Minimum of Two
Disclaimer: Everything belongs to the genius of Elizabeth Gaskell. I'm just showing my appreciation for it in a non-profit way.
Fanny Watson sighed and tapped her foot impatiently. The housekeeper, Dixon, stood unmoving in the doorway. "When is my brother deigning to grace me with his presence? I have been kept waiting a full quarter of an hour!"
"I'm sorry, Madame, but the Master had to oversee a meeting with some new investors and I think the meeting is running overtime," responded Dixon levelly, though Fanny detected a glint in the impudent woman's eye that displayed she was not sorry at all about Fanny being kept waiting.
Fanny sighed again and pulled out her Venetian silken fan. "My brother knows I have a delicate constitution. I do wonder why he tries me like this."
Dixon, who regarded Mistress Watson's visits as a plague that one must endure to strengthen their moral fiber, replied, "I shall go and send one of the maids to enquire as to the Master's whereabouts."
"Good," said Fanny shortly, and waved Dixon off.
Left alone to her own devices, Fanny's eyes drifted around the newly refurnished living room. It was brighter, with blooming flowers in simple vases and upholstered couches in a delicate cream colour. It was no longer the dim and austere house of Fanny's youth, thanks to Margaret.
Even her own mother, Hannah Thornton, was no longer so severe. She still wore her funereal gowns and rarely altered her glacial expression, but there was a new softness that occasionally rose from the depths of her dark eyes when she regarded her son and his evident happiness.
Fanny rose from the couch and gazed out of the window that looked over the industrious mill grounds. Workers swirled around, horses clopped, heavy loads were unpacked or loaded onto grand wagons and the whirring sound of the mill forever echoed around the yard while smoke rose from the imposing chimneys. Occasionally, the stray black dog that Margaret was so inordinately fond of would scamper into the yard.
Fanny did not know how her brother could bear to live right on the grounds of the mill. Fanny had convinced her own husband, Watson, to shift her to a grand home after she complained about the ruinous effect of the noise and pollution on her delicate nerves. She had on numerous occasions entreated John to move Margaret and Hannah Thornton to a separate establishment, but he stubbornly refused, saying he was not so fine as to forget the source of his wealth. Margaret had annoyingly responded in the same fashion as her husband and mother-in-law. Fanny could not comprehend them.
From the window, Fanny saw her brother emerge from his office accompanied by that loathsome man, Higgins. Fanny wished her brother would sever his friendly relations with that man (Fanny could rarely induce herself to speak his Christian name) and spend more time with Watson. She had nearly reached the end of her forbearance when she had been forced to endure a dinner with Higgins and his daughter in attendance!
She pursed her lips as at the sight of John shaking hands with Higgins and chuckling at whatever that bear-like man said to him. Higgins exited back into the mill, being the new foreman of the mill after the previous one had died of an apoplexy.
Fanny made motion to wave at her brother but halted when the form of Margaret came in through the gates, no doubt, thought Fanny contemptuously, from one of her regular visits to the poor.
Even from the window, John's tenderness for his wife was unmistakable. They did not unseemly embrace in a grand declaration of passion, like the novels that Fanny read. Instead, they walked slowly to each other until they stood merely inches apart. John's lean, erect frame leant slightly over her, a smile playing on his lips as his dark eyes gleamed. To Fanny, Margaret appeared uncommonly flushed and her blue eyes betrayed a little too much pleasure at the sight of John for Fanny's code of conduct in public places.
The couple did not kiss or caress each other, but Fanny's heart twisted in envy at the undeniable intimacy that existed in their shared gaze. Fanny could not discern what her brother uttered to Margaret but it must have been agreeable, for Margaret laughed, her eyes flickering to the window where Fanny stood. John's eyes followed his wife's, and he inclined his head in greetings to his sister.
Fanny blushed and feigned a cool demeanor. John's attention diverted back to Margaret and he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm as the pair—finally! thought Fanny indignantly—headed back to the house.
Fanny hurriedly arranged herself on the couch, spreading her new London gown out in a fashionable way that she had imitated from the society ladies she had met last social season.
She could hear John and Margaret's footsteps come up the stairs and their light murmurs. She wondered what they were saying.
"I apologise for the wait I made you endure," greeted John as he entered the threshold of the room after Margaret.
"I came here at your bidding because you had something urgent to tell me yet you keep me waiting as if I was a supplicant at the court of the ever-mighty King John."
John's jaw tightened but Fanny did not miss the soothing hand Margaret placed on his forearm. He managed a smile and dutifully kissed Fanny on the cheek. "I had a meeting with investors that I could hardly adjourn early. But I am most appreciative of the effort you made to come here."
"As am I," added Margaret, also embracing Fanny.
Feeling mollified, Fanny condescended them with a gracious smile. "You are keeping me in suspense. What is the grand news that you are withholding from me?"
Fanny's irritation resurged when she saw the excited glance the couple exchanged. "Well?"
"You tell her, my love," urged John, his hand resting (rather unseemly, to Fanny) at the intimate curve of Margaret's back.
Margaret's hand slipped behind her to thread her fingers with his. "Fanny, John and I will be expecting a new member to our small party here at Marlborough Mills."
"I am with child," clarified Margaret, her eyes shining. "I am two months gone."
"I will be a father," added John, his grave face uncommonly buoyant. "And your children will have a cousin to ramble with."
Fanny's mouth formed a small 'o'. "So this is the cause of this hushed secrecy? Does mother know?"
"Of course. She was the one who first guessed. You know that mother can never be fooled."
"So you did not think to tell me at once?" Fanny asked in a wounded tone.
"Fanny, John and I wanted to be sure before we proclaimed it to the world. Otherwise, you would have been told in a heartbeat," said Margaret earnestly. "Your mother was the one who diagnosed why I was ill at dawn and could not tolerate certain foods."
"You, mother and John are always in some sort of conspiracy against me," complained Fanny.
"Fanny, I will not allow you to mar this joyful time," interceded John in a low voice that pulsed with command. "Margaret has done nothing wrong. She, as always, was only thinking of disappointing you if it was a false alarm. That is why the news was hushed for so long."
"Of course," answered Margaret, placing once again, a restraining arm on her husband who probably would not have replied with something so conciliatory.
Fanny smiled, her pride thoroughly stroked. "Well, my felicitations to you both then! I cannot wait to impart this news to little George and Henry when I return home. They will be most pleased to have another playmate! What will my Watson say? He always said that it would not take you long to add another member to your family!"
"Did he?" asked John, amusement lacing his tone. "I never knew Watson to be such a mystic."
Fanny hugged Margaret tightly, ignoring her brother. "My blessings to you. You shall need it, because the childbirth will be a most painful and trying experience. I nearly died after having Henry! It was the most horrendous event and you should have seen all the blood and—"
"How about if you tell me more about what I can expect about childbirth tomorrow afternoon? I am feeling weary from this morning's labors, and I need to have a rest," calmly interrupted Margaret, gently escorting Fanny to the door.
"Of course, of course," agreed Fanny. She turned back to her brother who had gone over to the fireplace and was staring intently into the sooty grate. "Brother, you must tell Margaret not to go on those sojourns to the poor. She may catch some sort of unwholesome disease from those unclean people."
"Thank-you for your advice, Fanny," John tightly replied, not turning around from the fireplace. "Give my best wishes to Watson and the children."
"I will be sure to do so," Fanny said as Margaret showed her down the stairs to the door where the carriage was waiting to take her back to her residence.
"Farewell, Margaret. I shall see you tomorrow in my parlour around half-past three for light refreshments. The wives of other influential Milton men will also be present. Make sure you wear your best attire."
"I will be sure to do so," Margaret answered and kissed her cheek, stepping back so that the footman could aid Fanny into the carriage.
"And tell my brother that he should not be so sour."
And with an imperious wave to Margaret, the carriage cluttered away.
Margaret wearily ascended the stairs. Visits from Fanny were always trying times. She found her husband still in the same place in front of the grate. As always, she found herself momentarily admiring John's magisterial bearing and his defined, intense face that she loved to shower with kisses and caresses in the intimacy of their bedchamber.
"She's gone, John."
He sighed in response, his hand tightening on the mantelpiece. "You are too good to her. Her selfish behaviour is indulged far too often."
Margaret closed the door from any prying servants and silently approached him. She leaned her body against his back, resting her chin on his shoulder. She then pressed a light kiss to his freshly shaven cheek. She knew what he was mulling over.
"My love, do not take to heart what Fanny uttered about childbirth. I am strong and I know that I will deliver safely this unborn babe of ours."
John mutely turned around and encircled Margaret in his arms, burying his nose in her finely coiffed chestnut hair. "I have no doubts about your strength for you have the mettle of twenty men, but I worry about you. You know I could not bear to lose you, my love."
Margaret tipped her head up so she could see his eyes and said fiercely, "And you will not lose me."
He cupped her face. "But—"
"There are no buts. I will come through fine with our child. I trust in God."
"You are indomitable," hoarsely replied John, admiration for her burning in his eyes.
"Just have faith as I have faith," she whispered, pressing a lingering kiss to his lips.
"Yes, faith," she breathed. She tenderly removed his left hand from her face, kissed it, and then placed it on her still flat belly. "Trust me, trust us…trust God."
John's lips were on her in an instant. She eagerly returned his ardency, threading her arms around his neck and pressing her body against his own. His kisses intoxicated her. The world shrunk to this very moment. Fanny and her thoughtlessness were dispelled.
It was just John and her.
No one else.
The love she felt for him pulsed through her and imparted onto her such strength and serenity in the face of the trial of the future birth, that nothing could convince her anything ill would befall her.
"I love you," he uttered in a ragged voice by her ear, before engulfing her lips once again to demonstrate how utterly she held possession of his heart and that if she died, the rest of his life would stretch out before him like an eternally bitter winter.
And Margaret completely understood, for it was the same way for her.
Dixon, wondering why the lounge room was so silent, lightly pressed open the door. Upon seeing her mistress feverishly melding her lips against the master's, her hands at the base of his neck and his hands moving avidly over her hips and buttocks, a flustered and embarrassed Dixon hurriedly closed the door again.
One of the maids, Jane, scurried up the stairs with a silver tray of tea. "Is the Master and Mistress ready for their tea?"
"They are indisposed at the present," replied Dixon shortly, wishing she could lecture Margaret on the impropriety of engaging in such behaviour that was more suited to the darkness of the bedchamber than the middle of the afternoon in the living room.
A small smirk appeared on Jane's lips, which Dixon disliked.
"Take that look off your face, Jane. Go and polish the silverware for tonight's dinner."
Jane merely smiled infuriatingly and departed down the stairs, no doubt to gossip with the other maids about the new mistress' penchant for afternoon liaisons with the master.
Dixon gave a long-suffering sigh. Honestly, things like this never happened in the deceased Maria Hale's day!
The End. Hope you all enjoyed it. Any feedback is most appreciated!