A/N: This chapter contains non explicit sexual discussion
How had nineteen years gone past in the blink of an eye?
It seemed like only yesterday that Penny was born. Margaret could remember the moment that tiny baby, pink and screaming, had been placed in her arms as clearly as though it was yesterday. But no, nineteen years had indeed passed since her birth and here she was, a young woman in her own right - and soon to be married.
The engagement had come as no surprise, for the young man who had caught her eye had been entirely unsubtle in his affection for her. Newly arrived in Milton, Mr Evans had turned as red as a strawberry every time Penelope Thornton had even looked in his direction. The attraction seemed to be entirely mutual, for Penny blushed just as fiercely, forgetting her manners and becoming uncharacteristically clumsy whenever the man's name came up in conversation.
It was a fine match, one Margaret approved of greatly. There had been other attempted suitors; those who valued the Thornton name and connections above the young lady herself. Those men had been easy enough to spot, and swiftly dealt with by her father and very protective elder brother. Then, there were the London men who admired her for her handsome looks but would have her as little more than a decoration- an ornament on their arms to be seen with.
Margaret had been most relieved when Mr Evans had approached her husband to ask for Penny's hand. A quiet, level headed young man of twenty six with good prospects but no delusions of grandeur. He was not afraid of hard work; he was a young vicar, come to Milton from Wales. He spoke very softly, save for when he spoke in front of the congregation, when he seemed to become quite a different man all together with a commanding presence and loud, booming voice.
The offer of marriage had come as no surprise; for months, Penny had sat beside her mother in the church pew, staring at the man as though she were under a spell, forgetting to pick up her hymn book and tripping over her feet on the way out. And he was little better; the young vicar found all manner of excuses to call on the schoolhouse, face flushed red the entire time.
The wedding date was set for June, and Penny had taken the same meticulous care in planning the day that she did in every task she undertook. Margaret was sure Nelson himself could not have planned an event in such detail. The flowers had been selected, the cake sketched by Penny's own hand and handed to their cook under strict instructions to match the design perfectly, the dress designed in much the same way.
There was just one thing left to discuss - the matter of her wedding night.
Margaret knew it was a mother's duty to provide her daughter with at least some education on the marriage bed before her wedding day. Not too much as to be indecent, but at least enough to leave her with some idea of what would be required of her. Margaret herself had received the talk from her cousin, and was, as such, unsure what her beloved mama would have told her. Motherly advice was a world away from the crimson blushed and stifled giggles of a woman of one's own age.
As practical as the discussion would be, Margaret could not quite bring herself to raise the topic. She knew her daughter well; she would want time to think on it, to understand her husband's expectations - and so, she would need to have the conversation some time before the wedding. And yet, every time Margaret meant to sit down with her to discuss it, the words would not come out.
"Are you quite well, Mama?" Penny had asked the previous day as they sat in the parlour, peering at her most curiously. "You're bright red."
"Fine, dear. Run along and see if there's anything your sister needs." Margaret, the sudden coward, had replied.
And now, five days before the wedding, time was running out. The forthcoming week would be a whirlwind of guests' arrivals, entertaining, and things to be done. If the conversation were to be had, it had to be had today.
When the house was quiet after dinner, Margaret steeled herself for what would no doubt be the most awkward conversation of her entire life. She knocked on her study door, not waiting for an answer before she pushed the door open. John was sitting at his desk, scribbling furiously as he scrubbed at his face. Things had been busy lately, and with a wedding to pay for he had been even more consumed in his work than usual.
Margaret cleared her throat, and he looked up briefly before continuing his writing.
"Have you seen Penelope?"
"What's she done?" John asked, finishing the sentence he was currently scrawling and setting his pen down.
He looked up, taking off the glasses he wore for close work. That was another reminder that time had passed; though he was as handsome as ever, the years kind to him, John's thick dark hair had been increasingly peppered with grey, his eyes weakened from years of working in poor light.
"You only call her Penelope when she's in trouble."
"Oh. No, she's not in trouble. I just need to speak with her."
Perhaps she should invent some dull story about flowers or cake, saving her husband the truth of what she needed to tell their precious elder daughter. Margaret, however, never lied to her husband.
"Her wedding night."
John made a funny little choking sound.
"Sorry, dear. You did ask."
"I wish I hadn't." He muttered under his breath. "She's in her study."
As a gift to her on her fifteenth birthday, they had given Penelope her very own study, a seldom used guest room converted for her use. She loved to read and to write, and Margaret had grown quite fed up of never being able to sit at her own desk. Margaret shook her head; she should have known her daughter would be in there. It was where she always hid herself away in the evening.
"Of course. I should have looked there first." She paused, hovering by the door. "John, I don't suppose you'd talk to-"
"Absolutely bloody not." He muttered, raising his eyes from the paperwork he was currently studying. "Don't you palm this off on me, Mrs Thornton. I had to have the conversation with Arthur and that was bad enough. You do the girls, I do the boys."
"No girl wants the wedding night talk from her father, Margaret. I'd not put either of us through the embarrassment. It may well finish me off. You'll have to talk to her. Stop wasting time pretending you don't know precisely where she is."
Margaret felt a blush come to her cheeks - blushing, at her age! - caught out in her avoidance of the situation. She sighed, sitting down squarely in John's lap. He circled his arms around her waist, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
"You're right. Of course you are right, but I cannot think of what I shall say! A week until the wedding, but I cannot let her go unprepared - I don't want to scare her!"
"Is it so scary? You seem to like it well enough."
"Oh stop it!" Margaret batted at him, his lewd joke not at all helpful. "This is no laughing matter! I must present her with the facts, I certainly do not want her to be as naive as I was, nor do I wish to scandalise her. She's a delicate thing, our girl."
"Practice on me."
"I mean it. Tell me what you'll say."
He shook his head, chuckling at his wife's mortification.
"Then you've not a hope of telling her. I already know how it all works, and we've had five children to prove it, and you cannot even tell me."
"You are terrible, and not at all helpful."
"What were you told to prepare for ours?" John asked. "Just tell her the same."
"Oh, it was so long ago! I cannot possibly be expected to remember the speech word for word." Margaret protested. "I believe Edith took me to one side and asked me what I knew of the marriage bed. If I recall, I compared it to beasts in a farmyard."
Margaret laughed, shaking her head. It felt a lifetime ago; she felt far removed from the young woman she was then, headstrong to a fault and yet somehow so uncertain in so many ways.
"I knew so little! I suppose I was a little nervous. But I knew - I knew you would take care of me. That whatever happened, you would never hurt me. I was right."
The smile that crossed his face made her heart soar. His smiles were far more easily given these days, though this softer side of him was solely reserved for his family. In matters of business, he was as fierce and uncompromising as ever.
"Edith warned me that - that I should keep you happy, or I would find you strayed."
The smile vanished, replaced by a fierce scowl. Though his face had changed through the years, softening with age, he had certainly not lost his ability to look fearsome when needed
"Darling, it was twenty five years ago. You needn't look so affronted. It isn't so uncommon for a man to occupy himself elsewhere." Margaret said.
Her explanation did nothing to calm him. The line between his eyebrows was so deep that one could place a coin there and it would stay precisely where she had set it.
"It doesn't make it right. I'd never-"
"I know." Margaret patted his hand. "I know."
"And our daughter's future husband best be the same or he'll have me and her brothers to contend with."
"John. She isn't even married yet, perhaps you could refrain from threatening her fiancé until after the wedding?" She teased, threading her hands through his hair "Besides, Mr Evans is a vicar. He goes bright red when she so much as smiles at him, I do believe she will be quite safe with him."
"When did we get so old, Maggie? Two children married, the twins won't be far off. A grandchild on the way."
Before their eldest son's departure for the London season three months previously, Arthur had confided in his parents that his wife Elizabeth was expecting a baby. Margaret was quite sure she was not old enough to be a grandmother, but there it was.
"I know." Margaret sighed. "How quickly the years have passed without us even noticing. Though I do wonder who the old woman in the mirror is each morning."
"You look lovelier than ever."
"You would say that."
"Aye, and I'll say it every day."
"Thank you. Well, I suppose I'd better find her. Things will only get busy as the guests begin to arrive."
"Any advice? What did you tell Arthur?"
"Never you mind what I told Arthur." He muttered as she climbed down from his lap. "Keep it simple. Vague."
"Vague? But I want her to know the truth!"
"Then keep it strictly scientific. I've got to get on, Maggie. Stop wasting time. Go."
With a kiss to his forehead, she left the room.
Penelope's study was not far away, yet Margaret managed to make the journey last for five minutes. She stood outside the door, breathing deeply and trying to gather her own thoughts. She felt embarrassment heavy in her chest before she had even spoken a word. No, that would not do at all. Shaking her head, willing all the courage she would need for this conversation, she knocked on the door.
"Yes?" Penny's voice, so like her own, came through the wood.
Her daughter was rather a novelty; ever since she had uttered her first word (which had been "Papa", to Margaret's chagrin) she had never had the same accent as her father or other siblings, instead sounding like Margaret's double. Occasionally, when she was very cross or tired, a Northern lilt would slip in, but Hannah always used to say it was as though Penelope was a changeling brought from the South to tease them.
What would Hannah say to her granddaughter, if she were here now? Margaret knew she would be ever more practical about this. She would certainly not be dithering in the corridor..
Thoughts of her late mother-in-law aside, Margaret opened the door.
Penny sat curled in an armchair, her long hair down as she read by the fire. For one so proper in her manners and all that she did, she had always hated having her hair fussed with. Whenever she was alone, her hair was down. She looked serene as she read, her brow furrowed as she concentrated. She didn't look up, one eyebrow raising expectantly as she silently invited her mother to speak.
Though she was Margaret's near double, she certainly had traits of her father too.
"Penelope, would you mind if I sat down for a moment? I need to speak with you."
"What have I done?" Penny asked, eyes widening in alarm as she closed the book and sat up straight. "What's wrong?"
"Hmm? Nothing, why?"
"You only call me Penelope when I am in trouble."
"Oh. No, darling, you're not in trouble. I just need to discuss something you. It is a serious matter."
"Is everything alright?" Penny asked, her forehead creasing with worry. "You are well? Father is not ill? His cough has been getting worse again, hasn't it?"
Margaret held up a hand, halting her daughter's panicked outburst.
"Everything is fine. Your father is quite well, as am I. I wish to talk to you about - about your wedding night."
Her daughter immediately turned a rather vibrant shade of crimson. It took everything Margaret had not to laugh; it was not funny, of course it wasn't, but she had never before seen such an instant display of embarrassment from her daughter. Perhaps her ever-blushing fiancé had had that influence on her.
"Really, Mama, I don't think we need to."
"Oh?" Margaret's amusement rapidly vanished. She swallowed thickly, trying to keep her voice level. Her voice dropped to a whisper as she sat in the chair beside her daughter, reaching out to stroke a strand of hair from her face. "Penelope, is there a reason you wished to marry so quickly? If you are with child, you can tell me."
Penelope shook her head feverently, holding a hand up to stop her mother saying anything further.
"No! No, of course I am not! It is just Louise has already given me this speech."
Fanny's daughter Louise had married the previous year, to a rather pompous young man from London. Margaret was sure the girl had been charmed by his accent and fine manners, for she could certainly not see any other appeal the man might possibly have held. Louise seemed miserable in her marriage, spending as much time in Milton as she could, away from her husband.
"What did she say?"
"That it is horrible." Penny's voice dropped. "The most awful ordeal. She says it is so bad that she feigns a headache so that he will leave her be."
"Oh my darling girl. I am sorry if Louise is not content in her marriage bed, truly I am. But her instruction to you is wrong. It is not something to be suffered or endured. I wish for you to be content in your marriage, darling, to know how special it can be to be loved by your husband."
"Mama, I am frightened. Louise says it hurts horribly the first time. I do not understand - the men have a part that must go - inside?!"
Margaret wanted to run away. This conversation was every bit as excruciating as she had predicted.
"Yes. It is what is required to make a child."
"And what must I do?" Penny asked, leaning forward. "I know it is not polite to discuss these things, but you have always been honest with me, Mama. I know you shall always tell me the truth. If Louise is wrong, as you say she is, I must ask that you tell me everything."
"Please, Mother. I have no other married friends that I might ask. I could ask Elizabeth. She seems happy enough, I suppose, but she and Arthur do not arrive from London until the very day before the wedding! Please, Mama. I need time to understand. I have tried to find books on the matter, but I did not know what to ask for."
The image of her daughter asking a bookseller for a book on such things was quite ludicrous in its hilarity. Oh, the poor girl must be out of her wits with worry.
"Very well. What did Louise tell you? There is no need to be embarrassed, or ashamed. It is perfectly natural to have questions, and I shall do my best to answer them as fully as I can."
"She said that..on our wedding night, I will lie on the bed. I must raise my nightgown to my hips and my husband will come to me." Penny paused, seemingly trying to remember the words her cousin had told her. "He will climb atop me and put - himself inside me. There will be blood, but if I am quiet and still it will be over quite quickly."
Margaret blinked at the unexpectedly accurate - though entirely unromantic and indeed quite frightening - assessment her daughter had been provided with.
"Is that not correct?" Penny asked, panic crossing her features. "How could it not be?! Louise has been married for nearly two years, she must know what she is talking about by now!"
"I know. I know that she has, and I am sorry she has not found happiness with her husband."
"How do I find happiness with Peter, Mama? It is all I wish for."
Margaret paused for a moment, trying to recall her own wedding night with some clarity. Time had rather muddled the memory. She knew that, for her, it had been wonderful. Clumsy, hesitant, but ultimately a coming together of two people who belonged together.
"Honesty." Margaret said after a while. "If you are afraid, tell him. Do not hide from him, or endure what you think you must. He is a good man, and it is quite clear to anyone who casts the slightest glance upon you both that he adores you."
"I love him so much Mama. I am quite sure I will burst with it."
"I know, sweet girl. I do not know if Peter has - that is to say, the rules for men are different. It might be he has a little more experience in these matters than you do."
It seemed entirely ludicrous that the young vicar would have such worldly experience, but it was not beyond of the realms of possibility and needed to be mentioned.
"He does not." Penny confessed, cheeks scarlet once more. "I am the first girl he has ever kissed, he told me himself."
"Oh. Then you shall learn together." Margaret reached across, placing her palm on her daughter's flaming cheek. "It will be quite alright, I swear it."
"Louise said.." Penny's voice faltered "she said that if I do not satisfy him, if he does not find the..enjoyment he requires, he will seek it elsewhere. It is not a bad thing, she says. But Mama, the thought of Peter with another woman - it tears at me. I lie awake at night thinking about it, though I do not even truly know what I am thinking of!"
"I was told the same." Margaret said soothingly. "I was equally horrified. But you must understand that not all marriages are the same. Some marry for reasons other than love, for money or power and influence. It is not unheard of for men to chase their..physical needs elsewhere. You have found a love match, with a man of good moral standing who seems quite utterly devoted to you. I know that you will be happy, darling. He is a good man, a kind one. You may come to me for any advice you might need. Please, all I ask is that you do not let your cousin's own unhappy marriage colour yours."
"It is sad, isn't it?" Penny shook her head. "I wish things could be different."
"I do too. Have you any more questions?"
"Yes. I still do not know what it is we are actually discussing. Mama, you have never kept secrets from me. I ask that you tell me precisely what happens. Spare nothing."
"You said you would help me! Yet I know nothing, Mama. I know it is wrong to speak of such private things but if I do not ask you, who else will tell me?"
Margaret met the eyes of her daughter, who was like her in so many ways. Her blue eyes blazed indignantly as she stared furiously at her mother. What was stopping her from telling her daughter the truth? Shame? Embarrassment? Was it not a disservice to her daughter to dance around the truth, to allow her to believe that some terrible fate awaited her on her honeymoon?
"Very well. You are right. Louise is correct in the basic.. mechanics of it. He will come to you, but you need not simply raise your nightgown. Perhaps you will speak to one another first, or kiss." Margaret cleared her throat, wishing the floor would open and swallow her. "When he - puts himself inside you, it may hurt. That first time, at least."
"I see." Penny said, taking a moment to understand what her mother had said.
Margaret rubbed at her temples, quite exhausted by the conversation already. Penny looked at her expectantly, folding her arms as she waited for more.
"I am sorry, dear. But all that you need to know is that it can be truly wonderful, to love your husband in such a manner."
"What creates the child? Louise was quite coy in that matter."
"A substance, from the man. When he - after he has - enjoyed himself as you say, he will, ah, spill inside you. That is what creates the baby."
She had stuttered quite helplessly, seemingly unable to vocalise precisely what she meant. She cursed herself; she was a mother, a woman in her forties who knew her way in the world. She was not some blushing Society Mama. Her daughter deserved to know the truth and to be armed with the information she needed.
"I do not need to do anything?" Penny enquired. "It will happen without my help? I must simply lie there?"
"You could move your hips." Margaret replied without a thought for what she was saying, feeling embarrassment curl in her at the very words. Penny raised an eyebrow. "I just mean..it does not have to be suffered through. You can take your own pleasure from your marriage bed."
"Louise never mentioned any of that."
"It is not often spoken about. But it is possible." Margaret felt her own cheeks heat. "Do you have any other questions?"
"The substance you speak of." Penny said. "How will I know when it has been..spilled?"
"It will be quite clear from your husband's, ah, behaviour." Margaret said. "That is when the act is over."
"I see." The confusion on Penny's face rather suggested she didn't see at all. "So, it is not something to be feared?"
"I don't believe so, no. My greatest advice to you, dear, would be to treat your husband not as a stranger or an enemy as some do - but as your dearest friend. A man who will be by your side through good and bad. I truly believe you have found such a man."
"Thank you, Mama. He is a good man, I am so certain of it. He has the kindest heart, and the gentlest manner."
"I want you to be happy, dear. To know contentment in marriage as I have, your grandparents before me. Love is a valuable thing indeed."
"You truly love Papa, don't you?" Penny asked.
Margaret smiled; what a question! When she was Penny's age, had someone told her the path her life would take she would have laughed in their face. Yet here she was, two decades of marriage behind them, seeing their children off into the world.
"Of course. I will not pretend things have been easy. We have quarrels and disagreements. But I know, above all things, that he loves me just as fiercely as I do him. We have built the most wonderful life, the most precious family, and we are blessed to be well and here together. Somehow, any disagreement quickly becomes insignificant compared to that."
"Goodness." Penny blinked. "I am not sure I have ever heard you be so..romantic, Mama."
"Don't tell your father." Margaret teased. "He will think me entirely soft, I am sure. Now, is that everything?"
"I believe I have a great deal to think about." Penny stood, smoothing her skirts. "Thank you, Mama. I think I feel a little less afraid now."
"I am glad, dear." Margaret smiled. "Really, there is nothing to fear. It will be quite wonderful, I swear it."
"And if it isn't?" Penny asked, the slightest wobble of her lip surely only visible to a mother's eye.
"It may take time, but I truly think you have found a man who loves you, who respects you and values your opinion. That is a fine starting point for any marriage. Go, think on what I have said. Do not worry, darling."
"I shall try."
And with that, Margaret left the study.
Some hours later, when Margaret had retired for the night, John finally came to bed. It was past midnight, but she could not sleep without him.
"Well? Did you speak to her?" John asked as he closed the door behind him.
"Yes. And just in time too, for our niece has been filling her head with all sorts of horror stories."
"I don't want to know." John grimaced as he began unbuttoning his shirt. "Do not tell me anything."
"I will not. But I hope I have done enough to calm her nerves."
"It was terrible though, John. I tripped over my own tongue and spoke without thinking more than once. I think I shall ask Penny to talk to her sister when the time comes, I'm not sure I'm up to repeating the conversation."
"She's a grown woman now, Maggie. She'll be fine."
"I know. I know she will."
The days passed in a whirl of activity. Margaret kept a careful eye on her daughter, watching for any sign of nerves or uncertainty. There were none; Penny seemed blissfully happy. Any hesitation she may have felt was well hidden, and Margaret could only hope their conversation had soothed any doubt in her mind.