A/N: Oops. This update is ridiculously delayed, I know. Still, I hope the content makes up for it somewhat.
According to my story plan, there are still a few important loose ends to be tied up after this chapter, but I hope at least that if the story remains unfinished at this point, it won't be so excruciating for you guys. I will try and finish it, but can't make any promises, sorry.
As always, would love to hear what you think of this one!
EDIT: Thanks to mariapazgarcia for catching the mistake – probably should have noticed that one myself!
Chapter Twenty-Two – The Truth
Soon after she had auctioned off her parents' belongings, Margaret had written to Henry to ask both how much her father had left her and how she could access the money, and how his enquiries concerning Fred's ship had progressed, and when the morning's post brought a letter for her, she guessed that it was his reply.
She did not receive any mail except from Edith these days, and she thought she recognized his handwriting on the envelope.
Margaret opened it and began to read, and it was a mark of how much Mrs. Thornton had grown to like and trust her daughter-in-law, that – despite all her past suspicions and the unpleasant associations with mysterious letters – she asked no questions and made no comments about this piece of correspondence.
As for Mr. Thornton, both natural curiosity and a sense – hard to dispel, however misplaced he now knew it to be – that letters Margaret received from a mysterious source carried a danger of taking her from him made it extremely difficult for him to look away and concentrate on his breakfast, though he made a valiant attempt at it.
Their discretion was rewarded by Margaret explaining who the letter was from and freely paraphrasing its contents. 'I wrote to Mr. Lennox to enquire about the small inheritance my father left me,' she said. 'He has replied to instruct me on how to access the admittedly small – but hopefully helpful – fund of three hundred pounds which is now mine.'
The portion she did not mention was Henry's response to her other query. I have enquired as far as I can, he had written, and all I can tell you is that his ship safely reached its port in Santander. As to his current whereabouts and his safety, I am afraid I cannot find you any more information.
He did, however, have some words of comfort. If he has not written to you, he must have good reason. And I do not believe you need to fear that he is captured; as far as Frederick is concerned, no news is most definitely good news. A British mutineer having been caught and apprehended would have without a doubt made front page news.
The logical part of Margaret was reassured by these sensible words, but the part which consisted of her love for her brother could not help the ever-present worry which seemed to have settled like lead in the bottom of her stomach ever since the expected reply had never come.
'I know it is not much,' was all Margaret said aloud however, in reference to her father's legacy. 'But it is better than nothing, I suppose.'
It was when Mr. Thornton gave her a small, grateful smile across the breakfast table, the expression of his eyes tender and trusting, that Margaret decided that this charade could not continue any longer. When her husband had been so good to her, and had involved her so much in his life, and allowed her to help as much as she could with the mill, she could not do otherwise than take him into her confidence as far as regarded Fred.
Yes, he was a magistrate – and there were still all the old arguments about not wishing to burden his conscience with hiding the truth about Fred; but there were now new arguments against allowing this secret to torment him and eat away at the foundations of whatever relationship they could have. And if she had trusted him then before he had shielded her (and unknowingly Fred as well) from an inquest, well, in the following months her confidence in him had only grown.
She resolved that she would speak to him that evening when they were alone, and passed the day in a state of nervous anticipation interrupted by premature bursts of joy and relief that soon, soon this burden would be lifted off her shoulders, and she could finally enjoy total openness of communication with Mr. Thornton.
He was looking gloomy that evening after he had returned from the mill, which was unsurprising, as neither of them could see any way to accessing more funds than they had already gathered, and both were uncomfortably aware that these would last only two, perhaps two and a half months at the longest.
However, this did not deter Margaret; indeed, it only made her more determined to make her communication in the hope that his finally knowing the truth would be as welcome to him as it would be to her.
And so accordingly, after some commonplace conversation about the way they had spent their respective days, taking a deep breath, she began. 'Mr. Thornton, when you saw me by the post office that day, do you remember asking me about the letter I had sent, and me saying that I would tell you everything in time?'
He had been shrugging himself out of his coat when he froze at her words. After a moment he seemed to force his muscles to relax and completed the action, depositing the coat on the back of a chair. 'Yes,' he said shortly, his face impassive.
And yet Margaret knew from his very curtness and the way his eyes were fixed on her face that he was desperate for more information. 'These past months I have often felt that it was not right to… well, not lie to you exactly, but to conceal the truth as I have been doing. For myself I would not hesitated in telling you all, but the secret was – is – another person's, and I could not justify easing my conscience while possibly doing him harm.'
His face was pale, and his eyes rather hard – and yet it was a mark of how far they had come that he remained silent and refrained from making the bitter, caustic reply which was on the tip of his tongue that she must care about this other man a great deal.
With deliberate calm, she sat on the edge of the bed while Mr. Thornton chose the chair upon which he had draped his coat. 'The thing is,' she began haltingly, 'Frederick – that is, the man you saw me with at the station–'
She saw the tension in his hands, which had whitened as they clutched the arms of his chair. 'He is my brother,' she said quickly. 'Eight years ago, he joined the Navy…'
Mr. Thornton had listened to her story intently, and made no interruptions, but once she had finished, he remained still, and instead of expressing joy and relief, his countenance remained rather inscrutable. 'Why didn't you tell me before?' he asked quietly, after some moments of silence.
Margaret's heart sank. Of all reactions, she had not expected this one: joy manifesting in demonstrative affection she had vainly hoped for, anger which would be dispelled by the whole truth coming out she had been prepared for (joy and demonstrative affection she had of course hoped to follow), but this quiet disappointment was worse than anything. 'I told you,' she said weakly, 'it was to keep Fred safe.'
There was a flash of something like pain in his eyes before their expression hardened. 'And explaining the circumstances to me would have put him in danger? Do you really trust me so little?'
She winced. 'It was not like that. It is not that I did not trust you – but you are a magistrate, and–'
'And you think I am the kind of man who would have given up his brother-in-law to be hanged,' he finished flatly.
Margaret felt a flash of anger. Why was he not even trying to understand her? 'Are you saying you would not have considered it?' she said hotly. 'Are you saying you would have aided an outlaw to evade the law?'
'Of course I would have, if it meant protecting you,' he snapped. 'I did it once, and I'd do it again, and yet you – you kept this from me, and for months you let me think…' He stopped suddenly, as if aware that he had gone too far.
Margaret, who had felt a stab of guilt and shame when he had made a reference to his role in sparing her from the inquest, now lost any fleeting regret she might have had for continuing the quarrel. 'I let you think what, exactly?' she asked, her voice dangerously quiet.
Mr. Thornton reddened slightly, and his eyes lowered from her gaze. However, he resolutely said nothing, making neither accusation nor apology.
It was the lack of the latter which made Margaret see red. 'I suppose you imagined,' she said icily, 'that poor Fred was a lover with whom I had clandestine meetings as well as a correspondence which I continued in secret after I married you. Or were your suspicions perhaps worse? Was I perhaps, true to my mercenary ways, planning to run off with him the moment I discovered that the mill was not prospering?'
He looked at her, wide-eyed. This was so nearly exactly the fear that had been tormenting him until she had given him her support that he could think of nothing to say in his defense.
When he did not refute her accusations, Margaret could not choke back an angry sob. 'What on earth have I done to give you such a base view of my character?'
Mr. Thornton was not sure if he were angrier at himself or at her. 'Nothing,' he burst out. 'Nothing except concealing the whole as if conscious of its being wrong.' He was irritated that she could be so naïve, that she could condemn him for thinking what must surely jump to the mind of any man in his circumstances. 'I am sorry,' he said with some sarcasm, 'if my suspicions did not immediately jump to a mutineer brother whose existence I was totally unaware of until today; but you must admit what it looked like to someone unacquainted with your family history.'
'I will not,' said Margaret fiercely. Her voice began to rise. 'To anyone who knew me at all, to anyone who had had the least bit of trust in my character, it would have been apparent that there was more to it than what was visible at the first glance.'
He sprang to his feet, unable to bear any more. 'I was jealous!'
The utterance in its raw anguish seemed even louder than it was for the stunned silence which followed it.
'I was jealous,' he repeated quietly, running a shaking hand through his hair as he began to pace. 'Fear distorted my judgment. I was afraid – so very afraid that I would lose you that any threat I perceived would be magnified a hundredfold as it tormented me.' He sighed. 'I know you married me only because you had to; and I could not help imagining the worst. In your brother I saw only a man you preferred to me, and in your protecting him, I saw only a lack of trust in me.'
Margaret's heart was pounding from this revelation and much of her anger had drained away; and yet she could not allow herself to hope. She was all too aware of the disgust her concealment had given him of her; for had not his first reaction upon hearing the truth been to question it? She forced herself to speak through the lump in her throat. 'You are being ridiculous, Mr. Thornton.' Her voice sounded miserable, even to her own ears. 'Where there is no love, there can be no jealousy.'
Mr. Thornton, who had abruptly stopped his pacing at her words, laughed helplessly before sinking down onto the edge of the bed next to her. 'You are right, of course,' he agreed, smiling. Then he brought a hand up to cradle her face, his thumb gently stroking her temple. 'Margaret, you should know that I was very, very, very jealous.'
And if Margaret were not able to say anything in reply to this, Mr. Thornton did not mind in the least, for her response – which had been to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him full on the mouth – had been quite eloquent enough in assuring him that while she might have married him out of necessity, the case was much altered now.