CHAPTER 35:

THE PRODIGAL SON, THE PARSON, AND THE PAIR OF LOVERS

Neither John nor Margaret had been paying much attention to the world around them, but then again, why would they, when their whole world was already standing right before them?

With their hungry mouths fused in a delirious kiss, their eager arms snaked around each other in an impatient longing to be as close as humanly possible, and with their minds both spinning and swimming with the giddy thrill of their delectable proximity, they were utterly lost to each other. Locked in a trance of tenderness which they could never have dreamt of in their dizziest daydreams, they surrendered themselves to the spell of ardour which love had cast about them like an enchantment, and in doing so, they did not even notice that everything around them had begun to fade away into an insignificant haze, a daze to which the pair of lovers were entirely indifferent.

As the embers of the fire dwindled into oblivion and spat out a perishing hiss, so too did the candles burn down to their stubs and splutter in their demise, each waning glow reluctant to depart and neglect its role as chaperone, but alas, they had stayed awake for as long as they could. After a while, only a dull spattering of oil lamps were left standing guard, the glass shells of light stubbornly keeping their flickering eyes open so that they might spectate the couple's illicit intimacy as they stood shrouded by the concealing cloak of nightfall.

But as fate would have it, someone was a witness to this sweet yet most scandalous scene. It was a person, a real person, one with two arms, two legs, and two eyes, which were now agog with incredulity. As they hung back in staggered and slightly outraged silence for several drawn-out heartbeats, this well-proportioned person took in the astonishing sight before them. After a deferred interval of uncertainty, in which the bystander's canny mind weighed up their options, the onlooker at last decided to make their awkward presence known. You see, they had come so very far to get here, and after all they had been through to arrive at this moment, it would not do to skulk in the shadows, not here, not now, no chance.

As John and Margaret were engrossed in a particularly passionate kiss, they suddenly heard a brash and boisterous cough, and on turning their heads sharply in the direction of the indiscreet bluster, their open mouths dragging across each other's faces most unflatteringly, they each jumped in fright, for in the corner, by the door, they spied a lone figure loitering in the dim and dusky hallway. They could not make out much, what with the darkness and the disorientating muddling of their wits, but even at a first and fleeting glance, one could tell that it was a man, and what was more, the man was far too young of skin and far too sturdy in build to be Mr Hale.

With lips which twisted into a mischievous grin, his white teeth flashing in a baleful sneer against the black backdrop which swathed him menacingly, the fellow laughed dryly, the vibration of his taunt sending shockwaves rippling throughout the room. 'Well, well, well, what do we have here, then?' he asked with a frisky chuckle.

In an instant, it was as if his words had broken a stupefied spell which had previously held the Hale house and all that dwelt within in a hex of static shock, the breach of the incantation throwing all the players of this drama into a state of agitated action. All at once, Margaret screamed and a hand flew to her mouth, and in turn, John growled like the bulldog he was, and with swift and gallant movement, the master instinctively drew his fiancée behind him so that he might shield her and deal with this fiendish intruder, giving his gut and groin a proper northern greeting with his fist, all very mano a mano.

The next few moments may have been brief, but brains are clever creatures, and despite their lack of knowledge about what was happening and what to do in response to this most chaotic commotion which posed many an unknown threat, the three people present managed to learn a great deal of information about their fellow companions in that transitory passage of time, a duration which surely must not have consisted of any more than a few short-lived seconds.

As Margaret's broad eyes and John's narrowed gaze tore up and down their powerful looking prowler, they discerned that standing before them was a shifty and shady looking character, a presence of the most suspicious mien, one which they each privately thought Dickens could make good use of as one of his puckish rogues. However, unfortunately, this ne'er-do-well was not a being born of mere harmless fiction, his transgressions solely intended to remain safely sealed upon the pages of fiction within the confines of blotted ink, but rather, this phantom before them belonged most decidedly to the much more perilous realm of fact, a precarious reality which all three of them could not hope to now escape.

He was standing with a lopsided slant against the doorpost, the frame propping him up and holding him in place, his diagonal stance languid and at ease, almost as if he were not the least bit concerned that he had been caught out in his criminal act of trespassing, perhaps even robbery, perhaps even…oh God, John could hardly suffer to contemplate such a hideous thought. Swallowing a suffocating ball of sick which had become lodged in his throat, John felt his fists clench violently at the thought that Whitehall may have sent one of his cronies to pay Margaret a visit in the dead of night, the crooks probably aware that the master of the house was not yet home and the mistress lay indisposed and out of the way in her sickbed.

But John's harried mind was too blurred to dwell too heavily on such a beastly conspiracy, as while he realised that he perhaps should have taken some decisive course of action, he found himself thrown by the skew of the rascal's smile, something about it reminding him of someone else he knew, but from where and when, he could not lay his finger. The man was neither particularly short nor tall, but inclined towards the latter, his lean frame as strong as an ox, a set of impressive muscles visible beneath the cover of his clothes. He wore a thick, black cloak which draped over him like the wings of a bat, the garment giving him a most stealthy quality indeed. With a flat cap yanked down over his face, one could only make out a few stray strands of blonde hair, the shade as sandy as the shores from whence he came. With his head hung low, a pair of bluey-green eyes as sharp as flints regarded the pair standing before him in stunned silence, a slight glint of impishness entertaining those cloudy orbs.

At any rate, the unsettling aura of familiarity which underscored the interloper made John hold back and examine him further before rushing forth and thrashing him without established and validated cause. It turned out that such restraint was bleedin' difficult, given that every inch of his quaking body shouted out to John to punch and punish this man for not only breaking into the Hale's house, but also for interrupting his precious and private moment with the woman he loved, especially after he had hungered for so long to know her in such an intimate way. With his body broadening to armour her, John's one and only care was now devoted to thinking of how to best protect Margaret from any variation of harm which might befall her at the hands of this smug looking thug.

But then all of a sudden, John's restraint snapped in two like a brittle twig trampled underfoot, his self-control shattering when he saw the way the man shifted his guarded attention away from him, almost as if he no longer considered John a threat, and instead locked his eyes on Margaret, the good-for-nothing blatantly looking upon her with brazen interest. To be fair, his gaze was neither lustful nor lewd, but as far as an incensed John was concerned, it was still far too intimate for his liking, and all at once, the master lost his rag. As the mist of fury descended, the bull saw red, and an explosion of rage erupted inside him, the hot lava of his fevered ferocity surging throughout him from tip to toe, leaving John with an overwhelming urge to throw this villain out of the Hale's home and kick him down the street, all the way into a prison cell, the key to which accidentally getting tossed in the river. As a result, without giving it a second thought, a furious John ensured that Margaret was well behind him out of harm's way, then with his fists balling, he began to stride across the room to challenge this devilish deviant.

However, he had not taken two steps before John was unexpectedly arrested by the sensation of something squeezing his arm, and halting in his hostile tracks, his eyes swooped down, and there he saw Margaret's hand, her small fingers wound round him in a viper-like grip, her knuckles turning white as she clutched onto her fiancé for dear life.

With her eyes wide and wild, Margaret gawked at the man standing across the room from her, an expanse which seemed paradoxically both far and near, and if John looked carefully, he could swear that it was not anxiety he saw there, nor anger, but awe. John was about to ask Margaret what the hell she thought she was doing, his mouth screwing into that snarl of irritable impatience which came all too readily to him, but his heart almost stopped dead in his heaving chest as he heard her gasp and exhale a solitary word.

'Fred?!' she breathed, the soft sound of her disbelieving speech drifting into the chasm of the agitated atmosphere which encircled them, the single syllable floating in the air like a ghost.

All at once, John stilled, the only thing about him that moved were his eyes, the dubious set darting sceptically between the man and woman who now stood staring at each other in a way which left John with the horrible feeling of being an unwelcome outsider, an unwanted bystander who found himself on the outskirts of a confidential circle looking in. With a pang of panic twisting away in his stomach, he tried and failed to comprehend the confidences which he saw unfolding before him, clandestine understandings that were being communicated between his companions in a language which an illiterate John could not hope to translate.

Nevertheless, John did not have the luxury of time to brood on these perturbed feelings which coiled themselves into knots of worry in his core, since a moment later, Margaret seemed to jerk into life, almost as if she had just woken up, her lively judder causing everyone in the room to take a step backwards as they jolted like a bunch of jumping-jacks simultaneously springing in their boxes. As she twirled restlessly on the spot, her blue skirts swishing around her, Margaret recklessly turned her back on the delinquent who was still staring at her, a most foolish move indeed to John's mind. After fumbling about with matches and fussing under her breath, she lit a few more lamps so that the room was hastily bathed in a rich golden light. Then, as she reeled back round, Margaret stood tall and straight so that she might face her visitor with unflinching courage, and in response, John could not help but feel an abundance of pride swell in his heart as he saw the defiant valour which burnt brightly in her beautiful eyes, his darling girl no damsel in distress, but a daring warrior of a woman.

Nonetheless, John's countenance quickly drooped into a jealous glower and his body tensed as he spied the way Margaret peered at the man with a look of undisguised beguilement, almost as if he were the most fascinating specimen she had ever seen. John huffed. It was all very well Margaret lighting lamps to illuminate the scene, but it was his understanding of the situation that required clarity, not the miscreant's annoyingly handsome features. With his fists still scrunched and his knuckles groaning impatiently with a desire to smack the sod squarely on his chiselled jaw, John was about to bawl at the rake, seize him by the scruff of his neck, and march him down to the gaol for questioning. But just as he was about to do this, he was yet again interrupted by the sweet southern lilt of his fiancée's voice.

Shuffling forwards, Margaret stepped towards the trespasser with uninhibited curiosity. 'Frederick?' she rasped, hardly able to form the words. 'Is it really you? Are you really here?' she asked, a tentative hand reaching out to touch him like he were some sort of figment of her imagination, an apparition who might vanish into thin air if her fingers so much as brushed its ethereal veneer. However, Margaret speedily withdrew her hand like a child who had been bitten by a fearsome dog as the man pushed himself off the wall and stretched and soared to his full height, his chin raised as he gazed down at her from his towering vantage.

Nevertheless, far from sounding alarming, the voice that answered her was surprisingly soft and sympathetic. 'Yes, Miggsie, it is me. Do not be afraid, my pet, I did not mean to startle you,' he promised kindly, holding his hand out to her without moving another muscle, determined that he would not frighten her further. 'It is alright, Margaret, I have returned to see you, just as you asked…I have come home.'

There was a moment's pause while everyone in the room took this in and each person tried to process and assess what it meant. At first, Margaret did not react, instead she merely breathed heavily, her body trembling, her eyes bulging, her heart racing. Then, all of a sudden, with a force that quite astounded him, Margaret threw herself at the man and hurled her arms around his neck. 'Oh, Freddie!' she cried in glee.

As the two of them teetered backwards, the man let out a hearty laugh, the boom of which filled the room. 'Good grief, girl!' Fred scoffed, almost falling to the floor as she knocked him for six, his own arms winding around Margaret's willowy waist and coming to rest on her back. This was not only done as an act of genuine fondness, you must understand, but a necessary means by which to prevent himself from collapsing under the onslaught of Margaret's enthusiastic affection as she clung to him like a barnacle on a rock. Chuckling to himself, the brother wondered whether he would ever be able to prise his sister off of him, but for now, he was more than content to keep her close, since it had been far too long since they had shared such a tender embrace, let alone been able to hold each other at all.

'Lordie,' Fred sniggered, trying hard to quell the tears which welled in the corners of his eyes, the banished Hale overcome to finally find himself in the presence of his family, and what was more, he could now see them, talk with them, and touch them, something which he had dreamt of for four long years. 'With such a welcome in store for me, I should play the part of the prodigal son more often!' he jested, a slight Seville twang tickling his chords.

As she drew back to give him some air, an overcome Margaret was compelled to scour at her cheeks, for she found that a flood of tears now flowed forth like a river that had burst its banks. 'I do not understand, Fred! How? When? Oh!' she questioned in stuttering bursts of clumsy speech, all the while giggling hysterically and blubbing like a babe.

'The standard way, I suppose,' Fred replied matter-of-factly as he folded his arms and sat on the edge of a table, the newcomer blissfully unaware that it was the very same one which had two nights ago played host to a certain letter which had cast a curse of havoc and hurt, all in his name.

'I came first by boat, then by carriage, then by train, then by the means of my sea legs, and then to round off the jolly trudge, I trotted right through your kitchen door and along the hallway,' he joked, always the tricksy so-and-so. 'And if you are wondering how I broke in, I did not, I swear!' he vowed, crossing his heart theatrically. 'I knocked on the back door to keep my arrival all cloak and dagger like, what with me and the law being sworn enemies, but it was not old Dickery-Dix who opened it for me, no, since she was asleep at her post, no doubt exhausted from ordering the lot of you loafers about, God love her,' he laughed, since Fred had always been Dixon's favourite after all.

'Instead, some brazen vagabond with a face like the inside of a chimney flue let me in. I must say, Miggsie, I don't know who he is or what he is doing here, but I like that scamp immensely! He reminds me of myself, and you can't get much better than that!' he commended with a chortle, nicking an apple from the basket that John had brought the other evening and taking a generous bite. 'The lad guarded the door like a faithful pup and I had to near enough sell my soul to him to be let in. He'll go far, mark my words!' Fred joshed, although he was seriously serious about that last part, the man unaware that he was talking to the toerag's future in-laws.

'I would have been here sooner, honest to God, but I got lost hunting for the Hale residence in this Godforsaken town, and I did not like to stop a passer-by and enquire, lest I invited any undesirable interest, what with people wondering who this devilishly handsome foreigner might be,' he enlightened with a conspiratorial whisper that was really just a hammy hoot.

However, on discerning her startled expression, one which did not seem to wither in light of his droll explanation, his tanned face sagged into a frown, and after taking her by the shoulders, Fred stared down at Margaret with brotherly fondness. 'But are you really that surprised, little one? I did send word, but perhaps I have arrived before my letter – ha! − damned foreign post!' Fred ranted, always ready for a heated spat at the drop of a hat, the opinionated and obstinate blood of the Beresfords flowing hotly through his veins.

'I received the letter that you sent weeks ago asking me to come home. You talked of all sorts, about how you hate it here in Milton, about how your friend was ill, about how you had just attended a dinner party at some self-important tradesman's house, and how you had been forced to sup with a pack of savage wolves with not one scruple between them, and about how you thoroughly disliked one of father's boorish pupils,' Fred gabbled, not realising the damage his careless words were inflicting, Margaret grimacing in response. 'But most importantly of all, you told me about how you wanted me to come back because of mother,' Fred described, trailing off at the end, his good humour falling flat at the mention of the real reason why he was here at all. 'I did write, Margaret, truly I did,' he said quietly, his hands running up and down Margaret's arms in the hopes that warming her up might bring back the colour to her blanched cheeks, the elder brother sad that his baby sister really should be so very shocked to see him.

All the same, it was just then, as the brother and sister stood rooted to the spot, gazing into each other's eyes, that they were revived from their jubilant greeting. Startling, they were interrupted by a gruff and grumpy cough which thundered from behind them and disrupted their reverie, reminding them that they were not alone. Whirling around, the pair of Hales observed a most disgruntled and disorientated John eyeing them charily, his face contorted into a seething scowl.

Poor John.

While Fred and Margaret had been lost in the euphoria of their reunion, John had been standing in the wings like a pointless pillock, all the while watching this interaction with a sickly combination of bafflement and resentment. For one, he was still completely at a loss when it came to figuring out who the blazes this scoundrel was supposed to be. Secondly, and even more disconcertingly, John was displeased, (to put it both lightly and politely), by the way in which Margaret had welcomed this unannounced guest into her home with open arms. With the bile of bitterness churning inside of him, John's jealousy bubbled away like a pot about to boil over at the fact that she had greeted him with such immeasurable warmth and wholehearted affection, a prize which had taken him months to win, whereas this profligate had been unfairly granted it in mere minutes. Then again, the most serious slight of all was that it appeared that Margaret had forgotten all about John in the midst of this whirlwind of a welcome, her fiancé feeling left out in the cold, once again shivering in the icy barrenness of her indifference towards him.

However, John did not have much time to wallow in his grievances, for it was a second later that Margaret was by his side, her head shaking as she twittered away in discomfiture. 'Oh! Oh, my! I am so sorry, John, how thoughtless of me!' she apologised, her cheeks flushed in mortification as she took both of John's hands in her own and held them tight, the affectionate sensation affording her fiancé at least some small measure of reassurance to tide him over.

Then, much to his surprise, Margaret turned on her heels and near enough dragged John all the way across the room and deposited him right beside the reprobate. On being hunched together so close that the tips of their shoes grazed, the two men stood straight and rigid, their eyes tapering into thin lines as they studied each other warily and warned the other off with silent animosity and aggression, both of them privately thinking that they were protecting Margaret from the other, and each secretly relishing their manly role as defender.

Nevertheless, Margaret was quick to spy their bad blood and raised her eyebrows at them, much like an irked schoolteacher telling off her charges. 'Now, enough of your scowling, children, what silliness. There is no need to draw your swords and duel!' Margaret scolded fondly, slapping them both on the arm and ignoring the way they bristled at being berated by someone half their size.

Taking one of their large hands in her own small ones, Margaret swung them before her, all the while rolling up and down on the balls of her feet, the woman feeling as light as a cloud with nothing but the promise of blue skies to brighten her spirits.

'Fred,' she beamed, looking at her brother adoringly. 'John,' she grinned, looking at her fiancé with equal admiration. 'My two boys!' she squealed. But on discerning the way they both peered down at her from their great heights, their eyes smouldering with mystification as if she were some sort of madwoman, Margaret swiftly cleared her throat and resumed with a much more sedate and sane tone. 'I am sorry, I must compose myself, forgive me. Goodness! − what a night!' she wheezed, raising a hand to her head as if to steady herself.

'Margaret, as glad as I am to see your cheerful spirits returned, I sincerely hope you are planning to tell us what on earth is going on!' Fred nipped brusquely.

John let out a derisive snort. 'That's the most sensible thing you've said since you got here,' he retorted curtly, the master snarling like a wolf.

Fred glared at him. 'Oh yes? Well at least I've said something,' he countered. 'I see you didn't have a problem using your mouth earlier,' Fred goaded, glancing at his sister protectively. 'So, what happened? Cat got your tongue? And if you are going to smack me one, sir, which I can see you sorely want to, then I suggest you get on with it,' the brother provoked, lifting his fists into the air.

John laughed contemptuously and mirrored his opponent's antagonistic actions, the two of them squaring up to each other, two riled stags about to do battle and descend into a bloody brawl.

'NO!' a shrill demand rang out, and before the incensed and insulted enemies could get at each other, Margaret had leapt between them and formed a barricade, the petite woman sandwiched between two powerful frames made of solid muscle and bone, and with her palms stretched out, she shoved them away from each other with all the limited strength she possessed.

'Stop it!' she commanded. 'Enough! If the two of you cannot behave like civilised grownups and stop all this childish nonsense, then I won't tell you anything!' Margaret threatened. 'So, what is it to be then? Are you going to behave yourselves? Or will I have to send you both away at once, and I shan't talk to either of you for the rest of the night? It is entirely your choice, gentlemen,' she asserted, giving them an ultimatum.

Stalking about the place and standing opposite each other with their fists raised and ready, Fred and John tried to calm themselves.

'John, you promised! You said that you would never resort to using violence again,' Margaret reminded him, whirling around and giving him a petulant frown, one which left the master feeling duly penitent. 'And Fred,' she added, Margaret's chin elevating as her eyes shot him daggers. 'I am very disappointed in you, you should know better,' she berated, the brother then proceeding to bow his head and scuff his shoes on the floor in disgrace.

Both men sulked. She was right, of course she was right. Damn it! Females and their blasted womanly wisdom!

With their jaws taut, their jugular veins swelling, and the nerves on their foreheads twitching, they scowled at one another, so fiercely that if looks could kill, then theirs most assuredly would have. However, as they slowly lowered their weapons, both men hissed a begrudging, 'fine,' the two of them agreeing to Margaret's demands for an armistice and a hiatus to their hostilities….for now, at least.

Margaret gulped, the girl relieved that her appeal had worked, since even although she had tried to sound authoritative, she had in fact felt terribly helpless, hopelessly afraid that the two young men whom she loved so very much would end up killing each other if not stopped. No, no, she needed to tell them both the truth right away, although, to be honest, this frightened her just as much as their sparring, because Margaret did not have the foggiest idea what either of them would say in response to her most complicated and contentious revelations about whom the other was, and what they each meant to her.

'You are both right, I have been remiss, and I am sorry for that. It has been a very eventful night for me, and my mind is so full of thoughts that I hardly know what to do or say. But I promise that I will explain everything to the both of you, if you just stop your bickering,' she pledged. Then, ensuring that she remained standing between them like a barrier, just to be safe, Margaret recommenced her overtures. 'Fred, John, both of you…I have somebody very important to introduce you each to, and I sincerely hope for my sake, and for your own, that you will soon become the firmest of friends,' she said cryptically.

The two jarring men, both of whom had been staring down at their short mediator with curious gazes, creaked their necks as they unhurriedly returned their hostile scrutiny towards one another, their eyes scurrying across each other's face so that they might take in the magnitude and manner of their adversary.

In John's case, he could not deny that his interest was piqued, for there was something awfully familiar about the rascal. Had he seen him in court, perhaps? No, he thought not. But there was something about the colour of those eyes, the angle of that nose, and the mould of that chin, all features which John was sure he had seen before. Furthermore, John was frustrated by the impertinent way he conducted himself, strutting and swaggering about as if he owned the place, his infuriatingly good-looking face grinning like a Cheshire cat. He was not from hereabouts, that was obvious, given that his accent was not local and his comportment, albeit insolent, was too refined in its inflection. This was another thing which narked John about the fellow, since he always felt terribly coarse in front of Margaret as it was, this fine southern woman who was far too pretty and polished a companion for the likes of him, what with his rough and ready ways that must have seemed hideously crude to her, so it did not help matters that she now had a much more sophisticated suitor standing before her.

Then again, maybe John was barking up the wrong tree with all his fretting about a flirtatious rapport existing between them, since there was something peculiar about the way Margaret and this man spoke to each other, it was almost…almost…like family.

No, surely not.

But then again, had he not referred to himself as a prodigal son? Was that a literal or figurative reference, John wondered?

Hmm, perhaps he was some sort of long-lost nomad cousin who had recently strayed into town like a tomcat, a town which John had been enraged to hear the man refer to as Godforsaken – the cad!

Again, John tried to ignore the fact that the man had let slip that Margaret had been writing to him, and what was infinitely worse, she had apparently spoken of John most disparagingly. John grumbled at this, but then again, as much as it hurt to think that Margaret had said such unpleasant things about him to anyone, let alone this shirker, he could not be angry with her. No, sting and smart as it may, John could not hold Margaret's past remarks against her, no matter how insensitive they may have been, not after she had just this very night confessed to John that she regretted her harsh judgements of him and now knew them to be nothing more than a misdirected outlet for her disordered feelings of budding love for him. Yes, as Margaret had said, what was done was done and could not be undone, and they now had the choice to lay the past to rest and move forward into a bright and brave new future together. Still, John glowered, because all of that was very grand and gratifying to be sure, but none of it mattered a jot if this rogue was here to ruin everything for him by stealing Margaret away.

However, John was not the only one to be taking stock of his challenger, no sir.

In Fred's mind, he was not sure what to think of the man who had just minutes before had his lips smothered all over his little sister's face, this isolated fact alone being enough of a misdemeanour to make the elder brother instantly take a deep-seated disliking to this scoundrel with his wandering tentacles for limbs, hands which had been dangerously close to private parts of Margaret's person. But then again, if his sister approved enough of this man to let him kiss her, then well…maybe he was not so bad after all. It had occurred to Fred that the blackguard with his black hair, black eyes, and black clothes, (maybe even a black soul too), may have forced himself upon Margaret or had some sort of hold over her in his family's reduced situation, a revolting thought which caused him to vomit in his throat. But no, Margaret had not seemed the least bit afraid of her friend when she had been pressing herself up against him and inviting him to plunder her mouth without restriction, so that was clearly, and thankfully, not an issue, and Fred would not need to be adding murder to his record of crimes undertaken.

Leaning back so that he could let his eyes extend upwards, Fred gathered that the man was extremely tall, ridiculously so, since nobody needed to be that lofty. Then again, he thought that such a colossal build may come in handy, and the sea fairing man in him thought on how useful such a chap would be onboard, because if the mast failed, then they could just tie him up in the middle of the ship, and like a flagpole, he could keep the whole thing upright and sail them all superbly into the sunny horizon.

Looking the man up and down glumly, Fred thought how straight laced the chap seemed, something which made him suppose that he would be no barrel of laughs, his angular features affecting the fellow to appear excessively severe. At first, Fred was not at all impressed, because even although his opponent might have been inspiring in his stature, the frolicsome brother deemed that the stranger's sullen personality would be no picnic in the park, what with Fred preferring to spend time with those who could bring some humour to the conversation. All the same, despite his initial appraisal being a grim one, Fred could at least appreciate that not everyone was the same, and Margaret was a temperate sort of girl herself, never one to act like a silly schoolgirl, not like Edith, so maybe this sedate fellow was just the ticket for her. Yes, as he sniffed, Fred estimated that the man might be a smidgen sombre and serious for his personal liking, but then again, he really needed to learn to judge people more kindly on first acquaintances, and surely, if it mattered to Margaret, and if she approved of him, then he had better give the fellow a chance.

Nevertheless, both men's ruminations were once again interrupted by Margaret, who on seizing a hand from each of them, held the snatched limbs up to her heart. Taking a deep breath, Margaret began her most important introductions. 'Fred, this is John, Mr Th −'

'He's Mr Thornton,' Fred said, finishing Margaret's sentence for her, his eyes aglow with excited anticipation.

Both John and Margaret startled, their eyebrows so high that they were now stuck somewhere in the rafters. 'Yes, how did you know?' she asked in puzzlement.

Fred shook his head slowly. 'Never you mind that, you just keep talking there, Margaret, and I will listen good,' he replied surreptitiously.

John and Margaret shared a confused look, but she soon cleared her throat and continued. 'Yes, well, this is John, Mr Thornton. I believe both father and I have written about him to you,' she said sheepishly, aware that Fred had accidentally mentioned one of her more heated and misleading letters from days gone by when she and John had not always seen eye to eye. 'I am pleased to say that John has been our dear, dear friend here in Milton. He has offered such compassion and consideration to both father and mother in more ways than I could ever hope to make you understand or properly appreciate. I do not dare think what we would have done without John, and we are truly indebted to him for his unwavering kindness to us,' she praised, and John felt a momentary swell of self-satisfaction surge through him, adding at least one inch to his already imposing height and giving him a further advantage over his rival.

'And, Fred….we are…well, we are engaged,' Margaret announced shyly, her cheeks as red as rhubarb as she ducked her head down and instinctively nuzzled it against her fiancé's arm, a clear sign to both men present that she considered John her undisputed partner and protector.

Fred exhaled noisily through his nose. Ah, so this was Mr Thornton, was it? Well-well-well! This was a turn up for the books alright, the pupil turned lover. To be honest, Fred had been racking his brains trying to deduce who the fellow might be ever since he had clapped eyes on the giant of a brute who had been kissing Margaret with such barefaced audacity. All the same, never once in all of his farfetched speculations would Fred have predicted that the fellow would turn out to be none other than the one and only Mr John Thornton.

Ha! Margaret did not need to worry about them becoming firm friends, not when Fred already felt like he knew Mr Thornton better than he knew just about anyone.

Margaret had been correct in saying that their father had written to his son in Spain and told him all about his clever pupil on numerous occasions. Fred was abashed to admit that to begin with, he had experienced a twinge of arrogant offence to think that his family had been brought so low as to require them to mingle with trades folk, but after he had set his snobbish preconceptions to one side, he had finally accepted that it was no bad thing that his loved ones had found such a seemingly loyal friend after their ludicrous relocation to the north of England. Again, Margaret had mentioned the cotton manufacturer a few times in her early letters, the brother's heart breaking to read between the lines and learn that his sister was struggling with her changed circumstances.

Nevertheless, since Fred was no fool, it had not taken him long to notice that his sister's references to this man whom she apparently abhorred for being a tight-fisted employer who seemed to care more about money than morals, had steadily increased between one letter to the next, both the frequency and fervour of her citations intensifying over time.

In fact, it had got to the point where Margaret had talked about this Mr Thornton in every single one of her letters, regardless of whether his name naturally slipped into the narrative thread of her news or not. It had been so entertaining that the brother had begun to relish receiving her letters more and more, the sibling gaining great amusement in reading her infuriated lines of indignation and irritation in response to Mr Thornton's ways, and it occurred to him that the lady was protesting just a tad too much. Yes, after a while, it had become as clear as crystal to Fred that Margaret had feelings for this man, but bless her, in her naive inexperience, she probably did not even know it, and the brother had begun to wonder when, (not if), he would read a letter which heralded that the notorious Mr Thornton was now in fact her Mr Thornton.

Well, well, here they all were then. He had been right all along after all, something which made Fred feel terribly full of himself. Goodness, Fred wondered if his father knew, but then again, probably not, since dear old pa was rather oblivious to such things, God love him.

At any rate, Fred smirked when he heard Margaret's news. 'Ah,' he started, 'I have to admit that I gathered as much from…well, from all the kissing,' he said delicately, the salty-tongued sailor prudent enough to watch his vulgar language in front of his sheltered sister. 'I may not be a northern fellow and acquainted with their foreign ways, but I am guessing that manners here in Milton still do not allow for mere acquaintances to,' he was about to say have their tongues down each other's throats, but promptly settled upon, 'to stand so close.'

Fred then gave John a knowing wink, man-to-man, and John blinked, his sober ways not in tune with this scoundrel's mischievous behaviour, the master still none the wiser in discovering who the blazes he was dealing with.

However, a flummoxed John was soon distracted as Margaret turned fully towards him and gazed up at him with such endearing earnestness that he quite forgot that he was either confused or cross in the first place. 'And John,' Margaret began hesitantly, her fingers tightening around his arm so that she might offer support to the both of them in the tentative minutes ahead. 'John, darling, this is, my dearest one,' she whispered, quoting the letter, her eyes wide so that he might heed the relevance of her words, since it was so very important to her that he finally understood the truth about the missive which had led to such a dire misunderstanding between them not two nights before.

John's head, which had been bent down so that he might listen to Margaret's murmurs more attentively, suddenly bucked up, and his eyes set upon Fred with overt alarm.

'Him?!' he blurted out, his tone unforgivably high. Good grief! John was distressed to say the least, because that blasted Henry Lennox had been bad enough, but this was so much worse, because this man appeared to be handsome, cultured, and funny, all charismatic attributes which John could never hope to compete with in a hundred years. Dang it, at least the lousy Lennox had been dull!

'Yes,' Margaret confirmed firmly, fully aware of why he was so flustered, since she appreciated that her beloved John was most likely afraid that this man would prove to be a foe rather than a friend, a rival who might steal away her affection, her fiancé being insecure enough to worry that he had not in fact secured her love. Lifting his hand and placing a kiss there, Margaret smiled up at John warmly. 'I think it is time that you learnt the truth,' she determined, her head rotating to glance at her brother before settling her undivided attention once more upon John, the man who she hoped would always stand by her side and whom she intended to share every truth of her heart with from now on.

Margaret took a deep breath and squeezed his hand. 'John…my love…this is Fred…my brother.'


It was a little over an hour later that John and Margaret stood by the front door of number 10, Linden Street, Crampton, the newly betrothed couple chaperoned by nothing more than a mantle of midnight darkness, their hands intertwined as they lingered in each other's arms.

Smiling at each other, the irony of their location was not lost on the lovers, since they recalled that just two nights before, they had stood upon this exact same spot together, first on the brink of a tentative reconciliation, and then hurtled into the abyss of resentment and regret.

Margaret had confessed everything to John about the existence of her brother and the sorry saga of his estrangement from England, Fred obligingly confirming and clarifying her details along the way. At first, John had been flabbergasted to say the least, his reeling mind unable to absorb and digest such a fanciful tale, no matter how much he trusted in Margaret's honesty and integrity. However, the more he listened, the more it all rang true. The Hales were an unconventional bunch to be sure, and it made perfect sense that a son who bore that name would both bravely and brazenly defy authority if it meant that he could safeguard the welfare of others, especially if he considered them demeaned and downtrodden wretches. Again, knowing Margaret, John knew that she would go to any length to champion someone she cared about, no matter what personal perils might come her way by means of recompense.

With a stony expression and an air of silence, the master and magistrate had allowed Margaret and Fred to talk freely, his shrewd mind soaking up and evaluating every scrap of information that was presented before him, all so that he might piece together a picture of events and substantiate the evidence.

From what he understood, Frederick Hale had sailed from Portsmouth to join the Queen's Navy four years ago, but in the course of his second year at sea, and during his second commission, positioned upon his second ship, the unfortunate mariner had been placed under the authority of a captain of the most cruel nature, the man clearly mad and needing to be discharged from his position of power, but alas, that had not been the case. After a great deal of begging and bartering, Fred and some of his fellow mates had finally taken the considerable risk upon themselves to lock up the captain and some of his conspirators in the ship's hull, and after sailing directly to the nearest port, they had handed themselves in and explained their actions with uprightness, as well as a seemingly tragic amount of faith in the chivalrous honour of those they were parleying with.

Nevertheless, the law being a merciless symbol of supremacy had branded him a traitor, and a helpless Fred had been forced to flee, unable to return home for many a year, the runaway outlaw denied the chance of seeing his family for a pitilessly long time, often wondering if he ever would again. But eight weeks ago, on the very same day as the riot, Margaret had posted a letter to her brother on the way to visit Marlborough Mills, the sister making the independent and intrepid decision to write and bid him come to Milton so that mother and son might behold each other just one last time. As it turned out, as soon as he had read his sister's plea, Fred had abandoned what he was doing and left almost at once, the man travelling as fast as he could across the miles which separated him from his family, all the way to Milton, determined to defy death itself if it meant he could see his mother once more before it was too late.

In the end, after the siblings had recounted every last detail of the angst ridden tale that was Fred's exile, John had nodded sagely, and with a dry throat, he had merely croaked, 'I see,' before slumping down on the edge of a chair and letting all of this wash over him. As he sat there, his own turbulent thoughts simmering away, the man was hardly aware that both Margaret and Fred were hovering over him in a state of fidgety unease, wondering what he would do or say, and praying under their breaths that all would be well.

To begin with, John could admit that he had been rather hurt that Mr Hale had not confided in him about all of this himself, for surely the parson must have known that he could put his faith in John's empathy and discretion. It was true that John may have been a stickler when it came to obeying the rulebook, and there was no denying that he took his role as a magistrate most seriously, but still, even he knew that the ethics of right and wrong were not black and white, but painted in grey. What was more, as much as he respected the law, he also knew it to be fallible, and in this case, John judged that it had well and truly failed in its duty to protect the innocent and hold the guilty to account. Scoffing in self-righteous anger, John knew that instead of doing what was right, the law had chosen instead to find a scapegoat in the men who had defied authority while acting with heroic valour, the law now insisting upon hunting them down with relentless zeal until the bloodhound that was the English judicial system had well and truly pilloried and punished its fox upon the hangman's scaffold.

As John sat in silence and stewed over his feelings of despondency at not having previously been made privy to the Hale's secret, Margaret dropped to her knees before him, her face paling with worry that she had hurt her dear John beyond repair, the very idea more than her gentle heart could bear. After placing a trembling hand on his knee, the sensation of which made his legs tingle, she lovingly explained to John that they had not kept the truth from him because they had not trusted him, far from it, since it had all been because they were trying to shield him. With eyes brimming with apology, she told John that she had wished with all her heart that she could have told him everything sooner, but faced with the burden of such a secret, Margaret had decided that she would much rather endure alone than subject him to a crisis of conscience at her expense. At this, John found that all his hurt melted away, since he could hardly begrudge the generous hearted Hales for thinking of him with such selflessness in their hour of need, and it made him appreciate just how passionate and protective a person Margaret was, this woman who was so little but so fierce, and she was his to love.

With his hand rising to caress her soft cheek, John had smiled at Margaret, and without saying a word, they had understood each other completely, the two of them relishing a sacred truth, one which proclaimed that they trusted each other with all their hearts, the couple uttering an unspoken vow, meaning that they both knew that there would never be any secrets between them again.

However, John had not been the only one to feel troubled, since Fred himself had recoiled in panic to hear that Margaret's fiancé was a Justice of the Peace, the fugitive backing away towards the door in fright, ready to flee into the obscurity of unlit alleyways if need be. Nonetheless, Margaret had soon calmed his fears and put to rest his reservations by standing up for John and saying how honourable he was, stipulating most vehemently that he would never be so cold or crafty as to turn Fred in like that.

As John and Fred eyed one another uneasily, their brows furrowed in sceptical uncertainty as they wondered whether they could trust each other, Margaret leapt to her feet and stood between the two of them once more. With her head turning back and forth as she looked at them both with stubborn determination, her eyes large with longing, the woman was telling both men present that while she loved each of them more than words could say, she would not be giving either of them up, so if they wanted her in their lives, then they simply had to have each other thrown into the bargain as well.

In the end, John and Fred had made their peace and shook hands like gentlemen, each of them silently making a pact to try and be civil if it meant making Margaret happy, a sentiment which was close to both of their hearts. However, if truth be told, this was no imposition for either of them, and in John's case, he had a funny feeling that he would grow to like this man with his puckish smile and rugged charm, something which surprised him, since John did not generally take a liking to anybody. But then again, the man was a Hale, and John was finding that he was partial to folks of that name, so it made every sense that the two of them should form an affable bond of their own strange sort. Thankfully, the feeling was mutual, and while Fred still thought that Margaret's fiancé could do with unbuttoning himself a bit, he could tell that he was a good sort, and he very much looked forward to getting to know his future brother-in-law better over a dram, that is if Margaret let her man have a snifter at all.


Shortly after Margaret had finished setting the story straight, Mr Hale had returned home from his lecture, having stayed late to converse with a fellow Oxford alumni about something or other to do with Aristotle, the specifics of which being far too dreary to relate. As he had walked through his front door in a genial frame of mind, wary not to wake any of the sleeping household, Mr Hale had been taken aback to hear the clamour of cheerful chitter-chatter drifting down the passageway from the little room which had become his library, study, and downstairs parlour all muddled into one. After throwing down his coat and hat, whilst keeping a hold of his cane as a precautionary measure, the scholar had hurried along the hallway to see what all the hullabaloo was about.

When he had entered the library, Mr Hale had looked about at the gathering of lively young people, the master of the house utterly nonplussed by this odd spectacle, his eyesight so poor that he even wondered whether he was seeing things. But then suddenly, as his gaze had fallen upon a most unexpected face, he had frozen, and his jaw had near enough hit the floor. There he had stood in delayed shock for some time, and in his disbelief, Mr Hale had been forced to lean against the door for support, much in the same manner as Fred had when he had made his dramatic entrance. As John's astute eyes flitted between the two men, one young, one old, he nodded in conclusion. Aye, they were father and son all right.

After pulling himself together, it had not taken long for Mr Hale to rush into the room and embrace his long-lost son, his eyes welling with tears of exultation. 'Fred!' he had exclaimed. 'My boy! My boy! Look Margaret, did I not say that our dear Frederick would come back to us?!' he jollied, wrapping his arms around his two children and kissing them fondly on their foreheads.

At first, John had felt like an intruder upon this extraordinary scene, much like an unwanted spectre at the feast, but then he smiled, for he remembered that he was no longer a stranger here, but a member of this happy little family, his family. He was like a forgotten sheep who had found his flock, his fold, and this filled him with a warmth deep in his soul which John had not felt since he was a young boy who knew his father's love. One would think that seeing a father and son relate in such a spiritual way would upset him, and even while John did wonder what his own father would say to him now if he could see him a fully grown man, he was relieved to find that he was neither covetous nor miserable. This was perhaps because he felt a peculiar and philosophical sort of serenity in his soul to see such a bond flourish before his eyes, since it was right that others should have that, even if John never could himself, not unless he was blessed with sons of his own, a joyous event which he had never thought possible or probable before tonight. Purposefully taking a step back and standing to one side, he watched as this most jubilant event unfolded before him, and far from feeling envious, all he could think on was how privileged he was to witness it.

The three Hales all hugged each other and they laughed and cried with all of their hearts. Every now and again, his Margaret would turn her head and grin at John merrily, her endearing heart overwhelmed by the contentment which flowed from it, her small hand reaching out to him to remind John that she had not forgotten him.

After a few minutes of celebratory conversing, Mr Hale had finally noticed John loitering awkwardly in a corner, (odd that he had not before, given the size of him), and after apologising profusely for his rudeness and beckoning him to join the party, the tutor had enquired what his pupil was about and what had brought him to the house. As he had wittered on and slapped John on the shoulder with his wrinkled hands, Mr Hale had even begun to fret that he had been remiss and somehow forgotten that John had been due here this night for a lesson, but then again, he noted that this did not explain why John was still here so very late.

On heeding Mr Hale's questions, John and Margaret had shared a swift and secretive look, and without uttering a word on the matter, they had privately agreed that they would not announce their engagement to Mr and Mrs Hale tonight. It had been a long day, they were tired, and what was more, it hardly seemed fair to deprive Fred of his moment in the limelight. They would have their time soon and sure enough, and they both covertly agreed that John would return first thing in the morning to formally petition his teacher's permission to seek his daughter's hand in marriage. As a result, John had come up with some excuse as to why he was there, but exactly what, he could not recall. At any rate, it mattered not, since Mr Hale, always a little obtuse as it was, was too distracted by his joy to care much for details, and besides, he was just delighted that John, his dear friend, was here at all and able to meet his son, two young men who he loved profoundly.

After her father had returned to speak with Fred, Margaret had shyly glanced at John and patted the ring which lay secreted around her neck. She had waved, and he had winked, the two of them unable to contain the broad grins which spread across their faces, the pair pleased as punch in their knowledge that they would soon be wed.

It had been a few minutes later that Mr Hale had ushered Fred up the stairs to see Mrs Hale, the very reason he was here after all, the sickly woman's last wish being to see her daughter married and to look upon her son once more, the mother hen experiencing no greater peace as she departed this earth than knowing that her two baby chicks were healthy and happy in life. As she had watched her father and brother walk up the stairs shoulder-to-shoulder, Margaret had lingered behind, but she was not alone, no, she would never be alone again, and as she looked back, there was John, her fiancé, waiting patiently for her, a few respectful paces behind. As they both smiled bashfully, they each reached out a hand and grasped the other, then slowly, (very slowly), they ambled towards the front door so that they might bid each other a fond farewell until the morn.


Standing by the front door, John and Margaret held each other close and swayed gently from side to side as if they were blossoms dancing in the breeze. It was late, disgracefully so, no doubt past midnight, but they did not care one little bit.

'I love you,' he whispered against her ear, his breath tickling her lobe.

'I love you too,' she replied coyly, her cheeks flushing with a most delightful blush.

'I should go,' he said sadly, his brow creasing forlornly.

'Don't!' she protested, clutching onto his jacket and nearly ripping the thick material. 'Stay,' she invited, 'just a little while longer,' she entreated, her slender body swinging coquettishly in his arms.

John smirked. 'Very well, love, as you command,' he granted, although John had not needed much convincing, the man hardly able to believe that this woman who had once fled to stand beside a window in order to avoid his affectionate attentions, was now gripping onto him with all her strength and staunchly refusing to let him go. My, how the tables had turned.

Brushing his lips across the tip of Margaret's dainty nose, John's heart thumped against his ribs at the way it wrinkled most adorably in return, a charming tendency of hers which he guessed he would never tire of.

John smiled to himself. God! Just to think that only a few hours earlier, he had been wallowing in the depths of despair, his heart broken beyond restoration to think that he would forever be lonely and never know the benediction of requited love. And now, well, not only would John be a happily married man before long, but he would be married to the woman of his dreams, an accomplishment which not many men could boast of amongst their earthly triumphs. John felt blissfully content to think that together, he and Margaret would build a nest for themselves and their little ones, and as a family, they would create their own private utopia, a life truly worth living.

Burrowing into his chest, Margaret thought of how much she had loathed Milton when she first arrived, feeling sad that she had been ripped from her home and her heritage in her beloved Helstone. But now, as she felt John's secure arms surround her and hold her close, keeping her warm and safe, Margaret realised that she was home, that this was her home, right here in her John's strong arms. She knew there and then that no matter where the winds of life blew her in this funny little world, so long as she was by his side, then Margaret was exactly where she was meant to be.

As she thought on this, Margaret felt a stirring in her belly and she winced slightly, the pain of her course bothering her. But then she smiled against John's left lapel, because Margaret remembered that earlier this evening, a time which now felt like a hundred years ago, she had been distraught to think that she would never bear a child, and now, well, she did not know when, but she felt sure that one day, hopefully wonderfully soon, she and John would have a baby of their very own, a beautiful babe that would be half of him, half of her, one tiny and utterly treasured Thornton. Again, little did Margaret know that this would be her last course for nine months, because in three weeks' time, a seed would begin to grow in her womb, and that blessed bloom would gift John and Margaret a baby girl, the first of their eight children which the besotted parents would welcome into the world.

There they had stayed for some time, shifting as one, until the sound of a grumbling Dixon beckoned Margaret to return upstairs to join her family, the servant not at all pleased with the way the couple had been left unchecked for far too long, the shroud of the dusky gloom affording them the opportunity to get up to all sorts of wanton mischief.

Chuckling, John opened the door, and a shaft of pale moonlight flooded the scene and illuminated the two figures as they stood on the steps, the eyes of Heaven watching over them in the form of a canopy of twinkling stars and blessing their preordained union.

Lifting her hand to his lips, John pressed a tender kiss upon Margaret's ring finger. 'Goodnight, Miss Hale,' he murmured, thinking on how nobody would be able to call her that for long, and it filled John with such pride to think that for the majority of her life, this magnificent creature would bear his name.

'Goodnight, Mr Thornton,' Margaret replied, caressing his fingers, thinking on how she would need to practice calling herself that name when alone, since pleasantly soon, it would be hers too.

As John and Margaret both reluctantly turned to step away and withdraw to their own lives, spheres which would remain separate for only a short while longer, they each abruptly spun round at the same time. Before they knew what they were about, Margaret had flung her arms around his neck, while John had grabbed her waist, and instead of speaking, the newly affianced couple hauled each other close and said their fond and fleeting farewell with the melding of their lips.

Goodness knows how long their mouths made love, but they did not think to mind, nor did they agonise over who might see, for as far as they were concerned, they were the only two people in the universe, the person before them their world entire. As their lips parted with delicious unhurriedness, a panting John and Margaret stared into each other's sparkling eyes, him from his great height looking down, and her from her short stance peering up, their giddy grins reflected back to them in their gleaming orbs.

'I love you…so very, very much,' they both breathed at once, their foreheads bumping against each other as they laughed at their echoed sentiments, because it is true what they say about great minds thinking alike, but in their case, John and Margaret shared more than that, for their souls and spirits had gone through the furnace of fierce love and loss, and in turn, they had been forged as one, never to be broken apart again.

Rubbing noses one last time, John then retreated down the steps, the man walking backwards, never once taking his eyes off his darling girl. He continued in this comical manner all the way down the street, until, at last, he bowed, kissed his single gloved hand, (since she still had its partner in her pocket), and reluctantly walked away, fighting his desperate desire to return to her at once, pick her up, and whisk Margaret away. How he longed to take her back with him to the Mill House, to her home, where she belonged, but no, that would have to wait just a little while longer. It was such a gratifying thought to know that when John returned from his lessons with Mr Hale in the future, he would no longer have to sulk at the thought of leaving Margaret behind, but instead, with her arm laced around his own, he would escort his wife all the way back to their shared home. There, John would carry her to their marital bed, and lying together, he would be able to hold her all night long, never having to let Margaret go again, the man falling into a peaceful slumber, his restless spirit finally at rest.

Soon…soon.

As he went, John thought on how blessed he was, and how without warning, this incredible woman had come into his world and given it new meaning, allowing the mill master to see his life for what it truly was, one devoid of true happiness. They were from different worlds, her and he, she from the mild south and he from the bitter north, but she had blown into his life like a summer breeze, and in doing so, Margaret had brought with her a radiant sunshine which had melted his previously icy heart. They were as different as the moon and the sun, but sometimes such differences tug two polar souls together and nothing can ever tear them apart, for it is written in the stars that the moon and the sun might be as different as day and night, but they need each other to survive.

Good God! ─ how he loved her! And John would continue to love her always, with a passion, a reverence, and a devotion which knew no bounds. Soon Margaret would be his companion, his guide, his salvation, his everything, and he could hardly wait. Yes, he would be back first thing in the morning, ask Mr Hale if he could marry his daughter, and after John had placed the ring on her finger, he would be heading straight to the church to procure them a license so that they could marry as soon as possible, since he would not be content until Margaret was his wife, joined to him in life through the holy trinity of romantic, legal, and spiritual union. Yes, smiling to himself and near enough skipping down the street, John could hardly wait, the early hours of this morn shepherding in the first day of a fresh forever.

As Margaret watched John stride away into the shadows of the night, the light wind of this new Spring dawn playing with the strands of her hair, she tilted against the door and let out a prolonged sigh of happiness. How strange it was to think that two nights ago, she had stood on this very step, disorientated and disturbed, tears spilling down her face as the heartbroken young woman had realised that she was in love, and that in return, the man she cared for cared nothing for her. But it had not been so, and as she moved to return inside, all sadness of past rifts and rows were carried away by the breeze, and strumming at her necklace which contained her ring, Margaret thought on how glad she was, and how she could hardly wait for this misunderstood and marvellous man, this master among men, to be her husband.

Margaret knew that her marriage would not be perfect, since such aspirations were unattainable and beyond the scope of any couple, no matter how well-suited they might be in either personality or principles. In her and John's case, they were both intractable and hot-headed, the pair of them prone to strops and sulks when they did not get their own way, a tendency which she imagined would lead to many a spat over trifling nothings. However, Margaret guessed that even although they might quarrel like petulant children at times and storm off in a strop, in the end, they would both come back to each other, and with their tails between their legs, they would say they were sorry and be friends once again before the sun had set.

What was more, they had experienced different upbringings, and they hailed from different parts of the country, affecting them to be bred with divergent traditions and perspectives, meaning that it would take time to understand and appreciate each other's distinct ways. But none of that mattered, no, not when their bond was built upon the foundations of faith and faithfulness, something which was stronger than any petty discrepancies of class and culture. Furthermore, far from seeing their dissimilarities as a hindrance, Margaret saw it as an opportunity to lead a life that was rich in vibrant variation, the two of them completing each other and creating a vivid tapestry of beautiful qualities from both the north and south, their marriage allowing them to compromise and meet somewhere in the middle.

Yes, despite everything Margaret did not know about the future, a long list indeed, one thing was for certain, and that was that she was going to be a good wife to John, a wife who championed and cherished him, not only because it was her apparent duty as a woman to do so, but because it would be an honour to honour him thus. And in turn, she trusted with all of her heart that John would be the most dedicated husband and devoted father that she could ever have hoped for, his strength of mind and generosity of spirit knowing no bounds.

As John trekked along the street and Margaret trailed up the stairs, they both stopped and stilled simultaneously. Then with the corners of their lips curling into a soft and secretive smile, they both whispered into the night:

'John and Margaret Thornton.'

My-my-my, thought they, how glorious that sounded, what a gift they had been given, and what a grand tale of love, loyalty and laughter their marriage would surely be for many merry years to come.

And, dear reader, it was, oh! ─ it really was!


The End…?


THANK YOU AND POLL

Sorry for posting this here, it just felt too long for the notes section and I didn't want to dedicate another chapter/page to it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the engagement chapters. It felt really special to have the opportunity to write an engagement scene for these two, especially after all the angst the novel/TV series/other fanfics/my fanfic have put them through over the years.

Anyway, there we go, the main part of the story is now at an end, and I don't know whether I feel happy or sad about that. I really hope you enjoyed this story, and again, thank you so very much to the lovely people who have stuck with me, I know it's been a long journey, and an even bigger thank you to those who have been kind and considerate enough to take the time and effort to leave supportive comments along the way, especially those who have done so regularly, it's been a massive encouragement.

However, there is still a question mark over whether this story is finished online or not. I've several more chapters that I want to write/have started writing, scenes which follow John and Margaret over the 10 days between their engagement up until the moment they say "I do." I've always been keen to write this, as I feel with period romance novels, we often wait ages for a HEA and then we get nothing after the moment they get engaged, so I wanted to give myself/readers more than that. I also have a few narrative threads to tie up, such as John's drunken letter, Hannah's reconciliation and redemption, Fanny's reaction, and why they are getting married in just 10 days' time. Nevertheless, I don't know whether I will write/post these chapters online or not, or whether I will just conclude the online version here with this chapter.

You might be wondering why I'm bothering about what people think at all, as I should just do what I want, and yes, that's 100% fair. The reason is that life is getting busier for us all, and I'll have less time to write and people will have less time to read, and to be fair, engagement with this story has been pretty low anyway, and I know some people aren't keen on the length, so there is absolutely no point me going out of my way to write/post something nobody wants to read. Again, many people will feel this fanfic has run its course and done what it needed to do for them, which is bring John and Margaret together.

Anyway, I'll go away and have a think, but if anyone feels strongly either way, I've included a quick poll here. It will also give you the chance to leave some anonymous feedback if you wish to, although if you do, please try and be considerate and constructive. If it doesn't come up properly due to the site's rules about external links, then you can see it on Facebook at: TheScribbler_CMB.

Poll: . /r/PTTXQBG

For anyone who is interested in knowing what I plan to write next, I'll be writing these remaining chapters, as well as a short story about J&M's honeymoon, (well, short by my standards, but probably still quite long). I'll then edit the whole thing, check for errors, polish it up, and get it self-published as soon as I can after that process is done, ensuring that all those extra bits are included at the end of the published version. I think I might actually publish two versions, a longer one which is similar to what we have here, (plus with the extra chapters/story at the end), and then also an abridged one which will just end at this chapter, and which will also have a lot of descriptive content/unnecessary sections cut out, in order to make it more slimline for people who don't like detail/dislike the length of the story.

Once I've done that, I do have over 300 N&S story ideas to play with, so depending on how I feel in the future, and depending on what my readership are keen to read, (if keen at all), then I might start pursuing those stories/books too.

Again, thank you very much for coming on this journey with me and if you have any questions or comments, then as always, do feel free to get in touch.

Much love and God Bless, Caroline X