Sick of Shadows
After Margaret threw her arms around Mr Thornton during the riot, Milton society began to talk.
Margaret did not mind people talking about her. She felt she knew the truth and that no false suppositions could affect it. But in the next week, she came to see that rumours had greater power than the truth.
Mr Hale's students began to send notices deferring lessons and visits to his home, and Mr Hale discussed the possibility of dismissing Dixon privately with Margaret, as he had begun to think they could not afford to keep her. Mrs Hale took a turn for the worse, deteriorating her health by fretting over her daughter's deteriorating marriage prospects.
Margaret tried to explain to those who looked askance at her that she had only been acting out of what she saw as her duty. She tried to explain that she thought that this was any woman's duty: she must stand against injustice; she must render aid where it is needed; she must remind human beings of the sacred contract between them all, that they must love each other, and commit no violence.
Instead, society saw her protection of Mr Thornton at the Mill that day as either manoeuvring on her part to catch herself a husband, or evidence of intimate feeling, grossly exhibited for all to see. When Mr Thornton had proposed to her, she had felt convinced he shared a similar view of her conduct, and it was this that had so offended her.
Despite the rumours, Mr Thornton had not made it public knowledge that he had offered for Margaret, nor that she had refused him. If only he would face them all and speak reason, as he should have to the workers, then they would see he had no obligation to her. If they knew she had refused him, they would see that she had only acted out of virtue. They would see the truth. That Mr Thornton did not reveal it only reaffirmed their sordid assumptions.
Margaret began to wonder whether she should reveal it herself. She had deemed the act of making public his rejection should belong to Mr Thornton, but she had not thought his pride so base nor his honour so lacking that he would not do so.
Only after time passed did her opinion begin to change.
Mr Thornton was Mr Hale's only remaining student. He came to Crampton twice a week. Though rather cold to Margaret, he was kind to her father, and solicitous of her mother. Apparently accepting her explanation for her actions, he had defended them publicly, claiming that they were no evidence of indiscretion or manoeuvring on her part.
The rumours built on Mr Thornton's defence of her, and people began to say that a proper gentleman would have offered for her. The stain cast upon Margaret was cast upon himself as well. Margaret gradually realized he had not revealed his proposal not due to his shame in her rejection, or his own wish to punish her, but in an effort to take some of the blame upon himself.
As the world began to close in around her, Margaret saw that Mr Thornton might prove to be one of her family's only friends.
Because Margaret always preferred to be honest, during Mr Thornton's next visit she requested an audience with him. Warily, he accepted, and she led him into the drawing-room. It was there that he had proposed.
Margaret struggled to hold her head up high. "I wanted to thank you," she said finally, "for your loyalty to my father, and kindness to us." Her eyes swept down. "I never suspected I might bring shame upon you."
Mr Thornton seemed surprised. "You are blameless."
Resisting the urge to fidget, Margaret said, "Other people do not feel as you do."
"You have plainly stated that your behaviour at the mill was . . . not a sign of an attachment. I believe you."
"Yet you interpreted it differently in the beginning."
Something twisted in Mr Thornton's stern, unhappy expression. "Clearly I was mistaken."
"Yes," said Margaret. "Thank you for believing me." She moved toward the door.
Mr Thornton said, "Wait," and she turned. "I know that it would be abhorrent to you to enter an engagement under false pretences, but it is abhorrent to me that you should suffer." She looked at him in surprise. "I would renew my offer to you if you choose to reconsider," he said.
Not very long ago, Margaret would have assumed he was taking advantage of a women in a desperate situation that he had helped to engineer. His behaviour to her family had been so kind, however, and his manner when he spoke seemed so straightforward and honest, that he seemed to her in that moment more like a friend offering her assistance than a man pressing his suit.
"I have not reconsidered," she told him, and felt the first press of doubt.
Margaret's parents, having by now heard the rumours spread about her, quickly guessed at the nature of this private conference between her and Mr Thornton, but when Margaret revealed the truth, they were surprised. As days passed, circumstances worsened, and doubts began to crowd in upon her, Margaret wondered if she should reconsider after all.
Mr Hale did not pressure her into any decision. He did not burden her by speaking of the financial or social troubles that would worsen should she continue to rebuff Mr Thornton. He did not even impress upon her the delicate balance of her own situation. In fact, Margaret felt sure her father had no idea of what she should do. Though she would never accuse him of such a thing, Margaret suspected her father was relieved that the burden of such a difficult decision did not fall to him, that the responsibility might be hers alone.
As for Mrs Hale, she was all tears and disbelief, saying "Poor Margaret!" again and again, just as she had once wrung her handkerchief and cried, "Poor Frederick!" She had acted much the same again when they had first moved to Milton. Then, both of her parents could only act as though a tragedy had occurred. They could not talk about it. They could not question it. There was nothing to be done about it, except mourn the injustices fate had perpetrated on all of them.
On top of it all was Dixon beating her breast, lamenting the situation in general. She condemned Mr. Thornton in particular, for Dixon always liked someone in particular to blame, until Margaret could not bear it any more, and even rose to his defence. One week after her conference with him in the drawing-room, Margaret took into account her doubt, the likely outcome of all her actions, and the opinions of her family.
She did the thing that seemed best.
She accepted Mr Thornton's offer.
A week later Margaret awoke, put on her best dress, and walked with her father to the church. Although it was everything she said she had wanted in a wedding, it was not at all the wedding she wanted.
She did not hate Mr Thornton. He had faults aplenty: he was too proud, he thought too much of business and not at all of other people, he had a violent temper, but recently, Margaret had begun to see that this was not all he was. She came to regret the manner in which she had refused him, and how she had judged him. She hoped they could endeavour to respect each other, if they could not love each other. And yet mutual respect, even friendship, was not all that she wanted from a marriage.
The wedding was a small affair, after which bride and groom took a private carriage for the three blocks from the church to Marlborough Mills.
"Are you well?" Mr Thornton asked of her when they were alone.
"Yes," said Margaret.
They said no more. She looked out the window the entire way.
At the Thornton residence, the family and guests partook of the wedding brunch. What the wedding had lacked in ostentation due to the constraints of time was made up by the meal. As she had at the Thornton's dinner party, Margaret felt oppressed by the quantity of fine things, as if the number of them could make up for the lack of elegance in their presentation. Mr Thornton was most solicitous of her, but Margaret was not interested in any dainties he could offer.
Mostly, the guests preoccupied her. Despite the vast array of the meal, there were not many to enjoy it. The Hales, Mr Bell, Smithers, whose son was a student of Mr Hale's, Mrs Thornton, Fanny, the Latimers, and Mr Watson were the only guests. The conversation was light and of no importance; no one mentioned the hurried marriage, or the incident of violence at the mill.
Once the guests had gone, Mr Thornton offered to show his new young wife her home. She consented, and he hesitated several long seconds before apparently deciding he should not offer his arm. They walked side by side. They did not touch.
He showed her the servants' quarters first. She was now mistress of this house, he told her; the servants would do her bidding.
"I have no wish to usurp your mother's authority," Margaret said, stopping before he opened the door.
He stopped too, with that slight lowering of his brow that she could never tell whether was troubled or a sign of reproof. "My mother will defer to you. You are now the lady of the house."
"But she has been its lady for many years. Surely such relinquishment will be . . ." Realizing what she was saying, and how it could reflect ill upon Mrs Thornton, Margaret groped for words.
"Difficult?" said Mr Thornton. Amusement quickly faded. "Miss—" He stopped, correcting himself. "I cannot promise that, for either of you, adjusting to these new circumstances will come easily. But my mother loves me very much, and you are my wife. She will respect you as she respects me. For better or for worse," he said with an arched brow, "we are now to be regarded the same."
"But," Margaret began. "Perhaps she will not appreciate—"
"She is not a tyrant." Mr Thornton looked annoyed. "Whatever you may think of her." He made to push past her.
Margaret laid a hand on his arm. "Please," she said, but he did not let her stay him.
He proceeded to show her the serving quarters, the kitchens and laundry, and the entry hall to the servants' bedchambers.
She wanted to apologize for misunderstanding him, when he had first proposed and she had refused. She wanted to thank him for what he had done for her, in letting his offer stand. They may have been forced into these circumstances, but they had been forced there together, and he had not let her face them alone.
But now they may be in the hearing of other people, Margaret decided she must wait. Their circumstances were their own, and they were private. No one else had believed the truth; only she and Mr Thornton understood the situation in which they now found themselves. So, instead of making her explanations, Margaret silently took in the information that he gave her, waiting until a more appropriate time.
Most of the servants were turned out to meet her, bobbing their heads as she passed. Mr Thornton knew all their names, and all of them seemed kindly disposed towards him.
"My mother will show you the kitchens in more detail later in the day," Mr Thornton said, once they had made a full circuit. "No doubt she can give you more intimate knowledge of the servants' daily workings. She has always taken care of those things."
He showed her the drawing room with which she was familiar from previous visits, and the dining room they had used that morning. The showiness of these rooms had not changed since she had seen them last, nor since the evidence of the recent feast had been cleared. They still shined in all their crystal glory, everything too bright for comfort.
There was an over-abundance of lace and ornaments, which cluttered and confused everything until one did not know where to sit or stand, lest one be in the way of something. Most of these ornaments, too, were bagged up, as they had been when Margaret had first seen them, as protection from dust. The riches of these rooms were not meant to be used or enjoyed, only seen and admired.
Mr Thornton went on to show her the breakfast room, library, music room, his office, and the morning room his mother used, most of which were similarly adorned. They shone so bright they sparkled, so many things white and pristine that they reminded her of snow. At last he showed her the room which would now be her own office.
"But what should I need an office for?" Margaret asked, perplexed.
Mr Thornton replied carelessly. "Letter writing and the like."
"But surely a sitting room will do for that."
"You have a small one connected to your own room, but this is much bigger."
"A small sitting room is all I need." Margaret looked around the room which now was stuffed to the brim with brightly bound books. They looked as though they were purely decoration, next to other sparkling trinkets in the shelves. The chairs were pink and green, with large floral patterns and shining trim. "I should not know what to do with all this space."
Mr Thornton seemed to find this inconsequential. "Nevertheless, you have it."
"But there is no need," Margaret said. She was used to a modest accommodation. "Why, if I were to have this room, I should have to learn some sort of sport to play, if only to make use of all this space. I have no other use for an extra room."
"I am sorry if the excess of my home offends your sensibilities," Mr Thornton said, in that stiff, acid tone he used when she had offended his own. "You can seal the room up, for all I care. It will still be yours."
"Mr Thornton." This time he stopped when she reached out for his arm. She dropped her hand, feeling guilty. To some extent, he was right. His house seemed to her pretentious. All this space no one could possibly use seemed designed to impress those who saw it, for only the truly wealthy could afford luxury no one actually needed. "I did not mean to insult you," she said, "or your home."
"I am sure the places you are used to living are far different from our house." He no longer sounded annoyed.
"Yes. But that does not mean I find your home unwelcoming." She stepped closer. "I am grateful to you for what you have done for me, and my family, for renewing your offer when I had so cruelly refused you. You have saved my family and me." Margaret stood stiffly, attempting not to reveal her agitation. "You seem to be expecting that I will make pretences to superiority and throw them in your face. On the contrary, I have come to trust you, where your intentions toward myself are concerned. Cannot you show me the same courtesy?"
"Forgive me." Mr Thornton's voice was still stiff. "After what you said to me that day after the riot—"
"Oh, forget what I said then!"
"I cannot forget it."
"Then forgive me for it. I did not know you then as I know you now."
"And what do you know now? We have not come so very far, only that we are married now, and must live with our feelings."
"I have come far," Margaret said.
"Then you have a better opinion of me?" Mr Thornton seemed sceptical. "You do not think I have attempted to buy you, and only managed to succeed now because the price of your refusal became too high?"
Margaret threw her head back. "Do you think that I would allow myself to be bought?"
"I think you are a proud woman, who is honest, and cares deeply for her family. I think you would do much to protect them."
"So I would," Margaret said, "but I would never allow myself to stoop to marry a man I could not respect."
"Then I've misunderstood you." Mr Thornton turned from her. After a while he said, in a thoughtful tone, "We were speaking of the size of this room. How is it that every conversation I have with you turns into an argument about something else?"
"Perhaps we have deeper concerns than what is before our eyes."
Mr Thornton's voice was rough. "I had convinced myself your view of my proposal was the same as it had been initially," he said. "I thought that I disgusted you, and you only consented out of extreme necessity."
"I cannot say that I love you, or that all my old views of you are wrong." Margaret sorted through her words carefully. As always, she felt the need to be perfectly honest, and yet she wish to soothe the pain in his voice. "But I appreciate what you have done for me, and I think that we can learn to understand each other. We have tried being friends, in the past. I think that we still might be."
"Friends." Mr Thornton did not appear overjoyed at the prospect. He smiled with effort. "If you think you can."
Margaret smiled also. "Only let me."
For a long moment, Mr Thornton hesitated. Then, abruptly, he said, "I will show you your bedchamber."
"Yes," she said, and followed him there.
The room was down the corridor, to the right. He did not come in, but rather watched her inspection from the doorway. She found the accommodation suitable, and not nearly as large as she had feared. Perhaps someone had thought of what her preferences were likely to be, coming from the background she did. She thought it more likely that it was the only set of rooms that adjoined another equal set of rooms, for she noticed the door in the corner that must lead to Mr Thornton's chamber. The furnishings, however, could not be helped: the room was full to bursting with lace and bright crystal, nothing with any warmth about it.
"Is everything to your liking?" Mr Thornton asked, when she approached him near the doorway.
She could hear hesitancy in his tone, an eagerness to please. "It will suit," she said, and passed by him quickly out of the room.
"If there are any changes you would like to make," Mr Thornton said, "you can refer to my mother. She will help you with all the things you need." Sensing that he searched her face, Margaret looked down, silent. He still spoke in that eager manner. "Do not hesitate to ask. I do not know all that is necessary, for a woman."
Margaret struggled to meet his eyes. "Thank you. They are wonderful rooms, Mr Thornton."
His jaw hardened. "All of the family's rooms are in this wing. Mother's room is on the end; Fanny, just there." He gestured. "Here is mine." He walked two steps to the door next to hers in the corridor, which seemed to correspond to the door she had not opened in her own. He swung that door open, and gestured inside. "You are my wife," he said, as if she could forget. "You may come and go here as you please."
She held her head up high. "Thank you," she said again. Inside, the room was simpler than most she had seen so far, the furnishings starker and less ostentatious.
He looked down at her, stern as ever, some hard thought slightly furrowing his brow. His eyes were unreadable, but the angle of his mouth was unhappy, as it often was.
"You said your mother would review the household duties?" Margaret said eventually, because the silence had gone on so long, and she could not think of anything else to say.
"Of course." He turned from her and led her back to the drawing room, where Mrs Thornton was working on cross-point.
Mrs Thornton seemed to be expecting the employment, and stood as soon as they entered. As Mr Thornton made his request for his wife, Mrs Thornton's eyes swept over Margaret in their dark way. As usual, Margaret could read nothing in that gaze.
"Of course," Mrs Thornton said, in much the way Mr Thornton had. She turned to Margaret. "You have seen the rest of the house?"
"Yes, and made the acquaintance of Mrs Dawes, the housekeeper. I confess, I have little knowledge of the running of large houses, as you may probably suppose."
Again, those measuring eyes gazed at her. "You will learn."
"I have no doubt."
"I must go to the mill," Mr Thornton said. At his mother's raised brows, he added, "Only for a little while." He turned to Margaret. "The Irish will have finished their services, and I must still attend to some of their journeys home."
Margaret was not surprised, even if she could not help feeling slightly disheartened. Their wedding had been hurried. He could not stop everything that was going on for it, and neither could anyone else. This morning must be an exception; the rest would be an ordinary day. Once, Margaret would have thought no day on which she was married could ever be ordinary. But there was not time to make it special, and no reason to do so. They had married out of necessity.
Mr Thornton went on, sounding extremely unused to informing a person of his whereabouts, who did not already know and account for his every movement. "You may expect me to spend some hours at the mill every day, until these matters are settled. I do not know how long. You must feel free to visit neighbours as you wish during these times, and learn matters of the household."
"I am sure I can find use for my time." Margaret did not mean to sound bitter.
"Then I will see you at supper." Mr Thornton lingered. "I sent your father home with a basket of the best fruit from this morning, and a portion of the duck. If there is anything for your mother—"
"Thank you. I will go by this afternoon to see how she fares."
Mr Thornton gave a sharp nod. "I thought as much. Mother," he said in farewell, stepping forward to kiss Mrs Thornton on the cheek. Then it was Margaret's turn, and he said her name. A light touch grazed her cheek and was gone; she could not say whether he had kissed her or merely brushed her skin with his. Then he stepped back, turned, and strode off toward his room to change from his wedding garments.
For the next hour, Mrs Thornton showed Margaret the house. This was much as her son had done, except that Mrs Thornton was more intimately aware of what duties Margaret could be expected to undertake: which rooms were to have fires at which times, how often such and such should be dusted, market visits, and meals that Cook knew how to prepare for supper.
After this little tour, Margaret and Mrs Thornton repaired to Mrs Thornton's morning room, in which Mrs Thornton imparted knowledge regarding wifely duties. Mrs Hale had made some mention of these duties before Margaret's marriage, but Mrs Hale had been so distressed that she had not been able to make the point entirely clear. "Poor Margaret," she had said.
Margaret had been frustrated by this. Her mother knew she did not love Mr Thornton, but she obviously possessed information as to why, when it came in particular to conjugal duties, Margaret was "poor." Yet Mrs Hale fretted so, Margaret felt unable to ask questions. This was nothing like Fred's mutiny, or Mr Hale's removal of their family to Milton, and yet her marriage seemed to be shrouded by a hushed sense of mystery, by shame.
No one who whispered, or spread any of the malicious rumours, ever said anything explicit about how throwing herself against Mr Thornton had looked. They all seemed to delight in scandal, to revel in the very indecency of anything untoward, and yet when it came to speaking frankly of what scandal was exactly, everyone was silent. Margaret thought they were all hypocrites.
But Mrs Thornton took it upon herself to explain the particulars of the marriage bed to the new Mrs Thornton, such that Margaret could be in no doubt as to what was expected of her. Margaret could see why her own mother had shuddered away from such explanations. Indeed, she was shocked by Mrs Thornton, feeling surely that a gentlewoman could not have been so explicit.
Once Mrs Thornton had finished, Margaret went off alone to arrange her room, feeling flooded with shame. She had wanted the truth, but now that she had it, she instinctively shied away from it. Perhaps there was a reason everything was so shrouded in secrecy. What Mrs Thornton had spoken of could never be out in the open. It was not something that was exposed or honest or proud. It must always be hidden away; it must forever be concealed. The world felt to Margaret strangely like a lie.
With these thoughts upon her mind, Margaret found the task of arranging her meagre amount of possessions into her new room more taxing than she had expected. The extra space was of no use to her, so cluttered was the room with adornments and non-functional furniture. The desk she had owned since childhood seemed heart-achingly simple and small in these surroundings, and yet she could not find a place for it. If she were to have comfort at all, she would have to move out almost all of the décor, and find a place to put it and explain its disappearance without Mrs Thornton feeling judged.
Margaret next made her visit to Crampton, accompanied by her new mother and sister-in-law. Mrs Hale had attended the wedding, but did not seem inclined to go over it in every detail, as Fanny seemed to; Mrs Hale was all too aware that there was an air of disgrace about it. Margaret was half afraid her mother might burst into more exclamations of, "Poor Margaret!"
Instead, Mrs Hale asked about Margaret's new home, and new neighbours, and it must be nice to have so much space to spread out—this with a nod toward Mrs Thornton. It was as though Mrs Hale searched for evidence to convince herself that Margaret was not so very poor. She could not survive thinking Margaret was unhappy, and so she must find reasons to believe otherwise.
Fanny opined that the wedding service had been too simple, though the duck delicious, and that she should have more lace at her own wedding. Mrs Thornton looked on, silent except when spoken to directly. Margaret could not decide if Mrs Thornton had grown so oblivious to Fanny that she did not hear her any more, or she was merely daring Margaret and her mother to reproach her.
Margaret informed her mother that she had not yet had an opportunity to meet new neighbours, but that Marlborough Mills was indeed spacious. Her mother should not have to worry about her. She was not in Spain; she was not lost forever. She would survive, and she would be well.
They returned to Marlborough Mills only a short time before supper, and Margaret retired upstairs to change with the help of Sarah, Mrs Thornton's and Fanny's own maid. Though Margaret had protested she needed no lady's maid, Mrs Thornton had insisted, and Sarah had looked so affronted that Margaret had agreed. When Margaret emerged from her room, she noticed Mr Thornton only just emerging from his own. He must have returned while she dressed, and had changed for supper also.
Recalling the information his mother had imparted, Margaret blushed. He still did not take her arm, only asked after her health and that of her mother. Her answers were on the short end of what politeness dictated, and the rest of their walk to the dining room was awkward.
The meal, too, was a quiet affair. Margaret could not tell whether her own presence caused the stifling silence. Perhaps all meals in this enormous house, with these proud, easily offended people, in this dreary town, were dour. The room was as imposing as Milton itself, with its stark linen, its shining crystal and silver. Everywhere it looked white as snow.
Margaret attempted some conversation with Fanny while Mr Thornton and his mother ate in silence. At first, Fanny seemed suspicious, but gradually she became animated, as they spoke of tunes for the piano from London.
"Perhaps you could educate me," Margaret told Fanny. "As you know, I have no knowledge of playing music. But ignorance does not preclude learning." She smiled, looking to Mr Thornton and his mother to include them. "Indeed, I think ignorance pleads it."
"Lord," said Fanny, and looked aghast.
"Dearest," said Mrs Thornton. She made no expression, only continued sipping her soup.
"You think that I should teach you?" said Fanny. "I never heard of anything so—"
"What is the matter with it?" Margaret said.
Fanny sat up straight. "One cannot just learn to play piano."
"We all must learn everything at some time." Margaret looked around again, feeling that this was also universal. Mrs Thornton went on eating. Mr Thornton was merely watching them. "Surely you learned," Margaret said. "You were not born knowing how to play."
"One must have a gift for it," Fanny said. "A yearning. A tendre. "
Margaret laughed. "I have no tendre for cross-point, and yet I have learned it. There are some subjects for which it is more important to have perseverance than passion."
"One must have a tutor," Fanny insisted.
"But I thought you might play my tutor."
"I can hardly imagine anything more ted—"
"Mrs Thornton may have lessons if she chooses," Mr Thornton said.
It was a moment before Margaret realized he was speaking of her. "I do not wish to importune anyone."
"Really," Fanny said.
"It is no inconvenience." Mr Thornton said, with a firmness that caused Fanny to open her mouth in partial shock and look to her mother for support.
Mrs Thornton went on eating soup.
"I must confess I did not voice interest in learning piano so much because I am aching to learn." Margaret hesitated. "It was rather the desire of making your better acquaintance, Miss Thornton."
Fanny's open mouth widened, then snapped shut.
Margaret tried to explain. "After all, we are now sisters. I thought I should like us to be better friends." Fanny looked so taken aback that Margaret glanced uncertainly at Mr Thornton. Then she quickly looked away, for she felt as if she had caught him wearing a private expression. He was smiling, his gaze softened so that it made him look five or even ten years younger.
Fanny, meanwhile, was still aghast.
"Fanny, dear," was all Mrs Thornton said. Then she turned to the servants, who had brought in the dessert dishes.
"I am flattered, Mrs Thornton," Fanny said. She did not sound flattered.
"Please, call me Margaret," Margaret said faintly.
Fanny's smile was nothing like her brother's, much more like a grimace. "You may call me Fanny. If you like."
"I do like it," Margaret told her smoothly, in her most dignified voice.
"Well!" said Fanny. "If you would like to watch me as I play and sing, I suppose I could let you. It would not be an inconvenience."
Margaret laughed. "I thank you for the invitation! I hope I can hear you play after supper, if Mr Thornton and Mrs Thornton are in the mood for a recital."
"I am amenable to anything which pleases you," Mr Thornton said. When she at last looked back at him, the smile had faded. There was still softness in his eyes.
"Thank you," Margaret said.
"Is the meal according to your tastes?"
"Yes." She smiled at him, attempting to convey approval. "We have not had strawberries at Crampton for at least two months. It is very enjoyable."
"You are in charge of the menus," Mr Thornton said. His manner was again almost over-eager. "You may change anything as you like. Mother?"
"This house is my son's. Everything in it is his to dispose of as he chooses." Mrs Thornton was not looking at Margaret, but at her son. Her eyes were shiny and black.
Pride, Margaret realized suddenly. Whatever resentment Mrs Thornton may have felt at being usurped in her position in the household, it was not in her expression at the moment. Instead, she looked like a mother who was proud that her son had so much to bestow upon ones he deemed worth of his generosity.
"Thank you," Margaret said again.
The rest of the evening Fanny spoke of London, sang of London, and displayed dress patterns, sheet music, and pictures from London. Or Mozambique, which, she confided, fascinated her. Sometimes she spoke of London and Mozambique interchangeably, and did not seem to notice. Fanny, in short, was a ridiculous person, selfish in the extreme, and consumed by frivolous things.
Margaret began to wonder whether Fanny had seemed so surprised at her offer of friendship not because it was unwelcome, but because it was unprecedented. Even her own family seemed to have learned to disregard her.
This made Margaret want to pay more attention to her. In doing so, she noticed that there was pink in Fanny's cheeks when she spoke of the things she liked. Her eyes were very bright. Margaret realized it reminded her of Mrs Thornton.
As different as these two women were, they were both preoccupied by material, not spiritual, things. Margaret had noticed that this was a characteristic of Milton people, and quickly condemned it.
Yet with the onset of the strike, she, too, had become consumed by material issues. Her father, still so taken with abstractions, seemed paralysed by theory, unable to decide what in the strike was justified, and what was not. But it was not wrong for one such as Nicholas Higgins to be preoccupied with the making of cotton, and it had begun to seem that it was not wrong for one such as Mr Thornton to be preoccupied with the selling of cotton.
Despite these down to earth matters, Margaret detected a romantic streak in both mother and daughter. It was there in the gleam in Fanny's eye. London for her was a dream that must seem as far off and remarkable as Mozambique, both inconceivable to her. It was also there when Mrs Thornton looked at her son.
Margaret wondered if Mr Thornton also had a romantic streak in him, whether there were moments spent not thinking of cotton or strikes, society's demands or scholarship, but spent instead dreaming of some unspoken ideal.
While Fanny went on, Mrs Thornton and her son were relatively quiet, and it fell to Margaret to make most of the conversation with her new sister. Mrs Thornton sat sewing, and Mr Thornton sat at the desk in the drawing room, writing something Margaret could not see. Either it was a letter or a ledger, some accounts to do with business. From time to time he put down his pen and appeared to be listening to the conversation. Whether this was for the sake of politeness, or whether he was actually interested in the length of trains in London, Margaret could not decipher, for Mr Thornton hardly spoke.
Margaret had never thought of either Mr Thornton or his mother as quiet people, but watching them this evening, she realized she had not often observed them unless speaking to them directly. She had so often argued with Mr Thornton and exchanged heated words that she had thought of him as easily excited, and quick to take offence.
But now Margaret thought of those times there had not been altercations when she had observed Mr Thornton and his mother. She recalled the Thorntons' dinner party, during which she had noticed the remarkable simplicity in Mr Thornton's speech, the sound answers he gave, short and yet solid. He had not needed to say much to make his points, only to speak as someone who had listened well to that which came before, considered all of it, and produced an opinion which addressed the information given and yet expressed a strong impression of its owner's thoughts.
When Mr Hale had been giving his lessons, Mr Thornton had listened with thoughtful interest. When Mr Thornton had spoken, his words had been well thought out and ordered. When he and her father disagreed, their arguments were not the impassioned discussions with which Margaret was familiar coming from Mr Thornton. They were straightforward, honest debates between equals, as Mr Hale rarely encountered. Even her father's friend Mr Bell employed tactics of rhetoric to which he knew Mr Hale's gentle manner would not allow him to rise. Not so Mr Thornton. Of course Margaret knew her father cared for Mr Thornton as a friend, but she had never stopped to consider why.
Mr Thornton at last gave up his writing entirely. Throwing down his pen, he stood to stir the fire. He remained by the fireplace for some time, listening to his sister and Margaret speak of inconsequentialities.
Eventually Margaret recalled what Mrs Thornton had said regarding wifely duties, and her responses to Fanny shortened as her thoughts grew apprehensive. She became aware of Mr Thornton standing by the fire, of the shadow thrown large behind him, while she and Fanny sat in the warm light, speaking of pleasant, pointless things.
The shadow detached. Mr Thornton came towards them. "You are tired," Mr Thornton told her.
"Quite," said Margaret, smiling faintly. She tried to reconcile the things that Mrs Thornton had said he would expect of her with this figure, and the man whom her father called a friend. Unable to do so, Margaret stood a little too swiftly when he sat down beside her. "I believe I shall retire."
"You have not seen all my patterns," said Fanny.
"I would like to." Margaret smiled. "If you will do me the favour of setting aside the ones I have not yet seen, we will return to them tomorrow. But I am afraid with the wedding, and two delicious meals, I am quite exhausted."
Fanny conceded again that the meal had been excellent, but still opined that a dress for a wedding should have considerably more flounces.
Margaret smiled, and wished Fanny a good evening. She turned to bid good night to Mrs Thornton, who observed her with raised brows. Margaret wondered if Mrs Thornton thought she was shirking her duty by her husband by retiring early. Surely her husband could come to her whenever he preferred to perform conjugal rites. If he had different expectations of her in this regard, he must explain them.
Margaret bid him goodnight last, and made her way upstairs. Sarah came to help her unbutton her dress from the back, though really it was such a simple affair that it would have been easier for Margaret to do it herself.
Once Sarah was gone, Margaret prepared herself for bed, putting on her nightgown, taking down her hair. She did all this in a methodical way, as much according to ritual as she could in these new surroundings. She still did not know whether Mr Thornton would come, or what she should do: whether she should knock on his door, whether he would be upset if she did not, whether she would have failed as a wife.
She did not know very much, she realized.
Margaret was brushing her hair when she heard a step in the hall. Her heart skipped a beat. Then to her relief, she heard him enter his own room without hesitation.
She put down the brush. As minute passed by slow minute, she began to wonder why she had been relieved at all. Mrs Thornton had explained that her duty to her husband was one she must perform. If he would not come to her, then she must needs go to him, and she dreaded that thought far more than that of him coming to her.
She would not know what to say. She did not know how long to wait. Surely he knew more about all this than she.
She did not have to wait long. A knock came at the door.
Margaret's heart beat harder, propelled by a sudden stab of fear. Finding her dressing gown, she pulled it on. She felt so weak for a moment that she glanced in the mirror, to see if she was too pale. Swathed in white, Margaret did indeed look pale. Her hair looked blacker than ever, spilled down around her face, the curls brushed into long soft waves. It made her skin stand out in sharp relief.
But she was never one for hiding, and it had been longer than politeness demanded to open the door. So Margaret went to it and opened it.
Mr Thornton looked exactly as he had in the drawing room, still in coat and cravat, still cast in shadow. For the longest moment, he said nothing, silent long enough for Margaret to wonder whether she should have attempted to re-clothe herself. A flush of shame began to work its way up her neck. She had only ever appeared to members of her family in such a state of undress—and yet, as her husband, he was now her family. She had thought it not improper to answer the door in nightclothes, yet perhaps he found her too forward.
"Come in here," Mr Thornton said, after that long pause. His voice was deeper somehow, and Margaret tried not to be afraid.
Wives for centuries had faced this fate, Margaret told herself. There was no particular shame in this for one who was married, nor could there be such excruciating pain, or else women would not continue to submit to it for so long. She would neither complain nor lament her fate. She would accept the future she had made for herself with strength and open eyes.
There was solace in this resolution. She would never again have to wonder what to do, or what it would feel like, or how much humiliation she could stand. She would be a woman and a wife, with full knowledge of all that was expected of her. She would at last know the truth, and there would be no secrets.
Margaret threw her head back and stepped forward. Mr Thornton took a swift breath, a sharp sound she could hear from the shadows.
At last, he shut the door and moved through the room toward the fire. This was the sitting area; beyond was the bedroom. "Will you sit?" he asked.
She came to stand in front of one of the chairs. She knew how to appear regal; she did it on purpose now. At last she angled her jaw, so that she might meet her husband's eyes.
"Please, Mrs Thornton," he said, looking down at her.
He went over to the fire, where he moved a log that did not require moving. Then he came back and sat down, directly across from her, their knees almost touching. "We have to—that is, I want to . . ." He sounded lost in the way he had been when he first proposed. "I am sorry for interrupting your evening," he began again, resolutely. "I know that you are tired. But it is for good reason." He paused. "You know to what I refer? From your mother, perhaps."
"Yes," Margaret said clearly, "from your mother, too."
"My mother?" Mr Thornton seemed momentarily perturbed.
"You speak of my duty to you as a wife," Margaret said. "Your mother wanted to ensure that I was fully informed as to the nature of these duties."
"My mother," Mr Thornton said, appearing annoyed. He looked at the fire, jaw tightening. "I have given much thought to this. This is not just some—it is very important to me. But I have fully considered it, and come to a decision." He sounded as though he spoke with some effort. "I will not do anything you are unwilling to do."
"Unwilling?" Margaret said.
"I mean, what a husband demands of his wife. I will not demand it of you, for as long as you are unwilling."
"Why would I be unwilling?"
His brows lowered. "The circumstances of our marriage were dictated by society, not your own desires."
"And so you think I am unable to accept my fate?" Margaret's indignation flared like kindling. Standing up, she backed away from him so she could look down on him. "How could you think that I would be unwilling to perform my own duty? Do you think me less honourable than yourself?"
"No!" Mr Thornton also stood. "I say that I am making this choice, to allow you the freedom to choose. I would never force—"
"Why should you have to force me? A man of any honour would know that a woman is willing to do her duty."
"I assumed that you would not want to do it."
He spoke in his old, defensive tone. He was always the wronged party, always indignant. He had obviously no inkling of her struggle, of the fear and feeling of wrong she must have overcome to cross the threshold to his room. He seemed to think her a child, who would stamp her foot because she had not gotten her way. "Do you assume I would turn my back?" she asked scornfully.
"I assume that you would not want to lie with a man it was not your inclination to marry!"
His loud, bitter words hung in the air for several moments.
She felt flustered and angry by his blunt language, but more so by his perception of her as a woman incapable of accepting her fate and doing her own duty. "Any gentleman would understand—"
He came toward her and stopped in front of her. "We both know I am not a gentleman. We have fully established that between us, have we not?"
His anger and words recalled to her his first proposal, and Margaret realized that she had made a mistake. The intimation that she would not do what was necessary felt like a grave insult. Yet the insult she had taken at his first proposal had been a result of misunderstanding his intent. "Mr Thornton," she began.
"Why is it, whenever I try to do right by you, to treat you properly, as I feel you deserve, you throw that word in my face?" Mr Thornton's voice was rough. "Our comprehension of what a gentleman is must be entirely different. You would know better, as you are accustomed to the society they frequent, while I have made my living among thieves and dogs and miserable people."
"That is not true."
"Is it not?"
"I know that you are—are honourable, that I—"
"Honourable?" He spoke tightly. "When I have agonized over this decision since the moment of you accepted my proposal? When I have determined time and time again that I would not commit to it, that I would demand of you a husband's rights, no matter what you said or did? When I have doubted my own strength to do anything but that? Only to learn that you find all this agony of indecision, all of this resolve to do right entirely repugnant to you?"
Margaret stumbled over her words. "I think we have misunderstood each other. You have promised yourself to do right by me, even at pains to yourself. You have merely not comprehended that I have made the same decision. I wish to do right by you. I am willing."
"At pains to yourself," Mr Thornton said.
"I admit to being afraid. I do not know what to expect. But I know what is expected of me."
"I do not expect it of you," Mr Thornton said, his voice hoarse. "That is what I made up my mind to tell you."
"But was not that when you thought you would have to force me? Mr Thornton, we do what we must."
"This is not a thing we must do. It is a thing we choose. Deuce take it." He looked thoroughly disgusted with the whole business. "To think I am arguing against having my own wife!"
"You do not need to!" Margaret came close. She lay a hand on his chest, where his heart thumped wildly under layers of wool and cotton. "You said we choose. I am choosing. I will always choose to do my duty, even when it is something I do not want."
He seemed enraged and horrified by this. He threw her hand away. "I want you to want it!"
Quiet fell after this exclamation. She looked at him in confusion.
As she understood it, duty was the reason women submitted to this. She had heard of women who consented for other reasons—fallen women, women who were not married. But Margaret did not think Mr Thornton was referring to anything licentious; she could not think he could be speaking of sin, when they were married, and what should have passed between them was meant to happen. She wanted to ask about this, yet he seemed hurt by her lack of comprehension.
"I do not want your duty, or your honour, or your sense of justice. I do not want you to do what you think is right. Do you understand that we are speaking of love? You speak in terms of a contract!"
Their marriage vows had been a contract. Margaret had not dwelt overly much on the idea of love.
"I know that you think I only deal in buying and selling, that I only want to accrue more possessions. But you are not my possession." He seemed repulsed by these thoughts. "I do not want to own you."
"We are married," she said. "You do not own me, as I do not own you. But it is a contract, of a sort. You must give me everything, and I must give all that I can to you."
"I do not understand."
Something softened in his eyes. "Respect, I would ask of you. To lie with me, I will never demand. It is to do with marriage, that much is true," he explained. "But it is also to do with love. I have little enough experience of it, but more than you do. I know enough to know that it can be an expression, on both sides, of feelings, of . . . reverence. I know that it can bring joy to a home, to both a man and a woman.
"I have heard married men's talk," he said. "I will not subject you to their profanity, nor betray their trust. But I have known men who treat it as an obligation of marriage, and men who treat it as an act of love. When fulfilled with love, it is not obligation. It is . . . testament. When merely performed as duty, it seems to me vulgar."
"But you said—forgive me, Mr Thornton, I only wish to underst—"
"You said it was an agonizing decision. If it is so very repulsive to you—" Then his decision should have been easy, she was going to say.
Mr Thornton looked at her, disgust blazing in his eyes. "I did not say repulsive; I said vulgar. And we have established, Mrs Thornton, that I am a vulgar man."
"No," Margaret said quickly. "No, you are not."
"If you could know my thoughts," Mr Thornton said, "the things I have been thinking since you agreed to marry me. The dreams . . . . It was only a sense of decency that allowed me to give you the dispensation that earlier you found so impertinent."
"Your sense of decency is what saves you from vulgarity." She moved to lay a hand on his arm, but he again jerked away. "We all of us have base thoughts, and cruel desires. It is our ability to control them which elevates us."
"It is easy for you. You have grown up surrounded by gentlefolk, by easy, comfortable society."
Margaret looked down. At last she noticed that her feet were bare, and that she was cold. Wrapping her arms about herself, she shivered. After a long moment, he guided her back to her seat, and went to stir the fire. "I invited you here to let you go again. Now you have been here a quarter of an hour," Mr Thornton said. He shook his head. "I thought that it would be so simple."
"I think we are adept at misunderstanding each other."
"A wonderful beginning." He turned to her. "Are we in understanding now?"
"I believe so." Margaret shivered again.
He looked at her a moment more, then stepped out of her field of vision. When he returned, he wrapped a thin blanket about her shoulders and retreated to the fire.
Margaret wondered whether she really did understand. He had said he felt that it would be vulgar to lie with her if she did not love him. She knew that marriage was meant to bind people by love, honour, and duty. Though she did not love Mr Thornton, she thought she could come to love him in time. Other marriages had been consummated based on only honour and duty, she was sure.
Mr Thornton had said he loved her when he had proposed to her initially. She had not forgotten this, but as he came to be one of the only people near her who sought to help and not condemn her, she had come to see his proposal as a selfless proposition. Now that it was done, she began to see that however honourable his intent, they were not on even ground.
Margaret felt convinced he had not married her in order to take advantage of her situation. She felt convinced also that his refusal to lie with her was of similar intent. By not allowing her to do her duty, however, he unintentionally created an obligation on her part that she could not fulfil. By loving her, and not allowing her to give him all that she felt she could in return, she felt even more in his debt.
He was not demanding that she love him. Perhaps he was attempting to mitigate the effect of the favour he had done her in marrying her, by releasing her from this other obligation. It only made her feel that she was failing him by not loving him, and thus she was rendered unfit by him to perform her duty as a wife.
The silence wore on, as Margaret sat curled on the couch, and Mr Thornton stood by the fire. Perhaps he was waiting for her to confess she did feel love for him, or that she wished to lie with him out of some other desire she could not guess at. Perhaps it was her duty to deceive him, and say she desired him. But Margaret could never perform such a duty; she knew that she could only ever be honest with him regarding this act. She could not pretend to feel more than a sense of obligation.
"It was not only vulgarity that made the decision difficult," Mr Thornton said suddenly, when Margaret had just made up her mind to go. He was looking into the fire. "I have thought before that I would like a family, daughters and sons, children of my own. Heaven knows if I would be a good father; only I would try. You do know that children come from this?"
"Yes." Margaret lifted her chin, wondering if he would ask her to lie with him after all.
"I wonder if . . . you could ever . . . by God." As he swore, he looked up at the ceiling; she could see the Adam's apple in his neck bob as he swallowed hard. "I wonder, do you think you would ever want me?" His Darkshire accent was stronger than ever, his voice rough. "If there is even the smallest chance, one day, you must tell me. I would live in hope."
She felt strongly the unfairness of the question. There was only one honest answer she could give. "I do not know."
"Yes. Forgive me. I should not have asked."
She shivered again. Shrugging off the blanket he had given her, she stood. "It does not matter." She came toward him and stopped. "You must teach me the proper way to say goodnight to you, for I do not understand Milton ways, or how man and wife bid farewells, or how we in particular should do so. I think that we have offended each other enough, Mr Thornton. I wish to make amends."
He looked weary, but smiled a little at this. "You must call me John."
Slightly shocked by this, though she knew she should not be, Margaret quickly hid it. "Very well then, John. Good night." She held out her hand for him to shake.
He remembered the gesture, and grasped her hand, swift and warm. "Good night," he told her.
Margaret went to her room and to her bed, though she did not sleep for hours.