Thank you so much for your reviews for the first chapter of this story. As usual, they were lovely to read and encouraged me to keep going. For those who have asked, I haven't forgotten about finishing my other story and am adding to it hopefully by the end of next week.
A couple of reviewers asked me to explain what the title means. It is a quote from North and South (the novel rather than mini-series), which Margaret says about Helstone. If I remember correctly, it is fairly early on in the book. I've just always liked it and feel it fits nicely with one part of where the story is headed later.
Well noticed 100recycled. I have changed the timing of Fanny' wedding just a little and will be changing the timing of a few of things from the novel purely because it fits when I want things to happen better, but will not completely change the main elements because Gaskell has done them so well already.
LalalaLinoleum, I had never heard of Diana Sperling but after a little google, I see what you mean about the opening description being a little like her paintings. I very much liked them so thank you!
Anyway, I do hope you enjoy this chapter and please do continue to review and let me know your thoughts.
Harley Street was nearly deserted on that cold, dark morning in January. The trees that lined the large, open street were bare and the cobbled road was scattered with the remnants of rain puddles, reflecting the murky hues of the sky, mixed with the orange of the still burning lamps, waiting to be extinguished- the only splashes of colour amongst the uniformity of the white facades of the tall terraced houses and their matching back doors. No snow fell here. The hour was still early, but late enough that in Milton the majority of people would have been awake and conducting their working day.
Every now and again a carriage passed, or a delivery boy with a stack of parcels, but there was none of the hustle and bustle that could have been spectated from an upstairs window of the Crampton house.
Aunt Shaw would not rise for at least another hour and Edith was making the most the rest afforded to her by Sholto, who seemed to believe that observing waking and sleeping hours was unimportant at his wise age of one year and six months.
Thus, Margaret found herself alone, observing the world go by outside the large bay windows of her aunt's sitting room. Time no longer had meaning; each day simply blurred into the next.
In reality it had been nearly fifteen weeks since her father's passing, fourteen since the funeral and over thirteen since she had been willingly whisked away from Milton and the sadness that lingered there, and firmly situated in the largest guest bedroom of 134 Harley Street, yet it might as well have been years. It was the same room she had stayed in so often as a child, and then as a young woman. In fact, she had spent more time staying in her aunt's guest room than she had in her own room in Helstone as a young woman who was out in society. Her mother and Aunt Shaw, (who was her mothers' only sister) were in many ways the opposites of each other, but on one point they had agreed completely. That Margaret should be exposed to London society as much as possible from the time she had turned sixteen, for all the good that it had done her.
When her father had expressed his disagreements with the church and his decision to move the family to Milton, her mother had urged her to stay in London, but Margaret had never been one to be easily persuaded to do anything she did not wish to and she simply did not wish to remain in London whist her family moved to the North. Her mother's health had not been the best since the scandal of Fred's dissention from the Navy and Margaret had been adamant that she would accompany her parents and do her duty as a daughter to take care of her mother. Besides, her cousin, Edith, had a year ago (at that time) married Captain Lennox and would be absent for long periods as she accompanied him on his travels and thus Margaret would lose her most valued friend in London. Without Edith, the city was not half as attractive, regardless of its thriving social scene and beautiful parks.
Now, as she looked out upon the greyness of the day, she could not help but compare it to Milton, for Milton had one advantage over London. Margaret had never been bored there. No matter how dreary the weather, there was always something to occupy her. A basket could always be delivered to the Princeton District. Or a visit could be paid to the Higgin's family. Even a social call to see Fanny Thornton could be used to pass the time. In London, however, Margaret was frequently left at a loss over what to fill her days with, and as a result she found herself constantly dwelling on the multiple sadnesses she felt and the memories that haunted her- the death of Bessy, her dearest friend (aside from Edith), her mother and finally, the most cruel blow of all, the death of her poor father.
That final wound was the one which still caused her unrelenting pain as it was so completely unexpected. She had known Bessy would leave her one day in the near future- the poor girl had known it too and learnt to embrace her fate; her lungs simply couldn't take it anymore.
Margaret's mother too had been ill for a long time if she was truly honest with herself and she had known her final moment was coming. Her father however...it was too much to have lost him so suddenly, so quickly after the grief of her mother's death and without the chance to say goodbye.
Tears welled in her eyes as she thought of him and for the hundredth time since it had happened, she longed to feel less alone. For someone to understand the pain she felt. Only one person- even for just one moment in a snow-filled mill yard- had appeared to truly understand how she felt and had borne the crippling grief with her. One person who had told her the pain would never go away but she would learn to live with it. One person who she would more than likely never see again, and who would likely not speak to her even if she wished to confide in him. How ironic it was that now he was gone from her life forever, Margaret Hale finally felt like she understood why Mr Thornton was the way he was. He was harsh and blunt and unwavering, but beneath that hard exterior he was hiding a mountain full of pain. One that would never go away, but one that he had learnt to carry around with him. The weight of hers was still too much. It haunted her dreams and stopped her from sleeping at night and was always there- a dark shadow resting on her shoulder in everything she did.
As she had lain awake the previous night, the pain of her grief had become all-encompassing, and one moment, just one moment shared between two people who for a second in time truly understood each other in a moment of perfect clarity, re-played in her mind time and time again, leaving her chest aching with longing to relive that moment to suspend the pain in her heart and feel less alone in the world.
Abandoning her attempts to sleep, in a moment of madness she had written a letter to him. A letter that asked him about the mill and his mother and Nicholas Higgins and disclosed how alone and lost she felt. It described the heavy, stabbing that that resided in her chest, but could be felt in her very bones and in its closing paragraph it disclosed another weight, which threatened to stifle her. It spoke of Fredrick and Outwood Station and the sadness she felt that she and her dear brother could not grieve their parents together, for in so many ways he was lost to her too. It asked for his forgiveness for her lie about her presence at the station that night, and disclosed her hope that he might not judge her so harshly for her lie now he knew her reasoning. For night after night, she had closed her eyes and remembered the feel of his touch on her cheek as he swept a stray hair from her face, and the shock in his eyes as he had registered what he had done, before the guilt of her lie returned and shattered the image.
Of course, it was completely inappropriate for her to be even considering contacting an unmarried gentleman, who was not courting her and not a family member, about such things. Particularly one who had shown no desire for her to contact him at all, and whose proposal she had previously turned down. As a result, the letter sat in the pocket of her raven dress, rather than in the pile to be posted by the front door.
The stiff dark material she was still forced to wear for proprieties sake, threatened to choke her, and any activity she could think of to help take her mind off her problems was not allowed whilst she was still in deep mourning. She had never been one for the parties and gatherings Edith loved so, yet every time she watched Edith getting ready for some social event or other, Margaret envied her and her ability to carry on with normality after a shorter period of mourning, when Margaret was stuck in a perpetual loop of waking and watching and walking, and attempting to sleep before a new day had dawned and she must start the cycle again. At least her deep mourning would be over in just a few more weeks and she would be permitted to begin introducing some colour back into her wardrobe and attend some of the gatherings Edith wished her to, albeit whilst remaining on the periphery of the proceedings, which suited her fine. In her heart she would mourn forever, but at least she might be able to seek the answer to bearing it better.
Her main solace since her arrival in Harley Street had been her nephew Sholto. The boy was just starting to talk and loved to be pushed in his pram and often accompanied her on her afternoon walk. Her second unlikely solace had been Henry Lennox. The man had thrown himself into Frederick's case and the admittedly small possibility that they might be able to obtain a pardon for him so that he could one day return to England. Henry joined them at the house at least three times a week to update her on his findings and to keep her company if the other household members were busy entertaining or making their own calls. At first, Margaret had been worried that things would be awkward between them since she had, in fact, also once turned down his proposal, but thankfully he had acted as though it had never happened. Margaret was more than happy to go along with that, and so they had carried on as friends as though nothing was amiss.
The grandfather clock in the hallway chimed and Margaret counted its bells from one to ten before it again fell silent.
However, the silence was not to last as Aunt Shaw's voice came calling from outside the door, "Martha, is breakfast prepared? We will take it now, please."
"Yes, Miss." Martha's young voice came back, followed by her quick footsteps.
A plump hand and rounded head peeked around the sitting room door.
"Good morning, Margaret," Aunt Shaw said jovially. "You must come through for breakfast. Mr Lennox has sent word that he will be joining us, this morning."
Right on cue, the doorbell clanged the arrival of a visitor, sending another servant scuttling to admit the visitor, and Margaret followed her aunt obediently into the dining room and took her place at the table. It had not escaped her attention that Aunt Shaw had spent the last few weeks informally inviting various different parties to joint them at meal times so that she might be forced to eat something. Ever since she had first laid eyes on Margaret in the Crampton house the matriarch had declared that the north did not suit Margaret and made her too thin and serious and had been making a point of reiterating the sentiment ever since. It was true that grief had affected her appetite and her dresses did not lace quite as tightly as they once had, but she was hardly skin and bone. Besides, regardless of how her aunt seemed to view her, Margaret was not some petulant child who needed monitoring at meal times, she simply found that she did not have an appetite when she was unhappy and she found that recently her sadness was hard to shake.
Still, she was far more sensible than Aunt Shaw gave her credit for and had no intentions of starving to death. And she certainly did not need babysitting. She ate what she needed to and was at no risk of wasting away any time soon.
She greeted the lawyer politely as he walked in as though he lived there, picking up a piece of toast from the centre of the table and taking his usual seat beside her.
"The post boy was hovering outside about to deliver these and I promised I would hand them to you personally," Henry gave her a smile some girls might find dashing and handed her two letters, which she took with her own smile of thanks and placed neatly on the table beside her, not wishing to open them in company.
"I must call Edith" Aunt Shaw declared leaving Margaret alone with Henry, who pulled himself a plate from the stack in the centre of the table and started eating without waiting for the woman to return or for Edith to join them.
"Good morning, Henry!" breezed Edith a moment later, accepting the small collection of letters Henry handed her with an easy gracefulness and taking her seat.
"Any news on Fred's case?" Margaret asked eagerly as she cast a cursory glance at her own letters. Henry had been attempting to contact an associate who might be able to help. He was not convinced they would be successful, but Margaret could not help but feel a glimmer of hope for her brother.
"Nothing, I am afraid," he replied, to her disappointment and Margaret tried not to let Henry see her face drop lest he should blame himself. "Remember, I did only write last week. These things take time," he reassured her, cracking a boiled egg on the side of his plate and Margaret nodded with shrug.
"Margaret, that neckline is simply sublime on you!" Edith proclaimed suddenly raising her eyebrows pointedly towards Henry and gesturing in Margaret's direction. Margaret jumped a little at the volume and excitement inherent in the exclamation and looked down at her neckline, her eyebrows furrowed.
"You truly look a picture. Doesn't she Henry?" Edith added, and Margaret, confused, turned Henry as though he might be able to enlighten her. The small, "oww," Henry emitted with a flinch implied Edith had kicked him under the table.
Henry floundered for a moment, his eyes directing momentarily towards her neckline and then to the ceiling as he realised where on her body his attentions had drifted to.
"It does suit you very well, Margaret..." he agreed once he had composed himself, earning a smile of approval and an airy giggle from Edith and Margaret looked between the pair of them, suspicion replacing her bewilderment. Unsure how to respond, she helped herself to an egg for something to do. Her neckline was not particularly impressive; it was the same plain, scooped neckline as on every one of her black dresses, and certainly not particularly risqué.
"What are you both up to?" she asked cautiously, when neither person elaborated or clarified the statement in any way.
Each of the people before her looked towards each other, waiting for the other to speak. Henry directed his attention firmly to the toast in front of him leaving Edith to sigh at him, exasperated.
"Well..." she began slowly and Margaret knew she was carefully pondering how to best phrase whatever it was she wished to say. "Lord and Lady Worthing will be holding their annual Christmas dinner in a couple of weeks..." She looked towards her brother-in-law, ineffectively signalling with her eyes for him to continue on the topic.
"Of course, you'd still have to wear something grey or lilac to be respectful of your mourning, but Henry was thinking that to cheer you up you could accompany him!" She finished in a hurry, shooting daggers at Henry who was still pretending to ignore her.
So that was it. Margaret turned her attention towards Henry who was again blushing, despite his attempts to look innocent. She had never asked Henry whether he had disclosed to Edith that he had once asked her to marry him, but she doubted it and she, in her mortification, had not told a soul other than, inadvertently, the man who had offered her another just as ill-fated proposal.
Poor Henry must have been the uncomfortable victim of Edith's scheming to make her attend the party and meet some gentleman friend of Captain Lennox's. It was a scheme that was entirely predictable of Edith and no doubt completely mortifying to her poor brother-in-law. Margaret could not bring herself to feel mortification, but then she felt very little other than grief and loneliness these days.
"You wouldn't be able to dance of course, if there is to be dancing, but that is hardly a problem since you don't enjoy dancing anyway!" she added, her as her final argument, before sitting back, looking remarkably pleased with herself.
It was a little unfair to say that Margaret did not enjoy dancing. She simply found that the level of enjoyment she experienced differed greatly depending on who she faced as a partner. Many of the ridiculous dandies Edith orchestrated to ask her at the numerous glittering balls they had attended together before her departure to Milton could not dance, and she had no particular interest in dancing with gentlemen who only knew her as Edith's cousin and spent more time trying to look at the effect of her dress on her figure rather than her face. Or, even better, actually conversing with her. Still, a few of them had proved themselves capable of engaging in decent conversation and avoiding stepping on her feet. Those experiences had been rather good fun. And of course, she had danced with Fred as a child and even as a young teenager before he had joined the navy. That had always proved to be a laugh, even if their cousin had not much approved of their silliness.
Then there was the last dance she had shared with someone. A dance that she had thought about for weeks after and that sometimes haunted her, if she let it, even now. Unwilling to battle with that particular demon today, she forced it back into the box of memories she kept it prisoner in.
"I'd wager that's your invitation there..." Henry spoke in a manner Margaret suspected was supposed to sound apathetic, gesturing towards one of the envelopes in her hand before resuming peeling the shell from his egg. Margaret opened it hesitantly as her companions watched her. Sure enough, it contained a cream parchment with red ribbons adorning the edges and impersonal swirly black lettering, entreating her to attend the gathering.
"I'll think about it," she answered non-committedly as she placed it to the side, not wishing to injure Henry or her cousin's feelings with an outright refusal.
She did not miss Henry and Edith exchange a conspiratorial glance, cementing her suspicion that the topic was not over.
"Did your invitation to the Worthing's Christmas party come, Margaret?" Aunt Shaw asked, bustling into the dining room and Margaret sighed. Her aunt was even less inconspicuous than her cousin was on such matters. She might have known she would be involved in the conspiracy too.
"It did and she's thinking about it, Mama." Edith answered quickly before Margaret could speak and Aunt Shaw nodded approvingly, taking her seat. "And who is your other letter from, my dear?" She preened across the table as though the envelope beside Margaret would reveal something thrilling.
Instantly, she recognised the writing as that of Fanny Thornton. To her great surprise, a letter from Marlborough Mills had arrived a couple of weeks after he had returned to London, bearing a plethora of Milton gossip and asking for news of London and she and Fanny had maintained a loose correspondence ever since. She had a strong suspicion that from Fanny's point of view, the main motivation was to procure a visit to London combined with her wish to boast about her accomplishments and purchases, but Margaret did not mind. It gave her an opportunity to hear some news of Milton and feel connected to another part of the world than just the insular nature of London.
"A friend. From Milton" She stated, opening it with greater enthusiasm than the previous envelope.
"It still to this very day surprises me that you could class someone from that place as a friend!" Aunt Shaw scoffed into her boiled egg. "Though the Thornton's seemed a respectable sort, they were certainly in the minority for appreciation for manners or decorum..."
Margaret ignored her as she continued her tirade and eagerly scanned the letter for any news she might decipher from Fanny's dramatic writings. She wrote of her mother suffering with a cold, her recent engagement to Mr Watson, who Margaret remembered well from the Thornton annual party, and finally something that made her heart sink just a little:
"John, who usually shows no interest in any of the women Mother suggests, or indeed any of my excellent recommendations of dance partners, has recently shown a special interest in Miss Ann Latimer. I could not be more delighted, for she is a good friend of mine. I am certainly hopeful that any day now I will be able to write to you with news of their engagement! John will not keep her waiting for too long, I am sure of it."
A small, "oh," escaped her as she read, causing her three companions to direct their attention to her in concern.
"What is it?" Edith asked her. "Does it contain unpleasant news?"
Margaret gulped deeply, unexplainable prickles piercing her watering eyes suddenly and making her nose tingle unpleasantly. Swallowing back the surge of emotion that threatened to overcome her, she composed herself and shook her head a little too forcefully.
"No. Quite the opposite," she insisted, "It is Fanny Thornton. She is to be married."
"Oh, how wonderful!" exclaimed Edith, always cheered by news of a wedding. "I feared from your expression that it was something awful!"
"I was just surprised, that is all," she reasoned, blinking a little more frequently than was natural.
It was not a lie. Her reaction did come from shock but not over Fanny's engagement. Fanny had once confided in her that she hoped Mr Watson might feel something for her and he had once bought her an expensive shawl as they visited the dress maker's shop, where Margaret had also been purchasing some items, just because she had flippantly made a comment that the colour reminded her of the ocean.
Not wanting to read anymore in the present company, Margaret folded the letter and placed it in her pocket. Her hand brushed against another letter- cold and with sharp edges, that send a blush to her cheeks.
That was why she was upset to hear that Mr Thornton had intentions towards Miss Latimer. No- not upset. Merely affected. That was why she was so affected, because she had foolishly hoped he might forgive her for lying about Fred, and she might be able to correspond with him about the mill and those she cared about and to feel less alone. Of course, it had been a foolish hope and in light of Fanny's news it would be completely impossible.
Making a decision, she turned to Edith resolutely.
"I think I will join you all for the Worthing's dinner after all." Her voice sounded unconvincing even to her own ears, but she knew her cousin and aunt would not notice so long as they heard what they wished to hear.
"Oh, I knew you would, Margaret!" Edith declared happily, raising her eyebrows at Henry. "You see, Henry! I told you she could be persuaded. Oh, look how pleased he is!"
Henry's cheeks flushed quite red, despite his smile and Margaret gave him an apologetic look and rolled her eyes at her cousin.
"It would be nice to go with a friend, if you will still have me Henry," she commented, suddenly and a little too loudly, to clear up any confusion on Edith's part and allay any embarrassment for Henry.
"He will!" Edith answered for him and Margaret fixed her with a warning look.
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure," he smiled at her shyly, breaking through her glare, and Margaret pushed down the uncomfortable voice in her head that told her she should have said she would attend with Edith rather than Henry. Still, she and Henry were friends. They had attended events together as friends before. Besides, she had already made it clear that that was all they would ever be. Henry knew that, so it did not matter what Edith thought.
Thankfully, Martha arrive to clear the breakfast items from the table bringing gossip of a Lord and Lady Winton and an unfortunate situation their youngest daughter had gotten herself into and Margaret had not heard the conversation, instead retreating into her own thoughts. Rather than joining Henry and Edith in the drawing room as she usually would have, Margaret escaped as soon as she could to the safety of her bed chamber, where she collapsed on her bed and finally let herself release the emotions she had been supressing for the remainder of breakfast. To her shame, all she could do was cry in self-pity into the softness of her pillow. Her small sobs drowned out the regular ticking of a mantle clock that had once resided on her Father's desk and now adorned her bedside table. It was something that had always been there, in Papa's office, since her childhood. It had been comforting to have it with her since his death and somehow reminded her of his constant steadiness, yet it could not offer her the comfort she needed now, and instead seemed to mock her for her foolish display of weakness.
Why exactly she was crying, she could not fully comprehend. Certainly, it had been a shock to read that Mr Thornton was truly interested in Miss Latimer, let alone interested enough to be planning a proposal, but that certainly wasn't upsetting in itself! Or in fact, hugely surprising. How many times had Mrs Thornton made reference to the number of young ladies who clamoured for her son's attention? She had seen him with Miss Latimer on his arm once in the street in Milton; the image had burned itself into her memory, and she could even understand why Miss Latimer would be interested in such a suitor. Truly, she was pleased for them both and wished them every happiness. It was simply her loneliness, her disappointment in no hope inducing news on Henry's attempts to help Fred, combined with the guilt she still felt for lying about the night Mr Thornton had seem her with Fred at the station, which had made her react in such a ridiculous manner.
Ashamed of herself, she wiped away her tears with her sleeve and removed the letter she had written in the dead of night from her pocket. The name and address on it seemed to laugh at her so now as she read them back in the cold light of day. In reality, the information contained in Fanny's letter made no difference. She could never have written to him in any event; it was a good thing his sister had brought her back to her senses before she embarrassed herself and him. For that, she must be abundantly thankful. With a deep sigh, she tore the letter in half, then combined the two pieces and halved them again and again until all that remained was a small pile of paper confetti, which she dropped into the waste paper basket beneath a small wooden writing desk.
With a sigh, and one last swipe at the wetness on her cheeks Margaret Hale resolved not to let herself think so foolishly again. As was the only appropriate thing to do, she penned a response to Fanny, full of her sincerest congratulations to both the girl herself and her brother, a quick answer to the questions Fanny had asked about London and her very limited experience of the tailors who specialised in wedding finery, and imploring her to write with details of her choice in wedding flowers, decorations and the like.
Finally, she addressed the letter and resolved to forgive and forget her momentary silliness and went to see if the nurse would prepare Sholto for their daily walk a little earlier than usual. She had Fred, who understood how she felt, for he had experienced it with her. With that thought she attempted, as she paced the parks of London, to persuade herself that London and Sholto and her family were enough to fill the gaping hole in her broken heart.