A/N:Yes, it's my take on a 'what if Margaret was forced to marry John' story. Even if the premise is rather done-to-death, I hope there are at least some new things I can add to this little sub-genre of N&S. Please read and review, and I hope you enjoy!
Chapter One – A Match Made in Milton
14th October, 1851
The wedding between Miss Hale of Crampton, daughter of the Southern ex-clergyman turned private tutor and Mr. Thornton of Milton, master of Marlborough Mills went smoothly. The bride looked beautiful in her elegantly simple white gown, despite her slightly swollen and red eyes (which most people forgave, attributing it to the recent loss of her mother) and the groom looked handsome in his well-tailored black suit, despite his expression of utter disbelief at the reality of the proceedings and the fear that he was going to wake up at any moment (these feelings that the audience discerned were attributed to his being violently in love with his pretty wife-to-be and surprised at his good fortune and were therefore looked upon with indulgence).
As they both knelt to take their vows after the bride's father had walked her to the altar, nobody noticed the panic in the eyes of both bride and groom. If the audience could have seen into their minds, they would have seen the reason for this: the bride was terrified at the thought of 'till death do us part' and was blindly wondering if she could make a run for it, and the groom was terrified that she might do so, knowing that if she did, he could not stop her. This was no ordinary wedding, whatever people might think.
Of this, some small suspicion came into the minds of the congregation when the groom, when asked to kiss his bride, looked at her intently, as if searching her expression before briefly touching his lips to her cheek. Although nobody noticed the bride's sigh of relief at this, they thought it extremely odd. However, this was soon attributed to the groom's extreme reserve, which made him uncomfortable kissing his bride in the presence of others, even on his wedding day. The people of Milton were satisfied that all was as it should be.
11th October, 1851
Mr. Adam Bell shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was not sure how much longer he could sit here making useless small talk, when he had such an important matter to take up with Mr. Hale. However, it would not do to broach the subject when Margaret was in the room, so it was a welcome sight to see her retreating to her room after bidding them both good-night.
He decided to address his concern immediately. 'Richard,' he began, but then stopped abruptly. How on earth was he to do this? Mr. Hale looked at him questioningly. Taking a deep breath, he began again. 'Richard, I heard something most unpleasant when I was walking in the street today. Something about Margaret.'
Mr. Hale frowned, puzzled. 'About Margaret? What on earth –'
Mr. Bell sighed. 'There is widespread gossip about her throughout Milton. People are insinuating all kinds of things about her and a gentleman she was seen with at the station late at night a few days ago –'
Mr. Hale looked horrified. 'But that was Fred! Fred, her brother! Surely –'
Mr. Bell smiled grimly. 'I know that and you know that. But to the people of Milton, Margaret was having some clandestine meeting with a lover and we cannot change what they think. We can hardly be honest about Fred's identity.'
The blood drained out of Mr. Hale's face. 'What can we do?'
Mr. Bell sighed. 'There's more, Richard.' Seeing Mr. Hale's expression, he hastily amended his words. 'There is more, but this is where I see the solution to this problem – the way to rescue Margaret's reputation and stop the tittle-tattle of Milton.' Mr. Hale said nothing, watching him expectantly. 'About two months ago, you remember rioters stormed into Marlborough Mills. I don't know if you heard this, but there is talk that a woman was there with Thornton, and shielded him from the rioters, getting hit with a stone that was meant for him.'
Comprehension dawned on Mr. Hale as he suddenly recalled details which had seemed a little strange at the time, but had been pushed to the back of his mind by worry for his wife. 'You mean… Margaret? She did go to the Thorntons' that day, to borrow a water mattress for Maria. And she was unusually quiet and pale when she returned. You don't think…?'
Mr. Bell nodded. 'I heard her name in connection with Thornton's as well. I honestly think the only way we can save her reputation is to get her married as soon as possible. Thornton is a man of honour – I am sure if I explain the situation to him, he will agree. I will make him see that it is his responsibility, as he is partly the reason why the woman who saved his life is losing her good reputation.'
Mr. Hale ran a shaking hand over his eyes. 'I shall have to speak to Margaret. Will you talk to John? I think that would be best.'
Mr. Bell patted his arm. 'Of course, of course. Leave it to me. I shall go to Marlborough Mills first thing tomorrow.'
They parted with a firm handshake and then each was left to his delicate and difficult task.
Later on 14th October, 1851
Man and wife walked out of the church, walking side-by-side if not arm-in-arm. It was when man was drawn aside to talk about business on today of all days that wife was similarly drawn aside to talk about something even more inappropriate than business on her wedding day.
'Henry, let go – you're hurting me!' She wrenched her arm out of his tight grip and was pleased to see a flash of remorse before his expression grew cold once more.
'I was under the impression that you were not ready to marry anyone.' His voice was somewhat slurred and she thought she could smell alcohol on his breath. 'I must have been mistaken.' Although the rest of her relatives were there and Henry was so close to the family that she couldn't not invite him, she suddenly thought that perhaps it would have been better for both of them if he had stayed away.
Despite her feeling of apprehension, she threw her head back proudly and raised her chin. She was not about to justify her actions to a man who was not completely sober. Her words were firm. 'Henry, you were my friend. This is not how I want to remember you.'
Henry opened his mouth to say something to wife, but before he could, man returned to her side.
'Is there a problem?' His tone was perfectly polite, but there was no mistaking the menace there.
Henry thought better of whatever he had been about to say and muttered a negative before walking away.
Wife looked at man gratefully, finally placing her arm in his. 'Thank you,' was all she said in her soft voice, but it was enough to make man's spirits soar and his lips curve upwards in a small smile.
12th October, 1851
'What are you saying, Mr. Bell?' Mr. Thornton's voice was strained.
Mr. Bell refused to let himself be daunted. You are thirty years older than this man, he told himself sternly, and you have the welfare of a daughter in your hands. He proceeded to spell it out. 'I am saying that in all honour you should make Miss Hale an offer. It is because of you that her reputation is suffering.' Mr. Bell conveniently neglected to mention Fred. 'After she exposed herself at the riot – why, she threw her arms around you!'
'To shield me from the rioters,' he said shortly.
'And nothing. Miss Hale has no particular feelings for me.' His voice had a bitterness which Mr. Bell could not account for.
Mr. Bell sighed, quite exasperated now. Really, Thornton was being far more difficult about this than he had expected. 'A gentleman would understand that after what Miss Hale has done, he is bound in honour to make her an offer.'
Mr. Thornton looked up sharply at the use of the word 'gentleman'. 'Really? I have heard that a gentleman would have perceived that any woman would have come forward to shield with her reverenced helplessness a man in danger from the violence of numbers. I have heard that such conduct as making an offer under these circumstances is not the way of a gentleman.'
'Look, Thornton, I do not know where you're getting these ideas from, but you really must –'
'I have already made Miss Hale an offer. She would not have me.' Mr. Thornton closed his eyes, wishing the words back as soon as they were out. That was meant to be a secret grief, known only to himself and his mother. And Miss Hale, of course – but that was only by necessity; stupidly, if he could have hidden it from Miss Hale as well, he would have.
At once Mr. Bell's somewhat hostile feelings towards Thornton softened. The man had done the right thing, and was clearly hurt by Margaret's repulse. Accordingly his voice was much gentler as he said, 'I will speak to Margaret. She must be made to understand that this is the only way. Are you still willing to save her reputation?'
Mr. Thornton sighed, passing a hand over his tired eyes. 'I love Miss Hale; my motive for offering her my hand was never with the express intention of saving her reputation and nor is it now. I did not want our wedding to come about like this, but I will do what I must, Mr. Bell.'