soon be his home, but I do not think he takes a great deal of it in. I ordered a basket for transporting him but he did not seem impressed with it. I tried opening it to place him in and he planted all four paws against the sides and declared he would not move, through a great deal of protesting yowls. I can only hope the actual move goes a lot more smoothly.

I am glad that your meeting with Reverend Bamber was so fruitful. Fred proposes that our little party will arrive in Milton a few days before, to begin the process of transferring my belongings to Marlborough and to assist with any final preparations. I hope this is agreeable to you.

Your Margaret

As February began to melt into March, green leaves began reappearing on the trees and flowers poked through the last of the winter frost. On one of these such days, Margaret found herself being handed into a cab by her brother, her sister-in-law already comfortably arranged on one side. Both were armed with bonnets, coats and nervous excitement. This was the day they had set aside to visit a Madame Ashe, who was one of the finest dressmakers in Portsmouth.

"Have an excellent day ladies – try not to spend all of my money!" Fred jested as he handed his sister up, laughingly dodging the attempt by his wife to swat him in the chest. Margaret and Dolores exchanged exasperated looks, and then the coachman was urging the horses on, and they were away. It was only a two-hour ride into Portsmouth and the ladies whiled away the time discussing wedding plans and baby names, until the coachman banged on the roof to announce their arrival.

Madame Ashe's shop was a modest building, its white painted front glimmering brilliantly in the coastal sun. They entered the shop, a little tinkling bell above the door signalling the entrance, and Margaret stifled a gasp. Bolts of material were stacked from ceiling to floor, organised in neat little cubbies. There was fabric in a brilliant range of colours, making a fabulous rainbow that was dazzling to behold. Dolores ran a loving hand over the racks of lace samples.

"Ladies, welcome!"

Madame Ashe had walked in, hurrying from her little work room out the back, two assistants instantly appearing at her sides.

"Mrs and Miss Hale, is it not?" She asked, looking from one to the other uncertainly.

"Yes," Margaret answered, "I am Miss Hale and this is my brother's wife, who is accompanying me in my mother's stead".

Madame Ashe's face lit up with understanding, and she instantly set an assistant to fetching refreshments and the other to fetching her book of designs.

"Excellent, excellent. It shall be quite simple today ladies. We will look over my design book and see what sort of dress you would like. You can select the materials; I shall take some measurements and the first part of my fee. Then you can come back in about four weeks for a fitting, to see if any alterations need making. Then you shall have the final product in about five weeks. I can sew normal day dresses in a week or two, but I like to spend a little longer on wedding gowns. The material is normally much more delicate and such gowns must be completely perfect! Is this agreeable to you?"

Madame Ashe had an even tone to her voice that instantly put Margaret and Dolores at ease. She was a tall, handsome woman whose blonde hair was only just beginning to glint with silver. She was wearing a long black skirt and mauve blouse that Margaret approved off. She may also have to enquire about some regular clothes to take to Milton, unless her Aunt Shaw made good on her threats to have Mrs Rivers working on her trousseau day and night.

"That does sound wonderful Madame Ashe, thank you," Margaret replied. The first assistant returned with a tea tray, setting it down on a low table before bustling over to take coats and bonnets. The second assistant returned with a hefty book of drawings, placing it down next to the tray. Madame Ashe beckoned the ladies over, pouring tea and opening the book.

"Now, this one has been the most popular…"

Margaret was torn – all of the dresses were so exquisite! She had turned a few pages when her eyes stopped on one particular drawing. It had a high collar, which would do very fine for a church wedding, and sleeves of a floaty material with long cuffs. The top half had a lace overlay of a delicate floral pattern while the bottom of the skirt was left plain. She ran her fingers over it, almost imagining the feel of the different fabrics at her touch. Madame Ashe noticed her attention had been caught, and she glanced at the drawing.

"Ah, that one is an excellent choice! It is not showy but is still beautiful, and the simplicity of it makes it quite timeless! Why, your granddaughters could marry in it and it would still be thought a most fashionable dress!"

Dolores was now admiring the drawing, and Margaret could so vividly imagine herself wearing it. Her hair piled on her head in a style both fashionable and eye wateringly complicated, her mother's veil draped over her face and held with a crown of orange blossoms.

"So now we have chosen the drawing, and now you may view the materials!" Madame Ashe declared, sticking a bookmark on the drawing and leading Margaret and Dolores over to the bolts of materials.

"Now, the silk will make a most extravagant material, but linen is easier to take care of and will not tear so easily. What do you think Miss Hale?"

Margaret had become quite distracted, staring a few cubbies that held bolts of material she would recognise in a heartbeat.

"Ah, those are only our cotton bolts Miss Hale, surely you may want something a little finer for your wedding gown?"

"Who supplies your cotton, Madame Ashe?"

"These particular bolts have come from up North, from a gentleman I met while touring the Great Exhibition. Thornton, I think the man was called. Such a stern, unmoving fellow, but the samples he showed me were so remarkable I placed an order all the same… Miss Hale?"

"That shall settle it, I would like to order some Thornton cotton for my dress. Mr Thornton is the man I am to marry you see, and I should so like to incorporate some of his work into my dress. Surely there is something you can do?"

Madame Ashe had met Mr Thornton only once, and that fierce scowl was still etched behind her eyelids; she wasn't sure whether to congratulate or commiserate with the poor girl in front of her. She was also reluctant to made a wedding gown from something as common as cotton; what might other clients think? Then, she was struck with an idea.

"When is the wedding to be held Miss Hale?"

"On the 19th of May"

"That will still be the middle of spring, which I hear are awfully cold in Milton. Perhaps if I were to make you a cotton shawl to wear over your dress? My sister often does some of the embroidery for my gowns and I am sure she will be able to make a most exquisite pattern for you".

"That would look wonderful Margaret; and you would still have a most beautiful silk dress," Dolores urged her enthusiastically. Margaret smiled, knowing when she was defeated.

"That sounds most agreeable Madame Ashe, it would also be nice to keep the shawl as a daily reminder of such a happy day," she smiled wistfully.

"Wonderful, such excellent taste you have Miss Hale!"

Madame Ashe then ushered Margaret into one of her private back rooms for measurements, ensuring the door was firmly shut. It had not been unheard of for men to loiter in the windows of such shops, hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman as she began to undress. Madame Ashe wondered at the depravity some of these men would sink to.

In what felt like no time at all, Margaret was re-fastening her skirt and blouse and Madame Ashe had her measurements meticulously recorded on a piece of her stationary paper with a date fixed to for the ladies to return for a first look at the dress. The ladies finished their tea and were dutifully waved out of the shop. The coachmen that had delivered them politely informed them they had another hour before they were bidden to return to Helstone, so they decided to take a light luncheon before getting back into the coach. However, Margaret received quite a shock upon entering the small restaurant. Seated at a table by the window, with a woman she did not recognise, was Anne Latimer. The unknown woman noticed her staring, and nudged Anne. To Margaret's great surprise, Anne actually stood and made her way over.

"Miss Hale, how do you do?" she asked. Margaret, taken aback, could only return the pleasantries in a low mumble, barely remembering to politely nod to her. Anne gestured behind her to the woman she had been sitting with, who also stood up.

"This is my Aunt, Mrs. Lishman. I'm staying here to attend my cousin's wedding," she introduced them cheerfully enough.

"That sounds lovely. This is my sister-in-law, Mrs Dolores Hale. We are in town for the day to… choose my wedding gown" Margaret tailed off, not sure where she stood with Anne Latimer on the matter of John Thornton's Affections. Anne had not spoken to her that night at Watson's dinner when their engagement had been announced. To her surprise, Anne offered her a small smile.

"I am sure it will be a most beautiful gown. I do offer my congratulations to you and Mr. Thornton".

"Thank you, you are most kind"
A strange look then flitted over Anne's face and she turned to face her aunt.

"Aunt, would you be very cross if Miss Hale and I were to take a short walk along the seafront? We shall return soon. I only want to catch up on news from Milton".

Margaret and Dolores exchanged bewildered looks at this development, but Margaret knew it would be impolite to decline the request.

"I will be quite alright Dolores, please stay here and rest. You can order for me; I shall eat whatever you decide to have".

Dolores frowned but nodded, allowing a waiter to guide her to a table. Margaret dutifully waited while Anne collected her bonnet and a light shawl, and they departed the restaurant. There was a pretty promenade walk along the seafront, and they walked along it in almost complete silence for a good few minutes. Anne seemed to be deep in thought and Margaret was wondering what on earth Anne could want of her. They exchanged a few limited pleasantries, such as the latest gushing reports on the boys from Fanny, and some of Margaret's occupations in Helstone. Finally, Anne stopped chewing her lip and seemed to come to the heart of the matter. She checked over her shoulder for many eavesdroppers and spoke in low tones.

"Miss Hale, I do apologise for the impertinence of pulling you away from your companion, but I desired to speak to you quite alone".

"Whatever about Miss Latimer, is everything quite alright?"

"Oh yes, there is nothing wrong. I wanted to speak to you about any rumours you may have heard".

"What rumours?"

"That I desired to be engaged to Mr. Thornton. That I am angry and jealous of you for taking him," she said the last part in a mocking sort of sneer. Margaret instantly opened her mouth to rebuff the statement but hesitated. There had some whisperings from the women who came to take tea with Mrs Thornton the afternoon she had been a guest there. Other mutterings from the young women at Fanny's party. Anne smiled knowingly at the nervousness in Margaret's face.

"The Milton gossip vine is a vicious thing; I know it well enough by now Miss Hale".

"You… did not wish a match with Mr. Thornton then?" Margaret asked hesitantly. Anne looked up, seeming to think her answer over.

"I did… and I did not. Do not mistake me, Mr. Thornton is a good man and will make you a fine husband. But he and I seemed to have little in common beyond being a similar age, both unattached and of a similar social station. My father is his banker, so opportunities to meet were of course plentiful. I know at some point that my parents were very eager for the match. I know Mrs Thornton shared my mother's ambitions to a degree; I hope she has not been too hard on you?" Anne asked nervously. Margaret offered a small smile.

"She is coming around, I think," she joked, rubbing her hand where Hannah's ring sat on her finger. Anne chuckled and carried on.

"But for all the times we met, our conversations were so limited. Our ambitions in life are so different. I wish to travel and see more of this world. But I think Mr Thornton wants to stay in that mill churning out cotton until the end of time. Our conversations about novels and plays were always short as he was so engrossed in his work and did not take the time for such frivolities. By the time he started taking an education from the late Mr Hale, the two of you had already been introduced. After that, I do believe that all other women did not even register in his attentions. If there was a time where I was genuinely desirous of a proposal from Mr Thornton, it was to please the ambitions of our mothers. But seeing how he was after you left Milton, I knew that a life with him would not be tolerable. I would always be desperate for a life beyond Milton and he would be desperate for a life with a woman that was not me. So Miss Hale, please do not trouble yourself with any rumours that you hear when you go back to Milton. I am pleased with how things have turned out, and I think you will do him, and the city of Milton, a lot of good," Anne told her, giving her a small smile.

Margaret glowed at the small praise and thought she may have made a new friend and ally in Anne, even if they may never meet again. They linked arms and walked back to the hotel, now discussing Margaret's wedding plans. They farewelled each other at the restaurant door, Anne leaving with an invitation to the wedding. Margaret went to sit with Dolores and found a simple afternoon tea laid out for them and a cup of hot, sweet tea poured out for her, with Dolores looking agitated.

"You are alright, sister? She was not unkind to you?"

"I am perfectly well Dolores. Anne just wanted to… settle a misunderstanding".

A.N: I can only apologise for another delay in updating. Work became a bit overwhelming with the run up to Christmas, then there was Christmas itself (hope everyone had a good one!). Then my 2021 did not get off to the best start, as I had a bad accident and have completely shattered my ankle. I've had to have surgery and all sorts of appointments, so any spare time has been spent resting and trying to keep my mental health from falling apart – I don't cope well with confinement and this injury has really restricted my usual capabilities. I hope everyone has had a better New Year than mine and that I get to a better place and can get back to finishing this story soon. Hope you like this little filler in the meantime – do you agree with Anne's thinking?